Mid -Summer Musings: Lady in Waiting

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(a fragment of author’s woodland path network… note the thin ribbon path in the center – the bears make these impossibly narrow path by walking in their own footsteps)

 

Yesterday at the Mid-Summer Turning I took a woodland walk in warm summer rain and then spent a quiet day at home. I visited with a few tadpoles and green frogs that inhabit my vernal pool, sat on the bridge and listened to the flow of water over stone at the waterfall, a place so dear to my heart. I also spent quiet time reflecting…

 

For too long I have been a woman in waiting… waiting for diagnoses for myself and my dog, waiting for direction – I need to make a decision about where I am supposed to live – waiting for intuitive nudges, waiting for calls from loved ones that don’t come, waiting for this dark cloud to lift, praying for the power of the spirit and body of the earth to fill this empty vessel that has become who I am.

 

Negative feelings overwhelm me. The political has become too personal. That I am in spiritual crisis is a given.

 

Too much waiting. Too much time spent in a collective future that appears too dark, too hopeless, too frightening, a future that seems to mirror my own life struggle. I do not sleep at night. I fight to inhabit my body because fear keeps me walking on air, obliterating my ability to experience somatized peace in any form.

 

Yesterday’s meander through my woodland paths (following in the footsteps of the bears), sitting by the water, clearing brush, smelling the sweet scent of pine, taking deep pleasure in the fact that enough rain has fallen to keep grasses, ferns and mosses deep green soothed me. I noted that acorns and beechnuts abound for the bears, graceful chokecherry sprays, grapevines, apples and crabapple branches are heavy with fruit. I really listened to the poignant songs of chickadees and mourning doves feeling deep pleasure. All these simple acts and occurrences earthed me…. I experienced deep summer as a gift.

 

I was grateful to be grateful.

 

I also re-membered… Embodying Nature as a “Lady in Waiting” I could give thanks for the first seed-pods, the abundance of fruits, herbs and flowers, the gifts of the harvest to come. I spent the day in the present and experienced deep abiding peace.

 

Grace.

 

A troubling conversation ended the day catapulting me back into the dismal future, resurrecting despair, negative thinking, hopelessness – once again I found myself living in a place I can no longer afford to inhabit for my own sanity…

 

Disturbed sleep did not obliterate the dream I had.

 

I am with Hope my little Chihuahua who is also my long dead dog Rinkie (who has since her death always acted as a Voice from the Beyond.) I watch Hope as she runs down towards an underground chamber or tunnel dug into the earth below ground level. I call out to her but she is disappearing into the tunnel and I am awash in fear…

 

Death is stalking me.

 

I don’t want to remember the dream but when I re –read my mid summer ritual this morning I see the words I have written: I am praying for the power of the spirit and body of the earth to fill this empty vessel I have become.

 

Perhaps my dogs are the guides I need.

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I Cannot Breathe

 

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I write about

fish gasping for oxygen.

I am diagnosed

with emphysema.

Fish and woman,

are inextricably linked.

My parents

cigarette fumes

certainly paved the

way for years of puffing

the magic dragon.

I own my part,

But do not choose to blame.

My plight is not

the whole story.

The trees are burning

The earth is on fire.

Even here in the North Country

polluted south winds

breathe filth into the air.

In summer the sky is thick

with noxious particles

not present

50 years ago.

Whole forests-

precious lungs

of the earth

turn to ash.

Smoke clogs my lungs

Factories spew CO2

Cars belch black smoke

Pesticides congest.

We are dying

for lack of air.

The North wind sighs,

Exhales…

Yes.

 

Working notes:

 

I recently received a diagnosis of emphysema that frankly shocked me. 45 percent of my lung capacity is gone. Although I knew my body had been struggling because I wasn’t feeling well and that my oxygen count was low I couldn’t get a diagnosis from the doctor that treated me – my symptoms were ignored – and eventually I was told to see a counselor. It was all in my head…

 

Talk about neglect. I have had this disease for approximately a year – perhaps a little longer.

 

I certainly am culpable because I smoked cigarettes as a young adult, but this is not the whole story. We are also dealing with an enormous amount of air pollution that is clogging everyone’s lungs, not just mine.

 

My disease is only a symptom of a much larger problem. One solution would be to plant billions of trees. As it is now we are destroying the same number of trees that could help us to breathe, trees that could clean the atmosphere, trees that science has proven lower anxiety levels, trees that could sequester CO2 to help us stem the flow of climate change.

