One day near the end of August I took a kayak out on the big beautiful lake at Omega Institute in the heart of the Hudson Valley and played my flute — my wooden recorder — meditating, hearing the bird sounds, the wind, the far-away fountain, the far-away people on the beach.
All of my focus was on breath and clarity of sound. I practice the Chinese healing art of qigong (chi kung) when I play, channeling energy through myself into the recorder, achieving a deep meditation, the flute an extension of my being and breath.
Eventually another kayaker drew close and we exchanged greetings. He appreciated my sound, the spirit I was generating. About 70, with clear eyes and a strong yet soft voice, a penetrating look and a huge aura of native wisdom, Carl Big Heart said that he conducts Native American sweat lodges for the staff at Omega, as well as workshops for the public, and he very much wanted me to attend an off-campus 5-day sweat-lodge ceremony he was conducting deep in the wild woods of the Ashokan Center‘s big campus in the Catskill Mountains, in the vicinity of Woodstock. His circle of people would be gathering there and he felt I’d fit right in. He felt the spirit of my flute would resonate with the folks.
So the very next day I packed my old car with camping gear, extra food for donation to the camp kitchen, and a few items for the camp auction (which raises money for the sweat lodges), including a copy of Dina Falconi and Wendy Hollender’s Foraging and Feasting, the wild foods cookbook now being hailed by wildcrafters. I mention it not just because I am proud to be the book’s editor, but because many of the folks at the gathering practice wildcrafting, tracking, and other primitive skills long lost in the crush of western so-called civilization.
I worked the first day at camp helping a crew repair the already existing sweat lodges. The structures had been built years before but needed repairs. We bent cut saplings to create the lodge skeletons, a process that took much sweat and many hours. The core crew included some big, husky bearded men with big trucks and a young woman who put more energy and muscle into orchestrating the building than any two or three men combined. Eventually folks started pouring in and a small village emerged, with a central kitchen supplied by a cistern brought in by the big men with their big trucks, who also schlepped in a water heater for showers they constructed by the stream, lumber to create showers and food racks, picnic tables, huge shade/rain shelter structures, and a load of carefully selected “grandfather” stones to be fired up and used to heat the lodges.
Two lodges served the camp, one for women only, and the other, larger one a mixed lodge, for all genders. In the mixed lodge, the women sat together on one side, the men on the other, the stones were brought in one-by-one ceremonially, red hot from the fire, the door was closed, and the space was plunged into darkness but for the glowing stones. Many prayers were said in native tongue, the voices reminding me of my youth in Arizona when Navajo/Dine people would sing and dance at the pow-wows in my home town.
Our individual and collective prayers in English were powerful in that enclosed space, appealing to the Great Spirit on behalf of our loved ones, the four-legged tribes, the winged and finned tribes, grandmother earth, grandfather sky and the like. My first response was one less of worship and more of panic — a sense of claustrophobia and fear I would overheat, suffocate, or want to flee. That sensation lasted through round one, but after the break, the next few rounds went great. Each break we got to wash off the sweat and forest litter from our bodies in the gentle creek.
Over the course of the weekend my music made a big impression on a lot of folks at the ceremony. They responded with gratitude to my flute’s plaintive call in the woods — like a bird, like a shepherd in the Andes, like the flute sound on the Navajo reservation near where I grew up, reverberating off of cliffs and among trees. I made many new friends, experienced a great tribal ritual with a big, friendly community of all ages, where elders were accorded great respect, and where I was offered the chance to do workshops with my music. I did, and they turned out great! On both Saturday and Sunday I conducted small groups of folks in learning to play recorders in sync with one another. None of the folks had played recorders — except in grade school like almost everyone in the U.S. — but I passed out alto recorders to everyone (decent quality plastic recorders made in Japan) and got them all to play just a few notes.
At first there was a cacophony of noise, everyone squeaking and squawking, and for a while I despaired of getting them to make the sound I knew they could make if they only relaxed and focused. Then I broke away from the recorders and had everyone do standing qigong exercises with me, moving limbs to bring in energy from the four directions, breathing fresh energy into the heart, lungs, liver, spleen, and kidneys, and exhaling stale energy. The rhythmic motions and breathing got everyone into sync, and when we returned to the recorders, it was like magic how suddenly everyone was able to harmonize! My new friends really took to learning how to play. Our sweet harmonies filled the camp and I knew I had found the secret to getting newcomers to relax into their groove.