Totems, Tokens, Things Taken

Since I got on the tangent of thinking about various indigenous-culture/immigrant persons and themes in recent times, I’m now in that phase one has of noticing connections with them everywhere.

Today’s little starting episode was that of walking up my front yard path and spying on it a lovely wing feather. I’m quite certain it was shed by the same hawk that I’ve heard giving its piercing cry and seen circling over our place on numerous occasions, and that I saw a couple of weeks ago slurping up a foot-long snake like so much hawk spaghetti right out under my backyard flowering pear tree. I’m relatively sure it’s a Cooper’s Hawk that watches over me here at home, and I love it. I’ve mentioned before that I’m fond of and fascinated by animals in general, birds among the favorites, and corvids and accipiters my particular royalty. I may have even noted earlier that I specifically think of a hawk as something like my personal secular icon, or the companion of my heart, given how often I find I’ve seen one nearby, seemingly watching over me at various times and events that turn out to be important in my life. This, of course, can be attributed to the aforementioned habit of noticing that one cultivates, but I like to think there’s room in the coincidence for a causality conundrum, a chicken-or-egg puzzle, too. Either way, I admire hawks.Photo: A Fugitive's Feather

So I was pleased to see the wing feather there, looking to my mind’s eye rather like a “thinking of you” note left for me by my guardian hawk while I was away, or sleeping. I picked it up and pondered it. I set it on my table as I started writing my post.

Then, reality began to set in, of course. A very quick web search in an attempt to confirm or correct the identification of my hawk companion led me to discover that I was suddenly a criminal, since American law forbids possession or use of migratory bird feathers, a law enacted during a period of mass avian murder on behalf, mainly, of milliners and their customers in an era of highly feathered fashions. Given those massacres, not to mention the extermination of whole animal species, both native and not, in times past in this country, I am neither shocked that such a law would have been deemed necessary nor opposed to the intent of it to protect animal life. I have no desire to hunt any animal for sport nor to denude it of its natural beauty for my amusement.

But I can understand those who are irked by the hard-line status of the injunction, given the common experience of finding shed or molted feathers of all sorts on every beach, in every garden. “No animals were harmed in the making of this” object. Still, the law is the law. So my feather went back outdoors to disintegrate naturally, as we all will do. (With the exception, I guess, of plastinated creatures, but that’s decidedly another topic altogether.)

Not before I took pictures of it, of course, because I am allowed to photograph things I’m not allowed to own.Photo: Birds of a Feather aren't Necessarily Allowed to Flock Together

And that law, of course, led me back to the whole idea of ownership with which these native-vs-nonnative thoughts are inextricably tied. The indigenous or aboriginal peoples of the continent I call home, and where I consider myself equally native though my ancestors immigrated to the place in times past, are known to have had religious and practical reasons for thinking of ownership as a notion that simply couldn’t be applied to nature: that one existed at all was a gift of nature, and whatever one did in life and death should be done with respect for that benevolence. I’ve no doubt that some applied this attitude better than others, as is true for all people and their beliefs and rules, but the concern was deeply enculturated and not easily ignored—at least until the near culturcide brought on by the colonization of the continent by various immigrant powers.

We did not inherit Mother Earth from our Ancestors…..
We have borrowed Her from our Descendants.
Attributed to Chief Si’ahl (Seattle) of the Suquamish People [to whom is also attributed the magnificent speech and subsequent letter about the impossibility of land “ownership” in response to the new government demand that the natives relinquish their home territories to US rule and non-native occupation]

Man belongs to the Earth…Earth does not belong to Man.
Attributed to Black Elk of the Lakota People

As an enthusiast of little biological or scientific knowledge of, but great admiration for, nature and all of its wonders, I find I walk a wavering line in my relationship with it. The attractions of living creatures, of all sorts of things animal, vegetable, and mineral, are often for me first noticed as visible beauties and/or curiosities, or as other sensory (often, sensational) experiences. I am drawn to the amazing characteristics and anomalies of the whole natural world. But I also live in it. I depend upon its resources for my life and health and happiness. The very fact of my existence affects, and can even destroy, other parts of nature. When I take a breath, I process the air into something that it was not before, and send it back out into the universe as a new and different thing.

