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.
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,
In Abiquiu, New Mexico where I have spent winters for the past four years they are finding hundreds… I can’t help feeling relief that I am not there to witness this horror – there is something about dead birds that cements grief into the eternal.
Audubon – dead birds – Kevin Johnson
The Southwest Is Facing an ‘Unprecedented’ Migratory Bird Die-Off
Scientists and birders have found large numbers of migratory species disoriented and dead in recent weeks. Here’s what we know so far.
A dozen dead Barn and Violet-green Swallows huddled together on the dusty desert floor of southern New Mexico. Numerous Western Bluebirds packed into a crevice in southern Colorado as if they panicked. Sparrows, lined up almost wing-to-wing, lying limply along the banks of the Rio Grande.
These are just a few of the grisly discoveries recently made in what is likely a mass death event for migratory birds occurring across the Southwest. At the moment, there is no clear explanation.
The die-off is “unprecedented,” says Martha Desmond, an avian ecologist at New Mexico State University (NMSU) in Las Cruces, who is leading the research team documenting the event. She estimates that hundreds of thousands and possibly even up to a million birds have died across at leastfive U.S. states and in four Mexican states. “It’s enormous, the extent of this,” Desmond says. “We haven’t counted all the species yet, but there are lots of species involved.” Online reports show dead owls, warblers, hummingbirds, loons, flycatchers, woodpeckers, and more—representing the wide diversity of migrants heading south to their wintering grounds.
The exact reasons for the deaths aren’t yet known. A cold snap that brought snow, wind, and low temperatures across the region on September 8 and 9 could have forced birds to migrate early or brought down birds already weak from migration. Similarly, wildfires raging along the West Coast might have spurred premature departures while also interfering with birds’ migratory routes, vision, and breathing. Some combination of both factors may also be the cause, but experts emphasize that nothing has been proven so far. “There’s more questions than answers still,” says Jon Hayes, executive director of Audubon Southwest.
Scientists first began reporting avian deaths throughout New Mexico in August. Initially they didn’t think anything particularly unusual was going on: Birds expend a massive amount of energy flying hundreds or thousands of miles while also dodging deadly threats like bad weather, predators, and buildings. “The tragic but true fact of migrations is that birds die,” Hayes says. “Migration is very tough.”
But as reports of bird deaths became more widespread and continued into September, researchers started to become alarmed. More and more photos showing dead or disoriented birds on the ground were posted to a regional listserv, and observations of abnormal behavior, atypical flight patterns, and stray or vagrant birds across the Southwest further supported some sort of mass catastrophe.
With the situation growing more dire, the NMSU scientists sprang into action. Desmond quickly convened wildlife experts from the university, the Bureau of Land Management, and White Sands Missile Range, where a large number of birds were found dead on August 20. Since then, the collaborative research team has already begun a sweeping study of as many migratory birds as they can collect, living or dead, to understandwhat might have happened. Along with examining bird carcasses—more than 300 so far—researchers are catching and banding migrants passing through.
The first possible cause the researchers considered was recent unseasonal weather in the Southwest, which brought temperatures in the 30s and 40s, high winds, and snow to parts of the region. “A lot of birds probably died with the weather event that happened a week ago,” Desmond says. It’s also possible the cold spell forced birds to depart on their migration earlier than anticipated, she says. But the storms abated last week and birds continue to die. “It’s also very troubling that all of this started well before the [cold] weather, and it’s still continuing after the weather.”
The ongoing wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington could also be playing a role.
The ongoing wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington could also be playing a role. Wildfires are known to force early migration movements from bird species, and the smoke can poison the air while decreasing visibility. “The wildfire smoke is significant . . . You couldn’t see across the street,” Hayes says, regarding air quality conditions from his home in Placitas, New Mexico. “There’s no doubt in my mind that’s going to affect birds, too.”
Hayes sees a connection between these different extreme weather events. “This is about abrupt changes in our weather patterns as a result of climate change,” he says. “All these things are going to cause long-term declines, long-term losses [of birds], and they’re gonna be punctuated by big scary events like this. It’s part of this bigger problem.”
A 2019 study led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology found that North America is currently home to 3 billion fewer birds than it was 50 years ago due to multifold changes to habitat and food sources. Also last year, scientists with the National Audubon Society used 140 million bird sightings to project how birds will be affected by climate change in the coming century. They found that 389 bird species, including some killed in the current die-off, are threatened with extinction as temperatures and rainfall patterns shift. Many are also at risk from weather events like wildfires made more extreme by the warming climate.
