Toadwoman

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The American Toad couple with eggs!

 

The first poem that I ever had published, “Summer Solstice Conversation” documented an experience I had with a large toad that I called Grandmother on the day of the summer solstice. The editor re-named my poem “Toadwoman” which annoyed me at the time, but now, many years later I find the title strangely relevant because I think I have recently been initiated  into the Toad Clan.

A few days ago when my dogs and I walked down to North pond I heard a low hum coming from the water. I recognized the sound immediately because a couple of summers ago I heard that identical music while in my kayak as I approached a cove that was also “humming.” Suspecting amphibious activity of some kind I was still stunned to come upon so many American toads whose bulbous golden eyes were popping out of the water. Toads have the most beautiful eyes. The pupils are oval and black with a circle of gold around them. Toads do see in color although the color hues are blue and green. Delighted to have met so many of my friends that year I planned to revisit the cove in a couple of days to see if I could gather some eggs. When I did return I was disappointed. No hum and not a double string of black and white pearls in sight.

This year I hoped might be different. Approaching the shallow water to let my dogs cool off I was delighted to hear the humming intensify. And before my eyes could register the sequence I came upon a whole multitude of toads with smaller toads on their backs. They were clustered in a shallow reedy area. Remarkably, these toad couples appeared to be as fascinated by me as I was by them because they instantly gathered round in a semi –circle to stare at me with golden eyes. “Hi, we are glad to meet you! Welcome to the Toad Clan!” I thought I heard them say. One male toad suddenly inflated his throat like a balloon and trilled briefly. I stood there dumbfounded.

That’s when I noticed the coveted double strings of black pearls swirling in the water. I just couldn’t believe it. Re-routing the dogs to another shallow spot to bathe, I noted that the humming didn’t cease even when the dogs happily plunged into the pond. I counted back three days to the first day I heard humming. Today I noted the sound long before reaching the pond. It was that intense, but low pitched and very soothing to listen to, a kind of natural symphony. Hurrying the dogs along we reached home in record time. I immediately returned to the pond with my camera and a pail to gather eggs. Once again the toads gathered round me as I gently removed some strings of toad eggs, that in all probability, had just been laid by the toad chorus.

Once I arrived home I put the strings of black eggs with white undersides in my aquarium with attached greenery, and sat down to do some research on the gestation period for the American toad because I planned to raise a few to get to know my new relatives.

I quickly learned that the gestation period from egg to toad occurs over a period of 50 to 65 days and that the mating period is variable from March to July depending on the latitude. Some sources said that toads laid their eggs in vernal pools, which is where I always looked (unsuccessfully) for the eggs. According to most sources males go to shallow breeding areas in vernal pools, small ponds and slow moving streams and call out to attract the females with their distinctly high pitched musical trill which one toad had just demonstrated for me with his ballooning throat. When the female arrives the distinctly smaller male with his darker throat grabs her with his fatter front arms (that have pads for gripping the female) until she discharges her eggs. The male then fertilizes the eggs by discharging fluid. The eggs are encased in long spiral tubes of a jelly –like substance. They are laid in two separate strings with thousands of eggs in each string and are attached to submerged vegetation or float close to the shallow bottom. The females provide nutrients for their eggs inside their bodies, but after laying the eggs parenting is over!

The eggs hatch in three to twelve days (mine hatched in three days) and some studies suggest that the tadpoles have a reciprocal relationship with Chlorogonium algae, which makes the tadpoles develop faster than normal. Toad tadpoles are considered herbivores because they graze on aquatic vegetation; adult toads are carnivorous. Often entire groups of tadpoles reach the toadlet stage at once and a mass migration to higher ground takes place usually to shaded woodland areas with plenty of vegetation (this occurs around here early in August most years when tiny toads appear in the grass or dirt roads in profusion). Toadlets can be observed eating microscopic bugs; as they get larger they also love ants, spiders, snails, beetles, slugs and worms. Unlike most toads who wait for prey to come along American toads can shoot out their sticky tongues to catch prey; they also use their front legs in order to eat larger food. They grasp their prey and push it into their mouths. Some toads also wipe their mouths with their four fingered “hands” after eating. One American toad can eat up to 1,000 insects a day!

