by Brett Amy Thelen, Editor
I wasn’t prepared for a hike. I didn’t have a backpack or sturdy boots, or even a stash of lightweight snacks. What I did have was a station wagon jammed with supplies for a luxurious weekend of car camping, nearly all of which had to be abandoned, along with the car, in a driveway on the side of Route 58 in rural Vermont. My friends and I were headed for Coventry, a two-day outdoor music festival that would be the final performance of the improvisational rock band Phish. We had been attending Phish festivals for years, and our preparations for comfortable camping and carefree celebration were finely tuned. In the month leading up to Coventry, however, unseasonably heavy rains had inundated the fields and farmland that doubled as a concert site. Though the downpour had finally tapered off, the camping areas and concert grounds were so badly swamped that cars had to be towed through the sucking mud, one by one. The gates had to be closed, and we were stuck on the outside.
So, we walked. I condensed the essentials—several gallons of water, a sleeping bag, a change of clothes—into two canvas shopping bags, one on each arm. The sun baked hot on the cracked concrete road, and my arms ached with the weight of the overstuffed bags. My mind raced ahead. The band had been running announcements on a local radio station, imploring cars to turn around and go home; what would they tell us when we arrived at the entrance, beleaguered, car-less, but with tickets in hand? It occurred to me, more than once, that walking six miles in the burning sun to camp in a mudpit, without adequate gear or enough food to last the weekend, without assurance that we would in fact be admitted, and with no idea how we would find our way back to our vehicle, was not exactly a rational act. In truth, it was a pilgrimage.
I had been going to Phish shows for nearly a decade and I returned, again and again, because they were where I felt closest to the divine. When I danced at a Phish show, the music lifted me out of myself and I became a whirling eddy of sheer joy, or a particle of light suspended in a glistening musical web, or a shadow, creeping down into the nether regions of the human psyche on a dark, twisted riff. I swirled like a Sufi mystic, or swung my hips in funky rhythms that seemed to rise up from the earth itself and, just when I felt that I’d breathed in more beauty and joy and life than one human being could possibly contain, I would look around and see that I was surrounded by thousands of other people who were sharing in that groove with me. A vast, pulsating sea of my species, connected to each other like drops of saltwater, ebbing and flowing with the same musical tide. When the show was outdoors, I could feel that energy connecting me, connecting us, to the earth beneath our feet. Each celebration with Phish left me awed by the realization that, in the words of “Enter on Duty” essayist Ron Steffens, I was “living… in a world more alive than any single person can ever hope to be.”
Patricia Monaghan touches that world in her poem “Crane Dance.” As she dances with birds from “this distance that makes me human,” she experiences ecstatic communion with another species and creates an affirmation of her own identity. The intensity of that celebratory moment lingers in her life, even “years and continents away.”
The energy of my extraordinary Phish experiences lingers with me, too. If I close my eyes while listening to a recording of a particularly powerful show, I am carried back to that time and place, and I reconnect to the cosmos with each lilting, soaring, twisting note. In some small way, I also tap into that state of transcendence every time I trudge out into the field to collect data: knee deep in marsh muck or surrounded by forest birdsong, I remember the moment when I chose my life’s work. Exhausted from dancing until dawn at a Phish festival in the Everglades, I’d gazed around me at the land, at the sacred trees and the long-necked birds wading in the swamp’s shallow waters. I’d breathed with the tall yellow grass bending gently under kisses from the wind, and felt the salmon-colored cloud blanket creeping across the early morning sky. In the afterglow of that ecstatic Phish celebration, a new sense of clarity took hold, and I knew then that my work was with the earth.
When the time came to bid Phish farewell, I simply had to take part, even if it meant walking through hell to be there. As it turns out, I was not alone. When faced with the choice of turning around or leaving behind most of their possessions and walking in, some twenty thousand people walked into Coventry that August weekend, and another forty-five thousand made it in with their cars. Revelers had traveled thousands of miles, from Texas, California, even Japan, to be present for the ceremony. What pulled us all to those muddy fields in Vermont? As NPR correspondent and Wiccan priestess Margot Adler observes, “People want ecstasy. People want a deep connection with the ultimate.”
