Saturday, May 8, 2010

Happy Birthday, Sandhill!

Today is National Train Day. You can earn quadruple Guest Reward points if you can arrange to be on the choo-choo this day. Much as I love the train—and I do—I will happily be at home instead, celebrating Sandhill Farm's 36th anniversary.

Sandwiched delicately between Beltane and Mother's Day, I like to think of it as a bridge party, drawing on both: a) the raucous pagan energy honoring the surging growth of the Earth in spring; and b) the supporting and hearth energy that are the quintessential qualities of mothering. Today, you might say, we're honoring both nature and nurture. Also, we'll be eating and drinking a lot.

Mostly, today is about camaraderie, and suspending our normal routines to indulge in visiting with friends and neighbors (many of whom are both). We expect a crowd of about 60-75, with people coming from as far away as St Louis and Madison. Many will stay the night. Festivities officially begin in the afternoon, with a few semi-organized activities to punctuate the progression of the day:
—A Maypole at 3 pm
—Potluck feast at 4 pm, preceded by a welcoming circle that will fill the entire side lawn
—Contra dance (after digestion has proceeded far enough to no longer inhibit free movement), featuring live music and even livelier calling
—Sweat lodge, staring around dusk and continuing in rounds (we can take about 10 at a time) until everyone has had enough or the wood runs out

By tradition, my role today is at the sweat lodge. I made a couple contributions to the potluck yesterday (Sri Wasano's Infamous Indonesian Rice Salad from Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook, and Mushrooms Berkeley from Thomas' The Vegetarian Epicure, featuring our own shiitakes), so my culinary duties are already complete. Today I am the fire master. As soon as I consume enough coffee and compose this blog, I will head down to the fire circle and begin. We had 2+ inches of rain Thursday night and the ground is spongy (thus, Smoky Bear can stand down today).

From a cold and wet start, I will spend the next 12 hours tending the fire, slowly building a huge bed of coals in which I'll insert large chunks of metal and firebrick. By the time they're needed for the sweat lodge, they'll be glowing red. Meanwhile, the fire ring will be a side show in the social milieu, where people can get warm (the high is supposed to only be in the low 60s, unseasonably cool for May 8) and hang out with me. In the course of the day, most people come by at some point and I'll have a flow of lovely connections over the spaciousness of the entire day, all happening spontaneously (no appointments!).

It's the only day of the year that I totally devote to fire (and reflection), and it has taken on a sacred aspect for me.

A Word about Our Sweat Lodge
While I've always thought I'd build a sauna (the Finnish bath I was first exposed to as an eight-year-old at summer camp in northern Minnesota), I'm chagrined to realize that after 36 years I still haven't moved it up to the top of my To Do List. Partly, that's because we've had a sweat lodge for more than 25 years, which is a fair approximation of the sauna experience.

While the sweat lodge has a strong Native American tradition, no one at Sandhill has any training in that and we make no pretensions about it. It is simply our tradition, involving heat and getting naked together in a confined dark space. The current incarnation of our lodge (there have been many over the years) is a hexagonal wooden framed structure built on a floor of sand. The ceiling is composed of slightly arched interwoven branches. The whole is wrapped in a sheet of 6 mil polyethylene and then covered in cane pummies (the spent stalks of sorghum after they've been through the mill) for insulation.
There is a brick-lined pit in the center into which the hot metal and firebricks are placed at the outset of each round.

Once everyone is situated in the lodge, the door is sealed. One person is in charge of dribbling water onto the hot metal and bricks. This produces bursts of steam which rush upward, spread across the ceiling and flow down the sides, bathing the participants. If the enclosure is tight enough (few leaks at the seams) it doesn't take long to start sweating. As the heat in a sweat lodge is highly stratified, there are options to control your experience. The thermophilic can lean closer to the pit and raise their heads into the branches; the more squeamish can stay back toward the sides and keep their heads down. A round lasts until the heat has been fully extracted from the pit—about 20 minutes—after which a procession of steaming sand-smudged bodies emerge from the lodge, like so many squinting moles. The braver ones jump into the nearby pond, washing off the sand and instantly closing the pores that have been so recently wide open in an effort to maintain homeostasis in the sweat lodge. It's quite a rush, and for those with a taste for it, they go again if there aren't enough first-timers to fill the next round.

Each round in the sweat lodge has a personality that is defined by the participants of that round. Sometimes it is all silence; sometimes there is conversation; sometimes there is chanting. Each group makes of the ritual what it wants. There are no rules. Kind of like life.

No comments: