His mother had looked worried when he set off the previous morning. His grandfather had set the trip up almost against his mother’s wishes. She had said he was too young to go off on his own. Nonsense, Grandfather had replied. He’ll be 17 this fall, plenty old enough to spend a few nights by himself in the forest. The young man and his Grandfather spent many hours that spring in the forest behind their cabin teaching and learning the skills necessary for a trip like this. Grandfather showed him the secrets of finding dry tinder and how to build a fire that will cook food in the evening and then bank the coals so it was easy to start up again in the morning. He learned how to use a bow and arrow to take down rabbits and wood pigeons and then to him to clean and roast them over an open fire. Grandfather also spent many evenings telling stories about wild spirits and forest people that share the land with them. As it got to the height of summer, the season of Light Nights, Grandfather said he was ready. He packed his rucksack, filled his canteen and his mother handed him a bundle of jerky and dried fruit. And off he went. Alone.
That morning had seemed like a holiday. He could do whatever he wanted! Stop whenever he felt like it, take whichever trail called his name. He climbed higher up the mountain, following a bubbling stream through the buzzing, sunlit pine forest. At noon he stopped to pick salmon berries and thimble berries and gorged himself like a little bear cub. As he climbed higher and higher he started singing to himself, then shouting. There was no one to hear and no one to stop him. No one to tell him he was acting like a child, because he was a man now.
The first night had been fine, if a little lonely once it finally got dark. He had not had any trouble finding dry wood or a sheltered place to sleep. As the sky darkened and the stars began to twinkle above he sang the songs that Grandfather had taught him. Songs about heroes of the past who had battled spirits that terrorized their tribe. Songs of Raven and Coyote, the wars between the Mountain Gods and songs that called the Salmon People back each summer. Ancient love songs and work songs and funny songs. He had actually fallen asleep sitting up next to his small fire and had completely forgotten to bank the coals. When he woke up, stiff and cold, he felt a little chagrined at having failed to do such a simple task, but he quickly got a fire started, made some tea and packed up camp.
Today, his second day out, at about noon he topped a ridge that had been a steep climb. He wiped the sweat from his brow and saw a small lake below him. Yipee! He ran down the slope, dumped his rucksack and clothes in a pile near the shore and dove into the water. He relished the feeling of the cool water on his bare skin, how his hair and limbs floated in the water. He opened his eyes under water and watched the fish darting through the grass growing near the shore then floated on his back watching a hawk make lazy circles in the blue sky above. He swam to the far side of the lake and crouched in the bushes watching a mother elk and her calf come to the shore to drink and then get spooked by a family of river otters who chose just that moment to erupt out of their den hole in the bank. He couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the antics of the otters as they tumbled around each other, chased each other across the grass and dove effortlessly under the water.
He really thought life couldn’t get much better than this and spent the rest of the afternoon lazing about on the shore of the lake. He shot a rabbit with his bow and collected wild greens and onions to make into a stew with the meat. He was just ready to eat when the rain started like someone had turned on a faucet. If he’d been paying attention to the signs his Grandfather had shown him he would have had enough warning to clean up his camp and find some place dry to wait out the storm, but he wasn’t. He was able to grab his rucksack and find shelter in some low brush from the worst of the rain, but his fire was put out and his stew pot got knocked over in the wind. What a storm! Theron lay huddled in the bushes, at least wise enough to have stayed out from under the tall pine trees that ringed the lake, and watched the lightning hit the mountain tops across the valley.
When the rain let up he crawled out from under his bushes, cleaned out his cooking pot and kicked apart the soggy, smoking fire. He wasn’t feeling much like singing as he doubled back up the ridge he had come over that morning, heading back towards home. Being alone in the woods, wet and hungry was not nearly as much fun as when it was sunny and warm with a whole day ahead of you. He hiked well into the evening and as the sun was setting found a place to build a small fire.
