Rooted in the moment

When I was six years old, my uncle gave me my first reading book. In Germany children only start primary school at the age of six so I had only just learned how to read. The book was about a magical fairy type figure, a bit like Tinker Bell but male. This little guy played his flute in the forest for the animals. The animals loved him very much and in return for his music they looked after him and protected him. One day he fell ill and the animals, with the help of some children from the nearby village, nursed him back to health and he was able to play his flute once more. I still have the book today. I’ve always treasured that story maybe it is because it combines two of my favourite things, nature and music.

My dad loved being outdoors. He used to take us for long dog walks in the forest every Sunday with the dog. He taught us about the trees and how to identify them by the shape of the leaf and the bark of the tree trunk. I loved Sundays. Discovering new paths, walking in the fresh air. It was always a mini adventure. Every Sunday followed the same routine. My sister and I went to Sunday school. When we got back my mum would have the lunch ready. After lunch we would put our walking shoes on and get ready. We used to have two dogs. One Dachshund called Waldi, and a wirehaired pointer called Ben. My dad loved these dogs. They were like the sons he never had, we used to joke. When Waldi died he buried his ashes in the forest. He never told us the exact spot, but I know he visited him on many occasions. My dad took walking very seriously. He always had the full gear, walking stick, knee length socks, a pair of massive binoculars. I also remember that in my room as a child, the wall paper on one side of my room was a dense, green forest. Only recently I looked through an old photo album and came across a picture of me as a baby, in a cot with that wall paper in the background.

I learned to play the recorder at a very young age. Later on, in life I learned to play the flute. I have always found music to have a soothing effect on the mind and soul. When I was playing the flute in an orchestra, we played mainly classical music. Playing in an orchestra can be very regimented and practising the same piece over and over again can at times be quite down heartening and boring, to be totally honest. It takes a lot of discipline but of course once it all comes together it is be very rewarding and the sound of a whole orchestra playing in harmony together sends a tingle through your whole body. Music always played a big part in my life. I found it interesting how certain songs or melodies can lift your mood, but others can equally make you sad, or even angry. Oliver Sacks, in Musicophillia, describes the effects music can have on the brain. How music anchors your memory in certain moments and has the ability to take you back to those. That music can evoke an emotional involvement.

After reading Musicophillia I started to read articles and more books about alternative therapies and came across one about sound healing and the use of the Native American Flute. I was hooked. The Native American flute is an instrument that is played by intuition and feeling. No music is needed. Once you know the basic principles of how a flute or a recorder works, you can play the Native American flute.

When I looked the flutes up online, I noticed that they came in different sizes and key notes, so I did a lot more background reading and found out that F sharp was traditionally used by the Native Americans. Every flute has a totem on top of the air hole, in order to actually make a sound. Originally many of the totems atop the old Native American flutes resembled birds, but this tradition was changed over the years. These totems are also called fetishes in some traditions. Fetishes resemble the shape of an animal. Native Americans believe the spirit of the animal and its spiritual powers dwell within the fetish.

Finding a flute to buy wasn’t as easy as I thought. They were quite pricey, and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on an instrument I was not yet sure of. After some consideration I found a beautiful flute online from a guy who makes them himself in Germany. The flute I chose to order in the end had a bear as a totem above the sound hole and was made from cedar wood. This flute was set in the key of D sharp. I read that the bear fetish is one of the six most powerful guardian fetishes in Native American tradition. Bears are believed to be powerful healing animal, providing strength and well being with great curative abilities. The bear is a great protector. It is a symbol of courage, confidence and victory. The bear is also associated with harmony, balance, patience and introspection.

It looked amazing in the picture online and I could not wait for it to arrive. When it finally did, there was a note with it. It said that, before its first play, the flute needed to be cleansed with sage and some of the cedar wood shavings the flute was made from. The mixture was wrapped in foil and included in the parcel. This ritual of burning sage for cleansing is also called smudging. This is a well-established practise by some Native American tribes. Many cultures have used the smudging ceremony to purify the body, the aura, spaces or personal belongings. Smudging is used to remove negative energy.

I am not a massive fan of anything that smokes, so I decided to perform the ritual in the forest, near where I lived in Dorchester. Playing the flute in the forest would be like my childhood dream come true. Just like my little hero from my favourite book. Two days after the flute had arrived the weather looked promising, so I packed a bag and drove to the nearest car parking area. As it had been raining most of the week before, I took a small picnic blanket, a bottle of water and some matches with me. In my mind I needed to find a secluded place. I wanted to be totally alone and have enough quiet time. In order to find such a spot, I needed to leave the main path. I started climbing up a slight slope and made my way deeper into the woods. As soon as I entered the forest, I sank into an atmosphere of total peace and tranquillity. It was early May and the trees were intensely green and the air particularly fresh. Pines towered above me casting shadows onto the undergrowth around me. I inhaled the scent of nature deep into my lungs. I could feel my worries drop from my shoulders like the early morning dew off a flower. The ground felt soft beneath my feet and I had to be careful not to trip over the many moss-covered roots that were arching out of the ground. It was exhilarating.

