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.
The patenting of seeds[i] has made the thousands-year-old practice of seed saving illegal, as is the sharing of seeds from farmer to farmer. The most notorious case is that of Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser, whose canola crops were contaminated with Roundup Ready canola pollen blown into his fields from neighboring corporate farms. When Monsanto trespassed onto his fields, took samples, and found Roundup Ready canola plants mixed in with Schmeiser’s own canola plants, they sued him for violation of patents. Ultimately, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled in favor of Monsanto, but also ruled that Schmeiser owed Monsanto nothing.
In my own city, seed sharing became an issue when in 2013 our local library decided to start a seed library. The project was begun with great hopes that patrons could check out seeds for their home gardens, with the understanding that they would save a portion of their seeds and return these to the library for next year’s use. [ii] Project leaders hoped this would preserve locally adapted seed varieties. Unfortunately, after the seed library came to the public’s attention, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture informed the library that they were in violation of a Minnesota statute that prohibited the exchange of non-commercial seeds. [iii] Library Manager Carla Powers commented, “ . . . the law went so far as to make it illegal for gardeners to exchange a handful of seeds with one another.”[iv] But this did not end the library’s efforts. Several ally organizations[v] stepped up to create an amendment to the statute that exempted the exchange of non-commercial seeds from testing, labeling and licensing laws. This inspired a state-wide effort to change the law, which was successfully accomplished in that year’s legislative session.[vi]
Author’s Note: This piece was inspired by Janet Maika’i Rudolph’s wonderful FAR post of December 15th, 2022, “Ode to Seeds.”
“. . . I know, yes, there is renewal, /because this is what the seeds ask of us/ with their own songs/ when we listen to their small bundle of creation,/ of a future rising from the ground . . .” – Linda Hogan
The first seed catalogs started arriving in the mail even before the turn of the new year. In an annual ritual of hope, in the depths of winter we turn our thoughts and dreams to growing things – seeds of heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, carrots, and beans that will feed us and grace our tables in the summer and fall, and colorful marigolds, nasturtiums, and zinnias that will delight all summer long with their beauty. Is this the invincible summer of which Camus wrote?[i]
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.
The mountaintop shrines of Mount Juctas in Archanes, Crete are situated on twin peaks, which may have symbolized breasts. Ancient shrines on the northern peak date from 2200 BCE until at least the end of the Ariadnian (Minoan) period in 1450 BCE. A crevice in the rock was filled with offerings of pottery, clay images of women and men in ritual dress, diseased bodies and body parts, sheep and cattle, and other objects. Excavations to a depth of 13 meters did not reach the bottom layers. Many offerings had been burned, suggesting that the objects were first thrown into fire and then dropped into the crevice. People who climbed the mountain for the festivals would have spilled over both peaks and there may have been shrines as well as fires on both of them.
“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?
Speak the truth about conflict, pain, and suffering.
Take only what you need.
Think about the consequences of your actions for seven generations.
Approach the taking of life with great restraint.
Practice great generosity.
Repair the web
In Rebirth of the Goddess, I offered Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality as an alternative to the Ten Commandments. The Nine Touchstones are intended to inform all our relationships, whether personal, communal, social, or political.
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.
Towards the end of Braiding Sweetgrass, mother, biologist, and member of the Citizen Potawami Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer sets out at the end of winter to visit a forest area near her home that she considers hers not in name but in virtue of her love and care for it. On arriving, she discovers that the forest is no more, having been clear-cut by the owner. The wildflowers and the plants she has harvested over the years have sprouted up, but Kimmerer knows that without the forest cover they will be burned by the sun and their places taken by brambles.
Kimmerer is overcome by anger and despair, her feelings for the land she loves merging with her knowledge that not only her forest, but the earth itself is being treated as nothing more than a product by so many—without second thought for all that is lost.
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.
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.
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.
