Why, hello there, Mr. Raccoon!

Today, I was supposed to get together with a group of friends to talk about an upcoming camping trip/religious gathering, but one of them started feeling under the weather, so it was called off.  Since I and my husband were already out of the house, we decided to go hiking again, and headed for the forest preserve where I found the deer skull and bones.

Because this had been impromptu, I didn’t have my usual gear with me: no backpack full of trash bags and foodstuffs for offerings, no forest spirit salve, no forest spirit fetish. But there were several plastic grocery bags in the car, and when we stopped at a gas station to fill up the tank, I went inside and bought a couple of bananas and a small bag of sunflower seeds (unsalted) for offerings.  Small, but still heartfelt.

The preserve was busy, and the nature center was open, and the parking lot was almost full. I gathered up my things and we headed down along the trail, heading for the area where I’d found the deer skull.  I had been so excited when I found it that I didn’t really take the time to look around a little more, so there might have been other bones I’d missed.

And this, as it turned out, was the truth. Alas, another thing I didn’t have with me was my good digital camera; so the only pic I took while I was there was of something else, which I’ll post further down.

But I did find other deer bones in that area, which I believe are from the same animal. There was a single vertebra, two leg bones, the pelvis (split in two along the spinal axis, as I am told often happens with very young deer due to the fact that the sutures in the bone that meld the two pieces together are incompletely fused), and a single shoulderblade. I gathered them up quite happily, burbling especially over the scapula (the first I’d found so far), and then laid out the offering I’d brought:

Banana and sunflower seeds.

Once I had finished with that, and with a moment’s quiet prayer of thanks for the gifts I’d been given today, I began to range out a little further with the plastic grocery bag dangling from my fingers, heavy with bone. The sun was beginning to descend in the sky, and the light — which had been blocked out when directly overhead due to the branches (although there isn’t much in the way of leaf cover yet) — began to slide in sideways, flaring against lighter-color leaves, making me think I saw the white flash of bone almost everywhere.

Ironically, when I DID find something else, I almost stepped on it.  But there, at my feet, was a nearly perfect skull — small, with an elongated cranium and both sharp incisors and grinding molars (in other words, probably an omnivore):

This time, I finally remembered to take a picture of it where I found it, atop the leaves. Although I couldn’t find the lower jaw anywhere, most of the teeth in the upper jaw were there, lacking only four smaller ones; also, the front of the skull was perfect. The zygomatic arches around the eyes were intact, as were the intranasal bones of the sinuses. I scooped it up with a happy little cry. It is much smaller than the coyote skull I have, and I guessed it was either from a fox or a raccoon.

Once I got home, I was able to look it up, and confirmed my first guess: it belonged to a raccoon. Raccoons, of course, are scavengers too, happy to rummage around in your garbage can if you leave the lid off, or get their dinner from the bowl of cat food you might leave out for the feral cats in your neighborhood. They eat both meat and plant foods — nuts, grains, fruits — and their dexterous little hands and black thief’s mask connect them — perhaps only in my mind — to Hermes, god of thieves. (Of course, as raccoons are New World animals found only in the Americas, there is no record of the ancient Greeks associating the raccoon with Hermes; they would have had no idea such a creature existed.)

After I finished looking the skull up, I carefully used superglue to make sure none of the other teeth would fall out (and gluing one back in that had come loose in the plastic bag on the ride home). And then I took pictures:

From below.

Close-up from below showing the sockets where the missing teeth were: two on the left, one in the front on the right, one on the right.

Then I set it up high so the glue would dry unmolested, and went to wash the deer bones. They are coyote-gnawed, which is pretty much inevitable (I think) for any remains I will find at this particular park — I see fresh coyote scat every time I visit, a lot of it — although I have seen worse.

Pelvis at top next to scapula at right top; vertebra next to that. Two leg bones at bottom.

The leg bones.

Fairly heavy crack at top of bone near knob. Perhaps the coyotes tried to break it to get the marrow out, but couldn't?

Long vertical crack down the center of the longer leg bone.

There’s some gnawing on the edge of the scapula, although not as much as I might have expected.

