Pilgrimage of the Monarchs

She flies from plant to plant, placing her tiny eggs carefully, each one of them alone on the underside of a milkweed. Within a few days, a head is visible as a black speck within the egg. The nearly microscopic mandibles begin to munch their way out—the only meal that isn’t milkweed for their entire caterpillar existence.

For the next two weeks, the caterpillar eats and grows, eats and grows. Each time it becomes too big for its skin it molts and each of these segments of caterpillar growth is known by the magical name of instar. Instar; in-star; in the star phase of life. The caterpillar is both earth bound and celestial: small and quiet in its larval body, and in some way shining with its own burning starlight as it grows toward its wings.

The caterpillar will grow through five instars in fourteen days. If it were the size of a human baby when it hatched, it would now be the size of a standard school bus. As it reaches the capacity of its skin in the fifth instar, it consumes one entire leaf of milkweed and takes a last walk on its caterpillar legs. It may walk as far as ten meters from that milkweed plant before it climbs to a high place and stops. This could be under the eaves of your roof, the underside of a tree branch, or the handle of a wicker garden basket that sits high on top of a storage cabinet on the front porch.

Once it finds a suitable location, the caterpillar spins a little silk button in the place where it will hang for the next two weeks. Then it dangles by its hind-end, straight down from that bit of silk. Eventually the head will curl upward so that its body looks like the letter “J.” If you were watching it during the next several hours, you would notice that the skin begins to look dull, the antennae-like tentacles on its head become limp and crinkled, and it is very still. Stick around for a while and you might witness the next amazing transformation.

First, the skin on its back splits, like an old zipper with dull teeth. The shiny and smooth, milky-sea-green body of the pupa will be visible underneath. Then it begins to move, twisting and writhing and squinching its body to shed its last caterpillar skin. As you watch, the dramatic spiraling movements of the pupa intensify until the crinkled skin falls off.

At the precise moment that the crumple of dead skin falls away, a shiny black stem with barbs on the end of it appears where the hind-end used to be, and pokes into the silk button. The stem is called the “cremaster,” a name that could possibly grace a heavy metal thrash band. If you were to look at a magnified image of this structure, you might imagine a medieval barbed mace, a tool of torture. The pupa continues to writhe and twists the cremaster around to entangle the barbs into the silk. Gradually, all motion stops. It is now firmly and peacefully affixed for the next two weeks of metamorphosis.

It will be a few hours before the milky-green, bulbous pupa hardens to become a chrysalis. A series of shiny metallic golden dots will appear along a horizontal ridge in the widest part. It is thought that these golden spots are small ports for oxygen. It is now a pendant of gilded jade, fit for the gorgeous winged monarch that will, in the fullness of time, emerge out of it.

Within the chrysalis, the contents that were once a caterpillar turn to a goo in which most of the cells are indistinguishable from one another. These undifferentiated cells are now called imaginal buds, a term that might lead one to wonder about an “imaginer.” Within that creative soup, the imaginal cells gradually differentiate and reorder to form a new body, legs, and head with real antennae. The wings are the last structures to form.

In the final 24 hours of transformation the colors of the butterfly develop. They darken the chrysalis until you see rich black and orange color within, and the shape of folded wings become visible through the now transparent outer shell. In a moment’s time the shell splits and the nascent butterfly drops out, crumpled and moist and swinging slightly as it clings to the shell with its new legs. The wings look tiny and deformed next to a disproportionately large, bulbous body. Its swollen body is full of fluid that the butterfly pumps into the veins in its wings until they flatten and widen. It must hang upside down letting the fluid settle and harden to strengthen the wings before it takes its first flight.

What happens next is dependent on the season. If it is midsummer, the butterfly will fly off, find nectar, and search for a mate. It will live a couple of weeks, reproducing as much as possible, and following the milkweed as it goes. And then it will die. The spring and summer are populated with several generations of Monarch butterflies.  

If the days have grown shorter and the nights cooler, if the milkweed is beginning to die back, the butterfly that emerges will be part of the last generation of the year. Immediately its reproductive functions become dormant. Every bit of its energy is needed for what lies ahead. It fuels up on nectar whenever it can and flies south, joining millions of its kind on a trek that can be as long as 3000 miles, all the way to a tiny spot in southwest Mexico, in the state of Michoacán. This is a journey that every last North American monarch that is east of the Rocky Mountains will undertake. It will take them to the place where they will pass the winter.

Google Maps image, 9/5/20

Streams of monarch butterflies begin to arrive as the people of Michoacán are assembling elaborate altars for their beloved dead to celebrate the festival of Dia de los Muertos. They silently wing overhead and the people stop and welcome them with joyful, prayerful and tearful greetings, arms open. They are thought to be the souls of departed children returning for the festival. The color of the fluttering of thousands of wings echoes the profusion of marigold petals that grace the cemeteries as families gather to feast and celebrate with their dead while the veil between them is temporarily lifted.

Why Michoacán? It lies in the midst of three mountains in the Sierra Madre (“Mother Mountains”) which are covered with oyamel fir trees. Scientists have determined that the temperature and humidity of the air around these oyamel firs is perfect for the butterflies to overwinter in. On average it stays just warm enough to sustain their life if they cluster tightly together. Hundreds of millions of them do so, until the trees seem to be thickly layered in orange and black leaves. These trees are called “sacred firs” because the shape of them from a distance evokes the image of giant praying hands, finger tips pointing to the heavens. Imagine countless butterflies, their collective presence now becoming the shape of supplication.

