Tag Archives: woods

A girl in the Garden of Eden

Yellow butterfly at Kaplan's Pond, Croton-on-Hudson, New York by Betsey CrawfordWhat I remember most vividly is how green it was. I was tiny then, close to the green grass, eyes level with the leafy shrubs, awestruck by the green-dappled blue showing among rustling leaves that seemed as far above me as the sky. The tree trunks were enormous, rough under my little fingers, brown and gray, sometimes greenish, the same colors as the dirt, the rocks, the branches that arched way over my head. We were surrounded by woods, and I ran through them, touching bark, jumping over roots, shushing through crisp, fallen colors in the fall, on the ground with mushrooms and moss, a daughter of the trees. 

We were above trees, too, as the land went down below the sloping garden, full of roses and azaleas. We ran through grass paths, to a semicircle of trees with a stone fireplace, never used, but endlessly interesting. Beyond the sloping trees, far in the distance, we could see the silver, glittery Hudson River, whose bridges lit up with sparkles at night. We saw all the way down the river to New York City. The tiny Empire State building rose from a pale blue haze, like a distant tower in a storybook.

Pink flowered legume in Croton-on-Hudson, New York by Betsey CrawfordI remember glowing, silky flowers. One cool spring day, I decorated my tricycle with the tulips that grew in a bed of little green leaves, shiny, with blue flowers. My mother told me how beautiful it looked, but gently suggested that flowers were happier in gardens. Along the front of the house were bushes with tiny, spiky needles, dark green, with translucent red berries that squirted if you pressed them. At their feet was dirt, surrounded by stones. In the summer, we would add water from the hose and play in the cool mud.

The house backed onto a hill with a rock ledge that we could climb up easily. A little brown building stood among the trees. We weren’t supposed to go near it, which convinced me an ogre lived there. The upper hill continued down the driveway, which was so long that you couldn’t see the end. There were trees going up on one side, sloping away on the other, a vast tunnel of green. 

A road through the woods in Croton-on-Hudson, New York by Betsey CrawfordOn the opposite side from the driveway was a brown path through the woods, which took us over a falling-down stone wall, to an enormous, gray rock, the size of a hill. Huge cracks made openings and ledges that turned the rock into houses and forts. ‘We’ were my brother Perry and I, until one day a voice commanded us to “get off our rock.” We searched for the voice, mystified. It turned out to be a girl even smaller than I was. “It’s our rock,” we said. 

We obviously settled it amicably, because she and her brother and the two of us became inseparable. That brought me to other lands. A meadow of tall, rustling grasses that filled the air with warm, spicy sweetness when mowed. A small, rickety, screened summer house where we found two rusted beds. We would lie on the flat metal springs, even though sharp pieces poked into us. They had wonderfully mucky water along their driveway. It had a name, Kaplan’s Pond, as mysterious as anything else about it. We would occasionally try fishing, and I once caught a sunny. But I preferred following dragonflies and butterflies along the muddy edge. An old man and woman lived near the pond, in a tiny house in the woods, like people in a fairy tale. They were artists and we would paint with them occasionally.

A dragon fly on Kaplan's Pond, Croton-on-Hudson, New York by Betsey CrawfordMy sister, Susan, was a newborn when we first moved there, but by the time she was three she was part of our adventures. One day she and I found a beetle on a tree. It was well above our heads, and enormous, the length of my hand, shiny black with orange pincers as long as its body. We were transfixed, and could hardly tear ourselves away, waiting for our father to come home and rescue us. The beetle barely stirred all afternoon, but any movement had us running inside to report to my mother. When my dad finally arrived we dragged him to the tree. He got a ladder and a jar and captured it briefly so we could see it up close. I was fascinated by the pincers, but the beetle in the jar couldn’t compare to the delicious terror of the beetle on the tree.

It was paradise. I lived there for five years, from age two to seven. Despite everything that has happened in the sixty years since, that vivid sprite, trailing leaves and flowers and dirt, is still with me. Things were happening even then. For all the vibrant, green heaven surrounding us, inside the house my mother was sinking deeper and deeper into depression. I was beginning the sad, fruitless task of trying to be a good enough girl to bring back the happy mother I’d known.

