Fireweed

This essay was inspired by our recent trip to the Canadian Rockies and modeled after Terry Tempest William’s piece in Orion, The Glorious Indifference of Wilderness (September/October 2014). In the essay below I play with a mosaic of connected thoughts. I welcome your comments.

 

Fireweed

I don’t believe in signs.

Not even seeing a black wolf on our last day in Banff, just hours after I lamented such a possibility. Not even a treat of four rainbows gracing the vast Calgary sky on the last few hours of daylight as we left behind our vacation, a splendid respite, a second honeymoon purposefully set in the Canadian Rockies where we’d wanted our first honeymoon, and intentionally starting as soon as we were officially empty-nesters.

Empty-nest: a stage in a parent’s life after the children have left home.

The pre-trip days were heavy with unspoken expectations that vanished into easy, peaceful days as soon as we landed in Canada, rented a car, and set off. If it is possible to mix the passion and playfulness of young love with the wisdom and comfort of a 27-year relationship, we did it effortlessly. It was as hard to leave, as it was to fathom never returning to the nest we’ve built in Virginia. So we lingered on that last day. One more walk, one more canyon to visit, several more hours of seemingly endless mountain vistas, all to stall our return to civilization.

We’re returning to an empty nest. Will it be weird? Can we continue the essence of this vacation once real-life hits us?

For a split second I thought it was a black bear. It’s a wolf! I was driving. I slowed to a crawl on the side of the road while Chris took pictures. Its trot was steady, anxious. If it could know that all my life I’ve wanted to see a wolf in the wild, to look it in the eye, to apologize for the slaughter of its ancestors, that I was an advocate for all the wildness it represents and the wilderness it supports, it would not care. I was interrupting its agenda. It trotted just ahead of the front of the car, seemingly dog-like, until it turned to look back at us. Wild! As far from the dogs sleeping on my living room floor as perhaps we are from our most recent primate ancestors. I could drive the berm for hours just to watch, but suddenly it was gone, retreating back into the understory, back to the shadows in my mind.

I don’t believe in signs, but it is fun to pretend that such events give special meaning to memories of loved ones or milestone events in our lives. And while the wolf and the rainbows are obvious ones to use, it is instead a wildflower we encountered that takes the role of symbolism, or of finding connections, for me. Fireweed.

What happens to an empty nest? How will it change? After all, nature abhors a vacuum.

Chamerion angustifolium. Commonly known as fireweed, but also known as rosebay willowherb, great willow-herb, or wickup is an herbaceous perennial from 1.5 to 8 feet tall with pink to magenta flowers.  We saw it along roadsides and in meadows. It is native to Canada and some parts of the United States, and is found throughout Eurasia. It grows in a wide range of soils and can be found in coniferous and mixed-hardwood forests as well as meadows, stream banks, grasslands and aspen parklands. It is most common in disturbed sites such as burned forests, avalanche areas and along roads. It is the first species to colonize a region after a forest fire.

An empty nest is a disturbance to the flow of days and of years, to meal planning, to weekend routines. As a couple we must colonize new ground.

We saw it and wondered at its name. A phlox? No, it has 4 petals not five. We saw it and marveled at its seedpods, how they split open symmetrically, revealing small seeds that will be carried on the wind by long tufts of white fluff. A milkweed? No milky sap in its stems or leaf petiole. And then we saw it colonizing a forest meadow that had burned eight years ago. Even late in the season, with signs of senescence, it was a stunning sea of purple against the tall black stalks of death. Life after death is real in nature. Change is normal.

An empty nest is not a syndrome, though a Google search will try to convince you otherwise. It’s just a change. Maybe a big change, yes, but we are still parents. We’re still here for our children; our nest has just broadened to include their futures as adults. We will cheer them on or offer shoulders just as before. And they will always have this nest to which they can return.

Fireweed blooms from the bottom up. Alaskans have a saying that when the plant blooms at the base, summer has begun, and when the last flowers at the top bloom, summer is nearing its end. All we saw were flowers at the top.

But the end of one thing is the beginning of something else. Nature abhors a vacuum.

