RUIN AND BEAUTY

DEENA METZGER'S BLOG

Category Archives: Animals

WHAT OUR BODIES KNOW

       … Danger everywhere, signs and portents, miracles and catastrophes. The hammer of one ambition against another, fusion and fission. And then an unending firestorm in the mind. Enter the grim reaper of the death of spirit. Alarmed, I put my hand into the poultice of earth.

At my feet, a wild trapezoid of new grace, her legs angling away from her body in a stretch of memory holding snow, the midnight sun, the blue continuous night in her paws, and despite that radiance, Isis, the great white wolf of the Arctic, is helpless against the disappearance of the time before, the time before, the time before, endless time disappearing.

To walk into the unknown to make it known may not be the way. To open the door underground and pass through, flooding it with Herculean light, may not be the way. To streak in a straight line into the sky, trail of gases blazing, may not be the way. Traveling forward in a straight line to the end of the universe without looking back, afraid even of the opalescent curve at the end of the shell of time, may not be the way….

                                    From Star Walk, Ruin and Beauty, New and Selected Poems, Deena Metzger, 2009

Writing that poem more than twenty years ago, I was aware that the great suffering of the animals, already visible, was precisely related to the way we live our lives.  In this instance, the Wolf’s history, her ability to rely on instinct, habit, Wolf custom, the past, what she had learned from her mother, what had been transmitted through thousands of years of ancestor wisdom, was disappearing. Now she had to live by her wits confronting situations her Wolf people had never known or imagined and also had to develop the ability to understand the unnatural preferences and intentions of two-leggeds from whom her people had always happily distanced themselves.  Though she lived with us, with human people, though she did not live in captivity, was not confined against her will within a house or an enclosure, both entirely alien conditions imposed upon her pups and their progeny, still, she died in pain, of cancer, a human condition imposed upon her.  We did not attribute her death to natural causes. 

Last week, I made a list of people whom I am carrying in my heart with daily prayers because they are deeply afflicted, with cancer, other life-threatening and mind-threatening illnesses, or great emotional suffering. Within a six-week period, six people in my kinship network were diagnosed with breast cancer while several others began facing other grave illnesses. I made the list because the numbers are increasing drastically and I didn’t want to forget anyone or any being… or any being.  I had also learned that one out of three dogs will have cancer  and 50% of those over ten years old. Cancer is no longer rare in the wild and threatens the existence of some species . “Long-term monitoring of the beluga population in the Gulf of St Lawrence in Canada has revealed that 18 per cent of deaths in this particular population are caused by cancer – making it the second leading cause of death. A further 27 per cent of adult animals that were found had tumours.”  Tasmanian Devils, the marsupials of Australia are similarly threatened with extinction because of cancers that develop first on their face and the move to other parts of their bodies.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Search&redirs=0&search=tasmanian%20devil%20tumours&fulltext=Search&ns0=1&ns6=1&ns14=1&title=Special:Search&advanced=1&fulltext=Advanced%20search#/media/File:Tasmanian_Devil_Facial_Tumour_Disease.png

[ii]

The Belugas and Tasmanian Devils are far from the only species threatened.  “We are changing the environment to be more suitable for ourselves, while these changes are having a negative impact on many species on many different levels, including the probability of developing cancer. … a team of international researchers, point out many pathways and previous scientific studies that show where human activities are already taking a toll on animals. These include chemical and physical pollution in our oceans and waterways, accidental release of radiation into the atmosphere from nuclear plants, and the accumulation of microplastics in both land- and water-based environments. In addition, exposure to pesticides and herbicides on farmlands, artificial light pollution, loss of genetic diversity and animals eating human food are known to cause health problems.”[iii] Very recently, another Whale died, its belly laden with eighty-eight pounds of plastic bags. 

In a recent dream, a Mountain Lion was locked onto a glassed-in porch opening to a circle of trees at the edge of a meadow,  She was throwing herself against all the walls, trying to get into the house or out onto the land but without seeing a way to freedom.  In fact, we had just come upon mountain lion tracks in that meadow and decided, after the dream, to cancel a planned quest so that the lion could have free access to territory having lost all in the Woolsey fire

.In 1977, I  thought that illness, as a messenger, would be the catalyst that would inspire us to change how we live in substantive ways that would benefit everyone. People responded very thoughtfully when asked, Why is this illness, in particular, occurring to you, in particular, at this time in your and our common lives? And how, then shall you live to bring healing to yourself and to others?  What are the underlying causes of the illnesses which are afflicting so many?  Consistently, people found meaningful answers that revealed social, political, environmental, spiritual issues at the core of their lives.  Accordingly, healing required them to make significant changes to the ways they were living that could also have impact on others. I thought then that we would change our personal lives and our common lives.  That we would change culture and society so that everyone could be more alive.  I thought we would find the underlying causes of our afflictions – the social, political, environmental causes – would admit the dire effects of the Anthropocene and devote ourselves so that the healing activities on behalf of any one individual healed all.  Seeing the extent of the pain and suffering that was emanating from our life styles and which we were each suffering, I thought, hoped, that each person’s healing path would affect everyone.  I would heal – you would heal.  The wolves would heal.  One action and one beneficent consequence for all being

It seems that is not what happened.  Seemingly, the more people felled by cancer, the greater the panic that is generated and the more docile the population becomes in acquiescing to how we live our lives or to the medical treatments that do such harm to the earth, inflicting our suffering on future generations.  Chemotherapy and radiation, despite the torment of the treatments, have become commonplace. People wrestle with which tortures to select, not whether one will undergo such, not whether it will also be inflicted on the earth and our descendants.  The sign in the UCLA oncology bathroom says flush twice to protect the porcelain.  Protect the toilets! What about protecting the water and the earth? Ourselves?  When I ask the physicians who prescribe medications for me how the environment will be affected, they shrug.  My physical response will be monitored, the earth’s responses will not. 

Few seem to have the free attention to be  interested in the story as messenger, in the story the illness is telling except when it points to how to get well.  There is little encouragement to discover why, really, we are ill, but there is much emphasis on getting through the treatment, returning to the old life, the one that is making so many ill. 

The authority of the physician seems to be increasing even as his or her distance from the individual patient increases also, not by choice, but by institutional fiat.  My country doc tells me his son has just finished his medical residency and has become a hospitalist in one of our city’s largest hospital.  My doc, who is taking his time, regaling me with tales, who knows healing relies on relationship, who has retained an old-fashioned private practice, says his son is interested in “efficiency.” I silently vow to stay out of the hospital.  I make a note to add to my medical directives that I do not want to be treated by a hospitalist and I do not want to die in a hospital. Chemotherapy, often as extreme as any torture, is taken as inevitable.  Also radiation.  Treatments, again, no matter how extreme are integrated into one’s life schedule even one’s work schedule. A friend gets up early to go to radiation treatment and then on to work.  When I refuse routine x-rays, radioactive dyes or CT scans, my doctors are concerned, some will not treat me.  They do not understand that I am hoping we will remember the ancient art of bone-setting or other Indigenous ways of knowing.  It is possible that my life will be foreshortened by this refusal to accept certain diagnostic procedures or treatments but the life of the Earth may well be extended 

It begins to seem like the only life we can have is the one that is killing us.  Presented with an application for a rescue Dog, I was asked whether I will provide all necessary medical treatments despite the cost.  There was no room to say, I will only do what I will do for myself.  There was no room for me to refuse what I will refuse for myself.  I did not qualify for the dog.  Fortunately, another rescue appeared.  My new Dog, GentleBoy will not be tortured and I will do what I can so that he lives a life aligned with his animal nature. 

I have been greatly affected by a story I heard years ago of an American lineage carrier for a Siberian shaman who told an audience that she most probably would not take the shaman’s place when he died.  She said, his daily job was to tend all the souls of the community in the soul hut and she was not sure she was able to carry such a responsibility.  When I heard the story, I didn’t know if I was or would be capable of such a spiritual task but I hoped that as I developed as a healer that I might approach it.  Accordingly, I certainly didn’t want to forget any of those on my personal list which is very long for the moment though relatively short given the list of lives threatened by Extinction and Climate Collapse and I certainly don’t want to forget any one of the species whose life is threatened by the ways I live my life.  My body, our bodies, the animal bodies, the trees, the wind, the water, the earth.

Carrying the souls of the community …. Today when I think of such a task, I know that I have to include the souls of the non-humans who are suffering such extreme anguish.  And the Elementals.  How do I know?  I know it in my own body and through yours.  And through the Earth actions we call weather.  As the Earth is a living being … what do these fires, floods, storms, extreme droughts tell us…? Isn’t the Earth living in extremis from our activities?

Maybe it is not too late for the changes that might spring from empathy?  That is, maybe it is not too late for such changes which could save the planet and all life? 

January 6, 1999.  That was a moment in my personal history when, without understanding fully the change of mind I would undergo, I said to an Elephant, we were in a few minutes to recognize as an Ambassador, “Your people are my people.”  I didn’t know then that I had stepped across, as is required for these times, from a human-centric belief system to a more appropriate ecological understanding of the reality of kinship among all beings.  Mitakuye Oyasin.  All my relations.  Or, your people are my people.  I was not taught or directed to say these words.  They did not come to me from my culture, nor from a teacher nor from anything I had read or studied.  They came in the moment, through what can only be described as a Spirit, or spirits directed experience.  The exquisite orchestration of wonder in a moment revealing the true nature of reality that could not be communicated by any other means – it had to be revealed to be known and it was. 

Once animals lived with the natural order – then death was part of the cycle.  In Botswana, I  watched the young lion walking through a herd of impala who barely moved out of his way.  He was not hungry.  They were not prey.  Similarly, the Elephants on the veldt in Kenya paid no attention to a young lion who was, from our human perspective, stalking the newborn just behind the mother’s legs. Filled with anxiety and disturbed by the mother’s seeming oblivion, we still adhered to out pledge not to interfere even when he crouched.  We could see the taut energy in his limbs as he prepared to spring, the baby surely doomed, when the mother, just before he might have been mid-air, turned on a dime and reared as casually as we might swat a fly.  She had known he was young, and practicing, not skilled enough yet to be of concern.  She returned to grazing, her little one remaining behind her massive legs and the lion, seemingly chagrinned, ran off. 

The non-humans have not until now carried the fear of death the ways humans, or at least modern humans carry it as an on-going anxiety, as beings whose survival seems threatened increasingly  (though by our own hands – our adamant species auto-immune response and so organize their lives to ward off danger by carrying weapons, gating communities and setting up surveillance systems, the private equivalent of waging on-going war, building walls between nations and spying on each other’s every move with increasingly pervasive and invasive technology. And fear, we know, begets fear. 

 Though all animals do not respond the way we do; the animals know that their species are threatened.  One sign is the new herds of Elephants in Namibia who no longer have tusks, another is atypical behavior of Elephants such as young bulls sexually aggressing on Rhinos, or the desperate Polar Bears who invaded Belushya Guba in Russia

 The body knows and changes accordingly or it is altered by the untenable forces acting against its survival. 

Some people on my list were recently given a temporary reprieve – that is all any of us get.  But others joined the list. We are living in a world of sorrow and pain.  Grief groups and grief counseling burgeon dramatically – a sign of the times. People have always died but now our grief and anxiety seem inconsolable and entirely disabling.  Are we suffering something more than we have in the past?  Is our extreme pain and accompanying dysfunction a symptom of our unconscious perception of the tragedy of this time?  People have always been dying but the grief in the atmosphere seems to increase with the carbon content.  And if we track shifting animal behavior in the wild, we must surmise that the animals are also consciously suffering the grave threat to all life but without the benefit, if there is any, of easing the pain with anti-depressives, opioids, individual therapy or grief groups. 

A veritable mental health specialty has been created in the last years to counsel those who are suffering loss.  The death of loved ones, spouses, friends, parents and siblings seem to induce  breakdown, disabling depression, overwhelming anxiety and lack of ability or desire to function.  Are we so devitalized by loss because we no longer live in villages supported by each other’s presence or because this personal loss signifies the greater loss, not only of our own life in the impending near future but of all life?  And when the future disappears from view, then meaning, associated with posterity, disappears and we are left unmoored. 

A friend suffered several bouts with different cancers a year ago.  He has recovered physically but despite his developed consciousness and deep meditation practice, he is the victim of childhood memories which rise unexpectedly in response to relatively slight provocations.  And it seems to be increasing in these times. He viscerally re-experiences the times in his life when he was the young victim of violence and aggression in his family, plus racial and other violence in the neighborhood, and life in general.  He was born into family and street violence in a violent time.  1946 was a violent time. Perhaps that war which had supposedly ended, never ended though the future is being foreshortened.  Perhaps that war is still with us – on-going Holocausts and nuclear explosions persist calling into their vortex the World War before it, the Civil War, the invasion of North America, all the wars against the Indigenous people, the Crusades against the Muslims and the Inquisitions against the Jews and the subsequent wars which followed those and are cohering in the present moment so that the body mind cannot hold itself intact.   My friend can no longer separate his current life from its violent history, as I cannot separate my life from the on-going desolation of all the non-humans around me.  We are, no matter our species, anguished by the threat to all life.  To live in constant fear and trembling of a disaster that cannot be prevented seems to have become the human and non-human condition. 

We have two alternatives.  Pervasive sorrow and fear can lead us into increasing self-involvement so that our focus becomes our sorrow and not the myriad unbearable affliction suffered by all the beings.  Or it can open us to the great wisdom of compassion.  To live in response to the knowledge that  our unbearable grief results from mourning all life changes the quality of pain.  Suddenly it is has to be bearable so we can stand with the starving Bear, the hunted Wolf, the homeless Puma, the starving Whale, the cancerous Tasmanian Devil, the harried Coyote who have no recourse and greatly diminishing resources for their survival.

Oddly enough it is in our best interests to focus briefly on our own grief, long enough to create an alliance with the other suffering beings. Pain can do what pain is designed to do – create awareness of the cause and source.  My broken heart, the exquisite nature of hartzveitig, takes me to the suffering of the natural world.  If I bear witness without turning away, I may learn how to live and act and on whose behalf. 


[i] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17358-hidden-cancer-threat-to-wildlife-revealed/

[ii] https://www.livescience.com/18515-australia-tasmanian-devil-photos.html

[iii] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180521143853.htm

The Lost Etiquette: Sharon English Converses with Deena Metzger at Dark Mountain Project

Recently I was interviewed by Sharon English. The interview I have posted below can be found at The Dark Mountain Project.

I met Deena Metzger in 2014 when she visited Canada to teach a weekend workshop on story and healing. As a teacher and writer myself, deeply interested in how writers can address ecological and social crisis, the workshop theme intrigued me. Deena’s biography described her as “a poet, novelist, essayist, storyteller, teacher, healer and medicine woman” who has been devoted to “investigating Story as a form of knowing and healing.” Excitingly, her notion of ‘healing’ seemed radically extended to include “life-threatening diseases, spiritual and emotional crises, as well as community, political and environmental disintegration.” Still, I knew nothing of the extraordinary individual awaiting me, with whom I’ve been fortunate to continue learning and seeking since.

“Who do we have to become to find the forms and sacred language with which to meet these times?” Deena’s life is certainly one possible answer to her own question. Spanning many decades, her work interweaves activism, art and community building with a rare courage to cross frontiers such as the reality of animal intelligence and agency, and the reality of spirit. Her book The Woman Who Slept With Men to Take the War Out of Them was published in one volume in 1977 with Tree, one of the first books written about breast cancer. The book coincided with the printing of the exuberant post-mastectomy photograph of Deena, called “Tree” or “Warrior”, which has been shared worldwide. It took the third publisher, North Atlantic Press, to have the courage when reissuing Tree to print the poster image on the cover. Since writing Entering the Ghost River: Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing (2002), which came out of a decade’s work with animals and Indigenous medicine, Deena has held ReVisioning Medicine gatherings for those trained in Western medicine who long to be healers too and also Daré, a monthly gathering for the community at her home in Topanga, California, and a practice that has spread to other North American cities.

Drawing on myth, Indigenous and other wisdom traditions that have been lifetime pre-occupations, Deena has articulated a vision of why and how we must create a culture that does no harm, called the 19 Ways to the Fifth World. She’s recently been touring her new novel, A Rain of Night Birds (2017), which addresses ecological crisis and the necessity of bridging the disparity between Indigenous and Western mind. I caught up with her on Skype in August, 2017.

Sharon English: Let’s start with the invitation which Dark Mountain made with Issue 12, which led us to this conversation: an invitation to reflect on our experience of the sacred in a time of unravelling and how that experience might call our contemporary assumptions into question.

Deena Metzger: I think the essential questions are: How is the sacred implicit in whatever possibilities exist for this time? How can our own experiences of the sacred inform our activism? I think you know that, for me, the only hope that I really see for a future for the planet and all life is following the direction and the guidance of the sacred, being aware of its presence.

SE: Yes, yet the sacred and spirit have had a very bad rap. On the one hand, because religion has been put into the service of the dominator culture, many people associate the spiritual with something oppressive or at least conforming. On the other hand, New Age spirituality seems too bound up in the individual – ‘what’s sacred to you’ – to be relevant in a time of unravelling.

DM: I would prefer not to go there. Because if we go there, we’re focusing on the human, when what we’re called to do is to listen and respond to the sacred. How you and I have experienced the sacred, without reference to how it has not been experienced, feels very important to me. What feels essential is speaking about the sacred, and the awareness that this is what Indigenous people have always known and what has sustained them. My interest is in returning to the old wisdom and bringing it back so that the planet can be saved.

Terrence Green, one of the protagonists in A Rain of Night Birds, is clear about this as he, a climatologist, faces the reality of the planet’s unravelling. A mixed blood man, he became Chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Studies, but his grief awakens the Native teachings transmitted to him by his grandfather. This is 2007. It’s the time of the International Panel on Climate Change. In this stunning report, he finds two small references to TEK: traditional ecological knowledge. Within thousands of pages of scientific data and analysis, he finds two small references, four or five sentences. This both moves and grieves him. His response is to go to the Mountain where his grandfather took him as a child to teach him about the old ways. As he prays to the Mountain and apologises for having left the red path – even though he left it for reasons that were theoretically on behalf of his people, learning what Westerners were doing so that he could help Native people adjust to the way we are living – he realises exactly how much he betrayed his soul for entering into Western living:

He was speaking aloud, but he didn’t know to whom he was speaking, or whether he was speaking, or in a dream of speaking, or in a spirit realm to which he had been transported by what appeared to be injury, but was also something else. [The injury is the Earth’s injury and his own injury.] There was a thousand different ways he’d accepted that spirits are real although Western mind was a miasma of denial that entered through the cracks and fissures of his being, like water seeping through rock, undermining the original structure of all things. (174)

I think that’s all that needs to be said: Western mind IS a miasma of denial that undermines the true nature of the world. So then, how can we make our way back? How do we accept Spirit as reality, not illusion? And what is Spirit saying to us?

You’ve recently had a remarkable dream that is teaching you/us a lost etiquette. I’ve also had such dreams. They come from Spirit. This novel was given to me by Spirit. These gifts are our “evidence”. They offer guidance. They teach us what is important to bring forth. When I heard your dream, I knew that you were being guided and were dreaming in the old ways, which means not for you personally or psychologically, but as a teaching for all of us.

SE: I’ll retell it now for readers. The dream came early this summer:

I’m attending a council of Indigenous people held inside an orca. First, I’m shown that the orca has two spaces: a small opening in its body that has something to do with healing, like a healing chamber, and also a larger opening like two skin flaps that part and lead into a sizable circular chamber, like a tent, with a floor and walls of black and white orca skin. I enter.

Inside, a group of Indigenous people are sitting in a circle around a simple altar of animal skin with objects placed on it. An elder sits on the far side. I sit down in the circle, directly across from the elder. I’m the only non-Indigenous person. It occurs to me that I’m not sitting in the right place, that maybe I shouldn’t be facing the elder so directly, so I change places in the circle so I’m more to the side. I feel like I’m being invited here for the first time and am learning the protocol.

One of the biggest teachings for me, in opening to the sacred and spirit, has been coming to understand dreams as language or communication that aren’t only about the isolated individual. That dreams can hold meaning for the community, and come through us, not only from our own psyches.

The great danger at the core of Western thinking is our belief that we are the world, the centre of things. So when we respond to the crises in our world we assume it’s up to us to figure them all out – the very kind of self-involved thinking that got us here. We have no sense of living in a field of relationships with other creatures who possess their own traditions, wisdom, consciousness and agency. That when it comes to our world crises, everybody, human and nonhuman, needs to be at the table. At this point it’s we who need to be guided by whales and spirit, or Spirit-as-Whales.

DM: The dream is about more than being guided by Whales. In the dream, you enter into the Whale, and the council is taking place inside the Whale. In other words, in the dream, Whale consciousness is the sacred world we enter. That’s the territory in which this Indigenous council is taking place. As the Whales or other beings live in our consciousness, we are now living within the Whales’ consciousness.

Furthermore, you are aware that you don’t know how to deport yourself in this setting. As more of us experience the presence of the sacred, we have to figure out the protocol, the etiquette for approaching this realm and those within it. We have to re-learn what our Indigenous ancestors knew and also discover how to proceed at this time in history. Here the sacred is within the body-mind of the great ones, in this case, Whale. We have to go into the internal place where the field exists, the consciousness we need. In a sense like the story of Jonah – except we hope to keep living there, not leave.

When a dream like this comes as a teaching for the community, it’s not going to be an easy dream to understand. We’re going to have to sit with what it means. You and I may not know all its dimensions as we’re speaking to each other, so we carry it for as long as necessary, bringing it to others who might help to reveal its profound mystery. We do this because we understand that such dreams can be the source of wisdom. In the old, old days, no matter which Indigenous culture one was part of, if there was something going on that was really difficult or terrible, one would ask for a dream. The community of elders would gather and hope that a dream would come, or someone would come and say they’d had a dream, and people would gather to listen to it. This happened with your dream: you responded to it in the old, old ways by bringing it to me. We talked about what it might mean, and then I suggested that you take this dream to the community. And you did. Those you’ve shared it with have pondered it with you. We are not asking the personal meaning of the dream, ‘What is this dream for your life?’ Rather we’re considering, ‘What is this dream telling us?’

I had an experience this weekend that feels related: I went Whales watching in the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California. There were so many Whales, such a profusion of wildlife, that the guides on the boat were astonished. Again and again they marvelled that they had never seen anything like it. I’ve been speaking with friends who live along the coast who’ve also been seeing a remarkable profusion of Whales this summer. Stan Rushworth, a Native novelist, author of the remarkable book Going to Water, speaks of the surprising occurrences of Whales coming in close to the shore and breaching over and over when he is walking on the beach. Cynthia Travis, who founded and directs the grassroots peace-building NGO in Liberia, everyday gandhis, and who lives overlooking the sea in Ft. Bragg, CA, has also been startled by the profusion of Whales.

Cynthia was on the Whales watching boat with me as was Cheryl Potts, with whom I share my land in Topanga. Cynthia and I have travelled to Africa to meet with the Elephants many times. At the moment when we found ourselves among several different kinds of Whales, and kinds of Dolphins and Sea Lions, Cynthia wondered if the Whales were coming to us deliberately in the way that the Elephants came to us. So maybe your dream isn’t accidental, but part of a consciousness being held by Whales that’s alerting us humans to what’s happening on the planet – and to the fact that there’s a protocol required. That’s the sacred knowledge being transmitted: first, that we’re within Whales’ consciousness, and second, that there’s an etiquette we have to learn.

SE: In Amitav Ghosh’s book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, he notes how various thinkers have begun to use the word uncanny in relation to macro ecological events because, he says, they’re recognising what we’ve long turned away from: “the presence and proximity of the nonhuman interlocutors” (30). Having to learn the etiquette for approaching the nonhuman and the sacred – that’s such a different teaching than this idea that ecological events are uncanny, a concept that suggests the world of the nonhuman is unsettling, inexplicable, and even creepy. There’s a great humility required to accept that we’re being called to learn, not to figure things out, but to learn or recover the ways of relationship to the sacred.

DM: It’s important what you said, “not to figure it out”. We don’t have the capacity to figure it out, and that’s humbling. We learn some from the old, old ways: we learn things about making offerings, about meeting the nonhuman and the sacred with profound respect and honour, and then, we listen deeply to the teachings that come. So your dream was the thing-in-itself and also about it: you went into the sacred and were taught how to approach the sacred.

SE: Yes. In approaching the sacred, council seems integral, as was pointed out in the dream. And your process, whether in Daré or ReVisioning Medicine or writing workshops, is to teach by holding council. Can we talk about what council is and why it’s part of our relationship to the sacred?

DM: It goes back to what you said, ‘It’s not about us figuring things out.’ When I was visiting a nganga, a medicine person in Zimbabwe, Mandaza Kandemwa, alongside whom I worked as a healer on many occasions over ten years, he said something that’s guided me since: “When human beings sit in council, the spirits sit in council as well.” His sense is that the sacred is a council: it’s the interconnection of all the different points of light. It’s the net of Indra. A field of knowing constituted of all the different parts in interrelationship – that is what the sacred is.

When you sat in council within the Whale, you were with those elders who’d been informed for generations and generations about the way to meet the sacred. They had their own individual and collective experiences, and so we understand that you have to meet the sacred wholly, and then the holy is there. Part of the relationship with Spirit involves stepping away from the horrifically narcissistic dangers of individualism. Everywhere we locate the sacred, we also find interconnection, as in the natural world.

SE: When you bring up the problem of individuism, I think about how challenging it is to get people to think broadly and collectively in terms of what’s good for all humanity, let alone all beings on the planet. There’s this fear reaction of collective action and purpose or identity, really a kind of twisted up notion of collectivity as entirely negative, group think, et cetera. Sorry, I know you don’t want to focus on our problems.

DM: Because we keep refocusing on ourselves, it’s important to keep coming back to ‘Let’s not talk about our problems’ precisely because it’s so hard to stay away from focusing on ourselves, whether as individuals or as humans. So this is a practice of looking at what’s been invisible to us, which is the presence of Spirit. A practice of going back to what was shown, rather than what we didn’t see or don’t want to see.

Was there an initiatory event that opened you to recognizing your materialistic way of thinking? How did Spirit reveal itself to you?

SE: For me, following the writer’s path has meant that I’m always making meaning my focus, my purpose, and attuned to listening to and observing the world, trying to see and feel the patterns. So although I come from no spiritual tradition – on the contrary, an anti-spiritual tradition via my upbringing, education and culture – I think being an artist primed me to be receptive to the sacred.

Now I can look back and see how Spirit has guided my life, if I view it that way. There wasn’t a key initiatory event, but what did open me up most consciously to the sacred was spending more time in nature. I did a great deal of that after writing my second book, in part because I’d become injured and needed to stay off the computer, in part because I felt evermore compelled to immerse myself in nature. I found myself growing desperately alarmed at the ecocidal path that our culture is on, and it seemed to me that we were never going to come to our senses without recognising our own limits and narcissism. I came to see and feel, deeply, that the human is not the centre of reality but part of the whole, and that the whole is animate, conscious, intentional – everything we are and more. As well, I’ve always paid attention to dreams, and about a decade ago I experienced a couple that were powerfully, undeniably spiritual in tone and images. These helped push me into humbly recognising the arrogance and limits of my materialist mindset – and also the tremendous loss of spiritual and life wisdom from our ancestors that’s happened as a result of our obsession with mechanical, materialistic thinking.

DM: We’re at a critical moment, and it’s a moment of consciousness. Stepping into a world where Spirit exists – stepping into, finally, the real world, being able to remember it as Indigenous people have known it forever – is for us Westerners as great a mental shift as it’s possible to make. Like the consequences for Copernicus and Galileo when they understood that the Earth went around the sun.

SE: An apt analogy!

DM: Yes, the sun. It’s not that Spirit is the sun; it’s that Spirit is the entire universe, and we circle a light that it shines to us and that keeps us in relationship to others who are circling this light, and are warmed by it, and have life because of it. Because we’re at a certain distance from it, but not too far, the structure of the solar system as we know it isn’t a bad analogy, though not the whole.

But here’s the important moment: we either talk about what we didn’t know, or we talk about what we see. Once you know the reality of ecocide, once you say that word, nothing else has to be said except what follows from that knowledge, what you now see/understand differently: what you see in the natural world that’s different, what your experiences from Spirit have been – that’s the mind shift. I can’t emphasise how important this is. If we continue to look at and articulate and be obsessed with what’s wrong then we find ways to meet it that are familiar in terms of how we solve problems, and they’re not working. I’m not saying leaving them altogether, for some people have to focus on familiar problem solving, but for those of us who have felt and experienced and seen the irrefutable presence of Spirit, the next step is learning how to listen and take direction. We really don’t know what to do to restore the natural world and sanity without Spirit’s teachings; everything we have ‘done’ until now has brought us to this place of devastation. So your dream comes: Learn the protocol; enter into the mind-body-being-universe of Whales. Then …? Then we’ll see what becomes possible and how.