I remember not wanting to move, but I don’t remember being unhappy when we did. I was too young to know that not every place was full of deep magic. My sister Connie was already two, and my mother, with four young children in a tiny house tucked away in the woods, was very glad to be moving. At that point, her happiness mattered the most to me. Our new home was much roomier, but on a hill so steep there was no yard to play in. It was a quiet street in an old suburban neighborhood, with lots of big trees. 

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Big Reed Pond, Montauk, New York by Betsey Crawford

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and violets (Viola laboridorica) from another land of enchantment: Big Reed Pond in Montauk, New York

There was a still-unbuilt lot nearby with a sliver of woods, where we found wild grapes in the fall. My father cut us a curving, fragrant tunnel through the wild tangle of honeysuckle between our house and our neighbor’s. One spring a jack-in-the-pulpit showed up mysteriously among the trees separating us from the house in back. Violets grew in profusion where tree roots had heaved up the sidewalk. One neighbor had a hedge of mountain laurel which bloomed in cascades of tiny white and pink cups every June. Another had one of lilacs that smelled heavenly in May. 

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) in Hither Woods State Park, Montauk, New York by Betsey Crawford

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) from another magical place: Hither Woods in Montauk, New York

Perhaps I would have learned to love the natural world just as much in that neighborhood. I have my doubts. I feel sure the deep, mystical connection I have with nature was born in the Eden I lived in earlier. I went back to see it this summer, on a trip to New York. I’d visited many years ago, when the house was still the same one we lived in, and marveled at how small everything was compared to the expansiveness of my memories. Now, the only vista that remains the same is the driveway. The big rock has a house on it. Kaplan’s Pond has been cleaned up and gentrified, though its edges are still full of dragonflies. The view of the river is blocked by trees getting ever taller. It’s still a wonderful place, and I was warmly welcomed by the present owner, but it’s not my paradise.

Kaplan's Pond in Croton-on-Hudson, New York by Betsey Crawford

A very elegant incarnation of the Kaplan’s Pond I knew

It doesn’t need to be, since I have been carrying that paradise inside me for all these years. In that, I have been extremely blessed. Today, even children in rural communities don’t necessarily have the kind of experiences that were so important to me. There are many reasons for this, starting with the fact that tightly-scheduled children don’t have the leisure we enjoyed. They are more likely to spend what they do have indoors, especially on the computer. The belief in free, unstructured play has diminished, as have the places hospitable to it. Parents are fearful of risk — from insects, strangers, falls, drowning — and angry when risks prove dangerous. According to Richard Louv, the author of  The Last Child in the Woods, the fear of lawsuits if a child gets hurt is haunting everyone from private homeowners to the Boy and Girl Scouts to the national parks.

Lack of access to nature is a world-wide issue, and worsening despite a growing body of information about the necessity of outdoor play in green settings for mental and physical health. The more stress in a child’s life, the more crucial this has proven to be. Louv details studies showing that children with ADHD, in particular, thrive when learning in natural environments.

It makes perfect sense. We evolved with plants and trees, not concrete. Our ability to sense, to learn, to make connections, to pay attention was, not long ago, done entirely within the framework of the natural world. Our calendar was set by the turning of the earth and the cycles of the moon. The sun was our clock. Children are not meant to be still and quiet for hours. Evolution didn’t prepare us to sit at desks all day, or to stare at a screen, to be indoors, to work in cubicles, or play only in designated, asphalt-covered, chain-link-surrounded playgrounds.

Kilburn Grange Adventure Play Park, designed by Erect Architecture in London, England

Kilburn Grange Adventure Play Park, designed by Erect Architecture in London, England (photo by Erect Architecture)

Amidst a growing reverence for information at the expense of sensory experience, in a world increasingly urban, children and nature are often left behind. Planning — what there is of it — emphasizes traffic patterns, safety, housing density, commuter issues. With 80% of the U.S. population living in urban areas, playgrounds are often a child’s only contact with nature, and their design has been slow to evolve. The enchanting adventure playground above, designed by Erect Architecture in London, built among the trees of an old arboretum, is still rare in its embrace of the way children actually play. From a street near me in Marin, the fountains and cascading pools in the photo below look like the ornamental feature fountains usually are. But these are sited right next to another well-designed playground. You can see from the little footprints everywhere that children flock to the rocks and pools.

