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.

Lichen Land

Lichen Land From Maine to New Mexico

Sunburst lichen

A couple of weeks ago I had to cut down a sixty seven year old White pine near my house. And yesterday I found the most beautiful lichen that must have fallen from that tree, something called Fringed Wrinkle lichen, a lichen that thrives in the uppermost branches of Eastern white pine and hemlock trees.

Fringed Wrinkled Lichen

 I am frankly fascinated by lichen. Because this summer has been so hot and dry I have spent more time in the woods than usual. Mushrooms have been scarce and I have been looking at various lichens marveling over their ability to deal with drought conditions. During dry spells lichen become dry and crispy but don’t expire. Lichens grow on rocks, trees, and in the soils in many different environments. Around the house I must have at least twenty different types of lichen, maybe more. I haven’t counted all of them.

Lichen is composed of two organisms that arise in a symbiotic relationship. One is an alga or cyanobacteria and the other is a fungus. The algae live among the filaments of fungi. Evidently the fungus is the predominant partner because it determines the majority of the alga’s characteristics, from its curious shapes to its fruiting/spore producing bodies. Some lichens have more than one algal partner. 

Fungi depend upon the algae for nutrients since they do not contain chlorophyll and cannot photosynthesize. Algae and cyanobacteria can manufacture carbohydrates with the help of light via the process of photosynthesis. By contrast, fungi do not make their own carbohydrates. Every fungus needs existing organic matter from which to obtain carbon. Fungi provide water for the algae and decompose the organic matter around them. When looked at microscopically the fungal partner is composed of filaments called hyphae. The hyphae grow by extension – branching and fusing. In lichens some of the carbohydrates produced by the algae are, of course, used by the alga but some is ‘harvested’ by the fungus.

 There are 20,000 lichens on earth. They can be found growing in almost all parts of the terrestrial world, from the ice-free polar areas to the tropics, from tropical rainforests to those desert areas free of mobile sand dunes. While generally terrestrial a few aquatic lichens are known. The surfaces (substrates) on which lichens grow vary from soil, rock, wood, bone to the man-made concrete, glass, canvas, metal etc.

 Amazingly, Lichens possess structures not formed by either of the partners and produce chemicals usually absent when the fungus or the alga are cultivated separately and so lichens are more than a sum of their parts. In fact, lichens synthesize over 800 substances, many of them not found elsewhere in nature. That they produce powerful antiviral properties that protect them and could be useful to humans is a fact. Why are we not studying them?

Lichens come in many sizes forms and colors. Around here some of my favorites are the bearded lichens that hang from the dying spruce down by the brook, and even in drought they keep their sage gray green color. Others like the Fringed Wrinkle lichen intrigue me because they are bi –colored and so wave-like in appearance. The neatly puffed shape of Reindeer moss, (yes, it is a lichen) is another. There is a pale pink lichen that grows along my road and the crimson topped British Soldiers is yet another much appreciated lichen species.  

Part 2

 As much as I love the gray green lichens my absolutely favorite lichen is orange. Sunburst lichens grow from the coast of Maine to New Mexico. When I lived on Monhegan island I was surrounded by these lichens which grow on rock outcroppings near the sea. I don’t recall where I have seen any sunburst lichen around here except in graveyards. Parietin, the pigment that colors sunbursts intensifies under sunlight. The stronger the solar irradiance, the denser the pigment. When growing in the woods most sunburst lichens don’t need sunblock so they are more yellow than orange. Parietin protects the sensitive algal partner from exposure to ultraviolet rays. This pigment also protects the slow growing lichen from slugs and other herbivores who otherwise might denude them because of the way the pigment tastes.

On the porch of the casita in New Mexico I have a slightly squared stone that a friend found on a hike and gave me a couple of years ago that has a thin crust of orange lichen on it. I have watered it from time to time noting that despite my attention the color has dimmed. Is this because it came from the high country where the air is less congested with particles? I don’t know.

