In 1987, 37-year-old Susan Chernak McElroy was diagnosed with neck cancer, and her doctors didn't expect her to survive beyond two years. In her first book, Animals as Teachers and Healers, she shared her experience of healing through the companionship and example of animals. In January 2000, on the day she began writing this new book, she returned home to find her house burned nearly to the ground. Luckily no one was injured, and all her pets survived. But McElroy entered a period of sadness and depression. First the home of her body was ravaged and now the place where she lived. The author decides she's in what William Bridges has called the "fallow zone"; she calls it "an uncomfortable land between endings and new beginnings where we lie, after the flames have died, like a seed unsprouted in charred ground. But as a 'between-time' it is also a rich country where the veils between this realm and the mystery realms are thinnest. The in-between zone is a place in which we can explore the spiritual, numinous landscapes of life, a place where our intuition and gut-senses are fine-tuned and buzzing."
McElroy finds an animal to help guide her through this transitional period of her life a six-pointed bull elk. According to Native American wisdom, this animal stands for stamina and endurance. She picks up other teachings from a courageous hummingbird, a rattlesnake, and a fox. We liked the following passage about one of the author's rituals:
"Every year a pair of robins make their nest on top of my front-porch light fixture, returning to my house within the same two-week period in early spring. They construct the cup-sized nest with twigs from the aspens out front and always line it thickly with [my dog] Strongheart's signature white hair. Around the robins' comings and goings, I have established a series of welcoming rituals for them of my own. As soon as the snow begins melting, I start brushing Strongheart out on the front lawn, knowing the birds will be looking for his hair. Once the first twig appears on my front deck, all of us stop using the front door and start coming and going from the garage so that the new parents can have some privacy. When I see the robins begin sitting for long hours in the nest, I begin my spring prayers for the safety of these new lives who swim inside a liquid sea, encased in sky-blue eggs. The ritual in the robins' annual return ushers in a special time for me in early spring, sending my thoughts toward new beginnings and new births, not only of birds and babies but also of my own ideas and dreams for the coming season."
This ritual captures in a vivid way the connections between human beings and animals, to the benefit of both. Throughout the book, McElroy quotes Native Americans who have much to teach us all about the power of animal spirits and the wisdom they carry. Near the end of Heart in the Wild, the author works through a divorce and realizes once again the resiliency that is necessary to weather all the storms that life brings our way.