Morning Altars: A Practice to Nourish Your Spirit through Nature, Art and Ritual

Morning Altars: A Practice to Nourish Your Spirit through Nature, Art and Ritual
The Life-Force in Art and Creation

Dawn has arrived. It’s deeply quiet. Wildcat Canyon, the place I call home, is beginning to stir. And my broken heartaches. The year is 2014 and all I can do to find my footing after the most grief-soaked breakup of my life is to walk my dog in these Northern Californian hills. It calms my mind. Rudy, my fourteen-year-old miniature schnauzer, leads the way. We go slowly. Beauty envelops us as we trudge forward. As much as I try to avert my eyes, the land continues to present us with beautiful gifts that won’t be denied: a leaf that somehow has managed to host all of the autumn colors on its little body, eucalyptus caps that look like an ancient temple tile from Morocco, and the sleek jet-black tail wing feather of the neighborhood crow. I receive these gifts. They’re balm for my tender heart.

Every morning after the breakup we would walk, wandering in sorrow, and every time we’d return home with some fallen land treasure. Eventually, I started bringing a basket on these walks because I’d discover so much beauty that it had to be collected. Focusing on the hunt got me out of my head. One early misty morning, Rudy and I came upon a village of amber mushrooms at the foot of a towering eucalyptus forest. I was enchanted. There was magic in the air that morning with the fog rolling through the hills and the sun barely having risen, and these mushrooms, looking like they were painted with watercolor, roused me out of my heavy heart. I collected some and, to my dog’s dismay, sat down for a while with the longing to create something beautiful.

I was no stranger to building art out of nature. When I was five years old, I would run outside after every rainstorm and witness the driveway covered in displaced and homeless worms, wiggling around trying to find their way back into the ground. I felt so much sympathy for the pathetic worms that I would dig small holes in the earth and escort the worms back into their proper place. But I didn’t stop there. I wanted their little homecomings to be celebrated with beauty. So I would adorn each hole, creating miniature art installations with flower petals, tiny sticks, and fallen berries, until a constellation of wormhole mandalas scattered the front yard. I had fallen in love with this timeless expression—making beauty right outside my front door.

Alt text here The land continues to present us with beautiful gifts that won’t be denied. Image: Camylla Battani

And so I sat with those mushrooms, wondering if crafting something beautiful could help ease my broken heart and soothe my agitated mind. I jumped in. Two wet hours later, I emerged from the otherworld of my spacious imagination having created a piece of earth art I would later call A Midnight Storm. It was built out of those very mushrooms and the surrounding eucalyptus caps, bark, and buttons. I immediately felt lighter, like a heavy burden I’d been struggling to carry had been temporarily lifted. For the first time since the breakup, I wasn’t only suffering from my grief but found a way to express the grief creatively.

As the sun peaked and the fog rolled, this beauty-making experience took me out of my woe-is-me mind and brought me into my hands and into the earth. It’s like what the author Martín Prechtel says, “Art is no longer what we want to do, we now do out art to bring the world back to life.” Making that piece with the mushrooms and eucalyptus didn’t just do that—it also brought me back to life.

Coming Back to Life

That moment inspired me to make a commitment that eventually became a practice: to return to the base of the eucalyptus tree on the top of that hill overlooking the East Bay every morning for the next month and create art out of nature. Before my mind could repeat its loop of regretful thinking, I grabbed a basket, a pair of scissors, and my dog and went out into the hills at dawn. I took the heartache I felt and employed it to make something beautiful each morning for a solid month. I felt like I was placing my grief on an altar and letting it go, which is how the name Morning Altars came into being. An altar’s purpose is to sanctify something and offer it up to a higher source. And without even thinking about it, that’s what I was doing with my grief. After one month I realized I had no intention of stopping. There was something magical afoot. My mornings were now richer than they ever had been, filled with curiosity, wonder, and blessings. I felt a far more intimate connection with the place where I lived. With my hands, I was making a new beautiful offering out of the land every day. My imagination was uncorked.

Alt text here An altar’s purpose is to sanctify something and offer it up to a higher source. Image: Markus Spiske

What began as a way to be with my own heartache transformed into a faithful and creative resource and daily practice that made my life more meaningful. But the altars weren’t just about grief. Over time, I made Morning Altars for every life event: to honor my friend giving birth to a baby girl, to process the decision to leave my job, or simply because I felt grateful for waking up that morning. And the altars started to have a life of their own, impacting people in ways I could never imagine. Beauty has a way of doing that. Sometimes, I would find “Thank you” or “I love this” spelled out in branches or acorns on public trails in the same spot I had built an altar the day before. The people and the Earth were speaking through one another.

Beholding a Place

Most significantly, this practice was weaving me and the place I called home into a deeply purposeful and generous relationship. I was belonging more to and becoming more of this place in ways I had never before. This is what Dr. Martin Shaw, English author and storyteller, refers to when he says, “The difference between being from a place and of a place is our capacity to behold it.” The altars bound my heart, hands, and home more closely together.

Over the years, while cultivating this devotional and daily Morning Altars practice, I have discovered seven movements within this art form. Each movement elevates the art from a creative expression to an actual ritual. These seven movements offer a tangible, interactive way to get outside and immediately relate to the greater-than-human world through a sense of wonder, play, and reverence. I have taught these steps to thousands of people, and I’ve come to witness how simple and yet profound this practice is. It is accessible to anyone, anywhere, at any age. I even wrote a book about it called Morning Altars: A 7-Step Practice to Nourish Your Spirit through Nature, Art and Ritual. I see this book as a resource that can ignite a global movement, inspiring earth altars to pop up like, temporary and tiny universes in landscapes all over the world, reminding us of our enduring connection to the Earth and each other.

Alt text here Earth altars remind us of our enduring connection to the Earth and each other. Image: Austin Neill

Art, nature and ritual have always offered a light in dark places. Individually, they each can tether us to presence, purpose and beauty during unpredictable times, rooting us into what truly matters and guiding a way back to our hearts and homes. Together they can serve as an antidote to some of the most challenging struggles we face both as a people and as a culture. They can help us practice creativity in the midst of disempowerment, to see with curiosity and
wonder when so much looks like hopelessness and despair, and to exercise awareness and surrender through the transitoriness of life. These are real skills that we need in order to redeem the tattered threads of our humanity.

The Light in Dark Places

For thousands of years, people all over the world have nourished life through earth art. From Stonehenge in England, to the Giant Serpent Mound in Ohio, to the Nazca Lines in Peru, to the Chauvet Caves in France and the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest Native Americans, the Earth has always served as a collaborator to express the myth, prayer, and memory of the people. Even for modern humans, the ritual of earth art can faithfully tie us back into a greater story of our small, significant place on this floating planet.

Our modern culture tells us often, like a mantra, that bigger and faster are better. But as we face such peril that we have never encountered before on this Earth, within our communities and ourselves, I submit that a way through these troubled times can be found in beholding the ordinary and smallest of things. The fallen leaves or spiraling pinecone can tutor us in the needed skills of wonder and mystery, reawakening our imaginations as people who can presence
magnificence. Earth altars are a tangible, accessible practice and ritual you can do right outside your front door. It can connect you back to the pace of the Earth, channel your distractions and offer a way that brings meaning, mindfulness and beauty to your life and to life itself in a time that truly needs it. As you wake up tomorrow morning, let’s consider the question that Antonio Machado so eloquently asks: What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?

An Excerpt from the book: Morning Altars: A 7-Step Practice to Nourish Your Spirit through Nature, Art, and Ritual by Day Schildkret, published by The Countryman Press, an imprint of W.W. Norton.

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Ellen Swanson
Ellen Swanson
1 year ago

Thank you so much. You have made me aware of all the Earth altars I have built and didn’t consciously have words for what I was doing.

Louise Linton
Louise Linton
1 year ago

Thank you. I usually leave an edible thank you for the (wild) birds while walking with my dog friends in the mornings, now I will add an Earth altar.

angela locke
angela locke
1 year ago

This is a lovely piece, very inspirational. Thank you! I will do this on my daily ( allowed) walk in the UK while we are in national Lock Down. I am lucky enough to live in the countryside where I can observe Nature every day, but I also sad to think that there are those people, stuck in high rise flats with no garden spaces, who have no Nature close to them. It would be hard for them to perform these lovely rituals. Perhaps we should perform the rituals on their behalf, sendng Love out into the world?
One little (hopefullly helpful) comment is that the word ‘peace’ is misspelt as ‘piece’ at one point in the author’s text
Best wishes and all blessings

Sheila Hall
Sheila Hall
1 year ago

Thank you. I believe this is one more simple, quiet way I can express my bond with and desire to connect more with, the earth. I will look for more “natural” places to walk from now on.