Given that these were found in the same area as the skull (about a 200-foot radius), I do believe these to have been part of that specific animal, and will house them in the same box as the skull once I am ready. These are pretty fleshless, and I will be whitening them with hydrogen peroxide soon.

I have to look up to find out whether the hydrogen peroxide will dissolve the superglue I used on the teeth before I whiten the raccoon skull. I am not averse to leaving the stains of nature (from rain, weathering, vegetation, etc.) on the skull if immersing it in the peroxide will remove the glue and let the teeth fall out.

When I went on this walk today, I didn’t have the salve or fetish I usually bring along as aids to seeing the things the spirits want me to see.  I’ve been to this particular park at least four times in the last two weeks (and it’s a fairish drive from my house, about 45 minutes). I have to wonder if that means I am finally seeing and hearing what the spirits want me to see — pieces of themselves.

I hope so.

Ghosts Old and New

Today the predicted high was supposed to be in the upper 70s F, with no chance of rain until the evening, so I packed up my bag and rubber gloves and offerings and baggies and went back out to the forest preserve where I’d found the deer bones.

The first stop I made once I got there was at the site where I’d found the original deer bones. The last offering I’d made there, on Sunday the 11th, was completely gone:

So I smoothed over the dirt and laid out a new one:

Land under wave: steel-cut oats, sunflower seed kernels, dried apricots, dried blueberries, green grapes, chopped walnuts, and a banana.

Three dried apricots and three dried blueberries, at the end of a tail of steel-cut oats.

Chopped walnuts.

The point of the spear: sunflower seed kernels surrounded by steel-cut oats.

Banana -- and it was warm enough out that, as you can see, the local insects (in the form of Mr. Fly) have already homed in on the scent. Flies are scavengers, too.

Nine grapes. A number often associated with myth and magic.

The entire offering.

After I had laid out the offering and said a silent prayer, we resumed hiking. But this time, we didn’t just stay on the path. Nothing interesting ever happens there.  Down into the hollows and gulches between the hills we went, and up over the hills and around them. We left the human path, but followed a few deer trails we went, through thorny briars and around fallen trees.
And then we began to find bones. First, a coyote-gnawed leg bone at the foot of a fallen tree:

Top one.

And then another leg bone, equally chewed (lower piece in the above pic).

And then my husband found a nearly-untouched deer leg bone matching two others I have, off to the side of the trail:

Although this one still had the ball joints at either end, it was much more gnawed than the other two of this kind I have:

And then, walking further, I chose to investigate a deep patch of briars that had grown up around a fallen oak, and found a skull.

I believe this to be a doe’s skull; there are no obvious places on it anywhere that look like areas where antlers might have grown from. It seems to have died a natural death (coyote predation, starvation or freezing in winter, disease or old age) as opposed to hunting. It also appears to have laid where I found it for at least a couple years, as it’s in fairly bad shape:

View from above.

View from front. Note the nasal prominences have all collapsed into the interior cavities.

Side view. The bone is fairly weathered, as might be expected from spending a year or more outside.

Underside view. It seems to have all the teeth still in its upper jaw. I know that figuring out how old the deer was at the time of death can be done by examining the teeth; however, I have not learned how to do so.

Rear view, showing the aperture where the spinal column and cord joined to the skull.

I think it may also be possible to estimate the animal’s age at death by the sutures joining together the plates of the deer’s skull.  Alas, this is another technique I have no skill in.  At best, I feel confident in saying this was an adult female, not too old (or the teeth would likely have been more worn down).

Close-up of the skull sutures.

After carefully stashing the skull in my go-bag, we continued onward.

Down by the lake, my husband spotted a huge patch of fur, spread out in a fairly large circle.  Further off, smaller patches of loose fur were also visible. We had clearly found a coyote kill site; the fur was deer fur, and as nearly as I could tell, it seemed likely that the coyotes had jumped a deer when it came down to the lake to drink. At first, it appeared that there was nothing left but fur; the kill was relatively recent, as some small bits of skin were still attached to the fur — the flesh hadn’t rotted away completely yet.

