There’s a type of madness that I’ve never seen described in print, that I
have discussed with other hikers. It happens when you travel on foot, alone, over miles of dense forest that shows little change in vegetation or other variation in terrain. A claustrophobic feeling overtakes you, and you’re overcome by a desperation to be somewhere else. They say that it’s a grooved routine that makes the years fly by as you get older, but this monotony makes time slow waaay down. Five minutes feels like five hours. You begin to feel like you’ll never get out of these woods.
I was in such a situation several days ago on the way to a place called Lester Flow. Second growth forest. Good level path, but no trail signs or even markers. No ponds, no hills, no streams, no meadows, no views, no curves, no people. Almost no sound; it’s the end of summer and the birds are molting. I didn’t succumb to the insanity, but after about twenty minutes I recognized the signs. I have this idea that if I understand what’s happening, I can maintain equilibrium.
I became hyper-aware of my surroundings. I took note of the species of trees, the downed branches, the fungi, the subtle rock patterns on the path. I tuned into the remote murmur of a plane far overhead, and the buzzing of dragonflies, and the Black-Capped Chickadees that never completely calm down. Once I heard a Pileated Woodpecker. In this way, I remained conscious of going somewhere, as opposed to merely getting tired. It helped that I’m a fairly fast hiker these days; I arrived at the Flow in less than an hour. I was rewarded with a pretty peaceful scene and a sense of privacy rather than isolation.
The way back was easy, because I memorized the landmarks, such as they were.
I asked myself later, if perhaps this madness that I have no word for – call it forest craze – has been occurring in my life, on a different level. I’ve been discouraged by lack of discernible change in various areas of my life, and while I can’t honestly say I’ve been in a bad place, I have often felt like there’s no opening in the trees.
I doubt I’m the only one who encounters this in their life. It’s not the same as spinning on a hamster wheel: I know I’ve covered some distance, and my sense of direction is good. Perhaps by tuning into subtle changes, a sense of movement can be restored. This is where consciously noticing signs, rather than waiting for them to ambush you, is important.
It’s been a great summer. I’ve been outside as much as possible. Winter coziness indoors will begin soon enough. I hiked today to Upper Sargent Pond, which I had to myself. For a variety of reasons, it’s not a popular place, though it is lovely.
I’ve been translating classic Greek invocations lately. These are based on originals and my understanding of the deity. Here is an Orphic hymn to Hermes.
O Hermes, artful messenger: boisterous one laden with divine prophesy. You whisk into our cognizance dodging, feinting, finessing, contemporizing while bestowing counsel in your cryptic way. Wily advisor, with sharply honed insight pierce our misfortunes and smooth the way for prosperity and peace.
I took this picture on August 2nd on a still day with the trail to myself. I cherish these days when weather and privacy allows me to perform ritual outdoors. Decades ago, someone told me that this holiday is about taking stock of what you need to finish and what’s holding you back. The first grain reaped does not a harvest make. I prayed for support in the writing (and completion) of my current novel. It will be the fourth that I’ve considered worthy of publishing under my name. I actually had an offer from a publisher a few weeks ago, but I turned it down. Didn’t feel right. I took it as a sign that more developments are coming, that things are ripening. Pray for me, friends.
I spent a quiet morning with this lovely babe at the top of a small peak. This is the Common Eastern Garter Snake, less common to me because it prefers a slightly drier environment. I tend to see more of the Eastern Ribbon Snake, another garter that hangs around marshes and bogs. I’m fortunate to live in an area with so much wetland. Much of North America is dry, and the eastern wetlands have mostly been drained for farmland or suburban development. Most animals like to hang out in the swampy places.
This garter was on a mountaintop. The presence of water and mountains makes the Adirondacks special. Though this is a common snake – perhaps the commonest of all – it’s not the one I usually see, so the significance of this sighting is a portent of something a little different, at least for me.
