Thunder Magic

Trees at the back of our yard in fall colors

I woke to a crash of thunder about 7 a.m. this morning, with a driving rain pounding against the wall and window near the head of my bed. What a beautiful sound to start the day! The rain only lasted about an hour, and then the skies were gray, but the air was lit by leaves of gold and orange encircling our back yard. We’ve had no frost yet, and the October transformations are unfolding with beauty and grace.  

I’ve been surprised by how low in the sky the sun travels at this time of year—even at noon it is lurking behind the tree canopy shading the back half of the yard. You’d think after all these years I would be used to it by now. I’ve also been surprised by new raspberries ripening fat and delicious. Usually our “everbearing” raspberries don’t ripen in the fall—there is not enough sun and warmth in their spot to bring them to completion—but perhaps taking out the (invasive) Norway maples near the fence helped them to get more morning light. They taste better than any of the summer raspberries.

October is also a month for ancestors, leading up to Samhain on the 31st. I have continued to search for more information about Marie-Madeleine, my Innu great-great-great grandmother. I’ve been lucky that I emailed two people who seemed to have some resources, and they both replied and sent information. Magic! One told me that, from looking at his records, Marie Madeleine Manitukueu could not be my ancestor, because she married someone else in 1815, and then that person remarried in 1825 after her death. So that was incredibly helpful. Most of the work will be eliminating the women who cannot be my ancestor.

Then he also sent me a list of 17 “Marie Madeleines” or “Madeleines” recorded births from 1790 to 1818 at the Postes du Roi, from the databases he had access to, and agreed with me that it seemed most likely that she would be born closer to 1800, rather than 1789, since her last child (Marie Sylvie) was born in 1846. (The 1789 date is based on her death record stating that she was about 60 years of age at her death in 1849.)

I believe that going by child-bearing years is the best guide. A late baby in her 40s is more possible than in her 50s. The child before the one in 1846 was born several years earlier in 1839 (Sophie)—so it seems also more likely that 1846 was a late baby. Her prior children were about 3 years apart. Her first documented child was born around 1828, but it is possible that she was the mother of earlier-born children of her spouse Peter McLeod.  (Most sources say that he had an earlier Montagnais woman spouse, but there is less agreement about which children had which mother.) To go by a childbearing age of about 16 to 50, it seems like her own birth would be between 1796 and 1812.

This leaves 11 women on the chart—stretching slightly to include Marie Madeleine Katshisheiskuet (born 11/11/1795). So, the next thing I did was explore GénéalogieQuebec.com, to see if I could do research on each of the women. But I ran into a problem immediately. The records of the Postes du roi included on that site seem to be missing many of these vital years, not yet indexed, and none were available in direct images. I could not seem to find access to the databases to which my email correspondent had access. To complicate things a bit more, the parents listed for Marie Madeleine Katshisheiskuet in GénéologieQuebec are different from my earlier resource, and I think the only way to clear that up would be to look at an original record.

So, I feel stuck again—there is such a distance between Quebec and the United States—so much knowledge does not cross the border. I would like nothing better than to pore over these old records looking for the lives of these 11 women, seeing if I could find other marriage and death records that would steer me away from some, and toward my own ancestors. I don’t know why I think I can succeed where prior genealogists have not found a link. But maybe they didn’t have the same motivation. I’ve sent an email to the GénéologieQuebec site asking about the Postes du roi records. I also think I found some at the Catholic Archdiocese of Quebec, but not published or indexed.

It’s like the detective stories I’ve been reading—so many mysteries, so many clues. Why do I write about it here? I’m putting some magic out into the universe, hoping that some kind of thunder might open the cloudy skies between me and the past, between me and the place my ancestors are from. I’ve learned a lot in the process. It has been my experience that when I reach out to my ancestors, they reach back—more so when I have actually traveled to Quebec, but since that is not possible, I hope they will reach across the border.

Beauty and Trauma

Juvenile female cardinal near Joe Pye Weed and flea-bane

I have been at a loss for words these past few weeks. But sitting quietly in the back yard–often next to the frog pond–has enabled me to see some beautiful birds. I’ll start with this cardinal, cardinals being for a long time my favorite bird. I saw this rather scraggly (like all juveniles) female while I was lying in the hammock reading. I love their little chirps.

I saw the cardinal just as I started reading a new book, Carnival Lights, by Chris Stark. It has taken me several weeks to finish because it was so painful. I had to stop and start, stop and start. This novel should have all the trigger warnings. It brings to life the theme of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and it also weaves the past into the near present (1969) with the long history of land theft, murder, and oppression. I grew to love cousins Sher and Kris, two teenage Ojibwe girls, running away in Minnesota. But I am not even sure to whom I might recommend the book? I felt like I was plunged into vicarious trauma as a reader, and I wouldn’t want to re-trigger that kind of trauma for my Native friends, one of whom already mentioned that, yeah, she’d never be able to read it.

Yet there were also threads of beauty and resilience interwoven into the tapestry of the story that fed my spirit too. Such powerful gorgeous writing, such depth of expression, such love. It is a brilliant book. I first found it because it was recommended by a Native author I love–Mona Susan Power. So perhaps for some Native women, the trauma is well known and understood, and the beauty and love in this story is a healing balm.

For me, in between reading, I had to go to my own backyard to find the grounding and fortitude to be able to continue. I was sitting near the pond watching the frogs when two yellow warblers (I think that’s who they are) started flitting about in the bushes, trying to attract my attention–perhaps away from something else? It seems too late for there to be a nest, but who knows? It must be almost time for their migration south. They were definitely letting me see them, and then flying to another bush close by. I saw them on two or three separate days, and caught these photos.

I think this is a yellow warbler in the nine-bark bush near the pond.
I think this is a yellow warbler female, seen on a different day in the same nine-bark bush, with a summer sweet bush in the background.

What do we do with the obscene brutality and violence that our whole society is built upon? What do we do with the exquisite beauty of a bird on a summer day?

A hummingbird hovering while drinking at the feeder

Pond Flowers and more

The cardinal flower is starting to bloom, bright red against the dark of the water.

Two of the pond plants are starting to flower: the cardinal flower, and the arrowhead plant. The cardinal flower is supposed to be a favorite for hummingbirds. I hope they find it. The frogs continue to bring delight by their patient sitting poses, or quick jumping into the depths when startled. One day I counted a total of 13 frogs–usually I can find 3 big ones, and from 5 to 10 small ones, depending on the day and time of day. My little Zoom camera stopped working, so I am using the iPhone camera, which doesn’t work well for close-ups. But check out the flowers on the arrowhead plant. And, can you find the hidden frog in this photo?

Arrowhead plant with tiny white and yellow flowers.

If you are still looking for the frog, here is a clue: her eyes and head are hidden by green plant leaves, and only her legs and body are barely visible against the stones. At first I thought her legs were dead plant leaves. With all of the pain and sorrow in the world, these simple beauties bring nurture to my spirit.

Margy and I were delighted to be part of the Resilience Hub‘s Permaculture Open House last Saturday, and welcomed about a dozen people to our yard to share the highs and lows of permaculture gardening. Including, of course, sitting by the pond and talking about pond building. Everyone was careful about our COVID protocols, and we met some really great people.

Since then we have harvested our elderberries–Margy cut the berry clusters one evening, and then the next morning I read online that they should be processed or frozen within twelve hours. So my morning was spent gently separating the berries from of their clusters, rinsing them in a big pot, and then freezing them until I had time to make elderberry syrup. This was our first harvest from the bush, which grew huge this season.

Elderberry clusters in a brown bag
Separating the berries from the cluster branches.

