The Kingdom of Heaven is within.
The eye by which I see God
is the eye by which God sees me.
— Meister Eckhart
For my first meal in Belize I ate a fish served whole with a poached but firm puddle of staring eye. It was 1991 and inland Belize had not yet been discovered by tourism. I rented a bare-bones jeep at the airport and headed out to find a new and as yet undeveloped nature preserve a fellow traveler had told us about, deep in the jungle. As is normal when one travels with no plans, a vague rumor is as good as a map.
Over the next few hours, the red clay road steadily narrowed until branches raked the jeep doors on both sides. I wondered if I’d miscounted kilometers or turned onto the wrong rutted road, but we were committed simply because there was nowhere to turn around on the rarely-traveled trail. A half hour later we arrived at a tiny compound at the end of the road.
In my own country I am emboldened by familiarity when I seek adventure. Even though dangerous animals, poisonous insects and plants abound, I know the risks and what precautions to take. I shake scorpions out of boots, don’t stick my hands into woodpiles that may house black widow spiders, and I shuffle my feet in shallows where stingrays sleep. A challenge of foreign travel is knowing what dangers are likely to occur, how to avoid them, and what tales are told merely to scare tourists. In the jungle of Central America, I was out of my element.
And that was the purpose of the trip. I wanted an adventure that would help me find my place in the world. I was in my forties, never married, hardworking, self-employed, assertive. I’d been told more than once that, in a relationship, I was a handful. I took exception to that and consoled myself that I simply had not yet met someone strong enough to fit my personality. Or maybe none existed and I was meant to be a lit flame on my own. In my twenties I solo hitchhiked 100,000 miles across North America, won a national sports award, and founded a women’s crisis center. In my thirties I started a successful holistic health center and sold it eight years later. For the past few years I had led workshops and was at the top of my game. My accomplishments brought no peace; I longed for something to challenge me.
The preserve encompassed well over a hundred hectares, a few hundred acres. Small noisy monkeys, sleepy coati mundis and furry cat-sized animals rustled high in the branches or rooted in the dense brush around the grounds. My travel friend and I found three people living there: a woman who kept house and cooked, her husband who was building a small museum of local flora and fauna, and the forest-keeper who kept the tangled vines from overtaking the paths and grounds around the building.
They were wide-eyed surprised when we drove out of the jungle just before dusk. We imagined this new wildlife reserve was used to people dropping in but in fact it hadn’t opened yet and we were only their third visitors ever. With no way to contact the place ahead of time, we had just “showed up,” hoping to see a jaguar or two. But when we asked to rent a guest room overnight, a room was quickly readied for us and the woman made us a meal.
We rose at dawn to a cacophony of screaming howler monkeys. After breakfast we set off to explore the recently completed twenty-foot-wide chainlink tunnel that served as a passageway into the jungle. Though we called it a tunnel, it was actually more like a quarter-mile cage, not to keep animals in, but rather to protect anyone who wanted to venture into the jungle where jaguars live. I asked how often they’d seen the jaguars. Though they had lived here their whole lives, the couple had never seen one and the groundskeeper said he’d seen one only once, when he and a friend removed a tree that fell onto the fence a year ago.
Jaguars, the third largest hunting cat in the world, were the ancient symbol of Mayan royalty. Secretive hunters, they diligently trail quarry while choosing a perfect spot for attack. Their spotted coats provide thorough camouflage in the shadowy forest and they are rarely seen. Nor do native people want to see one; local knowledge says if you see a jaguar, it’s only because he let you see him and that’s because he is about to eat you.
We set off on the path between a dense line of speckle-barked trees and a steep-banked muddy red river. My travel friend quickly disappeared ahead as was his custom. I preferred to go slower and see more. Long-legged lizards scooted over fallen leaves and tree trunks. Birds squawked, squealed and trilled far in the distance. Branches swayed from the weight of unseen animals leaping above me into the viney forest.
