The promise of spring

I have been feeling a fire lighting in my belly again, or perhaps simply an ember which will grow into a fire with tending. Last year at this time someone told me that early February is the pre-ovulation phase of the earth. The world looks and feels like winter, but there are hints of life starting to stir below the surface: the sap is beginning to move, there is quickening underground, there is a rumour in the air of the fertility and abundance to come.

Last year, on the coldest day in February, when the temperature had dropped into the -20s (Celsius) and heavy snow covered the ground, I stood at the bottom of a Toronto ravine and heard the courting song of the cardinal. It was my first sign of spring, and now I know it will come again soon.

Last weekend, I trailed two moose with a group in Algonquin Park: huge frozen lakes, tall trees, deep snow, the crunch of snowshoes, hand signals and hushed laughter; an hour sitting and watching one female moose closely across a small stream as it relaxed into our presence, with her calf moving in silhouette on a slope in the distance. It was my only opportunity for real tracking this winter, and it was like a blast of warmth to feel the return of the joyful, boisterous, alive, and profoundly connecting energy that came with it.

The new moon, the lunar new year, the lengthening days, Imbolc – I am open to tapping whatever influences are available, real or metaphorical. One way or another, I have felt myself emerging from winter’s dark, at first gradually, and then with a jolt.

As I stumble through my internal swamp, I see in a moment of clarity that meaning is something I will need to create, that it won’t offer itself up to me on one of the heavy brown plates passed down to me with my mother-in-law’s wedding china. I will need to find the will to mold it out of the clay of my life. It will have to be a choice.

I can pause, I can rest, I can mourn; but every day, I need to make the choice to re-engage with the world, both as it is and as I wish it to be.

I am sometimes tripped up by the cultural pressure to be happy. And this is a hard one to unravel – I am grateful for everything that the Earth provides; I feel awe and wonder and love and the electricity of being alive. I am often deeply joyful. But not to see the grief that is also always present in the world, to brush it aside, that seems to me a profound dishonouring of the fullness of living experience. Being fully present both to celebration and to grief – that is part of what it means to be a spiritually healthy human being. It means being able to hold that tension.

Grief is the awareness that our time here is short, that we are all broken in some way, that there is great pain in the world we live in, that so much has been destroyed, that we are clinging to a life raft and may never make it to shore. But in that grief, we can also see the beauty of the everyday, because in this moment we are alive.

Gratitude and grief are two sides of the same coin. Here we are: so much has been lost and continues to be, and we are committed to a lifetime of mourning. But here we are: we are alive, we have the fierceness and tenderness of love, we have sunshine and water to drink and the crunch of the snow under our feet and our hearts which beat day and night without stopping. We can laugh. We can reach for each other.

I have been thinking about how in the first half of life we gather and accumulate: things, accomplishments, energy, love, people, our own gifts. And for a long time we might feel that there will always be more. But, if it hasn’t happened earlier, there is a moment at midlife when we will look around us and sharply catch our breath, because we see that every mortal thing will one day be taken away. And it’s like that moment in late August, when we become of aware of the setting sun while still eating dinner under the trees, and  feel that bittersweet turn between summer and fall, and anticipate the harshness of winter.

And now, it’s February, the month of the Hunger Moon. We’ve made it through the darkest nights, but there is still some danger. In an earlier time, in this northern climate, we would now be living at the limit of our stored resources and our body’s reserves. We would need to look out for ourselves and for each other. Perhaps we would start to feel the quickening in the air and in our bodies, but we would need community and compassion and resilience and faith to believe that the world would come back to life for us once more.

After I wrote that it had been a hard January, some people said “I know exactly what you mean,” and a few people said they were sorry to hear it. But I don’t think there’s a need to be sorry, only to be present. The darkness doesn’t feel good, but it feels necessary. It is part of being human. It’s not the last time it will come. I can come through darkness with a renewed sense of strength and purpose; a renewed sense of what is possible and what isn’t; a renewed sense of what to hold on to and what to let go of in my life.

And I have kept my commitment, over the winter months, to be gentle with myself.

Now, I am grateful for the lengthening days, I am grateful for newfound energy, I am grateful for the physical and spiritual nourishment around me, I am grateful for compassion, I am grateful to see others emerging from the dark: I am grateful for the promise of spring.



Pema Chödrön on self-compassion and compassion towards others. Over the past few weeks I have started working on a daily Book of Hours – an illustrated book compiling  quotes, poetry, meditations, and other wisdom – inspired by a workshop with my friend Rozanne Lopez.




Six intentions for 2016

This is a time for setting and sharing intentions for the year, and I’ve got some that have been brewing that I want to put down in writing. Not for the sake of strictly adhering to them, but so I can look back a year from now with curiosity about where my path has led: my inner path as much, if not more, than my outer path.

Intentions are in no way resolutions; they are not even goals that are measurable, or timely, or particularly specific. I think of them as shifts in perspective, in attention, that allow us a frame of reference to steer ourselves towards. Or simply to keep with us in the back of our minds as we follow the current of life.

