Miraculous Moss



Recently I transplanted some small cedar trees in a cedar garden. The purpose of this planting was to help seedlings survive the winter grazing. Cedars are second successional trees that grow slowly and we have so many deer that these little seedlings often don’t make it to adulthood, so I am intervening on their behalf.


After transplanting I carefully gathered a small amount of the top layer of Sphagnum moss to put around the base of the tiny trees to help keep the moisture in while the seedlings are rooting in rich veins of mycelium. In the process I thought about how some species of Sphagnum moss can hold up to 20 times their dry weight in water – a fantastic attribute.


Mosses in general are small non – vascular plants called Bryophytes, probably the first green plants to grow on land. They commonly grow close together in clumps or mats in damp or shady locations. They do not have flowers or seeds, and their simple leaves cover thin wiry stems. They produce spore capsules that are borne aloft on thin stalks.


On this property I have many kinds of moss including Sphagnum moss and yesterday as soon as the rain began I wandered around here taking deep pleasure out of the almost instant greening after such a dry summer. All mosses are designed to take in water almost instantly, it hadn’t been raining 15 minutes before the mosses that line my paths turned a brilliant emerald green. If moss gets too dry it stops photosynthesizing and although it’s too shaded here for that to happen I have noticed the graying out color of thirsty moss. Sphagnum moss is pale green when it has adequate water but as it dries out it turns almost a wheat color.

I remember being taught as a child that Sphagnum moss could be used on any cut or wound that I got while in the woods. Sphagnum does have antiseptic properties. Sphagnum “bandages” produce sterile environments by keeping the pH level around the wound low, and inhibiting the growth of bacteria. The plant’s cell walls are composed of special sugar molecules that create an electrochemical halo around all of the cells, with the result that the cell walls end up being negatively charged. Negative charges attract positively charged nutrient ions like potassium, sodium and calcium to the sphagnum. As the moss soaks up all the negatively charged nutrients in the soil, it releases positively charged ions that make the environment around it acidic.

As long as the peat underneath the living moss is not disturbed, the peat acts like a sponge enabling the  regrowth of Sphagnum. Peat – lands full of sphagnum and other mosses spend thousands of years accumulating carbon in their underground layers. If they defrost or dry out too much carbon leaks out into the atmosphere. The practice of draining sphagnum wetlands for agricultural, residential or commercial use raises deep concern. Today some measures are being taken to protect these bogs but scientists fear that bogs and swamplands could be drained or negatively impacted by agriculture and industry, or that too much peat will be used for biofuel.

Besides their role in global climate change, peat lands are rich ecosystems in their own right, boasting rare species like carnivorous plants. Sphagnum and the peat layer beneath are really important pockets of biodiversity. During the summer I kayak in North Pond to Sphagnum bogs to see the delicate orchids, carnivorous sun-dews and other plants that only grow in such specialized areas.


Peat moss is actually the dead, decayed plant matter of Sphagnum moss that settles at the bottom of the sphagnum bogs. In its natural setting, peat can help in flood mitigation, while in the long term peat forms coal. Anaerobic, acidic Sphagnum bogs are known to preserve mammalian bodies for millennia.


There are over 350 species of sphagnum moss, but most of the varieties harvested for sphagnum moss products grow in wetlands of the northern hemisphere primarily in Canada, Michigan, Ireland and Scotland, but we have it here in Maine too.


One fascinating activity is to hike through our diverse woodlands looking for different types of mosses. If you are interested in finding sphagnum moss search out boggy areas with some diffused sunlight. But please remember that if you wild – craft the moss only take small amounts from the top layer in different areas to preserve sphagnum diversity.

Tree Teachings



I breathe in

the scent of

moist wooded bogs,

crystal lake waters,

baskets of dew

heavy and sweet

soaking heat

through every pore…

note withered leaves

shriveled mosses

and still

the rains do

not come.


The Earth is on Fire.


Stagnant pools

shrunken trunks,

the lack of fruiting bodies

falling leaves

a crisped ground

beneath my feet

remind me

that grief must be

felt with as much

awareness as possible

to create the

necessary bridge…


My weeping pine

keeps me mindful –


The Earth is on Fire.


Two thousand year old Redwoods

succumb to flaming


Yet some will live on.

Trees know that

There is nothing they

can do to stop

this holocaust

besides witnessing,

accepting their dying,

leaning into

the Grief of the Earth,

as she yields

to the power of

‘What Is.’



Working notes:  From the personal to the collective


A few days ago I had to take down a pine tree that I loved. Although I did not do the actual cutting I did make the decision to end the tree’s life, so I am the one responsible. My young friend made the cut, felling the tree in just the right direction; his father who was assisting felt a fierce wind hit his face as the tree slammed into the ground just beside him. Indoors, I shuddered involuntarily even as relief flowed through me like a river. It was over.


This tree cutting was witnessed by “tree people” – three humans who truly love trees. Afterwards, Marcus came to me. “Are you all right?” I choked back an avalanche of tears. Not (at that moment) for the tree, but for me because, like the tree, I too had just been witnessed by this boy’s sensitivity – For the first time in my 75 years I was not alone with my tree grief. No other words passed between the three of us but the depth of our feelings united us with each other and that tree. Not a shred of separation between us. Amazing, and yet so comprehensible.


I felt sorrow over the loss of the tree; but also, strangely, accepting. The next morning I wrote the following about a dream I had and began a tree tale not realizing that we three – father, son and I were still sharing a field. I was not yet alone.




In the dream a giant tree comes down – it has just been cut. I thought the whole tree was alive – but I am surprised to see that half of the tree is already quite dead. I see its gray whale -like body lying supine without its skin. It looked like a piece of driftwood lying on the ground.


The night before this event I poured water at the base of the tree as a blessing, gathered herbs to place against her trunk. I lay my hands on rough bark as I spoke … reminiscing about the bear fur I first found scattered around her pine-rooted floor. I told the tree how much I loved the sound of her needles rustling, the intoxicating scent of those that fell to the ground, the “candles” s/he bore in late spring, the masses of pine cones that appeared shortly thereafter. How kindly s/he blocked the heat of the summer sun from the house; how much I loved her. I told her too that I hoped that she would not feel too much pain. I listened then for a response and sensed a stillness; this tree knew what was coming and accepted her dying. There was no answer forthcoming regarding pain… This tree also had a sister/brother tree that would be left standing alone. (I called this marked tree a female but all white pines are monoecious meaning that each tree produces male and female cones).


That was as far as I got.


An email came in from Marcus a few minutes later that addressed my question: did he feel that trees experienced pain?


What follows is his response.


“In my experience, I have found that trees certainly do feel pain. The difficulty is in understanding it because the pain the trees feel is only knowable at a visceral level in our bodies. The pain in my body is the tree ‘s pain. The tough part is that because that pain is in my body, it gets mixed up with my own feelings of loss, which makes it immensely challenging to sort through. However, a few weeks ago when I had to cut down an apple tree that was being destroyed by tent caterpillars the separation of this pain was discernable. Once the tree was gone there was an immense release of pain in my body. But even so I still carried the sadness of the tree’s loss…I spent so much time getting to know that apple tree that I could feel it drowning in its own sap because it could no longer photosynthesize. Yesterday was different. I could feel the tree and the split but couldn’t communicate with it as well…I was so nervous and stuck in my own place (we were all nervous – the tree was 167 feet tall). But what I know for certain is that trees accept death much easier than we do… the dying hurts physically but the trees are never scared of death or regretful at what is being left behind. They are much more in touch with the fluidity of their spirituality and with the cyclic nature of life. They understand that death is not an endpoint… Dead trees that have stumps continue to live as they transfer what I think of as their essence, meaning soul, spirit, consciousness to whatever comes next. It is only when the underground network for transference is ripped away that a tree really dies.”


I should add that Marcus is a nature mystic, though he doesn’t yet know it. A scholarship to Dartmouth left him feeling as if he didn’t belong and after a year he dropped out. Now he cares for his family’s forest, cuts trees when needed, creates magnificent art from dead trees and trains for the Olympics. He is 21 years old.


It stuns me that someone who is 50 years younger than I am could be such a powerful teacher, friend, and the first person I have ever known that feels the way I do about trees and can communicate these ideas/feelings on such an embodied level. I adore him.


The following day I learned firsthand about the terrible fires that are ravaging Colorado after talking with a woman who cannot even leave her own house (I have deliberately been avoiding the news).


