The pine squirrel isn’t my totem, spirit ally, fetch, or any fancy spirit thing culturally appropriated or not. Mostly they annoy me. They’re like a cross between a fox squirrel and a chipmunk with a bottle-brush of a tail and a chattering angry call that has disturbed more than one ritual invocation.
The other day I was out back giving offerings to the wind. Every fall I listen for the wind to change. There comes a day sometime in September or October when the wurthering begins. Remember Wuthering Heights? Wuthering is a great word. I first learned of it reading one of my all time favorite books, The Secret Garden. In the book there is a lonely, sallow orphan child who is sent to live with her antisocial uncle in his English manor house on the moors.
“Mary did not know what “wutherin'” meant until she listened, and then she understood. It must mean that hollow shuddering sort of roar which rushed round and round the house as if the giant no one could see were buffeting it and beating at the walls and windows to try to break in. But one knew he could not get in, and somehow it made one feel very safe and warm inside a room with a red coal fire.”
I was something of an antisocial child, and I listened to the wind from a young age. Now, I give whiskey to the winter wind and to the Cailleach, the veiled blue goddess of the winter who was originally from the Scottish highlands. I listen for the sound of the wuthering.
So you can only imagine my surprise when instead of hearing the rattling sound of the wind teasing the leaves on the trees I heard a high pitched chattering cry right above my head in the black walnut tree nearby. I looked up and spotted the tiny critic looking straight at me with a single black eye. He chattered at me again and once he knew he had my attention he ran down the tree trunk stopping every now and again to chitter and shriek like only an enraged pine squirrel can. I just sat and watched to see what would happen next wondering if I was about to have a black walnut chucked at my head.
When he was at eye level he seemed to calm and began to make a tiny chirping sound. It was shockingly cute, as if some biker dude had began to sing Christmas carols. We stared at each other a long time as he chirruped and I attempted to make match his sounds. I was getting lessons in squirrel talk. Before that I thought they pretty much only had the language for “your mama” jokes and road rage equivalents.
Eventually he ran off and I went into a breathing meditation pattern. It felt like I had just been taught something, but I wasn’t sure what it was I was taught. I was hoping for some wisdom or insight before I went off to an ADF Clergy Retreat and the thing I really gained was that I realized that by listening to that little squirrel I was able to come into a kind of communication with him.
Often as pagans we talk about how we feel connected to the spirit of a particular animal, plant, or place. We read books and take Facebook quizzes to tell us what that might mean or be. We struggle with the real challenges of not wanting to copycat the idea of a Totem or steal an indigenous culture’s belief system while being immersed in a very real landscape that we feel connected to and love. I challenge you to get away from books or screens that might tell you if you are a Bear or a Wolf person.
Instead, go learn lessons from the real deal. One time my daughters and I were wandering in a nature preserve in town watching a small herd of deer. In watching the deer I noticed a pattern to their behavior and decided to teach my two girls a Deer Dance: I picked up my legs and took two high stepping paces in a slow and deliberate manner, then I stopped and looked all around, finally I shook my butt like a deer wiggling it’s tail. I said, “Step, step, stop, look around, wiggle your tail.” Soon both girls were doing as I did and slowly we “danced” toward the deer. The watched us without much alarm and we got amazingly close until my youngest daughter couldn’t contain her excitement anymore, jumped up and down and clapped scaring that confused herd to a much more reasonable distance away.
I didn’t steal anything in either case. There was no appropriation, merely observation. I don’t know that there’s always a deep lesson to be learned from these sorts of interactions, but I do think it’s transforming, either way. By actually interacting with non-human People in a real way we allow ourselves to come to them on their own terms. This isn’t about feeding ducks human food and enjoying how they come to you, it’s about trying to understand them on their own terms. How does a duck move? What does it say? How does it interact with other ducks? Anyone can learn these things.
What would a mouse dance look like? We have the choice to actually reach out to real beings or to live only in our minds.
Just in case you’re wondering, dear reader, I do have spirit allies that take animal form. I also shapeshift into animal forms in the spirit world when I do trance work. These allies and forms are gifts that have been given to me over my years of spiritual practice. I honor them with offerings and prayers. I’m still learning how to integrate my spiritual relationships with animals and plants to the real world, and it’s a work in progress. The name of this blog comes from the fact that my first real plant ally was the dandelion, who helped me save my cat’s life many years ago.
So listen to the wisdom of the wind and of the pine squirrel. Seek the teachings of the deer and the dandelion. Be rooted in your place and let your spiritual development flow from that rootedness. Don’t worry about knowing every plant or tree in the woods. Make good friends with just a few. Learn about them by reading books or websites, but most importantly, actually listen to them.