In 2010, I had a dream: I won a contest, and the prize was that I would go to New York and be part of a program, after which I would be or think like and move in the world like an Indigenous elder. When I woke up, I understood, after sitting with the dream for some time, that it was instruction. Not about going to New York, but learning how to be an Indigenous elder. I enrolled myself, so to speak, in my own program, and as I think back upon it now – I didn’t realise it until this moment – I changed to a great extent what I was reading. I started reading far more Indigenous literature and thinking than I had before; I started listening even more deeply to my Indigenous friends and colleagues; and I asked myself at every moment when I had to make a decision, How might an uncolonised, Indigenous elder respond to this situation? In part I’m doing that with you now, coming back again and again saying, What do we see, what are our experiences? That dream, and my understanding that it was instruction, changed me, and we would not be having this conversation if I’d not responded to my dream in that way.

Before writing A Rain of Night Birds, when I was in the desert and hoping for the next novel, I heard a voice saying, ‘You know. Her name is Sandra Birdswell and she is a meteorologist.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t know!’ Yet even as I responded, I knew that I was being given something by Spirit and had a mandate to write whatever came, which required enormous research, thinking, listening, yielding and daring. Daring to say the book was given in that way. Daring to write things that I knew would be challenged if not ridiculed. But it was what was given, and the next six years verified that it was given because of all the other events and revelations that came and made a whole of the book.

If there had just been a voice one time and I never heard anything again, that would be meaningless. But when we listen and enter into a field, a council if you will, of events and synchronicities and revelations and experiences that we ourselves could never have created on our own, then we know we’re in the domain of the sacred.

SE: In this sense holding council, even with just one person, seems crucial to yielding to the sacred. We need support for daring to listen to, take seriously, and follow our experiences of the sacred in these times. Even you, with all your years of following the sacred, still had that feeling of, Wow, I really have to say things that might seem totally out there to people! Yet you did, and it seems to me that having a council and/or a spiritually focused community made that possible.

DM: It’s essential. When you sit in a circle with people and the conversation is about Spirit, and how Spirit has come or how Spirit is directing, the fact that Spirit exists is the ground. So, everything you say is enhanced by or grounded in Spirit’s existence, and our relationship to it, and the possibility that that kind of alliance might in fact save the planet. You have the assumption that you want it saved and that you’d give everything to do that – that forms a different kind of conversation. Our conversation right now is grounded in the councils we’ve been in and those assumptions. We don’t step out of that when we step out of those councils.

SE: It’s beautiful and supportive what you just said, that once we sit in council, those councils go with us. You’ve spoken of the field as a kind of container as well.

DM: The field is composed of all of us and we emerge out of it, as if born out of it but never leaving it. It is of us and we are of it.

In January 2017, when I met with the Elephant people in Thula Thula, South Africa, I understood that our interactions could only occur because we were in a field of consciousness together: we were brought to a meeting place and had an interaction that was articulate and specific.

SE: And that field existed because you responded to the call of Elephant?

DM: Right. And again and again over 18 years. In retrospect, I understand that I had to show up all those other times, and every time I did, there was an interaction, the field was being built. It wasn’t only that I showed up, but that the Elephant people showed up as well.

When I went to Thula Thula in 2017 and could say, without awkwardness, ‘I’m going to meet the Elephant people,’ capital E, I understood that I could no longer write ‘Elephant’ with a small ‘e’ any more than I would write Canadian with a small ‘c.’ But then, I could no longer write ‘Cow’ with a small ‘c’ either because the experience with the Elephant people taught me that they are as humans are: conscious beings who exercise spiritual intent.

As I write these days and capitalize the different species or peoples, my consciousness changes. Because then, I’m always in a kind of council with them, a council that extends because we sit in council with the humans as well as the nonhumans, and our human minds change.

SE: How powerful it is to make that seemingly small change on the page: from small ‘e’ to capital ‘E.’ I’ve been disturbed for a long time now by our human-centric narratives in literature, how these reinforce a poisonous and frankly wrong-headed worldview. Amitav Ghosh observes that although the nonhuman had and has agency in many narrative traditions, in modern Western literature nonhuman agency has been relegated to “the outhouses of science fiction and fantasy” (66). Making that shift in capitalisation loosens our grip on the narrative, so we start to perceive and tell different kinds of stories. It’s a radical change, and also a return to the old ways and understandings.

DM: Suppose an Inuit man or woman said, ‘I had this dream and Bear came and talked to me about how to walk out on the ice and fish.’ She wouldn’t say ‘a bear came’ but Bear came, capital B implicit. When you read that, you’re getting an entirely different understanding just by that capital: Bear came, a profound spiritual being, and it really happened. To incorporate that into our literature or writing or speaking is to change our minds, to create a literature or conversation through which the earth and our consciousness can be restored.

Imagine if we began to think of our writing and speaking as having to do with connection and relationship rather than indulging a language that’s so combative and therefore constantly honours combat. There are many things we can do to undermine war, but one of them is to stop thinking in terms of war and to stop referencing war constantly.

SE: Part of what’s so unbearable about listening to mainstream news, political discussions, economics, and so on is the incessant repetition of military metaphors, a combative way of looking at each other and the world. What you’ve called the Literature of Restoration offers a way changing our stories, our language.

DM: Changing our stories, changing our paragraphs, changing our sentences, changing our words. The Literature of Restoration is not something developed yet; it’s something I’ve been thinking about and gave a name to, an opportunity for all of us to discover what it might be. I can’t do it alone and shouldn’t attempt it. Perhaps, there’s nothing any of us should do alone except to be in solitude with Spirit at times when we need it.

I was in a circle with a woman who was trying to think about how she might speak differently. She was speaking of a woman she’d been with in Nicaragua, and said, ‘Listening to her, I was held captive.’ And then she said, ‘Wait a moment. Held captive? No, that’s not what happened.’ She had to find language that did not speak of violence in order to honour.

The Native American writer Robin W. Kimmerer, who wrote Braiding Sweetgrass, speaks of how the English language is so full of ‘I’ instead of we, and how it makes Spirit an object. She notes that the Anishinaabe language does not divide the world between he, she and it, but between animate and inanimate. This distinction asserts an entirely different world. Here’s what she says:

Imagine your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and someone says, ‘Look, it is making soup. It has gray hair.’ We might snicker at such a mistake, at the same time that we recoil. In English, we never refer to a person as ‘it.’ Such a grammatical error would be a profound act of disrespect. ‘It’ robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a thing. And yet in English, we speak of our beloved Grandmother Earth in exactly that way, as ‘it.’ The language allows no form of respect for the more-than-human beings with whom we share the Earth […] In our language there is no ‘it’ for birds or berries […] The grammar of animacy is applied to all that lives: sturgeon, mayflies, blueberries, boulders and rivers. We refer to other members of the living world with the same language that we use for our family. Because they are our family.

SE: So in learning the protocol for approaching the sacred, we have receiving certain dreams as spiritual communication and guidance for the community; approaching the sacred wholly by sitting in council together; entering into a conscious field with our nonhuman family; and finally, changing our language to shift our minds.

One more thing feels important to speak about: beauty. In your book Entering the Ghost River, you tell a story about coming to understand Spirit through beauty. Beauty is central to your work and what you’ve articulated in the “19 Ways to the Fifth World”. Beauty seems to me one way – maybe the way – that everyone feels the sacred, though they might not call it that. Does part of the protocol we’re learning involve honouring beauty?

DM: Beauty is experienced in many different ways. But the visual is also at its heart, and the ability to see beauty is a great gift. I’m using the word ‘see’ very deliberately because seeing is so important to English speakers. Visually, from my point of view, there is not a single millimetre on the Earth – the part that hasn’t been touched by human hands – that isn’t beautiful. Beauty is a force, and it’s also how Spirit reveals itself. In terms of a path, seeing beauty and then honouring it is a way of recognising the presence of Spirit.

The story I tell in Entering the Ghost River happened in Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. My ex-husband brought me there for the first time, knowing it was going to be an incredible experience. As we were driving, we hit incredible storms and went through one of those initiation stories: the rains come, the mud is thick, everything is dangerous, you can’t get there, the car doesn’t go, you run out of food, you meet a stranger, you stop at a little hut and ask for directions and the directions they give you are impossible to follow, so you keep going and trying, and you pick up this old man … [Laughs.] I’m so scared at this point, the roads are so slippery and we’re on a cliff, that I get out and walk while Michael is driving the car and this elder, this Native American Diné man is sitting in the back of it eating the nuts that we gave him – it was all we had to offer – and he’s laughing!

We dropped him off about 1,000 yards from the entrance to Canyon de Chelly, and when we got to the very entrance, the road was completely dry.

Michael then did this amazing thing. He blindfolded me and took me to this outlook, and I looked out at this extraordinary canyon and the mountains around it. It was sunset, and the lightning and the colours of the sunset and clouds were the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life. We’d arrived at a moment that could not have been choreographed, that would not have happened if we hadn’t arrived exactly at sunset because we had gotten stuck in the mud – one of those. I looked at the cliffs, which are rust colour and blue from the copper, extraordinarily beautiful, painted, and I knew: This Beauty comes from a great Heart. Love – heart – are at the very core of creation. Beauty and Heart are the same, just different ways of seeing, different manifestations.

That was so powerful an impression – and I mean it pressed itself into my consciousness – that I’ve been marked by it. It’s a living mark: I’m always aware of Beauty, the beauty that’s the essence of the natural world, and that’s changed my life as much as anything, and confirmed the reality of the Divine. Our collective task, as I see it and expressed it in that book, is to re-establish the sacred universe and render the signature of the Divine visible – beauty.

To read or hear other interviews with Deena go here.

