RUSTLE OF DRY LEAVES
walking the path
down to the river
crash of pine branches
a big bird flies off
turkey or spruce grouse
oh — wow — an owl
eyes black as coal
alights on pine
large and stocky
no ear tufts
mottled brown wings
vertical brown bars
ah, then, a barred owl
le chat-huant du Nord
(hooting cat of the North)
owl stares back
as curious about me
as I am about it
slow turns back
holding the gaze
time slows until
a whisper of feathers
owl flies off
into the woods
rustle of dry leaves
walking the path
down to the river
Lament of the Old Woman of Beare
Ebb tide has come to me as the sea.
What the flood-tide brings, the ebb-tide takes away.
I have known the flood and I have known the ebb.
The sun does not touch me. In me I feel the cold.
But still a seed burns there.
The time is at hand that shall renew me.
— a version by John Halstead
CAILLEACH, the old woman of Beare, the veiled one, laments in a 10th century Old Irish poem for the loss of her youth, for sweet loves and wine-filled nights of long ago that have given way to white hair and a cold that creeps into her bones untouched by the warmth of the sun.
I’ve been thinking of this early Old Irish poem in relation to the Celtic festival of Imbolc, which is traditionally celebrated on Feb. 1. It is the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the turning point of winter, a time when the lengthening days give rise to thoughts of spring. The Celts, no less than us, looked forward to spring and the return of warm days and the new life that would rise up from the cold ground.
They watched closely for the signs of this turning. Imbolc, from the Old Irish i mbolc, meaning “in the belly,” refers to the pregnancy of ewes. The lambing time of year, for them and for us, is a sure sign of the coming spring.
But we also have our Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who comes out of his earth-hole on Feb. 2: If he sees his shadow, he quickly returns to his burrow and we know our winter will last six more weeks. This year, that ageless chubby groundhog did not see his shadow, prompting his handler to proclaim on his behalf, “There is no shadow to be cast! An early spring is my forecast!”
In Maine, we never get too carried away with hopes for an early spring. After all, that groundhog is from “away” and not nearly as grounded in the vagaries of our winters as we’d like our own weather prophets to be.
I had always wondered about the origins of the Groundhog Day tradition and the prophecy based on whether or not a shadow is cast. And then I learned about Imbolc and the Celtic stories about the old veiled woman Cailleach who rules over winter and death. Imbolc, the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, is the day she gathers wood for the rest of the winter. If the day is bright and sunny, she can gather lots of firewood to keep warm and she lengthens the winter to hold back spring as long as she can, which, in the world of myth-dream, also extends her own life as the old veiled woman of laments. But if the day is overcast, she sleeps in, fails to gather much firewood and rather than going cold herself she brings about an early spring. That’s one version of the tale.
Another is that Cailleach dies on Imbolc, but is reborn as Brigid, a maiden who rekindles earth’s fire and the renewal of life in spring.
Here in Maine the old woman’s veil is the winter’s snow.
Walking with friends on the trails of the Cathance River Nature Preserve in early February, I revel in the fresh snow blanketing the ground, creating cover for the voles that tunnel underneath, safe from predators as they nibble on their feed stock of grasses, seeds, bulbs, tubers, bark and roots. The height of the sun in the sky tells me it is surely mid-winter, but the cold and snow suggest otherwise. I don’t give much thought to Punxsutawney Phil or Cailleach of the old woman's lament or how long or short this year’s winter might be. It is bone-chilling cold this day and the snow looks like it's here to stay for quite some time.
Three weeks later, on the third Sunday of February, again walking with friends in the preserve, I notice how much snow cover is now gone. We’ve had several days in the mid-to-upper 40s, warm enough to make you think of spring but early enough to worry about apple trees going to bud too soon, snowshoe hares no longer hidden in white snow but standing out to winged predators like a fast-food restaurant with a blinking neon light. Then, as we go deeper into the woods, with enough coniferous trees to shelter the snow from the sun’s direct rays and warmth, it's winter again, with bent grasses frozen in ice and snow still hiding green mosses and the duff of the forest floor.
