A snake, a bear and a bat (or two)

Good things, or bad things, come in threes, or so the saying goes. I don’t know if my wildlife viewing triad the other day counts as a good thing or a bad thing, but it undoubtedly feels like an omen of some sort.

The first encounter was decidedly the scariest. My dog was leading the way up the trail and came within inches of a meaty timber rattler. At 6.5 pounds a bite would have been fatal for Pia and devastating beyond words for me. After pulling back and observing the snake from a distance, we cut a wide berth and continued up towards our overlook. Not more than an hour later as we were looping back down to the trailhead, a black bear crossed our path. Unlike the rattlesnake, the bear did not stand her ground. She cut away from us and lumbered off into the woods, furry haunches jostling the understory. In the evening, Pia and I went out again for a short stroll. As a believer in the folklore of threes, I should have been expecting another encounter. But instead, I was wrapped up in my own thoughts, barely aware of what was happening around me, until Pia’s probing startled two mating bats who disentangled and went wheeling past my face and on into the night sky alone.

Omens. Signs. Horoscopes. Tea Leaves. Palm, Tarot and Psychic readings. Secret Veins of Knowledge—what role can these forms of magic play in a life? I suppose in large part, the answer to this question rests in where you stand on the magic to logic spectrum. For strict realists something as unquantifiable or unexplainable as an omen must be distasteful and trying to pin extraordinary meaning on these three close encounters with animals must seem nonsensical at best.

Logic is persuasive, but for me, those secret veins of knowledge are more persuasive. They seem akin to intuition—perhaps a physical manifestation of the knowing place in each of us.

There is a kind of psychotherapy called “narrative therapy” that posits that our identities are shaped by the stories we tell of our lives, and that our story itself can become a tool for healing. We connect the dots of our personal narratives in such a way that random smatterings of life events are woven into a full, comprehensible picture. To be able to breathe meaning into a tragic event years on down the line or to be able to justify past pain by present joy is helpful, maybe even essential.

The idea of magic has largely been co-opted by Disney. The word has been cheapened into something immature and naïve dished out on a shiny plastic smile. And yet. And yet…there is definitely magic in seeing a poisonous snake, a lumbering black bear and mating bats in quick succession.

Perhaps the meaning I ascribe to this event is entirely self-generated or perhaps there is something larger at work in the cosmos. But regardless of the locus of meaning, if the belief in it is genuine, then the impact is real.

So what meaning can I glean from my wildlife sightings? Society tells us to fear each of these animals for different reasons—the snake for her venom, the bear for her sharp teeth and claws, the bat for her potential rabies--and I spent an afternoon and an evening, quite literally walking into these creatures. So is the message a simple admonishment to be present and to pay attention? Or a reminder to be grateful, because each moment we avoid catastrophe is a minor miracle? Or is the message, as my dad suggests, a reminder that the hidden world we long to see, but so rarely encounter, truly exists and is deeply awe inspiring. 

Maybe the meaning is some combination of the three. Any one of these messages, delivered via scales, fur and wings, is a good message to take to heart. 

Or maybe the meaning is something else entirely. It takes time to create the threads of a story, and the comprehensive tale that is spun is only clear in hindsight.