(This is an excerpt of my book, Observations of an Earth Mage. The story is spectacular, but true, and is one of a handful of stories about how I became known as the Earth Mage.)
Darkness fell quickly in the cool understory of the forest, even on this, the night of the summer solstice. The air smelled wonderful—pungent rhododendron blossoms, moss, and decaying leaves mixed with the vaguely electrical scent of granite behemoths lurking in the woods, ancient as Earth herself. Water danced down the mountain to a katydid and cicada orchestra.
Enchanting as this scene was, it wasn’t enough for my thirteen-year-old daughter and niece, who were with me on this night. We were on a quest, searching for one of the famous Smoky Mountain black bears.
Not wanting to leave it to chance, I began to pray. “Artemis, protectress of the forest, grant them this gift,” I murmured. “Send us a bear.”
I drove slowly down the steep and twisted mountain road, carefully maneuvering my trusty station wagon around the next bend.
And there she was, browsing through the leaf litter, maybe ten feet off the side of the road. A beautiful little bear, sleek and fat, her tan snout a bright contrast against her blue-black fur. She looked up at us, decided we meant her no harm, and went back to browsing for delicacies on the forest floor.
“Mom, you did it!” my daughter said quietly. “You called us a bear. You’re a bear whisperer!”
I’ve always had a passion for black bears. As a child, I never doubted we would see them on our trips to the mountains. It never occurred to me that perhaps I willed them into appearing by the side of the road we drove, off the edge of a trail we hiked, or in the middle of a rushing mountain river we waded. Neither can I attribute it to the lure of garbage in the campgrounds and picnic sites, because often the bears we spotted were miles away from these more populous areas of the park. I prayed I would see bears, and the bears came.
This cinnamon-colored black bear lives in Sequoia National Park.
But children grow up, and when I was grown, I got caught up in my education, my work, my marriage, my children. I didn’t go back to the mountains. I began to forget about the bears.
Since I didn’t go to the bears, the bears came to me. When I was in my mid-thirties I was struck by lightning and nearly killed. As I lay in the hospital intensive care unit fighting for my life, I dreamed I was hiking up a mountain. Near the top, I stumbled across the cave home of a beautiful black she-bear. The bear spoke to me words of incredible beauty and wisdom.
Alas, upon awakening the words she spoke were lost to me. I remembered every detail about the dream except what the bear was trying to tell me.
Over the course of the next ten years, I had that dream again and again. Recurring dreams are not that uncommon a phenomenon, but for me, any dream at all was uncommon. As often happens to people who have been struck by lightning, I experience terrible insomnia, rarely falling into the REM sleep necessary for dreaming. But still the bear came to me in my sleep, patiently repeating her message to me. And still I awakened unable to remember that message.
Recovering from a direct lightning strike—I took an estimated 30,000 volts in the neck—isn’t easy. As I struggled to recover from my lightning-induced injuries—I have permanent nerve, heart, and joint damage, and live with constant, chronic pain—I began openly embracing the pagan, earth-centered beliefs I nurtured on my childhood trips to the mountains. My physical pain is more tolerable when I’m walking through a meadow in full bloom in the spring, or sitting quietly in a fairy garden of my own design in the summer. Depression lifts when I sit in a cool forest, watching squirrels and chipmunks chatter and play.
But it was an American Indian acquaintance of mine who urged me to explore the reasons the Higher Beings chose to send a lightning bolt my way to begin with (it hadn’t even been storming when I was hit). At his urging, I began exploring shamanism.
“With many indigenous peoples, their shamans are people who have been touched by the thunder people,” Larry explained. “The thunder people come from the west. On the medicine wheel, the bear is the symbol of the west. You were struck by lightning—touched by the thunder people. You dream of bears. You are being called for something.”
As much as I resisted, his words made sense. I picked up a book on the medicine wheel; I began collecting rocks so I could build one of my own in my garden. I studied all the literature I could find on shamanism in general and , more specifically, the bear as a totem animal.
The bear dreams began to make sense to me as I studied. Because standing on their hind legs they resemble humans, bears can represent the physical body in dreams. Its lesson is to awaken the potential within us, and in doing so, keep the cub in us alive.
A bear left us a gift in Kings Canyon National Park: pawprints on our pollen-covered car window.
My physical body was broken. I needed the strength of the bear to recover from my injuries. My mind, however, was untouched by the lightning, and I was going crazy with boredom because my mind wanted to do things my physical body couldn’t do.
It was time for me to return to the mountains, and take my children in search of the bear.
Things had changed. Better garbage management and aggressive public education had made bear sightings a rarity in the park. Most visitors never saw one; those who did usually saw only the tail end as the bear ran away from the humans invading their mountain homes. I worried my children would not ever see a bear in the wild.
So, I prayed to Artemis, Goddess of the wilderness. And the bears came. We saw mothers with their cubs. We saw solitary bears. Never more than one sighting per trip, but we always saw them.
Well, almost always. Last year, I felt the bear rather than seeing her. When I am tucked into my sleeping bag on my camp cot, my head and feet lie only an inch or so from the tent wall. That night, I awakened to the sound of snuffling outside my tent. Bear! I held my breath as the bear came closer.
She touched me. Sniffing the walls of my tent, her snout nudged gently against my head, once, twice, three times. A firm but gentle touch. A kiss from a bear.
I was not afraid.
As often as I called to the bear, and the bear came, I was becoming increasingly frustrated that I still had no idea what message she was sending me in my dreams. I was beginning to think I would never understand.
That changed when I met a remarkable energy healer while attending an artists’ retreat for women. Deaf since birth, Suzy’s inability to hear has keened her psychic abilities, and she has a remarkable ability to read human energy fields. When we first met, she immediately saw my intense physical pain and offered to do energy work to help me heal.
She came to my cabin that afternoon, and soon I was relaxed and centered under her capable hands. She worked in silence at first. Then, she told me to take the excess energy that was causing my pain and push it down to my feet.
I could feel the energy, and tried to do as I was told, but try as I might, it kept getting stuck at heart level. Finally, I managed to push the energy to my feet.
“Good!” Suzy said. (How did she know I’d done it? I wondered.) “Now, take that energy and take it outside somewhere. Put it in a hole in the ground, in a tree, or throw it in a pond. But give it back to Mother Earth.”
Immediately, I felt myself thrown through this enormous void, lightning flashing all around me, and found myself standing in the cave of my dreams! Emerging from the darkness at the back of the cave was the she-bear.
“You can shape it, but not lose it, for it is your power,” she said.
I stood there, numb. What is happening to me?
Even though I hadn’t spoken the words aloud, the bear heard. “You can shape it, but not lose it, for it is your power,” she said patiently.
“Shape what?” This time, I found my voice.
She repeated the mantra. “You can shape it, but not lose it, for it is your power.” With that, she turned and disappeared into the bowels of the cave. I found myself lying on my cot in my cabin once again.
Suzy was gone. Two-and-a-half hours had passed.
Quickly, I grabbed my journal and scribbled the words the bear had spoken. At last, I had them! I didn’t know yet what they meant, but I knew what they were.
Writing the words wasn’t enough. I had to make a visual image of the bear. I grabbed some handmade paper I’d brought on the retreat, some oil pastels, and quickly drew not only the bear, but the yellow-orange lightning bolts I had passed through when I was “thrown” from my cot into the cave.
That symbol has become my personal shield. I have painted it, sculpted it from clay, molded it into a papier mache bowl; I had it tattooed on my left forearm. It gives me power. When my pain level begins to rise, I meditate while looking at the bear, and I am able to control the pain.
For years, I believed my pain was holding me back, preventing me from having a full life. Now I know the pain will never go away, but that I have the power to control it rather than let it control me. I can shape it, but I can’t lose it. It is my power. My gift from the bear.
Am I a bear whisperer? My daughter thinks so.
But only the bear herself really knows.