BARE GRACE

My intention when I began this blog was to create a place to share reflections, essays, prose, poems and photos of the creatures that I have met or may yet encounter in the forest here in the western mountains of Maine or elsewhere.

As an cognitive ethologist and psychologist (Jungian therapist) when I observe animal behavior in the wild I am always asking myself what the animal might be thinking. I pay particular attention to the relationship that develops between an animal and myself over time. I also question the role of projection on my part when I am pulled into an animal’s field of influence without understanding why. Most important I follow gut feelings and any nudges when observing any animal. I am a woman with Native American roots – is that why I make the assumption that every creature has something to teach me? I think of the natural world as being a place of deep learning and wonder.

It is my experience that intention and attention on the part of the observer opens a magic door, and once over the threshold inter-species communication becomes possible. I would like to invite others to cross that threshold with me.

As a feminist, ritual artist, and a writer I am Her advocate, that is, Nature’s advocate. I believe that when I write about the animals and plants I am giving voice to their truths as well as my own.

I developed an intimate relationship with the black bear in the above photo for a number of years while I was engaged in an independent, trust based study of his kinship group (15 years). Little Bee interacted with me on a regular basis but always preferred to “hide” behind a screen of leaves and saplings while doing so. Whenever I was around him I felt touched by “Bare Grace”.

Please feel free to comment. I would love to communicate with anyone who wants to share experiences they have had in Nature or simply make observations about what I have written.

If you would like more information about me, please read the essay on how I became a Naturalist…

Unfortunately, I am dyslexic with numbers and directions and have a difficult time with the computer in general and with WordPress in particular so I ask the reader to forgive me for the errors I will surely continue to make.

Sara Wright

12/29/16

I am spending the winter in Abiquiu New Mexico and am currently using my blog as a journal of my experiences in this mysteriously beautiful place. I ask that the reader bear with me as I continue this process… some entries will, of course, be about my relationship with animals, but others will not.

As it turns out I am presently a “snowbird” having returned to Abiquiu for the winter and spring of 2017 and 2018…

Update: August 2020…. I have returned to Maine having spent four years on a circular journey the highlights of which are recorded here…New Mexico is a magical place, but the North Country continues to call me home.

In the past years I have used my blog as a kind of jumping off place for publication elsewhere – which is why many entries have errors that I haven’t bothered to correct. There is something about putting my writing on a blog that allows me to see it from a distance, and from that place I craft pieces for publication elsewhere… I  am still writing about animals and plants, and still enthralled by the powers of place – perhaps more so now than ever. Certainly more grateful. Without my primary relationship to the rest of Nature I would perhaps feel more isolated during this pandemic than I do.

With deep appreciation and gratitude especially to those who comment on what I write,

Sara

 

Brigid and the Bear

First Light: Brigid and the Bear 

 Winter light pauses so briefly. Now Chickadees are chirping and wild doves are pairing up. Birds are starting to sing love songs to the earth as she turns towards the light. By early February light is streaming into the house with more warmth and for longer hours. It is no longer dark at 5 PM.

 Each morning I stand at the window to glimpse a golden orb rising through the cracks of bare tree branches. Some days the sky is infused with deep rose, bittersweet orange or scarlet. When the sun star appears I watch what the light will do – will it reflect on the still open water of the brook, or turn night frozen branches into star-like crystals? Some days the sun has to climb out of the hooded clouds to rise into blue. Amazingly, this star at the center of our solar system literally transforms parts of its body into light every second, an astonishing thought that speaks more to sun as process than to an actual entity… First Light is upon us. 

 After a warm sunny afternoon young maple branches outside my window turn a rosy red providing a dramatic contrast to the snow. Sap is rising, if only temporarily. Mid winter also brings us raindrops that shine like the finest crystals when freezing, and blankets of snow that keep the Earth in stillness and deep slumber until the next storm erupts…

Many cultures throughout the world still celebrate this  mid –winter turning including myself. Brigid ‘calls’ me as does the Great Bear.

The Celtic Brigid’s Festival occurs around February 2nd. Brigid is a goddess of poetry and creative inspiration.  As a goddess of the forge she is associated with both Fire and Light and the return of the sun/son. 

Another aspect of Brigid is that of water. Her sacred springs were/are associated with healing. These clear mountain springs have a spiritual and bodily capacity to purify whatever/whoever they touch. They bubble up from the depths of the molten earth. 

One legend has it that a crystal drop from Brigid’s mantle touched the earth and became a deep clear lake. I love this image. I think of Brigid’s blue lake as a kind of mysterious bowl that holds different ways of experiencing time. If I throw in a hook I might catch time in the round as I experience it as seasonal cycles. Ah, I have caught a January feeling through a chickadee. A childhood loss – memory of an inexplicable death might pull me under without notice after I throw in the next hook. Or I might reel in a dream of a future event that might release me from a haunting. In Brigid’s Lake time does not flow like a river even when I experience it that way – Time is simply there as unexplored potential waiting to be lived.    

Brigid is a Lover of Women, Mistress of the Dreamtime, and a Daughter of Prophecy. She reigns over the fires of our imagination. In Celtic and Nordic mythology she wears a crown made of evergreens that is lit with candles. 

