Gay Spirit Visions: Into Loving Arms
By Andrew Ramer
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. Hermann Hesse
Most often we think of sanctuaries as sacred places, some in nature and others created by human hands. In the Jewish tradition time has become a sanctuary, as in the Sabbath, the day of rest. Curiously, my sanctuary isn’t Short Mountain, Easton Mountain, or any other Faerie or Gay community. It’s a place called simply The Mountain, a retreat center founded 30 years ago by a group of Unitarian Universalists, high in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, and I’ve been going there each autumn for nineteen years. Perched on the top of Little Scaly Mountain, The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center has hosted the Gay Spirit Visions Conference (which I wrote about in our last issue, on Community) since its inception in the fall of 1990.
From the moment we turn off the main road, I know that I am home. Car windows open, the smells of earth, rich and fertile, caress and fill me. Echoing birdcalls, cry of cicadas, the welcoming voices of loving friends – greet me and ground me in what’s true – that I’ve come back for another reunion with the family of my soul. The values and mission of The Mountain are part of what’s made it my sanctuary. Each year The Mountain offers programming on the themes of peace, justice, and sustainability, through elderhostels and youth camp, in addition to providing a haven to groups like mine. After 30 other retreat centers in the South had turned away the founders of Gay Spirit Visions – they were welcomed by The Mountain staff. Not just welcomed but thanked for coming. The staff had been praying for a year for a way to do outreach to the Gay community, and the men from GSV were the answer to their prayers. Perhaps you have your own stories about sanctuary. I hope so.
Five things make The Mountain a sanctuary for me. First, the Eastern Continental Divide runs through Little Scaly Mountain. If you turn to the east and spit off the summit, your saliva will flow out to the Atlantic. Spit west and your saliva will wash its way down to the mighty Mississippi. Standing on this dividing line always reminds me of our role as men who love men. We stand on the border between male and female, matter and spirit, night and day, sacred and profane, linking, binding, uniting them through our bodies and our souls.
Second, at the bottom of The Mountain is a large beautiful labyrinth, its spiral pathways defined by stones and chunks of colored glass pressed into the earth. The labyrinth is a work of love and devotion, built by Mountain youth who painted words of inspiration on many of the stones. Walking the labyrinth is perfect for moving into your center, and I spend time there every year silently reconnecting with mine, so easily lost for most of the year, in hectic street-noisy bus-rattled San Francisco. I hope you have such a place to visit in your life.
Third, at the top of Little Scaly is a fire tower with a 360° view of Blue Valley and the surrounding mountains, hills rolling out like ocean waves toward the horizon, allowing us to gaze out at the world with more than our usual mono-focus. Each year I climb to the top of that tower five or more times a day, to watch sun and moon rise and set, watch changing weather, rolling clouds, all of which anchors me in the physical world again. On cloudless nights I plunge upward to the stars and at the same time drop deep into the dark night that’s encoded in our genes, a night of star-spray and abiding holiness that reminds me of my place, small place, in the vast eternal scheme of things.
Fourth, The Mountain is my sanctuary because of the people who gather there, both my GSV brothers and The Mountain staff. I have met some of my dearest friends on the top of that mountain, which makes my annual return more a New Year than Rosh Hashanah. And the committed, devoted Mountain staff have become family as well. Each year they remind us that we are as important to them as they are to us. In an often-hostile world, such reminders are another of The Mountain’s eye-moistening heart-soothing gifts.
Since childhood I have been a creature half recluse and half gadabout and being on Little Scaly nurtures both aspects of my ambivert nature. Surrounded by people I love, at any moment I can slip off and away into the trees again. Because it’s the trees, lastly and most importantly, who make The Mountain my sanctuary. In Two Flutes Playing I wrote about the sacred role of Gay men as the Guardians of the Trees. It’s my belief that in ancient times the elders of each tribe would come to men like us when they wanted to use wood from the planet’s once lush forests. And we, with an innate affinity for those trees, would guide them to those who could be cut and used. Many of us spent time in the arms of trees when we were boys. Did you? And to this day, no matter where we go on the planet, if we want to meet other Gay men, all that we have to do is find the nearest park. It’s in sacred groves that we have always gathered, and as we remember and embody all of our sacred roles, we are able to share again our wisdom with the world.
The trees on The Mountain are not just my family, but are also geologically and botanically unique. Tenaciously clinging to the thin soil on the summit of a granite peak, those trees always inspire and strengthen me. Many of them are over four hundred years old, and they flourish in a temperate rainforest that may get as much as 90 inches of rain a year. At an elevation of 4200 feet, Little Scaly Mountain has never been logged, unlike much of the surrounding land. Strong winds blow up over the top of the mountain, and the old growth trees may be the very last Dwarf White Oak Wind Forest in the world, a bonsai collection designed by Father Earth beneath the luminous vault of Mother Sky. What potent metaphors for a spiritual pilgrim those oaks are – old growth – wind forest – which welcome me every year, and offer their dark loving arms to me each time that I return.
I have wandered alone in those woods and found solace and comfort there. The oaks know me. The rhododendrons are near kin to the ones I hid in in my childhood. Wind in those trees is the voice of blessing, whispering whispering our sacredness, sheltering and teaching me what I need to know. So I call San Francisco my home, yet my feet only skim its surface. But in the company of the standing people on The Mountain, those sacred trees, and the walking people who share its summit, staff and GSV brothers, all my true family, I feel how deeply my roots sink into that granite outcropping, making it my spiritual home, haven, and beloved sanctuary.
Do you have a sanctuary?
Does it have trees, and do you have tree stories to tell?
If you don’t have a sanctuary, can you conceive of having one?
If you can conceive of having a sanctuary in your life, are you ready to take steps to find it?
If you aren’t ready, what will it take for you to remember that sanctuary is vital to our wellbeing and vital to the renewal of the world?
Can you envision the world as one vast sanctuary?
Is your home a mini-sanctuary and if it isn’t, what would it take for you to sanctify it?
If you agree with me that we men who love men are the natural guardians of the trees, what are you doing and what can you do to fulfill our ancient role?
For more information on GSV and The Mountain, please visit their websites:
There are many wonderful organizations working to support the reforesting of Planet Earth. To find out more about one of my favorites, please visit their website:
Trees for the Future: www.treesftf.org
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Andrew Ramer is a writer and educator. He is the author of numerous books including Revelations for a New Millenium, Little Pictures: Fiction for a New Age and the Gay classic Two Flutes Playing: A Spiritual Journeybook for Gay Men from White Crane Books.
Ramer lives in San Francisco. Praxis is a regular feature of White Crane.