A Burning Testament Terry Tempest Williams 15 September 2020
“With these ashes in hand that have fallen from near and far on the drought-cracked desert of Utah, I raise my fist to a smoke-choked sky to honor the holy creatures, human and wild, who have lost their lives and homes to the galloping flames like rider-less horses burning through the West . We are witness to ghostly horizons lit with the scalding colors of, red, orange, purple, black, the blowout of close to five million acres of land being ravaged by fires with such velocity it is melting our capacity to feel the full magnitude of what is happening – We are not okay. We are anxious. We are scared. There is no place to run. There is no place to hide. There is only our love and grief to hold us in the terror of all we are seeing, sensing, denying. We can’t touch the source of our despair because we can’t touch each other. And so we retreat inside when everything outside is screaming. We are sitting in rooms watching screens alone, waiting, as if this is a pause instead of a place, the place where we find ourselves now. The facts do not tell the story of how our hearts are breaking, nor do the photographs of blackened forests or lone chimneys standing as monuments to homes once inhabited, or does the news speak to the terror of fleeing fires lapping at our heels that we can never outrun only pray for a change in the wind. No one is reporting the smells of burnt fur or feathers or leaves and sap or the cold hard truth of those who find the missing frozen in their last gestures of escape beneath a blanket of ashes, ashes — not even the stories reported by biologists in New Mexico who are picking up the bodies of hundreds of thousands of migrating birds in mixed flocks of warblers, flycatchers, sparrows, and finches found dead on the ground in Great White Sands with no explanation but the conjecture they died from exhaustion, forced to flee the forests before their bodies were fattened ready to make the long journeys south. Our valley is a steady stream of birds who stop and drink from our well, our bird baths and tubs we have waiting for them. And there are nine known bears in our valley who have come down from the mountains looking for food and water. They wander through our community in shrouds of smoke they have been unable to shake off from last month’s epic fires in Colorado, a few wing beats away as the raven flies. Unable at times to distinguish day from night, we have only have a blood red sun and an orange-faced moon exchanging places in the sky to orient us as temperatures rise, fires rage, and before our eyes, in a flash, a neighboring national forest becomes the charred citadel of a vibrant world – gone. We are saying farewell to what we love and why we stay. How can we stay? The landscape of the American West is burning and we are burning, too. We have been living a myth. We have constructed a dream. We have cajoled and seduced ourselves into believing we are the center of all things; with plants and other sentient beings from ants to lizards to coyotes and grizzly bears, remaining subservient to our whims, desires, and needs. This is a lethal lie that will be seen by future generations as a grave, a grave moral sin committed and buried in the name of ignorance and arrogance. It is true, We have mismanaged our forests and suppressed fire for decades. We have ignored and failed to listen to the wisdom of Indigenous People who have understood and lived with fire for generations. We have built our homes within the woods when we should have respected the necessary breathing spaces between the domestic and the wild. We have overbuilt and overridden the carrying capacity of arid landscapes and underestimated the limits of water in times of drought. We have sacrificed the integrity of fragile and iconic landscapes for the development of oil and gas to fuel “the American way of life.” This is freedom unmasked. We have a right to live as we wish. Until we can’t. Our reckless history of human habitation in the American West is on a collision course with the climate crisis. Climate Change is not a hoax. It is real and it is a fire-breathing dragon blowing fire at our doors. We cannot breathe. This is our mantra in America now. We cannot breathe because of the smoke. We cannot breathe because of a virus that has entered our homes. We cannot breathe because of police brutality and too many black bodies dead on the streets. We cannot breathe because we are holding our breath for the people and places we love. I was asked to write an obituary for the land – but I realize I am writing an obituary for us, for the life we have lost and can never return to – and within this burning of western lands, our innocence and denial is in flames. The obituary will be short. The time came and these humans died from the old ways of being. Good riddance. It was time. Their cause of death was the terminal disease of solipsism whereby humans put themselves at the center of the universe. It was only about them. And in so doing were have been dead to the world that is alive. To the power of these burning, illuminated western lands who have shaped our character, inspired our souls, and restored our belief in what is beautiful and enduring – I will never write your obituary–because even as you burn, you are throwing down seeds that will sprout and flower, trees will grow, and forests will rise again as living testaments to how one survives change. It is time to grieve and mourn the dead and believe in the power of renewal. If we do not embrace our grief, our sadness will come out sideways in unexpected forms of depression and violence. We must dare to find a proper ceremony to collectively honor the dead from the coronavirus as we approach 200,000 citizens lost. We must honor the lives engulfed in these western fires and the lives we will continue to lose from the climate crisis at hand — Only then can we begin the work of restoration, respecting the generations to come as we clear a path toward cooling a warming planet. This will be our joy. Let this be a humble tribute, an exaltation, an homage, and an open-hearted eulogy to all we are losing to fire to floods to hurricanes and tornadoes and the invisible virus that has called us all home and brought us to our knees — We are not the only species that lives and loves and breathes on this miraculous planet called Earth – May we remember this – and raise a fist full of ash to all the lives lost that it holds. Grief is love. How can we hold this grief without holding each other? To bear witness to this moment of undoing is to find the strength and spiritual will to meet the dark and smoldering landscapes where we live. We can cry. Our tears will fall like rain in the desert and wash off our skins of ash so our pores can breathe, so our bodies can breathe back the lives that we have taken for granted. I will mark my heart with an “X” made of ash that says, the power to restore life resides here. The future of our species will be decided here. Not by facts but by love and loss. Hand on my heart, I pledge of allegiance to the only home I will ever know.”
