Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Christmas Owls

Once upon a time there was a woman who liked to listen to owls. It happened this way.

She had lived in The City for a long time—too long. One day, she packed her small car with her animals and some belongings, and joined by her companion, she headed home. Because she had always wanted to live in the country, she decided to look for a place outside the city limits.

She got lucky. Down a dirt road, she found an old farmhouse—raised off the ground as the old cracker-style homes are—with a screened front porch, tin roof, heart pine paneling in three rooms, an old propane heater for the cold months and a huge yard with a western breeze for the hot months, and big, old, beautiful big trees—live oak, hackberry, pear, dogwood, and pecan.

It wasn’t long after she moved in with her companion that she met the owls. Sitting on the back stoop one night at sunset, she heard a strange little whinny followed by other whinnies and strange hooting noises. In that twilight time when light and shadow play tricks on the eyes, she watched as her whole yard filled with tiny swooping shapes and haunting calls.

Because she had lived in The City for too long, she had to ask people who know about these things what she had seen, and then she realized that it had a been a family of little screech owls—probably some of them fledglings who were leaving their nest for the first time.

The woman continued to see the little owls and hear their calls. One day she realized that the owls were bringing her a message. She found out that her father was very ill, and was soon to die.

One night after her father had died, there was a terrible storm. After the storm, the woman didn’t hear or see the screech owls any more.

Instead of the screech owls, the woman began to hear the distinctive cries of the larger barred owls: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” punctuated by the owls’ occasional loud screams and laughs. Sometimes the woman would hear a more rare call, the softer hooting of the great horned owls, but it was mainly the barred owls that sang to her.

She came to love the calls of the barred owls so much that her companion would come in from outside to tell her, “Your people are out there, calling for you,” and she would go out to listen and to marvel.

She liked living in the country so much that she decided she would like to work in the country too, so she got a job in a state park. She was leaving work one day when she spotted two big great horned owls in a large tree, mating. At another time, she watched as a family of tiny barn owls that could be spotted through a hole in a large tree grew to adulthood. And at home, she felt honored to sometimes catch a glimpse of a barred owl eating its dinner, spitting bits of discarded food onto the ground from high up in the trees by the sinkhole near her house.

One night she even dreamed she was an owl. She flew low to the ground over the pasture behind her house, hunting for mice and rats. When she woke from the dream, she woke to the words and music of an owl song humming in her head.

When her mother was sick and in the hospital, the woman traveled to be with her and to do what she could to help. Driving back from the hospital to her mother’s house just after twilight one November night, the woman was surprised to hear the calls of screech owls coming from the oaks in every direction throughout her mother’s yard. She had never heard the screech owls there before, and it was the first time she had heard so many screech owls since before her father died.

Not long after that, the woman’s mother died.

With the money she got from the sale of her mother’s house, the woman bought her own house even farther from town than the places she had been renting. She could hear the barred owls some nights, down by the river, but one night the woman got a little worried. Her companion was sick, and she heard one lone screech owl whinnying in the pines behind her house.

Sure enough, her companion got sicker—very sick, in fact. But thanks to some good doctors, he didn’t die.

The woman wondered if the fact she had heard only one screech owl was some kind of indicator that his illness would not kill him.

The woman missed having owls in her yard. So she planted some young live oak trees, thinking that maybe the owls might eventually find her yard a pleasant place to be.

She spent some time contemplating her relationship with the owls. She knew that owls were often considered omens of death, but that they were also the companions of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and that they were associated in different cultures with healing powers, magic, and clairvoyance.

She learned that owls and hawks often share the same territory, with owls hunting at night and hawks during the daytime. The woman built a relationship with hawks, as well, while living in the country—indeed, one of the woman’s family names indicated that her ancestors might well have been falconers. In her heart she began to resonate, more and more, with the raptors.

One night she had a dream—or was it a vision in that state between sleeping and waking?—that she was lying on the ground and looking up, and a small parliament of owls was flying overhead. She was struck by the very human look on the faces of the owls, and then it came to her: Long ago, people had seen the eyes of owls flying overhead and had imagined that the owls were people, and from this vision had come the idea that witches can shapeshift and fly.

So one particular Christmas, the woman was delighted when her companion made her a gift of several little owls. One owl image hung from a bell. Another was a metal sculpture of a group of three owls. And there were a couple of pairs of owls, and one wee baby owl.

And the woman welcomed the new owls into her home as she had learned, over the years, to welcome the wildness of the raptors into her heart.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Seminole Pumpkins in Soup

The first of the five Seminole pumpkins that ripened got used in this soup, a mix of leftover turkey from Thanksgiving, barley, black beans, and other veggies.

The big golden globs are the pieces of pumpkin. And yes, they are delicious!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ferals' Progress, Part 9 (Bedfellows)

The cold weather (in the 30s here last night) makes many combinations of bedfellows. It's a tribute to patience and persistence on our part and tolerance on their part that we found this pile of red cats on the futon here in the house today.

When we first got the ferals, they wouldn't come near us. They spent the first few years of residence here huddled under a heat lamp on the back screened porch when the nights turned cold. Finally, slowly but surely, they migrated into the house, where conditions are better—especially during our weather extremes of summer and winter.

From left to right, above, that's Bill (aka William of Orange) and Angie (aka T-Angie-Rine) with her little arm giving Grover (aka Orange Grover) a hug.

It's like a little miracle; I was really never sure anything like this would ever happen. Mom would be pleased, I think.

Success! Five Harvested Seminole Pumpkins

While five pumpkins aren't really a lot, they're more than we've ever managed to grow before, so I'm counting this year's crop, above, as a huge success.

