The Woman Who Listens

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Oh, the sun is burning up the sky

turning it white under smoke heavy air.

Crackling tree bark keens but no one listens.

It’s just another “burn.”

 

I am a woman who listens.

 

Twilight lays down her starry blanket.

A half moon floats through the sky.

Desert air turns cool.

The Canyon towhee and white crowned sparrow

Converse, quenching thirst at a shallow well.

 

I am a woman who listens

 

Hummingbirds

dive and climb, wildly whirring wings

speak to a multitude of avian presences.

Fierce and vulnerable in the extreme,

humming and buzzing they call my name.

 

I am a woman who listens…

 

A long guttural trill breaks the silence.

He sounds like a tree frog!

Is he singing a song for his lady,

under sun warmed stones?

A desert oasis is a holy place,

for a woman who listens.

 

Working notes:

Yesterday, the sun was fierce and the air thick with smoke that didn’t clear until twilight. I ached for burning trees. It was so hot that I went for a dip in the river. And then after dark I heard him singing from the little pond. I don’t know what kind of frog sounds that long guttural trill but just knowing that he was out there singing allowed me to sleep.

Spring Rain

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For the last couple of days we have had cloudy weather with a few irregular cloudbursts bringing much needed rain to our Juniper clustered high desert…When it rains earth tones deepen and the stones that line my paths standout like people. Perhaps they are Kachinas, after all.

Katchinas are on my mind because these holy people come down from the mountains to help the Tewa invoke the rain – gods that will help the crops grow. Squash, corn, and beans remind me that the Three Sister’s technology lives on. The Katchinas have been around since the winter solstice but they stay hidden until the spring dances begin…

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Acequia (above)

Some fields are already plowed and the acequias are brimming with rapidly flowing water. Every morning I awaken to the sound of my dove Lily B’s cooing and as soon as I step out the door I am serenaded by the song of flocks of red winged blackbirds and the rasping sound of cactus wrens. The cacophony is so intense that it drowns out the mating songs of the white crowned sparrows, finches, chickadees, nuthatches, canyon and spotted towhees, white winged and collared doves. But the magpie announces himself in a startling way, not just by his stark black and white coat, a dress with tails, but also by his sharp staccato call. It seems as if the birds take over the earth as the seed moon and spring equinox pass by in March. Last night’s crescent moon sliced through a midnight blue night sky.

I am obsessed with frogs because at this time of year the wood frogs are already croaking if winter in the northeast has been mild. This one has not. Last year I arrived in the desert too late to listen to the frogs that only appear during the first monsoon flooding of early summer. Frogs and water are intimately related, and all frogs and toads begin their lives in still pools, as eggs that hatch with the heat of the rising sun star. May the frogs live on!

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Red Willow river overflows her banks, whitecaps whirl in spirals as she rushes by in the morning mist. This river brings precious moisture to germinating seeds who will soon be emerging from winters’ sleep.

I am preparing Datura seeds for planting, imagining the lavender tipped trumpet shaped flowers, glowing pearl white at twilight while thanking the sky with their scent. Every drop of water that falls from the sky is a prayer for life.

Below: Sunset

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I weave bits of big sage into my braids so the perfume wafts into my nose, even as I breathe in the sweet scent of spring. I am filled with gratitude to be living in a place where the songs of birds, the planting of seeds, a warming sun, and the greening of sage and desert scrub fit together like a mosaic whose pieces complement one another with such perfection. Nature is the artist whose cycles of creation never cease to amaze me. Filled with wonder I give thanks for life.

Postscript: When I finished this post I went for a walk along the river and on a bench sat two stones that weren’t there before. I think the Katchinas must approve of this prose because they left me evidence of their presence!

Eagle Day

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It was zero on my outdoor thermometer when I took the dogs for their early morning walk under a brilliant January sun, grateful that today there would be no wind because Bruce and I were going to spend at least two hours outdoors on a look out point spying for eagles.