Then I notice all the circles of bare ground around tree trunks. Ah! That's the sign that always puts me in mind of Imbolc — even if it is a good three weeks after the true mid-point of this year’s winter between Dec. 21 and March 20. When I see those circles I know, truly, winter is turning: That the trees now take in so much of the sun's warmth and energy into their trunks, the stored heat emanates outward, melting away the encircling snow.
Down by the river, where ice still lines the banks, a pattern of ripples spreads outward from a lip of overhanging ice. Drips of melting ice? A small rivulet of snowmelt pushing through to the river? I dare not risk going to the edge of the riverbank to lie down for a better view. Whatever the cause, I take it to be another sign of spring’s slow, sure coming.
The wheel of the year turns slowly. New life stirs in the world at large and within. The ebb tide of winter will soon become the flood tide of spring. Sap rises, tight buds unwind. Snow melts, the river rises.
I notice where green mosses circle the base of trees, no longer buried in snow. Were they always green beneath the snow? How do they live when as much as 80% of the sun's energy is reflected by a blanket of snow.
I do not know. I do not yet speak their language.
Dried ferns, broken and bent. How do they know when it's time to become fiddleheads, slowly unfurling as spring advances?
I do not yet speak their language.
Why so few chickadees during our winter walks this year? Where are they hiding? Are we too noisy to hear their voices during the dead of winter?
I do not yet speak their language.
How can I say "I know these woods" when so much goes unnoticed, unheard, unknown?
The simple honest answer: I do not yet speak their language.
Columbia Icefield, one of the largest accumulations of ice and snow south of the Arctic Circle, straddles the Continental Divide of North America in Alberta and British Columbia. It completely covers a peak called Snow Dome, a triple divide where glacial melt feeds rivers flowing into the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic oceans.
Seen from the Parker Ridge Trail, the Saskatchewan Glacier flows east from the Columbia Icefield, which is mostly hidden from view by a mountain ridge. The glacier, a narrow tongue of ice receding up a deeply incised valley to its source in the icefield, is approximately 8.1 miles long and covers an area of 11.5 square miles. It is the primary source for the Saskatchewan and Nelson rivers that flow eastward for 1,600 miles into Hudson Bay. Hudson Bay feeds the Hudson Strait, which flows eastward into the Atlantic Ocean.
Glacial ice melt from the Columbia Icefield also flows to the Pacific Ocean via Bryce Creek and the Bush and Columbia rivers. Ice melt from the Athabasca Glacier flows to the Arctic Ocean, via the Sunwapta, Athabasca and Mackenzie rivers.
The Columbia Icefield feeds eight major glaciers and is about 125 square miles in area. It has an ice depth of 328 feet to 1,197 feet, receives up to 275 inches of snowfall per year and is a primary source of water in North America.
It is sometimes called the “mother of rivers.”
so much depends
the flow of
The Athabasca Glacier, one of eight major glaciers that make up the Columbia Icefield, covers an area of about 11.5 square miles. It is about four miles long, descending from its source in the icefield at an elevation of 9,186 feet to its terminus at 6,315 feet, which is not far from Canadian Highway 93.
Athabasca Glacier has advanced and retreated many times: In 1715 the glacier would have been spread across what is now Canadian Highway 93; but it is now in a period of rapid recession, having retreated almost a mile in the last 125 years.
An interpretative sign just below the glacier’s toe states: “If the glacier continues to recede at its current rate, there will be very little left in 100 years. A new forest will begin to grow where the ice is now; a large lake may even form where you are standing today. Within the next three generations the Athabasca Glacier and the water it provides in communities across western North America may almost disappear. Strong scientific evidence points toward human activities as the primary cause of climate change.”
Evidence of its movement is present in the lateral moraines, the parallel ridges of rock debris deposited along the sides of where the glacier had once been. The debris is of two types: rocks scraped off the mountainside as the glacier advanced, and rocks that have fallen from the valley walls in landslides that collected alongside the edge of the glacier. Unless you look closely, it’s easy to overlook the recessional moraines — the debris deposits created during temporary halts in a glacier’s retreat — that run perpendicular to the lateral moraines.
rivers and mountains
More than 70% of Earth’s surface is covered by water. But only 3% is fresh water and of that 77% is frozen in ice caps and glaciers, 22% is groundwater and 1% is in rivers, lakes and wetlands. The Columbia Icefield is one of the world’s major storehouses of fresh water. As such, it should be cherished and revered.