That night I had a catastrophic dream rife with cultural holocaust elements. On a personal level I was about to go under…


When I awakened that morning I was so sluggish I could barely move. I dragged myself outside and stood quietly by the tree soaking in her dying scent. Pinenes. Tears were seeping into the heartwood from the still living cambium. I thought of the billions of burning,  slaughtered trees. I felt helpless and quite stupid. Profoundly depressed, I knew enough to stay with the grief as I moved through the day; the trees had taught me well. My body felt like lead. I fell asleep in the early afternoon.


The next morning I awakened refreshed; the collective grief had receded because I felt it and didn’t try to hurry it or twist my experience into some bizarre form blurring its painful edges with new age ‘gratitude,’ the most common cultural form of denial used by people to avoid dealing with anguish. I paved my own way to peace and illumination on a personal level by being with others who truly loved trees and allowed themselves to feel their grief as I did. In this process a gift was also given to a dying tree.


It interests me that as a ‘tree woman’ that I was still called to feel catastrophic tree grief on a collective level. By avoiding the news (because of Trump) I was also lacking in awareness and knowledge. Our Earth is on Fire, trees are dying by the billions, and these beings need to be witnessed, especially by those who are capable of standing it (so many are not and I think this is part of the problem). It was only after moving through this process a second time around that I could come into a state of peace. Blind acceptance of the death of billions of trees seems out of place in this context. Resignation is not an endpoint. The trees will guide me into whatever comes next. Of this, I am certain.

Plants, Animals, People and Place




Recently I wrote three articles that addressed the relationship living beings have with place … One article addressed the possible advantages of working with herbs that grew locally as opposed to using herbs and commercial tinctures from elsewhere. Another focused on the perils of re-locating wild animals from one place to another. The third was a narrative in which I discuss what happened to me when I thought I could leave my land, land that I belong to, in order to move to the desert permanently.


The common denominator between the three – the relationship that plants, animals, and (some) people have with place fascinates me because it demonstrates  the necessity of interconnection.


In the article on herbs I discuss the scientific notion that wild plants growing in one place develop immunities that may also help protect others besides their own kind from disease because they share the same geographical area- that is plants, animals, people may all benefit. Wild plants are very particular about the places they live. If you walk through a forest it will become immediately apparent that some plants cluster together in one area and others don’t grow there at all. It is a well-known fact that transplanting wild plants almost always results in failure because the plants wither and die. One reason for this is because wild plants have very complex relationships with the underground fungal network. In other words there is an intimate reciprocal relationship between plants and place.


Now lets look at animals.  Around here all the wild animals that visit me have homes nearby. Attempting to remove animals from their territories – re –locating them usually ends in disaster. For example, black bears who are relocated attempt to return to their home ranges even if they are taken hundreds of miles away and even if they are males whose territories are more fluid and less well defined than the smaller territories of females. Rattlesnakes that are re – located attempted to return to their homes even though more than half of the snakes die en route. Scientific research demonstrates the same pattern occurs with every animal that has ever been studied. Animals, then, also have an intimate reciprocal relationship with place.


When I examine what happens with humans the story becomes more complicated. The Indigenous peoples of this land believed that all nature was sentient and all species were related. Respectful reciprocal relationship with all species was a way of life.


When Europeans arrived they had no concept of living in a reciprocal relationship with nature. Nature was a resource to be used. The People who lived here were expendable. Consequently, after being infected by diseases, raped, murdered etc. those who were left were ripped away from the land that sustained them and herded onto reservations. To this day, Indigenous people live on foreign soil suffering from poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction, etc., all symptoms of what I would argue is “soul loss”. The forced separation of the Forgotten Ones from their ancestral lands has destroyed their way of life. The Invisible First People of this country once had an intimate reciprocal relationship with place, just as animals and plants do.


The colonists had no use for land except as a commodity. Instead of developing a relationship with place, these immigrants rid themselves of the original peoples, killed the animals, slaughtered billions of trees, imposed foreign agricultural practices and bent the fertile earth to their will while claiming Native land as their own. So much blood spilled. Eventually these foreigners destroyed most of what once was a wild and beautiful country without ever taking responsibility for what they had done. We would not be facing a sixth extinction if the European invaders had ever developed a respectful reciprocal relationship with this land.


