We’d been in Claverack for a few weeks when my father said he had heard of a neat place to swim. My mind’s eye envisioned what my heart wanted: a huge lake with cooling waves and soft sands. When we got there, what I saw was not like anything I’d ever seen before.
We drove along a gravel road that went past the other two houses on the hill, and then to a large pasture that was surrounded by trees. We went down a little incline to a small, flat area directly outside the woods to the right. As we all got out of the car, I could hear the rushing of water coming from the woods. Dad said this was the same stream that ran to the mill-pond and then behind our house, but that we were farther upstream. We headed down the rocky path leading into the trees. We were glad for the rocks and exposed tree roots to be there as the path became more and more steep. It was obvious that many people before us had used them as natural steps to make their way down the incline. Suddenly, we were out of the trees, and into the clearing that was Buttermilk Falls.
Directly in front of us was a small pool. It couldn’t have been more than twenty or thirty feet in diameter. The water came crashing into it from the stream above. The rock walls on each side of the waterfall shot upwards for fifty or sixty feet. Midway up, to the right of the waterfall, was a huge pocket that had been worn into the rock by the force of the water. The water swirled around in the hole, and then out again. Some boys were climbing there, letting the water rush over them. I could see that they were laughing and joking with one another, but the roar of the falls was too great for me to be able to hear them.
There was one small area next to the pool that was covered with small stones, and was relatively flat. My parents and two sisters tried to make themselves comfortable there as my brother proceeded to swim across the pond and began to make his way up the rock walls to the top of the falls. Except for the one flat area, the pool was entirely surrounded by large rocks. Someone had made a diving board by placing a long piece of wood between two of them. It was obvious it had no spring to it, but it was long enough to allow someone to jump into the center of the pool and not hit the rocks. The water spilled out of the pool over smaller rocks and then down another, more sloping, waterfall below where we stood. There was a shallow, sandy-bottomed pool at the base of the second waterfall and then the stream veered off into the woods.
I climbed out onto a rock and let myself slip into the pool. The water was frigid. Because of the way the pool had been formed, it was impossible to take time to get used to the water. There was no shallow area in which to stand. It was virtually a big hole filled with ice-cold running water. I could either be in, or out; there was no in-between. I stayed out. Beside the fact that the water was so cold, there wasn’t really anywhere to swim. It was a matter of jumping in, treading water for as long as I could stand it, and then climbing up the moss-covered rocks to get out. I found that I preferred to sit on a dry rock, and let my feet dangle in the shallow water where the second waterfall began.
Just as I was beginning to enjoy the warming rays of the sun, I was completely covered in shade. Looking up, I realized that, because the pool was so far below the level of the ground, and because the surrounding trees were so tall, the sun’s rays could only hit the pool for an hour or so each day. As far as I was concerned, Buttermilk Falls wasn’t even a neat place to be, much less swim. It was hard to find a place to sit comfortably; and lying down to warm oneself in the sunlight was out of the question. When there wasn’t any direct sunshine, it quickly became chilly and damp. My sense of discomfort was added to by the stares of the boys playing around the waterfall. They had made no gesture of welcome, and, from the looks they gave us, it was clear to me that we had been marked as intruders.
A year later, we moved to one of the houses at the top of Red Mill Hill. I continued to spend most of my time roaming the hills, and soon found that Buttermilk Falls was one place in particular that gave me comfort. I spent time discovering it, was completely drawn to the solitude of it, and Buttermilk became a secret and hidden place for me. Sheltered by the rock walls and the woods that grew above them, I would sit by the falls, letting the roar of the water rushing down drown out all other noises, and bring a refreshed quiet to my soul.
I would stay for as long as the daylight and season would allow. Oftentimes, I would climb the sides of the little canyon, using rocks and exposed tree roots for finger and toe holds. I loved the smell of the rich earth in the woods. So thick were the trees that sunlight only broke through in small areas, leaving the decomposing matter soft and damp, and allowing me to walk in total silence. I needed the silence. There was so much noise within my family that I wanted not to have to hear; it was a relief to be able to open my ears to the sounds of Nature. I soon came to look upon anyone else who came there as an intruder, just as I had supposed those boys had seen me as one the previous summer.
I spent more and more time at Buttermilk, no matter what the weather. I found places that would protect me from the rains. I learned every foothold and rock, and found them easily under the snow. No matter what the weather, I would find a safe and warm place to rest, and allow myself my internal freedom. I watched the colors in the trees as they swayed in the wind. I heard secrets in the wind, and now and then, a glimmer of light would dart past me, just far enough away that I wasn’t completely certain that I saw it.