Consider the following:

  • This generation of monarchs is 5 removed from their ancestors who made this trip a year ago.
  • All other generations live for only a couple of weeks while those who migrate hold on for up to nine months which earns them the name, “Methuselah generation.
  • The thin wings and tiny muscles that worked almost continuously to bring them through rain and wind and over deserts, were fueled only by nectar in a dying season.
  • The jubilant faces of the people who welcome them, the hands that pray, the beloved souls that return to feast.

These millions of monarch butterflies will cling to one another, fasting until the rebirth of spring. On one sunny morning, they will let go of their companions and with their tattered, nearly transparent wings, will flutter to the ground and drink the dew. They will find a mate, lay eggs on the nearest milkweed plant and die. A few days later, tiny caterpillars will emerge beginning a life that holds the promise of flight.

Each successive generation after this first breeding in the highlands of southwest Mexico, will fly farther from the sacred firs, following the milkweed north as it grows and blooms. Each life cycle is a step toward the possibility of one of the longest journeys undertaken by any insect on Earth.

Most will not make this pilgrimage, but all are a part of it.

Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash

Note: All photos are by the author except where noted

. . .

Ripe Fruit:

This beautiful short film features an indigenous family in Michoacán, Mexico preparing for the arrival of the Monarchs and Dia de los Muertos
Film clip from One Strange Rock featuring the confluence of Dia de los Muertos and the arrival of the Monarch butterflies

Monarch Watch is a nonprofit education, conservation, and research program based at the University of Kansas that focuses on the monarch butterfly, its habitat, and its spectacular fall migration.

The fascinating science behind the migration of the monarchs from “Its Okay to be Smart”

Connection in a Time of Distance

This past weekend, I went to walk my familiar two-mile loop around a small lake named Heart in a nearby State Park. As I parked my car in the lot near the trailhead, the joyful noise of red winged black birds claiming territory and calling to potential mates was filling the air even before I turned the car off. I got out and walked right down to the lake on a short, muddy path. The male red wings were all around, trilling their songs and flashing their gilded, bright red shoulders among the leafless brown-gray branches and last year’s tawny cattails at the edge of the water.

I stood there listening to the chorus of birds and looking out over the water. Behind me I could hear a family with small children who were talking, laughing and greeting some friends that were getting out of another car. At first, I felt interrupted by their loud communication, but then as I turned to look, I saw how happy they all were to be together, headed for an adventure. I smiled, glad that these people were taking their children into the woods despite the gray and chilly day. Usually on days like this there weren’t many people there, but on this day the parking lot was full.  

The family and their friends went off in one direction, and I entered the trail from the opposite end. As I walked farther in, away from the talking and the red wings, all was quiet except for the occasional drumming of woodpeckers and the sound of little streams running down the hillside to feed the lake. A little way down the path I paused and looked over the tree-covered hills, breathing into the peace. I could feel myself relaxing into the spaciousness of my surroundings. This was a welcome feeling in this time of worries.

As I continued walking, I thought of the many people in this world who are suffering as the global wave of COVID19 is washing through our lives, disrupting our routines, and causing challenges that threaten a sense of security and even survival for many. We have walked through a doorway that most of us would not have imagined one year ago. I can’t help but think that this situation is rapidly illustrating how truly interconnected all of us in this world are. I also think that perhaps, even in the shadow of so much suffering, we might be able to see some light. There in the fresh air of the woods I was able to temporarily put the burden of worry down. I felt a lifting and then something like joy crept in.

I met three more families with young children on the trail that day. I have been walking this loop for a few years and I rarely see families with children. On this first Saturday after school closings and a growing list of other cancellations to enforce “social distancing” here in Michigan, I had encountered four families on the trail around Heart Lake. No sports, no lessons, no visiting others. No evening events for parents and many are now home for at least the next few weeks, as well. In a time when money might become very scarce for those who are laid off, walking in the woods is free and there is little worry of contracting COVID19 out there among the trees and the birds—so long as you keep your distance from your fellow humans.

Families walking together in the woods on a chilly, cloudy day in the middle of March is a good thing. Being in nature, the part of our world that is more than human, is one possibility that can nourish us as we are all poised now in the space between worlds: the world before this global crisis and the world that will unfold in the coming weeks. We don’t really know what that will look like.

We are all called to be generous in a time of crisis like this. To give what we can to help others. I hope that landlords, businesses, banks and congress members can all feel that call and act on it. Every day there are more beautiful stories that are emerging of people and businesses responding to need and offering what they can. Truly, voluntarily sequestering yourself from others is a profound act of generosity, especially for the young and healthy who face little health risk. It involves a great deal of sacrifice. If we tune ourselves so, we might also feel generosity expressed within each of our own lives not only in response to the circumstance and risk, but also in the experience of spaciousness that could be created by the reduction of the usual tasks and outings that occupy our time.

