It is before dawn on a moonlit night. The moon has swept the trees and grass in silver. I await the sun. The moon woke me to whisper about the silent beauty of the predawn hours. The yard is white magic and I imagine a monarch butterfly now sleeping, awaken to find a turtle so it can drink its tears. Monarch butterflies drink turtle tears. Why are the turtles crying? They cry for the ailing earth. They cry for those who suffer. They cry for the dying. They cry for those striving to become one with all. They cry for the sap in the trees flowing. They cry for the animals who are constantly on guard for their lives. They cry for the bird egg which will not ever hatch. They cry for the dying stars in an ever expanding universe. They cry for the unawareness of the high and mighty. Turtle tears are like diamonds sparkling in candlelight, like rain drops on a drooping Lily of the Valley. Come now to drink my tears, dear Monarch. Your beauty gladdens my heart. Your heart drops manna from the heavens into my soul. Come now, dear Monarch. Come lick the dew drops in my eyes.
with fast floating
sunlit white clouds
hides the land
and in the vernal pool
in their hernaculum
while frogs lay
dormant in the mud
I sit in sleepy
glad to be
in our little hideaway
in the woods
of our young dreams
if we will all
to another Spring.
and fold your hands
stand in awe
radiate His light
with eyes upwards
to the sky
the glory that is He
Sap a flowin’
Ice a goin’
The marsh is melting
all the turtles in their hibernacula
deep down under the melting ice
will soon emerge
and the marsh will sing
the chorus of the Spring Peeper
and the salamanders will emerge
with the urge to murge
and joy and the life force
will fill the air
and lift the fog
enveloping my soul.
leaves floating down
while days dance away
as the last leaf-colored
before you know
will bury deep
for a long winter’s sleep
In my former life I was a bee.
Why else would I keep sticking my nose
into the private, pollinated parts of flowers?
In my former life I was a turtle.
Why else would I hunch my shoulders
into a seeming shell, my back a carapace
to shield me from a sometimes dangerous world?
In my former life I loved thee.
How else could I account for my “knowing” you
from before the first time we met,
for “seeing” the you in your inner depths?
Some would say I risk damnation
for a belief in reincarnation.
Yet this answer satisfies me on so many levels
and requities my thirst, quieting my myriad of questions
that the old belief system did not.
Unpopular in the west,
woven into the fabric of life in the east
in which I clothe myself, sewn by a strong affinity,
a strange familiarity,
Most of us cannot remember
the details of the other lives,
and are left with fractured fragments of the past
glistening like sea glass in our hands, on the seashores of our minds,
trying to piece together a picture
of a previous existence.
Love is timeless and mysterious
and though I dread the inevitable,
the loss of our life together
in this life,
I know we will be together again in the next and the next
for something as sacrosanct as our love
Last week my husband called me from the back yard. “Come quick, come see what I found.” I ran to the back door where he was, holding out his arm, and there in his hand sat a teeny green frog, about the size of a thumbnail. I oooed and aahhed over it and thanked him for calling me. The frog had jumped onto his arm while my husband was unrolling the garden hose, its temporary home. “How wonderful!” I said. And then I thought some more about it and I realized I was jealous. Jealous of the fact the frog had jumped on my husband’s arm and not mine. “Well, he deserves the frog more than I do,” I found myself thinking, as if any of us deserve such things.
Today I began to think more about this. I remembered when we had first moved in. My husband was at work and I saw a mound in the grass moving out the back door window. Upon closer examination I found to my utter delight it was a box turtle. This time it was my husband, an affirmed reptile lover, who was jealous and even admitted to being so. Okay, jealousy of such things is obvious and on the surface in children. Yet we were dealing with adults here who, it seems, covet visits from animals. We cherish an interchange with a creature. And why?
I remember the Sunday night a few years ago, apprehensive about a challenging week ahead, when I saw a stag in the woods behind our house. I called to my husband to come see him. He was stunning with huge antlers, an imposing presence. And suddenly I knew everything would be alright. Why? Because the stag in the distance– majestic, princely, beautiful was a sign.
