Ostara with the Cranes

Sandhill cranes in front, Canada geese in the rear.

I stepped outdoors on Monday, March 20, and the trees and underbrush were buzzing.  Like extra-loud bacon frying or radio static. It was all the little birds , revving up, not so so much singing just signally, that yes, the vernal equinox was here. I have never felt it so strongly on the day.

For reasons of weather

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, however, M.and I waited one more day for our Ostara pilgrimage to the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado to see the migrating sandhill cranes. (They will move on farther north, from southern Idaho into western Canada.)

Listen to them here. I love that call, especially when they pass high overhead.

There is the official Crane Festival, but it comes too early in March to fit into my growing calendar of food and wildlife-related events that match up against an  eight-station Wheel of the Year.

Great event with plenty of activities, but two weeks off the equinox.

We had some mountains to cross. I checked the Facebook page for the Secret Cut-off Road1 The word was, “Currently snowing but melting in, so maybe muddy.” We went for it.

I dropped into four-wheel-drive when the predicted “muddy” started; then it switched to soft, packed snow (Keep momentum!) and then then, Oh no!, there was a box truck sideways across the narrow road.

But I swung around past its bumper (no one there), cleared it, and charged up the last incline before the crest, a north-facing section that always holds snow longest, then up and over into potholed road dropping down through pasture land and coming out on US 160.

Just ninety minutes more, counting a detour around a little police action in Monte Vista that had closed the road out of town to the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge.

Taking the quickie auto tour loop out from the visitor center, we saw a flock of cranes on the ground and more overhead. From his travel crate in the back for Jeep, Marco, my Chesapeake Bay retriever, whined a few times. He could smell swamp, he could hear waterfowl — why wasn’t he being let out? Special rules today, Pup, sorry! Be patient!

Another short drive, another muddy road to a different corner of the refuge. And there they were, a huge flock, hundreds of cranes, feeding across a grassy field.

This was worth pulling out the spotting scope and tripod — crane-watchers keep their distance to avoid disturbing them. I had not felt like wrangling both the scope and the my best camera with long lenses, so I snapped some with the little Nikon point-and-shoot. That is the photo above: just a fraction of the cranes (and Canada and snow geese) in that spot.

And then back to Alamosa for supper, with toasts in rioja and a bone saved for Marco, and that feeling of having turned the wheel, of having broken out of routine into the chaotic spring weather, of having watched the world in its turnings.

  1. I love that every county has at least one road with its own Facebook page, mainly to keep users from cluttering up other groups with repetitious “How’s the pass?” questions. []

The Snow Geese of Candlemas

Snow gese landing (Utah Division of Wildlife Resources).
Snow gese landing (Utah Division of Wildlife Resources).

I am all for seasonal rituals, but there is also a place for celebrating the Turning of the Wheel with your larger community, your polis, taking a local event and giving it a Pagan spin.

The solstices are easy: there is always something going on. Samhain — too many choices! But what about Imbolc/Candlemas/whatever you chose to call it?

Migrations.  Having grown up on a diet of  “Pioneer Days” and other such history-themed local celebrations, I turn in relief to those focused on the natural world. The Sandhill Crane Festival in Monte Vista, Colorado, just down the road from my birth place, would fit the bill, but it does not happen until early March — maybe that is sort of a pre-spring equinox event.

Snow goose distribution (Cornell Lab of Ornithology).

Those crazy snow geese have already started north by Candlemas, however, and the southeast Colorado town of Lamar has a High Plains Snow Geese Festival that this year fell on the 3rd-5th of February.

The red triangle is the Lamar area. Blue areas are wintering zones, yellow areas are migration zones, and orange areas are breeding grounds — way up north in the Canadian Arctic.

Flock sizes are big.

Families, bird watchers, and a variety of outdoor enthusiasts come to Lamar each February to see the arctic waterfowl as they arrive via the Western Central Flyway that includes Colorado, New Mexico, and the Texas Panhandle. Prowers County’s scattered ponds, lakes, and reservoirs are waterfowl magnets, and the Snow Goose is no exception. In recent decades, their population has been exploding as they currently have a breeding population approaching 6 million, a sizable chunk of which migrate right through southeastern Colorado.