It got colder than forecast last night and the pumpkin vine got nipped, so the pumpkins were picked today. They should continue to ripen in the house, hopefully, and should all eventually turn the same color as the palest one. I've heard they store well, so I'm looking forward to enjoying pumpkin "something" from this crop over the next several months.

So, now we know it CAN be done—and next year, we will try again.

Monday, November 22, 2010

“The Gulf Between Us” by Terry Tempest Williams in Orion Magazine

One of my favorite writers, Terry Tempest Williams, has written a long, thoughtful, and thought-provoking article called “The Gulf Between Us” that appears in the November-December 2010 issue of Orion Magazine. The article describes her trip to the Gulf of Mexico and the people she met in the aftermath of BP’s oil spill.

Thanks to Terry and Orion, the article is available on line at:

There is a recording of a followup call in which Terry and others discuss the situation in the Gulf Region; you can listen to it here:

Look for the heading marked “Archived Calls” and click on the November 17 call.

I am posting this information in my blog because I think what’s gone on in the Gulf, and what’s going on there right now, are possibly the biggest untold stories of our time, and I want more people to know about them.

For example: Did you know that there are people—not birds, not fish, not marine mammals, not turtles, but PEOPLE—in the Gulf Region who are sick, chemically poisoned by the Corexit used to “disperse” the oil, and who cannot receive medical attention? I did not know this until I read Terry’s article and listened to her call.

I’ll admit that the conference call made me cry, and not just because of the chemical poisonings. There’s just so much there that resonates with me.

First, this is a major news story that's not being reported anywhere else, as near as I can tell. Where are the journalists? Why isn’t the fact that there are people here in the USA who are chemically poisoned plastered all over the newspapers and the TV? Have we become so numbed that we’d just simply rather fret about “Dancing With the Stars”?

Second, Terry makes some excellent points on the conference call about how artists, writers, musicians and other creatives need to be involved in keeping stories like this alive—bearing witness for the benefit of others.

Third, there are more excellent points made in the call about the need to move beyond preaching to the usual environmental choir, and important questions raised about the commitment to environmental preservation (or lack of it) not only here in the USA, but around the world.

Something else struck me about the Gulf Region as I was waking up yesterday morning.

Following the loss of Gulf wetlands, following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and now following the BP oil disaster, I glimpsed that the situation in the Gulf right now offers us a clear view of the choices that we as a society are going to have to make, and soon.

There are probably as many people in the Gulf Region who make their living in what I call nature-based jobs—fishing, shrimping, and otherwise relying on the ocean to support their tourist-related or other ocean-related businesses—as make their living working in oil-based jobs, working for the oil industry.

Now, given disasters both natural and man-made, all these people—both the nature-based workers and the oil-based workers—are suffering the loss of their way of life.

The nature-based jobs have taken a hit—although hopefully only temporarily, but we don’t know yet—by the oil. And the oil-based jobs took a hit from the oil industry itself, when the BP disaster resulted in a drilling moratorium.

So, what’s it to be? Will we choose to support the nature-based jobs or the oil-based jobs? I see this very much as an “or” choice, not an “and” choice, because the oil obviously has the potential to ruin everything. If we choose the oil-based jobs, how soon will such a disaster happen again, and what will be the costs? Because people aren’t perfect. We make mistakes. And when we make mistakes, we can screw up whole ecosystems, and whole ways of life.

We can decide, now, that we want to end our dependence on oil and begin a massive, society-wide effort to do this; or we can lumber along, ignoring the problem and sticking our collective heads in the sand, and wait for the next disaster to overwhelm the next unlucky region and drive yet more folks into poverty.

Luckily, Terry is not a gloom-and-doom environmentalist. I was heartened to hear on the conference call the talk of a Marshall Plan-like effort for restoring the Gulf Region’s ecosystems and economy. If ever there were an ideal site for such an effort in the USA, the Gulf Region is it. I wonder how many people could be put to work if such an effort—one that might include an all-out push to develop solar and other alternative energy sources—received backing not only from our government, but also from our banks and private businesses, many of whom have enjoyed windfall profits due in part to the labors of the men and women who live near the Gulf of Mexico? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, collectively, we could build a broad coalition of people—of all races and all political persuasions—to help?

Please do me a favor and read Terry’s article and listen to the conference call; it’s important, and time’s a-wastin’. Thanks.

I took the picture, above, at Cedar Key, Florida, the day of the Hands Across the Sand event last summer. We are fortunate—very, very fortunate—that the BP oil spill did not affect us here. Next time, of course, could be very different.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Young Adult Pumpkins

Yeehaw! Some of our Seminole pumpkins have actually grown, and are approaching maturity. We are keeping our fingers crossed that we can avoid any really cold weather until these young "punks" are ready to be picked.

This was our first year with trying to grow these pumpkins with a later (as opposed to earlier, when they would succumb to mildew) planting date. Now that we know it can be done, we just have to figure out exactly when that later planting date should be.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What Price Clarity?/or, What about the ‘common good' in regard to water?

Back in the dark ages when I went to school, classes in Civics and American History were required even into the college years. In these classes, we learned that sometimes the members of a society would choose to have laws that—while they might be burdensome for individuals—were important enough for the common good that people would agree to abide by them.

Lately I wonder if this idea of “the common good” hasn’t been lost in space. I’m thinking, in particular, about the renewed debates about recent actions that have been taken to protect the quality of our water supply.