Meltwater from the Athabasca Glacier runs in rivulets to form a small lake a short distance from the toe of the glacier. Sunwapta Lake is the source of a river by the same name, which is one of the headwaters for the Athabasca River.
Small rivulets just below the lake create a complex network of branches that continuously separate and reunite in the upper Sunwapta River as a result of variable sediment loads deposited in the river’s channel during periods of high water: A braided river.
to the sea
lay them down
to be carried
John McPhee, in his fascinating book on geology, “In Suspect Terrain,” says braided rivers carry so much sand and gravel they do not meander through a valley like most streams: They testify, he says, “to the erosional dissembling of raw, young mountains.”
“Rivers come and go, they are younger by far than the rocks on which they run,” he writes. “They wander all over their valleys and sometimes jump out. They reverse themselves and occasionally disappear — their behavior differentiated by textures in the solid earth below.”
Sunwapta is a Stoney Indian word meaning “turbulent river.”
The Sunwapta River eventually merges with the Athabasca River, which flows northeast across Alberta for roughly 760 miles before converging with the Peace River to form the Peace-Athabasca Delta, the largest inland freshwater delta in the world.
The Athabasca’s journey to the sea continues through the delta to Lake Athabasca, its waters flowing northward via the Slave River to Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie River and the Arctic Ocean — a journey of more than 2,400 miles.
It is the longest undammed river in the Canadian prairies. Its watershed comprises 94 rivers, at least 150 named creeks and 153 lakes.
A little more than 18 miles south of Jasper the river makes a 90-degree turn and dramatically narrows at Athabasca Falls, a 75-foot waterfall that has carved through a layer of hard quartzite and softer limestone below to form a small gorge. The force of all that falling water is conveyed by a thunderous roar as millions of gallons of glacial meltwater take the path of least resistance, pouring into a swirling chasm carved out of sedimentary rock on its way to the sea.
Fed by melting glaciers
the falling river
makes a rainbow
After making its sharp turn and sudden drop at Athabasca Falls the river flows northward. Bluish-white water — saturated with “rock flour,” the powdery sediment created by the slow grind of the glaciers on the underlying rock — swirls out of view through a mountainous landscape of wild boreal forest on its way to the Arctic Ocean.
En route to Fort McMurray, 550 miles to north, the Athabasca runs through a gauntlet of municipalities that dump treated sewage into its waters, as well as several pulp and paper mills that also discharge into its waters. It is no longer a pristine wild river, and will soon become even less so at Fort McMurray, the Ground Zero of the rapacious extraction of tar sands oil from Alberta’s massive bitumen deposits that are estimated to contain 169 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
Call it “tar sands” — or “oil sands” as the oil companies prefer — there’s no disputing it’s a messy job to extract crude bitumen from a mixture of sand, clay, silt and water in order to fuel our world’s addiction to oil.
The mining process requires massive amounts of water — on average two to five barrels of fresh water from the river for every barrel of oil produced — which is heated to create the steam that’s injected underground to separate the bitumen from the sands. A witch’s brew of mine tailings, containing water, sand, silt, clay, acids, ammonia, lead, mercury and other metals and unrecovered hydrocarbons is pumped up with the bitumen. On average, for every barrel of bitumen mined from the oil sands, two to four barrels of tailings waste is produced.
This toxic soup, the consistency of yogurt, is stored in vast reservoirs awaiting reclamation in some future time by the oil companies.
sink in foul water
Here’s how Jeff Gailus, author of the engaging small book, “Little Black Lies: Corporate and Political Spin in the Global War for Oil,” sums it up: “[T]he transformation of tailings ponds into healthy end-pit lakes was dependent on the development of future science and technology.” He also makes clear, it will take gobs of money to accomplish that. A reasonable question is whether the oil companies will have any incentive to spend billions cleaning up after they’ve extracted all the tar sands oil from Alberta that’s feasibly and economically possible.
