The Alchemy of Wonder, By Lynne Spriggs
What would it take for me – or you – to open our hearts to true, and unabashed, wonder?
My new book, Elk Love: A Montana Memoir, is about a period in my life twenty years ago when it seemed the only path left was total and complete surrender. We’ve all faced these moments when everything seems to be falling apart; the perfect storms of too many challenges coming all at once; times when we suffer utter overwhelm, even collapse. These crucible moments are profoundly humbling. And at 63 years old, I’m now grateful to understand them less as insurmountable walls to be dreaded and more as transformative “gateway” experiences to honor. If everything was easy all the time, who of us would ever mature? Times of intense adversity – when everything about our character is tested – turn out to be our greatest catalysts for spiritual growth.
Absolute surrender for me in my early 40’s meant a deep devotion to practice letting go of longstanding judgments and fear so that I might open to my heart and follow its call, wherever it led me. In my case, this meant leaving city life behind and moving to reset my life in rural Montana. At that time, I was listening to Eckhart Tolle speak about the spaciousness of awareness. I longed to unearth the elusive awareness of an expansive beauty inside myself. Years earlier I had fallen in love with Montana’s open spaces over the course of ten summers spent on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. From that first summer out West in 1991, a quiet voice had begun whispering in my ear. It took a crucible moment ten years later for me to finally listen. In a state of deep distress, I finally picked up and relocated to this place called “Big Sky Country,” where the landscape is vast and beautiful. I prayed each day that, like a mirror all around me, the wonder of its remarkable beauty and wide openness would somehow reflect back to me and inspire what I so yearned to discover in myself.
The decision to follow a calling often is precipitated by some crisis and/or sense of desperation. It can feel exciting. It also can bring feelings of great vulnerability to allow that something other than our own thinking mind will now be guiding us. Callings beckon us to explore uncharted territories, where there are no “promises” about our safety or “happy endings.” But isn’t that what life is anyway?
From wise artists I’ve come to know over many years in my work as a museum curator, I’ve learned that the act of following one’s creative Spirit is in large part a simple choice to ACCEPT rather than resist life, exactly as it is; to engage our intuition and step willingly right into the flow of life’s seasonal rhythms, trusting that its mysterious ebb and flow will always carry us to the best next shore in our journey.
Life in Montana required me to step into new and often uncomfortable parts of myself. I focused more than ever on practicing fearlessness, curiosity, and gratitude, no matter what! This proved a firm foundation when I was removed from my familiar life as a liberal academic centered on what I “knew” and had “mastered,” and was swept into an unsettling but delicious world of NOT-knowing.
Moving at age 42, the first thing I encountered was the discomfort of unanticipated culture shock, arriving from Atlanta to live and work in a rural Western community. Eventually, I settled into altogether unfamiliar experiences of night-calving in blizzards, coming to know horses, listening to the languages of bugling elk and dancing birds, grappling with the seasonal forces of rising creeks and howling winds, all under Montana’s endless open skies.
At a certain point, I began to document this significant time in my life when that longing, world-weary, curious me was finally leaning fully into wonder; when intimate experiences in nature first began teaching me how to care more deeply and to develop a profound faith in the absolute individuality and inter-connectedness of every living thing.
Elk Love: A Montana Memoir is a love story that describes how radically unfamiliar experiences in nature – and a very unusual man – spoke to me about what is wild, fierce, and beautiful in my own life. I leave you with an excerpt about one of those wild places – the Missouri River – where loneliness and grief gave way to wonder.
AMADOU (excerpt 750 words, Chapter 2, page 117)
Summer, 2006. This is my second summer floating the river with Harrison.Istilldon’tcaremuchaboutcatchingfish.Butlearning to fly-cast interests me. Standing in waders with water up to my hips one horribly windy day, I try and try and try. Harrison fishes quietly downriver,eachcastperfect.Upriver,I’mexasperated,cursingyetan- other rosary of gnarled wind knots.
