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Late May at Nixie’s Vale is lovely. I lucked out in the fly-catcher department: phoebes swoop, dragonflies buzz around (by June) and nocturnal toads set up camp beneath my deck. It has been a few summers since I’ve spotted a bat, sadly, but my woods are a sanctuary for birds. It was sunny today, and I went to the seamstress to pick up a few items that she transformed for me: It’s like getting a whole new wardrobe of clothes that I already love. I’ve gone from a size 16 to an 8-10, down to 162lbs., with a 29 and a half inch waist, having lost forty pounds over the past year. I’m just getting back to my natural shape and feel like myself again. Hurrah! My best friend from high school said I look “high school skinny.” Well, I’m wearing the old blue jeans I got in Wyoming with my cousin, Tara, in summer 2002 when I was 26! (I’m now 38, so this feels like a magic trick.) Besides feeling fit again, I feel inspired.

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Almost every day, I walk my dog through a wetland or along the road by the pond and back, swim in the lake (it’s warming up!) and do a little housework. Today I cleaned the kitchen, made a delicious lunch, which I ate while sitting on a bed of moss in my yard, overlooking the grove in my woods. I love the woods. But my new indulgence, thanks due in part to Matt’s handy work, is my hammock. It hangs between two trees at the base of a mossy slope at the far end of the yard. It’s the quilted kind of hammock designed for two people but I fit perfectly along with a notebook, water bottle–and sometimes the dog will join me and sprawl across my legs. A lush breeze sneaks through the trees from Raymond Pond and I look up at the silhouettes of tree branches, patches of blue sky beyond. Rays of sunlight pour through and fill me with optimism, hope and appreciation. 20150802_152908I feel so blessed to live here, to call this little piece of land my home. I call it “Nixie’s Vale,” but in truth, I’m just a temporary steward of the land. This spring I planted a garden with my father and I will tend it this summer, hopefully producing some vegetables. In between swims, gardening and hammock naps, I barely have time to write. Admittedly, I keep thinking of lines of poetry; I might sketch them in my notebook, but then feel more motivated to swim-walk-hike-weed-swim-cook-walk and make iced tea.

The trees at Nixie's Vale

The trees at Nixie’s Vale

Matt and I went on an adventure yesterday at a nearby tree farm and cut our own Christmas tree. We hiked up the steep hill to the high point of the farm and it was worth the trek in the bitter cold to find the perfect tree. Of course, he wouldn’t wear a coat, and I overheard several people on the trail (everyone else wore parkas, scarves, mittens, hats, ski pants, etc.) exclaiming in shock at the sight of him, “that guy is tough!” “That’s my boyfriend,” I said, “he thinks he’s impervious to the elements.” I dragged the tree hauler up the steep trail following his lead.

When we got to the top, it was worth it. A beautiful expansive view of the tree line on the 15-acre farm. He and I tromped around in the snow for about 20 minutes before we found what we agreed was the “perfect tree.” He cut it with a saw we borrowed from the tree farm. Then he hauled it.

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Despite both of us freezing our ears off, we had fun and it was kinda romantic being out there in the crisp December air, picking our tree together.

"I carried the saw."

“I carried the saw.”

It was also the first time I strapped a Christmas tree to the top of my Subaru, an adventure in itself. We decorated it last night while sipping eggnog and watching Jim Hensen’s Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas (1977).

My Woods In Winter

When I settled at Nixie’s Vale, a nod to Tennyson,
A small cape at the foot of Rattlesnake Mountain,
Rare blue butterflies flit from a black ash seep,
An ecosystem valued by the Wabanaki people
For the basket-grade texture of the trees’ bark;
I studied economic botany in college, but then
Distracted myself with conservation plans,
Policies and “best management practices,”
And the accompanying fact sheets, which
I posted online (to save paper).

In winter, without leaves, most of my trees
Lean in white arches, doors to other worlds,
Witches’ brooms at an imaginary threshold,
Or so I liked to believe, as a child of whimsy.
Since living here beside a freshwater pond,
I’ve learned about the vortex, a crossway
For the spirits of warriors and healers.
A perennial stream carries rainwater down
Off the mountain, through underground
Tributaries intersecting in a fern-filled gully
Spilling into what was once known
As “Little Rattlesnake Lake.”

