April’s Frog Moon Resurrection

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The Frog Moon Mystery

 

April’s second spring moon was almost full as she rose through the cracks of the cottonwoods. The acequias were filling across/down the field and a small amount of rain had fallen two days earlier. Diminutive lime green leaves feathered the trees. I was just walking in the house when I heard the call.

 

I stopped dead in my tracks, stunned. Then wondered if I was having some kind of audio – hallucination. A paracusia, or audio hallucination is a form of hallucination that involves perceiving sounds without auditory stimulus.

 

After all, it had three years since I had heard one of the most beloved sounds that I associate with spring…I kept listening, sat down on the steps, my ears on fire. The unmistakable trill.

 

After a timeless pause, the practical side of me took over. I entered the house, got my recorder, and began recording the song.

 

I have been listening to the musical trill of tree frogs since I was a child, and I knew this song by heart. A gray tree frog was singing just beyond what I call the magic portal, a natural cathedral framed by bowed cottonwoods that opens into the next field.

 

After about an hour of listening and recording even the skeptic in me was forced to accept that this really was a gray tree frog. Sadly, I never heard a female’s answering call. It was also clear that this male frog was not being challenged by other tree frogs (who call out to establish territories as well as to attract females) because there apparently were no others in the area.

 

This latter fact did not surprise me. All frogs have been endangered since the 1960’s and many have become extinct.

 

“In Silent Spring” written in 1962 a brilliant and dedicated biologist, and true “mother of the environmental movement” warned us about the Great Silence that was about to descend upon us as a result of indiscriminate pesticide use, and no one listened.

 

Frogs and toads are the canaries of water, land and air. Because they breathe through their skin they are indicators of the massive amounts of pollution we are allowing to consume our planet “forgetting,” of course, that eventually these pollutants will kill humans too (the ultimate dis-connect).

 

Just before I went to bed that night I opened the door and heard the solitary tree frog crying out to the moon.

 

The next morning I compared my recording with the songs of grey tree frogs online, and of course they were identical.

 

For two days I researched every New Mexican tree frog and listened to about 50 recordings and came up with nothing that sounded like the recording I had.

 

How could this be? Grey tree frogs are denizens of the wetlands and forested areas of the northeast – east of the Rockies.

 

Meanwhile, my beloved gray tree frog is still singing his heart out even during the day, something I have never heard any of the Maine gray tree frogs do unless rain or heavy mist blanketed the mountains. At these times they sing periodically.

 

As of this writing, even in the wind my little friend is still calling – the voice of yearning crying out in the wilderness… Three days in a row.

 

At present I have no answer to this particular mystery and welcome any commentary the reader might have.

 

What follows is a little natural history on these one to two inch frogs that come in every shade of gray to green, depending upon the vegetation they inhabit.

 

The gray tree frog’s scientific name is Hyla versicolor. The frog’s ability to alter its skin color also changes with respect to the time of day and the surrounding temperature. When my brother and I were children we would capture these frogs and place them on leaves, lily pads, wild grasses, bark, lichen etc. just to watch how fast they could change color! Their skin becomes much lighter at night and darker during the day.

 

Gray tree frogs hibernate in the winter by taking refuge in trees. They survive sub -zero temperatures by producing glycerol to “freeze” during which time they also stop breathing while still being able to maintain interior metabolic processes. A virtual miracle, that.

 

Supposedly the gray tree frog’s range covers much of the eastern United States, from northern Florida to central Texas and north to parts of southeastern Canada but obviously, some of these frogs are moving west, or were here in the first place. Tree frogs are an arboreal species that occupies a variety of wooded habitats. They are most often found in forests, swamps, on agricultural lands and in wooded backyards.

 

All need access to trees and a water source. I don’t know when it occurred to me that I am surrounded by the perfect habitat here as well as in Maine. When gray tree frogs are young and newly metamorphosed, they usually remain near the forest floor tucked into bark, detritus, or high grasses; later they transition to the forest canopy. As an adult I have captured some that like to hide in the rough bark of the white pines next to my brook (Maine).

 

Adult gray tree frogs mainly prey upon different types of insects at night because they are nocturnal. Mites, spiders, plant lice, snails and slugs are common prey. They may also occasionally eat smaller frogs, including other tree frogs. They search for insects in trees, where they can climb vertically or move horizontally with their fantastic toe pads that cling like suction cups.

 

The males begin trilling in early spring, shortly after emerging from hibernation. In the mid-range areas males begin calling in late April to early May. In Maine I don’t begin to hear them until late May. Males call to females from trees and bushes that are usually close to overhanging streams or standing water.

 

The exact timing of breeding for gray tree frogs varies based on temperature and their location throughout the range. Most reproduction takes place early on, although the musical trilling lasts from late April to early August (May through September in Maine). Individuals may mate up to three times in a season.

