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

A Walk through the Forest

Yesterday’s walk through my absolutely favorite forest seemed reminiscent of walking through a primary forest that has never been logged. Of course this one was, long ago, but that was before logging was taken out of the hands of the men who once cared for trees they cut – so it has recovered.  Sweet, rich moist soil and decaying detritus sprout all kinds of plants; orchids, wildflowers, ferns, partridgeberry, princess pine, hobble bush  all work together to create a healthy understory- I could go on here. The scent of the forest is intoxicating.

Spying so many mushrooms reminds me of Forest Scientist Suzanne Simard’s words in “Finding the Mother Tree” about how the “mushroom is the visible tip of something deep and elaborate like a thick lace tablecloth knit into the forest floor”. 

My fascination grows – what are these mushrooms telling me about underground networking? Who is helping whom? In this place there are many hub or mother trees (male and female) who weave the whole forest together above and below ground along with the fungi that live at their roots transferring water, carbon, phosphorus etc. to all the other tender young saplings, understory plants and ground covers – here I find the first signs of fall color – rose tinted hobble bush and blushing red maples – creeping partridge berry in three stages – leaves, lime green berries, and those who have turned crimson. Brilliant emerald green moss covers old or windblown tree stumps, rotting trees that died naturally. Every old trunk has become a new micro – forest. This forest could teach us so much about how to live if we acknowledged her sentience…if only we stopped to listen… or took the time to learn a little about forest complexity and how s/he has learned to cooperate for the good of all.

 Let’s look at the purple Russula as an example. This mushroom has a mycorrhizal, that is, a beneficial mutual relationship with the trees in this forest. The fruiting bodies of this fungi exchange water, carbon, sugar, and other nutrients with the trees and plants it is in relationship with. 

The complexity of the underground network of a forest becomes so real to me as I walk through trying to identify individual mushrooms and more importantly to discover which – most are – in a beneficial mycorrhizal relationship with some or all the trees.

 I am always asking – which trees are most important to a particular fruiting body? Such mystery surrounds me! Some, like the bright yellow coral fungus are saprophytic fungi, meaning that they help old wood to decay creating rich new soil in the process. They have a penchant for hardwood trees, especially oaks. 

In this forest I have not found any pathogenic fungi – the kind that can kill trees. Armillaria fruits as the honey mushroom that appears around the base of trees in September or October. It has thick black rhizomorphs that can be found just under the surface of the soil that can actually gird and strangle roots killing any tree in its path. Suzanne Simard’s ground-breaking research indicates that birch trees – alive or decaying – may offer some protection against this pathogen. All kinds of fungi are part of the whole.

A very old birch tree

 I am captivated by what’s under my feet and can imagine something of the complexity of these underground networks that connect every plant sapling and tree to its neighbor, but seeing the actual mushrooms anchor me to the reality of this complexity in a way that my imagination cannot … the sense of wholeness that I experience spurs me on to take the deepest pleasure from every forest walk, to give thanks for, and to advocate for every forest everywhere – above and below.

 Forests can literally save our lives in this time of Climate Change providing us with clean water and air, storing carbon both above and below ground, but first we must save them from “the logging machine,” that greed driven corporate structure that has taken logging away from those who once cut trees in the forests they loved sustainably, turning this industry into the massive killing machine it has become.

Engaging with forests like this one also provides me with a temporary sense of protection from those who would do me harm, and sometimes offers me direction when I feel too lost. I can feel the love of the forest rising out of the ground beneath my feet. S/he always offers me the gift of peace. 

 A walk through this forest mirrors back to me that her complex relationships are reflections of the earth’s wholeness; the Ground of Our Being.

Blessed be.

The Dark of the Moon

 

Elderberries ripening

I am drawn to 

Deep Sleep.

and to Silence

only broken by chimes.

Endings must come

before Beginnings…

I sleep soundly

and dream

of the Grandmothers

on the dark of the moon.

My night vision is keen,

my body relaxed.

 Hummingbirds

 exit without fear

almost all leave at once –

One thrumming body.

Flight is safer

 in the dark.

  Golden apples too

 bitter for red deer

 to imbibe, 

fall earthward

with a thud.

Composting

the dead

 nurtures the

 Tree of Life,

but first winter

must be borne.

  Just before dawn

I see my reflection

in a mirror

of rippling water, 

  a silvery sliver 

is cradled overhead. 

I pick clusters

 of green seeds in peace..

As the sun climbs high

I am assaulted by screaming

 motorcycles, battering trucks

 carting away the dead.

Fury takes root.

The fruit of the Elder – Berry

 is not yet ripe.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the dark of the moon because this is the time of the month when I sleep most deeply.

I also suffer from periodic depression and I think depressive episodes seem to intensify around this time. Consequently I also feel both drawn to and afraid of this cyclic moon phase. I find myself wondering if others have the same kinds of experiences.

