Becoming Amphibian



Scientist Rupert Sheldrake theorizes that memory is inherent in nature and that all natural systems inherit a collective and cumulative memory from all previous members of their kind, regardless of space-time  constraints. All nature contributes to the growth of this collective and cumulative memory. Habits are also inherent in all living organisms; Nature is not fixed – it is always evolving. Memory is inherited from those who have gone before. Genes are inherited, along with the habits of nature; including developmental habits like the growth of form. Genes code for protein, memory codes for form. Each natural system has its own morphic (bodily) field that helps shape its form and behavior, and each is nested in another hierarchy. There are familial, cultural, mythological, spiritual, fields all of which interpenetrate each other.

 For example there is a biological field for pear trees that is nested in a deciduous tree field, that is nested a field containing all trees that is nested in an environmental field etc. Each species taps into all these fields for information in order to grow and develop beginning with tapping into the field of one’s own immediate kin for better or worse. For example there are familial social fields that are tapped into help develop certain behaviors in individuals belonging to the same human family. This way of thinking explains how genius runs in human families or how destructive behaviors/patterns are passed on intergenerationally. Morphic resonance is the process by which the past becomes present… the future runs backward into the present as well. The biggest criticism of this theory comes from the fact that it appears to violate space-time constraints. Time flows both backwards and forwards meeting in the present.

If we look at indigenous way of being in the world we see Rupert’s theory in practice. Indigenous peoples believe that it is possible to contact the ancestors, to bring them forth into the present, as well as being able to access future in the present moment. Time is fluid – running backwards and forwards into the now. There is no separation between the three. All can occur at once.

In the Dine (Navajo) universe the words used in greeting a person reveal this way of being in the world. ‘I greet you from the sky to the ground and from everything in between’ The Earth is always included because it is fundamental to the way Indigenous peoples view the land they embrace as their context and creator.

 Visceral (embodied) memories transport us instantly into Now, collapsing everything except the moment. Each spring when I first hear a wood frog croak I am instantly transported to his watery domain. Keeping ourselves present to ‘what is’ has exactly the same effect unless ‘what is’ becomes unbearable intruding upon the present. Just now this is my problem because I can’t escape my own dread – the fear of impending violence…Violence begets Violence.

Miraculous Moss



Recently I transplanted some small cedar trees in a cedar garden. The purpose of this planting was to help seedlings survive the winter grazing. Cedars are second successional trees that grow slowly and we have so many deer that these little seedlings often don’t make it to adulthood, so I am intervening on their behalf.


After transplanting I carefully gathered a small amount of the top layer of Sphagnum moss to put around the base of the tiny trees to help keep the moisture in while the seedlings are rooting in rich veins of mycelium. In the process I thought about how some species of Sphagnum moss can hold up to 20 times their dry weight in water – a fantastic attribute.


Mosses in general are small non – vascular plants called Bryophytes, probably the first green plants to grow on land. They commonly grow close together in clumps or mats in damp or shady locations. They do not have flowers or seeds, and their simple leaves cover thin wiry stems. They produce spore capsules that are borne aloft on thin stalks.


On this property I have many kinds of moss including Sphagnum moss and yesterday as soon as the rain began I wandered around here taking deep pleasure out of the almost instant greening after such a dry summer. All mosses are designed to take in water almost instantly, it hadn’t been raining 15 minutes before the mosses that line my paths turned a brilliant emerald green. If moss gets too dry it stops photosynthesizing and although it’s too shaded here for that to happen I have noticed the graying out color of thirsty moss. Sphagnum moss is pale green when it has adequate water but as it dries out it turns almost a wheat color.

I remember being taught as a child that Sphagnum moss could be used on any cut or wound that I got while in the woods. Sphagnum does have antiseptic properties. Sphagnum “bandages” produce sterile environments by keeping the pH level around the wound low, and inhibiting the growth of bacteria. The plant’s cell walls are composed of special sugar molecules that create an electrochemical halo around all of the cells, with the result that the cell walls end up being negatively charged. Negative charges attract positively charged nutrient ions like potassium, sodium and calcium to the sphagnum. As the moss soaks up all the negatively charged nutrients in the soil, it releases positively charged ions that make the environment around it acidic.

As long as the peat underneath the living moss is not disturbed, the peat acts like a sponge enabling the  regrowth of Sphagnum. Peat – lands full of sphagnum and other mosses spend thousands of years accumulating carbon in their underground layers. If they defrost or dry out too much carbon leaks out into the atmosphere. The practice of draining sphagnum wetlands for agricultural, residential or commercial use raises deep concern. Today some measures are being taken to protect these bogs but scientists fear that bogs and swamplands could be drained or negatively impacted by agriculture and industry, or that too much peat will be used for biofuel.

Besides their role in global climate change, peat lands are rich ecosystems in their own right, boasting rare species like carnivorous plants. Sphagnum and the peat layer beneath are really important pockets of biodiversity. During the summer I kayak in North Pond to Sphagnum bogs to see the delicate orchids, carnivorous sun-dews and other plants that only grow in such specialized areas.


Peat moss is actually the dead, decayed plant matter of Sphagnum moss that settles at the bottom of the sphagnum bogs. In its natural setting, peat can help in flood mitigation, while in the long term peat forms coal. Anaerobic, acidic Sphagnum bogs are known to preserve mammalian bodies for millennia.


There are over 350 species of sphagnum moss, but most of the varieties harvested for sphagnum moss products grow in wetlands of the northern hemisphere primarily in Canada, Michigan, Ireland and Scotland, but we have it here in Maine too.


