I didn’t fully appreciate how incredible our balsamroot bloom was until Juan and I took my mother to the Bison Range. Mom was a flower gardener and had lived back East her whole life so we weren’t sure how she’d respond to the drier habitat balsamroot prefers.
The flowers were at their peak, as they are right now in the Seeley Swan, and from the Bison Range vista point Mom looked out at the endless, overlapping hillsides cloaked in yellow blooms, interlaced with the purples, whites, and pinks from other wildflowers.
That night she thanked me, telling me the balsamroot were far more beautiful and moving than any horticultural garden. “I have never seen anything like it before,” she said smiling. “The earth made all those flowers with no help from human hands.”
Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) is a member of the Composite Family (Asteraceae) and the entire plant is edible. The name comes from its arrow-shaped leaves and the balsam smell of its taproot.
Balsamroot is a very important year-round food source for all classes of wildlife and domestic livestock and is being used to help restore landscapes and improve grazing lands.
Native Americans ate all parts of Balsamroot and also used it medicinally in a variety of ways because of its antibacterial properties. The seeds are plentiful, but only remain viable for five to six years, unlike some native grass and forb (flower) seeds, which can still germinate after being in the ground a couple of centuries!
Balsamroot sprouts each spring from its deep taproot, which can grow to be four inches thick and eight feet deep. Once the plant dies down, it’s brittle leaves litter the landscape. They are combustible and will carry a low fire, but balsamroot survives fire quite well because of its large taproot and actually benefits from low-intensity fires.
The girth of each plant gets wider over the years as it adds whorls of new leaves every growing season. If you examine a hillside of balsamroot you’ll see some are quite small but others can be two feet across at the base. Those are the “old growth” balsamroot and they can be up to 60 years old!
I couldn’t agree more with Mom. We are indeed, blessed each spring to be surrounded by such vibrant color and life!
The larches that have looked dead for the past six months have not disappointed us. They have greened up! Oh happy day! Our mountains are once again adorned with that incredible praying mantis green.
The fact that larches (Larix occidentalis) drop their needles defines so much of their existence. Most conifers keep their needles year round, enabling them to photosynthesize whenever the temperatures rise above freezing, but larches can only grow half of the year. They make up for this fact by situating themselves in full sun on mostly east, west, and north-facing slopes where it’s cooler and the soil stays moister. These factors enable larch trees to grow quite fast.
Losing their needles gives larch several advantages over other conifers. If insects damage their needles, larch trees just grow new needles the next year. If a late summer or fall fire burns the larch but doesn’t kill the cambium layer, new needles sprout the following spring.
Subalpine larch trees (Larix lyallii) have a couple other advantages over their year-round, needle-bearing conifer companions – by dropping their needles each fall, they do not lose life-sustaining moisture to the alpine winter winds. And their needleless limbs are way less likely to get damaged by deep snows. As a result, larches have the distinction of being the Rocky Mountain tree genus that grows at the highest elevations and the most northerly latitudes.
The Seeley Swan Valley is one of best places in Montana to see larches turn the mountainsides bright yellow in the fall, then decorate the forest floor with rusty yellow as the needles drop from the trees. Having been raised back East, I find their color display very satisfying.
If you take a walk through the woods right now and look close to the ground you’ll see tiny, chaotic puffs of creamy yellow at or near the top of what looks like blades of bunchgrass. But they aren’t bunchgrass – they are sedge plants.
Sedge flowers don’t have showy petals so if you move too fast you’ll miss them. But go slowly and use a magnifying glass or hand lens, and you’ll see that those puffs are made up of stamens coated with yellow pollen (the male part of a flower) and clear white pistils (the female part of a flower). They are the real thing and are all about getting pollinated! The flowering spikes may have both male and female flowers (bisexual) or only one (unisexual).
Sedge (genus Carex) is in the Sedge Family (Cyperaceae). There are 75 different species of sedge in the Rocky Mountains, so figuring out exactly what species you are looking at requires magnification and some patience. Many sedges grow in or near water and are a food source for water birds, but a lot of sedges grow in open meadows and forests at all elevations. The two most common forest species are Ross’s sedge (Carex rosii) and Elk sedge (Carex geyeri). Elk sedge is a very important food source for deer, elk, and bears.
