Dawson’s Desert Legacy

Dawson was a wisdom holder of many traditions – Ojibwa, Hopi, Lakota and the Native American Church. He did have a second name but preferred Dawson. He was a legendary figure in Central Arizona and left a lasting impression on everyone he met. I have encountered many people at conferences and talks all over North America and when it emerges that I have spent a considerable amount of time in Central Arizona desert country, I am always asked if I know a man named Dawson. He had met all kinds of people in his capacity as a guide and teacher. Yet his attention and presence never wavered in its intensity as he welcomed all into his orbit of wisdom and patience. I first met him in 1987 on a day long ethno-botany field trip he offered in the Sonora desert region of Central Arizona. I was the only person to turn up, yet this did not deter him. He generously extended his knowledge of plants and hidden sources of water in the scrubland of the Sonora desert. His field trip skirted ancient medicine wheels created centuries ago. He talked about plant cycles within the teachings of the medicine wheel for both ceremony and healing.

Dawson was a slender yet muscular man in his sixties, though he seemed to be much older. His manner was slow and deliberate, gentle but firm though his light blue eyes carried a steely glint that spoke legions. He loved movies and would always sit there in the cinema until the end of the credits rolled past and be the last person to leave. He would stay there with his eyes closed, making a point of downloading the full feeling of the movie. That was also how he was with people, animals and the desert. He brought a sense of gentle intensity and intimacy to every relationship. The initial connection from that first field trip and movie experience warmed into a friendship. I did numerous sweat lodge ceremonies on his property near the township of Cornville, though it was the desert that always drew him out.

One evening, two years after our initial meeting, I was basking in the outdoor hot tub of the Quail Ridge Resort in Oak Creek Village, having traveled down from Canada, when I received a call from him. He asked if I would pick him up two hours before dawn the next morning. “Wear hiking boots,” he said. I drove in the early morning dark to Cornville and found him waiting outside his house. I followed his directions to take various forestry roads leading to a reserve on the northern fringe of the Sonora desert. After parking we hiked for approximately thirty minutes into the desert scrubland.

It was still dark when he gestured that we should sit. He had a flask of coffee that he shared. We also shared the intense silence of the desert, interrupted only by the slither and scurry of lizards and small animals. As daylight slowly emerged he gestured for me to look in the direction of three large cacti directly in front of us. The sun rose and I could vaguely make out the flowers on the cacti opening. It was so unusual and surprising that I really did not see them at first. Then Dawson pointed them out. They were absolutely stunning in their unreal beauty, ranging from yellow to dark violet. We sat there for over an hour, as the morning sun rose.

“You had to see this before you travelled home to Canada,” were his only spoken words as we sat close to the splendour of the cacti flowers. But it was not yet over. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, it quickly became very hot. Out of nowhere a sudden hailstone storm was upon us. We put our packs over our heads and ran quickly to the shelter of the nearest rocky outcrop. The hailstone squall lasted only for ten minutes or so. The hail stones were not small, making quite an impact on any unprotected area of the body. Dawson looked at me strangely.

“That sure is some kind of acknowledgement from the past, and it aint for me. What have you been up to Mister Ian?”  Dawson said with a shrewd glance my way. I just shrugged, as I had no intimations of cause. We walked in silence to where I had parked the car. The hailstones were not to be found beyond a hundred yard perimeter of where we had been sitting. “Beats the hell out of me,” said Dawson, as he peered at me out of the corner of his eye. These were the last words I heard him speak. As was his custom we drove in silence. He got out of the car by his property, waved once and was gone. That was the last time I saw him. On a later journey in 1992 to that region of Arizona, when enquiring about him, I discovered to my dismay that he had been killed one year prior in a car accident outside Phoenix. I was deeply saddened by this loss, thinking about all that he had so patiently taught me. I drove to where I had last walked with him, to pay my respects to this extraordinary teacher, remembering the way almost without thinking. It was not the time for the cacti to flower but I treasured once again the gift he had shown me. The hailstone storm was still a mystery to me. I wondered who he had passed on his vast knowledge to. The very small piece I had received from him had been put into place in the hermitage where I lived, in the Gatineau Forest in Quebec, across the river from Ottawa.

