The Blue Dragonfly of Autumn

If I had a blog, today I would write about one of my totems: The Blue Dragonfly of Autumn.

06032014_182856 webIn the early 1990’s my spiritual path took an unexpected turn. While I had always loved nature and respected it as a seat of mystical power, it wasn’t until I was in college that I began to explore Native American spirituality as a way of worship that could be my own.

My first introduction into this reality was a book by Ed “Eagle Man” McGaa, simply titled, Mother Earth Spirituality. It related many traditional Lakota tales with which I was familiar, but it also encouraged me to find my own place in the Sacred Hoop, based on the animal totems that appeared in my dreams and in my waking life.

One of the first totems I identified was the dragonfly – particularly those that appeared in late summer. These, the Lakota called The Blue Dragonflies of Autumn. Of them, Eagle Man relates:

Dragonfly (Tusweca) is the Indian’s answer to Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which Plato taught us that the life we understand today is but a mere shadow on the wall compared to the complete reality that lies beyond.

Dragonflies have this great power because they are walkers-between-worlds. Born in the water, dragonfly nymphs split their skin and emerge from ponds and rivers on gossamer wings, on which they soar into a new reality. The Lakota believed this change was analogous to a human rising up and entering the spirit world: Seeking knowledge in a reality that was utterly inconceivable before the metamorphosis took place.

The Blue Dragonfly of Autumn reminds us autumn is near and the time for contemplation is at hand. Although the dragonfly moves through life quickly, he heralds the time of slowing down, when we transform from creatures of doing to creatures of being.

I am ready to draw inward and sit in the mellow sun, pondering the Great Mystery that is life. Like the dragonfly, I am ready to emerge from the world of my youth and embrace the coming of the autumn years of my life. Dragonfly encourages me that although my new reality may seem foreign at first, my life will open up and reveal the deepest magic yet. I eagerly await what lies ahead.

Lobelia

If I had a blog, today I would write about following nature’s calendar in my garden.

When you live close to nature, one of the benefits is following the passage of time through the changes in the natural world. In my yard, the month of August, and the end of summer, are marked by the blooming of two of my favorite flowers: Cardinal flower and blue lobelia.

Both of these striking flowers are in the lobelia family, a species defined by the presence of five lobed petals on the flower. The family of plants is named for Belgian botanist, Mathias de L’Obel, who often used a “latinized” form of his name Lobelius.

081113_0822 webThe name cardinal flower (lobelius cardinalis) was inspired by the color of the robes of the Roman Catholic cardinals. John Burroughs, the 19th-century naturalist, wrote, “But when vivid color is wanted, what can surpass or equal our cardinal flower? There is a glow about this flower as if color emanated from it as from a live coal.” It was first found by explorers in Canada who sent the plant to France in the mid-1620’s. Many Native American tribes used tea made from the roots and leaves as medicines to treat everything from bronchitis to rheumatism. The leaves were often smoked in place of tobacco, despite the fact that overuse can be toxic.

In this day and age, cardinal flower is of greatest benefit to the ruby-throated hummingbird, its primary pollinator. The beak of the ruby-throat is perfectly shaped to reach deep into the flower where the nectar and pollen reside. The flowers are especially adapted to pollination by hummingbirds. They are said to “pull hummingbirds from the sky.” In fact, their blooming period corresponds especially well with the southern migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds to Mexico and Central America for the winter.

09242014_093525 webGrowing alongside the cardinal flowers are its cousin, blue lobelia. These blue-violet blooms are a favorite of bees and, being one of the last flowers to bloom during the growing season, are essential to building the bees’ store of food for the winter. Cardinal flower and blue lobelia are so closely related, they can cross-pollinate and produce blooms of fuchsia, white, and pale pink.

When these favorites are in bloom, I know the clock is turning from the bounty of summer to preparation for the scarcity of winter. These are flowers who provide lasting nourishment for the hummingbirds and bees. Cardinal flower and blue lobelia tell me it is time to add to the wood-pile, put by the last of the preserves, and glean the last of the garden’s bounty. Winter is coming and it is time to gather the harvest at last.

