On Collateral Damage



It is June on the calendar of ordinary life, I go to a shelter made of broken branches. It is a roundish form, almost a half sphere, that is about three feet plus in height and perhaps eight or nine feet in diameter.  It gives me the impression of a large coarsely woven basket turned upside down.  There is a square shaped opening to enter on one side of the circumference. It has a charm about it like a fairytale hobbit house yet, architecturally sophisticated, so I think an adult must have had a hand in making it.   I have seen kids with paint guns playing around it on one occasion, there is that element of childhood fort-making about it.   Yesterday I was walking there with a friend and I had the not so subtle sense that there was also something dark and rather ominous hovering about the space energetically.   When we crawled inside indeed there was some left over evidence to support my feelings: crumpled up papers and a partially melted, used plastic hypodermic needle indicated that someone had spent time in there recently; not likely in ultra conscious clarity.  I arrived prepared today with some bags and gloves to clean it up.

Afterward, I walked a bit father west into another circle, a place where there was a fire a few years ago. It too is circular in form but with a different energy. I am struck by the subtle contrast.  This morning there were so many birds about I could not count the diversity or number as they appeared around the mandala of new growth. They fly around connecting eleven standing skeletons of mature trees surrounding the perimeter.   With their flight they create an invisible drawing, a web of energy, criss-crossing from tree to tree.  Young cottonwoods and Russian Olive’s are over my head in height now and it is getting difficult to see across the circumference.  Two weeks ago I was wading here in rubber boots and now the flood plain is dry again though still a bit spongy underfoot.  As I am contemplating it all I spot a ragged coyote twenty yards from me.  I am standing still and yet he immediately catches my scent and makes eye contact for a few moments, then looks behind him as another coyote steps into my view.  

I am humbled to see them, they are a rare sighting, a part of our ecological system that has suffered the consequences of our interference in nature. They are collateral damage from the destruction of their habitat and the invasion of our infrastructures.  I have always admired their determination to survive, somehow they live in this narrow passage between the river's edge and the city. They make note of me, the second one takes her time as if I too am a rare curiosity; we stare across the divide into one another's eyes for a long minute.  Ordinary reality dissolves away into the oneness of our contact with one another.  I wish I could go with them, accompany them for a walk like I would with a beloved dog. It's still morning, ten- fifteen, when I check my cell phone. I want to know if they have been up all night hunting or are they hungry all the time and rarely at rest?  I don't believe it is supposed to be like this for them, so restricted in terms of natural space, but at least, these two are free to roam.  I think about the words of Robin Wall Kimmerer from a chapter in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass.

Collateral damage: shielding words to keep us from naming the consequences of a missile gone astray.  The words ask us to turn our faces away, as if man made destruction were an inescapable fact of nature.  

Isolated coyotes and the person using under the dome of the fort-like nest, are part of the collateral damage in this eco-system. We live in such complexity, we consider much of city infrastructure as normal and necessary.  The result of industrialization and militarization that cannot be turned backward on the calendar of our evolution.  It is an overwhelming topic, one that is not easily simplified, words can be deceptive and collateral mortality shows up as a new term for the side effects of destruction in the environment.  I am thinking of the Gulf oil spill in 2010 as a prime example.  Yet, there is reason to remain optimistic for there are so many signs of life in this thinly wooded place and still so much beauty here in spite of its compromised, compressed states.  Even the needle evidence of a wounded soul reminds me that there is a journey to find wholeness; there are always potential possibilities for healing. Nature has her mysteries, she can recover from a fire in a few short years given the right balance of elements. I wonder how the Gulf has recovered.

There are natural consequences to our destructive behaviors, to our lack of mindfulness in nature and on personal levels as well-in the macrocosim and the microcosim of life-we are all effected by environmental destruction.  We are learning that slowly but surely, I have to hold to that belief in order to accept the reality of our existence in the 21st century.   One of my yoga teachers said so wisely, that when we are thrown off balance, there are often actions taken that we inevitably regret.  I have been thinking about this recently and have realized late in life how my actions of the past have hurt others.  Sometimes I wish I could return to certain instances and have the chance to bring balance to the event, or self-correct like in the movie Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray’s character keeps waking up to repeat the same day until he gets it right. So much collateral damage is the consequence of our seeming inability to walk on earth in equanimity.   May we adjust our ways into healthy alignments and stand in peaceful equanimity. May we not turn our faces away.


