Mentorship with the More-Than-Human World- Sophie Strand

It seems like every day a new guru, spiritual teacher, or self-help sovereign gets outed for sexual misconduct and harmful behavior. The followers of these people float off, betrayed and ungrounded, tugged between a desire for instruction and an increasing suspicion of all institutions. As much as I am an advocate of tapping into your own intuition, I think the need for guidance and mentorship is real. I just think we’ve been looking for it in the wrong places. We don’t need more gurus, more yoga teachers, more life coaches. We don’t need any more human teachers. We need to engage in an active, humble mentorship with the more-than-human world. A year and a half ago, I felt like trembling aspen leaves in a thunderstorm, flummoxed, kinetic, fresh. I’d been cannon-balled out of a long relationship, finished (and rewritten and revised and rewritten again and copy-edited) a 900-page novel. I felt both ready for anything and totally unprepared to tap into my true desires. Then quarantine hit. I’ve long depended on animals for guidance. I was lucky to grow up on an “accidental” farm otherwise known as what happens when your parents adopt every stray and “rescue” nine baby possums. A Chinese Goose called Samantha taught me about self-respect and loyalty. My irascible old tabby Teacake taught me about breaking the right rules, giving no shits, and confronting demons.

And the wild animals in our forest taught me how to forage, collaborate with other species, how to eat the sun, and how to shimmy through thorns and dense thickets. I tended to attract the “big guys.” Black bears. Mountain lions. Black Widows. Rattle snakes. Wolves. Rabid bats. Bald Eagles. Albino stags. The lessons these animals taught me were uncanny and transformative. Each one deserves its own book. 

So, when week two of quarantine hit, I felt the itch for a new teacher. It was time to call in an animal guide. Who would it be? I was newly single. I was experiencing a brief moment of health in-between health scares. I had finished a book that I’d been more devoted to than any romantic partner. I felt adrift, weightless as the cottonwood’s cloud-coated seeds. I think I was expecting something sexy. Maybe my personal favorite: the red-tailed hawk. Or a randy coyote. 

My mentor was decidedly unsexy. Or, at least, not sexy in the way I was expecting. He was fat, furry, and looked at me with suspicious eyes. And despite his near spherical shape, he was capable of great, if ungraceful, sprints across uneven terrain. His habit of streaking down a hill and diving into an invisible hole soon had me calling him Land Seal. Woodchuck, or Groundhog as he is also called, had come to teach me. 

But his mode of teaching was wholly unfamiliar to me. At first his approaches were tentative. I meditate on a hill overlooking the river, a spot special to the Munsee Lenape for thousands of years prior to colonization, every day. And every day, no matter the time, woodchuck would arrive, sometimes with his wife, to watch me. I admit, at first, I felt judged. Woodchuck seemed to be asking why I was meditating so much. Why was I walking and running so obsessively? Woodchuck munched grass several feet away, eying me derisively. I was being decidedly unproductive. I was not maintaining a complex network of tunnels, complete with bedchambers and an actual bathroom. I was not mating with others of my kind, gestating handfuls of warm fur. I was not eating clover and grass. 

Okay. I’d really like a different animal, I pleaded. 

But then Woodchuck started to come closer. I’d be deep in reverie, trying to understand what to do with dreams that melted away with more speed every hour. And then, hearing a snuffle, I’d jerk awake. Woodchuck would be sitting next to me, his goofy feet splayed, his paws held up like a rodent Hierophant, proclaiming some good news I couldn’t understand. “What!” I’d scream. And then he would run away. But he’d be back, a different version of him that lived closer to the river. Or a rare, near impossible mountain woodchuck showing up on one of my many hikes. He followed me everywhere. I tried to dig into ancient indigenous lore from the area, but came up only with the fact that there had been a figure called Grandmother Woodchuck. 

