Elk Velvet, Begging Bowls, and Rumi: Unexpected Gifts

Each fall, I search the woods forbull elk #1 antler velvet, like other women might browse catalogs for good sales on winter coats.  It’s an odd habit, I admit. During the last few weeks of August and into September here in the rustic mountain community where I live, bachelor herds of bull elk congregate in the meadows and woods surrounding our home.  Even from a distance, you can see their engorged antlers grow thick with velvet as their bodies flesh out from rich mountain grass. 
As the color fades from the brilliant Indian Paintbrush, Brilliant Indian Paintbrush the elk begin scratching their antlers on the trunks of sapling aspens and pines.  One day, while hiking with our Border collie Trixie, I followed four big bulls who had strips of velvet hanging from their tender, bloody tines.  I searched the ground beneath the trees where they stopped to rub their antlers, searching for a strip of shredded velvet, each time thinking this will be the place.  But it never was. I found shredded pieces of bark and fresh droppings beneath their rubs, but never that coveted bit of velvet.  I felt like I was searching for the end of a story which remained forever just beyond my reach – close enough to see, almost to touch – but as elusive as the mythical powers of the elk.
Elk Velvet & bark After following the four bulls for an hour, I turned around to head back home. Trixie scampered ahead of me on the trail, stopping to sniff around the trunk of a ponderosa.  Dejected, I sat on a granite rock to catch my breath before climbing the final steep leg of the hike home.  Within a few minutes, Trixie returned to my side carrying something in her mouth.  She sat down next to me, nudged my empty hand, then dropped a soft strip of fur into it.  I rubbed my fingers along its edge, then turned it over and saw the bloody underside.  Antler velvet.  I was holding a piece of antler velvet.  “You crazy dog,” I said, and then I rose and let Trixie lead me back down the path toward the ponderosa.
Sue Bender, in her book Everyday Sacred: A Woman’s Journey Home, writes: “All I knew about a begging bowl was Everyday Sacred that each day a monk goes out with his empty bowl in his hands. Whatever is placed in the bowl will be his nourishment for the day…”
For writers, every time we venture into the metaphorical world of story and face that blank computer screen, or blank journal, we are seeking nourishment. We are also, ritualistically, practicing faith. Faith that if we offer our metaphorical empty bowl to the gods, we will eventually be gifted with a story. 
Massive Bulls in the backyard Each hike into the woods is, for me, also a journey of faith.  Sometimes, usually, I return home empty-handed.  But not always.  Sometimes, like that day following the elk, I return with a story to tell and renewed sense of wonder.  Sometimes, I don’t even have to leave home.  Sometimes, the wonder comes to me, like the morning a few weeks ago when these slick-antlered bulls showed up in the back yard.  John and I filled our coffee cups, put Trixie on a leash, tiptoed outside, and sat in our lawn chairs and watched as they browsed and snorted and parried. 
Gifts.  They are all around us. 
In Rumi’s poem “The Gift of Water” he tell us that every object and being in the universe is a jar overfilled with wisdom and beauty.  “Do you see?” he asks. 

You knock at the door of reality,
shake your thought-wings, loosen
your shoulders,

                   and open.

Do you see?
More about the analogy of the begging bowl. 
More about Jelaluddin Rumi.
News Item: On November 21, Page is teaching a one-day seminar at Mt. Vernon Country Club on “Writing the Personal Essay.”  Details at www.pagelambert.com.


Page Lambert said…
CJ, a Facebook friend, read this piece and asked me "why" I wanted the velvet. It was such a good, simple question I wanted to post the answer here as well:

