When I think about the burning trees I think about women in particular because we are so closely related through myth and story as well as sharing DNA. What is happening to these trees once happened to us… I note that women who normally are not keyed into trees in general seem to be deeply moved by the burning of these ‘elders’. Is that because we feel the threat to the Tree of Life and all that entails manifesting as uncontrolled fire?
I gaze out my window into the swamp maples that ‘normally’ would have caught fire by the end of September. Not crimson red but bittersweet orange. I note a brownish tinge on the edges of dying leaves. Some have let go, fluttering to the ground. I must find a way to emulate them. Yesterday in the woods I am straining to see brilliance that isn’t there except for an occasional flicker. I don’t realize until I get home that this lack of color is literally depressing a life force that I have identified with my entire life. Accepting these seasonal disruptions is so hard for me – so much harder than I ever imagined.
Climate Change is a Monster.
I read about the burning Sequoias in the Northwest staring out the same window, overcome with grief. Intolerable heat from massive fires torch ancient trees I have never seen. Penetrating bark up to two feet thick. Last year it was the Redwoods. Great Basin National Park is still closed from that holocaust. This year it is the inner forest giants, 10,000 of them, that are charred, but not beyond recognition. Some one thousand year old bodies still stand as bony skeletons. Smoking. I have no idea how long it will be before the suffering of these tortured beings will actually end because as of this writing that fire is only eight percent contained.
Sequoias and redwoods are closely related. The primary difference between the two is their habitat. Redwoods live near the coast, while Sequoias live in subalpine regions of California.
Coastal Redwoods are adapted to fire and other disturbances. Cool burning fires, flooding, or wind throw are necessary for seed germination and establishment. Seeds can also germinate on duff and logs.
Ironically, for Sequoias cool burning fires (or insects that can penetrate the cones) allow most cones to set seed. Nature orchestrates these cool fires through her thunderstorms and other natural occurrences but as the human population continues to explode there is no longer any room for natural fires to burn, so we repress them until fire explodes with a vengeance… Climate Change assures us that these fires will burn hotter and hotter with each coming year. The age of the Anthropocene is probably going to bring down the remainder of all these elders because relatively few seeds are germinating from recent fires. Too much heat. Of those that are, 98 percent die in the first year.
Forest scientists like Suzanne Simard inform us that trees have receptors for pain that are similar to our own. We share more than fifty percent of our DNA with these elders. I am not saying that trees feel pain the way humans do because we do not know. However, trees communicate with their neighbors, share resources, care for their kin, protect themselves and others and behave as one coherent organism overall, so it is likely that they are suffering deeply.
I stare into my young forest sending loving thoughts and feelings – witnessing from afar. Because I know that communication does not have to be distant dependent I am certain that my trees and those that are burning are well aware… Bearing Witness with an open heart isn’t enough, but it’s all I have to offer. In the house I have two pots of Norfolk Island pines that I touch many times a day without awareness until I realize I’m thinking about those burning trees, even as I long for bursts of autumn color outside my window, caught in a longing for what can no longer be.
It is impossible to describe the intimacy that develops between a bird or animal and a person. The fact that a wild creature chooses to befriend me like this cardinal has (and all of his
predecessors have) seems like a perpetual act of Grace even though our relationship spans almost 20 years and generations of birds..
This kind of love is dependent upon a mutual ability to feel and sense. Our feelings and our senses reside in our bodies. Our culture denigrates feeling and sensing (along with bodies) just as it elevates thinking. I have been taught to feel shame about feeling so intensely, sensing is ignored or dismissed as non – rational, and yet without these gifts, which I am still apologizing for, I would be unable to communicate across species with the ease that comes with non – verbal communication.
Animals know because they sense and feel.
This bird announces himself when I walk out the door – all year round. I never get used to the fact that he is talking to me, lets me know when food isn’t available, and during late summer, brings in his offspring to teach them how to call me for food when I am inside the house. He has an uncanny knack for appearing to witness when I am feeling totally invisible and unloved. In times of deep distress I am comforted. Sometimes, like last spring, he flies in chirping madly when I am going to make a serious mistake. Although we always greet one another out loud the remainder of our conservation is wordless on my part. Except when I call out “Hi beautiful” in a random sort of way. Usually he continues to chirp; in the spring he sings his complex love song, sometimes over and over. Most communication occurs directly – body to body.
