Forest Mother

IMAGE OF THE WEEK

© DURGA YAEL BERNHARD

I just gave this gouache painting to my boyfriend for his birthday, so I thought I’d write about it.  Painted in 2001, the image emerged from my most active years as a deer hunter.  I was striving to express the experience of blending into the forest.  Sitting motionless for hours in a tree stand or with my back to a trunk, I remember the feeling of merging with the surrounding silence, with the roots and bark of trees, so that mammals and birds no longer detected my presence.  At the same time, I felt as if the forest were enveloping and digesting me, breaking me down and absorbing me into its vast and penetrating silence.

Often I would hunt at dawn or dusk, as deer are largely crepuscular, meaning they are most active at sunrise and sunset.  The changing light only made the forest more eerie, with shifting leaves and branches, shadows and rocks evocative of other creatures, strange movements – yet concealed in my camouflage and cloaked in silence (not to mention armed with either a hunting rifle or a compound bow and quiver full of sharp arrows), I felt safe in the woods.

How can one describe in words what it is like to participate directly in the dance of life and death?  I was killing an animal for meat, taking its flesh for my family’s consumption – and ending its life forever.  In A Hunter’s Heart, an anthology of “honest essays on blood sport”, several quotes give voice to the hunter’s experience:

“The world is not only watching, it is listening too . . . Other beings . . . do not mind being killed and eaten as food, but they expect us to say please, and thank you, and they hate to see themselves wasted.” – Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

“Our life, our breath, and our thoughts are given to us by the plants and animals we eat. This is true not only for people like the Navajo and Inupiaq, but for every one of us, whether we get our food by hunting, fishing, gathering, farming, gardening, or shopping. The only difference is that we who inhabit the cities and suburbs and towns have forgotten.” – Richard K. Nelson

“Out of the earth spring forth plants on which the animals feed.  The animal, in time, surrenders its life so that another may live, and as its body parts are returned to earth, new life will emerge and be strengthened once again. Do not be greedy. Do not be wasteful. Remember gratitude and humility for all forms of life. Because they are here, we are here.” – Terry Tempest Williams

“When you go into the woods, your presence makes a splash and the ripples of your arrival spread like circles in water.  Long after you have stopped moving . . . your presence has been absorbed into the pattern of things; you have begun to be part of it, and this is when the hunting really begins.”  – John Madson

A gentle sense of reverence permeates the hunter’s perspective – of embracing and being embraced. My hair became roots; my skin became soil, rich with life, fertile with death.  The forest mother wraps us in her cloak, accepting all creatures – and sparing none.

Forest Mother is available as a poster.  Please click here if you’re interested.

 

 

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