Small, perfect, magnificent! The creature lay in Mark’s hand, unmoving. Stunned or dead—we couldn’t tell. Some birds recover from impact with our sliding glass door and some do not. This was a hard hit—I could hear it from another room—and as I gazed at the beauty of this bird—a blue-winged warbler Mark said, I felt pretty sure the Goddess would call home it soon.
As I write this, fall equinox—Mabon to some of us—is two days away. Already here in Maine the days are noticeably shorter. The dark times are upon us now. Daylight will diminish minute by minute until winter solstice when the sun will grace us with nine whole hours of light before the Wheel of the Year turns and the days begin to lengthen, almost imperceptibly. The anniversary of my first husband’s death is a few days after equinox so this is always a hard time of year for me as I face into the darkness and the inevitably of death.
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.
Moderator’s note: This marvelous FAR site has been running for 10 years and has had more than 3,600 posts in that time. There are so many treasures that have been posted in this decade that they tend to get lost in the archives. We are beginning this column so that we can all revisit some of these gems. Today’s blogpost was originally posted May 29, 2012. You can visit it here to see the original comments.
In the last few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about hair. It’s hard to avoid thinking about it when you are the greyest, hairiest woman in your suburban, north shore town. Myself and the other two ‘all natural’ women in town stand out like beacons among a sea of smooth, streaked, glossy manes of gorgeously cut and styled hair. And each spring, I stare at my shorts and tank top a little longer before wearing them around town. I’ll be perfectly honest – I don’t blame those slaves to fashion one bit. Although I try to avoid what I call the ‘crazy witch woman’ look, there’s no getting around it – smooth legs look slick, and dye smooths out those grey frizzies and takes a good ten years off your age!
The Old Woman still lives in the Forest as she once did in fairy tales. She can present her dark side to those who are uninitiated (mirror mirror on the wall…) but she also offers gifts to those that visit her wild untrammeled places… After a week spent in a forest where a river snakes her way through thousands of acres and beavers act as transformers I wrote this poem because even with the astonishing autumn crimson, orange, and gold I was drawn repeatedly to the mirror reflections of trees, leaves, clouds and sky in the still pools. When I untangled the why I wrote this poem realizing that what caught me was the importance of having an accurate reflection from another, person, or aspect of nature in which to see the world and self as whole. Accurate reflections are intimately tied to relationships of all kinds.
Water is made of magic above and below Sky blue, slate gray, piercing orange flames fly through thin air –shafts of light slice wavy ripples embrace the river’s flow, Sand hill cranes and geese soar overhead…
It interests me that September 30th was declared Truth and Reconciliation Day in Canada because this is the day I was born and this is where I think we need to begin. Truth and Reconciliation is about acknowledging the wound and healing the split between the Indigenous ways of being in the world and the rest of western civilization. First we become fully accountable for the blood that was shed on this continent by immigrants (knowingly or unknowingly). Healing the bloodyroot that is still caught underground. And then we need to begin to listen to those who are still in direct relationship with the earth…If there was ever a time for humans to surrender one perspective for another it is now. We need to reject the values of patriarchy – domination, war, hatred, and division – and make a shift to what Carol Christ calls an egalitarian matriarchy – a communal way of living that values relationships and compassion and thrives upon equality between the sexes – one that also celebrates diversity. Turning to Nature and Indigenous peoples to learn how to make this shift is a road to genuine hope…
All summer I have been engaged with mushrooming in the forest, a practice that has deepened my relationship with the forest as a whole as well as making it even more real to me that I am walking on hallowed ground with Forest Scientist Suzanne Simard, who also learned about (symbiotic) mycorrhizal networks by examining mushrooms. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of some of the millions of gold, silver, red and orange threads that lie just beneath the forest floor. Thanks to the work of this feminist, (the word is never used in her book Finding the Mother Tree…) Suzanne is a prime example of a woman who has lived her life as a radical feminist who is indebted to her male relatives and does not find men a threat.
