Category Archives: Environment

Life Lessons From the Forest

IMG_3222This city girl, just back from my yearly spring visit to the Piney Woods of East Texas and my women’s spirituality group retreat, has been re-reminded of the wisdom and life lessons inherent in connecting with nature and the natural world. It’s helpful to re-appreciate the larger forces; some might call them spiritual that are inherent in the cycles of life of which we are a part. 

The natives call them “teaching trees.” On walks in the woods, elders use them as exhibits and examples of the unfathomable resilience of nature. They encourage children to notice how a tree’s trunks and branches adapt to what the wind, weather, time, and neighboring plants and insects send their way.

A storm breaks off a major parallel branch and the tree’s life force sprouts a new one rising in an upward direction. Not the original intention, but it works out fine. Two trees consistently pushed together by wind and rain eventually intertwine, growing together to become a symbol of how much stronger individuals are when holding on to one another.

Insects borrow underneath the giant trunk’s bark, eventually pulverizing it to saw dust, yet her wounds do not define her. The grandmother tree stands tall, continuing to put out glorious new leaves to the very top of her crowning glory.

Even disasters have positive consequences. The lightning strike that started the fire that took the life of the pecan tree left it standing mute in the center of the evergreens. Now it provides a useful climbing pole for some ground cover as it continually reaches toward the sun. The stepping aside of the larger trees consumed by the flames now provide new seedlings their time to grow in the sun, an opportunity to become the adults in the next generation of full-bodied trees.IMG_3225

In the woods, edible and poison berries grow side-by side leaving birds, butterflies, and humans the task of deciphering and selecting what to ingest that could be helpful and what to leave well enough alone. Ah, how I wish I were better at making that judgment in my personal pedestrian life. Perhaps as I give my prayers feet on my daily morning walks I should be treading more lightly on an earthen trail rather than on the harsh cement sidewalks of the cityscape of my Pittsburgh neighborhood.

Tis the Season

IMG_1067The view from my window this December morning, just after first light, announces a foggy grey day. Streetlights and car headlights from across the river are the only signs of life in the stark landscape. The lawn and shrubbery are the clear winners as a steady rain swells the Allegheny River and thoroughly soaks the ground. The patter of the water hitting the roof and back deck seem to say, “stay where you are today if you can, inside by the fire.”

There is plenty to do inside this time of year, this season of completing 2014’s projects and preparing for the upcoming Christmas/New Year’s family celebrations. There’s the organizing and reorganizing, the putting away and throwing away of clutter accumulated during the way-too-busy fall. And whether it’s my dresser top or my closet’s shoe rack, my computer email box or my iphoto albums, finding a place for everything and putting everything in its place is my least favorite way to spend a day. clutter-affect-life-1

So I linger with my cup of green tea which is no longer warm, and think about the friend who gave me the holiday mug I’m drinking from. She is no longer able to take care of herself, according to a mutual friend who herself died this past year. Living in a memory care facility is one way to avoid the cumbersome, unpleasant tasks of keeping one’s life organized, and no longer living in this dimension is another. But I’m choosing today to clean up my own messes since I still have the capacity to do so, and to look for the beauty in each season’s landscape without comparisons to a more preferred one.



My focus on eggs started with the picture my daughter-in-law sent of my twenty month-old granddaughter, Kyra Joy. She’s outfitted in a pink princess-like dress and tiny white shoes.

kyraShe’s standing in a park in the high desert of California to participate in her first Easter Egg Hunt and she’s holding an empty basket. My daughter-in-law said the event started at 9 am and by 9:05 the older children had collected all the eggs in the field with help from some of the parents. The look on Kyra Joy’s face tells us she hasn’t yet figured out what the game is, let alone how to play it.

Now here is her grandmother in Pittsburgh, searching for eggs in my backyard, which contains the Allegheny River and its shoreline.  Having lived here for nearly ten years I noted this year the sea gulls were exceptionally numerous. They say it was due to the long winter freeze on Lake Erie. But they’re all gone now, except for one lone gull. We noticed him (or her) splashing in the water and swooping back and forth overhead, sometimes landing to perch on the pole at the entrance to the small harbor beside our home. I wondered what was keeping him here after all his buddies had flown home. gooseflight.images

Canadian Geese return each spring to the place of their birth to begin their new families and for a community of twenty-five or so, our waterfront is that home. Each spring we try to see if we can discern where some of the nests might be. Once we identified a nest in the rubble of an old dock, alerted to its presence by a male goose circling slowly in the water near the shoreline. This year a goose is stationed in an odd spot near the road, not necessary a place to hang out, so it’s clear he’s protecting some eggs nearby.  

egg imagesTwo day ago I went for a walk on the river trail just before dusk. I walked further than people usually do unless they’re intent on fishing. I followed the curving trail around to the harbor and was startled to see in plain sight, a large white egg. It sat not in a nest, but amidst twigs and brush, and seemed to be totally unprotected from predators. There were no papa or mama birds around, no geese or that single gull, though this could have been a reason for him to stay behind.

