Lesson from a Mama Woodrat

We’ve been working over the past dozen plus years on a Native California ecosystem restoration project on our 1/3-acre property, and over the past two years, developing an organic fruit/veggie mini-farm, with small growing areas interspersed with the native habitat area. So, we are both providing for ourselves, and the wildlife. Last week, we discovered a nest with five baby grey-brown rats, and a mama rat in attendance.

Rats!!!

I am sure that popular opinion is that their first appearance should be met immediately with the Dalek-like exclamation: “EXTERMINATE!” followed by outright war. Especially when one is seen among human food-growing beds. As farmers we only wanted to keep them out of our food. As parents of a young child, we were also concerned with the safety against disease-vector potential for our inquisitive boy.

But as druids, we also wanted to respect the life of a devoted mother with newborn babies.  She was trying so hard to be a GOOD mother. And her babies barely had eyes open. And they were put here by Nature, just as I was. And Nature does have a way of keeping pests in balance: owls, hawks, coyotes, etc.

Our solution: we waited until afternoon, when the temps had cooled a bit, and daylight was still strong. Then, we removed the “roof” of their nesting place (boards covering the underground watering system controls), to make them feel exposed and uncomfortable — but with a running head-start before our resident owls go hunting tonight. Then, we went in to dinner. By the time dinner was over, mama rat had relocated her babies to a less inconvenient location for us.

Or so we thought.

The following day, in bright, sunny, blistering heat, I saw the mama out and about, hunting for food and/or water with an air of desperation (they are normally nocturnal) — around the perimeter of our blueberry patch.  She still had not managed to find her way through our veggie-bed hardware-cloth cages, but she was studying them, and I do believe she was working out the math.

So, what was a Druid to do?

Answer: Refuse to panic or take action in a knee-jerk response prompted by fear. Instead, adopt a meditative state of carefully observant, reverent behavior, and consider all options. Watch and listen, and phrase our questions carefully:

NOT: “Eeeek! What is it!?! How do I get rid of it?!?”

BUT: “Hello! Who are you? Why did you come here? What are you trying to accomplish? Can we find a way to live and work peaceably, together?”

It was only upon taking this approach that we discovered, upon closer inspection, that we did not actually have a brown RAT (Rattus Norvegicus — below, on right), but a dusky-footed WOOD RAT (Neotoma Fuscipes — below, on left). And the difference is huge — even though they look very similar, at first glance:

Neotoma Fuscipes (California dusky-footed woodrats) are solitary creatures, except during breeding (once or twice per year), whereas Rattus Norvegicus (brown rats) species live in groups, and breed continuously.

Neotoma Fuscipes are clean animals, pooping only outside of their nests, in dedicated latrines, and using partly-chewn leaves of aromatic plants like Bay Laurel, to keep their nests free of parasites like fleas (and the diseases they carry), whereas Rattus species are dirty animals, and pose serious disease-vector problems.

Neotoma Fuscipes has an important role in our local ecology, eating leaves and acorns, and fungi, and thereby spreading the mycorrhizae critical to the health and longevity of the native plants of our area, whereas rattus species are merely pests and dangers, eating everyone’s gardens, garbage, and pet food.

Finally, Neotoma Fuscipes are just plain PRETTIER than Rattus species: bigger ears and eyes, softer, glossier coats, and furry tails.

More info on the Neotoma Fuscipes can be found at:

http://www.friendsofedgewood.org/dusky-footed-woodrat

Yes, she might eat a bit of our veggies, now and  again, but she is unlikely to breed out of control, or spread diseases to her neighbors (us). So, Mama Wood Rat is welcome to stay.

With our blessings.

Rituals for the Summer Solstice

Here in the central Coast Range Mountains of California, where I live, the Wheel of the Year is quite different from most other places in which Druidry is typically practiced. In order for my personal practice of Druidry to authentically connect with the land, sea, and sky with which I live, it was necessary to rewrite the Wheel of the Year and develop a completely new set of seasonal rituals, which honored our local spirits of place, and the wisdom embodied by the natural seasons and cycles, found here.

The following ritual activities are those which I perform alone, on or about the day of the Summer Solstice, in an outdoor wild-space, surrounded by drippy, morning fog – preferably surrounded by giant, coast redwoods.


FOG SEASON – READ-ALOUD

I come to the Sacred Grove today to celebrate Summer Solstice, time of longest light, when the sun reaches its northern-most position, and reverses its course along the horizon, with days now shortening, as we head back towards winter.

Here in the Coast Range mountains of Northern California, summer is the Season of Fog.

While the sun is in its summer home, it creates a Pacific high-pressure zone that sends us our summer westerly winds. As those winds approach our shores, they push aside the surface waters of the ocean, allowing a powerful upward surge of icy water from the depths.  As damp ocean breezes reach our shores, the chill of this icy upwelling causes the moisture to precipitate, giving birth to the Great Fog Bank of summer.

But the ways in which we experience that fog will vary with the microclimate in which we happen to live. Those who reside near the mountain gaps may find themselves surrounded by mist on most days. Those farther inland, who are more protected by the coast range mountains, may never see a wisp. And in all cases, the weather changes with the cyclical surge and retreat of summer fog.

Within the quiet stillness enforced by the thick grey veil of fog that blankets the world, I find myself drawn to the world within, where quiet stillness may always be found, and the voice of Divine Wisdom may be heard.


