Forests and Spirituality in Sedona

Last March, I visited a small town called "Sedona" in Arizona, which is in the southern part of the U.S. It is about two hours drive up north from the state capital of Phoenix. Another two hours’ drive farther to north will take you to the Grand Canyon.

Phoenix is a city built on a dry plain, while the Grand Canyon is a canyon which has been eroded by rivers for hundreds of millions of years to look as it now stands. Sedona is somewhere in-between in terms of topographic characteristics.

The boundless sky spreads like the universe beyond the horizon which is dried up in the scorching sun in the South. In the azure sky stand out red craggy mountains surviving and witnessing the ages since the Earth came into being.

Sedona has gradually become known also in Japan as a place you can experience spirituality. The Japanese media, however, are playing with the word “spirituality” confusing it with some kind of fortune-telling by bringing up former lives, auras and the like.

There are spots scattered in Sedona, where you can feel energy quite different from any of those “spiritual things.” The spots are called “vortexes” and are used to be sacred places for the Native Americans.

I wonder if the special energy welling out from the land is the same as the one I feel when I am in a forest.

I have spent a couple years in a mountain village in Toyama Prefecture. During those years, I visited quite a few forests across the country and experienced various kinds of jobs as a staff member of a forestry cooperative. Every forest has an atmosphere of its own, or individuality, should I say. Forests on the island of Yakushima, for example, are massive and powerful, yet at the same time delicate in some ways. Deep mountains in Toga, where I walked through everyday, seemed aloof from others with proud.

Every forest has its individuality just like every person has. It may be natural to think that a forest, which is made up of a great number of living things, is itself a living creature as well. That’s probably the source of the energy from the land.

I walked in this sacred place, Sedona, thinking of these and other things.

Meanwhile, I came up to the most famous place in Sedona, “Red Rock Crossing.” It is a bewitchingly beautiful place where dry riverbeds of Oak Creek stretch out and where you can enjoy the scenery with one of the vortexes called “Cathedral Rock” in the distance. A range of large sycamore trees make a white forest, and the river flows between the red dry riverbeds with its surface glittering. I felt really peaceful in my mind in the dazzling sunlight.

I then climbed up the huge Cathedral Rock. As its name suggests, the rock seemed even bigger than the Duomo in Florence. It took about forty minutes to reach its top. Although there are some parts where I had to scramble on all fours, it did not seem to take long at all. I felt as if I was wrapped in warm and comfortable blankets. There must be some special power that springs from the land.

Sedona is also called a “Red Rock County”. Strata there are said to have been formed hundreds of millions of years ago. I saw rugged mountains have red, pink and gray layers. Walking on a dry reddish soil, it shimmers with crystal particles it contains.

However, Sedona is not a place that parches up like a dessert. Plants belonging to the opuntia and yucca families grow all over the plain, and trees of the cypress family such as Utah junipers grow on the slope from the foot halfway up the rugged mountains. All of them are gifts from the Oak Creek which runs through the land from north to south. There must be bountiful forests up the stream of the river where the water flows off. I had longed to see those forests.

I asked my travel agent to find a forest guide in Sedona before I left Japan. A Ms. Sado of the Sedona Tourist Information Center was kind enough to accept my request and acted as a guide. She is a young Japanese living in the U.S. since her early childhood because of her parents’ jobs, and for some reason or other she came to work in Sedona. Ms. Sado was apparently enjoying a happy life there.

My local guide in and around Sedona was a Richard T. Lynch, who was a talkative, cheerful and nice guy. Richard drove a jeep upstream along the Oak Creek. Some 20 minutes later, we were amid rich woodland scenery. It was the “Coconino National Forest,” a splendid forest with gigantic trees growing luxuriantly.

We went on trekking on a bank of the West Fork River which flows into the Oak Creek. It is one of the most popular trekking courses in the U.S. On both sides of the well-maintained trail towered sheer cliffs with red, pink and gray layers just like what I saw in Sedona. The trail looked like a time tunnel leading us to the ancient Earth.