Like my trees, I am a pioneer, and thrive
Even in disturbed areas, and I somehow
Hold the sunken soils together and live
Protected from storms, my curly crown
Golden-rust-colored and silky, hairy tips
And tapered branchlets like fingers run
Over pale conspicuous scars, ripened cups
Whorled and heart-shaped shields, sun
Dried, revealing the broken-off ends
That once supplied water to downy buds.

I am broad and thornless, a windbreaker
My father raised me to nibble wintergreen
And build lean-tos; I cool the temperature
Dangle catkins, a snowy, pine-needled scene;
Write a ragged understory, which needs cutting:
It’s taking seed—overgrown, too pendulous,
In the pithy soft inner core of me, all foreseen,
Long foretold in pages I once loved to read—this
Sturdy soul’s rooted in Hawthorne’s hometown.

-Leah C. Stetson

Poet’s note: This poem is part of a 30/30 Poetry Challenge in support of the Tupelo Press. Please consider making a donation or subscribing to one of their fine publications. TP Subscribe

In the trend of the Eat-Pray-Love readers’ take on “what’s your word” for the new year, I’ve been thinking of my word. At first, I thought of “regeneration.” But I shortened it.

Lena-Sokol-Water-SnakeLena-Sokol-Water-Snake2013 is the Year of the Black Water Snake.  When looking for images of the Water Snake Year, my favorite is on Mystic Medusa’s blog, depicting a snake with blue scales (at left, Lena Sokol illustration).  In Chinese astrology, the color black is sometimes expressed in blues (usually dark or deep hues), which is sometimes missed by graphic designers working on tee shirt ideas.  That’s why wearing black or blue clothing in 2013 is considered favorable for some of the animal signs, including those of us born in snake years.  Just as 2012 was marked as both “black,” the color that symbolizes unpredictability and mystery, and the element of water, we are entering a new year of deep transformation. Water snake years have historically been associated with revolutions and uprisings, such as the 9/11 attacks, during a water snake year (2001). The unpredictability of a “black” year and the changes associated with water snake years also include accidents, oil spills, plane and train crashes/accidents and tragedies. Geomancer Paul Ng breaks down predictions for different regions of the world, the economy, health and industries/business, as well as individual horoscopes for everyone’s Chinese animal sign, in his predictions for the Year of the Black Water Snake. Ng predicts it will be a year of conservation. And of course, there will be an emphasis on water.

Ever since the 6th grade, I’ve looked forward to my 36th year. As an adolescent, I got attached to the idea of all of the wonderful things I imagined myself doing at the age of 36. I’m not sure why I picked 36. A child of the ‘70s Star Wars generation, I was born during the Year of the Fire Snake. Over the past few years, I’ve learned a few things about Chinese astrology. For instance, I’ve learned that Snake was a goddess and a healer, who had the ability to transform into a beautiful woman. This Snake goddess icon in ancient Chinese mythology was charming, well-loved and popular, not at all demonized as serpents have been depicted in western folklore. Snake, in the form of a woman, fell in love with a scholar, and married him. Apparently, the snake’s natural element is fire, but it also contains the element of earth. Water snake years are yin female years, which gives them a gentle quality. Fire snake years are more confrontational, and those born in fire snake years, more argumentative. (I can’t argue with that.)

My step-dad, Michael, would have turned 60 this year. Like me, he was a Snake in the Chinese zodiac, but he was a water snake. (My mother is a water dragon. They say that people fall in love with another whose element blends well with one’s own.) In reading about the water snake years, the law and legal profession come into the mix, and my step-dad was a regulatory lawyer. He was also a gentle person, a musician, gardener and athletic swimmer. He passed away in 2011. I miss him. He and I shared an interest in astrology, feng shui, mysticism and poetry, and of course, a shared love for swimming in lakes, rivers, the ocean. He was born under the water sign of Scorpio; I’m a Pisces. Transformation is a favorite theme among Scorpios. One year in college, after taking (and bombing) a class on Goddesses, for which I wrote a paper on the role of poetry in goddess worship (and apparently did not make a compelling argument), I remember talking with Michael about transcendentalists and transformation. I think I passed along my text book to him…a book on enlightenment. (He was also a Buddhist.)yearofsnake

2013 is not only the Year of the Snake, but also contains the “wooden tiger,” which sets up some tension because there is usually conflict between Snake and Tiger. However, from what I’ve gleaned in reading about it, those with Tiger as one of their Four Pillars of Destiny may see some extraordinary events this year. In my case, I was born in a tiger month. You can get your Four Pillars of Destiny chart (for free) at this website easily. There are plenty of alternatives, such as Astrology.com, that also provide this information for free, and some of them offer more of an explanation than others. Once you know those four animal signs, it’s more fun (and helpful) to read predictions for the coming year. Another fun website I found defines the all-important “Day Master,” part of the Four Pillars chart. In my case, my “Day Master” is the metal pig. Oddly enough, when I was a child, I had a collection of small pig and cat figurines. (The Rabbit in the Chinese zodiac is alternatively called the Cat.)

