BARE GRACE

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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.

With deep appreciation,

Sara

 

Red Willow River

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Winding through the valley the river tells ancient stories about the peaceful people who lived along her red willow banks, long ago… I can almost see the women who gathered slender branches and made spiral baskets as the horned owl stood watch from the heavily ridged bark of the cottonwood trunk, perching so close to her center that his presence went almost unnoticed.

Softly rounded clay pots were fashioned from the clay in these waters by these same women whose handprints also remain on the adobe walls they plastered in the pueblo just across the river. Distinctive pots stored precious corn, squash, and bean seeds dried and ready for spring planting. Preparations were under way by the men who would still be practicing for the last of the winter hunting dances. Each animal acknowledged as a relative through the footsteps of each dancer – turtle, deer, antelope, and buffalo – each song a prayer of gratitude for the animal who sacrificed itself so the people could have meat to nourish their bodies, to keep them strong. Soon the men would begin clearing the ditches of winters’ debris. Each spring snow melt from the mountains floods the river to overflowing and these ditches will irrigate gardens and orchards, germinating new seeds.

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The Tewa once pecked pictures of the serpentine river on high desert stones and named him Avanyu. The serpent flicked tongues of lightening, spit thunderous roars and called down the rains with the holy people who came down from the mountains to help the people grow their precious crops. In the spring the Bow and Arrow dance was performed in his honor, and this tradition continues in Nambe today.

Water is life and the Pueblo people have not forgotten the importance of this essential element to all those who inhabit her desert, especially in the spring. Knowing that the elements of water, fire, earth and air continue to be honored by others as well as by myself offers me hope that the Gift that is Life will not succumb to the now catastrophic death-seeking human climate…

At dawn the sun bleeds red roses into the river and overhead the geese are climbing into a blushing sky; they too follow the curves of the deep blue green river… Mallards skim the surface of her waters, and a golden eagle soars out of an old cottonwood tree nearby.

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When I walk the little path I am lining with stones broken pottery shards appear out of red earth at my feet. A bevy of birds skitter through wiry thickets, perching in bushes and small trees waiting for me to break the ice and fill their water dishes. Nuthatches, chickadees, towhees, juncos, finches, sparrows, the magpie – In the brief time I’ve been here I count sixteen new species, not including water – fowl. Sandhill cranes spread the word that spring is coming with their haunting songs joining the rest of the aerial crowd flowing with and flying along the river. In my mind I imagine that I can see with the eagle’s golden eye this wending stream, a path made of water, snaking her way to the sea.As I approach and open a rusty rose sculptured creaking gate some geese and ducks are resting on stones that form riffles and ribbons of quicksilver under a shimmering sun. Far away to the west the wind begins to blow… I am a woman in waiting. The rising waters of the coming season seem to be flowing through my body too.

The Grandmothers

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When I first arrived in Abiquiu the Pedernal stood out above the other mountains with its imposing triangular shape and flattened top. Initially this mesa fascinated me because Georgia O’Keefe painted it so often, but after a while, although I liked the Pedernal it became one mountain amongest many others… However, I also knew that the Navajo’s mythical Changing Woman was born on this flat – topped mesa,and that story continued to intrigue me.

For the Navajo, Changing Woman is the daughter of the Earth and Sky – a personification of the Earth and Universe. She represents the cyclical repetition of the seasons – spring summer fall and winter –aligning each with a different aspect of human life – birth, maturation, old age, and death. In this seasonal round Changing Woman lives out the different stages of her life as a child, daughter, mother, and old woman who dies, but who also is born again each spring…

The legend tells us that as a young woman Changing Woman was dressed in white shell, turquoise, abalone, and jet, and blessed with bee pollen… While bathing she was impregnated and two twins –monster slayer and child of water who after their births soon left their mother to journey westward to seek their Father, the sun. Changing Woman was lonely so one day she created the Navajo People from the skin of her body with the help of the holy people who came down from the mountains to assist her. Changing woman also created the Blessingway, a sacred ceremony for young girls that is still used today to celebrate the first bleeding or menstruation. After the original teachings were passed on the holy people left Changing Woman, but they promised that she would always feel their presence in the sound of the wind, the birds, and through the first green shoots of corn.

Pedernal, the imposing butte with its flat top or ridge lies in the heart of the Jemez mountain range at ten thousand feet.. Seen from one side it appears wide and flat, the way I see it from my house. However, an hour’s drive will take you into the startling Indian red, orange, ochre, grass green mountains behind the mesa, and from the other side the top appears peaked and narrow. The high butte is ringed by a long sheer cliff band almost impossible to climb, although ancient Puebloan peoples found their way to its summit.

The name Pedernal is the Spanish word for flint, the stone that can be found in abundance on and around this volcanic mountain. Puebloan peoples used the rock to make beautifully crafted tools like arrowheads and scrapers for hunting and skinning animals. Worked pieces and flakes of this rainbow –like chert can also be found at many ancient Puebloan ruins.

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The Pedernal was settled around 1161 CE and Indigenous people stayed until 1275 CE when the area was suddenly abandoned, possibly due to drought. The remaining artifacts include pottery shards that are typically black on white and jars with rounded bottoms so that they could be laid in a bed of hot ashes in the fire pits. Chert is abundantly common here.IMG_1074.JPG

Because I am so intrigued by the sharp, opaque, translucent flakes I collect them and spend a lot of time arranging them in different ways, much like I do with pottery shards. “Play” allows my mind to become still. This practice has become a daily meditation, much like bird watching from my window that overlooks red willow river.