Lagoon Park Playground in San Rafael, California by Betsey Crawford

Lagoon Park Playground in San Rafael, California

But even the best playgrounds are no substitute for the preservation and protection of natural areas in urban and suburban settings. Louv named the loss of this essential connection ‘nature deficit disorder.’ Studies show it leads to higher crime, increased depression, more learning disabilities. The presence of nature in children’s lives and activities boosts many things we say we value: test scores, cooperation, self-esteem, thinking, happiness. Crucially, children who cherish birds and flowers grow up wanting more of them. Where, he asks, will the future environmentalists come from? “If children do not attach to the land, they will not reap the psychological and spiritual benefits they can glean from nature, nor will they feel a long-term commitment to the environment, to the place.”

Pink garden flower in Croton-on-Hudson, New York by Betsey CrawfordThinking about my own early life among the trees, I thought at first I would call this essay ‘Paradise lost’. Though I was blessed to spend many years living in another magical place, there has been a thread of poignant loss ever since leaving that deep green world. But I also feel profoundly grateful for those years in the Garden of Eden, which prepared me to create other Edens as a landscape designer, and to be able to re-find that joy in so many ways and places all my life. As I get older, and the roles and tasks of the intervening decades fall away, the call of that wild green girl gets more and more vivid. 

She lives, I now realize, at the core of my being. Through her I am rooted in the natural world I love so much. With her I lie on the ground with luminous flowers, or sit on pine needles that smell of the ever-rising sap of trees. With her I walk on rocks that form the bedrock of my life on the earth that created me. This is my oldest and deepest essence, a gift given to me by Nature herself, just for being there, open and ready, willing to share my delight, my curiosity, my joy, as well as my confusion and grief. I lived in a landscape as alive to me as I was. That enduring faith has been the greatest gift of all.Betsey at 3 or 4, painting

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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It takes a village: the community of lichen

hypogymnia-species-alectoria-samentosa-witchs-hair-lichen-lobaria-pulmonaria-lungwort-Fish-Creek-Hyder-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordThe farther I went north last summer, the more I found a world full of lichen. It’s everywhere in Alaska, and a dominant species in the arctic tundra. But it’s everywhere else, too, covering 8% of the world’s surface. Lichen holds the desert in place, fills the forests, hangs off branches in cool, damp coastal woods as well as in warm swamps. It’s on the trees in your backyard, slowly covering your grandparents’ tombstones, growing on fence posts, spreading under your feet as you climb mountains.

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Large lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) ‘leaves’ live with a species of Cladonia among the moss and ferns on a tree in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska

Lichen is indeed a village: it’s composed of varying forms of fungi, algae, and cyanobacteria living in symbiosis. Strands of fungi weave together to provide housing, which protects the algae and bacteria from environmental challenges like desiccation and UV radiation. The algae and bacteria provide food via sugars formed through photosynthesis. The resulting body, or thallus, lives on its substrate — wood, soil, rock, occasionally air — along with other members of the community, usually moss, often other forms of fungi and algae, and the trees, ferns, flowers, rocks, and animals of whatever environment it’s growing in.

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Black-footed reindeer lichen (Cladonia stygia) mixed with snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) in the Yukon tundra

Though I am no lichenologist — identifying the few lichens here that I’ve been able to name was a study in cross-eyed bewilderment — I’ve always been fascinated by them. I went to Denali National Park one day to hike, but, on finding a world covered with lichen, got down on the ground and spent the afternoon with them, in all their variety: tiny, lacy shrubs of one lichen run through with little branchlets of another, next to a large patch of dark brown sheets of felt lichen. A white crustose lichen so completely covered the flange of a tree stump that it wasn’t until I put my hand on it that I realized I was looking at wood, not granite. That white crust was dotted with a pink one. Tiny spires, holding up minute cups, occasionally edged in vivid red, grew all over the rest of the stump, happily embedded in moss.

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A Cladonia species around a tuft of snow lichen (Flavocentrai nivalis)

This plucky, endlessly adaptable, weirdly beautiful, not-plant, not-animal feeds reindeer and caribou. It holds and releases moisture, helpful to the plants that grow with it. It has some medicinal uses, and shows up in Japanese and Korean cuisines. Some are used as dyes, and some in making perfume. But its most important ecological contributions are its ability to take nitrogen from the air and add that essential element to the soil; its ability to live in, stabilize, and form soil in barren landscapes; and its ability to sequester carbon. Lichen, with the mosses and algae they grow among, all tiny and indomitable, take up as much carbon yearly as is released by the burning of forests worldwide. This amounts to 14 billion tons of carbon, as opposed to the 2.2 billion (and falling) tons absorbed by the Amazon rainforest.

