Looking Back

Photo: Crow looking at her reflection in the pond

We finally have someone to clean our house today, after no one since COVID. (A true blessing for those of us allergic to dust.) So I am in the basement, where I have an office filled with old papers that I still haven’t cleaned out since I retired three years ago. I am allergic to old papers, too, (and old books, which is a real sadness). But it is hard to just throw them out or shred them, they are like messages from my earlier self. I thought maybe if I could capture some of them here, it would be easier to release these reflections of the preacher I used to be. (During the summers, I’d be pondering what to preach during the following year. I’d be trying to get grounded in what was most important.) It is grounding to read them now:

What is my message? What is my good news? God is love. You are loved. You are beloved, you are sacred, each one of you. (Especially to the ones who are on the edges, to women, to lesbians.)

Around to the question–who is my audience, who are my people? What is my message? Love is on the side of equality and we are all brothers, sisters, siblings. Every being is beloved and we are all one family. What is my message to the men and to those who are comfortable? Your privilege does not bring you closer to heaven. If you have privilege, share the wealth. I don’t like being “negative” or challenging. I like lifting up the lowly. Is that true? I like clear thinking–see what is going on and understand the times we are in. What are the big issues we face as a people?

What is my message? Look at the power dynamics that are hidden–Who benefits? Who lies? Organize yourselves–alone we can do something, but together we can really do something. Be smart about change. Hold up the vision of where we are going and also talk about the ways to get there. How to live sustainably? How to live in mutually beneficial relationship with each other and with the earth. The earth is us, we are the earth. We are children of the earth, this is our mother and our home, our only home. Stand with our relatives. What touches one, affects us all.

What gives me hope? The sense of being beloved. The witness of people before us who loved, who created change.

What are my questions? How do I preach about God? What is at the soul of my wanting to preach about God? Anger at the fundamentalists who put God into a box–an idol, who use it to go to war, to condemn other people, including me–who use God as a weapon of hate. Anger at the atheists who argue there is no God–but the only God they argue against is the fundamentalist God that I don’t believe in either.

I experience God–is “God” even the word?–but I want to claim that word “God.” They’ve stolen it, corrupted it, they’ve tried to use it to shut the true gates of heaven. Starhawk reminded us that it is not about belief, but knowledge.

What can I say about my own experience of God? How do I experience God? As the power to leave the church of my childhood, to find the experience of myself as woman, as a whole and equal person. Goddess. (Ntozake Shange “I found God in my self and I loved her fiercely.”) The power to take a leap of courage into the unknown, toward wholeness and strength and transformation. God is a power beyond institutions, uncontained. “The sound in the soul of a man becoming free.” [from the song “Mystery.”] The joy I see in a lesbian couple finding the strength to be proud of who they are and to become public spokespersons for equal marriage. God is the comforter of the lonely. The lover. God is everywhere in everything, imbues the world with beauty. God is the power of creativity. We say “Creator.”

What would be the greatest personal risk I could take? Can I be the minister I feel called to be? Why is it so hard to say I experience the presence of God? To challenge the atheists who ridicule those who experience God? God as personal, the old Universalist idea that God loves everyone so much that we’ll all get into heaven. Can I invite an atheist to go inside themselves to experience God for themselves? To pray?

It is okay to have an image for God, a doorway. We need pictures–as long as we remember they are just doorways into something beyond our ability to picture. The mystical. God isn’t just someone to make good things happen to us. God is a presence in the midst of the hard things. The cardinal who sang when I was lost and lonely. The grandmother who appeared when everything fell apart. Comfort and strength when loss comes. But what about those who don’t experience that. What feeds you? What is large enough to win your allegiance? Any other gods are too small.

Just random thoughts, like looking at my reflection in a still pool of water. After so many days of working in the garden and working on the pond, it is good to be quiet with these old pieces of paper.

Pond Reflections-Next Steps

Photo: Adding water again, stones in planting ledge done. Isn’t it beautiful to see the reflection of the trees in the water?

