– Davis Luanava, Seattle
The drums felt like a heartbeat throughout the moonlit forest. The ceremonial fire crackled in the center of the yurt as smoky sparks flew into the cool air. In the distance, bull frogs croaked noisily. The dirt-packed ground under my feet smelled wild and fresh, like new fallen rain. I was a WaterQuester, about to embark on a 36 hour quest in the woods. My elders, the other WaterQuesters, and my instructors peaceably stared into the hot coals as our breathing became one. Although I was frightened to be alone, fasting in the woods, I needed to figure out that I was strong and powerful and I wanted to learn that I was not afraid. I intend to… my thoughts started as my eyes teared from the intensity of the fire, I intend to lose my shell. I intend to listen deeply. I intend to be myself and not feel the need to explain everything I do. I intend to give thanks. I intend to be strong. My mind raced with many more intentions until I was overflowing with thankfulness and strength.
Soon it was time to sleep before continuing the quest.. One at a time, the other Questers left their cedar log seats to hit the drum held by an instructor. Each beat of the drum signified a promise to fulfill a vow of silence for the next 36 hours. Closing my eyes, I let the smoke and cool air wash over me.
One of the boys hit the drum. After five hits on the drum, it was my turn to vow. I was terrified. My thoughts became still as my body slowly left the comfortable log positioned at the base of the fire. I loved sharing my thoughts with the world and singing beautiful songs. I loved the sense of community fostered by only conversations. Not having my voice meant I had nothing to distract myself from long hours sitting and fasting in a small area around a swamp. I was afraid to lose my voice and make the commitment to get to know myself without distractions. I paused for a moment, and then my arm swung back, gaining momentum to hit the drum.
The vibrations from the drum traveled through my callused hands into my bones and out into the twilight.
The next morning as the sun began to peak above the horizon, a song as smooth as running water cut through my peaceful dreams. Confused, I shimmied out of my soft sleeping bag and sword-fern bed. The traditional Native American song continued, wenday-ya-ho, wenday-ya-ho, wen-de-ya, wen-de-ya… as morning fog glimmered through the trees, greeting us as we hastily rolled up our dewy bags so we could start the solo part of our journey.
My bare feet ached when the rocks attacked them as I silently crept towards my sit spot. The dew covered everything in a thin layer of moisture, making all the moss and nursery logs squishy. As the place I would sit for the next 24 hours came into view, my heart skipped. The dark blackberry and salmonberry bushes, ripe with spring flowers, snaked across the ground, making an oval around my sit spot. The swamp was 100 feet away, filled with the exuberant morning life of the animals. Charcoaled and stoic, a large tree jutted out of the ground next to my chosen spot. A small nursery log made another edge of my sanctuary, while two, steep, foot-long cliffs made the other two sides. I noticed the thick smell of nature: cedar, moss, moldy logs and flowers. My mind wandered as I chose four sticks to mark north, east, south and west. The moment I sat down the mosquitoes started bombarding me. They buzzed in my ears, flew into my eyes and ate at my skin until my arms were just swelling bumps. My only relief was to curl up in my sleeping bag where I dozed off and on the whole morning.
“My body flooded with gratitude for the world and my fingers tingled with the thrill of holding space for all the living organisms.”
The mosquitoes vanished in the afternoon. Safe, I crawled out from my sleeping bag and began a mini sense-meditation. Closing my eyes, I listened deeply to the busy buzzing of the honeybees, the ripple of the standing water in the swamp, and the chickadees, robins, crows and woodpeckers conversing high above me. I imagined myself turning to liquid and slowly sinking into the charcoaled log at my back. My nose caught faint wisps of fire-smoke and standing water. Then I turned my attention to the plants around me. I acknowledged the huckleberry bush in front of me, giving it thanks. I told it that it was loved and needed, and that I appreciated the integral value it holds. Then I placed my hand on the moss, the charcoaled tree, the leaves, blackberry bushes, dandelions and the nursery log. I listened to each one separately and filled each plant surrounding me with love. My body flooded with gratitude for the world and my fingers tingled with the thrill of holding space for all the living organisms. As I finished giving thanks to the living things around me, I picked up a small twig. Peeling back its light brown bark so I could see the vulnerable white part underneath, I had an urge to hold it to my head. As my hand moved through the midday air to my forehead, the first memory came.
Johnny, a former Wilderness Awareness mentor, beamed at me. Other kids were screaming and yelling with joy as he lassoed his sturdy rope. With a “whoosh” the rope flew into the air, barely making it over a high up branch. Flicking it a few times so it would come down on the other side, he called out, “Who wants to try a rope swing?” “Me!” yelled my friends. Johnny tied the rope off and swung out over a large ravine laden with stinging nettle to test the ropeswing out. As he swung back, my seven-year-old self jumped on his back, begging for a turn. Swinging me onto the rope, my mentor smiled. The green, lustrous nettles made a blanket over the land far below, cut by the dark blue ravine, covered with smooth rocks. Johnny pushed me and I screamed as I started to fall. Catching me, the rope jerked and then swung out over the forest. When I hit the peak of the rope swing’s pendulum, I felt invincible. My body flew and I was immortal; nothing could touch me. The air smelled fresh and the wind rushed in my ears. Then I was gliding back towards Johnny and the other kids — back towards the earth.