1,600 dead ducks
pays $3 million fine
Alberta’s provincial government reported in 2013 the tar sands tailings ponds in the Alberta covered an area of about 30 square miles. The tailing ponds leak. Estimates range from 2.86 million to 3.28 million gallons per day seep back into the Athabasca River. The tailings seepage includes bitumen, naphthenic acids, cyanide, phenols and metals such as arsenic and cadmium within the water.
There are at least nine First Nation peoples with historic connections to the Athabasca watershed. The name ‘Athabasca’ is derived from a Woodland Cree word meaning “where there are plants one after another.” The First Nation peoples’ traditional understanding for the term “river” accounts for both the water and the life it supports as well as its cultural roles as a travel route and a place of significance in terms of fish and waterfowl harvesting and in the use of plants found along its banks.
Traditional knowledge of the river is derived from a deep and extended conversation with all the plants, the fish, the winged and four-legged brothers and sisters, all their relations, that live within its watershed.
First Nation peoples notice changes in the flow of the river, in its color and taste, in the fish, in the nesting and migration habits of water fowl and consider them signs or messages from their relations … in effect, voices of the earth that is always talking with us. People who derive sustenance from a river that flows through their neighborhood have a natural vested interest in that river’s health and well-being.
If the land
is not healthy
how can we be?
— Cree native speaker
First Nations peoples living downriver from Fort McMurray say the Athabasca River is no longer a “big river” with lots of water. It is now full of sandbars. Travel by boat to traditional lands has become more difficult. The river water is silty, muddy and has an odd bitter taste. When you boil water it leaves a scum on the pot.
Dip your cup
into a pot of tea
outer cup turns brown
‘It didn’t used
to be like that’
Fish species valued as traditional food are fewer in number. “There are more skinny fish than there used to be; the fish are unhealthy looking. … Whitefish don’t taste as good as they used to; they taste ‘mossy.’ Fish flesh is softer than it used to be … Horror stories about grossly deformed fish downstream of the tar sands developments abound”
— Report of the Athabasca Watershed Council, May 2011
‘The government tells us
there is no pollution
We say they are wrong
we have seen the changes’
First Nation peoples have always understood the health and well-being of their ecosystem is linked to their own survival and that of their culture. “Take only what you need” is a deep-held traditional proscription and is the foundation for taking the long view when considering present actions: “What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?”
Wendell Berry tells us in his essay “Watershed and Commonwealth” that the flow of water in a river “shows us that the golden rule speaks to a condition of absolute interdependency and obligation.” He says:
‘Do unto those
as you would have
do unto you’
Time is a river, too.
The basket of pears caught my eye as I was turning off lights in the kitchen in preparation for going to bed.
I stopped to admire them. I liked the way Linda had arranged them: two pears positioned vertically so that their bottoms were pointing up and the other pear sideways, revealing its stem and a gentle curve that was not unlike a woman’s waist and hip. Nestled inside a small wicker basket, they almost seemed to be snuggling with each other.
My appreciation evolved into the feeling that I should photograph this still life of three pears on our kitchen countertop.
Almost as soon as that notion came to me I began to talk myself out of it. I was heading to bed, after all, and rationalized that I could just as easily make a point of photographing those pears the next day … a little earlier in the evening, when I had more energy and could give the personal assignment more time and attention.
And then I remembered a story my longtime friend and mentor, the photographer Walter Rosenblum, once told me about the last photograph made by his longtime friend and mentor, Paul Strand.
Strand’s black-and-white photograph — made in 1975 when he was 84 — depicts a small wooden bird perched on an iron crossbar in front of a dusty building window on New York City’s 55th St. The bird is tipped forward, as if it’s ready to fly — except, being a wooden bird, it’s stuck in place, never to fly away.
Walter confessed to me that he didn’t understand why Strand was so eager to set up that picture. But he knew his friend needed his help, since Strand was undergoing radiation treatments and chemotherapy at that time for the bone cancer that would eventually kill him a year later. Walter helped his friend walk to the place where he wanted to take the picture. He secured Strand’s camera to a tripod, set the bird where he was told and then helped the older photographer place his camera in the right position. He remembered Strand shaking physically as he stood behind the camera and worried that his friend might not be able to complete his mission. Strand was notoriously slow in composing his images, but on that occasion he was decisive.
