Alpine Lady

Honoring the natural world through prose, poetry, music, sounds, photographs and musings.

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Naturally Observing the Simple Things

November’s Grace

November strips bare the grace of leaves,
exposing limbs hardened for winter’s chill;
then blankets these same with felting snows
to protect the innocence of life.

A fresh snowfall on the snow berries of the hedgerow.

A fresh snowfall on the snow berries of the hedgerow.

Whereas November’s skeletons rattle in anticipation of burial, December lies dormant, gathering potential. Like a seed hidden in the recesses of time, the natural rhythms of winter are of rest and renewal. Culturally, though,  we have grown to largely ignore the natural cycles that create rhythm in our lives.

In the United States, of all the months, December is perhaps the one most crammed with holiday celebrations, office parties, and stress. One can’t help but think of Solstice, St. Nicholas, Rudolph, Santa Claus, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas presents bought in crowded stores,  plus a plethora of other events and obligations. It would be healthier for all of us and for the planet, too, if we just forgot about all the holidays as reasons to travel, shop and spend money.

So how come December has gotten to be such a month-long Hallmark Celebration? Well, that’s due to a successful marketing campaign. We all know that and around the world, most of us have bought in. Before you think me a spoilsport, throughout the month, let’s examine other perspectives often lost in holiday shuffling and perhaps create for ourselves a simpler, yet satisfying observance of the wintery holiday season without the cost, guilt or frustration and yet can be a sustainable source of fun and sharing.

Native Americans in the not-too-distant past were concerned with simply surviving the cold month of December. Winter Maker Moon, Moon When the Wolves Run Together, Time of Cold Moon, Moon When All Is Gathered In, Heavy Snow Moon, and Ice Lasts All Day Moon were descriptive names for the month among Natives of the northern latitudes. Can you imagine what it was like to spend the winter holed up in a smokey, hide-covered tipi in the midst of the Plains with wolves lurking outside and snow drifting in through the cracks? Woman’s work such as sewing and repairing leather garments, cooking and keeping the children from underfoot was done in dimly lit conditions. Let’s get real. What would it be like having to take a pee during the middle of a stormy night? Life for our original inhabitants was a struggle no matter how much romanticizing we do about it. No one was thinking about a jolly man dressed in a red suit arriving on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. No way!  Hungry tribes would have immediately slaughtered the reindeer. I’m not sure what would have happened to Santa or his presents. Okay, I said I wouldn’t be a sourpuss. Think of it as  I’m just setting the record straight.

What they did look forward to was the recognition that the longest night would soon give way to longer days. Longer days allowed hunters to spend more time securing meat for their families. Longer days meant that the season of new shoots was in the not-too-distant future. It would be a few months before spring actually broke winter’s hold. Severe blizzards could still ravage the land, people could starve to death or run out of firewood and freeze but everyone knew once the longest night was past, that winter would not last forever. There’s a hopefulness in that.

By making simple observations of the natural cycles, we can begin to open up to appreciating the complexity rather than mundaneness of living. When we give credit to forces beyond mortal man’s ability to manipulate, such as the return of longer days, then we can celebrate wonder and rapture. Simple pleasures become more satisfying.

December is a good time to set the intention and make a shift to observe the simple things which we’ll be doing more of as we journey through the month. See you soon!.

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Mid-Autumn, a Transitional Season

The seasons are in transition with the autumn equinox behind us and in a few short weeks we’ll be enjoying the first rays of a new winter solstice sun. Here in the maritime environment of the Pacific Northwest on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, we’ve experienced the golden days of autumn captured in the transitioning foliage of the bigleaf maples and black cottonwoods growing in the wetlands and lining the riverbanks.

Black Cottonwood leaves have a waxy surface which resists storm damage.

Black Cottonwood leaves have a waxy surface which resists storm damage. Look closely and you can see next year’s buds and if it’s a particularly cold winter can be used to make muscle salve.

The red of vining maples, the stickery-red leaves of the trailing blackberry, the deep-red haws on the one-seeded hawthorn tree and the orange-red of the rose hips add spots of color along with the rusty red needles of the older cedar branches about to shed once the blustery autumn winds blow.

Stickery-red leaves of the trailing blackberry.

Stickery-red leaves of the trailing blackberry.

Elsewhere the red alder leaves have begun a more gradual change from dark green into a yellowish-tan hue and then brownish, dropping later than most tree species. They are rich with nitrogen from the ability of their tree root nodules to take it from the air via bacterium fed sugars by the leaves’ photosynthetic process. The nitrogen is then returned as an element to the soils or waters into which the leaves fall and disintegrate.

