Animal Speak

I have a story and a book suggestion. Some of you might find this and/or the book a bit woo-woo but nevertheless it is a good book and an unusual (for me) subject.

The author is Ted Andrews. He grew up in Ohio and in nature. He passed in 2009 - in his lifetime he was a hiking guide, animal keeper, teacher and writer. His book 'Animal Speak' has sold over half a million copies and I just read it. 

Whether you believe in animal spirits or not, Andrew's writing is compelling. His belief is that when we connect with animals and see through their eyes, we can better discover the power and essence of our human potential. Coincidentally, this is a belief also shared by East African Wilderness guides I've worked with. 

Personally I often find I can only make sense of things, when I look back and connect the dots. The book made me feel very aware of some penetrating experiences I had this summer, in the forests and wildernesses around the Columbia Gorge. For a few months in the middle of this year I listened to my deepest intuition and decided to step back and take some personal time. I was heartbroken over losing my love and I needed to grieve. At first, I couldn't function very well, often couldn't find words to speak, let alone work. I'd known a joy I'd never felt before, something I could only recognize on the level of soul, then I lost her. I felt broken.  

I decided to spend as much time as I could in the wild places nearby - and feel what I had to feel. So, I listened to my intuition and made it my priority to heal. I don't think there was even a conscious decision. I think of John Muir's work and his comment “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”. That thought always resonated with me and now I know what he meant. Nature is home for me, to go there - is going home. 

So for just over a hundred days between May and September, I didn't miss a day of spending time in nature. I had thought about doing a thru-hike somewhere, but I wanted not-so-much to focus on an endpoint or pre-determined goal, but rather just be somewhere without destination, somewhere I could go deep. I wanted to connect and to feel safe, to create a robust space where I could reach down into that pain and sadness, dig it up and sift through it. With a few exceptions, I didn't venture more than 30 miles in any direction. Some days it was just an hour in the morning or evening. Many days, it was dawn till after dark. A few times, I stayed out all night watching the stars and sleeping. Most days were alone and some were with groups and friends. Some days, I just found a spot on some rocks or a tree and just sat, thinking, writing and meditating. Almost half of my visits were to two mountains, Wind Mountain and Dog Mountain. Probably due to my constant visits on both of these, I found myself connecting to animals. This was a very unexpected surprise. 

On Dog Mountain there was a doe - she had two fawns in June and by the end of the summer there was just one, I expect the other sibling died. I could be mistaken and perhaps there were two families, but I'm almost sure it was the same because she had a limp in one of her legs it seemed to pain her when she ran. I did my best to not startle them but it's hard, especially when running. The last time I saw them was very early, before six a.m. and just getting light on the Dog, I rounded a corner, stopped and sat in the trail and the Mother just stared. The young deer walked towards me and stopped about ten feet away, nodding her head like a puppy who wants to play. Her Mother snorted and she jumped back before we all went on our way. I think for a minute or two, curiosity won over fear. 

The other animal I got to see often on Dog Mountain, was a coyote. It reminded me of a coyote I knew when I lived in California. That one would follow along during runs and this one did the same - always travelling a couple of hundred yards behind. I'd play a game where I'd stop suddenly and turn around. It would stop, too and sometimes tilt it's head and stare. After a few times of this, I'd turn around and there'd be just me.. It was fun. I only saw the coyote in the evenings. 

On Wind Mountain I got to know a bear and surprisingly I would enjoy the visit of an owl. Surprising because it was always during daytime and owls are generally nocturnal animals. Often I'd go up there - sit on the rocks, leaning against a deformed hemlock tree and meditate - with just the sound of the wind and the soft persistent hoot of my owl. I only heard and never saw her. Didn't look to find... but just let be. I felt love and I felt hope. It quelled my anger and I felt forgiveness. 

The first time I saw the bear, I almost shit my shorts and the bear didn't seem too calm either. He was barking like an angry dog before bounding away into it's forest. There is a small town near Wind Mountain, so I know that bear had seen humans before, most likely knew how to quickly empty a trashcan, too - he was a big guy. I only saw him three times and once was from my car as he walked along the forest road near the trail head.