For a naturalist like me sunburst lichens help me to get a reading on who might have once been in the area. At the seacoast the color orange suggests that seabirds were present; farther inland the presence of orange lichen over a crevice might indicate a coyote or fox den. Orange lichen appearing on a branch of spruce or balsam provides me with evidence that an owl might have roosted here for a time. Newly laid dung will provide the substrate for a colony of orange lichen to appear in a few years. 

Lichens are usually described as having a leaf -like (like my fringed friend), crusty, or branching/shrublike forms. Lichens often play an important part in the weathering of rocks. When lichens attach to rocks, they retain moisture and are instrumental in breaking down the stone. This process is an essential component for producing soil in a barren environment, but it takes years.

 In the desert it is easy to spot dark clumpy soil areas, which are actually a layer which can include cyanobacteria, lichens, mosses, green algae, microfungi, and bacteria. This living biomass binds particles of soil, reduces erosion, fixes nitrogen, and can add organic matter. These areas are very fragile and even a footstep reduces their functioning which can take years to rebuild. In Abiquiu, the local cattle trample this delicate ground with impunity.

Lichens are widely used for many different purposes throughout the world. The most common use is dye production. Litmus paper is made from a dye mixture extracted from the Rocella species which is then applied to filter paper. Dyes used for clothing were used in the Scottish Highlands and produced red, orange, brown, and yellow. Purple dyes used throughout Europe from the 15ththrough 17thcenturies were extracted from lichens.

Many lichens have been used medicinally. A lichen’s usefulness as a medicine is often related to the lichen secondary compounds that are abundant in most lichen. It is estimated that 50-percent of all lichen species have antibiotic properties. Many lichen extracts have been found to be effective in killing the bacteria that cause boils, scarlet fever, and pneumonia.

Lichen are sensitive to atmospheric pollution including nitrogen and sulfur emissions that lead to acid rain, as well as toxic lead and mercury emissions. This sensitivity makes lichen a valuable biological indicator of air quality.

Some sensitive lichen species develop structural changes in response to air pollution including reduced photosynthesis and bleaching. Pollution can also cause the death of the lichen algae, discoloration and reduced growth of the lichen fungus, or kill a lichen completely. The most sensitive lichens are shrubby and leafy while the most tolerant lichens are crust-like lichens.

Lichens have been around for 250 million years and have learned how to cooperate and live in harmony. These fascinating and sometimes diminutive animal – plant ‘beings’ with their antibiotic/antiviral properties could be powerful teachers helping humans to develop medicines that could help with our current pandemic, as well as modeling the ability to cooperate despite ‘difference’ something our dominate culture has yet to learn.

The Graceful Hemlock

Hemlock – foreground – parched fall background

This summer because of the heat and drought I have spent a lot of time across the brook in my woods because it is always so cool in there. As parched as the land is elsewhere, in the forest I can still find the occasional mushroom, examine various mosses and lichens (the latter remind me that the air quality is excellent), peer into rich green bogs searching for new plants, or sit by the feeder brook that still trickles down the mountain.

author standing in front of same tree a few weeks ago

The deep shade I seek is due in part to the graceful Hemlocks that tower over my head. When this land was last cut about 40 years ago the Hemlocks were spared because they weren’t considered to be a valuable ‘resource.’ They are the biggest trees on my land and I love them. Even today although clear cutting removes all trees including the Hemlock this tree is not considered to be of much value in comparison to other trees like pine or spruce.

Hemlocks are the most shade tolerant species of all trees. They can persist in the understory as a suppressed tree for up to 400 years. In places where they are still allowed to grow it is not uncommon to see a one inch diameter Hemlock sapling that is 60 to 100 years old.

Although they grow slowly they can reach two to four feet in diameter and 100 feet or more in height. Our Eastern Hemlocks can take 250 to 300 years to reach maturity and can live more than 800 years. The oldest Eastern Hemlock is almost 1000 years old (988 years).