This morning and this evening I finished adding stones to the planting ledge of our pond. And this evening, I began the second half of filling the pond, using water from our rain barrels! While I watched the water flow in, I used a pond skimmer to try to clear some of the debris that has fallen in–maple seeds, pollen, pine needles. I hope tomorrow I can finish filling it, and start to put in plants. Some plants have already arrived, I have them waiting in a bucket of water.

It was a really hot day today for Maine (88 degrees), and earlier in the morning, I mostly watered my vegetables and tended the fruit trees. I have spent so much energy on the pond, and I didn’t want to neglect the other parts of the garden. I checked on the cherry trees, thinned tiny peaches from the peach tree, and did a kaolin clay spray on both. Yesterday I had cut off some leaves on the cherry that were infected by black cherry aphids. I left a few, especially if I saw ladybugs near them. Ladybugs lay eggs, and when their larvae hatch, they eat the aphids. In this photo, the curled leaves have the aphids hiding inside. But see how bright the ladybug eggs are!

Photo: bright orange ladybug eggs

The next two days are predicted to hit 90–so there will only be a few hours in the morning and evening that I can bear to be outside. That seems to be our new rhythm here. Planting will be so much fun–updates later!

Lessons from Other Beings

I feel a deep calling to learn from the other beings who share this earth with us. I was reminded of this calling by a new book I just started reading, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, by Alexis Pauline Gumbs. She is observing dolphins, whales, and other mammals who live in the sea, and learning the wisdom they might have for human beings–especially for black women, but also for all of us. “They are queer, fierce, protective of each other, complex, shaped by conflict, and struggling to survive the extractive and militarized conditions humans impose on the ocean.” It is a beautiful and meditative book and I am so grateful. Reading a chapter each night has fed my soul, as well as helped me remember how key it has been in my own path to listen for the wisdom of other creatures–though the ones I learn from are usually closer to home than the sea.

Yesterday morning, inspired, I began to read again my own book, Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey into Earth Community, remembering. I was remembering the many quiet moments I spent in my former back yard, listening to cardinals, watching slugs crawl through the grass, paying attention to trees, to stars, to the red light of dawn. It was a yard with many mature trees, a long row of huge lilac bushes, incredible privacy, and many critters who were our neighbors–turkeys, deer, birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and occasionally skunks. I was remembering how much those creatures taught me, when I was quiet enough to listen to them.

In our current back yard–we’ve lived here five years now–we can get caught up with work: pruning, planting, soil improvement, garden permaculture projects. It is land more in need of attention from us, ragged, more depleted, invasive vines and bushes clamoring around the edges and in the soil, imbedded in city life, though still surprisingly private once the trees on the edges leaf out. There is more room for gardening–the old place was too shaded by all those mature trees. So we have planted a little food forest, herbs and perennial vegetables, made room for hugelkultur and raised beds and even shared with our friends room to grow herbs and veggies.

But it is easy to get caught up in the work of it–a lot of work. It is easy to forget that other part–the listening to the land itself and the other creatures here, the plants and animals. I remember when we first found this place, feeling from it an unmistakable message: that through making relationship with this small piece of earth, I might learn more about what it means to be in relationship to earth and all her creatures. It was time to think small–right here I could find home, I could find earth community. The work is part of it–we are here to learn to be beneficial members of this tiny ecosystem. It has weathered much neglect and abuse from human beings in its history. But the work is not the only part of it–the listening is the most important part. Sitting quietly, watching, waiting. As spring makes it easier to be outside again, I am ready. I am ready to take my lead from what the land asks, what the land teaches.

View of the back yard through hazelnut bushes with catkins.

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.

Garden Lessons

Today is the Celtic celebration of Lammas, the early grain harvest festival. I’ve always connected it to the early corn harvest–the time to start eating local corn on the cob in the places I have lived. Our little group that celebrates earth rituals together hasn’t met since COVID, and I feel sad not to see them today. But this morning I was able to bring some zucchini and kale to the Resilience Hub, where a volunteer was collecting produce from gardeners to share with immigrant families in the Portland area. That truly felt like the best way to celebrate this holiday–sharing the surplus of our own harvest for those who need it, in the spirit of reciprocity.

