The Secret Emotional Life of Bees

Recently, the Scientific American ran an article titled, “Do Bees Have Feelings?” I laughed when I saw the story and read about how scientists are trying to prove this. I say, just observe bees in nature and you’ll never doubt their intelligence or that they have feelings.

I have two stories to back up my assertion. The first one took place last summer, when Scott and I were camping at Kings Canyon National Park. We were hiking, and came across a dead carpenter bee lying on the trail. Another carpenter bee was next to it, nudging it. She walked around and nudged it gently from every angle. Occasionally, she’d take to the air and, hovering over it, grab ahold of the dead bee’s feet, or wings, and try to lift it, never successfully. She’d then return to nudging it, trying to get it to move. Finally, she stopped. She stood there, her head against the body of the dead bee, for several minutes. Finally—and I sensed, reluctantly—she flew off.

What was that bee experiencing? Clearly, she was trying to get the dead bee to awaken. When she couldn’t, when she stood there with her head against the dead bee, was she grieving? I certainly sensed she was.

The second story occurred just yesterday. We have a birdbath in the back corner of our yard, near the hummingbird feeder. While an occasional bird will stop by for a drink, most of the time, it’s honeybees frequenting the water. They line up along the edge of the dish to drink, or drink from one of the rocks we’ve placed in the water.

Occasionally, a bee will fall in the water. At first, when I’d find one there, I’d scoop it out with a stick or a leaf. But over time, we’ve discovered most of the bees get out on their own. In short, bees can swim.

At least, most of them. Yesterday, Scott was out back and noticed a bee who was having difficulty getting out of the water. She was floundering, and, clearly, about to drown.

Scott was just on the verge of picking a leaf from the ivy with which to rescue the bee when something amazing happened. Another honeybee, who had been drinking from a nearby rock, jumped into the water and pushed the drowning bee to the rock and up to safety. She did an heroic act: she saved another bee’s life.

The hero honeybee must have used thought processes and feelings in order to do this remarkable act. First, she must have recognized the bee was in trouble. Second, she must have made a conscious decision to jump in the water and save the other bee. In order to make this decision, she had to have empathy for the other bee. If she didn’t, she would simply have continued drinking and let the other bee drown.

Scientists will probably continue to study bees in labs in an attempt to “quantify” their behavior. I believe, however, that our powers of observation should not be validated only in labs. I believe what we see in nature is what is real. Clearly, bees have feeling. They grieve, they empathize. Why are humans so resistant to the idea that other creatures—especially something as humble as a honeybee—can have “human” emotions?

I find that idea comforting. Bees are amazing creatures. They are welcomed as friends at our birdbath, because when the water lures them to our yard, they tend to stick around for a while, checking out the blossoms on our kumquat tree, our cucumbers or our beans, pollinating them as they flit from blossom to blossom. This mean we get kumquats to savor, and vegetables to put in our salads and stir fry. They explore every poppy and sunflower blossom, which means every spring, we have beautiful wildflowers to enjoy.

I am grateful for the bees. And judging by the sheer number that show up at our water source on hot sunny afternoons, they are grateful for us, too.

“Your love of the earth and living things comes through so strongly in all you do.”

                         —Patricia Damery, author
                             Snakes, and Farming Soul: A Tale of Initiation

Observations of an Earth Mage is an enchanting collection of prose, poetry, and photographs celebrating the beauty and spendor of the natural world. From the Great Smoky Mountains in the East and the prairies of the Midwest to the magnificent vistas of Yosemite and the Pacific Ocean in the West, share the mysteries of the natural world as seen through the eyes of author and photographer Smoky Trudeau. Meet Myrtle the Ten O’Clock Bear and the grumpy chipmunk. Explore the desert in all its glory, discover the teeming life of a tidepool, and tromp the trails of our nation’s spectacular parks and monuments.

To read sample chapters, click the widget at the bottom of this page.

Observations of an Earth Mage is available in full-color print editions as well as text-only Kindle editions at Amazon, and in multiple text-only eBook versions at Smashwords.

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Terror in the Air

My husband, Scott, has been talking a lot lately about us reviving our habit of filling a hummingbird feeder. He really likes watching them from our back porch while we eat dinner out there.

But he also is very aware that when it came to feeding the hummers, I became something of a crazed maniac. I’d insist we come home early from picnics or hikes, because I was certain the hummingbirds were out of food. Or, I’d get up before sunrise so I could ensure there was plenty of sugar water out for the tiny birds, because some of them would start showing up at the feeder when first light had barely hit our yard.

There was a very good reason for my bizarre, obsessive behavior: I am afraid of hummingbirds.

Yes, the Earth Mage—the woman who walks with Bear at her side, who isn’t afraid of Rattlesnake or Coyote or Bobcat, is terrified of a two-inch long bird.

Before you label me daft, let me tell you what it was like when we had hummingbird feeders before.

Allen's Hummingbird

If I accidentally let the feeder run dry, when I’d step out the back door, I would immediately be surrounded by a cloud of hummingbirds—Anna’s hummingbirds, Allen’s hummingbirds, Costa’s hummingbirds—all furious at me for allowing their feeder to stand empty for, like, two minutes. They would fuss at me mightily, and get right up in my face while doing it. I’m not talking two or three or six hummingbirds, either. I’m talking like twenty. Or maybe a hundred. I couldn’t count, because I’d be too busy trying to swat them away, but the little buggers are faster than imitation syrup running down a stack of pancakes.

Have you ever watched hummingbirds fighting one another? They swordfight in mid-air with those long, pointy bills of theirs. With the humming sound their wings make, they remind me of tiny Jedi knights fighting the Emperor’s army in Star Wars with their light sabers. They try to stab one another. They do stab one another. It looks painful. I’m sure it is painful.

Allen's Hummingbird: Tiny Terror on the Wing

Which is why I am afraid of hummingbirds. I have no desire to have to try to explain to an EMT or emergency room doctor why I’m being admitted with a helmet of five hundred tiny birds stuck to my skull. And in my ears. And, perhaps, my eyes. My glasses seem poor protection when it comes to battling a thousand hummingbirds.

