Companionship

She ran circles in the house upon our return from the state park. At our house we call it frapping—frantically running around playing. She was so happy! She had had such a good time on the hike.

And I did, too. It was a dreary Northwest December day. Gray, light rain, temperatures not much above freezing. The high tide of despair was rolling in fast. Often the only container large enough for my grief is nature. “Come on, Gracie,” I said. “Let’s go for a walk.”

Gracie outside the Hobbit Tree

Gracie outside the Hobbit Tree

We hiked the Upper Loop trail at South Whidbey State Park—lots and lots of dripping moss, giant old growth trees, and eerie shapes and forms. Gracie immediately got busy sniffing for evidence of who or what had used the trail since our last visit. I got lost in the reverie of quiet, subtle beauty.

At one point she was snuffling around the entrance to a large opening at the base of a gnome-like big leaf maple. The mythology about corgis is that they are steeds for the fairies. It did not take much for me to imagine her rider tucked safely into the shadows of the old tree. And it delighted me to be connected to my sense of wonder.

At another point she hopped atop a fallen log that she proudly followed until she was at a height of about 5 feet. “What are you going to do now?” I asked aloud. She promptly jumped into my arms!

Ah, the trust—the sheer, beautiful trust of a well-loved dog. It is an extraordinary gift and on this day I really needed it.

Medicine Walk with my Son

On Nov. 23 my 33-year-old son died unexpectedly in Denver after what was to have been his final surgery on the road to recovery from a terrible accident as a paramedic fourteen months earlier. I am still in shock. To prepare myself to speak at his huge “line of duty” funeral, I sought spiritual readiness in the solace of nature.

dscn56331x300Brian was young and adventuresome. I knew I had to go to a wild place to connect with him. My little corgi dog and I drove two hours up to the Cascade foothills covered in fresh snow. On that day we were the only ones on the Forest Service road. There were fresh tracks of critters everywhere on the trail: snowshoe hare, coyote, pine marten, squirrel, mouse, and deer. Gracie was an unusually quiet companion. Sometimes she would race ahead in sheer joy at being in the snow, but mostly she stayed by my side or directly behind me.

After a couple of hours of walking in the snow, she started boofing at something up ahead. It is her way of talking to me, telling me to pay attention. The hair stood up on the back of her spine and she continued to boof more loudly. I actually got a bit alarmed because we had been seeing a lot of coyote tracks and were a long ways from our parked truck.

Suddenly a dark shape flew low over our heads from behind and landed on a branch in front of us; an elegant, black raven. Gracie fell immediately silent and came over to my side. The raven began “talking” to us. It started to click its bill, and then it puffed up its feathers. Turning its head back and forth to look at us, it continued this routine for about five minutes.

Corvus coraxThe last thing I had spoken to my son at his bedside was, “Fly free, my son. Fly free.”

An enormous calm came over me. I felt certain for the first time since his death that he was OK. “Thank you,” I said aloud to the raven. It peered directly at us. Far away across the valley I heard the ethereal croak of another raven. Our raven lifted off his branch and flew directly at us and then veered off towards the sound of its own kind. That image has held me steady as I move along this unpredictable journey of grief.

 

Medicine Walk Number One

When I really need guidance, I take a medicine walk. Far more than a walk in the woods or a ski on the snow, a medicine walk is deeply intentional time in nature.

Two recent deaths in my family reminded me of the power of this ancient form. My father died on Veteran’s Day (November 11). Several days later I spent the day alone in a nearby state park. Drawing a tarot card for guidance, being smudged with sage, and speaking my intention for the day: to find words to honor him at his funeral, I set off on foot on a rainy northwest late autumn day.  Everywhere the presence and abundance of nurse logs spoke to me of the legacy that my father leaves in place.

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A nurse log is a downed tree or stump in the forest that slowly decays and provides sustenance for the seedlings of moss, ferns, and young trees that will take its place. These nurse logs are critical to the ongoing health of our forests in much the same way my father’s life values and teachings are critical to my ongoing navigation of the world around me.

I used the strength of that metaphor to find words to speak at Dad’s funeral on Nov. 27. One of five stories I shared about him was how I got to fish with him from a very young age . . . and launched my lifelong love of nature.

Next blog: Medicine walk with my son

Orcas!

We were taking a lunch break from office details when I shouted, “Orcas swimming by!” Immediately we headed out the door and toward the beach stairs.

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We could see a group of orcas loblolling and circling as they actively fished for salmon about four miles off shore in a surprisingly calm Puget Sound. These extraordinary animals, sometimes called “the wolves of the sea”, were clearly working together to corral salmon.

