Witch Hazel Comes to Call

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Through the Looking Glass…

 

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Above: author’s witch hazel tree blossoms

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A scalloped witch hazel leaf highlights this beautiful shrub

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Returning to Red Willow River… Photo Bruce Nelson

 

In Celtic and many other pre –Christian and Indigenous traditions when All Hallows occurs on October 31st the year is coming to a close. What I find most compelling about this ancient nature based religion is that it follows the seasonal round. For example, as I look out my window the fading colors of falling leaves remind me that the Earth is preparing for her winter sleep. In the woods the bears will eat and move less, becoming lethargic as they dig their dens for winter hibernation.

 

After All Hallows, the Feast of the Dead, and All Soul’s Day (a three day festival still celebrated in every country but the United Sates), a space opens up for a number of weeks during the darkest months of the year that doesn’t close again until the winter solstice when the sun reverses his direction. In that “space in between” the veil is thin. It is a time for dreaming, reflection, tying up loose ends, creating intentions for the future, and feeling gratitude for the gift of life. Unfortunately, trickery also thrives in this place, so it is important to stay awake and wary during this darkest time of the year. I follow this ancient tradition because in my world my inner life seems to reflect that of the outer seasonal round and those mysterious spaces in between.

 

This month I reflect upon the last year, re –reading my journals for new insights, identifying old patterns that continue to keep me spinning (some of which I have never been able to change – it seems to me that I have always lived my life on the edge). It takes a certain amount of grit to return to the past, since overall, this year my life has been in a state of chaos and “not knowing” with so many changes taking place – some seemingly miraculous. Yet, deadly repetitions also plague me. This ongoing de-stabilization is not doing much to keep me on an even keel. Each day seems to produce another reversal, a deadly new silence without explanation, or crazymaking confusion that leaves me enervated. I am tired a lot.

 

However, when I peruse my journals or look out the window I recognize that there have been two stabilizing influences in my life that act like the keel of a boat. Human friendships have grown deeper roots, and because for me, Friendship is the taproot of Love, I am grateful indeed for those few people with whom I have come into deeper communion. They know who they are.

 

The other calming influence has been my relationship with my dogs, Hope and Lucy, my dove Lily B, and my enduring love for all Nature. This love is woven through my journals, my dreams, my days and nights, a thread that has sustained me for many years. My curiosity about whatever creature/ tree / plant captures my attention drives most of my writing since Nature also provides the mirror for what is occurring in my life sometimes in uncanny ways. When I write about an animal or plant, even when I am unaware of it, I am also writing about a part of me.

 

And this brings me to Witch Hazel, a plant that I have loved since I was a child. My grandmother always kept a bottle in her medicine closet. Whenever we succumbed to poison ivy blisters, my little brother and I would scratch our skin until it was bleeding and then slather the wounds with witch hazel for instant relief; we loved its smell! And it healed wounds in days.

 

As an adult I have continued to use this plant – based alcohol as a cleanser, an astringent, and to stop bleeding. Recent studies have shown that the active compounds in witch hazel – flavonoids, tannins, and volatile oils act as cleansers because of their astringents and do stop bleeding but Indigenous people had other ways of knowing and understood the healing properties of this plant long ago. In this country they drank witch hazel tea to stop internal bleeding, steamed twigs to soothe sore muscles, and to treat colds and coughs. Today, witch hazel is one of the few medicinal plants actually approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a non – prescription drug ingredient, which unfortunately does not enhance its credibility to me, since the FDA routinely approves potential drugs it has not tested adequately.

 

Indigenous peoples, especially North American tribes also discovered that Y shaped witch hazel sticks could be used to find underground water. Dowsing for water is a skill that I am familiar with because I have used these sticks to tap underground water sources in the past. When the forked stick bends suddenly it is always a surprise, but the water woman in me just smiles.

 

“Water is Life.” Many of us are learning this truth in this time of planetary crisis, but for me that knowledge has been embodied ever since I can remember. Living near/on water has been a necessity, there’s no other way to put it. The only time I lived any distance from this element was during a period in my childhood when we lived in New York, but even then the Hudson was never far, and once back in the country my brother and I had access to my grandparent’s brook where we spent most of our spring, summer, and fall days in play.

