A Sense of Wonder…

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Whenever I go to my friend Iren’s house I am astonished anew by the art – work that defines this particular landscape, inside and out. Iren creates art in every medium I can think of often utilizing Nature as her collaborator by using found objects, wood, stone, bones, shells, metal, glass to create highly original sculptured art forms.

Take the garage for example, not usually a place one thinks of as an artist’s canvas. The windows are made of old bottles whose colors shine brilliantly – amber, grass green, and cobalt – in the late afternoon sun. There are wooden panels replete with metal objects arranged in such a way that my eye returns again and again to the powerful and intriguing designs; these panels are hanging on the walls above the carpenter’s equipment that lines one side of the room.

Iren uses the chain saw like an old friend to cut the log I brought with me in two. Turning next to the table saw, she shapes one piece of the pinion pine into what will become another piece of Iren’s most original art. Awed by her expertise using these machines I ask her where she learned these skills. Iren tells me that her father taught her to use these tools as a child. I suddenly think of the gorgeous dining room table and chairs inside the house built by her dad…

I am delighted, excited, honored to be witness to this process of hers. Ideas are flowing, even as she runs the edges of the split log over rough sandpaper. We both comment on the sweet intoxicating scent of the newly cut wood as she shaves off its irregular edges effortlessly. We run our hands over the extraordinarily beautiful design that the bark beetles created while they devoured the cambium layer beneath the bark of what once was the trunk or branch of a tree. I am amazed by the fact that this destructive beetle created such beauty while it was killing the evergreen, and how Iren’s creative mind and hand is turning a piece of this conifer into an object that is more than a canvas depicting natural art.

“We can drill three holes in the top for sticks.” This remark excites me. The use of the word “we” is more than generous, since I am simply observing. But it reveals a lot about Iren’s character, her generosity of spirit, the manner in which she invites and draws a person into her world… I suddenly imagine gnarled roots coming out of the newly flattened and lightly sanded top with its three holes… “Which size drill shall we use?” she asks next, as she shows me the different sizes and we both agree on the same one.

“We could bore holes for some stones on the side,” she states more as a question to which I instantly agree. In the next breath she hands me the wood and gives me a pencil to mark the places where the holes will go to complement Beetle’s designs. I love every idea that springs to her mind. Iren picks up the drill and I watch as the drill bit grinds three holes in seconds. Each is quickly sanded. We discuss what we might do to bring out the design. Perhaps a little more sanding. Olive oil and beeswax are two other possibilities.

We leave the garage in the golden late afternoon sun walking swiftly to the studio. My eyes fasten on the rounded metal sculpture with scissors to my left, and then jump to the beautifully sculptured adobe wall with a niche containing what looks like a small statue of a goddess that Iren built to hide a gas tank. Every time I pass the wall I want to go through the small inviting wooden door! As usual I am lagging behind her. There is just too much about this landscape to feast my eyes on.

Once inside the spacious studio with its tower that overlooks the river, and which has to be the best place in the world to watch the full moon appear over the eastern horizon, Iren pulls out tin boxes. One is hexagonal in shape. Even Iren’s containers intrigue me. I pour through the stones with the eyes of a child, thrilled. There are three holes to fill. The blue green copper pieces catch my eye. I choose two. “How about a piece of coral?” she asks. Perfect, I think, as I choose a small irregular shape, a fragment of the sea creature that lives at the bottom of the sea… Iren’s already rolling little glue balls and puts a couple in the holes before handing the wood to me to press the last glue ball and the three chosen objects into place.

Just like that we are done.

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“We’re running a bit late,” Iren remarks as I snap back into linear time. I shake my head trying to catch up with the switch. This whole art-making process took less than two hours and it’s time to go back to the house to feed my two little girls (that happen to be canines)…

As always I leave here with regret. Once again I have spent a mystical, magical afternoon at Iren’s house with a woman who stops time, allowing me to become the child I once was. Thank you Iren.

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Above: Picture of half a log – look at the designs!

Becoming a Naturalist and discovering Black Bears

Some of my earliest memories are tied to being in love with Nature – my little brother and I identified the different tadpoles that inhabited our vernal pools, captured our friends the bull frogs from local ponds so that we could stroke their slippery skin and gaze into gold rimmed eyes, inhaled the intoxicating scent of spring wildflowers, peered at the giant faces of sunflowers that followed the sun as it arced across the sky, caught pulsing green fireflies to keep in jars overnight, hatched praying mantis babies that clung to billowing bedroom curtains, adopted baby rabbits to release back into the wild, raised horned toads and lizards that we kept fed with mealy worms, turned over rocks to search for small snakes who would slither into hibernation in our year round terrarium, watched stars fall out of the sky as we slept on blankets in the field. The world of Nature was the glue that bound us irrevocably to each other, animals, plants, and trees – and the “powers of place.”

