Excerpt from Witchery
by Madison Julius Cawein
She crowds with ghosts the forest-walks;
And with the wind's dim words invokes
The spirit that for ever talks
Unto the congregated oaks.
She leans above the flying stream:
Her starry gaze commands it stay:
And in its lucid deeps a dream
Takes shape and glimmers on its way
.In her all dreams find permanence:
All mysteries that trance the soul:
And substance, that evades the sense,
Through her wood-magic is made whole.
Life and death are intertwined. Like the sun and the moon, life and death are inextricably linked. They’re a dance in the stars, as old as time. Beauty in life. Cherishing moments and memories of our days and nights. Mourning when we lose someone that we love. We understand this ageless primitive dance. People celebrate life with rituals, songs, myths, lore, and art.
Death makes us quiet. It brings us to our knees and makes us ponder questions that might not ever be answered. We celebrate and grieve each other. We cherish and mourn our pets.Yet, when some see a dead animal, not a pet kind of animal, words of disgust and derision are uttered. People separate themselves from this natural cycle if it involves the life of an unknown entity.
How can we celebrate our interconnectedness, our oneness, if the sight of this cycle of life disgusts or repulses us?Long ago, I decided that each death that I came across would be one that I noticed,witnessed, and mourned. How can I delight in seeing wild animals if I refuse to see them in death?I believe everything has a soul. I believe everything is connected. When in nature and I see death I make sure to stop, acknowledge the animal, ask to speak to it, and mourn. Bearing witness to its death is one of the most important parts of my personal practice.
I look at the dead and I see a story longing to be told. I see a once vibrant life that has since passed and still deserves respect. I communicate with both the living and the dead. That’s how I know the truth of nature and find my place in the local ecosystem.
I might not have met the animal when it was active and thriving. If I meet it when it’s just bones and a bit of flesh then I will sit in silence and listen to its life story. I try to memorialize its soul in a photograph.I leave the remains the way I find them. I don’t pose them. I don’t move them.
Their story is written where they had their final waking moments.One day, while walking up a monstrous hill, barely able to catch my breath, I stopped and saw a still turtle. She was shriveled and withered in her shell. I pointed her out to my husband.The hill was too steep to even allow the turtle to thrive. There was no water just barren land. Her shell was pointed towards the forest, but she died before being able to make her way to the cover of the trees. I stayed a few moments and thought of her final moments.I photograph them. I sketch them, I listen to their spirit tell me of their life and their final moments.
In recording the deaths and speaking to their souls I bridge the gap between the living and the dead.On the sandy beaches of Presque Isle, copious amounts of dead fish will wash ashore.Spotting a fish carcass means that I will also see the insects that devour the flesh. If I’m lucky,the fish will point me to the tracks of the coyote and I will be able to walk the same path, until,eventually I lose sight of the paw prints. For a few moments though, I can visualize the coyotes'nighttime travels. I can see where it scented its meal, the spot where it took a drink, and follow its path, partially back to its den.I find beauty in their rotting flesh.
I don't just talk to the living animals. It’s too easy to only love the living, their warmth, fur, and sounds. The dead speak to the living. Communicating with both creates new dimensions in which to view the world.
I find decaying fish every single day of my time at the Isle. I ask the fish to grant me a favor. I want to find otoliths, the bone-stone-like structures in Sheephead fish that allow for navigation. I don’t want to buy them in the store. I don’t want them to be a part of the fishing industry. I want to find ear bones that are given freely as a part of the natural cycle of their lives in this Great Lake.
Before the end of my stay, I discover a pair of otoliths, the L and the J. Theseare lucky stones a gift from the lake and its inhabitants.I don’t just talk to the wild and living animals. I sit with them in their death. A bodywithout a soul is still a part of this world. I am still connected to this being even if it’s moved on.
Walking on a trail, I spot the remains of two crows. All that is left is their feet, beaks, afew bones from their wings, and feathers were strewn about in a circle. In between the crows'scattered remains is a bit of fur. It’s brown ticked with gray. A coyote or a fox? Whatever killed them defeated two crows at once, losing clumps of hair in the process.There’s a loneliness that lingers over the decaying body of wildlife. In the absence of their soul, they become food, shelter, and give sustenance to others. The scavengers, the parasites, and the invertebrates all come to partake in the offerings that remain.
I go down to the bay, away from the beach-goers. I walk until all that surrounds me are boulders, bird droppings from the nests above, and dead fish. This is not where many venture,but this is the whole point of my visit. I find zebra swallowtails, by the dozen, feasting on the salt and minerals that come to the surface of the decomposing body.If I come across an animal that has died then I acknowledge its death. I bear witness to the life that has vanquished. I mourn.
Walking in the forest I found parts of a deer. Just its jaw and teeth. The rest of the animal has long ago been harvested and scavenged. Death is just another side of life. To only delight in an animal when it is alive denies the inherent oneness that comes with the cessation of life. This cycle binds all of the sentient beings.This is the balance that keeps me grounded.
I found a squirrel, frozen over winter. It's only fur, and tough hide now. It’s beside a tombstone. Earlier in the year, I found a squirrel leg beside another tombstone. There’s a Red-Tailed Hawk that lives in the trees. Sometimes, he drops part of his meal but doesn’t seem bothered by his carelessness. He is honored as a caretaker.
I have wonderful encounters with wild animals. I communicate freely with them regularly. I share energy with them when I have their permission. I know the living animals are willing to connect with me because I speak to their dead. The souls of the dead tell the living that I will listen with an open heart and mind.