CHARTING A YEAR’S PILGRIMAGE

by Claire Peaslee and Black Mountain Circle

How can you draw a map of “pilgrimage redefined”—a multi-dimensional record of this year’s quest to experience “the sacred in the land?” Such a map would show a non-linear network of seasonal hikes and deepening council; of story, music and emergent art; of indigenous elders’ wisdom, with film journeys to the four corners of the world; and of community life across generations, identities and cultures.

Welcome to Geography of Hope, a year-long pilgrimage hosted by the nonprofit Black Mountain Circle, in western Marin County, CA. In these perilous times, Black Mountain Circle serves as a cultural and community catalyst inspiring people to care more deeply for the earth and each other. Four compass points guide Black Mountain Circle: story, nature, spirit, and community. All of these come together in its yearly gathering called Geography of Hope, which began in 2008 as a weekend conference (taking its name from Wallace Stegner’s 1960 Wilderness Letter). This year the venture morphed into a journey from February through December, comprising of some 40 events.

The story you are reading invites you on a walk into this geography of hope, where the trail markers are beauty, insight, and action. The narrative, like the journey, is non-linear: it follows labyrinthine twists and turns on a path toward understanding “pilgrimage redefined.”

Let’s jump into this landscape.

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Late March 2019. Twenty-five walkers gather at a lightly traveled place in the Point Reyes National Seashore. Walking Water leaders Kate Bunney and friends call a circle, acknowledge the Coast Miwok, bless the ground, the water, the journey. Our route will be a seven-mile loop across coastal headlands and through lush stream valleys. At the start, the voyagers agree that “As we walk, mainly in silence, we will consider what spring means to us. The emergence of the new bud, inspiring new birth and imagination for what will come.”

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“There is something about being silent in our own spaces and together with each other and the land at the same time. This pilgrimage has tracked and supported my journey of losing and finding home again this year. Each walk has been building into a deeper relationship in knowing myself in this ever-changing and familiar place.”  —Wendy Botwin, seasonal pilgrim walker

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Now, arc back in time to Saturday, March 16th. At the Dance Palace community center in Point Reyes Station, strands of people (nearly 200) are flowing together like pilgrims arriving at a ceremony. Today is Geography of Hope 2019, a conference reimagined, a confluence of wisdom about ways that pilgrimage can be transformational—a modern-day expression of sacred activism. And indeed, the day begins ceremonially, with a song-blessing given by Michael Preston, of the Winnemem Wintu tribe, whose home is the McCloud River region, above Shasta reservoir, and Desirae Harp, of the Mishewal Wappo tribe.

In the course of the day we learn about world-changing pilgrimage. Planetwalker John Francis tell of his vows, following the catastrophic oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 1971, to not travel in motor vehicles and, later, to not talk. Those practices endured for years, yet John has awakened people far and wide, and influenced environmental protection. Today his counsel includes playing his banjo for us.

Michael Preston and Desirae Harp tell of this year’s Run4Salmon, an autumn pilgrimage—on foot, by boat, bike, kayak and horseback—from the San Francisco Bay Delta up the Sacramento River to Shasta Dam. The journey is in prayer for the restoration of a salmon run that is vital to the Winnemem.

We hear about Walking Water’s pilgrimage on foot the entire length of the Owens Valley in the eastern Sierra, holding council all along the way from Mono Lake to Los Angeles. From Montana, Weston Pew tells of pilgrims who carry Earth’s prayers on a 200-mile hike through national forest lands, on The Sacred Door Trail.

The exceptional form and feeling of this March gathering are summoned into being by wizard-facilitator Gigi Coyle. She serves the world in many ways, including as co-founder of Walking Water and as founder and director of Beyond Boundaries, devoted to inter-generational pilgrimages and interweaving prayer, action and service. Today Gigi’s deft leadership at Geography of Hope is transformative. A normal day-long program can leave you feeling beached and parched, but this full, rich gathering feels like the breeze… running water… deep earth.

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Surprise yourself: It’s now November 16th. We are attending the last of four screenings in Toby McLeod’s prize-winning documentary series “Standing On Sacred Ground.” These films tell of indigenous people around the world trying to protect their sacred lands, and this year we have journeyed far: from the Altai Republic in Russian Siberia, to the tar sands of Alberta, to the highlands of Ethiopia, and more. We have met shamans and conservationists, farmers and dancers, healers and activists. Hosting each film screening, Toby also welcomes an elder from the first people into conversation. Tonight the elder is a younger, Kailea Frederick, a climate activist who grew up in Hawai’i and who founded the organization Earth is ‘Ohana.