 

Trees could help if we would only let them.

Fish Tails

When the two year old pulled the silvery gold fish out of the pond to the cheers of her five and seven year old siblings, parents, and grandmother, I shuddered involuntarily.

 

The young perch impaled by sharp hook was gasping for oxygen as the adults allowed the fish to hang helplessly on its hook while pictures were taken. Afterwards the group watched the fish flounder, still gasping, on the bottom of the boat. The toddler was applauded for her catch, while the terrified fish flipped over and over attempting to escape back into the water. It takes a while for a beached fish to die a death of asphyxiation.

 

I called out; “Please don’t let the fish suffer – knock it out to put it out of its misery.” The two adults standing with me on the dock along with the three adults in the boat ignored my plea.

 

I was invisible.

 

Just like the fish.

 

I repeated my respectful request twice. When it became obvious that no one was listening, I turned, and said to no one in particular, “I’m leaving” as I walked off the dock. The fish was still struggling for breath. It takes a while for a beached fish to die a death of asphyxiation.

 

The day went black.

 

Walking home from the pond I reflected upon the scene that I had just witnessed. Two generations of adults had just passed on a lie to a third generation of youngsters. Animals don’t suffer; fish have no feelings.

 

Even though scientists now know that fish do have feelings and most certainly feel pain – all animals are sentient – these truths are not taught in elementary schools or modeled by adults. Most people who have access to this information pay no attention.

 

It is appalling to me that so few seem to have the slightest interest in breaking a chain of beliefs that keeps humans distanced from the rest of nature. But worst of all is the astonishing lack of empathy. How exactly does one ignore the obvious: that a fish gasping for oxygen is obviously in trouble and terrified by what its experiencing? In today’s world people seem to be so separated from experiential reality that they are capable of overriding their senses as well as what they witness with their own eyes.

 

I remember catching my first trout with my grandmother who was a skilled fly fisherwoman. I was eight years old. After helping a small child reel in her first fish, my grandmother deftly extricated it from the hook and killed it immediately with a stone. Afterwards, my grandmother fried the small fish in a pan for me to eat, praising me for my accomplishment.

 

Although I never became a fisherwoman except in the mythical sense, exploring the depths of my unconscious self (and that of others), I did marry a fisherman who thought me quite crazy when I insisted upon killing each fish that we caught for our dinner.

 

I still eat fish, as well as other meat believing that my attitude towards taking life is more important than what I eat. In my way of thinking it is critical to acknowledge sentience so that we don’t let animals suffer needlessly, and so that it becomes natural to give thanks for the lives of every plant and animal as Indigenous peoples once did. We are all part of an immense food chain that supports all living things by taking life to give life.

 

After my children left home I discovered my vocation, becoming a passionate teacher, naturalist, and writer, one who continues to advocate for all animate human and non – human beings.

 

Today, in my seventies, after writing literally thousands of nature articles and two books on the subject I am losing access to hope. In our thoroughly mechanized virtual reality, there is no room for Life to exist in all of its myriad forms.

 

Perhaps that’s why extinction of all life forms is looming over our collective horizon. Amazingly, humans have for the most part managed to ignore that extinction extends to all species. We may kill off the insects, birds, and frogs first but eventually we too will succumb.

Day Lily Feast

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Orange day lilies in my garden

 

July is the beginning of the wild day lily feast in Maine. Orange day lilies are springing into bloom in every ditch, field, meadow, and at the edge of every forest glade. In my garden the hybridized lilies I planted years ago have reverted back to their orange relatives, as my friend Lois Day once told me they would…

 

When I think of Maine and the month of July, I think of orange day lilies. I was amazed when I moved to Abiquiu, NM to note that Bruce had so many growing around his house. Orange day lilies grow in the high desert too!

 

Up until mid-life I had a rather casual attitude towards these lilies. Orange was not my favorite color. Perhaps that’s why I ignored the profusion that grew wild around my little house on Southport Island. One day while talking to a woman friend who was then in her seventies I complained about having too many lilies. Eileen who loved wildflowers as much as I did was startled by my callous attitude, exclaiming, “Sara, those lilies are just as beautiful as all the other wildflowers you love. Maybe you have not really looked at them. I’ll take some if you like.”