The drive to Abiquiu lake was stunning. All the hills were covered with a fine coating of snow that seemed to etch and pull each rounded peak forward, highlighting the layers upon layers of mountains that lay behind one another – creating an undulating earth tapestry. Here and there patches of red were visible. As always the colors of the stone cliffs that lined the highway on one side captured my attention. Bruised purple, lavender, pink, ochre, buff and red rock provided a continuous visual feast for hungry eyes.

Below: red hills and mountains from look out

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Many people turned out for this bird watching/counting event, and a brief power point presentation inside the Core of Engineers’ office discussed some of the reasons for this event. I recalled that southern bald eagles were smaller than those in the northeast, but neglected to ask what the differences amounted to in weight. I learned that no one knows why there are so few bald eagles in New Mexico. I puzzled over this conundrum because there are many areas of open water and the Rio Grande flows through the state. I was discouraged to hear that eagles were still being shot in this state and that lead poisoning was still the second cause of death for these majestic predators. We were also told that eagles were quite “lazy” a word I wouldn’t use to describe eagle behavior because I know from personal experience that these birds are opportunistic choosing to steal fish or game that has been caught by others if they have the chance, in order to conserve precious energy, but who also hunt extensively on their own. I think this flexible attitude of theirs speaks to eagle intelligence. To cite another example – it is well known that Corvids like crows and ravens all use the same techniques for hunting if they can get away with it. These birds also use tools and have been studied extensively for intelligence (see Biologist Bernrd Heinrich’s work).

Before the group dispersed – some went on two boats and the rest of us were directed to look out points on land – we got a chance to meet Maxwell, a captive adult male eagle who could not be returned to the wild because of a wing injury. I have spent a lot of time in my kayak watching the eagles on North Pond (in Maine) raise their young, but I had never been this close to a live eagle before. Poor Maxwell seemed very nervous, and who could blame him? We were all enthralled, and busy snapping too many pictures for his comfort. A couple of times he tried to fly up and away. His great talons looked deadly and I was surprised to learn that he could only carry two pounds of prey. I knew for a fact that northern eagles made away with unsuspecting cats and adult loons who often weighed much more than two pounds! I had personally witnessed an adult cat capture on a neighbor’s field in Maine, a few years ago.

Maxwell’s sharp curved beak was huge (and larger than that of the golden eagle whose territory overlapped that of the bald eagles in this area) but it was his ice blue eyes that bored holes through me when I looked into them. The other thing that struck me forcibly was the sight of his pure white tail feathers, which fanned out both times Maxwell tried to escape. The feathers were Sangre de Christo mountain white, the color of newly fallen snow. Almost blue.

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Dispersing to the look out point that Bruce had chosen I felt excited by the prospect of sighting eagles soaring in the air. When we reached the top of the knoll (almost) about ten or fifteen of us we all began to scan the horizon. We were in radio contact with all the other folks and it wasn’t long before the first eagle was spotted. I found it difficult to find this particular bird that was perched on what seemed like a very low snag. He looked small in the distance. We had seen a couple more eagles when someone spotted a female mule deer running down below us. I was thrilled. I have lived here since last August, and although I have seen tracks, I have yet to spot a mule deer in the flesh. I had forgotten how mule deer bound – almost bounce along – because it has been 20 years since I last saw one in Arizona.

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Above Abiquiu lake from our look out point

To my utter amazement, a few moments later we glimpsed a male mule deer, with a full set of antlers, enter the water just below us and begin to swim. I was dumbfounded! The Park Ranger remarked that he was trying to get away from us and I concurred. People hunt both deer and elk and because of that they both have learned to fear humans. (I just hoped that men hunted them primarily for food, as the Tewa do). Watching the buck through binoculars, I was riveted by the sight of this majestic animal almost completely submerged except for his rack of antlers. I tried to count the number of points but he was swimming across the lake to the other side, and my eyes simply couldn’t keep focusing long enough to see. But it really didn’t matter. The sense of wonder I experienced was overpowering. I have lived around white tailed deer in the north most of my life and feed about 30 during the winter but I have NEVER seen a deer swimming across a lake before! When the buck reached the other side he seemed uncertain as to where he was going next. By this time my binoculars felt too heavy and I stopped watching him, just grateful to have been part of this astonishing experience.