A couple of weeks ago I had to cut down a sixty seven year old White pine near my house. And yesterday I found the most beautiful lichen that must have fallen from that tree, something called Fringed Wrinkle lichen, a lichen that thrives in the uppermost branches of Eastern white pine and hemlock trees.
I am frankly fascinated by lichen. Because this summer has been so hot and dry I have spent more time in the woods than usual. Mushrooms have been scarce and I have been looking at various lichens marveling over their ability to deal with drought conditions. During dry spells lichen become dry and crispy but don’t expire. Lichens grow on rocks, trees, and in the soils in many different environments. Around the house I must have at least twenty different types of lichen, maybe more. I haven’t counted all of them.
Lichen is composed of two organisms that arise in a symbiotic relationship. One is an alga or cyanobacteria and the other is a fungus. The algae live among the filaments of fungi. Evidently the fungus is the predominant partner because it determines the majority of the alga’s characteristics, from its curious shapes to its fruiting/spore producing bodies. Some lichens have more than one algal partner.
Fungi depend upon the algae for nutrients since they do not contain chlorophyll and cannot photosynthesize. Algae and cyanobacteria can manufacture carbohydrates with the help of light via the process of photosynthesis. By contrast, fungi do not make their own carbohydrates. Every fungus needs existing organic matter from which to obtain carbon. Fungi provide water for the algae and decompose the organic matter around them. When looked at microscopically the fungal partner is composed of filaments called hyphae. The hyphae grow by extension – branching and fusing. In lichens some of the carbohydrates produced by the algae are, of course, used by the alga but some is ‘harvested’ by the fungus.
There are 20,000 lichens on earth. They can be found growing in almost all parts of the terrestrial world, from the ice-free polar areas to the tropics, from tropical rainforests to those desert areas free of mobile sand dunes. While generally terrestrial a few aquatic lichens are known. The surfaces (substrates) on which lichens grow vary from soil, rock, wood, bone to the man-made concrete, glass, canvas, metal etc.
Amazingly, Lichens possess structures not formed by either of the partners and produce chemicals usually absent when the fungus or the alga are cultivated separately and so lichens are more than a sum of their parts. In fact, lichens synthesize over 800 substances, many of them not found elsewhere in nature. That they produce powerful antiviral properties that protect them and could be useful to humans is a fact. Why are we not studying them?
Lichens come in many sizes forms and colors. Around here some of my favorites are the bearded lichens that hang from the dying spruce down by the brook, and even in drought they keep their sage gray green color. Others like the Fringed Wrinkle lichen intrigue me because they are bi –colored and so wave-like in appearance. The neatly puffed shape of Reindeer moss, (yes, it is a lichen) is another. There is a pale pink lichen that grows along my road and the crimson topped British Soldiers is yet another much appreciated lichen species.
As much as I love the gray green lichens my absolutely favorite lichen is orange. Sunburst lichens grow from the coast of Maine to New Mexico. When I lived on Monhegan island I was surrounded by these lichens which grow on rock outcroppings near the sea. I don’t recall where I have seen any sunburst lichen around here except in graveyards. Parietin, the pigment that colors sunbursts intensifies under sunlight. The stronger the solar irradiance, the denser the pigment. When growing in the woods most sunburst lichens don’t need sunblock so they are more yellow than orange. Parietin protects the sensitive algal partner from exposure to ultraviolet rays. This pigment also protects the slow growing lichen from slugs and other herbivores who otherwise might denude them because of the way the pigment tastes.
