Advent with Black Elk: The Animals Talk at Midnight


Chapters 12 and 13: “Grandmother’s Land” and “The Compelling Fear”

“While I was lying there in a bison robe, a coyote began to howl not far off, and suddenly I knew it was saying something. It was not making words, but it said something plainer than words…” (94)

“…Father, I have heard a coyote say that there are bison on the big ridge west of us, and that we shall see two people over there” (94)

“During the night I heard whimpering outside the shelter, and when I looked, there was a party of porcupines huddled up as close as they thought they dared to be, and they were crying because they were so cold. We did not chase them away, because we felt sorry for them.” (96)

“I could understand the birds when they sang, and they were always saying: ‘It is time! It is time!’ The crows in the day and the coyotes at night all called and called to me: ‘It is time! It is time! It is time!’” (99)

After Crazy Horse died, Black Elk and his people travelled up north to Canada, which they refer to as “Grandmother’s Land” or “Grandmother’s country” in honor of Queen Victoria.

As Black Elk travels, he hears coyotes speak to him of bison, porcupines whimpering because of the cold and crows (as well as more coyotes) urgently insisting that it is time. “Time to do what? I did not know” (99). He didn’t know what to do but he did know that if he didn’t do it, he would soon be struck by lightning. Hence, the title of chapter 13: “The Compelling Fear.”

What interests me most about these chapters is that Crazy Horse could hear these animals speak to him, not necessarily in words but in “something plainer than words.”

A friend of mine who recently passed away often reminded me that animals show up in our dreams and waking life often to teach us or tell us something, if we are willing to listen.

Yesterday, on the way to church in San Rafael, I was slowed down by a pack of wild turkeys, who were blocking the road a bit in Berkeley. My friend helped me understand a turkey sighting as an invitation to be more present to my body.

After church, I drove through China Camp state park in San Rafael, and saw a coyote drinking from a puddle on the side of the road. I had to stop driving again because the car in front of me had stopped in the middle of the road in order to admire the coyote. If the car had not stopped in front of me, I’m not sure I would have noticed the coyote. I took some photos of the beautiful creature and wondered what his message might be to me. I recall that my groomsmen and I also saw a coyote skip by in the distance at my wedding reception at Tilden Park in Berkeley.

I have been thinking, writing and even praying about wolves (and other canines) over the last several months. I usually associate them with a primal part of me that sometimes wants to unleash anger and frustration, that might even want to be violent. I think of the wolf symbol in John 10 who is met and received by the self-giving good shepherd.

Sandra Schneiders defines a symbol as “a sensible reality that renders present and involves a person subjectively in the experience of a transcendent mystery.” What transcendent mystery does the wolf or coyote invite me to experience?

I am reminded of a line from a short poem titled “Bones of Beauty” by Lanier Graham, who writes, “Beauty is the aroma of The Transcendent.”  This Zen-inspired line suggests that transcendent mystery manifests itself in the sensible beauty around us. By “sensible beauty,” I mean the beauty that we experience and enjoy through our senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch). The idea of the Transcendent manifesting itself in corporeal realities is the mystery at heart of the Incarnation, the mystery for which we prepare ourselves during this season of Advent.

…which reminds me of another poem. This one by Annie Dillard, titled…

One or Two Things about Christmas


Let me mention

one or two things about Christmas.

Of course, you’ve all heard

that the animals talk

at midnight:

a particular elk, for instance,

kneeling at night to drink,

leaning tall to pull leaves

with his soft lips,

says, alleluia.


That the soil and freshwater lakes

also rejoice,

as do products

such as sweaters

(nor are plastics excluded

from grace),

is less well known.


the reason

for some silly-looking fishes,

for the bizarre mating

of certain adult insects

or the sprouting, say,

in a snow tire

of a Rocky Mountain grass,

is that the universal

loves the particular,

that freedom loves to live

and live fleshed full,

intricate, and in detail.


God empties himself

into the earth like a cloud.

God takes the substance, contours

of a man, and keeps them,

dying, rising, walking

and still walking

wherever there is motion.


At night in the ocean

the sponges are secretly building.

Once, on the Musselshell,

I regenerated an arm!

Shake hands. When I stand

the blood runs up.


On what bright wind

did God walk down?

Swaying under the snow,

reeling minutely,

revels the star-moss,




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