Saran Lauwers
Saran Lauwers
1 year ago

Thanks Day for sharing. I also create, when I am in nature. And at home. Always everywhere.

Mary Byrne
Mary Byrne
1 year ago

Hello Dan,
Thank you for this beautifully written and inspiring piece. As I read through it, I felt like I was walking along with on your nature trails. We are in Nature and Nature is in us and in the presence of nonduality, it has the power to heal our inner garden and that of others. I look forward to making my own Earth altar on my walks with my dog.
All the best,
Mary

Dianna Graves
Dianna Graves
1 year ago

Thank you for sharing your story – instead of sitting in my kitchen at my computer, you transported me to a place of grounding and connection.

streamcomplet
streamcomplet
1 year ago

ce blog était vraiment super, jamais vu un super blog comme ça avant. je pense que je vais partager cela avec mes amis ..

Tina Neal
Tina Neal
1 year ago

Gorgeous! I sometimes do this in my local park. Every day as a ritual is very appealing. Tho where I make an offering it disappears by the next day often. I must find a safer more secluded area. Some people it seems like to destroy.

Bernadette
Bernadette
1 year ago

That I fell upon this writing, an unexpected gift. Perfect in every way. I stopped the at hand task, read the piece and was reminded. I came to be living with my son, and the courtyard on his property became my healing place. This square, raised up off the drive had four walls and a set of stairs to come and go. Very private. From April until late Fall it was my morning and evening meditation. For now the courtyard would be mine. I can bring this back while my son takes care of his own inner needs. I had alot of healing to do myself. Every morning around 6 am I would step out and greet this little bit of divine intervention, and I felt welcomed. This is the courtyard his father made. It was only a square of odds and ends of grass, but he changed it to be something very sweet. He died June 9, 2016 and now the courtyard was Sams. I took care of his dad those last couple months, I was thinking about those last afternoons when he would say, “I want to sit in the courtyard.” I put the old rocker he made out on the stone and he would sit very quietly in the open sun with his thoughts. The pain and anger had long left us from when we first departed in 2001, and we were a mom and a now adult son walking with his father as far as the last hours allow those left behind, until he was gone.
I knew nothing of roses and grass and things that climb. I wanted to do right by this space and for his dad, and so all I had was my best effort. It had been alittle unattended, but I was sure the residents understood. Nature is very forgiving of us humans. As long as we are giving it our best.
From April 2019 until late Fall, I became well entrenched in what became my ritual. I could’nt imagine a morning or evening that was any different. I felt lucky. Early mornings visiting everyone, looking for new growth, watering, scattering the rolly polly bugs as my feet woke them from their own slumber. Off they went! I watered and trimmed and read, and I even cried some. It wasnt easy losing a plant. I was letting someone down, wasnt i? This little square gifted me alot of love and healing. This is what meditation is to me. This is being present. You simply cannnot be anywhere else in your mind when you are watering a flower, trimming a bush, being astonished by their intricate beauty, dive-bombed by carpenter bees, or trimming back the invasive vine I was warned about. I kept him on because its tiny purple flower was too hard to resist. It lives here now. There is an agreement that he stay within certain boundaries. He does. Well, with the aid of hand trimmers. I manually trimmed the small patch of grass. I had told the lawnman he could stop weed wacking it, I was going in another direction. And I did. Every morning. And I loved it. And it came back and filled the bald spots, and all those months, I kept healing too. That fall last year I was to move and I decided to walk around this little spot I was leaving. I needed to say goodbye. To formallly walk around before I leave, like I went around it when I came, seemed like a sort of closure. And I wanted to say thank you. For the respite, for calming the beast, for making me a better person. Do you know? I filled up. I was truly emotional, because I knew I would miss this. And I was truly grateful. And I had not been that for a very long time. Alot of forgiveness happened there for me. I didnt know if I was up to the task and I thought I was there to make this place better, and hold on to it for Sam until he was ready. But as it turns out, it was the courtyard and all its nature that was doing the tending. Of Bernadette. The full realization of this at that moment, a sort of parting gift.

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