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The Camera as a Tool of Transformation
As I cross the St. John's Bridge and start up the hill toward my usual Forest Park trailhead, my stomach tightens with anticipation. I've been praying for renewal, for a re-awakening of my spiritual awareness, and today I'm returning to my favorite woods for the first time in months. I walked this path several times a week last summer and fall, finding the sacred in the creaking trees and cool shadows.
This walk in the woods will be a ritual: one that requires nothing but the trees, the witch . . . and a camera. I know a camera might seem an odd item to view as a sacred tool, but consider what makes a powerful ritual. The most important aspect of any magical/spiritual act is focus. When I have a camera around my neck I look more closely and see more clearly: photographing the world is the best way I know to enter a meditative, focused state of mind.
No need to create sacred space when I am entering sacred space. My feet hit the path and I breathe in the smell of damp earth and green leaves, of ferns and moss and rotting wood. The edges of the path are muddy, and the prints of dogs and deer and smaller creatures make patterns in the wet clay. I take pictures of the vegetation around me, a screen of green and brown, patterns of light and shadow. I feel the trees and plants breathe. Though there were many cars at the trailhead, the path is unusually deserted today. I don't question my good fortune: I just enjoy soaking in the quiet.
As I take pictures of leaves and flowers, my awareness shifts. My verbal, wordy mind grows quiet. Soon I become dissatisfied with the camera and return it to its case so I can be present in this changed state of consciousness. I walk until I find a good place to sit off the trail: a relatively dry spot on mossy tree roots, surrounded by sword ferns that lean over me when I sit.
The ritual of communing with this forest is completely unlike any other rituals I participate in. I call it a ritual because I repeat it, the same way every time. But it's ritual without ceremony: no circle casting, no direction calling, no raising or directing energy. I think of it as a ritual of found magic: that is, the magic is here already, and I just step into it.
And after months of struggle, today the magic wraps around me effortlessly. Sitting on the damp ground and listening to birdsong and leaf rustle, the connection I'd thought was weakened feels as strong and clear as ever. I don't have to work to sense spirit: spirit is all around me, and I am filled with it, overflowing with it. The deep, shadowy energy of the woods pours into me, and I feel part of the magic that always lives here. In the woods, I don't need anything to be a witch. In the woods I remember everything I thought I had forgotten. The flood of awareness is intense: a physical sensation, my whole body tingling, my chest aching and burning, but in a good way. Later I will wonder if this is anything like the experiences of Christian mystics, who wrote about their ecstatic experiences in more biblical terms. But here and now I'm not thinking in words; I'm part of something outside of language for a time.
After about an hour, I feel another shift: a tugging that says it's time to return to my everyday routine. I blink, stretch, and stand up slowly. Every visit to the woods is transformative in some way, but today I'm blown away by what I just experienced. The walk back to the car is a gradual process of shedding green and brown, rustle and trickle thoughts so I can reclaim language and critical thinking. It takes motion and conscious effort to think like a person again. I focus on saying thank you and saying goodbye. When I reach my car, I take a moment to sit and let the experience sink in.
I put my camera on the seat next to me, excited to load the pictures on my laptop and see what I captured today. The images on my camera won't capture the essence of my communion with the trees, but they will serve as reminders that the connection I need is there whether I can access it or not. And they allow me to take part of the forest with me with little impact on its already threatened ecosystem. I'm grateful that spiritual experience can evolve to include new tools; tools that help me carry the energy of the spirit world when I return to sidewalks, fences, and walls.
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