I would like to tell you about a grizzly bear. Not bears in general but a very specific bear. An individual.
Teton Totem came to Jean as a child of divorce. Born in captivity, his owner had 30 bears and with the divorce could no longer keep him. When I first met Teton he was bear perfection – an artist drawing the most perfect adorable teddy bear couldn’t have come close to his cuteness. Jean even suggested making a poster with a whole row of stuffed teddy bears, putting Teton in among them – it would have been hard to pick him out. But even as a tiny cub there was no doubt about his strength and “bearness.” This was a serious, strong-willed animal.
We had just bought the land for the future Earthfire, and Jean was camping out in a small trailer as he began to put in a bridge, well, electricity, etc. I was working in Colorado and only able to visit periodically. So the tie between man and bear was a one-man tie. When I came up to visit, he promptly bit me. Fortunately when I was finally able to move up to start Earthfire I could spend more time with him, and also, fortunately, since he got pretty big, that never happened again.
Jean was his surrogate daddy/friend/protector/companion and the bond was a beautiful thing to see. Man and bear would sleep together. They would go for walks and plop down in a meadow for a nap. Jean would bring him to a tree and show him how to climb; introduce him to streams, show him grubs and berries.
Teton grew into a huge, absolutely magnificent bear. As I got to know him over the years I saw how many myths there are about bears. Yes they are big. Yes they can be dangerous to humans. Yes a bear is always a bear and a wild animal and you never forget that. But as we usually only see them in the wild, or in impersonal setting such as a zoo, it is hard to get to know them as beings and there is another side as well. Teton that massive powerful being, is reduced to jelly at the sound of a diesel truck. I have no idea why – I doubt that he had any experience with them. When we had construction done near his quarters, I had to stay with him to reassure him and calm him down. Wild animals in particular take cues from how others around them are acting to judge if there is danger or not and if I was calm it gave him a reference point. l spread my skirts so he could hide behind them. He would pace back and forth in terror coming to me for comfort as I sang the song I had sung to him since he was a baby, a song that was his special song. He loved being sung to – you could feel him relax into it. I guess you could say yes bears like lullabies too. We certainly never grow out of them. Not if we are honest; especially if we are ill or scared.
We discovered that he would talk to us in “bear sign language.” If he wanted something he would put out his big front paw and pull it towards him. It basically meant “ I want . . .” or “give me . . .” Depending on the situation it could mean “I want food,” I want companionship,” “I want to play,” “I want a shower.”
It wasn’t just man and bear during those early years – Jean also had a lovely Belgian malinois. Rodney, who took his dogly duties very seriously, helping raise Teton among other animals. The bond between bear and dog was also strong. Jean would use Rodney to baby sit when he was busy and Teton needed companionship. When Teton was four Rodney was killed and Teton went into a depression, looking for; calling for, his friend. I had recently acquired Chinook, a malamute-shepherd mix but he did not feel a bond with Teton. Chinook would spend some time with Teton, Rodney and Jean and myself but he never connected with Teton as a possible friend. One day after Rodney’s death we saw Teton, in his enclosure, pushing his precious chicken underneath the door as an offering, inviting Chinook; trying to entice him to come play. It was a heart-breaking thing to watch. Chinook would come up, take the offering, and run away to eat it as Teton watched. Chinook never caught on, or was not interested in a relationship. Poor Teton tried it again and again, trying to be as inviting, as he could, but it never worked.
When he was an adolescent Teton apparently injured himself. We didn’t realize it at first – the only thing we noticed was that he was getting short-tempered. Eventually we saw that he was having trouble walking. After much trouble and differing diagnoses we were able to find out what was wrong and heal it, but not without the utter trauma of having to tranquilize him. As he felt himself losing consciousness he fought it, racing back and forth, frothing at the mouth. The thought that came to me as I watched was that it must feel to him like losing control, which in a wild animal could mean death; or perhaps it felt like dying itself. It was terrible to watch. Jean and I took turns staying with him until he came back to consciousness. That felt important somehow, to be there for him as he woke up. The good news is in the end, he was returned to full health. And he became sweeter. Perhaps he has associated humans with trying to help him out of his pain and infirmity, or perhaps it was just the relief of pain, but he is a now a very sweet bear.