I think perhaps because it represents a renewal. Each season, tremenous energy goes into growing these beautiful antlers, used both for fighting, and for attracting a mate. And each winter they are shed, left to lie on the forest floor. The velvet is such a tender part of this ongoing cycle.
Julie said…
Hi Page ~ Thank you once again for this chance to slow down & reflect before beginning my writing day...a moment to pause and take a breath ...to consider the deeper side of things. The search for antler velvet is such an interesting journey...not one we think about here in NY! And I love the idea of the writing begging bowl...an open vessel to contain the day's gifts. Thank you, thank you. Julie
Julie, thank you for leaving your words here to mark your path! When I was in third grade, living in Pacific Palisades near Los Angeles for a year, it would take me forever to walk home from school because I was fascinated with the shiny trail that the snails left on the leaves of the ivy undergrowth. Trails everywhere, no matter where we live! Even in NYC!
Beautiful piece, Page! The miracles are all around us! For years I've collected bones--in fact I think the habit has spooked more than a boyfriend or two (ha). There's a special beauty about "what's left" that I can't explain. As a sort-of artist, I find it informative to see what lies beneath the flesh, what gives creatures their recognizable shape and structure, strength or flexibility, and it feels somehow like honoring that when I see the beauty in the color, texture, and shape of bones weathered by climate and time.
Rosemary, thanks for your comment! I chuckled at the mention of "spooking more than a boyfriend or two." Guess that one reason I enjoy ranchers - they live so closely with the land that they see a story in each scrap of flesh they find. So much so, that sometimes those stories outlive them.
Eunice Boeve said…
Thanks Page for another thought provoking blog. I walked in those woods with you, reliving the many hours my siblings and I roamed the woods of northwest Montana when we were kids. I still love to walk in the woods when we go back to Montana for a few months each summer. (Kansas woods are sparse.) One of the reasons I love to have our geo-caching son-in-law visit us when we're in montana is because I get to go into the woods again. (see a last summer blogs on geo-caching at www.euniceboeve.net)
Love the "Begging Bowl" story. It's a concept I want to remember, so printed it off. I want to look for a bowl picture and frame it for my office. Eunice Boeve
Eunice, northwest Montana is such a beautiful place. Twenty five years ago we almost bought a small ranch on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness area. My son spends a lot of time backpacking and hunting in the mountains up there. I'm glad the "begging bowl" concept intrigued you. I hope you'll research some Buddhist teachings about it to get the "real scoop" - or at least, a more authentic one!
Page, Thanks for this post. I enjoyed the connections you made. Reminds me to stop and take a breath and notice what's around.
Gifts are, indeed, everywhere. Last night:
Staccato of juvenile coyote's yip! yip! yip! in our driveway
Full moon rising from behind the hill like a heaving chest calling in some steady slow song
We wait in this darkness
some quick hand
pulls our straying senses toward~
Page Lambert said…
Christine, thank you for your poem - it is lovely. Coyotes are, indeed, part of nature's song!
Tamara said…
Page, what a lovely post! I am so happy to find your blog. You write beautifully from the heart. I'm happy to share your blog with others and return often for my own nourishment!

Blessings to you.

Page Lambert said…
Tamara, I'm so glad you found your way here - thank you for leaving a sign of your travels. I checked out your website and it sounds like you are on the cutting edge in your health care field. Congratulations. And thank you for sharing Connecting People with Nature!
Melanie Mulhall said…

While I have never collected antler velvet, like Rosemary, I have collected bones and feathers. I am like a beachcomber searching for shells when I search my yard for feathers. Where bones are concerned, the experience is more spacious because the field of search is larger. In either case, my eyes become softly unfocused and I allow the feathers or bones to find me. There is trust in it, trust that if the feather or bone is meant to come to me, I will be drawn to it. Either way--the gift of a feather or bone or not--the trust remains, along with gratitude.

Thank you for your beautiful post.

Melanie Mulhall
Melanhie, I love the way you speak of eyes softly unfocused and the trust that comes with this willingness to let the world come to you. Velvet, feathers, shells - yes, all are gifts. Thank you.
Christy Heady said…
Page, I immediately exhaled a long, deep breath the more I read this piece. And then I chuckled once I read how Trixie found what you were looking for. As a writer, I am encouraged in reading this: "For writers, every time we venture into the metaphorical world of story and face that blank computer screen, or blank journal, we are seeking nourishment."

Well put and very true.

It almost seems that ... for all the tremendous energy that is put into growing beautiful antlers, is similar to the energy we writers put into a new story, in hopes of attracting an audience. Those rough draft pages that we shed to begin anew are like the antlers shed by the elk.

Christy Heady
Page Lambert said…
Christy, I LOVE your analogy of the shed antlers and our stories, how we must be willing to let each draft go in order to begin anew. I'd like to feature your comment, if I can figure out how!
Dina Horwedel said…
This is a beautiful rumination on nature and how it, or the universes, gives us a gift, or an offering, for our spirits, and how it serves as a muse, if we are open to seeing what it has to offer.
Dina, I love your use of the phrase "rumination on nature." Makes me think of the 4-H sheep my kids used to raise, and how utterly content they were to chew their cud, ruminating on the grass in their bellies and the birds in the trees!

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