Reflection on the Coming Inauguration – January 2021

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Time, lately. If time can be experienced as a river moving towards the sea in a linear way, it can also be experienced as cyclic. In my life the year’s passage is marked by the seasonal changes in nature. I ritualize these eight spokes of the wheel honoring each subtle shift. I notice internally how dream and day cycles repeat with different sets of thoughts and feelings that surface with with each seasonal turn. 

I also sense that Time is a lake, and that it’s possible at any time to throw over a hook to catch a fish-like memory or feeling from the deep past, from a present moment, or even from the future. The fish don’t care – or do they? Perhaps some fish are closer to the surface waiting to be hooked.

These still months usually allow me to sleep long hours and awaken refreshed. Normally my eyes appreciate the low light, the bare trees coated with snow, the forest green  – spruce, cedar pine – the tangle of bare deciduous branches outside my window. These days I sleep poorly. I do continue to take refuge in the moment. I especially look forward to a pale gold orb that I can glimpse through cracks between pale branches an hour after first light. When the sun star appears over the trees I stand at the window watching what the light will do – reflect on the still open water of the brook, or turn night frozen branches into star-like crystals. Some days the sun will have to climb out of the hooded clouds to rise into blue. Amazingly this star at the center of our solar system literally transforms parts of its body into light every second, an astonishing thought that speaks more to sun as process than to an actual entity and a corresponding event called sunrise…

Winter Light paused briefly and now the sun has begun its return. Even though it’s not yet the 20th of January light streams into the house with more warmth for longer hours. My dove Lily b is already making morning flyways into the living room… In heartbreak I returned Blue, my broken chickadee, to the forest his home. Tomorrow I will once again remember and mourn my brother’s death, so long ago, and yet so present still. 

Because inner and outer, the personal and the collective are always connected I see the raging storm that destroyed so many trees around here and the general chaos induced by Climate Change being mirrored by the political chaos in our country and the eruption of human evil. I firmly believe that evil is a purely human construct and that it has been swimming just under the surface of our American waters for the last four years with more and more fish schooling together rippling once still waters. 

During this period no one has either named or attempted to hold accountable the man who hooked the fish of power and galvanized evil for his own egregious purposes. Four years of a madman’s actions brought only mild complaint and massive addiction to a cult leader that was supposedly the president of these ever dividing American states. History demonstrates that human evil erupts out of the splits our nation has allowed to occur. (The Civil War is another example). People have been eerily addicted to this man’s actions or behaving with total indifference. As more and more fish gathered near the surface of the lake I was forced to drop out of politics for my own survival. As I witnessed the continual denial/addiction/the rising of unholy darkness a terrible loneliness overcame me as I shrunk away from even more of the American people than ever before. 

 Even endurance has limits and as I reached the end of my personal rope I came home to land that I belong to and an abandoned cabin, desperately in need of repair. And then Nature brought me new friends – dare I use the word? – two of which I began to feel were adopting me into their lives as kin

Covid, the virus that the president ignored and denied even after it started killing people continues to escalate. At present four hundred thousand people are dead in this country and this man still refuses to wear a mask. The president is indirectly responsible for every single one of these deaths because he has encouraged the spread of the virus with his attitude of indifference, his continued refusal to wear a mask and by holding huge rallies to incite his cult followers to express more rage and engender further gun violence at the expense of human lives.  

When this mentally deranged president lost the Presidential election to sanity, we remained fearful of what would come next. Mob takeover on January 6th – “epiphany”- shocked so many. My young friend (21 years old) said that for him the worst part was that it was not a surprise. His response mirrored my own.

What we didn’t know then we know now says Robin Morgan:

“…what looked at first to be a rowdy protest now comes into focus as a planned, organized, deliberately murderous, attempted coup. This nation was moments, seconds, away from assassinations of the vice president and speaker of the house, and a likely massacre of public officials in the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate.”

The day of the riot a refusal to wear masks resulted in more people becoming ill with Covid. Deaths from the virus continue to skyrocket; attempts to roll out a vaccine that may or may not have long-term issues may make some folks reluctant to vaccinate. The latest news is that an immunization protects a person for approximately three months.

 Worst of all with regard to the virus, the American people have yet to acknowledge that we allowed this virus to erupt because of our callous indifference to nature – we continue to support a wet market and an illegal animal trade that is rife with viruses. No one even mentions this fact.

We are now two days away from a sane man’s Presidential Inauguration. The threat of violence continues to grow keeping most people on edge.  I listen to news that informs me that there will be riots in every capitol of the United States. Two days ago public radio replayed the tape taken of the Capitol’s takeover on January 6th, and the explosive hatred of so many flooded my body with almost intolerable grief as I erupted into tears (I have no television and restrict news input so I hadn’t heard this tape before).

 Do we have any idea of the edge that we are on? Can we comprehend that hatred will destroy all of us? That hatred was unleashed by a president addicted to power at any cost, one incapable of feeling any emotion except hatred and the need for revenge seems not to have penetrated the haze of collective denial. Regardless of what happens now the American people as a whole have allowed one man to unleash terror on a level never experienced before in this country. Evil does not exist in nature but is a human construction as already stated, and I am forced to confront the reality that most people still refuse to name evil even as it stares them in the face. Trump must be held accountable.

Our socially constructed culture is collapsing not just on the outside, but on some level inside each one of us. The horrific violence and destruction that we have deliberately enacted on nature using our precious Earth as a disposable resource has fractured her wholeness, and because on one level we do live in a circle of time it is not surprising that the horrors we have enacted on the rest of nature are circling back to us; just as it is no surprise that all the ‘evil’ fish are jumping out of the water at once.. 

However, I refuse to let the story end here. I still believe it is possible to begin to fish in that deep blue lake for ways that will allow us to return to a way of being in the world that honors kinship and community first (individual rights are less important). Acting on personal integrity, honesty, a willingness to be accountable allows us to pick up the threads we have lost: our humanity. Ultimately we can retrieve our once respectful relationship with the human world and the rest of nature in order to heal what has been broken…

There is hope.

We will soon have a new self responsible President, a genuine leader and an honest, compassionate man who has made it abundantly clear that the lives of the people come first. 

We can learn from our mistakes. Please, let’s try.

A Bird with a Broken Wing Can Never Fly

chickadee in outdoor balsam bower

A little girl

scooped him up…

Oh, a broken wing.

She was old enough

to know chickadees

 who couldn’t fly

ended up dead.

NO, screamed the child.

By the time

the adult took over

the deed was done.

I prepared a room

for him in the house…

placed balsam boughs

inside the cage.

We were going to save him.

 At first we imagined

healing, though

no one we spoke to concurred.

A week spent watching

a captive wild bird

frantically clinging to mesh,

cheeping piteously

as he tried to escape

changed both our minds.

The adult must kill him.

Mercy?

Then a boy we love 

intervened.

“It’s not up to you

to end his life,

you didn’t break

his wing.”

A curious perspective.

One that dove –tailed with

  an idea of mine….

 Imagining

I might release him

to a safe outdoor space –

Oh, I didn’t expect him

to live very long,

but at least he

would have a few hours,

maybe days, before

dying among his kin?

 Acting on the boy’s remark

 we three dragged up

  the storm toppled

 balsam spire,

 tucked the tree

into a protected corner

of the house…

I hung feeder and fat,

placed water on a nearby log.

By then it was dark…

Tomorrow.

Tomorrow.

My body shrunk.

I didn’t even know

 if I could do it.

Hung on a fish- hook

of my own making

earlier that day,

I owned that my decision,

though swayed by the child’s

deep compassion,

was more about the adult

than the bird.

Call it a savior complex.

I got caught by my own need.

Who was I 

to interfere?

Nature routinely sacrificed

 one

for the many.

‘Individualism’

has little meaning

when survival

requires keeping

one’s focus

on the Whole –

A hard lesson. 

Excruciatingly painful

to learn.

Over and Over.

Leopold was right.

“Naturalists live

in a world of wounds

that only they can see.”

Or feel. 

 Deep Space

held no comfort.

The stars were absent.

No way was right.

Anticipatory grief

is an illusion.

I was steeped in suspension

Enduring the night.

When Lily cooed

at dawn*

it was time.

I carried the cage

out to the tree.

Unzipped the flap.

My little bird was free.

Chick a dee dee dee.

 piercing full bellied

cries brought excited

calls from his kin.

Many inhabited

this particular neighborhood.

He was home at last –

with friends 

If only to say goodbye.

A bird with a broken wing

can never fly.

*Lily b is free flying housed dove who has spent countless time in the wild in his 30 years and always returned… he routinely reads my mind.

Navajo Mountain Chant

The Navajo Mountain Chant:

Frighten Him On It  – Sand painting used in the Mountain Chant, circa 1907″ by E.S. Curtis 

 A Feminist Perspective

Like the Navajo Night Chant celebrated at winter solstice the Navajo Mountain Chant is the last important winter ceremony, one that marks the shift in seasons and the return of the light. The Mountain Chant was once nine days in duration; today it has apparently been shortened to a four day ceremony. It is celebrated in early February and each night different holy songs are sung. 

The Mountain Chant is also a very complex healing series of ceremonies. Elaborate sand paintings are created and then destroyed after each healing. Disease may be diagnosed by either a woman or a man, but a Medicine man always leads the ceremonies. The intention is to cure a person of the disharmony that is creating the illness. The ceremonies are also enacted to pray to the holy people (Yei) for rain, and to receive assistance with the crops, and most importantly they are done to restore balance and harmony between the People and nature. 

A cultural myth is re-enacted and many songs also celebrate different aspects of nature. The colors blue and black represent the dark powers that need to be overcome in order to bring in the light. On the last night a large circle is constructed from evergreens. It opens to the east and surrounds a huge bonfire that is lit at dawn on the last morning of the chant. Fire is sacred and burns away evil. Fire and Water are the two elements that are invoked.