“45,000 geese” says the daily update on the festival map.

This year I finally drove down to Lamar with a friend and her middle school-aged son, who is volunteering at the Raptor Center. Yeah, we actually got the kid to look away from his phone and contemplate the flocks.

When it works right, just before sundown, you can sit (or lie prone) under the big praire sky and see layers of various ducks, Canada geese, and snow geese moving in different directions — it’s like looking into a giant clock with turning gears and clicking levers

Wheel of the Year? You can see it turning in the sky.

And there is of course a crafts fair and local tours for birding and yes, even some historical stuff.

Check out the photo contests. Contrary to popular opinion

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, SE Colorado is not all flat. But there is a lot of sky.

Norse “Chess” Pieces Reveal an Ancient Whale Hunt

Researchers discovered hnefatafl game pieces made of whale bone in upper- and middle-class Vendel graves. (Rudolf Gustavsson in Smithsonian)

The ancient Norse loved the game of hnefatafl, in which a king’s faithful followers try to protect him against raiding forces, which pretty well describes so much of early medieval politics.

An article in Smithsonian, however, suggests that these game pieces “were the product of early industrial whaling. If so, the pieces would be evidence of the earliest-known cases of whaling in what is today Scandinavia, and a sign of the growing trade routes and coastal resource use that paved the way for future Viking expansion.”

Read the rest: “Viking Chess Pieces May Reveal Early Whale Hunts in Northern Europe.” The Sami are part of the story too.

A North American Tarot Deck

Emi Brady’s North American Tarot deck. (Photo: Colorado Public Radio).

This would make a nice bookend to the American Renaissance Tarot — Emi Brady’s North American Tarot.

For more than a decade, Denver artist and printmaker Emi Brady toyed with the idea of her own tarot card deck. She “wasn’t ready” until more recently.

“Technically, I wasn’t ready and I think emotionally I wasn’t ready,” Brady said. “I was definitely still learning a lot of things about myself and I think the Tarot is about having a depth of knowledge and compassion for yourself and for others. And I just wasn’t there”  . . . . .

Her own deck, The Brady Tarot, is a set of hand-colored, linocut cards that she released in 2018. The imagery features nature, particularly fauna and flora native to North America. One of the most important things she wants is for people to realize that animals also “have rich inner lives and we’re not alone on this planet.”

Read the rest at Colorado Public Radio.

When Trees Disappear

First, the background story. Back in 2011, I wrote about making an offering to Tlaloc, Southwestern god of the hydrological cycle (among other things), at a tiny mountain spring near my home.

The spring is high on the side of a ridge, fed by that year’s snow and rain, which meant it often dries up in late summer.

It had its guardian, a three-foot-long (92 cm) rattlesnake, whom I encountered several times.

The area was thickly forested in ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and Gambel oak — too thickly, to my eye. (This is what comes of being a forester’s son.) The pines were thick — in some places they lay like jackstraws, toppled by the chinook winds of winter.

When this slope burns, I thought, it will burn like a volcano. And it did, on October 23, 2012, a date seared into my memory.

October 23, 2012: The spring would be just left of the brightest area. My home is on the other side of the ridge.

I took this photo at dusk, bracing my pocket camera against a corral post (one of the ones that was not burning like a candle) while waiting for the the fire engine I was working on to be re-filled with water at the landowner’s well. It was too windy for air tankers, too close to darkness for hand crews to hike up there, so it just burned, while I implored the west wind to keep pushing the fire away from my home.

M. and I returned in November 2012 to see if we could find the little spring again with all the landmarks gone. For instance, there was a boulder that I called Bonsai Rock because of the tenacious little evergreens growing out of cracks in the stone. Not anymore.

Fisher the dog did what he does best, finding animal parts in the woods (including a bear cub’s paw) but even that activity seemed sadder.

