Elder – Berry Musings

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I first became interested in herbalism as a young mother who kept a small herbal garden outside her back door. There is nothing better than fresh herbs to spice up any dish (as any good cook knows well) and baking my own bread, making homemade granola, etc., like gardening, was simply part of what I did. In retrospect, I see that cooking served as a highly creative endeavor that helped me to create some balance between the millions of mundane jobs associated with single motherhood and my need for creativity…

It seemed quite natural to begin to explore herbs for medicinal purposes. I first experimented with plants that grew wild near my house on the island on which I lived. I sensed that developing a personal relationship with the plants I was using mattered, an intuition that continues to inform my growing and preparation of herbal remedies to this day. If I don’t have the right growing conditions for an herb I need, I wild craft responsibly. Until recently I have never used store bought preparations.

When I studied with medicine folk in the Amazon thirty years after first using herbs for culinary and then medicinal purposes, I learned that each healer only used his/her own garden grown herbs and preparations differed based on the knowledge that each medicine person received directly from the plants, so perhaps the importance of having a personal reciprocal relationship with individual plants is tied to their efficacy – my sense/experience is that it is. The ways of the natural world are not well understood by most westernized people.

Tinctures are my preferred method of medicinal preparation because they are simple to make, requiring gathering the ripe fruit, plant, or root and steeping in alcohol for a minimum of 6 – 8 weeks. Today, of course, herbal preparations – creams – syrups – tinctures etc. can (or could be) be purchased almost anywhere.

Although Indigenous peoples have been using plant remedies for millennia to combat a whole range of ailments, and folk medicine has been popular amongst country people throughout the world, western medicine for the most part has dismissed herbal efficacy, an attitude that defies logic because most of our medicines originally came from plants.

With the spread of the Coronavirus increasing exponentially each day it might be time to take a look at Elderberry, an herb that I have grown in my yard and wild crafted around forest edges in Maine. I have used the berries to make a tincture for a number of years to help me reduce the chance of becoming ill with colds or the flu, and until I came to New Mexico without it and got the flu the second winter I was here I sort of took the herb for granted.

Research Director Dr. Jessie Hawkins and coauthors (Complementary Therapies in Medicine) undertook the first meta-analysis to study Elderberry because so little research has been done by the scientific community as a whole. (How much this prevailing scientific attitude has to do with the pharmaceutical companies and their outrageous pricing is an ongoing question for me).

Because the studies were varied, researchers were able to apply a random effects model to evaluate the effect of Elderberry. Calculations yielded a large mean effect; Elderberry does substantially reduce the duration of upper respiratory symptoms in colds and flu.

Additionally, the researchers learned that getting the flu vaccine didn’t significantly alter the effects of Elderberry. They also discovered that it not only reduces the symptoms of colds and flu, but that it works more effectively for flu symptoms than for cold symptoms.

Other Researchers performing in vitro studies (done in a lab) confirm that Elderberry is active against human pathogenic bacteria as well as influenza viruses (HINI) In separate clinical trials, investigators also demonstrated that Elderberry reduced the severity and duration of cold and flu-like symptoms.

A recent study by a group of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering researchers from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Engineering and IT has determined exactly how Elderberry can help fight influenza.

The group performed a comprehensive examination of the mechanism by which phytochemicals from elderberries combat flu by blocking key viral proteins responsible for both the viral attachment and entry into the host cells. Elderberry compounds directly inhibit the virus’s entry and replication in human cells,

The phytochemicals from the elderberry juice were shown to be effective at stopping the virus infecting the cells. However, to the surprise of the researchers they were even more effective at inhibiting/blocking viral propagation at several stages of the influenza cycle when the cells had already been infected with the virus.

They also discovered that Elderberry stimulated the cells to release certain cytokines, which are chemical messengers that the immune system uses for communication between different cell types to help them coordinate a more efficient response to an invading pathogen.

Additionally, the team also found that Elderberry’s antiviral activity is attributed to its anthocyanidin compounds — phytonutrients responsible for giving the fruit its vivid purple coloring.

In another placebo-controlled, double-blind study conducted by virologist Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu, 93 percent of the people taking Elderberry reported significant improvement in flu symptoms within 2 days of starting it, compared with the 6 days it took for the placebo group to see improvement.

A similar randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study performed in Norway demonstrated that Elderberry that was given to patients who reported having flu-like symptoms for less than 48 hours had similar results.

Researchers have also found that people who have taken Elderberry have higher levels of antibodies against the influenza virus, indicating that not only may Elderberry be able to treat flu symptoms it may also be able to prevent influenza infection.

Collectively, this research indicates that use of Elderberry presents us with an alternative to antibiotic misuse for upper respiratory symptoms due to viral infections. Additionally Elderberry use is a potentially safer alternative to prescription drugs for routine cases of the common cold and influenza.

Of course, at this point, we have no way of knowing whether the deadly new Coronavirus would be inhibited by the use of Elderberry. However, the fact that it has been used as a folk remedy to treat colds/flu by Indigenous/country peoples throughout the world for millennia combined with new research and my own previous experience with this herb, suggests at the very least, Elderberry might be worth a try.

On a personal note, because I have been in New Mexico during Elderberry season I have not made a new tincture for myself for the last four years. The result is that I haven’t been using the berry as a preventative measure. I’ve been sick here a lot. Recently, I purchased a commercial tincture to use as a preventative measure. I can only hope that the Berry Lady hasn’t forgotten that I love her well.

The Forest Has a Heart and S/he Sleeps Too

 

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The heartbeat of the tree is hidden in its trunk…

 

The Forest has a heart?