Because the State of Florida has, to a large extent, refused to do its job with regard to water protection, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has stepped in to mandate water quality standards. And of course, people are protesting this—based, in many cases, on debatable financial analyses of what meeting the new standards might cost them.

One thing the State did right was to enact a law to ensure that septic tanks are maintained in good working condition. Now, after the latest elections, there are loud cries for that law to be repealed because it will cost homeowners to have their tanks pumped out every so often, or repair or replace them if they start to leak.

At the core of the debates about these issues, it seems to me, are issues that are bigger, even, than economics or government control.

The core issues—from where I sit in my home near the Santa Fe River—are, How important is it to us to have a clean, clear water supply? Are we, collectively, going to go on fouling our waters without considering what effects our actions will have not only on us, but on the kind of world we leave to our children and our grandchildren? Is the idea of “common good” still viable in today’s society? What kind of a society do we really want to be?

We know what the problems are with regard to our rivers and springs and the Floridan Aquifer that nurtures us: too many nitrates from leaky septic tanks and agribusiness, a population that is almost certain to grow in the coming years, and the voracious appetites of water bottling companies and other industries whose use of our water resources threatens the amount of water that is available to all the rest of us.

So if we are all a part of the water problem, doesn’t it stand to reason that we all need to be part of the solution?

Thinking back to those old Civics and American History classes, here is what I wish some political leader who loves Florida would stand up and say to us now.

The decision to maintain and protect our water supply is one that should not be based solely on economics. Because all of us need clean water to survive and remain healthy, each of us has a part to play in maintaining the health of our waters. The decisions we make today will determine the amount and quality of water we have tomorrow, and the water that is available for our descendents. If we decide, collectively, that clean water really is a priority for us, then each one of us is going to have to make sacrifices and changes in the ways we live and the ways we do business.

Which, in the long run, leads us back some economic questions: How can we afford to live here if our water supply gets so bad that we cannot use it? What price are we willing to pay, now, for clarity?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Teenage Pumpkins

With some encouragement, our Seminole pumpkin plants have begun to climb the fence, and there are quite a few blossoms.

We are keeping our fingers crossed!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Baby Seminole Pumpkins

One of my aspirations for my next life is to live on a pumpkin farm, some place where there are actually four distinct seasons and autumn is as glorious as I experienced it in October two years ago on a trip to KTD in the Catskills.

Pre-climate change, October was always my favorite month because that was when we Floridians could expect the first serious cold (or at least cooler) weather of the year. Nowadays, that season seems to have bumped up into November or beyond. But my love of autumn, of Halloween, and of pumpkins has only grown stronger over the years.

It was only recently, however, that I discovered that there are pumpkins that are native to Florida—Cucurbita moschata, the Seminole pumpkins, or chassa-howitska in the Creek (Native American) language, "hanging pumpkin."

My first introduction to the Seminole pumpkin came from the wonderful pumpkin bread served at the Florida Folk Festival held every year on Memorial Day weekend in White Springs. Mmmmm....

My second encounter came when I was working for the Florida Park Service and one of the rangers at Dudley Farm was growing these native squash. Until then, I had no idea that one could grow pumpkins in Florida, but evidently the chassa-howitskas are prolific farther south.

These are climbing pumpkins. Amy Goldman, in her beautiful book The Compleat Squash, relates how one vine covered four acres of a grapefruit grove with hundreds of pumpkins, and how "...John Bartram, the noted Philadelphia botanist, found it exceedingly curious in 1774 'to behold the wild Squash climbing over the lofty limbs of the trees; its yellow fruit, somewhat the size and figure of a large orange, pendant from the extremities of the limbs over the water.'" (p. 93)

We had tried growing Seminole pumpkins before, but always planted earlier in the summer and lost the plants to mildew and rot. This year, we are trying later in the summer, from some seeds saved from previous years.

Here (above) is the baby picture of our pumpkins that I took a few weeks ago.

Highly recommended for fellow pumpkin fans: The Compleat Squash: A Passionate Grower's Guide to Pumpkins, Squashes, and Gourds, by Amy Goldman, published by Artisan, New York.

Friday, September 17, 2010


I have a confession to make. I like to mow.

In the Florida summer heat, mowing can be more than a challenge--it can be dangerous. Stay out too long, and you risk not only sunburn but also dehydration, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke, the last of which can be fatal. So you have to be careful, take a lot of breaks, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. I alternate Gatorade, when we have it, with water.

I'm not a big lover or supporter of the idea of "a lawn." I think grass is highly overrated; it requires too much water, for one thing, and we are moving into a time when we are all going to have to conserve water. I'm much more intrigued by the idea of using native plants for landscaping, thereby cutting down on the need for watering with the added benefit of providing food and shelter for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.

But when I bought my house, there was a huge lawn. Converting it is going to take time; I can't afford to pay thousands for a landscaper to come in and re-make the yard instantaneously. So for now, we must mow.

But we are heading into the time of year when mowing can be a joy. Even though the love bugs are back, it's less humid now than it was at the height of the summer. The quality of light is less harsh; it has more of a golden hue than the white heat of July. And there's more of a chance for a breeze.

I like mowing because it gives me an excuse to get outside and move around, and immerse myself in these changes of late summer/early autumn. I have a really sedentary job, so any opportunity for physical exercise is a welcome relief.

When we first moved back to Florida from California, we rented an old cracker shack on about 130 acres. Next to our house was a picturesque old barn where, we were told, neighbors used to gather for weekend dances and parties. There were a couple of huge, old live oak trees next to the barn--some of the biggest trees I've ever seen, one of which came down after the fourth hurricane in 2004, the season of Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne.