A few days after we returned home, I was preparing for bed and I called upstairs, It’s getting late, time to think about bed. All that replied were the echoes of ghost steps ingrained in my brain and I thought of all the times little footsteps crossed that floor upstairs to brush teeth before bed. Those footsteps grew each year, leaving bigger and bigger signatures on the wood floor until they were big enough to leave. Will I always hear them?

An empty nest is not a syndrome. It is a stage in life. It is as real as adolescence, first loves, parenting, and all the other ways we parcel our time into chunks of meaning. We are embracing it the same way we did the sea change that rode in on the birth of our first child. We will ride the waves of time and change, excited for new possibilities, and comforted in wistful times with great memories.

And, while that wolf encounter is not a sign of anything but serendipity, the wolf itself is a sign of all things wild. It is a sign of tenacity. I can hear its paws thumping along the forest floor in a constant pursuit of new beginnings.

Fireweed along side of the road.
Fireweed along side of the road.
Reflections in a pond, Golden, British Columbia
Reflections in a pond, Golden, British Columbia
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Fireweed seed pods

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Summer School

It has been two years since my first blog post describing my ‘change in plans’, my career shift.   I’ve learned a lot about gardening and home canning.  I’m becoming wiser about the limits of my joints and tendons. I try to balance organization and planning with the patterns of nature, to summon energy for writing when there is a constant tug to get outside.  I could list the facts I’ve learned and anecdotal garden experiences I’ve had over the past two years, but these are things you can look up, or things you already know.  Instead, I want to tell of less tangible lessons I’m learning from gardening.  This is my version of Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten; just replace the word kindergarten with my garden.  I do not consider myself a master of any of the lessons discussed below.  It’s a process I hope to continue until my seasons run out.

First a little background:  I’ve had small doses of these lessons in my 49 years, but not as often or as foundational as I now wish.  My siblings and I grew up with dysfunctional parents who were too busy sorting out their own problems.  Our home atmosphere was thick with tension; their parenting style benign neglect with some emotional neglect woven in.  I had no idea how sheltered and naïve I was until I went to college, and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since.  Catching up for me meant to-do lists, interests in (too) many things, and always wishing for tomorrow, or next week, or the next month.  Life became a race, a blur, until I no longer knew where the finish line was or what my objectives were.  Mix in modern society, with iPhones, Facebook, and Amazon next-day delivery—all of this just further blurred my days.

But my garden teaches me:

Patience—No matter how often I check the tomatoes, they will ripen at their own pace.  They need the right combination of chemicals produced under the right range of temperatures.  Summer days and weeks have their own pace and it feels good to follow along, rather than fight it.

Humility—I am inconsequential to the universe, meaning I am no more important than another person, and possibly plants and animals.  I’d accepted this notion years ago and I am comfortable with it.  It is why I love how mountain and ocean vistas make me feel small. With my garden, I am reminded of my insignificance daily.  So much goes on in a garden that I’ve only an inkling of, and that would occur without my input at all, save having planted a seed in the first place.  I have problems with a hierarchy of species that puts humans at the top.  The base of the pyramid is key.  We wouldn’t be here without all that green biomass to sustain us.  And what of insects?  E.O. Wilson states: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago.  If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

Tolerance—Gardening is no fun when I’m filled with hate for invasive weeds or insect pests that want to eat my plants.  I don’t weed angrily anymore and I only bother with pests when there are too many.  I’ve taken words like battle and war out of my garden vocabulary.  Though, I did use the phrase crime scene to describe the theft of all my Romas and red runner beans last night.  Like I said, it’s a process.  I’m not pressing charges by the way.  Regarding insects, if I want an eruption of pests gone, I make myself hand-remove them.  Standing with an insecticide and spraying at arms-length seems more violent, and at odds with being humble.

Respect—I have garnered incredible respect for all the farmers before me, whose wisdom is now collected and disseminated on the Internet.  They have saved me years of struggle and confusion.  Yet, in their spirit, I am willing to experiment.  I don’t want a perfect garden NOW.  I actually want the garden to teach me some things, and I don’t mind if it takes time.