My relationship with these birds began when I first built my house, and over the years has become more complex and nuanced. Even when I am experiencing profound hopelessness his presence brings me back into my body in a way that allows me to feel gratitude for the gift of life.
Every year I am cyclically drawn into the mysteries of migration by some particular bird, and this year it was the Ruby throated hummingbirds.
I habitually document the arrival and leave-taking of my hummingbirds observing and recording relevant contextual weather information. This year the first male arrived the morning of May 7th alerting me to his presence by landing on my head! Within a week other males and then the females began to arrive and over the summer I had, as usual, hoards of hummingbirds (probably more than 50). Beginning in mid – August the hummingbirds drained my two quart feeders every single day (the most ever). Because of the spring drought I had let my flower garden go, noting that my perennials – many of which were hummingbird plants – had gone by, so I assumed this frantic draining of sugar water might have something to do with the fact that I had so few flowers left overall. As the days shorten these birds also undergo hyperphagia, eating excessive amounts of food for two weeks or more to put on sufficient weight and to store it for migration, so no doubt hyperphagia was involved as well.
The night of September 4th – 5th I was watching masses of hummingbirds dive-bomb the feeders as dusk set in. The next morning (I awakened before dawn) I was outside with my dogs when it registered that the usual hummingbird twittering was absent. It hadn’t been a cold night so they hadn’t gone into torpor, although it was the dark of moon. It wasn’t until later that I realized that all but two hummingbirds were gone! I couldn’t believe it. Had they all begun to migrate in one night? When I checked my records they confirmed that nothing like this had ever happened to me before in almost 40 years. Naturally this occurrence sent me to the computer to check on hummingbird migration.
As usual the research is contradictory. A few sites suggest that hummingbirds did migrate at night; others like the Cornell site said they migrated during the day. All sites I consulted said each bird traveled independently. Because hummingbird migration is not well studied I can’t help wonder if these birds don’t actually migrate in small groups. Every year around here the bulk of them leave within a few days of each other, although I have never experienced a mass exodus before. I will probably never know what happened to all my hummingbirds this year, but I do know that they were all around as darkness set in and gone by dawn of the next day, so these hummingbirds left here at night.
Audubon informs us that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds double their body weight in fat, or more, before embarking on migrations. Some even gain close to half that in just four days. They need it, since their metabolism is one of the highest of any animal on Earth. They require the human equivalent of over 150,000 calories every day to power their fast-moving heart and wings, which can beat 1,000 and 3,000 times per minute, respectively. That fat accumulated before migration is burned in a steady release of energy, ideal for the 2,000-mile journey many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds make twice a year.
Banding studies suggest that individual birds may follow a set route year after year, often arriving at the same feeder on the same day. I keep one feeder outside my bedroom window and every year a female comes to claim that particular feeder. I am convinced this is the same bird or more likely (because hummingbirds don’t live more than 6 -7 years) a daughter who has taken her mother’s place. In all these years I have never seen a male at this feeder. We do not know if any individual bird follows the same route in both directions, and there are some indications that they do not.
Hummingbirds apparently evolved to their present forms during the last ice age. They were (and largely still are) tropical birds, but as the great ice sheets retreated from North America, they gradually expanded their ranges to exploit rich temperate food resources and nesting space, filling unoccupied niches in the U.S and southern Canada while evading intense competition in the tropics.
Most Ruby-throated Hummingbirds winter between southern Mexico and northern Panama. Since hummingbirds apparently lead solitary lives and neither live nor migrate in flocks, individual birds may spend the winter anywhere in this range where the habitat is favorable, but probably return to the same location each winter. Ruby-throats begin moving north as early as January, and by the end of February they are at the northern coast of Yucatan, gorging on insects and spiders to add a thick layer of fat in preparation for flying to the U.S.