The stems of almost all the sedges are solid and triangular. Their leaves are “v” shaped, thus the phrase you may have heard - “sedges have edges.” Most sedges grow in tight clusters, so once you get tuned into their existence, they are easy to notice. In fact, you’ll see them everywhere. Their clumps are pretty tough too, so when walking, if you have to choose between stepping on blooming flowers or on sedge plants, choose the sedge.
A glorious little flower found early in the spring amongst the sage and bunchgrass is the yellow fritillary or yellow bell, Fritillaria pudica. It’s a member of the Lily Family (Liliaceae) and it blooms in the grasslands and ponderosa pine country.
You can tell it’s in the Lily Family because the veins on its leaves all run parallel and its flower parts are in threes - three petals and three sepals. But the sepals, which in most plant families are green, leafy structures that protect the flower in bud stage and cup the flower once it blooms, look exactly like the petals with the same coloration. Botanists call them collectively, tepals.
Yellow bell nods its flower downward, its tepals forming an inverted cup. The entire plant is edible and it was once a main food source for native people. If you’re lucky, you may see the chocolate lily blooming at the same time, but its mottled color, makes it harder to spot. The yellow bell bloom is brief so if flowers make you smile, take a walk in the bunchgrass and see if you can spot some. Happy hunting!
Prairie Star (Lithophragma spp.), is in the Saxifrage Family (Saxifragaceae) and is one of my favorites because of its understatement. There are several different species common in our area . They stand eight to eighteen inches high with leaves low on the plant, so all you notice when you come upon it in the fields is its starlike creamy flowers floating above the earth.
Some species of Prairie Star reproduce by cloning from tiny maroon bulbs that are nestled in the axils of the leaves or branches. These little bulbs will germinate once the original plant falls to the ground.
If you see these leaves while you're hiking, they belong to Prairie Smoke, or what some refer to as Old Man's Whiskers, due to the nature of its seed head. Right now its leaves are coming out all over the hillsides. I'll tell you more about this plant once it starts blooming.
I'd like to be able to recognize all the different stages of the most common plants that grow in our area, but sadly, my brain doesn't completely cooperate. Each year I have to reteach myself. So I make a game of guessing what plant belongs to what leaves or buds as they appear. As the season rolls on and the plants leaf out and bloom and go to seed, I see how accurate my guess was. Challenging oneself to gather more details about the plants broadens the story they tell. It's fun. I highly recommend it. FYI - kids always surpass adults with this memory game so don't be too hard on yourself if you are over 40 and can remember much!
Springbeauty started blooming in the grasslands of the Seeley Swan Valley in early April and its bloom will gradually work its way up in elevation. It is in the Purslane Family (Portulaceae). One of the coolest things about this tiny plant is its ability to move through its life cycle quickly and successfully.
In the fall, when the growing season is done, Springbeauty starts growing from its tiny bulb. Its sprout continues to grow during the winter to just below the soil surface. By doing this it is primed to emerge from the earth as soon as the snow starts melting. When the tiny plant begins growing above ground it burns carbohydrates, which build up heat in its hollow stem, which in turn melts the remaining snow around the growing plant. The stored heat in its "greenhouse" enables springbeauty to photosynthesis, despite the cold air temperatures, allowing it to make an earlier appearance than most flowers. Once the plant has completed its flower and seed cycle it continues storing up carbohydrates in its bulb so that come September, it can start its efficient life cycle once again.
It’s finally spring in the Seeley Swan Valley of Montana, which is where I live. The ground, which just recently seemed brown and lifeless, is beginning to bust forth with flowers!
Wildflowers feel like gifts. No one plants them. No one waters them. They show up and we get to be the recipients of their beauty. Who would think that something so delicate and ephemeral would generate such joy?
Besides its divine beauty, our mountainous country offers the added benefit of hosting a progressive bloom; which means if we yearn for spring in July, we just have to hike uphill to find the delightful faces of the flowers that bloomed on the valley floor in May and June.
The lowlands lose their snow before the forested slopes, so if you need a flower fix right now go walk in the sage and look for one of the earliest blooming flowers in our area, the sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus). Its tiny yellow blooms are hunkered down close to the ground, so keep your eyes open.
The Buttercup Family (Ranunculaceae) has lots of different flowers in it, many of which are early bloomers and many, at first glance, that don’t seem to be related. Besides the familiar buttercup, some early-blooming members include pasqueflower, larkspur, and sugar bowls.
A few facts: The juices of most buttercup species are mildly toxic and will cause blistering if rubbed on your skin. Mountain tribes used the concentrated juice of the buttercups on arrowheads to help kill their prey. According to Daniel Mathews, author of my favorite natural history book, Rocky Mountain Natural History: Grand Teton to Jasper, larkspurs have been responsible for more cattle deaths than any plant in the West. On the other hand, goldenseal, a member of the Buttercup Family that grows in the eastern US, has well-documented medicinal properties.
One cool thing about snow buttercups, which grow way up high in our mountains, is that they track the sun. Their tracking sensors are in the upper stem, so they’ll still keep following the sun even if their flowers have been broken off. Sun tracking helps warm the flower and improves its chances of being pollinated. Bugs seek out the warmth and bask in the blossom and end up pollinating the flower at the same time. Not a bad exchange!
If you want to learn about the wildflowers firsthand, come on a hike with me in the Seeley Swan Valley. I will share what I know about the plants and landscape.
You can find more info at www.fourseasonforays.com
This essay has important information about the effects of chemicals we commonly use to kill weeds in our forests, campgrounds, parks, lawns, and in fields where we grow much of our food. Please put your feet up and take the time to read it. It includes links to the sources from which I got my information. The links take you right to the reference.
Please share this post with others.
Our War on Weeds - The Price We Pay
by Randi de Santa Anna
On a recent hike my friend ripped knapweed and daisy plants out of the ground with surprising anger. “I hate these plants!” she spat out. “They make me so mad!” I looked at her dumbfounded. How could anyone hate a plant?
Having worked as a botanist for the US Forest Service and the Soil Conservation Service I am very familiar with the native/nonnative discussion, but our culture’s eagerness to cast judgments upon plants has always perplexed me. In my mind, judgments such as good or bad, friend or foe, invasive or noninvasive, or worse, noxious, apply to humans, not plants.
The human species has impacted the planet more than any species ever has. We compact the soil, cut in roads, defoliate, build, plow, log, pave, pollute, and degrade. It doesn’t take a scientist to see that we, in fact, are the invasive ones. Once the ground is compromised nature sends in the only plant species that can survive in such depleted and traumatized soil. Rather than being grateful for their ability to grow on land we ruined, we call them noxious and wage chemical warfare on them. It’s as if on a subliminal level we know the plants are a testament to our cruelty and we want to eliminate their damning evidence, fast.
I know people’s efforts to eradicate weeds come from good intentions on behalf of the environment. Saving genetic diversity in the botanical kingdom is valid effort but does it justify spraying chemicals across the land? I don’t think so. We’ve already learned our lesson from DDT. We know the entire ecosystem, from single-celled organisms up through the food chain to our children, takes the hit when we use poisons. The truth is in our noble effort to save genetic diversity by spraying weeds we are, in fact, reducing diversity on a global scale by maiming future generations of insects, birds, amphibians, mammals, and yes – ourselves.
For those who remain skeptical, here are some facts about herbicides we spray on weeds:
2,4-D was first registered in the United States in 1948. Hundreds of millions of pounds of 2,4-D have been used throughout the world. In fact, a new combo of 2,4-D and Roundup, called Enlist Duo, was approved in 2014 by the EPA for use on GMO crops, so its use will increase. It kills plants by mimicking hormones called auxins, which control an array of plant growth and developmental processes. It is a component of Agent Orange and contains highly toxic dioxin (Journal of Pesticide Reform, Northwest Coalition For Alternatives to Pesticides/NCAP ). www.pesticide.org/journal_of_pesticide_reform
According to Beyond Pesticides, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect public health and the environment, 2,4-D has been linked in humans to "non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, endocrine disruption, reproductive and developmental effects, as well as water contamination and toxicity to aquatic organisms. Studies have found that farmers exposed to 2,4-D have low-quality sperm. In addition, farmer-applicators in areas of high 2,4-D use have more children with birth defects than unexposed men.”
