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In Praise of Magical Thinking

The other day I was watching a TV program on the housing meltdown.  The man they interviewed had been a NY times expert on the financial market and had warned the public not to get caught up in the mortgage scams.  Then he turned around, bought a high priced home with a huge mortgage, thinking that his wife’s salary would pay for living expenses while his salary would pay for the mortgage.  Trouble was, his wife wasn’t even working.  They assumed she’d get a job and all would be well, but that never happened.   In fact, in the interview, he gave the impression his wife never had the desire nor intention to find a job.

The interviewer asked “How could you, of all people, who warned us this was happening, do this?”

“We just got caught up in magical thinking”, he said.

This gave me pause to think about that phase magical thinking, as if there’s something wrong with it, as opposed to rational thinking.  Personally, I would not call what the NY times expert got himself into magical thinking.  I might call it Not Thinking.

I think we’re all predisposed to thinking and feeling in magical ways.  I might suggest we’re even wired for that.  And to go further, we need that.  Thinking non-sequentially, allowing the mind to float through time, to daydream, to make odd connections and think even bizarrely, comes from a deep place, a wellspring, the source of creativity.

I got to pondering that, possibly, in today’s modern world, there is no room for this expression, so it comes out in odd and edgy ways, as it did with the finance expert.  Because we’re so overloaded with rationality in our daily lives, our natural expression of magic and synchronicity is relegated to the fringes of our existence.

Living outside in a natural setting, magical thinking is well placed, useful, and even a survival skill.  Yet this idea of magical thinking is only the tip of the iceberg, an expression of a deeper and unexplored realm that our modern lives can not afford to allow, for if we did, society might just slow down too much and who knows what could unravel.

Deep in our past and collective unconscious there is the living remembrance of the natural world, there are the animals who live with us, and there is the constant vibrating pulse of Life, and there is death that is a daily part of this thing we call Life.  In our wisdom we recognize the circular, even spherical nature, of existence, intuitively.  Long ago, every day we took time to observe a sunset for it foretold the nights’ weather.  Everyday we noticed animal sign, as it contained our next meal or spelled danger.  We watched animals and they gave us information about other animals, or weather, or even unexplainable events such as earthquakes.

In our past, animals were emblems of the spirit world; animals were observed to be deep contemplatives.  The bobcat sitting still for hours is one expression. But even the busy bees who seem to never relax:  go into a hive and their buzzing has a deeply calming, meditative, effect.  Economical in their physical needs, alert when needed, and falling into contemplation the rest of their waking time, animals drew us into this ‘magical’ realm of spirit.  Our ancestors knew this and that is why animals were a clear and present connection to spirit.  That is why they said their thanks to the animal before they killed them.  That is why their stories of creation and myth give great powers to animals.  All around them (and us today although we have lost contact with this in our ‘modern’ world) was the magical means for a deep living connection with Presence and Spirit.IMG0102_1

Living in a world where wild animals are confined to parks, we are not in contact with their daily expressions in our lives.  Even in rural areas where there are more human/animal interactions, our lives are not intertwined with them, nor are we dependent on them for our survival or information about the world around us.  We have no need to understand the daily movements of the deer in our yards or pastures, where they bed down, what they prefer to eat and when. We no longer dress in their skins and ‘become’ them, dance as them, sing their songs, to the point that we know them as channels, a magical entrance to a different way of seeing and knowing.

Sometimes it is just good to be overwhelmed.  Lewis and Clark talked about seeing 10,000 bison with packs of ‘Buffalo Wolves’ (as they were called because they followed the herds), elk, and deer, all in one glance upon the prairie.  Sometimes that sense of overwhelm puts us in our natural place.  Sometimes we need to be deluged by natural forces for our minds to go quiet so something else can come into play in our lives.  That is what I call magical thinking.

Conduits to another World; the pure herd.

Conduits to another World; the pure herd.

Water, the universal solvent

Water, the universal solvent

Call of the Wilds

I live in a wild place.  In winter there are only a handful of residents.  The wolves howl.  The elk find their way through the snows.  The grizzlies sleep.  In spring the mountains wake and thaw.  On weekends this valley is a favorite spot for locals from Billings and Cody.  ATV’s and RV’s roll in and find their favorite campsites.  Yet the mountains here are vast, the wilderness seems endless.  Its rare to see another person on any given trail.

