Mycelial Madness

The last winter I spent in New Mexico I walked to the river every morning in the pre-dawn hour. No matter how much the wind would howl later on, at this time of the day nothing stirred besides the birds. Because I traveled the same path every morning circling round one wetland listening to river songs I would find myself slipping into a light trance as my feet hit the hard unforgiving ground. Every bush, cottonwood, Russian olive, juniper was familiar, each was a friend. Although this wetland had been trimmed and paths mowed which exposed and heated up the ground, the majority of the trees and plants had been left intact and the river was still nearby. During these light trance states I had the sense that the ground beneath my feet was pulsing with some kind of light; that the earth was trying to communicate with me.

At that time I didn’t know that I was walking over of miles of mycelium, because I didn’t know whether these networks extended throughout the desert although I assumed they did. But I felt or sensed something. I knew from trying to garden in NM that the surface of most of the ground seemed quite barren except for the decaying cottonwood bark that I used as mulch, so where was the rest of the mycelium?

Later I learned that across arid soils, a thin crust often forms within the top few centimeters of the soil surface as long as that surface is not disturbed. If the land is run over by too many cattle, mined or otherwise disfigured that precious crust will disappear. It takes hundreds or thousands of years to replace that layer. Surprisingly, this mantle is not exclusively formed from excess minerals, as I first believed, but is created by microscopic and macroscopic organisms that live together – fungi and algae. Whenever it rains, cyanobacteria, formerly called blue-green algae, bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that have been dormant awaken. Released from drought, these microscopic creatures start making food and creating miniature tunnels as they move through the soil, reproducing as long as the soil is moist. The mucilage around algae filaments help the algae/fungi to thrive. As the soil dries out after rain, the threads of mycelium tightly bind all the soil grains, gluing soil particles together against wind and erosion. The value of this thin, living “skin” of the desert must not be underestimated. Mycelial fungal threads called hyphae communicate, grow every which way, exchange water and nutrients and store carbon underground. What fascinates me now is that l sensed the presence of these living networks beneath my feet although most were microscopic. Mycelial communication occurs by electrical impulses/electrolytes which emit sparks of light and something in me apparently could feel a pulsing light coming through my feet.

 Fungal networks are the foundation of all life on earth. Four billion years ago alga met fungus as it crept out of the sea. Algae could photosynthesize but it needed fungi to break down nutrients like minerals from rock. The two developed a mutualistic partnership that still exists today. Between the two they create the soil that supports all terrestrial life.

 In temperate forests like mine here in Maine billions of mutualistic mycorrhizal mycelial networks are quite visible often tucked under leaves or threading their way through the forest floor just below us. Pull off a dead piece of bark and you will find these threads, some patterned like trees or sunbursts. Often during the spring, summer, or fall I try to imagine the billions of mycelium that are running under my feet as I walk into my field through the pines, or step across the brook into the cool hemlock forest that is carpeted with a plethora of emerald mosses, princess pine, pyrola, and other spring ephemerals. I experience awe as I remind myself that all these underground threads are exchanging information, carbon, water and other nutrients with one another, and trees and plants (Dr. Suzanne Simard) are supporting one another. Trees even favor their own kin. Most important and worth repeating is that during this time of climate change, stabilized mycelium stores masses of carbon – about 70 percent underground.

the human brain

 I notice that the cold white blanket that separates me from this pulsing earth in the winter is not something I appreciate for long; winter used to be a time I loved to snowshoe, look for tracks, and watch wild animals. I still treasure the season, but not the snow, although I value the latter as a form of protection for plants and tree roots. I have no desire to fly over the snow like a skier or on some screaming machine; instead I want to sink myself into earth’s bodily wholeness. 

 Last summer was wet and the best mushroom year I ever remember. I spent the entire season in the forest looking for/identifying/and studying the ecological niches that abounded with mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of some mycelium. There are billions, trillions of mycelium that make up these underground networks but only about twenty thousand kinds of mushrooms sprout as fruiting bodies. I noted with excitement that in my favorite forest I sometimes experienced that pulsing light under my feet while searching for mushrooms or ground covers, walking slowly and getting on my knees frequently to inspect a plant or mushroom more closely.

