Occasionally, it is easier to describe what something is not, to get at the heart of what it is. Ecotours are not for folks who “know it all”, the basic structure and principles of ecotours is that the traveler becomes a student, learning and letting go of preconceived ideas about the place they are visiting, as well as themselves, their own concepts of home, comfort, scheduling, and direction. Ecotours cannot be highly regimented or scheduled, because usually the environment is characterized by change. Being aware of this change, and respecting the unfolding of our experiences requires roadmaps that are changeable. Reflecting and honoring the unique experiences of the travelers as they interact with the ecology of place is part of why ecotours are qualitatively different than what we have come to know as tourism. Ecotours cannot be a series of shopping trips, punctuated by natural wonders, and commemorated with the appreciation of trinkets (cheap plastic crap from China) with the names of places you had gone printed upon them. More than likely, the change of heart that ecotours bring will be your most precious keepsake, punctuated with a rock, feather, handcrafted local textile or drum that embodies the energy of the place it was created.
The practice of ecotouring is a discipline of discovery. Respecting the earth, her flora, fauna, local cultures and unique gifts of Creator. Fortunately, we all have it within our power to begin the process of retooling our own travel to accommodate this new way forward, re-envisioning what it means to be “on the road”, and recreating new ways to perform our own intimate dance with place, raising the bar for what we are willing to learn from and see within all life on the planet.
When I was young, I made a pilgrimage to the site of ancient Pipestone beds in Minnesota. This site, mined by locals for centuries, was (according to Native American tradition) where “The Blood of Mother Earth” was made physical for human beings to use. This red stone is a yielding material for carving peace pipes, because it’s spirit is of earth, giver of so many great gifts, gives birth to the smoldering coal of fire, and carries our prayers and the energies of sacred tobacco to the spirit realm, in offering of our thanks, this stone has great power. My pilgrimage to this site was to honor the spirit of the place. I had no intention of removing any of the sacred stone, just to see it in place and know the spirit of the earth as it is expressed in that location. This was many years before the word ecotours was coined, but I was definitely on one. With reverence, I approached the place where the stone is mined. I could literally feel the stone, pulling me toward it. It was uncanny. The last hundred feet before I saw an actual mine was as transformative as the whole trip up to that point had been. We came over a rise, and the pit became visible to us. It was not much to see at the time, just a small hole really. I remember thinking, “my bedroom isn’t much bigger than this place.” Some trash and cigarette buts littered the area, and in the bottom of the “mine” there was some stagnant water with mosquito larvae in it. I remember thinking, “What have we done?” It astonished me that one of the most sacred sites that I had been to would be so desecrated. I guess that I expected to see native people quarrying the stone, and blessing the chunks as they pulled them from the ground. In that moment I was overwhelmed by an urge to take a bit of the red rock, if only a tiny piece, just a few bits of the red gravel that was nearby. Then, and without warning, I turned to see the largest Snapping turtle I have ever seen. It was a messenger, and it brought with it a silent testimony to many things that cannot be expressed in words that I know. It spoke of the Water Spirit, of course. The long dormant spirit of the earth and her people was reflected in that turtle. It told of the great energy that rises each spring with the return of Father Sun. It spoke of the healing ways, the security of “home” and tenacious grip with which we hold onto things that are dear, or sustaining to us. (This was reflected in the great beast’s fearsome jaw.) Even the juxtaposition of the hulking behemoth associated with water in this dry sun-baked and desolate place was at odds with my vision of what it might be like here. Without thinking I saw more in that moment than I could explain in a book of any length. My path had fallen away within, and all around me. I was immersed in place and had to go no further to receive the blessings of the ancestors and earth’s, turtle’s and the stone’s messages.
Since this time, Pipestone has come and gone from my life. Small bits, fist-sized pieces, and once a great slab graced the threshold of my tipi. As an adult, I was given the opportunity to carve my own sacred pipe from this stone; the power of this treasure is that it can carry my spirit back to my great teachers at the quarry. This same implement can also carry my prayers to Great Spirit. When the Earth gives you a gift, as long as you respect it and honor the gift with one of your own, the circle completes itself rewarding the future with even more than was there in the past. May the circle be unbroken, may your days be blessed, and may the path you are on bring you insight to the great mystery.
Peace, Tony “Saladman” Saladino Director- ECO-Tours of Wisconsin Inc.