By Jack Wolf
The Way of the Thornwood is a tradition which continually seeks understanding of the sacred
Balance. Like the tree in the wind the Thornish Way is rooted in deep time, yet flexible enough to sway in the winds of change. It is thus that our path has evolved over the years. When the folk of the Thornwood find something which may aid in their quest for deeper understanding; something which may reveal more shades of the great tapestry, then these paths may be explored to see where they lead.
To the Thornsman all things produced by nature are sacred and there are some things among these which because they can open doorways to spirit, are especially hallowed. Many tribal traditions make use of such spiritual keys. The tradition of the sacred smoke thus came into the teachings sometime in the mid twentieth century; brought by one of the Thornish Founders who had teachings given to him in the other lands.
The Master and his student scrambled up the last few meters of the steep, scrub clogged trail. Small stones littered the dusty path making it even more difficult for them to get a secure foothold, but at last they made it to the top – first the Master, who offered a hand to pull his student up the rest of the way.
They stood on a shallow ledge about a meter and a half wide, which was gouged out of the rock of the hillside. It was autumn and there was a litter of brown and faded green pine needles covering much of the small, rocky resting place.
The two men took a short break to catch their breath and to look around – as the view of such places is often the reward for the task of getting there. The woods, a mix of pine and spruce with a few yellow and red maples mixed among them, rolled out beneath them towards the west where the sun was descending slowly toward the horizon. The air was clear and the hint of evening frost had already made itself known to them.
The two men spoke not a word, but simply stood there, drinking in the vista on that aging afternoon.
After a moment the old Master gestured and they moved again, this time onto a small, rough trail that lead north around the stone-green-grey of the hill-face.
They continued on this narrow way, really more of a goat trail than anything hewn by man, for a while longer until they crested a short rise and found themselves facing what appeared to be a low opening in the rocks. The hole in the northwest shoulder of the hill was not very prominent: Hidden partially behind a stand of brush and a large fragment of stone it might have passed unnoticed had it not been directly in view of the trail when it ended. Here then, formed in the rock by what appeared to be a natural process, was a relatively small diameter opening, not much larger than the minimum to allow a fit, grown man passage.
The Master set his pack down and rummaged inside for a moment, finally withdrawing two small flashlights. One of these he handed to his student who was still looking at the hole in the rock somewhat warily.
The older fellow chuckled good naturedly and told the younger man that he had nothing to be worried about: This was a place well known to him.
And so, leaning down on to their hands and knees the two men crawled into the opening, the Master in the lead, dragging their backpacks behind them.
The student, once inside, looked around with his light. He was young, in his mid twenties, and was intensely curious.
The Master had been here before: He had gone ahead to where a man of his average height could stand inside the cave, and there indeed he stood, watching the student as he beamed his flashlight about.
The cave was not overly large as some caves go: It was about fifteen meters in diameter and roughly rounded as far as the relatively level stone floor went. The curved roof was approximately three meters high at the midpoint. The walls were rough in some places and worn smooth in others.
At the far back wall of the cave, almost directly opposite of the small entryway, there was a deep, dark crack in the stone set vertically in the rock, about half the height of a man. It was about thirty centimeters wide; not great enough to admit a person’s entry.
Above the crack, on each side, he could see that there were two metal pins (they looked almost like railway spikes) driven into the wall. He imagined that these sturdy pieces of metal, aged as they appeared, must have taken considerable effort to install. They were the only items in the cave that did not appear to be overly ancient.
The student briefly wondered what the pins (as he thought of them as) were for, but this curiosity soon dissolved as his eyes adjusted and he began to see more clearly in the semi-dark.
What originally had fascinated the student was not so much the cave itself or the rather ominous black fissure at the back of it. But after a moment as he shone his light around he became deeply intrigued by the art that decorated the ancient rock walls.
Spirals and primitive geometric shapes; some carved into the rock and others painted in red coloring, sprawled across the surface to about half the height of the ceiling. The roof of the cave had been left bare of the symbols and as he looked the younger man could see that the ceiling was black with ages-old soot.
This, by process of association, drew his gaze to the floor where indeed, as he had suspected, there was, not far from the feet of his teacher, a very small, neatly constructed fire-ring of rounded, reddish stones.
As his teacher picked up his pack and moved it to a place near the far wall of the cave the student could also see that there was a substantial pile of neatly cut firewood leaning against the rock. How long it had been there he did not know but he suspected that his mentor may have had some hand in that.
The young man wondered how long the various drawings had been there. Hundreds of years? Thousands? He resolved to ask his teacher but in that moment suddenly felt constrained to silence; as if the spirit of that place for the moment at least, was taking pleasure in their relative stillness.
