Blessing of the Fields

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Above: a small woven Indian basket with Blue corn kernels and an inlaid scallop shell similar to the pendants worn by the dancers. On the left there is a small “Dancing Bear” (Zuni) fetish belonging to the author.

Yesterday I attended a Corn Dance at Tesuque (pronounced Ta –sooki) Pueblo, one that has at its focus, the Blessing of the Fields. It’s the first week in June, the waxing moon will be full in a few days, Venus rises in the morning, and the Summer Solstice is almost upon us, all auspicious signs of the intensifying heat from the sun star that is laying his fiery blanket over the earth urging the crops to grow.

The brilliant morning sun felt good as we stood in the plaza at Tesuque waiting for the dancers to appear from out of the Kiva. Many of the adobes that faced the plaza had recently been re done. There was only one set of buildings left with crumbling adobe, gray with age, and one of the friendly tribal members remarked that it wouldn’t be too long before those too would be rebuilt. Once again I found myself grateful for the casinos that funded the upkeep of these Tewa speaking pueblos. The Pueblo of Tesuque was set among the Juniper strewn hills, with peripheral houses in good repair, all quite neat in appearance. The famed Camel Rock was on tribal land.

I noted with pleasure the alcove over which the heads of the animals looked out on the plaza. The elk with his huge rack of antlers was placed in the center; he was flanked by an antlered mule deer and antlered antelope on each side. Each had been decorated with inlaid turquoise and coral shell necklaces; obviously these animals held the place of honor weaving the blue summer people (squash blossom) and white winter people (turquoise) into one seamless whole. Inside, colorful handmade blankets and intricately designed reed baskets covered the back wall. A small altar stood in the center. Outside, on either side of the adobe stood two fresh well staked cottonwood saplings, the first deciduous trees I had ever seen at a dance. I wondered if the cottonwoods signaled the coming of summer since bits of cotton- like fluff were flying through the air around the plaza with cottonwood seeds attached to their wind pollinating parachutes. Next to this building stood the church refurbished in 2006, I heard someone say.

Inside the small but immaculate church, Mary, Queen of Heaven, although not appearing in the central altar but positioned to the right was much larger than the figure of Jesus on the cross. She had many votive candles lit in her honor. I lit a votive candle for Guadalupe. Together, the two buildings married folk Catholicism to the ancient Puebloan traditions with Mary being honored in one, and sacred animals and the handiwork of the People in the other.

It never ceases to amaze me how I am affected by the sound of the drum as the chanters begin their slow meticulous walk to the plaza from the Kiva. I think my heart actually slows down to synchronize with the beating drum because I feel incredibly alert, but my mind becomes still. All the colors of the rainbow are visible in the flowing ribbons attached to the dress shirts the men wear. After the chanters gather in the plaza, the rest of the dancers appear. Many if not most are adorned with brilliant parrot or other exotic feathers bunched together in a cluster on top of each dancer’s head. This is a relatively small pueblo and yet there were about 200 dancers.

The women wear tablitas, large headdresses, and many are decorated by cloud formations to encourage the rain, water of all life, to fall. Most of the women are barefooted, even though the plaza is full of stones that get stuck in their feet during the dance (the women are barefoot because they are believed to live closer to the earth and hence are better able to help the corn grow). The women are all dressed in a single shouldered black dress with colorful sashes at their waists, and some dresses looked hand embroidered. The women wearing tablitas had a single red spot on each cheek denoting the purity of the “maiden” aspect of corn. All the women carry evergreens (representing the forest/wilderness) in each hand and the same kind of sprigs are attached to the armbands of each male dancer. Each male also wore a fox skin with tail attached to the back of his kilt. Many of the male and female dancers including children wore necklaces of inlaid turquoise and jet beaded with coral. I wondered what the significance could be since the exact same jewelry adorned the elk, deer, and antelope. The combined sounds of voices, the gourd rattles held by men with diagonal rows of tinkling shells on their bare clay covered chests, the belt of large silver bells clanking at their waists, and the deep resonant drum pulled me into a different kind of time, a place where the present is all there is.

Although the songs were different than the ones I had heard at Santa Domingo at the Green Corn Dance, the basic steps of the were much the same, with men and women facing each other while dancing and then exchanging places in the two lines and finally moving in one long line as they gathered to honor the next direction, four in all. There were many small children that also danced and they too wore identical regalia. These Indian children with their dark pools for eyes are enduring. Whenever one tired, a caring adult was in instant attendance helping the youngster in any way that was required. Next to us an Indian woman gave her children corn pollen, which I knew would be sprinkled over the earthen floor of the plaza in a gesture of reverence at the end of all the dances. Occasionally a dog appeared briefly and many old people were present as part of a deeply appreciative Native audience, many of whom kept time with the drum. There were few Anglos present.

When this very long set ended, the chanters and dancers returned to the Kiva and the women scurried around bringing food into the different houses where a feast would be held for all who had been invited, before the next set began. By now the sun was blistering hot and heavy clouds hovered over the horizon. Rumbling thunder could be heard in the distance. Part of me wondered if the thunder was answering the dancing prayers of the Tewa, who were blessing the newly planted corn but also dancing for rain.

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The Bosque

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The Bosque

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Young Cottonwoods

This morning I put on my boots to walk down to the Bosque where the Cottonwoods with their fluttering heart shaped leaves that rustle in the slightest breeze tower over the Russian olives, wolfberry, and gray-green willows. As I open the rusty gate, tufts of white cotton drift down around me carried by a faint breeze because the cottonwood is seeding the moist ground. Here, at least, in this small sanctuary, the trees will regenerate and these elders are already being followed by strong young saplings.

In this magical mystical ephemeral landscape the river’s song is infused with those of a multitude of nesting birds. The Red-winged black birds and Bullock’s orioles are nesting in the giant cottonwood above me and both males announce my presence with warning calls. It’s hard to believe that this magnificent tree is probably only a hundred years old.

Hummingbirds chirp and tweet, well hidden in the tall willow – strewn thickets. As I close the gate I glimpse orange day lilies opening on one side of the path and a clump of Japanese iris blooming with their feet under water almost opposite but nearly hidden in a tangle of vines. The delicate iris are tall and thin with sword-like leaves; the lovely flowers shine like the sun – a golden yellow – some repeat a tricolored pattern with three etched sunbursts inked in pale brown on the tops of the outer three petals. The wide swampy path is partly under water, and I step carefully around ancient horsetails, one of the earth’s first plants, scanning for toad eggs. A little wooden bridge takes me over a small clear stream that feeds into the churning river. The emerald green grasses sway as I pass by, each bending with ripening seed.

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When I reach higher ground I see the first wild roses, single blossoms, pale and deep pink they open under the sun dappled shade. I marvel that these same small roses also grow almost wild at my home in Maine. Originally I planted one small bush and now these lovely fragrant roses have sprung up everywhere in my own riparian woodlands.

The cat tail marsh

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For a short time the path is straight and then abruptly turns right. I stand on the wooden bridge that goes nowhere that I can discern and gaze out at the beautiful marsh with its papery wheat colored remnants of last year’s cattails and lovely gray Russian olives in various stages of growth that provide such a lovely contrast to wheat and verdant green. Oh, the Japanese iris are all in bloom at my feet on both side of the wooden board. A hummingbird startles me, hovering above a silky cattail tuft, capturing some of the soft material in her beak and then disappearing in a flash into a tangle of wild clematis.

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Japanese Iris

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Retracing my steps from the board back to the path I am led to yet another part of the swamp, one that allows me to cross the bog because carefully placed stones have been placed there. I walk over the damp places just above the waterline. More swamp iris herald the coming summer season clothed as they are in sun gold. Once I pass the cattails I find myself knee deep in emerald green. More wild roses are opening and hummingbirds and thirsty bumbles sip sweet nectar. The Bosque is bursting with the sound of crickets, and the turbulent waters of the river are just beyond to the left.