According to EPA’s Industry Sales and Usage data, herbicides containing 2,4-D are one of the two most widely used herbicides for “home and garden, industrial, commercial, and governmental market sectors,” which means golf courses, lawns, campgrounds, and parks where our children and pets play are being sprayed with 2,4-D. According to EPA reviews 2,4-D is considered a “persistent” herbicide, lasting up to fourteen months. (Caroline Cox, Journal of Pesticide Reform)
Roundup, containing the active ingredient Glyphosate, is the second-most-used herbicide for home and gardens in the United States. (EPA Industry Sales and Usage Report) Despite the fact that on two occasions research laboratories hired by Monsanto were convicted of falsifying test results on Glyphosate, it remains an over-the-counter herbicide accessible to everyone (Caroline Cox, Journal of Pesticide Reform/ US Dept. of Justice. United States Attorney. Western District of Texas 1992. "Texas laboratory, its president, 3 employees indicted on 20 felony counts in connection with pesticide testing". Austin TX Sept 29)).
Glyphosate can cause birth defects and spontaneous abortions in humans, is linked to the occurrence of ADHD, kills placental cells, and disrupts the human hormone system. The EPA identified 76 species of birds, fish, honeybees and earthworms endangered by Roundup. (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, 1997. Herbicide Information Profile: Glyphosate) www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fsbdev2_025810.pdf. It also reduces beneficial insect, bird, and small mammal populations by destroying vegetation on which they depend; kills tadpoles (Hileman, B. (2005) Common herbicide kills tadpoles. Chemical & Engineering News); and is linked to the increased incidence of Parkinson’s Disease. (Barbosa et al., 2001. Parkinsonism after glycine-derivative exposure. Mov. Disorder/ The Last Roundup, David Stang/ Pesticide Properties Database) davidstang.com/?p=30
Roundup’s claim to fame is that it binds to soil particles as soon as it’s sprayed, which was supposed to mean it would not contaminate groundwater, but glyphosate was found in over a third of Midwest streams studied in the U.S. Geological Survey’s 2002 National Water-Quality Assessment Program, which surprised everyone. The EPA itself considers Roundup to be "extremely persistent." (Glyphosate Factsheet, Caroline Cox. Journal of Pesticide Reform) www.eastbaypesticidealert.org/Glyphosate%20Factsheet%201.htm
Milestone, an herbicide with the active ingredient, Aminopyralid, is now touted as the safest herbicide to use on knapweed even though no water quality standards have been established to date. It is currently being aerially and manually sprayed. The EPA issued Aminopyralid a conditional registration in 2005 and will not review it again until 2020 despite the fact that in 2008 potatoes, peppers, and tomato plants in thousands of gardens throughout the United Kingdom died off after being mulched with manure-rich compost from cows and horses that had grazed on Milestone-sprayed fields. The chemicals in Milestone had remained intact while passing through the ruminants’ stomachs. (Beyond Pesticide Factsheet – Aminopyralid; beyondpesticides.org)
In response to the die off Dow AgroSciences voluntarily suspended Milestone sales in the UK then reintroduced it with new label warnings telling users not to put Milestone-sprayed straw or manure on their gardens, but how does one accurately trace the source of one’s mulch or manure? Similar die-offs have occurred in the United States since 2009. Though Dow claimed that Milestone would break down after one season, studies have determined it can take up to three years to break down. (Beyond Pesticides, July 2, 2008 Herbicide Contaminates Home Gardens)
With this background information, let’s go back in time to 2005 when the EPA tested Aminopyralid. After running their battery of tests, the EPA determined Aminopyralid to be of low toxicity, therefore an acute reference dose (RfD), (translation – toxic level for humans) was not established. The EPA also concluded that since an RfD was not needed Aminopyralid therefore did not require an acute assessment for drinking water. Since Aminopyralid would be used regularly in campgrounds and parks, the EPA even considered the potential hazard of hand to mouth exposure to children (their term, not mine) but again determined that based on Aminopyralid’s toxicity data an extra safety factor (again, their term) to protect infants and children was not needed. (United States Office of Prevention, Pesticides Environmental Protection and Toxic Substances – Aminopyralid Pesticide Fact Sheet (www3.epa.gov/pesticides/chem_search/reg_actions/registration/fs_PC-005100_10-Aug-05.pdf)
I’m sorry, but how do garden plant die-offs translate into low toxicity? Isn’t it the EPA’s responsibility to retest Aminopyralid immediately rather than waiting until 2020? Who’s got whose back here?
