Spring Rain

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For the last couple of days we have had cloudy weather with a few irregular cloudbursts bringing much needed rain to our Juniper clustered high desert…When it rains earth tones deepen and the stones that line my paths standout like people. Perhaps they are Kachinas, after all.

Katchinas are on my mind because these holy people come down from the mountains to help the Tewa invoke the rain – gods that will help the crops grow. Squash, corn, and beans remind me that the Three Sister’s technology lives on. The Katchinas have been around since the winter solstice but they stay hidden until the spring dances begin…

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Acequia (above)

Some fields are already plowed and the acequias are brimming with rapidly flowing water. Every morning I awaken to the sound of my dove Lily B’s cooing and as soon as I step out the door I am serenaded by the song of flocks of red winged blackbirds and the rasping sound of cactus wrens. The cacophony is so intense that it drowns out the mating songs of the white crowned sparrows, finches, chickadees, nuthatches, canyon and spotted towhees, white winged and collared doves. But the magpie announces himself in a startling way, not just by his stark black and white coat, a dress with tails, but also by his sharp staccato call. It seems as if the birds take over the earth as the seed moon and spring equinox pass by in March. Last night’s crescent moon sliced through a midnight blue night sky.

I am obsessed with frogs because at this time of year the wood frogs are already croaking if winter in the northeast has been mild. This one has not. Last year I arrived in the desert too late to listen to the frogs that only appear during the first monsoon flooding of early summer. Frogs and water are intimately related, and all frogs and toads begin their lives in still pools, as eggs that hatch with the heat of the rising sun star. May the frogs live on!

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Red Willow river overflows her banks, whitecaps whirl in spirals as she rushes by in the morning mist. This river brings precious moisture to germinating seeds who will soon be emerging from winters’ sleep.

I am preparing Datura seeds for planting, imagining the lavender tipped trumpet shaped flowers, glowing pearl white at twilight while thanking the sky with their scent. Every drop of water that falls from the sky is a prayer for life.

Below: Sunset

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I weave bits of big sage into my braids so the perfume wafts into my nose, even as I breathe in the sweet scent of spring. I am filled with gratitude to be living in a place where the songs of birds, the planting of seeds, a warming sun, and the greening of sage and desert scrub fit together like a mosaic whose pieces complement one another with such perfection. Nature is the artist whose cycles of creation never cease to amaze me. Filled with wonder I give thanks for life.

Postscript: When I finished this post I went for a walk along the river and on a bench sat two stones that weren’t there before. I think the Katchinas must approve of this prose because they left me evidence of their presence!

Silver Maidens of the Garden

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Above: big sage drying – picked middle of March 2017

Artemisia is a large genus of plants that appears in one form or another in gardens or in the wild throughout the U.S. It grows in temperate regions of both hemispheres. I first fell in love with Artemisia in Italy where I gathered large fragrant bouquets of wild wormwood from the hills of Assisi and brought them back to perfume my room. When I moved to Andover I planted the same species and within a couples of years I had huge swaying seed tipped plants springing up in the fields around my house. If Artemisia likes an area you can plan on its ability to re –seed itself and eventually takeover your garden.

Common names include mugwort, wormwood, silver mound, dusty miller, sweet annie (an annual variety) and sagebrush. Most species are perennial. These plants are known for their hardiness and the powerful chemical constituents present in their essential oils. Most species have strong scents and are bitter tasting which discourages some herbivores like our cottontail rabbits from eating them.

Artemisias are often grown for their silvery – gray foliage and for their aromatic, culinary, and medicinal properties. They have alternate, sometimes deeply divided leaves and the flowers are hardly noticeable. These plants are a great choice for rock gardens and other sunny, dry landscape sites.

The aromatic leaves of some species are used for flavoring. An example is tarragon, which is widely used as a culinary herb. However tarragon has difficulty wintering over in our climate.

The plant we call “garden sage” and use in cooking is not an Artemisia/sagebrush but a European Salvia. Although it doesn’t taste or smell minty, you can call it a mint because it is in the mint family, Lamiaceae. It is related to a host of important culinary herbs, not just clary sage, spearmint and peppermint, but also plants as diverse as lemon balm, catnip and oregano.

Members of the mint family can be recognized by the combination of a square stem and aromatic leaves, both of which garden sage has. No other plant family has square stems and aromatic leaves. Flowers of all mint family plants are similar in structure, if you look closely.

Artemisia absinth is used to repel fleas and moths. I notice if I rub the plant on my skin it gives me some protection from bugs. (most pungent Artemisias are natural flea and bug repellents). The fragrant stalks when picked in the fall make a wonderful sweetly scented smudge. This species also re-seeds itself in odd places. It is also used in brewing beer and wine. The aperitif vermouth was once made with wormwood. Absinthe, a highly potent spirit also contains Artemisia. Some teas are made from the leaves of these plants. Other species besides Artemisia absinthe are grown as ornamental plants and they can all be recognized by their lovely gray – green leaves that provide such a wonderful contrast to other garden plants.

