In today’s world of mini – bites there is no room for context.
Masses of useless information hang rootless without grounding distorting whatever it is we think we are learning … if we are perceptive we might intuit/sense/feel what lies under the facts. Facts are meaningless without context.
A good visual example is to look carefully at the two images I provide for the reader. The one above displays a mirror image but what of? Unless it is situated in the larger whole we cannot know.
In these two pictures we see that new life abounds on an old tree stump submerged in pond waters…
At the end of the Celtic year which occurs at All Hallows I reflect how important it is to take a “both and’ approach to seeing – the obvious, and the unseen, the latter is hidden…Every person’s actions are situated in some kind of context that is usually well disguised…
The year my father died I fell in love with beavers. All summer I watched them at dawn and dusk gnaw down the poplars, drag them to the plume, observing keenly how the trees slid so easily into the stream… as the kits grew, little furry heads accompanied their parents carrying whittled sticks in their mouths to help shore up their ever expanding lodge. I always sat quietly so some evenings around dusk the kits would swim right up to me. Occasionally one would slap a leathery flat tail before diving deep.
When the call came on All Hallows Eve my father sounded sad and resigned. He was being operated on for colon cancer that week. The shock of finding out so suddenly choked me up with grief so intense I could barely respond. He had told no one he had cancer. We hung up. A trip to NY and to*** the hospital was distressing. I saw my dad twice. The first time he barely acknowledged me; that night he looked into my eyes and called me “his girl,” words he had never used to describe me, his daughter, during our entire life – time together. Two days later, after returning to Maine, I awakened from a dream with the words, “your father has become a beaver” just as the phone rang. My father had died minutes before.
A second frantic trip to NY was cut short. My mother had decreed there would be no funeral. If anyone needed to have a memorial of some kind it was my father who had spent his entire life doing his best to care about his family and other people. He was an extrovert that tried too hard to please. Although, sometimes overly kind in public, privately he had a problem with explosive rage. As a child I was terrified of him – I never knew when mindless chaos would erupt and it destroyed any sense of safety I might have had being with him (I so desperately needed to feel safe. I had been an unwanted child; almost aborted it turns out).
Yet in retrospect, I remembered that my dad was the one who held my head while I was throwing up, carried me in his arms when I fell asleep after a long car trip. My father took me to the hospital, the circus, read to us at night, helped his children climb the circular stairs of the Statue of Liberty, bought me my first prayer book when I chose to become Episcopalian, told me that when he prayed it was always to Mary….
It didn’t help that my mother and her family kept her children away from my father’s Italian family. We grew up with cousins, aunts and uncles we barely knew. My mother despised Catholics and Italians and made no secret of it (why did she marry one?). My little brother and I knew enough not to cross her, and sadly, aligned ourselves with our mother although secretly we never shared her beliefs. When my brother killed himself (‘myself’ – I wrote this word first by mistake – gives the reader an idea of how close we were) it was my father who went to see his dead son, who made every necessary arrangement. I stood by him. Helping. My father burned the Navajo Hogan my brother died in, in my parents driveway. I can still remember the smell of burning skins… My mother drove me out of the house at midnight.
The morning after I returned home a pure white dove appeared on the ground along with the other mourning doves I routinely fed outside the window. A white dove? I had never seen one before. I had the uncanny sense that my father was trying to communicate with me through that bird, perhaps an aspect of Mary? The dove stayed only one day, leaving me if possible, more bereft when s/he left…
When I spoke to my uncle Alex, my dad’s only surviving brother, he told me another even more incredible story. He was eating pasta one night when he bit into something hard. When he pulled the object out of his mouth it was a tiny white stone dove. We had been in the process of planning a Memorial service for my dad just before this happened. The miraculous presence of the dove sealed the rightness of what we were doing, although personally I had never had doubts and either had my aunt and uncle.
As soon as my father was cremated and his ashes returned, my mother pawned them off on one of my sons who promptly gave them to me. No one wanted them.
The Memorial service would be held in two months time. I called my mother to invite her. She screamed “you selfish girl” and I hung up. My father adored his two grandchildren. When I contacted my sons and they informed me they would not attend the Memorial service either I was sickened. I knew from personal experience the dark power of my mother’s ability to influence young people in a negative way. My children, who loved their grandfather deeply, were making a horrible mistake that they would come to regret for the rest of their lives if they ever woke up, and I knew it.