 

Males are very territorial and will fight other males to defend their area. Fights may last 30 to 90 seconds and consist of wrestling, shoving, kicking and head butting until the subordinate male retreats. Females are sexually di-morphic (bigger) and initiate mating by approaching a calling male.1,000 to 2,000 eggs which are externally fertilized by the male. Since actual mating occurs while the frogs are floating in water, eggs are deposited into the water in small clusters, attached to a reed or some kind of floating debris. Tadpoles usually hatch after three to seven days, depending on the water temperature. As youngsters, these frogs are painted scarlet or orange-vermilion with black blotches around the edge of the crests, so unlike other species they are easy to identify. Bodies and tails are patterned with many specks of black and gold. Like most tadpoles, they eat algae and organic detritus found in the water. Tadpole development depends on water temperature and is variable, but vernal pools must have standing water for some time, a real challenge here in Abiquiu.

 

After three days of trilling this poor little frog must be exhausted. I can only hope that there is one female that will hear his call…

Personal Note:

I wrote the above piece for a publication after having what for me was and continues to be an extraordinary experience  with a tree frog that doesn’t even belong in the desert – a frog that is so dear to my heart.

My childhood memories are permeated with frogs. While most kids had dolls I befriended a large squealing amphibian which i took to bed with me at night. Additionally my little brother and I loved caught, and studied these remarkable amphibians and I cannot think about frogs without conjuring up my brother’s spirit from the deep. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the day I finally buried his ashes on my land in Maine (just below the house), nestled against a glacial  granite boulder covered with lichen moss and ferns, the resting place situated just beyond the brook. This burial of his ashes occurred after a waiting period of 32 years… I had no idea at the time that it was Earth Day because i never celebrated it – every day is an Earth Day for a naturalist like me.

Each year around Davey’s burial day I have unusual experiences – usually with a hawk – and indeed one occurred yesterday when a Kestral landed on the porch and just hung out there for about ten minutes even though the bird could clearly see me moving around. I thought, oh, Davey’s spirit is moving close by. I don’t believe in god or any kind of after life, but my lifetime experiences have taught me that something of the person must live on – or can be accessed after death. For me, these apparitions occur as an encounter with some natural force – an animal bird etc and I am always moved from one perception of reality to another – beyond or outside time – this is what mysticism is all about.

It wasn’t until I wrote this article that I realized that the visit from the hawk was only part of this year’s Davey encounter and that another one was already in progress with the coming of Gray Tree Frog. The hawk is a visceral presence year after year reinforcing the power of the relationship between us. But the frog signifies  – dare I say the word? – resurrection from death to life, transmutation, transformation, rebirth, are all part of this creature’s animal powers and are inextricably woven into this story about Davey and me. So, something is shifting here on a personal level, although I don’t pretend to have any idea what it is.

Add to this “holy week”. I have been writing about Earth’s crucifixion every day – submitting a few articles for publication even though I knew how radical my ideas would be perceived. Not surprisingly, only one essay was published – silence – around the others.  Evidently to write about Earth’s Bodily crucifixion during holy week just doesn’t sit well with the DOMINANT christian overlay, the SPLIT OF MIND AND BODY, the SPLIT OF SPIRIT from the BODY OF THE EARTH and the power of its flow even in otherwise broadminded venues… oddly I am not upset – especially because this gives me insight into WHAT IS.

But there is something to the fact that this frog who doesn’t belong here in the first place and surely will not be able to breed here is still crying out on resurrection day.

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Bumblebee Vibration

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In physics waves explain how energy is propagated or transmitted. Vibrations are the physical evidence of waves/particles. Waves and vibrations are everywhere in Nature. Vibration is a patterned or random change over a period of time and the wave is a length traveled during the vibration period.

Something that is vibrating may shake at the same time. … This vibration will send sound waves to the ear and to the brain. I would add that vibrations are also experienced directly through the body, and that bodies may actually pick up signals that the brains (in humans) routinely miss. Indigenous peoples have intuitively understood that every living thing has its own wave/vibration – which to me is like a kind of signal or signature that says,“ I am a bumblebee or a pear tree” or in this case “I am a bumblebee that needs pollen so I shake my body”.

Intuition and sensing are non – rational, experiential ways of knowing not much valued in a culture like ours.

Scientists have discovered that wild bumblebees are born with the ability to remove pollen from nectarless flowers using high-frequency vibrations.

The study, published in the Journal of Insect Behavior, is the first to show that the ability to vibrate flowers to extract pollen is an innate behavior in Bumblebees and one that is refined over time and gives a rare insight into the complexity of the pollination services provided by these creatures.

The research was carried out by evolutionary biologist Dr Mario Vallejo-Marin of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, along with other colleagues.

Vallejo-Marin states: “We studied captive bumblebees from their very first exposure to flowers that need to be vibrated to extract pollen and found the creatures instinctively and almost immediately begin vibrating their bodies.

We also found that over time and with practice, bees are able to tune down their vibrations, removing pollen while potentially saving energy. Initially bees tend to vibrate on the flower petals, but after two or three visits they focus their efforts exclusively on the part of the flower where pollen is produced. Bumblebees learn to reduce the frequency of the vibration they are using during pollen extraction as they gain more experience manipulating flowers that require vibrations to release pollen.

This shows the extensive capacity of these insects to learn complex motor skills to maximize their rewards from each flower they come into contact with.”

Although bumblebees’ ability to learn how best to collect nectar is well documented, this study is the first to show how vibrations change while foraging for pollen. The study also “proves” (westerners must have documented proof) that the buzz bees produce during flight and during pollen collection have clearly distinct acoustic signals.

20,000 species of plants including major crops, such as tomatoes and potatoes, rely on vibrating bees for pollination services. Apparently only some bees use vibration to collect pollen.

The study concludes that it is only by learning how bees pollinate that we can understand the consequences of declining bee populations. I find it fascinating that scientists are catching up to the Indigenous understanding that each creature uses its body vibration to ‘communicate’; bees use it to communicate with the flower in order to gather its pollen, but the above scientific conclusion seems simplistic to me because it neglects to mention what we already know, namely that pesticides are killing all insects including bees at an alarming rate.

Bees – Who Knew?

 

 

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With Honey bee populations in decline due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and other factors, one study conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of Massachusetts seems to offer some hope. It showed that two different species of bees fed a diet of sunflower pollen had dramatically lower rates of infection by specific pathogens. These pathogens have been implicated in slowing bee colony growth rates and increasing bee death. Bumble bees on the sunflower diet also had generally better colony health than bees fed on diets of other flower pollen.

However, the study also revealed that Honey bees on the sunflower diet had mortality rates roughly equivalent to that of honey bees not fed a sunflower pollen diet, so the positive short term effects don’t include longevity. Bumblebees, (our most efficient pollinators) didn’t seem to have the same problems with longevity.

Bees are adept at collecting sunflower pollen. Annually, some two million acres in the United States and 10 million acres in Europe are devoted to growing sunflowers, making sunflower pollen a ready and relevant bee food.

Sunflower pollen is low in protein and some amino acids, so it’s important that bees have many diverse wildflowers to choose from in addition to sunflowers, especially for generalists like bumble bees and honey bees.

Bees fed exclusively sunflower pollen often develop poorly, slowly, or not at all. What remains a mystery is that many bee species who are not generalists like Honey or Bumblebees collect pollen exclusively from the sunflower family; in fact, it is believed that bees specializing in sunflower pollen have evolved multiple times.

Another study done on (solitary) Mason bees discovered that bee species specializing in sunflower pollen were not attacked by a common brood-parasitic wasp, (Sapyga). One probable conclusion is that some bees, at least, are protected from (some) parasites by feasting on sunflowers; this may help explain the frequent evolution of specialization on sunflower pollen among these insects.

While I was researching bee related articles I came across some startling and disturbing information about the use of pyrethrum. Pyrethrums are naturally occurring compounds extracted from chrysanthemum plants that are used to make pesticides; this family includes sunflowers. Pyrethroids have the same basic chemical make-up but are not naturally occurring and are a man-made product also used as pesticides.

 

What I didn’t know is that pyrethrum is considered to be a low toxicity pesticide only from a human standpoint.

 

Supposedly, there is also a relatively low toxicity level with respect to birds and mammals. (I can’t help wondering how many non – human species have actually been studied). What we do know is this natural insecticide is toxic to cats and extremely toxic to fish. It follows that amphibians would also be negatively impacted by the use of pyrethrum. And what about the catastrophic decline in songbirds who are the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine”?

 

Animals that are exposed to toxic amounts of pyrethrum may experience loss of coordination, paralysis, convulsions, respiratory failure, and death. With bees, foraging behavior may change, and as with more deadly agricultural pesticides, the bees may lose their ability to learn the skills needed to extract nectar and pollen.

 

According to a recent New York Times article the Earth has already lost 80 percent of her insect population for reasons are ‘unclear.’ Yet we know how deadly the use of backyard and agricultural pesticides are, and we continue to use them. How is it that we didn’t pay attention to insect losses until CCD occurred with our bees? Our astounding lack of awareness and attention with respect to Nature is backfiring. Without insects as pollinators, humans will be left without food. We are all connected. Clearly there is an increasing need for field-realistic research into the reasons behind the decline and loss of any species and the impact of any pesticide on bees, humans, and non – humans alike.

Sandhill Cranes and Migration Theories

 

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We know from fossilized records that the Sandhill Cranes are one of oldest birds in the world, and have been in their present form for 10, 30, or 60 million years (depending on the source). They have apparently maintained a family and community structure that allows them to live together peacefully and migrate by the thousands along a central flyway twice a year. Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and in the spring the adults engage in a complex “dance” with one another. During mating, pairs vocalize in a behavior known as “unison calling.” They throw their heads back and unleash a passionate duet—an extended litany of coordinated song. Cranes also dance, run, leap high in the air and otherwise cavort around—not only during mating, but all year long (Even young birds begin dancing and throwing sticks and grasses into the air while jumping around enthusiastically).

