Spot, The-Other-One, and the Feathered Coxswain

Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, taken from “Wild Geese
The Wild Geese Are Heading Home Again….. Photo credit Pixabay

There they were, just above the rooftop of the house next door, a flock of Canada Geese.  Flights of geese heading south in their familiar V formation aren’t totally unexpected this time of year, nevertheless, I was surprised and delighted to hear them calling out to one another from high overhead. Like the coxswain on a rowing crew, the geese in the back honk out encouragement, instructions, and motivation to the birds in the lead urging them to maintain their position and speed. As I stood watching and listening, the honking and squawking broadcast a clear reminder that summer is waning and autumn is on the way.

I have always loved this time of year. As the days grow shorter and the shadows lengthen, the feeling of possibility that hangs in the air is nearly palpable, but this year as I watched the trails of geese fade into the distance, instead of the feeling of anticipation that I usually experience, I was filled with a deep sense of nostalgia, melancholy, and a yearning for the comfort and familiarity of times past.

“That old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing, vacation nearly done, obligations gathering, books, and football in the air…Another fall, another turned page; there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as it last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.”

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Reposte

Growing up in the 50s and 60s in rural mid-Michigan, kids like me, spent our summers in the relative freedom that was the norm in most small towns. During the day we would run, play, and explore together…pretty much at will. We’d flatten grass in the fields to create forts, inventing elaborate narratives for our green and fragrant villages; we’d join games of work-up played without teams, score-keeping, or the interference of adults; we’d put pennies on the railroad tracks so the passing behemoths could reduce them to smears of copper; we’d dare each other to climb to the top of the potato storage or the huge neighborhood pine tree, and we’d ride our bikes from one side of town to the other.  We were always sure to be home for supper and after quickly helping with dishes and clean-up we’d head back outside again for another hour or two of ghost stories, murder-at-midnight, or hide and seek.  The fun continued until the street lights came on to signal the end of our liberty and we’d sprint off in all directions toward bath time, bedtime, and the safety of home.

The end of summer signaled the time for school shopping with a new pair of school shoes at the top of the list. Having gone barefoot for months it was time for feet with soles as tough as leather to be squeezed into the confinement of shoes once again. A new pair of school shoes was a real treat although my father’s teacher’s salary never afforded us the Red Ball Jets that we craved. I mean, who wouldn’t want shoes that guaranteed you’d jump higher and run faster? I’m sure I’d have grown up to be much more athletic if I’d gotten those rubber souled miracles instead of the less expensive knocks-off we got instead? 

A Box of Possibility and Imagination

In addition to shoes, we each received new pencils and a box of crayons. The 48 pack was a joy, but in Fourth Grade, I experienced the pure ecstasy of the 64 set with built-in sharpener and metallic gold, silver, and copper. It was not simply a box of cylindrical sticks of colored wax. That cardboard container held imagination and possibility. Like shoes that could give you wings and crayons that could produce an artistic masterpiece, Autumn has always been a time of hope, wonder, excitement, and potentiality.  

This year, in addition to the annual feeling of anticipation and promise the wind also carries the clarion call of geese warning, prodding, and summoning me to take action. Soon there will be frost on the pumpkins and ice and snow in the clouds.

“Something Told the Wild Geese” by Rachel Field

In these dwindling days of warmth and sun, it is difficult to ignore the feathered coxswain who continues to honk a forecast of ice, and snow. The geese are raising the alarm. It’s time to prepare for the coming days when, in this year of virus and pandemic, we will hunker down once again moving to the comfort, safety, and isolation of our homes. “Get ready”, they honk. “Prepare”, they squawk. “There are things to do,” they remind.

There is a small deck at the back of my condo. I often sit out there to read or to attend Zoom meetings. Throughout the spring and summer, I’ve been joined off and on by two black squirrels…Spot and The-Other-One. They have gotten used to me and will bravely scamper about within feet and inches of me. I often have sunflower seeds, which I’m sure improves our relationship, but having spent so much time on my own during this year of isolation, I am delighted by their presence. My wee friends provide the entertainment and I gladly serve the refreshments.

Lately, I’ve noticed that they don’t linger near me as long as they did in the Spring and early Summer. I watch Spot as he stuffs seeds into his cheeks and then jumps from the deck to the yard. His tiny little feet scratch a hole in the flowerbed or beneath one of the trees where he then deposits the seeds. I don’t know how he or The-Other-One will find the hidden seeds beneath the snow this winter, but the seeds will be there waiting for them nevertheless. They have heard the geese too it seems.

