Force of Nature Day (Which is Actually Everyday): Everyday Magic, Day 1058

Sunday morning just before the storm hit, photo by Stephen Locke

Yesterday began with running outside in our pajamas to cut irises as fast as possible while 70 mph winds and a giant thunderstorm descended. The day ended with a full lunar eclipse’s red moon. Some days are like that – force of nature days when everything seems to happen with such power, art, soul, and amazement at once that it’s clear we are not in charge. Ultimately, life is like that, and often it’s too easy to forget.

I write this from Brave Voice, the 17th annual retreat I lead with singer Kelley Hunt in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The irises were to vase up and distribute throughout the camp in each of our cabins and in the main lodge where we meet to write, sing, listen, collaborate, and dwell in wonder together. The storm made driving from home to Council Grove lake, where the camp is, more than interesting, Kelley at the wheel and Ken on the phone tracing our location with radar to warn us when we might need to pull over and wait out the downpour. The eclipse happened for most of of us in this area with clear skies that darkened to pop out the stars even more so, the Milky Way dazzling as it arced across the night sky.

Yesterday we went from the deadly and dramatic to the sublime and rare, but actually, even more ordinary-looking days are much the same. The earth is at the wheel despite humans making so many species, including ourselves if we continue on our current trajectory, extinct. When I see headlines or catch snippets of conversations about how we’re killing the earth, I bristle at the language because this big rotating planet will survive, perhaps in a state that barely supports life as we know it long after we’re gone. But the earth is like the Dude: it abides. It’s been here long before fish-like creatures crept out of the water and learned to breathe air and evolve into so many other species (including us), long before ice ages and continents breaking apart (and aren’t we all still in motion?), long before bipeds were just glimpsing how to measure out units of time to support the hunt or remember where to return to harvest what grows underground.

Big winds, red moons or not, each day tilts open the force of nature that is us and that is. Like right now when I sit on a porch outside the White Memorial Camp lodge, mesmerized like several others around me by the build-up, then slow-down of bird song. While I watch the rabbit racing the sun across the field, the cardinal landing to look for dinner, the oak tree moving its tentative fingers in the same wind that covers half my face with my hair. The open blue sky, so vast and mutable, is a constant force of nature and so is all it holds, even us if we’re brave up to speak and act for this beauty persistence that just wants to live.

What’s Wrong With Humans (and Some Birds): Everyday Magic, Day 1052

An hour ago, a mourning dove crashed so hard against our living room window that Ken and I both jumped. The dove attacked his reflection so vehemently, it was hard to believe he survived. For a long time afterwards, he sat on the snow-covered deck and stared at the birds on the deck railing for their morning buffet of birdseed. Occasionally, he swiveled his head to look back at me on the other side of the window. I couldn’t tell if he was mortally injured or doing that total-repair-in-stillness thing that birds do.

For close to two weeks, I’ve been alternating between despair and heartbreak when I take in the news from Ukraine. Three women in the back of a truck heading into battle, one of them with tears running down her shining face as all three clutched their weapons. Two nieces and their children rushing into the arms of their Polish aunt as soon as they crossed the border. A family of four dead on the ground when they were supposed to be safely leaving the city. The deep state evil of how vastly news has been censored, twisted, and spit back out in pure decit in Russia. The great-grandmother lying belly-down on the ground, aiming her gun and still wearing her long gold coat. A little girl singing “Let it Go” in Ukrainian to a crowd of children and their parents hunkered down in a Kyiv subway.

“The birds are incredibly impulsive. It’s a survival mechanism. They fly first, ask questions later,” Ken just told me when I lamented the obviously hurt dove still on the snow. Obviously, this isn’t just birds. As we, who are outside Ukraine, watch and wait, donate money, even to Airbnbs for refugees to have a warm place to sleep, we also have no idea, as my friend Judy reminded me the other day, how this will end. Nor can we say what the right thing to do is that would lessen the shelling and missile attacks, the hunger and freezing, the war between cousins, without triggering Putin to go nuclear. Even if any one of us did know exactly what to do, we have little to no power to enact what we know.

