Of all the strange and numinous events that came to grace last Sunday's "Drinking from the Well: The Sacred Work of Grief" daylong ritual at Living Earth Farm in Eugene, OR, one has stayed with me through this entire week, filling my morning prayers with gratitude and wonder, and offering confirmation that the more-than-human world is not only fully conscious but trying to communicate with us all of the time.
Several days before the ritual three separate things, that later came to be connected, happened on the land. The first was carried in on the wind - the unmistakable smell of death and decay that began to permeate the air along the wooded lane not far from where I was preparing the space for our circle. It was clear that it was coming from the neighbouring property, but what was not so clear was how we would find it in the impenetrable thicket of poison oak and blackberry bushes that separated this land from theirs.
During this time I was spending my days in the circle, surrounded by black oak, white oak and Douglas Fir, and listening for guidance as to where to place the shrines. From the beginning I felt compelled to place the grief shrine in the east. Despite this making little sense, either in terms of the four directions or the best spot for shade, I followed my intuition and prepared a space in the east under a towering fir, flanked on both sides by two grandfather oaks.
Over the same few days I had been waking each morning to the sight of a large doe standing in the apple orchard, looking straight into the meadow where I was sleeping with my two goats. Each morning I would lie there quietly for a while as the four of us acknowledged each other's presence, and the sun slowly joined us in this early morning ceremony of silence and prayer.
Then came the day before the ritual. It was late-afternoon, the heat was rising, and I was standing in the center of the circle, when all of sudden the smell of death came clear into the space. I walked back to the house to find Jim, one of our hosts, who called the neighbour and made his way up to tackle the blackberry bush jungle where we had first noticed the smell a few days before. But when he got there he noticed it was now coming from the opposite direction, seemingly from somewhere on his own land. Checking the wind and following his nose he wandered into a spot several feet behind the grief shrine, and there in the east, under the towering fir, was a tiny dead fawn lying in the brush.
It was close to dusk by the time the hole had been dug and the space prepared for the burial of this young deer. I invited my friends Candace, Milena, and Kelly who had arrived to stay overnight before the ritual the next day, to join us, and as the sky grew dark we lit candles and sage, shared music and songs, and offered tobacco, sweetgrass and prayers as the fawn was laid to rest. Afterwards we poured water drawn up from the well on the land over the freshly turned earth for new life.
During the ritual the next day two main themes arose. One was the loss of innocence in our world, and the other, the loss of wildness. Our grievers spoke of their loss of safety, trust and innocence as children, of the devastating loss of wildlife and wild places in the world, of the children in cages, the loss of loved ones to reduced capacities, and of the loss of our deep interconnectedness with the natural world and our knowledge of the old ways. When halfway through the day I told our grievers the story of what had happened the day before, all of us felt the power of what this little fawn’s life and death represented in our ceremony. The collective sigh that rose up from our circle as I told this small tale was like a prayer of love and longing being carried gently over the grief shrine to this lost one’s grave.
Two days after the ritual, Sharon, our other host, was driving her tractor up the wooded lane to the circle as I walked a few feet behind. As we approached the clearing she stopped and pointed to the grave, where another doe and her two fawns, were standing. As we watched they wandered out through the brush to the grief shrine and stood beside it looking back at us both. We knew we were witnessing something special and sensed their gratitude for doing what they could not - laying one of their own back into the earth in a sacred way, and extending the meaning of its life beyond the quiet arms of this forest into the hearts of thirty five people who had come to mourn the loss of innocence and wildness in our world.
As the deer and her two fawns wandered off into the woods and we entered the circle to start clearing the space, Sharon asked if the other doe was still visiting me and the goats each morning. It was only then that I realized that the last time I had seen her was on the morning of the day we found the fawn. Some might see it as a coincidence but I have a sense she knew what I had come there for and had come to call me into service - to help her bury her baby and honour the death of her little one by inviting her into our gathering, and by making something sacred and meaningful from the pain of her loss.
The deer backed away finally and flung up her white tail and went floating off toward the trees–
but the moment before she did that was so wide and so deep it has lasted to this day; I have only to think of her–
the flower of her amazement and the stalled breath of her curiosity, and even the damp touch of her solicitude before she took flight
Picking Blueberries by Mary Oliver
Shrine to the Ancestors
from the "Drinking from the Well Grief Ritual" at Living Earth Farm, Eugene, OR, July, 2018