Deena Metzger’s Opening Convocation at International Free the Elephants Conference & Film Festival April 27-29, 2018, Portland, Oregon

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It is a great honor to be asked to give the convocation speech, to call us together, to invoke the heart that can guide us in this visionary and terrible work which began with an intervention on behalf of eight, now five, Elephants in the Oregon Zoo, extended toward ending Elephant captivity of all kinds, nationally and internationally, and will, certainly reverberate far beyond these goals.

TO WATCH THE VIDEO GO HERE

To think of ending captivity for Elephants (and by extension other non-human beings) is to recognize that the individuals of non-human species are persons. This challenges conventional and imperialist theories of domination and hierarchy and seeks compassionate and respectful relations with all beings. We are engaging in a profound change of mind.

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Photo by Cynthia Travis

Last year, preparing to visit the Elephants in the wild in Africa for the 9th time, I started writing about visiting the Elephant People. I could no longer avoid asserting what Indigenous people on all continents have always known: we are kin with all life. Shortly afterwards, when teaching the Literature of Restoration, an effort to revision Western literature and language, changing basic but often invisible assumptions, so that the survival of the Earth is implicit rather than undermined by how we speak and think, it became evident that the phrase Elephant People required the capitalization of Elephant – and, consequently Whale, Gorilla, Chimpanzee, Wolf, Turtle, etc as we capitalize French or English. Such a simple shift asserts that we are peers, co-participants in the life and activity of this world.

On April 7, 2018, the article in the NY Times on the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project reminded me of sitting with friends in a living room in 1972, reading Christopher Stone’s argument in the California Law Review aloud: Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. We were electrified. We knew that an original and revolutionary way of thinking had entered the public discourse, and everything would change. In 2017, four Rivers were given the status of legal persons and Mount Taranaki in New Zealand also received legal status.

Even as the natural world and all its beings are violated, mutilated and murdered as never before, we are within another wave of radical recognition and revisioning of the status and relationships between homo-sapiens and all others. There will be encouraging and substantial consequences of this gathering, that we cannot imagine or design. The Elephant People know this and have gathered us to recognize the enormity of their pain and the greatness of their being and wisdom.

The following words are from Intimate Nature: Women’s Bond with Animals, which I edited with Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson in 1998. The words were prescient.

At the center of empathy and compassionate understanding lies the ability to see the other as true peer, to recognize intelligence and communication in all forms, no matter how unlike ourselves these forms might be. It is this gift of empathy and connection, embodied in the relationship between us and other species that enables us to thrive now and into the future. To honor intimacy across the seeming boundaries of species is to return the sacred to the world.

Let me dare say at the outset that the Elephant People have spiritual agency and are articulate if invisible presences here. Over the last twenty years, friends, colleagues, some of you in this room, and I have heard calls to meet “the others”, have experienced mysterious, unfathomable, incomprehensible, but true and irrefutable connections with non-humans. I will tell some stories about the Elephant People here so that we may wonder together at the nature of our kin relationships. These stories are about Elephants sending out calls, about Elephants having agency and our willingness to follow.

In 1998, I had had a dream of a Matriarch performing a mourning ritual over a dead bull whose tusks had been hacked away. I did not think my psyche had created the dream. I thought that the dream had been sent and began to feel a disquieting and baffling longing to “sit in Council with the Elephants.” I could not explain what this meant.

On epiphany 1999, five of us were at Chobe Wild Animal Park in Botswana. At the last hour of our last day in the park, a bull elephant was grazing a half-mile away on a strip of green that bordered the muddy river. I called to him in my mind. He began to walk steadily and determinedly toward the open bed of the truck where I was watching not without a kind of holy terror of what was occurring. The Elephant stopped, twisted his trunk in an impossible knot and approached.

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We stared in each other’s eyes. Silently, I said, “I know something of who you are. You are from a holocausted people and so am I.” In about ten minutes he moved to the back of the truck and then the other side. A least 30 minutes. Then in a flash, he was gone. We were all overwhelmed. Because the park was closing, we had to make our way against our better judgment along the road as cows and calves came down the incline in a landslide of Elephants. But rather than being hostile, they lined up along the river bowing their heads and flapping their ears as we bowed back. Had I not been with four other people, I never would have believed this. We were shaken to our core. We recognized the Elephant as an Ambassador.

I’m often asked, “What did the Ambassador say?” Elephants have never ‘spoken’ to me in words in my mind except in 2017 when Frankie, the junior Matriarch of the herd given sanctuary at Thula Thula by the “Elephant Whisperer” Lawrence Anthony, asked, “Can you imagine what it is like to be a Matriarch to a herd when I cannot find water for my little ones? Confined on this preserve, I am helpless.”

Although other exchanges were not in human language, precise communication arose through the circumstances of our meetings. Time and time again, narratives emerged that could not be dismissed.

From Chobe, I visited wildlife activist Gillian van Houten at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. She and her partner, wildlife filmmaker J. Varty were intending to bring Angus, an Elephant captured after a brutal cull, back to South Africa before he went into musth. Going to Toronto, I wanted to visit Angus at Bowmanville, and the director, Michael Hackenberger, who was ignoring their correspondence, to speak of his return. Though I had made an appointment, confirmed many times, Angus, was not there. However, I did see an agonized bull elephant in musth, chained to a wall. This image has haunted me since. Ultimately Hackenberger agreed to return Angus to South Africa, but not to Varty and van Houten, publicly asserting that the prospective return was not inspired by conservation reasons. Angus died of a trial sedative before being placed on a plane. Hackenberger, the Life of Pi trainer, was later accused of animal cruelty based on a PETA video of him whipping a tiger. Public outrage caused attendance to drop drastically and the zoo was closed down.

In 2005, I was at Chobe with Cynthia Travis of Everyday Gandhis, several peacekeepers from Liberia, two San people from the Kalahari and various others from the US and South Africa. Each year that I returned to Chobe I was scrupulous about spending the last hours of the last day in the park at the Chapungo (Fisher Eagle) tree where we had met the Ambassador. Though we had other encounters at different times, there were always significant meetings in this window of time and space. This time, a Bull Elephant came near and stopped.

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Photo by Cynthia Travis

Then a Cow descended to the river, approaching him with her two calves. She and the Ambassador twisted their trunks together. While the two cows re-ascended the hill, the little bull lingered until he was dismissed, rapped on his butt by the Ambassador as a human father might.

Minutes later, the Ambassador led us forward some hundred feet, stopped, poked at something in the ground and threw us a weathered Elephant thigh bone. The gesture was deliberate. He turned, twisted his trunk as he had in 1999, went down on his knees, rose up, and disappeared into the bush.

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In 2011, Krystyna Jurzykowski, Founder and Chairperson of the Board of Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Texas, and I returned to Chobe. We were parked at the Chapungo Tree at the last hours of the last day. Suddenly, we were alarmed when a very small Elephant came down to the water hole alone.

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We watched carefully, concerned that we could not protect it from a predator as humans must not interfere in the life of the wild. All we could do is pray. After about twenty minutes, a herd began descending. A bull elephant and a cow, seemingly the dominant ones, approached the little one together and all began crossing the shallow river. For a while, the area was deserted, but in the last hour the herd returned, including the Bull, the Cow and the little one. Then a car pulled up to the water hole and the driver jumped out with his camera, causing great agitation. He obstinately ignored our warnings as some members of the herd went to the rise on the road and blocked it. Returning to the car, he revved the engine and started up aggressively. When he reached the Elephants, he did not slow down and one of them rose up and trumpeted with clear anger. We did not know if they would part in time or smash the car. They parted. The Elephants returned to the river. Now, it was time for us to go. I turned the key and began moving very slowly but the Elephants returned to their former station and blocked our way.

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So I turned off the engine, accepting that we might have to stay in the park. But when our acquiescence was clear, the Elephants parted and let us on our way.

Cynthia Travis and I traveled to Tanzania in 2008 with a team including ex-child soldiers, an ex-rebel general and peacebuilders. We wondered if we would have equivalent encounters when traveling with a guide in unfamiliar areas. We did.

Then she and I returned to Africa in 2016 and 2017 and were on Safari with both our own guide and local guides who could well be skeptical of our pursuit of such connections. There are so many stories to tell, but in 2017, in Damaraland, Namibia with the Desert Elephants, at the end of a three-week Safari, Cyndie, Matt Meyers, former Chief Ranger at Mala Mala game reserve, and I were following a Bull Elephant who, we realized only on our departure, was the same Bull who had greeted us at the threshold of the last day of our earlier safari in 2016. Although, we had been with him the last three days, this last day was yet far different. He was leading and we were following. After an hour or more, he went up on a rise and began battling a little sapling until it was broken off. Then to our astonishment, he went down on his knees, turned his back to us and went to sleep. Neither we, nor Matt had ever been with an Elephant when he lay down. We waited for twenty minutes and departed.

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Later in the day, the last hours, we came upon him again, or he came upon us, and we followed him respectfully, his actions and direction clearly intentional. At the time we had to return to the Lodge, the Bull hid himself in dense shrubbery. Were we to leave or wait? We felt tested. We were ready to depart when he trumpeted, emerged and proceeded in the direction we would go as well, stopping so frequently to piss and defecate, which Elephants do when happily greeting each other, we noted it. The he set out from the sand rivers toward a watering hole filled by local people in return for receiving water from the government for themselves. He was headed north and so were we. With timing that could not have been planned and could not have been casual, he emerged out of the shadow of a shale ridge and was illuminated by the last light of the setting sun.

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We were undone by awe. He continued his parallel way across the desert, his footsteps illuminated by a light from an invisible source.

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As we pursue this most demanding, essential and sacred work together, let us keep this question in our hearts: Who are these sacred beings who have gathered us here? May we free them from sacrilege and violation, restore old, old wise ways while creating new relationships among all beings.