It takes two to three years for a toad to reach adulthood and sexual maturity. Toads usually don’t live more than 3-5 years in the wild although they can live up to thirty to forty years in captivity. People mowing lawns routine kill thousands of toads a year. Many folks know that toads do not drink water but soak it in, absorbing all moisture through their skin. I leave water dishes for frogs and toads around well-shaded areas in my garden and in the evening I can sometimes see a toad or frog sitting in these dishes. I notice that they also hunt from these shallow wells because bugs are attracted to water too. Another possibility is that the toads could be urinating!

Toad trilling is not only used at mating time by the male toad. Throughout the summer especially on hot or rainy nights toad trills can be heard singing in this hollow down by the brook. It seems obvious that these toads are communicating with other toads perhaps defending a territory? What surprised me is that none of the sources I consulted mentioned the low pitched hum of the toads that I heard on the pond which is a very different sound from the toad trill.

Tadpoles have several mechanisms to reduce predation. They avoid predators by swimming in very shallow water often with vegetation and also swim close together in schools during the day (I noticed that the North Pond tadpoles were using these techniques rather well). Tadpoles also produce toxic chemicals in their skin like the adult American toad, and fish can die after consuming even one tadpole. When tadpoles begin to hatch they have gills located on the sides of their heads. During the first 20 days they start to form their hind legs (I have one tadpole that has “buds” starting to form on the place where his back legs will be after only 6 days). After 30 – 40 days the front legs appear. At the same time the front legs emerge, the tadpoles’ gills disappear and the tadpoles start to breathe air. From raising frogs I learned how carefully I had to watch for this development to occur because when it did the froglet has to have a place on land. Otherwise the amphibian might drown. The same is true for toads. In the final two or three days of development the toads complete their metamorphosis, reabsorbing their tails and strengthening their legs. At this point the tiny herbivore becomes a carnivore. Baby toads stay by their wetlands for a few days before dispersing to live on dryer land. When they are grown they are about three or four inches in length with the females distinctly the larger of the two. They shed their skin every couple of weeks and often eat it!

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Aren’t they beautiful?

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(Tiny toad tadpoles located at the edge of the pond 6 days after hatching)

With enough cover, moisture, and adequate food American toads can live almost anywhere and are found throughout eastern portions of North America except for Florida. In the non – breeding season individuals have a home range of several hundred feet but during breeding periods they travel. Toads are nocturnal.  Around here they love my gardens, and in the evenings they can often be seen hunting. They are most active when the weather is warm and humid and as adults are quite solitary, although here I have an adult pair that seem to stay together year after year. Is this an anomaly? During the day, toads hide under rocks or vegetation. In regions like Maine where winters are cold American Toads dig deep in sandy soil to hibernate. When digging they back in, pushing out dirt with strong back legs.

Predators of adult toads include several species of snakes, birds and mammals. Some are immune to the toxic secretions. When threatened American toads will remain still relying on camouflage. In some instances they will inflate their bodies and extend their limbs so as to appear larger.

The American toad interbreeds with other toads that overlap its territory. They vary in color from tan brown reddish brown or olive green, some have distinct patterns and a cream stripe going down the back. Toad skin is nubbly in texture and contains parotoid glands that produce a white toxin that helps protect them from predators. Skin color can change depending on habitat, humidity stress, and temperature. Toads display breeding sight fidelity. Individuals often return to natal ponds to breed and will encounter siblings but these toads actively avoid close kin as mates. Vocalizations by males apparently serve as cues by which the females recognize their kin.

Unlike most folks I find toads quite beautiful and as a child kept one in a large terrarium one winter. Every time this little fellow was hungry he would come to the glass and stare me down! I put bits of raw hamburger on a thread and as soon as I waved it in front of him he grabbed it. He also seemed to enjoy being petted and held. Toads make very good friends if you give them a loving home. The next spring I was very sad when my mother told me that I had to let him go. She was right, of course. These are wild creatures that need their freedom just like humans do.

 

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The Other Side of War

 

Brainwashed,

raped and tortured,

“Collateral Damage”

hidden behind lies

and barbed wire.

Children screaming,

minds of young men poisoned,

bodies of young women polluted –

youths too young to know

there is no difference

between

hero and  victim –

all sacrificed wantonly

by Game Players whose

unconscious will dominates

those in power

driven by the Merciless Machine.