 

This “Borderland” tree has magical attributes in both Indigenous America and in Europe, perhaps a quality I may have sensed as a child. The ancient Celts considered it to be the tree at the heart of the Otherworld. In Norse mythology it was known as the Tree of Knowledge. The Greek god Hermes was believed to make himself invisible by using an upright twig of this tree. The witch hazel’s connection to the well of wisdom present in many mythologies is strengthened by witch hazels’ presence around wells, which even today are festooned with votive offerings in Britain and Ireland. The name witch hazel has its roots in wych, an old Anglo – Saxon word that means to bend or shape.

 

As might be expected the witch hazel tree is also associated with women – especially old women, who are both feared and condemned by various cultures but continue today to practice their craft of healing, midwifery and prophecy. The infamous witch burnings in both Europe and America attest to the fear, hatred, and disgust that led to the slaughter of thousands, perhaps a few million innocent woman healers who were considered to be witches. In a peculiar reversal twigs of witch hazel are still used as a form of protection from the witches themselves! Witches are usually women who live alone on the boundaries of their respective cultures and they have intimate relationships with various aspects of Nature including the element of water…

 

The magic powers of witch hazel live on today whenever a water diviner uses a hazel branch to dowse for water. It is believed by some that as the branch bends to reveal water hidden within the ground it is also straining to connect with the ancestors hidden deep within the memory of Earth herself. As a self proclaimed water witch I think there is truth in the above statement.

 

Many years ago when I first bought this land I planted a witch hazel tree down next to my brook. When I built my house I planted a second tree next to my well, and when my brother’s ashes finally came to rest here under Trillium rock, I planted a third tree for him.

 

For the past couple of days these trees have been on my mind because it is almost time for them to bloom. Clusters of small fragrant pale yellow blossoms with finger like petals hug the twigs of this tree – like bush (Hamamelis virginiana) and I wanted to see if any flowers were visible. When I checked the two below the house my brother’s little tree had leaves that were still green, the one by the well had turned yellow… Not surprisingly, blossoms were not present on either plant because neither had lost their leaves.

 

However, when I visited the first witch hazel I planted, now a large graceful vase shaped bush, I was delighted because most of the leaves had fallen and the tiny yellow flowers were in bloom. The blossoms are equipped with both sets of reproductive organs but act as either males (producing pollen) or females (producing fruit)! Small bees and (annoying) gnats are pollinators. Each seed pod has two tiny shiny black seeds which are ejected from  small pods during the following spring.

 

I lovingly trimmed back a few dead branches and made a “Y” shaped stick from one to bring back to the house. Then I photographed a blossom for this blog. In the background the sluggish brook water barely moved over its stony path. Drought is very hard for me to deal with, psychically and physically, so seeing the healthy tree with its new shoots made me very happy. American witch hazel (also imported to Europe) is not really a tree, it is more like a shrub developing many stems as it ages. It attains 15 – 30 feet in stature. It has a number of traits I love including smooth gray bark and an architecture that defies convention. It’s branches zigzag in every direction at once as it roams for light, which it is, because it is an under story tree that thrives in forest openings. It is also one that loves living near water.

 

When I said goodbye to my witch hazel I brought the forked stick back to the house and left it outside the door to remind me of  witch women, women with wings like me who are readying for the transition from one world to another… When I heard the Great Horned Owl call outside my window last night, I thought of my sturdy witch hazel branch… Is it my imagination that the spirit of the old women, witch hazel trees, and owls are all calling me to be present for an important change?

 

Early next month I will be traveling across country to Abiquiu, New Mexico hopefully to enjoy a second fall and a milder winter just as Nature in this part of the country prepares for her long winter sleep.

Dead Flicker

 

 

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Painting by Mary Meigs

 

When I gaze

behind the paint

I don’t see death’s face

staining the paper white.

 

Life is in the wings.

Buttery yellow and black tipped –

blood stains highlight roses.

 

Comforted by Nature,

Flicker is simply sleeping

until the day of  his Rebirth.

 

 

Postscript:

My writer/editor/ dearest friend Harriet Ellenberger has been re –publishing issues of She is Still Burning on her blog that are more relevant today than they were when they were originally written. This is truly a journal for “life lovers” as Harriet writes.

In this installment Harriet honors writer and artist Mary Meigs bringing her into every heart that is opened into an awareness of what is.

One perception I have about SISB stands out beyond all the rest.