On the porch of the casita in New Mexico I have a slightly squared stone that a friend found on a hike and gave me a couple of years ago that has a thin crust of orange lichen on it. I have watered it from time to time noting that despite my attention the color has dimmed. Is this because it came from the high country where the air is less congested with particles? I don’t know.
For a naturalist like me sunburst lichens help me to get a reading on who might have once been in the area. At the seacoast the color orange suggests that seabirds were present; farther inland the presence of orange lichen over a crevice might indicate a coyote or fox den. Orange lichen appearing on a branch of spruce or balsam provides me with evidence that an owl might have roosted here for a time. Newly laid dung will provide the substrate for a colony of orange lichen to appear in a few years.
Lichens are usually described as having a leaf -like (like my fringed friend), crusty, or branching/shrublike forms. Lichens often play an important part in the weathering of rocks. When lichens attach to rocks, they retain moisture and are instrumental in breaking down the stone. This process is an essential component for producing soil in a barren environment, but it takes years.
In the desert it is easy to spot dark clumpy soil areas, which are actually a layer which can include cyanobacteria, lichens, mosses, green algae, microfungi, and bacteria. This living biomass binds particles of soil, reduces erosion, fixes nitrogen, and can add organic matter. These areas are very fragile and even a footstep reduces their functioning which can take years to rebuild. In Abiquiu, the local cattle trample this delicate ground with impunity.
Lichens are widely used for many different purposes throughout the world. The most common use is dye production. Litmus paper is made from a dye mixture extracted from the Rocella species which is then applied to filter paper. Dyes used for clothing were used in the Scottish Highlands and produced red, orange, brown, and yellow. Purple dyes used throughout Europe from the 15ththrough 17thcenturies were extracted from lichens.
Many lichens have been used medicinally. A lichen’s usefulness as a medicine is often related to the lichen secondary compounds that are abundant in most lichen. It is estimated that 50-percent of all lichen species have antibiotic properties. Many lichen extracts have been found to be effective in killing the bacteria that cause boils, scarlet fever, and pneumonia.
Lichen are sensitive to atmospheric pollution including nitrogen and sulfur emissions that lead to acid rain, as well as toxic lead and mercury emissions. This sensitivity makes lichen a valuable biological indicator of air quality.
Some sensitive lichen species develop structural changes in response to air pollution including reduced photosynthesis and bleaching. Pollution can also cause the death of the lichen algae, discoloration and reduced growth of the lichen fungus, or kill a lichen completely. The most sensitive lichens are shrubby and leafy while the most tolerant lichens are crust-like lichens. Lichens have been around for 400 million years and have learned how to cooperate and live in harmony. These fascinating and sometimes diminutive animal – plant ‘beings’ with their antibiotic/antiviral properties could be powerful teachers helping humans to develop medicines that could help with our current pandemic, as well as modeling the ability to cooperate despite ‘difference’ something our dominate culture has yet to learn.
“Quivers of light” pierce darkening thoughts when I examine a piece of lichen – part animal – part plant – these two live together in harmony, each dependent upon each other for life. Lichen are both a fungus and an alga – the latter a photosynthesizing organism… fungi receive sugar from the algae and the algal partners receive protection… this symbiosis or reciprocity is 400 million years strong. As I live with the drought that is stealing the life force from the trees and plants around me, I look at lichen and feel that quivering Earth Light shining through our present crisis. Earth will live on.
This summer because of the heat and drought I have spent a lot of time across the brook in my woods because it is always so cool in there. As parched as the land is elsewhere, in the forest I can still find the occasional mushroom, examine various mosses and lichens (the latter remind me that the air quality is excellent), peer into rich green bogs searching for new plants, or sit by the feeder brook that still trickles down the mountain.
The deep shade I seek is due in part to the graceful Hemlocks that tower over my head. When this land was last cut about 40 years ago the Hemlocks were spared because they weren’t considered to be a valuable ‘resource.’ They are the biggest trees on my land and I love them. Even today although clear cutting removes all trees including the Hemlock this tree is not considered to be of much value in comparison to other trees like pine or spruce.
Hemlocks are the most shade tolerant species of all trees. They can persist in the understory as a suppressed tree for up to 400 years. In places where they are still allowed to grow it is not uncommon to see a one inch diameter Hemlock sapling that is 60 to 100 years old.
Although they grow slowly they can reach two to four feet in diameter and 100 feet or more in height. Our Eastern Hemlocks can take 250 to 300 years to reach maturity and can live more than 800 years. The oldest Eastern Hemlock is almost 1000 years old (988 years).