One autumn afternoon I was out mowing behind the old red barn. The sun was going down. The moon—a harvest moon, not quite full but close—was rising. Somewhere in between the sun's beginning to set and the moon's rising, a breeze kicked up and the weather shifted, and the oak branches started to wave in celebration. It was one of those unexpected moments that happen sometimes--and that take my breath away--when I find myself suspended between earth and sky, caught up in the beauty of the world and marveling at Mother Nature's magic.

I couldn't stop mowing—I had to finish while there was still light—but mowing at that moment ceased to be a chore and became a joy. The sun, the moon, the oaks, the barn, the breeze, the welcome shift in the weather all combined to make a kind of magic.

It was then that I realized I like to mow.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Perfect Naga Day

Today I went to make an offering to the naga at our local spring. It was a perfect late-summer morning, clear and warm but not humid, with a strong breeze that rippled the water into sparkling diamond patterns.

The river has been high and the tea-colored river water has obscured the spring, tinting the water in the shallows an unusual golden color.

After I made the offering, as I was standing on the limestone shelf that surrounds the spring, I noticed many medium-sized fish approaching me in the sparkling water. I stood very still, and the school of fish gathered around me and hovered in place, staring at me. I was surrounded by shimmering water and glistening fish!

As I stood there, I thought about what His Holiness Karmapa had said this morning, on the first day of his autumn teachings.*

Karmapa's topic is "How to Generate Relative Bodhicitta," the wish for all sentient beings to become enlightened. We are so wrapped up in our own wants and needs, Karmapa said, that it is hard for us to remember to shift our focus to other sentient beings. As an example, he referred to the animal realm: "These are the real owners of our world," and not just those animals we can see, but also those we cannot—such as nagas.

We kill many of these animals, some for fun, some for food. Who is to protect them and serve their interests? And what about the bigger picture of the whole environment, and those it sustains? We must consider these things, Karmapa said (and this was the part of the talk where I noticed he was most animated).

"This is not just big talk, but a critical responsibility that challenges us," he said. It is the responsibility of each individual to benefit each and every other individual, so that we begin a chain reaction of helping each other. If this does not happen now, we have no guarantee that we will have this chance again in the future.

We need to pay attention to "what is really going on in the world, and what sentient beings are being made to experience." We need to consider the happiness of the whole environment. What companies serve sentient beings? (What companies do not?)

The Earth does not discriminate with regard to who lives on it. Cultivation of relative bodhicitta means that we must be ready, willing, and able to take responsibility for the sentient beings who share our world.

So this morning, standing in the spring surrounded by fish, watching the constantly changing patterns and swirling energy in the golden breeze-swept water, I stopped for a moment to consider: What energies am I a part of? What energies am I sending out? Am I really up to this responsibility of caring for and helping all other sentient beings?

I think if I am going to study with Karmapa—and from what I have learned from my other dear teachers—the answer must be yes.

*Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the teachings are being live streamed on the Internet.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Fall Colors, Part 2

From the rich purples of the beautyberries and the golden hues that begin to shine in leaves and grasses, we turn to the other sacred colors of fall—orange and blue.

Today is the first day of football season at the University of Florida. Yes, the Gator Nation extends even out into the boondocks where we live, and football fever has been palpable now for a couple of weeks.

Football fever is the sign of the times—a sure guarantee that autumn has, indeed, arrived—as witnessed by this proclamation at a neighbor's driveway.


Fall Colors, Part 1

Forrest has done remarkable things with our garden spot this year. There's a profusion of flowery plants attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds, although we think our hummers may have already left for Guatemala.

Of course my favorites are always the beautyberries, with their gorgeous purple berries that serve, in these parts, to herald the arrival of autumn.

About the same time that the beautyberries turn purple, the night-blooming jasmine begins to perfume the air. We started our plant from cuttings from a plant at my parents' house, and our jasmine dies back every winter (winters are colder here than they are in Central Florida); fortunately, it regenerates every spring. Now, we are just starting to get the first subtle whiffs of sweetness when the sun goes down.

Autumn has always been my favorite season, maybe because my birthday falls near the equinox, maybe because of the new energies associated with the beginning of the academic year. I spent the largest part of my life either in school or working various jobs in higher education, so fall semester = fresh start, which is kind of odd, since autumn is traditionally a time for harvesting and weeding out.

And of course, there are other fall rituals as well. See next post.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Kind, Kind Root Guru

Kind, kind root guru,
We have long been connected through deep aspiration
You are committed to kindness; don't abandon me now!
Kind, single father: regard me with wisdom.

I am tormented by chains of karma and kleshas.
I am ignorant, stupid, and infantile.
I may be swept away by the waves of my suffering in the ocean of samsara.
Compassionate one, grasp me with the hook of your kindness.

When I embark on the path of the essence, supreme means,
My heart may be poisoned by the demon of pointless depression.
I may sink into the quicksand of distraction and laziness.
Kind one, extend the long arm of your power.

In the darkness of my obscurations' clouds,
I do not see the authentic essence, absolute truth.
I wander about, blinded by self-fixation.
One with blessing, grant me eyes of wisdom.

Your devoted child prays to you from afar.
Please hold me with great compassion.
Now, later, between, and always,
Hold me, beings' protector, supreme guru.
Beyond a moment's separation,
Grant the blessing of your mind uniting with mine.

Written by Barway Dorje at the request of a young woman named Tseyang. Virtue!