The current Navajo story centers around a wandering Navajo youth who has many adventures, discovers magic, finds water and learns how to handle fire without getting burned. The young man returns from his journey to find that his people have become a whole tribe and the Mountainway Chant revolves around his extraordinary adventures, and the beauty of different aspects of nature. No women are involved at all.

 However, Washington Matthews, a surgeon who lived in the 1800’s studied the Navajo extensively and recorded the oral songs of the nine-day ceremony that include both men and women although the youth’s story is still somewhat central (Gutenberg.org). These translations demonstrate that at one time women played a more equal role in these ceremonies than they do today. The original ceremonies are thousands of years old and there are a multitude of songs that can be chosen from.

  In Matthew’s translation the young maiden seems to be the one who overcomes winter’s darkness by walking through it (walking over the blue and black mountains). She lights the fires that burn on the mountains, finds and converses with the spirits of the sky world (The Yei).

 We know from other sources that the Bear ceremony was considered the most important healing ritual of them all, (not only in Navajo Ceremony but in other Indigenous ceremonies like those of the Lakota Sioux).

 This is the only ceremony that involves a woman. There is no male correlate. This maiden has a shape – shifting ability. She can also become a bear. What follows are some of the words of the songs that were recorded during the Bear ceremony. 

“The maiden Who Becomes a Bear walks far around on the black mountains. She walks far around. Far spreads the land. It seems not far to her. The Holy Young Woman walks far around on the blue mountains, she walks far around. Far spreads the land. It seems not far to her. Far spreads the land. It seems not far. It is not dim to her…”

It seems to me that the bear woman walks through the darkness with confidence and is able to see beyond into the light, and perhaps into the future.

“Young woman who Becomes a Bear sets fire in the mountains. In many places she journeys on. There is line of burning mountains…” That she lights the fires on the mountains suggests that she is able to work with fire in the holy places to banish evil, and is bringing in the light.

“Young maid who Becomes a Bear sought the gods and found them; on the high mountain peaks she sought the god s(Yei) and found them. On the summits of the clouds she sought the gods and found them.

 Somebody doubts it; so I have heard.”

Here we see that it is the shape shifting Woman-Bear who is able to access the mountain spirits, the sky world, and to communicate with both. Is it possible that the shape shifting ability of the woman – bear is analogous to the medicine man in terms of spiritual power? I would argue, yes. If so, this important ceremony brings the power of woman to life as a bear!

The most intriguing lines are the last ones. Who or what is the “somebody” who doubts?

There are other holy songs that involve the maiden and the youth in Matthew’s translations, however the songs about the youth are more frequent. Although the maiden does not appear in all the chants, when she does appear it seems as if her presence carries special significance.

N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer prize -winning book “House Made of Dawn” was written about the Navajo from a Native perspective (Kiowa). During his academic career he specialized in the American Oral Traditions and the sacred concepts involved. The Navajo Mountainway prayer that follows is a loose translation from his work. 

House Made of Dawn – Navajo prayer

House made of Dawn

House made of evening light

House made of dark clouds

House made of female rain

House made of dark mist

House made of male rain

House made of plants (evergreens)

House made for grasshoppers (bears)

Dark Cloud is at the door

The trail out of it is dark cloud

Zig zag lightening stands high upon it. (my italics)

A offering I make… 

Restore my feet to me

Restore my legs to me

Restore my body to me

Restore my mind to me

Restore my voice to me

This very day take out your spell for me.

Happily I recover

Happily my interior grows cool

Happily I go forth…

My interior feels cool, may I walk

No longer feeling pain, may I walk

With lively feelings may I walk

As it was long ago may I walk

Happily with abundant dark clouds may I walk

Happily with abundant showers may I walk

Happily with abundant plants may I walk (trees)

Happily on a trail of pollen may I walk (pine needles)

Happily may I walk

As it was long ago may I walk.*

May it be beautiful before me

May it be beautiful behind me

May it be beautiful below me

May it be beautiful above me

May it be beautiful around me.

(May it be beautiful within me).

In beauty it is finished

In beauty it is finished.

The parentheses indicate my personal substitutions. I like this prayer every much but am mindful of the importance of not appropriating songs that do not belong to me. The deliberate substitutions are an attempt to separate myself from the Navajo tradition in a respectful and honoring way.

*I think the words “as it was long ago may I walk” are really important. Western culture has lost its way. We have forgotten that we belong to nature, and it is to nature that we will return. If we understand life to be circular then returning to a past  when people lived in harmony with nature allows us to pick up those threads so that we can begin again.

Little Blue

Black Capped Chickadee

I awakened as I usually do in the pre –dawn hour, walked the dogs in the dark, made coffee, fed Lily b, and was standing at the window spritzing my Norfolk Island pine as the sky lightened just enough for me to see the first chickadee appear in the apple tree. No cardinals this morning.