But no bones. Or so we thought.  After looking around for a few minutes, I spotted first one jawbone/lower mandible, and then the other — a find I was thankful for, as the skull I had found didn’t have the lower jaws with it:

Both pieces still had bone, tiny bits of flesh, and bits of fur still attached to them (the blood acted like glue in the case of the hairs, which were stuck to bare bone).

Note that the lower jaw is complete here, as the teeth at the front of the lower jaw are still attached to one of the mandibles.

Front teeth for biting off grass and greens.

I looked around a bit more, and stuck under a piece of dead log was a fairly heavily-gnawed piece of bone with teeth attached — part of the skull/upper jaw:

Upper jaw part in the bag with the deer fur.

So, as of my first visit to the park, I found pieces of one deer; with today’s trip, I found more pieces of at least three and possibly as many as five other deer (skull, fur and jaws, three separate leg bones in widely differing areas).

No wonder the woods, on the walk back to the parking lot and our car, felt like it was full of ghosts — old ones and new.  Carried in my backpack were the relics of about half of the team pulling Santa’s sleigh (okay, yes, these are white-tail deer, not reindeer.  Allow a moment of poetic license).

I will be cleaning these remains (very carefully, in the case of the skull, which appears very fragile) and then begin looking for a chest big enough to hold all the deer relics I own — a reliquary to house the spirit(s) of Deer, and honor their place in the world and the gift of graceful beauty they share with us every time we see one.

Addendum to “Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw”

Finally managed to make it back out to the site today. Took bags for garbage and comestibles for the offering. When we reached the area along the trail where I had left the last offering (and where I had found the deer bones), I spent a few moments in prayer, thanking the spirits there — the forest itself, the dead tree at the center of the site, the coyotes, and the deer that had died — for the gift of the bones on my last visit.

Then I went to lay out the next offering:

Somewhat uneven offering to the nature spirits. Steel-cut oats, banana, dried apricots, dried blueberries, wine, turbinado sugar, sunflower seed kernels, chopped walnuts, honey in the comb. The dark circle around the edge is where I poured out the wine.

 

Honey in the comb atop sunflower seed kernels; the three "arms" of the triskele made of steel-cut oats; banana pieces next to blueberries (three per "arm"); three mounds of turbinado golden sugar by the arms.

 

At the end of each "arm": a piece of dried apricot and a mound of chopped walnuts.

 

Banana and close-up of dried blueberries (three); honey in the comb atop sunflower seed kernels and steel-cut oats.

After laying out the offering, I began to search again, carefully shifting aside piles of last fall’s leaves. We’d arrived much earlier in the day (around 2 PM) and I had more time and more daylight with which to work. It also hadn’t rained again since our last visit, so things weren’t as boggy as before.

I found two more pieces from the deer, another vertebra and another leg bone.

Leg bone and vertebra.

 

The leg bone had rather more gnawing on it than the identical one I found on my first visit — enough to expose the honeycombed inside at one end where the marrow would be found:

 

There were some fairly clear teeth marks on the other end of the leg bone, as well:

 

The vertebra was one of the smaller “tailed” ones:

 

I found a fair bit of garbage while I was out there, and picked up everything I could find. It’s worth noting that this part of the world is definitely caught in an early Spring: the maple and willow trees are budding, and there are already tiny new leaves on the multiflora roses in the woods.

Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

So, yesterday it got up to almost 60*F here outside of Chicago. My husband got out of work early, so we decided to go for a walk at one of our favorite wild places, where there’s a large population of owls.  We’ve never seen owls there before — although we’ve seen plenty of squirrels, deer, rabbits, hawks, and possums, plus enough footprints and scat to indicate a healthy coyote population — but I was still hoping to find some owl pellets, or maybe some shed deer antlers (it’s about that time here).  I asked the forest spirits to show me a gift, if they were willing. I had brought along a gift of my own to give: steel-cut oats, chopped walnuts, green grapes, a banana, locally made maple syrup, and raisins.