What a day full of adventures! All in all 12 eagles were counted and this seemed like a respectable number to me. When Bruce and I drove home we saw two more of these birds sitting in a cottonwood down by the river.

Later, reflecting on the experience as a whole, I was struck by the sense of balance inherent in the sighting of the eagle, a magnificent predator of the sky, and the male buck with his beautiful rack of antlers. It seemed to me that both sky and earth had conspired to gift us with the sight of two animals, both of which are held in great esteem by Indigenous peoples and by others of us who are not.

Close up shots of Maxwell taken by Bruce Nelson

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The Three Rabbits

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When I first came to the high desert I fell in love with the western desert cottontail rabbits that appeared at dawn and dusk as well as at odd times during the day to feast upon the sunflower seed I scattered for them on the ground. At first these animals were very shy, disappearing into the nearest bush the moment I spoke to one, even from inside the house. Soon however their behavior began to shift. Instead of hopping away they began to make eye contact with me through the windows, their beautiful brown eyes shining like marbles, their ears and whiskers twitching as they nibbled the seed while keeping one sharp eye on me! When I met one in the yard, I surprised him/her by calling out “hi bunny” as I walked my dogs. They would freeze when I spoke and fasten their glistening doe-like eyes on me in what seemed like curiosity. It occurred to me then that they weren’t used to humans talking to them. I began earnest conversations with these rabbits whenever I met one letting them know that I wanted nothing more than to be a good friend… By early fall they allowed me to get within a couple of feet of them. I longed to touch the silky gray fur of just one rabbit…

One day I was walking around outside looking for lizards to photograph and decided to sit on the ground. The snakeweed was in bloom and although the seriously disturbed earth around the house was bare, the bright yellow clumps thrived in the surrounding hills. It was hot in the late September sun, but I was stalking lizards and had no intention of allowing heat to get in my way. Finding a bare spot I sat down to wait.

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My breathing slowed as I slipped into a light trance… A cottontail approached me; I kept still, breathing deeply. The rabbit stopped just in front of me its whiskers twitching. Now I was on high alert having snapped out of the relaxed state I had been in. Ever so slowly I reached out to touch the soft fur coat, and the rabbit didn’t move when I gently ran my hand over its back. Amazed and joyful I repeated this gesture three times. When the rabbit hopped away his/her tail bobbing, I stopped holding my breath and relived the experience still feeling the silky fur…Did this really happen? My rational mind was on overload even as my body relaxed again. Of course it did, my body responded feeling thick fur. “Of course it did!” I heard myself replying in response to my own query. This rabbit had responded to my longing telepathically by coming and allowing itself to be stroked. Immense gratitude flooded me. Our relationship had become reciprocal.

This incident marked a dramatic shift in the cottontails’ behavior. Now whenever I was outside alone rabbits appeared like magic. I also discovered that although many rabbits and hares visited me that there were three that lived right here by the house. I could tell them apart by their size, one was so much smaller than the other two who looked like twins. I also identified the difference between the twins by the way they twitched their whiskers, by the subtle differences in the gray brown of their coats, the way each held its ears, even the shapes of their cottony tails were different.  I don’t know if they are related but all three are great friends. I am guessing that they are all female rabbits since they are sharing the same territory (males need a much larger space). The three spend a lot of time chasing each other in what seems to be some sort of game. They reverse directions without warning, and the chased becomes the chaser! They also leap up into the air without apparent reason  their long back legs propelling them skywards with ease. And sometimes they nuzzle each others noses.

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Now that winter is almost upon us, my three rabbits spend their days hiding out under the boughs of one particular juniper tree, the one by my back door. Even when it’s frigid they come out for a brief visit while I am bringing wood into the house. I watch them nibbling the ripe berries and licking the ice from the copper water pan that I refill each morning for the birds. Two of them have almost demolished the two prickly pear cactus plants that are close to the house. Even though I watch them eat through binoculars I can’t see how they manage to rid the pads of their sharp thorns before taking their first bite. I know from previous experience that rabbit incisors do make a clean cut. I leave spinach leaves on the ground for them, and the occasional carrot. But it’s the sunflower seeds they love the most, probably because the latter are high in both protein and fat.

