At Home in the Breath / Essay by K. Lauren De Boer

Each step is a breath. Each time my foot reaches the Earth, my attention distills downward through my soles. My heartbeat clings to the sheer granite wall to my left and the rock comes out to meet it; our uniting becomes my balance, my focus against fright. On my right, only a 1,000 foot precipice and the wind. I am climbing to the peak of Angel’s Landing at Mt. Zion National Park. And I am thinking of turning back. The chain handgrips embedded in the rock and the diminutive footholds just don’t inspire my confidence.

A gust of wind wells up from the canyon and cascades over me. I close my eyes, grip the chain, and deeply breathe the Zion air several times into my shaky frame. Then at the peak of my fear, I feel the wind expand within me. My vision warms and seeps downward into my chest. I feel my bones and blood flow outward into the quartz of the red canyon wall—my blood, its iron oxide; my bones, its calcium carbonate. An unaccountable steadiness infuses me and my steps begin to feel like a prayer of praise, not beseeching. My movements grow impeccable; I feel that I can’t fall, and if I do, no matter. I will surrender to the wind as I have the rock. In that moment, the wind streams through me, out my fingertips into the canyon, and is swept up on the wings of passing vultures.

Zion Canyon photo

Zion National Park (public domain photo)

Far below, the Virgin River continues its 13-million-year labor of cutting the gorge of Zion canyon. The Navajo sandstone of the towering cliffs across the chasm glows burnt sienna in the late afternoon wash of sunlight. “Mukuntuweap,” the Pahutes called the canyon, meaning “straight arrow.” They regarded the canyon as off limits to farming and hunting. It was too spiritually potent. Early Mormon settlers, their breath swept away by the sheltering beauty of the canyon, renamed it Zion, a Hebrew word meaning “place of safety and refuge.” At 6,000 feet, the peak of Angel’s Landing, I breathe over the canyon, melding my breath with Zion’s. I am at the lip of a precipice, but I feel at home.

* * *

Holy Spirit Wind, to the Navajo, steadies us in the world and allows us to move through it gracefully. Their word for it is Nilchi’i. Among the complexities of its translation into English is “the Wind that is Creation’s first food, the source of all motion and change, giving life to everything, including the mountains and water.” It is the underlying force that unifies everything and the means of communication between all elements of the natural world.1 Author Barry Lopez, through the voice of a fictional character writes: “Other native North American peoples have refined similar ideas; but the Navajo conception is particularly successful in relating the idea of the individual to the concept of a stable society…through Nilchi’i, individuals participate in graces or powers that surpass these of the individual…those graces or powers keep one secure in the world.”2

We are more secure in the world when we enter a union that allows us to find fuller being through a sense of belonging to something greater—a place, a clan, the community of beings on Earth. It begins with a realization: that we are indispensable, that not only do we belong, we are needed. We are here to fulfill a role, and to do so is our greatest generosity; the only thing required of us, to be of service, is to seek harmony of thought and action. There are forces which come to our aid, like Nilchi’i which, when it passes into us, becomes our spirit. The word spirit comes from the Latin “spiro,” meaning “to breathe.” Wind is considered to be the highest expression of divine Spirit in many spiritual traditions. Combined with our own being through breath, it becomes our deepest expression of beauty. When I hear people speak about “connecting to nature,” I’ve come to believe that they want to breathe again, to know the marriage of Sacred Wind and their breath within, to become “in-spired,” enlivened again by Spirit.

My mind easily falls into the perception that this participation is an abstraction rather than a bodily truth. Perhaps that is the very reason for our profound sense of alienation from Earth’s community of life, a wind lonely beyond compare. To cut ourselves off from the truth of our existence is to have the breath—our sense of balance and harmony, of beauty—knocked out of us. We lose our wind and our secure footing. To bring myself back is to breathe in the Sacred Wind of remembering. Aligning my breathing with the pulse of the Earth’s breath, the Sacred Wind, steadies me in the realization that I am essential, needed, that my role is integral to the story of planet Earth.

When I felt Zion in my blood and bones, it wasn’t an act of imagination, a trick of mind using metaphor to create meaning. It was an actuality in my body. I carried Zion within me, and yet more accurately I entered Zion by means of the breath and remembered what is always constant and true—I am of Earth’s body. My very thought and breath comes from that participation in powers and graces that belong to the larger body.

* * * *

To get to Palm Springs from the west, I drive through Banner Pass. The prevailing westerlies, one the planet’s great winds, blow here. Funneled through the pass, their velocity is greatly accelerated, and scores of wind turbines, harnessing the swift passage of the winds, line the route into Palm Springs. Finding “prevailing westerlies” a less than evocative name, I cast about in my imagination for something more descriptive. Not knowing the native Cahuilla people’s name for wind, I settle on my own invention, “Antelope Breathes to the Four Corners.”

One morning, after a few days at the conference, I pick up a copy of a travel magazine from the hotel room bedside table and idly flip through it. The lead article states, without question or apology, that our national identity is to be on the move. “The Road is Where We Feel at Home,” blurts large lettering across one page. My thoughts go to the conference events over the past week. After days of indoor plenaries and workshops, I find myself wondering where we are. The San Jacinto and San Gorgonio mountains loom so prominently around Palm Springs that it feels they almost held you in embrace. What was their story and that of the Cahuilla people who lived among them? Was there an indigenous name for the winds that flow over and through them? On the way to the conference, I make a detour to the Palm Springs visitor center. They might have some information.

