Green: After Five Years of Drought

Bright green grass and dark green oaksAfter five years of drought, I had forgotten about the restorative effects of green. Living on the western slope of the Sierra surrounded by evergreens, I thought I remembered. The large, drought-resistant ponderosa pines and the incense-cedars growing near the cabin where I live led me to believe the mountain landscapes flourished in spite of the lack of rain. The thick-bark ponderosa pine, with its long, dark-green needles and the bright-green plumes of the cedar were a soothing sight on hot summer days. The trees provided refreshing shade and filled the air with the pungent fragrance of pine. But if I had looked closer, I would have seen the dead branches at the tops of the trees, the brown needles hidden in the green. I knew the drought had damaged the less drought-resistant, but the sight of green provided some relief during those hot, dry years.

Each week, I drove down the mountain and into the valley to buy groceries. Unlike my forest home, the low-lands were thirsty and the ground hard and cracked. At the sight of the parched earth, my mind worried and my heart felt heavy. The once prolific willows spread along the waterways had yellowed as the streams dried up. The wind-wavy grasses became still, brown stubble. The drought-savvy blue oaks dropped their leaves in their effort to retain moisture. For weeks, fire filled the valley, and a thick-grey smoke choked the skies. The land lost its color: blue skies became haze and ash, the ground- dust. I felt relief when I arrived home to my patch of green in the mountains. It was a luxury I savored.

Then the rains came, and after five months of continuous precipitation, I saw the full spectrum of green. I drove through the valley where the clouds were grey and a light, spring mist sprinkled the sky, creating contrast against the green hues. The once brown fields were bursting with emerald grasses, and the deep-blue-green leaves of the blue oaks hung in heavy clumps. Bright-green mosses clung to clusters of rock. Long, tapered, waxy-green leaves lavished the tall, camphor-smelling laurel. The valley oak’s lime-green foliage grew thick and abundant. New life popped, splashed its glow across the landscape. My own limbs lightened, as I reveled in the return of the heart-slowing, mind-calming restorative effects of green.

Kandi MaxwellKandi Maxwell lives and writes in the Sierra foothills of Northern California. She walks through forests, soaks and splashes in rivers, lakes and hot springs, and bends frequently in downward dog. She is a retired high school English teacher. Her work has been published in Fair Haven Literary Review, KYSO Flash, The Raven’s Perch, One in Four, Foliate Oak, and others. Her work has been nominated for The Best American Essay series.

Photo by the author

Sanctum: A Horse Ride on South Dartmoor

Trail to moor viewed over horse's headNegotiating the winding track to the moor is always the hardest part. The peaty water rushes off the beacon polishing the large slabs of granite as it gushes down towards the village. Here, it unknowingly meets the River Erme and begins its winding passage to Bigbury Bay where it disperses amid a restless and weary ocean. The deep grey, marbled effect of the rocks, dappled with the dancing shadows of sheltering trees, contrasts with the emerald green velvet cushions of moss that creep over and encapsulate everything. Early morning sun pierces through the branches and snowdrops peek out from the thicket as we clamber through an enchanted and magical landscape. The rhythmical clatter of hooves alongside the creaking of leather and the delicate choral hum of birds soon drown out the distant drone of the dreary main road. That familiar, faint smell of tack polish mixed with sweet haylage and the slight dampness of a fur coat remind me that I’m home.

As the track nears its end, the rich, honeyed scent of wild gorse and heather fills my nostrils. The track unfolds into a familiar opening. The last of the heavy morning haze lingers just beneath the summit, concealing the deep auburn coats of those few deer brave enough to venture onto the moorland after sunrise. There is a small area of open meadow, naturally enclosed by wild shrubbery, which is more often than not guarded by the fending shadow of the beacon. At the top end of the opening, there is a small verge, right on the foothill, and we turn around to look back down at what we’ve accomplished so far. I peer in between those pricked, silver dappled ears, fringed with a coarse blonde mane and look down on the South Hams countryside, quilted together by hedgerows and tiny tarmac veins connecting the sparse villages like a dot to dot all the way to the coast.

summer bluebells at holwell lawn on dartmoor national park in devon

I have always thought this is my own little secret place. I convince myself that surely no one besides us can know that this magical sanctum is even here. I remember the many summer evenings spent here as a child, racing around on muddy ponies with the idyllic backdrop of a lilac heather cloak and golden yellow gorse flowers, caramelised with the last of a burnt-orange sun as it dipped behind the beacon. We used to build little jumps by weaving together old branches, or we would play Cowboys and Indians and hurtle around bareback with feathers and flowers decorating the bridles and use mud to paint on our faces and around our ponies’ eyes.

