The connection to Nature and animals began for me from a very young age. Although I grew up in suburban Etobicoke during the 1960’s and 70’s, my family spent nearly every weekend from the end of May to Thanksgiving travelling, trailer in tow, throughout Ontario or down into New York State, Vermont and Pennsylvania. We also spent many summers “vacationing” on a century farm near Mount Forest with a family whose ancestors were some of the first settlers in Grey County.
Such travels exposed me to all sorts of new environments, landscapes and experiences. Some of my fondest memories are of being barely able to contain myself from jumping out of the back seat of my father’s big Chevy Impala before it came to a full stop to run down a beckoning path at a provincial park and explore new territory or discover a hidden glade in the woods.
And then there is the memory of how whenever we arrived at the farm I would immediately search out any new lambs and piglets in the barn or litter of kittens in the hayloft. I never tired of collecting eggs, riding along on the tractor while the hay was being brought in or wandering with the cows by the Rock Saugeen River as it winded its way through the back forty where our trailer was parked during the summer months.
As an adult, I treasure those memories and recognize what a gift my parents provided. I was blessed to see firsthand where the food on our table came from, to acquire an appreciation for Nature’s beauty and acceptance of her cycles of birth, growth, death and renewal.
While I may be the one driving the car now (but a much smaller and less gas guzzling one, Dad!), I still relish every opportunity to jump out of it, with just as much exuberance, to explore a new horizon or perhaps an old familiar one. I call such excursions my “bolt days” where I pack walking shoes, camera, sketchbook and a cooler full of sandwiches, randomly point the car either north, east, south or west, and make my escape, or “bolt”, from the daily round to the countryside.
I usually have only a vague idea of where I’m going but then, that’s the whole point. I go intuitively, with no expectations. And, more often than not, a new beauty spot I’ve not seen before or an extraordinary animal encounter manages to find me somewhere along the way.
Such unplanned journeys are truly magical. There is so much freedom in journeying-without-an-agenda, in just getting in the car and driving, wherever the mood or the road takes you. I find that the backroads and byways close to home can beckon with as much adventure as any exotic locale, as long as you pack the right attitude, along with some extra sandwiches. I’ve had some of my most profound insights and “aha” moments during such “bolts”, simply because I cleared space in my schedule for them to arise.
Then there are the planned “bolts” which are more like pilgrimages. One of my favourite spiritual writers, Christine Valters Paintner, defines pilgrimage as “courting holy disruption”, where “we go on a soulful, intentional journey to break ourselves open in new ways”.
“Pilgrimage is an inner journey in response to outer movement … we might embark on pilgrimage because of illness, grief or a transition in our lives and find that we are moving into new internal territory. When we respond and say yes to the journey, it takes us on, and then we become pilgrims. When life beckons we can resist at every turn, or we can recognize that things are changing and our invitation is to open ourselves.” (Paintner)
During March break a couple of weeks ago, I made just such an “intentional” journey in the company of a dear friend and her two youngsters to one of my favourite places, the Haliburton Forest Wolf Centre
. Although we had planned our mini vacation well in advance the timing ended up coinciding with some very sad news for my family that was difficult to process. But, as the quote above says, we can resist or we can recognize and accept that things are changing.
I have a very special bond with the Haliburton pack so being able to spend almost three days of uninterrupted time observing them was just the salve my hurting heart needed. Wolves are not so different from us, yet in many ways they are vastly different. For example, wolves, like all animals, come to a place of acceptance so much faster than we humans who typically struggle and rail against any change, uncertainty, sadness or confusion.
The alpha female of the Haliburton pack, Luna, is very much an elder now at eight years old. The things she has been through – the loss of her alpha parents in 2013 to thoughtless humans who let them loose only to be shot by even more thoughtless humans; forced to become an alpha herself at the very young age of only one-and-a-half as a result of that incident; the eighteen pups she has birthed, along with the countless ones she has buried – have all made her the strong leader she is today. She has earned every single silvery hair in her once-jet black coat.
Having been witness to this pack and their interactions with each other over the past four years has sometimes been difficult. There is such a harsh reality to their wild life when you consider the fifty percent mortality rate among pups and the brutal rules of pack governance.
According to those rules and despite her fearless and resolute leadership, Luna’s fate will soon be that her daughter Polly, the beta female, will turn on her aggressively and take control, perhaps even killing her mother in the fight for dominance. But this is the way of the wolf. It is how Nature ensures the strongest genes win out and the pack stays strong and healthy.
As I watched Luna, standing in her power, and Polly biding her time while still being deferential to her mother, I could see in each female “a quiet confidence that screams loud. She is humble, but strong. She is stable, but rebellious. She is giving, but not naïve. She chooses her battles wisely. She will stay silent until it’s time to fight … and when that time comes, fight she does.” (Jordan Sarah Weatherhead)
The most poignant moments were when Luna, no more than a few feet away on the other side of the windows in the observation area, stood and seemed to stare, with her piercing yellow amber eyes, straight into mine. I felt our heartbeats sync up as quiet reassurances of “this is Nature’s way, everything in its time, there is a reason for everything” passed between us. As the quote by Chief Dan George wisely says “If you talk to the animals they will talk with you and you will know each other”.
This spiritual and emotional connection with a wild creature was no different than the hours I spent as a child at the farm, lying on top of the stone mangers in the barn communing with the domestic cows as they munched contentedly on their hay, their big wet noses only a few inches away from my face. Even then I was seeking wisdom and comfort in the soulful eyes of an animal.
Ultimately, a pilgrimage, whether not far from home or to a far-off destination, asks us to walk into a place of unknowing and relinquish our grasp on certainty and control. The essence of a pilgrimage is, after all, to find our own way forward, to put one foot in front of the other because the next step can only revealed as we are in movement.
Of course, this demands a great deal of trust and listening for the whispers of the divine along the way. Animals live that reality every day, showing us how to make that walk with grace and humility. In order to recognize that though, we have to make the time ... and honour the privilege of entering into sacred dialogue with them.
In the end, a pilgrimage like my one to the Wolf Centre can return us home with a renewed understanding. Even though an outer journey may not be that far, the new perspective it affords, as well as many other extraordinary gifts provided along its way, breaks us open to more acceptance of whatever inner journey is occurring at the same time.
When we allow ourselves simply to wander without an agenda and are open to seeing life through a news lens, to trust in the unknown or allow an encounter with a kindred spirit - human or animal - it can help us overcome our fears or bring meaning to whatever might be weighing us down at the time.
There is so much power in opening ourselves up in this way to receive the wisdom of the inner and outer journeys of the everyday. It is the wisdom waiting to be discovered in our own backyard.
Spring is finally here and with it lots of new projects! One in particular I am very excited to announce is my first ever colouring book! It will be available just in time for the Alton Mill’s Spring Open House on May 4 with a special workshop to celebrate its launch. Watch for sneak peeks on my Facebook and Instagram feeds or stop by the studio in May to pick one up.
I am also delighted to be co-hosting “Spirit Under the Trees”, a one-day mini retreat celebrating Nature and Spirit on the beautiful grounds of Whisper Lane. If you are looking for a way to refresh and indulge your spirit before the summer season begins in earnest, then please join us. Registration is now open.
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May you enjoy the dance!