One fascinating activity is to hike through our diverse woodlands looking for different types of mosses. If you are interested in finding sphagnum moss search out boggy areas with some diffused sunlight. But please remember that if you wild – craft the moss only take small amounts from the top layer in different areas to preserve sphagnum diversity.

Plants, Animals, People and Place




Recently I wrote three articles that addressed the relationship living beings have with place … One article addressed the possible advantages of working with herbs that grew locally as opposed to using herbs and commercial tinctures from elsewhere. Another focused on the perils of re-locating wild animals from one place to another. The third was a narrative in which I discuss what happened to me when I thought I could leave my land, land that I belong to, in order to move to the desert permanently.


The common denominator between the three – the relationship that plants, animals, and (some) people have with place fascinates me because it demonstrates  the necessity of interconnection.


In the article on herbs I discuss the scientific notion that wild plants growing in one place develop immunities that may also help protect others besides their own kind from disease because they share the same geographical area- that is plants, animals, people may all benefit. Wild plants are very particular about the places they live. If you walk through a forest it will become immediately apparent that some plants cluster together in one area and others don’t grow there at all. It is a well-known fact that transplanting wild plants almost always results in failure because the plants wither and die. One reason for this is because wild plants have very complex relationships with the underground fungal network. In other words there is an intimate reciprocal relationship between plants and place.


Now lets look at animals.  Around here all the wild animals that visit me have homes nearby. Attempting to remove animals from their territories – re –locating them usually ends in disaster. For example, black bears who are relocated attempt to return to their home ranges even if they are taken hundreds of miles away and even if they are males whose territories are more fluid and less well defined than the smaller territories of females. Rattlesnakes that are re – located attempted to return to their homes even though more than half of the snakes die en route. Scientific research demonstrates the same pattern occurs with every animal that has ever been studied. Animals, then, also have an intimate reciprocal relationship with place.


When I examine what happens with humans the story becomes more complicated. The Indigenous peoples of this land believed that all nature was sentient and all species were related. Respectful reciprocal relationship with all species was a way of life.


When Europeans arrived they had no concept of living in a reciprocal relationship with nature. Nature was a resource to be used. The People who lived here were expendable. Consequently, after being infected by diseases, raped, murdered etc. those who were left were ripped away from the land that sustained them and herded onto reservations. To this day, Indigenous people live on foreign soil suffering from poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction, etc., all symptoms of what I would argue is “soul loss”. The forced separation of the Forgotten Ones from their ancestral lands has destroyed their way of life. The Invisible First People of this country once had an intimate reciprocal relationship with place, just as animals and plants do.


The colonists had no use for land except as a commodity. Instead of developing a relationship with place, these immigrants rid themselves of the original peoples, killed the animals, slaughtered billions of trees, imposed foreign agricultural practices and bent the fertile earth to their will while claiming Native land as their own. So much blood spilled. Eventually these foreigners destroyed most of what once was a wild and beautiful country without ever taking responsibility for what they had done. We would not be facing a sixth extinction if the European invaders had ever developed a respectful reciprocal relationship with this land.


My personal journey began almost forty years ago when I stepped out of the car in pouring rain and fog onto land that would become my home; almost in a trance state I followed the sound of water to peer down at an overflowing brook. When an eight-point buck with velvet antlers stared up at me I shivered, even before I heard a voice. “You belong here”. Three months later the property became mine. From the beginning my relationship with place carried a peculiar charge.  First, I became apprenticed to animals and plants. One day while in the meadow gathering blueberries the entire field rose up around me enfolding me in an invisible embrace. I was Loved! To be cared about by this natural force that I later named the Mountain Mother changed me irrevocably.


And yet, many years later I still made the choice to go to the desert to escape harsh winters. I thought because I was in my seventies that I was too old to stay here alone. I also thought I could escape tree slaughter and family pain. Once again it was the powers of place that helped clear up my confusion. I developed a relationship with a river and wetland that helped me to see that I was forced to walk on air in the desert because I had created a terrible split between what I thought I needed and the land my body longed for. I had not only created a split in myself, but my home suffered serious foundation problems in my absence. What I learned was that to belong to place means that I am attached by invisible cords to a piece of land that cannot be severed. This land and I are in intimate relationship and both of us become ill when we are separated.


If animals, plants and people need an intimate relationship with land to survive/thrive when we split away from the earth we put ourselves in deep peril. We need these reciprocal relationships for our mental, emotional, spiritual, bodily health.  Perhaps, less obvious to some, is that the land needs us too. S/he needs to be respected, appreciated, and loved. Most of all S/he needs the freedom to teach us how to live. And she can’t model this behavior if we make her invisible. Earth is our context; without access to her body we flounder. We are the youngest species on the planet, and desperately in need of re-attaching ourselves to the earth so that she can once again be heard.


A sudden movement caused me to look up from this writing…I see the young buck munching on an apple just as the sun rises over the mountain. The apple tree is suffused in gold and the sweet breath of the forest reminds me once again that I belong…

Going Under



In Abiquiu New Mexico I walked down to the river and Bosque (wetland) communing with trees, leaving in the dark and returning before dawn every morning. Red Willow River is a tributary of the Rio Grande. I didn’t need to see; my feet knew the path by heart, so I was free to let my other senses take precedence. Listening to the sound of my feet, the first bird song, I moved into a still place, while first light gathered itself around me like a luminous cloak under the cottonwood trees. On my return the curves of the river and the dazzling painted sky held my rapt attention  … I didn’t realize for a long time that this daily meander was actually a walking meditation that helped stabilize me in a place that I loved but could not call home.


