House of the Belted Kingfisher

October 23, 2020
Photo: Kevin Cole

The Belted Kingfisher appeared in a recent journey-meditation to tell me…what exactly?

This colorful bird will be leaving my locale soon as ponds and lakes freeze over, though in much of the United States the Kingfisher overwinters. Various types of kingfishers live around the world, wherever there is open water, with the most colorful species in the tropics (of course).

Even in northern latitudes, kingfishers are relatively bright. The Belted Kingfisher is a lovely rich blue. This is a high profile bird, soring over ponds and divebombing for small fish. Sometimes she skims the water, her blue coloring blending in. The female in my area is blue to blue-gray, like the male, but with a rusty “belt” on her breast.

Kingfishers nest in mud burrows along the banks of rivers and ponds, tunneling on an upward slope three to six feet to lay their eggs. They form new nesting pairs every year. Males court females by bringing them fish.

The sound of a Belted Kingfisher is an unmistakable series of rattles that each last a full second or more. She makes this noise flying or when perched looking for prey. She is quite territorial and aggressive toward intruders.

I associate the Belted Kingfisher with the astrological Eighth House, that time of day when the afternoon sun has commenced a noticeable decline in the west. The Eighth House rules death, psychic activity, the occult, and other things that are hidden. Think of the Kingfisher diving into the still water for her meal. Think of the Kingfisher laying her eggs not in the trees or on the ground but in a cavity beneath the soft earth.

Photo: Teddy Llovet

Proud Emblem of the City

October 9, 2020
Photo: Dick Daniels

An encounter with a pigeon could have great import, because pigeons are guardians of civilization.

Pigeons are intellectual birds, associated with education, government, and religious institutions. They roost in libraries, government buildings, university buildings, and large places of worship. Wherever there are cities, there are pigeons.

Because pigeons and other doves roosted in the first temples, pigeons became associated with the goddess. Mesopotamians believed these birds came to the temples to carry prayers to the sky deities.

The white pigeon, especially, is a messenger of the goddess. Aphrodite, Ishtar, and Astarte are sometimes pictured with the white dove, which is a pigeon.

The pigeon is the ultimate pro-social bird of complex society. Interestingly enough, while the Mourning Dove and White-winged Dove thrive in open spaces throughout North America, the Rock Pigeon (that introduced species most people are referring to as the “pigeon”) doesn’t survive outside of cities due to predators. Even in the city, Peregrine Falcons and Red-tail Hawks feed on pigeons.

Pigeon numbers are decreasing, although they are not at all endangered. Is this decline caused by an increase in urban raptors or is it a reflection of the anti-intellectual times we live in? Many people claim to hate pigeons, but pigeons are connoisseurs of human institutions and culture. The urban dweller and the pigeon have much in common.

Scramble to Nowhere, Special

June 19, 2020

I meant to get this written yesterday, but repairmen scheduled to come Friday showed up Thursday instead. Can’t complain. As things stand during the pandemic, you’re lucky to get someone to come to your house at all.

On the way to Little Crow

This week I hiked two lesser mountains called The Crows (Big and Little) and an extended ridge line called the Nun-Da-Ga-O Ridge, all on the same day. Nun-Da-Ga-O sounds like it could be an Iroquois word, or Anglicization thereof, but it’s just a name a local hiker made up.

I’ve hiked pieces of this trail, a few miles outside of Keene, New York, many times, but Wednesday I decided to start on Hurricane Road, summit Little Crow, traverse the coll to Big Crow, and descend a quarter mile to the Ridge Trail, which undulates up and down for several miles in numerous rock scrambles before descending at Weston Mountain to Lost Pond. From there, it’s flat easy trail to Crow Clearing, a parking lot where most people hike to Big Crow or Lost Pond, or hike the Nun-Da-Ga-O loop, bypassing the Crows.

Little Crow isn’t hiked much. There’s no parking lot, the signage is obscure, and Big Crow is a bigger mountain with an easier ascent. I chose a clockwise loop to get Little Crow out of the way early, since it can be difficult for the vertically challenged (a.k.a., short). I carried a heavy day pack , since I knew there would be no water until I got to the Pond, and the Ridge trail is unmarked, so I needed extra gear and clothing in case I lost the trail and spent the whole day wandering around up there.

I find climbing a treacherous trail with a heavy pack disconcerting. Some people find it harder going down, but I think it’s much easier to jump down than scramble up. I only needed to take off the pack to get over one ledge, as it turns out. I’ve climbed Little Crow many times, but this was the first time the trail was dry. I realized that what I interpreted as a difficult hike was mainly my reluctance to get my knees muddy and my bottom wet. Still, I cursed the giants who cut this trail.

Summit of Little Crow

I enjoy Little Crow more for the grass, Red Pine, and lichen near the summit than the views. In the twenty years since I moved to the Adirondacks, many of the views I once enjoyed have partially filled in, as the forests continue to recover from the poor forestry and deliberate fire setting of the nineteenth century. At the summit the scent of balsam pine was pungent. The thing that struck me most when I moved to the Adirondacks from Tucson was the many fragrances, not just of balsam but of sweet fern and wet leaves. The desert only smells like dust, except after a rain, and it doesn’t rain often. In the Adirondacks, it rains a lot. I’ve been up on this range in the rain, in the fog, in many feet of snow, in approaching thunder, and on days when the black flies swarmed so heavy that you had to thread your sandwich under your head net. Usually, though, I pick a better day to be up here. On this day, the deep deep blue of the sky conveyed a limitless calm.

There’s long stretches of scrubby Red Oak on The Crows, not seen much in this area. On the descent into the coll, a Hermit Thrush sang buoyantly. Thrushes kept me company throughout the day.

There was one small section of rock on the descent that looked impossibly steep. I could easily have gone around it, but I calculated that the fall would be minor and there was a tree to grab if I slipped, so I went for it.

Success! It’s always gratifying to find a reasonable place to test the tread on your boots. I would need that security traversing the bare rock up to Big Crow.

Final lip on Big Crow

The views on Big Crow are impressive. You can see the Dix Range and the Great Range of the High Peaks. You can also see the weather coming in for quite a ways on this isolated and exposed peak. I was up here once with a very spiritual woman who was praying and praying and praying as the thunder clouds rolled in. Can she hear that or is she deaf, I wondered, cognizant of the quarter hour scramble, at least, to get down into the canopy. When she finally opened her eyes, she said that of course she heard the thunderstorm coming, but she wasn’t finished with her prayer. That’s one tarry at the summit I’ll never forget.

Clouds gathering on the view from the Tongue Range

The wider loop I chose was about nine miles and some change, but mileage and net elevation gain doesn’t tell the story of an Adirondack hike. I hiked the same distance, on the Tongue Range over Lake George, two days earlier. That hike took four hours, including stops. This one took seven-and-a-half hours. Nun-Da-Ga-O is a continual up-and-down into depressions of hemlock, beech, and Yellow Birch, then along shallow brush and balsam, with exciting stretches of bare rock and exhilarating climbs. Though this is not an official trail, someone has been maintaining it, sawing through the downed Paper Birch trees that are yielding to maturing forest.

My companion at Deer Leap on the Tongue Range

At one point I left the main trail and hobbled up a spur path to a wide cliff ledge for a rest. I’m a steady plodder, not a race-and-rester, on the trail. Even at a summit, I only stop long enough to rehydrate, snap a few pictures, and refresh bug spray. Partly it’s because I’m out for the journey, not the destination. I’m not much of a peak bagger. Also, I usually gauge my abilities against the trail accurately, and I don’t need to rest. There are people, almost invariably young men, who try to race to the summit and brag about their “time,” and I don’t know how to express the derision I feel for this approach to wilderness. Nun-Da-Ga-O is not a scary-steep enterprise, but there is a long way to fall in places if you trip while you’re rushing to “beat your time.”

On Nun-Da-Ga-O

The main reason I spend less time drinking in the view is probably because I live here. Not that I’m inured to the beauty–how can you be? But I’m not indulging in a few days or a few weeks away from it all. My life is here. I have chores before I leave in the morning and my own dinner to cook when I return, possibly with a few have-to’s yet in the day. The next day will probably involve errands or work, even if it’s only writing a blog post, so I’ll need to get to bed early. When you live here, you fit your hiking into your life. I often wonder what it would be like to be on vacation in the Adirondacks; I started a new job the day after I arrived here. Not that I’m complaining. I know I’m incredibly lucky. I also know that when you move to an idyllic spot, you take your life with you.

