BARE GRACE

My intention when I began this blog was to create a place to share reflections, essays, prose, poems and photos of the creatures that I have met or may yet encounter in the forest here in the western mountains of Maine or elsewhere.

As an cognitive ethologist and psychologist (Jungian therapist) when I observe animal behavior in the wild I am always asking myself what the animal might be thinking. I pay particular attention to the relationship that develops between an animal and myself over time. I also question the role of projection on my part when I am pulled into an animal’s field of influence without understanding why. Most important I follow gut feelings and any nudges when observing any animal. I am a woman with Native American roots – is that why I make the assumption that every creature has something to teach me? I think of the natural world as being a place of deep learning and wonder.

It is my experience that intention and attention on the part of the observer opens a magic door, and once over the threshold inter-species communication becomes possible. I would like to invite others to cross that threshold with me.

As a feminist, ritual artist, and a writer I am Her advocate, that is, Nature’s advocate. I believe that when I write about the animals and plants I am giving voice to their truths as well as my own.

I developed an intimate relationship with the black bear in the above photo for a number of years while I was engaged in an independent, trust based study of his kinship group (15 years). Little Bee interacted with me on a regular basis but always preferred to “hide” behind a screen of leaves and saplings while doing so. Whenever I was around him I felt touched by “Bare Grace”.

Please feel free to comment. I would love to communicate with anyone who wants to share experiences they have had in Nature or simply make observations about what I have written.

If you would like more information about me, please read the essay on how I became a Naturalist…

Unfortunately, I am dyslexic with numbers and directions and have a difficult time with the computer in general and with WordPress in particular so I ask the reader to forgive me for the errors I will surely continue to make.

Sara Wright

12/29/16

I am spending the winter in Abiquiu New Mexico and am currently using my blog as a journal of my experiences in this mysteriously beautiful place. I ask that the reader bear with me as I continue this process… some entries will, of course, be about my relationship with animals, but others will not.

As it turns out I am presently a “snowbird” having returned to Abiquiu for the winter and spring of 2017 and 2018…

Update: August 2020…. I have returned to Maine having spent four years on a circular journey the highlights of which are recorded here…New Mexico is a magical place, but the North Country continues to call me home.

In the past years I have used my blog as a kind of jumping off place for publication elsewhere – which is why many entries have errors that I haven’t bothered to correct. There is something about putting my writing on a blog that allows me to see it from a distance, and from that place I craft pieces for publication elsewhere… I  am still writing about animals and plants, and still enthralled by the powers of place – perhaps more so now than ever. Certainly more grateful. Without my primary relationship to the rest of Nature I would perhaps feel more isolated during this pandemic than I do.

With deep appreciation and gratitude especially to those who comment on what I write.

2021

I neglected to mention that I began this blog because of bear sightings than in the last years have become rare – and now with too much fragmented forest around me bears don’t visit here at all anymore. I have just begun to include poems about bears that I haven’t published before in honor of their scarcity.

I include some comments that have everything to do with why….

What Extinction Really Means…

Excerpts:  Eileen Crist

“What’s happening during this ecological crisis is the collapse of the web of life: biological diversity, wildlife populations, wild ecologies. We’re in the midst of a mass-extinction event. It’s called the “sixth extinction,” because there have been five others in the last 540 million years. Mass extinctions are extremely rare. They’re monumental setbacks, not normal events. It takes 5 to 10 million years for life to recover from one…Non human species are going extinct primarily because the environment is changing so rapidly, so catastrophically, that they can’t adapt. If we keep going as we’re going, we will likely lose 50 percent or more of the planet’s species in this century…

And in addition to outright extinction, there are wholesale eliminations of local populations of plants and animals. The killing of wildlife is so profound that scientists have coined the term defaunation to capture it. We’re emptying out the planet. Big or small, herbivores or carnivores, marine or freshwater or terrestrial — it’s happening across the board. There’s a sad and facile view circulating that extinction is natural, so what does it matter if it’s human-caused? What this ignores is that the vast majority of species becoming extinct are robust, meaning they’re well adapted to their surroundings. These are healthy species experiencing overwhelming pressure from the human onslaught…When we drive a species to extinction, we’re prematurely taking out of existence a unique, amazing manifestation of life that has never existed before and will never arise again, and we’re extinguishing all possibilities of its evolution into new forms.”

Black bears are only one example of an animal that is on its way to extinction.

How ironic it is that I should be writing about extinction on the day before Earth Day 2021 – a day that has become a time of global mourning for those of us who are still awake..

Sara

Eastern Phoebe Ushers in a Symphony

Phoebe awakened me at 4:45 AM with his raspy two – syllable call. Winter wren, Ovenbird, Robin and the Magnolia warbler followed almost immediately; they were all trilling at once. What symphony! Entranced, I couldn’t fall back to sleep. Unlike the other birds that I couldn’t see, Phoebe called repeatedly for the next half an hour sitting on his perch just outside my window.

Every spring a pair of Eastern phoebes arrive here in mid April. For a week or two they court around the cabin, and then to my utter frustration they end up nesting somewhere down by the brook.

Until this year.

