With Starhawk: Dreaming the Dark and the Light

The night I returned home from an intense weekend workshop at Rowe with Starhawk, I had a disturbing dream.

A little girl, dressed in a pink jumper, was crying that she was lost, she had to find her father. So I took her by the hand and we started looking for her father in an urban landscape—first on the street, then in an apartment hallway with many doors. I said to her, do you remember what the floor of your home looked like? Was it wooden? Black and white tile? We stopped at several doors but they weren’t the right one. Then we came to the one with the blue-green patterned tiles, and her father was in the doorway.

As soon as I saw him I was afraid…he seemed like a devil, a mean, cruel man, although he smiled (leered, more like) as he came forward in the doorway to receive her. And she went to him, whimpering. There were people gathered in the apartment behind him, all dressed creepily in black, watching something on a screen in a darkened room. He thanked me for bringing her back, and I turned away, with a sick feeling, thinking she was going to be hurt or punished for “running away.”

As I turned away I heard her whimpering turn to full-out crying, a terrible keening sound, and I felt paralyzed—what should I do? Should I call Child Protective Services? Clearly this little child needed my help, but I was afraid that if I called the police or other authorities, the “father” would know who called and would come after me.

So I did what any dreamer does when paralyzed by fear—I woke up.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this dream, especially as it seems to be a kind of psychological bridge between Starhawk’s remarkable rituals honoring Mother Earth, and my own upcoming writing workshop on “purposeful memoir,” which uses the elements as a way to frame and explore parts of one’s life journey.

I feel sure that I was both the small child in the dream, and the adult who was trying to help her find her way “home.” The problem was that “home” was a dangerous, confusing, love-and-hate kind of place, ruled over by a “father” who was punitive, frightening and loving in a controlling kind of way. The adults sitting in the dark background passively watching the screen are human society writ large, especially our Western, technology-obsessed society. The little child with her bright pink outfit and fearful, wanting-to-trust eyes, stood out here as a wholly other kind of being, but one which would, in the pinching hands of her “father,” be formed and molded into just another one of these pale, eerie, zombified adults.

We talked a lot last weekend about how frightening it is that we Westernized humans have become so very disconnected from the natural world. As Starhawk gathered us in circles to ritually salute the four elements and the four directions (Earth/North, Fire/South, Water/West, Air/East), as well as the Center/Spirit, it seemed like a dream of an older way of being that I dimly remembered, from a time before I had taken my seat among all the other adults sitting before screens in darkened rooms.

After the last circle

After the last circle

We listened to the birds singing and the wind blowing through the new spring leaves; marveled at how the veins of the leaves mirrored the veins in our own bodies and the bigger veins of river waters on the body of the Earth; and let our combined voices, chanting around a sparking fire in praise of the elemental unity of all Life, blur together into a wordless ringing sound that cast our intention to be of service to Mother Earth high up into the starry sky.

Following Starhawk along a labyrinth made of stones lined with vivid purple violets, I thought about my desire to help others explore their own lives in elemental terms, looking back at where we’ve come from in order to see more clearly who we are and who we wish to become. In writing my own memoir, the elemental structure emerged organically from the trajectory of my life: Earth the childhood ground of my being; Water the stream of culture I’d been sucked into as an adolescent and young adult; Fire the years of adulthood, being tested on many fronts; and Air running through it all as reflections from my current perch, back on the Earth of middle age, trying to recover my grounding in order to move more intentionally into the next stage of my life.

A rainbow halo around the sun, right over our circle

A rainbow halo around the sun, right over our circle

My dream, in which I was both the crying little girl who felt compelled to find her way back “home” and the concerned adult who could see just how damaging and hostile that “home” was, seems to represent my awareness these past few years of how destructive our American “home culture” is to the sweet, sensitive Earth-centered children who are born into this harsh, techno-dominated world and cleave to it with innocent fidelity.

We are instinctively loyal to our families and our birth cultures, even when on some level we are aware that they are not always healthy for us. And the adult “me” in my dream, anguished about handing over the child to this destructive “father” figure, was like any bystander in a negative scenario, desperately choosing to remain silent out of fear of retribution, fear of bringing the hostility down on myself.

In my memoir workshop next week, I want to guide others to explore how thinking about our lives in elemental terms can help us make sense of our past, and give us a firm footing from which to overcome our conditioning and our fears and take the full measure of our life’s purpose.

Three generations

Three generations

We all came into this life wide-eyed and open-hearted, looking for love and warmth. It’s fascinating to explore what happens as we are received by our families and our home cultures, and swept along into the fast-moving currents of life, heading towards the fires of adulthood.

But what really matters is what comes next. What will we do with our one precious life, as Mary Oliver put it so poignantly? Can we step back from our loyalties and conditioning and figure out what it is we care about enough to stand up for and give our lives to?

Starhawk on the path

Starhawk on the path

Starhawk has moved in the past decade or so from a focus on a largely metaphorical, feminine-inflected Earth-based spirituality to a much more grounded practice in permaculture, “a multi-disciplinary art form, drawing from the physical sciences, architecture, nutrition, the healing arts, traditional ecological knowledge, and spirituality. The ethical underpinnings that guide permaculture are simple yet powerful: take care of earth, take care of the people, and share the surplus.”