This did not seem like a beneficent grandmother. I couldn’t decide what he reminded me of as he stuck his head up from one of his many entrances into the hillside, chuckling and snorting. It took me several months to realize who Woodchuck was. Woodchuck, ungraceful, unpredictable, athletic, desirous of good food and underworld coziness, tricky, discerning, and always up for being the funniest being in the forest, was a reflection of me. Or the me I had lost and needed to find, hidden in the grass-plush, well-swept underground vaults of my groundhog guardian.

Soon I was feeding him carrots, cherries, handfuls of clover I picked. And soon he was approaching me, when I was walking with friends and family. Actually, he would charge me, erupting from behind a stone and running straight at me, diving between my legs. While I was enchanted, the trick was alarming enough that it scared the people I was with. Okay. Noted. Be alarmingly quick. Acrobatic. Entrance lovers with physical feats that frighten everyone else present. Sit very still in the sun until your fur sparkles like mica in a cliff face. Needless to say, Woodchuck wisdom was helping to regrow my child-like confidence, my love of play and dirt, but he was certainly not helping me get any dates.

It wasn’t until May, driving home on the highway through a freak hailstorm that I finally understood his appearance. Cars streamed by at 70 miles per hour. And, rain-soaked, caught against the dividing guardrails, was Woodchuck.

I didn’t think. I threw the car into park in the middle of the highway and ran out. I held my arms out to Woodchuck and Woodchuck leapt into my arms. I ran through cars to the forest with Woodchuck in my arms. He was surprisingly light. A soggy loaf of bread. But the energy within him was almost nuclear. He smelled like cut-pine, like a lightning strike, sharp and inhuman. As I put him down, he turned back and lightly nibbled my hand, not even a bite. A parting kiss. His eyes were liquid cosmos. He dove in-between wet barberry bushes and was gone.

“LADY. THAT WAS THE CRAZIEST THING I EVER SEEN. YOU MUST BE INSANE,” a woman screamed at me as I ran back to my car.

“I AM! I AM VERY STUPID.” I screamed back, already internally cursing myself. I’d had rabies shots years before. But could woodchucks get rabies? Fuck. My autoimmune condition meant I had terrible reactions to vaccines. Why had I done such a stupid thing? He hadn’t broken the skin, but he nibbled me next to an already open cut on my hand.

The NYC DEC was firm. I needed the full rabies vaccine protocol. Five different shots over the course of two months. Hyperventilating, I sat with my Tarot and pulled a card. What is this about? Strength. The woman taming the lion. The short story is that the series of Rabies vaccination was a helpful exposure therapy with hospitals, vaccines, and got me much needed cardiac evaluations I had been avoiding. Most importantly the shots enabled me to freely, and safely, touch and interact with wild animals, something that started to happen with increasing frequency after that wild rescue on the highway.

But Woodchuck had taught me something more important. Sometimes we don’t understand our purpose. We think we are the main character. But I’m not entirely unconvinced that my entire life wasn’t just about that moment. About that unthinking second when I leapt out of my mind and into action. Maybe I was born to save Woodchuck. And Woodchuck, reflecting back my spunk, my ungraceful physical agility, my brand of weird humor, saved me.

Just yesterday, walking by a familiar field, I saw a woodchuck I know well, lying dead. But he wasn’t alone. Thirteen huge vultures had descended. They were gracious and coordinated in their feast, letting two dine and then floating away so two more could approach Woodchuck’s feast. My horror dissolved into wonder. Woodchuck was becoming wings. Becoming beaks. Becoming many, many different beings. I realized, dead or bumptiously alive, his lessons would never stop arriving. I can’t put it any better than the poet Linda Hogan: “To enter life, be food.”

Thank you to philosopher/magician David Abram for the phrase “the more-than-human world”. I recommend reading his books The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal.

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Sophie Strand is a writer based in the Hudson Valley who focuses on the intersection of spirituality, storytelling, and ecology. Her first book of essays, The Flowering Wand: Rewilding the Sacred Masculine, will be published by Inner Traditions in Fall 2022 and is available for pre-order. Her eco-feminist historical fiction reimagining of the gospels, The Madonna Secret, will also be published by Inner Traditions in Spring 2023.

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