Death and Ceremony on Sacred Land

Nearly four years ago, I witnessed a tiny, shattering microcosm of the destruction being wreaked on the Earth. I was sitting by the fire-circle of my husband’s teacher (“Coyote”)’s sweatlodge, at the edge of a forest where he had often conducted vision quests…sacred land consecrated by years of ceremony. And now this land was under threat: the legal owners wanted the trees logged and sold so they could get double the value of the wetland before they sold it for development. Legal steps had been taken, counter-offers made to preserve the land, with no result. The loggers were due to move in soon.

I had been meditating at the fire circle for much of that morning. The sky was brilliantly blue and the trees just beginning to show a tinge of green. A fox had passed close by me an hour or so ago, stopping briefly to look in my direction before it trotted on. In my state of mind at that point everything seemed radiant, quivering with life, living silence cradling me like a nest.

That was when the chainsaw roared, somewhere over the hill to the north. I heard and felt it bite into wood and felt the energy of an elder tree being attacked. The grinding din entered my head, then my body – I sat wanting to run, but paralyzed, feeling the rending shock in my own body as each limb was severed and fell to the forest floor. Tears were pouring down my face as I pleaded with Spirit – make them stop, please make them stop – but there was no stopping, only pauses while the loggers prepared for the next assault. I felt I was bearing witness at a murder, wanting to run, unable to move. Finally, I heard/felt a rending scream as the tree fell and there was silence. I gathered my things and fled, half-hysterical with grief, up the path to the field where my car was parked.

At the street entrance to the other side of the property I slowed the car, seeing the heavy machinery parked down the rutted gravel access road. Should I go in, try to stop them – How? I started shaking at the thought of witnessing more trees felled, and drove home to call Coyote.

He heard my story and the frantic prayers I’d been making, and after a brief silence said “That’s not going to stop them.” He told me that he would go to see where the cutting had taken place, and he’d give me directions: if I was willing, I should go and offer tobacco to the trees that had died and ask for guidance on how to stop the cutting. I agreed.

The loggers wouldn’t come on a Saturday, but I went early anyway. The cutting had been roughly a mile from the lodge, downhill through thick underbrush and across several small streams. The clear-cut patch stood out like a massacre. I could recognize the lingering energy of the tree that had been cut first; it was indeed an elder. Even before I physically reached the cutting, its violence hit me like a blow – I doubled up, holding on to a small sapling, and retched. When the spasms had passed I went to the stump of the elder tree and knelt down in the sawdust, offering tobacco and asking forgiveness that I had not been able to stop the loggers.

As I knelt there with my hand on the stump – still moist with sap – I felt a sense of peace, understanding and forgiveness from the tree. I’d shared in its suffering and death, and I could take action to stop further deaths. I was asked to request a sweatlodge ceremony with the intent of stopping the logging.

I thanked the tree, offered tobacco with prayers of sorrow and release to the other trees that had been felled, and returned to offer tobacco to Coyote with the request. To my surprise, he said that the sweatlodge ceremony needed to be performed solo, by me alone – that he could guide and support, but could not participate. I hoped that I could remember how to do the ceremony properly from witnessing Coyote, my husband and other water-pourers, and Coyote said the lodge would be under his protection and responsibility. We set the date – the Saturday before Easter.

The day dawned bright and clear. I went early to the cutting site to gather stones along with discarded slices from each of the felled trees: one slice would be used in every round of the ceremony. I cleared the lodge circle of leaves and twigs, revealing dozens of tiny holes where cicadas had emerged, then with Coyotes help, hauled wood and water to the lodge and covered the frame with tarps. I laid and lit the fire and sang as I fanned it, a song I’d learned when my husband Sundanced. It was one of the few ceremonial songs I knew, with a translation I’d heard as “I do this because I live.” I could not live with myself, I felt, if I did not do this ceremony.

The rocks heated and it was time to go in. I brought in the first stones and began singing the song that called in the energies of the six directions. Called in the powers of the Earth, Sun, Moon and Stars, the plants, animals, humans, and elementals, and finally the powers of love and unity in the universe. I felt the energy in the Lodge growing as I sang. I stated the intention of the ceremony at the songs’ end, then opened the door, rested briefly, and went to bring in more stones.

I opened the second round with an honoring song to all the relations who gave away their lives at the hands of humans, and grief at the destruction I’d heard and witnessed rose up in sobs and screams. Finally the emotion dwindled and I asked the energies in the Lodge what I should do, knowing that this was only one of many forests – sacred lands – being despoiled.

A vision came then of the answer, and how it would feel to act upon it.

The rest of the ceremony passed in a daze, and I returned home barely present in my body. To the best of my knowledge, the cutting stopped for a period of six years. The answer that was given to me in the Lodge was later repeated as I sat praying in another forest, also at risk.

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