Friday, December 26, 2008


The human noises that intrude on my woodland walks are usually something I resent. Traffic sounds, the rumble of trains, the growl of distant machinery--and above all, the sinister whine of chainsaws--make me grit my teeth. I have to discipline myself to ignore them, and not let them distract me from the singing of the birds or the rustle of a vole in the fallen leaves.

But human noises are animal noises, too, and sometimes our species harmonizes with others in delightful ways. This morning I was near the edge of the park when a siren sounded at the nearby fire station. Then the fire trucks began to scream, and somewhere in the distance a cop car chimed in, growing louder as it approached. A pack of dogs, probably penned hunting hounds at one of the houses just outside the park, began to yelp and sing. All together they made quite a concert, and I smiled because my own dogs like to sing duets with sirens. Then from the top of a ridge perhaps a hundred yards away, a solitary coyote cut loose with a full-throated howl, as if to say, You guys are pathetic, let me show you how it's done.

Photo of a gray wolf by Retron from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Maybe you're wondering why this guy is making an appearance in the dead of winter. Well, it's not because I saw one of his kind in the woods recently. It was 9 degrees Fahrenheit here this morning, so all our snakes are snuggled deep in hibernation--and I realized yesterday, as I walked toward the Solstice sunrise, I'm in hibernation, too.

Not physically, of course. I've been out hunting and gathering in typical 21st century human fashion, but spiritually I am half-awake, dozing and waiting for spring to rouse me. That's why the posts on this blog have gotten so sparse. My body is taking me along for our daily walk, but I don't feel inspired to interpret the sights and sounds along the way. My brain, for once, is silent.

I've been a little troubled by that internal silence, wondering if maybe this walking meditation is becoming a dead ritual or a chore, instead of the blissful practice it's always been. But it dawned on me--literally--as I did my Yule observance that it is inevitable that my talking self would retreat during this time of the year. A friend appeared for a moment with the rising sun and explained it to me.

A long time ago, when I first began to understand that there might be something of value in my intuitive connection to the earth, the snake became my totem. It was not a conscious choice, and I didn't do any ritual or dream work to determine it. The serpent just declared himself my companion and that was that. It made perfect sense, because the snake is associated with healing and with the power of transformation, both things I desperately needed at the time. As the years have passed I've come to see that I always had an affinity for the special energy of snakes, and that their particular forms of wisdom--decisiveness, resilience, the ability to change--are gifts I will always lack.

And so, as the earthly serpent goes underground and sleeps during the dark season, so does the spiritual serpent inside me. My own energy is inextricably tied to his. Nothing's wrong, we just need to be a little quieter now.

Photo of a black rat snake by Patrick Coin from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Missing the juncos

The Dude returneth. He was back in his corner of the lake yesterday--alone, as usual. Actually, not entirely alone, because a flock of dark-eyed juncos were hiding in the tall grass along the bank. They took flight as I walked toward them, buzzing the Dude’s head like low-flying aircraft. He didn’t seem to mind at all. Apparently, he’s fine with avian companions as long as they are not his own kind.

The juncos were so pretty they made me sigh. I’m too lazy to go looking for the post, but I know I’ve blogged at BitterGrace Notes about how the juncos abandoned my feeders a few winters ago, never to return. I still miss them.

I’ve never been a scorekeeping sort of birdwatcher. You know, the type who keeps a careful record of exactly how many species she’s seen, and always has a hit list of birds she hopes to add to the tally. I do get excited about seeing a rare bird, and I’m sure at some point I’ve gone through my Peterson’s guide to see who I’ve missed, but I never feel any sense of accomplishment or failure. My birdwatching is pretty much a goal-free activity. I do it solely because it gives me joy to look at birds, to know they’re alive. That’s the reason I feed them, too. I might make noises about promoting their survival or whatever, but really, I haul those bags of seed home for purely selfish reasons. If I put out food, more birds will come and entertain me.

What is so enthralling about these creatures, especially the little ordinary feeder birds like the juncos? Isn’t it amazing that human beings all over the world, if they have the resources to spare, will feed birds just for the pleasure of watching them eat? Let’s face it, birds, taken objectively, are not especially appealing. They fight constantly, they prey on each other’s young, they carry any number of human diseases; and yet, most people are completely charmed by the sight of them.

Not everyone, of course. My brother lived for a while with a young woman who seemed sort of vacuous but basically harmless. The first (and I think only) time she came to my house, she saw my bird feeders in the back yard.

“I hate birds,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say in reply. It’s funny now, but at the time it actually shocked me a little. What sort of person hates birds? I felt a sudden, visceral dislike for her, as if she’d insulted my religion--which, in a way, she had. My encounters with the birds are sacred to me. They are, pompous as it sounds, moments of mystery and higher consciousness. I look at those delicate beings and see myself in what is not myself. It’s a kind of ecstasy.

Video of dark-eyed junco uploaded by Midhue at Youtube.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Two flocks

Except for our few days in New York, I've done my usual tromp through the woods every morning. I haven't been doing Turn Outward posts primarily because nature has been so damned peaceful. Winter is a still season here. It gets chilly enough that a lot the wildlife semi-hibernate, or at least wait for the warmth of the day to get out and about; yet we rarely have any dramatic winter storms or brutal cold to report. Our winter, for the most part, is just a lull between the brisk, busy fall and the budding of spring.

I was thinking about the quiet yesterday as I walked toward the lake. We'd had some rain, and there were perfect frozen droplets resting on the fallen leaves. They crunched underfoot, and that was about the only sound I could hear. A couple of woodpeckers were hammering away somewhere in the distance, but no one was singing, no deer or squirrels were rustling the leaves. I found myself looking around for some sign of a vole, or even a cricket. Nothing.

The lake has a little thumb, almost a lagoon, that presses into a shaded hollow. It's prime catfish territory, so there's often someone fishing there, but I found it as deserted as the rest of the park. I stood staring down at the dark water, feeling a perfect solitude, so zoned out that I didn't hear them coming: Blackbirds, that is--one of those enormous winter flocks that seem to come from nowhere; grim, noisy flash mobs that suddenly fill the world, and then just as suddenly disappear.

They landed heavily in the trees on the opposite bank, and the air vibrated with their chatter. It's thrilling and slightly creepy to be in the presence of all that combined avian energy. I was happy to have my reverie disturbed, but I felt sort of surrounded--then I realized I was surrounded: A second large flock, a mixed group of finches, had quietly taken over the trees on my side of the lake. Their twittering was a gentle counterpoint to the loudmouth blackbirds, and they flitted between the branches as lightly as the leaves they sent falling.

Wheat Field with Crows, Vincent van Gogh, 1890.