My grandparents lived on an old pre-revolutionary farm and my brother and I spent every moment we could in the woods that surrounded the house. Our dogs always accompanied us and they often chose the trails we would take. We dragged cardboard boxes that contained battered but colorful field guides along with us. Even before my little brother could read I taught him the names of the creatures and plants we encountered at the brook and in the woods. We both felt most at home in this world that seemed permeated with wonder. I dreamed of becoming a biologist or a veterinarian, my brother would study bugs.

High school Biology was my first encounter with science with a capital “S”. Here we dissected dead animals and drew two dimensional “objective” diagrams of animal parts that had nothing to do with the animals I loved with such passion. When the bull – frogs arrived for dissection I was aghast for these amphibians were my beloved friends. I promptly threw up in front of my classmates and had to leave the class in deep humiliation. I decided then that “Science” was more about studying dead things than learning about real animals and that I wanted nothing to do with it. It would be years before it dawned on me that with this decision I split my passion for nature away from academic science. The two would not meet again until mid -life after my children were grown.

In the intervening years I studied psychology in college, married a lobster fisherman and moved to an island fifteen miles out to sea off the coast of Maine. For the first two years I wandered around a granite jewel with it cathedral of trees, high cliffs, and silvery moonlit waters falling in love with the birds, animals, and flowers just as I once did on my grandparents farm as a child. The feeling of being at “one with the universe” kept me naturally high. I was walking on air.

When my first son was born I crashed to earth with a thud, losing myself in the Mother “Hood.” The starving young naturalist disappeared as I became fixated on mothering, discovering to my horror that I had no idea how to parent such a difficult baby and aggressive toddler (It never occurred to me then that part of the reason I was so anxious about mothering was because I was un -mothered myself). A year after the birth of my son l became pregnant again …

It wasn’t until my youngest son left home that the naturalist once again entered the foreground of my life. It began with a yearning that pulled me like a magnet back into the forest. I started taking long meandering walks with my beloved dogs. I became the child I had left behind, a sponge eagerly soaking in the essence of each new plant and animal I met. I heard voices crying out in the shrinking coastal landscape and spent hours observing and listening to animals and birds. I tried to make sense of the occasional words that rose unbidden in my mind, or as feelings in my body, in response to my questions. I fell in love with trees and they started to converse with me, most frequently through scent. I reflected on the astonishing beauty of the plants and flowers that I now had time to grow in my garden. I was already a serious student of the Jungian tradition having studied Greek and European mythology and now I added Native American mythology to my studies to gain broader knowledge of the natural and symbolic world of these animals and plants as seen from an Indigenous perspective. Although I had been brought up as a westerner I have Native American roots and I wondered if my passion for animals, beginning with my dogs, was connected to my native heritage. My journals were full of questions about the possible meaning behind the relationships I developed with animals/plants in the wild. I began to perceive myself as part of a complex interconnected living organism called the Earth.

Observing and recording observations within an animal’s natural habitat, studying its natural history, drawing tentative conclusions about certain behaviors that might indicate what the animal might be thinking and feeling helped me perceive individuals through different lenses and from different perspectives. Reminding myself that there was always a link between the observer and the observed, and that each time I watched a creature I was entering the actual “field” of the animal I was studying in a participatory way helped me keep an open mind. When I dreamed of animals I paid close attention believing these animated (soul -like) presences were much more mysterious than the “instinctual forces” they were considered to be in Jungian parlance.I almost always found mythological parallels when studying any animal. I kept track of all these ideas by keeping a journal that I could always refer back to help me sort though, and weave the various threads together. As a result I developed a distinct multivalenced pattern as a Naturalist.

But it wasn’t until I began camping in the western mountains of Maine that I discovered the Universe as a plethora of possibilities. Sleeping under the stars with fireflies blinking over my head, startled by the red tailed hawk whose winged presence soared through the blue dome of the sky during daylight hours, struck by the constellation of the Great Bear who whirled through the night following each season gave me the sense that I was being called to Something. One night I had a dream and when I awakened I could still hear the Voice of the Wilderness calling my name. During this period I also became obsessed with black bears. I researched and dreamed about them. I discovered that in Native American mythology the bear was a powerful Healer. How I longed to see one! In retrospect it seemed quite natural that I would one day leave the coast and move to the mountains to follow the Bears.

