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.
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.
On Feb. 18 I saw my first V-shape flock of Canada geese honking overhead. I worried then they were heading north too early, but it now seems they already were in synch with the record-breaking temperatures that soon came our way. The National Weather Service office in Gray reports we had the warmest March on record, with the average temperature of 41.2 degrees being 7.7 degrees above normal. Portland had seven days with record warm temperatures, including six days in a row from the 19th through the 24th; it set a daily high record of 82 degrees on March 22 – the earliest date in the year for Portland to have reached 80 degrees or warmer.
If it’s that hot this soon how hot will it be come summer? And it wasn’t just me thinking those thoughts.
Edwin “Sonny” Colburn, an 80-year-old who’s been keeping track of such matters since 1947, told the Bangor Daily News the ice of Hancock County’s Beech Hill Pond went out on March 21. “It’s the earliest I’ve seen it go,” he told the BDN’s Tom Walsh. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. It used to be that fishing season didn’t start here until May, but you can pretty much fish year-round now.” Foresters worried about the lack of snowmelt and how dry the forests are already; on March 23 much of the state was placed on “red alert.” On the coast, clam diggers worried about an early arrival of “red tide,” the harmful algae bloom that arrives with warm water temperatures and causes clam flats to be closed for as long as it floats in and out with the tides.
I could do a Google search and find comparable statements about our warm spring from virtually any region of the United States. And what would I know? Facts, opinion, anecdotes … most of it limited to the human perspective.
Or I could go for a walk at the nearby Cathance River Nature Preserve in Topsham in search of other perspectives ... which is what I did on March 24, the first Saturday of spring.
It was a day in which the high temperature eventually hit 71 degrees. I knew even before I stepped foot inside the 235-acre preserve this would be an unscientific foray. Sadly, I don’t have a deep, grounded knowledge of nature in even my own backyard to be able to make scientific judgments of what’s going on. Unlike Henry David Thoreau — who precisely recorded in his Journals more than 150 years ago when the first buds appeared on dozens of trees, when the first flowers bloomed, when he heard the first calls of birds returning to his beloved Concord fields and forests — I can’t even name common plants, let alone know if they’re poking through the soil sooner or later than they normally would.
I walk the trails, then, aware of how much I don’t know. The only blessing of my ignorance is that it leaves me open to questions or insights I might learn from whatever catches my eye and speaks to my heart. In doing so, walk by walk, my understanding of a small corner of the world slowly grows.
Walking the Barnes’ Leap Trail, I come to a pond with silvery dead trees within its center and along its shore. It makes me think that beavers might have played a role in creating it. The ground I walk upon to get to the pond’s edge is spongy. I hear a call, not quite a frog’s “tronk, tronk” but also not a bird song I can easily identify. I stand still, hoping to hear it again: No sound other than the wind rustling through the pine boughs. If it is a frog I wonder if it has emerged from its frozen state too early ... whether the end of winter hibernation will coincide with the arrival of its food sources, whatever they might be. I do not know. I only have the question and the question underscores how little I know about the lives of my wild brothers and sisters.
ice out at the pond
a frog heard
but not seen
I come to the river; just a few weeks ago its banks had been lined with ice. Now it’s free-flowing, with green buds appearing on the trees lining its banks. Three mallards — two males and a female — paddle along the opposite shore. There doesn’t seem to be any competition going on between the males for the female mallard’s attention. I wonder “why not?” — spring, after all, being the time for procreation and perpetuating the species. There’s no fighting between the drakes, they escort the female without evident favoring by her of either one’s attentions. Could one of the males be of last-year’s offspring? Or, a lower-ranking drake waiting for his chance to mount the other drake’s mate? If that were so, wouldn’t the dominant drake be more aggressive? More questions without an answer. I follow the threesome upriver to see what might be revealed, but they apparently tire of me chasing after them and rise in flight, quacking, to a more private spot farther upstream.
three mallards paddling
— two with deep-blue wing bars —
tight buds tinge the trees
I proceed down the trail and hear the cheerful voice of an old friend, Maine’s state bird, the chickadee. Unlike the occasional “tsits” I’d hear during the winter, this bird’s song is cheery, a full-fledged “chicka-dee-dee-dee” sung repeatedly from a perch somewhere in the stand of trees to the right of the trail. I scan the bare branches and find my little chickadee at the peak of one of the tallest trees. Raising my camera to my eye and extending the telephoto lens to its full length, I discover it’s looking directly back at me, as curious, it seems, about me as I am about it. Chickadees, I know, survive the long cold winter by creating food cachés throughout their territory. Through a miracle of evolution, their brains actually expand in the fall, adding memory cells to help them recall the locations of all those cachés during the long cold winter months when a reliable food supply is critical to survival. Then, when warm weather returns and with it a plentiful mix of food sources, their brains shrink. Scientists speculate that this wipes the memory clean, which serves the adaptive purpose come fall of not confusing the chickadees about whether a caché is of this year or last year.
I wonder if that process of wiping the memory clean has already begun for chickadees in our Maine woods, triggered by the early arrival of summer weather. What if it’s too early, what then? My worries return, now in relation to my small blackcapped friend singing his heart out atop the budding tree. He does not appear burdened by any forethought of his own doom — which might be just as well.
“Here and now” is his motto. I struggle to make it my own, knowing full well that it does not absolve me from the responsibility of living in harmony with all my relations — and not just in the present but, as Native Americans so wisely understood, for the seven generations to come.
In other words: Do no harm.
But given how little I truly know about the world I live in, the way forward, it seems to me, will require humility, caution and compassion. Walking these woods along the Cathance River — as I've done frequently since last fall — I engage in a conversation with blackberry brambles and ferns, birches and beech trees, hemlocks and pines, chickadees and crows and all the other wild brothers and sisters who share this place with me with such dignity and grace.
ah, there! high in the tree!
staring back at me