I prepare for this turning by bringing indoors a second wreath of fragrant balsam greens that I made when I wove the first wreath for the house at winter solstice. In its place I lay the fresh fragrant wreath on the same chest and surround the circle with tiny white lights – Brigid is crowned and the Circle of Life is renewed. The light is returning. A hand carved bear sits in the center of my wreath to honor the Goddess/God as the Great Bear. The old wreath is surrendered to the fire.

 Brigid reminds me that the goddess is always with us manifesting as Love and the Power of Woman to create changes that can help us to retrace our steps to embrace an egalitarian matriarchal perspective, way of being in the world that focuses on equality and the good of whole community. After picking up this thread it becomes possible to move into a future that allows us to bridge differences so that we may live in harmony with humans so different from ourselves – we must create unity and begin to repair the bridge to the rest of nature, the latter is a lesson we must learn if humans are to survive.

Equally important to me is that Brigid has a bear aspect because I also associate the bear with the Sacred Body of the Earth, and with Earth’s ability to heal herself as well as her people. This healing aspect of the bear is another reason the bear holds the place of honor in the center of the wreath. Even as we continue to destroy her, nature will live on. It is humans that are in dire need of help.

 Both Brigid and Bear are associated with brightness and the return of the sun. Both speak to the powers of healing, the coming of spring, and most important rebirth. Fire and Water are the elements invoked.

The goddess Brigid may have been the Great Bear Mother that was venerated in the earliest recorded bear cults. All reference the bear who entered the underworld, died, was reborn in the spring. The power of bears and bear shamanism is documented in all the circumpolar cultures – Siberian, Alaskan, Scandinavian, Nordic, Celtic, Germanic cultures as well as the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. 

Up until recently Europeans celebrated Bear’s Day on February 2nd. Country folk walked from town to town with a live chained brown bear (the Shrovetide Bear) who they forced to walk on hot coals. It was believed that the bear who walked through the fire would help the crops to grow. When I think about this story I imagine the bear as the body of the earth that is forced to endure intolerable fire to appease human stupidity…

No one seems to know how Bear’s Day became the secular Groundhog Day in the United States. On February 2nd the bear/ hedgehog/groundhog emerges from his den. If he sees his shadow he returns to sleep for another six weeks. Regardless of his behavior the appearance of the bear is a harbinger of the coming season. Because male bears do emerge from their dens during the winter months it makes sense that this bear is male(hedgehogs and groundhogs do not usually surface during winter months). I find it interesting that both male and female aspects of the bear have become mythologized by humans.

In the far north the Inuit hunt polar bears for food/clothing etc.  Some Indigenous peoples of the United States do the same; others hold the bear as too sacred to hunt. For Indigenous peoples bears are relatives, embodying healing and protection. Because of the power and strength of this relationship male bears are treated with great reverence and often called Grandfather. If there is a spring hunt in the United States (females are never hunted – they are too sacred), only one male is taken for food and fat and each part of the animal is used. The bear’s skull is returned to the forest and is placed on the branch of an evergreen. The People (all Native peoples call themselves the People) believe that if respected, the Spirit of the Bear will return to allow himself to be sacrificed the following year. Contrast this approach to the bear hunt with that of modern day cultures.

The Navajo have a ceremony that marks mid -winter called the Mountainway, also celebrated in early February. The Bear Ceremony is the most powerful of all of the healing chants and curiously in this tradition the “Woman Who Becomes a Bear” leads the ceremony. This shape -shifting bear walks through the darkness, works with fire, and converses with the Yei, the sky gods. This Bear Ceremony is the most powerful healing ceremony of all – not just for healing individuals but to help restore harmony and balance between the people and nature.

From a naturalists perspective we learn that female wild bears give birth in mid to late January emerging from their dens in early spring when the warming sun melts frozen ground. Bear mothers are alert and attentive to the birth of and caring for their cubs. Black bear cubs remain with the mother for 18 months; brown bears and polar bears stay with mother for two and half years. During a mild winter males may awaken and leave their dens for brief periods. A bear that leaves its den during the late fall and winter will often walk in its own tracks to return to it. Mid – winter approaches under a waxing moon this year. Northern Indigenous peoples call this moon the “Little Bear Moon” in honor of all the female bears most of whom give birth this month. As I celebrate this turning my heart opens to the wee cubs nestled under their mother’s thick fur even as I thank each bear who ushers in the year’s rebirth in such an embodied way. 

Prayer to a Chained Wilderness

When I saw 

the size of 

the Silver Chain

that tethered you

to that tree

I couldn’t help

wondering

what I could 

have done

to force your

Shining,

 Compassionate,

Coal Black

Body to be

so brutally

 restrained –

You, the embodiment

of Wilderness

and Wisdom.

I so desperately

want to love you

free.

A Haunting

overcomes me

along with 

a river of 

unshed tears.

All I can see

and feel

are those heavy

metal chains.

And the tree?

So much Grief

between you.

How can I

Be forgiven? 

Please come back,

I beg you.

Give me

another chance…

Show me

how to 

let you go.

 Can’t we end

Undeserved Abuse?

January 22 2021

Suicidal Illumination

January 19, 2021 

 

Suicide.

I used to

despise the word

because

I lost you.

Drowning in guilt,

Parental shame –

I couldn’t help.

Before you died

 I scolded you

like our parents would.