Reflecting upon this phenomenon it seemed to me that I had shifted my awareness from ‘thinking mind’ to ‘experiencing body’. After all it was my body that experienced this pulsating sensation. I think of this vast mycelial network as a kind of earth mother, a sentient being that lives under my feet and stretches across the entire surface of the earth, an ancient and wise earth body that might be trying to get my/our attention. It is intriguing to see pictures of mycelium and the neural pathways of the brain because visually they seem to share similarities. Perhaps these mycelial networks are the mind of the earth?

mycelial network

A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

  The Power of Dreams to Forecast Future Events

I have been a dreamer all my life and within the last six weeks I have had a number of dreams that both frightened and baffled me. How is it possible I ask myself that after 40 years of dream jounraling and being trained as analyst that I am still that stupid?

Part of the answer is that I don’t pay close enough attention to warnings when I can’t make sense of them. For example, when these dreams began someone I didn’t know had contacted me out of the blue and insinuated himself into my life by praising someone I love. The very next night I had a dream that told me that a man was coming to harm me.

When I awakened I thought about this stranger, but discarded him immediately as the threat because he seemed so sincere and kind. We struck up a long distance communication that seemed benign, although I must admit that from the beginning I was suspicious of his talk of having an instant ‘spiritual conversion’ and the “high” that accompanied it. I also felt wary of the man’s obsession with light, and his identification with it.


Light and Shadow belong together…

  At the same time I began to have some physical issues that only arise when the “I” in me is at odds with what my body knows to be true. I questioned the stranger’s motives, but couldn’t anchor anything threatening in his behavior beyond his obsession with light, which continued to trouble me. Identifying oneself with light is like becoming a god, and false gods proclaim their superiority at other’s expense. They think they KNOW. I had also learned that light and shadow belong together, and if one element is missing there is some kind of problem. 

Yet I remained confused. Finally I attributed my physical symptoms to very real fear and anxiety around not being able to take care of myself this winter. I attempted to deal with my anxiety by keeping my awareness focused on this issue. Trying to work with my fears didn’t help.

A second very frightening dream occurred in which a HUGE BIRCH with elephantine arms was threatening me. Immediately, I attributed this dream to the winter birch holocaust of last year, wondering if more trees were going to fall in another ice -storm. I didn’t know then that this man was also obsessed with a dead man named – you guessed it, Birch.

I stopped sleeping. My body couldn’t rest.

I dreamed about a monster boy.  

I dreamed I need a light to see though this darkness.

 I dreamed that someone was interfering with my brother’s real story.

 I dreamed a predator was near.

I dreamed that I was building a house that also looked like a boat and its prow had many windows, but I couldn’t see what was behind me. 

On January 6, the beginning of the New Year and the Feast of Epiphany, I dreamed I must attend to my body’s truth. Frustrated, I had no idea what else I could do, beyond what I was already doing.

I dreamed I saw a hideous desert –like muddy vortex swirling in the ground that was trying to pull me in.

In the final two dreams I was buried under three feet of snow, and a tree, that was also me was chopped down.


The very next day this stranger betrayed my brother and me, my family, living and dead, in a most heinous way.

The “Wolf” had finally identified and exposed himself as the Predator he was.


Happily the story doesn’t end there. What I didn’t mention is that in between the troubling dreams during the last six weeks, I had a series of three powerful dreams about my brother that indicated that all was well and that he lived deep in a forest he loved with the deer. These dreams overrode the egregious actions of the wolf, and left me in a state of peace.


 As my dearest cousin and I untangled the tale of “the wolf in sheep’s clothing” we recovered what had been stolen for only one day, the truth around my brother’s life, who he really was, and who he might have become.

 Billy reiterated, “We are Family!”.

 It’s probably not necessary to add that both of us have developed into people we respect. We know our shortcomings and can own them. Integrity, humility and compassion come to those of us who are willing to take responsibility for our lives and have learned how to love. Being able to be emotionally present for one another is just how we are together.

Is it any wonder that my gratitude runs beneath this story like a great underground river?


 I wrote out this personal narrative to close a brief chapter in my life, but also to help me understand how I managed to miss the meaning behind so many threatening dreams. The key seems to lie with my body. Like that of any animal, she is always instinctively grounded in truth.

 The “I” in me is easily confused, and if my mind cannot make rational sense out of dream messages, I choose my own words (read: interpretations) instead of turning to my body and asking her to help me uncover what my feelings are trying to warn me about.

