Ruffed Grouse – A Mother’s Day Gift

 

 

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On Mother’s Day just before dusk I saw an amazing sight just outside my front door. It had been a cold gray wind driven day, so the birds at my feeder were scarce, even here in the hollow. To see the male grouse displaying his beautiful feathers on my front step brought tears to my eyes. Such a lovely visitation!

 

I had been listening to the grouse drumming for a few days. Every year this beautiful woodland bird calls from the same direction in the deciduous part of my forest. This practice began the first year I lived here – many years ago now. Some years the female nests very close to the house and I am treated to a family parade of fluffy miniature grouse pecking their way through the high grasses during the late afternoon. I deliberately leave high grass close to the brook for these ground – loving birds – turkeys appreciate the cover too.

 

The plumage of the Ruffed grouse is subtly and exquisitely marked in a way that blends so well with their habitat that even when you see one it can disappear before your eyes. The broad black band of the fan-like tail feathers and the patch of dark feathers on both sides of the ruffed grouses neck can be expanded into an umbrella-like ruff. In the field, it is supposed to be possible to tell the difference between a male and female by tail length – the male’s tail appears longer. However, unless I see chicks or witness a display I find the two sexes indistinguishable. There are two color phases of ruffed grouse, red and gray. The gray phase is predominant in Maine, although I have seen both phases here.

 

We have another grouse in this area (Grafton Notch), the Spruce grouse, that folks say can be confused with the Ruffed grouse, although to my mind the two are quite different with the former having a more spotted look and red eyebrows. The Spruce grouse also lacks a crown at the top of his head.

 

These two related species are considered sympatric because they exist in the same geographical area. Initially these two interbred and then split off into separate populations.

 

In many areas across the country, the birds are disappearing. In some states there has been a 50 – 60 percent decrease in grouse. Additionally, because of Climate Change the remaining birds are moving north. It is expected that by 2050 the lower 48 states will no longer have a population of Ruffed Grouse. With this trend in place it is hard for me to understand why the fish and wildlife folks would advertise Maine as “the state” to come to in order to shoot grouse. Grouse are the number one game bird in Maine. Wouldn’t it make more sense to try to conserve the population we have? Roughly 500,000 grouse are being shot by hunters in Maine every year.

Grouse need early successional forests, or stands that are growing back to maintain their populations. Hardwood dominated mixed growth, softwood dominated mixed growth, upland hardwoods, lowland hardwoods, old fields, and orchards comprise the best habitat. Stands of aspen as also favored. Because of the small home range of grouse, good habitat must meet all food, shelter, and drumming requirements within a small area.

 

Ruffed grouse are omnivorous; they eat green leaves, fruits, and some insects. During winter, when snow covers the ground, they live almost exclusively on the dormant flower buds or catkins of aspens, birches, and cherries. Aspen (or poplar) is generally regarded as the most important single year-round food for ruffed grouse in Maine.

 

With the onset of spring, male ruffed grouse defends an area of woodland approximately 6-10 acres in size. Male grouse then advertise their location to females by drumming (Adult males drum again in the fall, to re-establish their rights to their territory). Females are receptive to, and mate with, displaying males for only a few days. After fertilization occurs, they leave the male and seek nesting cover. Most ruffed grouse nests are located at the base of trees in open hardwood stands, the base of stumps, or under bushes. The clutch normally numbers 9 – 14 eggs, which are laid over a period of approximately 2 weeks. The eggs are incubated about 24 days, and all the eggs hatch within a few hours of each other during late May and early June. Young ruffed grouse are able to move about shortly after hatching. Grouse chicks begin their lives by feasting on insects and other invertebrates, but they will also eat plant shoots and young leaves. And they won’t pass up small frogs or anything else that might fit in their beaks!

 

A casual woodland stroll in June or July might result in a grouse sighting. By this time the chicks can fly into the lowest branches and although I never do this deliberately I often come upon a little family making its living in the woods. The chicks are adorable!