No one was home

in me either.

Afterwards, I had no feeling

except for the night

a winter moon

 shone too bright

and I turned away

from her light.

You were there

 still hovering…

Needing me.

 Oh,

I felt the pull but fear

held me back.

Forgive me.

I forced you

 to go on alone.

My greatest life regret.

We could have said goodbye.

We loved each other so.

A lifetime has passed

since then –

For years I searched. 

 And even now

at 76 I long for

a young man I loved

more deeply than brother.

Kinship is forever.

You were the other half of me.

 Soul mate

doesn’t capture the story.

I combed the earth

 for a frog boy

who loved the forest

like we did.

Slept around for a while.

Got drunk to forget.

When the dead years

Cracked under a starry night –

one spring when frogs vaulted

  across wet roads

I leapt out to save them.

And a shattered mirror

reversed itself

became whole –

 in a vision

  that exploded

above my head.

The pain was gone!

I took to the forest

I had abandoned

 at your death.

You were there

in every tree, bee, brook

bird, rabbit, 

snake and deer –

I just couldn’t see you.

And somehow it

 didn’t matter,

at least for awhile.

  Your beloved raptors 

 circled above,

called my name

as you once did –

on Winged Feet, 

on Clouds of Air.

 Winged Flight.

I still have the medal.

The day I finally placed

 dry blue bones

in fragrant leaf wet ground

I wept tears for a lifetime

Alone –

 Your namesake refused

to dig a hollow

to contain your ashes

But by then I didn’t care.

I had already prepared

a space… called in the Sacred.

I welcomed you home.

Thirty – two years spent

in a stifling parental attic 

spun out of lies

 passed by into oblivion.

Your hawks 

kept watch for a week

perched there in the deep woods

yellow eyes staring,

 sharp talons wrapped securely

on twigs just over head –

protecting a wandering spirit

still settling in – 

Now you lie

 under a glacial stone

nourishing spring trillium.

Some days when

 I walk by

I call out your name.

Beloved.

Oh,

Nature loved us both –

(and loves me still)

  She taught us to see,

to feel her wonder.

We never questioned how.

This morning

  dark son

came through

a dream, dismissive –

superior, as always.

Pretending I didn’t exist,

he granted others

 precious parcels of earth

but left nothing for me.

For him land is money

For you and I 

Earth is Love.

 I awakened suicidal.

before illumination struck.

Patriarchal culture

 had stolen

two bodies

not just one.

All day

my head 

throbbed…

those who hate

 make us ill.

I forgot to tell you

I picked out 

two hawk feathers

 hung them in red 

on the witch hazel tree.

Two feathers, 

One prayer –

For this day

For this moment

This mourning.

 I know now

what went wrong.

The moment you

stopped running

you lost your body.

I’ve been recovering mine

since the first day

I keened your dying.

If only I had known.

We must live our lives

Embodied , 

always seeking

awareness.

When mind poisons,

Body will heal.

No psychotic break.

No drug induced delusion.

You had no leader to guide you.

Our animal bodies

 keep us tethered to Life –

to hope and joy

  to truth and pain –

Teach us

 who we really are.

You and I

are a Shining –

 One loving animal

lives on, in spite of attempted

annihilation.

 My heaped up heart

  beats a song for two.

I Love You .

Reflection on the Coming Inauguration – January 2021

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Time, lately. If time can be experienced as a river moving towards the sea in a linear way, it can also be experienced as cyclic. In my life the year’s passage is marked by the seasonal changes in nature. I ritualize these eight spokes of the wheel honoring each subtle shift. I notice internally how dream and day cycles repeat with different sets of thoughts and feelings that surface with with each seasonal turn. 

I also sense that Time is a lake, and that it’s possible at any time to throw over a hook to catch a fish-like memory or feeling from the deep past, from a present moment, or even from the future. The fish don’t care – or do they? Perhaps some fish are closer to the surface waiting to be hooked.

These still months usually allow me to sleep long hours and awaken refreshed. Normally my eyes appreciate the low light, the bare trees coated with snow, the forest green  – spruce, cedar pine – the tangle of bare deciduous branches outside my window. These days I sleep poorly. I do continue to take refuge in the moment. I especially look forward to a pale gold orb that I can glimpse through cracks between pale branches an hour after first light. When the sun star appears over the trees I stand at the window watching what the light will do – reflect on the still open water of the brook, or turn night frozen branches into star-like crystals. Some days the sun will have to climb out of the hooded clouds to rise into blue. Amazingly this star at the center of our solar system literally transforms parts of its body into light every second, an astonishing thought that speaks more to sun as process than to an actual entity and a corresponding event called sunrise…

Winter Light paused briefly and now the sun has begun its return. Even though it’s not yet the 20th of January light streams into the house with more warmth for longer hours. My dove Lily b is already making morning flyways into the living room…  

Because inner and outer, the personal and the collective are always connected I see the return of the sun, the raging storm that destroyed so many trees around here and the general chaos induced by Climate Change being mirrored by the political chaos in our country as we continue to struggle with human evil. I firmly believe that evil is a purely human construct and that it has been swimming just under the surface of our American waters for the last four years with more and more fish schooling together rippling once still waters. 

