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.

With deep appreciation,

Sara

 

A Moonflower Named Datura

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Above: Photo of Datura seedlings taken today – they are locked inside a bird cage to keep them away from my free -flying dove who loves to eat greens

 

I first grew Datura many years ago after returning from the Arizona desert with seed. One afternoon I was walking in an arroyo and heard a rattling sound. I was startled and Investigated its source. A spiked pod popped open scattering seeds around my feet. I thought this behavior might have been some sort of sign suggesting that I should grow this plant! I gingerly pocketed a few ripe pods and brought them back East in the spring.

 

I planted the seeds in the sun, and a few twin leafed plantlets developed into low growing shrubs that flowered towards the end of the summer. The frost took the flowers and plant before any pods developed.

 

The only thing I knew about wild Datura (Datura stramonium) at the time was that it contained poisonous alkaloids – atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine – and that the entire plant was toxic although it had the most beautiful fragrant white trumpet – like flowers whose edges were sometimes tinged in violet.

 

A couple of years later I noticed that seed catalogues began carrying Brugmansia, plants which are closely related to Datura (the former being more tree –like with drooping trumpets that are apparently as fragrant as the bush –like Datura). Both plants can be grown in large pots, and today there are many magnificent cultivars to choose from (although I doubt any develop seed pods). Brugmanisa contains the same alkaloids as its relative. I was intrigued when I first saw these pendulous plants in catalogues but never tried to grow them believing that our season was too short to have flowers develop seed pods because that had been my personal experience. I am a dedicated seed saver, collecting ripe seeds in the fall from year to year.

 

Datura seeds remain viable for at least 20 years or more and if pods are harvested, a few can be planted the next spring and the remainder kept for the future.

 

In March I planted Datura seeds for a second time, this time in the house. I hoped that I could germinate the seeds early enough to produce plants with flowers that formed seed pods. Germinating the seeds was no small undertaking! I placed them in a wet paper towel, inside an open plastic bag and left them in a sunny window. I checked them every day and in about 10 days the first roots appeared. I planted the tiny rootlets in pots.

Currently, I have small plants with true leaves that are watered frequently and have access to strong light all day. In June I will start to acclimate the plants to the outdoors in Maine. Datura is sensitive to frost and I live in a north – facing valley where frost lingers on, sometimes into June. I plan to grow some in a pot and transplant other plants in the ground and see what happens. Obviously, I enjoy experimenting!

 

Datura has many common names besides moonflower. It is also called thornapple, devil’s snare, devilweed, and locoweed. The latter names probably refer to the results of ingesting this plant. Datura produces delirium if it doesn’t kill you. Although Native peoples have learned how to detoxify the plant so it can produce visions, the uninitiated die, so beware.

 

In Ayurveda Datura has been used to treat asthma symptoms. The leaves can be smoked in a pipe. In Ethiopia Datura is apparently used to “open the mind” to being more receptive to learning and creative imaginative thinking. In European medicinal journals there are references to Datura being boiled to treat burns. The Zuni used it as a paste to render a person unconscious so that bones could be set. Many tribes in the Americas – the Cherokee, Algonquin, Navajo, to name a few, use the plant for visioning.

 

It is important to note that the dosage required for visioning is only slightly less toxic than the dose used by sorcerers to kill people. Even more confusing is the fact that some plants contain more toxins than others, even though they may look the same.

 

The Chumash of California call January “the month of Datura” suggesting that Datura was ingested at this time of year because the effects of this perennial plant were less lethal during the winter and perhaps because it was part of some winter ritual.  Like many other tribes, the primary reasons Datura was used by the Chumash was to see into “the true nature of reality” and/or to establish contact with one’s animal/plant guardian(s). The Chumash approached the plant respectfully calling her “Grandmother.”

 

Sources differ on where the plant first originated. Some say Datura is native to this continent, others suggest the origin of this plant is unknown but either way it can be found growing in all parts of the world where the climate is moderate or tropical. The highest concentration of Datura is found in Tunisia, South Africa.

