For three years I’ve been deeply involved in gathering and weaving into a book the experiences of 108 people who have had of what I call “The Three Graces”—precognitive awareness before death or at-the-moment-of-death knowings or after-death communication with deceased beloveds. The subject
relates to wilderness because so many of these experiences have come through nature. My piece for Thinking Wilderness relates a single example of my own contact with a deceased friend.
This book and project grew within me, like the lotus grows from mud, out of the suffering that engulfed me after the death of my daughter. A few weeks afterward, I was shocked awake one morning by the intense awareness of her presence. The comfort of innumerable visitations followed. I have since gathered hundreds of stories that range through dreams, visions, electrical and physical manifestations, connections via birds and butterflies, and a variety of other types of visitations. The idea that our deceased beloveds are inaccessible is an illusion. They can, and very often do, return to comfort, reassure, guide, and support us. It is my aim to participate in awakening our culture to the cherished gift and absolute normality of such contact.
If you have something to contribute to my book, I’d love to hear from you at 575-586-1792 or
Our Best-kept Secret
I awaken each morning in the shadow cast by New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the Latir Wilderness. The time of the sunrise is erratic, depending on which peak or which valley it rises behind. In the summer I can see the sun set a hundred miles away in Colorado. I don’t feed the birds to avoid drawing bears. From our sunporch we’ve seen coyotes, deer, a bobcat, and a rocky mountain ferret , who kept stopping on our path as if to pose for a photo shoot. This spring an overnight snowfall revealed mountain lion tracks from one end of our property to the other. Mostly though, I see birds, as nearly all of us do, even if we live among high-rises.
When my friend and neighbor Anne Kious was dying of cancer, as we shared the last meal I brought her, the last time she was strong enough so I could maneuver her into the wheelchair to sit at the table, before she stopped getting out of bed altogether, she asked, “How’s your book coming along?” She meant the one I was interviewing for, and writing, on after-death communication. We arranged for her to make contact with me after her death.
“How will I know it’s you?” I asked.
By way of reply, she told me the story of a bird that had flown down her chimney and gotten stuck inside her woodstove. When she pulled it out it was near death, so ash-covered she couldn’t even tell the color of its feathers. She tenderly cleared its beak and face so it could breathe, wiped its wings clean, carried it outside. “It was the most stunning swallow with the most gorgeous colors,” she told me. “I released it and it flew off into the sky, back into life.” Her face shone with how joyful that release had been for her. Anne said it was, well, actually I promptly forgot what she had said this bird was called, a violet something maybe? A
swallow, that much I was sure of. I kept meaning to look it up. I kept forgetting. Probably because to look it up meant to think of her death. She died late on the following Tuesday night, but because I was gone all the next day, I did not find out for nearly twenty-four hours. Early the
following morning, when I went into my yard to work off some of my sorrow, was the first time since her death that I’d been outside except to go to and from my car. Anne was very present in my mind. Our arrangement was not, but almost at once a bird circled me and I flashed on our plan. This bird circled like swallows do, but it looked different somehow. A pair of western bluebirds flew into our nest box, which seemed strange, since the babies had fledged and flown off a while back. I adore the bluebirds and put down my clippers to watch. The possible swallow circled the nest box, flashing white on every turn. Did any swallow have this much white? It
circled me a few more times. The bluebirds flew off. The alleged swallow made one more graceful arc around me, then perched on the front of the nest box in perfect profile, and remained, while I crept closer. I studied its white head and belly, its gorgeous, iridescent green back, its darker, grayish wings, for what could have been five minutes or more. I thought all swallows had long, forked tails, yet I couldn’t see any tail at all. And where was this violet? Surely this could not be Anne, because it wasn’t even a swallow, let alone a violet one. Suddenly my feet and ankles were burning and stinging. Looking down I discovered I was standing in the
center of on an ant’s nest. “All right, all right, I’ll go look it up.” I brushed the ants off and dashed inside, where I pulled out my Birds of New Mexico.
Swallow, violet-green. p. 281. Before I read one word, the photograph itself seemed conclusive. The same pose, the identical angle, the same gorgeous green, the same white, the same dark wings, no visible tail, and no visible violet either. I read on. Violet blue wings, though in the
photo they looked gray. … can be attracted with a nest box. The moment I read that its wing tips extended beyond the tail whenever it perched, I was engulfed by a powerful sense of certainty that this was Anne returning to let me know she was all right. Flooded with unadulterated joy, I ran outside and shouted up into the sky, “I got it, Anne, I got it!” This joy stayed with me throughout the day, though I felt uneasy about it. Shouldn’t I be grieving? Here my friend had just died and I was in ecstasy. Was I too identified with my researcher/writer self to grieve the
death of my friend? True, I was thrilled to know such an arrangement could be so easily made and manifested, but I quickly realized this joy I felt was not so much mine as it was Anne’s. The story she had told me was of a suffering bird, near death, and of its joyful release. Anne had been that suffering bird and now she had been released, not back into life but onward out of her suffering and into death. Even the annoying ants and my beloved bluebirds had conspired to reveal her joy to me and how exactly a plan for after-death connection could be enacted. I thought of the precision with which the swallow had mirrored the pose in my bird book and
of Anne’s orderly, almost scientific approach to certain issues, of how she had been an accountant, a field that demands a similar precision.
