The Voice of the Wilderness

If I had a blog, today I would write about the healing power of the natural world.

October 11 - White Throated Sparrlw

White Throated Sparrow

It has been a hard week. On Friday, I lost a dear friend: My nephew-dog, Hank the yellow lab. Hank was with us for thirteen years, most of them spent living next door to us with my brother and sister-in-law. For the last four years, we were Doggie Day Care for Hank when his people were at work, so his absence from our life has left a great empty place, a place even our own dogs, Owain and Bree, can never fill.

Yesterday it was chilly and overcast, the weather making my sadness deeper. I tried reading, watching a movie, and even attempted some writing, but I couldn’t focus; couldn’t stop my mind from going deeper into dark places that pronounced life nothing more than a long string of sad goodbyes. I felt hopeless and depressed, too bereft even to sleep, so about noon I packed up my camera gear and went for a walk in the woods.

Given my state of mind when I started, I figured my walk would be short, but I thought maybe some fresh air would do me good and I needed a photo of the day, so I headed down towards the little valley just beyond the barn. When I got to the gate, I felt a little better and decided to go a little farther.

Down by the creek, I came upon a gathering of cardinals, white-throated sparrows, and juncos – all feeding on rose-hips, the berries of the multiflora rose. I took a few photos, then a few more, and before I knew it, two hours had passed and I was watching kingfishers down at the river.

About mid-way through my walk, I started to feel better. The dark cloud in my mind lifted as the sun peeked out and warmed the landscape with it mellow light. I still carried the weight of grief, but out in the woods, it was a weight I could bear, and I realized as long as I have Nature, I have refuge from life’s heavy-handed blows.

I can’t put my finger on any one event or sensation that eased my pain, so I can’t offer a ten-point plan to finding peace in the natural world. All I can tell you is: Being surrounded by the beauty and abundance of life made me feel part of something larger, more eternal, and more substantial than fragile, mortal life.

I returned home in the late afternoon, sweaty, tired and covered in stick-tights, but my mind was quieter, my thoughts less troubled. As I tended the barn-cats and chickens, settling them in for another night, I had hope – hope for myself, for my loved ones, and for the future. With that hope came thoughts of a passage from one of my favorite books, The Singing Wilderness, by naturalist Sigurd Olson. In it, Olson writes:

I have discovered that I am not alone in my listening; that almost everyone is listening for something, that the search for places where the singing may be heard goes on everywhere… We may not know exactly what it is we are listening for, but we hunt as instinctively for opportunities and places to listen as sick animals look for healing herbs.

Amen.

Stepping Out On Faith

If I had a blog, today I would write about my further adventures in pursuit of a stronger faith in The Universe.

White-Tailed Twins

October 8 – White-Tailed Twins

My Uncle Bruce, who is a Christian counselor, had one admonition for those of us seeking to grow spiritually: “Be careful what you wish for. If you pray for long suffering, you might just get it.” Well I managed to dodge that particular bullet, but I did plunge off the deep end when I asked The Universe to help me have greater faith. In so doing, I forgot Uncle Bruce’s advice and the basic tenet of spiritual growth: If you ask The Universe to give you something (faith, courage, patience, etc.) it won’t wave a magic wand and give you that power. Rather, it will put you in circumstances that give you the opportunity to develop the skill you aspire to possess. Today was proof of that, to be sure.

Normally, I work in town on Tuesdays, doing payroll and the book work at Dad’s dental clinic. Yesterday I had to postpone my sojourn to town because my labrador nephew Hank was ill. Dad did the payroll, but I had to go in today and do the rest of the accounting. I knew something was up with The Universe as I drove to town this morning, because everywhere I looked I saw flocks of migrating birds. Catching the one or two days in the fall when the warblers and other small songbirds are coming through is a high-point of my photographic year and I just knew I was missing out; and I was right. Mom took a two-hour walk this morning and saw all kinds of warblers, sparrows, and even golden-crowned kinglets. I didn’t begrudge Mom her sightings, but I have to admit I was a little irritated at my Higher Power for messing up my big day.