All three of these herbicides and far too many other commonly used chemicals are on the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) International’s list of Highly Hazardous Pesticides. pan-international.org/release/615/ They contribute to the industrial and agricultural chemical soup that is causing feminization of fish and amphibians and reproductive disorders in wildlife. (Beyond Pesticides. December 2, 2010 Estrogenic Compounds in Water Come From Agricultural, Industrial Sources)
As far back as 1991 concerned scientists made a unified statement that synthetic hormone-based chemicals “could interfere with hormones of animals, and possibly people. Fetuses and the young were at the greatest risk for disease, abnormalities, and reproductive problems that were already manifesting in wildlife.” (Wingspread Statement 1991, Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle, 1998) sehn.org/wingspread-conference-on-the-precautionary-principle/
According to EPA’s Pesticides Industry Sales and Usage-2006 and 2007 Market Estimates, the most recent free report available, in the year 2007, 531 million pounds of herbicides were used in the United States alone and 2,096 million pounds were used in the world. The sheer tonnage of and persistence of these chemicals in the environment has led the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to regularly test humans for the presence of undesirable chemicals. They have tested 212 chemicals, 44 of which were pesticides, and have found almost all of them in humans. DDT has been found in 99% of the humans tested, despite its ban in 1972. (http://www.panna.org/issues/persistent-poisons/pesticides-in-our-bodies)
The CDC has also found hundreds of chemicals in the cord blood of newborns. According to PAN, the time at which a child is exposed to chemicals either in utero or after birth is critical and even micro doses of toxins can derail a child’s development, causing a higher incidence of:
Unfortunately the best mechanism for a woman of childbearing age to dump toxins from her body is through her breast milk, so babies get hit hard. Children’s bodies grow faster than adults and they also consume more food, water, and air relative to their body weight. They touch dirt, trees, and grass and put things in their mouths regularly, and because of all these factors, scientists maintain that children are far more vulnerable to chemical exposure than adults. Remember, parks and campgrounds, where our kids are bonding with nature, are regularly sprayed for weeds.
My husband and I asked every weed sprayer we have encountered: “Would you let your children or grandchildren play in the field you are spraying?” Each sprayer has said “absolutely not.” All but one continued spraying. Do we really value weed-free grass over our children’s safety? Are we thinking this through?
Even if people choose to deny that chemicals are a health problem, they must still face the fact that use of herbicides to eradicate knapweed and other weeds is not accomplishing its intended goal. Since 1996 weeds have grown more and more herbicide resistant. This was first documented in Australia and has been documented in other countries since then. (Evolution of Herbicide Resistance in Weeds. www.nature.com)
Studies also show that landscape application of herbicides, such as aerial spraying, causes more problems than it resolves, a major one being the arrival of more weedy species. The Forest Service actually budgets in chemical treatment for the second wave of non-native species they know will come. Why would we want to amp up our chemical barrage? (Long Term Effects of Weed Control, Rocky Mountain Research Station 2011)
Studies on native seeds have shown them to be very hardy, remaining viable and intact in the ground for decades, even centuries. Native prairie species have grown back when fenced off from all the negative impacts. Isn’t it reasonable to think that all our native landscapes could recover once the impacts upon them have been removed and the land has regained its health? This takes time and requires patience. Most ranch and farm economies, upon which we all depend, and which themselves depend upon herbicides, would argue they don’t have the time or the patience. But if you truly think this through, isn’t the economy of health and wellbeing for ourselves, for wildlife, and for the environment a priority over all other economies?
