Since my encounters with the Buffalo on the summer solstice, I’ve given some thought to their spiritual and symbolic significance. Rather than relying upon existing cultural interpretations, I sought to identify what their characteristics & behaviors signified to me. Here are my thoughts about two things that struck me about these majestic beasts….
Driven by the urge to procreate, Bison bulls charge and clash heads with any foe that would deny them their ardent desire to be the lord of a harem of cows. Built to sustain severe head-to-head impacts, their brain is protected by a system of bone struts which divide the inner and outer walls of the skull. These blows are also softened by thick hide and mat of hair that cover their skull.
The elephant-headed god Ganesha of the Hindu religion is revered as the remover of obstacles. The name Ganesha means “lord of the community”.
Like Ganesha, the American Buffalo can instill in one the energy necessary to meet head-on and overcome the obstacles that stand in the way of them and their heart’s desires. Even if it feels like one is banging one’s head against a wall, that’s no reason to abandon one’s objective ~ if one is inflamed by their desire, invoke the Buffalo and allow him to do the banging, for his skull is built to take the punishment necessary to break down the energetic barrier.
In stark contrast to their aggressive behavior around mating, another notable characteristic of the buffalo is their very zen-like approach to obtaining sustenance.
Their daily routine involves periods of grazing, resting, and cud chewing, then moving to a new location to graze again. Being ruminants, they have a four-chambered stomach that enables them to draw more nutrients from the grasses they ingest by fermenting it in specialized chambers and then chewing it again. The word “ruminant” comes from the Latin ruminare, which means “to chew over again”.
So the bison can also teach us, not to meditate, but to “ruminate”:
~ ‘to think carefully and deeply about something”,
~ “to go over in the mind repeatedly and often casually or slowly”.
Following their pattern, one would take in information and then pause to digest it, reconsidering its significance on 4 levels, such as: personal, familial, tribal, and global, or financial, social, ethical, and environmental, or physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual, or scientific, metaphoric, symbolic, and etheric, etc. Thus, by ruminating, we can extract more meaning from the information that we consume.
picture at top from Wikipedia
The American Bison, to my knowledge, was the first animal in the United States whose numbers were purposefully sought to be restored. I took these pictures in Iowa at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, a refuge that restored the tall grass prairie, bison, and elk to a significant patch of the Iowa landscape. Visiting the refuge figures into my own personal restoration, my Medicine Walk to the South, and my observance of the Earth’s high holy day, the Summer Solstice.
This land had originally been purchased from farmers by a power company that planned to build a nuclear power plant on it. How utterly fantastic that those plans were scrapped and the land subsequently dedicated to its present purpose – the restoration of an ecosystem that was all but obliterated from the face of the earth, the tall grass prairie. Pre-white settlement, the land that is now Iowa was about 85% prairie and was part of an ecosystem that has been called the “American Serengeti”. Today, 1/10th of 1% of Iowa is prairie, and the animals that evolved to thrive there are long gone. But this refuge, that now has over 8,000 acres, has sought to restore a piece of what once was.
To see buffalo, (while they’re not technically buffalo, to my mind this name much better connotes the animal’s wooly head and shaggy mane than ‘bison’ does), I could have visited buffalo ranches in Minnesota or taken a trip to one of the Dakotas. But to travel to Iowa, of all places, to see these animals restored to some of the best and most costly farmland in the world, this resonated with me deeply. For two reasons. One, I grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, on what once was the wide open prairie. So I have a kinship with this land and, even as a young boy, I frequently dreamt about, and felt, what the land once was. Second, I have been going through my own restoration process. So to visit such a recent and ambitious restoration undertaking in a land not so far removed from my homeland, well this struck a chord.
When I entered the refuge for the first time, these gentlemen greeted me:
This one in the picture below, which limped across the road, I later found out had been struck by lightning last fall. The bolt entered his shoulder and traveled to the ground through his leg. He is a survivor. It brought to mind my Stormwalk post from a couple of days ago.
I had four close encounters with the buffalo herd. Which was exceedingly fortunate, for they so readily disappear in landscape…So I feel inspired to add the buffalo to the South position in my personal medicine wheel.
The refuge is a couple of hundred miles and practically due south from “Bdote”, which, as I mentioned in a previous post, is my point of departure for my medicine walk to the sacred directions.
For those who have read my posts, this trip on the Summer Solstice marked the culmination of Zenith Arc, my Sunrise Sadhana and journey to the solstice. It also marks the beginning of my Walk Through the Wheel of the Seasons ~ doing medicine walks to the sacred directions on the holy days of the Earth.
To observe the solstice, in addition to making this pilgrimage, I watched the sun rise in the east, I meditated under the sun at its zenith in “the Grail pose”, and watched the sun set in the west. So I took in the energy of the day as best as possible, observing and participating in the three key moments of the earth’s relationship with the sun: sunrise, zenith, sunset.