I don’t begrudge myself my breath. I don’t feel I’m evil for intruding on the rest of nature by means of my very existence. But I hope that with every breath, every moment I do exist, I grow a bit wiser in what it means to be allowed to exist by nature, this planet, and the vast Otherness that holds us all in its spacious embrace. And I promise that when I do die, I will return whatever I can of what I took with me, feeding later generations of nature’s bounty with the space I once occupied, the physical remains of what I garnered from this plane, and the hawk-befriended spirit that will be grateful for as long as is possible.Digital illo from photos + text: The Earth is Our Mother

Clouding My Thoughts

As a cloud-gazing aficionado, I know I’m in good company. It’s hard not to be intrigued by the astounding amount of information, meteorological and otherwise, that one can read and guess and even predict from close observation of clouds; it’s easy to become rather obsessed with watching them and seeing what’s found in them beyond the mere factual.

And you know I am drawn to all things that invite invention.photoOur summer peregrinations offered vast quantities of opportunity in this lovely form. As passenger on 99% of our 6000 mile road trip (just as I am in our everyday life) I was free to stare into the sky whenever I wasn’t on intensive watch duty for a specific exit or landmark, and the sky when seen from the vast American plains is a grand theatre indeed. While ‘Big Sky Country‘ is one state’s nickname, and Montana is indeed a region of wide open views of the sky, even from the rugged-not-flat high plains, the US has millions of acres of land that lies relatively flat under the heavens and allows views across the miles that rival the telescopic.

I would be hard pressed to agree with those who find extensive mid-country travels boring from a viewing standpoint. The landscape may, in places, be no more varied than one kind of wild grass giving way gradually to another over wide sweeps of seldom changing topography, one tumble-down farm very much like the next, but besides that even these have their subtle differences, they are all capped by this apparently limitless height of sky. Mostly, I find this mesmerizing, even meditative. When the weather is cloudless, the intensity of the hot blue depths above, looking as though they never did and never could have anything in them change, have a kind of cobalt stolidity to them that can be oppressive but, when broken by the least irruption–a crop dusting plane coughing out its own skinny clouds, a crow chasing a hawk straight up out of a stand of mowed weeds–suddenly becomes backdrop for high drama. Indeed, as one who grew up before the special effects masters of film took to using the more popularly familiar green screen to allow the insertion of infinite inventions in CGI, I was accustomed to chroma key blue screens, so now the sky has become mine.

Still, as much as I love the clear beauty of a bold blue sky and the endless space for spectacle that it represents, when clouds come into the picture the possibilities are multiplied exponentially.

Not only do they serve as messengers of what sort of travel conditions lie ahead when I’m on the road–especially when observed from so many miles away as is possible in an open landscape–they tell stories and evoke romances tirelessly, keeping my mind a-spin with the permutations and portents I read therein. Much as I find driving in the most intense storms, day or night, a stressful challenge to my technique, never mention my eyes, the colors and textures and patterns in the clouds rarely cease to amaze and delight me, even in the center of the maelstrom. And when things settle down and the clouds begin to part and thin and allow through them those fugitive rays that remind me more truly of both the size of the clouds that it takes to fill such a hyperbolic height of sky and of the power that mere collations of mist can have when they converge for battle? Then I see again the beauty of clouds altogether, and I am on cloud

