Sunday, October 25, 2009

Costa Rican Paradise

Last February I immersed myself in a foreign experience – quite literally – I had always dreamed of seeing the rain forest and finally, in spite of a great deal of emotional resistance (it felt like the biggest, scariest thing I’d ever done) I finally made my dream into a reality; this, despite the fact that the companion who was supposed to travel with me canceled out a month before we were to leave. If I was frightened before her cancellation, there are no words to describe the feelings after she said she couldn’t come. My immediate reaction was that I would have to cancel, too; of course, I thought, I couldn’t go on my own. But quickly I recovered from that state of hopelessness, and decided to forge ahead with my plans; I was determined that the trip that I’d been planning for over a year would not be abandoned because of a relative bump in the road.
At first, I opted for a “safe” tour, but soon realized (despite the doubts screaming in my head) that the tour wasn’t really suited to my needs. Instead, I gave myself permission to take the enormous leap of signing up for a yoga retreat on the Caribbean side of the country, a 4 ½ hour drive over rough road, from the only international airport, in San Jose.
Each leg of the journey, each experience along the way, presented new terrors, would I be able to face them alone? Could I possibly stand up to the challenges? At each juncture I thought I couldn’t: I feared getting lost, I feared dangerous people, I feared not speaking the language, I feared being robbed, I feared disease, I feared bad food; it was as if every fear I’d ever had became magnified, and stood before me, etching a line in the sand, daring me to cross it, or as though I were a child, afraid to leave her mother’s skirts. I could stay and cower where I was safe, or I could take a risk and venture out where I ‘d never ventured before.
Each day I had to make the choice anew. Each day I tried to talk myself out of the plans for the day, but each time, another part of me would reassure, console and encourage: ”Do it!” the deepest, wisest part of me would say, and so, I would. And without fail, I ventured forth into an amazing experience. Soon, it became very clear that I was meant to have this experience on my own, each time I faced my fears and forged ahead the rewards were a thousand-fold. I saw places I could only imagine, I met people who were kind and nurturing, encouraging; people who guided me and helped me to feel safe, and I learned that I was as strong and courageous as anyone needed to be. I found out that it was indeed true; that the only thing we need to fear is fear, itself.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


This morning I stepped out into the cold crisp air, as the leaves of the cottonwood tree above me, literally rained its leaves down upon my head. It bespoke the time of year, a time of rest, a gentle unfolding, a letting go of growth, and an acceptance of the long sleep that approaches. Though part of me mourns the passing of expansion and growth, another part of me rejoices and welcomes the approach of winter’s long slumber.
I have been taking delight in the Canadian Geese that have been filling the skies, and today I saw a mass of blackbirds pass overhead that was so large it pulsed in several waves, causing my breath to catch in my throat.
I embrace the here and now, though part of me is given to complaint and to rejection of what is, though I know it is fruitless - a futile waste of good energy. But struggle I must, frail and human as I am.
But mostly, I am wiser than that, and I embrace everything that now is, giving myself over to the mystery with relative abandon.
I am appreciative of all the time I have spent in my ‘sit-spot’, as my friend Mira calls it, coming back day after day, watching the same plants and animals fold and unfold and expand and recede, so that slowly I have begun to recognize them, regardless of season, little by little learning their names, but more importantly, their essences, for this has been more of a spiritual pursuit than academic. This has been a discipline that has affected me on many levels, and has helped me to grow in ways more numerous than I might list. But one way for sure, is that I am able to be in the moment; to appreciate the healing energy in the sun, the wind, the energy that pulses from every living thing, and to recognize my connection to it; and further, to be able to do that with a sense of humility: a recognition that I am merely a piece in a great puzzle; a cell in an enormous organism, and to come to the awareness that, to reject one aspect, is to reject the whole, and that, I could never dream of doing, anymore than I could reject my own hand or my heart. So, come winter! Bring your freezing temperatures, your frozen pipes, your blocked roads and hampered movement, but I know you will also bring crystalline trees, bathed in frozen vapor, the hush that a fresh blanket of snow brings to the valley, and a red cardinal sitting in a honeysuckle bush, eating bright, red, frozen, berries.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Belted Kingfisher

Well, Jackie and I finally made it out onto the water together. We headed west first, toward the brook, then after we explored that, we headed east toward Bryant’s Bridge. The colors of Autumn were in all their splendor, and we couldn’t help but note the colors that were evident elsewhere, as well, such as the lovely winterberry (Ilex verticillata) shrubs with their bright red berries, the jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) stems which had turned a rusty-orange, and the dark maroon leaves of the Devil’s beggar-ticks plant (Bidens frondosa).
Along the way we startled a belted kingfisher, whose sharp, rattle-like call revealed his strong territorial instincts. I’ve always been fascinated by the Belted Kingfisher; the first time I saw one perform his amazing acrobatic feats I was duly impressed: they fly at the water, dive-bombing to capture their prey, sometimes hovering over the water to zero in more accurately; in fact, wide-open water is a habitat requirement for them, so that they can see their prey clearly from a greater distance. I noted that they seemed to be here rather late in the season, and my research bore this out: the kingfishers from the northeast usually are departed by mid-September, though the younger ones stay behind a little while longer. (The one we saw today seemed mature, though.) I was delighted this winter, while in Costa Rica, to see that they overwinter there, and it was pretty inspiring to think that there might be (even if only a remote) chance that the bird I was gazing on there in the tropics, could be one-in-the-same that I knew and loved from upstate New York!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sucker Brook

Yesterday, as I paddled west on the creek, I took great pleasure in the beautiful fall colors in the trees along the bank: gold, yellow, orange, red and brown, all sparkling in the afternoon sun. I moved not only against the current, but against the wind as well, so it was an invigorating undertaking. I took cover by ducking into Sucker Brook; the current there is minimal, and the banks are lined with trees, which block the wind. In fact, it affords protection from the elements in every season. It is this quiet little microcosm of a world, where other creatures find safe haven, as well, so I am often fortunate enough to observe that which is invisible in the greater surroundings. It’s close edges make for intimate interaction when, by chance, one stumbles upon some animal going about its business, unaware of being observed.
Some of my most thrilling experiences have occurred here: I remember one day, mid-September, a few years back, when I came upon a male beaver. I’d come around a bend and taken him by surprise; he was enormous, the size of an average dog, and his coat was thick and sleek. Our eyes locked (his were a deep brown) and for a brief moment I felt as though I was looking into the essence of his being; it was like looking into the eyes of an elder: very wise, solid, and unafraid.
He slipped into the water, as I passed, his great heft of a body slipping below the surface, while his eyes stayed fixed on me. I got a little shiver down my spine, then, he smacked the water, hard, with his beautiful, flat, scaly tail, and was gone.
I came upon him several times that summer (which is rare because they are mostly nocturnal.) Sometimes he was on the banks, and I could hear him working at a young tree, peeling the bark and using his great incisors to gnaw away at the trunk. Poplar, birch, aspen, willow and maple are its favorite trees to use in the construction of their dams, and these are its favorite foods, as well, and all of these trees are present here, in the brook and on the creek. They cut these small trees in the summer and then store them for winter food.
But this year I have not seen him, or his mate, though I have seen evidence of new chewing. Even these tell-tale signs are thrilling to me, for I have stored his image away in my mind, and just knowing that he, or an off-spring, are still there at work is a comfort to me.

Friday, October 9, 2009


I have many times been aware how instantaneously calming it is to walk into the woods. I’ve also come to know that there is often a stark comparison between how I was feeling before I’d arrived, and how I feel when I have left. On countless occasions I have headed for the cover of the forest in woeful shape; my state of mind reflecting the world from which I’d emerged: the drone of car engines, the distant whirr of machinery, the blare of emergency vehicles, and the incessant, critical and analytic monologue in my head, which ceaselessly required attention; somehow, miraculously, all fall into silence, and another consciousness prevails; the moment I step under the canopy, a different world reveals itself. These oppressive influences are instantly replaced with the soft murmur of rustling leaves, the buzzing hum of insects, and the chatter of birdsong. A muffling of most, or all of the outside noise occurs, and it is quite literally like stepping into another world, indeed, it is another world.
Suddenly problems are put into perspective, they shrink in importance; a more balanced view is revealed. Over time, I have developed the skills and self discipline to bookmark my troubles, promising my fearful ego that I can, if need be, pick the worry up again tomorrow, but for right here, and now, I promise myself, ‘I will be present’, ‘I will be here now’. ‘I will feel this breeze, smell the perfume in the air, and hear the birds singing’.
As a result, my breathing relaxes, shallow gulps of air are replaced with a slow, deep inhalation, and my weary mind and body are bathed in the relief of nurturing, in a sustenance that they forgot they needed.
The ironic thing is, I used to be quite literally, afraid to do such things on my own. Having been raised in suburbia, by city-born parents, I was never exposed to walks in the woods, nor invited to explore the magic of a flower, not told that I would be all right to set out on an adventure of my own, and so I never did. Never, that is, until adulthood, and quite slowly at that, for I had many dragons to slay. But, little by little, I succeeded; perhaps because the more comfortable I became with myself, the more comfortable I became in the woods.
It is still an on-going test of courage; each time I meet a new challenge I must encourage myself to go on, and then I remind myself to breathe. When I remember to take those simple steps I always am the better for it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Strawberry Fields Forever

Yesterday was a wonderful day. My friend, Jackie, and I drove down to Strawberry Fields in beautiful Mohawk County. We were there to visit Jeff Leon and to see the amazing array of fringed gentians (Gentianopsis crinita) he has there. He has worked as a conservationist to protect these plants, as well as other rare, endangered, or threatened plants, on his 120 acres of land, since 1971.
He graciously led us about the grounds where we delighted in antiquated fieldstone fences, covered with moss and etched with delicate, lacy lichen; showed us his eight species of goldenrod, and nine species of aster; pointed out the rich cluster of glossy red berries that replaces the ‘jack’ in its pulpit; and led us to an overlook with a striking view of the Mohawk valley. We delighted in butternut hickory trees, hop hornbeam, witch hazel, dogbane, shagbark hickory, wild apple, cherry, bur oak, and others. Meanwhile, we trampled fragrant wild basil and marjoram and thyme below our feet, as well as the ubiquitous namesake, strawberry, and heal-all; and our eyes delighted in orange-fruited horse gentian, agrimony, spotted touch-me-not, red clover and bittersweet.
Jeff explained that the gentians like wet meadows on magnesium-rich calcareous rock, and that they like open sun, but will tolerate more shade as long as the soil is rich in these minerals. They unfurl in sunlight, but close up on overcast days. When they are tightly furled they are a deep, rich blue, but when they unfold, and let the light show through, they are a softer, lighter hue, looking, as my friend Jackie says, like Japanese lanterns. These native plants can grow up to 3 feet tall, and the flower is about 2 inches long. Their blooming peaks about the second week of October, but will bloom into November.
Jeff had to fence off a section of their growing area when he realized that the resident deer are as fond of them as we are, only not just to gaze upon. He discovered they were browsing upon them and that they particularly enjoyed them when they were in seed. Each plant can produce 1,000 seeds so a great storehouse of genetic material is lost each time one of these ungulates munches away on this threatened flower.
Thanks to Jeff for working to raise awareness about this graceful, lovely blossom, we applaud his efforts and are ever grateful for his provision of a a protected place in which such threatened plants can thrive! For those who wish to learn more about local efforts to protect endangered and threatened plants, and ways that we can work to protect them, contact Hudson Mohawk Land Conservancy. Jeff also invites groups and individuals to visit Strawberry Fields, contact him at

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cathedral In the Woods

Yesterday I had the honor to accompany two very fine naturalists into the woods, and it was a rich experience on several levels. We were three women, all of us from divergent paths, and histories, and yet, in many ways, we were cut from the same cloth: not only did we share a love, indeed, a passion, for the natural world; but we found, as the day wore on, that the threads of our shared tapestry went deeper than just surface similarities. There is always the potential for something very magical to happen when women come together; a powerful bond can develop because many of the profound experiences, which shape us as human beings, are universal to all women. When you add to this a shared love for nature, camaraderie cannot help but develop. Also, a deep respect naturally grows when one is in the company of commitment, competence, and accomplishment. Partly, we see ourselves in the other and narcissistically love our own reflection, but also we admire the talents and abilities in others that we may hope to one day develop in ourselves. And of course our diverse talents and abilities balance each other out so that together our strengths subtly affect the overall experience. All I know is I am grateful for the beautiful world in which we live, and especially grateful that there are kindred spirits who are kind enough to share it with me.