Ceremony awakens us to that sense of connection, even when, and perhaps especially when, the ceremony marks a loss. Coventry was simultaneously a celebration and a funeral, a time to honor and to mourn. I danced, but each swirl was suffused with a twinge of sorrow. On stage, the musicians struggled to maintain their composure. We were all moved to tears, over and over again.
As environmental practitioners, we work in a world of great beauty and devastating loss; every day, species are lost to extinction, wild land is lost to development, waterways are lost to pollution. Ceremony enables us to reconcile the beauty with the devastation, and to see that our ecstatic connection to this world dwells in our loss, just as it dwells in our bliss. In “Ocotillo Awakening,” ecologist Tom Wessels paints a vivid picture of the Sonoran Desert in spring, revealing how hummingbirds and blister beetles and, most of all, the stunning ocotillo plant seem to integrate celebration and ceremony into their own wild lives. The exuberance of the desert celebration is contagious, even in the midst of Tom’s intense grief over his father’s failing health.
In “To Celebrate the Vernal Equinox,” Janisse Ray welcomes the coming spring with a quiet ritual. Like the eggs she stands on end, “the brief world poise[s], suspended,” and in that ceremonial moment, her connection to the sacred unknown is palpable. When we celebrate, we acknowledge the presence of possibility. Through ritual, we learn to embrace both the holding on and the letting go; we empty ourselves, and allow the beauty and resilience of the natural world to fill us back up, so that we can continue with our work.
When not supported by thoughtful action, however, celebration and ceremony can also ring hollow. In “Toward a Real Earth Day,” Ray traces the decline of a holiday that she feels has grown stale and detached from its activist origins. She suggests that only conscious action can reclaim the holiday’s power and help us to restore authenticity to our relationship with the land.
Like a Phish show staged on weathered ground, truly transformative ceremony often contains an element of earthiness. In “Communion: A Complaint,” poet Sheryl St. Germain protests the absence of sensuality in the Catholic communion ritual. For her, true communion engages the senses in visceral experience and connection with the natural world—picking blackberries, climbing trees, and preparing gumbo, thick with Gulf shrimp and homegrown hot peppers.
In our search for ceremony with a stronger environmental ethos, many of us find ourselves looking to indigenous spiritual traditions that seem more closely attuned to the earth. In “A Light Bulb Instead of the Sun,” activist Maryann Ullmann argues against cultural appropriation of ritual. “It may seem harmless,” she warns, “but many of the cultures that gave birth to these ceremonies are still here, still practicing them, still struggling to maintain their dignity, sovereignty, and survival.” In “A People of Stardust and Torah,” Lisa Greber offers an alternative: rather than abandoning her own Jewish heritage for the earth-centered ceremonies of another culture, she is “melding the very old and the very new” as she creates a spiritual practice rooted both in Judaism and eco-spiritualism.
While we may draw strength from rituals with age-old origins, sometimes a ceremony’s newness is the source of its power. Robin Kimmerer did not grow up in a family that practiced traditional Potawatomi ceremonies. In the absence of culturally derived ceremony, however, her father created his own. Every morning that the family spent canoe camping in the Adirondacks, he poured the first draft of coffee into the earth as an offering of gratitude. It was, Kimmerer remembers, “a homemade ceremony. A ceremony that makes a home.” In “Laid Bare,” Christopher Sciarretta describes the solemn, impromptu ceremony that he performed to honor a deer that had been killed by a passing car. Though unplanned, the slow ritual of preparing her hide for buckskin transformed him and gave him a new understanding of the ancient connection between her species and our own.
With this issue of Whole Terrain, we present reflections of a world that is alive with celebration, and rich with ritual. On the shores of Dorchester Bay, a woman sings Jewish prayers. A few miles down the coast, an activist raises her voice in protest at Plymouth Rock. A teacher marvels at spring-bursting ocotillo and, across the continent, a park ranger begins his summer rounds. A poet dances a greeting to sandhill cranes in greening fields, and I march miles, aching, through the hot sun, so that I might dance a farewell. What compels us to commit ourselves to ritual acts that transcend rational thought? It is this: we need celebration and ceremony. We need them every bit as much as we need food or water or shelter, and sometimes we need them more.
Brett Amy Thelen is a master of science candidate in the Department of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England. She divides her time between the hills of western Massachusetts and the shores of outer Cape Cod, where she celebrates the sun each evening as it slinks down into the sea.