When Day Schildkret was about 5 years old, he would rescue worms stranded after rainstorms, making holes for them in the wet earth.
"I’ve always been drawn outside where everything's alive and changing," Schildkret tells MNN. "But it wasn't just the desire to save the worms. I would decorate all the holes with sticks and berries and flower petals. The front yard would turn into a constellation of beauty, all trying to find the worms back home."
As the years passed, he would make these nature-inspired "altars" to mark special occasions, like birthdays, but it wasn't until a bad breakup six years ago that his childhood creativity was accidentally revived. He was grief stricken, walking his dog in Wildcat Canyon, a park near his home in the San Francisco area.
"I couldn’t help but notice all this beauty around me … a mourning dove feather, a tuft of coyote hair, a beautiful leaf. One morning, it was dawn and under a beautiful eucalyptus tree, I saw a patch of amber-colored mushrooms just glistening in the morning light. I started to rearrange the mushrooms and added eucalyptus bark and an hour went by and I made something under that tree that was beautiful. For the first time in four months, I felt like my heart was lighter."
Schildkret challenged himself to go back to that spot every day for a month and make a similar creation. He's been creating them for six years, rarely missing a day. If he's on the road, he tries to find time to create one wherever he is, discovering the natural materials native to the area.
Schildkret shares many of his altars on Instagram, teaches workshops so others can create them and now he also has a book, "Morning Altars: A 7-Step Practice to Nourish Your Spirit Through Nature, Art and Ritual" documenting his work and the process.
The first step is the foraging step, as Schildkret wanders with his basket looking for the materials he wants to use that day. He typically spends an hour or more looking for just the right leaves, berries, nuts and other elements from nature.
"It's letting the place meet you and speak to you, seeing with eyes you haven’t seen before," he says. "Every step of this process is a step of slowing down and allowing yourself to be in a relationship with the natural world and having a sense of presence."
Once he starts creating, the process can take hours or sometimes days. But because he's at the mercy of the weather, the sun and animals, working to create something from nature that had never existed before. Sometime he doesn't win and his calm demeanor fades and frustration sets in.
"I curse like a sailor when it's almost there then, boom, the wind comes and it's completely gone," he says. "I know my art won't survive the night because creatures will eat it or the wind will blow it away or the rains will come."
In one instance, as he was creating the piece above, eager squirrels kept rearranging it, stealing nuts as he placed them.
"That's the beauty of it. The art is so alive," Schildkret says. "You learn what it means to be active in the world."
Schildkret teaches workshops around the country, instructing others how to create their own morning altars. One thing they discuss is the relationship with the natural materials they use for the art.
"You don't just take because you want it. Consider this is a relationship. Ask permission and give before you take," he says. In one workshop, a little girl said she would offer a song and a little boy said he would offer water before they took items to make their art.
"Give first before you take. I really ask people to take only one-third of what they want to take. That's the acknowledgement that it's not all here for you."
If some people find trash while they are foraging, they incorporate that into their altars. But not Schildkret.
"For me, it's not my calling to make altars out of trash. My eye is drawn to leaves and bark and bones and berries and not cigarette butts."
What Schildkret is doing is rooted in many other traditional art forms such as Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas and rangoli, the Hindu tradition of using household staples like colored rice and flour to make patterns on the floor.
Sometimes people from the other side of the world see his photos on Instagram and share stories of their own traditions or tell him how his art inspired them to learn their family's cultural art.
Although he struggles sometimes with justifying photographing the altars, that kind of feedback is why he does it.
"If it's impermanent, if it's fleeting, why photograph it? Why try to make it last?" he questions. "But just this week, people have shared pieces from about eight places around the world because my work inspired them. It's moving to somehow inspire people in the far reaches of the world to make art and like a seed send it back to me and inspire me. We're a network of inspiration."