We started out on the walk around 4:15 PM; sunset is at 5:40 PM here currently. This meant we were getting going just before dusk (my favorite liminal time).  There’s been a fair bit of rain here recently, and what little snow we did get this winter has melted, so things were pretty boggy.  Aside from my offering, I also always bring plastic bags to pick up any garbage I find, as we’re not the only ones who walk in these woods.

Maybe around 4:45 or a little later, we had gotten to the top of a hill, just before the path dips down into a ravine.  I was looking around quite a bit, on the lookout for garbage as well as anything else, and spotted something white a fair bit off the path.  Now, I’d spotted white things a couple of times already on this trip, and each time, they’d turned out to be mold-encrusted sticks, so I wasn’t really anticipating anything else, but I headed on over to where it was, maybe 500 feet off the path.

And then I just started shouting, “OH MY GOSH!” at the top of my lungs (I devolve to the vocabulary of a 10-year-old when really excited, instead of swearing).  Scattered out around a very large dead tree before me were a LOT of bones — ribs and vertebrae, numerous leg bones, and a pelvis.  All were fairly large, and all were very heavily covered with gnaw marks, evidence that the coyotes had been there.  By the size, I think it most likely that the bones were from a deer.  I gathered up all of them I could find, tracking downhill from where the first find was (with all the rain we’d had lately, I thought it likely some more bones might have been washed downhill, and I was right; I found four more vertebrae, three more ribs, and another leg bone that way).

I wanted to keep looking, but it was overcast and already getting dark, so I laid out my own offering to the forest and said profuse thanks before heading back up the hill.  Heading uphill, I found yet another leg bone, this one far less gnawed.

I cleaned the mud and leaf litter off the bones.  I don’t know how the deer died (I was able to find a diagram of a deer skeleton here online, and was able to confirm it was a deer from the pelvis), but there’s any number of ways: disease, broken leg and starvation or freezing, poaching (I’ve found shotgun shells out there before, although the area is strictly marked No Hunting), or taken down by coyotes, perhaps.  I hope to go back out there this weekend, earlier in the day, if the weather hasn’t taken a turn for the worse, to look for more bones and maybe finish my walk (by the time I got done, it was time to turn around and go back).

The offering: the outer circle is oats, the inner circle is grapes. At top: chopped walnuts; center, bananas; lower left, home-made honey butter; lower right, maple syrup; bottom, raisins.

All the bones, cleaned up a bit (still need to get hydrogen peroxide to whiten them). Leg bones at left, ribs at center, vertebrae and pelvis at right.

The Pelvis and several vertebrae. Note the tooth marks on all pieces.

The gnaw marks on all the bones are a perfect illustration of this post’s title. Whether the deer was alive or dead when the coyotes got at it, the circle of life is in full force here — predator and prey and the way they interact. Coyotes are both predators and scavengers; they’ll eat roadkill or carrion when they find it, if they have no other food. I believe that even when I go back, I probably won’t find many smaller bones, which the coyotes probably crunched down into smaller pieces and ate entirely. The gnaw marks are quite beautiful, evidence of an almost scrimshaw nature of the intersection of these two types of creatures in the wild.

Leg bones. The largest are longer than my forearm. Note how heavy and thick they are; I think it likely that this was a big stag.

Ribs -- 13 in all, 9 "full" (i.e. only chewed a little bit at the ends), 4 partial (chewed a lot).

Vertebrae! Pretty big ones, too; largest are bigger than my fist.

Inside of the pelvis. More chew marks.

Visible gnaw marks on side of pelvis from coyotes. (Tooth marks are much too big to be from foxes or raccoons.)

Outside of pelvis.

Tooth marks on a leg bone.

Full ribs, with attachment knobs.

Three of the "partial" ribs.

The left-most is one of the partial ribs; the remaining nine are the "full" ribs.

If I get back this weekend, I intend to take pictures of the site itself; unfortunately, the batteries in my camera died before I could do so. I replaced them when I got home — obviously, or I wouldn’t have all these nice bone pictures — but it left me with no pictures of the find site itself.

When I have finished cleaning these up, I’ll have to find a fairly large box to store them in, and inter them in that reliquary with burial gifts before transferring it to my bone altar.  The spirit of deer is one I’ve often wished to work with, but never had any luck finding anything of before.