Myke behind the zucchini

Myke standing behind the hugelkultur zucchini! Photo by Margy Dowzer

Lately, I’ve been feeling rather overwhelmed by the gardening endeavor. Take note of my photo behind the hugelkultur zucchini–you almost can’t see me at all. There is watering to do each morning, and I’m harvesting raspberries, the last of the snap peas, chives, zucchini, and kale. Oh–and one cucumber so far.  I learned how to freeze zoodles (zucchini noodles) so that we can save some for the future. I am also freezing most of the raspberries and chives. So all that is wonderful, but still a lot of work.

Added to that, however, has been discovering that each new plant I add to the garden seems to come with its own ecosystem of insect pests and diseases. I was used to Japanese beetles, and shaking them from the leaves of trees into soapy water. I was used to picking off cabbage worms from the kale and squishing them. But then I learned about the squash bug and the squash vine borer. I don’t see any significant damage yet on the zucchini plants, but I’ve seen the bright red and black flying parent of the grubs that can burrow into the stems. This morning, there were some zucchini leaves with powdery mildew. Another yuck.

Now we also seem to have grasshoppers eating the carrot tops and the kale–except for a new variety of kale that I got from a friend, which is too prickly for my taste. (That is ironically maddening! Why don’t you eat that one, grasshoppers?) I did some research and if I wanted I could try garlic spray, or flour on the leaves. But right now I’m just hoping they don’t eat enough to wipe out all the plants. Also, I put more bird seed in the feeder in hopes that some of those birds might also eat grasshoppers.  But there is so much to know, and so many possible pitfalls, even in the context of our organic permaculture polyculture systems.

So like I said, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by all of it lately. I was thinking back to my original intention with this land–I wanted to restore our mutually beneficial connection to the earth, via this small piece of the earth we are lucky to live upon. And what I am learning is that it is not so easy–I’ve lost so much of the knowledge of plants and ecosystems that my ancestors might have had in the places they called home. I am sure there are long-time gardeners who find a way to learn what they need from the practice of gardening–but I am coming to it late in life, and I can feel that it could take a whole lifetime to become adept at working with ecosystems to nurture wholeness and balance.

It’s not all flowers and romance, this relationship with earth. It’s crabgrass and ticks and mosquitos and so many unknown insects, (beneficial or destructive?), not to mention diseases, viruses, bacteria.  Some aspects of earth are not so easy to love. It’s invasive species and drought and climate change. It’s beyond what I can learn and I’m discovering the limits of my capacity.  So I come to the garden like a prayer: sometimes with awe, sometimes with gratitude, but often with a cry for help, often with a deep painful longing for all that has been lost, often with loneliness. If I can pay close enough attention, finally, I come to the garden with surrender, surrender to this larger dance of life of which I am only a very small movement.

At Home

Picture by Arla Patch, James Francis

With these last few quiet days at home, Margy and I were finally (after almost four years) able to take down from the attic all of our wall pictures, and decide how we wanted to decorate the walls of our living room and kitchen. It was especially wonderful to place over our fireplace hearth this print, Stewardship of the Earth, by James E. Francis and Arla Patch. We had purchased it several years ago in a fundraiser for Maine Wabanaki REACH.  Here is more information about it from an article in the Friends Journal.

This work of art is a collaboration between James E. Francis, Penobscot artist and director of cultural and historic preservation for the Penobscot Nation, and Arla Patch, artist, teacher, and [at that time] member of the communications subcommittee of the Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It was made for a western Maine community celebration of the native woman Molly Ockett (c. 1740–1816, Abenaki nation, Pequawket band). The theme of 2013’s MollyOckett Days Festival was “Stewardship of the Earth.” James created the central image of the tree that becomes the earth. Arla created the context based on the European American tradition of quilts. James provided the symbols, which represent the four remaining tribes in the Wabanaki Confederacy: the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseet, and the Micmac.

A theme of the four directions, which comes from both Native American spirituality and ancient Celtic tradition, is depicted as the night sky for the north; the sun rising over “second island” next to the Passamaquoddy land of Sipayik; the midday sky for the south; and the sun setting over the White Mountains for the west. “Agiocochook” (home of the Great Spirit), also known as Mt. Washington, is included in the western sky.

Blueberries are included for the role they have played in sustaining Maine native peoples historically and to this day. Maple leaves are in the upper corners to honor the development of maple syrup by the Wabanaki.

When we put this picture on the wall, along with a few others around the room, I found myself feeling rooted and joyful, at home in a deeper way than before. It was as if some mysterious magic had created a circle around us, and we were aligning into harmony and beauty.

May that beauty bring us hope and strength as we enter a new decade, a decade that will be pivotal in our collective stewardship of the Earth. May we human beings find a way to live in harmony with all of our relatives on this planet that is our home.

Raccoon/Espons

One of the great things about our cats is how they alert us to visitors in the yard.  This morning, Billie suddenly leaned over into the bedroom window, all focused attention, and then she hurried off to the kitchen.  I looked out the window, and then I too ran to the kitchen–to look out the French door windows to the back.  We had both seen a raccoon, walking right onto our deck, checking things out.Raccoon on the deck

Sadly, this was not a great nature photo–I didn’t capture the raccoon’s adorable face.  And when they saw us at the window, they decided to move along, leaving only small wet footprints behind. I barely caught their distinctive striped tail as they hurried past on their way toward the steps to the driveway.  Raccoon tail

Compost barrel holeThe Passamaquoddy word for raccoon is Espons, and it means the one who leaves a mess. I pulled on my boots to go outside to see if Espons had left any messes anywhere in our garden–but the only thing I found was a tiny hole dug into the side of our compost barrel.  It looks like that compost is ready.

I think this is the first time I’ve seen a raccoon in the yard, though I saw one in a tree down by the brook a while back. As much as Margy and I love to play in the soil, plant trees and bushes, and tend to the growing plant life all around us, the most thrilling part of connecting to this land is when the critters visit us.

Many small birds and squirrels live here all the time, but we’ve also seen turkeys, a very occasional deer (and not in the last year), the skunk, the groundhog, a few chipmunks, the fox, the hawks, the turkeys (they visit a lot–though not this spring–they must be raising young somewhere else right now), not to mention tiny toads and salamanders. I call them visitors, but really, we share this urban environment. They live here as much as we do–but not usually on the deck!  We try to find a balance between welcoming them, and reserving certain garden foods as our own “territory.”  (Since we don’t yet have much food in the perennial food forest we’ve been slowly creating, it hasn’t yet been a big issue.)

I am reminded somehow, by the joy of this unexpected visit, that my spiritual “marching orders” during this past cycle of seasons have been rather clear.  I was not to try to “make magic”–which I understand as to focus my intention and will to create something or to make change in this world.  Rather, I was to flow with the already flowing magic of the deeper River, to let the Earth move my feet, let the Wind guide my mind. I was to rest, and let the Fire of joy carry me through the days.  That joy has carried me into some marvelous learning–the Wabanaki language class comes to mind.  That joy has carried me out into the garden to plant and tend and haul wood chips around.  That joy has carried me to the pages of this blog site, to write and reflect.  But it isn’t really about creating a garden or a blog.

It is about observing, being quiet, listening to the trees, tuning in to the flow of interconnected life. It is about moving beyond doing into a different way of being.  A way that is alert to the many beings who visit us, whether we notice them or not. It is about noticing.

Margy's clover & daffodils

Margy’s clover & daffodil garden in the front yard.

May Day the old way

May Day treeYesterday evening, eight of us danced around the pitch pine in our yard, dressing it up with rainbow ribbons for May Day.  Did you know that the original Maypoles were not cut wooden poles, but live trees?  It makes sense to me, coming from people who worshiped among the trees, who honored and revered the trees. And so what better way to celebrate the full arrival of spring, the arrival of the May, than to celebrate the tree with an ancient dance?

Earlier, I had attached eight ribbons to a small metal ring, and then Sylvia tossed a rock-tied string over a branch so we could lift the ribbons to a good height for dancing. Margy went to a field close to where we used to live to pick forsythia branches to decorate the bottom of the tree. In this time of the earth awakening, we joined our life energy to that of the earth, that we might all be full of life and regeneration.  It was a magical moment to be weaving in and out between each other, with our bright colors, dancing on the earth, and finally surrounding the tree, hands joined in a circle.

After a rain-filled night, I took photos this morning. We keep hoping for more warmth…it is only in the 40s today.  But we’ve finally finished planting all the bushes. I set up the rain barrels (by putting in their spigots and re-attaching their overflow hoses), and yesterday I found smaller containers for storing a big bag of Kaolin clay (an organic product used for certain orchard pests). Tending and planting and tending.

When I pay attention to what is happening to our planet, I feel so much despair, I feel overwhelmed. I know it is better to plant trees, than to cut them down.  I know it is a good thing to tend this small plot of land.  But even with many of us planting trees, or protesting, or changing our lives, do we have the power to stop the destruction?  No, I think not.  But what came to me the other day was this.  If we are out there, planting a tree, putting our hands in the soil, watering a seed, dancing on the ground, or even lying in a hammock under a pitch pine, perhaps we can learn to hear the voice of the earth.  Perhaps she will see us there, and take pity on us.  Perhaps she will open our ears and hearts and guide us into regeneration and healing. This is my hope.May Day Pitch Pine

Local Beauty

When we moved to our current neighborhood we were surprised and delighted to find so much natural beauty within walking distance of our home.  I felt like a kid again in those first morning walk explorations of the surrounding terrain.  I learned that we are nestled between small brooks that feed into Capisic Brook, and that there is a path through the woods between the brook and the Rowe (formerly Hall) school. I learned I could walk into the woods that were part of Evergreen Cemetery, up to the ponds where turtles, frogs, and birds abound.

But one treasure I wouldn’t have found if I hadn’t learned about it first, and then tried to hunt for it.  It is quite hidden, except to those who are hiking on the Fore River Trail, which is just beyond my usual strolling adventures.  But if you know where to find it, you can also access it off the side streets on the other side of Brighton Avenue. This is Jewell Falls, and I walked there yesterday morning.  Can you imagine?  A waterfall in my own neighborhood in Portland! The spring snow melt and rain gave it a great flow and the rushing sounds were like music, morning sunlight dancing to its rhythms. Gratitude.

Jewell Falls

Moments of Joy

Capisic Brook invisible cardinals

I saw a group of cardinals on my walk today! I haven’t seen them all winter, but as I stood still, watching the beauty of Capisic Brook, first one and then another and then more appeared in the distance.  You can’t really see them in the photo, but after the brook bends to the right, and then to the left–they were there in the bushes near the water. Then, as I was walking home, I heard a cardinal sing in the trees nearer my house. Joy!

I was thinking more about the fun wheel I created the other day. I put “Walk” as something to do under the element of fire, but really, my morning walks include all the elements. Fire is for the movement of my body, and sometimes, the bright sun rising.  But I almost always walk to the brook–which is water.  And I am connecting to the trees and the land and sometimes little animals–which is earth. Hearing the songs of birds, breathing in the invigorating air, well that is air.

Sometimes the walk feels like a chore–getting out there in the cold–it’s exercise, you know, good for me, I should do it, etc.  And my usual definition of fun is something I don’t have to do–no “shoulds.” But often, even usually, once I get out there, a walk is a doorway into moments of delight, moments like seeing the cardinals today, or finding turkeys in the street, or sometimes near the brook, catching a glimpse of a fox or a raccoon. Moments of surprise and moments of joy.

What might you do today to open a doorway into possibility, into moments of joy?