“Without her [wild woman] they are silent when they are in fact, on fire.” — Clarissa Pinkola-Estes
I was more than a little afraid to be alone in a remote rustic cabin in the deep forested mountains of West Virginia.
I wondered if women ever felt completely safe in the wilderness by themselves. After all, I was 65 years old. I could up and die, be eaten by a bear, bitten by a snake, attacked by a man, or be killed by my own ignorance. Nonetheless, I pulled on my big girl pants and retreated to God’s country to write.
I flew to Charleston from the busy metropolis of Phoenix and spent the night in a motel at Elkview. In the morning, I drove a rental car through the lushness of the Appalachians to Flatwoods. I had lived in this state for 25 years. I loved it wildly.
My sister-and-brother-in-law, Denise and Larry, who live in West Virginia, met me at the Waffle Hut, a mom and pop café that served the best ever elderberry pie. I ordered it with two scoops of ice cream. We parted ways, full of belly and happy at heart, and I headed over to the Wal-Mart to provision my two-week backwoods adventure.
My husband had asked me to try to buy a whistle alarm, a Safe Sound. He was a little wary of my coming isolation. When I asked after the alarm of the bearded rough-hewn mountain man behind the sporting goods counter, he looked at me like I was from outer space. His glance said: who worries about that kind of thing in West Virginia? I felt distinctly sheepish.
I finished my shopping and wended down the road, a serpentine 36-mile route that took about an hour to drive. With each mile, I faded deeper into steep mountains. I faded deeper into towering trees at the edge of the Fall season. I faded deeper into sunlit vistas of undulating hollows. I faded deeper into the rural quiet. I faded deeper into myself. I think I passed four cars, one logging truck and a coal truck on my way to Holly River State Park in Hacker Valley.
Somewhere along the route, I ditched my daily life and entered a sanctuary. My chapel was a tiny cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Core in the 1930s. I assembled an altar on the stone front porch overlooking a creek, running spare due to a drought. I piled up rocks around my abalone shell and a stick of braided sweet grass. I draped my indigo blue rosary over them. This time was meant to be a prayer of thanksgiving for nature. This time was meant for listening to whatever the Creator wanted to bring forward into words.
The holy flames of the fire I built that night licked against the sinewy edges of the block of oak burning in the rusted ring. The fire curled and unfurled, turning the sand-colored wood substance into fragrant, wispy smoke and then into mostly nothingness and a little bit of dusty white ash. With each flicker, I went deeper into the silence within. With each crackle, my soul settled further. There was just me, the stars winking in the night sky, the fire in the ring and the holy fire within, a burn so bright it lit my inner forest. Quiet. Silence. Nothingness. Home.
A distinct rustling jolted me out of my dark, starry inner reverie. From over near the creek blackened by the absence of daylight came a crash. The fine hairs on my arms stood straight up, like sentries. I sensed danger. I went into mental overdrive. Something was out there.
If I had screamed the sound would have been swallowed by emptiness. Actually, screaming wasn’t an option. My vocal cords were paralyzed.
For heaven’s sake, Linda, it’s only a deer. Geeze you’re skittish. Get a grip, girl. I looked warily from the bright warmth of my fire to the safety of my little cabin, about 25 feet away. Why had I put myself in this situation? I should run inside. Nah, silly, you would be running from a harmless deer. The moonlight was weak, but enough to outline surrounding trees, tall oaks and ponderosa pines dripping with needled arms. I couldn’t see any forms of life moving in the ink beyond the moonlight’s greyish capsule.
Another distinct crash, closer this time, echoed through heavy air, fragrant with acrid smoke, and earth. My eyes swung back to the fire. For the first time I noticed that the stencil of a bear had been cut into the ring containing it.
Captivated by the theater of the flames, it occurred to me that deer rustle, but they do not blunder and barge. Move slowly toward the cabin. Gather water to douse the flames. Move slowly back to the fire. The smoke will be helpful. Go back inside, go slow. Walk tall.
This information came with quiet authority. It was unambiguous, but not urgent. I followed it without question.
I crawled into bed. The nearby crashing continued. Just to be on the safe side, I fastened the windows tightly. I still didn’t feel secure enough to sleep. I took some Sominex. That did the trick.
The next day, I told a woman I met staying in a distant cabin about scaring myself silly. “You haven’t heard, then,” she said. Early that morning, another cabin dweller closer to me had stumbled out of bed, opened his front door, stepped into daybreak, and looked directly into the eyes of a huge black bear. It had stood tall, immobile and ponderous, on a boulder a few feet in front of his porch. Terrified, he had thrown a block of firewood at it and bolted inside. The bear brooded, eyes fixed on the cabin for quite a while.
The park ranger said bear visitations in the cabin area were rare; there hadn’t been one in years. The park ranger said I had been safe near my flames because bears are desperately afraid of fire and smoke. The park ranger said since a bear was that close, it was good that I had moved slowly and taken shelter.
I was heartened and a little awed. I had been taken care of. I thanked the silence that brought the right actions.
I wondered about the message and medicine of a bear visitation. Google came through with information that indigenous peoples recognize bears as symbols of strength, wisdom and healing.
The next night in a dream, a powerful bear leapt off the nearby bureau and pounced into bed with me. I jolted awake, smelled the wetness of her fur and felt her weight against my body. Her panting fogged my cheek. She wanted to snuggle and play. Paralyzed with terror and awe, I could not move until her presence left. I wrote like a wild woman the rest of the night.
The time I spent near the holy fire in the outer and inner woods last September carried enormous bear medicine. Its power unfolds me still.
Dr. Linda Sandel Pettit, a priestess-at-heart and retired counseling psychologist, can be found at www.thedrspettit.com. She loves putting her intuitive nature, spiritual understanding and clinical experience in service to others. She is available for individual consultations. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.