Duane Marcus and Leah Dale take a journey. The Shenandoah valley is rich with a historic past and allows for rebirth in its present time. White fabric for the World Rivers Project was immersed in the Shenandoah River in Clarke County, Virginia.
TAKE ME TO THE RIVER by Duane Marcus
“I let it go. It’s like swimming against the current. It exhausts you. After a while, whoever you are, you just have to let go, and the river brings you home.” — Joanne Harris, Five Quarters of the Orange
I grew up in a small town in the northernmost part of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. I spent my childhood tramping in the woods behind our house, exploring the stream that ran along the edge of our little neighborhood, swimming and fishing in the Shenandoah River where my family owned a cabin by the river. I spent my young life mostly alone.
My father was a functional drunk. He went to the VFW every day after work to drink with his buddies, coming home drunk, often late for dinner which my mother had on the table precisely at 5:30. This was the cause of much strife in our family. Angry words and bad feelings were commonplace around our dinner table.
My mother was a functional drunk as well. I assume she figured that since he was going to be drunk she might as well be too. They spent their lives drinking whiskey and coke, sitting in front of the TV, mostly ignoring my sister and me. I spent my time drawing pictures, building model cars and listening to that new music called rock and roll on my tiny transistor radio.
Shenandoah River and the Potomac River converge at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia
The one real interest my father had besides drinking was baseball. I was named after some minor league baseball player. When I was about 7 years old I joined Little League, mainly to please him. I was not very good and not all that interested. I remember the pride on his face the evening before my first game when he brought home a brand new baseball glove for me. I remember the smell of the leather as I put it on. I imagine we probably went outside and played catch for a while but I don’t really remember if we did or not.
The other thing my father liked was gambling on horses. He often went to the racetrack in Charlestown, West Virginia where 2 bit horses raced one another around a dirt track. The whole family went a couple of times. It kind of exciting to pick a horse at random and go up to the counter with the rest of the gamblers and pay $2 for a ticket. Every once in a while would win a few bucks. I guess now I can understand why he liked to spend time there.
The Shenandoah, Potomac, and Rappahannock watershed, 19th century etching
This too caused a lot of strife between my parents. I guess he lost more than he won which probably made life tougher for us. But I don’t know for sure. One night he came home drunk as he always did and there was a particularly loud argument. I lay in my bed shaking with fear. My mother locked herself in their bedroom. When my father broke open the door and started slapped my mother around I came out of my room and tried to make him stop. At least that is the way I remember it now. I was a little kid feeling helpless and inadequate that I could not protect my mother. They separated for a while. We went to live with my grandparents and he moved to Alexandria, Virginia. After about a year I think We all moved back home to the house he and my grandfathers built for us.
When I was 16 my grandfather, my mother’s father, died and I went to live with my grandmother. She lived in the center of town, a few miles from our house. I told my parents I wanted to be there to comfort her but really I wanted to get away from them. At my grandmother’s I spent my time in a dark room watching TV and eating ice cream while listening to her wailing in her grief. At least I felt safe there.
I lived with her until I graduated from high school. Not once during those 2 years did my parents ask me if I was coming back home. My sister told me much later that my mother accused her mother of stealing me away. How wrong she was.
When I went away to college i never wanted to go back to that place my sister and I called the Twilight Zone. I did spend the summer after my freshman year there which was the last time I lived in that place.
Where mountains meet rolling plains in the Shenandoah Valley, early 19th century etching
While I was in school a met a girl, a wonderful girl, with whom I immediately fell in love. I never dated in high school because I was scared of girls. Actually I was scared of just about everything so I was happy that this girl liked me too.
Her name was and still is Robin. We spent almost every weekend together. I was caught up in a world of drugs at this time. I dropped out of school and lived in an old farmhouse outside of Charlottesville, Virginia with a bunch of drug dealers and degenerates. One day I was tripping on LSD with a bunch of people at a guy’s house I didn’t really know. Mind you, I don’t really remember any of this, I can only recount the story as it was told to me. My girlfriend and another friend, who both lived 60 miles away in Richmond, tracked me down somehow and came to Charlottesville to tell me my father had died of a heart attack.
I have little or no memory of what transpired after that. Somehow I got home to my parent’s house. I do remember a couple of friends who I shared the house with being at the funeral. At some point I went back to the farm house where I learned those “friends” abandoned my car on the side of the road where it was towed away. He had left the house and moved back to New Jersey. I was so caught up in the whirlwind of drugs I never even tried to find out where the car was.