Meanwhile, I placed the ashes on a table where shafts of light lit up the plain brown box almost all day long…My father loved the sun. The little prayer book that he had given me found its way to the top of the box. I kept it open to a passage that I poured over and over during my two- month vigil … “my father’s house has many mansions…”
I cleared a place within a copse of cedars for my dad’s ashes, dug a hole before it became impossible to do so…It was still November…I spent thanksgiving alone except for the beavers who I had been visiting all along until the week before when thick ice froze over the stream. Oh, how I missed the beavers; it was like losing my dad again… by then I understood (on one level) why I had the dream about my dad becoming a beaver when he died. He was a man who got things done, a doer just like the beavers; even in his spare time he was always busy building something (To this day when I think of my father I also think of beavers).
That thanksgiving morning it dawned frigid and clear. I took a crowbar down to the stream, punching a big hole in the ice. Then I sawed up a few poplars and stuffed them into the black water. My thanksgiving gift to the beavers, an offering to my dead father…The next morning I raced down the hill to see if the beavers had accepted their thanksgiving feast. The poplars were gone, and a solid sheet of ice covered the open water.
On January 9th 1994, two months after my father’s death, I met with my Aunt and Uncle and their son Billy and we honored my dad’s life as a family….
When I returned to Maine after the Memorial service, I immediately dug through mountains of snow to place my dad’s ashes in the earth.
The ordeal was over; I could hardly believe it… Peace that literally ‘passes all understanding’ flowed through me like the purest water as I felt my father’s spirit join me in that snowy cedar grove. My father taught me a lesson that I would never forget:
Funerals are not just for the living; they bring peace to the dead.
*** I am editing the sentence where I am visiting my father when a mourning dove SLAMS into my bedroom window and somehow survives; stunned, the bird flies away miraculously unharmed as I race out thinking it has to be dead. Every – living – thing, virtually every -thing is connected within and beyond space and time. The ultimate “both and”.
A word on transmutation:
In biology, transmutation occurs when one species change into another by the process of evolution. Another way it might occur is by nuclear transmutation. Some studies show that it occurs within living organisms.
If Einstein’s thesis is true, namely that energy is neither created or destroyed; it simply changes from one form to another then my experiences reinforce what we already know – All Life Occurs in the Round.
This morning I talked with my cousin Billie who ended our third call with the oh, so endearing and comforting words, “ We’re Family.” Out of the blue, Billie called me the day of my birthday just three weeks ago creating a bridge from Deep Time to Now.
He will never know what this call meant to me.
Billy and I haven’t seen each other since we met for lunch at my aunt and uncle’s house after my dad’s Memorial Service on January 9th 1994, two months after his death. I had arrived the night before in swirling white chaos – a massive winter storm.
The church was festooned in scarlet; my father would have loved this touch; he was born under the fires of a flaming April sun. A brief service closed what had been for me a lonely two – month vigil. During this time I had prepared his grave-site home in Maine, pruning a natural circle of cedars, removing moist woodland soil and digging a shallow depression to hold my father’s ashes. This fragrant cedar grove was hidden in the woods by a brook that tumbled down the mountain. Even after I had finished preparing the spot, I visited this simple woodland cathedral every single day … Up until this Pottetti gathering I had been mourning my father’s death alone – stuck in liminal space with his remains.
I was so grateful to my aunt and uncle and to Billy for making this gathering possible. My mother, my dad’s wife and his two grandsons (who he adored), chose not to attend…But, that’s another story. On this special day my dad was witnessed and loved by his Italian family and his only daughter… Together we created a tight circle binding together the living and the dead, lighting the way for my Dad’s continued journey… I remembered that as a child my animated father told me bedtime stories about the stars that so fascinated him … I hoped his spirit might be floating around this vast stellular ocean. Soon I would put his ashes to rest in the sweet Earth.
My aunt Terry set the table for our mid day feast after we returned to the house. When we sat down for this repast it became immediately apparent that my aunt had set an extra place by accident or Nature’s design. As this illumination struck us so did the sun that suddenly burst through shark gray clouds as a brilliant shaft of light that slid through the window. The extra place setting and empty seat glowed. It wasn’t until a number of years later that I learned that in some cultures the dead are invited to partake of their own funeral celebrations and a place is set…
I returned to Maine feeling that my father was finally at peace. Every afternoon around dusk for the rest of the winter I slogged through waist -high snow to visit the cedar grove. In the spring I planted forget – me –nots.