The next time Walter visited Strand and his wife, Hazel, at their New York City apartment, his friend was eager to show him the print, which he’d titled “Bird on the Edge of Space.”
“There’s a lesson in this picture,” Walter remembers Strand telling him.
Walter looked at the tiny bird on its perch, with the crossbars and a dirty window behind it, and wondered what was so special about it. He gently asked his friend about the image.
“Don’t you see the ‘death’s head’ looking at the bird from the other side of the window? A day later there was a fire in that building and that window fell apart in the intense heat. If we had waited another day, the image I wanted to capture would not have been possible. The death’s head is no longer there. The lesson, Walter, is that when you see something you want to photograph, don’t wait. If you wait, it might not be there for you when you come back.”
After Walter told me that story, I found the image in a book of Strand’s photographs that I own and took a closer look. Sure enough, the random patterns of grime on the window create an ominous-looking skull staring at the bird from the other side of the window. I intuitively knew why Strand made that picture: The tiny wooden bird that could not fly was a symbol for himself, fighting a cancer that would eventually kill him. What a perfect final image to make so knowingly!
And so, remembering that story, I realized that there would be no better time to photograph that basket of pears than that very night. Tired or not, I had to make the photograph. I got my camera, raised it to my eye, adjusted its settings and made several exposures of the still life with pears that Linda had created, probably without realizing it, for me to notice and admire.
The next morning, as I stood by that kitchen counter to prepare a bowl of cereal, I noticed that Linda had already removed one of the pears to add to her bowl of oatmeal.
It brought a smile to my face. With the removal of just one pear, the still life on our kitchen counter no longer captured my imagination. It was just a wicker basket with a couple of pears inside, nothing special ... or, at least, not so special as it was the night before.
Shortly after dawn on a cold December morning, while opening the curtains to our bedroom, I was startled to see the shadow of a hummingbird projected on a closet door. It was too late in the season for hummingbirds … yet, there it was.
And then it dawned on me: The shadow simply was a projection of the stained-glass hummingbird that hovers year-round in the lower right pane of our bedroom window. The slant of the rising sun was exactly right to create a shadow-box effect of a hovering hummingbird suffused in the golden light of an early winter dawn. I found it beautiful.
Each morning I looked forward to that surreal hummingbird hovering in our bedroom, until eventually my getting-up time no longer coincided with the optimum slant of sunlight needed to create the hummingbird’s shadow. For a few weeks I arose in darkness and the memory faded.
What put me in mind of it again were two recent events. The first was a March 31 radio interview that NPR reporter Renee Montagne had recorded with the 81-year-old South African playwright Athol Fugard. They were talking about his new play, “The Shadow of the Hummingbird,” which had a one-month run at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. this April. It’s a two-character play, with Fugard performing in the role of the grandfather, Oupa, who has a special relationship with his grandson Boba who adores him.
In the play, Fugard reads from his personal diaries and notebooks on stage as he portrays an old man with a passion for listing and categorizing birds who realizes late in life — thanks to his grandson — that he’s led an overly intellectual life. The grandfather urges his grandson to hold fast to his innocence.
Fugard shares with Montagne a journal entry that inspired his play: “It is Monday, the 15th, July, 2013. I was about to leave my chair, urgent matters needed my attention, and then a butterfly landed on a wall, and folded its wings in prayer. Also this morning, the shadow of a hummingbird on the floor at my feet, a perfect outline.”
Here’s what Fugard makes of that journal entry, translating it into art through his imagined character Oupa speaking to Boba: “Five sunbirds, flying around in that forest of love. I counted them — one, two, three, four, five — sparking in the sunshine as they hopped from flower to flower, dipping their beaks in, and me shouting hallelujah. Yes, Boba. I did shout it. But ever so softly, because I didn't want to break the spell of that moment.”