Squirrel!

Squirrels aren’t scavengers, but they may well be the most ubiquitous of urban animals (aside from pigeons). Especially in any city that has a few trees (and what city doesn’t have at least a few?), it’s hard to walk a block or two without seeing one of these little creatures scampering about at warp speed, collecting nuts in the autumn, chasing away other squirrels trying to steal their hoard, or on a breakneck pace in spring as they look for a mate.

 

I’ve found plenty of deceased squirrels while working in the park or walking from one place to another in my town.  The first I found last August while cleaning garbage up in the park:

 

To this day, I have no idea what killed it.  There wasn’t a single mark on him; he looked like he was sleeping. I bagged him up, brought him home, and buried him in my garden. As the flesh decays from the bones, it’ll add nutrients to the garden. When Spring comes round this year (about a month away), I’ll dig up the bones, wash them off, and then put them together in a little relic box with some acorns. The box will house his spirit, and I’ll keep it on the altar I’m building to the various animal spirits I’ve met along the way.

 

The second squirrel I found was really only part of a carcass.  I found it October 18th of last year, again in the park. By that time, the leaves had begun to fall from the trees, making pretty large piles that the squirrels dashed through madly as they collected food for the winter. The park employees were still required to cut the grass until the first snowfall, and I found squirrel #2 on a pile of leaves that had been cut to ribbons by the riding lawnmowers the park employees use.  I think he had been run over by one of them; all that was left was the head and the tail, linked together by a long strip of skin that ran along the spine.  It can’t have been an easy death, or a painless one, and I really hope that it was an accident, that the park worker just didn’t see him; the thought that the worker might have known the squirrel was there and ran over him on purpose, to be cruel, is a heart-wrenching one, though I know that there are indeed people out there who are cruel to animals for the fun of it.

 

WARNING: GRAPHIC PICTURES.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like squirrel #1, this guy is currently buried in my garden to deflesh the bones, awaiting the coming of Spring to find a gentler home with walnuts and acorns in a box on my altar. I’ll perform a cleansing ritual when I’ve unearthed him to settle his spirit and erase the trauma of the violent death he suffered; otherwise, I think he’d be so hurt spiritually by the way he died that it would be hard to have him around, much less to interact with him.

 

The third squirrel I have I found just six days later, on October 24th last year, while walking to a dentist’s appointment. I believe he had been hit by a car and his body knocked off the road and on to the sidewalk. After that, someone — most likely a kid — had clearly found his body and had some fun with it; there was a stick in his mouth and another across the flat middle of his body that indicated he’d been run over.  I came back for him after my dentist’s appointment and bagged him up, brought him home, and buried him.

WARNING: UNPLEASANT PICTURE.

 

 

 

 

 

Kids are often little savages, but given the state of the body (I had a forensics class in college), I feel pretty confident in saying that the way the body was messed with was post-mortem. I think it sad that a once-living creature could be defiled in such a way by someone who was probably bored and stupid, but I suppose I should be happy they didn’t cut it apart, right?

 

Again, I’ll do a ritual to cleanse him of the trauma of being hit by a car, then welcome him to his new  home on the altar.

 

Given the very many things I have buried in my garden right now, it looks like it’s going to be a busy Spring.

Gulls and pigeons and crows, oh my!

Generally when I get together with pagans of a shamanistic or animist stripe, talk eventually turns to totem spirits.

Generally, when I sit and listen to people talk about their totems, I hear about a lot of noble animals.  The wolf.  The stag.  The fox.  The hawk.  Eagles and bears and cougars and once, a tiger. Even the boar.

Most of these are predators and obligate carnivores, or — if not — still very powerful and often dangerous animals.  Deer kill far more human beings every year than bears or wolves; having a 200-pound deer come through your windshield after you’ve hit it with your car tends to be an extremely violent and dangerous event that ends the life of the human driving the car almost as often as it ends the life of the deer.  A stag during rutting season is quite capable of chasing down and injuring — even killing — any unfortunate human that happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (i.e., in between him and a potential mate).

