I had a fish. Bruce! Golden and lively until of course he wasn’t. A friend blessed me with him for my birthday earlier in the year, much to my delight. He started out bold, all busy-like as if he had tremendous purpose swimming around his aquarium on a mission. 

As the days and weeks passed, his tank developed an algae problem. Poor guy, I was a novice at aquarium care. He probably didn’t stand a chance! But as night follows day, I gave it a go, trying to clean up the tank and preserve a healthy fish world for him.

To no avail. He died!

BACK UP PETS

In the meantime, I’ve adopted a pet spider. Meet Gracie! A low-maintenance (as in none!) spider 🕷 of some kind that lives behind my wall TV. She only comes out at night, retreating back to her hiding place when the sun begins to shine.

For a time, I really thought she was a Black Widow. She still could be for all I know. It’s impossible to turn her over to check the abdomen for the telltale red hourglass marking. When she’s out, she rests suspended sideways, probably thinking “it’s better to catch lunch from this vantage point!”

One early morning I caught her chomping on what looked like the remnants of a Daddy Long Legs. It was kinda fascinating even if perversely so. The ideal pet. I don’t even have to feed her! No food to buy. No tank to clean. Plus, she never really strays from her habitat. 

BEHAVIOR IS AS BEHAVIOR DOES

Which is why, quite frankly, I’m still suspicious that she could be a Black Widow. It’s all in the behaviors. Either a Black Widow or Brown Recluse. They hide in dark places never venturing far from their roost, retreating back to darkness upon light or interference of any kind. They really are quite shy!

Soon a new aquatic creature will capture my imagination however. It is so calming watching a fish suspended as if in meditation. Or busy! Both energy levels are equally fascinating to me knowing they’re breathing in oxygen through water! Why oh why can’t we?!

Overall, I’d much rather have a dog for a pet but short of that miracle ever happening, I guess I’ll just have to settle for smaller species as pets. They are interesting but the problem for me is they are observational only, not interactive. You can pet a dog or cat, even a bird, but not a fish or spider.

Oh well, next life maybe!

A place I walk frequently is home to lots of wild turkeys. I cannot tell if there’s one huge gaggle of them or whether there’s two or three smaller groups that periodically join up with one another, creating a conclave of birds. Regardless, they are fun to see and hear when I come upon however many of them happen to be having a lunch party.

THANKSGIVING

Some of them, I swear to God, are quite fat. It is hard for me to even imagine that we eat them, their luscious succulent flesh with gravy and potatoes on the side. Even if not eating these particular birds thriving in a retirement community near Santa Rosa, I dream of a feast. It seems like they have retired too, these birds, living the life of Riley.

Yesterday when I was walking in the neighborhood there also happened to be a gigantic number of Canadian geese (hundreds, a thousand?) that were picking seeds and God knows what else off the polo field nearby. It was a veritable Vegas buffet! They were incredibly noisy, squawking and carrying on like drunken sailors on shore leave!!

CYCLE OF LIFE

As I walked further into some of the housing area, I came upon a substantial amount of feathers near the Annadel woods. Clearly, some animal of prey had gotten a hold of either a turkey or a goose for breakfast, carrying it away into the thicket leaving a tell-tale sign of an attack behind. 

I’m assuming it was a mountain lion, possibly a wolf but I’ll never know specifically which animal had hit the Vegas jackpot. I speculate only because I know there are both big cats and wolves in the mountainous, wooded areas surrounding this particular community.

As I continued walking I had an odd mixture of both compassion for both the unfortunate bird and the animal that killed it. In most ways, I’m not much of a sentimental person but it was hard not to picture or even have the flash of an image of canine or big cat teeth around a large bird’s neck, puncturing a vein and dragging it off.

THE SACRIFICE

What must it feel like to have the sharp teeth invade the throat, in a split second, knowing this is it, the end of your existence in this way? Does the sacrificial bird know of its own sacrifice? Does it mourn even if only in a flash, its own demise?

Does the bird “know” it moves up the evolutionary food chain once dead? After all, the energy of life cannot be destroyed, merely change form. Does that which preys on it feel grateful for that which has given up its life for their lunch? I know this sounds anthropomorphic but somehow, if you’ve watched a pet die, as they close their eyes nearing the end, you can catch the whiff of awareness.

We watch the maternal instinct in animals, caring, feeding, some visibly disturbed when one of their young dies. Why not at the other end of animal life should they not be able to have a keenness of not just their own demise, but their flesh as a life-giving sacrifice as well? A female cat or dog will exhaust themselves when having a large litter to care for, compromising their own well-being in the process.


