Protector of children
May You shelter them in Your embrace
Guide and guard them on their paths
And keep them safe from harm.
Particularly those who are far from home
And separated from their loved ones.
Grant them safe harbor and rest, Great Lady
And I will remember You again.
Engaging with the gods of the wild means engaging with wildlife, as a part of the natural world which is not human–though we as humans have no inherent separation from that world, even though we often act as though we do, there is nothing like an animal encounter to bring home both our kinship with these nonhuman intelligences, and the differences between us and them.
The ancient Greeks had a different relationship to wilderness than those of us who have grown up with it as a form of recreation do. There are reasons that Artemis patrols the liminal, Pan incites panic, and Dionysus’s entrance into the city from the wild mountains is a time of upheaval and terror as well as joy and celebration. We push back the wilderness for our own safety and comfort, but it will come in, as sure as a dandelion pushing up through a sidewalk or a squirrel invading your attic.
Wildlife are pursuing their own stories: food, shelter, reproduction, play. Seeing them at
these pursuits is an unusual occurrence, one that few besides hunters, wildlife scientists, or determined backwoods adventurers experience. But in tracking, you can learn something of the stories that passed through a place before you came there.
Among other more practical reasons, this is why I study tracking. Realizing that the seemingly undisturbed landscape along the logging road or hiking trail is actually awash in activity is a humbling and eye-opening experience. The wild isn’t something that occurs out there. It’s going on all the time, all around us, in the most unlikely places. Knowing that an elk or a bobcat or a bear or even something as humble as a wood rat or a deer mouse was right here, perhaps just a few hours ago, brings home how we are not the only inhabitants of this world.
It’s not just for us, and it is of this that the gods of the wild remind us. Artemis is both
hunter and steward; delighting in slaughter as the hymn says, but also concerned with sustenance and renewal. Thus a goddess of violent death is also a goddess of birth. Pan is the wild, the will toward life of all that is, both the deer mouse trying frantically to escape the coyote’s jaws, and the coyote in desperate need of this tiny meal. Dionysus is both our footsteps on the earth, and the mountain lion’s; He brings the wilderness into the city, and brings us out into the wild.
When next you are in the forest, stop and sit. Breathe. Imagine who else might have been here, as recently as a few hours or minutes ago. What sign did they leave of their passing? What sign will you leave behind you?