Hemlocks have to have certain conditions to regenerate. Although they produce their little cones frequently – every two or three years – seed viability is low. In order for the seeds to germinate (many are destroyed by insects) temperature and moisture conditions have to be just right. Temperatures have to be around 44 – 64 degrees for a few weeks and adequate moisture has to be present for seeds to germinate. 

Hemlocks like to grow in pure stands but they also closely associate themselves with white pine, spruce and fir, yellow birch, red oak, and red maple. A tree loving friend of mine would add Northern White cedar to the mix and I would too. Hemlocks are often found along lower slopes and along streams. I have a lot of young Hemlocks growing down by my brook. Hemlock roots help prevent erosion along river and stream banks, and their dense canopies provide cool shade keeping the air around them full of moisture.

Tannaries were a major industry in New England during the 1800’s. High in tannins, Hemlock bark was prized for treating animal hides because tannins are a preservative. The bark gives leather a dark red-brown color. Millions of Hemlocks were felled and stripped of their bark. The rest of the tree was left to rot, a disgusting waste from my point of view but so typical of the American lumber industry…Economy ‘trumps’ Life every time. The tanning industry declined in the early 1900’s giving Hemlocks a chance to reestablish stands before these trees were logged again. 

Hemlock presently represents about 20 – 25 percent of the softwood timber industry in the northeast. 

Today the lumber is used for timber frames, to build barns and is a popular choice for bridges on logging roads and trails, but isn’t considered ‘valuable’ like pine or spruce.

Wildlife benefit from Hemlock stands. Dense stands reduce snow depth and help moderate temperatures helping deer and rabbits conserve energy during the cold winter months. Many birds and other mammals use Hemlock stands for breeding and protection. Owls, in particular like Hemlock and here I have Barred owls living in my woods along with grouse, and turkey. Porcupines feed on Hemlock bark and branches. When walking through the woods if you see an area with lots of Hemlock branches on the ground at once you know a porcupine is feeding in the area. Our collective nemesis, the Red squirrel, eats Hemlock cones.

Unfortunately several insects attack Hemlocks. The woolly adelgid (the worst) is a non native insect that feeds on hemlock twigs and creates a loss of tree needles (it can also be found on Norfolk Island pines – so beware of white “snowy” patches on these or other live trees that are sold as indoor Christmas trees). This insect reduces the ability of the tree to produce new growth, and an untreated infestation can kill a tree in 2 – 12 years. Unfortunately this pest has reached Maine’s coastal areas and is spreading inland. 

Over one third of the Eastern hemlock’s native range has been infested with this bug. The larvae spread rapidly through the air on their own or by wind and birds. Even though a quarantine has been established for Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, the infestation is spreading. The 2013 revision of the quarantine rule is one reason why:

“Hemlock chips with top material, and uncomposted bark with top material from quarantined areas may be imported into non-quarantined areas in the State of Maine provided that said material is shipped only to sites within Maine that are preapproved by the Maine Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry. Such sites must have a compliance agreement with the Maine Forest Service”.


 Here is the kind of legal crazymaking loophole that catches my hair on fire. If you use bark as mulch, which many gardeners do you are probably responsible for the spread of this devastating disease.

In the northern portion of the Hemlock’s range, the color of the Hemlocks infested by this invasive insect will typically change from a healthy, dark green to a sickly, grayish-green color after just a few years, and death typically occurs four to ten years after an initial infestation.  Any trees that do manage to survive the direct effects of this assault are usually weakened to the point where they may die from secondary causes.

Hemlock scale and Hemlock borers are additional threats. Brown flecks on the needles reveal the presence of the scale. Should you note a collection of orange chips surrounding a Hemlock tree (due to woodpeckers drilling into the cambium for insects) then the Hemlock has probably been infested by the borers.

