Exploring the F-word in religion at the intersection of scholarship, activism, and community.
Author: Sara Wright
I am a writer and naturalist who lives in a little log cabin by a brook with my two dogs and a ring necked dove named Lily B. I write a naturalist column for a local paper and also publish essays, poems and prose in a number of other publications.
Historically they used the Eastern flyway but were extirpated by hunting… a slow recovery is in process and the stately Sandhill cranes are once again returning to breed in Maine… so far only birders have been keeping track of their numbers but these majestic pre-historic birds have haunting cries that are often described as bugles, rattles, croaks and trumpets and can be heard 2 -3 miles away. They also utter sounds that combine a kind of brrring in unison. Their impending arrival next month calls up a chant I love…
“There’s a river of birds in migration, a nation of women with wings. There’s a river of birds in migration, a nation of warriors with wings.”
I remember the chill that crawled up my spine as those words seeped into my body all those years ago… I wept, not knowing why.
Without thinking I threw the old seed into a bag of moist liverworts that I would be looking at under a powerful microscope with my scientist friend Al in a couple of days. I have no idea why I added the seed. The scarlet runner was one I kept in a winter bouquet that I had recently dismantled. The purple and rose bean had to be four or five years old. It would not germinate now …
Imagine my astonishment when I opened the bag in the lab. The bean had sprouted! The fat twisted root was hunting for earth. Carefully I re – wrapped the bean and put it in a little container until I could get home and plant it, but not before we looked at it under the microscope. More about that later.
Most of us are familiar with the mythology around oak trees. They are considered oracular beings in many traditions. The Druids considered them to be sacred, the Greeks associated oaks with Zeus –( patriarchy strikes as the ‘ king’ of trees). In Britain there was a goddess of oak trees….but in general oaks are considered to be male beings though they bear seeds and flowers on one tree.
Mighty male trees ? Nothing could be further from the truth in terms of behavior because oaks are found all over the world and in this country they are what is considered to be a keystone species. What this means is that oaks support and nurture an incredible amount of animals, insects and birds. A ‘ Mother ‘Tree in every way. We have four species in this country, one of which clones itself and behaves like a bush. It is believed to be about 1300 years old ( found in the west).Throughout the world oaks are also considered to be keystone species.
When I moved to the mountains my children were grown and gone…
Finally I had land of ‘my’ own with a brook and mountains that was surrounded by forests. I felt protected by something I could not name. I was living on the edge of wilderness and a hunger I had been carrying for all of my adult life was finally appeased.
Although I had a vegetable and flower garden I felt a deep reluctance to cut trees and eventually lost most of my field to pines. When I finally built my log cabin, I did plant fruit trees, but every action was predicated on my need to give back to nature what she had given to me.
Every spring it’s the same… the hunger to begin starting seeds. As a woman and an eco -feminist I am convinced that this need to work with seeds and soil is an ancient pattern that stretches back to our egalitarian matriarchal beginnings.
Some of us like me come from a family of gardeners so there is something to say about the influence of our ancestors directing this process on a personal level. Both patterning and ancestral influences seem to work together. Another “both and”.
After I broke my foot last year I was forced to cease gardening altogether out of necessity because I could no longer use a shovel. If I am really honest I can say I was more than ready to let go. I have grown both vegetables and flowers since I was a child, then while raising a family. At mid – life when I moved to the mountains I made (what seems today) a radical decision. I decided to plant trees, plants and flowers primarily for non – humans in a small area around my house. Nature determined what grew and thrived on the rest of my land. Today people call this re-wilding but then my intention was simple. I wanted to give back to nature what S/he had given to me. I wanted nature to be the receiver.
This morning at dawn I quartered the ripe pomegranate that had been sitting in the center of my wreath since early in December, remembering the night my dad brought one home when I was a small child. I swallowed my first seeds feeling a child’s sense of awe and wonder that any fruit could taste so bitter and so sweet. Crimson bedded in pearl. I have a vivid memory of sensing the importance of the act although I couldn’t have been five. I say this because my little brother wasn’t with us. He was almost four years younger than me. Once mobile, Davey, became the love of my life; we were inseparable.
