I am in a deeply wooded forest, perhaps somewhere in Alaska or the Rocky Mountains. Walking through the rich, black soil covered by pine duff, I come to a clearing where the contours of the mountains melt into lush verdant swaths of deep greens. I can hear and see the water from the river ahead as it bends and twists through the mountain valley – not surging but steady, like a summer rain. The sun soaks the scene with warm blankets of light. In the distance there is a large, black bear. Just standing there in the water with feet partially submerged. The bear, whose gender is of no consequence, stares at me with a deep and silent gaze. The bear and I know each other. There is awe but not fear. I feel that this bear is a part of me. It is a sensation which weakens me to my core – I am overwhelmed with the surging power of this great animal. Yet, the bear is my protector. I feel safe.
When I was young, I used to sleep with a map of Alaska next to my bed. I knew that Point Barrow was the northernmost town in the fifty states, perhaps in the world, and I longed to be a bush pilot. I was once steps away from working in McKinley National Park. Reading John McPhee’s (one of my top writers) Coming Into the Country only brought me closer.
For as long as I can recall, the bear described above has been part of a recurring dream. Many of us have dreams with repeating themes or visuals. Flying, falling, crashing, sailing, swimming. Many of my dreams have involved motion and water. But the Bear always returns. The bear is a constant.
The re-awakening of the heart and soul that this recent event has offered has also been a catalyst for helping to move me to a deeper place. While the Doctors do not know how long the tumor had been growing, I somehow know that its removal, which was slowly killing me from within, has now left an empty space and my brain is firing on all cylinders again. It is an incredible feeling. Yes I am tired, achy and scared beyond measure. I have many mountains to climb and rivers to cross. But I find myself making connections and observations I might have previously ignored.
Since the “event” I have been moved on many occasions by my interaction with the animal world. I suppose the first happening which knocked me to the ground came just a day after returning home from surgery.
It was exactly 7:45 Friday morning and I had just clicked the “give” button to support my dear friend Alicia in her quest to replace her hand-cycle so that she continue her preparations for competition in an upcoming race in the Para-Olympics. Paralyzed from the waist down from an accident in high school, Alicia, single mother of a beautiful girl and with a family full of love and support, she has been an inspiration to everyone around her and beyond. Just as I confirmed my gift, there was a deafening explosion outside the window. It woke everyone up with a startle. Barb immediately thought the worst, that perhaps in an act of despair, I had decided to call it quits.
The power went out. The whir of the refrigerator, the fans, the lights all came to a halt. I slowly moved myself outside, still medicated, to see if there was any indication of what happened. I walked to the end of the drive and looked up at the transformer. Nothing. But something caught my eye. There lying on its back, face to the sky, a charred but still bushy tail draped over the edge, was a squirrel. Somehow it had met with exposed wires or with its long body created an arc between two electrical paths and had electrocuted itself.
The death of any creature is a sad occasion but perhaps due to watching too many Looney Tunes and Tex Avery cartoons as a child, my first reaction was of humored disbelief. The contour of its small nose backlit against the morning sky was sad but slightly comical. Squirrels are funny. (see Willy Wonka Johnny Depp version) While crying is one reaction to tragedy, sometimes so is laughter, albeit with an awkward, frightened laugh. It’s a defense response. But almost immediately, I was overcome by a different, secondary emotion.
What makes humans differ from any other species is not just our ability to walk upright, drive a car or play music. It is our ability to rationalize. In some ways, I have always felt religion and spirituality was just one big rationalization for why things happen. Or don’t. And here I was doing just that. Gleaning meaning from something seemingly mundane. Or was I?
I decided then and there that this squirrel and its death was a noble sacrifice. It had decided, willingly or by some other celestial control, to act as a spirit and help me weather the storms just experienced and those ahead. It took a bullet, or rather, absorbed approximately one-hundred and twenty volts of electrical energy for me. Thank you squirrel, thank you.
There is proof that when properly trained, dogs can detect through smell certain types of cancer. When forest fires, tsunamis and earthquakes occur, there is evidence that animal casualties are significantly fewer than the potential because of the additional sense animals have that something is amiss. Deformed frogs are an indication of the earth’s waning health due to our poisoning of the land, air and water. Elephants possess astounding qualities of memory and communicate at a frequency lower than the human ear can detect. Dolphin intelligence is legend and we know that crows can discern between a caveman and Dick Cheney. And most of us know of the connection between humans and apes and chimpanzees. Human DNA is about 98.4% identical to that of chimpanzees when comparing single nucleotide polymorphisms. (unless you are a proponent of Creationism or “Intelligent Design”)
So do I believe, despite the inner battle with logic, in animal spirituality? Absolutely. Disbelievers beware…the animals know…I know Aiden, my standard Poodle, and Molly, our adopted Yorkie, without question, know that I have not been well.
During the same week of the squirrel sacrifice, there was another incident which, whether there was a cosmic element or just dumb luck, was alarmingly metaphoric.
For days prior to my cranial landslide, an underground bees nest had reared its ugly head beneath the trampoline which of course was there for the children. They (the bees) were pouring out of a hole and were very angry. It was difficult to know how to best battle this unwelcome neighbor. As much as I did not want to fill the space with poison, it was the best option at the time. I had “bombed” it once and tried to cover up the hole the weekend before things unraveled in my head. Upon later research, I found that covering the holes (there were two, we later found out) with mesh and a glass bowl, essentially sealing the bees to die might have worked.
