Over the years, I have been fortunate to have many extraordinary animal and bird encounters. On the tundra in 2004, a polar bear and I shared our breaths—our faces separated only by the space of a foot. While perched on my hand, a female hummingbird smoothed its feathers on a sunny summer morning. One afternoon, I chased and was chased back by a horse as we played a comical game of tag.
In the Catskill Mountains, a wild deer that was too short to reach the remaining apples on a tree, waited for me to pick one and hand it to him. In each case, my response to the interaction has always been one of joy and wonder. While one can hardly dismiss such delicious feelings, I also recognize that each of these encounters provided a moving and powerful shift in my being. I’ve shared before in this column how a grizzly cub taught me how altruism and caring transcend the domain of human beings (April/May 2006). Years before that, I learned how wild creatures can also share their gratitude with us.
Twenty-five years ago, I was sitting in my first-floor office at the advertising agency where I worked as an Art Director. My drawing table was next to a big south-facing window and it was one of those blue-sky days we all relish in fall. The leaves were at peak color and the entire office was flooded with honey-colored light. As I focused on my work, which was on a tight deadline, I was startled by a sickening thump on my window. I got up from my drawing table and looked down, where I saw a small bird lying on the grass. Like so many before, it had mistaken the mirrored office window for open sky. Much to the amazement of my coworkers, I dashed outside without my jacket. I had thought that since it was so small and hadn’t fallen too far, it might not be dead. Furthermore, if it hadn’t injured itself too badly, it might recover if I could keep it from going into shock.
Upon reaching the bird, I gingerly picked it up and loosely cupped my hands around it to keep it warm. I could feel the rapid beating of the bird’s little heart. I whispered encouragement as I held my hands close to my chest.
After a few moments of standing in the chilly air, I felt a rustling in my hand and loosened my grasp even further. At that point, the bird quieted down and so I removed my top hand. It is at this point that birds usually fly away if they are able. Instead, the diminutive bird simply looked up at me. It had a ruffled patch of bright red on its head, which gave it the appearance of wearing a cockaded hat! It was one of North America’s smallest birds, a male Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Wondering if it had some injury that was not visible to me, I held the index finger from my free hand to his toes, encouraging him to move a bit. Instead, he climbed right on to my finger and then did the most amazing thing—he began to sing! Imagine how dumbfounded, and overwhelmed my feelings were as this wild bird looked into my eyes and gave me the gift of his music! What I remember most is feeling a rush of gratitude, which I understood as a mingling of his as well as my own. At this point, big tears began to roll down my chilled cheeks. He kept on singing for a several minutes and I was spellbound. Finally, as the cold was beginning to make me shiver, I thanked him aloud and walked over to a nearby tree. There, I touched his toes to a branch. He stepped onto it and kept on singing as I walked back around the building to the door. When I entered the office, my coworkers and I remained quiet. There weren’t any words that could either express or explain the feelings of such a miraculous moment.
In retrospect, I realize that episode had confirmed for me my belief that all creatures “feel” and can express themselves. It pleased me to know that the notions about this that I’d carried from childhood, were indeed true. I had many interactions with pets and domesticated animals that appeared to have been “conscious” but never so profound an example had occurred for me in nature. There was no doubt in my mind that this wild bird was not only unafraid of my presence but that his song was a way of expressing something to me. Perhaps a naturalist would have some scientific explanation of this behavior, but it wouldn’t matter. I knew that we’d shared a profound communication across species boundaries. On some deep level we were alike. In spite of how we were separated on the taxonomic Tree of Life, this connection was more powerful than how we differed.
Since that time, I have had other experiences with birds and animals. Although these subsequent interactions with wild creatures have been on some occasions even more powerful, I credit that afternoon with the kinglet as a profound step on my shamanic path. It also brought together the threads of a world view that I hold to this day. That is, that we are intimately connected to all of life on Earth. In addition, if we choose to do so, we can develop the lines of communication between us to make those connections more conscious and mutually fulfilling.
