All Hail the Fisher

August 16, 2019

This week I participated in a storytelling project about the Adirondacks. I chose the fisher as my subject, an animal I did not know existed before moving here.

The fisher is a member of the weasel family, the size of a large cat and sometimes called a fishercat. When pussies go missing in the Adirondacks, though, the culprit is often a fisher.

Fishers are quite aggressive, snarling and hissing at people who surprise them rather than running away. They feed on animals much larger than they are and can even kill and eat porcupines! Once a fisher lunged at me, probably defending a kill.

The fisher who frightened me so badly was on the ground, but fishers spend most of their time in the trees. They need large expanses of uninterrupted forest, so they are only found in sparsely populated areas of North America.

If you encounter a fisher in the wild, give her plenty of room. She is not impressed by your larger size, and she is much meaner than you.

Iphigenia in Aulis

August 9, 2019

I was reading Iphigenia in Aulis this week, and another thought struck me about this myth.

The Greeks performed a ritual to Artemis prior to attacking Troy, offering Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia to her priestesshood, in order to secure favorable winds and other blessings from the goddess, who was venerated along the coast of Asia Minor. Buttering up the gods of the people you planned to attack, trying to get them to move over to your side, was an ancient war strategy. The story goes that Iphigenia was going to be killed at the altar, but by a miracle Artemis substituted a deer (or sometimes, a bear) at the last minute. This made a better story, but it (probably) was an embellishment. Maybe as part of the ritual to Artemis a deer was sacrificed. Maybe Iphigenia initially protested being relegated into chastity. Her mother almost certainly wasn’t onboard with the plan. But I’m not going along with the miracle substitution.

Photo: Elfer

I was thinking this week about how Judy Grahn and other feminists have viewed the Trojan War as a last stand against Western patriarchy, the defeated Trojans representing the matriarchy. The all-women priestesshoods were relics from the matriarchies, their continuation an uneasy truce, or even a condition of surrender. As patriarchy gained a firmer hold, the Witch hunts of the Catholic (later Protestant) church sought to eliminate these relics of female power. The persecution of Dianics by American Witches are a continuation of that quest to subdue female power under male domination. Thinking of the autonomous priestesshood as a term of surrender puts the attacks on Dianics within Paganism in sharper focus. The three major methods of maintaining female subordination under Patriarchy are violence, economic oppression, and religion. Destruction of religious self-determination for women is an essential part of patriarchal control on the left and the right.

I tell the story of Iphigenia in my book, Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the pagan priestess.

A Priestess for Artemis

Iphigenia means “mother of strong children” and is probably an early name for Artemis or another bear goddess who became merged with Artemis. It later became an honorary title for her priestess. There are conflicting versions to the following story, but this much is not in dispute: The hero Agamemnon, leading an offensive against Troy, made little headway with his fleet due to unfavorable winds sent by Artemis, whom Agamemnon had offended. After consulting an oracle, Agamemnon offered Artemis his eldest daughter Iphigenia, thus earning the implacable wrath of his wife, Clytemnestra.

King Agamemnon of Mycenae was on the wrong side of Artemis from the start. His father had failed to honor a vow that he would sacrifice a prized lamb to the Huntress, and there is no record that the son felt an obligation to make good the pledge. Agamemnon, so capable in manly pursuits, once slew a white stag with a single arrow and boasted that Artemis could do no better. So true this boast: the beast was a member of the Virgin’s chariot team, and she would never have slain it.

When Queen Helen ran away with the Trojan prince Paris, Agamemnon took command of the retaliatory mission. Here was a chance to lead a great coalition and gain heroic stature. So much more the pleasure of Artemis, whose sympathies were inclined toward the Trojans, in thwarting Agamemnon’s plans. As the fleet readied to embark, an unfavorable northeast wind stranded them in the harbor of Aulis for weeks. Some say the goddess was miffed over the killing of a hare and cursed the whole expedition. Impatient to sail and bewildered by the persistent bad wind, Agamemnon called for an oracle. A chicken was gutted and the seer declared Artemis must be coaxed with a sacrifice of Agamemnon’s oldest daughter.

At first Agamemnon demurred. His wife would never surrender the girl, he protested. The military cohorts devised a scheme: send a messenger to the mother explaining that the demigod and prince Achilles wished to marry the princess, and she must come at once.