 

Datura prefers rich calcareous soil according to most sources but I think any organic plant mix will work. The Datura that I have seen growing seem to spring up in waste places and dry arroyos in deserts where limestone is present. For this reason I think that I am going to add crushed egg – shells to my plants to help put calcium carbonate into the mix.

 

I only learned recently that if you give Datura half a day of sun it may grow into a bush about five feet tall but this source made a reference to the deserts of the southwest where the sun is very intense during the summer months, so I am going to put my plants in full sun when the time comes.

 

Evidently, the pods can be harvested when they are bright green by cutting the entire bush back, stripping off the leaves and hanging the stalk/seed pods in a warm place to dry. The Datura that I have grown has come from plucking the seed pods when the whole plant is withered and brown.

 

While Datura provides nectar for honeybees, hummingbirds, and other insects in the food chain, it has formed a partnership with the Hawk moth, an insect nearly as large as a human hand. Datura furnishes the moth with nectar as a food source and shelter for its eggs.  The plant serves leafy meals to the moth’s hungry larvae (called tomato hornworms), so much, in fact, that sometimes the plant must draw upon nutrients in its roots to re-grow its leaves after caterpillar foraging. But in return, Datura is pollinated by the moth, and the plant (actually an herb) produces fruits and seeds for another generation. This co- evolutionary relationship between the Hawk moth and Datura is called “mutualism.” ( Scientists find interdependence between plants and animals occurring routinely in nature. The “man against nature” paradigm is outdated). When I researched Hawk moths I learned that my Datura could definitely be pollinated because we have plenty of Hawk moths in the state of Maine.

Scientists also suggest that Datura seeds are eaten by birds that spread the seed through bird droppings, but I couldn’t find a source that mentioned what birds might be carriers or how they managed to deal with seed toxicity. I know that domestic animals can be adversely affected by ingesting the unpleasant smelling leaves of this plant.

 

The white and lavender-tinted, trumpet-shaped blossoms of Datura promise a fairyland of delicate beauty, moths, butterflies, long-tongued bees, hummingbirds and mystical moonlit nights.  It gives rise to some of the plant’s other names, for instance, Angel’s Trumpet, or Belladonna (beautiful lady).

 

The blossoms open at dawn and dusk and are intensely fragrant especially after it rains. During the early afternoon hours the flowers begin to wither from the heat of the sun. I personally find Datura flowers intoxicating, although I treat this plant with deep respect, remembering to wash my hands after I have touched the leaves or collected its pods.

 

An unknown poet has this to say about Datura:

Full moon

Tonight my Datura bush blooms
with thirty-three trumpets.

The moon glides past a tree
spreading its silver glow on open flowers.

Suddenly sacred trumpets fluoresce
and seem brighter than the moon itself…

It is worth growing these plants just to stand beside a flowering clump under a blossoming white moon breathing in their fragrance. Indescribable.

Seed Ceremony on Earth Day

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(Above) The seed basket I was given to place seed offering – curiously I have a little dog basket like this one at my home in Maine.

On Earth Day I attended a Genizaro/Tewa all day presentation called “Seeds of Hope and Healing” which espouses a way of thinking that acknowledges the sanctity and power of untreated seeds to create uncontaminated food for all people.

In the pamphlet given to each participant it states that “The New Mexico Food and Seed Alliance was formed in 2006 following the Seed Sovereignty Declaration in which farmers from tribal, Pueblo, acequia communities, and other farmers signed a declaration to defend seeds from genetic contamination.

 The name of these annual gatherings in three languages beginning with Tewa recognizes Indigenous peoples as seed savers and guardians of countless generations of seeds. It also recognizes that land- based people have borrowed from and added to these traditions with seeds and food traditions from around the world. The Indo –Hispanic people who are mestizo, or of mixed ancestry (Genizaros) have evolved a land-based culture after centuries of growing food in their respective villages…

 The seed exchange and gathering is an affirmation of the unity that is possible between cultures and this unity is necessary to defend seeds so that future generations can continue… to save seed and grow their own food.…

Four Northern Pueblos participated in the 12th Annual Owningeh Tah Pueblos y Semilles Gathering and Seed exchange: Abiquiu, Santa Clara, San Juan, and Taos. The group’s mission statement includes saving not only seeds but extends to protecting animals, fruit trees, and wild plants for the purpose of sustaining a way of life that has been in existence long before Europeans set foot in this country. It is only in this way that The People can continue to resist the global industrialized food system.

