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The Spirit of Restoration: Part II
Non-native people are also considering spirit in restoration.
William R. Jordan III, who was editor of the journal “Restoration and Management Notes” (now called “Ecological Restoration”), says this about the act of restoration: “It isn’t enough, having caused harm, or just having caused change, to say, ‘We won’t do it anymore.’ There should be recompense, in kind. What do you do to recompense for causing change in the case of nature? What you do should be some rich, deeply conceived act, carried out in terms that address the wrong.
Having a landscape with lots of nature in it depends on finding a way to connect nature with culture. Restoration has a crucial component to bring to that relationship. Indigenous cultures generally tried to achieve some reciprocal relationship with nature, mediated into material and spiritual terms. Restoration,
at the mechanical level, is the mechanical part of that reciprocal relationship.” But what is the spiritual part of that reciprocal relationship?
Bill TallBull was a Northern Cheyenne elder and member of the Medicine Wheel Alliance, a group of native and non-native people formed to protect the Wheel, especially in native people’s use of the site for vision quests and sacred ceremonies. President Clinton selected TallBull as a member of the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation for sacred sites.
Before he passed away, TallBull spoke with me about the spirits that inhabit not just the Medicine Wheel but all of Medicine Mountain in northeastern Wyoming. “All over Medicine Mountain,” he explained, “native people see the rock spirits move from one piece of granite to another, they see the tree spirits dash from Douglas fir to ponderosa pine, and we see the plant spirits move among the sage when we
collect materials for our ceremonies.” TallBull paused a moment and his coal-black eyes narrowed as if part of him saw the spirits even then. “We have been taught to see these spirits since we were young children, and our elders were taught by their elders. This kind of seeing is a part of us. White people are not taught this way. No wonder we see the spirits and whites don’t.”
TallBull said the spirits have been active around Medicine Mountain for thousands of years, and they are active today. TallBull told me of a time when he was walking to the Wheel on a vision quest, approaching quietly from the south along the same ridge Evan and I had walked. A quarter mile from the Wheel he came to a flat stone wall twelve feet high. He stopped. A blood-red wolf appeared from the stone wall as if materializing from the wall itself. It locked its amberyellow eyes on TallBull like two steady flames in a bright red lantern. TallBull stared back at the red wolf. It turned in a circle, once. As suddenly as it appeared, the red wolf melted back into the wall, ghostlike.
“I don’t know what the wolf was saying to me,” TallBull reflected. “Maybe nothing. Maybe it was just the mountain’s way of letting me know the spirits were with me, that they were joining me in my journey.” Another native elder says, “…the trees, the four-leggeds, the wingeds, the insects, even stones, all are alive and conscious.” The spirit of restoration considers living spirits in the land, the idea that restoring the physical landscape somehow, with attentiveness and consciousness, also restores these living spirits. This is a different belief system and a different hope from those of most of the modern Western world. Archeologist Michael Wilson suggests that to fully comprehend a site like the Medicine Wheel “… probably requires a world view in which the secular/religious dichotomy simply does not exist.”
But restoration is nothing if not pure possibility and the notion that you and I can give back to the land and to some extent reverse the mistakes of the past. Restoration is a positive belief system. William Jordan writes: “Exact restoration is impossible. So is preservation. So let’s get on with the conversation. We have all these influences on the ecosystem which are not only inadvertent, but invisible to us. What I’m driving at is that it’s the commitment to restore the ecosystem that forces us to explore all that we’ve done to the system, and to uncover all of these hidden, unseen, or unrealized influences. That’s how we get to know who we are in relationship to that system. That experience generates an ecological definition of who we are.”
Although this idea of a living earth is new and difficult for many in our Western culture, it was not new to my more ancient ancestors, the northern European and Danish peoples. The Gauls referred to their spiritual faculties being awakened by the Wouivre, telluric (magnetic or cosmic) currents that move through the ground, represented symbolically by serpents. The ancients came to these places to receive what the earth could give them, literally “the Gift of the Earth.”
They came not only to be affected by them, but to actively awaken the earth’s dormant energies. It was an exchange, a kind of sacred dialogue, and not a one-way taking. The earth was seen as a living being of matter, and energy currents and interchange took place with humans also possessing this spiritual energy. Dolmens or megaliths—large stones—were placed where these currents were particularly strong. Large stones were gathered centuries ago at the top of Medicine Mountain, in a sacred place that had drawn sojourners there for millennium. The Wheel was formed and rock cairns built.
I think of these Celtic dolmens and the currents that course the earth and remember Evan on that snowy Fourth of July at the Wheel. His sky-blue rain jacket lit up the white landscape as he tossed light green sage and soft yellow cornmeal offerings to the wind. But then, surprisingly, Evan fell to his knees at the Wheel and stared at the central cairn. Our family rarely prays in the traditional manner, and never on our knees, and yet Evan seemed pulled to the earth by the presence of something much greater than he or I consciously understood. In the blinding and blowing snow he remained kneeled and fixed.