In this lecture and book signing at Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, Colorado, I tell the story of how ecological tragedy can inform our own inner process and help guide us to a healthier way of being in the world from the outside in. My book, Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks, delves deep into the plight of wildlife who suffer at the hands of civilization and embraces the incredible gifts the wild ones have to share with us. Looking through a mystical lens, wild animals become divine messengers. Using the study of ecology as a tool for inner reflection opens up new avenues to healing and understanding.
Tag Archive for: messengers
The 10th Annual Ute Mountain/Mesa Verde Birding Festival was nice enough to take a chance on me this year by hosting my lecture on “Spirit Birding”. They admitted that it was an out of the ordinary topic for them, so I was delighted to have a nice crowd assemble to put their knowledge of bird identification to a greater purpose. This video of my entire talk is an introduction to a body of work I have been assembling for years. This work not only includes decoding the messages of birds, but also of animals and plants as well. To me, it is absolutely paramount to help the wild ones communicate their teachings. In some ways, I see myself acting as an instructor of a foreign language. It is my pleasure to offer this 45 minute presentation to you to help get you started on the path to relating to the wild ones, to nature, and to all of creation. Thank you for opening your heart and your mind and for reaching out. They are waiting to speak with you. I’m sure of it.
All bird sightings can be messages (i.e. we can find metaphor, symbolism, or meaning in them), but it’s easiest to focus in on the memorable sightings…
- Surprising or startling appearance
- Tough to identify birds
- Rare for the area or rare altogether
- Certain birds for the first time
- Dead or injured
- Fascinating behavior
Determining what the message from a bird is about:
- Earmark the moment you saw the bird(s):
- What were you JUST thinking about?
- Were you wondering something?
- Were you sleep walking and this woke you up?
- What else is happening in your world?
- Allow it to inform larger questions
- What bigger question have you been holding?
- Are you at a crossroads in your life and trying to make a big decision?
- Are you struggling with a certain person or project?
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
A quest into the wild and important spirit messages and soulful gifts gathered from animals while there…
Gracious Wild: A Shamanic Journey with Hawks
Stacey L.L. Couch
“A highly recommended, beautifully written story of power and transformation.”
─Kay Kamala, editor for A Journal of Contemporary Shamanism
“This exquisitely written book warmly touches hearts and gives flight to the soul, while offering opportunities for healing and cathartic release. Don’t be surprised if Gracious Wild moves you to tears and helps you experience some spontaneous healing of your own.”
─Colleen Deatsman, author of The Hollow Bone: A Field Guide to Shamanism
“Stacey’s heart-warming, at times heart-wrenching narrative scintillates with possibilities the modern human mind normally embraces only in dreams.”
─Linda Kohanov, author of The Tao of Equus and Power of the Herd
Gracious Wild is the story of Stacey Couch’s incredible journey out of the mundane world of science and reason into the vast shamanic realms of creativity and inspiration. Readers will travel on this intimate exploration of what happens when one woman allows the messengers of nature to guide her. These winged guides wrap her mind up in the mysteries they present, leading her to a richer, more fulfilling life
Stacey’s tale begins on an isolated island where, as a scientist, her main responsibility is to care for a couple dozen foxes in captivity. As a result of a series of ecological tragedies, the fox population is on the verge of extinction and a novel hawk species begins nesting on the island for the first time in recorded history. It is during her time watching the nesting hawks alone in nature that her real quest begins – a series of hawks become her guides; rousing life’s biggest questions like “why am I here?”
Gracious Wild weaves Stacey’s relationship with the hawks alongside her study of shamanism with a good deal of information included for those seeking more details about this spiritual path.
From the book:
“I was running from my own shadow, and through my fear; my shadow had the upper hand. This time I couldn’t run. I had to solemnly live the nightmare. I relied on a grounding intuition that understood that this marsh, this fear, was only one portion of the island. If I could walk in, I could walk back out. There was no quicksand, no swallowing mud, only my annoying distaste for myself. The terrain changed. A gently sloping spine of ten-foot hills rose on both sides. Now my path was more defined. I looked up. A pair of piercing eyes stared back from a mysteriously dark, circular face. The hawk stood still, perched atop a bush, the shield of her cinnamon breast in full view. She wore a dark chocolate cape. Is she a mirage or has she really allowed me to wander so close? I felt a soft strand of hope spiral between us. The young harrier hawk looked like she had been standing there for centuries, waiting for me to pass. The intimacy of the snug valley was consoling. Then she turned her dark face to something over the crest of the hill, opened her wings, and lifted away.”