I think it is something like I learned when I was taking driving lessons more than two decades ago: “Eyes before wheels.” Whether you plan it or not, the direction that your attention is set is the direction that your body will steer towards, the direction that your vehicle will move into.

Intentions are so much the opposite of the kinds of goals we are normally told to make, but I love them. They fit me much better. They help me ask the intimate and big-picture questions: what do I want my life to look like? How do I want to feel within this life? What do I want to spend my time doing each day to feel this way as much as I can? I’m not interested in this context in imposing end results on my intentions, or in stating concrete goals out loud – instead, I want to focus on the processes I need to put in place in my daily life to feel grounded, engaged, and connected.

This year, I want to make more internal commitments, fewer external ones. And set up loose agreements with core anchoring people, who can help keep me accountable to those commitments. Not only because I need a bit of outside help to keep me accountable, but also because of my ongoing tension between introversion and extroversion. Between needing a lot of time within my own inner world, and also regular opportunities for processing and dialogue and collaboration and voicing.

I commit to continuing to work on creating good daily and weekly habits for myself and my family, better internal structures and rhythms that eliminate time wasted and small daily decisions, so that there is more room for creativity and freedom within the time that is open.

I commit to refocusing more of my attention this year to tending my home: de-cluttering, reconfiguring, repainting, tending the garden. I like homes to be very personal – fully of books, pictures, projects. And as a family that homeschools and does many daily hands-on things in a small space, minimalism is not even a goal. But my attention has been on so many external things the past few years, and I have spend so many weekends away from home, that I have much less of a handle on the objects and spaces within my home than I would like to. My children are older; we have been homeschooling for a few years now; we have different goals for the spaces in our house than we once did; and our house is feeling small. This is a big project that will take many hours of sorting and many months to reach any sort of completion.

I commit to making more space in my life for creativity. For writing and art and making beautiful things, for producing instead of consuming. For all of those things that so much defined who I was as a child that didn’t always make the cut as I navigated becoming an adult and then becoming a parent. This year, I want to choose creative practice over external commitments, both alone and with my family, and integrate these into other areas of my life. I want to inspire my family to do the same. As my kids get older, it is easier and easier to integrate my own projects into our weekly homeschooling rhythms.

I commit myself to regular movement, the kind of movement I need to nourish my body and bring my soul into presence. In recent months, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to grounding myself, and have been recognizing how much that entails living fully in my body and bringing every physical and emotional sensation back to my body. Really deeply listening to what it tells me. Scanning where things are stuck and where they are hurting, and bringing love and compassion to those places, so that I can move out into the world with more ease.

And so, I want more room for movement that is intentional, disciplined and strong; but also movement that is celebratory, playful and sensuous. Not movement that feels like pushing (although cycling and walking will never drop off the radar!), but movement that feels like listening. In practical terms this means more yoga and more dancing. And specifically, right now it means Iyengar yoga, which with all of its props and meticulousness drove me crazy when I was engaged in a more vigorous yoga practice in my twenties, but now is exactly what my body needs. And it means any dancing that is ecstatic and unstructured enough to allow full self-expression. Two completely different manifestations of the need for deep listening to my body, and for the embodied practice that comes out of it.

I commit to honouring and celebrating more fully the relationships with the women in my life. Those reciprocal relationships that sustain me, that allow me both to cry and to comfort, that allow me to be fully honest about my shadows and processes, that are both gentle and powerful, that inspire and nurture me and hold me accountable. I want to integrate my love of feminine archetypes with feminist action. And again that means listening to inner knowledge and inner authority and being truthful about my needs and boundaries. It means speaking when it is time to speak and acting when it is time to act, but also waiting when it is time to wait.

I commit to more nature time alone and with my family and friends. This means fewer structured programs, and more personal application of skills and knowledge learned over the past few years. I want more family adventures, more family exploration, more family trips; more spontaneous camping and evenings around fires with my dearest friends; more long walks with my husband whenever and wherever we can manage it. I want more solo time in the wild, both days and overnights. This all means being creative on a limited budget; and celebrating the resources of flexibility and freedom that we have instead.

Yesterday, I convinced my husband to hang out all afternoon cutting up magazines and making vision board-type collages. I was curious about what would come out of it. I approached mine in an intuitive way, choosing images and words that spoke to what I want to focus my energy on right now. It will remind me of things I want to keep my eyes and heart on this year. I also love the one my husband made, and I am curious to see how he recalibrates his life to keep this vision in mind.

It’s time to fully integrate the things I’ve learned over the past half-decade of my life. Time to bring them home. Time to celebrate where I am right now.

I want the calligraphied quote – another by Thich Nhat Hanh – which I stuck prominently in my collage, to remind me of this every day: “I have arrived. I am home.”


Digging up roots

This is the season for roots: plants digging their energy down deep into the soil, underground cellars stocked to sustain us through the cold months, the ghosts of our ancestors coming and asking us for remembrance and honour.