In a world where everything seems up for grabs, it is reassuring to see the constancy of nature. Regardless of how crazy the calendar on my wall may become, nature’s measure of time is regular as a heartbeat, and as comforting as a soft blanket on a chilly fall night. We need things we can be sure of and I thank my garden for giving me something on which I can rely.

Free At Last: Part II

If I had a blog, today I would share some more of my journal from my trip to Ely, Minnesota in the fall of 1998.

September 3, 1998

Sometimes life is just too good. I had the most wonderful, peaceful, relaxing day. I followed my heart instead of my mind. No agenda, no goals, just what felt right at the moment.

I got up at sunrise, then went back to bed. I read and wrote and loafed. I went into town around noon and moseyed in and out of stores, soaking up the rich conversation inside and the glorious fall day outside.

MN Backroad (6) webLater on, I drove to Hegman Lake for an evening paddle and to see the pictographs. The drive out the Echo Trail was beautiful. The sunlight sparkled on Burntside Lake and the aspen leaves danced in the breeze and the colors of red maples and golden birch blazed in the forest.

The portage to Hegman was long, but once on the water, my aching muscles eased with every paddle stroke. Loons called from a secluded inlet and the only sound was my paddle along the gunwale. Coming and going, I met the nicest people and I visited a long time with everyone I met. Some light human interaction is good even for an introvert’s soul.

 

Hegman Lake Pictographs webThe pictographs themselves were fascinating. The Chippewa who made this their home lived here as long as 9,000 years ago and it is estimated that the pictographs were painted 500-1000 years ago. The Native Americans used hematite to dye their paint red, soot for black, and white clay for white. These particular pictographs were red and depict a moose, a wolf or dog and a man-like maymayguayshi figure. They are higher above the water than many other pictographs in the North, the artist sitting on a ledge high above the lake. Archaeologists think this may be why they are of such high quality.

As I sat below these ancient works, I marveled at how many generations of we mere mortals they have seen. What stories they could tell! Tales of voyageurs and trappers, Chippewa and Cree and those like me, who simply come to honor what has gone before. There is something awe inspiring about such things.

The light was fading when I reached the take-out, yet I felt completely unhurried. Somehow, my tendency for speed is tempered here. I walk slower, drive slower, paddle slower, LIVE slower. In so doing, I taste much more of life. I savor the present instead of always rushing ahead into the future. What a lesson to remember and take home with me.

Damp, dirty and blissfully happy, I got home just at moonrise. and the sun’s pale sister called me to linger outside, to join her at the lake. Camera in hand and adrenaline pumping, I headed into the moonlit forest. Images of glittering eyes and low growls made me step lively, but the forest remained dark and silent.

At last I left the trees and the lake lay before me in all her glory. The moon rose high above the trees in a black satin sky and her reflection danced on the water like pale, liquid jewels. A beaver swam through the moon-path, his wake two silver threads. I wanted to fall to my knees in reverence to this wondrous hour. All fears calmed, I stood on the shore a long time, soaking it all in, making memories to carry with me.

At last, filled to the spiritual brim, I turned and started back. Once in the darkness of the trees, I felt a need to travel swiftly and the light from my cabin was a welcoming sight. It felt good to be inside, to bathe and dress for bed and at last settle down with a cup of coffee and my journal.

The loons are calling much tonight, perhaps preparing for their long flight to the sea. Or perhaps, like me, they are simply overcome by the beauty of the moonlight. Amen.

Free At Last

If I had a blog, today I would write about my first solo trip to Ely, Minnesota, in August and September 1998. A journey where I experienced The Wild for the first time.

September 2, 1998

Jules Chopping WoodIt takes time to heal from the taint of the world. But at last I am back in balance. Three days of healing in this mystic place have peeled away the facade. I am real again. I remember who I am.

It has taken me a few days to shed the ball-and-chain of responsibility that I wear back home: The need to accomplish, to prove, to meet the expectations of others. Now I am here for me for my renewal. I feel light, unburdened.