Arizona Cypress

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I am stopped in my tracks by the smooth skinned serpent draped gracefully around a clump of willows. The snake watches me intently with one glittering orange eye, while listening to my softly spoken words. “I will not hurt you,” I say as I pass by this magnificent silky skinned copper colored snake – a red racer – people call them. (On my return the snake is still watching me from upside down – his tail and lower body are coiled around the upper willow tips and his head is hidden below in the lower branches!) Who is going to become his lunch I wonder.

Red Racer

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I spy a small oak tree, ringed with stones that are chosen with care. When I come to the wooden sign it too stops me in my tracks because I am not expecting it! The path I have been on is Wildhaus and to continue on San Diego road is where I am headed; the sign points straight ahead. “Home” a third sign gestures to the right with a wooden finger. I choose not to explore this latter pathway; I don’t want to intrude. I linger here for a few moments thinking about the woman who cares so deeply for this natural landscape that together they have become co- creators.

Her gentle touch is evident in the small fruit tree she has staked and ringed with wire, the Arizona cypress and Junipers, the ringed stones, the almost wild flowers, the clearing of this path (which I know from personal experience) takes a huge amount of time and effort. Love seeps through this Bosque, a holy presence that is palpable. Silently, I thank my friend for this priceless gift, before moving on.

The ground is higher now and opens onto a sandy plain of sorts; in the distance a huge clump of Apache Tears stands out, a massive white cluster of primrose blossoms hugs the ground and bright yellow salsify stalks are blushing as they are being pollinated by bees. A massive rock pile captures my attention, and I pick up a few to examine them more closely.

The river is visible now; it’s turbulent coffee colored waters make the most soothing background music of water rumbling over stone. I notice a couple of old beaver sticks pointed at one end. Suddenly, a Great Blue heron is flying overhead, his massive wings moving in slow syncopated rhythm –another ancient relic from the deep past.

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The River

When I come to the wire fence that defines the edge of this property, I happily retrace my steps allowing the power of the Bosque to flood my senses once again. Each time I come here, I leave with a feeling of renewal, knowing that there are some natural places that are cared for as deeply by others as they are by me. To my mind, places like the Bosque speak to Nature’s Grace incarnating in ordinary time.

Memorial Day – A Reflection on War

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I believe that there is a collective need on the part of women and men to stop supporting those who have served in the military, men who have killed and maimed millions of human beings, men, and now some women, who always fight on foreign soil killing innocent people and calling these acts of unspeakable violence “collateral damage.” Men who are then lauded as our country’s “Heroes.”

It is important to note that in our very Patriarchal culture, war is still the ultimate solution to the world’s problems. Might is right, and we Americans worship the dynamic of “power over” and the “mighty economy” at the cost of countless human lives.

The idea that war has been obsolete since the creation of the atomic bomb almost a century ago is deliberately and blindly ignored. We continue to strengthen our military at a huge financial cost to every American citizen. We talk peace and create wars. Or we participate in “conflicts” in the name of “democracy,” a form of imperialism. We have become a nation of warmongers.

Every spring, during the beautiful month of May we come around to Memorial Day Weekend when most families celebrate the death of millions with picnics, parties and camping trips.

Many also genuinely grieve deeply the loss of their sons, daughters, nephews, uncles, fathers and grandfathers, and surely some of them wonder if sacrificing their often adolescent children to war in the name of “patriotism” was really worth it after all.

These are the people my heart aches for. For I too have lost family members to warfare, and find it impossible to dismiss these tragic deaths as necessary in order to save our country from “enemies,” who are human beings, just like us. We project evil onto other races, religions etc., while closing our eyes to our own. We refuse to examine our individual or collective capacity for human evil.

