(Another one from the archives. I wrote this before I started working on the Gaian Tarot, and it was published in SageWoman in the Summer of 1999.)
"Following the spring branch was how I found the secret place. It was a little ways up the side of the mountain and hemmed in with laurel. It was not very big, a grass knoll with an old sweet gum tree bending down. When I saw it, I knew it was my secret place, and so I went there a lot.
Granma said . . . she reckined most everybody had a secret place, but she couldn't be certain, as she had never made inquiries of it. Granma said it was necessary. Which made me feel right good about having one."
– Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree 1
This passage from the award-winning children's book The Education of Little Tree strikes a chord in just about everyone who reads it. Who among us does not remember a secret place we stole away to as a child, that was magical, special, and sacred? Mine was a apricot tree in the backyard of my suburban Los Angeles home. I spent countless hours in her branches. When we went camping in the mountains, I always found some rock by a bend in a stream where I could settle in with my books and sketching pad, and dream the time away.
Maybe our childhood souls knew something we've forgotten as adults.
I was introduced to the concept of a "Secret Spot" as an adult through the Kamana Naturalist Training Program. As a naturalist-mentor, Jon Young teaches his students that the key to learning any nature skill is getting to know one place really, really well. We are so engrained by the dominant culture to be consumers that we are often consumers of natural places too. How many mountains have we climbed, how many valleys or seasides explored? Jon Young's assertion is that, as enticing as it is to visit many beautiful and wild places, we will never learn as much about nature (and about ourselves) as we will by being deeply intimate with one place.2
The concept of being connected to a special, local area was also familiar to the 19th century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. (As a teenager I carried a battered copy of Walden with me everywhere.) "I have travelled a good deal in Concord," he wrote. Thoreau "had a conviction that the whole world can be revealed in our backyard if only we give it our proper attention."3
Clare Walker Leslie, a contemporary teacher of nature journaling, also writes about the importance of her "regular visiting spot." Hers is the Mt. Auburn Cemetery near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "For many years I have come to this gem of cultivated wildness for meditation, for my work with nature journal drawing, and for keeping in touch with the pulse of life as it clocks through the seasons, year upon year. . . Like a pilgrim going to church, I go to this outdoor place for the prayer that drawing and observing nature here offer me." 4
By visiting one place every day, or at least several times a week, we begin to know that place in all its seasons — all its colors, scents, and transformations. By visiting at different times of day and night we discover which birds sing at different hours, and when we might be most likely to see wildlife. What flowers open in the early morning and which ones release their scent into the night air?
As part of my Kamana studies, I spent over a month trying to find my secret place. I obtained a USGS map of my local area and practically memorized it, then spent more hours tramping through the woods around my home than I had in all the previous years I've lived here. I followed Strawberry Creek both upstream and downstream, until the terrain became too rugged for me to navigate. I found several potential spots and spent time at each one, then began crossing them off my list. This one was too far away, that one too close to the trail, and this one up a steep hill which might be daunting at times. There was no water at one spot (something I consider a necessity), and at another, too much evidence of partying. I finally returned to the first place on my list and this time when I saw it, it took my breath away. I'd returned to the beginning of my quest and "knew it for the first time."5
Whether you live in the city, the suburbs or a rural area, you can find a secret place to call your own. It could even be your own back yard! Biodiversity is important, but the most important criteria are privacy, safety, and accessibility. When searching for your secret place, follow your intuition. Like Little Tree, you will know it when you see it.
What do you do when you get there?
Like casting a circle, begin with the four directions. Take a compass along with you and orient yourself to east, south, north and west. If you go to your secret place at noon, you can recognize due south by the location of the sun. If you go at night, you can recognize north by finding the North Star.
It's very helpful to draw a map of your special area, sketching in landmarks. Hannah Hinchman created a charming map of her whole extended neighborhood and titled it "My Immediate Universe with a Few Select Points of Significance."6 Not only does drawing the map make you pay attention to detail, but it begins to create in you a sense of community with your non-human neighbors.
I enjoy taking my plant identification books along with me to my secret place, with the goal of identifying one to three new plants on each visit. My favorite book not only covers the botany of the plant but also includes information on how it was used by the natives of the area. For example, the entry for the snowberry (a prolific shrub in the Northwest) tells me that the white waxy berries were called "corpse berry" or "snake's berry" by the local people and that one tribe called them the "saskatoon berries of the people in the Land of the Dead"!7 I now have a bit more respect for the common snowberry!
Many nature teachers recommend keeping a field journal, a topic which we will come back to in detail.
Clare Walker Leslie recommends asking yourself questions like these:
– What are the trees in my neighborhood? When do they bloom? What do their fruits and seeds look like? What insects use the trees? When do they shed their leaves? How do their seeds get to new sites to grow?
– What is the flowering sequence of local flowers? When does the first bloom of each species appear? When are half of the flowers of a species in bloom? When does the last flower of each species bloom? Are some species found growing together more often than others? What does the dead plant look like in winter?
– How do the patterns of clouds and light change over a period of weeks? What things are happening around me that seem to be affected by changes in the sky? 8
Like many other spiritual practices, spending time in nature each day encourages us to slow down, to pay attention, to breathe deeply, to practice gratefulness, and to connect with Mystery. I have found that a sure-fire cure for depression — even in the depths of a gray and gloomy winter — is to go for a walk to my secret place and soak up the energy there.
1. Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree, University of New Mexico Press, 1976, pp.58-59.
2. Jon Young, "Kamana Naturalist Training Program," http://www.kamana.org/, Wilderness Awareness School, P.O. Box 5000 #5-137, Duvall, WA 98019
3. Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, pp. 576.
4. Clare Walker Leslie, Nature Journaling: Learning to Observe and Connect with the World Around You, Pownal, Vermont: Storey Books 1998, pg. 14.
5 TS Eliot, Four Quartets
6. Hannah Hinchman, A Trail Through Leaves: the Journal as a Path to Place, NY: WW Norton & Co., 1997, pg. 10.
7. Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Vancouver B.C.: Lone Pine Publishing 1994, pg. 70.
8. Leslie, pg. 35.
© 1999 Joanna Powell Colbert. First published in SageWoman Issue #46 Summer 1999.