The Cauldron of Cerridwen

This is a retelling of the Tale of Taliesin that I wrote after several years of reading and working with the themes of this myth. My wish is that it continues the tale like a dialogue between me and the characters, and with all of you who find it here. I hope you take away something new, and that you may be inspired to create your own version as well.

Content warning for themes around self-loathing and an unwanted pregnancy. These are elements present in the original tale, but I take a much closer look at them in this rendition.

Without further ado…

The Cauldron of Cerridwen

Once there stood a good house near the shore of Lake Bala. There, Tegid Foel lived with his wife, Cerridwen, and their two children who were quite different, but equally loved by their parents. Their firstborn daughter was Creirwy, which means “pretty one”, and their son was Morfran, which means “sea crow”.

The beautiful Creirwy was quick to smile and laugh, and she moved with effortless grace. Her little brother was ungainly and awkward with his too-long limbs, and face broken out with blemishes. He often stooped uncomfortably and kept near the shadows, as if trying to hide. Where Creirwy was full of confidence, and generous with both words and gifts, Morfran bubbled with anxieties, and self-consciously avoided attention. Each was perfect in their mother’s eyes.

They spent their childhood exploring the lake, fields, and hills around their home. In the summer, they stuck their feet in its refreshing waters. In the winter, they puffed their breath to join the fog. Creirwy’s room was on the Northern side of the house, warmed gently throughout the year by the sunshine which she greeted gladly each morning. Morfran’s room was on the Southern side, where it was always cold and shaded, and the chill seeped up through his feet.

When he was young, Morfran’s mother would tuck him in, stroke his hair softly, and tell him stories of fantastic events and heroes. He took refuge in her embrace, and imagined faraway places full of wonderful events, where he could take the place of a hero — respected, and accomplished. Gradually, he began to grow out of fairy tales, and turned his mother away from his bedside, in the manner of children who yearn for adulthood to arrive more quickly. Cerridwen treasured the hours with her young son, but she encouraged him to develop his independence, with his own opinions, interests, and skills. 

As her children aged, the expectations of the community fell on their shoulders. Visiting friends and family were full of praise for Creirwy, and the woman she was growing into. They sometimes called her Llywy, meaning beautiful. They had little regard for her brother, who was reluctant to join conversations, and had an unremarkable, ungainly appearance. They came to call him Afagddu, which means “utter darkness”. Sometimes they suggested that he could be sent away to learn a useful trade, or that he might grow out of it — whatever ‘it’ was.

Sometimes Morfran would burn with resentment for his sister, for how popular and happy she was. This was quickly followed by guilt and shame, because he loved his sister. But he couldn’t shake the unkind words of the people around them, as they seemed to confirm his deepest fears. Despite Cerridwen’s encouragement, he felt that he could never live up to his sister’s shining standard. He despaired of ever being considered handsome or respectable. Sometimes when he was alone, he felt that his parents must love Creirwy more, while merely putting up with him as a burden.

Cerridwen’s heart ached whenever she caught sight of her son wallowing, or avoiding activities he used to enjoy, due to his low self-esteem. Hoping to boost his confidence, she planned a party for his 13th birthday. She made him a handsome suit of rich, embroidered fabric. She combed his hair and praised his reflection in the mirror, with a kiss on the cheek. His shy smile made her heart swell with love and hope.

The party was full of feasting, music, and dancing. Many people traveled from neighboring towns to honor their family with gifts, and enjoy the excuse to gather socially. Creirwy was stunning in her dress of light, flowing fabric. She glided through the room, welcoming everyone with her dazzling smile. In the firelight, she looked like a sparkling jewel.

Morfran dutifully attended the floor, being the guest of honor, but he felt awkward among so many strangers. It seemed like their judging eyes were always on him from the crowd. He soon returned to the edges of the room where he felt more comfortable, and avoided conversation. As the afternoon went on, Cerridwen watched his awkward, stiff posture and ready grimace deter would-be dancers from his path. By nightfall, his scowl prevented anyone from approaching, as he sulked in a corner, feeling unwanted. Every curious glance seemed full of scorn, and it fueled his jealousy of the merriment on display until at last he was able to return to his room.

Day by day, his insides grew ever twisted, as his anxieties fed back on themselves. Every unkind word he had ever overheard seeped under his skin, until he couldn’t look at himself in the mirror without categorizing every feature as imperfect, ugly and unbearable. His own face became a prison for his pent up emotions. His peers were as outwardly judgemental as his inner voice. Despite hating their rude comments, he couldn’t stop hearing them echo in his mind. He became increasingly reclusive to avoid the negative attention.

Cerridwen couldn’t bear to see him this way. He was handsome and capable in her eyes, but she heard the opinions of others. One day, after watching her dear son struggling, her resolve sharpened into a plan. She would develop her wisdom, craft, and magic into a means to give her son a peerless intellect. That way, he could at least be respected across the land for his mind, even if he would never be admired for his face. She would prepare a draught that filled him with great knowledge, the clear sight to apply it, and a confident voice to share his ideas.

To this end, she prepared her favorite dappled white mare, and gathered supplies for a long trip. She rode away from the lake, over fields and hills. Soon she was shaded by the towering trees of the forest, and beyond that, the base of a mountain. The slope was steep and rocky, with a harsh wind, but her horse carried her steadily upward until they arrived near the top of the mountain where Dinas Affaraon lies.

On the mountain was a lone tower, where the wise gathered to study ancient tomes and reflect on the world from their great distance. Cerridwen consulted with the wise folk and searched their expansive library, until she found what she needed: knowledge of the elixir of Awen. She spent long days and nights by candlelight, carefully memorizing each ingredient: herbs, fungi, stones, and animal parts. She learned the names of the waters she must collect under different moons. She practiced the special words that would bring out the best of each ingredient when added to the brew. In exchange for the recipe, after each supper, she filled the tower with story and song. The tales were brought to life through her voice, until the wise ones had wept and cheered and finally slept.

After a fortnight, she rode back down the mountain, through the forest, over hills and open fields, until she could see her lake in the distance, reflecting her home in its clear waters. In the time she was gone, Afagddu had taken to hiding in his rooms, while his hatred for himself poisoned every word and deed around him as an attack on his person. He spurned his mother at the door, believing that she, too, had finally abandoned him. It hurt, but she knew that it was his pain and not her dear son, who lashed out at her.

The knowledge of a possible solution fueled Cerridwen with passion. She was determined to guide her son into a clever, confident man. As great as her skills were, she still needed help to keep the fire burning and the brew stirring while she gathered ingredients throughout the year. These were simple tasks, so she set out to hire help.

In the woods, she found an old man, bent with the weight of years, traveling with a boy about the same age as her son. Though the man walked slowly with a cane, and his eyes were clouded with cataracts, his mind was sharp. As they traveled, he instructed the boy in history, geography, and identifying the trees and birds of the area. The boy was eager to explore the forest, directing the conversation to anything interesting he noticed around them.

When Cerridwen approached, the man introduced himself as Morda – which means “good sea” – and the boy as Gwion Bach – which means “little innocent”, or “white one”. She offered them steady work for a year and a day, to come tend a fire, fetch firewood, and keep her cauldron from boiling over. Morda agreed to her terms, as it would be enjoyable work to sit by the fire. Gwion also agreed, as he was eager to be considered a man, with responsibility and money of his own. Although he wished it were more interesting and glamorous than simply fetching and cutting firewood.

Cerridwen escorted them to her home on the shore of Lake Bala. They settled around her great cauldron, which was so large that its chain was anchored in the ceiling and the floor. The door and windows were kept open constantly, to let out the smoke. It was not the most comfortable place, but it was peaceful. Gwion Bach enjoyed the lake, where he was able to watch the many animals who came to drink, and the plants changing through the year. He would fetch firewood each day, and in the evenings sit by the fire. 

Morda would entertain the boy with many tales he had learned over his long life. They would discuss their lessons, and sometimes Gwion was dissatisfied with the lack of clear answers. Some days, the boy would find an interesting plant or creature while wandering, and the old man would help him learn the little features that distinguished one from another. In this way, Morda had a comfortable warm seat to rest his joints, and Gwion had a wonderful education of the natural world.