And how thrilled we are to have a snapping turtle return every year to lay her eggs in our driveway. We feel privileged. Again, blessed. Or when, with delighted guests, we saw a giant luna moth flying in the porch light one night. And the countless times a butterfly lands on one’s body, on a shoulder or head, or a dragonfly visits an arm or a sleeve. And, the beautiful hummingbirds. We even had a hummingbird nest in our Black Birch. Such visits feel so special– to have these delicate, exquisite creatures land near us or live in the trees near our house. Even when my least favorite reptile makes an appearance out from under his home on our back deck, a tiny garter snake, the spirit soars.
Research has shown how having pets is therapeutic. We are blessed by animals who trust us utterly. We feel their trust and it is pure, unalloyed by human characteristics. We don’t deserve such trust and yet we receive it as a gift. We have made contact with a being of a different species who lives in a different world whose being synchronizes with different biological rhythms. The native Americans believed animals to be spiritual guides that have much to teach us. Psychology tells us Nature is a natural antidepressant. An animal can disarm the most defensive, enchant the most mentally ill, bring out the goodness in the criminal, and bring a smile to the face of the young, old and in-between.
And, yes, animals can be pests when they get into where they don’t belong or become aggressive or defensive in a bad way. But our world is a richer, more vibrant place because of them. Animals bring us out of ourselves and into the experience of awe. Their innocence lightens our loads, allowing us to share the “mystery of the other” with others, drawing us closer to our friends and family. We share the world with animals and they share their hearts with us. And their innocent interactions with us are blessings from God.
through the pale veil of green
the tusset grasses grow
as the greening of the marsh
intensifies each longer day
while below frogs
and fairy shrimp
dance their rite of spring
prey for the ducks,
crows, bald eagles,
of the fragility
Sap is flowing through ice and snow
When nature awakens in late March or early April, sap starts flowing in the trees and ice changes to water marking the end of hibernation. This is the grand opening of the wetlands and the pilgrimage to the vernal pools as David M. Carroll writes in his “Swampwalker’s Journal: a Wetlands Year.” A vernal pool is a body of water which fills up in autumn and winter and is swollen in the spring but often dries up completely by the end of the summer. Carroll describes vernal pools so beautifully: “It is at snowmelt and ice-out, the last sleets, first rains, and the earliest warming breaths of spring that they beckon wood frogs, salamanders, and spring peepers from surrounding upland woods, where they have passed the winter in rotted-out trees roots [a reason not to ‘clean up’ the woods], under layers of bark and litter, in small mammal tunnels and other hibernacula in the earth.” The melting snow heralds the march of the amphibians. “Vernal pool habitats hold a galaxy of small things that come to life the instant ice and snow turn back into water.”
Carroll walks the swamps, as the title of his book suggests, in search of mating salamanders and spotted turtles, bogs, fens and all wetland flora and fauna. He tells us that there must be a certain collusion of events– several warm days in a row followed by a darkest of nights with temperatures ideally in the mid-50s with rain preferably two nights in a row. And then the magical migration begins. The salamanders begin their “annual pilgrimage” to the vernal pond to mate.
My husband and I are lucky enough to have a vernal pond on the property next door to us and when Spring comes the sound at night from that pond makes us feel as if we are camping out next to a vast wetland. The music of the spring peepers plays through the night throughout the house, often starting overeagerly in the late afternoon. This manic symphony thrills us every year. It is the first sign of Spring for us. The quality of joyousness and the affirmation of life gladdens our souls. Going to sleep with that sound makes us remember what we so often forget, to give thanks to our Creator for His magnificent creatures.
Inspired by Carroll, one year we awaited the first dark, rainy warm night after a succession of warm days. In our rain gear, armed with flashlights we set out around 11PM to look for the march of the salamanders. We walked to the nearby pond. Nothing. We walked quite aways down a nearby dirt road that has run off but is not quite a vernal pond. We shone the flashlight this way and that. Nothing. We finally headed home disappointed and dejected and my husband started towards the front door when I let out a yelp. There in the doorway was a 6 inch spotted salamander in all its glory! We never found the march of the salamanders but we were greeted by one of these fantastic amphibians right at our front door!