The bottom line is that I am still privileging mind over body as my culture has taught me to do.

The other problem belongs to me. One of my good qualities is that I am genuinely kind and generous. I routinely project* my kindness/ generosity onto others. This tendency has gotten me into more trouble in my life than the reader can imagine. I still don’t know how to stop doing this with other people, because today I do own my generosity of spirit.


*Projection, a Jungian term, occurs when we can’t own a quality either positive or negative in ourselves and unconsciously place it on another person admiring or vilifying that individual. All humans engage in this behavior.

Either way, the challenge is to learn to see when this is happening, and to own and integrate that quality into our own personality with awareness.  It can be just as difficult to own a positive quality, as it is to integrate one that is negative, but if we are to mature we must learn to do both or we will continue to see ourselves and other people through a distorted lens.



I was not


Not consulted

before your 



for all

to see.



each cell

in two

as it once


 through you. 

The Cold Night

cracked my limbs,

bare branches


frozen tears.

 A frigid white

Moon cast

   Your Shadow

on the snow.


 Silence deafening

Broken –

I still see your face


 after midnight.

Twins, we circle round

shattered dreams 

  and my red heart.

Our Blue Road 

still blocked

by Boulders,

an avalanche

 of Stone.

The moment I put the cardinal picture up a cardinal appears at my window. The sight of this bird re-establishes my broken connection to Nature’s wholeness – her ability to witness – especially poignant during times of shock and sorrow. There are no feeders here.

Cardinal is the spirit bird that comes to witness for me in times of grief. My Red Heart and his…

(picture taken in moon – storm two days ago)

Moon Shadow

 Moon Shadow

A Peaceful Warrior

came in the night,

wept with me

when I faltered,

offered of words

of comfort, courage.

Love freed

 from bondage.

Witnessing him

I met my Beloved.

 A shadow

from the Beyond.

He writes under

  a star blind sky 

Three Times Three

 Father Root,

 buried by the Moon..

Torn Ear


So often we believe our shadow elements need to be hidden, when in reality we need to honor them, for they alone can strengthen resolve, weaving us whole.


Nature never sleeps.

On the coldest mornings

S/he is etching images

on my windows,

reminding me

that winter does

not mean that

the painters brush is still.

Even monotonous gray

sub zero chill

hooded skies cannot

dampen her ardor.

I gaze at birds and trees,

swaying seaweed,

 fairy tale Forests,

fantastic fans.

Images of

every conceivable shape

 sketched in white crystal.

 And when the sun

surfaces from the deep

I am astonished,

struck dumb by Her Brilliance.

Spruce at Dawn

Spruce towers

over weeping hemlock

balsam and pine.

Pale peach clouds

paint the sky circling

 fringed spires.


our first cathedrals… 

Some still gather

under these boughs.

Her Voice 

is being Silenced.

The Spirit of

the Forest


 Slaughtered trees cry.

‘There’s nothing to be done.

One far –away day

 we will live again’.


Rapacious greed,


eclipse the Numinous

as mighty machines roar.

The spruce sat in the center of the (unremarkable) picture I thought I took of blushing clouds. Peering at the photo I heard the trees’ lament – one spruce reaching for the stars spoke for them all – so many slain – fertile earth uprooted.

Once this Forest gifted me with a home; filled my life with meaning…I still find solace here, but the Soul of the Earth is weeping.

Acceptance is all that’s left I am told.

A New Year’s Story: La Bafena

Ever since I was old enough to comprehend that New Year’s Eve represented the end of one year and the beginning of the next a holiday requiring NOISE, drunkenness, and joyful (?) merry making, I experienced a profound sense of alienation. This celebration seemed hollow and meaningless to me. As an adolescent even though I went on dates the night depressed me. As an adult I endured ignoring the whole thing.

Once I surrendered Christianity to the fire and began creating my own rituals based on the Celtic calendar I began to think of the Winter Solstice as the Turning of the Wheel into the new year, although powerful dreams that forecast the future usually came around Epiphany, the last day of the Christian/pre Christian twelve days of Christmas celebration. This celebration had roots in the deep past. This peculiar dream habit of mine baffled me and I resisted it because of its Christian overlay until this year when I finally surrendered to what my dreams had been reflecting all along. Epiphany was a day to glimpse the future. My new year begins on the night of January 6th, a day of Awakening. Apparently my dream life believes that an ancient script needs to play out with or without my cooperation. 

