Features and Occasionals

Honoring the Elements

By Merry Lycett Harrison

Meditation on a home altar.

As the bright days of summer fade to soggy, gauzy grey, I wrap my sweater close for warmth and desire to be safely home before early darkness falls. With comforts all around, I find I have time to reflect and attend to maintenance of more personal things. Besides my closet and the to-do pile of papers, bills and photographs, I examine my altar and notice it needs care and cleaning.

It hardly looks like a religious altar. The assemblage of treasures and finds on top of this small, chest-high bureau feels more like a shrine of an ancient, indigenous culture found under a rock overhang near a constantly flowing spring or in a hole of a gnarled tree where deposits of offerings endlessly accumulate. These items bring me pleasure every time I pass by.

In the center on a handwoven placemat is a small, old Navajo wedding basket which still has cornmeal from the ceremony caught between its fibers. It holds two rattles and a wooden whistle which I use sometimes to shake up my thoughts or break up energy around me that I do not want.

There is a shell for water, a candle for fire, a couple of feathers for air, and a dense, heavy chunk of petrified wood for earth. A pretty handmade clay bowl, given to me in trade for my herbal goods by a man who later got very ill with an incurable disease, lets me remember him.

Humor and whimsy are in the miniature hand-carved dog from Mexico (an alebrijes?) and green plastic soldier with rifle posed in a forward, charge position. They represent safety and protection.

A quartz crystal is for light and clarity. A salt crystal from the Great Salt Lake tells the story of its awesome otherworldy landscape. The random rocks are ones I’ve picked up while hiking and exploring. One is in the shape of a phallus. Another, a smooth, oblong river rock, is split in half so precisely that when I put the two pieces together, I cannot tell there is a break at all. Somehow, it has a lesson for me that I cannot, nor would I care to, put into words. It is enough just to see and hold it.

The piece of driftwood in the exact shape of a cross caught my eye while walking along a river at a time I was struggling and seeking, if not answers, solace. Scent and smudge sources of incense, a sweetgrass braid and white sage bundle lie nearby for me to light whenever I feel the need.

I hold each item briefly as I dust. They all still feel precious to me. I have never discarded or replaced, only added more. Most have been free, like gifts, from the natural world from which we all arise. It is a fond ritual to tend my altar. Ever present, it reminds me of my life and connects me to who I am.

Merry Lycett Harrison is a registered herbalist, member of the American Herbalists Guild and the author of Herbs for All. http://www.millcreekherbs.com

This article was originally published on November 30, 2017.