This story, however, does not have a happy ending. In his epilogue to the “Swampwalker’s Journal,” David Carroll explains why it took him more than 7 years to complete this book. He writes that he became involved in saving some of the wetlands in his book and says sadly nearly all of his interventions have or will become “losing battles.” He describes the plight of the wetlands, bogs and fens as a “landscape of loss.” And he scorns our human selfishness as he writes how it “reveals explicitly the extent to which we think of ourselves as owning all living things, along with the very earth, air, and water in which they live, as if we possessed some divinely mandated dominion over all creation.” He warns: “As we will learn in time none of this belongs to us.” I read these words, knowing them to be true and I think of the soon-to-be-extinct bog turtle and other creatures with the same possible fate. I think of the spotted salamander who came to our door, as did Shelley, the snapping turtle who used to return to our drive way every year to lay her eggs. I think of the spring peepers whose joyous song heralds spring next door every year, and I fear for the future of them all.
It is frigid outside and has been for a long time. It is very cold in many parts of the country. The holidays have come and gone. The hoopla of the inauguration is over. Now begins the nitty-gritty of hard winter work. I find myself listless and not wanting to go outside or exercise or paint or take pictures or do much of anything I usually love to do. I have a cold but that does not excuse this lassitude. When I go to my favorite deli, I find that Terry, the sandwich lady, is in the same mood. “I was ready to go home the moment I came in,” she says. My husband was dour and I was sour. What is the meaning of this discontent? Could it be some vestigial remnant of human hibernation? While man has never hibernated, science finds his metabolism slows down in winter and he becomes less active. Binging on food and drink over the holidays may not be the sole reason for weight gain in winter. Perhaps we should be sleeping off the extra pounds.
I who love winter and live for fall each summer, find myself longing to hear the music of the spring peepers. It is months away– well about a month and a half away. They signal for me the first harbingers of new life. Terry, who also loves winter, tells me today she is sick of winter as she makes our sandwiches. Perhaps it is this string of Arctic air and grey days and icy road conditions and snow every few days. Perhaps, and more likely, it is the human condition to always be dissatisfied.
I miss the squirrels. It has been so cold and snowy they seem to be laying low in their nests. Judging from the tracks in the snow the animals most on the move are the deer. And as much as I love the silence of winter, I find myself longing for the sweet dulcet music of birdsong at mating season in spring.
We bought a calendar for the new year with a celestial map of the sky for each month so you can find the constellations in the night sky. We have yet to go out with flashlights and match the map with the canopy of stars. It has been too overcast or too cold or too something. But my dazzled psyche is humbled by the view of the stars through the stripped down trees that we see from bed every night.
Then again maybe it is laziness. Too many sugar highs in December have led to a deep low in February. And after a tease of spring one day in which the temperature reached almost 60 degrees we were let down even further. Not liking being unproductive, I think I can overcome this. But maybe I should just go with the flow and accept a period of inactivity, let the land lay fallow, so that an increase in productivity may eventually result.
I know I should focus on what is positive. Winter is the season of silent beauty that I so long for in the summer heat. I delight in the quiet of winter days. The snows bring a hushed stillness good for the soul. It is a time to regroup. Spring will come. Hopefully if man has not destroyed all the vernal pools, the spring peepers will return. And if pesticides have not destroyed all the birds, sweet mating songs will be sung. And if the weather turns more clement, our spirits will soar once again, and we will be busy bees making honey while the sun shines.
It is an overcast day. Brightly colored birds stand out like jewels in the greyness. The sparrows blend into the wooded grey/brown of snow-covered shrubs. The ever-present sparrows and the winter birds– jays and cardinals, juncos, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches and downy woodpeckers– flock to the bird feeder which now has to be filled up almost every day. The red berries on the bushes are nearly all gone and the feeder is becoming a matter of survival. On our walks we see empty nests held in the bare arms of winter trees. An empty robin’s nest is filled with snow– the hatchlings and the mother long gone to fairer climes. The trees are stripped down to their souls. With ice storms they become tinkling chandeliers. In the rain the few remaining dead leaves drip drops of icy tears.