Puget Sound resident orcas feed exclusively on salmon. Our resident J, K, and L pods are among the most intensively studied marine mammals in the world and yet many months of the year their whereabouts are a mystery.

Killer Whales

The most famous member of these pods is Granny, (J-2), who will be 102 years old this year! She became a great, great, great grandmother in the summer of 2012 and is the oldest known orca in the entire world. As the matriarch of this pod, she still plays an active part in guiding pod movement, babysitting, and teaching the young.

group of killer whales in the wild

As we headed back to the office, I was lost in my own thoughts. What a privilege to see these magnificent creatures! They represent the wild, spectacular edge of our lives here. But I am well aware of their tenuous status. Salmon are their sole source of food and salmon numbers in the region continue to decline.

And then I think of Granny and I am inspired. Since her 1911 birth here, she has experienced stunning changes—massive amounts of logging, industrial and population growth, and declining water quality. She and her clan have changed and adjusted through it all. I am not planning on living to 102, but I am dedicating my elder years to making this region better for my wild friends.

Winter Soils

Ann and her little dog, Gracie, heading into the garden

Ann and her little dog, Gracie, heading into the garden

If you love the earth, gardening is a marvelous way to watch and participate in the changing of the seasons. Here in the north us winter gardeners are busily cutting back dying vegetation and preparing the soil for winter rains or snows. My Australian gardening friends, Linette and Marie, are all excited about new lettuce, basil, and tomato plants—the often more exciting end of the gardening spectrum.

But I love putting my garden to bed and thinking about protecting my soil! Winter rains or snow can severely compact things. And since one-half of a healthy soil is air pockets, avoiding compaction is important.

Garden bed covered with leaves

Garden bed covered with leaves

One way I protect my soils is to cover them with leaves. Another more productive way is to plant a cover crop. Cover crops not only stabilize soils, they bring deep-rooted minerals to the surface and lessen the loss of nutrients during winter rainfall.

Where I live a good cover crop consists of a mixture of winter rye, fava beans, Austrian field peas, hairy vetch, and crimson clover.

Cover crop sprinkled on the soil

Cover crop sprinkled on the soil

Birds love this mix of seed—they are also getting ready for winter! So, to insure that you actually get a cover crop it is helpful to lay down some garden fabric or row cover until the seeds germinate.

Row cover protects the seeds until they germinate

Row cover protects the seeds until they germinate

More on cover crops in a few months when I turn ours over!

The Change of Seasons

Changing colors in the fall garden

Changing colors in the fall garden

Ann checking temperature of newly made compost

Ann checking temperature of newly made compost

I am especially thinking of my dad this fall. He was an avid gardener and once cooler weather began to arrive he taught me to be meticulous about getting plants cut back and prepared for winter.

Yesterday I worked with friends in our community garden to cut back plants, move manure from a local horse farm to compost our garden waste, and generally admire the changing colors.

When I called Dad in the memory care unit this morning, I shared with him a description of what I had done in the garden and thanked him for all he had taught me about gardening. “That’s nice,” he said.

My sisters and I are working to share strong images of his good life with him as he nears the end of his days. At 87 years he is frail and failing. None of us knows when he will die anymore than we can predict when the first frost will come.

What we do know, though, is that this difficult post stroke phase of his life will end. And like all good gardeners everywhere we know that there is a next, beautiful phase to his life . . . for nature teaches us that life continually transforms itself.

Brussels sprouts ready to harvest

Brussels sprouts ready to harvest

Inspiration in Many Forms

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This is not a stock photo. It was taken with an iPhone by my partner, Christina, on a recent September day. Mt. Shucksan as mirrored in Picture Lake is one of the iconic photographs in Washington state. And we were lucky enough to visit when photographic conditions were perfect.

Many, many things about that day were inspirational. We drove past Picture Lake up to Artist’s Point where Mt. Shucksan rises in one direction and Washington’s youngest volcano, Mt. Baker, rises in the other direction. For several hours we hiked the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail filling our souls with the majesty of these two great mountains.

There were lots of people on the trail that day. We paused in the shade of a tree island to rest and have a small snack. An older woman and three male hikers paused to rest with us.

“Pardon me,” I said to the woman. “I am 64 and always looking to be inspired by someone older than myself. Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”

“I’m 90,” she said.

“Wow!” I responded.

“We are a four generation hiking party,” she continued. “My son here is 65. My grandson is 44 and my great grandson is 6.”

