The Gifts of the Mountain

It so happens that here in southern Oregon, the wild elderberries ripen near the fall equinox and it has been an impromptu ritual that we go to the mountains every fall to collect this delicious medicine.

It’s common among homesteaders to find ourselves so rooted in our land that we seldom make a trip elsewhere. With so much to harvest and process right at home, it’s very hard to pull away. Yet every time we do, we are so glad and grateful for it.

Going to the mountain gives us perspective again, the way that looking up from the front of your feet to the scenery around you can refocus your attention and remind you of where you’re going.

Before we had our own land, wildcrafting in the mountain near where we lived was something we relished doing regularly. On any given day of the week, Noel would just up and go and disappear the whole day until late in the evening. Sometimes he’d return empty handed yet spiritually satisfied, but more often than not, he’d bring back a backpack full of forest treats – mushrooms, berries, herbs, and seeds. Our friends and neighbors would also share their tips, leading us to new meadows, forests, and peaks. It was always exciting and rejuvenating. Whatever funk we might be in, simply going to the mountains would lift us right out of it so we’d can see again the abundance that we are so blessed with, the magic that exists just beneath the surface, and the sacredness of all things. These explorations teach us so much about the land, the plants, the wildlife, the seasons, and many things beyond words.

So no matter how busy our life gets, we try our best to make a trip to the mountains. This year, we revisited the wild elderberries on a steep mountain side. Here in Oregon, just about any mountain you set foot on will be filled with evidence of logging, both old and new. I often felt outranged and shameful every time I saw a bald section of the mountain where every tree and shrub had been razed. But too much indignance can be dangerous, because behind it is a desire to forsake our humanity altogether: to write ourselves off as beyond saving.

The mountains had more to teach us. When we arrived at the elderberries, the sight of these trees thriving in this particular spot – the site of a previous clearcut, gave me yet another perspective. I marveled at the vastness in front me, the splendidness of the vista stretching out as far as my eyes could see. Lush, green mountain ranges surrounded us. The slope of elderberries was covered with plants, some of which I knew like currants, yarrow, and St. John’s wort. I could hear the dripping of water nearby from a spring. So much that feed me, sustain me, and heal me are all here, even made possible by the clear cut I so despised. I’m on this earth, at best, 90 or so years, which is a very short time span. How much life has come and gone before me? How much will continue after me? We see but one tiny string of cause and effect, one piece of thread in a much vaster fabric.

So the mountain taught me about humbleness. I don’t know enough to judge what’s good or bad, and least of all, to judge the entirety of humanity, myself included. Good and bad, life and death, light and darkness, are ever changing like the seasons. The thought gave me great relief as I put down my self-imposed burden. Awhile ago I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and her discernment between a martyr and a trickster uncovered an old truth I forgot: righteousness is the hidden source of much suffering.

What’s the difference between a martyr and a trickster, you ask? Here’s a quick primer. Martyr energy is dark, solemn, macho, hierarchical, fundamentalist, austere, unforgiving, and profoundly rigid. Trickster energy is light, sly, transgender, transgressive, animist, seditious, primal, and endlessly shape-shifting.

Martyr says: ‘Life is pain.’ Trickster says: ‘Life is interesting’.

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

As soon as we arrived at our spot, River exclaimed with wild joy, “Wow, mountain! Trees! Birds!” River, just freshly four, laughed with merriment, and I marveled at his lightness. He knows full well how to be a trickster… or rather, he doesn’t know yet how else to be. Early in our journey as parents, Noel and I agreed that we would do our best to help River stay connected to his intuition, his own inner compass of truth, which is his birthright (all of our birthright). We know it will be this inner compass that will guide him throughout his life, as it did for us. The most effective way to stay connected to that part of ourselves is to be in that state of wonder and amazement. And that too, is the purpose of our yearly pilgrimage to the mountains.

Looking at the vastness before me, I opened my arms to welcome the autumn breeze whistling by, sweeping away the heat of summer and ushering in the beginning of fall. I love this time of year. After a full day of berry picking, we drove back down the mountain, refreshed, grateful, laden with gladness, and dreaming of our return.

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