The compound Artmisinin and its derivatives taken from Artemisia annua are used today to treat malaria.

The same Asian Artemisia, sweet annie in English, and qinghao in Chinese is widely used in Chinese medicine.

I cannot write about Artemisia without discussing the sagebrushes although we don’t have any of them growing in the wild in Maine.

Sagebrushes or sageworts, are a large genus in the same daisy and ragweed family, Asteraceae.  Common American Artemisias include prairie sagewort, Afrigida. big sagebrush, A. tridentata, and Louisiana sagewort, A. ludoviciana. There are 37 species of Artemisia native to the lower 48 states, and another 7 in Canada and Alaska. They are herbs and low shrubs of dry regions with aromatic leaves, some pleasant to smell, some not. Like other members of the aster family, what looks like a flower is actually a group of tiny flowers. The Artemisias are wind pollinated, so the flowers are inconspicuous and usually the color of the leaves. (Note that, although the leaves are aromatic, the stems are not square). Prairie sages’ closest relatives are ragweeds and asters.

Sagebrush is not a desert plant but is a resident in areas that get 7 to 14 inches of rain a year. Big sage and other Artemisia species are dominant plants of the Great Basin covering some 422,000 square miles in eleven western and Canadian provinces. The shrubs are found from 4000 to 10,000 feet in elevation. Sagebrush ecosystems have the largest habitat range in the United States. Big sage often grows in areas like the cold desert shrub or in juniper and pinion pine woodlands. The perennial shrub (that often looks like a small tree) grows from 2 -7 feet tall. The young stems are smooth and silvery but as the plant matures the stems turn gray and the bark starts to grow in long strips. The plant provides food and habitat for a variety of animals like the sage grouse, pronghorn, birds, the pygmy rabbit and mule deer. It also creates habitat for many species of grasses and herbs. Besides providing shade and shelter from the wind, the long taproot of sagebrush draws water up from deep in the soil, some of which becomes available to these surrounding shallow rooted plants.

Damage to sagebrush and other Artemisia species that grow in our gardens results in the release of volatile chemicals that are used to signal a warning to nearby plants, so others can protect themselves by increasing the production of repellent chemical compounds. This plant to plant communication extends over long distances, and is probably not the only way these plants converse. It has been argued by some that the actual “brain” of the plant is in its underground root system where most exchanges take place (see Stephen Buhner’s work). What I find so compelling is that sagebrush and many other Artemisia species appear to behave altruistically putting the lives of the whole community of plants before that of the individual.

Many Indigenous peoples use big sage as a medicinal herb, most notably for smudging. Zuni use the plant vapors for body aches. Navajo use big sage to cure headaches. My three favorites for smudging (when I am in an area where I can find them growing wild) in are Artemisia frigida, Artemisia ludoviciana, and Artemisia tridentada, (big sage), but none of these plants grow in Maine, and I refuse to buy Artemisia because I don’t know how the plant was harvested.

Unfortunately, some areas of big sage are under siege because the plant is picked, bundled and sold indiscriminately by entrepreneurs as “the” Native American purifying agent. In the Northeast we can gather Artemisia plants from our own gardens to make a smudge by bundling the stems of Artemisia vulgaris or Artemisia absinth together in the fall. We also can gather cedar bundles to purify the air in our homes like local Indigenous peoples once did. I put sprigs of cedar, Artemisia, or balsam on my woodstove to clear the air. Each is an effective antibacterial remedy for airborne bacteria, and also purifies by putting negative ions back into the air.

In mythology the Greek Goddess Artemis is Mistress of the Wilderness, protector of wild animals, who apprenticed young women to become “bear women” that is, young girls who learned how to become self directed individuals before they could marry, or dedicate themselves as priestesses to one of the temples. This is a practice we would do well to resurrect today for young girls who often lose themselves at adolescence. This goddess who presided over childbirth was also a protector of all women, and all animals. With so many restrictions being lifted off the protection of wild animal species I am invoking Artemis’s power by writing about this plant that has been named after her. Animals and plants need all the help they can get. Dark days lie ahead.

I also find it curious that Artemisia, (wormwood) is the name of the star in the Book of Revelations. This star is cast into all the waters (by an angel) making the water bitter and undrinkable. When we recognize that water is the source of all life this prophecy becomes a chilling reminder that we must not continue to pollute our waters.