Bluebird Spring

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When I arrived home in Maine seven weeks ago my friend Kathy who lives down the road already had eastern bluebirds coming to her feeders. Because I think of bluebirds as being insectivores (although they love berries too) their early arrival seemed unusual to me until I did a little research and discovered that bluebirds as a species are expanding their winter range as Climate Change continues to push them northward. I didn’t know that some have been living year round in Massachusetts for some time.

 

Most Eastern bluebirds who breed in northern climates do migrate, gathering in large numbers during November to fly south. In March, April, and May they move north to summer breeding grounds. In Florida where there is a stable population the bluebird may breed as early as January. Putting up nest boxes for bluebirds is helpful because these birds have lost so much habitat. Around my house here in Maine all snags have been left intact, as have all the trees so I have many natural cavities for all kinds of birds to nest in. But except for my field I have little open space. This year a friend of mine is making me a nest box, so perhaps I can attract a bluebird couple of my own.

 

Wherever these birds breed, the male initiates courtship often providing his mate with a tasty morsel or two while delicately fluttering his wings. The female lays four to six eggs that are a stunning shade of blue. Here at least, two broods are raised during one season. While the female sits on the second set of eggs, the male takes charge of the nestlings.

Caterpillars, spiders, and insects of various kinds provide the young with protein. Newly ploughed fields are an excellent source of insects and grubs. As previously mentioned bluebirds are also fond of berries and other ripe fruits. During the late summer and fall, bluebirds pounce on grasshoppers from the tops of mullein, an herb that is so common in natural fields. In the west hundreds of bluebirds might gather to feed on juniper berries. My guess is that they could do the same around here.

 

When I glimpsed bluebirds perched on my telephone wire a couple of weeks ago I got a chance to watch them through binoculars. I noted that the subtle coloring of the females varied as did the vibrant blue of the males.

 

I was also struck by how similar these eastern bluebirds were to those western bluebirds that I had glimpsed during the spring and early fall months in Abiquiu. I knew that I would probably not be able to distinguish one from the other unless I could identify the blue patch on the western male’s belly; the eastern bluebird has more white. Another identifying marker is that male western bluebirds have blue throats, while the male eastern bluebirds have orange or rust colored throats. I also didn’t know that the two species were so closely related that they interbred, or that both eastern and western bluebirds nested in the Rio Grande Bosque.

 

Around the casita I watched what I thought were western bluebirds (!) perch on the fence wire overlooking the field. When spotting tasty prey they sometimes took insects from the air; occasionally, they flew to the ground. By late fall these birds were gone.

 

Both eastern and western bluebirds prefer semi –open terrain; orchards, farms and ranches are excellent places because they are often surrounded by pine, oak, ponds for cattle, and streamside groves. Both eastern and western bluebirds tend to avoid hot dry regions during the summer but in the west they will nest in pinyon – juniper forests.

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(Fledglings)

 

Overall, the eastern bluebird is also in decline for the usual reasons. In recent decades, the western bluebird numbers have fallen dramatically over much of their range. The use of pesticides and controlled and uncontrolled burns destroy masses of habitat and are creating havoc for all southwestern bird species. Because western bluebirds have also become relatively common Bosque breeders over the past two or three years, it is more important than ever to protect our precious Rio Grande Bosque.

 

Bluebirds are important in the traditions of many Native American cultures. In particular, Bluebird is a symbol of spring. In Iroquois mythology, it is the singing of the bluebird that drives away winter. Bluebirds are also associated with the wind by the Cherokees, and were believed to predict or even control the weather. The Navajo and Pueblo tribes associate bluebirds with the sun; in some Pueblo tribes, Bluebird is identified as the son of the Sun. The Hopi see the bluebird as a directional guardian, associated with the west.

 

I close this narrative with a personal memory…

 

When I was a little girl I would sit on my grandfather’s desk, (the same one that I write on now) and look out the east window to watch the bluebirds enter and leave their nest boxes. My grandfather had ten homemade boxes positioned across the large and open field. Each year the bluebirds returned and my grandmother, my little brother, and I loved to see the fledglings leave the nests for the first time. I was always afraid the little ones would fall and my grandmother would have to remind me that I had never seen one get hurt –not ever.

 

 

 

May the bluebirds live on!

 

 

 

 

Tribute to Grizzly Bear Expert: Charlie Russell

(1941 – 2018)

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“Learning entails more than the gathering of information.

Learning changes the learner.

Like dwarf pines whose form develop with winter’s design, the learner is shaped by what he learns.”

 “Talking with Bears: Conversations with Charlie Russell”   Gay Bradshaw

 

 Learning from Nature;

A Personal Reflection on Charlie Russell

 

Naturalist Charlie Russell never went to college. Instead he spent his youth backpacking through the Canadian wilderness with his family. Nature was his mentor and home.

 

Charlie was a life-long student of Nature*. Although I never met him personally I read his astonishing books, Spirit Bear and Grizzly Heart. By the time I watched the Canadian Film about his work with grizzlies “The Edge of Eden” I recognized a kindred soul.

 

Charlie dedicated most of his life to befriending, studying, and educating others about Black and Grizzly bears. He spent 11 years in the Russian wilderness raising orphaned grizzly bear cubs and interacting with adult grizzlies, demonstrating to the public that these animals are not dangerous to humans unless they are hunted down by them.

 

Charlie never carried a gun and never had an altercation with a grizzly; he did carry pepper spray that was only used to protect the cubs he was raising from adult bears who sometimes prey on the youngsters. Most pictures show him walking in the wilderness with a wooden staff.

 

I was profoundly impressed by Charlie’s respect, deep humility and endearing compassion for the bears he encountered. He allowed bears to educate him through keen observation, keeping an open mind, asking challenging questions, reflecting, drawing his own conclusions and sticking to them, (a way of being that mirrors my own process).

 

Charlie Russell life’s work may someday change the way humans perceive bears. Charlie understood what it meant to love a bear and how this ability shifted the relationship between humans and bears to one where mutual respect developed into deep abiding friendship.

 

Charlie spent his life as a truth seeker. He wanted to understand how bears think and was capable of looking at behavior from the bear’s perspective. In addition to having a keen, discerning, open mind, he acted on his intuition and used all of his senses to educate himself about the bears he studied.

 

In Conversations with Bears Charlie states that learning changes the learner; the learner is shaped by what s/he learns.

 

Learning about bears certainly shaped Charlie into a remarkable human being.

 

Charlie understood that bears needed respect just as humans need it; that bears responded positively to apologies, just as humans do, that bears needed to be loved just as humans do – and if these criteria are met people have nothing to fear from bears.

 

Conversely, if the need to slaughter is on the mind of humans, a bear will pick up on the threat. Most bears choose retreat as a strategy when threatened but occasionally one will attack, and it is those bears that feed man’s fear and hatred of nature, while terrifying images of giant blood soaked teeth and jaws keep the NRA in business.

 

As Charlie stated, bears don’t become dangerous without a reason. If a bear is frightened or hunted down by people or by dogs s/he might retaliate. The same might be true for a bear that is separated from his food by humans, or a female grizzly with cubs that is cornered. Dwindling habitat and a sustained policy of shoot on sight has created a situation in which traumatized bears – bears who have witnessed their mother’s being shot or being targeted for the kill generation after generation – is taking a terrible toll on these animals, who left to their own devices would befriend humans only too willingly.

 

Charlie’s dedication to bears, his extensive life experience living in peace with bears (even as a rancher), his love, respect, and deep compassion for Ursus provides us with a model the rest of us could follow. Bears and humans could co –exist peaceably if humans would only allow them to.

 

To this naturalist who has not had any encounters with grizzlies or polar bears but has developed extensive knowledge of Black bears, thanks to the bears themselves, who taught me most of what I learned, Charlie was a beacon of hope and sanity. Personally, he was the one person who helped me the most to trust my intuition, my senses, the truths of my body, when working with bears. When Charlie asked questions I heard my own silent queries verbalized.

 

To be educated and shaped by nature like Charlie was allows us to re-enter the Circle of Life, a way of being in the world that would end the existential loneliness that so afflicts our modern population.