Snakes almost universally are symbols of change. Since they shed their outer skin as they grow, they are believed to have many incarnations in their time on earth. A few years back, I kept seeing lots and lots of snakes whenever I walked outdoors, mostly these little Ribbon Snakes. I took those encounters to mean that a BIG change was coming in my life and I tried to imagine what it would be. I decided that my writing was finally going to get the recognition and widespread acclaim that it deserves, as I could not imagine a more life-altering trajectory. Money…fame…acclaim…justification for past decisions…a sense of fulfilling a life’s purpose…
Turns out, I hit menopause. Life changing, certainly. Not the fun exciting new life I had hoped for. Mostly life stayed the same, except that I was dealing with that crone-entry crap. I had (and still have) a hard menopause, and there’s no preparation for that amount of heat. Dealing with fertility is hard; letting go of it is harder. I began thinking that my life was never going to change for the better. This was, of course, hogwash. There are many good things in my life, including wonderful things that have come in the past few years, many of them the result of my own efforts. But I have been frustrated in a few areas that mean a great deal to me, creating dissatisfaction.
Lately I’ve started seeing snakes again. Not so many as the time before, but a few. My reaction, naturally, has been “Oh dear, what now?!” Yet take a look at the environment of this particular snake: she is winding through a Wild Strawberry plant. In Divining with Animal Guides, I discuss the importance of interpreting a sign in terms of context: the context of your life, certainly, but also the physical environment in which the sign appears. A Wild Strawberry is sweet and tangy; something to be savored. This sighting occurs during wteehiimiiwi-niipaahum, the Strawberry Moon, making the strawberries around the snake even more significant. And this is on the mountaintop, so there is something significant about the mountain itself. The name is Sawyer Mountain – it has the word “saw,” as in seeing, and “yer,” which is another word for you. Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, I’ve been seen (or will be seen) by someone who can help my career? Or maybe there’s a love interest in my immediate future, taking the sexual connotation of the snake. Fruit and snakes evokes images of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge. I could see this snake as a warning of temptation and downfall, but I rejected that interpretation simply because it didn’t feel right. A strawberry is not an apple (it’s sexier), and knowledge isn’t always a source of grief.
As the snake slid away, I plucked the berry, plopped it in my mouth, and, as the sweet juices lingered on my tongue, I said, “May the changes coming to me be sweet.” This is an example of how a priestess moves beyond noticing the signs in her life to directing life itself. My third (and probably final) book on animal magic will focus on spellcasting with animal energies. The first, Invoking Animal Magic, was about tuning into the magic of animals and emphasized meditation. The second involved interpretation of symbols. From there, the logical step forward is manipulation of the symbols to influence the trajectory of life.
Snapping Turtles leave the ponds, rivers, and lakes this time of year to lay their eggs. They particularly like roadsides for this, since this is where sand is accumulating. I once encountered a snapper on the road at least three feet in diameter, the size of a superhero’s shield. I got it safely off the road, then saw in my rearview mirror that a guy was putting the turtle in the bed of his pickup truck. Turtle soup. I hated to see such a huge mama meet that fate.
There is a story I heard when I moved to the Adirondacks, that there are huge snapping turtles living in Tupper Lake that grab swimmers and drag them to the bottom where they drown. There is no truth to this; it’s just a story people like to scare themselves with, like the one about Daddy Longlegs being deadly poisonous.
Driving to work the other day, I saw a car coming the other way swerving to avoid a snapper. I got out of the car and saw that there were two snappers: one at the side of the road actively laying, the other on the pavement. I positioned my car in front of her with hazard lights blinking and persuaded her to hurry and cross to the other side. I was unwilling to pick her up, because snappers have powerful jaws and can cause significant injury. I stomped on pavement nearby in my dress shoes, and either the sound or the vibration motivated her. As she lumbered across the road, I tap danced behind her to encourage the forward motion.
The snapper below is another I found on the road last week. They’re all over the place. It’s a good idea to stop and help them off the pavement if you can. Snapping Turtles are not endangered species, but it’s a shame for them to be captured for soup before they can lay their eggs. Plus, they ruin tires if you run over them.
Who knew that silly song from South Park would someday be relevant? The preoccupation this week has been poor air quality from forest fires up in Canada. We’re spoiled in the Adirondacks, used to pristine air quality, and I had headaches and burning throat until winds pushed the smoke down-country. The frequent rain here also helped. I plan to resume my outdoor sports tomorrow, weather permitting.
I started wondering about the animals affected by the forest fires. Yes, it’s sad and wrong for animals to suffer from fires caused by human activity, but nature is the cause of many fires, so I reasoned there must be adaptive responses.
