Grieving Through Nature By Carol Flake Chapman

During the first few terrible weeks after my husband died in a kayaking accident on a wild river in Guatemala, I wondered why something so momentous and truly awful could happen so suddenly, without warning. After all, even a tornado is presaged by a change in pressure, by ominous cloud formations, by a strange green tint in the air. Before a tsunami, the water retreats before making its assault on the land. But the day I got the call informing me of my husband’s death had seemed a day like any other day. An ordinary day in December. Had I missed a warning, like the oblivious tourists on the beach about to be inundated?

However, as I looked back before that day, combing my memory for possible omens or signs, I realized that the days and weeks preceding my husband’s death had not actually been ordinary. Autumn had been unlike others I remembered. The leaves had turned brown earlier than usual in my semi-rural neighborhood at the edge of the Texas Hill Country. It wasn’t just the drought and the stubborn heat that lingered late into November even as the days grew shorter. I had grown accustomed to the increasing anomalies of climate change. There was something else.

I can’t really say that I saw it coming, that I felt even an inkling that the love of my life was going to perish in a remote jungle, thousands of miles from home. I was blind-sided by my husband’s death. What I recall from that hot, dry autumn is not a dark, heavy feeling of dread or impending loss, but rather an uneasy sense that things weren’t as usual. There was something in the wind, and if I were an animal, my ears would have been pricking. I would have rounded up the cubs and nuzzled them into the lair. But I simply didn’t know what to make of the oddities that began showing up around our house as we made plans for Gary’s kayaking trip.

On my Facebook page, I unwittingly left a trail of strange images and portents. In mid-September, I noticed that a large garden spider had set up camp on the deck behind our house, building a web that stretched from a window ledge to an overhanging eave. One day, she captured a large green grasshopper, even bigger than she was, and she began wrapping him up to devour later. It was a gruesome spectacle, but I had to admire her tenacity, particularly when I noticed that she had spun an egg sack, which meant that she was storing up food for her children. I posted a picture on Facebook of the spider and her outsized prey, writing flippantly that Spider Man had nothing on Spider Woman. In the world of spiders, I said, it’s Spider Woman who pulls the strings.

I knew that garden spiders, also known as writing spiders, are nonpoisonous and essentially benign to humans, despite their fearsome appearance. Her web had a distinctive silken zigzag, known as the stabilimentum, in the center, and she would lurk there, hanging head-down, waiting for prey. She would vibrate the web, using the stabilimentum for leverage, whenever I walked by, as though to make sure I noticed her. Or perhaps to make sure I didn’t walk into the web and ruin all her handiwork. It was like watching a weaver shaking out her silken carpet. I would greet her every morning as I walked across the deck to my office in a separate building, and she would vibrate the web in response, as though waving hello. The zigzag stabilimentum looked like some kind of hieroglyphic, I thought.

Was my writing spider like E.B. White’s Charlotte, spinning cryptic words to bring notice to the world of the specialness of a friend in danger? Or was she more like Spider Woman in Native American stories, for whom the world is the interconnected creation she has spun? In stories told by my Choctaw ancestors, Spider Woman brings the gift of fire to humans. So was there a message in the warp and weft? Or was she just an opportunistic spider who had found a good place to catch grasshoppers?

At the end of September, I began hearing the distinctive call of a barred owl in the distance. I had never heard one in our neighborhood before, and I asked my husband to come out in the yard with me one night to listen to it. The owl was too distant to photograph, so I found a picture from a web site to post on Facebook. I was familiar with barred owls from my time living in New England, and I could actually do a pretty good imitation: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? The question is followed by a downward trill that requires a kind of melodramatic vocal quiver to reproduce. The first time I heard that plaintive call I was so spooked that I thought it was a prankster in the neighborhood trying to scare me.

I did know that in the oral traditions of many Native American people, the owl is a harbinger of death. In Choctaw stories, an opa (owl) perched on a barn or in trees near a house foreboded death among near relatives. But at the time, I was simply fascinated that we had a new and unusual resident in the neighborhood. One night, when I heard the owl calling, I went out on the deck with a flashlight, and when the light fell on the spider’s web, she began to vibrate it. The silvery zigzag seemed to shimmer in the moonlight with some enigmatic meaning.

