What comes to mind when you think about walking a trail in one of our parks, not just for exercise or nature observation, but also as a pilgrim? What makes a journey into any natural landscape a pilgrimage? And in today’s climate—both the literal climate of our stressed planet and also the cultural climate that we help create—what’s the purpose for pilgrim walking?
For me, understanding all of this does not come, well, naturally. I’m actively studying “pilgrimage” by reading what wise people have written, talking with individuals who live and teach as latter-day pilgrims and, ultimately, walking in nature to consult the land itself. The dire predicament of our planet’s living systems is the larger context now for all of my big life questions, including ones about nature pilgrimage.
You’d think I might already have some deeper understanding here. Last April, I joined a few dozen people on an Earth Day pilgrimage, hiking to the summit of the West Marin landmark that gives Black Mountain Circle its name. This local nonprofit, whose mission interweaves nature, spirit and story, arranged access with Black Mountain Ranch owner Dave Osborn. We walked in order to notice what our living planet now is asking of human beings.
As things turned out that day, the mountain itself, like a wise elder, directed our inquiry. The steep climb and springtime beauty relieved many walkers from the constant buzz of thoughts and distractions. The land invited us to walk in silence. Arriving at the mountain’s summit, we felt enlivened, like human conduits between the moist earth and the bright atmosphere. Our revered guide that day, Sky Road Webb, taught us songs inspired by his Coast Miwok lineage. Connection with our living planet was abundant.
Since that time, Black Mountain Circle has kept exploring pilgrimage as a way of finding the sacred in nature and focusing human intention. A primary way to learn about this is to journey into the landscape on foot.
Last August, the group hosted a two-day walk to physically connect with the entirety of Lagunitas Creek, from upper San Geronimo Valley to Tomales Bay. The route took those 20 pilgrims along a section of Black Mountain’s foot where the creek flows westward from Platform Bridge. Leading this pilgrimage were Kate Bunney and Scott Davidson. Kate is an innovative activist devoted to restoring healthy watersheds and human communities through a program called Walking Water. Scott is a skilled nature-awareness tracker based in West Marin. So I took my questions about pilgrimage to both of these insightful people.
My conversation with Scott took place during a morning walk near Bear Valley. We mostly listened to the place—and covered all of 200 meters, exchanging about 50 words. He later told me, in regard to pilgrim walking, “There’s a kind of devotional surrender to being guided with each step, in true intimate contact with the mystery of life.”
I asked Kate what distinguishes a pilgrim walk from a day hike, even a quiet, introspective one. She answered, “As a group we set an intention at the start of a pilgrim walk. Then we go mostly in silence, with attention on the landscape. We stop along the way and hold council, so that everyone present, even those on differing sides of an issue, can enter into strong connection with one another and the Earth. It’s a way of changing how we live in order to be part of the healing needed today.”
This brings to mind the long, silent walk begun by former West Marin resident John Francis as a response to the 1971 oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. His years-long pilgrimage, which John called Planetwalk, has generated extraordinary attention for healing our environment.
Both John Francis and Kate Bunney will be part of a remarkable gathering in Point Reyes Station on March 16 about redefining pilgrimage. Among the other presenters that day will be the organizers of a two-week journey by foot and boat up the Sacramento River to Lake Shasta. Tracing the migration route of endangered Chinook salmon, they aim to help protect both the fish and lands sacred to the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. Now that’s sacred pilgrimage in action!
The quiet paths of Point Reyes will be my main place to ask the trees and streams and ferns and finches for the courage to notice what the Earth now needs from us humans. Enriched by the March 16 gathering and related events throughout 2019, this is a way for me to map my personal geography of hope.
On Saturday, March 16, Black Mountain Circle will host “Geography of Hope, The Sacred in the Land: Pilgrimage Redefined.” The day will feature conversations with writers, activists and Native American leaders, plus songs, storytelling and wisdom from traditions around the world to illuminate ways that pilgrimage can be a form of social activism. Details about the program and how to register are at gohevents.org. The gathering includes an optional pilgrimage walk on March 17, led by Kate Bunney and beloved West Marin wise woman Wendy Johnson. Other related events in 2019 include a series of four seasonal pilgrim hikes with Kate.
Claire Peaslee is a writer and Earth devotee who lives in Point Reyes Station.