I am closing with a poem of mine:

 

MNdlovu Mind

Suddenly, I am of a single mind extended
across an unknown geography,
imprinted, as if by a river, on the moment.
A mind held in unison by a large gray tribe
meandering in reverent concert
among trees, feasting on leaves.
One great eye reflecting blue
from the turn inward
toward the hidden sky that, again,
like an underground stream
continuously nourishes
what will appear after the dawn
bleaches away the mystery in which we rock
through the endless green dark.

I am drawn forward by the lattice,
by a concordance of light and intelligence
constituted from the unceasing and consonant
hum of cows and the inaudible bellow of bulls,
a web thrumming and gliding
along the pathways we remember
miles later or ages past.

I am, we are—
who can distinguish us?—
a gathering of souls, hulking and muddied, 
large enough—if there is a purpose—
to carry the accumulated joy of centuries,
walking thus within each other’s
particular knowing and delight.

This is our grace: To be a note
in the exact chord that animates creation,
the dissolve of all the rivers  
that are both place and moment,  
an ocean of mind moving  
forward and back, 
outside of any motion 
contained within it.

This is particle and wave. How simple 
The merest conversation between us
becoming the essential drone
into which we gladly disappear.
A common music, a singular heavy tread,
ceaselessly carving a path,
for the waters tumbling invisibly
beneath.

I have always wanted to be with them, with you, so.
I have always wanted to be with them,
with you,
so.

 

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The Mystery: Approaching the Elephant People After Seventeen Years Part II

The Mystery was published in issue # 5 of Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, edited and published by Lise Weil.

http://darkmatterwomenwitnessing.com/issues/June2017/articles/The_Mystery-Approaching_the_Elephant_People-Deena_Metzger.html

Dark Matter  publishes writing and visual art created in response to an age of massive species loss and ecological disaster. It is a home for dreams, visions, and communications with the nonhuman world…especially those with messages for how we might begin to heal our broken relationship to the earth.

Here are some words from what may be a last essay (see below) on our meetings since 2000:

“Accepting that direct communication and analysis came from the Elephant People allowed the field we were in together to become visible. We realized that we had been in ‘spirits’ theater for seventeen years, simultaneously actors and audience.

Neither Elephant nor human could have designed such situations in which members of both species appear to each other as if explicitly summoned. While our meetings were both intentional and circumstantial, the sum total of our many interactions over time, hours, days, weeks, years, cohered in nested living stories that became the language through which we, different species though we are, spoke to each other. This occurred both within and outside of time and space. We had been transported to another dimension where meaning and action are simultaneous and indistinguishable. The story that emerged from and enfolded us challenged all conventional assumptions of reality and hegemony.

We had returned to the Elephants, again and again, at the behest of the Ambassador, and in return we were allowed to participate in a common field of consciousness that manifested unpredictably. Clearly both human and non-human were impacted by each other. Attuned to one another, we began to share a critical DNA of mind from which future connections and understandings would emerge. That is, we melted toward each other and, ultimately, without changing shape, we melted into each other….

***

 

Deena Metzger

The Mystery: Approaching the Elephant People

This is a response to the darkest times. We know all life is threatened, and increasingly so under the current administration, yet we inevitably respond from our human perspectives and fears. However, we will not understand what we must without recognizing non-human wisdom. In 2010, several of us had dreams indicating that there are hidden passageways, different for each of us, to saving the earth and restoring the natural world. For me, making alliances with animals and other non-human beings became an essential path.

In 1997, as co-editor of the groundbreaking anthology, Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals, which testified to animal intelligence and agency, I was introduced to one of the great mysteries: the true nature of the beings with whom we cohabit the planet which I could only begin to understand by stepping out of my own mind into the consciousness of others.

As many of you reading this know, I met an Elephant we call the Ambassador on Epiphany, January 6th, 2000, in Chobe National Park, Botswana. Traveling to various African wild animal reserves over the next seventeen years, I realized I was engaging with different Elephants and herds while fulfilling the mandate implicit in the original meeting to regard the Elephants as kin.

A few years ago, I was alerted to Elephants in Assam, India occupying an airstrip to prevent military planes taking off and landing. There were also a series of attacks on humans in India and around the globe that seemed to avenge earlier assaults on Elephants, interruption or prevention of mourning rituals, and loss of habitat. It seemed like a global organized activity on the part of the Elephants and I was able to speak of Elephant sovereignty in an article translated into Hindi and circulated in Indian papers.

Very recently, a female Elephant in Hwange killed a big game hunter who was tracking her and her herd. A great white Shark leaped into a fisherman’s boat in Australian waters and a Bear attacked a hunter in Ontario Canada. Regarded as random, these incidents can be understood as conscious non-human responses to intolerable human activities. Animals have a capacity for outrage and retribution as well as surprise and wonder. Once it’s accepted that non-human species have agency and spiritual lives, the world changes and we recognize, against all assumptions, who these others really are.

In the early sixties, a black Panther escaped Jungleland in Thousand Oaks, California. Then a lion escaped from a Midwest zoo and children were bussed to view the hunt. Instinctively, I identified with the animals, imagined what it might feel to be lost and hunted in suburbia and wrote a novel, What Rough Beast, (unpublished) from a Lion’s point of view. I entered into his consciousness, his view of being imprisoned, then hunted, and his thoughts about the nature of human beings. Looking back at my life fifty years later, I see a thread, a calling to bear witness to and speak of the true nature of the non-human beings with whom we share the planet and Creation.

January 2017. I returned to Africa for the ninth time to be with the Elephants, holding different questions and marveling at the unpredictable ways they had been addressed by events Cynthia Travis, Matt Meyer, our guide, and I traveled first to Thula Thula, the South African reserve started by Lawrence Anthony, author of The Elephant Whisperer, and then to Chobe where a group of Elephants gathered around us, seemingly out of the blue, at 5 pm on Epiphany, just as the Ambassador had appeared on Epiphany 2000, and then walked back into the forest exactly at 6 pm when we had to leave the park.

[https://deenametzger.wordpress.com/2017/02/22/beginning-awareness-approaching-the-Elephant-people-part-i-thula-thula-and-chobe/]

Such meetings constitute the ways the Elephants have been conversing with us over time and space. Sequences of events are a language through which we communicate across species–no translation needed.

On January 9th we arrived at Mashatu in Southern Botswana and on January 14th in Damaraland, Namibia. Given that this might very well be a last visit, it was time to approach all the trips and encounters as a single Story, which viewed as such could provide new insights and guidance for human connections to the wild. I was calling on memory – a very Elephant way of being – in order to see the entire pattern of our relating to each other and what arises from that integrated perspective. Alert to the subtlest possible transmission, still I could not distinguish between the Elephants’ intent and Spirits’ objective.

Back at home, I could not speak of the journey. Then I wrote about Thula Thula and Chobe – humans and Elephants communicating with each other about drought (see link above). When Frankie the up-and-coming Matriarch of Thula Thula reproached me and our species for creating drought and bringing misery and death to her people, she was engaging in a direct, grave and strategic transmission. Too often people speak of the Animals’ inviolable love for us. It eases the human heart to think so. But I wouldn’t console myself with the illusion that this communication was tempered by love.

There was more behind it: Humans must change. How? Think with the heart as Indigenous people do. Think ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. Become more Elephant. Become less of what we are and more of the Indigenous and non-human that we have attacked and violated. Become like they are – earth-centered, spirit- centered, relational beings who would never hunt the way we hunt, kill the way we kill, destroy the way we destroy.

Yes. These are good beginnings.

It takes years to step across the species divide and to recognize different species as peers and equals on this planet. It shatters the mind – as it should. It requires undoing the pervasive structures, apparent and subtle, of the dominating, imperial human cultures that have assaulted Indigenous wisdom and what remains of the true nature of the world. The future existence of the planet depends on creating honest working alliances with all the myriad sentient, intelligent non-human beings. Each meeting with the Elephants had been a gift and a mandate leading us to this understanding.

However, the gift of such extraordinary meetings cannot be received without knowing the gravity of extinction, pollution and climate change we have created and without finding ways to heal what we have wrought.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerThe animals, the Elephants, are aware of our criminal activities and are responding. Integrity requires us to change our ways and minds. This is what they are indicating when they come to meet us.

***

Mashatu Game Reserve consists of 72,000 acres located in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve of Botswana, situated between the Tuli Safari Area, a national park in Zimbabwe and the Mapungubwe National Park, a World Heritage Site in South Africa. As it shares unfenced borders with both the South African and Zimbabwean national parks in the south and north respectively, the animals have a vast area, a long wildlife corridor, to wander through. However, as they are know they are safe within Botswana where hunting is illegal and threatened in Zimbabwe where trophy hunting is encouraged, many animals, if food allows it, avoid crossing into Zimbabwe.

Arriving at Mashatu, we knew we would not experience the intimacy with the animals that we felt with the single herd of Elephants on the 3,000 acres of Thula Thula nor the sense of destiny that came with multiple encounters with Elephants on six different occasions at five in the afternoon at the Chapungu tree in Chobe National Park.

On the last day in Mashatu in 2016, we had been allowed to approach a large herd at a water hole. They departed just at the time we had to repair to an elevated place for a last cup of tea before going to the airport. We were stunned when the herd, split into several lines, approached the Mashatu tree so closely we took cover in the truck. But undeniably, they had come to say good-bye.

Now we were returning a year later. The one desire I had had to listen from within a herd and to greet the Matriarchs formally had been met in Thula Thula and was unlikely again with such a large Elephant population. Earlier, our time in Chobe had confirmed the magical connections we had had there over the years. We accepted that we had been incorporated into a field of co-existence that made communication possible. Now I wondered what insights or messages might come from our next two destinations?

***

In a dry country, rain is luck. Abundant rains had come to Mashatu and were continuing. A pulley system helped us cross a swollen river where the year before we had driven across a dry ravine. Within minutes of going out on a first game drive, the winds picked up and we stopped the Land Rover to put ponchos on before the downpour. In an open vehicle without a roof we were as exposed to the elements as the animals. It was a good beginning.

