A blog for those who desire a more creative relationship with the natural world.


"Your recent blog about the tender return of your loved ones to the earth was moving, graceful in words and inspiration. Your words always come from the heart and intellect. A rare and insightful combination." Rolland Smith, former news anchor for WCBS-TV in New York, recipient of 11 Emmy Awards

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Oxford Junior Silences Wind in the Willows, Strikes Fear in Piglet

Audible cries rattled the WILLOWS along the river where OTTER lived when good-natured Mole brought news that the head honchos at Oxford  had struck his name from their Junior Dictionary.  Toad, who enjoyed all the latest fads, wasn't upset until he realized that there would be no more stilted HERONS pounding down the river (a lovely phrase he discovered reading Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men). 

"Yea gads!" exclaimed Badger. "Will I be the next to go?" Even the WEASELS, who had taken over Toad Hall, were aghast.  "Hair today, gone tomorrow!" 

In Winnie the Pooh's forest, just a short dusty walk down the bookshelf, another ruckus broke out when Christopher Robin brought the news to his woodland gang.  "Dear dear little PIGLET," he said, "I'm afraid you have become defunct."  Piglet's smile turned upside down.  "What's defunct?" Pooh asked.  Christopher Robin shook his head. "It means kaput. Gone. A blip on the radar." Eeyore's ears drooped. "What's a radar?" he asked.

And so it is.  Words come and go.  In 2008, author Richard Louv (Children & Nature Network) and a pack of journalists and conservationists ferreted out the news that the folks at Oxford Junior Dictionary had removed dozens of nature, farming and agricultural words, like these ones:

Photo by Alistair Fraser
Beaver, boar, cheetah, colt, cygnet, doe, drake, ferret, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pelican, piglet, plaice, porcupine, porpoise, raven, starling, stoat, stork, terrapin, thrush, weasel, wren.  Acorn, almond, apricot, ash, beech, beetroot, blackberry, bluebell, bramble, brook, buttercup, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, fern, fungus, gooseberry, hazel, hazelnut, heather, holly, horse chestnut, ivy.

Photo by Alistair Fraser
The list goes on: lavender, leek, melon, mint, mistletoe, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, poppy, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, willow.

Yep, even Steinbeck's stilted heron as pictured here in Alistair Fraser's blog Exploring Kootenay Lake (the largest natural body of fresh water in southern British Columbia) was removed.

Enter instead words like blog, celebrity, cut-and-paste, broadband, and analogue.

Now, with the latest Oxford revision, a swarm of writers like Margaret Atwood and Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) have sent a letter to Oxford expressing why they are profoundly alarmed. "We believe the OJD should address these issues and that it should seek to help shape children’s understanding of the world, not just to mirror its trends."

Alistair Fraser, the Kootenay Lake explorer, digs deep in his blog post "Shooting the Messenger," posing the question that perhaps the Oxford editors aren't to blame so much as their decisions are a reflection of the culture - kids want to play inside because, as a child once told Richard Louv, "That's where all the electrical outlets are."

I have no desire to read or write a book about an electrical outlet.  Yet I love Shilo Shiv Suleman's Ted talk, "Using Tech to Enable Dreaming" and how she takes us inside the world of interactive books.  "Storytelling," she tells us, "is becoming more and more sensorial."  A sensory experience: something you can taste, touch, smell, hear or see.  Its how our bodies interpret the world.

I like Mole's world. "Hullo, World!" he calls out to Rat.  And I like Pooh's world, where Piglet asks, "What about me?"  A.A. Milne answers, "Yes, what about us?" And I can't help but hear the entire world of Nature answering, "Yes, PLEASE, keep us on your radar!"

NOTES: Read more at CBCNews/Arts & Entertainment. Read more in Nature Canada.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Beauty, Mystery and Community - Gary Ferguson's "Carry Home" Bridge

When my sister and I told our beautiful Hungarian stepmother that we would honor her request to wait to scatter our father's ashes until she also passed away, we didn't realize "Dad" would be sitting on the bookshelf for 17 years.  We also didn't realize that when she passed, the sense of grief would be twofold.

