“I will cease to live as a self and will take as my self [sic] my fellow creatures.”
— Shantideva, an 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar and yogi
On a windy, cold day, walking through forest past the town of San Martin del Camino, I watched two pilgrims ahead of me scoop up things from the path and put them in a white plastic bag. The twenty-something couple, travelling with an older man, bent down at least a dozen times and continued to fill the bag.
When I approached them, they said, in English: “We’re going to have them for dinner.” Snails. Escargots. The pilgrims were French. A typical delicacy for them, right?
I felt sorry for the poor little snails. This was day 24 of my pilgrimage. By then, I had shared The Way with many snails, ones with black-and-brown striped shells that looked at least twice the size of our snails at home. I thought of them with fondness as my fellow travelers, along with the slugs, ants, beetles, lizards, and bigger creatures—dogs, cats, horses, sheep, and cows—that shared brief portions of my journey.
For me, these tiny sentient beings were as much a part of the trail as human pilgrims. In my busy life back home, they often went unnoticed or ignored. On the path, they had become visual focal points for me. After all, my eyes were constantly looking down, surveying the terrain for the most level surface, trying to avoid any potential footfalls. Amidst stones and other stationary features, insects added a spark of movement that invited more attention.
I began to see them as a symbol of life’s interconnectedness. At times, while hiking alone on the Camino, my mind and body, with no conscious effort, entered a sense of profound oneness with my surroundings. Physically, I felt as if I was no longer separate from what I could see and feel. Everything—my moving legs, shadows and bugs on the ground, birdsong in the air, waving tufts of wheat—were linked energetically as one fluid form of life. Insects weren’t just little dots beneath me: they were part of my own soul and being.
This sensation was so palpable I wondered why I didn’t feel it all the time. I wrote in my journal: “I truly felt as if I had reached a state of grace while hiking alone today. . . It felt as if all life was sacred, including the flies, splats of cowshit—everything.”
Beyond visual sensations, the Camino offers frequent reminders of bird and animal presence: the clang of cow bells, cuckoo calls, seemingly nonstop birdsong, and rooster crowing, even in the evening. Along the route, storks build thick, high nests of large branches on the flat eaves of many stone churches. The migratory paths of many birds follow The Way.
We are never alone if we are willing to let all of nature into our hearts. Perhaps that is why I revel in solitude when in the outdoors.
In hills with radiant rows of heather, thick and tall, on the highest part of the Camino (1,505 metres), while walking from Santa Catalina to Acebo, I noticed individual beetles, shiny and iridescent, along the path. Then I came across a cluster of them, later writing in my journal: “They’re startling in their mundane beauty.”
While contemplating these wee beings, I was surprised that the words from a hymn, which I sang in church as a child, came back to me:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.
Had the Christian roots of the El Camino reached me? I had not thought in terms of “Lord” or “God” in many years. I believe in Soul and Spirit and divine essence, a unifying link of Oneness, rather than an externalized God or Saviour. Yet the phrase “all creatures great and small” stayed with me as I walked, almost as a mantra.
On day 27, while walking from Acebo to Cacabelos, I saw what looked like a large chickadee, with dark orange on its throat, alight on a low branch of a shrub. I remained only about a metre away and it did not fly away. Two days later, a yellow finch with some orange in its tail feathers hopped along the dusty path just in front of me.
These direct encounters with nature occurred while I was solitary and had seen no other pilgrims for at least an hour. They reminded me that any notion of separateness, viewing someone or something as The Other, or better or less than, is ultimately an illusion. All living beings share a heart that beats. That is enough to unite us all, big or small.
Then why did I inwardly condemn the pilgrims who repeatedly got drunk or treated the Camino like any regular two-week vacation? I resented the brashness of some bicyclists who hurtled downhill, loud and sometimes with little warning, expecting those on foot to make way for them. My mind eagerly put them in a category separate from me.
With humans, I feel the need to maintain the illusion of my own identity, making others somehow wrong so that I can feel righteous or more evolved. With insects and animals, no such filter is necessary; with them, it is easier to connect from pure spirit.
NEXT WEEK: La Casa de los Dioses
August 16, 2013 at 1:38 pm Comments (4)