Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wing Prints in Snow

Large Snowflakes drifted steadily from the cold, gray sky, kissing my cheeks before melting away.  I lay on the ground in the barren winter field,  cheeks red and cold, but bundled warm and snug in my black snowmobile suit with the yellow stripes down the sleeves.  From where did Snow come from, I wondered?  I tried to focus on a single Snowflake as far up as I could see, and watch its journey downward alongside millions of its sisters and brothers.  The view reminded me of those scenes on Star Trek, where the Enterprise is traveling at Warp speed through the galaxy, stars whizzing by.  I was 13 years old.

Childlike wonder and excitement fill my heart when Snow first covers the ground.  It is my favorite holiday, the First Snowfall, the most magical day of the year.  It is a time of peace, when I feel more safe somehow, comforted.  That Winter blanket keeps me snug and warm, no matter what is going on in my world.

It was a cold, crisp, blue sky Winter morning when I walked into the woods one February day searching for signs of Fox.  There was a light dusting of powdery Snow on top of a thin, crusty layer of ice, which sparkled like tiny diamonds in the sunlight. Snow crunched under my boots as I made my way into a small grove of young trees.

I began to follow tracks of Mouse where it hopped through the snow.  I knew the little creature had walked here sometime during the night as the tracks were fresh and clear.  Mouse would go from tree to tree, circling each before moving to the next.  But then, the tracks disappeared.  Vanished in mid-trail.  There, on either side of the last pair of tracks, were wing prints.

As I made my way through the woods, I saw evidence of this night time drama playing out over half a dozen times.  Mouse tracks running from tree to tree, circling the trunks, then disappearing, the last tracks framed by wing prints.  Because of the distance between the wing tips and the fact there were only the tips of the wings showing in the snow, this must have been the work of Screech Owls.  I imagined them quietly gliding through the woods, snatching up unsuspecting Mice from the snow.  I am sure the Owls were well-fed that night.

Soon I found the tracks of Fox and followed them as they wound their way through a field, in and out of dried Goldenrod stems and Asters.  There I could see a tunnel where Meadow Vole had pushed up the snow as it made its way along a little trail.  I noticed where Fox had stopped and poked its nose into Vole's tunnel, perhaps checking to see if anyone was home.  There were tracks of Rabbit, too, and signs of their feeding on wild Raspberry stalks.  Rabbits are unusual in that they have two pairs of front teeth, one behind the other.  When biting off a stem or a twig, they leave behind a cut as clean as if made with the blade of a sharp knife.  Deer, on the other hand, have no upper front teeth and leave a jagged stem behind.

I slowly and quietly followed Fox's trail up a small rise, and as I crested the hill, I saw a glimpse of orange there in the dried weeds.  It was Fox, curled up in the warm sun, taking a morning nap.  I stood and marveled at its beauty, and then quietly retreated, leaving Fox to its dreams.

Yes, Winter is indeed the most magical time of year.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Unemployment: Looking into the Eyes of a Cobra

1982...

Grandpa and I are talking.  My Grandparents are encouraging me to go into computers, as it was clear computers were going to take over the world and I could make good money and have a steady job.  "I don't like computers," I said.  "I want to study nature."  Grandpa just shook his gray, bristle-topped head and said, "You'll always just go along in life smelling the roses, won't you?".  "I hope so," I replied.

2012....

Today I awoke with that same sinking feeling in my stomach that has been my constant sleeping companion for the two years, four months, and twenty-eight days since I lost my job.  I have had a few glimpses of sunlight in the form of a consulting job here, a small grant there, even the promise of a well-paid position in a consulting firm, but that abruptly ended when they ran out of work for me.  I have braved the waves and swelling seas of congressional approvals and rejections of unemployment benefit extensions. And now, even that life boat has gone, and I am on my own. I no longer have any reliable income.

I always view challenges in life as learning opportunities, although I am human and it is hard sometimes to endure the pain and disappointments.  But in the end I do seek out the greater meaning of an experience and add that lesson to my book of life in hopes of becoming a wiser woman.

But this one, this unemployment chapter, I am finding difficult.  Very difficult.

I have noticed over the past couple years that I no longer feel part of a team or a group with a common purpose. My life lacks structure and the camaraderie I once enjoyed with my co-workers and friends at my former job.  No longer can I have coffee with a fellow biologist and talk about the awesome adventure we had that day searching for rattlesnakes in the fens.  Or contemplate the latest turn of events in office politics.  I miss that.

It is not for lack of trying that I remain unemployed.  I apply for every job I am even remotely qualified for.  I work writing grant proposals every day, develop a wild foods business that sometimes makes me enough money to buy food, seek out gigs for my music.  I am "on" 24-7.  Yet being so scattered takes its toll.