Forest fires are a primary method for promoting ecological diversity in western North America. Fires open the forest canopy and allow tree and grass species to flourish, which in turn protects small mammals and provides food for deer. In the Adirondacks, where there is high precipitation, fires are rare (thank Goddess!) and beaver dams and snowstorms open the canopy. Otherwise, the forest composition would eventually become mostly beech and hemlock.
Forest fire affect on animals depends on the intensity of the fire. There are low-intensity fires, where the dry brush and shade-resistant plants are burned away, and the tree trunks are scorched, while the tree roots remain healthy and the taller trees remain standing. The ash from these fires enriches the soil. The high-intensity fires create high temperatures that damage the roots and turn trees into dead snags. The ash produced is toxic to some plant species and most trees do not grow in the area for years or decades. A mosaic fire is a low-intensity fire with pockets of high-intensity heat. This is actually a fine scenario, from the standpoint of ecological diversity.
In a low-intensity or mosaic fire, animals shelter in place. Small rodents go underground, bears climb to the tops of trees, medium-sized animals and some birds appropriate tree cavities, while other birds and deer move to the periphery of the fire. When the fire is extinguished, the animals move back into their territories.
In a large scale high-intensity fire, such as what is happening in Quebec right now, animals migrate quickly out of the affected area. This brings them into conflict with animals in other territories or with humans. The animals cannot move back into their territories when the fires are gone because there is nothing for them there. While some grass cover will emerge, it will take years for the area of a large-scale burn to support diverse wildlife. Large scale, catastrophic fires particularly affect animals that live in deep mature forests such as fishers and goshawks.
I haven’t mentioned the affect of large-scale high-intensity fires on fish. Landslides from denuded forests containing toxic ash slide into waters and kill the fish.
This is a depressing scenario, but the good news is that forests will recover. We humans (not just Canadians) need to become better at preventing this situation, which is mostly the result of our activity.
Saturday I was out with a group and we saw an otter. It was running out of a marshy stream into the woods, bounding quickly.
Otters to me represent play. About twenty years ago, in late winter, I was trudging along a seldom used path with a friend and we saw three otters playing in an icy stream. They would float on their backs, dive under the water, chase and scare each other – they were having a great time.
It’s Memorial Weekend, the start of summer, and I’m ready to cut loose. The licensing board disallowed 1/4 of my CEU credits, for totally bogus reasons I could not have foreseen, and I had to scramble this month to come up with enough before my license expired. Just when I thought I was done and could relax a little: more boring courses. The most painful part was all the patronizing rich girl MSW’s on a teaching mission to proselytize about preferred language on some surprising topics. I use cognitive restructuring in therapy, rephrasing problems to help clients achieve their goals, but I think this is a completely unethical trend, this cognitive restructuring on a societal level by supposed experts without the permission of ordinary people. It’s a power and control game, and it certainly won’t fly with the working class clientele I deal with. They like plain straightforward language and are rightly suspicious of constantly changing “preferred” terms. What a load of nonsense I’ve been dealing with this year!
So my compelled dumb useless classes are finally done for awhile and I really truly am ready for some down time. I’m like an otter: full of energy I’m determined to direct in enjoyable ways.
Black fly season in the Adirondacks is quite beautiful, even when it feels like a bite on the neck. I’ve had difficulty adjusting to a head net in the past, but this year it has felt surprisingly comfortable.
Not many hikers here at the moment, and I have the woods to myself. The birds are back, though. One of my favorite sounds is the drumming of the male ruffed grouse. I’ve never actually seen him do this, but I’ve heard him often enough.
Well, the warm weather has arrived. Temperatures in the mid-70s melt the snow in the roads and the fields, at least in the lower elevations. There is a constant roar from swollen streams and rivers. I hear it even at home indoors. Backwoods activities are approached with caution, as rising stream levels can cut off retreat.
I saw the first Turkey Vulture of the season this past week. Bluebirds are singing. I heard the first Northern Goshawk last week and retreated, with perhaps an overabundance of caution. They’re courting, not nesting, right now.
Wild animals, like humans, are much more active. Yesterday and today, while cycling in the woods, I heard my favorite songbird, the Winter Wren. It will continue singing through the Summer Solstice.
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