Is There a Physical Basis to the Notion of "Spirit"?
Seeing a cat staring at a chicken staring at bear scat led to a new perspective.
Posted Oct 26, 2016
This morning I came across something that made me burst out laughing. My cat Lindy Lou was sitting on the open window ledge, clearly wanting to hop out, but making a strange sound as if something were in her way. I looked out the window to see what she was looking at, and it was a chicken, and the chicken in turn was peering quizzically at bear scat. This menagerie of reactions amongst these different life forms struck me as funny, like something from another era.
Neither the chickens nor the bear scat by itself was so strange; my neighbor’s chickens get out from time to time. This time there were six in the yard though, all various shades of rust color, strutting confidently in all directions, pecking in non-unison. And I have found bear scat in the yard twice before, though I have not actually seen a bear on the property. The neighbors have though, and there’s been a spat of bear pic emails recently, and I see them from time to time in the provincial park behind us, especially at this time of year. (Just black bears, not grizzlies or polar bears.)
Anyway, this sort of humorous beginning to the day got me thinking about the fact that bears have been in my psyche (whatever that might mean) for the last few months, and also last fall. Bears mean contradictory things to us. They could tear us to shreds, yet we give babies teddy bears to comfort them. They engage in simple, survival-oriented behavior—foraging, protecting their young—yet they are awe-inspiring.
Last night I was listening to "Heima" by Hildur Guðnadóttir, a hauntingly beautiful piece of music, which somehow over the last 24 hours became interfused with my feeling about bears. There have been a few times over the last few weeks when I felt almost embarrassed that every conversation someone had with me I ended up turning it into a conversation about bears. I’ve been talking about them, dreaming about them, whenever I am not doing something that requires attention they drift into my thoughts. So I was wondering: what is going on? What is this obsession with bears?
An obvious event that played a role was that a bit over a month ago I was hiking behind the house and came upon two bears about four or five meters away. I seemed to surprise them as much as they surprised me; one stood up on its hind legs and the other climbed a tree, and they were both looking me in the eye. I ran down the hill to the creek and they didn’t follow, not physically at least, but I could not stop thinking about them. In that brief encounter, the unique aliveness and perspective of these beings had instilled itself in me. A similar thing happened last year after I saw a bear very close; I could not shake the presence of the bear from my mind. There have been other occasions when I saw bears from further away. But the strange thing is that, both this year and last year, the bear obsession began before the first bear encounter, and did not decrease after an encounter, not until they went into hibernation. This awareness of bears is a profound phenomenon, and it has a strong impact. The feeling they leave you with has little to do with, say, how smart they are. It has more to do with their demeanor, but that doesn’t capture it. It’s more like a sense of the essential life force that bears are aligned with, and emanate from, as corny as that sounds.
So I was wondering today about this phenomenon of the “essence of bears” being so present in my mind – not “essence” in the sense of “scent”, but in the sense that something essential about bears having lodged itself in my mind. And then it hit me: that must be what First Nations people mean when they use the word “spirit”. You can be so convinced that you don’t “believe in” spirits that you don’t acknowledge something that may be having a stronger effect on you than anything in your immediate surroundings.
That was the first bear-inspired revelation I had today: that this sense of “bear presence” even when I wasn’t directly in the physical presence of a bear could be what is meant by “spirit”. That hadn’t occurred to me before.
Then I turned on Quirks and Quarks and it was talking about how if you make one mouse feel pain the other mice nearby start acting in ways indicative of feeling pain, and the researchers did some experiments and came to the conclusion that the response of the other mice was due to pheromones released by the hurt mouse. So I wondered if it actually IS essence in the sense of scent molecules being detected by receptors in the brain that generates a sense of “spirit”. That is, the bears are venturing beyond the park because of the apples and walnut trees in order to get enough to eat before they hibernate, and releasing scent into our neighborhood that people are not consciously aware of, but aware of subconsciously. That scent activates some very primal part of you, something that made our ancestors take note of the presence of bears and respond adaptively. So my second bear-inspired revelation today was that this sense of a “spirit” might be related to pheromones carried in the air, which is interesting because the word “spirit” also has roots related to air. So spirit is a sense of something being present that you don’t see and you don’t hear but that may be carried by the sense of smell.
There is an excitement but also a little sadness associated with all this. This whole bear experience feels a thin tendril or lifeline out from our manicured world into something abstract that is related to the deep primal essences of wild things, something fierce and exquisite, something that was the lifeblood of people who lived in earlier times but that is now vanishing, and this tiny glimpse makes me almost homesick.