FOG SEASON – JOURNEYING

Holy Book of Nature, teach me;
Holy Powers of Nature, guide me,
While I kindle Inner Light.

Enter a state of receptive meditation, connecting with the Holy Powers of Nature and the Spirits of Place, and then, quietly close eyes, and enter the World Within, watching and listening for revealed wisdom, throughout the journey. When the inner journey is complete, return to the physical world.


FOG SEASON – ACTIVITIES

Using found objects along the coast or in the forest, create a work of nature art, exploring, expressing, and meditating upon any new insights discovered during the journey in the World Within.

Summarize the results of these meditations in the form of crafts, stories, poems, or songs.


**THE LOVELY PHOTO OF SAN FRANCISCO FOG, ABOVE, IS BY BROCKEN INAGLORY, VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Lesson from Mr. & Mrs. Bewick Wren

1200px-bewicks_wren

A few weeks ago, the tiniest little Bewick wren I ever saw flew out of a bush and sat on the fence while I snipped some kale for dinner, peeping at me continually, to let me know that this bit of the yard was his, that he was watching me, and that he was NOT AFRAID of me! I wondered: should I be afraid of him?

So I introduced myself, and reassured him that I would never harm him or his family, and that he was welcome to my mini-farm as hunting ground.

A couple of weeks later, I discovered that he and the Mrs. had discovered that they can squeeze through the holes of our 1″ mesh hardware cloth (which protects our crops from rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, and crows), and inside, they have found a completely protected location in which to vacuum up pest bugs for us. Top tier restaurant dining, that!

This morning, they came to our garden with their kid.  The three of them feeding voraciously on the caterpillars that have started pestering our caged and ripening blueberries.  Mr. Bewick even came by the window to peek in and say hello.

This is the essence of a thriving gift-economy at work: we work to offer them a protected hunting ground in the mini-farm area of our yard, and nesting sites in the restored native ecosystem; they work to keep the pest population down for us.  A lovely alliance.

**THE LOVELY PHOTO ABOVE IS BY MINETTE LAYNE, VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS. MY WRENS REFUSED TO SIT STILL FOR PHOTOGRAPHS.

Lesson from a Redwood Grandmother

new-leaves-on-redwood

Earlier this week, I drove through a wall of fog to visit the coast redwoods of Muir Woods. They were sparkling in the full glory of their pale-green new growth for the year. And one of them beckoned me to touch her, and learn the reason why she lived so long: though the bulk of her body was strong and tall and tough and protective, her new growth was not merely pliable (as in other evergreens I have met), but the softest, most delicate plant tissue I have ever encountered — far softer than a human infant’s skin. It was like touching warm water. Fluid, gentle, inviting.

It is an odd combination of qualities of character that I think humans would do well to cultivate, too.

Organic Mini-Farm

Once our California native ecosystem restoration was well in hand, we began implementing the second part of our plan, which was to build and optimize production in an organic mini-farm and orchard, interplanted among the various areas of our thriving, native garden.

The first area we wanted to plant was to contain some vegetable beds.  It was located in full sun, but dessicated by icy winds from the West, all summer long, which posed serious difficulties pertaining to water use and conservation. Also, the native “soils” of our yard are composed of serpentine rock and magnesium-laden adobe clay — great for building missions, but not so good for planting and growing anything other than native plants. The soil test results came back scary:

  • Low organic matter;
  • Very low Nitrogen;
  • Very low Phosphorus;
  • Low Potassium;
  • Excessively high Magnesium (needed corrective action to leach it out);
  • Low Calcium;
  • Low Sulfur; and
  • Very low in all other “trace elements” except for WAY too much Iron.

Also, our “drainage” was non-existent. Dig a 12″ hole and fill it with water.  Two days later, the water is still there.  Rain water simply ran off the hill without sinking in at all. In order to grow food here, we needed to get really creative. So, I hit the books.

My research on annual and perennial vegetable gardening yielded a concept called hugelkultur, which attempts to recreate the spongy, fertile forest floor of Europe, by piling partially decayed logs, sticks, and compostable materials, and then covering them with soil. But we also had the problem of solid clay which has zero drainage, and allows all rain water to race downhill to the sea, without seeping in. That means that plain hugelkultur mounds would drain out the bottom, and fail.

Research into vegetable gardening techniques used in the mountains of South America led me to the idea of terracing. And I was inspired to attempt to combine the two concepts, by digging 2-3 foot deep, clay bathtubs in the hillside, in a terraced fashion, and then build hugelkulur “mounds” within those terraced bathtubs, to retain the water and encourage vibrant soil life. We then built raised beds atop those hugel-tubs, and filled them with heavily composted and amended soil of the kind that vegetables like to grow in.  Our process looked like this:

And the end result was this:

The crop plants are very happy in these beds, and since we worked so incredibly hard for every square inch of bed space, we grow vegetables according to bio-intensive gardening principles.  This, in turn, made the local critters really happy.  So, we built a set of hinged cages to protect our food crops, and also to support row-cover material to make mini-greenhouses for the cooler weather.

So, now, we can plant out a first crop in February, for June harvest, and then a second crop is planted in June, for October/November harvest.  And the bio-intensive gardening technique really seems to be paying off: