Daffodils and Garlic—the perfect send off

It is mid-March— that time in the northern hemisphere where the sun is once again beginning to have some warming power and the southern hemisphere is moving into shorter, cooler days.

Two plants have been lifelong harbingers of spring for me: daffodils and garlic. The daffodils shown here were planted in my neighbors yard decades ago before she arrived. Every year they come up faithfully in spring—early bursts of color and life in the midst of a winter often reluctant to let go of its power.

 

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Garlic is a stunning garden plant. The cloves are carefully put in the ground in the fall and all winter, even while blizzards and sub-zero temperatures rage, they do their remarkable transformation and sprout hopefully in our garden beds in early spring.

 

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The cycle of birth/death/resurrection is everywhere around us as we move from winter to spring or summer to fall. Nature teaches us profoundly that life continues.

This is the lesson I carry to Colorado this week. My son’s ashes are carefully packed in my suitcase. We will scatter a portion of them on the soils of the Ranch my family visited for 50 years. Tradition matters. Our place in the great cycle of life holds us even when we are struggling to break new ground and create new life.

Tracking

We rarely get snow at sea level, but this morning we awoke to an inch of new snow. I realize this is almost laughable for my Minnesota, east coast, and Canadian friends. But it brought out a huge sense of wonder for me.

On my morning dog walk I made quite a discovery—a raccoon walked down the middle of our road sometime during the night! Maybe we have had a raccoon around for quite a while, but since they are often nocturnal we had not seen it. The other day I actually told a neighbor I did not believe we had raccoons around.

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Raccoon tracks are fairly easy to identify. Both front and rear paws have five delicate thin toes, which we know work in almost human hand ways to grasp and manipulate.

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By contrast, the tracks of my little dog reveal four roundish toes with claws—no prying off lids for her.

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Another set of tracks came from the little bunny that lives under the cedar bushes in the front yard. Note the staggered back two small paws and the larger staggered front paws.

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The snow has put quite a damper on our brave tulips, but it will likely melt with the predicted rain this evening. I am grateful for the world of tracks and the stories they reveal and my ability to get out and enjoy them before neighborhood cars obliterated them.

Who Won?

Nature teaches us many lessons. We tend to like the nice ones with inspiring scenery or cute animals. We don’t talk much about the more disturbing scenes that leave us unsettled.

This is the story about a hybrid seagull and a female bufflehead duck. It is a story about a predator that is 7 or 8 times the size of its prey. And I am still not sure “who won”.

Watching birds on a winter, open water pond, I was looking at a flock of several dozen black and white bufflehead ducks. These are the smallest North American ducks—cute, tiny, compact, and determined.

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All of a sudden one of my birding buddies said, “Look at that!” I put down my binoculars and watched as a large gull swooped down on the flock of buffleheads and scattered them in all directions. It methodically separated out one of the females and chased her. She was frantically trying to get back with her flock, but the gull forced her down to the water.

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Immediately the little duck dove to escape. The gull stared at the water and swam around. As soon as the little bufflehead came up for air, the gull was right there waiting to pounce. Down again went the little duck. They repeated this dozens of times until the little duck was so exhausted she HAD to stay on the surface. Then the gull opened its beak and tried to chew on her neck and pull on her wings. It seemed like the end for the bufflehead.

But somehow she escaped—a bundle of sheer determination and will. The gull pursued her relentlessly. At least four or five times the cycle of gull pulling on duck and duck escaping and diving repeated itself. I spoke aloud to my friends. “How can she keep this up?” At this point we had been watching the pursuit for 15 minutes.

Suddenly the gull flew off and an immature bald eagle took over the pursuit of the bufflehead, who promptly dived again. Twice more the eagle tried to catch its stolen prey, but it was no match for the feisty little duck and gave up.

Looking through our binoculars, we judged that the tiny duck was swimming OK. Within a minute three buffleheads—two females and one male— flew in to check on her. They swam circles around her, and then swam quickly in the direction they had come from. It was obvious she could not keep up with them. When they flew off, she flapped her little wings, but did not appear to be able to fly.

Slowly she started to swim towards the dock in front of us. We remained completely still, not wishing to add further trauma to her afternoon. When she disappeared under the dock, which was about twenty feet in front of us, we slowly walked away.

“We must let her be,” I said. “She has either gone there to die or recover. We will never know which. We just got to watch one of life’s ordinary little creatures in a truly brave, remarkable moment.”

Sometimes it is not about winning or losing. It is about giving life your all. None of us know how life is going to turn out or when we might be asked to exert extraordinary energy on our own behalf: we just do what must be done when it’s asked of us. Coming through this winter of death and mourning, of going on with my half-healed heart, I know what it is to be buffeted and buffleheaded. And I know you also carry such moments. May we keep swimming and surviving.

 

 

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.