Winter Birds

IMG_2068Every afternoon I sit down at my table, binoculars in hand to breathe in the peace of the twilight hours and to commune with the birds who are gathering for their evening meal. The mourning doves have already sailed into the open feeders that hang from a pole under the protection of the field pine overhead, scratching seed onto the ground with abandon. I draw in my breath sharply if a female cardinal dressed in an olive coat flies down to peck the seed below because her visits to the feeders are sparse. A few blue – jays may still be about although the heaviest concentration of jays occurs when I first put food out in the morning. Their raucous screams “here she comes” alert the neighborhood that food is on the way. Juncos are around all day long, feeding on the ground. The goldfinches are morning visitors that retire by mid afternoon. Swarms of them flit back and forth like bees from one feeder to the next during the morning. Purple finches also gravitate to the open feeders on the pole and use any of the three that are vacant usually during most of the day. Chickadees and nuthatches are out and about from dawn to dusk, delicately picking out one seed, flying away, and returning for another in a few seconds. Every time I think the robins have left another one appears. Fortunately I still have a few small crabapples left on my trees for robins and the two grouse that come and go. Another bird that has surprised me this year is the white throated sparrow. A whole bevy left in late November and four appeared here in January morning and have been with me ever since. The first day they arrived they were on the ground searching for seed until nightfall.Occasionally I have a few other sparrows visit for a day or two. When I am home I try to keep track of who is coming or going during the day and note the distinct feeding patterns of different species. There is one small feeder hanging from an apple tree that I have to fill twice a day because it is the chickadees’ favorite, although these little birds are democratic in their leanings and visit all feeders at some point. Hairy and downy woodpeckers are early risers and are always announcing their presence with a loud staccato like chirp as they land on the suet, or the open feeder. They have a tendency to avoid crowds and usually retire around three in the afternoon. But most fascinating is the way they climb down the pines to snack in the protected area where I scatter a small amount of seed on the ground for the cardinals (Small is the operative word here because ground feeding brings in the squirrels within minutes). Sometimes the pileated woodpecker who resembles a prehistoric raptor makes an appearance around mid -day landing on a crabapple out front where I hang suet but he rarely stays. He also announces his presence with an otherworldly laugh. The two kinds of nuthatches also climb down the pines to feast on the ground if they find food there but they use the open feeders too.

Every year I have tufted titmice. This year I have two pairs but I have never had a titmouse sing during the winter like one of these little males does. He has three songs, one of which he begins to sing early in the morning; it is composed of three delicate whistles. He also has a shorter version of the same theme that he sometimes uses during the day. Another variation less frequently heard, perhaps my favorite, is his descending double whistle. I have started to call to him whenever I am outside and if he is around he answers me with the three whistles call. When I thank him for the concert he always responds with another song! Most birds are notoriously quiet during the winter months and so I was delighted and mystified by this little fellow’s proclivity for singing and was surprised to discover that titmice do apparently sing during winter thaws. So far this winter the mild temperatures might be the reason this little fellow is so vocal. More interesting is that there are at least eight distinct calls that have been identified as variations on three basic themes. According to the literature the musical whistle I hear most of the day and the one this little bird sings to me is considered to be a morning call. Not so here. This little fellow has been singing that particular song all day throughout the month of December and into January. With colder temperatures and snow on the way, I wonder if he will continue to serenade me? The soft gray blue coat, tufted cap and brilliant coal black eyes of this small bird is so appealing as he flits back and forth to the feeders, rustles through leaves in search of insects, or hangs upside down on twigs but it is his songs that so endear him to me. I rarely see him or his extended family after mid-afternoon.