 Like the Russian Baba Yaga, Hecate, Greek goddess of the crossroads has a powerful underworld aspect. This year I am being pulled under by an invisible force, on both a physical and psychic level. I keep reminding myself that both of these figures are also impersonal grandmother figures. They live in the spaces in between. Perhaps being drawn into the underworld is part of experiencing Woman in the third phase of our lives?

I have been creating ceremony around the full moon for about 40 years. Each month this is the time I bless my body and the bodies of my animals with clear waters from the brook; in the winter I melt fresh snow. I also set intentions. During the last few years I have noticed that the waxing moon phase culminating in the full moon (and for a few days afterwards) brings on insomnia and pulls me out of my body in unpleasant ways. I experience heightened anxiety, blurred vision/dimmed awareness, poor judgement, and powerful dreams during this period (if I sleep well enough). I used to love the milky white light of the full moon; now that appreciation has dimmed…

Because of my ambivalence I decided that I would continue to do a water blessing at the full moon, but begin to acknowledge the power of the dark of the moon, recognizing that it too is a transitional period that is immediately followed by a ‘seed moon’. I will experiment by setting my intention(s) during this phase instead of at the full moon. The preceding poem is my first attempt to engage with the dark phase in an intentional way. 

After I wrote the first draft (on the morning after the dark of the moon) I left to gather the last of the elderberries that I use for tincture calling on the powers of an imaginary mythical “Elderberry Woman” to be present for me as a helper. To my dismay, most of the berries I found remained unripe. Because it is so difficult to get to them I gathered clusters of the green seeds and placed them in a jar with water. This morning I discovered to my amazement that some are already ripening on my porch and went back to edit my poem.

Women have always had an intimate relationship with the moon and I think intuitively we are drawn to her cycles because they are mirror reflections of our own…Just as the moon is always changing her face I think our ceremonies need to be flexible to in order to adapt to personal changes.

One deeply distressing note is the amount of collective noise that drowns out Nature’s voices and interrupts my own thinking. Screaming motorcycles and logging trucks rumble by all day long. Planes drone overhead. Air pollution is increasing exponentially… There is apparently no end to this assault on our senses, and this cultural problem is, apparently, unsolvable.

Overall, what I learned from this particular experience is that  patience is required for ripening and that when the time is right just as the hard green seeds become rich purple berries ‘the way’ through my difficulties may yet become clear.

Postscript:

There is a reference to hummingbirds in my poem that deserves mention. Every year I keep a record of when the hummingbirds come and go. This year I had at least 50 – I was feeding them two quarts of sugar water every single day through the night of September 4th – to 5th – the dark of the moon. On the following morning all but two were gone. They all migrated on the darkest night of the month!

What is most fascinating to me is that the moon is invisible at the ‘dark of the moon,’ and that it is simultaneously the new moon! During this phase of the moon it is in conjunction with the sun. When this occurs the moon is invisible from earth for a brief time before it appears as a ‘sliver of silver’… Here we see “both and” becoming one! The highest tides also occur at both the full and new moons when the pull of the moon is greatest.

My Grandmother’s Clocks

“mantle clock chimes “it’s the dark of the moon…”

Four hands

are spiraling

around a circle

breaking time

into increments.

 Resonate bells

 call up dark nights,

independently

ushering in a season 

without need

 to harmonize.

Percussive voices

soothe an aching

heart overflowing

with grief.

Chimes intoning

the inside out.

 Recently I gave myself an expensive gift. I had my two beloved clocks cleaned and oiled, and now both are ticking and chiming again. 

Today they circle time.

 One of these, a small valuable antique (I am told), sat on my grandmother’s mantle before I was born. I imagine that as an infant I heard the soothing sound of this clock ticking softly, then breaking that rhythm as tiny hammers hit the bells every fifteen minutes, and finally, ringing in the next hour with deep resonate chimes that marked each passing hour. My grandmother gave me this clock as a young mother much to my great joy. It chimed regularly for my children, as it once did for my little brother and me…Before I moved to the mountains the clock had stopping working; my children were grown and gone.

After my grandfather died I acquired the second clock. This one, an official ‘Grandmother clock’, stands in my living room. My grandfather gave my grandmother this clock as a gift when I was about twelve. She had wanted one for years. I remember how reverently my grandmother wound the clock every week, and after her death my grandfather continued to keep the clock running until his death twenty years later. When I obtained it the clock kept time until five years ago when it finally slowed and eventually stopped ticking. I wondered if the Grandmother clock ceased to run because my grandchildren (kept from me as children, not without a fight on my part) had abandoned me by choice as an adult without ever trying to know me.  

