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…

Abiquiu 2

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I’m beginning this writing after just seeing the first roadrunner hop up on the bird-bath to perch in the tangle of cholla branches that were sticking up all around him. I had to laugh as I watched him fly down as soon as he had a sip of water. He zipped along the ground to the road, and raced down it for a bit before veering off and disappearing into startling clumps of snakeweed bushes.

These plants cover the ground in my front yard and are festooned with millions of diminutive buttery yellow flowers, which have been in bloom all month. I love them. After it rains the branches of the bushes turn lime green as a diaphanous veil settles over the desert. Only the return of the sun can dim the vision. Snakeweed, is used by some Indigenous peoples to treat snakebite, bee stings, headaches, colds and fever.

I love the way my house opens onto the desert floor beyond a few rows of soft pink and sand colored flagstones. There is no separation between the house which sits against the hillside leaning into it from behind and the high desert with it’s reptilian ridged mountains to the southeast that are often partially hidden by clouds, especially in the early morning. A series of little red hills stretch up behind me to the west. I have become part of a whole new ecosystem here and the desert has made me feel at home.

This morning I almost stepped on a red coachwhip snake – the first of his kind that I have seen since I arrived here a month ago today. My guess is that he’s been here all along but has never made his presence known. I glimpsed the long sinewy rust colored body for a few seconds before he slid under the mounds of fragrant Datura or Jimsonweed, whose pointed leaves drape gracefully on the ground. I feel as if I am slowly being accepted by the creatures who live here because more and more of them are allowing themselves to be seen.

Lightening, my sagebrush lizard, greets me each morning as I go out to water the little rocky mountain juniper in front of the house. A few days ago I noted that part of her tail was missing. She had a close call with some hungry predator and I am glad she survived because I would miss her daily visits (sadly, within the next month, she will be going into hibernation). I always converse with her and she watches me with what appears to be some sort of fascination, perhaps because, as far as I know, most folks don’t talk to lizards.

The rocky mountain juniper in front of the house is thriving and has added about two inches of prickly sage colored scales (leaves belonging to an evergreen) to her height and girth from being watered and cared for by Nature and by me. Junipers can live for a few thousand years in the desert because they are not disturbed by logging. As they age some trunks become gnarled and gray often twisting themselves into impossible shapes. Others become dense and bush –like, but all are trees.

Birds love junipers, nesting in their interiors, eating their berry –like seeds, and seeking protection from predators inside their tangled boughs. As a northerner who has lived with the slaughtering of progressively younger and younger trees for 50 years – in Maine a 20 year old tree is now considered to be an adult – I am delighted that this little tree has the potential to live out her natural life –span. I like the idea of being in her life at the very beginning like some kind of tree grandmother. Perhaps the juniper will remember being loved by a human when she was young. A few birds are starting to perch in her uppermost branches, yet this little tree is barely two feet high! As a species, Junipers have my deepest admiration and respect because they can withstand the harshest conditions and still survive. I am dismayed that so few people seem to think they are special. I remember my mother bringing me a small juniper when I was about 40 without explanation. My mother and I didn’t have the kind of relationship that allowed for questioning her intentions, but I had a peculiar sense that she was passing on something important to me…

There is a sculptured circular stone bird – bath in front of the juniper that I began to work on when I arrived to make it more bird friendly. First I inserted a copper bowl in the depression. Next I added cholla branches and driftwood that I collected on my walks to make perches for thirsty birds. Finally I threw seed around the base of this structure and was amazed at the sheer numbers of birds, rabbits, and hares that arrived to eat and drink. The scaled quail run across the desert floor peeping and chipping in their haste to arrive at what has become a miniature desert oasis. The newest arrivals are the roadrunner, and recently, the white breasted nuthatch and Swainsons thrush. In between, I have seen many finches (House and Cassin), pine siskins, a beautiful black throated sparrow, a black phoebe, a sharp shinned hawk, a red tailed hawk, a gorgeous golden headed bird as yet unnamed and three collared doves. The canyon towhee family comes by every morning. They complain about eating with such a crowd so I give them food in the earth house on a little stone table, a structure so named because it is attached to the house on the east side but is situated half underground (It is remarkably cool out there). I was delighted to see the Eurasian collared doves arrive because Lily B. my twenty three year old collared dove has his cage outside where he can watch all the activity. Early in the morning he sings to the other birds as they appear and some perch on the top of his cage. Lily B is a boy but when I got him I didn’t know that. By the time I did it was simply too late to change his name. I added the “B” to remind me of his gender.

A few days after we arrived Lily B had a Cooper’s hawk land on the plywood covered cage one morning. The hawk attempted to bow his head to peer in at Lily who was perched just below the plywood cover without success… at dusk a few nights later another predator arrived in the form of the great horned owl. S/he sat on top of the plywood and turned her head around almost 360 degrees surveying just what, I am not sure, before flying silently to the ground. (I have never witnessed this 360 degree turning behavior in an owl before although I have read about it). I thought my bird would be unnerved by all this unwanted attention from these aerial predators; yet he continued to coo quite contentedly each day so I was not unduly concerned.

At dawn one day last week I approached his cage in shock because feathers were strewn everywhere on the ground and in his cage. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Something had brutally attacked Lily B during the night clawing his neck open. A great gaping wound about three inches long was caked with dried blood and matted feathers making it impossible for me to examine him properly when I removed him from the cage. My poor bird was numb, seemingly in shock. Immediately, I brought him indoors, and soon after, with the help of a neighbor, I had the cage situated in a window. The bars of his cage are so narrow – less than a ¼ of an inch – that it is impossible to offer a plausible explanation for this attack unless something crawled in from below. Most mornings Lily B coos and sings his heart out. His terrible claw-like wound and equally terrible silence turned this morning into a nightmare. Not only was Lily in tremendous pain, but there was nothing I could do to remedy the situation because it was Labor day. No veterinarians were open anywhere.

The pain he was experiencing was palpable. He couldn’t turn his head. I stood vigil for hours, numb with horror, feeling the life force draining out of him, yet he survived the night. Early the next morning my unbelievably kind neighbor finally found a vet in Santa Fe who would treat birds. After a brief exam later that afternoon the vet said she would have to give him pain medication, antibiotics, sedate him and try to stitch up the wound the following morning. If he made it, we could pick him up the next day. I was in a daze. I did not believe he would survive more trauma but he did. When Lily B was brought out to me the next afternoon I winced; his entire neck was stitched up and he still couldn’t move his head. I was given antibiotics, liquid food, pain medication and we drove home. That night I stayed up with him. The next morning he was still in so much pain that he refused all food, but then ever so slowly something shifted and Lily began to improve. It has been a week since this tragedy struck and lily B is finally gobbling down his Havarti cheese with gusto, eating his chopped egg, and pecking away at his seed. Although he will have to stay in a cage for the next two weeks and he will carry a deep scar for the remainder of his life, he is taking great interest in the birds outside his window. He is still unable to groom himself and his feathers are in tatters all over his body. He is so fussy about preening – normally keeping his feathers immaculately clean that it must be very hard for him not to be able to groom himself. I note that he’s also becoming restless which I hope is a good sign. Normally he flies free in the house and he dislikes being caged except outdoors. My 23 year old bird has exhibited an extraordinary will to live. Most collared doves have a life span of 10 to 12 years. I am guardedly hopeful that he will once again be able to fly, bathe, and groom himself. I will be forever indebted to my generous hearted neighbor for her help.