This country is big enough for all who love it and steward it.

This country is big enough for all who love it and steward it.

This has been my first winter here.  I’d been here almost every month of the year, but only for weeks or a few months at a time.  Living here, knowing that these mountains are what I now call home, I find my rhythms slowly changing.  Life seems to be moving fast when I return to an area I’d just been last week and the snows have melted.  Or how did I miss the day when the rivers suddenly turned muddy and swollen?  Just two weeks ago I drove up that draw, but now its flooded.  Changes seems to be happening at breakneck speed.  What looks static to a visitor is a constantly changing kaleidoscope, an ebb and flow of interactions too great and wonderful to take in all at once.

Swamp Lake as the snows are melting

Swamp Lake as the snows are melting

Aspens starting to bud out.

Aspens starting to bud out.

Ribes blooming just the other day

Ribes blooming just the other day

Alpine columbine just blooming today

Alpine columbine just blooming today

I walk the woods and look for wildlife runs and markings, new smells or droppings, nests or homes, what was eaten today and what was killed.  At first I walked or hiked and noticed a few things here or there.  But now I find it difficult to be aware on all the levels I want to be.  There is the forest floor and its sign–scat, droppings, scratchings.  The treetops are where birds and small mammals also live so don’t forget to check up there as well.  The relics and evidence of the past such as buffalo bones or Native American sign.  If you only look for animal sign such as tracks or scat, you miss the wildlife presently around you.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Better watch for bears, and be careful with your dog as there are wolves around.  The forest and the meadows are alive.

Could these be bison (or cow) found in buried in a depression like a wallow.

Could these be bison (or cow) found in buried in a depression like a wallow.

Simple beauty

Simple beauty

A new awareness has also begun to creep in.  It is an understanding of the nature of life and death, of a circle of existence.  This is not an intellectual notion.  Everyday I find bones and skulls, or fresh kills large and small.  Everybody has to eat and you either eat plants or meat or both.  Death is not wrapped up in a nice package in the frozen section, or shoved off to the edges of society.  It is here and everywhere.

My neighbor H__ who has a horse farm, told me a story about the first horse he had to put down.  He was afraid to do it himself and asked our 85-year-old neighbor, a native to the valley, if he would do the deed for him.  JB replied “Its your horse.  You have to do it.”

“He was right”, H__ told me.  This winter he put two horses down in the upper pasture.  The wolves and coyotes were on it within days.

Just as in life, there is beauty and ugliness in death.  I’ve watched the coyote I found this winter in his process of decay.  First the animals ate their fill, but a lot remained and the ground was still frozen and cold.  Now the beetles are finishing him off.  He is food for others, and there is a certain rightness and sadness in that.  There is also a fascination and a repulsion in watching the process.  Yet I find a skull of a winter kill bull elk with both its antlers, the skull already cleaned off and perfectly white, and it looks beautiful to me.

Found winter wolf kill.  Beautiful in death

Found winter wolf kill. Beautiful in death

Coyote skull and bobcat skull

Coyote skull and bobcat skull

Old trees that have died are regal in their appearance, and house insects and the birds that feed upon them.  The ground squirrels in the yard are amusing to watch, yet I admire the Swainson’s hawk that deftly swoops and catches them.

Burnt trees.  Beautiful in death

Burnt trees. Beautiful in death

A deeper ‘knowing’ that I too am part of this whole process seeps into my core.  It may seem ugly or cruel to some, but it is only economical and the way things must be.  More than stark, there is a dreamlike quality to it all.  The animals are not bothered.  They have been born into this acceptance.

I walk with Koda.  He is always alert, on the ready, yet happy and relaxed.  His tension comes from awareness, instinct to check for danger, or to check for the fun of a chase with a squirrel.  I am learning here, in this complete ecosystem, with top predators just like me here, that I must walk and be aware, relaxed, and alert.  That life and death walk side-by-side always, only here they are in evidence.  That there are more levels to this dreamtime than I am yet aware, and that the natural world supplies a plethora of synchronicity and sign, if only one can take the time to deepen, relax, and learn to notice.

