November 26th, 2013
My body feels nourished, perhaps over-nourished and tired. It’s been a long day of work and the cold weather has been wearing at my body. The conversation at the table has split up into subgroups as it usually does toward the end of the meal. It begins in a silence, nobody sure about how to break the ice, then is interrupted usually by someone thanking whoever cooked, followed by questions about the food. Everything starts at the surface.
“What kind of mushrooms are these?” The more knowledgeable of the group gives the latin genus name and a discussion begins. 50% of the discussions at this table seem to be about mushrooms; when and where they grow, preparing suggestions, interesting health facts, their bigger role in the environment. I wish I could remember everything I’ve heard throughout these conversations but a lot of this is just too overwhelming to retain. It’s all still so new to me but I love it for that. In fact, I think I’m more interested in the fact that it is new and different knowledge than in the actual subject itself. Theoretically, every aspect of life interests me, but realistically, few things spark that interest enough that I invest time and attention into their further discovery.
Mushrooms are one of the innumerous things that exist of which I recognize their importance and beauty but am not necessarily called to. I’ve happened to find myself in a group of people who are called to this particular being of our world and who make the choice of investing that time and attention to. I admire them for it but cannot relate.
I seem to be one of the first break-awayers from the main dinner conversation tonight. If I had more interest or were more knowledgeable of planting, harvesting, teas, fishing, mushrooms, compost etc., then I would find my place a bit easier. Wolf is commanding the conversation this evening. He is the provider of food, shelter and much knowledge, especially on the subject of mushrooms. I don’t think he intends on controlling the attention of the room all the time but things seem to work out that way because he is the knower of answers. Any question to do with nature, farming, folklore, history of this region or just about anything that is not technology based, he, at any given point, will just happen to be the most knowledgeable in the room. It usually turns from a dialogue into a monologue, into a performance as we all watch in awe as he explains the significance of a certain mushroom’s effect on the ecosystem with beautiful prose that almost sounds rehearsed. Mushrooms claim an entire kingdom to themselves and are the behind-the-scenes beings which recycle life and help move along the process of death turning into life again, moving the natural world forward.
One day Wolf intends to transform this space into an education center. It already has been that for me since I’ve been here. Solely by joining in on the communal dinners here every night, one inadvertently attends a master class in composting, propagation, native traditions, food preservation and of course mycology (the study of mushrooms). It’s not a school that I signed up for or had any previous interest in but it’s opened up new worlds of thought to me. At the same time, most of this is over my head and I get more and more lost with each unfamiliar term until I get to a point where I can’t even pose a relevant question to contribute to keeping the fire of conversation alive.
I’m used to this by now and just sit back and take in what I can. I get plenty of social exercise here and it feels good to rest my brain right now. I tune into an unknown guest and watch him step with his thin little insect feet around the rim of the offering bowl at the center of the table. With his many little eyes, he peers into the contents of the bowl; a sacred portion of each dish from tonight’s feast taken from Wolf’s plate and personally blessed by him as an offering to the Holy. The fly seems to have sniffed out something good and takes a dive into the bowl unnoticed by Wolf who is in deep conversation with Bear.
It would be extremely disrespectful of me to take any food from that bowl because it is intended as a sacrifice to the Holy, the giver of life, the force that moves everything in and out of this world, not meant for human consumption. I guess this fly will get away with it, not knowing any better. Maybe though, Wolf wants it this way; maybe the fly is an extension of the Holy, part of the chain of life that keeps things moving. Anyway, I’m not sure exactly what Wolf believes, I just hear him mention the Holy and watch him make offerings and treat certain things ceremoniously. Besides, he didn’t even see the fly go into the sacred bowl so the fly is clear for now.
Before I arrived here I had never heard anybody use the term “the Holy”. Some people call it Allah, God or the myriad labels every culture throughout time has given it. Some even consciously choose to have no label and simply say that everything just is and there needs to be no entity that embodies that idea. Either way, everyone is talking about the same thing: every atom, every kind of energy, every abstract idea, every idea that is not, everything. It is interesting that every culture, or even personality type within a certain culture makes a choice of a certain label and ceremony attached to that label, even if the label is a choice of having no label and no ceremony attached. I can’t conclude that any one culture’s label is the correct one, incorrect one or if such a thing as correct or incorrect labels could even exist. “It”, what those labels represent, can never change based on the label and rituals attached to “It” but the relationship to “It” does. I’m used to Christian relationships with “It” having grown up in the U. S. and have also been exposed to various different traditions throughout my travels but this one is new to me. Like I do with most new ideas and ways of life, I try my best to remain open-minded and to see the beauty in them, ideally at least.
The fly seems to have gotten his fill and I follow his flight as he zips out of the bowl. He buzzes around everybody’s heads for a bit until he alights on the face of one of the new guests in conversation. He is quickly shooed away and their conversation continues without skipping a beat. He makes a few more rounds around the table and then is drawn to another scent. He makes his way unknowingly to the gooey grave of his brothers and sisters in the form of a sticky strip of scented fly-catcher ribbon hanging from the ceiling above the table. Inevitably , he winds up sharing the same fate by getting his wings stuck and spends his last moments of existence unnoticed by the other feasters. Such an unclimactic and unceremonious way to end a stage of existence, another offering to the Holy but without ritual.
One by one people start to get up and bring their plates to the kitchen and this is my cue to get to work. I’ve become the de facto dishwasher since I arrived here. It’s a role I’m happy to fill since it gives me an opportunity to contribute, nobody else seems to want to do it, its easy, no time pressure and I rather enjoy it for some reason. Luckily my friend Vince is always there to help out and have conversation which makes things go by much nicer. He’s become my closest friend here because I can relate to him the most. He is somewhat of a chameleon, fitting in with different kinds of groups and still managing to remain honest to himself. We are both traveling around the states, living out of our vehicles and both decided to stay here spontaneously at the same time.
