Navajo Night Chant

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With Winter Moon’s passage and the approach of the winter solstice just a little more than a week away I am much aware of the (potential healing) dwelling place that I inhabit that also characterizes these dark months of the year.

Unfortunately, even those who acknowledge our seasonal turnings rarely honor the dark as sacred. At the winter solstice the emphasis is still on light.

As Carol Christ writes so succinctly we manage to celebrate light at both solstices – at its apex and as its return.

This attitude reveals to me an inability to be present to dark, in both its generative and non – generative aspects. The original inhabitants of this country honored the dark months of the year very differently than westerners do. Their most important ceremonies occurred during the winter months. Both aspects of the dark were acknowledged and explicated through ceremony. What follows is a history of one of the Navajo healing ceremonies that occurs only during the winter months of the year.

The Navajo Night Chant is part of Native American religious tradition. The history of Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B. C. E., continued until approximately 4,000 B. C. E. This perspective, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the Indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The historical development of religious belief systems among Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century. The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

The nine-night ceremony known as the Night Chant or Nightway is believed to date from around 1000 B. C. E., when it was first performed by the Indians who lived in Canyon de Chelly (now eastern Arizona). It is considered to be the most sacred of all Navajo ceremonies and one of the most difficult and demanding to learn, involving the memorization of hundreds of songs, dozens of prayers, and several very complicated sand paintings. And yet the demand for Night Chants is so great that as many as fifty such ceremonies might be held during a single winter season, which lasts eighteen to twenty weeks.

The Navajo call themselves Diné, meaning” the people.” Their deities are known as the Holy People, and include Changing Woman, Talking God, the Sun, Earth, Moon, and Sky. Navajo religious practices emphasize healing rituals, in terms of curing diseases as well as healing relationships among all living things. (If ever we needed to embrace this idea it is now)

Like the Navajo Mountain Chant, the Night Chant is designed both to cure people who are ill and to restore the order and balance of human and non -human relationships within the Navajo universe. The two are not separated. Led by a trained medicine man who has served a long apprenticeship and learned the intricate and detailed practices that are essential to the chant, the ceremony itself is capable of scaring off sickness and ugliness through the use of techniques, some that shock or arouse. Once disorder has been removed, order and balance are restored through song, prayer, sand painting, and other aspects of the ceremony. It’s important to note that this is a multi-valent process.

Before the chant itself takes place, young children undergo a tribal initiation. After being stripped of their clothing and then struck with a yucca whip, young boys are allowed to see the “gods” (i.e., the dancers who impersonate the gods) without their masks for the first time. Girls are not whipped but rather touched with ears of corn covered with sprays of spruce.

On the day of the chant, crowds gather expectantly outside the lodge where rehearsals have been taking place. The outdoor area in which the ceremony will be held is cleared of spectators, and many fires are lit to take the chill out of the night air. The dancers, who represent the gods, are led in by the medicine man and the maternal grandfather of the gods, along a path of meal that has been laid down for them to follow. The patient emerges from the lodge, sprinkles the gods with meal from his or her basket, and gives each one tobacco. The medicine man intones a long prayer for the patient, repeating each phrase four times. At no time is the patient’s illness separated from the disharmony that occurs around him in Nature. Afterwards the four gods dance, moving rhythmically back and forth, hooting at the end to denote the gods’ approval.

The original Night Chant involved four teams who danced twelve times each with half-hour intervals in between-a total of ten hours. The dance movements involve two lines facing each other. Each of the six male dancers takes his female partner, dances with her to the end of the line, drops her there, and moves back to his own side. The chant itself is performed without variation and has a hypnotic effect on the listeners. The only relief is provided by the rainmaker-clown named Tonenili, who sprinkles water around and engages in other playful antics.

The medicine men who supervise the Night Chant insist that everything-each dot and line in every sand painting, each verse in every song, each feather on each mask-be arranged in exactly the same way each time the curing ceremony is performed or it will not bring about the desired result. There are probably as many active Night Chant medicine men today as at any time in Navajo history, due to the general increase in the Navajo population, the popularity of the ceremony, and the central role it plays in Navajo life and health.