No one ever teaches you how to navigate this complex web of long-term unemployment.  You must be a social worker and know how to find help from the myriad of government offices, few of which give you the opportunity to speak to a living, breathing, human being. You spend days negotiating and renegotiating, finally slumping in resignation and saying "I can't pay you anymore until I get some work".  You watch the credit rating you worked so hard to build up sink in a matter of days or weeks.  You have to choose. Gas or food. Meat or vegetables.  Fruit or maybe next time.

How do you deal with having your income cut by 2/3, yet your debt load remains the same and there is NOTHING you can do about it.  Everyday you know that interest charges and late fees are being added to those debts, they don't care that you can't help your situation right now.  Poverty is big business, you know.  I feel like I'm being swallowed in quicksand.

How does taking a minimum wage job help when it won't even pay the mortgage and utilities, forget the car payment or student loan.  No need to worry about the health insurance payment, there isn't any.  Please don't let me get sick.

The worst part is the fear of losing Home.  It went into foreclosure over a year ago, then out of foreclosure because I immediately got that consulting job, then the very kind woman at the mortgage company kept giving me more time and more time as I would promise that something had to turn up soon for me.  Finally a reprieve came from President Obama's Help for Hardest Hit Program in the form of one year of reduced payments.  BUT, if I miss one payment, deal's off.  My house goes back into foreclosure.  I have one more month before that may become a reality.

I look around at the golden walls of my living room, paint purchased lovingly by my dear Father.  At dusk, the western sunlight filters in through the wooden slatted blinds and creates the warmest glow I have ever seen.  It is the glow of my Father's love.

I remember my twenty-something friends coming to help tear out the carpet in this very first house of mine, to expose the beautiful hardwood floors that hadn't seen daylight since the house was built in the 1950's.  I walk around the back yard and see my bee hives, apple trees, raspberry bushes, and grape arbor, and watch my Beagle sniffing the ghost trails of squirrels.  This is not just a house, this is my Home.  I whisper to my Beagle and my Bees, "Don't worry, I won't leave you behind".  I can't say the same to those golden walls that hold my Father's love or to the Apple trees that spread the wonderful scent in the spring.  I begin to weep.
Tiny Barton III.

To live with the constant pressure of not enough money to meet basic expenses is like looking into the eyes of a Cobra.  You become frozen, transfixed by the utter hopelessness of it all.  Swaying to-and-fro, somewhere between life and death.  You become immobilized with fear and despair.  But it is precisely at that time that the fire inside of my Spirit rises and I stare right back with a fierce determination so intense that Cobra sinks back to the ground and slithers away into the tall grass.

I know what is important in this world.  It is not how much money I make.  It is love, friendship, family, Bees and Beagles, my Beloved, sharing good times, making music, being honorable, doing good work in the world, reaching out to others less fortunate, carrying on traditions, being a friend, doing my part to make the world a better place.  This is what I have learned these two years, four months, and twenty-eight days since I lost my job.

Grandpa, I hope wherever your Spirit dwells, you can see that, yes, I am still smelling the roses.  And tomorrow I will go see about computer school.

Monday, February 27, 2012

An Idea Whose Time Has Come - The Second Bill of Rights

The following is an excerpt from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's January 11, 1944 message to the Congress of the United States on the State of the Union.  President Roosevelt believed the Constitution and the existing Bill of Rights did not provide adequate assurances of equality in the pursuit of happiness.  We all deserve to be happy, right?  Right? 

“It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.”  People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America's own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens.

For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world."

President Roosevelt, I second that motion.

Tales from Edwardsburg - The Mullen Road Monsters

Every small town has its legends.  Ours was no different.  Here, then, is the tale of the Mullen Road Monsters.

Way out in the country, down a long dirt road, is a swamp.  This swamp is not unlike any other swamp, with one exception.  It is the home to the Mullen Road Monsters, seven feet tall, hairy beasts that have remained undetected for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Undetected, except by the locals who have seen the evidence, caught a glimpse, felt the fear.

If you have read my other stories, you know that I HAD to investigate these creatures, to see for myself if they did indeed exist.  Call me the Fox Mulder of the 70's.  I had no fear. Well, except for looking in the mirror in the bathroom in the dark and repeating "I don't believe in Miss Marysworth, I don't believe in Miss Marysworth, I don't believe in Miss Marysworth". That, my friends, is another story for another time.

I decided to travel out into the country to find Mullen Road and verify the reports I had collected from my peers, other small town residents, and the Ouija board.  It seems there was a house trailer located at the edge of the swamp that had been visited by the Mullen Road Monsters.  Their 1960's Volkswagen Beetle had been picked up, taken to the far end of their circle drive, and turned upside down.  As if that wasn't bad enough, the Monsters had also pummeled the side of the trailer with their fists.

A second report stated that every home located in the area had large street lights strategically placed in their yards, apparently to scare off the Monsters in the dark.

The third piece of information, which led me to believe in conspiracy theories, was that every resident around the swamp had taken photographs of these secretive beasts, but that the United States Air Force had come in and confiscated them all.  This was most intriguing to me.

As the Mullen Road Monsters were known only to come out at night, I had no choice but to travel into the darkness one small town Saturday night.  With one friend to witness what I hoped would be verification of these distant cousins of Bigfoot, we jumped into my Chevy Camero and headed north into the backwoods and swamps of Southwest Michigan.

I turned down Mullen Road, gravel crunching under the tires.  Off in the distance I could see street lights glowing from the edges of the swamp.  It wasn't long before there appeared on the right a house trailer with a circle drive.  And big dents all over the side of it, the size of large fists.  And at the end of the drive, a Volkswagen Beetle.  I took a big gulp.

Slowly my tan Camero crept down the long hill, approaching the swamp.  The old dirt road had been put down right smack through the center of it many years before.  Maybe that is why the Mullen Road Monsters were a bit unhappy.  Anyway, I let the car roll in neutral to a natural stopping point, pushed in the knobs that extinguished the headlights, and turned off the engine.  We waited.

Now unless you have had the experience of sitting in the middle of a swamp in the middle of a moonlit night in the middle of nowhere with nothing but your paranoid thoughts to keep you company, you may not be able to appreciate the level of fear that seeped into our hearts.  I never really stopped to think about what we would do when that seven foot tall hairy beast would appear, perhaps to tip my Camero over with us in it.  But I was determined to once and for all put some truth to the stories of the Mullen Road Monsters.

Twenty-eight long minutes passed with nothing but the sound of frogs drifting from the swamp.  Then they stopped.  Just like that.  Silence.  We went on high alert.

Somewhere in the swamp I heard a twig snap, a rustle in the bushes, a splash.  Then silence.

Were they watching us?  Were they about to pick the Camero up by the rear bumper and run it into the deep muck, where we would never be heard from again?  I began to tremble, I began to shake, I could take it no more.  I started the Camero up, shoved it into first, and threw dirt as we barreled down that old country road faster than a flea on a dog's belly.

The next morning I inspected my car.  There, on the back fender, was a muddy hand print and a strand of long, brown hair.

I never went down that road again.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

What's In a Name?

Moose.
While writing the story of the Black Widow Spider and the Regal, I made one simple edit in a sentence and forever changed the way I understood names.  I removed the word “the” before “Spider”.  At once, Spider leaped off the page as a Being.  A Being seen, acknowledged.  A connection was made between Spider and the reader that wasn’t there before.  A personal one.

“The spider paused and waited”.

“Spider paused and waited”.

See what I mean?

If you hear or read Traditional stories by the First Peoples of Turtle Island, all living beings are referred to in this way.  Muskrat.  Eagle.  Salmon.  Water. And of course they would be.  The intimate connection between all things was intact, with language reflecting understanding of the human place side by side with all other creation.  They have known this forever.

My recent ancestry is European; my ancestral DNA comes mainly from the Li Tribe of Northeast India and surrounding regions.  I can say greetings in Canadian (morning, heh?), Arabic (Syrian dialect), Spanish, Ojibwe, French, and Swana (Botswana).  I can say I love you, please, and thank you in Tagalog (Philippines). The only language I am fluent in is English so from there I will ponder this historical curiosity.

Did the English language ever speak of other beings the way the Native peoples do in their stories?  Surely every culture lived in close connection with Mother Earth at one time or another.  Why would “the” have been added?

First, I would think it harder to kill something you are on a first name basis with, don’t you?  How many of you could shoot Bambi?

Consider names and the depersonalization of war.  Do you know what the U.S. military designated as the code name for Osama Bin LadenGeronimo. Really?  Wonder how that made our Native brothers and sisters feel.  I wonder what would have happened had they named him Malcolm X?  There is a lot of meaning in a name.

Secondly, Christian teaching places “man” as ruler of all things.  That is another possible explanation for adding “the” before, say, the word "Deer".  After all, only Pagans would have felt a kinship with Deer in those early European days and the Crusaders I am sure would have none of that!  Maybe they tacked a rider on Crusader House Appropriations Bill #105 that required the word “the” be spoken before any noun referring to any “thing” the Pagans worshipped or revered.

But what about times before the Pagans and the Crusaders?  How did the Peoples of the Goddess religions speak about other Beings?  I have no idea. But I would imagine that they didn’t use “the”.

Heck, even Canadians know about “the”.  Have you ever heard a news story broadcast from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC)?  “There was a three car pile-up on the Al-Can highway today when a large Moose stepped in front of the speeding cars.  Six people were taken to Hospital.”  Did you catch that?  Of course they would take “the” away.  They value healthcare for all.  They respect Hospital.

