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Peter on Animal Bones

The Spiritual Journey so far:
Prologue I: Peter In Kenya
Prologue II: A Liberal Christian With Balls
Part I: A Refugee Looks Back
Part II: Leaving Home
Part III: Who Am I?
Part IV: Learning About Race and Gender
Part V: Watching My Students Drown
Part VI: Animal Bones 

Sometimes there is a weird overlap between being a science teacher and a Pagan.

Walking with my Environmental Science class one day to a graveyard to examine the weathering on different kinds of stones, a former student pulled up next to us in his pickup truck, leaned his head out the window and called out, “Hey Mr. Bishop, you want a bear head?”

I said, “Sure!”  I mean, how many times do you get an offer like that?

Actually, it turns out, more often than you would have thought.  Many of my students hunt, and the display case in my classroom now holds a nice little collection, with the bear and two deer—a buck and a doe—displayed alongside a human skull in fairly lifelike plastic.  I had my anatomy students dissect each of the animal heads, and when we were done, I boiled them down to clean the skulls.  And each time, I lit a candle for the spirit of the animal.  I use a lot of scented candles in my classroom anyway because a biology lab can be a stinky place at times, so the students saw nothing strange in my leaving a votive candle burning throughout the day.

Over Thanksgiving, I went to a crafts fair in Maine where I met an artisan who had a coyote skull displayed on her table with a pentacle carved like scrimshaw into the bones of the cranium.  We got to talking, and she suggested much better ways than boiling to clean an animal skull.  The best, she said, was to leave it next to an anthill and let the ants pick it clean.  Second best was putrefaction in water, if you changed the water every day.  Simply leaving it out on the ground would work too, but other animals might carry it off, and mice like to chew on the bones for the calcium.

Back to school, where I had just boiled down a second bear skull and had yet another deer head and all the bear’s paws in the refrigerator.  I don’t have any anthills near my property, and I don’t fancy changing the water daily for a rotting head, but I decided to bury it now, before the heavy snowfall that’s predicted for this weekend, and then dig it up again in the spring.

So today, when I got home from work, I took a shovel and found a spot in the yard at the far corner of our property, right up against the woods.  I dug down about two feet, pulling out a few heavy stones along the way, and then retrieved from the trunk of my car the cardboard box from school.  Inside the box was a heavy trash bag, and inside that was the deer head and one of the bear paws.  I opened it up.  The contents were fresh enough that they still smelled of blood, not yet of decay.  My hands were bloody as I carefully, respectfully, laid the head at the bottom of the hole and then propped the paw next to it.   I laid plastic from the trash bag over them and ripped some cardboard to lay over that, figuring that would be enough to keep scavengers from digging them up.

I knew I wanted to offer a prayer to the spirits of the animals.  I expected I would do something like invoke them as totem spirits of our little patch of land—invite them to dwell here, inhabiting the border between our yard and the woods.  But when the moment came, that didn’t feel right.  We don’t actually want living bears in our yard, after all.  We sprinkle cayenne pepper and garlic powder on the garden in summertime to keep them away from the lettuce.  In the woods, they’re fine, but they should stay in the woods.  Bears and humans coexist best by keeping a respectful distance from one another.
Instead, I said:

Spirit of the deer, 
     Spirit of the bear,
     You are at home in these woods as much as I.
     I thank you for your bodies.  
     I thank you for your bones.
     May your spirits be released.

     Spirit of the Earth, 
     Welcome their spirits,
Welcome their flesh.
I will return in a few months for their bones.

I shoveled the dirt back into the hole, tamped it down by walking over it, and turned to pick up the box.  I was surprised to find it heavy.  I had packed two bear paws in the trash bag, not one, and then forgotten about the second one.

Too late to dig up the hole again.  I took the box with its paw into the woods.  I thought of burying it by the little circle where we sometimes leave offerings to the nature spirits.  On one of the trees, I have hung a small and inconspicuous Green Man icon, cast from plaster.  But burying the paw there didn’t feel right this evening.  Too many roots for digging, but also not deep enough into the woods.

I walked on, past the stone wall that marks the edge of what used to be the pasture that went with our house, and which encloses what we now think of as the temenos of the woods—the consecrated land surrounding the temple itself.  I hiked out into the woods proper, to the snowmobile trail.  Walked beyond that.  Found a place where a few tree stumps made it look inviting, and laid the paw gently on the ground.

Yes, this felt right.

Spirit of the bear, be released.
Walk these woods in peace,
And walk them with caution.

Photo: display case in my classroom


Mike Shell said…
Thank you, Peter.

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