A Detective of Delight: The Power of Earth Art in Action

I once created an altar in an alleyway in the Mission District of San Francisco where I lived. The alley was dirty, a gritty place of graffiti and cracked concrete, but I was inspired to make something beautiful in the city. So I set myself down and created a circular altar made with magnolia leaves and ripe orange dates bursting out into sun rays. As I worked on it all day, I noticed an inspired little girl who had taken some of the material I had gathered and created a much smaller mandala near mine, almost like a small planet in orbit around my sun. And then, to my surprise, her mother joined in to create her own next to her daughter’s, which attracted another mother and her small child. Within an hour, that alley had spontaneously filled with over a dozen people of all ages, ethnicities, and economic realities creating an entire galaxy of circular planets, moons, suns, and stars made from leaves and branches offered by the city’s street trees. People who usually would ignore each other on the sidewalk were on their hands and knees making beauty side by side, inspired by a little girl’s desire to play along. This was the power of earth art in action, the power of bringing differences into one togetherness.

In a time that is so fractured and disempowered, at a time when so many people are longing for meaning and fulfillment, when the speed of our days seem to move faster than we can handle, when the need to be productive and capable eclipses our ability to be playful, healthy, and curious, and when feelings of hopelessness, isolation, and division shut us off from connecting to one another and our greater-than-human world, perhaps what is needed is a way back together again, both within ourselves and our larger community. Coming together means discovering soulful responses—what historian Thomas Berry calls, “moments of grace”—within our day and within our lives that transition us from a disruptive, distracted, and disconnected force to a mutually enhancing, creative, and life-giving presence on Earth. We must find our place again, both personally and collectively, not in dominance of but in relationship with our living planet. We must learn how to wonder again, how to slow down with the pace of our Earth and exercise our gorgeous imaginations every day, for these are some of the skills required of us so that we may respond to some of our greatest challenges ahead. As adults, we must remember these skills our children already instinctively have.

Morning Altars started out as my own way of responding to the challenges of my life. Being outside and making shapes with the Earth calmed my mind and opened my heart. But the more I made, the more I realized that this form of expression is so much greater than me. I see myself as part of an enormous lineage of earth artists, found in indigenous cultures from Peru and Thailand to Australia and here in America, who for thousands of years have understood the value and importance of making impermanent beauty with the land as a way of keeping their cultures healthy. With traditions like India’s rangolis, the Native American medicine wheels, or the Tibetan sand mandalas, we witness how enduring and widespread this practice is. Through them we can come to realize that earth art is not only something beautiful but also is something that serves life. These peoples created earth altars as a way to heal illnesses, celebrate festivals, mark time, focus the mind, attract positive spirits and repel negative ones, grieve the dead, welcome the new babies, and feed the sacredness of the land. This ancient creative technology is a way that so many cultures around the world remember their kinship with their ancestors and the Earth, and they nourish that relationship with beauty so that it may continue to stay alive and well. It would serve us to look toward them as models for our own lives in these uncertain times. 

Learn to create earth mandalas with Day Schildkret at Kripalu.

Excerpted from Morning Altars: A 7-Step Practice to Nourish Your Spirit Through Art, Nature and Ritual.

Day Schildkret, internationally known for morning altars, has inspired tens of thousands of people of all ages throughout the world to forage, build, and be awed with earth art.

Full Bio and Programs