The birds that draw me into late afternoon communion are the cardinals. Everyone I suppose has a favorite bird and the cardinal is mine. For a while last summer the Indigo Bunting captured my heart but the cardinals eventually won out. I have reached the conclusion that there is something about these birds that embodies the spirit of Nature as divine. They are my wild “Spirit Birds.” Somewhat reclusive by nature the cardinals are not birds that flit back and forth to feeders all day long. They come only at certain times and are very particular about where they eat. Although somewhat sociable with their own kind, they dislike hoards of other birds and avoid feeding with them. I rarely see them at the open feeders on the pole except at dawn. Cardinals are ground feeders that prefer the protection of trees; here they gather under the pines outside my kitchen window just before dusk during this darkest time of the year. I find myself scanning the pines for the first sight of my beloved “Red Bird” one male that has an ethereal bluish cast to his wings that is noticeable only when he is on the ground. The rest of the bird is fiery crimson. Once he makes his first appearance I feel palpable relief (A number of years ago I lost a male fledgling to a cat and a couple of adult male cardinals to unknown causes and apparently have never recovered from the losses). This is when I fall into a meditative state, hyper –alert but sinking into the comfort of my body as I move into another dimension. The shift is so subtle that I barely notice the transition until I realize that I have lost time, and now it is too dark to see the birds! In the interim I have been watching my Redbird and his ladies fly in to eat their favorite sunflower seeds, disappearing, and returning again and again until dark. Because this has been an unusually mild fall and winter so far I will be curious to see what happens… Soon the world will turn white again, and I am perched like one of my birds at the edge of this turning because although the sun is journeying northward, the coldest winter days are upon us…

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Winter Solstice

IMG_2117Solstice is a word that means “to stand still.” In the northern hemisphere the sun has been moving south rising a bit lower on the horizon ever since the summer solstice. The turning of the seasonal wheel into winter marks not only a new season but the beginning of a new year after the sun reaches it’s most southerly declination as seen from the earth in northern climates. At the solstice the north pole is tilted furthest away from the sun and so on December 21 we will experience the longest night of the year. By the 22nd the sun will have reversed directions, turning north, rising a little higher in the sky each day and bringing with it longer days, and eventually warmer temperatures… Thus the winter solstice is both a process – the turning of the wheel – and an event – the moment in time when the sun stands still and then reverses his direction.

Nature brings a number of gifts to those of us who live in the northern hemisphere. Longer nights bring time for dreaming, our skies are more transparent (due to lack of moisture), and brilliant starry nights both stir and stun us with their ethereal beauty. The Geminid meteor showers peaked around the 12th to the 15th of December. Winter constellations like the Great Bear who appears to follow the Little Bear and his north star (Polaris) are easy to locate in the northern sky early in the evening. The Pleiades or the seven sisters is a cluster of stars quite visible overhead, as is Cassiopeia in the northeast sky and the Gemini twins (Castor and Pollux) are noticeable in the eastern sky. The dog star Sirius is at its brightest in the southeast along with Orion…Of course the last gift Nature brings us is the coldest days of winter, because even though the sun is moving north in the northern hemisphere the oceans continue to cool and most of our weather is driven by ocean temperatures, which this year are warmer than usual.

We are all familiar with the Judeo – Christian seasonal rituals so I will not discuss them here. Less known is the fact that people around the world celebrate the return of the sun with fire festivals, evergreens or other plants, trees, dancing, food, and the drinking of wine, and they have done most of these things since Neolithic times (and no doubt before). To Pagan peoples – the word pagan means country people – the deities of the winter solstice are new born gods or sun gods, but also include mother goddesses like Mary, or virgin (as in “one unto herself”) goddesses like Brigid, and the triple goddess of pre – Christian origin.

Most of the people were agricultural folk so Nature continues to be the central focus of winter solstice rituals. No pagan would consider cutting down a tree because trees were sacred symbolizing the Tree of Life; only boughs and branches were used in rituals and celebrations.

The celebrated Horned god, or green man of the Celts was honored with a wreath of greens at the winter solstice. In Scandinavia St Lucia’s Day (Lucia means light) is celebrated as a festival of lights. Young girls wear crowns made of evergreens lit with candles. A Yule log is burned to insure the sun’s return. The Greeks celebrate the feast of Dionysus by drinking the wine made from grapes celebrating a successful harvest and by wearing laurel wreaths as crowns; the lighting of fires and dancing are all part of this ritual. A sprig of basil is wrapped round an equilateral wooden cross to discourage the dark spirits that appear only during this celebration that lasts for twelve days. The Roman festival of Saturnalia occurs around December 25th and addresses the limits of Saturn as a god and the necessity of working through spiritual difficulties. In Romania wives bake special cakes for the trees that are barren so that they will be spared another year. A log from Yggdrasil, the sacred tree of the Teutons symbolizes the sun and when burned brings light into the dark nights of the winter solstice. The Hindu people place clay oil lamps on their roofs in honor of the return of the sun. Yalda is the Persian festival of Mithra whose victory of light over darkness is celebrated over the winter solstice. Today Druids gather at Stonehenge to welcome the sun’s return.

