The Growl

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"The Growl" 5"x5" pencil sketch 2013

"The Growl"by Vajra 2014 Acrylic on wood 5.5"x7.5"

In days past, I skinned roadkill, which catalyzed some very powerful changes in myself. But what began as a spiritual practice eventually devolved into a habit, a routine, which ended when I skinned a snake, and, in my opinion, disrespected it's skinned body.

In an effort to ameliorate the situation, my partner Sarah and I hiked out into the heart of the redwood forest on a moonless night to burn the body - a ceremony we had consecrated with the ingestion of certain fruiting bodies from the forest into which we were hiking. We heard a redwood tree fall - the tearing of its and it’s crash through the canopy to the forest floor - a peculiar occurrence. As we descended further into the canyon, hairs raised on my neck and I had the distinct thought "This has happened before, this is a trap." these thoughts came from a deep level, a strange place, as though they were coming from a past life. But I told myself to relax, that I was just being nervous and sabotaging my experience, then quickly compartmentalized my inkling.

By the time we found the right spot, a horse-shoe cove created by fallen trees and a ledge dropped off to a river, we melted into a giggling heap of care-free, stargazing, mammalian bliss. We quickly abandoned our gear, and any plans to start a fire for the snake's body, in favor of laying down to stare at the stars as they dripped on gossamer strings back to earth. Just when I thought things could get no better, Sarah asked me "What was that?! Did you hear that?" And I paused, listened, and told her "No, nothing, and the frogs and crickets are still singing." So she dropped her guard and I resumed my seamless flow in the cosmic gears of creation - feeling at one with all, like my mortal life was irrelevant by comparison to the endless stream before and behind me.

But in a moment, I heard it too – right in front of us - then the frogs and crickets fell silent; from a cave of darkness in the rootball of a fallen tree emanated a deep, guttural, rumbling growl that had an instant and heartstopping effect on us both. We exchanged some terrified words and she asked “what do we do?” In a moment of transcendent heroism, I responded “We Stand Up!” And we did.

Immediately behind us was a tree, whose fallen body created an archway. We scuttled instinctively to the higher ground atop the archway and stared down into the growling darkness below. Up on that log, I knew that ancient fear our ancestors felt in days when we were prey to the hungers of the night. Time was no longer relevant, I knew this had happened before - not here, not like this, but again and again and again. I was living that mortal fear from the collective memory of the eaten. This was a primordial moment. And I knew that the only thing keeping me alive was my action - every sound and movement the difference between life and death in the jaws of the nature.

So I roared, We roared. We howled back at the top of our lungs at the thing below us. And, as though it were amused by our effort, it would stop each time we screamed. But as soon as our air was gone, it would growl back louder than before.

It got so loud at one point that the sound ceased to come from the cave, but came at us from all directions, and at that moment we knew our semblance of safety atop the archway was nothing to keep us safe from whatever force was working against us. We left our gear, keys, jackets, water down in the darkness and with eyes in all directions retreated across a field behind us, which only moments before rippled and whipped as the Growl tore through logic at our tiny bodies.

We continued our snarling shouts of self defense as though they mattered as Sarah, by some instinct or magic, wound our way out of the darkness and away from the Growl.

On the long walk back home (as we had left our keys back in the forest) Sarah had a vision of kaleidoscoping Coyotes, Eagles and Fish. I later turned this vision of hers into “Pathfinder” my first visionary work of art. But more relevant to the story is the image that looked back at me from my sketch book when I opened it later that night.

For years I had been opening my eyes to the atrocities humanity commits not only to fellow human beings, but especially to the other people with whom we share the planet; the birds of the sky, the creatures of the see and all the animals with whom we walk the earth and all things growing. Each creature and creation is a part of the whole, an infinitely complicated, balanced and beautiful organism we call earth’s biology. Everything and everyone is here to contribute their part to the equation and has as much a right to do so as you or I. Yet few among us realize the truth of this statement or our unique responsibility as keeper or destroyer of balance.

At the time, I was in college and I had learned one day about the full on slaughter of elephants for ivory. We Slaughter an estimated 100 elephants per day for ivory. In 1980 there were more than 1 million, today there are fewer than 400,000. In Africa, the poachers slaughter all the elephants of a herd but the babies who have no ivory, who are then left alone and traumatized. Elephants are highly evolved social creatures who create complex and human-like social and familial structures within their herds, demonstrating love, happiness, even burying and mourning for the dead in ceremonial procession. What is happening to these baby elephants who witness their entire families butchered by human demons, is that they develop post traumatic stress disorder - we are creating monsters. These elephant babies of barbarism grow up to be violent and aggressive in turn. This phenomena has only recently begun: African Bull Elephants, who can be proven to have been orphaned for ivory, have begun to rape and then kill female rhinoceri.

I kind of couldn’t take it. I drew this demon, who was at the time unnamed, to represent the monsters waiting to devour our vicious little virus of a species for all our crimes and sins against nature. Tying this back to the story, and Sarah’s vision that night of coyotes, fish, and eagles, the monster’s left eye was held in the mouth of an eagle, his other in the mouth of a fish, and in the center, the head of a coyote and a lone redwood (like the one we heard fall). Next to his gruesome grimace, were the words “Don’t worry humans – You’ll get yours”. While this had been a general warning to humanity, the words echoed in my heart, having myself disrespected a part of nature and paid the price.

Ever since, I have refereed to that face as “The Growl” in memory of that creature we almost became a part of on that dark night in the woods. The next day, we returned – in daylight of course – to the spot where we left our bags. We looked and looked but could find no tracks of large animals, and to this day don’t know what we were actually facing out there. Once our search was over, we lit the fire and burned the snake’s body and skin, said goodbye and never returned but in memory. Curiously, the thick, dark yellow smoke that rose from the snake, lingered and twisted for an unusual length of time, I have never seen smoke like that, but I assume the curse was lifted.

While “The Growl” is a dark painting, it is darkness in service to the light. My hope is that it will serve as a wake-up call to those humans plodding ahead in a myopic daze of complacent consumption and greed, wrapped in the delusion that they are somehow separate from the systems of life they are destroying. Beware - there are forces we do not understand and beings we wouldn’t want to lurking in the shadows, waiting for their turn to balance the scales.