On line research ruled out the gull as the parent because their eggs are speckled. But the size and color of the egg is consistent with the photos I found of goose eggs. I learned the mother doesn’t sit on the eggs until she’s laid them all, usually one a day until she has five. I visited the spot again yesterday and the one egg was still there by itself.

goose-eggs-in nest-in-southern-wisconsinToday I found it again, still alone but this time a large goose circled over my head and landed in the water nearby. I got the message. He wanted to be sure my basket remained empty.

Sacred Water

228976_217256544990433_4221304_nWalking on the beach this morning on the Florida shore of the Gulf of Mexico my husband and I agreed that we’re both water people. For more than twenty years we’d walked the beach on Padre Island, three seasons of the year. Before that, in spring times we’d strolled the edge of a manmade lake in landlocked Lincoln Nebraska. Our present home backs up to the Allegheny River where the geese, ducks, sea gulls and an occasional hawk or eagle, provide entertainment and an education about our place in the web of life. 

 Perhaps we’re all water people, given how crowded the beach communities are this March. Or maybe people are just there to get away from the ice and snow of this particularly challenging winter, or like the students on spring break, needing a respite from the stress of how they usually spend their days. The waters of the bay and gulf provide recreation for many vacationers; fishing, boating, parasailing but I wonder if these people have the same respect for water as the commercial fisherman do. I liked their sign I saw in the fishing village of Cortez: “Don’t teach your trash to swim.”

 13GRANDMOTHERSWe certainly haven’t treated water as the precious element, most essential to life that it is. Between oil spills in the gulf and the elimination of wetlands to hold the rain we’re left with a cycle of draughts and floods in many parts of our country.  And our agricultural industries grow strains of plants that are wasteful of water our communities don’t have. The future for water and we people who need it doesn’t look good unless we change our ways.

 The International Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers who have taken the protection of the earth as their main mission suggest a spiritual solution. As was done with Earth Day many years ago, they are holding a World Water Day on Saturday March 22, 2014. As they go into ceremony they’re asking in the name of the Mother, that we join them in spirit from wherever we are.  Friends of mine will be most likely at the Point where the three rivers come together at Pittsburgh. What place in your community could you honor and bless water on this special Water Day?



Dance of Destruction: A Response

A particular pleasure in the early morning hours, when I visit my family in the high desert of California, is to walk the labyrinth my son and daughter-in-law built in their desert-landscaped backyard. I didn’t see the space before they began what must have been a mammoth construction job – removing debris, pulling weeds,  relocating sand and rocks to create a smooth level surface.  Walking the curvilinear pathways of their version of this ancient ritual space this morning I marveled at the careful and painstakingly precise placement of rocks and solar lights directing my footsteps.


This sense of order may have seemed particularly satisfying to me because a recent event had caused me to become extremely aware of its opposite. Text messages, emails and phone calls throughout the weekend were continually informing me of the details of the vandalism and destruction that had taken place in a condo that a group of us had recently remodeled in northern California. After the verbal descriptions came the images of towel racks ripped from the walls, a floor covered with broken glass, and blood splattered on furniture, fixtures and walls. Just viewing this senseless devastation brought visceral pain to my stomach and a taste of disgust to my mouth. A man who had done repair work on the place told me when he entered the room and saw the scene, he felt as though he had been raped. vandalism.IMG_3121

My mind darts about to understand why someone would do such a thing. What could be gained by destroying what others had so carefully and lovingly assembled? A woman who has stayed in the space while visiting her brother in a nearby hospital described it as a “quiet Oasis,” another guest used the words, “comfortable and elegant.” Where does the impulse come from to replace beauty and order with filth, ugliness and disarray?

Does the drug paraphernalia found at the scene of the crime hold the answer? Just as I walk the ordered space of the labyrinth to access my own inner peace, others use substances to change their brain chemistry in a different direction.  As a culture, we all pay the price for actions taken under the influence of recreational drugs gone awry.

297713_465971046766643_1940077911_nFortunately there are people willing to work to clean up the mess and reconstruct the space back to its previous orderly condition. If we use a wider lens to view the impact of drug use on families, communities and nations, reconstruction teams aren’t going to be short on assignments any time soon. But as one friend texted me in the midst of that day’s discouragement – “Remember, there is not enough darkness to overcome your light.”  