It is important that we remain mindful of what people are losing within this pause in usual activity: health, loved ones, security, consistent formal education, communal worship, steady income, warm meals, sleep, social and extended family connection, and even the cancellation of much anticipated important events like graduations and weddings. All of us have vulnerabilities of some kind. May each of us find meaningful ways to help and to connect even as we practice this new thing called “social distancing.” May we all be able to find some beauty and solace within our present days despite the challenges and concerns that we face.  

Sitting quietly on a hilltop bench about half way around Heart Lake, I surveyed the immediate area. The leafless forest around me was standing in the liminal time between winter and spring. This is a time when the moss shines and things low to the forest floor are visible before the riot of green things start their party. The view over the hillsides was open all the way to the lake below. The sun was a bright spot burning within a sheet of cloud and its diffuse light reflected in cold vernal pools here and there that would soon be burgeoning with frogs and insects. The shady north end of the wetland border of the lake still had some snow and ice. Only the sound of running water and the amorous red wings at the shore of the lake had openly declared that spring was imminent. Even as I have very real concerns about more difficulties and sorrows ahead, I am looking forward to hearing more bird songs and witnessing the emergence of vibrant growing colors in these woods as life rushes in.

All photographs are my own, taken March 14 and 17, 2020 on the Heart Lake trail in Bald Mountain State Park, Lake Orion, MI. All rights reserved. Please contact me directly for permission to use any part of this post.

Ripe Fruit

  • Even while observing “social distancing” you can take yourself and your family out for a hike. If you live in Michigan here is an online trail map that you can access: Michigan Trail Map

Roots and Fruits

The Heart Lake loop trail at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area
Lake Orion, MI

“Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”1

Robin Wall Kimmerer

Shortly after the fall equinox, on the last day of September, I took myself for a walk in the woods—a two-mile loop around a small lake named “Heart” that I return to regularly and have grown to love. I meandered along the trail, taking my time. There were wild rose-hips, partridge berries, dogwood berries, red viburnum, hickory nuts and acorns.  With each breeze a small flock of leaves swirled slowly down to the ground. I could hear acorns falling, hitting branches on their way and landing in the dry leaves. Everywhere there was a rustle of small animals moving and foraging through the brush. Fallen logs to the side of the trail were marked with piles of empty hickory nut husks and acorn caps and shells left behind by feasting squirrels. Mushrooms were often sporting the silver traces and holes left behind by snails and slugs eating their fill. I felt as if I had crashed a quiet party.

I began to notice the gorgeous diversity of mushrooms springing up from the forest floor, on the mossy standing tree trunks, clustered on wind-fallen logs and the rotting left-behind stumps. Mushrooms are the showy fruiting bodies of fungi and what we are seeing is but a tiny and ephemeral fraction of the whole organism. The bulk of the fungus is the mycelium, the underground net that spreads in some species for thousands of acres. The largest single organism that has been found in the world is an ancient honey mushroom fungus (Armillaria solidipes) that lives in Oregon. Its mycelium spreads for 3.7 square miles.2  When conditions are right, fungal mycelium will form buds that ripen into delicate fruiting bodies of various shapes, colors and composition, each species with its own type of mushroom. Within a very short time—from a few hours to a few days—they will produce and send out reproductive spores and then rot away.

For hundreds of generations the wisdom traditions of indigenous people have understood the entwined nature of life on earth and the gift of being a part of creation. In recent years scientists have been collecting a great deal of new data that tells a deep biological story of interconnectivity in the forest. They have discovered that these vast networks of fungal mycelium live in a complex, mutually beneficial relationship with trees. There are a few fungi that are considered parasitic to trees, like most honey mushrooms, but the great majority of forest fungi are beneficial and necessary to the wellbeing of the whole forest.

Fungal mycelium spreads out in a vast network of tiny branching tubes. These microscopic root-like tubes entwine with the finest roots of trees and connect them across long distances to each other. Some mycelia actually penetrate the roots and begin to grow within them. This entanglement of mycelium and tree root is known as mycorrhiza, which literally means, “fungus-root”.  

Mycelium under the leaf litter on the forest floor

In this symbiotic relationship the fungus receives sugar that the tree makes through photosynthesis. Fungi cannot photosynthesize and need sugar for energy just like every other life form on earth. In return, the fungal mycelium, which has been busy extracting important mineral nutrients like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and copper from the inorganic rock particles in the soil, gives the trees these essential nutrients enabling them to grow tall and thrive. Trees are unable to extract enough of these soil nutrients with their own naked roots and are dependent on the fungus for the quantity they need in order to become such giants on the earth.

In addition to this nutrient relationship, scientists have also established that these mycorrhizal networks spread extensively throughout the forest, intertwining with each other and providing ways for trees to communicate with each other via hormones and nutrient sharing. It has been found that trees use this network to specifically favor and care for their genetic offspring that are small and shaded by the tall trees around them and have difficulty getting enough sunlight to photosynthesize well. There are also accounts of old trees that have been injured by fire or lightning or sickness who are nursed by surrounding trees with the sugar they produce. Messages about insect invaders and other threats to survival can also be sent so that neighbors might have time to put up chemical defenses.3

All of this has been cleverly dubbed “The Wood Wide Web” and demonstrates a beautiful depth of interconnection. It illuminates the wholeness and necessity of interdependence and the idea that the forest is actually functioning like one giant living organism itself. This knowledge is a precious gift to our society that seems to be so focused on individualism, nationalism and net gain to the detriment of each other and the planet. It is an example of the unseen structures that are indelibly interconnected with the seen world, in this case “unseen” because much of what is going on is microscopic and deeply buried under the surface of the world we walk on.