Indigenous peoples of the Americas also hold celebrations during this time of year. The Hopi welcome the Kachinas, the protective spirits that come down from the mountains. They carry evergreen boughs that represent the tree of life. The Iroquois celebrate the night of the solstice as the dreaming time during which the people walk between two worlds. When the dawn comes the they gather  in a circle to share visions that will guide the people through the year to come.

In most European traditions the emphasis is on the birth of the god, or the return of the light. The Celtic goddess Brigid provides us with a sharp contrast to this predominantly masculine view. Brigid is a triple goddess who is perceived to be a female solar deity in all her aspects. Her attributes are light, inspiration and all skills associated with fire. ‘She hangs her cloak on the rays of the sun, and her dwelling place radiates light as if on fire.’ The fires of her inspiration are demonstrated through her poetry, divination and through prophecy; she keeps oral traditions alive. She taught humans the skill of making and tending fire and during the winter solstice she presides over the hearth fires in every home. As mistress of the primal element of fire she molds metal (earth) through her skill and knowledge as a transformer. At the winter solstice Brigid’s flame pierces the darkness of spirit and mind, while her cauldron promises that nature will provide.

Here is a second Celtic story that provides context for the birth of the god. As the winter solstice approaches The Great Mother lifts the god out of the ground and places him in the sky as light. She offers him the gift of her knowledge and passes along ancient traditions to strengthen and guide him on his journey. This teaching process ages her because it takes so much effort so it is not just the god who is transformed but the Great Mother’s identity shifts as well – after the teaching she becomes the Wise Old Woman who waits at the three way crossroad to assist those who will be born and those who will die. She is also found sitting at the well or tending the cauldron of immortality. The Celts celebrate the twelve days of the winter solstice beginning December 20th and include all these figures. The first three days are dedicated to the maiden goddess that belongs to spring. The second three days are dedicated to the mother goddess whose fertility impregnates the earth, the third three days celebrate the birth of the new god from sheaves of wheat, corn, or the sun/son…and the last three days honor the old woman for her teachings and wisdom. It is important to note that the triple goddess who births the god is one aspect of three deities that are also One. This pre-historic holistic approach interrupts the fragmentation that is endemic to modern culture reminding us that to celebrate the birth of the god, or the return of the sun is to also celebrate the triple goddess as mistress of the fires of transformation.

I celebrate this peaceful time of year by stringing a festival of lights both inside and out. I also tip balsam branches to make a wreath that symbolizes the Circle of Life and the Sanctity of Nature. I light my “Guardian” tree, a young cedar, and hang crystal prisms on her lacy fronds that reflect all the colors of the rainbow when the wind plays my wind chimes.

The winter solstice is a time to release old attachments, a time to dream, a time to imagine new possibilities and create intentions for the future, and I weave all these ideas into a simple written ritual that I will enact on the eve of the winter solstice gazing into my solstice fire. This year I will light the balsam candles in Brigid’s name and burn balsam on my wood stove to sweeten the longest night. The following morning I will leave special gifts of food for my beloved birds most especially the cardinals (my Red Bird) and the deer, giving thanks for the gift of all life.

Guadalupe

IMG_2113Yesterday was  December 12th, Guadalupe’s Feast Day, and I lit her retablo with its fiery red lights that sits in the one dark corner of the living room. This Lady unites all peoples and is often called the “Mother of the Americas.” As I gazed up at her dark Indian face sculpted out of wood, cloaked in a blue green garment and held aloft by what appeared to be a young Indian boy, a profound yearning to honor her once again sprung out of the deepest recesses of my heart, much as I imagined the spring that had once bubbled out of the barren ground at Guadalupe’s feet…

I had first discovered Guadalupe while living in Tucson Arizona. In the rural desert chapels I often found small statues of the Black Madonna behind the churches, some with candles or flowers spread around on earthen ground as offerings. What I found peculiar was that some of these small statues were black while others clearly Indian. I wondered what this could mean. Inside, magnificent images or statues of Mary adorned the altars. It was in the streets of downtown Tucson that I first began to answer my own question. Images of Guadalupe appeared on candles, cloth, mugs, and retablos that had made their way up from Mexico to be sold during the street fairs. It occurred to me that some of the statues I had found behind the Catholic churches in rural areas must have been statues of Guadalupe.

