Spring ephemerals

     This is just a write of glory.
     I am jittering with anticipation. The migrating warblers are at our doorstep, and each day holds the possibility of new arrivals. This morning, Bob reported the first “zee zee zee zoh zee” of a Black-throated green. On a noon walk, I saw a Yellow-rump (add “Warbler” to the end of these colorful names.) And the best part is, there will be more tomorrow.

     Already there are wildflowers in bloom. The yellow coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) that closely resembles the common dandelion is blooming on roadsides. In the grasses at the edges of lawns and meadows are the tiny four-petaled bluets (Houstonia caerulea). Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) is blooming under its leathery leaves close to the ground. But my favorite is the wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia), the white, five-petaled spring ephemeral that floats above the dead leaves in the early spring woods.
Wood anemone
     I love the woodland spring ephemerals. They are demure, generally white, and delicate. In my woods, I see wood anemone, dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius), Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), starflower (Trientalis borealis). In other places with richer soils, I might also see spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), dutchman's-breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) or cut-leaved toothwort (Dentaria laciniata). Just the names themselves are delicious.
     Spring ephemerals are kind of like the warblers of the plant world: they come early, are small, and somewhat fleeting; that's what is so enticing about them. There are bigger, showier flowers, like red trillium (Trillium erectum) or pink lady's slipper (Cypripedium acaule), and these to me are the Baltimore Orioles and Scarlet Tanagers of the forest floor. They are breathtaking, a discovery when sighted, worth telling a friend about. They are jewels to be sure.
     But I have a soft spot when it comes to the little guys, partly because they are easy to overlook. But do look closely; learn their names; come to understand their daring to be among the first, to arrive in the moment that spring hesitates. And when it's over, the spring ephemerals will melt back into the earth and the warblers will become silent and invisible, and the season of robust leaves and summer heat will be upon us.
      So here we are now, on the brink of an exuberant but fleeting beauty. My heart is ready, savoring anticipation itself. My pledge is to walk into that beauty every chance I get, not dismiss its importance for the email inbox or the laundry or the meetings that clamor for my attention. Paying attention to beauty is valid – is necessary – because it is fleeting. It is the perfect nectar for our winter weary souls.



Chocolate bannock: our parenting secret-weapon

     Meg got another acceptance letter last week. Not from a college – it was even better. She's been offered a job at the wilderness canoe tripping camp where she spent five of her last six summers. Anna and Andrew are also going back this summer, and the anticipation has been high since January.

Sometimes they talk about the food:
Scene: sitting around the kitchen island
Meg: “Two years ago my section made me a Boston Cream bannock* for my birthday.”
Anna: “Oh, we made one on Wawiagama Lake that had chocolate pudding for frosting and M&Ms on it, and Mimi dropped it but Jenna glued it back together with more pudding....”
My thought-bubbles: 1. While plotting the dessert-to-be, they gathered and split the wood, built the fire, set up the reflector oven and cooked dinner as usual; 2. these girls weren't worrying about calories or body image; 3. their memories are about the teamwork and the crazy fun they had.

Sometimes they talk about the challenges:
Scene: on a rainy drive to the mall.
Anna: “I remember walking on those logs across the swampy part of the Diamond Lake portage and because it was raining I slipped off and got stuck up to my thigh...”
Andrew: “Oh yeah, I remember that portage. When we did it...”
Anna: “...and then Tal had to reach to me with her paddle, and I almost lost my boot but instead she fell off too and then we were both laughing hysterically and then the rest of our section had to put down their packs to help us get out...”
My thought bubbles: 1. This is more about friendship than adversity; 2. wow, they needed to be strong and agile to do that; 3. there's no sense of failure for falling off, only the sense of achievement for getting out; 4. they probably had a great bannock that night too.

But mostly they talk about their friends, where they've been and where they're going to go. As I do the dishes I am silently grateful for the self-esteem, trust, and playfulness that I hear.