Journey to a Shrinking Frontier

A trip to the Alaskan Glaciers is on many peoples’ bucket list of things to do before they die, and Rich and I were among that group. In 2009 we had a cruise to Alaska all planned and nearly paid for as a way to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. But 2009 was the year of the global economic meltdown and Rich, along with many other people, was downsized out of the job that had taken us across the country five years before. In spite of whatever concerns we had about global warming shrinking the glaciers we were hoping to see, we canceled our trip, and hit the ground running to re-imagine our work lives.

image.glacierI read somewhere during that time, “the loss of a job is similar to the death of a close family member.” The impact on us of this particular meltdown seemed particularly overwhelming as we had only recently arrived at some sense of equilibrium after the illness and death of our 42 year-old daughter, Corinne.

Now four years later, we stand on the balcony of our cabin in front of a tidewater glacier, observing its irregularly sculptured peaks and crevices, listening to the snaps, creaks, and pops of this gigantic frozen river of ice, in its constant movement towards the sea.  Yes, most of the glaciers are receding, and as Alaska warms more severe colder weather events come to the lower 48 states and Europe. As the permafrost melts huge amounts of methane are released, further fueling the rate of climate change.

imageforest.515We learn that after the meltdown, the land left bare beneath begins anew. Moss and lichen populate and create a covering that adds nitrogen, preparing soil for wildflowers and scrubby bushes, and finally, deciduous and evergreen trees join the dance, creating a forest.

Through all these changes, sea and land animals change their habitats, following their food, just as we humans relocate to find work and an environment where we, and our offspring can prosper and grow.   

What Was That Little Bird Trying To Say?

On a recent March afternoon, when the seemingly relentless winter took a brief respite, I was sitting at my computer by the window, grateful to finally see the sun.  A brilliant red male cardinal began tapping on the window and peering into the dining room. It seemed like he was trying to get my attention, flying back and fort swiftly between the windows in the sliding patio door and the window near where I was seated. I’d seen the fellow before, in fact most every day this winter as he and his mate, and other smaller birds took advantage of the generous cornucopia of birdseed my husband provided for them on our deck.


Looking over at the bird feeder I discovered it was empty, and being the kind of mother I am, I thought the cardinal must be hungry. I felt a bit surprised that he would know enough to signal me to fill the feeder, but that seemed the only possible explanation.  I mentioned this to my husband and he said we were about out of birdseed but he found some and put it inside the feeder and around its edges as well.

In a few minutes the cardinal was back, but he paid no attention to the feeder. He went straight for the window, and looking directly inside he resumed pecking and waving his wings. Native Americans speak of animals as totems, teachers, who provide wisdom or what they call “medicine” to us humans if we only carefully observe their behavior. Frustrated by trying to figure out his message I Googled, “why is a cardinal pecking at my window?” An entire stream of comments was uncovered dealing with this exact situation. In 2009 someone wrote, “I have a bird feeder outside a large window facing south. This one particular cardinal keeps peeking into my house.”  It turns out this is a common problem caused by the fact that cardinals are quite territorial. In the reflection of himself in the window he perceives another bird and he is trying to frighten him off by this intimidating behavior.

So what is the wisdom to take from this cardinal’s behavior? What medicine does he offer for our life and times? Again a visit to the web produced some suggestions – “True to the fire of his color, the crimson cardinal has got some major spunk. He will aggressively defend his territory, and fight attackers with ferocity. Indeed, they have been known to fight ghost males (their reflections) in mirrors for hours on end.”

Perhaps the message for us humans in all this is that, though courage and tenacity are important virtues, we must be careful that the attacker we are fending off isn’t just part of ourselves. As that famous comic strip wise man Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”pogo-31

The Effect of Feedback

Feedback – The process by which a system, often biological or ecological, is modulated, controlled, or changed by the product, output, or response it produces.

It must have been the end of the summer because I remember the floral lightweight dress I was wearing. Our family car, a striped down Chevy or Ford, (the only kind my dad’s company ever provided), was parked on the street in Detroit, in front of our aunts’ studio apartment. The sky had turned dark, and standing in the doorway of the car, I was focused on the sky that was filled with thousands and thousands of stars. As I gestured upward, to point out this amazing discovery, Whack! Dad smacked me across the face, yelled a cuss word, and pushed me into the back seat of the car.

Unable to process what had just happened to me, and what I had done to bring it about, I felt stunned. Sitting in the back seat beside my younger sisters, I wrapped my arms around my shaking body, nursing my hurt feelings, determined not to cry and get myself into even more trouble.  I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong at the time but, looking back it’s clear that wherever we were going, we didn’t have time for stargazing.

