Animal Magic in the Marsh

Animal Magic in the Marsh

Because she possesses a kind of shamanic animal magic, when Rina said she wanted to go for a bike ride with me, I let her lead the way. At the end of Bradford Street, she paused, nose to the air, or to whatever elemental deity it is that guides her.

“This way!” she proclaimed and cycled off towards Herring Cove, over the marsh culvert where herons are often seen (and sometimes an egret), then under the arch of trees and along that stretch where sand insists on having its way with the road.

Poison ivy, turned autumn red, flamed on both banks among the bayberry, named, it is said, after Cape Cod Bay. I showed Rina the waxy berries, and we wondered at how many hundreds or thousands of them you’d need for making even one candle. No doubt that is why bayberry candles were traditionally lit only on the holidays. They inspired this New England proverb:

“A bayberry candle burnt to the socket brings food to the larder and gold to the pocket.”

Here in Scotland, the bayberry’s closest cousin is the aromatic bog myrtle. My 89-year-old farmer friend Shian said that in her day they used to hold country dances in their big barn. They’d conceal the animal stench by strewing dozens of boughs of fresh-cut bog myrtle across the wooden floor, their sweet fragrance released by dancing feet. For anyone unfamiliar with Scottish ceilidh dancing, I assure you that it consists of many hours of extremely vigorous footfall. It must have smelled wonderful.

Rina and I turned down the little track into the Herring Cove parking lot and wheeled around for a while like 10-year-olds, making large swoops between the speed bumps. We laid the bikes at the other end and read again, with our usual awe, the sign warning us of great white sharks.

Then over the dune. You just never know how it will be. On that day the sky was a hypnotic, misty dreamscape without horizon, full of refracted silver light, the sea dead calm and perfectly clear. Cormorants were floating, fishing, and flying in long lines through the blurry air. It was pretty magical, and we stood quietly together at the water’s edge. But it wasn’t quite the level of magic that Rina was aiming for. We headed back to town. She was a little disappointed, but we couldn’t continue the quest. She had a date to go for a walk with her mom.

That evening, when we all met up again, Rina was beside herself with excitement. “I knew that was the right direction this morning! I knew it! But I just didn’t know where to stop!” she said, implicitly admitting she is still a novice shaman. “Mom and I saw an otter! We saw an otter playing by the culvert! We watched and watched! An otter!

The next morning in my dawn marsh wanderings I hoped, of course, to see it. I didn’t. But here’s what I did see: its paw prints in the sand behind the big dune, crossing over to where the kingfisher perches, and then its scat, weirdly iridescent with fish scales, like crumpled tin foil, and then a slicked-down slippery grass place at the edge of the creek, just otter-wide, where it had come and gone.

Carey Morning is an American living in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she is a psychotherapist, writer, and painter.

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Animal Magic in the Marsh

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