Why Buffalo Dance: Animal and Wilderness Meditations Through the Seasonsby Susan Chernak McElroy
In this elegantly written and illustrated book, bestselling author Susan Chernak McElroy has gathered the voices of the wind, weather, animals, and elements and transcribed the he truths they have to share. Badgers and bison, magpies and moose, eagles and elk, all have wisdom teachings that shed light on our common journey through life.
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Why Buffalo Dance
Animal and Wilderness Meditations Through the Seasons
By Susan Chernak McElroy, Tracy Pitts
New World LibraryCopyright © 2006 Susan Chernak McElroy
All rights reserved.
North Wind, all that you are —
Season of winter, house of white blizzards and stars, darkness of deep night.
Dwelling place of the white buffalo and the snowy owl.
Guardian of the elders and the ancestors.
Place of essence, silence, purity, containment, courage, and wisdom.
Home of death and rebirth.
The fallow time of the garden, skeletal trees, dormant seeds.
Whisper to us through this time of inner recollection and silence.
Your energies are latent, potent, concentrated, and turned within.
Grant that our harvest will sustain and preserve us through short days
And long, long nights. Show us how to rest deeply and fully, So that we may regenerate strong energy for the coming sunrise fires of spring.
From the slumbering bear, may we come to more fully understand
Sleep that looks like death, and rebirth that multiplies the self.
From the bare lands, may we be tutored by the mysterious nurture of emptiness
And the close realms of spirit and mystery.
North Wind, blow through us. Bring us your blessings and your wisdom.
The country knows. If you do wrong things to it, the whole country knows. It feels what's happening to it. I guess that everything is connected together somehow, under the ground.
— LAVINE WILLIAMS, KOYUKON ELDER, QUOTED BY RICHARD NELSON IN ISLAND WITHIN
The sound of laughing bounced off rainbow-colored ice crystals in the midnight air. Janet had fallen into a pocket of deep, fluffy snow. Teresa was trying to pull her out, when she flopped over as well. Meanwhile, Arrow's broad, wiggling collie rump knocked me off balance and face-first into a drift.
We'd been told that on this night, after ten o'clock, the full moon would be brighter and bigger than we would see it again in our lifetimes, so we decided to make a special night of it. Teresa wore a small blanket wrapped around her head. Janet was in fat-legged snow pants and a jacket three sizes too big for her. We wanted to be warm enough to sit still in temperatures way below freezing, so we all put on extra layers of whatever we could find, fashion police be damned. Dogs in tow, we headed up to the spring to sit on the old cistern and soak up moon magic.
Where the aspens met the pasture, an enormous chokecherry bush made an arch across the trail. All three of us stooped to pass under it. Janet called this "the portal." Ancient people believed that arches and overhangs in nature represented entryways to sacred ground and alternate realms. I've taken to passing under portals of brush, stone, and water with a tingling, hushed sense of anticipation and excitement. My Celtic friend Frank would say, "You're crossing through the veil now."
Scooting under the sheltering arms of the chokecherry, we settled into an unintentional silence. Only the snow made sounds as we walked, squeaking under our big boots. The dogs lined up behind us as we slipped into a small stand of aspens. Up in front, Teresa stopped suddenly to look straight up, and all of us — dogs, too — bunched up in a row behind her and stared upward as well. Arrow sniffed the air with her eyes full and expectant.
Tiny clumps of snow fell off the aspen limbs like slow-falling stars. Against the rising moon, tree branches stood out black and jointed, interlaced like ebony webbing. In the moonlight, the aspen trunks gleamed brighter even than the snow. Like tall porcelain figurines, the trees watched us. Some stood straight. Others bent at the hip, and some leaned forward as though they had something important to say.
Teresa set out again, and we continued our quiet way up the trail, eyes darting everywhere, shoulders scrunched up in wonder as if we were children in fairyland. The night air glowed blue-green and colored our lips purple and our skin the shade of mermaids underwater. Somewhere up the hill, an owl hooted, and two more answered from the east.
The moon spilled into the woods and across the pastures with light so bright that many of the stars slipped into hiding. Snow hushed the sound all around us, and what little sound we made seemed to remain flat up against our faces.
When I first followed the trail up to the spring and its cistern many seasons ago, I felt unsettled sitting up there. It was as though I were being constantly watched by something in the woods, and I had the eerie, prickling sensation of eyes looking at me from every direction. The shamans say this means the place has a strong spirit, and the spirit is making itself known to you.
According to the theologian Thomas Moore, the Greeks took serious note of sensations universal in human experience and named them gods and goddesses, giving form to emotions. Sometimes it feels as though love has grasped us with a golden hand, or jealousy is literally wrapping itself around us. Thrift, vanity, power, innocence, beauty — how often have I felt myself in the literal grip of one of these, overtaken by an emotion that seems to have a life all its very own. Walking in the woods in the dark can easily turn emotions into presences, and when Strongheart nuzzled me from behind, he just as easily could have been the god of the aspens as my dog. At 160 pounds and pure white, Strongheart, an Anatolian shepherd, had more than a bit of Zeus in him.
