Mary’s Return

Yesterday I learned (NPR) that a third of the oak trees in this country will be dead within 50 years; I also read that our sugary harbingers of spring, the Maples, are dying confirming my own observations. I try to imagine what fall will be like without fire on the mountain.

When I heard that pink dolphins, those denizens of the fresh waters of the Amazon are going extinct, I remembered their gift to me, grateful that I had been present as a receiver. On the last day of a three – year research journey (early 90’s) I was with my guide returning to a place on the river that I loved. It was absolutely calm; my guide and I drifted along a  serpentine tributary curtained and dripping with scarlet passionflowers, when a circle of pink dolphins surrounded the dugout.

 “I love you,” I repeated the words over and over in a trance-like state glued to the rippling brown water.

Round and round they came surfacing inches away from the side of the boat. Flippers splashing shades of pink and gray.

The Circle of Life was being inscribed in the water. 

When one broke the round to swim away, it was time to say goodbye. I thanked them for their steadfast company during my Amazon journey. 

Each of my many visits had begun with a dolphin encounter. My guides were initially astonished by the way these animals seemed to follow me up and down the river, and by the end of my first stay two of them shook their heads and rolled their eyes while declaring that the dolphins loved me. I believed them. 

Now, many years later I am saying goodbye to an enduring friendship with a species I adored…

Around the world, and especially here in the ‘United’ (?) States the virus continues to spike and another strain has been identified, more contagious than the first. Two million people are dead…

So many in this country have chosen individualism, bullying and brutality over caring for others. That or it’s opposite SILENCE. This attitude of entitlement/cruelty/indifference has split our country in two. Surrendering ego opens the door to relationship with others who are different than we are creating genuine community, but creating this bridge cannot happen unless we have the desire to care for and be with one another – regardless of difference. Bullies hide behind bluffing and guns – cowards at heart – they lie, live in fear, and do not compromise. Meeting in the middle in a respectful way seems to be an anathema to many. I confess that I do not know how to wrap my mind around the culture we have created or how to start a genuine conversation with people who despise me for who I am. 

That my grief overflows is reality.

 And yet…Perhaps the waxing winter Snow Moon is pulling me with her tides into a blue -green alignment…. because with all this horrific news and corresponding grief on so many levels, I continue to renew my commitment to the Earth, my home, and to the Circle of Life.  

Living with ‘what is’ involves coming to terms with the loss of non – human species, our own, and learning to live with uncertainty without too much anxiety or fear. I enter this state every day when I breathe deeply into my belly, and focus on a precious moment in time like the one last night…

It is Christmas Eve and I open the door to two masked loved ones that enter my fragrant candlelit living room. We share laughter, words, and stories and my dearest young friend offers me a gift. When I open the box a hand carved Standing Bear looks up at me. “Oh, he’s a male Brown Bear” the child cries out in excitement. Bears are some of her very best friends. The adult is astonished at the depth and skill of the carving; it’s as if the bear has come to life. I light the candle in the center of the wreath as I welcome my new friend into our home…

Later, after the two have gone, I reflect upon my joy.

 “This is the best Christmas ever”, I hear myself say.

 I have been given precious gifts – people to love and be loved by, the Brown Bear as talisman. I am aware that it is my natural leaning and genuine need, as well as my responsibility, to reciprocate.

And I do, by offering my deepest gratitude to my friends, the tender night, and Mary who has joined me in the room. She, who taught me how to be a receiver a long time ago, and then allowed me to move on…

Working notes:

Mary was my first love. I adored this blue robed Madonna with her cloak of moon and stars when I visited her in secret at the monastery on my way home from school.

It wasn’t until I reached adolescence that I feared that She would reject me. After all, she was virgin – pure and I was made of fire. At that point Mary Magdalene entered my life. For a few years I carried the split Mary’s within. With my brother’s suicide I gave up religion.

When I began to deal with my grief, Mary re-entered my life as the Mater Dolorosa. After my children left home I discovered feminism, learned of the Black Madonna, Tara and many other female deities. Once again, Mary faded into the background. As my relationships with my adult children began to disintegrate I turned more and more towards Nature for sustenance. The non-human world seemed to help diffuse pain that just wouldn’t quit. When my youngest son turned his back on me for reasons I cannot explain I became suicidal, while desperately attempting to create a bridge to an adult who now treated me as badly as my mother once did.

I endured and eventually became sick with a debilitating stomach disorder and then emphysema. I learned that toxic relationships can make a person ill.

I tried physical distance; it didn’t help. Eventually the North Country Woman called me home. How would I manage the winters?

One day last spring a boy came into my life, a boy that talked to trees, a young man who was barely 21 years old… We had so much in common we couldn’t stop conversing even as we explored the woods, discussed philosophy, planted new cedars. Unlike my sons he wanted to help. He built bridges over my brook, dug holes I could no longer dig myself, cut down trees that had died, hauled wood. The list continues to be endless as we become more and more entangled in each other’s lives. The word he used to describe our relationship the first day we met was “kinship.” Feeling truth surfacing I looked the word up.  Kinship is born of empathy, connection, similarity… Spiritually, he has become my son, my grandson. Both of us still marvel over how we found each other. And now our relationship has been extended to include his beloved Kim as well as both his parents. A great hole has been filled.

When the two arrived on Christmas Eve for a visit I felt loved, and it was enough. It wasn’t until afterwards while sitting in the dark that Mary appeared as a golden light inside the glow of the single lit candle; she hovered around my body in the dark on a cloud. Her Presence filled the room and all my senses with another kind of joy. As I looked into the wise and gentle face of the Brown Bear, I finally understood that he had opened the door…We are all connected. 