River Muses

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As the river rises with spring melt from the mountains, Abiquiu dam opens flooding the river to overflowing. The men come to clean the acequias or ditches that will bring life bringing water into the fields to irrigate the crops. All the farmers share this precious water, and having “water rights” determines whether crops will thrive or perish…

Every morning a shimmering golden orb mirrors the river whose serpentine shape and echoing voice welcomes me as I walk out to feed the birds and walk my dogs. I respond to her rumbling roar of water on stone with a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift of water, the rising sun, and a new day spent in this place of unimaginable beauty.

I have fallen in love with a river.

What Spirits decreed that I might live here for a time?

For months I climbed to the ruin of Poshuouinge to glimpse the serpentine path of water meandering below wondering what stories the river held close to her heart. Generations of Tewa speaking Pueblo peoples lived here along the river’s banks, women digging mud, shaping pots out of wet clay, creating art with agave brushes, men carving swiftly flying arrows, clearing the acequias, planting, harvesting, hunting giving thanks for the river’s generosity…people struggling to live in harmony with the land they called “Mother.”

Yet there was much suffering too. Too much blood was shed. Children and women were stolen by those who believed they had more “rights” than others, people who used other people and earthscapes for personal gain. Yet the People endured and some live on today in Pueblos scattered along the river.

Is this why the river tells me that I too must be steadfast, make peace with a troubled past, leave land that I love deeply, come to live here as a child would, trusting the river’s ebb and flow?

Is this why I have met such generous hearted people, people I could come to love?

Did the river draw them to her just as she calls to me now?

These questions haunt me because Place has a kind of Power that works invisibly through Fate and body/mind pulling a person into relationship with a particular element – like the water of this river – but this power never uses words to communicate. Instead, Nature calls her red winged blackbirds to sing their hearts out as I listen fervently for confirmation.

These black robed muses are answering my call.

It is up to me to make the choice to believe these birds whose Presence I see and hear, but whose message I cannot as yet feel.

The Seed Moon – A Time for Ritual and Reflection

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Guardians…

Early Sunday morning the moon will be full and if I am fortunate I will be able to watch her rise over Red Willow River… a river that I have fallen in love with… (I did)

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I think of the Indigenous peoples who have marched in Washington in protest of a pipeline that if completed will pollute their drinking water. The political situation has never seemed more frightening than it is today.

Water is Life – simple and profound.

Every spring I honor the rising waters… and the importance of this element to all living beings. All sentient beings including humans are made of water.

In Maine where I come from, the dreaded white gaze of a March sun is reflected on heaps of snow. The noonday star hurts my eyes and brings on another round of depression because of the ongoing drought… every single year.

Here in Abiquiu I feel joy and I think about water because there is so little rainfall over all. Even desert plants need water to thrive. Each day I see that at the base of many plants there is new growth. I have already seen diminutive wildflowers in bloom. At the monastery big sage has 4 inches of new growth and the scent of this plant is intoxicating.

Two of these big sage plants sit outside my door listening to the river’s song.

Last weekend I saw an Indian man rub the sage onto his hands and body like a prayer. I repeat the gesture with big sage, giving thanks for the changing seasons.

This is the month to celebrate the rising of the waters. This is the month to pray for rain… Here in the southwest I don’t feel alone because the Pueblo peoples have ceremonies that call down the rain gods every year beginning with the Katchinas that arrive around the Winter Solstice, but remain invisible until First Light, when they appear as part of the purification process…In March the night dances dominate, and these are secret ceremonies that no doubt have everything to do with water. Next month the dam will open, and the acequias will be cleaned, so that the precious river water can flow into the ditches to irrigate the fields in this valley. How can I not be aware of how critical water is to all life…?

The Redwing blackbirds have just arrived. Robins are singing from the cottonwoods as talkative and clown-like magpies in black and white coats swoop down from those same branches. I don’t know if the redwing blackbirds will move on, but I hope not. I long to hear the songs of these black robed women with wings… The desert floor is covered with tiny bird prints – bird hieroglyphics – towhees, sparrows, juncos, nuthatches, woodpeckers, chickadees, cactus wrens, scurry around drinking water, swallowing seeds, pecking fat, seeking temporary safety and shelter in the prickly shrubs and vines. The shining rust colored feathers of the relentless redtails soar overhead hoping to spot an unwary avian relative. Yesterday a kestrel flew into the thickly branched tree (whose name I don’t know) scattering well hidden white crowned sparrows. Interesting technique!

I am happier here than I have ever been…I have a life with Nature, with her flowing river waters, her white moon, her wild birds and with her people – I am not alone – even the politics of this place seem to suit me.

 

  • So let the desert and the moon and stars know than I feel gratitude flowing through me on this Watery Full Moon. I give thanks for my beloved dogs, for Lily B who is napping on his perch in our bedroom, for finding good and generous friends…I call out greetings to a white moon who rises in the east and brings the birds home…

 

  • I ask to stay with the process I am in… to be present for myself.

