This post originally appeared on the Nature’s Path blog on Patheos. I waited a couple weeks before cross-posting it here. Please check out Nature’s Path for more posts from me and others who are affiliated with CUUPs.
In early December I went for a walk in one of my favorite local parks. In addition to being a wetland, it serves as the water catchment for the city I live in, West Palm Beach. The water collects there and the beautiful swamp filters and cleans it and eventually it becomes drinking water for the city. The park area is very large, at 23 square miles, and has numerous trails that run through it from different approaches.
It’s also fairly close to my house, and has become to my mind, my ‘outdoor cathedral’. I go there often when I need to escape the stress of my job, the chaos of life, the lingering depression and anxiety. I also go there to reconnect with nature and easily escape the sprawling suburban environment that is South Florida. It’s a great place to connect with the gods and to commune with the spirits of the land, I’ve found.
Lately, I’ve been attempting to create a stronger connection with that god of wild places, Cernunnos. I walked along the trail which is generally either really muddy in spots or completely underwater. In October, large portions of the trail were from mid-calf to knee deep, which can be exciting and/or nerve-wracking if you have a particular fear of running into some of Florida’s more well known reptilian denizens. Honestly, I’d take alligators over a cottonmouth any day (and both of those over the cold-blooded developers who’ve made a real mess of things down here).
At this stage, December is in our dry season, when the summer rains abate. The trail was pretty clear, with only about a quarter of it muddy or submerged. As I wound my way among the cocoplums, cypress, and the fragrant, threatened redbay, I would occasionally call out to or address Cernunnos in light conversation. The emissaries of the forest were all around, egrets, fish, turtles, and squirrels. A grackle startled me while I was closely examining a pumpkin-colored mushroom, it leapt from some branches and made a lot of racket, I must have disturbed it’s foraging.
At a particularly breathtaking spot I stopped and meditated next to a clear pool that was being guarded by a primordial looking strangler fig, it’s ropey limbs elongating out and providing a little shade. Minnows swam in the water, warily avoiding my foot dipped in the cool bath.
It was shaping up to be a perfect walk.
Scattered all along the length of the path are cypress knees. Cypress knees are little offshoots of the cypress tree’s root system that pop up out of the ground and give them the ability to breathe more easily, even when the water level is high. Even on a clear trail, they can be trip hazards, but in less than favorable conditions, one must really be aware.
It was in the midst of a whispered chant, while staring out through the thickness of cypress while walking along that I was then caught off guard. Focusing on my breath, trying to be in tune and managing to be perfectly distracted, I didn’t see the tiniest little cypress knee. Really, it was no more than three inches from the ground but that was all that it took. I heard a pop in my ankle and managed to have the wherewithal to just go limp. I’ve managed to have a lot of falls in my life and have found that going limp is the best way to avoid amplifying an injury. So one moment I’m Mr. Spirit of the Wilderness and the next I’m face down in the mud, quickly being attacked by fire ants.
Before I was even able to address the ants, I had to assess my ankle. It didn’t hurt that much at first but as I used my walking stick to help me up, I realized that it wasn’t up for taking much weight. There I was, three miles out in the wetlands with a possibly broken ankle… was this what I had come out here seeking?
After I swatted the aggressive ants from my leg and applied some cooling mud to the blistering bites, I weighed my options. My partner was out of town, as were most of my friends, at Art Basel in Miami. I didn’t think I was bad enough to need emergency help, so I made the only decision that was available to me.
I leaned heavily against my walking stick and went one step at a time.
This is where the real spiritual work began. I quickly realized how easy it was for me to reach out, commune with and feel at one with the spirits of this place when I was happily, healthily walking along. Now, I was struggling with each step, spasms of pain radiating up my leg. And I was discouraged, embarrassed. This was supposed to be my thing! It was humiliating to admit to myself that I was fallible and could be so easily taken down by something as insignificant as a cypress knee.
For a while I considered crawling, the pain had grown so intense. I stopped a few times to catch my breath, to rest my now golfball sized ankle and apply cold mud to attempt to bring the swelling down. About an hour later, maybe longer, I finally got back to the parking lot.
It wasn’t until later that I considered the communion I had been seeking may have happened. That insignificant cypress knee had been my spiritual epiphany. As part of my path, I’ve actively sought out the wild places, the untamed spirits, the potentially dangerous. I feel like that wild spirit reminded me that day to respect these things. And so I’ve started thinking of this experience as my first meeting with Cernunnos, I called out and he answered, and briefly, we danced.