Saturday, May 31, 2008

Healing Stories

"I am writing this story and it kicks me in the gut, it brings me to my knees and swells my eyes with tears. This is not an easy story to write. It is about who I was and who I am. It’s about trying to figure out what makes a good person good, trying to figure out how to fit in, how to give myself permission to be who I am--to let myself become without society or church or my neighbor or a husband, telling me who I am, what I should think, how I should act or where I should go.” Morning pages, May 12, 2008Columbine
Isn’t that what we're all trying to do--become our truth? We tell our stories a snippet at a time, at lunch, in emails, in letters, in conversations. We tell the funny ones mostly. And then there are the deep ones, the painful ones that we save for precious moments and precious people. Telling our stories connects us to all of human kind and stories heal. They are an act of love.
I am close--less than ten pages from finishing my novel. It is a work of fiction but no matter how much fiction one creates, truths flow out. The unconscious is an amazing part of the mind and body. It is ever busy, ever working to help and to heal.
And so soon, maybe tomorrow, you may hear me singing from the tree tops and the words to the song go something like this: “it is finished, it is finished--all of it is truly finished!”

Friday, May 30, 2008

Red-winged Blackbird Surprise

“Placed in water, the half-grown nestling will float and can swim, but in a very excited manner. They will swim to the reeds and hold on, calling for their parents. When well covered with feathers, but yet a few days before being ready to vacate the nest, they readily swim, but excitedly, and can climb up the cattails to the nest.” Harold Wood, 1937. My first reaction to reading the above quote was, “Whaaat? Those spindly little legs and feet can’t possibly swim. They aren’t even wading birds.”

It reminded me of my initial reaction to the whooping crane chick falling off the edge of the nest as I sat peacefully photographing him. I felt near panic, thinking surely he will drown. But no, whooping crane chicks are born in nests fabricated of grasses piled high in shallow water. It makes sense that they can swim even though their parents are not equipped for swimming.

Whooping crane chicks are born with webbed feet and can swim faster and with greater skill than they can initially walk, an awkward, tumbling sort of gait as they navigate the grasses. They are so funny to watch. But I digress-- I’m supposed to be talking about blackbirds.
Isn’t that fascinating that blackbird young can swim, not gracefully, not immediately and not as a life time pursuit, but for a little while, so they won’t drown if they fall out of the nest into the water around them?

Nature provides in amazing ways, ways we don’t understand and barely even notice, unless we take a minute to look a little closer. And what we discover when we do this will always be delightful and surprising.

More about my journey with this Red-winged songster in upcoming posts.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Whooping Crane Culture

The natural world is complex, intricate and delicately balanced. We need only look at a re-introduced species to discover how much we do not know, how much remains mysterious and puzzling.Of the eleven whooping crane pairs that built and incubated nests on the wetlands of the Necedah Wildlife Refuge, WI, all eleven abandoned their nests within a short expanse of time earlier this month. The abandoned nests were reminiscent of the previous year when a similar occurrence happened. Biologists remain puzzled and can only speculate about a number of possibilities.

Was it hot spring temperatures that hovered in the low 80’s that week, the density of black flies, or some other subtle environmental signal not yet identified? Is it the inexperience of the young adult birds or the absence of natural parents at an early age that somehow lessens perseverance? Or perhaps an unlearned vocalization between the adult and the chick prior to hatching? (These adult birds were raised in incubators with the sound of the brood call.)Answers and resolutions are not always up to us. No one really knows how many failed nests occur in the natural population that remains in Wood Buffalo in Canada. And no one knows if we can reverse what is causing this disruption. It is something to watch and to ponder. My guess is (if I can be so bold), barring something environmental that is more widespread, the whooping cranes will work it out by trial and error. They, like all other species, are driven to reproduce. Just how the culture and ecology of this re-introduced group of cranes may have changed because they are captive reared by costumed humans, remains to be seen.