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A tree stump with an entire village of moss and lichen in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

As hardy and amazingly adaptable as lichens are in their natural habitats, they are threatened by several things, especially air pollution, deforestation, and global warming. The first limits healthy growth, the second habitat, and the third will begin to further limit habitat, as lichens sensitive to temperature will have to go to higher and higher altitudes to survive. Those that cannot will die out.

And here is where the larger questions come in. If you ask people whether they would prefer to drive cars to work or save lichens, most people would ask, “What’s lichen?” It wouldn’t be an issue at all. It would seem obvious that we’re more important than a bunch of fungus and algae mashed together and ruining our wooden fence. We’re letting species go extinct every day. Why would a few little lichen matter?

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Tiny pink splotches of the interestingly named fairy barf lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum) in Denali National Park, Alaska

We don’t know why lichen matter. That’s the problem with every extinction. We see the stakes through human eyes. We want to get from place to place in our cars, we love computers, we need homes that are warm in winter and cool in summer. My home is tiny footprint, but I drove it to Alaska and back last year. Would I give up such incredible experiences to preserve the right environment for lichen? A challenging question!

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Brown felt lichen (Peltigera praetextata) with a Cladonia species in Denali National Park, Alaska

We are part of the biome, and we need habitat. There is an infinity of things we can do to reduce our effect on the planet, but even if we do every one of them, humans will still have an outsized footprint. Species will be edged out. Others will hang on, threatened.

We know some of these extinctions will matter. If bees die out, we face a world without fruit, flowers, nuts. If lichen dies out we’ll first lose their ability to sequester carbon, which will be released into an atmosphere already threatened by rising carbon dioxide levels. So temperatures may rise further, endangering more and more species.

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A section of the desert’s biological crust, in Butler Wash near Bluff, Utah

We would also lose a crucial soil producer and stabilizer. It’s hard for us to see, in the brown crusts of the sandy desert, how important a role those tiny, combined elements play in securing nutrients, water, and footing for roots. Hard to imagine the time span taken to break down rock into soil. To us, dirt has always been here, but we’re newcomers on the planet, perhaps even passers-by. The ramifications of such losses spread out like waves. Whatever we do to allow lichen to go extinct might well mean we’ve created a world inhospitable to us.

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Lichen on stone in Butler Wash, near Bluff, Utah

These questions are important, but they are also human-centered, asking of everything how it helps us. Cyanobacteria are 2.5 billion years old, the first photosynthesizers on earth, producers of the oxygen-rich atmosphere that all subsequent biodiversity depends on. The earliest lichen fossils  are 400 million years old.  The earliest human fossil is 2.8 million years old. The forces that created the earth with infinite slowness ticked lichen off the formation list much earlier than humans. Perhaps we’re here to help lichen.

Every form in nature is part of a whole, a web woven together with meticulous evolutionary care. We can only pull so many of those threads out before the fabric begins to weaken. And there may be some combination of threads which, when pulled, will destroy the integrity of the whole. The problem is, we don’t know which ones, leaving us with the great challenge of caring for the entire village on our finite globe.

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Reindeer moss (Cladonia rangiferina) along a trail in Stony Hill, Amagansett, New York

Spruce family planning

white-spruce-picea-glauca-cones-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordOne of the first things we noticed when we drove into Alaska in July was that vast stands of spruce — and Alaska is full of vast stands of spruce — were dark brown at the top. Seeing them from a distance, as we drove through a valley, we wondered if they were suffering from a disease that was killing them from the tips. When we got closer, we realized they were laden with cones. At first, I assumed this was a normal approach to long summer days, but found, on a guided walk through the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, that 2015 was a mast year for white spruce.

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The female cones tend to cluster toward the top of the tree.

Mast refers to the products of trees — cones, acorns, catkins — and many species have mast years, when they produce an above-normal abundance of seeds. Spruce cones are the primary food of Alaskan red squirrels. The squirrels live on the forest floor, digging tunnels under and around the roots of the trees, where the cones can fall right at their doorstep. They eat the seeds at the base of the female cone scales, tossing the rest of the scale and the remaining ‘cob’, out their front doors, where the ever-mounting detritus becomes a whole environment in itself.

red-squirrel-tamiasciurus-hudsonicus-den-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2Every few years, to keep ahead of the voracious squirrels, who can each hoard up to 9,000 cones a season, the trees produce extra cones. When our guide, Ruth, was telling us this, we joked that spruce had family planning all figured out. And that got me thinking about what we actually meant by those light words. What had they figured out? How had they figured it out? What in the spruce had ‘noticed’ that producing more cones every few years meant they could insure enough offspring without spending the energy to produce extra cones every year?

redsquirrel_looking_over_shoulder

Thanks to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for this photo. No squirrel would stand still for me.