Sometime after that I asked Robin to marry me. For some reason she agreed. She quit her job in Richmond and went home to her parents who spent 2 weeks trying to convince her not to marry a drugged out hippie. She did it anyway. We were 20 years old, still just kids really. We moved to a little house in Scottsville, VA. I began to get myself straightened out. I got a job at a plant nursery run by a family of Mormans. Snow’s Nursery, headed up by the family patriarch, LeRoy Snow. LeRoy took a liking to me and I learned a lot from him.
19th century art depicts riverboat livelihoods on the Shenandoah River
Somehow we learned about organic gardening during this time, not from LeRoy. We joined a food coop. We started our first organic vegetable garden. We subscribed to Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News magazines. We began to dream of doing the hippie counterculture thing, living on a commune, growing our own food, living off the land. This was in 1973. Working with plants was very healing for me. I had found my calling. I decided to go back to school and study horticulture. We packed all our stuff onto one of LeRoy’s dump trucks and moved to Blacksburg, Virginia where I was enrolled at Virginia Tech.
While I was there one of my professors became my mentor. He helped me start a side business doing landscape maintenance for some people he knew. He was a Landscape Architect. I was drawn to the creative nature of the field and the possibilities it offered for making the world a better place. So I swallowed my fear and we went off to Massachusetts, which was like a foreign land to us, where I succeeded in getting my masters degree in Landscape Architecture.
US Rifle Works on the banks of the Shenandoah River, late 1800s
Now we had to decide what to do next. Armed with my degrees we were ready to enter the “real world”. Why we veered away from our earlier dreams I am not sure. We didn’t want to move back to Virginia because we didn’t want to be anywhere near our parents so we decided to move to Atlanta. We had some friends there and we figured we could get jobs so we packed our stuff and headed back south. We loved much about the Connecticut River Vall ey but the winters were just too long for our liking.
Not seeing myself being happy working inside in a office all day as a Landscape Architect, I got a job with a landscape contracting company. Robin got a job as a secretary at the local newspaper. We quickly got caught up in the conventional life of the city, commuting to work, eating fast food, going to see bands, partying all the time. It was a complete disaster for me. I was not longer really connected with that which helped to sustain me, the earth and the growing beings. We lived in an apartment so we couldn’t have a garden. My job was managing people, broken down equipment, and dealing with clients every day with whom I shared no interests or values. I quickly withdrew into myself, shutting down emotionally, consumed by undefined fears of my immediate world. We spent most evenings in a bar where I was invisible and aloof while Robin made friends with everyone there. We did this for about 10 years.
We were in our 30’s now and the issue of whether or not we were going to have children had to be addressed. I did not want children because i was afraid I would be a shitty father like my father was. I say we decided not to have them, but in reality, it was a take it or leave it decision made by me. I realize now I had already become my father at that time. Closed off from the people I cared about, Robin, my family.
Troops build a grapevine bridge over a tributary during Civil War time.
This life we were living really took its toll on me. I became more and more depressed. I hated getting up in the morning and going to work. Finally I had more than enough and with Robin’s unwavering support and love for whom she called her Soaring Eagle, I quit my job. A good friend was and artist who made his living selling his paintings at arts festivals around the country. I had a lifelong interest in photography and I was pretty good at it so I decided to try my hand at selling photographs on the art festival circuit. While I really enjoyed the lifestyle, I could never get into the minds of the consumers of this type of art so it was a financial failure. My depression deepened to the point where I wanted to leave everything behind and crawl in a hole somewhere and hide from the world.
The people who cared about me most convinced me to seek therapy. I spent a couple years on a couch in a dark basement with a very strange therapist. He was perfect for me. The most important thing I he taught me was that my fear was something I learned. If I learned it then I could learn another way of being. So slowly, day by day, I learned how to defeat my fear and rebuild my self-confidence. I got a job as a courier. Every day I had to tell myself each time I picked up or delivered a package that the security guard or secretary was a nice person and was not out to get me. With each successful delivery I gained more confidence that the world was not the scary place I had convinced myself it was and I could, in fact, survive and even thrive in that world.
Congregating at the Shenandoah National Park, 1930s
After a couple of years I was ready to take control of my life again. Robin and I had talked about having our own business in town because we really didn’t like working for other people. One day as I was driving home I passed a vacant lot with a for rent sign on it. A light bulb came on in my head and I got the crazy idea that we should start a garden center there. It was in our neighborhood in the middle of the city. Robin and I talked about it and we decided to take the risk and go for it. I spent 6 months working with a mentor from SCORE to develop a business plan. We signed a lease on the property in February and my April 1 the Urban Gardener was open. I was making my way back among the living.