This terrifying experience with Lily has left me walking on air. This desert moves me so and the people are kind, but from the day I arrived I have had problems with this house. The interior was filthy. A dirty oven and a fireplace filled with creosote, screens with holes in them, a broken video, loss of hot water, diminishing water pressure, a gas leak which has left me without a stove to cook on, windows and doors that were broken and won’t lock, barking dogs that awaken me almost every night are some of the issues I continue to face. I came to Abiquiu to write and have been unable to begin my project with all the confusion swirling around me. Consequently, I am slipping into a depressed state. It is only when I am engaged with the desert that I feel peace, and the sense of “home.”

I am doing my best to stay afloat in all this chaos and unsure of what the future holds. I am puzzled by the extremes I am encountering. I have to face the fact that I may have made a mistake coming here.

The most effective remedy for my sleep deprivation and exhaustion has been to get out and walk in the desert….

On our morning walks miniature striped Chihuahuan whiptail lizards with bright green tails flash by disappearing in seconds in the nearest vegetation. Desert cottontails and black tailed jackrabbits astonish me with their sudden appearances, especially when they freeze so that I can pick out individual differences. One morning I watched two cottontails chase each other around the wash that stretched out in front of us. Two baby cottontails visit the bird place every night.

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Wildflowers are amazingly abundant especially in the washes. The birdcage primroses are pure white, tinted with delicate pink petals, wild flax wash the landscape in pale sky blue. Sunflowers spring up almost anywhere. The magenta and pearl white blossoms of cleomes are buzzing with bees. Purple and yellow aster bouquets spring out of dry sand. Tiny pincushion clusters of deep purple blossoms surprise me each time I stumble on one. My favorite wildflower is a tiny periwinkle blue flower with five petals and a bright yellow center that I also can’t identify. I never before associated an abundance of wildflowers with the desert in late summer or fall until I came to Abiquiu.

Last week I accidently injured a six – inch juniper that I dug up. It was growing under a nurse tree leaning towards the sun it couldn’t reach. My intention was to give this small juniper a more tree friendly home – young junipers are shade intolerant – but I broke off its taproot while digging it up. I left it sitting in a glass of water and potted it up yesterday. I hope that it lives.

Feeling distressed and responsible for what I had done to this young tree I went for a walk in one of the washes. Suddenly I began to see the differences between each juniper. Previously I had been researching junipers trying to identify them by name and had become very frustrated because I hadn’t been able to discern the different kinds. When I started to perceive the junipers as individuals it was as if as curtain had lifted before my eyes. I understood then that the desert was trying to teach me to be patient and allow the trees to speak for themselves in their own way, in their own time.

How many times did I have to re- learn this lesson I wondered. Nature dislikes naming because classifying does not facilitate relationship between person and tree. In fact it separates and distances us, allowing us to objectify whatever we see. What I needed to do was to slow down and let Nature take the lead.

Yesterday in one of the washes I discovered that the pinon pine was dropping her cones and the desert floor was covered with seeds. I knew that these trees produce nuts on an irregular basis every few years, so I felt blessed to be witnessing this particular dispersal. I picked up some seeds and brought a whole clump of sweet scented cones home and placed them in a basket to remind me that the season is turning…

All the grasses are seeding up, some looking like wispy tufts, and some wildflowers have already gone to seed. The Datura trumpets are producing dusky spiny pods that pop when they open. I am gathering seeds of all kinds to cast on the bare ground around this house in the hopes of repairing the earth damage, and to give to my neighbor for her new home knowing that I am participating in an ancient ritual, because as most archeologists will attest to, Indigenous women have been gathering seeds for millennium. Women invented agriculture with their seed gathering; their handprints are imprinted on the ancient clay vessels they created to carry water and to store seeds and they wove clothing from wild plants and animal skins and fur – All this occurred thousands of years ago and stretches back to the Paleolithic era.

At the Indian market fresh produce is at its peak with luscious tomatoes, pears and peaches, green chilies and buffalo meat all sold at reasonable prices from the Indigenous peoples that grow their produce without pesticides.

Soon the 2nd Harvest moon will be upon us. Waxing full on September 16 the moon precedes the Fall Equinox only by a few days. For a moment the earth will pause, and day and night will be equal in length and then the days will grow shorter. Surely this is a time to be thankful for the abundance the earth has provided.

There is a traditional Navajo expression in this area that states:

“There is nothing the human hand has made. The lake is our church. The mountain is our tabernacle. The evergreen trees are our living saints. We pray to the water, the sun, the clouds, the sky, the deer. Without them we could not exist. They give us food, drink, physical power and knowledge.”

IMG_2631.JPGThis kind of heart centered embodied thinking allows me to become part of all there is. Growing up I knew nothing of my Native heritage and yet, it was to Nature that I turned for solace. It was engaging with Nature that brought me joy. When I discovered my Native roots I wondered if it was this part of my psyche and body that had been leading me “home” all along. Perhaps home for me is anywhere where wilderness still thrives?

Little Red Hills

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Little red hills startle a serpentine mountain,

burnish gold in twilight.

Ancient junipers grow crooked –

cry out to wind and rain to shape them.

Baby whip-tails streak over red skinned

dirt at high noon.

Silvery sages call to me through scent at dusk –

“pick a twig and let me heal you.”

 

Five petaled periwinkle flowers

have leaves like bristles,

birth stars under pinion pines.

Diminutive pin-cushions sprout

pink and magenta blossoms in dry washes,

(invisible to all but the discerning eye).

 

Cottontails feast on delicate gray green twigs;

Black tailed hares leap skywards over a waning moon.

The desert is alive with wonder –

Double rainbows arc from horizon to horizon

showering this patch of cracked earth with blessings,

Gifting Her with Rain.

 

8/29/16

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Postscript:

 

Living in the desert makes change seem irrelevant. Clouds cast shadows from mountain to mountain shifting the sky every second. Thundergods rumble fiercely in the distance. Nothing stays the same here – the light determines what I see or what I don’t as the star at the center of our solar system illuminates or blinds me during the daylight hours. Arcturus rises in the western sky at twilight bringing down a curtain of black velvet over a sky of red coals. In the early morning the Great Bear enters her cave in the west under earth made of sand and red dirt. The silence of the red hills and dry washes rings a bell in my heart.

Kinship and the Powers of Place

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What do I mean by the word kinship? I believe that kinship is the idea, and the belief that all aspects of nature from photons to galaxies are connected to one another. Practically, I think of kinship as my feeling/sense of being intimately linked to place/landscape. In my mind Kinship and Place are not only related, each is shaped by the other.

The powers of place are invisible threads that work by exerting a kind of physical and psychic pressure, pulling me into relationship; place acts like an attractor site. My body behaves like a lightening rod or perhaps a tuning fork picking up information from the landscape. Once I have heard the “call” the door opens through my relationship with elements, trees, animals, stars or stones to name a few possibilities. As this presence manifests through its individuals place begins to teach me what I need to know about an area and how I might best live in harmony with a particular landscape, if not its people. This learning occurs in bursts or very slowly just below the threshold of everyday consciousness. Either way, information seeps in through my body as I listen and pay close attention to what my senses are telling me. I allow animals, trees, plants to speak to me in their native language, and I note synchronistic occurrences. Information also comes to me through dreams. Eventually a discernable pattern emerges. My body acts as the bridge between my self and Nature; my body is the vehicle that keeps me connected to the whole.