As it was no secret that Cerridwen had hired assistants, her family learned of her work, though not its true purpose. Only Afagddu had concerns about this project. He resented that his mother was spending even more time out of the house, away from giving him attention, as she roamed to gather ingredients. She would not tell him what it was for, in order to avoid raising his expectations. His bitterness took this as her distrust in his abilities and a resistance to seeing him as a man.

Creirwy also took interest, and came by the cauldron once, just to see what was going on. She greeted the hired pair kindly. But she was not interested in sitting around by the fire or cutting firewood, and returned to her own pastimes. Gwion watched her sometimes out by the lake, riding her horse or braiding flowers. Morda teased him for his attention, and laughed at his embarrassment, in the knowing way that adults have when growing boys want to look at pretty girls. Neither noticed Afagddu, as he resented them strongly, and kept away.

For Cerridwen, the year was packed with a busy schedule. Each week there was something new to gather during that moon phase, at just the right time for a certain flower to bloom, or a rare mushroom to rise, or for the cosmos to resonate with a particular stone. Cerridwen spent long hours going through her notes, calculating just the right timing and manner to introduce each item to the mixture. She spent further time wandering through the forest, especially whenever it rained, searching for areas where something needed might appear. She was focused and determined, no less passionate about her mission than she was the day it began. But it was a lot of effort; she struggled to keep up with the daily demands of motherhood on top of scouring the wilderness for what she needed. For what Morfran needed.

Gradually, she spent less and less time at home. She stayed up later, burning candles while she worked to carefully mince and dry different herbs. She no longer had time to read to her son, or to stay and stroke his hair until he slept. Besides, he was a young adult now, and she wanted him to feel independent. She was doing this all for him. Once her gift came to fruition, she was certain it would all be better with the far-reaching knowledge and wisdom to guide him.

By the twelfth moon, she had heavy bags under her eyes. She hadn’t been speaking as much, always thinking over what the next steps were, and running through what she had done already. She was steeped in calculations of the path of the stars and the cycles of the moon. Her husband was supportive, but also busy with his own business affairs. Creirwy sometimes brought her food when she forgot to eat, from being wrapped up in her studies.

Finally, the last day was approaching! She had barely managed to get everything in time. She spent the entire night preparing the last ingredients, until her eyes were dry and itchy, and her whole body felt sluggish from the effort of staying awake, of peeling and chopping, of pounding her mortar and pestle. Her hands were cold and wrinkled from carefully washing the herbs in moon-blessed water. Her knees were stiff from gathering.

She had been memorizing the words, ensuring that she could say them perfectly without hesitation. At dusk, she took over stirring the cauldron in a meticulous fashion, each movement of the long handled spoon symbolically attuned to what she dropped in. She spoke in a lilted rhythmic way, carefully adding herbs, fungi, and fermented liquids at the right time with their special words. 

After this work, she directed Gwion to set several logs below the cauldron, and told Morda to stir it steadily through the night. Too tired to go to her own room, she dropped onto a pallet near the cauldron. She instructed them to wake her at dawn’s first light, so she could get some much needed rest for the final ritual tomorrow.

Morda valiantly stayed up as late as he could, softly speaking stories to pass the time, but his age no longer agreed with all-night vigils. After Morda’s beard nearly dipped into the cauldron from fatigue, Gwion insisted that his mentor get some rest. He took over the stirring, glad to have an important task. After several hours, the novelty wore off, and he struggled to stay awake, himself. 

As the sun’s light began barely peeking from behind the hills, Gwion noticed the fire needed tending. He added another log and shifted them around with a poker, then he rushed back to stir the bubbling brew. In his absence, the cauldron had nearly boiled over the edge. His movements were hasty, trying to settle the mixture, but some of the elixir splashed up over the edge and three drops landed on his thumb. He sucked his burnt thumb instinctively, and in that moment he was awakened.

Everything happened quickly. The cauldron cracked with a sound like thunder, waking Cerridwen and Morda where they slept. The brew burst from the halves of the great cauldron. Gwion hardly noticed any of this, struck by the overwhelming tide of knowing that filled him. He knew then that all things are one thing, yet each has their own nature to be respected.

And he knew this gift was not meant for him.

Cerridwen woke disoriented, and saw the cracked cauldron leaking an awful, oil-slick sludge that reeked of decay. Her eyes burned into Gwion’s where his own eyes stared wide without seeing her, and she knew he saw the wonders of the world. She was filled with fury, that a mere boy who had been trusted with a simple task had betrayed her, had stolen everything from her son, that the solution to their problems had been abruptly wrenched away.

As he returned to present awareness, Gwion realized her anger. In the same instant, they both began to run. Out, away, quickly! He got a head start, while she nearly ran over the surprised Morda and pushed him aside, since he couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. Her rage was focused on a singular point — the boy who had robbed her son.

His head was so full that it was empty, knowledge and instinct bubbling and passing through his mind without landing on anything solid. He wanted to be fast, to get away from her, and his stride changed — he was a hare, sleek and swift, like the prey he had sometimes startled out of bushes. Behind him, there came a growl and snarl, a snapping of teeth, and the steady lope of four long legs of the greyhound bitch catching up to him. 

Panicked, he didn’t stop running as he reached the river Ayrfen. He tried to jump, but it was too far for his tiny body. He landed with a splash in the water. Breathe his body screamed! So he did, with gills along his sides, his body even smaller now, smooth with shining silver scales. As a salmon, he swam through the waters upstream, leaping sometimes to get around pools and rocks that blocked his way and gained him distance. Cerridwen didn’t hesitate to dive in after him. Her otter body was powerful in the water, sinewy muscles meant for swimming, with a thick coat of fur to keep her warm, and dry, and twin predatory eyes focused forward her prey.

He leapt once more, with her paws reaching for his tail. He felt her claws snag on his fins, and his instinct drives him to keep going upward, away from her clawed grasp. So he did, wings beating swiftly, rapidly, his heart pitter-patter even faster as he swiveled up into the brightening morning sky as a wren. She gathered her haunches and leapt upward close behind, her brown fur shifting into brown feathers. Her wings were powerful, sweeping great feathers to propel her behind him tirelessly as a falcon.

He swooped down into the trees, mimicking the little birds he had watched forage through the woods. His tiny wings slipped between branches, while her great wingspan carried her faster, but more carefully in the bigger spaces between trees. 

After his initial panic faded, and he realized that she was not tiring, that she would chase him forever. He spied a farm stretching out in the distance, with a barn. He darted out of the trees with her not far behind, and he dropped towards a pile of winnowed grain, focused on his desire to hide, to be unremarkable, to perfectly fit in with all the millions of grains around him.

Yet her eagle eyes were sharp and tracked him down as he fell. She landed heavily on stout scaled legs with a full, round, feathered body which scattered the pile all around. Her beak was short, meant for catching little grains. Her focused senses drove her unerringly forward. He could not react in time before her sharp mouth closed all around him, and he was taken into darkness.

Her victory was quick, and bereft of satisfaction. There was no way to regain what had been lost. Cerridwen felt her talons on the ground, the warm sun soaking her black feathers, and the beat of her heart. When her eyes opened into her usual form, she found herself pregnant once more.

As far as they had run, and swam, and flew in their desperate chase, her return journey on foot took much longer. She watched the clouds pass, and the moon follow the sun. She greeted the elder trees, and listened to their slow wisdom. She sometimes stopped to watch the mountains sit stoically ahead. She rested on the shore of the river and watched it pass ever onward.

Cerridwen had time to reflect on the events, and what she could have done differently. Yet even in her despair for Morfran, she could not bear to do harm to the life growing within her. A babe comes blameless into the world, and her nature was to be a loving mother, devoted and true to her children. However, she could not bear to raise this one at her own home. She knew that in her heart, she could never forgive the babe for a betrayal he would not remember. He would grow up cold without a warm mother’s love, and she could not bear the thought of somehow failing another son as she had already failed one.

So she walked, and sought a solution to offer this child a chance at a true family. She would set his course, and give him the gift to grow into his full potential — but without her guidance, her comfort, or her love for him. Once the idea had settled into resolve, she found herself feeling strangely bittersweet. She knew his life would carry its share of trials, and she wished she could bear witness to the ways he would live up to his gifts.

Staring up at the stars one night, she admitted to herself the danger was in loving this child too much. If he became as bright and talented as she suspected he would be, then she might become too proud and favor him over her other children. This would be a far greater betrayal of Morfran than the stolen drops of Awen.