From Treasury of Eloquence: The Songs of Barway Dorje, translated by Yeshe Gyamtso, KTD Publications, 2007, p. 279.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hands Across the Sand, June 26

Hands Across the Sand, an event/movement that began here in Florida, is gearing up for what may be the largest demonstration ever held against ocean oil drilling. The event—which has now gone global—will be held for 15 minutes beginning at noon local time, wherever you are, on Saturday, June 26.

I am planning to participate at a small beach on the Gulf Coast, and I imagine that folks who live inland can participate as well. If you don't find a site near you on this link, just pick a site, preferably near water, register it by emailing one of the folks listed here, and invite your friends. It might be good to alert your local media as well.

Never underestimate the power of a good picture and a cogent quote.

If not us, who? If not now, when?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Seeker

I heard legends about this hidden valley long before I found it, and now it takes my breath away—a place where the animals have no fear and communicate with humans through mental images; where birds gather to fly before you and guide you if you have lost your way; where the trees shimmer with life force in the sunlight and the plants and grasses heal your ills; where the water is clean and cool and sings mantras as it rushes over smooth grey stones; where the natural world is a living, breathing, magical thing; and where the spirits and local guardians welcome visitors who have loving and compassionate hearts.

It sounds idyllic, and I’m sure it is, but my real destination is the mountain in the distance. It’s said that travelers who make the ascent come down the mountain changed somehow—either crazy, or gifted with the power of poetry.

I’ve always loved poetry. I have decided to take my chances.

I have found this valley, and the way to the mountain, by what feels like serendipity. I saved this red fox, or one of her kin, from a hunter once; now, she has trotted ahead of me up this almost-hidden trail, and we have come upon this magic valley. She has turned to see if I will follow. Yes.

Yes, although I am barely equipped for such a long journey. I set out today only to swim in my favorite spring and then sit a while in meditation beneath my favorite oak. Luckily, I brought my walking stick and my pouch of precious objects—a labradorite wand, two flint stones, a tarot talisman, a small bag of cornmeal, and my sacred feathers, these last a gift from my grandmother, long ago. I’m not carrying water, but with that clear river down below, I don’t think I’ll be thirsty. I’ll feast on the plants and grasses that I find.

My life, up until now, has not been entirely satisfactory. I know that there is much I need to learn about how to live in harmony with Mother Earth and all Her creatures, and with my fellow humans. Some people would say that my journey is a fool’s errand; I prefer to think of it as a gift, a blessed opportunity. And I get the distinct impression that when I come back, I will be a different person.

I hesitate for a minute, taking in the vista and feeling the soft grass and firm earth beneath my feet. I feel grounded; I feel ready.

I wonder who I’ll meet.

In the Gaian Tarot Circle, one of the exercises we're encouraged to do is to write about the cards. This was my first effort—for The Seeker card (pictured above), created by Joanna Powell Colbert as part of this lovely new deck, the Gaian Tarot.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Happy Birthday, Gary Snyder!

Gary Snyder, one of my all-time favorite poets, has a birthday today. Here's a poem I heard him read when I was living in California, about another of my all-time favorites, Lew Welch. And yes, I got chills when I heard him read it, too.

For/From Lew

Lew Welch just turned up one day,
live as you and me. "Damn, Lew" I said,
"you didn't shoot yourself after all."
"Yes I did," he said,
and even then I felt the tingling down my back.
"Yes you did, too," I said—"I can feel it now."
"Yeah" he said,
"There's a basic fear between your world and
mine. I don't know why.
What I came to say was,
teach the children about the cycles.
The life cycles. All the other cycles.
That's what it's all about, and it's all forgot."

-from Axe Handles, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1983 (p. 7)

Mother's Day Musings/Bumcham, Machik's Mother

On this Mother's Day weekend, I have been pondering what it must have been like to have been Machik Labdron's mother.

So much emphasis is placed in the Buddhist teachings on the energies of our mothers—how they protect and care for us when we are helpless, without asking for anything in return. We are encouraged to extend this lovingkindness—the wish for a tiny baby to be happy—and compassion—the wish for a tiny baby not to suffer—to all sentient beings, beginning first with ourselves and then extending outward in spirals to include those people for whom we feel affection, those people toward whom we feel neutral, and finally to those people we dislike and toward whom we feel hatred and revulsion.

But what must it have been like to have been a mother who had prophetic dreams in which her heart was cut out of her and feasted on by dakinis, to be replaced by a glistening white right-turning conch shell? It's said that Bumcham, Machik's mother, was not disturbed by this dream imagery—in fact, it brought her bliss, and she felt better than before!

While she was pregnant with Machik, at age 48, Bumcham's wrinkles faded and everyone commented on how young she looked. It was said she could see in the dark, that at night her room was lit as from the glow of butter lamps, and that she knew the thoughts of other people.

And then there was her daughter, Machik, "One Mother," who would one day become a mother herself, born with three eyes and able to speak. What a shock that must have been! It seems Bumcham dealt with the shock gracefully. By the time Machik was born, Bumcham probably had a good idea that she was birthing someone special.

Bumcham—who, with her husband, was a dharma practitioner—was likely little Machik's first dharma teacher. It's said that the two of them recited sutras together in the family chapel.

Bumcham died when Machik was 10 or 13 (I've read both ages), so the two of them had only a short time together, but I'm sure her influence on Machik was important for both of them.

I wonder if Bumcham took rebirth or went to a pure land? I've never read anything more about her, other than in Machik's biography.

Of course, to each mother her baby is special, a gift, and all time together is special. On Mother's Day, let us honor the best about our mothers, who are often our first spiritual teachers, and honor ways to pass the lessons of lovingkindness and compassion on to the young people in our lives.

