Climate Catastrophe in Disguise

Wild pansy purple and yellow, blooming in December

A climate catastrophe sometimes shows up as the fragile beauty of a wild pansy blooming in mid-December in Maine. I took a photo this morning, before the snow arrived this afternoon, our likely first plowable snow of the season. Very late for us. The unseasonably warm days feel bright and pleasant, nothing dangerous. But I am thinking of the deadly storms that blasted through the midwest last week, tornadoes killing dozens of people in an unprecedented long trail of destruction. I am thinking of giant raging wildfires in the west, and monster hurricanes in the Atlantic. Sometimes the change feels like nothing much at all, unless I stretch my eyes to take in the bigger picture.

We arrived at our current house and yard six years ago after a 4 month search to find greener housing. We were able to downsize, to add insulation, to cover the south facing roof with solar panels, to install energy efficient heat pumps, to create a garden. Our actions fit the best choices we could make at that time, to align with our love for the earth and all her creatures. In that, they were like a prayer, like a magical spell to further the possibilities of earth community based in mutual respect. On a spiritual level, I have to hope that our small choices can ripple out for good.

But these individual actions don’t make a dent in the greater physical scheme of things. The giant polluters of greenhouse gases continue to ignore the limits of earth to push for expanding profits. We, as a planet, have already exceeded the hopeful atmospheric carbon dioxide goals of environmental organizations like 350.org. Now we’re at 415 parts per million. We’re on the way to unmitigated disasters that we can no longer walk our way back from. Scientists can make some predictions, but no one really knows how the increase in global temperature will play out in the next years and decades.

From where I sit, I can feel overwhelmed and helpless. I don’t have the energy to be out in the streets anymore, an activist like in my younger days. I don’t have the money to donate to activist organizations like I used to when I was working. Many activists I respect talk about the coming collapse of economies and civilizations, even within the next decade. I don’t imagine that I have the physical capacity to survive such a collapse, given my age and health. So what is there to do?

What helps is to recognize my limitations, to take in the very smallness of my being. What helps is to see young activists in the street, sharing their anger and love with loud voices. What helps is to remember that Indigenous people the world over have already experienced the collapse of their economies and civilizations. Pay attention to their advice. What helps is to recognize the smallness of my being, and yet remember how I am interwoven with the ancestors and all the interrelated beings of earth. What helps is to keep on loving the trees and birds and frogs and even the squirrels of this small place we are lucky to share with them. What helps is to offer bird seed as a prayer in the morning. What helps is to imagine the unimaginable largeness of the Earth, our mother, and her mysterious powers that we cannot measure or predict.

Our pond, frozen, with light snow cover.

All Hallow’s Eve/Samhain

Fresh cedar sprigs under a pair of cardinals welcome sign on our white front door.

Today we welcome the ancestors with special foods, with herbal incense, and with a fire in our fire circle! For herbal incense I use cedar–I’ll use a dried bundle I made before, and burn it in our fire circle. Cedar was widely used by my Innu ancestors, and so I think their spirits will especially appreciate it. We also have a cedar tree right on the edge of our own yard, so I ask the cedar tree for permission to cut some sprigs to make more cedar bundles, and also to put cedar on our front and back doors for protection from harm, and welcome to benevolent spirits.

The special food I made is bannock, a traditional Innu bread, called ińnu-pakueshikan, which they adapted from the Scottish. Since I can’t eat wheat bread, I used 1/2 oatmeal flour (which is actually what the Scottish used) and 1/2 almond flour. Here is my recipe, adapted from several I found online. It is a very simple bread with many variations. Mix all ingredients together.

  • 1 1/2 cup oat flour (made in a blender from GF rolled oats)
  • 1 1/2 cup almond flour
  • 1 Tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon salt
  • 1 1/3 cup water (this might have been more than I needed)
  • 1 cup frozen blueberries.

I put it in a greased skillet, and let it bake in a 375 degree oven for 55 minutes. After about 40 minutes, I cut it in four, and turned the sections over in the pan. A small dish is all set to go outside for the spirits, for when we have our fire. It is crusty on the outside, and a bit mushy on the inside. Tasty with butter.

Blueberry bannock in cast iron pan, cut.

I have been continuing my search for my Innu ancestor Marie Madeleine’s family. Lately this has been by hunting for as many details as I can about Marie Madeleine Katshisheskueit, which means “hard-working-woman”, who was born 11/11/1795, and baptised in Portneuf 6/28/1796. I was finally able to see an actual image of her baptism record, and discovered her actual parents, Jean-Pierre Utshinitsiu (Utshinishkushu=whirlpool?) and Veronique Kaskanieshtshist. (Kashkanatshish=rock ptarmigan) (The earlier source had directed me to another set of parents entirely.) So I began hunting for the rest of their family and found a few more generations, and many cousins.

