Heart in the Wild

Heart in the Wild

by Susan Chernak McElroy
In her bestselling Animals as Teachers and Healers, author and animal advocate Susan Chernak McElroy shared how her beloved animal companions guided and sustained her through her battle with advanced cancer. Twelve years later, when a fire ravaged her mountain home and reduced her emotional security to ashes, once again animals—wild animals this


In her bestselling Animals as Teachers and Healers, author and animal advocate Susan Chernak McElroy shared how her beloved animal companions guided and sustained her through her battle with advanced cancer. Twelve years later, when a fire ravaged her mountain home and reduced her emotional security to ashes, once again animals—wild animals this time—provided the guidance that helped her heal and grow through yet another catastropic life change.

Writing with a passionate love and respect for the natural world, McElroy invites us to walk with her along the ancient four-footed path that leads through transformation into wholeness. The rattlesnake coiled inches from her hand, the broken-winged hummingbird who sat on her finger and drank sugar water, the red fox and his Saint Bernard playmate—each becomes an incarnation of life-sustaining powers, teaching us better, healthier ways of being in the world. These true stories and a host of others speak to the necessity for ritual, the value of generosity, and how to deal with essential life changes by reconnecting to the earth and its rhythms.

McElroy documents rich insights that come from her animal kin—animals in the wild and those in the inner world of dreams and visions. A cougar and her cubs bring balance and harmony to the valley. . . . A friend’s chocolate Lab builds medicine wheels around his human companions, reminding them of the need for community. . . . A cow elk attacked by wolves faces her own mortality stoically, teaching us that endings of one kind herald beginnings of another.

But it was the magnificent six-pointed bull elk who ventured into McElroy’s world each day and reappeared in her dreams at night that led her on her most inspirited soul journey through homelessness, divorce, and the deep sense of disengagement that she had felt since cancer had tried to evict her from her body years before.

A powerful, beautifully written story of one woman’s journey of personal transition to a genuine sense of belonging in the world, the book ends exactly where it should—in a heartfelt sense of home on earth, a place big enough to welcome all life.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.46(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.67(d)

Read an Excerpt


As we wake or sleep we grow strong or we grow weak. At last, some crisis shows us what we have become.

—Bishop Westcott

The raven circled the column of smoke, which went straight up, blossoming like a fat, black balloon in that windless January afternoon. I thought the bird was soaring over someone’s trash pile. Somebody’s really got a heap going, I told myself. And right above our house. Burn piles are commonplace in the rural Wyoming valley where I live. The dark, billowing clouds that always attend them celebrate the site of someone’s old haystack, garden clippings, or collapsed outbuilding. And yet something about this burn pile struck me as different. Something about the location. Where is it coming from? It must be the neighbors just up the road. No, that’s not quite right.

It was four days after the turn of the millennium, and I was returning home all warm and cozy after tea with a friend. The sun was dropping off the horizon, and the late afternoon shadows were dark charcoal. Aspens rested in the foothills, standing bare and serene, with trunks the color of campfire ashes. For me winter in Wyoming is a magic time. There is the cold, yes, but the mountains are so white that they shine even on days when the sun does not. And against that white, the blue of the sky is the color of oceans.

That particular day in early January, the winter landscape had me so captivated that I hadn’t noticed the black smoke balloon rising under the crest of our hill until I was approaching the final turn up the road to our house. For several moments I watched the raven playing tag with the smoke, wondering where the gray cloud originated. I felt irritated, imagining that it would waft its way up to our house, sending me into coughing fits when I went up to the barn to feed my horse and donkeys.

The raven abruptly wheeled and spun away to the east. Instantly my body clamped down upon itself. And with a furious and icy rush of dread, I knew. But for a few moments longer—for as long as my mind would allow me to believe that my life had not changed forever—I chose not to know. I do not remember driving the car. I do not remember putting my foot on the brake to slow for the coming turn. I do not remember anything until I spun my wheel to make the turn and saw my corner neighbor, Archie, old and bent like a stick of driftwood, come hurrying to my car, shaking his head from side to side. I looked at Archie’s face and then past his face to the columns of red flame moving like a breaking wave across the roof of my house. The raven was a tiny speck on the horizon. Opening the car window, I tasted the bitter chalkiness of smoke against the back of my mouth. Archie leaned in, his face close to mine, his head still shaking from side to side. Now his voice shook, too, and he said, “My God, Susie, I’m sorry. It looks like she’s all gone . . . all gone . . .”