During this period no one has either named or attempted to hold accountable the man who hooked the fish of power and galvanized evil for his own egregious purposes. Four years of a madman’s actions brought only mild complaint and massive addiction to a cult leader that was supposedly the president of these ever dividing American states. History demonstrates that human evil erupts out of the splits our nation has allowed to occur. (The Civil War is another example). People have been eerily addicted to this man’s actions or behaving with total indifference. As more and more fish gathered near the surface of the lake I was forced to drop out of politics for my own survival. As I witnessed the continual denial/addiction/the rising of unholy darkness a terrible loneliness overcame me as I shrunk away from even more of the American people than ever before. 

 Even endurance has limits and as I reached the end of my personal rope I came home to land that I belong to and an abandoned cabin, desperately in need of repair. And then Nature brought me new friends – dare I use the word? – two of which I began to feel were adopting me into their lives as kin

Covid, the virus that the president ignored and denied even after it started killing people continues to escalate. At present four hundred thousand people are dead in this country and this man still refuses to wear a mask. The president is indirectly responsible for every single one of these deaths because he has encouraged the spread of the virus with his attitude of indifference, his continued refusal to wear a mask and by holding huge rallies to incite his cult followers to express more rage and engender further gun violence at the expense of human lives.  

When this mentally deranged president lost the Presidential election to sanity, we remained fearful of what would come next. Mob takeover on January 6th – “epiphany”- shocked so many. My young friend (21 years old) said that for him the worst part was that it was not a surprise. His response mirrored my own.

What we didn’t know then we know now says Robin Morgan:

“…what looked at first to be a rowdy protest now comes into focus as a planned, organized, deliberately murderous, attempted coup. This nation was moments, seconds, away from assassinations of the vice president and speaker of the house, and a likely massacre of public officials in the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate.”

The day of the riot a refusal to wear masks resulted in more people becoming ill with Covid. Deaths from the virus continue to skyrocket; attempts to roll out a vaccine that may or may not have long-term issues may make some folks reluctant to vaccinate. The latest news is that an immunization protects a person for approximately three months.

 Worst of all with regard to the virus, the American people have yet to acknowledge that we allowed this virus to erupt because of our callous indifference to nature – we continue to support a wet market and an illegal animal trade that is rife with viruses. No one even mentions this fact.

We are now two days away from a sane man’s Presidential Inauguration. The threat of violence continues to grow keeping most people on edge.  I listen to news that informs me that there will be riots in every capitol of the United States. Two days ago public radio replayed the tape taken of the Capitol’s takeover on January 6th, and the explosive hatred of so many flooded my body with almost intolerable grief as I erupted into tears (I have no television and restrict news input so I hadn’t heard this tape before).

 Do we have any idea of the edge that we are on? Can we comprehend that hatred will destroy all of us? That hatred was unleashed by a president addicted to power at any cost, one incapable of feeling any emotion except raw hatred of any person not white, the planet and the need for revenge if challenged, seems not to have penetrated the haze of collective denial. Regardless of what happens now the American people as a whole have allowed one man to unleash terror on a level never experienced before in this country. Evil does not exist in nature but is a human construction as already stated, and I am forced to confront the reality that most people still refuse to name evil even as it stares them in the face. Trump must be held accountable and must never be allowed to hold a public office again.

Our socially constructed culture is collapsing not just on the outside, but on some level inside each one of us. The horrific violence and destruction that we have deliberately enacted on nature using our precious Earth as a disposable resource has fractured her wholeness, and because on one level we do live in a circle of time it is not surprising that the horrors we have enacted on the rest of nature are circling back to us; just as it is no surprise that all the ‘evil’ fish are jumping out of the water at once.. 

However, I refuse to let the story end here. I still believe it is possible to begin to fish in that deep blue lake for ways that will allow us to return to a way of being in the world that honors kinship and community first (individual rights are less important). Acting on personal integrity, honesty, a willingness to be accountable allows us to pick up the threads we have lost: our humanity. Ultimately we can retrieve our once respectful relationship with the human world and the rest of nature in order to heal what has been broken…

A new President is on the horizon and here comes the sun…

There is hope.

We will soon inaugurate a Leader who has a lifetime of political experience behind him. A man who is honest, capable of humility and compassion, and one who has made it abundantly clear that the lives of the people come first. 

We can learn from our mistakes. Please, let’s try.

A Bird with a Broken Wing Can Never Fly

chickadee in outdoor balsam bower

A little girl

scooped him up…

Oh, a broken wing.

She was old enough

to know chickadees

 who couldn’t fly

ended up dead.

NO, screamed the child.

By the time

the adult took over

the deed was done.

I prepared a room

for him in the house…

placed balsam boughs

inside the cage.

We were going to save him.

 At first we imagined

healing, though

no one we spoke to concurred.

A week spent watching

a captive wild bird

frantically clinging to mesh,

cheeping piteously

as he tried to escape

changed both our minds.

The adult must kill him.

Mercy?

Then a boy we love 

intervened.

“It’s not up to you

to end his life,

you didn’t break

his wing.”

A curious perspective.

One that dove –tailed with

  an idea of mine….

 Imagining

I might release him

to a safe outdoor space –

Oh, I didn’t expect him

to live very long,

but at least he

would have a few hours,

maybe days, before

dying among his kin?

