We were walking each afternoon with one of the four directions or "shields" and for this program all in the west, the place of initiation, mystery and soul. I had walked with the south of the west, then the west of the west, which was a powerful ceremony that landed me at the end of the day beneath an ancient Bristlecone Pine where in front of my toes lay a very old skull of a marmot who were abundantly alive in the area. This day was to be my walk with the north of the west. If these directional signposts for my walks make little sense to you, no worries, it is less important to the story than what unfolded on that particular day.
Our group's basecamp was at a lower elevation and it was hot on these August afternoons, so a number of us chose to drive up the mountain to where the amazing Bristlecone Pines grow...astonishingly these wise old beings are some of the oldest trees on the planet and believe it or not, there are trees there that are around 4000 years old. True ancestors in the plant kingdom.
Can you imagine having been rooted there since 2000 B.C?
Of course we were drawn there again and again.
On this particular day, I rode up with a couple of other participants and as we approached the area we planned to park in, there in the road was a marmot who'd been hit by a car. I immediately asked the drive to stop and let me get out to move it. My heart rate rose and I felt distraught. I jumped out and rushed to its side. Part of its head had been crushed and I reached to pick it up. It was so soft and warm to the touch so I assumed it was hit very recently. I walked up the embankment towards a tree above where it seemed to be headed. Immediately as I approached the tree, another marmot came out of its burrow near the tree and stood to watch me. I kneeled and gently laid the body of this beautiful creature down as the other one (was this its partner or mother? or child?) watched me...steadfast in its stance. Out of my heart poured lamentations to this other, very alive, but seemingly bewildered marmot friend. I apologized again and again for my species and the way that our speed and fear and disrespect caused this. I lay the body of the marmot down about 10 feet away from this other and kneeled. I was petting the body as I apologized out loud, and sprinkled its body with sage as I did.
Tears filled my eyes as I felt the presence of the other. She had a perfect white moon shaped mark on her forehead and rather than running and hiding in fear, she stood watching me. Our eyes locked as I shared my words and she watch and then would lower her head for a moment, as if confused or sad, and then watch me again, seeming to listen. Together we share these moments of honor, grief, and care and it stunned me and my heart exploded. This other, who was likely stunned and clearly cared about this now dead marmot, received me. This was one more heart-breaking event where I was so evidently witnessing grief in another animal. Everything in my body told me this was not an act of anthropomorphism on my part, but an experience of two warm blooded mammals, sharing a sadness over the death of another. I will never forget this, as it pierced me.
My friends sat in the car in the road watching this unfold. At first they didn't understand who I was talking to, but then they saw the marmot standing by the tree.
As soon as we parked I left on my walk...so full of emotion was I that I needed to get out so I could fully express all that was exploding out my heart. I stepped over the threshold to my wander and my grief cry rang out...the gaze of the live marmot had marked me. I walked straight north towards a rocky embankment in the middle of a huge meadow. My grief turned to anger and I raged out loud at the way in which our human need for speed has done so much damage...and how uncaring we have become as we disregard the damage we've dealt to the natural world.
I climbed to the top of this rise to a knoll that was covered with marmot droppings. My memory carried me to something I had read that Terry Tempest Williams had written as she took part in a study of Prairie Dogs. Studies showed that Prairie dogs came out of their burrows for each sunrise and sunset and pressed these tiny paws together in front of their hearts, as if in prayer, and watched as the sun rose or set. I wondered if this rocky knoll was perhaps a place that marmots might do the same thing. It had a perfect view to the east and west.
My walk unfolded further in reverence and praise for the creatures and their families living in this high elevation ecosystem with a view of the Sierra Nevada Range. The skull I had found became the center point for a mandala laid out of juniper berried, leaves, seed heads and more, as a tribute to all those hearts that matter, but often are disregarded by us.
For 20 years now, almost to the date, I have been in an apprenticeship to death and this walk in the north of the west, I was reminded keenly that my work is not done in the realm of the dying, after death care, and the grief so tied to these events in each of our lives.
I am a part of a group here in Prescott now who are working to be a resource to the community for these times: "Arizona Community Death Care Resouce". We hope to have a website up by the end of September.
This quote came direct from the heart of an extraordinary young woman I once guided. She always said that "every heart matters," and lived her life accordingly. Thank you Shae!