Driving down from Portland in late March to the spring pilgrimage camp, I saw how California had withered in its three year drought. The north part of Shasta Lake, the largest reservoir in California, was only a narrow river. After the driest year on record, it was 120 feet below normal levels. As I drove across the north bank of San Francisco Bay, the reeds of the wetlands were gone and the bushes and grasses were grey and brown tinder. The stream that runs through camp was silent, nearly still.
The forecast for our ten days was for two days of light rain, then warm and sunny—great for camping, but terrible for the devastated land.It was a small camp, only eleven people. We unloaded the truck, set up the canopies, pitched our tents and lit the fires. There was a public audience with Grandfather Fire the second night. About twenty people showed up.
After Grandfather Fire came in, the first question was about the drought. Grandfather told a story of the Miwok, the local native people renowned for their peacefulness. He talked about how, despite the rich abundance of the land, they became greedy and began fighting over hunting and fishing grounds, over the stands of black oak that provided acorns vital to their sustenance. They turned their hunting arrows and fishing spears into weapons and the clans warred against each other. In their fighting, they forgot the ceremonies that honor the spirits of the land. The weather beings, the sacred mountains, the spirits of the forests, rivers and springs were displeased. Great Grandmother Ocean became angry. The gods began withholding the blessing of rain.
At first, the dry sunny weather only increased their fighting. But, eventually, the people began to suffer. And, finally, the black oak withheld its bounty of acorns, the root crops and berries withered and the salmon could not run up the dried streams. The people began to starve. Something needed to change. The medicine people from the various clans gathered in a great council on the sacred island we call Alcatraz. They agreed that the only option was to make peace, to renew the ceremonies, to beg the gods for rain. In every village, the sacred fires were lit and the offerings given. And the gods saw that the people had changed. The blessed rains returned, peace and abundance again reigned over the land.
As a follow up, someone asked what our people could do to break the drought. Grandfather spoke about how, though we are not warring against each other, we live in a time of great separation and fear, how that fear leads to greed and greed leads to taking ever more and more. He spoke of the hubris of those who had amassed great wealth, how they imagined that their cleverness, their innate superiority had enriched them and not the natural prosperity of the land. He spoke of how the common people suffered, but lacking guidance and perspective, they could only engage in separation and fear.
The solution, Grandfather said, is very simple. The people need to look up to the sky and begin to recognize the livingness of that great sacred being and the livingness of the passing clouds, to look at the divine livingness of the mountains, the forests and streams, to look out at the vast ocean, the source of all weather. And, when they see that livingness, to let go of their fear and to ask with open hearts for the blessing of rain. The gods are waiting, he said. They will respond.
We continued the camp, keeping the fires, making offerings, practicing our songs and prayers, journeying to the sacred places, enjoying the fellowship of pilgrims and the opportunity to engage with the divine. It rained every day, sometimes torrentially with strong winds. On the night before we made the pilgrimage to Grandmother Ocean, Grandfather Fire returned. He said that the rains had returned in response to our pilgrimage, to the kept fires, the prayers and songs, the attention paid to the Divine. Listen to the stream, He said. It is singing again. Do you see how simple it is? The gods are waiting. They will respond.
Leaving camp, I drove across the bay and saw that the wetlands were full, that while the brown and grey was still there, there was, beneath it, the vibrant green of new growth. At home, I read that the water level of Shasta Lake had risen twenty-two feet. I feel humbled and so grateful that this great blessing was brought to the land.
When we come to the fire, we engage the sacredness of the living world in a simple, but very direct way. Bring your concerns and prayers, your laughter and songs. By offering them at the fire, we open the doors to connection which are the antidote to the separation and fear that is destroying our world. There are no technological solutions. The gods are waiting. They will respond.
Jonathan Merritt is a marakame, an initiated traditional healer in the lineage of the Huichol people of Mexico. The founding editor, and a contributing editor for Sacred Fire magazine, Jonathan keeps a Sacred Fire Community fire in Portland, Oregon.
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