A Predator Comes to Call

I was putting old chandelier crystals on my little Norfolk Island pine as I do every year around this time of year to honor all evergreens. It was almost November. I recalled a childhood experience… my little brother and I used to clink the beveled crystal pieces together in order to hear the music they produced when adults weren’t paying attention. Now each crystal shimmered like liquid rain caught by the late afternoon light. Suddenly a loud crash and thump interrupted my reverie. Oh no, a bird had hit the window – hard. I raced out the door. Yellow talons shuddered, but the hawk was dead when I reached it.

 Hawk is considered to be a Messenger from the dead by some Indigenous peoples – and the tidings the bird brings may be positive or negative… Hawks speak to power and they are also predators. In my life, hawks appeared the day I buried my brother; I also found a dead one on the day my mother died.

Context fleshes out the individual tale…

I brought the sharp shinned hawk in the house to examine it in detail; later I buried it outside my window.

Close up it was easy to identify this hawk. He had a small head, a squared tail, short wings, and spindly yellow talons. This one was quite large and brown with yellow eyes (adults have orange to red eyes) so I knew it was a young female; they are sometimes almost twice the size of males. Some are large enough to be confused with the Coopers hawk who look almost exactly like the Sharp shinned hawk except for size; the former has a larger head and a more rounded tail. 

The Sharp shinned hawk is the smallest of the three Accipiter hawks; the other two are the previously mentioned Cooper’s hawk and the large grey Goshawk. I have seen all of them in flight or perched on a fruit tree near the house; I have also seen them in Abiquiu during the winter. 

Because I feed my birds, I frequently encounter this streak of lightening as it soars low close to the ground. It strikes with a vengeance – feathers fly – and the bird disappears. My dove Lily b sits in his plant window that is open to the sky above most of the day watching birds. When one of the Accipiters slams into the window it scares Lily b off his basket but otherwise does not harm him. Afterwards, he sometimes coos indignantly at the intrusion! So far none of the hawks that have hit his window have been killed in all these years; this one struck a window on the other side of the house… a very strange occurrence, the possible meaning of which struck me like lightening. Was this bird’s death the harbinger of another predator’s demise? The election was a few days away. I hardly dared to hope.

These hawks also hunt by perching in dense foliage or by approaching stealthily through dense cover, then bursting forth with incredibly swift flight to capture hapless bird in the air – a horrifying thing to witness.

The Sharp shinned hawks are also the most migratory of the Accipiters breeding north to the Canadian Shield in Canada and Alaska and wintering as far south as Panama. Apparently, during fall and spring migrations, these birds travel together with dozens passing by coastlines, lakes, and mountain ridges. Some, however, remain in one place year round. I have always had the Sharp shinned hawk around here during the winter, and I also noted that while in Abiquiu I had them as regular visitors during the winter months; sometimes one would perch on the porch railing and look in the window!

Even if you don’t see them a sudden absence of birds at your feeder will alert you to hawk presence. These days in spite of the fact that they prey on songbirds, seeing the Sharp shinned hawk reminds me that the species is in decline especially in the east and I am sorry about that. Climate change is reducing the range of Sharp shinned hawks who have lost/ or will lose 55 percent of their range overall.

These birds live in mixed or coniferous forests like mine, riparian areas and open deciduous woodlands like the cottonwood forest around the casita in New Mexico. They nest in groves of evergreens of some kind and avoid open country.

During courtship, pairs circle above calling; fluffy white under tail coverts may be spread out to side during some displays. Males fly high and dive steeply into woods (about 20 percent lose their lives hitting trees during flight through thick forest). The nest site is very well concealed, usually in a dense conifer (such as spruce or fir) within a wooded area or a thick grove, and is placed about 20-60′ above ground, but it can be lower or higher in dense cover. The structure is a platform of sticks, lined with bark strips, twigs, grass. Both sexes bring nest material, but the female probably does most of the building. Four or five eggs are laid and incubated by the female while the male brings food. The youngsters can fly at about six weeks of age but both parents remain nearby for another couple of weeks. In addition to songbirds these hawks feed their young rodents, bats, squirrels, lizards, frogs, and snakes, although songbirds are a mainstay.

Native peoples relied upon hawks to protect them through trying times. As messengers they brought news. Today I can’t escape the gut sense I had that having the hawk slam into my window meant a human predator would soon be vanquished. I carried this intriguing thought and hopeful feeling around for more than a week before getting the news.

Passionflower Autumn

maple outside my door one week ago

I am gazing out the window; an almost bare leafed apple tree’s sap has begun its descent for the winter months. Trees participate in a great round; breathing slows as the tree becomes drowsy. Soon the merciful cold will put her and others of her kind to sleep, not to awaken until life each tree’s life – blood thickens to rise and soar into the highest branches with a warming sun. Only tree roots stay awake throughout the winter searching for nutrients, exchanging carbon and carbohydrates, water, meeting new friends and avoiding foes, their root tips  branching, fusing, glowing – solving earth problems far more complex than those of humans… 

Last night a full white ‘falling leaf moon’ slid unobstructed through apple branches casting shadowy silver arms around our bed. My dogs were restless. I could see the rounded luminous pearl embedded in an ebony sky shining through all the deciduous trees that were dressed in scarlet splendor just a week ago. Last night those trees were bare.

There is a transparency to the forest that opens a secret door. With the wheat colored ferns curling earthward and the frosted brown ground cover laid low I can peer into the dark wood beyond the brook; such a comforting darkness spun out of deep Tree Peace and the change of season.

Raking leaves and apples into a pile of compost that will nourish next year’s garden and bringing down more wood to the porch are the last fall chores to be done. The mighty winter tasks are still ahead… coming with frigid temperatures and snowfall.

I am uneasy about winter because I tire easily now. Emphysema slows me down and lowers my energy on some days. I can no longer expect my body to respond to physical stresses with impunity. I must caregive myself. Fortunately, I have help nearby if I need it, and this makes the difference. 