Awe—How did homesteaders harvest enough food to last the winter for big families before there was easy access to groceries?  I am recording what I harvest each day.  My family would not be eating as enthusiastically as we do if this were all I had to offer.  And while I am canning more than jams, there is no way we could just shop for flour and sugar during the winter months.  Well, unless bread and jam were all we wanted for dinner.

Reflection—I have flowers all over the garden and this has enhanced its beauty, and attracted more bees than I’ve seen in years.  It also invites me to sit and ponder all the life and death around me. Why don’t we talk more about death?  It’s everywhere.  It’s in past seasons: my father-in-law, my mother, and my sister-in-law.  It’s in front of me: the blister beetle I just killed, the cucumbers senescing on the vine.  It’s in me: cells die and new ones form constantly.  Harmful bacteria are introduced and my immune system kills them.  Beneficial bacteria in my gut die as a natural part of their life cycles or because I didn’t eat the food that nourishes them.

We don’t talk about death because it scares us.  I don’t want to feel scared any more than I want to feel hate when I’m weeding.  I fear a sudden and painful death despite Hollywood’s attempts to make me numb to such events.  I fear a slow and painful death from cancer or an illness.  But I don’t want to fear natural, end-of-life death.  To me the alternative – eternal life – is horrifying.  I don’t want to wear out my welcome.  I hope when it’s my time to die, I will approach death with grace.  There have been nights I have fallen into bed with sheer, physical exhaustion from a good homesteading kind of day, content with what we’ve accomplished (for the purpose of living) and thought, If I die in my sleep, I will have died happy.  And yet, as soon as those thoughts cross my weary brain cell synapses, I feel the vibrations of deep muscle fibers screaming NO!  Not yet!  But I wonder if this is what it’s like, could be like, when I am very old and life in general has tired me, when my season is over.

Every species has its own life cycle.  In general, life doesn’t wear out its welcome.  When it’s time to die, it’s time.  I worry that the faster paced we go in life, the scarier death will become because we we’re bypassing the process.  In trying to cheat death, we’re missing life.

So, ultimately, the best lesson my garden teaches me is to slow down.  Spend some time each day in the NOW.  Eat a tomato off the vine; they don’t all need to go to sauce.  I don’t need my cell phone in my pocket in the garden.  I don’t need to weed every day if it exhausts me or takes the fun away or means I didn’t sit down for a few minutes and watch.  When I slow down, everything looks a lot clearer.

I’m not saying to never plan; planning is important. Just do it slowly.  I’m not saying to not embrace technology.  But be careful of progress gaps (term taken from Paul Kingsnorth: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/7277 ).  Do it thoughtfully.  I’m learning to see my days through my years.

I’m excited for the writing I will do this fall and winter, as my garden rests, waiting to emerge once again next spring.  But I’m not so excited that I am wishing for that time to come now.  Right now, I’m happy to pick more tomatoes. I want to hold on to the slowness I have finally welcomed.

I often go to the garden before sunset to sit and wait for the chickens to go to bed so I can close them in for the night.  This sitting refuels me for the last few hours of the day.  I look at sunflowers and zinnias; I listen to bees finishing their work for the day.  I hear grasshoppers and cicadas tell me repeatedly that summer is nearing its end. But summer will return.  We live.  And while we live, we face death; we look it in the eye daily.  It’s ok.  It’s preparation.  Thankfully, I’m not a grasshopper.  I hope for many more seasons to learn, grow, and garden. But I want to be ready when it’s time.  I want to give my final grasshopper call with grace and hope someone is there to heed it and reflect.  Are you living the life you want?  Are you racing or walking?  Is your view clear enough?  If you’re not sure, you might try summer school too.  All you need is a garden.

Green metallic bee on lemon thyme
Green metallic bee on lemon thyme
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Honey bee on catnip
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Garden mid-July
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Honey bee on Bergamont (aka Monarda and Bee Balm)
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Assassin bug eating a potato beetle (no, it’s not a ladybug)

Treasure Hunting

It happens every year.  Summoned by the calls of spring and other unknown cues, a treasure is unearthed.  I hear the cues too somehow; like a woman hears her biological clock ticking, and I know.  It’s time to go treasure hunting.

