When the buses arrived in Montgomery the riders were viciously attacked by waiting mobs. Reporters and photographers are also brutally assaulted and their cameras smashed to prevent the rest of America from seeing pictures of the Klan assault on nonviolent young men and women. After the attack, Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg waits for transportation to a hospital (segregation laws prohibit Black taxi drivers from giving rides to whites, and white cabbies refuse to transport Freedom Riders of any race).
The pivotal moment of my week-long wilderness survival class occurred a little more than halfway through the week.
We had gotten into nuances of stalking and camouflage - the art of movement and the skill of blending your form into the baseline pattern of the woods. Not only these, but almost every art and science that we’d studied that week finds consilience in the hunt. The hunt requires you to recollect the primordial language of animal tracks and signs - deciphering scratches on trees and snapped twigs and turning them into meaningful propositions; it requires you to be wary of the wind, temperature and humidity, and note when they change; it requires you to recognize patterns at ever-expanding concentric levels of existence - to know the earth like you know your mother, and to feel her beating heart wherever you sit or step.
The scope of ‘the hunt’ goes beyond looking for animals - it also includes foraging for plants that are edible or useful in some way - or searching for water, or looking for the right stone, or tree that for some reason the situation calls for. The hunt is a 'geomantic’ state of mind wherein you are on a search for some soon-to-be aspect of yourself. It is both curious and intent, playful and somber. It is realizing that you belong in the web of life - you are welcome there if you practice humility and patience. Yes, you belong there - it’s your birthright.
Most of us didn’t grow up learning traditional ways of questing in the wilderness - whether for visions or for resources - so for me at least, that space feels distinctly, indubitably sacred. I felt that same dark, visceral enchantment when my partner and I slaughtered our lambs last fall, or when I went to a primitive hide-tanning gathering for the first time and spent a day scraping a cow hide that I’d brought with me - becoming absorbed in navigating the miniscule landscape of the creature’s skin with my scraping tool. The power in such experiences can feel downright profane when you aren’t prepared for them. I’ve experienced such 'profane illumination’ myself, where I feel that I’ve stepped into a river of mana that is almost too swift and strong for me to bear - so I simply forge ahead, putting one foot in front of another (and this is where protective rituals and spell-casting come in!) and am left bewildered as Pan disappears back into the forest…
This past week, however, I never got the sense that I tumbled or crashed into that holy wild spaceâ€¦ I slipped into it, like dozing into hypnagogia. And in that dream-time I found nothing like the Revelations of St. John, but rather a sort of mundane sacredness, characterized by such a subtle change in vibration that I can see how easily it can go untapped.
It is in the most quotidian aspects of modern living - things like conjuring calories and warmth - that in the wild are clearly times of high alchemy. Those are the times when we feral sorcerers oversee the transubstantiation of one element into another. They are when energy and matter trade places. Friction turns into fire, and other organisms give their life-energy to us. It is at those times of creation and participation that, if we were to lift our heads and look around us, we would see the gods seated there in a semicircle, silently watching with broad elfin smiles and half shadowed faces.
There’s something about that mundane vanilla holiness that makes it so much more preferable to the contrived, liturgical holiness that only occurs at set, formal times. The latter abounds in the modern world. What if a ritual is there but there is no spirit inside it, no god? Indeed, I think this is how many people experience various organized religions. They see (and feel) an aesthetically pleasing vessel - but it is empty - it contains no nourishment. And many of them know that there is something missing. I fear that we aren’t routinely empowered to ask the questions necessary to dismantle the distraction of dead ritual - and we definitely aren’t empowered to create our own rituals - to fashion vessels for our own gods. (And I think “our own” gods are the gods of us all - the gods of fire, food, thunder, sex, deathâ€¦) People ask me what studying religion has to do with farming (because those are the two things I pursued as an undergraduate) - and I often find myself talking about rites-of-passage and vision questsâ€¦ our society suffers a lack of such traditions, that really reveal to us personally how much stardust and energy goes into supporting the life and well-being of our bodies and minds. Moreover, we lack even a grammar for such things - which prevents us from hacking new rites, rituals and myths - we’ve forgotten that they are [open-source] things that can be parsed and recompiled. They’re not supposed to be staticâ€¦ or at least, only as static as Mama Nature herself.
There was a point in the week where I did hear a couple of angels sing, though. We had practiced transforming our gait, widening the angle of our vision, and using one of the simplest weapon-tools known to primates; a throwing stick. All these things we had approached independently earlier in the week, with accompanying lectures, demonstrations and anecdotes. On Thursday, we did an exercise that gave us a context for combining these sensory and kinesthetic skills - we were to go into the woods wielding a stick (a solid, wrist-thick piece of wood about a foot and a half long) and practice stalking, approaching and throwing at targets as soundlessly and seamlessly as possible - using trees or stumps in place of actual woodland critters.
I had been at a slow fox walk for about 20 minutes - periodically sliding up to large trees and crouching in their shadows for a few minutes to motionlessly observe the forest. I concealed the stick behind the arm that was holding it and kept both arms close to my body - at times I was almost at a crouch.
