Photography by Craig Crist and the Wondersmith

When I think of a “call to adventure,” I picture a mysterious invitation hidden in the woods inviting a lucky hiker to a whimsical dinner party, or perhaps a note tucked lovingly into a book offering a mysterious tea party in the woods. Those are the kinds of invitations to wonder that I like to deliver to the world as Miss Wondersmith. But the call I received was quite different.

I felt the sirens reverberate through me in the back of the ambulance as I struggled to focus on staying conscious. I could feel my heart pounding and the pain in my abdomen that had been crippling me for weeks clenching harder and harder. The next forty-eight hours were a blur of IVs, tests, and the fog of excruciating pain. When the doctors told me I needed emergency abdominal surgery, I surrendered. Surely nothing they could do to me would hurt more than the pain I was already in. My chronic illness is complex and confusing, which is why I completely missed the signs of a severely failing gallbladder and stage-three endometriosis; I was so used to the excruciating pain caused by other conditions that I assumed I was just having a particularly bad flare.

I was released from the hospital just in time to gingerly crawl into bed and spend Halloween having my own spooky night of pain, strange hallucinations of wild creatures dancing around my dreams. That marked the first in a long line of painful nights and a very slow recovery. As I sat in what felt like unending discomfort, I gazed longingly out my window at the changing leaves and felt forgotten, left behind. Mother Nature was continuing her dance through the seasons, whether I was able to join in or not. The isolation and captivity of illness filled me with grief. To cope, I eventually stopped struggling and allowed myself to sink further inward, where I had stores of memories of wild animal encounters. Those memories began to take form in my mind, as if each animal had some specific message to deliver. I started sketching, which soon gave way to sculpting, the familiarity of earth in my hands a deep comfort as I meticulously gave form to the animals that occupied my thoughts.

For months I worked on a series of matching ceramic pieces illustrating twelve of the animals that appeared so strongly to me when I needed company the most. I titled them my Messengers Series, and I poured my heart into them as I slowly recovered, picturing a fantastic banquet, Wondersmith-style, celebrating those same animals someday when I was finally better and could lead a large gathering once again. I sculpted from my sickbed, a tarp over the top of my blanket to keep clay out of my pajamas. Some days I could work only for an hour or two. Other days, not at all. And though I still grieved my disconnection from nature and from my friends, I fell into a profound softness, noticing the beauties of isolation and feeling the presence of those wild creatures in my heart the whole time.

Finally, I started to feel well enough to move around a little bit. I could walk to the kitchen and back with only a little pain! I even felt well enough to sit outside some days, all bundled up against winter’s chill. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, could imagine short springtime walks full of wonder and a glorious reunion with the natural spaces I missed so dearly. Just days later, ironically enough, the first coronavirus case was confirmed in the U.S. This time it wasn’t just my life that was put on hold; it was the entire world’s.

Sudden, forced isolation is painful. I could feel the palpable grief and fear of those around me (accompanied by plenty of my own as well). Those early days were excruciating. Now, months later, there is still so much that is unclear. Our futures have all gone a bit fuzzy. Where do we go from here?

Almost without exception, everyone has entered a space between, a liminal state. This space is unsettling. Many people are grieving the life they knew before this pandemic, knowing that nothing will be quite the same when it is over. Some are seeing this as an opportunity, a time to rebuild and redefine what is important to us as individuals and as a collective culture, or even as a planet. Others are grieving lost loved ones, taken far too soon. Emotions are all over the board as we struggle to comprehend the depth of what is happening around us or to us. In those moments when you feel yourself growing harder, I beg of you: find the softness.

I picture the liquid brown pools that form the eyes on a newborn fawn, just learning to walk. I remember the awe of locking eyes with a raccoon as we both ate our breakfast on opposite sides of a tidepool. (My granola bar perplexed him as much as his agility in smashing shells with rocks astounded me.) I feel the hairs on the back of my neck prick up the same way they did when I learned to gracefully cede my huckleberry patch to a mama bear and her two curious cubs. There is magic that can happen in those moments of wild connection, where suddenly you cease to be anything at all, just a current of wilderness that flows through the creatures that surround you. When you are looking for comfort, listen to the birds and the trees and the beasts. Listen. Can you feel it? Can you feel the wilderness in your blood, in your lungs, in your heart?

Let it reclaim you. It’s okay to become a little bit quiet, a little bit feral, a little more interwoven with the wilderness that fills us, whether we can access it physically or not. Wherever you go and however you feel, it will always be there for you. If you open yourself up, the Messengers will come.