Treasure is defined as something hidden or kept in a safe place, and something valuable or special.  My treasure is all of these things.  It is hidden for most of the year.  It is kept in a safe place in that only a few (two?) people know about.  It is even buried, so to speak.  It is valuable.  Were I to sell it, I might get over $20.00 per pound.  I couldn’t get rich on my treasure, there’s never that much, but that’s not a concern.  While I do use the treasure every year, there’s something equally, or more important than the treasure itself.  I think it’s the hunt.

What is it about treasure hunting that drives some people to spend their lives in its pursuit?  Obviously fame and fortune come to mind.  But is the treasure hunter satisfied once his or her quest is through, or is there a hidden need bubbling below the surface to hunt again?  I can’t answer this because I am not seeking a fortune.

Perhaps, it is the thrill of the hunt?  To be the first to make a discovery or to search in secret or to dive in dangerous waters must motivate the thrill seeker as much as the goal.  I am not sure my hunt is thrilling though there is some danger.  I could fall prey to the tiny bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi if I were to be bitten by a deer tick.  While this is not an inconsequential risk, I have decided it cannot keep me from being in nature http://www.halcyonnature.com/2013/04/22/tick-troubles/

I could also be viciously attacked by multiflora rose (Multiflora rosa).  This has happened despite my careful nature.  Many times I have left blood on their grabbing, clutching thorns – and I do fight back.  This isn’t thrilling, just painful.  Is it the thrill of the hunt for some? Again, I can’t relate.  I’m too old for thrill seeking.

For me the hunt is something else.  I find it hard to articulate.  If you climbed trees or boulders as a child you might have a sense of what I feel on the hunt.  If you’ve ever caved and had to wiggle through a small space on your belly, you might understand.  In my hunt, I have to cross a stream, often by jumping.  I scurry under branches and vines.  I scan the forest floor focusing on one sense – sight – yet somehow feel my other senses heighten.  The flexible maneuvering under branches helps me feel younger.  But there’s more.  As I get deeper into the woods, cueing on my sight image, which is a year old and fuzzy in my mind, I start to feel wild.  I follow a deer trail.  Why not?  Other animals would for ease of travel.  I start to forget my body and just move, step, squat, scurry, step, stop, look, listen, step.  Am I the deer browsing?  Am I the squirrel burying my own treasure for next year? Am I the blue jay that narrowly escaped? It doesn’t matter.  I just know I am not me right then.  My cells stir trying to recall a distant evolutionary past.  I get lost in this past, a past much more vague than childhood.  Is it possible to remember? Suddenly I know; this is really what I’m hunting.

Morchella, the edible morel mushroom, is my tangible treasure.  I didn’t find any on my hunt yesterday, or the last three times I went.  Perhaps our late spring has slowed its emergence.  Perhaps I won’t find any this year.  That’s ok.  The reason I am called to the hunt is a need for something I probably can’t actualize.  I know some treasures are intangible, yet I know I will keep hunting.

Other treasures I found:

Maybe some kind of beetle eggs?
Maybe some kind of beetle eggs?
One's man trash is . . . yes, I kept it.
One’s man trash is . . . yes, I kept it.
Spicebush flowers
Spicebush flowers
Blue Jay feathers
Blue Jay feathers

Late Winter Wanderings

Winter always tricks me into thinking I can wander carelessly through the fields and woods.  Especially when there is snow, I am lulled into the false pretense that I am indeed leaving only footprints.  A walk in early February proved me wrong, as usual.

Near the pond I was thinking warm thoughts of spring despite the 28-degree weather.  Why?  I had noticed some bright green grass and watercress growing right where a shallow spring enters the pond, a mini-estuary without the salt water.  And, the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) was peering over the snow!  Clearly I still had to be careful where I was walking.

Skunk Cabbage flower February 7, 2014
Skunk Cabbage flower February 7, 2014

This small section is the most primordial-seeming part of our property.  There is just something about Skunk Cabbage and the spring flowing in this spot that evokes a scene from The Land of the Lost – a silly TV show I liked as a kid where a family gets sucked into the distant past and must deal with dinosaurs.  Anywhere else I look on our property might cause me to ponder the 1800s, or perhaps earlier when Native Americans lived here, but this spot with the Skunk Cabbage takes me much further back.