Words have power.  I can call you Friend and you may feel all warm and fuzzy.  And I can also call you “(*%^(*#) and you may feel devastated and hurt.  As words have power so do names.  Think the N word.  Think all the other racially derogatory words used to name other non-white racial groups.  Think dyke or queer or fag.  We don’t seem to have a problem at all removing “the” from those names.   Why, then, is it so hard for us to honor others in a positive way?

I think it is a subconscious habit that keeps us disconnected from our Relations in the natural world, from each other, and ultimately from ourselves.  Because we are, after all, part of the same web of life.  Take a day this week and try removing “the” when you talk about other beings in your world.  Let me know if it makes you feel any different.

And to my Conservative Republican friends, try saying “Hospital” instead of “the hospital”.  Maybe you will see public healthcare in a new light.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Dear Mr. President

Postcard from President Barack Obama.
I was standing on my back porch last summer when I heard my beagle Tiny engage in his daily greeting of the postal carrier, which involves racing back and forth between the front and side gates.  As soon as he spots the mail truck two blocks down the street, he is overcome with anticipation for the biscuit which surely will cross his dog lips.  No wonder the diets I put him on never seem to work.  Anyway, the postal carrier comes to the back gate and tells me he needs my signature on a Priority Mail delivery.  Great, I thought, another letter from my mortgage company.  At that time I had been unemployed for nearly two years, and was trying to save my home.  The young postal carrier handed me the envelope and I gasped.  There, typed on a plain 2.5 x 1 inch label, was the address of The White House.

What the hell was I doing getting a letter from The WhiteHouse?  It couldn’t be a bulk mailing, it cost $5.45 to send it.  I took the envelope into the kitchen and carefully pulled the little tab that opens the top of the envelope.  Inside, I found a smaller envelope containing a handwritten postcard.  I began to read.

Barb,
Thanks for your moving letter.  Sometimes it takes awhile, but America marches toward equality and fairness.”

It was signed Barack Obama.

Barack Obama.  President of the United States of America.

I was stunned.  Stunned that not only had I just received a hand-written letter from the President, I could not recall having written to the President.  I did a quick scan of my sometimes faulty memory and had a fleeting vision of sitting at the computer typing “Dear Mr. President”.  But investigating exactly what I wrote had to wait.  I needed to verify this postcard was real.  I had to be prepared to defend the authenticity of my postcard to my right wing conservative friends (I only have one of those) and family (I have lots of those) and my doubting Thomas liberal friends (all the rest) who will claim it was; a) written by his staff, b) written by his secretary, or c) typed on a computer using a font created from his actual handwriting style (do they really do that?).  Where is your faith America?!

My first step in documenting the authenticity of this postcard was to verify it truly was handwritten.  I opened the top drawer of my vintage oak desk and took out a small hand-lens commonly used for close-up examination of plants.  I went over each written letter, carefully looking for sign of ink bleed, a slight lifting of the pen, anything that would prove these words were put on paper by pen and ink.

Next, I researched examples of President Obama’s handwriting, and found that indeed this postcard matched all the examples I discovered, letter for letter.

Finally, I began searching the internet for something that talked about whether President Obama responds to letters.  I found that of the thousands of letters sent to him, he does respond to a select few.  There is a large staff that reads every letter addressed to the President or The White House.  If they come across one that stands out and is reflective of a larger opinion or issue, they pass it on to his personal secretary.  He or she then reads through these and selects a chosen few to hand to the President. He reads 10 letters a day.

My letter made the cut.  The postcard was real.

Ok, so now I had to remember what I wrote.  I searched my Gmail account for emails with the keywords Obama, White House, Washington.  After scrolling down through solicitations and petition signature requests, I found it, an email dated February 24, 2011.  I had written  to President Obama at comments@whitehouse.gov responding to an National Pubic Radio story I had heard that day about the President’s policy to not enforce the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  I briefly shared with him my story of growing up in the 1970’s in a small Michigan town, what life was like being someone of a different sexual orientation than most.  I shared some of the things that have happened to me since, and I told him I never thought I would hear a President stand up for me in my lifetime.  It was a short email, one large paragraph followed by two small ones.  I finished by thanking him for having the courage to do this.

The last time I wrote to a President was in the 1960’s, when I sent President Lyndon B. and Lady Bird Johnson a Christmas card.  They sent me one back.

It is hard to express the depth of feelings that come over me when I read this postcard.  To have experienced the things I did in my younger life because of who I am (and sometimes still do) and then to live long enough to see the President of the United States, my President, stand up for ME is beyond words.  Yes there is much more work to be done to ensure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for ALL, but it is a far cry from the life I once knew.

Thank you Mr. President.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Truth - The Meaning of Life

Grandmother Twylah Nitsch.
I once asked Grandmother Twylah Nitsch, a beloved Seneca elder, teacher, and founder of the Wolf Clan Teaching Lodge, what was the purpose of life?  “To know Truth”, she replied. 

What is Truth?  Wikipedia defines it as “state of being in accord with fact or reality.  It can also mean having fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal. In a common usage, it also means constancy or sincerity in action or character.” 

