THE BORDER LIFE
MUNICIPAL SHAMANISM
Riverdave's Journal 
This essay appeared in the Fall/Winter 2007, Vol. 20, No.2, issue of Shamanism, A semi-annual journal of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, a non-profit incorporated educational organization
 
     On Earth Day 1990, I began an ecotourism business in my hometown of Durham, North Carolina.  This was an attempt to initiate a second career, after spending 16 years working in Asia in the field of linguistics. When I returned to my hometown, I retrained myself in natural history and began to lead guided river trips in the Eno River Parklands that stretch through Durham and Orange Counties in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. 

     Initially I used various public access points to the river without any formal agreement with local authorities, which worked out well.  But eventually I needed a firmer base for my operations and by 1995 I had worked out a contract agreement with the Durham Parks and Recreation Department. I would be the resident field naturalist at West Point on the Eno Park and work exclusively within a two mile section of the Eno River that is managed by the municipality.

     I worked mainly in the warm seasons of the year and my river program, which I called “Wafting the Eno River,” soon became a local attraction.  While paddling along a quiet section of the river without rapids, we would watch for wildlife, discuss local and global environmental issues and meditate on what all this beauty and harmony meant to us as individuals and as  a community.  Around the time of each full moon we would also have nighttime wafting.  And for those who wanted an exotic nature outing, I took groups in the winter on ecotourism adventures on the Amazon River in Peru. 

     While in Peru with my groups, our itinerary always included a visit to an indigenous Amerindian group.  We would observe how these folks lived in close harmony with both land and river.  We would meet the local shaman who revealed to us how he lead his people in all night ceremonial journeys seeking help from the spirit world for various personal and community needs. This sounded absolutely fascinating to me and I often wondered how I might sneak away from my American ecotourism group and join one of those ceremonies! 

     In 1997, while paddling alone at night on my local river in North Carolina, I had an amazing encounter with a mysterious light that seemed to hover over the river in front of me.  I was abruptly changed by that experience and determined then and there that I would return to Amazonia alone, without the burden of American ecotourists, and figure out a way to participate in those all night ceremonies that I had only heard about before. I realized that it was time for me to get some real help from the pros and learn how to navigate the night with its infinite store of mysteries. I fulfilled my dream with trips to Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela in the winters of 97, 98 and 99.  Mestizo shamans were surprisingly eager to share their experiences.

     In January of 2000 I attended the Foundation for Shamanic Studies introductory workshop. Seeing an immediate application for what I was learning, I bought a drum and began to introduce sound driven journeying as a part of my night trips on the Eno River.  Although initially influenced by Michael Harner’s own ethnobotanical experience of Amazonian shamanism that he describes in the first chapter of his classic book, The Way of the Shaman, I soon found that drumming was, for obvious reasons, a much more practical tool for use in my work as a contractor with a municipality. 

     Soon afterwards I took all the advanced weekend workshops that the foundation offered. I was launched on my way in developing a night river program centered on a group drumming experience, combining elements both from my mystical experiences in Amazonia and from the Foundation’s more practical workshops. The year 2000 also provided me a partner in my wafting business and Riojosie attended the Foundation workshops with me.

     An important lesson that I have learned through my work is how to talk about my shamanic experience publicly.  As a contractor for the municipality of Durham, I have been informed that public programs are not permitted to have any overt spiritual content.  Also, it is my perception that the majority of the inhabitants of this southern community are from moderate to conservative Christian backgrounds and would find the overt language of shamanism to be unsettling at best or even threatening at worst.  Rumors of New Age spiritism would abound to the detriment and likely undoing of my program.  I would have both the non spiritual and the traditional spiritual groups snapping at me from both ends!

     Therefore, I have chosen to use a simpler and more neutral sounding vocabulary to describe the practices and phenomena of our night journey on the Eno River. Such a presentation, both in the advertising of our program and its execution, is much more palatable to both the government and the general public.  Besides generating trust on an individual level, my presentation has also encouraged the participation of adult and youth groups from the following spiritual communities: Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Quaker, Church of Christ, Unitarian, Unity, Latter Day Saints, independent “mega”  churches and Jewish congregations of Reformed, Conservative and Orthodox traditions.

The following are examples of the neutral and non-threatening terminology that I have adapted for use with my wafting groups:

Shamanic/Metaphysical Expressions                    Wafting Equivalent

spiritual                                                             intuitive or inward
shape shift                                                        visualize yourself as
speak to the spirit of the tree                             speak to the tree
shamanic                                                           neoprimitive
power animal                                                     animal helper
out of body experience/astral projection             journey
altered state of consciousness                            dream state
pray                                                                  meditate/ask
God/Spirit                                                         Mother Earth/Creator             
spirits of nature                                                 forces of nature

     The focus of our night journey on the Eno River takes place as we paddle up to a sixty foot high American elm tree that gracefully leans its canopy over the river.  To anchor our flotilla of a dozen tandem inflatable kayaks, my partner takes hold of a fallen log that projects out into the water and asks the other paddlers to hold onto our boat as we clump together on the water.    If there is a full moon, I ask everyone to orient themselves towards the moon as it rises over a low ridge to our east and sends sparkling rays of moonlight over the water in our direction.

