Can I Forgive the Squirrels?

Squirrel relaxed and resting on the railing of our deck

This morning, I watched out my window as a squirrel climbed into the branches of the peach tree, going up and down several branches until she or he stopped at a bagged peach. She nibbled through the small branch it hung from, cutting the branch right off. I could see the leaves and twigs fall to the ground, even though the squirrel was hidden by other branches. Then, she took the unripe peach in her mouth–still in the bag–and carried it down and away from the orchard to some other roosting post in another tree. I didn’t yell or bang on the screen or try to stop her, as I have done on other mornings, because all the peaches have already been destroyed.

Over the last couple weeks, I had to remove over twenty of the bagged peaches after birds or squirrels left bite marks and the fruit had dropped off its stem, to the bottom of the bag. Some of the peaches had only a c-shaped mark that made me wonder about curculio. A couple seemed untouched. But I had seen the squirrels in the trees going after them. Then, a couple days ago I discovered that virtually every peach in a little protective bag had dropped to the bottom of the bag, and all of the peaches that I hadn’t bagged had disappeared completely. The peaches were all still green and hard, nowhere near ripe. I had just read about people using a spray made with peppermint oil and cinnamon sticks to deter squirrels, and was about to try it, when I discovered there were no peaches left to save.

Green peach with a bite missing, dropped to the bottom of a mesh bag, with another nearby.

I’ve been grieving the last few days. I put so much effort into this peach tree all through the spring and summer. Pruning it carefully. Six holistic sprays with beneficial nutrients. Three “Surround” kaolin clay sprays. Picking off leaves with peach-leaf-curl one by one. I was so hopeful when hundreds of little peach-lets started growing! I thinned the peaches so that none was too close to another. I put 80 little protective mesh bags on individual peaches. I even bought toy snakes and an owl to try to scare off the birds and squirrels. None of it stopped them. I had gotten only 3 cherries from the cherry trees, but the peaches seemed to be the saving grace for the little orchard I have been tending so carefully. Last year Margy and I had been able to eat only one ripe peach–and it tasted so good. So this year, I tried all the things to care for and protect them, imagining that taste in my mouth. And now they are gone.

I’ve also felt deeply shaken in my capacity as a permaculture gardener. Here is this little food forest with 2 cherry trees, one peach tree, and two baby apples. And no food. (Well–the raspberries did fine–but I already knew how to tend raspberries. And there were a few blueberries on our young plants. We thought we might get some hazelnuts but the squirrels also grabbed those before they were even close to ripe.) I do come away with a deep respect for organic gardeners and farmers.

But I have been harboring much anger and hate in my soul for these squirrels, and I feel very troubled about that. The original purpose of tending this land–this small place on the earth–was about finding our way home to earth community. Putting into practice the desire for healing the broken relationship between our society and the natural world. But when I try to grow food, so many critters become my enemies. Well, they probably don’t share the enmity–they probably think I run a fabulous restaurant. But meanwhile, I am watching them and hating them.

This morning, after the squirrel ran away with the bagged peach, another squirrel started playing with a stick on the path in the orchard. Literally playing–rolling over and over, turning the stick this way and that, chewing on it, then rolling over again. In a very cute way.

There is a lesson in this, I am sure. So I am trying to grieve, to let go, to open my heart. But I am still not sure I know how to forgive the squirrels. I am trying to listen to the deeper lessons.

To Be Whole We Must Experience the Broken

Sun in branches DSC01449If I believe that all people, and all beings are connected, then in order to be whole, I must open my heart to that larger whole, to the connections between all people and all beings. However, when I open to the whole, I experience more profoundly its brokenness, the ways we hurt each other and our earth, the ways we are not in harmony. It is tempting to retreat, to draw a circle around myself to try to achieve some sort of individual harmony and balance—but that would cut me off, into the brokenness of separation.

I realize in this tension that there can be no individual salvation. If we want to heal ourselves, we must be healers of our world. If we want to heal our world, we must be connected to all the broken people. We must embrace the broken to heal the broken. Relationship is at the heart of everything. So, to be whole is to experience the broken. To be whole is to be broken.

