1. the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.
What if the point is to stop, then, in your slow movements together, and listen to the birdsong, to watch the dragonflies hover, to look at your lover's face, then up at the undersides of leaves moving together in the breeze? What if the point is to invite these others into your movement, to bring trees, wind, grass, dragonflies into your family and in so doing abandon any attempt to control them? What if the point all along has been to get along, to relate, to experience things on their own terms? What if the point from the beginning has been to simply be? (Derrick Jensen, A Language Older than Words).
I'm not sure when this story begins. I could easily mark it as 8 months ago, when I began finding those little clues, breadcrumbs dropped under the moonlight. Or it may be less specific, having never truly begun. Instead, on occasion when I am Paying Attention, I am able to pick up a thread, like a few words from a conversation in the next room or the little strain of music that floats through your window on a summer evening...a thread from the greater tapestry of interconnectivity and causality.
Long before I ever saw the fox, I knew it was there. Sure, there had been tangible signs...the strange cries at night, the scat left in the middle of our long dirt driveway, demarcating Farm Dog on this side, The Wild on the other. There had even been muddy prints left on our little trampoline.
But it was more than the trail of breadcrumbs. Rather than the hard evidence, it was the soft, excited blooming in the center of my chest that rose into my throat, making me want to laugh and also to echo those strange cries at night with my own yips and yelps. It was the knock on the door, somewhere between heart and belly, to which I asked Who Is It and the answer that came with a sharp whiskered nose and sensual fur. It's me, Fox, it said and I opened the door wide.
Long before I ever saw the fox, I knew it was there.
When I did finally meet the fox, during a late morning run, I didn't know that it was almost the end of her story, but I feared it might be. We stood facing each other on the side of the road, not 10 feet apart...or she sat rather, emerging from a barn door and seeing me there, turning to face me and deciding to relax on her haunches...and I noticed how skinny she was. Mange, a form of dermititis caused by mites that results in loss of fur, had taken hold at the base of her tail. It's a secondary disease, caused more by stress than the mites themselves, and indicates an overall system in distress. She squinted in the bright sunlight, and seemed wary of my presence, but not as much as she should have been. Still, there were no other signs of illness, particularly not the convulsions, twitches and overall weird behavior that are the hallmarks of Distemper.
I was so pleased to see her, and tried to revel in the encounter alone, but concern stood two steps behind me, and three does make a crowd sometimes. Still, I tried hush it with hopes that the blessing of seeing her shining ears, her small pink tongue uncurling into the daylight from a yawn, was due to the primal urges of motherhood. Perhaps she was braving the mid-day to seek food, to quell the hunger of a nursing mama in springtime.
Just before our encounter ended, I settled down enough in myself to make contact, using what Derrick Jensen calls the language older than words. It's nothing fancy, this language, and is an ability we all possess, a sense just as real as that of taste and touch. It is, however, decidedly difficult to explain, especially without dragging out tired tropes like Pet Psychic! or Animal Telepathy!. There are words like intuition, felt sense and animal empathy that are in the ball park but not quite the thing.
Expounding on this sensability, let me illustrate what happened in that moment. I dropped my awareness to the center of my chest, and I noticed what I felt there. There was curiousity, wonderment, excitement and a lot of warmth. That warmth, a mix of love and gratitutde, felt like it wanted to expand, so I let it. Just like when you feel compelled to express appreciation to someone and the feeling swells in your chest? Right then that someone was the fox, but instead of expressing it vocally, I let it move beyond the parameters of my own body, until I felt it make contact with the fox. How do I know it made contact? Well, you know how you once said to someone I feel like we're really connecting and they said Yeah! Me too! and then there was that silence where you enjoyed the connectivity? That's how I knew.
Not to say that we were having a big love fest. The fox didn't share my excitement or even the warmth. What I did receive was an acknowledgement, a sense of bemusement and a small amount of surprise. Translated into words it could have sounded something like Oh! It's you. I know you. Hmmm. Well, hello then. It was the recognition that surprised me the most. How did this fox know who I was? I was a mile from our house. Could this be the same one that had been stepping in my shadow all these months?