Eastern Phoebe (Cornell)

It is May 20th and these birds have been courting around the house so enthusiastically that I believed that this season might be different.  When one began to deposit brocade moss on a narrow inaccessible ledge just above the door I peered at its width uneasily. The ledge wasn’t even 3 inches wide. Why there, when phoebe had all these wide enough log corners to nest upon? But the brocade moss kept coming and soon moss covered the ledge extending the length of the door. Bits of brocade landed on my head as I came in and out of the house. Strands of old hay followed.

 I was utterly baffled until I spoke to bird expert James Reddoch of Mahoosuc Land Trust (he would never call himself an expert but he is). James told me that a male phoebe could decide to build a false nest to impress his mate. Although I had done some research on my own, none of the sources I consulted had included this bit of information. 

Two days ago this curious behavior ceased as quickly as it began. Both phoebes still hunt around the eaves but are also flying around down by the brook. The male continues to perch outside my window to call up the dawn each morning.

To say that I am disappointed about the phoebe’s decision to nest elsewhere is an understatement. I have had robins and wrens nest on the cabin’s top logs in the past. I am wondering if the amount of squirrel activity might be an issue for the phoebes because I am inundated with squirrels, both reds and grays.  Perhaps this might also be a reason the male chose this particular spot for a pretend nest? Any squirrel would have a tough time getting to that place. Just in case, I am going to add a little extension to the ledge and see what happens next spring.

my phoebe just outside my door

The Eastern phoebe, a flycatcher, is one of the earliest migrants arriving in northern climates as early as March in some areas from as far south as Texas. Their breeding grounds extend well into Canada, and nests are built under bridges, houses and barns, an adaptation that has endeared them to people like me. If the original nest sites were on vertical stream banks or small rock outcroppings in the woods with a niche providing support and some protection from above (Audubon) then where do my phoebes nest? I have never found a nest in all these years.  From what I have read they are constructed with a mud base, and then lined with mosses, grasses and animal hair.

Surprisingly, one male may have two mates and may help to feed the young in two nests at once according to the Cornell bird site. Unlike most birds, phoebes often reuse their nests, or renovate an old robin’s nest laying anywhere from two to six eggs that the female incubates. Both parents feed nestlings who are ready to leave in a couple of weeks. Phoebes raise two broods a year. These little characters habitually flick their tails in the most engaging way as they perch and hunt from low branches. No one seems to know why. 

In addition to the characteristic phoebe call these birds also emit sharp peeps. They have short sword -like bills, an adaptation that allows them to capture insects easily. Phoebes make brief flights to capture their pray often returning to the same perch in seconds.  Some bugs are caught in mid – air, some are snatched from branches, and others from the ground. I lose time watching them hunt. The kinds of insects vary and include ticks (!), small wasps, bees, beetles, flies grasshoppers, spiders, and millipedes. Phoebes also eat berries, probably a staple of winter diets.

Research done at Cornell by Frank La Sorte has raised a fascinating issue. There is a group that includes the Eastern phoebe, the Hermit thrush, the Yellow Rumped warbler and Red eyed vireo that have developed a physiological adaptation that allows them to switch from a diet of insects during spring and summer to berries and seeds in fall. From insectivore to omnivore.

 La Sorte’s research, using eBird data and weather radar images of massive flocks of birds, provided the first documented evidence that these insectivores-turned-omnivores migrate on the omnivore’s later schedule, with a migration window that extends into November. That is, these birds enjoy the omnivore’s advantage of waiting for just the right nights for flight”

That diet is a factor driving migration makes a lot of sense because the ancestors of these birds started flying long distances in order to follow available food. Insectivores must leave when insects decline, omnivores like sparrows cans stay on and so can this third group that includes phoebes because of this digestive adaptation that allows them to change their diets as the season shifts. Amazing!

I was upset to learn that phoebes are on the decline. Audubon projects that the species will move further north as the climate continues to warm and more range is lost to the south. Wildfires are a growing threat throughout the country. Spring heat waves put chicks at risk and of course, insecticides and habitat fragmentation are endemic to the loss of all birds including phoebes.

What can we do? Encourage phoebes to nest around the house especially if you have no land by putting up nesting boxes. Stop using pesticides and herbicides. Let lawns grow into wildflower meadows that encourage more insects. Support individuals and organizations like land trusts that champion unbroken forests, our one hope for the survival of all wildlife including all birds. Birds and forests belong together. Imagine stepping out your door into Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’. Just the thought is enough to bring me to my knees in grief.

Toading at the Pond

toads under water

During the Wildflower Moon it rained for the first time in almost a month.

 Ovenbird, chickadee, phoebe, robin, grosbeak, cardinal, oh so many helped me greet the dawn, reaffirming how much birds appreciate a few drops of liquid silver. I soaked in a palette of lime, sage, emerald, rose, lavender, and purple that stretched across a canvas of gray. This was the day the earth turned green. S/he’d been a lady in waiting… Each year I celebrate this ‘greening ‘day whenever it falls. Ash, beech, maple, oak, willow, alder, hobblebush, cherry, apple and crab all compete to be seen at once. Every tightly budded blossom, unfurling leaf and fuzzy catkin is a source of beauty, wonder and amazement. 

As always I am stunned by nature’s artistry.

  Overall, dry windy weather has dominated May, this second month of ‘Becoming’. Wildfires have broken out and the threat of fire remains high. A three-day heat wave coaxed the toads into spring mating and me into my first kayak voyage to visit the source of that compelling hum. 

