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Friday, November 16, 2012

Hugging Strangers in the Forest

Tree Tops, UCSC
Photo by Madeline Horn
I'm standing in a circle with 16 people I met four hours ago, hugging each of them as I walk around the circle. When I stand still, each of the 16 people comes around the circle to hug me for a second time. Some of these people smell like squatters. When I set out to join Forest Walkers on the University of California Santa Cruz campus for a forest walk on Ohlone Culture and Relation to the Land I expected a one hour hike through the redwoods with an Ohlone scholar. What I got was more of a spiritual odyssey that ended with an invitation to join in on a beach bonfire later that night. I don't normally hug people that I just met.

Forest Walks
Photo by Madeline Horn
Luta Candelaria, a Rumsen Ohlone culture bearer, led the walk. Luta lives in San Francisco and travels throughout the area sharing his cultural knowledge. We stopped periodically while Luta explained the Ohlone relationship with nature and sang in the Ohlone language, using a clapper stick while his daughter helped with percussion. His words about the importance of human connection to the earth were especially poignant because the land we walked on is in peril of being developed by UCSC into housing and labs for the school.

Luta brought his dance regalia into the forest to show us, including a garment with spotted eagle, red tailed hawk and turkey feathers. He explained that the hawk symbolizes vision to the Ohlone, since hawks are always on the lookout. He also brought a coyote skin, symbolizing his spirit animal. Luta told the creation story of his people, who are from the Carmel area.
Photo Courtesy of Danny Perez Photography
This is my abbreviated summary of the creation story which Luta learned from his elders - In the beginning, a coyote lived atop Pico Blanco, a bald rock mountain in Big Sur that juts up over the surrounding mountains. The coyote was lonely for companionship when he found a feather in the water and pulled it out, revealing an eagle who told him that he would grant him a companion. The eagle granted him a hummingbird as a companion and directed the coyote to make love to the hummingbird. The coyote had no idea how to make love, so the eagle told him to do so by taking a tick from his fur and placing it in the hummingbird's mouth. From this love making, the first humans were born, five of them - the beginning of the Ohlone Rumsen people.

I was moved by the story's reference to Pico Blanco, a local landmark, now forever vested with a spiritual dimension in my mind. I try to imagine how strong my connection to the land would be if my culture had a creation story that took place anywhere near here.
Pico Blanco, Big Sur
Photo by Madeline Horn
Luta's work to share his culture with indigenous people and with outsiders, like myself, is profoundly important. He gives indigenous people power and strength when he gives them their language, songs, and stories. Luta explained that many Native Americans now live in cities and don't have the chance to connect with the earth.

We spent four hours in the forest, yet it was not a strenuous hike, as we stopped a few times to sit and listen to Luta and observe. I left the forest feeling uplifted and hopeful. Maybe I need to hug strangers more often.

Further Information:

The trail head
is right past the UCSC trailer park, at the north remote parking lot. Enter campus at the north entrance and take Heller drive until it dead ends in the parking lot. Here is a link to a map of upper campus trails.

I found out about Forest Walkers from the Free Skool Santa Cruz winter calendar, which can be downloaded here. Free Skool offers free classes on topics from beer brewing to raising a baby without diapers. Teachers volunteer there time to share their knowledge with the community. I have had all sorts of adventures with the Free Skool recently, from a women's writing group to playing with a Gamelan orchestra. It is an unbelievable resource and a fantastic effort to build community.

Information on efforts to stop development of the forest can be found here.