Hemlocks have to have certain conditions to regenerate. Although they produce their little cones frequently – every two or three years – seed viability is low. In order for the seeds to germinate (many are destroyed by insects) temperature and moisture conditions have to be just right. Temperatures have to be around 44 – 64 degrees for a few weeks and adequate moisture has to be present for seeds to germinate.
Hemlocks like to grow in pure stands but they also closely associate themselves with white pine, spruce and fir, yellow birch, red oak, and red maple. A tree loving friend of mine would add Northern White cedar to the mix and I would too. Hemlocks are often found along lower slopes and along streams. I have a lot of young Hemlocks growing down by my brook. Hemlock roots help prevent erosion along river and stream banks, and their dense canopies provide cool shade keeping the air around them full of moisture.
Tannaries were a major industry in New England during the 1800’s. High in tannins, Hemlock bark was prized for treating animal hides because tannins are a preservative. The bark gives leather a dark red-brown color. Millions of Hemlocks were felled and stripped of their bark. The rest of the tree was left to rot, a disgusting waste from my point of view but so typical of the American lumber industry…Economy ‘trumps’ Life every time. The tanning industry declined in the early 1900’s giving Hemlocks a chance to reestablish stands before these trees were logged again.
Hemlock presently represents about 20 – 25 percent of the softwood timber industry in the northeast.
Today the lumber is used for timber frames, to build barns and is a popular choice for bridges on logging roads and trails, but isn’t considered ‘valuable’ like pine or spruce.
Wildlife benefit from Hemlock stands. Dense stands reduce snow depth and help moderate temperatures helping deer and rabbits conserve energy during the cold winter months. Many birds and other mammals use Hemlock stands for breeding and protection. Owls, in particular like Hemlock and here I have Barred owls living in my woods along with grouse, and turkey. Porcupines feed on Hemlock bark and branches. When walking through the woods if you see an area with lots of Hemlock branches on the ground at once you know a porcupine is feeding in the area. Our collective nemesis, the Red squirrel, eats Hemlock cones.
Unfortunately several insects attack Hemlocks. The woolly adelgid (the worst) is a non native insect that feeds on hemlock twigs and creates a loss of tree needles (it can also be found on Norfolk Island pines – so beware of white “snowy” patches on these or other live trees that are sold as indoor Christmas trees). This insect reduces the ability of the tree to produce new growth, and an untreated infestation can kill a tree in 2 – 12 years. Unfortunately this pest has reached Maine’s coastal areas and is spreading inland.
Over one third of the Eastern hemlock’s native range has been infested with this bug. The larvae spread rapidly through the air on their own or by wind and birds. Even though a quarantine has been established for Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, the infestation is spreading. The 2013 revision of the quarantine rule is one reason why:
“Hemlock chips with top material, and uncomposted bark with top material from quarantined areas may be imported into non-quarantined areas in the State of Maine provided that said material is shipped only to sites within Maine that are preapproved by the Maine Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry. Such sites must have a compliance agreement with the Maine Forest Service”.
Here is the kind of legal crazymaking loophole that catches my hair on fire. If you use bark as mulch, which many gardeners do you are probably responsible for the spread of this devastating disease.
In the northern portion of the Hemlock’s range, the color of the Hemlocks infested by this invasive insect will typically change from a healthy, dark green to a sickly, grayish-green color after just a few years, and death typically occurs four to ten years after an initial infestation. Any trees that do manage to survive the direct effects of this assault are usually weakened to the point where they may die from secondary causes.
Hemlock scale and Hemlock borers are additional threats. Brown flecks on the needles reveal the presence of the scale. Should you note a collection of orange chips surrounding a Hemlock tree (due to woodpeckers drilling into the cambium for insects) then the Hemlock has probably been infested by the borers.
Once the insects are established on Hemlocks there is little to be done. The Maine Forest service has released a couple of non native insects from Japan to deal with infestations, creating of course, another problem in its wake. With the future of these trees so uncertain I take refuge in the present and spend a lot of time appreciating these beautiful woodland trees. One day, they may not be around to enjoy.
Yesterday I trotted down the hill to water my cedar garden with a container full of mineral rich rain-water. I opened the gate and entered the enclosure Marcus had fashioned. The wire stretched around the back of Trillium Rock and followed the uneven contours of the land ending at an entrance that completed the meandering oval. We hoped that to protect the baby cedars that had been planted inside from being damaged by woodland grazing animals.
