Weeks later, wading through a medical quagmire of grim statistics and extensive neck surgery, I came across the photo of the bull elk grazing almost meditatively before a gargantuan wall of fire that seemed to reach all the way to heaven. It was one of the first series of photos to come out of the Yellowstone fires and had given me great, immediate comfort. If that elk could face such a consuming fire with peace and graceful adaptation, then perhaps I could at least attempt the same.
The story accompanying the photo had talked about the renewing capacity of fire, about the regrowth that would come in the spring. But mostly it talked reverently about the animals who never panicked before the blaze, who grazed quietly while the fires roared like thundering waterfalls all around them-animals who stepped carefully over charred and smoking ground, seeking food, gathering new nesting materials, quickly rebuilding forest homes.
I had quickly discovered animals and nature in my search for help and healing from cancer. The elk was only one of many animals who touched my life and taught me in those first postcancer years. I realized early in my illness that the world of human wisdom was, sadly, a bastion of repressed creative fire and too small a world in which to live for whatever time I had left to me. My prognosis was near terminal, so there was little hope on my horizon in the human terrain. Doctors shook their heads. My family was terrified. Many old friends were painfully silent in my life or absent. More than once I heard nurses crying outside my hospital room.
Outside of the restrictive realms of human relationship, however, I discovered a wealth of hope, surprise, mystery, acceptance, love, inspiration, and joy-all critical components of healing energy and of simple healthy living. Because I had been enchanted with animals all my life, it was easy for me to welcome them and their wise gifts into my healing journey, much of which I have documented in my previous books. By allowing animals and nature to serve as models, mentors, and teachers in my life, I was vastly increasing the resources and tools available to me to fight the frightful cultural and emotional impoverishment of catastrophic illness.
In the following years, I constantly and thankfully turned to animals and even to memories of animals for strength during my postcancer walk. And the animals generously soothed away much of my fear of illness.
In my early diagnosis, memories of my dog Keesha, who had died of cancer years before, came back to teach me that I could endure anything if I stayed in the present moment, which, of course, was where she lived every minute of her life. Keesha had also taught me through the peaceful unfolding of her death that life need not be clenched in a stranglehold of desperation.
A tiny kitten, whom I named Flora, taught me by surviving feline leukemia that no diagnosis has to be a death sentence and that miracles can and do happen. My debt of gratitude to these animals and to all animals resulted in a complete change in the direction of my life's work. With excitement, passion, and a keen sense of limited time, I put my technical editing career behind me and devoted the next seven years of my life to writing and speaking on behalf of animals, celebrating their profound gifts as teachers and healers.
Some animals would return to me again and again, bringing gifts of healing insight and energy. Elk was one of them. Over and over he came to me in life as well as in spirit and dreams, an enormous wealth of mystery and comfort attending his visits. When I moved from Oregon to Wyoming, home of the largest elk herd in the world, he became an even more powerful presence in my life.
Excerpted from Heart In the Wild by Susan Chernak McElroy.
Copyright 2002 by Susan Chernak McElroy
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.