 

Keep me honest with myself… to keep listening to the truth of my body…

 

I honor Grandmother Moon and her grandsons. remembering my own beloved grandmother, thanking her for loving me fiercely.

 

I bless each of us with water from Red Willow river and thank her for bringing us to this place.

Guardians, thank you for your presence here…IMG_2878.JPG

Big Sagebrush

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Recently a friend and I took a trip to the monastery on a cold gray March day. Without the sun’s glare I was struck by the myriad of greens and grays that dominated the landscape. When I first noticed that the sage I was looking at had new leaves I felt puzzled because I didn’t expect to be seeing new growth on three foot tall plants this early in the year, although new growth is present in wild plants that are huddled close to the ground. I had already glimpsed two flowers, a dandelion and a deep magenta heron’s bill elsewhere, both of which were practically hidden in between sun warmed stones.

Happily, I gathered some sprigs of the sweet pungent sage, and climbed back into the car with the fragrant camphor and other volatile oils wafting through the air. Looking around the steppe I noted that a sea of sagebrush stretched out in front of me until the shrubs met red willows that lined the bank of the river. This protected riparian area was completely surrounded by cliffs, and I wondered if that was why the sage had sprouted new leaves so early in the year.

When I looked up big sagebrush I discovered that it was classified as an evergreen shrub because it keeps some of its leaves all year round. With leaves remaining on the plant during the winter big sage can photosynthesize later in the year and earlier in the spring than many other plants. Sagebrush takes advantage of the long growing season photosynthesizing even when temperatures are close to freezing. This information answered my query as to why the plants seemed to be in an (early) active growth cycle.

The size of these plants indicated to me that this land was arable, suitable for cultivation, and indeed the monks had an extensive garden not far from the field of sage. This coarse, many – branched shrub has pale yellow flowers, and silvery gray leaves. A deep taproot coupled with laterally spreading roots near the surface allows sagebrush to gather water from both surface precipitation and from the water table several meters down. It prefers deep basic soils. This sage is very long lived once it makes it through the seedling stage. A hundred year old shrub is not uncommon. Big sages’ pale yellow flowers appear in the late summer or fall. Its fruits are seed –like. This plant also reproduces through sprouts that shoot up from the underground rhizome. These daughter plants have a much better chance of surviving because they are attached to the mother plant that has adequate moisture, no matter how dry the season. Of the two strategies for survival daughter sprouts have the edge. A seedling has to find its way alone and will die without enough moisture.

Sagebrush is not a desert plant but is a resident in areas that get 7 to 14 inches of rain a year. Big sage and other Artemisia species are dominant plants of the Great Basin covering some 422,000 square miles in eleven western and Canadian provinces. The shrubs are found from 4000 to 10,000 feet in elevation. Sagebrush ecosystems have the largest habitat range in the United States. Big sage often grows in areas like the cold desert shrub or in juniper and pinion pine woodlands. The perennial shrub (that often looks like a small tree) grows from 2 -7 feet tall. The young stems are smooth and silvery but as the plant matures the stems turn gray and the bark starts to grow in long strips. The plant provides food and habitat for a variety of animals like the sage grouse, pronghorn, birds, the pygmy rabbit and mule deer. It also creates habitat for many species of grasses and herbs. Besides providing shade and shelter from the wind, the long taproot of sagebrush draws water up from deep in the soil, some of which becomes available to these surrounding shallow rooted plants.

Damage to sagebrush plants by grazing herbivores results in the release of volatile chemicals that are used to signal a warning to nearby plants, so others can protect themselves by increasing the production of repellent chemical compounds. This plant to plant communication extends over long distances, and is probably not the only way these plants converse. It has been argued by some that the actual “brain” of the plant is in its underground root system where most exchanges take place (see Stephen Buhner’s work). What I find so fascinating is that sagebrush and many other plants appear to behave altruistically putting the lives of the whole community of plants before that of the individual.

Some Native peoples grind the seeds of big sage into flour but ordinarily the plant is considered toxic for human consumption because of its oils that are toxic to the liver and digestive systems. Many Indigenous peoples use big sage as a medicinal herb, most notably for smudging. Zuni use the plant vapors for body aches. Navajo use big sage to cure headaches. I collect a couple of different types of sages and use them to help with headaches or to clear a room of stale winter air. I also put sprigs in vases in the late fall.

As previously noted big sage is part of the extensive Artemisia family and has been associated with humans for a very long time. In every state in the U.S. some form of the plant can be found in most flower gardens  and can easily be identified by its pungent odor (although the scent differs from one species to another), as well as its lovely blue gray foliage.IMG_1165.JPG

Above: a few sprigs of Big Sagebrush