I am beyond psyched to host Milla today for the second guest post on Beyond Native American Appropriation: Cultivating a Personal, Nature-Based Spirituality.
When I first walked into the forest that is Milla’s blog, I was entranced. The experience was transportive, and I sat back in my chair, filled with wonderment…who is this person? I often have a recurring dream (just remembered I had one last night!) that I am walking through a house, one that I know to be my grandmother’s, or (this is recent) one that I am wanting to rent. I have a sudden remembering, that there is a secret room in this house, a place I have always been trying to go. After entering the room, I am profoundly satisfied. Here, in this place, everything is as it should be. Something that wanders deep within me suddenly comes to rest. Even though I can practically hear her squirming, I will say that for me, Milla’s blog is like a secret room in the meandering house of the internet. I think this is an important quality for all of our favorite blogs…they are places where our hearts and intellect come to rest, where we encounter long lost friends, just met.
As someone intensely connected to nature, with big feelings in regards to our planet in crisis, I have often felt isolated by my experience. Discovering sisterhood with Milla in regards to this experience has been part of learning to fully inhabit myself, with everything intact…the grief AND the joy. Not only is she someone with far reaching insight and a sharp intellect and wit, Milla also has a wonderful capacity to SEE others. I witness her offer empathy and understanding to her friends, while also lifting them up, as if to say…this is your true beauty, can you see it now?
In her piece, Milla weaves ancient folklore, personal process, awe and reverence. Most of all, she hits on the crux between experience and explaining. Because westerners from industrialized countries can feel challenged in how to talk about a spiritual connection with non-human others, we often throw the intricacies of our heart’s knowing under the bus of accepted New Age languaging (for example: “I don’t know why hawks keep showing up in my life, so I’m going to label it as hawk medicine and it means X, Y and Z”). Her post is a great example of walking the wire and allowing for the discomfort of not-knowing in order to let the wisdom of our primal selves emerge.
Two summer’s ago, on Solstice Eve, hiking in the Olympic Mountains with friends, we came upon a black bear. That same morning as we were just leaving the campground, a rogue female elk from a pack that had been hanging out our whole stay on the gravel bar in by the river charged a campsite next to us, damaging cars and tearing up the tent of our neighbors from the night before.
As we hiked out, adjusting the straps of our packs, joking about the rangers rushing to the scene with flashing lights, carrying what we took to be tranquilizer guns, we had no idea that the mare was truly considered dangerous, that the ranger’s ended up shooting her and sending her brain and tissue samples to a lab, to figure out what had caused her to go mad.
We hiked up the valley, following the river, diverging from it into the woods, the dark, deep old growth forest, the likes of which exists almost nowhere else on Earth. The likes of which once stretched for hundreds of miles, from the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, down to meet their sisters on what is now the Oregon Coast, and on to their grandmothers, the California Redwoods.
Winter Wrens skipped ahead of us darting on and off the path. On both sides of it the earth was covered in a thousand shades of green. Uphill the trees climbed and we followed.
“More than anything,” Kristiina said “I would like to see a bear.” “A bear?” I scoffed, “We’ve never seen one.” Not even, I thought to myself, on Long Island, WA, a strip of land in an ocean bay, accessible at only certain tides, a place populated by so many bears that you have to sing your way through the thickets, so as not to startle one.
As we neared the last ranger station, the path steadily growing more slippery with rocks, more winding, less predictable, a small creek, a tributary of the Hoh river appeared by our side. We were hot under our packs, in our hiking boots. At the last crossing, over a rickety log, the crick dipped into a small lagoon, deeper than the rest. Kristiina and I wanted to swim, the others wanted to push on.
They went ahead. We promised to catch up, pulling off our layers of clothing, jumping on one foot to kick off our boots. In the stream we dunked, trying hard to embrace the water with our whole bodies, then stepped out, shook ourselves dry like dogs, put on our clothes back on, now damp. We started down the path again, faster than before, skin tingling with the snowmelt of the mountains around us. At every turn we expected to run into the others, hearing what seemed like footsteps ahead. As we walked, uncertain how long we had to go still, the forest suddenly seemed alive with movement, a presence.
We all know that feeling: the hair on the back of your neck moving in the invisible breeze, your skin rising up against your clothes, the inexplicable sense of a something, something that the sensible, adult you tries to wave aside, while the primordial, animal you just wants to take off and run.
Suddenly, at the bend of the path, the others were waiting for us and we told ourselves “Oh how silly! It is only them.” and hiked on.
Soon, the forest opened to a clearing, a meadow with a few trees scattered about, a larger grove merging into the woods again ahead, the river to the right. The ranger station appeared to the left, a small weather beaten cabin. We filed along the path, excited to have arrived, our rucksacks suddenly lighter. On a big fallen log across from the ranger station we could make out a family, a father, mother and two kids eating their lunch from a variety of pots and pans. They looked right at home, merry in their bright outdoor gear, the children gesturing and waving their cups and spoons around. Soon, we hoped, we would be them, eating, basking in the sun.
And then, out of the trees some sixty feet away, a shadow pulled away, large and lumbering, dark in the brief afternoon sun.
For the life of me I couldn’t tell you who spoke first. But in my memory everything that happened next unfolds in dreamtime, slow and fast at once, and not entirely chronological.
“A bear.” We said, in our minds, with our mouths. The bear began walking slowly across the clearing, towards the children and their parents, lured by the smell of pots full of human food, the pantry of mankind. We watched it as it moved, slowly, nose in the air. “A bear.” We whispered.