So, we took the feeders down. I stayed inside for a month, hopping the angry mob of ten thousand little birds peering in my back windows would go away. When I had to go out, Scott would throw a blanket over my head and rush me to the car, slamming the door once I got in lest the birds figure out it was me under there.

After a few months, the trouble settled down. The hummingbirds went back to finding food in the flowers that are so abundant in our hills. For Pete’s sake, we live in Southern California; there is always something blooming here. They won’t starve without my feeding them.

That was more than a year ago. And, as I said, Scott is now making noises about wanting to feed the hummingbirds once again. But this time, he wants the feeder at the back of our yard, not right up by the house. He thinks this will somehow make a difference.

Tomorrow is Scott’s sixtieth birthday. Being the devoted wife I am, as part of his birthday gift, I went out and bought a beautiful wrought-iron birdfeeder hanger for him to place in the yard, wherever he chooses, so we—meaning, I—can once again hang a hummingbird feeder.

He accepted the gift only after extracting a promise from me that I will fill the feeder only once a day. I agreed. For now.

But the moment I end up with an angry hummingbird stuck in the tip of my nose, I’m quitting for good. You’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you. Let him feed the damned hummingbirds. I’m going to go find a nice coyote or rattlesnake to spend my time watching.

It’s a whole lot safer.

Smoky is an ardent outdoorswoman with a deep reverence for nature. She lives in California with her husband, daughter, and a menagerie of animals, both domestic and wild, in a ramshackle cottage in the woods. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time hiking in the mountains, camping in the Sierras, splashing in tidepools, and resisting the urge to speak in haiku.

Her book, Observations of an Earth Mage, is available at Amazon and Vanilla Heart Publishing. To read an excerpt of the book, click on the book widget at the bottom of this page.

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Buzzzzzzz…..

Today’s earth mage observation is nothing particularly profound. I haven’t had the opportunity to travel to the mountains, desert, or tide pools lately. (Well, we went to the beach near the tide pools in Laguna, but it was high tide, so we didn’t see much sea life, except a few crabs.)

But, as I’ve said many times before, you don’t have to travel to places of exceptional beauty to experience nature. Nature can be found in your own back yard. And sometimes, you find it where you least expect it.

This morning I went out to my deck to water my herbs. It’s a cool morning; the marine layer has traveled far inland, and the fog hugs the trees like a swaddled baby.

Bees don’t like fog. They don’t forage around until the temperature warms and the fog lifts. But I always imagined when worker bees weren’t searching for pollen, they returned to their hives. Not, apparently, always so. I caught this guy sleeping in my cinnamon basil plant!

A bee naps in my cinnamon basil plant...

 

...waiting for the marine layer to life so he can begin his busy day.

I woke the poor guy up with my camera, unfortunately. He slowly buzzed off, circled our peach tree, and immediately settled back onto the cinnamon basil to resume his nap.

Isn’t nature amazing?

 

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The Bear Whisperer

(This is an excerpt of my book, Observations of an Earth Mage. The story is spectacular, but true, and is one of a handful of stories about how I became known as the Earth Mage.) 

Darkness fell quickly in the cool understory of the forest, even on this, the night of the summer solstice.  The air smelled wonderful—pungent rhododendron blossoms, moss, and decaying leaves mixed with the vaguely electrical scent of granite behemoths lurking in the woods, ancient as Earth herself.  Water danced down the mountain to a katydid and cicada orchestra.

Enchanting as this scene was, it wasn’t enough for my thirteen-year-old daughter and niece, who were with me on this night. We were on a quest, searching for one of the famous Smoky Mountain black bears.

Not wanting to leave it to chance, I began to pray.  “Artemis, protectress of the forest, grant them this gift,” I murmured.  “Send us a bear.”

I drove slowly down the steep and twisted mountain road, carefully maneuvering my trusty station wagon around the next bend.

And there she was, browsing through the leaf litter, maybe ten feet off the side of the road.  A beautiful little bear, sleek and fat, her tan snout a bright contrast against her blue-black fur.  She looked up at us, decided we meant her no harm, and went back to browsing for delicacies on the forest floor.

“Mom, you did it!” my daughter said quietly.  “You called us a bear.  You’re a bear whisperer!

***

I’ve always had a passion for black bears.  As a child, I never doubted we would see them on our trips to the mountains.  It never occurred to me that perhaps I willed them into appearing by the side of the road we drove, off the edge of a trail we hiked, or in the middle of a rushing mountain river we waded.  Neither can I attribute it to the lure of garbage in the campgrounds and picnic sites, because often the bears we spotted were miles away from these more populous areas of the park. I prayed I would see bears, and the bears came.

This cinnamon-colored black bear lives in Sequoia National Park.

But children grow up, and when I was grown, I got caught up in my education, my work, my marriage, my children.  I didn’t go back to the mountains.  I began to forget about the bears.

***

Since I didn’t go to the bears, the bears came to me.  When I was in my mid-thirties I was struck by lightning and nearly killed.  As I lay in the hospital intensive care unit fighting for my life, I dreamed I was hiking up a mountain.  Near the top, I stumbled across the cave home of a beautiful black she-bear.  The bear spoke to me words of incredible beauty and wisdom.

Alas, upon awakening the words she spoke were lost to me.  I remembered every detail about the dream except what the bear was trying to tell me.

Over the course of the next ten years, I had that dream again and again.  Recurring dreams are not that uncommon a phenomenon, but for me, any dream at all was uncommon.  As often happens to people who have been struck by lightning,  I experience terrible insomnia, rarely falling into the REM sleep necessary for dreaming.  But still the bear came to me in my sleep, patiently repeating her message to me.  And still I awakened unable to remember that message.