 Acting on the boy’s remark

 we three dragged up

  the storm toppled

 balsam spire,

 tucked the tree

into a protected corner

of the house…

I hung feeder and fat,

placed water on a nearby log.

By then it was dark…

Tomorrow.

Tomorrow.

My body shrunk.

I didn’t even know

 if I could do it.

Hung on a fish- hook

of my own making

earlier that day,

I owned that my decision,

though swayed by the child’s

deep compassion,

was more about the adult

than the bird.

Call it a savior complex.

I got caught by my own need.

Who was I 

to interfere?

Nature routinely sacrificed

 one

for the many.

‘Individualism’

has little meaning

when survival

requires keeping

one’s focus

on the Whole –

A hard lesson. 

Excruciatingly painful

to learn.

Over and Over.

Leopold was right.

“Naturalists live

in a world of wounds

that only they can see.”

Or feel. 

 Deep Space

held no comfort.

The stars were absent.

No way was right.

Anticipatory grief

is an illusion.

I was steeped in suspension

Enduring the night.

When Lily cooed

at dawn*

it was time.

I carried the cage

out to the tree.

Unzipped the flap.

My little bird was free.

Chick a dee dee dee.

 piercing full bellied

cries brought excited

calls from his kin.

Many inhabited

this particular neighborhood.

He was home at last –

with friends 

If only to say goodbye.

A bird with a broken wing

can never fly.

*Lily b is free flying housed dove who has spent countless time in the wild in his 30 years and always returned… he routinely reads my mind.

Navajo Mountain Chant

The Navajo Mountain Chant:

Frighten Him On It  – Sand painting used in the Mountain Chant, circa 1907″ by E.S. Curtis 

 A Feminist Perspective

Like the Navajo Night Chant celebrated at winter solstice the Navajo Mountain Chant is the last important winter ceremony, one that marks the shift in seasons and the return of the light. The Mountain Chant was once nine days in duration; today it has apparently been shortened to a four day ceremony. It is celebrated in early February and each night different holy songs are sung. 

The Mountain Chant is also a very complex healing series of ceremonies. Elaborate sand paintings are created and then destroyed after each healing. Disease may be diagnosed by either a woman or a man, but a Medicine man always leads the ceremonies. The intention is to cure a person of the disharmony that is creating the illness. The ceremonies are also enacted to pray to the holy people (Yei) for rain, and to receive assistance with the crops, and most importantly they are done to restore balance and harmony between the People and nature. 

A cultural myth is re-enacted and many songs also celebrate different aspects of nature. The colors blue and black represent the dark powers that need to be overcome in order to bring in the light. On the last night a large circle is constructed from evergreens. It opens to the east and surrounds a huge bonfire that is lit at dawn on the last morning of the chant. Fire is sacred and burns away evil. Fire and Water are the two elements that are invoked.

The current Navajo story centers around a wandering Navajo youth who has many adventures, discovers magic, finds water and learns how to handle fire without getting burned. The young man returns from his journey to find that his people have become a whole tribe and the Mountainway Chant revolves around his extraordinary adventures, and the beauty of different aspects of nature. No women are involved at all.

 However, Washington Matthews, a surgeon who lived in the 1800’s studied the Navajo extensively and recorded the oral songs of the nine-day ceremony that include both men and women although the youth’s story is still somewhat central (Gutenberg.org). These translations demonstrate that at one time women played a more equal role in these ceremonies than they do today. The original ceremonies are thousands of years old and there are a multitude of songs that can be chosen from.

  In Matthew’s translation the young maiden seems to be the one who overcomes winter’s darkness by walking through it (walking over the blue and black mountains). She lights the fires that burn on the mountains, finds and converses with the spirits of the sky world (The Yei).

 We know from other sources that the Bear ceremony was considered the most important healing ritual of them all, (not only in Navajo Ceremony but in other Indigenous ceremonies like those of the Lakota Sioux).

 This is the only ceremony that involves a woman. There is no male correlate. This maiden has a shape – shifting ability. She can also become a bear. What follows are some of the words of the songs that were recorded during the Bear ceremony. 

“The maiden Who Becomes a Bear walks far around on the black mountains. She walks far around. Far spreads the land. It seems not far to her. The Holy Young Woman walks far around on the blue mountains, she walks far around. Far spreads the land. It seems not far to her. Far spreads the land. It seems not far. It is not dim to her…”

It seems to me that the bear woman walks through the darkness with confidence and is able to see beyond into the light, and perhaps into the future.

“Young woman who Becomes a Bear sets fire in the mountains. In many places she journeys on. There is line of burning mountains…” That she lights the fires on the mountains suggests that she is able to work with fire in the holy places to banish evil, and is bringing in the light.

“Young maid who Becomes a Bear sought the gods and found them; on the high mountain peaks she sought the god s(Yei) and found them. On the summits of the clouds she sought the gods and found them.

 Somebody doubts it; so I have heard.”

Here we see that it is the shape shifting Woman-Bear who is able to access the mountain spirits, the sky world, and to communicate with both. Is it possible that the shape shifting ability of the woman – bear is analogous to the medicine man in terms of spiritual power? I would argue, yes. If so, this important ceremony brings the power of woman to life as a bear!

The most intriguing lines are the last ones. Who or what is the “somebody” who doubts?

There are other holy songs that involve the maiden and the youth in Matthew’s translations, however the songs about the youth are more frequent. Although the maiden does not appear in all the chants, when she does appear it seems as if her presence carries special significance.

N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer prize -winning book “House Made of Dawn” was written about the Navajo from a Native perspective (Kiowa). During his academic career he specialized in the American Oral Traditions and the sacred concepts involved. The Navajo Mountainway prayer that follows is a loose translation from his work. 

House Made of Dawn – Navajo prayer

House made of Dawn

House made of evening light

House made of dark clouds

House made of female rain

House made of dark mist

House made of male rain

House made of plants (evergreens)

House made for grasshoppers (bears)

Dark Cloud is at the door

The trail out of it is dark cloud

Zig zag lightening stands high upon it. (my italics)

A offering I make… 

Restore my feet to me

Restore my legs to me

Restore my body to me

Restore my mind to me

Restore my voice to me

This very day take out your spell for me.

Happily I recover

Happily my interior grows cool

Happily I go forth…

My interior feels cool, may I walk

No longer feeling pain, may I walk

With lively feelings may I walk

As it was long ago may I walk

Happily with abundant dark clouds may I walk

Happily with abundant showers may I walk

Happily with abundant plants may I walk (trees)

Happily on a trail of pollen may I walk (pine needles)

Happily may I walk

As it was long ago may I walk.*

May it be beautiful before me

May it be beautiful behind me

May it be beautiful below me

May it be beautiful above me

May it be beautiful around me.

(May it be beautiful within me).

In beauty it is finished

In beauty it is finished.

The parentheses indicate my personal substitutions. I like this prayer every much but am mindful of the importance of not appropriating songs that do not belong to me. The deliberate substitutions are an attempt to separate myself from the Navajo tradition in a respectful and honoring way.

*I think the words “as it was long ago may I walk” are really important. Western culture has lost its way. We have forgotten that we belong to nature, and it is to nature that we will return. If we understand life to be circular then returning to a past  when people lived in harmony with nature allows us to pick up those threads so that we can begin again.

Little Blue

Black Capped Chickadee

I awakened as I usually do in the pre –dawn hour, walked the dogs in the dark, made coffee, fed Lily b, and was standing at the window spritzing my Norfolk Island pine as the sky lightened just enough for me to see the first chickadee appear in the apple tree. No cardinals this morning.

 As is my habit I was staring out the window lost in an early morning reverie when I saw him. A black dot in the snow. It was very cold. I ran out the door in my nightgown, rounded the corner and discovered the dot was a half frozen chickadee. Dismay washed over me – my absolutely favorite little bird… At first I thought the bird was dead but when I scooped ‘him’ up he bit me hard with his little black beak! Back in the house I examined the bird under a good light and was distressed to see a damaged wing. While holding his fragile body securely to warm him and noting the wide black bib (indicating that he might be a male*) I put my little friend on the carpet opening my hand just enough to see what was wrong. Oh no, his wing was definitely broken, and there was no way I could set it myself. I grabbed the box I kept a ready for bird emergencies and placed the chickadee on a soft bed, closing the box over his head.

After preparing him a chamber in a soft- sided bird carrier I opened the box even as he struggled to get free. Feisty. His tiny heart was beating too fast – too much trauma. Once inside the comforting dark mesh of the cage I contacted my vet – just in case. After a brief discussion we hoped that the chickadee would be able to heal the wing over time. Not the outcome I had hoped for, but I knew how fragile those tiny bones were…

Even while conversing with my vet my eyes were glued to the bird whose carrier was in my bedroom sitting on a table that overlooked the apple tree. I was delighted to see that he drank water with gusto and then hopped over to eat some seeds that I had scattered on the soft towel that was his floor. Afterwards he nestled into the fabric in a back corner. A good beginning. I hoped he was not in too much pain.

 

Within hours I had another worry. My little houseguest started climbing the mesh and began hopping back and forth almost frantically. He was trying to get out. I spoke to him in a low voice that seemed to calm him and then I stayed with him most of the day grateful that my dogs understood. Even Lily b, my thirty – year old dove was quiet. Recalling a recent dream in which I had seen a mysterious blue light in the snow at the edge of my forest, I named him Little Blue.

Curiously, the apple tree was filled with chickadees all day long that first day. I had quite a covey of chickadees this year and was feeding them on both sides of the house. It was unusual to see so many perched in the apple tree at once. Because chickadees pair up in the fall and spend the winter in groups I suspected Little Blue had a (future) mate that might be sitting in that tree. My little friend probably missed his companion. Oh dear.

The first night he spent with us he perched on a little hill I had created with part of the towel; now he sleeps in a bunch of fragrant White spruce branches. It’s hard to believe I have only had him for such a short time. He’s up at dawn. First he drinks water. Then he hops over to the seed banquet after which he climbs the mesh to peer out the window at his friends at the feeder. Then he starts preening his feathers. 

Each morning when I change his water he hears the zipper and positions himself on the mesh closest to where there will be soon be an opening. Smart little fellow! He is determined to get out and I am equally determined that he stay put. It’s critical that he doesn’t get a chance to do further damage to that wing. All the grooming he has been doing has made a difference. Although his wing is still not securely held against his body, it’s not all ruffled up like it was before. And he’s so active! When I kneel down to see and converse with him at close quarters he climbs the mesh inches from my face – we are definitely friends, and he clearly knows his name – how much I wish I could hold him.