My primordial spot looks so by mid-summer when the Skunk Cabbage leaves are 2-3 feet tall.
My primordial spot looks so by mid-summer when the Skunk Cabbage leaves are 2-3 feet tall.

Skunk Cabbage is an early sign of spring.  The plant sends up a flower before its leaves as early as January where I live.  It gets its name from the unpleasant odor it produces. I’ve never noticed anything unpleasant, but I’m also not willing to get on my hands and knees in a cold, wet spring in February to get a better whiff.  The odor attracts its pollinators, which include flies, stoneflies, and bees, but also butterflies and beetles.  The leaves are poisonous to humans and some mammals because of their oxalate content, but black bear and many bird species do eat the leaves and seeds.

How does Skunk Cabbage flower when snow is on the ground?  It is capable of thermogenesis.   It is able to raise the temperature 15-35°C (59-95°F) above the air temperature, thereby melting the snow and thawing the ground and pushing through the surface.  That’s pretty impressive.  All we can do is shiver a bit or run around and work up a sweat.  Otherwise, we need to harness a natural resource in order to produce that much heat.  The heat produced by the plant probably also plays a role in attracting early pollinators by helping the odor to dissipate and by providing a warm place to hang out.

Skunk Cabbage has another ability that I find even more amazing than thermogenesis.  From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symplocarpus_foetidus)

“Eastern Skunk Cabbage has contractile roots which contract after growing into the earth. This pulls the stem of the plant deeper into the mud, so that the plant in effect grows downward, not upward. Each year, the plant grows deeper into the earth, so that older plants are practically impossible to dig up. They reproduce by hard, pea-sized seeds which fall in the mud and are carried away by animals or by floods.”

That is not what I learned in school!  I’m sure this happens slowly, but I’m having trouble getting an image out of my head of a sort of pulsing movement of roots contracting below ground and leaves getting sucked down.  If it were observable, it would be worth a few hours camped out in the cabbage patch taking notes.

Leaves of Skunk Cabbage after flowering. March 31, 2014. Only 4 inches tall now, they will grow to 3 feet.
Leaves of Skunk Cabbage after flowering. March 31, 2014. Only 4 inches tall now, they will grow to 3 feet.

So the Skunk Cabbage can provide its own heat and it’s firmly grounded.  That’s better than a lot of higher organisms can do.  But there’s more.  Skunk Cabbage also plans for the future, several years in advance.  I found the following from Craig Holdrege, an unabashed lover and studier of Skunk Cabbage (http://www.natureinstitute.org/pub/ic/ic4/skunkcabbage.htm)

“Most plants in any given population are well-established, with numerous years of development behind them. But they also prepare for the future. In the summer I dissected a skunk cabbage, peeling away leaf after leaf from the base of the stalk. What I found astounded me, even though, having done some reading before, I was somewhat prepared for it. At the base of one of the middle leaves there was the bud of a spathe that will grow out in the following spring. It was about 2 cm long and already deep wine-red in color. A few leaves further inward another spathe bud was visible—smaller and still white. This spathe would emerge in the spring after next. Another, even smaller spathe follows after a few more leaves; it would emerge two and a half years later! When I cut the rootstock lengthwise, I could see several more tiny spathe buds (the size of the tip of a ball-point pen) at the base of the shoot. Spathes are being prepared years ahead.

In this way skunk cabbage lays down its future course of development. What we normally perceive encompasses the development of the spathe and the rapid outer growth and decay of the leaves each year. At the other pole of the plant, the roots grow ever further and draw the plant downward. In these two poles the plant unfolds activity into and with its environment. But hidden in the inner core of the plant, protected from all direct contact with the elements, a sketch of things to come is continually developing.”

A plant I’ve admired since we moved to Halcyon has, from just an afternoon of research, awed me in its complexity.  As I learn more about the life on our property, I too hope my roots get pulled deeper and deeper into the soil.