My Friend Spot. Names for the tiny patch of white hairs on his back.

Watching my little furry friends reminds me of the classic picture book, Frederick, by Lio Lionni.  It’s one of my favorites. While the other field mice work to gather grain and nuts for winter, Frederick sits on a sunny rock by himself. “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days,” he tells them. Another day he gathers “colors,” and then “words.” And when the food runs out, it is Frederick, the poet, and dreamer, whose endless store of poetry and verse warms the hearts of his fellow mice, and feeds their spirits during the darkest winter days.

Like Frederick, I need to gather stories, colors, and golden memories to warm and sustain me through the winter ahead as well. I must harvest moments that restore my soul and feed my spirit. COVID has made preserving these as essential to life as the sweet corn, strawberries, or blueberries that I put by in my tiny freezer. Our Buddhist friends always implore us to live in the moment, be present, and take not a single day for granted, but now, perhaps more than ever, it is crucial that we live each day with intention.

So…I will bask in the warmth of the sun on my face. I will delight in the brilliant yellows, reds, and oranges of the turning leaves as they dance on the breeze. I will savor the crisp freshness of the season’s first cider allowing it to linger on my lips. I will make mental photographs of the eyes of family and friends as they smile above the masks they wear to keep me safe. I will drink deeply from the intoxicating well of human touch remembering the warmth of my grandson’s tiny hand in mine or the way my granddaughter lays her head on my shoulder. I will memorize the sound of lively discussions and raucous laughter and use it to drown out the bitter winds of winter. I will find the essence of something wonderful to collect from each new day.

Winter is indeed on its way and our time of comfortable outdoor gatherings will soon be packed away with our summer sandals and sleeveless shirts, but I’m heeding the warning of the geese, the squirrels, and the field mice. I’m adding more shelves, packing tins and jars, and filling my larder to overflowing.

How are you restocking your pantry?

Making Memories at the Corn Maze.
Masks removed only for the photo and when social distancing within the rows of corn stalks.

Life in The Chrysalis

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.

Maya Angelou

Tucked in amid the profusion of perennials that surround my sister’s house you will find a huge milkweed plant. Often relegated to roadside ditches or borders along the back-forty, milkweed is dwindling in number along with the Monarch butterflies who spend their caterpillar phase living and feasting on the host plant’s bright green leaves.  This particular milkweed did not suddenly appear in my sister Kelly’s garden unbidden and unannounced. It was planted and nurtured there with intention; an invitation to passing Monarchs looking for a place to lay their eggs. “Please, come. Land here. We want you in our neighborhood.” The hardy plant grew tall and strong, full of broad leaves, but not a single Monarch flew by to check out the menu or the accommodations.

Finally…a couple weeks ago, my sister, called to say that she had discovered a Monarch caterpillar feasting on the milkweed. “Come on out. You’ve got to see it,” she implored with great excitement. “It’s amazing.” So, with my mask in place and observing social distancing, I  went to watch this remarkable little fella sprint from the bottom of the stalk up toward the buds of the blossom at the top.  He was a voracious eater and quite the little gymnast.

The First to Arrive (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Then, just as suddenly as he appeared he was gone.  Apparently, Monarch caterpillars are considered a delicacy by the Orioles who nest nearby. Kelly was heartbroken as she imagined her little friend being the main course at an Oriole summer picnic. Perhaps, however,  her striped buddy had escaped the birds and traveled to find a more safe and secure place to construct his chrysalis. Monarchs will often hike as far as ten meters in search of the perfect spot, but whatever his fate…lunch or location…he was no longer present on her milkweed.

In the coming days, she searched the remaining leaves, waiting and willing another caterpillar to appear on her special plant, vowing that if she found other she’d bring it in and rear it, keeping it safe from predators. No one came.

Imagine her joy when days later, while exploring the back fields near her rural home, providence placed her right next to another milkweed where a beautiful orange and black queen of the sky rested quietly on a leaf. As she watched, the regal butterfly appeared to shudder slightly, pause and then fly quickly away leaving behind a very tiny, cream-colored egg. Once she knew where to look and what to look for, Kelly found many more of these pearl-like spheres no larger than the head of a pin.