We know, if only from watching our dogs go into a decline the second we pull out a suitcase, that animals have consciousness and an emotional life. We don’t put it on a par with our own, and don’t, as a rule, apply any concept of consciousness to plants, though there is a growing, and utterly fascinating, body of work dedicated to exploring what plants know and feel.

In my work as a landscape designer I would ponder why gardens grew better for some people and not others, given that their care was basically the same. I had a client who was extremely ornery. I learned quickly to call him in the morning so I didn’t run into his afternoon drinking. Despite a sense of humor and a certain amount of charm, he could be hard to be around. But his landscape was one of my all-time favorite jobs. He was an artist and a bon vivant. He loved beauty. He had been a photographer for Life magazine, and his house was full of lovely things from all over the world. His garden, despite his routine grumpiness, grew like mad.

red-squirrel-tamiasciurus-hudsonicus-den-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

I loved the different decors that went with squirrel doors.

A counter example was a couple in their thirties, successful professionals, extremely nice, though not necessarily warm or charming. Their house was rather bleakly furnished. Every time we met, they both stood with their arms tightly folded the entire time. Their garden did the same thing. It dutifully grew, but it never took off into the kind of riotous abundance that my ornery client’s did.

Another couple with whom I worked for many years started out with a garden that grew grudgingly for a while. But, after both successfully recovered from cancer, it was fascinating to see how they and their garden changed. My clients seemed more at ease, more open. They renovated their house and painted every room a different luminous color from the sea and sky outside. Their garden got more and more lush, and even unusually deep in color.

east-hampton-garden-designed-photographed-by-Betsey-CrawfordThough the idea of sharing a doctor’s waiting room with a bunch of plants has enormous appeal, spruce will clearly never follow our example on family planning: make appointments, discuss options, get a prescription, go to a pharmacy, remember to use whatever we get there. Instead, every few years, usually following a warmer prior summer, they will produce extra cones. To do this they have to ‘know’ something. To grow riotously for one person and not for another indicates a capacity to respond. To grow toward the light indicates a capacity to see. Plants don’t have the neurology we use to translate vision into images, as far as we know, but the chemical process is not that far from our own, and some of the genes that direct it are the same. Nature can’t be bothered to give every living thing its own personal set of genes, so both humans and plants have inherited genes from our common, ancient, bacteria ancestors.

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Squirrel apartment building

I love all this, because I love to contemplate our interconnectedness. I love the idea that I am, literally, in the same family tree with the spruces I pass on my hike. That I share up to 80% of my DNA with the squirrel chittering at me, up to 25% with the branch she sits on and the cone she’s about to hide. The ferns brushing my shins, the moss on the edge of the path, the fungal mycelium strands winding through the soil under my feet — these are all kin, descendants, like me, of our unicellular forebears. And, as carbon-based forms, we are all descendants of the earliest stars, whose death launched carbon into the universe.

We live in a world where we differ from all other humans across the globe by less than 1% of our DNA. Nevertheless, we’re having a hard time convincing our very tribal selves that we are all related. Given that challenge, seeing spruce trees and squirrels as family may seem like a low priority. But I find that feeling embedded in the life force that is also the forest makes it easier to remind myself, in the constant brush of personality that makes up everyday life, that underneath our wide-ranging but superficial spectrum of differences, we are all — every one of us — intimately connected.

white-spruce-picea-glauca-cones-mast-year-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-3

 

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

Samhain in New Jersey

autumn-woods-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford-2I didn’t know I was going to a place I love in New Jersey until two weeks before I went, and had no idea I’d be celebrating Samhain there. But it’s the sort of place where that happens, so I might have guessed.