Teton hates the wind. When we took him to the Wildlife Garden on a windy day we had a very nervous bear on our hands. He would stand and huff as the wind brought strange scents from afar. We learned not to take him out those days. And we realized that the standing and huffing, which could potentially be interpreted as aggressive, was just the opposite . . . for him at least, it was a matter of fear. If he could have run to a safe place he would have. And did. There was no problem getting him home to his enclosure where he felt safe. In fact, our bears at least, for all their size, have a definite timid and anxious side to them which we humans have a hard time seeing because they are so big and imposing.
There are many other Teton stories; his falling through the ice and being rescued and how very very affectionate he was after that; the intelligence and presence he showed during the rescue . . . but my main point in telling you this story about a bear, is that Teton is an individual with his own responses, and reactions We have four other bears and they each are unique individuals with their own reaction and responses. Teton Totem is one bear. As we get to know one dog we fall in love with that dog and then begin to realize that most dogs are wonderful and their own unique personalities. So it is with bears. We see the possibility that many bears are easily frightened creatures despite their powerful appearance, with a capacity for friendship, playfulness and affection. That each is a specific being with all kinds of intelligence and capacities, even though we might not know him or her personally. It is the basic, very useful ethical message – cast a wider net for our objects of compassion and understanding. Do not keep our sympathies only close to home with family and friends, tribe or nation or species just because those are who we know, who are familiar with and thus not “threatening.” There is wonder and sweetness and potential friendship everywhere and we get best results if we treat all life with respect and care. It is especially important just because we know so little.
In many places the robin is the harbinger of spring. Here it is when we first see a bright-eyed fuzzy little thing poking its head up above the snow, looking around, apparently in disgust because it shortly disappears. But then a few hours later we see it racing across the snow to disappear in the wood pile. It is a Richardson’s ground squirrel. Soon they are a major fact of our existence, soft gray-brown furry little bodies racing around, popping up from holes in all kinds of unexpected places. LIFE has returned with a capital L. They are wherever you look, darting about in a short excited burst of life before they disappear again underground for seven to nine months. Five years ago we had none. Then we had a few. Now we have a thriving colony of hundreds, intensely going about the business of life during the short time they will be above ground darting here, there, everywhere. They are gregarious souls, forming lifelong bonds with mothers, sisters, nieces, aunts, though the guys do not have the same family attachments. In fact anyone considering taking one as a pet is advised that they can never be released back into the wild because they can only survive as part of the family unit they came from, back into their own burrow system. They won’t be accepted anywhere else and they can’t survive on their own. They need their extended family community.
Our feed bill goes up. They raid the chicken food and the goat food and the deer food, burrow under the horse hay and generally have a fine time. Babies race around chasing each other screaming. We see adults popping up over the edge of the stainless steel buckets, looking for danger as they forage for last bits of grain in the bottom. Last year I saw a yoghurt cup waving madly and mysteriously just visible over the top of a berm. On close inspection I saw an apparition – half yogurt cup, half ground squirrel backside. He had gotten his head caught in the narrow neck. He was pretty easy to catch- he couldn’t see or hear a thing. I picked him up by his plump butt, pulled, and out he popped, a bit dazed.
We see them ankle deep in chicken food with or without chickens attending; nose to nose with the deer in his deer food pan. The air is filled with their chitterings, probably telling the aggressive magpies how ugly they are. And those are only the sounds we can hear. . . they communicate at ultrasound frequency as well- what a cacophony of joy and busyness and rage it must be! They do get a bit plump – we have juicy corn-fed ground squirrels here. We keep trying to tell the hawks and owls but I don’t know if they are listening. It’s such a hard thing – each one of them is cute and you don’t want them eaten. . . but there are other hungry animals. Lest I feel too badly. . . last summer I saw one on a wood pile and couldn’t figure out what it was doing – it was eating a baby bird.