My throat tightens as I write those last sentences. It sounds like I'm anthropomorphizing, something I find amusing in cute animal videos, but in reality incredibly insulting to the personhood of the individual animal. I agree with Henry Beston when he said Animals are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time. Their inner life has a complexity that only arrogance would claim to know. But in as much as I can know another, and know them not only by the words they say but also by their way of being in the world, including their non-verbal communication and the mood they create around them, then I do believe it is possible to receive enough information from an animal to translate it crudely into words.
To explicate on the receiving, let's begin with what it means to know. There is the knowing that we mean in regards to something being factual and proven. Like, I know all the names of the birds or It is well known that cigarettes cause lung cancer. But how about Do you know what I mean? Usually what we are implying when we ask this is Do you get it? Do you get me? Right there, in your gut, do you understand the complexity of everything I am telling you? Not just the words, but the feelings and experience behind it? Do you know what I mean?
This knowing is elusive, like a bushy tail slipping into tall weeds. We can find it best when we can get out of our own way, quiet down and let our thoughts recede to background chatter, dropping into silence and spaciousness. (Fat chance of that, you say. My mind never shuts up... Trust me, if I learned how to find internal silence, you can too.). This quieter space is receptive and it is from this place that we can make emotional and intuitive contact with a another, be it human, animal or plant.
I didn't see the fox again for a few days, until a brief encounter as my daughter and I were returning home from school. She crossed in front of us and then stopped to watch as we passed by. These quick glimpses became common place, and I began to see other foxes too, usually when I was out on my run. Often these rendezvous had a humorous element. Like the time a Reynard at twilight crossed the road far ahead of me. I continued to look towards the ditch where it had disappeared, but after a few minutes I gave up and turned to go...only to find it staring patiently directly across from me. Then there was the fuzzy face that popped up out of a pipe, just as I walked next to it, like a friendly neighbor who sees you coming and sticks their head out the window to say hello. Except in this case, it was more like Ah...yeah. Hi. Errrr...let's just pretend that didn't happen.
While the next significant contact we had led to the most unexpected outcome, it was also the moment when I knew she was sick. Leaving for my run that morning, things felt very foxy, a confidence of predestination humming in my imagination and veins. I started to feel disappointed when there was no sign of her on the way out. Half way back, I looked up a side road and saw her where she had not been only minutes before. Curled in the sun like a little croissant, my heart sank. I knew it was "my friend" because of her size, markings and the mangey tail. Her breathing was labored and her hind quarters were convulsing in rhythm with her lungs. She could barely open her eyes and gave me the barest acknowledgement. Giving her space, I sat down across from her, and wondered what to do*. The animal rescue wasn't open yet. I thought it probably unwise to try to catch her. It might not end well for either of us, and I was on foot, with no box or gloves. So I decided to ask. Can I help you?
What would you like me to do?
There was nothing more. She sank back into her private world of illness and exhaustion. So I asked my own heart.
What should I do?
And the answer came.
I once came across this quote by Annie Dillard, pulitzer prize winner in 1975,
We are here to abet creation and to witness it, to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each other's beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.
Since reading it, I have taken on this sacred role of Witness, sometimes with joy, other times with a heavy heart. As a kid, I frequently came across ill or injured animals, and while occasionally things had a happy ending, often they did not. I suffered a lot over this, into adulthood, until I finally realized that it wasn't up to me to save everything from an ill twist of fate. That compassion and empathy weren't super powers, nor was an untimely death of an animal proof of my failing. Maybe I find so many animals at the end of their life because I am a good companion for the walk across the threshold. A compassionate witness, a willing midwife into death. As Ram Dass says, We're all just walking each other home.
So I sat and witnessed the fox. And then she got up. Now we both sat. Behind her, a jackrabbit casually lolloped (and if I may anthropomorphize here, it was totally saying Neener neener neeeeeeener.)