  After the Feast of the Dead ends in early November I incorporate liminal space into my rituals. I used to believe that this liminal space ended at the winter solstice but as the years wore on I developed a sense that a Festival of Fire turned the solar wheel but did NOT bring in the new year. Contrary to popular goddess and pagan culture it also did not bring in the light. (The Festival of Light occurs around February 2nd)

Instead, this (usually raucous) solar turning seemed to carry shadow elements. In the past few years including last winter, I had projections placed on me that created deep personal distress until I recognized what had happened. Only then was I able to separate myself from them. In retrospect I am grateful for these experiences for they helped me root out what this solstice celebration often hid. Shadows in the night.

 This year the days leading up to the solstice felt different. I was seeing partridge scurrying over the snow around my house almost every day. I recalled a song I loved as a child had a “partridge in a pear tree”. Intrigued, I did a little research and discovered to my surprise that the Twelve days of Christmas – December 25 thru January 6 – were sometimes perceived to occur in liminal space with the new year (cyclic not linear) coming in at the end of this celebration. Ah, I thought, so all our current new year’s hoopala might be attached to liminal space. First the Festival of Fire, then New Year’s Eve, two opportunities to act out more shadow elements before the new year began. This idea felt just right to me.

partridge love partridge berries and I keep some in the house over the winter – note the partridgeberries are sprouting new plants in January!

On January 5th I had a dream image of a partridge in a pear tree. In the morning I decided to burn my balsam wreaths in the woodstove rather than to wait until First Light in February, which had been my custom for years. I also did something that seemed very odd to me at the time. I swept each room of the house instead of vacuuming wondering why I felt compelled to sweep. It seemed ridiculous. Two amazing visits completed the day. The first birds that arrived were 25 wild turkeys that hung around the house for over an hour. I had never had so many. I had a tendency to think of these birds as birds of sacrifice; they were sacred to Indigenous peoples for this reason, but on this day I heard the word clearly: Abundance!  Ah ha. These birds signified both aspects of one whole, sacrifice and abundance. At dusk I had another surprise. One of my beloved partridge’s arrived, this one was a big one, and s/he hopped into a fruit tree right outside my window where I was able to watch the bird swallowing spring buds and twigs. A Partridge in my Pear Tree, just like the song about the Twelve Days of Christmas! I was thrilled. 

Ruffed grouse

That night I had a dream of moving into a house that was full of light.

January 6th dawned quietly. All the excitement had occurred the day before. It was icy and cold so I stayed in perusing FB at lunch as I occasionally do. Imagine my shock when I read about the Good Witch of Epiphany – La Befana and the Cycles of Time. How had I missed it? I had Italian roots and never had heard of this old hag, perhaps because up until recently I had been separated from these roots? Anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco trace Befana’s origins back to Neolithic beliefs and practices.  In Italy this old woman had been part of Italian folklore since the 800’s. She was later associated with the Roman Goddess Strenia who presided over the New Year, a goddess of purification who offered physical, spiritual and emotional good health to all people and was a protector of mothers and children. She also had a strong link with Juno and another with a more ancient Etruscan Mother Goddess who presided over forests, fertility, abundance, and the Cycles of the Year.  She also had a powerful relationship with the Ancestors who were honored on the last day of this festival, January 6th.

 The story goes that Befana was a poverty stricken old woman who lived alone in a ram shackle old house (I see elements of Baba Yaga in her). She was a meticulous housekeeper that swept her house every day with her wooden broom. She was also an excellent cook, and she loved to bake cookies and make candies!

 There are different versions of the part of the story that follows. In one (probably the most popular) the Magi come and invite her to bring gifts for the Christ child after she feeds and gives them a place to stay for the night. Befana says she’s too busy but later changes her mind, gathers dates, figs, honey, cookies and other goodies and flies around on her broomstick (symbol of the tree) searching for the Magi on the night of January 5th the Eve of Epiphany. She gets lost and decides she will leave gifts for all children everywhere because she was not sure where the holy child was. She slipped through a keyhole, came down a chimney or entered a home in some other magical way! Today Italian children leave her stockings to fill with goodies. Befana always sweeps the floor of the homes she visits after she fills stockings so that the New Year can begin, but this sweeping is not linear in intent. Rather, Befana acknowledges the cycles of time that nature orchestrates as seasons of the year. Each end becomes a new beginning. In some versions it is said that one can see her just after at midnight on the Eve of Epiphany. In Italy she is revered and beloved by the children who are more excited by her coming than any other Christmas celebration.