Miriam McGillis is a friend, mentor, teacher. She started Genesis Farm, an ecological and spiritual center in western New Jersey, 35 years ago. I heard her speak in 2000 at a native plant conference in Pennsylvania. She, petite and indomitable, stood in the center of an enormous auditorium and held hundreds of us tree huggers spellbound as she quietly wove together nature, the cosmos, the path of evolution, and our place in this great rush of creative energy. Dozens of us mobbed her at the end. I told her I’d been waiting all my life to hear what she had said.

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Common milkweed (Asclepias syriacus)

Not everyone’s experience in the Catholic Church was the same, but mine had no place for nature, no place for me to be in nature. It was the ‘other’ — outside of us, unimportant except as it could be of use, largely hostile, something to be endured on the way to, one devoutly hoped, heaven. I don’t remember ever hearing a word about the world around us from anyone connected to the church or the Catholic schools of my childhood.

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Peach leaves in the Orchard of the Ancestors, Genesis Farm

So it’s interesting and ironic that the lure of Genesis Farm and the work done there is grounded in the thinking of Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest, who saw, in the growing knowledge of the origins of the universe, a new way of looking at our place in it, a new genesis: the universe itself as an ever-expanding (literally) creation story. An energy that has manifested itself for 13.7 billion years, from seemingly nothing to inchoate matter, to stars, to elements, to more stars, to planets around the stars, to seas, to mountains, to the first cells, to the first beings, plant and animal, to an endless array of beings, coming, not finally, but for now, to us, on this one planet among billions of planets, with their infinite manifestations that remain profound mysteries.

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Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

By the time I heard Miriam I’d been a landscape designer and an environmental activist for years, so it wasn’t that I hadn’t found a place in nature, or hadn’t become its champion in my own way. The strings that her vision tied together were there to be gathered, and led me through a door to my place in the whole, grounded on the earth not only by my presence here and my love for its astounding beauty, but by the fact that the building blocks of the soil under my feet are the same as the building blocks of my body.

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The main farm field, Genesis Farm

She represented a turning point in my life, though it was not a time when my life could turn. I had a child in school, a mate, a business to run. Genesis Farm’s Earth Literacy courses took up to 12 weeks, so that made them out of my reach until Luke graduated from high school. At that point, 25 years in, the programs changed to shorter, more intense courses, and I took several of those for three years, which was a great blessing, because, after 28 years, the enormous energy to create and run the Genesis Farms programs had run its course, and the mission began to change.

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Cattail (Typha angustifolia)

At the beginning of October Miriam asked me if I would help her with a project she has in mind. A few days after I arrived, we celebrated Samhain (pronounced sah-win), the ancient Celtic celebration of the end of the harvest season that falls at the midway point between the fall equinox and the winter solstice.

grass-autumn-seedheads-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-CrawfordIt was a time of coming death and dormancy,  when the veil between the underworld and the living world felt thinned, and the ever-present ancestors were honored, along with their connection to the primordial chaos and fertility of the dark world. The sheep and cows were brought down from the pastures where they’d spent the warmer season grazing. Fires were kindled against the gathering dark, and people dressed in costumes and traveled from house to house, where they were given food from the Samhain feasts.

autumn-woods-pond-reflections-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford-2Christianity, as was its custom, adopted these ancient rites, and so we have All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day. But, in a world where Halloween is a $7.4 billion dollar industry and a heavily rhinestoned Elvis costume can cost $1400, the original reason to celebrate Samhain has largely gotten lost, which is also true for its three counterparts: Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnassad.

In an agrarian world, intimately tied to the the subtlest changes of the seasons, these were important dates, and had their own individual rituals, varying by region across Eurasia, revolving around the preparation, sowing, tending and harvesting of fields, the care of flocks, and both celebration and preparation for the season to come.

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Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

In our present day, living in cities and towns, far from the production of food, these dates may seem unimportant. But every one of us has centuries of ancestors who grew food, and epigenetics is now teaching us what cultures who reverence their ancestors have long intuited — we carry with us changes in our DNA expression created by our forebears’ reactions to their lives.

autumn-woods-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-CrawfordThe rituals they performed at Samhain, and similar festivals across the world, celebrated the harvest that would see them through to the next growing season. They lit bonfires, prepared meals, and played games to express gratitude for the harvest and to stave off the gathering dark, rites that are still alive in Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations. These holidays may look like they’ve morphed into several months of shopping, but the old traditions live on in gatherings of friends and family, extra light against the dark, feasting, singing and music, and even trick or treating on Halloween.