In the mystical magical twilight, if the conditions were right, I witnessed the mist rise over the river and whenever this happened it seemed to me that I ‘sensed’ a figure emerging from that cloud… this apparent apparition never ceased to pull me into her ‘field’. The woman was always weeping and I called her La Llorona, believing that she wept for the Earth, my precious Earth, because her animals and trees and plants were dying. Extinction was concrete reality, a daily occurrence. Cultural denial made it impossible for me to share my grief, but here, with La Llorona, I was witnessed and free to mourn…


The story of La Llorona is told throughout the Southwest and when I first heard it I knew it was a lie.


(see my blog for my interpretation of the legend


According to the Spaniards, La Llorona was a young woman who was supposed to have murdered her children in a fit of rage because her lover abandoned her. She could be heard weeping at the river at night, searching for the dead children she abandoned. She was reputed to be a threat to any child left alone at night.


Recently I learned that the real story of La Llorona had historical beginnings that began about ten years before the Spanish conquest as omens experienced by the Indigenous Mexica (Aztecs).


The earliest texts that mention La Llorona are located in the twelve books of the Florentine Codex. The first books were written in 1577 but can be dated earlier. Book twelve was originally written in the Nahuatl language in 1755 and here Native elders stated that ten years prior to the arrival of the Spaniards the Mexica began to witness a series of omens. The prophecies signaled the arrival of the Spaniards and the downfall of Tenochtitlan. In the texts a woman is heard crying and screaming at night crying “my children, we now have to leave… where shall I take you… or more ominously, my beloved children I am going to leave you now.” Two of these books indicate that the woman crying at night was the goddess Cihuacoatl whose name means “Serpent Woman”. In two texts the woman has a head of a woman with horns and develops a serpent’s body. After the conquest of Mexico one book makes the terrifying assertion that the goddess ate a child in her crib. The twisted version of the story of La Llarona as it is still told today also began after the Spanish conquest.


That La LLorona is a compassionate grieving Mother goddess figure seemed obvious to me when I first heard the Spanish rendition. I immediately thought of Our Lady of Sorrows, the Catholic Mary figure who is also a goddess. Guadalupe also came to mind.*


My personal experiences with La Llorona have moved this goddess beyond the original story. It is absolutely real to me that today this figure still appears out of the waters and is mourning the slaughtered trees, plants, animals, – the other children of the Earth (I have experienced her presence here in Maine by my brook).


There is a Pueblo belief that the Rio Grande and its tributaries is guarded by a Horned Serpent, Avanyu, whose petroglyphs and pictographs adorn canyon walls and rock outcroppings in the area. This Serpent of the Waters is intimately associated with rains and each spring the Pueblos hold a Snake Dance to call down the waters from the Cloud People.


Living in Abiquiu brought me face to face with what happens in severe drought. Desertification is occurring; the Cottonwoods and many other plants are dying. It was/is a terrifying reality to witness firsthand the ravages of a land that has already caught Fire. Avanyu seems to have withdrawn ‘his’ protection. He is considered to be a male figure to the Pueblo people and others but I see Avanyu as the Serpent Goddess, once again stripped of her female powers. These powers include precognition/ second sight and are experienced through the body through dreaming or through our senses even if they appear as ‘thought’.


Mythologically, the serpent has been consistently associated with the Life Force, the body – ie. embodiment.  Creation and Destruction. Christianity turned the serpent into the “evil” one who, of course was female and whose body was the source of shame and misery.


I conclude with a dream I had last November when Avanyu, as a GIANT python type snake appeared in the Rio Grande. This serpent was so enormous that all the river water disappeared underneath it and it was coming towards us radiating all the colors of the rainbow – its body was pulsing with intensity. In the dream I was terrified and then struck dumb with fear recognizing that some new unknown Collective threat was coming … Covid was on its way.


*Guadalupe or Tonantzin/multi-valenced Earth goddess  originally belonging to Aztec people first appeared on a hill outside of Mexico city ten years after the Spanish Conquest of the Mexica in 1531. She was brown skinned. The top priority of the time was to convert the Natuatl speaking Indigenous peoples to Christianity. Although the church attempted to Christianize her Guadalupe remains to this day a goddess belonging to the people. She is invoked as a power of social justice, for her compassion and strength, and as an image of Motherhood. I don’t think it’s coincidence that she first appeared to the native people after they had been conquered….and that according to some sources she has a serpent aspect.  As Cihuacoatl Tonantzin/Guadalupe is Serpent Woman. Creator and Destroyer.


Northern White Cedar


Just outside my window this morning…




cedar seedlings

When I first moved to the mountains almost 40 years ago I was entranced by the beautiful Northern White Cedars that seemed to grow in such abundance here. On my property I have a number of these magnificent bell shaped trees with their fan-like fronds and clusters of budded green or brown cones that are found on the newer growth in spring and fall. Since I have water all around me and I noted their penchant for moisture I thought I might have ideal habitat for them to thrive.

One year my neighbor planted a whole row of majestic cedars in front of his mother’s house, and over a period of many years I have had the pleasure of watching the saplings become large healthy trees providing shelter for  many birds. During the winter the deer continue to browse on the lower branches of the cedar, a favorite winter forage plant not just for deer but also for moose and rabbits.

After a number of years I began to notice that I no longer saw cedar seedlings popping up around fallen logs around the “mother” trees. Why weren’t the trees producing offspring? At that point I asked my neighbor if I could dig up two small trees of his and I planted these two around the house. The one closest to the house survived browsing deer; the other did not. It was a while before I made the connection between the increasing deer population and the lack of cedar seedlings. I also unwittingly contributed to this problem by feeding deer on this property, something I will certainly not be doing in the future.