 

My stomach heaved – Eileen was right. I had never given these lilies a chance. When I walked home to dig some for Eileen I followed the lines of a single flower noting the delicate variegated stripe that ran down each of its six petals, petals that opened like stars, the lemony yellow throat, the salmon color…I gently touched the velvety flower, silently asking for forgiveness. From that day onward I felt a kinship with ordinary wild orange lilies that has stayed with me all these years, and every July I remember my friend Eileen with gratitude. She opened my eyes.

 

Hemerocallis fulva, the tawny orange day-lily has many common names like ditch or outhouse lily that give the reader the sense of where these lilies thrive – in places where there is a source of water. However, it seems that they will also grow in the most inhospitable landscapes. Amazingly, like wild roses, these lilies are not native at all but originally came from Asia. The day lily is not a true lily but gets its name from the similarity of the flowers to the genus Lilium and the fact that each flower lasts only one day. True lilies have bulbs and day lilies have fibrous tubers. Many true lily bulbs are poisonous.

 

Originally this plant was grown in this country as an ornamental because of its ease of cultivation and its long flowering season – one that extends for about two to three  months lasting well into fall. Eventually the day lily escaped into the wild and now can be found growing almost anywhere in temperate climates. In Northern landscapes it needs no care at all. In areas like New Mexico it does not grow wild but can easily be cultivated. Just a little regular water and some shade will keep the fans green and blossoms coming throughout the summer. The fact that theses lilies are so drought resistant should not be taken lightly with Climate Change on our doorstep. I plan to dig up some of Bruce’s tubers to plant around the casita next fall. I will  add a nitrogen fixing ground cover – probably clover or vetch – to feed the tubers. Healthy tubers help with drought.

 

Initially, I was surprised to discover just how many sites on the internet were devoted to getting rid of these prolific lilies that are considered “invasive” until I remembered my own casual attitude towards these super adaptable plants that are also edible!

 

While there are many gorgeous hybrid daylilies that one can also eat, the ‘wild’ orange ones are said to be the tastiest. Start with steaming or stir-frying the buds, which are tender and delicious with a little butter and salt. Harvest some opened flowers and fry them in tempura batter or fill them with herbed ricotta and saute’ them in a little olive oil. It is also possible to remove all the green parts of the first green shoots to expose the tender yellow centers and use these in spring salads. Because the tubers spread so fast it is possible to dig the tubers and eat those either raw or steamed. They are quite delicious with a unique taste all their own.

 

Bon Appetite!

Toad Stories

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(Andrew’s toad eggs – photo courtesy of Andrew)

 

Last year I wrote about the giant Western toad that appeared in my garden in Abiquiu last August. Without sufficient summer rains to create pools of standing water in the desert I knew believed that this toad couldn’t have bred. I guessed by her size that she was a female.

 

I watched her bury herself in the ground in earth that stayed moist. She stayed around for about a month, submerging herself during the day, setting off to hunt each hot night. I was so thrilled to have her that I was determined to build a permanent toad pond this spring to entice any amphibians in the area to move in – including that giant toad, if she returned.

 

When I researched Western toads I learned that because of agricultural practices/ engineering/river damming Western toads were considered “functionally extinct.” This phrase means that although there are still pockets of these terrestrial amphibians left, their numbers are so low that the species has no hope of long-term survival. This grim fact made me even more determined to create a home for toads.

 

This spring with the help of my friend Andrew we sunk a wooden barrel in the ground and surrounded it with hand picked stones. It was Andrew’s idea to create a channel from the roof to the pond, so that every time it rained the little pond would fill with clear water. After we completed this project I was excited to see how efficiently it worked. Even morning dew from the roof found its way to the pond, and a light rain kept the water clear without flooding. There is something that is incredibly satisfying about putting every drop of water to good use in the desert!

 

Now I needed some amphibians. I thought I would start with frogs. One tree frog serenaded me from the next field for a month, but even with adequate rain in Abiquiu the spring cacophony of frog song was absent, so no breeding occurred.