Back in reality, I hesitated, my hand placed the first twig in a bed of moss on the nursery log. I smiled in anticipation as I reached for the next twig, knowing another memory would come. My fingernails scratched away the bark exposing the fragile innards of the twig. As I brought it up to my hairline and closed my eyes, another memory flashed to the surface.
The air smelled of a cedar and sage smudge stick. The frogs croaked along to the joyous singing of the community. The hand-drums and guitar pounded in my ears, creating a cascade of sound. The wooden floor looked worn and loved underneath my bare feet, and the yurt’s walls around me bounced simultaneously with the people. Feet pounded and hearts opened, showing the beauty and kindness of the human race. I felt the beat moving my body. Suddenly everything went silent, the drums slowed their beat to a respectful slow cadence. Everyone sat down as the elder came through to tell his story. The elder chose to sit on the large, hand-made, wooden armchair. As he opened his mouth, the most exuberant and lovely story began.
Memories started flooding back. Four or five memories would come quickly, intertwined on a twig, while others wished to be individual. Every remembrance was unique, but realistic. My body felt the motions, my ears heard the noises and my eyes saw the visuals of every memory, some so far in the past I should not have been able to remember them.
“While shielding myself from hurt may have kept me safe, it also kept me from being fully myself. I had to learn how to feel my emotions truly, and not to hide from my beauty and brains.”
As I put memories into the twigs, I started to build a teepee. In the center I placed a rock to symbolize that which I needed to release. By the time the sky darkened and the birds had ceased their sounds, my teepee had grown to almost 50 memory twigs. To represent the shield of safety I held tightly around myself, I created a circle made from huckleberry leaves, sword fern and lichen around the small teepee. While shielding myself from hurt may have kept me safe, it also kept me from being fully myself. I had to learn how to feel my emotions truly, and not to hide from my beauty and brains. The fear I had built up of going to Running Start, leaving Wilderness Awareness School and abandoning my homeschooled life scared me. I felt like I could not handle the college world. I felt vulnerable and scared of the large change I was facing. Goosebumps started popping out on my arms as my eyes teared. To move on I needed to let go of the known. Being scared was irrelevant because my shield was now present. It would protect me from awful things that may come my way. I sprinkled dead and decaying sword ferns, representing the fears I held close. By the end of the quest all of the brown, decaying sword fern had vanished.
As the stars and mosquitoes began to come out, and the night started to sound with the chorus of a million frogs, my mind started to overload. I needed to scream, sing, hum, or howl. My body started to itch with the necessity to move. My legs ached to jump and my back longed to stretch. Nevertheless, my oath of silence kept me from succumbing to any of my desires. I barely moved because the oath would be broken. The four directions started to feel like a glass cage. I could gaze into the darkness to see the faintly visible swamp, but I was incapable of interacting with anything more than two feet away. My mind clouded with doubt as another mosquito took a stab at my face. What type of crazy person would want to sit next to a mosquito ridden swamp for 24 hours without talking? I could just leave. I could tell my instructors that I’m not cut out for this and I could get my parents to come pick me up. I’d be home in time for a late dinner… The desirable thought pounded in my head, creating a splitting headache. The longing for a warm blanket, dinner and my books tugged at me. Suddenly I snapped. My brow furrowed and I was filled with the determination to succeed.
CROAK! CREAK! EEEEK!
My mind was foggy as I jerked awake the next morning. Something sounded like it was dying. CRO-EEEK! The sky shone light blue in the east as the screeching bird cut through the placid early morning. CROAK! came the same sound from a different direction. Then EEEK! another one in another place. Soon they seemed to be filling the sky. Slowly the chickadees, goldfinches, flickers and crows joined in and the sky lit up with a chorus of bird calls. Light filled the dewy air, burning off the fluffy white clouds. Shifting my position, my mind burst with understanding. While at one point it seemed impossible and rash to participate in the quest, I had succeeded. I knew that I was strong, I understood that I was powerful and I believed with the brunt of my being that I did not need to be afraid of anything. My cheeks hurt, so I touched my face and noticed I was grinning wildly. The sky smiled at me and I felt a wave of pure gratitude for every single living and nonliving thing around me. I had succeeded in completing WaterQuest. I DID IT.
I left the forest as myself; I did not have an ounce of falsity in me. It was amazing not to feel the need to explain myself because the only person who needed to understand was me.