In the large room a sacred circle was created by the women, who put beautifully embroidered wide sashes and hand woven baskets in each of the four directions on a beautiful handmade blanket. The women also sprinkled corn pollen in the circle. There were two empty baskets to contain the seed offerings. In the center a beautifully painted white and black clay bowl was surrounded by two ears of corn on each of its four sides. People were asked to line up in four lines choosing the direction they came from: North, East, South or West.

The ceremony began with the leader who blessed the space, and added a prayer for the dead. He called forth the four lands and four waters making offerings to each of them. We all sat in a circle around the simple altar. Small handmade baskets were handed out and we placed a few seeds in our baskets, and when it was our turn to enter the sacred space, we were asked to speak our names, state where we lived, and what seed(s) we were offering for a blessing. We moved around the circle counterclockwise (the indigenous way) leaving it after adding our seeds to the other offerings. The ceremony was solemn, and the experience was deeply moving.

What came next was a total surprise. The sound of drums beating in the distance gradually became more insistent as the Santa Clara dancers emerged from another room. Those that were gathered together witnessed an astonishing Rain Dance, (the first I had witnessed) that filled the room with its vibrant colors, sounds, and prayers that centered me so completely, that I too, became part of the dance. Every day we look to the sky in hopes that the rains will come.

The seed exchange occurred afterwards with people leaving with small envelopes full of seeds grown by another. A feast had been prepared for all the participants. Later in the afternoon three women spoke about the hope that comes with the seeds. How each contains new life, and that each seed is a miracle, a perspective that is also my own.

The young are the hope of the future and I was struck by the young women’s presentations from the Youth Alliance all of whom honored their mentors and were committed to passing on the traditions of the pueblos to which they belonged.

 

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The men spoke too and I remember mention of the spiral and how important this symbol was to the People. From the DNA spiral to the way a sunflower seeds up, to the shape of galaxies, the spiral is a universal life form.

Acknowledging “Truth of Place” one man spoke earnestly about how this land was their church. This land, her mountains her waters all sustained his people generation after generation.

One member of Abiquiu pueblo talked about the history of the Genizaros who until recently went unrecognized, although Abiquiu was given a Land Grant in 1754. Genizaros were Indian children and young women who were sold or traded and became Hispanicized, losing touch with their Native roots for a time. Today both Indian and Hispanic festivals are held in Abiquiu to acknowledge these once invisible people.

The day ended with Los Genizaros de Abiquiu closing the ceremony with an Eagle Dance. The two participants, Dexter Trujillo drummer and singer, and the Eagle Dancer, Maurice, dressed in flaming orange and red feathers were spell binding to watch as they moved towards and away from each other. The eerie sense I had was Maurice actually became an eagle.

A seed pot made by Indigenous artist Roxanne Swentzell was presented to Abiquiu Pueblo in recognition of its Genizaro status.

For a person like myself, who has been something of an “earth mother” tending to, and saving seeds for much of my adult life, this ceremony felt like the first recognition of the importance of this work over the span of one woman’s lifetime; I am 72 years old. Even though I will be returning to Maine before the summer begins I will carry this ceremonial recognition close to my heart. I couldn’t help thinking about the datura and redbud tree seeds that I had tenderly been germinating for the last month. Most, if not all, will find homes here in the desert, but I am content, knowing that I have participated in the spring planting for one more cycle. I am absurdly happy that wildflower seedlings are popping up where there were none before! Soon, I believe, redbud trees will follow.

Changing Woman Speaks

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(Above photo of me taken by Iren Schio)

 

The two climbed steep hills

and rubble to reach the meadow.

The flat – topped mountain peered down

at the women

gathering stones (from her body)

as if they were diamonds.

Amber, moss, pearl white,

rose red and orange,

gray and ebony – a luminescence

emanated from each,

almost as if the moon had

infused each flake and boulder

with her translucent light.