Scientist Diana Beresford Kroeger proved that the biochemistry of humans and that of plants and trees are the same – ie the hormones (including serotonin) that regulate human and plant life are identical. What this means practically is that trees possess all the elements they need to develop a mind and consciousness. If mind and awareness are possibilities/probabilities then my next question isn’t absurd: Do trees have a heartbeat?

According to studies done in Hungary and Denmark (Zlinszky/Molnar/Barfod) in 2017 trees do in fact have a special type of pulse within them which resembles that of a heartbeat.

To find this hidden heartbeat, these researchers used advanced monitoring techniques known as terrestrial laser scanning to survey the movement of twenty two different types of trees to see how the shape of their canopies changed.

The measurements were taken in greenhouses at night to rule out sun and wind as factors in the trees’ movements.

In several of the trees, branches moved up and down by about a centimeter or so every couple of hours.

After studying the nocturnal tree activity, the researchers came up with a theory about what the movement means. They believe the motion is an indication that trees are pumping water up from their roots. It is, in essence, a type of ‘heartbeat.’ These results shocked everyone. At night, while the trees were resting, slow and steady pulses pumped and distributed water throughout the tree body just as a human heart pumps blood. It has been assumed that trees distribute water via osmosis (a process that defies gravity and never made sense to me) but this and other new findings suggests otherwise.

Scientists have discovered the trunks and branches of trees are actually contracting and expanding to ‘pump’ water up from the roots to the leaves, similar to the way our hearts pump blood through our bodies. They suggest that the trunk gently squeezes the water, pushing it upwards through the xylem, a system of tissue in the trunk whose main job is to transport water and nutrients from roots to shoots and leaves.

But what “organ” generates the pulse?

Recently forest science researchers have found that the pulse is mostly generated by diameter fluctuations in the bark only. This was somewhat surprising, as traditionally it was thought that bark is totally decoupled from the transpiration stream of the tree. To better understand this mysterious situation, we need to have a closer look at the bark.

Bark can be divided into a dead (outside) and living (inside) section. The living section contains a transport system called phloem. The phloem relocates sugars – produced during photosynthesis in the leaves – to tissues, which require sugars for energy. The direction of transport leads to a downward directed stream of sugar-rich sap in bark towards the roots. The phloem uses water as transport medium for these sugars, and under certain conditions it appears that this water can be drawn out of the phloem into the transpiration stream of the stem. Plant biologists were able to show that these conditions are most likely to occur during the rapid increase of transpiration in the morning hours. During this time, the tension in the capillaries that transport the water upwards in rapidly increases.

Just like a rubber band, too much tension would cause the water column inside the capillaries to burst; this is one horrible way that trees can die during drought.

To prevent this snapping, water from phloem is drawn into the capillaries, and the loss of water from the phloem causes the stem to shrink. Once the tension in the capillaries declines as a consequence of decreasing transpiration, the formerly lost water will be replaced back into the phloem, and so the stem expands again.

The exact pathway of this water transfer takes place within the phloem that acts like a sponge that gets saturated and squeezed continuously.

The only difference between our pulse and a tree’s is a tree’s is much slower, ‘beating’ once every two hours or so, and instead of regulating blood pressure, the heartbeat of a tree regulates water pressure. Trees have regular periodic changes in shape that are synchronized across the whole plant.

It seems obvious to me that the ‘heart’ of a tree extends through its entire trunk just under the bark, the place where the pulse of a tree beats continuously.

 

Part 2   Trees Sleep?

In 2016, Zlinszky and his team released another study demonstrating that birch trees go to sleep at night (now we know that all trees – at least all the trees that have been studied so far – do sleep at night).*

Trees follow circadian cycles responding primarily to light and darkness on a daily cycle. The researchers believe the dropping of birch branches before dawn is caused by a decrease in the tree’s internal water pressure while the trees rest. With no photosynthesis at night to drive the conversion of sunlight into simple sugars, trees are conserving energy by relaxing branches that would otherwise be angled towards the sun. Trees increase their transpiration during the morning, decreasing it during the afternoon and into the night. There is a change in the diameter of the trunk or stem that produces a slow pulse. During the evening and the night tree water use is declining, while at the same time, the stem begins to expand again as it refills with water.

When trees drop their branches and leaves its because they’re sleeping. They enter their own type of circadian rhythm known as circadian leaf movement, following their own internal tree clock.

Movement patterns followed an 8 to 12 cycle, a periodic movement between 2 – 6 hours and a combination of the two.

As we know, plants need water to photosynthesize glucose, the basic building block from which their more complex molecules are formed. For trees, this means drawing water from the roots to the leaves. This takes place during daylight hours.

The movement has to be connected to variations in water pressure within the plants, and this effectively means that the tree is pumping fluids continuously. Water transport is not just a steady-state flow, as was previously assumed; changing water pressure is the norm although the trees continue to pulse throughout the night as tree trunks shrink and expand.

This work is just one example of a growing body of literature indicating that trees have lives that are more similar to ours than we could have ever imagined. When we mindlessly destroy trees we are destroying a whole ecosystem and a part of ourselves in the process because we are all related through our genetic make up. A sobering thought, for some.

Personal footnote:

Having lived in the North Country surrounded by evergreens of all kinds (balsaam, fir, spruce, hemlock, and white pine) for most of my life, I have always suspected that trees sleep during the winter months. On frigid mornings one glance at my closet neighbors shows me the needles are drooping, the needles turning almost gray. If the temperatures do not warm during the day the trees remain bowed, even if no snow is present. During a thaw the trees come back to life raising their branches towards the sun. Even their various greens intensify in color. Although I have conversed with my trees asking them how they are doing, I had no idea that what I observed was simply one aspect of a continuous process that was occurring with all trees every single day/night. I have not seen research on this wintering behavior of northern trees but now I am speculating that winter sleeping might be an unexplored aspect of northern tree behavior?