As I went about my desk-work, I was struggling not to be in a foul mood. “Missing one day of warblers is a stupid thing to be upset about,” I chastised myself. It is true, but I had to dig deep to find confidence that the order of the day was as it needed to be, however unfair it might seem.

I got home around 2:00 and took a long walk, but all I saw was a couple of blue jays and two very argumentative squirrels. I let it go and spent the rest of the afternoon helping Mom identify the Magnolia and Nashville warblers she had seen during the morning. Every time I started to feel jealous, I repeated my mantra, “Things are the way they are supposed to be.” It helped some, but I was definitely struggling.

White Throated Sparrow (2009)

White Throated Sparrow (2009)

After dinner, I gave birding one more try and went up to the High Field where our native grasses are heavy with seed. Clouds were gathering in the west and I was losing valuable light much faster than usual so I knew I had to make any photo-op count. As I passed by a row of cedar trees I heard a chirp and stopped to investigate. Using my long lens, I peered into the depths of the brush and saw, much to my delight, the first white-throated sparrow of the season. My spirits lifted immediately. White-throats summer in Minnesota then visit us for the winter. I love hosting these visitors from my beloved North Country and catching their arrival is every bit as thrilling as a warbler sighting.

October 8 - Stepping Out on Faith

Stepping Out on Faith

I walked back down the road with a spring in my step, content with my birding experience for the day, when I saw a movement near the woods’ edge. There in the twilight were two lovely young white-tailed deer. Children born this past spring, the twins were still small and very dainty. I snapped a few pictures and was about to wrap things up when one of the deer walked towards me. She was very alert and very confident; stopping every few yards to stamp her foot and let me know she was not to be trifled with. I stood stock still, taking pictures as fast as I could. Before the little deer satisfied her curiosity, her mother appeared in the pasture, snorting and stamping in alarm. Both young ones took their mother’s warning seriously and retreated to her side, vanishing into the woods without a trace.

Driving back to the house, I thanked the deer and I thanked The Universe for my gift of the day. As I thought about my close encounter, it occurred to me that the fawn who approached me was an example of new faith: She walked towards me with head held high, confident in herself and confident in me. She stepped out on faith and in that moment, made both of our lives something beautiful. We don’t need perfect faith in the beginning, only a willingness to take a few steps forward without knowing what happens next.

Tomorrow is another day and will present its own opportunities for growth. It scares me a little to put my trust in a being other than myself, but I will remember my lessons from today and I will pray to be as brave as a little white-tailed deer.

Dancing in the Rain

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

A Perfect Morning

A Perfect Morning

It has been a dry summer here on The Greenwood. Since the first of June, we’ve only had a quarter-inch of rain and its absence has left our green-world crisp and brown. Since then, I’ve tried every rain-dance, rain-prayer, and rain-spell in the book, but nothing has worked. The weather, it seems, is a force beyond my control.

Summer Evening

Summer Evening

Last night, with a forecast that promised rain, I was tempted to beg, plead, dance, cry, and threaten any deities who would listen, but then I stopped. I had been down this path so many times before and my cosmic temper-tantrums never worked. Maybe it was time to try something new; something radical. Maybe it was time to trust the wisdom of The Universe over that of my fragile human mind.

When I said my prayers, I skipped my traditional “begging-prayer,” and instead, said an “I trust you” prayer. As much as I wanted rain, I would trust that The Universe knew better than I and would provide what the Earth needed instead. I went to sleep with a lighter heart, though I was unsure what the morning would bring.

Mist on Hawk Ridge

Mist on Hawk Ridge

At 2AM I was was awakened by the sweetest sound imaginable: The sound of thunder rolling down the valley, followed by the sound of pouring rain. At last, the time had come.

We had half-an-inch of rain in the night and it continues to fall as “a gentle hickory” this morning. There is mist on Hawk Ridge, the air is pungent with the smell of damp earth, and none of it is thanks to me.