Clytemnestra, whose ambitions were wholly channeled in securing an advantageous match for her beautiful daughter, hastened to Aulis with Iphigenia, where a comedy of errors—or perhaps a tragedy of errors—awaited them. Agamemnon’s secret letter to Clytemnestra exposing the ruse had been intercepted, and the strong-willed matron arrived against her husband’s expectations demanding a marriage contract. Achilles, innocent and uninformed of the subterfuge (and married to someone else besides), was protesting there had been a mistake. Priests were completing preparations for Iphigenia’s dedication. The bamboozled daughter was balking at the plan, and her mother began begging Agamemnon and then threatening him. Surely there was a face-saving way out of the mess, by declaring Achilles an unknowing partner to deception if nothing else, but the fact remained that ships were stuck in harbor and men were itching for war.

Iphigenia, realizing her father’s ambitions and her country’s future revolved around her, finally stepped forward and declared she would go to Artemis. Iphigenia was as loyal, devoted and obedient as she was beautiful. Or maybe filial duty and patriotism were just a piece of it, and Artemis herself seduced the girl. Perhaps Artemis promised her adventure in a far flung country. She could be mistress of a great temple. The possessions of rich ladies who died in childbirth were sent to this temple, and Iphigenia’s beauty could be displayed against the finest fabrics and jewels.

Iphigenia’s acquiescence stirred a whirlwind. At the altar of Artemis the priests raised their knives to slit the girl’s throat, but at the last moment a bear cub was switched in her stead, and Iphigenia was swept on a red cloud to the land of Tauris. The same wind that whisked the new priestess filled the sails of the Greek fleet, and they were off to conquer Troy.

In offering Artemis the coveted maiden, Agamemnon was given the favorable wind he requested, but the act never improved the disposition of the goddess toward him. Later she abandoned him to the wrath of Clytemnestra.

It would be inaccurate to say the sacrifice of Iphigenia turned Clytemnestra away from her husband, for he had earned her hatred long ago. There comes a point, however, where dislike becomes disloyalty, and the proud mother had envisioned a greater future for her daughter than being exiled in a remote temple wearing dead women’s clothes. That the victorious Agamemnon returned from the war to be trapped in his wife’s net should surprise no one.

Iphigenia did not learn of her father’s fate for many years, until her brother Orestes was cast ashore at her temple under mysterious circumstances. As high priestess, Iphigenia presided over the slaying of refugees at the altar of Artemis, and during the pre-ceremonial interview learned of his identity.

What was Orestes doing in Tauris? Orestes admitted he was running from the horror of his actions. He had killed Clytemnestra, with Apollo’s approval, to avenge her murder of their father. After the filthy deed, Orestes was called to account before the Olympians, where Apollo spoke in his defense. The gods quarreled over his fate along political lines until the goddess Athena cast a vote with Apollo, tipping the verdict in Orestes’ favor.

An acquittal won through a brilliant defender and a stacked jury does not automatically erase the pangs of conscience, however, and Orestes had committed a horrendous deed. The Furies, sister deities who rule the conscience, tormented him for his crime until, driven to the edges of insanity, he consulted an oracle for a remedy. The oracle instructed him to steal the sacred statue of Artemis at Tauris and carry it to Brauron, where he was to build a new temple to the goddess. If he was unable to carry out this feat, Orestes declared, he might at as well die in Tauris; he could not go on living with this torment.

Surprisingly, Iphigenia decided to help her brother. She had grown tired of her exile and longed for the customs, faces and clothing styles of her native country. She told the Taurian king that Orestes and his companion were polluted by matricide and must be cleansed before sacrifice. That much was true; Orestes was not fit to have his throat slit on the altar of Artemis. She further told the leaders of her host country that she was borrowing the statue of the goddess for the purification rites. Iphigenia was certainly the double-crossing daughter of Agamemnon

Orestes consulting the oracle. Notice the snakes on the priestess hovering above the tripod. Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

Miraculously, with much adventure and intercession of the gods, the brother and sister eventually reached the ancient shrine in Brauron. A new temple was built, with the sacred image installed therein, and Iphigenia was named high priestess of the complex.

The presence of an important temple to Artemis so close to the city was an honor that made the Athenians nervous, as the wrath of Artemis had already sparked so many misadventures. Every family that could spare a daughter for a year sent the girl to Brauron to attend the goddess and learn the Brauronia ritual. The girls were called little bears and charmed the goddess with their dances. In this way, Artemis extended her healing side to Athens, protecting against plagues and enhancing the survival of infants and their mothers.

For the Love of Scorpions

July 4, 2019

The heat of summer is full upon us, excruciating in parts of the Northern Hemisphere, and this makes me think of scorpions. It’s a reminiscence, not a vigilance, because I now live far enough north that I don’t have to check my shoes every time I put them on. No wonder people in Arizona like sandals!

