Cicada Symphony

Each evening

I sit in gathering shadows

listening for the nighthawk’s peet,

the owl softly hooting.

Peering into the dense cottonwood canopy

I await the symphony…

 

How do they know

just when to begin

in perfect synchrony?

Punctual to the minute,

the swell is deafening

This music of the spheres

saturates my body

with song as I breathe

into the wonder of

Nature on the wing.

 

 

Postscript and Natural History

 

Every night I sit on the porch at dusk listening to night sounds. At precisely 8:30PM the symphony begins as the arching boughs of the cottonwoods come alive with song. When it’s really hot the cicadas are so loud that when I stand underneath the cottonwoods I am transported to another realm.

 

One night they surprised me. A few drops of rain fell and instantly the choral overture began. It was 8:15 PM and this uncharacteristic early beginning seemed to have everything to do with the rain which only fell for a few minutes although the insects sang on… perhaps the cicadas too are singing to the Cloud People, praying for rain.

 

I listened to many recordings before identifying the cicadas that are singing from these cottonwoods! Mine are “cactus dodgers” that are known for their affinity for cacti during courtship because they can dodge deadly spines during frenzied mating! They are primarily black, gray, white, and beige colored; well camouflaged for the desert.

 

Cicadas in general are an order of insects distinguished by piercing and straw-like sucking mouthparts.  Worldwide, cicadas comprise about 2000 species, which occur primarily in temperate and warmer regions.

 

Like all insects, the usually dark to brownish to greenish cicada has three body parts—the head, the thorax and an abdomen.  It has six jointed legs, with the front pair adapted for digging—a reflection of its underground burrowing life when a nymph.  A strong flyer, it has two sets of transparent and clearly veined wings, perhaps its most distinctive feature.  At rest, it holds its wings like a peaked roof over its abdomen.  It has bulging compound eyes, three glistening simple eyes and short bristly antenna.

 

The male cicada has on its abdomen two chambers covered with membranes – “tymbals” – that it vibrates, when at rest, to produce its “song.”  It can make various sounds, including, for instance, an insistent call for a mate, an excited call to flight, or a hoped-for bluff of predators.  Both the male and female cicadas have auditory organs, which connect through a short tendon to membranes that receive sound.  The male produces a call distinctive to his species.  Ever faithful, the female responds only to the call of a male of her species.

 

The cicada often makes its home in the plant communities along river bottoms and drainages but can be found in many different desert ecosystems as well.

 

The cicada falls into one of two major groups, one called “dog day,” the other called “periodical.”  The dog-day cicadas, which usually appear during the hottest days of summer, hence the name, include all of the several dozen species of the Southwest.  They have a life cycle of two to five years. The periodical cicadas, which include several species, all east of the Great Plains, have a life cycle of 13 or 17 years.

 

Once one of the Southwestern female dog-day cicadas answers the call of a male cicadas and the two mate, she seeks out an inviting, tender twig or stem on a tree or a bush.  She uses the jagged tip at the end of her abdomen to gouge into a twig.  She lays eggs, each shaped like a grain of rice, into the wound eventually laying several hundred eggs.

 

Once a cicada nymph hatches, it drops to the ground, immediately burrowing into the soil, using its specially adapted front legs for the excavation.  It seeks out a root and uses its specially adapted mouthparts to penetrate through the epidermis and suck out the sap.  The cicada spends much of its time in its underground chambers.  Once grown, it tunnels upward, to near the surface, where it constructs a “waiting chamber.”  Upon receiving some mysterious signal, perhaps a temperature threshold, our nymph, along with its multiple kindred nymphs, emerges in a synchronized debut, one of the great pageants of the insect world.  It climbs up nearby vegetation, molts for the final time, emerging from its old nymphal skin as a fully winged adult, beginning the final celebration of its life.

 

The cicadas struggle for survival through their final days because they are nontoxic and relatively easily caught, especially during the final molt, and must deal with a crowd of potential predators, including birds such as boat-tail grackles, various woodpeckers, robins, red-winged blackbirds and even ducks; mammals such as squirrels and smaller animals; reptiles such as snakes and turtles; spiders such as the golden silk spider; and other insects such as its especially fearsome arch enemy, the cicada killer wasp.