 

 

 

 

 

Dancing with Nature

I was reading through some old North Carolina Wildlife magazines this past weekend and came across a personal story that resonated with me.  In it the author, who is severely allergic to wasps, tells of a summer watching bald-faced hornets build a nest from his kitchen window. He was unwilling initially to kill the fascinating life building it or later to destroy the nest itself.  Unfortunately the nest gets rather large and the author was stung, resulting in a hospital visit.  One could hardly begrudge him the act of murder he commits next, spraying the nest with a pyrethrin under the trademark name of the Enforcer.

He did not however experience a sweet revenge, but rather, “an unease that soon wore like a hollow victory.”  Eloquently he goes on . . .

“Each day from the kitchen window I looked upon the empty gray nest, silent and lifeless like a forgotten horn that no child ever blew.  I felt a certain sadness for all my established dominion.  After all, I was the intruder; in a scheme of things          grander than that which says a man must keep a tidy lawn, it was the bald-faced hornets that existed in the natural order.  They were only doing what a million years of instinct bid them.

So now a sense of loss replaced the fear I had when I stared out the kitchen window.  Having claimed such chemical sovereignty over my Raleigh abode, I felt a strange sort of detachment from the natural environment, a kink in a lifeline I had treasured and a relationship nurtured on a daily basis.  Was I so much high on the evolutionary ladder that I’d lost sight of the bottom rungs my own ancestors had climbed? “

I sense this very loss often when I read about loss of species habitat, endangered species, overfishing, and poisons in our air, water, and soil.  I wrestle with it emotionally when I flush a stinkbug down the toilet one minute and catch and release a spider to the outdoors in another.  It is why I write this blog.  It is my naïve hope that I will say something different than all the other ‘nature loss lamenters’ before me, and in doing so will change someone’s perspective from nature as separate, to nature as integral and essential.  It saddens me that many people who so quickly and easily destroy other life have no remorse and often feel that sweet revenge.

I had an epiphany reading Nickens’ words, mingling with all the articles I was clipping on natural diversity.  It struck me that life is a dance between all participants.  It occurs at the species level and at the individual level.  This is explained when we learn about food chains and food webs.  We exist because of a foundation of plant producers that supply most of the rest of life with food and oxygen.  Imbalances in food webs can screw up other species intricately tied to each other.  There is loss and renewal all the time.  It is a dance.  Or at least it was.  Humans have so altered natural systems and increasingly spend so much time separate from natural systems that I think we are losing something very important.  We are losing ourselves.  We are losing humility, compassion, and awe.

If we chose to merely watch from our window or destroy and isolate ourselves from the life around us, we are like spectators at the dance show.  We clap and admire perhaps.  Snap photos from afar.  This seems harmless, but we are outsiders.  We don’t know the dance.  We don’t feel the dance in our flesh as our muscles ebb and flow with those of another dancer’s.  We don’t understand that the dance is vital to our survival – much like I sense dancing is vital to the dancer’s wholeness.  Even worse, I sometimes feel as outsiders we expect more and more of the dancer: more energy, more acrobatics, and more stimulation for ‘me’ the outsider.  Why?  Because we’ve lost something.  Because we’re not participating.  For some of us, it may be something we don’t even understand we’ve lost.

How do we find it?  Start participating.  Start dancing.  Take walks outside.  Sit still and observe nature.  Lie on your stomach and watch what moves through the grass.  Plant a garden.  Spend time outside with children.  Let children show you the awesomeness of nature.  Don’t spray the hornets’ nest.

There is loss and renewal all the time.  Life is a dance.  Our time will come when we leave the scene, the web of life.  Perhaps we should dance while we are here instead of sitting on the inside looking out.

 

Nickens, T. Edward.  The Empty Nest.  Wildlife in North Carolina Magazine.  2007.

Scattered Thoughts on Gratitude

During the transition from an old year to a new year I like to reflect on what I’ve learned in the past year and plan for the next year. Doing so brings out gratitude for all I have, a gratefulness that I sometimes must drag out of myself other times of the year.  Sure, I know I have everything I need when pressed to think about it, but I do not think daily about it as evidenced in grumpy comments such as, “Ugh, look at all the dishes in the sink.”  Instead I should be happy to have a sink and water running from a tap – both of which I have lived without.  It is hard to wash dishes in a bathtub.  And then, of course, I need to be grateful for the bathtub, which also was lacking at Halcyon for a good four years, and which millions of people in the world do not have.