Selket greets the deceased as a woman with a scorpion on her head. Egypt, 1100 bce.

Scorpions are fascinating, multi-faceted creatures. They embody mystery, in the sense that they become more intriguing the more you learn about their secret world. They embody boundaries, in the sense that much larger creatures are respectful of them and their venom. They embody transformation, in the sense that their venom has huge effects on the human body.

Scorpions are dangerous and live in a dangerous world, hunted continually by birds. Even mating is dangerous. Summer is scorpion courtship season, involving a dance pincer-to-pincer under the starry sky. That sounds sweet, but since both parties are heavily armed it can involve stinging. Some scorpions reproduce parthenogenetically, which seems like a better idea.

Here is an excerpt from a chapter on scorpions in Divining with Animal Guides:

The Egyptians had a scorpion goddess, Selket, who was called upon for protection against—you guessed it—scorpions. Selket was one of the guardians of the “canopic jars,” the containers holding the pickled remains of four vital organs of the deceased: liver, intestines, lungs, and stomach. The heart, the all-important anchor of the soul within the body, was preserved, wrapped, and returned to the body cavity. The brain was thrown in the trash. Each of the four organs was guarded by a specific deity, and Selket protected the intestines. The guardian deity was depicted on the outside of the jar along with hieroglyphic prayers to invoke that deity’s protection. This label also helped the expired prince remember which jars housed his various organs. Labeling funerary objects was an important precaution: not only did the rich take a lot of stuff with them, the world beyond had so many people—as many people as had ever trod the earth—that mixups were a potential complication. Thus everything was tagged, and clothing and bedding contained laundry marks. This consistent attention to organizational detail in preparation for the final voyage may strike some people as absurd, but think about it: would you want to root around in someone else’s canopic jar by mistake? Selket was entrusted with an important responsibility.

Selket’s other major role was helping the deceased draw their first breath in the afterlife. Most “death goddesses” are really death-and-birth goddesses, and breath is the fundamental connection to life. Selket initiated breathing in both worlds. To emphasize this nurturing aspect of Selket’s character, she was sometimes depicted without a stinger or as a stingless Water Scorpion. The Water Scorpion is not an arachnid but an insect in a family biologists call the “true bugs.” Water Scorpions are true bugs and fake scorpions, and most of them don’t even faintly resemble scorpions, but there are a few with pincer-like front legs and long tails that look vaguely reminiscent. The “tail” is actually a breathing tube that sticks out of the shallow water. The Nile species depicted in art has a double-breasted air tube.

Here is an excerpt from a longer article on scorpions in the anthology, iPagan:

Renaissance scorpion magic was unequivocally combative, used surreptitiously for destroying personal enemies. Outside of hot climates a scorpion would have been a scarce commodity, all the more so because there was no use for the creature which enjoyed public approbation, and this must have heightened the allure for those dedicated to intrigue. Picture a man in tights with a ridiculously large shirt collar gazing down at a desiccated scorpion while rubbing his hands together and saying “Hahahahaha.”

The Black Fly Returns

June 28, 2019

Black Fly season is in full swing where I live, and I wanted to pen a tribute to these little monsters.

For those who don’t know what Black Flies are, they’re little bugs the size of a gnat that swarm in the early summer and BITE. Each bite swells up and itches. They hang around hikers in deciduous forests on long days when the weather is nice, getting in eyes, noses, and mouths. My first summer in the Adirondacks, I got a few dozen bites around my calves and ankles during a hike, and I was woozy for a couple days from the poisons. For the next ten years, a rash where I was bitten would reappear every time my legs got warm.

Female Black Flies bite mammals after mating to get a bit of blood for their eggs. They lay their eggs in cold moving water, and after the water reaches seventy degrees Fahrenheit, the eggs hatch. The larvae attach themselves to rocks and debris as they cannot swim. There are many larval stages. Eventually the larvae spin cocoons, and about a week later the young flies emerge. In my experience, it’s usually about a week after they begin swarming before they start biting. The life cycle repeats throughout the season, but the large swarms are usually gone by early July, depending on temperature and rainfall. As the weather grows warmer, the small streams harboring the larvae dry up. As the weather cools, larval development enters a stasis until the next spring.

Think of the Black Flies as the admission price for this.

Black Flies play an important role in the ecosystem at each stage in their development. Fish eat the eggs and the larvae. The larvae eat organic vegetable debris, breaking it down and filtering it for other organisms. Once the adults emerge, they become food for fish, birds, toads, bats, and other insects. The late spring swarms emerge at a particularly opportune time for nesting birds. Black Flies feed on plant nectar and are important for pollination.