I paddled towards the cattails listening to a deafening trill. Ah, to discover a collective love nest hidden in the reeds is a thrill. Listening and watching, all senses on high alert, I skimmed the shallows barely dipping oar to water; the ear splitting trilling ceased completely. I hugged the small cove; stilling the kayak. Within minutes, the hum began again; toads approached floating on glassy water like desiccated leaves. Only bright gold-rimmed bulbous eyes gave away amphibious intentions.

 

watcher!

The toads eyed me one by one curious about this intruder. This keen interest of theirs surprised me because, after all, it was mating season, which only lasted about three or four days. I did note that it was mostly males that floated my way. The females, much larger than the males, if not already carrying a male on her back, seemed to prefer staying submerged. They blended so well with pond detritus that the toads were barely visible underwater. Amplexus is the term used to describe mating toads; the males develop dark horny pads on their first and second front two toes that allow them to close their limbs around the female’s abdomen. When the female lays her 4000 – 8000 eggs (!) the male releases his sperm to fertilize them externally. A spring ritual was under way.

  Many females already had mates. Others, either floating or swimming, were being chased by a number of suitors. I had no idea how particular these females were! Some literally leapt out of the water to escape an unwelcome mate; others appeared to acquiesce only to throw the offending male off at the last minute! I couldn’t help laughing. The competition was fierce and I kept looking for a reason why the females chose the males they did but my observations turned up nothing.

note the size difference between female and male American Toads

 There was so much activity occurring all around me at once that I didn’t know which way to look. Except for the few kayak ‘watchers’, Bufo Americanus was on the move. I zeroed in on a few that were humming. One male toad inflated his throat balloon and trilled for about 7 – 11 seconds before deflating his sac. He then appeared to breathe rapidly, the loose sac acting like a pump for about 10 – 20 seconds, before the toad ballooned and bellowed out the next trill. A female invariably appeared as I watched this one and then others; sometimes two females would float nearby listening to the music coming from the water. Did some tunes intrigue more than others? I certainly couldn’t tell. How did a female decide if this was the one? When a male stopped singing and swam towards her, possible last minute rejection still loomed!  Conversely, sometimes one female toad would be buried under maybe 5 or 6 suitors at the same time! A pile of nubbly toads, creating a mountain in the water. I was transfixed… 

toad mountain!

Returning from my reverie to stiffening back muscles I realized I had been sitting here for more than an hour. When the heron flew low overhead I could feel the air move under the whish of his prehistoric feathers. I assumed that toads were not on the heron’s menu because of the bufotoxins. The two largest parotoid glands were located behind each toad eye. Some sources suggest herons do eat toads but not enough research has been done on this behavior to know. Hawks, raccoons and crows that predate on toads rip the glands out before ingestion. Snakes get around this problem by swallowing the toad whole (garter snakes have immunity). 

 Not surprisingly, toad tadpoles repel would be predators, because they also carry the same poison in their skin. Toad tadpoles also band together in groups and engage in kin recognition.

loon

  The two loons approached so close I was able to discern red eyes only visible during breeding season. A sleek muskrat swam by about a foot away, apparently on his way to deeper water where a passing mallard couples’ feathers shone iridescent in the sun. Toads began more humming beneath the boat. A vireo sang, hidden completely from sight in a thick tangle of berry bushes. Redwings flashed by, flames on the wing. Just ahead of me sitting on a floating log I spied two orange streaked painted turtles sunning themselves on emerald moss…

I was hot! Time to go.

 As I maneuvered the kayak out of the reeds I thanked the toads for allowing me a glimpse into their world while thinking about the strings of toad eggs that I would be collecting in a day or two to raise at home. All amphibians are critically threatened species; they are our ‘canaries’ alerting us to grave danger. The polluted air and water that are killing them are a threat to us as well. 

 One my way back to the dock I saw two huge – 24 – 30 inch bass swimming alongside the boat.  I stopped by the beaver islands but noted that there had been no activity this spring that I could detect. It was too early in the season for pitcher plants and orchids to appear out of the sphagnum, but pearl – white blueberry bells were being pollinated by enthusiastic bumblebees. I wondered where the beavers had gone. 

toad

As I pulled the kayak out of the water I was already imagining the tiny toads that would be populating my wild unkempt garden in August after the eggs hatched (2 -12 days) and tadpoles matured in my pond …For now I would provide them with algae and bits of raw spinach until the herbivores grew lungs and legs turning into carnivorous terrestrial beings that ate thousands of insects a day.For that reason alone everyone should raise a multitude of toads!

Wildflower Wonder

Wildflower Wonder; Ephemeral Emergence

 Arbutus trumpets 

   seduce bumblebees

 three lobed 

trillium wings

streak rose

shining stars

pearling forest floors

wild oats bow

bluebead swords

 unfurl

wild lily

leaves clasp

palms in prayer

stained glass

hemlock sky

 filters light

 fragrant needles

fracture harsh white

sun glare….

‘spring beauties’

rise…

Postscript: 

 I have taken to the forest for the month of May. Every year I used to allow this month to be stolen by chores I thought I must accomplish – not this year – with the forests disappearing so rapidly across the globe –  fire and slaughter reign – we are losing our wild flowers too.

