I hung the square of suet in the holder by the fence and went back to the house with my coffee cup to sit by the window and wait. In a moment a crow came hopping down the fence rail, bobbed his head three times, bounced up and down on the railing, fluffed his feathers, and began whacking chips out of the frozen fat with his bill. I could set a clock by his arrival and had begun looking forward to this simple, early morning ritual at my rental house.
Observing animals over the course of my lifetime had made me deeply respectful of the practice of ritual and ceremony-even those of the smallest sort like that enacted by my early morning crow. In the lives of animals, I saw daily and seasonal rituals that evoked in me a deep sense of the sacred and of mystery. This is what ritual is: an invitation into the sacred, a bridge constructed between the landscapes of mystery and our everyday world. Seeking to deepen my connection with my spiritual self during the slow, slogging months of postfire fallow time, I turned my attention to the practice of ceremony.
Every evening I watch my dog Arrow circle and circle on the carpet like a determined top and finally plop down with a deep grunt-her bedtime ceremony complete for the night. Each time she performs this ritual in my presence, I feel my own body release a portion of the day's concerns, and I feel myself move into a different mode of being. Through her simple ceremony, my own heart settles and my body begins moving into its own place of evening rest. Arrow and many other animals teach me that rituals needn't be elaborate ceremonies to move one into sacred, transformative space.
I cannot know what Arrow's simple evening ceremony means to her nor how it feels in her body and her heart. I don't believe that her rituals take her into sacred space, because I believe that animals live in sacred space all the time. It seems to me that animals, unlike humankind, have never left holy ground-that place of unquestioned trust and communion with life and living. Perhaps her small and steady ceremony simply acknowledges a relationship with Creation that is her natural home.
Every year a pair of robins make their nest on top of my front-porch light fixture, returning to my house within the same two-week period in the early spring. They construct the cup-sized nest with twigs from the aspens out front and always line it thickly with Strongheart's signature white hair. Around the robins' comings and goings, I have established a series of welcoming rituals for them of my own. As soon as the snow begins melting, I start brushing Strongheart out on the front lawn, knowing the birds will be looking for his hair. Once the first twig appears on my front deck, all of us stop using the front door and start coming and going from the garage so that the new parents can have some privacy. When I see the robins begin sitting for long hours in the nest, I begin my spring prayers for the safety of these new lives who swim inside a liquid sea, encased in sky-blue eggs. The ritual of the robins' annual return ushers in a special time for me in early spring, sending my thoughts toward new beginnings and new births, not only of birds and babies but of my own ideas and dreams for the coming season.
In the fall I discover the nut piles of squirrels stashed at the bases of trees lining the path of my afternoon walk. High up in the limbs, territorial squirrels bark fiercely at me, and I realize that their ritual fall harvest and gathering-like our own fall garden harvests-signifies the coming cold season, when all green growing things will sleep in darkness. It is time, then, to prepare for the hard lessons of winter ahead. As soon as I see the nut piles, I head for the phone and begin my search for wood for the heat stove. The squirrel ceremony sings to me of the coming season of introspection, in which weather will force me not only inside the house but inside myself. I touch the interior ground around me, searching for the harvest I've sown the previous summer in my inner garden. Some years the crop is richer and more plentiful than others. It is from this crop of life and story and dreams that I will feed my soul in the coming six months.
"We often think of ritual as belonging to the realm of religion," write Renee Beck and Sydney Metrick, "but in fact, rituals are an integral part of nature and of our daily lives. Animals have ritualized ways of defining and defending their territory. . . . Animals and birds often have elaborate courting and mating rituals." One autumn evening Lee and I drove to the top of nearby Signal Mountain to watch the sunset. From down below us on the valley floor, a breath of evening breeze caught the sound of bugling elk gathered in a complete circle ringing the mountain and carried it up to us. Muted by the distance and transformed by the sheer number of trumpeting animals, the sound was a rich symphony of exuberance, sweet and magical in the quiet evening air. It was impossible to hear the music and not be transported into a place of peace and stillness. So deeply did this experience touch my heart that I have made it a ritual of my own now to journey up to the mountaintop each fall and listen to the orchestra of elk flutes in a circle below me.
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.