Happy Mother's Day!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Naga Skins

The nagas must be pleased. They have left us gifts—two newly-shed skins under the boxwood bushes in the front yard. Forrest found the first one, then I spied the second. I like to think the nagas were sunning themselves, all warm and happy, and shed almost simultaneously.

I wonder where they are now?

We think they are maybe black racers.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Pine Candles Moon

I've heard the new growth on pine trees described as "pine candles," and that's an apt description. For a couple of weeks now, on my way home from work, I've been passing some classic examples, and waiting for just the right time to take a picture.

Tonight was IT, in the evening light with the sun setting behind me and the moon rising ahead, temperatures in the 70s and a brisk breeze that made it feel even cooler.

In another two months, we will be shut up in the house running the air conditioner and fans, and evenings like this one will be beautiful dreams that will, hopefully, carry us through another brutal Florida summer. The pine candles will have turned to green boughs, and these trees will be a good foot to foot-and-a-half taller.

Remember to click on the picture for a better view!

Ferals' Progress, Part 8 (Bill's Stomach)

Yes, Bill..aka William of a housecat!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Naga Tree, Part 3

Finally, here's a view of the whole tree. Remember that you can click on the picture for a bigger view.

Naga Tree, Part 2

Here's another view of the Cellon Oak, looking back toward the trunk from one of the branches that runs along near the ground.

Naga Tree, Part 1

Nagas are sometimes said to live in powerful trees, and there's no local tree more powerful than the Cellon Oak, Florida's state champion live oak located just a little bit north of Gainesville.

The trunk is 30 feet in circumference. The oak is 85 feet high, and the average spread of the crown is 160 feet. Supposedly it is visible from space via Google Earth!

One picture can't do this tree justice, because to get the whole tree in a photo you have to back up about a quarter of a mile—so I'll post a couple of shots. Here's a closeup, above.

The Cellon (pronounced SEE-lun) Oak was named for a descendant of one of Alachua County's pioneer families. Painter Angela Hoppe has rendered a lovely image of this tree that graces the poster of this weekend's Santa Fe College Spring Arts Festival.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Purple Wisteria

As long as I'm on a wisteria kick, I thought I'd post a picture of the purple-flowered plant I pass on my way to work every day.

This picture was taken in mid-morning light, which was rather harsh. The blossoms have also begun to fade a little bit.

I learned last year that if I don't stop and take pictures of certain plants within a very short window of time, that chance disappears for another year. Wisteria is one of the plants that doesn't bloom for that long, and our dogwood trees have already started to lose their flowers and leaf out. I saw a big flurry of dogwood blossoms coming down in a breeze just this morning, like dakinis dancing in the wind.

The phlox, however, will bloom for quite a while—pink and purple carpets of wildflowers along the roads and in the old fields.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Pine with Wisteria

I couldn't resist posting this one too. For more information, see "White Wisteria" (previous post).

Remember that you can click on the picture for a better view.

White Wisteria

This may become known as the Spring When Everything Bloomed at Once. I pass a tall pine tree on my way to work that is covered in white wisteria, a vine that climbs almost to the top of the tree.

Since I've only figured out how to post one picture per blog entry, I decided on the closeup (above) because it gives a better view of the wisteria's flowers—but the picture of the whole tree with the vine climbing up it is pretty impressive, too.

Wisteria is a member of the pea family, and Wikipedia says there are about 10 species of climbing vines native to the Eastern United States and the Asian countries of China, Korea, and Japan.

I've always loved the purple wisteria, and the little plant we started from a cutting that belonged to my mother's neighbor is hanging in there but not doing well enough to warrant a photo. The white-flowered wisteria is not as common down here, so my jaw dropped about a foot when I first saw this vine on our neighborhood pine tree.

I think in one of my parallel lives, I live in an old wood frame house with a huge porch that is shaded by a thick, luxuriant growth of purple wisteria. In the hot summer afternoons after I come back from the springs, I drink limeade on the front porch and swish the bugs away with my grandmother's heart-shaped palm leaf fan.

I just found out that this vine was planted by my neighbor Bonnie's aunt. Talk about deep roots in the neighborhood! (See previous post.)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Bonnie's Flowering Dogwood

My neighbor Bonnie lives in a house that sits where her mama and daddy's home used to be, at the highest point of the glen. She has an unobstructed view of the setting sun and some of the most wonderful wildflowers I've ever seen, and she also has this magnificent dogwood tree that she says is a descendent of the old dogwood she remembers when she was growing up.

She has often told me, "I would never want to live anywhere else."

My family moved so much when I was young that it is hard for me to imagine what it must be like to be rooted so deeply to one place. I am rooted here, now, by love—but that's not the same as loving a place you've grown up in, a place where you and your parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins once, twice, and thrice removed all have history going back probably hundreds of years.

If I had to choose them, I'd choose two places where I felt rooted growing up. When I was very young, my paternal grandparents' house in Arlington, Texas, was a stable center for family vacations. When I was a little bit older, my roots shifted to my great-aunt and uncle's old house in Orlando, and then to my parents' house there.

As an adult, I've lived in North Central Florida longer than I've lived anywhere else—but the roots I've put down here are very shallow compared to those of my neighbors.

The flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is described in Florida's Best Native Landscape Plants as "One of northern Florida's most attractive and well-loved trees...a showy indicator of spring." Bonnie's dogwood is certainly putting on a show this spring!