Although I still climb mountains I do so more slowly, my breathing is often labored; yet in many ways this allows me to see the stark colors of a glacial stone, the ribs of the great oaks. I take more time to identify each tree, each new seedling, each mushroom or fungus. The details of my surroundings if anything sharpen my attention and intention to stay present like never before. I am never in a hurry. Just to be able to breathe and walk is an incredible gift.

Breathing in and out with the threat of Covid on the rise.

Today, light rain moistens the few remaining leaves; most are scattered like fading rose petals covering the ground, slippery at night. Out of habit I listen for a rushing brook and hear no sound. The parched earth is ‘a lady in waiting’… and waters are stilled in pools that make no sound. The nourishing cascade of rain is still being withheld. My grief blends with that of Nature. I cannot separate the two.

My biological family is no more and I am currently repeating a cycle of mourning, though hope of a different kind hovers on the horizon. 

The soft afternoon light and lengthening shadows seem to draw my eyes and heart towards the plants in my room. A giant passionflower is sending out more new shoots much to my astonishment (fall is usually the time these plants slow down). She is not yet ready for sleep. But most astounding are the small cuttings that languished for months during the fierce heat of summer as my fear and worry grew. Like me they collapsed in the sauna of stagnancy that characterized months of endless waiting for house help to appear. Three weeks ago in a moment of despair I almost threw these struggling root cuttings out.

 I could barely discern that little voice that comes from both inside me and from without out when it admonished “don’t give up- put them in your bedroom.” And so I did. 

Disbelieving.

 I have always had an unusual relationship with plants and although I was ignorant of its identity for maybe thirty years, the Passionflower had been coming to me in dreams, telling me to keep my ear to the ground. Eventually I grew a Passionflower cutting of my own into a vining bush of monumental proportions and this plant and I became inseparable. Once, one of her children died when I was in crisis and was about to make a terrible mistake… it was then that I was forced to acknowledge that on some level this plant and I shared a mind and a body. I kept focused on the fact that a new mother plant thrived here this summer when nothing else did. I couldn’t ignore the message. 

Almost immediately after bringing the cuttings into my room I noticed a dramatic change. Tips turned green, tiny nubs appeared at stem scars; life was returning in the fall! All this within a week. This morning when I gaze over at the healthy unfurling leaves I feel amazement, gratitude, even a few sparks of hope rising. That plant is telling me that although my life may appear to be fraught with difficulties, (house problems remain unsolved) something is happening… at least inside me.

Faith remains an anathema probably due to childhood/ adult abuse – Trust, even in Nature (except for my dogs), is withheld by some unconscious part of me. And yet, the presence of those green plant tips remind me of words I wrote without understanding “the deep green religion of hope lives on” and it manifests in the mind and body of these plants that are also the mind and body of me.

Postscript:

Trees, plants, and women have been in intimate relationship since the dawn of humankind. In our culture this kind of knowing has been bred out of us. However, if we choose to develop relationships with plants/trees inside or out and are able to keep an open mind these amazing Beings begin to speak through our bodies and minds. If we listen carefully we will learn which plants to use in order to help heal ourselves, which plants we need to grow for our emotional/spiritual/bodily health. Women were, of course, the first healers, and we still embody that ability. If ever there was a time to develop this relationship on a personal and collective level it is now.

Our Maine Woods

 Let’s not forget our Moose Maples 

Moose maple seeds – a bridal veil

In September we are all awaiting the vibrant color that the fall foliage will bring. The combination of decreasing daylight and the sudden cold weather brought instant changes to the trees this year.

 Hiking in the forest especially on mountain trails I come upon sudden splashes of intense crimson or bittersweet orange that literally take my breath away. Even now although the equinox has passed my body feels saturated with these remarkable glimpses of the Red maples that have already caught fire. This tree grows almost anywhere around here and has smooth gray bark. In swamps I call it swamp maple. Along the roads, in fields, or in the forest I pick up its toothed, multicolored or scarlet serrated leaves with their red stems and marvel at nature’s ingenuity. Each leaf is unique, although similar in shape to others of its kind. 

The hard Sugar maples for the most part seem a bit behind, although some show promise. Their leaves are similar in shape but have smooth edges and green stems and when these trees begin to lose their chlorophyll their deep golden, orange, scarlet color rivals that of the Red maple in ways any artist would admire. Many of us know that as the leaves stop producing chlorophyll anthrocyanin gives the reddish and purplish color to sumac and Norway maples and turns the other maples brilliant orange, fiery red, lemony yellow or gold. This year the drought has already taken a toll on the trees; many leaves have fallen early. For the past couple of days the wind has brought down drifts of parched leaves that crunch like paper under my feet and I find myself hoping that this trend of wind driven days will not continue…

On this property many years ago I encouraged the Red maples to grow as they pleased knowing that one day I would have a veritable feast for my eyes without even having to leave the cabin. That day has arrived and what I love best is watching the process of subtly shifting shades that intensify day to day. As much as I love to hike into the higher spots on surrounding mountains I take, if possible, even more pleasure from gazing out the window the moment I awaken each morning…

from my window

One maple tree escapes most people’s attention even in the fall and that is the Striped maple. Lately when I have been hiking up the mountains I notice that many of these understory trees have leaves that are browning, drooping pitifully, with leaves curling inward due to the drought. Others have turned that pale lemony hue, providing a lovely contrast with browning vegetation on the forest floor. Occasionally, I find fallen branches with leaves attached. Witnessing a “Moose maple” leaf as large as a dinner plate is always a surprise. In the filtered light of the forest these trees seem especially beautiful to me, and I wonder why so few people notice them…

Down below the house I have a striped maple growing by the brook that has managed to survive deer browsing winter after winter. This tree is now about 35 feet high and its spiraling sprays or wings of seeds that cascade below the leaves are the most beautiful of all the maples to my mind. When I gaze at the tree in the fall I am reminded of a bridal veil. In the spring after leafing out bright yellow bell-shaped flowers appear in long, pendulous clusters. Curiously Striped maples are predominantly male trees, that is, their flowers are male. But the species exhibits sexual dimorphism or plasticity. If changes occur in the canopy and new conditions seem favorable, trees can alter sex, bearing female flowers in a single generation.