I’m not sure how old I was but I had to be 7 or 8 because it was after my first communion and I remember preparing to go to confession, sometime shortly after this incident. At the Catholic school I attended we had been instructed as a way to remember our sins, to ask ourselves how many times we’d disobeyed our parents. I had already developed my own short cut for this task. I would count the number of smacks or spankings, or scoldings I’d received, and then tell the priest I had disobeyed my parents that number of times since my last confession.

But this event, the evening I was distracted by the stars, didn’t seem to fit neatly into my system. I obviously didn’t do what my Dad wanted me to do, given that he whacked me across the face and yelled at me to get into the car. But I hadn’t disobeyed him. I was doing what he wanted. I was just taking longer than he wanted me to take. Kneeling in the church pew, preparing for my turn to go to confession in one of the small little chambers on either side of the priest’s compartment, I came to the conclusion that I had not disobeyed my father. I had only displeased him and there wasn’t a commandment for that.

All these years since I have to admit I haven’t done much stargazing in my life, in spite of being around people, like my husband, who have a strong interest in the galaxy above. Could that instantaneous dramatic feedback on that evening long ago still be connected, in my psyche, with admiring the stars in a night‘s sky?

Joshua Trees

Twisted, spiky, almost grotesque appearing trees proliferate in the high desert where my new granddaughter lives. Mormon settlers named them when they spotted the trees in their migration west. To them, the trees appeared as the biblical character Joshua with his arms outstretched, urging them on. Joshua Trees can only grow in a narrow range of elevations in California’s Mojave Desert and in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, alongside the Saguaro cactus.

Regarded as a treasure and with a national forest named after them, there are serious penalties for removing Joshua Trees from public land. But the property where my granddaughter lives looked naked and forlorn, the only lot for miles around without a single Joshua Tree. The trees had been removed several years ago, before her mother bought the house, and her father found their remains buried in the back yard before she was born.

As a person who looks for opportunities to celebrate life with rituals, the baby blessing of my one-month old granddaugher seemed a made-to-order occasion I couldn’t resist. And the lack of Joshua Trees at the baby’s house seemed to call to me as a condition we could remedy with a ritual. I enlisted the baby’s other grandmother who had baby Joshua Trees on her property and she said she was willing to bring them to plant during our grandparents’ ceremony.

Restoring native plants to the land seemed a worthy way to mark our granddaughter’s birth. And Joshua Trees demonstrate that, just as with a human baby; there is a delicate reliance on relationships in one’s surroundings. In this case a yucca moth must assist the plant to pollinate, and the tree provides food for her young who are born in its flowers. 

With songs and laughter, we planted one Joshua Tree in the back yard and one in the front, while spelling out our visions for the world we want our granddaughter to grow up in. “I see the world as a place of peace for all peoples.” “I see girls and women of all ages, being treated with dignity and respect in all countries around the globe.” 

We did our part to encourage a playful world as we juggled colorful scarves singularly and together in anticipation of the time Kyra Joy will be big enough to come and play with us. And as Krya Joy and the tree grow up together, we will all be reminded that the land, the trees, and, we the people, are all related.   

Working Birds

I don’t think of birds as workers. Bees perhaps, “worker bees,” but birds? When I went to close my front door the other morning after walking through it on my way to take my dog for his morning constitutional, I gasped in surprise. There in the small space between the door wreath and the door was an elegant, architectural wonder constructed in a single day and night.

The size of my two hands cupped together, it demonstrated a masterful use of recycled found objects held together by minute repetitive drops of mud.  I noted its construction materials included twigs and grasses, leaves and tiny plant limbs, with a strip of silver tinfoil artistically woven through it all. 

I’m not tall enough to see inside, but later my husband tells me there are no occupants as yet for this home propped up by mine. Realizing that it is the middle of May already my mother worry gets activated. Isn’t it late in the season for building a nest, for starting a family?

Several years ago another bird, or perhaps the same one, made a nest in that very spot. Our wreath must invite such inspiration since, even though its small pink blossoms are made of fabric, its frame is constructed of actual slender tree limbs, wound and wrapped to create a circle. That time, earlier in the season, we were honored to help protect that home leaning for support on our home. While the birds were incubating and during their early bird rearing period, we used another entrance. We placed a sign on the porch column a few feet in front of the door, “Shh, baby birds sleeping.”

On my walk I marvel at this blessing that has arrived on my doorstep. I wonder if this mother bird, being “one of our relations,” as the native people say, knows that my son’s partner is becoming a mother too. And that this house, marked by a bird’s nest on its front door, is also the home of grandparents in the making.