Standing at the River

Text by Ana Simeon

Photo by Don Hoffmann

The Peace River valley, a place I love, is being stripped and excavated to build a hydroelectric dam. This is happening in the far north-east of British Columbia, a ferry ride and two days’ drive from my home on Vancouver Island. Ever since construction permits were confirmed by the new B.C. government in 2017 I’ve noticed how I shy away from even thinking about the Peace. I have to steel myself to read the news. Two of my friends up there have so far narrowly avoided being evicted to make way for a highway realignment, and another friend, an Indigenous woman, still has a potential lawsuit hanging over her because of her participation in a blockade near the would-be dam site. Whenever I speak to them it’s like a deep dive to a painful place, an underwater rock. My daily life bubbles and froths like rapids around this submerged rock; sunlight sparkles off the surface of the water and this is enough for each day. But every now and then I am compelled to dive down to the rock. I must remember and fully feel the love and grief.

Grieving the Peace

Last July the West Moberly First Nation invited all who feel connected to this place to attend a Feast for Grieving the Peace. They made it clear that the grieving wasn’t about the dam itself: that was still being resolutely fought against in court. Rather, the grief was about what was currently happening to the river in preparation for the flooding of the valley. The deliberate cutting of huge cottonwoods bearing great eagle nests all along the banks. The stripping and dumping of uniquely fertile topsoil that could have fed the whole region. The exclusion of First Nations people from places that had provided food, medicine and spiritual comfort since time out of mind. The razing of river islands where beavers built their lodges, and deer and elk sheltered to give birth. The expropriation and eviction of farm families.

About halfway between Hudson’s Hope and Fort St. John, the Peace makes a wide bend around Bear Flats. Before expropriation, Bear Flats was owned by my friends Ken and Arlene who leased the upper field to a market gardener, and grew hay and oats in the lower field. In years past, my husband Tom and I used to camp there. There is an old beaver lodge at the confluence where a small creek joins the river. It’s a special place for bears too, because the wide, shallow flats make it an easy swim across (for a bear). We loved sitting there of an evening to watch the sky and listen to the river. Often a beaver would come out to potter around the creek confluence. Just being there, one feels closely held at the great river’s heart; and at the same time stretched to the utmost distance, part of the whole sweep of the valley from west to east, as far as the eye can see.

Giving Back to the River

After the Feast, a number of us gathered at Bear Flats to participate in a ceremony called the Global Earth Exchange which is about giving gifts of beauty to a wounded place. When Tom and I arrived, Bess, the market gardener, was already there with her husband and their 3-year-old daughter. The little girl was being very solemn about picking just the right flowers to give to the river. I noticed the mother’s gaze as she followed the child’s movements. It was as if her face, her eyes, the lines of her hips and bosom all folded into a big body-smile for the little girl. Somebody brought a basketful of wooden toy boats left over from a boat race (a community fundraiser) for us to decorate and offer to the river. People fanned out to collect rocks and driftwood, and pick wildflowers and beautiful wild grasses with waving tassels.

We stood in a circle at the riverbank. I felt shy. I didn’t know any of the others, except Tom, and it didn’t feel like a cohesive group. I was supposed to say a few words to get us started but I doubted my ability to inspire and guide people to a place of depth and meaning, the way the Indigenous elder had done the year before. As if “I” or anyone could “make it happen”! But as more people joined the circle with beautiful and unusual bouquets and artwork, I let go. I had expected to feel grief and sadness but I didn’t. I felt joyful and happy to be in the presence of the river again. The sheer mass and power of the flowing water echoed through my whole body. I felt awe. No human force could stop this river’s forward movement – in 200 years’ time all three dams would be gone and the Peace would still flow on. A constriction in my chest eased and I felt comforted. When I looked around the circle, I saw joy and gratitude mirrored on many faces around me.

A couple of people wadded a few steps into the water, tentatively, as the bottom was slick clay and it would be easy to slip. The little girl released her boat, but it kept swirling around in the shallows instead of floating off with the current. An older guy challenged the little girl’s dad to jump in the water. Whooping and hollering, they both did, and swam out to release all the boats into the main current. We looked on as the flower-decked flotilla floated quietly downriver.

That Special Light

A thick bank of clouds had been building upstream from us. Sifted sunlight streamed down onto the water in a “cathedral window” effect. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, again and again. We were getting ready to disband when 20 more people showed up. We formed a bigger circle and were just doing the introductions when the skies opened: such a downpour! We ran to the cars, laughing.