 As is my habit I was staring out the window lost in an early morning reverie when I saw him. A black dot in the snow. It was very cold. I ran out the door in my nightgown, rounded the corner and discovered the dot was a half frozen chickadee. Dismay washed over me – my absolutely favorite little bird… At first I thought the bird was dead but when I scooped ‘him’ up he bit me hard with his little black beak! Back in the house I examined the bird under a good light and was distressed to see a damaged wing. While holding his fragile body securely to warm him and noting the wide black bib (indicating that he might be a male*) I put my little friend on the carpet opening my hand just enough to see what was wrong. Oh no, his wing was definitely broken, and there was no way I could set it myself. I grabbed the box I kept a ready for bird emergencies and placed the chickadee on a soft bed, closing the box over his head.

After preparing him a chamber in a soft- sided bird carrier I opened the box even as he struggled to get free. Feisty. His tiny heart was beating too fast – too much trauma. Once inside the comforting dark mesh of the cage I contacted my vet – just in case. After a brief discussion we hoped that the chickadee would be able to heal the wing over time. Not the outcome I had hoped for, but I knew how fragile those tiny bones were…

Even while conversing with my vet my eyes were glued to the bird whose carrier was in my bedroom sitting on a table that overlooked the apple tree. I was delighted to see that he drank water with gusto and then hopped over to eat some seeds that I had scattered on the soft towel that was his floor. Afterwards he nestled into the fabric in a back corner. A good beginning. I hoped he was not in too much pain.

 

Within hours I had another worry. My little houseguest started climbing the mesh and began hopping back and forth almost frantically. He was trying to get out. I spoke to him in a low voice that seemed to calm him and then I stayed with him most of the day grateful that my dogs understood. Even Lily b, my thirty – year old dove was quiet. Recalling a recent dream in which I had seen a mysterious blue light in the snow at the edge of my forest, I named him Little Blue.

Curiously, the apple tree was filled with chickadees all day long that first day. I had quite a covey of chickadees this year and was feeding them on both sides of the house. It was unusual to see so many perched in the apple tree at once. Because chickadees pair up in the fall and spend the winter in groups I suspected Little Blue had a (future) mate that might be sitting in that tree. My little friend probably missed his companion. Oh dear.

The first night he spent with us he perched on a little hill I had created with part of the towel; now he sleeps in a bunch of fragrant White spruce branches. It’s hard to believe I have only had him for such a short time. He’s up at dawn. First he drinks water. Then he hops over to the seed banquet after which he climbs the mesh to peer out the window at his friends at the feeder. Then he starts preening his feathers. 

Each morning when I change his water he hears the zipper and positions himself on the mesh closest to where there will be soon be an opening. Smart little fellow! He is determined to get out and I am equally determined that he stay put. It’s critical that he doesn’t get a chance to do further damage to that wing. All the grooming he has been doing has made a difference. Although his wing is still not securely held against his body, it’s not all ruffled up like it was before. And he’s so active! When I kneel down to see and converse with him at close quarters he climbs the mesh inches from my face – we are definitely friends, and he clearly knows his name – how much I wish I could hold him.

One fascinating shift is the way he eats his seeds. Instead of pecking at them steadily like he did that first morning, he will take one seed, hop away to eat it and return for another, just like these birds do outdoors. It may be that due to the trauma/injury he had been lying in the snow all night and was literally starving when I rescued him. All of this, is of course, conjecture. 

Four days after he arrived a chickadee called – a single chirp –like sound – outside the window around 8AM. Little Blue jumped onto the mesh and hopped around with obvious excitement. I wondered if the bird that called might have been Little Blue’s companion. At this time of year chickadees rarely vocalize unless a predator is in the area.   

  To provide him with extra nutrition I ground up raisins and almonds and chopped up some apple to add to his sunflower seeds… At some point I will have to remove him from the carrier in order to clean the cage floor but I am going to wait to do housecleaning as long as possible for obvious reasons. I am frankly delighted that he likes to poop in his water because I change that every day!

I am prepared to keep him – if necessary – permanently. But because he is a wild bird I fervently hope his wing will heal well enough so that he can rejoin his companion and friends by early spring.

Despite their once vast range, as a species,  chickadees are remarkably homogeneous in their genetic make-up. The Black capped chickadee’s closest relative is the Mountain chickadee, another endearing avian creature. Both species hung out in the juniper in Abiquiu until last winter. Although I had four Black capped chickadees not one Mountain chickadee visited any of my feeders.

Many folks know that Climate Change and habitat loss from logging and forest fires are reducing the  chickadee’s population. Northern New Mexico is perched on the edge of extinction of both the Black capped and Mountain chickadee. In Maine we seem to be a bit more fortunate – but for how long?

My strategy is to take refuge in the present enjoying every chickadee that comes my way. Although I feel ambivalent about having a caged wild bird in the house, I am frankly fascinated by the behavior of my little boarder. I am particularly interested to find out what happens when the outdoor chickadees begin to vocalize on a regular basis. Will I be able to confirm Little Blue’s gender?

