Each fall, I search the woods for 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, 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.
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 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.
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
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.