They have a complex social structure and warning system. We see them standing up at the edge of their burrows watching for danger. The vocabulary we can hear is quite varied, consisting of a variety of squeals, chirps, chirrs, whistles and teeth clatters, plus two distinct alarm calls. One is for aerial predators, which tend to approach rapidly in a straight line. When they hear this call they run for cover. The other alarm call is for terrestrial predators, which tend to approach relatively slowly. When one of them sounds this call they stand up and scan the area.
Their close cousins the prairie dogs have been studied extensively by Dr. Slobochikoff, an animal language specialist at Northern Arizona University. His research suggests that prairie dogs ”have one of the most advanced forms of natural language known to science.” They can identify different predators. They can describe the size and shape of an individual predator. They can distinguish between people wearing different colored clothing and people exhibiting either threatening or non-threatening types of behavior. They can communicate not only about different species, but different individuals of each species, in effect, “That coyote with the one leg missing is back again.” “That’s a dangerous human carrying a gun.” “That woman in the red shirt is OK.” It seems unbelievable, but just because it is so unbelievable the science has been very carefully done, using sonograms matched with events observed in the wild. They also use sounds in different orders and at various speeds suggesting a grammatical component to their communication. Our ground squirrel colonies are not quite as sophisticated and complex as prairie dogs and have not been as carefully studied, but they are so closely related you suspect there is a lot more there than meets the eye.
When you look up ground squirrel on the web, there are quite a few sites talking about them as agricultural and garden pests and how to eradicate them. It is hard when humans and animals vie for the same land. I have to admit that I had a lovely flower and vegetable garden until their arrival. Now I have hollyhocks. For some reason they don’t eat those. So I adapt. I have a whole lot of hollyhocks.
I know many people don’t think like I do. I don’t want to kill them for my convenience. The land is not just “mine.” In fact it is not mine at all – I just live here during my lifetime. And it is just plain fun to share it. There is a great sense of companionship. Under no circumstances would l use poison, not only because of the suffering it causes but also because other animals will eat them and die. Our neighbors shoot them – last year a bullet ricocheted past Jean’s ear. Not everyone is willing to give up their gardens or go to the extent of building a garden that is ground-squirrel proof, as one of our board members does. (Though I personally think that is a fine idea and way to go about living in harmony with other life). But before we dismiss them as just a pest (to us), it is useful to be aware of the fact that our vision is often narrow; that there is much we don’t know and see and perhaps we should try to make leeway for other life forms just because we don’t know enough. What other wonders might we discover: Who suspected prairie dogs having a language?
On a practical level they are important food sources for many carnivores and we make life hard enough for them by taking away all the good land and water. The squirrels’ extensive burrowing mixes and aerates the soil. They are much smarter than we realized. On an ethical level they are family animals who are full of “joie de vivre” and are members of life on this earth with us. It is good to find a way to coexist.
I had a huge epiphany about one hour before co-hosting Listening to Animal Voices with Susan Eirich of Earthfire Institute. It was a moment of intense emotion, a combination of awe, gratitude, and a little bit of nerves. I suddenly realized that I was about to host an event that was a culmination of all the guidance I had received from the animals—what all my training and dedication was for—to hold space in a sacred way so that the voices of the animals I had heard for so many years could be heard by others.
It was the perfect segue into the shamanic journey to meet an animal that had a personal message. A journey that was created with Windwalker’s guidance, and one where he also made an appearance.
The animals that gathered to greet the participants were so happy that we had shown up to meet them; and that joy was echoed in the physical world. The wolves at Earthfire Institute sang to us as we journeyed back from the great meeting with the animals. Despite it being a group telecall you can clearly hear them on the recording.
And the celebration and acknowledgement did not end there. After concluding the seminar and taking off my headset my cats staged a happy dance of their own. Totally quiet during the call, suddenly my 10 year-old cat Sand and 15 year-old half bobcat Cougar began racing through the house, howling at the top of their lungs, flinging cat nip toys wildly everywhere, and chasing each other in and out of their box fort. It was the most intense expression of joyous celebration I have ever witnessed, and they slept for hours after the bash.