After gazing at the Pedernal for months I developed a peculiar longing to get physically close to the actual mesa. I wanted large pieces of the stone to line my path to the birdfeeder, but there was something more ethereal pulling me too – and so two days ago – my friend and I drove out towards the base of the mountain… This drive takes about an hour and is absolutely stunning – a visual feast – crags, and sandstone statues, oyster to red dirt, thick Juniper, pinion, and deep green spruce and Ponderosa pine forests, huge clumps of black sagebrush, colder temperatures and the occasional clump of snow left me with the sense that I had entered another world, one where bears and elk found home. Seeing the mesa from behind gave me a sense of belonging to this place that I simply cannot describe beyond believing that I was called here by Changing Woman. Perhaps other Indigenous voices and holy people were calling too  in spirit if not in body.

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Above: Pedernal from behind

The night after this excursion I had a dream of my dearly loved grandmother that died in my early twenties. In the dream I was at her bedside, telling her I loved her, washing her face, rubbing cream on her hands and pitifully thin arms, listening to her rapid shallow breathing, feeling so helpless, and so guilty – all this while she lay in a coma. The next morning, thanksgiving day, she died at dawn.

My dream repeated the original experience with one dramatic change. Instead of the numbness and terrible nameless guilt I experienced at her death, in the dream I now understood that my grandmother had been waiting for me to make the trip down from Maine to the New York hospital to be with her, and that once we had said goodbye, she could die in peace. Astonished, I felt for the first time in fifty years that my presence had been enough. When I awakened from the dream the lifetime of guilt I had carried was gone and I was free to feel, to grieve as much as I needed to, which seemed to me to be some kind of miracle. Surely Changing Woman had wrought this reversal changing the storyline I had lived for so long.

Today the Pedernal is no longer a mountain in the distance, it is a holy dwelling place where Nature still sings the song of creation and those of the grandmothers who inhabit this sacred space in between the two worlds.

The Gift

Lily’s View from his new home:

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The night before Valentines Day the fireplace damper shut down while I was sitting on the couch with my dogs gazing into the fire. The only other glow came from a cluster of twinkling star – like lights that were arranged on top of some pinion boughs on the tall chest. Because I was seated on a low piece of furniture I never noticed the smoke streaming out of the fireplace climbing high into the rafters.

When I heard Lily B my bird make a strangled sound from the place he was roosting on top of a ceiling fan, I turned around. Terror stricken, I couldn’t see him because Lily B was engulfed by smoke. Screaming his name over and over I jumped up, ripped the rug and threw logs away from the door, opened it and ran out to the storehouse to get a fan. Once back inside I climbed a ladder up to his perch but Lily was gone. More panic. I screeched “ Lily, where are you” weeping uncontrollably. And then I heard the flutter of wings as Lily flew up from the floor answering my frantic call. Grabbing my poor bird, I stuffed him into a cage and placed him outside the front door, praying that he would not die from smoke inhalation

My two Chihuahuas were on alert but under the radar as the smoke poured out the door. Strangely, the room didn’t clear and my lungs hurt, my eyes burned as the room continued to fill with smoke. A friend arrived and it was then that we discovered that the damper had closed by itself. I had been using this fireplace for 5 months and had never had a damper problem until this night. But the tell tale sooty black adobe bricks above the fireplace suggested that there had been serious problems before. We poured water on the fire until it went out…

Just before this incident occurred I had been thinking seriously about moving out because major construction around the house was about to begin. I had come to New Mexico to write, renting this house because it gave me a place to land after driving across country. My first shock occurred when the wild dogs that roamed the area awakened me very single night at 3 AM. And then there was the house, a virtual steam bath from a fierce summer sun that streamed in from the southwest windows. And yet, it never occurred to me that the studio I had rented for such a ridiculous price was non functional. A broken window, a torn screen that took six weeks to fix, gas leaks, one of which was never fixed, doors that wouldn’t lock, absolutely no attempt to winterize the structure, plumbing and water pressure issues, and finally the lack of working radiant heat and a refusal to issue a dump card until I threatened to withhold the outrageous rent had left me feeling betrayed and very angry.

Equally disturbing, the property manager violated my rental contract rendering it invalid by her continuous invasions during the first two months I was here, a fact I was now grateful for. She entered the studio when I wasn’t home without my permission and sent others to the house without letting me know beforehand. Someone hit one of my Chihuahuas because this once friendly outgoing little creature now bit men.

Fortunately I have developed a few friendships with caring people and had a place to go when this fire became the straw that broke this proverbial camel’s back. With help from friends I moved out.

Lily B somehow miraculously survived the fire, just as he had survived a brutal attack by some animal, just a month after we moved to this place. I believe that the threats to his life were dire warnings not just for him but for me. Because I am in relationship with all living things, but especially intimate with my own animals I often get information from what happens to them.

I remember so clearly the dream I had just after arriving in New Mexico last August that something was going to happen to Lily, and I awakened frightened, for him and for me. A short time ago I had another dream that Lily was going to die, and once again, fear struck. Yet he has been spared twice. Gratitude flows out of me like the river that wends it’s way by my door.

Leaving a chaotic and unstable situation for a peaceful sand colored structure so close to the river has made me realize that I had been living on a threatening knife-edge ever since I had come to these mountains of New Mexico. I am proud that I managed to deal with all the house problems and learned to accept what was, making the best out of the situation. I refused to allow ongoing house issues to detract from my love of this high desert. I took pleasure in every sunset, every mountain view, every weather change, every petroglyph hike, every Tewa dance, every canyon, art museum, movie, Mexican dinner, I could go on and on here. But most of all I feel profound gratitude for  the great generosity and support of friends who cared enough to help me.What else could I ask for?

Below, Lily basking in the sun.

 

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River of Life

In the Beginning, First Light

 

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Avanyu, the Horned Serpent belongs to the Tewa Pueblo people of New Mexico. He is the Spirit of Water and Life and he begins moving up from the underworld or Sip- pa – pu at this time of year.