In the nightmare of a living dream, I closed the window to block out the smell of smoke and opened my eyes wide, wide, letting the sight take hold, letting my throat clench. My home all in flames. Crowds lining the road. Cars milling everywhere. With my windows closed, it seemed as though all the chaos that I saw was unfolding in utter and eerie silence. The only sound that reached me was a curious muffled thudding, which I finally identified as the sound of my heart pounding like a fist against the walls of my chest.

In those first moments of terrible realization, I struggled to pull air into my compressed lungs in deep, sucking gulps. I could not get enough. My head felt as light and unsubstantial as soapsuds. In my head was a cry, running over and over like a circular tape: This is NOT happening. This is a dream. This is NOT real. Wake up . . . wake up . . . wake up . . .

You might think I would have stepped on the gas and careened up the road as fast as the winter ice would let me. I did not. I drove slowly, slowly. It was not only my eyes that were open like a ship’s portholes. It was my mouth, too, like a gaping maw, stretching to let out a groan that seemed to come from the very base of my spine. My hands splayed wide for an instant, before clutching the steering wheel only to open wide again. I felt as though I were trying, trying with each piece of my body, to open wide enough to take in the immensity of the horror.

Mom, Mom, Mom. She lived in an apartment downstairs. Dear God, my mom! The dogs, the cats!

I pulled into the driveway, the car jerking along the ice-rutted drive, my feet numb on the pedals, my knees locked. In the shadow of the firestorm stood my husband, Lee, with his arm around my mother. Sitting beside my mother were our two dogs, Arrow and Strongheart. As soon as Arrow saw me, she ran up happily beside the car to welcome me home, her glorious brown collie fur dancing in the ghostly light of the flames. So long as her mother—me—was there, she was delighted. She thinks this is a bonfire, I thought. A party . . . From the car I saw Strongheart, my huge white Anatolian shepherd dog, lean his head protectively against my mother—a position he would not abandon for the coming six hours. A Turkish livestock-guarding dog, he was putting his heritage to work caring for the most fragile in our human herd of three. At a sit his head reached to the middle of my mom’s chest. Unlike Arrow, he seemed deeply affected by the flames and the noise of the fire. His wide brow was furrowed, and his kind, bold face registered a mix of distress and concern.

I realized that I needed to make space for the fire trucks, which didn’t seem to be there yet. In a daze, still gasping for the air that would not come, I pulled forward, then reversed, then turned around in a circle. My head was beginning to pound. Where to go? Where was there to go? I parked the car on the street and walked on stiff legs to my family. My head was shaking from side to side in stunned disbelief. My family’s eyes were wide, like my own. Their mouths were tight. “What happened?” I gasped. They shook their heads. We didn’t know. Days later we would learn that an extension cord had shorted out and sparked the fire. We used that cord to plug in the block heater of our plow truck, and the plug and cord were located just to the left of a neck-high stack of firewood stored on the porch by our garage. The firewood had provided ample fuel to torch the rest of the house.

Mom rubbed her hands together. She was standing in the snow in a thin pair of knitted slippers and seemed completely oblivious to the freezing cold. She had escaped with Arrow and Strongheart and with Flora and Dinky—two of our four cats. I could hear a thin edge of guilt creeping into her voice. Two cats still remained in the house: Red, Mom’s beach ball–sized orange cat, and Mirella, my beloved, dainty, silver tabby. Red was old, almost thirteen, and Mirella just a baby at four.

I ran up to the volunteer firemen, who were waiting helplessly for the fire trucks to arrive, and in blubbering tears begged them to let me enter the house to search for my cats. They stood protectively near the front door in full gear with tanks strapped to their backs and would not let me pass. Lamely I told them I would hold my breath. They shook their heads and motioned me back. After what seemed like days, the fire trucks pulled into the driveway. The firemen grabbed hoses as thick as boa constrictors and plunged into the house.

I shouted after them to search in my office, hoping the cats would be there, praying that they would be there: my office was the room farthest away from the flames and smoke. Red loved to sit on the office couch while I worked, licking his feet and purring like a jet engine. Mirella frequently napped on my desk or swatted at the rocks and figurines atop my office altar table. If they were in my office, perhaps I would see them alive again.

As the firemen disappeared into waving curtains of smoke, I felt a familiar hand rest lightly on my shoulder. Turning, I looked into the weathered face of David, my Cherokee friend and spiritual teacher. Somehow, in this small and tight-knit community, word had reached him about the fire, and he had come from his cabin on the mountain to stand vigil with me. His silver hair shone in the firelight. Around his neck the signature bear claw shimmered back the reflection of the flames. He told me softly that everything would be OK.