Where the Buffalo Once Roamed

I took the research students over to the dead coyote today.  The guys have quite a bit of experience, between their schooling, hunting and trapping, I thought they might know what had killed it.  They had no qualms about touching it (which I had as I am always wondering about diseases I might catch).  Since they touched it, turned it over, felt its coat–I did the same.  They also thought it looked really healthy, and said its coat was perfect.  The guys discussed the coyotes leg for a while and if that could have been made by a trap.  The upper part of the leg was exposed to the bone.  After much debate, the guys felt that neither a trap nor a snare could make that wound.  It was too high for a trap and too low for a snare.

T___ felt the coyotes’ ribcage and noticed several broken ribs on one side.  Since the coyote was lying next to a field where the elk come nightly in large numbers, he guessed the coyote, a male, might have been feeling especially hubristic, trotted through the crowd of elk, and got a good kick where he then bled internally.  The gnawing might have come after he was dead.

I took a walk with Koda in the afternoon up on Riddle flat.  The elk have been swarming around there–laying everywhere, eating everything.  Koda found several stray legs scattered around.  The other day on the flat, I bent down and picked up a buffalo horn, a smallish one, probably a calf’s.  Buffalo haven’t been in my valley in over 150 years.   The horn was so old it looked like layers of bark, peeling, with lichen on it.  But it has a point at the end and, being a landscaper, I know wood when I see it, and this ain’t wood! I thought that was just fine; an unexpected and wonderful rare find.  That was just 2 days ago.

Yet today I backtracked home across the other end of Riddle flat, bent down again and picked up another Bison horn, much more massive than the other one.  J___ was coming over for dinner.  His family homesteaded in this valley since 1915.  He was born on the mountain, his mother trying to get to Cody and never making it.  He’s even shown me the branch of the tree he was born under–he’s got it hanging in his home.  (Note:  Was I ever jealous of that.  I want a tree that I was born under!)  I got home just as J___was walking up to my door.  “I’ve got something to show you” I have to yell really loud when I speak to J__ because he’s 84 and hard of hearing.  I pulled the Bison horn out.  “That’s a Buffalo” he confirmed.  “I’ve found them all over.  They haven’t been here for a really long time.  I’ve even found whole skulls. I found one that had a bullet in it and one that was Indian killed.”  I asked how he knew the Buffalo skull he’d found had been killed by Indians.  “It was hit over the head.  They always took the brains out to eat.”

Bison Horns with matchbook for size

Finding that Bison horn, peeling, almost petrified, was like finding a little bit of left over magic–magic that might be called our North American Dreamtime.

The Dreaming

This winter I went to Australia with my son.  Its the perfect place for a California Landscape Designer to explore, as its just one of the five Mediterranean climates around the world.  I use a lot of the plant material from there, and to see these plants in their native environments is interesting and instructive.

I was in Australia for several months over twenty years ago, so this was my second visit.  I planned to go back to Sydney (I almost moved there 20 years ago), then venture up to the Daintree, the world’s oldest tropical rainforest and a UNESCO site (north of Cairns) and then to Atherton Tablelands wetlands retreat in a savannah ecosystem.  My son has a teacher from Australia who said “You MUST go to Uluru.”  I hadn’t planned to go there.  I knew about Ayers Rock for a long time.  It’s a long trek, by plane or otherwise, to see ‘just a rock’ I thought.  Besides, I live in a most beautiful place, surrounded by magnificent mountains and rock features, geysers and wildlife.  I’ve visited many deserts and spent a lot of time in Death Valley and Joshua Tree.  What could one rock in the middle of the country possibly hold for me?

My travel agent also brought up the idea, and since we were in Australia over Christmas and many places were shut down for several days, Uluru seemed like a likely ‘detour’ during that lull.  We were to be there for a day and a half and then drive to Alice Springs.  But the holiday put a wrench in the travel plans…ferries didn’t run, planes had restricted schedules, etc…so we spent an extra day in Uluru/Kata Tjuta area.  It wasn’t till later that I realized things had conspired to bring us there for a fuller experience.


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