Pillars of Destiny Sample

Pillars of Destiny Sample

There’s a lot more to it, if you’re interested. For example, if you’re curious about your financial fortunes for 2013, you’d have to learn your “money star,” which is determined based on the element conquered by your “Day Master.” (Is it just me, or does this sound like convoluted video game rules?) Metal overcomes wood, as in the image of an axe chopping through a tree branch. So the element of wood ties to my so-called money star. Those interested in feng shui may already be familiar with this notion. If I wanted to improve my money luck, I’d strengthen the wood elements within my home. Good feng shui:  I have hardwood floors and a healthy flow of chi. Bad feng shui:  rotten wood on my porch and two dying houseplants. See more on feng shui and improving money luck in the home.

Among the predictions for the Year of the Black Water Snake, most of the astrologers recommend going at a “snake’s pace,” and given the water influence, adopting a “go with the flow” attitude.  Water snake years are associated with long-distance travel, especially by train and sea.  Any industry that deals with water resources or earth (think environmental sciences, wetlands management) should do well, especially in areas that deal with science, research, scholars/study and technology.  Seeking wisdom, introspection and delving into serious study, or any type of education, are characteristic of snake years.  (See a typical overview for the Year of the Water Snake.)  Those working in the entertainment industry should do well, too, since the Snake is an entertainer. Unfortunately, “black water” presents us again with possible disasters, akin to what we saw in 2012, also a black water year.  Hopefully the female yin nature of the Snake will be gentle, and the disasters will be on a much smaller scale, and fewer!  In the Chinese zodiac, the Snake is also known as “Little Dragon,” so the effects of a snake year tend to be smaller than those experienced during a dragon year.  That’s a relief! At a deeper level, for those born in the year of the Snake, transformation will be a strong theme. It’s time to shed one’s skin.

Thus, my word for 2013 is regenerate. 

The Chinese New Year is in early February. Technically speaking, the Chinese calendar begins on February 4th but the celebrations won’t be until later. February always marks the start of a new year for me because it’s my birthday month. I expect those born in other months may feel similarly about their birthday months signaling a new beginning. Now off to do something about those sad plants in the kitchen…

Around 3 a.m. Sunday morning, I finally shut off the tablet and the light to go to sleep, when –as if on cue, an otherworldly howl shuddered through the woods. It was a lonely howl, unanswered. Usually the dogs of the neighborhood call to one another late at night. I worry about them since it’s getting colder and I wonder why their owners let (or make) their dogs stay outside all night. But this particular howl wasn’t dog-like, or wolf-like, or like any coyote I’d ever heard either. It was a mix of canine and human-like cries. Logically, I told myself it could be an animal in the throes of death, in the clutches of another animal, and those encounters can bring about strangely horrific sounds. Deer also make strange noises during rutting season – but it’s not the right time of year and it was only one howl, not likely a deer. I ruled out fisher, too, since it didn’t sound like a woman being murdered.

MTV’s Teen Wolf

My mind was full of inventive possibilities since I’d just finished watching the first season of MTV’s “Teen Wolf,” which is excellent. Season 2 is terrific, too, and I look forward to the third installment of the series, which is supposed to have 24 episodes. I liked the mix of settings from the woods to the lacrosse field to the classroom. It picks up on the same premise as the 1980s classic with Michael J. Fox, a movie I adored as a kid, but MTV put a slick modern spin on the story line: hunters, ancient mythology, werewolf packs. As much as I respect a girl who knows how to use a cross-bow, I had to hand it to Holland Roden, the actress who plays Lydia Martin, a redheaded popular girl, who is highly intelligent (perfect grades, leadership skills, on the path to winning a Fields Medal someday) teen-ager who plays dumb strategically. Roden’s portrayal of that complex character is refreshingly original. She’s sort of like a “Mean Girl” who gets a supernatural makeover and reveals herself to be much deeper than anyone guessed.