Ladyslipper are in bloom.

Stepping onto that ledge off the unofficial trail, I stepped between worlds. I reapplied bug repellent, poured some electrolyte replacement powder into my water, snapped some pictures, then just sat. I studied the peaks in the distance and named them. I listened to a Winter Wren singing exuberantly on and on and on. I entered a feeling of aloneness that’s difficult to describe because I don’t understand it myself. I know how to avoid crowds in the Adirondacks and I’m often alone on the trails, sometimes for a full day. I don’t think twice about it. I wasn’t totally alone on this hike. I believe I saw a total of seven people. I don’t like meeting people now that we have COVID-19, but prior to the pandemic I smiled and greeted a fellow traveler as a kindred spirit. With the exception of those beating their time, I like other hikers.

But in that place I felt isolated and alone, in a way that connected me to the rocks and the leafy forest below me, to the blue sky and the Winter Wren singing his complex joyful song. I haven’t felt that far away from other people and their bullshit for a long time. It was like a big bag of other people’s stuff dropped off my shoulders, over the cliff. I felt no pressure, no reason even, to move. I had miles yet to walk, but I knew the trail had no unfair demands to make of me. I don’t even remember if I prayed; the space itself was like a prayer, the heart singing gratitude without reflection.

Hiking is not really about geographical space. It’s about a meeting of trees, rocks, animals, and human. Also sky and wind. It’s different every time, and the difference itself is a gift. I’ve hiked Nun-Da-Ga-O as a bug-bitten endurance event. I’ve been disoriented up there, wandering around and around trying to find the cairn. I’m not trying to convince anyone to hike The Crows or Lost Pond or the ridge between, necessarily. It’s not about where you go, it’s where you are when you get there.

My ledge on Nun-Da-Ga-O

I hit the trail again when I felt myself becoming sleepy. The day was far from over, and there were challenges still ahead. An even bigger cliff loomed ahead of me further on, and I hoped the path would lead up there. It did! There was a rocky scramble to view of Lost Pond below. Above, a pair of Golden Eagles circled.

Golden Eagles are rare in the Adirondacks. They like the high cliffs and open spaces that are more common out West. I’ve been on hikes where others pointed to Golden Eagles in the distance, too far for me to distinguish from any other large bird, but this was the first time a pair circled close enough for me to identify. This time, I remembered to pray.

By the time I got to the last view, Weston Mountain, I was ready to go home, and I even wondered if I was walking in circles, as every rocky outcrop was beginning to look the same. I actually got out my topographical map, a thing I mostly seem to carry around for luck. The Pond was directly below me, so I was on the right path. I was sure of it as I descended Weston, which was the unrelentingly steep sonofabitch I remembered. Yes, I can pray to a mountain and call it a sonofabitch on the same hike. Those who have done a grueling all-day traverse can understand.

Lost Pond

I did not stop at Lost Pond, as planned, because a trio of juvenile ravens had already claimed the space. Raven fledglings scream incredibly loud, and you would think something bizarre and terrible was going on if you didn’t know better. They like to hear their own voices. Some people mistake these cries, which can go on for hours, for a person screaming. Fortunately I knew what was going on, so I didn’t panic, but I took the jarring noise as a sign that it was time to make my way home. I still had three miles to go, on the flat. The beautiful, haunting notes of the Wood Thrush punctuated the late afternoon, as I headed for the car.

On the way to Crow Clearing

Late Spring

May 29, 2020

Leaves finally came out this week, in literally two days.

Round Pond
American Toad (?)
Trillium
Garter Snake

Inexorable Spring

April 24, 2020

Open water everywhere now! I’ve been hearing Canada Geese from my apartment for weeks. With the reduced traffic from COVID-19 lockdowns, I wonder if even people in the cities can hear them. When I lived in Arizona, they flew so high during migration that they looked like swarms of gnats.

Tired of looking at cats on the Internet? Here’s a duck.

There’s actually a female Mallard nearby in this photo, but she’s impossible to see with her camouflage coloring. Though males are more colorful, females are more vocal.

