12 SACRED PLACES
July 31, 2007
“It amounts to ecstasy, a taste of freedom”
It was the height of summer, the last day of July. A month of record-breaking temperatures and dangerous humidity was ending. Change was in the air.
Originally, my friend Chris and I had planned a trip and hike to the Spirit Sands in Spruce Woods Provincial Park but with daily humidex advisories, going to a place that was usually 10 degrees hotter than the surrounding area seemed unwise. Instead, we opted for Thunderbird Nest, an old Ojibwa site located about two hours north of Winnipeg.
Located just west of the Lake Manitoba Narrows, Thunderbird Nest was not a new site for me. I had visited it first and twice in 2001 but not since. Chris had never been there.
Appropriately unassuming and humble, Thunderbird Nest brought visions of healing and the future to shamans who performed ritual here.
The Thunderbird in Ojibwa and Cree legend was a super eagle with a wing span two canoes wide capable of transforming into human form. The Thunderbird spoke thunder and lightning flashed from its eyes. Difficult to see because of its disguise as black swirling clouds, the Thunderbird fed only on snakes and protected humankind from the Great Horned Serpent of the Underworld. This area of Manitoba supports a large red-sided garter snake population. Many Thunderbird Nests are found in eastern Manitoba but this is the only one west of Lake Manitoba.
Thunderbird Nest may have been built to attract the Thunderbird, which would reward its builders with sacred powers. Used for at least 1000 years, one of its purposes has been as a vision quest site. Secluded and in self-denial of food, water, clothing and comfort, exposed to the elements, the warrior cried for a vision to guide and protect him, longing for the Thunderbird to appear in his dream.
Shamans frequently used this site to acquire or contact helpful spirits and experience extraordinary ecstatic powers. This is part of my silent intent for today’s visit.
Taking Chris’ car, we head north on Highway #6 into the Interlake. The highway follows the east coast of Lake Manitoba and passes through a number of small interesting communities.
St. Laurent, a tiny Metis community, has a small stony beach and a reputation for frequent UFO and chupacabra sightings. A little further along is Eriksdale, which boasts of being the hiding place of Stony Mountain Penitentiary escapee Percy Moggey who spent 11 months in a shack after going over the wall in 1960. A replica of his shack is now a tourist attraction with tours available!
A few kilometers north of Eriksdale, we turned off Highway 6 onto Highway 68. The landscape changed with more rocky areas and pastures replacing cropland. There is more bush, evergreens and little traffic. The highway is incredibly smooth and drivable.
We reached the Narrows, with its small attempt at tourist amenities on the east side. Boaters, campers and some picnickers were immersed in the heat. We slowly drove over the long bridge that connects the shores, feeling the heart of Manitou beating nearby. A kilometer or two later we saw a sign pointing out an upcoming historic site, Thunderbird Nest. We turned south onto a good gravel road into the bush. Soon a small area opened up on our left. Thunderbird Nest was about a quarter mile down a walking trail from here. We parked. My anticipation rose.
Approaching sacred sites, I am always filled with an awe that quickens me, that strives to bypass my senses and make direct contact with my inner being. Some sites have more immediacy but eventually all of them produce this effect. Even writing this now, I feel some of the same joy and eagerness I felt at the Thunderbird Nest, attesting to its lasting and powerful effects.
Chris and I smudged with sweetgrass before we got out of the car. I said a prayer of gratitude, asking for protection and positive spirits to help us.
We stepped into the day, the place. It was sweltering. The high humidity persisted but there was a notion of change in the air, something imminent.
Chris brought a large flat drum and some rattles which he opted to leave in the car for now. Carrying just light waters, we proceeded down the trail toward Thunderbird Nest. Large flat white stones washed smooth by repeated floods cobble the path on this peninsula, which juts out between Lake Manitoba and Ebb and Flow Lake.
Signs leading to Thunderbird Nest suggest some of the site’s uses.
We turned right on the lead-up to the site. A few signs along the way gave some background about Thunderbird mythology and vaguely prepared us for the site. A hundred yards from the site the trees on both sides of the trail were festooned with brightly coloured cloths, small tobacco packets on strings and a few feathers, offerings left by previous visitors to Thunderbird Nest.
Walking slowly we approached the Thunderbird Nest. I put down my sack, shirt, hat, and paused, waiting, waiting. There is a small contraction that you can feel behind your eyes, the contraction of being. It is usually tight and tense. At sacred sites, the contraction subtly loosens. I waited for the loosening that signals acceptance of me at the site. I felt it and a stab of joy shot through me. I began smiling, a prelude to ecstasy.