 

Of course, the cicada does have certain defenses.  Once it has molted, it can fly swiftly to escape some potential predators.  The raucous male alarm call may startle some predators, especially birds.  It may occur in such numbers that it overwhelms the collective appetite of predators.

 

In perhaps its most novel defense, the desert cicada has developed an extraordinary ability to remain active throughout mid-day, when most would-be predators have to seek shelter from the desert heat.  Notably, the cicada, unlike any other known insect, can sweat, which helps it dissipate heat.  When threatened with overheating, desert cicadas extract water from their blood and transport it through large ducts to the surface of the thorax, where it evaporates.  The cooling that results permits a few desert cicada species to be active when temperatures are so high that their enemies are incapacitated by the heat.  No other insects have been shown to have the ducts required for sweating.

 

While the cicada may cause minor damage to the plants on which it feeds during its life cycle, it contributes in important ways to the environment.  Studies of the cicada in Colorado River riparian communities revealed the ecological importance of this species.  Feeding by the nymphs influences the vegetative structure of mixed stands of cottonwood and willow that occur in certain habitats.  Excess water removed from the host’s water conducting tissues (the xylem) during feeding is eliminated as waste and improves moisture conditions in the upper layer of the soil.  Xylem fluids are low in nutrients and the nymphs must consume large amounts of it to accommodate their energy needs.  Most of the water is quickly excreted and becomes available to shallow rooted plants.  Additionally, cicadas comprise an important prey species for birds and mammals, and the burrowing activity of nymphs facilitates water movement within the soil.”

 

The cicada has entered the realm of folklore across much of the world, possibly because its periodic emergence from darkness into light and song has been equated with rebirth and good fortune.

 

In one myth Cacama was the lord of the Aztec kingdom of Tezcuco who met his end at the hands of Spanish conquistadors. Cacama lives on in these winged desert treasures.

 

A Greek poet once wrote,  “We call you happy, O Cicada, because after you have drunk a little dew in the treetops you sing like a queen.”

 

An Italian myth held that “one day there was born on the earth a beautiful, good and very talented woman whose singing was so wonderful it even enchanted the gods.  When she died the world seemed so forlorn without the sweet sound of her singing that the gods allowed her to return to life every summer as the cicadas so that her singing could lift up the hearts of man and beast once again.”

In our desert Southwest Zuni mythology, the cicada outwitted the traditional trickster, the coyote.  The insect produced heat in Hopi mythology, heralding the arrival of summer, and it is “the patron of Hopi Flute societies in charge of both music and healing,” according to Stephen W. Hill, Kokopelli Ceremonies.  The cicada played a key role as a scout and a conqueror in Navajo creation myths.  It brought renewal and healing to other tribes.

Across the Southwest, from prehistory into historic times, the cicada became identified with the hump-backed flute player, or Kokopelli, a charismatic and iconic figure portrayed in rock art and ceramic imagery.

Kokopelli risked his life to lead the Ant People from mythological inner worlds to the present world, where they became The First People, after agreeing to follow the teaching of the Great Spirit.

“Kokopelli’s transparent wings have now unfolded and dried, and he is able to take to the sky.  Kokopelli’s reward is flight.  His continued gift to us is his reminder to be grateful that we no longer live in darkness.

No Tears are Shed

No Tears are Shed

 

Every day ragged

white lightening

slices through dark clouds

followed by fierce rumbling

sudden crashes –

bellowing thunder.

Is the sky on fire

with Earth’s rage?

 

No tears are shed.

 

The three drops

of moisture

reflect a deadly pattern –

of withholding

– a pitiful token

of Nature’s grief.

She is snared by indifference,

unable to weep.

 

No tears are shed.

 

The relentless west wind

rips branches from trunks

cottonwood arms crash

to the ground

torn leaves follow

in utter confusion.

Parched desert scrub crackles

under my feet.

Sage green turns dull gray

Plants and bushes withered

almost beyond recognition…

Are the Cloud People dead?

 

No tears are shed.

 

Once again betrayed

by the willful force of

– human stupidity –

the trees bow low

in sorrow and resignation.

Knowing .

Having no choice

their thirst will

drive them

to certain extinction.

The relentless

ever present torturous sun

is turning blue – green to ash.

 

 

And still no tears are shed.