The Portal: How Do We Know What We Know?

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My favorite part of the Bosque

 

Every morning I walk to the river in the velveteen hour between the vanishing blue night and the coming of the first scarlet, pink, lavender, purple or golden ribbons that stretch across the horizon. Sometimes clouds with heavy gray eyelids mute first light. Either way all my senses except that of sight are on high alert; a deep peace embraces me in the dark. My body knows the way. I murmur to the willows as I pass through the veil and under their bowed bridge. Their response is muted, a song beneath words.

 

At first my footsteps are barely audible on the narrow serpentine dirt path but as I pass by the river I note that she too is singing; and my senses quicken. If the Crane spirits are with me I hear the first brrring of Sandhill cranes as they take flight. “Freezing” I am crane struck; the involuntary need to stand still is overpowering. Body -mind viscerally absorbs Oneness as I breathe in a multitude of crane songs or perhaps only that of a few. Now my eyes are suddenly open, straining to see the familiar brrring materialize into startling graceful heads, necks, and stream lined bodies…. I note the shimmering waters beginning to mirror blushing pastels or the gray smoke that stains the horizon. Sometimes these hues deepen into rose, blood orange, or scarlet.

 

The rusty creaking gate opens the portal to my refuge.

 

Papery heart shaped leaves crunch under my feet, cottonwoods, junipers, cattails, and scrub reach out to touch me with feathery or wiry fingers, perhaps thorns; I am serenaded, slipping into a light trance. I begin to round the Bosque feeling the earth moving under my feet. Listening for the voices that come through image, sensation, silver filaments threaded through thin air. Illuminations, and occasionally, revelations erupt like volcanoes. A profound inner silence soothes me as I follow my feet, touching smooth branches, prickly juniper twigs, ribbed trunks in response, raising my gaze to marvel over the shapes of bare trees branches, cross – hatched, twisting to reach the sky to bring down the rains, perceiving each unique pattern as if for the first time, flooded by awe at each turning though I know the shapes by heart. At this time of day the Bosque is humming her collective love song without interference and it is possible to discern each voice. As I walk through the inner cottonwood path, sometimes surprising a rabbit or two I can feel this particular family of cottonwoods rising up to embrace me. Listening to their collective voices strumming a song that speaks to Love without Boundaries, I offer my gratitude for ‘what is,’ this moment in time.

 

Working Notes

 

Almost every day I walk down to the river in the early morning twilight, that space between worlds. But it is not primarily the river that calls me these days, it’s the Bosque, and once I have entered this refuge I feel an eerie sense of Becoming One with All That Is.

 

Bosque derives its name from the Spanish word for woodlands. This diverse habitat is found along the riparian floodplains of streams and river throughout the Southwest, especially along parts of the Rio Grande. I am fortunate to spend winters on one of its tributaries, Red Willow River, and to have a dear friend and kind neighbor who cares deeply for this particular Bosque which is located on the boundary of this property. The little forest is full of Cottonwoods, Mexican Privets, Junipers, Willows, Russian Olives, Apache plume, Cattails and many other bushes, plants, and grasses that parallel the waters and are still receiving, what I hope, is adequate moisture to feed thirsty roots and a complex underground fungal network…

 

For me the Bosque is a magical place full of wonder; a true refuge – a place of shelter and protection from the ravages of sun and wind. It is also a sanctuary, a holy place where the veil of Nature is thin, allowing for both underground and above ground communication, some of which occurs through scent and touch, sensing and feeling. Occasionally I will hear a word or two emerging from a place inside and outside of my body. Other times our conversation occurs telepathically (instant knowing). All my senses are engaged – my body/mind, though I must stress that the latter aspect must be emptied of rational thinking or chatter in order to hear those voices. Seeking that trance state with focused awareness puts me in that mind- still place. The Bosque knows I love her and that I see her in all her complexity – this seeing is an inner state and has nothing to do with sight in the usual sense. I believe Love helps open the door. I also keep an open mind and am a receiver by intent as well as by nature, and I think developing this ability with awareness contributes to our daily conversations.

 

It was not always this way, although I fell in love with the Bosque the first time I entered it. It takes time and attention to develop an intimate relationship with place, and only after four years have the Bosque’s inhabitants begun to speak to me. Even now, virtually all of our exchanges occur only during the pre-dawn twilight hours. Stillness, inside and out, appears to be another critical key that opens the door.

 

Engaging intimately with place then requires time and attention, repeated contact, an intention to communicate born of love (and at least in my case a deep need for reciprocity), the use of all bodily senses, a quiet but open mind, an ability to receive, stillness, and silence.

 

All of Nature sings a song of creation and destruction, one that is predicated on joy as well as sorrow. I think we must be willing to embrace both aspects of this process in order to be fully present for this song to keep on singing. What I don’t mention in the prose above is that in the Bosque I also receive messages about the cottonwoods struggling mightily to survive ever-increasing drought.

 

 

Natural History Postscript:

 

Scientists are just beginning to learn something about how plants communicate, even over long distances. The complexity of this communication is as yet poorly understood but involves both underground networks that connect trees/plants to one another, and communication that occurs above ground through the air.

 

Here’s a great example of what happens underground. Coyote willows, which are abundant around here and in the Bosque sprout from a single root system that scientists call cloning. What this means practically is that clusters of willows are related – they have an identical genetic structure. Some of these willow clones are more than 1000 square feet in size; other smaller clones also thrive in different places. Cottonwoods, Aspens, and Poplars, the other members of the Willow family also use the same strategies for reproduction. 88 percent of cottonwood reproduction occurs through cloning, so all the trees along the property line on this property are also related, as are the cottonwoods in the Bosque. On that inner path in the Bosque the sense I have of being embraced by these trees is the strongest, and I think the reason for that is that this spot is a kind of epicenter for the rest. The Willow family by the way is relatively young – only about 100 million years old. All members have symbiotic relationships with other plants.