One fascinating shift is the way he eats his seeds. Instead of pecking at them steadily like he did that first morning, he will take one seed, hop away to eat it and return for another, just like these birds do outdoors. It may be that due to the trauma/injury he had been lying in the snow all night and was literally starving when I rescued him. All of this, is of course, conjecture. 

Four days after he arrived a chickadee called – a single chirp –like sound – outside the window around 8AM. Little Blue jumped onto the mesh and hopped around with obvious excitement. I wondered if the bird that called might have been Little Blue’s companion. At this time of year chickadees rarely vocalize unless a predator is in the area.   

  To provide him with extra nutrition I ground up raisins and almonds and chopped up some apple to add to his sunflower seeds… At some point I will have to remove him from the carrier in order to clean the cage floor but I am going to wait to do housecleaning as long as possible for obvious reasons. I am frankly delighted that he likes to poop in his water because I change that every day!

I am prepared to keep him – if necessary – permanently. But because he is a wild bird I fervently hope his wing will heal well enough so that he can rejoin his companion and friends by early spring.

Despite their once vast range, as a species,  chickadees are remarkably homogeneous in their genetic make-up. The Black capped chickadee’s closest relative is the Mountain chickadee, another endearing avian creature. Both species hung out in the juniper in Abiquiu until last winter. Although I had four Black capped chickadees not one Mountain chickadee visited any of my feeders.

Many folks know that Climate Change and habitat loss from logging and forest fires are reducing the  chickadee’s population. Northern New Mexico is perched on the edge of extinction of both the Black capped and Mountain chickadee. In Maine we seem to be a bit more fortunate – but for how long?

My strategy is to take refuge in the present enjoying every chickadee that comes my way. Although I feel ambivalent about having a caged wild bird in the house, I am frankly fascinated by the behavior of my little boarder. I am particularly interested to find out what happens when the outdoor chickadees begin to vocalize on a regular basis. Will I be able to confirm Little Blue’s gender?

 Obviously, I love these little birds. I fed them by hand as a child and have continued this practice as an adult, especially during the summer months. I can’t imagine living anywhere without them.

*The colors and patterns are identical in males and female chickadees, but some scientists believe that larger black “bibs” are seen on male chickadees; this data is inconclusive and observers must rely on gender-specific behavior and vocalizations to determine gender in black-capped chickadees.

There are subtle differences between male and female chickadee vocalizations/calls, some which begin in late January. Chickadees have at least thirteen different and complex vocalizations.

Gift from the Forest

A crimson jewel

he pauses,

descends

a staircase made of

 apple branches,

one ebony eye

 fixed on his feeder –

Tasty seeds await.

One swift dive and

he is under cover

filling his belly

before soaring

away.

Damp sweet air

 a silver snow sky

bless him as he flies

home to his refuge –

the long needled pines.

Snow Moon

One Starry Night…

Hooded,

the Moon

was obscured

unless you knew

that she was rising.

 Gilded edges,

silvery clouds

betrayed numinous

presence.

And when

the sky opened to

her glory

I was swept

into pearl white light

swimming towards 

vanishing twins,

two stars

whose distance

could not

sever the bond

between us…

Such a night

was this –

contained by Earth

 and opened 

to Nocturnal Peace.

Crane Song

Finding my way Home through Image, Myth, and Nature 

The last gift I received from my very distant parents was a print of a Native American Medicine Wheel by Ojibway artist Joe Geshick. I received this present on my birthday in 1993.

When I opened the cardboard tube I was astonished by the image. A Medicine Wheel? As far as I knew neither of my parents had any idea that I had picked up the thread of my Native heritage and was studying Indigenous mythology. What could have motivated them to send me such an image? I was stunned by the seemingly bizarre synchronicity.

At the time I was also giving an Indian program in the local elementary school called “The Circle Way,” educating children and myself about the mysteries of the medicine wheel.

There was also a Maine Abenaki Indian woman healer named Mollyockett who seemed to be guiding me in this process. Before walking to school I often went to her gravesite to ask for help. One day I was shocked to discover a Great Blue heron sitting on her gravestone. Some days I could feel a presence when I knelt there in the tall grass.

Although, thanks to interlibrary loan, I was also learning about my own Passamquoddy/Malisset heritage I felt like I knew almost nothing about Northern tribes in general; most had been decimated by disease brought to them by the colonists that destroyed Native core values and the way of life for most of these Indigenous peoples. Some pockets of Native beliefs/stories survived in Canada because they had less contact with white people.

I hung up the medicine wheel immediately and began to use it as an image to help me prepare for my classes. The wheel reflected equality on a level that was familiar to me; we were all connected – trees, people, rivers, flowers – I had always felt this idea to be truth, but suddenly I began to speak about what I knew with a voice I didn’t know I had.

 When my father died suddenly about six weeks later the medicine wheel, called “The Circle of Life” became the last gift I ever received from both my parents; it developed a ‘charge’ that resulted in me hanging the wheel in every space I ever inhabited. It is still with me.

