Greenbelt Staten Island
I dressed warmly, slipped my knife on my belt, made sure my sister knew I was out of town for a few days, and headed to Vin’s. We were going to the Greenbelt, a remote, wild area on Staten Island, one of New York City’s 5 boroughs. We decided to leave from Vin’s house to avoid taking two cars and attracting any unwanted attention. I had an important question that needed answering, and I was feeling called to the wilderness for the answer.
I telephoned Vin a week ago. “Vin? I’m struggling with a problem and I want a night sit to help me see what direction I need to take to continue on my spiritual path. Will you help me?” He said yes.
A night sit is one night in the forest without sleep or food, asking the Creator to help clarify a part of your vision. A vision you uncovered during a vision quest. The vision quest usually takes four days depending on your teacher, but you need time to prepare. The preparation and quest most often adds up to seven days.
The concept is to place yourself in a situation that will allow you to listen to the Creator. It is said that your first quest tells you everything about your vision. If you quest again, and many people do, it will clarify the first experience. If you can’t quest for four days then you might opt for a night sit. The sit has a meditative quality but is not a meditation. It’s more of an opening into a waking dream.
We packed light. No sleeping bags, no fire kit and no food. We planned on setting up camp for one night. There would be one night and day to prepare for the sit and one night for the sit itself.
We found a nice size clearing deep in the Greenbelt. The area Vin chose was near Heyerdahl Hill. The park is 2,800 acres, and if you know where to go it can seem millions of miles from civilization. The fact that the Greenbelt runs along the midsection of the island makes it a great place to explore. The forested hills, wetlands, and kettle ponds give the park a diversity of habitat and lots of nooks and crannies to take refuge in. It’s also about 410 feet above sea level. We, however, had something specific in mind, a night sit.
The geography is much like other New York parks due to the Pleistocene glaciers that moved through this area, but the schist, sandstone, serpentine, magnetite, and iron oxide give this park its distinction. They are the result of tectonic activity from a much earlier Paleozoic era.
I found out that my favorite transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, came to Staten Island in 1843 to tutor Emerson’s nephews. He must have loved the landscape and taken lots of walks into the greener parts of the island. Who knows? I might have stepped in his boot prints as I traveled the trails.
As soon as we arrive, we begin making our camp. Our scout beds, made of dried autumn leaves, were colorful and crunchy. We piled them up about three feet high in the shape of a single bed. Sleeping directly on the ground would cause our body heat to leech out into the earth. Without insulation, the cold could lead to hypothermia. The leaf pile was perfect for keeping us warm. Besides, the weather was pleasant enough to not require us taking the time to build a shelter and, for the most part, we were fasting.
We decided not to build a fire so meat and tea were not on the menu. Our water bottles would have to be filled at least once during our two days. We called a friend whose property butted up against the Greenbelt and asked him if we could stop by to fill us up on water. Don knew we didn’t want contact with people before a sit, so he set up a hose in his back yard and pointed us to some edibles in his garden. The water came in handy to prevent dehydration. Without a fire, we couldn’t find water in the Greenbelt and purify it by boiling. So hurray to Don for his help and understanding of the process.
Day one was filled with deer sightings and plant identification, along with some discoveries of the human kind – lovers kissing, dogs playing, people hiking. We had moved into the more populated areas of the trails in order to get ready to quietly cross the road to Don’s backyard. Our intent was to avoid people, dogs, cars and any other distractions that might arise.
When there are few man-made things in your day, and nature surrounds you, you lose your sense of time. Your steps are smoother and longer. You notice the breeze move your hair, and the sun on your skin. Your heart looks for things that give you peace. My heart was peaceful.
The sun began to cast its bluish and purple colors on the horizon and declared it night within a few minutes. We were going to Don’s for water. As we started out, my adrenaline shot up to military/Special Forces level. The full moon aided our night trek and we easily made it across the road, over the fence, and onto Don’s property.
We turned on the hose as quietly as we could, using other sounds to mask the turning of the squeaky faucet and rush of water through the hose. After filling our water bottles we headed to our camp. On our way back, I had to get my breathing under control. I didn’t realize how full of energy I was after our short jaunt to Don’s. I climbed onto my bed and looked up at the night sky with all its stars. Even in Staten Island’s light pollution, you can see stars at night. The moonlight filled our camp. After a few prayers of thanksgiving, my eyes began to close.
After we broke camp on our second day and spread the leaves we used for our beds on the ground, we walked the trails and did some tracking. We avoided people as much as we could, but mostly we sat and thought about the sit. My job was to form a clear question and be ready for the Creator’s answer. Vin would be my protector. I took time to look for a spot for my spiritual sit. I found a secluded area with pine trees and chose a pine as my night partner.
My thoughts were filled with confusion. Do I stay the course and keep teaching in the school system or do I have something else to do to travel my vision? I had an opportunity to attend Columbia Teachers College and get my Masters in education. It would be a monumental task with the limited resources I had at the time. There were too many reasons not to go, but I felt the pull of this trial.
The sun began to go down and I sat with my back to the pine tree and began to clear my mind. A night sit is a small version of a vision quest. All the same rules apply. The quester does not leave the designated area, they do not eat food, and they avoid distractions. This last one is the hardest of all. Coming from a culture of distraction that emphasizes computers, televisions, phones, and talking, turning off the mind takes effort. It does help if you practice every day but even practice sometimes fails you when you purposely sit to find answers to life questions.
I would have to depend on nature to send me messages and tell me what the Creator wanted from me and my life. I would have to depend on Vin to keep me physically and spiritually safe, as I listened to God. I would have to stay open to nature. Trust was vital.
Each time my mind drifted I pulled it back to emptiness. The night became colder and colder but I had to let that discomfort go to hear the Creator’s voice. My legs would fall asleep, so I adjusted and straightened my spine. Doubt rushed in when I least expected and dared me to stay the whole night. Then it began to tear away at my confidence. How could I finish such a vigorous educational program at one of the best schools in the country while working full time? How could I hear the Creator’s voice in the forest?
But before doubt took the reins, fear crept in the back door and heightened every sound in the woods, creating danger where there was none. Vin was out of sight, hidden. I was alone in the woods with raccoons, opossums, bats, birds of prey, black racers, and who knows what else. My nerves almost overtook me, until I remembered that I was a part of the forest now, that after two days roaming the trails I had joined with the wildness. The final revelation was that the messengers of the Creator come from the creatures and even insects living in the wilderness. The fear lifted.
The battle to stay quiet and listen without distraction continued throughout the night. There were times I wanted to sleep and would slump to the side. I heard my teacher’s voice in my mind saying, “How much do you want it?” That thought floated into my sleepy head and I rallied. I knew I wanted this answer badly. It was part of my vision. I lost the concept of time. When the sun began to rise I was surprised but welcomed it. I had my answer. I would leap into the abyss and enroll at Columbia. I was sure of my answer and ready for the two and a half year journey.
Vin waited for me to stand and walk around before coming over. He had hidden in the bushes just to the left of me. I hadn’t seen him all night. We hugged and headed for a light breakfast to break our fast. You can do anything in a city called New York, even a night sit.