It might be too much to bear. How do we find joy in the midst of it? Always, I remember the sun. The sun shining on each being, the sun the source of all life on earth. When I feel the sun warming my face, I realize that I am connected to the sun. Each moment of connection can be a source of joy. Each moment of connection rings true to our deepest purpose. To be connected to Mystery, to each other, to the earth, awakens joy.

And the truth is, even our brokenness, our limitations, can become doorways into connection. We are all incomplete without each other. We each have just one small piece of the puzzle. Alone, all we see are jagged edges and random colors… and maybe all together we see just a jumbled pile of jagged pieces—but sometimes we catch a glimpse of the puzzle box cover—what we might become all together. That glimpse can fill us with joy. And sometimes, we find another piece that fits together with our own jagged edge. We have to find our joy in each moment of connection.

Our jagged edges teach us that we need each other. When I reach the limits of my knowledge or ability, it is a gift to reach out to another person, whose knowledge and ability might balance my own. All returning soldiers from the battlefield need the tenderness of others to find self-forgiveness. One day, when I was weary and sad about my recurring impulse to tell my partner what to do, my partner said, “I know you can be controlling sometime, but I love you just the way you are.”

We must embrace the jagged edges, embrace the broken pieces. Forgive and be forgiven. Ask for help. This is the path to wholeness. The sun shines down on all of us, each day, whether cloudy or clear, making no distinction between the good and the bad. May we return to the great circle of life, may we hold each other and all beings tenderly, for we are one.

The Sun Shines on All

Reconciliation and forgiveness require us to seek out those whom we have hurt, or who have hurt us, to make things whole again. We must mend the threads of connection between ourselves and other people, between ourselves and the earth, between ourselves and the Mystery of life.

This is not easy work. It is not just big societal evils that we face. We also face the everyday betrayals and regrets. Self-forgiveness may be the hardest of all. We face the perennial faults that are unique to us, yet common to so many. We mean to be kind, but find ourselves cranky and rude instead. We mean to be supportive to a friend or family member, but feel judgmental instead. We mean to be honest, but tell little lies to avoid upsetting someone. We mean to be generous, but feel greedy about our pleasures.

Can I forgive myself the belief that I am right when I argue with my neighbor? Can you forgive yourself the angry words shouted at your child as you are trying to get out of the house to make it to school or work on time? Can we forgive ourselves the end of a relationship with a partner or spouse? Can I forgive myself for needing help when I don’t know how to face a situation on my own?

Sun and Snow DSC06016What helps me to forgive is to remember the sun. The sun shines down on all of us, each day, making no distinction between the good and the bad, making no distinction between when I am in tune with all my values, or when I fail. Its light is constant, never changing because of virtue or vice, but merely following the rhythm of the seasons and lighting up the blue sky or the gray clouds. Its light keeps shining, giving life to all creatures. When I remember that I am accepted as part of the circle of life, it seems easier to open my heart to forgive myself.

And if I am a part of the circle of life, so is everyone else. If I believe that all people, and all beings are connected, then in order to be whole, I must open my heart to that larger whole, to the connections between all people and all beings. This is the heart of spiritual practice—to open our hearts to the larger whole of which we are a part.

How can we heal when we fail our ideals?

Gnarled Apple Tree DSC01742During the time when I was struggling with our failure to truly live our ideals, I read the novel, March, by Geraldine Brooks. The story is centered on the absent father figure, Mr. March, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and draws on the actual life story of her father, Bronson Alcott. Mr. March has gone off to be a chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War. He is passionately opposed to slavery. The whole family has been involved in the underground railroad, and Mr. March had lost most of his fortune supporting the work of abolitionists. So it seems unconscionable not also to support the military effort to free the slaves. He is following his highest ideals.

But Mr. March’s actual experience as a chaplain in the war proves profoundly disillusioning. The Union soldiers, his heroes, are often cruel to each other and to the former slaves who seek refuge. Many battles are ill-planned and disastrous, with horrific loss of life and injury and disease. Finding himself in a deadly situation, he lacks the courage to give up his own life to save the life of one of the slaves he has been teaching to read. When he tries to follow the abductors and help to save the other captured slaves, the mission ultimately fails, despite his efforts. Eventually, he succumbs to fever and is sent to a Union hospital, a broken and despairing man.