Holland Roden as Lydia

I think what I like best about Lydia’s character is that she reminds me of my friend, Jodie, in appearance and creative style. Jodie and I have the same birthday, and as Pisceans, we’re idealists. Lydia seems like an idealist, too, and romanticizes her relationship with her beau, Jackson, who goes through a bit of a monstrous metamorphosis, with many, many manifestations. Good thing Lydia knows archaic Latin and sees his true colors (even though he is a snake at times, quite literally!) The show is great -but if you can’t handle suspense or supernatural horror/violence, then pass on this one. This show beats the Twilight series in a number of categories, one being werewolf fights. Well choreographed! The plot is 10x more compelling in “Teen Wolf” than in many other supernatural series on screen today. Two thumbs up!

Then this morning around 6 a.m., a large dark animal crept over the stone wall in my backyard. It moved stealthily. It was bigger than a dog, even the German Shepherds on either side of my house, and stayed low to the stone wall, creeping like a cat. My dog went bananas, throwing herself at the door. My cats peered out the window. Everyone seemed to buzz with excitement. I guessed it to be the bobcat that shows up in my backyard every winter–only this year she/he is early. My cats seemed to run from window to window, taunting my dog: “the bobcat’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble, hey now, hey now, the bobcat’s back!” I waited a while before I took my dog out on her leash so she could sniff around. I could tell by my dog’s tail that the bobcat was long gone.

Tonight on my way home, after dark, the headlights of the Subaru flashed a pair of glowing eyes in a dark shape moving across the road. It looked like a very big black dog. It didn’t have a collar – at least not one that was visible – and it walked in an awkward way, its shoulders pronounced and protruding above and behind its head. It stopped on the side of the road and turned to face my car, as I slowly drove past, thinking it was a neighbor’s dog out too late, unattended. No houses or people walking nearby, no driveways around. I hope–if it was someone’s dog–that it got home alright. On the other hand, a part of me wondered if it was a stray, a lost dog or a wild dog. This area has been known for wild dogs for over 60 years, though there hasn’t been a large pack since the 1950s, according to the Inland Fisheries & Wildlife guys I asked two years ago. Around here, there is an unspoken understanding among hunters, too, that if they see an animal they believe is a “wild dog,” they’re allowed to shoot it, even if it turns out to be someone’s pet. That’s the part of the culture and deeply-embedded mythology of this place that’s real, not fiction. It’s what people believe, and what their fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers, told them as children to believe. There may not be werewolves around here, but the hunters believe in wild dogs. And they walk right through my woods at Nixie’s Vale.

After reading a blog today about someone’s plan to buy/adopt a puppy at a pet store, I remembered how happy I was to adopt an adult dog from a rescue organization in August 2009. Earlier that summer I had moved into my new home, Nixie’s Vale, which I had chosen with the big yard, long driveway and nearby walking trails all in mind…for a dog. I had volunteered in animal shelters in upstate NY back in college–and promised a bunch of cats and dogs, including a one-eyed, one-legged dog, that I would one day adopt an adult dog, rather than get a puppy. I waited 12 years to honor that promise. This is my first-ever dog owning experience.

Rescue dogs, or shelter dogs, can have special needs. A vet will tell you that some rescue dogs have been abused, abandoned or neglected, or mistreated by their previous owners. (Kids, in particular, can be cruel, and few adults  like to admit their little kids were mean to the family dog.) Keeping this in mind, adopting a rescue dog often conjures up images of dogs that bite, act possessively or high strung around strangers. I’ve met people with rescue dogs at the beach–and for the most part, the dogs got along well with my rescue dog, and there weren’t any problems. One out of every 10 rescue dogs I meet, however, have owners with “issues” about their choice in dog, or at least, some negative feelings (regret, nervousness, disappointment) in their risky rescue experience not going as smoothly as they had dreamed.