Any opportunity to be amazed and full of wonder at what is quietly happening out of our normal range of physical senses, and regardless of a myopic resource-driven mentality that seeks to simply extract and use, can be an invitation to begin a process of healing the human separation from the reality of our existence as a mutually dependent organism within a much larger system of which we are a part. The Wood Wide Web may remind us that there are unseen interconnections between us that go deeper and wider than our bodies occupying common space on the surface, like trees that have been thought of as single and solitary, but living in groups. We are linked deeply with each other and with other life. We are not merely trees, we are the forest.

As I slowly discovered more and more beautiful mushrooms during my walk, I was thinking about people. I was thinking about how most of who a person is, the interior self and the soul, is under the surface and that possibly what we see in the outside world could be like a fruiting body that is made to procreate in the deepest sense of the word.4 There are powerful lessons we might learn from the fungi and the trees about being alive in a body on this earth, being in community with others and how we may be inspired and supported in ways that we cannot immediately see or measure in the outer, above-ground world or in the moment.

I also thought about generativity and offerings. In the creative process, much of what you have to offer grows from within before you can send up your own fruiting body that may generate new life and connections. That fruit may also become food for others. Your own deep network of tiny roots is intertwined with a vast network of support within the ground of your being. Through that immense interconnectivity, we touch others in ways that are unseen—sharing dreams, loves, fears and hopes. Out of that sense we may be inspired to act, to turn toward this place of collective generativity within and offer what we can out of it to bring about healing, caring and building new ways of being in the world together.

I had gone to the woods, as I often do, for inspiration, for beauty and for renewal. I am finding it difficult not to feel weighed down in this world right now and I know many are feeling that weight. Nearing the end of my loop on the Heart Lake trail, I thought again about the fungi. The most prolific times for mushrooms are spring and fall, the transitional seasons. Fungus is also particularly good at transforming dead things into valuable nutrients for the rest of the forest. That is a kind of restorative and generative work and it contributes to harmony and balance.

The Door to Heart Lake
September 30, 2019

May we be humble enough to receive wisdom from the forest fungus and the roots of trees.

May we find hope through stories of co-creative and regenerative relationship.

May we wonder at the beauty and balance of a system of interconnection like that of the trees and the fungus.

May we each realize our deepest connections and send out our own fruit into the world.

And in so many ways and for so many reasons, may we know that we are not alone.

Ripe Fruit


RadioLab: From Tree to Shining Tree -If you want to know more about the Wood Wide Web, this episode of RadioLab is a good listen.

“A forest can feel like a place of great stillness and quiet. But if you dig a little deeper, there’s a hidden world beneath your feet as busy and complicated as a city at rush hour.”



Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2013, Milkweed Editions Pub.

This is truly one of the most gorgeous and powerful books I have ever read. Her writing is deeply rooted in science and indigenous wisdom and reading this book is like a long drink of water to one who is thirsty. It is a treatise on love for the earth and all that lives upon it.

From the back of the paperback edition: “As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these lenses of knowledge together to show that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires that acknowledgement and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings are we capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learning to give our own gifts in return.”

Notes and Sources:

1. Quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s, Braiding Sweetgrass. See above for more details.

2. Fleming, Nic. Nov 19, 2014. The Largest Living Thing on Earth is a Humongous Fungus. BBC Media http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141114-the-biggest-organism-in-the-world

3. In addition to the RadioLab podcast mentioned above, there are several other great sources for more details relating to the reality of the Wood Wide Web. Two that I have learned from are 1. German forester Peter Wohlleben’s 2016 book, The Hidden Lives of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate–Discoveries From a Secret World (Greystone Books), and Canadian forest ecologist, Dr. Suzanne Simard’s TED talk from 2016, “How Trees Talk to Each Other.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Un2yBgIAxYs

4. The most common use of the word “procreate” is in reference to producing genetic offspring. The Dictionary.com definition of the word is: “procreate (verb): 1. to beget or generate (offspring). 2. to produce; bring into being.” I have heard people who are engaged in creative work refer to the fruits of their labors as their “babies” and are often bringing this work into the world out of a kind of love or as the result of sense of a calling forth. Procreate seemed a fitting word to use here.

All photos are my own, taken September 30, 2019

All Our Relations

“The Wisdom of the Universe” Painting by Christi Belcourt, 2014
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

To dream of the universe is to know that we are small and brief as insects, born in a flash of rain and gone a moment later. We are delicate and our world is fragile.

Linda Hogan 1

During a recent trip to New York City with my family we spent a couple of hours in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). While there, we visited the Hall of Biodiversity which focuses on the abundance of life on earth and the factors that threaten it. Within that hall, an exhibit called “The Spectrum of Life” contains a collection of over 1500 preserved organisms and models that are artfully mounted in a dense, floor-to-ceiling display that stretches for 100 feet. The microorganisms, plants, fungi and animals in this display are only a tiny fraction of the total number of species on earth, which is estimated to be anywhere from 8.7 million to 2 billion, though scientists have only identified and cataloged 1.5 million, so far.2 Even so, the display is a representative sample and is arranged to show the evolution, taxonomy and astounding variety of life. If you gaze up into the seemingly infinite night sky and ponder that in the entire universe earth could be the only planet to have life upon it, the abundance of life here seems even more precious.