In their northern habitat, the female lays two eggs a year in thick protected areas at the edge of reed filled marshes. Before nesting these birds “paint” their gray feathers with dull brown reeds and mud to reduce the possibility of being seen by a predator. Born a couple of days a part, the second chick rarely survives. The fuzzy youngster that does (if it survives the first year – delayed reproduction and survival rates factor into the difficulties inherent in crane conservation and to that we must now add Climate Change) stays with its parents for about three years before reaching sexual maturity and striking out on its own, but even then the adult stays within the parameters of its extended family, and it is these families that comprise the small groups of cranes that we see flying together. During migration, a multitude of these groups travel together by the hundreds or thousands. There are no leaders and often it is possible to observe what looks like an unorganized random group (but isn’t) or diagonal thread made up of cranes flying (up to thousands of feet) above the ground.

 

In every roosting place there are a few cranes that remain awake all night alerting their relatives to would be predators, and in fact I have been awakened during the night by crane warning cries that sound higher pitched than normal. I think it’s significant that these very ancient birds have survived so long in their present form. Could it be because they understand the value of living in community, perhaps acting as models for humans who, for the most part, seem to have forgotten what genuine community might consist of?

 

Most recently these birds have been a presence in my life since last November when they first arrived, I believed for a brief stopover, before moving south to places like the Bosque del Apache to spend the winter. When I first came to New Mexico almost three years ago I was astonished and bewildered by their haunting collective cries even when I couldn’t see them which was most of the time during the month of November…

 

But this year the cranes not only stopped by but many decided to spend the winter here much to my great joy, perhaps a result of Climate Change which is shifting their migration patterns and created conditions like the extreme drought that dramatically lowered the level of the river over this last year.

My hypothesis is that the resulting shallow riffles in Red Willow River (one of which just happens to be below my house) provided many cranes with the safety they needed to roost there all winter long. For three precious months I listened with awe and wonder to pre-dawn crane murmuring and on sunny mornings watched groups of cranes take to the air with their haunting br-rilling cries. Every night I would stand outside to listen to that same contented collective murmuring just before dark as the cranes settled in for the night.

 

When they are all talking to one another (cranes need to be in constant contact with each other) it is hard to distinguish one voice from another because listening to the whole is a symphonic masterpiece. But this winter I slowly learned to identity various cries by listening to smaller groups as they took to the sky. The highest pitched belong to the youngsters, the lowest and most full bodied calls come from the males and the females speak in tongues from the middle.

 

Sandhill Cranes are omnivores and feed on land or in shallow marshes where plants grow out of the water during the warmer seasons. They prefer a diet of seeds and cultivated grains but also include berries, tubers, crayfish worms and insects and frogs depending on the season. In the field next to me they fed on wild sunflower seeds and grasses.

 

As previously mentioned Climate Change is shifting migration patterns. Some groups are now spending their entire lives in one place like Florida (these are endangered), others are no longer migrating further south than Tennessee, although they also fly north in the spring. It is unusual to have cranes living in Northern New Mexico, although I understand from local fishermen that a few have occasionally remained here throughout the winter. I recently learned that Sandhill Cranes have even been seen in parts of Maine.

 

Their normal migration routes take them from Mexico as far northwest as Siberia into the Canadian Shield and Alaska to breed with one major stopover in Nebraska at the Platte river where 600,000 cranes meet to rest themselves before making the last leg of their arduous and dangerous seasonal journey (another group that settles further northeast makes a stop in Mississippi). In the fall all northern populations will make the trip south for the winter because of inclement weather and lack of food.

 

New Mexico and Texas have the dubious distinction of being the first states to legalize crane slaughter and now every state along their central flyway except Nebraska engages in spring and fall hunting. We can thank the state Fish and Wildlife organizations for “managing” the crane population by issuing licenses to kill these magnificent birds to bring in even more money when these organizations are already extremely well supported financially by the NRA and our taxpayer money. A Caveat to those that don’t know: All State Fish and Wildlife agencies, that purport to support wildlife have a deadly hidden agenda: to kill birds and animals at their discretion.

 

When I first began to hear the cranes I never imagined that I would start to see them or watch them make gracious descents into a neighboring field at all times of the day, every day for months. Watching them cup their wings, drop their long legs and spread their tails as they parachute to the ground is a gift that I have never taken for granted. A solitary musical rolling rill, a haunting cry that raises the hair on my arms is a sound that now lives on in my mind and body.

 

Spring migration has begun and the largest aggregations of cranes are moving north. Some days the bowl of blue sky feels too empty, but some small flocks are still visible especially during the early morning and again at dusk. I noted the sudden loss of large flocks just before this last full moon and wondered if these birds also migrated at night. Further research confirmed that Sandhill cranes sometimes do migrate after dark during the week before and after full moons.

 

A few days ago the core of engineers opened the dam raising the river and the protected riffles below my house disappeared, so during this last week in February I am without the morning joy of listening to nearby pre-dawn murmuring, but can still see and hear some cranes flying by. According to my friend Barbara R. some flocks remain at the Bosque del Apache, so hopefully we will be hearing their haunting cries for a while. It isn’t until April that all Sandhills reach the Platte River …

 

Pueblo people say that humans were once Cranes who lived in the clouds… they came to earth and danced for joy in the rain… Cranes also watched over ceremonies and remain a part of some Indigenous rituals today. Sandhills also act as Guardians for the People easing transitions from life to death and beyond….