“Women with Wings” are still hovering – their presence offers comfort and hope in the face of growing despair. What we have to do is to listen for the sound of those wings soaring above us, some in the trees, others on the thermals and we will be transported into another way of seeing and feeling our way through this dark threat of war. Like the mole who lives underground, the earth will contain us until its time to emerge in another light.

If you are a woman with wings (or a man who loves one) – reading these installments will offer new insights and highlight the importance and dignity associated with endurance and the gift of genuine friendship that opens us to Love.

Please visit Harriet’s website:

https://harrietannellenberger.wordpress.com/2017/10/10/she-is-still-burning-17-18/

After I wrote this poem this morning I learned that we might be going to war.

Maple Fever

 

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My mountain… note leafless birches etc in front

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Sugar maple

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Looking towards my brook in the rain…

 

Last night I had a dream that the season was coming to an end. In the vignette I am looking in my wheat colored garden and queen anne’s lace, once a lovely pearl white wild flower has fallen over, her bird’s nest, full of fuzzy brown seeds scattering on the ground.

 

Indeed with dark cloudy mornings keeping us in bed until 7 or 8 AM my dogs, bird, and I are adjusting to this change of seasons that descends upon us so quickly in Maine. There is a brief period of stunning colbalt blue skies and the hint of changing color that occurs around the end of August into mid September but rapidly fades into deep autumn shadows after the equinox and the encroaching darkness that defines a Maine fall.

 

In just the last two two days the landscape has shifted from dull lifeless dry and diseased trees to a riot of color. I had no intention of missing the beauty that Nature offers so graciously for a few brief moments in time. So, yesterday, although it was cloudy, I took what has become an annual meander, walking through the woods and trails around my house and forest to enjoy the foliage that is peaking now because all the maples have caught fire, or have lemony yellow or sunset orange leaves that provide a brilliant contrast to dark green heavily pine – coned conifers.

 

This intentional cyclic fall meander, never a hike, allows me to focus on the maple colors that move me the most, those that are framed by a blue or gray sky – maples are my favorite fall trees! And yet, I have taken them for granted too because I thought red maples would always be around, and now they are succumbing to disease. I didn’t realize until I researched them this morning that the swamp maples that dropped their unnaturally curled dead leaves prematurely in early September were the same species as the red maple that is flaming on the mountains today. Red maples may be softer wood but are such adaptable trees growing in both wet and dry areas.

 

This year especially, I am astonished and grateful that the rest of the maples are dressed so brilliantly because we are deep into years of drought. It was eerie as well as depressing to witness so many diseased leaves drift to the ground early in September. Many maples have been bare for a month or more.

 

But the ones that are hanging on are heralding the change of seasons speaking through vibrant color. Of course, the birch, beech, wild cherry, poplar, alders, and oak (that haven’t already dropped their leaves due to drought), will add shades of the palest yellow, ochre, and various hues of brown to the mix at the “peak” of fall color which according to weather sources hasn’t arrived yet.

 

In this area we have red maples, sugar maples, silver maples, and moose or striped maples (as well as some ornamentals). All of the above belong to the family Aceraceae but we also must include the Norway maple that originally was introduced from Europe but has established itself here. Crimson king, with its deep maroon leaves is a popular species, but others resemble both the sugar and red maples except that their leaves are more golden in color, not the brilliant oranges, scarlet, crimson, typical colors of the red and sugar maples. The silver maple is found along riparian wetlands and the rivers. This tree with its deeply toothed leaves turns pale yellow. Moose maple hugs the lowlands, a small under – story tree whose giant leaves turn sunshine gold, literally lighting up the forest.

 

This morning it is raining for the first time in two months – a light rain that makes the still green leaves of my apple tree shimmer creating a mirror like effect. A host of sugar, Norway, moose, and red maples can be seen from any of my windows; their colors are spectacular – each leaf has different hues woven into a unique pattern, and yet the leaves of all the maples share similarities.

Simply gazing out my windows is a source of ongoing wonder to a naturalist like me.

Hecate’s Moon

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Hecate’s Moon

is the piercing thorn

of a wilted white rose.

 

Frost covered, she rises over

bare trees shorn of leaves –

crackling obscenities.

 

Fog obscures her face,

obliterating any attempt

to categorize or capture essence.