The beautiful cedar I planted in my yard next to the house was totally destroyed by deer the first winter I spent in New Mexico. Last year I planted and protected a new cedar seedling in my garden but it was deliberately crushed by a rock that someone pulled out of my stone wall. Fortunately, I have a pictorial record of this egregious act so it won’t happen again.

This spring I have been on the lookout for young cedar seedlings elsewhere and finding few. I have also been talking with my neighbor about this problem. He believes that the exploding deer population is responsible for decimating the seedlings and that we are losing these trees for good. Wise in the ways of the forest, I take his words seriously especially since my own observations match his, and as a naturalist, learning from observation is what I have learned to trust.

After doing some preliminary research on cedars I discovered that indeed, the inflated deer populations are now considered the primary threat to the life of all Northern white cedars. Apparently these trees are threatened by deer in every state they grow in from Maine to Michigan.

New world cedars are not to be confused with the old world cedars of Lebanon; the latter are “true” cedars. Ours come from the Cypress family. To confuse matters further our cedars and junipers are related; the difference between the two is that new world cedars have cones; junipers have berries.

Part 2

What follows is some research on the Northern White cedar:

The literature clearly indicates that cedar prefers organic matter where the pH is neutral to basic (pH 6.0 – 8.0) and where rates of organic matter decomposition are relatively rapid. As soon as water stagnates soils become highly acidic. Chemistry and waterflow are therefore critical factors that affect cedar survival and growth.

Cedar dominated forests develop where the groundwater contains relatively high concentrations of oxygen and essential nutrients and where it moves laterally through the soil. These conditions result in finely decomposed organic matter and a high pH, both characteristics of a good cedar soil. Lateral movement of oxygen and nutrient laden water through the soil may be why cedar swamps typically occur as bands in wetlands and along lakes and streams.


Typically, cedar is found growing in association with other lowland conifer and hardwood tree species. Tamarack, balsam fir, white and black spruce and hemlock are common evergreen companions. Hardwoods like maple, black ash birch and pine are good examples of the latter.


In lowlands Cedar is typically found in small, relatively pure patches. These seem to occur in areas where the water table is at or very near the surface and is moving, such as the edge of a low ridge or along a small stream.


A common denominator in upland cedar habitats is a rich basic mineral soil with a high pH. Cedar forests are more or less confined in the uplands to soils with free calcium carbonate close to the surface.


Another common observation is that upland cedar forests invade open areas: old fields, clear-cuts, sand dunes, and limestone bluffs. These situations are, apparently, the only ones where seedling establishment is clearly the mechanism of stand regeneration.


There is evidence of genetic differentiation between upland and lowland populations. In programs of artificial regeneration, consideration should be given to the fact that local ecotypes could exist. Lowland vs. upland seed should be used to reforest the appropriate habitat.


Northern white cedar is a dependable seed producer. It bears good seed crops every 3 to 5 years, with light to medium crops in the intervening years.


However, seed viability is low, although seed production is relatively consistent year to year. Seed dispersal by wind starts in September with the majority of seed falling during autumn. Some seed is dispersed during winter. Most seed is dispersed within 50 meters of the mother tree.


Seedlings can establish on bare organic and mineral substrates, moss and downed logs in various stages of decay.


Establishment is numerically greatest on logs, but sources point out that the numbers of seedlings are not necessarily related to cedar survival because of deer browsing. It is generally agreed that an estimated 99% of the initial seedlings died by the thirteenth year.


Light in the forest understory doesn’t seem to be a factor regulating seedling establishment according to the literature. I question this statement because the few seedlings I have found seem to have access to some light, either in the morning or late afternoon during the summer, and more light off season. As I have mentioned previously, seedling establishment is definitely positively related to soil PH.


All the sources I consulted concur: The lack of seedlings and saplings in lowlands is due to browsing by the white-tailed deer. Cedar dominated lowland swamps are critical winter habitat for these animals. Small cedars die when more than 15 to20% of the foliage is removed annually. Seedlings often grow very slowly; it can take 20 years for a seedling to reach 1 meter in height. Because cedar grows slowly, seedlings are exposed to browsing pressure for a relatively long time. The only successful reports of sexual reproduction come from uplands and lowlands that are not utilized by deer.


Part 3


Cedar can and often does reproduce by layering or tree tipping. Branch layering where a branch of the parent stem transforms into a stem is the predominant type of vegetative reproduction. The presence of thick sphagnum moss facilitates the formation of new roots and branch layering. Trees can also be blown over and the lateral branches then become main stems. Vegetative reproduction via layering and blow – down appear to be major pathways for successful regeneration in the lowlands.


The notion that cedar typically occurs in the understory and eventually replaces other trees is a myth that should be eliminated. Cedar almost never grows taller any other tree simply because it grows so slowly. Cedars are capable of living a long time – up to about 500 years or more (one cedar in Ontario was dated to 900 years). Because these trees occur in the lower portion of the canopy and can live a long time a myth developed around the idea that cedar is very tolerant when it is not, at least not today.


Researchers suggest that today’s cedar swamps are very similar to those that existed in the same locations more than 150 years ago. Wind – throw is extremely common in cedar swamps and is a major form of natural disturbance. Completely and partially uprooted trees abound. When trees tip only partially, lateral branches assume dominance and the resulting trees are unusually shaped.


Today, most blow-downs encourage spruce, fir, and hardwood regeneration, or the gaps are colonized by  hardwoods and conifers Some cedar reproduction still occurs in open plaes, especially when trees are only partially uprooted and lateral branches remain beyond the reach of deer. But because there is little chance for natural reproduction to grow above the browse – line, cedar does not generally regenerate in areas that are disturbed by wind. Thus, the primary mode of natural regeneration has been eliminated by the white-tailed deer.