Today this powerful Goddess who presides over the cycles of the seasons and time is a benevolent crone who truly could not be more beloved in her native land. The place in Italy where she is believed to have had her home is Urbania, and every year, there is a festival in her honor. In recent years there has been as many as 50,000 people there for the week of January 5 and 6th.

I am captivated by the fact that before I read this story I began to act as if La Befana was guiding me. I burned my wreaths, put way my lights, and swept all my floors just like she might have! I too was bringing in the new year in a way that was finally meaningful to me.

What I love best about this story is its obvious antiquity, as well as La Befan’s benevolence as an old crone. I also am delighted to discover that a goddess helps to bring in the new year. We have so many terrible tales of the old woman that as soon as I heard the story I wanted to tell it. Long live our “old women” and wise old crones!

Passionflower – Women and Plants

Passionflower: Women, Plants and a Crown of Thorns 

I have always had a relationship with plants. All the women in my family were gardeners and I had my first garden when I was about four year old. But it wasn’t until mid-life that I began to sense that this woman-plant relationship might be more complicated than I realized. Blurred boundaries. Intimacy. Weavings underground. My dreams were full of vines that hugged the earth and spiraled like serpents sliding on bellies through deep green forests. I could grow plants that others could not. Was it the attention I gave plants? Love? I saw them as friends, as equals. I loved touching and caring for them. 

When I saw my first passionflower blossom at a neighbor’s house I practically swooned. I fell in love with the flower and its scent. Not the generous type, I had to beg for a cutting for two whole years before this woman finally relented. Thrilled, I brought the cutting home. It was spring. I put it in water. To my joy it rooted in a few weeks warmed by the April sun, and within three months I was able to pot the cutting.

 One year later I had a giant vining wonder with masses of blooms. As soon as I had a mature vine I took cuttings for a second one. After that plant began to flourish I began to grow these vines for other people. My motives were twofold. I am by nature generous (some would say to a fault); I love to share; sharing is fun. And I wanted to erase the selfish attitude that my neighbor embraced that might still be attached to these plants. Plants, after all, are a gifting from nature. They do not belong to us; if anything we belong to them.

Twenty years later I am still in love with my passionflowers and they know it. I am still enthralled by the beautiful vines,  astonished at the way I can actually see how they move their tendrils towards the sun; I am still swooning over flower fragrance or marveling at the complexity of the flowers themselves.

 Mystery Incarnate.

 In the intervening years these vines have taught me more about honoring the spirit and soul that resides within each plant, and by extension all plants. They have also taught me to pay closer attention to a plant’s behavior in relationship to myself. It is amazing to me in retrospect that I have been so stupid for so long. Plants are such powerful teachers. 

For many years I gave my passionflowers away indiscriminately, hoping to mend fences with bullying neighbors who betrayed me. A terrible mistake. The plants always died. I gave them to friends that weren’t really friends – people who used me. The plants died. I am a slow learner. It never occurred to me that I needed to stop giving passionflowers away to just anyone.

When I left for New Mexico I had my two vines in tow. I gave one seventeen year old passionflower to a woman out of  (too?) deep gratitude for our friendship. When I returned north I thought I was going to sell the house and move to Abiquiu permanently. Another Abiquiu neighbor, this one a man who I also believed to be a friend (never a romantic relationship), offered to drive me back to New Mexico but the night before we left he kicked my dog, almost knocking her out. Oh no, I was making a terrible mistake – my gut was screaming -Not more violence. But it was too late to undo. My house had been shut down for the winter. 

After a hair- raising trip across country I moved into his house temporarily. I lived in shock daily. My healthy passionflower was now struggling hard to live. Her leaves withered, turned brown. I couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t die – not after all these years, but she did. And I knew why and didn’t want to know. She was showing me in the only way she could that my life was in peril. I became ill. My dog developed an intestinal disease. This is when I learned that some people are capable of making you sick.