Then she found all fours. She shook herself with what looked like herculean effort. And she walked up the driveway of what I secretly call That Special Place.
About a half mile from my home are three black oaks. When I run underneath them, I tune my hearing to the whispered stories that the leaves tell. If I peek through the stout trunks, I can see little winding paths that wander around wild and glorious plantings of native grasses, flowers, shrubs and trees. There are many bird boxes, with holes of varying size, accommodating tit mice, bluebirds and barn owls. Sometimes I see quail, other times I see gardeners, gingerly placing new natives under the canopies. I always want to stop and ask what they are doing, to inquire about the house on the hill, with the little shed beside it, the one with a metal dragon sculpture going through it. But I am always too reserved. Instead, I read the little placard that proclaims the spot "certified wildlife habitat" and dream of one day discovering it's secrets.
It was onto this property that the fox walked, right up to the house on the hill. That one day had finally come.
It was 8 o'clock in the morning on a Sunday, and while I couldn't bear to just let the fox walk away without doing my best to help, I wasn't thrilled about knocking on a stranger's door. There's a mix of types in the county where I live and the news Hey, I just wanted you to know there's a sick fox in your backyard could result in friendly helpfulness, or a shotgun in the face. Seeing as how this property was created with wildlife in mind, I decided pretty fast to risk it.
The door was answered by an elderly man. I gave him the nutshell version and after I finished with I just thought you might want to know, he was quiet for a moment. I was about to leap off his porch in awkwardness, when he looked down at my camera and said, Well, alright, that's good to know. Long as you're here, you can go 'round back if you like and take photographs. Noticing my hesitation, he said enticingly There's FIVE waterfalls back there. He began to point out things that might interest me...a pacific wax myrtle, little patches of coral bells, some house sparrows he was aiming to scare out of a bluebird box. Wait a minute he said. Let me get my shoes. The garden club is having a benefit here in a month, but you don't want to come then. It's fifty dollars. Just wait a second and I'll give you the 50 cent tour. He winked and disappeared inside.
When he re-emerged, I held out my hand and introduced myself. He gave me his name and we had a hearty handshake. Then, he led me into his Eden.
As we rounded the corner into the backyard, the fox startled up from her resting place. Trotting away from us slowly, she looked back with a lingering glance, and then disappeared into the brush. Oh dear, said the gentleman, she's in bad shape. Oh no, something isn't right there. Probably distemper. Poor thing. I'll keep an eye out for her. Maybe try to trap her if I can, for the rescue people.
Then, for the next hour and 1/2, the maestro walked me through his symphony in sight, sound, taste and touch. Five waterfalls cascaded down a hill, each one "tuned" to harmonize with the others by the way the rocks were placed and the resulting music that they made. Walking up to where they emerged from the top, we stood in a patch of sonoma salvia and he had me close my eyes and just listen to the waters. Depending on where one stood, the waterfalls played a different song.
Cracked corn was scattered on his patio for the quail families. Glass tree frogs were affixed to the wall by the back door, an homage to their real life counterparts who like the cool cement in the shade. Milkweed was planted in buckets for the monarchs. As we walked deeper into the garden, every nook and cranny, every twist and turn had some secret, hidden magic. A stand of deer resistant trees hid a small peach grove, one of the few edibles on the property that wasn't for the wildlife. Huge thickets of ceanothus and lupin, coyote bush and bunch grasses created coverage for the quail who made labyrinthine trails in the understory. He stood regaling me with the importance of the gopher's role in the web of life and why he thinks great horned owls are assholes.
He led me down to the oak trees, where the ground was carpeted by wild strawberries, and invited me to find the ripe ones, dark red and spicy sweet. Conspiratorily, he showed me the hole in the fence where I could squeeze in, and let me know that the gate was never locked. You're welcome to come back anytime, he said. Soon I'll have picnic tables, and these redwoods will grow tall and give shade. Bring your little girl. The kids like to splash through the waterfalls on hot days. We shook hands again, and said good bye at least five times, unable to stop our kindred chatting.
