by Amy Hannon
Ridge and Valley Bioregion
This piece was originally published in Perspectives in Bioregional Education, edited by Frank Traina and Susan Darley-Hill, North American Association for Environmental Education, copyright 1995.
The value of rituals in enriching the human-nature relationship are explored in this chapter. The author relates her own awakening to the need for acknowledging and celebrating our connections to the Earth and Cosmos. She describes the quarterly celebrations which evolved in her eastern North Carolina community, explaining the ritual elements and detailing their purposes. Ideas are provided for seasonal themes and activities which have proven meaningful for her community’s rituals.
As the millennium draws to a close and the world’s dominant civilization and the exploitative economies it engendered fall into bankruptcy, many people all over the world are experiencing the re-enchantment of the natural world—the experience of the natural world as immanent divinity. Awe for this divinity springs from two sources. One is the revelations of our astronomical and subatomic physics that tell of a dynamic and evolving universe. The other is our experience of the matchless beauty and complexity of the rare wild places and creatures in the natural world we have not yet destroyed.
Our organized religions, however, still lag behind our new sensibilities both in their theologies and liturgies. They do not satisfy our longings to enact our religious feelings of connection with the Cosmos and the Earth, nor to bond with one another in meaningful rhythms that support our deepest springs of reverence. They do not contribute to the most urgent requirement of our historical moment, the task of re-inventing the human at a species level. For this task new rituals are required, rituals which acknowledge the holiness of Earth and all its creatures and which help us to restore our balance with nature and all the communities of living creatures on the planet.
We are not without resources in the task of creating Earth rituals. Our needs for form, though urgent in the face of ecological catastrophe, are neither unique nor unprecedented. Numerous human cultures that we know of provide us with good examples. Prime among them are the traditions of the indigenous peoples of our own North American continent who lived for thousands of years before the European conquest in relative harmony with the land. The various wiccan and pagan traditions that survived in western Europe, the esoteric mystery schools of the west, and practices of the Aboriginals of Australia all provide further examples of animistic devotion to nature, to the Sky and the Earth, to the cardinal directions, the winds, the waters and to the divinities of particular places and creatures.
Many of these sources are accessible to us today either through the records they themselves left behind or bequeathed to western anthropologists, or even more vividly in the living practices of their own surviving and/or revived forms. Whether or not we have the good fortune of ancestral ties or proximity to these sources, or the luxury to travel the world pursuing them and to learn directly from them, what we can all take from them is a sense of their poetry and archetypal power. We can learn from them that to be human is to belong to a species possibility of felt connection with all of creation and of forms of behavior, including rituals, that flow from that feeling.
Our feelings of connection to all creation begin with our most immediate experienced connections: our own bodies, the ground we walk on, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the creatures with whom we share these gifts and the psyche of our home place. Our devotion to Earth, even in this age of electronic communication, air travel and global economy, must have roots in our own bioregions or be rooted in abstraction. Our Earth rituals must reinforce our sense of place and celebrate the features and the creatures of our actual embodiment.
Elements of Earth Ritual
I took part in my first Earth ritual on a Summer Solstice evening in 1983. It was already hot in eastern North Carolina and the humidity was so high the air was like a wet sponge. Someone got the idea that it would be fun to celebrate the solstice on the Town Common on the Tar River so a few telephone calls were made and within an hour about a dozen of us gathered in the steamy heat to praise the season. Or something or that sort. We weren’t sure exactly how to carry on so we just stood around in a circle for awhile telling one another summertime stories and feeling our way into the spirit of the moment.
Standing in the circle with these friends, bathed by the hot and heavy moisture of the summer air, I felt a strong desire to act out invisible dynamics that I felt—to have everyone imagine lines of force rising from the ground through the soles of their feet and up their spines, raising their arms and flowing upwards through the tops of their heads. I directed everyone to imagine the energy flowing around the circle like waves of light and to bond ourselves into a single body in the circle. When we had done this we continued taking turns around the circle, free associating on summer and then broke into song before we closed thanking the Sun and the Earth and kneeling down to kiss the ground.