I missed the chimes so much…

 Today, both of my grandmother’s clocks have come back to life. The mantle clock presently lives upstairs where we spend cold mornings sitting in the warmth of the rising sun in spring and fall… when winter comes this year the mantle clock will join us on the ground floor. On days like this when the wind blows, the log cabin walls mute the upstairs chimes and I find myself straining to hear the music. The Grandmother clock stands on the floor in its usual place in the living room and sings me to sleep every night. 

The kindly man who restored the clocks called me last week to ask me how they were running. How delightful, I responded with gratitude. When he asked if they were keeping good time he was upset to learn that they weren’t. When I assured him that I didn’t mind because what I loved was hearing the chimes he told me he would return to synchronize them. Both are running a bit behind.

I think that like the clocks, I too am running behind. As I approach my 77th year I am uncertain what the future will bring. On many levels I am clearing the space I live in, letting go of life energy, of things, of dreams of being reunited with people I love. Grief seems to have become a permanent resident in my body, making it difficult on some days to stay with my feelings. When I listen to my clocks ticking I think of my age in linear time, recognizing that time is passing and I am moving closer to my death, but then I remember that the hands of my clocks are also moving around in a circle, and that time has both a linear and a circular aspect… “what goes around comes around” – is that what is really meant by that phrase? ‘Life, death, renewal’ this is the circle of life (Carol Christ).

I think of Nature whose seasons define what’s valuable in my life on both a personal and impersonal level. I take to the woods to find joy and solace engaging with Nature as mother, father, lover, brother, sister, becoming the child whose sense of wonder eclipses all thought. Feeling, sensing, intuiting, being is all there is. Participating in the Greening, perched on the edge of the season of flaming maple fire I feel profound gratitude for the gift of Now. Yes, I grieve my own losses but how do I separate them from the loss of birds and forests, an abundance of clear clean waters and sweet pure air, ‘the peace of the wild things’? I don’t. If aging has taught me anything it is that I am a part of a whole so vast, so complex, so intelligent, so full of feeling, sensing, voicing, so beyond my imagining that all I can do is give thanks. As Carol Christ has written Nature is divine. Isn’t this also what the Grandmothers have taught us?

Frog Saga

A Green frog hunting in my little pond

 I have been raising frogs and toads each spring for roughly 40 years. Amphibians are the most vulnerable species on earth and we are losing them at an alarming rate. Because they breathe through their skin they are also an indicator species, ‘canaries’ alerting scientists to the consequences of air and water pollution for humans. 

I have had a life long relationship with these amazing animals, having raised them as a child, so it seemed quite natural to continue to gather eggs and tadpoles as an adult after I moved here to the mountains. Learning in the seventies that they were at risk, my initial hope was that in some small way I might help reverse the trajectory we were on. 

 At first I dug in a small pond next to my brook, and later opened and deepened another area over a spring creating a vernal pool that normally dried up in August. For thirty years I raised peepers, wood frogs, and toads.

 This year was different. ‘Reading’ the bizarre weather pattern in April with its fierce northwest winds, endless dry blue days, fierce heat waves and cold, I knew that I could only choose a few amphibians to raise because my vernal pool would disappear in the drought. When the hoarse croaks of mating wood frogs alerted me to egg laying in the vernal pool I immediately transferred the two clumps to my new sunken wooden barrel, situated outside my porch door (the first oak barrel pond rotted away after 20 years). Although I could hear some peepers singing through the woods in a neighbor’s pond I reluctantly gave up the idea of increasing that population for this year. Instead I chose a few toads to join the wood frogs. By the time the toads arrived in May as tiny toadpoles, I had healthy fat wood frog tadpoles with luminescent bellies feasting on red lettuce and other pond greenery. I was careful not to overload the little oasis fearing the cannibalization that can occur if too many tadpoles are left together without adequate food.

 It is now September and the wood frogs have completed their transformation from egg to frog and have disappeared into the woods. Those that survive will return to this natal pool to reproduce next year.  Some toadpoles remain, but most have transformed into miniature versions of the adult toad and are hopping around in the tall grass.

Oddly, one morning in July I met an adult wood frog warming himself on the stones that circle the oasis that is still surrounded by wild greenery that sprung up around the pond like a jungle, almost as if the plants knew that frogs needed those plants for protection. Because it is rare to see these shy woodland amphibians with their golden masks as adults I was delighted by the brief visit. 

The best part of keeping an oasis like this is that it doesn’t dry up regardless of lack of precipitation. Although we have finally had summer rain after four months of drought the water table remains pitifully low and the surface water is temporary – shades of the future I am certain. This little pond may allow me to continue to raise a few amphibians for my pleasure, and perhaps it will help me to accept the harsh reality of how Climate Change may make it impossible for (many/all?) frogs and toads to reproduce at all. I no longer raise frogs because I think I am helping the species survive.  I raise them because I love them.  