Nonetheless, my previous attempt did not succeed. When I arrived home from the hospital, my mobility was limited but my resolve was strong. Damned bees. A few days of rest later, I woke up in the early morning, just before sunrise, when the bees were more or less dormant to see if I could attack with a different approach. Foolish as it may have been, I came out with a red headlamp (as suggested by the experts) and a shovel. Not being allowed to exert more than five pounds of pressure in physical activity, lest my titanium plates and screws pop out of my fragile dome, (I write this with semi-comic intent), I was prepared to give up in my attempt to uproot the nest. To my surprise, the shovel slid deep into what was very soft soil and uprooted an enormous chunk of honeycombed nest. The monster had awakened and I was destroying its home. Hundreds of bees came pouring out of the ground in the dawn light. I ran, screaming a guttural roar, tossing the shovel. A bee had targeted me directly and landed on my head, dead-on the swollen scar and deposited its stinger into my tender flesh. In an effort to brush away the bee, I swatted my head, Three Stooges-style, which only resulted in hitting myself in the head. Did I forget to mention I was in my boxers? Thank goodness there is no live footage.
The sting swelled my already swollen head and I immediately slathered on a home-made paste of baking soda and water, which complimented the stitches and encrusted scars quite beautifully. I looked ridiculous. In between the pain of the sting, which, given what my body had already been through was nominal, and my frantic end-run to the house, I found myself laughing. It was a theater of the absurd. And I firmly believe I had ignited the bee-spirits. That damned bee knew EXACTLY where to go to inflict the most pain. It’s all karma. House destroyed, the bees counter-attacked, strategically and with precision. “Drone strike” took on a whole new meaning.
We all have our animal stories. In my lifetime we have had rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, fish, dogs, guinea pigs. Some of us have been attacked, others have had our lives both physically and emotionally saved or enriched by animals. Anyone who knows the unconditional love of a dog knows of what I speak. If only our human counterparts could express the unrestrained joy every time we walk in the door, what a world it would be.
Our rabbits, named Marianne, Ginger, Gilligan and Skipper, were housed in cages made by my father, rustic as they were, and set on our tiny patch of lawn in front of our row-home, our first home, in Philadelphia. A neighborhood populated mostly by Italians, Catholics, Jews, and Koreans, we had a wonderful fire-plug of a babysitter named Mrs. Fario. A widowed, feisty Italian woman, she would bring us anise cookies, Pizzelles, every time she came to sit. Much to our horror, she would also inquire “when you gonna eat them rabbits? My husband, may the Lord rest his soul, loved to cook rabbit. When you gonna eat them rabbits?!” Sadly two of the rabbits met their fate at the hands of a loose German Shepherd. The other two died of old age.
To keep on the stinging-insect theme, I will share a slightly salty tale. All I ask is that Freudians refrain from comment. We were living at The White Mountain School in a large farmhouse in Bethlehem, New Hampshire. Libby was still crawling and Hannah was four or five. I had a fairly bad snoring “issue” and, having undergone sleep studies, did not have apnea but I was quite resonant. Elephants could hear me. I did, as the doctors shared, have the shortest “sleep latency” period they had ever seen. In other words, falling asleep before I hit the pillow was not an exaggeration. The house, provided by White Mountain School, was large and had many rooms. Quite often, I would move myself down the hall, to spare Laura from the cacophony of my rumbling.
In the middle of the night, I think it was autumn, (when many animals begin to move indoors) I woke up with a strange sensation. Something was crawling on me. Or rather, as I soon found out, inside my boxers. Before I could do anything, a large wasp decided to attack me from within the safety of said boxers. Swatting it resulted in yet another comically painful moment. What to do? Stop, drop and roll? Get a fly swatter? Raid? I leapt out of bed screaming, waking the entire family. Laura, bleary eyed, came out of the bedroom and stared down the hallway to see me dancing a feverish jig, hitting myself where one should not and ripping off my clothes. It was not a pretty sight I assure you and Laura was caught between a triad of concern, hysterical laughter and anger that I had awakened the children. Fortunately my daughters were spared this potentially damaging image. As a coda to this event, in speaking to my mother the next morning, I explained the events of the evening. There was a long pause after I shared my tale. She then exclaimed, deadpan, “Markie, a wasp stung your penis? I told you to stick to Jewish girls!”
Back to the bear. While my nickname “Moose” was bestowed on me by a high school theater director because, apparently, he felt like I “danced like a moose” during my number as “Mr. Cellophane” in Chicago and while it is true that moose, like myself, are ruminant mammals, the bear is clearly my avatar, my spirit animal, my shaman.
Replete with symbolism, the bear is a rich source for Native American, Asian, European and Nordic cultures. Notable themes include: protection, childbearing, motherhood, freedom, discernment, courage, power, unpredictability.
Bees, bears, squirrels, owls, dogs, cats, horses, whales, dolphins, elephants, and chimpanzees all have representation in the spiritual world in many faiths and cultures. As I embark on this journey, I hope to use the pain and heartache, fear and sadness to my advantage, an opportunity. I have never, not once, said to myself “why me?” It just is. To ask myself anything of the sort would be futile and a negative use of my precious energy. If indeed “the beauty is in the journey,” as the Taoist proverb states, I will keep my Shamanistic bear close at hand for it is my protection along the way.
“A dog can express more with his tail in minutes than his owner can express with his tongue in hours.” – Anonymous