The underworld is not a negative place in Pueblo mythology. All spirits rise up from below. The spirits of Tewa speaking peoples return to the underworld at the time of their deaths.

Avanyu is a powerful Serpent. He is unpredictable and presides over endings and beginnings, changes, transitions. He is also the Spirit of transformation.

The Tewa say that Avanyu once fought the evil spirit of drought, a fiery comet that spiraled down from the sky. Victorious, Avanyu brought the rains that fell upon the Earth and created the rivers that were shaped like Avanyu’s body.

Each spring at the Tewa pueblos the Bow and Arrow dance is held in his honor.

First Light is upon us. The days grow longer, birds are singing and the sun’s heat will soon awaken sleeping seeds. Like the Tewa,  I turn towards the river seeking solace and feeling hope when I hear the sound of water flowing over stone.

At the river’s edge I honor you, Avanyu, as the Spirit of Life that manifests through rising waters.

Avanyu,

The Tewa pray to you by dancing your sinewy body. I invoke you through words.

At dusk alpine glow burnishes your reptilian body, still frozen by blue waters.

Will you thaw and bring the rains to our thirsty desert, transforming dull grays to sage green?

Will you awaken the seeds of sacred Datura who need the sun’s warmth and your precious moisture to germinate?

Will I find your faded serpentine image on another canyon wall?

Your thunderbolts strike without warning – crackling lightening seeks grounding in dry dusted earth.

I fear you – yet you are the Spirit of Life rising out of troubled waters – you bring hard rains to soak thirsty rabbit brush, desert grasses, fragrant juniper trees and pinion pines.

I hear your rasping voice tell me that change is all there is. But I can choose to seek higher ground when your floodgates open…

I pray that the Spirit of Life be birthed in this woman’s body to strengthen her for what will come.

Snakes and women are wed as one…

And like you, I too would like to wear more than one skin!

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Lily B My Telepathic Bird

 

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Every morning at “first light” Lily B sounds a call to wake up the rest of his family – his human mother – and her current dogs, two small Chihuahuas whose names are Hope and Lucy. The moment he calls – “co coooooo” (accent on the second elongated syllable) Hope and Lucy jump out of bed, with me stumbling behind them in a daze. The dogs insist that it’s time to go out because Lily B woke them up!

Occasionally I refuse to get up if I haven’t slept well. When this occurs the dogs come back to bed. But not for long. After repeating his beautiful morning call a few more times, and flying to the lamp that has a good view of the cave that we sleep in, Lily B sails down to the floor and waddles into the dark room. This maneuver always works because Lucy can’t resist chasing him– she leaps out of bed just as Lily soars up to the top of the door. By this time I am fully awake, like it or not.

Lily B is an African Collared dove who has lived with me for 24 years. He came to me as a chick and has never been caged. At first I thought he was a female and I named him Lily. When I discovered he was a male I added the “B” for boy! I discovered soon after getting him that he preferred to sit on top of the highest furniture in the house so I hung baskets from the ceiling with newspapers inside them. He loved perching on swinging baskets and it solved the problem of cleaning up after him.

About six months after getting him I was forced to acknowledge that Lily B literally read my mind. Whenever I had a new insight he would bellow out his song in approval (or validation) repeating his song exactly three times. I listened for Lily B’s commentary as I wrote in my journal each morning, even as the rational part of my mind struggled with incredulous doubt. It was apparent from the beginning that this bird and I had an unusually close relationship. I had always loved doves and had spent many hours watching them as a child and drawing stylized images of them as an adolescent. But it was the sound of their voices that I loved best. I listened with a kind of rapture to their beautiful songs that seemed to flow like water through my body, soothing her through song.

When I discovered Biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s work on telepathy in animals I felt relief because I no longer felt like I was imagining things. I want to digress from Lily’s story for a few minutes to discuss Rupert’s thesis because it pertains to the relationship between Lily and myself. Sheldrake postulates that telepathy is a normal ability found in both humans and animals. Telepathy works as a survival mechanism, functioning as a tool of communication between animals and other animals, humans and other humans, or between animals and humans keeping them connected. It works most effectively with those who are closely related. For example, if one animal is out of calling range of its mate and danger is perceived that information can be transmitted via telepathic communication almost instantly to the other. The strength of relationship or kinship is the key. Sheldrake hypothesizes that telepathy works through his theory of morphic resonance, where by animals and/or people who share an invisible morphic or bodily “field” can tap into thoughts and feelings of others on a conscious (mind) or unconscious level (body). Telepathy is not distance dependent and works most efficiently through intimate relationship, human or non – human.

As soon as I read that Rupert was looking for apparent telepathic experiences between humans and animals, I sent him a letter describing the seemingly extraordinary connection I had with Lily B. He replied that my antidotes were exactly the kind of information that he was looking for. Lily B’s behavior promptly became part of Rupert’s data bank. It’s important to note that throughout my life I had experienced telepathic behavior between my mother, my brother, my children, various wild and tame animals, plants, and myself, but the Cassandra in me refused to allow me to validate my own experiences because they didn’t fit the current western scientific paradigm. I had no context and secretly thought I might be crazy until Rupert provided me with one. Now, at 45, someone, a scientist no less, actually believed me. I was stunned.

Meanwhile my life with Lily B continued to amaze me even as I continued to record it. When Lily was about five years old I noticed that he began to sing a (new) plaintive song to the mourning doves outside our house. This song upset me because I felt his distress resonating through my body. That Lily needed a mate was obvious. One day he flew out the door to chase mourning doves. Deeply conflicted on one hand I was afraid I’d lost him, but on the other hand I loved the idea that he was truly free. He spent six weeks in the trees flying after one mourning dove or another but was never able to convince a female to join him. His loneliness broke my heart. Curiously, he never left the yard and every morning he sang up the sun in a lilac bush outside my window. One day I was leaving for work when he flew into a young apple tree just as I was walking to the car. Astonished, I turned around and opened the door to the house, inviting him to come home, and immediately he flew in of his own accord.