And yet, I never researched the artist until I was finishing a thesis on my study of Black Bears (2013) when I decided that this image would become the cover of my manuscript. I learned then that Joe was born in 1943, grew up on a reservation in Northern Minnesota, spent two years in jail for minor infractions and began to paint there. After his release he studied at the Art Student’s league in NY and then taught art in Ontario. On the La Croix Reservation in Ontario he learned something about the fragmented history of his clan, and was introduced to traditional ceremony. In 1977 he began studying with a Lakota Sioux Medicine Elder in Nevada while participating for five years in the annual sacrificial Sundance Ceremony.

 As a result, Joe became rooted in traditional ceremony and his paintings reflected this dramatic spiritual shift.   “The Circle Of life” embodied this change drawing attention to the four sacred directions, the four seasons, the sacred colors, the four races. All were equal; all required respect. Joe often said that he wanted people to relate to his work through personal experience. 

I recognized after doing preliminary research on the artist, that like him, I too had been totally separated from my Native roots and was finding my way back through images, my experiences with animals/plants, creating/celebrating my own ceremony, and by studying Native mythologies. A slow, serpentine, circular lifetime process. But Joe became a model for me, validating that the way that had been chosen for me/chosen by me was an authentic one. 

I felt a deep kinship with this particular wheel with one exception. In the center Joe had placed a thunderbird and after learning about the Ojibwa I didn’t understand why the bear wasn’t in the center of the wheel because the bear was the most venerated healer for his people.

Recently, I returned from the Southwest where I was introduced to the ceremonies of the Pueblo peoples, ceremonies that reflected my own spiritual practice reinforcing its authenticity. This interlude also allowed me to be part of a people who had never lost access to their roots. They had never given up their ceremonies or surrendered their way of life.

I returned to Maine with a much stronger sense of my Indigenous cultural identity than I had when I left. I hadn’t realized until I went to the Southwest how much this identity had been eroded by local people. Living in western Maine had brought me in contact with the frightening bias people have towards Indians; some are openly despised. 

My first reality ‘hit’ occurred after giving an elementary school program a few months after moving to the area, when fifty people from an irate religious group gathered one night at the school and attempted to indict me as a witch. “I was turning their children into trees,” one of my accusers said. Although the program I had given was an astounding success no one intervened on my behalf, including the superintendent of schools or the principal of the school that asked me to give the program in the first place.

 Numerous other negative encounters followed over the years. Two neighbors bought property next to me and moved in. I didn’t understand why they disliked (hated?) me. It took me years to understand the reason – bias. Because I am “different”. 

Just up the road from my home seven years ago some locals put up signs that stated “We don’t trust you, Sara Wright”, in an effort to humiliate and prevent me from walking up a mountain road. 

I was discriminated against by the town of Bethel when I offered to become part of their annual Mollyockett Day – supposedly a celebration of Mollyockett and our local Native Abenaki heritage. In actuality this weekend has nothing to do with Native peoples (One of their most egregious practices is the frog jumping contest when hapless amphibians are forced to hop around steaming concrete for children’s pleasure. No Native person would ever agree to torturing animals in that way). 

Just last spring, two months after my return from New Mexico, a red truck left a dead baby grouse in my driveway. Others leave screaming tire marks. These grim examples reveal that hatred of the ‘other’ and discrimination is a way of life here. Difference is not tolerated.

But to return to my present story… this fall I decided to do something different with my medicine wheel. I carefully cut out a photo of one of my bears sitting in the mother pine and placed the photo in the center of the wheel, replacing the thunderbird. Ah, now the wheel looked just right, and I placed the print above a little mantle in a dark corner of the living room. A solitary candle lights the wheel unless the sun is just right and then the entire space lights up eerily. An abalone shell reflects the blue green waters below.

With the Medicine Wheel in a place of honor I decided to do some more research on the image. I was astonished to learn that the ‘swans’ that encircled the wheel were cranes – Sand hill Cranes, my spirit bird of the east – birds whose haunting cries literally freeze me in wonder – birds that I lived with every winter in NM for four years, birds that I discovered to my great joy are now living/breeding here in western Maine. Cranes not swans. And Joe painted the cranes with their feet becoming roots seeking green earth ground. According to Joe “the two cranes that envelop the circle represent a spiritual relationship with the earth”. Exactly! Oh, it fit.

Then came the next surprise. I read that in the beginning (the creation story) the Ojibwa who were water people were led by the Sand hill cranes who were their leaders. The original holy people were cranes, loons, fish, deer, marten, bear and thunderbird but the thunderbird had to be returned to the sea because his powers were too strong. The Bird people replaced the thunderbird. Today the Crane clan is the most powerful followed by the Bear, as Healer. 

I guessed that it was Joe’s spiritual experience with the Lakota Sioux that led him to place the thunderbird in the center of his medicine wheel paintings because the thunderbird is sacred to the Sioux.

Joe died in 2009 but what follows is what he wrote about his beautiful and deeply moving paintings.

I am motivated to paint by my desire to share this connection with others so that they may discover their own natural and spiritual relationship with the earth. I want people to feel and experience the wholeness and simplicity of life.”

He certainly helped me.

Today, our blue green planet is in crisis and I believe our only real hope comes from embracing the ways of a people we despise or dismiss, a people whose way of life could teach the rest of us how to embrace the values of respect, equality, community, a gift economy and most of all re- attach us to a deep love for this Earth we call home.