 

Blood stains the river

that flows unimpeded

in this crack between her

worlds.

 

Listen, and you will hear

wild cats screech,

coyotes howl,

owls shriek.

 

I lay low.

 

She is what She Is,

A force to be reckoned with,

this Dark Side of

the Moon.

 

 

Working notes:

 

So many feminist spiritual traditions attempt to lighten the dark powers of this (Greek) mythological underworld figure who is multi -valenced and can be found in some form in every mythology. She lives underground seething in  silence and acts as a bridge between above and below as she moves between worlds. She slices our nights in two – living through the dreamtime – a specter unseen but experienced when the Earth turns dark. I think she comes now not because of the changing seasons but because gun violence*, rape, and the deaths of thousands of innocent people, trees, plants, seeds, and animals have become the new “normal.” Unspeakable acts of horror have come to define who we are as a people.

 

Hecate is, above all, the transformer holding living and dying in precarious balance until the scales tip too far. When she steps in with a scythe in her hand, beware because her force is deadly, and none are spared. Hecate’s wrath is boundless, her time draws near…

 

This month Hecate’s appearance also informs us that the end of the year is almost upon us. Her Full Moon, and the Feast of the Dead which is held over the last days of this month and stretches into November, ushers us into her world – a three way crossroad – Cairns mark the place between that which has gone before, the present moment, and whatever is destined to come.

 

Hooded, she walks alone and we spin through her once starry spirals turned to dust in dense matter. Spirals, patterns in Nature, remind us that as we spin out of control we are destined to implode.

 

*Note: in the middle of writing about gun violence at twilight, massive machine gun explosions cause us ( my dogs and me) to jump out of our animal skins. We live in a war zone,  one as yet, legally undefined.

The next morning hounds howl in a frenzy as they tree a hapless bear who will then be shot.

The Gathering In

Seed gathering is my way of preparing for winter and for a season of stillness and quiet. The sun rises lower and lower over the horizon each dawn. This year light is filtered through trees that are losing leaves to drought and not to the natural process of chlorophyll withdrawal. But the light is still extraordinarily beautiful as it illuminates each branch and leaf, creating mosaic patterns on patches of parched dry ground.

Yesterday we had a light frost and I brought the last of my nasturtium and bean seeds indoors to dry upstairs in preparation for next summer’s garden.

While I collect seeds, explosive gunshots pierce the air in my backyard.

Bumper stickers warn me, “Don’t interfere with ‘our right’ to bare arms.” A threat? Apparently, having the “right to kill” is all many people think about.

I am never free of the awareness that death is in the air.

This morning I had an email from my friend and feminist artist Sabra Moore who lives in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

She writes:

“All the news is terrifying – I feel like Trump is, each week, becoming more unstable so I am keeping hold of the harvest here.”

I immediately thought to myself that “keeping hold of the harvest” is a way to deal with our current political insanity.

Unfortunately for me, the harvest is over.

Below: Artist/writer Sabra Moore in her garden

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Little Wild Hedgehog

 

 

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(Above: The Crowning)

When I first moved to Abiquiu in 2016 I was living in the hills and was exploring the arroyos and surrounding Juniper scrub when I discovered a desiccated little hedgehog cactus somewhat hidden under a Juniper’s canopy. Thus far I hadn’t seen any cacti at all except for cholla and prickly pear so I was somewhat surprised by this hedgehog’ s appearance. I decided to transplant the cactus into a pot and dug it up, watered it, replanted it and left it on my outdoor step in partial shade (now I know that it is wiser to uproot the cactus and lay it on its side to rest in the shade for about a week before re-potting to insure that the roots heal to protect them from parasites). For the rest of the fall and winter it just sat there sort of shriveled on one side and I wondered if I had made a mistake.