There are times when I feel my kitchen is too small; I have to move things to work.  On gratitude-filled days I am thankful for my beautiful soapstone countertop, which is, not surprisingly, much more beautiful and easier to clean than the plywood countertop we had for several years while renovating the kitchen.  On days when I am filled with experiential wisdom, I also know that a larger kitchen can suffer from the same problem of seeming too small.

Kitchens, or whatever the little things we grump about, pale in comparison to things that really matter: health, family, shelter, livelihood, and chances to learn and grow every day.  When I set New Year’s goals, I am much more in tune with all these aspects in my life for which I have gratitude.

Believe it or not these thoughts led to my frequent ponderings on similarities and differences between human animals and other animals.  Can animals feel gratitude? I don’t remember when I first heard of or learned about evolution.  What I do remember is suddenly recalling every zoo trip I’d ever taken where I would stare at the gorillas and see humans.  I’d literally be reminded of, if not a particular person, at least the mannerisms and physical attributes that makes up the character of any one person.  It was easy for me to understand Darwin’s continuity theory.  Grossly simplified, continuity means that the differences between humans and other animals is one of degrees, not of kind.  We have since discovered animal intelligences, levels of consciousness, and similarities in the structure and functions of nervous systems in animals and humans – all in support of continuity.  So if we are more similar in structure and function with animals than we used to understand, what about gratitude?

Asking this question of course, begs the more general question of whether animals experience emotion.  There is much anecdotal evidence, but more importantly a growing body of scientific studies that show that some animals do indeed experience emotions.  Elephants and many other mammals show sadness at the loss of another member of their group.  Dogs certainly appear happy, fearful, or content in different situations.  While much of what animals do is instinctual, there are also enough observations of animal behavior to conclude there are emotions regulating some of their behavior.  I’ve included just a sampling of research found on the Internet at the end of this essay.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the generally accepted idea of a hierarchy of animals based on brain size and intelligence – an intelligence defined by human experience.  I’ve always had a gut feeling (which by the way is also not such a whimsical notion given recent studies on the gut being our ‘second brain’) that there may be different ways of reacting to stimuli, of communicating, and of thinking compared to how humans engage with their environment, and that we just don’t yet have the means to observe it.  I’ve always likened my we just can’t see it notion to how Carl Sagan wrote about his belief in the presence of alien life in space in Pale Blue Dot:  He told us to imagine if we were looking at Earth but our technologies only allowed us the precision to see things the size of automobiles.  We might perceive that life existed on the planet and that that life (cars) used wheels instead of legs and lived in large rectangular dwellings (garages).  In other words, our technology is not yet good enough for us to see/know/discover all possibilities in space.

The same is true with our understanding of animal communication and intelligence.  I often recall this metaphor when I am wondering about other life at Halcyon, and when I read studies of animal intelligence and emotion.  I often stare across the garden or a field and wonder what is happening in a sort of parallel universe sense that I cannot perceive with my senses.  I see, but I can’t know it all.  We can’t forget about plants either.  There are people studying the intelligence or sensory abilities of plants.  I thoroughly enjoyed the recent New Yorker article by Michael Pollen, The Intelligent Plant.  I felt a kid-like excitement when I read this parallel to Sagan’s metaphor which a plant researcher claims inspired him as a child: a Star Trek episode called Wink of an Eye which portrayed an alien species from a radically increased time dimension that thought humans were immobile and hence inert, and used them as they saw fit.  Can we loosen our human-centered world-view in order to ‘see’ other ways of being?

If we can accept Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences for humans (http://infed.org/mobi/howard-gardner-multiple-intelligences-and-education/), is it such a stretch to imagine intelligences in other life?  After all it would be a difference in kind which we are used to understanding in humans – chemical chatter of plants versus vocal chatter of humans versus sonic frequencies of animals – and in degrees when we compare true neuronal signaling behavior between animals.   Intelligence, behavior, reactions, and emotions, they seem interrelated to me and integral to all life.  It is simply a matter of degrees and kinds.  It is all very exciting to me.

