Birches

Healthy Birch

Weakened, the wind

does no discriminate.

Birches fall,

One by One.

This poem came fully formed as a dream about a week ago. Oddly, the poem mirrors exactly what has been happening to the birches that were left after a winter holocaust of frozen ice that targeted this cherished land. Damaged after being left exposed by trees that fell during the storm or were cut down in early spring, those that remain are bent and broken. The wind has raged for three abnormally dry arid spring months; some birches will not make it through the summer, and a couple threaten to hit the garage every time the Northwest wind roars.

Worse, I have no one to cut the struggling birches down.

 What I didn’t realize this winter was that in one storm I not only lost more than a hundred trees but I also lost my sanctuary, my sense of being protected by this land and its trees, and my peace. I couldn’t comprehend how permanent this triple – loss would become, or how deeply it would gnaw through every bone, every sinew, every cell of my body creating a level of anxiety that has become intolerable.

 Today on the last day of May, light drizzle fell throughout the night.  A brief shower this morning created rivlets as the water tumbled down the hill on its way to the brook. Sadly, I witnessed that even after drizzle the ground is just too dry to absorb moisture. Yet, fragile wildflowers blossomed and around my house the fruit trees, (with the exception of the wild apple tree outside my window) bloomed profusely. The fragrant scent of late crabapples and lilacs reminds me that the season is peaking, soon to be lost to summer. Because of unseasonable heat the trees budded early. Their roots were forced to pull water from deep below the surface of the earth in order to leaf out and produce leaves, new needles and blossoms. Yesterday I witnessed the first signs of acute maple stress with withered new leaves falling to the ground. I don’t know anyone beside myself who has even noticed. But the warning is real: we must have more rain on a regular basis. Drought is reality and I struggle to accept what is, because climate change is upon us. For me a spring without rain is a spring without renewal. 

That the birches continue to fall has become a metaphor for my life as well as concrete reality. When I see birches bent or broken, crisscrossed across the forest floor I shudder involuntarily.

How does a person learn to cope with the loss of a beloved sanctuary, all sense of being protected by the land and trees, and learn to live with crippling anxiety and fear of more losses to come? I don’t know.

My only recourse at this point is to place myself into the big picture, and when I do I begin to think about the role of falling birches as part of an integral forest system. Scientist Suzanne Simard discusses birches as a first succession tree that is helpful to fir trees in particular. Most importantly her research indicates that living birch protect fir trees from the root pathogen Armillaria, a disease that kills trees from the roots up within a few years. When the birches fall they rot quickly (if not stacked in huge piles by humans) providing rich humus for the forest floor. Most birches begin to die within 50 years or less adding nitrogen and potent antibiotics to the soil to create immunity from diseases. In death birch roots are left in the soil along with helpful fungi and bacteria. After a natural fire, insect outbreak, or pathogenic infection their stumps regenerate growing new birches. 

I have an area just below the house by the brook that has a few standing dead trees, one of which was felled last spring. Because of last year’s drought I planted little cedars in this area because it was moist and there were other cedars around to act as ‘mothers’. Last fall I noticed that mushrooms were sprouting up around the stump. When I took a spore sprint I discovered that these mushrooms were the visible fungi that indicated the presence of Armillaria. Oh no I thought. Then I read that according to Simard’s research cedar may have some resistance to this natural root pathogen. Well, unintentionally I had created an experiment, like it or not. There was nothing to do but wait and see. 

This spring I watched with a kind of awe as masses of woodland wildflowers popped up around the stump including new trillium. Every cedar that I planted survived and is now thriving, even in the drought. The trailing arbutus that just finished blooming cascaded down trillium rock like a bridal veil. The hemlock, spruce and pine seedlings have bright green brushes at the end of their boughs. My point here is that although it has only been less than a year every plant in this area is thriving. More filtered sun might be a factor as well as the seedlings and wildflowers having adequate protection from the wind, but the area itself is drier than I have ever seen it before. After reading about the role of birches in forest ecology I began to count the ones around this spot. I have quite a few standing trees nearby. And I confess I am even more intrigued than ever about what is happening in this small area. Could it be that these birches are protecting the other trees from the root pathogen Armillaria to some extent?

Now when I read my little dream poem I am drawn into Nature as a whole, understanding that although the birches may continue to fall in my own life, and on my own land, that overall Nature is redressing imbalances as s/he continues to adapt to a Changing Climate. I do know that I no longer have to turn away from the birches because of my fear. Perhaps only with this perspective can I find acceptance of what is, and one day begin to feel a sense of peace that has been withheld for so long.