When I think about the burning trees I think about women because we are so closely related through myth and story as well as sharing DNA. What is happening to these trees once happened to us… I note that women who normally are not keyed into trees in general seem to be deeply moved by the burning of these ‘elders’. Is that because we feel the threat to the Tree of Life and all that entails manifesting as uncontrolled fire?
The Burning Times
I gaze out my window into the swamp maples that ‘normally’ would have caught fire by the end of September. Not crimson red but bittersweet orange. I note a brownish tinge on the edges of dying leaves. Some have let go, fluttering to the ground. I must find a way to emulate them. Yesterday in the woods I am straining to see brilliance that isn’t there except for an occasional flicker. I don’t realize until I get home that this lack of color is literally depressing a life force that I have identified with my entire life. Accepting these seasonal disruptions is so hard for me – so much harder than I ever imagined.
The other night I had a dream about a strange green hooded figure that was guarding a green gate underground. She wasn’t human; she had a hooked bird’s beak (like many of Marija Gimbutas’s goddess figures). Something about the strange face reminded me of an American Indian. This creature was not friendly but she was not hostile either. Just really intent upon making it clear that you did not pass through the gate without her permission. The word Root kept reverberating out loud in this place… Root Woman? Strange that she was also a bird. Anyway, thinking about bird women prompted the following poem and brief reflection on my relationship with one kind of bird…
“I wake up under a tropical dome that has been with us most of August. The thick air feels like it is smothering me, and with emphysema that may not be my imagination. I can no longer walk or hike in this weather. Migraines and other peculiar headaches come and go – dizziness too – the former probably due to changes in pressure; As yet I have no diagnosis for the latter. I am feeling old because I am getting old. I move into my 77th year trying to adjust to increasing physical limitations.”
On the first harvest moon that occurs in August, (according to ancient teaching by Northern Indigenous peoples) I harvested elderberries under a burning sun, sloshing through mud, thorny bushes and cattails to reach the clusters of ruby beads that would soon become a tincture that I knew would help me resist colds flu and perhaps also the Covid variants. The world health organization in Europe is presently researching elderberry because studies have indicated that it apparently block viruses from entering cells (it does with H1N1 virus), but I have been using this remedy for years and know that it mitigates the effects of colds and prevents flu, at least for me. While removing the berries from their tree – like stems my fingers were stained the most beautiful purple, reminding me of a story I had written when I turned 70 about becoming an old woman… In this tale, I imagined that an Elderberry woman came to guide me into the future.
When I was about forty years old I discovered a clay deposit on a beach that I visited frequently. Intrigued, I sat down and began working with the river’s gift. I remember my astonishment when a beaked bird – woman emerged out of the clump of damp earth. I could feel a surge of fire pulsing through my body so I took the figure home and placed it on my bedside table, hoping to discern its message.
Shortly thereafter I discovered the work of Marija Gimbutas in the book The Language of the Goddess. There were a number of beaked goddesses pictured in this volume, some uncannily similar to mine. Had I tapped into the world of the ancient bird goddesses? I believed so. Although I had no idea what this might mean these images of Marija’s captured my imagination and kept me questioning. It wasn’t long before I also dreamed other bird goddess images and rendered each of them in clay…
I live just down the road from one of our many lakes and ponds here in western Maine. Almost every morning I hear the haunting call of the loons as they fly over the house. Although I cherish the symphony I have never figured out why some of these birds making this early morning flight from one lake to another. I have never seen any research that supports my experience – but obviously, for unknown reasons some loons move routinely from pond to pond. Why remains a mystery.
I used to have a woodsman friend who once commented that he didn’t understand why everyone loved loons so much because they were fierce predators who speared their hapless fish, duck, or goslings to death before devouring them. At the time I found Don’s statement ironic (and irritating!) because this man was an excellent brook trout fisherman and deer hunter. In his defense I must add that I had to acknowledge that he also loved all animals; after deer hunting season ended he fed his deer all winter.