Sabbaticals: Resting the Landscape of the Heart

Cultures and communities that still live close to the land as our ancestors once did - farmers and ranchers, tribal people, rural neighbors - all know the wisdom of allowing the land to lie fallow. Even the neighborhood horse co-op that I belong to rotates our herd of horses from one mountain pasture to the next during the growing season. "Leave enough biomass above the ground," traditional wisdom advises, "so that the sun may feed the roots below the ground."

The golden grasses are dormant now - resting and recouping. The horses rest, too, conserving their energy. During a recent spell of subfreezing temperatures, each morning the herd stood quietly facing the sun, as if their bodies were living, breathing solar panels soaking in the warm rays. 

Yet I often grind away at each day, sometimes not lifting my eyes long enough to feel the sun on my face, let alone rest long enough to nourish the roots that sustain me. Perhaps I need a sabbatical. 

The archaic word has always fascinated me. Imagine a colony of ants, scurrying to and fro their hill of hidden treasures, suddenly stopping and telling their ensconced queen that for a while ... well ... for a while, they just won't be working. They're on sabbatical.

To take a sabbatical, whether from a job or a relationship, whether for a day or a year, goes against the cultural grain of our modern lives. Even resting on the sabbath is a practice for only the most devout, those who continue to turn to the Bible. Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof ... but the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land ... thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard ... for it is a year of rest unto the land.

How like the land we are - offering up the perfect fruits of our imperfect labors season after season. Yet how I wish someone would plant a fall cover crop over my depleted summer soil - let me lie fallow for the winter, blanketed by clover and beans and crown vetch, so that come spring I will awake renewed.

I've been neglecting this blog for months now, though the time away has not been a time of rest. Half a dozen unfinished posts lie waiting in my draft folder. Perhaps I've been trying too hard to say the perfect thing, to bring the perfect harvest in from the field. Yet, at the same time, I have been planting the seeds for next year's bounty as I finish a novel, work on client manuscripts, and tend to a myriad of details for upcoming retreats - always hoping to inspire others to take their own sabbaticals. 

Yesterday, I struggled to find the perfect answer when asked, as I often am, to explain the "lit" part of our annual "Literature & Landscape of the Horse Retreat." At a loss to know how to answer this Facebook friend, I closed my eyes and imagined myself back in Wyoming with the horses who are always at the heart of these lit sessions. 

In a few moments, I opened my eyes and started typing: "The creative aspect of this retreat isn't about workshopping our writing. Rather, it is about the horses reminding us of the power of deep immersion - of being present, moment by moment, in a natural and wild landscape. This immersion unleashes and re-inspires creativity because we are reminded that we are a living part of all of this, belonging to the land just as the horses do." 

I continued typing. "We provide journals, and the time to journal, sometimes while mingling among the horses out in the meadow as they graze. We allow time to listen, and not just talk." I thought about how often, during a ride, we will drop into silence and listen to the sound of the horses' legs moving through the grass, or the soft creaking of leather saddles, or birdsong in tree branches. Once, when we grew silent, all the horses took a deep collective breath, as if grateful for a few moments free of human chatter.

"We groom our horses," I went on to tell my Facebook friend,  "learning to understand their nonverbal communication, how to feel their energy. The heart energy of a horse radiates outward from their body fifty feet, like the sun radiating outward from its core, and sometimes we use stethoscopes to listen to the beat of their hearts. 

Sometimes when we gather for lit sessions, I might read David Whyte's poem "Four Horses" aloud to help us rediscover our own exuberant joy as we imagine the horses in the field next to his house running along the fence, their hooves filling his open door with an urgency just beyond his grasp. How they transform his whole day into joy.  Or I might draw parallels between the patterns we see in nature, and the rhythms and patterns beating within the heart of a story.  Or I might talk about Wyoming being the home of the earliest-known fossil of the ancient ancestor of the horse, Eohippus, and use this as a prompt to lead us backward in time to our own roots. 

Pictures help explain the retreat, of course though (not surprisingly), most of the photos are of horses. Those of us who write (not everyone does) are often disguised as cowgirls at heart -- whether grown, or not so grown. Are these retreats sabbaticals? Yes, in the sense that we are absent from our normal  responsibilities, yet we are very much present in the moment. 

This is perhaps the greatest gift we glean from the horses and nature, being present within the heart of the moment. This holiday season, I wish you all the gift of presence - with family, and friends, and neighbors. And with all the animals who live at the center of our lives, and all the animals who walk the borders of our existence, ever aware of us, ever hopeful, ever faithful.

Love, Page


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