Finding Our Place in Nature

An interview by Ann Hostetler with Priscilla Stuckey

"It’s as if this project of reconciliation lies at the heart of all the problems of the modern world—because when people forget their ties to Earth, they forget their ties to one another."

Your first book, Kissed by a Fox, explores how developing a relationship with nature and animals enabled you to heal from a chronic illness, challenge beliefs that were no longer serving you, and discover new dimensions of your life. Your new book,Tamed by a Bear, takes the journey to a deeper level. Can you describe what the new book offers to readers of the first one?

They’re both memoirs, but the scope of them is radically different. I think of Kissed by a Fox almost as a cultural memoir, with my own life experiences woven into this larger story of how attitudes toward nature in Western cultures developed. That book was based on a great deal of history and science research, with many pages of notes at the end.

Tamed by a Bear doesn’t have any of that. It’s just an intimate, personal story of one year of my life—a year when an inner spiritual process began, right after the first book came out. I started to learn how to relate to nature in a way I hadn’t explored before—through spirit. I began going on meditative journeys with a spirit helper, who in my case happens to be Bear.

In a meditative journey, you typically close your eyes and pay attention to the images or impressions that pass across the mental screen. So you start in that heart-place of love and connection, and from that restful place you simply watch what unfolds—and know that whatever unfolds is being sent by your spirit helper, for you, for that moment.

You might say that in Kissed by a Fox I was listening to all kinds of human voices, but in Tamed by a Bear I’m listening to my own still small voice—listening, that is, to spirit. The interesting thing, though, is that both books are about listening to nature. It’s just that one is about listening through the senses or through academic study, and the other is about listening through the heart.

How did you as a skeptical, highly educated person come to journey with Bear?

Through a lot of kicking and screaming! It turns out that I had quite a bit of resistance to this process. I discovered—which didn’t exactly please me—that I was rather attached to intellectual respectability. In the modern world we’ve been shaped by the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, which encouraged a materialist view of the world. So the most respectable intellectual positions have come to be those of the skeptic and atheist.

It’s a rather outdated way of looking at things, because we’re relying on the materialist science of the eighteenth century to provide the intellectual foundations for a twenty-first-century worldview, when in fact the sciences of more recent centuries, especially the last fifty to a hundred years, are far richer. They include a lot more room for mystery because they show how much more interesting the workings of nature are than we had thought—how little we know about the very small or the very large, or instance, or how much more central love and cooperation are to evolution than had been thought.

But even so, the skeptical materialist perspective is the one that still holds the most sway. You just get taken more seriously in educated public discourse if you’re a skeptic. And I was pretty reluctant to give up that privilege.

But the universe has a sense of humor! It seems to enjoy chipping away at our most cherished ideas. Often people don’t reach for something new in life until they get pretty uncomfortable, and that’s what happened for me. A little misery can be a good motivator! So Tamed by a Bear opens when I feel rather miserable and have no idea why. And I reach for something I wouldn’t have been comfortable with before.

What happened when you reached in this new direction?

Something pretty extraordinary. Right from the start in meditative journeys, I felt met by another, by an unseen friend. Of course, I grew up being taught from my littlest days how to pray. But I have to confess, when I prayed as a young person, or when I watched the adults around me praying, I rarely experienced something happening. It was like all these prayers were being sent out to a huge and empty sky. Was anyone out there even listening? Was there anyone to listen?

During my very first meditative journey with Bear, suddenly there was someone on the other end of the line. And that someone was a bear. A good-humored bear. And he was so cheerful, even jovial! Not at all like me at the time.

That first journey unfolded as a dialogue—halting at first, of course, and hesitant. But someone was definitely there, and that someone was paying attention and responding to my questions. With love. And chuckling good humor. It was disconcerting! And it was irresistible.

How did you overcome your discomfort?

By going back for more, again and again. That’s the story I tell in Tamed by a Bear—how this relationship unfolded during its first year. I sat down almost every day for a meditative journey, and over and over again this same someone appeared on the other end of the line! It wasn’t a fluke.