Set in a small clearing among aspens and hoary bur oak rests a shallow indentation in the ground, about eight feet across, lined with lichened flat stones. Thunderbird Nest! Doesn’t sound like much in the description, which is exactly how it should be.
My shamanic practice resulted in my gaining a spirit friend and helper, the adventurous soul of a shaman who lived in eastern Manitoba about 1200 years ago. Webbed Flight is what he prefers to be called; I sometimes call him Duck Feet to be playful. He is a daily presence in my life and has helped me through all the challenges I’ve faced since the mid 1990s.
One of the obligations I have to my spirit friend is to help him “live again.” This is one form my gratitude takes for Webbed Flight’s help in my life. Sacred sites are excellent places to do this, especially this one since Webbed Flight had often visited similar sites in eastern Manitoba during his lifetime. I immediately gave my awareness over to Webbed Flight who began a slow ritual that involved spiraling into the actual nest.
What do I mean by “gave my awareness over to Webbed Flight?” A fair question since it sounds frightening, dangerous and unpredictable. Without the appropriate inner technology, it can be a harrowing exercise. Ably and confidently applied, the way of presence, intent and awareness through love and trust opens your spirit to the inorganic world safely and in a sacred manner.
Because all depth is interpreted, at this point, words become increasingly insufficient to express the rest of my experience but I’ll try to find a few more. Physically what happens to me is I begin to speak in Webbed Flight’s language, to express what he needs to say, the prayers he needs to give, the gratitude he needs to express, the laughter and tears he needs to experience. I laughed and prayed, danced and cried. It all came pouring out of me without stint, without reserve, without embarrassment into the heat of the afternoon.
Other expressions Webbed Flight uses are gestures that involve his sign language, which acts as visual accent to the sounds he makes. His sign language uses the right hand to touch his left forearm and hand in various places with numerous motions. He often touches his face and head for emphasis. In India, these gestures and motions are called mudras.
Verbally and visually, I have no idea what Webbed Flight is actually expressing. What I get, what I feel is the emotional impact of his experience. In a word, ecstasy. Whatever currents carry Webbed Flight along is what I feel. From his dark sadness to his bliss, no matter what the emotional signature is, for me it amounts to ecstasy, a taste of freedom.
This ecstasy is the pay-off for my years of practice, for seeking out the inner technology discovered centuries ago, adopting it, practicing it, my reward for doing the inner work. The ecstasy is extremely state-specific so to attempt a description is almost futile. Suffice it to say the ecstasy flows out of the sense of freedom and detachment found when one rests as simple awareness.
As I am expressing for Webbed Flight I walk slowly around the outside of Thunderbird Nest sunwise. My body is loose and full of energy but calm, able to strike angular poses that seem to strengthen my connection to Webbed Flight. I spiral toward the outer rim of stones of the nest. I pause, crouch and spend several blissful moments in silent prayer. I am sharing a prayer with Webbed Flight.
I rise from my prayer at the edge and step, welcomed, into the Nest. Webbed Flight’s singing rises louder among the trees. I stand, alone in the centre of the Nest. Yet I am not alone. He lives again. The ecstasy flows through me, stoned in the original sense of the word. Luckily, I am familiar and comfortable with the feeling.
I rest in that place, that place of freedom and detachment from the land, the sky and the 10,000 things arising in my awareness. I sense joy pulse through me.
All sacred sites have spirit guardians that watch over the place. Some have physical guardians that play the same role. Thunderbird Nest has fire ants as its guardian. The ground around the Nest and the Nest itself swarmed with large, red ants. They were aggressive and attacked our bare feet and legs, nipping at our flesh. Should you injure one of them, it sprays a fluid that attracts the other nearby ants, alerting them to the interloper and signaling a mass attack. They are hard to discourage and harder to ignore but after a while, they begin to pay less attention to us. They settle a little for us. Later Chris and I compared bites – round red bumps, not itchy…yet. Mine went away quickly.
During our time at the Nest, the sky slowly changed. Darker clouds moved in from the west. Chris retrieved his beautiful drum from the car and beat a wilderness pulse into the afternoon. At times, the distant rolling thunder was a perfect echo to his beat.
I found the drum provided a more balanced awareness in Webbed Flight and me as I began to sing my personal power song. He and I shared the joy of the sound. In a rather mad expression of silliness, we danced an exaggerated clown-like dance with large ragged steps and fanciful yips. Later I realized this was a balancing of the coming change in the weather, where humour and fun overpower any anxiety. It worked.