Last weekend, in the plants apprenticeship I’m currently involved in, we focused on roots, harvesting them to use as medicine and nourishment. Digging up roots takes gentleness and reverence – when you uproot a plant, you take responsibility for its life. It’s not something to do lightly.

As we dug up sarsaparilla, burdock, dandelion, plantain, false Solomon’s seal, and (very consciously and sparingly) blue cohosh, I marveled at the intricate shapes of roots, the tendrils and tubers and deep taproots. I meticulously and slowly pulled out one sarsaparilla root that was longer than me, eventually cutting it off from where it had branched from a thicker segment that connected it to a host of other plants of the same species. I never found the initial plant from which it grew. Someone else dug up a milkweed plant, and found that its root was unexpectedly connected to that of another milkweed plant, by a thick horizontal root, like a bridge.

What is going on down there, beneath the earth, beneath the surface of what we can see?

I imagined all the roots underground, intricately woven and plaited and intertwined together, like roads on a map connecting the underground landscape. Sarsaparilla, for one, grows from rhizomes into communities of plants. The roots are all connected underground. There sometimes isn’t any clear way to tell where one plant ends and the next one begins.

I have been feeling restless in recent years. This is what happens at midlife, I hear.

I ground other people in my life; I care and nurture and love; I honour my commitments, savour them even. But other parts of me have been unsettled, ungrounded, anxious, afraid that soon it will be too late – too late for what? There is the ongoing question of what is a true call for adventure, what is good risk-taking to push myself past the limits of who I have always believed myself to be, and what is, in some sense, running away. Running away mainly from myself, I suspect. Running that can sometimes be more about proving that I am accomplished and worthy, than about moving forward into possibility, at ease with who I am.

Right now, as I study plants, I am sometimes impatient with them, as with myself. A year or two ago, I focused on learning animal tracking: the movement, the adrenaline, the solving of puzzles. Plants just sit there. What am I to learn from them?

And so I make myself sit. And I ask the questions. I ask each plant: what can I learn from you? Yarrow: can you heal wounds of the heart as well as wounds of the flesh? Saint John’s wort: can you help me ease darkness of spirit in myself and others? Dandelion: what can you teach me about resilience?

And I ask the questions of all the plants and trees: what does it mean to put down roots, to be grounded? What does it mean for me to be grounded, like a tree, in a way that holds me deeply into the soil that I live in, connected underground, but also reaching up into the sky in a way that is particular only to myself?

As someone who was geographically and culturally transplanted at a young age, as many of us are in this world, I have been, after all these years, thinking a lot about what it means to put down roots. Thinking about what it means to be a non-native plant that naturalizes into a new environment, instead an invasive plant that displaces those who are already here.

I am playing with these metaphors, trying them out, recognizing that perhaps my role is to be a bridge for my children to find answers that are more satisfying than the questions that I am always asking myself.

But when I talk about being grounded, it is also much more personal. It is sometimes about the anxiety of what feels hidden, buried; about what lies underground and keeps me awake at night, about what I have not been wiling to bring to the light. There is something about really following those dark roots down into the soil and letting myself see them clearly that gives me the clarity of knowing who I am: who I am in relation to the people in my life, but not only in relation to them. Who I am in a way that is entire, that is inalienable, that is simply about being and not contingent on anything that I do or accomplish. That leaves room for longing and seeking, for learning and mastery, but is not dependent on them for a deeply-rooted sense of self.

I sat a couple of months ago in another wood and looked at the trees all around and the question that came up was this: “Can I say that a tree is not free simply because it is rooted in place?” And it seemed clear to me then, in an intuitive and not a rational way, that a tree is free.

And so I continue to sit with the question: what is it to be an individual in family and community; to be rooted, to be deeply connected, to be interdependent, while always having enough room to grow?

I’ve been on this trail before (a poem)

I’ve been on this trail before,


with small, grumbling children –

hungry, tired –

but that’s not what we remember now:

we remember the snake,

the hawk circling overhead,

the bridge across the wide river,


And now,

the wheels of this borrowed bike

rattling in the worn grooves of earth,

children speeding ahead,

the goldenrod and asters,

the sumac leaves turning,

the apples fallen on the path,

the sun and shade,

and the darkness of the forest

lurking at my eye’s corners.

My heart is full, bursting

with the lure of the tall trees,

the valleys and shadows


with mysteries at the edge of sight.

I could slip off, wander deep,

lose myself here

for a while.

But today I stay,

on this well-trod path,

keeping pace,

keeping my word,

savouring the joy

of this small adventure,

and how much grace is granted to me

in every moment

of this blessed life.

Spell of protection (a poem)

These words are a spell of protection.

They come from deep in the Earth.

They fill me with the grace I need

to make my way in this perilous world.

They come from the the stars,

from my ancestors,

from the deep fires at the Earth’s core,

from the rushing waters out of which I was born.