A few years later we met a woman at our new local watering hole who had lived in the same little town in Virginia as we had twenty years after us. She was an avid gardener too. That night we decided that she and I were the same person! Jennifer and I quickly became best friends. I convinced her to help me start a community garden on the vacant lot beside our garden center. She agreed and UG Oasis Community Garden was born. We were back to growing our own food for the first time in more than 20 years. It was like coming home for me. The simple acts of growing and eating our own food again were transformational for me. We became involved in the local food movement that was just getting started in Atlanta. We started making connections and building a community of like-minded people. It was a wonder filled time for us.
Robin and I began to remember the life we had dreamed of over 30 years ago. We became more involved in helping the local food movement grow around us. We decided we were ready to find that place where we could grow our own food and begin to share with others the experience and knowledge we had accumulated over the years. We told some friends who lived outside the city we were looking for some land on which to grow food. One day our friend Charlie called Robin and said her angels told her to turn right instead of left and she saw a for sale sign in front of a house that we might be interested in. We made an appointment with the real estate to see the house the following day. We drove up to what appeared to be a typical suburban ranch house and wondered why we were there. We went inside and our jaws dropped as we saw the giant cathedral ceilings of this classic 70’s passive solar designed home. We walked out on the screen porch and saw the barn and the ½ acre pond. We struggled to contain our jubilation knowing we had to negotiate for what we recognized as the place we had dreamed of so long ago.
We put a contract on the house, sold our house in the city and moved within 6 weeks. We immediately went to work to start a suburban permaculture demonstration project we named The Funny Farm. We planted the first of many gardens. That winter we starting offering classes in organic gardening and sustainable living. In the spring we began selling our produce at local farmers markets that were sprouting up all around the area. We felt we were on the right track with our lives now.
Evidence of a Paleo-Indian Period stone circle was discovered in the Shenandoah Valley
But still I felt something was missing for me. I had been an avowed atheist for all my life. As I worked with the land I realized that while mind and body were in good shape I was missing a spiritual connection. I pondered how to find that connection. Organized religion has nothing to offer me. When I was young I had some interest in the occult. Having read Carlos Castenada’s books and experimented with hallucinogenic drugs I knew there was something “out there” I was missing. A good friend of ours was a member of a coven of Wiccans who had a place near us. We went to one of their ceremonies and found it unappealing with its hierarchy and lip service to honoring the Earth without practicing it. Yet I respected our friend’s commitment to her spirituality.
One day I had a discussion about ritual practices with an apprentice who was working with me on the farm.I decided to ask my Wiccan friend to lead us in a garden blessing ritual. She and I worked together the ceremony and a few of us gathered together and she lead us in ceremony. I found it to be quite powerful. After everyone else left, she and I were talking about the experience and my doubts about Wicca. She told me she had just read a book about Shamanism that might be of interest to me. I ordered the book, The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner, read the book in 2 days and immediately tried the technique for journeying to the alternate reality he describes. I knew right away I found what I knew what was out there as described by Castenada. I journeyed every evening for 5 evenings and relived my whole life through shamanic journeys. It was a profoundly healing experience for me.
I decided I needed a shamanic teacher. I was led to a woman who lives in the North Georgia mountains. Her name is Robinette Kennedy. I contacted her and enrolled in a shamanic journey workshop she was having in the mountains. When I got to the workshop there was only one other person attending. Robinette explained the intention of journeying and led us on journeys on Saturday and Sunday. When she began shaking her rattle I was immediately carried into another reality where I had the most powerful experience of my life. I became a pumpkin seed who sprouted with my kin growing tall towards the sun. When the journey ended I was both exhausted and exhilarated. We talked about the meaning of the experience. The following day we journeyed again. This time I became a tree rooted into the mountain earth. Again, I was deeply moved by the experience. As the day ended we talked about how to use our experiences as we moved forward. She issued a challenge to me to enlist young men in the work of reconnecting humankind to the Earth to protect her from the ills our culture has inflicted upon her.