While the moments I described here can’t be choreographed, you can begin to create opportunities for your own equally powerful interactions. Opening our lives to the other beings with which we share All That Is, requires a desire to connect and a willingness to make yourself available. Most of us know that it is awfully hard to find a life partner without meeting new people. The same is true for having wildlife experiences. If you want to have these kinds of shamanic interactions in your own life, you’ll need to meet more birds and animals! This can happen by spending more time outside while keeping your eyes and heart open. Spend time in nature preserves, on the water in a kayak or hiking along a quiet trail. Springtime is an excellent time to begin this endeavor as wildlife is busy with the work of continuance and often more easily seen.
Those times when Allie and I take walks at Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm, we make special efforts to catch sight of as many species as possible. To observe animals, it is necessary to “blend in” with the surroundings so they will allow us to take a closer look.
A good way to start is by choosing your clothing to best match the surroundings. If you’ll be in a field of marsh grasses, choose greens and vertical stripes. If you’re going to the forest, try to blend in with grays, browns and greens. If you happen to have a real camouflage outfit, even better! Allie and I have shirts with photorealistic leaf patterns on them. They really help us to blend in when we’re in the woods. (Just don’t wear them during the hunting season!)
Once your are less visibly obtrusive, it is important to learn how to move in a way that is “less human.” By that I mean learning to walk in such a way that you feel less like a predator to the animals and birds. My father, who was paradoxically was both a lover of wildlife and an avid hunter, taught me a way to walk in the woods that he learned from a Native American hunting guide when he was a young man.
While ideally this way of walking would have been done while wearing moccasins, the method still works quite well even when one is wearing hiking boots. Normally when we walk, our foot strikes the ground with our heel first. Instead, try walking so that your outside toes land first, then roll inwards so that all your toes make contact and then set down your heel. Do this for three or so steps at a time and then pause. Stand still and listen while you look around. After pausing, take a few more steps in the same manner. As you move through the landscape this way, you are imitating the movements of a browsing animal.
Relax your body as you practice this walk and as silently as you can, move this way on your next excursion through the woods or field. Pick your way through the woods, disturbing as little of the foliage as possible. Place your feet carefully so that you avoid snapping twigs and don’t talk.
It is especially useful if you can also generate feelings of gratitude while you move. These feelings will help you to connect with the life around you. While in a state of gratitude, the world opens up in concert with your heart. The world gets a little brighter and more vibrant and you also get more attractive to Nature. It is as though we begin to vibrate in a way that causes the animals and birds around us to become more curious and more at ease. I suppose that isn’t surprising since it is the antithesis of the energy most members of our species regularly radiate!
As well as putting yourself “out there” in nature, it is also beneficial to encourage wild birds and creatures to feel more at home on your land. Creating a healthy, wildlife-friendly yard includes providing four key elements. These are appropriate food, clean water, good cover and a place to raise young. Good places for finding out more about how to best provide these resources to local wildlife may be found either through your local branch of the Audubon Society (www.audubon.org) or through the National Wildlife Federation (www.nwf.org).
As you encourage and support wildlife on the land that surrounds your home and spend more time out in nature, you will find numerous opportunities to both see and interact with the animals and birds. In no time at all you’ll be able to share extraordinary animal stories of your own!
© 2009 Evelyn C. Rysdyk
Nationally recognized shaman teacher/healer, speaker, and author, Evelyn C. Rysdyk delights in supporting people to remember their sacred place in All That Is. Whether though face-to-face contact with individual patients, groups and conference participants, or through the printed word in books, columns and articles—Evelyn uses her loving humor and passion to open people’s hearts and inspire them to live more joyful, fulfilling and purposeful lives.
She is the author of Modern Shamanic Living: New Explorations of an Ancient Path (1999), columnist and writer of numerous articles and features. Her writing and artwork have appeared in regional, national and international publications—both in print and online—and she is the executive editor of Spirit Living, an eco-spiritual e-magazine.
In joint practice with C. Allie Knowlton as Spirit Passages since 1991, she offers workshops in advanced experiential shamanism across the USA and Canada. In addition, as founding members of True North, an integrated medical center in Falmouth, Maine, she and Allie collaborate with physicians, nurses, a psychiatrist, naturopath and other complementary health practitioners. Evelyn may be contacted through her website: www.spiritpassages.com.