And that awareness was shared by the animal elders that one participant spends time with in her work at the zoo.
“Just wanted to tell you that today, for the 1st time since I’m at our zoo, our old lady leopard Fitty (she’s 16) stared into my eyes . . . so I told her I knew what she was saying, I knew she would be ‘free’ soon. I told her I understand and that I loved her. she followed me with her eyes . . . normally she ignores me…like most people. And then I went to visit our 40 yr old spider monkeys. Grandpa, the oldest one in captivity in the US, who normally is just sitting . . . jumped down and was trying to kiss me through the glass . . . hands to hands we were . . . and he was rocking back and forth . . . so very happy for a few minutes . . . it was an amazing day!
“I’d like to think something has woken in me that reached out to them. I’d also like to think the journey I experienced during Listening to Animal Voices has opened me more. I still fe el very happy and definitely more connected to them!
“After Listening to Animal Voices I had to share my experience and impressions with my friends, some animal lovers, some not so much. I knew I had seen and felt something extraordinary. Having believed for a long time that the animals have voices that most of us just can’t or won’t hear, I felt it was my duty to share, to inspire others to listen themselves.
“My impression from the animal I met during the journey was to do exactly that. To let everyone know the animals are speaking and asking for help to remain on this planet with us; to help them in any way possible. My path it seems is to share my journey with others so that they may ‘see’ and know it too. I just retook the journey and once again Windwalker was there, and the Cape buffalo came forward and told me ‘Tell All,’ and so I shall.”
The recording is offered in two half-hour sections so that you can easily listen to the shamanic journey again for future messages from the animals.
SECTION 1: Introduction, Stories by Rose and Susan, Intro to Journey SECTION 2: Shamanic journey to meet your Animal Teacher, Animal Messages, Summary
Recording is available in two formats (supplied with your order confirmation): MP3 digital download for any of your devices that support digital audio and links to listen online.
We are all connected, and what affects one affects all. The Animal Teachers are reaching out to us. Join us to hear their message and let them know we are listening.
Click here to purchase Listening to Animal Voices Audio Seminar and Journey, and afterward I’d love to hear your stories.
Here’s one another participant shared:
“I want to thank you so much for the journey last night. I could feel the emotion from all the animals waiting for my arrival and I burst into tears from their joy that I was coming.”Once I arrived there were so many animals in the circle that I could not distinguish what types they were—they were packed in tight like they all wanted to be there—but I did see a giraffe and even whales clearly.
“I was approached by a beaver who told me it was time for me to build. That I already had a foundation and now it was time to build on it and I had the skill to do it and knew what to do. I just kept hearing the word build. I was asked to sing, which struck me as odd because I definitely cannot sing. But the request seemed insistent and I was told to love. I know this indicates that I am to use my voice more strongly for the animals and communicate more strongly the message of love to them and for them. Though I have always loved them and supported their cause, it was time to step up even more.
“Again, I was struck with tears at how happy they were that I had come and that I wanted to talk with them and that I wanted to help them.
“Many thanks to you ladies for putting together this call. A very beautiful, healing, call to action.”
A skunk, of all things. . . three times. We held our teleseminar on Listening to Animal Voices last week. After hearing their voices through stories, we went on a guided journey up the Rainbow Bridge to join a circle of animals and see who wanted to speak. There were 34 of us on the call, from all over the world. After a 20 minute journey and meditation, we shared what we had experienced. Many species were heard from – insect, mouse, deer. But one species was heard from three times: the skunk (Or the spirit of skunk, however we conceptualize these things.) One of those three people, to my surprise, was me. I was relaxing, listening to Rose’s voice, eyes closed, picturing a circle of animals, when as in a dreamtime a skunk stepped forward, came up to me, put his front paws on my leg and looked up at me. He was asking for help. What I felt/heard/sensed, in essence was, “ For as long as skunks have been on the earth our defense, our powerful scent, protected us. Now everything is changed and the very thing that protected us causes us to be killed. We are lost. We have no defense. We need your help.“
The recording will be available soon. You can e-mail us if you are interested in purchasing it.