How do any of us heal from the despair that evil or failure can bring to our hearts? Sometimes we try to isolate ourselves from what is broken—to separate the good from the bad. For our ecological values, this might mean we decide to build our own zero-carbon home off the grid, grow all our own food, and stop participating in the larger society. In some religious traditions, it takes the form of identifying sinners and banishing them from the community of the holy. For others, it may be more subtle: we may be tempted to connect only with people with whom we agree, who share our values and ideals, and stop relating to those who seem to us, “unenlightened.” We imagine ourselves on the right side of a very great conflict.

But it is not so simple as that. Mr. March found that the people on the “right” side of the civil war were also broken, that he himself failed to live up to his own high ideals. How can we heal from the wounds of self-betrayal?

Near the end of the Civil War, after securing the freedom of the slaves, Abraham Lincoln reached out to the whole nation, north and south, to try to bring people back together into one community. His second inaugural address closed with these words for healing:

With malice toward none; with charity for all;
with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,
let us strive on to finish the work we are in;
to bind up the nation’s wounds;
to care for him who shall have borne the battle,
and for his widow and his orphan…
to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace
among ourselves and with all nations.

Our brokenness tears us apart, but our healing must bring all of us together. Mr. March slowly finds his healing through the love of the people who care for him, just as he is. Marmee comes to him at the military hospital, and eventually he returns to his family, chastened, fragile, not whole yet, but able to be united to those familiar little women, his daughters.

Did the nation take to heart Lincoln’s words? A short time later, he was assassinated. Perhaps we are still living with the brokenness in our nation that erupted in the civil war. The divides between black and white, between south and north, between liberal and conservative, between rich and poor, still undermine our capacity to live up to our country’s ideals. I don’t have an answer to fix it.

But I believe that all people and all beings are connected, that the earth is a whole. That belief shapes how I can imagine a way forward. The way forward is always rooted in forgiveness. Forgiveness for the failures we see all around us, the ways that others betray the ideals we hold dear, and hurt and wound each other. And forgiveness for our selves, when we too are unable to live up to our values and ideals, which happens almost every day. Only when we can forgive, can we return to the dreams we hold, can we find wholeness, and receive a new start.

Forgiving the Broken

Apple Tree Fall DSC01738Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.
                                                                                           Louise Erdrich

One day, caught in the gap between my ideals for living in harmony with the earth and what I am actually able to do, I went outside to share my sorrow with the trees and the green earth. I want human society to be better than it is—I want there to be a path forward that is not so lonely and hard, so expensive and out of reach. I was in a painful, broken place. I sat down on a blanket on the ground, and looked to the four sacred elements of the earth for help; the earth, the air, the fire, the water. They were kinder than I expected.

The Earth said, “Forgive the people of your society. Don’t hate your own kind. They didn’t know the oil would run out. They were creating what seemed to be good with all this abundance. It’s not evil to use oil. It is evil to fight wars and oppress workers and sully the waters in your attempts to keep it and secure it.”

The Air reminded me that the songs of birds can dispel sadness, and awaken joy and beauty.

The Fire surrounded me with the warmth of love, and said these energy issues can only be resolved through your connection to the sun. All of our energy comes from the sun.

The Water said, “Weep when you are sad. Don’t always try to fix it.” And so I eventually came to a place of peace.

One of my ecological dreams is a “net-zero carbon” home that generates more energy than it needs. I’ve heard about these homes and the architects that are designing them. That would be ideal. But in order to be alive in this world, I need to forgive the messiness of what is, as it is now. I need to accept that human beings as a species do not live in harmony with the earth right now. We are broken off.

I am able to accept our brokenness when I feel the Sun shining down on us despite it all. When I feel the water claiming us as her own, the flowers blooming, the food growing, the birds singing. The beauty of this earth teaches me that there is something very good even in the midst of our brokenness. The next day, the newspaper had a story about green homes in New England. If I can expand my perspective, I can be joyful that some people are creating zero-carbon homes, that something is awakening among human beings that will lead to greater wholeness with the earth. I feel hopeful when I learn that the United Kingdom has a goal of all new constructed homes being zero-carbon homes by 2016.Apple DSC01750

Louise Erdrich quote from The Painted Drum, p. 274.