” A Cricket on my Hearth”

 

Two nights ago I heard a cricket singing in the kitchen, and after dark I tried to locate him without success. I have loved crickets since I was a little girl and the joyful chirping seemed like such a good omen. After I returned to my bed I heard such a cacophony coming from that same area that I got up a second time to investigate. There were two crickets singing to each other from opposite ends of the room. I fell asleep listening to their animated conversation.

 

Vaguely, I recalled learning about country folk who kept crickets in cages for good luck, a custom that distressed me because the idea of caging any animal is antithetical to my belief system.

 

Yesterday afternoon I was away all afternoon and had left water in the dishpan. When I returned I didn’t see the cricket until I emptied the dishpan full of soapy water. Oh, no. I quickly retrieved the cricket from the draining water but saw it was too late. One of my new friends had drowned. I felt a sharp pang of grief slice through me at this sudden loss. I placed the cricket on the railing of the porch, not knowing what else to do. I thought some bird or lizard might eat him…

 

About an half an hour later I went out to begin watering my garden and stopped in front of the cricket realizing suddenly that he was no longer frozen into a splayed out position, but had pulled in his legs. With child-like hope surging through me I stroked his carapace murmuring an endearment. He jumped a little under my touch and then I saw his antennae twitching. He wasn’t dead after all! I left him there sunning and when I passed by the railing a few minutes later the cricket had disappeared.

 

I felt a moment of fierce joy and deep gratitude that he lived.

 

Last night after the cicadas had begun their symphony in the cottonwoods, the second cricket began to chirp excitedly from the kitchen. Oh, I thought, he’s calling to his lost friend…

 

A few minutes later an answering call came from just outside the open porch door. This chirping continued for about 15 minutes with me riveted to this conversation between the two. When it became quiet I wondered if the two had met on the threshold and decided to depart together (the screen door has enough gap underneath to allow a cricket to come or go). If that was the case I would miss them but I certainly didn’t want any more cricket mishaps in the house, and besides food was more plentiful outdoors.

 

I awakened to a welcome cool breeze around midnight and heard a cricket in the kitchen singing his heart out, so evidently this one chose to stay.

 

There is something about these encounters with creatures of the wild that energizes me, sparking wild hope that somehow transcends the daily despair I live in with respect to the survival of all creatures world wide.

 

Is it possible that these intimate friendships with non – human species (no matter how brief) places us both in a space beyond space/time where now becomes all that matters?

 

It certainly seems that way to me.

 

Postscript:

Interesting ideas associated with crickets

Crickets have played a strong role throughout Chinese, Japanese and Native American cultures as a symbol of good fortune, vitality and prosperity. As far back as 500 B.C., people revered the song of the cricket and often kept crickets in cages to enjoy that song on a regular basis. In addition, crickets are valued as “watch dogs” because they fall silent when approached, (although the crickets here did not). Crickets are also reversed as natural clocks for timing a good harvest.

Throughout Chinese history, crickets have symbolized wisdom and prosperity to the extent that a 2,000-year period of history is known as the Cricket Culture. Within this time frame, three specific eras celebrated various aspects of the cricket. In the first era, which lasted from 500 B.C. to 618 A.D., the singing of crickets was revered. During the Tang Dynasty, from 618 to 906 A.D., people began to keep crickets in cages in order to appreciate the sounds.

I also read elsewhere that it is very bad luck to kill a cricket even by accident.

My crickets are New Mexico Field crickets.

Mr. and Mr. Rufous

 

This morning I was aghast when Mr. Rufous hit the window and fell to the ground. Rushing out to give him sugar water, I was so relieved to see him recover his wits and fly towards his cottonwood bower on his own. A very close call.

Rufous, an iridescent coppery jewel of a hummingbird arrived here on June 22 with his mate – just as beautiful in her less dramatic emerald and rust attire. My other resident hummingbirds (black chin, and broadtail) all seemed to be cooperating as they visited my two feeders – both of which are emptied and refilled every day. I have so many! I wondered how Rufous and his wife would fit in so I have been keeping a sharp eye on hummingbird cooperation dynamics. Three weeks have gone by since their arrival, and I do believe this couple may stay to raise a family because they are still here and fly off in the same direction whenever leaving the feeders.