Ironically, I never heard the phrase “power of place” used until the 90’s. Yet, this force has driven my entire life spanning almost seventy – one years. As a toddler I was already “reading” and absorbing landscapes through rain, flowers, the presence of deer, stars, dogs, the moon. This first intimate relationship with place occurred on my grandparents’ pre -revolutionary farm with its attendant fields, brook, and forest. During the day my little brother and I spent hours in the woods playing by the brook, watching birds, catching frogs and salamanders. At night we learned the names of the stars and caught fireflies which we kept overnight in jars… My grandmother often awakened me to watch the deer grazing under her golden apple tree. I also have a sharp memory of my mother and I gazing out my bedroom window at the full moon. When clouds scudded by shrouding the moon I apparently remarked, “the moon has gone under her covers.”

As an adolescent power of place fatally snagged me with Monhegan Island, an artist’s paradise located off the coast of Maine with it’s beautiful cliffs and raging seas; I moved there after college, married a fisherman, and my two sons were born during those years (I use the word “fatally” deliberately because accompanying the call is a sense of being pulled into the “right” place for unknown reasons. To live one’s Fate is another way to express this calling).

On Southport, another island, 300 year – old apple trees cried out to me, and a diminutive 1700’s cape style house embraced my children and me after my divorce.

After the children were grown I heard the sound of “wilderness” keening and I moved to the western mountains of Maine seeking the source of that call, the one I called the Mountain Mother. I did not understand then that I was being called to witness the desecration of the earth from ‘my land’ and then to become Nature’s advocate. I was called to this patch of earth to begin my most important life’s – work: to write honestly about my experiences in nature with the hope that I might be able to sensitize others to the destruction of the earth through stories about individuals and my relationship with them. When I first arrived here this mother swept me off my feet! She flowed through me like a great underground river, rooting me to this particular ground with a love so powerful I had no words to express what I felt. When she continued to communicate with me I experienced ecstasy, and later during longer and longer silences I felt profound overwhelming grief.

My initial experience with place follows a certain pattern: first I feel joy and wonder, followed by a visceral feeling of belonging, the best kind of natural high. After a time the joyful aspect continues intermittently, as I become more deeply enmeshed in a landscape through relationships with its particular features and creatures as I have with this brook, forest and field, the birds and animals that live here with me… Experiencing joy also opens me to sorrow (For example, moving to the mountains of western Maine brought the mindless destruction of trees to the center of my attention). To love is to experience loss of the beloved; the two are intimately related.

In recent years although I continue to write, joy has absented herself from my relationship with this land… There are many reasons I could give and all involve change. The massive tree destruction, noise, gunning, chaotic neighbors etc. are concrete examples of negative changes that have profoundly impacted me. I still experience deep pleasure in particulars like the unfurling leaves of ferns, the first mayflowers, my love of birds, the few bears that continue to visit now and then, my wild gardens on fire with bee balm, delft blue delphinium, and fragrant yellow lilies, the changing seasons but I feel a deep penetrating sadness overall, though I retain a deep love for the land as a whole and my small log cabin. I believe the powers of this place understand that for whatever reason I am in crisis, (I turned 70 last September) and that I need to leave at least for a time in order to regain my perspective. As I continue to converse with the land that I love I feel that She is giving me permission to let go for now.

Running parallel with all these feelings is the powerful sense that I need to return to the desert. I first visited this timeless world in my early twenties just after I lost my only brother. That first time the desert was unable to penetrate the haze of this young woman’s grief. It wasn’t until mid-life after another series of losses that returning to the desert helped me re-capture my lost soul. How this happened remains a mystery to me but it has everything to do with the powers of place. The desert has a healing aspect to it that is unlike any other. What I did after my divorce was to surrender myself to the Desert Mother while asking one question: What am I going to do with the rest of my life? After six months in the Sonoran desert, I returned east feeling whole, having recaptured my joy, and ready to return to college. That was 20 years ago and in retrospect I see that the choice to return to school was a sound one because it helped shape my teaching and writing life and it gave me my first experience with a community of like-minded people.

During the last year, a year of deep depression and loneliness I began dreaming about the desert again. I struggled to give myself the permission to allow myself to make another pilgrimage to the desert for healing – to re –dress the imbalances in my life, and to re-capture my joy. Although I couldn’t afford it I made a decision to go to New Mexico to visit a desert that I have never seen before. I chose Abiquiu, a small mountain village in the high desert because the artist Georgia O’ Keeffe lived there during the latter part of her life and painted some of her most astonishing desert paintings in this amazing world of wide open blue sky, stars, and stone. Although I never met her, Georgia has been a mentor to me, a beacon of hope, because I believe that she experienced Nature in much the same the way as I do, and she allowed the powers of place to influence her decision making too. I admired O’Keeffe’s tenacity and refusal to live her life according to other people’s expectations. She lived an authentic, self -directed life.

As some of us know, while making a pilgrimage, time stretches out like a rubber band, and once the threshold has been crossed one is catapulted into sacred space where the present becomes all there is. That first morning in Abiquiu I awakened at dawn and ran out into the surrounding desert in my nightgown possessed by joy! The dusty gray sage laden hills were round, peppered with sea green spiked pinion pine, fragrant Juniper and mountain cedar. These beautiful small trees provided a stunning contrast in shape and color to the dusty red Earth.

On the peak of a nearby hill I was drawn to a solitary Grandmother Cedar, an ancient gnarled tree whose thick, rough, and wavy gray bark had been shaped by harsh winds and summer rains. Her lace-like fronds were few. Most branches lay dead, strewn around her trunk like bleached bones providing her with nutrients that might be helping her to keep on living long past her time. Startled by her probable age and tenacity, I picked up one of the dead twigs; I saw the shape of the whole tree mirrored in that one branch, just as the sparse but fan -like evergreen “leaves” that still lived reflected the same fractal patterning. I could sense a presence around and within the tree’s ashen body as she bled into me; I was reminded that if she could live on so could I as I entered old age. Did I imagine a new sense of self emerging from out of the rubble?

When I returned to the adobe house I was renting I was stunned to encounter a wild African collared ring necked dove sitting on a branch of a nearby snag. I am very familiar with these doves because I have one. Lily B has been with me for 23 years. Hundreds of these birds (who are imported because they are such good egg sitting parents for exotic species) have been released into the wild after they are no longer useful as egg sitters. With a shock I realized that some apparently survive here in Northern New Mexico where temperatures drop well below freezing during the relatively brief winters. I called out to this ring necked dove as I approached him warily, not wanting him to fly away. He cocked his head in what appeared to be curiosity but he didn’t respond to my voice with a song. I was disappointed. Perhaps this dove was a female; females adopt a shorter version of the male’s song but only respond to the voice of their mates. I experienced the appearance of this wild ring neck dove as a powerful link with my home in the mountains of Maine.