My other big harvesting job this week has been processing more kale. Because of the netting I put over the raised bed, I am cutting the lower leaves of all the plants at once, rather than bit by bit as I have done in prior years. I put them into this blue plastic bushel basket. Then, one by one, I cut them up, rinse a batch in a salad spinner, and then sauté them batch by batch before freezing in quart freezer bags. I’ve only finished about half this bunch–and there will of course be more to harvest later.

A huge plastic bushel basket filled with kale, on the floor next to the stove.

Finally, I will say that our zucchini harvests have been just the right amount so far for us to be eating as we go, but our cucumbers are going wild! We don’t pickle them, but just eat them raw–if you live nearby, please come and get some from us! They are really delicious, but we’ll never keep up. The photo below is only some of them!

Cucumbers and zucchini in a wooden bowl.

Frogs and More Frogs!

Today I saw four frogs in the pond! When I went outside before breakfast, there was plenty of weeding to do in the orchard, but I was drawn instead to bring my camera and just sit by the pond. When I first walk back to the pond, the frogs often jump from where they’ve been sitting, and swim down into the deeper water. Two of them went under with a little squeak. But there were three plops both yesterday and today, so I knew there were at least three frogs.

Tiny frog #1 floating under reflected ferns yesterday
Tiny frog #1 sitting on a stone at the edge of the pond yesterday.

If I sit quietly next to the pond, eventually they come back to a sitting spot. So I wait. Today I was able to take pictures of three of them while I sat. But I find myself favoring the tiny little frog that was the first to come to the pond. Soon I imagine we will give them names, but for now, I am identifying them by number. This one is so very tiny. At most an inch and a half head to backside, and skinny. Also very friendly. She often perches near where I sit.

Tiny frog #1 swimming closer to where I sit today. You can see her feet clearly against the white of the rocks below.
Tiny frog #1 looks like she is watching me over the edge today.

Yesterday, I was also able to take photos of frog #2, who was a little bigger than frog #1. But today, I saw both #2 and #3 after they re-emerged, and came to sit/float near each other by the little beach. #3 looked so much fatter/bigger than the other two, but then I realized depending on the angle, frog #2 could also be somewhat fat. I think they were about 2 1/2 inches long.

Frogs #2 and #3 on the rocks near the beach.
Close up of Frog #2 from yesterday
Close up from behind of Frog #2 yesterday

So Frog #3 is the largest, and seemingly the shyest. Quickest to jump back into the water, so far. But I got several shots of #3 today. And then, just as I was about to leave, I saw another tiny little frog floating nearby, between me and the beach. So Frog #4. More like #1 in size.

Frog #4 floating near the pickerel weed.

It is just so amazing to watch the wildlife in the pond. I can sit and sit. I also saw dragonfly nymphs again. But eventually I got hungry so I came inside for breakfast. I feel so grateful.

Pond Frog Sitting

Photo: Tiny frog sitting on a large stone at the edge of the pond

Today the frog in the pond let me take its picture! I came outside this morning and just sat for a while at the edge of the pond, writing in my journal and being quiet under a cloudy sky. It felt a little bit peculiar to be done with the work of building the pond. To let go of the strange obsession for finding stones that has filled the last several weeks. I have been working on the pond since April! I didn’t see the frog at first. I was glancing around at the yard, and all the ways that Margy and I get overwhelmed trying to care for the land. We are old, we are disabled, we are ignorant of the many needs of plants, just beginners. It is hard to be good stewards of the land. There is always more to do than we can do. So I make a decision to let go: let go of the burden of it, let go of the overwhelm, let go of trying to do more than we can. Here I am, it’s a new day: be amazed at life!

At some point, I decided to walk around the edge of the pond to look at how the plants are doing. And then I suddenly saw the frog, sitting quietly. No plops into the water, no jumping away. Just sitting quietly, paying no mind to me while I was also sitting quietly, and now walking quietly. (Perhaps it has figured out that we people who come to this pond are no threat–we can share the pond?) It was on a big stone at the bottom of the beach, with its eyes out of the water and its very tiny body in the water. Its head maybe a half inch long, its body another inch, long folded legs. It let me take its picture many times. When I walked back to my chair, this is how it looked from over there, almost invisible, but now visible to me:

Photo: Can you see the tiny frog on the mottled stone near the deeper water, five stones to the right of the red stone?