For this short span of days, I am Emerson, Thoreau, and Sigurd Olson: Lovers of The Wild who have inspired me to take this trip. I am here to bathe in the sunrise, dance in the moonlight and sing with the loons. The hikes to Bass and Ennis Lakes, canoeing on Johnson Lake at sunset, that’s what it’s all about. I don’t belong out there, in the shadowlands of fast-track careers, I belong here, among the birches and pines. This is my place.

Tonight I walked to the lake to watch the sunset. A beaver swam to and fro, gathering twigs for his winter store. He swam noiselessly until I moved, then he slapped the water and dove with a great splash. I sat on the rocks and watched the moon rise over the cathedral spires of fir and spruce. A late-day fisherman cast into the lily pads near the shore, hoping for one last tangle with a northern pike. He was as silent as I, for noise would be sacrilege in this holy hour.

07122011_224001Then, from across the lake, came the holiest sound of all: The evensong of the loon. One clear note rose in the chilly air, echoing in the Great Silence.Then came the haunting tremolo, the signature sound of wildness. The loon called again and again and chills ran up my spine. Tears came to my eyes for one cannot help but weep in the presence of The Divine.

Sigurd Olson calls this “the witching hour,” a moment of epiphany when our mother, the Earth, opens to us her wild beauty. These moments cannot be contrived or orchestrated, they are gifts of the highest order and I am humbled to be so blessed.

It is dark now and the full moon is shining over my bed. They say sleeping in the moonlight will make you crazy. Maybe so, I’ve been doing it all of my life. But if this is insanity, there is no way I would rather be.

A Light in Dark Places

If I had a blog, today I would write about the lifeline that has sustained me during some of my darkest hours. Today I would write about the inspiring words of others.

Books - LightThe most important thing I have ever read came to me just before I started college. I was at loose ends the summer before I left home for the first time. It was 1990 and libraries were still the end-all-be-all for avid readers so I spent my days haunting the stacks for good distractions. On one of my expeditions, I found a book called Light From Many Lamps by Lilian Eichler Watson. It was a collection of quotes, poems, and passages from Ms. Watson’s favorite literary works and I was, in a word, captivated.

Part of the book’s allure had to do with the fact that I had been collecting the same kind of quotes since I was ten years old. I got the idea from my dad, who also kept a quote book, and by the time I entered college, my collection filled several journal-sized books. I had everything from Robert Frost, to JRR Tolkien, to Ronald Reagan and I treasured those passages as if they had come from the Oracle at Delphi herself. I knew the words of others spoke to me, but until I found Light From Many Lamps, I had never considered making those words my own.

Light From Many Lamps introduced me to a new concept, a way of using poetry and prose that went beyond mere recollection and preservation: The book encouraged me to commit favorite passages to memory and use them as a light when life’s path grew dark. I took Ms. Watson’s words to heart and, over the years, I have used these  passages as incantations against fear, loneliness, and despair.

books invictusThe first poem I memorized was, Invictus, by William Ernest Henley. During my first year in college, when I was homesick, I repeated this poem over and over and it gave me the courage to go on. The poem took on new meaning twenty-five years later when I learned it was a mantra of hope for Nelson Mandela during his thirty years in prison on Robben Island.

books-frostThese are by no means the only words I hold dear to my heart. If I were to count them, they would stagger the imagination. I love Emily Dickinson’s Hope is a Thing With Feathers, Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on A Snowy Evening, selections from Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and countless passages from naturalists like Sigurd Olson, John Muir, John Burroughs, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, just to name a few.

These men and women are my heroes and through their stories, I find my own. Their poetry, prose, and songs, are my battle cry when I face the dark unknown, my shout of victory when obstacles are overcome, and my whispered prayers when my own words fail. In knowing their words, I am never alone. Indeed, I am in the company of the gods.

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,                                                                                                                          Black as the pit from pole to pole.                                                                                                                              I thank whatever gods may be                                                                                                                                For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,                                                                                                                             I have not winced or cried aloud.                                                                                                                     Under the bludgeoning of chance,                                                                                                                      My head is bloodied but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears,                                                                                                        Looms but the horrors of the shade.                                                                                                                    And yet the menace of the years                                                                                                                          Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how straight the gate,                                                                                                                  How charged with punishments the scroll.                                                                                                          I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.