Red Alder leaves serenely at rest before being whisked away in the river's current.

Red Alder leaves serenely at rest before being whisked away in the river’s current.

By now, the majority of birds are on the wing as the major migrations instinctively move south into warmer and more productive climates. Locally, one of my favorites, the red-breasted nuthatch moves down from the mountains and into the lowlands for the season where it feeds mainly upon conifer seeds. We see more of the winter wrens and brown creepers feeding upon insects as they move into the neighboring forests and hedgerows. All three species will be found at suet feeders in winter.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch eating Douglas Fir seeds.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch eating Douglas Fir seeds.

In the wormery, the last preparations have been made for their overwintering. One bin has been separated from activity by removing most of the red wrigglers and placing them in the active bin. I did this by progressively adding compostables I knew the worms favored such as cooked squash skins and coffee grounds into one area until it was saturated with worms. This was removed to the active bin until very few became attracted to the bait pile. The compost in this bin will be placed in a holding bin until spring allowing for some working by any worms that mature until I use it to enrich containers. The active bin will be allowed to work until full and I’ll cap it off. The non-working bin will house this winter’s compostables. The worms and I working together will determine how to further handle it as the winter progresses. If it is particularly mild, and the worms “suggest” I get it activated, I’ll transfer some worms and see what happens.

Our weather, especially in November, is also in transition. From warm Indian summer days to cold, blustery, rainy or snow days, historically this is the most unpredictable month of the year but reliably so! We’re seeing the effects of climate change and this year have welcomed the strong pulses of rain with relief to quell the drought but with some misgivings as it raised the Dungeness River from historic lows to record-breaking daily highs. The Dungeness is a wild river and is totally dependent on rains and snow for its content, natural flow, and its ability to irrigate fields and farmland. Here’s  a poem written at a particularly low flow point of the river.

“The Living River”

The wild river’s water,
tamed by irrigation draw down and drought,
slows and trickles over the shallow riffles.

The salmon,
their instincts strongly pulling them onward,
struggle to deposit future generations in gravely beds.

Enough are successful,
their eggs lie buried in hollow redds
but there’s not enough flow to maintain a full spawn.

The river takes its toll,
the salmon succumb en masse,
living systems of microbes digesting their putrefying flesh.

The screeching of gulls,
the wild chirps of eagles and caw of raven
remind me its a gift of the salmon people.

In awe, I stand as witness
to the natural process of a living river
and the wonder of it all…

The Olympic Mountains have been barren this summer so our river flow due to gradual snow release and lack of rain has been abysmal. The pink salmon run, which occurs in the odd-numbered years and this being one of them, was struggling with low flow and warm temperatures which affected their ability to get to their ancestral spawning areas in late September. In mid-November, the skies opened up and heavy rains fell causing the river to rise dramatically threatening this time to wipe out the salmon redds or nests dug laboriously into the gravels by the thrashing of the female’s tail.

From one extreme to the other; from low flow to almost flood stage threatening lowlands and salmon redd stability.

From one extreme to the other; from low flow to almost flood stage threatening lowlands and salmon redd stability. Such is the nature of living systems.

The rains of fall also bring out a myriad of mushrooms, replenish the lichens and green up the mosses. Our favorite fall mushroom is the Prince Agaricus augustus which usually struggles in the drier spring season but is more plentiful come fall time. One of my favorite lichens is the Lipstick, a club-like Cladonia with a bright red lip showing on the tips of greenish stalks. It’s a delight to photograph with a macro lens. The mosses add a fresh greenness to the landscape, blanketing many of the older trees and especially those of the rain forest.

Lipstick Lichen growing on an old cedar fence.

Lipstick Lichen growing on an old cedar fence. Look closely and you can see puckering lips!

Usually around Thanksgiving we experience some colder weather and the possibility of snow but often not enough of either to get too excited about especially for old-timers to northern climes such as Michael and I. However I must admit, this is the time of year we think a lot of Hawaii, of our wonderful years spent there amid the warm rains and radiantly colorful flowers, and of our time in the desert Southwest with its hot days and interesting landscapes!!

A fresh snowfall on the snow berries of the hedgerow.

A fresh snowfall on the snow berries of the hedgerow adding warmth and moisture.

What follows is a poetical reminder of nature’s wisdom written after a lovely November snow a few years ago.

November strips bare the grace of leaves,
exposing limbs hardened for winter’s chill;
then blankets these same with felting snows
to protect the innocence of life.

Until we journey together again, take care.