Partridgeberry and other Ground Covers

During the spring, summer and fall I take to the woods, and last year I spent more time in other forests than ever before, researching whatever caught my attention. This penchant of mine is absolutely the best part of being a naturalist/ecologist/generalist. It was mushrooms for months, trees, autumn leaves, and lastly just before snow I turned my attention to ground covers. Knowing that a white blanket would soon be covering the forest floor separating me from these earth loving friends I spent whole afternoons in their presence. Shiny wintergreen leaves hid bright red berries and more than once I had to crush a leaf to release its sweet scent. Most folks know the medicinal benefits of wintergreen, which include its ability to soothe sore muscles. 

Because the places I go are hidden away from all but the lightest foot traffic (mostly from animals) the leathery leaves of trailing arbutus cascade over gentle rises sipping moisture from the air. These plants thrive close to flowing water crowding together in thick green matted colonies. In early June the pure white or pale pink flowers will intoxicate anyone who seeks their fragrance, including wild bees who seek out these tiny trumpets for sweet nectar. 

Princess pine, one of the tree -like club mosses snakes along the forest floor, candles aloft. The cone shaped flower of this club moss (as well as others) is a spore bearing reproductive structure.  Club mosses are more closely related to ferns and horsetails than actual mosses.Although these plants generally colonize the understory today, massive forests of tree-sized club mosses, ferns, and horsetails used to dominate the landscape 400 million years ago. Over time, these forests were buried and compacted into what we know today as coal, a very finite and deadly resource.

 Ground cedar (another club moss) fans her fronds in a circle, even as shallow roots creep along just under the surface of fallen leaves. Rosettes of pippesewa and other pyrolas each have their niches as does wild lily of the valley. This diversity of ground covers attests to a forest soil’s health. All are shallow rooted and vulnerable to drought and freeze-thaw winter conditions like the kind we are starting to experience here.

 Out of all these ground covers my favorite woodland creeper is Partridgeberry, probably because I first fell in love with it as a child. This delicate plant loves rich moist forest soil. Because I spend so much time in the lowlands, I am often surrounded by miles of this acid loving trailing vine that creates incredibly dense mats in places where it is particularly happy. All summer I kept an eye on the plants waiting for  berries to appear. By late August I began to glimpse a few hard lime green fruits. Half way through November the forest floor was covered with dark jade leaves that provides a sharp contrast to masses of stunning scarlet berries. Sometimes, I needed to uncover nature’s deciduous mulch to see the wealth of bounty hidden below. 

As a child I grew partridgeberry in a terrarium taking great joy from the sight of crimson berries that lasted until spring. As a young adult I kept a few berried sprigs dampened with moss in a clear glass ball that I hung on my Norfolk Island pine during the winter season. I also kept partridgeberry and other woodland plants in an open bowl. I returned the plants to their natural habitat in spring. 

This year I have once again created a small terrarium for the house to remind me of my ‘Refuge’ and of all the ground creepers that are sleeping under the snow while root tips remain in lively conversation. Root tips make decisions about next year’s growth with their underground fungal partners and other neighbors all winter long.

  To create a healthy indoor environment it is critical to lift soil and mulch from areas where plants grow in abundance so the necessary nutrients are available all winter long. After adding the partridgeberry I included club moss and snowberry, another common creeper with white fruits, lichen, moss, and two small hemlock seedlings. The ‘right’ stone turned out to be a piece of chert. I mist my emerald green ‘woodland’ daily keeping an eye on the direction of the sun. This collection of plants needs protection from too much light. When I stick my nose into my tiny forest the scent is intoxicating.

With so many plant species disappearing I am especially happy to be writing about plants that aren’t under threat, at least in untouched forests  – at least not yet. As long as some forests are left alone these plants and others like them will continue to thrive for awhile, but we are chewing up our woodlands at an alarming rate and you will not find an abundance of these plants in any forest that has been logged recently because it takes so many years for the soil to recover from its trauma.

