An inch of water wobbles in the handmade bowl cupped between my hands. I raise the clay vessel to the cloudless sky, praising rains long past for nourishing the land, for allowing streams to flow, for recharging the subterranean aquifer whose miracle waters runs through my household tap. Although right now no water comes through the tap; something has gone awry with the shared well and our neighborhood is without water. The land that holds a community well also holds remnants of ancient pottery: plain potsherds buried in sand between pinyon and juniper. Some of the broken pots once held water, the priceless treasure of the desert.
This land is dry and crisp with cheatgrass. The monsoon has not arrived. A grass fire has already been sparked, and feverishly extinguished, in my neighborhood. I’ve recently arrived home after eight days on Idaho’s Salmon River, and am still in a mad love trance with water, still dripping, still sensing the body of that muscular river: clear, deep, sinuous, insisting on a mutual embrace. A wild adoration of water accompanied me home to a land of drought, to a southern Utah labyrinth of sandstone canyons and mesas sculpted by wind and water. To keep the love trance with water alive and present in the dry land, I’m re-awakening a ceremonial practice for clouds, for rain, for monsoon.
The great geologian Thomas Berry writes, “There must be a mystique of the rain if we are ever to restore the purity of rainfall.” Cultures more Earth-based than ours still revere the rain, but in modern life, it’s all too easy to forget that the water splashing into our sinks and washing machines once fell from the sky; it’s easy to forget the wild life and transformative journey of rain. It’s customary to have no relationship with rain at all except for noting the weather’s impact on our human lives. It’s easy to feel annoyed by an absence of tap water while hefting my stash of emergency containers. So I’m teaching myself to regard water – even, especially, tap water – as a gift, as an unfathomable elixir, as the holy essence of our lives. To be honest, I forget more than I remember. And then there is the awkwardness of teaching myself something that is outside the margins of the culture. Who wouldn’t feel clumsy and conspicuous, offering a bowl of water to the sky, aloud, with praise? But the more often I engage in ceremony for water, or rain, or monsoon, the more often I notice the clouds, or that I’ve turned on the tap, or that I’m swallowing a trickling stream.
Holding the clay bowl high, I speak elaborate honorings to the water from the sky; I sing for rain and winter snow whose drops seep and melt into sand and stone and aquifer.
A few days of such practice saturates my attention.
Once praise of water begins, where does it end? Over days and weeks, I sing for fruit trees, seedlings, frogs, fish, flowers, pinyon, sage, moss, river, creeks, springs, gentle rain, storm – all forms and shapes of water, which is suddenly flooding everything. Of course water is always present in everything, but who notices? Amidst this long ceremony for water, I keep getting splashed by ghost rain. I smell a storm as I type, though I can tell by the clouds the monsoon is not yet near. I make verbal love offerings to clouds whose bellies are faintly darkening, gathering moisture. I share my body with spring-fed creeks. When I emerge, the water evaporates and my skin tightens. Little flesh fissures crack. My voice scratches and shrinks as vocal chords dry out. I remember a few words from Wendell Berry, who was born in a year of drought: “I am a dry man whose thirst is praise / of clouds, and whose mind is something of a cup.”
Can it hurt to make ceremonies for rain when the land is so dry and the air crackles? I offer wild prayers for the sky to open, not just with rain but with thunderous revelation. May my own thirst become praise.
Water ceremony is a way of restoring a mystique of rain, at least for this one person engaged in ceremonies for the old rain and rain yet to fall. It’s also a way of altering, or animating, my perception. Clouds become not only picturesque cumulus or thunderheads, but also mesmerizing companions, graceful dancers, bearers of secrets and immeasurable treasure. Rain becomes a living presence, a shapeshifting wanderer with its own longings.
Rain is forecast today. I have been checking the forecast multiple times an hour, mood fluctuating with the latest radar. Monsoon is growing south of here. I scan the forecast map anxiously, as if it reveals the secret. Then I remember to take the bowl outside and sing wild and watery prayers to the sky, to the dry grasses and magpies. Passively watching the screen forecast keeps my mind on abstract potentials, but making offerings with my voice and body ignites my senses and imagination – even if the clouds keep their own counsel.
Re-awakening a mystique of rain – or a mystique of Earth – isn’t a simple task for anyone indoctrinated into the dominant worldview of a dead universe. Like meditation or yoga or darts, it is a practice – a practice that weaves together ecology and spirituality, a practice that might satisfy both the ecologist and mystic, the pragmatist and visionary. Ecology suggests that nothing exists in isolation. Interdependence – or networks of relationship – is primary. Many spiritual traditions also suggest the interconnectedness of all things. If our lives interpenetrate not only with human creatures but with the wilder others as well, then how we enact our lives – how we participate, how we engage our relationships with the Earth community – may matter more than we can imagine. Could we human creatures teach ourselves a new story, a story of embodied awe and reverence for rain, for rivers and oceans?
My ancestors – probably all of our ancestors – inhabited an animate world. Presumably, they treated the beings, elements, and forces upon which their lives depended with gratitude and respect. These practices are not lost to us. Enacting ceremonies for the wild Earth as if it matters may be a way of disrupting the deadening filters of modern consciousness, and allowing the many other beings to come alive in our awareness.
I believe my ancestors lived with a mystique of rain. May the ceremonies I engage honor them. Perhaps the ceremonies help reawaken the old, ancestral mind that even now remembers mystical relationship and kinship with life.
In the night I wake to the scent of distant rain long before it splatters the roof. I throw off the sheet and run outside barefoot to offer wild prayers and love songs to monsoon.
Geneen Marie Haugen’s writing has appeared in many collections and journals, including Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, Thomas Berry: Dreamer of the Earth, Written River, Parabola Journal, Kosmos, Ecopsychology, and High Country News. She guides with Animas Valley Institute.