The rain accompanied us intermittently until sunset as we drove across darkened and then brilliant yellow fields of devil’s thorn with which the female Elephants adorned themselves.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena Metzger

Accepting that we were not at Mashatu to repeat earlier experiences, confirm previous perceptions or gather new proofs of connection, we tried to look at everything with fresh eyes. It was Cyndie who first noticed the gestures of a herd of Elephants moving with great deliberation and intent into a small grove. We followed them curious. There they divided into little groups leaning against the trees, caressing them with their trunks but not eating the leaves. It can be nothing less than devotion, Cyndie said. We had not expected to come upon Elephants in prayer. But… why not?

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerReturning to the grove several times, we never encountered the Elephants there again. How empty it seemed without their presence converting it into a temple. Although we didn’t see them in prayer, we did come upon them blessing each other.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerBeautiful and awesome as this was, I didn’t initially grasp what was being revealed. Anticipating relationship with the Elephants, or continuously hoping for it, I wasn’t aware of what was, in fact, occurring. In retrospect, stepping out of the confinement and limitation of individual events and examining them within a progression over years, writing this piece, seeing the photos again, I understand what I couldn’t then.

We were shown perfect beauty. We were shown … Creation. We were shown the spiritual lives of the Elephants and the animals. We were shown that we had been born into Paradise and had been exiled by our own hands.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerWithin minutes of driving out of the Camp the first morning, we were astonished by two turtle doves making love on a tree branch. A wondrous instance on a brilliant morning. Several minutes later, we came upon a terrapin in the road and our guide following his intuition looked into the underbrush about twenty feet away where two terrapins were mating. Spirit was getting our attention.

For the rest of the days at Mashatu we marveled at the profusion of life forms. There were newborn and young — Elephant, kudu, impala, zebra, wildebeest, cape buffalo, monkey, baboon, lion, giraffe … — everywhere.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerAnd in Namibia, where we were to go next, even rhino calves.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerAs if to emphasize the message of fertility, everyone was mating. So it wasn’t a great surprise when we came upon an alpha lion we had seen the day before, sleeping under a tree while ten feet away, a young lioness, stirred restlessly. Unable to control her inner agitation, she approached the lion, circled him, prodded him until he stopped resisting her. What struck us was his kindness.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerOur guide indicated that she was immature, had never had cubs, was overwhelmed with estrus. While the lion entered her, almost as if bidden, he did so gently, lowering his mouth to her shoulder to ease her before his thrust.

This sequence repeated again and again.

The last hour of the last day at Mashatu, we found a perch at the summit of a small hill that allowed us to look back toward the plain where we had been present as a great bull Elephant had been courting an Elephant matriarch before the entire herd. Then a startling shriek from a little one who resented the bull’s attention interrupted them and the bull strode away.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerBehind us to the east, the herd was dispersing for the night. To the north, two Giraffes, their bodies rosy from the setting sun were standing, enchanted.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena Metzger

We could see that they wanted each other, though they were very still. Then he arched back in a parabola of desire and in seconds they mated in the purple dusk.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerIt was the last moment of the last day at Mashatu. Then the full moon rose.

We left the field of vision of fertility and creation for Damaraland in Namib, the oldest desert of the world. Here desert Elephants having adjusted to the environment and able to go without water for a few day are frequently born without tusks as a rapid genetic response to poaching. Last year, we saw a tuskless herd in the reserve and this year we were aware of many more tuskless Elephants among the others on the narrow oasis along a sand river where three very small herds sustain themselves.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerAs at Thula Thula, we were able to have some intimacy with the Elephants, following one and then another in their daily life. While we recognized individual conversations or connections as they occurred, it was only afterwards that I saw a pattern that could appropriately be acknowledged as interconnection. We were a small group, they were a small herd – we were with each other as distinct from observing each other. I was hoping to be able to see the Elephants and other species for themselves, independent of my own understanding. Over time, moments cohere into a Story, a field of vision, and it is the human task to see it for itself.

Thula Thula had prepared me for Damaraland though I didn’t know it at the time. The continuity of drought was an essential element. The abundance, even extravagance, of life forms at Chobe and Mashatu seemed to deny the grave danger of climate change caused by human activity, the on-going struggle for existence, the conflicts between the herders and the wild as a consequence of the lack of water and resources. In Damaraland, we remembered.

The bare but startling beauty of the landscape resembles the moon more than earth, and the Elephants themselves seem to have emerged from the land. In Damaraland as in Thula Thula, it became possible to focus on particular members of the herd. Following their lead when we came upon them, rather than our inclinations, we repeatedly found ourselves in the presence of a great bull Elephant. Only on our return home, at the airport in Frankfurt, did we realize that this great bull had dominated the landscape on the last day we had spent in Damaraland the year before. He had been posed like a sentinel on a rocky incline at the entrance to the lines of trees and desert springs along the sand river.

We had stayed with him for almost an hour, mesmerized. This year, the same; whenever he appeared, we gave ourselves up to him. Without acknowledging us, he silently directed us to stay and we did for long periods of time. The first day, we were parked below an earthen bank where a female was feeding on a tree when he appeared and displaced her. Though we remained with him, there was no indication that he was aware of or interested in us.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerAgain in our presence, the second day, he approached two young bulls who were trying to topple a tree. He advanced as an elder, demonstrated the right technique for grazing on trees and leaned against it so as to instruct them properly.

When they became rambunctious, he turned abruptly and left. We followed but he went off into the bush.

We were finding him an interesting bull Elephant, but on the third day he astounded us. Then we began to consider that something extraordinary was happening and we were, and were not, peripheral to the event.

We had spent a good part of the afternoon unsuccessfully tracking desert lions along the small dunes, always slightly behind the new footprints in the sand. Then we turned back to the sand river to look for Elephants. Pausing to determine our next move, we saw the Bull Elephant approach the hillock above us and we turned the truck to watch him.

He came slowly and determinedly, tore away some branches and threw them aside as if to extend the space. As was the case seventeen years earlier with the Ambassador, his actions seemed conscious and deliberate. To our astonishment, he then carefully eased his great weight down onto the sand and went to sleep, facing the direction of the lions and allowing his back to us.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerNeither Cyndie, I, nor Matt, who had been Head Ranger and Head Photographic Ranger at the private South African game reserve, Mala Mala, had ever seen an Elephant lie down to sleep.

What was communicated?

Trust.

Accepting that direct communication and analysis came from the Elephant People allowed the field we were in together to become visible. We realized that we had been in ‘spirits’ theater for sixteen years, simultaneously actors and audience. Neither Elephant nor human could have designed such situations in which members of both species appear to each other as if explicitly summoned. While our meetings were both intentional and circumstantial, the sum total of our many interactions over time, hours, days, weeks, years, cohered in nested living stories that became the language through which we, different species though we are, spoke to each other. This occurred both within and outside of time and space. We had been transported to another dimension where meaning and action are simultaneous and indistinguishable. The story that emerged from and enfolded us challenged all conventional assumptions of reality and hegemony.

We had returned to the Elephants, again and again, at the behest of the Ambassador, and in return we were allowed to participate in a common field of consciousness that manifested unpredictably. Clearly both human and non-human were impacted by each other. Attuned to one another, we began to share a critical DNA of mind from which future connections and understandings would emerge. That is, we melted toward each other and, ultimately, without changing shape, we melted into each other.

And so we entered the last day. Toward the end of the afternoon before we would have to leave Damaraland, we again came across the bull whom I began calling The Great Elephant. He was waiting for us in the central island of the sand river.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerWe didn’t know he was waiting for us then, but I know it now. It has taken months to understand this, to see pattern and Story, too often hidden by time and doubt. A deeper understanding, one that encompasses all the years of engagement, beckons. Indigenous people knew this realm, this dimension beyond ours, this field of knowing and being where humans, non-humans, the spirits and earth co-exist beyond relationship.

The Great Elephant was waiting for us …

For the next hour or two, we followed him through the valley as he grazed or hid in the brush until he led us to the vast desert plain that all of us would cross at sundown. Just as night was falling, he would be on his way to a water tank set aside for the Elephants in return for the government digging wells for the Native people living there, and we would be returning to the Lodge.

Soon after we arrived, he left the tree where he had been waiting, turned east and meandered from place to place. At one point, he stopped, certain that we were watching though not glancing at us, and began to twist his trunk into a strange knot that I recognized as the gesture through which the Ambassador greeted us in 2000. He continued contorting his trunk while we observed, moved and mystified.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerFinally, he unfolded his trunk, turned and went on.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerFollowing him was complex. We had to be rigorous about not leading, finding a vantage point from which we could see without interfering or challenging him. When he stopped by a small tree, we were already directly in his path and he knew it. There were moments when we felt his love for the tree in the manner of the Elephants in Mashatu and we were simultaneously aware of his comedic threat to topple it upon us. Still, we remained quietly.

Sometimes when he approached, there was a divide between the Damaraland guide’s experience and training in caution and my own deep conviction that we were safe and needed to yield to the bull’s leadership not our fears.

So many minutes passed. It felt like hours or days. Soon he began walking again and we assumed he was leading us out of the valley toward the desert and the mountains.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerBut, unexpectedly, he entered a thicket and virtually disappeared. We waited and waited, agreeing among ourselves that we would wait no more than twenty more minutes. When the time was almost over, he emerged so dramatically he seemed angry to everyone in the truck. Believing we were completely safe, I begged them to be still and not startle him by turning on the engine. I had been speaking to him in my mind, explaining that this was our last night, actually our last hour, and had pleaded with him to come out as a sign or confirmation of the connection we were all feeling. And so, yes, he emerged.

There was no attack, no threat, nor had there been for all the time we had been with him over four days.