 

The other side of war

calls for accountability –

Not just by those in power

but by each individual

who has the courage

to stand in the ugly truth

of what we don’t want to know:

That turning a blind eye

upon atrocity

is murder too.

We are all responsible –

Not just the soldiers

who have no one

to advocate

for their humanity

who lie keening in foxholes

as they face the unspeakable.

This is “The Other Side of War.”

Postscript: I wrote this poem as a form of protest a few years ago after my grandson had been inducted into the Marines at seventeen. His parents supported this choice which frankly horrified me. Drew was fortunate and only yesterday at 22 was finally released. He was one of the lucky ones that spent five years in the Marines and didn’t have to deal with actual combat. Last night I took down the ribbon I had hung in my house in his honor, folding it and putting it away. Grateful that I could do so without anguish, but unclear and uneasy as to how this experience will effect him…

After being asked to read this poem at a gathering a couple of years ago and having folks ask me to send them copies, I sent my poem to a number of papers to publish on Memorial Day weekend and no one would accept it.

As a culture we are addicted to war/killing and must have young men and women to wound and kill the “enemy,” regardless of how innocent the other may be. We use our young people likes pawns in a game that never ends though many lives are lost.

Every time I see another American flag being waved, all I think of is the other side of war.

2nd postscript: This morning I read an article written by Carol Christ who defines patriarchy as “a system of male dominance rooted in the ethos of war…which legitimizes violence, sanctified by religious symbols… in which men who are heroes of war are told to kill men…”. Christ helped me to understand why I had to write this poem.

3rd postscript: Carol Christ also asks an important question when she asks if we have to end war to end violence against women. She writes” In societies where the violent behaviors of warriors are celebrated and in which soldiers who have been trained in the methods of violence come home it is unlikely that anyone can eradicate rape and violence against women.” Although my grandson did not endure actual combat he was trained in the ways of war, and who knows how this training will shape the way he will live the rest of his life.

Desert Spring

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The Wildflower or Tree moon was full last week and it is well named as either. This is the most astonishing month beginning with the promise of wildflowers and ending in splendor with all my fruit trees in bloom. I have pearl white, pale pink, and magenta flowers blooming, some with bouquets of pale pink buds not yet ready to open. One of my favorite crabapple trees is the flowering crab because she has such beautiful double blushing pink flowers and an intoxicating scent. I am always glad that she blooms last. When I walk around my yard I simply cannot imagine being anywhere else during this magical month. I was talking to my neighbor Jean today and we were both exclaiming how magnificent our blossoming fruit trees are and how much we both love them and this time of year.

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The hum of bees delights me with bumblebees, small native varieties, and honey bees, all working the flowers. Just outside my porch window/door – the whole side of the porch opens into my east garden – the hummingbirds are sipping sweet nectar from the heart shaped blossoms of the bleeding hearts that are almost pressing against the double door on both sides. I feel like I am sitting in my own garden! Tall stately clumps of Solomon’s seal bow gracefully, with their lime tipped creamy white bells. The delicate blue phlox is spreading around in front of the Solomon’s seal creating a lovely contrast in shape and color… I have violets everywhere! This year the deep blue ajuga seem somewhat faded the only possible hint of the extreme dryness of this season. Celadine, a wild member of the poppy family, opens her delicate buttery yellow flowers just beyond the bleeding hearts and also grows in profusion around the edge of my rock garden. Hot pink ground phlox creeps closer to the deep purple columbine spires inside that same garden. Just this morning I discovered two tiny 2 inch blue iris with pale yellow throats that had just opened. I was absurdly delighted!

Yesterday after the grass was cut for the first time I wondered if any place could be more beautiful than my own little hollow. I wait as long as I can before mowing so that all the naturalized violets and ajuga can bloom. So many of the white violets have lavender blue throats and these appear in all hues from purple to white. Lily’s of the valley both wild and cultivated unfurl their spirals beyond the celadine; one reveals a stalk of minuscule flowers, and the other a stalk of fragrant upside down cups. Rose breasted grosbeaks, white-throated sparrows, indigo buntings, and cardinals sing love songs. With the unfurling leaves of the deciduous trees and dark green evergreens as background, this patch of earth seems truly blessed. Almost…