Recovering from a direct lightning strike—I took an estimated 30,000 volts in the neck—isn’t easy.  As I struggled to recover from my lightning-induced injuries—I have permanent nerve, heart, and joint damage, and live with constant, chronic pain—I began openly embracing the pagan, earth-centered beliefs I nurtured on my childhood trips to the mountains.  My physical pain is more tolerable when I’m walking through a meadow in full bloom in the spring, or sitting quietly in a fairy garden of my own design in the summer.  Depression lifts when I sit in a cool forest, watching squirrels and chipmunks chatter and play.

But it was an American Indian acquaintance of mine who urged me to explore the reasons the Higher Beings chose to send a lightning bolt my way to begin with (it hadn’t even been storming when I was hit).  At his urging, I began exploring shamanism.

“With many indigenous peoples, their shamans are people who have been touched by the thunder people,” Larry explained.  “The thunder people come from the west.  On the medicine wheel, the bear is the symbol of the west.  You were struck by lightning—touched by the thunder people.  You dream of bears.  You are being called for something.”

As much as I resisted, his words made sense.  I picked up a book on the medicine wheel; I began collecting rocks so I could build one of my own in my garden.  I studied all the literature I could find on shamanism in general and , more specifically, the bear as a totem animal.

The bear dreams began to make sense to me as I studied.  Because standing on their hind legs they resemble humans, bears can represent the physical body in dreams.  Its lesson is to awaken the potential within us, and in doing so, keep the cub in us alive.

A bear left us a gift in Kings Canyon National Park: pawprints on our pollen-covered car window.

My physical body was broken.  I needed the strength of the bear to recover from my injuries.  My mind, however, was untouched by the lightning, and I was going crazy with boredom because my mind wanted to do things my physical body couldn’t do.

It was time for me to return to the mountains, and take my children in search of the bear.

***

Things had changed.  Better garbage management and aggressive public education had made bear sightings a rarity in the park.  Most visitors never saw one; those who did usually saw only the tail end as the bear ran away from the humans invading their mountain homes.  I worried my children would not ever see a bear in the wild.

So, I prayed to Artemis, Goddess of the wilderness.  And the bears came.  We saw mothers with their cubs.  We saw solitary bears.  Never more than one sighting per trip, but we always saw them.

Well, almost always.  Last year, I felt the bear rather than seeing her.  When I am tucked into my sleeping bag on my camp cot, my head and feet lie only an inch or so from the tent wall.  That night, I awakened to the sound of snuffling outside my tent.  Bear!  I held my breath as the bear came closer.

She touched me.  Sniffing the walls of my tent, her snout nudged gently against my head, once, twice, three times.  A firm but gentle touch.  A kiss from a bear.

I was not afraid.

***

As often as I called to the bear, and the bear came, I was becoming increasingly frustrated that I still had no idea what message she was sending me in my dreams. I was beginning to think I would never understand.

That changed when I met a remarkable energy healer while attending an artists’ retreat for women.  Deaf since birth, Suzy’s inability to hear has keened her psychic abilities, and she has a remarkable ability to read human energy fields.  When we first met, she immediately saw my intense physical pain and offered to do energy work to help me heal.

She came to my cabin that afternoon, and soon I was relaxed and centered under her capable hands.  She worked in silence at first.  Then, she told me to take the excess energy that was causing my pain and push it down to my feet.

I could feel the energy, and tried to do as I was told, but try as I might, it kept getting stuck at heart level.  Finally, I managed to push the energy to my feet.

“Good!”  Suzy said.  (How did she know I’d done it? I wondered.)  “Now, take that energy and take it outside somewhere.  Put it in a hole in the ground, in a tree, or throw it in a pond.  But give it back to Mother Earth.”

Immediately, I felt myself thrown through this enormous void, lightning flashing all around me, and found myself standing in the cave of my dreams!  Emerging from the darkness at the back of the cave was the she-bear.

“You can shape it, but not lose it, for it is your power,” she said.

I stood there, numb.  What is happening to me?

Even though I hadn’t spoken the words aloud, the bear heard.  “You can shape it, but not lose it, for it is your power,” she said patiently.

“Shape what?”  This time, I found my voice.

She repeated the mantra.  “You can shape it, but not lose it, for it is your power.”  With that, she turned and disappeared into the bowels of the cave.  I found myself lying on my cot in my cabin once again.

Suzy was gone.  Two-and-a-half hours had passed.

Quickly, I grabbed my journal and scribbled the words the bear had spoken.  At last, I had them!  I didn’t know yet what they meant, but I knew what they were.

Writing the words wasn’t enough.  I had to make a visual image of the bear.  I grabbed some handmade paper I’d brought on the retreat, some oil pastels, and quickly drew not only the bear, but the yellow-orange lightning bolts I had passed through when I was “thrown” from my cot into the cave.

***

That symbol has become my personal shield.  I have painted it, sculpted it from clay, molded it into a papier mache bowl; I had it tattooed on my left forearm.  It gives me power.  When my pain level begins to rise, I meditate while looking at the bear, and I am able to control the pain.

For years, I believed my pain was holding me back, preventing me from having a full life.  Now I know the pain will never go away, but that I have the power to control it rather than let it control me.  I can shape it, but I can’t lose it.  It is my power.  My gift from the bear.

Am I a bear whisperer?  My daughter thinks so.

But only the bear herself really knows.

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Beauty and Heartbreak in Arroyo Pescadero

I live in a beautiful pocket of green in east suburban LA, a rare pocket of wilderness and wildness among suburban houses and shopping malls. Houses are few and far between; the land separating homes is covered with scrub oak, California buckeye and bay, the remnants of an old avocado farm, and poison oak. Lots of poison oak.

On the other side of our hill, the green of our woods gives way to an ecosystem that seems like a whole different planet. Coastal sage scrub and chaparral replace the stately oaks and buckeye. This is Turnbull Canyon and, to the south, Arroyo Pescadero, and exploring the trail system that laces through the hills and canyons of this sensitive ecosystem is a joy and a privilege.

