Shhh, no, I can’t stay quiet: Meaning is getting made in the moss garden. When animals come to us from the wild it is often a very intimate experience and hard to talk about, especially when it is a synchronous experience, especially when such synchronicities become sequences of strange appearances, and especially when friends get threaded into the weave.
In mid-August, after a hiatus of some weeks I rose early, did my practices in the medicine wheel, then walked the circular path through our small bottomland forest. When I arrived at the (dry) creek I prayed for the health of streams and wetlands and for the amphibians and other critters that need clear, fresh water — salamanders, frogs, turtles. I thought, oh, and I would love to see a box turtle again. The next day I did the same, more fervently.
Later that afternoon I went down to the creek bank, lifted a patch of moss, and brought it up to the Shrine of the Earth Mother to repair a spot that had been disheveled by a thrasher searching for earthworms. Kneeling, mending the mosses, out of the corner of my left eye I saw movement — a large box turtle had walked past, right behind me, and was climbing a cleft in the rock beside the shrine on its way to the ferns above. My breath caught. I had to breathe out hard. Tears welled. If my head hadn’t been slightly inclined to the left I wouldn’t even have noticed. In the time it took me to run in and yell to my husband to quick bring some strawberries, it was out of sight. Turtles move fast! It disappeared like an apparition.
How can it be that I pray in the morning for our amphibians and turtles, express the desire to see one again, and in the afternoon he or she arrives? And not just anywhere in the garden, but at the Earth Mother’s Shrine! This seems like magic. With this kind of synchronicity surely there is a message. While walking and praying I had had a familiar thought: This is my job – to pray for nature. I can’t help but feel that the appearance of the turtle is a confirmation of this strange vocation. I am grateful for the animal herself and for this seeming communication from the spirit world.
The last time I saw a box turtle here was three summers ago. I had invited my friend, Nancy, over to help bless the new Shrine for the Mother in the moss garden. As an offering she brought a bunch of zinneas and put them in a vase on a rock. They were so colorful, so gorgeous against the green moss. Then, she opened a big bag of rose petals and sprinkled them all over. She knelt and prayed for a long time. Later I emailed her, “Gotta tell ya, you must have blessed the Moss Shrine of the Mother with lots of mojo – tonight there is a large box turtle burrowing in at the edge of the moss garden. We haven’t seen a turtle here in years! She wrote back, “I found a turtle today in my garden, too!” Seems like we were joined in our Earth blessing by a powerful confirmation of the presence of the spirit of Mother Earth, Turtle being her representative!
This time, two days later I was worrying about that turtle, because it had climbed up in the direction of the busy road. Does a box turtle still have safe enough territory to roam? With all the invasive plants in the larger landscape does a turtle even have enough to eat around here? By the time I went outside I had missed the opportunity to do my practices in the medicine wheel as it was now in full sun and hot. So, I piddled a bit, weeding the moss, then did my prayers in the shade of the moss garden. Just as I was finishing, down the slope comes the turtle again, straight towards me. This time I pick her up and see that she is a he and run inside to get him some cherry tomatoes. When I put him back down he takes a bite of tomato then climbs a rock, past the small St. Frances statue, and disappears somewhere up in the ferns behind the shrine. I sit on the bench below and wait. He emerges on the other side of the shrine and rather clumsily stumbles back down a rock. He ambles around the garden, with a sort of staccato gait: taking some steps, stopping and stretching his neck up high, sometimes opening his mouth wide as if to taste the air, taking a few more steps, stopping to stretch his head up. . . He continues this rhythmic pattern of walking, then turning, makes his way through the blooming patch of pink turtlehead flowers (no kidding), and back up into the ferns.
I say to the turtle, You are a gift of life and beauty that I receive with tears of gratitude. I’m grateful that we both showed up in the garden at the same time. I’m excited that the garden might be providing something for you, is a healthy place for you. The first visitation was gift enough, but when an event occurs twice, Jung says, it means that something important is coming into consciousness, pay attention.
What does one do as a fitting expression of gratitude when an astonishing appearance happens? Make a chant? Write a poem? I emailed my poet friend, Brian, “At the risk of boring you with redundancy, after I told you about that turtle visitation, I went out to the moss garden to do my practices and to piddle a bit, weeding and watering. Just as I was finishing, down the slope comes Turtle again, straight towards me. Seems like the only equivalent response would be to write a poem. If I were a poet like you I’d write lines to the effect that doing Practices, Praying, Piddling in the garden, and Pondering writing a Poem are good for contacting Turtle Mother Earth, even if they are totally ephemeral Pastimes in the eyes of the social world.” Brian replies, “You can’t bore me with Nature Magic! Yes, we have our own currency system here of what is precious and valuable.”
