In the Forever Wilderness of Mother

“Every human death takes with it an entire and unrepeatable world, a whole realm of memories, dreams, reflections, beliefs and observations. “
-Susan Murphy
from Spiritual Ecology

My mother passed away two months ago.  I am still very much in an altered state of reality and I wonder if this is a common feeling that others have when that most significant person is gone from this world.   It is a blessing to have feelings of gratitude for the grace of her death. She had a swift ascension and I was fortunate to be at her side along with my brother and his family.  I feel fine most of the time but I know there is something profound unraveling that I have never experienced before.  Not in a negative way, rather an unwinding like thread on a spool that is stretching the length and breadth of our connection into a new territory, an uncharted place.

She was 99 years old and ready. One day she was really tired and the next day Ibrahim, one of the wonderful souls who worked with her in memory care, picked her up, because she could no longer stand, laid her down in her bed and she never rose again.   I have many of her photos around me now including one in a little blue enameled locket that I just put on a chain to wear around my neck, it falls to my heart.  She is smiling broadly in that tiny photo and I wonder where she was and what she was doing.  Maybe she was at the seaside in Baltimore, it looks to be taken around that time in her life in the 1940s.

On a farm in Iowa where she grew up, she told me how she would climb up into the hay loft and reach out onto a ledge and pull in a baby pigeon to hold.  She loved those pigeons and I imagine they may have been fond of her as well.   One day when she got home from school, her father and another man had shot them down off the ledge and she was crushed. I can recall that story as if it happened to me, my empathy for how she must have felt is so palpable. What she could not have known then was that there would be more pigeons to come in the future. Young birds and old birds: racing pigeons. The man she married, my father, his brother and their father, my grand-father, all raised homing pigeons.  I wonder if my own love of birds is connected to my parents? Could there be a genetic link?  Was I destined to paint feathers?

 In the days just after my mother’s death, I was texting a good friend to let her know what had transpired, and the words that slipped through my fingers about the place I had found myself in were, these: “ this forever wilderness of mother.”   The phrase stayed with me and not long afterward, I felt the urge to investigate more about what that might mean.  How might our individual relationship to mother effect our relationship to mother earth?  

Wilderness by definition comes into our language through the word wild.  But that has connotations that are so removed from the way in which I understand wilderness.  In my etymological dictionary, I find “wild” to mean self-willed, violent, untamed, uncivilized, savage. The opposite of what I consider wilderness to be.  Hiking in the forest, is the soft place where my heart opens, where I generally feel most connected, safe, alive and nurtured.   In our so called civilized cities where there are high crime rates, poverty, homelessness, pollution of all kinds including industrial waste and noise from machinery of all shapes and sizes, there seems to be much more evidence of the etymological definition of wild. The annoying leaf blower outside my studio door, I am resisting listening to as I type, for example!  But no matter the romanticized notion that nature is some how apart from us, untamed and out of control, it seems collectively, we humans are frequently the beast, the one’s self-willed and violent.

How might our personal experience of mother help us to reflect and heal our collective experience of life on earth in the early 21st century?  Does the ecology of self in relationship to mother mirror humanity’s relationship to the great mother, to Mother Earth?  Our mother’s bodies are our bridge to experience life on earth.  A bridge to the earthly realm from the supreme place from which we come, the mystery we cannot recall prenatal. At conception we are immersed in liquid love, a place that is dark where our physical form begins to grow like a seedling underground. We emerge like micro-greens, tender into the world and dependent. We often spend our lives pushing and pulling against that dependence though some seem to make their life easier than others.

When I consider my own relationship to mother as an exchange of immense complexity, I know we as a collective are reflecting infinite complexities in relationship to the greater mother.  Consider the dependency of infancy, the struggles to individuate that come in adolescence, and later on for the lifetime as families grow and change, break apart, experience loss from the inside and out.  We are always involved in intricate states of being with our earth mother and Mother Earth.  Currently, we are in a stage of development on and with Mother Earth comparable to adolescence. Hopefully we are developing through puberty into adulthood in healthy ways though it is often hard to fathom that on the planet in 2017.   We live with her, on her body, but take her for granted. We are abusive and we lack respect; our hormones are raging and we are often out of control. We take and give little back.  We drop bombs, we explode, we are destructive. We dig up her vital oils and clear cut her forests. We lack gratitude.

But in the sacred space of ceremony, working with the medicine wheel, acknowledging our symbiotic connection to all that is, I have seen a new matrix, a pattern of rainbow colors, crystalline.  I hold a vision that we can shift to our better natures, that we can mature into clarity.  We are blessed when love abides; I know I was immensely blessed to feel unconditionally loved.  Not everyone feels that original love bond with their family of origin or with the collective family. Perhaps that is partly why we act out against Mother Nature. No doubt this is deeply rooted in fear, the feeling of lack.  Many feel only the separation from the feminine, or rather the illusion of separation from abundance on earth.

I miss my mother, and yet, I know she is within me.  I am a biology of connection to her and I am aware in a new way that she is a part of every cell in my breathing body. I see the shape of her fingernails in mine.  I recall how she placed her palm to my palm a couple days before she passed away.  It was a transmission, a great seal and one of our last gestures of exchange, a precious memory in this forever place without her.