Don’t Let the Light Go Out

Recently, while scooping up ‘toadpoles’ from the edge of the pond where marsh grasses, cattails, and bushes thrive, I had a conversation with my neighbor about some of the problems associated with people who left bright lights on all night around the lake. This woman missed the firefly display and was aware that light pollution was partially responsible for the loss of these beetles.

  When I first moved to the mountains almost 40 years ago I camped in the field next to the brook and couldn’t fall sleep at night because it seemed as if the field itself was on fire with thousands of magical lights that blinked as they skimmed the tall grasses, glowing like gold or emerald jewels. For a naturalist like me, the season of summer began with the days of longest light, thunderstorms, and the advent of fireflies lighting up the night. The loss of so many ‘lightening bugs’ impoverishes us all.

Fireflies have been around since the dinosaur era; these extraordinary insects are at least a hundred million years old with one group spreading through this continent and the other colonized Europe and Asia. There used to be about 2000 species of these insects; now many are facing extinction.

 Fireflies are winged beetles. A similar group of organisms are glowworms. The term “glowworm” can refer to firefly larva or wingless adult female fireflies. Both glowworms and fireflies are bioluminescent.

When a chemical called luciferin inside their abdomen/tail combines with oxygen, calcium and adenosine triphosphate, a chemical reaction occurs that results in bioluminescence. This ‘cool’ light is the most efficient in the world because almost 100 percent of the energy used is emitted as light and not heat.

Each species uses it own pattern of lightening flashes to attract a mate, and most fascinating is that some fireflies synchronize their yellow, pale red, green, or orange lights. Several studies have shown that female fireflies choose mates depending upon specific male flash pattern characteristics. Higher male flash rates, as well as increased flash intensity, have been shown to be more attractive to females in two different firefly species.

Some Scientists believe fireflies and their larvae glow to warn predators that they are toxic. Many would be predators are repelled by firefly blood that contains defensives steroids which apparently taste awful!

Adults typically live less than a month, but their larvae live up to two years, so it’s primarily threats to larvae that threaten the beetles.

Some firefly larvae can emit light from underground, and in some species the eggs glow.  The underground-dwelling larvae of the lightning bug are carnivorous and feast on slimy slugs, worms and snails. Others live in the water, have gills and eat aquatic snails before coming ashore. Most adult fireflies feast on pollen and nectar.

Fireflies thrive as larvae in rotting wood and forest litter at the margins of ponds and streams. And as they grow, they more or less stay where they were born. Some species are more aquatic than others, and a few are found in more arid areas—but most are found in fields, forests and marshes. Their environment of choice is warm, humid and near standing water of some kind—ponds, streams and rivers, or even shallow depressions that retain water longer than the surrounding ground.

 Both male and female fireflies use their flashing lights to communicate. All species speak a language of light.

Human induced artificial light pollution (including those cute little solar lights) interrupt firefly flash patterns. Scientists have observed that synchronous fireflies get out of synch for a few minutes after a car’s headlights pass. Light from homes, cars, stores, and streetlights may make it difficult for fireflies to signal each other during mating—meaning fewer firefly larvae are born next season. Where fireflies once had uninterrupted forests and fields to live and mate, homes with landscaped lawns and lots of exterior lights are now the norm.

Light can make them lose track of the time or their position. The fireflies may struggle to recognize important objects, such as their snail prey. In species where one sex is attracted to the glow of the other, artificial lights may disrupt mating. Finally, really bright lights may dazzle or even blind the fireflies.

Fireflies display during warm summer evenings. If there’s a lot of background illumination from artificial light, then their signals are going to be less visible. Additionally, fireflies’ eyes are particularly sensitive to certain kinds of artificial light. One study of the eyes of British glow-worms revealed that the male’s eyes were tuned to the females’ green light but when blue light was added the males couldn’t find the females. This means that the bluish LED lights are more likely to disrupt the fireflies’ ability to find mates.

Another factor in firefly disappearance is habitat loss. When fields are paved over fireflies don’t migrate; they simply disappear, suggesting that these insects like so many wild creatures are tied to a particular place. The fireflies of Southeast Asia are another example. The males have flashing lights with which they attract females. They gather at night in mangrove trees lighting up the night. The females fly in and choose their mates. In some species the males synchronize their flashes, creating spectacular displays that tourists travel great distances to witness. Most of these fireflies live only around riverbanks. After mating, the females lay their eggs in the mud. The larvae develop in the banks and spend months feeding on snails before becoming adults and returning to their display trees. All the parts of their life-cycle depend on that habitat which is currently being destroyed by logging. 

Common glow-worms face many of the same threats as other fireflies, but are particularly vulnerable because adult females cannot fly. They have difficulty colonizing new sites, or recolonizing sites after they have been lost,

Pesticides are another major threat. Most of a firefly’s life is spent as a larva, on or under the ground, or underwater. There, they are exposed to pesticides like DEET whose poison lingers in aquatic environments. Firefly larvae are especially at risk because they are predators, normally hunting small snails, each of which may contain a dose of pesticide. Adults also have specialized diets, so they can die or starve to death if their food supply is contaminated or absent.

There are so many things we can do to help restore our dwindling firefly populations. First, we can turn of our outside lights unless we are actually using them. We can also mow our lawns less frequently, or better yet,  shrink or replace those lawns with native grasses, plants, flowers and mosses. We can also leave piles of leaf litter around the edges of our open land as I do here. We can also reduce the amount of ground disturbance by allowing wild plants to grow naturally around the forest edges like the wild lily of the valley and the ferns that are so abundant in this area. It is unrealistic to ask people not to use DEET when the threat of Lyme disease is so dire, but we can learn to use it safely. I go into my garage and shut the door before spraying my sneakers and socks. Hopefully, most of us have eliminated chemical fertilizers and pesticides like Round – Up which are deadly to all insects, animals, and birds. 

 I don’t know about you but I don’t want to think about a world without fireflies for they offer us the gift of wonder, while creating a place in our hearts to fall in love with nature all over again every single summer.

From the Ground Up

When he filled

in the hole

bare dirt

turned gold.

Nine months

gestating,

the Void had

claimed me

as her own.

Wild apple tree,

so thirst and

mineral driven

mourned.

I couldn’t

envision rebirth.

He came

and worked.

The day he

bade me

enter –

to descend –

to witness –

subterranean

depths

I remembered…

 Crawl space 

 past horrors 

years of decay 

rotting timbers

split in two

 like matchsticks

water dripping from pipes

 splintering wood,

 blackened fungi, 

weeping concrete.

Death thrived here.

Five years of

broken builder promises

 before

 the cabin collapsed

under my feet.

No one would

help until

He stepped in,

a gallon of bleach

in his hand.

A promise of 

Redemption.

Now I gasp.

So this is

 transformation.

I breathe.

Light penetrates. 

From the south

sweetened air,

 pungent scent

 of newly milled wood.

Every visceral

 sense exalting –

I am thrown into

a miracle

of Becoming.

Engineered

by one kind man

who never signed

up for this job

alone. When

 others

fell away

with their own

concerns,

instead of abandoning

me and

 crumbling timbers

he stayed.

Day

after day he

rarely complains

though his

exhaustion is evident.

He is not too proud

to ask for help

even when

no one is listening

but me –

He comes

when he can,

and that is enough.

I worry.

Rest, I tell him

when he leaves

wondering if

my words

have meaning

for one like him.

“I work every day,”

says this humble,

compassionate man –

a fact I know

to be true.

On his way out

I thank him quietly.

(He tells me

I’m too intense.

I mean well

he says, but

come on too strong

I am ashamed to be me).

So like the Bear

I send him

my Heart in Silence.

It is all 

I have to offer

besides

Gratitude

for giving

 collapsing floors

 supporting new feet,

and a wildflower

 elder berry

cedar bark woman

another chance

to stay around.

From the Ground Up.

Refuge

Crossing the bridge

  balsam scents

the air. Climbing

a steep hill, careful

not to tread

on wild lilies

or arbutus, I

follow a serpentine trail

to the porch.

The decrepit screen door

squeaks as I enter

a small oasis

open on three sides

to woods and stream.

Trees obscure

all but one glimpse

of blue and green

 – the brook

is less than 20 feet

away. 

The spell of water

singing to stone

soothes this strangled

body – exhausted

from anxieties she can

no longer contain.

I come here to 

seek peace,

 recover a self who

 once felt joy –

Do those children

still live?

I query the forest

for help.

 Star flowers

 bloom at my feet.

For now

it is enough

to feel the pulsing

 presence of

 young life

circling the camp.

The cedar hid herself 

behind a balsam

 to outwit the deer.

More firs

spread their grace

over the old deck

needle deep.

An old gray birch

still rots

 behind

 healthy saplings,

hemlock and pine,

perhaps providing

protection from

 dis – ease.*

This old camp is

returning to earth

as I will be

one day…

but for now

it is enough

to lie down

with the trees,

finding refuge

 in Green.

*

Forest Scientist Susan Simard’s research indicates that birches may protect firs from root pathogens like Armillaria.

Lessons from the Mother Tree

Last night I was reading Forest Scientist Susanne Simard’s new book “Finding the Mother Tree”. She was writing about how uncanny it was that her personal life has paralleled that of trees, the forests, the plants, the fungi, the mycorrhiza (underground networks). “There should be a special word for the type of mourning you know is to come,” she remarks. Suzanne has been studying the way forests communicate above and below ground for more than thirty years without ever shifting the way our forests are being treated. Forestry remains unchanged. Clear cutting continues to ravage the earth.  

This weaving of Nature’s ways through human lives has also been my life experience, although I am a naturalist and not a scientist. (I capitalize the word “nature” to accord her the Sovereignty that is missing because most humans see Nature as a “resource” to be used – not a Living Being). I take note of the fact that so many of these tree advocates are women.

 As a naturalist I observe and listen to Nature by paying close attention to weather patterns, to flourishing or withering leaves, bowed or broken trees, to wind, to parched ground, to birds, to animals, to water, to fire, water, earth and air, and by being emotionally present to whatever is happening in my own backyard while scanning earth and sky for ‘signs’ of what’s to come. I receive information if not through a bird sighting, a porcupine, a clump of moss, a dying tree, lack of rain, or by walking in a bear’s tracks then answers come through dreams. For months now my dreaming body has been forecasting the immanent loss of our forests. 

These dying tree dreams are not just about what’s happening here. Because there is a collective level attached to dreaming these vignettes also involve the future of all life, as we know it. Most people refuse to contemplate that an earth losing its forests to greed and overpopulation will lead to an inability to breathe and the death of most sentient creatures, trees, and plants. Ecological Species Collapse and Climate Change seem abstract or non-existent to so many. A few like Eileen Crist warn that we will have lost more than half of the non – human species on earth by the end of this century.

 As Susanne writes, “I was born to the wild. I come from the wild. I can’t tell if my blood is in the trees or if the trees are in my blood”. I feel much the same. As far as I can tell I belong to the trees, the forest, clear waters, to animals, and to rain. As the relentless drought saps the life force out of the trees and flowers, I listen to the whine of giant buncher machines (run by men) that continue to rape the last of our forested earth. I want to curl inward like a bear choosing sleep to survive the ‘winter’. But I cannot because it is my job to witness. Thus, I am living through a grieving process so monumental that few can imagine. As the poet Rilke states, “ Now you must go out into your heart as onto a vast plain. Now the immense loneliness begins”. As the trees fall, the climate warms, the animals, birds, and waters disappear, I am losing the will to live.

Too many losses have emptied my life of meaning.

 A few weeks ago on the anniversary of the day I buried my brother’s ashes I was down by the brook visiting his spirit at Trillium rock. I was sitting on a little bench that my dad once fashioned reliving the day I brought my brother’s ashes ‘home’, gazing at the unfurling wild trillium I planted in the crevice to mark his gravesite by the brook. A spiral ammonite nestled in the overhang above also identifies the site. This is a place my brother would have loved because we spent our childhood in the woods playing in/around a streams and marshes. Davey’s spirit finally came to peace here as his favorite bird, the Red tailed hawk, watched over him. 

Every year I re-imagine what it would have been like to spend my life with this little brother I so adored. Davey was more than a sibling to me; he was the male counterpart of myself. When I lost my fleet footed brother I lost a self and an internal sense of personal power. I have never recovered either.

 Men with guns moved in instead. 

For many years I searched for my brother in others, gravitating towards anyone who seemed to love some aspect of Nature. Some loved animals, others trees, wildflowers, bears, or some other aspect of the natural world but no one loved them all… not like he did. I no longer seek him in others, accepting the fact that my brother was unique, that we shaped each other’s lives as children/adolescents and that I lived on for both of us. I became a fierce defender of all Nature writing my way through my own hell. I will die this way.

Trillium at trillium rock.

After spending quiet time at Trillium Rock I started up the hill. Suddenly, I was possessed by words so shocking that I almost collapsed: I’m so glad Davey’s dead.  Living with the horrors of Biodiversity collapse and Climate Change would have killed this most sensitive of male souls, this son of the Great Mother, a young man who had no use for power. Finding home in Nature, he was Earth’s lover, content to be part of the whole. A man like this has no place in a culture that predicates itself on power, vengeance, violence and greed. As the truth sunk in I recalled the words he had written in his journal so very long ago. “My sister is the survivor”. He was right. Until now.

 At this very moment few drops of drizzle splashed over my face, or perhaps they were tears.

Dressed in Green

Dressed in Green

Never have I

Hungered more for

a robe of new leaves

 for just

one week.

There should

Be a word for

this kind of mourning

she said.

Winter

stripped this

land

of a hundred

trees –

at least.

There should

Be a word for

this kind of mourning

she said.

Spring stole

the rain.

Broken limbs

haunt my dreams.

There should

Be a word for

this kind of mourning

she said.

I am a graveyard

for dying birch,

some still arc –

taut bow strings

shriek and fall in 

Northwest wind.

There should

Be a word for

this kind of mourning

she said.

Crushed gray

speckled trunks

crisscross paths 

threaten over head.

There should

Be a word for

this kind of mourning

she said.

Beneath my feet –

 a broken

young forest –

surrenders her grief.

There should

Be a word for

this kind of mourning

she said.

 Gaping tree wounds

won’t heal.

Cracked crowns weep.

I’m caught in a

 Circle of  Red.

There should

Be a word for

this kind of mourning

she said.

Never have I

hungered more

 to be robed in

 wrinkled new leaves,

  a wreath of flowers

upon my head.

 One dark cloud –

At dawn pale gray …

 A woodland canvas

  painted in

 emerald, lime,

   and wine.

Wrapped and bathed

 in forest green

I fear the heat rising…

It’s too late for rain.

Wilderness Child

She appears

in the center

of a star flower

hugging the

forest floor.

She’s full

of pollen

scenting

for wild bees.

Dawn finds

the adult at the brook

staring into clear waters

by his gravesite.

 What

 would it have 

been like

 to be loved

by someone

besides 

 him?

Star child longs

to be

 wrapped

in the arms

 of a Spirit Bear

made flesh,

nestled in a

 furry black coat,

drumming to

 a heartbeat

not just

her own.

The Spider’s Bite

The light

at dawn 

and dusk

breathes gold leaf

into blue.

Deep emerald,

maple wined

trees unfurl,

impervious

to drought.

 Thrumming

sap sings,

  pulsing

 red twigs

have a heartbeat.

 All flower buds fatten.

How can I

weave this life force

inside this old body

of mine?

Nature celebrates 

 her Becoming

with a circlet

of  bountiful

wildflowers.

Delicate

Trillium,

 Marsh marigolds,

serenade wild bees.

Purple and white

throated violets

spread hearts

across the land.

Trout lilies shimmer. 

Bloodroot

 petals drift,

the fragrance of

 Arbutus fades…

Ephemeral beauty, 

each moment is an

eternity in motion.

How can I

weave this life force

inside this old body

of mine?

Around me darkness looms.

Bitten by the Spider.

I am caught

 in a sticky net

tangled,

 twisted by

Misunderstanding.

Struggling to free myself

  I tighten

the rope around

my neck.

Haunted by Separation

I am held in

suspension

by ever thinning air –

Crying out,

in a Wilderness

fashioned from despair.

Little Bear

Because it is spring and I am lonely for the sight of bears that don’t visit here anymore I write poems about what was. This one was written many years ago…

Little Bear

you come

under the cover

of dusk

padding over

to the feeder

to sniff and nibble

seeds we left.

Lying down

in thick woods

you feel safe.

If only scent

could calm.

A little girl

 longs to see

you in lime

  leafed light,

aches to 

 befriend you

in a rose gold

dawn. 

If only

Trust could weave

a fragile strand,

a gossamer thread

between us

Little Bear.

If only

the Child’s

Sight,

 Heart,

Mind,

 Body

could be

restored

to Joy,

we might

see you once more.

When the Wind Hurts

Windigo  and the Willingness to Forgive. 

Just Outside My Front Door…

Windigo is a malignant spirit that the Northern Algonquin tribes fear. He feeds on scarcity appearing on the Northwest Wind. Made of ice he turns forests into matchsticks and haunts the human soul. I think this force has taken over our land this  spring. It has surely entered my heart.

In Nature, Windigo roams at will untrammeled. The only antidote to his presence is acceptance. The Medicine that breaks the human spell is the willingness to forgive and be forgiven. That and letting go.