If these odd appearances should have raised alarms, I still wasn’t getting it. I simply wasn’t in that frame of mind. To say that nature was actually signaling me in some way would have been to engage in that most dreaded of poetic follies known as the pathetic fallacy, in which human emotions are attributed to things in nature that are not human. Clouds, of course, can’t be angry, nor can the wind be cruel, though it may often seem so. Nor, then, should nature be able to be exceptionally kind, except in children’s books. In retrospect, however, I believe that nature was somehow bending in an unusual way that autumn. From a Native American point of view, the sacred web of creation, in which we are bound together, may well engage us in a reciprocal relationship, in which its creatures can become guides to help awaken us to our connectedness.

The spider could hardly have spelled out in her enigmatic web what was going to happen. But her appearance did stir something in my awareness. At the very least, she engaged my imagination and become part of my story. It was a story that seemed to be unfolding on its own, written by something outside myself, and by something
outside the spider. It was as though the invisible filaments of connection in my life were becoming visible.

If I had been a writer of fiction, I would have left out the appearances of the spider and the owl as too implausible. But in mid-November, the story went from implausible to bizarre. I saw a tiny newborn deer in our backyard, which wasn’t unusual in itself, given the large population of deer in the neighborhood. Because it was in the evening, I thought what I was seeing must be a trick of the light. The deer was solid black, from ears to hooves.

The next day, I saw the deer again, and it was indeed black. I had never heard of a black deer, so I did some research and discovered that black deer, known as melanistic deer, are even more rare than albino deer. I wondered if she were like a white buffalo, which is sacred to a number of tribes. I posted a picture of the fawn, which I decided must be a female, saying, “Hope she’s a good luck charm.”

On December seventh, a week before my husband’s death, I posted another picture of the black deer on Facebook, asking for suggestions of what to name her. I had already decided, however, to call her Issa, which is the Choctaw word for deer. When I saw her standing in a vacant lot near our house, along with several other does and fawns, I called out to her. “Issa.” And she walked towards me expectantly. A doe, clearly not her mother, nudged the black fawn roughly, and I wondered if Issa was being bullied because of her color.

That same week, I noticed that the spider had disappeared. Her usually tidy web had been getting ragged, and she had gotten noticeably thinner. One morning she was gone. I gathered that she must have died. At least her babies are still there, I thought, looking at the brown paper-like egg sack that was hanging next to the tattered web. One morning, however, I saw that the babies must have hatched because tiny garden spiders were now arrayed on the remains of the web. When I looked closer, the wee things started vibrating the strands of web that they were clinging to. They were strangely endearing in their bravado. I felt sad, though, knowing that they had hatched too soon and wouldn’t survive the winter.

The night before my husband left for Guatemala, I heard the owl again. This time, however, it was not in the distance. It sounded very close. It hooted, Who cooks for you, who cooks for you, the rhetorical question without an answer. I went out on the deck, and the owl hooted again. And now I could see it, perched on a branch above the deck, clearly visible. It was a big owl, and it was looking directly at me in the moonlight. Who cooks for you? It asked insistently. Well, my husband cooks for me, I could have answered. He cooks for me nearly every night. That is, he once cooked for me nearly every night.

And so they continued for many months after my husband’s death, these visitations, as I began to think of them, from the natural world. Hawks regularly flew over my house, circling and calling, and a swan down at the lake near my house began swimming up to me every morning when I called to him. A roadrunner took up residence in my front yard and one day did a mating dance in front of me.

Partway into my journey of grieving and consolation, a friend asked me what I was looking for. “Glimmers,” I said. Glimmers of meaning, glimmers of comfort, glimmers of connection, glimmers of joy, glimmers of a love that lives on after death. And I found them all along the way – from friends, family, strangers, music, poetry, birds, butterflies, animals, rivers, cloud formations, God’s grace.

Though I was too traumatized to write for many months after my husband’s death, and I hadn’t written a poem since my early twenties, I found myself one day writing in verse, as that seemed the kind of language that was best suited for healing and for deepening my connections to the natural world that had given me such solace. My first poem was an elegy for the lost animals, those we have lost to extinction. I found that my grief extended far beyond myself to what was being lost on earth. I have since performed that poem and others in ceremonies around the world.

And so now when I ask whether nature grieves for what has been lost, I answer that perhaps she grieves through us, as we grieve through her.

– Carol Flake Chapman

Following a career as a journalist and author of nonfiction books, Carol Flake Chapman returned to poetry, her first love, after the death of her husband on a wild river in Guatemala shattered her world. Poetry, she found, was the language of healing and of deep connection to the natural world. Her memoir Written in Water is in part the story of how nature helped in her process of healing.