Karen Knows the Names

May 24, 2017

Then I move forward again, very softly, because the hawk is listening.  Slowly the dusk begins to uncoil.
-J. A. Baker, The Peregrine

Tomorrow is her birthday and we are having an early celebration walking in our matched green rubber boots through the oh-so-rare experience of water overflowing the river trails.  There are places now where the smell of standing water is a sour note but the overall joy the inner child feels mucking around in this mud adventure is so worth over-riding the scent.  When we can no longer navigate the bog and the mosquitos we turn back onto a dry trail and find ourselves parallel to the river's edge.  I know there really is no edge, it is always a shifting line but this year the boundary between sandy shore and water is remarkable.  I have heard the myth of a floodplain along the Rio Grande, yet, this is the first spring I have actually experienced it.
     The forest seems more alive, teeming with all sorts of birds.  A summer tanager greets us before we get out of my vehicle, as if to say, "welcome".  There are so many crested wax-wings singing that we think it sounds quite like a chorus of crickets.  Karen knows the names of each bird.  A beautiful grosbeak perches for me while I observe him through K's binoculars. Later she points out a chat, a bright yellow breasted bird that has a perfectly drawn black line of feathers from beak to eye.
     A dark flurry of movement, a quick peripheral encounter-we have startled something and we are unsettled by it.  To our left a Sharp-shinned hawk has flown up, up from the forest floor with prey in it's beak and lands precisely at the top of a dead tree trunk.  Standing on the broken pedestal-like form, the protagonist pauses and checks us out below; then we know for certain, it is a hawk. In a moment, it moves higher, crosses above us with prey in mouth into the crook of a substantial branch, partly but not entirely hidden from our view.  Karen and I take turns with her binoculars sighting the details as he or she begins to pull feathers from the crown of a small light-headed bird with a long beak. I cannot tell what bird it is, only their two heads are visible from where we stand below.  When hawk pulls up from his near-focus, we see it's soft, light tawny breast in contrast to it's dark grey wing feathers. It is riveting to witness.  A pure spectacle of nature.
     He sees us looking up but is most intent on feeding and must feel safe being so far above us, maybe twenty-five feet.  A woodpecker in the vicinity makes a noisy warning call while a mourning dove is quiet on the ground in front of us, until we pass by.  Karen thinks she is most likely aware the hawk is above her.  And I consider later,  that she may have witnessed more of the initial event than we did.  
     Shortly we continue to walk on and observe the feeding hawk from behind for a moment. I already feel changed forever. Because I reside in the city, having this wildness only ten minutes away gives it even more depth of meaning.  This is my first encounter with a hunting hawk from such a close vantage point and I cannot dismiss the synchronicity that I am in the midst of a book, The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker about the hunting habits of falcons along the seacoast of England in the 1960s. This feels like stepping into the book, or a slip down the rabbit hole of heightened awareness.

On route to meet Karen in the morning, I am just about to put a new CD into the player when I hear the captivating voice of David Krakauer from the Santa Fe Institute on the radio.  He is speaking on the limits of Science in the area of mathematical predictability. One of the many interesting points he makes about the limits of Science and Mathematics has to do with behavior and observation. He stated that some of the most important problems in mathematics are undecidable. We are pretty good at predictability for big orbits of large planets but with complex systems like the human brain, not as good at predicting behavior.
     We now know that what one observes is more or less influenced by the observer depending on scale. So observing a single cell in a petri dish may in fact change the outcome of the experiment, but does that apply to a human being observing a hawk in a tree?  At the end of the day, I am still pondering the hawk sighting in my mind and the absolute spectacle of this life on earth; all of the amazing interactions of earth's forms we rarely get to see but are happening around us all the time. Krakauer says that Science and Mathematics' ability to predict are limited by resources.  That one could never have enough resources to decide with certainty whether a butterfly flapping it's wings in one part of the world effects an event happening on the other side of the world. But theoretically, at least, we think it does.
     An ever interesting question: does the hawk or the butterfly flapping it's wings effect change? How could it not?  If we effect change by observation and a hawk effects change by killing it's daily prey, then I believe all this must be more than theory.  We cannot answer with the tools of decidability, but today, this hawk definitely effected Karen and me.  In the realm of the spiritual, where I believe all things are connected, it touched my heart and soul.  And moreover, if everything is a lightwave at the sub-atomic level then at creator levels every action or non-action is altering everything.  I sense there is a subtle change in my consciousness as I try to take this in; all beyond my intellectual comprehension for sure. 


Peter Matthiessen in his extraordinary story, The Snow Leopard, describes something about the art of Zen practice:
...in Zen, one seeks to empty out the mind, to return it to the clear, pure stillness of a seashell or a flower petal.  When body and mind are one, then the whole being, scoured clean of intellect, emotions, and the senses, may be laid open to the experience that individual existence, ego, the "reality" of matter and phenomena are no more than fleeting and illusory arrangements of molecules. 