My personal journey began almost forty years ago when I stepped out of the car in pouring rain and fog onto land that would become my home; almost in a trance state I followed the sound of water to peer down at an overflowing brook. When an eight-point buck with velvet antlers stared up at me I shivered, even before I heard a voice. “You belong here”. Three months later the property became mine. From the beginning my relationship with place carried a peculiar charge.  First, I became apprenticed to animals and plants. One day while in the meadow gathering blueberries the entire field rose up around me enfolding me in an invisible embrace. I was Loved! To be cared about by this natural force that I later named the Mountain Mother changed me irrevocably.


And yet, many years later I still made the choice to go to the desert to escape harsh winters. I thought because I was in my seventies that I was too old to stay here alone. I also thought I could escape tree slaughter and family pain. Once again it was the powers of place that helped clear up my confusion. I developed a relationship with a river and wetland that helped me to see that I was forced to walk on air in the desert because I had created a terrible split between what I thought I needed and the land my body longed for. I had not only created a split in myself, but my home suffered serious foundation problems in my absence. What I learned was that to belong to place means that I am attached by invisible cords to a piece of land that cannot be severed. This land and I are in intimate relationship and both of us become ill when we are separated.


If animals, plants and people need an intimate relationship with land to survive/thrive when we split away from the earth we put ourselves in deep peril. We need these reciprocal relationships for our mental, emotional, spiritual, bodily health.  Perhaps, less obvious to some, is that the land needs us too. S/he needs to be respected, appreciated, and loved. Most of all S/he needs the freedom to teach us how to live. And she can’t model this behavior if we make her invisible. Earth is our context; without access to her body we flounder. We are the youngest species on the planet, and desperately in need of re-attaching ourselves to the earth so that she can once again be heard.


A sudden movement caused me to look up from this writing…I see the young buck munching on an apple just as the sun rises over the mountain. The apple tree is suffused in gold and the sweet breath of the forest reminds me once again that I belong…

The Garden




We dug baby

cedars from a roadside ditch.

I wanted to save young ones

from be-heading.

We planted them

in a garden

materializing from

from imagination

and fervent tree talk

between soul mates.

Kinship is the word he used.

I “saw” a copse

of cedars spreading out

behind the stone.


I thought,

one day, I too

will be buried here

under Trillium rock,

who sprouts arbutus

and twin flowers

wears a carpet

of velvet moss

all year long…

He will care for us

when I am gone.


We wrapped

tender seedlings

nestled in sphagnum,

fragrant soil, and aged manure,

covered and watered yet again.

I see tiny rootlets

seeking familiar tendrils –

micorhizzal mycelium

creeping towards

the newcomers.

I hear seedlings cry out

“We’re here!” to a mother

who will nurture them,

sending carbon and minerals

their way.

Extra light too, if needed.

Flattened trees stumps

add rich nutrients;

The sun is tempered

by  gracious hands

– late summer leaves.

Young Mother stands straight

and tall, her voice is clear.

Her bark is not yet shaggy.

Surveying her adopted children,

(like I do him)

conversing through root and scent

the air is sweetened

by a Love not understood

by many, because

Giving is who She is.

Two Rabbits and the Moon – August 12


The Cottontail

watched me


a steep hill

to meet her

at the Cross –



She split the stone.

Datura delusions emerge

from this bloodline.

I stumble

down down down…

Her feet beat

a mourning drum

I’m in free fall.


Tropical mist

chokes mountain air.

What force

can annihilate

this hopeless story?


Both Hares

dead – one murdered,

the other abandoned

by the Moon.


Going Under



In Abiquiu New Mexico I walked down to the river and Bosque (wetland) communing with trees, leaving in the dark and returning before dawn every morning. Red Willow River is a tributary of the Rio Grande. I didn’t need to see; my feet knew the path by heart, so I was free to let my other senses take precedence. Listening to the sound of my feet, the first bird song, I moved into a still place, while first light gathered itself around me like a luminous cloak under the cottonwood trees. On my return the curves of the river and the dazzling painted sky held my rapt attention  … I didn’t realize for a long time that this daily meander was actually a walking meditation that helped stabilize me in a place that I loved but could not call home.