I have done many workshops with Robinette and other shamanic teachers since then. During one workshop with Robinette we were working on connecting with the ancestors, and important part of shamanic work. This was particularly difficult work for me having disavowed any connection with my own immediate ancestors. I have done a lot of subsequent work with my helping spirits to find some answers to questions I have about my connection to my own ancestors and those who are connected to my ancestral home. I have come to realize that my father was probably seeking solace and hiding from his own deamons. I have tried to find out what they might be, however it is not for me to know.
About 7 months ago a friend told me about a workshop on retelling one’s story. It sounded like something that might be helpful to me in this work I was engaged in with ancestors. Particularly so because the workshop was going to be held in the Blue Ridge Mountains right across the Shenandoah River from where I grew up! I took that as a sign that i had to go. Leah and I have been friends for over 3 years. We had never met in person as our friendship was forged through social media. She had her own story to work on so we felt it was a perfect time and place for us to meet in person for the first time.
In the months leading up to this workshop I continued to work on this idea of connecting with ancestors. I learned from family members that 2 branches of my family had come to the Shenandoah Valley in the late 1600’s, early 1700’s so we have been here for for over 400 years. My problem is that, actively or passively, we participated in the genocide of the people who lived in that place since the beginning. Do I have a right to claim ancestry in a place where we are interlopers. Or is my ancestry rightfully to be found in Ireland, Scotland, and Germany from whence we came to this place we have called home for so many years.
This was the question I thought I would be working on in the workshop in the mountains. Not exactly as it turns out. One Sunday in June I felt the need to make a medicine bag to take with me to another workshop later in the month that Robinette had organized with the 27th generation Nepalese shaman named Bhola. I got out my bag of leather scraps and selected a piece with which to make the bag. I got out the old baseball glove my father had given me so many years ago to strip out more of the lacing I had been using for various projects in the past. As I was taking the glove apart, admiring the incredible craftsmanship that went into its making I realized it was Fathers Day. My father died over 40 years ago so Fathers Day has never meant anything to me. It was then that I realized that the process of making this medicine bag was being guided by spirit, that there was something powerful going on that I need to pay attention to. I was instructed to make the bag not out of the scrap of leather I had chosen but to make it out of one of the fingers of the glove. Now in a trance like state, I finished the bag and placed sacred items in it.
That evening I made a journey to the spirit world to find out more about the purpose of this bag I was guided to make. They spirits told me it was time for me to let go of the encumbrance that I have been carrying around related to my father. They told me I was to burn a part of the glove in the fire during the Summer Solstice ceremony at the workshop with Bhola in a couple of weeks. They said I was to take the rest of the glove with me when I went home to the workshop in the mountains and give it to the river, washing away the last vestiges of this yoke around my neck. After that I would be free of the fear I have carried with me my whole life.
After struggling with some obstacles thrown in our way, Leah and I finally met together in the mountains and did our work. The re-storying was very helpful for me to focus my intentions for the work of releasing my fear to the river. We spent a lot of time by ourselves in the woods along the river where I reconnected with the spirits of the Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah whom I had known so long ago.
After the workshop, Leah and I moved to a cabin on the Appalachian Trail. We shared a journey to the alternate reality that evening. The following morning we drove along the river looking for the place to do the final part of the ritual. We came to the place where the cabin was that my family when I was growing up. I immediately knew this was the place where I was to complete this journey. Just past the cabin was a new boat landing. We parked our car and when I walked down to the river I was hit by a flood of emotion. I could see myself and my sister swimming in the river just below where I was. I could see me, my father and my grandfather out in the boat they built in our basement fishing for large mouth bass. I was a nervous wreck.
Leah and I waded out into the waters of the river and I unfurled a white cloth in the water to use to capture the energy of the experience and share it with the world through an art project my friend, Lee Tracy, is doing called “World Rivers”.
World Rivers is a global participatory project responding to the essential element of water. Individuals from around the world dip white fabric in a local river. The fabric pieces are embroidered with the name of the river, location and date and then sewn together into a magnificent curtain.
I went back to the river bank and picked up the remains of the baseball glove. I waded back out into the swirling waters preparing myself to toss the glove into the river, releasing that which I have allowed to hold me back for so long. In my mind I always saw the glove being swiftly carried down stream sinking out of sight to the bottom of the river. Glove in hand and, shaking like a leaf, full of emotion, I reared back and threw it out into the water only to see it bob up and down in a quiet place between the currents. All I could do at that point was to throw up my hands and laugh. Laughing was a tremendous relief. We got out of the river, sat on a log and crammed homemade whoopee pies in our faces as we laughed and took photographs of ourselves.
It was done.