Seeing the hawk was a moment of that Zen-like awareness, swept clean of everything, entirely in the fleeting moment, unable to grasp it. Karen knows the names and that brings the hawk to some sort of grounding in Mother Nature, but those assigned names are for convenience sake and do not truly bring to the moment of witness the limits of understanding.


The Shift

Blue-black little clusters, some almost red and others pale green hang like miniature -bunches of grapes on the mulberry trees.  Those that are ripened and ready to be plucked drip off of the trees.  The ground is covered with them. They are sweet morsels of delight on my tongue.  Gifts from the forest. They stain my lips and fingers.  

Again, springtime rejoices, this wooded place is full with bounty.  Three small black feathers and one delicate orangish wing feather are offerings found along the trail. An unusually marked stick finds its way into my hands along with the feathers. These gifts do not come from looking, though observation is key, more from gratitude for this natural place.  This past summer, fall and winter the river was an immense sandbar. There I would go to sit and meditate in the mornings or late afternoons before sunset.  I traveled up and down the flat beach almost daily drawing medicine wheels with sticks in the sand.  Now it is a different environment, wet and lush. Last weekend I rafted on the river for four hours witness to the layers of canopy along the Rio Grande's banks and her glorious fullness.

A circular area where a fire raged some years ago is now covered with water four or five inches deep; I laugh when my cracked rubber boots fill up with the cool brown liquid as I try to wade through. New growth meets my vision, I count several young cottonwoods that have seeded themselves in the circle.  The charred remains of their parents lie in a floodplain now. The river is so high this year that it has overflowed and moved water onto the paths and lower areas all through the bosque.  Ducks float on the trails. I cannot navigate my way through to the five nests I found in April and I wonder if any birds have come back to them this vernal time.

After finding a dry spot and sitting under one of many fruit-bearing mulberry trees, I come home to find an email from a friend of a friend. She is inquiring as to how I made the transition from set and wardrobe designer/stylist many years ago in Boston to living as an artist and healing arts practitioner in Albuquerque.  Her question fuels an immediate response.  Perhaps she needs a practical answer but I am more inclined to the philosophical.  What makes one shift?  For me it was a long held yearning to paint. There are those moments in a lifetime when the river of desire overflows the banks and if we have a brave heart or are desperate enough to step into change, we can discover life anew.


Five Nests

"I fear that a world made of gifts cannot coexist with a world made of commodities."- Robin Wall Kimmerer

Along the path nearest to the rivers edge I find first two, later three and eventually five nests just a short radius from one another. They are in plain sight now as tender new leaves are just beginning to appear on the branches they rest in. It has become my favorite renewal place this spring, an area where I go in the late afternoons to connect to the pace of nature, to listen to the rushing river water and to open my vision to other-than-my-own-concerns.  It is my vital refuge.

I note a large velvety bumblebee above my head hovering around a scraggly elm tree.  Swallows fly-catching over the river come swiftly in and out of view. Beavers have been at work at various points, their telltale teeth marks on the cut branches piled up in semi-orderly heaps.  Russian- olive trees are greening out and I observe their teeny buds which will soon open into delicate yellow flowers -offering aroma therapy for the sniffer and the soul.

Each nest differs, some more solidly formed than others. One nest looks to have a piece of something dangling at its base. It flutters in the afternoon breeze like a Tibetan prayer flag below the well contructed nest. Another nest is loosely constructed and looks rather like a miniature version of the beavers cut sticks piled beneath it. This one is just above my eye level, I marvel at the individual size, regularity and placement of the tiny sticks. Each and every twig is nearly identical. What does it take to find all of these dozens of precisely similar pieces?  How many trips back and forth through the woods would a bird make to create this fragile shelter?

April 14th, Good Friday and it is almost 80 degrees today. I take off my sneakers and stand on the wet sand at waters edge.  It is cool on my feet and immediately, I exhale into the simple earthy pleasure of it. The rushing water sounds make me smile. Winter is clearly over and thankfully the cycle of newness continues once again. The river is unusually high now after many months of being pretty much a sandbar, it laps up on my toes.  This river is no less sacred to me than the Ganges is to the people of India.  I love it and hate that it has been compromised.  Dammed up, north of Albuquerque, controlled by the water authorities for use downstream.  Good for agriculture sure but I resent that no water is allocated for the river. This river, the Rio Grande, is not considered in calculated equations as a living spirit, only as a resource; not something of value in and of itself. Once upon a time, the Rio Grande would naturally flood in the spring. All the forested areas along the banks would receive water from the run off of snowmelt and rain, filling the banks to overflowing. The cottonwood trees would have wet roots and a place to nurture young seedlings when their cottony covered seeds floated down to the earth. Water, tree, bird, nest, egg. Which comes first?