The Master took out his knife and went to the wood pile, where he took some smaller branches and twigs and began to stack these in the small fire-pit. He shaved some even smaller bits onto the floor from a piece of wood and after a moment gently placed these into the bottom of the tiny pyramid of kindling he was constructing. This did not take long and in his experienced hands he soon, with the aid of a single match, brought the tiny pile to an orange-red-yellow blossom of fire-light.
To the tiny incendiary structure he added some more wood, slightly larger pieces this time, followed momentarily buy additional bits of material. It was not long before he had a respectable, yet small and efficient blaze dancing away there in the center of the cave floor.
The Master turned off his flashlight and the student over by the entrance did the same. The kaleidoscope of dancing light was much more suited to the small cave and indeed its flickering movements made the designs on the walls seem to move as though alive in some delightfully magical way.
At last the Master drew out something that looked like a piece of hide rolled around a stick. He set that to the side of the cave, near the wood-pile, and then he went back over to the pack and drew out two small, folded coarse-weave blankets. He passed one over to the student and the other he arranged as a kind of sitting mat beneath himself.
The student came over and sat opposite of his teacher by the tiny fire. He had wondered about the wisdom of having a fire, however small, in such a relatively small space, yet as his eyes readjusted yet again he saw that a good deal of the smoke produced by the small blaze went directly to the crack in the wall where it disappeared.
“Your grandfather believed there was a much bigger cave on the other side of that wall.” The Master, whose tribal name was Raven, said. “But we never investigated or tried to get inside there out of respect for the cave spirits who live in there.” The student nodded. “It makes a good chimney.” He said.
“Yes it does.” Raven replied. “There is no problem with the fire depleting the air in here. People have been making fires in this place for a very long time with no ill effect.”
They sat a moment more in silence. The only sound was the crackle of the flames in the fire-pit.
“One day I will hand you a bunch of things my friend.” Said the older man to the younger. “Indeed I’m already handing you things…by teaching. But one day you will have the whole packet, so to speak. “
The younger man nodded but said nothing.
“And when that happens I want you to study it and then throw about half of it out, because as I have told you; there are times when possessions become the burden.”
“So you hope for me to absorb all I can and then kind of filter through it all?”
“We all evolve.” Raven said, nodding. “So too then does our tradition evolve and grow. It was never meant to be a religion, and so it is not and never will be. It was never meant to be anything but what it is and that is a tribal way, yet it is different now in my keeping than it was in the time of my teacher and so it will be different under yours.”
“We are like the mighty tree, the great primal cedar tree.” The Master added after a moment. “We have an ancestry which may have come from afar – like seeds on the wind – and even though we have a good hold on the Middle World we sway in the wind.”
The student sat silently for a moment more, before replying with a question of his own.
“Religion is the lure of the herdsman.” He added. “While the song of spirit guides the pack. Freedom can never be found within the hoary walls of religion. Freedom can only be found where there are clear views of forest and sky. ”
After a moment Raven spoke again. “But yes, change is a sign of flexibility.”
“If it is to change all the time won’t it become so different eventually that it is not the same as it was intended to be?”
Raven shook his head. “Not so.” He gestured around. “Look at the walls of this place: They were painted long ago, most of them but if you look carefully you will see that they have been added to over time. I myself added a spiral here, about twenty years ago, as did my own Teacher before me. Many men and even a few honored women, white and black and native; we have been coming here for a long time in peace and friendship. It is the old way. The artists have changed and their styles have been each a little different, but the overall tapestry of the way remains the same. Each Master adds his own shade to the canvas so to speak and yet that is not going to change the overall work: The overall tradition.”
Raven paused for a long silence. Only the crackle of the tiny fire filled the air with sound.
“It’s the truth of the root that counts.” He said.
“And it’s the root that we are looking for?” The student asked.
“Yes.” Raven replied. “Sometimes the tree needs to be groomed; trimmed so that it does not become overly tangled….it is the tangling that we wish to avoid because it clouds the view.”
“I think I understand.”
“You will, though I see that you are opening your eyes a bit more each day.”
There was again a short comfortable silence.
“We are not for everyone, as you know. It is not our place to please but rather it is our place to assist the Balance. The root we come from is a thing that was forged together like two cuttings of roots from great trees: one was of the oak of northern Europe in a time before the Lies came and infected everything. The other root cutting was from the mighty cedar or the great fir. Together the two created a very powerful entity that has been growing now for many, many years.”
Raven paused to put some more wood on the fire. Momentarily the flames crackled a bit higher.
“Yet over time we see that the great tree has grown tall and flexible as it reaches up into the windy sky. New blood has come to the roots from various other places: From other bloodlines that are not Native or European like some of our bloodlines are. This is natural and inevitable, yet the road remains the same: The path is a return to deep tribe. It is a fine line and keeping that balance is what we all must do.”
“The balance of tribe?” the student asked.
