Refuge: May Eve

I cross an invisible threshold after I open the silver gate. My key opens the door to a forest woven from Nature’s Grace. 


The earth is carpeted with needles and mosses, a family of elegant hemlocks open their arms to the sky with a trust I envy. Rain will continue to bathe dry needles green. Roots will be nourished by the river’s flow. 

The silence of this hemlock forest permeates my bones; spreading boughs create stained glass light. All these trees may have germinated roughly around the same time judging by their size. Relatives everywhere. Hemlocks are monoecious, that is, they have male and female flowers on the same tree. Males develop globular pollen packets and after pollination gently scalloped female cones are formed; a pale brown they cascade earthward from the tips of bowed branches. I look for signs of the old ‘mother’ trees, both male and female, who once gave birth to this fragrant forest full of terpenes, and found none. Left alone to thrive, hemlocks are the redwoods of the east, living 500 years or more so traces of the old ones have probably become soil. I place my hands on one ribbed trunk and peer skyward into the blue remembering Richard Power’s words. “If your minds were only a slightly greener thing we would drown you in meaning”. Trees have survived five mass extinctions and are 400 million years old. They will endure, although perhaps not in their present forms

 I am immeasurably comforted by this knowledge. On my way here I witnessed more tree destruction. Thousands hacked to the ground, roots ripped away, soil ruined, beneficent microbes murdered, mycelial skin torn to shreds. A mindless travesty. Only dead soldiers remain waiting to be trucked to the mill. 

 But not here. I listen and can hear nothing but the rivers flow – water over stone – an ancient rumbling low – pitched sound – music that preceded life as we know it. Perhaps this is why my body becomes the receiver it’s meant to be when I come to this place; I am channeling creation.

 Below me, huge granite glacial boulders rise up out of the choppy water like whales sounding through the trees. Nature stitches herself into a living tapestry, growing, decaying, changing always, in the service of life. How comforting it is to be in such presence. A silent thank you rises into moist cool air from my grateful heart.

I pick my way gingerly down the steep mossy bank to the river. This slow descent allows me to examine rugged roots clinging to the slope. I note the plethora of new hemlock seedlings that are taking root in rich duff. Dr. Suzanne Simard’s studies were the first to demonstrate that seedlings are nourished by  ‘elders’ who also favor their own kin. Balsam saplings are in abundance too.

A phoebe is hidden somewhere in a tangle of deciduous trees further up the hill alerting me to his presence with a sweet repetitive call … I look around not expecting to find him and discover a nest instead. Ah, avian companions soon to become family.

I force myself to look for wooly adelgid, the Asian aphid – like insect that is spreading through Maine’s hemlocks. I read that quarantine does not extend to our area (4/23/22) although the disease has spread as far west as Minot. Has anyone taken the time to examine our hemlocks? My neighbor in Bryant Pond, whose forest has been decimated by the logging machine, has hemlocks covered in white cotton. Nearby, mine seem healthy for now but for how long? There is no cure for this disease. However, recent studies have shown that hemlocks’ terpene production increases with adelgid infestation and may provide some natural defense to this destructive insect as long as the trees are growing close together like they are here.

 I recently made a trip to coastal Maine where all the hemlocks are being cut down as a result of insect infestation. Warmer temperatures on the coast may have hastened the tree’s demise. I also question whether or not general forest health might reduce or at least slow the spread of this disease. My little patch of hemlock forest (along with the other trees) has been left alone for 40 some years, and so far no infestation.

In this cathedral it is the same. Healthy hemlocks everywhere. These stately trees may be older than mine, they are surely bigger, but because hemlocks can remain understory trees for so many years before enough light opens up to let them grow it is hard to know the age of any of them. Their primary strategy for long-term survival is their ability to adapt to low light. And because the trunks split unevenly, foresters had no use for them until recently. Today hemlock are logged along with the rest and used for mulch by gardeners who spread woolly adelgid unknowingly (or carelessly) around their plants. The chips are also compressed to feed polluting pellet stoves, so now hemlock trees are taken along with the rest. “This endless gift of a place is going away.” Power’s words haunt me.

Scrambling up the hill I turn my attention to the mosses. Robin Wall Kimmerer tells us that 450 million years ago mosses climbed out of a sea of green algae onto dry land; they are the ‘mothers’ of all terrestrial green plants including trees! Without roots or a vascular (fluid carrying) system mosses first attached themselves to stone by rhizoids, clinging to any crevice that held a drop of moisture. As they photosynthesized they changed the composition of the atmosphere. Most remarkable, mosses have survived five extinctions too; they are older than trees, but in their case they kept the same shapes! 450 million years and mosses look the same as they did when they first became terrestrial. I am awestruck. 

