Earth-Centered Practices for Everyday Mystics, Healers, & Creatives

Aldermarsh Farewell

in Grief, Nature Connection, Retreat

Procession. Photo by Karen Karlovich.

It didn’t feel like goodbye.

I was told in July that the 86-year-old owner of the sacred land of Aldermarsh Retreat Center would be selling it, and that all retreats for 2017 and beyond were cancelled.

When I first received the news, the shock was like a punch in the gut. I went out and sat in the garden to ground and center, feeling like I had been told a loved one had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. I went through all the stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance, and back again, cycling though each stage over and over again.

Prayer flags and the serpentine path through the marsh.

Prayer flags and the serpentine path through the marsh.

Aldermarsh has been a spiritual home for me for seven years. It is sacred land where I have called circles and participated in circles called by others, communed with the land, and gathered sisters and brothers on retreat. The land there has held us and nurtured us as we pursued our creative paths, received teachings, experienced epiphanies and breakthroughs, listened to the quiet voice of the land, and came together in sacred — if ephemeral — community.

Arwen communes with Grandmother Fir.

Arwen communes with Grandmother Fir.

For six weeks or more after receiving the news, I searched for another retreat center in western Washington that would meet my criteria. I had a long list. It was difficult to find a place that would work as well as Aldermarsh for us. I had several false starts until I found a retreat center on 52 acres in the foothills of the North Cascades. We will be there in March and October of 2017, and will hold ceremony on the land as soon as we arrive in order to begin to build a relationship with this new land.

Poem by Ellen Lorenzi-Prince, spirit doll by Ali Erickson.

Poem by Ellen Lorenzi-Prince, spirit doll by Ali Erickson.

Many of us who love Aldermarsh have been praying and working magic for new owners to arrive who will, first of all, keep the land as sacred; and secondly keep it open as a retreat center. Some of our seers have said we will be back there on retreat; others have said we won’t. Perhaps the land is just taking a needed “sacred pause.” Perhaps the new owners will have different plans. We have heard that an organic farm school will be on the land, which means it will be well-cared-for. But, as of this writing, nothing is settled.

Douglas fir resin and artemisia.

Douglas fir cone dripping with resin and fragrant artemisia. Gifts from the land.

But I do trust that the sacred land of Aldermarsh is sovereign, from the guardian Fir in the meadow, to her heart in the center of the marsh, to her womb in the warm, dark, cordwood sauna. “The land’s going to do what the land’s going to do,” said a friend.

Grandmother Fir, Marsh House, Medicine Wheel on a rainy day. Photo by Karen Karlovich.

Grandmother Fir, Marsh House, meadow, and medicine wheel on a rainy day.
Photo by Karen Karlovich.

This retreat was the tenth retreat I have hosted at Aldermarsh, the number of the Wheel of Fortune in the tarot’s Major Arcana. The Wheel card always means change, often Big Change. In the Gaian Tarot, the Minor Tens are all cards of transition: the old is passing away, but the new has not yet been made clear.

Making spirit dolls

Making spirit dolls with great hilarity.

Two spirit dolls in progress.

Two spirit dolls in progress.

Full moon rise over Marsh House.

Full moonrise over Marsh House. Photo by Jennifer Lucero-Earle.

And so, as eighteen women gathered at Aldermarsh over the past week, we sat in circle council, calling in all those who came to past retreats. We made spirit dolls, absorbed teaching about the Dark Goddess from Ellen Lorenzi-Prince, walked the beach and woods and meadows, delighted in the full moon’s rise and the coyotes’ howl, feasted on delicious food, laughed and cried, and danced the Dark Goddesses — those who know grief and loss — into manifestation.

Jennifer Lucero-Earle led us into dancing our Dark Goddesses.

Jennifer led us into dancing our Dark Goddesses.

Feasting! Photo on left by Ali Erickson, photo on right by Jennifer Lucero-Earle.

Feasting! Photo on left by Ali Erickson, photo on right by Jennifer Lucero-Earle.

Grateful for They Who Prepare Our Meals with Great Love. Sous-chef Latisha on the left, chef Elaine on the right.

Grateful for They Who Prepare Our Meals with Great Love.
Sous-chef Latisha on the left, chef Elaine on the right.

We wrote blessings for each other and for the land, and tied paper prayer flags to branches here and there.

Paper prayer flag blessing:

Paper prayer flag blessing by JPC inspired by the Gaian Tarot Seeker card:
“May deep roots protect you, May the river’s flow embrace you,
May the coyote’s yip delight you, May seekers ever find you.”

We wrote love letters to Aldermarsh, then tore the letters up in tiny bits, mixing them into a well of sea water, rain water, gifts from the land, elixir of Aldermarsh, and our tears.

Ellen's love letter to Aldermarsh.

Ellen’s love letter to Aldermarsh.

Sacred well of letters, sea water, rain water, elixir of Aldermarsh, and tears.

Sacred well full of letters, sea water, rain water, elixir of Aldermarsh, and tears.
“Our Lady of Aldermarsh” spirit doll by Lisa Blinn.

On our last morning, the Maiden of the Well led us in procession to the center of the marsh, on the serpentine path, where we stood and sang to the trees and the mud and the frogs and the birds and the deer, a song that came to Latisha in the medicine wheel the day before:

“Walk in beauty, walk in beauty
Sing the frog song, sing the frog song
Lift your soul up with the alders,
And let the land bring you home.”

Procession.

Procession.