The Spectrum of Life”, Hall of Biodiversity, American Museum of Natural History
June 2019

Life’s extraordinary diversity and specialization is a wonder that becomes amplified if you consider that every place on earth has an interconnected community of living things and each of these ecosystems is seamlessly woven into a whole dynamic tapestry of connection. This biosphere of all life and its coherence with the atmosphere, hydrosphere and geosphere as these living things go through their unique patterns of living, reproducing, dying and decomposing, has been described as one whole self-regulating system that, when balanced, maintains the very conditions that are necessary for life to continue on earth. This idea, called the “Gaia Principle” after the Greek earth goddess, was introduced in the mid-1970s by chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis. Over the past forty years the theory has gained traction as more and more research on the atmosphere, oceans, climate patterns, ecosystems and the effects of ecological imbalance have provided increasingly more support for it.3

John Muir famously said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Contemplate this idea for a moment. Imagine our beautiful blue planet as a living, breathing organism made up of billions of specialized parts like your own body. In your body, if one part begins to fail, the rest of it is challenged. The body can adapt to some losses and learn to function and even thrive, but too much damage, whether all at once or over many years, or the loss of a significant organ can lead to death or a serious compromise in the quality and duration of life.

“The Blue Marble”
a famous photograph of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of Apollo 17

There is not one organism, including us, that can exist without multiple connections with other species. The myriad of ways we have all co-evolved on a massive scale over the 3.8 billion years that life has been doing its thing here, points to endless creativity and a quality that could be described as a kind of intelligence in the adaptive ability that is possible in molecules of DNA as life mingles, reproduces and interacts with the environment. Though we often seem bent on separating ourselves from the rest of life, humans are deeply connected with all life forms. Mystics and poets have understood this for centuries and scientists have steadily uncovered more and more evidence to illustrate this reality. The more we discover about the origin and growth of the complexity of life on earth, the more clearly we see and understand the depth and breadth of common connection that we all share. The genetic code within our DNA, the molecular “blueprint” that makes us what we are, has more in common with just about any other form of life than it has unique differences. We are all essentially related to some degree at the molecular level.

Consider the 40,000 different species of vertebrates that make up all mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish: each of these at the early stages of embryonic development, leading up to and including the formation of the vertebral column, are virtually indistinguishable from each of the others. You were once identical to a trout or a corn snake or a goat or a sparrow or a toad. The Lakota people of the North American Plains have a sacred phrase that is both a greeting and a benediction, “Aho Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ”, which translates to “we are all related” or “all my relations”. At a fundamental level, we are all one: made from essentially the same stuff, arising in unique ways as integral parts of one immense, dynamic body. This is an elegantly beautiful reality and perhaps if more people knew it and felt that sense of kinship, we would love and care for the whole of existence more attentively.

“The Birth” Column on the face of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City
June, 2019

Life on our planet is in need of some love and care as we are living in a time of great challenge to the integrity of earth’s ecology. On May 6, 2019, after 3 years of metanalysis of research that has been conducted all over the world, the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released its “Report on Biodiversity”, which affirms that we are in the midst of the 6th mass extinction that our planet has experienced in its 4.5 billion years of existence. The new era that humans have ushered into geologic time is called the Anthropocene—The Age of Man. Unlike the other mass extinctions in earth history that were mostly caused by climate and sea level change related to unavoidable cataclysmic natural disasters, this one is due to the unbridled activities of humanity and therefore based on avoidable choices that have continued because of greed and ignorance, despite decades of warnings from the scientific community.

Over the past 150 years, as we have taken what we have wanted from the natural world, extracted resources with abandon, and indelibly changed nearly every ecosystem that exists on our planet, we have brought death and destruction to many organisms. Global climate change is rapidly accelerating because of our incessant burning of fossil fuels and simultaneous deforestation of the planet, expansion of corporate agricultural monocropping and population sprawl. The UN report warns that “around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.”4

The scope of this loss is hard to process. Do an internet search on the phrase “climate grief” and you will find numerous articles describing and addressing how people are feeling a lack of empowerment and hopeless. The thing is, grief is a natural response to loss, and fear and anxiety are common when we perceive impending loss. It can help to gain a more expansive perspective.

Forms of matter are impermanent. No thing lasts forever in its present state and the enlivened matter that we call “life”—whether it arises from seed, spore or egg—seems to be doubly vulnerable as the living spark within it will also depart in addition to the inevitable degradation and reformation of its body. What happens to that life energy, the animas of being, is a mystery and the subject of much contemplation among humans. To be alive and conscious of one’s earthly terminus is both sobering and beautiful. It can lead to reflection on how days and years might unfold within the fullness of the whole, what gives that time meaning, and what might be left behind when your own life spark leaves the matter it has animated.

