Thursday, March 18, 2010

Seeking redemption with the Lady of the Beasts


Zamaitija, Lithuania
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"I came here for redemption." Petras Dabrišius' blue eyes glint under his watch cap. "All my life I was a hunter. Then I learned that the wild animals are dying off. So I came here to help bring them back, to return what I owe them."
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We are talking on a snowy trail deep among the pines and birches of Samogitia, the old Baltic name for a region of western Lithuania shown on contemporary maps as Zamaitija. The 3-hour drive from Kaunas took us off the A-1 through Telšiai, an old Samogitian town dedicated to the Bear. In the town square, a standing black bear with gold-painted claws capers above the clockface atop the clock tower. From here, we took bumpy, unplowed back roads to a weathered sign that read Žvėrinčius. The word means "zoo", but is a little more lively than the English version; this is the Place of the Beasts.
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The Bear featured again in an unusually handsome wooden sculpture of Medeina, Lithuania's goddess of the woods and guardian of animals, by Petras' gate. I had chosen her image as etched by Arvydas Každailis the day before - in warrior mode, with the Bear at her back - to illustrate my last blog piece, without knowing how deep and how quickly I would be going into her realm. It struck me now that through the whole of my conversation with the artist Kazdailis, his design for the coat of arms of Telšiai - a standing Bear - had been directly in my line of sight.
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Petras insists that I should start by meeting the bear. Timofejaus is a big Siberian brown bear, still dreaming in his long winter sleep, his head and great shoulders just visible through the door of his house. Petras explains that he brought Timofejaus a mate, but they did not get along. A pity. He muses on how the she-bear gives birth, in her winter cave, in a state of dreaming. A bear cub is a dream child. Petras asks me about my own dreams of the Bear. I tell him about the giant bear that appeared in my house, again and again, after I started living on the land in upstate New York, and how I finally felt called to go back into one of those dreamscapes to confront the bear and find out why he was in my space. "When I found the courage to step up to the bear and enter its embrace,"I recall, "Bear showed me we are joined at the heart and signalled that I must call on him for healing." Petras nods. You need different tickets to go to different places. It seems I have told him the right kind of dream.
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Approaching a place where forest trails meet, we hear the caw of kranklys, the raven. Petras reproduces this perfectly from down in his throat and two - no, three - huge ravens come winging low towards us along a forest alley, wheeling just in front of us to speed off over the main trail. Three for a message. The three black birds against the white snow seem like a living badge of heraldry, the key to a story from the time of campfires and sagas. Petras speaks of the keen sight of the raven, and of how "the raven carries death under its wings".
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He leads us to the lynx enclosure, a section of the forest surrounded by a high wire fence. Two lynxes are sleeping high up in the branches of a pine tree. Others prowl close to us, their amazing high ears twitching as they check us out. Good at hunting and at hiding, a master of surprise, the lynx is a liminal creature. "I built this fence," Petras shakes the wire, "in order to open it again." He is helping lynxes to breathe and replenish their numbers. In time, he''ll release many of the current pack back into the wild.
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Back on the trail, we see a red fox who stops to stare at us. Petras takes us up on a viewing platform while he goes to fetch his wolf pack, whistling for them. We are thrilled to watch the silver wolves loping across the snow.
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"Now I will drum for you and you will meet the animals in a different way." Petras guides us to a yurt he has constructed in the simplest style, pointed like a tipi. Inside, the walls are lined with pieces of carpet and hung with fox tails - dozens of black fox brushes, with the whole skin of a red fox in the place of pride, opposite the door. Petras swears by fox tail for protection against bad spirits.
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When he has gotten us seated on a little bench near the stove, facing the red fox skin, Petras beats a deerskin drum. He starts very slow, making it clear that he is calling in the spirits, building only gradually to the kind of beat we use for sonic driving (i.e., inducing and powering a visionary state of consciousness). With the first drumbeats, in my perception, a great Bear enters the space, and is soon joined by many bears. A great white she-bear assumes leadership. Some of the bears take up guardian positions behind our backs, rather like the bear in the Kazdailis image of Medeina. The wolves come next, and I witness the meeting of different packs of Wolf People. A pure white she-wolf asserts her ascendancy, and I look into her vivid blue eyes. From now on, in my sight, a feminine power is primary in these woods. I see it again in the form of a woman who comes out of the trees in a long hooded robe that appears pearly gray in the indistinct light.
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Petras nods when I report my sightings. "A female spirit rules these woods," he reports. "And I answer to her. She wears the robe you saw. It is white in the sunlight, gray in the shadow. And a she-wolf leads the wolf pack."

