Elizabeth Moes asked me to write a memorial for Cheryl Miller for this publication, but it’s hard to know where to begin on something like that. Most of you probably never met her. As far as the physical stuff goes, Cheryl died last December at age 49 from ovarian cancer, after courageously struggling with it for six years. She described herself as a naturalist, working on many different projects to improve the natural environment. Cheryl delighted in the physical skills of survival, but she was also intensely interested in the spiritual skills that lay behind them.
Besides taking a lot of Tracker School classes (she was especially interested in the Philosophy and Tracking classes) she also studied the spiritual traditions of other cultures. She became involved with the plant spirit medicine community of the Huichol Indians of Mexico and helped raise funds for the Blue Deer Center, a retreat in New York's Catskill Mountains that is devoted to the customs of the Huichols. She once went on a vision quest to the top of a mountain in western Mexico, where a jaguar passed along important knowledge to her. She was very interested in discovering how a lot of the different spiritual traditions of the world were at their core the same, and she was well on her way to walking that single path up the mountain.
Personally, I first met Cheryl in 1997 when her, Joe Schilling, Carl deMarco, and I started communicating on the Tracker School discussion list. We decided to get together to meet each other and work on our skills. That initial meeting grew into the Mid-Atlantic Primitive Skills Group, of which Cheryl was one of the four founders. After she was diagnosed with cancer, she disappeared for a few years as she sought to heal herself, then she came back to us. Even though she couldn’t participate in many of our activities because of her worsening condition, she sometimes just came and watched and provided moral support and encouragement. Personally, I counted her as one of my best friends.
Last year, as Cheryl’s condition was worsening, Elizabeth was kind enough to devote one of the monthly Philosophy community meditations to her. I never had the chance to tell Cheryl about that, but I like to think that it has some positive affect on her, and some folks reported some moving experiences.
Cheryl attended the Mid-Atlantic Primitive Skills Meet last year which, as it turned out, was her last MAPS event. After that, she declined quickly and, on December 9, 2004, quietly and painlessly passed away in her home surrounded by her loved ones. Earlier this year, we decided to dedicate this year’s MAPS Meet to Cheryl. That was an easy decision.
However, I struggled with trying to think of the best way to honor her within the context of this event and wasn’t having much success for the longest time. Then, a couple of weeks before the Meet, for some reason I thought of having a pipe ceremony for her and immediately felt that visceral release of inner vision telling me that was the thing to do.
I asked Bill Kaczor, one of the instructors at the Meet, to lead the pipe ceremony in Cheryl’s honor and he graciously consented to do so. The Friday night of the Meet, we had the ceremony at a place I had selected, an old abandoned fire circle across the creek deep in the woods. We had gone to the site previously to check it out and we found a newborn fawn lying motionless in a bed of ferns right in the middle of the sacred circle! I was speechless. To me, this seemed another sign that what we were going to do for Cheryl was right. Later that night, about 15 people attended the ceremony, which was very powerful and moving. A downy woodpecker kept up a strong drum beat throughout most of the ceremony.
If asked to relate the most important lesson Cheryl conveyed to me in the time I knew her, I would have to say that it was a profound realization that the simplest of your actions, if done for the right reasons and with the right mind set, can have far greater consequences that you could ever imagine at the time. Cheryl never thought she contributed as much to our group as she wanted to or thought she should, but if she had not been present in the beginning and we didn’t have her yin to balance out all of the yang of us three guys, MAPS might never have been born and certainly wouldn’t exist in the form that it does now. Cheryl’s participation led to the creation of a large and vibrant community of primitive skills practitioners that meet regularly, advancing their knowledge of both physical and spiritual skills. The fabric of this community is strong and tightly woven.
Those nascent gatherings of long ago lead directly to the creation and continuation of this community as it exists today, including the MAPS Meet, where this year over 150 people got together for five days, learning innumerable lessons and making personal connections that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. So, as far as I’m concerned and no matter what she thought, Cheryl’s contributions to “the Cause” are as much, and perhaps more, than one person could hope to accomplish in a lifetime.
Through what she did in helping to create the MAPS community, and in countless other ways, Cheryl has touched hundreds of lives. The impact of her actions and her life will endure for many years.
I miss her greatly.
Author - Kevin Haney, Coordinator, Mid-Atlantic Primitive Skills Group
Published in the Razor's Edge (a publication of Tom Brown Tracker School Philosophy students) in July, 2005.