Strange Attractors

Living things, like certain mathematical systems, are attracted (or not) to each other in a wonderful variety of ways. It’s pretty hard to predict what will constitute an individual’s attractors. Some people might say that a warthog, for example, could only be attractive to another warthog, but that’s a very limited notion, because we all have different definitions of beauty and those definitions can be strictly visual but can easily also include appeals to our other senses, not only the standard receptors of touch, sound, taste or scent but also our sense of curiosity or contentment or spirituality or a whole range of other concepts.photoIf I were a little tiny Texas Spiny Lizard, for example, I might be interested in mating or procreating only with a similar little tiny lizard, but I could also very easily be attracted for other purposes to the warmth of a sunny concrete slab, the smorgasbord of yummy insects that visit a group of potted plants, or the shady shelter between the bricks on which the pots are perched, where I can hide from the patrolling cats of the neighborhood. If I were one of the cats, I can imagine I’d be very attracted to the lizard, not just out of feline curiosity but because cats apparently like Texas Spiny Lizards, I suppose because they are small, moving targets for the hunt and possibly just because a cat might enjoy a good set of lizard drumsticks or baby back ribs or tenderloin on occasion. Do cats analyze their dining on a basis of whether or not a meal ‘tastes like chicken‘? I don’t know, but I do know that small, moving objects and food are both common cat attractors.photoI’m sure it’s also safe to assume that others are attracted to these little reptiles. Most likely that’s the main reason I’ve rarely seen one on our patio or porch any larger than this three-inch/10 cm specimen. If one of the local hawks swoops close enough to notice them, such dainty critters would logically look like the animal equivalent of fast food, and some of the smaller but reasonably aggressive birds (I’m looking at you, bluejays) might compete for such a snack. Snakes, if any of those nearby are larger than my typical garden snake visitor, would find them delectable. So it goes. We are attracted to partners and friends, but also to that which will sustain our progress toward finer dining or just plain survival.photoMy admiration of Texas Spiny Lizards, tiny or not, is based on several of these elements. There’s the simple appeal of the handsome patterning on and sculptural shapes of their infinitesimal-alligator bodies, of course. Those zippy dashes they make from one spot to another first catch my eye and then intrigue me, especially when one of them stops to practice his pushups for a while. I like the way they hold very, very still in between moves, moving only their eyes as they seem to scan for bugs to eat or new heights of patio slab or plant pot-dom to conquer. And very often, I like to contemplate them at equal leisure, attracted most of all to their very differentness from me.

Wild Wings


photoI’m blessed to have ‘peeps’ that do, in fact, peep to me. Sitting at my desk and looking out the window at avian neighbors that stop by to enjoy the all-you-can-peck buffet I keep full just across the patio for our mutual enjoyment. I’ll let them do all of the actual dining, as despite my occasionally nibbling seeds willingly, I don’t often lust after hot pepper infused suet and desiccated mealworms garnishing the grain-and-nut munchies. Shocking, I know.photoThe birds visiting are mostly permanent and part-time residents of our backing greenbelt, and there are regulars and also unique and unexpected friends making occasional appearances to brighten the day here. We see plenty of the common local Bewick’s wrens and chickadees, softly hooting mourning doves and robins and the like, and every one of them is a delight to see and hear. I love even the ones soaring high enough overhead that they never come close enough to snack at our feeders, too: floating vultures, keening hawks, and a majestically flapping heron or two pass by on occasion. The hummingbirds, mostly Black-chinned and Ruby-throated little charmers, buzz around, chittering and bickering over the deep blue blooms of the blue sage, and make my heart flutter almost as ridiculously quickly as theirs.photoBut I think perhaps my shallowness is evident in my taste in birds as much as anywhere. I’m especially taken with those that are showy and exaggerated, all the more if they’re full of mischief and play. The cardinals that spend a great deal of time here, one mated pair in particular, are a bit shy and skittish but when they settle onto the feeders they are a show no matter what, between the female’s magnificent airbrushed-looking feathers with their blush of coral and red, and the male’s brash scarlet suit. And more recently, our patio’s been adopted as the dining place of choice for some mighty splashy jays. The blue jays I grew up with in the Northwest were much more often the darker (though also dramatic and gorgeous) Steller’s jays, but what we see here are the more brightly bold black, white and Blue Jays, and they are a grand entertainment indeed.photoThe jays that visit us are prone to squabbling and banging around in the feeders, eating like winged pigs and strewing seed hulls and detritus all over the place, flying heedlessly around as though they hadn’t a care in the world, and then taking fright at the slightest shadow, suddenly veering up in an explosive launch and leaving the feeder swinging. I can’t often get to my camera in time to freeze their fantastical and pretty foolery for later enjoyment, but I never fail to find them immensely entertaining and wonderful to see. Each moment spent watching them cavort in the sun and shade makes me feel a bit more as though I myself could take wing and burst across the wild blue sky.