Video: Stan Malcolm

The Mallard is the most common wild duck, ancestor of the domestic white, found throughout the Northern Hemisphere with slight variations in coloring. This male has a lot of white on its body and a reddish belly and might be confused with a Merganser, also common in this area. The female confirms the identification.

“Like a duck to water,” goes the saying. I took this sighting as a message of being in one’s own element, feeling natural, effortless, and in control.

Coming Home to Nest

April 17, 2020

On an electric pole along the Ausable River, between the villages of Jay and Ausable Forks, I saw a pair of nesting ospreys on Wednesday. They’ve picked this particular site before, and the region experienced a half-day planned electricity outage last year as crews tore down the nest after the chicks were grown. Looked on the map and noticed a pond in a housing development, which may be stocked, flows into the river near this site.

Noonmark from Route 73, along Ausable River.

This video, which is amazing, is not the electric pole in question. These birds eat a LOT of fish. They can pull bigger fish than shown here out of the lakes in the Adirondacks.

video: Tatiana Sappheira

I’ve been trying to learn to differentiate Osprey, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and Northern Goshawk calls. Sounds doable when comparing recordings, but in the field it’s a bit more challenging.

video: Kees Vanger
video: mylensview

Crocodilian Rhapsody

April 10, 2020
Child-god Horus standing on crocodile.

As you cozy into your COVID cocoon, snug as a bug in a rug, now’s the time to think about crocodiles. They can’t get you now – you’re inside!

In Ancient Egypt that might not have helped, because crocodiles were kept as pets. They wore jewelry and had special piercings to display their jewelry. Crocodile Body Piercer: there’s a high risk occupation. I wonder if it was considered “essential business” during a fever epidemic. You can bet the Egyptians didn’t close the houses of worship for a little plague. They would be earnestly supplicating the divine temple crocodile Petsuchos – a living, breathing god incarnate – for relief.

River crocodiles are wily hunters who have been observed hunting in tandem. Sometimes they cower with brush on their snouts hoping to lure birds seeking nesting materials. They have good memories and monitor the routines of prey animals. Crocodiles clamp their victims in powerful jaws and hold them underwater until they drown. (Crocs themselves can stay underwater several hours.) Then they dismember the bodies by thrashing in the water until the pieces are small enough to swallow.

Crocodiles lay their eggs on land near water and cover them with grass, mud, or sand to protect from the heat. Then the mother crocodiles rest close by to guard the nest. When the babies are ready to hatch, they mew inside their eggs. As they emerge, the mother carries them in her snout to the water. She will protect them from predators while they are small.

Crocodilians have a lot of patience, and spend much of their lives waiting around for eggs to hatch or a meal to appear. This is a magical quality in much demand at the moment, as we wait for the pandemic to subside. More crocodile magic can be found in my book Divining with Animal Guides.

2020 Year of the Rat

January 31, 2020

Anyone else notice attacks on their website decrease significantly during the Chinese New Year? The Chinese and Russian governments pay the most attention to this site. I don’t flatter myself that they’re reading it; I think it’s a policy of overall nuisance and mischief, not directed at me personally.

I’ve been listening to Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill on audio, about Harvey Weinstein’s predatory sexual criminality. I hesitated ordering it, figuring it would make me mad, and it has, but it’s been interesting too. It struck me how hard it can be to understand the potential of a project to change things while it’s underway.

The other thing that struck me was how much better and more explosive the story became as a result of efforts of NBC executives to kill the story. They kept telling Farrow he didn’t have enough evidence, and he kept digging, I guess because he didn’t realize he was being played as a sap. It reminds me of the fairy tales, where the heroine is given some impossible task, like “bring me bones from the witch Baba Yaga’s hut,” as a way of getting rid of the naive heroine, and then she actually performs the mission. The evil stepmother rages, sends her out on another task designed to fail, and the heroine returns successful.

What’s really felt weird has been reading about the trial that’s happening this week in New York City while listening to this book. Weinstein is pleading “not guilty” to rape charges and the witnesses are different than the ones mentioned in the book. The guy certainly was busy.