Growing up on an island and left to my own exploring, with no adult to direct my nascent spirituality, from the very first horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs, and the shells of marsh snails washed up on the beach, I gravitated to animals. Animal appearances, dreams, visitations, and synchronicities have guided my life, have always been how the Divine speaks to me. Animals have been my primary teachers. I am finally accepting this weird person I am, with this strange religion. It is not a communal tradition, I have not had the guidance of an elder who could develop this proclivity in me, so I bump along and careen from one synchronicity to another down my soul’s rocky path. Like the time I was in the den playing the Rattlesnake and Baby Snake drum compositions and a black rat snake, having entered the house who knows how, was inches from climbing up my leg as if drawn to the vibrations of these rhythms. Like the time when I ran to tell my husband that I was both excited and scared at being invited to schedule my first Reading and exactly then a hawk slammed into the deck door. Wham! (Hawks for me are always messengers who speak about communication. He recovered and flew off.)
Almost without exception these occurrences stay hidden in my journals, afraid to show themselves, because if I tell them I fear it can sound like boasting. But when I do tell people they, too, invariably have an animal dream or synchronicity of their own to relate. We need to tell each other these stories. It is important, especially now, to let others know what can happen between us and our wild animal kin so that we don’t ignore them, take them for granted, destroy their homes, and stand silently by as they go extinct. What do these intimate animal visitations mean about the workings of Life, about our co-creative relationship with other species, their presence in our lives, our belonging in theirs?
There are many aspects of forming relationships with animals:
- We can feed the garden critters who arrive having nothing to do with us, just to help provide them a table so they can live, sharing the bounty of the plants, as we try to learn who needs what in order to thrive and reproduce.
- Animals who arrive from the wild around us can provide a sense of companionship to assuage our grief and loneliness for other species in an increasingly human-centered world. We are carrying the loneliness of our ancestors who lost their wild animals when they were colonized, when their animist/pagan religions were destroyed, when they found themselves in a land that existed only or primarily to be exploited. The tribes of each and every one of our ancestors had affinities with revered animals.
- When animals come to us in dreams or visions, it might take quite a while to discern what they want of us, or what they want to give to us. We might rattle or drum to help us listen as we ask them to tell us why they have come.
- There are those animals that arrive with incredible timing to punctuate a message as if they have some strange link with the spirit world that is connected to the Self and is aware of what sweet, bumbling Ego is doing or attempting to do.
- The qualities of certain animals may be present in the chakras of the subtle body. For example Turtle, who spends his whole long life in intimate contact with moist black soil or burrowed into the humus has always been a spirit animal of my root chakra, teaching me how to connect deeply with the Earth.
- Energies can be sensed as surrounding people, plants and animals and linking us in a web of sensory and extra-sensory relationships. Attuning to these Energies within and without is a practice for communing with both the matter and spirit of our fellow Nature beings.
- We might make pilgrimages to known areas of animal congregation, once so commonplace for our ancestors, to fall on our knees and praise the glory of such abundance.
- Since time immemorial myths and stories and fairytales have told of a permeability in which people can become animals and animals become people and help each other navigate this world and the otherworld. Children are still encouraged in colorful, animated books and on TV to have affinities with animals, but in nature, not so much.
It seems like whenever I’m attuning spiritually wild animals arrive. Whenever wild animals arrive I am raised into spiritual awareness. My heart softens to love, and tears of thankfulness well up. I feel connected to the community of life. The moss garden is a sanctuary. Twice, a jewel-like red eft climbed up the emerald moss shrine, too. The first time was right after we dedicated Temenos Garden Sanctuary as a place for people and critters to commune. When these animals come to the sanctuary it feels like an affirmation that this is a place where the sacred might be revealed. Grace emanates from the glowing greenness.
Four days later, after writing the above, I’m cleaning acorn pieces off the moss from the squirrel’s dinner in the oak above, preparing for tomorrow’s visit by the woman who tends the mosses at Duke Gardens. I’m thinking I need to go back inside. I don’t know what time it is, and I have to get ready to go to see a friend at one. No, I’ll work a little more. . . I should go in I’m sweating like crazy. . . No I’ll piddle a little longer . . . Finally, I turn around to leave and here comes the turtle, having strolled down the moss slope again. This time I don’t think he notices me. He walks a few steps and appears to eat something, a tiny red mushroom, then takes a few more steps, cranes his neck down and eats something else. At the shrine he appears to stretch his neck up and eat the spore capsules of the star moss. Can it be that he is getting things to eat in the moss garden, that he’s not just passing through, that the moss garden itself is giving him some sustenance? Ah, I begin to notice small pink and white mushrooms poking up here and there in the moss. I’ve tried to create a garden that mimics a habitat, a functioning ecosystem, although I’m obviously unable to really know how, being woefully ignorant of all the myriad factors that imitating an ecosystem would entail. I plant native plants so that native animals will come, if they so choose. These mushrooms are nature’s contribution to this hopeful work.
