A Conversation
with Susan Chernak McElroy

Q) This book is quite different from your other books. Tell us about that.

A) I have always let my life lead me to my book work. Coincidently, the day I sat down to begin writing Heart In the Wild, my house burned down. Just two hours after finishing the introduction, I returned home from tea with a friend to find my home in flames. By the time I sat down to begin writing again a full year later, life had given me a year's worth of amazing stories of my own about transformation and regeneration, and so I made the decision to tell much more of my own story in this book rather than to focus upon the experiences of others.

Q) How do you think your readers will feel about this shift in your writing?

A) My readers have always been people who love animals, love the earth, and have been hesitant to come out of the closet with that enchantment for fear of being ridiculed. In letters to me, they share that what has been most valuable to them in my writing has not been any particular story about an animal, but that I validated their love for animals and nature, and that they didn't have to feel crazy any more! In Heart In the Wild, I validate them again-this time, though, I am validating the deep need many people have to belong to something, to belong to their life, and to all life around them. I am validating the inner voice that we have but don't heed. And I'm sharing the tools that have helped me find my way "home." Of course, animals and nature remain a big part of the journey for me. I'm just taking my readers further along the path we've been traveling together now for some years!

Q) There are other people writing about the animal-human bond, and about nature. What's different about your work?

A) Many books currently on the market try to validate the animal or nature connection for healing by leaning toward research models that show how animals and park lands are good for our health. I tend to fall more into the camp of Dr. Dean Ornish, who says that if information and facts were the only things people needed to change their behavior, no one would smoke! I have a strong belief in the power of story. Intuitively, we know as a species that story touches us in places where information falls flat. We are a species of myth-makers and story tellers, and for good reason. All of my work is story-guided-stories of meaning that are personal, yet universal in their application. The non-human world of animals and nature are a particularly good vehicle to mirror our own lives and challenges, and just being in the presence of these "others" is a story in itself.

Q) Why do you think that people are more receptive to stories and memoirs now than in the past?

A) The world is becoming an increasingly difficult, stressful, dangerous place to live. Our workplaces are more demanding even as our technology becomes more advanced. Our homes may be filled with anxiety, tension, and conflict. As we feel the world seem to spin out of control over our heads, things that bring us joy and peace become more precious than ever. I believe people are starting to take a much closer look at their lives, and at the elements that have true value. A big piece of that value is in relationships-the good ones, the nurturing ones. Stories are about relationships, relationships with family, with animals, with nature, and with ourselves as we become more reflective. And so people are searching out stories that heal, and that teach.

Q) Why do you focus so much on relationships, particularly non-human ones?

A) I believe that all of the world has things to teach us. So much of our civilized life is so very artificial. Just spend ten minutes watching commercials on television for a sobering look at what we're taught to value in life: white teeth, light beer, a bigger car! The world of nature and animals is still a world closer to God, closer to true meaning. In the non-human realms, we see the reflected values of nurture, of devotion, of fierce parenting and protection of the young at all costs. We see, too, the value of a good community or pack, a safe home site, of living in the moment, and of play. Where in our culture do you hear about the need for play? You don't, despite its incredible healing powers. Animals can teach us how to play, and they can teach us a lot more. Even a dog knows when it's time for a good nap!

Q) You attach a great importance to the human-animal bond. Why is that?

A) Because we attach too much importance to the human-human bond, to the extent that we leave all the rest of the world out. Our culture trivializes any relationship that isn't human-to-human. Consider all the jokes about people who treat their animals like children. Or the patronizing tone we use about people who are devoted gardeners and love their roses. The relationships people can have with animals, with plants, with great old trees, and with crashing waves is not a relationship that is better than what we can have with our human companions, but it is most certainly different. So different, in fact, that there are times in life when an animal or a tree may give you more of what you need than a person can. From my experience with cancer, I know what it is to face challenges in life, and I can assure you that if your only sources of hope, healing and wisdom are other people, you are cutting yourself off from some vital sources of help and wholeness. You are limiting your ability to handle some of the complex, paradoxical, frightening challenges life may be sending your way. I call this having a very small toolbox. When we acknowledge the value of other-than- human relationships, we add a whole new community of teachers, healers, and mentors to our toolbox.

Q) What do you hope to accomplish with your writing and lecturing?

A) I intend to save the world. Don't laugh-I'm serious! If my work can lead people to a new way of thinking about the wholeness and healing power of relationships-about relationships that include all of Creation-then I will have begun the transformation of the world. We truly are all connected, and my small contribution will be one of those beating butterfly wings that changes the weather of the planet. And honestly, why limit your aspirations? I find that most people suffer from living too small a life. Rarely do we risk the big dreams, but those are the dreams that can make it all worth it in the end. None of us can stay here forever, and each of us wants to leave something of importance behind. Dream big!

Q) What changes would you like to see in the way society at large relates to animals and nature?

A) I would like to see a return to the old fashioned notion of reverence. Albert Schweitzer knew about the power of a reverential approach to living. He wrote entire books on the topic. There is no way humankind can live without hurting other beings and other landscapes in the course of our daily living, but we can certainly change our attitude about what we are doing, and admit that other beings and lands suffer on our behalf. And we can certainly make choices about how we use the world and the creatures in it. If you feel you must experiment on an animal so that you can make a drug that may save millions of lives, honor that animal for what it is giving. Honor it out loud. Keep your heart in the right place by living with reverence for all life. To do less is to disgrace the life of another, and to disgrace and diminish your own soul, as well. Careless, thoughtless living makes us small and weak inside. And there are too many places where our selfishness rules over life itself. I would love to live long enough to see reverence replace greed as the most defining value of our society.

Q) How has your work influenced your own life post-cancer?

A) I feel that I've become more authentically me. I see a stronger, more confident, more accepting, more grounded person reflected in the eyes of my human and animal family, and in the world around me. I have a far greater appreciation for my own body, and I care for it well. I take naps with the dogs, and I have learned-like my cat-to say "no." What is more difficult to describe adequately is the overall feeling of connection and affection I have in my world these days. I truly feel like a daughter of the earth, like a precious child of a force far greater than I. It is a feeling that brings me comfort and strength when life scares me, and sense of security in an insecure, uncertain world. For all of these things, I have the wisdom of the living world to thank-what the Lakota people call "Mitaku Oyasin," or "all my relations." I've fashioned a far greater toolbox for myself, and hopefully, I've helped a few others do the same.

Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Photo Credit: Fritz Saam

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