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(Coyote Willows and Cranes – Bosque del Apache)

 

How do we know what we know? Mystics, visionaries, Indigenous peoples, poets, and naturalists have “known” that trees and plants communicate between themselves and with us for a very long time even though we have rarely been believed. Now we have proof that interspecies communication occurs at least between plants, even if we still don’t believe it can happen with us.

 

 

Willow Magic

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Pussy Willows

 

The Willow Family (Salicaceae)

 

Every morning on my way to the Bosque I keep a sharp eye out for subtle changes in the color of the Coyote Willows – Salix exigua – that line the ditches and the river. In a month or so these slender shoots and bushes will turn burnt orange or a deep rose red depending upon their pigments and perhaps the soil in which they are planted. Here in Abiquiu they signal that spring is on the way. These flexible fronds are used by so many Indigenous peoples to make baskets, trays, etc – some even use them as thread. What I love best is their shape-shifting color especially when framed against an azure sky.

 

Because I have two home places I also think of another willow – Salix discolor – commonly called the native Pussy Willow. By mid February I am impatiently waiting for the first fuzzy paws to appear on the bushy branches of the pussy willows on my property. In Maine, winters are long and the advent of the pussy willow signals the coming shift of seasons long before it becomes apparent in more obvious ways, except for the warming sun. Snowfall is often heaviest during this month, and I have been known to tramp through heavy snow on snowshoes to reach some of my favorite clumps. I clip a few twigs from each bunch to put in the house.

 

All willows are flowering plants that have abundant watery bark sap which is heavily charged with salicylic acid – the precursor of aspirin – soft, usually pliant, tough wood, slender branches, and large, fibrous roots with an astonishing ability to anchor themselves securely to the ground even when water is rushing by. The roots are remarkable for their toughness, size, and willows readily sprout from the aerial parts of the plant.

 

Few folks know that willows (true for other members of this family too – cottonwoods, aspen, poplar) absorb poisons like lead and other toxins cleansing the earth and water of pollutants wherever they happen to grow. In my opinion, we should all take a few moments to give thanks for having such ‘giving trees’. In Maine, some of my poplars are diseased, and I have often wondered if this is a result of their penchant for removing toxins from the ground and also contributes to these trees’ and plants having a short life – span.

 

Willows are among the earliest woody plants to leaf out in spring and the last to drop their leaves in autumn. Leaf out may occur as early as February depending on the climate and is stimulated by air temperature. If daytime highs reach 55 °F for a few consecutive days, most willows will attempt to put out leaves and flowers. Leaf drop in autumn occurs when day length shortens to approximately ten and a half hours. This dropping of leaves varies by latitude occurring as early as the first week of October for boreal species and as late as the third week of December for willows growing in far southern areas. This January while visiting the Bosque Del Apache to be with the Sandhill cranes for the second time this year I discovered clumps of willows that had not dropped their leaves at all.

 

The buds form along the branch and are usually covered by a single scale that acts like a cap. This is especially obvious on pussy willow branches. Most leaves of willows are slender and feathery – quite delicate and graceful. The colors of the leaves vary depending upon the type.

 

The flowers possess both and female catkins on separate clumps and often they appear before the leaves. The pussy willow paw is a catkin in the making.

 

Willows are often planted on the borders of streams if they aren’t already growing there naturally, so their interlacing roots may protect the bank against flooding water. Frequently, like the coyote willow, the roots are much larger than the stem that grows from them. Just try to uproot one and you will be in for a surprise!

 

Willows are important in other ways. For some native pollinators, willows offer the first, important source of pollen and nectar (this is definitely true for pussy willows). Look closely at the male catkins that follow the buds and you will see a roil of small wasps, ants and bees and varieties of flies all crawling, burrowing around while foraging the flowers for nectar and pollen.

 

Some list willows as second only to oaks in value as host trees for butterflies and moths like the mourning cloak, sphinx and viceroy.

 

Leafrollers, sawflies, borers, midges and gall gnats produce an ornamental aberration called a pine-cone gall, easily visible on twig tips when willows shed their leaves. All of these represent long-evolved plant-insect associations, not to be confused with infestations more often caused by introduced insects.

 

Willows comprise North America’s largest genus of tree-like plants. There are approximately one hundred species plus a number of hybrids. Most willows are short-lived.

 

Willows have a wide natural distribution from the tropics to the arctic zones and are extensively cultivated around the world.

 

In Maine ‘an old field speckled with budding pussy willows is like a constellation come to earth, descended from the heavens and hovering just above the ground’

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In Abiquiu the advent of spring bursts with the glorious burnished golden sheen of the coyote willow!

Nature’s Gold – The Aspens

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Nature’s Gold – The Aspen

 

Every morning I set off to the river and to my refuge, the Bosque, walking under dying cottonwoods whose bark is peeling away from dead tree limbs. Just in the past summer a few of these magnificent matriarchs have crashed to earth providing nutrients that will one day support some other kind of ‘tree of life’.

 

My dreams tell me that new as yet unknown species will begin life here, offering me comfort because as a dreamer I have learned that my dreaming body knows what I do not, no doubt because she is attached to the body of this precious earth.

 

When I pass by the coyote willows I think about how cottonwoods, aspens, and poplars are part of the Willow family. Recent genetic testing reveals that this diverse group also includes passiflora (my beloved passionflowers) and wild violets too! – I was astonished by this last piece of information until I realized that all require adequate water to thrive.

 

Coming from the Northeast where quaking aspen can be found throughout the state of Maine I was still surprised to learn that these trees stretch across the entire continent. Aspens hold the title of being the most widespread tree in North America. They can be found from the Midwest, across Canada, north into Alaska and across the West through to Arizona and into New Mexico.