Animal Rights and Feminism–What’s the Connection

January 24, 2020
Photo: Jay Bergesen

A misconception emerged in the last decade of the twentieth century that took feminism seriously off track: the assertion that feminism is about “the rights of everyone.” Yes, because feminism deals with the rights of half the world’s population, it has had to delve into many issues that also affect men, albeit in different ways. Feminism has had to address racism, as it affects women of color. Feminism has had to address class, as it affects working class women. Feminism has had to address sexual orientation, as it affects lesbians. But these and other serious problems also need to be addressed within their own movements, in work performed by women and men: it is not the business of feminism to solve all the world’s problems. The moment women ceased to be centered in the movement dedicated to furthering their rights, feminism itself became a tool for placing women last.

Since feminism has never been popular, it’s debatable whether defining feminism as “about everybody” has done anything for other movements. Defining a problem as a “women’s issue” at best frames it as a problem for women to solve. Since women as a group lack political and economic power, while shouldering most of the daily work of taking care of others, the group with the least resources is tasked with solving the biggest problems. Certainly women should be part of these solutions, but they are men’s problems, too, and men need to give in real ways, not just in empty grandstanding.

Making feminism about everybody’s rights does make feminism slightly more fashionable. A feminism about “men too” is a feminism more men and women can get behind. And since men’s ideas and needs are the draw for the “everybody feminism,” men quickly become the priority. Feminism that centers men is (mistakenly) lauded as “intersectional.” Feminism that centers women, such as childbirth issues, is decried as “white feminism,” although childbirth can transcend “white feminism” by reframing it in terms of those identifying as men: chest feeding, not breastfeeding; front hole, not vagina; pregnant person, not mother. At worst, “everybody feminism” destroys the concept that there can be a legitimate movement centered on women’s rights.

Feminists who are for women have grown increasingly weary of “everybody feminism,” cognizant of the deleterious effects of feminist mission creep on the women’s movement. Nowhere has this mission creep been more obvious than in the assertion that “animal rights are a feminist issue.”

Feminism is a movement concerned with the rights of women – adult human females. By definition, it is not about nonhuman animals. The rights of animals are important – with the growing eradication of whole species it can be argued that animal rights are more important than those of women – but animal rights are not the same as women’s rights.

The exploitation of animals in capitalism is indefensible. Eating animals can be defended as the cycle of life or decried as unnecessary for human survival, but the wrongness of inflicting suffering on animals should be a given. There is also overwhelming evidence that exploitative practices of the meat industry contribute greatly to global warming and other environmental pollution. The question for people invested in the wellbeing of animals (and the planet) is not whether animals are exploited by humans but how to reduce or eliminate that exploitation.

Actually, there is an additional question: how to define that exploitation. The suffering of animals at human hands is so ubiquitous that you would think this definition would be obvious, or at least that debate over the finer points could be put aside until gross injustices are remedied. But there is a tendency in social movements to equate the suffering of one constituency with that of another, one in which there is seemingly more agreement. This tendency is especially prevalent when activists feel their efforts are being stymied. When people feel like they are losing an argument, they bring up such an analogy – not to gain insight into their issue or to explain their position, but to win the debate.

The most famous example of this tendency is Godwin’s Law, the observation that any passionate sustained argument will eventually devolve into a comparison with The Holocaust. Another common occurrence brings Segregation in the South into arguments that have nothing to do with race. Then there is Sexual Violence Against Women. Apparently it happens to animals too.

To people who use these analogies, the parallels are obvious. There is hierarchy and violence; there is domination and abuse; there is perpetration and suffering. But analogies are not equations. People who use human rights analogies need to think about where these analogies break down.

Infringement on animal rights predates patriarchy. I would guess (without really knowing) that abuse in 10,000 B.C.E. was milder than today, but at the end of the Ice Age many species of mammals were hunted by humans into extinction, and not always because there were no alternatives. Humans moved to a more plant-based diet partly because we had killed so many animals (though the environmental changes precipitated the imbalance).

Animal abuse does not, usually, involve sexual gratification. Yes, men can do all kinds of bizarre sexual things, but the key word is bizarre. Bestiality is not normative male behavior, unlike sexual abuse of women.