Later that evening, sitting outside our cabin on a promontory on Ken and Arlene’s property, Tom and I gazed at the river aglow in the last rays of sunlight, the whole vast landscape subtly illuminated in that special light of a northern evening. Peace enveloped me, and I sat for a long time with gratitude to and for the river’s great presence and power.

29th of December, 2019

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Being Like a River: Felt Community in Action

Many of us value our Focusing partnerships as a place where we can be in Grounded Presence with ourselves and another human being from a very deep inner place. A Focusing partnership is a beautiful path of committed practice of witnessing and being witnessed, and over time can permeate even the most challenging aspects of life with a sense of openness to new possibilities.

A long-term Focusing partnership or a solo Focusing practice imply their own next step – a carrying forward into Felt Community. In this spirit we are inviting you to consider joining us next summer for a Wholebody Focusing Retreat where we will co-create activities that support the forward movement of life in each of us.

A free, undammed river flowing down a mountainside and into a floodplain will naturally spread out in many streams and rivulets that join and separate in an ever-shifting pattern. Hydrologists call this natural way of being a river a “braided river”. A Focusing Retreat is just like a braided river: many streams of felt sensing flowing together, flowing apart, whirling around deep pools, moving alluvial soils to a new place to create fertile ground for new growth.

“Co-created” is the operative word: unlike a Focusing workshop or week-long with a set program, the retreat is what we -you and I and he and she and they – make together. What does that look like? There will be learning activities facilitated by participants who wish to do so; time for partnerships and time alone; opportunity for vigorous movement assisted by canoes and bicycles; and many, many Heartfelt Conversations. ‘Smores and campfires are a definite possibility!

For more information and to reserve your spot please click here.

The retreat will take place on the shore of a lake on beautiful Vancouver Island in British Columbia, nestled within extensive gardens and a second-growth fir forest. We will invite our bodies to sense into the presence of nature and how it may support our Grounded Presence and well-being.

In a time of climate upheaval and warlike posturing that threaten human extinction, we believe that intentionally being with each other in a Focusing way is a gift to ourselves, and to present and future generations.

Ana Simeon, with Barb Fotta, Joya D’Cruz and Melinda Darer, the 2020 Retreat Planning Committee. Please contact Melinda@focusinginternational.org  if you would like more information.

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The Pine and I

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Photo Credit: Ana Simeon

Maybe it has happened to you, too, that small secret moment of intimacy with a non-human creature. It’s a powerful experience yet easily dismissed by the mind. The one I want to tell you about happened on a trail in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in northern California. It is a rocky, spare place, steep and windswept and intensely alive. High on a ridge above a mountain lake, the trail weaves among pines and Douglas Fir growing singly or in small groups, huddled around granite boulders. On a hot late September afternoon, their combined scent rose like incense; the air was charged with it. I walked briskly, enjoying the vigorous motion and the give of the trail surface, changing from rock to needles to bare earth to patches of coarse grasses. I became keenly aware of an added dimension, the arrangement of bodies in the middle distance, so often lost in our habitual focus on panoramic views. I mean by that the sense of my body mass relative to trees and boulders, the way trees stood in twos or threes or alone; a pine and boulder together; or the way the boughs formed a screen so that only slivers of blue were visible, and then suddenly parted to allow a full view of distant peaks. My steps slowed to a walk as I absorbed this new pleasure. My hand reached to touch the furry patch of lichen on a granite boulder, the deep furrow of Douglas Fir bark. I put my arms around a Jeffrey Pine, maybe my age in pine years, glowing deep red in the late afternoon light. I laid my cheek against the bark and was enveloped in a light, sweet aroma, like vanilla, very different from the more pungent “conifer” fragrance that rose from the forest as a whole. (I read later that pines, and especially Jeffrey Pines, are unique among North American conifers in distilling this vanilla-like scent.) There we stood for a long while, the pine and I, in a timeless embrace of arms and branches, skin and bark, one breath.

In her book, “The Legacy of Luna”, activist Julia Butterfly Hill describes her relationship with the giant redwood in whose canopy she lived for more than two years in order to save it from being logged. Hill is positive that Luna knew Hill was there to save it, and gave her support in its tree-ish way. Similarly, with my arms around the pine, I felt very strongly, from the tree, a wave of –  encouragement? Support? Was the pine hugging me back? These are human terms and they don’t quite fit. I felt that the pine and the land it sprang from were holding me up, wanted me to continue my work to save the Peace Valley in my home province of British Columbia from being dammed. I was being offered a gift – an experience of joy and unity, and something more: confirmation, confidence and strength to persevere in my work. Joy and gratitude buoyed me as I walked back to the cabin.

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