Recently I took pictures of the mountain field where I first met Roy 40 years ago. He was bent over like an inchworm slicing through tall grasses with a scythe. I will never forget the image. At that time the road was little more than a steep rock strewn rutted path that wended itself up the mountain, opening onto his exquisitely cared for fields and old foundations. I remember he liked a tree that still lives there at the edge of one of the fields, one he called Balm of Gilead, a tree I had never heard of, I thought. Today I know that the rough barked beauty is an old poplar. He told me that this tree provided people with medicine and of course it did – poplars are part of the willow family best known as a natural source of aspirin. I still have the wild rose bushes he dug for me. Today some of those roses still grow at the base of the old poplar.
Roy showed me other foundations where folks who once farmed here lived all year round. He remarked that they never left the mountain in the winter! He took me to the moon –tide spring and I learned about other natural features of the mountain that I would have never known about or discovered without him. Roy was a fountain of knowledge, always teaching me about local history.
On hot days when we got thirsty we would drink from a little tin cup that he left by the brook; I still recall the taste of the water. I marveled at the wild flora – trillium and giant jack in the pulpits that abounded in the woods especially around the stream. Watercress too. Bunchberry created a carpet of green with delicate white flowers in the spring and luscious red berries in the fall. In June we feasted on wild strawberries, and occasionally we discovered a young fawn nestled in the greenery at the edge of the woods, or surprised a partridge.
Roy demonstrated how much he cared for the land by his meticulous care of it. I remember when the maples in the center of one field were just young saplings. One of the old apple trees finally expired, but he cared for her until the end. To this day I never tire of the views from here; one looks west towards the Mahoosuc Mountain range.
Roy and I met up on almost a daily basis every spring and summer, year after year, until others began to move up the mountain and Roy deeded his land to family. I am grateful to still be able to walk up this mountain road. It’s almost like a making a pilgrimage into the past.
I am also thrilled to see that the folks that now own Roy’s property have taken such excellent care of it. It is obvious that this family loves the land the way Roy once did. An old stone wall has been repaired, debris and brush have been cleared in the woods, the fields are meticulously mowed. Young trees grace one of the fields and there are beautiful gardens too! Another old apple tree lives on. Roy would be so pleased!
This will be the first year I won’t be visiting Roy on his birthday (except for the last two – Covid interfered) because he died last spring at 104 years old. Although there will be a celebration of his life at his daughter’s house, I will not be going because for me, Roy still lives on that mountain. What is important to me is to visit the land Roy loved so much, and the place where I first met him… it is in this field that I still feel his presence… And it is here that I wish him Happy Birthday and thank him for being my friend.
Women and plants have been in relationship since the dawn of humankind. Women were the Seed keepers. Women created agriculture. Women learned what herbs to use for healing. Women noticed wildflowers, loved them, grew them and painted them, created poems about them. Some women and plants still share a deep bond, and as an herbalist I am one of these women. My relationship with wildflowers stretches back to the first word I ever spoke – “cups” for the wild buttercups I loved and gathered as a toddler.
Recently, I joined a wildflower identification site online because wild flowers are so dear to my heart. Every spring I am drawn into the forest glades to meet my diminutive friends that burst unbidden, unfurling from moisture laden rotting leaves. So many are fragrant!
With the summer solstice on the horizon and abnormally high temperatures, we are living a withering drought, and my intrepid little wildflowers are fading, their annual cycle completed earlier than usual. Even in a good year this wildflower season is never long enough for me.
During the 40 years I have lived here I have collected or rescued many wildflowers bringing them home to this little sanctuary that is tucked away in the woods with a brook running through the entire property. I have rarely lost a wildflower that I dug in the wild.
Because Maine is such a diverse state with respect to its microclimates, I am deeply curious as to where other wildflowers might be growing, as well as wanting to see/learn about those I don’t know, so I anticipated exciting new information coming my way when I joined this online group.