            Over a period of five months in the spring and summer of 1994 I experienced very intensive shamanic journeys with an Algonquin shaman that I prepared for through fasting, meditation and sexual abstinence. On five separate journeys I met in turn and dialogued with the ancient shaman from the East, the ancient shaman from the South, and the ancient shaman from the West. Then, I journeyed to the ancient shaman from the North and finally to the ancient shaman of the Center. I figured at first that this was an experience with five facets of the same archetypal material from my deep unconscious – though there were major surprises I had not anticipated. Each shaman carried the force of a distinctive unconscious energy within me, though interconnected to the other four. In each journey I was always met by the same beautiful female figure, who then led me to the ancient shaman.

In previous writings I had stated that primary access to the collective unconscious for males in western civilization was through the female archetype, the anima. The significance of this scholarly assertion was right before me in the experience of being met by a female figure in each of these five journeys. Yet I did not make this connection until much later, when I reviewed my field diaries more than a year after these particular journeys took place. It was with an almost visible shock that I noticed I had missed something so significant. There it was, Carl Jung’s anima staring me in the face from my field logs. That intellectual insight was only a half-way house to understanding what was taking place. This “anima” was much more significant and had been incorporated into my training long before I was prepared, or capable, of recognizing the significance.

At my hermitage in the middle of Gatineau Park Forest in Quebec, I had a small circle of large stones in my front yard with beautiful ferns growing at the center. I had an overwhelming compulsion that summer of 1994 to build a medicine wheel with this circle of stones as the interior circle. I had been taught by Dawson the appropriate mind-state and procedure of respect to construct a medicine wheel. I had also learned the importance of the center of the wheel and I had planned this to be right where the ferns so beautifully displayed themselves. Dawson had instructed me about the central circle of the medicine wheel. It could only be truly experienced when connection to the sacred mystery was intact. The four cardinal directions, East, West, South and North, were the organizing axis for this ultimate fusion. At the time I did not know why I took the utmost care of the ferns in the central circle of stones, though Dawson had explained to me about the fusion of the mystery at the centre. It had sunk into my intellect only. It did not reach my heart until much later.

To construct the medicine wheel in my garden, I enlisted the assistance of two friends who shared my respect and training. We carried out the appropriate ritual, reverence and construction. As we proceeded on a very hot and humid summer’s day, a silence settled on all three of us in a tangible way. Something was happening inside and around us while we were creating this architecture of incredible grace, power and beauty. I had collected the stones for the medicine wheel from my garden and the surrounding forest. They were some of the most ancient rocks on the planet, the hard granite of the Canadian Shield, and were part of the very ground where the medicine wheel was being built.

After wheeling in fresh earth from the rest of my garden to fill in the four quadrants of the medicine wheel, we contemplated what had been created. I realized with a start that it was completely related to my five shamanic journeys over the previous months. The cardinal points of the wheel are the four directions, North, South, West and East, all leading from an outer circle to an inner circle at the Center.  The five ancient shamans I had journeyed to meet. It did not register with me at the time, but the beautiful ferns at the centre were an appropriate symbol for the feminine muse to deliver me to each one of the five ancient shamans. It took me a long time to wake up to that insight.  What I did realize, however, was that I had constructed a symbolic map of my internal experience. I was re-inventing the wheel from my journeys to meet the five Ancient Shamans, yet also ensured that the beautiful ferns remained intact at the centre of the medicine wheel.

I started to smile at how this medicine lore and knowledge had gradually seeped into my consciousness from Dawson. I could feel his intense blue eyes watching me at this moment and perhaps he permitted himself a smile too. He had known that I would eventually understand, and had instructed me five years prior in the precise construction of a mental medicine wheel and quietly informed me at that time about the space at the centre being the locale where I would seek counsel from the internal feminine – the beautiful ferns at the centre no less.

 

             

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