We finally finish up after an hour or two and mop the floor which will be filthy again by tomorrow afternoon. There are probably 20 people staying here now with more guests arriving tonight and tomorrow. Just as I’m getting ready to head outside into the cold and make my way to my tent for the night, Mora, Toro and Brian show up from having been gone a couple of days. Three people I’ve gotten to know and love as well during my last few weeks here. They are getting back from the outside world and come bearing gifts. I greet Mora at the door and help her carry box loads of peanut butter, chocolate and produce that was found in a dumpster in a city a few hours from here. A certain percentage of the food we consume here was once the waste of others. I express my excitement to Mora that we’ll now have the luxury of peanut butter for the next weeks and she tells me that these are the least of the gifts the universe has offered us today…
She takes me outside into the chill and foggy air and I learn what she was referring to. Wolf is already outside with Toro, Brian, Vince and all the others standing silently in a circle. In the middle are three deer laying on their sides just as quietly as the onlookers. I find a spot in the circle and join in the intensity of the moment. Nobody says a word for a few minutes, some just stare, others cry. Finally Wolf breaks the silence with words of respect spoke once again in beautiful prose.
He talks about their lives and expresses that he hopes they lived happy and fulfilled ones. He thanks our deer brothers for finding their way to our home and hopes that we can do our best to use the bodies they recently parted from to nourish and feed us. Tears run down his bearded cheeks as he admires their beauty out loud while caressing their fur. A bundle of sage is brought out and passed among us all. Each person making up the circle spends a moment covering their body in the scented smoke. Some take their delicate time with eyes closed and a very intentional look on their face, some pass it a bit quicker but everyone remains silent and respectful. When the sage is passed to me I feel as if I were back in the catholic church again, genuflecting and blessing myself for the sake of others seeing me, fitting in as well as showing respect. I respect these creatures and feel sorry that their lives ended suddenly, needlessly and violently by vehicles made by my species but I’m not sure what sage has to do with it. Everybody has their own rituals and I’m in Rome so I’m going with the flow.
Brian then takes the stage and with a humble respect, begins organizing the logistics of what is to be done. He asks that the three people with the most experience and who are willing, take one deer each and begin the process that will eventually transform these bodies into our future nourishment. After all logistics are figured out, each deer gets started on by a different person. Most of the circle eventually goes back inside because of the cold but I remain as close as I can to learn. It is interesting to watch the different approach of each person. Colas, another person who I’ve become close to throughout my time here is the only one not using gloves. I know he loves these deer and the natural process of things and probably doesn’t want to dilute his experience nor produce waste by using gloves. Brian is very methodical and precise about his incisions, taking pride in his work as well as taking his time to be present with the deer who, earlier this evening, he had put out of his misery with his own knife after he found him suffering on the side of the road. I watch Wolf the closest to learn as he speaks with the air of a teacher, explaining where to make each incision, which organs are which and being open for questions. Just another course here at the education center that I didn’t sign up for but find myself attending.
After a couple of hours of standing out in the cold, smelling the vile stench of innards, cleaning organs and hanging up the corpses, I feel spent. Nevertheless, I volunteer to finish the last task of the evening; carrying two buckets full of organs down the road to the offering cliff. The cold is getting to me now and I can visibly see moisture particles floating in the air illuminated by my headlamp. Between the fog and shroud of darkness I can’t see very far in front of me. About halfway down to the cliff I notice a lump of fairly fresh bear droppings along the path. Bears are one of my biggest fears and have been the reason for many sleepless nights of paranoia in my tent while camping. Somehow being alone in the middle of the night, with low visibility, two buckets full of fresh blood and guts wafting through the air and knowing that a bear stood in this very spot at some point earlier today doesn’t manage to trigger my paranoia. I must be too exhausted to use energy on fear right now. I just remain aware of the potential danger and keep going.
As I throw the last of the remains off the edge of the offering cliff as a gift to our animal neighbors I realize it is my birthday by now. Last year I was serving tables at the restaurant I worked at, now I’m serving food again, to a different clientele. A few minutes later I find myself back inside staring blankly into a cup of hot melted dumpster chocolate mixed with goat milk. I’m in a delusional state of fatigue and think back on the day as well as my 25th year. I begin to think about ceremony and the importance of it. Why should some days be celebrated above others? This is just another day in my life and identifying with the number 26 for the next year doesn’t really change anything except health insurance status.
I look up and notice the sticky paper hanging from the ceiling where the fly ended his life earlier. No ceremony involved there either. Why were the deer more deserving of a ceremony and of being cried over than the fly? Arent’ they both extensions of the Holy, fellow living beings? Just like the labels we put on the “It” the “Everything” the “Holy”, “God”, it’s all arbitrary, or more correctly, the labels fit our preferences. We, as humans, decide upon these labels and ceremonies based on our own reasoning, traditions and personal desires. Everybody has a different reason to reason the way they do, comes from different backgrounds, cultures, traditions and has different wants.
It makes sense to me why the deer are more deserving of ceremony in this context than the flies because of what they represent to us and our humanness. As well as feeding us, giving us sinew for cord, intestines to make bow strings, stomaches to make bags from, they are beautiful and mystical creatures that don’t annoyingly buzz around our faces or shit on our food. It seems to have become my own internal ceremony, or lack of ceremony, to question labels and ceremonies, to intend a search for some truth that can be derived from them while still treating them with openness and respect. I stare tiredly into the rest of my hot chocolate, it’s my eucharist, my ayahuasca tea, my holy sacrament in this non-sacred yet infinitely sacred moment of unceremony. I forget to wish myself a happy birthday and make my way to bed.