Harmonica Gateways: Shadows in the Mind of Nature (Tale 2)

It has been 5 weeks since my last blog about the Amazon rainforest and indigenous Achuar villages. I thought that I would have written more, posted more… but the muses have their own way of doing things.

I’ve been writing music this entire time, and in the last 5 weeks have written 8 songs. A few of them combine the viola and the harmonica. Some are only viola, some are solo harmonica. An album is half written, and it snuck up on me. So if you have checked for more Amazon blogs, forgive me for not posting more.

There are stories to tell. Lessons that were learned that are born to be shared. My worldview and peripheral vision has expanded, my understanding of harmony, patterns and cycles is increased.

So here is Tale 2 of the Harmonica Gateways:

Photo by Debra Burke

Tale 2: Shadows in the Mind of Nature

It was the night before we went to our second village of Wayusentza, where we were to spend the evening with the shaman and participate in a healing ceremony. Our time in the Amazon jungle was half over, and we had all become comfortable in our surroundings; we knew how to avoid mosquitoes, we were accustomed to the bats that resided in the roofs of our huts, and were grateful for our rubber boots and for the mosquito nets around the beds.

Photo by Cassidy RastWhat is important to know is that at this stage in the journey of this expedition of women, we were all in the midst of growth, at leaps and bounds. Emotionally and spiritually, we were releasing fears, hopes, expectations and assumptions at light speed. We were learning about balance in deep and profound ways.

It was late, and a rainstorm was brewing; we could see the lightning over the canopy of giant trees in the distance. The monkeys and the frogs had grown quiet.

Some of us wanted to capture the magic of the evening, celebrate it, and give thanks to the forest for providing such a supple and adventurous womb for this self-discovery. So Monica, Katelyn, Cassidy, Katie, Whitney and I put on our knee-high rubber boots, our ponchos and headlamps, and ventured into the forest.

Is going into the Amazon at night a dangerous thing, you might ask?

YES. Hell yes.

Let’s not romanticize the jungle, the nighttime is especially dangerous; it is the hour of the snakes and the jaguars, and who knows what else. But we had to go. Because sometimes, you just have to go to dive into the shadows of the jungle and speak what is in your heart.

Photo by Cassidy RastWe were to sing an ancient Lakota (a tribe of the Sioux Native Americans) medicine chant, and through song marinate in the clarity and wisdom, confront fears, process all that we learned in regards to the health and future of the Amazon rainforest and its native stewards, and most of all, sing, sing, sing our gratitude.

Our destination was a narrow bridge not far from the entrance to the jungle. I led the group with my headlamp. As soon as we entered the forest, the rain fell above us; it sounded like pitter-patter of feet on enormous sheets of paper in the sky.

Layers of RainforestIt’s important to walk carefully through the jungle, whether day or night, because the roots of all of the trees reside on the surface; the soil of the rainforest is incredibly poor in nutrients. Though the oldest trees of the rainforest are enormous, the deepest that roots go into the ground is one foot. Most roots lie on the ground or above ground, and the nutrients come from the perpetual decomposition from the forest’s ecosystem and cycles.

So you must watch where you walk at all times. Walking in the jungle at night is both beautiful and merciless.

We approached the long, narrow bridge.

“Let’s go half-way down,” Cassidy said.

I marched in, but too quickly because suddenly I was face to face with a giant red snake. The longest snake I’ve ever seen in my life.

“Snake! Red snake!” I announced. Instantly I was terrified, the fear in my body was outrageous. (And the next day I learned that this was one of the poisonous snakes of the jungle.) The girls did not retreat, and so I quietly said, “Back, back, back, back…” until they slowly backed up. The snake moved towards me, and I suddenly realized just how narrow the bridge was, just how vulnerable we were.

What the f*ck are we doing? I thought. We were fools. And I was the biggest fool being the one going down since I was having the kamikaze stare-down with one of the jungle’s most feared creatures.

Amazon Red SnakeBut then one of the girls said, “Christen, no fear! It does not serve us.”

I heard her words, loud and clear.

And so I stopped, took a breath, and then looked at the snake and with all of my ninja and Jedi powers, cast away the fear. The snake’s tongue flickered, then it slithered away. It worked. Done and done.

Damn. Damn!!!

“OK ladies, should we be here?” I said. Who knows what snakes were hanging in the tree branches above and around us…

“Yes, we have to do this. Quick, stomp your feet and show your strength.” So we did.

“Christen, you start us.”

I took my harmonica out of my pocket, shut my eyes and took a deep breath… the kind of breath that you feel throughout your entire body. The kind that reminds you of your existence and your most innocent desires that lead you to your greatest courage. I was trembling. Another breath. Then I played my harmonica…

~ ♫ ~ ♫ ~ I played long, meditative notes ~ ♫ ~ ♫ ~

Then Cassidy started the chant. She and Whitney took the lead, Monica, Katelyn and Katie tone in harmonies, and I stopped playing the harmonica and varied between melodies and harmonies.