 Obviously, I love these little birds. I fed them by hand as a child and have continued this practice as an adult, especially during the summer months. I can’t imagine living anywhere without them.

*The colors and patterns are identical in males and female chickadees, but some scientists believe that larger black “bibs” are seen on male chickadees; this data is inconclusive and observers must rely on gender-specific behavior and vocalizations to determine gender in black-capped chickadees.

There are subtle differences between male and female chickadee vocalizations/calls, some which begin in late January. Chickadees have at least thirteen different and complex vocalizations.

Gift from the Forest

A crimson jewel

he pauses,

descends

a staircase made of

 apple branches,

one ebony eye

 fixed on his feeder –

Tasty seeds await.

One swift dive and

he is under cover

filling his belly

before soaring

away.

Damp sweet air

 a silver snow sky

bless him as he flies

home to his refuge –

the long needled pines.

Snow Moon

One Starry Night…

Hooded,

the Moon

was obscured

unless you knew

that she was rising.

 Gilded edges,

silvery clouds

betrayed numinous

presence.

And when

the sky opened to

her glory

I was swept

into pearl white light

swimming towards 

vanishing twins,

two stars

whose distance

could not

sever the bond

between us…

Such a night

was this –

contained by Earth

 and opened 

to Nocturnal Peace.

Crane Song

Finding my way Home through Image, Myth, and Nature 

The last gift I received from my very distant parents was a print of a Native American Medicine Wheel by Ojibway artist Joe Geshick. I received this present on my birthday in 1993.

When I opened the cardboard tube I was astonished by the image. A Medicine Wheel? As far as I knew neither of my parents had any idea that I had picked up the thread of my Native heritage and was studying Indigenous mythology. What could have motivated them to send me such an image? I was stunned by the seemingly bizarre synchronicity.

At the time I was also giving an Indian program in the local elementary school called “The Circle Way,” educating children and myself about the mysteries of the medicine wheel.

There was also a Maine Abenaki Indian woman healer named Mollyockett who seemed to be guiding me in this process. Before walking to school I often went to her gravesite to ask for help. One day I was shocked to discover a Great Blue heron sitting on her gravestone. Some days I could feel a presence when I knelt there in the tall grass.

Although, thanks to interlibrary loan, I was also learning about my own Passamquoddy/Malisset heritage I felt like I knew almost nothing about Northern tribes in general; most had been decimated by disease brought to them by the colonists that destroyed Native core values and the way of life for most of these Indigenous peoples. Some pockets of Native beliefs/stories survived in Canada because they had less contact with white people.

I hung up the medicine wheel immediately and began to use it as an image to help me prepare for my classes. The wheel reflected equality on a level that was familiar to me; we were all connected – trees, people, rivers, flowers – I had always felt this idea to be truth, but suddenly I began to speak about what I knew with a voice I didn’t know I had.

 When my father died suddenly about six weeks later the medicine wheel, called “The Circle of Life” became the last gift I ever received from both my parents; it developed a ‘charge’ that resulted in me hanging the wheel in every space I ever inhabited. It is still with me.

And yet, I never researched the artist until I was finishing a thesis on my study of Black Bears (2013) when I decided that this image would become the cover of my manuscript. I learned then that Joe was born in 1943, grew up on a reservation in Northern Minnesota, spent two years in jail for minor infractions and began to paint there. After his release he studied at the Art Student’s league in NY and then taught art in Ontario. On the La Croix Reservation in Ontario he learned something about the fragmented history of his clan, and was introduced to traditional ceremony. In 1977 he began studying with a Lakota Sioux Medicine Elder in Nevada while participating for five years in the annual sacrificial Sundance Ceremony.

 As a result, Joe became rooted in traditional ceremony and his paintings reflected this dramatic spiritual shift.   “The Circle Of life” embodied this change drawing attention to the four sacred directions, the four seasons, the sacred colors, the four races. All were equal; all required respect. Joe often said that he wanted people to relate to his work through personal experience. 

I recognized after doing preliminary research on the artist, that like him, I too had been totally separated from my Native roots and was finding my way back through images, my experiences with animals/plants, creating/celebrating my own ceremony, and by studying Native mythologies. A slow, serpentine, circular lifetime process. But Joe became a model for me, validating that the way that had been chosen for me/chosen by me was an authentic one. 

I felt a deep kinship with this particular wheel with one exception. In the center Joe had placed a thunderbird and after learning about the Ojibwa I didn’t understand why the bear wasn’t in the center of the wheel because the bear was the most venerated healer for his people.

Recently, I returned from the Southwest where I was introduced to the ceremonies of the Pueblo peoples, ceremonies that reflected my own spiritual practice reinforcing its authenticity. This interlude also allowed me to be part of a people who had never lost access to their roots. They had never given up their ceremonies or surrendered their way of life.