It gives pause to the fact that we determine species endangerment by counting species numbers rather than looking at the bigger picture—the culture and ecology of the species.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Eastern Wood Peewee

It wasn’t until I heard him sing, that I finally realized which flycatcher I was seeing. It was easy to tell he was a flycatcher from the way he flittered up and out to catch an insect, looping back to his perch. I’ve heard peewees often but never seen one until now. I wasn’t expecting him to appear so fluffy and big or have such a bright orange beak. The song sounds like his name stretched out, ‘peeee-weeeee’ and there is a another shorter note that swings up and down that sometimes follows, ‘peeeoooo’. It’s fun to listen to these songs and try to figure out who’s singing, even if you can’t find the artist. It’s even more fun to take a break and pull up a chair under the canopy and listen until the songster takes a new perch. Then you can hone in with binoculars or your camera and get a good look. Nature springs alive when you do this. It comes closer and you find yourself more deeply connected to all your busy neighbors.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Living Your Truth

Wild geranium

Damage is a universal experience. It happens to all of us during the course of our lives. No one escapes. Most often this damage settles in our self-esteem and gives us an inaccurate picture of who we are and what we are about. You may recognize this as the negative commentary you hear in your mind. It chatters about short-comings, failures and fears. And like a young child misbehaving, it needs love and correction.

There is another voice inside you that is full of positives and light. It is a softer voice, one you must listen to quietly, that gets stronger each time you pay attention. This voice views mistakes kindly, as the learning experiences they are, and tucks them away for future reference. It recognizes talents and abilities, regardless of their outcomes. And it values intentions and efforts.

This is your inner voice, the voice of your inner truth. Listen for what it has to say.

Friday, May 16, 2008


“…peace is not external or to be sought after or attained. Living mindfully, slowing down and enjoying each step and each breath, is enough. Peace is already present in each step, and if we walk in this way, a flower will bloom under our feet….In fact the flowers will smile at us and wish us well…”—Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every StepPeace is evident in nature. We can feel it as we walk and in our quiet moments of stillness. We can feel it in the wind, the cool earth beneath our feet, the sun upon our face, in the drifting of the clouds. It is not that nature isn’t full of harsh realities, but that it continues, it endures and it renews. It reminds us that we can do that, too.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Each Moment

“Every morning, when we wake up, we have twenty-four brand new hours to live…. We don’t have to travel far away to enjoy the blue sky. We don’t have to leave our city or even our neighborhood to enjoy the eyes of a beautiful child. Even the air we breathe can be a source of joy…. Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.
–Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step
Our goals, our plans for the day, our choices give us direction, ground us in the day, give us opportunity to express our gifts to the world. At the same time, there is an unseen challenge that is felt by everyone--the challenge of creating a happy, peaceful heart.

This peace and happiness does not lie outside of us in what others say or do, or in the events we encounter in the day, or even in the results of our endeavors. This peace and happiness lies within us, in our hearts and in our response to this very moment.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tulip Poplar

“So you’ve been out fishing all morning, following the creek up into the mountains. You’re catching a few of them native speckled trout, but after a while the stream gets too small. So you call it quits and head up to the ridge for the long walk home. There you run into the biggest patch of ripe huckleberries that you’ve ever seen! You’d love to haul some of them berries home, but you ain’t got nothing to carry ‘em in….Well, if you knew how to make a berry basket, you’d just find you a young tulip poplar tree, make a poplar bark basket and tote them berries home, buddy! ”
—Paul Geouge as quoted by Doug Elliott, in Primitive Ancestral Skills, edited by David Wescott.Huckleberries are definitely worth the effort. But this was not your everyday woven basket nor an easy endeavor. It was a bark basket that involved wrestling with a young poplar tree, collecting the bark to shape the basket and then lacing it up with hickory strips.

I read that passage and thought, we’ve forgotten how to live. The image of that day is so full of sensory depth, so rooted in the moment, so alive. Not an easy day, an alive day—a day to remember. Its a reminder to not fade away, to stay connected, to commit yourself to each day, whatever challenges it brings, and give it all you have to give.

The tulip poplar is blooming, but most blossoms are so high above us, we often don't notice until a storm comes through and brings them down to our level. Also known as the American tulip tree or yellow poplar, this tree is the tallest hardwood tree in North America, reaching its largest size in the southern Appalachians and the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, where they have been preserved from logging just across the TN border in North Carolina. The tree is known for its straight trunk that can reach heights of 150 ft and diameters in excess of eight to ten ft, and has both tulip shaped four-lobed leaves, as well as, tulip-like blossoms.

The Skunk and the Apple Tree

We don’t approach a skunk with anger. We don’t ask a skunk to change. We don’t become angry with a skunk for being a skunk. And we don’t ask him why he is a skunk. And yet, in our daily lives, these are the attitudes we so often use.

I once came upon a skunk under my apple tree as I walked. He was feeding on the apples that had fallen to the ground. By the time I noticed, I was very near him. He neither raised his head nor stopped his busy activity to pay me any mind. I smiled because I found him curious and I continued on my way, content to have him there.