We don’t see many older men racing to the nearest recruiting station to volunteer to become a part of the military. We sacrifice our young people instead. On Memorial Day weekend we sentimentalize those who died “in service to their country” modeling this sacrificial behavior to adolescents who are idealistic and whose brains are not fully developed and thus and not yet capable of distinguishing the various shades of gray from black and white thinking. Many young people are recruited in high school because they do not know what direction to take in their lives, or because someone has inculcated in the adults around them the idea that serving their country “will make a man (woman?) out of them” or keep them off the streets  and away from drugs. We romanticize war through all forms of media. We wave flags frantically trying to out do one another, to prove what? That our dead are more important than those we kill?

We should be ashamed of ourselves and our collective behavior.

Wars are not inevitable.

 Unfortunately, in the United States (as well as elsewhere) men and women are both inculcated into patriarchy, a position that automatically privileges men over women at home, in the workplace, in politics, and in the religious practices of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Men are not born into power and control over others; they are taught to be this way, either by their caregivers, wives/partners, community, religious practices, government, or by the culture as a whole. Just as women are taught subservience.

Patriarchy supports an unequal power structure between men and women that can lead to physical mental emotional, and spiritual abuse. And we know that abuse of women is at an all time high. It is not by accident that 52 percent of American women voted for a president who is a misogynist. How else do these women justify how powerless they feel, or how much they hate themselves or other women?

Healthy women (and men) can help stop male violence at many levels. We can refuse to support those who are warmongers, we can refuse to stay in unhealthy relationships, we can refuse to allow our sons and daughters to be sacrificed to the military. We can stop sentimentalizing our losses by refusing to participate in Memorial Day activities.

At the risk of being called sexist I believe that women in particular are in a position to mediate the culture’s -either or – kill or be killed, – thinking about the inevitability of war. It is scientifically factual to state that women are better able to see both sides of an issue because women have the capacity to use both sides of their brains at the same time. Men as a group have a tendency to see an issue in absolutes – as in seeing a truth as right or wrong.

We need healthy, independent women to speak out against the atrocities of war in spite of being called ‘radical’ or ‘feminist’ or crazy. Women are in a position to be able to see beyond the cultural belief in “the inevitability of war” more clearly than men can because of the way they think.

Indian Paintbrush or Grandmother’s Hair

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When I first saw the flower as we sped down a major highway I could hardly believe my eyes. But that tell tale flash of crimson had to belong to the Indian Paintbrush I shrieked to my companion, although I had not seen one in twenty years. I was thrilled. We turned the car around to see if we could spot the flower again. Sure enough, there it was growing in a sparse desert –like area along the side of the New Mexican highway. The next day my friend went back and photographed it, much to my delight.

Also called “Grandmother’s Hair” or Prairie Fire Castilleja is a wildflower that belongs to the Figwort (or snapdragon) family. There are a number of species and all are native to North America. Indian Paintbrush can be annual, biennial or perennial depending on the species.

Growing one to two feet high the flowers are borne in dense bracketed spikes. The flowers are insignificant and are hidden beneath the red tipped leaves. It is the leaves or bracts that are colored various shades of crimson, or flaming orange with yellow depending on the species. The bristle -like inflorescences look as if they have been dipped in paint. Indian Paintbrush grows in both moist areas and dry areas, open prairie, and at the edge of forests. The plant prefers sunny areas. These plants grow in Alaska, California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. The plants also prefer cooler mountainous climates (up to 10,000 feet) and may be found in the Andes and other parts of South America. They are often found near some kind of water seepage. The flowers begin to bloom in the spring and can last well into summer.

Indian Paintbrush has the ability to grow and survive in serpentine soils. For the geologist, serpentine is a mineral class. These rocks are composed mainly of iron magnesium silicate, with impurities of chromium, nickel and other toxic metallic elements. Because of this unusual chemical makeup, soils may be infertile because of their high magnesium to calcium ratio. Many species of plants are not equipped to handle such stressful amounts of high magnesium, low calcium and in general the overabundance of metals.

