When is a year not a year?

December 31, 2023

One of the things I like about traditional Irish spirituality is the use of riddles to impart wisdom.

I’ve been musing on how a “year” can be a period of time, and not necessarily a complete revolution of the earth around the sun. It can be a period of time, say a period that starts in one year, continues for the whole next year, and completes in the following year.

Al Stewart’s song “The Year of the Cat” is like that. You get the feeling that he’s not talking about an exact year–it could even be two or three years. In this song, the year is a place to visit. Not home, but a new and different experience that isn’t “you,” but that you would cherish. It’s about going into the mystery of uncharted experience, and metaphysical time is different from earth time, usually longer.

When I got notice that I had to leave my old apartment in 2022, I kept seeing cat signs everywhere. I saw a bobcat dead in the road, and I ran across the scent of bobcat in the woods. (They really stink!) On one hike to a secluded canoe launch on Lake Champlain, I heard that song, coming from a boat on the lake. I though, wow, the cat is coming into my life strongly. I meditated a lot on what a cat meant to me at that juncture, when I needed to move and didn’t know where I was going. The Year of the Cat seemed like a journey into the unknowable.

Last week, on two trails, I ran across lots of bobcat tracks. They brought to my mind the song. I wrote in Divining with Animal Guides about how an image in popular culture cat be a sign from an animal, but in this case, the animal sign made me think of the song.

I’ve decided that I’m living in a place, now, where I cannot stay for a very long time, as I did before. This is a sojourn, not a homecoming. And that’s okay.

Here’s an odd bit of trivia about my life in the context of this song. I’m hardly a world traveler, and I haven’t left the North American continent since 1978, but I have been to Morocco! It was an unforgettable experience I wouldn’t have missed.

Sticking With It

November 10, 2023

We’ve had the least desirable type of weather in my neck of the woods today: rain, freezing rain, snow, and more rain. It brings with it chill-to-the-bones cold that is miserable and dangerous.

Photo: Andreas Eichler

Fortunately, I’ve been snug at home all day, with no plans to venture out. I’ve been watching a Raven sitting at the top of a bare tree at the top of a hill. Every time I’ve looked out the window, over several hours, she’s remained glued to that branch. I’m impressed with how active Ravens are during cold damp weather, when no other birds would venture out. I still see Ravens flying the road on my way to work, when the temp is barely keeping the rain from changing to snow.

I certainly can’t stay outside very long in this weather. A cold rain is much worse than snow for inducing hypothermia. In my last book, Divining with Animal Guides, I didn’t discuss the adaptation of Ravens for harsh weather, but they are the survivors of the bird world. No wonder they’re so long-lived: why endure the hard times unless you’re waiting for halcyon days to return again? And winter is hard for these birds; juveniles often do not survive their first winter.

I’ve been like the Raven, enduring seasons of cold and deprivation, waiting for the return. Today I listened to a webinar on marketing and publicity, which had a few gems inside the cold realities. It’s easy to focus on the harshness of the particular climate in which I’m promoting my work rather than the strengths. I will be exploring how to make the innovative, idiosyncratic, and controversial aspects of my writing and my character a selling point rather than a drawback.

The Raven had a reason for perching on such an exposed inclement branch, which could not have been comfortable, even for her. Likewise, there is an intelligent reason why I find myself here, at this juncture, at this point in my life. I just need to figure out what it is.

It takes a solar system to raise a narcissist

August 18, 2023

A character in a novel I’m writing is a classic narcissist, and I wondered what his astrological sign would be. Which sign of the zodiac is the most likely to be narcissistic? I gave the subject a lot of thought, and I couldn’t decide.

So I went online. Detecting (and shaming) narcissism is all the rage at the moment, and any fashionable zine-type site has tackled the subject, as have a smaller number of learned astrologers.

What I discovered on the internet confused me even more. There was no consensus, and very few patterns. Aries came up frequently (They’re so self-centered!). Taurus might be thrown in (They think they deserve better!). Gemini was not excluded (They’re so shallow!). Cancer usually gets a pass, but not always (They can be overprotective of family – huh?). Leo gets a lot of press (They’re always the center of attention!). See a pattern? Because I don’t.

Part of the problem is lack of a coherent definition. So many people today “just know” what “everybody knows” and don’t bother to do basic research or define their terms. Which is rather narcissistic, in my book.

