I recently listened to the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathi, from Kenya, interviewed on American Public Media by Krista Tippett. Maathi spoke warmly and engagingly about her life in Kenya, her investment in biology and ecology, of spirit, women’s work, her evolving sense of who and where god is, and her experiences with the planting of trees as both a gesture of activism and as a practical effort to improve the basic quality of women’s lives.
Maathi shared her deep sense of closeness to the land and to the strong embeddedness and ingrainedness of the Kikuyu teaching and traditions of her childhood, which seem to live on inside her now and to have informed her life view through all of the transformations she has experienced, personally, professionally, intellectually, spiritually, and culturally. She still references “the mountain”—Mount Kenya—with a certain air of reverence and notes the great significance that "spirit structure" continues to hold in her life.
Similarly, through the transformations in my own life, however small or however much less impressive or less impactful than Maathi, I can relate strongly to that sense of finding spirit, of discovering the “other” or a "god-ness" or “goddess-ness,” perhaps a goodness in the natural world and the earth around me. I always have in one way or another.
In the time since I’ve come to live in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains, backed up against the gentle rib of Chestnut Knob that leads up to Brittain Mountain splitting the skyline behind and above me--I find that I am more aware (or have returned more deeply and solidly to an old awareness) of the passing moments of the seasons—of the years and days and minutes of my life and the sweet (sometimes bittersweet) expending of these moments on this small patch of earth on which I find my home.
Each morning, I wake and scan the visible mountains that ring this valley basin. In particular, I directly face the minor prominence of Vance Knob as I walk southeast from my front door with three dogs and, often, my camera in tow. Vance Knob is a small foothill of the eastern Blue Ridge escarpment, leading to Ray Knob behind it and on through the historic communities of Maney and Ballard Branch and Ox Creek, past Rattlesnake Lodge to the Blue Ridge Parkway at the top, spreading east past Snowball Gap, Little Snowball Mountain, on to Craggy Pinnacle and beyond, just 25 miles or so, to Mt. Mitchell—the highest point in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River.
Everyday, I visually comb these slopes and search the sky, watching for the slightest hint of an approaching sunrise or sunset, the moon in all her varied adornment, constellations galore, and the unexpected and transient jewels of cloud formations that gather and disburse with equal speed—it is as if I have become a bit of a “forty-niner“ panning for astral gold.
In my lifetime, I have been one of those Aquarians who feels they have an innate sense of connection to the sea and the tides—to their ebb and flow. I used to believe that I was only closest to spirit, to the deepest level of compassion, and to the most inspired mix of humanity and divinity when I was next to water--especially next to the ocean. From my first introduction to Catalina Island as a small child of five or six, followed by an almost 20-year absence from the ocean, and then a return to the sea when I lived along the mid-Atlantic coast for 13 years, I have loved the waves and surf, the sun and clouds (and storms, even) moving across the character of the water—a slippery, sometimes dark, and often transparent body of rolling liquid mass that takes on a life of its own as it surges and swells and recedes along the edges of our continents.
When I moved to the southern Appalachians almost a decade ago, I carried the sensate memories of the waves and water with me to the mountains. In the intervening years, I have learned to see the undulating ridges of the Pisgahs and the Blue Ridges, the Blacks, the Seven Sisters, the Craggies, the Great Smokies, the Cherokees, and the Nantahalas as waves of a different ocean, renewed evidence to me of spirit and maybe god-ness or goddess-ness in this world. Just as the oceans represent a sort of “milk and honey” of the spirit, flowing and feeding and replenishing the earth—these mountains are, to me, the inland "oceans" of the gods—enriching those of us who live along them and flourish in their beautiful, organic, and life-sustaining spirit.
Quote by Maathi:
"...where is God? And I tell myself, of course, now we are in a completely new era when we are learning to find God not in a place, but rather in ourselves, in each other, in nature…So I have had this transformation for me of who God is. I still believe strongly that there is that power…But I still — when I look on Mount Kenya, it is so magnificent, it is so overpowering. It is so important in sustaining life in my area that sometimes I say, yes, God is on this mountain."
~Wangari Maathi 2004 Nobel Peace Price winner
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