When I came back inside, I did more research, and this frog seems to be of the species called the green frog–the most common frog in our region-it can be green, olive, brown. (One site joked–close your eyes and think of a frog–that is the green frog.) It is likely a female, because the tympanum–the round “ear” circles behind its eyes–are the same size as its eyes. In males, they are larger.

UPDATE: I’VE GONE ROUND AND ROUND ON THE IDENTIFICATION OF THIS FROG. I WONDERED IF IT COULD BE A FEMALE BULLFROG, BECAUSE THE DORSAL-LATERAL RIDGES GO BEHIND THE EARS, RATHER THAN DOWN THE BACK. BUT THEN I REALIZED IT WAS MUCH TOO SMALL FOR A BULLFROG. I AM BACK TO THINKING IT IS A GREEN FROG. SEE THIS CAN YOU ID THE FROG SITE.

I sat with the frog for quite a bit longer, until some raindrops started falling on the water, on me, on the frog. I stood and looked away for a moment, and when I looked back she was gone without a sound. What a lovely teacher she was for the practice of sitting quietly, for letting go, and being amazed by life.

Pond: a little frog

Photo: The pond sides are now covered with stones.

This morning, when I approached the pond, I heard a distinctive plop! And later, approaching again, I saw a tiny frog leap quickly from the beach rocks into the water. Another plop! It is our first frog. (Or maybe it is a toad–still not sure). No chance to catch it in a photo. But I am sure it was the best sound all day! And in more good news, most other pond projects are now complete.

The other day I used up the rest of the half-yard of stones I had gotten delivered early in the process–I added more to the planting ledge so that the plants were better anchored, and then I planned to use the rest of the stones in an upgraded overflow channel spill hole.

We had two inches of rain from tropical storm Elsa, and I was out there in my raincoat in the rain with a shovel, digging the spill hole bigger so muddy water wouldn’t flow back into the pond. Yesterday, I took a leaky five gallon bucket and drilled lots of holes all over it, so water would flow through it easily, but it could hold stones. Then I dug the spill hole deep enough to put the bucket down below the level of the spillway. I filled the bucket with small stones, and also put stones underneath and around the outside of it, finishing up with it today. Another rain is coming tomorrow so I will see if it works.

Photo: white plastic bucket, after drilling holes in the sides and bottom
It is hard to show the slope, which goes down from the spillway on the right gently down to the hole on the left. The bucket is completely buried with more stones on top. I also repurposed some painted shells that had been made for me by the kids in my old church when I retired.

I have gone on many adventures looking for stones on the side of country roads, but I finally succumbed to the temptation to buy a few more bags of stones at the big box store. (I had tried that once before but the quality was terrible.) I needed more small stones to fill up the spill hole, and I needed larger ones for one small section of pond siding under the little deck. The small ones enabled me to complete the spill hole. The larger ones were a weird cream color, that left a creamy residue when washed. I don’t know what they do to them. But I put them in place, along with a few bricks, under the little deck, and now it is complete.

Since my last posting, I was also delighted to receive some blue flag iris from our friend Lisa Fernandes, who gleaned it from her pond. They are already growing new shoots! You can see them in the upper photo, the largest plants on the other side of the pond. I also transplanted my little pond lily tubers into a larger basket filled with stones, and placed them on the lower shelf.

It is so lovely to sit by the side of the pond and watch the reflections on the water… may you have such loveliness in your life.

Pond Water Plants

Photo: Pond with new plants, and also pine pollen covering the whole surface.