I think of all the people being traumatized exponentially by the hour right now. I think of nations, cities, regions where trauma has reigned for generations, particularly in both Russia and Ukraine. Because of greed, fear, anguish, insecurity, and god-knows-what-else, there is Putin with all this power to destroy in minutes what it takes lifetimes to create.

Despite all the family ties crossing the border between these countries and the long entwined history, despite all the brutality and the wounds it threads through families and communities for decades, and especially despite what history has taught all of us humans in such a visceral and devastating way about war, here we are in an unfathomable place. A time when it seems only miracles could do any good, but I still believe that as humans prone to charge our reflections, we can do something other than charge our reflections. We also have an instinct to alleviate suffering and the capacity to sit with not knowing and enormous pain.

It’s not lost on me that this is an injured dove, and a mourning dove at that. He eventually lifted to the deck railing, stayed there for ten minutes watching all the other birds, and then, against the odds, lifted off and up to join the cardinals in the cedar tree and watch the rest of us. I want him to live. I want us all to live.

A Limping Coyote in the Snow: Everyday Magic, Day 1051

Yesterday, I was surprised by how big he was, and how, from a distance, he looked sleek and strong. But then he came closer, making circles around our house to keep arriving at the compost bin. From that distance, I could see he was limping, his fur was mangy, and he looked old, sick, and hungry.

Coyotes are obviously predators, and we’ve lost Pinky Velvet, Judy Actionia, and Sidney Iowa — three beloved kitties — to coyotes over the last decade, plus more cats before then. It’s an occupational hazard to country living. Yes, coyotes have to eat, but they’ve broken our hearts many a time, so much so that I’ve thought of them more often as our enemy.

“Even a monster has a story,” said Joy Harjo, doing a live-streamed reading last night through K.U., Haskell Indian Nations University, Humanities Kansas, and the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. Over 1,100 of us living from living rooms or cars all over Kansas and the country may have gasped at that line, especially in a time of such monsters roaming the earth (one even, tragically, invading the Ukraine right now). While I don’t mean to equate a limping coyote to human monsters, who are so much more tragically capable of mass destruction and generational trauma, I am wondering about this coyote’s story.

I’m not wondering what the coyote is doing here though: he’s obviously trying to survive like any of us would, and our compost pile, if and when he can snag rotting potatoes or old bread from it, is likely just the ticket. He also knows humans are right here, and whenever I go window to window to look at him, he pauses, stares directly at me, and waits. Then he heads down the drive, turns left and climbs with difficulty through the sloping woods to come back to the compost.

I’m rooting for his survival, and I’m holding my cat tight, taking extra care to keep her from shooting out the door when we refill the bird feeders. I’m also watching the sheer coyote-ness of him through the falling snow as he tries against the odds to snag more time out of this life.

Doe a Deer Lives to See Another Day: Everyday Magic, Day 1047

Some of the does last year

This is a story of what can happen when you ask the birds to talk to the deer as well as how conversations in our minds can seem like they really occurred. It also has something to do with how you can take the girl out of Brooklyn and New Jersey, but you can’t easily take the Bambi fantasies of magical deer out of her so easily.

So on Monday morning, when a hunter Ken made arrangements showed up to set up a blind, all was not right in the disheveled kingdom of our home. Ken had talked about this extensively with Daniel, a friend of ours who’s an expert on the negative impact deer can have on plant life, and in his mind with me. Obviously, I was cordial and agreeable in his head. In real life, not so much. I was flipped out and angry, and untangling the mess entailed some sadness, confusion, chaos, a little crying, a little yelling, and a few “what the fucks.” But Ken assured me that the hunter would only come for one day, on Tuesday. He would only shoot one doe (this is doe hunting season) — no bucks, no fawns — and also, Ken had spoken to the birds about the situation and asked them to tell the does that if they weren’t down for this, they should lie low.

