Solstice Gifts

As I walked into the Cheshire house last night, over a very icy and treacherous walkway, the door opened and ashes, alight with coals, were scattered out onto my path. It reminded me of phytoplankton or glow in the dark fungus, or something miraculous. Glowing lights to mark my path and keep me safe. Brilliance in the dark. I said to the being who was doing the scattering: A solstice miracle. Yes the being said.

Driving down John Yale Road to retrieve Amaru from Dungeons and Dragons, Itzel and I stopped to watch at least sixty turkeys, sipping and grazing in the sun-slanted, evergreen woods. The turkeys a shifting mosaic of iridescent brown against the white ground. As they headed up hill to our right, we could tell which ones were last year’s babies.

Amaru was killed in the game today but he is already planning his new life.

This morning my Up-the-River neighbor wrote to me about the “marbleized end papers of pink and blue in the eastern sky, at 7:06” and told of a raven she saw yesterday wandering the field in back of their house. When she is outside and sees the ravens fly over, heading down the river, she calls to them. As they fly over me, on their way further down the valley, I do the same. In this way they connect us.

I slept in Cheshire in the room that will be Nayeli’s. The crows woke me well before dawn.

Itzel decided that Santa Claus was a bear, not a raccoon. (because he heard “big” footsteps in the night).

A young friend sent me her painting of the night giving birth to the sun, “after rocking it all night long.”

Her mother sent me a picture of their solstice seed mandalas, taken by candlelight.

In Cummington, a cecropia chrysallis hung folded into a leaf on a young maple, and I made a resolution to speak the truth to myself.

When we walked out of the house this bright morning, Atalanta noticed that the hemlocks had all dropped their seeds. Hemlock seeds by the thousands peppered the frozen ground. It took our breath away that this would have happened on such a magic night. Tiny signals of hope in a hard time, a strewn offering to the future from our beloved, dying giants.

Faith in a Seed.

First Snow

The barn is a big, rambling, rangy place of many doors and rooms, salvaged beams and planks jerry built onto an old stone foundation sunk against a hill. The barn swallow nests are empty now but the mice have moved in and a skunk lives under the floor upstairs. A wild rabbit sleeps in the hayloft. One can follow her neat snow path which leads under the door. When I brush her dry, marbley droppings off of the bales, they hit strings salvaged from an old piano. It sounds like the angels are playing their harps. In the late morning, if the day is clear, the sun pours into the stall and warms the paddock.

Mama goat rears her head, flicks her tail and flaps her big Nubian ears at me as I tumble bales of shavings down the steep barn stairs. She stands on her hind legs and tucks her chin, showing me her horns. I, in turn, rear up and dance around in what I assume to be a goat-like way. Mama looks baffled. Baby, meanwhile, is busy ripping open the shavings bag. He paws at it then tears at it with his horns then looks to me for a scolding. He jumps onto an unopened bale of hay. The mane on his neck and shoulders stands erect. He dares me to push him off. Until recently, the meningeal worm that infected his brainstem prevented him from jumping on things or even walking in a straight line. After months of treatment, he can now play, his coat is glossy and thick. He has regained his strength. Although he is a fully mature wether, and sports a ridiculous beard, Baby (aka Yarrow) still behaves like a baby. He hides behind his mother when he hears the coyotes howl.

I think that goats like the tidy sound of their hooves when they trip trap along on hard surfaces. In the fall, I would take them for walks in the forest. They loved to dawdle on the bridge, clip clop back and forth, pause to look down at the water below. I call them Billy Goats Gruff.

When they play in the grain room they rear at each other and gently butt heads. It is a precision dance, performed as a ritual: Each goat lands simultaneously after a threatened head butt. The landing accompanied by a bright, percussive sound. Recently I laid down a walkway of wooden planks across the muddy paddock so that I could push the wheelbarrow more easily. The goats love to travel this little boardwalk, I think they like the sound their hooves make on the wood. I listen to their busy footfalls as I work nearby.