I also tried to establish a more intimate relationship with my aunt and uncle. I had loved them both as a child, although I rarely saw them except on holidays. But this intention of mine did not materialize and two years later my uncle died.
I barely knew Alex and Terry’s son Billy except through his parents who adored him and spoke of him every time I called them that winter. What I remember best was the gut sense that Billy was as genuine as his parents were.
Our recent conversations have reinforced that belief. Billy and I have lots of thinking/perspectives in common and I am hoping that this time the family thread will not be severed.
As Pulitzer prize winning author Richard Powers states “ we’re now in the middle of a family emergency…only kin, and lots of it, from every corner of creation will help us much in the times to come. Kinship is the recognition of shared fate. It is the discovery that the more I give to you, the more I have.”
I think Billy carries this awareness keenly. He and his son live 15 minutes apart… he has a baby granddaughter too! Billy regales me with family stories like the one where he splits his own wood and when winter comes, he and his son Michael share bonfires in Billy’s backyard under the stars at night…
Oh, how I hope that one day he will ask me to join them!
“…We’re now in the middle of a family emergency that will test all family ties. Only kin, and lots of it, from every corner of creation will help us much in the terrible years to come. We will need tales of forgiveness… Only stories will help us to rejoin human to humility to humus, through their shared root…Earth. Kinship is the recognition of shared fate and intersecting purposes. It is the discovery that the more I give to you, the more I have…It knows how everything that gives deepest purpose and meaning to any life is being made and nurtured by other creatures.
Can love… hope to overcome a culture of individualism built on denying all our millions of kinships and dependencies? That is our central drama now. It’s the future’s one inescapable story, and we are the characters who will steer that conflict to its denouement.
To find the stories that we need, we would do well to look to the kinship of trees. Trees signal one another through the air, sharing an immune system that can stretch across miles. They trade sugars and secondary metabolites underground, through fungal intermediaries, sustaining one another… across the species barrier. But maybe such communal existence shouldn’t be all that surprising. After all, everything in an ecosystem is in mutual give-and-take with everything else around it. For every act of competition out there, there are several acts of cooperation. In the Buddha’s words: A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axe-men who destroy it…”
Waking up to bare trees on a fog bound mid October morning is distressing because fall is my favorite season and it has been cut short. Most of the leaves have already slipped to the windless ground, many maples without having become our astonishingly pure “fire on the mountain”. Day after day of summer-like temperatures and nights that followed suit have blurred the edges of autumn, confusing even the tree frogs that continue to sing. Last night clouds drifted across a waxing moon like a torn veil. How much I miss crisp fragrant fall mountain air…
Although the deadly fires continue to burn in the west releasing a good portion of the world’s 2.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the Windy Fire in Sequoia National Park is 88 percent contained. Hundreds of ancient sequoias perished in this blaze… foresters saved some of the big ones like ‘general sherman’ – disgusting name for a tree – but no one seems to be aware that losing whole forests means that tree suffering is profound – some scientists inform us that trees ‘scream’ through releasing chemical scents into the atmosphere, and saving the big trees probably won’t make a difference long term because any forest is a whole social organism – all the trees depend upon each other for sustenance and reproduction. This fire burned too hot destroying potential seedlings that were released by the cones.
It may sound fanciful but it seems to me that the sudden loss of so many leaves of our trees here in the east may have something to do with the destruction of whole forests out west, aside from the obvious – that the air pollution we experience in Maine is directly connected to the fires in California. Trees that grow together grieve and often die when one of the two is cut. We know that trees communicate above through air and below ground through mycelial networks, and I suspect that trees also convey distress over great distances in the same way, through smoke, and/or in other ways as yet to be discovered.
Trees can hear sounds although they don’t have ears; for example, their roots gravitate towards running water. Trees need to sleep at night and when they do their fronds, branches droop, sometimes perceptibly. They also have a circulatory system that pumps water into the branches/needles, releasing some through transpiration, and then what’s left cycles back down to the roots to begin the process again (without transpiration clouds don’t form so clear cutting whole forests heats up the earth and prevents rain from falling). Trees breathe the way humans do, only at a much slower rate. The difference is that they breathe in toxic CO2 and breathe out the precious oxygen we need to live. We have a tendency to think that all trees photosynthesize all day long but mostly this process occurs in deciduous trees during the first part of the day. Once the temperatures rise too much (90 degrees is the cut off point) broadleaf trees shut down to rest; conifers can continue to photosynthesize although they don’t do it as quickly/efficiently as deciduous trees do. Needle bearing trees can eat light all winter long if temperatures stay above freezing, and the bark of thin skinned trees like cottonwoods/aspens/poplar (the willow family) also photosynthesize through their bark during the winter months as long as the temperatures permit. Trees nurture the seedlings of their own kin and also share carbon and nutrients with their neighbors. They warn each other about insect invasion above ground through scent, below through fungal networks. Suzanne Simard’s research indicates that old Mother trees (both male and female) are connected to every other tree and plant in their forests.