My first trip into Abiquiu village was bewildering because it seemed as if the winding road was one sinuous red serpent snaking its way down through the peppered hills. The clear untroubled Chama River flowed beneath a bridge in front of me as I made my descent to the place where earth met concrete. The cottonwoods were sprouting lime and chartreuse and mountain blue birds and three kinds of doves were singing to each other and perhaps to the sound of the river.

Once across the bridge I visited the Inn and church compound where Georgia O’Keeffe eventually bought and managed her second house, a once abandoned hacienda. Here too I experienced another rush of pure joy. My love of O’Keeffe’s paintings had been part of my longing to visit this particular desert, so why was I so surprised when I opened the wrought iron gates of the church courtyard around to find it eerily familiar? Georgia had once painted this edifice. I found the fragrant herb Rue growing in the garden and picked some to take into the church with me. Rue is traditionally an herb of protection used by Meso and South American Native peoples to ward off evil. Inside, the lovely chapel had stained glass with lots of traditional Christian images but when I approached the lily strewn altar I saw to my right a statue of the Virgin, and on the opposite side of the enclave I was stunned to come face to face with the Black Madonna! In Arizona I had found these images outside or behind the churches, usually in little stone grottos. The country folk come to these shrines to light candles and pray to an older goddess than the one Christianity knows as the Virgin.

The images of the Black Madonna and Guadalupe that I had seen in Tucson and other places in the southwest were usually Indian looking; in Europe they are black. Oddly, this figurine was also black, embossed in gold, and seated. There was no place to light a candle for Her, this Mother of Us All, so I took a votive candle from the Virgin and lit it in front of the wooden carving. The hair prickled on my arms… After a while I left the church, leaving an offering of Rue at the foot of the Black Madonna’s robe.

Everywhere I went people told their stories about how they came to this thriving artists’ and writers’ community and how much they loved the area. With the exception of Native tribes like the Navaho, most folks seemed to have arrived here from all over the country. Some spoke of the spiritual energy that permeated the place, and I knew what they were talking about because the energy charge I experienced was so fierce that I was having a hard time staying in my body.

I met a group of women that called themselves the Intrepids who regularly hiked in the seemingly endless high desert, most of which was protected by National forests that stretched out all around this small village. While hiking I couldn’t help comparing this true wilderness to Maine where the wild places are under siege and virtually disappearing. I learned that the logging industry was dead in Northern Mexico. Thanks to the “Forest Guardians” this land would remain untouched; no doubt the reason the silence struck peace like a bell.

The following day I went to see where Ghost Ranch was located, the first place that Georgia lived, (and bought), where she painted many of her landscapes. I was not prepared for the astonishing depth and breadth and the visionary quality of the seemingly endless beauty that surrounded me. Ghost Ranch blended so well with the scenery that I could barely see the structure tucked into the base of one of the cliffs. I spent four hours staring at the austere mountains that changed color every second as clouds passed by and shadows fell in new places highlighting red, ocher, lavender, even deep purple and green until the night closed in. The landscape around Georgia’s “home-place” was so astounding that after my initial experience and attempt to describe it, I decided that O’Keeffe’s mountains must remain as stark impressions in my mind:

Sand, white clay, ivory, buff, orange and yellow ocher, brick, Indian red, violet and purple, even a pale moss – all colors running together against a background of Indian red rock and stone. The stillness is deafening and sweet. Fantastic formations, a roaring gorge, and one long deep blue lake – a sand stone floor teaming with life – raging gullies – slippery sands – and layers upon layers of clay forming pyramids that are painted in every conceivable earthen shade. The Great Goddess of the Desert Wilderness is a living presence here; the powers of place rooted me, clasped me in their embrace, and soared above me like great black birds vanishing into the deep blue firmament…

For artists and perhaps mystics like myself, the “value” is in ever changing color and truly this place embodies the Navaho spirit of “Changing Woman.” She continuously shifts clouds and sky, stones, sands and water – arroyos overflow, even reverse directions under thundering rains – the driest cracked red earth is alive with sage, juniper, cedar and pinion pine – all the colors except the red cliffs run together – pastels, each bleeding one into another. Desert Silence is like no other, and at night a bowl of silver stars stretches round over the night from horizon to horizon.

The fifteen – mile drive in to the Benedictine monastery requires both courage and focus on an unbelievably narrow winding dirt road that slithers its way above an impossibly deep gorge on one side and meanders around flaming orange cliffs or towering rotund sandstone castles on the other. The roundness of these Sandstone Beings, sculpted and curved by wind and time seemed infinitely wise and the sight of them left me dumbstruck. How could stone be chiseled and smoothed into such a fantastic myriad of shapes? I felt as if I needed eyes in the back of my head to take in all this wonder.

I was actually relieved to reach the monastery, which was tucked under its own mountain, shaded and sheltered by many surrounding cliffs; rich red soil had already been turned for spring planting. Walking into the chapel for vespers stunned me. Above all the usual ecclesiastical images on the altar there was a huge bowed window that stretched across the front of the church and reached the top of the building. This giant window was angled like the prow of a ship and opened directly on a towering burnt sienna cliff with a solitary mountain cedar rooted to its pinnacle. I let out an involuntary gasp as the golden sunlight streamed into the building and lit up the room. Whoever had done this architectural work clearly understood that the Stone People were the first earth beings. The image of the stupendous cliff turning red, orange, and gold in the setting sun was so breathtaking that I was speechless. It’s impossible to write more about this place beyond stating that it must be experienced.

Later that afternoon I meandered around the Indian red hills. From the top of a craggy red rock a solitary raven crowed. Because this was virgin desert I didn’t expect to find a creative homemade wood and tin birdhouse lying on the desert floor. Was this a second message about home? I picked up the bird -house and decided to keep it.

The sparse and spiky vegetation suggested that this area was a bit drier here and I wondered how much water was left in the underground aquifers. The average home well was 400 – 500 feet down. Masses of juniper, cedar and a few pinion pines provided some protection from the wind and the dirt road wound its way up the nearest mountain. Nature sculpted circular sandstone paintings on the rough stone eroding on the ground. There was a steep red gully that ran through the west part of the rolling hills and across from that arroyo stood another group of sandstone Desert Beings. I imagined I could hear the water tumbling down that gully during the summer rains. Birds of all kinds flew in and out of the holes of these cliffs.

To the north a nearby softly rounded mountain range speckled with pinion and juniper rose in austere silence. To the east the imposing snow covered peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range stretched over the horizon as far as I could see. I wondered which peak was 14 thousand feet high since all seemed equally immense. To the south I saw another blue mountain range with its solitary mesa or Pedernal rising in the middle. Georgia had painted this configuration of rock with its flattened top, and her ashes were scattered on the top of the mesa. She once said that god told her that if she painted this mountain enough he would give it to her! I wondered if O’Keeffe knew that according to Navajo Myth, Changing Woman was born on this mesa. The contours of the land rose and fell around the mountain ranges, flowed over gullies and shallow arroyos. The Earth seemed to be whispering to me in an ancient language that flowed out of stone into thin air. Late that afternoon I wandered back to this higher terrain and eventually ended up at the crest of the mountain where I witnessed a miraculous sunset on fire.