Stacey’s belief is, “that wild animals are trying to speak and interact with us every day. To listen to them is to listen to that which is divine within each of us. Their calls mirror our own inner calling to a greater purpose.”
Gracious Wild offers a vivid and candid tale of a woman who loses then rewrites the meaning of her life at the same time showing readers their own humanity; how being open to spirit messages from animals can provide important and beneficial (life-changing) guidance.
About the Author
Stacey L. L. Couch describes herself as a shamanic cowgirl who works as a publicist and journalist for Mother Nature. A pioneer at heart, she empowers people with the ability to explore life’s big questions. She aims to show how to form a real connection with our own souls through the natural world. A life-long student of nature, she has a biology degree in ecology and conservation as well as a 2-year shamanic certification. Her home on a 38-acre ranch is in Pagosa Springs, CO. She offers shamanic healing and teaching services at www.wildgratitude.com.
Gracious Wild: A Journey with Hawks
Stacey L.L. Couch
Turning Stone Press
Available wherever books and eBooks are sold or directly from the publisher:
Magpie goes about her business, chattering to and fro. Both of the old world and of the new, she wears her black and white costume with her brothers and sisters going on about life as if everything were normal. Then a ray of sunshine glimmers over the tips of her wings and tail and a burst of royal blue radiates. She knows this and she is clever. She does not worry if the rain will come or go. Magpie is the rain and lightening. She is the drought and wind. She carries on as if neither were of consequence, full of joy and mirth, warning of nothing and foreshadowing everything. Magpie knows that she and her tribe are bigger, louder, and brighter than the others, and she knows stories about the others. She is an artist at knowing these stories.
The Rebel in Biblical Lore
Magpies are found around the world from the western half of the United States to China to England and Africa. Their association with humans goes back a long time as they followed nomadic people scavenging leftovers from hunts. There is a story from biblical lore that survives today that the magpie would not go into Noah’s Ark, but instead insisted on riding out the storm on the ridgepole of the boat, chattering the entire time. There are some references to the fact that the magpie either did not attend or refused to mourn Christ’s crucifixion. This pairs this cunning corvid with the archetype of the rebel.
Magpie spirit animal reminds you to ask: What beliefs did you adopt that now act as blocks in your quest to find your divine self?
These birds are related to crows and ravens and are a member of the jay family. They mate for life and are dedicated parents. A pair can spend up to 40 days building a large covered nest and they often are seen in small groupings of 3-5 birds as they travel about in their undulating flight looking for food. “One of the most notable Black-billed Magpie behaviors is the so-called ‘funeral’—when one magpie discovers a dead magpie, it begins calling loudly to attract other magpies. The gathering of raucously calling magpies (up to 40 birds have been observed) may last for 10 to 15 minutes before the birds disperse and fly off silently.”  This speaks of the ability to call on the help of your tribe in times of mourning.
When studying the meaning of magpie symbolism, it may be time to watch how you congregate with your kind and remember how others can help you with a death. This could be a death of the ego, the self, a way of life or a loved one.
Magpie Helps with a Healing
This September, I started to see two or three magpies with my horses on a regular basis. My horses would cock a back hoof so the magpies could clean the underside. The magpies would jump up and cling sideways to the horse’s legs to pick bugs from their fur. Other times the birds would be perched atop my mustangs cleaning bugs from their ears, manes, and backs.
Cherokee and Legend seemed to enjoy the attention. I was absolutely caught up in the beauty of the scene. I started working with what the birds’ appearance meant in my life and began to discover a link between their presence and my process of breaking down myths I held about other people. We all attach stories, judgements, beliefs and meaning as to why other people are who they are and what they represent in our lives, but ultimately these myths keep us from truly connecting with people. The myths stand in the way of us truly seeing them and truly being seen. I started to notice the birds every where: at work out the window, on my drives home, at my house, and with the horses.
Then, last week Legend, my white mare, feel gravely ill. A large portion of her colon had flipped 180 degrees and gotten stuck between her kidney and spleen. I went on a three day mission to save her life and the magpies were no where to be found. But, I felt their presence still haunting me and haunting Legend.
In British and Scottish folklore magpies are believed in different numbers to foretell death, a funeral, and bad luck. I learned the popular saying about magpies: “One for sorrow. Two for mirth. Three for a wedding. Four for death (or birth depending on the origin)”. 
As is the way of things, Chinese folklore portrays magpies of omens of good luck and sometimes I had seen the fortuitous two or three birds at a time, so I tried not to be overcome with foreboding. I waged an inner battle with my fear and superstition.
