The fog hangs low between me and the distant horizon. The tree line feels further away than usual. The dense opaque white mist hangs between us like a sheet. But I know it is penetrable, simply water molecules suspended in mid-air. This water vapor is not a solid veil, it is permeable and gentle. It lingers over the marsh below, creating a mixing place for the tidal waters and the cool air above. It is a mixing place for my imagination too.
When the boys were little and we woke to foggy mornings that were so dense we could not see the trees across the field, I used to joke that it was the kind of morning when you expected to see a pink rhinoceros emerge. As the boys got older, they rolled their eyes at the “mom-ism” but, still embraced in the wonder of childhood, I knew that they approached their days with open curiosity and a clear sense that everything was possible.
For me, the mystery and potential in those thick foggy days was an opportunity to remember what I had forgotten in the process of growing up. As I wondered about the pink rhinoceros that was just out of sight, I wondered about what other fantastical beings or events were just beyond my sight. I wondered about the mysteries of creation. I wondered about Mystery and Creation.
Eventually, out of the dense fog of my wondering, the pink rhinoceros emerged to welcome me back into the chorus of all life, one among many. With possibility penetrating and surrounding us, we walked together, back into the cloud of Love and Light that lingers on the horizon.
Most of the old and stately oaks in our forest have dropped their leaves. We have had a few good snowstorms this winter, some ice, and lots of wind and rain. It is not a surprise that the tree line is mostly barren deciduous branches. This clear and distinct iteration of our winter tree line is comforting. It offers clear view of the oak’s strength. The stout trunk and wide reaching branches tell of each tree’s decades of steady presence. They bear witness to the changing seasons in both the field and the forest. In the summer, they host all manner of species in their branches and at their roots. In this mid-winter time, there are fewer visitors and less activity from those who are there. While the frozen earth sleeps, the branches seem to reach toward the sky with a sigh. This is the deep winter rest from which buds and leaves will emerge. This is the deep peace that balances midsummer’s busy-ness. I appreciate these trees from a distance. It is the only way that I can take them all in, from the heights of their tops to the depths of the roots.
A few feet into the field from the great grandmother oaks, there is a line of younger oak trees. They are no taller than 10 feet and their trunks are no thicker than my forearm (which is pretty thin, by the way). These trees are still holding onto their leaves, as oaks often do. Maybe they are more protected than the taller, more exposed trees. Or maybe they are a different species with a tighter hold on their leaves than the others. Either way, these young ones have caught my attention.
With my awareness absorbed, I am freed from my human mind and body for a few moments. Invited into the more than human world, the self-reflective chatter in my mind quiets. My senses awaken. Lights and sounds become brighter and louder. I notice the chickadee who has been calling incessantly from the top of one of the trees. It feels as though roots are sprouting from the soles of my feet, penetrating the soles of my boots and the half frozen ground as my arms lift to the sky. I recognize the stature of the tree in my body. I feel its connection to earth and sky. I feel my connection to earth and sky. No, I am not turning into a tree. I am noticing myself in relationship with the trees. In community, the difference between us dissolves and we become one. (More on community another time)
The leaves of the young trees wave on the slightest breeze. When I walk by, I feel like they are greeting me. I have begun to greet them. It began innocently enough, just a growing silent awareness. Now I find myself talking to them and singing to them. The other day, I walked by without noticing, absorbed by some abstract rambling in my head. I raced back to apologize and offer them my heartfelt greeting. The spirits of these trees are joyful and laughing. They feel both young and oh so wise. They hang on to their leaves but waggle them at me playfully, reminding me not to hold on to anything too tightly or take myself so seriously. They invite me into kinship with the wider world. I am delighted to be in relationship with them. Their friendship makes me smile.
I feel grateful to have cultivated these new forest friends. I am also aware of how much relationship there is to be nurtured. The forest surrounding our field has hundreds of trees and I have singled out these 8 to befriend. That can’t possibly be fair. But it is a start and it is joyful. And getting to know the others will be full of joy too. Further, there are thousands, maybe millions of other plants and animals on this little plot of land. Who will I meet next?
I am guessing this all may sound a little silly. And it is — silly and fun and important; It is one of the ways that I can reclaim my right place in the world, one being among many. I am also guessing that I am not the only one who has a relationship with a tree, or a body of water, or a special stone, or a bird that frequents the feeder. What relationships with the more than human world have you cultivated?
It doesn’t look as graceful as it sounds. From a distance, their movements are fast and jerky. They seem erratic as they move this way and that but, they pause often, seeming to take stock in the situation and surroundings before darting off again.
Each time one comes to the feeder by the window, I get a chance to appreciate the delicate creature up close. My desk is just on the other side of the window. When one dashes in, my eyes slowly follow him to the feeder. I am careful not to turn my head too quickly and catch myself holding my breath. That’s probably not necessary, but I really don’t want to scare him away. After all, I just observed how much energy is expended in the process of deciding to come over for a drink. Up close, suspended for a long drink of sugar water, the petite bird suddenly seems at rest despite the fact that his wings still beat rapidly. I imagine a stillness at his heart center while movement continues to ripple from every muscle.