Every morning I also awaken to what has become a monotonous blue dome and the glare of a white sun almost at its zenith. Invariably my chimes are singing so I know wind is part of the day’s story. I anxiously look to the skies hoping for clouds, sniff the air for the fresh scent of coming rain, and every day I am disappointed. Last year’s drought killed one of my hydrangeas. Currently one of my lilac bushes has drooping leaves from lack of ground water. The peepers sang only briefly this spring and I have already had to fill the toad pond, (a sunken barrel disguised by flat stones) with water twice. The brook has narrowed its banks and its silvery ribbon is moving too slowly, its rocks gathering feathery green algae. I have decided that I will not water my flower gardens this year. Instead, if it stays this dry I will let nature wither the plants so that they will enter early dormancy. Perennials can take advantage of too much sun without water and save themselves by using this strategy.

No one talks about this drought. Is this because no one notices? Am I the only human that misses spring rain? “The weather has been gorgeous,” the weather folks drone on day after day. It is almost the end of May and the leaves of the oak and maple are stunted. Suddenly the narcissus bouquet on my table speaks as a whiff of scent drifts my way. The narcissus notice. The trees in my hollow respond by muting their lime and chartreuse. The grass is brown or absent in high open places. The mountain saplings look dusty and dull in the distance. Nature is sounding her alarm but almost no one is listening. My records indicate that in the last ten years we have had only two spring seasons with adequate rainfall (and never a year like this one).

My theory is that along with global warming massive logging in Maine is creating an ugly story. With less than sixteen percent of mature forest left in Maine we continue to log indiscriminately. We now consider a 20 year-old tree to be “mature” (up until a year or two ago it was thirty). Nut bearing trees don’t produce mast until they are at least thirty to forty years old and even then only in small amounts. We don’t allow our trees to live long enough to produce adequate food for the animals. We don’t leave “elder” seed trees alone so that they can produce the next generation of sturdy stock as well as sequester carbon. I learned the other day that my local “land trust” is once again logging the mountain I live against, this time on the other side. If the so-called land trusts support the logging of trees then what can we expect from the average person?

It is not as if we don’t know what we are doing. We do know; this is why we have so called 30 foot “wildlife buffers” which are narrow strips of land that protect the public from witnessing the ongoing rape of the forest behind that hedge of trees. This kind of deception allows people to ignore what’s happening unless you are a person like me who can’t turn away from the carnage.

As we clear more and more land the fierce spring sun heats up the bare granite stone and soil. Instead of mature trees keeping the forest moist with their protective leafed out canopies that preserve habitat for woodland creatures, new saplings spring up giving off carbon as they grow, and are cut down again before they can begin to sequester that carbon to help mitigate global warming. The mountain forests contain precious moisture which help produce clouds that eventually will bring rain to the thirsty earth and her trees and flowers. As the forest continues to disappear less rain will fall. At some point in geological time Maine will become a desert.

I am suddenly interrupted by the sound of thunder rumbling nearby and for about 10 precious minutes some light rain falls, the first in two months. Instantly the neighborhood birds begin singing. Doves are cooing. A little hummingbird lifts his beak to the sky again and again as he ruffles and preens his feathers, bathing under his very own shower head about two feet from where I am sitting on on the porch! He behaves as if he is in a state of pure joy. The blue jays squawk and the grosbeaks start singing up a storm. Alas, bird song is not enough to convince the rain gods to stay a bit longer. The ground barely gets wet. But for one moment when I opened the door the smell of spring filled the air with her scent. I couldn’t fill my lungs with enough of that sweet ionized element…

The benefits of rain beyond the obvious were first demonstrated in the 1950’s when a Sonoran desert ecologist tried to simulate the winter rains in an attempt to make the desert bloom. Lloyd Tevis used untreated groundwater from a well to encourage wildflower germination. While he was moderately successful, he needed four inches of “fake” rain to germinate some wild seeds; others did not germinate at all. He was amazed to see what happened when less than an inch of real rain fell on his germination site in January. He noted the explosion of wildflower seedlings. Real rain demonstrated an extraordinary superiority over artificial rain to bring about a high rate of germination!

Many Indigenous peoples in this country have myths that speak to the dire changes that lie ahead. In one such story the rain will not come down over the earth very often and the crops that the people raise won’t be irrigated anymore so there won’t be any seeds left to  germinate. Eventually the earth will burn up and the sea will disappear. (Arizona desert O’odham myth).