In late June a two inch Green frog moved into the pond. In July two more arrived and now I have five inhabiting that little pool! I have had Green frogs appear in my pond every summer since I have lived here but I have never raised one from a tadpole or egg. So where do they come from? I knew that Green frogs lay their eggs in permanent bodies of water, sometimes brooks (I have never found eggs here), rarely springs or seeps because it takes some almost a year for some to become frogs: the ones born last have to winter over under water that contains enough oxygen to sustain them. These frogs also have a much larger window for mating. In Maine they can lay eggs anytime from May through August. I am very observant – I think I would have noticed if eggs appeared in my vernal pool in May, June or July. It is possible of course that some laid eggs around the springs or in the large sphagnum bog on this property, but again, wouldn’t I have seen them? I visit these places often throughout the summer months because so many wild plants thrive there.

When I recently learned of a neighboring pond I thought I might have the answer. Young juvenile Green frogs can migrate two or three miles to new territories during periods of rain at night. I wish now I had kept a record of the exact day each Green frog arrived. The last one most certainly appeared after a night of warm rain. Every year these summer arrivals stay throughout late fall. Most of the literature suggests these young frogs only venture away from their natal breeding place during the first year. Some even move into the mouths of caves. After that first terrestrial year they return to a permanent body of water or brook; the latter of which I have here. These frogs are often attracted to bodies of flowing water to hibernate because these waters have more available oxygen. They also hibernate under leaf litter and stones in marshy places.

 One year on my birthday in September I found a large four inch adult Green frog complete with a bright yellow throat not far from the summer oasis, but all the others I have seen here seem to be around the same size just under two inches. My guess is that they come through, stop over for a season at my pond and then look for a more permanent body of water when they are ready to breed (Most reproduce at one year). What I like best about late spring is going out to feed lettuce to my tadpoles only to discover that the first Green frog has arrived for the season. I have no way of knowing if they predate on my tadpoles but if they do it can’t be often, because I have such a healthy tad/toadpole population.

Because I frequent visit my oasis daily the frogs and tadpoles and I have become friends. They allow me to photograph them and generally go about their business of making a living while I am present. I love to watch the toadpoles come to the surface upside down to feed upon their lettuce.  Just yesterday I watched a tiny toadlet accustoming himself to breathing by sitting on a piece of bark that was partly underwater eyeing me with gold rimmed eyes. Today he’s gone… Although other species of frogs seem exempt, Green frogs are still considered game species in some southern states. I find this incomprehensible when all amphibians are the most vulnerable species on earth, and that was before Climate Change hit. Because the general outlook for all frogs is grim I am especially full of gratitude for each frog that spends the summer with me and becomes a friend.

Moving Towards the Dark… Elderberry Musings

“I wake up under a tropical dome that has been with us most of August. The thick air feels like it is smothering me, and with emphysema that may not be my imagination. I can no longer walk or hike in this weather. Migraines and other peculiar headaches come and go – dizziness too – the former probably due to changes in pressure; As yet I have no diagnosis for the latter. I am feeling old because I am getting old. I move into my 77th year trying to adjust to increasing physical limitations.”

On the first harvest moon that occurs in August, (according to ancient teaching by Northern Indigenous peoples) I harvested elderberries under a burning sun, sloshing through mud, thorny bushes and cattails to reach the clusters of ruby beads that would soon become a tincture that I knew would help me resist colds flu and perhaps also the Covid variants. The world health organization in Europe is presently researching elderberry because studies have indicated that it apparently block viruses from entering cells (it does with H1N1 virus), but I have been using this remedy for years and know that it mitigates the effects of colds and prevents flu, at least for me. While removing the berries from their tree –like stems my fingers were stained the most beautiful purple, reminding me of a story I had written when I turned 70 about becoming an old woman… In this tale I imagined that an Elderberry woman came to guide me into the future. 

My 82 year old friend Blaine, a veritable fountain of historical/wild orchid knowledge and fellow hiker calls me ‘Sunshine’ often remarking that aging requires a special kind of courage. He has demonstrated this in own life in concrete ways.  Always an outdoors person and once an avid mountain climber who has topped every peak here in Maine he continues to hike today even after two hip replacements. I have been hiking with him and his wife for the past 15 years. These days we have to restrict our outings to cool mornings and make slow, sometimes labored climbs but these outings have been the highlight of this difficult summer. I have mentioned that I am worried about the future, and he and Margaret know first hand about some of this fear, although they have a support system that I do not. … It does take courage – enormous courage to stay with the truth of what is. And certainly I am not alone facing this dilemma. Aging is hard, not just on body but also on psyche soul and spirit because all are intimately interconnected.