Some will skirt the Gulf of Mexico and follow the Texas coast north, while most apparently cross the Gulf, typically leaving at dusk (hummingbird.net) for a nonstop flight of up to 500 miles, which takes 18-22 hours depending on the weather. Although some hummingbirds may fly over water in company of mixed flocks of other bird species, individual birds may make landfall anywhere between southern Texas and central Florida. Before departing, each bird will have nearly doubled its weight, from about 3.25 grams to over 6 grams; when it reaches the U.S. Gulf coast, it may weigh only 2.5 grams. It’s also possible that a few Ruby-throats island-hop across the Caribbean and enter the U.S. through the Florida Keys.
Males depart Yucatan first, followed about 10 days later by the first females. But the migration is spread over a three-month period, which prevents a catastrophic weather event from wiping out the entire species. This means that a few birds will arrive at a location early, but the bulk of the population will follow later. Around here it takes about two weeks for all the hummingbirds to arrive for the season. Each individual apparently has its own internal map and schedule.
Once in North America, migration proceeds at an average rate of about 20 miles per day, generally following the earliest blooming of flowers hummingbirds prefer. The northern limit of this species occurs after the arrival of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; if the earliest males arrive in Canada before sufficient flowers are blooming, they raid sapsucker wells for sugar, as well as eating any insects that might be caught in the sap. Every spring I also document the arrival of the sapsuckers to help me predict when I will see the first hummingbirds. The northward migration into Canada is complete by late May.
Because ruby throated hummingbird migration occurs over a relatively long period of time I am hoping that even with climate change bearing down on us that our hummingbirds will be able to adapt to a rapidly changing climate, although there is nothing we can do now to stop the extreme weather shifts that can’t help but have a negative impact on the lives of these heroic and engaging little characters.
Migrating birds can cover thousands of miles in their annual travels, often traveling the same course year after year with little deviation. First-year birds often make their very first migration on their own. Amazingly they can find their winter home despite never having seen it before, and return the following spring to the place where they were born.
We don’t know just how birds have developed such complex navigation skills but we have many theories/ studies and project that birds combine several different types of senses when they navigate. Birds may get compass information from the sun, the stars, and by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. They also may get information from the position of the setting sun and from landmarks seen during the day. There’s even evidence that sense of smell plays a role.
Some species, particularly waterfowl and cranes, follow preferred pathways on their annual migrations. These pathways are often related to important stopover locations that provide food supplies critical to the birds’ survival. Smaller birds tend to migrate in broad fronts across the landscape. Studies reveal that many small birds take different routes in the spring and fall to take advantage of seasonal patterns in weather and food.
Taking a journey that can stretch to a round-trip distance of several thousand miles is a dangerous and arduous undertaking. The physical stress of the trip, lack of adequate food supplies along the way, bad weather, and increased exposure to predators all add to the hazards of the journey.
In recent decades long-distant migrants have been facing a growing threat from communication towers and tall buildings. Many species are attracted to the lights of tall buildings and millions are killed each year in collisions with the structures. Birds have a remarkable homing instinct, allowing them to return to the same area year after year, even when their migration takes them halfway around the world.
Seasonal change, up until recently, has been one of the most dependable features of our planet, providing predictable resources such as spring leaf-out, monsoon rains, insect hatches, and fruiting seasons.
Each of the world’s bird species has adapted in some way to this seasonality—many by making long, precisely timed annual movements.
Birds that nest in the Northern Hemisphere tend to migrate northward in the spring to take advantage of burgeoning insect populations, budding plants and an abundance of nesting locations. As winter approaches and the availability of insects and other food drops, the birds move south again. Escaping the cold is a motivating factor but many species, including hummingbirds, can withstand freezing temperatures as long as an adequate supply of food is available.
A walk through my absolutely favorite woodland seems reminiscent of walking through a primary forest that has never been logged. Of course this one has been, but it was probably before logging was taken out of the hands of the men who once cared for trees they cut – so it has recovered. Hunting and motorized four-wheel vehicles are not allowed here. A narrow pine strewn path follows a meandering river. Sweet, rich moist soil and decaying detritus sprout all kinds of plants; orchids and other wildflowers, ferns, partridgeberry, wintergreen, princess pine, ground cedar and hobble bush to mention just a few. A myriad of ground covers and young deciduous and conifer saplings all work together to create a healthy understory. Towering white pines, hemlock, balsam, hardwoods, including very old birches, shade the ground beneath my feet. The scent of the forest is intoxicating.