 

Andrew and I waded around looking for frogs eggs in some other wet places without success, and I reluctantly returned to Maine thinking my little pond would remain empty all summer because there just weren’t enough amphibians in the area to populate it…

 

Here in Maine I have a number of Eastern toads living around the house. Although their numbers have also plummeted, for the moment the species is still extant, and the sounds of toad trilling sweeten each night. About a month ago I discovered some “toad-poles” down by the lake, gathered some in a pail and brought them to the house to put in a vernal pool that I had dug many years ago. It is situated next to the brook over a small seeping spring and I have raised thousands of toads and frogs over the years. It is immensely satisfying to know that although I can’t do anything to save a whole species at least for the moment, I have a thriving population. I just wished that I could spirit some toad-poles to that small oasis in Abiquiu…

 

Imagine my joy last week when Andrew emailed me with the news that after the first good rain in July, he noticed two toads clasped together in his home dug pool and heard them calling. The following morning he discovered strings of toad eggs attached to underwater vegetation!

 

I already knew the story about how Andrew’s Western toads came to him. One spring he noticed that there were tadpoles in standing water that was drying up on his property. He transported buckets of the wiggling amphibians to one pool that he kept full of water to save them from being fried by the sun. From then on Andrew had a toad family. In fact, I met one early this spring.

 

“Please, oh please, take some eggs to my pond,” I begged. And he did!

 

As of this writing all I know is that his eggs hatched almost immediately, I think in about three days.

 

I am anxious to discover how long it takes these western “toad-poles” to transform into terrestrial creatures and I am ever so hopeful that by the time I return to Abiquiu, I too will have some nubbly brown croaking bug catchers hopping through the scrub around my pond.

 

Thank you Andrew!

Losing Time on North Pond

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(author on her way to launching her kayak – its to the right)

 

After having missed a summer kayaking I was overjoyed when I finally slid my little blue otter into the waters of North Pond this year.

It was a blue and gold day when I paddled out to see if the rose pogonias were still in bloom in the bog at the southwest end of the pond. These delicate pink and white native orchids with their fringed tongues that rise above a rich sphagnum moss community are a sight to behold for any orchid lover. I was amazed by this year’s abundance of flowers.

Attaching my line to a couple of cattails so I could drift and contemplate this marvelous boggy neighborhood, I was initially struck by the sheer diversity of plants that inhabited the nitrogen poor ‘island’.

That’s when I saw the pitcher plant flowers. Why is it that I am so enamored by these solitary dark crimson and green flower spikes? Perhaps because they seem so improbable in an otherwise low growing community of plants, except for a few, none of which tower over the pitcher plant inflorescences except for the occasional swamp maple and cattails. After examining one perfect five lobed flower with its central starred balloon like center I looked for its companion, the pure white flower of the diminutive sundew, also held high above tiny rosettes of sticky red clusters, but they had already gone by.

For the millionth time I wondered why it was that these two carnivorous plants grew in such close proximity to each other. I suspected some kind of mutualism or relationship must occur between the two, one that benefited both plants, but had never found any research to support this idea. I did know that the flowers of the two carnivorous plants, held high above the plants on stalks prevented the carnivores from trapping those insects that would pollinate them, an adaptation like most, that always amazed me. Both kinds of flower heads followed the sun, that is, they were heliotropic.

I pulled myself in close to the bog to inspect both the pitcher plant and its friend the sundew with my usual curiosity. Carnivorous plants occur in locations where the soil is too poor in minerals and/or too acidic for most other plants to grow (although in this seemingly diverse bog one might argue that point). The pitcher and sundew have evolved traps to lure, drown and digest animal prey to supplement nutrient-poor soils, providing us with a perfect example of the complex relationship between plants and the places they grow. Both are deadly traps for mosquitos.

The pitcher plant consists of a group of hollow, reddish-green leaves, each connected to a stem that extends roots downward into the bog. Each “pitcher” has an upper, flared lip that has hairs that curve downward and is generally partially filled with water. Insects attracted to the pitcher crawl inside the modified leaf and are prevented from leaving by the downward pointing hairs. Eventually the insects tire and fall into the water where they are digested for the most part, by bacteria. The products of digestion, high in nitrogen and containing amino acids, are absorbed by the leaf, supplementing photosynthetically produced organic matter. The water contained by the leaves supports a community of interesting organisms that include bacteria, protozoa, rotifers, and other creatures. In some places pitcher plants even devour spiders, salamanders, and small frogs.

