Where are the birds?

Bird Feeder no birds

We have always had birds in our back yard in the winter, coming to our feeder, or rooting around on the ground. But this year, we’ve seen almost none at all. We didn’t fill the feeder over the summer–but many birds visited during that time, in the orchard and in the nearby trees and all over the place. So we expected that filling it up again would bring the usual winter birds. But I can count on one hand the birds I’ve seen. And no cardinals.

In trying to comprehend this, I noticed that only one other thing has changed. The lot behind our neighbor’s house–not visible in this photo–had been overgrown with bittersweet, and then the vines took down part of a big maple tree. Plus Margy had been cutting a lot of the invasive bittersweet.  So that field has less tree and vine cover, which some birds may have preferred.  More ominously, I’ve read that in North America the total number of birds has declined by 25% in the last fifty years.  Is it finally affecting our own yard?

I have seen a few birds here and there on my walk in the neighborhood, and there have been a few in the crabapples in the front yard. But despite our full feeder, plus a thistle feeder, and even a suet cake, no one is around.  It seems so strange and empty.  Have you noticed fewer birds where you live?

All of this got me thinking sadly about extinction, and I happened to see a documentary about the early Neanderthal humans, who lived in Europe and Asia for several hundred thousand years, before becoming extinct about 40,000 years ago. According to the DNA testing company “23 and Me”, all modern humans, except for those from sub-Saharan Africa, have between 1 and 4 % Neanderthal DNA, from interbreeding of the two related species. So the Neanderthals can be counted among my ancestors too. By the way, they were much smarter and more cultured than the myths that were taught about them early on.

There are a lot of theories about why they went extinct. But this particular documentary, Neanderthal Apocalypse, made the hypothesis that one factor was the eruption of a super-volcano near present day Naples 39,000 years ago. However that might have effected the Neanderthals, I found myself more focused on what it might do to us today. If a super-volcano were to erupt in our time, ash and debris would cover miles and miles of land, and kill all vegetation, crops, and the animals who rely on them (including us.)  Ashes and toxic gases would rise up into the upper atmosphere and block out sunlight, plunging a large portion of the earth into a volcanic winter. Civilization over.

Now this might be a depressing thing to think about, but for some reason, I didn’t feel depressed. Instead, I was reminded of how very powerful the Earth really is.  We are so small, and so reliant on all of the Earth’s interwoven life.  So, in a funny way, I felt less afraid. We humans know some things, and the activity of our species is causing damage to the climate, and wreaking havoc everywhere. But so much is beyond our control and even our understanding. It is profoundly humbling and reminds me to be grateful for how the earth provides everything we need.

So I come round to this Winter Solstice holiday, today, and say thanks to the Earth for birthing us, for feeding us, for fire that warms us in winter, for so much beauty that inspires our lives.  And I say a prayer for the birds: please come back to once again feast with us in this little patch of land we call home.

 

Conflicting Survival Strategies in early Quebec

(More reflections on colonization in Quebec, jumping off from the book Helene’s World.)  Author Susan McNelley writes:

Summer days for the French settlers were long and filled with hard work. This was not the case for the indigenous people. Life was much less demanding in the summer. Fish, fowl, and small game were readily available in the river and nearby forest. The indigenous peoples along the St. Lawrence didn’t worry about storing food to last the winter. To the consternation of their French neighbors, the natives spent much of their time sleeping and socializing with their friends. There were games, story-telling, feasting and opportunities for young people to meet and court.  Summer was a time of replenishment and fortification for the rigors of winter.

A common factor for both Montagnais/Innu people and French settlers in early Quebec was surviving the long hard winter.  But they had quite different strategies for doing that. The French worked very hard in the summer to clear fields, and plant and harvest crops. Bread was their primary food. They were agricultural people, and in the early years were also reliant on ships arriving in summer with new supplies, to replenish their stores of wine and oil and spices and grains. They preserved food and stored it for surviving the long winter. Winter included much less activity, so in some ways it was an easier time, but they were on their own, and their strategy for survival was to carefully ration what food they had among the people in their families.