They come from the spreading roots of the low plants,

whose green life sustains my own;

from the searching roots of the tall trees,

whose branches reach and twist upwards,

whose strength is always at my back.

They come from the sure-footed creatures,

and the soft-winged creatures,

who travel the forest’s edge,

who whisper to me in ancient voices,

when my ears are ready to listen.

They come from those who walk beside me,

human and more than human,

those who shift their shape with ease,

at home in water, in sky,

in the tangled forest undergrowth,

and in the soft welcoming darkness of the warm Earth.

They come from my heart’s sure knowledge of love,

from the fires banked within my body,

from the simple and complex truths,

of skin and flesh and bone.

They come from passion,

and also kindness,

and from my trust in the truth of my own soul’s song.

They come from my fierce commitments

to those who accompany me on this journey,

and to Creation,

and to Mystery,

and to Love.

Journeys into the soul of the city

The city I’ve lived in for most of twenty years now is a city threaded through by ravines and river valleys.  Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in some of them: walking, biking, exploring, tracking animals, playing games with kids, listening, wading, watching, thinking, grounding myself, writing.

I love that the wildest places in this city are under the level of streets and sidewalks and tall buildings. I love being in the depths of the ravines and not being able to see the city above me. I love going down into this network of rivers, creeks and paths, especially on a quiet summer evening, and feeling a mystery and wildness nestled deep down in the abundant greenness of it.

Other cities have mountains, Toronto has valleys. There’s something about ravines that makes me think of Bill Plotkin’s definition of soul versus spirit in his book Soulcraft. 

By soul I mean the vital, mysterious, and wild core of our individual selves, an essence unique to each person, qualities found in layers of the self much deeper than our personalities. By spirit I mean the single, great, and eternal mystery that permeates and animates everything in the universe and yet transcends all.”

Ravines are to soul what mountains are to spirit. We ascend a mountain and see all around us; see how we are small in relation to the hugeness of the world, and how we are a tiny element connected to the vast mystery around us. At the top of a mountain we move towards transcendence and unity. We descend into a valley and find the wild, secret core of the place we live in and of ourselves; find ourselves on a journey into the recesses of our own heart and soul, strange and particular. We discover our own specific gifts to bring back to the world. We need to descend into soul before we can ascend into spirit.

Last weekend I paddled on the Humber River for the first time in all of the years I’ve lived here. An urban river, contradictory: beautiful and full of life, but also polluted and carrying death. Not the river it once was, before the European settlers came.

On the river on a warm summer morning, the city is hardly visible. There are egrets, herons, kingfishers and lots of water and shore birds all around, basking turtles by the dozen, muskrats swimming; and turning a corner, a still and silent and beautiful buck, watching us with his soft brown eyes. There are cattail marshes and islands, and lots of answers to questions I’ve had about this river and its inhabitants over the years, and lots of new questions and mysteries to engage me.

I’m learning – perhaps later in life than some do – that paddling on rivers has a rightness to it for me, like snowshoeing all day in deep snow, that meets an urgent need in my own soul.  This particular river journey was brief, like and also completely unlike paddling on a wilder river away from the city.  But paddling on a river in a valley that is part of the deep core of this city that I love – despite its flaws – is part of an ongoing conversation between my own core and that of the city, part of an engagement and commitment to grounding myself in the place where I live.

In that way, it brought me closer to the soul of the city and closer to my own soul.


In this city

There are rivers like veins

Buried deep

You can paddle


To the heart of things

To the wild, secret places

Where the deer sleep.


deer on Humber riverturtles on Humber

The language of birds

Recently I spent a weekend at a workshop on bird language led by Jon Young, a deeply inspiring naturalist, tracker, and mentor; and author of What the Robin Knows. The language of birds – I always love the way it sounds, secret and mysterious.

In practice, the format involves covering a piece of land with quiet listeners; each person individually recording the tone of the voices of the birds around them (relaxed song, alarm, companion calls to check in, etc.); bringing it all together in a series of expanding maps of the territory; and slowly watching a story emerge. And then doing it over and over again until you become fluent.

Songbirds comment on everything. They have to. It’s how they survive, and all of the other animals know how to interpret what they’re saying. The language of birds is the language of the forest, the field, the swamp, even of your backyard. Learning to listen in on this is an amazing naturalist skill. You start to anticipate what is going to happen – the hawk swooping in, the bobcat slowly walking through the forest, the erratic movements of the weasel. You know where the predators are. You read the forest as a constantly communicating organism. Seeing people interpret the subtleties of this blows my mind.

I have a long way to go on this. Really a very long way. But I am learning that tuning in to what the birds are saying is a form of meditation. Their constant vulnerability, their constant communication moves me; it teaches me to be present; it teaches me to listen; it teaches me empathy.

Companion Voices

I stood under the trees

Rain dripping

I swayed like a tree myself

Rustled my branches, my leaves

Shifted my weight gently

Rooted myself into that place

If only for a while.

I heard above me the small metallic sound

Of a bird speaking to its mate:

Red throat, white breast, black wings

Its mate a soft brown,

Holding each other

In this voiced embrace.