His spirits were much higher now that his fire was safely burning, but a tinge of the somber mood brought about by the storm was still on him. This night was not a night for singing silly rhyming songs but a night for deep thinking. After making some tea and eating another piece of jerky he found a comfortable spot to sit next to the fire. Why was it so important to Grandfather that he spend this weekend alone? Part of him had been as nervous about it as his mother had been. It was scary to go out all alone. In addition to the bears and cougars that lived in these mountains there was always the chance of falling and breaking a leg, or getting lost or getting sick. Then he felt a flush of pride that he had made it two whole days alone despite all these risks. He hadn’t fallen, he hadn’t met any scary carnivores. He had shot a rabbit, even if he hadn’t gotten to eat more than a taste of it before Brother Thunderstrorm took it away from him. And hadn’t he found a dry spot to build a fire this evening and persevered in making that fire out of the damp tinder? Then a rush of gratitude rushed over him as he sat. He began a spontaneous song of thanksgiving to Brother Rabbit and then to Brother Thunderstorm and Father Sun. To the Mountain itself and to Summer and the Sacred Fire that burned from the wild wood he had gathered. Eventually his song of thanksgiving was directed to Mother Earth and The Great Spirit themselves for all he had and all he was.
As he continued his chanting song of thanksgiving he watched the stars come out in the darkening sky above him. Soon, or maybe it was ages later, felt himself floating through them like the way he had floated through the pond this morning. In his mind's eye he floated, watching the stars and tree tops above him. He felt the trees around him reaching down into the earth and then felt himself sinking down into the soil. But it wasn’t just sinking into the soil, it was sinking into deepness, into expansiveness, into That Which Is. He didn’t know that some people call this the Tao, or God or The Goddess. He didn’t know and he didn’t care, all he knew was that he was no longer a single young man, alone in the forest, but a small part of All.
He could feel the great joy at being Physical, and the great joy of being Spirit. He could feel the joy of worms moving through soil, and of water moving into tree roots. He was in awe of the power that moves water up and the tree trunks and felt the explosive power in plant leaves turning sunlight into sugar. He felt the sweet freedom of movement as an elk walked along the forest floor and the panic as a wolf chased it down. The wolfs pride in its kill was his own as was the satisfaction in feeding its young. He also felt the fear of the rabbits hiding from the owl, the hunger of the baby owls when their mother couldn’t find rabbits and the desperation of fox cubs left alone when their mother had be picked off by a coyote on her way back to the den. He felt the resolute acceptance of the tree falling in a windstorm and the passive watchfulness of a mountain peak.
As his awareness expanded to encompass the whole forest, the whole world, he could even feel the sorrow, the terror, the elation and pride of the humans that walk the earth. He understood that the Spirit he was a part of relished all of these feelings and experiences the physical elements of the earth experienced. The Creator created The Created for just that reason. The realization exploded into his consciousness… we weren’t just a part of the world in a physical sense the way the nitrogen in the soil becomes a part of the leaf of a tree and then the body of a deer. We weren’t just a part of the world in the energetic sense in the way sunlight becomes sugar in a blade of grass and then the energy to make a rabbit run and a snake hunt it down. We were a part of the world in a spiritual sense. We were the same stuff as god, physical manifestations that allow god to experience the energetic world and the physical world.
As the cacophony of the physical world continued to blare into his senses he felt the rising notes of love come out of din. The love mothers feel for their babies, the love between brothers and friends, the love of husbands and wives and lovers of every kind. He felt the love leaders have for their tribes, prophets have for their people and teachers have for their students. His spirit rose with the love people feel for their land and for the other creatures that share that land, and with the love people have for their creative works. The love people have for that which they can not define, for The Great Spirit, The Tao, Nature, God. With this realization the young man felt his heart expand and explode and all he could feel was love and all he could see was white light.
The young man woke up to birdsong and the rays of the morning sun peeking over the ridge across the valley. It was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard and it made him want to see his mother. He quickly packed up camp and quietly set off on the trail back home.