Quiet moment at home with Burnsie

Saint Paul, in his Epistle to the Galatians, described himself as bodily marked by Jesus: “… for I bear in my body the marks of Jesus“– literally “stigmata.” Similarly, the biographers of Saint Francis of Assisi, in the 13th century, claim Francis’  body bore the stigmata of Christ.

In a far humbler sense my own life is marked, not by deity but by dogs and animals to whom I’ve opened my life. Opening my heart to animals great and small has left stretchmarks on my soul.

Blogger's animals' tracks in new concreteEvery time I feed my animals down at the barn I pass tangible symbols of my marked psyche  at Las Golondrinas. Years ago, a hastily formed-up concrete pad at the gate separating the donkey barn from the hay storage shed was inadequately ‘protected’ while the concrete was drying. A couple of upside down lawn chairs and a two by four board were NOT enough ‘barrier’. The result is a concrete pad ’signed’ forever by pygmy goats, donkeys, and a chicken! Similarly, when I poured the curving concrete walkway leading from the well-house to the corral, Burnsie managed to embed footprints across the path.

I wouldn’t have my place any other way. The animals we invite into our personal world reflect on us even as we reflect on them. Hearts surrendered are mutually ‘branded.’

Scottie footprints in concrete walkwayThese are not lofty ’stigmata’ in a theological sense, but they are no less real. Perhaps in a secular age it is as real as  stigmata get. As Annie Dillard says in Teaching A Stone To Talk:

“Now we are no longer primitive; now the whole world seems non-holy. We have drained the light from the boughs in the sacred grove and snuffed it in the high places and along the banks of the sacred streams. We as a people have moved from pantheism to pan-atheism.”

Nevertheless, I find the sacred comes alive for me in my simple life with my animals. All cultures have believed in power beyond human power, in life beyond death, in spirit. Many have believed in an animated, inhabited, sacred world surrounding the natural world that constitutes reality. Quad reflection at the blogger's homeI find such beliefs restore my sense of belonging which I lose in electronic worlds. Life with my animals becomes sacred covenant providing rules and rituals for restoring harmony, for re-entering and celebrating the natural world I’m part of. My animal-marked life gives me coherence in chaos and gives me real - not virtual - connection. My lowly stigmata lead me back again and again from technological complexity of modern living to what is simple, basic, and real.

In my own quiet way, I can understand why Saint Paul was proud of his marks. Like a sacred tattoo, his stigmata branded him as owned by another. I can understand it because I wear my own ‘brandedness’ with pride, too.

Dog and cat hair on my clothes? You bet. Puppy-stained floors? Yep. Paw-printed landscape and heart? Absolutely … and forever.

Joseph Harvill, Scottiephile

Contemplative moment at home with Burnsie

Recently I’ve been working in my old ‘chicken yard’, refurbishing it with the intention of getting laying hens again at Las Golondrinas. While re-configuring the 6-foot high chain link fence panels, I remembered vividly a remarkable close encounter with wildness in that chicken yard that sticks to the walls of my mind as one of the most amazing of my life.

It was my evening feeding routine for my animals about five years ago. I was feeding earlier than usual that particular day because I had an evening appointment in Albuquerque. The chickens were always fed first, as I worked my way along my curved path to the donkey barn. My routine was to begin calling the chickens loudly when I arrived at my gate leading out of my driveway onto the path to the animals and my six hens would come running to me from wherever they were free-ranging on my property. Usually, by the time I reached their enclosed chicken pen, they were at my feet, crowding around me at the entrance to their covered yard-area, eager for their big bowl of salad greens.

I say “enclosed” chicken pen because I went to expense and a great deal of work to erect six-foot high chain link fence panels with numerous swinging gates in a large, free-form configuration, as protection for my “girls” against predators. Additionally, I ordered off the Internet a huge, one-piece roll of bird-netting mesh which I stretched over the top of the tall chain link fence panels–to keep out hawks and owls I know hunt over my “pea patch.”

So you can imagine my shock as I bent over to put chicken feed into the on-the-ground feeder, when I saw a crow-sized bird, flapping rather wildly at the back of the pen against the inside of the fence. At first glance I thought it was one of the feral “ghetto girls” inside the chicken pen, the half wild itinerant hens that hang around my place because I give them hand-outs. My first thought was one of them was trying to get out when she saw the resident six hens return home.

But I knew as soon as I stopped and looked closely that what I was seeing was no chicken, domestic or otherwise. What was inside my chicken pen was a falcon.

American Kestral, similar to one caught inside blogger's chicken enclosure.I can’t explain how she got inside the covered enclosure. She must have flown low to the ground, swooping through the space between the rungs of the daytime gate I used to allow the chickens in/out access to their nesting boxes, food, and water during the day, but which also kept OUT goats and donkeys.

Whatever ‘opening’ the falcon found or created, she was inside the chicken pen and she was desperate to get out … but she was trapped. I quickly saw her predicament, wanted to remove her as much as she wanted out, but she saw me as Threat and Danger, so the more I attempted to corner her for capture and release outside the pen, the more frantic she became, flapping and hurling herself against the chain link and into the netting across the top.

I was wearing leather gloves that day, so I knew I could grab her in my hands with relative safety from talons and beak if I could catch her. Finally, after swirling round and round the inside perimeter with me approaching each time she stopped, she was exhausted enough to make the contest more even. I watched her on the ground gather her strength and then explosively hurl herself straight up into the nylon netting across the top of the enclosure in a desperate last bid to break free. Her talons caught in the webbing. Upside down, hanging in desperation, wings flailing in futility and a look of total panic in her eyes, I grabbed her in my gloved hands and carried her outside the chicken enclosure. There, with giant sweep of my arms, I flung her into the air and she flew like a missile to wide open spaces again.

Prior to my close encounter with that essence of wildness I’d been reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s, Letters to a Young Poet. I’d underlined these words:

“We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them . . . How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

To that beautiful falcon I was such a ‘dragon’ that moment inside my chicken pen. But I was there, in all my fearsome dragonness, to help, not to harm, to hold that frightened bird in my hands in order to set it free to soar again. I saw my own fear in its terrified eyes, felt my own trembling in its racing heart, knew my own existential dread in its surrender to my grip as I held it tightly, to untangle it from the netting and carry it outside the enclosure. I was that Kestrel held by a dragon in that instant of commonality.

Life parable? I choose to believe so. Thinking back to the dragons that moved across my life in Charlotte’s death almost six years ago, darkening everything I did, how ‘dragon-like’ it all was! Like the Kestrel, I knew something huge was happening to me, something frightening and overwhelming, something I could only surrender to as beyond my control.

Looking back, and looking within, I choose to believe that Life did not forget me, that the dragons of my dark days held me so I wouldn’t fall … that the grip which was so overpowering had purpose that was kind: to release me to fly again.

Joseph Harvill, Scottiephile