This morning I was up at sunrise, which seemed such a sacred time to finish filling the pond! While the hose was running, I planted several plants that I had previously purchased, and then added three ferns from our yard. Sometimes, I just had to sit and watch, amazed at its coming to life in this way.

I used our city water from the outdoor spigot because the rain barrels nearby were empty from yesterday’s filling. City water is less ideal because of chlorine, but the chlorine will evaporate quickly, especially in our 90 degree sunny weather today. Plus it is being intermixed with the water already there. I filled it until it just started to drain into the overflow channel. Hurray! The overflow channel worked.

The method I used for planting was that recommended by Robert Pavlis in Building Natural Ponds. No soil, just anchor the roots of each plant with some stones. That meant rinsing off the plant roots from the soil they were packed in. I added some more stones in one area because the recommended depth was less than what I had. Here are the plants I planted:

Photo: Sweetflag

Sweetflag was first. It was a bit unclear whether this was Acorus calamus, or Acorus americanus. Online where I purchased it, it was listed as Acorus calamus (Americanus). I was hoping to buy the plant native to here (americanus); the other was brought by Europeans, but naturalized, and then it was also used by Indigenous people. I learned the Passamaquoddy name for this plant in the class I took. Kiwhosuwasq, (which now can refer to either plant). It means “muskrat root,” because the muskrat would eat it, and it was an important medicinal plant.

Next I planted Cardinal Flower, or Lobelia cardinalis, which will have a bright red blossom that is beloved by hummingbirds. It is a native plant. Both Sweetflag and Cardinal Flowers will grow tall, so I placed them toward the back of the pond, across from where we tend to sit.

Photo: Cardinal Flower

The next plant is Arrowhead, or Sagittaria latifolia, which is a shorter plant. It will have white flowers. When I rinsed off its roots, it divided into two plants, so I planted them near each other. It is native plant, but also an aggressive grower so I placed it on the narrower planting ledge where it can spread out on its own. I hope that all of these plants will spread out to fill their areas, but also make room for each other. The goal is to cover half the water surface with these plants on the planting ledges.

Photo: Arrowhead plants
Photo: Blue Eyed Grass

I had two pots of Blue Eyed Grass, or Sisyrinchium atlanticum. This one is also a smaller plant, and in the spring it blooms early with delicate blue flowers. I placed it in the part of the pond nearest to where we will sit.

Because it is so late in the season, a number of the plants I wanted to buy were no longer available this year. I am hoping I can find some Marsh Marigold sometime. (Calthus palustris.) It is another shorter plant, with spring blooming bright yellow flowers.

I was able to purchase a hardy white water lily, on Etsy. (Nymphaea spp.) The hardy variety of lilies can survive the winters in Maine, especially if their roots are deep in the pond. They sent me two root tubers. They arrived in my mailbox on one of the hot days, and were warm when I opened the package, so I hope they will be okay. But I planted them in temporary pots filled with stones, and placed those pots on the planting ledge. When they get bigger, I will move them lower in the pond. Water lilies are important parts of a natural pond, partly because their pads cover the surface of the water, providing shade and inhibiting algal growth. Plus, maybe frogs will sit on them. But for now, they are tiny.

Photo: Water lily in pot

After planting all these, I found two types of ferns among the many growing at the back of our yard, dug them up, rinsed off their roots, and planted three of them in the pond. I tried a few different ones–one tall, one small, one mixed, to see which might transplant best. A friend has offered me some Blue Flag Irises from her pond, so I’ve saved a space in my plan for them. Of course, now the question is, shall we try to buy some more plants to fill in more space right away, or wait for these to grow into larger versions of themselves? In the meantime, by 10 a.m. I had to come inside to get away from the heat, so all future parts of this project have to wait. Maybe this evening, we’ll just sit by the side of the water and enjoy.

Duck, Duck, Goose!