I returned to Maine with a much stronger sense of my Indigenous cultural identity than I had when I left. I hadn’t realized until I went to the Southwest how much this identity had been eroded by local people. Living in western Maine had brought me in contact with the frightening bias people have towards Indians; some are openly despised. 

My first reality ‘hit’ occurred after giving an elementary school program a few months after moving to the area, when fifty people from an irate religious group gathered one night at the school and attempted to indict me as a witch. “I was turning their children into trees,” one of my accusers said. Although the program I had given was an astounding success no one intervened on my behalf, including the superintendent of schools or the principal of the school that asked me to give the program in the first place.

 Numerous other negative encounters followed over the years. Two neighbors bought property next to me and moved in. I didn’t understand why they disliked (hated?) me. It took me years to understand the reason – bias. Because I am “different”. 

Just up the road from my home seven years ago some locals put up signs that stated “We don’t trust you, Sara Wright”, in an effort to humiliate and prevent me from walking up a mountain road. 

I was discriminated against by the town of Bethel when I offered to become part of their annual Mollyockett Day – supposedly a celebration of Mollyockett and our local Native Abenaki heritage. In actuality this weekend has nothing to do with Native peoples (One of their most egregious practices is the frog jumping contest when hapless amphibians are forced to hop around steaming concrete for children’s pleasure. No Native person would ever agree to torturing animals in that way). 

Just last spring, two months after my return from New Mexico, a red truck left a dead baby grouse in my driveway. Others leave screaming tire marks. These grim examples reveal that hatred of the ‘other’ and discrimination is a way of life here. Difference is not tolerated.

But to return to my present story… this fall I decided to do something different with my medicine wheel. I carefully cut out a photo of one of my bears sitting in the mother pine and placed the photo in the center of the wheel, replacing the thunderbird. Ah, now the wheel looked just right, and I placed the print above a little mantle in a dark corner of the living room. A solitary candle lights the wheel unless the sun is just right and then the entire space lights up eerily. An abalone shell reflects the blue green waters below.

With the Medicine Wheel in a place of honor I decided to do some more research on the image. I was astonished to learn that the ‘swans’ that encircled the wheel were cranes – Sand hill Cranes, my spirit bird of the east – birds whose haunting cries literally freeze me in wonder – birds that I lived with every winter in NM for four years, birds that I discovered to my great joy are now living/breeding here in western Maine. Cranes not swans. And Joe painted the cranes with their feet becoming roots seeking green earth ground. According to Joe “the two cranes that envelop the circle represent a spiritual relationship with the earth”. Exactly! Oh, it fit.

Then came the next surprise. I read that in the beginning (the creation story) the Ojibwa who were water people were led by the Sand hill cranes who were their leaders. The original holy people were cranes, loons, fish, deer, marten, bear and thunderbird but the thunderbird had to be returned to the sea because his powers were too strong. The Bird people replaced the thunderbird. Today the Crane clan is the most powerful followed by the Bear, as Healer. 

I guessed that it was Joe’s spiritual experience with the Lakota Sioux that led him to place the thunderbird in the center of his medicine wheel paintings because the thunderbird is sacred to the Sioux.

Joe died in 2009 but what follows is what he wrote about his beautiful and deeply moving paintings.

I am motivated to paint by my desire to share this connection with others so that they may discover their own natural and spiritual relationship with the earth. I want people to feel and experience the wholeness and simplicity of life.”

He certainly helped me.

Today, our blue green planet is in crisis and I believe our only real hope comes from embracing the ways of a people we despise or dismiss, a people whose way of life could teach the rest of us how to embrace the values of respect, equality, community, a gift economy and most of all re- attach us to a deep love for this Earth we call home. 

Pink Dolphin

Pink / Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) in the Negro River, municipality of Novo Airão, Amazonas State, Brazil.

When I heard (NPR) that pink dolphins, those denizens of the fresh waters of the Amazon are going extinct, I remembered their gift to me, grateful that I had been present as a receiver. On the last day of a three – year research journey (early 90’s) I was with my guide returning to a place on the river that I loved. It was absolutely calm; my guide and I were drifting along a  serpentine tributary curtained and dripping with scarlet passionflowers when a circle of pink dolphins surrounded the dugout.

 “I love you,” I repeated the words over and over in a trance-like state glued to the rippling brown water.

Round and round they came surfacing inches away from the side of the boat. Bulbous heads splashing pink and gray.

The Circle of Life was being inscribed in the water. 

When one broke the round to swim away, it was time to say goodbye. I thanked them for their steadfast company during my Amazon journey. 

Each of my many visits had begun with a dolphin encounter. My guides were initially astonished by the way these animals seemed to follow me up and down the river, and by the end of my first stay two of them shook their heads and rolled their eyes while declaring that the dolphins loved me. I believed them. 

Now, many years later I am saying goodbye to an enduring friendship with a species I adored.