THE GIFT

This is not a sentimental notion rather an observational one. How often we prefer to perceive ourselves as the privileged species, believing we are so very precious, special because we have language, can think. Yet awareness knows no such convenience and therefore, is not confined by it. Rather, awareness requires no nouns and verbs. It just is.

And so I trod on, grateful for the day, the bird, and the predator that took a life to sustain its own. I trod on with the awareness that all is right in the world. Call it God, nature, whatever. It makes no matter to me for we are mere passengers, inching our way to our final destination. In the end, words have no meaning. Only the energy that brought us here, the one that ultimately returns us to our next embodiment.

Christmas 2021

(For Sam & Lauren, with Love)

My son and daughter-in-law love to go hiking, particularly in areas that have lots of trees. Redwoods are of great interest and grab Lauren’s heart in particular. While I think Sam’s draw to hiking is also about the trees, I sense it includes elevation, providing sweeping vistas to the Pacific Ocean and beyond.

When I was much younger—and fit—I used to love to hike and run in the woods. Living much of my adult life in Iowa before moving to California more than two decades ago, there were fewer trees and certainly no Redwoods. Growing up in Michigan, however, the land was peppered and clotted with firs and pines. To this day, the fragrance of evergreens restores me to something primal, pure, even spiritual.

As a child, some of my deepest experiences and memories restore instantly some fibrous ingredient to my soul, like wood pulp to tree trunk strength, a venous stalwart delivery system feeding my very core. There is a quality about nature, at once essential, restorative, binding to all life.

A memory from age five renders such an evocative energy and life force. Our family was renting a cottage on Indian Lake, a vacation spot in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was a short distance from Manistique where we would move in a few months once our home was purchased and readied for move-in. 

It was winter, cold and thick with snow but I was safe and warm inside, though still longing for the out-of-doors. As I gazed through a foggy window to the thick woods across the road, I thought I saw a bear making its way through the branches. I felt startled yet envious, close to fearfulness yet safely tucked inside, buttressed by a longing to be out among the trees as well.

Even now just relating this experience brings the longing back, wishing for an instant transport to the vapors that are at the core of the physical expression of pine, mammal, and the drive to some sort of movement to a nameless and unseen destination operating as a homing device.

Transfixed, I felt helpless to extricate my interior emotion from that visual field for a time. At some point the bear was no longer in view. I have no idea how long this observation happened in minutes, maybe even seconds. But there are experiences in nature that are timeless, that enrich our lives, refueling an unstoppable forward momentum when time seems to have slowed or halted altogether.

Hiking for me (and likely my son and daughter-in-law) is such a mechanism for all of it, whether internally described for themselves or not, where this nurturance on One Strange Rock aptly named Mother Earth resides. And while I still walk a lot these days, it’s rare I’m free to do much of it in the ruggedness of nature; rarer still to do it in my physical condition. So when Lauren and/or Sam “go a hiking” I am reverent at their very act while also envious I’m unable to participate with the mechanical breakdown of an aging body. 

Still, Lauren and Sam’s pictures take me back, even if just a little, to that all important whispered fragrance that fuels and propels us all magnetic-like to the divine, to our very source. And I feel resurrected if even for an instant. It is a kind of Grace, one I do not take for granted.

photo by Lauren Mendelsohn

“Ordinarily, I go to the woods alone, with not a single

friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore 

unsuitable.

I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds 

or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of 

praying, as you no doubt have yours. 

Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit

on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds, 

until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost

unhearable sound of the roses singing.

If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love

you very much.”

(Mary Oliver ~ Swan: Poems and Prose Poems)

How is it you know me, Mary Oliver? The idea carried aloft by these words holds reverence for me. There are moments when I am in the woods I cannot tell where I begin and end as a member of the universe. At these times I feel like a seamless part of everything with only a thin membrane separating each entity. But of course then I remember as I am hearing a bird sing or a twig snap or the sound of an acorn falling to the ground that I am somehow separate and distinct in form—otherwise how is it that I could hear and see it at all?

No matter where I have lived I have found a place to be in communion with woods, even if only a small patch that encapsulates trees, the scent of the earth, gentle leaves, birds, dirt! All of these elements are essential for (my) survival. Even when I lived in Boston I would sometimes go to a cemetery in Cambridge, a huge place that had trees from all over the world, many of them marked with their genus and species and native location. That is where Frederick Douglass is buried, which somehow seems quite fitting. The place is beyond description. I felt a kind of communion there that was elemental.

