An excerpt from The Shaman’s Guide to Power Animals
It was a rainy day in the Pacific Northwest. I lifted my 5-year-old body into my father’s delivery van. Our cargo was buttermilk pancake mix, maple syrup, bacon, potatoes, carrots and canned goods. We were heading to my family’s logging camp on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state in the early 1960s. The road narrowed after we got to the Quinault Indian Reservation. Because over 100 inches of rain falls there each year, the fir trees towered above us like a cathedral as we drove between them. Moss hung like lace from their branches. My father slowed the vehicle to allow a family of elk to cross the road.
This trip is my first memory of being out in the woods far away from the bustle of civilization. Although dedicated to logging, my father’s heart was so grateful for the forests that he always ensured they were replenished after clearing the land. Many of the trees he planted on the Olympic Peninsula are mature and thriving 50 years later. His heart walked a tightrope between human development and preservation, a complicated balancing act in those early years of logging.
Arrived at camp
Continuing down the logging road with its rain-cut crevices, we soon arrived at the camp. Young and old loggers smiled as we pulled up to the makeshift kitchen ready to provide them the ingredients for their next meals. My father jumped out the driver’s side and called for some help to unload the van. After greeting us, the cooks checked items off the list of things they had ordered by radio a couple days before. Invited to sit down to a lumberjack breakfast, seven plate-size pancakes appeared on the table in front of me. I did my best to dig into them, but my stomach was swiftly overwhelmed. For his part, my father chowed down heartily. We’d been driving for several hours.
After breakfast my father took me by the hand and we walked along the banks of the Quinault River, me more successfully than him, as my weight was perfect to prevent me from sinking deeply into the clay and mud of the shoreline. Arriving at the edge, I was awestruck. Thousands of bright coral salmon were in the water flip-flopping and struggling to make their way upstream to their spawning grounds. My father pointed upstream to a community of bear engaged in a feeding frenzy. They had no interest in us as their focus was on the mass migration of fish that was taking place.
This was the first moment in which I realized that something greater and wiser than me existed beyond the walls of my colorful nursery full of stuffed animals. There was a natural power ready to be discovered out in the world.
On the way back home, we bounced down the same dirt road and this time we saw a duckling that was alone on the side of the road. I remember my mind wondering if this fluffy creature was a sign from nature intended for us. My father stopped the van and got out and, after much searching for duck’s mother, realized it had been abandoned. He picked up the tiny duck, put it in an empty carton and handed it to me. I felt so blessed by this gift from the forest as I held the box with the duckling on my lap all the way home.
During my childhood I often spent time in nature alone. In those days, a young girl could venture about the bustling logging town of Aberdeen on Grays Harbor in safety. Our neighbor had a large koi pond where I would sit for hours watching pairs of dragonfly dart about as several koi peeked out from under the lotuses. Frogs would sit waiting for the next insect to land on their lily pads. The pond was a microcosmic world of its own, the world of the water spirits.
Life changed as I grew older. My connection to nature diminished as I embraced a more materialistic view of the world. Other than an occasional zoo visit, or a Sunday evening spent watching Wild Kingdom on television, the animal world was a distant thought or interest.
Moving to El Salvador in my late twenties changed that, as I became the keeper of eighty acres of land on the slopes of a dormant volcanic crater that held Lake Ilopango. I was handed my first machete and bought myself a good pair of sturdy boots, and with my civil engineer husband, Tino, started to open a road through the peninsula that we owned. Months of adventure ensued as we darted to avoid snake, peeked at panther and fox, helped armadillos make their way, discovered an audience of iguanas watching us from the trees, and enjoyed the curiosity of a multitude of tropical birds. In the late afternoon, vultures would prepare for the hunt and opossums would climb up the palm trees for the night. Agoutis would feed on the tender vegetation and duck, egret, kingfisher, owl, and other creatures abounded on and around the lake.
Every night, Tino and I would drive our boat to a cliff where trees hung over the water to see the arrival of hundreds of birds who would sleep in its branches overnight. I was steeped in the circle of life; the animal kingdom was my neighborhood. Our dedication to the protection of this property evolved into maintaining a private sanctuary for many animals that were brought to us after being rescued from being offered for sale as pets in the central market.
