Sacred Life, Sacred Death

This week has seen a huge amount of snowfall for us here in the Alps. We have well over a metre in the garden right now and it is hard to walk through the woods as the snow is wet and heavy and up above thigh height in the places where a footpath or piste has not been groomed or trodden. Snow falls from branches in huge wet gushing slicks and many trees have snapped under the build up of snow. It is eerie walking in the silent woods only to hear the gushing of a mini avalanche coming from a tree suddenly. I feel the icy crystals on my face as the after-draft blows itself through the woods towards me. The temperature has hardly risen. We are in the grip of -10oc mornings and even colder nights although the sun is shining down on us for several minutes longer during the day right now. It came over the ridge at 12:54 today and will disappear around 15:30. The end of January is always a cause for celebration for me, firstly because the sun is able to warm the earth again for the first time since the end of autumn and secondly, it heralds the end of the hunting season. I no longer have to worry about hunters out and about in my patch nor have to keep a close eye on the timetable of days and areas in which they are allowed to hunt. Things have suddenly become a little more relaxed in my stretch of the woods.

Out on my regular several days ago it was not far off dusk but something was pulling me on, so I continued to walk. At this time, there were a couple of days left of the hunting season and I knew that hunters could be about and would be eager to bag their last deer, so I decided to stay on the piste that had been busy with cross-country skiers for most of the day and keep out in the open rather than go deeper into the woods.

As I walked along the piste, looking rather worse for wear after a day of heavy activity, I noticed some strange marks in the snow to the right of me. It looked like someone had sledged down the verge and onto the piste, although I knew that this was a very bizarre place to have been sledging, with tree roots and branches enclosing the verge from both sides. It didn’t feel right. I took a sharp turn off the piste and followed the sledge tracks up into the tree line and saw proof of exactly what I was suspecting; a large clump of fur and bloody streaks – the ‘sledge’ was in fact the body of a dead deer, which had been dragged down from the upper ridge by hunters.

I realise that this is going to be a sensitive topic for many of you to read but I feel that I need to write about it here; firstly because of the specific emotions it stirred up in me and secondly because of the course of action that I have decided to take after witnessing it. Please take care reading the remainder of this post, not because it is particularly squeamish but because it may also cause emotions in you that you may be forced to examine for yourself.

Although it was now getting dark, I decided that I needed to see exactly where the deer was shot. This is definitely not the first kill I have seen in this neck of the woods; blood streaks the snow every year in certain places and I am pretty used to it by now. I know this place very well and I know where the hunters wait for their quarry and where animals are invariably killed. I figured that it wouldn’t be too far up into the woods so up I went. I had heard a gunshot at ten that morning and it was now 4.30pm, so I knew how fresh these tracks were and what could therefore be up there waiting for me. Up, up, up I climbed, over the ridge and up to the large rocks where hunters hide to wait for their prey to amble past. It wasn’t too hard to establish exactly what had happened. About fifty metres from where I first saw the sledge marks down on the piste, was the evidence of the kill; a pile of intestines, stomach and what looked like kidneys laying out on the white and red snow, also clumps of fur and what looked like a huge amount of human activity. At least two men had been creating a bit of a stir with all their comings and goings around the place where they had dealt with the carcass and hauled it off.

I sat for a while to survey the scene, to get a gist of what had happened and to scan around for signs of other hunters and animals coming back to check things out. The woods felt very eerie indeed and deathly still. The dark was descending fast, which usually would have been a signal for me to leave but this time I stayed. The part of me that fears the dark and death and dislikes uncertainty wanted to leave but a deeper part of me that is in touch with spiritual things wanted to stay and thank the deer for giving its life to the hunters on this day and pray that they would be dealing with the carcass in an honourable way. I also wanted to know what lesson I was receiving by witnessing all of this and I wanted to know how to learn and grow from it. I knew for sure that the innards of the deer would be providing food for the wild animals of the forest and the rest of the deer would be providing food for the humans who killed her but what I didn’t know was how the forest was reacting to the loss.

I sat there and put the question to the Spirit of the Forest and got one big Life Lesson in return; not a lesson I was expecting at all. The spirit of the deer was filling the woods all around me. Her children and sisters were mourning for her, looking for her, shocked and startled but doing what they could to continue to stay alert for their own security. The forest was honouring her and enclosing around the hole left by her departure. She went from this world gently and without struggle. She had lived a good life in which she had been wild and free. The network of interconnectedness was readjusting to the loss. Everything was in transition from this seemingly irrelevant event but I saw in that moment it was all ‘meant to be’ and nothing therefore, was out of place. I felt humbled to be receiving such subtleties; what the forest and animals were doing to adapt after her death, how her spirit was slowly transitioning into the multidimensional place she could never be separated from and how we humans walk around in such ignorance of these delicate and ethereal things. Perhaps it was part of the deer’s soul contract to pass these things onto me, perhaps part of a grander scheme I had no inkling of. I felt saddened, not only for her physical death but also for the fact that I had no idea about her life, her connection to the forest, the way her people had honoured her death, how her spirit became part of the oneness of everything around her and no idea about her deer ancestors or children.

I walked back out of the darkest and most complete forest I had known in a long time, perhaps ever, back to my home with lights shining from every window and its chimney gently puffing smoke with the connection to the deer and that place still strong in my heart, with those questions in my head and for the rest of the evening both she and they stayed with me. Enough time for me to really get to grips with what all of this meant.

I came to the conclusion that I no longer want to live without deep knowledge like this; I want to know about the deer clan and their ancestors, I want to be part of their ways; not as an intrusion but as a living asset to them, in fellowship. I can no longer live without acknowledging all those hidden things; all the things modern humans no longer care for or want to think about. It felt as if these feelings were flooding back to me from a place that was not ever forgotten, just covered over by the fact I had been confined within brick and mortar and had been learning the ways of man for too long.

The deer told me I need to feel the movement of Spirit through me again as my ancestors would have done; I should also know what it is like to take a life, to process the body parts, to ingest them, to honour them and to know that a life has lived well and died well, with respect, honour and gratitude. This is something I cannot explain very well right now but it will come. The deer assures me that it will come. And I do feel something coming from a very long way off, a very time ago, coming from the earth itself, like it has never been apart from me in all this time, like a remembrance. I no longer want to be the observer sitting on the outside looking in, to be there after the event, to be the outsider. My life should be so entwined with the deer that I know every one of them, know where they feed, where they sleep, where they give birth and where they choose to die. I should also be prepared to kill them and eat them and use their bodies in complete reverence for the cycle of life and forest that they can never be separated from, nor I.

When I started out on this journey, moving back into the woods, I wasn’t sure how it was going to evolve. I had no idea other than I would put one foot in front of the other and walk into that otherworld every day and see what I came across. It seems more and more as the weeks pass, that the birds and animals out there have designs on me; they know. I pledged myself to them at the beginning of the year and they in return are drawing me into their life. When I sit in the woods, when I am still and quiet and when I let my thinking mind ~ with all its thoughts about the future and my path and the direction I am meant to be taking from here ~ fall away, I too know without doubt what those animals have in store for me.

I know that there is a stag, an old timer who lives deep in the forest and is rarely, if ever seen; I know that he is wise and gentle yet defends his woods and everything in it with ferocity. I know he wears a crown of thorns and that a cloak of moss grows on his back; in the winter, he lies high above my village and watches snowflakes fall gently on his fur until he is completely covered. I understand that to know the ways of the forest, to know myself and to know my place within it, I must find him.

I understand that I must learn to be a part of the hind’s forest too, the one who gives birth, who watches her fawns hide in the brush every Spring and lies down on the snow at the hunter’s shot to be sacrificed every Autumn. I know that I must enter her world, her body, her life and become part of it; witness the seasons turn through her eyes and ears. Be ready to live and die like her. Nothing now seems more urgent than this. And besides, what is a life if not to live in full sacredness with everything in it?

I am not sure.

I walked away from that patch of woods, where only hours before two hunters had been bending over a deer’s body, still warm from the kill, partitioning her organs and leaving them to the forest before dragging her down the slope to process at home, the slope where, a few hours later, I had climbed and sat in reverence. The next day I went back there to sit some more and to search for evidence of the animals and birds I knew would be feasting on those organs, which were in turn helping them to get through the hardest part of the winter. Two days after she died, the snow came again and laid its downy flakes all over the parts that had been left behind, she at last had the burial the forest and her clan had wished for her.