I found my pointer-dachshund, Sophie-Bea, on Petfinder.com. She was named “Bea” then and listed with an organization called Paws n’ Claws, based in Maine. But…as it turned out, she was not in Maine but in Arkansas! Hmmm. I read her little story about having been rescued off the side of a highway in Hot Springs and that she needed a  home. (She and her heinous sister had been abandoned together and the ugly wiry sister got adopted right away.)  They guessed “Bea” to be somewhere between 1-2 years, and my vet later reviewed the paperwork and said she was a little over a year by the time I adopted her. (That means she’s now about 4. )  The Petfinder.com description left out that she was part dachshund. It said “pointer mix,” which I falsely assumed to mean pointer-English pointer, some mix of two types of pointer. Once I arranged for her transport to Maine, the paperwork forwarded by the Arkansas vet indicated a good reason for why she didn’t look like a typical pointer.  Nevertheless, when she swam in the lake with me for the first time, jumping off the end of the dock and swimming out deep to join me, I fell in love and knew she was the right dog, despite her weird & unexpected mix.

Yoga

This odd mix gives her the personality of a female Snoopy but without the beagle traits. Her pretty “hot dog dog” face and long body are hard to shop for (practically speaking, orange hunting vests, not Halloween costumes) since she’s only 37 pounds but tall like a gundog. It’s her dachshund side that’s her “bad girl” side. As I type this, she hopped up next to me on the couch and I had to ask, “why does your breath smell like poo?” Argh.

Such is the life of a dog owner. (Now my dog is rolling onto her back, insisting that I pet her belly, and kicking like a four-year-old kid.) For the most part, I think she’s well-behaved. When I take her places, to swim, to walk, to play with other dogs (or kids), I feel proud when I hear people (strangers!) say out loud, “wow, that dog is so gentle with the kids,” or “I wish our dog was like that. This dog is so sweet, so well-behaved.” They don’t see her stealing the kindling from the stock by the woodstove and making a mess of sticks in her doggie bed or stealing a turkey carcass off the family’s kitchen counter on leftover day.

Team effort

Hey, it wasn’t JUST her. My brother’s dog was in on it. But my dog was most likely the instigator. She’s the master of invention when it comes to breaking the rules. Once, when a porcupine was in the yard, I figured all was well since my dog was inside. Not so. My dog rocket-launched herself through a window to dispatch the porcupine, and got 30 quills in the face for her trouble. That required a midnight trip to the vet for sedation and extraction…but she learned. The next time the porcupine was in the yard, and Sophie-Bea saw it (outside this time), she growled at the porcupine and came running back to me in a tizzy. I guess she was wearing her smart hat that day. And I managed to scope out the big hulking porcupine–climbing a tree like an ape.

Fast friends

Since adopting Sophie-Bea, I’ve learned that personality of a dog is the most important factor in choosing the right dog for a household. I’ve seen people adopt the wrong breeds/personalities for their lifestyle and it’s a sorry situation for the dog. I used to daydream about one day adopting a husky mix but my vet convinced me that wasn’t the right breed for my personality. Now I can agree with her…but there was a time when I argued in favor of a husky. They are beautiful dogs. But I lucked out with this funny pointer-dachshund, and I have to admit that I never would have considered her had I known about the dachshund part. It’s the side that makes her affectionate, persistent, sneaky …and clever. And able to jump 8 feet into the air and flip like a circus performer.

Dream analysis

It all comes down to the doggie basics: what she likes to do, what she needs, and what I can provide for her:  exercise, nutritious meals, rewards, love, shelter, companionship, discipline, er, I mean, routine, heck, a relatively diverse set of activities.  She makes friends easily. She likes to nap and daydream (and look things up her dream dictionary). She likes to dig, hunt and run. She works well with others.

And she’s not only a great companion, she’s grown more confident in the past three years, making her a competent guard dog. I named her “Sophie-Bea” after Sophie B. Hawkins, and my dog’s theme song was “Damn, I wish I was your guard dog.” Well, considering she lives between a German Shepherd named “Trooper,” and a state trooper’s dog (K-9 cop division), she’s too small to be considered a traditional guard dog. Somehow this doesn’t seem to cross her mind as an issue. She holds her own in the neighborhood. There’s no way I would have bonded with a puppy like this. Taking on a rescue dog does require a commitment and a certain openness to dealing with a dog’s special needs, when and if they arise. She loves the water, woods and wetlands, that’s for sure.