There are typically twenty-four Nightway masks, although the ceremony can be performed with fewer. These masks are worn by the God Impersonators who perform the ritual dances. Some of these impersonators-Calling God, Gray God, Whistling God, Whipping God, and Humped back God among them-wear the masks of ordinary male gods with special ornaments attached at the time of the ceremony. Other masks include the yellow and blue Fringed Mouth of the Water mask, the Black and Red God masks, the Monster Slayer mask, the Talking God mask, and the Born for Water mask.

In addition to being worn by the God Impersonators who dance on the dramatic final night of the nine-day ceremony, the masks are vital to the application of many “medicines”. They also play a vital role in the initiation of the young. The masks of the female goddesses are actually worn by men, since women are not allowed to minister to the person for whom the chant is being sung.

The masks used in the Nightway ceremony are made of sacred buckskin, which must be obtained without shedding the animal’s blood. Buckskin is a symbol of life to the Navajo people.

The medicine man’s sacred bundle is made up of ceremonial items such as bags of pollen, feathers, stones, skins, pieces of mountain sheep horn, and a flint blade believed to belong to the god known as the Monster Slayer. The sacred bundle also includes gourd rattles and the sacred buckskin masks worn by the God Impersonators.

As in the Mountain Chant, sand paintings play an important role in the healing rituals of the Night Chant. Twelve different sand paintings are considered appropriate for the Nightway, of which a maximum of six are usually chosen: four large and two small. When healing personal illness the patient and his or her family normally have a say in which sand paintings are used. Each one is associated with a particular story and is accompanied by specific songs, prayers, and ceremonial procedures.

It is rarely the medicine man himself who makes the sand paintings, although he is responsible for overseeing their preparation. Usually his assistants do the actual painting, dribbling small amounts of colored sand through their fingers onto a smooth sand surface. The resulting works of art must be perfect; in other words, there can be no deviations from the design set down by the gods.

Every detail in each sand painting has a special meaning. Standard Nightway sand painting designs include First Dancers, Whirling Logs, Water Sprinklers, Fringed Mouth Gods, Black Gods, and Corn People.

The purpose of the sand paintings is to allow the recipient to absorb the powers depicted in the painting, often by sitting or sleeping on it. It is considered wrong-if not downright dangerous-to reproduce these sand paintings in any way, since they might attract the attention of the gods to a situation where no real healing is intended.

That these healings “work” within the Navajo Universe which includes all of Nature makes sense to me because one is not separated from the other.

Here are two brief excerpts of the Night Chant that I particularly like.

The first addresses the need to restore balance and harmony to a soul, spirit, body that has been diseased or left alone to deal with bad feelings that others have projected (arrows of harm) because they cannot own their own feelings, or because of a collective need to blame, two aspects of the same problem. What I like best is that there is an acknowledgement that there are gods and people who can create this psychic/physical darkness but that acknowledging this powerful personal/ mystical/mythological reality can shift both the personal and the resulting discord experienced by Nature into One of Peace.

There is also an element of absolute trust that this is so…

Restore my body for me.
Restore my mind for me.
This very day remove your spell from me.
Your spell you have removed from me.

You have taken it away for me.
Far away it has gone.

 

This second excerpt addresses the healing that occurs for the individual in the context of the whole of Nature,

 

Peacefully may I walk.
Peacefully, with abundant dark clouds, may I walk.
Peacefully with abundant showers, may I walk.
Peacefully, with abundant plants, may I walk.

Peacefully with abundant trees, may I walk.

Peacefully with abundant birds may I walk.

Peacefully with abundant animals may I walk.
Happily, on a trail of pollen, may I walk.
Happily may I walk.

As it was long ago, may I walk.
May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.

In Beauty may I walk

In Beauty it is finished.”

 

I find that writing about this ritual has a healing effect on me. It’s as if the writing brings the ritual to life in some non – ordinary way – and so it may be.

Reparation

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This morning on my walk the word reparation floated through my mind as I listened to rippling river waters…

What does it mean to make reparation for an injustice done? One dictionary definition suggests that reparation involves making amends. To reweave the circle, to repair the rent, that is a hole made by tearing apart what once was whole, seems like an image and thought worth pondering especially during these dark winter months that encourage self – reflection and dreaming (but are also rife with declarations of ‘love’ usually expressed as a commodity).

We all make mistakes. Most are not intentional, yet they can inadvertently cause great harm; in some cases these mistakes destroy relationships.

It seems to me that we all have choices here. We can make a decision (set a clear intention) not to allow the past to determine our future. This does not mean that we don’t hold a person accountable for his/her actions. We must, in order to stay present to the truth that we were harmed by another person’s behavior intentional or not.