The Falls became everything to me; and, I felt that I was everything there, and nothing. I perfected the communion with Nature I had begun on the beach of Lake Michigan. I sat for hours and hours. Listening. Watching. Singing. Crying. Feeling. I felt my internal growth in a way that I could not explain to anyone. I felt the power of the beauty that surrounded me move inward and become a part of my being. Not that I became outwardly beautiful, but that I felt deeply connected to beauty. I learned to see the small, intricate parts of the whole; to feel how everything was intertwined. I also felt the larger, unseen forces surrounding me, and knew that I was being watched, and, more importantly, nurtured. I would sit quietly against a tree—not just any tree, but the tree that called to me in the moment—and I would sit as still and for as long as I could, and I would listen to the wind in the canopy of the pines, then to the sounds of the forest: birds, squirrels, or nothing at all if that were the case. Always there was the rushing water, a melodic background to my focus. The sound of the Falls was like a heartbeat to me or a long breath, constant and sure, and the life-force of the forest. Other times, I would sit and focus on one spot of ground. I would watch closely, seeing the little critters in their busy life: hauling debris, moving pine needles, or burrowing in to the earth. In all of this, I would feel my connection to the Whole.
I would not learn for years that these times were the beginnings of a meditation practice. The lessons of the wonderment of the Universe would, and does, remain with me. I would share these focusing “exercises” with my son Kyle when he was young while we took long, quiet walks along the Napa River. These were our special morning times together, the two of us sitting and listening, watching as the River flowed by. Or, we would spend time just watching one little bit of ground together and observing all the life and movement that took place in such a small bit of the Earth.
I met the Light People one day as I sat under the protection of a tree at Buttermilk. I hadn’t been to the Falls for a while. At the age of fourteen, I contracted a very bad case of influenza which nearly killed me and kept me in the house for a few weeks. I was so happy to be out of the house I didn’t mind that it had started to rain a little, and I was enjoying the sound of the rain and the rich smell of the Earth as the moisture unlocked its fragrance. I saw the lights dancing in the subdued light of the forest. At first, I thought they were fireflies, but they would not be out in the morning and it was way too late in the fall for them to be out anyway.
The lights did not really fly, they hovered and zipped in and out of the trees. Awestruck, I sat motionless, although I wanted to run. Something inside me told me to stay, and I watched as they continued to dance out of my sight. I realized that these must have been the little flashes of light that I had been seeing over and over out of the corner of my eyes. From that point on, I was extremely vigilant. I had often felt as though I were being watched. The lights moved as though they had a good knowledge of my presence. I felt comfortable with them and it seemed that they were comfortable with me, too.
In my own way, I began to ask permission as I entered the area of the Falls. I felt myself announcing myself as I made the descent to the pool. I learned to wait until I felt it was all right for me to climb up to the ridge. I was careful about where I placed my feet, and walked very gently upon that ground. I began to stay longer and longer in to dusk. A few times, I over-stayed and had to feel my way to the open road. At those times, I was very happy that I knew the land so well and could find my way. One time, I got disoriented, and since I was closer to the barbed wire fence than I thought I was, and I ran right in to it, full force. I still carry the tiny scar alongside my nose where I cut myself. A little shocked from the impact, very tired, and somewhat confused, I began to cry and lost my bearings completely. The light people came to dance in front of me. They guided me to the open dirt road that led to the house. When I came to the place where the trees on the other side of the road opened up, and I could see the lights of the house, they flew quickly back to the safety of their home. I was so grateful. I called out my thank you as they left and I realized that I had spoken directly to them for the first time, and addressed them as living beings.
I feel the same awareness when I enter any forested area. I instantly feel at home and at peace there, and I silently call out to announce myself, my intention to walk in peace and with respect, and ask permission to do so. I feel strongly that I am remembered by those who inhabit the sacred ground around Buttermilk and if I carry that energy with me, I will be recognized and accepted. The forests are filled with unseen life. The spirits and the “light people,” as I came to call them, hear my inner voice as I start my prayers when I approach, asking permission to enter their homeland. This was especially true for me when visiting Scotland with Kyle and we went to places where faeries are known to dwell.
I began to talk out loud when I was on the ridge. Sometimes I would talk in a normal voice and let my words be washed away by the rush of the Falls, while other times I would be hurt or angry and yell my thoughts over the roar of the water as I sat by the pool. It felt so good to voice my feelings and know that I was being heard, even if I heard no response. I never heard anything other than the sounds of Nature reflected back to me, though I heard/felt a great calmness in my heart. Times were emotionally hard for me. When I was feeling bad, or having a rough time, going to the Falls would soothe me. I spent more time there that at home, or anywhere else. I just didn’t fit in at school and was never included in group activities. I had only one friend and she lived miles away. The light people, and the Falls itself, became my friends. I found inner strength and courage to face the world. It was a world that did not reconcile with what I knew to be true; with what I had been taught by The Grandmothers. My family life did not match the beauty of life described to me by those teachers in the lighted room. The incessant bullying by classmates, and the ultimate degradation of being gang-raped on Halloween by high school boys who were looking for my sister did not show me the beauty of the world as it was shown to me in that room. The only thing that made sense to me was the crash of the water over the rocks and the soft, silvery light through the trees.