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I have become so attached to my little cottontails that I am already imagining how much I will miss these particular rabbits when I leave. They have become members of my family, the only difference being that they live outside while Lily B, my dove, my two Chihuahuas and I live indoors. Every evening we repeat the same ritual with me standing at the window, the dogs in their chair and Lily B peering down from his high swinging perch. We all watch the rabbits and scaled quail devouring their seed just after the sun has slipped below the horizon. The littlest rabbit is usually the last one to leave just as darkness spreads her cloak of cracked stars over the high desert scrub and sand.

If I am correct in my assessment that these rabbits are all females, I expect I might have little ones in the spring, since they mate quite early and have about 2- 6 young, born naked and blind. The literature says that few make it to adulthood, so nature compensates for these losses by allowing the rabbits to have many litters a year helping keeping the population relatively stable.

There is a wonderful story about the goddess of spring riding in a chariot led by six rabbits holding lighted candles. Both the goddess Eostre and her familiars, the rabbits, celebrate the new dawn, renewal and fertility returning to the Earth after a long winter’s sleep…During these dark and sometimes frigid days of winter I am reminded that each season has its blessings and that with the winter solstice approaching tomorrow (in the northern hemisphere) the sun will soon be climbing higher in the sky bringing warmth and longer days and before we know it, the wheel of the year will be turning again.

El Rito Creek

 

 

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Every day the dogs and I take our favorite walk on the same dirt road behind the house. To the North the stunning peaks of the Sierra Negra mountains cast deep shadows in December’s low light. We usually head East stopping to feed three donkeys, one llama, two alpacas and a horse all of whom are friends of ours.

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Climbing the steep spiked Juniper hills we pause at the gorge to see if the coyote is around. Peering down into the shadowy cracked – earth canyon is like entering another world. Coy – wolves also inhabit this general area, and once or twice I saw a mountain lion’s tracks in one of the sandy gullies.

Evidently the puma, who needs a lot of acreage for its territory, was just passing through, because the tracks stopped after a day or so… Mountain lions, I read in the petroglyph literature, are mostly associated with the old “warring” activities of the pueblo people of this area. It’s important to understand that these skirmishes between Indigenous tribes usually did not end in anyone’s death, although hostages were sometimes taken.

One of the fiercest petroglyphs I have ever seen was that of the Mountain Lion, whose habit of ambushing its prey, tearing it to shreds, and caching the remains probably taught the Indigenous people how to use stealth when raiding millennium ago. Petroglyphs in this area show the claws of this cat always extended and face is often drawn or pecked into the rock with bared teeth. A formidable predator, the Puma.

The road veers left and steep gravelly hills rise up on both sides of the road. To the Northeast an opening between the cliffs offers a sudden surprise as a low plain appears stretching out for miles. Gazing into the distance I take pleasure in noting the reddened stone that comprises the mesa on the other side of the valley. Beyond the valley to the east, the snow capped Rocky Mountains rise up dramatically. If we stop for a moment the gurgling sound of the El Rito creek becomes audible as it meanders through the valley eventually making its way to the Chama River. There are few houses in this area and I love the sound of silence that accompanies us on this walk. The dogs are alert scanning for scent.

Descending the hill we reach a small arroyo and cutting a sharp right we walk across an overgrazed wasteland almost devoid of vegetation in places to reach the sandy shores of the creek. My friend Beatrice from Abiquiu pueblo tells me that this creek carries water from the El Rito mountains downstream. Sometimes, during the winter the water freezes, and I have already seen evidence of this freezing and thawing because broken sheets of ice are heaved up against one another in some places.

When I let the dogs off their leashes they take off racing across the sand, jumping into the creek and lapping the water with great enthusiasm. I find a rock to sit on, enjoying the warmth of the sun and another view of “the reptiles” so named (by me) because these layers of ridge-back mountains rise up to the southeast like some mysterious prehistoric creature, blanketed by a deep blue firmament.

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I am a “water woman” by nature; I have never lived anywhere for any length of time that didn’t have moving water nearby. Here in the high desert this small creek has become an oasis for me – a place to reflect and dream. What I love the most about these early winter days is being able to sit on a stone in a warm sun in December, listening to the sound of water flowing while remembering keenly the sun’s absence at this time of year in Maine in conjunction with sub -zero temperatures!

The Hooligan

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When I first arrived in Abiquiu I began feeding the birds. After about a week I had canyon towhees who greeted me with enthusiasm in the morning, rose breasted house finches and pine siskins that dropped to the ground to eat the seed even as hawks soared overhead. Best of all I didn’t have even one squirrel!

Naively, I assumed that the high desert must be free of these pernicious pests. In the mornings I would happily scatter seed on the ground broadcasting to the neighborhood that food was abundant here under my homemade bird oasis. Desert cottontails and jack rabbits appeared from dawn to dusk and soon the scaled quail scurried to the spot peeping as they raced across the desert floor.

One day about a month after moving here I glimpsed what I earnestly hoped was not a very large squirrel peering at the birds from the roof of the Ramada. I picked up the binoculars to better identify the creature in question. This animal was definitely a squirrel – a big one. I groaned inwardly. I had been overrun with squirrels in Maine, and after attempting to live with them unsuccessfully for years had eventually caught and probably transported about 1500 red and gray squirrels to another world. The “reds” with their endless chittering were the worst. I didn’t want to repeat that process here in New Mexico.

In spite of my bias I had to admit that this large squirrel was actually quite beautiful with his thick mottled gray overcoat and long fluffy tail. Best of all he didn’t chatter incessantly. I watched him nibble some leaves off a nearby bush before jumping down to the ground and slyly making his run towards my oasis. I watched first with awe and then with dismay as the squirrel sucked down sunflower seed like an out of control hoover vacuum cleaner! Naturally, he scared all the birds away. I quickly opened the door to interrupt the gluttony noting his bulging cheeks as he streaked past me. I also knew that this gesture of mine was ultimately pointless because the squirrels in my life were never afraid of me.

Sighing, I acknowledged that another round of squirrel harassment was on the horizon.

With the adage “keep your enemies near” I turned to my desert guide-book for information on this squirrel’s identity and habits…

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Flipping through the photos I soon discovered that my intruder was a desert rock squirrel. When I read that he dug burrows in the ground or rocky crevices I went out and examined the strange hole that had opened up in the driveway just the day before – It was about three inches in diameter and when I fed it a small stone the stone disappeared down the hole without a sound! I wondered if this was the rock squirrel’s burrow… Sure enough, the very next morning as I scattered more seed I kept a sharp eye on the hole until a furry gray head with small round ears and a piercing stare appeared for a second before the squirrel popped out of the ground.

Resigned to the fact that this squirrel had moved in I decided to do some further research to answer the next most important question: did he co habit with many others of his kind? Implicit in this question was the fear that I might be overrun by giant squirrels!

I learned that the rock squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus) was the largest of three desert squirrels, the only one weighing up to 1.5 pounds. These rodents are found in most desert habitats and are true omnivores feeding on seeds, mesquite beans, insects, eggs, birds and cactus fruit! Some sources said they were territorial.

Most fascinating was the fact that the rock squirrel kills snakes. When encountering a snake, the squirrel will stamp his feet and wave his tail side to side while facing his enemy. The wily rodent also tries to flick sand in the snake’s face with his front paws. This behavior is called mobbing. Apparently rock squirrels can distinguish between venomous and non- venomous snakes and change their mobbing behavior accordingly. However, they are known to attack rattlesnakes, probably because they can partially neutralize snake venom. Rattlesnakes have heat – sensing organs that can detect a change in temperature as little as 0.01 F from one foot away. The squirrel takes advantage of this by pumping extra blood into its tail to make the tail warmer than it’s body fooling the snake into striking the tail rather than the torso. Wow, what an ingenious trickster.

In spite of my general antipathy towards squirrels I was impressed. Unfortunately the sources that I consulted were either vague or contradictory on the issue of whether these animals were solitary or gregarious. Some articles said they lived in groups, others stated that the animals were solitary. Had I gotten lucky? I did note that my furry friend seemed to be working alone and that he never made a sound. Come spring and mating season all that might change. I decided that for now, at least, I could cope with one silent intruder. I named him the “Hooligan” to remind me that, for me anyway, he was still considered an interloper even though I ruefully acknowledged that on the whole squirrels had every right to be living here because the desert was their home.

One day after watching the Hooligan make a run for the seed from his burrow entrance (there are always hawks circling around in the air) I had the brilliant idea of covering up his hole in the driveway with a flat rock to see what he might do. The next morning I watched the rock begin to move by itself as I spread seed on the ground! In seconds I watched the Hooligan push the rock completely out of his way with his shoulder and front paws, as he popped out of his hole. Maybe I should have named him Houdini? Later that afternoon I chose a large heavier red rock and put that over the entrance of his tunnel to see what he would do next. The following morning the Hooligan stared at me from the top of the Ramada’s chimney with steely black eyes. Clearly he had other entrances to his burrow besides the one he liked to pop out of in the driveway (presumably because that entrance was closest to the seed). He never uttered a sound, but the sense I had was that this latest rock trick of mine had backfired, and the Hooligan was upset with me. Chagrined, I moved the big rock away as he disappeared down the chimney only to reappear in seconds from the hole in the driveway. I apologized to him as he ran towards the oasis for his breakfast. Clearly, he was caching extra seed for the winter because he didn’t leave until his cheeks were bulging.

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I hate to admit it but I have come to enjoy the Hooligan’s presence and would miss him if he left! I like living in harmony with an animal I once abhorred. Keen observation has taught me his habits. I have learned to put out enough seed in the morning while he watches me from his chimney or from his closest burrow entrance so that he gets breakfast before he vacates the premises. Where does he go in between morning and late afternoon meals, I am always wondering? After he leaves I feed the rest of the birds who then have a chance to eat in peace. Late in the afternoons, I repeat the same process; the Hooligan gets his meal and leaves. Then I scatter seed around for the other birds. My little Chihuahuas alert me to the Hooligan’s presence if I am otherwise occupied, so together we have system that works well for all of us. What pleases me the most is that we are all sharing the same space in peace.

Harvest Moon

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At dawn this morning I beheld you in the sky –

a perfect pale round.

Last night your blue light guided me home.

The deep desert silence was

broken only by coyotes

singing just for you.

At midnight the Great Horned owl whoos,

narrating Her story.

The harvest is upon us;

The sun slips low on the horizon and shadows deepen.

(Oh, the gift of changing Light)

A multitude of seeds are scattered by west winds…

Give thanks for this abundance!

Grandmothers, you

bring dreams on your wings,

and hope for hungry hearts.

The dove will sing again.

Gratitude flows through me like the Chama

winding her way to the sea.

I pause this morning to hear Earth’s symphony.

8/17/16

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Reflections:

All month I have been living in the kind of chaos that disturbs the natural cycles that guide me through my life. Only during the last few days have I finally had some relief, and I have had deadlines to meet that have taken precedence over everything including the waxing of the second full harvest moon. But I have been participating in “the gathering in” just the same making trip after trip into the desert to gather sweet sage, pinion nuts, sticky pitch laden pine cones – to feast my eyes on the abundance of wildflowers that spring out of desert sand. I am saying good bye to the hummingbirds, wishing them well on their arduous journey. I watch with deep pleasure the covey of quail that come in for seed. I keep a sharp eye out for the baby rabbits, and each night look forward to that time -in the crack between worlds – when the sky catches fire and the light shifts every nanosecond. I am so much in love with the desert sky. As soon as the sun slips over the horizon Venus has begun her climb and will soon rise over the horizon to join Arcturus already positioned higher in the western sky. This month I give thanks for Lily’s life, for neighbors whose kindness fills me to the brim with thanksgiving and joy, and for being in a desert that has made me feel so at home…