I felt a sense of peace as I entered the space but was unprepared for the strange blurring of boundaries or the heightening sensation of dissolution followed by oneness that stole over me as I stood there quietly. Simultaneously, I could feel myself being connected as if by invisible threads not just to the seedlings, but to the whole space on a level that also dissolved differences. Dissolution and Oneness. The experience peaked and then evaporated leaving me standing there wondering what had happened even before I bent to water and inspect each seedling. Most peculiar, the two sensations – Dissolution and Oneness – suddenly seemed to me to be the same experience.
I also thought about the feeling of being connected by threads…Could it also be that the cooperative mycorrhizal network beneath my feet was drawing me in on some level, possibly communicating its desire to include me in something that was beyond my conscious ability to comprehend? As fantastic as this idea sounded, I thought it might be true. I imagined being part of a wild decentralized underground fungal network that stretched across the continent under the land and sea, a network without a center, yet one whose minute hyphae probably explored every inch of this earth, each root tip branching, learning adapting, changing… Yes, anything was possible.
As I watered each seedling looking for changes in leaf structure or color that might indicate problems, I left this mind-bending tangle of possibilities behind to reflect upon other events that led to creating the garden…
Two years ago I lost a beautiful adult cedar that I had planted in front of the cabin to winter deer grazing. I was still mourning the loss of my Guardian tree, one that my friend and neighbor Mark had let me dig up from his land 15 years ago.
Last year I replaced it with another cedar seedling, left for the winter, and returned to discover a really nasty tree-hating neighbor had pulled apart my rock garden and crushed my baby cedar.
This summer after an earnest conversation with Mark who complained that too many deer were eating the cedars before they could mature, I decided to dig up some seedlings to plant them around here somewhere… I asked my young friend Marcus, Mark’s son to help me.
I chose Trillium Rock as the backdrop for the cedar garden because I loved this granite stone that overlooked the brook. My brother’s ashes had been lovingly placed in the ground on the other side of the glacial boulder that was covered in lichens and moss. Recently a new three lobed trillium graced the top of the rock. A poignant memory surfaced one evening when I was down there a few days ago: my brother had given me a cross section of cedar that looked just like a flower for Christmas the year before he died…He loved cedars too…
In front of the stone Marcus had felled a couple of dead trees leaving beautiful tree patterns that lay flush with the uneven ground. These created perfect niches for seedlings to thrive in rich woodland soil. A small forest was sprouting inside the enclosure – spruce, hemlock, a clump of balsams, ash, and maple seedlings were thriving, and just to the right of the enclosure stood a young adult cedar who, thanks to the tree felling, now had full access to the sun. I knew that trees helped each other and their kin and I hoped the adult would adopt the seedlings after they were planted, encouraging their growth by funneling nutrients to them by way of the underground mycorrhizal network that supported all the trees in this area.
After digging and potting up my six seedlings, Marcus arrived with a clump of cedars his father had rescued while mowing his field! I cared for these too until that last day when, at my request, Marcus dug three more cedars from a nearby ditch to save them from road slaughter, and we planted all but one, bringing the cedar garden to life in the process.
Marcus dug in the remaining cedar near the spot where my Guardian cedar once stood… he reminded me that this little cedar would have access to nutrients from the decaying roots of the Guardian tree, a thought that pleased me.
Although I knew that I wouldn’t live long enough to see any of these trees reach adulthood (cedars grow slowly; they are second succession trees) Marcus certainly would, and I loved the idea of a cedar grove springing up in front of that rock. One day my ashes would provide these trees with precious minerals… I also loved the idea of being able to nurture another cedar that grew so close to the cabin.
Ever since the idea of creating a cedar garden became a reality in my mind I began to see cedars in places where I had never noticed them before. I would be walking along a familiar woods road, when I’d get a weird feeling – it often seemed like something was watching me. I would look up and a cedar would pop into view – one I could have sworn had not been there before. I also discovered seedlings hidden in stone walls – in much the same manner.
I reached two conclusions regarding these odd experiences. The first seemed to come from the trees directly. The cedars were communicating that they appreciated my love and my concern for their welfare by capturing my attention. They wanted me to see them to let me know that.
The second one made me laugh. I thought Nature might have a sense of humor and was showing me how much I routinely missed even when I thought I was perceptive!
