Written by Jonathan Aryeh Wayne, April 10, 2019
“Throw away the fear. Leave the anger far behind you. Hope is near, This I pray. All I know, we are a one world people, share it now or throw it all away. We could share it now or throw it all away.”
For the past 9 years of my life, I was friends with a righteous man who lived in the forest until he died at the age of 70 last week. His name was Dan Wilcox and in my eyes, he was a true steward of the land, a teacher and mentor, as well as a father figure. He lived on 68 acres of land in Northwestern Pennsylvania, on a wildlife refuge called “Round Oak Centre” in a sunken earth home he built in the early 1980s. His hobbit home had big windows facing the southern sky where the sunshine filtered in, with a grass-lined roof and a ceiling full of large wooden beams. The old newspaper clippings, sun bleached photographs, and faded line drawings given to Dan over the decades adorned his ancient wooden walls, stained with time’s dust. A few old, musty books sat on his table, while aloe vera plants flanked his big harp and upright piano. An old map of the Yucatan peninsula showing the ancient Mayan kingdom featured prominently above his stove and kitchen countertop. Inside one of his old refrigerators was a cardboard box of fresh shiitake mushrooms handpicked from his very own nursery down in the woods. On the oak logs were mushroom spores Dan injected over the decades which spawned the shiitakes he grew, with a sprinkler system connected to a stream he set up eons ago. His home sat at the top of a small hill with a bit of grass sandwiched between the woods that led down to a big natural swimming pond, connected to a stream providing gravity-fed spring water to his house. A garden, protected by a fence, lay behind the pond with dozens of different vegetables growing in the warmer seasons. Not far from the garden was a sweat lodge that sat nestled on the edge of the woods that I had the honor of rebuilding several times over the years with Dan and his friends.
Back in 2010, when I first met Dan, I participated in a Native American peyote medicine ceremony with 30 or so people for a few days. In that time, I was enamored with Dan and his land, taking my video camera constantly there and filming his life. As the years went by, my infatuation lessened but my respect and appreciation grew enormously, as I realized it was more important to immerse myself in his world, rather than worry about trying to document everything from behind a camera. I stopped filming his life altogether at one point and just traveled to his wildlife refuge to participate in sweat lodges every Summer while enjoying the peace and serenity of being out in nature. I always enjoyed bringing my tent with me and camping in front of his doorstep on those Saturday nights in the Summer during the full moon. I’ll never forget swimming in his pond with him on moonlit nights after long hot sweats in the lodge, running up to his house and eating tons of ice cold watermelon, warming up in front of his fireplace while sharing countless stories well into the night before my friends and I crawled into our tents to sleep, waking up to his freshly ground coffee (with soy milk and chocolate syrup), accompanying him on his upright piano while he played original folks songs on his harp, picking fresh shiitake mushrooms off his logs, foraging for wild mushrooms in the woods, gaining his insight into medicinal and herbal healing (ie. goldenseal powder and aloe vera as a natural bandage), taking showers in his heated spring water, and much more.
I’ll never forget the lodge itself, building it and taking it down 24 hours later. I remember Dan always asking for people to gather ferns in the woods for a natural flooring, while he built the fire within the stone altar. I always enjoyed fire-tending, and part of the time I did this just so I could get a breath of fresh air outside (and having a gulp of water too). We used to carry the 50 or 60 blankets down on wheelbarrows before we draped the lodge with them. Inside the lodge during ceremony, there were usually 10 or 15 people sitting in a circle in pitch black darkness, with only the sounds of people’s breathing and the fire crackling behind the blankets. Dan always blessed the four directions (the east, south, west, and north) and smudged us with sage before we all went one by one into the sweat lodge, and always said that anyone could leave and sit around the fire if they felt overheated. Dan never charged people a single penny for using his lodge or sharing in the time well-spent amongst each other. He welcomed newcomers, no matter their religion, race, or ethnicity, to share the love of the human spirit. Many of us opened up quite enormously inside the lodge, sharing conflicts, joys, crises, blessings, and used the many hours as psychological and physical therapy. The next day when it came time to clean up the lodge, I always used to hate tearing it down, and hanging the blankets and sheets on the clotheslines that Dan hung up between several large trees. It wasn’t because I was sad to see the lodge being undressed, but that I was so lazy and tired in doing more work. In years past, I delayed my efforts by finding the right moment to empty my bowels in his woods, finding a small remote rock outcropping where I did my business like a bear in the wild. With the aid of a box of tissues and a mound of dirt, I left my mark forever on his land, and though I never flaunted my act, I’m sure Dan knew about my peculiar business.
