Sunday, February 27, 2011

Visioning Beneath the Almond Trees

by tatiana de la tierra

The shamans shuttled us to a grove of almond trees for a 4-day, 4-night silent vision quest. They placed us each beneath an almond tree, far apart from each other. Here, we would commune with nature, sleep upon the earth, pray and meditate. We were instructed to put an altar at the eastern entrance of our space and to hang our tobacco prayer ties around the four corners. A tiny ceramic replica of Venus del Valdivia accompanied us, along with a cornhusk-rolled tobacco, which we had swept four times through the fire at the base camp. The fire, which would be tended to at all hours, would reflect our states of being and would alert the fire keepers if anything came up.

We were to live off of two apples, one pear, one avocado, one corn on the cob, a miniature chocolate bar, a handful of almonds and a gallon of water. We would pee on the ground and, with the little plastic shovel provided, we would dig a hole in the earth for bowel movements. Two in the group of ten women were menstruating; they were to bequeath their bloods upon Mother Earth. We were told to wear skirts for ceremony and not to read any books.

I wondered how many rules I’d break, and if I could make it through even one night.

As the sun set behind the mountain, I scrambled to get my space in order. A bright pink piece of plastic was the “floor” of my “house”, which consisted of a twin air mattress, a sleeping bag and travel pillow, a duffle bag for nightclothes and another for day clothes. I also had two mochilas, one for health and beauty aids/writing tools and the other for my altar. Though we had only minutes to prepare, I skillfully crammed quite a lot of stuff to bring with me, leaving nothing to chance.

It was around 8 pm after I’d finished setting up and changing into flannel pajamas. With just a bit of daylight left, I set out to make the hole for going to the bathroom. It was to be deep enough to last all four days. I walked all over, crunching dry leaves and twigs in my path, searching for just the right place to squat. A place with a view, yet out of sight, and without spiky bushes and vines in the vicinity. There were many options, but all my attempts were futile. Dry, hard and rocky, the earth was impenetrable with a little plastic shovel. If only I had a pick and a sledgehammer, maybe I could swing it. Instead of one deep hole, I made several shallow ones. Yet I wondered if the other women were able to dig deep into the earth, and if I was just a lazy, inefficient, shit-hole digger.

Vision Quest Realization #1: I don’t know how to dig holes and am pretty clueless about appropriate tools for this or other means.

When I got back “home” it was too dark to set up the altar, which was next on my to-do list. That’s when it hit me that there was Nothing to Do. Except lie down and look up at the sky, through the lattice of treetops. Which is what I did. A lot. For hours and hours, wide awake. And there I discovered an entirely fascinating, seductive, magical, unending world. The world of night, of mysterious creaking sounds, fireflies, twinkling stars, planets, and that thing called the moon, which was plumping up dramatically and journeying across the sky. I believe it’s called enchantment. I was under the spell of the Night.

Vision Quest Realization #2: Nothing to Do leads to Everything Else.

Disoriented at daybreak, I had no idea where I was, or what I was doing with all those leaves in the landscape of the sky, until I remembered that I was in an almond grove somewhere in Chile on a silent vision quest. I had to get up to go to the bathroom.

Getting up—exactly how was I going to do that? This was the deep and recurring philosophical question of every day and night. Would I roll off the air mattress to one side and spring up from my knees? Not a chance. Pull myself up entirely using my core stomach muscles? Yeah, right. Hold on to the tree for support while I inched up? Impossible. Roll flat on my face and hustle on upward? Good luck with that. Getting up off the ground—that was an event, every time. I thought about it a lot, attempted it a few times, and after a while, just did it Somehow.

Vision Quest Realization #3: You better do some serious Pilates, girl.

I went looking for my bathroom holes but never found them, and had to dig new ones.

It’s a good thing I had all the time in the world to set up my altar, because it took a ton of time. Compass in hand, I was committed to putting the altar exactly at the eastern corner. Yet it also had to go with the setup of the tree, the rocks, and the “house”. It took three tries until I finally settled on the right spot. Not being able to “feed” the altar with candles and sage (we were asked not to light any fires since the area was so dry), I offered rocks, flowers, water, and a played a little harmonica, rang bells, and rattled. But were my sacred musical sounds violating the code of Silence?

Vision Quest Realization #4: Silence is a state of being, not an act.

Throughout the day, I sought shelter from the sun and the heat. Hoping to make my supply of food last, I sought fruit from the trees. Restless and unable to sit on the floor for long periods of time, I wanted to stretch my back and move around. And so it was that I would be the only one to walk freely up and down and around, eating blackberries, plums and grapes, resting on the tops of huge boulders, and chilling out in a tiny patch of jungle that I found on a path off to the side.

Vision Quest Realization #5: In nature, all things are possible.

My surroundings came to life the more I walked around. At first, I saw blobs of brown earth, mustard yellow leaves, dry and blackened tree branches. Everything seemed about the same. Later on, I could distinguish between one tree and the next. I found berries where, before, there were none. I noted the red plums that I had passed by every day without realizing it. I could see almonds, rocks, plants, spiders, lizards, ants, and, at times, little bits of trash on the floor. Rocks began to speak to me. Then, walking around went from being an act of fleeing from something (the heat, etc.) to an exercise in observation and discovery.

Vision Quest Realization #6: The more I consciously open my eyes, the more I see.

The heat, my lifelong nemesis, invited me to be in my natural skin, practically in the nude. Which was perfect except for one thing: carnivorous yellowjacket wasps.

Vision Quest Realization #7: When in nature, nature rules.

In the heat, and in silence, I was delighted to discover the Wind, which speaks lightly with rustling leaves or loudly like the roaring ocean. The wind that blows through my hair and shakes everything up, that scatters pollen and seeds and knocks yellowjackets about. The wind that refreshes and enlivens.

Vision Quest Realization #8: The Wind!

Nights with my altar, smoking a cigar for my ancestors, I connect with my personal path. This is where I keep things to myself, where my past comes to me as my visions for the future unfold. It gets so cold late at night that I put on the pure wool and cashmere layers to safeguard me while I dream.

Vision Quest Realization #9: Sacred tobacco clears the path and lures the images of my dreams.

Out in the almond grove, I wrote little songs to the earth, moon, sun, birds, to silence and to ayahuasca. The cycle of each day and night, natural as eternity, became magical as hell. I became a sky gazer, a moon worshipper, a sun watcher. A child of the stars.

Vision Quest Realization #10: Me loves being alive on earth.

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Texas writer, performance artist and urban bicyclist Tammy Gomez is fundraising for the production of her bicycle theater play, SHE: BIKE/SPOKE/LOVE in Austin, Texas in 2012. A story about young people in an ethnic community who care about the future of the planet and the greening of the barrios, the play features spoken word with choreographed bicycling, a turntablist, and video projections. For more information about her project, or to make a donation, see

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