Shamanism contained a visceral nature magic that I instinctively connected with. Raised in an alternative school on a little island off the coast of western Canada, my down-to-earth mother was the only thing preventing me from becoming the kind of hippie that conservatives have nightmares about.
My mother also happened to possess a copy of Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman on her voluminous bookshelf. This is what got me started. For my 17-year old brain, it was convoluted and hard to read, yet exhilarating. I remember introductory chapters discussing the author’s experience in South America, drinking tea made from steeped ayauhusca vines and bearing witness to secret metaphysical visions reserved for the dead and the dying. This was around the same time I was reading Manly P. Hall’s Secret Teachings of All Ages and Barbara Marciniak’s Bringers Of The Dawn, among others. I was, and remain, enthralled by arcana, by esoterica.
But this is a story about shamanism. Even more than shamanism, it is about a tree. Barely a tree, in fact. It was a fir sapling, and it changed my life.
On December 21st, 2006, I was asked by my mother to take a small hatchet and go into the forest behind our house to find a Christmas tree.
Soon after my departure through the cedar gate, I observed a beautiful fir sapling standing small and strong adjacent to the trail carved into existence by a veteran neighbour.
In terms of size and proportion, it was perfect. However, I needed to find the top of an older tree, or a tree that had fallen down in the recent windstorm. I did not care to arrest a young life of nature for mere cultural rite.
I moved on. During the next several hours, I would search an area of three square kilometres for a tree resembling the accidental archetype discovered at the outset. I had no such luck, and the sky was beginning to darken. My frustrations grew, realizing in disappointment that the discovery of so beautiful a tree could not be replicated.
In that moment of sudden doubt, I turned back and headed towards the house. I remember the excuses filling my head: “there are so many trees in this forest, it’s just a tree, it might grow back, your family will be happy,” et cetera. I didn’t feel good about it, but the increasing darkness of mind and sky were very persuasive arguments.
I arrived alongside the sapling and pulled out my hatchet. A sensuous moment occurred during which I appreciated the exuberance of the creatured life before me: eyes tracing its lines, fingers caressing, palms environing its simple circumference.
Realizing I had just slammed my axe into the side of the tree, I woke up schizophrenic: half contented, half in shock, body numbly persisting in its violence. I had discovered the perfect Christmas tree; I had ended a life. Disgusted by my complacency, subsumed by apathy, I was — without warning — a paradox that couldn’t resolve itself. Something had to give.
When the axe reached the tree’s centre, something gave: I broke into tears and slumped against my life, body a tingling mess, confronted by the loneliness it had felt all year. Having gestated in the scholarship of shamanism, my yearning for deep connection arrived in a shock of presence. I could barely breathe. All I could do was cry, and question.
What the fuck? Why the hell was this happening? Was I going crazy? Was I just a wimp? Why did I feel so alone? Why was I depressed? What did I really want? A thousand more questions… perhaps the most simple, in the words of Shakespeare, “Who’s there”?
I found I could not answer such selfish questions in the presence of a committed friend. Somehow, the sapling had asked these questions—not me. Knees weak, eyes dewed, and silent, I remained seated.
And inevitably, I rose. Taking a deep breath, I very slowly took my hatchet, retraced the v-shaped lines of my incision, and renewed the act of violence.
Except this time, I was not alone. It was not an act of violence. Impossibly, profoundly, simply, the fir sapling had revealed itself as compassion. “It” had become “Thou”. With a grok and a laugh, craziness and pain, something told me that my tears were neither for myself nor for the tree, but somehow for each of us. Unconscious ere now, cleaving myself with every stroke. The tree? Just as lonely as I was.
Everything felt different. Within the encroaching darkness, I hoisted the severed life over my left shoulder. In the throes of paralyzing regret, a more courageous part of me was starting to realize that a sacrifice had taken place. A threshold, traversed.
During that winter, there was deep magic coursing through the world. For the first time since I was a child, I found I could listen to it. My encounter with the sapling left me with an inability to commit pretense.
In the spring of 2007, my final semester at high school, I decided to become a peer tutor. I started writing poetry that exhumed vehemence. Infused with a kind of courage which could only ever be borrowed, I gave away who I was. And for the first time in many years, there was no need to be anyone but myself.