Indian Paintbrush also soaks up the alkaline mineral *selenium in the soil in toxic amounts (creating hair loss and brittle nails among other things), so although the plant can be eaten it is necessary to know something about the soil content that the plant is growing in before ingesting it. The nectar of the plant is very sweet and it is the flowers that are most often eaten in salads.

Indian Paintbrush is also known as a root parasite. The plant has small tubes called “haustoria” that insert themselves into the tissues of other plant roots, like sagebrush, to obtain necessary nutrients. However, Indian paintbrush can also make some of its own food, so technically it is a semi – parasite. These plants must also have access to water and they rely on other nearby plants to obtain sufficient water for themselves.

This wild plant is very difficult to grow by seed because it must be planted with a host, another native plant or seedling, in order to survive. Unfortunately, seedlings do not transplant well.

Various Indigenous Peoples used the flowering parts of the plant as paintbrushes. Some Native peoples like the Chippewa use the plant to treat rheumatism and to make their hair glossy. Both applications are useful due to the selenium content.

There is a Blackfoot Indian myth about a maiden who fell in love with a prisoner and escaped with him. When she became lonely for her family she took a piece of bark and drew a picture of her home on it with her blood and left the bark on the ground. A beautiful plant with a bush like end grew out of the soil It was dyed crimson red with the maiden’s blood and named “Indian Paintbrush” by the young girl’s people.

The last time I saw Indian Paintbrush it was in the Sonoran Desert around Tucson early in the spring (March). I had been walking up an arroyo that was still seeping snow from the Rincon Mountains when I saw clusters of these magnificent flowers each with a slightly different coloring, but unlike this New Mexican variety these flowers were a brilliant burnt orange fading into a buttery yellow. I would recognize this plant anywhere!

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Photo Credits: Bruce Nelson

 

*Selenium is an essential trace mineral that is important for many bodily processes, including cognitive function, and a healthy immune system. It is present in human tissue, mostly in skeletal muscle. Dietary sources include eggs, brown rice, some fish and meats. The amount of selenium in food often depends on the selenium concentration of the soil and water where farmers grew or raised the food. Another curious fact about selenium is that it can also produce electricity directly from sunlight and is used in solar cells.

Summer Rain

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The sun burnishes the horizon

in spun gold, as he slips beneath

flat topped mountains at dusk..

The summer solstice

is nearly upon us;

Earth is heating up.

The merciless sky is

bleached bone at noon.

 

The third week of June

marks the end of the sun’s

relentless journey

to lengthen Earth’s days.

Sun seems oblivious to Shadow.

Twilight shrinks in his wake.

For a time it will seem like the star stands still,

Then a gradual reversal of directions

reinforces Nature’s truth –

Change is the only constant.

 

With his northern journey completed,

the sun will soon arc to the south.

His coming and going is both

Earth process, and cosmic event.

 

Within a month or so

after the longest day of the year has passed

silvery sheets of rain will slip

through thick gray clouds.

Instantly the earth turns green.

The summer rains are an act of becoming.

 

Who puffs up the clouds?

Some say Thunderbeings

stir the sky into frenzy.

Bolts of jagged steel lightening

strike randomly,

zapping parched cracked ground.

Rumbling ominously,  storm clouds

threaten to erase the line

between horizon and mountain.

Roaring arroyos fill,

spill over, flood fertile fields.

 

Did you know that an inch

of pure rain water

nourishes the Earth

more efficiently than

any water drawn from the ground?

 

This dance between the sun

and his lady,

Keeps the Earth in Balance.

Gardens explode with chilies, corn and beans!

When Cloud Woman weeps,

tears heal wounds.

Frogs and toads hum.

A flaming orange oriole

nests by the river

and sings from the Bosque

at twilight.

Women sing love songs

to honor our Blessed Mother

who brings the Gift of

Summer Rain.

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Working Notes:

 

The term “Blessed Mother” is used as a metaphor for the Soul of the Earth, and has nothing to do with religion.