We had a spring teaser day today, with temps in the upper 50s so Margy and I went to Kettle Cove to take in the sun, the breeze, and the sea. We got a special treat when we saw these lovely birds in the water and on the shore. At first I thought they were ducks, because they were that size, but they were also somehow similar to Canada Geese but not quite. When I got home I searched the internet until I found them. They are Brant Geese. The Maine coast is part of their migration route. Here are some of the ones we saw. Margy Dowzer and I shared the camera, so I am not positive which photos are hers and which are mine.

Brant goose swimming in the low tide shallows.
Seven brant geese at Kettle Cove
If you look closely here, the goose in the foreground has plastic netting on its lifted foot–it was limping and we wondered why so we moved closer to see what it was. It was using its beak to try to get the netting off. We had no way to help it, and then they all flew off. So sad. I hope it was able to get free.
Sunshine sparkles on the water as the goose swims calmly.

Ice Beauty

No matter how many years I have lived, I am still brought to utter delight by the icy beauty of plants in the sunshine, after a freezing rain. There is nothing so bright, so crystalline, so shimmering!

I have lived most of my life in Northern areas of the United States (except for 6 months in Texas when I was seven.) So we here are accustomed to all sorts of wintery weather. But today I am also thinking of my relatives in Texas who are in their own icy cold, so rare in that place that they are dealing with burst water pipes, lack of heat, lack of electricity. I wish for them and all their neighbors warmth, help, and support to face the challenges.

These are the among the dangers we face more and more from climate change, or as some say so accurately, climate catastrophe. I wish we could come together as one earth community to begin to live differently, to live as if our lives are totally dependent on our mother Earth and all of her beings. Because we are. And even working together we will face difficult days ahead. So much has already been lost and altered. And still, we must also be so compassionate during these difficult times, because unless we love, we can never come together as one earth community. And we must keep hold of joy and beauty, or we will lose hope altogether.

So I am sharing these photos from around our yard for beauty. May the beauty of nature help us in all of our troubling times!

Icy tree branches sparkling in the sun.
Icy plants against the fence.
Icy St. John’s Wort through the window.
Icy yew branches just outside the door.

Winter Solstice

Sun shining over brook on winter solstice morning

It is the morning of winter solstice. I take a walk to the brook. The new sun is shining in a misty sky, fresh and gentle. Snow covers the ground here in the homelands of the Wabanaki, the stolen land called Maine. I am awestruck by so much beauty everywhere, grateful for the brook and its trees, for the light of the sun, for this neighborhood walk. Now that the gardening work is asleep under the snow, I am trying to go back to taking walks in the morning.

Kisuhs koti-apacuhse” is the Passamaquoddy/Wolastoqey way to say the winter solstice. It literally means “the sun comes back walking.” So maybe I, too, can come back walking–nkoti-apacuhs nil na. Today I was able to do my 20 minute circuit. Some days ago, I had started with 10 minutes, then 15–by going slightly different ways to the brook and back. For some reason, perhaps a new supplement I am taking, my energy has been returning in the mornings again. It is much easier to walk on sunny days than on cloudy ones. By the way, the sun is also known as the one who walks in the day, espotewset kisuhs.

Tonight just after sunset, there will be a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn low in the southwest sky–perhaps it will be too cloudy to see it here–we’d have to drive somewhere in any case, because the southwest of our yard is thick with tall pine trees. I think of Jupiter as the planet of expansiveness and generosity, Saturn as the planet of limitations and boundaries. 2020 has certainly been a year of limitations and boundaries for so many. So perhaps these opposites coming together give a glimmer of new hope, that we might find our way out of this restrictive place we’ve been in. Ironically, it has been through restrictions that we have had the hope of surviving, but we also need generosity to ensure our survival as a people together, to come out the other side with possibility. Can we learn both boundaries and generosity? Can we find a way out of the individualistic greed demon that plagues our society? I pray we can.

I pray that this Solstice may be a turning toward greater light and truth, a recognition of the interwoven fate of all humankind, all life kind, on our beloved planet earth.