The round-leaved sundew has a number of small rounded leaves attached to a central stem. The modified leaves form a sort of rosette. Each leaf has glandular hairs around its edge and most leaves have a drop of a sticky substance attached to the end of each hair. Insects like mosquitos and ants become trapped in the drops. When they try to escape their frantic motions cause the leaf to fold over the insect. The whole process takes about 30 minutes. The prey is subsequently digested and the digested nutrients, also containing essential nitrogen and amino acids, are absorbed into the plant, supplementing the food produced photosynthetically.

 

Amazing, don’t you think?

 

Another observation suddenly occurred to me while I was examining the two plants. Both plants were primarily reddish and green. This color correspondence might be another clue supporting my idea that these two plants benefited from each other in very specific ways…

 

Suddenly my eye caught the loon floating high and then sinking in the water nearby. This one was fishing. The loon dipped his/her head and bill into the water searching for fish with his very red eye that come fall would turn gray for the winter. The red eye, it is believed, filters out blue and green light making for more effective summer fishing. The brilliant red may also help a loon attract a mate.

 

The dark shadow on the water caused me to look up into a late afternoon sky, just in time to see the white eagle’s tail. A top predator was flying over my head. And it was late.

 

Reluctantly, I decided to paddle back to the dock. Hours had passed while I was enthralled by what I had seen at the bog and my never-ending unanswered questions.

The Claret Cactus – Reclamation

 

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Author capturing her cactus (photo Iren Schio) and a picture of my Claret cactus when she bloomed.

 

A story of Reclamation

 

One beautiful blue and gold afternoon late last fall Iren and I wandered through a nearby arroyo. As always we were always on the look out for whatever might capture our attention. Both of us were desert “beachcombers” by nature, each with her unique preferences.

 

On a steep hillside amidst some scree I glimpsed an uprooted cactus clinging, somewhat desperately I thought, to the slope. Almost all of its roots were exposed. How had it gotten there I wondered. It appeared to have tumbled down the mountain, or perhaps it had been pushed by water or trampled on by cattle.

 

I recognized the cactus immediately because even in its desiccated state I could identify the species; it was a Claret cup cactus, a native to the area, and a wild hedgehog that was very dear to my heart.

 

I had first seen one of these beautiful cactus blooming at Iren’s the June before last. The color of flame, I thought it was a summer solstice vision.

 

The following spring I planted my own claret cactus in the ground after I moved into the casita and after it bloomed for a few days in June some creature feasted on the startling deep orange fruit. Eventually one of my gophers munched down its roots. One morning late that summer my spiny friend simply toppled over dead. I was bereft… Out of all of my wild dug cactus this one was my favorite.

 

In it’s present state the cactus in front of me was shriveled almost beyond recognition. The poor plant had a steel gray cast to it. Neither Iren or I held out much hope for life but I couldn’t resist bringing it home anyway.

 

I have been a plant gatherer all my life, paying particular attention to flowers, herbs and plants that are native to a particular place. Around my house in Maine I have transplanted so many herbs and wildflowers over a period of thirty plus years that my land is literally awash in wild species from other micro-climates in this area.

 

Returning to the casita with my thorny friend I decided to plant it in a pot next to the other cacti that had survived the attentions of my wily gopher, teaching me in the process that it was useless to plant anything in that dirt without an underlying screen to protect its roots. Every wild cactus I had was now living in a pot.

 

That first night I left the cactus roots in water; the next morning I placed it lovingly in a frog pot and left it in a protected place by the southern wall where it remained all winter. Every single day when I came out the door I gazed at that very dead looking cactus, willing it to come back to life. I never gave up hoping…

 

Early in March I noticed that the cactus seemed to be absorbing water because it’s wrinkles were starting to smooth out. Next the cactus took on a pale greenish cast, and this was when I realized that my rescue had been successful – this cactus was going to live!

 

However, nothing prepared me for what happened in April. One morning I discovered a small reddish bump on my cactus. My spiny friend was actually going to bloom!

 

Soon there were seven bumps that matured into seven tightly closed teardrop blossoms.

I knew from reading that this hedgehog cactus could grow in clumps as much as 3-4 feet across, and that the brilliant blood orange or scarlet flowers – depending on the soil type – often covered the entire plant. Someday, I must witness a whole colony of these cacti. If anyone knows of one in our area, please let me know!

Even though I had already returned to the North County before the cactus flowers actually opened I saw pictures of mine. I didn’t mind not seeing them – these flowers were emblazoned in my mind and besides this reclamation story has such a happy ending!