For a moment, a tiny tanager joined them,

A gift of red and black

My first

Then gone.

The pair persisted

Soft and insistent

Never letting go.

I wondered

How can we speak to those we love

As birds call to their mates, their flock?

This is the trust

Of reciprocity

Its even rhythm

Its intimacy

Its commitment.

This morning the forest voiced interdependence to me

In a pair of birds.


Dandelions, dragonflies, and falling in love

I fell in love with a dandelion last week. And when it died, I mourned it.

My children have been knocking the heads off dandelions a lot recently. It’s something I have mixed feelings about. Contrary to the perfect lawn culture I grew up in, I have a lot of respect for the resilient and versatile dandelion. But I also see that children help them spread their seeds around. And I see that the survival of the hardy dandelion isn’t threatened by children’s games. And I am always trying to strike a balance with nature – with nature and kids in particular – between joyful and immersed interaction and respect.

A few weeks ago, as part of some learning about plants I’m working on right now, I chose a dandelion plant in my backyard as a focal plant to observe over the next three seasons.

I knew that it would be hard to protect a dandelion in my backyard. But I had clearly voiced to my family my desire to protect this one. And I had decided as a method of observation to carefully sketch the plant every few days. I felt kind of blissful realizing that I could learn about this plant while doing something else that I loved and wanted to practice more often.DSC06270

In two days of lovingly sketching “my” dandelion and others, I already knew more about the stages of the plant’s development than I ever had before. I observed and admired the bright yellow ray of florets, the graceful curves and tapers of the toothed leaves, the translucent green of the elegant flower stalk. I watched the yellow flower close for a period of time to undergo a transformation, with the dried florets slowly pushed up out of the flower by the combined force of perhaps more than 150 tiny single-seeded fruit attached to silky pappi.

I was waiting, anticipating the bursting open of the delicate perfect sphere of the seed head, anticipating its daily dance with the wind and the gradual dispersal of its tiny floating seed progeny out into the world on their silken parachutes. Anticipating the slow wilting of the flower as the plant’s energy travelled underground to the deep taproots, digging down and breaking up the soil, aerating it for other plants to grow.

But as my family prepared for a late-spring dinner in our backyard one evening, I stepped out onto my back steps, looked at my son standing with a strange look beside the tomato bed, and instinctively said: “Remember not to touch that dandelion!” Right away, I knew by his stricken expression and hunched shoulders that it was too late. He burst out crying, I burst out crying.

It was so clear that he felt terrible already, but I had a knot in my stomach and tears in my eyes and needed to speak my distress. Recently, I am often surprised by my intensity of emotion.

“Why would you do that? I don’t even understand why you need to keep hitting at dandelions! And I asked you specifically not to touch this one! I’m so disappointed!”

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I forgot!”

I went into the house and sat on the couch shaking. I had felt deep satisfaction imagining myself carefully watching the growth of this plant, imagining myself developing a relationship with it over many months, imagining the reciprocity of tending for the plant as I learned from it.

Was it futile to think that I could keep a dandelion alive for that long? Couldn’t I protect just one plant? Couldn’t I watch it move through its growth cycle in peace? Could I convince anyone of the value of a dandelion?

Was I upset because my plans were disrupted? Or was there an energy that flowed from me to the dandelion and back again, through my careful observation and loving attention that in those moments was a little like love?

Paying attention to anything or anyone so raptly plants the seeds of connection. Connection nurtures love; perhaps it’s the same thing. And love leads to caretaking, to protecting, to reciprocity. Connection, love and then caretaking: as my eyes are open wider to the world, I see this pattern, over and over again.

This is not to say that death doesn’t belong in this cycle; it’s inevitable and even necessary. I am not sentimental about this. To be human is to face the truth that we can’t live on sunshine and rain: we must kill other living beings to survive. But there is the cycle of life and death and rebirth, and then there is random destruction. There is the reciprocity of picking dandelions and cooking with them, of savouring the bitter young greens in a salad, of digging the root and using it for medicine, of feeling gratitude for what these things bring into your body. There is also the careful stewardship of a space, a healthy habitat, that sometimes requires choices about what will live and what will die.

And then there’s death or destruction without a purpose. A broken connection; a broken cycle. And that break brings mourning.

It’s easy to fall in love with the big and beautiful: moose, foxes, deer, sandhill cranes, owls, and I have done that too. But it’s the more humble beings, like dandelions, like dragonflies, that catch me by surprise.

Last fall, on the small farm in Poland where my father grew up, I sat under a mountain ash and read from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous. It’s a hard book to read; in many ways it’s a highly articulate anti-book, an ode to the primeval language of the pre-literate world and of all the communicating living beings with which we are in relationship. It’s a book that’s best read outdoors, in small bursts, with all senses open to what the world is saying.