June mornings usually begin with a thick fog blanketing these hills, the result of the marine layer creeping far inland. The air smells primal, earthy, as it must have smelled thousands of years ago when the First Peoples walked this land. Birdsong echoes through the hills like whispered secrets. The steady hum of bees, so prevalent later in the day, is nowhere to be heard.

Fog looks like storm clouds moving in, obliterating the view of the canyon below.

I welcome the fog as I walk along the trails. The Southern California summer sun is brutal, unforgiving. The gift of morning fog makes it possible for me to walk these hills and canyons without feeling as if I am going to wither up and blow away on a desert breeze like so much thistle fluff.

The trail disappears into the mist.

The trail that runs across the ridge above Turnbull Canyon is a gentle hike, just right for waking up sleepy muscles. On a foggy morning earlier this week, Scott and I wandered down the trail, alone save a pair of pinacate beetles, more commonly called stinkbugs. On a normal day, these large, black bugs would have done headstands, aiming their rear-ends at us, threatening to spray us with their noxious secretions. But today, this pair were mating, and were oblivious to our presence.

A pair of stinkbugs are too busy mating to notice our presence.

Our destination was the old water tower that stands guard over the canyon. It was a short, easy hike when approached from the ridge trail. Before when we have hiked to the water tower, we’ve climbed up from the canyon bottom along a trail that is both challenging and long. Today, we reach our destination without so much a breaking a sweat.

The old water tower stands guard over Turnbull Canyon.

The graffiti on the old tower has always fascinated me. Do the people who tag here doodle on their homework? Are they graphic artists in training? Or are they simply looking for immortality, a way of telling the world, “I was here”?

Water tower graffiti cries, "I was here."

We are saddened by the atrocious amount of trash we find along the trail. Frequently when we hike, we carry a trash bag or two with us. This time, we have forgotten to do so. We make a mental note not to forget again.

Yesterday, we were ready for a more challenging trail. We headed down the road to Arroyo Pescadero, a trail we hiked only once last summer and were eager to explore again.

Common Monkeyflower

The trail down into the arroyo was lined with monkeyflower and thistle. Although the fog had just lifted and the air was still relatively cool, a lone honeybee was slowly creeping along a thistle flower head, searching for pollen.

Thistle and Honeybee

There are rabbits everywhere. I remembered this from last year; there were so many bunnies along the trail I dubbed it the coyote buffet. But today, it isn’t the ubiquitous coyote who is making these cottontails nervous. In the distance, we hear the scream of a hawk, and it is coming closer. The rabbit effortlessly melts into the chaparral.

Cottontail rabbit lures us farther along the trail.

Around the bend, we come to what looks like a giant snowdrift. All the thistle have gone to seed, but the breeze has not scattered them far. Western goldfinches, house finches, and wrens flit among the fluff, greedily devouring the seeds, enjoying the banquet so much they take to song as they flit from perch to perch, singing an avian “Ode to Joy.”

Blizzard of Thistle Seed Fluff

Scott spots her before I do. It is the hawk, silently perched atop dead tree branches, waiting patiently for a rabbit or ground squirrel to make a mistake, to not notice she is there, to wander too far onto the trail to escape when she swoops down on silent wings. She looks right at us, and I can’t help but feel she is both sizing us up and urging us down the trail. She is hungry. Her breakfast will not show itself with us on the trail.

A hawk stretches her wings, eager for the hunt.

We turn around. We are tired, dusty, and very thirsty, having foolishly forgotten our water bottles.

Arroyo Pescadero provides both recreational space for hikers like Scott and me and a home for wildlife like the hawk and rabbit, coyote and bobcat, even the rarely seen mountain lion. It is a protected bit of wilderness that offers refuge to both Humans and Others.

View from the top of Arroyo Pescadero. This beautiful scene will change dramatically if Whittier city council and Matrix oil get their way.

But now, that refuge is being threatened. Recently, the Whittier city council voted to allow oil drilling in a section of the arroyo so environmentally sensitive people are not even allowed to hike there.  According to the activist group Whittier Hills Oil Watch (WHOW), this fragile bit of land was purchased by the city with Proposition A funds specifically earmarked for preservation and protection of this natural wildlife habitat. The proposed 60 well sites, oil processing facility, gas plant, storage tanks, truck loading facility, and nearly three miles of oil and natural gas pipeline are clearly not in the best interest of preservation and protection.

The Open Space Legal Defense Fund has filed a lawsuit against the Whittier city council and Matrix Oil, the company contracted to develop the site. Until that lawsuit it resolved, the fate of this beautiful bit of urban wilderness remains unresolved.

The creatures who call the arroyo home cannot speak for themselves. But the people who hike the trails can. I take heart in the fact that when I drive through Whittier, I see more yard signs urging the city council to “Save the Hills” than I do signs in favor of developing the hills.

The country has seen enough environmental devastation caused by greed for oil. Let’s hope the Whittier city council backs down and takes a stand in favor of the environment. It’s the responsible thing to do.

For more information, visit the WHOW website at http://www.whittierhillsoilwatch.org/

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Snakes: A Love Story

Recently, I’ve posted quite a few photos of snakes on Facebook. Most of my friends have found them beautiful, or at least interesting. A few of my friends, however, have been puzzled, the shudders running down their spines as they look at my pictures palpable to me, even though I live hundreds, and in a few cases, even thousands, of miles away from them. They just can’t figure out why I find snakes so appealing.

The fact is, I’ve always had a love affair with snakes, starting when I was a small child. It wasn’t my own experiences with them that began this affair. It was the fantastic tales my Uncle Ed used to tell me.

Uncle Ed lived and worked in India for many years during the 1930s. India, of course, is home to many snakes. His stories were wild and improbable, and to a little girl who both loved anything wild and who would grow up to become a storyteller, his stories were like the strawberries growing in his garden. I couldn’t pluck and devour enough of either.

There was the story of the king cobra that lived beneath the stairs to my uncle’s back garden. Usually, the cobra kept his distance from my uncle and aunt, but one time, the snake coiled up between my aunt and the back stairs, trapping her in the garden for several hours before my uncle arrived home and somehow got the snake to move. My aunt always swore the snake seemed to be amused by the game of keeping her at bay.

