Forest stream with high banks, in the late afternoon
Memories, Narrative, Reflection

Sign of the Stag

I knew where to burrow when I saw two trees growing intertwined on the higher stream-bank. Burrowing is a mental process. It isn’t complicated, in essence. A person puts aside their usual thoughts and routines and imagines disappearing into a hole, down down down…

To change the queues and clear the caches in our minds, though, is a challenge. I learned that drum-beats could help so I composed one on GarageBand for that purpose. I mean to burrow more, though I’m not sure quite how since I’ve moved to the city. I’m open to comments.

Forest stream with high banks, in the late afternoon
This isn’t where I saw the stag but it’s the same motif.

That September day, I plunged into a wooded park in West Michigan a few miles from The Big Lake. A fatefully dry August sapped the stream, shrinking it down to a trickle between deep pools. I wanted a new spot to meditate, taking the opportunity to walk in the furrow left behind. On one side the bank was as high as my head. To my left I saw a beech and a maple mashed together; their entangled roots jutted from the stream-bank, suspending an umbrella of soil over a hollow space. Once the sun set, I could imagine myself crawling into the Earth at that place: down down down… down…

But I was early. I sat and listened for nothing and no one in particular, relieved to let intentional spirituality wait until after sunset.

I watched the crowns of nearby trees nodding with the breezes and caught glimpses of tiny woodland birds. I noticed how the greens of late-summer aspired to defy Frost’s poem about spring, where he asserts nature’s first green is gold and it’s “her hardest hue to hold”. But a subtle, golden glow radiated from the trees: a trick played by my romanticism and the Sun’s westward journey coming to a close.

I abandoned my thoughts and used my senses. I had relaxed too seldom for someone with too much free time. I was critical of myself for not being more accomplished, not knowing how to channel my ambitions better, yet disappointed (most of all) to not have an impressive job. I felt perpetually unimportant. That afternoon, I forgot the meaning of importance and communed with the forest.

When the gilded hours reached their zenith, I heard a barred-owl call. I met eyes with one of these owls for a long time through a pair of binoculars, months before, and that encounter left a lasting impression on me. I looked up the spiritual significance of barred-owls and tried to take the sign seriously.

I’ve always believed in messengers; whether or not I heed the messages or admit my spiritual disposition is another matter. One of my many dichotomies is that my Presenting Self is attached to a veneer of empirical reasoning while my Inner Self is hungry for metaphysical phenomena. Adding further complications, other white people have the annoying habit of policing cultural expression as if it were their responsibility. Thus, I always hedge my research by exploring both what my ancestors might say and what the people of these land(s) would say. I tend to believe that our souls belong with the places that nourish us (and so I put more stock in indigenous American thought on spirit animals) but I need something stereotypically white to offer to virtue-signalers. It never hurts to consider what the Celts and Druids said, too.

I turned Northwest, toward a high bank along a bend in the stream, scanning for the owl.

A stag appeared not more than 50 feet away. We locked eyes. For a short time I wondered if he saw me. I expected him to smell me and panic, like every doe and ‘spike’ I’d met at this distance.

He assessed the situation: craned his neck, turned his head sideways and back again, shifted on his long sturdy legs, and swept the air for sounds of movement using huge, swiveling ears. As he did so, I noticed he had at least 12 points on his rack. I’d never seen a buck of that status wild in the woods. He was quite close to me.

Then he stamped the ground. He shifted his weight and craned his neck again. Stomp. Several times, he stomped and looked right at me. I realized that he had always seen me; he preferred to hold ground rather than dash away to safety! He didn’t grow a 12+ point rack so he could snag it on the bushes running away, man. He might’ve won contests with them the previous Autumn; this patch of woods is valuable territory.

I pulled my walking-stick closer to me.

*SNORT*… …he snorted once, pointedly.

‘He sees me and he knows I see him,’ I thought, ‘he wants me to hear him and understand that he’s not running away.’ I just sat still with my walking stick on my lap, ready, and tried to enjoy the moment we were having together for as long as possible. I don’t know how many minutes passed but the gold around his silhouette grew richer as the Sun continued its journey into Lake Michigan.

The end of our encounter was just as memorable: he climbed deliberately down the bank and proceeded at a 45 degree angle into the thicket across the stream from me. In sum: he walked in my general direction but left a cushion of vegetation between us. He neither retreated nor charged, just sauntering into the thicket. The sound of twigs breaking and leaves rustling gradually faded and–


…I thought he’d slipped stealthily into the woods but he’d actually stopped and continued our standoff. I couldn’t see him but he was monitoring me, by scent and sound, and wanted to let me know “I see you, trespasser– try something and see what happens.”

I did nothing but hope he would emerge again. He must have left (stealthily) after that: I never saw him again.

This happened almost two years ago but I’ve never felt ready to bring the full, sublime power of that day into my writing. I still feel like I’m not telling the story right. I haven’t fully realized the meaning of the stag. Afterwards, I looked-up the significance of deer and discovered that deer are associated with the time of year when I am born in several indigenous cultures. He is literally my birth animal.

Darkness came fast in the little gulley; the insects thrummed and I turned-on the drum-beats I’d prepared, closing my eyes and imagining myself tunneling into the space beneath those two embracing trees. I envisioned a spiraling path down down down into the Earth, until I reached huge cavern lit by an unnatural light emanating from an underwater stream.

Where I ‘burrowed’, a canoe was waiting. The stag joined me and we traveled past shimmering grottos down-stream. There must be some point, I thought, where the stream disappears with no room to follow along its surface. I couldn’t imagine a stream that went down down down, forever, to the deep, hot, realistic bowels of the Earth. I needed to make a place where the voyage ended and the next stage of my journey could begin.

I stopped paddling and looked up at a high ceiling, dotted with glow-worms and luminescing gems. I looked down at the same image, reflected, undulating gently in the wake of the boat. I imagined the canoe rolling slowly over so that we merged with our reflection– not quite getting wet but not really staying dry (in real life, I was sweating profusely). As we turned, I imagined the stag and I fusing into one.

That’s when the owls began to banter loudly, rousing me from my reverie. I could hear their copious whooping throughout my amble home. The volume of their cries stayed high until I climbed the last hill separating forest from town. Perhaps they tried to leave a deep impression of whatever the evenings message was supposed to be, a message I’m never sure I fully received. I’ll never forget that an owl introduced the stag; how serendipitous can something be before we stop calling it a coincidence?

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