As I read, dragonflies flew all around, dozens of them, as well as maybe hundreds of European Peacock butterflies, dark orange with two purple eye spots on each wing. As I held my open book on my lap, a red dragonfly landed on the dazzlingly white page. It perched – if that is what a dragonfly does – and faced me. I raised the book higher and stared at the dragonfly. It stared back at me with its giant compound eyes. I understand that dragonflies have much clearer vision, in the human sense, than many other insects. But I don’t really know what it saw. What is the world-view of a dragonfly?

What it looked like to me, however, was that the dragonfly was watching me as I was watching it. It was a strangely astonishing display of mirroring. I looked quizzically at the dragonfly; it cocked its head to one side, then the other, and again, as if was looking at me with the same curiosity. Dragonflies, from a mammalian point of view, have remarkably appealing faces. Their compound eyes are huge and beautiful, and a raised section of the face in between those eyes, called the vertex, looks like a small round nose. A tiny earnest face stared unblinkingly at me as I stared carefully back. It was the most connecting moment I’ve ever shared with an insect.

When you look at something very closely, your perspective changes. When the dragonfly took off, I was almost thrown back with surprise. Its body swooped up huge towards my face, filling my field of vision, a giant prehistoric winged creature, iridescent and magical, communicating with me from another world.

That moment was also a little like love.

DSC06273I have mourned my dandelion flower, and with my son’s help found another plant to study in a more sheltered spot. I have watched the metamorphosis of its flower parts, drawn it, and learned from it. The first dandelion has not produced any further flowers, but in truth, its leaves and root are still alive; there is still more to be observed, now that I have regained my perspective.

I have not since locked eyes with a dragonfly. But each moment of connection to dandelion, to dragonfly, creates a relationship that opens space in my heart for other strange and surprising encounters. In some way, it means that I have friends in the world that I didn’t once have, perhaps an infinite number, both curious and familiar; that as I pay attention, as I take care, I am cared for in turn.

The world is full of remarkable beings, of beauty, of curiosity, of connection, of love. My work – our work – is to recognize all these beings as part of our community, part of our family, and to treat them honourably and with care. Our work is allow our selfhood to be a little more permeable than we once believed – not only to other humans, not only to our familiar domesticated creatures, but to all of the wild. To all of the beings that seem nothing like us, that we think we can’t possibly understand, that have gifts and abilities well beyond the scope of the human, but that are our relations nonetheless.

The beach in winter

beach in winter

We went down to the beach on Sunday, on Lake Huron. Conan’s grandparents lived their final decades in this village, and their house has been kept as a family cottage. The kind of cottage that features Arts and Crafts wallpaper and antique lamps. Winter might be my favourite season on this beach, but I love all of them, maybe with the surprising exception of summer days, when the beach is a crowded jumble of towels, umbrellas and swimmers; on those days I prefer to wait until evening to visit, bobbing small in my red swimsuit among the big waves as the warmth drains out of the water, then sitting west-facing on the sand to watch the huge and incandescent sky while the sun sets over this lake that feels like an ocean.

Once last summer I sat here after dark and watched lightning on the horizon. At night the waves appear to trace the edge of the lake instead of moving towards the shore. That particular night, the waves jolted across the edge of the dark water like a white serpent, moving with the electric sky. I sat on the beach and felt the pull of the endless lake. From where I sat I imagined the water not as cold, but as warm and dense and heavy, with a surface as smooth as silk. I wondered if there was gravity to a vast body of water like this, something that lures you to want to walk in and never stop walking. Like the pull of standing on a cliff edge and holding yourself back from the voice that says that you can fly, that you could jump right now and soar above the valley. That maybe it’s worth a try, all prior evidence to the contrary.

But now it’s winter, one of the coldest days of a cold winter. There are no other people in sight. As we walk and slip down the snowy path to the beach, we look ahead and see that there is no separation between the beach and the lake. The snow is pristine, the beach still after a night of fierce wind blowing from the west. We had walked towards the water the previous afternoon, when the rest of the village was still calm, and found ourselves at the top of the slope pushing against a wind so bitter that our temples ached, our lashes froze, and there was nothing to see or feel but the swirling, stinging snow. Malcolm turned back, and I stayed with him, but Conan and Lachlan pushed on down to the beach and found shelter behind a snowdrift. A shelter from the wind that the wind itself had created. The storm blew in across the lake, and by the time we had walked home and lit a fire, the wind howled around the house.

The day after the storm, there are no human tracks at the bottom of the slope. Our previous day’s descent has left no trace. I see only the narrow, undulating trail of a small canine with furry feet, who has left some pungently smelling urine as its calling card. I stop to examine the trail, wading through the deep snow to puzzle out direction and gaits and whether maybe, just maybe, on this Valentine’s Day weekend, there had been two foxes on the beach instead of one. But finally I am drawn to follow my family towards the lake and on to it, on to the huge icy drifts formed by that west wind that howls across the frozen water. The landscape is unearthly, like the surface of the moon; or at the least like the frozen Arctic, where ahead there is only white snow and sky, and all of the obstacles are internal. The line of drifts has been carved out like sand dunes, the lake side hollowed into gigantic and perfect snow forts; but the snow is also a layer of meringue over the beach, swirled and crunchy. The snow’s surface is polished with silver, patches of frost that catch the sunlight as if someone has dripped silver glitter paint across the beach.