Once the insects are established on Hemlocks there is little to be done. The Maine Forest service has released a couple of non native insects from Japan to deal with infestations, creating of course, another problem in its wake. With the future of these trees so uncertain I take refuge in the present and spend a lot of time appreciating these beautiful woodland trees. One day, they may not be around to enjoy.

Going Bats



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.

In Praise of Snakes


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


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.

What About Pinenes?


Two views of the Pedernal – The first taken from casita – the second back from the backside.


The first time I visited the Pedernal that overlooks Abiquiu New Mexico, that incredible flat-topped mesa where the Navajo ‘Changing Woman’ was born I fell in love! I was with my friend Iren who showed me a place where an enormous band of chert was located on the side of the mountain. The colors of the stone took my breath away – bitter orange, blood red, rust, dusky purple, ebony, charcoal, dense white, light yellow, pale pink, deep rose, blue gray – every color on the spectrum except deep blue was visible. I already knew that this multi-colored stone had been traded throughout the Americas by Indigenous peoples for millennia; I wondered if the arrowheads I had that came from Maine could have come from this mountain…


As we climbed through a forest of tall conifers I soaked in the view of a magnificent multi-layered tree line that stretched all around me as far as I could see on one side. The views of the distant snowcapped mountains were spectacular. I experienced a peculiar kind of “high” that I mentioned to Iren, noting vaguely that I suspected it had something to do with the trees.


That day we collected many pieces of chert that I still have. To digress for a moment, I think chert, or flint is my favorite kind of stone. In Abiquiu, another piece of the same kind of rock with lichen etched into its contours sits on a table in the living room of the casita. I have kept it watered for three years (!) because lichen still lives on this piece that Iren once brought back for me as a gift…


It wasn’t long before I began to make regular trips to the Pedernal, alone, with my dogs. There was something about the place… We hiked around in the gorges, discovering streams hidden below in steep gullies, examined caves, admired amazing rock formations and sat in the shade under towering trees whose fragrance was indescribable. The Pedernal was also the place where I saw my first bear, came upon my favorite wild cactus growing in profusion, discovered lupine and a multitude of other flowers that I have here in Maine. To this day, it is my absolutely favorite place except for the Bosque near the casita and the Bosque del Apache, the winter-land of the Sand hill cranes…


I noted that whenever I visited the Pedernal and began to climb around that physically I experienced myself as having a higher energy level than I did in Abiquiu. Clear thinking, relaxation and a sense of being grounded or earthed were other aspects that struck me as being unusual, especially the latter because I was so sensitive to altitude changes. It was impossible to ignore this general sense of well – being. Of course, I knew the Pedernal was reputed to be a ‘’power spot” but I wondered about the role the magnificent trees might be playing …


Because I love all trees I regularly spoke, touched, and leaned against these tall stately beings soaking in their essence.


I don’t remember when I finally made the concrete connection between the scent of the trees on the Pedernal and my sense of well – being.


Pinenes were probably responsible for my elation, clarity and relaxation. This forest was loaded with phytochemical compounds that can and do improve our health.


During the long winters in Maine I burned balsam and cedar on a daily basis to keep the air inside the house purified. I loved the scent and also used the oil to help rid myself of headaches. I was convinced these evergreens had health benefits years before I ever heard of pinene, and I knew that Indigenous peoples had used these plants in much the same way I did for millennia.


When I learned about the medicinal value of pinene from a western point of view I felt frustrated that western medicine has been so slow focusing research around these helpful chemical compounds.


Pinenes are produced by turpentine trees; these phytochemicals are found in pines, cedar, balsam, juniper and other coniferous plants. Sage and artemisia as well as cannabis contain them too, as does eucalyptus but Pinenes are strongest in evergreens.


There are two forms of pinene: alpha-pinene and beta-pinene. Alpha-pinene is also the most abundant terpenoid found in nature.


It is useful as an insect repellent because insects dislike its aroma.