 

One aspen tree is actually only a small part of a larger organism. A stand or group of aspen trees is considered a singular organism with its central life force hidden underground in an extensive root system that I think is analogous to the human brain (I am not alone in this speculation). Before a solitary aspen trunk appears above the surface, the root system may lie dormant for many years until conditions are just right. In a single stand, each tree is a genetic replicate of the other, hence the name – a “clone” of aspens used to describe a stand.

 

Older than the massive Sequoias or the Bristlecone Pines, when the Pando clone was discovered, scientists named it with a Latin word that means “I spread.” Pando is an aspen clone that originated from a single seed and increases by sending up new shoots from its underground expanding and complex root system.

Pando is believed to be the largest, most dense organism ever found on earth. It weighs nearly 13 million pounds (6,600 tons). The clone spreads over 106 acres, consisting of over 40,000 individual trees. The exact age of the clone and its root system is difficult to calculate, but it is estimated to have started at the end of the last ice age. It was first recognized by researchers in the 1970s and more recently proven by geneticists. Its massive size, weight, and prehistoric age have caused worldwide fame.

Located in central Utah (Fishlake National Forest), Pando is dressed in verdant green throughout the summer. Her fluttering leaves bring relief from summer’s intense basin heat. In autumn the oranges and yellows and sometimes crimson leaves rival the most spectacular New Mexican sunset.

However, there is deep cause for concern because Pando is showing signs of decline. The organism is not regenerating, invasive insects are present, as are diseases. Unfortunately throughout the west, diebacks of other aspen stands are becoming more common. No one mentions climate change or loss of habitat as an issue.

The prevailing logic is that even if the trees of any stand are wiped out, it is still difficult to extinguish an aspen’s root system permanently due to the rapid rate in which it reproduces, thus there is hope.

It’s hard to decide what is most memorable about aspen: the vibrant gold leaves in fall, the startling pearl white stands, or the magical sound of the “quaking” leaves.

Among swaths of dark green conifers, the deciduous aspen stands thrive in a variety of environments. Aspens quickly colonize recently burned or bare areas (with birches in areas that support the latter like they do in Maine). They prefer moist soil but can survive near springs in desert conditions. Like the rest of the willow family these trees must have access to water. Because the Southwest is under siege from increasing drought as a result of climate change, I wonder if lack of adequate water is the reason why these trees are not regenerating.

 

One of the most fascinating aspects of aspens is that they grow all winter, a fact I didn’t know, but should have suspected because the trees around my house have a greenish cast. Beneath the thin, white outer bark layer is a thin green photosynthetic layer that allows the tree to create sugars and grow when other deciduous trees are dormant. This characteristic is unique among deciduous trees. During hard winters, the green, sugary layer provides necessary nutrients for deer and elk. Throughout the year, young aspens provide food for a variety of animals including moose, black bears, beaver, porcupine, grouse and rodents.

 

Perhaps most impressively, quaking aspen along with sister species (distributed in Europe and Asia) occupy the broadest range of any tree species in the world. Why is that so? Possibly one reason might be because the bark carries out photosynthesis all year long allowing the stands to expand their geographic range.

 

Aspen drops its leaves in winter but, of course, remains alive and thus requires metabolic energy. The soft tan to greenish hues often visible in aspen bark mark an important photosynthetic capability provided by the differing levels of chloroplasts. Stem photosynthesis contributes significantly to aspen’s over-wintering survival capabilities. The disadvantages of this type of bark include low fire resistance, ease with which people carve their initials in these trees creating space for disease to enter, and that the trees are an excellent food source for elk, deer etc. Numerous insects and fungi that attack the bark are also considered potential problems.

Aspen form individual patches comprised of numerous stems, each with its own trunk, branches, leaves and a shared root system. All of these structures originally arose from a single aspen seed that germinated in the distant past; The patches remain connected via root systems, and if the root system between patches is severed, the patches form physiologically separate clumps but are generally still considered part of the same clone because they are composed of genetically identical parts. The boundaries of different clones stand out most clearly in the early spring when flowering and leafing-out occur (in that order). Aspen have male and female catkins, unlike the majority of tree species, which support both male and female reproductive parts on each individual.

 

During early spring in an aspen clone the reproductive male catkins produce pollen while the female produces eggs. Huge numbers of viable, tiny seeds mature and float off from the female on a tangle of cotton-like seed hairs that catch air currents, sometimes traveling great distances. Immediately after shedding their pollen and seeds, the clones then produce leaves that usually appear at the same time in all stems of a given clone revealing the boundaries between clones most visibly. In the fall the striking leaf colors do not mark clonial boundaries as reliably because the chemical processes that produce the colors tend to be very sensitive to local micro-climate conditions. A single clone may also exhibit multiple colors simultaneously. In aspen, all the pigments that give rise to these glorious colors can be found in the leaf from spring all the way through fall when the aspen begin to first break down the green chlorophyll molecules that are responsible for spring and summer color. Other pigment molecules then become more and more visible.

 

For many years, most western forest ecologists thought aspen reproduction from seeds was rare. However, it turns out that successful establishment of aspen via seeds occurs more frequently than previously believed. The ability of aspen to produce whole stands of “trees” vegetatively provides yet another key element in explaining the species’ ability to occupy huge geographic ranges.

There are several benefits of asexual expansion. The clones share resources. One part of a clone might be near an important water source and share its water with drier parts of the clone while those in a drier area may have greater access to the vital soil nutrient, phosphorous, and share that resource with those that are low in this nutrient.