Now he ambled very slowly ahead of us down the stone-faced incline that was also masking the diminishing light. We might have thought he was oblivious to us if he had not defecated several times along the way. A sign of honor. Connection. (When Elephants meet after being separated, sometimes only for hours, they are overjoyed to be in each other’s company and this is expressed through pissing and defecating.)

I kept reminding our impatient guide, eager to return to the Lodge, to slow down and to wait. It was 7:30 and we were an hour late and tired. It was difficult to contain all the energies and stay parallel or behind the Great Elephant so that he could lead.

The Great Elephant came to the stony edge of the slope where the wide plain of the desert opened before us. He stopped. He pissed and defecated again. Not one of us had ever seen such frequency. Slowly, then, with utter presence, he proceeded up the rise and as he paused to spray himself with dust, he caught the exact and fleeting angle of the ruby light of the setting sun.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena Metzger

Then he went on, his footsteps, mysteriously filling with a sourceless light.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena Metzger

The Great Elephant looked back at us one last time.

The Mystery: Approaching Elephant People, Deena MetzgerAn Elephant Ambassador came to meet us on January 6th, 2000, Epiphany. Now again, at the very last hour of the very last day, another such meeting.

A spirit? A messenger? An angel?

In the presence of the Great Mystery, it is best to remain wordless.


Deena Metzger

Deena Metzger has been writing for fifty years. Story is her medicine. Her latest novel, A Rain of Night Birds, a confrontation between indigenous knowledge and the modern scientific mind, bears witness: climate change arises from the same colonial mind that enacted genocide on the Native people of this country. It was published on Earth Day, April 22, 2017. Her other books include the novels La Negra y Blanca (2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature), Feral; Ruin and Beauty: New and Selected Poems; Doors: A Fiction for Jazz Horn; Entering the Ghost River: Meditations on the Theory and Practice of Healing and Tree: Essays and Pieces.

Returning to Africa and the Elephant Ambassador

I am refering you to the essay The Language of Relationship: Engagement with Elephants again (see below) because it is the reason I am going to Africa with Cynthia Travis of Everyday Gandhis. Not for my / our own sakes, but because we are so heartbroken about the world. As you, who are reading this are, as well. While I am alive, I will not accept that we cannot save all life from the current trajectory of global destruction. Certain realities have not made enough of a difference in our behavior: that the climate is changing drastically, that we are responsible, that our disregard for the earth is criminal, and that modern warfare is a primary culprit. And so I return as a humble seeker to see if something unexpected and, perhaps unprecedented, might emerge from a soul and mind alliance with another most intelligent and similarly heartbroken species, unable, as we are, to change current non-indigenous human activity and violence. Some synergy on behalf of all species.
My first journeys, as chronicled below, confirmed elephant (animal) intelligence and agency, incontrovertibly. Understand that the elephants in the wild met me/us four times on four separate occasions, over twelve years, but at the same time in the same place! At a certain tree, in Chobe Wild Animal Park,between 5 and 6 in the afternoon in Botswana. Cynthia Travis, Valerie Wolf, Michael Ortiz Hill and I were together in Botswana on one of those occasions when the Elephant Ambassador met us directly and threw us the most precious gift possible, a bone of one of his ancestors.
Elephant culture speaks loudly of heart and relationship. We humans are not the experts in the realm of the heart. The encounters with the elephants speak to their spiritual and psychic awareness and skill. But now, what feels like an urgent journey, is on behalf of the possibility of a spiritual and pragmatic alliance between members of different species so that we, who the Kogi call, and rightly so, the younger brothers, might somehow shift all our ways.
I am /we are praying that the elephants will appear, that the Ambassador will come again, and that this meeting will, in ways I cannot predict or imagine, actually serve to align our human species’ heart, to re-tune, entrain us, that it will …. I do not know what, but that some way will appear that will serve all life, all our relations. I am going to this other species as a supplicant.
We will be in the Wild in Africa from January 4th to the 19th. Please keep the elephants in your hearts and prayers and open yourselves to whatever may be asked of us on behalf of all life. I had a dream some months ago in which I was recruited by the Radical Elephant Movement to participate in actions on behalf of the earth that were far beyond any ideas I had of how we might proceed at this time. This journey arises from that dream. And from our belief that such dreams are sent by the spirits and so we are deeply called to listen.
In hope and prayer, Deena.
(Feel free to share this if you think it might have value beyond ourselves.)

THE LANGUAGE OF RELATIONSHIP: ENGAGEMENT WITH ELEPHANTS

“There is a language older by far and deeper than words. It is the language of bodies, of bodies on…
deenametzger.wordpress.com

BEAR MEDICINE FOR THE WORLD

The USA together with the Russian Federation have put a proposal to the CITES Conference of Parties March 2013 to uplist polar bears (Ursus maritimus) from Appendix II to Appendix I. The proposal considered that this higher level of protection was needed as polar bears, in addition to being threatened in the future by the increasing loss of ice in the Arctic (summer ice has decreased by 15-20% due to climate change) also are significantly affected by trade. Indeed, the USA proposal mentions that from 2001-2010 something like 6798 polar bear products were traded, including skins, skulls, trophies, “bodies” and live animals. 79% of the trade emanates from Canada. http://www.lionaid.org/blog/2013/02/cites-travesty-part-3-polar-bears.htm

***

Adoration of the Bear by  Oleg Gurenkov

Adoration of the Bear by Oleg Gurenkov

One of the oldest myths in the world is the story of the young girl who marries the bear.  In most versions, the she is captured by the bear because she is indolent or rude and so is taken back to his people where she becomes his wife and bears (sic) him cubs, part bear, part human.  It is important to recognize that she is not raped.  She marries. Over time she matures.  A true bond is created.  Sometimes her children are bears and she loves them so. After some time, loneliness for her own people calls her back home and she returns with her sons. When they return to human settlement, they take on and keep the shape of the human.  Then, in one version or another, the brothers or her sons, set out to hunt the bear and are taught this mystery by the bear who offers himself to his human kin.

The myth is concerned, primarily with right relationship between human and other.  The necessity for such a connection is implied in the recognition of Bear people.  Bear people and human people are equals in power and the Bear people demonstrate sacred authority.  Shape shifting, bear to human, human to bear, is also is central to this myth.

What does shape shifting mean politically? We can become each other.  This reduces differences.  This implies the possibility of alliances and mutual concerns. Such understanding was fundamental to most Indigenous cultures and allowed for ecologically balanced and environmentally sane survival tactics.  Hunting is balanced and sacred wisdom is a gift from the animal to the human.

However the history of Western culture is one of increasing alienation from the natural world. Disrespect has led us to the degradation of the environment. It has led to the crisis we find ourselves in.  The increasing extinction of species leads, if things continue in this way, to our own extinction as well.

Right relationship and respect continues as a theme in the fairy tale, The Three Bears.  Here there is no recognition of the ‘other’ by the human girl.  Goldilocks does not recognize that she is in a foreign terrain and needs to act with respect. She is even more naïve and immature than the girl in the old myth,  Goldilocks assumes she has a right to what belongs to the bear. No bond of recognition or connection occurs between human and animal.  The Three Bears marks the development of disconnection between the species.  This is implied by the bears losing their bearness and living in a human habitat.  This is not shape shifting; this is colonization.

Beauty and the Beast is another variation on the same theme.  Beauty goes to live with the Beast (read Bear.) Then loneliness, for her own people, also calls her home.  However, love has been awakened and she returns to the Bea( r)st.  This is where the story shifts.  The Bea( r)st turns into a man.  The shamanic skill of shapeshifting is replaced by enchantment, a conversion by evil means.  A profound way of knowing is demonized, a common trend in Western culture.

There is a Cherokee Bear legend about the Ani Tsaguhi.  http:www.firstpeople us/.  A young man from this clan makes his way more and more frequently to the mountains.  After a while his parents notice that the young man is growing long brown hair.  He is transforming and wants to live away from the people.  His parents decide to follow and live where he lives.

The clan elders try to persuade the Ani Tsaguhi to stay at home. They send messengers who are “surprised to notice that their bodies were beginning to be covered with hair like that of animals, because for seven days they had not taken human food and their nature was changing. The Ani Tsaguhi would not come back, but said, ‘We are going where there is always plenty to eat. Hereafter we shall be called Yonv(a) (bears), and when you yourselves are hungry come into the woods and call us and we shall come to give you our own flesh. You need not be afraid to kill us, for we shall live always.’ Then they taught the messengers the songs with which to call them and bear hunters have these songs still. When they had finished the songs, the Ani Tsaguhi started on again and the messengers turned back to the settlements, but after going a little way they looked back and saw a drove of bears going into the woods.”

In this story, the bears will live always.  The humans shape shift into bears and the bears teach the sacred songs, reveal the mysteries, so that the hunters will always have good fortune.

In a similar Cherokee story, told to me last month, by Cherokee elder Lewis Mehl-Madrona, MD, a young man wants to join the Buffalo people but can’t until he proves that he walks among them with great respect.

The old myths teach the good ways (Native American) or right relationship (Buddhist.) They present the political principles through which we are to govern ourselves and our habitats.

How far we have come from this: later Western stories reflect our ignorance and disregard.  The commentary after the myth on the Indigenous People’s Literature site is “Aho.  http://indians.org/indigenous-peoples-literature.html. We are all related.”  This is the essential principal from which good governance develops.

***

In early 2013, master storyteller and dear old friend, Diane Wolkstein, asked me to write an essay for a section of StoryTelling Magazine, http://www.storynet.org/magazine.html. which she was guest editing with Loren Neimi on the Politics of Story.  When Diane died suddenly while researching her next story project on the Monkey King in Taiwan, Neimi continued with the section. BEAR MEDICINE FOR THE WORLD was published in Volume 25, Issue 2, June-July 2013: Remembering Diane Wolkstein.  It broke my heart and eased my heart to be with Diane at the end having known and loved her for over thirty years.

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