I took new cuttings from the passionflower that I gave to the woman who was my friend. They wouldn’t root. Throughout the spring they struggled during the time they rooted most easily, and then, finally one took. I felt profound relief. Living without this vine was just like losing an arm I thought grimly to myself. I was so grateful I didn’t care that it would be a year before I had flowers – Just having a healthy plant was all that mattered.

When I returned to Maine with my passionflower after spending four winters there,  I was facing the same problems I had before I left. I had a collapsing house foundation and I needed help during the winter. Contractors kept backing out. 

In May of that year I met a young man who loved trees like I did who offered to help me during the winter.  We spent many hours in what I believed to be honest conversation. Although it took months, I finally rooted a passionflower for his mother along with a couple more to share. I never made the connection between the trouble I had rooting passionflowers in NM where I had no roots, the length of time it now took to root cuttings here, the trouble I was having getting help with my foundation (roots of the house) and my friendship with this young man. 

That fall his father offered to repair the extensive cellar damage the following spring. Finally, help was at hand. My gratitude towards these two, father and son, knew no bounds. In retrospect I see that I wove root connections that simply weren’t there with either father or son (gratitude can skew perceptions just as effectively as grief can). 

That fall after I brought my adult passionflower indoors it developed a disease I couldn’t diagnose.  My passionflower was telling me again that something was very wrong but I didn’t know what it was.

On the surface it seemed like all was well.

It wasn’t.

Winter passed with my young friend visiting once a week with us sharing ideas and stories.

My passionflower was doing so poorly that I was afraid she would die.

 In the spring we had an argument. I discovered that my friend had lied to me about a lot of things. With -holding information is a psychological hook for me and when I called him on his lies of omission – his dishonesty – he apparently took such offense that he refused to speak to me again. I ended up taking responsibility for everything (inappropriately), wanting only to reconcile with someone I cared for deeply. An old story.

I instinctively put my passionflower outdoors as soon as I was able hoping that she would recover.

His father kept his word, although it was terribly difficult having him work here when his son and I were so estranged. The stress for both of us was exhausting. The work dragged for a couple of months and was left unfinished. When I tried to talk to the father about his son, I wept. I told him I had the emails that passed between us; that I was baffled. An argument was not the end of the world. He said he had never seen his son behave the way he had with me. This remark seemed ominous but it gave me a clue. 

Still, it would be months before I understood that projection must have been the issue. As the outsider and without a genuine root connection between us I was vulnerable to taking on whatever qualities my friend could not own. Whatever had been pinned on me (like the donkey?) belonged to him and not me. My part in all this was that I accorded him honesty (as someone who would want to work out any differences that might rise between us as he had told me so many times). When an actual conflict arose silence and deception reigned. Obviously, I expected more than he could give.

Deeply depressed, I took to the forest embracing a flowing river and a plethora of plants along with many old trees, and eventually began to heal from this latest trauma. How many times had I been here before? 

 My sick passionflower mysteriously recovered.

This fall when I brought my passionflower in the house it was healthy and so full of blossoms that for weeks I was submerged in scent! I felt such relief because I was finally grounded – honoring the mystery that permeated this relationship – When my plant next spoke I would be paying close attention. We were linked beyond space- time through the miracle of embodiment. This plant had become the sister I never had.

Last fall I met a woman that is in her late 40’s who offered to help me if I ran out of wood this winter. I stack it on the porch because I can no longer bring it down by wheelbarrow in the snow. She just called to ask me when I’d like her to come over again.

The last time she visited in late December she asked about my passionflowers, and when I showed her a blossom she said, “I love all plants; my house is full of them.” I had finally learned my lesson. This time I let the passionflower make the decision. Yes, my green friend gestured with one of her spiraling tendrils.  This woman would care for my beloved like I would. 

After the visit I promptly clipped a cutting and put it in water.

 Even though it was December the month of lowest light and the worst time of the year to take a cutting, it sprouted a root within a week!

Postscript: I can’t remember when I learned that the actual flower on a passionflower vine was called “the crown of thorns” but the naming stuck after I heard it. Apparently priests in the late 1500’s gave the passionflower this name because it reminded them of the crown of thorns that Jesus wore.

I am not running anywhere…

“ I am running into a new year” (prompt)

 I belong to an interesting writer’s group. Our moderator asks that we write from a sentence of a poem… I always write spontaneously usually as soon as the prompt arrives and I am always interested in the results. For that reason I am going to start recording these responses on my blog to keep track of them. 