Over the years I consoled myself, joking that Dad wouldn't mind being nestled between the books he had written, and his presence had surely comforted our bereft and beloved stepmother.  And now, on the wake of casting both their ashes into the salty sea air of San Francisco, I think back to scattering our mother's ashes among the Ponderosa pines nine years ago. 

A few weeks ago, Gary Ferguson and his wife, consultant Mary Clare, stayed with us while Gary was on book tour for his new book The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness. The book is about Gary's remote journeys into the wilderness to honor a promise to his wife Jane before she died - that if anything happened to her, he would scatter her ashes in the wild locations she loved the most.

Over dinner and red wine, Gary, Mary and John and I talked about the complexity of life and love, and of death and grieving.  "I learned the importance of community," Gary said, "and of the need to honor the mystery of it all. Beauty, Joseph Campbell reminds us, is what nudges us toward a new vision of ourselves as we come out the other side of grief. Community, mystery, and beauty - these three things formed the bridge for me."

I found beauty in the seagulls wailing over the soft wash of waves on the seashore, just as I found beauty today in the snow layering the boughs of the Ponderosas, the way their trunks bend to the wind without breaking, the way the earth holds their roots, and my mother's ashes. 

But perhaps the most mysterious beauty of all is found in the way the human heart can choose to heal by choosing to love again, and again, and again.

Wishing you beauty, community, and a New Year imbued with the mysteries of the heart.

Note: Gary Ferguson and Mary Clare have begun a new venture, The Carry Home: Life Changes and Here You Are, offering retreats and programs designed to help people traverse life's changes with vision and integrity.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Contemplating the Dark and the Sweet with Chickasaw Writer Linda Hogan

Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan gives us both these things in her essays and poetry and novels—the dark and the sweet.  Today is a good day to honor the gift of Linda’s words—the insight that enables us to take that which is bitter and find sweetness.  

Send white lightning prayers of gratitude shooting through the heavens to her today, and tomorrow, and yesterday, and each day that you feel her presence, each day that you count your blessings as you read her words.

Today is a good day to buy at least one of Linda’s books.  Perhaps Dark. Sweet. filled with "forty years of life." Or People of the Whale.  Or The Woman Who Watches Over the World.  Or Power or Dwellings or Solar Storms.  Or Rounding the Human Corners.  

And then do just that—round any sharp edges from the words that find their way from your tongue, to the world.  Begin again to dwell in that place where you are the best you can be - for Linda, for her great-granddaughter Jayla, bring a deeper way of knowing into all that you do. 

These things will honor Linda at a time when we need to be the ones to watch over her, the ones to hold to the light all that Linda holds dear - family, earth, animals, truth, spirit. Reach out - to an elder, to a child, to a grandchild, to a great-grandchild. 
Send love to Jayla as she travels to the spirit world. Believe in the mystery, in the ecosystem of the heart. Linda's poems often start outward - with a larger but intimate vision - and then she moves inward, Once, I was... It is from this place, I believe, that our compassion takes root, from knowing and loving ourselves. 

 At West Side Books a few weeks ago, when Linda greeted John and me, we spoke about our grandchildren, and her return to Colorado, and the mountains we love, even about tribal issues back in Oklahoma.  "I have been working with Indigenous knowledge and Native science," she told the audience, "working with people who are returning to an older knowledge about their own ecosystems."  

Linda reminded us that, "History is the word that always leads ... now another country is breaking this holy vessel... we are so used to a country that does not love enough. History has continued to open the veins of the world."  

I am reminded that the current of love that travels through our veins connects our hearts to the world - that our families and our own backyards are merely microcosms of the larger ecosystem that sustains us all.  In Linda's poem "The Eyes of the Animals," Linda tells us that the eyes of the universe look back at us with the true knowledge of who we are.  

 Human, woman, man, child
this world even your self
you must learn to love.  