Today we have an impressive 1200 – 1700 (some sources say 2200,) moss species some of which inhabit every continent including the Antarctic. Mosses absorb water and nutrients directly and evenly through their diminutive leaves like a sponge, and during dry spells they stop photosynthesizing. They have two different growth habits. Acrocarpous mosses grow upright almost like miniature conifer trees and their spore producing capsules arise at the end of their stems. Pleurocarpous mosses have branching stems and often create dense mats on the ground. Their sporophytes arise from the side of stems. 

As I look around me I see a dense grayish green mat that stretches out under the hemlocks and pines covering relatively level ground, rocks, and decaying logs. I think this carpet might be brocade moss, a fast spreading feather moss. Mosses are usually found in areas where there is some moisture (although they are the first colonizers of disturbed land and you can also find some growing in cracks of concrete city streets!). Most also thrive in poor or sandy substrate. Amazingly, some species can even remove impurities from the soil.

 Here at Refuge mosses act like a nursery. Wintergreen, partridgeberry, balsam and hemlock seedlings are thriving along with club and other mosses all tucked in the moisture capturing rug. I promise myself once again that I will devote this summer to learning about each of the mosses I find here and in this general area – an ambitious undertaking I am learning from the research I have already begun.

Next I wander over to an imaginary animal that behaves like a granite boulder. Examining one flank I note the presence of lichens, some are rosettes, others sprawl unevenly over the surface of gray rock. Lichens are ancient beings that are 250 million years old; each one is composed of both an alga and fungus, sometimes bacteria are included in the mix. One photosynthesizes, the other provides purchase, both make up one organism. In some places tiny oval clumps of forest green velvet cling tenaciously to small indentations in mica flecked rock. This strange animal is telling me an ancient glacial story. I run my hand over the nubbly granite imagining a perilous journey to reach this perfect resting place. Where did it come from as it tumbled here under the ice sheet?

I peer at dampened leaves bunched together on the ground listening to papery beech whose old leaves rattle like skeletons on in a light breeze. Gazing around me I note other beech, red oak, birch, maple, a few blueberry bushes, all deciduous trees/shrubs that drop their leaves in late fall except for the stubborn beech. During the summer an emerald leafy canopy will help the hemlocks and pines keep this place cool while negative ions rise out of rushing waters purifying already pristine air…

Dusk brings in a chill and a few drops of rain. It’s time to leave. I’ve been time traveling all afternoon, under the spell of deep time. I say goodbye to the trees, the boulder, my companion the phoebe, and begin my journey home.

April, month of Becoming

I am listening to the phoebe who is courting his mate outside my window. A male cardinal is trilling from a nearby white pine, and a white crowned sparrow serenades me at dusk. Gray – green bloodroot spikes break ground, twinning trillium unfurl, and frigid mountain waters flow free of ice.

April is the month of “Becoming”.  I see my first brush footed butterfly, spot wild bees sipping crocus nectar, marvel over the woodcock’s spiraling sky dance, listen for the first croaking frogs, wood ducks, honor the decision I made to stay on Earth Day as three turkeys display at the door … acknowledging this month of deep poignancy and remembrance, I commit to the unknown.

 Today is my father’s birthday. This morning I walked down to the brook to see the spot where I buried his ashes marking moist earth with a granite stone.


 My dad has been dead for many years now but he is very much present to me because he was the one who valued family relationships, was capable of forgiveness, and harbored deep feeling. He also persevered. I remember too that once he flew like the woodcock does, high into the sky…

Lily b came to me this month 31 years ago…

I cherish the ground birds who make their homes here. Doves, Grouse, Turkeys and especially the Woodcocks remind me that I am my father’s daughter – all of us belong to the earth but we can also fly.

