Looking On

Three small frogs perched on rocks next to the pond in morning sun.

Lately, my life is small, as if I am looking on to life happening nearby, just like these frogs looking out over the edge of the pond. So many big things going on in the world, much frightening, some inspiring, but all of it feels somehow at a distance. I haven’t had a lot of words the past couple weeks.

But there was something I learned about that I wanted to mention here. It relates to my essay, on this site, called “Wanting to Be Indian.” I first wrote and published it back in 1995. I’ve learned a lot since then, and adapted the essay as I did. When I first wrote it, I described the history of my ancestry using the word “Metis.” I had no understanding of what that word meant in a Canadian context. I just had seen it in a French book about my ancestors, meaning of mixed ancestry, white and Innu. I thought maybe it might apply to me. But as I began to learn more, I stopped using that word, because historically it refers to the people in western Canada who have been a distinct Metis community for a long time. So I thought perhaps that was that. (Now I describe myself as white, with a distant Innu ancestor, my third great grandmother Marie Madeleine.)

But more recently, in the last year and especially this past week, I’ve been doing a lot more reading about the current situation in Quebec and the Maritime provinces. I have been horrified to learn about white people there claiming a “Metis” identity, in order to fight against the indigenous rights of Innu and other Native peoples. I found a website called Race Shifting, a “resource for people who are concerned with or want to find out more about the rise of the so-called “Eastern Metis” in the eastern provinces (Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) and in New England (Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine).”

Many of these so-called “Metis” organizations in Quebec have roots in white supremacist organizations, trying to impede the work that the government of Canada and Quebec were doing with Innu communities to negotiate agreements for their government-to-government relationships. (Some resources are in French, like the article about these negotiations toward Innu agreements. But I was able to read it with the help of Google translate.) The Innu never signed a treaty or ceded their land in the days of early colonization up through the end of the 20th century. Just after the turn of the century, when they were beginning to set parameters for these agreement, in public hearings there was resistance from some white people, especially those living near Saguenay and Sept-Iles. And then the tactics of those white people changed: they created “Metis” organizations, based sometimes on a very distant Indigenous ancestor (17th century), and often none at all. They tried to claim their own “Indigenous rights.”

I’ve written briefly about this issue before, but this time I saw that one of the Saguenay historians who is supporting this effort is someone who had done research on one of my ancestors, whose article I had requested and received in an email. That felt creepy. It made me wonder if probably a lot of these people are distant relatives of mine–I mean, that is sort of true for all French Canadians–we really are all related. But Saguenay is the region my great grandmother came from. Sometimes I hate being white. And certainly it was from my own experience that I wrote about the problems of white people wanting to be Indian. But this is something even deeper and more sinister–to claim Indigeneity to fight against Indigenous communities?

It’s hard to understand all these phenomena from outside of Quebec, from outside of Canada. And I don’t have a voice in that setting–I don’t even speak the language. Yet I understand enough to feel so sad. And even here in New England, I am looking on from the sidelines. I certainly have no role in identity policing. But it seems somehow important to try to understand it all, and important to support, in whatever small ways I can, the sovereignty struggles of Wabanaki peoples in Maine. This is where I am.

And now, for just a little beauty to counter the ugliness of racism, here are three more green frogs from our pond. (And the irony is not lost on me–frogs were used prejudicially against the French, and more recently a cartoon frog has been co-opted by white supremacists.) But these frogs are simply themselves.

Three frogs on rocks, and their reflections in the water of the pond.

Rain, lilies, and tiny frogs

White water lily blooming in pond.

We finally got two solid rain storms this past week after a long drought. What a relief! And now four very tiny frogs have appeared in the pond. (I don’t know what happened to the one we had before that was a little bigger.) A few days ago, this new water lily flower started blooming, and today when I went out to see it, it had disappeared. But I found three of the tiny frogs perched on lily pads! The fourth was on the other side of the pond on a rock. I didn’t look too closely under the water to investigate the missing flower, so as not to scare the frogs.

But slowly I sat down near the edge of the pond and watched for a while. A dragonfly came and perched on blue flag iris leaves. The frogs stayed on their pads.

Tiny frog on a lily pad
Second tiny frog on another lily pad

Taking close-up photos makes the frogs appear larger than they really are. They are only about an inch long nose to backside. I wonder if maybe it was the rain that enabled these small frogs to travel from some other place to our little pond? I feel refreshed by the rain too. Cool nights with windows open, listening to the dark sounds. Lovely.

“Your body is also a planet”

Catbird in the mulberry tree-a dark silhouette amid green leaves and berries

Two weeks ago, I had terrible cramping in my lower abdomen. Over a few days, it gradually localized to the lower left of my abdomen, particularly when I had to poop. My medical practitioner did some blood tests, and found high inflammation, but not infection, and scheduled a CT scan. They determined that I was having a bout of diverticulitis, which, even as it was diagnosed, thankfully began to ease up. It was scary and discouraging to have yet another illness keep me down for over a week, and add to the complications I already have with eating food. A little research showed that 50% of people over 60 in the US deal with this disease. We must have a cultural taboo against talking about it, because I was very surprised to realize it was that common.

After all that, I explored some herbal options for healing, and discovered that licorice root is one of the recommended herbs–which I have already been using for energy issues. This spring I harvested and dried some from the plant in our yard that I had planted a few years ago. (I use much more than that in a year, but it is exciting to be starting to harvest it here.) I have been drinking tea made by boiling a couple tablespoons of the root in a quart of water.