Bees

If I had a blog, today I would write about the coming of the honey bees.

080116_2132This summer we have new visitors at our hummingbird feeders: Honey bees. While we could buy hummy feeders with bee-guards to keep the little guys at bay, their urgent need has prompted us to make room for them at the table.

In past years, we’ve had problem with wasps taking over the hummingbird feeders. Wasps are aggressive and disinclined to share. They will drive hummys away if possible and if their threats go unheeded, they will even attack the little birds to drive them away. Not so with bees.

080116_2105On any given day this summer, you will find the holes around the feeders ringed with bees; six or seven per feeding area, but instead of jealously guarding their bounty, they are more than happy to share with the hummingbirds, letting them sip at will in the center of the ring of bees.

The bees are gentle with us too. When the feeder is empty, Mom and I have only to gently brush the bees away. They go without quarrel and return without malice, sometimes landing softly on our hands as we hand the feeder on its silver hook.

We don’t know where the bees came from. Perhaps they are a swarm that left an overcrowded farmstead hive along our road or maybe they have come from a long distance, finding solace in our little valley. From wherever they arrived, The Greenwood is now home and we are honored to host their banquet.

080116_2121

In a world where hatred seems to be the dominant force, I am glad to see cooperation, kindness, and gentleness right out my back door.

                          Poet Kahil Gibran wrote:”For bees, the flower is the fountain of life;                For flowers, the bee is the messenger of love.”

This year they are our messengers of love as well. I love you little bees.

Mantras

If I had a blog, today I would write about my hiking mantra.

Continental Divide Wildflowers webIf you polled avid backpackers, or even day-hikers, you would find that most of them have a mantra: A phrase they repeat over and over to help them manage the monotonous parts of the trail. I use mine to get up tall hills or to get through long stretches of hot, featureless trail. It focuses my mind so I don’t feel overwhelmed by the mountain or desert stretching before me.

I adopted my hiking mantra from a woman who wrote about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail and it goes like this:

We are the thru-hikers,                                                                                                                                      Mighty, mighty thru-hikers.                                                                                                                            Everywhere we go-o, people want to know-ow                                                                                                    Who we are and so we tell them:                                                                                                                            We are the thru-hikers,                                                                                                                                     Mighty, mighty thru-hikers…..

073116_2088I was using my mantra this morning to get me through the sun-baked expanse of Big Valley, in a hurry to get through into the shade on the far side, when I saw the rose mallow. It has been blooming for a while now, but I’ve blazed by so fast, I hadn’t really taken it in its depth and breadth. It covers a whole side of Big Valley and in the morning it glows pale pink, its hibiscus-shaped blooms angled towards the sun. It was stunning – and enlightening.

Seeing the rose mallow made me realize the danger of using distraction to get us through the unpleasant parts of life: It can easily become a habit that robs us of the experience of being alive.

When I am chanting, I am focused inward. That’s the point, after all, but if I use my mantra all the time, I don’t see the landscape around me. I miss the flowers blooming along the trail or the chance to see a rare bird flit into the forest. I miss the sun on the clouds, the ripple of the trout stream, and the fragrance of moist earth, bursting with life.

I know this phenomenon extends beyond just my daily walks. Sometimes I get so focused on fast-forwarding through the uncomfortable parts of life, I forget to look around me and really live.

The Little Engine That Could had a mantra. His repetitive, “I think I can, I think I can,” got him up that mountain, but we can’t stay in that state forever. At some point we have to shout, as he did, “I KNOW I can!” and sail down the other side of sorrow, drinking in the glory of being alive.

So, I will save my hiking mantra for the really rough spots on the journey and take a chance being present for the rest. I will let myself be uncomfortable or bored or tired and still experience what is going on around me – in nature and in my relationships. From now on I promise I will stop and smell the rose mallow.09242014_084459 web

Walking Into the Sun

If I had a blog, today I would write about revelations on my morning walk.