My workout today:

After a couple of hours spent stacking wood, I had barely made a dent in the pile. My trusty pointer-dachshund hunted for chipmunks, which have been hiding in the woodpile for the past month. Stacking a cord of wood by myself is a labor of love. I say that because I love the warmth of a fire in my woodstove, which is very efficient–and brings my upstairs rooms to a toasty 80 degrees on a cold wintry night. Sophie-Bea and I took a lunch break and then got back to work on the pile. I’m stacking some of it inside my garage but most of it goes under the shed roof. An aggressive army of wasps had constructed a formidable paper nest with six levels–about the diameter of half a tennis racket but overall, slightly smaller than a football. I had to wait until a chilly night to move the nest to another location on my land, far away from the wood pile, after getting stung a few times.

Progress…

Yesterday we followed the sound of a loud buzz saw down to the pond. I figured someone was  cutting firewood only to find it was not a chainsaw but a remote control speed boat racing around like something out of “The Rescuers.” My first thought: “Evinrude,” the dragonfly that transported the mice, Bernard and Bianca, through the swamp; it’s also the brand of outboard motor on my grandfather’s boat at the lake. I could see the red toy speedboat zipping around the otherwise quiet pond. Its battery-operated motor emitted an annoying high pitch noise like a swarm of insects. I like dragonflies…but not mosquitoes.

On the causeway

Before I could visually match the buzz to the little boat, I was nervous about what I was walking into–locusts? Usually the pond is a scene of serenity, not fecundity. I walked with the dog, who looked bothered by the buzzing boat, and finally spotted a grown man standing on his dock, operating a remote-control device.  Not a kid. An adult. I walked down to the causeway that connects a tiny two-acre island to the mainland and sat down on the edge, where I had a clear view of the toy speedboat. It did laps. It circled around at warp speed. Fish jumped. I half expected to see a bass take it down–a comical reverse “Jaws” scene, or again, something out of “The Rescuers,” maybe an alligator.

When my brother and I were little, we had “The Rescuers” board game (1977). Players moved around the board, decorated like a swamp, and faced off the villains: two alligators, a hip-swiveling southern woman named Medusa, and her nerdy spectacled-sidekick Mr. Spooks. Tad and I turned over cards to see which villain crossed our path as we embarked on an imaginary adventure as two heroic mice. I LOVED this game. Of course, we had the books, the game, the record. Long before we had movies on VHS, we listened to stories on the record player.

The battery on the toy speedboat died suddenly, lurching the little boat to a stop in the middle of the pond. My dog watched with concern. A slow-moving paddleboat turned toward the direction of the now-sinking red remote-control boat. Its operator paddled over in a kayak and met up with the people on the paddleboat–and the three of them talked about their collections of toy speedboats, ideal rechargeable batteries and other dilemmas. I thought, “this is a thing?” I guess this is a thing.

Today the pond, serene as usual, smelled of crisp fall leaves. Orange, red and yellow leaves floated as if on a current, racing under the causeway bridge. Yesterday I watched dozens of little fish swimming and jumping–but today I saw none. Evinrude and the Rescue Aid Society must have been charging through the marshgrass somewhere. No sign of them today.

Living next a pond–even though I don’t have direct water access–feels rejuvenating. I really feel blessed getting to drink all of this in, metaphorically speaking.

The pond beyond my backyard

Fern Gully in early spring

A few years ago, I bought a cottage on a small lot of land near a pond. It looked like a good place to live and write. I was 32 and writing about wetlands for a nonprofit organization. During my first few months, a rainy Maine summer, I fell deeply in love with my new environment. Ferns unfurled, like fingers from clenched fists, and everything gave sway to the unrelenting rains. My little four-acre refuge soaked up the water without flooding my basement. It did a job: the land, freckled with ferny wetlands—a seep, a vernal pool and a perennial stream flowed into the pond, all diverting the floodwaters. Sunlight reflected off the pond in the mornings, bouncing through the trees and in through my windows. Rays off the pond showered mirrors and walls with shapes of light like sunfish swimming from one room to another. This seemed magical to me since I didn’t have a water view or access to the pond from my property directly, but the water still made its way to me. From my upstairs windows, I looked down into a woodsy glen, a bird-haunted haven for deer, fox and porcupine. Though I’ve never been much of a fan of amphibians, I became intimately connected with the daily lives of endangered wood frogs, crawling out of the vernal pool in my woods each spring, passing by the gang of poisonous toads that lived under my deck. Their transformative life cycles and dark-throated hunger for resilience impressed me—I became obsessed and passionate about their survival. I also swam with loons here—on a regular basis, to the point where I became known as a “loon lady” in the neighborhood. I discovered rare butterflies and hummingbirds also thrived here—as would I.