This was a relief to me because I also discovered that Marie Madeleine Katshisheskueit’s mother died in 1797, when she was only two years old. I was filled with grief for this toddler, and wondered how she would be able to survive such a loss. Then I remembered that my Passamaquoddy teacher Roger Paul said that the whole community always cared for all the children. They didn’t divide into small nuclear families, but rather in extended families. I saw that her godmother, Marie Madeleine Iskuamiskuskueu, was the cousin of her father (and also the mother of another Marie Madeleine that is not my ancestor). So she was likely taken care of and loved by all these relatives.

I haven’t been able to find other records of her life after 1800, so far, which means there is nothing to rule her out. It might mean that she disappeared somewhere, or it might possibly mean that she is my own ancestor, showing up in 1830 without any surname or Innu name that would clarify her identity to me. The hunt continues, only now I am looking at her family members, to get a picture of their relatedness.

Finally, another update: I had been wondering what to do about the frogs in the pond, as winter approaches. Well, it turns out they are doing it for themselves. The last time we saw frogs in the pond was a week ago, and just two small ones remaining. We don’t know where they went, but they must know how to take care of themselves, perhaps find some mud to bury in, or someplace protected for the winter. Our pond is probably too shallow, with too little mud for that purpose, I assume. So the pond is getting colder, and the frogs are gone. Hopefully, we’ll see them again in the spring.

May the blessings of this season be with you, may your ancestors bring you blessings when you open your heart to them, and may we survive the coming cold with grace and peace! Blessed Samhain! Now I’m going outside to the fire circle.

Two small frogs on a rock near iris stalks, with fallen leaves in the water.

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.

The Little Pond

In our permaculture design for our land from 2017, we included a little pond, about 11 by 12 feet round. Every so often, I would dig in it a bit, and find a place to put that soil. Finding a spot for what is dug up is actually a major issue in digging a pond. Some of the topsoil made its way into what is now a bed for blueberries. But mostly, I didn’t have the energy to take on another big project.

The future pond, as it looked with what I dug out before this year.

However, this spring I felt a burst of energy each time I went into the yard, and I felt the future pond calling to me! So I read once again Robert Pavlis’s book Building Natural Ponds, and made a list of everything I would need. I talked it over with Margy. The biggest expense is buying a pond liner, recommended 45 mil EPDM rubber. For our size pond, with the deepest part 3 feet deep, we’d need a 20 by 20 foot liner. (Formula: width plus 2x depth plus 2 feet for edge, times length plus 2x depth plus 2 feet.) Other needs include old carpet strips to lay over the ground under the liner, to protect against roots and rocks–and we’ve got bittersweet roots, so this might be essential. It will need lots of stones to line the planting shelves and the edges, and then a number of pond plants, to serve to clean the water, and of course to look beautiful. This kind of natural pond does not have any mechanical filters–just plants. So 1/2 to 1/3 of the pond is made up of planting “shelves” that are only about 8-12 inches deep.

Why include a pond? One reason is that it brings more water into the landscape. For some sites, ponds are a way to store water, but that won’t be as big a need for our site. We have rain barrels for that. We can use water from the rain barrels to fill the pond, and refill as needed. For us, a pond will mostly be for wildlife, like frogs and birds. We are told that if you build it, the frogs will come. And for us, another reason is to be able to look at the beauty of the water and water plants, when we are sitting in the yard. What a good reminder of the sacredness of water.

The biggest amount of work to make the pond is the digging. But we finally figured out a place to put the dirt. In the back corner of our yard, some former resident dumped a pile of concrete and metal demolition junk. We’d thought about trying to haul it away, but that would be a huge job, and cost money to take away. Most years, it has been covered with wild raspberries that don’t bear any fruit because it is too shady. This spring, I pulled out much of the raspberries and some invasives, and got a good look at the junk underneath. Concrete, metal, demolition debris.

Old demolition debris in the back of the yard.

So this is where we will put the sandy under-soil I dig from the pond. Then I’ll put cardboard over the resulting mound (to rein in the invasives), put down some compost and other soil on top of the cardboard, and then plant some shade loving plants on the mound. Another project.

A few days ago, I started an overflow spillway, an area on the edge of the pond that is 4 inches lower, so if the pond gets too full, the water has a place to go. I figured out, from the book, that it didn’t have to go very far, maybe 8 feet away or so, where the water could sink into our sandy soil. Then, the last few days, I have been slowly digging out the first layer, to the depth of the planting shelves. Here is how much I was able to finish by today.

It’s hard to tell that the depth of the pond is now about 1 foot, except for the part in the center that I didn’t finish to that level yet.

I shovel out the dirt into a wheelbarrow, using a level to try to keep the pond surface level–which will be important–then I bring that dirt over to the demolition pile, and dump it there. It doesn’t actually look like that much, but I hauled away several wheelbarrows full just in the last couple days. I don’t know what the former residents did with this part of the yard, but it seems like there are some ashes and charcoal buried in the future pond, along with a very rusty sandy soil. Oh, and here is what the junk corner looks like now.

Junk pile beginning to disappear under dirt piles.

So, yesterday, I ordered a pond liner. I was able to find a liner, with an underlayer, for $438. I also posted on “buy nothing” and “freecycle” pages requesting old carpet strips. I’ll keep you updated. This is going to happen!