Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mintaka's Journey

Taka, my nine year old Akita, lies beside my chair. She is beautiful, a lovely silver gray with black mask and white markings, almost identical in appearance to her great grandfather Kuma, my original stud dog and heart mate. She inherited her love of water and her gentle nature from him.

Thirteen months ago she suffered an almost fatal internal bleed. It was something I am familiar with, having watched both her grandmother Dancer and her mother StarBaby succumb to hemangiosarcoma, a blood borne cancer that usually begins in the spleen, and spreads via the blood to other organs.

Sure enough, her veterinarian, Angel, found the large firm tumor in her belly. Déjà vu. All over again. We sat together on that floor and discussed options; surgery, which never cures, only buys time, and most of the time spreads cancer cells; chemotherapy, which I neither trusted nor could afford; euthanasia, no, she’s too strong spiritually, not ready to go; and herbalism, something that might hold some promise, if not to save her then to prolong quality of life for a time.

So we talked about herbal protocols, with Angel helping me on energetics, being primarily a TCM practitioner and damn fine diagnostician. Bloodroot was mentioned and discarded, we’d both heard too many horror stories, mushrooms, turmeric maybe, and of course my always ally Poke. So I took my Taka home and explained the news to the rest of the pack; Diva, Taka’s sister and constant companion, Bear, my young Pyr/golden mix, and Rusty and Bella, my dachshunds, who are in charge of entertainment. Being animals, and never worrying about what tomorrow might bring, they took the news with indifference, only happy that Taka and I had returned home and that dinnertime was close.

For most of the next three weeks I was sure I’d made a mistake in bringing her home. She was so very weak, and had to be helped outside to potty and to lie in the sun. Most of the time she slept, a shell of the vibrant dog we all knew. But gradually, as her blood was replenished, she gained strength, and once again became the sweet companion and pack mate we all loved. She was able to get to the creek, to swim and wade and stick her muzzle deep into the water to bite it, coming up with that characteristic Akita grin on her face.

I knew then it was time for me to seek help for her, and I planned a journey to that other world so few of us know how to reach. I sat here in my chair and held a poke seed, my ticket, and set the mood; phone off the hook, dogs outside, my drumming CD to help guide me and show me the way back home. Taka had refused to go outside, and she lay at my feet. On impulse I asked her if she’d like to go with me, and her answer was yes. Cool.

And so we began. The drumming started, and in short order my spirit and hers left our bodies and entered the secret passageway to the otherworld. Together we walked down, down that deep dark damp tunnel till we saw the light at the opening and we entered that world that is the same yet different.

The path led straight to a clump of Poke, and I sat, following my usual routine of making myself comfortable near the plant I wanted to speak to and waited. I found myself sitting at the feet of an old woman, fragile with age she seemed, but her energy was strong. Her clothing blended with the ground and with the poke plants surrounding us; her skirt and shawl the colors of poke; mottled greens, deep magenta, dark purple black, threads of white. We knew each other already, and I felt comfortable with her, silently sitting and waiting until it seemed right to speak.

As I waited I looked around, taking in the falling night, the sounds of creek and wind and something else; spirits all around us in many forms, some invisible, some only shadows, none could I make out clearly, which was unusual. There was a bonfire burning nearby, and I could see the dancing flames and more shadowy figures seeming to dance in a circle around it. We sat still in our shadows under the poke and waited.

In time, as time goes down there, she spoke; “I see you have come again for help. How can I help you?” I introduced her to Taka, explaining that she was the daughter of Sonny, the first dog she had helped me with a few years ago. She looked at my dog, and reached out to her. Taka settled herself on the ground beside me with a groan, and allowed Poke woman to touch her, stroking her gently from head to tail.

Poke woman stopped at Taka’s belly, and looked back at me, shaking her head. “She has old dead blood here, we must take it out.” I could see her then, hands scooping deep into my dog’s belly, scoping out a black mass that resembled poke berries in black juice. She would gather a handful, remove it from Taka, and toss it away, repeating this action many times as the dog lay quietly, trusting completely. As she scooped she listened to me as I explained about this cancer taking both Taka’s mother and grandmother. I didn’t want to lose another to this disease, and wanted help to heal her.

To my dismay she simply shook her head, still working as she spoke. “There is nothing you can do.” She said simply, “Nothing you can do will heal her.”

“But that can’t be!” I wailed, suddenly overcome with such deep sadness and grief. “But I can see spirits, those shadows over there….”

“They are not here for you.” She said simply, and waited for me to understand that.

“Then who…” and I realized then, and grew quiet.