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The mountain absorbed

their child-like wonder

with pleasure,

and gifted the one

who climbed to her summit

with a stone

that told a story

of a sea of shells and plants

that once lived here.

Stones speak to

those who love them.

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(Above photo of plant and shell fossils in the chert was taken by Iren Schio)

 

Working notes:

In Abiquiu, New Mexico the flat – topped mountain we call the Pedernal can be seen from most directions and has been painted and photographed from every angle. Indigenous peoples considered this mountain to be sacred. The mythical (Navajo) Changing Woman was born on this mountain, and it is said that she lives there still. Each year she is born in the spring, emerges as a young woman during the summer, becomes a mother in the fall, and turns into an old woman during the winter season, only to be born again. The multicolored stone called chert and its darker twin, flint, are structural (quartz) parts of this mountain. These stones were once collected to craft the finest arrowheads for hunting.

 

I have a passion for all stones but especially chert because of its colors. Chert and flint are microcrystalline varieties of quartz. Their crystals are so tiny that chert and flint fracture more like glass than quartz crystals. Skilled Native peoples chipped chert and flint pieces into arrowheads, spear points, scrapers, and other tools. The only difference between chert and flint is color: flint is black or nearly black, while chert tends to be white, gray, pink, or red and can be plain, banded, or preserve fossil traces.

 

When my friend Iren told me that chert/flint could be found around the base of the Pedernal I was very excited. She also told me that someday we could make a trip there to collect some stones. It is only after most of the snow is gone that the serpentine dirt roads become passable, so I have been waiting for that day to arrive for a long time. Yesterday, it came.

 

We made a very skilled (Iren is the best driver I know) windy, bumpy, truck ride up the back side of the Pedernal to a steep meadow. Shaded by evergreens and small stands of oak, we left the truck and stood below the peak in a place where hunks of chert lay on the ground everywhere. We “lost time” in the process, climbing around, exclaiming over colors, shapes and examining “chert caves” –places where the stone had been extracted by hand first by Indigenous peoples, and then perhaps by others. We picked up our favorite stones, filling our bucket, Iren’s backpack, and our pockets with these natural wonders. Iren, of course, carried almost all the stones back to the truck.

 

Iren, who I call “Mountain Woman,” scales peaks effortlessly, including this one, whose back side is a shear cliff face. She has stones of every conceivable shape, size, and type placed artfully around her house inside and out. (Not surprisingly, she is one of the finest artists that I know). All of these stones Iren collected on her mountain climbing adventures, and she patiently tells me where she found this one or that one as I follow her around her property. Whenever I visit her house the stones call out to me for attention instantly! When I am alone at her house “stone watching” becomes a form of meditation…

 

Hunks of chert line her pathways that wander in many directions making it easy to avoid trampling down the natural vegetation. The desert is a fragile environment and Iren is an “earth mother” who cares deeply for her land.

 

Yesterday’s adventure was highlighted when Iren discovered fossils in one piece of chert. We were so excited by this rock and mulled over the possibilities of how the fossils came to be embedded in the stone and what they were. I was so happy for her that I felt like I could burst.

 

This was the second time I had been with Iren when she found a stone treasure. The last one was an exquisite flint arrowhead. I told her that Nature had gifted her with this present (and probably all the others) not just because she climbed mountains but because the mountains knew how much Iren loved stone, and how generously she shared what she had with others.

Nature thrives on reciprocity.

 

Mountains know.

 

This morning when I looked at the multi-colored pile of chert in front of the house I decided I would simply leave them there for a few days before beginning to use them to line more pathways. I just want to look at them. As I pick the pieces up and turn them over in my hands, I wonder what stories they might still have to tell.

 

This poem emerged out of my gratitude to Iren and my love of stone.

The Buffalo Dance – Easter Sunday

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I could hear the rain of the turtle rattles that are strapped around the legs of the men long before I actually saw them dancing in a long straight line outside one of the kivas. The animals are honored for giving up their lives so the People might live. My skin prickled in visceral response.