The other issue, is ‘receationists’, my term for those folks that are now swarming through our woodlands, either on foot or by machine. Partridgeberry and all the other ground covers I mention in this article will not tolerate being stepped on, let alone run over by a machine. Although the creepers thrive on either side of animal paths, regular soil compaction of any kind will kill them. Consequently, I respectfully urge hikers to stay on the paths that various land trusts/others have created so that these plants can continue to enliven the understory. As previously mentioned, machines are deadly, compacting the earth and killing the shallow root systems of these ground covers, eventually making it impossible for any of these plants to grow at all.

Partidgeberry is a native perennial that finds home in eastern North America from Newfoundland to Minnesota, south to Texas and Florida in forests that are left undisturbed.Partridgeberry inhabits deciduous and coniferous forests rich in organic soil thriving in dappled sunlight or complete shade. The trailing stems root at nodes that come into contact with moist soil. The dark green evergreen leaves are oval shaped with a pale stripe. In spring two white-tubular flowers appear. I always get wet because I have to get on my knees to smell the twins. The two flowers on each plant have different structures. In one the pistal is short and stamens are long; in the second the reverse occurs, the pistal is long and the stamens are short making it impossible for each flower to fertilize itself (Amazing Nature!). 

Both flowers must be pollinated by insects, primarily bumblebees (according to some sources) in order to produce one berry, and the fruit is the result of the fusing of each ovary belonging to the pollinated pair. If you look carefully at one red fruit it is possible to see two spots on the berry. Each contains up to eight seeds that are eaten by birds (turkeys and grouse always eat all of mine here). A number of animals also eat the berries. Chipmunks and squirrels, foxes, skunks and mice feast away if the birds don’t get them first. The seeds must be cold stratified and may take two years to germinate (most do not) if they fall into the ground or are dispersed by birds and animals.

my grouse love partridgeberries

Although I have rapidly spreading clusters of this creeper down around my brook I will never feel as if I have enough of this evergreen. A huge cluster has recently overtaken an old rotting trunk that is now sprouting two pines, three kinds of mosses and lichen… A young hemlock’s fronds gracefully shade the stump. Every year I check my partridgeberry for flowers as soon as all the snow is gone. Last year most flowers bloomed in May, almost a month earlier than usual. The flowers on mine are almost pink reminding me of the cascading trailing arbutus blooms that cover the forest floor. 

There are so many intriguing ground covers that I urge anyone who is interested in plants to plan to visit a forest that has been allowed to care for itself. You will not be disappointed. If you are like me and need green all winter long you might want to create a miniature garden of your own, but please don’t do this unless you are prepared to research your plants to make certain you don’t dig up any that are endangered. And please return the plants to their homeland come spring.

Christmas Grouse

I left seed for you.

A pomegranate too.

Would you come

Christmas day?

The veil was thin

last night.

This morning

 Madonna’ s 

Feathered Body


When you ran across

the snow

I remembered

the song

from long ago…

Partridge in a Pear Tree.

Twelve days

begun in earnest conversation

bridging difference

in Love.

Ever widening circles…

Soul, spirit and body 

  entwine underground,

 weaving many

 into One.

Mother Root

Father Root.

And then,

 You were Three!

Postscript: I have Ruffed grouse who live around the house. Sometimes a week goes by and I don’t see one, and I fear they have left me, but lately I have been flushing them in the woods, or have followed three towed hieroglyphics in the snow. Occasionally I have a momentary glimpse. Just to know they are here is enough. 

Last fall I found a dead grouse on the road, held him tenderly, cut mole brown and black striped tail feathers and his shining henna ruff into a fan, knowing the ‘crown’ would grace my Norfolk pine when November came around…

Yesterday late in the afternoon I scattered some seed around, cut up a pomegranate in the hopes that the partridge would find the food. Lily, my dove, told me the partridge would come.

An evening call from my cousin brightened the night after I had lit the Madonna’s candles, and set intentions for widening visions.

We two, so different are so alike! Such a paradox. Oh the Italian is running strong. Family healing is afoot. Devout Catholic and Nature Mystic meet as more than close relatives – almost brother and sister now – each is an authentic expression of the divine thread. Today that thread manifests for me as not just one partridge but three walking under evergreen cover just outside my door. The most I have ever seen! A trinity of partridge?