“Memento Mori” Column on the face of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine,
New York City, June 2019

During medieval times, many Christian monks engaged in a spiritual practice known “Memento Mori” which is Latin for “remember that you will die.” This may seem dark and depressing, but Douglas Christie, the author of The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, suggests that memento mori “is not a morbid preoccupation with death, but a recognition of its inescapable presence, and of the way awareness of its presence can shape experience and sometimes contributes to a greater attention to life.”5 Becoming conscious of mortality can lead to an openness toward joy even as you might feel grief and sorrow over loss. An appreciation for what you have in the present moment, for the beauty of existence, can be cultivated. This awareness can also bring about a sense of humility as one comes to terms with the limitations and fragility of this life and desires to make the most of it.  

There is some hope. The UN “Report on Biodiversity” also tells us that it isn’t too late to make changes that could stop and even reverse some of the effects of climate breakdown. Those changes need to be made through cooperation on a global scale and they need to be made right now, not in 30 years. This will involve deep commitments to change commerce, resource usage, energy and behavior. Our present world seems so divisive and myopic that a sudden global unity and shared vision toward a common goal seems like an unrealistic dream. This is a harsh reality to process. But science and experience tells us that even in the face of possible annihilation, life as a whole forges on, tenacious and driven toward continuance, enduring change in whatever ways it can. It is unlikely that the earth will cease to have life upon it, at least until the sun nears the end of its life cycle in another 5 billion years and expands to consume it.

A good place for us to start healing in a time of loss, is to forge connections. If this current situation is a product of separation from the reality of our interdependent existence, then finding ways to connect, to find beauty, and to love one another and yourself is an antidote. We don’t all travel the same path in the same way. Find a path that works for you. Make art. Take a friend for a walk in the woods. Build community. Read. Listen. Think. Observe. Cultivate awareness of how things connect. Follow the loose ends of threads to find what they are hitched to. Have real conversations with others. Show up for elections and support leaders who understand science and history and poetry and love, and who care about all of the life in this world. Become a leader to foster the kind of world you would like to see, even at a very small level. Pay attention to how policies and choices ripple outward and what the intended and the unintended consequences of them are. Seek a spiritual practice that resonates with your soul and helps you to feel a sense of wholeness so that you can continue to act with love in the world. Cultivate gratitude. You don’t have to do all of these things, but find something that brings you to life and enables you to live into your own fullness.

“Those Who Have Ears” Column on the face of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City, June 2019

Don’t be afraid of grief. Grief is inevitable, just as death is. Accept that loss is a part of life and find joy anyway. As I left that museum hall full of the abundance and gorgeousness of living things, I fervently hoped that in a few short decades this collection would not take on a whole different focus as an expanded record of extinction as more and more threads of connection unravel from our collective tapestry of life. As I am here, in the middle of my life contemplating all of my earthly relatives at the brink of the Anthropocene, I intend to love this world with all that I have to give. Let’s do that together.

Thank you for reading! Writing is creative work that, like all art, is most often done in solitude. It is joy to find that anything offered here is moving or meaningful to someone else. If anything struck a chord with you as you read this piece of writing, please consider sharing it with a friend. ❤ Michelle

Ripe Fruit:


For some simple, inspiring songs that can lift you up and serve to build community check out Mamuse. http://www.mamuse.org/


July 5, 2019 “When it comes to climate change research, most studies bear bad news regarding the looming, very real threat of a warming planet and the resulting devastation that it will bring upon the Earth. But a new study, out Thursday in the journal Science, offers a sliver of hope for the world: A group of researchers based in Switzerland, Italy, and France found that expanding forests, which sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, could seriously make up for humans’ toxic carbon emissions.”

Read more at: https://grist.org/article/stop-building-a-spaceship-to-mars-and-just-plant-some-damn-trees/

Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg is a 16 year old girl from Sweden who has been speaking uncompromisingly to adults and organizing school strikes throughout the world to draw attention to the reality of Climate Change and to hold our feet to the fire for action. If you have not heard her speak yet, try this one (you might need some kleenex):

Notes and Sources:

  1. Epigraph: Hogan, Linda. (1995) A Spiritual History of the Living World. W.W. Norton & Co, New York. p 126 in the essay, “The Voyagers”. This is a beautiful collection of essays!
  2. University of Chicago, Aug 30, 2017. A new estimate of biodiversity on Earth. https://phys.org/news/2017-08-biodiversity-earth.html
  3. The Gaia Hypothesis, PDF Harvard University, various contributors https://courses.seas.harvard.edu/climate/eli/Courses/EPS281r/Sources/Gaia/Gaia-hypothesis-wikipedia.pdf
  4. “UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’ ” https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/
  5. Christie, Douglas E. (2013) The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology. Oxford University Press, New York. p 91

All photos are my own except where noted in the caption.

Calling All Earthlings

creek time

Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.

Rachel Carson1

There was a light rain, on the day that our school celebrated Earth Day. Even so, I decided to take my science classes out to the woods for a silent walk to observe the little ways that spring was taking hold in this cold and wet April. One by one, with ample space between each, the kids quietly walked a stretch of our creek-side path through a narrow streak of scrappy woods. My heart warmed with the sight of them slowly walking, looking around and up, sometimes touching things or stopping for a few seconds to watch the creek water flow by. These kids, most of them non-stop talkers, were magically silent.