It is easy to imagine such stories as fiction unless one understands that Indigenous people have such a close relationship with the earth and her elements that they see her as “kin,” and because of that intimacy may possess knowledge that others do not. I would be remiss if I didn’t restate the obvious. In our culture scientists are now saying that it is too late to stop global warming and that all we can do is to attempt to slow this process down. So at last the Indigenous mind and the Westernized mind are agreeing on something.

Certainly the Arizona desert O’odham people have understood the importance of the relationship between rain and the germination of their seeds since they have known for millennia that seeds will not germinate properly with water from the ground and that the rains must come in order to plant their crops. To call in the rain they make a drink out of the saguaro cactus and sing a song that brings on the summer rains so that the People can plant their seeds. These are the simple words of the song:

Here I stand

The wind is coming toward me,

Shaking.

Here I stand

The wind is coming toward me,

Shaking.

 

I think I shall start singing that song.

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May Day Meditation

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On May Day after doing my Beltane ritual and walking the dogs, I wandered around the house, field, brook, and wooded areas on my property looking for evidence of the first seasonal mayflowers. I thought about my mother silently thanking her because she was the one person who taught me to appreciate these (mostly) diminutive denizens of the forest, fields and stream that became my most beloved flora as an adult.

 

I love the month of May because it is about beginnings. All of Nature is preparing for the spring wildflower show. I walked down to the summer-shaded rock garden near the woods that is also nourished by my leach field. When I approached the stone I was surprised to see a few buds of the trout lily that were almost ready to open. Their little yellow faces had petals that turned back on themselves reminding me of tiny turbans; their brown spotted leaves make a beautiful contrast to the delicate trumpet -like flowers.

 

The garden looked neglected because I had yet to rake out winter leaves and debris. A few raindrops were falling and because we were supposed to get real precipitation, not just drizzle I decided that this wildflower garden needed my attention immediately. I felt a pang of guilt over my carelessness. This is the garden I love best, and all I have to do is to remove debris; she thrives on her own. By mid June the show will be over (wildflowers dislike intense summer heat, and enter dormancy quite early in the season). In defense of my abandonment I reminded myself that wind and harsh sun had dominated all of April and because of the drought the greening of the earth in this part of the country was on hold. I was on hold too … If it rained tonight these thirsty plants would shoot up immediately. I wondered if I would come to life like they would.

 

Persephone’s flames temporarily consumed me as I grabbed the rake and worked feverishly until the area was cleared, dumping pile after pile of leafy brush on an old compost heap nearby. As I went down on my knees to clear by hand the last detritus around the mossy granite stone I noted that the pink and white lady slippers, the anemones and shooting stars, the lily of the valley, and the blue bead lilies were still asleep, as were the maidenhair fern and a few of her relatives. It was hard to believe that within the month this lovely wild garden would be in full bloom. I uncovered bright green nubs that announced the presence of the may apple whose umbrella-like leaves would soon be unfurling above the surface of the rich brown earth. The shiny leaves of lavender blue myrtle held their tight buds close, and I also saw a cluster of two –inch gray green spikes that belonged to the tall graceful bowed Solomon’s seal with her white bell –like flowers. Both the painted (white with striking magenta stripes) and pure white Grandiflora trillium were breaking ground and looking quite rumpled, and a clump of columbine had leafed out like a small cabbage. Ajuga rosettes were turning reddish green, a few Canadian violets and my mother’s favorite blue forget me nots were showing tufts of chartreuse.

 

I didn’t see the bloodroot at first. The perpendicular closed sage colored leaf hid the stem of the single blossom that would bloom before the leaf unfurled. I thought of the picture I had taken of a few of the magical star –like blossoms that were already in bloom in my east garden, surprising the plump bumble bee who was pollinating the white flowers. I say magical because bloodroot is believed to be a very ancient plant with mysterious poisonous properties. Indigenous peoples used the dark red sap found in the stems and roots of this plant to make red orange and yellow dye.