A couple of days later, the owner of the ranch I live on asked me if I had seen a sick fox around, as a ranch hand had reported one. My recent encounters came spilling out in concerned exuberance. Slightly taken aback, she was grateful for my knowledge but now doubly concerned. The two farm dogs had lapsed distemper vaccinations. Distemper is highly contagious through saliva and bodily secretions. The dogs patrolled the ranch at night, and one in particular would attack a sick fox if given the chance. We talked about rescue, but she had found the local organization fairly unhelpful, and figured they would just euthanize anyway. I've got my shotgun, she said. If we've got to put it out of it's misery...
Broken hearted that night, I kept vigilance, listening for her presence. Now I knew she was the one who'd been around our house. As darkness fell, and I sat with my daughter as she fell asleep, I heard the watering can tip over out back. Oh be careful I prayed. Please go, it's not safe for you here. A few hours later both dogs sent up the five alarm howl, and one raced into the paint shed, knocking over pots and buckets. I called them off and texted the owner to put them in the garage. This was it. There was no way we could let this go on. And there was no easy out.
The last time I saw the fox was the next morning. Running toward me down our long drive as I walked out to the car, she was totally unresponsive to my calls. Solely focused on her mission, she turned down the parameter of the property, between the owner's house and my own. This was farm dog territory. I called the owner and she said I'm on it.
There were so many different ways I wanted this story to turn out, and not like this. As my partner said, when I called him after an amazing encounter, What, did the fox jump into your arms this time? Are you guys totally sitting around and playing backgammon and having tea? I had hoped she wasn't sick, I hoped she would recover...20% do. I hoped that she would die with dignity, take herself off into the wilderness for her own private vigil like sick animals will do. But instead, she died that afternoon, crouched under a car, from a shotgun blast.
It had to happen. She could have gotten the dogs sick. She was certainly passing it on to other foxes and wildlife. She was suffering and out of her right mind.
But still I cried, that afternoon, that night, the next day.
Long before I ever saw the fox, I knew she was there. The night after she died, I knew she was gone...not just from the report of her death, but by the absence of Presence. The quiet evening, the empty doorstep between heart and belly, the yips and yelps that slipped back down my throat, all signaled her passing. In my dreams that night, I was walking down the road and she came forth from the grassy margin, all face and tail, looking at me with that same recognition as the first day. Hello.
Friends and colleagues sometimes comment that they are impressed by my connection to nature, like I have an inborn talent. And what I always want to say, and sometimes do, is that the way I connect is nothing special. It is not unique to me, and is in fact available to everyone. To you, dear reader. Nature, both as the sum of its parts, as well as the parts, is in constant communication with us. The trick is to step down out of the oligarchy of the western mind, from the pedestal of the semantic brain, into the body, the heart, the felt sense. Using our subtle senses of inner knowing and connectivity, we step into the flow of conversation, we pick up the threads in the tapestry of Life. Peter Kingsley, in an interview in Parabola in 2006, says this about our most Common Sense;
It’s actually a tremendous act of humility just to listen, to sense, to receive. It’s a totally simple presence— natural and rare. To perceive that you are perceiving, aware of yourself seated on a chair, seeing and hearing and feeling together—that is the original meaning of the expression common sense... Everything is calling to us. These senses that we believe we know and use are in fact divine powers. Through them we can serve the cosmos.
Communication. Community. Common. Communion. In latin, Com means "with, together" and Unus means "union, oneness". We can unify ourselves by returning to the present moment. Listening to our breath, feeling our heart beat, we hear the wind outside, the rhythmic crash of ocean waves. Right now, someone is calling your name. Right now, something sees you there, knows you, recognizes you. It may come as a surprise, and it may also feel like what you have always known.
Witness, listen, commune and respond. Simple instructions for a good life.