Little Foxes

 

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(little foxes – note facial differences)

I am hiking through the woods one day with my dogs when we hear a rustling. Investigating the sound we are all astonished when three little foxes shoot out of a pile of oak leaves to greet us. My little Chihuahua Lucy wags her tail – everyone wants to play until Hope (2nd Chihuahua) barks at which time the foxes dive for cover. I call out “hey little foxes” a few times and two reappear but don’t emerge completely from the den. I snap two pictures.

A couple of days earlier on the same hike I had seen an adult fox scurrying up a hill hugging a stone wall at mid day; now I knew why. I returned to the den area each day around the same time and called out “hey little foxes.” I believed I could teach them to respond to my voice. It didn’t take long. On the fourth day as soon as I greeted them one emerged. To say that I was thrilled is an understatement. Yesterday I was amazed to find a good sized dirty baize egg dropped outside their door. One of the parents must have brought it home?

Because I feed foxes here I am used to seeing both reds and greys bringing in their kits to snack on birdseed later in the spring (from June on). But because they are older, they look more like their parents. One of the dens on this land can be viewed through binoculars but it is not the same thing.

These little characters wore dark brown coats and I soon learned that this coloring identified them as young grey foxes. They were about five weeks old and I was so excited because I had never had an opportunity to visit with young kits on a regular basis in such close proximity. I hope I am writing this article at the beginning of a long spring journey to learn more about grey foxes…

All animals like routines, so I visit each day at the same time and hope to get some more pictures as time passes. These delightful children are so curious and unafraid. At this point in their lives no human has yet threatened them.

Gray foxes are the only member of the canines that can climb trees and have retractable claws like a cat. They are sometimes mistaken for red foxes, because they have some reddish fur, but gray foxes have a black stripe and black-tipped tail; Reds wear black stockings and have a white-tipped tail. The latter are found from southern Canada southward to Venezuela and Columbia, except in mountainous areas of northwestern United States, parts of the Great Plains, and the eastern coast of Central America.

Gray foxes thrive in forest and brushy woodland areas – they choose habitat with hollow trees or logs, rock crevices, or hillsides they can use for dens, places that have access to water. They have adapted to living in close proximity to humans.

Gray foxes have several natural predators, most notably coyotes, followed by bobcats, but great horned owls, eagles, and cougars also prey upon them. They are territorial among themselves, yet they share these spaces with red foxes, enabling both species to make use of mutually desirable habitat with minimal conflict.

Their “unnatural” predator is man who shoots and traps them and whose most egregious act is fox penning, a canned hunt of foxes that are trapped in the wild, placed within fenced areas, and then set upon by dozens of dogs who are let loose to hunt them down (they do the same thing with bears and deer). The live foxes are literally torn apart by the dogs, dying in massive pain and agony. This disgusting behavior on the part of man makes a powerful statement about the extent of human cruelty that is impossible to ignore.

Gray foxes are solitary most of the year, but while their kits are young both parents share in caring for them. Keen vision, hearing, and sense of smell help them hunt for cottontails, tree squirrels, voles, mice, wood rats, black rats, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates. By adding fruit and mast to their diet in autumn, they become helpful as seed dispersers.

Sometimes gray foxes will rest on high branches or in the crotch of a tree. To climb trees, they rotate their forearms, enabling them to hug the tree, while pushing upward with their hind legs. Once in the canopy, they are nimble enough to leap from branch to branch. Coming down is a bit trickier than going up… it’s either a slow and careful tail-first descent or, if the angle is not overly steep, a speedy headfirst downward run. A low center of gravity and four well-clawed feet make the latter option less scary than it sounds. These foxes also like to swim if denning near water.

According to the literature breeding occurs in January or February and the kits are born in March or April. They begin to emerge four or five weeks after birth. I met these little foxes the third week in April. Gray foxes dig their own dens or enlarge dens that other animals have used before. They have a number of entrances.

Both gray and red foxes are supposed to be nocturnal; however this has not been my experience perhaps because animals know I am not a threat. It is more common to see adults hunting during the day while they are raising young. I can attest to the fact that little foxes love to play around their dens during the day.

I am already getting attached to this family and hope to meet the parents one day soon.

The Croakers

 

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(Frogs mating – note the one who didn’t make it! Eggs in upper right)

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(Look at those golden eyes!)

