The Land and Me

I have been thinking about ecology, which is the study of how beings interact with each other and their environment, to better understand what terms like “eco-spirituality” and “spiritual ecology” mean. Ecology seems pretty science-y, and science and spirituality are often thought of as opposites. Both spirituality and ecology are about relationships, however, and there is crossover in the way we relate to the land and the beings with whom we share the land.

I was disappointed in my religious tradition of origin and many of the others that I have explored because the concept of relationship seemed to end with humans, and often did not even extend to all humans. The land, and living on it, seemed to be something to overcome or control. I cringed ever time I read or heard about the “lesser beings” who we supposedly had dominion over. My own experience taught me differently.

grey squirrel on my snow covered landI do not work with deities in my spiritual practice. The personification of divine energy does not resonate with me; instead, I see that energy expressed in every living thing and in the land itself. After struggling to even say “God,” which felt like an obstacle to an interfaith ministry, I redefined that name for myself to mean the universal divine energy.

If I am an expression of divine energy, the other animals and plants are expressions of divine energy, and the land is an expression of divine energy, where is the separation? How can we possibly have power over another life or the land if we are all, essentially, the same?

I contemplate those questions during my morning outdoor meditation time as I watch the squirrels and birds in their morning activities. That contemplation has shifted my relationship with the land I am on. Like a human family has shared genetics, the land and I are of the same stuff.

It is in this realization, I think, that spiritual ecology comes to be. I, as a human animal, interact with the land and the other beings differently when I see us as the same. My spirituality influences my understanding of ecology, and my study of ecology influences my spirituality.

And here we sit, the land and me, divinely intertwined.

A Blanket of Snow

After a warmer-than-average December melted the little snow we received and early January froze that into a dangerous coating of ice, I appreciate the blanket of snow I see now. Even very cold days are brightened by the sunlight reflecting off the ice crystals.

Perhaps it is due to pursuing interfaith seminary, Druidic studies, wildlife rehabilitation, and conservation at the same time that I am immensely curious about everything that catches my attention now. The latest snowfall was light, powdery, and very sparkly. I needed to know more about how snow worked.

grey squirrel moving through powdery snow

The grey squirrels are less enamored with dry snow, because all the nuts I toss disappear into the powder.

I learned that snow needs two things to form: an atmospheric temperature at or below freezing and moisture in the air. Basically, as I understand it, a cloud containing water droplets rises into the cooler part of the atmosphere or cold air moves down. Then water droplets within the cloud freeze into ice crystals. More droplets freeze onto each ice crystal until snowflakes are formed. Once a snowflake is heavy enough it falls towards the ground. If the ground is also cold, the snowflakes pile up without melting. If there are enough of them, we get blessed with a blanket of snow.

Dry snow, which means the air at ground level is cold enough to keep everything frozen, is the kind that sparkles. The individual ice crystals remain separated so there are lots of reflective surfaces. Wet snow, on the other hand, happens when warmer temperatures melt the crystals causing snowflakes stick together and to everything they touch, like trees. The wet stuff is great for building snowmen but is also heavy and hard to shovel.

This bit of knowledge has helped me to be less bothered by the deep freeze we have been experiencing. Although getting outdoors for morning meditation means putting on extra layers to protect myself from the cold, my mood is elevated by the glitter of snow.

Meeting the Eastern Hemlock

Eastern Hemlock branch covered in snow with cones hanging below

The abundance of cones this year was what drew my attention to this Eastern Hemlock.

It was an abundance of tiny pinecones dangling below the branches that brought my attention to the tree this winter. I had not paid much attention to this tree in the past, mostly because it was just one of the many evergreens that grow here, and I had not spent time getting to know them individually. It is probably no coincidence that the tree came into my awareness now when I have just stepped onto the Druidic path.

After some research I discovered that the tree was an Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), whose common name came from the poisonous European herb, perhaps because of a similar smell. This Hemlock tree is a pine. The branches are pretty and lacy, and the tree is loosely pyramid-shaped.

I was curious about the noticeably large number of cones this year but read that the Eastern Hemlock likes moist soil. Last summer was cool and very, very rainy. It seemed there were few hot, sunny days. I kept wishing it would dry out for a bit, but I guess the tree was happy.

The seeds in those cones are popular with some of the local wildlife, including red squirrels. My little friends must be eating well, as scales (the “petals” of the cone) litter the snow under the tree. Mice, voles, and even snowshoe hares will pick up any seeds that fall to the ground. A few of the winter birds, including black-capped chickadees and dark-eyed juncos, also enjoy the seeds. I also learned that porcupine like to dine on the bark and twigs of the Hemlock, but I have not seen one here.