Honesty, then, is delivering Truth.

What does it mean to know Truth?  As I explored my relationship with Truth through Grandmother’s teachings, I began to understand.  It is one of the most important and most neglected stones in our foundation. 

Knowing begins by honoring Truth and understanding its importance in our relationships with ourselves and each other.  We all have experienced dishonesty and how it moves things out of balance.  Knowing our own Truth is often a very difficult journey.  Many have been conditioned by upbringing or religion to be caretakers, putting others’ needs ahead of their own to their own detriment.  Eventually, we no longer know what WE want, or who WE are.  We go through life lying to avoid conflicts or to get what we want because we think there is no other way.  We have lost loyalty to ourselves.  When this happens, the world does not get to experience the wonderful gifts we have to share and we also contribute to the climate of mistrust that is engulfing our world.


Caretaking, caregiving.  There is a big difference.

Imagine a river flowing along, winding through woods and fields, widening and narrowing along its course.  Imagine placing a dam on that river.  Water will start to backup and flood out the land behind the dam.  A great pressure will build.  Now imagine that the water is your personal Truth. What becomes of your happiness and joy?

Living our lives from a place of Truth creates peace and balance.  It reduces stress and builds harmony in our lives.  It helps our interactions to be clean and free of deception, manipulation, and control.  It makes things real.  And it is well worth the journey.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tales from the Cave - Trapped by Pride

There is a cave in Pennsylvania called Nails 2.  How it got its name I do not know.  To find Nails 2, one wanders through the woods looking for a small, triangular-shaped hole in the ground a little bigger than a football. To enter Nails 2, it requires descending a 25 foot vertical shaft on a six inch wide cable ladder.  For those unfamiliar with cable ladders, they are two pieces of thin steel cable with aluminum steps the size of a #2 pencil.

Barb searching for rare invertebrates in cave pool, circa 1994.
Our mission was to survey this remote cave for rare invertebrates that live in the cold subterranean waters.  Brandon was my intern, a short but fit young guy who came from a family of horse jockeys.  We suited up, put on our caving helmets and gear bags, and prepared to enter the cave that most people over 25 refuse to enter.  I was 37.  We dropped the cable ladder down the small, dark hole.  Brandon wriggled into the tight space and made his way down the ladder, reaching the first small room which was the size of a large gym locker.  He yelled up for me to enter.

At that time, I was five feet eight and a half inches tall and weighed a good 160 pounds.  I was fit, but I did NOT come from a family of horse jockeys.  I am sure you know where this is going.

I sat down in the dry leaves at the edge of that small, triangular-shaped hole in the ground.  Feet first I stepped onto the ladder and down I went.  I had descended about 15 feet when I came to a pinch in the passage.  No matter how hard I tried, I could not get below that pinch.  Well, I was not about to be shown up by a punk 19 year old intern, so I climbed up out of the cave, stripped off my caving suit and sweatshirt, and re-entered Nails 2, my diameter reduced by several inches.  Again I reached the pinch, and again I could not get passed it.  Common sense be damned, I exhaled as hard as I could and finally my mud covered body slipped through.  Victory!

Brandon and I stood compressed into that small first room, contemplating the next drop which would take us to the main passage of the cave.  To get there, we had to squeeze into another 25 foot vertical drop that is best described as two stone walls facing each other, a foot apart.  I looked at that large crack, looked at my thigh, and thought “my thigh is bigger than that crack”.  There was no way I would fit down that drop, even if I removed my remaining t-shirt and shorts.  Brandon, of course, would have no trouble wriggling down into the depths of the unknown.  “You go ahead” I said. “I am going back up and I’ll wait for you up top”.  For safety, Brandon waited for me to climb out before continuing his descent.  I put my foot onto the cable ladder, pulled myself up, and began the arduous task of climbing 25 feet to the surface through a hole not much bigger than my body.

I came to the infamous pinch.  I couldn’t get through.  I tried again. And again. And again.  I still could not get through.  Exhausted, I climbed back down the ladder, and rested against the cold stone wall.  We decided that Brandon would go on down to the stream at the bottom of the cave and search for invertebrates, and I would wait for him in the stone gym locker.  He would then climb out of the cave, drop a rope, and pull me out. I watched him descend into the darkness. Then there was silence. I was alone.

For 30 minutes I stood in that cold, cramped space, occasionally looking up at the tiny rectangular patch of blue that reminded me of where I was.  I couldn’t get out.  Panic started to grip me, squeezing my chest.  I swear the walls started to close in.  I knew if I let this go on I would risk my life and Brandon’s…people who panic underground often never get out alive.  So I began to search for bugs.  I searched every inch of that stone tomb for anything I could find, trying to keep thoughts of being trapped out of my head.  Finally, I heard sounds from below and Brandon appeared.  I was never so glad to see another human being in all my life.