A slight, kindly man who looks to be in his sixties greets me warmly as I come in the door.

“I’m looking for information on the geology of the region,” I say.

“We don’t have anything like that here,” he answers. He offers, instead, a rack full of brochures on hotels, restaurants, places to shop.

“How about something on the natural history or maybe the cultural history, the native peoples of the area,” I ask expectantly.

He looks at me for a moment, perplexed, then says, “No. Nothing like that. We’re a visitors center.”

As I leave the building I look at the sign in the window that reads: “Welcome to Palm Springs” and I think, what would it be like to be truly welcomed to a place when you enter a “visitor” center: “Greetings to the place of Antelope Breathes to the Four Corners. Here’s a local story for your enjoyment, a handout on the plants and animals who live here, and on the life of the mountains.”

* * * *

We gather in clans at conferences, events, celebrations, and holidays. These are opportunities for calling in the winds around us, but in our high-velocity, placeless society of quick travel and regimented days we often forget to take the time. The theme of the conference I was attending was on “awakening a global vision.” Lots of good thoughts circulated on unity and peace, even ecology, but for all our desire for connection, something was missing. We’d forgotten to settle into a sense of where we were, that we had bodies, that we were part of a larger body of local lore, rock, fur, and brook. Perhaps we had landed in a shuttlecraft, and when we left, we would return to the mothership. The dozens of plenaries in the hall, filled with over 2,000 people, could have taken place anywhere. At the end of the week, I was left with some questions: Will a global vision of a world that will work for all, however well-intentioned, have a chance of working without a sense of where we’ve come from and where belong? Without the presence of Sacred Wind to help us surpass our limits as individuals?

What would it be like to begin with a simple ritual for these gatherings that called in the grace and power of Sacred Wind? To open with a visit to the local mountain, valley, prairie, seashore to nourish ourselves with Creation’s first food. Begin with our own breath, by aligning it with Nilchi’i’. Let the breath of place sweep through and inspire every plenary and workshop.

* * * *

There are a hundred winds I’ve known in my life, but I have no name for them (English isn’t one of the subtler languages). We have all known more avatars of wind than we can describe and we could use more terms to name them, using names that evoke their experience in our bodies. There is the fresh wind, for instance, that relieves us of staleness: “Cool Maiden Makes New Again.” There’s a wind that ruins good fishing: “Puts Fishes to Sleep in Afternoon.” Or the fearsome wind that caught me and my brother offguard once, imperiling us in the middle of a lake in a boat during a lightning storm: “Turns Quickly in Dark Light.” There’s “Cicada Counterpoint at Twilight,” the wind that stirs magic on summer nights in the Midwest, alternating its voice with the song of the pulsing insects.

I can mark key events in my life that have brought a sudden wind shift. At times, it’s a hard gust, like September 11, 2001. Often, it’s the subtle, almost imperceptible puff that clears the mist from my awareness to reveal some dormant truth about my life.

Today, there are gale forces that blow beyond our control not only as individuals, but as a nation, and as peoples of the Earth community. Among them: economic globalization, the breakdown and co-optation of democratic ideals, the betrayal of our trust in politicians and policymakers, and degradation of life support systems the likes of which the planet has never experienced. They all erode our sense of security. At the same time, the impact of the U.S. on the rest of the world has never been greater. As Americans, the events of 9/11 shook our sense of relative safety and certainty, and threw our identity as a people that has enjoyed relative isolation from war on our own soil into turmoil. It was like having the collective wind knocked out of us.

To return to steadiness, as a culture, we must find our Sacred Wind, the soul of the country, the spirit that unites us to other peoples and species of Earth in a sense of kinship we can’t deny any longer. One direction we can look is to Earth’s winds because they unite us: the bora of the Hungarian Basin, the foehn of the northern Alps, the bayamo of the south coast of Cuba, the brubu of the East Indies, the mistral and sirocco of the Mediterranean basin, the chinook, or snow eater, of the Rocky Mountains. They are the spirit of Earth circulating, renewing, giving life to everything. We can call on them, unite them with our own breath, and surrender, in that unity, to this larger wisdom: to be secure in the world is to flow with the Nilchi’i, the Holy Spirit Wind.

* * * *

Not long ago, I found myself humming an old hymn under my breath, “Breathe on Me Breath of God.” I pulled the old hymnal from the shelf by my piano and read the lyrics of the first of three verses:

Breathe on me breath of God,

Fill me with life anew,

That I may love what thou dost love,

And do what thou wouldst do.

I offer a fourth verse in this time when our planet is in peril and our unified efforts are never more needed to change the direction of our collective wind:

Breathe on us, Sacred Wind

Fill us with life anew

That we may walk upon this Earth

United in all we do.

1. James Kale McNeley, Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy, University of Arizona Press, 1988.

2. Barry Lopez, Resistance, Alfred A. Knopf, Borzoi Books, 2004.

K. Lauren de Boer is an essayist and poet, and was for many years the editor of EarthLight Magazine.