When I was asked to speak again this year for the St. Francis-inspired sermon of animals, my first thought was, “What if I said everything I had to say last year!”
Last year’s sermon of animals was a flow coming from multiple places of animals in the life of family and field, forest and farm, and it was very broad spectrum — all the species, all the roles, all the interaction between creatures and family and land. But there is always more about animals. So this year, it’s not the macro, but the micro — three short portraits. I want to tell you of a sheep. And two puppies. And an eagle.
Portrait #1: I have a sheep, May Snow, that loves touch. I’ve never hand-fed her, so she’s not looking for handouts. She wants my fingertips buried in the thick wool around her neck and rubbing the skin there. She wants me to wrap my arms around her great belly and rub along her stomach and feel the lambs inside. She wants my palms cupping her jaws and my thumbs making long, sweeping rubs along her cheekbones, and she wants her forehead rubbed and her poll scratched and her ears pulled. She lets me pull burrs and rose branches out of the two separate layers of her wool.
This isn’t usual for a sheep. So she has stepped into a role beyond the traditional contributions into that of therapy sheep. I’m not a therapist. But what happens when people come to me on this land often falls under the shell of healing. And things happen in her company that I take no credit for. Sitting next to her, hands buried in curls, lanolin easing into their skin, things unlock inside people’s nervous systems and muscles and mind, and they say things they didn’t know they knew, find solutions they didn’t know existed, and receive permission to feel what underlies all of this.
She’s only twitchy if you’re hiding from yourself.
People cry with her, on her, hugging her, into her. I do. And I’ve had tiny children, fierce warriors, humans in wheelchairs who have stroked her as her head rests in their laps. She can also be an escape artist and an erratic mother, so I’ve had my moments of wanting to bop her over the head. But she was the first lamb born here on this land, born in a May snowstorm. I think of her as an occasionally exasperating but deeply respected colleague.
Portrait #2: This summer when Dusan was working near Prague, he chose two puppies of a breed called the Cesky Fousek, which translates to ‘Czech mustachioed hunting dog’. As puppies they are like small bears. The breed are exceptional gun dogs, but what made them worth bringing all that way is that they were bred for centuries from remote mountain lodges, so they are also extremely hardy, adoring people dogs, and calm. One of them is on her way toward becoming a HOPE crisis response dog. And they have changed our farm for me.
When I go out across the land, they are there around me, circling like proximate satellites on the ground. If I release the doves they circle us overhead as we move through tall grasses. People ask me if there is a lead navigator bird in a flock of doves who directs all of the rest. The lovely answer is yes, but it is most often not the bird who is in the front, but near the center. Now I’ve felt this. As I wander through these fields I achieve a functional multiplicity of self, as if we are not 50 separate beings, but one. These creatures give me the physical experience of something that I have long believed, and offer you.
We as Unitarian Universalists have as one of our most basic tenets in which we hold that we exist within the web of life. I suggest that we take that one step further — not being in the web of life, but experimenting with the game that we each are the web of life — that we play with blurring the boundaries of self and other at every opportunity. It is an odd mental twist that occurs at the intersection between the sacred and the make-believe, the absurd and the inevitable. But the harvest each time I play this game is a deepened capacity for compassion, for perception, responsibility, and caring, and a sense that I am somehow in this mini-adventure approaching the most expansive truth of the world.
Portrait #3: Last winter, near the beginning of the new year, I walked from my house near the river bottom up into the higher ground, walking between fallow fields of potatoes and alfalfa, passing in and out of the shade of great stacks of hay along the road and along the long, high pivot waterers with their great wheels and winged spouts overhead. There were no clouds and in the distance I could see a patch of cottonwoods along one of the ditches with the silhouette of an eagle on one of the branches. I walked for a long time up and away from home until the valley was visible all around me, white chaff on white snow under white foothills under a ring of white mountains. Cheeks and eyes cold, ears warm. Coming back down toward the river I looked again for the eagle and was disappointed to see it gone from its perch. As I stared across, above my head rang the sound of something scraping metal, and looking overhead at the pivot waterer beam, I saw it there, immense claws closed around the silver pipe above my head, and looking down at me.
This was a rather strange moment. I was a lone human, completely surrounded by enormous empty fields. I was too big for prey, I was a possible predator, and I was too perpendicular to be perceived as carrion. She had come, apparently, to look up close at me, and I looked back at her, mittens in pockets, head tipped back, eyes narrowed against the glare.
She was huge, with a brown head and strongly yellow eyes. Each brown feather had more than one shade of brown in it, creating quiet patterns across her body. Her talons weren’t too much different in size from my hands. We stayed like this for minutes, doing nothing but breathing and looking, and then she launched and flew away, disappearing over the river to the north.
I didn’t know then and I don’t know now what to think about this. Biologically speaking, it was outside anything that I could easily reason from. In many native American tribes, eagle medicine is the connection to the Divine, the capacity to live in the realm of spirit and yet remain connected and balanced within the realm of earth. It is an invitation to courage, and to observe from a great height the expansiveness within the overall pattern of life. Eagle, too, teaches the broadening of your sense of self beyond the horizon of what is presently visible. Or, on the other end of the spectrum of experience, it I also got to let it mean…nothing. It simply was, a connection and approach allowed by calm confidence and curiosity on her part, and peacefulness and openness on mine. As such, when I thought of it, it was also an extraordinary invitation to me to just be with something unexplainable, to make nothing, to learn nothing, just pure noticing. And delight.
I will leave you with the end of a poem written by Joe Fitschen — my father, mountaineer, atheist, philosopher, musician, poet — on the occasion of seeing sea otters return to the bay in Monterey.
From ‘Sea Otters’
You were not there then. When you returned I took you to the sea’s edge hoping they would still be there and they were. Like the fence-post-perched hawks near our home, the otters spaced themselves along the beach. We walked, our talk stopped by new sightings. I thought how much our life was measured by animals. Twin bear cubs, harbingers of our twins, the nesting horned owls, a coyote gliding across a frozen meadow, the ghost of a silver fox, a bull moose browsing by our cabin, a bald eagle at dusk, puffins like white caps on the waves. And many other, otherwise quite ordinary animals, except watching them together made those places, those times, special. Other possibilities exist. The otters could have vanished, years ago, or before you returned.
The next day the otters had moved on. We watched fleets of pelicans cruising the sea as we had watched them before and godwits probing the sand like mirrored tripods. We talked of our lives’ turnings and acknowledged certain distances, as between otters. Some years ago I thought our special times were vanishing, perhaps, but had forgotten the animals, their remarkable times and places, and had forgotten the distance between expectation and experience. Had forgotten the world is full of animals.
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