As her belly grew larger, and her steps came with greater effort, she found a secluded area by the river delta to rest. Her second son was born as dawn crested over the mountains. She looked into his eyes for a moment, and knew she had made the right decision. She placed him into a leather coracle, and sealed it with a kiss. She set it gently upon the water, to flow out to the good sea and find a family who may love him without baggage. To find a better mother than she might have been.

Broom Welcoming Ritual

Today I performed a small ritual to welcome, bless, and dedicate my new brooms. The structure and particular dedications are personal to me, but I hope that everyone who finds this useful might adjust it creatively to their own use. I generally work with short rituals with a vague mental plan that I flesh out in the moment with simple heart-felt words, rather than sitting down to write out liturgy ahead of time.

My overall structure (of wand and cauldron, land/sea/sky) is loosely taken and modified from the Triskelion ritual format created (as far as I know) by Kristopher Hughes, in his book “Celtic Magic” (pg 43+). At home, I use a very short and non-flowery version, but the same format can be expanded to be more poetic and impressive if you desire. I highly recommend picking up Hughes’ book if you are interested in this format, and even more highly recommend giving things a try yourself and attuning it to your own style!

I enjoy welcoming new tools with a ritual when I will be using them for rituals or simply for general, daily life, especially cleaning, cooking, and crafting. I find that over time it changes my attitude about these tasks, since I am focused on performing chores as a gift to myself, my family, and my home. It cultivates a relationship with the tools themselves, and helps to keep resentment about who is doing what chores at bay, since it is a gift that I’m giving out of love. (This is possible when the general balance of the household is broadly kept with everyone contributing, rather than an abusive or simply unbalanced situation — please don’t use this as a way to continue your own suffering, rather use it when genuine love and care for the household is freely felt.)

This also assists another part of my practice. It is important for me to use sustainably-made tools when possible, especially if I can get them from small operations that treat their employees well, rather than a big box store. Of course, this is only possible because I am fortunate enough to have a job that allows for spending extra money now on good tools that will last, rather than being stuck with the cheapest options to keep my budget afloat.

Poverty is a difficult situation, and I do not want to guilt or pressure anyone who is struggling into feeling inferior for not being able to invest in the same way. Also, most people already own a broom if they need one, and it’s better to keep and use what you have rather than throw out for something new. Feel free to use this ritual on your basic, cheap plastic broom, if that is what you have! The point of this ritual is to honor humble tools, and honor ourselves using them. It is less important to have picturesque tools. Using tools within our personal means still connects us with all the generations of people who use what they can manage to make or buy.

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Supplies

  • Cauldron
  • Wand (a beaver-chewed stick–crafty, willing to work, form and function united)
  • Land symbol (a piece of quartz from a mountain I hiked)
  • Sea symbol (a bowl of wonderful, drinkable tap water)
  • Sky symbol (incense, this one sandalwood because woody seemed appropriate)
  • Brooms to be dedicated
  • Anything else you feel like!

This is just a list of what I used, in case anyone is curious. You can easily leave out any or all, in my opinion, except perhaps the brooms. This is a discussion that I can elaborate on forever, but if you don’t have a cauldron, you can use a cupped hand, and without a wand, you always have your own pointing fingers to direct intentions through. I also often use a wooden kitchen spoon as a wand for household matters, but the beaver wand seemed most appropriate today. You’re also welcome to take the broom blessing itself, and put it into a ritual style that is more meaningful to you.

Without further ado, here is my ritual. Normal text should be spoken, italics are for directions/actions. For all parts of this ritual, I am including what I myself did, meaningful to me. I highly recommend adjusting words and gestures to feel most natural to you, or even just give it a read and go through it on vague memories and what comes to you in the moment. It makes it feel more personal, though not everyone may be comfortable doing it on the spot, you could adjust the script beforehand if that’s easier for you.

Please feel free to personally use and modify as you please–and let me know if you did, and what you changed, just for my curiosity!

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Ritual

Prep the ritual space. If desired, cast a circle, cleanse, etc, to your own preferences. 

Take three deep breaths (or more as needed) to ground you in your space and your current work. 

Face north, hold wand in dominant hand, downward roughly at 45 degrees (one ray of awen).

Songs of the Earth, I call to you! Rolling hills, thriving soil, steady stones. Source of abundance and support. Mother Earth. I welcome and honor you!

Breathe deeply on the land.

Hold wand horizontally outward from body (middle ray of awen).

Songs of the Sea, I call to you! Shifting currents, crashing waves, streams, rain, and sinks. Source of flow and adaptation. Grand ocean. I welcome and honor you!

Breathe deeply on the sea.

Hold  wand upward, roughly 45 degrees toward the sky (last ray of awen). 

Songs of the Sky, I call to you! Rolling clouds, sunrise and sunset, sparkling night sky, magnetosphere. Source of protection and illumination. Father Sky. I welcome and honor you!

Breathe deeply on the sky. When ready, lower wand.

I stand here with land, sea, and sky. Welcome to those of good and neutral intentions, and necessary destruction. May we be at peace together here. I come today to bless and dedicate my new tools to good work.

Point wand into cauldron, or circle the tip around the brim clockwise. 

The cauldron connects us to inspiration, wisdom, and the magic of everyday life. I set my intentions here for good work.

While pointing or circling wand, chant “O I W” smoothly three times (oh like ‘dough’, ee like ‘tree’, oo like ‘brew’). Focus on bringing your full intention to the ritual, and any energies you work with that seem right. 

Welcome to my new beautiful tools, three brooms to do good work! They have been made by honest hands, and come to be used by honest hands. May I learn how to use them respectfully, to care for them carefully, and serve mutually. My tools serve me, and through me, as I serve my self, my family, and my home, through them.

Gently touch the symbol of Land to the brooms, or vice versa as makes sense.

May these tools be strong, and stand up to their tasks, may they last for a long time.

Gently touch (or sprinkle) the symbol of Sea to the brooms.

May these tools be flexible, to be used imaginatively as needed, and may we adapt to each other over time.

Gently touch (or waft) the symbol of Sky to the brooms.

May these tools be connected, to lift me up and connect to other people who use simple tools, to honor homemakers before, now, and after me in the rituals of life.

Add any other working you feel is appropriate here, for example divination.

Touch each broom, or focus on each in turn, in my case specifically…

May I use this kitchen broom thoroughly and often throughout my whole home, to be doing the heavy work.

May I use this turkey wing broom lightly and thoughtfully, getting into corners and small spaces.

May I use this delicate broom spiritually, to clear my ritual spaces, and to keep a reminder of my work and my promises close by each day.

Point wand into cauldron, or circle counter-clockwise. 

I pour my intentions into the cauldron.

Take a moment to focus on these intentions. Imagine using the tools, smiling and full of love. Invest in yourself the idea to use these tools with love each time, to put away any negative thoughts while using them, and the tools spreading those good intentions throughout your home with every use.

Thank you brooms, may we cultivate a relationship of respect and love.

Face south, wand in dominant hand. Point wand upward at 45 degrees to the sky.

Thank you songs of the Sky!

Point wand horizontally.

Thank you songs of the Sea!

Point wand downward at 45 degrees.

Thank you songs of the Earth!

I thank all who are here.

Take a breath and return to mundane space. I usually bow to the altar and say “Thank you”. Dismantle your circle if you cast one, or whatever other method you use to end a ritual.

Connecting to Nature: Being an Urban Druid

This is a spontaneous something that I wrote in response to Nimue Brown’s post Connecting With Nature.

I’ve found that I feel more connected to the various cycles and creatures around me when I don’t “go out into” anywhere. I live in a metropolis so it is really great when I can go somewhere surrounded by trees or the ocean or just dirt roads, but those aren’t my main practice (and I don’t want to make those trips too often because of the impact of my car). But how I connect daily is in the “nature” directly around me.

There are House Finches in my neighborhood, and lately Canada Geese and seagulls have been migrating through, gathering in a small baseball field in a park around the corner. In the morning, I walk to the bus and greet the snails who have wandered out while it’s still moist, and on my way home in the evening I look for them in the little nooks they hide in safely.