The following winter we spent in Tucson, Arizona. By accident or design I met a woman who had many doves in an outdoor cage and she invited Lily to join her crowd. By then I learned that these birds had to choose a mate. After being in the cage for about a half an hour, he chose Fey, a pure white dove. After the two came home they were inseparable. I was so happy for Lily B! Although he continued to read my mind on regular basis, making his comments in triple calls, I did note that the bond between us seemed less intense. I accepted the loosening of ties gratefully because my beloved bird was clearly ecstatic. Driving back east the following spring with Lily B and Fey perching on a cholla branch in the back seat, we stopped in Indian country for a break. As soon as I opened the car door, Lily B flew out into one of the thick pines… Horrified, I stood there dumbly for a moment. Then a clear thought materialized through thin air: Lily was gathering sticks for a nest. I sat down in the red sand and waited quietly. Within 5 minutes he returned with a mouth full of sticks sailing through the open car door. Fey was waiting and pulling a few bits of grass from his mouth placed them on the sheet that covered the baggage below their perch. Lily followed suit and I immediately collected bunches of grasses and small twigs and left them on the back seat to add to Lily B’s offerings. A nest appeared by the end of the day. By the time we returned to the east Fey had laid two eggs.

I learned more about fathering from this bird than I ever did from a human. Lily was a devoted parent who incubated the nest each afternoon, while Fey did the rest of the sitting. When the two chicks were born Lily took over, feeding both with regurgitated crop milk. He was tender and sweet, preening the chicks, oblivious to their open mouths and pitiful peeps until he was finished. Then he would feed them again. Fey seemed somewhat detached from her offspring, which surprised me. After the chicks were almost as big as Lily he suddenly turned on them, forcing both to leave the nest. The time had come for them to create lives of their own. He used his warning call repeatedly and pecked at their wings until they left the nest. Anticipating an abrupt ending to fathering I had made arrangements for the chicks and promptly took them to their new home.

When Fey died suddenly the following year I thought Lily would perish from grief. He stopped eating and singing as I frantically tried to find another mate for him. I talked to him constantly but he was so apathetic that I feared I couldn’t reach him. African collared doves are imported to sit on exotic birds’ nests and after the young are born the doves nurture the young like their own. I had a very difficult time finding another collared dove to keep him company because these birds were not raised as pets. This is when I learned that collared doves are considered “trash birds” by the exotic bird industry. They are imported periodically to parent other birds. When I located and presented him with Mary Anne he immediately started singing and bobbing his head up and down quivering his feathers. By some act of Grace, or through telepathy I had chosen the “right” bird. Relieved, I finally relaxed my vigil. Lily B rewarded me by bellowing out his song. Within a day he was responding to my thoughts telepathically and our lives went back to normal…

One of the most curious habits Lily B has is that he responds to dreams when I am working with them, my own, or with others (professionally). His pattern involves singing (more like bellowing) out his three calls to me if I interpret a dream correctly. Over the years I have come to trust his judgment completely even when it doesn’t make sense to me.

Lily loves classical music, especially when it is accompanied by choral singing. Two of his favorites are the Mozart Requiem and Handel’s Messiah. Joan Baez and Gordon Bok are his favorite folk singers.

He also loves earth – based ritual. Because I write my own rituals and celebrate them eight times a year using the Celtic calendar and also honor the full moon each month, ritual is woven into our lives. At the full moon I honor my body and the bodies of all living creatures. At each of the eight spokes of the wheel I follow the subtle changing seasons; I give thanks, release what is no longer needed, and set new intentions. Lily frequently joins in with his songs. If he thinks, for example, that a particular intention is important, he sounds his triple call. It’s important to note that he doesn’t use that threefold call at any other time, only when he is responding to me!

Passionflower vines delight him. He doesn’t like the flowers but tears the leaves to shreds eating tiny pieces of green. But his favorite plants are orchids. He rips apart the flowers with utter abandon – especially the ones with pink and magenta blossoms – an infuriating habit that I can’t seem to break. Finally, I was forced to put up a screen to keep him out of the orchids!

Torturing people that are afraid of birds is another of his tricks. He somehow knows who is afraid of him and promptly dive – bombs them rising up just over their heads causing a great commotion. He also has tormented every dog that I have had by walking around on the floor just in front of them until one begins to chase him. Instantly Lily is airborne, and out of reach! Hope, one of my Chihuahuas, is onto him and pretends he doesn’t exist!

Cooking in the kitchen is one of Lily’s favorite daily activities. He investigates all fresh ingredients tearing and pecking at greens and root vegetables with enthusiasm, tasting soups and pasta, all the while keeping one amber eye fastened on me. Although he is often next to a hot burner he knows enough not to touch it. His penchant for kitchens is how I discovered that Lily B loved hard boiled eggs and cheese when he was just a few months old. I was particularly curious about these high protein foods because all doves are supposed to be seed eating birds. Yet many other kinds birds often feed their young insects or worms at least for a time. I began to give Lily chopped egg every morning, a habit we continue to this day. Lily is very particular about cheese, preferring Brie or Havarti, and every afternoon he flies down to the kitchen counter for his treats. Lily is a very old bird by African Collared dove standards, having lived more than twice as long as most of his kind (10- 12 years), and I often speculate that these protein sources might have helped keep him healthy.

When Lily lost Mary Anne he seemed less traumatized. She declined slowly over a period of weeks and I sensed that both Lily and I knew we were going to lose her. His behavior towards her shifted. They no longer roosted next to each other and he began flying around without her. The morning she died at least a hundred mourning doves appeared out of nowhere and clustered into one tree outside his favorite window singing their very plaintive song although it was December. Lily’s loss was being witnessed by other doves. Later that morning after the doves dispersed I played the Mozart requiem, sitting just below my silent bird perched in his basket. We grieved her loss together, and because it was winter he watched me cremate her body in the woodstove.