Spying so many mushrooms reminds me of Forest Scientist Suzanne Simard’s words in “Finding the Mother Tree” about how the “mushroom is the visible tip of something deep and elaborate like a thick lace tablecloth knit into the forest floor”.
My fascination grows – what are these mushrooms telling me about underground networking? Who is helping whom? In this place there are many hub or mother trees (male and female) who weave the whole forest together above and below ground along with the fungi that live at their roots, transferring water, carbon, phosphorus etc. to all the other older trees, tender young saplings, understory plants and ground covers. Here I find the first signs of fall color – rose tinted hobble bush and blushing swamp maples – creeping partridge berry in three stages – leaves, lime green berries, and those who have turned crimson. Brilliant emerald green mosses cover windblown tree stumps, decomposing trees that died naturally. Every rotting trunk has become a new micro – forest.
The complexity of the underground network of a forest left alone to care for itself becomes so real to me as I walk through trying to identify individual mushrooms, and hopefully to discover which are in a beneficial (symbiotic) mycorrhizal or saprophytic (decaying) relationship with some or all the trees.
Sounds easy? Not so! This untouched forest is so healthy and so full of such a multitude of species that it’s often impossible to tell what relationship these fruiting fungi might have with their neighbors!
I spy an edible Purple Russula. I learned from my research that this mushroom has a mycorrhizal relationship with hardwood trees. I peer overhead. The swaying leaves of beech, oak, ash, and maple trees surround me. Is there one tree in particular that is favored? Underground these fungi are exchanging water, carbon, sugar, phosphorous, and other nutrients with some or all of these trees.
Such mystery surrounds me! I spy some bright yellow fingers – Golden spindles (a coral fungus) attached to rotting wood. These are saprophytic; they help wood to decay creating rich new soil in the process. They also apparently have a penchant for oaks
A bit further on I see more. After digging under a thick mossy carpet to find the decaying wood I am baffled. No wood. Just moss. Golden spindles also love moss and moist earth. I notice the same thing with the small brillant orange mushrooms. Some of the Vermillion waxy caps seem to be growing out of decaying wood, some spring out of the moss. Later, researching these fruiting bodies to clear up my confusion, I learn that both are saprophytic and can also have a mycorrhizal relationship with moss.
All of the Amanita’s I saw like Yellow Patches, Amanita Muscaria, and the Death Angel seemed to be growing independently. I expose the bulb that is hidden underground, noting the veil of one of the Death angels, wondering why people are poisoned by this mushroom – it is so easy to identify them. All have veils. Even the little ‘puffballs’ when sliced, expose a hidden stalk that identifies the species as deadly. Most of the mushrooms in this family are mycorrhizal; they are in partnership with the trees under which they grow.
In areas where the sun gets in, blow – downs have created space for new growth. Young hemlocks are thriving in the late afternoon sun. Further on, in the darker dappled thick woods, I see bear sign everywhere, thankful that here at least, the animals cannot be shot. On days like this I make it a habit to stop at some point on the trail and return by exactly the same route so I don’t miss any mushrooms. When we reverse directions I am thrilled to see that a bear has followed the dogs and me on our walk. After we had moved on this animal dug up more of the ground in the places where I had been poking around looking for mycelial networking. We never actually saw the bear but s/he certainly saw us! It is a wonderful feeling to know that the bear felt no fear. Apparently, Ursine curiosity matches my own!
The most surprising find is a cluster of mushrooms growing out of a dead maple. I recognize them from my research on forest pathogens. In some instances, Armillaria mellea can also act as a saprophytic mushroom. I suspected that this might be the case here since no surrounding trees or plants seem to be negatively affected. The Armillaria also fruits as the honey mushroom that appears around the base of some trees in September or October. It too can act as a saprophyte, or it can behave aggressively, using its thick black rhizomorphs to gird and strangle roots killing any tree in its path.
I had also learned from Suzanne that birch trees – alive or decaying – offer some natural protection against this pathogen. Live birches act as a neutralizing factor slowing the spread of this root disease. I had already noted that this particular forest had very old birch trees that seemed to be thriving. The presence of Armillaria is a natural occurrence throughout the forests of the world.