Trailing arbutus

 

No one mentions the loss of these vulnerable ephemerals who need the complexity of natural forests to thrive – is this because they are with us for such a brief moment in time?

Some may be distracted by spring chores like I was. Or apparent blindness may reveal the extent of human indifference… I think of the hikers that now swarm well – known trails of strip or partially cleared logged woods. People who know nothing about the plants under their feet or saplings that struggle to live on without their kin.

If we don’t care about our forests then why pay attention to the flowers that greet us each spring?

Since I have been gifted with a love for wild flowers since I was a child I have always found time to seek ephemerals out, but I sandwiched that time in between chores.

marsh marigold

Until now.

My priorities have shifted. I am no longer interested in maintaining gardens (especially not one for food – our air, water and soils are polluted – ‘organic,’ a consumer catchword, is relative). And I am also ready to let my cultivated flower garden go. This spring the only effort I have put into the ground around my house has been dedicated to wild flowers. What interests me most is that in my late 70’s I am closing a circle. I started my life loving wild flowers fiercely, learning all the names of those I met as soon as I could talk, and now I am returning to my first love: wild nature in her natural state.

May is the month of Becoming. It is the month when wild flowers begin to bloom, the very first before leaf out, the rest before the sun gets too hot and temperatures rise. By the summer solstice the wild flowers have faded; some have already set seed.

 I love being present for Ephemeral Emergence and for a time I am possessed by a joy beneath words. 

Just like my phoebes!

Phoebes nesting around the house.

Trailing Arbutus

As the wild flower moon waxes and wanes the delicate, fragrant trumpet –like flowers of Trailing arbutus will have gone to seed because this flower only blooms for a brief moment in time before the trees leaf out. This exquisite ephemeral takes me back to childhood when my little brother and I gathered a few sprigs to put in mother’s day bouquets. Trout lilies, violets, hepatica, trillium, bloodroot, spring beauties were also common in our woods and bloomed during the month of May; only bloodroot preceded arbutus.

 Today I wouldn’t think about picking any of these flowers because most have become so scarce, but every year during the first week of May I walk down to my brook where arbutus cascades over moss covered stone and snakes along the spongy humus (provided by mixed deciduous, pine and hemlock detritus) to keep an eye on the budding arbutus. As soon as mine open I am off to forests that have not been logged in many years to find the glorious evergreen mats dotted with tiny flowers that seem to stretch out forever like they did when I was a child. In the deep woods the spicy sweet scented pearl or pale pink ‘mayflowers’ transport me to other realms. 

 When I first moved to the Bethel area I was thrilled to see trailing arbutus growing along the Gore Road. It was still country then and spying wild flowers was the best part of walking down my road. As the road became busier, it was widened and widened again, and these delicate wildflowers (trillium, lady slippers arbutus, columbine, Canada mayflower, marsh violets) began to disappear. It was at that point I began to dig up what remained of the wild plants. Because I am skilled in the ways of flora having been a student of nature since I was small child, I managed to successfully move every plant I dug to this oasis where these wildflowers thrive today. My land already supported some wildflower species including some very small patches of arbutus. It must be said that I do not normally try to “improve” the earth around here so nature makes most of the decisions (I believe it is my job to pay attention and follow her lead); she decided to let trailing arbutus spread.

 These days, I no longer walk down the road at all. Huge trucks belch out dirty black smoke as they scream by at impossible speeds; the only remaining green on the sides of the road is grass. The glorious spring wild flowers are a poignant memory.

Trailing arbutus creeps along the ground. Even the wide oval shaped leathery leaves are fragrant. The earth hugging stems are fuzzy. Later in the season (early fall), after the flowers bloom, a seed appears that looks something like a white raspberry. If you read the literature about trailing arbutus most sources say the plant does not like leaf litter. I have to disagree because the arbutus I grow are almost always nestled in leafy litter. Smothering is another matter; perhaps this is what the ‘experts’ mean.

This plant is a native perennial that stretches from Newfoundland to Florida. Epigaea repens is classified as subshrub and is a member of the heath family. The name “Epigaea” comes from a Greek phrase meaning “upon the earth, clearly a reference to the way the plant clings to earth. The word “repens” refers to the fact that the plant has creeping and rooting stems.

Arbutus needs shade from direct afternoon sunlight. In the wild the plant is commonly found in moist sandy soil, damp mossy banks, bogs, partially wooded clearings and under pine trees. Trailing arbutus prefers acidic soil.

Once relatively common, trailing arbutus is disappearing at an alarming rate primarilydue to logging. Other habitat loss is also a threat. The plant will not tolerate disturbance; foot traffic will kill it, permanently. Trailing arbutus is extremely vulnerable to periods of drought or flood. It is a slow growing plant under the best conditions. It may have even a more complex mycorrhizal relationship with certain fungi algae and bacteria than other woodland plants. Because the evergreen plant is cold hardy my guess is that our warming climate is already a  threat. I spent some time on the coast recently and noted that the arbutus I found was shriveled and brown, although the forest I was in was a healthy one.

Trailing arbutus is pollinated by wild bees and is a larval host for the inconspicuous Hoary Elfin butterfly (virtually every plant that I know of has some kind of intimate relationship with at least one insect – symbiosis).