There are countless details I could share about my brief journey, but one last one: When I awoke this morning, sat up in my sleeping bag and looked out through the screen door of my tent, there, across a broad valley, was the sun rising in the east. I had no idea when I pitched my tent the day before that it would be perfectly oriented toward the rising of the sun. So this morning (Sunday) my sunrise vigil continued, from the comfort of my sleeping bag.
With the Summer Solstice upon us, I thought that I would share my invocation again…
The cross-quarter day of Beltain is upon us. For those who might like to give some ritual attention to this day, I thought I would share my personal invocation of the directions that I have developed over the years. While it is fairly idiosyncratic, it does contain some familiar refrains that others will recognize…
We invoke you, Spirit of the North
You who rules the cusp between endings and beginnings,
bless us with the gift of Conception.
In the dark of midnight,
bless us with the magic of Intention.
In the cold of Winter,
bless us with Purification.
We honor you in the feast of Yule Tide,
the Winter Solstice,
the moment when one cycle ends and another begins.
Thank you for the gift of Faith:
~ Faith that the light will return after the dark.
~ Faith that warmth will return after the cold.
~ Faith that life will return after death.
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It was here, at Bdote, they believed that life originally began and that their people emerged from the earth. With this is mind, it is difficult to not take notice of the distinctive phallic shape of the island and of the yonic form of the surrounding terrain that enfolds the island….
Moreover, in the Dakota’s world view, Bdote lay directly over the center of the Earth and immediately below the center of the Heavens. Thus, it was their axis mundi…
Another such Center of the Earth was experienced by the Dakota visionary, Black Elk. Here are some excerpts from his extraordinary vision, as recounted in the book, Black Elk Speaks:
“Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy….Then when he had been still a little while to hear the birds sing, he spoke again: “Behold the earth!” So I looked down and saw it lying yonder like a hoop of peoples. and in the center bloomed the holy stick that was a tree, and where it stood there crossed two roads, a red one and a black….And now the fourth Grandfather spoke, he of the place where you are always facing (the south), whence comes the power to grow. “Younger brother,” he said, “with the powers of the four quarters you shall walk, a relative….. four ascents you shall walk the earth with Power.”
Of this, Joseph Campbell says in The Power of Myth:
“That is the real mythological realization. It distinguishes between the local cult image, Harney Peak, and its connotation as the center of the world. The center of the world is the axis mundi, the central point the pole around which all revolves. The central point of the world is the point where stillness and movement are together. Movement is time, but stillness is eternity. Realizing how this moment of your life is actually a moment of eternity, and the experiencing the eternal aspect of what you’re doing in the experiences – this the mythological experience.”
In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell writes about The World Navel:
“The effect of the successful adventure of the hero is the unlocking and release again of the flow of life into the body of the world….
The torrent pours from an invisible source, the point of entry being the center of the symbolic circle of the universe… around which the world may be said to revolve. Beneath this spot is the earth-supporting head of the cosmic serpent, the dragon, symbolical of the waters of the abyss, which are the divine life-creative energy and substance of the demiurge, the world-generative aspect of immortal being. The tree of life, i.e., the universe itself, grows from this point. It is rooted in the supporting darkness; the golden sun bird perches on its peak; a spring, the inexhaustible well, bubbles at its foot. Or the figure may be of a cosmic mountain, with the city of the gods, like a lotus of light, upon its summit….Thus the World Navel is the symbol of the continuous creation: the mystery of the maintenance of the world through that continuous miracle of the vivification which wells within all things.”
As my Sunrise Sadhana is about to come to a climax on the Summer Solstice, I have decided to revive an old practice of mine, that of making Medicine Walks into each of the sacred directions. I will embark upon my first Medicine Walk on the Solstice, the final day of my sadhana, which feels like a wonderful point of departure and the perfect means for establishing a continuity, to carry forward all that I’ve experienced in this daily ritual practice.
But if I am to make these journeys into the directions, I will need a central reference point from which to determine the direction I am heading. I suppose I could use the home where I live to orient these walks, but, like many others, I feel that the spirit of this land continues to speak to us just as it spoke to its native inhabitants, and so I will honor their tradition by using Bdote, which lies directly above the center of the Earth, and immediately below the center of the Heavens, as the center of my sacred hoop. Nothing could be more fitting, nor auspicious.
A brief description of Medicine Walk:
“A medicine walk is like a short vision quest, [or walkabout] during which you pay attention to the omens in nature in order to find your medicine, which in the Native American sense is anything that is healing and positive to body and mind. During a medicine walk, you find a place where you can spend at least a half a day alone, walking, sitting and meditating in nature with as few distractions from civilization as possible. You focus on an important personal issue and seek wisdom and guidance in nature by looking for symbolic meaning from the things you observe.”
To this I would only add that I will not be going to random locales for these intentional walks, but will make pilgrimages to wilderness or natural destinations situated in the sacred directions, to learn what specific lessons and Medicine each of these directions holds for me and my individual growth.
Since the Summer Solstice is about the power of the South, I will be making my first journey to the South, to immerse myself into this energy and to honor this direction.