Many plant essential oils that contain pinene have been shown to reduce inflammation. Alpha-pinene exhibits a number of anti-inflammatory properties in animal cells. One American study concluded that the terpene is “a potential candidate as a new drug to treat various inflammatory diseases”. Interestingly,   terpene could also be an effective additive to sunscreen, because it prevents skin damage caused by ultraviolet light.


Many studies in animals have concluded that both alpha- and beta-pinene have significant anti-tumor properties. In fact, when consumed together, both forms of pinene appear to have synergistic effects in reducing tumors.


Alpha-pinene and beta-pinene have also been studied for their antimicrobial effects.


Beta – pinene appears to improve mood, acting much like an antidepressant might, without undesirable side effects. It also reduces anxiety.


One study published in a Swiss journal tested the ability of alpha- and beta-pinene to fight the infectious bronchitis virus. The study found that both types of pinene inhibited viral activity in cells, therefore making the terpene a potential aid for those with bronchitis. The study also established pinene as a bronchodilator that could offer relief to those with asthma. People who suffer from COPD or emphysema benefit from inhaling balsam, pine or cedar oil, although the effects are short lived and so it is necessary to use these substances on a regular basis. I use them daily during the winter months.


In an attempt to understand Alzheimer’s disease, scientists have investigated alpha-pinene’s role in fighting this incurable neurological disorder. Some scientists have concluded that alpha –pinene may also be beneficial when dealing with dementia, cognitive dysfunction and memory loss.


Bacterial pathogens have a great ability to acquire resistance against antibiotics; and gastroenteritis is a disease caused by a multidrug –resistant bacteria. Alpha pinene has been used to mitigate the effects of the bacteria.


Although it is clear that these terpenes have antimicrobial, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, and antiallergic properties and several in vivo, and more recently, a few clinical studies have assessed the pinenes biological effects, further efforts are needed to deepen knowledge in this field. As far as I was able to determine western science has barely scratched the surface of the benefits of these phytochemicals. Instead we rely on expensive drugs that have undesirable side effects.

Until I lived in the desert I took evergreens somewhat for granted because I have lived with these trees all my life, but it was only a few months after moving to NM before I began to miss the diversity and the scent. Fortunately, the Pedernal was only an hour’s drive from the casita so except during mid –winter I always had a place to go where I could once again bathe my body in these rich compounds I both craved and loved.

Letting Go


Teeny peeper sitting in the middle of a piece of lichen about the size of a quarter


Every year I bring back wood frogs, peepers or toads to this property to increase my amphibian population… this year with a drought underway the peepers captured my heart because a bizarre heat wave hit Maine just after the coldest freeze I ever remember. The poor peepers froze and then steamed and fried under a relentless solstice sun, their vernal pools rapidly disappearing from under them.


Intervening, I scooped up about a thousand and took them to the pond, brought some here to the shaded vernal pool that I dug here many years ago. Amphibians are the most endangered species on earth and I liked the idea of providing a temporary home for some.


This year I decided to raise seven peepers in a fish bowl something I had not done for a number of years. The ones in the vernal pool had kingfishers, herons, and a raccoon to deal with on top of drought – with these odds who knows how many would survive to become adults. The prognosis seemed grim.


On a whim when I added five toadpoles to my bowl of seven tadpoles I wondered if they would be eaten, but happily I was mistaken. So now I had twelve rotund bodies with wiggling tails, blobs with discernable eyes that watched me through the glass any time I sat with them. It was impossible not to reach the conclusion that these tadpoles were as interested in me as I was in them. One of the peepers disappeared within two days, and I knew from prior experience that he had died, becoming a source of protein for the others. Nature knows a lot about recycling.