When I leave after morning or evening chores, Baby and Mama bawl and call in plaintive, moaning tones. “Please come back! Come brush us! Come play! Take us for a walk! Stay!” This pulls at my heart. If they could sleep in bed with me, they happily would. There have been times they’ve come into the house. As chaos-making as it is, it’s fun to watch them jump onto the couch, pull plants from a pot, wander the house with pure curiosity and even climb the stairs!

It has been snowing since early morning. The temperature hovers around freezing and there is no wind. The flakes are big and coming down steadily. The day holds the softness and silence of the first real snow. The world holds its breath. It seems fitting that today is the day that the goats discovered that they love peppermint candy!

William the pony is an old hand in the business of peppermint love. His soft, furry ears perk at the sound of the plastic wrapper crinkling when I unwrap a piece. I enjoy his enjoyment, the sound of the hard candy shattering between his molars each time I feed him one, I remember how our big bay mare, Panga, would savor the candy for minutes and stick out the tip of her tongue as she sucked. I never once heard her crunch.

This is the time of the year when one yearns to give presents: peppermints to pony and goats, a walnut or two for the mice, a carrot for the rabbit who sleeps in the hay. Sunflower seed trickled down a chipmunk hole.

I come in for lunch but will go back out later into the dusky woods. The beaver families should be safely ensconced in their lodges, I know that they have been busy cutting saplings and storing food. It has been a halcyon year for beech nuts and acorns, fattening the bears, chipmunks, turkeys, grouse and deer. The blue jays are sleek and plump. Fallen logs in the forest dotted with tiny sit spots, marked by semicircular piles of nutshell fragments. I look out at the world from my warm kitchen; some smallish, fox-sized animal catches my eye as it disappears around the corner of the barn. I watch my neighbor’s daughter glide off on skis across their hay field. She is accompanied by two tail-wagging dogs.

As winter approaches I take note of how my own world contracts. I stay mostly in the kitchen now into which I have recently moved a couch. I put on a coat in order to play the piano in the living room. My bedroom is unheated and very cold. The bed is piled with extra blankets. Twenty-year-old Clover, sleeps the end of her life away in the chair by the fire that is hers. A whisker shivers, a paw twitches, an ear flicks. What is going on in her cat dreams?

In mid-December, the border between outside and inside hardens. Boots require warming, mittens drying. One cannot dash out on a whim. I keep a close eye on the woodpile, figure the weeks and months until spring, fire up the stove in the living room only on special occasions. Outside, life hides in hollow trees, beneath roots and stone walls, in tunnels that wind below a protective blanket of snow. Grouse make snow caves.

Zora and I set off on our walk. The world is mostly white now, no longer showing glimpses of purpley brown and green. Each and every twig and branch is edged in white. Still-standing sunflowers wear peaked snow caps. The mountains on the other side of Fuller brook are obscured by a curtain of white. The snow is coming down hard.


Another beautiful morning. I am reading Oliver Sach’s book called Gratitude, and I did that this morning in bed and thanked him for his wise and kind words. He found it hard to part with life, its intensity never dulled for him even as he died. This as the blue came sailing in the windows and the clouds lit up in the east. Clearing a strange dream from my mind as I read and watched the day approach.

Yesterday was a day I took care of eight year old Maple, but I think we should say that she took care of me. Maple is a wonderful, patient teacher, able, like Amaru, to spot things I easily miss, but in her case, the “things” are mostly plants and fungi  although we did have a conversation about the ethics of keeping dinoflagellates in captivity…Maple shows me the world in a patient and articulate way. She has an eye for detail. Now I feel I really can tell the difference between false and true turkey tails. We debated whether a plant was indeed rattlesnake plantain. I love that she is respectful of picking, “This looks like it’s about to spore, let’s leave it.” One of best parts of our walk was discovering a fallen tree, moss covered, hollow and filled with passage ways, entrances and exits, perching spots where beech nuts and acorn left overs allowed us to imagine recent feasts. We rolled a few acorns down into the dens, and Maple spoke to the chipmunks (who we decided lived there), warning them to stay safe and apologizing for the disturbance we had caused. We also decorated the log with fallen hemlock boughs (maybe nipped from the tree by a porcupine) in honor of the season.
We also discussed how foolish it is for some people not to believe in fairies.

