Reflections on Spirit

Note 18: Bird Singing Spirit-Death All Over Again. 8/26/99

Drawing several strands of this fabric together then in a single place, I continued to work on building the medicine-wheel in my apartment as the old man told me story after story about the people who has shaped and used the polished pieces of quartzite I had recovered from the desert. He told me which stone to place next to which stone in the design he was using me to fashion. His was the mind that saw beyond the present moment into the deepest parts of the past he intended to bring forth out of the darkness and silence into which they had slipped. He was using my hands and my eyes to reshape a legacy of spiritualism and self-sacrifice that stretched so far back in time and memory that Europe could not even be said to exist yet as more than an empty mindlessness when it began. One of the stones I often held in my hand as I worked, to draw from the power it still contained, was a reddish-brown colored depiction of a mastodon's head so perfectly sculpted in its three-dimensional shape that tusk and trunk and domed-head were unmistakably present in the stone. It took a while the first time I looked at it to realize what I was seeing. Such a thing was impossible, so unexpected that I could not believe what my eyes and the old man were telling me. No one who had not seen the beast in its flesh could have produced a rendition of its head still visible in a piece of stone 20,000 years after the last one disappeared from the face of the earth. The man who made the stone was a hunter. I could see his face through the old man's eye as I put his spirit in its proper place on the wheel.

The old man brought me face-to-face with another member of his "clan" that day whose name he said was one that sounded like a singing bird before a thunderstorm. Precisely what he meant by that remains a mystery to me now because the woman had been mauled by a mountain lion when she was ten years old, had lost the use of her left arm from the attack, was blind in one eye and could barely see out of the other because of facial scars that had healed badly, and could not utter a sound because the lion had damaged her vocal chords in her struggle for survival. She had been so damaged by the event that she had lived her life concealed from the other members of her tribe, so as not to give offense by appearing openly among them, in a cave a few hundred yards from the campsites where they lived. She dealt with her shamanistic duties completely hidden from view under various kinds of shrouds and blankets always topped by the lion's head she wore to conceal her face. Her father had hunted the lion who had damaged his daughter before it was clear whether she would live or die after the attack. Had he, or anyone else, known that she would survive, he would not have killed the beast because it had marked his daughter as one of the most powerful shaman the tribe had ever possessed. A life of total solitude and estrangement, even when self-imposed, from other members of a human community is not an uncommon circumstance for those who possess the power conferred by less dramatic and harsh forms of dying into the spirit world. Bird-Singing was simply a person who had survived more than most are afflicted with when the spirit of the lion or bear or wolf singles them out to be messenger to the rest of the tribal community they tend. I did not actually see her face, of course, since it was concealed beneath a darkness in the places she has always had to dwell. I did not hear her voice either but was able to understand the message she sent nevertheless.

The old man kept me at my task through a bewildering array of sights and sounds and voices and thoughts that stretched in every direction any human being had ever chosen to walk. Bird Singing took me under her wing, so to speak, and began to share with the old man the burden of walking me back through twenty thousand years of ancestral history and time that was meant to bring me face-to-face with my own first journey down the path to a spirit-death that would mark me as alien to my own place in the world as the one she had lived in hers. To say that I did not fully comprehend what they were drawing me toward would be an understatement of the kind that makes sense in the thinking of the thought but becomes absurd and meaningless when it is actually voiced in real audible words. The pain Bird Singing had been called upon to live, and to go on living for as long as time itself existed, was as real as any anguish can ever be but it was someone else's pain and could not touch me in the way that my own could ever do. She was so polished at the same time by a sense of profound joy in being able to cure her tribe's disaffections that the pain she must have suffered seemed to be swallowed up in a light that penetrated to the darkest corners of all the places she had found to live. She was so much like two people occupying a single space, one white one black, one red one yellow, that I would not have been able to see her clearly even if she had stood before me in the flesh with nothing but the thinnest air to conceal her profound disfigurement.

So, anyway, with her help and guidance, I built the southern quarter of the wheel into the shape of an owl. I used her yellow lion's head as the center of the owl's darkest eye. Many misconceptions exist, among people who don't know any better, that owls are somehow noble animals who exist in some upper echelon of the bird kingdom by virtue of their superior intelligence, that to be "as wise as an owl," assuming that any person could appropriate the mental habits of an animal, bird or otherwise, that it would be a good and valuable thing to be able to think like an owl, is just the kind of misconception I mean to warn you against here. Owls got their reputation for wisdom because Athena/Minerva's companion in Greek/Roman mythology was said to be an owl. Anyone who has ever had dealings with an owl might have a different impression of just how intelligent they are. My uncle, who owned a farm in northern Indiana, once tried to capture a great-horned owl to keep in his barn to help his cats control the rodents who always depleted the corn he grew for his livestock. He saw one on a wooden fence-post one day coming back from fishing on the lake he owned as part of his farm. He got one hand around one leg before the bird attempted to fly off in the morning sunlight. It was too bright for the owl to see well at that time of day, according to my uncle's theory as to why it had not attempted to escape before he got close enough to grab its leg. The problem, of course, was that my uncle only got hold of one leg. The talons on the other one cut a three inch gash across his arm that took about twenty stitches to close. He had to let the thing go about a week later after it killed one his cats. After looking into its eyes one time, even at the age of ten, I was not surprised it killed the cat.

My own encounter with an owl, which happened in the desert when I was hunting stones for the old man, was less damaging physically in terms of what I knew an owl could do to a person foolish enough, or unlucky enough, to fall in with one on the open range where they do their living. The owls I found one morning, and there were two of them, lived in a burrow they had appropriated from whatever had dug it out in the first place, probably something they had eaten before they took up residence in its house. The idea of a bird, a creature of the air, who lives in a cave dug out of the earth is strange enough in itself but, when the bird in question is also a creature of the night, a creature rarely seen in the light of day, there can be little wonder that many native Americans consider burrowing owls to be associated with death and with the malevolent spirits of people who have died unjustly by violent means. Some spirits are best avoided. Owls fall into that category both for their tendency to viciousness and because they are essentially unpredictable, not being intelligent enough for their size and talons to manage living peacefully in the proximity of other creatures. Not that they are evil--they are not. They are simply too dangerous to go around unless you have some clear reason to do so.

My encounter with the owls was a simple accident. I did not know they lived in the burrow cut down toward the interior of the mound of sand along the path I was walking that morning just after the sun rose. There were mounds of sand everywhere in the desert that were built up around the roots of centuries-old thorn bushes that held the volatile soil in place against the ceaseless wind. Walking by the hole I did not even know was there on the west side of the mound, which put the owls between my face and the rising sun as back light to their screeching explosion out of the ground, I simply threw my arms up in front of my eyes, not knowing what had happened to create such a horrific howl as the one they were making, and blocked the talons of the one coming straight for my face out of his cave. I only saw them flying away after the assault and never knew beforehand what they even were. I was simply lucky to have eyes anymore at all because the one who came at me would have had at least one of them had my arm not blocked his path. The first owl out of the earth flew off harmlessly toward the south. The other one went west.

Bird Singing wanted me to build the owl in the southern quadrant of the wheel because she said it gave me the only knowledge I had of what it would be to live without a normal vision of the world like she had done. We made a fair rendition of the bird in anticipation of the ordeal I was expected to endure in finding my way across to the other side of time.

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