These trees thrive in shady landscapes as well as providing food and habitat for birds and pollinators. They are native to the forests of eastern North America favoring slopes and ravines because of their need for moisture. They are not long lived trees. And many don’t survive intense browsing by ungulates to make it to adulthood. Mine has multiple trunks, probably a result of browsing. Moose maple has smooth pale green striated bark. One interesting fact is that the smooth skin of Moose maple can photosynthesize in winter.

The leaves of striped maples are the largest of any of the maple family, seven inches across at the base, nearly twice the size of the leaves of sugar maples. The leaves are long-stalked, and have three to five finely-toothed lobes. If you pick up a leaf and compare it to that of another maple it is easy to see the correspondence between the leaves in spite of the size difference. The lime green of the striped maple during the summer is one of the forest’s most vibrant colors. In the fall the pale yellow leaves indicate the absence of anthocyanin that transforms most other maple leaves into a festival of reds and oranges.

 Although I haven’t mentioned the Norway, Silver or the Mountain maple I must include them in this general discussion because we also have these trees in Maine. The Silver maple is a coastal tree.

 After having spent four winters in New Mexico I am perhaps even more appreciative of this astonishing autumn painting that stretches across the land. Although the golden Cottonwoods along riparian areas in NM are a feast worth seeing, nothing can compare to astounding colors of the trees in our own Maine woods.

Kinship

Mark’s clump of cedars

Creating Community

Yesterday I trotted down the hill to water my cedar garden with a container full of mineral rich rain-water. I opened the gate and entered the enclosure Marcus had fashioned. The wire stretched around the back of Trillium Rock and followed the uneven contours of the land ending at an entrance that completed the meandering oval. We hoped that to protect the baby cedars that had been planted inside from being damaged by woodland grazing animals.

 I felt a sense of peace as I entered the space but was unprepared for the strange blurring of boundaries or the heightening sensation of dissolution followed by oneness that stole over me as I stood there quietly. Simultaneously, I could feel myself being connected as if by invisible threads not just to the seedlings, but to the whole space on a level that also dissolved differences. Dissolution and Oneness. The experience peaked and then evaporated leaving me standing there wondering what had happened even before I bent to water and inspect each seedling. Most peculiar, the two sensations – Dissolution and Oneness – suddenly seemed to me to be the same experience.

 I also thought about the feeling of being connected by threads…Could it also be that the cooperative mycorrhizal network beneath my feet was drawing me in on some level, possibly communicating its desire to include me in something that was beyond my conscious ability to comprehend? As fantastic as this idea sounded, I thought it might be true. I imagined being part of a wild decentralized underground fungal network that stretched across the continent under the land and sea, a network without a center, yet one whose minute hyphae probably explored every inch of this earth, each root tip branching, learning adapting, changing… Yes, anything was possible.  

As I watered each seedling looking for changes in leaf structure or color that might indicate problems, I left this mind-bending tangle of possibilities behind to reflect upon other events that led to creating the garden…

Two years ago I lost a beautiful adult cedar that I had planted in front of the cabin to winter deer grazing. I was still mourning the loss of my Guardian tree, one that my friend and neighbor Mark had let me dig up from his land 15 years ago.

 Last year I replaced it with another cedar seedling, left for the winter, and returned to discover a really nasty tree-hating neighbor had pulled apart my rock garden and crushed my baby cedar. 

 This summer after an earnest conversation with Mark who complained that too many deer were eating the cedars before they could mature, I decided to dig up some seedlings to plant them around here somewhere…  I asked my young friend Marcus, Mark’s son to help me. 

 I chose Trillium Rock as the backdrop for the cedar garden because I loved this granite stone that overlooked the brook. My brother’s ashes had been lovingly placed in the ground on the other side of the glacial boulder that was covered in lichens and moss. Recently a new three lobed trillium graced the top of the rock. A poignant memory surfaced one evening when I was down there a few days ago: my brother had given me a cross section of cedar that looked just like a flower for Christmas the year before he died…He loved cedars too… 

In front of the stone Marcus had felled a couple of dead trees leaving beautiful tree patterns that lay flush with the uneven ground. These created perfect niches for seedlings to thrive in rich woodland soil. A small forest was sprouting inside the enclosure – spruce, hemlock, a clump of balsams, ash, and maple seedlings were thriving, and just to the right of the enclosure stood a young adult cedar who, thanks to the tree felling, now had full access to the sun. I knew that trees helped each other and their kin and I hoped the adult would adopt the seedlings after they were planted, encouraging their growth by funneling nutrients to them by way of the underground mycorrhizal network that supported all the trees in this area. 

 After digging and potting up my six seedlings, Marcus arrived with a clump of cedars his father had rescued while mowing his field! I cared for these too until that last day when, at my request, Marcus dug three more cedars from a nearby ditch to save them from road slaughter, and we planted all but one, bringing the cedar garden to life in the process.

 Marcus dug in the remaining cedar near the spot where my Guardian cedar once stood… he reminded me that this little cedar would have access to nutrients from the decaying roots of the Guardian tree, a thought that pleased me. 

 Although I knew that I wouldn’t live long enough to see any of these trees reach adulthood (cedars grow slowly; they are second succession trees) Marcus certainly would, and I loved the idea of a cedar grove springing up in front of that rock. One day my ashes would provide these trees with precious minerals… I also loved the idea of being able to nurture another cedar that grew so close to the cabin.

Ever since the idea of creating a cedar garden became a reality in my mind I began to see cedars in places where I had never noticed them before. I would be walking along a familiar woods road, when I’d get a weird feeling  – it often seemed like something was watching me. I would look up and a cedar would pop into view – one I could have sworn had not been there before. I also discovered seedlings hidden in stone walls – in much the same manner.