Here is when I realized that my fear of my loved one’s death was keeping me from my ability to channel healing for her. I had adopted the myth that “I can’t really channel healing that makes a difference on a physical level” because I feared what would happen if I surrendered myself fully to grace and had her die anyways. I didn’t know how I would recover from that kind of grief, but I couldn’t both protect myself from utter devastation AND surrender to divine guidance. As I broke this myth down I went through waves of intense fear, doubt, and suffering. I showed up for Legend to channel the healing power of grace in a way I never had experienced before and she survived.
Less Myths and More Meaning
On the morning of the fourth day, I checked Legend over endlessly to absolutely convince myself that she was okay. A single magpie came to her corral and landed on a fence post. As the black and white bird with a long tail looked at me with her shiny black eyes, she christened me back into the world of the living, a new world with less myths and more meaning.
Seeing one magpie is supposed to be an especially grave occasion as the popular saying goes “one for sorrow”. I knew the death and sorrow had happened in me.
I was a different person now. Legend was well and healthy. I opened the gate to let Legend out onto her pasture and life went on.
This is why I have come to think of the magpie as a mythologist. Magpie spirit animals can help us study myths we have about spirituality, the universe, others and ourselves. Magpies are known for eating anything as is indicated by their scientific name “Pica“, meaning to crave things unfit for food, and they remind us how we can crave and eat odd stories that aren’t true in an attempt to secure nourishment and safety or to feed the small fears that protect us from the big fears.
Ultimately it is not important to know why we adopted those myths in the first place, but to understand the role of myths in our lives and to treat them lightly. There’s no need to crawl inside the ark and hide away from the storm for the storm of fear and suffering is of our own making. We can light upon the ridgepole of the boat and find humor and humility in the art of rebelling against that which we thought we ought to always know.
I would like to finish by quoting a favorite song of mine by Neko Case that takes on a deeper meaning now. It’s from her album Middle Cyclone and is called Magpie to the Morning. I have to say that Legend was always the closest to death in the mornings…
Magpie comes a calling
Drops a marble from the sky
Tin roof sounds alarm
And wake up child
Let this be a warning says the magpie to the morning
Don’t let this fading summer pass you by
Don’t let this fading summer pass you by
You can listen to these lyrics on her website: http://nekocase.com/music/discography/middle-cyclone/
Another spirit I’d known in this life began calling on me regularly since I’d come to the island. The woman who was my babysitter when I was a child was a grandmother to me. She first appeared randomly in my dreams, but then her visits began to take on meaning. I hadn’t seen her during the last few years of her life and always regretted never saying goodbye.
I was in a dimly lit living room with the shades drawn. Pauline sat low on an old sofa with green and gold floral print. She was plump like I remembered her in one of her big, soft housedresses. The room was smokey with rays of light coming in through the cracks in the curtains. I knew she was dying.
“You should get going to class,” she encouraged. She was right; it was nearly time for my college courses to start.
“I don’t want to leave you,” I shyly admitted.
“All will be well,” she comforted, “come here and give me a hug.”
I approached her and bent over to wrap my arms around the round woman now on in years. She felt frail under my arms. The sweet scent of her housedress rubbed my chin. Her tight, gray curls tickled my cheek. Her arms engulfed me. I leaned into her and whispered, “goodbye grandma.”
I felt myself lifting up with her spirit as it left her body. For a moment, I held the embrace and revealed in the weightlessness. I felt so free. Then, self-conscious, I pulled back into my own body. I stood aside and watched her spirit ascend.
My wrist-watch alarm woke me from my otherworldly dream hours before dawn. I ate breakfast staring at three black windows and packed carefully for a cross-island trip. A setting three quarter moon surrounded by haunting, wispy clouds loomed ahead as I climbed Manzanita Hill. The scene was the perfect backdrop for a horror movie, and after my strange dream it felt as if I was walking the land of the dead. What was I doing here? In answer, a shrill, blood-curdling scream erupted from the darkness around me. I stopped, my muscles surging in anguish against the anxiety. I spun to face the tormenting barn owl that had released his shriek. I let out a madwoman’s scream of my own. Hearing my voice so similar to his raised my courage. His ghostly white figure glowing in the moonlight stealthily disappeared into the night sky. Just then my grandmother’s house came to mind. She had owl figures and pictures decorating her entire house. This was becoming way too real.