Perhaps the connections between all things was more obvious a century ago.  When I think about the nests and how closely related they are to the trees they are built within, I am wonderstruck. Is the bird aware of the relationship between twig and tree?  Does the water know the potential for new growth that it is offering to the river banks?  We do not learn to consider all things as having a consciousness, other than animals, we tend to think of everything else, plants and minerals, as inanimate.  I do not believe this is so, there is far too much evidence to the contrary. Plants do respond to the environment just as we do to toxicity, love, nurturing.  Before the industrial revolution, we may have been living closer to the land, to our food sources and to nature.  But does that mean we were any more conscious of the connections between all life forms? 

April 15th I am back again to visit the five nests. I check them out, two in a Russian -olive, one in a fruit-bearing mulberry, a fourth, the one with the flag attached, is higher up in another mulberry tree.  And the fifth one, nearest to the waters edge, is in a scrubby something-of-a- tree with small thin green leaves.  No signs of life in the nests yet.   I am also a bit concerned because I have just read a report:
"The bird population in Vermont's forests has declined 14.2 percent over 25 years, largely due to several factors, including invasive species, climate change, and the natural cycle of maturing forests, scientists with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies say."  Our broken forest along the Rio Grande must be in similar decline.

They say birds have been evolving for 100 million years.  I hope they stay with us, I believe they have much to teach us. I live with a canary and I am impressed everyday by his song skills, his ever alert ways, his bright-eyed attention to me when I come near to his cage. He communicates with me in many ways.  We are friends. He knows how to make me laugh with his joyful play.

April 16th, Easter morning.  I will return again to the place of renewal. I am a hopeful artisan witnessing nature, my greatest teacher, create.


February Full Moon, 2017

There is much to make me weep this week. The news for Standing Rock and the Keystone pipeline has not been what the water protectors had hoped for at the end of the environmental impact study. But there will be no impact study. The powers that be have decided to go ahead without it, as if that would be an inconvenience to the river of money to come flowing down the pipeline.  It is hard to fathom how it is that we do not see the need for a shift in the way we walk upon the earth. 

Today feathers are falling.   It is the end of the season when the birds that winter in Mexico and New Mexico will migrate north again.  All the many thousands of Sandhill cranes and Snow geese begin the annual passage to their spring homes to mate and nest and raise their downy feathered little ones.  I return one last time this season to my beloved refuge on the evening of the full moon and immediately notice how empty the fields are now.  Only a day before they were full with cranes.  Did they know by the nearly full moon rise the previous night that it was time to leave?  

How do they navigate the changing of the seasons, by light, by stars, by the angle of the sun?  Who is the leader, who calls the flock to organize as one?

 I pick up feathers from a crane whose body I witnessed here just after it been killed a few weeks ago.  It's body torn into pieces.  Only the wings are left intact now. It is the way of nature, the beauty of it collides with the destructive forces in the chain of life and death. Within the cavity of the open chest I saw its exposed organs, it was difficult to take in what had happened. Of course there is a difference between what is destructive in the natural order of things and that which is destructive in ways which are not.  One is sustainable the other is sacrilege. There is an indigneous story that I have heard recently told by a Native American woman in regard to Standing Rock, she said, the elders have forewarned that when the time of the black snake comes, it will be the end of the world.  Are we in that time?  Are running rivers of oil the great black snake?  I do not know but, I am grateful the birds fly, that they can rise above, traverse the borders, immigrate north and south, over the freeways and industry and return to miraculously make nests again.

On this evening we hope to see the full moon rise with a rare lunar eclipse visible in North America.   I know it will rise over the horizon at 5:38 but we must wait while it clears the mountain between us.   As the first bright curve appears over the edge of the crest, I cannot contain my enthusiasm.  I scream out, "here it comes" like an excited child; I am so thrilled.  We are blessed as there isn't any cloud cover at that moment and we can see the golden planet in all her glory against the cobalt sky.  More than I have ever noticed before, the gentle shadows of the eclipse are giving the great disc dimensionality.  It is electrifying! Only now when I see the photos my friend Elise shot do I register how intense the contrast of the deep blue is with the yellow moon.

There is much to take in. Over our heads the Snow geese are flying in from the fields with the few remaining Sandhill cranes forming a moving pattern like a floating fishnet on the ocean of sky.  A rapture for all the senses!  How I want to make these precious moments last.  How I long for the world to be at peace in all ways, in the most positive expression of evolution, honoring the web of life, like this display of wonderment. Let us hope to receive a new vision. Let us treat the earth as if we recognize that it is a sacred honor to be here.

Photo Elise Varnedoe, 2/10/2017