Early dawn would find me at the airport headed for Maine. Reflecting on the powers of place I realized that the high desert of Abiquiu mirrors my life through wild beauty and my fatal attraction to it, through song and scarcity, tenacity, loneliness, and death, my need for silence, wonder, thorns, bones, and for flowers.

I thought about the particulars that stood out from the whole: the mountain cedar, the brief appearance of a ring necked dove, the bird house, the Black Madonna, flaming cliffs seen as if from the prow of a ship, and the sense that Georgia in some magical way had accompanied me throughout this entire journey. The message seemed obvious – She was calling to me again, this Mother of Stone. For the second time in my life I had discovered a spiritual home in the mountains. A part of me is attached to this land by invisible threads; I belong to this place and to learn what this desert has to teach me, I will have to return.

(This picture of the little red hills came from one of Georgia OKeeffe’s art books…one that I own)

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The Gift of July

July is a steamy, fiery, orange month when the element of moisture – laden air overpowers my senses. The perfume of pine needles, lilies, bee balm, milkweed, ripening berries carries a sweetness that is only brought on the wings of stifling heat…

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The Gift of July

 

Thick moist heat bathes

the night in crimson,

drives bears deep

into sphagnum bogs to dream.

 

Fireflies drift through

sweet wet grass.

Hidden under leafy branches

grey tree frogs trill.

 

Blood red cardinals whistle love songs,

teach offspring to chirp

sharp staccato rounds

at the threshold of dawn…

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Brilliant morning light filters

through crystals formed by dew…

 

Kingfisher’s absence

won’t be missed

by transforming toads,

but the drought may dry

the vernal pool too soon

for lungs to form.

 

The doe grazes outside my window

under a blistering noon day star.

Chomping down wild rose thorns,

red deer shreds supple grape leaves,

nips bee balm for an after dinner mint!

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Gray foxes feast on treats I leave

beneath heavily perfumed pines.

Grapes, old cranberries, apples,

fat and bone marrow – perhaps

a carcass entices them in.

 

When mountains disappear under clouds of thick fog,

Our Goddess ascends, her nimbus shrouded in pearl like mist.

One night soon, she’ll sing up a blossoming Moon.

 

A wave of gratitude swells and breaks –

An emerald sea is moving through me.

Water and Air create a symphony

Breathe deep and listen –

The Soul of Nature sounds a joyous Hum.

Toadwoman

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The American Toad couple with eggs!

 

The first poem that I ever had published, “Summer Solstice Conversation” documented an experience I had with a large toad that I called Grandmother on the day of the summer solstice. The editor re-named my poem “Toadwoman” which annoyed me at the time, but now, many years later I find the title strangely relevant because I think I have recently been initiated  into the Toad Clan.

A few days ago when my dogs and I walked down to North pond I heard a low hum coming from the water. I recognized the sound immediately because a couple of summers ago I heard that identical music while in my kayak as I approached a cove that was also “humming.” Suspecting amphibious activity of some kind I was still stunned to come upon so many American toads whose bulbous golden eyes were popping out of the water. Toads have the most beautiful eyes. The pupils are oval and black with a circle of gold around them. Toads do see in color although the color hues are blue and green. Delighted to have met so many of my friends that year I planned to revisit the cove in a couple of days to see if I could gather some eggs. When I did return I was disappointed. No hum and not a double string of black and white pearls in sight.

This year I hoped might be different. Approaching the shallow water to let my dogs cool off I was delighted to hear the humming intensify. And before my eyes could register the sequence I came upon a whole multitude of toads with smaller toads on their backs. They were clustered in a shallow reedy area. Remarkably, these toad couples appeared to be as fascinated by me as I was by them because they instantly gathered round in a semi –circle to stare at me with golden eyes. “Hi, we are glad to meet you! Welcome to the Toad Clan!” I thought I heard them say. One male toad suddenly inflated his throat like a balloon and trilled briefly. I stood there dumbfounded.

That’s when I noticed the coveted double strings of black pearls swirling in the water. I just couldn’t believe it. Re-routing the dogs to another shallow spot to bathe, I noted that the humming didn’t cease even when the dogs happily plunged into the pond. I counted back three days to the first day I heard humming. Today I noted the sound long before reaching the pond. It was that intense, but low pitched and very soothing to listen to, a kind of natural symphony. Hurrying the dogs along we reached home in record time. I immediately returned to the pond with my camera and a pail to gather eggs. Once again the toads gathered round me as I gently removed some strings of toad eggs, that in all probability, had just been laid by the toad chorus.

Once I arrived home I put the strings of black eggs with white undersides in my aquarium with attached greenery, and sat down to do some research on the gestation period for the American toad because I planned to raise a few to get to know my new relatives.

I quickly learned that the gestation period from egg to toad occurs over a period of 50 to 65 days and that the mating period is variable from March to July depending on the latitude. Some sources said that toads laid their eggs in vernal pools, which is where I always looked (unsuccessfully) for the eggs. According to most sources males go to shallow breeding areas in vernal pools, small ponds and slow moving streams and call out to attract the females with their distinctly high pitched musical trill which one toad had just demonstrated for me with his ballooning throat. When the female arrives the distinctly smaller male with his darker throat grabs her with his fatter front arms (that have pads for gripping the female) until she discharges her eggs. The male then fertilizes the eggs by discharging fluid. The eggs are encased in long spiral tubes of a jelly –like substance. They are laid in two separate strings with thousands of eggs in each string and are attached to submerged vegetation or float close to the shallow bottom. The females provide nutrients for their eggs inside their bodies, but after laying the eggs parenting is over!

The eggs hatch in three to twelve days (mine hatched in three days) and some studies suggest that the tadpoles have a reciprocal relationship with Chlorogonium algae, which makes the tadpoles develop faster than normal. Toad tadpoles are considered herbivores because they graze on aquatic vegetation; adult toads are carnivorous. Often entire groups of tadpoles reach the toadlet stage at once and a mass migration to higher ground takes place usually to shaded woodland areas with plenty of vegetation (this occurs around here early in August most years when tiny toads appear in the grass or dirt roads in profusion). Toadlets can be observed eating microscopic bugs; as they get larger they also love ants, spiders, snails, beetles, slugs and worms. Unlike most toads who wait for prey to come along American toads can shoot out their sticky tongues to catch prey; they also use their front legs in order to eat larger food. They grasp their prey and push it into their mouths. Some toads also wipe their mouths with their four fingered “hands” after eating. One American toad can eat up to 1,000 insects a day!

It takes two to three years for a toad to reach adulthood and sexual maturity. Toads usually don’t live more than 3-5 years in the wild although they can live up to thirty to forty years in captivity. People mowing lawns routine kill thousands of toads a year. Many folks know that toads do not drink water but soak it in, absorbing all moisture through their skin. I leave water dishes for frogs and toads around well-shaded areas in my garden and in the evening I can sometimes see a toad or frog sitting in these dishes. I notice that they also hunt from these shallow wells because bugs are attracted to water too. Another possibility is that the toads could be urinating!

Toad trilling is not only used at mating time by the male toad. Throughout the summer especially on hot or rainy nights toad trills can be heard singing in this hollow down by the brook. It seems obvious that these toads are communicating with other toads perhaps defending a territory? What surprised me is that none of the sources I consulted mentioned the low pitched hum of the toads that I heard on the pond which is a very different sound from the toad trill.