 

Quaking aspen also tends to be a disturbed habitat species, meaning it often lives where avalanches, mudslides and fires occur frequently. So both the regenerative capability and the clonal reproductive capability allow aspen to initially establish or to re-establish into an area after disturbances like mud slides occur. Similar patterns often follow forest fires. Rarely will a fire burn hot enough to kill the entire root system from which these stems arise, so an individual clone may occupy a given space and be completely wiped out on the surface but re-grow from the root system many times.

 

If an aspen stand does not experience periodic disturbances such as natural fire or avalanche, more shade-tolerant conifers tend to establish and shade out the high-light-requiring aspen stems. If the disturbances are too frequent, then the clone cannot spread.

Clone structure varies with geography but also varies due to the strong influences of rainfall and relative humidity. The largest clones generally occur in semi-arid environments such as the mountains of the western and southwestern US. Clones tend to be smaller in areas where the climate supports seed germination.

The last particular attribute of quaking aspen important in contributing to its ability to occupy huge ranges derives from the comparatively high level of genetic variability among clones. These interclonal levels of variability provide raw material for evolutionary change across generational times. The large number of seeds produced from genetically variable sources generates an enormous array of potentially successful genotypes for establishment in newly opened areas and probably takes place at higher rates.

One of the most enchanting aspects of aspen is their ability to quake and tremble in the slightest breeze. Why do quaking aspen leaves quake and tremble? This is due to the physical structure of the leaf stem which traces a flat, oblong, elliptical pattern when viewed in cross section so it has strength in one dimension and minimal strength in the second dimension, so even a gentle wind causes produces movement and a hypnotic sound. Plant physiologists have pointed out several reasons for the trembling leaf behavior. They include minimizing the risk of too much sunlight as well as reducing the risk of overheating in intense, high elevation. Trembling also improves photosynthetic rates by keeping a fresh supply of carbon dioxide near the leaf surface where the plant takes up that compound. Insect damage may also be reduced by fluttering leaves.

This tree species seems to almost have it all: powerful, opportunistic, sexual reproduction, long-distance seed dispersal, effective vegetative spread, clonal reproduction, regeneration from roots, high levels of genetic variability, living bark and a potentially enormous life span.

And in my mind, Pando certainly represents one of the most remarkable “families” among all living organisms.

 

Postscript:

The language used to describe these remarkable organisms that cooperate by share root systems, information, and resources seems woefully inadequate. To call a phenomenal organism like Aspen a “clone”, although grammatically correct, is to reduce it to its lowest denominator. These trees live harmoniously within a family that supports the continuation of life, not just for one tree but for all its relatives. Most important this species has been self- sustaining for millennium.

 

 

Bear as Healer – “He Who Frightens Away Illness”

THE NAVAJO MOUNTAIN WAY CHANT

 

 

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Navajo ceremonial practices emphasize healing human illness, emotional, mental, and physical, while restoring balance and harmony between humans and the rest of Nature. The most sacred of these ceremonies occur during the winter months. The best known of these is probably the Night Chant that lasts nine days and nine nights and is held sometime around the winter solstice – the timing of these ceremonies is fluid. Like the Night Chant the Mountain Way Chant probably stretches back into prehistoric times from 60,000 – 4000 B.C.E.

 

This second and equally sacred although less well known ceremony is also a nine-day/nine night chant that marks a transition between the seasons of winter and spring. The Mountain Way Chant takes place in late winter before thunderstorms strike and the spring winds arrive (around the spring equinox). One of its purposes is to call up the rains. It is also a ceremony led by a medicine man that addresses in particular, the mental uneasiness and nervousness associated with transitions, helping to bring individuals and their extended families back into balance and harmony.

 

Navajo cures target body, mind, and spirit, calling on everyone – the individual, kin, the medicine man, and the Spirits of Nature to help restore harmony. Before a medicine man (they are seldom women), is called, a hand trembler (often a woman), will diagnose the source of illness. Through prayer, concentration, and sprinkling of sacred pollen, her hand will tremble and pinpoint the cause, which then determines the proper ceremonial cure. Then the “singer” (medicine man) who knows the proper ceremony is called and preparations are set in motion.

 

There are nearly a hundred Navajo chants and each is nuanced and complex. All reflect different aspects of the Navajo Creation myth. Each includes purification rites, chants, songs, dancing, prayer sticks, and sand paintings. In order for a ceremony to be effective, everything must be done exactly as prescribed in the Navajo Creation Story. Besides these nine day ceremonies there are others whose ceremonies require four days, and many simpler ones requiring only a single day, each with its own dry-painting (sand painting).

 

In this essay I will not attempt to discuss the entire Mountain Way Chant – its much too complex – but will focus on the roles that the bear gods play in the sand paintings, mention briefly the role of plants, trees, and discuss bear songs that are pivotal to this ritual.

 

To the Navajo, bear gods are sacred and central to the healing of disease and disharmony all year long but especially in the early spring, (curiously, the Mountain Way Chant occurs just before the bear’s actual emergence from the den). The Navajos also understand that bears are close relatives and call them “The Mountain People”.

 

The Dine’ who now number over 200,000 in population, are the largest, and one of the most culturally intact Indian tribes in North America. Reigning over a reservation of some 25,000 square miles in size, the Navajos, like many other tribal peoples have long respected and honored bears as being fellow “beings” with whom they share the land. For the Navajo the bear is the Guardian of the West.

 

Historically there were two main species of bear that resided in Navajo territory: the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) and the black bear (Ursus americanus). While the grizzly bear has been hunted to extinction in the Southwest, the Black bear still inhabits mountainous areas including those within the Navajo Reservation. Bears are believed to be guides and guardians embodying great strength and self-knowledge.

 

The Navajo also believe that bears have tremendous healing powers (western scientific studies are just beginning to tap the mysteries behind a bear’s ability to heal itself, recycle body waste, and prevent bone and muscle loss during hibernation).