If you live anywhere in the eastern U.S. from Massachusetts to Central Florida and west to Illinois, Oklahoma, and Texas, you've probably seen this tree and know what a welcome sight its flowers can be after a long, cold winter.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

An Offering to a Naga

In Machik's Complete Explanation, the Tibetan saint Machik Labdron explains to her followers that there are many unseen beings and spirits that co-inhabit our world.

Even though I've never been one to see such beings, I have absolutely no trouble in believing they exist. I can't see ultraviolet or infrared light either, or electricity, or atoms, yet scientists assure me that these things exist—so why not nagas?

Nagas–spirits who live in or near water or powerful trees–are said to be of three types. Some are "bad guys," mischievous and hurtful. Some are "good guys," and even protect the dharma teachings. Some are mutable, and can be good guys at one time and bad guys at another.

One of my teachers, Khenpo Ugyen Tenzin, has said he thinks a naga may live at our neighborhood spring.

One of my other teachers, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, recently gave me instructions on how to make offerings to our neighborhood naga.

So yesterday afternoon found me rushing to the grocery after work to buy milk and sugar—because nagas like dairy products and sweets—and then rushing home to change into shorts and drive the five minutes to the spring, just as the sun was setting.

I was in luck. The last two spring visitors were leaving on bicycles when I drove up. The only other people there were fishing at some distance from the spring. So I had some privacy, which was good.

I waded into the water and made the offering, following Khenpo's instructions as well as I was able, then stood there for a few minutes to take in the scene. It was lovely, as always. I wondered if I would ever be able to see a naga.

Today, I received two pieces of very welcome news. I am not saying this good fortune is connected with the offering, but given that everything is connected, ultimately, I would not be a bit surprised.

The most surprising thing, though, was how happy I felt that by making the offering, I had done something helpful for an unseen being, and for the Earth that sustains us.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche recently stressed to me, when I told him how inspired I am by HH Karmapa's commitment to helping the environment, that there are two reasons why it is important to take care of our surroundings.

First, of course, is because our environment sustains us, so by helping it we are actually helping ourselves.

Second is because of the unseen beings, like nagas, who can be sickened by pollution–and since it's human beings who cause pollution, guess who becomes the target for revenge by the bad guy nagas? We do.

So I am wondering if a lot of us started making appropriate offerings to the unseen beings and spirits in our local areas, could we help turn back the tide of pollution and destruction that seems to lurk everywhere we look?

And could we, for our children and grandchildren, preserve even a bit of the best that Florida has to offer?

Note: Naga offerings, and other such offerings, always come with specific instructions that I am not qualified to give. Ask your teacher what you can do, though, and you might be as surprised as I was.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Plum Blossom Spring

Every spring it's a contest between the redbuds and the plums to see which will bloom first. This year it was the plums, but not by much because we are having a very late spring.

Plum blossoms always remind me of a wonderful art exhibition that was held back in the 1980s at the museum where I used to work, the University Art Museum at UC Berkeley (now the Berkeley Art Museum). I still have the catalog: Bones of Jade - Soul of Ice: The Flowering Plum in Chinese Art.

The title was taken from a poem by Su Shi:

In Flowering-Plum Village at the foot of LuoFu Mountain,
The flowering plums' bones are of jade and snow, and their souls of ice.
In their multitude the blossoms seem moonlight hanging from the trees,
In their brightness they are alone with Orion on the horizon at dusk.

In solitude I live on rivers and seas,
Melancholy like a sick crane perching in a deserted garden.
Heavenly scent and the land's foremost beauty: a comforting sight!
They know I am heavy with wine and ready to bring forth pure, warm verse.

Here's another good one, by Zhu Dunru:

At the old creek, a single flowering plum;
It escaped being locked in a garden or park.
The road is far, the mountain deep; it does not mind the cold.
It seems to play hide-and-seek with spring.

Hidden thoughts—who knows them?
Contracting friendships it's always hard to hit it right.
Lone romance, lone fragrance—
The bright moon comes to look for me.

And finally, Wang Wei:

You have come from my home town
You must know about things at home.
On the day you left, had the winter plum
In front of my open-work window blossomed yet?

What blooms first where you live?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Mourning Doves and Mahakala

It is my last trip to KTD for the foreseeable future, unless I win the Lotto or identify some kind of funding source other than my paying job—which doesn’t really pay enough to support the lifestyle to which I would like to become accustomed, summer and fall in Woodstock, winter and spring in Florida.

I am sitting on the patio outside the old Meads Mountain House, eating lunch with friends, and I notice a tiny chickadee at the newly-installed bird feeder. Such a cute, sweet little black-capped bird!

We have had a break in the winter weather. Days are sunny, and warm enough to sit outside. After the winter we have had in Florida—and the snow that fell here in the Catskills a couple of weeks ago—I feel blessed with this springlike gift from the gods.

I have come to hear my refuge lama, the incomparable Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, give the final teaching in a two-year series about Machik Labdron and her practice of severance of fixation on the self.

Yes, I am blessed indeed.

One of my favorite things to do when I am at KTD is to sit in on the evening practice of Mahakala, the great protector of the Karma Kagyu lineage.

I love the practice when it has the full complement of instruments, especially when there are enough people so that two drums can be used. The sound of those two drums always reminds me of two hearts, beating together.

But tonight there are only three people in the shrine room for Mahakala—Tenzin Chonyi or Tenzin-la, who is the president of KTD; a lovely young woman whom I do not know who is spinning a prayer wheel with very little effort; and me.

Tenzin-la, who was sent here years ago by His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, is the only one of us who is actually doing the Mahakala practice, so there are no drums tonight.