Tadpoles have several mechanisms to reduce predation. They avoid predators by swimming in very shallow water often with vegetation and also swim close together in schools during the day (I noticed that the North Pond tadpoles were using these techniques rather well). Tadpoles also produce toxic chemicals in their skin like the adult American toad, and fish can die after consuming even one tadpole. When tadpoles begin to hatch they have gills located on the sides of their heads. During the first 20 days they start to form their hind legs (I have one tadpole that has “buds” starting to form on the place where his back legs will be after only 6 days). After 30 – 40 days the front legs appear. At the same time the front legs emerge, the tadpoles’ gills disappear and the tadpoles start to breathe air. From raising frogs I learned how carefully I had to watch for this development to occur because when it did the froglet has to have a place on land. Otherwise the amphibian might drown. The same is true for toads. In the final two or three days of development the toads complete their metamorphosis, reabsorbing their tails and strengthening their legs. At this point the tiny herbivore becomes a carnivore. Baby toads stay by their wetlands for a few days before dispersing to live on dryer land. When they are grown they are about three or four inches in length with the females distinctly the larger of the two. They shed their skin every couple of weeks and often eat it!

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Aren’t they beautiful?

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(Tiny toad tadpoles located at the edge of the pond 6 days after hatching)

With enough cover, moisture, and adequate food American toads can live almost anywhere and are found throughout eastern portions of North America except for Florida. In the non – breeding season individuals have a home range of several hundred feet but during breeding periods they travel. Toads are nocturnal.  Around here they love my gardens, and in the evenings they can often be seen hunting. They are most active when the weather is warm and humid and as adults are quite solitary, although here I have an adult pair that seem to stay together year after year. Is this an anomaly? During the day, toads hide under rocks or vegetation. In regions like Maine where winters are cold American Toads dig deep in sandy soil to hibernate. When digging they back in, pushing out dirt with strong back legs.

Predators of adult toads include several species of snakes, birds and mammals. Some are immune to the toxic secretions. When threatened American toads will remain still relying on camouflage. In some instances they will inflate their bodies and extend their limbs so as to appear larger.

The American toad interbreeds with other toads that overlap its territory. They vary in color from tan brown reddish brown or olive green, some have distinct patterns and a cream stripe going down the back. Toad skin is nubbly in texture and contains parotoid glands that produce a white toxin that helps protect them from predators. Skin color can change depending on habitat, humidity stress, and temperature. Toads display breeding sight fidelity. Individuals often return to natal ponds to breed and will encounter siblings but these toads actively avoid close kin as mates. Vocalizations by males apparently serve as cues by which the females recognize their kin.

Unlike most folks I find toads quite beautiful and as a child kept one in a large terrarium one winter. Every time this little fellow was hungry he would come to the glass and stare me down! I put bits of raw hamburger on a thread and as soon as I waved it in front of him he grabbed it. He also seemed to enjoy being petted and held. Toads make very good friends if you give them a loving home. The next spring I was very sad when my mother told me that I had to let him go. She was right, of course. These are wild creatures that need their freedom just like humans do.

 

Desert Spring

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The Wildflower or Tree moon was full last week and it is well named as either. This is the most astonishing month beginning with the promise of wildflowers and ending in splendor with all my fruit trees in bloom. I have pearl white, pale pink, and magenta flowers blooming, some with bouquets of pale pink buds not yet ready to open. One of my favorite crabapple trees is the flowering crab because she has such beautiful double blushing pink flowers and an intoxicating scent. I am always glad that she blooms last. When I walk around my yard I simply cannot imagine being anywhere else during this magical month. I was talking to my neighbor Jean today and we were both exclaiming how magnificent our blossoming fruit trees are and how much we both love them and this time of year.

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The hum of bees delights me with bumblebees, small native varieties, and honey bees, all working the flowers. Just outside my porch window/door – the whole side of the porch opens into my east garden – the hummingbirds are sipping sweet nectar from the heart shaped blossoms of the bleeding hearts that are almost pressing against the double door on both sides. I feel like I am sitting in my own garden! Tall stately clumps of Solomon’s seal bow gracefully, with their lime tipped creamy white bells. The delicate blue phlox is spreading around in front of the Solomon’s seal creating a lovely contrast in shape and color… I have violets everywhere! This year the deep blue ajuga seem somewhat faded the only possible hint of the extreme dryness of this season. Celadine, a wild member of the poppy family, opens her delicate buttery yellow flowers just beyond the bleeding hearts and also grows in profusion around the edge of my rock garden. Hot pink ground phlox creeps closer to the deep purple columbine spires inside that same garden. Just this morning I discovered two tiny 2 inch blue iris with pale yellow throats that had just opened. I was absurdly delighted!

Yesterday after the grass was cut for the first time I wondered if any place could be more beautiful than my own little hollow. I wait as long as I can before mowing so that all the naturalized violets and ajuga can bloom. So many of the white violets have lavender blue throats and these appear in all hues from purple to white. Lily’s of the valley both wild and cultivated unfurl their spirals beyond the celadine; one reveals a stalk of minuscule flowers, and the other a stalk of fragrant upside down cups. Rose breasted grosbeaks, white-throated sparrows, indigo buntings, and cardinals sing love songs. With the unfurling leaves of the deciduous trees and dark green evergreens as background, this patch of earth seems truly blessed. Almost…

Every morning I also awaken to what has become a monotonous blue dome and the glare of a white sun almost at its zenith. Invariably my chimes are singing so I know wind is part of the day’s story. I anxiously look to the skies hoping for clouds, sniff the air for the fresh scent of coming rain, and every day I am disappointed. Last year’s drought killed one of my hydrangeas. Currently one of my lilac bushes has drooping leaves from lack of ground water. The peepers sang only briefly this spring and I have already had to fill the toad pond, (a sunken barrel disguised by flat stones) with water twice. The brook has narrowed its banks and its silvery ribbon is moving too slowly, its rocks gathering feathery green algae. I have decided that I will not water my flower gardens this year. Instead, if it stays this dry I will let nature wither the plants so that they will enter early dormancy. Perennials can take advantage of too much sun without water and save themselves by using this strategy.

No one talks about this drought. Is this because no one notices? Am I the only human that misses spring rain? “The weather has been gorgeous,” the weather folks drone on day after day. It is almost the end of May and the leaves of the oak and maple are stunted. Suddenly the narcissus bouquet on my table speaks as a whiff of scent drifts my way. The narcissus notice. The trees in my hollow respond by muting their lime and chartreuse. The grass is brown or absent in high open places. The mountain saplings look dusty and dull in the distance. Nature is sounding her alarm but almost no one is listening. My records indicate that in the last ten years we have had only two spring seasons with adequate rainfall (and never a year like this one).

My theory is that along with global warming massive logging in Maine is creating an ugly story. With less than sixteen percent of mature forest left in Maine we continue to log indiscriminately. We now consider a 20 year-old tree to be “mature” (up until a year or two ago it was thirty). Nut bearing trees don’t produce mast until they are at least thirty to forty years old and even then only in small amounts. We don’t allow our trees to live long enough to produce adequate food for the animals. We don’t leave “elder” seed trees alone so that they can produce the next generation of sturdy stock as well as sequester carbon. I learned the other day that my local “land trust” is once again logging the mountain I live against, this time on the other side. If the so-called land trusts support the logging of trees then what can we expect from the average person?