And there was the story about the time my uncle, my cousin, and several of their friends took a long bicycle ride through the countryside. They stopped for a rest, and sat on a large log. My cousin took out his pocket knife, picked up a stick, and began to whittle. When he accidentally dropped the stick, he stuck his knife into the log on which they were sitting in order to retrieve the dropped stick. The log began to move. It was, in actuality, an enormous python, its belly swollen from a recent meal.

How much of my uncle’s stories was true and how much was invented in order to capture his young niece’s rapt attention is anyone’s guess. But those stories instilled in me a lifelong respect and love for snakes.

I lived in the Midwest for the first 51 years of my life, and wasn’t privy to many face-to-face snake encounters. As a child, there were garter snakes that sometimes crossed paths with me as I played. The occasional eastern diamondback rattler or copperhead we’d encounter when camping, and which my father kept at a distance by steering us off the trail or out of the campsite until the snake had moved on.

It wasn’t until I moved to California three years ago that Snake became such a big part of my life. And once she made her presence known to me, she hasn’t been out of my sights for long.

Last summer, I had a recurring dream, not only as I slept, but also when I would meditate. In this dream, I was hiking, and I crossed paths with a rattlesnake. I was very calm, as was the snake. Somehow, I knew I was supposed to be bitten by this snake. The snake coiled and struck. It did not hurt. At this point, I would either awaken or come out of my meditative trance.

Psychologist Carl Jung had a lot to say about snakes in our dreams. He wrote, “What Nature wants us to do is to move with a snake-like motion. … The snake is the symbol of the great wisdom of Nature, for the too direct way is not the best way; the crooked way, the detour, is the shorter way.”

Jung’s words made sense to me. I had spent the better part of the summer working with youth, teaching them the way of the Earth Mage, to love and respect Nature. But the program fell apart due to lack of cooperation from the agency that engaged me to start the program to begin with. The dream about being bitten by Snake may have been my mind’s way of telling me I needed to take a different path to sharing my Earth Mage message with children.

Snake is also a symbol of awakening kundalini, a reservoir of creative energy originating at the base of the spine.  The image of a coiled snake suggests a spring and conveys a sense of untapped energy. In Hindu tradition, kundalini awakening and moving up through the body leads to enlightenment.  In Shamanic tradition, this awakening leads to wisdom, and is something that isn’t experienced until midlife or beyond. (Hence, we don’t often marvel at the wisdom of youth.)

At the time of my recurring snake dream, I was suffering a severe case of blocked creativity. I was having difficulty writing. My third novel was stalled; my main source of editing income had dried up as a result of the bad economy. I had all sorts of artistic inspiration in my mind, but lacked the wherewithal to follow through with my ideas.

The appearance of Snake in my dreams, I realized, was not meant to be taken as literal foreshadowing of being bitten by a snake. It was meant to be interpreted as the end of my blocked creativity, the awakening of my kundalini energy. It was time to focus on something new. I began writing short stories instead of struggling through the doomed novel. I stuck the stalled novel on a flash drive and got it off my computer.

Living in a rather wild area in Southern California, and spending as much time as I do in wilderness areas, it’s not at all surprising I cross paths with real snakes (as opposed to dream snakes) on a regular basis. We have gopher snakes and garter snakes on the wild hill we call home, and rattlesnakes in our arroyo.

Western Rattlesnake, the most common rattler in California.

Just yesterday we stumbled upon a dead juvenile coral-bellied ring-necked snake, a little beauty that is not rare, but is rarely seen due to its shy nature.

Baby Coral-Bellied Ring-Necked Snake. Sadly, this little guy was found dead.

A few weeks ago, when hiking at the Indian Canyons in Palm Springs, we encountered a speckled rattlesnake, a black and white banded kingsnake, a garter snake, and a red diamondback rattlesnake—four different snakes in less than four hours’ time. Sometimes, I am able to get pictures of the snakes. Other times, I am not. Either way, seeing them gives me a profound sense of pleasure. I feel honored that Mother Nature has seen fit to allow this much-maligned creature and me to share the same path for a few moment’s time. Despite what my photographs may appear to show, I respect their space and view them from a distance. (That’s what long lenses and photo editing software are for—to make it seem like I am standing or sitting on the ground right next to the snake. In most cases, especially with venomous snakes, I am not.)

Red Diamondback Rattlesnake

To me, seeing a snake is a gift. Snake reminds me that the direct route is not always the best route, that the winding path is often most desirable. She tells me I am a creative person and can shed my creative skin as often as I like, because sometimes a fresh start is all we need to turn a dull and dead project into a work of art.

Snake is my constant companion, a part of my psychological makeup, as well as my neighbor on this hill I call home. We are both children of Nature. Why wouldn’t I love her?

Snake is always with me, as this tattoo on my left wrist will attest.

(Smoky is an ardent outdoorswoman with a deep reverence for nature. She lives in California with her husband, daughter, and a menagerie of animals, both domestic and wild, in a ramshackle cottage in the woods. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time hiking in the mountains, camping in the Sierras, splashing in tidepools, and resisting the urge to speak in haiku.

Her book, Observations of an Earth Mage, is available at Amazon and Vanilla Heart Publishing.)

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Talking (and Listening) to Nature

As I putter around the land surrounding my house, I talk. A passerby—if we had any passersby here—would probably think I was muttering to myself. I’m not. I’m talking to the tomato plants growing in our garden, the peach tree recently planted on our back deck, the oak trees sheltering us from the hot southern California sun, or the early morning fog obscuring our view of the San Gabriel mountains across the valley.

I don’t just do this around my home. When Scott and I go hiking, I talk to the rocks thrust so violently out of the ground thousands of years ago, now softened by a blanket of lichen; the breeze, heavily perfumed with the delicious scent of buckeye or sweet broom blossoms, and the breathtakingly cold creeks, in such a hurry to rush down the mountain to the valley below. In short, I am talking to the earth, and all that “earth” encompasses and entails.