Organizations exist that support nonchemical means of controlling weedy species. The Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides is one such organization. Green City Blue Lake-The Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s site is an example of a city’s concern about the use of chemicals and includes their alternatives. Beyond Pesticides is another good resource.
To sum it all up I maintain that our War-on-Weeds mentality is blinding us; we are missing nature’s metaphor. Just as white blood cells in our body rush to the site of an infection and overpopulate it in order to fight the disease, might weeds be the Earth’s equivalent of white blood cells trying to repair humanity’s infectious impacts upon the land? Could weeds actually be healing the soil? An example: dandelions are one of the Plant Kingdom’s best liver cleansers for humans. Could it be that dandelion’s appearance on the landscape is nature’s way of cleansing the soil? It wouldn’t surprise me if knapweed and spurge were cures for cancer. Is anyone looking into that? Perhaps we are killing the cure.
Ecologists are rethinking the native/non-native concept because no matter how many chemicals we have thrown at the weeds, they keep coming back. Weeds are here to stay. Habitats are changing. Rather than focusing our venom and anger against weeds by administering a steady chemo drip on our environment, on ourselves, and on our children, why not claim our responsibility for being the invasive species. We can change our expectations and behaviors. We can live differently on this planet.
Our environment is an ongoing process, not a finite thing. In time the earth will right itself if we stop making things worse. Modifying our footprint on the planet, ending our chemical warfare, and restoring soil health are far safer ways to proceed.
When I awoke at 5am I stoked the fire, wrapped up in a down quilt, and walked outside into the quiet cold. 32 below zero. Stars crisp and bright above me. My face stung. Snow squeaked beneath my footsteps – each frozen crystal grinding against the other. My body, though warm at that moment, sent clear messages to my brain that it would quickly expire if left out in this cold without protection and warmth.
I looked for signs of life. Saw fresh deer tracks woven through the conifers and tried to imagine how it would feel walking through three feet of snow in 30 below without mukluks, having only the branches of the spruce for shelter, and twigs and needles the best thing on the menu. Just looking at deer walking belly deep in the snow makes me shiver. It's hard to believe that the hollow hairs in their winter coat along with their downy underlayer of fur insulates the deer like my down quilt, keeping them warm at this temperature, but it's true.
Surviving winter is all about efficient energy expenditure. Deer as well as moose, elk, and most pack species, follow each other through the snow, taking turns breaking trail. Often they use the same trails over and over because the firm base they have set in the track spares them from “postholing” after each new snow, an activity which wastes precious energy.
Have you ever wondered how the heck deer's legs stay warm in deep snow? It's quite ingenious. It is called countercurrent heat exchange and enables the deer’s body to be 30 degrees warmer than its legs without adverse effect. The veins in deer’s legs lie against the arteries, which allows heat to be exchanged between the two – this enables the warmer arteries to heat up the colder blood in the veins as it returns from the feet. This exchange minimizes heat loss to the environment, maintains core body temperature, and prevents shock to the heart. Many other animals besides the hoofed ones are equipped with this energy-saving system – birds, whales, seals, fish, your dog, and other canine species are some examples.
Deer come running towards us whenever Juan cuts down a tree in winter. I'm serious. The deer love the horsehair lichen which hangs off the upper branches of the conifers and whenever Juan fires up the chainsaw they act like the Schwan Frozen Dinner truck is making a delivery just for them. They are so crazy for the lichen that they'll munch at the top branches while the chainsaw screeches 15 feet away as Juan cuts the trunk of the tree. According to Daniel Mathews, who wrote Rocky Mountain Natural History: Grand Teton to Jasper, the most compelling and entertaining natural history book I've ever read, horsehair lichen is a digestive enzyme which helps the deer assimilate more nutrients from the twigs and needles they are forced to eat in the winter. The benefit they gain is one more way in which to optimize their energy expenditure.
While Juan and I were caretakers on a small lake we observed the flip side of winter's energy-sparing cycle with respect to deer. When the snows got deep on the surrounding hillsides, the deer migrated down the hills to the windswept snows of the lake and the mountain lions capitalized on that migration. Hunting deer on the lake used far less of the mountain lions' energies than hunting in the deep snows, enabling the lions to keep their families well fed. Predators only chase prey long enough for their efforts to balance out in the expense column. If it costs too much energy the predators will give up the chase.