 

The most exciting part of arriving home in early April is that signs of spring are everywhere. This is truly the season of new beginnings. I listened for the croaking quacking wood frogs at every ditch, puddle and vernal pool and was rewarded by one croaking male wood frog on April 12th.

Two days later in the same place I discovered one couple mating and laying; a few clumps of jellied eggs were scattered close to the frogs who were still clasped together. The frogs vanished the next day. I realized then that in this place there should have been many couples, not just one…All frogs and toads are the most threatened species on earth, our canaries in the coal mine. They absorb pollutants through their skin – human induced poisoned air, earth, and water. We are currently in the process of losing the species for good.

 

I happily scooped up the newly laid eggs to bring home to scatter in various vernal pools on this property where the have a better chance of surviving, grateful that I had not missed wood frog emergence. Normally they begin to croak before ice –out in late February March (March around here). So I am a bit puzzled by their current behavior.

 

Wood frogs are native to our Boreal forests in Alaska, Canada, and throughout the Northeast. Wood frogs are the only frogs that live north of the Arctic Circle.

 

Wood frogs are omnivorous, and eat a variety of small, forest-floor invertebrates. Adults consume a variety of insects including spiders, beetles and moth larvae. The tadpoles feed on plant detritus, algae (they also like lettuce) and also eat the eggs and larvae of other amphibians.

 

Similar to other northern frogs that enter dormancy close to the surface in soil and/or leaf litter, wood frogs can tolerate the freezing of their blood and other tissues. Urea accumulates in tissues in preparation for over wintering and liver fluid is converted in large quantities to sugars in response to ice formation. Both act to limit the amount of ice that forms and reduces osmotic shrinking of cells.

 

Amazingly, these creatures can survive many freeze/thaw events during winter if no more than about 65% of their total body water freezes.

 

After wood frogs emerge from hibernation they begin a yearly migration to the nearest vernal pool for breeding, starting in late February or March. This species is often described as an explosive, short-term breeder which means that the window for survival is minimal. In this region, breeding often takes place over just a few days. Males search for a mate by hugging other frogs until they find one who is round enough to be carrying eggs. Females lay approximately 1500 – 3000 eggs, often in the deeper sections of the pools. Out of the large amount of eggs deposited only about 4 percent survive. The egg mass retains heat, and those eggs located near the center of the mass have a higher survival rate.

 

Communal egg masses are sometimes attached to vegetation within pools. The ones I have found in ditches are free floating. Eggs will hatch in 4 to 30 days. Temperature is a factor. Around here the eggs I have hatched have become tadpoles in 2 -4 days.

 

In four to sixteen weeks, depending on water and food supply, wood frogs have completed their growth cycle. My tadpoles become frogs during the month of July. Maturity may be reached in one to two years, depending on the sex and the population of frogs. A wood frog’s lifespan in the wild is usually no more than three years.

 

In my eyes the glorious sight of a wood frog (now very rare) is cause for celebration. I used to see a few each summer, but no more. They are found in deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests; marshes; meadows; and swamps. Most of the time the frog lives close to the ground, hiding under leaves in woodland areas.

 

A wood frog’s most distinct characteristic is the black marking across its eyes, which has been said to resemble a mask. The bodies of wood frogs can be varying shades of brown, red, green, or gray, with females tending to be more brightly colored than males (note picture). These frog hues sound dull but each has an iridescent sheen. Adults can reach about three inches. The ones around here do not.

 

It seems to me that everyone loves to eat wood frogs from eggs through adulthood…Herons maneuver their way into my vernal pools for a snack even in the deep woods! My kingfishers love them. A variety of snakes eat adult wood frogs. These creatures fall prey to snapping turtles, raccoons, skunks coyotes, and foxes. Beetles, turtles and salamanders feast on eggs and tadpoles.

 

In the amphibian world, wood frogs may be the species best able to recognize their family. When many tadpoles are in the same place, siblings seek each other out and group together (my guess is that it is the only species that has been studied). My observations of all frogs confirm that the young like to be close to one another.

 

Wood frogs are found in deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests; marshes; meadows; and swamps. They spends most of their time on the ground in woody areas except for during mating season when they are breeding.