What a disappointment. The first time I was on the site I discovered to my dismay that someone put up a picture asking for identification/information and the responses were overwhelmingly negative because this little cluster of flower heads was considered to be an “invasive.” I was shocked. The offender was one of my favorite wildflowers, some call Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis), similar in appearance to an early phlox with a pleasing fragrance. I had painstakingly dug and replanted these pink to lavender clusters from an abandoned house, and thirty years later had a lovely ring of them around my cherry tree. Hardly invasive. I knew a few old farmhouses who still kept these old fashioned flowers around, but although I have traveled extensively through Maine I have never seen an area that was invaded by this delicate flower that was introduced from Europe a few hundred years ago, and more recently was sold as part of wild seed packets (!).
According to the official “expert” plant site, Maine.gov, one has to remove this ‘monster’ by pulling it up by the roots and then using special herbicides to eradicate it although it gravitates towards wetland areas – the one place no herbicide should ever be used. What nonsense. These are shallow rooted plants and easily removed. And by the way, herbicides were condemned by Rachel Carson 60 years ago in Silent Spring. Doesn’t anyone remember?
Still thinking that I might have ‘overacted’ because I love this flower, I continued reading what people – almost all were women – were saying about other wildflowers for about a week. A distinct pattern emerged. Some excited newcomer would be thrilled with a wildflower that she found only to discover it was an invasive that had to be removed. A lecture followed and then Maine. gov. was cited as the definitive source.
What constitutes an invasive according to Maine’s government ‘experts’ I wondered, so I went to their site.
“In Maine a plant is considered invasive if it:
is not native to Maine
has spread (or has the potential to spread) into minimally managed plant communities (habitats)
causes economic or environmental harm by developing self-sustaining populations that are dominant or disruptive to native species
Invasive plants are a direct threat to what we value about Maine’s natural and working (working???) landscapes. The aggressive growth of invasive plants increases costs for agriculture ( ie agribusiness), can affect forest regeneration, threatens our recreational experiences (huh?), and reduces the value of habitats for mammals, birds and pollinators. Invasive species are the second-greatest threat to global biodiversity after loss of habitat (not true). Invading plants out compete native species by hogging sunlight, water, nutrients, and space. They change animal habitat by eliminating native foods, altering cover, and destroying nesting opportunities.”
Next, I checked to see what plants the government considered to be invasive in Maine. After reading through the list of land plants – about 150 species (the aquatic list was equally long) I felt fury. According to this source most of the wildflowers and some trees that thrived here were considered invasive! It was true that a minority of the plants cited were truly invasive, but none of them graced this property. Because I am very knowledgeable about wild plants in general, I knew the identity of most of the problematic (or potentially problematic) land plants. But I just couldn’t get over that so many of my delicate wildflower friends were on the list. Healing herbs of all kinds, wild roses, lupine, clover, yellow iris, my beloved forget – me – nots. None of these plants were invasive; I knew this from direct personal experience. I decided then that many people seem to be confused about what healthy plants do quite naturally. “They don’t behave themselves” as one woman quipped, as if nature was supposed to behave according to human standards. What I did know was that with care and attention and the right soil natural plants will thrive and eventually spread in any area that suited them.
But what really struck me forcibly was the realization that the women were intent on perpetuating patriarchy with its rules, and anyone that deviated from the ‘Great Father’s’ words (Maine.gov), like me, was immediately condemned as a heretic. My objections were met with outright hostility.
More disturbing was the idea that ANY plant that wasn’t ‘native’ to Maine was a threat. This included many herbs that continue to be gathered and used in healing like elderberry that I wild craft, prepare as a tincture, and use daily.
I also wondered if any of these women thought about the flowers they purchased at local greenhouses. The plants sold in these places are genetically engineered and it’s almost impossible to find any that are native. Most disturbing, most of these plants have lost their ability to attract pollinators or to reproduce. I could argue convincingly that these plants aren’t even ‘real’ anymore. Most ‘behave’ well though, provide brilliant color, and conveniently die off after a few years so they must be replaced.
It also occurred to me that we treat many people the way we treat plants ‘from away’. For example, if you are white and Christian, ‘born and bred’ in Maine (or anywhere else in this country) you are native. Really? I guess people forget that their ancestors came from Europe like some of the offending plants, with one difference. The plants did not kill off the Original Peoples of this continent.
To extrapolate further, the experts make a definitive point that foreigners are potentially dangerous and ready to infiltrate the dominant culture in nefarious ways. And that if allowed to thrive, these others might infiltrate and destabilize the native population. No room for diversity here. It’s disruptive.