Hemlocks grow slowly and make take 300 years to reach maturity. The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, an aphid-like insect native to Japan and accidentally introduced to North America, is decimating our Hemlocks. An infestation leads to decline and mortality within ten years. Hemlock trees are dying all along the east coast of the United States. Because the cold seems to be the only thing that stops the Woolly Adelgids, the Hemlocks here, in the Adirondacks, have been spared. Since the average temperature is rising due to climate change, our Hemlocks may not be safe for too much longer, though.

I will be monitoring my new acquaintance, the Eastern Hemlock, for signs of Woolly Adelgid while I observe the tree’s seasonal changes. If watching the tree means I am likely to spot a red squirrel scurrying across a branch, all the better. I feel blessed that I was invited to meet this tree.

Good Morning, Blue Jays (Part 2)

About the same time the “Vs” of geese could be seen heading south, the blue jay who had become my friend disappeared. For a few days I continued to leave peanuts then, assuming the blue jays had followed the geese, gave up and stood the canning jar that held the few remaining nuts on the floor inside the door. By the time the snow melted the following spring, I had all but forgotten about the jar and its contents.

one of the blue jays sitting on a branch over snowBy May, mornings include a cacophony of all the returning species. It was during an early morning interlude that I heard the familiar caw of a blue jay. I jumped out of bed, donned my bathrobe, and dug the canning jar out from under the snow boots piled by the back door. I left a peanut on the rail and called out, “Good morning, blue jay. Welcome back!”

The peanut was gone the next morning when I brought another peanut from my now refreshed supply and called out my greeting. After only a few days, the blue jay was sitting in the tree before I opened the back door. We enjoyed another summer of our brief daily encounters before the fall sent him away again.

The following spring he returned, but not alone. I heard the pair of blue jays calling to each other from tree to tree, and occasionally caught sight of the two following each other across the sky. I upped the daily peanut ration to there was enough for both. By the end of that summer I counted four blue jays perching in the trees and it appeared their family had grown.

Fall came, but the blue jay pair did not leave. Their fledges seemed to have moved on, but the two were still visiting the tree overhanging the deck once or twice a week. Now, a few years later, even the youngsters stay. I am blessed to see them daily and to say, “Good morning, blue jays!”

Good Morning, Blue Jay (Part 1)

When I am asked for suggestions for connecting with nature, I tell folks to feed the birds. Nothing breaks down the myth of separation from nature like hearing insistent tweets outside your window when the feeder is empty.

This is never truer than with blue jays. I once left a peanut on the rail of our back deck, hoping to attract a crow, the living manifestation of one of my helping spirits. The peanut disappeared, but I did not see who took it. For a few weeks I left a peanut daily and, for a few minutes, watched.

blue jay sitting on rock looking at nuts

Apparently not satisfied with peanuts, the blue jay eyed up a walnut I had put out for the squirrels.

One day I caught sight of a blue jay swooping in and grabbing the peanut. I was excited! While not a crow, a blue jay is also a member of the corvid family. I continued putting peanuts out every day and watching from just inside the door. For the first week or so, the blue jay would sit on a branch in the tree that overhangs the deck and watch me watching him until I gave up and went about my day. Once I stopped looking, the peanut would disappear. Over time, the jay became less concerned about my presence and I would often see him fly to the deck rail and grab the peanut before he disappeared into a tree.

Eventually, the blue jay would come to the rail to watch me through the door. While I was trying to be consistent with the timing of my peanut offerings, there were days when I was distracted from my morning ritual by household goings on. The jay must have stayed close enough to keep an eye on the deck rail, because he never missed his treat. One morning, he was on the rail before I was back through the door. I said, “Good morning, blue jay.” He picked up his peanut and flew off.

After that, each time I left a peanut, I would look into the trees and say, in my best “yoga teacher projecting to the back of the room” voice, “Good morning, blue jay. Here’s your peanut.” He must have heard me, because he would arrive in an instant. My morning ritual expanded to include a greeting to my friend.

One of those distracted mornings, I became aware of the short, sharp “caw” of the blue jay and looked out to see him sitting in the tree watching the back door. I brought him his peanut. The next morning I was again reminded by the caw, and every morning after that he would be in the tree demanding his breakfast peanut. I felt as though me and the blue jay were friends.

This story will continue in tomorrow’s post.