I noted the evergreen boughs that each dancer had attached to his arms with bright green bands, the dark gray earthen clay that covered each torso, the red – coral? – necklaces, some inlaid with shells, the sparse feathers that were attached to each man’s head by a colorful band, the moccasin clad feet beating out a hypnotic rhythm as the dancing/chanting continued. The men also wore deer-skin aprons with bright crimson fringe on the front and behind each had an animal skin of either fox, ringtail, coyote, and perhaps a badger (I couldn’t see well enough to be sure) attached to his body. Some of these animal tails almost reached the ground. In their hands the dancers carried rattles or bows and arrows – the latter to symbolize the hunt.

The evergreen tree in the center of the line represents the forest where the men once hunted the buffalo but I also saw the spruce as a “Tree of Life” as the men danced before the conifer. Some say there were buffalo in this area at one time, but Tewa oral traditions suggest that the men traveled to the plains to hunt the buffalo that provided them with meat, fat, and skins that would keep them warm during the cold months.

The Buffalo Dance (or any animal dance that is chosen for this day) marks the end of the hunting season and the transition to spring planting. The animals are honored for giving up their lives so the People might live. Prayers for adequate rain, and the hope for a bountiful summer harvest are danced and sung. Dance is Indian prayer.

These dances hypnotize me, transporting me to a place outside time, – a space in between – one might say, so whatever I have written here is surely missing important details. The dance itself is simple with the line of dancers turning one way and then reversing directions, never missing a beat, and it ends brusquely with the men retiring to the kiva. There are two kivas and two plazas in this pueblo.

During the first break, I was approached by a young man dressed in a tribal shirt with a rainbow of ribbons who introduced himself as the Governor.

“We think that you might be recording the dances,” he said, quietly and respectfully gesturing to my purse. I was stunned.

“Oh no, I would never do that, not ever,” I replied babbling on, incoherently no doubt, as I offered him my purse, explaining that I had Passamaquoddy Indian roots and came from Maine where the Native American traditions had been totally destroyed and that for me it was a privilege to be at this dance… Evidently, this  sincere outburst convinced him that he/they had been mistaken.

He talked about how difficult it was to monitor these dances that were open to the public because although signs were in full view telling visitors not to photograph, record, or sketch the dancing, people did not respect the rules, so members of the tribe were forced to monitor strangers. He told me that one of the most sacred of the dances, The Eagle Dance, led by his grandfather ended up being illegally videoed and had been posted on youtube. I groaned. He also told me that the Tewa are working to get these illegal postings removed for good. I asked him about tribal traditions and he told me that it was getting more difficult to hold the Tewa culture together, due to outside pressure, but that they were doing their best. Then he extended an invitation.

“Please come to my home for food after the next dance is over,” he offered kindly after he introduced himself to me and told me where his house was located. When I mentioned that I was with someone, he replied “please bring your friend with you.” I knew that it was considered to be an honor to be asked to join the Governor’s family for dinner. How could we refuse?

My second blunder occurred while I was sitting on a log watching the second round of dances in the opposite plaza. I picked up a pitifully sticky seed coated turkey feather, and carefully picked off the debris. At some point during this process I began to feel uncomfortable about the feather in my hand so I kept it visible. Sure enough, another “watcher” – I don’t know what else to call these men, but some had bows/arrows and all kept a large space between the audience and the dancers – approached me.

“To pick up a feather or anything else inside the pueblo even if it is on the ground is a violation of our rules,” he remarked sternly.

I quickly returned the turkey feather to the watcher, apologizing profusely. Obviously, I am still learning how to behave in Pueblos I thought to myself ruefully.

After the second round of Buffalo dances we made our way to the Governor’s house and sat down to eat with the family. A feast had been prepared and people were expected to come and go until the dances ended in mid afternoon. I was intimidated and had some difficulty making casual conversation although these family members were friendly, if reserved. The food was delicious.

