Flicker’s New Year’s Gift

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Yesterday January 1st dawned clear and cold as I meandered through the frosted scrub and under the graceful Cottonwoods that line the Bosque by the river. I hadn’t planned on a walk because it was so frigid but the ethereal light that precedes the dawn often becomes a “calling” I cannot resist, pulling me towards the river regardless of practical intentions.

 

With the snow crunching under my feet I entered my usual meditative state without effort as I circled the bog, celebrating this time of deep inner stillness. Suddenly, an intention popped into the open space in my mind, one that I had not made as part of my ritual during this fluid turning of the seasons. The words flowed directly from the trees into my body without sound.

 

You are not responsible for others’ lack of awareness… Refuse to take responsibility for any person’s behavior except your own. Take care of yourself.”

 

I received this instruction quietly, enfolding the message deep in my heart as I set the intention and walked on.

 

I had heard similar words once before during the last month but had neglected to create the intention.

 

When I returned to the house I felt refreshed and full of gratitude for beginning this day in a state of grace.

 

It wasn’t until I heard him hammering that I remembered that every year on the first day of January, I am on the lookout for a message from the first bird of the year that captures my attention. After a long absence my beautiful orange – shafted flicker, my favorite woodpecker, had returned and was demolishing my suet cake with great enthusiasm.

 

As Flicker continued his rhythmic pounding on the east side of the house I thought of holes. Woodpeckers carve holes… what was his message?

 

These days when I walk to the river I see huge hunks of peeling bark pulling away from whitened Cottonwood limbs but I no longer hear woodpecker hammering. The life giving cambium layer is dead on many of these trees. Last summer a couple of the Cottonwood tree giants fell, and living cottonwood limbs were also cut so perhaps my friends the Flickers lost food sources and homes… Still lively, some smooth gray branches still stretch out their bony fingers towards me trying to get my attention. These adult Cottonwoods who only live a hundred years at best have developed extensive lateral and deep taproots that still may be able to reach the water table far below the surface. But the rivers and aquifers are drying up in the Southwest and the air is very polluted. Year after year adequate rains do not come. There will be no tree children to replace these old ones that are nearing the end of their lives because the young trees must have copious amounts of water and clean air to thrive. I am facing the inevitable. Within a few years this cottonwood forest will be no more. There will be holes in the atmosphere where these magnificent trees once graced the sky.

 

Twenty years of drought are taking a visible toll on the high desert everywhere. Even the Bosque I walk through is at risk because it has been opened up to a merciless summer sun and consequently to increasing drought. It too has sprays of dying cottonwood branches, although there are also healthy adult trees, and some younger ones that will live on for now. Birds are scarce. The ground is barely muddy and only in the low places. Desertification has begun; as trees, plants, and scrub disappear skeletons full of holes remain.

 

Because all woodpeckers must have trees (these or others) for food and for shelter they too will disappear. The woodpeckers don’t know that they are also poisoning themselves with the insects they eat even as they carve out new “homes” for themselves and other birds. Insecticides are deadly. Woodpeckers are a critical component of forest ecology. Without their presence every forest is compromised.

 

All sentient creatures are negatively affected by the deaths of one species.

 

And still people refuse to see.

 

As I wrote about the loss of trees and woodpeckers old tree memories surfaced without warning. Resolutely, I faced my past…

 

Thirty five years ago I left the coast of Maine because trees were being slaughtered and their insides ground up so million dollar homes could be built. Initially, I believed that I escaped tree carnage by moving to the edge of the wilderness in the western hills only to discover that whole mountains were being strip logged around me. The stench of pitch nauseated me. I wept, helpless in the face of such violence.

 

It was then that the trees began to speak to me, at first through dreams and later because I had learned to listen. I don’t know exactly how this happened, but I suspect the trees taught me without words – communicating telepathically. I spent every day with trees in my forest, hiked to other wooded areas on a regular basis, sat under hemlocks by my brook, tenderly caressed rough ashen trunks and the smooth gray velvet of maple and beech, rejoiced in the pines when they protected wild bear cubs in their uppermost branches while their mothers foraged, sometimes miles away. And when the fruit trees blossomed on ‘my land’ I experienced a wondrous sense of tree renewal – if only for a few precious weeks each year.

 

The trees taught me that it was my job to witness for them not just in their living, but in their dying. For many years I spoke to no one about this latter “personal affliction”. I honestly believed I had been singled out to experience a hell that no one else could see or feel and some days I thought that the screams of one more tree crashing to the ground or one more devastating tree dream would kill me. There was no reprieve. Every time I tried to talk to someone about tree death I was ridiculed. I shut up and learned to live with pain that had no outlet, except through journaling. I never dared to publish anything that had to do with what was happening to me with trees. Thirty- five years is a long time to grieve alone.

 

When I arrived in the desert three years ago, initially I felt profound relief to be free of trees altogether. Here reptilian ridged and cone shaped hills and mountains dominated the landscape. Trees were scarce except for serpentine shaggy junipers and the magnificent Cottonwoods that held court by the rivers. However, I hadn’t been here a month when I adopted a seedling juniper in front of the place I was renting. In spite of my relief at leaving trees behind they snared me – I was in love again.

 

For a while I felt hopeful because I believed that junipers were allowed to live out their natural lives. Then, less than a year later I discovered that in the higher elevations the same logging horrors I had left behind were occurring here too. Next came the forest fires that burned for weeks clogging my lungs. I couldn’t breathe through the stench of managed and unmanaged forest burns, and some days when the wind blew the air reeked. Air pollution was a palpable threat here that no one talked about. Now I realize that people who live here simply can’t smell it. It wasn’t long before I could hear the trees screaming for water. A new element of tree catastrophe entered the picture; how ironic that I came here to escape tree pain. It was worse here than in the Northeast. Would anything but our mutual deaths ever alleviate this intolerable (to me) suffering of ours?

 

And then something remarkable happened. On the night of the winter solstice I went to listen to a Navajo storyteller who also happened to be a seer. With deep compassion she spoke about how humans had used/abused Nature and dismissed her as being irrelevant, and that as a result human extinction was on the horizon. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t suspected this probable outcome – as a naturalist and ethologist I had been advocating tirelessly on behalf of all Nature for too many years to prevent this possibility from becoming reality. I tried to keep hope in the picture as long as I could. During the last two years I slipped out of hope into endurance – That, and crushing heartbreak that virtually no one, but my friend Lise, was willing to witness.

 

After hearing the words about the inevitability of human extinction I finally surrendered. As I left the room that night I felt as if an intolerable burden had been lifted, and that I was finally free.

 

The next morning I walked to the river and for the first time in thirty- five years leaned into the trees in their dying without pain.

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In the hole that opened up during my final surrender, primordial gray winged birds of peace and acceptance had taken up residence within me. Humans will die, but Life will continue and trees will live on too; not in their present form, but 400 million years of sentient living, loving, serving will help them create new forms.

 

As I returned to the present moment I had answered my question about why it was so important that Flicker carved holes: carving out holes (wholes?) creates space for a new kind of becoming. The Earth is singing about beginnings because her time is drawing near…

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