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Radical Awakeness: Living Among Animals

Spoken to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bozeman for the Blessing of the Animals…

I was invited to share today in part because my life and my work has become embedded in so very many animals.  Our river farm is and has been home to homing pigeons, white doves, Icelandic sheep, pigs, dogs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, honeybees, rabbits.  It is also home to great horned owls who called as I wrote this, nesting kestrels and red-tailed hawks, eagles, magpies and snipe, woodpeckers and Eastern kingbirds, snakes and mice, porcupine, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, trout, turtles and whitefish, and the occasional moose, bear and mountain lion.  And more.  And we have a great population of wild insects and microbial creatures who make our garden possible and whom we encourage in our soil, air and water.

We are blessed.

All these, and we, live together intimately and intricately entwined, more than we can ever grasp.  The principles of permaculture teach us to imitate nature in that not only do we tend our animals but in as many ways as possible we create and foster paths in which creatures and land feed each other, aware that in doing so we are merely clumsily echoing the intricate and fractal interactions that occur every second in a square yard of wild nature.

Our whole family exists in a nest of responsibility, giving some of our time to be controlled by the needs of our creatures. Our children know that when some of our animals are not fed, they would live with hunger. And when an animal needs us, we go, for as long as it takes. It can be crazy-making. And it is a natural teacher of the understanding that our own wishes are not paramount in the world, something good for children and adults.  We are brought back home again and again to the reality that we are not in control of everything, and never will be.  Ask my sheep.  

Inside our house we eat fresh eggs and milk, meat and bone broth and honey. We curl up on fleeces, spin and dye and felt Icelandic wool, and chase out the occasional chicken. We use propolis, feathers, wax and comb, rabbit fur and more for healing, for art, for biodynamic design inspiration, or gathered on little altars. When our son raised pigs with 4H this year we were surprised at many things in our bought lives that are made using something from the harvest of pigs or cows.

We harvest some of our raised and wild animals, choosing the intimacy of knowing our food and the personal responsibility of carefully taking the lives of those whose bodies feed ours. It is not easy.  So we do it with skill, and in honoring, and are grateful. 

And we love. Our homing pigeons’ hearts are twice the size of wild pigeon hearts, and so become ours, through the love and the pain, the radical acceptance of the fierce, wild reality of life. We are asked how we can live with the hard parts of farming, and I think that this way of thinking stems from a misunderstanding of the way the heart works. We put our emotions into categories: good and bad, positive and negative, and we are not all wrong. But under all this is the great taproot that feeds all feeling, and we are not permitted to selectively mute it — to deny in ourselves the experience of anger, or pain, or sorrow. When we refuse to feel these, we close down the reception of tender humility, astonished gratitude, and untamed joy.

Simple presence.

And in some, years can go by before their absence is noticed and held accountable.

This numbing is harder in the unbridled and fiercely mirroring company of animals. They let us know when we have ventured into the truly dangerous emotions — the ones we persuade ourselves into. Our creatures can be with any level of pain or anger in me if I feel them freely. If I am suppressing something, my creatures wild and tame fret and or simply leave. They keep me honest with myself. In my teaching and learning of natural leadership, of no-victims parenting, of resilience, of post-traumatic wholeness, animals are my partners through it all, as archetypes, co-teachers, companions and clear mirrors of the self. 

So perhaps the greatest gift we take from them is the escape from mindlessness. My creatures have taken me over and over again out of mindlessness into a fierce and healthy aliveness, awakeness — through affection, through awe, through loss and pain. Anger and frustration, lasting sadness, hope, exasperation and hilarity, opened to again and again, over and over.

As the inimitable Ellen Langer points out, we humans embrace meditation, yoga, running and more, all with the end of becoming mindful, but each of these is quite possible to do mindlessly. So from my creatures I take the purest practice of mindfulness I have found — the seeking out, creating and noticing of new things, in every part of life (including meditation, yoga and running.)  New light.  New sound.  New growth.  New loss.  And notice this — of every new thing, they ask, “How might this sustain me?”

This is how they live.

This is how I live with them, love most in them. How I can truly see them, and everything, freshly in each day, each moment.  The most loving gift we can give to those around us, to see them freshly with each new evening in all of their growth and change and dreams.  The greatest gift we can accept, to be fierce with reality.

Today, and every day — only seek out, create and notice new things. This is our birthright too, reclaimed with each of 10,000 bright glances around us.

We, still, are animals. 



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