That summer I was amazed to discover two books relating to what had happened spontaneously. One was Starhawk’s book, The Spiral Dance, which described the exercise I had initiated spontaneously as a traditional wiccan form of opening ceremonies called Raising Power. The other was Dolores La Chapelle’s book Earth Festivals which not only encouraged bioregional solstice and equinox celebrations but was filled with instructions, activities, prayers and ideas derived largely from Navajo influence as well as her own lively sense of bioregional devotion. Earth Festivals remains the best book for inspiration and practical advice on ceremonial practice that I know of. It inspired me to continue developing quarterly rituals after the first spontaneous one and I recommend it to anyone interested in the kinds of projects and programs that can become the extended life of quarterly celebration.
Shields, masks, pipes, prayers, candles, games, dances, stories and food are all ceremonial features that require advance planning. The more energy put into a ceremony, the more comes out of it.
Another powerful feature of preparation is the timely creation of an invitation to each ceremony. It contains the artistic condensation of each ceremony plan as well as its announcement to the community. The invitation can also be extended beyond the circle so that anyone can imagine the ceremony even without attending. This imagining is itself a valuable spiritual force as well as first step in entering the actual ceremonies. Some samples follow at the end of this article.
Communities may begin developing Earth rituals by doing nothing more than coming together on a regular basis at prescribed times. The important thing is that these times correspond with natural rhythms. I will be discussing solstice and equinox rituals in this article but any and all of the other natural cycles can become occasions for celebration—the full or new moons, sunrise and sunset, the migrations of animals, planting and harvesting times. By congregating and consecrating these moments rather than the secular or traditional religious holidays which commemorate historical and cultural events, the community develops a shared awareness of connection with planetary phenomena as recurring cycles of activity and transformation. The physical changes that occur everywhere in the planet during these moments register in everything that lives, including the cells of our own bodies. By ritually acknowledging the power of these moments, we begin to deepen our awareness and to remember our connections.
We come here today to honor this moment and to remember that we are Earth’s children, the human people of this place.
Were we closely tied to the land in our daily lives, planetary cycles and the transformations they engender would be dominant features of our experience. Harvest time or rainy season, day and night would regulate our activities. Our technological control of the environment has diminished this power so that we consider time differently and require deliberate effort to restore the sense of the wheel of the year, or as Native American tradition has it, the Medicine Wheel.
According to contemporary cosmology, the wheel is more like a spiral since the universe is a process of emergent evolution and not of eternal recurrence of the same. Thomas Berry, whose book The Dream of the Earth addresses the spiritual dimensions of the new cosmology, suggests that in springtime we should celebrate not only the rebirth of life, but the evolutionary moments in the unfolding of planetary life such as the moment one hundred forty million years ago when flowers first appeared. Or in fall, in addition to the annual browning and decay of nature, we might also acknowledge the irreversible loss of species who have gone extinct. Even so, cycles are involved. Energy spins. All is dance.
Another temporal consideration is the duration of the ceremonies themselves. They should have a definite beginning and a definite end. Many communities have day long or weekend long celebrations for the quarterly solstice and equinox gatherings. I have found it practical to limit the ceremonies to about an hour, always occurring on the day of actual solstice or equinox at the same time, 6 p.m. After the ceremony we frequently have a potluck supper and socialize especially if the event falls on a weekend night, but this is not part of the ceremony itself. It seems better to me to keep the core event within bounds determined by the energy of the community. Most of the participants are family members with full schedules who are more likely to come to the ceremonies regularly if they aren’t too long.
Ritual, like any musical practice, derives power from regular repetition. This requires commitment by participants and unflagging intent by the ritual organizers. A single full experience of the solstice/equinox ceremony takes four gatherings that extend through a year. Engaged participation is a work of long duration.
Earth rituals can, of course, be practiced anywhere. There is no piece of ground that is not holy. Still, one should make every effort to find a place outdoors that is accessible and relatively undisturbed. Choose a spot near a flowing stream or large tree, on top of a hill, or otherwise significant of the features of the bioregion. Our gatherings take place on the Town Common along the banks of the Tar River under a large willow oak tree which, upon occasion, serves as a kind of umbrella from the rain. But don’t let weather be a concern. Light and dark, heat and cold, wind and rain are the elements we deliberately honor and acknowledge, players in the dramas of the seasons. It is important to be open to the sky over our heads.
The first step in an Earth ritual is to gather in a circle and formally open the circle by acknowledging the cardinal directions (East, South, West and North) and the vertical axis of Sky and Earth. This may be done by facing the directions with uplifted arms and invoking the spirits and powers of the different directions in turn. The directions may be invoked by the ritual leader or by different participants standing at the positions of the cardinal points. Smudging, that is fanning incense around the circle, may precede this action or occur simultaneously with it.