Outside the Governor’s house I noted how warm it was getting. All the cottonwoods had deep crimson tassels already lying on the ground, and once again I felt deep misgivings because although most of the trees were either leafing or in process of doing so it was only the middle of April, the temperatures were in the high 70’s and the sun was very hot. Many early fruit trees like the apricot trees had been badly damaged by a couple of hard frosts according to one tribal member. I couldn’t help worrying about these disturbing weather changes and how they would affect these people who had so much invested in a good harvest.

We watched a third round of Buffalo Dances. Each dance had its own distinct chant and the third was just as mind-altering for me as the first two had been. Once again the dance ended abruptly and the men filed into the kiva.

Kivas are the places where the elders gather to enact the secret Native ceremonies that are held all throughout the year and each spring during Lent. After the secret ceremonies are completed visitors are invited to witness and celebrate the final dances that are chosen by the Governor of the Pueblo for the Feast Day, which in this case was Easter. It is believed that each visitor that watches, Native or non –Native, is participating in communal prayer – and that prayer centers gratitude to the Creator or Nature for life and in the hope that the rains will come so that the crops may flourish.

Most Tewa pueblos along the Chama and Rio Grande have assorted dances that culminate the Lenten season on Easter Day including this one at P’o – Wah – Ge – Owinge or San Ildefonso which is located on some juniper strewn hills that surround the pueblo and the spectacular Jemez mountains. Modest (mostly) pueblo housing, and well kept yards dot the hills around and in the pueblo.

In March there are no public dances at any of the pueblos, but the Katchinas, or holy people have been praying for rain and have been present for the People since the winter solstice. They will return to the mountains or to a sacred underground lake (depending upon tribal oral tradition) sometime towards the end of July. Because all these ceremonies are secret, no one outside the pueblo knows exactly what goes on in March or any other month even when the public is invited to a dance. And even then people are expected to experience the dance through their bodies and not ask questions about what is happening. This is the only way the Tewa people believe they can keep their oral traditions intact. Although nominally Catholic there is an absence of iconic Christian images that attests to the fact that the central beliefs of these Indigenous peoples do not revolve around Catholicism but are much older and rooted in the natural world and the cycle of the seasons.

Perhaps this is why I am so deeply moved and feel deep gratitude after attending one of these Tewa dances. My personal beliefs echo those of the Tewa who were amongst the first peoples that inhabited this continent. My fervent hope is that Native peoples will find a way to adapt even more efficiently to an increasingly alien world where Nature is seen as a commodity to be exploited and not a Living Being on whose life we depend.

Emergence: Poem to a Plant Goddess

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Her name is Datura.

Delicate fluted deep-throated trumpets open to

hungry honey bees and summer rains.

She communicates through scent.

 

In the fall I collect her sharp-needled pods.

They rattle like dry bones.

I chill them.

In the spring I coax seeds to sprout

wrapping each in papery white cloth,

sing love songs – siren calls

to rouse each root from winter’s sleep.

 

I am patient…

a woman in waiting for the heat of the sun

and the mystery of becoming

that is re-acted in spring.

Only seeds know when to swell and burst.

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Wooly hairs branch out from a single root.

Curling themselves into screw like shapes,

They leave it to me to untangle head from foot!

 

I hear the Old Ones call her Sacred

West wind whips red sand into my face,

as I place each sprout in well dampened soil.

 

Within a week green wings unfold

– twin leafed plantlets

lean into the fierce light of a golden eye.

 

Each seedling seeks its own form.

DNA meets the pattern of becoming

held by cosmic forces in a spiral round.

 

I imagine a bush of sensuous pearl white trumpets

– lacy lavender tipped edges unfurling at dusk.

Datura converses with the Hawk moth under a blossoming moon.

 

An ancient plant with unknown origins

Datura bridges continents,

passed on by Indigenous story and feet.

A muse full of secrets

she is known by those

(who have been initiated into her ways)

as “Grandmother,” whose poison is deadly.

She is also a visionary and healer.

 

She comes to some through dreams.

The un- initiated fear her.

 

They call her devil, thorn apple,

witches wildflower, in woeful ignorance

of the breadth of her power.

 

“Dementia!” they sling arrows of ignorance,

accuse her as one who would kill or maim.

 

As well she might.

 

To those who would use her

without respect or care,

she mutters a warning:

Beware.