The next day I drive by myself to a small conservation area, strapping on my snowshoes, which at first feel awkward on the trail packed by boots and cross-country skis. It doesn’t take long to step off the human trial onto a deer trail, and I follow it east over deep snow, criss-crossing other deer trails from all directions. Ducking under cedars, dodging around tamaracks, stepping over fallen branches of all kinds, I follow the deer trails into a cedar swamp, where the trails are many, pellets of scat lie in large piles, and I count at least nine deer beds close together. I’m happy to find this. These cedars house a deer yard – where the deer choose to spend the cold months, nibbling on conifer boughs and staying out of the wind. I see that the cedars still have plenty of nourishment to give: they are not browsed out of reach like some I have seen this winter. I circle around the swamp, conscious of the deep dips in the snow where I know there is likely to be moving water underneath, and I find myself back on my own snowshoe trail. And I follow it back as the sun dips down below the treeline.

A few nights ago I had a version of my most recurring dream. I was packing a backpack, putting things in and taking them out, trying to pare down to the essentials. Sometimes boots are important in the dream, the right boots to walk for as long as is needed. I don’t know exactly what these dreams mean, but they have been with me for all of my adult life. My new snowshoes give me the same deep satisfaction as the bag packed right, the boots that will carry me where I want to go. They give me the freedom to roam. They make me feel that I am ready.

The previous weekend, in Algonquin Park, I wore these snowshoes on a group weekend of tracking and trailing. There were many things that happened that weekend, among them a significant encounter with two moose, but the snowshoes taught me something else. Near the end of our first day, we pushed back towards the road through another snow-covered swamp. It was hard going to break the trail, and this time we all took turns, each person taking as long as they could before stepping off to take a breath. When it was my turn, I looked ahead of me, and saw that there was no right way to go, no way that was any easier than another. Every option would involve dodging boughs, pushing through dense branches, stepping awkwardly over obstacles in deep snow. I tried to trust my instincts, to find the clearest way, but so often my path seemed to me awkward and circular, deviating from any possibility of a straight line; my way forward, a struggle, as I wrestled with everything in my path. When I was ready for a rest, I slipped to the back of the line. And now, suddenly, the path was no longer a set of difficult choices; it was simply a fact. The path was in front of me, and one foot in front of another, without any thought, I could follow it.

The way forward is never obvious when you are breaking trail. You orient yourself in the right direction, and then try to find the clearest way ahead. There is some exhilaration in the struggle. Like the perfectly packed backpack, the beach still and pristine after the storm, the deer trails that all lead to the same place, the perfect trail emerges after the fact. And then it is a blessing to be on a trail that just is; to drop back to the end of the line, put one foot in front of the other, breathe in the quiet and stillness, to trust the path you’re on and the people on it.

I have learned to love the winter and what the snow reveals.

beach in winter 2

Reading the Stories in the Snow: tracking evaluation in Algonquin Park

I spent this past weekend at the Wildlife Research Station in Algonquin Park, standing around in below -20C temperatures, poring over indentations in the snow, snowed-in trails of all sizes, mysterious scrapes and holes in trees, pungent urine marks, and other clues of animal presence. I do this kind of thing for fun as often as I can, but this time I was participating in a Track and Sign Evaluation to test my skills. I’ve been working on tracking skills in a focused way for about two years now, perhaps peripherally for a year or two before that. I’ve written previously about what drew me to this learning, and why I find it so compelling and beautiful and important, both on this blog and at Sense of Story. And so you might know that for the past two years I’ve been involved in an apprenticeship program with Earth Tracks, spending many inspiring weekends hiking around forests, swamps, cliffs and fields in every possible kind of weather, learning about the ecology of this land that I live in and about the creatures who inhabit it with me. I’ve learned to measure, sketch tracks, journal, draw maps, do species research, observe weather patterns, and tease out the stories left behind on the land.

When the evaluation was first scheduled, I hesitated to sign up. I had some nerves and doubt and plenty of ego to untangle when I considered being put on the spot for my skills in this way, skills that seemed so emergent and fragile to me. I didn’t know what it would look like and how it would feel to be required to move from wonder and speculation to firmly committing to an answer, my own answer, to each puzzle pointed out to me. What did I actually know? But specific goals are motivating, and risk is a powerful teacher.

So I found myself on a late January Friday bunking with three other women, fortunately all of them friends, in a tiny cabin in the woods of Algonquin Park. In between sleeping and evaluation time out in the field, our group of ten or so participants gathered together in the Director’s Cabin at the Wildlife Research Centre to warm up, cook our meals, and socialize.

One of my bunkmates, Tamara, had made up study notes for herself, and we lay in our beds on Friday evening as she read tidbits out loud by headlamp, all of us easing our nerves with raucous laughter.