There are as many stories as there are people. As many reactions to a situation as there are minutes in our lives. We have within us the ability to make choices, to respond to a situation in a way that brings us peace and nourishes our inner world. This also nourishes the world around us.

If you began your story with-- “I came upon a skunk under my apple tree…”-- how would your story go?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Magnolia Warbler

Here’s my fourth warbler this week, the Magnolia warbler. In the photo he’s a speck and a bit of a fuzzy one at that, but let me tell you the story about why these photos make me so happy.
Once, about seven years ago, I went out with a group of experienced birders to find migrating warblers. I had no idea what this would be like. (Mind you, seven years ago, I wasn’t quite as hardy as I am today.) On that spring morning, person after person called out the names of warblers. They named them by song. They found them in the trees. They counted them out, one by one, by one, lots of them.

I saw nothing. I heard nothing. I found nothing, no matter how people near me tried to help. On that morning I faded away and soon left in tears.

I haven’t really thought about that experience since then--until now. To have these illusive little birds come visit me in my yard, to find them almost effortlessly and to identify them with these fuzzy photos while looking in my field guide—this gives me great joy. It’s as though they hurt my feelings on that day and have come by to mend them. And that makes me laugh.They are beautiful. And they are funny. And they travel thousands of miles against great odds to return to their breeding grounds in the spring. We are so very lucky to have them. --I think I may have to paint them one day soon.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

It was the towhee that introduced us. I see him occasionally, hear his song daily and yet, the only photo I’ve been able to capture of my towhee friend is the silhouette of him singing in the rain in early March. So now and then, when I hear him nearby, I grab my camera and out the door I go.
Last week he led me to the edge of the woods where the wood thrush was singing. Then someone landed on the limb above my head. I looked up and to my surprise, it was this rose-breasted grosbeak. And he stayed for a while. He entertained me moving about on the branches, picking and feeding. I later came back with a chair and some real shoes. (Ants love sandals.) And this is when I also met two warblers. In all I've met four new warblers right here in my own yard, migrants visiting to rest and feed.
Last evening a cat bird was calling outside my window, very mew like, as everyone was settling down for the night. Earlier that morning two brown thrashers were perched together in the dogwood, near that same spot. It’s a wonderful time of year. Expect the unexpected.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Child-Mind and the Pond

“Child-mind doesn’t question itself, stop to adjust clothes, worry about rules or approval. Child-mind dives in, breathes in the mystery, tastes all of it, the wonder and the intrigue. Child-mind moves without moving. It swims with the pollywog, rides the dasher’s wings, freezes invisible with the frog. Child-mind becomes everything that is.”
--morning pages, 5-10-08, Vickie HendersonWhen I first came to the pond, I couldn’t find the frogs. I asked someone, a wise someone, “are there any frogs in your pond?” He answered, ”yes, there’s lots of them. But they’re hard to see. Just be still in one spot and pretty soon you’ll see them.” And I did. Their camouflage is so flawless they are invisible and they're expert at using it--at being still. It was like looking at a hologram and seeing something wholly different emerge. And this was the day I also met the blue dasher. And through my camera lens I began to notice the different ways he holds his wings.It was by accident that I discovered the one female I saw. I wandered to another area of the pond to see what was happening over there and to find some shade. “Ah! What is this? Two salamanders mating underwater. How intimate. And whose this? A beautiful red dragon fly. What is she doing? Wow--laying her eggs.” I watched her, she was never still. She hovered close to the water's surface, touching it with the tip of her abdomen, depositing her eggs. Dipping up and down, touching the water, making the water ripple in rings. And sometimes when she hovered above the water, I could see the tiny eggs still falling.
Female blue dasher
In this photo you can actually see eggs falling, just above and below the saw-tooth edge of the leaf.

By chance I also saw her mate. He was perched on a long blade of grass, watching, standing guard. That a dragonfly has this kind of connection with his mate, with procreation, amazed me. How incredible, all of it. That these tiny creatures are busy in their pond community, creating life, living the delicate balance. That I could share this intimate moment and join them. That our lives could go by in their busy way and we could miss all of it.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Blue Dasher and Child-Mind

A child’s mind is curious, imaginative, eager. A child’s mind is designed to play. Even though we may not feel it most of the time, we still have our child-mind. It is always with us. It is of the heart and sensitive. And so it will hide if it’s afraid or fatigued or overburdened. But it is also tough and resilient. It will never go away. It wants to come out and play. How do you find your child-mind if you feel like you’ve lost it? You idle. The favorite companion of child-mind is idleness. In the absence of busy-ness and worry, child mind emerges. It can’t help it. It can’t be still.