Why is the partridge such a symbolic earthly – spirit presence? What comes to mind is that partridge/grouse are heavy bodied; they fly low through the trees and spend much of their time foraging on the ground. They are embodied birds – in close relationship with the earth – Unlike the soaring eagle for example, these birds literally hug the earth with feathered grace. Becoming a meal for men who hunt, these wild birds are prey animals not predators. It is worth mentioning that we honor avian predators as a culture. We don’t hunt the predatory birds; we hunt the prey.

 I think the song ‘partridge in a pear tree’ is trying to tell us story of how important it is to be attached to both spirit and body in a non – predatory way… I see the bird as embodied spirit, the tree is Life.

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story

My deeply devout French- Italian Catholic Grandmother held my hand as we walked into the village at dusk. We were going to see the crèche. I recall feeling very excited. I loved the story that she had just told me about Mary birthing Jesus in a manger surrounded by animals and doves while Joseph looked on. 

 I was eight years old. Until this Christmas I had never spent any time with my paternal grandmother. This year things were different. My parents were in Europe for a year and I had also been separated from my little brother who was staying with my maternal grandparents while I attended school in the east. My grandparents had sent me back to stay with my great aunts because they didn’t want me to go to Catholic school in California. I missed my little brother so much it hurt. My grandmother’s sisters were kind to me, but I was in a state of perpetual longing…  How I ended up staying with this unknown grandmother remains a mystery to this day.

It was almost dark when we reached the crèche. I remember nothing beyond being cast into the middle of a living myth. Light seemed to be coming from every direction inside the thatched wooden structure. Mary was cloaked in blue and there was a baby in the straw manger that looked like a doll. Everything else was moving! Joseph held a long wooden staff, and three strange men were coming and going from the manger offering gifts to the baby; they were dressed in extraordinary clothing. Lots of gold. But I was glued to Mary who kept watch over her baby. Beautiful songs floated around us in the air. I can still hear the chords of Silent Night. I gazed up at the sky at some point. Brilliant stars seemed to be falling all around me. Where was the luminous one my grandmother said was in the sky this night? Was that when I saw the animals? Donkeys, cows and sheep, dogs, doves, bears – there were so many – animals of all kinds. I couldn’t name them all! They kept circling around the crèche. Oh, the animals were keeping the family safe from harm! Suddenly, I too felt safe, wrapped in Mary’s cloak, embraced by this Mother of All…loved and protected by the animals.

Afterwards, walking home with my grandmother, I wondered about why she hadn’t told me about the animals. And where was the star? I was too shy to ask.

Later, I watched my grandmother unwind her beautiful long silver hair. Did she let me brush it? She wore it like a crown during the day. My sweet little grandmother helped me change into my nightgown; that night I was going to sleep in her bed. When she tucked me in my grandmother told me that Mary was going to watch over me all night long. And then, Mary appeared for a second time as my grandmother lit a small light with a figure that glowed pale blue… I remember the deep comfort I experienced knowing that She was in the room with me, as I fell sound asleep.


Postscript: This is the only memory I have of being with my paternal grandmother during my childhood, except for occasional family holidays when she was always busy caring for masses of relatives. The fact that this experience has stayed with me my entire life suggests its importance. I may have been physically separated from this grandmother because of family conflict but she was the one who made Mary real to me. Until that Christmas I had only experienced this ‘Mother of god’ in a convent that I snuck into almost every day when I walked home from school. In that convent I met Mary surrounded by roses and doves in a beautiful walled garden. The nuns first told me the story of Jesus’s birth. I kept these visits a secret although I was only in kindergarten when I began going to the convent garden. 

In retrospect I see that I received a tremendous gift from my very devout grandmother the one time I spent with her. Mary lived, and lives still.  My relationship with her has sustained me over a lifetime sometimes in the guise of other goddesses. I expect to meet her at the threshold of my death along with the animals and trees, my little brother and others I love so much. 

I have no explanation for seeing so many animals that night at the crèche, but again, in retrospect it is clear that I had a powerful spiritual experience that included animals in a very important way. The animals created the circle of protection not just for the Christian story, but for me. Then and now. Animals taught me how to love the earth and then my body; immanence is as sacred as transcendence. We need both. It’s probably no surprise to the reader that I have lived with, and loved animals all my life, or that I need them more than they will ever need me.