 Gift from the Sea

I am not running


I am enshrouded

in winter stillness –

Silence –

participating in

the Great Rounding

of the seasons,


in my mind,

   in my heart.

 I walk a

knife edge 

of inner knowing

blurring boundaries,

perceiving as

 the naturalist* does

each serpentine curve

of my beloved river,

avoiding stones

that would block entry

to the sea.

 I am the river too.


I write the

next chapter

of our story.

We are both endangered.

But Natural Grace

offers some protection

to those who see.

Postscript on being a naturalist:

 A naturalist is a learner, someone who is of little consequence to others, especially if that person writes from personal experience. Many naturalists like me do not separate science from religion or ourselves from the rest of nature; we know that we are participating in a Great Mystery, and do not subscribe to the myth of objectivity. Our keen observations and pattern recognitions are dismissed as irrelevant by those who think they know.

Ruffed Grouse – The Last of the Wildlife?

Wildlife used to be abundant here in the hollow. Unfortunately in recent years fewer and fewer animals move through this property, or live here year round. I suspect that because this parcel of land is sandwiched between others that have been decimated by logging or clearing that the animals can’t find the refuge or necessary food they need to survive. There are other more indirect reasons like building, a shifting landscape, and climate change that are also probable factors. As a result I have turned my attention to plants and trees for most of my writing inspiration. But during the winter I still read the snow. 

I begin to snowshoe as soon as the snow is on the ground. Historically, one of my favorite winter activities has been to track the animals that are in my woods, occupying the edges of my small field, or living around my brook. This year I have been sorely disappointed. Although I am pleased not to see as many deer passing through here on their way to being fed elsewhere, I am saddened by the reality that there are so few other animals to track. I used to have a magnificent coywolf who lived around here (now these hybrids are generally considered to be wolves), but I understand that this animal was shot. I wondered why I hadn’t seen one of his distinctive large round footprints or his scat since fall. There are no coyotes. I also wonder if we aren’t in a cyclic crash that affects the rabbits and hares every ten years or so because this year there are so few scattered tracks of either. Weasels and mink are absent and these two have always made homes around the brook. 

One unpleasant exception to all this scarcity is the seemingly endless amount of squirrel tracks around the house. With winter temperatures warming red and gray squirrels no longer disappear for a period of rest. Because I have been overrun by both reds and grays I have stopped feeding my birds anywhere except on one too exposed pole that is squirrel proof some of the time. There is one gray squirrel that occasionally makes a suicidal leap from a maple limb so high up and so far from the feeder that if I hadn’t witnessed the drop I wouldn’t have believed it possible. Most of the time this magician slams into hard ground, apparently without harm. I expect this behavior to worsen with time as he teaches relatives to ‘fly’.

The one joy has been the partridge or Ruffed grouse who seem to be thriving overall. I have a young white pine forest and enough ground cedar to provide good cover; the latter also acts as a source of food. The birds eat these twigs and can digest them because they rely on a gizzard, a part of their digestive tract, where with the help of grains of dirt or sand that they swallow, are able to break down the tough cellulose fibers. There are many sources of winter food on this property. Alder, poplar, birch, willow buds and catkins are abundant as are the berries from crabapples (In the other three seasons grouse spend much of their time eating more than 100 kinds of plants, berries, other fruits, and insects).


  I have had a male grouse who drums in exactly the same place below the house each spring since I first lived here. This male can’t be responsible for the population I have now, I don’t think, but each spring I only have one drummer, so where do these other grouse come from? Are they children who have decided to stay instead of dispersing? This abundance creates a bit of a conundrum. By the way, the drumming sound is actually the result of the bird beating its wings and displaying for a female.  As the bird quickly rotates its wings forward and backward, air rushes in beneath the wings creating a miniature vacuum that generates a deep, thumping sound wave that carries up to a quarter of a mile.