When life strikes me broadside, I field the blow by diving swiftly and completely into action. I’m not saying that I am effective in my action—only that I stay busy. Facing the fire, I wanted nothing more than to keep busy and, most of all, to keep from thinking. I ran everywhere, talking to all the firefighters, telling them where the roof accesses were, telling them again where I thought the cats might be. Lee stayed at the other side of the house, giving directions from there. Parts of the house were beginning to collapse in his direction, and for a moment I feared they would fall on him as he struggled to move some of our outside belongings away from the path of the fire.

The firemen reached my office and from an open window shouted to me that they could see nothing beneath the furniture. I couldn’t tell if they meant that there was nothing there or that the smoke was too thick to see anything. While they were still in the office, I told them to throw my computer, research books, and file cabinets out the windows and onto the snow. Piling the stuff onto blankets donated by our neighbors, I hauled the heap that represented all of my working life away from the blazing house and onto the driveway.

Around the side of the house, I discovered Flora and Dinky, our other two cats, huddled fearfully together at the bottom steps to my mom’s apartment, trying to get back inside. “Not a good idea. . . ,” I said, grabbing them and stuffing them inside my jacket. Flora had survived leukemia as a kitten. This night she had beaten death once again. Dinky had been completely blind since birth, and I whispered a prayer of thanksgiving that he hadn’t run off somewhere in sightless terror. He was a coal-black cat who could, under the circumstances, easily have been mistaken for a glob of soot, and I couldn’t imagine trying to find him in the dark. For lack of a better place to confine them, I put both cats into the chicken shed across the driveway. As I shut the door behind me, I heard the surprised clucking of my four laying hens. Dinky was certainly no threat to them, and Flora had hunted nothing larger than a bug in thirteen years, so I figured the chickens would be fine and left it at that for the time being.

Behind all my frenzied action, I heard the language of that fire. It spoke to me with a joyous roar, a cry that for all its destructive power sounded full and free and deeply satisfied. Its voice embraced the high-pitched shattering of windows; the low, explosive thunder of collapsing beams; the giddy sputtering of white-hot wood. When the flames reached the boxes of ammunition in the garage, there was the rat-tat-tat of bullets singing like firecrackers.

I remember stopping, spellbound, to watch the flames gorge upon the garage and kitchen until the roof collapsed with a thud, sending a horde of sparks into the winter sky. I remember thick clouds of greasy, acrid-smelling smoke billowing out the broken doors and windows like a mass of raging buffalo. I remember how the fire ate and ate and would not stop. I remember the nausea rising in my throat.

And I remember, too, a knowing nearly impossible to describe, that this fire would come, and had come. A quiet, deep part of me—furtive and lithe and strong as a hunting weasel—felt no surprise at the sight of the flames. I had seen or felt this fire—as though I had conversed with it before I ever came to Earth. At a very visceral level, I knew that I had agreed that this fire should take my house and that we would dance together in this way.

Around me neighbors huddled. One sobbed in deep, moaning wails. Dozens of us raced around the slippery grounds like displaced ants, bumping into one another in our frantic attempts to convince ourselves that our scurrying about could accomplish something. Two hours passed.

I was kneeling on the ground, spent and tear-streaked, when a fireman approached me with two limp bundles of fur in his gloved hands. I opened my arms and pulled Red and Mirella close against my chest. Their small, loose bodies felt boneless, but miraculously they were still alive. Their yellow eyes gazed at me sightlessly from faces caked with wet soot. I carried them to the waiting ambulance, and a kind emergency technician laid them both on the front seat of the ambulance and gently placed oxygen masks on their small faces. Mirella resisted, swatting at the mask and batting the hands of the ambulance driver. “It’s a good sign,” he smiled. “She’s feeling good enough to be cranky.” Red lay still, not moving, not complaining. I turned back to the fire, shaking with grief and exhaustion. I could not know then that the cats would recover, though it would take many days, or that Red would lose his voice permanently to smoke damage. It seemed impossible to me in those dark moments that lasted for hours that anything could have come out of that house alive.

After leaving Red and Mirella to the care of the emergency workers, I went back toward the house. The flames were withering, finally, and the sounds of gushing hoses and dripping water were replacing the deafening roar of the retreating fire. My bones and muscles ached, and I was suddenly overtaken by a weariness beyond words. I could not for one moment longer keep running, keep doing. Legs shaking, I sank down in the snow near a comforting spruce tree. I searched for more tears, simply because they seemed an appropriate response to the situation, but they would not come. The stillness of my body made room for the events of the evening to begin seeping into my consciousness, and I fought it. I’ll fall apart if I feel this, I told myself. I’m too tired to feel any of this yet. I won’t feel this . . .