 I reached two conclusions regarding these odd experiences. The first seemed to come from the trees directly. The cedars were communicating that they appreciated my love and my concern for their welfare by capturing my attention. They wanted me to see them to let me know that

The second one made me laugh. I thought Nature might have a sense of humor and was showing me how much I routinely missed even when I thought I was perceptive! 

What I didn’t know was that Marcus, who spent as much time in the woods as I did, was having the exact same kind of experiences. When we traded stories Marcus remarked that as humans (although) we are limited by our perceptive abilities – if we focus on and are deeply engaged with cedar trees we learn more about the cedar story – but this doesn’t mean that relationships with other trees disappear. He believes that with improving focus and attention it is possible to extend our perceptive abilities to include having relationships with other tree species too – at the same time – an idea that really intrigues me. My sense had been that there is a foreground and a background and that we humans can’t inhabit both places simultaneously.

It’s probably important to mention that both of us have intimate relationships with trees and talk to them routinely, believing they respond to us primarily through our bodily senses. Rarely, through words. More frequently through sudden insights. With 50 years between us – Marcus is 21 – it amazes me that this boy and I share such similar perspectives.

  For over a month I have been entering the garden through its chicken wire fence at least once a day. When I water the trees both Marcus and his father are never far from my mind. Gradually I have come to realize that the cedar garden is a place that includes not only the cedars (and a beautiful patch of land), but two other people besides me. Together we have created a community where kinship becomes reality.

Going Bats

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Two nights ago I went down to the newly cut field, the one I call “Field of Dreams” because it opens to the Northeastern sky allowing me to view the Great Bear, Cassiopeia and other constellations, meteor showers, as well as rising winter moons (my favorite). I sat down in the stillness listening to the crickets under a charcoaled sky. The rising moon was mostly hidden in the trees that rise over the southeast. Oh, it was so peaceful there with the sound of running brook water nearby. Newly mown hay wafted up embracing me in a cloud of scent.

 

 

Suddenly, to my great astonishment the sky was filled with bats. Bats? Maine has suffered a steep decline in some bats because of white nose syndrome. It had been years since I had seen so many. They dove around my head as my spirits soared. I noticed almost immediately that two sizes of bats were visible. And they kept on coming.

 

 

I left time behind me while gazing upwards. When I came to I realized that the bats were all appearing from the same direction. They must have a roosting place nearby, and I thought I might know just where…

 

 

I stayed watching the show until the sky grew dark. Last night I returned to the field at the same time wondering if I would see the bats again. This time I was rewarded by seeing bats emerge from the same direction after about a five – minute wait. The difference this time was that only the larger bats were visible. I was puzzled. Watching silhouettes against the sky made it impossible to determine the kind of bat or bats that I had seen but I guessed that one species was the Little Brown Bat and perhaps the other was the Big Brown Bat? I knew that females were larger than the males but this couldn’t account for the distinct difference in size between the two kinds I saw.

 

 

The Little Brown Bat is a species that is well known. They are very small with an overall body size that is from 2.5 inches to 4 inches. However, in flight their wingspan can stretch to eleven inches. They also weigh no more than half an ounce.

 

 

In contrast the Big Brown Bat has a body that is 4-5 inches in length, just the size of the larger bats I saw. Their wingspan is 11 to 13 inches. Surely I had seen both species that first night?

 

 

I already knew that these two kinds of bats roosted together during the winter months. Both species mate in late summer /fall. The Little Brown bat gives birth to one pup about two months later; while the Big Brown bat practices delayed implantation and doesn’t give birth until spring. Both bats have young that are totally dependent upon the mother for at least a month.

 

 

Both bats prefer areas with springs, swamps, brooks etc because there are so many insects available and my little marshy field provided the bats with a perfect environment.

 

 

Both bats have a large distribution throughout the United States so we have them here and in New Mexico. Weirdly, there are no Little Brown bats in either Texas or Florida. Pesticides?

 

The summer I stayed in Abiquiu I would wait until dusk and then go out while the cicadas (cactus dodgers) were screeching to watch the evening sky dance in the heat. The bats I saw in Abiquiu all seemed to be the same size. I guessed; Little Brown bats. However, even in the open spaces of the desert I never saw more than a few streaking through the dusk at one time.

 

 

Both species hibernate during the winter. Both bats like warm caves/mines (hibernacula) during colder months but during the summer they roost in hollow trees, rock outcroppings etc and even around/on houses.

 

 

Bats can consume up to half of their body weight each night and most captures occur during flight. Both have canines that are shaped in a way that allows them to hold onto their prey while flying. They will also use the tip of their wings to capture food. On occasions when food is scarce bats slow their heart rate to conserve energy while sleeping during the day.

 

 

To locate their prey, most insect-eating bats use echolocation.  The bat emits a high frequency sound that bounces off objects in their environment. They can then determine the location and size of prey by listening to the sound echo that returns to them. Both bats are nocturnal and hunt most actively for a few hours after dusk.  New mothers sometimes eat more than their own body weight in a single night. Eating insects plays an important role in the bats’ ecosystem (and ours!) by controlling bug populations near their roost sites. Prior to summer/fall mating Little Brown bats often appear in large swarms – if the size difference hadn’t been so obvious between the two bats I saw I would have assumed that a sky full of bats had to do with mating.

 

 

Once the young are born, they are dependent on their mother for food and warmth. At about one month of age, these bats can fly and catch insects on their own. Each mother has one pup a year and can identify her offspring based on scent and calls.

 

White nose syndrome has caused a steep decline in Little Brown bat populations. This devastating fungal disease affects hibernating bats and kills them. So far non – hibernating bats seem immune. Like so many diseases this one arrived from another continent. (Humans always seem to be the vector for the spread of diseases, and now we have Corona Virus that is killing us too). One source suggests that the Big Brown bat seems to be more resistant to this threat but I couldn’t find other support for this notion.