This is the time of year that I find myself longing for twilight, that space in between, where light from the sun meets the one who dims the light.

I also dream of rain.

I have practical reasons for wishing that dark and light weren’t so extreme at this time of year. My eyes ache from being exposed to the fierce sun, even with sunglasses. I don’t sleep as soundly, or dream as deeply during the late spring and summer months. My energy shifts without warning. The mid -afternoon fiery heat is too intense and lasts too long into evening.

I also miss the shadows that are cast over the mountains during other seasons, revealing sharp contours and a depth that is no longer visible during the late spring or summer. Here in New Mexico the absence of rain often characterizes spring, although heavy winter snows at high elevations bring forth the most beautiful spring wild flowers, flaming orange globe mallows, crimson, purple, and sky blue penstemon, fiery Indian paintbrush, cornflower blue flax and the delicate gilia, purple mat, heron’s bill, violet vetches and an endless array of buttery yellow flowers. These lovely long months of spring are also sometimes clouded by fierce winds that blow in from the west stirring up spiraling tunnels of dust and debris. And tender seedlings curl inward crushed like paper under the shock of sudden frost.

And yet, whenever I am tempted to complain too much about the sun’s fiery rays and light that lingers too long, I remember that without the searing heat of this star, life would cease to exist. Plants and flowers couldn’t blossom, or produce seeds, or pods. The wild cactus wouldn’t swell with magenta, pink, yellow or red buds. The trees wouldn’t leaf out gifting us with precious shade like the elephant arms of the cottonwoods do as I pass under their cool canopies on my daily morning walks. The rabbits wouldn’t give birth and lizards couldn’t bask on rocks warmed by early morning sunlight.

I appreciate all the seasons for different reasons. Today we know that the solstice is an astronomical event caused by the earth’s 23.4 tilt on its rotational axis and it’s elliptical orbit around the sun. In the northern hemisphere, midsummer, or the summer solstice marks the longest day of the year, the day when the North Pole is leaning closest to the sun. As the earth orbits the sun the position of the two hemispheres change in relation to their starry center. At this time of year we lean towards the sun and summer begins, while in the southern hemisphere the earth is tilted away from the sun creating winter. A solstice happens at the same instant for all of us, everywhere on earth.

Oddly, it isn’t until after the summer solstice that the earth really heats up even though the days are already shortening in duration. This phenomenon is called the lag of the seasons. It’s the same reason that it’s hotter in mid-afternoon than at noon. Earth takes time to warm up. Even in June ice and snow still blanket the earth in some places. The sun has to melt the ice and warm the oceans before we experience summer heat. With global warming this process has been speeded up so we are, on the whole, experiencing hotter weather throughout the world. Our once permanently frozen polar ice is melting, flooding the oceans with more water and raising the water level on each continent.

As I approach summer I look forward to astonishing sunsets that stain the sky purple, crimson, gold, and midnight blue. I will walk through cool blue mornings. I imagine the clouds puffing up like tufts of thick cotton appearing on the horizon sometimes before noon, billowing skyward, nature’s balloons. Every afternoon there’s a chance for a shower, and this year I long to hear the Spadefoot toads that have been buried underground who appear like magic, with the advent of the first monsoon. I missed this serenade and no doubt, those of other amphibians, last year.

What I love most about summer is the rain. Indigenous Pueblo peoples believe that when thunder and lightening rule the skies a torrent of “male rain” floods even the high places. “Female” rain falls gently from a slate gray sky soaking every root, leaf and flower transforming the desert into an oasis teaming with life. Have you ever noticed that after any kind of rain the birds sing their hearts out, hummingbirds chirp wildly, and bees hum even at dusk?

Certainly a marriage between the two is needed to sustain life on this precious blue green planet.

Personally, I think the gender of the sun is male, while rain feels like a female element. Some would disagree unless they were eco – feminists like me! An eco – feminist, not a popular term today, links the abuse of women to the destruction of our planet. For example, I come from the northeast where the rape of the forest is ongoing, while U.S. statistics tell us that rape of women is on the rise. Women have been associated with trees in myth, story, and cultures since the dawn of humankind. No coincidence here.

