Friday, January 6, 2012

Barge of Heaven

I've been living with a disconnect: My earth-based spirituality is influenced by the agricultural cycles of a different ecosystem than the one in which I live, and by customs originating from hundreds of years ago on another continent. My heart and ideals are in a mythical place with four distinct seasons and an agrarian culture. I dream about sustainability, organic produce grown locally, permaculture and community gardens. I prefer the cool shade of indoors to summer daytime heat. Conversely, I live in the Mojave desert of the western USA, where the temperatures can soar to the triple digits four months out of the year and can drop below freezing in winter. The alkali soil is not well-suited for cultivation of much more than succulents, the Joshua tree and creosote bush.

Once a friend asked how I connect with the earth, in this place, right here. I was startled and avoided the question. I connect with the moist, springy, cool earth of the British Isles, and with the dry, clean, harsh, yet fertile Rocky Mountains. I've never managed to cultivate a connection to the dirt beneath my feet here.

I came by this honestly. My grandmother on my mother's side was full Irish American, and proud of her heritage. As an adult I became curious about the ancient tribes and people of Western Europe and the British Isles. I read about the Celts, the Picts, Saxons, and the Jutes. This wasn't a disciplined, academic study. It was more like a fascination. I was particularly interested in what little is known about the religions of these people. I don't recall where I read this, but somewhere I came across a suggestion that if one is interested in understanding the religions of the ancient Europeans, look to modern NeoPaganism and Wicca for clues. It was from there that I found a copy of "The Spiral Dance" by Starhawk, which led to books by people like Pauline Campanelli, who writes of a deep and direct connection between local cycles, seasons, magick and divinity. The words of these authors resonate with me - but they live in a different plant hardiness zone.

The symbols of this ideal inform my spirituality: the maypole, the corn dolly, the yule log and all the rest. At Spring Equinox rituals with a local Pagan group, we planted seeds symbolizing our intentions. Of course, my little pot of seeds never grew into an actual plant, but it didn't matter because I was interested in growth on another plane. At the Fall Equinox we heaped the altar with fresh vegetables intended to symbolize our inner harvest of spiritual and personal growth. These vegetables are mostly trucked in from out of the region where we live. There is a small amount of local produce available, but the effort to find it doesn't seem worthwhile. A friend said she couldn't relate to a harvest festival in a place where little grows. I couldn't relate to a different spiritual paradigm and stubbornly clung to my ideal.

But there were early people in desert climates too. I came here over thirty years ago because there happened to be more jobs advertized here than the other places under consideration. Once here, moving away proved expensive and impractical. Perhaps this also happened to ancient people - wandering into a place where there seemed to be plenty of resources, only to find that at times the climate can be harsh and unlivable. Possibly some moved on, others stayed and adapted.

One year, we did try to grow a garden behind our home. We planted too much, too late, without researching or planning. It was a disaster. What wasn't decimated by aphids withered in the heat. This year, we are going to try again, but on a much smaller scale. It will be a small container garden, efficiently watered with an automatic system using a float ball and valve. Each plant will be researched for the correct planting and harvesting time in this region. Soil quality and pests will be managed. Perhaps we will find success with heat resistant plants, but if the garden must go dormant in summer, fine. We might harvest in early summer and again in midwinter.

I can never forgo the maypole, the dyed eggs of spring, the jack o lantern, and the yule log. But I might cultivate an interest in Mesopotamian poetry, and find a way to be connected to the earth through an irrigated desert garden. It is possible to find fertility here. There is a song called "Barge of Heaven" recorded by the Pagan group Reclaiming, from the tradition by the same name. It's on a cd called "Second Chants: More Ritual Music from Reclaiming & Friends." The lyrics come from a Sumerian poem translated by Thorkild Jacobsen.

Your crescent shaped barge of heaven
So well belayed, so well belayed
Full of loveliness like the new moon
Your fertile fields well-watered
Hillock lands well watered too
At your mighty rising
The vines rise up and the fields rise up
And the desert fills with green
Just like a living garden
In the heat of the sun, you are the shade
A well of water in a dry, dry land
Swelling fruits to feed the hungry
Sweet cream to quench our thirst
Pour it out for me, pour it out for me
Everything you send me I will drink.

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