However, we can still make a choice to remember that we were hurt and still let go. Of course, this is a process, and depending upon the depth of the pain inflicted, it may take a very long time to move through that dark tunnel. We need to be patient with ourselves and with others.

Becoming stuck in anger, or feeling victimized blocks letting go. It is critically important to feel those feelings, but at the same time, not to allow them to drive future interactions with those we care about.

If a breach of trust has occurred then this loss of trust must be taken very seriously because relationships are so complex and fragile and so dependent upon this feeling to flourish.

How do we go about healing a breach of trust? In my way of thinking, acknowledging that we broke the trust of another must come first.

Re-establishing friendly contact by focusing on common ground is helpful in some cases.

But the most important aspect of this healing involves changing our behavior – repeated apologies without demonstrating to the other person that we care enough about them to alter our actions – when words are not followed by actions – apologies becomes meaningless. It is relatively easy to say we are sorry, it is much more difficult to begin to re – establish trust by shifting our behavior. It is worth repeating that trust is forged from the ground up, and the building blocks of the temple of meaningful relationship must rest on a foundation of trust.

When we harm or are harmed by another it is helpful to know that our actions no matter how egregious don’t have to determine the future, and that with intention, attention, patience, and persistence, our damaged relationships can be healed.

IMG_3398.JPGUltimately, forgiveness may be the gift offered without reservation to those who are willing to do this most challenging work.

A Reflection on Love and Power

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I have been allergic to power in any of its forms for most of my life, preferring instead to focus on relationships between people and across species. For many years I did not understand why I felt the way I did beyond recalling my experiences as a child.

I grew up in a family in which my mother held most of the power and abused it. I learned subservience at my mother’s knee. But the worst part of my story, which unfortunately is not unique, is that I had to give up who I was in order to serve my mother/survive. My mother could express her feelings freely but I could not. Since our feelings/emotions arise out of the truth of our bodies, I was forced to surrender mine.

When I surrendered my body I lost access to my woman’s truth and to myself. This split left me vulnerable to dark forces that threatened to destroy me. Socialized into victimhood I had no way to protect myself because I feared power in any form.

As soon as I was able I made a choice that would save my life. I had no way of knowing then that by becoming a woman’s advocate I was refusing to give in to self and other woman hate which is endemic to all unconscious wounded women.

However, it has taken me a lifetime to learn how to trust this body that is the source of my spiritual and physical sustenance, as well as being my protector and even today I sometimes waver; that wound runs so deep. But I have learned how to ask for help, and once I receive confirmation from a trusted friend on an issue that deeply troubles me I can once again stand in my own truth and exercise my personal power.

Over a period of many years as I developed into a self-directed woman I began to think about how a need for power over others might be the antithesis of love.

(Some think that hatred is the other side of love; but I think hatred is a distortion of love – a twisted feeling brought on by feelings of betrayal and the resulting breach in trust, invisibility, other forms of abuse and the victim’s resulting anguish)

I’d like to look at some definitions of love and power to help me support this argument.

Love is verb (it has everything to do with taking action) or a noun (to be acted upon)

  • to feel tender affection for someone
  • to feel protective of, to express concern
  • to empathize – to feel another’s feelings compassionately (without judgment)
  • to feel desire or passionate attraction for
  • Agape – to experience unconditional love by a person, animal, tree, or whomever/whatever one considers to be a ‘god’ or divinity
  • acts of Grace

 

Some definitions of power are:

 

  • the capacity to do something
  • strength
  • influence
  • authority
  • persuasiveness
  • supremacy
  • rule
  • command
  • clout
  • dominance
  • sovereignty
  • control

 

Love at the very least is about caring about/for another person on an emotional level that may or may not include a sexual aspect, or it involves “grace” in some form.

The commonality that becomes immediately obvious in the definitions of power is that with the exception of the first two, (which could be understood as the positive side of having power), the remainder of the words suggest inequality of one kind or another. (It’s no surprise that in western culture many see god as the great authority… ‘he who judges without mercy’).

The adage “power corrupts” is true. The human ego is often so fragile that once it believes its in control, for some, keeping that control at all cost becomes an addiction.

Men and women who are addicted to power express it differently.