Sanctioning one form of abuse seems to promote others. Our present U.S. political situation supports horrific abuse of all kinds.

Wild-crafting the Hedgehog and a brief reflection on Motherhood

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Early last spring while walking in the desert in a rocky area with mineral rich soil I discovered a clump of two very small cacti amongst many other similar clumps. Delighted by the diminutive size of the cacti I dug two along with native soil to pot at home. I noticed two tiny bumps on the sides of each inch tall cactus that were cylindrical in shape and both had short spines that were ridged in burgundy.

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About a month later I was on a rock hunt with my friend Iren, when we discovered another bigger clump of what looked like the same kind of cactus, although the ridges on these were not quite the color of red wine. This clump had more rose red buds. I couldn’t resist bringing this cluster home too along with plenty of chert/flint rich soil. Before I dug up either clump I made certain that others grew in the same area. Whenever anyone digs plants in their native habitat (wild -crafting) it is important to make certain that others of the same kind grow nearby.

After re-potting each in its native soil and placing stones around the periphery of each pot (that I found in the rocky soil around the plants), I placed the two cactus clumps next to each other on a bench right next to my door. The second clump also had buds. Each time I went outside the little cacti greeted me. There was something about finding these cacti growing so naturally and happily in the wild that really appealed to me. I wonder now why I couldn’t leave them there.

I soon learned that Echinocerus viridiflora was a hedgehog cactus that was different from most other hedgehog species. For one thing the cactus is very frost tolerant, and it grows much further north (I found both clumps at about 7000 – 8000 feet in the mountains of Northern New Mexico). The species is native to the central and south central United States and in Northern Mexico where it can be found in varied habitats including mountains, desert scrub, woodlands, and dry grasslands.It also has small flowers along the stem rather than near the tip of the cactus. Plants are globular and can grow 12 inches tall and 1 to 3 inches in diameter but most are much smaller. Stems either remain single or form clumps like some of the ones I had seen. Some clumps could become quite large with a dozen or more individuals. The spines might be variable in color, ranging from red, white, yellow or purple and were short and quite numerous. The flowers could be greenish yellow, pink, orange, brown, or even red. I wondered if elevation or mineral content of the soil helped determine the color of the spines and the flowers.

With so much variation within one species I now suspected that the little cactus I had dug up down the road from my house might also be another Echinocereus v. hedgehog cactus; this one is covered in white spines. The problem for me is that visually they look so different although this one is very small and round too…

Further research on the species as a whole answered one of my questions. One variety of this plant sometimes called Echinocereus davisii is listed as an endangered species and is limited to Brewster County in Texas where it grows in a specific mineral substrate. I couldn’t find any information about the variation in flower color but I suspect that colors also vary with the type of rocky soil and/or the elevation the cacti grow in.

To my great surprise I also discovered that many of these cacti are scented.

I did not know until it was too late that (according to one source) that Echinocereus v. was considered to be “at risk.” Please learn from my mistake. I believed that I was being responsible. I would never knowingly dig up a cactus (or any other plant) that was threatened, unless I knew it was going to be destroyed. All around me as I dug the plants in different locations there were groups of the same cacti. What I failed to take into account is that I found these cacti in diverse, but consistently rocky areas, each having it’s own microclimate and mineral content. I learned the hard way that I should have let them be.

I know one thing for sure. I will treasure these little cacti always, because it would be almost impossible to return them to their original surroundings.

Today is Mother’s Day. My little hedgehog cacti are covered with buds and lemony yellow blooms with a greenish tint. They are stunning and the bees love them!

Nature has gifted me with these exquisite flowers on the one day of the year that celebrates motherhood albeit in a sentimental way. Cactus blooms remind me that the goddess is present in Everywoman as a mother and that she also has thorns! The sharp spines of the cactus that sting like bees also remind me of how difficult motherhood really is, or has been for any woman, not just for me.