I went to a pond and met a blue dasher and he showed me.

I followed the whispery song of an American Redstart flitting around and upside down. He showed me.

Two skinks suddenly ran out of the grass. The little one disappeared in a flash. But the big one in pursuit stopped, raised her nose high in the air and she told me.

And the child-mind giggled.

*American Redstart is a woodland warbler. I've been listening to his song outside my window all week. And when I finally found him. Guess what? He wouldn't be still! Cornell says he flitters about and flashes his tail and wings to attract insects. I think he's just full of 'child-mind'.

*The Blue Dasher is a dragonfly in the skimmer family that inhabits ponds and still wetlands. The female of the species is red! More about the blue dasher next post.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Our Amazing Wetlands

May is American Wetland Month, a time set aside to celebrate and especially focus on our wetlands. Why wetlands? Wetlands are important links between bodies of water and land, where the flow of water mixes with earth’s rich nutrients and the sun’s energy, producing highly productive ecosystems that support a wide diversity of plant and animal life.
In addition to the recreational benefits that we all enjoy, wetlands work to filter out pollutants, help control flooding and support the multi-billion dollar fishing industry. Marsh boardwalk, Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina, USActivities people enjoy may vary, but most people love being near the water. Wetlands, such as marshes, ponds, flood plains and bogs, have often been viewed as wastelands and are too often drained for agricultural use and development. Wetlands are also stressed by invasive species and pollutants. For all these reasons and many more, they need our help and support.
Peeps and sea oats, Hunting Island State Park, SC, US.
And of course, you don’t have to live in America to participate. Wetlands are vital to all of us all over the world. Visit a wetland near you and do what you can to support conservation of wetlands.
Wood stork or Wood Ibis, Hunting Island State Park, SC. "On 10-17-01, I counted 23 wood storks roosting in live oak, palmettos and pine at the edge of an inland pond. " Travel sketchbook, 2001, Vickie Henderson.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Another beautiful warbler passing through, or maybe staying, I can't be sure--the yellow-rumped warbler--returning from Central America or the Carribean. What I can show you about him with my photos is the beautiful canopy and his size in relation to the oak leaves around him. I was truly surprised when these warblers--this one and the Blackburnian in the previous post--came so close and lingered long enough for me to catch some images, both of them on the same morning. This is one of the magical things about nature, especially birds. If you sit still for a while and listen, the birds will come to you.

It is of course, spring and mating season, so when a male is singing, you can often get a good enough look to identify the warbler. (I use Peterson's field guides.)
Experienced birders know these tiny birds by song. I'm a novice. I'm sure I always will be. I'm interested in everything I see out there and there's a lot to see.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Global Migrants--Blackburnian Warbler

I live in a river valley, right on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains in the Cumberland mountain range. One of the fun things about living here is the rich variety of flora and fauna and the wide diversity of climate and habitat. Besides all the plants and trees in successive bloom this time of year, it is peak migration season. Many migrants are newly arriving and others still passing through to their nesting grounds. Among these are the illusive woodland warblers, tiny little birds that you often hear but barely glimpse as they pass. But yesterday was an exceptional day. A Blackburnian Warbler, a striking little bird with a bright orange head, perched on a branch near me, flittered about and sang a whispery song that seemed to shake his whole body. Such a gift to our world. These are one of the many migrants that unite and brighten the globe with their journeys, in this case, as far south as southern Central America and northern South American in the winter, with some traveling as far north as Canada to summer breeding grounds.

Taking care of our earth and its creatures means taking care of each other.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Creativity and Time

" are here to co-create the world, to add your vision, to make visible what is not yet seen, to manifest that which is within you. This is the gift you have for the world. It is precious and worthy of your time."--Jan PhillipsBlue Dasher (male), a species of dragonfly in the skimmer family that inhabits ponds and other still wetlands. Abdomen position helps to regulate body temperature.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Mayapple--the Green Umbrellas

“Down in the shady woodland where fern-fronds are uncurled,
A host of green umbrellas are swiftly now unfurled.
Do they shelter fairy people from sudden pelting showers?
Or are the leaves but sunshades to shield the waxen flowers?...”
--Mandrakes, Minnie Curtis Wait (1901)

And yes I did feel like I was in the fairy realm as I nearly had to stand on my head to find these lovely blossoms. I was familiar with the leaves and have seen the ripe fruit, but never the flowers. So when I spotted them, I took a peek, and there they were, fair maidens, shy and secretive. The flowers grow in the fork of the stem and are often down turned and completely hidden from view by the large umbrella-like leaves. Jack Sanders, in his book, Secrets of Wildflowers, says the flowers have no nectar but their pollen is used for food by many pollinating insects.