In the mystical magical twilight, if the conditions were right, I witnessed the mist rise over the river and whenever this happened it seemed to me that I ‘sensed’ a figure emerging from that cloud… this apparent apparition never ceased to pull me into her ‘field’. The woman was always weeping and I called her La Llorona, believing that she wept for the Earth, my precious Earth, because her animals and trees and plants were dying. Extinction was concrete reality, a daily occurrence. Cultural denial made it impossible for me to share my grief, but here, with La Llorona, I was witnessed and free to mourn…


The story of La Llorona is told throughout the Southwest and when I first heard it I knew it was a lie.


(see my blog for my interpretation of the legend sarawrightnature.woodpress.com)


According to the Spaniards, La Llorona was a young woman who was supposed to have murdered her children in a fit of rage because her lover abandoned her. She could be heard weeping at the river at night, searching for the dead children she abandoned. She was reputed to be a threat to any child left alone at night.


Recently I learned that the real story of La Llorona had historical beginnings that began about ten years before the Spanish conquest as omens experienced by the Indigenous Mexica (Aztecs).


The earliest texts that mention La Llorona are located in the twelve books of the Florentine Codex. The first books were written in 1577 but can be dated earlier. Book twelve was originally written in the Nahuatl language in 1755 and here Native elders stated that ten years prior to the arrival of the Spaniards the Mexica began to witness a series of omens. The prophecies signaled the arrival of the Spaniards and the downfall of Tenochtitlan. In the texts a woman is heard crying and screaming at night crying “my children, we now have to leave… where shall I take you… or more ominously, my beloved children I am going to leave you now.” Two of these books indicate that the woman crying at night was the goddess Cihuacoatl whose name means “Serpent Woman”. In two texts the woman has a head of a woman with horns and develops a serpent’s body. After the conquest of Mexico one book makes the terrifying assertion that the goddess ate a child in her crib. The twisted version of the story of La Llarona as it is still told today also began after the Spanish conquest.


That La LLorona is a compassionate grieving Mother goddess figure seemed obvious to me when I first heard the Spanish rendition. I immediately thought of Our Lady of Sorrows, the Catholic Mary figure who is also a goddess. Guadalupe also came to mind.*


My personal experiences with La Llorona have moved this goddess beyond the original story. It is absolutely real to me that today this figure still appears out of the waters and is mourning the slaughtered trees, plants, animals, – the other children of the Earth (I have experienced her presence here in Maine by my brook).


There is a Pueblo belief that the Rio Grande and its tributaries is guarded by a Horned Serpent, Avanyu, whose petroglyphs and pictographs adorn canyon walls and rock outcroppings in the area. This Serpent of the Waters is intimately associated with rains and each spring the Pueblos hold a Snake Dance to call down the waters from the Cloud People.


Living in Abiquiu brought me face to face with what happens in severe drought. Desertification is occurring; the Cottonwoods and many other plants are dying. It was/is a terrifying reality to witness firsthand the ravages of a land that has already caught Fire. Avanyu seems to have withdrawn ‘his’ protection. He is considered to be a male figure to the Pueblo people and others but I see Avanyu as the Serpent Goddess, once again stripped of her female powers. These powers include precognition/ second sight and are experienced through the body through dreaming or through our senses even if they appear as ‘thought’.


Mythologically, the serpent has been consistently associated with the Life Force, the body – ie. embodiment.  Creation and Destruction. Christianity turned the serpent into the “evil” one who, of course was female and whose body was the source of shame and misery.


I conclude with a dream I had last November when Avanyu, as a GIANT python type snake appeared in the Rio Grande. This serpent was so enormous that all the river water disappeared underneath it and it was coming towards us radiating all the colors of the rainbow – its body was pulsing with intensity. In the dream I was terrified and then struck dumb with fear recognizing that some new unknown Collective threat was coming … Covid was on its way.


*Guadalupe or Tonantzin/multi-valenced Earth goddess  originally belonging to Aztec people first appeared on a hill outside of Mexico city ten years after the Spanish Conquest of the Mexica in 1531. She was brown skinned. The top priority of the time was to convert the Natuatl speaking Indigenous peoples to Christianity. Although the church attempted to Christianize her Guadalupe remains to this day a goddess belonging to the people. She is invoked as a power of social justice, for her compassion and strength, and as an image of Motherhood. I don’t think it’s coincidence that she first appeared to the native people after they had been conquered….and that according to some sources she has a serpent aspect.  As Cihuacoatl Tonantzin/Guadalupe is Serpent Woman. Creator and Destroyer.


The Cedar Garden



I gently tugged

the cedar


dislodging them

from wet leaf

sweet decaying

soil, imagining

golden mycelium

threads –

antiviral, antibacterial light

glowing fiercely underground,

ready to heal,

probing for carbon,

transporting water

and minerals

helping new rootlets

to grow,

anchoring these seedlings


to one another

to decaying stumps,

moss covered banks,

so they might thrive

in the Cedar Garden

by the brook.


This garden we will create together

by Trillium rock, the place

my dead are buried.


It’s peaceful there.


He brings me four more cedars

to add to the ones that I

have planted in pots.

“Would I care for them

until we  plant our garden?”

Of course, I reply

with delight.


Someday, a cedar

forest will thrive here

because the boy and I

love trees,

hear voices,

breathe in sweet scents,

draw down Her Grace.

He creates art

from tree stumps.

I gift with gratitude

and words.


Our bodies cannot contain

the anguish of massive tree loss;

Our dark eyes meet

in silent recognition

of ‘what is’ –

this place beyond weeping.


The Earth is crying out…

La Llarona keens;

We see and feel her rising

out of the mist

clouding the brook.

The loss of Our Mother

is incomprehensible.


We will plant

a future together

and he will care for

this land when I

am gone…

until it’s time.

The forest loves him.

As I do.


In my heart

I can see the trees –

Shaggy trunks

growing straight

and tall –

shaped like giant teardrops,

emerald fronds,

clusters of tight green cones

ripening through a season or two –


bursting brown florets

ejecting seeds

that will land close

to the Mother Trees

that were

once the seedlings

we planted together…

In Praise of Snakes


friendly garter snake


This morning I was up by the garage watering my herb patch when I met one of my friends, a small shy garter snake. Because I keep fresh water in a dish for him and for his relatives, and perhaps for other reasons, these snakes have befriended me. They appear when I do slithering out of subterranean hiding places and circle around with forked tongues extended apparently “reading” me  – or that’s how I interpret their actions. It is impossible not to note that their intentions are always friendly. If their water dish is empty, when I fill it the littlest one who is always waiting (except on rainy days) dips in for a drink. This morning a large three foot long garter snake –my biggest – arrived almost immediately afterwards and the baby slipped away. Henry didn’t seem thirsty, just curious, as he spiraled through the herb garden like a fat striped serpentine ribbon. I have made it a practice to have conversations with these snakes if they stay around; or at least monologues. I bend down as low as I can so that we are communing closer to eye level, sometimes I sit on the ground. I am particularly drawn to a snake’s extraordinary eyes.


My snakes know that I am very appreciative of the job they do during the warmer months. They keep the garage free of rodents, and in the winter they cluster in huge bunches in my woodpile to sleep. There is a southern window that they all gather in during spring days in order to warm up. I deliberately leave a space for them to sunbathe in that window. Shedding snakeskins decorate many logs in my woodpile and presently I have one that is draped over the window like a feathery rope. I am not sure what that snake was doing while shedding his winter coat!


Few people share my enthusiasm for snakes or my belief that we have formed a relationship that has endured over many years. Routinely, I am accused of the usual – anthropomorphizing – projecting my caring feelings onto cold blooded animals that are incapable of emotion – the ultimate dismissal of one person’s experience that I have come to resent, mostly because I know better.


Recently, the discipline of Neuroscience has come to my aid. Neurobiology and Neuropsychology are disciplines that study the nervous system and the brain from different perspectives and now these interdisciplinary sciences are extending their research to include non – human species (although how they continue to separate the brain from the body remains an enigma to me – the nervous system extends throughout the body – it doesn’t simply exist in the brain).


Startling information is emerging. One of the most critical pieces from my point of view, is that this cutting edge science is dismantling the hierarchy of intelligence – the one I learned in school that privileges human intelligence over that of any other living being – surely everyone recalls the pyramid – mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish – all in descending order. Of course, humans were considered the most developed of all beings. Currently it is believed that octopus match humans in intelligence.