East winds blowing from the Atlantic Ocean, and powers of the East, we greet you and honor you. We invite your presence into our midst. We ask for your gifts of courage and foresight. We ask for your freshness and clarity in this circle.
South winds blowing from warm Florida and Carolina and from the Gulf of Mexico, and the tropical regions beyond, glorious powers of the South, we greet you and honor you. We invite your presence into our midst. We ask for your gifts of creativity and love. We ask for your passion and generosity in this circle.
West winds blowing from the Carolina Piedmont, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the vast continent beyond, great powers of the West, we greet you and honor you. We invite your presence into our midst. We ask for your gifts of letting go and giving away. We ask for your flowing force in this circle.
North winds blowing from the northern woods and highlands, ancient powers of the North, we greet you and honor you. We invite your presence into our midst. We ask for your gifts of wisdom and of healing. We ask for your transforming power in this circle.
Grandfather Sky, Sun, Moon, Stars and Galaxies beyond, we greet you and honor you and ask for your presence in our midst.
Mother Earth, great living planet, here along the banks of the Tar River, we greet you and honor you and acknowledge your presence here in our circle.
The circle formed by this delineation of the directions is the basis of the archetypal mandala symbol or in Native American traditions (which we have borrowed), the Medicine Wheel. After opening the circle it is good to exercise the group with guided fantasies of shifting levels of identification with the circle.
Begin with the level of the individual body with instructions to feel the ground underfoot and the expanse of sky overhead. Feel the axis of the spine as if it were a tree rooted in the ground and reaching up to heaven. Next imagine an axis passing from left to right through the body, east and west send energy out from the center in both directions. Now feel an axis passing from front to back, North-South and do likewise, repeating the image of radiant energy above and below. Imagine the radiant energy as light and feel energy swirling in spirals along each of the axes, filling the sphere thus generated. Contemplate existing as an energy field and creature of light. Breathe deeply and imagine the light brightening with each breath.
Now shift from identification with the individual body to the present gathered circle of bodies and fill the entire circle with imagined light and energy flow moving clockwise around the circle. Feel love for all the people in the circle and imagine it carried on the light, suffusing the circle.
Now expand the identification to the boundaries of the bioregion. Name the place and the landforms or waters which define the place. Delight in the rivers and streams, the soils and swamps, the forest and all the wildlife swimming, crawling, creeping, flying, living in this body. Sense the ancient lineage in the geological transforms of the bioregion.
Now expand identification to include the whole North American continent. Now the whole planet. Now the solar system. Now the galaxy. Now the universe. Now return to the circle and remain identified with the group level of form. (This process might also be continued by venturing inward toward the cellular, the molecular, the atomic, the nuclear…)
The Medicine Wheel
The Medicine Wheel represents both the totality of the circle and the opposing directions which lie along its circumference, the parts and their totality. The “medicine” of the wheel refers to the balancing of forces that comes from seeing the relations among things when they are allocated to different places on a circle, including opposites, and seeing that., “to every thing there is a season.” An important dimension of the ceremonies is acknowledging the meanings and values of the different places on the wheel that correspond with each season.
Different traditions extend symbolic correspondences of the Medicine Wheel positions differently. The following schema represents some of the universal meanings as well as ones that we chose for our bioregion:
East: Spring, Sunrise, Birth, Air, Yellow or Gold, Eagle, Courage, Foresight, Upward movement
South: Summer, Noon, Maturity, Fire, Red, Wolf, Passion, Fulfillment, Circular motion
West: Fall, Sunset, Death, Water, Black, Bear, Surrender, Release, Downward motion
North: Winter, Midnight, Old Age, Earth, Buffalo, Transformation, Dreaming, Healing, Spiral Motion
Activity in the circle always begins with direction East, and moves, like the sun, in clockwise fashion.
Words are the least important parts of a ritual. Most important are the gestures, the images, the drama and the sound. Of the sounds, most important is the drum. I have found it indispensable to mark the beginning of ritual time while the group gathers, and to establish a shift in consciousness and synchronize group consciousness. The drum maintains the musicality and poetry, the rhythm of everything else that happens during the ceremony. Rattles and other rhythm makers also contribute to the heartbeat of the ceremony. The more drums the merrier. It is good to have everyone warm up simply by attending to the drum beat for awhile and to contemplate the pulsing nature of all life. Drumming continues throughout the ceremony. A single loud drum beat marks its end.