Bufo americanus

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I recognized him at once

as he limped, one mangled leg,

one eye bleeding,

dragging himself across a dirt road

in search of a place to die.

 

The day went black

with sorrow.

 

Oh no, I keened,

stopping in front of him.

His mouth was open and closing,

– gasping –

with each labored breath.

Did he know how much

it mattered to me that he was hurt

so badly that there was no way

I could save him?

 

Bearing witness never seems to be enough.

 

It was hot – too hot.

Fierce sun dehydrates even

the toughest skin of toad or frog.

I couldn’t bear that he would die

of injuries compounded by thirst.

 

I ran back to get the car.

My intention was to

run him over, to

end his suffering.

But when I drove the car

down the dirt road

he was gone.

 

If only I could glimpse a toad

basking in the desert sand,

I thought until today.

Never imagining this…

 

I was going to a local seed exchange.

Seeds are about beginnings

but I was mourning a dying toad.

What salt – bush sheltered him?

Even purple seed corn kernels

left me joyless.

My soul was with that toad.

 

I was tired – too tired.

I left early, driving down

the winding red dirt road.

My only hope

was that by now

death had claimed the toad.

 

He would never know

that for the last month

I spent each night listening

for amphibious musical trills.

 

Later in the afternoon

I walked to the place

where I had last seen the toad.

And there he was,

quite still, squashed flat

by the only car

that could have hit him –

my own.

 

I buried him in the sand

that once warmed his flesh.

I closed his golden eye.

Sprinkled cornmeal…

How does one ever say goodbye?

 

Although we’d barely met,

I loved him.

Even in death

his life mattered

to one who would

have mothered him,

healing his wounds,

if only she had the chance.

 

Postscript:

Ever since coming to the high desert last August I have been hoping to catch sight of a toad or frog. I missed the early monsoon season when in one night the frogs emerged from hiding, sang love songs, and laid their eggs. I never met a toad. Last summer I lived back in the hills so perhaps toads don’t like it much up there. However, now that I am staying in this riparian sanctuary, situated near a flooded acequia and raging river, I believed toads and frogs must be around somewhere, and yet until today I never met either.

Bufo americanus, or the western toad looks exactly like his northern cousin in the east. In the spring toads are diurnal hunting during the day; in summer they become nocturnal. This was a large toad, probably 3 inches long. And he was actually a she because females are larger than males.

There is a small lily pond on this property that may eventually harbor black toad eggs laid in a double string of jelly below the surface of the water. However, this toad may not have had a chance to become a mother…I say this because the musical trills of this particular toad are very familiar to me, and I have not heard them during the day or at night. (Trilling occurs primarily at mating time and before and during egg laying).

To meet my first toad in the desert under these circumstances was very difficult for me because I have loved these amphibians since I was a small child, and in Maine, where my home is, I created a vernal pool for the toads that is situated next to the brook. Above on the hill in my flower garden, there is also a small lily pond for frogs and toads.

The synchronicity involved in this incident was also startling. The toad was initially run over by a friend of mine, who would be deeply upset if he knew. When I went back to get the car to kill the toad quickly to put him out of his misery, he simply wasn’t there. Unable to think about anything but the dying toad at the seed exchange, I returned home early and I must have been the one that finally ended the toad’s suffering without knowing it by running him over because this is a private road. Discovering the flattened toad helped me deal with my sorrow because the animal was no longer suffering.

It is also strange that I called the toad a male in the poem since I know large toads are all females and potential “mothers.”

To have this incident occur the day before “Mother’s Day” seems particularly poignant because I have spent a lot of time rehabilitating wounded animals etc., and there was nothing I could do to save this toad’s life.

With that much said, I am honoring Nature as the primal “Mother of All” on the eve of Mother’s Day.

I also honor myself.

I am also grieving with all mothers, who have lost “children,” human, or otherwise.