Bear had things to say that surprised me, that opened my perspective. And always there was this sense of support, like someone at your elbow, keeping you steady while you pick your way over uneven ground.

But of course I didn’t trust it right away. During that whole first year—and for months afterward too—I had to keep testing this relationship, to see if it really worked.

And what did you find? Did it work?

Well, apparently yes. My partner, Tim, started noticing something right away. “You seem happier,” he said one day—this was about two months after my first conversation with Bear. When I stopped to think about it, I did see that I was feeling happier, more content. Since then—and that was over four years ago—I’ve only watched the changes deepen and grow.

What other changes have you noticed?

I would say less driven, more able to enjoy the moment. I don’t get bugged as easily when things go wrong. I do still get annoyed and impatient, but overall, more peace. More resilience.

The focus of my work has also shifted. I support other people now as a spiritual mentor, helping them meet their own spirit helper or helpers. With each person, I watch something extraordinary happen. It’s like they become more themselves—more unapologetic about who they are and more able to show it to others. Typically they also become more calm—as people do when they feel supported and heard and loved. Over and over I watch people come into that heart-center, and it changes them. They learn they can trust what they find there, and they become more able to live from there. It’s a spectacular process to watch—different for each person but moving each time.

How does a person meet their spirit helper or inner guide?

In my case, I was working with a spiritual mentor, and she identified Bear as my helper. In working with others, I’ve watched the process unfold in various ways. Sometimes I am asked to identify the helper, other times the helper shows themselves directly to the person, and sometimes the helper leaves a few tantalizing clues and tempts the person to put the pieces together—if the person enjoys that kind of hunt! The process gets tailored to each person, in other words—always suited to what each one needs.

But there are some common denominators. One is that feeling of love and connection. A person typically feels known and loved by their helper—completely known and completely supported.

The surest way to find the inner guide is to prepare the heart. The soft heart is the place where we can hear spirit speak—whatever form spirit takes for us. It won’t happen through the mind. We as modern people tend to reach for the mind first, but it won’t get us there. Opening to spirit means setting aside time to become quiet, to seek the voice of the heart, and to make room in one’s life for hearing that larger wisdom and then doing something about it.

Are spirit helpers always animals?

No, not at all. Trees, plants, lichen, even minerals—each of them has wisdom to share. Sometimes a human figure is a person’s helper.

How does your current spiritual path with nature relate to your upbringing as a Mennonite child in a rural area? How did your relationship with nature shift?

I grew up in a small town in Ohio and was baptized in a church built out in the middle of cornfields. Most of the Mennonite families in our area were farmers, and what I picked up in general was this practical view of nature: you work hard, and you get the land to produce. Around the time I was born—in the 1950s and 1960s—pesticides and synthetic fertilizers came into use, and I think they led toward more of an adversarial relationship with land. It was almost like nature became the thing you had to beat back in order to survive.

Of course, the us-against-nature mind-set goes way back in Western cultures, and I talked about that in Kissed by a Fox. It gets a lot of its power from the idea that God is completely separate from Earth—again, a common idea, especially in Protestant theism. But if God is separate from Earth, then following God can look a lot like leaving Earth behind—and it can easily turn into rejecting or suppressing all earthly impulses. Which helps to explain the authoritarian relationships that one can find throughout Mennonite history, whether in congregations or in families. My own family story was a heartbreaking one of parents trying to keep rigid control over their children and causing emotional damage in the process. But we were far from alone. I know of other Mennonite families where parents tried to raise their children to be good by beating back everything they couldn’t understand in their children’s natures—feelings, questions, rebellions, everything untamed. And they only destroyed, or nearly destroyed, their children.