Sky Dancer

The highpoint of this spring came at dusk one night early in April. “Peet peet,” the repetitive distinctive nasal cry was coming from somewhere inside the young pine forest. Peering into the scrub I saw nothing but heard more sounds I couldn’t quite identify. Then more peets from two different places. Both sounded like they were coming from the edges of the field. So there were three males. How I longed for x –ray eyes. My ears pierced the dusk as I raised my head to the balsam fir-lined horizon in hopeful anticipation. There he was! The whishing, whirring of wings caught my eye stopping time as the bird spiraled up into the deep blue soaring higher and higher. I could hear what sounded like music and knew that these twittering sounds were actually made by specially modified wing feathers during this incredible ‘sky dance’. I also thought I heard chirping. A rapid and steep descent followed, and this bird landed at the edge of my small field (but not in either of the spots where the two other males had peeted earlier). There had to be a female hidden here somewhere. I couldn’t help wondering if she would choose this sky dancing male for a mate, or if the other two would dance for her too. What qualities were being exhibited by the sky dance? 

I was so excited; the American Woodcock was back! In those precious moments I felt as if all was right with the world. Transported, I soaked in wild grace, unwilling to let it go. I stayed rooted to the same spot until darkness cast her velvet night shadow over the wet meadow before returning to the house.

Every spring I used to listen for these night sounds until about five years ago when my forays at dusk left me lonely. The woodcocks must have moved on. 

Audubon reminded me that these birds had been declining for about the last 50 years; their projections related to climate change suggest that about 54 percent of the woodcock’s range has or will be lost, and so like so many adjustments I’ve had to make to shrinking nature I resigned myself to not hearing or seeing the American woodcock’s amazing sky dance again. Of those birds that remained many were apparently moving north. Woodcocks breed in the North Country and migrate south in the winter flying in small groups at night traveling up to 1,000 miles during their spring and fall migrations. I simply couldn’t comprehend that these birds were still being hunted across the United States during the fall. Wasn’t there some way we could all work together –hunters and non hunters alike – to protect vulnerable birds and animals that are at risk?

I knew that I had the perfect habitat for Woodcocks with my small field, young pine and deciduous forest, scrub and lots of moist soil around the brook for foraging, so I felt the loss of these birds acutely despite my relentless attempts to accept yet another unwelcome change.

I have never seen a woodcock up close but the pictures of these birds fascinate me. They are incredibly beautiful creatures with feathers of every conceivable earthen hue so unless one flushes a feeding bird by accident, (unlikely, I would think with those piercing eyes) or surprises one sitting on a nest, I think the chances of seeing one are slim.

 I have no problem associating them with the sandpiper family, having lived on the coast for half my life. They are positively round short -legged birds that hide in damp forests by day using their (up to) three-inch bills to probe the ground for earthworms. Insects, especially beetle larvae, spiders, snails and other invertebrates become tasty tid-bits and some plant material – seeds, edges and the like are also part of their diet. The tips of their bills are sensitive and flexible, the lower third is packed with nerve endings that help the woodcocks sense their prey. They can also open the upper tip of their bills underground to help capture their food. While foraging they often rock back and forth. Some scientists believe that this vibration disturbs earthworms and gets them moving. It has also been hypothesized that the woodcock can actually hear underground sounds, an idea that doesn’t seem far-fetched to me. Woodcock eyes are set far back on their heads giving them a comical look but this adaptation allows them to keep watch for danger as they search for food.

After mating occurs the female is on her own. She nests on the ground frequently around the edges of overgrown fields where there are plenty of leaves, or in mixed woods. A few eggs are laid  (they split lengthwise) and within three weeks the downy young are born. They are ready to leave the nest after a few hours. Mother hens chirp quietly to their nestlings. If a predator is in the area the female will attempt to distract it with a broken wing display. The young begin to probe for food almost immediately and make short flights at two weeks. By the time they are 5 weeks old the chicks are independent.

In one of the sources I consulted I read that during moonlit nights these sky dances may continue for hours. You can be sure that I will be returning to the field later on this week as the moon waxes full, and then again in May.

Usnea, Nature’s Medicine

Usnea, a Powerful Medicinal Friend


It is almost the middle of April and I have finally lost most of the snow and ice that lingers on the north face of this land. Many complain of the cold but April has consistently been a capricious month, and I find this weather reassuring, imagining that climate change is not underway even though I know better. Under the pines and spruce I have discovered large clumps of Usnea everywhere I wander – more than I have ever seen any other year. I’m not sure why this seems to be the case. Is there some vulnerability that is affecting the organism’s ability to attach itself securely to branches? I am full of unanswered questions… We have, of course, had harsh winter winds but no more than usual, and because the ground is still so moist in most places, Usnea has a luminous sage green cast to it. When I pick up a clump it feels soft and sponge –like to the touch. A few days ago I made a mosaic out of all the different lichens I collected, just for fun…