What I didn’t know was that Marcus, who spent as much time in the woods as I did, was having the exact same kind of experiences. When we traded stories Marcus remarked that as humans (although) we are limited by our perceptive abilities – if we focus on and are deeply engaged with cedar trees we learn more about the cedar story – but this doesn’t mean that relationships with other trees disappear. He believes that with improving focus and attention it is possible to extend our perceptive abilities to include having relationships with other tree species too – at the same time – an idea that really intrigues me. My sense had been that there is a foreground and a background and that we humans can’t inhabit both places simultaneously.
It’s probably important to mention that both of us have intimate relationships with trees and talk to them routinely, believing they respond to us primarily through our bodily senses. Rarely, through words. More frequently through sudden insights. With 50 years between us – Marcus is 21 – it amazes me that this boy and I share such similar perspectives.
For over a month I have been entering the garden through its chicken wire fence at least once a day. When I water the trees both Marcus and his father are never far from my mind. Gradually I have come to realize that the cedar garden is a place that includes not only the cedars (and a beautiful patch of land), but two other people besides me. Together we have created a community where kinship becomes reality.
Two nights ago I went down to the newly cut field, the one I call “Field of Dreams” because it opens to the Northeastern sky allowing me to view the Great Bear, Cassiopeia and other constellations, meteor showers, as well as rising winter moons (my favorite). I sat down in the stillness listening to the crickets under a charcoaled sky. The rising moon was mostly hidden in the trees that rise over the southeast. Oh, it was so peaceful there with the sound of running brook water nearby. Newly mown hay wafted up embracing me in a cloud of scent.
Suddenly, to my great astonishment the sky was filled with bats. Bats? Maine has suffered a steep decline in some bats because of white nose syndrome. It had been years since I had seen so many. They dove around my head as my spirits soared. I noticed almost immediately that two sizes of bats were visible. And they kept on coming.
I left time behind me while gazing upwards. When I came to I realized that the bats were all appearing from the same direction. They must have a roosting place nearby, and I thought I might know just where…
I stayed watching the show until the sky grew dark. Last night I returned to the field at the same time wondering if I would see the bats again. This time I was rewarded by seeing bats emerge from the same direction after about a five – minute wait. The difference this time was that only the larger bats were visible. I was puzzled. Watching silhouettes against the sky made it impossible to determine the kind of bat or bats that I had seen but I guessed that one species was the Little Brown Bat and perhaps the other was the Big Brown Bat? I knew that females were larger than the males but this couldn’t account for the distinct difference in size between the two kinds I saw.
The Little Brown Bat is a species that is well known. They are very small with an overall body size that is from 2.5 inches to 4 inches. However, in flight their wingspan can stretch to eleven inches. They also weigh no more than half an ounce.
In contrast the Big Brown Bat has a body that is 4-5 inches in length, just the size of the larger bats I saw. Their wingspan is 11 to 13 inches. Surely I had seen both species that first night?
I already knew that these two kinds of bats roosted together during the winter months. Both species mate in late summer /fall. The Little Brown bat gives birth to one pup about two months later; while the Big Brown bat practices delayed implantation and doesn’t give birth until spring. Both bats have young that are totally dependent upon the mother for at least a month.
Both bats prefer areas with springs, swamps, brooks etc because there are so many insects available and my little marshy field provided the bats with a perfect environment.
Both bats have a large distribution throughout the United States so we have them here and in New Mexico. Weirdly, there are no Little Brown bats in either Texas or Florida. Pesticides?
The summer I stayed in Abiquiu I would wait until dusk and then go out while the cicadas (cactus dodgers) were screeching to watch the evening sky dance in the heat. The bats I saw in Abiquiu all seemed to be the same size. I guessed; Little Brown bats. However, even in the open spaces of the desert I never saw more than a few streaking through the dusk at one time.
Both species hibernate during the winter. Both bats like warm caves/mines (hibernacula) during colder months but during the summer they roost in hollow trees, rock outcroppings etc and even around/on houses.
Bats can consume up to half of their body weight each night and most captures occur during flight. Both have canines that are shaped in a way that allows them to hold onto their prey while flying. They will also use the tip of their wings to capture food. On occasions when food is scarce bats slow their heart rate to conserve energy while sleeping during the day.
To locate their prey, most insect-eating bats use echolocation. The bat emits a high frequency sound that bounces off objects in their environment. They can then determine the location and size of prey by listening to the sound echo that returns to them. Both bats are nocturnal and hunt most actively for a few hours after dusk. New mothers sometimes eat more than their own body weight in a single night. Eating insects plays an important role in the bats’ ecosystem (and ours!) by controlling bug populations near their roost sites. Prior to summer/fall mating Little Brown bats often appear in large swarms – if the size difference hadn’t been so obvious between the two bats I saw I would have assumed that a sky full of bats had to do with mating.