I anointed each woman with water from the well, whispering “May the Spirit of Aldermarsh be with you always.” Then we poured the water containing our letters, blessings, and tears into the marsh and covered it with cedar boughs. The words that spilled from our hearts are now part of the marsh forever.

Anointing. Photo by Karen Karlovich.

Anointing. Photo by Karen Karlovich.

And still — it didn’t feel like a final goodbye. We all had the sense that the land will be just fine, that “all shall be well.”

Perhaps we will gather there again in circle, and perhaps not. Aldermarsh may live on only in our hearts and dreams.

Looking up to the alders. Photo by Karen Karlovich.

Looking up to the alders. Photo by Karen Karlovich.

But we know we are blessed, for we have known the power and communion of sacred land.

Blessed be.

Grandmother Fir embraces the circle of women.

Grandmother Fir embraces the circle of those who love her,
those present in body and those present in spirit.


The following was posted by Lisa Blinn on Facebook, and speaks more eloquently than I can of the need for retreat and community:

“Until I stepped into the deep, rich, verdant land of Aldermarsh four years ago, there were essential parts of me that I didn’t know existed, dreams that flickered in the recesses of my mind unremembered, and ancestral knowledge that was long forgotten but rooted in the deepest part of my soul. My beloved mentor Joanna called the exactly right women who showed up to do the work every single time to create & hold a powerful, sacred space where we were all safe, seen, and held just as we are, without masks or pretense or fear.

That, my friends, is true magic. The land heals. Sisterhood heals. Laughter heals. Tears heal. Truth heals. Circles heal. For me and my Gaian sisters, Aldermarsh heals.

This time, we came again, new and old, both in person and in prayers, knowing fully that this might have been our last time on the land that we have come to love as heart home. We held council, drew down the moon, loved the land, grieved, laughed, feasted and danced, all through the loving work & guidance of Joanna, EllenJennifer, Elaine and Latisha. Joanna’s beautiful account of our “time out of time” conveys the magic, the joy, and the community more eloquently than I ever could. We are ready for whatever comes next, knowing it is right.

I share this with you for two reasons. First, you must tend your own soul, your own heart in this world of too much. Too much hatred, too much pain, too much division, too much apathy. Taking time for self care, whatever that looks like for you, whether it be a bath, a good book, a retreat, a long walk, reinvigorates and restores your ability to do the hard work that you are called to do in this life. You must replenish your own well in order to be able to quench the needs of others. It’s not selfish or foolish; it’s essential and you, every single one of you, deserve it.

Second, find your community, the one that makes your heart sing and mirrors back everything that is good & right & powerful about YOU. It may be your church or mosque, a book club, a group of old friends that commit to dedicating time with each other each month. If it doesn’t feel right, keep looking. We are living in dangerous and scary times, my friends, and we are all called to act on our values more than ever. Community makes that possible and amplifies your voice. Community supports. Community heals.”

Thoughtful, sparkling comments. . .

  • Arwen Wed - Sep 21st 2016 2:40 pm

    Beautiful. It was a blessing to be there.

    Reply

  • Diane Wed - Sep 21st 2016 4:22 pm

    Very moving and lovely.

    Reply

  • James Wed - Sep 21st 2016 9:20 pm

    Dear Aldermarsh,

    I am heartbroken that I may never touch your flag-decked paths again, wracked in sobs that I may never listen to Grandparent Fir’s wisdom again, angry that I may never settle into a backjack to speck in council in Marsh House again. I rejoice that my feet have trodden your cedar-strewn paths, I praise Life that you have held my laughter, tears, and stories, and I kiss the owl-sung councils in which I have listened others and myself into being. May beauty prevail.

    Love for eternity,
    James
    xoxo

    Reply

  • sonia Thu - Sep 22nd 2016 5:58 pm

    I have never been to the Aldermarsh, hoping one day i would . Your letter was beautiful it brought tears to my eyes. I do hope one day that I will get a chance to meet you and go to your retreats.

    Reply

  • Karen Fri - Sep 23rd 2016 9:07 am

    I’ve read this at least 5 times and each time I’ve shed tears.
    I adore what Lisa added.

    Love,
    Karen

    Reply

  • Susan Mon - Oct 03rd 2016 8:08 am

    I had just begun visualizing the trip there, the way on the ferry, who would pick me up, what room in Aldermarsh I wanted to stay on, all preparation for signing up for one of the retreats in the next year or so. Then I read the news. I am sad Aldermarsh is closed, if for now – that does give hope that one day it will return to sacred community. For now, maybe the land does need to rest, or is called to supply something different. Thank you for the photos, and taking us through the final weekend there. It let me participate a little as one who dreamed of making the journey one day. Blessings to all, and to the land.

    Reply

    • Joanna Powell Colbert Mon - Oct 03rd 2016 8:35 am

      Thank you Susan. I hope that you will join us one day on retreat, whether at Aldermarsh, Cedar Springs, or somewhere else. Love & blessings to you.

      Reply

  • Lizzy Mon - Nov 14th 2016 2:25 am

    This brought tears to my eyes. I had similar feelings when my grandmother’s farm was sold to strangers. The farm was where I first forged any connection to the Earth, the land, and when my grandmother passed it was auctioned. I did get to say goodbye, however briefly. Your farewell is beautiful, and I hope you’ve been able to find another place with which to connect.

    Reply

    • Joanna Powell Colbert Tue - Nov 15th 2016 8:18 am

      Thank you Lizzy. Yes we have found a new place and are looking forward to putting down roots there. It is mountains and river rather than island, marsh, and sea. We will learn a new language. Blessings to you.

      Reply

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