I went to a meditation retreat recently, seeking the deepest, most effective way to help the animals’ voices be heard, but at first all I could think of was chickens. The food was vegetarian and there were huge bowls of eggs on the side for those who felt they needed more protein. Mounds and mounds of brown and white eggs. For those of us lucky enough to have chickens, and are able to let them run free and be themselves, you know how neat they are. What a sense of comfort, peacefulness and companionship they give us as they race around, scratching with great energy and intensity, digging and catching bugs. The rooster calls excitedly when he finds a treasure trove (usually in horse dung) and all the hens come running as fast as their flat little chicken feet can go. The rooster stands back as his hens enjoy the treats. He may or may not use the opportunity to jump on his favorite hen, who willingly submits if it is her rooster. I have seen hens furiously chase away a rooster trying to mate with her if it wasn’t her accepted male. And if you watch a hen looking after her chicks you understand the term “mother hen.” It is a joy to see how seriously she takes motherhood, looking after the next generation, showing them how to find food; clucking and fluffing and calling them to her when she senses danger as they disappear underneath her into the warm dark safety of her feathers. And then curiosity gets the better of them and bright-eyed little heads peep out. It is hard to believe how many chicks can disappear under a hen, so spread out to cover them all she is almost flattened.
It is such a common refrain among people who have been able to experience them: “Oh I love chickens!” They are cozy, passionate, and very entertaining in their unselfconscious way of being. Picture our rooster leading his hens across the snow as they high-step through the snow, picking up each foot up and out and down, in obvious distaste for the wet cold sensation, but apparently deciding it was worth it to get to the hay stack under the shed. Or the intensity and excitement with which they peck. Their comical left to right waddle, like their two-legged dinosaur ancestors must have walked. Or picture our black banty hen flinging herself body and soul, in fury, at Timber the wolf when she thought he was coming toward her chicks. Really- a tiny chicken attacking a wolf to protect her babies? But she did. Such a strong urge to protect life is to be respected.
Back to the mounds of eggs. . . You can tell from acres away when an egg had been laid because it is loudly celebrated. When the hen is finished she lets out a loud clucking that with a little imagination sounds like, “I laid an egg! I laid an egg! I laid a beautiful egg!” The rooster gets all excited too and sometimes the whole flock gets worked up. The poetic side of me says she is celebrating life and I kind of believe that. But my more practical and body-centered side thinks maybe she is saying “What a relief! Thank goodness that is over.” (Ladies may particularly relate to this).ll motherly fury, at Timber the wolf when she thought he was coming toward her chicks. Really- a tiny chicken attacking a wolf to protect her babies? But she did. Such a strong urge to protect life is to be respected.
One day I decided to watch the whole process and film it. A little red banty named Shera was getting that look in her eye, so I followed her to the place she chose to lay. She settled in. She fluffed herself up, sank down, and became a cozy pile of feathers. She had ainner focused look in her eye. I waited and watched and filmed. She started in one position, shifted her weight, looked to the left, looked to the right, turned around 180 degrees, shifted her weight again, turned back. For twenty minutes she labored before she finally finished. A lot of time, and a huge production, given the size of an egg in relation to a chicken’s body. I never felt the same about an egg since, treat them with respect. To people who take eggs for granted I say imagine you doing that once a day. It became an exercise in appreciation for me, which was rekindled by those mounds of eggs. There was a chicken’s labor behind each one of them, and hopefully they were treated well.
The retreat was a silent one, making it possible to focus on the food we were eating. There was a written prayer on the tables that said in part.” This food is the gift of the entire universe, the earth, the sky, and much hard work. May we live in a way that is worthy of this food. . .” I liked that. Thinking about what we eat; where it comes from, what land was used to produce it, is a very useful exercise. It is important personally and as a society that we think about how we want our food raised, and the financial and non-financial costs we actually bear and are willing to bear.