After a while I found a fallen tree. It was perfect. I could sit on it and hide behind its big roots. I spread out my small picnic blanket. The ground felt damp here, as the mighty pine trees were making it difficult for the sun to break through. I sat down to take in my surroundings. Amongst the big trees I could also see some little ones starting to spring from the ground. Sitting down I felt small. Awe-inspired. Some of the old trunks looked like the faces of ancient wise men with long beards. The floor around me was a carpet of pine needles and fir cones. I could see that no human had ever walked through my chosen spot. It reminded me of that magical forest from my child hood book. I closed my eyes and realised that it was silent. Apart from the faint twitter of some birds and the occasional sound of a wood pecker hard at work, I couldn’t hear anything else. It was pure bliss. I decided to lie back on my blanket. On my back I looked up. The blue sky stretched above me, and the tree tops swayed gently in the slight breeze.

I eventually got up and started to collect some stones to make a make a small fire place. I placed the sage and cedar in the middle of the small pit and lit it with a match. Almost immediately I could smell the bitter yet aromatic fragrance that filled the air. When it began to smoke, I cleansed the flute and then myself. By ‘cleansing’ I mean I held the flute over the smoke and then used my hands to wave the smoke around me. Then I sat back down, closed my eyes and began to play the flute.  The flute felt warm on my lips and the cedar wood tasted slightly sweet. It was soft to touch. The pitch of the flute was slightly higher than I expected, but my ears were soon attuned to that and my fingers began to play a little melody that came to me at that moment in time. It was a light-hearted rhythm, that made my head feel light. I felt captured in the moment. The situation was magical. Absolute silence, just the gentle sound of the wind, a few birds and my flute. The serenity and peace that were coming from the music kept me firmly grounded in the moment. It helped me to reconnect with myself. To forget all my worries. Every note came directly from the heart.

After a while, I am not sure how long I had been playing, I could hear breathing sounds. I looked around and about twenty metres away from me were two stags and three does. Just standing there. Looking at me. For a few seconds my heart beat faster and then blood rushed to my head, before the realisation set in that I was completely safe. Somehow, I knew that the animals meant me no harm and they knew that I meant them no harm. A warm feeling was rising from my stomach and spreading all over my body. It made my hair stand on end and sent a shiver down my spine.  At that rare moment in my life I knew what true happiness felt like. Those animals were my first audience and their presence made me feel humble. As they seemed to like it, I carried on playing. They did not move until I was packing up my bits and pieces. It felt as if they were watching over me.

I know some people might think this is crazy. A woman sitting in the middle of a forest by herself. They might even think it is dangerous, but to me it felt great. I felt free, open and calm. I have never had a feeling like this before. From a very young age I believed that nature can have a healing and soothing effect on the mind. Being outside in nature can help to clear the head and rejuvenate the soul.

After my experience in the forest I really wanted to invest in a better-quality flute in F sharp. The best known Native American flutes are made by a company called ‘High Spirits’. This is a well-known American brand, but hard to come by in the UK. After some digging, I found a shop in Brighton that sells them and even ships them directly to your door. Ultimately though I decided that if I was going to invest a larger sum of money in an instrument I really wanted to see, feel and hear it before buying it. Having lived in Somerset for ten years previously, I thought that there must be a shop in Glastonbury that would also sell them.

Without ringing ahead, I decided to take a day trip from Weymouth, on the off chance I might find a flute in Glastonbury. I was lucky. One particular shop had quite a few. Most of them came in a natural wood with either an eagle or a wolf as a totem. One flute stood out to me. It was made from ebonized walnut, which gave it a black shimmery effect and had a crow totem. The shopkeeper must have seen my eyes glaze over and asked if I wanted to play it. It was beautiful to hold. The wood was warm and soft. It had six holes but the third one from the top was covered up with a leather band, as in the Native American tradition. Underneath each whole was a small turquoise cabochon, inlayed into the wood. Very tentatively I placed my fingers over the holes and pulled the flute up to my mouth. The wood felt grainy on my lips and I could feel the tiny marks inside.

As I played the first note a shiver ran through me. I felt connected with the flute and it felt right. A little melody came to me and I started playing it. It sounded fantastic. A very full tone, much lower than the D sharp I played in the forest. It was bigger and therefore easier to hold for me as well. The only thing holding me back was the crow totem, as it wasn’t something I would have picked. I got out my phone and looked up the meaning of the crow totem. In old Native American tradition, it is believed that you don’t chose the fetish, but the fetish chooses you. The crow is the keeper of the secret law. In Native American folklore, the intelligence of crows is usually portrayed as their most important feature. According to the legends and myths, some tribes believed that the crow had the power to talk and was therefore considered to be one of the wisest birds. The black flute with the crow soon became my favourite.