“Yes. That and not letting it get ahead of us. Not letting it grow too thick for us to lose sight of the fact that basically, at the root we are all walking a tribalist way: The Indian way of our North American relations but also the ancient tribal way of our Elder ancestors from many northern lands: Our elder relations who all come from places and times before the Lie and its poisonous influence.”
“Deep tribe.” Suggested the student.
“Yes.” Raven agreed. “Deep tribe.”
“The spirituality part is somewhat foggy for me.” Said the student.
“It is rather simple.” Raven relied in answer. “We are part of the balance and the deep, sacred spirit of the land. We see the laws of balance all around us in nature and we live as close to the land as we can. We reject the rules of men in the larger scope of things and we walk our northern equivalent of what our Indian relations call the Red Road. It is a kind of deep green road actually. We have Elders who as you know we sometimes call Aldar-folk, and we have wisdom passed down to us. We have our levels of learning and responsibility. We have basic rules but no heavy doctrine: We want our people to continuously write the book, not blindly obey what someone else has already written. We don’t believe that our way is the only way for everyone. We simply hold that it is OUR way. It is not a religion but an understanding of deep spirit. I hope by now you know the difference.”
“Thus the keeping it simple part.” The student added, nodding.
“Yes.” Raven replied. “And this is why every once in awhile we go out like gardeners and we prune the tree; weed the garden, etc. We don’t want it to get too complicated because if that happens often dogma or some other mutated creation occurs.”
“Yes, I see.” The student said. “I understand why it has been called the other names as well.
“Such as the North-Road or the Wolf-Road.” Raven affirmed with a smile. “Yes, but they are all just names. We are a small gathering; a small, relatively mobile tradition. We survive and thrive where many would not and we are fiercely loyal to our folk. We hold common beliefs and we will do what we need to, to continually deepen ourselves.”
“I prefer the term Wolf-Road.” The student said.
Raven grinned. “So do I, little brother. So do I. It describes us quite well for as Thornfolk we have many animal spirits among us yet we all share the wolf characteristics of deep loyalty and the skills to survive almost anything anywhere.”
“So we try to keep it simple.”
“Yes we do. “ Raven replied.
“One day soon the world is going to start showing changes of the type I told you about before: the things leading up to massive change. When that happens the Thornish people will need good leadership to get through the times that will come. Leadership in our way is given by the people to our Masters and Elders and these Masters and Elders always lead with their heart open to the will of their people. The tribe with the most solid foundations and the least baggage will have the tools to survive and believe me many tribes won’t – and I am not even trying to talk about the herd. They will be culled as we have all discussed before: they create their own doom.”
“Yes, I know it. I can already see that.”
“We are tribal people; tribesmen of Deep-tribe and a people of Deep Time. If we are to survive so that our stories can be told we need to have the clarity of purpose and the lack of complications in our traditions. This is part of the reason that Sacred smoke is a part of our traditions. It brings clarity in those moots and Deepenings where such clarity is required.”
Again the two men sat in comfortable silence.
“One day I hope you will take what you have been given and maybe write it all down in a book.” Raven told his student. “I have seen that talent in you from day one and I know that you have the gift to be able to write. You are much like our brother, Fox in that way.”
The student smiled sadly when he thought of his lost brother. He nodded .
“Maybe one day I will write it all down; what you have taught us.” He said.
Raven gestured towards the entrance to the cave behind the student. The student turned and saw that night had fallen: All was dark outside the small entryway.
Raven got up and moved toward the wall where he unrolled the old, faded piece of deerskin from around the stick it had been wrapped on. The skin had been sewn in such a way that it hung from the stick like a long, tan-brown banner. Raven took the deerskin-on-the-stick and set it so that the two ends of the stick rested on the metal pins that had been installed in the wall. The skin hung down across the black fissure in the wall, effectively blocking it.
“There is more than enough ventilation in here.” Raven said, sitting back down and taking a small, stone pipe from his bag. He loaded it with sacred herbs and with a small twig, set the herbs to light. The pipe was simple, with a reddish stone head and a long wooden stem. While the pipe itself was not considered especially sacred, its contents and the seriousness of the spiritual gateway it provided certainly were. Among the Thornfolk the sacred herb- smoke was considered a sacrament; it was never used for anything but the most sincere acts of spiritual seeking and reasoning. Just as with hallowed mead or sacrificial wine or ale, a portion of the herbs would later be set out on a stone later for the spirits of that place.
“There is enough ventilation without us giving all of our sacred smoke to the cave spirits.” He added.
“With respect.” Raven said, drawing on the pipe. Within a moment the fragrant smoke filled the cave.
“With respect.” The student replied.
“And now, with clarity we will see if we can give you some more of our traditions for safe-keeping.” Raven said.
He smiled and passed the pipe.
The student accepted the pipe and took a draw of its fragrant, sacred smoke.
He gazed upon the embers of the cheerful little fire…and waited for the drumming to begin.