 

To the Dine’ the bear also embodies the powers of introspection, soul searching, insight. Additionally the powers of the bear also include death and rebirth. The bear apparently dies in the fall (because it hibernates) and is reborn in the spring; and the female emerges (every two years, hopefully) with new cubs or last year’s yearlings in tow. For all the above reasons bears have played a major role in Navajo tribal legends and ceremonialism. It is hardly surprising that they are central figures in the Mountain Way Chant.

 

On the fifth night of the Mountain Way Chant a dry painting of the bear in his den is created under the direction of the medicine man. Using powdered clays of various colors, the purpose of the ceremonial painting drawn in the center of the Hogan, is to summon up the powers of the bear as healer to frighten the patient, and thus banish illness and disharmony. The name of the first painting is called “Frighten Him On It.”

 

The bear as a powerful healer “scares” illness/disharmony away. The bear also appears in the same capacity (in an identical sand painting) during the fifth night during the Night Chant.

 

The sketch pictured as a whole represents the den of a hibernating bear. Colored earth picture bear-tracks leading in; bear-tracks and sundogs* are represented at the four quarters, and the bear himself, streaked with sunlight, is the center image. The twigs at the entrance of the bear den represent the trees, behind or under which bears often dig their dens in the sides of mountains. Everything in the sand painting is supposed to remind the individual of bears. The person enters the painting and sits down on the animal. The room is bathed in deep silence. Suddenly, a man, painted and clothed as a bear (historically a grizzly), rushes in, uttering terrifying snarls and huffs. All the assembled participants join in to frighten the illness away.

 

There is a second sand painting used on the sixth night of the Mountain Way Chant that is supposed to be a representation of the bears’ home in the Carrizo Mountains (not pictured). In the center of this painting is a bowl of water covered with black powder. The edge of the bowl is adorned with sunbeams, and external to it are the four sunbeam rafts, on which the Nature Spirits, the Yei stand. There is a close relationship between the Yei and the bears. In the Mountain Way Chant, Talking God, Water Sprinkler (often pictured as a rainbow) Growling God (bear), and Black God are always present.

 

Bears and Light are related. In the first dry painting there is light that surrounds the bear and light in the form of sundogs that are positioned in each of the four directions. In the second, sunbeams are present in the center and also in each of the four directions providing places for the Yei to stand. It’s very difficult not to draw the conclusion that the light that we are speaking of is an inner light, not an outer one, and this is consistent with the qualities of healing, insight, and introspection that the Navajos associate with the bear.

 

After each sand painting has been created and used for a healing it is then destroyed. With the bear painting erasure begins by destroying the tracks of the bear and moves around the circle obliterating the four directions beginning in the west.

 

Many aromatic plants are also used during these ceremonies to help restore harmony reflecting the importance of the ‘plant people’ to the Dine’ and to the bears.

 

The last dance of the Mountain Way Chant occurs inside a huge Circle of Spruce boughs that are brought in to a circle and then burned at the very end of the ceremony. Although this next point does not directly refer to bears I want to mention it briefly. Although grizzlies did not, Black bears co – evolved on this continent with trees during the last ice age and even today cannot be found in areas where they are absent. Black bears must have trees to climb in order to protect themselves and their young from predators. My point: Black bears and trees co –exist as a unit. And the importance of spruce boughs representing the sacred trees in these ceremonies cannot be stressed enough.

 

What follows are translations of three songs “that the women who have become bears sing.” These women have become holy people.

 

(1)The maiden that becomes a bear

walks far around

on the black mountain.

She walks far around.

Far spreads the land.

(this song is repeated once substituting blue for black –

black represents a male bear, blue a female bear)

 

(2)The young woman who becomes a bear

sets fire in the mountain

in many places; As she

journeys on

there is a line of burning mountains.

 

(3) In ancient times during a year of great drought

the holy ones set fire to the mountains and the waters.

The smoke arose in great clouds from which rain descended onto the land.

The woman who sought the gods found them.

 

Throughout the Mountain Way Chant both male and female bears are present at different times as bears and as holy people.

 

As a Black bear researcher I am struck by the correspondence between the details of the first painting and the way bears actually hibernate. Black bears prefer to den with openings to the south side, and because they walk in their own tracks they can enter and leave a den invisibly leaving no tracks at all. Note that in this sketch of the painting the tracks only go one way.

 

I am also struck by another healing aspect of the bear that doesn’t seem to appear in the extensive research I did for this essay, and that is the bear’s apparent ability to treat itself when it is ill by ingesting certain plants. It may be that these plants are part of the ceremony but are not mentioned by name (or names that I would recognize). Certainly the Navajo knew about these plants and tubers because they were the first naturalists, people who learned directly from animals, plants, trees, through keen observation.

 

That the bear would be so important to Native peoples in the Northern Hemisphere is also not surprising if one considers that Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is among the oldest recognized patterns in the sky. This prominent cluster of bright stars is circumpolar for mid-northern to polar latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. Interestingly, throughout the Americas Indigenous people of all tribes called this constellation the Great Bear.

 

Although today this star cluster conjures up other images to other peoples – stories about this particular constellation may date back to the Ice Age when ancient people could cross over the Bering Strait to North America. At that time, cultures in both Siberia and Alaska shared a common heritage. It is even possible that the constellation Ursa Major actually got its name 50,000 years ago because of a Paleolithic bear cult that existed in Europe.

 

Maybe the next time you look up into a velvet night sky towards the North you will see the Great Bear and think of him as being one of the most important animal healers of all time.

 

 (1) For those that don’ t know – sundogs occur when ice crystals acts as prisms, separating the sunlight into different colors and forming a sundog. … Mainly, sundogs are visible while you are facing and looking towards the sun while rainbows occur in just the opposite location. Here in New Mexico one sees them frequently.

