Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Certain Places

Certain places call to us, speak to us, stay with us even after we've traveled on. They linger with us, their spirit has touched and followed us, and when we return to them it is always with a sense of homecoming and familiar welcome.

Such places are sacred.

Sacred to us, even if they are not recognized as such by the traditional authorities of church or state. Everyone has personal sacred places, even if they do not call them such or ever talk about them: places of refuge, of home, of spiritual homecoming and replenishment. We need such places. They are where we connect to spirit, to self, to whatever there is that is greater than us. We go there for renewal, reinvigoration, resurrection. When we visit, again and again, we leave with a new vigor, a new lightness of self, and a return to our most core values. Everything inessential has been stripped away, leaving us with who we really are, the ordinary, daily dramas and mundane cares that we get so caught up in having fallen away and left us lighter.

There is a beach in Redwood National and State Parks in northern coastal California, that is one of my most sacred places. This beach is the southernmost extension of Redwoods, along coastal Highway 101; it's the very bottom end of the park along the highway. Other branches of the park stretch up into the coastal hills, up the river valleys and along the ocean shore; there are many beautiful groves of redwood trees in the park, some of them very close to the road. There's a visitor center and some archaeological remnants of the native Indian tribes, just north up the shoreline from this southernmost beach. A little further north, the road turns inland and passes through small towns, past lakes and estuaries, and winds up into the coastal range amid the giant redwood trees.

The first time I ever visited this beach at Redwoods was in 1993, when I drove from Wisconsin to the Pacific Ocean for the first time. It was my first visit to California and Oregon. I was traveling with my friend John on this trip, a three week road trip, there and back again. The next evening we would arrive in San Francisco for a three-day visit.

That morning we had started the morning in Eugene, OR, and driven through the Cascades out to the coast, then south down Hwy. 101. It was a hot sunny day, and when we stopped for sightseeing moments, or for food, we were not alone in being shirtless in the heat. We arrived at Redwoods later in the day, and after driving down the long tunnels of tall trees south of Crescent City we arrived at the beach.

In those days camping was allowed on the beach, and there were square concrete firepits with metal grates you could use to cook on, or just build a campfire in. We camped by one of these, setting up the tent. The ocean was pounding surf into sand and gravel less than 50 yards away, the tide going out. The wind off the sea was cool, and would turn cold after dark, where late at night we would huddle together in the tent under the blankets for warmth, and make love together.

The sunset was golden and lingering, the sky clear. Mist from the powerful waves came up the beach, from where the waves crashed hard against the cliffs and sand bars. All night the stars were very bright and cold.

We built a campfire, and the wind whipped it over hard, the wood burned fast and strong. I took nude photos of John posing in front of the fire before it got too cold, looking like a caveman emerging from the tent into the dark night. very primitive and atavistic. We loved the fire in the dark night, with the ocean roar nearby. It felt very powerful, as though the gods were walking, that night. Something very old, very ancient, rising in our blood, past all the layers of civilization, from the time in human history when people crawled with reed torches into caves to leave sacred shamanic paintings and handprints on the cavewalls. That ancient, that dark, that beautiful.

I later used this image to make the Fire God card from Spiral Dance.

Fire God, from Spiral Dance

Later in the night, we were awakened in the tent by a bright light. At first we thought it was someone's headlights shining down the hill from the parking lot onto the beach, or a farmer's yardlights from further inland. When the light didn't go away after awhile, we got out of the tent together to investigate, and climbed up the low hill towards the parking lot. There we discovered that the full moon was rising over the inland lagoon, rising slowly from behind the inland coastal mountain ridges.

It was All Hallow's Eve, Samhain, Halloween, the time when the veil between the worlds is thinnest, and spirits walk the land, the time the dead return to visit the living. And it was a full moon. We got back in the tent, shivering, and that's when we huddled together for warmth, and made love till we fell back asleep. Again, something dark and ancient in our blood, rising past the layers of civilization, something urgent and primitive that could not be denied. I fell to sleep exhausted but feeling very much alive.

It was a night of deep magic and ecstatic awe.

In the morning, the sunlight was bright and clear. We wandered down to the waterside. The tide was in, and I took photos of John chasing gulls along the surfline, wearing nothing but his shorts. (Neither of us had brought a swimsuit on this trip.) It was another hot autumn day, as we drove down the coast, arriving eventually at our bed-and-breakfast in San Francisco's Castro district sometime after nightfall.

Since then, I have stopped at this beach for awhile every time I have driven up or down the coast. So I have stopped there several times by now. The next time I was there was after I had moved to California in january 2005; I drove up the coast that spring, for the first time since 1993, to visit friends in Portland. Of course I instantly recognized the beach when I got to it. The place was thick with strong memories for me. I stopped for awhile. The firepits were no longer there, and camping was no longer allowed. Well, it had been twelve years, and things change. I asked a park ranger later and was told that camping had been disallowed as a conservation measure, to keep the region more pristine and environmentally managed.