A CHANGE OF SCENERY

After moving to the West Coast, California in particular, 25 years ago, I was shocked at the difference of the oddness of palm trees, scattered often independent of another. And yet, I was aware of their significance. How singular they appeared to be and yet they beckoned, magnetic like, standing stalwart as if guarding some secret place in the heat of their very existence.

But it is the mighty pine and evergreens that grip me every time. Their fragrance seems to reach to the core of the earth and to my core as well. I swear, when I breathe them in I feel my cellular structure has been rearranged if only for a moment. The redwoods and sequoias nearly stop my heart when in their presence. At times when I am among them I feel almost as if I’ve violated their sacred space, feeling utterly humbled, awed.

UNIVERSALITY

A number of years ago my old friend Magie and I had a good laugh about an article telling about a woman, I believe it was in India or Pakistan, who had recently died. She had been married to a tree for decades. They had a picture of the tree and the woman in the WSJ, with her beside it. She had it adorned altar-like, smiling blissfully. Magie and I laughed and laughed, perplexed and yet, and yet—bizarrely I think—there was a kernel of the story we understood, oddly enough. 

Magie used to tell me about the Bristlecone Pine, a stunted looking tree that grows in the high Sierras. I had never heard of them until she introduced me to one. She and her husband used to backpack, as if pioneers, as she was long ago introduced to them too. The Bristlecone Pine looks as if it could never survive, often situated in craggy rock areas with little soil. It’s as if they are insistent on surviving in that very spot in which they reside.

Trees are something I understand and yet not entirely and I suspect she did as well in her own way. There’s a kind of recognition, a wordless interspecies communication of sorts, a bond. There is an elemental quality about trees, in their very roots possibly. Primal. It’s almost as if I’ve recognized trees have been a prior “mother” to me in a previous life, as if I could not be here if not for their existence. How odd that sounds as a write it and yet it has brought tears to my eyes reaching someplace deep nonetheless.

So when I read the Mary Oliver poem above, zeroing in on the first ingredient of the woods, I am aware she somehow knows me and I her. While there are words that she has used, there exists an a priori energy that has contained and carried them to me, from one beating heart to another.

And it is good.

I have bonded with several dogs in my life, not my own. There is an instinct between human and canine that can be immediate and profound. This can occur from a brief encounter, owning a pet long term, a friend’s dog one might see on occasion, or through intermittent caretaking. For years I used to do a lot of pet sitting, dogs in particular. While I loved them all in their own way, there were a few that seemed like kin to me, possessing an unspoken language and comfort, wordless yet filled with understanding. 

Dogs Never Lie About Love

While I no longer dog sit, some I continue to have a truck load of affection for, generating a smile spontaneous and immediate when I think of them: Gemma, Sophie, Lexie and Parker most notable—you know who you are, small dogs all! Gemma, a purebred basenji, crackling with energy and mischief blasting out; Sofie, if not pure in breeding, certainly pure in regal ness, a wisdom as if reincarnated from Yoda himself. 

But Parker and Lexie were something else! A confusion of breeds, both, but loaded with personality and, I swear, each wore their hearts on their sleeves (well, paws!) in their own style of giving— a penetrating and unconditional love that was bottomless and relentless. It came through their pores, through eyes that held nothing back, their love immediate and constant.

Parker

Parker

But this morning, this morning was special. While walking in the park, loping along with my hiking poles, I came across a three legged dog. There I met Babu, a midsized, mixed black and white splotchy patterned dog, with her left front leg missing. I began chatting with her human pet parents, warm and friendly, who had adopted her from an animal sanctuary near Willets, where she had lived for eight years prior, before being moved to a conventional shelter when the fires threatened the sanctuary and She became available for adoption.

Lexie

Lexie

As I scratched Babu’s head, I asked mom and dad how she lost her leg. She’d had a cancerous bone tumor they told me so the entire leg had to be removed in order to prevent spreading. “Could they fit her with a prosthetic leg?” I inquired. “Not possible,” I was told since there was no available stem to attach it to. So she walk-hopped around on all 3’s, seemingly oblivious, instead accommodating her exuberance with the life that remained at her disposal, as she rolled around naturally in the grass like any dog would. She had clear eyes that spoke of delight, gratitude, pleasure, availability.

I marveled at Babu, with her absence of self-consciousness and felt two compelling emotions. The first was a kind of kinship, different species to be sure, yet this creature was doing what she could to keep going, to move however awkwardly, to feel alive and express her nature with aplomb. The second was an immense awe and humility at what looked to be a kind of dignity and gratitude with what remained to her, a simple pleasure feeling her backside scratched by the grass as she rolled in the sweet fragrance of it. A smile slathered her dog face, believing this was all she really needed in life, at least at that moment.