At the age of 98, my neighbor, Mrs. Allen, told me that hummingbirds are so territorial that they will not share a feeder. She and I decided that the male who frequented her feeder and the female who came to mine were a mating pair. We wondered where the baby would feed when they hatched. I don’t remember which of us had a bonus visitor that year. I suspect that by the time there was a fledgling, the flowers had bloomed and all of the neighborhood birds were feeding in the flowers of the forest and the gardens instead of at the feeders.
This year, we have three hummingbirds in our backyard. They are the ones dancing right now as they take turns at the feeder. I am imagining that their cooperation is inspired by the wet, late spring. This season has unfolded so slowly that, for a few weeks, I was reminded of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. However, rather than a spring without birdsong, here was a spring without leaf-out, a silhouette spring. That apocalyptic thought sent shivers down my spine every time I noticed that the birds were here but the foliage was not. The hummingbirds have been here for weeks and their natural food sources are lagging behind. The early blooms on the fruit trees are usually almost spent by the end of May. Today, they are just barely beginning to open. To my relief, the winter silhouettes of the trees have finally begun to fill in with bright yellows and greens. Spring is coming. She is just opening herself slowly.
I find myself wondering if the hummingbird’s cooperation at the feeder is a response to the scarcity of resources this season. Watching their dance, it is clear that they are aware of one another and of the shared resource of the feeder. I wonder if humans can learn to respond to scarcity by sharing as well. It makes me smile to imagine the humans with plenty bowing out and dancing to the outer edge, making room for others to acquire life-sustaining resources. Rather than continually striving for more, we can pause and make space before dancing away with the joy of sharing.
What might our world feel like if we learn to pause when we have enough?
What might it feel like if our need was always met by the generosity of others?
I imagine it would feel safe, welcoming, and beautiful. I imagine it is possible.
The Peepers are here! Some people get excited about the appearance of Peeps, the brightly colored sugar-coated marshmallows confections that also appear at this time. I am delighted by the Spring Peepers.
In the patch of field and forest where we live, the high pitched call of these petite woodland frogs fills the air at dusk in the early spring. The chorus can be so loud that it feels like there must be thousands of them, each trying to call the loudest to attract a mate and establish territory. After a long winter and a tentative early spring, their boisterous presence assures me that we have really entered the season of growth, fecundity, and abundance. The peepers are singing before the crocuses have even poked out of the ground!
Each year when the peepers begin calling, I am reminded of a fatal mistake that we made a number of years ago. The boys were very young and endlessly curious about the critters that lived in our forest. We had been maintaining a rotating aquarium of sorts for a few months. We would collect bugs, frogs or salamanders from our creek and bring them inside to observe for a few days. We always took them back a few days later, hoping to let them go before captivity had caused too much stress. We thanked them for allowing us to study them for a few days, and released them where we had found them. We were trying to be careful, reverent, amateur naturalists. Our collection, maintenance, and release were guided by the principle that we would do no harm.
One summer day, we found a big blob of frog eggs in a water-filled depression in the field. For several days, we eagerly went back to check on them, hoping to observe metamorphosis. We didn’t see any changes in the eggs, but we did notice that their habitat was drying up. We worried that maybe the frog had chosen her nursery poorly. We worried that maybe there wasn’t enough water to sustain the eggs long enough for transformation to tadpole and frog. Just before the puddle went dry, we decided to help.
We put fresh water from the creek and the egg mass into our aquarium. Over the course of a few days, rather than observing frog metamorphosis, we watched the mass of eggs dissolve into a blob of gelatinous goop. We hadn’t helped at all. Maybe we had even harmed. Maybe the eggs of this species would not begin to transform until they began to dry. With regret, we took the goop and water outside and gave them back to the earth. The boys seemed to absorb the loss ok but, I was distressed by our “help” gone wrong. It still rattles me. We had the best intentions but, we had catastrophically interrupted the natural life cycles of a critter with whom we share this land.
Every spring, I wait anxiously for the peepers to begin their chorus. For a few years, they seemed substantially quieter. I attributed the muffled sound to population loss, a loss likely caused by human intrusion, including ours. I know it is irrational to think that we wiped out a whole region of the species with our egg collection that year, but reason doesn’t have a lot of influence when there’s guilt involved. Recently, I have learned that Spring Peepers lay their eggs singly, rather than in masses, and they hatch in a few days. The mass we collected (and killed) belonged to a different species. I do not know its name, its habits, or its call. I can only hope that it is flourishing today.
This wet spring seems to be good for the Peepers. They are really loud this year. Their strong presence is good for me. My heart seems to join them in song each evening. In the morning, I watch the puddles, depressions, and ponds for egg masses. If I find any, I will watch them and wish them well but, I will not interfere.
I can best serve the earth as a witness and participant in the enduring cycle of life. And I can best serve this cycle as an advocate for human systems (both large and small) that will recognize, honor, and protect it too. I will honor birth, death, and transformation in my life and in all life, fully embracing the eternal cycles of creation. What more could an amateur naturalist hope for?