In western culture a few men still hold most of the power, political and otherwise but its important to see this power in context. And when we do it immediately becomes obvious that ‘patriarchy’ (once defined as the power of the fathers) is a personal and political system that thrives on power over others/inequality. What this means practically is that a few men may have more power than women, but most men are also victims of this system to one extent or another.

Women have a different problem. Women are socialized into a woman hating culture, one that automatically privileges men over women by virtue of gender. Women are taught that they are subservient, they are taught that their value lies in their sexuality or conversely in (often saintly) motherhood, they are taught to compete with other women for limited resources, they are taught that in order to be taken seriously they must compete with men to succeed, or they are taught (as my mother was) to claim all rights to power.

How women deal with this inequality then becomes the issue. Women like my mother become ‘kings’ – dominant male identified women. Others allow themselves to be victimized by powerful men sometimes for a lifetime. Still others are fatally attracted to the man in power believing erroneously that to be near power is the same as having it; these women have to compete with other women to be the one in favor but also live in fear that they will be found out and discarded. Ironically, the outcome is the same: all these women serve their “king” and are cut away from their female instinctual roots.

Overall this obsession with power makes most women as dangerous as men.

However, thankfully, some women (and some men) learn to share power equally, often demonstrating this through supportive friendships, and by choosing to live in community. Matrifocal societies or ‘Egalitarian Matriarchies’ are good examples of communal sharing of power. These women/men or woman centered cultures individually and collectively are capable of deep compassion and empathy yet retain their ability to exercise power for their own protection, to stay safe. These women and men I deeply respect, attempt to emulate, and seek out as friends.

And this brings me back to the idea that ‘power over others’ is the opposite of love.

Love allows us to trust, to feel safe in another’s presence, to have some assurance that one will not be deliberately betrayed, shamed, or manipulated by a destructive power dynamic. Love requires openness, a willingness to be vulnerable, an ability to feel compassion and empathy for a person. Love opens the way for reciprocity and equality in relationship.

The need for power on the other hand is almost always attached to the need to control; either a person, place, country, history, etc. The concepts of reciprocity and equality don’t even enter the picture. Neither does trust. Without trust relationships eventually fall apart in fundamental ways regardless of whether the couple choose to stay together or not.

Power isn’t in itself either good or bad. We all need access to personal power to function effectively in the world, but too often the need to have power over others obscures what might otherwise be a wholesome and laudable agenda.

Misuse of power also creates another problem.

Those addicted to power are lonely.

Black Capped Chickadee

 

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This morning after I returned from my early morning walk to the river I stood at the east window watching a few Black – Capped chickadees flying out of my adopted juniper to the bird feeder. Although there are other trees around, the thick cover provided by my arboreal friend is everyone’s favorite. I love to watch these birds delicately take one seed to eat or cache somewhere for the winter. There was so much activity around the juniper early this morning that I suspected that all the birds knew “a big wind” was coming, and were stocking up on seed early.

I tried to count the black-capped chickadees and reached the conclusion that I had about 4 – not exactly a flock. However, I am delighted to have even one pair here in Abiquiu. According to some sources there aren’t even supposed to be any in this area at all, but for three out of the four winters I have lived here I have always had a few.

Other sources say that Northern Mexico has a small population, and most remind us that Black capped chickadees are moving north because of Climate Change. Northern New Mexico is perched on the edge of Black-Capped chickadee extinction, so please enjoy these delightful little birds while we still have them. Even in Maine, those of us who are birdwatchers have been be –moaning the fact that we are seeing less and less of these iconic little birds each year. Most are moving north towards the boreal forests of Canadian Shield because there are still enough of the kinds of trees around to support healthy populations – for now.

This morning after watching the chickadees, sparrows and nuthatches flying in and out of my juniper I read some very disturbing information about junipers and sage in the Abiquiu News:

“A low-flying airplane will drop Tebuthiuron pellets*, a soil-applied herbicide that inhibits photosynthesis, on creosote bush and juniper trees. At the planned rate and timing of application, the herbicide will have minimal impact on desirable grasses and forbs. Because the herbicide is applied in pellet form, it will not drift from the treated areas (simply not true). When the pellets dissolve with favorable precipitation, (how do they know we will get it?) they are absorbed into the ground to a depth of approximately two feet and taken up by the target plants root system, eventually reducing the sagebrush density. The pellets will not be dropped near waterways or on slopes greater than 10%. Tebuthiuron has been used to thin many bush species including creosote bush and juniper trees since the 1980s, and the benefits of its application are well documented.” (By whom, and what was their agenda?)