Occasionally a dove visits the feeder. The chipmunk, who gathered scattered seeds under the feeder all fall, is not to be seen. He must be in torpor in his den. According to Bernd Heinrich in: The Winter World: the Ingenuity of Animal Survival, the eastern chipmunk builds a twelve-foot storage system with a nest chamber some three feet down and a network of tunnels which includes a food storage chamber. Heinrich says chipmunks go in and out of torpor. He reasons that they would not gather food if they were to be in torpor all winter long. We will probably not see our chipmunk for the rest of the winter for, in his stuporous state, he would be easy prey. However he can be roused to eat and venture outdoors if need be, especially in March when there still may be snow on the ground but mating season begins.
The grey squirrels are busy clearing snow from branches as they run along tree limbs. On the ground they dig through the snow for the walnuts we watched them bury in the ground with their noses this fall. They do not need to hibernate for they have food stores which they built up in the autumn– and leafy, well-insulated nests. The red squirrels survive winter by putting on thick, insulating fur.
The back yard is a maze of tunnels. We think they are deer mouse tunnels as many have tunneled their way into our house. But they must get by the feral cat who sometimes waits out a snow storm under our deck. In the woods, the occasional deer waits out the same storm under a squat fir tree. The tracks in the snow tell the story of how they weathered a Nor’Easter.
Beneath the tracks in the snow, in the frozen leaf litter, the insect world is dormant. Some hibernate. Others fill their bodies with antifreeze, glycerol, to stay alive. Heinrich talks about woolly bears hibernating but they are also capable of freezing solid and surviving, coming to life again as they thaw in the spring. The pupae, however, don’t survive being frozen.
In Winter: an Ecological Handbook, authors, James C. Halfpenny, Elizabeth Besiot and Roy Douglas Ozonne, tell us that the reptiles and amphibians pick out a “microclimate for hibernation that does not freeze” for their winter, such as the “bottoms of ponds, streams, or deep in the ground.”
Our stream flows out back in the marsh under ice and snow and one can see the elongated bubbles of running water. In the pond next door the turtles lay beneath the ice in their hibernacula. At the end of the book, The Year of the Turtle, David M. Carroll, the naturalist, author and artist, has his watercolor of a spotted turtle hibernating. This picture is hypnotic and in its spell, I think of all the animals hibernating beneath our feet in lugubrious gloom. It reminds me of the penguins in the film, The March of the Penguins, huddled together for warmth in the harsh, strong winds and snow, taking turns being on the outside of the huddle. Winter can be magnificent in its transformations yet tragic in its harshness. Hibernating animals who freeze to death and deer starving in the snow are among the victims of its violence.
Carroll’s drawing shows the turtle all alone, withdrawn into its shell under less than two feet of water, lodged firmly in the mud under ice and under snow on a sunny winter’s day, a far better clime than the penguin’s– and yet it evokes a certain sadness for this little creature all alone beneath the snow, in a torpid state. The turtle is missing out on the days and nights, sleeping a deep sleep in a “half year of stillness.”
Carroll’s writing is sheer poetry as he describes the turtle’s hibernation: “Mounting layers of snow silently cover the ice. Night after night in the harshest depth of winter, as Orion and the Pleiades burn distant and brilliant in the black sky and strong winds howl off the mountain to the northwest, the turtles rest beneath the ice. With the life in them nearly suspended, reduced to its most tenuous hold, all but extinct in the vast, inhospitable regime that reaches above them to the limits of the universe, they lie within their shells, waiting for the earth to make its required turnings and return them to the sun that will awaken them to another season.”
I think of the turtles below, along with all the other beautiful creatures, and wish them a kind sleep from which they will safely stir as the life force surges through their veins again when the sun brings them to the fullness of life in spring. The death of some, and the half-life of so many, proffers the poignancy of winter.