On July 2, 2016, Grandfather Fire made an appearance to tell The Story of Tobacco. The setting — 7 ½ acres in New Freedom, Pennsylvania, lovingly stewarded since 2004 by Firekeeper Linda Felch and her husband Randy Whitlock – could not have been better chosen.
With its diverse habitat of streams and pond, forest and fields, Grandfather talked about the land there as being very rich and giving — a place that “little people” like to frequent.
Human visitors, on this special day, certainly felt very welcome. On parking in an open field at the bottom of the hill, they walked along a lane flanked by pawpaw trees, crossed two creeks, then came to a huge perennial flower garden and wildflower meadow by the house. As guests continued on beyond the house, up a further rise, they came to the edge of a forest to find the community hearth. Also beyond the house, off to one side, they were invited to visit several more of the five vastly different gardens that are tended here.
One of these gardens features the “Three Sisters” – Corn, Beans and Squash – plants which have their own particular lessons about community. Each of these plants serves a function for the other, something of which indigenous peoples of the Americas have long known and taken advantage. Randy tells us he spends time almost every day in this garden. “I have a really intimate and essential relationship with corn. Corn has taught me hugely. It is essential – the plants and the whole environment respond to that kind of attention, that sort of nourishment and that sort of care.” Meanwhile, Linda involves the community in learning to harvest, grind and prepare the heirloom corn.
Then there are the tobacco gardens where two varieties – nicotiana rustica and nicotiana tabacum – are grown. Randy relates his love of the plant, though it is a different, less intimate relationship than he has with corn. “I’ve known about tobacco’s ceremonial use since I was young. I felt it belonged here, that I had a need for it in my life, although I knew very little about growing it before we moved here.” It turns out that tobacco has much to teach. One lesson is patience. “The seeds are incredibly tiny, very temperature sensitive and take a long time to germinate. We always wonder if they will come up, and some years we have to re-sow 2 or 3 times. Once they do sprout, it is amazing how fast the seedlings grow to full plants. They love the heat, the fire. And it is absolutely astonishing how many seeds one tobacco plant can make.”
Linda adds, “Growing tobacco also has a community aspect for us. We are usually in Mexico right around the time that frost can set in. One year, at the threat of frost, a neighbor harvested the tobacco for us while we were away. We give most of our tobacco to the Blue Deer Center (one of our sister Sacred Fire organizations) for their ceremonial use and to our local community.”
Eighty people, about fifteen of whom were new to the Sacred Fire Community, came to hear the Story of Tobacco on this beautiful summer day. The afternoon program included a presentation by David Wiley, in which he shared his own personal story with Fire and why Fire is important to humanity — particularly to the world as it is now.
After a potluck dinner, attendees settled in around the hearth. As is the custom, stories, laughter, drumming and dancing heralded the arrival of Grandfather Fire. After a period of warming things up by answering questions of general concern, Grandfather shared the Sacred Story of how and why Tobacco came to be in the world. As with other sacred stories, this one requires a special setting to be shared. What can be said here is that Tobacco can help us to open our hearts and and move through the illusion of separateness to a place of oneness with all creation.
Many readers will already know of the use of tobacco to send messages of gratitude to the spirit realm. Such gratitude is expressed for various valuable and beautiful manifestations found in our physical world: a body of water that yields a refreshing drink, for instance, or a tree that offers its life for building materials. It is exactly this sort of heartfelt gratitude which touched David K., a local hamlet member whose family’s home in York County goes back at least 6 generations. “I was very touched and impressed by the presence of the various marakate (elders trained in the medicine path of the Huichol people of Mexico). They were so present with their prayers while giving their offerings during the ritual opening of the Fire. It felt like a pouring of love into that specific fire pit, on my native land. To me it was momentous.”
Joan C., another local community member, reported how much fun she had welcoming attendees and how magical it was sitting in the dark, listening to “a true creation story, from a time before there were people.” She commented on the special way in which Fire itself promotes connection. So it was fitting that Linda and Randy were given a special name for the Place in which their hearth is located: Uthsijsta Kahwanta (ooh-th’ see-gee stahh cah’-wahn-tah). Translated from the (extinct) Susquehannock language it means: “The hill where people gather around fire to meet.”
Apparently Grandfather Fire felt very welcome at Uthsijsta Kahwanta and voiced his appreciation to Linda and Randy for the community’s work and preparation to receive Him. In fact, He mentioned coming back. So stay tuned!
The New Freedom Sacred Fire Community Hamlet hosts monthly community fires, as well as Men and Women’s Fires and an annual Harvest Ceremony. For more information, contact Linda at firstname.lastname@example.org.