Every time I stop at the beach, I walk around for awhile, take some photos, go down to the waterline and cliff that juts out into the water, with an arch worn by time into the crumpled, colored rock. Usually, I pick up and take with me a few stones. I take here to just reconnect with the spirit of the place, to be silent and contemplative. Sometimes I sit and meditate, more often I just stare into the distance, watching the light, letting the silence gradually fill me up, till I become as still inside as a deep forest pool reflecting the moonlight in its black waters.

That first visit, in 1993, in the morning light as we wandered by the surf I found a beautiful, perfectly polished flat black stone. Made of basalt, very fine hard crystalline dense volcanic rock, the waves had worn it smooth. Such rock takes a high polish. I put the rock in my pants pocket, and carried it in my pocket for many years. It gave me a tangible link, a physical connection, to the beach.

On the second visit, twelve years later, I still had that same stone in my pocket. I took it out at the shoreline, and washed it in the surf, recharging its connection to the place I had found it. I contemplated leaving it there, as a returned voyager coming back home; but in the end I couldn't part with it, and took with me again. I wandered the beach for awhile, and soon found another rock, made of the same high-polish basalt, but shot through with white quartz crystals in thin lines of radiant nets. I put this new stone in my pocket, and have carried it there ever since. The original stone now usually lives in a pocket inside my backpack, in semi-retirement, where it continues to travel with me part of the year.

i have carried in my pants pocket a stone from this beach every single day since that first visit to the beach, on All Hallow's, 1993.

The stone in the center of this arrangement is my original stone, from 1993. The smaller stones were ones I found on my most recent road trip, September 2008, that caught my eye this time. Each is unusual in color, shape, or texture. Each feels like it has a connection to this special place for me.

Serpentine Cross, Redwoods Beach, CA

As I now sometimes do, in places where the land speaks to me, where I feel a certain energy of place calling to me, I made a piece of land art sculpture on the beach, and left it there for time and the weather and waves to destroy. This one is tiny compared to some I've felt called to make. just a line of green serpentine stones in a sheltered corner of the cliffside above the waterline, with a red rock above, and a white rock below. (Serpentine is California's state rock, and is made of ophiolitic peridotite that has been infiltrated by seawater, chemically altering the dark mafic rock to often brilliant green, shot through with veins of other colors.) To me, this arrangement looks like a cross, but also like a Thunderbird symbol. The Thunderbird is an appropriate spirit to find at this beach, I feel, as it too is connected to the magic and beauty of places life this. It seemed right and true.

I still carry a smooth, polished rock from this beach in my pants pocket every day. I still feel connected to this beach, this certain magic of place, to the light and energy there, to the sounds of the ocean and the smell of the sea wind. I will continue to visit my beach, whenever I'm passing through the area. We are connected, at some deep blood-wise level. This is a sacred place for me, a place of power. And also a place of learning, of new life, of growth into the integral human being I still strive to become, that I want to continue to evolve towards, with every moment of exaltation and memory, in the light, in the air, sea, mountains, the ocean of time, the seasons marked as growth rings in the old, old trees.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I'm actually not sure that's true about me, Art. There are places that hold memories for me but there's nowhere I can think that I would go to revitalise myself, in fact, if anything almost every place I can think I've been holds sad memories for me. Unhappy things might not have actually happened to me there but they remind me of sad times and I really don't need a lot of help in that regard. I honestly have no sense of adventure as regards the physical world.

I've travelled around all of Scotland and the north of England and really one city is pretty much the same as another. Glasgow is familiar to me which is why I probably feel more comfortable here but that's it and frankly if I never stepped out of my front door again it wouldn't trouble me. A few years ago I went to California and spent all my time in book shops and record stores. I liked the ice cream sandwiches. You can't get them over here.

I did bring back a pile of pebbles. My mother-in-law had a large collection and I made my selection from there. I didn't feel Brautigan's spirit in San Francisco nor did I feel Beckett in Dublin or Burns in Ayr. I don't know where this lack of attachment to place comes from. I guess you never miss what you never had, eh?

12:21 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

One of my best friends, who lives in Minnesota, doesn't travel much either. He once said to me about it, "The bear likes his cave." His sense of adventure like yours is not much for the physical world. I, on the other hand, am a wandering wolf. We're best friends in part because of our differences. He also has difficulty with heights, whereas I have stood toes-in-the-air on the lip of the Grand Canyon and felt perfectly at home.

I wonder if what you're getting at, Jim, is reflected in the city/country divide many seem to feel is real. I agree that it's hard to feel a sense of place in a big metropolis; some do, but I rarely do. Big cities have too much human overlay to be able to feel my way into the land, with some notable but rare exceptions.

I'm well aware that I might be the exception rather than the rule. I'm also aware that I have mystic's approach to and awareness of things, and this is not universally shared. However, I also know I'm not alone in this, so if one or two others like me find this of use, I am well satisfied.

Thanks for the comments. Guess that means if we ever meet, I'll have to come see you, rather than the vice versa. LOL

11:34 AM  

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