Although it goes against my nature to surrender control (or the illusion thereof), I find there is relief in the knowledge that I am not allowed to control everything. It is a lesson I am sure I will have to repeat, but for now I will rejoice in my epiphany: The realization that, hard as I may try, I cannot see all ends. As the raindrops splash on my face and run rivulets down my arms, I see the beauty in trusting a power greater than myself, one that allows for miracles in the most unlikely places. I can put away my pleas and bargains, my threats and bribes, and revel in the words of an unknown author when he penned: “Anyone who says sunshine brings happiness has never danced in the rain.” That’s the only kind of rain dance I need.

Where No One Stands Alone

If I had a blog, today I would write about my journey towards faith.

The Rose Window

The Rose Window

Faith is not an easy get. People who as been part of any religion or spiritual path has been confronted by this five-letter word and it seems like a simple one, but throughout the ages, no one has offered a concise definition of the word. Our family is one part Episcopalian and one part Baptist, so growing up, I got a full range of Christian doctrine, all of which admonished me to have faith in God. As I matured, I wanted more that the Sunday-school version of Abraham and Issac to guide me. I wanted to know how I could have the kind of faith that would relieve my constant struggle with fear and give me confidence in the face of life’s uncertainty. I couldn’t find these answers in The Bible, so I widened my search to to include other religions and spiritual paths.

Table in the Wilderness

Table in the Wilderness

I found many uplifting, soul-healing perspectives in the spirituality of Buddhists, Native Americans, Druids, and Pantheists. I drank deeply from the nature-wisdom of Thoreau, Emerson, John Burroughs and Sigurd Olson and had powerful experiences in the wilderness, but I still couldn’t find the key to unlock the concept of faith. I prayed, meditated, journaled, and went on vision quests; joined churches, left churches, and very nearly entered seminary, but with middle-age fast-approaching, my quest seemed to be in vain. Maybe I just wasn’t supposed to crack the code of this mysterious concept. Maybe I was not to be a “person of faith.”

As often happens, I started to find a trail of breadcrumbs soon after my frantic searching ended. Once I decided to accept my “failure,” things began to happen. In July, I was running the farm for two weeks while Mom and Dad were on a horseback-riding trip out west. My first week alone was fantastic. I had energy, creativity, and tons of motivation. I cleaned and organized the storage room in our house, cleaned six months of bedding out of the chicken house and cleaned it stem to stern, and did a deep cleaning of the horse barn. I was on fire. In the midst of my power-surge, synchronicities abounded. The Universe was speaking directly to me, leaving me no doubt that whether you call it God, Yahweh, Allah, The Goddess, Nature, or The Great Spirit, there is a divine being out there somewhere and it knows us as individuals. I was on a spiritual high. Then I came the crash…

Over that first weekend, the Ego, the inner voice that gives rise to my doubts and fears, got the better of me. I can’t say exactly what triggered my fall, but by Saturday evening I had fallen back into my old, fear-laden mind-set and my body responded in kind. It was utter gastric rebellion for thirty-six hours. As soon as I was well enough to contemplate, I tried to uncover the source of my illness. I compared my thoughts and moods over the last week to those of the weekend. Somewhere along the way I lost something, something essential. Late Sunday evening the answer came: I had lost faith. I’d had seven days of trusting The Universe, conversing through signs and dreams in a way that told me, “Whatever happens, you will have the resources you need to meet the situation at hand,” and then I let the Ego take it away. If I could have gotten off the couch, I would have leaped up and shouted, “Eureka!” Not only did I start feeling better, but at last I had a clue to the meaning of faith. I had finally struck gold.

I don’t want to be a zealot who proclaims they’ve been given the secrets of the universe, but I think I have a small piece of the cosmic puzzle: To be a person of faith, you must believe that there is a divine being that knows you as an individual and wants to communicate with you and it is saying, “I’ve got your back.” It doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen, or that you’ll get everything you want, but it is an assurance that when the hard times come, you’ll be given what you need, not only to survive, but to find peace, comfort, and joy in the days that follow.

No One Stands Alone

No One Stands Alone

The synchronicity that finally pulled this together for me was a gospel song that kept coming up on my Pandora radio station. For three days, every time I was in the car, I heard the song Where No One Stands Alone. I was familiar with the song, but had never really listened to the words. When I did, I knew I was on the right path at last.