So what are we talking about when we say “narcissist”? To me, as a psychotherapist, a narcissist is a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. So let’s use that definition.

The hallmark of a true narcissist is insecurity, at a core personal level. They don’t believe they’re good enough, but they think they should be better than other people. “An egomaniac with an inferiority complex,” was how we used to describe it to recovering alcoholics, and they “got it” immediately. A narcissist hides their insecurity from others, and from themselves, in a variety of pathological ways. They might brag about themselves constantly and expect others to go along. They can demand favors and special treatment and become obstreperous when rebuffed. They have poor insight and attribute ill-will from others to jealousy rather than their own behaviors. They are themselves quite envious of other people and fantasize about power, wealth, fame, etc. They don’t work to achieve (or deserve) their grandiose ideals, however, and believe they should be given these things because they are special. They will trample over and exploit others to obtain the public acclaim and status they crave. They are, deep down, complete frauds, and, deep down, they know it.

A narcissist will be a sociable person, because they need constant affirmation, and their worst company is themselves. A nerd working alone at the office late into the evening to get that raise is not a narcissist, nor is the hermit homesteading in the woods, although both could have a high opinion of themselves. A high self-concept with commensurate evidence is not narcissism. Narcissists are often very successful, however, in terms of status or wealth, because they are excellent self-promoters. The book they wrote may be crap, but they know how to market it, because they market themselves every minute of every day. Their tools are flattery, appeal to trendiness, self-praise, and identification of key players in the fame game. They rely on the work and attention of others, but try to take all the credit. They feel empty inside.

Since narcissism is a fairly common personality trait, and arguably becoming more common, it is surprising that an astrological sign cannot be identified with it, even as a “low manifestation” of planetary influences. However common it is becoming, narcissism seems to be a composite of the worst characteristics of the planets that rule the signs. What sign is most likely to be a narcissist? Any of them. It takes a solar system to raise a narcissist. So a narcissist might be an Aries with a self-centered streak who has a poorly aspected Sagittarius moon generating grandiosity, along with an Aquarius influence seeding a disinclination for self-reflection. Or that narcissist might be a Leo with a need for continual applause coupled with a Capricorn low self-esteem and a Pisces tendency to live in fantasy. Or even a Gemini with a dislike of sustained effort together with a Cancer hypersensitivity and a Scorpio sense of victimhood. And contrary to popular belief, your Aries may simply be a person with a secure sense of identity, your Virgo someone who honestly appraises their abilities, or your Taurus someone who works to achieve the finer things in life.

My narcissistic character is going to be a Leo, because he has an interest in cosplay and that sign is often drawn to the theatre. Yes, a lot of people call Leo the narcissist because he gets a lot of attention, but if that bothers you, maybe you are simply jel.

Change of Life

June 30, 2023

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.

Ribbon Snake along Long Lake

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.

Turtles on the Road

June 16, 2023

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.

Blame Canada! Blame Canada!

June 9, 2023

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.

Fisher. Photo USDA Forest Service.

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.

Otter Play Date

May 26, 2023

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.

Photo: Tom Koerner, US Fish & Wildlife Service

It’s finally feeling like spring

May 19, 2023

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.

Busy Beaver

May 11, 2023

It’s looking good for my social work license. I have the continuing education hours and the money for renewal. Over 100 hours! It’s been a marathon. Some great new spring photos coming soon!

Intrusive Emissary

November 18, 2022

I encounter deer on the road with disturbing frequency. It’s hard to predict when and where they’ll appear.

A week ago, a deer ran in front of my car on a busy road in town next to the hardware store and the pharmacy. It wasn’t a place where I would have expected to see a deer, though it wasn’t exactly odd either.

What was unusual is that my car’s electronic eyesight, which is often oversensitive, didn’t react. What was downright bizarre is that I slammed on the brakes without seeing the deer. I looked around afterward to see why I had stopped the car.

Deer are embassidors from the spirit realm. They are fairy creatures. In this case, the deer was telling me that my psychic senses were more active than I realized.

One of the best ways to hone psychic skills is to make space for “down time.” Daydreaming is important to intuition and creativity. I struggle with a world where constant work and productivity are valorized and even coerced. Sometimes I envy people who can work long hours and who need little sleep, but I realize I would not be the person I am if I had those talents.