My eyes squeezed shut to block out the sight of my home standing in the dark, burned, crushed, and smoking. When I opened them again, I saw in the shadow of the ruins everything that meant anything to me in my life: my work, piled in a jumbled heap in the snow; husband, family, friends, and neighbors—my human community—talking in hushed, almost reverent tones; my animal family—cats and dogs—milling confused in the driveway; my horse skull—totem symbol of my spiritual life and protector of my home—gazing with black eye sockets from the broken porch; my lovely mountain home itself, all in tatters. All of these beings and all of these things had been touched in some deep and as yet inexplicable way by the sooty fingers of the fire. Each had died in some way from the crushing events of the evening. Life as I had come to know it was over.

A quiet thought bubbled up: It is good that this life is over. It was too big. For an instant I saw myself standing in the door of a tiny house, living a simpler life. Looking at the foundation of my home, which was still intact, I buried the thought of smaller and simpler—comforting as it felt in those moments—in the back recesses of my brain. The house would need to be reconstructed on its frame. And the five acres around it had not shrunk. The work of maintaining such a large place was daunting enough when life was running smoothly. I shuddered to think of my workload now.

I stood up and rubbed my wet, near-frozen behind and walked up the path to the barn to feed my horse and donkeys. Somehow I had completely forgotten my barn family in the events of the evening. As I walked along the snowy fence line three sweet-smelling equine muzzles greeted me, blowing hay-perfumed steam against my cheek. Fashion, my horse, and Polani and Aurora, the miniature donkeys, were delighted as usual to see me. None seemed the least bit disturbed by the fire, the smoke, or the endless commotion on the driveway below them. In low, quiet tones I explained to “the girls” what was happening and felt the power of words spoken out loud work their magic to settle the unsteadi- ness of my heart. They watched me intently all the time I was speaking. When my words ran out, they put their noses down into the hay that I parceled out to them and began the soft, rhythmic chewing that always calmed my wild mind and settled my spirit. I stayed with them, patting them in reassurance, but of course, it was they who reassured me. Walking back to the house after my barn time, I felt the first small measure of peace I had found all evening.

It had all begun at about four in the afternoon. It wasn’t until after ten that night that the firemen, grimy with soot and the sweat of exhaustion, began packing up to leave. One said wryly as he turned to go, “Don’t worry. It will look worse in the morning.” At that point my home was a smoking mass of charred lumber and blackened wires. One half was completely gone. We could not see into the smoky remains to know what—if anything—had been spared. We had been told repeatedly by the fire crew to expect the worst—to expect a total loss. After most of the crew had left, and the trucks and neighbors mostly departed, Terry, the fire chief, approached me and put her hand softly on my arm. “Would you like to take a look inside?” she asked. I nodded and went to find Lee.

Terry passed out flashlights, and we all stepped up through the half-inch-thick layer of ash in the driveway to the front doorjamb. The crew had placed enormous fans in front of the doors, and the bulk of the smoke had been blown away. We snapped on our flashlights in unison and aimed them inside. The remaining wisps of smoke filtered our light, but we could make out the sofa and chairs in the living room. Terry led us slowly inside, flipping her flashlight beam through the room. Suddenly she stopped and sucked in a deep breath. “I . . . I don’t believe this,” she murmured. “I just . . . don’t . . . believe it . . .”

The yellow beams from our flashlights bounced crazily across sooted walls and groupings of neatly placed furniture all covered with gray ash the color of old, old dust. Water dripped everywhere, splattering down from the edges of the lampshades and table knickknacks. The large living room windows were opaque with smoke. The dark green carpet was awash in inches of blackened water, like a shallow, lifeless lake. But it was intact! The kitchen, dining room, and garage were gone, but everything else remained. Terry turned to us with a look of absolute astonishment on her face. “I just can’t believe this. I expected this to be a burned-out shell. The way the fire moved . . . the flames . . . how in the world could this have been spared?”

The roof was gone, yet the entire ceiling remained whole. But for the sour smell of wet smoke, you could almost imagine that the back half of the house was simply inhabited by a family of total slobs and that nothing like a fire had ever touched it. “You would be amazed at what can be done these days to clean up smoke damage,” Terry told us, flashing her light up the streaked walls. “This place will be like new again. Just like new. You’ll see.” She hugged Lee and me as we stood in stunned silence. Behind her relief and delight lurked an unsettling knowing in me that “good as new” would not apply here. The fire had signaled an abrupt end—of what, I could not yet know.