This is where we see that nature does a wonderful job keeping her forests in balance as long as they are left alone. Today, we know that creating plantations comprised of a single species of tree guarantees that the trees will be weaker and more prone to disease, because the forest is out of balance. Suzanne Simard’s 30 plus years of impeccable field research (which include hundreds of studies) proves that forests collaborate more than they compete, forests are whole, behaving as one living organism. Her studies demonstrate that although birches may shade firs during the summer months they also send nutrients to the firs, and in the fall these underground mycelial exchanges are reversed! Yet birches along with all other trees/plants are routinely sprayed with herbicides to rid a plantation of its competitors in the ‘free to grow’ forestry program. Simard’s research and that of so many others continues to be ignored by foresters and some land trusts, alike. It is frightening to recognize that in this time of climate chaos when we so desperately need to change our industrial logging practices that forestry practices remain exactly the same as they did 40 years ago…
I am captivated by what’s under my feet and can imagine something of the complexity of these underground networks that connect every plant sapling and tree to its neighbor, but seeing the actual mushrooms anchors me to the reality of this complexity in a way that my imagination or my research cannot … the sense of wholeness that I experience spurs me on to take the deepest pleasure from every forest walk, to give thanks for, and to advocate for every forest everywhere – above and below.
Forests can literally save our lives in this time of Climate Change providing us with clean water and air, storing carbon both above and below ground, but first we must save them from “the logging machine,” that greed driven corporate structure that has taken logging away from those who once cut trees in the forests they loved sustainably, turning this industry into the massive killing machine it has become.
Forests like this one could also teach us so much about how to live if we acknowledged their sentience, and took the time to learn a little about forest complexity. Nature is amazingly fluid and adaptable, reflecting what happens when all organisms have learned to cooperate for the good of all. A walk through this forest also mirrors back to me that these complex relationships are reflections of the earth’s wholeness – the Ground of Our Being, and hopefully my own.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about the dark of the moon because this is the time of the month when I sleep most deeply.
I also suffer from periodic depression and I think depressive episodes seem to intensify around this time. Consequently I also feel both drawn to and afraid of this cyclic moon phase. I find myself wondering if others have the same kinds of experiences.
Like the Russian Baba Yaga, Hecate, Greek goddess of the crossroads has a powerful underworld aspect. This year I am being pulled under by an invisible force, on both a physical and psychic level. I keep reminding myself that both of these figures are also impersonal grandmother figures. They live in the spaces in between. Perhaps being drawn into the underworld is part of experiencing Woman in the third phase of our lives?
I have been creating ceremony around the full moon for about 40 years. Each month this is the time I bless my body and the bodies of my animals with clear waters from the brook; in the winter I melt fresh snow. I also set intentions. During the last few years I have noticed that the waxing moon phase culminating in the full moon (and for a few days afterwards) brings on insomnia and pulls me out of my body in unpleasant ways. I experience heightened anxiety, blurred vision/dimmed awareness, poor judgement, and powerful dreams during this period (if I sleep well enough). I used to love the milky white light of the full moon; now that appreciation has dimmed…
Because of my ambivalence I decided that I would continue to do a water blessing at the full moon, but begin to acknowledge the power of the dark of the moon, recognizing that it too is a transitional period that is immediately followed by a ‘seed moon’. I will experiment by setting my intention(s) during this phase instead of at the full moon. The preceding poem is my first attempt to engage with the dark phase in an intentional way.
After I wrote the first draft (on the morning after the dark of the moon) I left to gather the last of the elderberries that I use for tincture calling on the powers of an imaginary mythical “Elderberry Woman” to be present for me as a helper. To my dismay, most of the berries I found remained unripe. Because it is so difficult to get to them I gathered clusters of the green seeds and placed them in a jar with water. This morning I discovered to my amazement that some are already ripening on my porch and went back to edit my poem.
Women have always had an intimate relationship with the moon and I think intuitively we are drawn to her cycles because they are mirror reflections of our own…Just as the moon is always changing her face I think our ceremonies need to be flexible to in order to adapt to personal changes.
One deeply distressing note is the amount of collective noise that drowns out Nature’s voices and interrupts my own thinking. Screaming motorcycles and logging trucks rumble by all day long. Planes drone overhead. Air pollution is increasing exponentially… There is apparently no end to this assault on our senses, and this cultural problem is, apparently, unsolvable.