San Antonio Creek, Mt. Baldy

I’m not alone in doing this. In Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology,* author David Abram argues that wind and rock, mountain and stream, oak and lichen, have much to say, if we would only take the time to learn their language. Learning to talk and listen to every being, animate or inanimate, in our environment “subverts the long isolation of the thinking self from the perceptual world that it ponders, suggesting that we and the sensorial surroundings are woven of the same fabric, indeed that we are palpably entwined with all that we see, and hear, and touch—entirely a part of the living biosphere.”

I like that thought, that we are woven of the same fabric as the trees and the rock, as the frigid mountain water that cools my tired feet after a long hike. I like not simply going to a place of exquisite beauty and wonder and observing it, but knowing that I am a part of it, and it a part of me. We are one and the same. It’s a feeling I don’t get when walking the concrete streets of LA or Chicago. I am nature, and nature is me.

The idea that we can talk to the rocks or mountains, and they to us—at one time would have sounded far-fetched to me. But about a decade or so ago, my son Steven and I were camping in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. We’d taken a picnic lunch and hiked to a nearby stream, where I became enchanted with a particular rock in the water. He offered to put it in the car for me, so I could take it home to put in my garden. We were just outside the borders of the national park, so taking a stone would have been legal. But as soon as he lifted the stone from the water, I clearly heard an anguished screaming, “No, no! Don’t take me!” It wasn’t so much that I heard it as I felt it in every pore of my body. My son did not feel or hear it, but I did. I had him put the stone back in the water. The screaming stopped.

I was shaken to my core by that experience, but since that time I’ve not doubted objects we think of as inanimate have voices. And I have taken the time to at least try to learn the language of the rock and tree, the creek and the mountain. I may not always understand what they are saying to me, but I make the effort to listen. Not just hear … but to listen. Now, if a rock catches my fancy, I ask permission to take her home. Sometimes, they say yes. More often, they say no. I respect what they say.

The phenomenon of being able to hear what nature is saying is probably more evident to some of you than you realize. I have severe peripheral neuropathy in my left arm, a holdover gift from when I was struck by lightning 22 years ago. It is ever-present, but within hours of the marine layer moving in, or a rare California rainstorm opening up the skies, it flares up. The low pressure blowing in on the wind is speaking to me, telling me to prepare for damp weather. This isn’t an uncommon experience for people with neuropathy or arthritis. What is uncommon is for people to realize this is nature speaking to them.

Raven Swoops Across Sky as Storm Clouds Gather Beneath Mt. Baldy

When Scott and I took our beautiful hike to Mt. Baldy a few days ago, we were gifted with a fabulous example of just how alive a piece of granite can be when we came upon these beautiful succulents growing right out of the rock.

Succulent Dudleya Spring from the Living Rock

I believe they are some variety of Dudleya, or also known as Live-Forevers, for some plants in this family have been know to live up to 100 years. They were not in soil. They were firmly anchored to the rock, getting nourishment from the rock, the air surrounding them, and what rain fell upon them. Nourishment from what most would consider lifeless, inanimate “objects.”

Dudleya Blooms on Living Rock, a Tiny Fern its Companion

The giant Douglas firs and black oaks that together form the forest on Mt. Baldy spring from cones and acorns that root in the fertile ground. A mule deer fawn grows in its mother’s womb, and once born, suckles at her teats until it is big enough to begin fending for itself. These are obvious examples of life springing from life.

Mule Deer

Life nourishes life. And living things communicate with one another. The ground squirrel sounds an alarm call when the red-shouldered hawk swoops into a nearby tree, and squirrels and rabbits and songbirds all take heed, hiding from their enemy. The catbird mewls when a hiker enters the forest, and suddenly, all birdsong is quieted.

Nature will not speak to you unless you learn to listen. It requires you open your ears and your heart, that you drop your inhibitions and doubts, that you move quietly through the woods or desert or prairie, or sit quietly in your garden, and listen. Speak quietly to the wind, the soil, the beans growing on the vine. Thank the ladybug who hunts the aphids on your squash plants. Thank the tree for its cooling shade.

Who knows? With practice, you just might find they talk back.

* To read a review of David Abrams’ new book, please click the “Smoky Talks Books” link to the right.

(Smoky is an ardent outdoorswoman with a deep reverence for nature. She lives in California with her husband, daughter, and a menagerie of animals, both domestic and wild, in a ramshackle cottage in the woods. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time hiking in the mountains, camping in the Sierras, splashing in tidepools, and resisting the urge to speak in haiku.

Her book, Observations of an Earth Mage, is available at Amazon and Vanilla Heart Publishing.)

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The Mt. Baldy Trail

Mt. Baldy is definitely one of my happy places. Only a thirty minute drive from my home (provided traffic cooperates), the road up the mountain takes you from LA suburban chic neighborhoods to wilderness in less time than it will take you to read this blog.

And wild she is, this mountain, wild and magical. Mt. Baldy is a nickname that stuck; her real name is Mt. San Antonio. I don’t know why American mountains are nearly all named for men. To me, mountains emit a very female energy. This mountain, the third highest in Southern California, is the Mother Mountain that towers over the rest of the San Gabriels. She gives birth to mountain streams and giant trees, cougar and bear. The Peruvians understand the female energy of their mountains. They call her Pachamama, Mother Earth, their mountain home. I call my mountain home the same. She greets me every moment when I step outside on my deck to watch the sun rise, and I greet her. She is very special to me.

Sunrise Over the San Gabriel Mountains

While Scott and I have hiked on this mountain many times, we’ve always walked the same trail, to San Antonio Falls. This time, I was determined to hike the summit trail, although at six miles each direction to the summit from the little village where the trailhead is found, I knew we would hike only a portion on this day. This was to be my first strenuous hike, my first mountain hike, since my knee replacement surgery in December. I knew better than to overextend myself.