This excerpt from my book Gracious Wild tells of how a female northern harrier hawk began joining me on my morning walks on a lonely island I lived on. Her presence was one of my first confirmations that my encounters with the wild had a broader purpose:
Every morning, I walked into the coreopsis forest to check on the harbor. I followed the trail through the chest-high field of golden blossoms to the crest of the cliff overlooking the bay. There was a large opening in the coreopsis forest here, and an assemblage of large rocks topped by a stone cross stood in the center. This was a monument to a Spanish explorer famous for his exploits in the region. I’d try to get here early while the island was still at rest so I could linger, take in the view of the quiet harbor, and enjoy the short, meditative hike.
Along with the burst into color on the island, I acquired company on my walk to and from the stone cross. Each morning as I crossed the runway and started on the trail, I would hear an approaching keen. At first her cry blared then faded, but as it got closer, it turned into a ceaseless yelling. The female harrier hawk Morappeared coursing straight at me, her dark eyes piercing mine and her brown wings flapping sharply. She came right at eye level set on running me down, mouth open, screaming like mad. The trail was gently sloped, bearing me hard upon her. Just as we were about to collide, I abruptly swiveled on my feet to follow the turn of the path downhill. She immediately pivoted on her wingtips to mirror me.
We then traveled in tandem, my feet and her wings falling in unison. She hovered just 10 or 15 feet above my left shoulder. At times she’d have more to say and I’d turn to her with some smart quip. Wonder where I’m going this morning madam? Other mornings we’d travel in silence listening to each other’s movement and breath. She became so accustomed to expecting me that I often found her waiting at an old fencepost at the turn in the trail. She’d lift off as I approached and take position at my left flank. Her mate was usually in attendance, but he hung back and watched from afar.
The morning company of the harriers brought me limitless solace. Not only did they offer me much yearned for companionship, but they sparked a sense of magic in my being that I hadn’t remembered. I felt a kind of wonder that brought me out of the scientific detachment I clung so desperately to. With the harriers, I didn’t have to pull away and remain swirling in my intellectual dialect. I wasn’t required to pose theories and assign numbers to their movement. I was afforded the opportunity to respond and offered the chance to be a part of the experience.
During my enchanting walk each quiet morning, I re-entered a childhood of the natural world. My movement into hawk territory was no guilt-heavy intrusion into a place I didn’t belong, but rather a visit home. Here I acquired a sense of awe akin with the wild ones. The maiden harrier’s banter was calling me to something bigger than myself, to a purpose I felt stirring in my soul.
Before I completely lose the sensation of summer, I wanted to honor a message I received recently from a young hawk. One afternoon I was out orienting a new volunteer at the horse rescue when I was approached by another volunteer. “Hey bird lady, there’s a hawk with a broken wing out in the east pasture. Can you go check it out?”
So, new volunteer in tow, I rounded up a pair of gloves, a towel and a rubbermaid tub. We traipsed all the way out there, through the weeds, and along the fence lines. No hawk. I must admit, I was relieved. It is a paradox to receive a message from the spirit world carried on the back of a suffering animal. I feel humbled in the gift and smacked with my ignorance, not to mention the heartache of my empathy for the animal. Somehow I always wonder, “did I not hear the message the first time?”
I figured, wrongly, that the hawk had wandered onto the neighbor’s property to die in peace in the brush. The next morning I was approached again, “Hey bird lady…”
I drove out into the pasture in the golf cart with a pair of adult red-tails swirling and screaming overhead. There was the small beast standing stoic in the shade of the horse shelter. He had no fight left and the terrible stench of rotting flesh about him. His right wing was fractured. The dead, black bone stuck out an inch. A marble-sized colony of maggots had laid waste to the wound.
Immature red-tail feathers. I know them so well. An old friend of mine was in that plummage for most of the year we spent together. My dear Graccia often had that same determined look in her eye. There was no taking her off course.
“Just give up the ghost,” I said to the injured hawk as it stood in the box staring at me. There was no flesh left on his body. All the energy he had remaining was put to standing there, staring at me.
He died later that afternoon and my husband buried him under the old cottonwood.
So… the message? The active principle (right side wing) was broken, long dead, in my life. The effort that I had put forth into the world (the pair of hawks fledging a young hawk) had failed at its moment of glory. I had been stubbornly sitting on this failure too long (rotting wound). Put in plain terms, my inability to live in the season of summer, live in the fruition of my dreams, had become a systemic problem that had grounded me for way too long and that threatened to destroy my entire way of life.
Sounds dramatic, I know, but, wow, this hawk gave his life. We often hope for angels, miracles, and beams of light from heaven. We think divine messages come on wings, and, guess what? They actually do.
Want to learn more about spirit animals?
Visit the Spirit Animal Guide