We see a lot of neat critters passing through our oak wood here at Forest House. A coyote made his determined way through our yard on New Year’s, likely looking for a mate. My husband has seen bears, although I haven’t. There are deer galore, woodpeckers of all description and hummingbirds. In the neighborhood, we rousted a sleeping bobcat and saw red fox traipsing across the street.
The latest visitation came from an otter. I first saw him driving to work around dawn, leaping across the road in that sinuous weasel way. Some neighbors outside the wood have old farm ponds they stock with fish, and I figured he was out for a meal. And then he made another appearance, running across our hilltop — likely a young male looking for love (in all the wrong places; we don’t have a stream in our neck of the woods).
Is there meaning behind the appearance of native flora and fauna? The typical Pagan and magical answer is yes. Authors such as Ted Andrews and Jamie Sams provide manuals ascribing meanings to animals, akin to the symbols encountered in dreams. But for me, the situation isn’t so simple.
If you live in the woods, you see critters all the time. What sets an encounter apart as special comes down to several factors. One, an animal outside its accustomed environment. In the case of the otter, his appearance on a wooded hilltop without a stream may indicate spiritual significance. Secondly, the rarity of the animal involved; a raccoon or even a bear rooting through your trash may not signify anything in and of itself, other than you should keep your trash in the garage. A final factor is ritual context. If you’re conducting a ritual and a hawk cries after you ask for an omen (as happened with the grove this last Beltane), that’s significant. If you enter the woods or even go on a walk while engaged in a spiritual quest, an animal’s appearance may give you insight or an answer.
I’m leery, however, of books that relegate animals to esoteric symbols. Animals, as with dream images, mean different things to different people. I’ve had periodic nightmares about dogs, for example, because I’m afraid of them in my waking life; someone who has dogs in their household probably has more pleasant experiences, spiritual and otherwise, to drawn on.
Rendering animals into symbol also objectifies them, which is a concept I struggle with. The otter was on a mission, so to speak; he is an individual creature with a will, needs, desires. Is viewing his appearance as reflective of my own spiritual journey a symptom of anthropocentric narcissism? And is the totem system another excuse to view the world in entirely human terms, with animals as fashionable spiritual accessories?
The classic view — based upon the Christian concept of dominion over the natural world, later combined with atheistic scientism — holds that animals are essentially furry machines devoid of authentic thought or feeling. Hence, we conduct experiments and are surprised to find that dogs exhibit conceptions of justice or even that fish feel pain. The gulf between human and animal is as wide as that between Self and Other, subject and object. The underlying assumption is that we alone feel, think and do, since we alone are the image of God and hence his lords on an inanimate earth.
How terrifying, that utter alienation.
Anyone who has shared a household with animal companions sees firsthand that they think, feel and act of their own volition. My cats exhibit jealousy when I spend time with one but not the other. They complain when they feel the other has received more treats, denoting some sort of concept of justice. Missy in particular figures out ways to communicate with the monkeys — including scratching around an ill-favored brand of food to indicate that it’s shit, and hitting a gong to wake us up.
Do they think in the exact way we do? Of course not. They’re adapted for a different way of living, as are the deer outside our window. The deer think, too. My mother-in-law has seen a mother deer teach a fawn how to lift canvas and eat the tender shoots protected beneath. Just because their thoughts, actions and systems of communication aren’t human — a particular variety of simian — doesn’t mean they don’t have them.
As a friend once said: “Cats are people. They’re just not human people.”
And so. The otter does have spiritual significance to me: Take notice of the beauty around you. And another: It’s Beltane and the world’s looking for love. His presence made me smile — weasel-running amuses me to no end — and surrender to awe, a deep appreciation of my fellow creatures and the Earth that nurtures us all.
And I think, in the end, that’s significance enough.