Reciprocity is fundamental to relationship but it must be predicated on genuine care/love as well as mutual need. This is another way of saying that our attention and intention comprise the weft and warp that weave us together. My relationship with the dolphins is a perfect example. I longed to see them, to make friends with these remarkable creatures. That longing manifested as my intention and attention. I opened my self to believing that the dolphins would come. The dolphins responded in kind out of awareness and choice.

We are all connected.

Natural History: Pink Dolphin

The Amazon River dolphin, also known as the pink River dolphin or boto, lives only in freshwater. This species is found throughout much of the Amazon and Orinoco river basins in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, and Venezuela. The botos used to be a relatively abundant freshwater cetacean. This animal is the largest and (some say) smartest of the 5 freshwater species. Pink dolphins can grow up to 9 feet in length and weigh 400 lbs. They can live up to thirty years and they have unusually large brains. It is not unusual to see one dolphin, but more often they are seen in small groups, and in areas where there is a confluence of river tributaries it is possible to see many together (one of the unusual aspects of my last experience with the dolphins was that so many gathered in such a small area).

The dolphins’ color can be influenced by their behavior, capillary placement, diet, and exposure to sunlight. Shades range from mostly gray to pink. And when the dolphins get excited, they can flush a brilliant flamingo pink.

The vertebrae in the necks of pink dolphins are not fused; their ability to turn their heads 180 degrees allows them to maneuver around sunken tree trunks, rocks and other obstacles necks in very shallow flooded waters. They can also swim forward with one flipper while paddling backwards with the other, this ability allows them to turn with more precision. They can also swim upside down!

These dolphins seem very attracted to people in general. Their curiosity appears to be a driving force in human dolphin interactions.

 I can’t help wondering who will bring such joy and playfulness to the Amazon when the pink dolphins are gone?

Grace

Grace Turns the Wheel at Winter Solstice

 I am keenly aware of the importance of timing when it comes to the seasonal turning of the wheel. Timing has little to do with actual days during which winter celebrations are supposed to take place – at least for me. Time is fluid and open to whatever surprise Nature might bring to my door. Beyond that, my dreaming life usually directs the process. 

I begin after thanksgiving when I tip the Balsam greens I will weave into wreaths choosing a warm day that “feels right”. This year after tipping my greens they just sat there because we had a very destructive winter storm that hurt many trees, and I didn’t feel like weaving my balsam into “the circle of life” until after the chaos had passed. By this time it was mid December. After I wove the wreaths with prayers for trees, animals, and humans, the sanctity of the Earth, dreams followed along with the writing of this year’s solstice ritual.

 Dreams, experiences thoughts come showing me the way. I am sometimes surprised by my intentions or the need to let go of something. Even after completing the writing, my rituals remain open ended. I never know when Nature/or a dream/or an experience in nature/ a person will intervene with a new idea.

This year, my young friend Marcus joined me for a first celebration. When Marcus came into my life he changed me. As he was leaving that first day, last spring, he used the word kinship to describe what had happened between us. I was frankly stunned by such a flood of feelings that they threatened to drown me. How was it possible to feel this way? I must be projecting… how could it be that I had finally found someone who had been lost to me for a lifetime? I felt it, and couldn’t believe it.

 Time would tell, I reminded myself, grateful to be an elder (aging has its benefits)…and it has. There is something so real and so true between us, something that binds us beneath words; this young man that I love like a beloved son – grandson.

So making the decision to celebrate ‘our’ ritual seemed utterly natural. We lit candles, and placed stone bears in a circle on the table he made for me, a table complete with cedar roots! We spoke our words into a room full of star -like candles, with a warm fire burning in the woodstove. We shared deeply personal feelings so honestly, so effortlessly, just like we always do…

When it was over and we had said goodnight I sat there in the darkened room amongst the flickering candles and open fire giving thanks for a moment in time I could never have imagined happening in my wildest dreams. I couldn’t comprehend this depth of sharing with a young man 50 years younger than me. Filled to the brim, my body/mind/soul/spirit overflowed, a fountain flowering in gratitude.

what would I do without him?

The next night I had a dream about having neglected to include an intention that pertained only to me, so two days later when the time was right, I celebrated once again including my new intention. I lit the candles and arranged a few bears on the table with roots; a merry fire lit up the opposite side of the room and all my animals – my dogs and bird were with me as I spoke aloud words of release and repeated earlier intentions,  while including the last in the whole. For the second time in one week I experienced the deep peace that ritual brings when the door opens to the Great Unknown…Grace cannot be explained; it can only be experienced.

Winter Solstice Wreath: For Love of Balsam

Recently on a mild sunny day I tipped balsam greens for my wreaths. I breathed in the pungent fragrance with an enthusiasm that can only come from absence. For the last four years I have had to drive up to the mountains of New Mexico to find Colorado fir for greens (also a tree we have here in Maine, although unlike balsam it is not native). 

The scent of balsam to my mind is like no other. Science informs us that the Pinenes from this tree are the most powerful of all conifers. These chemicals act as natural bronchodilators and are also the most effective air purifiers. 