Naturally, trailing arbutus was used by Indigenous peoples for medicinal purposes. Kidney ailments top the list for the Algonquin and Cherokee.

I encourage anyone with a light foot to explore forested lowlands beginning the first of May, when the broad evergreen leaves seem to light up and become more conspicuous. Around here the flowers emerge at the end of the first week in May. If an area has been recently logged, even partially, don’t bother to look because once some trees have been harvested and the ground has been disturbed/uprooted the plants will not return, unless logging occurred before the last 40 years or so when the use of smaller machines and men who cared about their land made logging more sustainable. The lilliputian trumpets are well worth getting on your knees to smell. The fragrance is unlike any other… but please don’t pick the flowers!

Burning Tree Prayer

Flames fanned

screeching west winds

snarling monster

inks the sky in red
 frightened Witness

to death of millions
 hell looms

a stinking cloud

a scarlet specter 

 whole forests

charred beyond

 recognition

 fall.
Who will intervene?
Cease this suffering?
Assuage the pain?
Too many trees

  are dying
choked by blazes

torturing the

 Miracle Workers…

who turn
 light, air, water,

into Breath
Gifting

 Life to all

Placing my palms

on White Pine

the one that

told me

 I belong

gives me courage,

the nudge

I need to believe

Prayers flow

 through my hands

I use words too

 trusting palm to bark

I sense a pulse

 Something is listening

 spreading the message

Communication by air is

not distance dependent

 three Chickadees gather 
Oh pitch pine spruce
ponderosa lodgepole 
 you surrender

 against your will
Terpènes scream

dire warnings…

Some pray for people

I pray for you
 Spirit of Nature

gather each soul
   Trees of Life

 pine cedar birch

(too many to name)

Protect them

 Perpetrators

fear loss

of human lives

but spend 

not a moment

  weeping  

for you.


Smudged charcoal
soot and ash

smoldering skeletons

death on sticks

only you can 

purify the poison

left behind

Instead we kill you

___________________

gray ash cools

 silver rain

puddles

eons pass

________________


 one day 

Four million year old

 Patterns

 hidden behind blue sky

resurrect the holy 
 Seeds contain directions

rootlets burrow deep

Pattern and Seed convene

 in my dreams

I meet ribbed Redwoods.

  Postscript:

Witnessing for the burning of the forests in New Mexico and on the west coast feels intolerable until I drive down the road and witness the shredded uprooted forests, the bare brown mountains. Fires burn trees in the west and here in the north we slay them with the saw. One murders quickly, the other more slowly – either way, even as we lose them – death stalks humans too.

 

On this mother’ s day I give thanks for every tree that lives beginning with those on my land… stretching my heart into that forest that calls me to an arbutus* strewn woodland path to walk among her flowers…

Trailing arbutus (PICTURE ON TOP) is going extinct because we have destroyed most of its habitat. This plant like so many wildflowers has a complex and poorly understood relationship with the fungi and algae, the mycelial mat that stretches across and under the detritus healthy ( left alone) woodlands.

PS: WORDPRESS ROUTINELY CHANGES THE WAY I SUBMIT POETRY – THESE PECULIAR LINE BREAKS BELONG TO WORDPRESS NOT TO ME – I’M SICK OF TRYING TO RE-CONFIGURE THEM.

Mother Days: ‘Calculated Emotional Abuse’

I took the above phrase from a post on FAR (published 5/6/22) after it triggered memories of mother abuse. A classic Handmaid’s Tale with a twist. Like Sedna I was a daughter who was thrown into the sea, her fingers cut off one by one (but not by my father). Abandoned and left to die, Daughter sank to the bottom of the sea. In the Inuit story the abused daughter survives, transforming into Mistress and Mother of the Animals. As a woman I have followed in Sedna’s footsteps in that I became a dedicated naturalist with a fierce love for all non-human creatures (and plants), but I have yet to transform my unfortunate family history. 

With Mother’s Day approaching, I am forced against my will to think about my calculating, deceitful mother who had little use for women in general, and spent her life criticizing and eventually deleting her only daughter permanently from her life. Trashed.

My first crib memory is one of raw terror – a bewildered baby crying out for a mother that never came. Comfort, compassion, love, were withheld. Now at 77 I ask myself: what was wrong with this woman?

 I was stripped of all autonomy as a child and as an adolescent. Adhering to my mother’s impossible standards was something I was never able to achieve, and eventually I gave up my flawed self in despair. Depression and a terrible emptiness characterized my life as a child and adolescent. I learned to smile to survive. I also learned to lie about pain.

Why can’t you be like – fill in the blank – she’d say to a mute adolescent who was unable to stand up for herself. After a few drinks this mother routinely turned on her daughter for absolutely no reason while the rest of the family cringed but said nothing. The words ‘calculating and cruel’ fit this dead woman’s behavior like a glove. No wonder I left home at nineteen to marry an alcoholic (just like my mother) to escape her wrath.

Judgement was King. The one quality I learned at my mother’s knee was how to judge myself unmercifully. I was inherently flawed and unworthy.

My mother was oh so clever, casting me as the outsider as an adult. I was ‘the eccentric’, the one with too much feeling, the one who lived in the sticks. This woman always took the other person’s side, even if that person had abused me.

After my mother lost my brother to suicide my children became her pet project.  

My sons are presently adults in their 50’s but the damage was done during the years my sons were children, adolescents, and young men in their twenties. Like most parents, my children had issues with their mother that my mother used to help alienate them from me, apparently twisting their minds permanently. She began this takeover when they were small children. Later as young adults she seduced them with money she never earned, leaving her daughter to face old age in poverty. My father would turn over in his grave if he knew. The minds of my children may have been co –opted to begin with but today I hold them accountable for abandonment and betrayal too. 

 I am not suggesting that I am innocent here. I became a mother before I became a person, and from the beginning had a difficult time especially with my oldest son whose screaming tantrums and raging anger terrified me. When Chris was 20 months old and I returned from the hospital with his little brother he screamed “Mama I hate you”. It wasn’t the first time. I believed him. What had I done? Insecure attachment disorder? I’ll never know. My point is that as a 20 year old mother I was literally at sea. I knew nothing about mothering never having been mothered myself.

 Unfortunately, my mother’s lifetime of abuse lives on waiting for a crisis like the one I had last winter to manifest as male and female Destroyer. Both. On new year’s eve I broke my foot shoveling ice and damaged it further by not being able to get help when I desperately needed it. Frightened out of my wits, my fears escalated to an unbearable pitch. I couldn’t take care of myself, I couldn’t get help, I was getting too old; I had to sell the house.

 I made the decision to sell based on childhood helplessness. I did not understand what I was doing until it was too late.

My mother had come to life again as destroyer of self, as she always does when I am most vulnerable.

 Fortunately, circumstances changed and I was able to reverse the decision for a price. I started sleeping again. I opened to the unknown coming to terms with the truth that winters are too hard and I must find another place to live for at least three months each year. 

Another life perspective has shifted; I acknowledge that although it may be possible to stay in this little cabin and on land I love for a while longer, that I must also begin to prepare for a permanent leave – taking. With this in mind (after the reversal), and finding the help I needed quite effortlessly, I cleared my house of virtually everything I did not need (and I am not a collector of stuff). Even the garage has been cleaned out. When the last piece of extra furniture, book, family picture, dish went out the door I experienced a profound sense of relief. I felt physically lighter. It took a couple of days to understand that I had not only let go of furniture etc. but I had released myself from past trauma, family and otherwise, or had been released from it on some inexplicable level – maybe both.

When the time does come to sell the house I will be prepared and ready to go. And I have a realtor who is also a friend I trust.

 Yesterday, after having a conversation with my doctor regarding my recent crisis I didn’t resist when he brought up the value of seeing a therapist because of the severity of my mother’s abuse, coupled with other childhood, adolescent, and adult traumas had all come together to unhinge me during this last crisis. 

 What drove my crazed fear was that infant’s terror/child/adolescent fear of abandonment – I had no place to go – and no family to help me – and that fright paralyzed me on a level I have never experienced before. I have survived profound losses in my life, and assumed I would be able to deal with this loss too, but I was wrong. Leaving a beloved home without having any place to go catapulted me into Sedna’s realm as lost daughter; I was stuck at the bottom of the sea. I am not certain that any conventional therapy can help, but I am willing to try a few sessions of MDR to see. 

Last week I had a dream that I wanted to marry a dolphin, a dream that delighted me. I have always loved dolphins and spent a lot of time around these mammals when I was young and again at mid- life when I was doing research in the Amazon. As one of Sedna’s daughters, wanting to marry a dolphin seems hopeful because dolphins move back and forth between two worlds. They live in the sea but breathe sweet air,  most surfacing frequently to do so. 50 million years ago dolphins were originally land animals that chose to enter the sea. One major difference between dolphins and humans today is that dolphins must also choose to breathe to stay alive; they do not breathe reflexively. 

  Is it possible that marrying a dolphin might be Sedna’s gift to me?

Greater Celandine Notes

Greater Celandine in bloom

About twenty years ago I brought home a beautiful blue green rosette from a neighbors house. Greater celandine was growing in a few clumps in an old garden that had gone wild. I watched as my plant grew quite tall and bushy before producing bright yellow four – petaled flowers that bees just loved. At that time I still had honey – bees but I noticed that in addition to honey and bumblebees other wild bees and hummingbirds also visited this flower.

 

rosette in my garden/early May

The best part of this plant was that it bloomed from late spring through late summer and required absolutely no care from me. It also produced very elegant slender seed – pods that popped open all at once. Gradually this wild member of the poppy family spread to a few other locations, favoring moist areas and some shade, but in all these years it has never become invasive, so I was shocked to read that it is now considered an alien species that needs to be eradicated at all cost. I had some work done around the foundation two years in a row and lost all the celandine that liked to grow under the old fashioned hydrangea on the west side of the house. Foot traffic was enough to destroy the plants. This spring I am taking great care with the greater celandine I have left. 

 ‘Highly invasive’? Not here.

 Perhaps equally important is that the plant produces seed- pods that are easy to remove before they pop. This year I will be casting ripe seeds along with the ants who normally do this job on their own. Because greater celandine is shallow rooted it is also ridiculously easy to remove if a plant ends up where it is unwanted.

Celandine originally came from Europe where the plant was used medicinally – topically to treat warts – internally to treat digestive disorders.