Garden for Life

While I had always been ecologically conscious, Shamanic Reiki training drew me into a deeper connection with the land and the Earth’s beings. When I added wildlife rehabilitation into the mix, I became aware of the needs of those beings and how best to help them. With both a spiritual and ecological imperative, I committed to garden for life.

dark eyed juncos enjoying the garden for life in winter

Dark-eyed juncos enjoy the garden for life in winter.

I do not consider myself a gardener in the usual sense. Each spring I put some annuals into containers and seedlings into my two raised vegetable beds. Anything that needs special care or weeding to thrive is out of luck, because by late spring turtle care takes precedence. I gave up long ago on things like foundation plantings or landscaping. Instead, I let the land go wild.

I learned how the introduction of non-native landscape plants and trees has reduced the food and shelter available for wildlife. Most imported cultivars lack fruit or nuts and repel rather than attract bugs. Typically, the dried stalks of perennials are cut back in the fall, shrubs are trimmed, and leaves are raked. I chose to do none of that.

Instead, after researching which are best for the animals here, I add only native trees and shrubs to my land. Nothing gets cut back or shaped. To give our dogs a safe place to run, we fenced in part of our yard, which gets mowed, but infrequently. We only rake leaves that are covering the driveway, as they are slippery when we get light snow. We do very little “yard work” here.

Compared to the manicured lawns and gardens that have become idealized in America, our yard looks messy. The land, however, is teeming with life. Everyone from squirrels to snakes hangs around in the summer. I am seeing a increase in the variety of birds as well.

A couple of days ago we got our first significant snowfall for this winter. When I went outside, I was rewarded for not “cleaning up the yard” last fall with a flock of dark-eyed juncos nibbling on the remains of a clump of native evening primrose. That sight was a blessing and a reminder of why I garden for life.

Ritual of Protection for Yellowstone’s Wolves

While grey wolves no longer roam the wild in New York (they were eradicated in the late 1800s), I have had opportunities to sit with, witness, and learn about captive wolves. These experiences have deepened both my connection with my wolf helping spirit and my desire to help North America’s wild wolves.

collared yellowstone wolf seated in the snow where wolves have protection

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

This month has brought distressing news, as reports of wolves being poisoned and shot come in. One of the most upsetting was reading that twenty of the wolves from Yellowstone National Park, where they were reintroduced 25 years ago and became a conservation success story, were killed by hunters in the months since protections were lifted, just outside of the park’s borders. The news from Yellowstone inspired this ritual.

I acknowledge that rituals alone are not enough to save North America’s wolves. Rituals like this, however, ground me and reaffirm my intentions, creating an empowered center from which to make phone calls and write letters to relevant elected and appointed officials. I am sharing my wolf protection ritual in hope that you, too, may feel ready to pick up the phone afterwards.

I have a working altar which is always ready to go for short workings like this. I only added a printout of a map of Yellowstone Park, to help me journey there. If you do not have a standing altar, you might gather a few things that you associate with protection and that bring in wolf energy.

I like to work in safe and sacred place. You can cast a circle any way that you like – I use the Reiki symbols to clear and protect the space – and call in the directions, your helping spirits, and any deities you work with.

Next, sit in front of your altar, close your eyes, and put yourself in the center of Yellowstone. If you have experience journeying you can do that, otherwise just imagine yourself sitting there in middle of the park. See or sense the presence of the wolf packs. The wolves know you are there for their benefit. You are safe.

Now bring your attention to the base of your spine and drop a cord down into the Earth. Draw energy from the Earth up into the base of your spine and into your heart. Next, notice the crown of your head. From your crown, extend a cord up to the Moon. Draw Moon energy down through your crown and into your heart.

Empowered by the Earth and the Moon, feel a bubble expanding from your heart. Send loving and protective energy into the bubble, surrounding the wolves in safety. Grow the bubble in all directions until it encompasses all of Yellowstone National Park and the wolves that have roamed beyond the human-made borders. Continue to supply protective Earth and Moon energy until the bubble feels strong and solid, impenetrable by anyone who would harm the wolves. Feel the power of the bubble of protection you have created and know that it will hold when you leave this place.

Now add a prayer, such as:

Mother Earth, I come to you humbly, with gratitude for all you have given me, and ask that you hold this protective bubble around your children, the wolves.
Keep the wolves safe from humans who kill for sport or greed.
Provide them with clean water, abundant food, and warm dens.
Empower me with a heart full of compassion for all your beings.
Grant me the strength to stand against those who would harm the wolves, the courage to speak out, and the presence to change minds, until the wolves are free to thrive.
May it be so.

Release the directions and open your circle.