Everything seemed possible on those hot, clear evenings, where the seamless sky was dyed with crimson purples and deep magentas which amassed in streaks and swirls like a living watercolour. We forgot the burden of school and exams, the pressure of teachers and parents and the fear of our future that had been instilled in so many of us from such a young age. Instead, we would stay out until the glittering stars littered the sky and our t-shirts clung to our backs desperate for warmth. I remember heaving the aged, solid oak front door and lifting the latch as slowly and delicately as I could as to avoid the clunk ringing through the entire house. I don’t think I ever succeeded. Far too heavy handed, I was always caught by Dad, gingerly confined to the doormat due to the sheer amount of Devon mud I had managed to cover myself in. But he never minded. Instead, he would chuckle, eager to hear of my latest adventure on the beacon.

This essay is written in memory of my pony, Dougal, who I sadly lost last year and who enjoyed walking on the beacon as much as I did.

Click here to visit Eleanor’s website.
Top photo by the author.  Bottom photo by Helen Hotson.


“Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning.” A single line of poetry by John O’Donohue, plucked from a reading on a cool spring night. I see a fern, delicate in the woods, fuzzy-bright and pure green among last year’s oak leaves. It is curled in on itself in the cool sunshine, waiting for just the right time to unfold.

Fern tips spiraling upwardEvery spring I look for these along the wooded path, worried I’ll miss their measured opening. Growth can be seen at a glance; in a week these ferns will be fronds nodding in the breeze. Nature, all grown up. It takes time and patience to witness that magical middle stage – the tiny increments of growth between fiddlehead and fern. Dewdrops ease out from spirals that broaden until they can contain themselves no longer and with gentle energy, each frond stretches into its own space.

Have I overlooked my own quiet unfurling? Mature now, wise some would say. I’m not so reactive, defensive. Not so vulnerable. I don’t like to remember when these qualities dominated my sense of self. I wish I’d had the patience to stay with myself, teardrops easing out from the spirals of my being. I wish I’d trusted the tiny increments, found the quiet energy to stretch into my own space. Self-criticism does not lead to self-improvement. Kind attention does. I know this now.

It takes patience to sit by the fern and watch it unfurl, oh so slowly, watch it do the only thing it was meant to do, the thing it knows to do so well, the thing that makes it beautiful. Catching the sun between its feathered leaves, swaying like a graceful dancer. Taking what is offered – nutrients from the soil, energy from the sun.

Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning. Don’t leap over the middle ground. To stay with yourself through the middle is the place in your own spiral of time where kindness grows.

Photo by the author

Eagle Speaking: See the World as It Ought to be Seen

golden eagle, in flight, Yellowstone, USAHastily I moved down the scenic backcountry road along the ancient river of my ancestors. They say the German physician turned explorer for the English, John Lederer, wandered these trails during the late seventeenth century to encounter the Saponi near the confluence of Otter Creek. In a colonial British reference, the river bearing their name is now reprised as Staunton. By contrast, the Saponi had taken their name from the land referencing the rivers as the place were the waters break sharply out of the mountains.

Caught in the modern world, ensconced in my metal chariot, removed from the natural surroundings I sped along the old byway with only hints of our aboriginal practices in the ancient sacred place. The modern world held my concern as I attended to the ideological orientations of the day. Suddenly ahead of me, just past the bridge over Plum Creek, there was someone in the road. Near the centerline, he or she stared hard back at me with fixed intensity and a devil may care attitude.