When we got to the end of the path, we gathered on an old cement bridge spanning our creek to share our observations. The kids noticed many things: the smell of rain and wet earth, birds singing, the sound of water rushing, green plants coming up out of the leaf litter, a few small flowers beginning to bloom. We spent our remaining time having stick races from the bridge and crossing the creek on stepping-stones. It was really lovely. No one complained about the rain, but several kids thanked me, and I heard many cries of disappointment when the time was up. It’s a good thing that we will go out again soon!

the delicate trout lily, a spring ephemeral wildflower

Many kids at school tell me that they do not spend much, if any, time outside of school exploring in a natural setting. This may be related to recent studies that have found that children between the ages of 2 and 18 are engaging with screens between 4.5 and 9 hours per day depending on their age, and that number excludes time spent doing work associated with school. Similar studies have discovered that adults in the United States spend over 11 hours per day on average looking at and interacting with screens.2 It does not seem a stretch to suggest that, for many of us, precious leisure time outside of our scheduled activities appears to be spent in a virtual world.

This disconnect from the earth is to the detriment of the health of both the planet and ourselves. There is mounting evidence of climate change and other numerous environmental challenges, which indicates a lack of care and understanding of natural systems. In addition, one doesn’t have to look long to find a multitude of reports relating to human mental health and increases in loneliness, depression, isolation, and behaviors associated with rage.3  We are pacing the cage in discontent, but many do not seem to recognize the ways that the typical modern American lifestyle actually contributes to the confinement of our spirit.

The word “human” and the word “humus” (as in rich soil) are rooted in the same Proto-Indo-European word for “earth”.4 We are earthlings. People of the earth. We yearn for connection to real life and often we do not recognize that this is what we yearn for because we are so separated from the living breathing world. We are creatures who have become increasingly more disconnected from the reality of our creatureliness as our modern, technological world has grown.

Taking the time to regularly walk a forest trail or sit for a while surrounded by other wildly living things is an integrating and freeing experience that connects you to a reality that is so much larger than your own small life. Encountering the real, sensual world of nature may enliven you in ways you do not expect if you haven’t done so in a long time. Time in nature fills me with awe and wonder for the beauty and complexity to be found, and with gratitude for its existence. It is a homecoming; a healing and grounding practice; an opening for spiritual renewal. My awareness of the cycles and changes and habits of other living things places me upon the earth with them. They are not strangers, and I realize that they and I are threads in a common weaving.

the opening buds of skunk cabbage flowers in a vernal pool

In the past 10 weeks, over the course of several walks, I have traveled through the end of winter and into the slow unfolding of the first half of spring—a time when those of us in the top quarter latitudes of the earth are hungry for the color green. Now, as April turns to May, our winter hunger is feeling tended. The daffodils are peaking, and small leaflets are visible on the branches of trees. After several rains, the grass is vibrant. A few weeks ago the geese returned, honking and squawking as they flew back to their nesting areas. All of this is just the beginning of the flood of life that will come within the next several months.

I could tell you more about what I have noticed, like the ways that the shadows of the trees have changed or about the transformation of the watery places, but what I really want to do here is to encourage you to go and see for yourself. Ideally, go to the nearest place that will take you deep enough not to see many signs of the world built by people, but if a city park is a more realistic option, go there. If you already have a habit of doing this then you understand. Invite a friend who has not gone for a walk like this in a long time to accompany you. If you have a child, take them with you to explore.

beauty where you might least expect to see it. . .

When you get there, breathe deeply, open your eyes and listen. When you come to a patch of moss, bend down and stroke it lightly with your fingers. Notice the rich textures all around you. Look up and look down and see the endless variation in shades of green and brown and whatever other colors you can find. Lean in and smell the bark of the trees. Feel the way your feet navigate the uneven, unpaved earth. Let go. Allow yourself to be amazed and to be a part of it all. You don’t have to stay for a long time but try to return again soon. Look for changes. There is always something new. Your identity as an earthling among other earthlings will grow.

To really value and love something, you must first be aware of it and then spend time with it. When you expand your awareness of the rhythms and beauty of nature, you may also discover great interior riches that offer healing and sustenance. The love that blossoms within you as your connections deepen may radiate out to grace the very earth you are walking on and the lives of others upon it.

moss in early spring, sending up slender threadlike stalks that carry capsules of reproductive spores

Ripe Fruit:

Poor Will’s Almanack: Bill Felker is a long-time daily observer of nature. Each week he records a sweet 3-5 minute podcast for WYSO Public Radio in Yellow Springs, OH (also syndicated on NPR) in which he shares his tender phenological observations of seasonal changes around his home and connects them with bits of old and new knowledge, and little stories from his own life. Something to look forward to every Tuesday! Check out this episode that connects to deeply experiencing the world outside your door:

Poor Will’s Almanack: April 23 – 29, 2019

Illuminating Article:

“Real Wealth Resides Under Our Feet”, by David Korten, Yes Magazine, April 23, 2019

“Humans lived nearly 200,000 years without money. No human has ever lived without soil.

Somehow the extent of our human dependence on soil as the foundation of life and all real wealth had previously escaped me. Without soil, Earth is just another dead planet among the trillions of such planets in the cosmos. We would not exist. Could anything be of greater value to us than dark, rich soil teeming with microbiomes, worms and insects?”