     I then give a five minute history of how both the natives of Eastern America and the European colonists revered the elm as their ceremonial tree, while to the west of the Mississippi River it has always been the cottonwood. Sometimes I tell the story of how I had my first cosmic tree experience under a cedar of Lebanon in 1989.  If it is a group with Biblical interests, I may mention a story from the Bible that centers around a cosmic tree - like Abraham renewing his covenant with the Creator by the great oak of Moreh or Deborah making her decisions as judge of Israel while sitting under a palm tree near Bethel. 

     Next I proceed to explain in the most simple terms about journeying.  I point out that every culture on the planet uses drums or rhythmic instruments of some kind to induce various states of relaxation or heightened awareness. I then encourage my group to relax in their boats, sliding down in their seats so their heads rest on the inflatable cushions behind them.  It is a requirement that everyone register for Wafting with a partner so that they will feel comfortable together in a small boat.  Then I give everyone two choices.  The simplest is to relax in the boat, gazing up at the moon and canopy of the elm tree and be open to any inspirational thoughts that might “waft” their way in this beautiful and safe environment while I drum for ten to twelve minutes.

     For the more adventurous or experienced in meditation, I encourage them to follow what I do.  As I begin to drum, I surf its vibrational energy and then visualize myself merging with the trunk of the elm tree and rising to the top of its canopy before the full moon.  After looking down at all the bodies sprawled out in my boats below, I turn myself into a magical bird and fly away into the night.  I might visit my adult children in far away places and bring peace from the Eno River, or I might visit an ailing friend and bring healing from the full moon.  Another possible direction for the adventurous is to merge with the elm tree and drop down into its roots and explore troubled or hidden memories in one’s past. The goal of that direction is to bring those memories to the surface so that the healing elements of the night air, full moon, chirping insects, diving beavers and flowing river might resolve and transform them. 

     After completing our journey, I do a recall roll on my drum, encouraging all journeyers to return to the elm tree and drop gently down into their boats.  I then give several minutes of silence for folks to collect themselves before injecting a brief meditative pentatonic tune with my walnut flute.  Finally I invite everyone to join together in a simple song directed towards the Eno River, the moon and the elm tree.  I encourage all present to continue their journeys in their dreams upon returning home that evening and we all paddle back to our take out point a half mile down river.

     All this occurs within the structure of operating this business as a recreational contractor with the parks and recreation department of my local municipality.  I charge a fee, 15% of which I must return to the city to cover my office and boat storage space in what used to be a blacksmith’s shop in a building next to the river.  If we are rained out, I often invite my group into the blacksmith shop where we set up chairs and form a drumming circle with candle light while rain drops fall upon the tin roof.  I originally operated this river program from mid March through mid November, then shortened it from mid April through mid October, but now go only from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.  I have found this to be a more efficient use of our time, weather and river flow. 

     As a contractor with the municipality, I find that I have experienced more leeway to introduce and develop my tailored form of shamanic journeying to the community than if I were a city employee with a tighter structure and more supervision.  There is a park manager who oversees the park from an office nearby, but our relationship is friendly.  She and her husband have been out on our night river trips and found the experience to be positive.

     But I do suspect that the full details of our night experience are not passed on to higher authorities in city government.  Our nighttime shamanic experience is also deliberately overshadowed in our promotional advertising by means of an emphasis in our daytime wafting experience which focuses on environmental education through a Thoreauvian style of participation in nature.  I take out about 1500 people a summer in the daytime program verses around 500 at night.

     Another important point that I have made in the presentation of my night wafting program is to never refer to it as a Native American experience.  There are obvious reasons for this, the first being that I am not a Native American. There does exist a vital expression of Native America along the Eno River through the Occoneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, a group located upstream from Durham around the town of Hillsborough.  I want to respect their uniqueness and not try to imitate it as an outsider to their tradition. What I offer the public through my night wafting journey is an eclectic expression of shamanism based on 1) my personal experiences with the natural world while growing up and living as a native of Durham; 2) my on-location studies of diverse shamanic traditions in Asia and Latin America; and 3) my orientation to core shamanism through the Foundation of Shamanic Studies.

     Finally, I might add that in my first career, I graduated from a theological seminary in California and then worked within a Christian context. After years of wrestling with personal issues from within that context and then from without, my personal path has now evolved into a more universal transcendental perspective . But with my early background, I do feel like I am better able to navigate the current spiritual environment of my hometown and contextualize my message of respect for the natural world to a community that is very much a part of the American spiritual establishment. I  find that there are many shamanic elements embedded in the Bible that readily serve as bridges into a deeper animistic understanding of the natural world.

     I am also of the strong belief that, due to their overweighted influence at present,  the monotheistic traditions of America must catch the vision of protecting the natural world if we are ever to save our planet from environmental devastation.  If the established spiritual  communities can grasp this urgent message through their understanding of creationism and human stewardship of the creator’s gifts, then there is still hope for the planet.  And if Wafting the Eno for these folks, turns out to be an important window of exposure to the natural world and to intimacy with her elemental spirits, then I feel that my hometown mission has been accomplished and that I have truly honored the Spirits of the Land.
 
Photo from News & Observer, May 23, 2003 - Article entitled Make a Night of It by staff writer Joe Miller, with caption, "in this time exposure, Riverdave uses a flashlight to signal a group of wafters as they approach the take-out at last Friday's moonlight wafting trip on the Eno River.