I have been tipping greens since I was a small child. I don’t remember when I first thought about how the trees felt about this shearing. What I do remember is what happened when I cut down a small Christmas tree for our house when my youngest child was around three. As I dragged the tree home I felt deep distress, which led me to stop cutting down trees altogether (to this day I keep a Norfolk Island pine as an indoor tree).

 Cutting edge Forest Scientists like Susan Simard (whose thesis was first published in the prestigious and conservative scientific journal Nature in 1997) writes that trees feel something akin to pain when cut which should be a sobering thought for many, especially those who mindlessly strip whole forests. But, to return to my story, long ago the child in me sensed something and murmured a silent apology as I helped gather balsam boughs with my grandmother, so something about how trees feel was perking in me then. These days I tip with a keen awareness of what I am doing. I use sharp shears, make careful cuts, finish with a grateful thank you.

 I construct my two wreaths on the living room floor using every branch that I can. Nothing goes to waste. Some leftover tips I dry to burn on the top of the woodstove; others become a final covering for bulbs and tender perennials. One wreath stays indoors to scent the house until every needle turns gray and the boughs begin to lose their scent – the other stays outdoors lasting all winter. Each year I decorate my wreaths according to whim. This year they will be dressed in lichens!

Balsam is Maine’s only native fir. In Canada, Balsams can be found growing in some areas. In the US these trees can be found throughout parts of New England, northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan as well as in some areas in New York and elsewhere. I love it that our forests have so many evergreens – black, red, and white Spruce, Hemlock, and Cedar to name a few.  

Balsam is a small to medium-sized tree. On average, the tree attains a height of 40-60 feet and has a trunk diameter of 12-18 inches at maturity. However, in rare cases, the trees can reach a height of 125 feet. Balsams typically have narrow, pyramidal crowns and a broad base, giving the tree a natural conical shape. This tree is so easy to identify! It is the only one that has flat needles instead of the more dramatic bush-like needles of the other firs. Balsam is not a long – lived tree; very few make it to a hundred years. If they don’t fall to the timber harvest as young trees some will develop heartwood or other kinds of rot as a result of pernicious fungi.

 Balsam firs tend to grow best in the eastern portions of their range, where the temperatures are cool and moisture is abundant. According to some sources, optimum growth occurs when winter temperatures range between 0-10 degrees Fahrenheit and summer temperatures range between 60-65 degrees. If the latter is true our summers are becoming too hot for Balsams, and indeed, I have noticed a new disturbing trend of browning branches on some of my trees but I have to wait another season or two before identifying the cause – it might be an insect. Balsams need plenty of water to thrive and last summer’s drought took a toll on some seedlings that sprouted here in the spring.

 Balsam likes silt loams developed from lake deposits, stony loams derived from glacial till, gravelly sands, and peat bogs, with the last two soil types resulting in slower growth. The trees prefer an acidic soil with a pH close to 7. When found in swamps, Balsam often grows in pure stands. Balsam also grows well in association with spruce, (often where better drained soils exist). I am curious to know if there is a mycorrhizal relationship (symbiotic union between fungus and roots of plants and their neighbors)  between the two; I suspect there is. Some sources suggest that Balsams are shade tolerant – My observations do not support shade tolerance once the tree has passed the seedling stage. Interestingly, the trees can be found from sea level to the summit of Mount Washington (6,300 feet high). 

Balsam fir contains both male and female reproductive tissues on the same tree. After fertilization the cones mature during late August and early September and drop scales, bracts, and seeds, leaving just the central axis of the cones remaining on the tree. This central axis looks like a small spire on the top of a branch and may last a long time.

Unlike some other trees, Balsams begin producing seeds when the trees are around 20 years old, probably because they don’t live that long. They begin to produce regular heavy seed crops at intervals of 2-4 years around the age of 30. The seeds are dispersed by wind during autumn or eaten and defecated by small mammals near the parent tree (80 – 200 feet). Only about half the seeds are viable and then only for one year. Germination can occur on virtually any soil as long as there is adequate moisture, and some protection from the sun.

Spruce budworm is a pest that is responsible for defoliating or killing Balsam firs. This adult moth lays eggs on the needles of trees in July. The following May and June, budworm larvae hatch and feed on the foliage. Repeated years of defoliation from this pest can ultimately lead to the death of the trees.  Symptoms include top-kill of the upper portion of the tree and browning of partially eaten needles. 

 Balsam Woolly Adelgid (BWA) is another pest that attacks the stems, twigs and buds of all true firs and can kill trees in as little as three years. “Gouting” is a symptom of BWA attack that appears as a stunting of the terminal growth and distinct swellings around the buds and branch nodes.  Other symptoms are moderately severe dieback of the needles starting at the crown of these very special trees that provide shelter and food for so many animals and birds.I don’t know anyone else beside myself who tips her own Balsam greens these days, but when I was young many folks did. There is something about the process of returning to the forest to gather boughs that puts the gatherer in a special relationship with the trees and the forest that contains them.