 

Postscript: It is important to note that although the Navajo have lived in the Southwest for about 1,000 years, they are related to the woodland Indians of western Canada and Alaska. They speak Athabaskan, the language native to the western sub arctic and once lived in the boreal forest and made their living much the way Athabaskan peoples do today. When they migrated south along the Rockies they ended up in Arizona and other Southwestern states, and took on attributes of the Pueblo peoples. But the foundation of their culture lies in the North Country. It is theorized that they may have reached this continent by way of Siberia. However, some sources suggest that Native peoples have been here all along. Navajo people did not hunt bears unless they were starving because they considered all bears their relatives and complex rituals surrounded any necessary kill.

Mule Deer

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I come from an area in Maine where the prolific Whitetail deer bed down around my house during the winter, birth their fawns in the spring in my wildlife sanctuary, roam around my field in female dominated groups with young during the summer. It isn’t until fall that I usually meet the bucks coming in to feed on the sweet wild apples outside my window. My point here is that although I never take their presence for granted, interacting with deer is simply part of my life.

When I first moved down by the river in Abiquiu, I used to see mule deer early in the predawn hours outside the Trailercita. Sometimes I would startle one or two when I walked in the Bosque and noted that both elk and mule deer bedded down in wild grasses making a circular depression much the way a dog will do before it sleeps.

After I moved into the Casita and began to walk down to the river every morning in the twilight hours I would often meet deer in the next field or on the island. I also tracked them through the Bosque surprising one or two occasionally. I didn’t realize until this fall how much seeing these animals made me feel at home.

When I returned to Abiquiu in September I immediately noticed that the deer were no longer bedding down in the Bosque. After being here for almost three months I have yet to glimpse the sight of even one mule deer. The loss of these ungulates disturbs me greatly. Where have they gone?

Just last week I noticed a deer scrape in the Bosque and tracked one mule deer, and one elk that had traversed the path and jumped the fence onto a more thickly vegetated area.

Because November marks the beginning of the rut the males are on the move and some are also beginning to shed their racks of antlers. I keep a sharp eye on the two junipers that are missing branches in the Bosque to see if more bark has been denuded, but as far as I can tell only one mule deer seems to be responsible for the scrape (elk don’t shed antlers until early spring). I just wish I could get a glimpse of one of these beautiful animals once more…

The single defining characteristic of mule deer is their large ears, which are about three-fourths the length of the head. They have a distinctive black forehead, or mask, that contrasts with a light gray face. In the summer, mule deer are tannish-brown and in the winter are brown and gray in color. They have a white rump patch and a small white tail with a black tip. When running, they bound – all four hooves push off the ground at the same time. Although this leaping slows them down, it allows them to leave predators behind by quickly ascending steep slopes or jumping unpredictably over large obstacles. Their large, keen eyes and ears allow them to locate distant predators like coyotes and wolves.

Mule deer range from 3 to 3.5 feet tall at the shoulder, 4.5 to 7 feet long, and have a tail that is five to eight inches long. They can weigh between 130 and 280 pounds. Like other species of deer, the females are smaller than the males.

These animals are among the most beloved and iconic wildlife of the American West. Mule deer are found especially in the Rocky Mountain region of North America. They are adapted to arid, rocky environments and thrive in habitats that have a combination of early-stage plant growth, mixed-species plant communities, and diverse and extensive shrub growth. A mixture of plant communities provides better forage than any single species. Plants that are young and emerging are more nutritious than mature trees and shrubs. I can’t help wondering if this need for young and intermediate plant growth is one reason why these grazing animals are disappearing from the Bosque now that so much of it has been opened up and cut.

Mule deer are very selective feeders, nibbling on herbaceous plants and the leaves and twigs of woody shrubs. Instead of eating large quantities of low-quality feed like grass, they must select the most nutritious plants and parts of plants. Because of this, mule deer have more specific forage requirements than elk that share their habitat.

Between November and January (depending on the locality), bucks lock antlers competing for the right to mate with females. The victorious male attract females to them and attempt to defend them against the attention of other (often younger) bucks. Sexual maturity is attained at the age of about 18 months in does, but young males are barred from participation in the rut until they are three to four years old.

The gestation period is approximately 200 to 210 days and occurs during the summer. The female sequesters herself and gives birth in a protected spot, where the spotted fawn remains for a period of a week or 10 days before it is strong enough to follow the mother. It is during this period that the young are most vulnerable to predation. The young ones are weaned at about the age of 60 or 75 days, at which time they begin to lose their spots. Mule deer usually live 9 to 11 years in the wild.

In some areas the mule deer will have separate summer and winter ranges, with a migratory path connecting them. In the mild climates they will not migrate. They live in small groups of three to five individuals.

During he winter larger groups often come together to feed. It appears that the females have a small home range, living out their lives close to the areas where they were born, while the males migrate longer distances. I have noted the same tendency with respect to Whitetails.

For decades, western Colorado has been home to some of the country’s largest mule deer herds. Herds in a portion of northwestern Colorado were once so prolific that the area was dubbed “the mule deer factory.”

Unfortunately, I also discovered that overall Mule deer populations have been dropping across the west for several years, which also may account for my seeing less of them. State wildlife managers and wildlife groups are trying to determine what’s behind the decline. It amazes me that climate change is not mentioned as a factor. Naturally, shrinking habitat due to development including that of increased oil and gas drilling is also a factor contributing to the decrease of this species. The renowned White River herd in northwest Colorado has plummeted from more than 100,000 in the early 1980s to the current estimate of 32,000 deer according to the National Wildlife Federation. From this naturalists point of view a loss of two thirds of any deer population anywhere is cause for deep concern.