It was a golden eagle tearing away at its road kill prey. With unrelenting daring, he or she glared at me as if I were a nothing person of no account having no place in this sacred ecosystem. Under the circumstances I would have to agree, particularly with what our species has done to the natural world in quest for economic greed and anthropocentric power. Despite the technological force surging in the wheels beneath me, I knew he or she was correct with his or her assessment of modern humanity. Yes, I could callously force the accelerator to the floor and charge my chariot directly into this pride of the avian world, however to do so would be a high crime against life itself beyond the pale of evil. There is no virtue in humanity’s victory over the wild, surely the killing of such a person would be as egregious an act of immorality as the killing of an innocent of any species. No, as I caught his or her magnificent eye, I looked back mesmerized, thunderstruck with the reality of the Sun’s own bird in the roadway ahead of me. Removing my foot from the accelerator, I turned into the oncoming traffic lane giving this avian monarch a wide berth in slow and cautious passage as if he or she were a highway crew attending the public road. The eye contact alone was withering as it shivered down my spine giving me a stealthy respect as I moved ahead to the side of the road some twenty yards distant.

In the glove box there was tobacco so that I moved carefully to open it and take the bag in my hand as I exited the automobile. Giving care as if confronted by a grizzly bear, I moved to an open space where I knelt along the side of the roadway to take a pinch of tobacco between my fingers. While giving prayer to this celestial king of birds, I asked for his or her pity and help in the coming days of my life and I gave thanks to the Sun’s own bird. It was my prayer of homage before the spirits or nature persons who had guided my ancestors from time immemorial. In that moment of great reverence allowed me on this day and age when the modern world stands starkly divorced from organic meaning and respect for wild nature, I knew the reverence of the ancestors. In this sharing of life eternal, the nature persons were again my guides and I was overwhelmed with the gift.
golden eagle feeding on a dead deer in front of a sunny mountain

My mind drifted back to childhood when Granddaddy after telling the creation story of our Monscane world declared:

“Son, the eagle is the Sun’s own bird. You must see the world as the eagle sees it.”

It is a speaking that has stayed with me – shaping my value choices – throughout my whole life. But what does it mean?

“The Sun’s own bird.”

“See the world as the eagle see it.”

In the meditation of my travels, I was wont to reflect upon the countless moments within my experience of forests, prairies, deserts and mountain solitudes where nature had in some magnificence spoken to me when revealing her secrets of life and honoring my enduring vision of indigenous organic unity with the wildness of primal creation. Creation unfettered by human anthropocentric desire and command, but creation that surely has claim upon our human morality as any Kantian ethic of personhood.

Although I was engaged along the side of a modern roadway where the traffic had killed the eagle’s prey, I was at the same moment in the time of my ancestors along their river of life and in that singularity of time immemorial I was taken with the wildness of it all. Not that I would not have preferred and knew it better to observe a wild landscape free from the clutter and terror of human intervention. The power of the moment nonetheless held sway and I was captured in the speakings of the oral traditions of my ancestors. Surely Grandfather was speaking of organic relationship and reciprocity in the combined tenets of ecology as its veneration gave power to our indigenous way of life. “We are all related,” they say and it is surely an expression of the philosophy of ecology.

In this respect, the eagle soars high – high above into the heavens unto the Sun – and all below look up to it while it looks down upon the world to see all the interconnections interfacing with life and the organic union of great mystery. In being there it is the experience of awe beyond the pale of any anthropomorphic deity, it is the Great Mysterious or Unity in which we live. This day that is what I see in Grandfather’s words and the tellings of so long ago. We are all related!

Jay Hansford C. Vest, Ph.D.
Enrolled member Monacan Indian Nation
Direct descendent Opechanchanough (Pamunkey)
Honorary Pikuni (Blackfeet) in Ceremonial Adoption (June 1989)
Professor of American Indian Studies
University of North Carolina at Pembroke
One University Drive (P. O. Box 1510)
Pembroke, NC 28372-1510 USA

Top photo by Michael Lane. Bottom photo by Roblan.

Marmot Country

“Human attention on wildlife naturally falls on the glamour species. Nowadays everyone wants to save the whales, but how many people are campaigning to save the krill on which the whales depend for their survival?” E. Donnall Thomas Jr., Montana Peaks, Streams and Prairie, A Natural History

Marmot on granite bouldersThe climb from the visitor center to the top of Pompey’s Pillar along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana is not a long or strenuous one. And although the contrast of this rocky sandstone formation to the plains surrounding it can be of great interest and of a certain beauty, that is not why most people visit here. Pompey’s Pillar is of historic importance as an area where Meriweather Lewis and William Clark spent significant time during their journey as leaders of the Corps of Discovery at the dawn of the 19th century. The excellent museum at the visitor center there documents this history with displays of their travels and artifacts from the period. And high up in the rocks themselves, behind a frame of plexiglass, is the signature of Clark himself, etched into the stone. Depending on your point of view, this can be understood as an historic relic, a latter day pictograph, or early graffiti. However, the ghosts of these famous explorers are not the only things one finds inhabiting this geographic incongruity.