How nice to take such a walk with a child and view the world as fresh and so alive. Maple might spot a tree ear far up on a birch, and grab my hand and run to it. We spotted partridge berries and ate some, we collected birch twigs for the rabbits and guinea pigs and cached them, leaving behind trail markers so that we could pick them up on the way back. On the way back, we met Jimmy and Tyco, putting up the trail cam. Maple asked sternly if he had removed any trail markers from the path and he looked guilty.

We were out for at least 2 hours in the cold and walked a long, zig zagged way, skipping sometimes, running, racing, stopping, singing, sometimes holding mittened hands, sometimes adventuring off on our own. Chatting and quiet, warning off the invisible hunters, whispering so they could not hear our talk of animals. At the confluence, (which is not really that but a long island which splits Fuller’s Brook into two for a bit) we clambered around on the boulders, seeking out the garnet studded schist and saving the small stones. They look like little loaves of petrified raisin-pumpernickel bread. In the light the raisins sparkle deed red.

Although she was unfamiliar of the trail, Maple remembered all of our hiding spots and special places on the way back. And although we were tired, hungry and cold, she simply had to stop at the beaver pond and break off delicate sheets of ice and toss them off onto the frozen surface, watch them tinkle, shatter and skid.

Crossing Paths

Last night a cat crossed my path.

I had taken the wrong turn and was lost somewhere in the middle of Berkshire County, driving through an unfamiliar river valley:

The mountains are black against a misty moon filled sky. The car’s gas gauge veers toward empty.
Directional instincts most always mislead me so I know that I am more likely to be heading in the wrong direction as the right. Above the steep valley walls, the moon divulges little hint of east or west. Somehow I trust that the way home will be revealed. And if not, I tell myself, I can always stop and wake some sleeping family and ask them where I am. I can even sleep in my car, covering myself with the dog’s blanket from the backseat.

The road gets smaller and more cobbley. I follow a sharp right curve across a narrow stone bridge then up a hill and into a winding town. Up ahead a white cat hurries across the road. I recognize it as a cat by her manner of motion: body and head ride still upon a rapid whir of legs; and her color: there are no white wild animals in this part of New England at this time of the year. From a distance, the cat looks like a tiny windup toy. As I approach, I expect her to speed to a trot or a leaping gallop, but she does not.

Closer up this cat is lithe, small and scruffy. She moves with deliberation, heading towards a specific place with a particular goal in mind. From her body type and attitude, I guess that she is connected to a human family that allows her to wander out into this moon filled night. Unlike myself, she is most certainly not lost.

If a black cat is bad luck then what is a white cat? What luck does a scruffy white cat hold for the passing traveler? Is she a talisman for my travels? Does scruffiness detract from luck? As I head up the mountain and out of town, my mind wanders from thoughts of this particular cat and her nighttime adventures to human beliefs regarding black and white, bad and good magic, and the prejudice that our own culture holds against the dark.

Darkness of depth, unknowable things, mystery, safe hiding places, a space for dreams. Cracks in a wall, a tunnel beneath the ground. Things you cannot see. Another way of seeing things, or feeling them: an alternative spinning of a story. What is it like to have whiskers, hear ultrasound, have magnetic sight, what if you were able to hear a hurricane from a hundred miles away? Or feel a mouse sneeze from behind a door? Darkness, a path from one world into another. The resetting of an inner clock.

What is path crossing anyway? Whose path is it? Does the path crossing occur before or after one has gone by? Did I cross the cat’s path or did she cross mine?

It is a path crossing, boundary blurring time of the year. The sun is at a slant, the shadows are long and a day without clouds flashes with sudden brevity. Meanderings, wanderings, byways, lost ways. Low clouds drift by in the dying day, columns of mist float down the river like ghostly giants. Losing the trail. Losing one’s way. Rustling grass, skittering leaves.  A scratching in the wall. A knocking on the side of the house. Feeling your way in the dark. Hiding things. Stashing things. Forgetting where you put the things you’ve piled against winter’s cold.

Do we leave a trail of something behind us, a piece of ourselves behind as we zip or crawl, swim, run, wander, drift or fly through this world?  The tail of a meteor, the track of a bear. Thunder reports the collisions of clouds. An expanding ripple, the beaver’s dive. Water laps against the shore. Evidence of things no longer present; palpable memories that deepen and elucidate the mystery of time and space.

The cat who crossed my path dropped one white hair in the alleyway as she headed home. A deer mouse wove that hair into her winter nest hidden beneath a leaf filled drain by the crumbling brick wall of a house on East Main Street in a town whose name I do not know.

What does the moon leave behind as she passes through the night sky? A haze of excited photons or something more?

I did eventually find my way home, my car on empty. I encountered no other creatures, human or non. Fell into bed and read about moss until I slept. Woke up at 1 on a pile of pillows and turned off the light. Mosses do not have roots. They depend upon a micro layer of water to coat their leaves. Without this minuscule aquatic blanket the moss becomes dormant. It sleeps. Of what do mosses dream? They dream of water, of course, says Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author of the book Gathering Moss.

Although the barred owls have stopped their hooting, the coy-wolves have been howling through the night so the dark is full of energy and sound, some of it alarming, all of it strange and supercharged with wild power. My cat rises up on the bed when she hears them. Tail bushed, hair up, she stares at the window, and her growl comes out as a low hum.  Zora my dog presses close and silent against my body. There is a skittering in the wall of my bedroom. It is a productive rustling, coming from someone bigger than a mouse. I welcome the company as I stir in my bed.

The crickets have fallen silent now and the tree frogs too. It is finally too cold for them. Last week’s torrential rains washed out the uppermost beaver dam. Yet again, as is always the case in beaver territory, the world of land and water has changed dramatically. The upper pond has drained, upstream the brook is now free flowing. Shores of sand and mud  are exposed. Islands emerge that have previously been under water, drowning trees are given a chance to live. Observing this rapidly evolving topography is like watching a time lapse movie in miniature of epochal geographic change. The beaver lodge is revealed to its base and will have to be abandoned, not a welcome prospect for a beaver living at the edge of winter.

Yesterday I found a nice fresh series of bear tracks on the sand by the stream. The great blue heron has forsaken my field for this newly revealed riparian environment. I go on my daily run along the stream.  A sudden flash of blue startles me as this giant bird flies up with a loud flapping. Navigating the trees with grace, she flies downstream. Low along the water, she sets down her long legs, folds her wings and settles to hunt a little further on. At dusk the wood ducks call and haloo in their pipey voices. The sunsets trend towards red, orange and crimson. The dark falls faster and more absolutely with each day. The woods are mostly bare now, save the oaks and beeches which continue their fade from green to gold. The moss by the path absorbs the cold mist that now cloaks our valley. It is at its most green.

The rushing sound of the river travels from across the road and penetrates the silence of the house.



It is becoming blustery. I am sitting on the porch watching a great blue heron in the field, willing myself to be as still and patient as she. Mostly she is motionless, but occasionally I am rewarded by a shake of the head, a turning, an opening and closing of the bill, a stretching or contraction of the long, sigmoidal neck. The bird’s long legs which allow her to wade through water and tall grass look fragile and awkward through my binoculars. When she flies from one spot to the next, they dangle underneath her like an airplane’s landing gear, tucked up close against her body only as an afterthought. But now she is standing still as a tree, head slightly cocked, watching for movement in the grass. The royal cascade of grey feathers from throat to chest and the cape-like hood over her muscular wing gives the bird a mythic, godlike quality. A bright yellow eye in the middle of a black stripe and a stylish cap of feathers shooting backwards from a streamlined head add to her fabulously alien appearance.