Needless to say I have abandoned this online site. It is depressing to see that patriarchy even infiltrates wildflower sites with women perpetuating a system that is hopelessly destructive. Every attempt I made to present a ‘both and’ argument around discernment when it comes to wildflowers was stonewalled. No one got it.
And if you have Native American roots as I do you can’t help but be aware of the irony.
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 with reference to the catastrophic loss of our woodlands. Suzanne has been studying the way forests communicate and exchange resources above and below ground for more than thirty years without being able to shift the way our forests are being treated by the public. 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 Maine forests.
Because there is a collective level attached to dreaming I believe 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 eventually 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 yellow buncher machines (run by men) that continue to rape the last of our forested land. 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 feel like I am losing the will to live.
Too many losses seem to 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. This is a place my brother would have loved because we spent our childhood in the woods playing in/around streams and marshes. Davey’s soul 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.
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.
Then I remembered what Suzanne Simard had written. Regardless of outcome she would continue her life’s work to save the forests she loved, for them, for her daughter, and for herself. If Suzanne could make this choice after a lifetime of research predicated on her own heartbreak, then so could I.
At this very moment few drops of rain splashed over my face, or perhaps they were tears.
This morning I met her by the barn sitting on a cedar fence regarding me with one shimmering marbled eye, a little spiked crown on her head. A moment later two tiny balls of feathers exploded out of a tangled mass of blackberries below her. The fluff balls flew in between the cracks of the fence disappearing into what I knew must be a bird haven because I had recently piled a lot of brush back there. The fact that these nestlings could fly told me they were about two weeks old.
“Good morning,” I whispered as the mother continued to watch me. Behind the fence I heard a number of teeny voices peeping. Into the quiet space between the mother and I, arose the realization that this bird knew me well and had probably been watching me all spring. Normally, when a human surprises a mother with chicks the adult puts on a show, taking immediate flight and then dragging a wing on the ground behaving as if it is broken. In this manner the adult desperately hopes to lure the predator away from her chicks. Even so, few nestlings make it to adulthood. The male doesn’t parent at all.
Last April the male began his insistent month long drumming from his usual place beneath the house in the woods. Not too long afterwards I glimpsed what I hoped was a female grouse feeding near the bird feeder a number of times. It is virtually impossible to tell the sexes apart unless they are courting. Then the male raises his neck ruff and spreads out his magnificent black – banded tail displaying for his would be mate. If I was right and the bird that was wandering in my yard was a female I fervently hoped she would nest in my new brush pile, but I also knew that her territorial choices varied from year to year.
Unlike the male who stays in the same small territory all his life, as long as there is a water source, the females wander. After a couple of weeks I lost sight of the grouse and assumed she had chosen a spot to nest further away.
Ruffed grouse, or partridge, as they are sometimes called, are the number one game bird in Maine although their numbers have dropped nearly 60 percent throughout the US. Maine maintains the last stable population. Grouse are peaceful woodland dwellers and very easy to shoot if seen. Their primary protection is the leafy brown coloring that blends well with the forest floor. It’s impossible to describe the complexity of designs on the feathers of this bird. A shimmering iridescent tail feather, flight feather or breast feather look as if they belong to different birds. A thousand shades of brown inked in ebony cannot begin to describe such beauty. Whenever I see one I am transfixed. They look as if they belong to the earth with their glorious rounded bodies, so it is always with surprise when I see an adult in flight. At night they roost in the dense branches of spruce and fir and feast on buds, flowers, insects and tender vegetable shoots, depending upon the season.
Because it was just a few days away from the summer solstice I had been on the lookout for some animal or bird to help me mark this turning. Now I was certain that the presence of the mother grouse was the sign I was looking for. Every year there is something.
Although I rarely know, at least initially, what these appearances might signify I pay close attention and remain patient. There is always a relationship between the animal I see and what is happening in my life even if I have no idea what it could be.
I recalled that the partridge was associated with my favorite Greek goddess. Artemis, was the Virgin Goddess of the Wilderness, animals, vegetation, and the moon. She was also the goddess of the hunt; in some versions she slays the hunter, Orion. Definitely a Woman’s Goddess! What I liked best about Artemis besides her wilderness aspect was that she protected women who were vulnerable during birthing and also initiated young girls into adulthood. I suspected she honored the Ruffed grouse, even if she hunted them.
The fact that this particular bird was nesting so close to the house gave me something magical to look forward to during the hot, and no doubt, too dry summer ahead, not my favorite season.
I was still standing there when the grouse suddenly dropped behind the fence and much to my surprise re-appeared in the high grasses as I was walking down to the house. I counted eight chicks as I watched the little family making their way down to the brook. To travel in the open during the middle of the day reinforced my belief that this mother understood that I was no threat. Still, not wanting to frighten the fuzzy fluff balls I decided to go indoors and watch the family through the window with binoculars.
While mother looked on, the little ones took low flights over two foot ferns to reach an area of the brook that has a natural beach. Each chick took a bath, shaking russet feathers vigorously while mama stood watch from the top of the hill. What a good mother!
I hoped to take a picture but that bird knew I was watching from indoors and as soon as I got my camera out she disappeared into the foliage! When she reappeared down by the stream she led her children on a leisurely walk along a narrow woodland path, allowing them to peck at rich moist humus, no doubt snacking on protein rich insects before re- crossing the brook.
Before the little ones climbed the hill the mother flew back to her watchtower to comb the landscape for predators. Once the family was together again they all disappeared into thick foliage. Later on, I left a little bowl of cracked corn by the barn to supplement their evening diet and as an offering of my gratitude.
Watching this little mother caring for her children so diligently made me think of my own nerve wracking vigilance as a young mother (I didn’t realize then I suffered from PTSD) and all the women who devote so much of their lives to caring for the young with such care and compassion. I also knew that no matter how hard this grouse would work to provide for and care for her children in the end, nature would determine the outcome. Some years I had seen a mother grouse lose all her nestlings, reminding me that letting go was the hardest part of being a mother. I recalled a phase of Gibran’s that said something to the effect that your children do not belong to you; they are life’s longing for itself. In a few days the solstice sun will pass and imperceptibly a slow descent will begin. In a couple of months the night sky will once again be filled with stars by mid evening. The Green Corn Goddess will be gifting those of us in the far north with the first fruits and vegetables… The little mother, if she is fortunate, will be encouraging her surviving chicks to disperse, and I will be letting go.
When I walk out the door I glimpse the tracks on the thin coating of snow in front of the fence. A cardinal is singing to a bittersweet orange glow that is spreading over the horizon. My heart pounds as a surge of joy floods my body. The footprints curve to the left and vanish behind the Mother Tree, an old wild field pine that is situated at the edge of the small clearing that surrounds my 600 square foot log cabin.
I deliberately step into the footprints that begin at the bird feeder with a thrill of anticipation, noting the curved claw marks that reveal the identity of their owner. A Black bear visited here last night. The bear’s front and human-like hind paws are small, not those of an adult. This animal is probably two or three years old. Since I rarely see where the bears go after they leave my protected yard, this late spring snowfall is a gift.
As I cover each bear track with my own, I enter a meditative state with ease. Memory surfaces. I recall the first moments I spent on this property in rain so torrential that the contours of the land were totally obscured, as were the gentle curves of the mountains beyond. Water. The scent was overpowering, permeating my psyche as well as drenching my body as I moved towards the sound of a rushing brook…
Fogbound, I reach the edge of the field and peer down over the bank. A buck with a rack of velvet antlers stares up at me with what might be astonishment. Stunned, I return his gaze. My Native Passamaquoddy name is “Little Deer.” The pull I experience is so powerful I gasp. It is as if the roots of this land rise up to claim me. I belong here. Within a few months this property and I become one after passing the necessary papers…
In the forty years I have lived here the land has never let me go.
Oddly, Black bear dreams precipitated my acquiring this land in the foothills of Western Maine at a time when it was still considered wilderness. Images of these animals appeared repeatedly over a period of about five years. Each dream bear made direct eye contact with me that was so compelling that although I had never had a penchant for bears, I developed a peculiar fascination for these animals that mushroomed after I moved here from the coast. It was in this forest that I glimpsed and befriended my first yearling, eventually coming to study Black bears in a formal academic way.