As you take in the sweep of the prairie and the curve of the Yellowstone River below, you are probably being watched as well. And if the chatter of birds coming from the large cottonwoods in the floodplain along the Yellowstone contain some odd whistles, don’t be surprised. You are in prime territory of the yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris), and those inquisitive and watchful balls of fur sunning themselves on the rocks probably have just given you a whistle or two. That sound is the reason that the pudgy marmots are sometimes referred to as “whistle pigs”, and their whistling communications are just as appealing to me as coyote howls. The town of Whistler, British Columbia, now a popular resort, conference center and Olympic ski venue, even got it’s name from the call of a member of this vocal mammal family, the hoary marmot (Marmota caligata).

There are fifteen species of this interesting overgrown squirrel worldwide, six of which are found in North America. That would include the most familiar and widespread member of the family, the groundhog, aka woodchuck (Marmota monax), a prime specimen of which lives under my garden shed. But the habitats of the predominantly western marmot species more often consist of rockier terrain and even alpine environments. But not all members of the species are regularly encountered. The Olympic marmot (Marmota olympus), for example, is confined to the Olympic Peninsula there. But it an iconic enough creature to be designated as Washington’s state animal. A few of the marmot species like the Vancouver Island marmot (Marmota vancouverensis) are endangered over all or some of their range, and that is a problem not only for the herbivorous marmots, but the carnivores and omnivores who consider them prey. Marmots are to varying degrees, food for species including hawks, eagles, wolves, cougars, bobcats and bears. So to the point Don Thomas makes in the introductory quote above, helping the marmots also helps many of the more esteemed western wildlife we so admire.

a yellow bellied marmot in the sierra nevada of california

But beyond that, I think marmots are quite frankly, engaging creatures in their own right. They appeal to me on a visceral level like a Jackson Pollock painting. My first encounter with marmots was at the aforementioned Pompey’s Pillar. Attracted at first by the singular whistling sound, I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of the animals in plain view. The number increased as I began to study the terrain more closely, sometimes noticing some slight movement, but most often just staring long enough to spot a stationary marmot sitting still. And often enough, staring right back at me. I found this behavior quite endearing, even over the span of the thirty or so meters between us. Spotting wildlife is sometimes like spotting a fish while looking down into the water. If you try to see the fish, you probably won’t. But if you look past the fish towards the bottom, you will often find that the fish materializes before your eyes. Once I subconsciously applied this technique to the outcroppings and ledges on the rock formation, I noted even more marmots. Although at the time, I was unsure of exactly what species of animal I was sharing my afternoon with. After spending longer than I had realized watching the creatures, I sought out a park ranger to find out what I had seen. Before I had fully spoken the question, the ranger smiled and said “Yellow-bellied marmot, we’ve got quite a few of them.”

I suppose it was somewhat fitting that my first encounter with a marmot occurred at a site commemorating the journey of Lewis and Clark, since they also encountered the species during their expedition. In various entries in their journals they note the animal as a monax, a name their “boss” Thomas Jefferson previously assigned to the related groundhog in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson based his designation of the groundhog found in his native state, on Carl Linnaeus’ nomenclature, which in turn would have been based on the Eurasian species of monax. Both Lewis and Clark took their lead from Jefferson, and dubbed the animal we now know as the yellow-bellied marmot, simply a monax. Their notes recorded observations of both the marmot in the wild, and it’s fur being utilized by the local Native American tribes such as the Shoshone and Mandan. What their field notes did not mention, was any marmot behavior similar to what I stumbled upon more than two centuries later.