How could I know then that I had entered the myth, and like Persephone would make periodic descents into the underworld throughout my life? Once I understood, I resisted identification with this mythical figure. This resistance lasted throughout my forties and fifties, but eventually I became reconciled to the Fate that was mine to own.
It was a little more than a year ago that I dreamed that my brother, whose ashes were buried below the house, had moved and roamed freely through the forest I had come to love not just because it was wild, bursting with some 200 year old trees and fertile ground but because it was protected – all 12,000 acres of it. This dream held a ring of unshakable truth for me because Davey and I spent our childhood and adolescence in the woods. Over the past ten years the Powers of this Place (my home) have been fractured. I believe the fragmentation of natural power is due to this small parcel of land being sandwiched in between others that have been heavily and carelessly logged. The perpetual noise created by constant traffic, the whine of man’s machines drowns out the voices of Nurturing Nature Spirits.
In what I have come to call ‘my forest’ it is blessedly still at least in the spring and fall. During the spring there are so many birds singing at the edge of the river that I slip into an enchanted state unable to do anything but look and listen… The Powers of Place are palpable, all day long. Frequently I experience the amorphous presence of my little brother. I have also found my burial place in Hemlock Hollow among the tangled roots of the Mother Trees sung to by the river.
It’s another gray snowy day with large white flakes falling from the sky… January lasts “forever” every single year. I feed chickadees on my window ledge until the squirrels show up; then I scatter seed on the ground. Chickadees begin their day just before 7 AM when it is still dark, coming to the ledge. Today the turkeys are absent, fluffed up monks still hidden under hemlock boughs. The blood male cardinal appears with his usual message. I peer into the forest as the turkeys make their way across the brook and start up the hill while gazing at sage green shield lichens and two pure white birches that stand out like sentries, peeling white skin. Some maples and many hemlocks border the brook that is running clear of ice. A multitude of twigs and evergreen spires sway, branches twist and bend filling every inch of space, a comforting sight, even though all the deciduous trees are bare. Global warming turns snow to rain and back again in every storm creating ice bound paths, easily traversed by my little dogs. Dangerous for me. Often now I am housebound.
This gray world of mine needs animation from within…
Last night I was listening to plant scientist Monica Gagliano who is pushing the boundaries of what we know about plants. She proved that plants respond to the sound of water by moving toward it and cannot be tricked. Bio-acoustics is the study of sound and Monica is researching other ways that plants communicate. We know they use chemical messengers to warn each other above ground and below through the mycelial network thanks to the work of Suzanne Simard who I shall discuss in a moment. We have learned that plants emit electrical impulses. But Monica is studying another way that plants communicate. She says they listen to all the plants around them and learn from each other so that they do not have to re-invent the wheel with each generation. In one amazing memory experiment mimosa plants taught her that plants remember what happened to them previously and don’t repeat their mistakes. The Mind of Plants was her first book. She also studied with Indigenous healers in the Amazon and discusses this mysterious and compelling journey in her latest book Thus Spoke the Plants.
“Shamans bridge the night flow…” the first lines from a poem I wrote long ago keep coming into my mind. Frustrated because I can no longer access the poem, I accept that the first line is what I need… ‘bridging the night flow’ of intrusive negative feelings/actions on the part of others (as well as myself) is precisely the edge I am on. Even smoke – filled rooms remind me that I need personal protection.
An Indigenous healer and impeccable scientist and naturalist friend of mine reminds me of what I know, spiritual forces are moving. When I told him of my dream his response was to focus on protection, create the intention, and let it go… I tried to do this in my mind with limited success but apparently our discussion around this subject opened a door for me or we both did as I remembered how important it is for me to ground my intentions in something concrete. How had I forgotten?
When I was a young woman, a divorced mother of two, working as a waitress I became obsessed by a window hanging in a local store. This cluster of grapes was fashioned out of thick, uneven hunks of stained glass that the artist had retrieved from bombed cathedrals in Europe. The grapes shimmered – ecclesiastical purple with limed green leaves. Although I could hardly afford to, I paid an outrageous $50.00 for this piece and hung it above my bedroom window. I never regretted the choice. Whenever I looked at the stained glass, I had the strange sense that there was a message hidden there. I ignored it.