 

During hibernation bats can withstand a temperature change of nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit without suffering any damage.

 

Pesticide build-up, deforestation, and mining are detrimental to all bats. These threats to bats should be taken seriously because we need bats to help control unwanted insect populations.

 

In the meantime I am going to continue to walk down to the field each night to see what might be happening with the bats, these curious mammals who have captured my imagination with their presence. I want to know just how long they will stay around.

Empty Nest

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Three of my empty nests – the top one on the square board is the one I found last night – the one above has nasturtium seeds in it)

 

Last night on our evening walk I found another one.

 

This nest was small and loosely woven with grasses and animal hair. When I picked it up it was so fragile I was afraid it would crumble like the mud – bottomed nest I found last week. I have picked up more empty nests during these last eleven months than I have ever found in my life during one brief period.

 

Last September I discovered that the supporting beams of my little cabin were crumbling under too much moisture; a problem that worsened dramatically during the four years I spent in Abiquiu New Mexico. One summer I never returned at all…

 

I immediately found a contractor who assured me he would do the work the following spring for a hefty price, after shoring up the timbers for the coming winter. Shortly thereafter I left for New Mexico. However, by then it was impossible for me to absolve myself from taking full responsibility for the state of my little house. I had abandoned her. At one point I even put the house on the market, believing I would move to NM permanently.

 

Somehow I “forgot” that I belonged to this land; that I am a North Country woman who couldn’t simply leave either her land or her home without suffering dire consequences. For all the years I have lived here I have known that the house lived too – literally. When it rains her beams swell; in dry weather she breathes well. This house is ensouled. Unlike many other folks, I am wed to the powers of place and this modest log cabin.

 

Last winter I experienced a reckoning, as it became clear that staying in NM was never going to work for me for a multitude of reasons. Curiously, friendships I thought I had made began to dissolve; one almost invisibly. The changes were subtle but I was keenly aware of one particular shift by early December – they also occurred with other people. My closest neighbor and I rarely saw each other; we now led totally separate lives.

 

I spent the winter isolated on a level I hadn’t experienced before. This was a strangely positive experience because it opened the door to allow the Powers of Nature to guide me, and even before the Covid virus struck I knew essential ties had been broken.

 

Within a three – month period I found three intact birds’ nests, no small feat in the desert where the west winds are relentless, shattering branches, and ripping away foliage with impunity. To find a whole bird’s nest was a rarity; to find three raised serious questions. Of course, I thought about my little cabin and was struck by the correspondence between my empty house in Maine and these empty nests…Nature was communicating with me on a level I couldn’t ignore.

 

I missed the obvious fact that I was being emptied

 

When I returned to Maine in April I discovered almost immediately that the contractor had backed out of our agreement. Then I began an odyssey to find someone to do the necessary work. Building new houses in this area was occurring at such a furious pace that every contractor was booked for the year. To find anyone who would do a job like this one appeared to be impossible. Endless phone calls with no response became the norm during the course of spring and early summer.  Feeling quite desperate, I worked hard to keep myself from going under. I had been told that the cabin would not survive another winter.

 

I continued to find more empty nests.

 

One day I met a young man on the road who happens to be a new neighbor. Because he had a sign on his truck that advertised that he was a carpenter I mentioned my plight and asked him half heartedly if he knew of anyone who could do the work I needed. Much to my astonishment he responded that I should call his boss….

 

When I did, Michael came to the house, looked at the job and told me he thought he could fit me in this year. A miracle. It was almost July.

 

Today is the first day of September, my birth month, and last week I was given a quote I could afford and told that the work would begin soon.

 

When I found the little tattered nest yesterday I thought again about the synchrony between the collection of empty nests I have acquired (10 in all – maybe) and the hope that this crumbling nest will finally be re-woven from the ground up, receiving the structural help she so desperately needs.

 

To be emptied is the prerequisite to being filled (repaired), loved, supported in ways perhaps beyond my present imagining…

In Praise of Snakes

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friendly garter snake

 

This morning I was up by the garage watering my herb patch when I met one of my friends, a small shy garter snake. Because I keep fresh water in a dish for him and for his relatives, and perhaps for other reasons, these snakes have befriended me. They appear when I do slithering out of subterranean hiding places and circle around with forked tongues extended apparently “reading” me  – or that’s how I interpret their actions. It is impossible not to note that their intentions are always friendly. If their water dish is empty, when I fill it the littlest one who is always waiting (except on rainy days) dips in for a drink. This morning a large three foot long garter snake –my biggest – arrived almost immediately afterwards and the baby slipped away. Henry didn’t seem thirsty, just curious, as he spiraled through the herb garden like a fat striped serpentine ribbon. I have made it a practice to have conversations with these snakes if they stay around; or at least monologues. I bend down as low as I can so that we are communing closer to eye level, sometimes I sit on the ground. I am particularly drawn to a snake’s extraordinary eyes.

 

My snakes know that I am very appreciative of the job they do during the warmer months. They keep the garage free of rodents, and in the winter they cluster in huge bunches in my woodpile to sleep. There is a southern window that they all gather in during spring days in order to warm up. I deliberately leave a space for them to sunbathe in that window. Shedding snakeskins decorate many logs in my woodpile and presently I have one that is draped over the window like a feathery rope. I am not sure what that snake was doing while shedding his winter coat!

 

Few people share my enthusiasm for snakes or my belief that we have formed a relationship that has endured over many years. Routinely, I am accused of the usual – anthropomorphizing – projecting my caring feelings onto cold blooded animals that are incapable of emotion – the ultimate dismissal of one person’s experience that I have come to resent, mostly because I know better.

 

Recently, the discipline of Neuroscience has come to my aid. Neurobiology and Neuropsychology are disciplines that study the nervous system and the brain from different perspectives and now these interdisciplinary sciences are extending their research to include non – human species (although how they continue to separate the brain from the body remains an enigma to me – the nervous system extends throughout the body – it doesn’t simply exist in the brain).