Another young friend of mine who is so knowledgeable about trees (and also loves cedar) that I asked him to read this article made a critical observation. He notes that in his experience most trees have a particular strength that compliments their weaknesses and wonders what quality a cedar might have (or develop) that might help them deal with deer predation. We discussed the fact that cedars produced oils that made them more attractive to deer during the winter (also true for junipers). And I wonder if one cedar strategy for long – term cedar survival might be to stop producing the chemical that deer find so tasty during the winter months…


For anyone who loves trees, especially our native cedar there are two things we can do to help address our current cedar losses. The first is to plant and be prepared to care for cedar seedlings long term providing them with adequate deer protection.


The second more unlikely possibility might be to contact the Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife folks with a request for help with this issue, even though this organization is heavily invested in maintaining an inflated deer population for hunting.


Cedar has been a valuable tree that has been used by people for millennia beginning with the Native peoples of this country. The Wabanaki named the cedar the ‘Tree of Life’ and used it to make rope, clothing, baskets canoes, poles, fences, and totem poles (west coast – red cedar). Today, in the east these trees are still used to build fence posts etc. because of their durability and natural resistance to insect damage and decay. Burning cedar during the winter, a practice I have engaged in for years, purifies the air because of the Pinenes that are present, and the intoxicating scent of the dried fronds is reason enough to gather a bough or two in the fall to dry…


I think we have taken our native cedars for granted as I once did. Surely, we need to intervene on behalf of these trees giving nature time to make necessary adjustments or we might lose them forever.

Hairy Vetch



I just picked the first violet blue flowers of the hairy vetch that was creeping along the road, its ladder like leaves following curling spirals. I noticed that a few plants had already found purchase on lupine spires; in my garden the delicate leaves and tendrils of the vine are just beginning their spiral ascent into deep green.


Here in Maine the plant begins to bloom in June and I make sure that I have some sprigs in my flower garden each year because long after deep blue is just a memory by mid-summer, hairy vetch provides my garden with blue and my fiery late summer bouquets with a delightfully deep contrast. The plant looks especially beautiful twining among a riot of colorful day lilies. I also love to watch its growth habits, the way its intriguing tendrils meander over the tops of other flowering plants seeking the heat of the sun.


Last year in New Mexico I planted Hairy vetch in the spring because the plant is a nitrogen fixer and the desert soils of Abiquiu are low in nitrogen. What follows is an excerpt from my journal:


“Here it is almost mid October and my Hairy vetch blooms on with its glorious violet blue color. Bees, and cabbage butterflies are still seeking its sweet nectar. So far, these plants defy the frost. Mine is sprawling on top of all the other wild weeds providing a crown of deep blue around my little pond.” This climbing vine is not for everyone; its wild roaming habits make it unwieldy and those folks that need a tidy garden will not be drawn to this plant.”


It is true that gardeners need to beware of the vetches tendency to climb over every plant in sight! However, if the gardener is anxious for pollinators, planting a crop of vetch will become a source of great pleasure. Keeping vetch nearby draws down hummingbirds, bees, moths, and every other insect I can think of. In both Maine and NM and everywhere else where the plant grows wild the seed pods appear in the fall and the legume re –seeds itself with ease.


This year in Abiquiu I didn’t put any vetch in and when I left in April almost every place I seeded last spring had tender green vetch tendrils appearing. It’s important to note that this legume is not parasitic although in some areas like New Mexico it can look as if it’s smothering other plants.


Although it tangles itself into knots as it grows I am happy to say that vetch is the easiest plant to remove. Here in my perennial flower garden I can pull it out anytime during the season that it becomes annoying. Best of all, the dried remains can become part of winter’s cover, re seed an area in fall or spring, or end up in a compost heap. Last fall my two little pear trees had vetch wrapped around them and early in April I was delighted to see tiny green tendrils peaking out from beneath the cottonwood bark that I also use as mulch for my trees.


Introduced from Europe as a rotation crop (it is now considered native to parts of this country), Hairy or woolly vetch has since become an established weed in many areas, especially along roadsides, waste areas, and in croplands. Many, of course consider it an “invasive” which I translate as a plant that has found a way to adapt in these times of Climate Change. A plant to be celebrated not demonized!

The cover grows slowly in fall, but root development continues over winter. Growth quickens in spring, when Hairy vetch becomes a sprawling vine that can exceed 12 – 15 feet! Field height rarely exceeds 3 feet unless the vetch is supported by another crop like my giant five foot Abiquiu weeds. Its abundant biomass can be both a benefit and a challenge. The stand smothers spring weeds, another reason I love it, and it can help replace all or most nitrogen fertilizer needs, but because it breaks down quickly, the plant will not provide lasting mulch.

Additionally, the plant’s roots anchor the soil, reducing runoff and preventing soil erosion. When the plant is plowed into the ground in spring, it improves soil structure, promotes drainage and increases the soil’s ability to retain nutrients and moisture. For this reason, Hairy vetch and other cover crops are often known as “green manure.”


Curiously, vetch was once a commonly cultivated plant that fell out of favor over time… Most of the plant is edible and some species actually taste quite good in salads when they are small. The young shoots can also be cooked.

Few legumes (pea family) can match Hairy vetch for versatility. Widely adapted and winter hardy it requires virtually no care to thrive. However, in Abiquiu, I have found that it requires supplementary watering, a practice I have never engaged in before becoming a desert lizard!

Ruffed Grouse – A Mother’s Day Gift




On Mother’s Day just before dusk I saw an amazing sight just outside my front door. It had been a cold gray wind driven day, so the birds at my feeder were scarce, even here in the hollow. To see the male grouse displaying his beautiful feathers on my front step brought tears to my eyes. Such a lovely visitation!


I had been listening to the grouse drumming for a few days. Every year this beautiful woodland bird calls from the same direction in the deciduous part of my forest. This practice began the first year I lived here – many years ago now. Some years the female nests very close to the house and I am treated to a family parade of fluffy miniature grouse pecking their way through the high grasses during the late afternoon. I deliberately leave high grass close to the brook for these ground – loving birds – turkeys appreciate the cover too.


The plumage of the Ruffed grouse is subtly and exquisitely marked in a way that blends so well with their habitat that even when you see one it can disappear before your eyes. The broad black band of the fan-like tail feathers and the patch of dark feathers on both sides of the ruffed grouses neck can be expanded into an umbrella-like ruff. In the field, it is supposed to be possible to tell the difference between a male and female by tail length – the male’s tail appears longer. However, unless I see chicks or witness a display I find the two sexes indistinguishable. There are two color phases of ruffed grouse, red and gray. The gray phase is predominant in Maine, although I have seen both phases here.


We have another grouse in this area (Grafton Notch), the Spruce grouse, that folks say can be confused with the Ruffed grouse, although to my mind the two are quite different with the former having a more spotted look and red eyebrows. The Spruce grouse also lacks a crown at the top of his head.


These two related species are considered sympatric because they exist in the same geographical area. Initially these two interbred and then split off into separate populations.


In many areas across the country, the birds are disappearing. In some states there has been a 50 – 60 percent decrease in grouse. Additionally, because of Climate Change the remaining birds are moving north. It is expected that by 2050 the lower 48 states will no longer have a population of Ruffed Grouse. With this trend in place it is hard for me to understand why the fish and wildlife folks would advertise Maine as “the state” to come to in order to shoot grouse. Grouse are the number one game bird in Maine. Wouldn’t it make more sense to try to conserve the population we have? Roughly 500,000 grouse are being shot by hunters in Maine every year.

Grouse need early successional forests, or stands that are growing back to maintain their populations. Hardwood dominated mixed growth, softwood dominated mixed growth, upland hardwoods, lowland hardwoods, old fields, and orchards comprise the best habitat. Stands of aspen as also favored. Because of the small home range of grouse, good habitat must meet all food, shelter, and drumming requirements within a small area.


Ruffed grouse are omnivorous; they eat green leaves, fruits, and some insects. During winter, when snow covers the ground, they live almost exclusively on the dormant flower buds or catkins of aspens, birches, and cherries. Aspen (or poplar) is generally regarded as the most important single year-round food for ruffed grouse in Maine.


With the onset of spring, male ruffed grouse defends an area of woodland approximately 6-10 acres in size. Male grouse then advertise their location to females by drumming (Adult males drum again in the fall, to re-establish their rights to their territory). Females are receptive to, and mate with, displaying males for only a few days. After fertilization occurs, they leave the male and seek nesting cover. Most ruffed grouse nests are located at the base of trees in open hardwood stands, the base of stumps, or under bushes. The clutch normally numbers 9 – 14 eggs, which are laid over a period of approximately 2 weeks. The eggs are incubated about 24 days, and all the eggs hatch within a few hours of each other during late May and early June. Young ruffed grouse are able to move about shortly after hatching. Grouse chicks begin their lives by feasting on insects and other invertebrates, but they will also eat plant shoots and young leaves. And they won’t pass up small frogs or anything else that might fit in their beaks!


A casual woodland stroll in June or July might result in a grouse sighting. By this time the chicks can fly into the lowest branches and although I never do this deliberately I often come upon a little family making its living in the woods. The chicks are adorable!

The Quackers


( I chose this picture rather than using one of my own because it highlights the male’s emerald green head and the blue on its feathers – gorgeous duck!)


A number of years ago I decided to raise some baby Mallards. As a child I used to feed and make friends with them, even as a toddler I was told. Because I live so close to North Pond I decided to raise some Mallards and release them on the lake, although I had never seen them here and wondered why. After doing some preliminary research I learned that this area was a breeding area for wild Mallards, so I figured that I had nothing to lose.


What an adventure! The “quackers” were characters. My dog adored them and they seemed equally fascinated with her because whenever Star visited with them they would waddle over to quack excitedly at her when she pawed their cage. I came to love them too, and although they made a horrible mess I loved the quackers enthusiastic morning greeting. When the day came to release them I felt sad.


By this time I had spent a lot of time in my kayak looking for a safe haven for the youngsters. I created a nest at the end of a peninsula, and left them there on North Pond. I saw the quackers occasionally during that summer while kayaking but when they migrated in the fall they didn’t return… I believed my experiment to re- introduce them had failed.


About a week before leaving Abiquiu I spied a Mallard couple on the river a few times. Much to my surprise, when I returned to Maine the first of April, I also spotted another Mallard couple on the North Pond – the first Mallards I had ever seen here since I let the quackers go. Was it possible that this couple had returned to breed?


When I researched this possibility I learned that Mallards choose new mating partners each fall. They stay together throughout the winter and once the mating season ends the male abandons the female to raise her family (up to13 chicks) alone. The female returns to her original waters to breed, so it was conceivable, that the female was the original “quacker” that I had raised.


All the breeds of ducks that are common today can trace their origins to the wild Mallard except the Muscovy who roosts in trees in South America. No one knows for certain when Mallards were first domesticated, but there is some evidence to suggest that the Egyptians sacrificed ducks and also bred them for food.


Breeding Mallards nest in the North Country and in Canada and Alaska. Females will build a nest out of breast feathers and twigs near a body of water. She lays a clutch of eggs and incubates them for a month. Once the ducklings hatch, they are immediately taken to water for safety. The ducklings will follow their mother for the next 50 to 60 days, maturing and developing their ability to fly. The ducks can reach breeding age after a year. Mallards frequently interbreed with Black Ducks and the Northern Pintail.


There are four major flyways that Mallards use. Migrating Mallards in Abiquiu use the Pacific Flyway; In Maine they use the Atlantic flyway. Non breeding Mallards inhabit most of the country, and some live year round in Florida and other southern most states including southern New Mexico. Many are considered pests and millions of these birds are killed each fall by hunters.


Mallards are the latest fall migrants and fly in a V-formation in order to have the lead bird break the headwinds and lower the resistance for those that follow. They migrate at night and although theories abound, no one knows how they manage to navigate such distances. Mallards can travel 800 miles in one day. They are excellent endurance fliers, sustaining speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. They usually fly at altitudes between 400 to 2,000 feet, but have been spotted much higher and have even gotten into crashes with commercial airliners above 20,000 feet.


Mallard ducks can be found in the Northern Hemisphere throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. Most Mallard ducks are migratory birds, flying south to temperate climates during the winter, and northwards in the summer to nesting grounds. Mallards prefer wetlands near water sources with an abundant supply of food and cover. They can be found in many types of habitats throughout the country including lakes, rivers, streams, small ponds, swamps, marshlands, and water reservoirs.

Their diet consists of aquatic vegetation, insects, worms, and more recently grain crops like wheat and corn. They dip their heads under the water and forage for plants on the bottom. This “dabbling” is the feeding technique the ducks prefer and execute most often. When visiting the Bosque del Apache I was delighted to see so many Mallards. The heads of the males are fashioned out of shimmering emeralds, and to my mind are astonishingly beautiful to behold.

Mallards are also the most heavily hunted North American ducks, accounting for about 1 of every 3 ducks shot. This species can also be affected by poor water quality, including mercury, pesticides, and selenium pollution, wetland clearing or drainage, oil spills, etc, etc. They are losing ground. Across the continent, millions of acres of wildlife habitat have been converted to agriculture. Some have adapted and eat harvested rice, corn, wheat, barley, peas, and lentils. I cannot help wondering what agricultural pesticides might be doing to these ancestral ducks.


Mallards, like so many other migrating species are migrating later and returning to breeding places earlier than ever before. And perhaps like other migrating birds their patterns are shifting.


I am anxious to learn whether the Mallards I saw for a few days were still migrating or if they will spend summer on North Pond.

Little Foxes


IMG_5079 2.JPG


(little foxes – note facial differences)

I am hiking through the woods one day with my dogs when we hear a rustling. Investigating the sound we are all astonished when three little foxes shoot out of a pile of oak leaves to greet us. My little Chihuahua Lucy wags her tail – everyone wants to play until Hope (2nd Chihuahua) barks at which time the foxes dive for cover. I call out “hey little foxes” a few times and two reappear but don’t emerge completely from the den. I snap two pictures.

A couple of days earlier on the same hike I had seen an adult fox scurrying up a hill hugging a stone wall at mid day; now I knew why. I returned to the den area each day around the same time and called out “hey little foxes.” I believed I could teach them to respond to my voice. It didn’t take long. On the fourth day as soon as I greeted them one emerged. To say that I was thrilled is an understatement. Yesterday I was amazed to find a good sized dirty baize egg dropped outside their door. One of the parents must have brought it home?

Because I feed foxes here I am used to seeing both reds and greys bringing in their kits to snack on birdseed later in the spring (from June on). But because they are older, they look more like their parents. One of the dens on this land can be viewed through binoculars but it is not the same thing.

These little characters wore dark brown coats and I soon learned that this coloring identified them as young grey foxes. They were about five weeks old and I was so excited because I had never had an opportunity to visit with young kits on a regular basis in such close proximity. I hope I am writing this article at the beginning of a long spring journey to learn more about grey foxes…

All animals like routines, so I visit each day at the same time and hope to get some more pictures as time passes. These delightful children are so curious and unafraid. At this point in their lives no human has yet threatened them.

Gray foxes are the only member of the canines that can climb trees and have retractable claws like a cat. They are sometimes mistaken for red foxes, because they have some reddish fur, but gray foxes have a black stripe and black-tipped tail; Reds wear black stockings and have a white-tipped tail. The latter are found from southern Canada southward to Venezuela and Columbia, except in mountainous areas of northwestern United States, parts of the Great Plains, and the eastern coast of Central America.

Gray foxes thrive in forest and brushy woodland areas – they choose habitat with hollow trees or logs, rock crevices, or hillsides they can use for dens, places that have access to water. They have adapted to living in close proximity to humans.

Gray foxes have several natural predators, most notably coyotes, followed by bobcats, but great horned owls, eagles, and cougars also prey upon them. They are territorial among themselves, yet they share these spaces with red foxes, enabling both species to make use of mutually desirable habitat with minimal conflict.

Their “unnatural” predator is man who shoots and traps them and whose most egregious act is fox penning, a canned hunt of foxes that are trapped in the wild, placed within fenced areas, and then set upon by dozens of dogs who are let loose to hunt them down (they do the same thing with bears and deer). The live foxes are literally torn apart by the dogs, dying in massive pain and agony. This disgusting behavior on the part of man makes a powerful statement about the extent of human cruelty that is impossible to ignore.

Gray foxes are solitary most of the year, but while their kits are young both parents share in caring for them. Keen vision, hearing, and sense of smell help them hunt for cottontails, tree squirrels, voles, mice, wood rats, black rats, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates. By adding fruit and mast to their diet in autumn, they become helpful as seed dispersers.

Sometimes gray foxes will rest on high branches or in the crotch of a tree. To climb trees, they rotate their forearms, enabling them to hug the tree, while pushing upward with their hind legs. Once in the canopy, they are nimble enough to leap from branch to branch. Coming down is a bit trickier than going up… it’s either a slow and careful tail-first descent or, if the angle is not overly steep, a speedy headfirst downward run. A low center of gravity and four well-clawed feet make the latter option less scary than it sounds. These foxes also like to swim if denning near water.

According to the literature breeding occurs in January or February and the kits are born in March or April. They begin to emerge four or five weeks after birth. I met these little foxes the third week in April. Gray foxes dig their own dens or enlarge dens that other animals have used before. They have a number of entrances.

Both gray and red foxes are supposed to be nocturnal; however this has not been my experience perhaps because animals know I am not a threat. It is more common to see adults hunting during the day while they are raising young. I can attest to the fact that little foxes love to play around their dens during the day.

I am already getting attached to this family and hope to meet the parents one day soon.

The Croakers



(Frogs mating – note the one who didn’t make it! Eggs in upper right)


(Look at those golden eyes!)


The most exciting part of arriving home in early April is that signs of spring are everywhere. This is truly the season of new beginnings. I listened for the croaking quacking wood frogs at every ditch, puddle and vernal pool and was rewarded by one croaking male wood frog on April 12th.

Two days later in the same place I discovered one couple mating and laying; a few clumps of jellied eggs were scattered close to the frogs who were still clasped together. The frogs vanished the next day. I realized then that in this place there should have been many couples, not just one…All frogs and toads are the most threatened species on earth, our canaries in the coal mine. They absorb pollutants through their skin – human induced poisoned air, earth, and water. We are currently in the process of losing the species for good.


I happily scooped up the newly laid eggs to bring home to scatter in various vernal pools on this property where the have a better chance of surviving, grateful that I had not missed wood frog emergence. Normally they begin to croak before ice –out in late February March (March around here). So I am a bit puzzled by their current behavior.


Wood frogs are native to our Boreal forests in Alaska, Canada, and throughout the Northeast. Wood frogs are the only frogs that live north of the Arctic Circle.


Wood frogs are omnivorous, and eat a variety of small, forest-floor invertebrates. Adults consume a variety of insects including spiders, beetles and moth larvae. The tadpoles feed on plant detritus, algae (they also like lettuce) and also eat the eggs and larvae of other amphibians.


Similar to other northern frogs that enter dormancy close to the surface in soil and/or leaf litter, wood frogs can tolerate the freezing of their blood and other tissues. Urea accumulates in tissues in preparation for over wintering and liver fluid is converted in large quantities to sugars in response to ice formation. Both act to limit the amount of ice that forms and reduces osmotic shrinking of cells.


Amazingly, these creatures can survive many freeze/thaw events during winter if no more than about 65% of their total body water freezes.


After wood frogs emerge from hibernation they begin a yearly migration to the nearest vernal pool for breeding, starting in late February or March. This species is often described as an explosive, short-term breeder which means that the window for survival is minimal. In this region, breeding often takes place over just a few days. Males search for a mate by hugging other frogs until they find one who is round enough to be carrying eggs. Females lay approximately 1500 – 3000 eggs, often in the deeper sections of the pools. Out of the large amount of eggs deposited only about 4 percent survive. The egg mass retains heat, and those eggs located near the center of the mass have a higher survival rate.


Communal egg masses are sometimes attached to vegetation within pools. The ones I have found in ditches are free floating. Eggs will hatch in 4 to 30 days. Temperature is a factor. Around here the eggs I have hatched have become tadpoles in 2 -4 days.


In four to sixteen weeks, depending on water and food supply, wood frogs have completed their growth cycle. My tadpoles become frogs during the month of July. Maturity may be reached in one to two years, depending on the sex and the population of frogs. A wood frog’s lifespan in the wild is usually no more than three years.


In my eyes the glorious sight of a wood frog (now very rare) is cause for celebration. I used to see a few each summer, but no more. They are found in deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests; marshes; meadows; and swamps. Most of the time the frog lives close to the ground, hiding under leaves in woodland areas.


A wood frog’s most distinct characteristic is the black marking across its eyes, which has been said to resemble a mask. The bodies of wood frogs can be varying shades of brown, red, green, or gray, with females tending to be more brightly colored than males (note picture). These frog hues sound dull but each has an iridescent sheen. Adults can reach about three inches. The ones around here do not.


It seems to me that everyone loves to eat wood frogs from eggs through adulthood…Herons maneuver their way into my vernal pools for a snack even in the deep woods! My kingfishers love them. A variety of snakes eat adult wood frogs. These creatures fall prey to snapping turtles, raccoons, skunks coyotes, and foxes. Beetles, turtles and salamanders feast on eggs and tadpoles.


In the amphibian world, wood frogs may be the species best able to recognize their family. When many tadpoles are in the same place, siblings seek each other out and group together (my guess is that it is the only species that has been studied). My observations of all frogs confirm that the young like to be close to one another.


Wood frogs are found in deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests; marshes; meadows; and swamps. They spends most of their time on the ground in woody areas except for during mating season when they are breeding.


I am anxiously awaiting the birth of these tadpoles hoping that my attempts to scatter the “Croakers” around my property will lengthen the time they remain on Earth.