Over herb tea and sweet grainy honey from his own bee houses, Petras tells us about the signs of the old ways he has found in these woods, of sacred springs and threshold stones. He shows us the Buryat shaman robes he brought back from his visits to Tuva and Mongolia. He brings Mongolian shamans here, to the Place of the Beasts, to drum for the land. His big face breaks into a warm grin. "They say it is so clean and sweet here in these woods, it is like sleeping in honey." He pushes the honey pot my way again and I spoon a little onto a chunk of peasant bread. "Medus,"he smacks his lips. "When the bear is awake, I give him this honey too."

7 comments:

Seashore said...

Oh Robert,
That was so beautiful and pure...it brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing this unique experience,
Margie

Alla said...

Dear Robert,
I feel as if being there with you... Ačiū labai!!! Thanks a lot! Before Catholicism, Lithuania had been a pagan country with many gods, down to earth, closer to nature. And my own impression about Lithuanian countryside was - it was always very clean, with perfect forests, lots of different anymals, with plenty of cratches for mooses and closed-in anthills, rich of berries and mushrooms, free from any garbage. Also, what always impressed me, was the real love of Lithuanian people to their country. I was shocked when about 4 years ago I read that Lithuania was on the top of the rating list of suicide in the world. I hope that this country will find its way in the modern world and recuperate its soul. Thanks again for your wonderful reports!

Alla said...

Dear Robert,
I feel as if being there with you... Ačiū labai!!! Thanks a lot! Before Catholicism, Lithuania had been a pagan country with many gods, down to earth, closer to nature. And my own impression about Lithuanian countryside was - it was always very clean, with perfect forests, lots of different anymals, with plenty of cratches for mooses and closed-in anthills, rich of berries and mushrooms, free from any garbage. Also, what always impressed me, was the real love of Lithuanian people to their country. I was shocked when about 4 years ago I read that Lithuania was on the top of the rating list of suicide in the world. I hope that this country will find its way in the modern world and recuperate its soul. Thanks again for your wonderful reports!

Alla said...

I'm sorry for posting this twice - I was trying to preview my post, and the server kept giving me an error report, saying something about my request couldn't be performed. I thought I never sent the message; also usually I like to preview my posts checking for any mistakes and typos. (Now, founding my notes posted, to my surprise, I'm trying to figure out what "any mals" could mean; I never did such a funny mistake before :-) ). Also, I think " a cratch" is not "a feeder"; I was looking for a name of a particular feeder for the deer and mooses, and my vocabulary gave that one to me.

Jeni Hogenson said...

Robert, that was a particularly powerful story. Thank you. The majesty and power of the entering of the bears and the wolves and the homegrown honey being served with tea in a yurt. While it smelled a touch different as I read the story, it reminded me much of the Northwest. Perhaps that is only because that is so familiar to me, Is this true?

Carol Davis said...

"I came here for redemption." This story of healing brings joy and deep gratitude. The trees, bear, wolf, raven, fox, story and dreaming are treasured gifts that call us to re-member who we are. They respond generously when we return what we owe them.

Robert Moss said...

Margie, Alla, Jeni and Carol - Thank you all so much for your generous words. It was indeed a moving experience sharing that land with the hunter turned custodian.