Virginia Woolf’s line, “Five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate…a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself,” resonates with me. I come from a long line of women’s suffrage and a firm belief in female empowerment.  Many of my literary heroines, Virginia Woolf and Beatrix Potter, for example, wrote at a time when women were not encouraged to think for themselves, let alone express their ideas in writing.  I grew up in a Victorian family a century after-the-fact; I came of age in Victorian homes, and quite literally, one of my childhood bedrooms was in a tower. My perception of what I could do and could not do as a girl was not metaphorical; I sometimes locked myself in a walk-in closet for some privacy to write in my journal and there was nothing proverbial about having a tower bedroom as a pre-teen girl with long blond hair. A locket of my grandmother’s, that I wear around my neck, her initials dented into the back of it, reminds me of my ancestry, my heritage. I was born into the oldest women’s organization in the country: the Female Charitable Society provided education funds to young women. (I’m also a descendant of Erastus Foote, Maine’s first attorney general, born 200 years before me, and I grew up in his house, the Wood-Foote House in Wiscasset, where the FCS formed its first chapter and held its meetings at my grandmother’s house.)

The Wood-Foote House belonged to my family for 200 years

In my thirties, I mentored young women, twenty-somethings who wanted to go to college. I designed a college transitions class and inspired “success stories” among my students, helping them to build self-confidence and to see their own potential. I think I inherited that trait—to help others come out of their shell—from my grandmother.

The power to think for oneself strengthens a woman’s ability to listen to her own voice, her intuition and to trust that her memory is valid. It takes courage to see the truth and relevance in one’s own perception without constantly having to temper that narrative in a socially correct way based on outside influences—parents, employers, teachers and authority figures. For me, the power to think for oneself drives the ambition to command my voice, rather than to quiet it. This power to think for myself is a motivating force, a true north by which I navigate with an inner compass and conquer private fears of getting lost in a wilderness of my own making.

Nixie’s Vale

Mist rolls off the pond like tumbleweed. Over Columbus Day weekend, I swam in the lake with a juvenile loon, listening to its creaky voice. A flock of geese flew in a V across a sunset hazy sky. They squawked. Alone in the water, I pushed through hydrilla and slippery reeds, coiled ‘round my wrists like odd bracelets. Back home, thumps and thuds clamor through the woods. It’s just deer and moose. A murmuration of starlings explodes suddenly from trees and even the woodpeckers pause their pecking on a rotten birch. My black ash seep, Fern Gully, smells of sweet fern and wild grapes, a strange brew of grape and goldenrod. A perennial stream trickles through the woods and flows into the pond.

Woodpecker in the V branch of a birch

A neighbor told me something eerie about the land—that’s mostly forested wetlands and uplands. We live next to a pond previously called Little Rattlesnake Lake.  It was known as a sacred place. A legend told of a healing energy and spiritual protection over all who lived there. I’ve noticed that a number of healers, and others who work in the health profession, live in the neighborhood. My neighbor retold stories about ghosts and spirits, which she had believed to have seen in the woods between our houses. She thought the land was haunted. A hydromancer came with a dowsing rod and he identified several places where water was hidden underground, matching my neighbor’s maps showing the location of pipes and springs. He also confirmed her suspicion—but clarified that the area was charged with a kind of water force and spirits, and they held positive sway over the land. I listened to all of this with great curiosity because I, too, had felt good vibes. When I first moved here, I named my new home “Nixie’s Vale,” with a nod to Tennyson and to water spirits.

Growing up in haunted houses in coastal Maine, I was no stranger to ghost hunters. My family lived in a home that was featured on the TV show, “Unsolved Mysteries,” for one thing, and tourists wandered in through the parlors when I was a teen-ager.  We lived on top of Tucker’s Hill, beside the famed Castle Tucker, overlooking the Sheepscot River estuary. I loved to sneak down there in the moonlight and pad over the two footbridges to my family’s little one-acre island, named after my grandmother’s family – White’s Island. A circle of seven trees, which I thought of as a coven of witches, stood around a sunken hole, where the tree roots of one tree flipped backward underground, causing an abnormally large rounded dent. There was something spooky about it. Upon approaching it from afar, a person couldn’t tell there was a hole, since tall grass grew all around it. The result was a sort of concave grassy knoll that tripped runners and captured them like an island-sized Venus flytrap. As far as I knew, the island was haunted only by the family’s dogs, buried on the island. Gramma’s dogs, Brownie and Freda, loved the island, so we always pictured their spirited tails wagging in the eel grass as they hunted for things that moved in the rockweed. I like to think that they continue to guard the end of the second footbridge. I can never go back there, this much is true.

Islands and wetlands, especially bogs, moors, swamps, meadows and seashores, set the scene for a good ghost story. In classic literature, wetlands represented something dark and mysterious. In modern fiction, wetlands are still a preferred setting. Read a short story called, “Phantom Lovers of Dismal Swamp,” by S.E. Schlosser or the famed Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris, set in a rural swampy Louisiana parish with quirky stories of the undead.

If you prefer to curl up with a book of wetland ghost stories, try Ghosthunting North Carolina by Kate Ambrose. Most of the book is set in coastal wetlands. For more wetland “ghost stories,” see my other post. 

Two weeks ago I fell into a wetland. I slipped on a slimy rock as I snapped a photo of yellow waterlilies. I caught myself, in that acrobatic way that looks cartoon-like (if anyone was watching from afar) more concerned about dropping my camera into the water. Like any good fall, I only fell up to my knee, and managed to keep my flip flop.

ImageThe day drizzled on beautifully after that. I hiked Rattlesnake Mountain with the dog, swam in the lake and joined friends in Portland for dinner at Flatbreads. Then…if by some stroke of dumb luck, I came down with a painful summer flu, but didn’t know it. I thought I’d eaten a bad avocado (I blamed that new “slim low-cal” version at the grocery store, which tasted rancid, worse than my attempts at grad school cupcakes circa 2003) and yet, I was passing blame onto the wrong cause. I had been swimming in a lake where there’d been an algal bloom a couple of weeks prior, so that was a possibility.

Globs of algae the size of human heads floated around like something out of a paranormal dream sequence from MacBeth or one of those B-movies on MST3K. It was unnerving to bump into one of them. “Oh, excuse me,” I’m urged to say half underwater before realizing it was just another alien life-form touching me. “Oh, that.” I can handle swimming with eels, treading water against the current and having the occasional gastropod latch onto one’s foot…but I find it unnerving to swim with severed head-shaped algae pods. All of these images came to mind as I suffered through a fever of 102 degrees for 2 days last week. On Tuesday night, I called 911 and the EMTs came to my house, since I was convinced I was dying of some kind of poison, or tetanus (I can’t honestly recall when I had my last shot) or some other ill fate. It felt like my organs had seized up and everything hurt (like one of those “depression hurts; you don’t have to” commercials, only I wasn’t walking around with a cartoon cloud over my head.) In fact, I could barely walk. I crawled down my stairs to unlock the door for the EMTs. I didn’t want them to have to bust in the door. (I already have a lot of home improvement projects on my to-do list for summer 2012. I didn’t want to add “replace busted door from night I nearly died of Mystery Disease” to the list.) When the EMTs came into my kitchen, including the local doctor and fire marshall, I was reminded of an episode of “Doc Martin,” or a similar British medical comedy. Truly, a high fever can make a person delirious, so I was not of sound mind at the time. My sense of humor had gone out the window. But I didn’t die.

It is possible that I had contracted a disease related to Lyme disease, called anaplasmosis, which is more common in Maine than it was a few years ago. Its symptoms mimic a summer flu with a high fever, painful body aches and headache, etc. It can be serious, even fatal, in people with weakened immune systems.  A few days later, after the fever and the painful flu symptoms had subsided, and I was recovering on a blanket in the backyard, a shady spot in the grass, I looked up at the trees blowing ’round in the breeze. I remembered reading an article about patients who have views of trees recovering faster than those with views of brick walls. I thought, “I’m surrounded by trees. I should recover in no time!” My dog behaved well enough and liked this business of outdoor resting, guarding me closely while I was weak.  Fresh June hot air, hot enough to singe the wingtips of dragonflies, landing again and again on the same grass blade (their checkpoint) a few inches from my face, filled my lungs and all of the hollow spaces that illness creates.  I wrote under the influence of summer flu, and napped in the yard under bird song and a deep impenetrable blue sky.

Leah

Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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