In conversation I told two of my friends about my amazing experience in the forest. They are equine therapists and live near Glastonbury. After talking to them they became very interested in me playing the flute for their team. Between them they own twelve horses and ponies. The animals have been rescued from different places, including the abattoir. They invited me to play for their two larger horses, as they had been through some unrest and illness in the winter months. One male and one female horse. The female horse, Prada, was a white thoroughbred. She was really shy and easily scared. Her previous owner had neglected her badly. Prada avoided contact with humans. The marks on her white body showed signs of abuse and beating. She was originally a show jumping horse but never really liked going into the transporter box. Then she got injured badly in a car accident on the motorway and whilst she healed, Prada refused to get in a box again. Her owner tried to beat her into submission before giving up and selling her off to be slaughtered. My friend bought her back for very little money. The male horse was called Danny and a Hanoverian Cross. Danny was a stunning ginger horse and my friend’s first horse. She had found him abandoned near a ruined farm house. The stable had burned down, and Danny was tied to a fence post. He was starved and very close to death, and Libby came to him just on time. 

Libby and Georgina use horses for therapy with humans. For the sake of this story I just need to explain one of the principles they use in their therapy. One of the forms of therapy they use can help visitors make decisions or bring some clarity into their lives. They call this process ‘Journey with horses’.

At the time I was thirty-nine and my health was not in a great state. For months I had been taking tramadol for lower abdominal pain, but nothing was really touching it anymore. The gynaecologist in the hospital had given me a choice. I could either have a full hysterectomy or carry on with hormone injections. There were many ‘ifs and buts’ to consider. My age and the fact that I had no children, played a huge role in the choices I was left with. What we did next might sound crazy or even random to people, but it helped me at that moment. As far as I could see at that time, I had two choices. I could either have the operation or keep going with the injections. Before we started the journey, I allocated a choice to each horse. I didn’t say it out loud, just in my head.

I took a few minutes to clear my head then I stared playing my flute. I was using my favourite black crow flute on that day. A light-hearted melody came to me and I closed my eyes. My fingers were playing on automatic. It was a living tune that opened my heart and soothed my mind. I was transported to a peaceful place. I almost forgot where I was until I heard hooves on concrete coming towards me. I opened my eyes and it was Prada. She came really close and put her little whiskers on the flute. I tried to carry on playing but I didn’t want her to drool saliva over my flute, so I moved slightly. Prada moved with me. She kept her whiskers on the flute and stood right in front of me. As I kept on playing Prada moved her head to my abdominal region. I could feel her warm breath through my T-shirt. I tried to keep on playing as steadily as I could. It was a bit scary to be honest as she was a big horse. Next, she moved her nostrils next to my ear. It tickled and felt warm and wet. Meanwhile Danny just stood in one corner of the field. He hadn’t moved at all since I had started playing. His ears were pricked and he was completely still, but he did not move towards me like Prada had done. She kept her head next to mine. She was as close to me as she could possibly be.

I played for about five more minutes and when I finished, I could just hear them breathing heavily. Both horses were completely still. Prada turned her face towards me and gave me a little shove, as to say: ‘Stroke me’, so I did. Later Libby said, this was a real breakthrough for Prada as nobody was ever allowed to get anywhere near her. My friend handed me the brush to clean the mud off her. Prada let me do that as well. She felt warm and soft. I brushed her for about twenty minutes. At the end I held out an apple with my flat hand as a thank you and she took it from me and started munching away.

Although I was originally invited to pay the flute for the animals, they helped me in equal measure. Prada was the horse I allocated the surgery option. I know this seems a crazy way of making such a life changing decision, but it felt right for me. I was fed up with being in pain and I needed some normality back in my life and I believe that somehow Prada picked up on that. The horse somehow felt my area of pain. It was surreal. I know people have many different opinions on the topic of a hysterectomy and about having major surgery like that. I didn’t take the decision lightly, but Prada provided the nudge needed and it felt like the right choice.

Both of these unusual experiences have taught me to appreciate the small moments in life. The small moments, which make up most of the day, often go unnoticed as I am so wrapped up in finishing menial tasks and rushing on to the next. Playing the flute has taught me to be anchored in one particular moment. To listen to my inner self, become more rooted. When I play the flute, the sound gives me feedback, it mirrors my mind. Sometimes when I am in a low mood and I play, the sound is sombre and dark. It feels as if the mind is reflected in the sound. I made it a habit to play my flute outside.

I come from a region with a vast amount of forest. I try to go back to Germany at least twice a year. When I go there in the spring and summer it looks like an ocean of green. Trees as far as the eye can see. I have lived in the UK now for nineteen years and when people ask me what I miss the most I always say: the forest. My dad planted that seed inside me and it took root. He sadly passed away of cancer six years ago. In Germany it is prohibited by law to take the ashes. They have to be buried in a graveyard and only an official person is allowed to handle the urn. Had we been allowed we would have buried my father in the forest. All we were able to do was have a broad-leafed tree engraved on his headstone. We chose one that most closely resembled an oak, his favourite. Deep down I know that he would have approved

 I live in Weymouth now with only a small woodland near Dorchester and I try to go there at least once a week. Outside in the forest I can just be myself. I don’t need to wear make-up or nice clothes. Nature accepts me like I am. It takes me in. I fit in. It is non-judgemental.

This story was published in the: University of Southampton MA Creative Writing Anthology 2019

My name was Britta Eckhardt-Potter but is now Britta Freemantle

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