He climbed up the cable ladder, his small body passing through the pinch with ease.  Soon a climbing rope dropped down the hole and I tied it around my chest.  “Pull!” I shouted up to Brandon.  I started to climb the cable ladder, Brandon pulling hard on the rope.  Halfway up, I reached the pinch again.  “Pull hard!” I yelled.  I felt the rope go taught, digging into my armpits.  I pushed with all my might, but I could not get through.  “Hold on!” I shouted.  I rested for a few minutes, and we began again, pulling and pushing, trying to get through the pinch.

By this time I was so exhausted my entire body was shaking.  I was sweaty, muddy, and my boots could not get a grip against the slick walls of this ungodly shaft into the netherworld.  I was defeated.  “Brandon!” I yelled up to the little blue triangle. “This is my last try! I can’t go on”.  Oh god.  He is going to have to go get the Cave Rescue Group. I will be in the papers, I will become infamous, a legend in the stories of the caving grottos.  The 37 year old woman who took off all her clothes in order to cram her too large body into a hole that a woodchuck would avoid simply because she couldn’t be shown up by her 19 year old assistant.  Oh god.

“You can do it!” Brandon yelled encouragingly down the little blue triangle.  “1, 2, 3, PULL!!!!!” I hollered.  And I pushed with all my might.  There was no way in hell I was going to be the subject of after-caving Pennsylvania diner talks.  After all, I had my pride to consider. Oh wait; wasn’t that what got me here in the first place?  I pushed with my legs, I pulled with my arms, and Brandon pulled on the rope, and FINALLY I made it past the pinch.  A rush of relief engulfed me.  I rested for a while before climbing the rest of the way out, and collapsed onto the ground, tired but free.

I hope that when mud covered cavers gather for their hot buffet at the local diner after a long day of caving, they remember the tale of the 37 year old woman who climbed into Nails 2 and made it out alive. A little more humble, but alive.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Tales from the Gap - The Black Widow and the Regal

Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation is a National Guard training center nestled in central Pennsylvania.  It blankets Blue Mountain, which marks the boundary between the Great Appalachian Valley and the main Ridge-and-valley Appalachians, and drapes out into the valleys east of the ridge. It has been used as training grounds for U.S. troops since 1933.  The land here is battered in some place and pristine in others, with spring-fed streams, dense mountainside woods, timber rattlesnakes, and a rare and beautiful butterfly called the Regal Fritillary.   

Barb marking a Regal Fritillary - nice tat.
I was once a zoologist with The Nature Conservancy and was blessed to have spent several years learning about this magnificent creature.  Five summers in temperatures sometimes over 100 degrees were devoted to sprinting through fields, tripping over hidden tank ruts, and dodging troops playing war games. All done with the goal of catching as many butterflies as possible and carefully writing a number on their wings so we could estimate how many there were and how far they flew.

I had been chasing and marking Regals all morning and as I made my way down a dusty tank trail, I noticed something flapping about in a clump of tall grass.  Upon closer inspection, the cause of the struggle became obvious – it was a Regal Fritillary caught in a spider web unfamiliar to me.  The fine strands seemed to be placed haphazardly between the blades of grass, creating a complex maze of silk.  As he continued to struggle to free the one wing that was stuck to the web, out from the deep, dark depths of the grass emerged a large female Black Widow Spider.  Spider paused and waited.  When Regal tired and could no longer flap his wings, Spider moved in and attached the tip of a second wing to her web, then calmly retreated back into the grass. 

For the next half hour, Regal gallantly attempted to free himself.   But after about 15 minutes, his movements would cease and out Spider would come, attaching another wing to her delicate web.  When at last all four wings were secured and he could no longer move, the Spider delivered a paralyzing bite to the underside of his body.  She then, quite literally, rolled him up into a cigar-shaped bundle, starting at the tip of his wing.  Once he was neatly packaged, she carried Regal down into the darkness of the grass.  I returned to her web daily for the next week but never saw Spider or Regal again.  The web? It vanished, too. 

It was an odd feeling, watching this drama of nature unfold.  Here was a butterfly so rare it was being considered for listing as an endangered species.  Here was a butterfly that I had held in my hand only weeks earlier.  Yet the Black Widow spider didn’t care - she was hungry.  Through this small window, Nature doesn’t recognize rarity – a meal is a meal, plain and simple. But in the grand scheme of things, rarity causes shifts in our world, some we can see and some we can’t.  Shifts in the food chain.  Shifts in processes.  Shifts in quality of life. What will our world be like without the Polar Bears and Seals when the ice caps are gone? What did we lose when the Passenger Pigeons no longer graced the skies?  I watch the clouds of Red-winged Blackbirds in the fall and can only imagine.

There is an Indigenous teaching that says what we do the Earth we do to ourselves. Something to think about.      

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tales from Edwardsburg - The Pig Farmer and the Crypt

A stock photo of an old crypt.