While Black Flies make it unpleasant to be in the woods, they also creep into the villages, albeit in smaller numbers, and make it impossible to work in the garden (for me anyway). Most town districts use a pesticide to reduce the population of Black Flies. In early spring a chemical is released in streams that prevents Black Fly larvae from maturing. While this chemical is highly selective, affecting only one other (non-endangered) species, I don’t agree with this practice, since Black Flies are a critical foundation to the overall ecology. Fortunately Black Fly control is a daunting task in a place with as much water as the Adirondacks, and control efforts are always incomplete.

Bug repellants don’t work well against Black Flies. DEET supposedly works somewhat, but I wouldn’t know about that since I won’t use it. My strategies for hiking in Black Fly season are 1) to walk quickly and stay ahead of them, stopping only on open ledges where a breeze keeps them away; 2) to hike midday when there are fewer swarming; and 3) to wear long pants, pack a lightweight long-sleeve shirt, and bring a head net. A head net is a piece of nylon netting worn over a ballcap and cinched at the bottom. It interferes slightly with vision, but when the bugs are at their worst it’s worth the nuisance. I was once with a group on Nun-da-ga-o Ridge where the Black Flies were so bad we had to eat our sandwiches under our head nets.

Despite the consensus that Black Flies are a nuisance, many people respect these creatures for their fierceness and tenacity. A local softball team calls itself The Black Flies. A grueling mountain bike race calls itself The Black Fly Challenge. A local nursery calls itself Black Fly Organics. Many residents are proud of their ability to live with the Black Flies, viewing it as a badge of toughness.

Black flies are picky about where they lay their eggs, so the best thing about the early summer onslaught is what it tells us about the ecosystem we share with them: that water is plentiful and very very clean.

Happy Solstice

June 21, 2019
Gary Stadler and Wendy Rule

The vocalist on this album is from Australia, where it’s Midwinter, not Midsummer, but the track feels like a dreamy summer solstice.

Photo: Geoff Gallice

Animals and Music

May 24, 2019

I remember my mother one day giving me this very typical (for her) advice: “Be sure to wash your celery good. I was reading the other day that celery is extremely dirty and people should be more careful.”

To which I had to reply: “Where do you read these things?”

Well, I was reading the other day that termites like heavy metal music. Yes, I read it on the Internet, but there’s so much stuff on the Internet that you have to know what to look for.

Scott Bauer/USFWS

The article didn’t say whether termites show taste in heavy metal – whether they like Queen and Jethro Tull but hate KISS – but researches inferred that termites prefer this music since they chew faster when they hear it. According to Erlich Pest Control Blog, rock is ideal work music for termites due to “the frequency of 2.5KHz outputs for bass and electric guitars, which are distinctive of the rock genre.”

Mammals can have idiosyncratic tastes in music. Dolphins purportedly love Radiohead. In Tracking and the Art of Seeing, Paul Rezendes describes a raccoon who “would often come in when the man was playing Bach on his stereo. As soon as the record was over, the raccoon would leave.”

I used to have a cat who liked loud classical music, the kind with lots of horns and cymbals. She would lay next to a boombox playing Wagner or The William Tell Overture and cry if it was turned off. She’s dead now, but in Misha’s memory I would like to share this rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, her favorite.

At Crown Point

May 16, 2019

Trees are starting to bud where I live, and the birds have arrived. I went to Crown Point this week to watch the birds being banded. I’ve driven over the Crown Point Bridge hundreds of times but have never stopped here.

Banding a Rose Breasted Grosbeak. Birds are measured, then sex and age is recorded.

Savannah Sparrow.

It had rained early in the morning, and the cloud shapes were interesting.

After the long winters here, even dandelions are beautiful.

I liked this tree. Spring is unrolling slowly this year.

Crown Point Bridge from New York to Vermont.

Spring is Here

May 3, 2019
Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

It has finally begun to feel like spring where I live, even though it was snowing this morning when I arose. The trees are not leafing yet, but the maples are budding, and animal life is conspicuous. In the past week, I have seen or heard the Barred Owl, Short-eared Owl, Cooper’s Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Osprey, Pileated Woodpecker, and the drumming wing feathers of the courting Ruffed Grouse.

