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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Coming of Age, for all Ages

It was billed as a “coming of age” ceremony for Kai, but it turned out to be a reminder for any age (and gender) of what it means to be a human. We gathered—the father/son hike gang, but other friends of Kai and his dad Richard as well—at the Headwaters Outdoors School (HWOS) at the base of Mt. Shasta. Think of Lothlorien, but in northern California. We lugged sleeping bags and mats past greenhouses and toolsheds into 50 or so acres of incense cedar, yellow pine, and lots of alders lining the creeks criss-crossing the area. Exquisitely-balanced columns of piled rocks (“ducks”) were everywhere in the creeks, and native-American style bark teepees appeared in the shady groves. You never lost the sound of running water.

Amid much horse-play and rough-housing from the score or so of teenage boys, we settled our gear and finally all gathered at the sweat lodge in front of three pools, clad in swimsuits only. I had been there some fifteen minutes already, helping the young firemaster Quentin pile cedar logs on the roaring fire that heated the rocks for the sweat. At 67 years (and counting!) I excused myself from the rigors of the sweat, but was happy to contribute by being Quentin’s “go-fer”.

Tim was to be our guide in the sweat experience and Kai’s ceremony celebrating his emergence from boyhood to manhood. A burly bear of a man (that reminded my buddy Cal of Beorn in the Tolkien tales), Tim had founded HWOS as a place to spread the gospel that in connecting with the natural world, we humans discover our roots and blossom into who we really are. The school offers classes in outdoor skills, the shamanic experience, the properties and uses of wildflowers and trees, fire-making and bow-making, and surviving (and prospering) in the wilderness. (www.hwos.com) Sweat lodges are an integral part of the school, being the continuation of a practice developed by native peoples over the northern hemisphere for the past twenty thousand years.

Fronting the lodge—supple poles from creekside plants bent to form the framework, with canvas and fabric layered over the framework—was an altar, containing materials from the sea, land, and sky. Abalone shells, cone shell necklaces, and the jawbone of a blue whale from the sea. Bear skulls, deer antlers, obsidian and basaltic stones, incense cedar whisks, cones of alder, pine, and fir from the land. Meteorite chunks and eagle wings from the sky. Sacred objects, explained Tim, from our home, gifts from the universe.

The men and boys crawled into the low lodge, moving clockwise through the pine-needle strewn floor. After explanations of the ceremony from Tim, Quentin extracted a red-hot stone from the fire on a pitchfork, I cleaned it of ashes with the cedar whisk, and announcing “Hot stone!” Quentin gingerly shoved it into the lodge entrance. Tim used two sets of deer antlers to transfer the stone from the tines of the pitchfork to the firepit in the lodge. A total of 6 or 8 stones radiating heat were thus transferred from the fire into the lodge. “Door closed,” commanded Tim from inside, and Quentin folded the canvas and fabric over the opening. Inside, Tim sprinkled aromatic herbs over the glowing stones, then ladled water from a bucket onto the stones. Immediately steam hissed up and enveloped the lodge.

The sweating had begun. Chanting, singing. Talk of the responsibilities of a man. The ceremony was repeated in four “rounds”, fresh rocks for each round, fresh waves of steam. Between rounds two and three everyone crawled out of the lodge, flushed and pouring sweat, and staggered to the pools to cool off. A few adults and boys reached their sweat limit early and excused themselves from the last rounds, but most stayed. Afterwards, everyone formed a circle around the fire and the altar, and Tim passed around the eagle wing for each to hold as they addressed words to Kai on what it meant to be a man. From the kids, the words were heartfelt and straight-forward. “Be true to yourself.” “Never lose your passion.” “Pursue your dreams.” From the adults, the advice was perhaps more nuanced. “It’s the nature of children to be selfish. A man leaves that behind and thinks of others.” “Your word is your most precious possession; never betray it.” “Be careful where you put your penis.” (OK, maybe this one isn’t so nuanced. It’s still good advice.) “Be grateful for the life-enhancing gifts of your parents, your friends, and the universe.”

After the sweat and a final dip to clean off, warmer clothes were donned in the gathering twilight and dipping temperatures, and all journeyed with alacrity to the outdoor kitchen for the potluck dinner. The kids gorged themselves around the huge fire Tim had started, while most of us adults sat at an immense giant sequoia table. In both groups, jokes and good cheer were the norm. The full moon (really) rose in the east, and after s’mores and more good talk, we retired to sleeping bags in the bark teepees, where after a surprisingly short duration of jokes and horse-play, sleep ruled.

As is my custom, I spent this full-moon night sleeping outside, the better to enjoy the moonlight and what stars the moon didn’t obscure, plus of course the sounds of flowing water, the crickets, a far-off occasional bark of a dog or hoot of an owl. For someone like me, who is convinced that the more time we spend in the natural world the more human we become, the day and night at HWOS was like a Muslim going to Mecca. I was at home, or one specially-nurtured segment of a very large and nurturing home. It was the same feeling I had two full moons earlier, as I lay under the giant sequoias of Redwood Meadow in Sequoia National Park (described in an earlier blog). At home, secure, grounded. Happy. Perhaps not so sure after 67 years that one has to leave all of boyhood behind to become a man. But happy to see others trying to puzzle it out, and reveling in the mystery of it all.
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