Notes and Sources:

1: Epigraph: Carson, Rachel & Linda Lear, editor. (1998) “The Real World Around Us” in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, Beacon Press, Boston. p 160

2: Brooks, Mike. (12/26/2018) How Much Screen Time is too Much?, Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/tech-happy-life/201812/how-much-screen-time-is-too-much

3: Ali, Shainna, PhD. (7.12.18). What You Need to Know About the Loneliness Epidemic, Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/modern-mentality/201807/what-you-need-know-about-the-loneliness-epidemic

4: Vadella, Joseph. (9/8/17) Origins of “Human”, in Linguistics: Historic and Modern (Blog, references included.) https://sites.psu.edu/josephvadella/2017/09/08/origins-of-human/

All photographs are my own.

Sharing the Fruit

“Fruit is always the miraculous, the created; it is never the result of willing, but always a growth.”
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

As I begin this blog project, the red clumps of maple flowers are beginning to fall from the branches of the trees on my street. Pretty soon the leaves will bud out and grow to fill the canopy. Early spring brings subtle changes, but as April progresses and spring comes to fullness here in Southeast Michigan, green will overtake the quiet grays and browns that have dominated for these past several months since November. There will be many more flowers that splash this greening with vibrant color. This is a season of buds and blossoms and therefore a time of rebirth and an anticipation of fruits that will form.

I don’t remember the first time I went to pick berries, I was very young. From that early age, if my father and I were together when the wild black raspberries ripened in early July, and there was a bramble near, we would go and gather them. We filled our mouths and old coffee cans with the sweet fruit that my grandmother transformed into delicious jam and pies to eat with ice cream.

Blueberry picking with my dad in June, 2016

In the raspberry bramble with my dad, I learned of the pleasures of quiet, companionable work and the treat of eating fresh sun-kissed raspberries that were like a gift from the generous earth. There were also other valuable experiences to be gleaned there. I learned to identify poison ivy which often grew near the wild brambles. I learned to allow the bees their space, not to swat at them or run or scream. I learned to look and move carefully with patience because sudden, rash movements in the thorny bushes caused scratches and pricked fingers. In the end the most important lesson could be summed up in my experience that the pleasures of the berry patch were worth the occasional lacerations, mosquito bites and tired backs. There was beauty and abundance out there in the world that was worthy of the risk of sweat, sore muscles and small wounds.

Human lives are often full of challenges and heart break, fears and worries, failings and losses. There are certainly times when our circumstances, whether outer or inner, bring us into a darkness that can be so vast that it feels as if we might not see light again. This can be due to personal experiences in one’s own life and relationships, and it can be brought about by collectively difficult times in the world. Right now, many have characterized this era we are now living in as “dark times” and without going into the myriad of outrageous and heartbreaking environmental, humanitarian, spiritual and political challenges we currently face, locally and globally, I must agree. These seem like very dark times, indeed–the most challenging and potentially most destructive within my lifetime of over five decades.

Even in the most difficult of times, there is also great beauty and joy and love to be found in our lives. I can personally attest to the veracity of the suggestion that our experience of love grows and deepens as we engage in healing and learning to accept and love ourselves as we are. One could argue that the great darkness in this world is present because of an absence of felt love in those who bring about the circumstances in our world that create division and destruction. The work of healing and recognizing love is personal work, but it is essential in order to grow into our own wholeness and then to be able to pour what we have into the world and to be a force, no matter how small, for healing within it. In finding where love and beauty is in each of our lives, we may find sustenance for an enlivened, loving and active response to the difficulties in our world.

To me the ripening berry bramble is a place of abundant gifts, freely given if you are willing to put yourself there among the thorns and if you are able to accept that you will bleed a little. Life is worth the pain when you know you will taste sweetness and have something to offer to others. Setting our sights on the joy in this world does not separate us from the troubles, it enlivens us, leads us to gratitude and may give us a sense of purpose and energy for response and for the work we must do. It helps us to be strong to face the difficulties. This is why I have decided to call this blog, “Gathering Berries”.

In this offering, I aim to share what brings me to life and stimulates wonder and gratitude. I hope to provide some small points of entry to a sense of wholeness and connection. None of us are truly alone. We are indelibly interconnected with all other living things on this planet and each of us has a place in this web. Here in these written words I will share the fruit that I gather in my days and I hope that through this sharing those who come here and read might feel a sense of lightness, a glimmer of love, a feeling of connection.

a fallen maple “samara” or “key” in the moss and grass

May we be as the trees in spring.

May the brown and gray branches of our spirits
reach up toward the sun.

May we push forth our green and thriving leaves
into the warming air of spring and find renewal.

May we bend and bow, but not break
in the storms that are sure to come.

May our roots touch and share sustenance
so that each of us may know support in beloved community.

May we produce winged fruit with seeds
that gracefully spin down and away from us to the earth.

May our seeds serve to nourish and support other lives
and new saplings in seasons to come.

May the words that come to me for sharing
offer you a taste of sweet fruit.

Ripe Fruit:

The video below is an exquisite animation of flowering, interconnection and regeneration. Treat yourself!

AMKK: botanical animation, “The Story of Flowers” (Full version)

All photos are my own.