It is not as if we don’t know what we are doing. We do know; this is why we have so called 30 foot “wildlife buffers” which are narrow strips of land that protect the public from witnessing the ongoing rape of the forest behind that hedge of trees. This kind of deception allows people to ignore what’s happening unless you are a person like me who can’t turn away from the carnage.

As we clear more and more land the fierce spring sun heats up the bare granite stone and soil. Instead of mature trees keeping the forest moist with their protective leafed out canopies that preserve habitat for woodland creatures, new saplings spring up giving off carbon as they grow, and are cut down again before they can begin to sequester that carbon to help mitigate global warming. The mountain forests contain precious moisture which help produce clouds that eventually will bring rain to the thirsty earth and her trees and flowers. As the forest continues to disappear less rain will fall. At some point in geological time Maine will become a desert.

I am suddenly interrupted by the sound of thunder rumbling nearby and for about 10 precious minutes some light rain falls, the first in two months. Instantly the neighborhood birds begin singing. Doves are cooing. A little hummingbird lifts his beak to the sky again and again as he ruffles and preens his feathers, bathing under his very own shower head about two feet from where I am sitting on on the porch! He behaves as if he is in a state of pure joy. The blue jays squawk and the grosbeaks start singing up a storm. Alas, bird song is not enough to convince the rain gods to stay a bit longer. The ground barely gets wet. But for one moment when I opened the door the smell of spring filled the air with her scent. I couldn’t fill my lungs with enough of that sweet ionized element…

The benefits of rain beyond the obvious were first demonstrated in the 1950’s when a Sonoran desert ecologist tried to simulate the winter rains in an attempt to make the desert bloom. Lloyd Tevis used untreated groundwater from a well to encourage wildflower germination. While he was moderately successful, he needed four inches of “fake” rain to germinate some wild seeds; others did not germinate at all. He was amazed to see what happened when less than an inch of real rain fell on his germination site in January. He noted the explosion of wildflower seedlings. Real rain demonstrated an extraordinary superiority over artificial rain to bring about a high rate of germination!

Many Indigenous peoples in this country have myths that speak to the dire changes that lie ahead. In one such story the rain will not come down over the earth very often and the crops that the people raise won’t be irrigated anymore so there won’t be any seeds left to  germinate. Eventually the earth will burn up and the sea will disappear. (Arizona desert O’odham myth).

It is easy to imagine such stories as fiction unless one understands that Indigenous people have such a close relationship with the earth and her elements that they see her as “kin,” and because of that intimacy may possess knowledge that others do not. I would be remiss if I didn’t restate the obvious. In our culture scientists are now saying that it is too late to stop global warming and that all we can do is to attempt to slow this process down. So at last the Indigenous mind and the Westernized mind are agreeing on something.

Certainly the Arizona desert O’odham people have understood the importance of the relationship between rain and the germination of their seeds since they have known for millennia that seeds will not germinate properly with water from the ground and that the rains must come in order to plant their crops. To call in the rain they make a drink out of the saguaro cactus and sing a song that brings on the summer rains so that the People can plant their seeds. These are the simple words of the song:

Here I stand

The wind is coming toward me,

Shaking.

Here I stand

The wind is coming toward me,

Shaking.

 

I think I shall start singing that song.

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Desire

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Today is the first full moon of the growing season, occurring just after the vernal equinox. The sky is deep blue and blustery winds obliterate the mourning dove’s call while my pentatonic chimes ring on. A solitary turkey vulture soars through the firmament attesting to the accuracy of the astronomical calendar and the pattern of the changing seasons: spring is on the wing. Native peoples think that vultures are a bird of omens; the sight of one is eagerly anticipated because it is believed that s/he ushers in warm winds, rising temperatures, and spring rains. Amazingly, Indigenous myth and story mirrors Nature’s temperament because these birds are harbingers of spring. And spring this year brings my grandsons’ home.

 

I haven’t seen my grandchildren together for about 16 months. Both were whisked away by the armed services. But a year ago last Christmas Drew and Cameron gave me an amaryllis bulb named Desire – the best Christmas present ever! I remember the magical December afternoon I spent at home here with these young men as we talked and laughed and told stories. I experienced such a profound joy in their presence…

 

After they left that evening I reflected on the name Desire. To desire is to need, to long, or to yearn for something or someone. It was such a perfect word to describe what this bulb personified for me with respect to my grandchildren. The bulb symbolized my deep love for these adult grandsons; it also embodied my desire and deep longing to be with them…

 

For the next couple of months I watched Desire’s two sturdy stalks grow tall and strong and when she bloomed I was awestruck by the passion of her bittersweet blush. Oh, how I loved her! The huge bouquet of flaming orange blossoms took my breath away – she was a sunrise on fire…

 

After Desire finished blooming I cared for the bulb and her emerald leaves throughout the summer, then put her in a dark closet to rest until the beginning of December.

 

I retrieved the bulb and buried the bottom of Desire in a new pot after noting that she had a new bulblet growing out of her bulb. Desire was healthy and already reproducing I thought happily. Strangely, after re-potting her she just sat there for a number of weeks with no sign of growth even though I showered my attention on her. At first I was baffled by amaryllis’s behavior but gradually the beautiful fat green bulb helped me understand. Desire apparently knew something I did not. She told me that because neither of my grandchildren would be here for Christmas I needed to put her bulb back to sleep!

 

Many years ago I learned to listen to plants. They spoke to me because I loved them. Plants don’t normally use words, they work through my body using all my senses to communicate with me, or they speak through dream images.

 

Acknowledging my keen disappointment with regard to my grandsons’ coming absence, I dutifully made peace with myself, and returned the bulb to her dark closet. As Desire predicted neither grandson returned home for Christmas.

 

Throughout the winter I routinely checked the bulb but she lay dormant. In late February I spoke with Cameron. He told me that he would be home on leave sometime in April. Sometime after our conversation I checked Desire and was delighted to see a tiny tip of a bud peeking out of the bulb; she knew. I decided to wait a little longer before planting her; I hoped for another bud.

 

On the Vernal Equinox (3/20/16) I spoke with Cameron for a second time; he gave me the precise dates in April when I could expect him for a visit. Then he told me that he believed that his brother (who was leaving the Marines after five long years and was now only 22 years old) would also be home by then – for good! Just the thought of seeing both of my grandchildren in the flesh started my heart pounding. I had been forcibly separated from these boys during their childhood years, so at seventy these two young men were the stuff out of which my dreams were spun. I loved them – fiercely.

 

After our second conversation I checked on the bulb again. I was astonished! In three weeks Desire had sprouted two stalks with buds, each un-naturally whitened and starving for light. Apologizing profusely to my beautiful bulb, I tenderly re-potted her and staked the stalks, one of which was more than two feet high and just about ready to break under it’s own weight. I shuddered to think what damage one more night in that closet would have wrought.

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In the past three days I have watched the two budded stalks turning green, reaching towards the warming sun, the waxing/full moon and rising waters. I could, of course, simply say the bulb needed a longer night to begin to bud, but I believe there’s more to this story.

