The Circle of Life: The First Nations Medicine Wheel Garden

Written in 2006 to supplement a First Nations Medicine Wheel Garden presentation for YWCA Muskoka’s Victim’s Services program and to aid in healing when visiting the Chrysalis House Medicine Wheel healing garden which I designed in Huntsville.  This was a very popular presentation but I’ve discontinued it because it was not really mine to give.

Sacred circle gardens can be found across the globe.   The gardens are considered sacred spaces for the healing and tranquillity of the peoples that created them.  They are designed to be rich in symbolism.  They are designed to be used for ritual and ceremony.   They are often situated at vortex points (where lee lines of energy intersect).  With fewer than 200 examples still existing throughout the Great Plains of North America, what better time than now for modern-day society to take a closer look at the celebration and tranquillity that can be brought to a site by growing native herbs and wildflowers for healing, conservation and beauty.  Please, sit back and relax, open your mind, and prepare to enter The Circle of Life.

The Medicine Wheel Garden follows simple, circular designs based around the number four, with natural materials used in both their structure and ornamentation.  Most wheels are designed with 36 stones to reflect the ‘Sacred Path’ that humans travel on Earth. From a central focus, four or more paths carve the garden into pie-shaped beds that are planted with perennial and annual herbs.  The plantings are intensely personal.  They represent and express both the spirit of the gardener and symbolize the essence of each of the Four Cardinal Directions, East, South, West and North.  The garden’s entrance is always situated in the East, representing the beginning of our journey, and with the rising of the sun, the beginning of each day (see figure 1).

Medicine Wheel Garden p1 graphic only.jpg

Thirty-six stones help one to reflect upon their life’s journey while visiting the Medicine Wheel Garden.  The Central Stone represents the Creator, from which all life flows.  It stands alone.  The creator’s presence reminds one that the teachings of The Wheel must never be taken lightly.

From the central stone, four paths lead towards each of the Cardinal Directions, where one stone can be found for each direction, four in total. These hold their place in the circle’s perimeter.

EAST

In the East, where every visitor’s journey begins, the gardens represent new beginnings and creativity.  The East is the place for one’s spirit, and where one acknowledges the life given to us by the Sun.  Plants for the eastern garden are teas (leaves), plants with great human appeal, herbs for spiritual health, plants for incense or smudging (fire), and Spring blooms.  The sacred plant for the East is Tobacco.  An offering tray would be ideal to find somewhere in the East.

R.K. Prairie Smoke Late May Early June 2016 263.jpg
Prairie Smoke (Geum trifolium) is a very airy spring flower (these are seed heads just about to mature).  When they can be found in large colonies, they give a feeling of mist, or smoke, hovering above the ground.  Carden Alvar.  June 2015.

SOUTH

Gardens in the South portray growth and fulfilment.  They are areas where self assurance and acceptance assists one in improving emotional health.  This is where one meditates on relationships and matters of the heart. The southern zones of the Medicine Wheel Garden are areas that bring intense growth in plants.  Plants for the southern garden are plants that provide nutrition, such as fruits and vegetables, savoury herbs, and plants that naturally assist other plants (ie. leguminous nitrogen fixers, or Comfrey for the compost). The sacred plant is Cedar. Herbs for the southern garden are herbs for emotional health, and that bring our attention to the earth like ground-covers or creepers.  This area of the garden is also an ideal place for children to appreciate the importance of the soil beneath our feet, by creating a place to sow seeds. Summer blooms will remind one that Summer is the season for the South.

r-k-blueberry
Blueberries are a delicious fruit that loves warm sun.  Many people don’t realize that these are an old-growth species which rely on fire to thrive, but also require fungal-hyphae associations with other species and their soil to truly succeed.