 

Cranes are Elders in every sense of the word, ancient relatives and they continue on, some adapting, others following unknown scripts or patterns that stretch back to antiquity. The way they live, migrating out of seasonal necessity, returning to home – places, celebrating through community and song in life and death is a way of being that embodies flowing like a river… And for that, their magnificent beauty and inherent wisdom, I thank them.

 

I close with a Zuni prayer about the relationship between Cranes, Water and the Rebirth of Spring.

“When our Earth Mother

is replete with living waters,

When spring comes

The source of our flesh –

All the different kinds of corn

We shall lay to rest in the ground.

 

With their Earth Mother’s

Living waters,

They will be made into

New Beings…

 

That our Earth Mother

May wear a fourfold green robe

Full of moss

Full of flowers

Full of pollen,

 

That the land may be thus

(S/he has made you)

I have made you into living beings.

 

 

 

What is Migration?

Migration is the process or act of migrating, i.e. the movement of animals and birds from one region or place of habitat to another. Migration occurs in all major animal groups – birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects and crustaceans. (Migration may also occur at the cellular level). The triggers for migration are complex and poorly understood. Climate variability, availability of food, seasonal changes, and reproduction, are some reasons that animals migrate.

Like scientists, I have been captivated by this process especially since we know so little about how animals know what they know, and because whatever capabilities they have developed over millennia are being interrupted by Climate Change (cranes for example have been in their present form for 30 million years.).

Studies have shown that migrating species appear to use a wide variety of mechanisms to navigate, including the stars, the sun and the moon, olfactory (chemical) cues, and Earth’s magnetic field. Some birds like cranes that normally migrate during the day also migrate at night a week before, during and after the full moons. Many species learn their migration routes by first traveling with experienced individuals, but others are able to migrate and navigate successfully without prior experience, an ability that still perplexes scientists and keeps me attached to field theory as a possible explanation. Field theory postulates that each animal has access to its own morphic family field and can tap into that field for information and guidance. This would explain why some animals are also able to find their way over thousands of miles without parental assistance. Migration requires a lot of energy and many individuals die during migration. Despite these heavy costs, the potential benefits of migration are great, which is why migration behavior has evolved in so many species.

One of the driving factors that leads to migration is the season. Many animals move from one place to another at certain times of the year or during a particular period of their life cycle. Some animals migrate only once during their lifetime, often just before they reproduce like the salmon do. Other animals, including many species of birds and many marine animals, such as sea turtles and whales, migrate long distances to their breeding grounds many times during their lives.

In other instances, animals are forced to leave an area when conditions in their environment deteriorate. Many bird species that nest in Canada and the northern regions of the United States and Siberia like the Sandhill cranes do migrate south as winter approaches because they seek a warmer and more hospitable climate. Another critical reason that birds migrate south is because their food supply disappears during the cold months. However, it must be said that some birds normally begin migrating south before their food supply has disappeared, and often even before it has begun to decline.

Approximately 1,800 of the world’s 10,000 species of birds migrate each year in response to the seasons. Many of these migrations are north-south, with species feeding and breeding in high northern latitudes in the summer, and moving some hundreds or thousands of miles south for the winter.

Birds probably utilize circadian rhythms (internal twenty four hour clocks) to regulate their migrations in both the fall and the spring. Apparently the changing length of the days may stimulate hormonal and behavioral changes that also result in migration. Scientists believe that natural selection favors birds that use predictable environmental cues, like the seasonal change in day length to initiate migration before their food source disappears.

The tilt of the earth’s axis is shifting because Greenland’s ice melt is causing sea level to rise. In general, the redistribution of mass on and within Earth affects the planet’s rotation but this effect is sudden and more extreme and seasonal migrators are struggling to adapt.

Seasonal migrators must migrate every year. For other animals, migration is less predictable. For example, the Snowy owls that live in Canada have to move south when the lemmings crash.

Irregular (non-cyclical) migrations called irruptions also occur under pressure of famine, overpopulation or other unknown influences but are not considered to be true migration.

The shifting range of the Sandhill cranes is a source of fascination to me and appears to be a result of global warming. These birds once migrated into Mexico each winter. Now some populations only fly as far south as Tennessee, and others remain in Florida. At one time these cranes were mostly found in the Midwest before they moved north or northwest to breed, but since the year 2000 they have been seen in south central and western Maine.

We may not know how migration works, but we do know the patterns of migration are changing and that Climate Change is a reality. My fervent hope is that somehow most species, who are all our “elders” – humans, after all have only been around for 200,000 years – (plants for 450 million years, animals for 350 million years) – may possess strategies that we can’t even imagine to survive the damage that we have brought upon all living things including ourselves.

Departure

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I stood deep

in a toad hole

slinging mud

at twilight

when the sky

turned lemon

and gold.

They arced

over

my head

in pairs,

loose aggregations –

it seemed like thousands

crying out,

crossing

the river.

Ensouled.

Spirits defying

image or word.

 

A Mighty Migration begins…

 

I shivered.

Tears rose unbidden

Who calls them North?

I call out “I love you” –

Believing they know.

A crescent moon listens

cradled by nightfall.