The pre-christian Finns believed the bear to be their ancestor, a person, just like them, yet supernatural at the same time. They believed him the King of the forest, the son of Ukko, the ruler of their pantheon of nature spirits. There were many rites and superstitions they observed related to the bear. One did not speak the bear’s true name in the forest, for every time one did so, it brought the animal a hundred paces closer, like an invitation. Instead, the animal was spoken of with names like “old man”, “honey paw”, “lightfoot”, “my aunt’s son”, “man of god”, “himself”. These euphamisms were used like spells to contain and control the bear, to flatter it, to let it know it was seen and respected.
Looking at the real live bear, every ancestral memory we held returned to us tingling from our spines. The bear, who by the measures of biologists, of wildlife guides, of big game hunters, must have been a small Black Bear, took on all the qualities of Bear, the mythical creature, in our minds. We stood, spellbound, as it sauntered across the clearing, drawing ever closer, each step measured, each muscle going trough the exact perfect motion, now as close to the family as we were.
And then, the awe, the fear, our limbic brain, was pushed aside by our survival instincts. Some band of humans in the ancestral wilderness of Europe within us spoke. “They cannot see him.” We realized. The family’s backs were turned to the bear. Suddenly we remembered every National Park notice board on wild animal behavior we had read, every first-hand account of PCT hikers and Alaska woodsmen we’d ever read. That bears are near sighted, and follow their noses, that you don’t want to startle them up close, but that they can easily be scared away with loud noises.
“Hey!” We screamed “A bear!” We began moving again, towards the humans, the bear. We waved our arms, we pointed. “A bear! A bear!” The family heard us, not the words, but the sound, looked around confused, but the bear kept moving steadily towards them. “A bear! A bear!” Then, the children began, not screaming, but banging their spoons on their pots and bowls, the text book response, the parents yelling, us still calling out loudly, because we knew not what else to do “A bear! A bear!”.
The bear stopped, stood for what seemed like small eternities suspended, still like a player in a museum diorama. Then, slowly, casually, it began backing away, reversing the path that had led it there, until it reached the brush on the edge of the trees. There it turned on its heels, fast and elegant as an Olympic skater, and ran. Watching it run we couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to run from it, how it could catch you in a single pace, how none of its paws seemed to actually touch the ground.
We reached the family and traded inane statements “Wow. A bear.”. The men sheepishly admitted that they had waited for us partly because they had heard it in the woods, a breathing, moving being, walking alongside them, coming closer and moving away.
That night, we set up camp by the river and hoisted our food up a tree with an earnestness we had not experienced before. In our tents we listened for movement outside; twigs snapping under the hand-like paws, brush moving aside for the prickly fur of a large mammal body. Why had the bear come? We wondered. The part of us that believed in the sympathetic magic of our ancestors, the men and women who worshiped the forest and crowned the bear its king; the part that’s closest to the surface right before we fall asleep, when all the monsters and spirits of the forest seem the most real, believed that Kristiina had called it out. That saying the bears name, out loud and asking it to appear had convinced it.
There is a need in all of us to believe such things against our “better” judgement, against knowing that it was a late spring and snow still lingered on mountains, keeping the bear from retreating back to its summer home, away from campers and rangers and hikers. This need is hardwired to us, we cling to it, even as we pretend to understand the biological reasons behind the behavior of animals. It is, in fact the same need, that has lead people who study animal behavior to try to decipher some of the complicated reasons of why they do things.
We, the human race, need to explain, instead of just experiencing this phenomena known as life. It is this need that drives us to study the stars, the migration patterns of birds, ice crystals, atmospheric conditions that produce the aurora. It could be said that our yearning to understand the world we inhabit, is an unfulfilled need for meaning, a spiritual craving, rather than a rational one.
Because what is spirituality but trying to make sense of the world?
When we speak of these things now, we have no language for them. I imagine my ancestors had the perfect term for meeting the King of The Forest unawares, a word or two that explained such an encounter in way that left no room for interpretation.
Whatever those words were, we have lost them, maybe not forever, but we have dropped them somewhere into the undergrowth of experience, where we can’t retrieve them from, in spite our best efforts. So we borrow the words of other, more intact traditions and misuse them, we speak of “spirit animals” and “animal medicine”; because we are desperate for not just terminology for our experiences, but it seems, because we are desperate for those experiences themselves, a moment of real connection with the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom, the world we were once a part of and now are apart from.
The results of the autopsy on the crazed elk mare were, according to the papers, inconclusive. That same year, a mountain goat killed a hiker on the trail at the Olympic National Park. Seasoned wilderness lovers, rangers and casual park goers wondered what these events might mean; too much exposure to humans, an unknown decease in the brain of the animal, a simple misfortune, unconnected to any discernible chain of events? Our logic, our language failed to explain the friction that occurred between species at the park that summer. Just as it fails to explain fully and conclusively the mass deaths of honey bees, the occurrence of empathetic interspecies relationships, the countless mysteries of the natural world.
What I’ve come to realize, is that maybe we don’t always need words to speak of our animal encounters. That maybe instead of trying to put into words something that has existed before them, maybe even before a consciousness that thought in complex concepts and represented reality in them, we need to simply watch and listen. That the spiritual, emotional meanings of our brushes against the wild already exist within us. That when we are spoken to, in this, a language older than words, we still understand it, even if we can no longer speak it.
ps. A Language Older Than Words is a book by Derrick Jensen. A good one.