Because I have no aquarium I have to scoop out the water and refill it with microbe rich bacteria pond water twice a week, a labor-intensive job that I have been doing for more than a month as of this writing. I feed my tadpoles bits of homegrown torn lettuce that they demolish with incredible speed and gusto. I have been anxiously awaiting back legs to develop because when this happens I know that their final ordeal is almost upon them. Transformation is never easy. (When I hear folks casually discussing transformation as if it was some sort of fun process I cringe. Transformations of any kind are fraught with danger and difficulty).


None of the toadpoles have legs but about 10 ten days ago I noted the first of the peepers were sprouting some. One little fellow turned almost transparent as his body shrunk, his head increased in size as frog eyes appeared as protuberances, his mouth grew wider. When tiny nubs emerged and developed almost instantly into front legs and his tail began to shrink this little character made a mysterious exit one night.


Since there are no predators on the porch where I keep the fish bowl I had deliberately provided him with an escape by leaving a long piece of wood leaning against the inside of the bowl that stuck out a few inches just in case a transformation occurred during the night. The purpose of the wood was to give the little emerging frog a stable place from which to hunt his first bug. Although I searched the porch I could not find him. Perhaps he slipped through a crack in the door to freedom. I hoped so. After this experience I was determined not to miss the next show!


When the second little tadpole began to change I transferred him to another bowl without as much water, one with a floating piece of wood in its center. This time I was rewarded. I watched carefully as his tail shrunk trying to judge when he would re absorb it because this would be his final food source until he caught his first insect. I watched him alternately coming to the surface to breathe air and then sinking back down to the bottom of the bowl to gulp water. He seemed to be struggling a bit and I was worried. By evening his tail had diminished. When I looked in the bowl he was sitting on the floating wood gazing at me expectantly as if he knew I was his route to freedom. It was time.


I prepared a protected place in my flower garden, putting a shallow dish of water with a few stones under the greenery, and added another wooden island – just in case he might still need to rest. When I picked him up and opened the door he squirmed a little. As soon as I bent down in the greenery, placing him in the dish he leapt out and disappeared into a mass of green foliage! His journey had begun. I was shocked to feel so bereft. Even though I had raised him from childhood I was, after all, celebrating his new life…How is it that I had forgotten that raising tadpoles always carried a cost?


I suspect the process reminded me of losing my own children to unseen forces; but perhaps it wasn’t only that. It may be that nurturing (and usually I raise tadpoles from eggs) puts me in touch with the inevitable pain that is always associated with love. I reminded myself that I needed to learn this life lesson over and over. And that Letting Go is an art form.




As of this afternoon I have three froglets living in my flower garden. When I took the second one outdoors he leapt so high into the foliage that I was stunned. Remember these tiny peepers are only about a quarter inch long.


The third one was waiting for me on the floating wood, eyeing me with particular intensity this morning. I spoke to him, commenting on the fact that his tail was still quite long, but he seemed to be telling me that this was fine. It was time to go. I complied, and although he did spend a few moments floating in the dish, he also vanished into the giant green jungle…

Electric Green Damselflies!



Today it was 90 degrees and I spent most of the afternoon with a friend wading in my brook – a body of clear mountain water that flows under a graceful canopy of trees, trees that sheltered us from the brutal Summer Solstice sun and kept the surrounding air moist and cool as well as almost unbearably fragrant. Oh, I am never more appreciative of the forest than on a day like this one. We haven’t had a soaking rain for almost two months and although the humidity provides a little moisture for thirsty trees the forest floor is drying up, the mosses are losing color, lichens are crispy. Fire is an ominous threat, and piles of slash have become a real danger… We were discussing these worries when suddenly three amazing apparitions interrupted our conversation.

Catapulted into the present we both watched in wonder as electric green damselflies darted back and forth below the waterfall, barely lighting on the lacy ferns for seconds before darting away. Emerald sticks shimmered and shivered as they soared after prey.

No other insects symbolize summer quite like this group of colorful, primitive-looking predatory insects. Often we confuse the two species calling both dragonflies. In the late summer garden, both damsel and dragonflies resemble tiny animal fighter jets, fierce-looking with bulbous eyes and gossamer wings.