After my brother’s death two years later (my youngest son was two) I lost most of myself, but held on to my love for plants tending to them with deep affection and attention.
My first word was ‘fower’ for flower so my relationship with plants stretched back to babyhood. I believed the flowers plants and trees that lived around my grandmother’s house were my close friends.
The winter solstice is almost upon us just as the first heavy snow buries the forest and house under 28 inches of snow. I never look forward to this shift into the cold, ice, and snow, although I do wrap myself in peaceful silence, sitting by the fire dreaming as twilight turns to night. My Norfolk Island pine and tipped balsam wreath shimmer with tiny stars. The scent of balsam soothes my senses and purifies the air. This month above all others is my time to honor the trees… I am keenly aware that Bone Woman and Old Man Winter are rising with the moon, whipped up by Northwest winds.
My scientist and naturalist friend, a member of one of the seven Indigenous Sioux tribes agrees with me that winter solstice is a dangerous time, one of the reasons in the old European way that everyone is masked while acting out winter solstice stories. These tales may vary in content but all have the same root. Shadow is on the move. Masks protect the people, the risk of exposure to danger is minimized in this way.
Part 1 was posted last week. You can read it here.
When I first came to this area 40 years ago I was ‘called’ to land about 15 minutes from here. That first summer I was out in the field picking blueberries when the field rose up around me and held me like a mother. For the first time in my life I felt loved. Shortly afterwards I visited an area that had been brutally logged. I had never seen anything like this and just the scent of weeping pines sickened me. That night I had a dream: the terrifying picture of dying trees and slash and then superimposed over it the image of my beautiful land. When I awakened I thought that the dream was telling me that loving my land was somehow helping the ravaged forest I had seen the day before.
Soon after this experience frightening tree dreams began… whole forests were being slaughtered all around me. The waters were receding in my brook and destructive uncaring neighbors moved in. Two were already living here.
Leaving chores behind I bundled up and grabbed a trowel and drove between still waters to my beloved forest. The premature snow had melted, cracked ice created fantastic glittering patterns in shallow waters informing me that it was probably too late to dig plants for the frog house. Al, scientist, scholar and naturalist, Owl, my friend had just given me a terrarium, someday to become a frog house… my intention was to gather moss and jagged pieces of lichen covered bark…maybe a partridgeberry or two for both of us. Coming here to Hemlock Hollow seemed like just the right place. I also had come to say goodbye to my friends the Hemlock trees for the winter season…
At first, I scrambled around disappointed that most plants were frozen in including the sphagnum moss. Not wanting to disturb sleeping plants, I lifted pincushion and red stemmed moss that grows quickly and visited an old log ripe with rich soil and rotting sides which came away easily. This decaying wood would make walls for my frogs to cling to as vines crept up the sides. Picking up lichens on old sticks, I also uprooted two tiny hemlocks growing on a log that would thrive in a moist environment. Satisfied, that a little of this forest would spend the winter with me I returned to the car with enough bounty to satisfy both Al and me. I was going to give him and his frogs more than half of what I gathered as a surprise.
During the last few years I have spent hours listening to the haunting cries of Sandhill cranes, awaiting them at the river, stunned each time as I glimpsed a flock float to the ground, great gray wings extended to break their fall as talons touched earth, attended to enthusiastic family greetings and muted conversations, felt a sense of devastating loss when these birds circled overhead to say goodbye each year before heading north to breed (while I lived in New Mexico), and then discovering to my joy that they live and breed here in Maine. I still experience the same hunger to glimpse families in Fryeburg each October and lose time watching their loving family dynamics. I continue to feel intense grief and loss at crane leave-taking remaining baffled by the intensity of my own responses. In the last week I think I have finally uncovered the roots of the story behind the cranes and me…
These birds are prehistoric in origin and have the strongest family ties. The families never break up and when separated greet each other joyously even after a few hours as small groups fly to different feeding areas. Incredibly poignant. There is always one that stands watch at night, a protector, so the others can sleep in peace, one leg extended, usually in water. I am in love with these birds but until a few days ago did not understand the powerful pull their presence exerts over me.