Those shadows, those spirits I was seeing, unable to make out, weren’t waiting to speak to me, to help me, they were here for HER, for Taka. I sat and cried, so overcome with grief and love and the sudden knowing that Taka had come down here to seek her own help, to make her own deal, and I was privileged to watch, if not participate.

I could feel Poke woman’s hand on my shoulder, offering comfort as we watched Taka slowly stand and make her way to those shadows. Still grieving I cried tears of helplessness that I couldn’t help, but at the same time I knew there was hope. She told me then; “You cannot help her with herbs, but you can take her home when she is finished here. Take her home. Love her. Feed her. That is your role. Not everyone can be healed, you know that, and it is no fault of yours that in this instance you can do only that little bit. It will be enough.”

I sat and watched as best I could, peering through the trees, trying to make out those shadowy forms only Taka and Poke could see. Finally Poke woman said softly; “I will show you one of her spirit helpers, you know it already.” With that she made a motion with one hand, and the shadows were lit by the flames for an instant, but in that one instant I saw one quite clearly; it was Dancer, Taka’s grandmother, the first to die from this cancer. Dancer turned her head and looked me in the eye then, and gave me her famous smile.

I knew than that my Taka was in good hands, that she too had powerful spirit allies, allies that did not necessarily coincide with my own. It suddenly came to me why I had named her grandmother that all those years ago, when she was such a sunny bright dog. I named her “The Shadow-Dancer”, and here she was, some twenty years after being named, seven years after her own death, dancing in the shadows. I could never have known then why I named her that, but now knew that her future as guide to her granddaughter was already planned.

And so I sat and cried with a plant spirit and marveled at the magic and wonder of a dog going on her own journey, her own quest for help from her ancestors.

We returned from that journey, and Taka got better. She didn’t heal, that wasn’t in the cards for her, but she grew strong again, could run and play again, could chase bears and rabbits and turkeys and swim in the pond and splash in the creek and sleep in a pile with her beloved sister and her packmates, and she could hug me every morning. She lived beyond the three weeks to three months prediction. She lived another year. She celebrated her ninth birthday with her sister in September, and celebrated mine with me earlier this month.

Her time is drawing near now. She is weak, and thin, and the tumor inside her has grown, taking up much of her belly. She can still go for short walks with us, and made it to the creek day before yesterday. Sadly she didn’t go in, and I knew it was because she is so weak. Akitas have this great pride, a warrior’s pride, and they don’t like to be helpless or get themselves into situations they may need help to get out of. So she sat beside me on a rock at that spot in the creek where we spread the ashes of dogs as they leave their bodies empty and we watched her packmates play.

We reflect together she and I; on life, on our journeys that we have made together this lifetime and ones past. She stays close by me now, needing me to be near her. I feel that same need, and I watch her closely. But she feels no sadness, no fear of leaving. I am reminded of a line from a favorite poem by Wendell Berry as we sit together and cherish time in this special place of peace; “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” I marvel at the miracles we have both been privileged to be a part of, and I do not grieve nor feel guilt or failure.   

With Samhain approaching, the veil between worlds thins, and many times lately I have caught a glimpse of Dancer’s face, smiling at us, and I have felt Taka’s other ancestors as they gather close. Soon they will lead her on the next part of her journey and I will be left here in awe of the magic that is life and death. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Close Encounters with Foxes

I’ve been fortunate to enjoy close encounters with wild things in my life, all of which have left a lasting impression. Two of my favorites involve foxes.

Back in the early days of my marriage I used to go trail riding on my beloved Appaloosa gelding Winterhawk. We were closely bonded, two rebels who connected and enjoyed being alone together on sunny days. I was fortunate that there were many trails in the area, long paths along canals built to drain the swampy land that was Pitt County. Most of the farmers in that rural area didn’t mind our trespasses, for I always closed gates behind us, never rode into plowed or planted fields, and was careful not to litter, leaving only footprints to mark our passing.

On one bright day I saddled up and headed out, crossing the street and making my way through a small pasture of yearling cattle. As I was closing the gate at the exit of the pasture something caught my eye. A red flash of movement streaked across the open field before us, which had lain fallow for a year or more. As I followed the movement it materialized into a red fox. She ran along the edge of the field in plain view, even though she could have ducked into cover at any time. I knew she intended to be seen, and the only reason that came to mind was that I was disturbing her den.