The war between my parents over Catholics in general must have been won by my mother early on. How else would a five year old know that she could never reveal the secret garden, the place where Mary lived?

Unfortunately, family stories repeat for good or ill and I have lived through another generation of forced family separation and loss but in this latter version religion was not the issue.

Recently I have been reunited with my cousin, my dad’s nephew, a joy I never expected to experience. (We were always friends but lost touch). A whole new story is writing itself into both of our lives. I am just grateful to be alive to experience it.

Holy Silence; Winter Joy

Holy Silence; Winter Joy

Golden light


down the mountain.

 Fire ignites

 Winter Joy.

In the Holy Silence

of December

my house becomes

a prayer.

Bursting with gratitude,

I walk from one story

to another…

Bless this sleeping Earth


I pass by my

 woodland berried garden.

Celebrate Evergreens. 

Two Norfolk Island Pines

  watered for love of every tree.

Polish the Pomegranate –

to honor all women.

 Spiral around Passionflowers

closing the circle

( tendrils seek winter light)

Love these Animals!

By loving dogs and bears

ever more deeply,

I learn to love myself

Animals, all Beloved.

Body too...

Botticelli’s Madonna

followed me thru Italy

she was in me from

the beginning

cloaked in Blue

my real mother too.

Gifted me with cousins.

Birthed a grandmother.

Welcomed in a stranger.

 Gave me back a brother.

I leave a basket of seeds

and fruits

at her feet.

Roses too.

Spheres of dusty pink flowers

 mirror Nature’s seasonal rounds.

My dove coos in triplets, 

chiming clocks

 echo Grandmothers’


I tip and weave

Sweet Balsam 

into wreath

after wreath

conjuring Wholeness

out of all that is broken.

 Circles of Hope

 embrace me.

At night

my nose touches a pillow –

Inhaling pinenes*

so steeped in scent

I fall asleep.

  • Pinenes are the compounds that create scent in conifers. I weave my wreaths out of balsam that has an especially sweet scent. Balsam is a natural bronchial -dilator and has antibacterial and antibiotic properties.

The Gift of Silence is the Ground for ALL Gratitude

First Snow

Tumbling to Earth

 in clumps 

etching branches

in pearl,

  swirling snow conceals

frozen ground.

We can almost believe

  an Earth untouched

by sorrow or grief.


are only twigs,

until the Clouds turn Dark.

Coyote has been shot;

his mate is howling. 

 I am soaking

 the forest in blue.

Nature’s artistry

astonishes me.

Hares leap,

Partridge  hieroglyphics

guide me.

I wind myself around

woodland paths

on padded feet,

reach the river

whose waters

 flow, each

rill marking


 in the Round.

Winter Moon Prayer

Lupita  (Mary, Guadalupe, Tree of Life)

Your steel points of light

Your branches of Light (Asherah)

 glow in grave darkness.

Hecate’s second moon is Red.

The raven slices the sky into shards.

The river catches shivering stars.

We remember the First Mother…

Patiently, painfully,

we return the parts to the Whole.

See the Wolf who hides

 behind the Tree,

 the door?

Welcome him in.

Only then can we begin…


Your needled points of light 

glow in grave darkness.

This kind of prayer is said during the dark months when shadows are feared and the nights are long. I use it at the solstice or the full moon before the winter solstice, a fire festival. There are good reasons for this kind of prayer. It is so important to acknowledge our shadow and to invite him/her in as a friend, not as an enemy. Otherwise harmful projections occur as we place undesirable qualities that we can’t own onto others.

 In Indigenous traditions there are always masked personages that act out these shadow qualities in sometimes very scary or humorous ways. The Tewa have a masked dancer who uses a whip to strike the ground. In central Europe masked dancers walk the streets creating havoc in rural areas even today. These figures are acting out the shadow in us all, keeping it present so this energy does not go underground where it can become quite deadly. 

Return to Earth!

The Door  

Chaco Canyon


are thresholds that

if opened, become

 Gates to the Unknown.

If invited in

by kindly Spirits

we tread lightly,

always listening

for further instruction.

Symbols and signs

abound for those

who have learned

from deep suffering

that for every Light

there is unholy Darkness.

Both must

be given their due.