Back behind a house I once lived in was an old field. And in that old field were my fort, a field, a creek, and a well-worn trail winding through the woods into the cemetery.  This old cemetery sat on high ground, with steep slopes on its edges worn by erosion and curious kids.  The cemetery introduced itself to travelers on this particular trail by presenting a mysterious crypt, guarded by rusty, heavy metal doors that creaked when opened.   I remember the first time I discovered that crypt.  With only the light of the sun shining through the cracked doorway, I peered inside.  There were steel beams arranged in racks, a dirt floor, and ceiling and walls dotted with inscriptions from previous explorers.  I gathered my courage and entered, mesmerized by what I was sure was the archaeological discovery of the century.  The smell of cool damp soil and aging metal filled my nostrils.  What was this place?  The signatures on the walls and ceiling dated back over 50 years.  I was in heaven.

It was during this time my middle sister was dating the son of a pig farmer, let’s call him Bobby B.  Bobby B. had red hair, freckles, was a bit stocky, and wore bib overalls as standard garb.  He was also what one might call full of machismo. 

One day I decided to assist Bobby B. in getting in touch with his feminine side.  I told him of this dark, scary crypt that I had discovered but was too afraid to enter.  Would he go and protect me?  “Of course”, he said in a manly sort of way.  The date was set for that Friday night. In the dark, of course.

Friday afternoon I hopped on my bike and rode to the town’s only grocery store to spend my Tastee Freeze earnings on several packages of raw liver and fishing line.  I then road back across town to my street, and peddled my bike into the cemetery using the proper entrance.  I ditched my bike next to the old tombstone with the angel on top, and slid down the hill to the entrance of the crypt.  Carefully I removed the liver from its packaging and threaded several strands of fishing line through the juiciest pieces.  Slowly and deliberately I began to make my way around the crypt, strategically placing chunks of cold organ on ledges where one would be mostly likely to place an unsuspecting hand.  I hung liver d├ęcor in areas sure to draw attention.  It was a masterpiece.

Later that night, me, Bobby B., my sister, and a few other friends gathered at our home on Hamilton Street, readying ourselves for the trip.  Flashlights? Check.  Candy bars? Check. Cans of pop? Check.  “Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked the group, fabulously feigning fright.  Bobby B. assured us there was nothing to fear as long as he was with us.

We started down the trail, five lanky teens and Bobby B., with beams of light bouncing off tall grasses and trees.  “Are you guys sure you want to do this?” I again asked, this time exuding so much fear I almost had myself convinced.  “Aw come on you chickens!” said the pig farmer’s son.  “Only if you go first Bobby B.” I said.   So he did.

Old green flower pots with faded plastic flowers began to appear, signaling that we were getting close to the crypt.  Bobby B. began to slow.  “What’s the matter Bobby B.?” I asked?  “Nothing!” he sort of bravely shouted.  “It’s in there, behind that old rusty door” I said.  “What was this place for?” someone asked.  “I was told this is where they stored dead bodies in the winter, when the ground was too frozen to dig.  That is why there are racks in there, they piled up the caskets all the way to the ceiling” I informed them.  Bobby B.’s expression began to change. Was that worry?  Fear?

“Go on Bobby B., you go in first”.

Bobby B. slowly opened the door, its rusty hinges adding to the ambience of the evening.  He entered the musty room and began to make his way around the crypt, the others followed.  Except me.  Soon I heard a scream, no a squeal, no maybe it was best described as a squeam.  Then, a great commotion ensued and Bobby B. burst through the doorway of the old crypt screaming better than a girl.  I never knew someone could run so fast in bib overalls.  I laughed in hysterics as Bobby B. disappeared down the trail, still emitting sounds of great terror.  Close behind were the rest of kids.  Me?  I sat down and laughed so hard I cried.

Bobby B. never dated my sister again. I hope she forgives me.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Love Thy Neighbor

I am blessed to have many friends who are of the First People of this land.  Potawatomi, Ojibwe, Odawa, James Bay Cree, Mississippi Choctaw, and others with mixed ancestry. I say blessed because these women and men have taught me incredible lessons of acceptance, courage, persistence, humor, joy, friendship, and love.  They have shared their language, which is truly in danger of being lost. They have shared their stories, traditions, songs, sorrows and struggles.  You might wonder, why am I singling out my Native sisters and brothers from all other friends in my world?  It is quite simple and quite complicated all at the same time.

When the Europeans came to this land they committed genocide.  Let's call it what it was.  Columbus made a discovery all right, a personal discovery - he landed in a new place.  A new place that was already occupied by hundreds of Tribes representing millions of people, each of which had their own culture, language, and tradition.  Did you know the US and the Russians and other countries are still doing that today?  Like in the Arctic.  Countries are rushing to "claim" this territory as their own.  Russia even sent two mini-submersables up there and went under the ice to plant their flag in the ocean floor. "MINE!" they shouted in Russian!  Did I mention there are tens of thousands of Native people living there already?   The Inuit and Sami.  Sound familiar?