The next day I discovered Lucia on the internet. I had a clear thought: this was the right bird.  Immediately I printed out a picture of her and put it in one of his favorite spots so he could see her. After I got the news that she was coming to us I started calling her by name and Lily began to coo excitedly. He knew she was coming thanks to telepathy! When she arrived it was love at first sight and the two had the most wonderful time chasing each other through our very happy house! That night they slept huddled close to one another.

Lily and Lucia seemed to have an extremely close bond and he taught her how to avoid hitting either the mirrors or the windows, something he had never done with his other mates. Even their conversation seemed more intimate with soft cooing occurring between the two that was almost continuous. If he flew to one basket she followed him. Their favorite spot was swinging in a basket that was positioned right next to the front door, where they could keep an eye on comings and goings. I sensed that neither would fly out so in the spring and fall ( before and after bug time), the outside door was almost always left open. I loved the way Lucia answered him when Lily sang to her, imitating his very complex song with ease. And yet as close as the two were, the telepathic connection between us never ceased, which frankly surprised me. I now thought of Lily B as my animal “familiar” – a Guide whose presence graced my life. He had become one of my most important teachers.

During periods when I suffer from depression Lily flies around my head trying to get my attention. Once he succeeds, he sings his triple coo. And of course, for a time at least, I am pulled out of unhealthy self – absorption. It is impossible to resist this kind of attention.

The summer before last tragedy struck. Lucia died suddenly at age seven. The morning I found her on the floor, Lily was standing over her dead body protectively. He looked up at me once, and the anguish that passed between us was palpable.

Death was in the air. I refused to let him grieve alone. I played his favorite music and kept talking to him. My dogs clustered around him too. I let Lily guide me, leaving her dead body with him until he was ready to leave her. When he finally flew into one of his baskets on the porch, I went out and dug a hole in my flourishing flower garden. He stared at me in silence as I gently placed his mate in the ground just outside the door. I filled in the earth around her body and placed a flat stone on the bare ground to protect the place where she lay. When I re- entered the porch we sat together quietly, no one uttering a sound. After a time I began to coo to him mimicking his threefold call. At first he did not respond. I was trying to convey to him that he still had us – the rest of his family – and that we loved him – me, most of all. I also told him in my mind that this time I was not going to look for another mate unless he indicated to me that he absolutely had to have one, because both of us were getting old… If he died and left a mate, I knew that I would always be comparing a new bird to him. He had a decision to make. Would he choose to live or die?

That day I never left the house and Lily’s silence was unnerving. We had reached a frightening crossroad…

The next morning Lily bellowed out his wake up call. I leaped out of bed to stand below him as I cooed good morning. When he followed me into the kitchen and hopped down on the counter, I knew the crisis had passed. Lily had made his choice.

Day after day, Lily attached himself to me like glue, flying into whatever room I was in, watching my every move. Eventually he returned to his favorite basket on the porch and struck up conversations with his favorite outdoor neighbor, blue jay. If a mourning dove landed on the sill outside the window Lily would puff himself up like a blow fish and rasp his territorial call.

Last summer Lily B, Hope, Lucy, and I drove out to the high desert of New Mexico to live for a year. We arrived during the monsoon season and I soon put him in a large outdoor cage to enjoy the soaking rains and warm sun. He sang his heart out to his avian neighbors and greeted me each morning with his song.

One morning while walking the dogs I saw feathers scattered on the ground, some with blood on them. Following the trail around the corner I was horrified to see my poor bird huddled under the plywood cover of his cage. His eyes were glazed over and he didn’t respond to my voice. Reaching into the cage I gently gathered my injured bird in my hands and brought him in the house to inspect his wounds. Lily B was in shock. He had been brutally attacked by something that had ripped a hole in his flesh and made a three – inch gash running from his right eye to his breast. His right eye was swollen and shut. Had he been blinded too?

He was dying. It was Labor Day weekend and I couldn’t reach a vet. Numbly, I inspected the cage to see how anything could have gotten in to hurt him so badly. With 1/8 inch bars on four sides, above and below the cage, and a double locking door, I couldn’t figure out how anything could have entered and left such a gaping wound. I was beside myself with grief and self-blame – how could I not have known this had happened when he and I routinely communicated telepathically? Startled, I remembered that I had shut the bedroom door (his cage was outside this door) the night before because of the barking of wild dogs and had taken a sleeping pill…no doubt Lily had tried to communicate with me and I couldn’t hear him. The rest of the day and night passed in a blur. I remember nothing except my repeated attempts to comfort him. I couldn’t sleep that night and wept, putting prayers for him in my Bear Circle, hoping that he would die quickly. His pain ripped a hole in my body too.

The next morning, he was still alive. I made an appointment with a vet for that afternoon. The vet gently took my bird, examined him and told me that she could do surgery the next morning. She hoped she could save his life. I left him there feeling dazed and drove home.

He survived the surgery. The vet told me that lily B had an incredible will to live. She had never heard of a dove that had lived as long as Lily had. The next day he came home. When he finally started eating again I allowed myself to hope that he would really survive this terrifying trauma.

It took about two months for Lily to recover. All during that time he never cooed once, and although I missed our conversations I was profoundly grateful that he was still with us. Although telepathic communication between us ceased I still felt the bond between us tightening in an inexplicable way.

And then one morning a miracle occurred. He sang to me once. Overjoyed I sung back. He peered down at me from his ceiling perch with one bright eye. A day or two later I was writing when suddenly he cooed three times. Oh, the telepathic connection was working again!

That was four months ago. Today Lily and I have regular conversations and our telepathic bond keeps us connected even when we are apart. Just within the past couple of weeks the outdoor birds have started to sing their mating songs. Sometimes wild doves visit the feeder but Lily has lost interest in them. This abrupt change initially baffled me. A few days ago I finally got it. Lily now prefers my company to that of other birds. The bond between us has strengthened to such an extent that we have in some way become One.

Re – Visioning Medusa

All through my childhood a self – portrait, painted by my mother hung above my parents’ bed. I was fascinated by this image of the stern face of my very beautiful mother with her long wavy chestnut hair. In the painting my mother’s body was buried in the sand up to her neck. Behind her, churning waves cascaded onto the shore. A blue sky was visible. A few seashells were scattered around and a large shiny green beetle was crawling over the sand. On the surface this image of my mother with her long curly hair seemed quite serene but as a child the painting disturbed me. It was as if this painting held a key – but to what? My father loved the painting and often commented on it…

I can remember playing at the seashore. My father would dig holes and bury both his children up to their necks in the warm sand that also held us fast…

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I had one reoccurring childhood nightmare of waking up and not being able to breathe.

I first heard the word Medusa when my mother mentioned her in relationship to herself in jest? Did I ask about her? My memory is silent on these two points, but I knew Medusa’s hair was writhing with snakes and that she was screaming. I also knew my mother was terrified of snakes. Because my mother was an artist, it is possible that I saw an image of Medusa in one of her art books (when I looked for images for this essay one seemed too familiar).

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I had another re-occurring childhood dream. My mother and I were locked in a bathroom. There were snakes crawling all over the floor. My mother jumped on the toilet seat and I was left alone on the floor with the snakes. I awakened screaming…

Once, walking in the woods a garter snake slithered across the path separating my mother and me. When I screeched in terror my mother turned on me viciously. Stunned and humiliated I endured her tirade, hopelessly confused…

When my little brother encouraged me to touch a snake in his terrarium one day, I agreed. I was amazed at how silky the snake’s skin felt. This animal was quite beautiful with his red tongue and golden eyes and the snake seemed unafraid and friendly. After this encounter my fear of snakes vanished…

As an adolescent I started to call myself Medusa.

Any time I acted out, losing my temper I berated myself. In time self – loathing became the mask I wore.

I hated my body.

I told anyone who would listen that I was “a lousy carbon copy of my mother” because that was how I saw myself. No one challenged me on this statement except my grandmother who told me once that she didn’t understand why my mother treated me the way she did… My grandmother intercepted my mother, but never confronted her openly.

In my early 20’s my brother’s suicide and my grandmother’s death severed me from any roots I might have had to the earth and any relationships including those with my children; I entered the dead years.

I couldn’t leave the house.

For my 39th birthday I bought myself a gold serpent ring. When I placed the ring on my left hand (on my ring finger) I intuited with amazement that on some level I was “marrying” myself. I also thought of my mother who was still afraid of snakes and experienced a peculiar sense of power and freedom. The hair on my arms prickled and I shivered involuntarily. I didn’t know what this insight meant but I believed I was prepared to journey into the unknown.

Steeped in mythology and the world of the Great Goddess, shaped by the scholarship of Marija Gimbutas and fascinated by her powerful images of snakes and women, the serpent came to life as an aspect of self and I had married him.

I went camping and re – discovered the forest, and moved to the mountains where I began to write…

I kept shallow clay bowls full of water for the snakes around my house. I kept their skins after they shed them in the woodpile.

When I dreamed about two iridescent blue snakes my dog died. I came to understand that snakes had both a powerful positive and negative charge, and that both involved the body. I recognized that it was important to be aware of this holy aspect of snakes because they embodied life and death of the body in the Great Round. My respect for all snakes deepened.

Last August I came to northern New Mexico and became acquainted with Avanyu, the Indigenous Tewa name for the Horned Serpent that is pecked into many rocks as a petroglyph. Avanyu, the Spirit of Water and Life lives in Si –pa –pu (the underworld) and is a powerful supernatural being for the Tewa. He is unpredictable, presiding over endings and beginnings. He represents change, transition, and transformations. According to the Tewa, in the beginning Avanyu fought the spirit of drought (a fiery comet) and rain fell creating rivers that were shaped by his sinewy body. Every spring at the pueblos the bow and arrow dance is done in his honor.

Recently, I was given a wonderful gift, a small shiny black pot with Avanyu’s image carved into its micacious clay surface. I have become enamored by the images and the mythology around this powerful serpent. Every day I look at my pot and wonder what specific message Avanyu might be trying to convey to me.

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As I began this essay I also wondered how Avanyu’s serpentine aspect might relate to my writing about Medusa? Was he guiding me? I certainly believe he is highlighting the importance of needing to live through the truth of my body.

When I first began researching Medusa I was appalled by my own ignorance regarding the actual myth. I had never studied this tragic story because I thought I knew it.

In the earliest record, Hesiod’s Theogony, Medusa was one of three sisters, the daughter of Earth and Sea who “lived at the world’s edge,” the only sister that was mortal. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses Medusa became a virgin priestess (devoted to celibacy) dedicating her life to the goddess Athena. In some versions Medusa was also vain, and Athena couldn’t tolerate her beauty or the conflict that this engendered. Either way, Poseidon desired Medusa and she broke her vows. In some versions Poseidon raped her in Athena’s shrine.

Athena’s fury was limitless, and she punished Medusa by turning her into a frightening figure. Her beautiful long hair became a tangle of hissing serpents, her face was contorted into a mask of hatred. To gaze directly upon this distorted countenance was to be turned to stone. As a final punishment Athena saw to it that Medusa was shunned and cast out; she wandered alone in despair and torment, and in some accounts she was banished to a desolate island in the sea.