Lately I have been asking myself why I haven’t written about the perils of aging even though I am aware of the answer. SHAME. Shame silences us. The most humiliating part of growing old is the shame I feel at not being able to take care of myself like I used to. I also feel shame when I have to ask for help even when I PAY people. I have been self sufficient for perhaps too many years. Ironically, I am also an extremely generous person who is always ready to help others. Generous to a fault.   

 How do I develop the ability to ask for help without feeling shame? At present I have no answer to this burning question, although I carry the awareness that it’s up to me.

Today is September first, my birth month, and it is blessedly cool. Yesterday’s river walk catapulted me into the moment taking much joy from passing the beaver ponds, inspecting moss covered trunks, hearing the bear crash through the woods knowing that on this land at least, the bear would be safe. Generous people bought up mountains and valleys protecting the protecting the forests and allowing them to thrive… I offer them gratitude every time I walk on this hallowed land. These hikes and others I have taken alone helped me move through a difficult summer. For a time at least, all worries cease…

As I move towards the dark of the moon, a few days away, I lean into the dark that hopefully will allow me to sleep deeply… Perhaps then the Elderberry woman might send me a dream.

Fritillaries ; The Other Bittersweet Orange Butterfly

 I love butterflies and have always grown perennials that are good pollinators because they attract bees and butterflies as well as providing nectar for my hummingbirds. I also have milkweed plants growing in every open area on my property, and up until recently, used to raise a monarch or two from caterpillar to chrysalis to adulthood. Now that these butterflies are scarce I no longer do. This year I note that I am seeing fewer butterflies in general, much to my dismay. With one exception.

 All summer long I have been entranced by the number of Fritillaries that have been fluttering through my garden since late May. Such abundance, when so many butterflies are disappearing! The days of taking any wild creature for granted are over for me, and that includes the insects I see.

 After identifying the Fritillary that visits my garden as the Great Spangled Frittilary I began noticing others; some visit Peter’s Meadow across the street, a meeting place for many happy insects. Over the course of the summer I have also seen the Meadow, Aphrodite, and Atlantic varieties.  The Great Spangled fritillary is my favorite, but I am a walking welcome mat for all that choose to visit!

Fritillaries are a large group in the butterfly family with many species that inhabit this country. All have tiny front legs that lack claws, thus the phrase used to describe them is ‘brush-footed’ butterflies. Fritillaries are medium – to large in size (wingspan can be as much 3 and ¾ inches) and their wings are bright orange or somewhat rust colored (depending upon the species) all with spots and wavy black lines. Since most fritillaries look somewhat similar it is necessary to examine wing patterns closely, something I never did until this summer.  For example, fritillaries look a lot like Checkerspot and Crecent butterflies so its important to check some resources to be sure what you are seeing. There are excellent photos online that are well worth looking at. So much variation and such astonishing hues and patterns!

Fritillary caterpillars vary in color depending upon the species, but most feature 6 rows of branching spines that go all the way down their two inch bodies. They are somewhat unfriendly looking to me!

Their life cycle is similar to most butterfly species with egg, larval, pupal, and adult stages. The adults are active all summer long and although it is almost September I am still seeing some, though not in the numbers I had before. Presently they are feasting on my old fashioned hydrangea. Most species overwinter as larvae and emerge in early spring as caterpillars that only eat violets. No violets, no fritillaries. And some are endangered. Let’s hope that Maine.Gov removes violets from the invasive species list. The last thing we need is the loss of another butterfly.

Fritillary adults and caterpillars are still ‘relatively’ common in mountain meadows, fields and other weedy areas. The Great Spangled fritillary, the one I see the most, has a Latin name that means Mountain or Earth Mother. They are the most frequently seen species inhabiting Northern and Eastern states. Let’s please do everything we can to keep them around!

The adults mate in the summer; afterwards the females take a nap for a few weeks (diapause). In late summer they lay their eggs in patches of violets. Female Great Spangled fritillaries seem to be able to find the violets even after they have wilted. It is possible that they can smell their roots. Because the female does not lay eggs until fall the caterpillars emerge to feed when the violet plants are young and tender in early spring. Timing is important to the hungry caterpillar. It is feared that global warming may disrupt this synchronization; this would prove catastrophic to fritillary caterpillars. Studies are underway to verify whether this is already taking place.

 Because the caterpillars feed only on violets and I have carpets of them (which I refuse to have cut in either spring or fall) I wonder if this is why I have so many of these butterflies? The adult butterflies feed only on flower nectar. Around here they love butterfly weed, milkweed blossoms, white phlox (in particular) and bee balm best. Joe pye weed, black eyes susan, wild thistle (also on invasive plant list) and purple coneflower are other favorites. They do not hesitate to visit lilacs and butterfly bushes either.