It didn’t take long for me to notice that being 'armed’ (or thinking of myself as armed) exerted a very potent psychological influence. It was nearly subconscious - my posture registered in my limbic system as being one poised for attack and this went straight to my muscles and senses - causing me to slow down and enhancing the precision of my movements. I felt like a cat. This way of moving felt strangely familiar and simultaneously alien. I let these feelings register as thoughts and swirl around my head, and did my best to feed them back into my body - I didn’t want my 'thinking’ mind to be in charge.
The stick was like a magic wand, I realized - it was acting as a conduit and guide for my awareness. Magicians often speak of magical items used in spellcasting and ritual as being devices for amplifying the 'signal’ of our intention. I suddenly had the experience of what that meant.
I sat down in front of a large tree and savored this body-buzz. I looked forward into the forest with all its dimensions and textures and felt that my vision was different - as if I was suddenly seeing in high-definition. I didn’t feel anxious at all, or like I was 'waiting’ for anything - a rare state, I think, compared to the humdrum of everyday civilized life. I knew that when I moved a muscle next it would be a totally intentional movement, not hasty, because I wouldn’t be trying to get anywhere - I would just be continuing a kinesthetic conversation with the woods, with perhaps just curiosity as my guide. I knew that by the time I stood up, I would be part of this forest. And when I did stand up, I felt all the hairs on my body raise - as if in praise. As I continued on my stalk, I decided to try my hand at some target practice. And miraculously, my aim was radically improved from when we’d practiced throwing at targets back at camp. The targets I chose were further away, too. It made all the difference for the throws to be in the context of a meaningful activity. My solitude helped too - I didn’t feel like I was performing in front of anyone, and was able to approach my targets and get into position slowly and deliberately. At one point I found the precision to hit a mushroom off a tree trunk from 20 feet away!
Being a human can be fun again when you realize you’re a special kind of animal with a unique and wonderful skill-set. It is, indeed, something to be admired - just as we so admire our beautiful hooved, winged and pawed brothers and sisters.
Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg waits for transportation to a hospital. Segregation laws prohibited Black taxi drivers from giving rides to whites, and white cabbies refused to transport Freedom Riders of any race. May 14, 1961
Jim Zwerg was a white American civil rights activist who in 1961 took part in the protests in Nashville and the Freedom Rides.
The Freedom Riders rode buses in the South to test the new civil rights laws. The first two buses left Washington, DC on May 4th 1961. Ten days later both ended in Klan violence in Alabama, one at Anniston, the other at Birmingham.
Zwerg and eleven other volunteers decided they would be the reinforcements. Zwerg was the only white male in the group. Zwerg was scared for his life, but he never had second thoughts. He recalled, “My faith was never so strong as during that time. I knew I was doing what I should be doing.”
The group traveled by bus to Birmingham, where Zwerg was first arrested for not moving to the back of the bus with his black seating companion. Three days later, the riders regrouped and headed to Montgomery. At first the terminal was quiet and eerie, but it turned into an ambush. The riders were attacked from all directions. Zwerg’s suitcase was grabbed and smashed into his face until he hit the ground, where others beat him repeatedly. One man stopped and clamped Zwerg’s head between his knees so others could beat him. The attackers knocked his teeth out and showed no signs of stopping, until a black man stepped in and ultimately saved his life. Zwerg recalls: “There was nothing particularly heroic in what I did. If you want to talk about heroism, consider the black man who probably saved my life. This man in coveralls, just off of work, happened to walk by as my beating was going on and said ‘Stop beating that kid. If you want to beat someone, beat me.’ And they did. He was still unconscious when I left the hospital. I don’t know if he lived or died.”
Zwerg was denied prompt medical attention because there were no white ambulances available. He remained unconscious for 2 days and stayed in the hospital for 5 days.
Half his teeth were broken as were his thumb and his nose. Three bones in his back were cracked resulting in back pain for the rest of his life.
Zwerg claimed he had had an incredible religious experience and God helped him not fight back, he was at peace, a peace he never again felt in his life.
“Segregation must be stopped. It must be broken down. We’re going on to New Orleans no matter what. We’re dedicated to this. We’ll take hitting. We’ll take beating. We’re willing to accept death.” - Jim Zwerg
John Lewis (l) and Jim Zwerg after they were beaten on a Freedom Ride in Alabama in 1964. Lewis helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Now he is a long-serving Member of Congress from Georgia.
Civil rights is a long struggle and most often involved challenging authority and facing violence. In 1961 the Supreme court of the US ruled that segregation in Federal facilities is unconstitutional. Groups advocating civil rights tested this ruling by riding in nonsegregated buses up to southern states like Mississippi and Alabama. These interstate buses were legally obliged to follow the supreme court ruling even in places where segregation was still practiced and enforced. One iconic image of the freedom riders is that of Jim Zwerg.
from Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia. Freedom riders knew or expected to be stopped or arrested for violating local laws. What they did not count on was the degree of hate and violence waiting for them in bus stops and roads. The first freedom riders were to arrive in New Orleans May 17th but in May 14th in Birmingham, Alabama a mob attacked the freedom riders. Freedom riders sat side by side with another person in the bus regardless of the color of their skin and ethnic background. The mob hated the white freedom riders the most and singled them out by beating them with baseball bats and iron pipes. Injured riders were denied medical treatment in local hospitals. Local police and authorities looked the other way and did not stop the violence.