We had a marvelous conversation, including learning that she had just hiked three rocky, occasionally steep miles with her family. Her grandson, obviously proud of his grandmother, volunteered a lot of information about this Illinois woman hiking along at 5,000 feet elevation. I learned that part of her secret is hiking several miles a day and enjoying a gin and tonic at night.

As we watched them hike back towards the parking lot, I found myself as inspired by human nature as I was by scenic nature.

August harvester

August is not the best sleeping month at our house. My earlier blog was about loud, early morning fog horns. This blog is about a little busybody harvester whose work often wakes us with a loud BAM beginning about 5:30 a.m.

We have a huge Douglas fir tree towering over our house. Each year in late August a little red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), or maybe it is an army of red squirrels, begin harvesting the thousands of cones our tree produces each year. The skylight in the bathroom adjacent to our bedroom seems to be the main target. It is uncanny how loud the sound from a small three inch cone can be when it drops from 70 or 80 feet.

There does not seem to be a particular system for what happens once the cones are felled. Some of them get eaten on the roof. Some of them get carried into our wood pile. Most of them seem to be abandoned all over the back yard, where they are a bit like walking on marbles.

Years ago when I worked for the U.S. Forest Service we took advantage of the red squirrel’s scattered approach to putting away food stocks for the winter. Our forest biologist explained that they harvest way more cones than they need and actually forget where all their stores are. So, we would find a cache and collect cones to give to give to the nursery that grew young trees for our replanting operations.

I am not sure what signals the squirrels that our cones are ready for harvesting or why they quit after about 5 days. It is simply one of those mysteries I enjoy tracking in our rural setting.

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Fog-ust

Mid-morning fog out my front window

Mid-morning fog out my front window

Early this morning I awoke to the deep-throated booming of a ship’s foghorn. In the dawn light I could read the alarm “4:35 a.m.” In two minutes the “bee-ohhh” penetrated the morning silence again. This time it had moved closer to our house. In another two minutes it sounded like it was going to come in through the front door.

Living adjacent to the shipping lane in Puget Sound, I have come to love these wake-up calls. Often, I open the front door to see if I can catch a glimpse of our morning visitor.

August is a common time for fog in our area—so much so, that we dub this month “Fog-ust”. The low-lying clouds slide in over the Sound in the early morning hours and linger until mid-day when the summer sun manages to burn it off. We often say that summer here occurs between 1 p.m. when the sun burns off and 6 p.m. when the cool, marine air engulfs us once again and we put our fleece and wool sox on again.

There are many technical descriptions of why fog occurs in the warm summer months by the sea, but basically it is the result of warm atmospheric air clashing with cooler marine air.

Morning sun trying to burn off the fog

Morning sun trying to burn off the fog

What fascinates me, though, is the personality of fog. It is mysterious. It is elusive. It is unpredictable—just when you see some blue sky overhead and think it is clearing, you are engulfed in deeper fog for hours. And never did I feel that unpredictability more profoundly than the summer I kayaked around Lake Superior.

“About twenty minutes into our crossing, the predicted blanket of fog descended and wrapped us in a gray cocoon. The distant shore became a wishful thought. . . our lives depended on our $80 mounted compasses and our steadfastness in believing them.” Deep Water Passage—a Spiritual Journey at Midlife by Ann Linnea

Twenty-one years later I still remember the sheer determination, fear, and good luck that got me through those frequent times on the world’s largest inland sea. Lying in my warm bed, I think about those huge ships outside my window with their fancy radar units and their old-fashioned fog horns warning small-time mariners who must depend only on their eyes and ears to navigate the fog.

A mother’s wisdom

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On a recent family trip our two-year-old granddaughter managed to hike up Easter Bluff on Cortes Island, BC. It was a challenging hike up and over big boulders. “I do it myself,” she stated many times. Her mom and dad were always close at hand.

It is no small thing that this little one was able to climb several hundred feet over a mile long trail. But what I will always remember is the trip down.

We watched the sunset after eating our picnic dinner. It was 8:30 p.m. and little Sasha had no nap that day. Within ten minutes of beginning our descent she was in full meltdown. No one could help. Nothing worked. We got to a flatter place in the trail beneath two very large, old growth Douglas fir trees.

My daughter, Sally, scooped Sasha into her arms and sat down beneath the tree. “OK, Sweetie, breathe. Just breathe. We will breathe together.” Within minutes Sasha was no longer crying. It was a mother’s magic at work.

And then, of course, her father carried her the rest of the way down the mountain.