The Bear Circle

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Above: Two bear fetishes from the bear circle carved by Zuni artist Stewart Quandelacy. The red one is a Mother bear, the green one I call Tree bear.

 

When I was a little girl my little brother and I played in my grandparents’ woods, dragging boxes behind us that were full of stuffed animals. My little brother loved bears and his box was stuffed to the brim with bears of all sizes and shapes. In contrast, my cardboard box was filled with a variety of creatures and one giant frog that burped!

When I was in my mid thirties I developed a fascination with bears which totally baffled me because I had always associated with them with my brother, who, by that time, had been dead for many years.

This obsession began when I discovered identical life sized stuffed bears in every store I visited in Portland Maine during the holiday season. After seeing so many I had the uncanny feeling that this giant mole brown bear was trying to communicate something important to me. I ended up buying one of these bears in spite of feeling ridiculous. The bear sat in the back seat and stared at me with deep brown glassy eyes all the way home. I named her Cocoa and put her in one of my kitchen chairs where she was always present to greet people! I also made a crown for her out of grape vines and seed pods. My adult children had both moved out by then and when they visited and first saw Cocoa both thought their very unconventional mother had gone over the edge.

The following spring I began a self directed academic study of Native American mythology and I was amazed to learn that bears were very important protectors for many tribes.

By accident or design I also discovered bear fetishes around the same time. A fetish is an image of an animal (usually) carved out of stone that embodies the power and spirit of that creature. These small carvings are worn by their Indigenous owners who believe that the spirit of the animal acts as a personal guide and protected them from harm.

There was a local woman who went to Tucson Arizona to buy fetishes each winter, and when I discovered her collection I was hooked. The first bear fetish I bought had been carved by artist Stewart Quandelacy, a Zuni Indian who believed that the power of the animal would speak directly to the person who bought the stone.

This was how Blue came into my life. She was a small red (2/12 inches high) pipe-stone bear with a little pearl fish in her mouth. I made her a little pouch and took her everywhere with me… There was something about having her with me that felt really good. It was like having a special secret. I never showed her to anyone.

One day I went back to the local shop and the owner let me open the cabinet and sit on the floor examining other Zuni animal fetishes. Eventually, I went home with a frog. Over a period of a couple of years I acquired lizards and a badger, hawks,  and a raven, and most importantly, more Quandelacy Medicine Bears.

One night I had a dream that the bears were sitting in a circle and they were healing someone who was ill. All the bears looked just like mine; the only difference was that these bears were alive, speaking in a language that I could understand.

The very next day I began to create a bear circle with my bears and other fetishes. There was always a bear that represented one of the four cardinal directions. I acquired a piece of deerskin and each fetish was carefully wrapped after I finished  “working” with the circle by talking to the animals, and moving them around. I don’t know what else to call this but play. I had no idea what I was doing, but I felt like something was happening.

A life threatening personal experience motivated me to set up the bear circle. Inside the circle I wrote a small prayer, and left the circle open to the night. The frightening experience dissipated and I had a powerful sense that this bear circle had somehow shifted something to remove the threat. I began using the bear circle as a focus for prayer, first for myself, and then for others.

A couple of years later I discovered that the Bear Clan of the Lakota Sioux used bear circles for healing. Apparently, I hadn’t made up the bear circle after all! I began to research bears as healers and discovered that these “medicine bears” did lots of healing and were often associated with plant and root medicine, that is they healed most effectively through the use of plants. Most likely I had tapped into this ceremonial healing tradition because of my close relationship with the spirit bears and Nature as a whole.

The most unusual part of this story is that the bear circle helped me to break down  walls in my psyche. I had been brought up in the western academic tradition. I was a person who needed to have concrete proof  from “experts” that my personal experience was valid. Working with the bear circle, paying attention to my dreams, and celebrating earth based ritual brought me into a new relationship with myself.

Ironically, when I discovered the work of Rupert Sheldrake and became acquainted with field theory I learned how the bear circle probably worked, but over time these academic explanations came to matter much less. Time has shown me that calling on the bears for help simply works. Whatever the bear circle is capable of doing is always in service to Life as a whole, even if it includes death. Needless to say I do not travel anywhere without taking a small circle of bears with me.

I am presently living in Northern New Mexico, a place where the veil between the mundane and sacred world seems thin, probably because we are still surrounded by wilderness. I noticed shortly after my arrival that I experienced the potential power of the bear circle more intimately. That I am living on land that has been sacred to Indigenous Pueblo peoples for a very long time may also be partly responsible for some of this intensity because I also have Native American roots. I am developing a powerful sense of ‘home’ as I wander over the hills listening to a river that sings a song that seems to be “calling” out to me just as urgently as the bears continue to do.

Pay Attention, they say. And I do.

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Guardian of the Earth

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Some friends of mine gave me a mole carving for my birthday. I was delighted and intrigued by this gift because fetishes have been important to me for many years; they are also part of my Native heritage.

A fetish is usually carved out of antler bone or stone. The artist has a personal relationship with the animal that s/he is carving and because of that relationship the bone or stone “lives” and communicates either practical (as in hunting, or curing illness) or spiritual (as in guidance or protection) information to its owner. These carvings are also given to others as gifts transferring the power embodied in the stone from one person to another sometimes intergenerationally. Fetishes act as mediators between the two worlds that are interconnected, the seen and the unseen.