Hawk dropped his head and began to graze on the lush pasture grass by the gate as I studied the field closely. Sure enough I saw a mound in the center of the field, contrasting with the flatness. It was about the size and shape of a pitcher’s mound on a baseball field. The she fox disappeared into the woods and we were left alone. Minutes passed, the only sound was of Hawk’s chewing and the occasional squeak of leather as the saddle shifted. Soon enough my patience was rewarded. A tiny nose appeared in the center of that mound, followed by the head of a small fox cub. He peered around and then disappeared again. But almost immediately he reappeared and was joined by another, then another, until there were four of them, spilling out of the hole that marked the entrance to their den.

I watched, fascinated as they grew bold and began to wrestle and play like puppies, never straying far from the safety of their den. Our ride forgotten, I concentrated on the wonder before me while Hawk took advantage of my inattention to him and gorged on the grass. I watched them for a long time, maybe thirty minutes, before picking up my reins and clucking to Hawk to move on. As soon as he stepped forward, all four cubs dived back into their den and did not reappear. We enjoyed our ride and when we returned later through that same field all was quiet, but I didn’t forget my glimpse into fox life.

From then on I’d often stop on the return trip and sit while Hawk grazed under a tree beside the path. More often than not we’d see the fox family, and enjoy their antics before heading home. One day as we trotted down that path, heading home after a long ride I was dismayed to see a pickup parked under our tree. I recognized it as the farmer’s truck, the man who owned the property. The cubs were playing boldly and I knew he had seen them. I knew also that this would mark their death. Farmers don’t generally like foxes, as they kill chickens, and this man had a chicken house too.

As I approached the truck the farmer turned and saw me. To my surprise he made a shushing motion with a finger to his lips, and then pointed to where the cubs were wrestling. I pulled up beside the truck and Hawk dropped his head to graze. The Man was smiling, obviously happy to be witnessing the same glimpse into the wild as I had so often done over the past few weeks. He whispered to me then, saying he loved to watch them, and that he hadn’t plowed or planted this field in three years, because the female fox made her den there yearly. My new friend and I talked quietly about how lucky we were to witness such a thing, and he cautioned me to never say a word to anyone about our secret.

Hawk and I moved on then, not disturbing the fox play as they’d become used to us and we no longer posed a threat. I moved the following fall and never again saw the field, the farmer, or the fox family, but I knew they must still be there, protected by a farmer’s simple appreciation of the wonders of nature.

A few years later I had another encounter, this one even closer. I loved to hunt deer, and I’d go out into the forest behind property we now owned in another part of the county. My husband built several tree stands and I’d go sit in one and wait for my deer to pass. I was lucky to bag a doe each year, and was a good shot, so each one I shot dropped in her tracks. On this particular day I headed out about an hour before dusk. I had a habit of using fox pee on the bottoms of my boots to mask my scent. The stuff had a pretty strong odor to it, and I held my nose while I applied a few drops to each boot, then hiked along my trail to my favorite stand.

This stand was on a fallen tree, a big maple. It had been down a long time, years, but the roots were still in the ground and several large limbs jutted straight up from the horizontal trunk. On one such limb was a natural V, several feet from the trunk, maybe eight feet from the ground. I had a nice board nailed across the V, with a nail to hang my thermos from, and a good view of the trail that ran alongside the tree.

I walked on past the tree to lay tracks, then turned and made my way back to it, climbed up on the trunk and settled into my seat to wait for dusk and my deer. As I waited my thoughts wandered, traveling to many subjects while my body remained as still as the limbs of the tree. About an hour later dusk began to fall, and I heard rustling along the path. The rustling turned into footsteps, and I carefully slipped the safety off my rifle and pointed it toward the place my deer would appear.

What appeared was not a deer, but a gray fox! A dog fox, who, with nose to the ground, was tracking something intently. He was tracking me! I watched as he followed my tracks to the point where I turned around, then straight to my tree. I sat as still as I could and was rewarded when he stopped under my tree and gazed up, looking straight into my eyes. I held my breath and he continued to approach, hopping up onto the trunk and standing on his hind legs he sniffed the bottom of each of my boots. Then he looked up at me quizzically, as if to ask why on earth I had fox pee on my feet! I had to choke back a laugh, he was so comical and clearly confused as to why a human would do such a thing. We stayed that way for a minute or so, watching each other with wonder. Then he turned and hopped down from the tree and continued along the trail. I waited for several minutes, then climbed down myself in the now almost dark and headed slowly home, as excited as I had been the day I shot my first deer, and every bit as proud.

I bought a camera soon after that and always had it with me on future hunts, but I never saw another fox. I still have the photographs my mind took, I still remember the bright eyes looking into mine, and I cherish those memories.