Overall, what I learned from this particular experience is that patience is required for ripening and that when the time is right just as the hard green seeds become rich purple berries ‘the way’ through my difficulties may yet become clear.
There is a reference to hummingbirds in my poem that deserves mention. Every year I keep a record of when the hummingbirds come and go. This year I had at least 50 – I was feeding them two quarts of sugar water every single day through the night of September 4th – to 5th – the dark of the moon. On the following morning all but two were gone. They all migrated on the darkest night of the month!
What is most fascinating to me is that the moon is invisible at the ‘dark of the moon,’ and that it is simultaneously the new moon! During this phase of the moon it is in conjunction with the sun. When this occurs the moon is invisible from earth for a brief time before it appears as a ‘sliver of silver’… Here we see “both and” becoming one! The highest tides also occur at both the full and new moons when the pull of the moon is greatest.
Recently I gave myself an expensive gift. I had my two beloved clocks cleaned and oiled, and now both are ticking and chiming again.
Today they circle time.
One of these, a small valuable antique (I am told), sat on my grandmother’s mantle before I was born. I imagine that as an infant I heard the soothing sound of this clock ticking softly, then breaking that rhythm as tiny hammers hit the bells every fifteen minutes, and finally, ringing in the next hour with deep resonate chimes that marked each passing hour. My grandmother gave me this clock as a young mother much to my great joy. It chimed regularly for my children, as it once did for my little brother and me…Before I moved to the mountains the clock had stopping working; my children were grown and gone.
After my grandfather died I acquired the second clock. This one, an official ‘Grandmother clock’, stands in my living room. My grandfather gave my grandmother this clock as a gift when I was about twelve. She had wanted one for years. I remember how reverently my grandmother wound the clock every week, and after her death my grandfather continued to keep the clock running until his death twenty years later. When I obtained it the clock kept time until five years ago when it finally slowed and eventually stopped ticking. I wondered if the Grandmother clock ceased to run because my grandchildren (kept from me as children, not without a fight on my part) had abandoned me by choice as an adult without ever trying to know me.
I missed the chimes so much…
Today, both of my grandmother’s clocks have come back to life. The mantle clock presently lives upstairs where we spend cold mornings sitting in the warmth of the rising sun in spring and fall… when winter comes this year the mantle clock will join us on the ground floor. On days like this when the wind blows, the log cabin walls mute the upstairs chimes and I find myself straining to hear the music. The Grandmother clock stands on the floor in its usual place in the living room and sings me to sleep every night.
The kindly man who restored the clocks called me last week to ask me how they were running. How delightful, I responded with gratitude. When he asked if they were keeping good time he was upset to learn that they weren’t. When I assured him that I didn’t mind because what I loved was hearing the chimes he told me he would return to synchronize them. Both are running a bit behind.
I think that like the clocks, I too am running behind. As I approach my 77th year I am uncertain what the future will bring. On many levels I am clearing the space I live in, letting go of life energy, of things, of dreams of being reunited with people I love. Grief seems to have become a permanent resident in my body, making it difficult on some days to stay with my feelings. When I listen to my clocks ticking I think of my age in linear time, recognizing that time is passing and I am moving closer to my death, but then I remember that the hands of my clocks are also moving around in a circle, and that time has both a linear and a circular aspect… “what goes around comes around” – is that what is really meant by that phrase? ‘Life, death, renewal’ this is the circle of life (Carol Christ).
I think of Nature whose seasons define what’s valuable in my life on both a personal and impersonal level. I take to the woods to find joy and solace engaging with Nature as mother, father, lover, brother, sister, becoming the child whose sense of wonder eclipses all thought. Feeling, sensing, intuiting, being is all there is. Participating in the Greening, perched on the edge of the season of flaming maple fire I feel profound gratitude for the gift of Now. Yes, I grieve my own losses but how do I separate them from the loss of birds and forests, an abundance of clear clean waters and sweet pure air, ‘the peace of the wild things’? I don’t. If aging has taught me anything it is that I am a part of a whole so vast, so complex, so intelligent, so full of feeling, sensing, voicing, so beyond my imagining that all I can do is give thanks. As Carol Christ has written Nature is divine. Isn’t this also what the Grandmothers have taught us?