Guadalupe’s story, although differing in details is a simple one. In 1531 a poor Indian peasant had a vision of a Lady, also Indian, who appeared out of a cloud and was surrounded by a mandorla of light on the hill of Tepeyac (located outside of Mexico city). Birdsong accompanied the vision. She spoke to him in Natuatl, his native dialect asking him to tell the Bishop to build her a chapel on this hill. Juan Diego duly went to the Bishop with the story but was not believed. The Bishop needed a sign. Juan’s uncle suddenly became deathly ill and Juan went again to Mexico City for help and once again the Lady of Light appeared to him on the way telling him that his uncle was healed. Juan related the Bishop’s request for a sign, but the Lady already knew and told him to gather Castilian roses, jasmine and other flowers, none of which could grow on the barren rocky hill of Tepeyac. She arranged the flowers in his cloak or tilma and instructed Juan to take them to the Bishop. When Juan opened the cloak before the Bishop on December 12th, the fresh heavily fragrant flowers fell to the floor. More astonishing was that on the rough fabric of the woven agave tilma was an image of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Light. The Bishop was convinced and a chapel was soon built on the spot. Curiously, this chapel was built over a shrine to the “Mother of the Gods” who the Indian people called Tonantzin. It is said that many miracles continue to occur here and that a clear spring appeared after one of the Lady’s miraculous appearances. The image of Guadalupe on Juan’s cloak is presently housed in the Bascilica of Our Lady (Mary) in Mexico City, and is one of the most visited holy places in the world.

It wasn’t known until recently that the image had originally included a crown that had been removed. (The frame surrounding the image had been lowered so the erasure was obscured). Guadalupe’s picture has also been modified in other ways; the Mandorla, the stars on her cloak, the moon under her feet and the angel supporting her were apparently added later. Even more interesting was the fact that when infrared imaging was done it was noted that the original image was neither cracked or flaked while later additions – the gold leaf, the silver of the moon – showed wear. The upper two thirds of Guadalupe’s image show no imperfections.

The absence of the original crown on Guadalupe remains an intriguing mystery. Although it is obvious that the image was deliberately tampered with to transform Guadalupe into the Virgin Mary (she eventually became a Catholic saint), I always believed the two figures were not the same. Since early childhood I had loved Mary first as the loving mother I never had, and more recently as a more distant presence surrounded by stars and galaxies. Guadalupe seemed to me to be a more earthly presence, although most certainly divine. Images of her were almost always placed outdoors in natural surroundings. Once I dreamed that I followed Guadalupe’s blue -green light through the forest in a state bordering on ecstasy. Perhaps my Native American heritage has biased my thinking and my heart but I cannot ignore the intuitive sense that this Lady is the Mother of the Americas, and indeed, to Indians at least, she is a figure that unites all peoples, and for me this includes all animals and plants and the natural world as a whole.

I bought my retablo in Mexico after living in Tucson, fascinated by the peyote- like flowers, and the ayahuasca leaves that adorned the outside of the little shrine. My Guadalupe wears a necklace of coral that belonged to my mother, part of a rosary (I removed Christ on the cross) that belonged to my father, an Indian petrographed stone that belonged to my brother, a small deerskin bag that contains a lock of baby hair belonging to my oldest grandson, a single peregrine falcon’s feather that I associate with my youngest grandson, a crystal necklace of mine that reflects her crimson lights and finally a Native American Spirit Bear made out of mother of pearl. Above Guadalupe’s retablo I have placed a pair of deer antlers, and many kinds of bird feathers adorn the small shelf beneath her along with a stunning beaded antelope made by the Huichol Indians of Mexico. During the winter I light her every morning just after making my fire in the stove, and her comforting warmth and presence has helped me deal with increasingly harsh winters, bare and treeless granite mountains, and monochromatic gray or snow – laden skies.