And so it was that a creature in the body of a 3-legged dog and I shared a timeless moment, her teaching me more about valuing what remains to the living of an altered life, as well as the great gift of connection between species that can sometimes be the greatest teachers of all, without language, instead transmitted through a presence, a beingness that transcends, a knowing that is universal, loving and immediate. And of course, her transmission took hold of my heart and I was instantly smitten. Not just by her, but by the lesson she selflessly shared with me.

 

The fragrance of nature, particularly water and trees, has always brought something powerful to the surface of my mind, a kind of happy joy that is spontaneous and immediate. Nature conceals a deeper meaning, drawing me to its depths without knowing entirely why. Since I was a little girl I have always loved it. The natural world is an essential ingredient of what I am, just as much as the gristle and bone I walk around in. Sometimes I think it’s about identification. But that’s not it exactly. I am aware of being an animal, a mammal specifically. And yet it is the essence of spirit that I really identify with, coming from some ‘other’ that created all of this, that I am a part of.

Life For It’s Own Sake

On a recent family vacation in Lake Tahoe I was reminded ever more powerfully of this fact. Because it is a fact for me. A reality. I could be a tree. I could be a body of water. But it makes no matter because I have been blessedly created as a human, and how lucky is that? Even if one believes in no higher power or God, let’s say it’s fate or a roll of the dice that I was created thusly, I still value it immensely. While I happen to believe in God, I recognize not everyone does. Are these individuals no less grateful to be alive?

In any case, my nephew took this picture off the end of a boat touring around the lake and sent it to me. I was not onboard, instead stationed back at the resort like a sentry, resting inside but catching the faint whiff of pines and water regardless of my physical location. The picture is compelling, as compelling as the state of being. This was puzzling to me in the beginning, at least until I started to view it differently. The opaque quality in a milky, cataract kind of way disturbed me at first. I wanted to bring it into focus, to clarify the view. And then I thought, isn’t that what we are always trying to do?  To fix, to adjust what we think we see into one meaning that suits our purpose?

And the foreground of waterwheel, intrusive and initially dominating, became something to be managed, fixed, so that one could better get to the the dusting of pine-topped mountains beyond. When I ignore this fuzzy, filmy veneer, the restless idea of it, I can focus instead on the essence of sharing space with nature, conjoined, being an intimate and authentic part of it, even as it’s steward and, as such, as essential as the earth itself and sky above.

A Larger Lens

I am transported to a primordial soup from which we all come regardless of belief system. It is quite simply a knowing, with nothing arguable about it. It is rooted in depths of certitude, ineffable though it may be, a oneness that defies explanation even though I struggle to explain it in the here and now.

And so I leave it here, the unanswered and unanswerable mystery of being born not just a human but being born here, now, in this place and part of a whole that is an inexplicable existence. The mysterious gift of life, the nature of it all, a dust mote traversing the universe through space and time, me who has been afforded incredible Grace and peace as evocative as the whiff of the pines and water themselves.

Have you ever seen anything as lovely as a tree? I grew up in Michigan where trees thrived in abundance, both down state and up. The state in the shape of a mitten with a rabbit suspended above it, Michigan’s peninsulas had large swaths of state and national forests. Once heavily logged, most of that has died down now. But I digress. Read more

Mr. Winston, Sophie and Rocky     Yes, yes, I’ve moved again. The last place didn’t work out even though it was incredibly beautiful. The tribe that lived there was, well, not my cup of tea (to the say the least.) Well-meaning, maybe but from another universe I think. Anyway, I’ve relocated and am living with two, and sometimes more, of the cutest dogs, both personality-wise and physically, the little fur balls. They have far more character than some people I know, with a premium on honesty as well. There’s chickens out back too but their story is for another time.  Read more

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I’ve been reading “Gift From The Sea” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh recently, feeling even more affected by it than the first reading years ago. The beauty of it, her poignant insight, strikes a profound cord someplace deep. Take, for example, the following passage:  Read more

After having written about the unique beauty of the place I moved into a few months ago, I thought an update was in order. It seems the place comes with people.

I knew they’d be here. Now, I may be one of the rare individuals who would rather live with others as opposed to living alone. Having said that, living with other people is not without its challenges and discomforts, sometimes small and other times GIMONGOUS. While there are seasons when its best for me to hunker down alone, living in cloistered fashion, more often than not, I’m happier and, quite frankly, better living in some form of what can best be described as ‘community.’ Read more