Bee Pastures, Factory-farmed Insects, a Parakeet and a Solar Eclipse

August 22nd, the day after the total solar eclipse and I am thinking about the fleeting moments of wonder to see something so extraordinary in the heavens.  Because it was cloud-covered in Albuquerque, we could view it briefly with our own eyes. So remarkable to stop and pause and be in the rare alignment of the earth, the moon and the sun.

It's all connected: the sun to the plants, the bees, all of the insects in nature, the ability as a human to witness all that is on this planet.  Like the eclipse, everything is always shifting, being born, coming into view and fading away.  I am reading a book just gifted to me by a friend-a collection of John Muir's words. One essay, Bee Pastures, is rich with a sense of miles of wildflowers, bees and insects in Yosemite Valley, California in April 1868:

When California was wild, it was one sweet bee garden throughout its entire length, north and south, and all the way across from the snowy Sierra to the ocean.

When I first saw this central garden, the most extensive and regular of all the bee pastures of the State, it seemed all one sheet of plant gold, hazy and vanishing in the distance, distinct as a new map along the foot-hills at my feet.

Descending the eastern slopes of the Coast Range through beds of gilias and lupines, and around many a breezy hillock and bush-crowned headland, I at length waded out into the midst of it.  All the ground was covered, not with grass and green leaves, but with radiant corollas, about ankle-deep next the foot-hills, knee-deep or more five or six miles out.  Here was bahia, madia , madaria, burrielia, chrysopsis....various shades of yellow, blending finely with purples of clarkia, orthocarpus, and...delicate petals were drinking the vital sunbeams without giving back any sparkling glow.

Can you imagine?  One sweet bee garden. It is almost like a fairy-tale to read his words and imagine what he witnessed before the worst of the industrial revolution, ranching, mining, clear-cutting forests and factory farming turned so many beatific fields to dust.

An art show opened in Albuquerque this weekend, it's a show connected in theme to these topics and includes artists considering bees, botanicals, pollination, insects and other related subjects.   One piece has been in my thoughts because of the media the artist chose to use: insects, real insects farmed in China. They are bred for death for collectors who want perfect specimens. I once killed a bird for art.  A blue parakeet which I purchased live, in a pet store in Kent, Ohio.  I was in my freshman year of college in 1972, seventeen or eighteen and I did not know this act of murder would haunt me for the rest of my life.  At the time, it seemed okay.  My professor gave an assignment for a competition in a 3D studio art class.  One on a list of requirements was "something that was once living."  Looking back, I am certain the idea was meant to inspire the use of a leaf, a tree branch, a feather, etc. Unfortunately, I took this quite literally and though I could not quite face the act of killing the parakeet personally, a friend Tony did the deed for me, contract for hire; I take full and total responsibility.

My piece, an assemblage in the manner of the artist, Joseph Cornell, was constructed with a cigar box painted with blue-green enamel and lined with royal blue cotton velveteen from remnants of a dress I wore to a high school prom. The metal prongs inside the box for holding cigars, I painted gold and placed the dead parakeet between them.  I remember the piece clearly forty-six years later.   I mounted a small classic 1950s image of Jesus from Sunday school, upside down, on the inside lid of the box.  It seems obvious to me now that I was an angry teenager, but at the time, the little coffin remained a subconscious expression of my inner turmoil.  The piece won the competition, but when my professor asked where I got the parakeet, things changed dramatically.  Word got around school that I had killed a bird for art and someone I didn't know came up to me in the cafeteria and told me off.  I didn't know how to respond.   

Catching a quick glimpse of the insects mounted on the gallery wall Saturday night brought it back to me again.  The large scale piece, floor to ceiling, fifteen to twenty feet in height, is covered with carefully pinned insects and intersecting circular drawings. Each exquisite insect is about three inches long and larger than our local hummingbirds. The installation is quite stunning in visual terms, at first glance one thinks of a geometric fabric pattern or tile work.   The artist purchased the many, perhaps hundreds of insects through an online source in China, bred for the world of collectors, science labs, schools and evidently, for artists as well.  They are somehow mounted alive so their wings, feet and bodies are in precise positions before they are chloroformed to death. Chloroform or trichloromethane is a colorless, volatile liquid solvent used to render someone unconscious.  The fact that they were living consciousness seems somehow irrelevant to the artist's work, she claims to be making this work to help humans get over their fears of bugs.

It is a strange world we live in, still beyond my comprehension how one can coexist with Mother Nature as John Muir lived his life and see ecological unity and yet clearly so much of humanity is ever detached. Knowing, I did something similar helps me to be more compassionate but disappointed that we have not fully become realized to the miracles that abound around us in the macrocosm and the microcosm of this solar system.  I long for the bee pastures of Muir's vision and sanity restored. Extermination of insects whether they are chloroformed or killed by the slower process of pesticide use just doesn't make sense. When we awaken and raise our consciousness, we begin to realize the interconnectedness of all life: the sun, the moon, all of the several million species on earth.


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: 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.