We are losing so many plants to habitat loss that I feel deep distress when I see plants like greater celandine demonized. We seem to have developed a militant attitude towards eradicating any plant that is not ‘native’. Refusing to allow nature to make plant decisions although she has been doing this for more than 450 million years reveals our colossal human ignorance and hubris. Perhaps if we allowed nature to take the lead s/he would address plant imbalances in creative ways beyond human imagining. 

Turn Turn Turn; A Reflection on Aging

Migrating Sandhill Cranes

 In feminism becoming a ‘wise’ crone is acknowledged (it is certainly true that experience brings insight), but the vulnerabilities associated with aging remain hidden. I wonder how much of this silence has to do with shame? Does our culture’s obsession with youth keep us quiet?  If so this attitude isolates women from one another when older women need each other’s support more than ever. Lately, I find myself keenly aware that I need to write about the changes that are occurring in my own life so that I remain visible to myself if not to others.

When it comes to the challenges of aging the silence is deafening. 

Turn, Turn, Turn

It’s May Day. At dawn I scoop water from the brook, first pouring some on the earth and then, returning to the house, I bless the floor of the log cabin that is my home. I light candles for intentions… Too sensitive to light (phototrophic) I am acutely aware that the wheel is turning her face towards the harsh white glare of summer.

 A dangerous time. 

The light of the noonday star casts no shadow.

 I bless my animals, my body-mind. Listening to Phoebe’s sweet two syllable call, and thrilled by the Grosbeak’s arrival I give thanks for every bird, bee and flower – for all the wild beings, and for deep silence at sunrise. The Earth is a Lady in Waiting.

Rose breasted Grosbeak

I listen to inner voices I want to heed…

My aging body instructs me sternly. You broke a foot in last winter’s ice. Move slowly and mindfully. Pay attention to pain; don’t ignore it. Your bones are fragile; you are growing old. Honor your life. Don’t expect that others will. Give thanks. Help nature and people any way that you can, even if it is just through prayer. These are your jobs now…

Sit under your favorite trees… “a woman sits on the ground leaning against a pine. Its bark presses hard against her back… its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tune down to the lowest frequencies. The tree is saying things in words before words”. (Richard Powers)

Yes.

Hemlock

During the summer season, take refuge in cool forests, flowing streams, breathe in fragrant hemlock terpenes, give thanks for leafy canopies,  “a chorus of living wood sings…if your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning” (Richard Powers).

 Listen to the water sounds that preceded creation. Remember that you don’t have to live through a culture that predicates itself on speed – or embrace doing and distraction as a way of life. 

 Lean into your latest passions… learn more about mosses. Paint. The first green plants emerged out of a sea of green algae 450 million years ago to become miniature emerald forests. The mind – bending truth is that these diminutive plants are identical to those that first emerged from water  – they survived five extinctions unscathed. Four hundred fifty years million years old!  Miraculous. Bryologist/author Robin Wall Kimmerer says moss forests support a plethora of wildlife including microscopic water bears.

Love your dogs!

Lucy

 Bask in the glow of the setting sun – let the bruised – blue evening and fractured diamond sky overcome you with wonder, gratitude, and peace…

Of course, the decisions I make about how to spend my time are different from those that others might make. What’s important is that as we age we make choices that are not only meaningful for us as individuals, but those that accord our aging bodies the respect they deserve, acknowledged or not.

Refuge: May Eve

I cross an invisible threshold after I open the silver gate. My key opens the door to a forest woven from Nature’s Grace. 

Refuge. 

The earth is carpeted with needles and mosses, a family of elegant hemlocks open their arms to the sky with a trust I envy. Rain will continue to bathe dry needles green. Roots will be nourished by the river’s flow. 

The silence of this hemlock forest permeates my bones; spreading boughs create stained glass light. All these trees may have germinated roughly around the same time judging by their size. Relatives everywhere. Hemlocks are monoecious, that is, they have male and female flowers on the same tree. Males develop globular pollen packets and after pollination gently scalloped female cones are formed; a pale brown they cascade earthward from the tips of bowed branches. I look for signs of the old ‘mother’ trees, both male and female, who once gave birth to this fragrant forest full of terpenes, and found none. Left alone to thrive, hemlocks are the redwoods of the east, living 500 years or more so traces of the old ones have probably become soil. I place my hands on one ribbed trunk and peer skyward into the blue remembering Richard Power’s words. “If your minds were only a slightly greener thing we would drown you in meaning”. Trees have survived five mass extinctions and are 400 million years old. They will endure, although perhaps not in their present forms

 I am immeasurably comforted by this knowledge. On my way here I witnessed more tree destruction. Thousands hacked to the ground, roots ripped away, soil ruined, beneficent microbes murdered, mycelial skin torn to shreds. A mindless travesty. Only dead soldiers remain waiting to be trucked to the mill. 

 But not here. I listen and can hear nothing but the rivers flow – water over stone – an ancient rumbling low – pitched sound – music that preceded life as we know it. Perhaps this is why my body becomes the receiver it’s meant to be when I come to this place; I am channeling creation.

 Below me, huge granite glacial boulders rise up out of the choppy water like whales sounding through the trees. Nature stitches herself into a living tapestry, growing, decaying, changing always, in the service of life. How comforting it is to be in such presence. A silent thank you rises into moist cool air from my grateful heart.