I last encountered the marmot a few short months ago, in the pages of a well imagined book by Dan White entitled Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love With Camping. In a chapter about car-camping, he recounts his experience with marmots in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park in California. At the Cold Spring Campground there, his vehicle and those of other campers were set upon immediately upon arrival by marmots. Folks who have camped in areas with raccoons, might very well be familiar with the aggressive and ingenious assaults upon their foodstuffs that those bandits perpetrate. Hardly endearing, but understandable. However, the marmot behavior White writes about is bizarre to the extreme. The Kings Canyon yellow-bellied marmots have developed a taste for automotive fluids and gnaw through lines and hoses to get at the liquids inside. The website for Kings Canyon corroborates White’s report, and has an extensive marmot warning page, complete with photos and instructions of how to wrap your vehicle in plastic tarps to discourage the wily whistle pigs. Other parks such as Yellowstone scarcely issue more cautionary notices about grizzlies, buffalo or mountain lions.

marmot crossing wildlife caution sign on mountain road.

This remarkable aspect of marmot behavior triggered a bit of research on my part. I followed up with the NPS about why this might have occurred, and their consensus was that it was the combination of people feeding the marmots and “socializing” them with human presence. They think it is likely this allowed them to eventually find that the salts found on vehicle engine areas, were a substitute for salt that they lacked in their diet during drought conditions in the Mineral King area. These conditions continued over a long enough period to inculcate the behavior in this population. The extremely aggressive marmot activity common to Kings Canyon seems to be the outlier, as many locales across the west have no mention of this automotive predation, and some others have noted it to varying degrees. Sue Griffen who conducts marmot research in Olympic National Park in Washington, shared the following when I asked her if she had noted this behavior. “Yes, marmots do chew on car engine parts. I have seen them myself and heard many stories. As we had radio tagged marmots that lived near a parking lot, we were able to determine that an occasional individual would develop the habit. Other animals were never seen under cars. It was enough of a problem that I have seen hikers encase their car in chicken wire.”

On the other hand, when I contacted the Marmot Recovery Foundation on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, neither wildlife veterinarian Malcolm McAdie, who has worked with Vancouver Island marmots for past 20 years, or Executive Director Adam Taylor have ever seen Vancouver Island Marmots show any interest in vehicles. However Adam did add the following. “We’ve had cases where yellow-bellied marmots have stowed away in the underside of vehicles and chew wires, and even accidentally arrive on the Island when the vehicle next gets used. However, we’ve never seen one of our Island marmots do the same.” Interestingly, Dan White also recorded instances in his book of marmots “hitch-hiking” under the hood of vehicles, making it all the way to San Francisco on one occasion. Why were they under the hood? Maybe to warm themselves on a cold night, or more weirdly perhaps, just looking for a midnight snack.

Don Thomas, physician, naturalist, wilderness guide and author of the quote at the beginning of this essay, had a slightly different view. He told me that he has heard of such behavior in both Montana and Alaska where he has resided, but never prevalent enough to require preventative measures. And biologist Rebecca Flynn, who studied marmots on the National Bison Range in Montana asserted she had never observed such behavior there. To be certain, I have by no means conducted a scientific study. But in addition to the people I spoke with or corresponded with, I have utilized some University of Pennsylvania databases in my research. And many of the papers and articles about marmot behavior I reviewed deal with how we effect marmot behavior. This is usually recorded by the researchers and scientists in terms of metrics like population, breeding and distribution. The absence of references to the anomalous behavior I was looking for, suggests to me that in some instances the vehicle feasting marmots are actually influencing our behavior in a most singular fashion. I mean, what would it take for you to wrap your car in a plastic tarp or chicken wire every time you parked it?

Here on the east coast, I have heard reports of groundhogs chewing through underground electrical cables, but as a burrowing animal, that can possibly be dismissed as incidental gnawing. Groundhogs, including the one under my neighbor’s shed, can be destructive of gardens and even crops to some extent. But that is normal foraging, far removed from guzzling transmission fluids. So a creature that I originally found intrinsically engaging, has now become a fascinating mystery. Additionally there are conflicting reports about the effect on the marmots, if any, of the chemical fluids they slurp under the hood. The same goes for their resistance to certain sedatives. Some wildlife biologists have experienced nothing unusual in laboratory settings, while some reported marmots showing immunity to dosages effective on bears. Nature is full of surprises, especially if you look long and often enough. So the next time I see a marmot, I will regard it with new interest, as an animal no less appealing, but far more complex than first impressions indicated.