 Although in a few years the pines will be too big to support a robust partridge population at the moment I have a perfect ecological niche for these birds. I also have small brush piles in a number of places that they appreciate. Last summer one grouse nested just behind the fence in one pile that I separated into others so the brush would decompose more efficiently. The chicks were making short flights five days after they were born, fully clothed in feathered fluff. All summer I watched the mother take her brood through the high grass to reach the brook for bathing. When I met her early in the morning with her miniature adults she seemed unafraid in my presence. In early August, the last time I saw her with her brood, the chicks had matured and were about almost as big as their mother. She had lost three and still had five in tow. In general it is unusual for a grouse to end up with more than three chicks in all because of predation. Although this grouse apparently perceived that I was no threat to her young, if I come upon one in the woods the mother will attempt to protect her chicks by distracting me with a broken wing story. By the end of the summer the young would be as big as their mother and I knew the little family was supposed to disperse before too long.

 Because I have crabapple trees with berries I see the greatest number of grouse in the fall perching on these tree branches around the house, gulping down berries as fast as they can. Just a few days ago I lost what I believe was a young grouse to a goshawk (whose confidence around being so visible the middle of the day under open skies probably betrayed his youth and inexperience). This predator regularly hunts here. I had photographed the grouse around noon one day sitting in one tree that still had a few berries on it. It is an astonishing sight to see a bird dressed in burnt sienna, ochre, mole brown, buff that has barred tail feathers dipped in black ink. The bird’s ability to camouflage itself in plain sight was quite bewildering but apparently not good enough because later loose feathers told the tale. S/he was plucked from the tree and dropped, apparently by accident, by the goshawk, attempted to escape and was caught again. The end of the story was written in the snow. Two days passed – no grouse – and then to my great delight another grouse arrived in the deepening dusk gobbling down tiny bird-like birch seeds in front of my window. It took a moment to realize that the partridge was also pecking at the dirt in the one place where the ground stays bare and some wild celandine rosettes lay frozen (these birds can tolerate very bitter and sometimes toxic plants). 

After the grouse disappeared into the pine forest I went out with a flashlight to see if the bird left tracks. The light splintered like bits of quartz, but I couldn’t see one footprint. Grouse grow projections on their feet in the fall that act like snowshoes making it easy for them to walk in all but the fluffiest or wettest snow without discernable footprints and this snow had a crust (In the spring they shed these pectinations). I have also seen as many as three grouse foraging together in the deciduous trees behind the cabin, no doubt because so many birch seeds fall in these places.

One problem grouse have is that they are don’t store fat efficiently. This means they must eat large amounts of food daily, at dawn and dusk (hopefully). In 20 minutes an adult partridge can swallow enough food to make it through the day. Each bird has a crop, which is an extended portion of the esophagus that acts as a storage chamber for consumed food. With a loaded crop, the grouse flies to a protected area, where it can safely digest its meal. As previously mentioned these birds are most vulnerable to predators while feeding on berries or the buds of leafless trees. Red-tailed hawks and great-horned owls are other aerial predators that kill them but I don’t have owls anymore and most hawks want more open space than I have here. So the wily goshawk is the problem. On the ground foxes, coyotes, and fishers are threats, but as far as I can tell I have none of these animals around here either. Ruffed grouse are the number one game bird hunted in Maine, although their numbers have dropped in other states as much as 60 percent. This downhill trend worries me.    

When it comes to winter cold grouse know how to keep warm. They develop special feathers that extend down their beaks, covering nostrils, which allow the birds to breathe in warmer air. Ruffed grouse also have feathers partially covering and insulating their legs.

Maybe the most creative adaptation is that grouse have is the ability to hide out under deep snow and even build tunnels! With no snow, or just a few inches of it, the birds are likely to seek protection in conifer stands. So far this year the ones I flush on my pine paths are hiding in the upper boughs of the thick pines, well protected. If the snow is soft and a foot or more deep, grouse may decide to spend the night in an insulated, air-filled snow tunnel. Ruffed grouse build this tunnel by first plunging from a tree into the snow. Then with wings and feet grouse extend their tunnels, sometimes to as much as 10 feet! In previous years when I have been snowshoeing a grouse will suddenly explode out of the snow, always startling me in the process even though I have been through this routine so many times.

Every day I find myself waiting for a grouse to arrive at dusk along with the cardinals. Now I nervously follow the grouse from window to window scanning the sky for predators, which is ridiculous I know. Even though it’s almost dark the birds stand out so starkly against the snow. I just don’t want to lose another one. The partridges may be the only wild friends I make this winter, and besides, as birds I have the greatest admiration for them.

Aldo Leopold once wrote, “The autumn landscape in the North Woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a Ruffed grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.

Amen to that.