(Edit: hours after writing this post, I came across a news story that illustrates the above PERFECTLY: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/10/11/deer-kills-nb-farmer-with_n_1006050.html  )

And let’s not even get started talking about what happens to any person stupid enough or unlucky enough to get near a wild boar, or between a feral sow and her litter.

My totem spirits aren’t in the same category as these.  The closest I get are crows and ravens, which — while often regarded as wise teachers – are just as often considered unreliable tricksters.  And crows and ravens do indeed prey on other small animals (insects, bird eggs and baby birds, very small tree frogs or snakes or lizards), but are more often considered scavengers.  Eaters of garbage and roadkill.

Pretty much all of my totem spirits are scavenger spirits.  And I’m okay with this.  If not for the scavengers of the natural world, the rest of the natural world would probably be up to its ears — or worse — in human-generated garbage.

I’m a tidy sort; a place for everything, everything in its place, and out with the stuff that isn’t needed anymore.  Recyclables get recycled, spoiled food and scraps goes to the compost pile (except for meat), and only a bit of what’s left over actually makes it to the garbage dump.  I like to clean up messes — my own, and other people’s.  In that respect, I’m very like my totems, so it’s a good fit.

Aside from crow (and raven), I call gulls and pigeons my friends.  Reviled by most people as “flying rats”*, these birds dispose of our debris, feeding off of scraps that would otherwise lay around, attract insects, and rot, leaving an unhealthy mess where we want to do more “important” things — picnic, walk our dogs, go swimming, and so on.

In the plant kingdom, I find myself drawn again and again to fungi and lichens, which break down rotting plant matter and help turn it into fertile soil — again, the same job that the others perform, helping keep the Earth we all share a little bit cleaner.

I live in a suburb of Chicago (on the Indiana side of the border), and there aren’t any deep, dark, mysterious woods for me to go journeying in or exploring — at least, not without a car trip of at least half an hour.  Instead, I spend a lot of time at my nearest park, one block away, which borders a small lake in my town.  Plenty of gulls and pigeons and crows there, and probably plenty of rats, too (or at least, plenty of rats at the various industrial plants on the other side of the lake).  I spend a lot of time emulating my totems, and cleaning up the garbage that other humans leave behind.  If it’s organic — banana or orange peels, dropped potato chips, old bubble gum — I leave it where it falls, because it’ll degrade and eventually end up as part of the soil.  The rest of it — styrofoam from countless fishing coolers and floats, foam rubber, nylon fishing line, plastic food wrappers, aluminum soda pop and beer cans, broken glass — gets bagged up and thrown away.  I visit the park at least 2 -3 times a week, more often if the park is exceptionally messy or if the weather is cooperating, and do what I can to make the world a cleaner, better place.

On these trips, it’s inevitable that I occasionally find biological traces, both from my totems and other creatures.  When I can collect these bits and pieces without breaking any laws, I do so.  Illegal to pick up crow feathers, because of the Migratory Bird Act; the same is true of the Canadian goose and swan and duck feathers I see there from time to time.  But pigeons and gulls don’t migrate, and aren’t in the least endangered.  Likewise, I’ve found entire carcasses before — squirrels and chipmunks and pigeons and gulls.  Some are clean; some reek of decay and teem with maggots (and those, too, are scavengers, pretty much completely harmless to humans unless said person is falling apart from gangrene).

This blog is meant to journal my ongoing discovery of these spirits, record the traces I find (whether or not I can pick them up and bring them home), and note down my ongoing relationship with these scavenger spirits.  I won’t claim any special status or exceptional wisdom; I’m new at this and bound to screw up from time to time.  But I think it’s important to get it all down and hope I learn something from it.  And along the way, maybe folks will end up with a little more respect for the lowly scavengers they share the world with.

*And really, what’s so bad about rats?  Aside from their unfortunate tendency to carry diseases that humans can catch — and the fault for that lies more with humans and their unclean, overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions — rats perform the same vital service as gulls, pigeons, and crows — they clean up the garbage that humans leave behind.  I’ve had plenty of interesting experiences with rats, going way back into childhood on a farm, and I’m happy to count them among the spirits I connect well with.