I shared this experience at her memorial service, where I heard there had been a phenomenal total of four double rainbows in our neighborhood the week following her death. Some spoke of feeling Anne’s joy through those rainbows. I heard about a pact she had made to return and reassure others as a yellow butterfly, of how her son-in-law and one granddaughter had already driven Anne’s cat and dog back to live with them in Wisconsin, and of how a yellow butterfly kept following her dog in their yard, a thousand miles from Anne’s New Mexico home.
Among some of us the jury still deliberates about after-death communication. The rationalists loudly proclaim its impossibility. The pseudo-mystics seek solid, reliable evidence, yet they go to such lengths to be scientific in their investigations, no evidence ever seems quite sufficient to satisfy them. Other folks say any contact with the dead is the work of the devil. Certain psychologists and psychiatrists pathologize contacts by labeling them grief or bereavement
hallucinations. While the media profits from sensationalizing how the dead return with evil intent, quiet and deeply personal demonstrations of exactly the opposite continue. Our deceased beloveds appear in our dreams and in visions. They whisper in our ears or surprise us as butterflies or as birds, and we are not afraid of them. We are not deluded and we are not hallucinating, for our dead beloveds bring us comfort, support, reassurance, guidance, hope, wisdom, and assistance in moving beyond our overpowering grief over their deaths. These visits stabilize our mental health rather than undermine it. The gifts the dead offer us so
generously and so frequently may be one of our modern, secular, scientifically-inclined culture’s best-kept secrets. Often we keep silent about these contacts not because we fear the dead, but because we fear how the living will judge or ridicule or diagnose us.
I say it is time to release our experiences from this silent bondage—if we have had them—and if we have not had such contact, to listen with open minds and open hearts to those who have. To continue to deny this significant an aspect of reality is to cheat us of the deep satisfaction
of knowing that death need not be a door slammed in our faces and padlocked forever. Any walk through the wilderness reveals continuity of the physical. A standing tree dies, insects set up housekeeping, woodpeckers arrive and eat the bugs for dinner. The tree falls, crumbles,
returns to the soil. A seed lodges, grows, before long there is another tree. My deceased beloveds have brought me glimpses of the continuity of consciousness, of what some call the soul. When I spoke of the dreams and visitations I have had with my dead beloveds, suddenly I began hearing many after-death communication experiences from others. This is what led
me to gather hundreds of such stories and to be writing about them.
A significant number of these contacts have occurred through nature. Such communication breaks through our cultural bias that we humans can’t have meaningful exchanges with nature. We tend to accept that birds sing among themselves or soar, elks bellow or run, butterflies do their own thing, but all we get to do is listen and watch. Often we view nature’s language
as pretty much indecipherable. Yet in the Scottish Findhorn gardens, community members dialogue with nature with astounding results. The biomimicry folks are allowing nature to teach humans its ways. Any tribal culture that has retained its ancient practices communicates with nature continually. Traditional shamans and medicine people seek the counsel of both nature and the dead to assist in their healing work; they call back the ancestors for wisdom and guidance. Modern culture has not retained these traditions, yet by attending to nature, by spending time in wilderness, we may be able to re-enliven some stagnant ability within
ourselves to listen to what the winged ones, the four-leggeds, the sky, the clouds, and the wind have to tell us and to teach us. Whether they bring the wisdom of the ancestors, or the reassurance of our recently deceased beloveds, or the guidance of the Divine, of Mother Nature, of God, whatever name we choose to call it by, does not matter. If we can learn to direct our disturbing questions and our bewildering issues to nature, and then to listen to and dialogue with the trees and the stones and the birds, we can open ourselves to vast possibilities. This may even be how we will allow Mother Earth to restore her own inherent
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Annie Mattingley has lived surrounded by New Mexico’s mountainous wilderness for eighteen years. Being captivated by life’s mysteries, including death and dying and how our culture treats, or mistreats, them, has led her to an MS in Interdisciplinary Consciousness Studies and to
teach writing—mostly for personal exploration of those mysteries—both privately and at universities.
She has two daughters and two grandchildren and lives with her artist husband Spencer Floyd in a home full of color and books and no TV. She is nourished by silence and beauty and nature, by dreams and books and Spirit, and by the many people who fill her life with love. Annie finds
life, with its entanglements and shenanigans and mysteries, part bewildering and wonder-filled, part troubling and joyous. She’s curious to see (not in any hurry) if death, and whatever follows it, will be just as engaging.