The sunlight reflects on the surface of the flowing river, making the surrounding rocks of countless ages glitter as if they were rippling. Mingled with the gentle stream sound of early spring I listened to, I also caught between whiles the tweeting and chirping of wild birds. As it was March, I saw only very few leaves put forth from the trees. I imagined the valley would glisten golden, come summer and then fall. The sight of the maples, oaks, and sycamores all of them coloring the trail has been firmly imprinted in my memory.

Thinking of the beautifulness of the lives inherited throughout the ages from the very dawn of time on the Earth, I certainly felt the spirituality welling up from the land.

On the final stage of our trip, we visited Mr. Vernon Foster, a Native American who was a quiet man and seemed to have sadness in the innermost fold of his heart. He inherited what is called a “sweat lodge,” which is a kind of steam bath where one of the Lakota’s traditional rituals takes place. His tent-covered sweat lodge was located in the midst of a forest. People say that, true to its name, it helps to purify their spirits by sweating and shedding tears.

It took us almost one hour by car from Sedona to reach Vernon’s place in a small village. Pastures spread out before us with the grass bending in the wind. I also saw luxuriant oak forests. I was surprised to find Native Americans and forests living side-by side there, because I had thought until then that the Native Americans – known as American Indians before – lived by and large in arid regions. I found out later that they had been driven out of their ancestral homeland.

The sweat lodge ritual takes place in the forest. Vernon guided us there, where teenage girls were collecting firewood and scooping up water. Two of them, Samantha and Ashley, were Vernon’s daughters. There were three other girls of the same generation. I heard they lived away from home, as their parents had alcohol or drug problems.

The Fosters not only were taking care of these “drug children,” but at the same time volunteered to help their parents devise and carry out rehabilitation programs. I saw so intense a fear and anger in the children’s eyes that I really felt pity stirring in my heart.

The framework of a small dome-shaped tent had been assembled in an open space in the forest. It was then covered with cloth, and then tightly shut. There was a hollow in the center of the ground. Around the hollow sat in a circle all the participants, including Vernon, his wife Rita, who is a shaman, and me.

Vernon put heated stones in the hollow one after another and poured water on them. When it became as sweltering hot in the tent as in a sauna, we all sang traditional Lakota songs together. Vernon told us to wash our sadness away by singing the songs. Soaked with sweat and tears in the rising dense steam, I sang the songs loudly, imitating and following Vernon. I felt as if I became totally prostrate and empty. Rita started crying. She was sad because a boy she and Vernon were supposed to adopt was taken back by his parents’ relatives. We felt released at last from the deep sadness until then locked in our heart.

After the ritual, I had dinner with the Fosters. We enjoyed tacos which were quite substantial. Vernon said he devoted his life to uphold the traditions and spirituality of the Native Americans and hand them down to future generations. Actually, it is only very recently that the Native Americans took back and resuscitated their long-deserted traditions, because they had been relegated and confined to “reservations” for long. The sweat lodge ritual is one of their traditions banned by the government, and it did not take place until 1984. When the first space shuttle lifted off to the space in the early 1980s, the Native Americans were still put in chains, so to speak, on the ground. Years have passed since the government “withdrew” the ban. But the scars have yet to disappear from their hearts.

I think I found the true spirituality in the Fosters, who were trying to maintain the old traditions and protect their heart-wounded children.

You don’t need to explain the logic when you help children recover from sickness of the spirits. You don’t need to explain the reason why you feel sad and shed tears when you are pulled away from your children. It is no different from being grateful for the mother earth and the sun or finding beauty in trees and flowers. It is people’s innate and natural feeling. I am confident that that is exactly what the spirituality truly means.

It would have little meaning to argue about your previous life or the color of the aura you emanate. It is understandable that people seek for salvation, even transient, in the chaotic times. It might help you feel better if a psychic told you about the life you lived during your previous existence or if a fortune-teller said you wouldn’t go to hell if you changed your way of life. However, your heart will soon be rusted if you think only of yourself.

I believe it important to appreciate the mighty power of the Earth and to feel moved by miracles of nature in order to enhance our spirituality. I am now convinced that the spirituality can be glorified by widening the circle of happiness from people close to us to those rather distant from us.