There is clearly a lot to learn, a lot to study, and a lot of growing to do on our part, for example, to reconcile different definitions of intelligence and consciousness.  Given the discord in the plant science community about this new idea of plant neurobiology, some of these ideas about intelligence and emotion in other life may take a long time to be accepted as scientific truth – if current studies indicating such intelligence are indeed valid and repeatable.   This journey may be considerably long given the shocking statistic I heard on National Public Radio recently that only 50% of the population knows that there is DNA in a tomato.  Really?  What population was this?

Freezing rain started while I was drafting this post.  Ugh.  I will have to go thaw the chickens’ water because I don’t have their water heater set up yet.  Actually, that’s not what I am thinking or feeling.   What I am feeling is gratitude that I have some chickens to take care of, that I live at Halcyon, and for a husband who supports my endeavors.  I am also feeling gratitude toward all the scientists working to enhance our understanding of the life with which we share the earth.

What I am thinking is:  Will my chickens be grateful?

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/03/animal-minds/virginia-morell-text

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marc-bekoff/humananimal-relationships_b_4439038.html

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/animal_instincts

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/12/23/131223fa_fact_pollan?currentPage=1

Chamovitz, Michael.  What a Plant Knows.  2012.  Scientific American/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York.

Sagan, Carl.  Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.  1994.  Random House.

 

 

 

 

Dreys, Ophidariums, and Formicaries, Oh My!

As winter’s creep slowly changed my landscape from encroaching jungle to naked trees and brown vistas I found myself staring at dreys.  They are everywhere.  Well, that’s not true.  They are only in treetops.  What I mean is they are numerous.

If I stand between my house and the studio and make a 360° turn, I can count 8 dreys.  Nine, if you include the one that fell through the chimney into my dining room last month.  Thankfully, it was abandoned.  I made note of at least 5 more on my last walk.  Dreys are squirrel nests or homes.  A tight, waterproof nest of leaves that tends to look like a jumbled mess hurriedly constructed and thrown into the uppermost branches of trees.  Actually dreys are meticulously constructed with a layering of materials – coarse leaves on the outside and ever finer materials on the inside.  An entrance hole is made in the bottom, which functions to keep out rain.

Seeing these dreys in the naked trees, I realized that while I think of the other life forms at Halcyon, I don’t tend to think beyond the organism in a concrete manner.  Yes, I learn about their habits and niches.  And if I understand their niche, I clearly understand that they have a home.  My epiphany came when I realized that I never thought about all the homes that exist here at Halcyon.  I just think of my house.  I equate the word Halcyon with my home at the same time that I am happy to find other life about the property.

Thinking of all those dreys led me to wonder about all the homes needed to sustain life through the winter: soil burrows for rabbits, mice, and moles; mud burrows for frogs and turtles; ophidariums for snakes (I wonder how many are in my walls); formicaries for ants; hives for wasps and bees; tunnels for worms and beetles; nests for birds; brush for deer; lairs for fox; owlery for owls; and leaf litter for overwintering caterpillars.  Some terms are non-specific.  Others, like lair and den are used interchangeably.  All the terms are human constructs.  While many animals instinctively know when and what kind of home they need, we’ve no indication that they think of their homes with the same level of emotional connections in which humans do.  And I doubt they name them.

Ironically we tend to call animal shelters a home and people shelters a house, that is until the house becomes a home, and then we are referring to how we’ve made memories and enhanced our comfort within the walls of said house.  To us, a house is a structure to keep out wind and rain, and a home is so much more.  Dreys and lairs and dens are also structures designed for shelter, but I’ve only seen cozy chairs, tiny dishes, and fireplaces in animal dwellings in my childhood fantasies of animals and in depictions of animal homes in wonderful picture books.

But I digress from my epiphany, which was about numbers of homes, not their contents.  As I take my winter walks, I will take care to wonder and realize the number of dwellings at Halcyon.  Some are for a solitary organism, like a frog burrowed in the mud.  Others, like ant nests, hold hundreds or more individuals.  There is still a lot going on out there, in just a mere 14 acres, of which I am unaware.  What animals have built homes next to yours?

Three dreys
Three dreys