Dried licorice root-first harvest

Because of all this, I was feeling discouraged, and then I remembered the challenging wise words of Indigenous writer Paula Gunn Allen, in an excerpt from “The Woman I Love Is a Planet; The Planet I Love Is a Tree,” from her book, Off the Reservation

“Our physicality—which always and everywhere includes our spirituality, mentality, emotionality, social institutions, and processes—is a microform of all physicality. Each of us reflects, in our attitudes toward our body and the bodies of other planetary creatures and plants, our inner attitude toward the planet. And, as we believe, so we are. A society that believes that the body is somehow diseased, painful, sinful, or wrong, a people that spends its time trying to deny the body’s needs, aims, goals, and processes—whether these be called health or disease—is going to misunderstand the nature of its existence and of the planet’s and is going to create social institutions out of those body-denying attitudes that wreak destruction not only on human, plant, and other creaturely bodies but on the body of the Earth herself….

“Being good, holy, and/or politically responsible means being able to accept whatever life brings—and that includes just about everything you usually think of as unacceptable, like disease, death, and violence. Walking in balance, in harmony, and in a sacred manner requires staying in your body, accepting its discomforts, decayings, witherings, and blossomings and respecting them. Your body is also a planet, replete with creatures that live in and on it. Walking in balance requires knowing that living and dying are two beings, gifts of our mother, the Earth, and honoring her ways does not mean cheating her of your flesh, your pain, your joy, your sensuality, your desires, your frustrations, your unmet and met needs, your emotions, your life.”

Paula Gunn Allen

It is so easy to identify events in the yard, or in my body, as beautiful or ugly, gifts or challenges, positives or negatives. But coming into a harmonious relationship with all beings of this earth requires letting go of that polarity–not denying the difficulties or pains, but going deeper with my responses. How can I embrace all that life offers, in the yard, and in my body?

We have seen two frogs in the pond, one bold and the other cautious. Yesterday a neighborhood cat was stalking the pond. Today, I only saw the cautious one. Is the bold one gone? The cherries that appeared green in the trees are getting brown spots on them. The cardinal couple seems now to frequent the feeder every day. The robin that abandoned her nest, is back in the nest trying again with new eggs. Today I saw her partner bring her a bite to eat. A dragonfly was dipping her tail in the water, while perched on a lily pad–laying her eggs in the pond. Something took a few leaves off two of my kale plants, but did not destroy the whole plants. Can I begin to see all of it as wholeness, as beauty?

Dragonfly on a lily pad in the pond, dipping her tail in the water.

Healing Times

The last couple weeks have been focused on healing in our household. My partner Margy had knee replacement surgery, and came home to recuperate after a couple days in the hospital. Then, one of our cats, Billie, perhaps from the stress, stopped eating, and had something going on with her liver. So the vet came with some medicines to help her start eating again. I have been the tender of these loved ones, and both are doing well for the moment, but the healing will take some time. I haven’t been able to post on the site lately, being fully occupied with my nurse duties, but today is a quiet day, and I have these few moments to write and share photos.

Billie eating some food!

In the meantime, the yard is unfolding on its own, mostly with our neglect, except for occasional bits of tending, and I have been appreciating its springtime beauty and vitality.

There are two frogs in the pond now, and one day, as I sat watching, one of them was chasing the other one, though not all the way out of the pond. The chased one is more timid, and dove into the bottom. They were both females I believe, so I am not sure what it was all about. But fascinating to watch, and listen to her calls.

Two frogs in the pond, just before the one on the left leapt over, and the one on the right dove under.

Sadly, the robin who has been sitting on the nest on our back porch, finally abandoned the eggs two days ago. She had been on the nest quite a bit, though not always, but they never hatched. I wonder if maybe the location was actually too warm for the eggs. Again, we don’t really know, but it is amazing to observe. We will miss her quiet presence, though I have also seen her in the orchard since then.

Yesterday, a lone turkey came into the orchard on her way to somewhere else. She very politely didn’t eat the broccoli and kale seedlings I just planted this week, but seemed to enjoy the clover.

Turkey in the garden with dandelion seed puffs behind.

I wonder if we might be able to create enough food in our garden, for the people and the animals? (Instead of battling with squirrels and other critters) Today, in a webinar, Letecia Layson described doing that, when creating a garden in a nature reserve. “Plant enough food for the animals and for you.” What a wonderful model for interconnection. There is so much wild plant beauty and food already out there too. For example, wild strawberries have spread over vast areas in the orchard and in the further back yard. We don’t usually eat these strawberries, but leave them for the birds.

Wild strawberry flowers

Way in the back, in the hedgerow which has now filled out in its summer foliage, there is a clump of jack-in-the-pulpit that Margy discovered last year. Since she can’t get back there right now, I looked out for it and was delighted to see that it has returned. I brought her a photo. We also have bleeding hearts, golden seal, and many many ferns along the edge of the “forested” area.

Jack-in-the-pulpit

Margy taught me how to use our battery-powered lawn mower, and I have been able to make some paths at least through the growing-taller grass. Mowing is usually her job. We figured we’d go along with No Mow May, but between ticks and invasive bittersweet, we actually do better to do some mowing. But we always steer around the ferns and other interesting wild plants that come up.

All of this has been a lesson in listening to the land, to the plants, to the animals. I have focused on quiet attention rather than doing projects. There will always be projects to do out there, but this year I am learning to be slow.

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!