Once the young are born, they are dependent on their mother for food and warmth. At about one month of age, these bats can fly and catch insects on their own. Each mother has one pup a year and can identify her offspring based on scent and calls.
White nose syndrome has caused a steep decline in Little Brown bat populations. This devastating fungal disease affects hibernating bats and kills them. So far non – hibernating bats seem immune. Like so many diseases this one arrived from another continent. (Humans always seem to be the vector for the spread of diseases, and now we have Corona Virus that is killing us too). One source suggests that the Big Brown bat seems to be more resistant to this threat but I couldn’t find other support for this notion.
During hibernation bats can withstand a temperature change of nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit without suffering any damage.
Pesticide build-up, deforestation, and mining are detrimental to all bats. These threats to bats should be taken seriously because we need bats to help control unwanted insect populations.
In the meantime I am going to continue to walk down to the field each night to see what might be happening with the bats, these curious mammals who have captured my imagination with their presence. I want to know just how long they will stay around.
Three of my empty nests – the top one on the square board is the one I found last night – the one above has nasturtium seeds in it)
Last night on our evening walk I found another one.
This nest was small and loosely woven with grasses and animal hair. When I picked it up it was so fragile I was afraid it would crumble like the mud – bottomed nest I found last week. I have picked up more empty nests during these last eleven months than I have ever found in my life during one brief period.
Last September I discovered that the supporting beams of my little cabin were crumbling under too much moisture; a problem that worsened dramatically during the four years I spent in Abiquiu New Mexico. One summer I never returned at all…
I immediately found a contractor who assured me he would do the work the following spring for a hefty price, after shoring up the timbers for the coming winter. Shortly thereafter I left for New Mexico. However, by then it was impossible for me to absolve myself from taking full responsibility for the state of my little house. I had abandoned her. At one point I even put the house on the market, believing I would move to NM permanently.
Somehow I “forgot” that I belonged to this land; that I am a North Country woman who couldn’t simply leave either her land or her home without suffering dire consequences. For all the years I have lived here I have known that the house lived too – literally. When it rains her beams swell; in dry weather she breathes well. This house is ensouled. Unlike many other folks, I am wed to the powers of place and this modest log cabin.
Last winter I experienced a reckoning, as it became clear that staying in NM was never going to work for me for a multitude of reasons. Curiously, friendships I thought I had made began to dissolve; one almost invisibly. The changes were subtle but I was keenly aware of one particular shift by early December – they also occurred with other people. My closest neighbor and I rarely saw each other; we now led totally separate lives.
I spent the winter isolated on a level I hadn’t experienced before. This was a strangely positive experience because it opened the door to allow the Powers of Nature to guide me, and even before the Covid virus struck I knew essential ties had been broken.
Within a three – month period I found three intact birds’ nests, no small feat in the desert where the west winds are relentless, shattering branches, and ripping away foliage with impunity. To find a whole bird’s nest was a rarity; to find three raised serious questions. Of course, I thought about my little cabin and was struck by the correspondence between my empty house in Maine and these empty nests…Nature was communicating with me on a level I couldn’t ignore.
I missed the obvious fact that I was being emptied…
When I returned to Maine in April I discovered almost immediately that the contractor had backed out of our agreement. Then I began an odyssey to find someone to do the necessary work. Building new houses in this area was occurring at such a furious pace that every contractor was booked for the year. To find anyone who would do a job like this one appeared to be impossible. Endless phone calls with no response became the norm during the course of spring and early summer. Feeling quite desperate, I worked hard to keep myself from going under. I had been told that the cabin would not survive another winter.
I continued to find more empty nests.
One day I met a young man on the road who happens to be a new neighbor. Because he had a sign on his truck that advertised that he was a carpenter I mentioned my plight and asked him half heartedly if he knew of anyone who could do the work I needed. Much to my astonishment he responded that I should call his boss….
When I did, Michael came to the house, looked at the job and told me he thought he could fit me in this year. A miracle. It was almost July.
Today is the first day of September, my birth month, and last week I was given a quote I could afford and told that the work would begin soon.
When I found the little tattered nest yesterday I thought again about the synchrony between the collection of empty nests I have acquired (10 in all – maybe) and the hope that this crumbling nest will finally be re-woven from the ground up, receiving the structural help she so desperately needs.
To be emptied is the prerequisite to being filled (repaired), loved, supported in ways perhaps beyond my present imagining…