It is true that this pugnacious little hummingbird can throw a wrench into cooperation but I have been pleasantly surprised to see this male and female sipping nectar with other birds sitting on neighboring perches. Could it be that the broadtail and black chin social dynamic has rubbed off on Mr. and Mrs. Rufous? I have no way of knowing, but it does seem that this couple is more willing to compromise than most others I have known. Some days, of course Mr. Rufous hovers above the feeders making sudden aggressive dives to scare the others away with his high pitched squeaks – but only for a few moments. Often, he lets others return and I have pictures of their sharing quite companionably. Mrs. Rufous seems very cooperative and she has taken to visiting the nastursiums, scarlet runner beans, fiery salvia, deep rose and scarlet penstemon and the pot that holds my bee, butterfly, and hummingbird friendly wildflower mixture that Iren gave me last spring. This pot is an astonishing bouquet of deep pink, mauve, purple, and white flowers, with a few golden California poppies. I have become increasingly attached to these fiesty little hummingbirds.

It interests me that the territories that the male and female “defend” are somewhat different. Males hover over the primary food source(s) while the females extend their ranges further afield choosing less dense wildflower meadows. This year, except for my little pot garden there are few wildflowers beyond the fence where I do not water, so choices, at least here, are very limited. And Mrs. Rufous does not hog these flowers; the others sip from them too.

Rufous hummingbirds are small with a short tail with mighty flight skills that allow them to travel 2000 miles from Mexico to as far north as Alaska for breeding in the western states. This migration can take place from as early as May to August in New Mexico, and some stop along the way to raise their families. They follow the wildflower season. During their long migrations, they make a clockwise circuit of western North America each year moving up the Pacific Coast in late winter and spring, reaching Washington and British Columbia by May, Alaska by June. As early as July they may start south again, traveling down the chain of the Rocky Mountains.  Only recently have we learned that these hummingbirds follow a clockwise pattern of migration.

The adult male  rufous has a slender bill, white breast, a rusty face, flanks and tail with a startlingly beautiful orange-red throat patch or gorget. Some males have some green on back and/or crown (Mr Rufous does not). The female has green, white, some iridescent orange and a dark tail with white tips. The female is slightly larger than the male and has longer wings.

As many of us know, like all hummingbirds, these exquisite jewels feed on nectar from flowers using a long extendable tongue or capture insects on the wing. They require frequent feeding while active during the day and go into a state of torpor at night to conserve energy. Because of their small size, they are vulnerable to insect-eating birds and animals.

Most breeding habitats are open areas, mountainsides and forest edges in western North America and the Pacific Northwest. The female builds a nest made out of mosses, cattails, spider webs, in a tree shrub or tree and raises her brood of two chicks alone. The offspring are ready for flight in about three weeks.

Surveys show continuing declines in rufous numbers during recent decades. Because they rely on finding the right conditions in so many different habitats at just the right seasons during the year, these hummingbirds are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Hummingbirds in general are only found in the western hemisphere, so they do not appear in any culture’s legends and myths except those of North and South America. On the Pacific coast of Peru people carved into the desert surface what archaeologists call a “giant ground drawing” of a hummingbird.

The tiny iridescent “flower birds,” were considered gifts from the gods by Indigenous Peoples. In Peru and other South American countries, at or near the equator, naturalists have catalogued over three hundred species, and it is believed that not all have been discovered yet.

The rain forests of South America were probably where hummingbirds first evolved (co-evolved) with flowers. Perhaps hummingbirds drank the life-giving nectar, leaving behind a pollinated forest before flying away, its burnished colors shimmering in a primal world of sunlight…

Just the sight of these birds brings me into the present moment, one filled with joy.

Thanks be for hummingbirds!

The Bride and the Bull

 

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Both photos were taken at last year’s dance. This year we were asked not to photograph the ceremony, yet some did anyway. This lack of respect appalls me.

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Luminary

 

Christmas day dawned thick with clouds… This morning I even imagined I saw snow on the mesa… an illusion, but perhaps a harbinger of the healing moisture that could bring life to the cracked red, ochre, sea green earth, her wild grasses, cactus and trees. Our beloved desert is parched – in desperate need of rain or snow.

 

When I heard the call of the Great Horned owl from my friend Iren’s house I felt a flicker of hope and peace running through this tired animal body that strives to meet the coming day.

 

My dove sang his beautiful morning song in response to the Great Horned owl. These curious exchanges between predator and prey baffle me. Great Horned Owl is fierce, and aptly named “Tiger of the Sky” and yet these two birds are apparently communicating something of import to one another!

 

Late yesterday afternoon, Christmas Eve, I went with friends to the Pueblo of Okay Owingeh (San Juan) to witness the spectacular dance of the Matachines. This ceremony has roots in both Pueblo and Hispanic traditions of the Rio Grande in New Mexico and revolves around the young Indigenous maiden, the Matachine, and a bull, also an Indian child, the latter of which is symbolically killed and castrated at the end of the performance as his seed is scattered to bring new life to the people.

 

This story sounds grim to those unfamiliar with world mythology but its theme mirrors that of those gods of vegetation like Attis who were sacrificed for the very same reason, to bring forth new life. The mythological roots of this ceremony extend back through time to the earliest Great Mother and her Consort stories, and for me it is very satisfying to witness these stunning dancers with their rainbow colored regalia, ribbons flowing in every direction and the impressive mitered headdresses, the sound of drums and bells as they pass by the luminaries or fires that are lit in the courtyards. At sunset the dance is reenacted in each of the four plazas and ends up at the church where it began, as dusk turns to night. Last night the sky was on fire. The moving crowds of mostly Pueblo people made it hard to see the dancers at times, but for me it was enough simply to be there.

 

The Pentitentes, or Brothers, associated with the Pueblo’s religious observances, chant “Ave Maria, Madre de Dios” (Hail Mary, Mother of God) in somber voices as the procession proceeds from plaza to plaza, each symbolizing one of the four directions. I certainly have the feeling that this chant is much more significant than the simple mantra that appears to belong to the Catholic tradition. What I hear is a universal prayer and entreaty for a Blessing for the people, the animals, plants, trees, and Earth from our Beloved Mother of the World.

 

To say that this ceremony is moving is an understatement. I feel as if I am participating in a ritual that returns me to the origins of humankind.

Dancing for the Dakota Access Pipeline

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Last week we attended dances at Ohkay Owingeh, formally known as the Pueblo of Santa Clara. These Tewa speaking peoples are located on the Rio Grande River, nestled in the hills on tribal owned land in Northern New Mexico.

 

Because it is the time of the year that most dances are held to encourage the crops to grow the first dance we witnessed, not surprisingly, was a Basket dance. The women dancers were dressed in bright shawls of every conceivable color and carried baskets with ribbons, symbolizing the containers for the harvest to come. All wore moccasins. Curiously, some women had what looked like three dimensional moons with rays attached to their backs. These sculptures were quite original and certainly spectacular and once again the corn maiden symbol, the round red dot, adorned the cheek of each woman. Very small girls were also dressed in traditional regalia. Drumming accompanied the dance and corn pollen was dusted on the earth before the dance began.

 

Many pounding drums alerted us to the next dance that immediately followed the first. Drummers and singers entered the plaza from the kiva (the best drummers I have heard so far). The lead dancer was dressed in a war bonnet made of brilliant orange feathers, His arms were covered in purple clay and he had wings made of feathers, bells, scarlet knee bands. He didn’t dance he flew, his feet barely touching the ground. I was mesmerized and for a while couldn’t pay attention anything but the sound of the drumming and this dancer’s whirling body and footwork. He became the dance. Gradually the other dancers entered my awareness, all men with bodies covered in ochre, red, and gray clay.

 

The whole tone of this dance was different. Angry. War cries. Yells. I could feel a fiery intensity that I have never experienced at any of the former dances. I didn’t understand. Some men wore buffalo horn headdresses and other men wore other fantastic war bonnets along with bells, kilts, red ties on their legs. The drumming pulled me into the earth with its awe – inspiring beat.

 

Then I saw the lead dancer wearing an apron with the letters DAPL – the Dakota Access Pipeline – and I finally understood what my body was experiencing. This dance was being held to support all Indigenous peoples in their fight for their brothers and sisters, the right to reclaim their lands. They were dancing for clean waters for all Indigenous peoples, all people, and for the Earth. I wept.

 

Recently the Trump administration failed to follow proper environmental procedures when it granted approval for the Dakota Access Pipeline according to the Federal Judge’s ruling. This action does not stop the oil from flowing but The People took this ruling as a sign of hope because it opens the door to the possibility that this outrageous law might be rescinded.