Deep Humility,

keen awareness

and a wary heart

keep us anchored,

 allow us entry,

but only briefly

and then

the door

must close again.

Earth celebrates

our return.

For Love of This Life: Carol Christ’s Contribution to Ecofeminist Thought by Elizabeth Ann Bartlett 


Journeying with students into the woods to dive deep into our spiritual connections with nature, I would invoke these words from Carol Christ: “There are no hierarchies among beings on earth.  We are different from the swallows who fly in spring, from the many-faceted stones on the beach, from the redwood tree in the forest.  We may have more capacity to shape our lives than other beings, but you and I will never fly with the grace of a swallow, live as long as a redwood tree, nor endure the endless tossing of the sea like a stone.  Each being has its own intrinsic beauty and value….”[i]  How can one listen to these words and not be changed?  Taking in the meaning of these words, paradigm shift happens.  Herein lies the gift of Carol Christ to ecofeminism.

            Ecofeminism posits that the oppression and domination of women, nature, and colonized others are inextricably linked. This is largely due to two aspects of the Western cultural paradigm: 1) mind/body value dualism, and 2) what ecofeminist Karen Warren has called “the logic of domination.” Mind/body value dualism is the creation of an artificial binary of opposites which values everything associated with the mind — spirit, transcendent, men, humans, white-bodied peoples, over everything associated with the body – earth, immanent, women, nature, colonized Others.  The “logic of domination” is the use of this supposed inherent superiority of those associated with the mind to justify their domination of everything associated with the body. As Western culture has spread throughout the world, this value system is now found practically every on earth.

            Christ unearthed the root issue of the Western paradigm — that mind/body value dualism is grounded in a theology that separates the divine from the earth and everything associated with it. In The Laughter of Aphrodite, she showed how Platonic dualism, the denial of finitude and death, and the vision of the Good as transcendent of the earth have shaped this paradigm, and became the basis of a transcendent Christian God and a theology in which earth and body are regarded as impediments to the spiritual.  Everything associated with body and earth – women, people of color, nature, immanence — came to be seen as barriers to the more valued white, male, transcendent, God, justifying the conquest and domination of women, colonized others, and the earth.  Paradigm shift must begin with uprooting this spiritual core.

            As Christ argued, religion and its symbology live deep within our psyches, affecting even the unreligious in unconscious ways. Rejecting a symbol system is not sufficient.  If not replaced, the mind will fall back into familiar patterns.  Similarly, the ecofeminist paradigm must be grounded in a new spiritual foundation, not a transcendent God, but rather an immanental divine, dwelling within all beings.

            The divinity of all beings upends mind/body value dualism. As Christ so boldly stated, “There are no hierarchies among beings on earth.”  Such a simple statement, and yet so revolutionary. Christ deftly disrupted the entrenched belief that humans are the pinnacle of creation by illustrating ways each being is unique. She moved us to grasp in our depths that every being has value not as a resource for humanity, but simply and profoundly in and of itself.  This, she said, is the supreme relativizing, to know that humans are no more valuable to the life of the universe — and no less; that the life force cares no more for “human creativity . . . than it cares about the ability of Bermuda grass to spread or moss to form on the side of a tree.”[ii] It is stunning in its dissolution of hierarchy, its profound egalitarianism, its deepest respect of all beings. This spiritual core is fundamental to ecofeminist paradigm shift.

            The ethic it implies has motivated and guided ecofeminism.  It is an ethic based on respect and reverence for all of life, that recognizes our interdependence in the web of life, and that our actions on this earth are limited by the value inherent in all beings. It enlists our love and deep sense of connection to act to enhance the life possibilities of all beings, for once one knows that love, one cannot simply stand by.  One must act.

            Christ’s words “the knowledge we could destroy this earth weighs heavily on me,”[iii]  seem more pressing than ever.  She warned of the political and ecological consequences of valuing transcendence over immanence, of prioritizing everlasting life in some transcendent realm over life on earth.  In denying the finitude of life, a theology that accords ultimate value to a life beyond this one, justifies, even encourages, the destruction of the planet.  She pointed to the rise of “apocalypticism” as raising the frightening possibility that those who contemplate total destruction of life on earth imagine that it is the will of God.  Attention to this now seems even more urgent.  As life becomes increasingly apocalyptic – fires, floods, drought, pandemics, racial conflict, wars and insurgencies – I hear an almost gleeful pronouncement that these are signs foretelling the coming of the Rapture – that this is the end of life on earth and that it is God’s will. In this moment, this theology, and the political choices it inspires, is perhaps the most dangerous belief on earth.

