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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

A Good Question is Like Water: a Conversation with Seamus Norgaard

There’s nothing like a good question. A good question can send us down paths of discovery, or surprise us with an answer out of left field, or point the way to a different future.

As I discovered during my recent conversation with Seamus Norgaard, the Host and Director of Tara’s Meadow Retreat and Education Center on Beaver Island, a good question played a role in his own spiritual journey. Another good question gave him a surprising connection to the Island’s history. And the answer to another question might even point a way through climate change.

Tara’s Meadow Retreat and Education Center on Beaver Island (photo provided by Seamus Norgaard)

“What tribe are you from?”

Norgaard’s journey to Beaver Island, located in northern Lake Michigan near Petoskey, MI, started with an unexpected question. In 1973, members of the Lakota Nation and the American Indian Movement occupied the town of Wounded Knee on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The occupiers were protesting the neglect of treaties by the U.S. government along with what they felt was corruption and abuse by then-tribal chairperson Richard Wilson. The occupation became a standoff with the federal government and the followers of Wilson. In college at the time, Norgaard traveled to the Reservation to bring supplies to those holding out at Wounded Knee.

He made his way to a small, traditional village within the occupied area called Crow Dog’s Paradise. The people there welcomed him in, but one evening around the fire a Lakota man surprised him by asking Norgaard, “What tribe are you from?”

Norgaard called that “a provocative question,” and it sent him searching for his own heritage. “It was discovering,” he said, “my own indigenous roots, first through music and then through a colleague, a Celt, a crusty old Celt that said, ‘Hey, you should take a look at your heritage here. You have some things very much in common with earth spirituality, and a closeness to, and abiding by and respect for the planet in your heritage, too.’ So that's kind of what led me eventually to inhabit and search for my own cultural roots.”

That discovery of his Celtic heritage helped Norgaard feel at home in Petoskey and Emmet County, located at “the tip of the mitt” in northern Michigan. The county is named after Robert Emmet, “a Celtic hero,” according to Norgaard. “And you know, when I moved here with my partner, there was a bagpipe playing and the Welsh dragon flag flying on a porch, and the land looked as green as Ireland which I had just returned from. And then I heard about this ancient stone circle or old stone circle on an island.” That island turned out to be Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. “So, that's what drew me there,” Norgaard said.

How did this place get its name?

The mission of Tara’s Meadow is “to educate, uplift and interconnect our students and guests for their greater self-growth and empowerment, creativity, and ecological awareness towards the service of all life on this planet. We envision individuals and communities living to their fullest potentials in Earth Peace - the harmony of our species with all others on this planet.”

Tara’s Meadow fulfills that mission through experiential learning, having people sleep in the meadow, orient themselves to the area, and then create stories based on their time at the Center. “And then moving out from that circle,” Norgaard said, “a lot of our students work with the broader Island and sustainability measures, with a conservancy, with the historical society.”

“We do the educational work, eco-literacy. And we also grow people in the sense of encouraging them and setting the framework to step into the fruition of their own empowerment,” Norgaard added. “It's a place to build community, a place to be eco-literate … and a place in the broader sense to network with environmental and sustainability endeavors, to take that out in the world from Tara’s.”

The name Tara’s Meadow came from the experience of a high school student named Tara Palmer. She was on the island picking up glass as part of a road cleanup when she had a vision of people singing and dancing together in the meadow. Many years later, some visiting elders asked Norgaard how the Center got its name. “I told them about Tara Palmer's vision of seeing people dancing and singing in the Meadow.” One of the visitors was a woman named Mary Carpenter, whose parents had been stewards of the sawmill community that lived in the meadow many years ago. After hearing the story of Tara’s vision, Norgaard said, “Mary Carpenter looked me straight in the eye, and she said, ‘that was us. We all sang and we always danced in the meadow.’”

Is there a role for spirituality?

I asked Seamus if he’s seen the effects of climate change on the Island, and he said yes, citing the uptick (if you’ll pardon the pun) in ticks, the increasing fluctuations in the area’s hydrology, growing concerns about fire and drought, and the diminishing population of frogs. “If you have that memory of abundance in the past, you know there's been a decline,” he said.

I then asked him if he thinks there’s a role for spirituality to play as we address climate change, and he responded, “I think it’s central.”

“To strip our efforts of that intangible quality of spirit, that sense of lineage, kinship with the earth, and to strip it away, leads us to a barren landscape of the mind,” Norgaard said. “We don't have that rooting and grounding, that North Star that keeps us acting in harmony. We can get the mad scientist that creates the problem to solve another problem and creates a bigger problem.”

That's what I’ve admired about indigenous peoples and Celtic heritage,” he continued. “There is an intrinsic listening to the land, listening to the water, that sense of place and heritage, and touching in with that, and so I think, without that, I think we're in danger of coming up with solutions to our climate crisis and other crises that are unconsciously leading to other problems … So, yeah, definitely, spirituality is that North Star when it's informed, and aware, and of place.”

What is concealed and what is revealed?

For spirituality to be “of place” means there’s something distinct about the spirituality that comes from that place. The spirituality of the southwestern U.S. is going to look different than the spirituality of the Great Lakes, for example. I asked Norgaard how he would describe the spirituality of Beaver Island and the Petoskey area, and he talked about water, its fluidity, and the many forms it takes.

“Water in its other forms,” Norgaard said, “it conceals, and it also reveals. … I think of the mist in Tara’s meadow and what it does, and how it conceals and it reveals as pretty distinct for us here.”

Water, it seems, is like a good question. It hints at something and then calls us to discover what truth lies beneath it.

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