autumn-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey

Not only are we not separate from the ground we walk on, we’re not separate from the people who walked it before us. We carry them in our cells, hitching rides on our DNA. We reenact their customs, even when we’ve lost their beginnings in the intervening centuries. We feel anxious with the dying of the light, and stronger by banding together in the face of it. We remember our dead, and ask for their presence and guidance. If we’re lucky, we get to stand on a sunny hill at the end of October and open the portal to Samhain, carrying all the richness of our ancestors, flowing through us into the future.autumn-woods-pond-reflections-Genesis-farm-Blairstown-New-Jersey-by-Betsey-Crawford

A beautiful life

Splash in back seat of carI so hoped it would be another year, even a few more months, before I wrote this. But great spirits come in their own time, and leave in their own time, and Splash, my companion and spirit guide, has left in hers. She turned 14 in April, and then, in May, we found out that she had a ferocious tumor on her heart. The vet gave her two months to live, and she died almost to the day. It was still a surprise, if only because she was so lively and herself in her last days, even in the last hours before she collapsed.

Luke holding Splash as a puppyWhen she came into our lives in 2001 I could not have imagined that I would be writing this in Valdez, Alaska, in an RV that is my home, after a day of hiking and photographing wildflowers. I was living the relatively normal, way-too-busy life of mother, partner, friend, daughter, sister. Taking care of my elderly father, seeing my son, Luke, into high school in a world that was about to include 9/11. Running a business I valued, living a life I cherished. But she led me out of that path and onto another one entirely.

She started the process by not understanding cars, ever. To the end of her life she would have blithely stood — if allowed — in the middle of a road of oncoming cars and wondered, tail up, why we weren’t all joining her. But, in her wild puppy-ness, she needed time off leash, so I took her to the Hither Woods trails in Montauk, where she bounced ecstatically all over the place, responding only to calls of ‘cookie,’ which would bring her back to my side, eager for a treat.

Splash and cow in KansasAs time passed, I noticed that she would occasionally, of her own accord, come and walk right next to me for a stretch of the trail. After a while I saw that there were places where she would routinely do this. It occurred to me that she was seeing, or sensing, spirits, and that she came when they were around, whether for her own protection, or mine, or simply out of a sense of the unusual, the mysterious.

Today, after years of studying with shamans and living through lots of wild happenings, I assume the woods are full of all kinds of energies. But at that point, in the midst of my practical life, chugging through to-do lists, I hadn’t given much thought to such spirits. It wasn’t an alien idea, it just didn’t seem like the kind of thing that would happen to me. But I became increasingly convinced that she was tuned into something I couldn’t yet apprehend. As she so often did with literal doors, she was nosing this one open.

Splash at Big Reed Pond, MontaukFollowing Splash into the woods meant spending stretches of quiet time, a special gift in those busy days. There, surrounded by the patient wisdom of trees, I could listen to my own inner voices. There was nothing sudden in this process. We walked those trails for four years before the change began to be obvious, ten years before leaving that whole life behind. In the meantime, with her presence and comfort, I mothered through the storms of adolescence, helped my father cope with his last years, lived my full life. But in the woods I was opening to mystery, beginning to relate differently to spirits, and Spirit. A profound shift was underway, and not, in any way I was used to thinking about such things, directed by me.

Splash in UtahAlways at least slightly ahead of me on the path, Splash was leading me each step of the way, ever herself: smart, deeply intuitive, enthusiastic, loving, flexible, patient. My black and white spirit guide. We were inseparable. When we began our travels, with several long road trips between 2007 and 2010, and then leaving on our journey in 2011, she jumped right in, taking her spot in the back seat, where I could see her over my right shoulder, and sometimes find her wet nose near my ear. Except when Luke — whose puppy she had been, and whom she adored — was around, she slept by my bed for part of each night, though usually went to her cushy spot on the couch at some point.

Splash & Luke reindeer selfieIn the last few months she slept all night next to my bed. I could feel her tiredness; a calm, end-of-life tired. A life beautifully lived, where she did a wonderful job at the loving she came here to do. The energy that animated her was winding down. When we got the diagnosis in May I sensed that she didn’t want me to hold on, to put her through risky surgery that would only buy a short time more. It’s hard for me not to want to fix and solve things, but that’s part of what I learned in her company — to allow, to release. To trust. That our love for each other will survive her leaving. That her spirit will be with me, doing exactly what she has been doing all along: guiding me, through her heart, deeper and deeper into my own.Splash on the Oregon coast

Songlines

Songlines-mapIn my favorite creation story the world is sung into existence. I first came across this wonderful idea as a child, in one of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, ‘The Magician’s Nephew’, where he has his divine embodiment, Aslan the lion, slowly move across a pitch black and featureless void, singing first the stars into the darkness, then the sun, and then on to all the details of the world we love.