Harrison notices and inquires kindly, “Do you need some help?” “No!” I snap back, beginning to weep. He casts again and leaves
me with my difficulties until I explode. The sound of an ancient desperation inside me echoes from the riverbanks. “I just can’t do this!”
Harrison wades upriver and stands in front of me. “Will you hand your line to me? I bet I can help.” He starts to unravel the line, one knot at a time. “It’s miserable, I know,” he says. “Men don’t do anything unless it’s miserable.”
“I don’t understand. Why?”
He shrugs his shoulders. “We have to tame misery . . . I’ve lived this misery myself so many times . . . this is just part of it.” He smiles. His blue eyes are gentle. Knots loosen. “Everybody comes unglued on fishing,” he assures me.
We stand side by side, the river’s current pushes against my legs, wraps itself around my waders until they squeeze tight against the flesh of my thighs like skin.
“I remember being sent to a neighbor’s house to ask if I might learn how to fish as a boy. I was handed a bamboo rod and put to work casting a leader into a wash bucket. A gentleman named Murray Dyer took me under his wing….. I practiced casting to that bucket for hours and hours. As a graduation gift, Mr. Dyer gave me what could have easily been a 1910 setup for any fisherman in England: a bamboo Hardy fly rod, a silk fly line, a box to keep natural gut leaders wet, a Wheatley dry fly box, and a piece of amadou.”
“Amadou? What’s that?”
“A piece of moss that fly fishermen used to dry their flies.” Harrison cranks the reel and shortens my line a bit. “Okay, you’re all set. Here you go.” He hands the rod back to me as he reaches up with his other hand to wipe a tear from my cheek. “Feel better?”
I nod, rolling my eyes.
“Want to try another cast or two, before we head home?”
I like the word amadou. The sound of it keeps pulling at my mind like a splendid puzzle, a strange melody I cannot forget. I discover that the species of bracket or shelf fungi found on birch trees generally used to harvest amadou is called Fomes fomentarius; in English it is also known as horse’s hoof fungus or tinder fungus. The amadou layer is the fibrous section found on top of the fungus, just below the outer skin and above the pores. I find curious recipes for its processing. One suggests soaking the amadou layer in washing soda for a week, beating it gently from time to time. Then it has to be dried and pounded with a blunt object to soften and flatten it. The finished product is said to have great tactile appeal: a fluffy, felt-like material, pleasant to the touch like soft buckskin.
Back at home, I learn this spongy substance was historically used as an absorbent in medicine to stanch bleeding and served as a wound dressing; hence, there’s another name for it: “wound sponge.” But the origins of the name amadou, found in late-eighteenth-century French, lead me to perhaps its most important role as a precious resource. Coming from the Latin amator meaning “lover,” amadou easily ignites. I find out that early peoples around the world carried and used this substance for at least five thousand years, precisely because it allowed them to start a fire easily, catching sparks from flint with this light- weight fuel. I imagine Indigenous North Americans appreciating the properties of this fungus.
“What a wild thing amadou is,” I say to Harrison, over lunch in town a few days later. “A tree fungus that combines the properties of fire and water. Something in nature that burns, absorbs, and heals? And its name means love.” I am too embarrassed to say lover.
“I know.” He nods. “It’s like the connections of Spirit that twist and braid.”
I gaze into his eyes. “That’s so lovely.”
“It’s that fire that lights everything.”
About the author, Lynne Spriggs:
Before moving to the rural West at age forty-two, Lynne Spriggs curated exhibitions of folk and self-taught art at the High Museum in Atlanta. She spent ten summers on northern Montana’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation while pursuing fieldwork for her PhD in Native American Art History at Columbia University. She also worked in the film industry as Production Coordinator for Spalding Gray and Jonathan Demme on the iconic Swimming to Cambodia. After landing in Montana, she curated Bison: American Icon, a major permanent exhibit for the C. M. Russell Museum on bison in the Northern Plains. For the past fifteen years, she and her husband have lived on a cattle ranch in an isolated Montana mountain valley east of the Rockies, where her life centers on writing, animals, and family. Elk Love is her first memoir.