 

Working Notes:

Datura flowers are startling, huge, trumpet shaped – pearl white and luminous, tinted with pale to deep lavender around the edges – and in northern Mexico, intensely fragrant after rain. Last summer, like the bees that hummed around the flowers from dawn to dusk, I too couldn’t get enough of the sweet scent of literally hundreds of undulating lace edged trumpets that opened each morning or evening after a rain. These wild plants are also known as devil’s trumpet, moonflowers, devil’s weed and thorn apple.

 

Late last fall I collected prickly seed pods and stored them over the winter. This spring I coaxed seeds to sprout, planting them here and there, imagining a summer desert filled with clumps of fragrant blossoms.

 

Datura has the ability to shapeshift – literally. Depending upon growing conditions this plant can develop into a large four or five foot bush, or spread its small umbrella of pointed leaves and flowers over a dry desert wash, barely reaching twelve inches in height. The plant can change its shape as well as the amount of its toxicity which confused botanists for years!

 

In service to Life Datura removes lead from the soil and stores it in her roots and leaves. While the plant provides nectar for bees and other insectivores it forms an intimate partnership (mutualism) with the Hawk moth, an insect almost as large as the human hand. Datura furnishes the moth with nectar and shelters its eggs (newly hatched larvae are served a tasty leafy meal by this mothering plant). But in return pollen is transferred from moth to flower enabling fertilization to take place. With the help of the moth, Datura can then produce fruit and seeds for another year.

 

Datura belongs to the classic “witches weeds” according to Wikipedia, along with deadly nightshade, henbane, mandrake, hemlock and other toxic plants. “It was well known as an essential ingredient of potions and witches brews,” according to this  source.

 

Indigenous peoples across the globe have been using this plant for millennia to seek spirit helpers through visioning. All parts of this plant are lethal and only those that are initiated through the (secret) oral traditions know how to neutralize the poison.

The Bear Circle

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Above: Two bear fetishes from the bear circle carved by Zuni artist Stewart Quandelacy. The red one is a Mother bear, the green one I call Tree bear.

 

When I was a little girl my little brother and I played in my grandparents’ woods, dragging boxes behind us that were full of stuffed animals. My little brother loved bears and his box was stuffed to the brim with bears of all sizes and shapes. In contrast, my cardboard box was filled with a variety of creatures and one giant frog that burped!

When I was in my mid thirties I developed a fascination with bears which totally baffled me because I had always associated with them with my brother, who, by that time, had been dead for many years.

This obsession began when I discovered identical life sized stuffed bears in every store I visited in Portland Maine during the holiday season. After seeing so many I had the uncanny feeling that this giant mole brown bear was trying to communicate something important to me. I ended up buying one of these bears in spite of feeling ridiculous. The bear sat in the back seat and stared at me with deep brown glassy eyes all the way home. I named her Cocoa and put her in one of my kitchen chairs where she was always present to greet people! I also made a crown for her out of grape vines and seed pods. My adult children had both moved out by then and when they visited and first saw Cocoa both thought their very unconventional mother had gone over the edge.

The following spring I began a self directed academic study of Native American mythology and I was amazed to learn that bears were very important protectors for many tribes.

By accident or design I also discovered bear fetishes around the same time. A fetish is an image of an animal (usually) carved out of stone that embodies the power and spirit of that creature. These small carvings are worn by their Indigenous owners who believe that the spirit of the animal acts as a personal guide and protected them from harm.

There was a local woman who went to Tucson Arizona to buy fetishes each winter, and when I discovered her collection I was hooked. The first bear fetish I bought had been carved by artist Stewart Quandelacy, a Zuni Indian who believed that the power of the animal would speak directly to the person who bought the stone.

This was how Blue came into my life. She was a small red (2/12 inches high) pipe-stone bear with a little pearl fish in her mouth. I made her a little pouch and took her everywhere with me… There was something about having her with me that felt really good. It was like having a special secret. I never showed her to anyone.