 

To witness

a sky full

of Sandhill

Cranes

dark red heads

ebony eyes

long graceful necks

curved gray wings

dripping black legs

descending out of the blue

to roost

along this

winding Red

Willow River,

gracing fields

of depleted grain

is a Gift

given

at midnight;

the moment

before

departure.

 

This turning

of the wheel

births

days full of light

and an empty

sky bowl.

 

Haunting cries

in my ears

ring in the silence

of beloved crane absence

for another year.

 

 

Working notes:

 

As almost always (summer is the exception – no matter where I live I tire of too long days and too much heat) the shifting seasons bring me to an uncomfortable edge of personal awareness: It is hard for me to let go. Nature orchestrates this truth to me through her individuals… in this instance it is the leave – taking of the cranes that captures the essence of how loss operates in me… At first I resist. When I let go, I feel bereft. Eventually, I reach a state of acceptance.

 

This morning someone made a comment that said in effect that poetry is about extending human consciousness – making the unconscious conscious. I dislike the word “consciousness” because it conjures up new age – know it all – androcentric thinking – but when I substitute “awareness” for consciousness I know the sentiment is true. Poetry explicates feeling…it brings darkness into light.

 

When tears blurred my eyes last night I was grieving impermanence… the only constant is change, and Nature is my compass directing me towards “True North,” a state of “becoming,” my home. Not a place, but a state of being. It is astonishing to recognize that I have been seeking embodiment of this truth for the last forty years and is probably the main reason I have always lived my adult life near bodies of water.

 

To seek impermanence as a way of being is what it means to flow with the river, or float down a stream. What becomes crystal clear is that this way of being is just the opposite of being human (!) – to be a person is to have boundaries, to be bound by soul and skin. Allowing each of our boundaries to dissolve into all that is, and was, and will be, is a stretch for every human who lives, whether they preach flow or not. Dissolution means an end to what is, creating room for death to enter the river of life as a friend, even as a lover, and one who celebrates change. Spirit is part of every aspect of life.

 

In these days of Climate Change the Great Dying is the center core of each of our lives, acknowledged or not. The loss of non – human species will probably lead to our own eventual demise – not necessarily a bad thing, since humans have made such a mess of things. (I say probably because the future might be an unknown – what I do know is that things don’t look good from where I am standing).

 

But meanwhile, we have now, and the present is filled with beauty, awe, and wonder. For me the Cranes embody all these qualities… after they leave, other wonderful creatures/elements will take their place, perhaps toads or frogs…maybe even a sky full of rain…

 

Cranes are Elders in every sense of the word, ancient relatives and they continue on, some adapting, others following unknown scripts or patterns that stretch back to antiquity. The way they live, migrating out of seasonal necessity, returning to home – places, celebrating through community and song in life and death is a way of being that embodies flowing like a river… And for that, their magnificent beauty and inherent wisdom born of genuine community, I thank them.

 

Blessed be the Cranes…

 

A few words about the natural history of these birds…

 

Sandhill Cranes have been in their present state for 30 million years (perhaps modeling to humans what genuine community might consist of).

 

Most recently these birds have been a presence in my life since last November when they first arrived, I originally thought for a brief stopover, before moving south to places like the Bosque del Apache to spend the winter. When I first came to New Mexico two and half years ago I was astonished and bewildered by their haunting collective conversation even when I couldn’t see them which was most of the time… But this year the cranes not only arrived but many decided to spend the winter here much to my great joy, perhaps a result of Climate Change which is shifting their migration patterns, in some case dramatically.

 

For example, I recently learned that Sandhill Cranes have been seen in parts of Maine. Their normal migration routes take them from Mexico as far northwest as Siberia into the Canadian Shield and Alaska to breed with one major stopover in Nebraska at the Platte river (another group that settles further northeast makes a stop in Mississippi) where 600,000 cranes meet to rest themselves before making the last leg of their seasonal journey. In the fall all northern populations will make the trip south for the winter probably because of inclement weather and lack of food.

 

However, some groups spend their entire lives in one place like Florida, others are no longer migrating further south than Tennessee, although these too fly north in the spring. It is unusual to have cranes living in Northern New Mexico, although I understand that a few have sometimes remained here through the winter.

 

Not in these numbers though. When I first began to hear the cranes I never imagined that I would start to see them or watch them make gracious descents into a neighboring field at all times of the day, every day. But this is a gift that this winter has bestowed upon me, and one I have never taken for granted.

 

Beginning at dawn I listen for the first cranes murmurings, and most morning around 7 AM I see the first flock flying over the river, followed by others, often occurring later. One of the most fascinating aspects of Sandhill Crane behavior is the way they seem so intent upon communal living. They take to the air in pairs, small groups and huge flocks sometimes flying one way, then suddenly wheeling around in the sky to soar in the opposite direction! They never fly in formation like geese do (no one appears to lead), and yet they are in constant communication with each other, which currently begins about a half hour before dawn.