Resilient Wetlands, Resilient Humans

Resilience: the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens (Merriam-Webster)

In my last post, muddy and buggy wetlands were something people wanted to change so the land would be usable for recreation or development. What humans fail to notice, however, is the value of unaltered wetlands in keeping us safe and helping us recover when bad things happen.

wetlands ecosystem with forest in backgroundThose bad things include flooding, erosion, wildfires, and water pollution. Made larger by climate change, storms more frequently bring flooding rain. When rivers overflow, floodplains absorb the excess water and release it slowly. Without the spongy barrier, the water flows quickly onto roads and into houses, sometimes washing away whatever is in its path. Fast water that remains in the river channel erodes the riverbanks and can undermine nearby infrastructure.

On the coast, brackish marshes reduce the impact of storms by slowing and shrinking the size of ocean waves as they head inland.

When wildfires blaze, wetland areas provide shelter for many animals. Wetlands also slow or stop a fire’s spread. Unfortunately, most residential and commercial development reduced or eliminated the wetlands that would have provided a barrier against wildfires.

Wetlands act as water filters. When water flows through wetland vegetation, sediment is trapped; nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which feed harmful algae blooms, are absorbed; and toxic chemicals are buried or neutralized by sunlight. Clean surface water enters the aquifer to provide safe drinking water for humans.

Wetlands help humans become more resilient in the face of climate change, but we need to help them, too. Existing wetlands should be preserved and altered wetlands should be restored wherever possible to mitigate against flooding, erosion, wildfires, and pollution. Not only will we be safer, but the whole web of wetland life will thrive.

Get Out of My Swamp

For my Druidic studies I have been reading books about my local ecology. I couldn’t resist the crossover with my work with turtles, so my current read is The Ecology, Exploitation, and Conservation of River Turtles by Don Moll and Edward Moll. In there is a section on wetlands and the harm caused by draining that swamp.

swamp edge of pondThere are four types of wetlands in the Adirondacks: marshes, bogs, fens, and swamps. The designations have to do with the types of soil and plants in each, but in general wetlands are wet places. Wetlands often link dry places and more defined bodies of water, such as the spongy edges of ponds, but sometimes they are just there, at least for part of the year.

Most of Dancing Turtle Rescue’s healed turtle releases happen in wetlands. I invested in a good pair of waterproof boots after having a few shoes sucked off my feet by mud while escorting turtles home. The still water is a good breeding ground for insects, so wetlands are also often buggy. Because humans usually complain about the mud and the bugs, alterations are made to make wetlands more enjoyable, such as installing walkways and treating the water with pesticides. Wetlands are also unsuitable for building, so swamp after swamp has been drained for development.

Now, thanks to all that swamp draining, we have lost some of the most biodiverse places on Earth. And turtles have lost much of the ideal habitat for hatchlings and juveniles to grow and thrive. As wetlands disappear at an alarming rate, so do turtles.

To save turtles, we need to save wetlands from alteration and development. Shrek said it better, but, seriously, get out of my swamp.

Wishing for Oaks

The valley I live in is known as “the banana belt of the Adirondacks.” The weather is generally milder than that of the mountains which surround us. While they do not at higher elevations, red oaks grow here.

acorns from red oaks in pile on rockThe land surrounding my house, however, is devoid of oaks. There are a few down the road and there are large stands in the area, but none here. I noticed there absence here when I was a newbie wildlife rehabilitator with my first litter of baby squirrels to raise. To gather food for the weaning babies, I picked up any acorn I passed during my morning runs, stuffed it into a pocket, and wished it and many more were in my own yard.

My desire for oak trees deepened when I learned that oaks support many insects. Although tree care companies call them “pests,” the caterpillars that feed on oak trees are in turn eaten by birds. Caterpillars are the main food of baby songbirds, who require more protein than adults. The use of pesticides against leaf-eating caterpillars and a general shift to landscaping with imported ornamental trees, that neither local bugs nor wildlife will eat, has reduced the number of insects available for the baby birds and has contributed to the decline of songbirds.

During the last few years, to make the yard more wildlife friendly, I have stopped planting anything but natives around my house. Last year I added winged sumac, winterberry, and silky dogwood shrubs, all of which provide food for birds and pollinators. This year, my desire for oaks prompted an order with our state conservation department’s tree farm. In the spring, I will be getting red oaks to plant.

My wish for oaks is also driven by a new spiritual exploration. I recently began a dive into Druidry, inspired by my British ancestry. The Druids are associated with and revere oak trees. Part of my candidacy work includes planting and nurturing a tree. I cannot think of one more appropriate than a native red oak.