Column: Going to Ground

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Going to ground. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the phrase to 1797 and defines it like this:

the fox runs into a burrow or hole in the ground, ‘to earth’. Also to lie at ground, to go to ground: also said of a dog. Also in other phrases, and fig. (of a person), to withdraw from public notice and live quietly or ‘lie low.’

This behavior was instinctive to me when I was a small child, and whenever I became upset or sad or frightened I would slip behind the chair in the corner of the living room, crawl under the attic staircase, or hide behind the big old octopus furnace in the basement until I felt safe again.

Stars reflected in the surface of Cranberry Lake [Bill Rhodes, courtesy]

As my childhood range moved beyond the boundaries of my home I found other spaces where I could go to ground: a fairy circle of trees at the edge of a playground; the space between the guardian stone lions at the historical society; a certain section of trees in the old feeder bed. I began to notice that I was drawn to places that for some reason felt safe or right, and that there were other places that made me feel uneasy, and I instinctively stayed away from those.

In my seventh summer my parents took the family on the first of several camping trips to the Adirondacks. That one-and-a-half-hour drive was the first trip I ever went on, and I remember watching out the car window, reading place names and road names, and making mental snapshots of all the new and exciting things I saw. The images and memories have been refreshed over the years, every time I make the drive up to the place that feels like home.

My parents gave us free range of the campgrounds, and we were allowed to roam the trails and woods, and even allowed to walk down to the beach to swim and play. On the first afternoon at the beach I noticed a floating bridge at the end of the lake and it called to me quite clearly. I walked along the edge of the water to a place where beach and trees met, then wandered until I found the beginning of the trail. I was surprised at how quickly the woods grew dark and might have turned back if it were not for the energy pulling at my spirit. Before long I knew I was getting close to the water again because the trees were thinning out and the light was getting brighter. Eventually I stepped out of the woods, at the water’s edge again, with a short boardwalk, a floating dock, and the bridge in front of me.

The moment I stepped onto the dock I sensed the energy that told me I was in safe space, and although I didn’t yet know that I was a Witch, I somehow knew that I was in a place that was magical as well. I sat down at the left edge of the dock and looked around the water and woods in this place where a small river met the lake. I felt something watching me and thought it was a bear, a deer, or maybe even a moose. There was nobody else around, so I started asking questions out loud. “Are you a bear? Do you live here all the time?” There was no answer, so I continued to ask the kind of questions any well-read seven-year-old might ask until I accepted that I wouldn’t get any answers.

Nick’s Lake at the Adirondacks [S. Barker]

I spent several hours by myself on that dock; sitting and observing the water’s edge and woods, lying on my back to watch the clouds move by; lying on my belly to stare into the water. That was my favorite part, looking into the water. I could see fish, tadpoles, turtles, and frogs. I saw water bugs move around the water’s surface and watched as dozens of dragonflies and damselflies flitted around, going from lily pad to branch to deck or bridge railing. The sun was shining on the water’s surface, and I was enchanted by the diamond drops that appeared wherever sun and water met.

I was watching a damselfly that seemed to move from sun diamond to sun diamond when I had an overwhelming urge to reach into the water. I was afraid of snapping turtles and not sure about putting my fingers where they might be considered a snack, but I suddenly heard the voices of the bullies I had been avoiding and knew that they were coming down the path to the bridge. Without thinking about it, I reached as far as I could to put my fingers in the water and whispered “Please don’t let them see me. Please don’t let them see me. Please don’t let them see me.” I will never know how I knew to ask thrice.

Nothing and everything changed in that instant. Whatever the presence was that I had felt watching me was suddenly all around me, and I knew that I was safe. Without removing my fingers from the water I laid my head down on my arm and quietly waited. Less than a minute later I saw my tormentors emerge from the woods, laughing and talking. They were excited about the bridge and one pushed the other to run past her, and jumped onto the dock so forcefully it swayed in the water. I was not six feet from her, lying there in the open, ready bait to shove into the water or worse, but for the first time in a long time I was not afraid of her. She stopped for a moment and looked all around, her eyes moving right over me, and she did not see me. Neither did the other girl when she ran past, shouting that she would take the bridge first.

The presence around me had a calming effect, and even though the bullies were nearby I began to feel sleepy. I turned my head back towards the water and once more watched the damselflies and dragonflies move in their bejeweled dance. I was certain that if I stayed right there I would see all of the woodland animals come to the water’s edge for a drink. The human voices faded away and I was aware only of the beauty and peace that surrounded me. I was safe.

Some minutes later I heard the sound of running feet and the two girls went by again, going back towards the beach. I remained unseen, yet certainly was visible to the right eye. I heard a frog splash in the water, and as I turned to look I felt the presence move away. I was alone on the dock, and something told me not to ask any more questions. I waited a while to see if my new companion would return; when it did not I left the dock to go back to camp.

Over the next days I spent every possible moment in that special place, my safe place. I could feel that watchful presence at a distance. Several times other people joined me on the dock, but no one who was a threat to me. During that stay in the Adirondacks I had many magical experiences, but I did not have another such mystical experience. However, to this day some 45 years later, that is still the place I most long for when I have a deep need to go to ground, and I cannot visit that campground without hoping to encounter that presence or to see a moose at the water’s edge.

I have carried the behavior that was instinctive to me as a child into adulthood where it serves as a vital tool for self-care. Going to ground and disengaging from the world, even temporarily, helps me maintain a sense of balance and renews my spirit. In my travels I have been fortunate to discover not only safe spaces but those places that are held between the worlds, and those where the doorways between worlds exist and others sometimes come through to this place and time. Cranberry Lake is another such place in the Adirondacks, and where the night is so dark that one can see the reflection of the stars in the water it is hardly surprising the others would make an appearance as a form of light. I had such an encounter one October night, but even as I write these words I hear the voice that clearly said “Do not look,” and I feel bound by those words not to say anymore about it.

The world is in chaos all around, and almost as much as I am longing for peace and for healing on every level for so many people, I am longing to go to ground in my spirit home in the Adirondack Mountains. Until such a time as it is safe to travel in person, I will travel by meditation and memory, and wander in my dreams.

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