 

This morning a friend sent me an article about the cranes arriving earlier than usual for their seasonal stopover at the Platte River. I am not surprised. For about two weeks now the sense that migration will soon be under way surfaces each time I see or hear the cranes. I think my body already knows what’s coming…

The Amazing Scarlet Runner Bean

 

IMG_1503.JPG(Phaseolus coccineus) – photo from my garden

 

About 30 years ago I was visiting a neighbor for the first time early one August when I spied the most extraordinary vine of brilliant orange pea sized flowers cascading from an emerald climber that stretched across the entire wire wall of a huge vegetable garden. Eileen left an eight foot arch open by tying back some of the vines for an entrance. The vines were massive, at least 12 to 15 feet high and at least 100 feet long, and I could see and hear the sound of joyful ruby throated hummingbirds as they buzzed from one blossom to another as millions of bees, swallowtails, and monarchs swooped through the air lighting upon loose tendrils that were attempting to find purchase somewhere by climbing on the backs of their neighbors. To say I was transfixed by the sight is an understatement. I lost time in the blue and gold mountain field in Western Maine as I stood there astonished and bewildered by such abundance and beauty.

 

Returning to ordinary time, and gathering my wits about me, I asked my new friend about the vine and was only then I was formerly introduced to the magnificent Scarlet Runner bean. As we wandered down the fence line Eileen told me that she had grown up in the south and had been surrounded by these vines since she was a child; she was then a woman in her late sixties. As we peeked into the plethora of leaves I was delighted to see small green beans developing from the flowers and was told that these beans were delicious to eat, especially when picked while still young. I had been a gardener all my life – how had I missed learning about such a plant?

 

By the time I left Eileen’s house that afternoon I had a whole handful of shiny deep mauve and black kidney shaped beans in my hand for next year’s planting. These were heirloom seeds that Eileen had been given by her own mother. I was ecstatic.

 

This was the beginning of my love affair with Scarlet Runner beans, an affair that continues into the present. The first year I grew them they took over the entire back porch. I soon learned to plant even more vines like Eileen had so the deer could feast on the bounty too.

 

One spring a black bear watched me place my seeds into rich loam from behind his spindly screen of bushes, and that very night Little Bee came back and dug up every bean that I had planted (An endless curiosity is a fundamental aspect of friendly backyard bears)!

 

As the years passed my own wild unkempt garden was covered in more and more Scarlet Runner vines, flowers, and beans. I discovered to my surprise that black bears also loved to eat the blossoms and seed pods. Even with all the competition, I had plenty of fresh green beans and took endless joy out of watching so many bees, butterflies, bears, deer, and hummingbirds feast along with me.

 

About ten years ago when colony collapse devastated the honey bee population the bumblebees took over, but I couldn’t help noticing that overall there were less and less bees and butterflies drinking sweet nectar. Diminishment of various species is invisible to some. Only during the last two summers I spent in Maine did I have fewer hummingbirds…

 

Every year after the harvest I gathered and gave away seed gems to friends who seemed to appreciate them as much as I did – passing on the priceless gift of un contaminated heirloom seeds – seeds that held a future free of human manipulation within each be- jeweled skin.

 

When I moved to New Mexico I brought a few beans with me and my friend Iren was the first recipient of this precious bounty. She, in turn, passed some seeds onto others. Last summer her entire back fence was covered in gorgeous plants. Here in New Mexico the vines don’t grow quite as tall but they are still abundant, and during July deer and elk ate some of Iren’s blossoms (but there were plenty left for her to harvest).

 

Here, I planted my beans in a pot above ground. I do not recommend this practice. These beans need ample water and need to be planted in the Earth to thrive (mine had yellowing leaves). I also noted the effect the intense heat had on the beans. The plants didn’t start producing beans until August though we planted in mid – May, I believe. It’s important to know that Scarlet Runners will not survive frost. What I did notice is that butterflies (swallowtails) and a number of different bees flocked to the flowers. Hummingbirds loved them!

 

Imagine my shock when I discovered that the history of Scarlet Runner beans began in North America. These beans are native to the highlands of Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, where they have been cultivated for thousands of years.

 

This climbing plant is one of the oldest documented beans known to humans!

 

Native Americans consumed almost every part of the plant including the starchy root. Some Indigenous tribes regard the Scarlet Runner bean as a sacred plant. The plants seem to pulse with the life force, at least for me.

 

Today, Scarlet Runner beans are usually grown as annuals for the obvious reasons – their showy flowers and their edible pods and seeds. I recently learned that they are unusual among bean species because they are perennial in places where the ground doesn’t freeze and they climb in a clockwise direction. In retrospect I wondered if they were grown as perennials in the south where Eileen once lived.

 

I remember Iren asking me if you could cook the dried beans. My friend Eileen had never mentioned the practice so I didn’t know until I did this research that here in the U.S. consumers, up until recently, were more likely to find the shelled dried beans to cook than seeds to plant! Mature dried Scarlet Runner beans are ¾ inch in length. They can be cooked like Pinto or Pink beans and used in dishes such as soups and stews. Scarlet Runner beans are less starchy than Lima beans with a nutty garden-fresh flavor. These beans are also known by the common names of Scarlet Conqueror, Fire beans, Mammoth beans, Red Giant beans, and Scarlet Emperor beans.