One of these must be the granddaddy long-legs, as we came nose-to-nose while I searched for a blossom to photograph. The flowers are at a late stage as you can see the fruit developing in the center of the pedals.

The plant’s folk names include Indian apple, hog apple, devil’s apple and raccoon berry, but its second most common name in North America is American mandrake. The fruit gets more attention than the flower and the fruit, in fact, is the only part of the plant that is not poisonous. Even the ‘apple’ is poisonous until it fully matures.

The lore of this plant is full of indigenous medicinal uses as well as deadly ones, but today's researchers are finding it to be a miracle plant in the development of drugs to treat cancer. Podophyllotoxin, a chemical found in the plant, is a chief ingredient in two major anticancer drugs that are used to treat several forms of cancer, including leukemia.Postscript: You see that three-leafed plant to the left of the umbrella leaves in that top photo? That's poison ivy. I've managed to get through life without ever having a break-out with the tortuous rash this vine causes, so I'm knocking on wood as I type (a three-handed trick) hoping my lastest prowl in the woods will render it still ineffectual on me.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Tennessee Conservationist

The May/June issue of Tennessee Conservationist magazine is out and features an article on whip-poor-wills written by Stephen Lyn Bales, friend and author of Natural Histories, Stories from the Tennessee Valley. Lyn's article, entitled "Whip-poor-wills, on the Borderland of Invisibility" is written with that same magical Bale's quality--lyrical story telling, enriched with historical and sensory detail --that has become his trademark and is fast making him one of the most sought after naturalists in our area. His book, a first publication, is destined to become a regional classic. I was delighted several months ago when Lyn asked me if I would be interested in creating some watercolor sketches to go with his article. He is an excellent pen and ink artist himself. And it is indeed a thrill now to see this article in print, accompanied by both my watercolor illustrations and his pen and ink.
enlargement of watercolor
A special thank you to Stephen Lyn for the invitation to join him in this endeavor and to Louise Zepp editor and Jeff Law, art director/designer of this award-winning magazine.
To see enlarged illustrations click on link to April 26 post, whip-poor-will seranade

Friday, May 2, 2008

Barred Owl Love

You might think that title would refer to two owls in love, but not so. This is about me falling in love with an owl. Remember the owl that I mentioned in my March 26 post, Barred Owl Neighbor? Well, I encountered her again this week while on my drive home. She was sitting in that same spot where I had seen her before, quiet, patient, beautiful. I drove the rest of the way home with a dialog going on in my head and the 'yes' won out. I grabbed my camera and off I went. As you can see, she was still there when I returned.

It is intimate and wonderful to watch an owl hunting from her perch, her head turning in every possible direction, and some that don't seem possible, as she patiently awaits her prey.

And as I watched her I realized this barred owl love affair began much earlier than this spring. It happened when a family of barred owls collected in the tree branches outside my door last summer and began to call back and forth to each other. This conversation of sorts went on for most of an hour, so much so that I could count by the distance of the calls that there were four of them taking part--parents and their fledged off-spring, I surmised. Take time to listen to the barred owl calls by clicking on the link: Barred owl. They are magical.

And while I was looking at these photos, the one below struck fear in me.

Two cars slowed to see what I was photographing (from my parked car). And as I took my eye away from the camera to look at them the owl struck her prey and they stopped to watch. Even though this vehicle had slowed to a crawl and the owl crossed safely, it shows clearly how much danger is in her path. I want to stand guard, direct traffic, insist the county put up a detour sign or, at the very least, post a sign that says:
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Bird-banding at Seven Islands State Birding Park--2014
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Bird-banding at Seven Islands

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Photo courtesy of Karen Wilkenson

Enjoying Gray Jays in Churchill!--2014

Enjoying Gray Jays in Churchill!--2014
Photo courtesy of Blue Sky Expeditions

Smithsonian National Zoo with one of my Whooping Crane banners and son, John--2014

Smithsonian National Zoo with one of my Whooping Crane banners and son, John--2014

The Incredible Muir Woods near Stinson Beach, CA--2014

The Incredible Muir Woods near Stinson Beach, CA--2014
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Me and Denali--2012

Me and Denali--2012
Photo courtesy of Bob King

For the Love of It...

...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals.
Sendivogius (1750)

Your Uncapped Creativity...

Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham