The Background of Life

"classic" NW - ferns & moss growing on Big Leaf Maple

A “classic” – ferns & moss growing on Big Leaf Maple.  A background scene in NW woods.

 

We all have a background to our lives, that which is not the focus, not the front-and-center, but as in a photo, the setting which makes up the background.  It is like the backdrop on our particular stage of life.  Because it’s so familiar, sometimes what’s in the background becomes unnoticed until it is disrupted and catches our attention, then, briefly, it might move to the foreground.

For those living in a residential or urban environment, the background of life includes perhaps the ‘hum’ of certain noises that are constant, as well as various buildings, empty lots, the neighbors second car that seems to always be parked in the street and the ubiquitous Rhododendron, unnoticed until it bursts into colorful spring bloom. Ever notice that if you leave something in the yard for an extended period, you just don’t ‘see’ it after a while?  Even the neighbors purple garage door becomes mundane after a few months!

We pass these background ‘props’ every day en route to our activities and daily dramas.  If asked, sometimes people aren’t able to identify these ordinary props in their life. (Remember the older Newlyweds game show, they’d ask one of the spouses to describe something in the couples every day life, like the color of a room, and the person wouldn’t be able do it.) Someone unfamiliar to your neighborhood might notice something you barely take notice of any more.  In our homes  it is much the same, the hum of the refrigerator, the knickknack on the corner table you couldn’t describe if asked.

As I sort, delete, and organize photos on my computer today I’m drawn to the photos I’ve taken in the woods.  I have folders for ‘wildflowers’, ‘birds’, ‘butterflies’, ‘garden flowers’, ‘Mt. Rainer’, etc.  but the photos of daily life in the NW woods, the flora that’s here whether flowers, critters or butterflies show up or not, are really just as remarkable as these “showier” facets of Nature. These are of the ‘common’ plants most people in the Coastal region of the Pacific Northwest have in the backdrop of their lives if they live in or near woods.  Some of these are seasonal, most are not. They are the plants that make the Evergreen State green.

My deep appreciation for what makes up the background of life here is obvious by all the photos I’ve taken of the trees and plants I see every day. I never lose my awe of  giant Douglas Firs and Big Leaf Maples, of the lacy needles of Hemlock, or the brown fibrous bark of Cedar.  The ferns, evergreen bushes, and tiny plants that make up the understory of the woods seem the stuff of fairylands to me.

To someone who does not live here, who might be walking in the PNW woods for the first time, or who only gets to do so occasionally, these stalwarts of the woods are anything but ordinary.  It’s nice to see with fresh eyes these remarkable plants that are the backdrop to life on the Northwest stage.

I selected some of my favorite photos taken over the past 7 years to share. Hope you enjoy this walk in the woods. No woodland wild flowers (though most of the plants shown have blossoms), no colorful berries, no birds or critters, no butterflies, no exotics, just native green stuff….plants, trees, and a few fungi (because in a NW woods, fungi are abundant!).

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(Click on fern photo to start slide show of photo gallery below, or roll cursor over bottom of each photo to read captions. Not all photos are captioned. Most photos are taken in the woods where we live, a few from nearby walks.)

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What’s it all about…..

Remember the song Alfie, from the 1966 movie (and 2004 remake) of the same name?

The movie is a rather dark story of an emotionally detached philanderer who uses and abuses women. In spite of several ‘wake up calls’….the birth of a son to an ex-girl friend; witnessing an abortion, the result of a one-night stand; a mental break down; the possibility of TB…he continues his narcissist ways, ending up lonely and alone. The film won awards…but it was not a happy story.

The song, when later recorded by Dionne Warwick, (original soundtrack by Cher) was a huge hit. Philosophical about life, love, etc., the usual themes of ‘60s songs, instead of short verses and a repetitive chorus, the lyrics of the song flow poetically. I didn’t care for the movie, but at sixteen there was a lot about life and love I was trying to figure out. I liked the mood of the song.

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The first bloom today on our early blooming “Christmas” Rhody

The opening lines still pop into my head occasionally when I’m tired of this crazy journey. They did so today as I sat watching the heavy rainfall.

“What’s it all about, Alfie?”

A few hours after my mother’s death I learn I have metastasized breast cancer, later it’s discovered I have three types of breast cancer. Two months later skin cancer. There are psychoanalysts and mystic types who could make much of this…losing one’s breast and mom at the same time, the symbolism is rich and multi-cultural…left side of body, the Yin, or feminine side; breast, that which nurtures us, we begin life at our mothers’ breasts, etc., etc.

I’m big on symbolism and feel we are often offered non-verbal, visual clues to help us understanding life, but this one leaves me disinterested. I’m focused on scar tissue, range of motion, lymphedemia prevention, side effects of meds, and this big, numb, red scar on and above my lip where cancer was scraped out. What’s THAT all about?

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The first of our Snow Drops brave the heavy rain today.

“Is it just for the moment that we live?”

This second line of the 60s song has more meaning to me now than at sixteen. Like so many, I live with the specter of cancer, not knowing…Is it gone? Is it still there? Is it somewhere else? Will it come back? This can drive my days, my fears, my thoughts, or I can focus on living for and in each moment. Can I? Does anyone?

“Live for the moment,” “be in the moment”, or as the 70s phrase made popular by Ram Dass puts it, “Be here now”. This is something the mystics have been teaching for eons. I think the meaning in this ‘60s song was not so life affirming, and had more to do with Alfie’s pleasure seeking ways, getting what he wanted in the moment, to hell with the impact on others and the future. But like art, we can interpret the lyrics as we see fit. So in answering the question it poses…

Yes! It is just for this moment that we live. This breath we are taking, this scene we are witnessing, this person we are with, this song we are hearing, or the silence we are experiencing, this is all we can experience, we cannot experience the future, or relive the past…. it is beyond us to know what the next moment will bring, or the next, or the next.  To try to experience this moment fully, whatever it is offering, is a challenge,  yet I believe one with great rewards.

It sounds good, who wants to be worrying about the future or rehashing the past? (During the years of caring for mom I  made this practice an art form in the middle of the night.) But short of ancient saints and rishis, and maybe a few modern day mystics, where do we find examples of living in the moment? The answer is simple. In Nature.

A late summer chipmunk is very focused on eating a blueberry.

A late summer chipmunk is very focused on eating a blueberry.

It is easy to dismiss the seemingly living in the moment practices found in animals and plants by saying they do not think so how could they be mulling over or anticipating the future or worrying about the past. It is true, they may not be ‘hard wired’ like we are to fret. But much research has shown animals not only think, learn, figure out complex problems, have complex communication systems, they also have good memories. Plants, even water, respond to the emotions and ‘vibes’ of those around them and thrive or die accordingly. There is evidence animals worry, in the moment, but I have not read that other life forms sit around thinking about the future or the past. The worried look or reaction of an animal to a person or situation seems to be what is real, not what is imagined could happen. Animal anxiety may be a response to something remembered, but it is not mulled over. Research shows animals exhibit what is called anti-predation behavior,  meaning they are (appropriately) aware of and respond to concerns about predation.  When in that mode, that is what they are focused on. If an animal is anxious, that is their experience in that moment. I still argue animals are wonderful examples of living in the moment. Not all moments are joyful for them any more than for us, but when doing whatever is required, that is where their awareness is.

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Tiny fungi, found today growing on this dead Salmonberry, look like tiny blooms.

How do I know this? Well I don’t, it’s just my hunch. I read about animals, and sometimes about plants, but I certainly don’t read the latest so I could be wrong, but when I walk in the woods and watch birds, squirrels, chipmunks go about their ways, or get glimpses of deer watching me from afar, and when I see green leaf buds and early blooms of plants, I feel that is where and when I can practice living in the moment the most. I feel everything around me is showing me the way.

Our human lives, full of responsibilities, require us to plan and think about the future, but there is no requirement to worry about it, nor does that planning have to pull us away from experiencing what is in front of us. Try it, go watch something wild, or even your pet, especially when they are being ‘wild’, allow yourself to “be here now” with the sages of Mother Nature! Focus on what they focus on, if you are not one who meditates, learning to focus as other critters focus is a great way to “be in the moment”. When Abby is watching a squirrel, there is nothing else on her mind, just that moment, and that squirrel!

The lyrics in the middle of the song Alfie don’t resonant with me, I never remember them, but it is February, the month to celebrate and consider love, so I leave you with this last lovely line of the song……

“When you walk let your heart lead the way and you’ll find love any day…”

To me this speaks of how we can fill those moments of our lives, not with self-gratification, as Alfie did, to his own detriment, but through loving and caring for and about others.  That’s what is all about…..Alfie.

(note: Around here lately, when those lines come to mind, I sing “what’s it all about, Abby?” Seems to fit just as well, perhaps better, and she is a much better role model for understanding life and love!)

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Tiny ground cover violets seem to ignore winter and bloom most months.

“Are you Jewish?”

these flowers have nothing to do with this post, just thought it needed a little color, and since Crysthemums are a favorite of mine, and the flower for my November birthday

these flowers have nothing to do with this post, just thought it needed a little color. Chrysanthemums are a favorite of mine, and the flower for November birthdays, so they seemed appropriate. Check out last year’s “In Defense of November And Sweet Potato Soup.”

My husband Mike, the propane mr-fix-it guy, goes into people’s homes to fix appliances. Over the years he has grown fond of many customers he sees regularly, not only for fix-its, but for the annual maintenance service Sunshine Propane offers its customers. He has seen customers go through the usual life changing events we all experience – illnesses, travels, deaths of spouses and partners, retirements, job changes, kids growing up, grandkids being born. So it was not unusual when at the home of a couple in the midst of a crisis, a distressed wife began telling  him of her husband being taken to the hospital in an ambulance the night before for an apparent heart attack.  Mike listened sympathetically, then said, “I will pray for him.” She responded, “are you Jewish?”, to which Mike answered, “I’m Hindu” (not sure why he gave that answer, except our particular spiritual path draws from the teachings of the Christian Bible and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita).  She said, “Well, I guess that’s good too. We have Catholics, Presbyterians, and Methodists praying but no Jewish people.”

This story has been a sweet favorite of ours since it happened, several years ago.  In her despair, she wanted to make sure all bases were covered, (no doubt not thinking of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, and the multitude of other religions and spiritual traditions she may not have been familiar with.) It was ok with her if her husband received Hindu prayers! Of course one’s particular church, religion, or spiritual beliefs are not what’s important, what is important is the positive focus, with intention, asking for healing and the best outcome for the one being prayed for.

Recently I wrote in an email to friends, many of whom are not ‘religious’ but want to offer support, “some of you don’t ‘pray’ per se……for those of us who have a relationship with God, Great Spirit, Divine Mother….praying ‘to’ whatever divine manifestation we attune with connects us to a greater power. But positive affirmations tossed to the wind, the sun, the ocean, a tree, a totem animal…..wherever you feel a connection, is fabulous! Works for me!”.  

As I count down the days until I have a mastectomy, I, like the woman in the story, want to cover all the bases! Tonight, while talking about support from others, Mike, who is feeling the spousal worry and concern of his customer, said “but is there anyone Jewish praying for you?”.  We both laughed. A lighter moment shared. During my ‘good moments’ I feel, and greatly appreciate, the blessings and love that come from various people and places as I face this life changing surgery and the unknown that lays beyond it.  During my ‘bad moments’, I feel scared, alone, and experience the stages of grief one goes through when losing part of their body and facing a potentially life ending challenge. IMG_0305 A myriad of doctor appointments, tests, biopsies, etc. have pulled me out of my “home” environment and into the city, clinics, and hospitals. When home I’ve been too tired, achy and ill to do much except pick away at the paper work and tasks involved in wrapping up my mother’s life (an interesting expression, but that’s for another post!).

Yesterday, we took a deliciously long walk along the Dosewallips River in a gray drizzle, watching the rushing water as it lapped along the river banks, inches from flood stage.  I felt “at home” for the first time in weeks, maybe months.  In a large puddle I noticed a reflection of curved light and looking up saw a faint, but distinctive rainbow. A moment later our heads turned from the fading rainbow as the screech of an eagle flying over caught our attention. Walking to a stream next to the river, we unintentionally disturbed a Great Blue Heron hunting in the rushes.  In the dim light of a late November day, skies gray with cloud cover, the only colors muted tones of dull winter greens and shades of brown, we stood a long time as the drizzle became a light rain and watched American Dippers splash and bop in the cold water. It was such a comfort. I slept better last night than I had in weeks. Thank you Mother Nature for your prayer. And thank you readers, friends, for any prayers you feel inclined to offer on my behalf….of any faith, to any Divine Being…..or to the wind and the rushing river.

This is the same spot in the river I sat and wrote about the "Girl In The Purple Swimsuit", in fact where I sat is well underwater!"

This is the same spot in the river I sat and wrote the “Girl In The Turquoise Swimsuit“, in fact where I sat is well underwater!”

Heaven and Nature Dancing Together

It's name being Trail Plant, this lovely plant has dusky gray undersides to its leaves and grows...along trails!

It’s name being Trail Plant, this lovely plant has dusky gray undersides to its leaves and grows…along trails!

If you live in the Northwest, you know today was not a day to be inside, so this is short!  For me it was a day for taking my iTouch, my smallest camera, and heading into the woods where I found favorite plants along the trail.  It was a day for my senses to experience some of the heavenly delights Nature has to offer.

The first ethereal (dictionary definition: extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world) gift from Nature was in song. The Swainson’s Thrush, an elusive member of the thrush family, is related to the American Robin, though, unlike the Robin, it is not likely to be in your front yard looking for worms or nesting in your eaves.  Though I’ve occasionally seen Swainson’s Thrushs near the house, (sadly, I found a dead one that had hit a window several years ago) they generally nest and forage in conifer forests, where in the evening and morning, they sing a song that is both eery and heavenly.  You can listen to a recording of it here: Swainson’s Thrush, but a recording does not have the ethereal sound when Big Leaf Maples and giant Firs provide the acoustics for the high notes as they resonate throughout the forest.  On gray days the birds often sing all day.  Though a sunny day, this morning several Swainson’s Thrushes sang well into early afternoon before they abruptly stopped. Being territorial, each song was coming from a different direction…a surround sound stereo performance!  As I sat on the back porch I felt transported to another place, a celestial place.

IMG_0277While on my walk in the woods my next sense delight from Nature was the heavenly scent of Bald Hip Roses. These diminutive little roses, growing on spiny, spindly bushes, are the most scented of the wild roses, possibly of all roses.  Bald Hip Roses do not have the aggressive growth habits of our other native rose, the Nootka Rose.  Single bushes are found here and there in semi-dense forested areas.  They are at the peak of their bloom this time of year.  Short lived blossoms fill the surrounding air with a rose scent that can send one swooning. Roses have represented the Divine for centuries, their scent being described as the scent of God. And of course poets have written of roses as the quintessential symbol of romantic love. The petite Bald Hip Rose is truly Nature’s gift of love to our olfactory senses!

IMG_0284The final representation of this dance of  Heaven and Nature was the arrival of the first Clodius Parnessium butterfly in our yard.  Parnassiam Butterflies are the most ethereal of butterflies with their semi-transparent wings. One can imagine that they are the butterflies of Angels!  In their caterpillar stage they are completely depend on bleeding-hearts, making them very habitat specific. Fortunately we have a forest full of wild bleeding-hearts so each June we see the arrival of newly metamorphosed Parnessiums floating around to necter on blooming Dame’s Rocket.

Another trail favorite, a plant that loves moist soil, is Fendler's Waterleaf

Another trail favorite, and another plant that loves moist soil, is Fendler’s Waterleaf

The title to this post was inspired by a chant by Paramahansa Yogananda entitled Spirit and Nature Dancing Together.

Heaven and Nature seemed to be dancing all day today! Hope you had time to enjoy the performance!

Bumblebee Magic

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although it is pouring rain out today, these tough little fuzz balls are out foraging for pollen. They aren’t so tough against insecticides and vanishing habitat.

Bumblebee magic helped Mike and I through another weekend of waiting for conflicting medical information, but the humble bumblebee needs our help, everyone’s help, so it can survive and continue to do its pollination work…..read on…. 

Friday morning I woke up wanting to write about magic and miracles.  I can’t remember why, was it due to a dream? I think it was just my muse knocking on my psychic door, and both subjects have been dancing in my head lately.

An unexpected and disturbing phone call from Mike’s doctor’s office put a tailspin on my thoughts and writing attempts.  My muse was drowned out by frustration, questions and more phone calls. Why was his doctor recommending chemotherapy? Did the second pathology report have differing information? We will find out tomorrow…and we will be getting a second opinion next week.

Definitely put a damper on our weekend. Mike distracted himself by going to see Star Trek. I fumed awhile longer.  But magic came last night as I watched my husband, crouched down, guidebook in hand, get up close and personal with a hundred or so bumblebees in the huge evergreen huckleberry that engulfs our front porch.

Mike recently has taken an interest in bumblebees, they are everywhere in our yard, more than any other year, and we have always had a lot.  After dinner I read to him from my favorite bumblebee book Humblebee Bumblebee by Brian L. Griffin.  For the record, I love bumblebees. I want to pet them. I spend a lot of time trying to photograph them, a challenge as they are always moving and vibrating, and being so furry, they usually end up a blur or simply not there in most photographs. One summer bumblebees stung me twice – because they simple flew into me while I was walking on our sidewalk, a fly way for everything.  I work around them all the time in the yard and have never been stung since. I’ve had bumblebees land on my jeans and just hang out to rest for what seemed like a long time. I think of them as the teddy bears in the world of pollinators.

Last month, while staying at an Ayurvedic health clinic for a week, I intended to stay off the Internet, yet went on-line briefly each day to cast my vote for the bumblebee to appear on a new Endangered Species Chocolate bar. It was a close race and every vote counted!  The bumblebee was a winner! The Xerces Society will receive 10 percent of ESC net profits, a guaranteed contribution of $10,000 annually. This is huge for a small organization.  As a supporter of the Xerces Society, I know how difficult it is to get people to take seriously the importance of protecting insects, especially pollinators.

from the Xerces Society facebook page, the new bumblebee chocolate bar, available in 2014.
from the Xerces Society facebook page, the new bumblebee chocolate bar, available in 2014.