I pick my way gingerly down the steep mossy bank to the river. This slow descent allows me to examine rugged roots clinging to the slope. I note the plethora of new hemlock seedlings that are taking root in rich duff. Dr. Suzanne Simard’s studies were the first to demonstrate that seedlings are nourished by  ‘elders’ who also favor their own kin. Balsam saplings are in abundance too.

A phoebe is hidden somewhere in a tangle of deciduous trees further up the hill alerting me to his presence with a sweet repetitive call … I look around not expecting to find him and discover a nest instead. Ah, avian companions soon to become family.

I force myself to look for wooly adelgid, the Asian aphid – like insect that is spreading through Maine’s hemlocks. I read that quarantine does not extend to our area (4/23/22) although the disease has spread as far west as Minot. Has anyone taken the time to examine our hemlocks? My neighbor in Bryant Pond, whose forest has been decimated by the logging machine, has hemlocks covered in white cotton. Nearby, mine seem healthy for now but for how long? There is no cure for this disease. However, recent studies have shown that hemlocks’ terpene production increases with adelgid infestation and may provide some natural defense to this destructive insect as long as the trees are growing close together like they are here.

 I recently made a trip to coastal Maine where all the hemlocks are being cut down as a result of insect infestation. Warmer temperatures on the coast may have hastened the tree’s demise. I also question whether or not general forest health might reduce or at least slow the spread of this disease. My little patch of hemlock forest (along with the other trees) has been left alone for 40 some years, and so far no infestation.

In this cathedral it is the same. Healthy hemlocks everywhere. These stately trees may be older than mine, they are surely bigger, but because hemlocks can remain understory trees for so many years before enough light opens up to let them grow it is hard to know the age of any of them. Their primary strategy for long-term survival is their ability to adapt to low light. And because the trunks split unevenly, foresters had no use for them until recently. Today hemlock are logged along with the rest and used for mulch by gardeners who spread woolly adelgid unknowingly (or carelessly) around their plants. The chips are also compressed to feed polluting pellet stoves, so now hemlock trees are taken along with the rest. “This endless gift of a place is going away.” Power’s words haunt me.

Scrambling up the hill I turn my attention to the mosses. Robin Wall Kimmerer tells us that 450 million years ago mosses climbed out of a sea of green algae onto dry land; they are the ‘mothers’ of all terrestrial green plants including trees! Without roots or a vascular (fluid carrying) system mosses first attached themselves to stone by rhizoids, clinging to any crevice that held a drop of moisture. As they photosynthesized they changed the composition of the atmosphere. Most remarkable, mosses have survived five extinctions too; they are older than trees, but in their case they kept the same shapes! 450 million years and mosses look the same as they did when they first became terrestrial. I am awestruck. 

Today we have an impressive 1200 – 1700 (some sources say 2200,) moss species some of which inhabit every continent including the Antarctic. Mosses absorb water and nutrients directly and evenly through their diminutive leaves like a sponge, and during dry spells they stop photosynthesizing. They have two different growth habits. Acrocarpous mosses grow upright almost like miniature conifer trees and their spore producing capsules arise at the end of their stems. Pleurocarpous mosses have branching stems and often create dense mats on the ground. Their sporophytes arise from the side of stems. 

As I look around me I see a dense grayish green mat that stretches out under the hemlocks and pines covering relatively level ground, rocks, and decaying logs. I think this carpet might be brocade moss, a fast spreading feather moss. Mosses are usually found in areas where there is some moisture (although they are the first colonizers of disturbed land and you can also find some growing in cracks of concrete city streets!). Most also thrive in poor or sandy substrate. Amazingly, some species can even remove impurities from the soil.

 Here at Refuge mosses act like a nursery. Wintergreen, partridgeberry, balsam and hemlock seedlings are thriving along with club and other mosses all tucked in the moisture capturing rug. I promise myself once again that I will devote this summer to learning about each of the mosses I find here and in this general area – an ambitious undertaking I am learning from the research I have already begun.

Next I wander over to an imaginary animal that behaves like a granite boulder. Examining one flank I note the presence of lichens, some are rosettes, others sprawl unevenly over the surface of gray rock. Lichens are ancient beings that are 250 million years old; each one is composed of both an alga and fungus, sometimes bacteria are included in the mix. One photosynthesizes, the other provides purchase, both make up one organism. In some places tiny oval clumps of forest green velvet cling tenaciously to small indentations in mica flecked rock. This strange animal is telling me an ancient glacial story. I run my hand over the nubbly granite imagining a perilous journey to reach this perfect resting place. Where did it come from as it tumbled here under the ice sheet?

I peer at dampened leaves bunched together on the ground listening to papery beech whose old leaves rattle like skeletons on in a light breeze. Gazing around me I note other beech, red oak, birch, maple, a few blueberry bushes, all deciduous trees/shrubs that drop their leaves in late fall except for the stubborn beech. During the summer an emerald leafy canopy will help the hemlocks and pines keep this place cool while negative ions rise out of rushing waters purifying already pristine air…

Dusk brings in a chill and a few drops of rain. It’s time to leave. I’ve been time traveling all afternoon, under the spell of deep time. I say goodbye to the trees, the boulder, my companion the phoebe, and begin my journey home.