For the Montagnais, on the other hand, summer was the easy time–they camped by the river, fished & hunted, gathered fruits and nuts, feasted and celebrated with each other, and generally felt a sense of abundance in all sorts of food. As the fall came, they caught and dried eel, and then they left the summer encampment and began to hunt small game in the nearby woods. In winter, they traveled in small family groups into the interior, where they relied on heavy snow cover to slow down the big game: moose, caribou, deer, and bear. When they were successful in the hunt, they shared their feast with nearby families.

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Susan McNelley describes a winter incident recounted by Champlain when some of the Montagnais/Innu came to the early French settlement, because they were starving, and asked for food.

Although the French did try to be generous, they rationed the distribution of provisions to the aborigines out of necessity. Otherwise, the food would not have lasted a month.

The French believed that the Innu were irresponsible because they didn’t store food, and because when they acquired food in the hunt, they ate all of it, or shared with their neighbors.  But if you are traveling to follow big game, it wouldn’t be practical to carry large quantities of preserved food.  It would be practical to share the abundance that came sporadically depending on who had a good hunt.  Reading between the lines of this incident, I could imagine the Innu noticing that the French had food while they had none, and expecting, according to their own values, that of course the French would be willing to share with them. Their strategy for survival was sharing what became available, as it became available. The French strategy was about storing up and rationing.

And isn’t that just like capitalism, really, and how our modern mainstream society works.  “Save what you don’t need now, to use later. Try to accumulate as much as possible. That is the definition of wealth.”  (But perhaps rampant consumerism and planned obsolescence have superseded that model too.  Some things to think about.)

I feel the pressure of this time of year to preserve what we can from our garden, small as it is–making pesto from basil and chives and parsley, freezing kale, drying herbs–in our own way getting ready for the long Maine winters. We certainly wouldn’t know how to survive on our own, without being able to go to the Food Coop or grocery store. So perhaps both the French settlers and the Innu had better survival skills than we have now.Kale

 

Winter Kale

winter kaleI just have to say it once more:  kale is amazing! I picked this kale yesterday morning, leaves frozen on the stalk, snow on the ground.  I had already picked most of the kale–just leaving a few tiny leaves that didn’t seem big enough for anything.  But they must have grown a little in the meager sunlight and freezing snowy weather we’ve been having the last two weeks of November.  I don’t know how they do it, but that is why they are so amazing.  The plant just isn’t willing to succumb to the freeze/thaw weather that has killed off most of the other plants.  So when I was walking through the winter orchard, I found several small frozen leaves, broke them off, and cooked them up for breakfast–they taste great!

Kale in snow

Spring Arrives in Maine

Spring Arrives in MaineToday is the first day of spring everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere.  What it looks like in my neighborhood is huge piles of snow and a really cold morning, but with a bright sun leading us into a clear day.

Margy and I hosted an Equinox ritual at our house last night.  It was a small group of five this time, and most of us were weary from the winter, so our ritual was simple and low key.  We named the friends who had joined us for Solstice and Imbolc, and sent blessings to all of them.  (You know who you are!)  We shared thoughts and readings about our lives and about winter and spring.  We talked about what we wanted to let go from the winter season, and what intentions we wanted to carry into this new season.

I thought about the next several weeks until Mayday.  The snow will disappear, and the ground thaw, and begin to fill with green.  Our plants will arrive from Fedco:  an apple tree, a peach tree, two blueberry bushes, three hazelnut bushes, a mulberry tree, a licorice plant, 25 asparagus plants, and 3 golden seal plants.  By Mayday, I hope they will be in the ground.  Our friends volunteered to help with the planting.

I remember when we first imagined this new home, when we began to lay out our intentions to find greener housing in the summer of 2015.  Our intentions included creating a permaculture garden, and having space in our living room for people to gather.  And here we are!  Living those dreams into reality.  The magic of deeply felt intentions can be surprisingly powerful.

Winter Trees

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I got off to a slow start today, and waited until afternoon to take a walk, after the sun came out.  The bright light and shadows were playing over the cherry trees we planted last spring.  (Further back are the stakes around the raspberries.) I feel such protective tenderness toward these trees.  They are so little still.  There is no way to tell how they are surviving the ups and downs of winter.  We’ve had long bitter freezes, thaws, ice, snow storms… but so far, no deer nibbling.  Sleep well little ones! Another storm is on the way for tomorrow.