Animal abuse occurs across species. Animal rights activists are often criticized for caring about animals yet not caring about people. Sometimes this accusation is justified, sometimes it is not, but it is an obstacle in convincing the public to refrain from supporting factory farming. Occasionally I see social media bios that say something like, “I love animals and hate people.” I wonder, do the owners of these accounts understand that dogs and cats are not reading their Facebook posts? Do they think that kind of post endears them to other humans (unless those humans are so delusional they believe they are nonhuman animals)? Do they understand what it means to be human, and can a person who doesn’t understand humans think about animal rights in a coherent way?

One argument for animal rights as feminism uses a Marxist analysis of ownership of female reproduction. The idea is that, just as patriarchy controls women’s reproduction, animal abuse is about controlling the fertility of female animals. This, to me, is a stretch. Yes, domestic female animals are used for their eggs and milk. Every animal slaughtered is some female’s baby. But I don’t think female animals, on balance, are really treated worse than males. In the rural community where I live, which is very patriarchal, the marginal agricultural environment supports goats and sheep, and the females are well cared for. The males, of no use for wool or milk, are made into burgers. Male deer are hunted and does are left alone. Dogs and cats are not pampered according to sex, but male horses are usually castrated. I’m sure there are examples of female animals treated worse or suffering more than males, but as a country girl I’m finding this a hard sell.

Women’s right are human rights. They’re not animal rights.

The false equivalency between women’s and animal rights movements has produced a backlash that is in some way understandable. This should not mean, however, that feminism should leave animal rights alone. When feminist events become inhospitable to animal rights activists, it does become an issue specifically for feminists. I’ve noted situations where multi-day feminist events did not offer vegan options, either as part of the pre-paid event meals or as option to buy elsewhere in vegan food deserts. Since veganism is an important aspect of animal rights for many women, this becomes a feminist issue in terms of barriers.

There are a lot of “feminist” issues that are not intrinsically about women’s rights. Women in literature has been recognized from the start feminist issue, with women’s words suppressed or warped by patriarchy. Women in STEM is a hot feminist issue right now, with feminists pushing to overturn barriers for girls entering science and tech fields. Yet science is not intrinsically about women’s rights; it only affects our rights tremendously. Women and religion is another important area for feminists, yet is religion itself about women’s rights, or it only used as a tool for perpetuating male dominance?

Animal rights is a women’s issue when it is an issue begging for feminist leadership and influence. Animal rights as practiced can have a “ladies’ auxiliary” aura to it, with men defining and controlling the issue and women preaching to other women about becoming vegan to be a real feminist. It reminds me of knitting socks to help the war effort. Who controls the philosophy of animal ethics, or the strategy of animal rights, and why?

There has also been an element (which may now be on the wane) of the subjugation of women through animal rights activism. I’m talking about the PETA lettuce dresses and other skimpy clothing, the women re-enacting lobsters boiling, the women subjecting themselves to animal testing. This kind of “activism,” whether promoted by women or men, has used animal rights to express hatred and objectification of women. Young women, motivated by compassion for animals, have found themselves conned by this movement. I believe that in some instances animal rights has been used as an issue to control women.

Animal rights need to be discussed within feminism, not as part of the to-do list of being a feminist, but for feminist influence in a wider movement. Why is being vegan an issue for feminists, when men eat so much more than we do? Shouldn’t they be the focus of dietary changes?

Anything can really be about feminism, but the way we know if we are practicing real feminism, versus “everybody feminism,” is by looking at how that feminism challenges the power of men. Are animal rights a feminist issue? Only as they intersect with women’s rights. Only as they affect women’s right to influence an important issue. Only as they may be used by men to dominate women. Animal rights should, in the end, be focused on animals, and there are problems with grafting a human rights model onto animals. Sometimes we have to look beyond our anthropomorphic lens.

So these are the ways animal rights becomes a feminist issue: 1) Ensuring there are no barriers to participation by vegan women in feminism; 2) Pushing for meaningful participation by feminists in the animal rights movement; and 3) Countering the way the animal rights movement is used to further subjugate women. To base analysis of the subjugation of animals on the subjugation of women, however, is unhelpful. Most people, men and women, care less about the suffering of women than that of animals, and making animal rights about feminism extends the mission creep of “everybody feminism” from men to animals.