The first glimmer of a way out of all these battles with nature came for me through feminist theology—first at Goshen College in the late seventies, then at AMBS in the early eighties. I will be forever grateful to the women professors who offered us something new, something exciting! They were talking about the life of the body. And about immanence, not just transcendence. They questioned male authority, and taught us to think critically about it too. Then at seminary in Berkeley, and again in doctoral work at the Graduate Theological Union, I kept returning to related questions. In hindsight, I can see that one question lay at the center, though I didn’t know it at the time: how to understand this core separation of spirit from body, this core mistrust of nature.

But it was really that chronic illness in my early thirties that set my feet on a different path. Back to the whole business of being miserable, you know? For several years I had trouble reading and thinking and writing, so instead I found my heart opening, and I began communing with nature. Then through more changes and loss, I found solace in nature—walking under enormous redwoods in Oakland’s city parks or hiking on the seaside cliffs of Point Reyes. And after some years of this, I came to understand that solace and support are some of nature’s most profound gifts.

So it makes sense that eventually I came fully to a nature spirituality. Though I never could have predicted the form it would take.

What does a nature spirituality, especially the kind you practice, have to say about our current ecological crises?

When you sit down to journey with a spirit helper, you’re saying yes to a relationship. And relationship is exactly what we in Western societies have lost—connection to one another, connection to more-than-human beings, connection to land. Each of our interrelated crises circles back to loss of relationship. Climate change—forgetting that what we do is connected to everything else, that burning carbon can change the planet. Species extinctions—forgetting we need other animals and plants in order to survive. Plastic trash—forgetting the connection between living and dying, and how crucial it is for new life that all things die or decompose. Extreme economic inequality is an ecological crisis too—it drives the exploiting of the Earth, and it erodes livability on Earth, and it comes from losing connection with one another.

My spirit helper, Bear, has a lot to say about reconciliation. Now, I was shaped by a concern for peace and reconciliation in my Mennonite background, and in a path of relationship, it makes a lot of sense to talk about reconciliation. But Bear’s take on it sometimes surprises me. It’s as if this project of reconciliation lies at the heart of all the problems of the modern world—because when people forget their ties to Earth, they forget their ties to one another. We become willing to exploit other human beings to the degree we are willing to exploit the land. And vice versa—we exploit the land when we lose connection to one another.

But even deeper than that, Bear suggests, is becoming separated from spirit. European people retreated from the world of spirit beginning in the scientific revolution, and Bear says it had a chilling effect on human hearts. It hardened our attitudes toward one another and the rest of nature—not because we lost an idea of God overseeing us but because we lost an idea of God present in all of us. We lost that heart-connection to one another, all the “one anothers” of the natural world. We lost sight of other creatures as carriers of the divine, and so we forgot how to relate to them as fellow travelers, as teachers, as friends.

Spirit, for me, comes in the form of a bear, and it reminds me, day after day, that spirit is coursing through every being I see; in nature there are no lifeless objects. And it teaches me to listen to spirit by listening to other beings of nature.

And listening, after all, is a first step toward making peace.

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Kissed by a Fox and Tamed by a Bear are both published by Counterpoint Press.

About the Author

Priscilla Stuckey

Priscilla Stuckey is a writer and spiritual counselor with a passion for reconnecting people with nature. She was born to the Mennonites of northwest Ohio and can trace one Amish Mennonite ancestor back to Alsace of the 1500s. After graduating from Goshen College, Pricilla's seminary and graduate studies took her to the Bay Area, where she lived for twenty years, becoming a birder on the sidewalks of Oakland, CA. She eventually founded a pocket-park land trust to preserve an urban creek and volunteered feeding baby birds in wildlife rehab. Her first book,Kissed by a Fox: And Other Stories of Friendship in Nature(Counterpoint, 2012) received the WILLA Award for Creative Nonfiction.Tamed by a Bear: Coming Home to Nature-Spirit-Selfwas published in July 2017 by Counterpoint. She now lives in the desert ofNew Mexico near Albuquerque with her partner, Tim Falb, whom she met at Goshen College, and their dog, Bodhi.