Imagine my dismay when five years passed without my ever encountering Ursus americanus while living in the western mountains of Maine! I was heartbroken. During the interim period I continued my practice of observing, researching and writing about the animals and plants I encountered. I also studied the work of Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, a renegade biologist/plant physicist/author who initiated me into an even larger perspective with his farsighted books “The Presence of the Past” and “A New Science of Life” in which he hypothesized that all nature was alive and aware, that consciousness extends outward to include all of nature, and that some kind of mental activity or consciousness is present in all physical systems at all levels of organization from electrons to galaxies. He also hypothesized that each species (including humans) has a collective memory that each individual contributes and tapped into for specific information relative to that particular species and no other. Most of Sheldrake’s radical theorizing made perfect sense to me. Finally, here was a biologist that saw the natural world in much the way I did! I did not care that his holistic approach to Nature was dismissed or that he was called the “Black Jack” of Biology. Because of him I was finally able to forge a bridge between the natural world I loved and science with a capital “S” In that process I learned more about field theory and I was also introduced to the world of quantum physics. I gradually integrated the New Sciences into my perspective and work as a naturalist.

I never imagined I would engage in a formal study of black bears. All I wanted was to meet one. When I saw my first yearling it was at my camp. Joy permeated my body as I watched the young bear gently extract seed from one of my bird feeders, inhale it, and leave the tube intact on the ground as he bounded off into the forest. Although I never had another bear visit my sanctuary, I did occasionally get a glimpse of other young bears while hiking with my dog (who I taught to be quiet in the woods when she was a puppy). With one exception. One year I encountered a bear that seemed as curious about me as I was about him. Although he always bolted initially, the sound of my voice seemed to calm this hundred pound animal with his black eyes, light muzzle and wet nose, and after a minute or two he would reverse his direction and walk towards me stopping about ten feet away to watch me from behind a sapling or some lacy hemlock fronds. I began to call him “Sweetie Bear” and was utterly astounded when I met him the following year. By this time I believed that it was a privilege to see any black bears because most were so frightened of humans. Around here we hunted them with such a vengeance that they melted into the forest at the first whiff of human scent. After meeting Sweetie Bear for two seasons my fascination blossomed into the wild hope that I could study this bear in his natural habitat. If I camped in his territory would Sweetie Bear continue allow me to observe him? This question haunted me with increasing urgency.

One afternoon I had just waded through a wild rushing stream and was standing under some old fringed hemlocks with my dog in my arms when I heard footsteps behind me. The hair on my neck stood up; I was paralyzed by the thought of some human following me through the woods. Courageously, I turned around to face the intruder discovering to my great relief and joy that it was Sweetie Bear! Since I was hiking that day in a different part of the forest I wondered how he had found me. When I spoke to him he listened intently, his round ears rotating like radar as he peered at me with eyes that shone like brown marble beads. I always brought along some nuts for a snack while hiking – that day I had almonds and pecans – I placed the nuts on the ground between us. In seconds he closed the gap to sniff, tongue, and swallow the treats and then he looked up at me with what seemed like hopeful anticipation, and dare I say it? Trust. I made a gesture. Opening my hands to show him that I had no more nuts I spoke to him gently while shaking my head and I could see that he understood. I was jubilant – We were really communicating! In that moment I made a decision I would never come to regret. I looked around me at the sinuous stream winding its way to the sea, the old hemlocks that shaded and sheltered the ground keeping the area cool on the hottest of days, the thick clumps of sphagnum moss hugging the banks, the large granite stones tossed aside by the glacier, the low flat ground that surrounded this most fragrant woodland hollow and breathed deeply. Turning back to Sweetie Bear I remarked excitedly “this is where I am going to learn about you and your people!” As I wended my way home that afternoon I almost got lost because I was marveling over the fact that I had been imagining just such a place for a study area but it never seemed “real” to me until that afternoon… And I certainly never thought that a bear would help me choose the spot!

Just before dusk I returned to the hollow with my dog, bedding, a small tent, some bear treats and set up housekeeping. I hadn’t been there for more than fifteen minutes before Sweetie Bear arrived to welcome me. I gave him some seed that he devoured with relish. Then he stood up on two legs and hugged a large white pine on the hill behind us, marking it with his scent. Things were looking up. I knew that marking an area was Sweetie Bear’s way of establishing his territory. Although I couldn’t know it then this occasion would mark the beginning of a fifteen – year study of black bears through the lens of one bear’s kinship group. What I did know was that I had crossed an invisible threshold and was now officially apprenticed to the mysterious world of the Black Bear.