Raven and California Poppy:
“Sit with me softly,” intones the gentle poppy, soothing you with her soft presence. “I’ll be with you in grief as long as you need.” You watch the powerful raven cross between worlds, carrying the responsibility of precious cargo. He knows that death is part of living and that his mercurial presence helps keep those wheels spinning. Let his black feathers blanket you in comfort for a moment to remind you that endings can be the most beautiful beginnings.

Deer and Mugwort:
Mugwort whispers, “Come away with me. Let us travel in the spaces between.” In the bleary softness of dreamland, the white stag joins you. “I’ll keep you safe here.” Inhale the grounding richness of the mugwort’s soft leaves and find that balance of careful focus and total release. Let the swirls of lucid dreaming carry you—you may be surprised at what you find.

Golden Crowned Kinglet and Violets:
Despite his flashy feather do, golden crowned kinglet can be difficult to spot up high in the dense foliage where he hops about, serenading the woods with his echoing song. Little flashes of orange are the only clues to his true whereabouts. Like kinglet, sweet innocent violet has some secrets of her own. Underneath her fragrant purple flowers and green heart leaves, she has an entire other family of pearly blooms hidden underground, just in case. Both remind you: Things aren’t always what they seem.

Bear and Huckleberry:
Bear is contentedly munching in a patch of huckleberries. When she sees you tentatively picking at the edges, she says, “Honey, if you’re hungry, eat!” Bear knows how important it is to trust the messages from her growing body, since they are what will allow her to survive a long hibernation. Huckleberry is honored to be part of her feasting. She knows her berries taste amazing and hopes you will release the shackles of shame to taste them for yourself. Sweet summertime berries come only once a year. Eat up!

Evening Grosbeak and Yarrow:
Resilient yarrow has learned to put down roots wherever he may travel. That’s
why evening grosbeak admires him so much as his feathered compatriots fly great distances and spread out over the landscape in search of tasty treats to forage. It’s so important to be adaptable, and sometimes what you need to thrive is a little exploration and a challenging new terrain.

Pileated Woodpecker and Ferns:
Ferns whisper among themselves, speaking nostalgically in an ancient language about their first days on earth. They pause to listen as those mysterious words are returned by the pileated woodpecker. Yes, he and the ferns have a long history together. Though we are too young to know their words, the feeling of ancient magic runs in our veins too. Feel it.

Raccoon and Passionflower:
Passionflower laughs at the endlessly curious raccoon as she watches him wash fruits and explore hollowed logs and stare into her own entrancing blooms. She knows the importance of curiosity too as she winds her vines upward in endless exploration, exploring nooks and crevices for her tendrils to take hold. “Where will your passionate curiosity lead you?” asks the raccoon as he scampers after her.

Owl and Nettle:
As you move through the woods, a sharp sting on your leg conveys a clear message: Pay attention! Nettle doesn’t mean to hurt you (and in fact is ready to share many gifts with those that stay vigilant of her warnings). She knows the importance of keeping your senses tuned. Once she has your attention, she winks at Owl, who is constantly surveying the forest with glowing eyes and focused attention. Be present here, they both remind you. The forest holds such beautiful secrets to uncover.

Wolf and Aspen:
The tall quaking aspen trees know the importance of community. Though they may look like individual beings, these sisters are all connected underground to one large organism, a huge family gathered together to form a forest of gold. The wolves gather here, too, howling together in harmony. How wonderful it is to be part of something so much larger than yourself.

Chipmunk and Acorns:
“It’s always best to be prepared,” explains the chipmunk, busily gathering up acorns as fast as he can scurry. The ancient oak nods his approval with a smile, his laughter dislodging more acorns to fall. He knows the chipmunk will help his children by helping himself. Bounty is meant to be shared, after all, and lasting wealth comes
from giving.

Fox and Elderflower:
Elderflower’s fragrant blooms stand proudly at the edges between ecosystems, between worlds. Fox knows of her importance as a threshold garden as he, too, travels between meadow and forest, city and wilderness. Let Elderflower bewitch you with her ethereal blossoms: This is the gateway to adventure! Fox’s eyes sparkle with anticipation as he asks “are you ready to cross over into a new realm of exploration?” The tip of his white tail is a beacon as he deftly leaps across, pausing only for a moment to see if you will follow.

Otter and St. John’s Wort:
With sparkling eyes, the otter’s mischievous glance needs no words to accompany it because the meaning is clear: Come play with me! Soon Saint-John’s Wort comes giggling along. Despite his serious name, he knows that life is too short not to have some fun, and there’s no better guide than the otter. Will you follow their example and join them under sweet sunlight? They would be so joyful to have you!

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