Listening to the Sacred Earth

Blog: Listening to the Sacred Earth

By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.

If we listen, the earth has much to tell us. When humans lived closer to the earth, they understood that great wisdom was held in the trees, the plants, the rocks and the sea. They communicated with the earth, and learned ways of listening to the wisdom she had to offer. For example, the shaman of a tribe is often described as talking to the plants to learn the nature of their medicine. Ways of gathering this kind wisdom are still preserved by many indigenous cultures. The vision quest and the shamanic journey are just two examples of these processes that are accessible to us today.

The vision quest is an essential tool for gathering wisdom, particularly among the Native Americans in North and South America. A vision quest takes place in an isolated area in a forest, desert, or other natural environment. Those seeking a vision purify themselves through culturally proscribed ceremonies, isolate themselves for a period of time, and ask nature to provide a vision. This vision holds wisdom, guidance and direction for the one seeking the vision. The shamanic journey is another tool used by some indigenous peoples to access the wisdom of the earth. Journeyers use a repetitive sound, usually a drumbeat, to alter their state of consciousness. Through the expanded vision this altered state of consciousness provides, it is believed that the journeyer is able to receive information directly from the spirits of nature.

For some, visions come in times of illness. Black Elk, a holy man of the Oglala Sioux lived in Wyoming at the end of the 19th century. One of his earliest visions occurred during a time of great illness. Some might interpret this as his call to be a Wichasha Wakan, or Medicine Man. Black Elk lived from 1863 to 1950, and is a relatively well-known Native American spiritual leader, because he allowed many of his experiences to be chronicled by John Neihardt, who published a book in 1932 entitled Black Elk Speaks. The following is Black Elk’s account of a vision quest he took in order to experience a deeper understanding of Nature and Spirit:

This is part of a vision quest I was told to share with all who may be interested. Once, I went to pray at the top of the sacred mountain of my ancestors. As I climbed to the top, I heard voices singing as the wind blew the leaves. At the top I saw, made from many stones, a large circle with a cross inside. I knew from my teachings that this represented the circle of life and the four directions. I sat down by the edge of this circle to pray. I thought this is only a symbol of the universe. “True,” a very soft voice said. “Look and you will see the Center of the Universe. Look at every created thing.” As I looked around I saw that every created thing had a thread of smoke or light going from it. The voice whispered, “This cord that every created thing has is what connects it to the Creator. Without this cord it would not exist.” As I watched I saw that all these threads, coming from everything, went to the center of the circle where the four directions were one placed (the center of the cross). I saw that all these threads were tied together or joined here at this spot. The voice spoke again, “This is the Center of the Universe. The place where all things join together and all things become one. This is the place where everything begins and ends. The place inside everything created.” That’s when I understood that all of creation, the seen and the unseen, was all related. The voice spoke one last time, “Yes, now you know the Center of the Universe.”

Whether in a journey or in a vision quest, wisdom is often transmitted through a song or dance that emerges from the wind, the stones, the trees, a flower, or an animal, as the seeker holds quiet attention. One of the first verses in the great magic song cycle, The Kalevala (from Finland), expresses beautifully where songs are held:

The Cold offered me Lays out there
The Rain sent me often Songs
Other Ballads the Wind brought me
The Waves carried them to the Shore
Birds shaped Words into Tones
Talking sounded from the Crowns of Trees.

The relationship of humans to the earth is ancient, though it is not just in the distant past that knowledge can be attained from the Earth through a song. Nor is it only shamans who have access to the Earth’s wisdom. Recently, one of my students, whom I will call Molly, had a remarkable experience, which she has given me permission to share here. She attended a three-hour course that I was teaching entitled Listening to the Earth. It was a simple introductory course, and the experiential aspect of the course was a journey to listen for a song from the Earth. Molly had not had any prior contact with the process of listening for a song, or with the shamanic journey. After the journey, Molly shared her song with me. It brought tears to my eyes, and still does when I think about it. The following is an excerpt from her song:

Walk On

Walk on, my daughter
Walk on, my daughter
Walk on, my daughter
Walk to the Mother

Feet, find your path
Feet, find your path
Fear not, my daughter
This life is not your last

Walk on, walk on, my child
My child, walk on
Seek ye wisdom – speak my Name
Seek ye wisdom – speak my Name

As Molly demonstrates, we can all learn to listen to the earth. It is as simple as sitting quietly in nature, amongst the trees, the birds, the plants, and the animals, and opening our hearts. It requires trusting ourselves, and our experience. As we open to ourselves in this way, we find that the earth offers us tools. We only need to pick them up.

A version of this article was first published in 2008.

Editors’ note: To learn more about earth-based wisdom traditions check out these Applied Shamanism resources. If you are interested in training, The Shamanic Journey (next offered June 23 – 24, live in Berkeley and as a video conference) is a great place to start. Additional workshops will be offered this fall. 

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