The best known stone carvers are the Zuni Indians who inhabit the southwest. Many years ago I bought a medicine bear from Zuni carver Stuart Quandelacy and began to correspond with him after I had an unusual experience with the little pipestone bear. I loved the story he told me about creating his medicine bears. Whenever he carved one to sell he would ask the Bear Spirit to guide the bear to an owner who needed its particular power. Stuart became the Zuni carver who put medicine bears on the map.

Unfortunately New Age folks co –opted native fetishes (as well as other Indigenous customs) and assigned their own western interpretations to them. The problem with this approach is that the carvings were/are taken out of their original Indigenous context which includes keen observation of the animal in question in the wild and is also based on the intimate relationship that develops between that person and the animal. Fetishes are not symbols, they embody genuine Animal Powers.

In order to understand the power behind a fetish, we have to recognize that Native peoples were not only naturalists, but were people who did not privilege the human species over any other. Animals were understood to have as much intelligence as humans. Native peoples remembered the stories their elders told – that the people learned how to live from observing the behavior of the animals around them – Because animals have been on the earth for three hundred and fifty million years, while humans have only been in their present form for two hundred thousand years, this approach to older “relatives” (non – human species) seems well documented by the scientific community today. To Native peoples who choose the old ways, animals continue to be powerful teachers and allies…

When I received my little black mole I immediately did some mythological research on moles. I learned that in some Native American tribes mole helped during the hunt because he lived beneath the trees at the edge of the forest. He could trip or slow down prey so it could be caught.

When Mole is called upon for healing he is able to bring up plant and “root” knowledge that humans might need because he lives under the surface of the ground.

Mole has eyes that see in the dark. Mole may help a person develop intuitive insight, and a more complete understanding of the world of the plant people.

Because Mole lives underground he is able to help a person navigate the underworld, as he literally swims through the soil.

Mole may also help a person make peace with the unknown.

Grandmother Mole sees the world through spiritual eyes…

Frankly, I was surprised to find that the mole was so important to various Indigenous people. I had never paid much attention to moles beyond thinking of them as something of a nuisance because they created such havoc around my house. As soon as I learned that moles dug deep tunnels underground by swimming through the dirt with wide front paws, aerating the soil while eating lots of destructive grubs including Japanese beetle larvae, I began to feel quite differently about them. Although moles did heave up conical mounds of dirt in a few places around my house I realized that I was blaming moles for the damage that voles were primarily responsible for.

Moles live underground and rarely comes to the surface except in the evenings. They are 6 – 7 inches long. Moles are superbly adapted to a subterranean life style; they have cylindrical bodies, velvety fur, and very small ears and eyes. They also have a hairless pointed snout. They can tolerate higher levels of carbon dioxide than other mammals because moles can reuse oxygen inhaled above ground. Thus they are able to breathe comfortably in their underground burrows. Moles also are related to shrews and bats! They have an extra thumb that helps them to dig more efficiently. Moles also eat beetles, nuts and earthworms and they store food in special underground kitchens. Because of their food requirements moles must cover a larger area than most underground creatures. Three to five moles per acre are considered a high population. Deep runways lead from the mole’s den to its hunting grounds. The runways are 5 -8 inches below the surface but moles also tunnel close to the surface. During wet weather tunnels are very shallow. Moles make their homes in dry spots but they prefer to hunt in soil that is shaded cool moist and populated with earthworms and grubs. In neglected orchards and woodlands they work undisturbed. But this preference accounts for the moles’ attraction to lawns and parks. Moles commonly choose dening sites under portions of large trees. Unfortunately, the maze of passages provides protective cover for several other mammals like voles and mice to live in. These animals move through mole runways as they help themselves to grains, seeds, and bulbs. Moles often get blamed for these herbivores that do indeed damage garden plants. Moles eat up to one hundred percent of their weight in food each day. The star nosed mole can detect, catch and eat food faster than the human eye can follow.

Breeding season occurs for the seven species of moles between February and May. Males search for females by letting out high-pitched squeals and tunneling through new areas. Gestation occurs in 42 days with two to five baby moles being born. They are on their own in 45 days. Apparently moles are solitary creatures. Their territories may overlap and their range extends over eastern North America and Canada. Moles have few natural enemies because of their penchant for underground living. Sometimes coyotes, dogs, and skunks dig one up and occasionally a cat or owl might predate on one of these animals. Spring floods are probably the greatest danger facing adult moles and their young.

Moles remove many damaging insects and grubs from lawns and gardens. However their burrowing habits disfigure lawns and can create general havoc in small garden plots.

After doing this research on moles I can understand why volcanic mounds appear on my land after a good rain, especially in the spring. But I am also correct in my recent assessment that voles are the real culprits around my house. Voles and mice both damage trees, and the former have eaten almost all my spring bulbs. Throughout the year I see voles boldly popping out of their inch holes almost all day long in search of any seed I leave on the ground. Moles are responsible for making the life of a vole much easier. On the whole, though, I think moles are beneficial, so I am pleased to acknowledge this unseen “guardian of the earth” as a friend, although I shall probably never meet him!

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