Chanting is another musical element that contributes to a vibrant ritual. A simple repeated OM can help to draw people into active participation at the beginning of the ceremony, and like the drum, blend the energies of the group. Other syllabic chants or songs may be sung where appropriate. One of our favorites goes:
Earth my body, Water my blood, Air my breath and Fire my spirit.
Dancing is another valuable ritual activity, though it is more difficult getting everyone to do than chanting. It is good to invite dance leaders to perform complicated or expressive dances on behalf of the group, or to display simple steps that others can easily follow.
Two dance themes we have explored are the dance of the directions and animal dances. The dance of the directions is a way of using the whole body to express the energies of the different directions of the Medicine Wheel. Arms gesture upward in vigorous stretches for East, make big circles and swirl around for South, push downwards and bend knees for West, and make spirals in all directions for North. Animal dancing imitates the movements of the animals.
Every attempt is made to maintain something of a common form for all the ceremonies. Each ceremony begins with the beating of the drum, making and smudging the circle and the invocation of the forces of the cardinal directions. Next comes chanting and a broader invocation to the various species of the region who are members of the community. Each person calls upon her or his own totem spirit, inviting its presence in the circle. Song and dancing may accompany these activities.
The next part of the ceremony is devoted to honoring the energies of the moment. Thanksgiving is offered for the blessings of each season, traditional stories referring to seasonal themes may be told, poems read. In addition, some dramatic action or material representation of the phase in the energy cycle is included as the heart of the ceremony. Each bioregion will have its own seasonal expressions and harvests. The following are some dramatic themes we have explored:
The basic theme is birth or resurrection, new cycle, emergence from the dark.
- anoint everyone with ointment made from pine pollen acknowledging the courage and initiative in each person
- re-enact the birth experience by having groups of four people stand closely together with arms around each other to form a “womb” while a fifth person huddles inside the group in fetal position. The group contracts and after a number of contractions opens and gives birth. Everyone takes turns being the newborn.
The basic theme is fullness and completion, high point of the cycle, blooming and delight.
- anoint everyone with sweet-smelling suntan oil, reminding them of the pleasure of summer at the beach
- evoke the totem animals. Imagine them at their strongest and most glorious. Dance the animals.
- have the circle break into two circles, inner and outer. Have the two circles face each other and embrace each other and then rotate to face the next person and embrace again until everyone in the inside circle has hugged everyone in the outside circle.
- encourage group musical performance
The basic theme is death and surrender and the dominance of the dark.
- name the ancestors and the people who have died during the last year.
- Acknowledging losses to the environment. Honor the dead. Wear masks to represent the invisible presences and dance wearing masks
- wash with river water
- have each person take a pinch of salt representing old sorrows and a pinch of sugar representing old joys and put them both into a vessel of water to dissolve
The basic theme is hiddenness and transformation, low point of the cycle
- focus healing energy on all who need it, present and absent
- extinguish candles used to mark the cardinal points and do a spiral dance in the dark
- act out a dream
- chant for the return of the sun and in the dark start a new fire using a fire bow or other means. Have everyone light a candle from the new flame.
The final action of the ritual is the circulation of gifts. Everyone has been instructed beforehand to bring a gift to the ceremony that she or he has made or grown or treasures, something natural from the Earth. Seeds, flowers, produce, hand-made crafts, crystals, and, in winter, candles are examples. These gifts represent the economy of nature and the way the Earth provides material spirit of our money economy and encourage both creativity and generosity.
At the leader’s direction everyone hands a gift to a person of their choice or simply passes it to the nearest person. Gifts are passed along so that no one goes home empty-handed. This process usually creates chaos, which is allowed to reign for a few moments before the ceremony circle is closed.
It is important to give closure to the ritual and to close the circle. Any community announcements to be made are given at this point. Thanks is offered to all the totem spirits and others present as well as to the powers of the directions. The ceremony is declared ended and closed with everyone kneeling and kissing the ground.
Amy Hannon is a ritualist, philosopher, and professor. She teaches political science, philosophy, and economics at the College of Staten Island. She develops and leads ceremonies and ritual gatherings, and has given presentations at North American Bioregional Conferences.