Sophie Strand, author of The Flowering Wand, shows how acknowledging our nonhuman neighbors can be a form of prayer.
Black swallowail. Wild primrose. Honey fungi. Shale. Mountain lion. St. John’s wort. Ghost pipe. Black locust. Cooper Lake. Mount Guardian. Woodchuck. Knotweed. Dame’s rocket … and onwards. The names slip from the pith of me, buoyed up by my breath. Slowly, I summon every being—furred, hoofed, viral, fungal, geological—I know in a 20-mile radius of my home. Bluebird. Trillium. Schist. Lion’s mane. The recitation lasts while I make and savor my coffee and watch streamers of sunlight stripe across my living room. It spills into my early morning run. By the time I’m done, I am surrounded by a world of witnesses.
The day begins within a more-than-human community. And my decisions henceforth—practical, creative, and spiritual—will be made with the knowledge that I exist in relationship. Everything I do is ecological. When I use the word “ecological,” I root back to the original etymology: Greek oikos for household. I do nothing alone. I am strung together by my metabolism and appetites to thousands of other beings. Together we are all a household, and every choice we make, mundane or explosive, takes place within the networked household of relationships.
I was raised by spiritual parents who researched and wrote about religion and mantric prayer. I was given prayer beads and taught Tibetan Buddhist, Zen, and Catholic mantras from a very young age. I found these repetitive vocalizations steadying. But I often struggled with the abstraction of the Christian prayers and the language barrier between me and the Buddhist mantras. After my first time experiencing an anaphylactic allergic reaction, I realized these prayers evaporated with oxygen.
As my throat narrowed and my blood pressure dropped, as I watched the people around me reflect my own panic, I understood the only things that stayed were the animals, the fungi, the trees, and the mountains.
In those moments I found myself growing as small as a sunflower seed, planting myself on the sandy banks of a river island, halfway down the Battenkill River. I could see a sapphire splash of a kingfisher in the water. Smell sunlight baking the ryegrass into sweetness. Feel the drifting lick of a dragonfly darting across my shoulder blades. I was suspended between life and death. I was held, not by a prayer or a god or an idea, but by a landscape, by the aliveness that included me but was vaster.
The prayers that pulled me through illness sprouted leaves and antennae. They had fur. They had wings. They were the wild kin that I knew intimately from my lived reality. They didn’t live in a book of scripture or a church. They squawked and stung and sang right outside my door.
When I pray now, I summon my council in gratitude and also in a petition for their help and their instruction. How best may I act? How may I act knowing you are watching tenderly and attentively? What stories do I need to notice? What stories want to be told? Who needs my help today? And whose help can I receive?
The potent thing about creating a council of beings we live alongside is that, unlike an abstracted god, they actually show up. The heron does, in fact, dissect the sky, providing a symbol of incisiveness just at the moment when we need to make a decision. The ground really does provide a soil womb for the food that we will eat and metabolize into music, laughter, dance, heated breath on a windowpane, lovemaking. The fungi really do hold the forest together and provide a medicine that heals our brain and rewires our immune system. These are the guardian angels that have roots instead of wings. They are attached to place, and the more we summon them, the more they will show us that there is a miracle in every footstep, a deep abiding embrace in every biome-laced breath of fresh air.
You too have your own council. The names you use to summon your kin will not be scientific or precise. They will be intimate and lively. They will honor the invisible fascia connecting you and other beings into a shared body, a shared household. You exist, not as one end of that thread of connection, but vibrating along it. Anything you do to harm yourself harms other animals and trees and insects. Anything that nourishes other beings may ultimately nourish you.
And when you are suffering, when you are very scared, you do not need to remember a single prayer or say a holy word.
Your body’s cells are replaced every seven years. Your body is a doorway through which matter flows, a spider-webbing of relatedness. As you breathe in your surroundings, you acknowledge that your constant exchange with the world is prayer enough. Every second you stay present with your connectivity to your ecosystem is an embodied epiphany.
If you pray, ask yourself: Does your prayer have roots? Does your god sometimes grow fur? Do your holy words sprout leaves? Does your spirituality connect you into your ecosystem? Slowly enter back into your household of feral allies and seek out new relationships to further flesh out this relational prayer.
Gather council as you would wildflowers. Pick the ones that show up brightly, insistently, and show you they notice you just as much as you notice them. Gather council as you would pick up a few flat stones to skip across the river. Gather council as you would stars: without your hands, held only as a flash of light, in the prismatic blink of an open eye.