 

Startling information is emerging. One of the most critical pieces from my point of view, is that this cutting edge science is dismantling the hierarchy of intelligence – the one I learned in school that privileges human intelligence over that of any other living being – surely everyone recalls the pyramid – mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish – all in descending order. Of course, humans were considered the most developed of all beings. Currently it is believed that octopus match humans in intelligence.

 

When five Neuroscientists published in the prestigious and conservative sceintific journal Nature  in 2012 (the declaration of consciousness) that numerous studies of the brain revealed that all non human animals had the same structures as humans to develop consciousness/self awareness, this remarkable information went unnoticed, probably because according animals with intelligence and feelings would force us to begin to make other choices regarding how they are being treated.

 

Scientists and psychologists are currently working together to help us understand that emotional intelligence is actually more keenly developed in animals than in humans. Emotional intelligence is predicated on an individual’s ability to be self aware, to “read” an individual’s intentions accurately (empathy), to manage strong positive or negative emotions with restraint, and to integrate these abilities in order to make informed decisions based on the situation at hand. Animals have to be able to use all these facets of emotional intelligence to navigate their worlds in order to survive. Humans, unfortunately, do not.

 

Let’s first use the example of my garter snake who circles my feet. His sensitive tongue registers the heat in my body (superinfrared thermal detection ability) but he wouldn’t be circling me so calmly if he couldn’t read my intentions towards him accurately. That he feels some kind of emotional empathetic connection seems obvious; he chooses my company. When another larger snake enters the picture, he simply slips away; Aggression of any sort isn’t an issue. Animals know how to control their feelings and act appropriately.

 

Timber rattlesnakes have been studies extensively and it is now known that they have social ties that include kin recognition, group defense and parental care. Littermates actively choose each other’s company, a behavior I have witnessed with garter snakes in my garage. Intentional gatherings include denning, and communal nest sites, and snakes that touch each other with their tails. One rattlesnake, a soon to be mother, was attached to another young snake that was not her son and actively threw herself in his way to stop him from being exposed to a predator. Another diamondback traveled a long way three times to be with a former mate who was ill during the dead of winter. More heartrending, a male sidewinder was observed embracing a dead female who had been killed by a car. Another rattlesnake that was being studied in the wild had a long – term relationship with a scientist.  Yet, when her babies were born she barred the way to them from her ‘friend’ by stretching herself across his path to stop him from reaching her young (she could have bitten him instead). Some rattlesnakes help care for young belonging to sister snakes. Male rattlers use stacking as a form of male guarding. To protect a female a male will coil over the top of a female to disguise her presence. Some snakes form bonding pairs. One curious observation is that snakes form female to female, female to juvenile, and juvenile to juvenile friendships but no male friendships seem to exist although hostility/aggression between males is not present.  In ‘combat’ dances between males, which are expressions of male dominance there is always a winner and a loser but no damaging or lethal violence is ever exercised. Scientists are quick to note that individual differences exist but that these social behaviors do occur with some regularity with all snakes that have been studied. It is important to note that snakes are frightened of humans and try to avoid them. Just try to catch a snake – its almost impossible – they move so fast. When rattlesnakes rattle their tails they are demonstrating their fear of us, not their intention to strike.

 

Snakes that are re- located rarely survive. Like many other wild animals they are wedded to a particular place, and when removed will attempt to return.

 

I am struck by the fact that my garter snakes all seem to inhabit a very small area. My cabin is situated just down the hill from the garage and I have never see one of these snakes around the garden or house in all these years.

 

In closing, snakes share traits associated with other social mammalian species: they are long lived, late sexual bloomers, cluster in groups at watering holes and elsewhere, spend their lives in wed to a particular place or territory, and show mothering personalities.

 

Should you attempt to befriend a snake you might be pleasantly surprised!

Herb Talk

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Bee Balm in my garden

 

Paul Stamets, mycologist (mushroom expert) and author states that plants that live in a particular habitat develop their own immune systems. When I read those words I realized that on some level I have sensed this truth ever since I first began to use herbs for healing purposes but I never really thought about it until I read that statement.

However, when I first started using herbs medicinally it seemed important that I gather them from around my house, or in nearby field and forest. After reading Paul’s declaration I realized that using an herb from my woods or garden was probably going to be more effective in treating a problem I have because I am already living in a habitat that is sensitized to any potential health problems that might arise with respect to its inhabitants including me, and because I am in direct relationship with my land. An “Ah –Ha” moment.

Of course, this notion makes little sense unless one predicates it on the belief that all life is interconnected at a fundamental mycelial level. Without fungus, no life could have arisen on land. Today scientific evidence supports the idea that all life is connected by the net of mycelium that stretches across the earth’s land mass underground – “the wood wide web”.

Anyone that studies plants learns quickly that each species has defense mechanisms that protect the plant.  For example, many have anti-viral, anti –bacterial, anti-inflammatory properties, and plants that live together work together so extending this notion to include habitat immunization makes good sense.

The second idea that motivated me to work with some plants and not with others was based on my personal relationships with certain herbs. Some plants seemed to resonate with me more than others and it was those plants I was drawn to. I used my intuition and other senses to make these decisions even while the doubter droned on. Eventually, the positive results of my use of a particular herb shut the annoying voice up.

When I studied medicinal plants in the Amazon I learned that these Indigenous people, like me, used the plants that grew naturally in the areas they inhabited and they too made their decisions based on having personal relationships with certain plants, some of which spoke to them. Each healer had an individual garden located in the area in which s/he lived, on the edge of the community. Healers in other villages that were located further up the Amazonian tributaries  (some were days away by dugout) treated the same ailments using the plants that grew there; some were the same, others were different. All treatments seemed to work, which baffled me until I learned that herbs grown in a specific area would probably benefit the people who lived in direct relationship with that particular piece of land even if they were different.