 

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Soil Conservation folks believe that the objective of the treatments is to improve plant species diversity, which will benefit wildlife, rangeland and watershed health by reducing the density of sagebrush, and result in an increase of native grasses, forbs and other herbaceous vegetation.”

 

Benefit Wildlife? I was aghast reading this information because it neglects to mention that the junipers and sages provide necessary cover/food for so many birds in the Southwest, or that junipers and sage are better adapted to the drying conditions that are associated with Climate Change in the Southwest.

 

Truly, one hand does not know what the other is doing.

 

But to return to chickadees…

 

In Maine, perhaps because I live in a mixed confider and deciduous forest chickadees visit my feeders all summer. However, I happen to know that their summer diet also relies heavily on insects (spiders, caterpillars, snails etc) and berries. As some are aware, chickadees also love to eat fat. Just yesterday I put out my first suet seed cake. During the winter, chickadees also feast on insect pupae.

Pairs typically form in fall and remain together as part of winter flock. Flocks break up in late winter, and both male and females defend their nesting territory. During courtship and afterwards the males feed the females. Less frequently these days nest sites are found in the holes of trees. Chickadees like to line their nests with mosses or animal hair. In Maine some use tufts of hair (from my brush) that I leave in a little basket in a nearby juniper. I still have many woodpecker excavated holes because I allow all trees to live out their natural lives on my property, but some of my chickadees also use nest boxes.

The literature is very confusing when it comes to migration. Some sources suggest that chickadees are permanent residents but that they also move south in fall and winter (!). I believe that some are permanent residents, at least in Maine, but for reasons that are unknown others do migrate. Another bird mystery. Those that do stay in northern climates must be able to withstand little sun and very cold temperatures during the winter. These chickadees are able to lower their body temperature at night to enter regulated hypothermia, which allows them to conserve energy. Chickadees also have exceptional spatial memory, which allows them to re locate cached food.

Despite its once vast range, as a species the chickadees are remarkably homogeneous in their genetic make-up. The Black capped chickadee’s closest relative is the Mountain chickadee, another endearing avian creature. Although I have been on the lookout I have yet to see one in Abiquiu this fall.

 

* Some information on Tebuthiuron

(Wikipedia/ Cornell are sources)

Tebuthiuron is a “non -selective broad spectrum” herbicide (read: it kills a lot of living things).

The Environmental Protection Agency considers this herbicide to have “great potential for groundwater contamination, due to its high water solubility, low absorption to soil particles, and high persistence in soil.”

In Europe this herbicide has been banned since 2002.

Weeds that are controlled by tebuthiuron include alfalfa, bluegrasses, chickweed, clover, dock, goldenrod, mullein, etc.

My commentary: all these plants are beneficial to bees and other insects and they provide food for birds and animals.

ACUTE TOXICITY

Skin, eye or clothing contact with the herbicide should be avoided. This herbicide is classified as moderately poisonous. Symptoms of Tebuthiuron poisoning in rodents include lack of energy, loss of appetite, muscular incoordination and death. Vomiting occurred in cats and dogs.

Who benefits? Ranchers and big business at everyone’s expense.

 

Black Bear Requiem and Hope for the Future

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Photo credit Lynn Rogers

 

Before I begin this article I want to acknowledge that I am perhaps too biased against bear hunting. I also know as a black bear researcher and bear lover that I am too emotionally attached to these animals to feel any other way.

 

This year’s three plus month bear hunt begins earlier than ever with “youth day” kicking off the season which began August 24 when children in Maine were encouraged to shoot their first bear. The promise of a first kill inculcates in the next generation the rightness of continuing the “tradition” of hunting in a world where many non – human animals are threatened or facing extinction. Sport and trophy hunting, a million dollar enterprise brings in huge amounts of money to the state wildlife agency – the Maine Department of Fish and Wildlife (MDF&W) and other special interest groups like the NRA. Privately owned “bear farms” flourish where one can’t help but kill a bear because all animals are held captive for the slaughter. For some there is the addictive “high” and the sense of “power” that comes with the kill and a snarling bearskin or head to hang on the wall. For others there is meat for the table.

 

Many bears, especially yearlings will be shot (most bears killed are between 1 -3 years old). Mothers have spent the summer teaching their cubs how to forage sometimes traveling 50 miles or more to areas rich in wild foods during this phase of hyperphagia, that is, the brief time during which all bears must eat enough to almost double their weight in order to survive the coming winter hibernation. Cubs are often treed by the mother before she comes to a bait site. Many cubs will die of slow starvation if the mother is shot.

 

Bear feeding frenzy peaks in August and September when the bears need as much as 20,000 calories a day to put on necessary fat. This is the time of year all bears are most vulnerable. Hunters take advantage of the bear’s desperate need for food by placing large unhealthy amounts of sugary food at bait sites as they ready their dogs for the hunt, and prepare their steel snare traps… They have plenty of time because in Maine the hunt will not end until November 30th.

 

This year having spent time in a community that lives peaceably with so many wild bears in Ely Minnesota I am, if possible, having a more difficult time than before attempting to accept a hunting tradition that refuses to acknowledge that it is possible to live with these gentle intelligent animals instead of slaughtering them. I am haunted by the question: how many cubs in Maine will be left to die after their mothers are shot this fall? How many adolescents? The yearly statistics from the Maine Department of Fish and Wildlife Agency indicate that almost as many female bears are shot as males. How many of those females are mothers?

 

I reject the two usual arguments for killing bears: One that hunting is a “tradition” that must be honored, regardless. The second is that bears have to be “managed” or they will take over the state.

 

Hunting was once necessary for survival. This is not the case today. Most hunting occurs because folks like to kill animals for sport – any animal – and bears in particular because they are almost universally feared.

 

When we examine why these intelligent shy animals appear so threatening we discover that there is no scientific basis behind human fear. Only one Black bear in a million kills someone; one is 32,000 times more likely to be murdered by a human.

 

However, individuals do fear bears and our state wildlife agency encourages people to foster that attitude so that folks will buy hunting licenses, shoot bears and bring in revenue. Hunting is economically based. The state agencies also warn the public not to befriend bears because they will become “nuisance animals,” and it is true that bears will visit backyards when hungry. Removing attractants like birdseed and garbage during the spring and summer reduces the number of visiting bears to almost zero. “A fed bear is a dead bear” is a hunter who baits bears to kill them.

 

The second argument is based on the belief that only humans know how to regulate bear populations. Again and again biologists have learned that animals have an ability to regulate their own numbers according to the availability of food resources. Left to their own devices, Black bears would eventually do the same. However, this would take time.

 

Unfortunately it is also true that in Northern Maine the natural foods that bears love – especially the fall beechnut crop which is cyclic to begin with – is disappearing because trees are being harvested too young to produce an abundance of beechnuts. In addition bear territories are disappearing because more and more people are moving to Maine. Black bears are appearing in people’s yards because there is not enough natural food to sustain them.

 

There is one biologist whose studies indicate that there may be a partial solution to this problem. Dr. Lynn Rogers is a bear biologist who has researched Black bears for more than 50 years. During his long and outstanding career he worked as a state biologist for the Department of Natural Resources in Minnesota using both classic wildlife methodology (which involves sedating and collaring bears and mapping their movements by plane and by placing pins on a map) and later, developing his own “trust based” research methods. The latter allowed him to learn about Black bear behavior – what bears eat, their social structure, vocalizations, the problems they face in the forest, knowledge that cannot be acquired without actually observing individual bears in their natural habitat over an extensive period of time. No state agencies including the MDNR authorize actual bear behavior studies as far as I know.

 

At one point Dr. Rogers became deeply concerned because so many “nuisance” bears were being shot in a nearby campground near his research center. He began an eight year study for the Forest Service to answer the question of whether diversionary feeding, that is placing wild foods in the forest on a regular basis, would keep bears out of trouble. The results were astonishing. With supplementary feeding bear complaints in the area campground were reduced 88 percent.

 

During that same period Lynn began walking with bears into the forest. Not all bears would tolerate his presence but some did; these bears learned to ignore him after he had given them some treats (nuts). Within one year of following them Lynn said he learned more about Black bear behavior than he had during his entire career.

 

In 1996 after Lynn retired from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources he became one of the residents of Eagle’s Nest Township where people had been hand – feeding bears since 1961. Lynn began a study that focuses on diversionary feeding ‘habituated’ Black bears in this area. He learned that the bears visited the residents who fed the bears and they left those folks that didn’t want a bear to visit their homes alone.