 

Cameron

 

I think these buds on stilts represent my grandchildren coming into my life again. I don’t think that it is coincidence that the amaryllis bulb began to shoot up when it did. I think that Desire knew I loved her so much that she chose to align her growth with my grandchildren and me.

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I also think that on some level that I am the bulb, and that my two grandchildren are my buds. I am flesh of their flesh. Desire decided to become a container for one grandmother and her two grandchildren grounding our  connection in relationship through a bulb, binding us together until we could meet again.

 

Nature demonstrates that timing is critical to every growth cycle. If Desire can sprout stalks in even in darkness when the time is right, and then produce buds/flowers in the light, (and repeat the process on a cyclic basis) then my relationship with these beloved children can grow, bud, and flower too, deepening with each turn on the spiral. Unexpectedly, I have a clear image of Desire’s tiny bulb still attached to its source and wonder what mysterious new life the future might bring.

 

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DESIRE IN FIRST BLOOM      4/6

POSTSCRIPT:   During the night of 4/11 the two foot stalk snapped and the flowers fell over. The moment I glimpsed the invisible slaughter I knew that I would not be seeing my grandsons and sure enough a few days later I learned that Cam’s leave had been overshadowed by the military agenda and that my second grandson would not be home until June.

Guadalupe

IMG_2113Yesterday was  December 12th, Guadalupe’s Feast Day, and I lit her retablo with its fiery red lights that sits in the one dark corner of the living room. This Lady unites all peoples and is often called the “Mother of the Americas.” As I gazed up at her dark Indian face sculpted out of wood, cloaked in a blue green garment and held aloft by what appeared to be a young Indian boy, a profound yearning to honor her once again sprung out of the deepest recesses of my heart, much as I imagined the spring that had once bubbled out of the barren ground at Guadalupe’s feet…

I had first discovered Guadalupe while living in Tucson Arizona. In the rural desert chapels I often found small statues of the Black Madonna behind the churches, some with candles or flowers spread around on earthen ground as offerings. What I found peculiar was that some of these small statues were black while others clearly Indian. I wondered what this could mean. Inside, magnificent images or statues of Mary adorned the altars. It was in the streets of downtown Tucson that I first began to answer my own question. Images of Guadalupe appeared on candles, cloth, mugs, and retablos that had made their way up from Mexico to be sold during the street fairs. It occurred to me that some of the statues I had found behind the Catholic churches in rural areas must have been statues of Guadalupe.

Guadalupe’s story, although differing in details is a simple one. In 1531 a poor Indian peasant had a vision of a Lady, also Indian, who appeared out of a cloud and was surrounded by a mandorla of light on the hill of Tepeyac (located outside of Mexico city). Birdsong accompanied the vision. She spoke to him in Natuatl, his native dialect asking him to tell the Bishop to build her a chapel on this hill. Juan Diego duly went to the Bishop with the story but was not believed. The Bishop needed a sign. Juan’s uncle suddenly became deathly ill and Juan went again to Mexico City for help and once again the Lady of Light appeared to him on the way telling him that his uncle was healed. Juan related the Bishop’s request for a sign, but the Lady already knew and told him to gather Castilian roses, jasmine and other flowers, none of which could grow on the barren rocky hill of Tepeyac. She arranged the flowers in his cloak or tilma and instructed Juan to take them to the Bishop. When Juan opened the cloak before the Bishop on December 12th, the fresh heavily fragrant flowers fell to the floor. More astonishing was that on the rough fabric of the woven agave tilma was an image of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Light. The Bishop was convinced and a chapel was soon built on the spot. Curiously, this chapel was built over a shrine to the “Mother of the Gods” who the Indian people called Tonantzin. It is said that many miracles continue to occur here and that a clear spring appeared after one of the Lady’s miraculous appearances. The image of Guadalupe on Juan’s cloak is presently housed in the Bascilica of Our Lady (Mary) in Mexico City, and is one of the most visited holy places in the world.

It wasn’t known until recently that the image had originally included a crown that had been removed. (The frame surrounding the image had been lowered so the erasure was obscured). Guadalupe’s picture has also been modified in other ways; the Mandorla, the stars on her cloak, the moon under her feet and the angel supporting her were apparently added later. Even more interesting was the fact that when infrared imaging was done it was noted that the original image was neither cracked or flaked while later additions – the gold leaf, the silver of the moon – showed wear. The upper two thirds of Guadalupe’s image show no imperfections.

The absence of the original crown on Guadalupe remains an intriguing mystery. Although it is obvious that the image was deliberately tampered with to transform Guadalupe into the Virgin Mary (she eventually became a Catholic saint), I always believed the two figures were not the same. Since early childhood I had loved Mary first as the loving mother I never had, and more recently as a more distant presence surrounded by stars and galaxies. Guadalupe seemed to me to be a more earthly presence, although most certainly divine. Images of her were almost always placed outdoors in natural surroundings. Once I dreamed that I followed Guadalupe’s blue -green light through the forest in a state bordering on ecstasy. Perhaps my Native American heritage has biased my thinking and my heart but I cannot ignore the intuitive sense that this Lady is the Mother of the Americas, and indeed, to Indians at least, she is a figure that unites all peoples, and for me this includes all animals and plants and the natural world as a whole.

I bought my retablo in Mexico after living in Tucson, fascinated by the peyote- like flowers, and the ayahuasca leaves that adorned the outside of the little shrine. My Guadalupe wears a necklace of coral that belonged to my mother, part of a rosary (I removed Christ on the cross) that belonged to my father, an Indian petrographed stone that belonged to my brother, a small deerskin bag that contains a lock of baby hair belonging to my oldest grandson, a single peregrine falcon’s feather that I associate with my youngest grandson, a crystal necklace of mine that reflects her crimson lights and finally a Native American Spirit Bear made out of mother of pearl. Above Guadalupe’s retablo I have placed a pair of deer antlers, and many kinds of bird feathers adorn the small shelf beneath her along with a stunning beaded antelope made by the Huichol Indians of Mexico. During the winter I light her every morning just after making my fire in the stove, and her comforting warmth and presence has helped me deal with increasingly harsh winters, bare and treeless granite mountains, and monochromatic gray or snow – laden skies.

Yesterday was unseasonably mild and I wandered through the mixed deciduous and conifer forest on my property with my two small dogs and stopped to rest at a place where I imagined Guadalupe might once have appeared… I marveled once again that we were mid way through December and rich bare ground still lay under my feet. A solitary woodpecker chirped from an old snag. I was standing at the edge of a clear spring that bubbled out of the ground surrounded by a copse of fragrant balsam trees. Lush green sphagnum moss carpeted the edges the slender ribbon that wound its way down the mountain like a sinuous serpent on the way to the sea. Asking a nearby balsam for the tree’s permission, I bent and broke off a balsam twig to place on my small altar beneath Guadalupe’s retablo after I got home, imagining that Guadalupe would appreciate the fragrance. When I heard a slight rustling in the forest behind me, I turned slowly to gaze into the dark luminous pools of the old doe’s eyes fringed with black lashes… losing myself in her eerily serene beauty. I knew this deer; she came in each evening to feed. So Guadalupe had made an appearance after all I thought happily, and this time she wore her animal skin!