Eventually Medusa escaped her mortal misery, meeting her death at the hands of Perseus who slew her because he used a mirror and did not look directly upon the dreaded face. He saw Medusa as a reflection in his shield. (To look directly into the face of human evil is to be possessed by it, to reflect is to see evil without being swallowed by it). Perseus took her severed head to Athena who attached and wore it on her shield. In addition to her other powers Athena could now deflect the powers of female rage/hatred in her mind, if not in her body.

Robert Graves believes that the myth of Medusa preserves the memory of conflicts that occurred between men and women during the transition from a matrilineal to a patriarchal society. According to Graves, the function of Medusa’s head with its writhing snakes was to keep men at a safe distance from the sacred ceremonies performed by women that celebrated the Triple Goddess as the moon. He suggests that Orphic poems reveal that the full moon is also the head of Medusa.

Scholar Camille Dumoulie postulates that Medusa is the Great Mother because so many texts illustrate Medusa’s affinity with the sea and the powers of nature. I see Medusa as one aspect of the Great Mother, the wild untamed aspect of Nature, and the great sea of the unconscious, a source of positive or negative power.

Dumoulie also perceives Medusa’s head to be a mask and a mirror. According to this scholar the mask of Medusa represents collective violence and death energy. I think that Medusa is an image of woman’s rage/outrage/hatred/grief that needs to be expressed in a healthy way by taking concrete positive actions to deal with negative feelings while inhabiting and listening to one’s body (as well as one’s intellect). Although she doesn’t mention it, I think it’s important to note that this “mask” aspect of woman can also be removed at will as long as one has developed some conscious awareness and an ability to contain feelings and emotions.

As a mirror, Dumoulie fails to explain what’s behind the rivalry between Athena and Medusa beyond stating that Athena needs to separate or split away from her double in order to hold on to her identity. I think the core of the issue between the two is Athena’s envy. Envy can result in hatred of women by women; Athena turns her priestess into a monster and then, after her death, puts Medusa’s face on her shield revealing the intimate relationship between the two. Athena “wins” acquiring power over her victim. Athena does not develop the powers of self – reflection; instead she persecutes her servant. Medusa’s head then becomes an aspect of Athena who is associated with the power to annihilate, to turn others to stone, but this power lacks a body.

Medusa and Athena are two aspects of the same goddess. Athena betrays this truth by taking Medusa’s head and placing it on her shield so she can kill without having to own this vicious feeling aspect of herself. Feelings and emotions have their roots in the body.

Dumoulie believes that “whoever seeks Athena finds Medusa’s head.” I believe that this statement of hers contains a warning for every woman. Athena is a goddess of war; she is associated with patriarchal “power over” and is also associated with the masculine ideal of wisdom. She was born from Zeus’s neck, not through a woman’s body. She is a daughter of intellect who risks reversal – snapping into her opposite (Medusa/feeling) without grounding in a body that will help her mediate unbridled power and hubris.

Medusa is also sometimes characterized as a symbol of male castration. Yet Medusa’s ability to annihilate is a result of the violence imposed on her by Athena who is characterized as a female hero figure. Medusa didn’t choose this mask – it was thrust upon her by Athena, a female goddess who victimized her. I think the story of Medusa is more about woman hatred. The result of her abuse was that she was abandoned as an outcast and died in a state of terrible despair. Her terrifying loneliness is evident in the images of Medusa that reveal female misery, not the face of female evil.

I would also argue that the snakes in Medusa’s hair are symbolic representations of woman’s power. Women and Serpents have a long history together, one that stretches back to Neolithic times when serpents were seen as wisdom figures, embodying the life force within women and in Nature. Like the Minoan Snake goddess or the snakes in my life that contain both life and death aspects in one serpentine figure, Medusa’s head is covered in serpents suggesting that the potential for women’s wisdom is also present. Medusa needs a body in order to express this potential.

For most of my life I had identified my anger/rage with Medusa condemning myself without ever knowing anything about this story or the context in which Medusa lived out her (mortal) mythic life. Today I see Medusa in a very different light and feel great compassion for her, and for myself. This female figure was brutalized first by seduction or possible rape, and then betrayed by the goddess she had dedicated her life to – Athena, who blamed the victim and not the perpetrator. Twice. This heinous act would be shocking if one didn’t recall that Athena sprang from Zeus’s neck, (an unholy birth if there ever was one) and was as a result, a male identified woman, one who may also become a woman hater.

I believe that Medusa can help us as women to stay in touch with the archetype, as in a force of energy/and information, so that we have a choice. Women can allow themselves to feel rage, contain it, and express it in healthy ways. We don’t have to act out destructively towards others or ourselves after we have been brutalized or betrayed.

I am finishing this essay on the day after the Women’s March on Washington (and everywhere else around the world). The massive world wide protest highlights how effective women’s anger/rage can be when it is mobilized into a peaceful collective movement that has at its core the belief that women, and the sensible/sensitive men that support them, will not put up with more abuse – verbal or physical. We say NO to giving up our hard won rights. We say NO to the destruction of the planet and its non –human species, to misogyny, to rape, to privileging one group over another, to restricting reproductive rights, to building stupid walls, to isolating one group of individuals from another. We embody Medusa’s outrage, and begin to fight back. This misogynist who became president partly because 53 percent of white women voted him in must be stopped. First we need to own the proliferation of women hatred and other hatred that abounds in our country, and then we need to take to the streets to protest in huge numbers. Our greatest challenge is to keep up the momentum. Women must gaze with the eyes of Medusa on the monster lurking behind the doors of the Oval Office. Women and men everywhere must turn him to stone.