 

In almost 60 years of hand feeding bears there has never been a black bear attack. With supplementary food stations set up in the forest Lynn also discovered that as long as the natural foods were abundant these habituated bears rarely visited these stations because they also preferred the diversity of foods found in the forest. However, during years of natural food shortage these feeding stations helped keep the bears healthy and reduced bear complaints 80 percent.

 

The conclusions are inescapable: It is possible to co -exist peacefully with bears if people choose to so. Equally important is the fact that diversionary or supplementary feeding works to keep bears out of people’s yards especially in times of food scarcity. A fed bear is a healthy bear.

 

In Maine, supplementary feeding might help reduce bear complaints especially in Northern Maine if we chose to implement it, but if this method was adopted by the MDF&W less revenue would come into the state and hunters would have less reason to kill bears, and that is not what hunters, special interest groups like the NRA, and the Maine State Fish and Wildlife agency want.

 

Although I am biased, I am not suggesting that hunting bears in Maine be totally eliminated. It may well be that some hunting has occur to deal with the current bear starvation scenario in Northern Maine. But is it really necessary to hunt bears throughout the rest of the state? For those of us who know and love these iconic wild animals this is an important question.

 

My hope is that Dr. Lynn Roger’s groundbreaking trust based research along with his tireless efforts to educate people about the true nature of bears may one day infiltrate the minds of the general public changing current attitudes towards these animals once and for all.

 

Let’s hope this shift will occur before the Black bear becomes endangered in Maine, one of the few states in which a healthy population still exists.

A Blaze of Fall Color, an Unsung Tree

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I am already missing the stand of staghorn sumac that was growing on the road near my house here in Maine. This time of year I look to the ornamental sumac groves for the first signs of fall. These small trees turn the most exquisite sun yellow, deep orange and flaming red as the season progresses as well as providing the birds with clusters of dark red berries that evening grosbeaks, northern cardinals, ruffed grouse, turkeys, robins, chickadees, woodpeckers, and others feast on throughout the coming winter and spring. Deer, elk, and moose browse on the leaves and twigs. Some butterflies use this food to feed their young and sumacs provide nectar for bees and other beneficial insects while providing great shelter for many more wild creatures.

 

In Maine many consider these small trees a nuisance but elsewhere, as in New Mexico, the plant is sold and grown for its vibrant color. I don’t know how many folks know that this plant is so beneficial to wildlife.

 

The staghorn sumac is just one of many sumacs that are found all over the world, and most look similar. This large shrub has compound leaves, meaning each leaf is composed of several leaflets. Eleven to thirty plus leaflets are arranged in opposite pairs along a stem which droops gracefully towards the ground. The leaves are toothed along the edges, the branches fuzzy. Clumps of small greenish flowers are inconspicuous but form an upright cone or steeple that yields red berries by late summer.

 

Sumacs are not fussy about growing requirements and thrive in open places, hillsides, along the edges of pine forests and country roads all throughout the northeast. There are some species that are well adapted to desert areas because they are particularly drought tolerant. Sumacs control erosion because they have shallow roots. They like to grow in groves to develop complex root systems that support the whole group.

 

One cousin is poisonous. This sumac can easily be identified even if it looks similar to other sumacs because of its penchant for swamps and other wet places. It likes to have its feet in water. This species has a thick trunk and sturdy branches; it produces sprays of drooping smooth white berries in the fall. The plant can cause an unpleasant rash.

 

Humans have enjoyed sumac berries, which have a zingy lemon taste when picked at their peak, typically in late summer or early fall. They are packed with vitamin C. Soak berries in hot or cold water and then strain to make a refreshing drink or a gargle for sore throats. If the drink is too sharp for your taste buds, add a little maple syrup.

 

Other sumac parts have been used in a variety of ways: fresh sumac stems have been used in basket weaving, the tannin-packed leaves and bark have been used for tanning leather and the roots have been made into teas that help stop bleeding. The leaves and berries are used to make dyes.

 

The trees have multiple trunks and pithy, hollow stems. The wood is good for many things, including whittling, making pipe stems and making a natural “tap” for collecting maple syrup from a tree. Unlike poison sumac, ornamental sumac brush can be safely burned, and the smoke can be used by beekeepers to calm the bees during hive maintenance.