When five Neuroscientists published in the prestigious and conservative sceintific journal Nature  in 2012 (the declaration of consciousness) that numerous studies of the brain revealed that all non human animals had the same structures as humans to develop consciousness/self awareness, this remarkable information went unnoticed, probably because according animals with intelligence and feelings would force us to begin to make other choices regarding how they are being treated.


Scientists and psychologists are currently working together to help us understand that emotional intelligence is actually more keenly developed in animals than in humans. Emotional intelligence is predicated on an individual’s ability to be self aware, to “read” an individual’s intentions accurately (empathy), to manage strong positive or negative emotions with restraint, and to integrate these abilities in order to make informed decisions based on the situation at hand. Animals have to be able to use all these facets of emotional intelligence to navigate their worlds in order to survive. Humans, unfortunately, do not.


Let’s first use the example of my garter snake who circles my feet. His sensitive tongue registers the heat in my body (superinfrared thermal detection ability) but he wouldn’t be circling me so calmly if he couldn’t read my intentions towards him accurately. That he feels some kind of emotional empathetic connection seems obvious; he chooses my company. When another larger snake enters the picture, he simply slips away; Aggression of any sort isn’t an issue. Animals know how to control their feelings and act appropriately.


Timber rattlesnakes have been studies extensively and it is now known that they have social ties that include kin recognition, group defense and parental care. Littermates actively choose each other’s company, a behavior I have witnessed with garter snakes in my garage. Intentional gatherings include denning, and communal nest sites, and snakes that touch each other with their tails. One rattlesnake, a soon to be mother, was attached to another young snake that was not her son and actively threw herself in his way to stop him from being exposed to a predator. Another diamondback traveled a long way three times to be with a former mate who was ill during the dead of winter. More heartrending, a male sidewinder was observed embracing a dead female who had been killed by a car. Another rattlesnake that was being studied in the wild had a long – term relationship with a scientist.  Yet, when her babies were born she barred the way to them from her ‘friend’ by stretching herself across his path to stop him from reaching her young (she could have bitten him instead). Some rattlesnakes help care for young belonging to sister snakes. Male rattlers use stacking as a form of male guarding. To protect a female a male will coil over the top of a female to disguise her presence. Some snakes form bonding pairs. One curious observation is that snakes form female to female, female to juvenile, and juvenile to juvenile friendships but no male friendships seem to exist although hostility/aggression between males is not present.  In ‘combat’ dances between males, which are expressions of male dominance there is always a winner and a loser but no damaging or lethal violence is ever exercised. Scientists are quick to note that individual differences exist but that these social behaviors do occur with some regularity with all snakes that have been studied. It is important to note that snakes are frightened of humans and try to avoid them. Just try to catch a snake – its almost impossible – they move so fast. When rattlesnakes rattle their tails they are demonstrating their fear of us, not their intention to strike.


Snakes that are re- located rarely survive. Like many other wild animals they are wedded to a particular place, and when removed will attempt to return.


I am struck by the fact that my garter snakes all seem to inhabit a very small area. My cabin is situated just down the hill from the garage and I have never see one of these snakes around the garden or house in all these years.


In closing, snakes share traits associated with other social mammalian species: they are long lived, late sexual bloomers, cluster in groups at watering holes and elsewhere, spend their lives in wed to a particular place or territory, and show mothering personalities.


Should you attempt to befriend a snake you might be pleasantly surprised!

Herb Talk


Bee Balm in my garden


Paul Stamets, mycologist (mushroom expert) and author states that plants that live in a particular habitat develop their own immune systems. When I read those words I realized that on some level I have sensed this truth ever since I first began to use herbs for healing purposes but I never really thought about it until I read that statement.

However, when I first started using herbs medicinally it seemed important that I gather them from around my house, or in nearby field and forest. After reading Paul’s declaration I realized that using an herb from my woods or garden was probably going to be more effective in treating a problem I have because I am already living in a habitat that is sensitized to any potential health problems that might arise with respect to its inhabitants including me, and because I am in direct relationship with my land. An “Ah –Ha” moment.

Of course, this notion makes little sense unless one predicates it on the belief that all life is interconnected at a fundamental mycelial level. Without fungus, no life could have arisen on land. Today scientific evidence supports the idea that all life is connected by the net of mycelium that stretches across the earth’s land mass underground – “the wood wide web”.

Anyone that studies plants learns quickly that each species has defense mechanisms that protect the plant.  For example, many have anti-viral, anti –bacterial, anti-inflammatory properties, and plants that live together work together so extending this notion to include habitat immunization makes good sense.

The second idea that motivated me to work with some plants and not with others was based on my personal relationships with certain herbs. Some plants seemed to resonate with me more than others and it was those plants I was drawn to. I used my intuition and other senses to make these decisions even while the doubter droned on. Eventually, the positive results of my use of a particular herb shut the annoying voice up.

When I studied medicinal plants in the Amazon I learned that these Indigenous people, like me, used the plants that grew naturally in the areas they inhabited and they too made their decisions based on having personal relationships with certain plants, some of which spoke to them. Each healer had an individual garden located in the area in which s/he lived, on the edge of the community. Healers in other villages that were located further up the Amazonian tributaries  (some were days away by dugout) treated the same ailments using the plants that grew there; some were the same, others were different. All treatments seemed to work, which baffled me until I learned that herbs grown in a specific area would probably benefit the people who lived in direct relationship with that particular piece of land even if they were different.

What united me to people of the Amazon, Indigenous peoples, and other country folk like me was that all of us were in relationships with plants and a particular place, something many folks in this transient western culture don’t ever experience. I wonder if this isn’t part of the reason we can continue to decimate the planet – a lack of belonging to place? I know lots of people who own houses and property but never develop a relationship with their land and without it a person remains rootless. Soul-less?

I love my little house, but it was built on land that claimed me the first time I set foot on it in the fog and rain. The visceral sense of belonging slammed through me, leaving me stunned almost senseless. When I came to I can still remember the sounds of water drawing me towards the brook and the red buck with his velvet antlers….

Still, I could have never imagined what is so obvious to me now after living in New Mexico for four winters. I thought I could leave home in exchange for a warmer winter climate, but this land refused to let me go. Although I loved being a desert visitor, I was never able to put down roots there.

I have a deeply personal relationship with the earth as a whole but ‘my land’ contains me; I am wed to her and to the forests, fields, ponds, and mountains here in Maine. So, to return to the subject of herbs, it’s not surprising that I am naturally drawn to use herbs that grow in this area because they are the ones that will be most useful. The soils (composed of thousands/trillions of miles of mycelium) in which these plants grow have antiviral, antibacterial, properties etc. that make the plants powerful healers.

Just now I am awash in the scarlet, wine, and magenta flowers of bee balm, an herb that seemed to ‘choose’ me as soon as I planted a few shoots of it the first year I lived here. I watched it spread through my entire flower garden eventually spilling over the edges to grow wild   around the house. I still gaze out my windows with stark amazement at this plant that is still popping up in new places.

Hummingbirds love the flowers and presently I must have at least 50 hummingbirds that are happily extracting flower nectar from dawn to dusk. Of all my pollinators, bee balm seems to draw in the most bees and butterflies at this time of year (July and August)… I always keep a flower or two in the house and I love to walk around crushing a leaf or two to release bee balm’s  scent.

I collect bee balm leaves to include in the ‘sun tea’ I make, dry others for winter use. I also use the leaves to relieve the itches caused by bug bites. All parts of the plants are edible but I can never eat the flowers – they are simply too beautiful! If I develop a cold I use the infused leaves to keep nasal passages open. A tea made from the leaves relieves nausea from gastric upset. Inhaling the leaves acts as a bronchial dialator. Studies of the herbs antibacterial, antimycotic, and anti-inflammatory properties demonstrate that bee balm inhibits microorganism growth and is superior to hydrocortisone when used in combination with vitamin B6.

Bee balm is native to the Northeastern United States, but also grows on the west coast and down into Mexico. The plant grows wild near streams, woodland edges, and in abandoned fields. It belongs to the mint family. Most sources say it needs full sun, but I can attest to the fact that it thrives in partial shade because during the summer my deciduous trees shade most of the bee balm I grow here.

Every July, I look forward to ‘fire on the mountain’ as this plant begins to bloom bringing in masses of pollinators who are drawn much like the hummingbirds are to the scarlet blooms in particular. These plants also repel other garden pests. Now that we are approaching mid August I am noticing that the blossoms have a raggedy look to them, and soon the season will come to a close…. But there is always next year. Personally, I can’t imagine having a garden that didn’t include this most beautiful and useful herb.