     Remember Tiger Moms, the intense-pressure-to-succeed style of parenting? If I am a Tiger Mom about anything, it is about helping my children become their own best friend. It's one of the bottom lines in life: if you like yourself and can rely on yourself, then you will be okay. But here's the oxymoronic part of the equation: if I am to succeed with that goal, I have to let go of my children. That's the opposite of the clench of a Tiger Mom. But here's where the parenting secret-weapon comes in – let them go to camp, to sleepaway camp, to a wilderness camp.
     For us, Camp Wabun (in Temagami, Ontario) has been the antidote to the over-scheduled, over-pressured, and over-evaluated lives our teens navigate. Imagine the release of that load. Imagine what the coming generation would be like if they all had a better view of the horizon, and could look up and out at the world with the strength and calmness of knowing themselves.
     The hard part for Bob and me was not knowing every little thing about what they were experiencing. Was it going ok? How were the bugs? Were they homesick? 
      But when I stand on that Wabun dock each August, water clean enough to drink lapping at the boards, and watch as each of my children's sections paddles in to camp for the last time, I know we have made the right choice. They are glorious: strong, confident, bonded to their friends and their own inner capabilities, full of fresh sunlight and the beauty of the land that they came to know.
     And, I'll wager that each of them – Meg, Anna, Andrew – is his or her own best friend. It gives me hope.

*Bannock is a slightly sweet yeast-free bread that has been a staple of old-style open fire cooking for generations.

Note: There are many good camps out there. For information specific to Wabun, visit www.wabun.com. Also, Michael Thompson's new book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow (Ballantine Books, 2012), is a good resource on this subject.


Intermezzo – The Raven

     I have a mild obsession with ravens. Their intelligence and mythic qualities fascinate both the scientist and the spirit in me. 
     When I tried to capture a photo for the last post, I saw a solo bird flying at me. Raising my camera, I just started snapping frames as it passed right overhead. The day was cloudy and cold; I didn't know if the images would produce even a single usable one. It did, and I used it in the post.  
     But I also found this, and it took my breath away.  I saved it like a treasure, but realized that there is no value in a hidden treasure; it must be shared.  For me, at least, it is a lesson in opening my eyes to the magic that is right before me.  Everywhere. 


Devil's Garden

This is a postcard from a three-generation family vacation to southern Utah.

     Moving slowly, the injured ankle stuffed into a stiff boot, I walk into the Devil's Garden. My younger family has galloped off to the slickrock terrain of Delicate Arch; my elder family ventured with me only a bit and then retired to the comfort of the car. I'm alone. Slow footstep by slow footstep I walk between the fins of red sandstone rising through the earth, and come out into a high desert wonderland.
     Sand-sculpted rock shows no angles, just holes and arches and roundstone. This land dreams of water, knows it from memory, responds to the lightest touch of rain. The flow of ancient seas feels present in the eddies of wind against my skin. Time slips here. I feel it.

Pine Tree Arch,
Arches National Park
     A brazen blue flashes up from a juniper, and a Western bluebird leaps ahead of me followed by his more modest mate. I will see them again in my wanderings. Descending to Pine Tree Arch, I tuck into the protection of the sandstone walls to look out past the encircled pinyons. Over at Tunnel Arch, the only other person here asks if I think the sun will come back for her photo, and then gives up and leaves me to the silence.

     The “rawk rawk” of a raven comes in, and looking up, I see two, hovering together, swooping in the wind, playing. It looks as if they will fly though the high arch, but they peel off, one to skim the edge of the curved rock and touch-tag it before chasing after the other.
     I stand transfixed, watching. The ravens approach, as if I might be someone they know. We hold the space together with the wind, and when they move on, I begin my slow careful steps back to the trailhead.
     There is a grace that comes with the disruption of a Plan – a grace of Spirit. The disaster of the mashed ankle became the journey into the Devil's Garden. Grateful for this sacred landscape cached in my heart, I finally climb into the backseat of the car waiting in the parking lot.


Coming home

     Spring is late this year. To my relief, the first Eastern phoebe finally arrived yesterday morning, the latest arrival I've noted for them on my birthday calendar (see post 2/17/13). However, I've been looking in vain for White-throated sparrows and Fox sparrows.
     I'm very connected to these little guys. Yesterday, just before dawn, Bob muttered “Phoebe!” but I was already awake listening to the sound of the raspy-voiced bird questioning and answering his name: “Fee-bee?” “Fee-bee!” He usually sits on the laundry line that stretches between the crabapple tree right outside our bedroom window and my shed.