Led by Providence (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Originally, Kelly had hoped to watch a single caterpillar progress from larva to pupa and then butterfly, instead, my little sister was rapidly becoming a Militant Monarch Mama caring for her tiny charges as they grew and she learned more about how to nurture, protect, and defend her growing army of caterpillars.

Humans have always been drawn to butterflies. It is mesmerizing to watch one of the delicate, winged creatures flit from flower to flower gathering nectar knowing that our momentary pleasure will end too soon as they hurry off toward the next stop on some ancient instinctual travel plan. The way butterflies float and drift on the currents, alighting momentarily just beyond reach is magical. Our eyes trace their carefree journey across the sky and we marvel that such fragile wings can carry them about the clouds.

On the Migratory Path, Vinalhaven, Maine, October 2019

Of course, there are many dangers and obstacles that threaten our wee friends…lack of habitat, climate change, rain, dust, pesticides, and birds… but these flying Buddhists don’t worry about such things and are not troubled with thoughts of the future. Always living in the present moment their short lives are unencumbered by responsibilities and are filled with beauty and freedom.

One early evening a few nights later, I heard the ding on my phone alerting me that I had a message. I was delighted to receive an update complete with photos. There on the screen was a close-up of a small, silky, green chrysalises and a buddy about to create one of his own. Two of Kelly’s charges were one step closer to becoming butterflies.

Caterpillar to Chrysalis (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Watching a lowly caterpillar snake off his jester’s garb and shimmy into a silky green changing booth only to emerge dressed in the bright orange raiment of a sovereign it’s easy to understand why butterflies often symbolize the soul, transformation, or rebirth. Their metamorphosis is the epitome of second chances and new beginnings.

While there are many references to caterpillars and butterflies when discussing change and transition I find little mention of the chrysalis or the time spent within it. What’s going on in there? How does a caterpillar grow wings? Biologists have studied the changes that occur within this hidden realm, but to the casual observer…people like me…it remains mysterious and miraculous.

I wonder if the caterpillar was surprised to find that it was slowly twisting and turning itself into the strange vessel that was to be its new home. Does he have an idea of how long he’ll be hanging there or why or what he’s supposed to be doing? Does he know that he is in the world, yet secluded from it?

No. Probably not.

“The caterpillar does not become a butterfly by telling everybody it has wings. It actually buries itself in darkness and grows those wings.”

C. JoyBell C.

Lately, I have had the feeling that I, too, am living in a kind of chrysalis…isolated, waiting, expecting, and hoping for change.  How long will this last? Will I emerge better and stronger? Will I find wings with which to fly? Will my former life on the milkweed be recognizable when I reemerge into a post-COVID-19 world. Some things, when they change never do return to the way they once were and butterflies reassure us that that can be a good thing.

“When you find yourself cocooned in isolation and you cannot find your way out of darkness…Remember, this is similar to the place where caterpillars go to grow their wings.”

Nicole Stephens

And so…we wait.

We hope.

We remind ourselves that even life inside a chrysalis is a gift.

A few days after the first two chrysalises appeared Kelly sent me another text message with yet another picture of her two charges. I had no idea that with time a small, silky, green chrysalis would become so amazingly beautiful.

Gold and Jewel Tones (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

And…it would continue to change before the butterfly would break free and unfold its wings.

Almost Time to Break Free (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Like butterflies, we have the power to modify our own chrysalises. Yes, it’s true we’re still confined by limitations but it is amazing the many ways we are finding to bring beauty, connection, and joy into our lives? We attend family gatherings over Zoom; we live stream theatre and comedy shows; we create virtual choirs; we visit friends at a distance of at least six feet; we spend time outdoors, and we use our eyes to smile at strangers over our masks.

Not all chrysalis hatch you know. Sometimes they are destroyed or eaten or just don’t make it. Nothing is guaranteed. Let’s not wait for our wings. Our life is now.

Before he took flight, the first glorious Monarch to emerge, landed briefly on a milkweed blossom Kelly held in her hand. He paused for a few sips of nectar and a momentary fluttering of his wings in gratitude and affection…I think. Then knowing that he could…he flew away.

“Sweet freedom whispered in my ear, you’re a butterfly. And butterflies are free to fly. Fly away. High Away. Bye. Bye”

Bernie Taupin and Elton John, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”
And Butterfly are Free to Fly (Photo: Steve Forsgren)

A special thank you to my sister, Kelly Daab Green for sharing her adventure with me and for allowing me to share it with you.