I felt naive stepping into the unfamiliar jungle-forest. The forest, a patient, eternal animal itself, opened its maw and welcomed me in. But I felt alien to the landscape that surrounded me. It asked questions I was too intimidated to answer. Why am I in this jungle? What do I want? This ever-changing forest’s vines grew overnight. Anything that fell would be gone by morning.
As I wandered farther away from the compound, the wide, airy path darkened. The forest came closer and a small anxiety rose in me, the kind you get when someone you don’t know well stands too closely. I’d expected the forest to retain a civil distance. The dense-packed canopy dimmed and the waxy leaves and tall ferns loomed even closer in the shade.
Each branch, vine and leaf spread upward, filling any open space. Each sought to catch even the briefest glimpse of sunlight, which left little light below on the forest floor where I walked. Contrary to my expectation of spaciousness, the forest felt densely packed, too full of everything for me to feel comfortable. I came here seeking contact with wilder nature, but when surrounded by it, I found solace in the familiarity of my old sensibilities — the flinty hardness of a chain link fence, something back home I’d find offensive in the woods. How could I leap over the boundary of my cultural misperceptions to know this place?
Growing up in rural New England, I spent most of my childhood outdoors and felt more at home in the woods than in my family’s living room. I knew the land around my home intimately well, able to predict the day burgundy trilliums would break ground each spring. I knew which plants to use as dye and which to leave untouched. I identified with a glance whose scat and where grew the berries they’d eaten. But here I was the alien one.
The fence wove its way through thick-rooted, mossy-branched hardwoods and twisting vines, barely separating one part of the forest from the other. I kneeled and scanned tree branches and underbrush. I caught sight of the remains of something cow-like. Was that a tapir? All that was left was its head and ribs, a patch of matted fur, and the leg bones. The large body size of this animal, compared to the size I imagined a jaguar to be, surprised me. Maybe jaguars were bigger, more ferocious or dangerous than I thought.
Suddenly my skin prickled. I felt the weight of eyes upon me and in an instant my eyes saw the jaguar. At that moment the fence no longer existed. I felt as exposed and vulnerable as the predator intended.
Silent and bone- still, the jaguar stood thirty feet away, unblinking, intent. I found myself unable to move. I locked into his stare. My breath went still.
In an indescribably long and brief moment the jaguar and I entered a primal relationship. With awe I felt myself calmly agree to be prey.
My conscious mind played no part in this. This agreement was absolute, it had no right or wrong to it. I agreed. A contract was set.
The jaguar lowered his head and moved toward me.
I could not turn away from his eyes. I could not stand up and shake this off, I could not utter one word.
Fifteen feet from me he crouches. He tenses. Coils. His whiskers fan out around his mouth.
Every cell in my body blazes alive.
His pupils dilate full black and he lunges.
His teeth and body fill the entire sphere of my vision. All four paws above me, his open jaw wider than my head, he rushes at my face.
He slams the fence and the metal links stretch over me.
He springs to the ground, sideways to where I kneel, turns his head and briefly, ever so briefly, looks at me.
I hear again the agreement: You were mine. Yes, I say.
In a second he blends back into the forest, a shadow moving into branches, and he’s gone.
I’m dripping sweat, my blood galloping adrenaline, a volcano of erupting senses. Again and again the jaguar’s lunge obscures the world — his open jaw over my head, arched white teeth, red-ribbed mouth-roof, his explosive feral breath thundering into my lungs, the jangling weighted fence inches from my face.
What I felt was simple: I was about to die.
But there was no fear whatsoever in that deeper part of me that agreed to die. Over and over I have relived this moment, fascinated by the covenant in the relationship, my astounding complicity.
In the moments before this event, walking through the jungle, freely spinning through my tenure of time, I bore a life of singular self-importance to me and those I care about.
The second the jaguar and my eyes locked, all that fell away and I enfolded in a new process, me named simply as food, fuel for another’s life, and the kernel of a story about a woman who went to Belize and was eaten by a jaguar.
Yet in that moment I felt no regret. I felt completely willing, voluntarily invested to fulfill the covenant. Whoever I had been till that moment, wherever my life had been leading, all suddenly shifted and I was liberated from the comfort of my old bearings and directed into a new destiny as the life force that fuels a jaguar.
In the moment when he asked, when death felt real, I turned willingly from life and said yes. I agreed to die. I was complicit in the agreement, congruent in my purpose. I felt opened and freed inside myself at making this ever-so-obvious agreement. I did not imagine myself a failure or think I should fight for my life. The role opened and I stepped forward.
In that radiant moment I felt overwhelming respect for my killer. Not awe, but respect, or more significantly, equivalency, a rightness to our actions. I felt myself become the vehicle of a life force far, far larger than myself, a fundamental thread in the continuity of life.
I have sometimes wondered at the moment of my death what my thoughts might be. Would my life flash before my eyes? Would I, as I expected, fight tooth and nail to keep living?
In that moment, though, I found myself without a single thought of my own life. Instead I saw how the vital force of Life itself pours through me and surges forth into the future.
But there’s more.
After the jaguar moved off into the jungle, I stood up, shaken, the way someone at a movie rearranges themselves after being frightened by a scary onscreen image. Of course it wasn’t real, we KNOW that, but our hearts race and our adrenaline flows nonetheless. In that brief moment we ARE afraid, but we don’t protect ourselves because we also know nothing can hurt us.
When I tried to resolve my fear by reminding myself of the fence and that he couldn’t really hurt me, I realized that the jaguar was not in the same movie I saw myself in. The jaguar did not acknowledge the fence at all, except to allow that I was not eaten.
The jaguar attacked me without regard for the fence. He saw me kneeling and prey-sized, unprotected, able to be captured.
I had always been confused about the few moments after his leap and for months afterwards vivid internal pictures of the jaguar overtook me in wake and sleep. His persistent ambushes forced me to relive every detail again and again until I realized how threatened I’d been by the knowledge behind the attack. I didn’t grasp till now that I simply was unable to bear knowing this.
The awareness of complicity in accepting to die undermines the illusion of being in control of one’s destiny, that we volitionally determine where we go in life. That illusion of control keeps undesirable experiences at bay by separating us from events that are the very core of our participation in Life. Keeping death distant from us causes us to live in fear of it, cautious, separate from Life.
Unexpectedly, instead of feeling protective of my life and the fleeting gift so easily lost, I now have no reason to be afraid of dying, of being incomplete.
When I entered the rainforest I was a small human whose thoughts, despite my seeming accomplishments, were constantly inhibited by hesitancy and doubt.
The jaguar freed me of being afraid. In his wake I live more fully, love more deeply. I understand the responsibility of passionately imbuing our life spark with as much voltage as we can.
The jaguar didn’t take my life, only a small part of it. He devoured my passivity and left me with a voice inside that reminds me to keep my flame burning brightly, a voice that constantly asks if what I’m about to do bears increase.
Each time I hear that voice, I thank this spirit of the forest for his blessing.
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About the Author
In the woods at age seven, Jacqueline Freeman discovered a small stone chair and tiny clay pipe. From then on, she spent her childhood finding places where elementals showed presence on the land. She learned to communicate with plants and nature spirits, animals, and muses.
She is a three-time resident of Hedgebrook, where she completed a play, Between Heaven and Earth, that won the Seattle Playwrights Festival. There, too, she wrote Song of Increase: Listening to the Wisdom of Honeybees for Kinder Beekeeping and a Better World about the arc of bee intelligence and their generous role as models for the human community (now in English, Dutch, French, Spanish, and audiobook). She appears in the documentaries Queen of the Sun, Dancing with Thoreau and “Abeilles: La voix des ruches.” Through the USDA, she worked with rural farmers in Dominican Republic, using historic methods of apiculture. In 2017 she founded Preservation Beekeeping, where she promotes respectful ways for humans to interact with bees. With her husband Joseph, she owns a biodynamic farm alive with animals, gardens, orchards and wildlife. She spends much of each spring catching wild swarms of bees. www.SpiritBee.com
Watch the video: Celebrate swarming! 25,000 happy bees in Jacqueline’s yard from Jacqueline Freeman on Vimeo