Trees can deal with normal climate changes; they have been doing so for millennia. When the next ice age hits, we will lose the trees we have, but others will take their place as ice sheets recede. The problem that trees are facing now is that Climate Change is occurring faster than our trees can adapt; that and the fact that we continue to clear cut and create plantations with foreign species that will grow too fast, developing weak root systems in the process. These trees are vulnerable to insects like the pine bark beetle that kill whole plantations rapidly; shallow root systems encourage blow – downs. In Germany where there are no real forests left, 57 percent of the plantation trees die from either poor root systems or insect invasion. Former forester and author Peter Wohlleben states that foresters are not tree protectors – they are tree butchers. Trees cannot withstand Climate Change alone; they must be part of a forest in order to survive.
Foresters continue to ignore the fact that Northern species like spruce and fir will not thrive in warmer climates; they continue to grow them because these trees mature fast and can be harvested in a short time. Climate Change continues to be ignored. Androcentric thinking dominates forestry practices; trees are expected to behave like crazed humans do. Faster is always better and more profitable (of course). Trees live out their lives in the ‘slow lane’ normally living hundreds or thousands of years (bristlecone pine/spruce – the latter 10,000 years old). Many humans don’t live as long as I have, 77 years.
Because our global culture demands that trees conform to human standards our forestry practices remain exactly the same as they were 40 years ago. We insist upon projecting our machine mentality onto trees. Any attempt to use language that the average person can understand is criticized as being anthropomorphic. Calling an ancient tree a ‘mother tree’ or stating that trees suffer are prime examples even though we have solid scientific evidence that supports trees mothering their kin or trees that die of grief. Misinformation abounds. Last summer I attended a gathering and listened to foresters pontificate on how selective cutting encourages wildlife to thrive even as I was standing on parched ground where any seedling would struggle to survive. The impeccable research that demonstrates the sentience of trees is totally ignored. As a dedicated tree advocate and naturalist I find this attitude incomprehensible.
I recently learned that European scientific research indicates that plantations are unhealthy places for people to visit. The distress signals that the foreign trees on a plantation emit (spruce and pine) cause human blood pressure to increase. The exact opposite response occurs when these same people walk through native beech and oak trees. Blood pressure decreases (Peter Wohlleben).
I regularly walk through a forest that hasn’t been logged since long before the industrial logging machine took over in the eighties, and each time I go there I feel a profound sense of being restored to myself – I am ‘coming home’ and experience a kind of peacethat only an untouched forest can emanate. I have had to stop hiking near any land that has been brutally logged because even if where I am walking has healthy trees if it is close to a slaughtered shred of forest the whole area depresses me. I believe that butchered forests radiate a kind of chaos and misery that any sensitive person can feel.
As I look out my window into a woodland that has matured in the years that I have been here because I have left it alone, I spy beech, witch hazel, and moose maple who still have some leaves that are drifting earthward in the silence of this moment. I call out to them “I love you” as I give thanks for all trees and this golden haze that animatesme – body and soul.
Every year autumn seizes me like a lover and I become HER – Transformation is real and always embodied. I live through the natural wonder of every tree even as the departing geese remind me of the season to come…
The Amazon river dolphin, pink dolphin, or boto only lives in fresh water in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. These dolphins are extremely intelligent and friendly displaying a complex set of behaviors. Skilled, sharp-toothed hunters, they often reach more than eight feet in length,and are well adapted to shifting river levels. During highwater periods they penetrate deep into the rainforest using echolocation to search murky pools amid submerged tree roots for prey including dozens of fish species, turtles and freshwater crabs. While I was on the Amazon I loved watching them swimming through the submerged and tangled tree roots. They often accompanied me while I was doing research. This extraordinary animal is currently threatened and facing possible extinction.
