Sunday, September 18, 2011

Door to the Center of the Earth

Ever since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by the thought of finding a door in the trunk of a tree. I imagined coming upon a tree in the woods with a small door that only I noticed. There would be a brass doorknob or latch, and once inside, I would follow a path down to a magical world in the bowels of the earth.

I’m not sure where I got that idea, as most of the timberland trees in my small Iowa hometown were no more than eight-to-ten inches in diameter. But I remember looking, when we’d take Sunday afternoon walks through the woods.

In my 40ies, a friend took me to visit a camp, nestled in a redwood forest above the coast of the Pacific ocean, where she spent summers. We wound our way through the camp to the far edge of the property where there was a huge redwood tree. To my delight, there was a door in the hollowed-out trunk. Stepping through the door, I found myself in a tiny room, with a small bed, a chair, and a table with a oil lamp. I had visions of a Hobbit coming to reclaim the space. But for the moment, I was able to live at least part of my childhood fantasy—minus the bowels of the earth adventure.

Little did I know that fifteen years later, I would revisit the idea of the hollow tree, through shamanic journeying, to find a spirit guide.

Shamanic journeying is a spiritual practice prevalent in many indigenous earth-based cultures, of entering into an altered state of consciousness, or trance, with the purpose of finding guidance in the spirit realm. In trance, we search for a totem animal or guide to bring back with us to our daily reality.

The ritual lasts close to an hour and is usually done in a darkened room with closed eyes to the beat of a drum. The drum cadence guides us deeper and then returns us to our normal realm. Minimal verbal instructions are given at the beginning of the journey.

I lay on my back listening to the quiet of the high-beamed room in the lodge. Huge glass windows reflected darkness, broken only by an occasional star peeping through the redwood trees surrounding us. The only sound was an occasional pop or crackle from the glowing fireplace and the rustle of shifting bodies. Our guide, barely illuminated by the glowing embers, gave us our instructions. To the sound of a drumbeat, she asked us to go to a place in nature where we could enter the earth—a pond, an animal burrow, or a hollowed tree. We would descend that tunnel until we came to the underworld where we would step out, experience this new place, and ask its inhabitants who among them would be our guide. When we made contact, we were to ask them to return in the palm of our hand to the middle world. When the drum beat quickened, we should re-enter the tunnel and return quickly with our guides.

I remembered the hollow tree image from childhood. This evening I knew it would be my entrance to below. In my mind I traveled into the woods, found the magic tree with the secret door, and entered the hollowed trunk. I let go, and fell gently down, down, down. The earthen tunnel was quiet and strangely warm. Roots twisted and turned to define the tunnel through which I fell deeper into the earth. At last, I felt my feet touched the bottom and I got my footing again.

The tunnel continued, dimly lit by some unknown source. Following it, I saw that it opened into a shimmering, silver-gray luminous light, which reminded me of headlights back-lighting a fog bank.

As my eyes grew accustomed to the strange light, I stepped from the tunnel onto a beach of finely grained, oatmeal-colored sand, which was soft and cool to my bare feet. This beach was unlike any I had ever seen. I was in awe of the vast stillness, broken only by the gentle lapping of ocean waves, when I became aware of nearby life. I saw amazing animals, amphibian-like, ancient and puzzling—a huge turtle creature that was part bird, a crocodile-like snake without legs. I wandered among them, feeling strangely safe in their presence.

I told them that I had come to find my totem, a guide to take back with me, to escort me through the middle world where I lived. I sensed disinterest, a turning away, a “no” in another language that I was somehow able to understand. Confused, I stood pondering this strange land and its inhabitants, resting my hand against something dusty-green, leathery, dry, and scaly to the touch. I felt a ripple of muscle, an increment of movement beneath my hand. I withdrew it quickly and realized I had been resting against one very large talon belonging to an enormous creature.

I jumped back, my eyes moving upward, following the contours of a gigantic body that resembled a dragon. Grayish-brown bat-like wings seemed to stretch out forever and a long, pointed tail swept into the distance. Amazingly, I felt no fear.

“Are you my guide?” I asked, my Virgo mind already grappling with the improbable detail of carrying this creature back in the palm of my hand.

“Yes,” the creature answered in a disarmingly gentle voice, “but you know me in a shape-shifted form; look at me carefully.”

For a stunned moment, I considered where I might have met a flying dragon creature such as this before. As I studied it, I was aware of something slightly familiar about the legs, the tail, perhaps without the wings. My inner sight shifted and I suddenly saw my salamander guide from the creek banks.

The humor and irony of this washed over me. The salamander is small, not physically imposing, even fragile appearing, and can be seen as weak and easily intimidated. What I saw in my trance, however, was the heart and soul of the dragon inside, fierce, protective, courageous, and definitely not to be messed with.

I asked my guide to shape-shift into my hand so that we might return together to the middle world. I felt the small, dry, leathery figure of the salamander in my palm. Her eyes were bright; her head bobbed up and down in anticipation.

As if from another world, I heard the cadence of the drum increase, calling us back. Moments later I opened my eyes in the safety of the lodge, the drum silent, my journey ended, but the gift of my guide just begun.

Fifteen years have passed since that time. I live in the middle of the city now, in a neighborhood—still among the redwoods, cedars, oaks, and maples, but the more genteel version of nature, the urbanized version. Imagine my delight and surprise as I took a stroll at sunset down one of the oldest streets in town, lined with turn-of-the-century estates and formal gardens—it was one of those warm, cross-over nights where late summer elbows its way into autumn—only to find an ancient tree just off the sidewalk, the bark peeled away, revealing what appeared to be a door carved into the trunk, with a brass knob that beckoned to be turned.

Would I? I’m now 65, old enough to have outgrown thoughts of magical worlds, right? Of course I tried to turn the knob. It was someone’s idea of a joke. On closer inspection the knob had been nailed to the exposed bark, giving the illusion—to those of us with old eyes, young hearts, and a belief in magic—of an actual door. I’m still not convinced. I think maybe there is a secret passage word that would open the door. The next time I pass that tree, I’ll try a couple of them out, and let you know.

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