Our love of wildlife took us on many other adventures. We traveled to Yellowstone National Park in the United States — another volcano! — and had thrilling experiences there with bear and buffalo. In Alaska, we flew by helicopter to the top of glaciers and spent time with brown bears that we discovered on dog sleds as we ventured into the snowy banks near Juneau. We watched whales in Prince Rupert Sound and enjoyed seals floating on chunks of ice. More travels took us to Antarctica where we saw pods of killer whale and leopard seal, and I spent a day sitting on the beach in the Falkland Islands with a colony of penguin.
Venture to Africa
Shortly after that, my husband and I took a trip that truly captivated me and deepened even more my perception of the animal world. We went to Africa. With local trackers for our guides, we went off the beaten path to find a male leopard. Giraffe galloped alongside our jeep and rhinoceros and water buffalo often stood only a few feet away. One day I sat for hours watching a female leopard and her two cubs playing in the sunshine. During an outdoor lunch, my meal was stolen by a baboon.
The moment that was most profound was when seven lionesses joined us, moving stealthily alongside our open jeep as we moved along slowly. I could have reached out and touched them, although that would not have been a good idea. As the lions were in stalking mode, I sat insanely still. Suddenly a lioness took off perpendicularly to us, while the others stopped in front of the jeep and waited. Moments later, a herd of gazelle came running in front of us, right into the trap that had been set. One gazelle couldn’t escape the ambush and became the victim of a feeding frenzy that I reluctantly watched. When finished, the seven lionesses all lifted their bloody faces from the carcass and walked off.
Our next stop was Botswana, where I enjoyed watching elephant swimming across the river from us with their trunks like snorkels peeking out of the surface of the water. Staying in a tent, a hippopotamus decided to sleep next to us all evening, which made for a very nervous slumber party. We floated in a boat on the Okavango River for hours, watching the arrival of zebra and observing how the massive alligator in the river protected their babies, which would swim happily by our craft. The morning we arrived in Johannesburg for the return flight home, I got teary about leaving. I had just had three weeks of a major hakuna matata (no problems) moment and I would never be the same again. That trip was the ultimate immersion into another world, and I had the realization that there was so much more to the animal kingdom than I understood with my relative oblivion to the natural world beyond my garden walls.
I took home with me from Africa to El Salvador the sacred wisdom that when something dies it gives a new life to another and that, from the smallest insect to the largest mammal, each of us is participating in the balance of nature. We are all connected. The animals understood this, while we humans are the least aware of our role in this dynamic existence. The insight that everything is connected, including the minerals, trees and plants, shook my human foundation. My ego shrunk, becoming small and insignificant. This was the first of many steps toward a spiritual awakening.
After a major shamanic initiation by ancestral spirits in 2010, I was able to see, hear and experience animal spirits. At my home on the edge of Lake Ilopango my ordinary reality and perceptions cracked open and the spirits of four jaguar became my teachers through a challenging shamanic initiation. After that, a Haitian shaman performed a power animal ceremony with me and blew a lion spirit into my heart chakra, which, to this day, is my constant companion. This spiritual event was the accumulation of a journey into the Lower World, the place where the spirits of animals reside.
My experience with lion has been more than remarkable. Its guidance and teachings have been beyond what any shaman or earthly being could have ever taught me. Lion is constantly teaching; I never leave her school. We have learned to merge, and I have come to accept her powers so that I may help people heal. This partnership continues to amaze me. Lion’s eyes are like x-rays into the body of the sick. Lion’s powerful spine supports me to take on negative energy, chewing it up and spitting it out of me and those who seek our healing powers. Lion completely wipes away fear, as if with the flip of a switch. I am never alone. Our relationship is one of great honor and respect for both of us. Lion has learned my hardiness and my weaknesses and uses everything she finds to our advantage.
At times, I have called in other animal spirits to help me, such as condor to give me a wider view of the world, snake to transform energy, beetle to fine tune my psychic powers, and numerous birds that continue to arrive with messages from the deceased for their loved ones. I have had hawk land on branches above my head, fox appear after leaving a drumming circle, and deer peer into my office window during a healing session. The spirit world is alive and well through the generosity and concern that the animals show for us as humans, even if we do not yet see our role in the natural order as they see theirs. By opening our hearts to Power Animals, we will come to know ourselves and our place in the dynamic circle of life.