Because I spent four years in Northern New Mexico where I also kept a flower garden I knew I had seen the Great Spangled fritillary a few times. When I checked a number of sources I learned that this state has its share of fritillaries too – many more species than we have in Maine – and the Great Spangled fritillary was one, although it’s a bit smaller in size. Others included the Aphrodite, Edwards, and Southwestern fritillaries. What a diverse family of butterflies. I am thoroughly hooked! Most of these fritillaries live in wet mountain meadows where they can find violets on which to lay their eggs. But it is possible to see them just about anywhere. The adults are quite fond of blue flax, which I grew, and if I spend another winter there I would also grow violets in a pot in the hopes of attracting a visiting fritillary! In Santé Fe Great Spangled fritillaries feast on pansies, which of course, are members of the violet family.

With so many insects disappearing at an alarming rate I am hoping that folks that read this article will consider buying pansies, and adding violets to their gardens or lawns ( refusing to cut the latter) so we give these beautiful butterflies a chance to stay around for awhile.

Birches – A Gift For All

Gray birches are native to Northeastern North America and like their close relatives the Paper birches are a pioneer species, springing up in abandoned fields, woodland edges or disturbed areas. After land has been logged they are one of the trees along with poplar and willow that often germinate first, providing much needed shade for second succession trees and plants.

Gray and paper birches are easily confused as both have white bark, and they often grow together in the same habitat. However, they can be easily distinguished by bark texture or leaf shape. Gray birch bark doesn’t peel and has sharply serrated leaves. White birch has leaves that look and sound more like those of the poplar. Both birches are almost identical genetically.

Neither White or Gray birches are long – lived trees, but those that find enough moisture will grow into sturdy adults that may live for more than a hundred years. I have a few like this on my property.

 Prior to the arrival of European settlers, Gray birch was held in high esteem by many Native American tribes. The Iroquois and Mi’kmaq tribes valued this tree for its medicinal properties for treating infected cuts and wounds (reinforcing the reality that native peoples have access to information that science is just getting around to learning today). Northeastern Tribes made wide use of the outer bark of white birch for constructing canoes and making wigwams. Birch bark was also used to make hunting and fishing gear; musical instruments, decorative fans, and even children’s sleds and other toys. Today, the wood is used primarily for pulp, furniture, and firewood. 

Renowned Forest Scientist Suzanne Simard discovered that when Paper birch was allowed to grow along with Red cedar and Douglas fir in the Northwest the birch protected the other trees from Armillaria, an aggressive root pathogen that eventually kills any tree in its path. Armillaria is found everywhere but in the Antarctic. Paper birches also contain bacteria with antibiotic properties that help protect conifers from other diseases. I suspect that Gray Birches protect our eastern forests in similar ways that Paper birches do in the west because the two are close relatives sharing almost identical DNA structures. Birches have another advantage. When the trees come down in storms the logs break down very rapidly enriching the soil. Birches support the mycelial networks that connect all trees underground creating pathways for nitrogen and carbon to be exchanged. Simard argues that tree plantations would benefit greatly from allowing birch to grow alongside fir because they protect them (and other species) from disease. A forest lacking in diversity is weakened in many ways that we don’t yet understand. 

Birches have other attributes worth mentioning. Birch seeds are an important food source for many winter birds, including  goldfinches, pine siskins, northern juncos, blue jays, chickadees and sparrows. Go out any morning after a wind blown snowstorm and you can see that the surface of the snow is covered with tiny birch seeds. Juncos, blue jays, titmice, chickadees, cedar waxwings, ruffed grouse and other birds also eat the early spring buds. While the seeds are important for wildlife including small mammals, the trees are used in many other ways too. Snowshoe hares and cottontails browse the twigs. In spring, birch catkins attract many insects, which in turn attract large numbers of migrating warblers and provide nourishment for bears.

Gray birches are also hosts for the caterpillars belonging to several species of butterfly, including tiger swallowtails, white admirals, mourning cloaks, and tortoiseshells. 

Birches can also be important nesting sites for red-tailed hawks and vireos, as well as for cavity nesting birds like chickadees and woodpeckers. Small strands of birch bark are the key materials used by vireos in their hanging nests, while many other birds and red squirrels incorporate this material into nest and den linings. In addition, yellow-bellied sapsuckers regularly drill into birches to allow sap to run out. Boring holes into birches attract ants for others to feast upon. As you can see birches are important to a wide variety of species.

 Anyone that is familiar with birches knows that both Gray and to a lesser extent White birch are vulnerable to high winds and ice. During last winter’s ice storm in December I lost many of my birches. I was devastated because in all these years I have never lost as many trees at once as I did in that storm. For the rest of the winter I looked at bent and broken birches feeling heartbreak. When spring came I was overwhelmed with the amount of debris that I thought I had to clean up. It took a while to accept that in an intact forest like mine, birch trees will fall more easily than other species have in heavy winds, ice, and snow. It is the nature of birches to bend and break. It’s not as if I wasn’t aware that my woods were peppered with fallen birches; the difference was that they hadn’t all come down at once. Birches open areas to more sunlight without disrupting the integrity of the forest itself.   