Just the day before I was kayaking on the pond and had a number of the latter landing on my bow with their outstretched wings. I also noted strings of dragonfly – damselfly (?) eggs attached to reeds floating under water.

Damselfies and dragonflies are closely related. These members of the insect order Odonata include roughly 5,900 species – about 2,600 damselflies and 3000 dragonflies.

Damselflies and dragonflies are both predatory flying insects that look primitive and ancient because they are. Fossil records indicate that prehistoric species are quite similar to those we see today. Modern dragonflies and damselflies are most prevalent in tropical regions, but some species can be found in almost every part of the world except for the polar regions.

In all fairness it is easy to see why dragonflies and damselflies are often confused with one another because they share many characteristics, including membranous wings, large eyes, slender bodies and small antenna. But there are also clear differences. Damselflies have longer thinner bodies that look like needles. In general, dragonflies are sturdier, thicker-bodied insects Once you the difference in body shape most folks can easily identify the two. What is easiest for me to remember is that damselflies look like flying needles while dragonflies resemble small aircraft especially when they land. Damselfly wings are held vertically while dragonfly wings are flat while the insects are at rest.

Both species come in a wide range of sizes and colors. Some are subdued, others dazzle the eye with their brightly metallic hues of greens and blues. Damselflies have the widest range of sizes, with wingspans ranging from about 3/4 inch (19 mm) in some species to 7 1/2 inches (19 cm) in larger species. Some fossil ancestors have wingspans of more than 28 inches! One of the first winged insects, dragonflies have inhabited the Earth for more than 300 million years.

Both damselflies and dragonflies lay their eggs in or near water. Hatched larvae go through a series of molts as they grow, and begin predatory feeding on the larvae of other insects and small aquatic animals like tadpoles. One year someone gave me some dragonfly eggs and forgot to tell me they would eat my tadpoles. Naturally, I was deeply upset when I discovered the trick and was quick to remove the offenders. The Odonata larvae themselves also serve as an important food source for fish, amphibians, and birds. Larval damselflies and dragonflies reach adulthood in as little as three weeks or as long as eight years, depending on species. They go through no pupal stage, but near the end of the larval stage, the insects begin to develop wings, which emerge as useable flight organs after the last molt of the larval stage.

The adult flying stage, which can last as long as nine months, is marked by predatory feeding on other insects, mating, and finally laying eggs in water or moist, boggy areas. As adults dragonflies and damselflies are largely immune to predators, except for some birds. These insects are our friends! They consume large quantities of mosquitoes, gnats, and other biting creatures. Damselflies and dragonflies are visitors we need to entice into our gardens!

In some folklore green dragonflies are supposed symbolize abundance and the greening of the earth. To see these magical flying beings on the afternoon of the summer solstice seemed prescient. I couldn’t help wondering if their timely appearance might suggest that this turning of the wheel might bring us some relief from the difficulties that we are facing on a personal and collective level.



The picture that I have included shows a Sparkling Jewelwing damselfly. Only the tip of the wings is dark, making it easy to differentiate from the more common Ebony Jewelwing. Many areas of the east coast are blessed with these magnificent insects.

The Endearing Phoebe


The Phoebe that helped me solve a mystery


Last year when I returned from New Mexico I found an Eastern Phoebe’s nest under the eaves above my front door. I witnessed the three nestlings mature with deep pleasure, happy because the phoebes have only nested on the house once before, though this little valley has been home to these endearing birds ever since I built the house. Every year I watch them hunt from the wild apple tree with its golden apples that spans the entire southern wall of the house and overlooks the brook. In fact I am watching a phoebe hunt as I write these words. In years past I always looked forward to their arrival in the early spring after a long Maine winter.

This spring the phoebes chose another nest site, probably one of their old ones, perhaps because last year I removed the dormer that protected their nest; I can’t be sure.

Two days ago I watched a phoebe fly from a nearby crabapple towards the very spot above the door where the birds had their nest last year. I was baffled by this strange behavior and when I investigated I found the answer. Phoebe was hunting hungry mosquitos – there was a whole cloud of these little monsters that had convened there apparently while waiting for me to open the door! Insects are smart, and this convocation is a perfect example of insect brilliance. No wonder the bugs were getting in. I thanked my little friend for his help before rubbing peppermint oil on the wood to discourage the mosquitos, who then vacated the area. Because I am repeating this application the phoebes are no longer hunting around the front door, but have returned to their previous hunting ground, the apple tree. When I posted a couple of phoebe pictures my friend Carol Bondy mentioned that she had some nesting on their house. I hope at some point to see some of her pictures.

In Abiquiu I hear phoebes in the gracious Cottonwoods during the winter but I rarely see them and whenever I do it is always just a glimpse of a wobbling tail or bobbing. After hearing about Carol’s experience it suddenly occurred to me that these New Mexico phoebes might be a different species. And of course they are. The reason I had never thought about this issue before is because their calls sound alike to me although the literature states that there are distinct differences. I was baffled by this apparent inconsistency. When I actually listened to the two species singing I noted that The Says phoebe has a shorter call or peep, though it sounds similar to the call of the Eastern phoebe, a sound I have heard all my life. At least one of the sources I consulted said that the ranges of these two species can overlap Is it possible that both species inhabit the Abiquiu area? If they do I would love to know.

The primary difference between the Eastern phoebe and the Says Phoebe of New Mexico is that the former have a pale belly as opposed to the cinnamon – washed belly belonging to the latter.

Both species of flycatchers migrate north in the early spring and are noted for being early arrivals. Unlike many other birds both species reuse nests. With that much said it is also true that Phoebes that are breeding in the Southwest do not migrate and are present year round.

In the east the phoebes place their mud-and-grass nests in protected places like houses, barns, under bridges or around here in nests placed close to the brook (the one on the side of the cabin was made with a lot of moss). They gravitate to protected woodlands.

The Says phoebe will also nest on houses and buildings but otherwise “is an open country bird”. The literature says these phoebes perch on fence posts and pasture wire but I have not seen this behavior although both wire and fence posts border the casita on the riverside. It seems to me that phoebes in Abiquiu would be drawn to the Bosque because this is where there are more insects to eat. Out of season they are fond of berries. They are supposed to lay two clutches of two to six eggs. Here, the family that nested under the eaves only raised one.

Both species seem to tolerate and even befriend humans who pay attention to them. This has been my personal experience with the phoebes that hunt from the wild apple tree. They watch me through the window with beaded eyes while bobbing up and down and wagging their tail feathers in that characteristic phoebe way. They do not fly away, even when I approach them; they respond to the sound of my voice with apparent interest.

Happily, according to Audubon both species appear to be maintaining a stable population.

The Eastern Phoebe became the first banded bird in North America. John James Audubon attached silvered thread to an Eastern phoebe’s leg to track its return in successive years.

The Eastern Phoebe is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes. Even members of a mated pair do not spend much time together. They may roost together early in pair formation, but even during egg laying the female frequently chases the male away from her. I didn’t find similar information about the Says phoebe but my guess is that the two behave in much the same way. I never glimpsed more than one at a time in Abiquiu.

Say’s Phoebes have been in the U.S. since the late Pleistocene. Paleontologists discovered Say’s Phoebe fossils in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas dating back to about 400,000 years ago.

The Say’s Phoebe also breeds farther north than any other flycatcher and is seemingly limited only by the lack of nest sites. Its breeding range extends from central Mexico all the way to the arctic tundra.

I know from personal experience that befriending these little birds is a worthwhile endeavor providing the viewer with hours of entertainment – sometimes at the expense of work that has to be done! The little fellow outside my window keeps interrupting my train of thought with his aerial dives.