My twenty – acre property is sandwiched between others that have been heavily logged in recent years. Bears need large pines to climb for safety and no intact forests are left except mine, although natural foods are abundant here in early spring. If I am going to see a bear it will be at this time of year. I step in track after track with feet that have become prayers, a mantra: ‘Please let this bear return. Please let him/her befriend me.’ I am lonely for ursine companionship.
When I first lived here I built and lived in a 6×12 foot camp that was located across the brook in the woods. After my log cabin was built I moved up the hill into the field.
Because I believe that nature knows best how to care for the land, when s/he grew a white pine forest over most of the old farm field around my house, I adapted. As the first succession trees flourished I created serpentine ribbons through the needle – strewn and moss covered ground.
Some paths took me to the brook, others climbed a knoll I call cedar hill. In the late spring denizens of the woodland, trailing arbutus, wild lily of the valley, and twin – flowers carpet the ground. Apple and cherry trees, chokecherries, hobble – bush, and partridgeberry provide fruit for the animals, as do the blueberries and brambleberries that are scattered on the hill in late summer. In protected cedar thickets, deer, fox, grouse, rabbits and hares bed down to sleep. Turkeys roost in the evergreens. Weasels, martens, and mink streak around the semi -frozen brook in winter. Coyotes roam over every undulating trail at night, as do the deer.
This morning I am walking in bear tracks on my favorite trail, the one that leads down to the protected half-acre field, the only area on this property that I keep mowed once a year.
Even during the hottest summer days a meander under these pines is always refreshingly cool. The pungent scent of white pine pitch, moist earth, and the sound and sweetness of running water creates a longing in me to breathe this perfume forever. During the winter the path is wide enough to snowshoe or walk through with ease.
I am surprised the bear has chosen this trail because it’s open. To my right a mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees cascades down the hill. Other narrow mossy paths crisscross, some running parallel with the brook that empties into another stream in the wetlands below.
At the end of this path light pierces the dark green pine arch regardless of the season. Still tracking, I move out of the woods into the field that is ringed with prickly wild rose bushes and fruit trees; tall lacy cedars reign near the brook. The sky is molten.
The bear’s pads have crushed the leaves of heart shaped violets, old-fashioned narcissus, swamp iris, young lupine, and lemon lilies whose tips are just breaking ground. Roses, milkweed, goldenrod, and asters will follow, festooning the field with color into late fall. I continue to step in each footprint, wincing. I dislike smashing new – born shoots.
In the center of this meadow is a cluster of crabapple trees that is so heavily laden with berries by late July that a couple of branches are bowed almost to the ground. The pear tree wears a crown of pears. All summer bears used to feed and sleep at night well hidden in the waist – high grasses of this untouched field. Perhaps if this one stays, s/he will too.
The bear’s tracks now veer to the right towards the brook. I won’t follow them further because I don’t want the bear to feel intimidated by my presence if s/he is living here; bears need privacy. I see pads disappearing into thick stands of balsam.
I turn east to gaze at Bryant Mountain feeling the familiar gut wrenching grief, remembering when all of these mountains were robed in lush green. What remains are rutted brown, machine tormented hills. The pines are gone.
I am pleased by the direction the bear has taken. There are grubs in the fallen logs, jack in the pulpit corms to dig, willow catkins to feast upon, jellied eggs, and at the edge of the swamp, tasty young grasses to imbibe. All of these items provide much needed nourishment during this season. There are also plenty of large pine trees for a bear to climb for safety from predators, and rock dens to rest in on warm days after a tumble in the spongy sphagnum bog or a swim in the brook.
I call out to the bear, “I love you”.
Momentarily entranced by the sharp swords of emerald green grasses that are poking through the snow, I stop, reflecting on the magic I feel wandering through this field during all seasons, day and night. Because of the meadow’s northeastern exposure it is also my favorite place to watch stars, meteor showers, and rising full moons while tracing patterns of Cassiopeia and the Great Bear in the night sky. During the fall and winter months I witness northern lights and alpine glow setting the mountains on fire. As I reverse directions to return to the house I am caught by a sense of wonder. I have walked in the tracks of a Black bear and entered the field of my dreams.