Yesterday was unseasonably mild and I wandered through the mixed deciduous and conifer forest on my property with my two small dogs and stopped to rest at a place where I imagined Guadalupe might once have appeared… I marveled once again that we were mid way through December and rich bare ground still lay under my feet. A solitary woodpecker chirped from an old snag. I was standing at the edge of a clear spring that bubbled out of the ground surrounded by a copse of fragrant balsam trees. Lush green sphagnum moss carpeted the edges the slender ribbon that wound its way down the mountain like a sinuous serpent on the way to the sea. Asking a nearby balsam for the tree’s permission, I bent and broke off a balsam twig to place on my small altar beneath Guadalupe’s retablo after I got home, imagining that Guadalupe would appreciate the fragrance. When I heard a slight rustling in the forest behind me, I turned slowly to gaze into the dark luminous pools of the old doe’s eyes fringed with black lashes… losing myself in her eerily serene beauty. I knew this deer; she came in each evening to feed. So Guadalupe had made an appearance after all I thought happily, and this time she wore her animal skin!

Circle of Life

Each December I feel as if I am participating in an ancient rite when I tip the aromatic branches of our native balsam tree to bag and bring home to make a wreath.

Each year as I cut the twigs I ask to be forgiven if this act hurts the tree.

Each year standing in front of the balsam I give thanks for all trees but especially for this one because of her fragrance…

I remember going into the forest with my mother as a child to gather princess pine, a ground loving creeper, to fashion into a wreath…

I remember my brother…

I remember taking my youngest son into the woods to gather balsam to make our wreaths…

I remember my grandchildren…

When I sit down on the floor I spread the branches of sweetly scented needles around me along with a pair of scissors for further trimming. I have already made the form for the wreath out of cardboard. The frame is woven with garden string.

As I trim the branches and gather them into clusters to fill out the ring I am alert to nuances. The air around me thickens in anticipation. Lily B, my dove coos. The presence of my two dogs reminds me that I am never without the dearest of friends…

As the wreath comes to life I create intentions for the coming year weaving the past and present into the future.

I breathe deeply inhaling the fragrance of balsam deep into my lungs.

Prayers for All Nature – animals, birds, trees, and people, rise out of each breath – forming a sphere of light that hovers above the wreath.

When the wreath is complete all boundaries dissolve.

The Circle of Life remains.

IMG_2109

Homage to Lily B: a Spirit Bird

 

The Hunter’s Moon marked the end of November this year. By moving her arc northward to shine through the bathroom window, the full moon bathed us, Lily B, my ring-necked dove and me, in her pure white light. He gazed and cooed at her from his perch – a cedar branch built into his open cage that overlooks the granite bones of the mountains while I gave thanks for the end of hunting season…

It is from this location that Lily B. usually follows the beginning of the moon’s journey through the night sky throughout the winter. For the next three months he and I will observe a pure white blossom rising over the northeast horizon. We will bask in her pale blue light, follow her as she climbs over the house and watch her descend below the mountains of the southwestern sky from windows in the opposite side of the house. If the nights are clear Lily begins singing to the moon a night or two before she’s full and continues to praise her until her light begins to wane, a lifetime habit of his that never fails to move me deeply. I often wonder if other doves or birds have a penchant for this blessing of the moon.

But Lily B. (The B is short for boy – I was too attached to his name to change it when I discovered he was a male) loves all kinds of light and this proclivity stretches back twenty – three years to the first year I had him as a dovelet. We have moved many times since then and I have watched him seek the brightest light in each of our dwellings. In his first home he slept on the tip of a tree branch closest to a southeast window. In other places he chose the highest ledge or bookcase always above a lamp or near a glass door. When given the choice he appears to have a preference for light with an eastern exposure and I wonder how much this has to do with his love affair with the moon or perhaps it is also attached to the rising of the sun? These days Lily B. basks under both natural and the artificial plant light in the bathroom. The artificial light keeps him warm as he perches on a gate that separates him from the plant window, but not from his passionflower vine with its fragrant blue flowers. I grew this vine especially for him and have attached its tendrils to a string that stretches across the window over his head so he can tear off bits of leaves to eat at his leisure. Without that gate he would fly into the plants and devour my pink orchid flowers (he loves pink). It is from this gate perch that he brings in the dawn, watches birds during the day and occasionally sings to the moon during the apex of her cycle at eventide. During the summer Lily B. spends his days on the porch, his favorite room in the house because it has windows on three sides. At dusk he flies back into the house to spend the night on his cedar perch.