One day I went back to the local shop and the owner let me open the cabinet and sit on the floor examining other Zuni animal fetishes. Eventually, I went home with a frog. Over a period of a couple of years I acquired lizards and a badger, hawks,  and a raven, and most importantly, more Quandelacy Medicine Bears.

One night I had a dream that the bears were sitting in a circle and they were healing someone who was ill. All the bears looked just like mine; the only difference was that these bears were alive, speaking in a language that I could understand.

The very next day I began to create a bear circle with my bears and other fetishes. There was always a bear that represented one of the four cardinal directions. I acquired a piece of deerskin and each fetish was carefully wrapped after I finished  “working” with the circle by talking to the animals, and moving them around. I don’t know what else to call this but play. I had no idea what I was doing, but I felt like something was happening.

A life threatening personal experience motivated me to set up the bear circle. Inside the circle I wrote a small prayer, and left the circle open to the night. The frightening experience dissipated and I had a powerful sense that this bear circle had somehow shifted something to remove the threat. I began using the bear circle as a focus for prayer, first for myself, and then for others.

A couple of years later I discovered that the Bear Clan of the Lakota Sioux used bear circles for healing. Apparently, I hadn’t made up the bear circle after all! I began to research bears as healers and discovered that these “medicine bears” did lots of healing and were often associated with plant and root medicine, that is they healed most effectively through the use of plants. Most likely I had tapped into this ceremonial healing tradition because of my close relationship with the spirit bears and Nature as a whole.

The most unusual part of this story is that the bear circle helped me to break down  walls in my psyche. I had been brought up in the western academic tradition. I was a person who needed to have concrete proof  from “experts” that my personal experience was valid. Working with the bear circle, paying attention to my dreams, and celebrating earth based ritual brought me into a new relationship with myself.

Ironically, when I discovered the work of Rupert Sheldrake and became acquainted with field theory I learned how the bear circle probably worked, but over time these academic explanations came to matter much less. Time has shown me that calling on the bears for help simply works. Whatever the bear circle is capable of doing is always in service to Life as a whole, even if it includes death. Needless to say I do not travel anywhere without taking a small circle of bears with me.

I am presently living in Northern New Mexico, a place where the veil between the mundane and sacred world seems thin, probably because we are still surrounded by wilderness. I noticed shortly after my arrival that I experienced the potential power of the bear circle more intimately. That I am living on land that has been sacred to Indigenous Pueblo peoples for a very long time may also be partly responsible for some of this intensity because I also have Native American roots. I am developing a powerful sense of ‘home’ as I wander over the hills listening to a river that sings a song that seems to be “calling” out to me just as urgently as the bears continue to do.

Pay Attention, they say. And I do.

What the Red-Winged Blackbirds Say

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Yesterday it snowed. Great white flakes fluttered down like butterflies from the sky and stuck to every leaf and thorn – covering the red earth with a delicate lace shawl. A spring snow is a benediction.

I opened the door and was serenaded by black robed women with wings, singing with wild abandon from the nearest cottonwood tree, as a coffee colored river rushed by… Nature is crafting her own harmony,

Red Willow River is the chorus.

Red –winged blackbirds soar, their high- pitched trills creating a symphony of sound.

Flashing crimson wings whir like fans as they fly by.

I feel hope pulsing through each cell of my body as I join the crowd.

My mind falls silent as I breathe in deep peace…

Oh Daughters of the Night, gift us with your blessing; for you teach us that only the present moment matters… that cycles of becoming are what is – and participation is always our choice.

We must not forget that our strength comes with numbers –

that each life matters.

Life births life,

as death sleeps soundly in the heat of the rising sun.

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Working Notes:

Spring in the high desert is a wondrous event, and I have been blessed by living on Red Willow River close to those who carve relationship out of song.

Spring in the high desert brings wildflowers – primrose and globe mallow – “forget – me –not’s” dressed in delphinium blue – big gray green sage captures all but the most numb through intoxicating scent – and every day births a seed for becoming.

The arrival of the red winged blackbirds ushers in the season of love.

I germinate Datura seeds…

And plant twigs with roots.

We circle big sage with prayer.

Black birds remind us that Nature is both –

fragile and tough.

Nature is Love.