We reached the cistern just after midnight. The shadows of everything commingled into startling shapes that might have lumbered off into a creature life of their very own. None of us had said a word since our laughing fit at the bottom of the hill. Now we began to speak of the presence of this moonlit place, as though the spears of moonbeams had prodded it, and everything in it, to life.
We leaned over the edge of the cistern, taking off our heavy gloves and cupping handfuls of ice-cold water that gushed from the runoff spout. The water on my hands had a quality unique to itself, as did the fresh snow cushioning my seat. The trees and the boulders, the night air, the shafts of moonlight — each I could imagine in its own god or goddess dress, animated and alive.
I shared my thoughts with Teresa and Janet. Teresa suggested that not only was each of these things a spirit in itself but also the place — all of it — was a spirit, too. Her observation reminded me instantly that each place I've loved seemed like a treasured relative, with its own character, mood, and quirks.
Winter, too, is her own self, dressed in muted, two-dimensional tones, silent, thoughtful, receptive but not engaging. She is all these things and more, but at her core — which I could see clearly in the nondark — she is deeply mysterious, as shadows are mysterious and austerity is mysterious. Little shields us from the inscrutability of winter, and we enter her world with a sense of marvel, resignation, and awe. It is the cold time, the time of preservation and conservation, when the sap drains from the trees and the animals rest, sleep, and endure. But it is also the most mysterious of the seasons, a time when the veil between this world and the world of spirit is as thin as hoarfrost.
As the biggest, closest moon of our lives shone down on us, we three women sat soaking up the rare moments. Night, moonlight, and snow combined in an intimate embrace, birthing spirits all over the land. I looked at Strongheart and thought how perfect it would be if he were to start one of his long, melodic howls, but he didn't, so we women howled instead, over and over, singing a spirit song of winter.
The Gift of White Space
I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape — the loneliness of it — the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it — the whole story doesn't show.
— ANDREW WYETH
Outside at my bird feeders, magpies mobbed the small pile of dry dog food that I put out for them each morning. Chickadees hid sunflower seeds in the chinks of my log house. A woodpecker had been tapping loudly on the eaves. Three times I answered the door that morning, mistaking his pecking for the identical sound of the woodpecker door knocker on the front door. Maybe a doorbell would be a better idea.
The elk, deer, and moose had traveled down from the high country. The colder the days, the less they moved about. Earlier in the week, I had seen a bull moose out browsing on bitterbrush. His antlers were enormous, and his body bigger than my car. As the weather grew harsher, he'd move off the sage flats and into the willow bushes.
Snow rose up like a tide against the foundation of the cabin and drifted up in waves around the porch stairs like sea foam caressing a lighthouse. On stormless days, Arrow and Strongheart walked with me along the edges of alfalfa and hay pastures to look over oceans of white. Except for the crisscross of animal tracks, the surface of the snowfields was unbroken. Four ponds of various sizes surrounded by cattails marked the corners of the pastureland. I especially liked to visit the one with the old Windsurfer board frozen into its surface.
In summer, these same pastures teem with hawks, coyotes, birdsong, grasses, and insect calls, but in winter it's an entirely different, sparsely populated landscape. Winter is the time of year when the word empty comes to mind. The crayon box of the seasons has been stripped of all but a few colors. Someone — autumn, I think — grabbed all the oranges, the yellows, and the burnt siennas and left nothing but sepia, white, gray, and a very somber dark green. The busy textures and sounds of the other seasons have been obliterated by a determined flood of snow. Empty. This is what the pastures said to me.
I used to fear that word, even the very thought of it. I would fill up emptiness wherever I found it — with conversation, ideas, plans, furniture, lists of things to do, a vase full of fresh sage and juniper twigs. If I couldn't fill emptiness with things, I would fill it up with feelings of anxiety, because, given its cultural connotation, empty stands right beside such words as lacking, barren, meaningless. When we make New Year's resolutions, we don't normally say, "I resolve to make my life empty this year." When we pray, we don't pray to be unfilled or vacant.
But this has become my personal wish this winter: to keep some empty space inside myself. Here in high country that seems to glory in its near- endless winters, the passage of the long white months forces me to sit with a new, more expansive vision of emptiness. New possibilities begin to emerge around an old and feared concept. In the bitter cold days, when so many animals have up and left the area, and the season presses her white-gloved hands over every hint of life. I see that in the stripping away of the ornamentation of leaves, flowers, and summer sounds, winter has created a landscape of essence. The very whiteness and openness of it all is a visual celebration of purity and self-recollection. The distractions are all gone. The canvas has been prepared for the next painting.
Essence is the place that lies beneath the bedrock of everything that is. With a frosty whisper, the pastures remind me that emptiness is about hands opened and upturned in acceptance and wonder to claim the unadorned truth and essential nature of life.