One time a friend and I arrived at Dan’s house late in the day, and nobody was there yet. On top of that, we were supposed to build a new sweat lodge for the season. As we walked around his house and approached Dan, who was sitting in a chair staring at the trees, we heard a grumbling from him and knew he was angry as hell. He had a right to be upset, since he waited all day for people to come up and help him build the lodge (and nobody was there). After a bit of yelling and profanity, we soon realized for the first time we wouldn’t be having a sweat lodge ceremony that evening. Miraculously however, two other young men showed up from Ohio not long afterwards, and the 5 of us went into the woods with axes and a chainsaw and literally chopped down some saplings, tossed the wood in Dan’s truck and drove back to the stone altar where we built a new lodge in about 4 hours. Later that night, we shared in a ceremony and laughed, sang songs, and shared stories.
I feel very fortunate to have been able to introduce so many friends to Dan Wilcox (including my mom and sister in 2010), and am grateful for his immense insight and knowledge into the natural world. Dan was truly one of the most unique and inspiring men I had ever met in my life, and he helped open up my heart to hug (people) again, to “believe in the (plant) medicine”, to make me work harder in giving my best effort, and to provide me a more simple perspective of life that I lacked from living in a city. The sweat lodges he hosted were a time of truth, of compassion and empathy, and of embracing one another, despite each other’s flaws and imperfections. Dan always reminded people to only hold love in their hearts, and that every person we meet ultimately seeks guidance, seeks compassion, and seeks connection. I will truly miss visiting Dan and enjoying his beautiful countryside, in the wildlife refuge he worked so hard to build, protect, share and live life on. Of all the souls I’ve encountered in my travels, his was the most bountiful.
I can only lovingly end this tribute to my friend with a typical segment from the final (4th) door of the lodge. These words are from memory and should not be taken literally.
Dan: “Alright, who has one more song… one more, children.”
(Singing) Fly like an eagle (fly like an eagle), fly so high (fly so high), circling the universe (circling the universe), on wings of light (on wings of light).
Jim: (Singing) I am a circle, I am healing you, You are a circle, you are healing me, Unite us, be one, Unite us, be as one.
“Anyone else? Who’s got one more!” (Dan pours water on the stones).
Linda: (Singing) The river is flowing, flowing and growing, The river is flowing back to the sea, Mother Earth is carrying me her child I will always be, Mother Earth carry me back to the sea.
Dan: We begin in the East, in the Spring, where we are born into this world, carrying the gentle energy of the universe into our lives. And then the South, a time of Summer and childhood, we play and learn in our youth. Then to the West, where we are now today, in our adulthood, facing the world head-on, carving our way through society. And then finally to our elders in the North, the ancient wisdom we gain from them, providing us with illumination and guidance. Grandmother, we pray to the people in this world to believe in the love, to believe in spirit, to believe in the medicine that we’ve shared tonight. Listen to love, listen to grandmother, listen to her and receive her love… One Body, One Mind, One Spirit, One Earth! Whole Body, Whole Mind, Whole Spirit, WHOLE EARTH! “On the count of 3, let’s open the door…1, 2, 3! To all my relations! AhhHO Mitakuye Oyasin!
“Aaaaah. I don’t know about you guys, but that cold pond sure is looking good right about now! Grab yourself a partner!”