 

Currently the pipeline can carry 520,000 barrels of oil daily. It is sobering to know that thousands of gallons of oil have already been spilled in dozens of industrial accidents over the past two years. In early April the DAPL leaked oil before it was fully operational.

 

I came away from the dance with a sense of renewed hope and a grateful heart. I have been experiencing so much grief and anger towards this most hostile government that is destroying all hope for planetary survival. Being privileged to witness this active prayer dance for life helped me deal with my own ongoing rage and sense of powerlessness.

 

Thank you People of Ohkay Owingeh for reminding me that I am not alone. My heart goes with you…

A Day in the Forest

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A couple of days ago my friend Iren took me up to Santa Barbara to the San Pedro wilderness. There were so many tall stately conifers – pine, spruce, too many evergreens to mention. Walking through the pale sage gray trunks of the tall aspen forest with their flat edged rustling leaves was only marred by the people that seemed to be obsessed by carving their names into these beautiful smooth ridged trees (which are members of the poplar family as are cottonwoods) creating a vulnerability for disease and untimely death for each thoughtlessly wounded tree. Amber resin weeps tree tears. Whole mountains were covered with every shade of green. White stone. A few peaks with snow could still be seen in the distance. Astonishing tall craggy cliffs and narrow gorges with clear streams running through the low places kept Iren and I close to the rushing water that tumbled over smooth stone.

 

“Water Women” love the lowlands, though Iren is also “Mountain Woman” scaling peaks (with ease) that make me cringe!

 

Iren says this place reminds her of Switzerland, her original homeland. She was sure she smelled mushrooms! I thought of Maine. I was entranced by all the lovely woodland flowers, the bright red wild columbine, delicate lavender bell shaped flowers of the clematis vines, bluebells, violets both white and deep purple, solomon’s seal, valerian, red clover, alpine lupine, water hemlock – I could go on and on here.

 

The medicine woman in me was astonished/astounded by the plethora of natural remedies this forest had to offer. I was delighted to have found such an abundant source for so many of the tinctures/creams I make up and use.

 

Spongy green sphagnum moss and a number of gray green and orange lichens covered some granite rocks. A cacophony of birds sang from the tops of trees and a hummingbird joined us for lunch at the water’s edge.

Black bear sign was in evidence. Fallen logs that housed millions of ants and grubs were raked into shreds. Insects make up most of the Black bears’ omnivore diet in the spring, along with new grass and sedges, all of which were in abundance here (although Black bears are considered omnivores 93 – 95 percent of their diet is made up of sedges, tubers, insects and berries). Some aspen were bent over in that peculiar angle that Black bears use when they are marking territory for mating season in the late spring/early summer. I decided that most of the 3000 bears of New Mexico must be hiding out in this forest, the trees of which were allowed to sprout, grow, decay and die naturally returning to the earth – from death to life – the forest, (left to her own devices), is in a continuous state of becoming.

 

Iren put her hand in the pebble strewn rushing water and quickly withdrew it. This mountain stream was too cold for her to take a quick dip!

 

When we returned to the car I felt so happy, so satisfied, so grateful to Iren. Thanks to my friend, I spent another wondrous day in yet another part of New Mexico, a state that has stolen my heart

Indian Paintbrush or Grandmother’s Hair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: Bruce Nelson

 

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

Bird Watching on Red Willow River

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(Above: Male Bullocks Oriole sipping from hummingbird feeder)

Living on a river is a bird watcher’s paradise I  discovered when I moved here last February. At first it was the Sandhill cranes that awakened me in the morning, or the honking flocks of Canada geese that soared over the house. Mallards quacked as they took to the sky after floating on the river, and some days a Bald eagle or two perched in the cottonwoods. At night I heard the Great Horned owl call. Two kinds of towhees, the Canyon and Spotted version were among my first small avian visitors along with a few chickadees, white crowned sparrows, chipping sparrows, juniper titmice, two kinds of juncos and downy woodpeckers. One day a flock of cactus wrens took over the bare tree as they dropped from the sky chattering incessantly. I also had house finches and pine siskins, and a few robins. The collared doves came gradually followed by white winged doves and finally in March mourning doves appeared. The black and white magpies delighted me with their mimicking behavior. Red tailed hawks and many other raptors regularly patrol the tree and its neighbors but it is very hard for any hawk to penetrate the thick thorny branches of the olive or one of her close neighbors, so to my knowledge, none of the birds here have become dinner for these predators.