     The White-throated sparrows are my favorite. In their spring breeding plumage, they hop across the ground under my feeders with their crisp white throats, black head stripes and little yellow spots at their lores (the space between the eye and beak). These are the “old-sam-peabody-peabody-peabody” birds. In my personal Pavlovian response, I immediately relax and long for wilderness when I hear them, thanks to my teenage summers in the Canadian north where they were my soundtrack. These guys should be here any day.
     The Fox sparrows seem to have disappeared. This is puzzling – and a little disturbing – to me. According to the Project Feederwatch data I collect about birds that visit our feeders, we saw Fox sparrows every year in early April until 2009, and never again.
     Why have they stopped coming? This really bothers me. The problem is that I care.
     I believe that when you learn the name of somebody or something, you suddenly have a relationship. When I walk through the woods seeing wildflowers and hearing the birds, I am among friends. And for me, the next step is to fall in love.
     I used to drive down the coast a ways to get to work, and every day I passed several osprey nests: piles of sticks perched at the top of big power poles, or sometimes located properly in the top of a dead tree. Ospreys return to the same nest year after year. Every spring I waited and waited for my first glimpse of one particular osprey back on its nest. And every spring I worried that something had happened to it during the hazards of migration.
     Now I know this feeling again, as I wait up on a Saturday night for Meg to get home. Deep down I know she will be all right; she has good judgement, and she's a good driver. Deep down I also know that anything can happen. Sometimes I think I should just go to bed, trust the universe, give in to my personal helplessness in this situation.
     And that's the thing. I can't make them come home safely. I've learned that from the osprey. But I also think that we adults have a job to do, whether it is raising our children as best we can to have good judgement, or whether it is actually taking action to stop global warming. Personal helplessness only goes so far. If I can be as noisy, persistent and faithful as the Phoebe, if we all can, then we can have hope that our loved ones will make it home.

Eastern phoebes often nest in the shelter of a barn... or a home


Intermezzo - I Dwell in Possibility...

My favorite poem, and one that has guided me since high school, is Emily Dickinson's “I Dwell in Possibility - (466)”. The poem and this photo have been following me around all week, quiet and shy, but smiling brightly when I turn to look at them. Here they are: may you find what you need in them, as I have.

I dwell in Possibility ­—
A fairer House than Prose —
More numerous of Windows —
Superior — for Doors—

Of Chambers as the Cedars—
Impregnable of eye—
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky—

Of Visitors — the fairest —
For Occupation — This —
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise —

* This poem is found in many Emily Dickinson anthologies. For specific permissions and sources, visit this Poetry Foundation link: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182904



     I have a shed. Some people might call it a studio. But it's for my spirit. A spirit shed.

It sits in my back yard, on the spot where there used to be a chicken coop. The laundry line connects to it. 
 In the winter, I shovel the path out to my shed. Sometimes it feels like walking down a tunnel when the snow is up to my knees. Right now, it's kind of muddy, especially since the kids and dogs were ripping around out there yesterday. This morning when I walked out, this is what I saw:

     Inside, I have space to meditate on the floor, a desk for writing,

and a book case filled with books 
     and gifts of the earth: a bird's nest, shells, bones, rocks, feathers, fossils, arrowheads, pinecones. Some I found, some were given to me.

     Sometimes a few friends come out to meditate with me. We call it “shedding”. It took me awhile to be able to invite people out. It felt so private, and I was nervous about exposing myself and what I do to the people who know me as an active, volunteer-in-the-schools mom. But the more I practice meditating and writing and opening myself to spirit, the more comfortable I am just being who I am. And to my surprise, I find that people respond almost with a sense of need. Why did I not expect that others would be as timid or fearful of uncovering their spiritual sides as I was? It is a relief to walk in the schedule-driven world as a compassionate being, and to find company.

     I don't think you need a shed. I have a friend who has a box under the guest room bed in which she keeps her altar materials. It's portable. I have a friend who sits on a certain rock at the end of a field, summer or winter, to meditate. Pretty much all you need is a few minutes to yourself and to be able to turn off the phone. Let go of the external demands, and rest in the quiet and peace.