A beautiful poem narrated by the peerless Norman Bailey, about listening to things that cannot be heard through our ears but through our hearts. The animals, without thinking they are always listening and we are linked by the great listening to the larger knowledge circling this earth.
Wolves are incredibly intense, passionate creatures. Their loyalty to one another is phenomenal. Wolf packs are family, when one member of the pack is killed, all members mourn the loss. This is an exquisite slow motion video of Earthfire’s resident wolves, Wamaka, Midnight, and Echo running. Kemenche music was performed and recorded by Cal Arts resident Saba Alizadeh. The video was filmed by Brain Farms Cinema.
Mostly I write about animals. I have also written about fish, trees, and the land because in the end we are all in this together. Though my job is to be sure the voices of the wild animals are heard, it wouldn’t do to focus exclusively on them if our message is we are all part of one community. Below is a story of how some humans joined in an interspecies communion one evening, walking in beauty and balance, as the Navajos say.
As I walked into the library at the California Institute of the Arts a few days ago the first thing I saw was a sign that said “No Animals.” My first-split second reaction was that I wasn’t allowed in there. I realized, startled, how much I had become one with the animals under my care. I often talk about bringing the animals’ voices to the world, but I hadn’t quite realized how deeply I had let them into my very fiber. Or perhaps, how deeply they had managed to connect with me.
Upon reflection, I’d had this type of experience before. Once, after living in the high Himalayas with native peoples, I was climbing to a higher village when I suddenly emerged into a clearing where there were two American climbers. My first reaction was “What power these people must have. How rich they are!” They had a gas stove, hot chocolate, big warm puffy jackets, brightly colored sleeping bags and sleeping mats. I felt awe. For that first moment I saw them as the villagers must have. When I finally came back to civilization, I was walking down a narrow hallway in the Kathmandu Guest House and caught a movement to my left. Startled, I looked to see what it was, and wondered who that blue-eyed person was, looking back at me. I had just passed a mirror, and it was myself. I had been among brown-eyed people so long that I had come to assume that my eyes were brown too.
I was at CalArts to bring the voices of the animals to students and faculty, lending support to the idea of how powerful and important the arts can be in promoting understanding of wildlife and the natural world. I was also there to interview students for this summer’s artists residency at Earthfire. That evening I shared stories of Earthfire animals. There was a profound silence when I finished. Somehow some of the animals’ essence must have vibrated through me, adding depth and truth to what I was saying, making their presence in the room palpable. Perhaps living with them so long and so closely, our energies had interpenetrated and it was their resonances I carried with me and expressed alongside my words. I think that happens with anything we spend time with – the villagers of Nepal; our families; the land we live on; the ocean, the trees. We impact and change one another, carrying that energy with us. People who come back from the wilderness carry some of that quiet spaciousness with them for a while and others can feel it. It’s nice to think of carrying, and indirectly sharing resonances of all the beautiful things we have seen and interacted with. An important reason to be sure our children and students have good and beautiful experiences, or help them make positive meaning out of those that aren’t.
After the silence, students from previous years of the residency began sharing their work. It was stunning, “magical,” as some of the faculty said later. One student after another shared their film, music, drawing and writing inspired by their experiences with the animals here. The room was filled with the animals’ presences expressed through the humans by their artand with the humans who had been deeply moved. Animal presences; and human voices interacting with the animals’ energies – a community, the voices softened by love and awe. The way it should be between fellow travelers in life, and it was wonderful.
The silence evolved into thoughtful impassioned discussion, leading to a decision by the students to find a way to add environmental awareness to their experiences at CalArts; an addition to their curriculum. The animals’ voices being taken out ever further through their impact on humans who had visited Earthfire. Just what we hoped would happen through our work.
Click on the students name below to see the artwork they created during their time Earthfire Institute.
Named after a passionate earth-mother wolf with a fire in her belly to protect anything vulnerable, Earthfire was founded in 2000 to develop a new model of relating to nature through the voices of the rescued wildlife>