On my walk to work in the morning, there’s a pebble I pass daily. It’s an ordinary pebble, maybe 12 centimetres across. It looks like a river pebble, which would be nothing remarkable except I live and work in a desert thought to be millions of years old. The pebble has been cracked in half, probably run over by a car. About a year ago, one of the halves was on the edge of the road, its broken surface bright. The inside of the pebble was cream and pale carrot-coloured, in contrast to its smooth grey surface. I saw it again yesterday in the grasses by the roadside. The exposed surface had been moistened by the recent rain and the colours were brighter. It seemed to me that the stone was starting to accept its new identity.
That sounds mad. But for a while now I’ve quietly believed that rocks have consciousness. It’s not that I hear gravel crying when I walk on it, but rocks do speak to humans, albeit in their own way. Half a million people come to this desert town each year to visit the big red rocks nearby, and there are more than a few who long to commune with the rocks.
Many years ago I had the great privilege of being taken to a sweat lodge by Native American friends. A colleague I instinctively trusted was leading the lodge, taking responsibility for our harmonious and respectful interaction with the spirit world. We were in the northern part of North America in the early spring. The snow had melted and there were mosquitoes in most places. Before I went to the sweat lodge, I needed to be educated. I was spoken to and given material to read, but my knowledge, of course, remains superficial. I understood that women should not enter the lodge when they are menstruating. You need to remove all jewelry and wear modest, thin clothing. I was young enough to bridle a little at these conditions. Respect for established knowledge never came easy to me. I also learned that the stones used in the sweat lodge are very important. They are selected and tended with great spiritual insight. The stones, which are heated in an intense fire outside of the lodge, are the abode of ancestors and other spirit beings during the ceremony. Should one break, it is a very bad thing. I was a medical student and had not long ago completed my science degree. I found all this hard to believe.
Those of us invited to attend were driven to a clearing in a rural, forested area. Moose and bear lived there. Around dinner-time, we arrived at a small fibro community building. We were reminded of the customs. I had been fasting and was nervous. We changed into thin night clothes as the long northern twilight spread across the sky. On a sheltered rise behind the hall was our sweat lodge—a small tent made of wood, cloth and plastic sheeting, built earlier that day. As we walked up to the lodge, the earth felt damp and hard under my bare feet. I felt a bit sick, but was intensely curious.
We paused outside the lodge, shivering a little. The sun was setting slowly in the bleeding orange sky. Crepuscular shadows reached towards us from the surrounding woods. Entering the lodge (in a special order and with due ceremony) we found it a tight fit. But sitting in the dark with our buttocks, hips and legs pressed against our neighbours, we fit exactly. I was barely flexible enough to sit cross-legged on the ground. The sticks and plastic, weighted by blankets, made a tight seal behind my back and over my head. I am not tall, but it felt claustrophobic. I wondered how I would endure the coming hours politely.
The leader of our lodge spoke in her serious and tender voice. She sang a song that opened my chest and made breathing easier. She may have burnt some tobacco or sweetgrass — I remember fragrant smoke. My legs and lower back were sore, my shoulders tensely hunched. When our guide was ready, she opened the door of the lodge (heavy plastic weighted by blankets). She spoke quietly to the man outside who acted as liaison and assistant to the one who was tending the stones. We were ready for the stones.
Heating up the sweat lodge stones is a big responsibility. Then they are carried from the glowing pit into the lodge, with great respect and using carefully chosen sticks, antlers or bones. Close to white hot, they are placed tenderly in an earth hollow in the centre of the lodge. Because the lodge was so small, you had to make your body tighter, pulling your feet close, as the stones came in, so as not to burn your toes. Our guide spoke to us in a way that opened our minds to go beyond the discomfort and appreciate the experience of the lodge. The steam from the ceremonially bathed stones — they were large, rounded stones, mainly river pebbles — was intense. Suddenly it was very hot inside the lodge. The large stone at my feet cracked perfectly in half. Our guide’s voice shook but she continued. Several people got up and left the lodge. I didn’t think about why. I had not been aware that you were allowed to leave. But they did, in a tense, hurried, clambering crouch. The space they left made it easier to sit and I was grateful to them. I was a little envious, too. The cool night was delicious on my sweating skin whenever the lodge door was opened. It did not occur to me to leave though.
Something was happening in my head. I couldn’t see anything in the intense dark except for the white-hot or red-hot edges of some of the stones. By their light, we could see the steam rising as water was poured on the rocks. An insistent voice in my head came to the fore. I was being growled at. Someone — I won’t say who she was — was angry with me. I had acted disrespectfully and misrepresented her, she said. I sat there with my feet pulled tight away from the stones, head down, quietly going mad. “If you have any experience or insights to share with the group, you may do so,” said our guide. I didn’t want to share that I was having a psychotic experience, being berated for not growing up sufficiently yet. “Someone is here, talking to me,” I said quietly. I was excited that something had happened. I felt special, but I also knew I was in trouble. The voice that was talking to me was not happy. She was fierce.
Others in the group shared their insights, speaking of their tribes and clans and the land their ancestors came from. I listened as best I could, past the imperative voice in my head saying, “You better get it right now, girl! You have responsibilities. Focus. Stop mucking around. You are being distracted by things that don’t matter. You are being distracted by things that are not true.”
Our guide sang to us and burned sweetgrass, told us stories. There was harmony within our lodge. Eventually, I felt comfortable and happy, if chastened. I am glad I didn’t leave when the rock split, but sat and listened. I emerged smiling widely. I had been visited by ancestors, who had cared enough to growl at me. The rock had spoken.