I don’t get out into the woods as often as I like anymore. I have an infant son to help care for, and a steady 9-to-5 job that eats up most of the best time for tramping through the forest. Still, when I have the opportunity, I love to put on some old shoes and jeans (and a heavy coat in our current weather) and wander out into the thickest parts of the brush. In summer, I have to carry a walking stick, as we are in rattlesnake country here (a rake works even better but is a bit more unwieldy), but in winter I can just bring a satchel for collecting things that I find out there.
I generally don’t go out expecting to find anything, though I do bring offerings and hand shears in case anything strikes my fancy. Sometimes I get lucky and find a good set of fir or juniper branches for making incense or smudge sticks. Often, I simply find animal trails and follow those to see where they lead. Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of interesting wildlife near our home, including bobcats, wild pigs, turkeys, deer, and—on one memorable occasion—a gorgeous smoke-colored owl. It’s a great way to spend a day, getting lost in the winding trails and then finding my way home again when I can feel the sun starting to set.
Forests can be frightening, too, though. Nature, red in tooth and claw, as Tennyson wrote, is not a gentle place. There are many stories from around the world which use the forest motif to represent a “dark night of the soul” or a period of primal self-transformation, from which the heroes of the tales emerge stronger and wiser than before: Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel & Gretel, Gawain and Dame Ragnell (itself based on the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” from Chaucer). From even a simply physical standpoint, the woods can be frightening simply because there are truly wild animals there, some of which are very hungry.
Part of being a witch, in my opinion, is overcoming fear. If a person fears the woods, that is fine, because a little fear is healthy and may keep him or her alive for another day. But a witch should know that taking a deep breath and stepping off the path and into the woods is an act of fearlessness that can be rewarded by gifts greater than mere survival. I’m not advocating that everyone must immediately go out into the forest and start poking at badgers with sticks, mind you—wisdom should temper boldness. If one has no experience in traipsing about the wild places of the world, then hiking the nature trails in the local national park is a good place to start; at least, it’s a better place than wandering off into a bobcat’s den and surprising the rather toothy and claw-y beast unawares.
However, for the witch who can walk the wilds and follow an animal trail, there are often rewards for that fearlessness if he or she keeps eyes wide open. This past weekend, while following a deer trail in the woods near my home, I was given a little gift for my efforts:
I found the skull and bones of what looks like a juvenile deer (I can’t tell the species exactly because some of the bone has been chewed away and there are no antler buds to go by either). The bones were picked clean, likely at least 6 months old, and had only been partially buried by leaf litter. I said a prayer of thanks to the spirits there, and poured out an offering before proceeding. I had brought plastic bags in my satchel, so I used those to pick up and wrap the skull, some leg bones, what appears to be a piece of the sternum, and some vertebrae. They were muddy, but partially sun-bleached, and when I got them home I managed to clean them off with a mild soap-and-water combination. They still need to be set to soak in a peroxide solution to finish the bleaching, and then I will have to decide if I want to seal them or carve them first. I’m thinking I may use the skull for some Otherworld workings, and I will probably try to carve the two leg bones into tools of some kind. The vertebrae will likely be used for candle-holders.
I should note I wore gloves during the cleaning process, and until I have bleached them in peroxide, I probably won’t touch the actual bones—bacteria can be present for a long time in a dead animal’s remains.
I have deep reverence for the animal which has been gifted to me, and a fine appreciation of the wild place in which I found its bones. I have to keep this respect front and center, because there’s always a chance that one day my own bones will be out there, buried in leaves and picked clean by wild things. I can certainly think of worse fates than that, but for now I’ll be bold only so far as it is wise.
Thanks for reading!