By the 1870's the European conquerors had rounded up most of these "savages" (my friends' ancestors) and by then either infected them with small pox, massacred them, marched them to death on trails to prison camps called reservations, or removed them from their deeply loved homelands and placed them on reservations.  The US government came up with a strategy of how to deal with the Indian problem.   "Kill the Indian and save the man".  Schools were set up, often by Christian missionaries, to assimilate these people into European culture.  Tens of thousands of youngsters were put into these "schools".  Children were kidnapped from their families and forced to go.  Some Indian families were so poor they could not feed or care for their children and so made what I imagine to be a heartbreaking decision to send their children away to these schools so they could survive.

The goal of the boarding schools?  Destroy the Indian.  Destroy the language, spiritual beliefs, the culture of an entire race of people.  Cut their hair. Dowse them with kerosene to kill the lice that of course they must carry.  Physically and sexually abuse them. Use them as slave labor. Many children died. Many never saw their families again.  Many learned to be ashamed of who they were, of their families' beliefs and culture, of their language.  I can only imagine this horror.  This cultural annihilation sanctioned by the US Government, We the People, went on through the 1970's.  I was in high school in the 1970's.  I had no idea.

Why did I have no idea about this?  Why did I not know of this terrible chapter in human history until I was into my late 20's?  Because the cultural genocide still continues.  It continues in the way that our history books don't tell the true stories of the conquest of this country.  It continues in the way that the media never shares stories about the 565 federally recognized Tribal Nations, unless it involves some sensational story or an uprising.  It continues in the way that we non-Indian people continue to remain ignorant about our neighbors' lives and culture, instead of making the effort to learn about their world, their struggles, their joys, the ways that mainstream culture continues to oppress them, and how we can make change within OUR communities that will help to make all our lives better.

It is true, we did not directly commit the atrocities of the past.  But our ancestors did.  And we are all responsible for the world we live in.  The web of life thing. The pebble in the pond with the ripples thing. I, for one, am truly sorry for what happened to the Native people of this land, for what happened to Native peoples all over the world (and is still happening, just look at the Amazon).  I don't want this to ever happen again.  And I believe part of the reason that discrimination and oppression continue today is because we have not yet erased the ignorance that presently defines the cultural understanding of our Native sisters and brothers.   Ignorance breeds fear and mistrust, it perpetuates stereotypes.  But the good news is ignorance is curable.

So I single out my Native friends to honor them for who they are and where they came from.  I respect them as members of Nations different than my own.  I respect them for the courage and resiliency that defines them.  And I thank them for taking my hand when I reach out to them.  Perhaps we can now walk together into a future defined not by hatred and fear, but friendship and trust.

Love thy neighbor.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Herman

I opened my refrigerator this morning and Herman, my Grandmother's sourdough starter, had a temper tantrum and erupted over the sides of his dough house (glass jar).  Luckily he maintained some self-control and did not explode all over the inside of the fridge, as he has done before.  He gets attached to some of his fridge neighbors and doesn't deal well when they get, well, eaten up.  Poor Herman is the only fridge resident that never moves on, and I think it gets to him every once in awhile.

Herman was gifted to my Grandmother back in 1982 from a friend of hers in Florida.  Grandma fed Herman weekly up until her death in 2005.  Then I became Herman's human.  It is a huge responsibility you know.  What if I forget to feed Herman and he, um, expires? Oh the guilt and shame I would feel!  I have grown very fond of Herman. I can see why Grandma took care of him for so very long.  He truly has personality, you can tell his moods by his consistency.  Some days he is very thick headed, others he is thin-doughed and you have to be careful about hurting his feelings.  Some days he sweats (even in the fridge!).  Then there are those days he blows his top (literally).  But all in all we have a good steady relationship, much better than I have with some humans in fact! 

Every once in awhile, if I don't create something with Herman, he gets fat and is too big for his dough-house.  Like now.  So I can either make some sourdough bread or coffeecake, or put him in a bigger dough-house and let him keep getting fat.   Now that would help keep ME from getting bigger.  OR........

I have spoken with Herman and asked if he would like to share himself with some of you.  At first he felt a bit torn apart (HA!) by the thought, but then said that it might be cool to see other refrigerators around the Great Lakes (he has only been to Bonita Springs Florida, Angola Indiana, and Lansing Michigan, and a brief trip to Montrose Michigan, but that part of him expired due to neglect...we won't get into that, the therapy bills were astronomical!).  Anyway, if you would like to have a cup of Herman to start your own Herman adventures, let me know and I will fatten him up before our next get together.  He comes complete with instructions from Grandma. You will need to bring a mason jar to take him home in.  Oh I am getting teary-eyed at the thought!