Winter comes wrapped not in a fancy package but in a dress of elegant simplicity. I am trying to cultivate more of this rich landscape of emptiness as essence in my life — both in my actions and in my thinking. It is not easy, because winter is not easy. In graphic design classes, I was told that the most important elements on the page are not the words or the photos but the white space — the space you left empty.
Winter — the giant of white space.
Like the moose at this time of year, I celebrate being still. Like the chickadees, I fill my days with fewer activities. Eating, sleeping, enjoying hot showers and the glow of yellow fires are all richer moments when surrounded by more white space. I pare away errands and movie nights. I create broad swaths of snowfields between my activities, because my soul needs such things. She needs this wintertime to digest all of summer's past dreams and surprises. I am, like a hibernating ground squirrel, full up with a year's busyness and feasting, and I need this blessed time of emptying, of stillness, and of space.
A grouse dives head-first into the snow, plowing a burrow beneath the surface to insulate herself from the cold world above. She sits there quietly for hours or days, surrounded by no color, no song, no motion, and fills herself up with silence. She has secrets to share, and one of them is about the deep rest of white space.
There is no sin punished more implacably by nature than the sin of resistance to change.
— ANN MORROW LINDBERGH
Icicles pointed down like long crystal spears from the eaves of the garden shed. The morning was so cold my eyelashes froze when I stepped out onto the porch. If I were to stand there long enough, my face would start to harden like the surface of the pasture ponds.
The cold is one thing to deal with, but a breeze was also snorting around the house, causing the already low temperatures to plummet. When wind starts early in the morning, it can be churning up snowdrifts by afternoon. At the very thought of a stinging blow, I braced myself. I used to have horses and donkeys, and I would hunch myself against the weather twice a day to feed them. Wind would pile snowdrifts up in minutes, making the journey of a few hundred yards to the barn seem like a trek to the base of Everest.
I no longer have anything to feed outside but birds during the winter, yet I don't resist the wind any less. Standing on the porch while scooping out a bucket of sunflower seeds, I felt my body preparing itself automatically for the cold gusts. My face scrunched up, my neck retracted inside my jacket. I hunched my shoulders, put my head down, and charged stoically into the press of the blow, heading for the swinging feeders a few yards away. The wind hit me with a whoosh, and the sound of it bunched up my already tense muscles all the tighter. Everything in my body resisted, from my face, to my ears, to my clenched hands. Like a reluctant boxer, I felt as if I'd been sent out to battle an adversary who always wins.
The tubular feeders swayed in the wind, and I grabbed them and pulled them off the tree limbs and feeder poles. Placing them between my knees one at a time, I removed the tops and poured in the sunflower seed with a small scoop. Much of it fell to the ground, where the finches would pounce on it as soon as I left. I held my breath against the wind that pushed me from the side like playful hands. Up in the dead aspen that serves as a large perch, the birds watched me curiously, their heads darting from side to side, some of them extending their necks to get a better look at breakfast.
I watched them back, thinking they didn't look very tense at all. While my eyes squinted, theirs were round and bright. I stood all pretzel-shaped and tense, and they sat fluffy and soft-looking around the edges. Behind them, toward the back of the yard, another visitor suddenly caught my eye. Blinking against the gale, I was surprised to see a cow moose nestled drowsily in the snow by the willows. She's been a visitor for years, but each time I see her, I am startled all over again by her size and her simple presence in this neighborhood of cabins and dogs. Half-covered with a dusting of blown snow, she moved her chin from side to side while she chewed a mouthful of regurgitated willow twigs. If I could have named her expression, I would have called it bliss. I couldn't help but compare her attitude with mine.
Around me, a family of magpies danced on the wind, their impossibly long tails sailing out behind them like black ribbons. While the wind dropped them, hurtled them, rocketed them up, the birds held out their wings and made tiny adjustments with their necks, feet, and elbows.
Something in the moment beckoned me to try this myself. I put down the bucket and tried to stand with my arms out, my face soft, and my attitude open instead of braced. I relaxed my eye muscles. Instantly, my whole mood shifted as my body tried on the new posture. It was not so difficult to let the wind just have me. I smiled and let my shoulders drop. Cold air blasted around my chin, and I let loose and swallowed it. A shiver grabbed me, and I tensed for a moment, then relaxed again, surprised to find it possible to shiver with loose limbs.
Excerpted from Why Buffalo Dance by Susan Chernak McElroy, Tracy Pitts. Copyright © 2006 Susan Chernak McElroy. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
A long-term survivor of advanced cancer, McElroy's enchantment with creatures great and small, and her strong belief in the power of animals and wild nature to heal the human soul, has been nurtured and strengthened through a lifetime of work with animals, as a veterinarian assistant, a zookeeper, Humane Society educator, dog trainer, kennel and stable hand, and wildlife rehabilitator. She speaks and gives workshops frequently and is well-known and well-loved in both animal and alternative healing communities. She lives in the shadow of the Teton Mountains in Idaho, with her animal family and many visiting wild neighbors. Her website is www.susanchernakmcelrory.com
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