Four more days pass. My husband and I have worked all morning doing chores around the new pond. We finish up as it starts raining and go inside. I have no idea why I go back out again in the rain to the moss. There at the edge of the moss garden is the turtle again. I watch him eat one of those little red mushrooms. So I bring him a white one. He eats that too. As he begins to head up further into the garden I pick a long-stemmed mushroom and put it down in front of him. It is almost comical how he stretches his neck out long sideways and stares at it. Then he picks it up by the stem and carries it, like a rose in the teeth, to eat under the cover of the maidenhair ferns.
I write to Brian again telling him that the saga continues, that after the first two visitations there have been two more. “The moss likes to grow mushrooms and the Turtle likes to eat them!” Brian replies, “I’m enthralled and enraptured! A stunning experience of Wonder! And you in communion. Some of us aren’t just gardening, we’re communing with Wonder.” Well, yes, it is wonder-full to witness Turtle having communion with mushrooms. My friend doesn’t know that the chant that came to me (rattle please) is energy movement, spiritual attunement, community involvement, animal wonderment!
Suppose that explains it: the turtle is just coming to eat mushrooms. Roll that around on your tongue and see how it tastes to reduce the turtle visitation to a nothing-but, a factual observation, a scientific explanation. Yes, tending a moss garden, perhaps with mushrooms, perhaps for turtles, is a form of care that lets the Earth know I love her. But it’s more than that. Charles Eisenstein says that any act of service for your place on Earth is healing and contributes to a shift in consciousness that will occur to dismantle this culture of separation from nature that reduces her to mere resources to extract. But also, he asks, “What if self and other are interwoven intimately and there is a mysterious connection between inside and outside. What if we are part of a living universe?”*
While I contemplate Turtle and begin to write this story eight more days pass. I’m sitting at the computer trying to get my bearings on the story, but then, distracted, I just “have to” go outside to the garden. I have gotten lonely again. I’m thinking: Who knows if I’ll ever see the box turtle again. Should I even bother writing the story? It was just an ephemeral series of small occurrences to one person with a common animal, quite insignificant. I bend over to move a path log, and when I stand up the box turtle is there on my left side. I thought I might never see you again! He walks into some dense shrubbery. I turn on the sprinkler. It’s been very dry, and I imagine he might like some water. Sure enough, he hurries down the moss right over to the dripping sprinkler and stands there under it. Then, like a pilgrim, he circumnambulates the whole moss carpet, as if blessing it all, before climbing back up behind the shrine and disappearing under some ferns. I wait and wait hoping to see where he will head next in his travels, but finally give up waiting and leave — to get back to writing the story.
I wonder where, exactly, is the rest of his territory. Box turtles form an extremely strong attachment to the place where they were born, and throughout their whole long lives rarely travel beyond their home range, a circle with a diameter of 750 feet or less. With fewer and fewer native plants in the neighbors’ mown landscapes I flatter myself that he gravitates here because he feels at home here. These native plants are as familiar to him as they were to his grandfather and grandmother. The ancient mosses evolved with his ancient ancestors, so they fit his body like ocean fits a fish. Box turtles are disappearing, listed as a threatened species. I owe it to this animal kin of this bottomland/wetland habitat to honor him with a story.
When my dream group next met I told them about the turtle visitations. One woman remembered that she had recently saved a box turtle that had fallen into her community swimming pool. Another related that she had just rescued a box turtle crossing the road near the local university’s Botanical Garden. At the following meeting K. told us she had come upon box turtles mating in her yard. She said, “There is group meaning here. You told your story of the turtles, and it reverberated amongst us like echoes. These synchronicities belong to all of us.” She said that, for her, it brought back a memory of a profound vision she’d had at age 16 of a web of connections. “I didn’t know what it meant back then, but it came back to me as we told these turtle synchronicities, like oh, yeah, that vision back then is related to what is happening now – this is the web of connections I saw and knew that it touches us all. So, it was no surprise to me that these dream group turtle synchronicities were shared between us. Turtle is a group synchronicity touching us all!” She said she now realizes what synchronicity is: “It’s a glimpse of how the Other Realm operates.” Seems that Turtle gave us all a gift, a blessing, a peek at the reality that is woven of these “slender threads.”**
We know that the most important thing we can do to lessen the impact of climate change is to protect and restore the land for the sake of the plants and the animals and for the biological, hydrological, atmospheric, and carbon cycles to function properly. For this to happen we need to be restored to our function as lovers and guardians of life. And for this we need to feel that we belong to a local community of earthy and spirited beings, like turtles, and moss and mushrooms, that we belong to the benevolent spirits who love us and who love the land, that we belong to a community of other nurturers of life. We need to know in our bones that the Earth needs us like it needed our ancestors in order co-create meaning-full Life. How? By honoring and celebrating the integrity of the sacred communion of living beings and by reweaving ourselves back into the beautiful tapestry of creation, the great web of connection. Will you be woven in, too? Turtle asks.
* Charles Eisenstein talk here.
** Robert Johnson used this phrase in describing synchronicity.
Text and photos (C) 2019 Betty Lou Chaika