Unfortunately, an inner darkness has been with me all fall hiding in the corners of my mind and disturbing my body creating headaches and stomach troubles during the day. Although I attempt to protect myself from a culture that I cannot control by not listening to news, watching television, movies or perusing social media I am painfully aware of the fact that politicians on an international level cannot even agree to discuss what to do about climate change – this after 30 years of doing absolutely nothing – creating in me a mindless fury that leaves me in black despair. The time of acting locally and thinking globally is long past. Thinking and doing must occur on a global level. Novelist Richard Powers states the obvious: “People can better imagine the end of the end of the world before the end of Capitalism”. Then we can move to the moon.
I have also been forced to acknowledge how difficult this year has been on a personal level. Aging is affecting my energy level, increasing the severity of depressed states, my sense of inner and outer balance. I am vulnerable and know it although I do my best to begin each day with gratitude as I first peer out at my beloved trees, a little nuthatch or chickadee, gaze at a silver crescent, or celebrate a pale pink dawning.
The older I get the more important the forest becomes to me because it is a place where I find inspiration and peace. I also play in the woods! During the month of October and what I call the “Witching Moon” that has just passed I think of all the women healers that lived alone in the forests with their animal and plant ‘familiars’. These women learned that nature instructs those who apprentice themselves to her. Animals and plants spoke to these women through intuition, sensing, feeling, or through their dreams because these women listened to them. Did these women play too? Westerners fear nature because they are so separate from her. Unable to imagine conversation (let alone play) occurring between women animals and plants, even today women who live close to nature are viewed with suspicion. I know because I am one of them.
I spend a lot of time in a 12,300 acre wood that one family has preserved for perpetuity. Recently these generous people have leased the land to the local land trust so it is getting more attention. I am not sure that this is a good thing. I note the amount of motorcycle and four wheeler use has increased dramatically on the roads that run parallel with the forest; some of the once quiet woodland paths are either echoing or saturated with sound.
Late last March an emaciated doe appeared around the house even before the snow was gone. Although I am used to having wild animals visit I was bewildered; this deer seemed too tame. I could get within a couple of feet of her while talking to her softly.
Every morning there she was standing at the front door nipping twigs from the crabapple tree when I let the dogs out before dawn. I could see where she was spending the night curled into last year’s fallen leaves, just outside my bedroom window. I named her Red Deer because of her pitiful rusty red coat. It wasn’t long before the first emerald shoots appeared in my flower garden. Red Deer feasted indiscriminately denuding all the plants. Initially annoyed, my increasing concern for the emaciated deer’s welfare eventually allowed me to let go of my flowers – after all, the garden was perennial and all these plants would return next year. The doe was so listless that I thought she might be dying…. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was taking the long view and incorporating it into the present.
One of the aspects of feminism that really disturbs me is the SILENCE around aging. Reflections on our personal lives are a critical piece that can help women to deal with this inevitable process. Oh, we write about the “wisdom” of the crone, the powers of the “Old Ones”, but we don’t share the poignant, dark, or terrifying aspects of personal aging leaving women without female empathy and companionship when we need it most. I am committed to breaking this silence. My birthday poem speaks to the pattern that lies behind my life and how it determined to an extent how I have lived. Chosen or not.
We come out of a culture that believes that each person has ‘free will’ and therefore the choices we make are our own. I challenge this concept because my life experience has taught me otherwise. Within the constraints of the patterns we live we do have choices. So this is a “both and” approach. Coming to terms with constraining patterns can be painful, but only then can we make choices that allow us to make peace with our lives.
Fall is the season of ‘the cutting away’, a poignant time to celebrate the deepening darkness as we turn inward. I think the powers of the goddess are strongest at this time of year… I wrote this wistful poem in celebration of Autumn as I am experiencing it this year… perhaps the personal reflection that follows is the kind of thinking that is capable of opening a door to a new way of perceiving?
We use the word “transformation” very casually in our culture. Humans including feminists have ‘adopted’ the word to describe an inner shift in mental awareness, and of course this can happen, although not usually after a weekend spiritual retreat. The dictionary defines transformation as a dramatic change in form or appearance. In animals, transformation becomes a metamorphosis – a true change in form during that creature’s life cycle. In physics the word denotes an induced or spontaneous change of one element to another by a nuclear process. As a naturalist and ethologist it seems to me that humans may not really know what the word transformation really means. Doesn’t transformation include both mind and body? Perhaps we need to turn to nature to find out! One point becomes abundantly clear. Transformation is fraught with danger and only some creatures (and humans?) are able to survive the shift. What follows is a story of transformation that moved me to tears.
