Several years ago, Amber and I backpacked over a pass in Tucson's Catalina Mountains. Dropping into the top of a stream-carved canyon, we set up camp by a waterfall above an inaccessible pool. At the far edge of the pool, on a large flat rock, the makings of a fire had been laid. Bundles of twigs, broken into even lengths, neatly stacked. Tinder surrounded by the scaffolding of a fire that sat unlit. I could see no path to the rock; there were no signs of who had prepared the fire or why.
I've remained enchanted by this unexpected sight, returning to it often in my mind's eye when I need to connect to something bigger than the the stress of daily life and the distress of injustice and suffering.
On the first day of our recent camping trip, along the banks of Oregon's magical McKenzie River, I found myself drawn to a flat rock, inspired to pause. To take in the beauty, and to reflect it back. To notice what called to me, to bring those items into some kind of relation with each other and with myself in an act of silent devotion. As I selected bits of moss and lichen, and assembled them with cedar and pine cones around a volcanic rock, I decided to create an earth altar at some point on each day of our trip.
The next day found us southbound, stopping at the Roseburg cemetery that houses the bones of Amber's grandfather, a pilgrimage Amber had made with her own Dad just a year before. As Amber cleared the matted grass from his grave marker and washed it, I collected fallen plums and leaves from a nearby tree.
The next day, in our campsite deep in the California redwoods, I leaned into a chest-high burl to create an altar honoring my friend Marcy, at the same moment as our community was gathering around her grave back in Portland to mark the year anniversary of her death.
An altar ended up decorating each of our succession of campsites. Others, I fashioned during a pause from a hike through the woods, on a river's edge, or by the ocean.
My favorite site of all was the wild spit of sand at the mouth of the Klamath River where the salmon swim in from the Pacific, a sacred place of abundance tended since the beginning of remembered time by the Yurok People. While hundreds view this rugged place from a state park overlook everyday, we were the only ones down on the beach itself, given access by the Yurok family that operates the historic inn we'd happened upon.
Every piece of driftwood, every water-worn rock and tattered seed pod and piece of flotsam felt alive. Intertwining those moments of my life with the fingers and toes of the natural world felt like a form of praise. In each of those settings, for the minutes I spent making an altar, I felt deeply at peace, deeply at home.