Montagne draws out of Fugard the playwright’s realization that it’s not only his imagined grandfather character — who sees himself as coming to the end — who is trying to get back that innocence of childhood. It’s also himself: “In the course of acquiring all this so-called knowledge, I've lost something. I've lost contact with something that I had. Because the moment when he saw those five sunbirds, that sort of rejoicing he had, the hallelujah that he wanted to shout aloud, all of that was there from my notebooks. And I wonder about myself now. I haven't shouted hallelujah for a long time, you know. Can I do it once more? I would like to believe that.”
The shadow Fugard saw was of a real hummingbird; mine was not. But for both of us, the shadow reality caught us by surprise and became an occasion for wonder.
The second event putting me in mind of the shadow hummingbird was a conversation via Skype I had two weeks ago with my friend Richard.
Richard told me that the day before — and just two days after he and his wife had placed hummingbird feeders outside their house in Chattanooga, Tennessee — sure enough, they saw a ruby-throated hummingbird hovering before a feeder, dipping its beak into the spout to siphon its life-giving honey water.
Just that quick casual mention got me thinking about the wonder of these tiny birds that weigh no more than 4 grams — less than a nickel, 3.5 inches from tip of beak to tip of tail — that are now heading north from their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. Averaging 20 miles per day, they must eat and drink constantly to keep their inner fire stoked during the return flight to their summer breeding grounds. The pace of this migration coincides with the northward unfolding of spring and the blossoming of the flowers and the arrival of insects that will feed them.
Day after day they make their way north, continuously feeding, continuously hours away from starvation, storing just enough energy to survive overnight and resume their journey the next morning.
I won’t expect to see them here in Maine until late May or early June. The first sighting, I’m pretty sure, will take me by surprise. I will startled by a sudden zipping, followed by a moment’s hovering, as a ruby-throated hummingbird sips nectar from one of the bleeding heart flowers blooming in our backyard.
I hope I’ll be mindful enough to whisper ‘Hallelujah.’
The god of this day is snow. Large snowflakes drift down in the night sky while we’re sleeping. They gather on the branches of trees and the boughs of pines, blanketing rooftops. All is quiet. We awake to a world made new by snow.
The snow-god calls me out of the warmth of this house and I am obedient to its wishes.
I go down to the river. I walk through an evergreen forest that has become silent in the snowfall. No cawing crows, no chickadees singing their name from within the woods. Do they wait for the falling snow to end? Do they perch in zazen, patient and quiet?
Boughs bend from the weight of snow. The trail before me is white with the absence of footsteps. I stop to listen to the silence of falling snow.
As soon as I stop to listen, just off the trail, a chickadee alights on a pine bough. It seems curious about me. Just as the thought arises -- “Well, hello, my little friend …” – the chickadee flies off. A small shower of snowflakes as it disappears into the forest.
White and black, a stand of birch trees in the snow.
Rabbit tracks crossing the trail. Beech leaves covered in snow.
The sound of rushing water as I descend a ravine on the trail that takes me down to the Cathance River. Muffled, though, by the snow.
I walk like an old man, not wanting to tumble down the snow-covered icy incline leading to the river. Almost to the bottom, in a half crouch, my left foot slips … and I tumble any way. Slide the rest of the way down like a kid on a Flexible Flyer sled. No one is present to watch and, perhaps, laugh at my ungainly descent. Of course, that also means no one is present to help if I injure myself -- a reminder to be careful.
Base of a tree like two pencils point to point: When did the beaver leave behind this unfinished task and will it resume gnawing this tree when warm weather returns again?
The river is high, no doubt because of all the rain we’ve had the week before. Snow-laden boughs occasionally unburden themselves, sending a shower of snow into the river’s rushing water. Even in winter the water cycle continues, from clouds to streams and rivers and lakes and eventually the ocean where it begins all over again.
Ice along the edges of rocks and the river’s bank diverts the river’s flow.
Tall pines: A cathedral roofed in snow. No hymns, no chants, no rosaries whispered in the back-most pew. I recall the line from a poem by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, whose order observed the Rule of Silence: “Love winter when the plant says nothing.”
Climbing up from the ravine, a hint of sun. Snow is no longer falling. The god of the day has moved on. Already the pines and trees are divesting themselves of snow, reverting to their old familiar appearances. How quickly a new world becomes old.