Back to Mike and his furry friends. Bumblebees stay out later than honey bees, perhaps their warm coats enable them to do so, but more likely it is because they can thermal regulate, meaning they can adjust their body temperature to the conditions. The light was dim as Mike ‘stocked’ the busy bees.  Although I know from my experience the difficulties in identifying different species, I did not want to discourage Mike as he intently watched the buzzing bush.  Once you get past the basic differences of black with yellow stripes, or yellow with black stripes, or yellow and black with an orange stripe, the subtleties are too detailed to determine which species you are looking at on a constantly moving specimen! Griffin lists 50 different species in his guidebook.

SO…where is the magic you might ask? The magic is the amazing bumblebee.  One singular mama bee, full of sperm from her pre-hibernation courtships, crawls into a hole, covers herself up, and sleeps away the fall and winter.  She emerges in spring to begin life anew, finds a cozy nest, tenderly cares for her first 8 or so eggs as they become larvae, then pupae, then emerge as her first little brood of daughters, who will help raise more and more daughters, filing the nest hole with a waxen castle of pollen chambers, honey stashes, and new nurseries for new eggs, larva and pupae. (Males come later in the season, their only purpose being for reproduction.)

And how does mama bee feed herself when all alone, starting out? It is critical she keep her young, especially in the larva and pupae stage, warm on cold, early spring days and nights. What if rainy, even snowy, weather prevents her from foraging for pollen?  She creates a tiny little honey pot, placing it between herself and the door of the nest chamber, close enough she can drink from it while on her nest…and she fills it with nectar.  I find this enchanting!

DSC08651My description is brief, I encourage you to read Griffin’s book, it is a short, yet delightful story of these amazing pollinators.  And why do you want to know about bumblebees?  Well, first of all, they are magical! You will enjoy understanding more about their life cycle.  Secondly, they’re survival is threatened, one species is endangered. Thirdly we are very dependent on them, even more so than honey bees.  By reading about them you can learn how easy it is to encourage, protect and provide for these gentle pollinators in your own yard.  At the very least, learn how not to harm them.

And why do we have so many in our yard? We are not very tidy gardeners, hard to do with health challenges and surrounded by an ever encroaching forest. We have areas where so-called ‘weeds’ go to flower, many loved by the bumblebees. A short list of what they like here includes: an early blooming Rhododendron, called “Christmas Rhody” is an early first food for bumblebees; the run amok comfrey in our garden an all-season favorite; holly was also a favorite, but we did cut it down. “True” geraniums, which have seeded all over the place, are covered with bumblebees, as are wild mustard, tenacious buttercup, dame’s rocket, raspberries, and of course the evergreen huckleberry (we’ve planted 9 more, they have some growing to do).  We have several native trees that bloom, I see bumblebees mostly in the cascara. Griffin’s book, and others, list plants you can grow to encourage bumblebees.  It is equally important to learn about their nesting habits. As with all native pollinators, and other friendly insects, a chemical-free, not-too-tidy yard provides diverse habitat.

And yes, I will have more to say about magic and miracles. Nature, and life, is full of both! :o)

Here is a list of articles and resources for learning more about the humble bumblebee: DSC04525_2

The Xerces Society offers a book entitled: Befriending Bumblebees as well as other books on pollinators, butterflies, and more. If you are on Facebook I encourage you to ‘Like’ the Xerces Society page to learn about how bumblebees and other endangered bugs are doing, and how you can help them: Xerces Society

Humblebee Bumblebee was self-published in 1997 by Knox Cellars Publishing Co., a small publishing company in Bellingham WA, started by Brian Griffin and now run by his daughter Lisa. You can buy the book directly from them. They also carry Griffin’s other delightful book on Mason Bees, other books about pollinators, as well as starter kits for raising Mason Bees, etc. They are all about supporting backyard, native pollinators and those wanting to encourage them. Here is their book link: Humblebee Bumblebee, and here is their main site: Knox Cellars. You can also find them on Facebook: Knox Cellars

You can also find the book on Amazon.

Here is one of many articles found in a search about the importance of bumblebees in pollinating crops, and why they are endangered: Bumblebee Loss Threatens Food Security

If you are serious about helping bumblebees and other pollinators you can learn more and sign the pollinator protection pledge on the Xerces Society web site: Pollinators Protection Pledge.