When the extraordinary creature emerged from a split translucent capsule I could hardly believe my eyes. Although I have witnessed butterfly transformation many times over the course of my life none have moved me like this butterfly birth did.
The words of the mantra suddenly materialized in my mind and spilled out of my mouth as I drove home, exhausted from the days chores. Simultaneously a sharp pain lodged itself in my lower back. Astonished by hearing myself repeat the familiar words as the pain intensified it took a moment for me to connect the two. I was experiencing family anguish and it was coming through my words and through my body. Although I am not a catholic I repeated Mary’s prayer opening my heart to the person that needed deep comfort. I could sense a door opening…a threshold being crossed.
I had already dreamed that my aunt had died the night she did. “The Queen is Dead”, the dream said. My aunt Terry, a very simple, religious, and loving woman lived her life surrounded by a light that was palpable. Calling her Queen was appropriate. I sent Billy, my cousin, six pure white roses attaching the words “Roses in the Snow” to the card after the phrase appeared out of thin air while I was sitting on the porch at twilight.
The other day I found the most beautiful fungus on an aging white pine set against deep green moss that was almost arcing over the brook. When I looked up Dacrymyces palmatis I discovered that it’s common name was “Witches Butter.” That figures I thought – this must mean that this plant has medicinal qualities, and of course it does along with the fact that the fungus is edible.
Any time I see the word witch associated with a plant if I am not familiar with it I start digging into research inevitably coming up with the same kind of information – the plant/ tree/ fungus/slime mold is edible and has medicinal value.
The word witch as many of us know has at its root to bend or shape. Shape -shifting by non –ordinary means.
Apple trees have always been dear to my heart and of course, they are associated with the goddess. What follows is a little story where the goddess is made manifest.
Torn Apple Heart
Three years ago I had a beloved apple pruned – I do not normally prune trees, believing that to do so may harm them, but because I once trusted a young boy who also loved trees, I allowed him to make a few cuts that spring.
Last year my apple struggled and dropped her apples too soon.
This year rain has been scarce except for monsoons that first drown the trees, leave roots barren, with most of the moisture rushing down the hill to the brook. When I noticed so many many apples on too thin young branches I became uneasy….
It’s almost mid August; since mid July we have experienced the hottest summer I have ever endured.
I personally think the quality of endurance is underrated. Remember Celie in The Color Purple? After living through hell this woman became who she was meant to be. Sometimes endurance does seem to be the way through. Just now the Woman’s Movement seems to be quite dead, but perhaps if we can just endure in time this situation may shift. That at least is my fervent hope.
Endurance and the Long Winding Road
From the day I bought this property almost 40 years ago I walked down this lovely road with a sense of the deepest pleasure. The trees were young then. In spring wild cherries burst with pure white or rosy pink blossoms, the bark of each a different hue, emerald pines bore startling white candles, chattering poplars multiplied, pale gray and pearl white birches leaned in for intimate conversation, smooth barked red maples graced open spaces all lemony lime in spring – leaves and needles etched against cobalt blue. The trees were healthy then.
Intolerable temperatures, the air dripping with humidity, unable to sweat, my body catches fire. My aging mind shuts down.
How to find hope in the ruins, not just personally but all around me in dying leaves rife with holes or chewed to bits in late July, flowers shriveling under a merciless sun. A solitary frog croaks from somewhere inside a garden gone wild. Silver swords create an impenetrable bower protecting toads and frogs from within. The scent of bittersweet butterfly weed draws in flaming orange fritillaries, monarchs, bees, a silvery white butterfly with two spots on her wings. A few spikes of scarlet bee balm burst. Flames erupt, crimson, salmon, lemony lilies and golden nasturtiums seduce with sweet nectar. Hummingbirds hover, chirping madly between these and red mint…my breathing is labored – shallow – my body waterlogged and swollen. Together the dogs and I doze lazily, our bodies aching for