In her Earth Activist Trainings, she seeks to help us reimagine a new kind of culture, one in which nature and human society are seamlessly intertwined. “EAT is practical earth healing with a magical base of ritual and nature awareness, teaching you to integrate mind and heart, with lots of hands-on practice and plenty of time to laugh,” she says on her website.

We need to create a new kind of culture that will comfort and nourish both the caring adult and the crying child in my dream. Our culture has to be supported by a sustainable relationship to our Mother Earth, a relationship in which we give back as much as we take, in an endlessly regenerative circle of life.

mossy rockAs I look ahead purposefully in my life, I hope that the adult I want to become would not leave the innocent child I was in the treacherous hands of a culture that has forgotten how to love. If I could replay that dream, I would guide that small, pink-clad child away from her malevolent “father” and his techno-obsessed tribe. I would take her away from that urban landscape, out into the warm green gloom of the forest, where we would sit together on a mossy rock and listen to the wind in the leaves and the birds in the sky. Together we would look up to see Starhawk approaching along the path, roots sprouting from her feet and branches from the top of her head.

We would sing together, in the words of poet Kristin Knowles, with whom I shared the Starhawk weekend:

Our mother,

in art and nature,

passionate burns thy flame.

Thy strength is one

with moon and sun

on Earth as up in the heavens.

Teach us the way to lightly tread

And relieve us our distress as

we receive those who would prefer our silence.

And lead us not into frustration

but deliver us from ill will.

For thine is the freedom, power and glory,

her story,

now and forever.

Blessed be.

Leave a comment


  1. ninjanurse

     /  June 3, 2014

    Thank you so much for the vivid impressions and wonderful photos of this weekend. I found healing in nature and good company. I have always appreciated Starhawk’s gift for weaving together ideas from many sources into an approach to life that is rationally and spiritually satisfying.

  2. ninjanurse

     /  June 3, 2014

    Driving away from Rowe on the Mohawk Trail I saw a large house under construction on bulldozed land. This is one reason I choose to live in the city. One reason of many, but when I was growing up the woods I loved were being razed for housing. The city has its own magic, it’s own ecology, and at this point as much greening as paving.

  3. Thank you so much Jenny for sharing so much here. It sounds like your weekend was a deeply profound experience and I’m so happy that you all are managing to leverage the power of the wilderness around us in order to try to change our collective course to one that is in better harmony with the world into which we have been born.

    I have a lot to process in the above (and I will come back and reread in order to make sure I’m getting as much from your powerful words as I possibly can), but I do have 2 specific immediate responses that I’d like to share right away.

    Your use of the word “instinctive” to describe our loyalties to our family background(s) of course makes me sit up and take note. I don’t necessarily think it’s *wrong*, but in my own experience, I’ve found great value to instead reframe my subconscious desires as “urges” rather than “instincts”. Certainly some of this is hardcoded in our DNA, but choosing to describe my family loyalties as “urges” rather than “instincts” allows me to better understand that I have the ability to substantially change *towards* a new and better manifestation that will be in harmony with my goals (and not tethered so tightly to my past).

    My second point is one that you and I have discussed multiple times. And that has to do with how we all view technology. Like you, I find that nature and wilderness is far more powerful than any technology we have ever found (and I daresay also more powerful than any we will ever harness in the future). But I don’t see technology in the negative way you do. To me, it is a completely “neutral” tool in terms of its potentiality. Certainly I am in full agreement with you on how *badly* we have leveraged some of the technologies we are currently *engaged* with deeply. But my answer is not necessarily to turn away from technology, but rather to use the principles of harmony and balance that are so evident in your (and Starhawk’s) ethos/worldview/perception in order to find a way to transition to societies which are built upon cooperation, sharing and love, rather than the current paradigms of competition, extraction, excessive waste, wanton destruction, etc…

    And finally (for now), what a wonderful poem. It speaks directly to my own heart. I hope you (and perhaps some (do I dare wish for many?) of your friends) will be able to make it up to Sage’s ravine mid-June with me in order to try to directly address many of the same issues you and Starhawk are already so fully engaged with attempting to productively address.

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  June 4, 2014

      Thanks for this thoughtful response, Charlie!

      Re instinctive vs “urges”–well, I am just reporting here what I perceived in my dream, which is that the little girl felt as called back to her “family” as a bird feels pulled to migrate or build a nest. She went to that man, her “father,” even though it was clear he did not mean her well. Another reader commented (via email) that it might be helpful to me to replay that dream in meditation, and come up with a different ending, in which I guided the little girl to a safe, warm, hospitable family. Maybe so….

      Re technology, I mostly agree with you that it’s a tool that can be used for good or for ill. The problem is that it’s so addictive, and there are only so many hours in the day…so it does tend to take us away from time spent outside renewing our connection to the natural world of which we are a part. In the dream, which again, I just report, the trance of the adults in the darkened room did not feel at all positive or good for the little girl, who was still young, vibrant and not-plugged-in. Maybe we will be able to evolve to a point where we’ll be able to regulate our intake of media more successfully. Right now, it’s a struggle.

      Yes, it is a wonderful poem, and you should have heard it performed by its author in circle with Starhawk under the amazing sun bow that formed over our final hour together!

  4. Carole Spearin McCauley

     /  June 5, 2014

    powerful dream and experience, Jennifer. I too have experienced
    Rowe. Good wishes from Carole Spearin McCauley.

  5. Thank you for sharing all of this. I really love the poem at the end, too. Blessed be.


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