 As the season progressed I witnessed how the dying birch created more habitat for birds and young saplings. One big cluster of fallen birches created a protected nesting site for the grouse to raise her family on the other side of the fence. As more light reached the forest floor new wildflowers appeared. My Lady slippers sprung up after I cleared some debris below the house, and later fragrant pyrola carpeted the ground in the same area. And thanks to Forest Scientist Suzanne Simard, I learned how important the dying birches were in terms of protecting the other trees in the forest from disease. I continue to note how fast the logs decay and how rich the earth smells whenever I pick up parts of a rotting log, something I do quite frequently now. Wood frogs and toads hide here! If I dig below the surface just an inch or two I can see the colorful complex mycelial network that disappears into the leaf litter.  Although I am hoping that this winter will be kinder to trees than last winter was, I am also aware that with climate change upon us that more extremes are ahead. I hope that the birches will continue to teach me a lesson about acceptance of what is, and what will be. When I look at the birch logs stacked for this winter’s firewood or I walk by logs crisscrossing the ground in the woods all I can think of is that these trees are caring for the forest as a whole by dying, and I give thanks for actively participating in the endless circle of life.

Who is the Goddess?

a wood frog in the forest… frogs and the goddess are intimately connected – many goddess figures are frogs

I have been re- reading Carol Christ’s Rebirth of the Goddess reflecting upon my own journey over these past 40 years, remembering how her image appeared to me as a bird goddess the day I first worked with river clay… When I discovered that some of the images I sculpted of bird goddesses mirrored those in Marijia Gimbutas’s The Language of the Goddess I entered an unknown realm. All I understood at the time was that I was being called by some unknown force. I had no idea that this power existed not only without, but within, and that someday I would be able to name both Nature and my Body as the source of that power. And come to understand that they are One.

Carol writes:

“ The image of the goddess is the catalyst that enables women to clear away the false consciousness of self hatred, dependence, and dualistic thinking created by patriarchal religion. Once this is accomplished the image of the goddess is no longer necessary.”

The goddess is then a transitional figure who ushers in immanence.

And yet, here are Carol’s words that describe the ‘both and aspect’ of her experience of the goddess. She writes: 

“I experience the goddess by fully entering into a relationship with a particular tree, a mountain, a person, not by attempting to separate myself from… other beings… She (the goddess) has a personal aspect too – She is a power who cares about my life and the fate of the world”.

At no point does Carol suggest that the power of the goddess can stop the patriarchal rape of woman or climate change, only that she cares. The power of the goddess is not omnipotent. She operates within a finite and changeable world. “The cycles of nature are her cycles.” Carol also writes that when we violate the web of life the body of the goddess (nature) is desecrated. 

At the time of her mother’s death Carol had a mystical experience that embedded her in the reality that the ground of all being is love. She said she understood that she was surrounded by a great matrix of love and always had been. “The power of the goddess is the intelligent embodied love…that undergirds every being, including plants, animals, and humans, as we participate in the spiritual processes of birth, death, and renewal.” This is revelation, is it not? I believe Carol took her scholarship and experience and infused it into every aspect of her life, passing it on to us as possibility regardless of where we might be on the goddess continuum.

Yesterday I visited a woman friend who loves animals the way I do, preferring their company to that of humans much of time. We call ourselves hermits, but of course, our animals and those we care for remind us that however much we may experience loneliness or despise ourselves/others we are infinitely lovable. (Yesterday my friend’s dog immediately sensed that I was struggling with loneliness and immediately showered me with kisses – herein lies the power of the goddess).

 Why is it that betrayal by others has the power to turn us against ourselves?  All I know is that for women like us that have been harmed by humans we loved, beginning with those in our own family, it is a natural response to channel rejection and distrust of people into feelings of loneliness, self/other hatred (often masked as depression) while turning to animals for acceptance, love, safety, and sustenance.

I may know what I am doing to myself but I have not found a way to overcome my general distrust of humans, although when I experience feelings of separation and self hatred I refuse to give into them relying on endurance to survive these periods. I have to remind myself over and over that nature is mirroring back the love I cannot feel from humans through my relationship with animals and nature as a whole.

mirror images…

I learned first that animals were my most powerful teachers; later the rest of nature ‘animated’ me literally bringing me back to life when all else failed. 

I want to end this loneliness, this false sense of separation from people that my experiences, my attitude towards those that harmed me, and my patriarchal culture have laid upon me; I just don’t know how. In my mind I truly believe that all life is interconnected in mysterious ways, and in my body I can feel/ experience this relationship as truth it except when it comes to humans… Rejection and betrayal loom as threats and these are embodied too. 

