In the Mud of Our Earth
“The pure source is all over. Each being is itself pure source
and pure source is nothing but each being. The stream itself
is pure source and the pure source is stream.”
– Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
* * *
Seared into my memory is a muddy trail leading toward a shrine constructed from wood and branches. Made beautiful with leaves, rushes, mushrooms, and flowers by some hundred men at Camp Miller, it was a sacred enclosure that seemed to have grown up overnight, rising from the forest floor, watered with rain.
It was not just the shrine that caught me, but two men who had come to this Minnesota Men’s Conference held over a decade ago. Bob Roberts had brought them from Project Return, men on parole from a Louisiana penitentiary, men trying to locate themselves somewhere in the wreckage of lives shattered by violence and imprisonment.
I watched them warily as they stood before me in a line of men moving slowly forward in rain, my wariness a response to the wariness I’d seen in them as they’d moved in the last few days among men they were hoping to trust, but did not dare to trust.
A low, forceful drumbeat rumbled in my belly, and I joined others in the line in rhythmic stamping, our feet bare. The ritual would conclude with a plunge in the lake.
I inhaled deeply, the air fresh with moisture, heavy with the scent of pitch from the great pines rising around us. Cold mud coated my feet, squeezing up between my toes. A child’s delight in squishy sliminess, in wallowing, in playing came over me. I glanced up. My two companions were gazing into each other’s eyes, their heads bobbing as they stomped, broad smiles cracking open their faces—suddenly released from pain, from history, from wariness.
Had these men ever known the timeless joy of play before doting parents on a beach? Or sat in a schoolroom warm with a teacher’s praise? Or sat by the embers of a fire after a long day in wilderness? Had they ever before experienced the easy presence of other men whom they had no need to fear?
I don’t remember now my intention in that ritual or what hope or prayer I offered at the shrine. But I can’t forget my witness of a healing in a rainy forest, a healing grounded in pure muddy earth, in the safety of a community of men bound to each other in mutual respect and gladness.
Awestruck, humbled, I saw that this simple coming together of men for the cultivation of something we can call, clumsily, soul or spirit opened a door and a way forward to the two companions dancing before me.
Robert Bly challenges us to plant ourselves, to root ourselves in the good soil that still lies beneath our impoverished capitalist-consumer culture—a culture that has lost its way, lost the trail, lost track of human meaning, lost track of what matters. For our own sake and the sake of our children and grandchildren, we can reignite the fires that burn in the old myths and stories, in poetry, in art and music, in the honesty of pristine forests and lakes—in the rich possibilities of companionship with other men, with all men and women, with this rich and mysterious world of earth, fire, water, and stone out of which all living things arise.
* * *
“Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.
Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with that without—
The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.”
– Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki)
by Erik Fraser Storlie, Ph.D.
Erik is the author of a recent memoir Go Deep and Take Plenty of Root: which touches on his friendship with the poet James Wright and his connection with Robert Bly.
My Soul Said to Me