I have been raising frogs and toads each spring for roughly 40 years. Amphibians are the most vulnerable species on earth and we are losing them at an alarming rate. Because they breathe through their skin they are also an indicator species, ‘canaries’ alerting scientists to the consequences of air and water pollution for humans.
I have had a life long relationship with these amazing animals, having raised them as a child, so it seemed quite natural to continue to gather eggs and tadpoles as an adult after I moved here to the mountains. Learning in the seventies that they were at risk, my initial hope was that in some small way I might help reverse the trajectory we were on.
At first I dug in a small pond next to my brook, and later opened and deepened another area over a spring creating a vernal pool that normally dried up in August. For thirty years I raised peepers, wood frogs, and toads.
This year was different. ‘Reading’ the bizarre weather pattern in April with its fierce northwest winds, endless dry blue days, fierce heat waves and cold, I knew that I could only choose a few amphibians to raise because my vernal pool would disappear in the drought. When the hoarse croaks of mating wood frogs alerted me to egg laying in the vernal pool I immediately transferred the two clumps to my new sunken wooden barrel, situated outside my porch door (the first oak barrel pond rotted away after 20 years). Although I could hear some peepers singing through the woods in a neighbor’s pond I reluctantly gave up the idea of increasing that population for this year. Instead I chose a few toads to join the wood frogs. By the time the toads arrived in May as tiny toadpoles, I had healthy fat wood frog tadpoles with luminescent bellies feasting on red lettuce and other pond greenery. I was careful not to overload the little oasis fearing the cannibalization that can occur if too many tadpoles are left together without adequate food.
It is now September and the wood frogs have completed their transformation from egg to frog and have disappeared into the woods. Those that survive will return to this natal pool to reproduce next year. Some toadpoles remain, but most have transformed into miniature versions of the adult toad and are hopping around in the tall grass.
Oddly, one morning in July I met an adult wood frog warming himself on the stones that circle the oasis that is still surrounded by wild greenery that sprung up around the pond like a jungle, almost as if the plants knew that frogs needed those plants for protection. Because it is rare to see these shy woodland amphibians with their golden masks as adults I was delighted by the brief visit.
The best part of keeping an oasis like this is that it doesn’t dry up regardless of lack of precipitation. Although we have finally had summer rain after four months of drought the water table remains pitifully low and the surface water is temporary – shades of the future I am certain. This little pond may allow me to continue to raise a few amphibians for my pleasure, and perhaps it will help me to accept the harsh reality of how Climate Change may make it impossible for (many/all?) frogs and toads to reproduce at all. I no longer raise frogs because I think I am helping the species survive. I raise them because I love them.
In late June a two inch Green frog moved into the pond. In July two more arrived and now I have five inhabiting that little pool! I have had Green frogs appear in my pond every summer since I have lived here but I have never raised one from a tadpole or egg. So where do they come from? I knew that Green frogs lay their eggs in permanent bodies of water, sometimes brooks (I have never found eggs here), rarely springs or seeps because it takes some almost a year for some to become frogs: the ones born last have to winter over under water that contains enough oxygen to sustain them. These frogs also have a much larger window for mating. In Maine they can lay eggs anytime from May through August. I am very observant – I think I would have noticed if eggs appeared in my vernal pool in May, June or July. It is possible of course that some laid eggs around the springs or in the large sphagnum bog on this property, but again, wouldn’t I have seen them? I visit these places often throughout the summer months because so many wild plants thrive there.
When I recently learned of a neighboring pond I thought I might have the answer. Young juvenile Green frogs can migrate two or three miles to new territories during periods of rain at night. I wish now I had kept a record of the exact day each Green frog arrived. The last one most certainly appeared after a night of warm rain. Every year these summer arrivals stay throughout late fall. Most of the literature suggests these young frogs only venture away from their natal breeding place during the first year. Some even move into the mouths of caves. After that first terrestrial year they return to a permanent body of water or brook; the latter of which I have here. These frogs are often attracted to bodies of flowing water to hibernate because these waters have more available oxygen. They also hibernate under leaf litter and stones in marshy places.