The clouds are moving so fast and so high that shadows projected from the east pass over field and forest like a time lapse film. Shape shifting as the light changes, valleys, hummocks and trees are illuminated and seem to rush by as the heron stands still, the center of the stage. When the sun hits her, she gleams.

The chokecherry tree in the field underneath which I buried my old cat, Daffodil, is clapping the last of its golden leaves. The forest beyond the beaver ponds is warmed by oranges, scarlets, pinks, and yellowing greens.

Animals like the heron that are born to bide their time: what does she think as she stands motionless and waiting? What poise and concentration is needed in order to detect a scurried movement or a glimmer of scales? What is time to the heron? Does her mind wander? I find it challenging to watch and wait alongside this creature. I am a part time, partial observer:  I fidget, I write, or read. I think of other things. And look up to find my subject has moved. Now there is only a disembodied snake like neck poking up high above the shoulder deep field grass, her head tilted one way and then the other. Is she listening?

Yesterday my daughter Atalanta found five-year-old Itzel standing stock still in the middle of the kitchen, his eyes were closed. She left him to himself until he opened his eyes and began to move about. What were you doing? she asked. “I was feeling what it is like to be dead. Now I know.” He has been talking about wanting to know what it is like to die but without the staying dead part.

The crickets are still singing but their music is reduced from a symphony, to a series of quiet songs. Last night the katydids still sang at dusk. The children and I noticed bats at sunset, and a long line of geese high in the sky just after the sky turned a soft scarlet gold.

A chickadee has landed on a branch just above my head. She is singing her “who are you” song. Short musical trills. I have seen several black squirrels over the last few days, and last evening, a porcupine who, with a typically stilted, deliberate gait, hackles partially raised, headed off into the woods as I stopped to shoo her from the road.

I will avoid the term Indian Summer.  It is of the white man’s making, likely originating sometime in the 1700’s. One account says that it means a fool’s summer, a false or trick summer, a term connected with lying and trickery which may be attributing this trait to a people.

So I will call it either All-Hallows’ summer or Saint Martin’s summer to describe this unseasonably warm spell that we are feeling in the middle of October. A last taste of the season of warmth.

I just came in from feeding the animals, planting horseradish root and picking the last ripe grapes in the almost dark. Tonight I will wash and simmer them, and save the cooked mash for making grape jelly later in the week.

The clouds are gathering, dark and piled up.  the wind is gusting and racing around the house and barn, shushing through dry leaves and rattling the metal roof of the barn. A unsettlingly warm wind that smells of the ocean and rotting grapes. Next to me the screen door opens with a slow creak then slams shut. It does this again and again. In a moment I will take my little flashlight and venture out into the evening to pick kale for my dinner. The season of eating out of the garden is likely over as of tonight. The tomato leaves hang like  limp rags, the sunflowers lean at acute angles, joining to form geometric shapes with their huge stalks. In the collapsing, shredded foliage of the garden, 5 big orange pumpkins are revealed. They glow in the last light.

My neighbors brought me a basket of succulents, cutting from burro’s tails and others. I spent the last of the day arranging them in pots. They are linear, vine-y plants that grow in spirals, loops and cascades.  In one pot I fashioned a sort of living mandala with them. If they take root, they will be a Christmas present for Atalanta (I neglected to water her burro’s tail plant last year and it died). The others I put into a big pot where I had in the summer repotted some cacti. They will be elegant there. I also repotted 2 little hem stitch begonias. Begonias seem to like this house. Those particular plants were from a dear friend of my mother’s who died many decades ago, way before my mother’s own death.  But these long lived plants remain diminutive as they thrive. Sometimes they shoot up shy pink blossoms. My other begonia which has almost died numerous times, was from my mother. This year, I retrieved the little table upon which it used to sit  when I was a child. It may have felt the familiarity of place because now it is thriving! It sits by a southern window and this past spring it gave me two months of fabulous flowers.