If for us Pagans the whole world is our church, then surely the groves of redwood trees along the Pacific Coast are some of our cathedrals.
Each of us has some few places with special magic. The first time I set foot in Mt. Rainier's Klapatche meadow filled with alpine flowers, I knew the immanence of the divine. Even now, all I have to do is close my eyes and I am transported back to that flower-filled meadow, where the bistort nodded in the breeze, bees buzzed above the heather, and the cerise of the Indian paintbrush was so intense that it felt like the color was boring into my retinas. And I feel wrapped in the love of and from Mother Earth.
There's a weeping cherry tree along Azalea Way in the University of Washington Arboretum in Seattle that, for a few days every year, is like a giant umbrella and, when the branches are shaken, fills the air with a blizzard of pink petals. We've held some of our most sacred family rituals invoking our female ancestors under that tree, and it's one I try to visit every time I'm back in the Pacific Northwest.
The view from the top of Steptoe Butte in Washington State's Whitman County is another special place. The odd geological formation that rises high above the volcanic loess gives a view of the rolling hills of the Palouse that, at th time of the wheat harvest, is a molten-gold Impressionist painting. Ever year at Lammas when we have the blessing of the bread, I am transported back to that peak, with a 360-degree view of the earth's abundance.
Dawn at the Barataria Unit of the Jean Lafitte National Park in Louisiana is a glimpse into the primeval, with clear black water, and the rising sun turning the trunks of the moss-hung cypress trees a soft pastel pink. I always feel like I'm present at the creation -- or at least the early stages of human evolution-- when I walk down the park's boardwalks.
On a difficult day a few years ago, I stood on the white sands of Sanibel Island, watched the turquoise sea break into waves, and saw jewel tones of the tiny coquina shells spangling the beach. I stood there, and, for the first time ever, really and truly knew that Yemaya of the ocean truly is She who hears all our tears.
One sunny August afternoon, I was standing waist-deep in the bathwater warm Eel Fiver, watching the red and blue dragonflies dart among the fireweed spires leaning from the banks toward the water. I held a container of honey high in the air, and watched its golden stream fall on the bodies of my sisters who were floating with me in the river. We all knew that day we were daughters of Oshun, swimming in Her river.
Last month when I went to Seattle for my class reunion, I decided to return via the Pacific Coast. Shortly after I crossed the border into Northern California, I left the main highway and drove down the road called the Avenue of the Giants. It covers 31 miles and runs through groves of giant coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens).
It's not a route for people in a hurry. And the minute you drive off Highway 101 and into the first of the groves, everything changes. The scale of the trees dwarfs your car and anything else. What sunlight does come through is filtered, and even on the hottest days, the air feels cool. And, aside from abundant birdsong, it's a very quiet place, even though runs through a massive ``cathedral'' covering thousands of acres.
The ground below the trees is covered with a soft forest duff, and populated with several variety of ferns. Pink oxalis blooms dot the undergrowth with light, and, on banksides that get a little more sun, Douglas iris grows among the ferns. Two minutes into the grove and you know it's time to turn off the car radio, roll down the windows and to go slowly, taking it all in. It is a place like no other on earth. Here's some of the pink oxalis, also known as wood sorrel.
Some of the trees as as much as 350 feet tall and have lived for 2,000 years. Hard to imagine that you can step out of your car and touch something that was alive back in the era of the Roman Empire, isn't it?
The first time I drove down Highway 101, they were still doing a lot of logging of old-growth trees and it was common to see a logging truck completely filled with just one section of one of the giant trees. Now, with more protections for old-growth forests, such sights are relatively rare.
This photo may give you an idea of the scale of some of these trees. Look at the two-lane road and then the tree to its immediate left. If you've never been to this part of the world, imagine standing at the side of this tree.
When Georgia O'Keeffe painted ``The Lawrence Tree'' in 1929, her subject was a lodgepole pine in New Mexico rather than a redwood. But when I saw that painting in a show of her work a few years ago, it certainly reminded me of what it's like to stand next to one of these big trees and look up up up up up.
Because everything that grows under the big trees has to fight for light, here poison oak becomes almost vine-like crawling up the sides of trees. It still has those same leaves of three, and you must let it be, however.
Here are a few Douglas Iris that manage to get enough sunlight to bloom. In open areas they are generally more intense in color.Here they look like little lavender butterflies darting in the undergrowth.
But apparently this place doesn't speak to some people. As you will be able to tell from this photo, I was pulled completely off the road, and this guy in the red car came up behind me, laid on the horn and then headed down the road peeling rubber and probably doing 60 m.p.h. I wonder why he even bothered.
When I was a child, I saw one of the films made about Robin Hood. I wanted to go off to Sherwood Forest and live with Robin and his merry men. And because I grew up here on the west coast, in the land of the great coniferous forests, I imagined that Sherwood Forest would look a lot like the groves of redwoods along the Avenue of the Giants. Alas, forests with any kind of giant trees in the U.K. have been logged off for hundreds of years, made into masts and keels of the sailing ships of the British navy. They would probably have been deciduous trees anyway, and Sherwood Forest, even in its heyday, wouldn't have looked much like the redwood groves.
The very last time I was able to take my husband out of the hospital, we drove down the peninsula to Butano State Park, which is in a redwood-filled canyon south of Pescadaro. By then his AIDS-related dementia made it difficult for him to be oriented in time and space. And he was no longer very mobile. But I wanted to get him out of the sterile hospital atmosphere for just a few hours if I could.
After I drove into the park and we entered the canyon, I helped him out of the car, held his arm, and walked with him to a fallen redwood log where we sat down. We could hear the chatter of the jays and the scolding of the crows. He sat there quietly, looking up at the big trees. He was beyond most speech at this point of his illness, but I could still see in his eyes the intelligence and sensitivity that were once part of who he was. And I could tell he knew he was in a sacred place. I hope it was one of the memories that stayed with him during those last difficult days of his life. And I would bet that when he crossed the rainbow bridge to the Summerland, it looked a lot like a California redwood grove, a cathedral beyond anything humans have ever built.