 Two days of rain and one morning of crisped northwest wind and today I discover all lichens are suddenly receding from view replaced by incandescent mosses. This amazing spring transition occurred in two days!  The best lichen gathering season is almost over, but if the discerning eye peers into spruce and pine, Usnea can be found nestled amongst high branches. Look below; there are still plenty of clumps on the ground. 


dripping Usnea from my old spruce

When I first came here I felI in love with a large ‘dying spruce’ that dripped Usnea from every branch. I had no idea then, that almost forty years later, that same tree would still be standing photosynthesizing away with Usnea hugging its branches, casting threadlike tendrils in every direction. I find this lichen beautiful, each clump moving with its delicate thread like fingers…All are unique. Yesterday while meandering through thick mist acclaimed author and environmental activist Terry Tempest Williams words suddenly materialized out of thin air as I picked up yet another piece of this lichen. “Beauty is not a luxury. It is a strategy for survival”.

Usnea seems to gravitate to fruit trees and in the upper branches of some of mine Usnea grows profusely. It can also be found on the bark of a few hardwood trees, but if you want to gather some slip into a pine forest if you can find one that has been left alone. 

Remember, that like all other lichens, Usnea is composed of two organisms and there is a symbiotic relationship between the two – fungus and alga. Usnea can be easily identified by gently pulling the strands in two. As the alga separates it reveals a white thread (the fungus) in the middle and this thread is stretchy. Usnea is especially common around here probably because it loves a lot of moisture. The old spruce with her sage robe of Usnea is growing right next to the brook, and I have a lot of other lowland areas on this property. The best time to collect Usnea is on wet gray days in March or April because that’s when Usnea shines. One morning of sun and wind turns Usnea (like other lichens) brittle and dull. This shriveling protects the algae from desiccation, so that when conditions are right the organism will photosynthesize again. It is amazing to me how much harder it was for me to see any lichen on this windy sunny morning.

this piece fell into a vernal pool – it was floating on the surface

This astonishing organism is quite common in some areas in the US and in Europe but as mentioned before it needs moisture, so foraging in a desert will probably not yield results. Not much research has been done on this lichen to find out how sensitive it is to air pollution. An Indigenous friend of mine in Northern New Mexico found some in Ponderora pines probably growing at a high elevation.

 Usnea contains potent antibiotics that can be used in an emergency to stem the flow of blood from a wound. It also has antiviral properties. Useful to know if you spend time in the forest. Usnea is easily tinctured to create a powerful immune system tonic, or one that targets respiratory problems – bronchitis, strep throat, colds and flu in particular. If you suffer from sinus infections like I do it can be especially helpful. Anyone with a depressed immune system will find this organism a useful support.

Because a broken foot left me unable to traverse the paths in my woods this winter I am especially grateful for the changing season. I had planned to gather Usnea late this winter and couldn’t do so until recently, when the ice finally receded. As I saw today, from now on all lichens are going to become harder to see as the greening season approaches. If you wild craft this lichen please do so responsibly. This morning I brought home a whole branch that was covered with Usnea. There are plenty of tree limbs lying on the ground ripe for foraging should that be your inclination.

Little Brown Creeper

Little Brown Creeper

(Audubon photo)


up white pine

feathered bark

curved bill

clawed feet

seconds later


cerulean blue




Every spring a pair of brown creepers visit me briefly and disappear within days – they seek old forests for nesting – facing the unknown they are moving north searching for those ancient trees that still speak.

Brown creepers need mature trees to breed and Maine has none and Canada is cutting all trees twice as fast as the US. Logging mature trees has become an atrocity. Where are these birds supposed to go to raise their young? 



Yesterday, rain, fog and mist lifted the snow into sweet moisture – laden air. 

 This morning the skin of the earth turns white and wild winds howl.

I rest in peace.

 A little gray titmouse wakes me up.

Spring weather is “bewildering”.

 The origin of the word bewilder helps explain why I find these radical changes so comforting. 

 The word bewilder is a combination of two words  “thoroughly,” and “wilder”…to lure into the wild.

Perhaps to return to the Source.

 The weather is still wild….

 Although Earth’s wilderness is fragmented to such an extent that it doesn’t exist anymore at the moment, except as weather, it lives on as potential.

 Without human interference this pulsing blue –green planet spinning through dark space is more than capable of rewilding herself.

  This is Resurrection.