 I think of Carol who experienced love as the ground of all being… Perhaps the Goddess will intervene.

Earth Rises Again

A horizon

belching sooty smoke

pollutes

 once pure air 

pressing invisible

particles, ozone

 into granite –

 lichen covered mountains –

  plant/animal lungs

 are coated in filth

just as ours are.

 Death hangs over

a leaden sky,

the sweet scent

of moisture 

is absent.

Tomorrow’s

bitter orange sunrise

signals what many

still refuse to believe:

The Earth is on Fire.

Those of us capable of Love –

Animals, plants,

Humans, who suffer,

 those who fought for justice

  continue to grieve

in a Silence

impossible to break.

Change, 

if it comes at all

 will come too late.

 Humans have had 40 years

to prepare…

The age of the

Anthropocene

 will not survive

a species gone insane.

Although my poem ends here there is a part of me that projects my heartbreak and rage onto the planet hoping for retribution:

 Earth weeps

even as S/he prepares

to redress imbalances.

Hell has no fury

like this ‘Mother’s’ scorn.

Beware.

On Monday the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body convened by the United Nations, released a major new report concluding that the world cannot avoid some devastating impacts of climate change.” 

The New York Times 8/9/21

 The best we can do is to mitigate the extremes ahead; we can expect raging fires, intolerable heat, flooding, cyclones, tornados, melting glaciers, droughts and other natural disasters to change the face of the earth for at least another 30 years even IF humans are capable of reducing our carbon emissions at all. Tree deforestation is responsible for 20 percent of our present carbon emissions. The remainder is due to the use of fossil fuels, big industry, agribusiness, trucks, cars, flying planes, burning wood or pellets, running air conditioners, etc. etc. There is no doubt left.  Man is the culprit of this natural holocaust, and if we are people we are all culpable. So much for human hubris. Like Icarus, a few powerful men flew too close to the sun, and now, as a result of egregious actions and our complicity we all begin to fall…

For many years I winced when I heard people calling the earth “mother”. That warning bell has never ceased to ring (the one exception is that of Indigenous peoples whose loving, respectful, reciprocal relationship with the earth continues to help them survive patriarchy – these people have earned the right to call the earth ‘mother’).

As a feminist I continue to shudder when I think about how the unequal structure of patriarchy has treated our human mothers – sentimentalizing them, judging them, refusing to pay them, treating them like servants, raping them, leaving them in poverty as they aged if not before, and worst of all, expecting “perfection” at every turn, and if a mother does not live up to this patriarchal cultural ideal we BLAME them without mercy. Men, women, and adult children – all are culpable.

And we wonder why mothers blame themselves?  

What chills me as an eco feminist, is that it is also clear to me that what we are doing to our human mothers we are doing to the Earth. To give the reader just a few examples: We sentimentalize nature through romantic art and poetry, yet we judge her as one who is ‘red in tooth and claw’. Mother Nature is cruel and uncaring. We blame her mercilessly for natural disasters. We routinely rape, slaughter her forests, mine her precious body for minerals gas and oil, pollute her waters, and air. We accord her no sentience, no feelings (except as enemy); she is a ‘resource’ to be used and abused by humans, men, women children alike.

The one difference between human mothers and the Earth is that as human mothers we are blamed/and/or blame ourselves for our shortcomings. Nature does not engage in blame. The Earth is focused on survival of the whole planet and not its individuals. (Yet what astonishes me is that she is capable of such deep compassion, as those of us who turn to her for help soon learn. She becomes a mirror witnessing for us in our joy and in our grief). Change is who She is. ‘She changes everything she touches… Everything she touches changes’. To that end, we are now seeing Her beginning to redress the imbalances that humans have created. As the youngest species on the planet we are literally her children and for some it is tempting to hope or believe that she has grown tired of abuse and is about to erupt in rage. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Earth is invested Life and to that end she is willing to make whatever necessary sacrifices are needed to achieve that balance. Life, death and renewal, this is the circle of life as Carol Christ has stated repeatedly. That we all will suffer, human and non – humans alike is inevitable. But one day, as our stories have been teaching us since the dawn of humankind, she will birth an Earth that has been purged of its tormentors.

I, for one, am finally nearing a point of acceptance of what lies ahead. Losing all the people I loved and having to witness the death of so many birds, animals, flowers, trees that have sustained me throughout my life have brought me to this edge, a place where I am finally getting ready to let go.

Afterward:

The Power of Dreams…Roughly two year ago I entered a dream that was so vivid that I still feel as if I lived through it. I had a small clear bubble in the palm of my hand; it was wrapped in plastic. When I removed the cover and opened the sphere I saw to my astonishment a tiny ark that was overflowing with animals, trees, every conceivable living being and there was so much green. I was overjoyed. This was the Earth! Life would go on. It was only afterwards that I realized there were no humans to be seen…