It’s a dangerous thing, submitting to the ministrations of Nature. When such a pact is made, just stepping out your front door can have dire consequences. When I hide indoors for a long period of time, I begin to grow arrogant, building a belief system that says I know things, I comprehend the width and breadth of the Universe and have a firm grasp on the order of things. I become jaded and tell myself there is no need to get out in the heat, that I have seen forty-seven Missouri summers and I have seen it all, done it all, felt it all. Then, I go on a morning walk and I am remade.

09252008_184946 webThe valley was full of fog this morning. We’ve had rain showers off and on this week and the air is heavy with moisture. Mom, Gus and I walked down to the river valley again and once we left the barn lot, we descended into a world of pale pink mist where every blade of grass sparkled with drops of dew.

09192011_190311 webThis time of year, the main activity in the woods and fields is that of tiny spiders. Their species are many and they create a world of intricate webs through which we pass wherever we go. The most prolific are the orb-weavers: Minute, triangle-shaped spiders who weave beautiful round webs that cross our woodland path and that hang glimmering on the taller grasses in the fields. There are other weavers too: The pasture roses are draped with long festoons of web that hang like strands of diamonds in the dewy morn. Still other spiders make broad, thick mats of web along the ground, complete with little tunnels in which their creators hide. This morning, every gossamer thread was alive with color in the soft, misty light.

Coming back from the river, the sun had emerged from the fog and was beginning to heat the earth. Although it was nice to have the heat on our backs, not our faces, I noticed our world of webs had disappeared from sight. I knew they existed as the had just half-an-hour before, but that rare moment of misty morning light had passed, and with it, our moment of epiphany.

09252008_185405 (3)webTo experience the rapture of Nature, you have to be out there come rain or shine. The beauty of the natural world does not appear for our benefit, we must be present when the miracle happens, and miracles are happening every day. No matter how long I live in this little valley, there will always be something new, something rare and wonderful waiting for me if I will set aside my cynicism and get out in The Wild.

Naturalist John Muir knew the truth of these things. In the early part of the century he wrote, “I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in ‘creation’s dawn.’ The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half-made, becomes more beautiful every day.

I must read this quote each morning when I rise. I must remember that I haven’t seen it all. I must remember that all I have to do is step out the front door and walk into the light of the rising sun.

 

 

Resistance

10102013_183150 web.jpgIf there is one thing I’m good at it is resistance. Give me a good reason to dig in my heels and you’ll need a tow truck (or two) to get me moving again. Recently, my resistance has been to the heat and humidity of our Missouri summers. It happens to some extent every year, but this summer we no longer have any livestock, so being outside is purely a matter of choice, and my choice has been to stay indoors.

For a while it was all good. In my spare time I watched movies and worked on photo projects and lounged around with my dog, Gus, but now the party is over. I’m bored and feel more than a little claustrophobic, even in the air conditioning. So, despite my refusal to acknowledge the existence of summer, yesterday I decided to go for a walk to the river.

08112013_122313 webWe live about a mile from the Little Piney and the walk is fairly easy in terms of terrain. Not much upping and downing. So, when my mom started on her walk yesterday morning, Gus and I decided to give it a try and, much to my chagrin, something amazing happened: Despite the sweat and the bugs and my determination to dismiss summer as entirely useless, I felt better for having done it.

The key, it seemed, was in the hardship itself. Spending an hour getting soaked with sweat, feeling like a chicken under the broiler was worth it because it felt so amazing to rise to the challenge and return victorious. Not only did I have a sense of accomplishment, I also got to enjoy the bliss of returning to the cool  house, taking a shower, and slipping into soft, clean clothes. It was the contrast that made the experience an epiphany.

Web of Purpose

I don’t know if it is true for all people, but for me, going out into the uncomfortable, uncertain natural world without resistance is life affirming. I need to get my hands dirty, rip my jeans on a greenbriar, get bitten by bugs, and become soaked with sweat as a sort of daily baptism – dying to the ease of modern life and being reborn a child of nature. It is an exhilarating experience.

