Saturday, 19 November 2016

Beauty and the Big Stink

A few days ago, I awoke with a sense of “good things happening today”. I was working on a project, and it was going well. For a change, the sun was shining. The house would be empty all morning. It was a perfect storm of good things coming together.

So I got dressed and was almost ready to take the stairs to my hideout, the studio, when Someone tapped me on the shoulder. “Excuse me, but aren’t you forgetting something?”

Gotcha! A week earlier, I’d (again, sigh!) realized I was neglecting the routine of my sit spot and a walk by the river, with the inevitable results thereof: disconnectedness from myself, my art and my Creator. I’d used the excuse of family commitments in August and September,  the record setting rainfall we’d had in October and November, and the old stand-by: somuchtodo on other days. Last week, after rough times, I started walking again...and already, just a few days later, I was off track. We are our own worst enemies, aren’t we?

So I pulled on my walking shoes and set off. So much beauty to absorb: the sun shining in a clear blue sky, the last of the colourful leaves clinging to branches, the invigorating sound of the raging river, the deep, underlying peace of the woods as I descended the path.

Peace and beauty ... and stink. Big Stink. The stink was everywhere in the woods.

We live in God’s country, they say here--the land of plenty. And the land of plenty includes salmon. All the rivers in this area are salmon-bearing streams, and at this time of year the fish come up the rivers by the thousands, already dying but needing to do that one last thing before they breathe their last: spawn. “Our river”, the Puntledge, is no exception.

Dead salmon beside their "nest" of eggs, which unfortunately have become uncovered because of the raging streams.

Because we have had record-setting amounts of rain, the rivers have been flowing into the woods and parks along their banks, carrying with them a lot of dying salmon. When the rivers recede, the woods are littered with the carcasses of these dead fish. I'm told the playing fields of the biggest park downtown had their share, too: imagine dead salmon on home plate, the outfield, under the swing sets, and in the soccer goals. Dead fish were belly up all along my walking path. Hence, the stink.

It's a good stink, though. It’s the stink of life. Salmon is a keystone species, meaning that if they disappear from the Valley, so will many other things. Bears and birds will have less food –one study showed that 137 species of fish and wildlife - from orcas to caddisflies - depend on the Northwest salmon for their survival.

The walking trail and the rivers are inhabited by a large population of gulls these days: dead salmon and uncovered eggs make grocery shopping a breeze. 

Without salmon dying in the streams and on the shores, the rivers won't have enough food to feed the new hatchlings, and the woods will become malnourished, for even the trees and vegetation depend on the rotting carcasses for key nutrients.  Up to 40% of nitrogen in streamside plants is traceable to salmon. It's even in your wine: one study close to a salmon-bearing stream showed that about a quarter of the nutrients in grape leaves came from dead salmon. They are so important to the environment, the local fish hatchery loads up the carcasses from the "egg-harvested" salmon into the back of a truck and spreads them around in the woods and rivers. Check out this web page for more fascinating facts:

In other words, there would be no beauty here without our big stink.

This got me to thinking. I do get so upset with myself for neglecting the things that I know are life-giving: walking, solitude, spiritual reading to name but three. This neglect is the “stinky” part of my life. But...perhaps it’s also true that without the stink, there will be no beauty. If I did everything that was good for me, well wow! I would be perfect. (The resident sweetie, my children and friends will be the first to say I am no such thing.) What a high standard that would be to live up to. Nobody can do it. If you think you can, you have a bigger problem.

Better then, to accept the stink and appreciate it for what it is: a reminder that there is something rotten in the state of my soul, and I’d better tend to it. That stink can be my friend if I pay attention.

So I begin again. I walked (occasionally holding my nose) and hummed a tune (Teddy Bear’s Picnic: “If you should go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise...”). I kept my eyes, my ears, my heart open to listen and take it in.

I know – the stinking salmon tell me – that beauty will come out of it.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

The World According to Crow

The crow has been a constant companion on my blogging journey.

She was the first one to whisper in my ear, “The time has come to begin working on your dream. It’s time to combine your love of art and your love of writing and send it out to the world.” Her feistiness was a teacher and an encourager. The more I learned about the crow, the more I realized that she and her family had many lessons to teach us lowly humans.

Ms. Crow and her family are big squawkers: they use their voices to alert others in their tribe about dangers. If something’s wrong, you’re going to hear about it. They share their knowledge about where to get good food. They live together in family groupings, and their extended families help raise the young. They fiercely protect their nests. They love to play and can be quite mischievous.

Crows have been known to leave gifts for those who have helped or fed them. They are adaptable to new conditions, and learn from experience. Well, I could go on and on – if you have been reading my blogs over the past few years, you will have learned along with me. We can learn a lot from the genus Corvus.

So it made sense to me that when I did self-portraits (one each time I turned the calendar on another year), I would use the crow as a metaphor for my life: a crow with beads flowing out of her beak was me, squawking, using my writing and quilting to share some thoughts with the world.  (That's her at the top of this page.) The crow dancing: that was me, too, realizing that even if I was no spring chicken, I was enjoying life.

The white crow flying out over the world, carrying ribbons and fibres to add to the tapestry of humanity was me expressing my growing awareness that we all have something to contribute to this beautiful world, and that all our contributions are important and necessary.

When I turned 68, it was time for a new self-portrait. But this one was different. I couldn’t just have this portrait feature a single crow. Call me a slow learner, but it finally dawned on me that crows don’t live alone. Rarely do you see them wandering alone through the woods or down city streets. There’s almost always a couple of other crows within calling distance. At sunset during the fall and winter, they gather in flocks, then fly to their roosts where they hang out with their friends and family overnight, dispersing in the morning in small groups to forage and explore. In spring and summer, they work together in their family groups to build a nest and raise a new crow brood. Unlike a lot of people, crows know they are stronger when they are united, when they learn that they are more alike than they are different, and that they need each other.

At the same time, over these past years of blogging and reading and learning, I have  become more and more aware of the interconnectedness of all things in this beautiful universe that we call home. Our planet is but a tiny speck in this particular galaxy in the universe, which is whirling and expanding and getting ever bigger without our lifting a finger to help it along. Yet everything we do, every word we say, every endeavor we engage in, has a ripple effect, making an impact on the future. Wow. Wow. Wow. Truly, I can’t grasp this, but I know it makes me want to fall on my knees in wonder. Also to bow my head in confession and sadness, for too often I am living my life in a state of complete oblivion, my heart and mind and senses deadened to this miracle called life.

This little wall piece is my feeble attempt to try to express some of these thoughts. I am – and you are – one of those crows, flying out over the world.

The crow’s eye view of the world shows mountains and prairies, fields and rivers and lakes, houses and towns, night and day.

This is our wonderful world, given into our care  by (at least, this is my own personal belief) a loving Creator who is exceptionally patient with and forgiving of our self-centred foibles.

I need to remember this. I need to rejoice in what we have. And I need to keep working, to work for the betterment of the flock and all those who come after. Come squawk with me if you agree. We can keep each other company as we fly through life, working and squawking all the way.