Lee and I had both seen enough this night, bad and good. It was time for us to leave, to breathe, to be alone and silent, and to begin absorbing the past six hours. Neighbors took us into their homes that night. Mom and the dogs and cats went to stay with the Romeos, who lived behind us, and Lee and I were invited in by the Balsars, who lived just above us. We crawled into a warm and unfamiliar bed that night and hung on to each other, tight and wordless in the dark.

Sleep never came for me the night of the fire. Lee dozed fitfully. Too tired to cry, too shocked to sleep, I slipped into a state of semiconsciousness, the place where the mists that separate this world from the realms of spirit are most thin. In this hazy, sparkling between-world, I imagined my arms around the neck of an enormous and peaceful bull elk. He was mature and strong, as big as a horse, with antlers tall and branched like old, hard trees. I could feel the bristles of his winter coat warm and rough against my cheek. He smelled of smoke. We stood in a snow-blanketed pasture, secure and safe in his winter home. My home was no longer a place of safety. For months it would not serve as a haven of any sort. I was suddenly homeless.

The homelessness that had invaded my physical world was new and shocking. But the felt sense of it was naggingly familiar to me. By “felt sense” I mean a deep sense of body knowing, a knowing that steps out of your mind and speaks to you from somewhere else—your stomach, your spine, your heart, your throat. Learning to discover the felt sense that lurked beneath my intellectual understanding of things was something I’d worked hard to achieve, and I listened closely anytime my body spoke to me in this visceral, important way. My mind has been known to trick me, but my body always speaks the truth.

I whispered confidingly to the elk that the sense of not really ever belonging anywhere was a dark and mean-spirited creature that had camped on the very periphery of my interior landscape for as long as I could remember. Homelessness had been with me in my cancer years, a time of cataclysmic inner and outer transition as my body tried seriously to evict me—homelessness in its most graphic manifestation. The sense of not belonging anywhere, of having my life turned inside out, was strong in me then. I thought I had overcome that. Now it had returned.

Coming home is a process without end. Like the turning of seasons, the heart of belonging rolls around again, like tides, like high mountain lakes thawing and freezing and thawing again. Another chance to look at homecoming—feeling safe, valued, and welcomed in life, work, and community—is the greatest promise of transitional times and the gift most overlooked. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I buried them in the coarse fur of Elk’s thick, powerful neck. Why was I being challenged again so harshly? Why me? My voice against his neck sounded fragile and small and pockmarked with guilt.

Why not? was his candid reply.

The elk settled down with a grunt in deep, dry snow, and I sank down beside him, resting my cheek on his flank. I stroked the thick, hollow winter hairs over his muscled shoulder and asked him to tell me about fire. The elk snorted out dense puffs of white steam into the black night air, and I understood his silent words. I understood that fire finds us all—some in the burning of relationships, some in the flame of disease, some in the inferno of dreams never lived and never dared. Fire burns us each day, uniquely and with smoldering effectiveness. Placing my hands over the heart of this elk, I asked him why fire had come for me, and to me.

He looked at me with liquid brown eyes and sniffed gently along the cancer scar line etched on my jaw, run- ning down to my collarbone. In his eyes I could see the reflec- tion of yellow flames. This elk had known fire, and known it well.

This fire was a harbinger of change, he told me, an outer expression of an inner burning that would become clear in the coming year. It was a transition made so clear that it could be touched like charred boards held in your hands—a transition that could be seen with the eyes so that one would understand without question that the transformation from wood to ash to life again was real and true. Like cancer, it was a gift—a lifelong, rich gift. Not poison, but good.

With the smell of smoke in my throat and the barest inkling of the journey before me, I pressed my face to the pillow and whispered a small thank-you to the elk. And as the first gray light of dawn rose on the eastern horizon, I cautiously thanked the fire.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Susan Chernak McElroy is the author of the national bestsellers, Animals as Teachers and Healers and Animals as Guides for the Soul. Her writing has also appeared in national magazines and in numerous anthologies, including Kinship with the Animals, Chicken Soup for Soul Survivors, Wounded Healers, and Intimate Relationships: Embracing the Natural World. A former humane educator and wildlife rehabilitator, McElroy lectures extensively across the country. She lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Visit the author’s Web site at www.brightstar-farm.com

From the Hardcover edition.

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