I had been speaking to the birds and the deer myself for years, often telling them (in my mind at least) that they were safe here, that this land was a sanctuary for them, that we would protect them, and hey, deer, if you need to eat some of the garden, so be it. Of course, it wasn’t just the garden: the deer had ripping out some of the oak trees Ken had been nurturing from acorns for years to bring back the oak-hickory roots of the woods. They had wreaked havoc on fruit trees in our yard too, and although Ken had taken pains to protect all these trees as best he could, it is true that the deer population is overly healthy here.

The hunter showed up very early Tuesday morning to sit up a tree behind a blind in cold and biting wind. After two hours, he had only seen five bucks, who leisurely wandered by on their way to shoot the breeze over coffee. He left for a while to warm up, planning to come up about 2:30 p.m. Right before he pulled in, I went outside and had a talk with the birds myself: “Please tell the does to get the hell out of here for a while and also that I love them.” The bad-ass chickadees and juncos stared at me briefly before going back to their sunflower seeds. The blue jays, crows, cardinals, and red-bellied woodpeckers skittered away, but I know they heard me. I went inside the house to work, hoping not to see Ken helping the hunter carry out a dead doe.

Turns out that this time the hunter only saw some fawns, laughing at the base of the tree where he waited, when really they should have been at school at the time. They hung out for a while, but amazingly enough — although there are ample does on this land — none opted to take one for the team.

Ken also sent me a passage from botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s superb book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, about “the honorable harvest.” I also believe in and support sustainable hunting and being mindful of the balance of a particular ecosystem as part and parcel of stewarding the land. At least in theory…..it turns out that I still have a Disney-storied deal with the deer, who have continually seem like embodiments of grace and blessings to me.

But for this year at least, no does were harmed in the making of this blog post.

P.S. Ken says to tell you that yesterday he saw three does hanging out by the driveway.

Listening to the Land With New Hearing: Everyday Magic, Day 1061

Lying in bed this morning between layers of flannel with a purring kitty under the covers with me, I dreamed in and out of the call of a barred owl, seemingly on the other side of the window. Its call sounded different than the night time “who cooks for you?” call, more like a rooster cock-a-doodling up, then a cat purr-meowing down. Surely it was a hunting call, Ken said, and maybe the sudden absence of squirrels on the deck proved this.

I’m learning to listen to the land with new hearing. Since the eye cancer’s Rube Goldberg-esque antics of cancer leading to radiation in the face leading to extensive dental drilling leading to tinnitus, my hearing has been encased in a bubble of white noise. Sometimes, like lately as I recover from various insults to the sinuses (a cold, mold allergies), the hum-buzz-shush of sound is louder, and sometimes the volume is lowered.

But there’s always something, and I know tinnitus impacts so many of us and it’s not personal to me. Still, learning to hear in this new way is personal. It lets in sound at different volumes than in the past. Words people say are harder to grasp but background noise is amplified. I’m also more attuned to the sounds of the land: the chatter-scuffle-leaps of squirrels on the deck railing, the lift-up of starlings in the field, and the wind clanging what’s left of Cottonwood Mel’s leaves against branches.

I’m also listening to quiet, at least relative quiet (because the sound is never not there) more through my daily meditation when I give myself over to being in this cocoon of the noise of my brain (which is what tinnitus is — we lose some of what filters out that noise). In a strange way, it’s become a comforting sensation of being held in a gentle and constant rocking hush. Other times the pitch gets higher, and it’s just annoying, but I’m trying to befriend even that because it’s also reality.

Meanwhile, just as — to paraphrase e.e. cummings’ poem — the eyes of my eyes were opened in new ways, now the ears of my ears are opening. There’s a big world of wind and rain, cats and owls, and so much more to hear in this land. “Oh, the sounds of the earth are like music,” goes the beginning of one verse of Oklahoma’s “Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” So why not tune in and listen to what this music of the earth is telling us?