When we (my dogs and telepathic bird, Lily b) were finally forced out of this inhospitable rental (without heat or a stove to cook on) in mid February by a terrifying fire I took the cactus with me, not wanting to leave it in such an unfriendly place. I re-potted it again, this time in a smaller container and left it outside at our new home by the river. Soon I discovered more wild (pincushion) cactus growing on the mountain slopes, dug them up along with bits of their rocky soil and added them to the solitary hedgehog who sat on a bench outdoors (Each cactus was surrounded by bits of rock that I had taken from the site where I found them, along with their native soil). I inspected the little cactus community each day when I stepped out of the trailercita. Was it my imagination or were the cactus responding to my attention? I watered them sparingly and gave each some fertilizer. By early April, I noted an amazing change in the hedgehog. She grew plump and turned a brighter green, her damaged tissue on one side seemingly repairing itself. I was absolutely thrilled. This little cactus had decided to live! Showering heaps of attention on all my spiny companions, the rest of which were also doing well (I had five in all), I often reflected upon how little it takes to make a plant or animal thrive. And how heroic these wild plants are, subsisting on so little taking what minerals and other sources of nourishment they can from the rubble around them, while leaving the cactus vulnerable to whatever the weather might bring – harsh winds, thirst, hunger, snow, or ice.

It seemed to me that these tough little cacti were a model for survival that a person could emulate if s/he chose.

Imagine my astonishment when I first discovered the tell tale bumps on the two wild pincushion plants that would one day become flowers. It was mid April now and the sun was hot and each dawn broke into deep cobalt blue skies. I began to water my cactus family weekly with child-like anticipation as more bumps appeared.

When my now not so little hedgehog developed two bumps around her crest  in late April, I simply couldn’t believe it. This cactus had undergone a reversal – from death to life – and now she was going to bloom!

The first two deep pink – almost magenta – blossoms with their bright yellow centers took my breath away.

Little did I know that this was only the beginning. My hedgehog cactus bloomed four different times between May and the end of June. The third time she blossomed she had five flowers in all and wore her wreath like a crown (Although I have researched these plants all the sources say that they bloom just once a year).

I was leaving Abiquiu to make a trip east for the summer and couldn’t bear to leave the hedgehog cactus behind, even for a few months, so she came to Maine with me with one other cactus. My hedgehog bloomed once more about a week after my arrival as if to let me know that she appreciated the fact that I had not left her behind…

Over the summer she thrived and grew positively rotund, her damaged side now completely healed. She turned a brighter green, now resembling the rest of the Maine foliage that surrounded her.

About two weeks ago I brought her inside because the sun is so low on the horizon that it is no longer shining anywhere around my house for more than a few hours a day, and knowing that she was a New Mexican native I feared the lack of sunlight might harm her. Placing her on a western windowsill in an upstairs window, I decided to let her soil dry out to prepare the plump cactus for dormancy, and reminding her that we would soon be returning to Abiquiu where she would once again feel the warmth of a sun star that was closer to the equator… “This dull sky is temporary” I remarked repeatedly, to reassure her.

Because I rarely use the upstairs, I didn’t see her every day, although she’s not alone because she sits next to the other cactus that I also couldn’t bear to leave behind. When I went to water my hedgehog last week, just a few days before my birthday, I had another shock. Where once all her flesh seemed evenly distributed I now noted an egg shaped bump on one side. Could this be a fruit?

Excitedly, I opened my computer to find out and discovered that indeed my now very robust hedgehog (she has doubled in size) was putting forth fruit! Reading on eagerly, I discovered that the fruit would ripen to a dull orange and that these fruits were edible. Not for me! I am going to let the fruit ripen and collect the seed. I have visions of teeny little cacti that will grow from the seeds that are already forming inside the egg shaped capsule with its black top knot. Once again, I am thrilled! In one year, this plant has completed an entire life cycle and is putting forth new life – all this might not have happened had I not come upon this little cactus in the first place.

Now I am visiting with my hedgehog every single day to keep a sharp eye on her fruiting body. The day before my birthday while peering at her spiny skin I suddenly noticed another bump forming. More excitement! Altogether, I discerned that there are four in all; the others were barely noticeable as yet, but the protrusions are there. And because I want them to keep developing I think I will water a bit more frequently… Yesterday, on my birthday, a second egg was quite visible.

(Below, a picture taken yesterday. There are two distinct “eggs” visible, but you have to look carefully! to see them)

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The fact that my little hedgehog chose last week to show me her fruiting body seemed like an amazing birthday gift. I had another when the Great Horned owl family’s deep and resonant whoohing surrounded the house, lasting for about an hour the night before my birthday. Since, these days are always poignant with longing because I have spent so many birthdays alone, I am particularly grateful to Nature who always remembers and brings me gifts that I could never imagine. Lily b sings at this very moment reinforcing this thought.

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And then again, on my birthday, another little jewel came by air.