There was a moment when I looked at Chris, walking past him, that I was seeing him for the first time using the eyes of Webbed Flight. Another similar moment occurred near the end of our stay.
Suddenly a cool breeze that felt refreshing and new on our skin swept by us. It was the first sign of a change in the weather, the harbinger. Chris and I both felt its arrival. With a glance and a smile, we instinctually knew it was time to go.
We smudged some sage and cedar in a shell before leaving, thanking the local spirits for their protection and for the bliss we had found in this wild place. As we did this, the first intermittent rain drops began to fall on Chris’ drum, each making a hollow lonely thud.
On the way out at the offering site, I hung a flyaway I had made with some seeds from our backyard, jute string and a red feather. I hung it next to the path, commenting that some curious raven might like the feather to decorate its nest.
We discharged any negative spirits that may have followed us. More correctly, Webbed Flight dispelled them with jagged gestures and sudden barks.
The rain began to fall heavier as we walked down the trail. Chris used his shirt to cover the drum til we got to the car. The cool rain felt wonderful on our bare summer backs. We toweled down and as we sat in the car, lightning flared and thunder rolled above us. It poured rain.
Though I do not presume to know his inner life, from our discussions on the way home, Chris said he approached the place humbly seeking acceptance and worthiness. Once he found that, Thunderbird Nest welcomed him. His beaming face was evidence of the ecstasy he, too, found there.
The rain poured down as we crossed the bridge over the Narrows and Chris pulled off the highway next to the stony beach. He needed to wash a stone in the rain and Lake Manitoba. Lightning flashed overhead as the rain pelted down. This moment was utterly alive for me, so full of energy and bliss, a coda to Thunderbird Nest and the overture to the next stage.
Toweled down again, we proceed retracing our path toward home. It wasn’t long before we drove out of the rain and back into the summer heat as the storm was slowly coming across the lake at an angle. At Lundar, about 45 minutes later, we stopped for country coffee-like substances. As we stood in the heat, the cool breeze came by, the same cool breeze that heralded the change at Thunderbird Nest. Both Chris and I noticed the breeze and commented on it.
The rest of the journey into Winnipeg was the usual easy conversation that Chris and I share, enjoyable, a fitting end to the day.
The city still sweltered, not yet getting the storm that brings the change. That evening, about a quarter to twelve, I stepped out onto the back deck at our house. The sky was clear, still muggy. As I stood there, the same cool breeze came by, the very same one. Later that night a thunderstorm brought the change.
October 3, 2010
I am the last person alive who ever lived in Hayfield, Manitoba.
Hayfield no longer exists. It’s a ghost town. Located 10 miles south of Brandon on Highway #10 and 4 miles west on the Hayfield Road, Hayfield sat at the western edge of the Brandon Hills just as the hills begin their final smoothing into farmland. Hayfield was west of the enormous broadcasting tower near the eastern edge of the Rural Municipality of Glenwood. Hayfield’s population was five people: our family accounted for 60%, the hired man Lawrence Murphy, who lived with us, and Dave Rogers, who lived in only other residence in Hayfield, filled out the roster. There were more cats than people in Hayfield.
Dickie’s General Store, Hayfield circa 1955, with hand-pumped gas bowser and me as a tyke.
Mom and Dad bought the general store in Hayfield in 1953. We lived in back and above the store. Huge and full of adventure for a little lad, the store was a piece of wild heaven for me. My parent’s experience was the opposite. Their timing was off. Rural people were becoming much more mobile and Brandon enticed their dollars away from Dickie’s General Store. The store went bankrupt in 1957 just before we moved to Shoal Lake.
Over the years, Hayfield General Store, built in 1906, was an important meeting place for the community. With the store and post office open from morning til night, neighbours visited while shopping, discussing issues of the day. Besides groceries, hardware and dry goods, you could have a sundae in its ice cream parlour. My father used to call the men who sometimes gathered at the store in the evenings, the Hot Stove League, no doubt due to their vast wisdom and unabashed willingness to share it.
My memories of Hayfield are fond and full of a child’s wonder. I learned to skate by pushing a little wooden chair across a patch of ice Dad flooded in what was once the Hayfield outdoor rink. The massive open living room that took up most of the second floor was the perfect place to ride my tricycle in winter. The stage of the large old Hayfield hall was where I put on my little solo shows to a room filled with nothing but wooden planks.
I drove past Hayfield twice this summer. This year it is, actually, a barley field.