We returned again in May 2013 to make an offering at the spring. During the previous month, the Bureau of Land Management had hired a contractor to re-seed the area with a grass mix by helicopter. The purpose was to get something growing and stabilize the slopes against the summer thunderstorms. It worked. We had adequate summer rains (not like the storms and flooding in northern Colorado), and by late summer the slopes were almost lush, as the photo below will show.

bear cub2
October 2013: A bear cub drinks at the spring.

I put my most expendable scout camera up there from late September until a couple of days ago — although the batteries died some time in November — which is how I got the photo. The best part is to see the spring running—you can see water flowing down the right-hand edge of the photo.

burn in December_sm
December 2013: Winter scene, with the spring off in the middle distance.

All this is prelude to thinking about how an animistic/polytheistic outlook copes with such changes to the land. No, it is not like someone paved it over and put up a Family Dollar store. Something will come back—the scrubby Gambel oak has re-sprouted, and there were wildflowers last summer, but the ponderosa pine and Douglas fir will be much slower to return. I probably won’t see this valley forested again.

I will never forget walking around a week or two after the fire, when the slopes just felt nuked. Crows overhead were the only life—the rattlesnake guardian almost certainly died, if tree roots were being burned underground.

The little seasonal spring, however, remains as sort of natural shrine, a focus for hope and continuity, bear cubs and wild turkeys.

Beavering Away at Home

beaver ponds10-13Once in a while, I like to note that Hardscrabble Creek is a real place. The beaver pair had kits this year, and they also expanded their dams from two to five. A couple of years ago, they left because they had eaten all the available deciduous forage, mostly narrowleaf cottonwood and willows. Will the rising water table encourage more beaver-edible trees to grow? (They don’t eat pines.) Can they keep expanding their string of dams upstream?

And here are some links:

¶ At Occult Chicago, Rik traces sites associated with Thee Church of Satan in the 1970s.

¶  Artforum notes the recent Occult Humanities Conference: Contemporary Art and Scholarship on the Esoteric Traditions.

¶ Anton Lavey’s daughter Zeena describes how her Halloween experience when she was a little girl living with her father, the founder of the Church of Satan.

For the first quarter century of my life, back when I was the devil’s defender, Halloween wasn’t the fun and merriment it was for many others.

¶ Oh no! I bought the Halloween candy, but I forgot to pray over it!

A Phone Call for Owlivia

Owlivia release_sm
Owlivia makes her getaway.

I have two volunteer gigs, and they both involve unexpected telephone calls.

For the rural volunteer fire department, it will be a recorded voice saying something like, “We have a smoke report east of Highway 165 and north of Highway 78.”

That is followed by a sudden switch into Nomex clothing, either the yellow shirt/green trousers wildland-firefighting outfit or the slightly heavier all-yellow “interface gear,” a fine product of California’s prison industries. Then comes urgent radio chatter as I try to figure out who is able to respond and if someone can pick me up with the engine on the way or the fire, or if I have to drive down to the station — or if I should just slap the magnetic flashing light on the Jeep and head for the incident directly.

The other unexpected type of call might be from the director of the raptor center down in Pueblo saying, “Someone in [some town] has an injured hawk in their back yard. Can you go pick it up?”

Or perhaps it is it’s the area wildlife-volunteer coordinator: “A rancher in [the valley] found some abandoned fox kits in a hay stack. They’re at a veterinarian’s office up there. Can you go get them and take them to the rehabilitation center?”

And M. and I get gloves, pet carrier, capture net, goggles, flea powder — whatever we need — load the truck and go.  Maybe I pin on my official Colorado Parks & Wildlife name tag (she never bothers), so I don’t appear to be some random animal-snatcher.

Last Monday, the 21st, was the second kind of call. This time,  an injured sharp-shinned hawk was in a garage—the homeowner had found it outside, unable to fly, and shooed it into the building for its own safety.