            In its stead, Christ expounded and urged a thealogy that recognizes our finitude as part of the cycle of life and death, and calls on us to live, love, and act for love of this life. As she said, “Our task is here,” not in some life beyond this one. Christ eloquently argues that we must act to stop the impending destruction – simply for love of this life: “What can stop us is that we love this life, this earth, the joy we know in ourselves and other beings enough to find the thought of the end of the earth intolerable.”[iv]           

            Christ’s contribution to ecofeminism is inestimable, providing a profoundly egalitarian, respectful, and loving thealogy upon which to ground an ecofeminist paradigm and ethic to motivate and guide our actions in the world. 

Monster Boy

In myth

they call him

Monster boy.

In life he thrives


Aloof, disguised,

speeding madly

 over rough waters

(in a boat without oars).

Stealing Shadow

to bolster his own.

Fighting to win

 at any cost.

Feigning neutrality,

steel knives draw blood.


 dark feeling

hovers, always

Above It All. 

Oh, the Spider

 taught him well, 

but it must be said

a pattern was already

written in the stars..

If only he’d touch the Earth

If only he’d embrace the Earth,

  tears of forgiveness

            might flow.

healing waters…

The Navajo tell the mythical story of ‘First Woman’ who gives birth parthogenically on the top of a holy mountain. Changing Woman has twin sons whose job it is to rid the world of dark forces that would destroy ‘the People’. One child is Monster Boy, the other is called Child of Water… The two set out on a journey to fight monsters and to meet their Father the Sun… Changing Woman is left behind. The two heroes slay the enemies of the Navajo, and with Spider grandmother’s help, meet up with the Sun, who then forces them to prove their worth a second time before accepting them. A solar story if there ever was one.

When I first learned of this myth more than 30 years ago I was struck by the fact that although the twins rid the people of their enemies, this ‘first family’ remained separated.  Changing Woman is not reunited with her sons. Spider grandmother helps the twins but not their mother; the former is male identified. We all know women like her.

Changing Woman eventually moves west to be with the Sun; however, she insists upon having her own dwelling that is surrounded by water and must have animals and birds as her companions. She re-unites with her husband but only on her own terms. This first family never reconciles as a whole; the myth ends with the warring hero twins slaying their enemies and meeting the Sun. 

This Navajo myth is based on older hero twin myths of which there are many variations but the general story is the same and it seems to me that all are patriarchal, and therefore “new” appearing some time in the last 5000 years… the Mayan version occurs around 200 BCE. We are dealing with forces/patterns that have been around for a long time but not ‘forever’ as impeccable feminist literature/scholarship like that of Carol Christ’s reveals. When a story is not completed something is blocking the ability of a healing pattern to manifest, perhaps on a new level. Patriarchy, or Powerarchy, as I define the word, a system of unequal power, leads to eventual destruction of its people – if our present global crisis is any indication of what’s ahead. Nature will live on.

I think the deadly split that we are living cross culturally has everything to do with the need to reconcile these two aspects of the male (in women and men) with awareness. Monster Boy slaughters, Child of Water flows. Integrating the two extreme, opposite, forces means to honor the fire, but not to act it out destructively through rage/war, cultivating the male as love and protector, and allowing genuine feeling (water) to flow unimpeded. Embodiment creates a healing bridge to female powers if we do the work around acknowledging/honoring our feelings (both positive and negative) and grounding those feelings in a body. Living in our bodies with awareness challenges both women and men to integrate feeling, sensing, intuition, into our thinking on a conscious level. Only then can we become whole.

At present it seems to me that Monster Boy is ruling the planet.

It’s important to reiterate that monster boy could be either male or female if you take the two extremes (fire and water) beyond the story into our present culture. This truth was brought home to me recently in an encounter with a woman that once would have blindsided me.