Once I stood in the night with my head bowed low
In the darkness, as black as could be
And my heart felt alone
And I cried oh Lord
Don’t hide your face from me

Hold my hand all the way
Every hour every day
From here to the grave
I know
Take my hand
Let me stand
Where no one stands alone.

 

Out West Part III: Chimayo

If I had a blog, today I would write about El Santuario de Chimayo.

The High Road

The High Road

 

On the third day of our trip to Santa Fe, our path turned north, toward Taos. Right from the start we knew the stars were aligning to make this a very interesting day. During our lunch break in the town of Espanola, a photograph on the wall caught my eye. The woman in the picture looked exactly like my Aunt Elaine. I had Mom take a look and she agreed. We both knew it meant something, but at that moment, it was a question without an answer – or an answer without a question. Either way, it was clearly a day to pay attention.

At Chimayo

At Chimayo

Our original plan was to take the High Road to Taos, do some rock-hunting in the desert, and spend a couple of nights on the road before heading back to Santa Fe, but then we saw the sign to El Santuario de Chimayo. The name gave it away as a church, but that was all we knew as we drove into the tiny parking lot beside the little adobe chapel. There was a walkway behind the santuario with plaques telling the story of Chimayo as a place of miracles. We wanted to know more.

El Santuario de Chimayo

El Santuario de Chimayo

At Chimayo, not only do you sit in the holy stillness of the sanctuary, where the silence is broken only by the bells that ring our “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” at Chimayo you find healing. Next to the chapel is a cave-like ante-room with a stone well in the center. This is not a well that provides water. Instead, it contains el pocito, or Holy Earth. Many people have been healed of illness and injury after being anointed with el pocito and the proof lies in the hundreds of abandoned crutches hanging in the next room. Visitors are encouraged to take a handful of soil, rub it on the site of their own injuries (physical or emotional) and pray for healing. Mom and I each shared in this sacrament and not for the first time that day, we both shed silent tears.

Storm on the Mountains

Storm on the Mountains

We sat beneath the trees outside the chapel, lost in thought, as a storm broke over the mountains. The rain came down in sheets and we hurried into the bookstore to take shelter. We browsed every corner of the little shop, collecting small gifts to take home to our family; reminders of this lovely place. As the rain moved east, we went to the cashier and in a single instant, our reverie shattered like a pane of glass. Mom’s wallet was gone.

We spent the next hour scouring the store, the chapel, the restrooms, and the grounds. Everyone came to our aid, even 92 year-old Father Roca lent a hand, but clearly, the wallet was gone for good. Hot, tired, and frustrated, we left our contact information with the manager of the bookstore, but we didn’t have much hope that we’d see the wallet again.

As we drove toward Taos, we tried to piece together what had happened. There we were, connecting to God in a profound and mystical way, setting aside our worries and making ourselves vulnerable to The Spirit, and then we were robbed. Not only did Mom lose her cash and credit cards, but the silver guitar pick she’d bought from the Navajo woman on our first day in Santa Fe was also in the wallet. We looked for meaning, but at that moment, any good signs were few and far between.

Into the Mountains

Into the Mountains

We were silent for a long time. We had driven up, out of the desert, into the mountains and the lush forest and slender aspen-maids soothed our battered spirits. Mom was the one to speak first. She wanted to tell me about her prayer. There in the chapel, she prayed for courage when the bad times come. She asked to be strong, focused, and faithful not only in the good times, but in the bad times as well. If nothing else, this was an opportunity for her (and for me) to use that courage and stay strong. There are wrongdoers everywhere and no amount of faith can protect us from the slings and arrows of “The World.” All we can do is strengthen our belief that there is a power for good out there and if we trust in its divinity, we will have the resources we need to make it to safer shores. I agreed wholeheartedly.

Just then, as we rounded a sharp curve, we saw the one who would guide us back to hope. Standing next to the road was a great, brown bear. He rose up on his hind legs and looked right into my soul. It was Arthur, the bear who had come to me in dreams for many years, the one who held me and comforted me in my darkest hours, and guided me through many trials. Here in the desert mountains, my spirit-bear became real.

I slowed the car and he held my gaze for a long time, before dropping to all-fours and casually walking back into the woods. Mom and I were both crying. What other response can one give when in the presence of a god?

Cathedral of St. Francis

Cathedral of St. Francis

After our encounter with Arthur, we decided to go back to Santa Fe. Taos was a long ways off and neither of us felt like shopping or gourmet food. We wanted some quiet time to think about our day and Santa Fe felt like home. We got a room at the El Dorado Hotel and gratefully put up our feet for the evening. Mom had gone to take a shower when her cell phone rang. It was my Aunt Elaine. After seeing “her” picture at noon, I was so flabbergasted I almost dropped the phone. Clearly the Powers-That-Be weren’t done with this day yet.

Aunt Elaine had called because she had received a phone call from a woman who said she had found a wallet belonging to Holly Atkinson. Aunt Elaine’s phone number was in the wallet, so the woman called her in hopes she could contact Mom.

“Where is she?” I asked.

“She said she’s two blocks from a hotel called the El Dorado.”

Two blocks away. If we’d gone to Taos, we’d have been a hundred miles from there.

“What is the woman’s name?” I asked.

“Liberty,” said Aunt Elaine.

At that point I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I did both. I told Aunt Elaine our story, laughed and cried some more, then copied down Liberty’s phone number. Mom called her, and in a short while, Liberty dropped off the wallet at the front desk of our hotel. Mom offered her a reward, but Liberty refused, in fact, she said she was just passing through and was in a rush, so she’d just leave the wallet and go. We never met the woman who was the crowning glory of our day. The next morning we made a donation to the Cathedral of St. Francis in Liberty’s name.

Shrine at Chimayo

Shrine at Chimayo

So much of life is veiled in shadow. We want to believe in signs and synchronicities. We want to think there is a Divine Being who cares for us, who knows us as individuals and loves us as a parent loves a child, but most of the time we must make do with blind faith. I don’t know why the veil was lifted that day at Chimayo. Perhaps it was the spirit that lives in the earth of that sacred place. Perhaps we stepped into a “Thin Place, ” where worlds brush against each other like leaves in the wind. I don’t have all the answers about that day, but I do know this: Whenever I am lost in inner darkness, when it feels as if heaven and earth have abandoned me, I will remember Chimayo and I will have faith to hold on until the next bend in the road.

Out West Part II: Santa Fe

If I had a blog, today I would write about Santa Fe, the City of Saintly Faith.

Santa Fe

Santa Fe

Mom and I reached Santa Fe around noon on the Summer Solstice. As we traveled deeper into the desert, I felt the land speaking to me in the same voice I hear when I am Up North. It occurred to me that maybe I didn’t have to make a choice between loving the North and loving the desert. Perhaps I had simply found a new branch of the same Sacred Tree. I thought about the raven we saw the day before and about the aspens in the high-country, whose leaves danced like those of the birch and popple around our cabin in Ely, and I felt the a current of spiritual energy running  between these two holy landscapes and I knew I was feeling  The Earth Root, through which all things are connected.

Our first afternoon in Santa Fe, we met one of The Grandmothers, a Navajo woman selling silver guitar picks, each engraved with a story. My brother plays guitar and Mom wanted to buy a special pick for him. “Find one that speaks to you,” said the Grandmother, “and I will tell you its story.”

Spanish Roses

Spanish Roses

Mom chose one with a turtle engraving. “The story of Turtle is one of long life. Not only does Turtle live for many years, he also represents water. which is life for our people.”

The Grandmother motioned for Mom and I to sit down, so we could talk more comfortably. Under the shady latilla canopy, we talked about the suffering of the Earth; the oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the destruction of forests and the extinction of animals to satisfy the greed of humanity. The Grandmother asked what Indian tribes were native to our part of the country and we talked about the Osage and the Early Woodland people who lived in the rocky overhang above our river nearly 1500 years ago. We told her about Old Woman Cave and the pottery shards we found there. She smiled when we told her how we treasured the work of those ancient Mothers and Grandmothers; she was glad we gave them the honor they deserved. As we prepared to leave, we thanked her for her stories, and she thanked us for ours. The song of The Earth Root was as loud and clear as the bells of St. Francis’ Cathedral. In that moment we were not white women and Navajo, but sisters, mothers, daughters, and grandmothers who carry the Song in their hearts.