One particularly welcome sight was a Little Brown Bat that sailed by my left shoulder on a dirt road near the village. I haven’t seen spring daytime bats in years. When the Little Brown Bat emerges from hibernation, she hunts during the day for insects which are inactive at night in cool weather. I used to see groups of bats flittering in the midday sun in early spring, but that changed years ago. White-nose Syndrome was first discovered in upstate New York in 2007 and has since spread throughout North America. A few species are predicted to become extinct, though the Little Brown Bat has a chance since her numbers were so high and her colonies so widespread to begin with.

Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

I hoped that this was a sign that the disease has run its course and the Little Brown Bat is recovering, but my Internet search only revealed that White-nose is spreading to places far from the original sighting, like southern Texas. Still, I might be one of the first to notice signs of recovery, if that is occurring. “One swallow does not a summer make,” and one bat is not a colony, but I am hopeful.

Visions of the Cat

April 25, 2019
K. Fink/US National Park Service

This excerpt, about meeting a cougar on a vision quest, is from Divining with Animal Guides: Answers from the world at hand.

I decided I would do a vision quest. I would go out on my own, build a fire, and instead of sleeping I would stay up all night and have visions.

I chose the dark moon for my journey. I walked a few miles along a deserted beach, with cliffs along the edge that had small caves and alcoves. When I reached a sheltered place I pulled firewood out of my backpack, gathered kindling along the beach, built a small fire, and in the approaching twilight commenced scrying into the flames. I didn’t have any visions.

I sat there a long time, getting up only to add more fuel. It began spitting rain and I became chilled even with the fire. I felt silly, shivering all by myself in a deserted place with a car less

than five miles away and a warm bed within a few hours’ drive. “This is boring,” I said to myself. I gathered my belongings and scattered the fire. As I stamped out the last embers, I had a vision.

A fat Chinese Buddha appeared, so rotund that I could not discern the outline of his body within my psychic frame of reference. I intuitively understood that he appeared to me thus to

show that he was bigger than I could envision. The limits of his influence were beyond the scope of my understanding.

The Buddha raised his hand in a gesture of protection and the apparition dissolved. I commenced my journey home.

As I trekked northward, the cliffs at my right and the ocean to my left, I discovered it was not raining at all; the fine droplets were from an unusually rough tide. How had I blotted out the sound of that surf? I realized that I was now in danger of being cut off from dry land; cliffs to one side of me with water butting up against them. Though it was very dark, I put my flashlight in my backpack because I needed both hands to scramble over the slippery rocks. I felt angry with myself for having bumbled into such a dangerous situation.

Finally the cliffs ended and the beach opened up. I had made it. I unloaded my backpack and retrieved my flashlight.

I was now only two miles from the car, two rather slow miles over sand or a short brisk walk via a trail close by. The logical option was to take the trail, but I felt an unexplained reluctance. It was one of those feelings that don’t make sense at the time, but you understand later. I was sopping wet from struggling with the surf, and I was rattled, so despite my misgivings, the trail won out.

I practically ran along the narrow path, so I was very close before I saw her. She was huge, the largest carnivorous beast I had confronted in the wild. She appeared confused. She moved a few steps from the beam of my flashlight and stood there, staring at me.

“You’re supposed to run away,” I said helpfully. The conventional wisdom was that cougars would not attack humans unless cornered, though they might possibly eat children. Many well- publicized deaths from unprovoked mountain lions have occurred since, but this was the prevailing belief at the time. I was not reassured by this while standing face-to-face with my cougar, however, because I am not a large woman. I thought to myself, “I hope this cougar understands that I’m a grown-up and not a child.”

“Listen, you’re blocking the path,” I reasoned. “Turn and follow this other path, or run back the way you came. I have to go in this direction because my car is there.”

The mountain lion took a few steps forward, slightly left of my shoulder.

“Okay, I give you the path,” I said quickly. “I’ll go another way.” I took a small step backward and shone my flashlight directly in the animal’s eyes. I took another slow step backward, and another, and another. I began shining the flashlight away, then back in her eyes, then away, then back, rationalizing this would interfere with her ability to focus. She remained still.

As I finally turned away, I let out the loudest, most terrifying scream I could muster, just to give her second thoughts about following me. “Take that, you big scream machine,” I thought.

My relationship with wilderness changed that night. After my third cougar encounter I still went out by myself, sometimes after dark, but I interacted with my environment in a different way. Hearing an unfamiliar sound I would investigate not only out of curiosity, but also out of concern for safety. I remained vigilant; I became cautious. Magical protection was no longer an abstract concept. Once there was a girl who roamed the wilderness alone at night, aware that there were mountain lions in the woods and completely unafraid. I am no longer that girl.