 

Ornamental sumacs are highly adaptive, and there are different types for every region of the United States and Canada. Sumacs are also imported from other parts of the world and naturalized in North America. Another advantage is that they appear to be impervious to many plant diseases. Once established they spread easily.

 

It wasn’t until I lived in New Mexico that I thought of them as a garden addition because there are so many varieties growing wild around here. Now I am thinking about planting one around the casita.

The Not So Common Northern Grackle

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Does anyone remember the days when the arrival of thousands of blackbirds announced that spring was on the way? As a child I recall the bare decidious trees around my grandparents farm were peppered with redwings, cowbirds, starlings and grackles. Most farming people disliked these birds because grackles, especially, loved to feast on grains and corn.

 

Today, redwings still mark the change of the seasons but the clouds of mixed blackbirds are absent because humans have decimated their populations.

 

When a shimmering blue – black Northern grackle appeared at my birdfeeder in late May I was delighted and hoped, that like the Redwing couple, this blackbird would choose to stay. In all these years I have never had a grackle nest here.

 

Last winter I developed a fascination and a deep respect for the grackle as a result of making regular visits to a Walmart in New Mexico that was built near a marsh. I couldn’t resist feeding the Great Tailed grackles hunks of bread as I observed these clever characters hopping about on the ground, dodging people and automobiles while searching for tidbits. These birds had surely adapted to human habitation and this fact impressed me greatly. Adaptability is sign of intelligence. Some of these birds always hung out on the roof with the fake owls that were put there to scare them away.

 

When the pair nested here down by the brook (all grackles like to nest near water) I was delighted because I could continue to observe another related species; I also hoped to learn some of their complex calls.

 

Although I herd the two conversing, for the longest time I never saw the female who is not black but washed in chocolate brown. Two months later I have three young male grackles that visit my feeder along with both of their parents. Although they are omnivores – they eat insects, frogs berries etc. they love sunflower seeds too. If given a choice by the Mourning doves (who scatter seed indiscriminately) grackles prefer to forage on the ground. Common Grackles are resourceful foragers. They sometimes follow plows to catch invertebrates and mice, wade into water to catch small fish, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, steal worms from American Robins, and raid nests. Grackles have a hard keel on the inside of the upper mandible that they use for sawing open acorns. Typically they score the outside of the narrow end, then bite the acorn open.

 

Northern populations migrate; the rest remain in areas east of the Rockies year round. Along with some other species of grackles, the Northern grackle is known to practice “anting” – rubbing insects that contain formic acid on its feathers to deal with parasites. Though the exact mechanism is poorly understood, several studies have examined the ability of the Northern grackle to interpret the variability of the earth’s magnetic field.

 

I have yet to learn all of the Northern grackle calls, which are complicated by the birds’ uncanny ability to mimic other birds and sometimes even me! The grackles seem to enjoy my company, because whenever I am outside some members of the family join me usually perching high in a nearby pine. They peer down at me with bright yellow – rimmed eyes often making remarks that I have yet to comprehend.

 

Grackles radiate ‘brilliance’, and in fact, studies that have been done on these birds reveal how adept they are at problem solving. For example grackle intelligence was tested by posing glass cylinders full of water with bits of food floating just outside the birds reach. To grab the morsels, the birds had to drop in pebbles to raise the water levels. After a number of trials most of the grackles figured out that dropping pebbles into the water raised the water level so they could feed. They also learned that it was usually more efficient to use heavy pebbles to reach the snack, but if provided with too large stones the birds turned back to small pebbles to reach their goal.

 

Another test done had even more dramatic results. Silver and gold tubes of food were presented to the grackles but only the gold tubes had peanuts and bread in them. The grackles immediately chose the gold tubes, but when the food was placed in silver tubes the birds instantly chose them. These tests reveal not only problem solving ability but also the birds flexibility in terms of learning.

 

It’s important to note that grackles outperformed three species in the Corvid family.

 

Unfortunately the Northern grackle is listed as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature; the species may be approaching extinction. Indiscriminate overuse of pesticides is probably the primary cause. What disturbs me is that most of the literature doesn’t address the issue of Northern grackle decimation probably because it is considered a pest by humans. Many sites continue to suggest that the Northern grackle is widespread and common when just the opposite is the case.

 

In contrast, the Great Tailed grackle seems to be thriving in New Mexico and has expanded its range. At least in the western part of this country one species is not threatened so perhaps all is not lost.