What happened next turned into one of the most magical musical moments of my life… And though I wish we could have had this moment recorded, I don’t know if it would have captured what I am about to describe.

We were in perfect tune, humming and chanting in perfectly pitched harmonics. We sang loud, we sang with strength and kindness. I remember exactly what I was thinking about when I sang – “We are here to protect you. You are safe with us. It is time. Give us the strength and wisdom to protect you so that you can help us remember all that we’ve forgotten.”

 [Because it’s after we learn about the Amazon’s delicately powerful ecosystem, feel its ancient rhythm under our feet, learn about all of the medicinal solutions the forest has provided the world, and smell that air… that thick, moist and luscious air…The Amazon then becomes real, personal and truly powerful.

And when the bittersweet aroma 0f its shadow sets in… suddenly, we digest the magnitude of the destruction of the multinational oil companies, who badly want this land. (Remember that the Achuar, historically a warrior tribe, is the only Amazonian tribe who has not taken money from the oil companies, nor lost land to the oil companies. But this grows more and more difficult every day.) It is both beautifully abundant and overwhelmingly nightmarish to stand in the middle of the jungle and consider this. It brought us all to our knees.]

Photo by Robin MilamThen, magic. We sang well, and about one minute into the song, the air changed. The lighting shifted. It wasn’t the lightning that cracked above us, it wasn’t something tangible… it was like a bubble or a field around us that expanded, contracted, swelled then expanded until it popped and the entire forest felt brighter, as though it could hear our song. (And in case you’re wondering, we were all 100% sober.)

At that moment, the vibration of our six voices clicked and unified into one clear and unbelievably loud voice. I say ‘unbelievable’ because the entire moment was exactly that to me… the thundrous vibration we created shocked me, and it made me quickly look up and out at the forest and the trees. (And please bear in mind that I’ve been a musician for over 20 years, and I have participated in a lot of stunning musical moments… and this experience kicked all of the asses of the previous moments.)

Then we could see eyes of creatures all around us, watching us. But we each believed that nothing was going to attack. The vibration we were projecting was pure and very strong, and there is a contract of holistic reciprocity and balance that exists in the natural world.

Photo by Cassidy RastSo long as we sang, we were safe. If we stopped singing at this moment, no guarantees. I knew this was the truth. I knew it in my bones, I knew it in my DNA.

I looked up at the trees and vines all around us, and I felt that we six women had a window to the mystery. I’ve never experienced anything like that before… the music. The vibration. The swelling. The close creatures at bay. We were in harmony with the natural world, and its natural flow.

And as soon as we finished the song, we all could feel the shadows creep back in. We could hear the animals slither and and move again. All six of us immediately felt a darkness envelop the space, and quickly we knew it was time to get out of the jungle, and fast.

Immediately when we got to safe ground, I asked the other girls if they saw that vortex open up the way I did… did I only experience this, was this all in my imagination? And they did… It was a moment that left us all speechless about how life worked. I mean, dang, now the learning really begins.

Monica in the rainThe next day we told the group leaders and Achuar about the experience… we received knowing smiles and further insight.

We went to the second village of Wayesentza, visited their sacred tree that was so tall that it single-handedly held up the heavens, met with one of the most revered shamans of the Amazon basin, and I played my harmonica for the children of the village (per the request of the shaman).


The Amazon rainforest is nature’s abundance embodied. Never have I been around so many living creatures at once, even in other completely untouched parts of the world where I have traveled and other rainforests I have visited. There is an ebb and flow to when life is taken and life is protected. All energy is borrowed, and is to be returned. Time is not linear. Nothing is ‘built to last’ as we have in our culture; everything made is to be returned to the Earth. Everything revolves around one word: Balance.

And in Balance lies Abundance.

The great Aikido master Koichi Tohei explains in his book Aikido, the Arts of Self-Defense:

Remember that you live always under the protection of some mysterious force.

This force is nature.Amazon Fire

True self-defense does not stop with defending oneself against others, but strives to make oneself worthy of defense by nature herself.

It respects the principles of nature.

True practice must be in consonance with the will of nature… true self-defense must be according to the will of God. When your mind and your acts become one with nature, the nature will protect you. Fear no enemy; fear only to be separated from the mind of nature.

In your heart let there be generosity as large as the sea which accepts both clean and unclean water. Let your mind be as merciful as nature which loves the smallest tree or blade of grass. Let your mind be strong with sincerity that can piece iron or stone.

Repay the forces of nature, work for the good of all and become a person whom nature is pleased to let live.

This is the true purpose of training.”

~ Tohei, from Aikido, the Arts of Self-Defense

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