I conclude this essay with a personal note on serpents. I believe that the serpent saved my life because by “marrying” him I opened the door to the unconscious waters, the wisdom of my dreams, and to living my life authentically. My greatest challenge then as now is to live my life through my body as well as through my intellect. I don’t choose as my mother once did, to bury my body in the sand. Perhaps Avanyu will continue to guide me…

The Deer Dance

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A waning crescent moon hung in the sky with a few steel blue clouds as a few people gathered in front of the hill at San Lldefonso Pueblo waiting for the deer to appear at dawn. The air was cold and the wind was still asleep. Suddenly, the drums began to beat insistently as the singers and drum players turned to face the hill. The drums were calling the deer down from the mountains…and sure enough antlers peeked over the horizon as the deer people made their descent amidst loud calls and whoops. A group of chanting, drumming men were just a few feet away from me. The women, dressed in colorful fringed blankets and white moccasins, their shiny black hair swaying along with focused movements, scattered sacred cornmeal on the ground in front of the drummers and singers. One by one the women came and then crossed quickly over to the other side to welcome the deer people. There were four of them that appeared, two fawns and two adults whose bodies were bent forward, almost like the well known flute player (kokopelli), to accommodate their two sticks for front feet. The fawns had only one stick and copied their elder’s behavior. The deer people were dancing inside a circle that closed around them. Some men had evergreens in their hands and other held rattles. Many of the men wore only a kilt, their bare chests covered with clay; paying homage to the earth. All carried bows and arrows, for this was the hunt. A cacophony of bells on the men’s belts intensified the beat and the Tewa songs seemed to fill the air. I felt rooted to the bare ground, all my senses seemed to be in synchrony with music that seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. My eyes burned with tears that I had trouble holding back. Time ceased to be when the spirit of the dance claimed me and I was shocked when I noticed that dawn had transitioned into a beautiful morning with heat from the sun streaming down from the sky. The dancers moved to the front of the church briefly acknowledging the (folk) Catholicism that was practiced in all the pueblos. Just as quickly as it started the first deer dance was over and the participants disappeared into the kiva to finish their dances in private…Dancing is the primary form of prayer for all Indigenous peoples.

After breakfast a second round of dances began. The first dance to open the second round was either a Comanche or Apache dance that took place on the other plaza opposite the one where the deer dance ended. Again, rainbow ribbons and bright colors shone in the sun. A number of magnificent eagle feathered war bonnets were visible on the heads of the men. Others had faces painted black, and still others wore clay on their chests, arms and legs. There were no women dancing, and the sharp yells or calls punctuated the many drums that were beating in time to the dancers feet. The stunning regalia was a feast for hungry eyes and I was left with a vision of dancing moccasins, and the music of the bells.

Suddenly a second round of deer dancing began in the other plaza and it was hard to decide which plaza to go too! This time the women joined the men and all carried turkey feathers. Some dancers including children had turkey tail feathers attached to their regalia. The women looked like exotic birds with their brightly colored shawls and feathers, many of which were scarlet red and blue – the feathers of the parrot. Small children were part of the dance and I noted how skilled these small feet danced! The men wore, what looked like, skunk fur on their moccasins to repel the witches who had come up from the underworld along with the People so long ago and were always lurking nearby, unseen.

This time only two deer people were present and these were the two deer children. Men, women, adolescents, and children participated in this dance that moved around the plaza in a great circle around the two deer and the evergreen tree that represented the forest. I noticed two more trees laying against the adobe walls in a corner that would probably be used when the hunt intensified. Again the drumming, the singing voices, the intricate dancing stopped time. My eyes couldn’t keep up with what I was seeing. At times the circle tightened around the deer people and then moved outwards. At the end of this round the deer children, or fawns, were whisked away before the remaining dancers disappeared into the kiva.

A second round also occurred at the other plaza. This all male dance seemed to spiral inward and then outward at first and I was reminded of Avanyu, the Horned Serpent who is the spirit of water and of life to the Tewa. From where I stood I was never able to determine the shape of this dance because it seemed to change directions so many times. Once again bows and arrows were commonplace, and on some headdresses the horns of the buffalo were visible, as were the blackened faces that I believe represent the men who were captured or killed in raids. The energy of this dance seemed more warlike, and many of the men carried staffs with flags of different designs, including the yellow and red sun flag of New Mexico. Before I knew it this dance too was ending and the dancers and drummers disappeared into the second kiva to finish the dance in private. Both kivas were squarish or rectangular in shape, although an unused round kiva still sat in the plaza.

The wind was starting to bite and the sun was high in a cobalt blue sky. Although there would be another round of four dances after lunch my friend Bruce and I were ready to go. I was on an emotional high!

The deer are sacred to almost all Native American tribes and I believed that what we had witnessed was an enactment of the hunt, which begins with fasting and prayer and culminates in a re-enactment in which the deer will eventually voluntarily sacrifice themselves as food for the people because they have been honored and respected by the men who hunt then. There is a covenant between the two that makes the hunt and the kill a mutual decision made by both deer and men.

These dances that occur in the various pueblos are usually the culmination of private fasting and other rituals that outsiders know nothing about. And this is how it should be because these Indigenous people embody an ancient oral tradition that remains unbroken only because its secrets are kept. I feel privileged to be a witness to Native traditions/dances that remind me that my own Passamaquoddy roots may have been severed, but Tewa Peoples have survived in spite of incredible odds. Today they are teaching the Tewa language to their children as well as encouraging them to participate in the dances when they are 3 -4 years old.

I learned this morning from the tribes lawyer that women are now allowed to take part in the decision making process of Lldefonso Pueblo, although historically the Tewa, including those of this pueblo, are patrilineal or patriarchal which means that most power historically stayed with the men. These people have demonstrated that they know how to adapt to whatever challenges and changes that come their way. This flexibility has allowed the pueblos to not only remain intact but to thrive; (their villages are beautiful) especially now with the much needed help from the casinos, casinos that I once voted against in Maine.