What united me to people of the Amazon, Indigenous peoples, and other country folk like me was that all of us were in relationships with plants and a particular place, something many folks in this transient western culture don’t ever experience. I wonder if this isn’t part of the reason we can continue to decimate the planet – a lack of belonging to place? I know lots of people who own houses and property but never develop a relationship with their land and without it a person remains rootless. Soul-less?

I love my little house, but it was built on land that claimed me the first time I set foot on it in the fog and rain. The visceral sense of belonging slammed through me, leaving me stunned almost senseless. When I came to I can still remember the sounds of water drawing me towards the brook and the red buck with his velvet antlers….

Still, I could have never imagined what is so obvious to me now after living in New Mexico for four winters. I thought I could leave home in exchange for a warmer winter climate, but this land refused to let me go. Although I loved being a desert visitor, I was never able to put down roots there.

I have a deeply personal relationship with the earth as a whole but ‘my land’ contains me; I am wed to her and to the forests, fields, ponds, and mountains here in Maine. So, to return to the subject of herbs, it’s not surprising that I am naturally drawn to use herbs that grow in this area because they are the ones that will be most useful. The soils (composed of thousands/trillions of miles of mycelium) in which these plants grow have antiviral, antibacterial, properties etc. that make the plants powerful healers.

Just now I am awash in the scarlet, wine, and magenta flowers of bee balm, an herb that seemed to ‘choose’ me as soon as I planted a few shoots of it the first year I lived here. I watched it spread through my entire flower garden eventually spilling over the edges to grow wild   around the house. I still gaze out my windows with stark amazement at this plant that is still popping up in new places.

Hummingbirds love the flowers and presently I must have at least 50 hummingbirds that are happily extracting flower nectar from dawn to dusk. Of all my pollinators, bee balm seems to draw in the most bees and butterflies at this time of year (July and August)… I always keep a flower or two in the house and I love to walk around crushing a leaf or two to release bee balm’s  scent.

I collect bee balm leaves to include in the ‘sun tea’ I make, dry others for winter use. I also use the leaves to relieve the itches caused by bug bites. All parts of the plants are edible but I can never eat the flowers – they are simply too beautiful! If I develop a cold I use the infused leaves to keep nasal passages open. A tea made from the leaves relieves nausea from gastric upset. Inhaling the leaves acts as a bronchial dialator. Studies of the herbs antibacterial, antimycotic, and anti-inflammatory properties demonstrate that bee balm inhibits microorganism growth and is superior to hydrocortisone when used in combination with vitamin B6.

Bee balm is native to the Northeastern United States, but also grows on the west coast and down into Mexico. The plant grows wild near streams, woodland edges, and in abandoned fields. It belongs to the mint family. Most sources say it needs full sun, but I can attest to the fact that it thrives in partial shade because during the summer my deciduous trees shade most of the bee balm I grow here.

Every July, I look forward to ‘fire on the mountain’ as this plant begins to bloom bringing in masses of pollinators who are drawn much like the hummingbirds are to the scarlet blooms in particular. These plants also repel other garden pests. Now that we are approaching mid August I am noticing that the blossoms have a raggedy look to them, and soon the season will come to a close…. But there is always next year. Personally, I can’t imagine having a garden that didn’t include this most beautiful and useful herb.

Ecocide and PTSD

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The fierce light of the white star pierced her thick white fur as the mother froze. She was trying to imagine how her cubs could make the jump from one jagged ice flow to another in the cracked deep blue waters.

Just a few months ago she had birthed them on solid well frozen ice – cubs who knew nothing but nurture – feelings of safety, love, rich abundant milk   – trusting their mother implicitly – the solid blue ice that supported them was home. Now her children faced the threat of death by drowning… A mountain of despair flooded the bear’s mind and body. Blind fear slammed through her young. To lose her cubs was more than the mother could bear. All the accumulated bear wisdom – 50 million years of bear knowing – could not help her now. Her children were helpless.

A polar bear that is forced to confront a situation like this one will live with consequences that will change her life. Nothing has prepared her for this day.  Just how she will be affected we do not know…but developing PTSD is a possibility/probability. (Her children, if they survive will have a 1 -3 chance of developing this disorder as well).

According to the most recent research in Neuroscience/Neuropsychology PTSD is a physiological state brought on by sudden trauma, or prolonged trauma that stretches back to childhood. Either way this trauma affects the individual at a cellular level, pre-disposing that animal or person to experience the world through a “darker lens”, one that may be dominated by fear. There is no cure.

Postscript:

The etiology of PTSD involves shock or violence of one kind or another. PTSD may occur suddenly as a result of a single trauma or it may extend over a lifetime beginning in early childhood. Approximately one out of three individuals (animal or human) may develop this disorder.

It is only recently that non human animals have been diagnosed with PTSD. Generations of wild animals like elephants, and whales who have been tortured and hunted down without mercy are starting to ‘crack’ – some erupting into acts of rage that are unprecedented…

Why? They have been unhinged by man’s violence.

Violence begets violence.

Neuroscience/Neuropsychology is providing us with explanations for this apparently bizarre behavior thanks to scientific researchers like Gay Bradshaw and Naturalists like Charlie Russell and myself.

I think one of the most important consequences of this cutting edge research/understanding is that it takes PTSD out of the category of “mental disorders” (removing a stigma) and places it where it belongs – in the cells of our bodies. PTSD is a physiological disorder.

Having suffered from PTSD for a lifetime it was a relief to have validation for my gut sense that this thing was ‘living in my body’, and that there was nothing I could do to stop “it” once the disorder was activated by yet another social stress.

Intuitively I knew…

As a researcher I recognized PTSD in animals that I studied years ago but could never find evidence to support my observations until now.

For anyone interested in understanding more about PTSD in wild animals (and more insight into our own behavior) I highly recommend Gay Bradshaw’s books “Conversations with Bears” or  “Carnivore Minds.”