From the first day I had him, Lily B. exhibited a remarkable habit of being able to read my mind. In the beginning I ignored his cooing in response to my thoughts although I couldn’t help noticing that he was particularly vocal when there was an emotional charge associated with my thinking. I dutifully recorded these strange occurrences in my journal and when I discovered that Biologist Rupert Sheldrake was researching animal – human communication I took a chance and sent him some journal entries. To my great surprise he took these experiences quite seriously, reinforcing my intuitive sense and opening my rational mind to the idea that Lily and I were actually communicating telepathically.

Telepathy says Sheldrake first evolved as a predator –prey survival strategy that allowed animals to communicate over great distances at the speed of light or even faster, no one really knows for sure. Telepathy works most efficiently when there is a powerful relationship between the two communicators as in members of the same family, close friends, between animal companions and their people, or between the hunter and his prey. Humans definitely have this ability, although technology is probably diminishing our sensitivity to its existence even if the taboo around telepathy, presentiment, clairvoyance etc didn’t exist as part of our Newtonian (mechanistic) scientific bias.

Lily B. has had three mates and to my knowledge none of them exhibited telepathic ability. Why Lily B. has this aptitude when the others didn’t still remains a mystery, unless I consider that the closest bond was always between Lily B and me. I loved his mates but not with the same deep emotional attachment that I have for him. I have always considered him to be a “Spirit Bird.” There’s also the fact that having just one telepathic bird would highlight this sixth sense, forcing me to consider that telepathy might exist as a faculty in the natural world and in me, while having a second bird cooing along with Lily might simply create confusion.

In retrospect it is easy to see that Lily B. and Rupert Sheldrake opened the door for me to communicate in non –ordinary ways with other birds and wild animals, which helped me enormously as a naturalist, but for years I struggled mightily to release the hold that western thinking still had on me. The naysaying voice in my mind cut me away from my own experiences again and again reducing them to rubble. It took thousands of “mind-bending” experiences with Lily, my dogs, birds and other animals and my journaling to strengthen my resistance to the skeptic (who in my mind grew into something of a monster/killer) to the point where I could simply ignore him.

After Lily led me through the looking glass I was struck by the thought that air was Lily’s natural element, because Lily is a bird. And that it is the same element of air that may allow energy and information to travel as fast or faster than the speed of light to keep loved ones connected. All that is required is an open heart and a mind that is willing to entertain the possibility…

Lily B.’s continued presence in my life is a gift. After he helped me open the doors of perception the invisible world became a place brimming with possibilities and remains so today unless I get caught in the underworld – the place of “forgetting” who I am. During these sojourns Lily’s cooing reminds me that the other world is out there, and this knowing helps me to bring light into the darkness of my own psyche eventually releasing me from imprisonment.

IMG_2106Lily is an old bird now having lived twice as long as most ring neck doves, and he has been devoted to each of his partners, as well as becoming a steadfast parent, fathering several dovelets. After he lost Lucia and witnessed her burial last summer I worried because I knew how hard it would be to find him another partner. I stayed close to home to keep a close eye on him and was delighted to see that this time he seemed to be recovering on his own. Unlike the other losses that left him bereft, depressed, cooing mournfully (or worse, not making a sound at all) he rallied after the first day by singing up the dawn and pecking his food voraciously. Soon he and I fell into the intimate pattern of relating that we once shared when he was a dovelet. I have fallen in love with Lily B for the second time! And I am treasuring these months. Although there is no way that I can project how Lily will feel in the spring when the mourning doves begin to call, for now at least, he seems perfectly happy in my company.

Every morning Lily begins the day by singing the dogs and I out of our bed. He greets me any time I come in from outdoors and regularly comments on what I am thinking and writing. He sings at odd intervals, and when the moon is full he begins his evensong as we both watch a translucent pearl orb climb over the mountains to illuminate a star cracked sky… It is no wonder that Lily B loves light of all kinds because he is literally a manifestation of Light. And from my perspective, as a “Spirit Bird,” Lily B embodies the light of  the world.