We parked our car near the national forest visitors center and head up the road to the trailhead. We had no idea there were houses back here, off the main road. Cabins, actually. Cabins with a clear, rushing mountain stream where their front yards would have been had they been built elsewhere. I fantasize as I walk about what living in such a cabin would be like. One can always dream.

The shadows in the mountains love to play tricks. Near the trailhead, it looked like little creatures, weasels, maybe, were playing on the rock. Only when we got within fifteen feet or so of the rock did I realize my dancing weasels were leaf shadow dancers, shadows cast by a sun we could not see, the forest was so thick.

Leaf Shadows Dancing on Rock

The thickness of the forest surprised both Scott and me, for the forest on the San Antonio Falls trail is not nearly so dense. These are, for the most part, desert mountains. Yet here on this trail we pass the largest Bigcone Douglas-fir tree in existence, a tree named, according to a sign, “Old Glory.” She is 145-feet tall. Other nearby trees are impressive in their own right, if not quite as large as Old Glory.

Forest Giant

The black oak trees also found in this forest are an important part of this forest ecosystem, for the acorns they produce nourish the neighborhood bears. From the looks of the forest floor, there was a good acorn crop this past year. A good crop usually means there will be lots of baby bears the following spring. Even though we’ve never seen a bear on Baldy, I’m happy at the knowledge their numbers are growing, thanks in part to the black oak.

We momentarily step out of the forest into a meadow, and are bombarded by winged insects. They are everywhere!

A Magical Meadow

We dash across the little clearing into the next stand of trees. Here we discover what is flying all around the meadow: ladybugs. There are dozens and dozens of them, clustered on the leaves of the black oaks and on the shrubs below.

Enchanting Little Ladies

Then we take a closer look at the ground around us and realize there must be millions of ladybugs! They are everywhere, heaped haphazardly all over the forest floor.

Piles and Piles of Ladybugs

I am enchanted; never before have I seen so many ladybugs in one place. I briefly wish I could pocket a few hundred of them and take them home to release in my garden. Ladybugs will cure a gardener’s aphid problem in no time flat. But my cottage on the hillside across the valley is not home to these creatures. I will leave them here, where they belong.

Suddenly I feel I sharp nip to my arm. A blackfly has taken a bite out of me. Then, I feel another nip, and another. There are blackflies everywhere, nearly as numerous as the ladybugs, and they’re biting me faster than I can slap them away. Scott, too, is slapping furiously at his arms and legs. We say goodbye to the ladybugs and hurry up the trail. The flies will be with us for the rest of our hike, but we quickly learn if we keep moving, they don’t disturb us quite so much.

But to keep moving on such a gorgeous trail is difficult, because we are constantly wanting to stop and ooh and aah over something or another. The spring wildflowers are in full bloom—a little late this year, because we had an unusually chilly spring, but this has worked to our advantage, as the California wildflowers are spectacular. We stumble across a patch of wallflower, one of our favorites, because the orange blossoms smell a bit like the lilacs both Scott’s and my mothers had growing at our Midwestern childhood homes.

Wallflower

The Indian paintbrush is also blooming. Carefully, I pull a single segment from a blossom, then squeeze it gently. I small drop of nectar oozes out. I gently place it against my tongue and am treated to an exquisite sweetness no bee—or Earth Mage—can resist. I pluck another and offer it to Scott. We leave the rest to the bees, happy to have had this tiny taste of heaven the Mountain has given us.

Indian Paintbrush

We continue our climb, breathing heavily. We’re at high altitude here, and neither of us have been on so strenuous a hike in almost a year. As long as we keep moving, the black flies pretty much leave us alone. But each time we stop to take a drink or to admire a wildflower, we are plagued. Nevertheless, when we leave the large trees behind and enter the scrub zone, I can’t help but stop and admire the fabulous twisted branches of a dead Manzanita bush.

Manzanita--Beautiful, Even in Death

Perhaps 300 yards into the scrub zone, we can tolerate the black flies no more. They are worse at this elevation than they were below, and the ones up here have no compunction at all about biting us while we are moving. Perhaps they are attracted to our glistening skin, for we are both sweating profusely from our steep climb. But whatever the attraction our bodies hold for the flies, we’ve had enough of it. I pause long enough to photograph a particularly beautiful yucca.

Yucca

Then, we turn and almost run down the trail, back to the relative safety of the woods.

Where Trees End and Scrub Begins, Going Up

Where Scrub Ends and Trees Begin, Going Down

The hike down takes only half as long as the hike up, although hiking down is more difficult for me than it is for Scott. I had my right knee replaced in December 2010, but I’d had my left knee replaced in 1997. Seven years later, in 2004, I had to have the left knee replaced again—a revision, my doctor called it. I had blown out the lower part of the replacement joint hiking in the Smoky Mountains. Apparently, for knee replacement patients, it is okay to hike up a mountain, but not a good idea to hike down, as it puts too much strain on the joint. Nevertheless, as I had hiked up on this day, I saw no option but to hike back down, and will likely continue hiking down for as long as I am able to continue hiking up.

Exhausted, we finally make it back to our car. A Stellar’s jay welcomed us back from his perch in the trees above our car, inviting us to share our picnic lunch with him. When we did not, his welcoming chatter turned to screeches of disgust. Amazing how easy it can be to understand what a wild creature is saying, if you just take the time to listen.

Stellar's Jay

I always leave Mt. Baldy with reluctance. Driving down the mountain and suddenly being thrust into the havoc and mayhem that is life in Greater Los Angeles taxes my Earth Mage sensibilities. But soon enough we’re back on our side of the valley, and climbing the hill to our cottage nestled in the oak and avocado trees. Our noses are greeted by the cloying sweetness of California buckeye blossoms in the arroyo. Fence lizards and the baby spotted ground squirrels—the polka dots—scatter as we pull our car into the drive. Perhaps our great horned owls will hoot tonight, or our coyote choir give a performance.

Home is a pretty magical place, too.