The last time I saw him, I noticed him first, I think before he heard me (I presume it was a male because there were no cubs), so I stopped in the trail and stood still. As he came up the trail he stopped when he saw me and for a second or two had the most indignant look on his face. I tried to out-stare him, but he shook his head, grunted, and wandered off into the ferns. I felt weak. I've seen bears many times before, but usually in passing or when they come into a camp, looking for food. They seem disinterested mostly and I wonder if their senses/hearing is all that good? This was the first time I've ever looked one in the eye and it was quite magical. Kneeling on the trail, I leaned on my hand and some emotions broke-free. This time it was my curiosity that broke through the fear and just like with the doe, beyond my fear - everything was beautifully all-right. 

That brief up-close connection with such a powerful animal, left me with a sensation of complete belonging (to the moment) and an adrenaline-fueled strength that felt deeply empowering. It was a stretched-to-breaking-point moment that spanned the range of possibility between fight or flight - all of that fear and acceptance - I can't run and you can't fight - it's futile - and that's OK, because knowing this opens a door to surrender - a split second decision to claim what's yours - no matter what the consequences. And even if the consequences are a tussle with the bear - that's OK too because it wasn't his or my decision to be here right now. It just is what is. There's no purpose for panic or alarm. It's best to savor the moment and feel the intensity - either that, or miss the joy.

I needed that moment. It was a punctuation point on a deeply enriching experience that was coming to an end. I knew I wanted to move back closer to the city, I just hadn't felt ready. After seeing the bear and walking back to my car, I laughed at it all, and at the state of me, clothes tattered, holes in my running shoes, dirt under my nails, ingrained in the creases of my skin and my body getting lean (I'd been fasting). I got in my car, then went for a swim to cool off. I decided that I'd gotten what I needed that day. 

I looked up the spiritual significance of the animals: The dear represents gentleness, wholeness and unconditional love. The coyote represents youth, wisdom and humor. The black bear represents grounding and strength. The owl represents intuition and truth, the nocturnal nature is associated with finding treasure within darkness. All of these had an uncanny level of personal meaning to me, especially the bear and the owl.

It was fitting that my bear meeting was right at the end of summer. It's not lost on me that on the day I saw him, I was also in a state of calm bliss, following an afternoon with the hemlock and my owl. In the last few weeks of summer, I realized that for the past few years, I've been stuck in a fog - and I didn't always know it. It was PTSD, it was alcohol, it was anxiety-turned-into-isolation and it was a seemingly unending fog. It was horrible. And when something seems endless, I think we sometimes stop imagining what it would look like on the other side, so we stop dreaming, or at least I stopped dreaming. The grief of losing my love, seemed to want to take me all the way to the bottom of it - and the forest gave me safety to know I could go all the way down. So I did.

I realized the gift of being able to be here and to take time. The soft green envelope of the trees and waterfalls, gave me a place to feel what I needed to feel and to re-integrate. I'd gotten a lot more than I expected from these few short months of exploring. 

With all those animals there was connection and the bear snapped me, rapidly, into a state of clarity; a sense of clarity like a cold clear waterfall cutting through sunlight and rock, like a scream echoing in a canyon, a crack of lightning and crisp green needles of the firs brushing my face in the rain.... The wildness of the forests had pulled me towards what I know is good for my soul. 

It's challenging to find or see the animals and birds sometimes, they always see us - and they need us too. They suffer and many species dwindle at an alarming rate. We can better care for our environment, stop cutting down as many trees as we do, take down more dams (we don't need them) and think about more progressive energy production/consumption. And just get out in nature -- science has shown that simply spending time in nature actually leads us to make more sustainable choices.  

I'm not done questing to decide which animal I align with, but it's an enjoyable pursuit that I don't want to rush. One thing about the Columbia Gorge is that people have been doing vision quests for hundreds if not thousands of years. On Wind mountain and on Ruckle Ridge especially, there are many stone sites which people used for shelter as they fasted and meditated on their search for their spirit animals. The native Americans I've spoken to here, have a deep connection to this aspect of nature, something Ted Andrews writes about in his book. It had the same effect on me, an enriching effect - and an deeper appreciation of the depth of the forests and mountains where I go.

Animal Speak is available from Amazon