NOTES: Read about Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) at National Geographic.  Read Linda Hogan's bio and more about her work with TEK. Read less about the tragic story of Jayla's death, and more about the family's story of her life in Last Real Indians.  DONATIONS for Jayla's family may be sent to P.O. Box 392, Pine Ridge, SD   57770. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

At the Heart of Place with Dawn Wink, Julene Bair, Susan Tweit and Page Lambert

PLACE was the topic that brought Julene Bair, Susan Tweit (Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey), Dawn Wink (Meadowlark: A Novel), and me, together for a "standing room only" panel at the recent Women Writing the West conference in Golden, Colorado.  Each of us talked about the power of a particular place in our writing.  

For Julene, it was the west Kansas farm of her childhood that drew her as her nostalgia shape-shifted over the years into guilt as she realized her family’s culpability in the draining of the Ogallala aquifer that had, for millennium, given life to the prairie.  “When I arrived at the Little Beaver, I discovered that the creek was now nothing more than a depression. Runoff from all the newly farmed pastureland had filled it with silt…there had once been sand, vacant and pinkish tan. In my childhood, the sand had poured sensuously through my hands, each granule having its own color, shape, size, sheen.”

I could almost feel the sand sifting through my own fingers as I read The Ogallala Road: A Memoir ofLove and Reckoning, my sense of Julene’s “place” moving from the larger Kansas prairie to the intimacy of the creek bed.

Susan Tweit, a gifted and scientifically trained observer of plants, ironically turned to the stars in her first memoir, Walking Nature Home, to get her earthly bearings.  “Like stardust and the other materials of life itself, we are in constant motion, changing shape as we pass through our lives…”  In her new memoir Bless the Birds (the story of her husband’s terminal brain cancer), we move through many landscapes—from the high plains of Wyoming, to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado, to the sterile halls of Denver’s hospitals.  Yet it is in the moments when Susan turns to the words in her husband’s journal after he has died, where I feel the deepest connection to Place—not a geographical location, but a place found only in the heart—the place where Susan’s world of the living crosses through that invisible veil and she finds herself again rooted to memory and emotion.  

I knew when I read the opening in Dawn Wink’s novel Meadowlark, that for young Grace, Place could be either comforting, or menacing.  “Grace went down the hill and straight to the corral, through the gate to Mame and put her arms around the mare’s neck, pressing her cheek against the warm gold of her buckskin coat…She lifted her eyes to the sod house just beyond the fence and saw a shift of movement behind the window.” 

How then, is setting or location different?  When narrative, story, brings a place to life, it becomes the Place where something happened.  Keith H. Basso, in his book Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, gives wonderful examples of place names such as these:

Widows Pause For Breath; They Piled On Top Of Each Other; Two Old Women Are Buried; and She Carries Her Brother On Her Back. 

These are not only geographical locations, but entire narratives rising up from the landscape, moving easily between the centuries.  For Dawn, the story of Meadowlark rose up from the very ranchland where Dawn’s own mother spent summers as a child.  And it was this same ranchland that yielded the answers to Dawn’s questions.  “I walked the land and listened,” Dawn tells us. 

When I first moved to Santa Fe, before moving back to Colorado, I forgot to listen to the land—forgot that, just because I did not yet understand the language of the New Mexico desert, did not mean that the land was mute.  Then one day I saw the tracks of two coyotes circling a desert shrub, and saw frantic rabbit tracks and tufts of fur and blood. The land was telling me a story, and I began to listen.  That place became The place where the rabbit died. 

For each of us, and with each new story, Place will be different.  At its heart will be everything that has ever been born, lived in, or died in that place, everything in the past, everything in the present, all energy— every sound, smell, ray of sun, every shadow, every sorrow, every joy. 

Notes: The Denver Post book review of Julene Bair’s memoir The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning begins like this: “To write a sweeping story, it helps to have lived many lives within the one allotted to you.  And to skillfully root them in a particular place.” For updates on Susan Tweit's next memoir Bless the Beasts, read her blog.  For the latest in Dawn's writing life, read her blog Dewdrops