One year on my birthday in September I found a large four inch adult Green frog complete with a bright yellow throat not far from the summer oasis, but all the others I have seen here seem to be around the same size just under two inches. My guess is that they come through, stop over for a season at my pond and then look for a more permanent body of water when they are ready to breed (Most reproduce at one year). What I like best about late spring is going out to feed lettuce to my tadpoles only to discover that the first Green frog has arrived for the season. I have no way of knowing if they predate on my tadpoles but if they do it can’t be often, because I have such a healthy tad/toadpole population.
Because I frequent visit my oasis daily the frogs and tadpoles and I have become friends. They allow me to photograph them and generally go about their business of making a living while I am present. I love to watch the toadpoles come to the surface upside down to feed upon their lettuce. Just yesterday I watched a tiny toadlet accustoming himself to breathing by sitting on a piece of bark that was partly underwater eyeing me with gold rimmed eyes. Today he’s gone… Although other species of frogs seem exempt, Green frogs are still considered game species in some southern states. I find this incomprehensible when all amphibians are the most vulnerable species on earth, and that was before Climate Change hit. Because the general outlook for all frogs is grim I am especially full of gratitude for each frog that spends the summer with me and becomes a friend.
“I wake up under a tropical dome that has been with us most of August. The thick air feels like it is smothering me, and with emphysema that may not be my imagination. I can no longer walk or hike in this weather. Migraines and other peculiar headaches come and go – dizziness too – the former probably due to changes in pressure; As yet I have no diagnosis for the latter. I am feeling old because I am getting old. I move into my 77th year trying to adjust to increasing physical limitations.”
On the first harvest moon that occurs in August, (according to ancient teaching by Northern Indigenous peoples) I harvested elderberries under a burning sun, sloshing through mud, thorny bushes and cattails to reach the clusters of ruby beads that would soon become a tincture that I knew would help me resist colds flu and perhaps also the Covid variants. The world health organization in Europe is presently researching elderberry because studies have indicated that it apparently block viruses from entering cells (it does with H1N1 virus), but I have been using this remedy for years and know that it mitigates the effects of colds and prevents flu, at least for me. While removing the berries from their tree –like stems my fingers were stained the most beautiful purple, reminding me of a story I had written when I turned 70 about becoming an old woman… In this tale I imagined that an Elderberry woman came to guide me into the future.
My 82 year old friend Blaine, a veritable fountain of historical/wild orchid knowledge and fellow hiker calls me ‘Sunshine’ often remarking that aging requires a special kind of courage. He has demonstrated this in own life in concrete ways. Always an outdoors person and once an avid mountain climber who has topped every peak here in Maine he continues to hike today even after two hip replacements. I have been hiking with him and his wife for the past 15 years. These days we have to restrict our outings to cool mornings and make slow, sometimes labored climbs but these outings have been the highlight of this difficult summer. I have mentioned that I am worried about the future, and he and Margaret know first hand about some of this fear, although they have a support system that I do not. … It does take courage – enormous courage to stay with the truth of what is. And certainly I am not alone facing this dilemma. Aging is hard, not just on body but also on psyche soul and spirit because all are intimately interconnected.
Lately I have been asking myself why I haven’t written about the perils of aging even though I am aware of the answer. SHAME. Shame silences us. The most humiliating part of growing old is the shame I feel at not being able to take care of myself like I used to. I also feel shame when I have to ask for help even when I PAY people. I have been self sufficient for perhaps too many years. Ironically, I am also an extremely generous person who is always ready to help others. Generous to a fault.
How do I develop the ability to ask for help without feeling shame? At present I have no answer to this burning question, although I carry the awareness that it’s up to me.
Today is September first, my birth month, and it is blessedly cool. Yesterday’s river walk catapulted me into the moment taking much joy from passing the beaver ponds, inspecting moss covered trunks, hearing the bear crash through the woods knowing that on this land at least, the bear would be safe. Generous people bought up mountains and valleys protecting the protecting the forests and allowing them to thrive… I offer them gratitude every time I walk on this hallowed land. These hikes and others I have taken alone helped me move through a difficult summer. For a time at least, all worries cease…
As I move towards the dark of the moon, a few days away, I lean into the dark that hopefully will allow me to sleep deeply… Perhaps then the Elderberry woman might send me a dream.