(Smoky is an ardent outdoorswoman with a deep reverence for nature. She lives in California with her husband, daughter, and a menagerie of animals, both domestic and wild, in a ramshackle cottage in the woods. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time hiking in the mountains, camping in the Sierras, splashing in tidepools, and resisting the urge to speak in haiku.

Her book, Observations of an Earth Mage, is available at Amazon and Vanilla Heart Publishing.)

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Simpler Times

I’ve spent the better part of two days making marmalade—Earth Mage Marmalade. I don’t use a recipe; I just use whatever citrus I have available. My neighbors just brought me a huge tub full of grapefruit, so this batch ended up being grapefruit-orange-lime marmalade.

Earth Mage Marmalade

There is something inherently satisfying about preserving your own food, especially if you grew that food yourself, or you are given the food by friends who grew it themselves. When I am in the kitchen, making marmalade or pickles or canning peaches, I can forget all the technological gizmos and gadgets in my other room. I don’t hear them calling me, urging me to check Facebook, coaxing me to blog or write poetry. My camera is silent. So is the television. It’s just me, the fruit, the organic sugar, the kettles of boiling water. I pretty much can marmalade the same way my grandmother canned marmalade. We’ve been doing this for centuries.

Of course, my grandmother and my ancestors before her did it for survival. If they didn’t grow their own food and preserve it for use during the long winters when the earth lay fallow, resting from one season in preparation for the next, they would could go hungry. People used to be so much more self-sufficient than they are today. And while I enjoy the convenience of having a grocery store just down the hill where I can buy pretty much any food I desire, that food doesn’t taste the same as what I grow and preserve myself.

There is something spiritual about preserving your own food. As I stand at the sink, washing the fruit, I think about where it was grown, the tree that mothered it until maturity. I give a prayer of thanks for that tree. I thank the sun that warmed its leaves, the water than nourished its roots, allowing it to grow, to blossom, to produce fruit. A grapefruit is no less a miracle than a bear cub, a kitten, or an eaglet. If conditions were not just right, the fruit I now preserve would not exist.

My fantasy, my dream, is that some day Scott and I could have a little farm—just a few acres, where we can grow our own grapefruit and oranges, tomatoes and greens and squash. I want to grow pinto beans and black beans to dry for winter soups and stews. Peaches and plums. We’d have a few chickens for eggs (not for eating), and perhaps a dairy cow. I long to return to a simpler time. Technology is just too energy draining at times.

But only when I let it be. For now, I’m going to enjoy looking at the beautiful jars of amber Earth Mage Marmalade while I bake a loaf of crusty, Earth Mage bread to go with it.

Just like my grandmother and my ancestors before her did.

 

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The Huntington, Part I

Scott and I don’t always travel to the mountains, or desert, or ocean to experience nature. Sometimes, we find nature at the fabulous parks Los Angeles has to offer. Yesterday was just such a day. We visited the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, a paradise for nature lovers, art lovers, food lovers, and book lovers. As these are four out of our five favorite things (music being the only thing missing here), how could we not have a splendid day?

We stop first by a grandmother oak tree just outside the desert garden.  As I place my hands on the ancient giant, I am first aware of me touching her—her coarse bark, her cool temperature. But as I stand there, waiting, I realize my fingers are feeling something different: they feel Tree  touching me. I become aware of each ripple of my fingerprint, and the temperature of my hand begins to warm, to synchronize with Tree’s temperature.

Grandmother Oak

I feel a pulsing, almost electrical in its feel, flowing from Tree to me, and then back again. In a moment’s time, I feel Tree’s stories: how wild this place was when she was but a sapling. How important her job is now, offering shade to the tender succulents growing beneath—and in some cases, among—her massive branches. She is ancient. She has seen much. She has much more to see before she dies and her branches become compost, offering life to a new generation.

We move on through the desert garden, and are enchanted to find we are not too late to experience the cactus in bloom. There are blossoms of every color:

Pink Blossoms

Pink Cactus Blossom

Red Blossoms

Red Cactus Blossom

Purple Blossoms

Purple Cactus Blossom

Yellow Blossoms

Yellow Cactus Blossom

Some of the cacti are immense, their crowns touching the sky.

Sky Scrapers

Some are quite small, their blossoms the size of Scott’s fingertip.

Tiny Cactus Blossom

We approach a showy tower of jewels, which thrums with life. Bees explore virtually every inch of the fragrant pink blossoms, gathering nectar to take back to their hive.

Tower of Jewels

Bee Exploring Tower of Jewels

Around a turn in the path, we find a yellow petals carpeting the ground like yellow snow.

Yellow Blossom Snow

Yellow Blossom Tree

This tree, too, thrums with bee activity. How busy the bees are on this fabulous day, where the temperatures hover in the mid-seventies and the sun dapples the desert floor beneath the cactus and palms. Yet, as they drift from blossom to blossom, there doesn’t seem to be any sense of urgency among them.  They just do what they do, moving among the yellow blossoms. I take a deep breath, then exhale slowly. I close my eyes. I try to think like a bee, focusing on nothing but the blossom in front of me. I block out all thoughts of bills to pay, errands to run, blogs to write. I am the bee, for just those few precious moments. How I wish I could maintain this sense of calm, of peace!

For humans, living in the moment is a difficult thing to do. Our lives too often run at a frantic pace, as we dash from here to there, answering calls and texts on our smart phones as we go, always in touch, always reaching out and touching others—electronically. These bees know nothing of our technologically driven lives. They know only the gathering of nectar, the protection of the hive and their queen. They just are. They are a perfect example of the verb “to be” in its purest form.

Oh, to be more like the bee!

(The Huntington is to vast a place to write about in one blog. More to come in a day or two!)

Smoky is an ardent outdoorswoman with a deep reverence for nature. She lives in California with her husband, daughter, and a menagerie of animals, both domestic and wild, in a ramshackle cottage in the woods. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time hiking in the mountains, camping in the Sierras, splashing in tidepools, and resisting the urge to speak in haiku.

Her book, Observations of an Earth Mage, is available at Amazon and Vanilla Heart Publishing.

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