Polly was finding the song more and more interesting because she thought she was beginning to see the connection between the music and the things that were happening. When a line of dark firs sprang up on a ridge about a hundred yards away she felt that they were connected with a series of deep, prolonged notes which the Lion had sung a second before. And when he burst into a rapid series of higher notes she was not surprised to see primroses suddenly appearing in every direction.

Fairy bells (Disporum trachycarpum) at Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Fairy bells (Disporum trachycarpum) Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho

All these decades later I can still feel Polly’s ‘unspeakable thrill’ at the thought of Aslan’s ‘gentle, rippling music’ sending waves of green up the hills he had just sung into existence. While the rest of his creation story is straight out of Genesis, Lewis knew the world’s myths, and perhaps took the singing from its originators, the aboriginal peoples of Australia. This retelling is from Sara Maitland’s ‘A Book of Silence’:

In the beginning is the land — flat, dark and featureless — until the ancestors went traveling the paths of it. As they travelled they were creating the mountains and the hills and the rocks and the animals, people, places. They did not do it once and for all, they do it still. The paths must be walked. The creation work must be done; the land is forever and the creating of it is forever. The dreaming, singing, dancing, walking goes on and on, forever.

Tall bluebells (Mertensia paniculata) at Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Tall bluebells (Mertensia paniculata) Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho

The ancestors included humans, landscape features, and the first of certain totem animals, who gathered themselves together from primordial mud and proceeded to sing the rest of the earth into existence. To me this creation story has the keenest intuition into the actual processes that formed the earth — the earliest floating particles and gasses that gravity pulled slowly together into a swirling mass. The billions of years of coalescing, exploding, hardening, cooling. The pushing up of gigantic mountains. The coming and going of vast silent seas. The slow emergence of plants and animals. The millions-of-years-long evolution of human beings.

All this time the ancestors were singing, breathing, dancing the world into form, the landscape into rivers, forests, rocks, flowers, canyons, people, animals, birds, sky, clouds. These songs and stories created songlines, maps to the Australian landscape. If you know them, you can find your way, landmark by landmark, along the line you’re following, through trackless desert, along the ridges of mountains, finding water in the valleys, seeing the quicksand to walk around.

Meadow rue (Thalictrum occidental) at Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Meadow rue (Thalictrum occidentale) Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho

The best part is that, fired by the same forces that shaped us in the first place, we are still singing the earth into creation. The dreaming, singing, dancing, walking goes on and on. What a wonderful task to be given: to sing of all we touch, each person we speak to, every place we visit, everything that opens our hearts. To spin songlines every day of our lives.

Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars in the Idaho National- Forest by Betsey Crawford

The paths must be walked. The photos accompanying this post are from such a singing, along such paths: going with my son, Luke, and my dog, Splash, to Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho. An echo of deep time: the oldest tree there was a seedling in 900 CE.

When I was last in Coeur d’Alene, my friend, Marie Cecile, said something that I took as a beautiful blessing — that as I go from place to place, I’m not only bringing my own energy to that place, but I’m also taking the energy of that place with me, and bringing it to the next place, and so composing an interwoven network. Her words inspired me to create the map of my song lines since leaving on our adventures in 2011. Warm color lines brought us west and south, cool colors north and east. This summer I will be adding brand new ones, tying nature to spirit.

Baneberry (Actea rubra) Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Baneberry (Actea rubra) Settlers Grove of Ancient Cedars near Murray, Idaho

As I travel these lines I sing of wildflowers, and my love for beauty, for my family and friends, my love for the green sighing of the forests and prairies, the gray mists of the coasts, the hot breath of the deserts, the prickly cacti flaunting their gorgeous, silky flowers, the tiny shooting stars nestled in damp woods. I sing as I walk, as I meet people, as I take pictures. We all do this, singing of the life we love, of the things we’ve lost, the joys we long for, paying attention, bringing life to life, our songlines floating out behind us, like spider’s silk, both gossamer and resilient, reeling from our hearts.