There are redwoods across from my house a ways, over the sound wall that separates us from train tracks. I watch them sway differently in the winds. I look for the birds that call from their tops, and sometimes I can see them. I appreciate the glorious shifting texture of the vines that grow on the soundwall. I don’t know much about identifying vines, but I try to look for where the leaves change in color, shape, texture, signifying it’s a new individual striving for the light and giving a gift of greens on a big slab of beige concrete.

Don’t forget that we are part of nature! Our natural compulsions are rooted in our evolutionary history. I feel myself a part of the dynamic cycles around us. In traffic, I pay attention to the flow, how some cars go ahead fast, how we snag on obstacles and slow like a stream around a boulder. I pay attention to the general mood of people as the weather changes. I notice how people decorate their yards when it isn’t just grass, people like color and texture, some like to tuck objects around like a magpie might stash pretty things. Even having a big stretch of grass is rooted in our ancient wanderings through grassy plains where our long legs let us see over, see father, see where there may be predators or prey. I pay attention to the choices I make and notice when it is like any other animal, using resources and reacting for safety, comfort, shelter, food, relationships.

We ARE connected, no matter what. We cannot disengage ourselves from “Nature”. We are also nature! But we can let it slide past us, unaware. My recommendation is not to pine for those weekend hikes, in the big vistas and picturesque views. Simply begin observing wherever you are. Get a bird watching guide and try to identify the common birds around you. While I don’t think everything needs to be labeled by people, it can be very engaging and forces us to look for details might gloss over otherwise. If that doesn’t strike you, there are plant guides as well.

Or take no guide at all. Just pay attention, remember individual trees, bushes, birds in your area and just notice when they change because you actually look at them every day .

Just try to notice things.

Thoughts on Death and Regret

There’s been a lot of death going around lately among those I know, or people close to those I know. And it’s hard.

I have come to terms with the physical realities of death. The body of someone who once held so much warmth and movement is now still, but the effects of their presence remain. The physical world around them has been changed by their presence from their beginning and continues on after their end.

Their warmth dissipates around them to be taken up by subtle air currents and microorganisms, and worked into the system starting with those closest to them. Every bit of light that has reflected off of their form, diverting in its path and forever changed in some way in the chaotic spiral of effects that surround us all.

Their physical body will, at some point, be reduced to its base components to join the cycles of water, carbon, phosphorus, nitrogen and all of the rest. Those processes they were joined with in life, they are still joined with in death. Through those cycles we are all connected.

I find a rightness in this, and I take comfort in it. One day when I die, I hope to find a way to decay naturally and join in more readily to these cycles of the earth. However, it is the emotional raw edges which linger and can continue to cause even greater wounds than the one left by the passing of a loved one.

If a death could be called perfect, then I think the recent passing of my great grandmother could have been such. Her decline came on suddenly, but not so quickly that her family couldn’t rush to see her. She was not in pain for very long. I was able to tell her I loved her. She was content with her life and ready to, as she put it, go home to heaven. She lived a long life, and she was surrounded by her family of many generations.

When she died, I was on the phone with my father, talking about his memories growing up and learning more about my family. We both cried when the news came that she had passed, but we were together. And through the wonders of modern technology, I was instantly able to relay to my grandmother, her daughter, that I loved her as well.

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I got home and cried. I went to my home altar and I spoke to the Kindreds in the ADF tradition that currently means the most to me. I expressed my gratitude for her being able to find comfort and the love of her family before she left. I was thankful that she had means to minimize her pain, and some very understanding hospital staff who helped her and her daughters to process what was happening with as little stress as possible.

I prayed for her, too, throat raw with tears and words that were heartfelt without poetry. I prayed that if souls exist, that hers went somewhere good.

I prayed to Jesus for the first time in many years. I asked that, if he exists and he is good, to take her, who was so devout, into heaven with him. I prayed to any other beings out there, that if they were in charge of any afterlife, to welcome her as well.

And as my family over the mountain range was dealing with the realities of her physical form in all the sometimes messy aspects with all the dignity that they could provide, and handling all the paperwork that suddenly comes, I asked for their ease too.

I ruminated on the cycles of life, which had the most calming effect on me. I spoke through my thoughts about where her body was going to join nature. My great grandma wanted to be cremated, as she did not care for her body once she left it to be with her God. She was a very practical woman, and I did not know her as well as I could have.

We will be having a memorial dinner for her on Christmas night. While in general I feel that I have come to accept her death, it still pulls at me in quiet moments. I expect it to impact me viscerally when I visit the house she lived and died in, and speak to my family about all that she meant to everyone.

My closest friend also had someone die in his family a couple days ago. As it is all too easy to do, he didn’t take the small opportunities when his uncle was alive to visit and express his emotions. He always struggles with showing his inner self, particularly in his family which has many strong men who express themselves so little as to create the outside impression that they do not need to.

His uncle had a loving wife, a home to call his own, and was able to see his family who lived close enough to get the late-night call before he passed. My friend made the choice not to rush with them to visit, as he didn’t feel like he had a right to see his uncle on his deathbed, when he did not make the time to see him in health.

This hurts me deeply.

I don’t think it matters anymore to his uncle, who is gone, but I hope he knew that in ways my friend could not express that there was love between them. Yet either he is gone and there is nothing remaining that can form memories, or I hope that if the universe is good, he is able to know and is not upset. But for me, dealing with the living, among the living, myself living, the more prominent question that rises is how to handle regrets.

I hold in my heart a similar situation. A childhood friend passed away about three years ago. While I had the opportunity to reconnect with him after a long absence, I declined for many reasons that were important then and seem less meaningful now. It was left in such a way that I always wonder if he knew that I still consider him a friend, or if he thought that some schism had come between us. I was never able to clear it up. It doesn’t hit me as hard as it used to, but it is still something I regret. I wish I had gone to see him, and there is no way it can be changed. It is something merely to come to terms with.

I always thought that funerals and cemeteries are for the living, to mark the passing of someone living. Someone who can take phone calls, and we can have all these thoughts and intentions about, thinking someday we will get to them, and abruptly they transition into another state where they are unreachable.

I always want to believe, but when it comes down to it, I am deeply agnostic. I still pray based on the possibilities that it might get to them, and that is enough for me. But I don’t know what to do with regrets. We can try to learn and grow from them, to look at the experiences of those who are gone and try to make better choices in the future to spend more time with those with us before it comes time for regrets.

With time, it doesn’t hit me as hard, and I hope I can eventually come to terms with these feelings, because the feelings and memories are all that remains. I can’t fix it. Unlike other regrets, where we could potentially apologize or take some action toward fixing the consequences of your mistakes, you can’t fix regrets involving the dead. There is only time to take the edge off of the feelings, and the hope for personal growth.

Why Druidry? – 30 Days of Druidry

I found the ’30 Days of Druidry’ meme while poking through the archives of other druidry blogs. I have been struggling with solidifying my own thoughts about many of these topics, so I thought I would use it as a foundation to guide my process of narrowing down what exactly I believe. They will be on no particular schedule, and I may or may not skip around or alter some of the topics to suit my needs.

For my purposes, I tend to use capital Druid/ry/ism for the actual ancient people and lowercase druid/ry/ism for modern neo-druidry. And since this is mainly for my benefit, it might ramble a lot. I am sharing in order to help anyone who may be lurking the internet thinking about the same questions, and so that some generous visitors might share some of their own wisdom with me.

These are only my thoughts. I am quite non-theistic. While I whole-heartedly respect and support theist pagans, please understand that I am writing about everything in the context of my own beliefs where any god(s) that may exist are irrelevant to my life and how I view the world. I think one of the best things about modern druidry is the general openness and variation in the community, of which I’m a tiny part.

Why Druidry?

Sometimes using the term ‘druid’ makes me uncomfortable. Primarily, I don’t want to culturally appropriate something that’s not mine in a way that is disrespectful, especially to people who are no longer around to defend themselves. There are also arguments that neo-druidry can’t resemble ancient Druidry, so we should find some other umbrella to fall under.

The main thing that we know about the ancient Druids is that we don’t know that much about them. Mostly we have Greek and Roman writing (that could be propaganda or fictitious) and some archeological findings. If Druids had persisted in history in some fashion, likely they would have had to adapt over time. After all, despite many theological tenants that have stayed consistent, the modern Catholic lives differently than an ancient one.

Perhaps Druids would object to my beliefs and to Neo-druidry as a whole, but if they existed now they would have partaken in the development of western philosophy. We might then have better language to use to describe a lot of the ideas that Neo-druidry is trying to fill in. We might be able to join whatever modern religion(s) grew out of those lands, rather than trying to fill in the gaps. And while we do have many words to describe things common in druidry (like animism, reincarnation, nature-loving, and I’m sure those more educated in philosophy know better ones), but we’ve kind of given new meaning to the terms to fill in a space in our collective ideas.

However, as it stands, there are no modern druids descended directly through all the oral traditions of those ancient people. Of course, the “Celts” is a catch-all for a diverse people and culture who were spread throughout many different areas, who likely had slightly different ideas about a lot of important matters. My impression from reading about the Celts (which could be wrong), is that they were adaptive and resourceful.

I also personally think that nothing is inherently sacred. That is, first we are only human and I don’t believe that there is a deity who gives everything meaning, or a being that created humanity with a goal in mind that we are bound to attain. I think that we evolved out of nature, and our propensity for philosophy and labeling is a function of our nature.

Second, I think that as soon as we nail down ideas and forbid anyone to play with them, they lose any usefulness for us. It is one thing to have a definition (like “Humanism” or “Orthodox Christianity”) to point to for purposes of identity and discussion. Yet more important is using those ideas as a basis for new ones, or being able to evaluate how suitable they are, what premises they’re based on, how we can apply them to life, and so on. I would venture that every advanced civilization probably thinks that it’s come up with 90% of what humans will achieve or think, but every few decades we break those limitations beyond what anyone at the time imagined. We point out that fundamental assumptions that were held don’t have to be the absolute truth, or we find new meaning to fill into gaps.

For me, this is one of the best parts of being human, the ability to think and learn and breathe new ideas and share them with everyone.

So when I take the word “druid”, I do it with the best intentions and utmost respect. I use the word because it gives me a jumping off point to use with others. We all have a different idea of druidry, either in history as a curiosity, or some archetype used in gaming or books, or as other practitioners who know it as their own unique practice or something separate developing alongside their own path. That’ s why I think I can use the terms ‘druid’ and ‘druidry’.

But why should I use it to identify myself?

It calls me to find some sort of structure. Perhaps especially because of the controversy over the term, it makes me want to really nail down what it means to myself. If I left it at “non-theistic nature-lover” I might just settle into that and not do so much introspection on what things actually mean to me, instead focusing on just experiencing nature and things. That does have its place, but I feel more fulfilled every time I am able to pin down something that is important to me in words. (Case in point, this multi-year struggle to write this.)

It helps me find other people interested in the same things. It makes me feel good. It’s like naming the type of person that I really want to be, even if it’s a nebulous picture. It forms a mental frame that I can work to fill in with meaning. And, really, the process of developing and feeling the push to keep connecting, reflecting and learning is what is important to me in my spirituality. Part of why I left the ideas I was raised with is that I didn’t feel like I was developing or growing, when thinking through new ideas or revising old ones was actively discouraged and sometimes seen as blasphemous.

So what makes up the parts of druidry for me?

Nothing here is necessarily exclusive to just druidry, but this is how it seems to me from my own experiences.

Retaking Spirituality

Calling towards inner fulfillment, finding meaning without basing it on a holy book or something that already exists. It means reassessing the assumptions about the world that I was raised with, or that exist in society. Some ideas I reaffirm and some I alter or discard. It means that even when reading/discussing within druidry, thinking about it myself rather than just absorbing the words. It’s about thinking and listening instead of just ‘being right’  and ‘knowing’ already what everything means.

Connecting and Living It

I can’t just go to a building once a week and talk about trees, rivers and animals, though that would be fun! Druidry calls me to get out into the dirt, to walk without focusing on a to-do list, to notice what’s around me (even if it’s an urban landscape with squirrels and sparrows). It’s learning about other living beings and non-living systems, reflecting on what I could learn from them, and generally not forgetting all the wonderful (or gross, gritty or scary) things out there as I go through daily life. It’s naming this connection as important in my life, and living up to that. This is still something I struggle with, as I move further into a big city and find it hard to physically explore often with my chronic leg pain.

Being Equal with the World

Humans are not dominant over nature, nor somehow separate from it. I am an animal, a mammal, made of fluids and hair and organs, an amazing legacy of natural selection and history. We are also not lesser than nature, something flawed that needs to return to what is natural (or some non-worldly holiness). Fore sure, humanity as a whole needs to work on our relationship with the environment and other creatures, but we can start by rejecting that there is a dichotomy between ourselves and what’s around us.

It’s recognizing that sacredness doesn’t have to come from something outside of our universe, or something special that humans do better than other things (though the concept of the sacred is human, as far as we can tell). I recognize that others in druidry work with gods or spirits or other things, and that is no less valid, just different from my own views. However, commonly even in working with various gods, I think that as a community we don’t separate ourselves from the natural world.

Personal Development

Always striving to become better, to assess myself and my relationship with the world, to think about ethical living and put it into practice. This is an area of continual struggle and reassessment. Sometimes it’s painful, but it’s always good for me. During the times in my life when I’ve shied away from looking deeply at myself, particularly where I might be lacking, life seems to drain into a more empty, superficial experience. Looking in the mirror may get hard, but it also heals, and over time I feel like I am becoming more of myself, rather than hiding parts of me from each other.

Red-tailed Hawk

A Red-tailed Hawk perched on some wood in Tucson, Arizona -- berichard 2009

A Red-tailed Hawk perched on some wood in Tucson, Arizona — berichard 2009

I see the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) just about every day. They are a welcome sight while I drive to school in the morning, and when I get lunch later on. They are found through nearly all of North America, though they tolerate Canada mostly in the summer, and some parts of Central America only in winter[1]. National Geographic says that they are also found in the West Indies, and were first studied in Jamaica[2]! This surprised me, because I am used to seeing them in really dry areas with dormant grass. You can see this influence in their specific epithet “jamaicensis”. (A species name is made of the Genus + specific epithet. )

A Red-tailed Hawk perched on a fence post in Clovis, CA -- Kfearnside 2011

A Red-tailed Hawk perched on a fence post in Clovis, CA — Kfearnside 2011

These beautiful birds usually prefer to perch high up (I often see them on telephone poles and streetlights along the freeway) where they can look down onto an open field. In more natural areas, they choose trees instead. Their habitats can be really varied, but are usually quite open so that they can watch for prey below. They range from arid deserts and scrublands, to grasslands and fields, open woodland and human areas like along roads and parks[2]. In Mexico they can apparently be found in the tropical rainforest[3].

Red-tailed Hawks are so named for their rusty red tail feathers. They have several morphs, but the most common (that I see) look mottled brown from above, and pale white from below. Some of the rusty red can be found in their face. Juvenile birds have black horizontal bars on their tail that fade as they age[1].

An immature Red-tailed Hawk at Pillar Point Harbor, CA. -- Jason Crotty 2011

An immature Red-tailed Hawk at Pillar Point Harbor, CA. — Jason Crotty 2011

They can be recognized in the front by their belly band, a section of feathers across their belly that isn’t a strict line as much as a roughly linear area with brown-tipped feathers. The underside of their wings is mostly pale, but there is a dark line along their humerus (shoulder to elbow). Their beak is yellow with a black tip, which matches their feet (the tips in this case are their sharp talons).

Lovely view of a Red-tailed Hawk from below, in Anza Borrego Desert. The dark band on their humerus can be seen clearly.  -- Alan Vernon 2005

Lovely view of a Red-tailed Hawk from below, in Anza Borrego Desert. The dark band on their humerus can be seen clearly. — Alan Vernon 2005

Their two morphs are “Dark-phase” which are entirely brown with the characteristic red tail, and “Rufous-phase” which have a red face and chest, with a brown belly. This can also be called light / dark / rufous morph.

They are one of the largest hawks in North America. They stand between 18-26in (45-65cm) tall, with a wingspan that spreads from 38-48in (1.1-1.3m)[3][4]. This makes them easy to spot in the sky. However, birds are very light compared to similar-sized mammals, and the largest might only weigh 3.5lb (1600g). At the smaller end, they are 1.5lb (690g). Their sexual dimorphisism is apparent in size rather than colors, as females can be 25% larger than males[5].

Red-tailed Hawk soaring. Primary feathers are spread separately to add additional lift.  -- berichard 2009

Red-tailed Hawk soaring. Primary feathers are spread separately to add additional lift. — berichard 2009

Their wings are very broad (front to back) and rounded, and their primaries are often spread apart at the ends to give them extra lift. This shape allows them to soar on updrafts of warm air without expending a lot of energy. Their tail is fairly short and can be spread wide (side-to-side) as well.

They are also capable of ‘hovering’, in a sense. This is not true hovering like a hummingbird can do. However, they can face into a fast wind with their wings held just so, allowing them to stay in one spot in the air from which they can watch for their prey. This seems like quite a feat! Sometimes I can see this behavior on a really windy day, if I am lucky. They have to adjust a little here and there, then suddenly they will dive to the ground. They aren’t as specialized for diving as a falcon, but they are certainly good enough.

Their powerful talons display their role as a carnivore. The hook on the end of their beak also helps them tear into their meal. They mostly eat small mammals, like mice, rabbits and squirrels, but also reptiles and anything else they can find that they think they can kill.

Red-tailed Hawk eating a rabbit near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. -- Rhys A. 2011

Red-tailed Hawk eating a rabbit near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. — Rhys A. 2011

These amazing birds catch their prey by climbing into the air, then swooping toward it to kill with their powerful talons. If they don’t die immediately, they can use their talons or beak as deadly weapons. While I don’t take pleasure in death, it is definitely amazing how they can speed from high in the air and actually hit a small target on the ground. Hopefully, this means a mercifully quick death for their prey.

Red-tailed Hawk diving for prey at Bluff Top Coastal Park, Half Moon Bay, CA. -- Sivaprasad R.L. 2007

Red-tailed Hawk diving for prey at Bluff Top Coastal Park, Half Moon Bay, CA. — Sivaprasad R.L. 2007

Their ability to fly also comes to play in their courtship rituals. The hawks that migrate usually court during late Winter and early Spring, while those that don’t migate (sedentary birds) can court year-round, though mostly in early Spring[6]. Both the male and female will fly high in wide circles. Then the male will dive sharply, then return to her, and repeats this a few times. They might also hold talons and spiral near the ground, before they fly apart. [2][3] If the female is impressed by the male, they will mate. The male climbs onto the female’s back and touches their cloacae together. (The cloaca is a bird’s combination waste and reproductive chamber.)

Eggs collected by Henry David Thoreau in the Natural History Museum, Boston. Those on the right belong to a Red-tailed Hawk. -- Boston Society of Natural History 1930

Eggs collected by Henry David Thoreau in the Natural History Museum, Boston. Those on the right belong to a Red-tailed Hawk. — Boston Society of Natural History 1930

Red-tailed Hawks mate for life once they find their partner[2]. They stay in the same territory and can be seen hunting together[3]. They breed in a variety of locations on the continent[5], but they nest in mostly the same way. The pair will find a high point like a rock ledge or a tree, and make a nest of sticks lined with shredded bark and some fresh vegetation[2][4]. They might re-use a nest that they built in a previous year. This can be up to 6.5ft (2m) high and 3ft (0.9m) across and take a week to build[3]. The female lays 1-5[2][3] or 2-3[4] eggs in their nest. The eggs are white with spots that can be brown or sometimes purple[3][4]. I would guess it would be a dark purple, though I can’t find any pictures.

A peek into the nest of a Red-tailed Hawk with two chicks in Braintree, Massachusetts. -- Thomas O’Neil 2006

A peek into the nest of a Red-tailed Hawk with two chicks in Braintree, Massachusetts. — Thomas O’Neil 2006

The pair will share nesting duties for 4-5 weeks[2]. They will fiercely protect their nest, and chase off anything threatening, including larger birds like eagles and Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus). When the chicks hatch, they weigh only around 2oz (57g). They are helpless and bald.[3] The parents hunt and feed the young while they grow larger, their feathers bloom, and they learn to fly. The chicks leave the nest at about 6 weeks old when they are able to catch their own prey[2]. Sometimes the offspring stay up to 6 months after fledging around the nest. They will be able to breed themselves at 1 year old, but usually are successful after 2 years old. [6]

Two Red-tailed hawk chicks still growing feathers in their nest near Tule Lake, CA. A third chick reported, but only beak visible. -- Alan Vernon 2010

Two Red-tailed hawk chicks still growing feathers in their nest near Tule Lake, CA. A third chick reported, but only beak visible. — Alan Vernon 2010

Red-tailed Hawks are considered a partial migrant, which means that some migrate and some don’t. Often the birds in southern Canada will migrate South during the Winter, though experienced hawks may stay while juveniles are the first to leave. Those in most of the US live in more temperate areas and stay put through the whole year. They often take advantage of good weather while they travel, favoring areas with good updrafts while avoiding large bodies of water that require more work to fly over. [6]

These magnificent birds are a great reminder of the power of nature. They look elegant in the air, and have very dangerous appendages. They are protective parents and loyal mates. When given the chance, I love to simply watch them soar. It can bring a sense of peace, as they work with the air currents to get them where they need to go. It is a good reminder that we don’t need to constantly fight against everything to be powerful or masculine or independent.

It can simply be a matter of learning how to adjust to the situations and doing well in them, regardless of how that must be done. It might be as simple as a slight adjustment of a feather or as abrupt as a dive, but it is really about doing what is needed at a given time. You don’t have to respond heavily with shouting and anger, for example, when perhaps taking the time to clarify a misunderstanding will do.

Regardless, the Red-tailed Hawk cares not for our squabbles. They will continue to dominate the skies for many years to come, thanks to their wonderful traits and ability to adapt even to human land uses.

A Red-tailed Hawk in the Chalco Hills Recreation Area, Nebraska -- MONGO 2008

A Red-tailed Hawk in the Chalco Hills Recreation Area, Nebraska — MONGO 2008

1. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-Tailed_Hawk/id

2. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/red-tailed-hawk/

3. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-Tailed_Hawk/lifehistory

4. http://birds.audubon.org/birds/red-tailed-hawk

5. http://eol.org/pages/1049057/details

6. http://www.hawkmountain.org/raptorpedia/hawks-at-hawk-mountain/hawk-species-at-hawk-mountain/red-tailed-hawk/page.aspx?id=460

Grey Fox

The gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) is a solitary, nocturnal canine found often in our lovely deciduous forests. They have an extensive range throughout North America (below Canada) and the northern cap of South America in Venezuela and Colombia. They used to be more common in the Eastern United States, but human influence has allowed them to dominate across a greater area until they have spread from coast to coast.

A grey fox in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada -- James Phelps 2004

A grey fox in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada — James Phelps 2004

There are 16 recognized subspecies of gray fox, 7 of which are North of Mexico. The grey fox and channel island fox (Urocyon littoralis) are the only living members of their genus. Genetically, they are similar to the tanuki (Nyctereutes procyonoides) of Asia and the bat-eared fox (Otocyon megalotis) of Africa. The tanuki is the only other kind of canine that can climb well.

The grey fox appeared during the mid-Pliocene, 3.6 million years ago (mya). They likely migrated into Northeastern US in the post Pleistocene epoch during the Medieval Climate Anomaly warming period from  AD 950 to 1250, which was followed by the Little Ice Age from roughly 1350 to 1850. The evolution of the grey fox, and other canines, is fascinating, but it is detailed and could be tedious to read, so I plan to touch on it in another post.

Adult male and female grey foxes -- Apterex 2009

Adult male and female grey foxes — Apterex 2009

Grey foxes live to be around 8-10 years old in the wild. They are around 76-113cm in length, and weigh around 3.6-7kg. Their coloration is red on their face and legs, with a grey dorsum (back) and a ventrum (belly) that can range between white and orange-red. Their tails are around 28-44cm long and exhibit a black dorsal stripe, along with a continuation of the same red and grey. They lack the black stockings of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes). They molt once a year between early Summer and Autumn. Their skull is fairly distinct, as their temporal ridges (upraised lines of bone on the top of the skull) are widely separate, forming a U-shape. They have little sexual dimorphism (visible differences between sexes), other than females being somewhat smaller than the males. They are also unique in having oval, rather than slit, pupils, unlike the genus Vulpes.

A black and white house cat (Felis catus) showing yellow eyeshine -- Una Smith 2008

A black and white house cat (Felis catus) showing yellow eyeshine — Una Smith 2008

They have a tapetum lucidum, which helps them see well during their nocturnal activities. The tapetum lucidum is a highly reflective membrane just behind the retina (the back of the eye with the cells that actually sense light). The tapetum lucidum reflects light back onto the retina, and more light means better vision at night. You might be familiar seeing this in a dog or cat at night, when their eyes seem to glow different colors, like green, yellow or red.

An illustration of The Fox And The Grapes illustrated by Milo Winter, from The AEsop for Children by Project Gutenberg, 1919

An illustration of The Fox And The Grapes illustrated by Milo Winter, from The AEsop for Children by Project Gutenberg, 1919

They are an opportunistic omnivore. They hunt small mammals, like rabbits, small rodents, lizards, and birds, but they also eat a lot of wild plants. They particularly enjoy fruits when they are available, eating acorns, berries, grapes, and much more. In some areas, they can be primarily insectivorous and herbivorous. If they manage to collect more food than it can eat in one sitting, it might store the excess and mark the spot with their urine in order to find it again later. Their ability to climb helps them reach food in the trees that might otherwise only be available to birds and smaller animals. This reminds me of the Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Grapes”. I will paraphrase it here:

A fox traveling along notices some grapes hanging high from a tree. Quite hungry, he leaps to catch the grapes, but as high as he jumps, he can’t reach them. Huffing, he remarks, “Those grapes look sour anyway.”

The fox in the fable was probably not a grey fox, since they would be quite able to climb up to eat the grapes. I suppose the new moral for this story would go to show that we should use our unique strengths to make the best of a situation, rather than to get irritated and give up.

A pair of grey foxes at a golf course near San Francisquito Creek in Santa Clara County -- Bill Leikam 2011

A pair of grey foxes at a golf course near San Francisquito Creek in Santa Clara County — Bill Leikam 2011

Grey foxes excel at climbing trees thanks to their particular anatomy. In some places, they are known as the “Tree Fox” for this reason. Their claws are strong and curved at the ends, so they can get a good hold into bark. They have been witnessed climbing up a tree at a nearly vertical angle! Their legs are shorter than the red fox, allowing it to climb better. The trade-off is that red foxes are able to run more quickly. They can descend the tree by either walking down it backwards, or running down head-first if the tree is slanted. They are also able to jump between branches. They are so good at climbing that they will often make dens up in a hollow tree, or perhaps in a hole someone else has dug.

A fur bag made of the grey fox -- Kuerschner 2011

A fur bag made of the grey fox — Kuerschner 2011

The grey fox has been hunted historically, and is still harvested today, for their beautiful fur, like many other creatures. Fortunately, this has not affected their populations greatly. They are listed as a species of Least Concern. Apparently, early European settlers (and fox hunters) who came to North America didn’t like that the grey fox preferred to climb up a tree or into a hole instead of leading a long chase like the red fox. The settlers introduced their red foxes into some of their colonies for a better hunting experience.

A red fox snarling at a grey fox on the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge, CA -- USFWS Pacific Soutwest Region 2013

A red fox snarling at a grey fox on the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge, CA — USFWS Pacific Soutwest Region 2013

This introduction has led to red foxes being common in the eastern United States. At first, the two species were found in different areas, as the red fox preferred boreal forests (colder, more conifers like pine trees) and the grey fox was found in deciduous forests (warmer, trees shed their leaves in the Fall). The red fox has spread out throughout the US, but the grey fox apparently still dominates in areas where they overlap. Notably, the grey fox can be found in a remarkable range of habitats from the deciduous forests, the open desert or rocky canyons of Arizona, even to grasslands and, of course, urban areas.

A grey fox in North Carolina. She has four kits under the wooden paneling behind her. -- Dcrjsr 2010

A grey fox in North Carolina. She has four kits under the wooden paneling behind her. — Dcrjsr 2010

Grey foxes have an annual breeding season that varies depending on where they are found. Roughly, this can be between late Winter and early Spring. They form a monogamous pair. The female is pregnant for about seven and a half weeks. Their litter can be between one to seven kits, who are able to hunt along with their parents at three months old. At four months old, the kits get their adult teeth and are able to find their own food. However, the family stays together until Autumn. The kits learn from their parents and play with each other to practice the skills they will need as an adult. In Autumn, the kits become sexually mature adults and leave to find their own territories and families. The offspring might still meet their parents, if they live close enough, but they no longer have extensive interactions.

Grey fox kit at the Baylands -- Bill Leikam 2011

Grey fox kit at the Baylands — Bill Leikam 2011

As mentioned earlier, the grey fox has spread through a large area, partially due to their adaptability to humans in their habitat. From what I gather, it seems that both the grey and red fox (Vulpes vulpes) are able to adapt to living around people. They have a fairly flexible diet, one that can include small pets like chickens or rabbits, but is more likely to be rodents in your yard, or any fruit available, like grapes or strawberries. They are said to avoid garden vegetables and adult cats (who could be a fierce rival in a fight). They rarely carry rabies, and are overall rather benign as far as wild guests go. If you have a fox living near you, please leave it alone, and be glad for the view you get of a natural animal. If you truly do not wish to see them again, this link has many suggestions for scaring them away humanely.

A grey fox in captivity at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, CA. -- Milonica 2012

A grey fox in captivity at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, CA. — Milonica 2012

The grey fox seems to be a beautiful and resourceful creature. Their general nocturnal, shy nature speaks of caution, though sometimes they can be more bold when forced to tolerate humans in close proximity. Often, I hear of foxes being associated with mischief, but I do not really see that here. They seem to represent adaptability and a strength that doesn’t need to be boasted of. They are flexible in their lifestyle, and also stay their course of survival despite the challenges of human encroachment into once-wild lands. It is rather inspiring, and they carry a regal image in my mind. I definitely respect the grey fox.

A grey fox resting in the rocks -- Gary Stolz, USFWS 2013

A grey fox resting in the rocks — Gary Stolz, USFWS 2013

The First Step — Virginia Opossum

One the day that I began my research, I decided to find a list of native Californian animals and go in order. First on the list was the Virginia opossum. I thought, I know about opossums already. They’re very common, the only North American marsupial, they can play dead, and that’s the sum of it. Well, just for completion, I thought I should go ahead and read. I’m very glad I did. It turns out they are much more impressive than I gave them credit for.

Virginia Opossum in winter coat; Cody Pope 2007

Virginia Opossum in winter coat; Cody Pope 2007

General Description

The Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is found extensively across Central and North America. They are mainly found in deciduous woodlands, but have also been sighted in prairies, marshes, and farmlands. In more arid places like Texas, they often stick to riparian woodland (riparian means along the river). They aren’t great burrowers, so they tend to use dens from other animals, or natural shelters like hollow logs.

They first evolved in South America, but were one of many species to head North during the Great American Interchange 3mya (million years ago). This was the time when the isthmus of Panama was formed (which we later had to dig through to create the Panama Canal). Originally, the opossum was found mainly in the South-eastern parts of the United States, but it was introduced to the west coast during the Great Depression. Considering the great variety of recipes, and the needs of the time, it is generally thought that it was brought as a food source.

Now then, I already knew what they look like and how big they are, but I suppose for the sake of the exercise, I should read about that, too. Turns out, this little marsupial was going to be a lesson on hubris for me. They range from around 13-37 inches (35-94cm) long, and run from 11oz – 14lb (including both male and female measurements). That is quite a difference! I learned that they have one of the greatest ranges in size in the world for a mammal. They are much larger in the Northern areas of North America, and are much smaller in the tropics.

Virginia opossum in Western Canada --(Drcyrus 2007)

Virginia opossum in Western Canada — (Drcyrus 2007)

I can only assume this has to do with the temperature, as a larger body allows an animal to stay warmer more easily. However, don’t take my word on that as a fact (just as a hypothesis). This relates to Bergmann’s rule which essentially states that animals are larger in colder environments, and smaller in warmer areas. This can apply between different species in a genus, but also between different populations of the same species, like with this opossum. The reasoning relies on what is called the surface area to volume ratio.

When an endotherm (“warm-blooded” animal) produces its body heat, it is simultaneously losing heat to the surrounding air when it is cold outside. When a given mass of the animal produces heat, it is losing it through the area of its skin (surface area) that is touching the air. So when it’s cold, an animal wants more mass and less surface area.

This adorable young opossum will have a harder time keeping warm than an adult! -- (Liam Wolff 2011)

This adorable young opossum will have a harder time keeping warm than an adult! — (Liam Wolff 2011)

For those of you that would like to see some numbers, let’s talk about a theoretical endothermic cube creature. If you have a 1m (meter) cube, their surface area is 6m2, whereas a 2m cube has a surface area of 24m2. The SA:V ratio of the 1m cube is 6m-1, while the 2m cube is 3m-1. Basically, this means that when an animal is producing heat, a smaller body will have to work harder to keep warm, because they are losing heat faster.

Regardless of why, it is pretty impressive that the opossum adapted so well to such a broad range of climates. It is continuing to expand northward into Canada. This makes it rather surprising to learn about its small brain for its body size. While not terribly smart, they do have more tricks up their fuzzy sleeves.

Virginia opossum in a tree in northeastern Ohio --(2008)

Virginia opossum in a tree in northeastern Ohio –(2008)

Physiology

They have long, hairless prehensile tails. This is mostly useful for grabbing onto branches or move a small object. They can hang from their tails, but their tails aren’t strong enough to make it the primary purpose. Mainly, it seems their tails and opposable thumbs help them climb around better. Most of the opossums I have seen do not seem very graceful, but they are very prevalent despite that. I have often spotted them scurrying along the top of a wall or fence around a suburban area.

Virginia Opossum skull -- (Dawson 2006)

Virginia Opossum skull — (Dawson 2006)

They also have 50 teeth, as you can see, which they use to eat just about anything. Their dental formula is 5.1.3.4/4.1.3.4. A dental formula lists each kind of teeth on the upper and lower jaws in the order of incisors, canines, pre-molars and molars. So this opossum has 5 incisors, 1 canine, 3 pre-molars and 4 molars on the upper jaw. This is a ton of teeth compared to most other mammals. (Imagine the dental bills!)

They will eat a variety of plants, smaller animals, fruits, insects, and even carrion. In urban areas, they can also be found eating garbage or pet food. This flexibility in their diet probably helps a great deal in allowing them to survive not only in a wide range of climates, but also in and around human settlements.

Their teeth reflect this omnivorous diet. They have a mixture of good flesh-piercing canines and premolars, incisors suitable for cutting vegetation, and tricuspid molars great for grinding up everything. Their skull also features a large sagittal crest (rising vertically from the top of the skull, from behind the eyes to the back). This is an area where jaw muscles attach. Because the crest is so prominent, you know that the opossum does a lot of chewing.

Opossum tracks (larger) and vole tracks (smaller) -- (Michael Lensi 2003)

Opossum tracks (larger) and vole tracks (smaller) — (Michael Lensi 2003)

Virginia opossums have opposable thumbs on their hind legs. I had no idea that any other animal had opposable thumbs, so I think this is pretty cool. Some cursory searching shows that there are many animals that have opposable thumbs, but it is still fairly rare relative to the number of animals that exist.

When I saw this picture, I was struck by how much the left print resembles a human handprint. It definitely makes me feel more connected to them in a visceral way. Hands are a very important feature that we use all the time, not just for tools, but also for socializing. We shake hands, high five, flip the bird, thumbs up/down, salute, and so on. It is a good reminder that humans are not alien from the rest of the animal kingdom. However, it is also good to remember that we are related to things that don’t have features similar to ours, like jellyfish and bacteria.

As far as behavior goes, the virginia opossum is very nocturnal and mostly solitary. They maintain a home range (the area that they regularly live in), but can allow them to overlap when conditions are good. That is, they have enough food and other resources that can support them in close proximity.

Virginia Opossum carrying her young -- (Specialjake 2012)

Virginia Opossum carrying her young — (Specialjake 2012)

Reproduction

They have two breeding seasons each year: one from January-February and another from June-July. After courtship and mating, they return to being solitary. The female will bear 5-21 young, each only weighing about 3 grams. They are pink, hairless and can only manage to crawl into their mother’s pouch and nurse. They will stay there for 7 weeks, until they are finally ready to detach. The reported mortality rate for young opossums is very high, especially since there are only 13 teats available to nurse from, so any more that are born cannot be fed. At least, that is what the literature says. This video shows a mother carrying 15 young, so perhaps when conditions are good, she might be able to feed more.

It has been surprisingly difficult to find information on the interaction between parent and young after they are done nursing. Apparently this is not an interesting topic. However, I can report with a reasonable guess that the young spend some time riding on their mother’s back, and perhaps also following her on foot when they are larger. They likely observe what she eats and other behaviors that they need to learn to be successful adults, until they are old enough to leave.

This video, by what might be a nature group from Missouri, states that the young leave the mother at around 3.5 months old. It also shows an opossum carrying some leaves in her tail in order to make a nest.

Even though opossums have a lot of young, and only stay with them for a few months, it is apparent that they do care about their offspring. They carry them in a pouch, then on their back. It makes me think that a human parent trying to emulate the opossum, might care a great deal for their children while they are young, but allow them to transition into acting like an independent adult when the time is right. They might encourage their child’s individual pursuits, supporting them, then letting them blossom into adulthood without trying to hold on too much, to the point where their now-adult child feels smothered.

Irritated opossum -- (PiccoloNamek 2006)

Irritated opossum — (PiccoloNamek 2006)

Defenses

Opossums are not very exciting when it comes to interacting with other species, at least not in a traditional way. Their mouths full of pointy teeth look rather intimidating, but they don’t tend to use them in fights where they are out-matched. Instead, they usually play dead.

This seems to be an involuntary reaction in response to extreme fear. Incredibly, when under enough stress, they can enter a full coma for up to four hours! This is stunning, not just in the extent at which they can hold the ruse of being dead, but that after falling into a coma they can emerge and return to normal life. In humans, a coma is a pretty extreme event that needs a lot of recovery time.

Watching the opossum might be a good way to learn how to avoid confrontation at times when it isn’t productive. For example, if you find yourself having trouble reigning in your anger, particularly against friends or family, it might be good to try to be more like the opossum and avoid the confrontation. That way, your relationships can survive, rather than potentially burning bridges with those who care about you.

Obviously, though, there are many ways to deal with different situations, and I don’t want to advise anyone to do anything. I am merely thinking about ways that a hypothetical situation might arise.

The opossum also has other defenses that aren’t so melodramatic. They happen to be highly resistant to snake venom, a fact which I found both surprising and impressive! They also resist rabies, likely because they have a lower body temperature than other placental mammals (a lower body temperature is common among marsupials).

They also successfully kill most of the ticks that parasitize them, which helps them avoid the Lyme disease that ticks can carry. In general, they don’t transmit many diseases to humans, unlike other animals common in urban environments, like rats.

It seems like the North American opossum is much tougher than I first gave them credit for. Despite this, they don’t have very long lifespans. In the wild, they generally live for about 2 years, and at most for 4 in captivity.

They rapidly decline in old age. Their life span is short, even compared to other marsupials–who don’t tend to live as long as placental mammals–and compared to animals of a similar size.

The proposed explanation for this is based on their general lack of defenses to predation. If playing dead doesn’t work, then they’re stuck. This leads to the idea that since they likely won’t live very long anyway, they had no push for evolving the biochemical means to live longer. Old age generally involves organs starting to fail, without the body keeping up the process of repairing them as they do when the body is younger. It costs a lot of energy to resist the effects of aging, after all.

This idea is supported by a population of opossums that has been isolated for a few thousand years on the small Sapelo Island off the coast of Georgia. There are no natural predators there. The opossums live up to 1-2 years longer there. It seems that since they are less likely to be eaten, those opossums that evolved the ability to resist aging for longer are actually relevant to the forces of natural selection.

Final Perspectives

Learning about the opossum this week has been very illuminating. Personally, it taught me not to underestimate any creature, no matter how plain it sounds or how much I think I know about them.

Opossums seem to embody a basic perspective on life: live well while you can. They show that it’s okay to be tough, but it can also be okay to be pacifistic. They are fine with solitude, but invest in those close to them.

What is your perspective? I would love to hear from you!