I was able to catch it pretty quickly — always good when there are people watching, and there usually are people watching, because they made the original phone call, and they want to see what happens next. And I gave the usual reassuring speech that it would be at the raptor center that evening and evaluated by a veterinarian the next day.

I knew its prospects did not look good. A day later, we learned what had happened: broken humerus, dislocated elbow, possibly the result of being hit by a car. Result: euthanasia. The expert opinion was that this bird would never be healed well enough to live on its own.  More than not, that is what happens.

But there was better news. A great horned owl chick that had been found in a certain hardware store in our county last spring had spent all summer learning to fly and hunt at the raptor center, and now it was ready to be released. Could we pick it up and take it back to the same general area?

Such calls — all too rare — are the pay-off for the rest. We picked up the owl in her carrier, and before many miles, M. had named her “Owlivia.”

“Willow Creek Road,” I suggested, thinking of a small canyon in the national forest where I had heard great horned owls before, one that offers a mix of habitats: deep forest, brush, and pasture. After supper, as night was falling, we drove up there and let her go. She did not hesitate.

M. and I have special feelings about owls. For several years, they helped put food on the table for us, when we spent many spring and summer nights hiking in the dark, counting them for the Bureau of Land Management. If you’re fond of owls too, the Cornell Ornithology Lab has a package of owl sound clips that you can download for free — at least through H-owl-owe’en.

Walk Past that Eagle Feather?

Some of the people who sell items made with wild-animal parts know the law, and some do not, based on what I have seen at festivals and on websites.

So here is a reminder. Possession of raptor parts in the United States is federally regulated, and possession of eagle feathers or parts are highly regulated.

Basically, unless you are a registered member of an American Indian tribe, you can’t have it. And for them there are rules, summarized at the article linked above.

If you find that feather on the ground and you pick it up . . . just don’t say that you were not aware.

(Somehow this train of thought reminds me of one of my big sister’s favorite sayings: “Don’t forget to put a quarter in the parking meter before you go in to rob the bank.”)


The Wheel of the Year Slips its Cog…

. . . to borrow a phrase from another blogger.

This summer has been a tough one, trying to keep the garden alive, always watching for forest fires — fighting a couple of small ones with the local volunteer fire department.

The hummingbirds have been working the feeder hard for weeks — broad-tails and black-chinned, and for the last three weeks, the rufous hummers on their slow way south. I had to rinse and fill it twice a day.

Suddenly, on August 1st, there were noticeably fewer buzzing skirmishers around it. Oh, we still have hummingbirds, but some have left.

After a sort of poor mushroom hunt last week, M. and I went up on our favorite mountain today and had a real wild harvest.

After an early supper, we worked on the veranda until the light was gone, filling the dehydrator and covering two large screens with sliced mushrooms. Dried until they are crispy, they will go into jars for storage. The process actually concentrates the flavor.

The dark closed in faster, and the cool of the evening came more quickly too. The air outside smells of mushrooms from the dehydrator sitting on the outdoor dining table.

It is now late summer.

No to “Neopagan,” plus Other Pagan Blogging

At Pagans for Archaeology, Yewtree makes the argument (started by Graham Harvey, as I understand) against using the term “Neopagan.”

Lupa at No Unsacred Place on greeting the land in a new place.

• At The Alchemist’s Garden, can your spirit helper be a machine?

• Finally, at This Lively Earth, some thoughts on the pluses and minuses of celebrating Groundhog Day with kindergarteners in a post titled “What Are We Teaching Kids on Groundhog Day?

I couldn’t stop the thought: And this is what award-winning education looks like. It was education that had gotten the climate wrong, the animals wrong, and the children wrong as well. By feeding the students a pablum of anachronisms about the natural world instead of teaching them to sink their hands in mud, to feast their eyes on the colors of tree foliage, to recognize poison oak and name the first wildflower in spring, this brand of education disrespected the students. It inculcated a story from another time and place instead of encouraging the students to observe grasses or flowers or woodland using their own eyes, their fingers and toes, their ears, their skin. It treated the children as if they didn’t have the capacity to appreciate or synthesize the results of their own observations.