 

I am anxiously awaiting the birth of these tadpoles hoping that my attempts to scatter the “Croakers” around my property will lengthen the time they remain on Earth.

Canada Goose

Canadian Geese have been on my mind a lot lately. This past winter I have missed the skeins of geese that fly back and forth up and down the river appearing every single morning like clockwork. In Abiquiu when winter turned to spring I noted that the geese were behaving in much the same way the Sandhill cranes did before they migrated, splitting into pairs or groups of three and flying erratically. I was puzzled. I didn’t recall witnessing such behavior before this year. I wondered about migration patterns. Were the geese shifting their flight patterns too? Or perhaps the small groups I saw were staying year round? Some days it almost seemed as if these water birds were confused by something.

 

I saw three Canadian geese on the last predawn walk I took to the river/Bosque – just an hour or two before leaving for Maine. I knew that a perilous journey was ahead because we were driving. The C/virus was a frightening threat though I brought all food, and planned to camp/use woods as bathroom. The first morning after my arrival at home I saw and heard three geese honking over my head. I was struck by the odd synchronicity remembering the mother goose tales of my childhood – and later as a graduate student when I learned about their mythology.

 

Mother Goose is a benign and loving image of the ancient mother goddess* that is present throughout world mythologies. I like to think that the presence of geese at both ends of a challenging cross – country trip were harbingers of the safe passage…

 

The Canadian Goose is native to North America and it breeds in Canada and the northern United States in a wide range of habitats. By the early 20th century overhunting and loss of habitat decimated populations almost to the point of extinction, but with the help of preservation programs most populations have recovered.

 

In some areas these birds are regarded as pests. Many are routinely shot. I find this behavior sad and ironic because the root of this problem belongs to humans who have killed off the birds natural predators, as well as the fact that people have created an abundance of man made bodies of water near food sources like those found on golf courses, manicured green lawns, public parks, lakefront cottages, and beaches in planned communities. Geese love succulent grasses, sedges, aquatic vegetation, cultivated grains, seeds and berries. They also eat insects and some crustaceans.

 

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Geese mate for life; life-long pair bonds are formed during the second year. Offspring remain with their parents for about twelve months traveling together in large flocks of family groups. The female chooses the nest site, which can be found in unlikely spots like cliff ledges as well as on elevated hummocks. Geese need good visibility to protect their eggs and young goslings. The male defends their territory with elaborate displays well worth watching!

 

Some geese don’t migrate at all and live year-round in the southern part of their breeding range, which includes both coasts and parts of northern Mexico. When the geese fly over in their characteristic “V” shaped patterns I am compelled to stop to watch this astonishing sight.

 

If they do migrate, geese tend to breed in northern areas in the US and Canada. Sometimes geese fly to Alaska or the sub – arctic to raise their families.

 

When migrating, if one Canadian goose falls injured, immediately two companions accompany the goose to the ground and do not leave until the bird either recovers or dies. I have observed evidence of this kind of animal compassion throughout nature in every species I have ever studied.

 

The geese that migrate return to the exact nesting and overwintering locations every year. In fact, migrating geese use various stop-off resting points when they travel, and these remain largely the same, too. When geese fly south to overwinter, they usually settle somewhere in the middle or southern continental US. The geese that you see every spring or fall are probably the same geese that were around your home the year before.

 

Since my return a week ago I have seen a few more geese – not the V shaped skeins but small groups that are flying or swimming in nearby ponds. During the late spring I look forward to seeing the parents with their fluffy waddling toddlers feeding at the water’s edge. I am perpetually amazed at how fast the youngsters grow. Geese have beautiful feathers and every summer I collect a few. This year when I find my first flight feather I will be thanking Old Mother Goose for her help.

 

Postscript:

What is goddess spirituality?

“Goddess spirituality understands nature (or the world) to be the body of the goddess and affirms this world as our true home. This world is understood to be an interconnected web of life shared by humans and other than human beings.” (International scholar/writer Carol Christ)

This earth -based way of being in the world allows us to be present for human and non – human species in a compassionate way – a way that is not based on ‘power over’ and privilege but on respect and equality. The Indigenous Way.

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!