Getting through winter looks entirely different for humans. We have our shelters that we must heat. We wear warm clothes. We eat more and work is how we pay for those essentials. It is easy to waste time and money but in the end our net energy output has to cover our needs. The way in which we accomplish that looks different for each one of us.
Being freelance artists, Juan and I are constantly creating the way in which we make our living. In fact, our lifestyle is yet another one of our art forms. So every winter when the wild critters meter out their energy in order to survive, we re-assess our trajectory to check how efficient and productive it has been. If last year's efforts setting tracks have led us to scarcity we must set different tracks.
As artists we need downtime first and foremost in which to create; it is equivalent to food on our scale of needs. And downtime is only possible when one's efforts produce the desired result with the least amount of effort. Just like the deer and mountain lions, we can't afford to expend too much energy to eat. Thus my recurrent theme - we tuck in winter. Tucking for us doesn't mean hiding out in a closet. It means getting quiet enough to sense whether a change in direction is needed. It means honing down our outward activities to gather enough energy to launch ourselves. It means Creating. Creating. Creating.
So winter's quiet is an important time for both Juan and me. Each year as winter approaches I hunger for it as one hungers for a rock to rest upon after hiking a long ways. I need to eat a snack, rest my muscles, ponder my surroundings and enjoy the wild view - the reason for my efforts in the first place.
So I wish for all of you the respite, reflection and rejuvenation that winter offers.
It's been three weeks since our sweet puppy collapsed and died suddenly. Our pack has been reduced by one.
I will write words at some point. Right now, Juan's photos say it all for me. Put your feet up and click slideshow on this link.
We took Lily with us everywhere. It's clear from the photos we all shared a good life.
“Sit and listen to what the world has to say.” When I heard Buddhist teacher and author, Pema Chodron, say these words something deep inside me aligned.
In her meditation talks Pema suggests we sit quietly and try to create some space between our thoughts. Let our minds “soften” and become more “fluid.” Pema explains that though humans are hard-wired to think, thinking is not the only way to perceive or move through this life. We can feel, we can listen, we can be open. Rather than embracing “rock logic” we can embrace “water logic.” “There is so much more,” she encourages.
But we continue to interpret the world with only our minds. Regardless of humanity's amazing discoveries and inventions our thinking decisions continue to devastate our environment, exploit cultures, and incite wars. It seems especially crucial now that we open ourselves up to more compassionate ways in which to perceive and interact with our world.
But the technological overlay we have created has accelerated our lives. When time-management becomes a priority and the only way to get through our to-do list is to categorize, it’s hard to be aware of those broader aspects of our selves and to remain sensitive to others. In fact, it’s nearly impossible.
And that, my friends, is the very reason I love winter. My life slows down when the ground is covered with snow, the wood stove needs to be stoked every two hours, and I must scrape ice off my car as I warm it up. And then, of course, there's the endless shoveling!
The deliberateness of these tasks pulls me out of abstract thought and into physical reality. I become the mammal that I am – more in tune with my body and senses, more a part of each moment – and life feels simpler.
I have sought out nature my entire adult life. For me, it wasn't a choice, it was a necessity. I wintered with only canvas between me and the forest, a wood stove to warm me at night, and gathering wood with a bow saw to heat me during the day. After that I lived up a trail in a tiny cabin my former land partners and I built by hand. I heated and cooked with wood, had cold-running water and an outhouse. Now I live a more modern existence, so I need winter’s imposed simplicity even more.
When I heard Pema’s words, I realized that my urge to live on nature’s terms has been my attempt to “listen to what the world has to say.” To understand what life is and how to move through it. It has been the only way I knew how to do it. Nature’s rhythms atune me to the magic of life – to the spaces in between the lines of thought.
There are many ways to slow down and listen - being in nature is not a requirement nor is it an option for everyone. However we have to do it, my hope is that more of us will listen rather than think, and that in doing so we will figure out how to live on this planet with decency and an attitude of reciprocity.