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(Above: Mourning Doves)

The Red Winged Blackbirds heralded the coming of spring arriving in a small flock in March, and thankfully some have stayed on. I have them in Maine where I live but Redwings love fast running streams and rivers and usually nest nearby a larger body of water than my brook.

I soon learned that living on the river meant that migrating birds might stay for a short time before leaving again to migrate further north, east or west. There was a poignancy attached to bird watching that I had never experienced before because in Maine we had two distinct seasons spring and fall when the birds either arrived or left. Here on Red Willow River the birds appeared and disappeared without warning. I began to pay close attention to my bird books especially Sibley’s Birds for migrating information.

When the Ruby Throated hummingbirds appeared in mid April so many came at once that I was shocked. In Maine the males appeared first, and the females about a week later but here males and females seemed to arrive together. It wasn’t long before I became accustomed to the buzzing sound of the males zooming around the house as I opened the door at dawn. I deliberately hung two feeders down by the now flooded acequia (ditches that irrigate the fields by the river) next to the Russian Olives so that the females would have plenty to eat while the males sought out the flashy feeder close to the house. One morning I glimpsed an iridescent deep violet throat and sure enough the Black Chinned hummingbirds had arrived to stay. A solitary Rufous hummingbird made a brief appearance before moving northwest to a warmer climate? Rufous hummingbirds are so aggressive that I am just as happy he moved on. Others will soon be with us and I am already using up a half gallon of sugar water every few days!

The Great Blue Heron must be nesting somewhere nearby on the river because I see one flying by the house almost every evening just before sunset.

On May 9th a flash of brilliant orange startled me as the bird landed on a branch of the budded Russian Olive. I hadn’t seen a Baltimore oriole for many years but there was no mistaking that color. With a few hops the bird was perched next to the hummingbird feeder. I watched with amazement as he deftly tipped the feeder in his direction and sucked down the sugar water. When he was joined by his olive and yellow – breasted mate, she started fluttering her wings in his direction. The female evidently captured his attention because they flew off together after he had a few more drinks!

I grabbed an orange and sliced it in two, ran out the door and impaled one half on a broken tree branch. In minutes the two were back and this time the male went straight to the orange spearing it with his bill. His flaming breast feathers made the orange look dull by comparison. Another couple arrived and although the male was just as brilliantly attired I noticed a different wing pattern, different head markings and what seemed to be a sharper beak. I was confused and took a picture of this bird while he too was sipping sugar water. Turning to my bird books I learned that the first pair were Baltimore orioles as I had thought, and the second two were Bullocks orioles. Adult male Baltimore orioles have brilliant orange undersides and shoulders with black heads and wings. In contrast, adult male Bullock orioles have deep orange breasts, with black caps, wings, back, white wing patches, and tail tips. The detail that was most helpful distinguishing the two species was that the Bullock orioles (both male and female) have black lines through each eye. Just after I figured this out another male oriole showed up and his blotchy black head and wing pattern varied from the others. Perplexed, I turned back to the books. According to Sibley’s (eastern) Baltimore and (western) Bullocks orioles frequently interbreed creating hybrids of the two. When the Western Tanager with his distinctive red head joined the crowd I was frankly astonished but at least I could identify him! Within a day or so I was just starting to sort out the differences between the female orioles when the Baltimore orioles suddenly disappeared!

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(Above: male and female Bullocks oriole)

This morning I looked out and saw a bird I haven’t seen for 50 years. Not just one Meadowlark but about a dozen were crowded around an open feeder. Tonight I saw my first Black – headed grosbeak of the season, another male bird whose markings somewhat resemble those of the spotted Towhee.

At dawn I wake up listening to the roar of Red Willow River as she winds her way to the sea wondering who might arrive today. I pay very close attention because I never know which birds might also be leaving…

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(Above: Two collared Doves)

I could easily spend the entire day sitting at the east window peering into the lovely Russian Olive trees that are such a silvery gray green that they provide a striking contrast to almost every bird that perches there. Bird watching on Red Willow River reminds me that change is the only constant and that it’s important to stay emotionally present to treasure each joyful moment.

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.