Our humble but cozy accommodations.

Our humble but cozy accommodations.

The next morning, with feet already freezing from the cold cabin floors (note to self: bring slippers next time!), we gathered with snowshoes and notebooks to start the evaluation. George, the evaluator – who had come up from the U. S. – had scouted out some tracks and sign the day before. But nature is always in motion, and recently fallen snow and new tracks meant that many of the questions he ultimately gave us were spontaneously found or had already changed slightly by the time our group reached them. With each new track, trail or sign we might be asked: “Who made this?” “What gait is this?” “Which foot is this?” or the all encompassing “What happened here?” Ecology, habitat, behaviour, as well as our knowledge of track and trail patterns and typical animal sign all informed our answers. We moved from one set of tracks to another, each person taking as long as they needed to decide on an answer, although the bitter cold certainly encouraged closure. Our answers we gave one by one to George or to Alexis – who was assisting – either whispered or written in a notebook (my preference). The evaluator’s job was to hear our answer with a neutral face and record it.

Who made these tracks?

Who made these tracks?

After each group of five or so questions, George took up the answers. Obviously, the evaluator’s tracking skills are put on the spot as well, and there is room for debate and the occasional question thrown out if there is too much disagreement (it is amazing, for example, how much snowed-over moose tracks and human tracks can look alike). After the first group of questions, I knew I would be fine, and I threw myself into the exuberant fun and adrenaline high of it all.

George and Alexis, practicing the poker face. George has an excellent frost beard.

George and Alexis, practicing the poker face. George has an excellent frost beard.

As I knew, my weak point was bird, insect and mammal sign on trees. On the other hand, I had some strokes of luck, pulling an answer out of nowhere – certainly not from conscious memory – a few times and then discovering it was right. I was struck by how often a seemingly random guess can have a solid deductive process going on behind it. I loved what I learned about my instincts and my reasoning process, how good it felt to follow my intuitions on each question, and how often my mistakes came out of not doing so. I also loved dispensing with the need for measurement – measuring tools weren’t allowed – and tuning into my love of patterns and context to summon my answers. I checked off correct and incorrect answers in my notebook, and although the answers are weighted for difficulty, making it difficult to calculate a score ahead of time, I could see as the weekend went on that I was mostly on a roll. I had told myself that what I wanted from the evaluation was a really great workshop – which it was – but I could see quickly that my competitive drive was kicking in.

Who made this trail?

Who made this trail?

Among what we saw in the snow were tracks and trails of pine marten, fisher, mink, river otter, short-tailed weasel, shrew, deer mouse or white-footed mouse, grouse, moose, white-tailed deer, red squirrel, red fox, and eastern wolf. On a range of trees, hydro poles and on one plywood shed were marks from black bear, porcupine, pileated woodpecker, and many other smaller creatures.

What happened here?

What happened here?

Our most intense moment was being led to a fresh moose carcass at the bottom of a slope on the side of the highway. The next few questions set the scene: Whose tracks were leading up to it? What did we see at the top of the hill? Was this all related? If so, how? It was potent and moving to visualize the scene of the hunt, what might have happened here and how. To place it within the statistics on wolf on moose predation in the park; to feel the agony of the moose’s death alongside gratitude for the role the wolves play in the health of their ecosystem. In the woods with senses wide open, you can’t avoid the cycle of life and death, its solid and fleshy reality, and the bigger knowledge that every living being, every possible nutrient, is eventually recycled and reabsorbed into others and into the Earth.

A beautiful otter trail.

A beautiful otter trail.

I was grateful to have been part of this experience and process. Putting myself into a situation where I needed to decipher the clues on my own, to commit to answers and really trust my gut, and the excellent outcome that came out of this for me (Level III Track and Sign) gave me a huge boost of confidence in the skills I’ve built up over the past few years. The testing situation put a higher stake on using the knowledge I had in contrast to the more relaxed energy of tracking as naturalist learning. It connected me in a deeper way to the instincts my ancestors would have used, that I could still use, in a situation where tracking had a stake in survival. Reflecting on the experience in the week afterwards, I thought a lot about how to apply that intuition, that trust in myself, to other situations in my life. Like any experience where head, heart and body are engaged, it gifted me more than the sum of its parts.

Pine marten at the back window of the Wildlife Research Station.

Pine marten at the back window of the Wildlife Research Station. Photo by Lianna Vargas.

A week later, I’m driving up to Algonquin Park again, this time with the apprenticeship program, for a weekend of a different pace, which will be both more relaxed and more physically demanding. We’ll get onto some moose or wolf trails, read the patterns, immerse ourselves in the exhilaration of movement, observation and connection with the more-than-human world. I’m glad not to be tested this time, but I know I’ll bring the energy of last weekend forward into this one. And I suspect that when the evaluation comes around again next year, I will be keen to do it again.

Me, with my usual tracking grin.

Me, with my usual tracking grin.