Bat Medicine: Spiritual Encounters with the Natural World

This post is an expansion of my review of Dwellings on Goodreads.

 

I began re-reading Linda Hogan’s book of essays Dwellings and Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman at the same time. This pairing of readings couldn’t be more dissimilar in style, content and purpose. I finished the latter book quickly, but took my time with the first. It’s too beautiful to hurry through.

Poet and novelist Hogan, a member of the Chickasaw tribe, writes of the spirituality inherent in the natural world. Her insights into the relationships between living creatures and our own souls is anchored in places and in specific experiences—with hot springs in a cave, or at work at a bird sanctuary. She doesn’t write about animals or earth in general, but this piece of earth, this particular sunflower, this colony of mud-building bees. When she cites other writers, often scientists, she finds passages so beautiful they flow into her own essays like the breath of the same breeze. Her topics range from wolves, to the Amazon rainforest, to the life cycle of water and rock, to the deeper meaning of ape language experiments, and more.

These essays wake the reader up to the aliveness of every moment, as the author hears the song of corn, or discovers the liquid, graceful, wing-wrapped mating of two bats she rescued from their fall back into hibernation in sudden spring chill. “I put them in a warm corner outside, nestled safe in dry leaves and straw. I looked at them several times a day. Their fur, in the springtime, was misted with dewy rain. They mated for three days in the moldering leaves and fertile earth, moving together … then apart, like reflections on a mirror, a four-chambered black heart beating inside the closed tissue of wings.”

In addition to this subtle observation of their beauty, she sees the bats from a Native spiritual perspective. “The bat people are said to live in the first circle of holiness. Thus, they are intermediaries between our world and the next. Hearing the chants of all life around them, they are listeners who pass on the language and songs of many things to human beings who need wisdom, healing and guidance in our lives, we who forget where we stand in the world.”

This forgetting where we stand is Hogan’s theme. We need to heal ourselves back into what she refers to in her novel Power as “the real human beings”. If you love language, you will love this book, and you may come away from it loving every living creature, every crack in a rock, every sound when the wind blows, as if you had never seen and heard and known them before. I hope you will, like I did, love this book so much you want to read it again and again.

Harner’s book is almost the opposite of Hogan’s. An anthropologist turned shamanic trainer, he does his best to distill the essence of shamanism into a kind of how-to book for modern people. After an introductory chapter in which he tells of his studies with the Jivaro tribe, he intentionally presents shamanism divested of culture, land, language and tradition. Even the animals are not real creatures that walk the earth and breathe and live their lives, but animal spirits, guardians and guides for humans, and plants are also their spirit essence, for use in healing humans.

His citations are dense and thickly strewn, sometimes without any background on the culture or lives of people he is citing. That, however, is his point. This is shamanism as modern medicine, a world-wide range of healing traditions pared down to their “active ingredients.” Shamans from Australia to North America use quartz crystals, drums, rattle and dances. Shamans all over the world take journeys to find knowledge, and have power relationships with animal spirits. He turns these elements into a kind of recipe for being a shaman. Maybe it works for some people, but for me the best parts of this book are the direct quotations from real shamans such as the “sucking doctor” Essie Parrish, rather than the parts about modern Americans “dancing their animals.”

Compared to my experience of traditional ceremonies, or even to running outdoors, or dreaming, neo-shamanism feels incomplete, but then I wasn’t reading with the intention of putting it into practice. I had read the book before, and gone to a workshop with Harner at an alternative therapies conference years ago, and already knew I wasn’t going to use this for spiritual guidance. It was research for novel in which one character is a teacher of neo-shamanism—not based on Harner himself, only on the kind of practice that he teaches—and I needed to refresh my recollections.

 

I dreamed once that I turned into a bat. In this form I flew though the dome of an art gallery and then descended to the bottom floor as the blue outline of bat, a bat made of twilight sky. In Truth or Consequences, I like to walk down to the Rio Grande at that low blue time of evening in the summer and let the bats surround me at the edge of the little wetland where redwing blackbirds sing by day. While the bats dance for bugs, I can stand in the midst of them and they swoop close without ever touching me, perfectly aware in their busy flight, flawless pilots of their world of sound. To me the animals themselves feel more sacred than a journey to find my “power animal.” This bat immersion is the bat medicine I need.

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