As evening deepened on the longest day of the year, we drove a few miles east of The Plaza and climbed the winding path up to The Cross of the Martyrs. From the cross, you can

Solstice Sunset

Solstice Sunset

see all of Santa Fe as well as the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains. As we sat in the cool dusk, the sun set over the mountains in a blaze of red and gold, the perfect celebration of the Solstice. We couldn’t imagine a day that could outshine this one, but that was before we went to Chimayo.

To be continued…

 

Junior & the J.T.’s

The Glorious Tufted Titmouse

The Glorious Tufted Titmouse

If I had a blog, toady I would write about the arrival of Junior and the J.T.’s. These ebullient youngsters aren’t a rock band, although their strident calls are reminiscent of the Big Hair Bands of the 1980s; they aren’t a motorcycle gang, or a new comic strip in the New York Times. Jr. and the J.T.’s are the highlight of my summer, they are fledgling tufted titmice.

Junior 2012

Junior 2012

Titmice, like their cousins the chickadees, are spirited, smart, and charming. They bring life to my yard most of the year and I miss them terribly when they are on their family-building hiatus in June and July. It has been very quiet around the bird feeders since my little grey friends began courting and nesting, but the silence is about to end.

Titmice raise one brood of chicks each season, laying anywhere from three to nine eggs in a cavity the mother selects, usually a woodpecker hole or other space in a dead tree. The female lines her cup-shaped nest with moss, downy feathers and soft rabbit fur so her chicks will be warm and comfortable, then lays one egg a day until her brood of 6-9 eggs is complete. The eggs hatch in two weeks and stay in the nest until they’ve grown a proper set of feathers, usually about 14 days.

Titmice are a family-oriented bunch and, much like my own family, the young often stay with their parents once they’ve reached adulthood and, until they find a mate of their own, they pull their own weight by caring for the next year’s chicks.

The Seed Bandit

The Seed Bandit

The first year off the nest, titmice are the equivalent of teenagers. This is when Junior and the J.T.’s really strut their stuff. As with human teens, one youngster earns leadership status. He (or she) leads the team as they explore (and exploit) their domain and this earns him the title “Junior.”  His siblings are ” The J.T.’s” (junior titmice) and along with the hummingbirds, they will be the dominant presence in the yard from now until frost.

Taking the Plunge

Taking the Plunge

Every day is a new adventure as Junior and J.T.’s explore the world and their innate joi de vie makes them a bright spot in my day. I admire their fearless nature as they plunge beak-first into the bird bath and revel in the experience of getting thoroughly soaked. They don’t care a bit how funny they look when they are wet, they’re having fun and that’s what matters, after all. When they aren’t swimming, they are playing tag on the patio furniture, chasing hapless insects,or pestering the more regal birds, like blue jays and cardinals. They tackle the challenge of seed-eating with gusto and spend hours mastering the art of splitting a sunflower seed with their beak.

Bath Time

Bath Time

As I watch Junior and his compatriots go about their day, I wonder what gives them such a light-hearted approach to life. Some would argue its because they are ignorant (bird-brains, after all), but I think its something else. Rather than see Junior and the J.T.’s as cognitive lightweights, I believe they (and most other animals) know much more than we do when it comes to things of a spiritual nature. They are in touch with The Divine in a way we can never be simply because they are not burdened by an ego. They aren’t mean for sport or jealous or inclined toward self-pity. They have no doubts, because they are free from the inner babble that so often leads us astray. Rather than seeing Nature as an entity that is inferior to the human race, I believe it is the other way around. Nature has conquered its demons and is free to live with an abandon we cannot yet achieve. In the end, I think James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, ha the right of things when he wrote, “The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply that they have perfect faith, for faith is necessary to have wings.”  Amen and Amen.