WEST

When a visitor is found spending much time in the Western gardens, they may be concentrating on healing physically.  This direction represents maturity and experience.  The West is a place where the power of nature, and the physical body is often evident.  Plants for the western garden are plants that put down edible roots.  The sacred plant is Sage.  This is where a rock garden should be designed if there is the desire for one, as this is the place for minerals.  Water features, or succulents will bring ones attention to how vital the element of water is for all living creatures.  Blooms for Fall represent the season of the west.

Driftwood birdbath frosty December 11 2015 249.jpg
It is nice to provide a water source for your feathered friends, among other wildlife in the Western quadrant.

NORTH

The Northern gardens within The Wheel are places where one can concentrate on mental growth and wisdom.  They are areas for hibernation and suspension.  They remind us of the Wheel’s ability to turn-over, to come full circle, to pass into the ethereal, and to return again to the living world.  Plants for the North are plants that provide edible nuts or seeds.  The sacred plant is Sweetgrass.  Plants in these gardens should be planted for animals and wildlife, such as songbirds.  Herbs grown are for mental health.  Airy or feathery specimens that blow in the wind will help bring ones attention to the element of air, which is the element of the north.  Ferns use the wind to distribute spores, and thrive in areas of the garden where sun is less intense.  Plants with winter interest are also beneficial, as Winter is the northern season.

R.K. Winterberry 2015 IMG_1792.jpg
Winterberry holly can provide winter interest in the Northern quadrant.

THE ELDERS AND ANCESTORS STONES

Seven more stones surround the Creator stone, inside the perimeter of the circle. In Native American culture, there is intense focus upon the guidance provided by elders and ancestors that have travelled and experienced the path of The Medicine Wheel before us. These ancestors or ‘Seven Grandfathers’ have gifts for us that have been translated from The Creator.  These seven gifts permeate the teachings of The Medicine Wheel.  There are two gifts for each direction beginning in the East (Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility), except for in the North, where there is only one single stone representing a most important gift: Truth (see figure 2).

Medicine Wheel Garden p2 graphic only.jpg

THE MOON STONES

Twelve more stones fill the perimeter along with the four cardinal stones.  They are placed in such a manner that three stones end up between each cardinal stone.  These represent the Twelve Moons of the Year. They remind us about the annual phases of the moon, which coincide with the seasons of each cardinal direction (see figure 3).

medicine-wheel-garden-p3-graphic-only
N.B. I have since learned that, like the number of  scutes on a snapping turtle’s carapace, there can in fact be thirteen full moons in a year!

When applied to each individual that visits, the symbolism found within The North American Medicine Wheel garden can be infinite.  Each direction has relative meaning to an individual’s human existence on Earth. Stages of existence, human understanding, the body, forms of meditation, and areas for specific prayer can be touched in each and every design.  Even family members and pets can be represented within the wheel (see figure 4 for overview).

Medicine Wheel Garden p4 graphic only.jpg

Whether or not one takes their journey through life seriously, whether one rolls with the punches, laughs through trials and tribulations, or quietly observes and absorbs. The teachings from the Medicine Wheel Garden are like the water; they will accept any thing that may flow through.  This is the best part; the garden is adaptable and diverse just like life. R.

Medicine Wheel Garden p4 credit.jpg

CIRCLES

by Black Elk of the Oglala Sioux

Everything our people do is in a Circle,

Because the power of the world always works in circles

And everything tries to be round.

The Sky is round,

And the Earth is round like a ball,

And so are all the Stars.

The Wind, in its greatest power, whirls.

Birds make their nests in circles,

For their religion is the same as ours.

The Sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle.

The Moon does the same,

And both are round.

Even the Seasons form a great circle in their changing,

And always come back again to where they were.

The life of a man is a circle,

From childhood to childhood,

And so it is in Everything

Where the power moves.

Shrike nest Ottawa 2016 024.jpg

This poem held a prominent place in all of my presentations on this topic.  I also read it for my dearest friend’s funeral.  That was the hardest speech I’ve ever had to read.

 I thank those that walked these lands before my ancestors and for maintaining these teachings for your religion, like the birds, is now mine too.

May the forest be with you.


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