I will have to push myself to go back out there every day. The dark coolness of my office says, “Just stay here and check Facebook or work on a blog,” but I have to get out, go wild, get messy first or the pleasantry of my life loses its meaning. I need The Wild to keep me strong and in love with life.

So I go forth in hope, hope that I can remember the bliss nonresistance can bring. I will fall open-armed into the discomforts of summer and emerge a creature of joy.

 

 

 

Going With the Flow

If I had a blog, today I would reflect on the start of a new year in the wake of the Flood of 2015.

The Little Piney from the Bridge at Newburg

The Little Piney from the Bridge at Newburg

Missouri is about rivers. We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 named rivers and creeks plus countless back-road streams that come to life when rain is abundant. On Christmas night 2015, it started to rain. It came down in buckets for three days and nights, leaving us with a grand total of 11.26 inches. Even the tiniest stream became a roaring river, closing back roads and interstates, washing away homes and cars,  and changing the lay of the land in ways I never imagined.

Yesterday, we visited our own river: The quarter-mile of the Little Piney Creek that is our southern property line. We wished we could see the Piney when it was up and rolling, but the myriad side-streams kept us away until yesterday afternoon; until the moment we were witness to the raw and merciless power of Nature.

Before & After

Before & After

To put it bluntly, the river and the valley that lies beside it is unrecognizable. The pasture that once fed our cows and sheep is now a beach. The river gouged a new inlet, six or seven feet deep and fifty yards long, into the field, buried or ripped away the fences, and left a giant sycamore, uprooted by the flow, resting on its side where the river bank used to be.

 

The New Channel

The New Channel

The pathway that meandered through the green mansions of sycamore, river birch, and paw-paw trees is scoured clean of underbrush. Great masses of sticks, leaves, and vines are draped around tree trunks, six or seven feet above the ground. Feet of sand cover the ground and everywhere, great trees lie upon the ground, felled by the raging stream.

The Path to the River

The Path to the River

At the river’s edge, the sand bar where we picnicked, swam, and sunbathed on steamy summer days is reformed. Here, the sand is gone; replaced by stones from miles upstream. The path we used to drive down is blocked by downed trees and made almost impassable by a huge hole filled with river water.

 

A New World Order

A New World Order

It is sobering to see an entire landscape changed overnight; taken from the world of the familiar and replaced with something barren, battered and bruised. This morning I stepped into an alien world and I felt afraid. Standing on the banks of the Little Piney I faced the fear that haunts us all: The fear that we are not in control.

Nature, biology, random human violence all force us to admit that however neat and tidy we make our personal lives, nothing is certain; nothing is forever. In the blink of an eye, our world can change forever – and that is what keeps us awake at night.

The Sycamore

The Sycamore

In the face of The Flood, stepping across the threshold into a new year feels less comfortable than it has in the past. I can pretend that my vision of 2016 is accurate: That I can set goals and see them realized; make plans and see them bear fruit and walk confidently ahead on a familiar path, knowing that the foundation of my life is secure, but the Little Piney tells me to be careful because life isn’t safe. In fact, life is terribly unsafe. It is unsafe for children, unsafe for adults. Life is unsafe in any direction. Life is unsafe at any speed.

So how do I move forward? How do I face this brave, new world? The Piney offers me wisdom in her rebirth: The disaster came, but The Piney didn’t resist. She rose and fell, changed her course, and even made footprints in a foreign land. The river flows on without fear of the next flood. Even today she is coming clear again. In a few more days, her voice will be softer and, come spring, little green things will begin to poke through the choking sand and reclaim their rightful place among the budding trees. The Piney says, “Ride out the catastrophe, then start again.”

Things on the river will not be the same. New paths will emerge, old trees will fall, and water will make its home where once there was dry land, but, if we are wise, we too will adapt to the change. Even in this microcosm of life, we will find new bliss. Summer will come and one fine afternoon, we will traverse the fallen trees and muddy pools and sit beside the laughing waters once again. The wood thrush will sing, cardinals will find refuge in the brush piles, and otter will find crawdads under rocks that have come from many miles away. Life is change. Change is life. All we can do is go with the flow.

The Little Piney Renewed

The Little Piney Renewed