 

I was still on my knees when I noticed the bear scat to my left. Getting up to investigate the copious pile near my brush pile I realized immediately that the small 40 lb. yearling that I had seen last night – the first bear of the season – had not left this giant calling card for me! The yearling must have been followed by an adult … Could that be why the little bear pulled the can half way down the hill before toppling it? This morning I also observed that in the front of the house under the pines (where I leave seed for the birds) a bear had methodically raked up seed with sharp claws and lapped up all the water in the bird-bath during the night. I assumed it was the little bear who also ate this seed and drank the water but now I wondered… I thought uneasily of the bad tempered adult male bear who had taken a number of bites out of my log cabin on a few occasions during the past couple of years… I fervently hoped that this scat did not belong to this grumpy old guy that weighed about 350 lbs., but if it did there was little I could do about it.

 

One of the amazing things I had learned from this particular wildflower garden is that the plants the bears stomped on year after year while passing through “chose” to situate themselves in places where the bears didn’t have regular pathways. So in recent years most of my woodland flowers remained in tact, except for the lady slippers. Meandering black bears bit their heads off year after year. I couldn’t help laughing. Bears could be unpredictable but were also quite amusing to have as neighbors.

 

When I rounded the house I noted the first dandelion blooming in a crack between my granite steps. I am the only person I know that brings dandelion seeds home to scatter around my property. Bees love them and I make a tincture out of their roots leaves and stems to support my immune and digestive system. I also discovered two blooming white violets in the same crevice. Most of the woodland purple and white violet leaves were barely visible, and my favorites, the tiny white marsh violets were still asleep. I groaned inwardly recalling how many violets I planted over the years to get them to naturalize. Now they greeted me in the field, the brook, the woods, around the house, and in all of my gardens.

 

When I walked down to the brook I checked on the progress of the wake robin or purple trillium that was not yet in bloom. The marsh marigolds had fat buds too. I guessed that they would open this week. How much I loved the sun drenched marsh marigolds… as a child I vividly remember my mother, my little brother and I searching for them in the marshes each spring. I noted that the fragrant trailing arbutus were just waking up. I also used to lie on the ground at my grandparents’ house so that I could smell the sweet white and pink flowers that were hidden on the underside of the hairy stems of the arbutus. My mother had successfully transplanted the slow growing, leathery- leaved ground plant that she dug out of the ground in New Hampshire. Because trailing arbutus has a reciprocal relationship with a fungus it is very hard to transplant, and it is protected in many states. Thankfully I have many pockets of trailing arbutus around the brook that usually bloom on Mother’s day, now only a week away if we get rain. Even at 70 I will be dropping to the ground to smell the fragrant flowers whenever they come. There is something about bowing to Nature’s Wildflowers that moves me deeply…Right Relationship is All, some wise person once said.

 

Long before I knew anything about pre – christian traditions my little brother and I would gather the first May flowers and create beautiful bouquets for our mother and grandmother on May Day. At school we danced around a maypole festooned with ribbons – each child took hold of a ribbon – girls weaving in one direction and the boys weaving in the opposite until we met at the bottom of the maypole that was now completely covered with fabric. I loved these simple rituals of flower gathering and dancing around a maypole as a child not understanding that I was participating in ancient traditions.

 

As an adult, after discovering the women’s spirituality movement I too adopted the wheel of the year and began to write and celebrate my own rituals. I wondered why each seemed eerily “familiar” to me. May Day or Beltane, is one of the eight spokes of the wheel, the time to celebrate the greening: the holy waters of the well (and rain), the first flowers, and the sanctity of trees. The custom of decorating a maypole/or tree with ribbons and flowers was found all over Europe. The intention behind these customs was to bring to each home the blessings of the tree spirits and to celebrate the coming of spring. Both the tree and the maypole can also be understood as a manifestations of the World Tree.

 

I often wonder if my mother who was a visual artist had access to some of these ancient traditions on an unconscious level because she seemed to pass something of this “knowing” onto her daughter especially through her love of certain trees and wild woodland flowers. I remember how disappointed I was at 40 that she dismissed my excitement over discovering the winter solstice as an ancient tradition when she was the one that I followed into the woods as a child to collect greens for our Christmas (winter solstice) wreaths. I think in her own way she participated in the Great Round just as I am doing today.

 

As I close this May Day narrative, I give thanks for having a mother who was able to instill in her daughter a deep and abiding love for Nature, a love that would continue to sustain her, as well as to act as a guardian and guide as she now makes her way through her elder years.