In three prior film nights for Geography of Hope, we have spoken with Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu;Melissa Nelson of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and director of The Cultural Conservancy; and Corrina Gould of the Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone, the people whose ancestral home is the shoreline of San Francisco Bay.

Tonight Toby shares a good-news headline in the campaign led by Corrina Gould to protect an Ohlone sacred site in Berkeley. An ancient shellmound there, an ancestral burial ground, lies beneath an empty parking lot where new construction was proposed. Just this month the Berkeley city council ruled against the development project. There is celebration in this world we travel, along with sorrow.

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“I have lived in this part of California my entire life. I have never felt as connected to the sacredness of this land, to the indigenous people who cared for it before us, to the dynamic and ever-changing natural environment, and to the importance of a silent pilgrimage this experience has provided me.” —Larry Enos, seasonal pilgrim walker

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Come back ‘round to September—the whole month. “This Sacred Land: Images and Words from Point Reyes” is an exhibition at Toby’s Gallery, a creative hub in the heart of Point Reyes Station. Photographer Todd Pickering has incubated this project, and he says, “I follow the deer trails of my youth searching for the sacred in the curves and edges of the land that have imprinted on my soul. I feel the presence of a void that has led me to believe that this land misses its people. There is a silence where once stone on acorn echoed through the valleys.”

Visitors to the gallery enter an immersive array of 20 spellbinding photos from the living world in Point Reyes and, flowing on the walls of the gallery, a river of words. The sayings are excerpts from writings by 15 local people—a farmer, a doctor, a surfer, a high-school student, and others—about where they find the sacred in the land at Point Reyes. Visitors can add to this record. Seated on hand-crafted benches they write about their relationship to the sacred at Point Reyes. They nestle their pages inside a basket-sculpture woven of dried bull-kelp stipes. This project maps our collective, continuing soul-connections to nature.

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Intersect along your journey with a fresh perspective at a Saturday event in April. At Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, students and teachers and activists gather in a unique conversation about “Our Common Home” and the meeting ground between spiritual ecology and education. The day is blessed by a meeting of mind and heart when wise women Joanna Macy and Corrina Gould embrace. There is recognition, sorrow, cross-cultural kinship, and shared devotion—the spoken and unspoken great gifts of the day.

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It’s early winter now. Wild geese are traveling and calling high overhead, their winged pilgrimage summoning the knowledge from deep in our bones of ancient rhythms in the cycle of seasons.

The fourth and final seasonal pilgrim hike with Walking Water is coming soon. Participants will consider this: “We have arrived at the essence of winter. As the bees buzz together and feed from their own honey through winter,  we have the opportunity to be with our communities, feeding from all we have harvested throughout the year. This is a time to move into our minds and the power of thinking, exploring our essence and rejoicing in what lives in us. With this final walk we go with the question, ‘What is it I need to set my mind to?’“

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“Walking in silence as a group gave me the rare opportunity to have both personal reflection and contemplation within the context of a gathering of caring individuals. I let go of expectations, found my own pace, and melded into the cadence of the group, and the group magically became a  community. Each walk , through spring mud, summer’s abundant color, and autumn’s reflective soft light brought  me a deeper gratitude and feeling of belonging for the land and community.”

—Jeremy Littman, seasonal pilgrim walker

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This map-in-words of the year’s geography touches on just a few milestones. The route has turned and re-turned like interwoven strands of twisting kelp, to give you a feeling for this rare learning experience.

And the journey now is looping back to another season of renewal in early spring of the coming year, with new directions for Black Mountain Circle in 2020. Perpetuating this year’s cycle of innovation, the coming Geography of Hope will feature pilgrimage in three powerful landscapes, for small and focused groups, co-led by Kate Bunney and Desirae Harp. These journeys will explore the intersections between the sacred and earth activism in community—vitally needed now. Two climate-and-justice walks will also take place in the watersheds of Black Mountain Circle’s home region. Other activities include an environmental leadership retreat for young leaders; a rites of passage weekend with storyteller Martin Shaw; and a daylong inspired by Melissa Nelson’s book Traditional Ecological Knowledge with local Native leaders. The Geography of Hope continues to take new forms and shapes but the essence remains—how can we best care for the earth and each other, especially, evermore urgently now.

“We are rising to the gravity of these times, bringing people together in community, and in collaboration (like our work with Walking Water),

inspiring action, and creating a culture of resilience, interdependence and response….Will you walk with us?”

—Kamala Tully, co-director, Black Mountain Circle

Claire Peaslee is an improviser, writer, naturalist, and community member whose home is Point Reyes.

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