 

Today, of course there are many cultivars to choose from but I prefer the lineage I have because I know those seeds originated at a time that preceded spraying etc.; they also have sentimental value. If anyone is interested in the gift of a few seeds please contact me at Sara@megalink.net.

 

With that much said so much is happening with seed savers across the country that it is now possible to buy heirloom seeds from a number of companies. This year when I attend the Tewa Women’s Seed Exchange I plan to bring some of my Scarlet Runner beans from last year’s harvest. My guess is that Iren will do the same!

Snowy Comes to Maine

 

 

719e8726-ac9c-11e3-bdba-8d0644e09485-850x478$large.jpg“who whoo WHOOH…”

I will never forget the first Snowy owl I ever saw… I was living in Andover, Maine when a huge white bird appeared in January and soared over the lower fields. It was a very cold winter in 1993 and a pair of these birds became part of my winter bird watching. Their courtship call is quite distinct – three hoots with the loudest whooh at the end. I heard other sounds too but don’t remember the details. When I got my first close up look at one of these magnificent owls I was stunned by their beauty – intense yellow eyes, a black beak and oh, all those pearl white feathers. One had mole brown bars. The Snowy is one of the largest species of owl in North America, and is on average the heaviest owl species. The adult male is virtually pure white, but females and young birds have some dark spots; the young are heavily barred. I believe it was an adult male that I saw at close range. Occasionally one would fly ahead of the car as I drove out of my solitary mile long driveway, a behavior that intrigued me…

Well, Snowy owls are back in Maine! At the Portland Jetport, as many folks know, these owls and those that love seeing them are causing a “problem.” The owls are just trying to make a living but humans are apparently blocking emergency exits.

Many of us will recall that there was a boom in the Snowy population starting around 2011. One owl could be seen perched on a telephone pole between Bryant Pond and South Paris for much of the winter. Recently these birds are becoming uncommonly common! They have popped up in Aroostook County, the mountains of Acadia in Maine, and have been seen as far south as Florida and Hawaii and this year Snowy has made it as far south as New Mexico!

The Snowy owl is typically found in the northern circumpolar region, where it makes its summer home. However, this species is also nomadic because lemming population fluctuations force it to relocate to find food. Recently we have learned that the Snowy has been known to breed at more southerly latitudes

Snowy owls “normally” (is there such a thing today) nest in the tundra of Northern Canada and Europe. Snowy owls are attracted to open areas like marshes, open fields, coastal dunes, and prairies that appear somewhat similar to tundra. During the years when they are found in the Northeastern US, juveniles frequent appear in developed areas so keep your eyes out for a sighting. All ages spend a fair amount of their time over water in the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean, mostly on ice floes.

When perched Snowy owls often face the sun; Snowy owls appear to orient themselves into the sun or wind depending on prevailing weather conditions. No doubt they are happy to bask in whatever source of heat comes their way.

This species of owl nests on the ground, building a scrape on top of a mound or boulder. A site with good visibility is chosen, such as the top of a mound with ready access to hunting areas and a lack of snow. Abandoned eagle’s nests and even gravel bars are used for nesting. The female scrapes a small hollow before laying the eggs. Breeding occurs in May to June, and depending on the amount of prey available, clutch sizes range from 3 to 11 eggs, which are laid singly, approximately every other day over the course of several days. Hatching takes place approximately five weeks after laying, and the pure white young are cared for by both parents. Although the young hatch asynchronously, with the largest in the brood sometimes 10 to 15 times as heavy as the smallest, there is little sibling conflict, a fact that I find fascinating and somewhat unusual. Both the male and the female defend the nest and their young from predators sometimes using distraction as a ruse. Males also defend the nest by standing guard nearby while the female incubates the eggs and broods the young. Both sexes will attack approaching predators, dive-bombing them!

As previously mentioned this powerful bird relies primarily on lemmings and other small rodents for food during the breeding season. They are opportunistic hunters and prey species may vary considerably, especially in winter. Some of the larger mammal prey includes rabbits, hares muskrats squirrels (we could use lots of these birds) raccoons moles and mice. Birds preyed upon include ptarmigan, ducks geese shorebirds and songbirds as well as other owls and raptors. Most of the owls’ hunting is done in the “sit and wait” style; prey may be captured on the ground or in the air; fish may be snatched off the surface of bodies of water using sharp talons. Unlike most owls that hunt at night Snowy owls are diurnal hunting in darkness and in light.

Snowy owls, like other carnivorous birds, swallow their small prey whole. Strong stomach juices digest the flesh, while the indigestible bones, teeth, fur, and feathers are compacted into oval pellets that the bird regurgitates 18 to 24 hours after feeding. Regurgitation often takes place at regular perches, where dozens of pellets may be found.

Previous population estimates of about 200,000 individuals are now regarded as substantially overestimated, and a total population size of 28,000 individuals is probable.

Catastrophic Climate Change guarantees that unless we radically reverse carbon emissions in the next twelve years Life as we know it will be over. The absence of Snowy will become just one more statistic on a planet that has lost its animal populations. So, if you are fortunate enough to glimpse one of these magnificent owls, remember to say goodbye.