We are about a half-hour into the hour-long practice when I notice that I am sitting across from one of the loveliest Guru Rinpoche thangkas I have ever seen, and it looks OLD. I usually sit on the other side of the room, right underneath and next to the thangka, so this feels like the first time I have ever actually seen it—and it takes my breath away.

We are about 45 minutes into the practice when I realize that Tenzin-la is chanting without a text. He must know this practice by heart!

I am stunned. I cannot imagine how many times someone would have to do Mahakala in order to be able to do the whole practice without a text.

At the end of the hour, I thank Tenzin-la and approach the young woman with the prayer wheel. I can’t think of anything intelligent to say in praise of her efforts, so I try something lame: “Doesn’t your hand get tired?” I ask, “Or, have you done this so much that you are used to it?”

“Oh, no, it’s very easy,” she says, “look,” and very generously shows me how she has attached an amber-colored glass crystal ball to the wheel as a weight, so that it practically spins by itself! I must remember this, I think, when I get a prayer wheel.

As I leave the shrine building, I am struck once again by the beauty of the mountains to the north, still dappled with snow in the evening light. On the hill above the shrine, above the line of prayer flags, I hear a rustling in the leaves—probably a squirrel, but I stop to look just in case we might be having another visit from the black bear who came down the hill for a torma feast last summer.

Tenzin-la comes along behind me and we say hello. He stops.

“Do you know what bird that is, that makes that sound?” he asks.

I don’t hear it, so I ask him to describe the sound. “Oooo-oooo,” he says.

“Well, it could be an owl,” I offer.

“No, it’s not an owl,” he says, sure of himself.

Then I hear it, clearly. “Wooo-ooo, hooo, hooo, hooo.”

“It’s a dove!” I cry, pleased that I can identify the bird by its voice. “A mourning dove.” I describe the bird to Tenzin-la, who listens again and says, “Mourning dove,” and heads across the parking lot to his home.

The dove cries again.

In an instant, I am transported from the Catskills in 2010 to 1956 and a wonderful old two-story, rambling Florida house with a great front screened porch at 521 Revere Street, near Lake Dot, near downtown Orlando, Florida—my great-aunt Grace’s house and realty office, where she lives with her husband and where my maternal grandmother and great-grandmother have a small apartment.

I am nine years old, and my parents and I have moved to Florida from Decatur, Georgia, and are living at my aunt’s house until our new home on the west side of town is finished.

The sun is hot, but there are fans in the house and lots of shade trees and cool breezes in the evening, and from dawn to dusk and sometimes even after dark we hear the soft “Wooo-ooo, hooo, hooo, hooo” cries of the mourning doves.

My grandmother and I grow closer and closer as she indulges me with scary stories and encourages my love for the mysterious, the psychic, the supernatural.

My great-grandmother insults me by calling my favorite Disney cartoon character, Peter Pan (I love him because he can fly!), “an insect.” I am not sure why I take such offense at this, but I do.

My great-aunt’s husband entertains me by occasionally speaking in a deep voice through the old house’s heating vent system. “This is the voice from the hole,” he announces with great solemnity, and his deep echoing voice elicits shrieks of delight from me and sparks laughter even from the adults.

And of course there are my parents, who take great care to do everything parents must do to make this childish nine-year-old feel safe and loved in a new home.

Amazing. Here I am on a mountain, at Karmapa’s monastery in the Catskills—yet in my mind, I have instantly been transported 1100 miles south and 54 years back in time! How is this possible?

Because of a bird call?

Of course they are all dead now—Grace and Buz, my great-aunt and her husband; my mom and dad; Momie, my great-grandmother; and my beloved grandmother, Mama Kitty, the person in my family to whom I always felt closest.

These memories are a lesson in impermanence, yes—yet so much more.

I wonder how it is possible, now that they are gone, to still feel such love for all of them.

When I was small, they kept me safe. When I was stubborn, they loved me. When I fell down off my bike and skinned my knees, they kissed the hurts. When I was naughty, they showed me what it meant to be kind and considerate of others. When I was selfish, they taught me how to give.

And it seems I only repaid them, in the end, with more bad behavior.

Standing here in the parking lot, listening to the call of the mourning dove, I feel, very viscerally, the truth of the words of the Four Vows, which I have taped above my writing area at home:

However immeasurable sentient beings, I vow to save them.

However inexhaustible the passions, I vow to extinguish them.

However immeasurable the dharmas, I vow to master them.

However incomparable the Buddha’s truth, I vow to attain it.

I could mourn those who are gone, or I could take a lesson from my teachers and wonder how is it possible that in my 62nd year, I finally have come to realize the depth of compassion that wakes that sleeping giant, bodhicitta?

It is only through the blessings of my dear teachers, I think, that this waking is even possible.

Something inside me feels cracked open, like a winged seed bursting forth from its pod, about to take flight—or like a small bird emerging from the egg.

I’m home now, and spring is coming after a long, cold winter.

The beautyberry is leafing out. Cardinals and sparrows and bluebirds and, yes, even a mourning dove are showing interest in the bird feeder in the crape myrtle in the back yard.

I’m sitting in the dining room, my favorite room in my house, eating a couple of slices of pizza. Outside in the garden spot, in the beautyberry that’s just beginning to leaf out, two chickadees alight on the same branch. They are so small! And so utterly beautiful.

I watch them, fascinated. This is why I love this room—for its view of the yard, especially at sunset.

As I watch, the chickadee on the higher part of the branch reaches down to give the lower bird what looks exactly like a tiny bird kiss!

Yes, it’s spring.

The minute I heard my first love story

I started looking for you, not knowing

How blind that was.

Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.

They’re in each other all along.