It interests me that September 30th was declared Truth and Reconciliation Day in Canada because this is the day I was born and this is where we need to begin! Truth and Reconciliation is about acknowledging the wound and healing the split between the Indigenous ways of being in the world and the rest of western civilization. First we become fully accountable for the blood that was shed in this country by immigrants (knowingly or unknowingly). Healing the bloodyroot that is still caught underground. And then we need to begin to listen to those who are still in direct relationship with the earth…If there was ever a time for humans to surrender one perspective for another it is now. We need to reject the values of patriarchy – domination, war, hatred and division – and embrace what Carol Christ calls an egalitarian matriarchy – a communal way of living that values relationships and compassion and thrives upon equality between the sexes – one that also celebrates diversity. Turning to Nature and Indigenous peoples to learn how to make this shift is an avenue to genuine hope…
All summer I have been engaged with mushrooming in the forest, a practice that has deepened my relationship with the forest as a whole as well as making it even more real to me that I am walking on hallowed ground with Forest Scientist Suzanne Simard, who also learned about mycorrhizal and other underground networks by examining mushrooms. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of some of the millions of gold, silver, red and orange threads that lie just beneath the forest floor. Thanks to the work of this feminist, the word is never used in her book Finding the Mother Tree…, but she is a prime example of a woman who has lived her life as a feminist who does not find men a threat.
Suzanne grew up in the forest as the daughter of a logging family, feeling that she was a part of a great web of forest interconnection. She says the trees were in her DNA and of course, we know today that they were (each of us shares about 53 percent of our DNA with trees). The men in her family logged old growth forest in BC sustainably, “never taking more than they needed” and the very dangerous work of logging was all done by hand.
Suzanne was the first woman to enter the field of Forestry as a young undergraduate in the late seventies where she discovered to her dismay that everything she was learning was increasingly focused on separating the parts of the forest from the whole. She believed that clear cutting whole mountains and replanting ‘plantations’ composed of one species of fir was detrimental to the trees, inviting insect infestation while destroying the underground mycelial networks that she intuited connected all the trees and plants of the forest in a ‘wood wide web’. She sensed that entire forests were communicating not just above ground (they also communicate threats of insects invasion and other information by way of air) but underground through thousands and thousands of miles of mycorrhizae composed of roots and fungus. She believed that when these root and fungal nets were destroyed during logging, young seedlings had difficulty generating. She also sensed that separating one tree species from another would have negative long – term consequences for clear cutting and plantations alike ( plantations are one species of tree planted in rows after clear cutting). “Mother trees” are the oldest trees in the forest, the trees with the most complex underground networks that support the rest of the trees and plants. She believed that leaving these trees and their young helped the forest regenerate as well as encouraging wildlife diversity She later proved all the above.
After Suzanne’s values collided with those of the forest service and funding dried up she left the forest industry. When she obtained her PhD. Suzanne became a Forest scientist/ecologist. In her first field experiment she proved that fir and birch exchanged carbon through mycelia and that these two species cooperated with each other supporting and enhancing the growth and health of both (birch also protected fir from devastating root disease). Through extensive research over a period of thirty plus years she demonstrated how many trees communicated and exchanged carbon and other nutrients, nourished and favored their kin but also helped their neighbors, and when dying, offered precious carbon and other elements to the forests they left behind as well as sequestering the former in the ground.
Initially she hoped that this research would demonstrate that each forest acted like one living organism. And that this new understanding would help change existing destructive forestry practices. Sadly, after thirty plus years, and hundreds of field experiments by Suzanne and her graduate students that continued to prove her theses, not one forestry practice has changed. In Canada 80 percent of the forests continue to be clear-cut. In the US where we have fewer trees 40 percent are still strip logged. In both countries enormous amounts of carbon are being released into the atmosphere as a result.
Today, Suzanne, who has closed an ancient circle when she discovered that her values mirrored those who lived here for millennia, is working directly with Indigenous Peoples. She has begun an ambitious one hundred year research program called “The Mother Tree Project” which is designed around learning how to help forests survive during climate change. Many trees throughout the country are already sick and some are dying. As the climate continues to warm some new species will replace those that cannot adapt fast enough, and thanks to Suzanne’s research we already know that trees will pass on nutrients to NEW species giving them the necessary carbon etc. they need to survive. This program is open to existing and future graduate students, citizen scientists and anyone who is interested in participating. Central to the program are the values of relationship and partnership, which we desperately need to embrace if the human species is to survive…
Regardless of outcome, Suzanne has created a bridge into the future with her groundbreaking work that I hope will reach the ears of people soon enough to make a difference.