Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: Earth, waters, wind, and fire

Re-imagining the Lowly Spider

It saddens and sometimes angers me that spiders generate such fear and sense of repulsion. And so it’s heartening to know that there are people who love spiders, who are fascinated by them.

I wouldn’t claim to be particularly comfortable around spiders, but I wish them no harm. In fact, when I know my husband is gearing up to clean our bathroom (the porcelain duty usually falls to him) I sneak in first and remove all the cellar spiders, dispersing them to – yes – the cellar, where they may not be quite as warm, but where they certainly will be safer. I may not love spiders but I have a history with them, and they fascinate me.

It is 1976, and I am upstairs in my self-built Vermont cabin. I am typing (on a typewriter!) at my desk, while wispy filaments, like eyelashes, float through the air in front of my face and around my head. Some of them waft through the rays of the winter sun, and they glisten. In Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin describes it this way: “These, glittering in the sunshine, might be compared to diverging rays of light; they were not, however, straight, but in undulations like films of silk blown by the wind.” I know what has happened; the female spider’s egg sac has split, and the offspring are in dispersal status. I have protected sac and spider from my three cats who are young and curious, and now comes the startling reality that I can no longer protect them. Nor can I imagine how these tiny, hardly visible creatures can possibly survive.

Fast forward fifteen years. It is Easter Sunday, and I leave my house in darkness for my first church service of the day. Although I am running late, when I round the corner of my house I stop for a moment in awe as the sun unfolds its rays and races down the mountain above me. Coincidentally, at the periphery of my vision, I catch the slightest of movements in the garden. I don’t think much about it, as it has hardly registered. Then the sun hits the tops of the bushes, and I see what has caught my attention – literally, the blink of an eye. A small male goldfinch is suspended upside down, not moving a feather; it’s not possible, but there he is. He blinks again. I lay my vestments on the sidewalk and creep into the garden. Now the sun penetrates and lights up the web of an orb spider (and the hungry spider herself), in the center of which is suspended one very frightened bird. I gently release the finch, and make a discovery for the first time: the spokes of the web are not sticky; the rest is. Home again, I do a little research, and learn what I imagine most people already know. It’s how a spider travels, on the non-stick filaments of her web.

It is now 2009, and I am walking with my dog Missy, very first tracks on a foot of fresh snow. Untouched, so that thirty yards in front of us, the dark spot in the middle of the snow covered dirt road looks out of place. Not only that, it is moving, moving fast, in fact. As we approach, I see that it’s a small spider. I wonder how s/he got there; I also wonder where s/he is headed because there is nothing but snow in front of her. I opt for an intervention. I pick her up with my mittened hand, and the spider finds a safe spot between my thumb and fingers, and seems content enough to stay there as we make our way home. I put her among my begonias, and figure she can have a warm enough winter.

coming back to life

A year and a half ago, Jim and I make ready for a major remodel of our New Hampshire home. The preparation seems endless, and it is not surprising to him that I am making it even more difficult. Outside the guest room window is a mama spider, and beside her is her egg sac. I know that ladders will soon be climbing that wall, and so, in a burst of compassion, I attempt to remove both spider and sac. But they drop to the ground. I peer down and can see the sac, but not the spider. Suddenly the sac begins to move, and I realize the mama spider is dragging the egg sac across the lawn. I am spell bound. It takes her a long time, but she is obviously determined. I see the egg sac make its way up the sturdy stalk of a comfrey plant, and then it disappears. Curious, I follow the trail and peer under the highest leaf on the plant. There is the sac, and the mama is affixing it well to the underside of the comfrey. Truly, I am dumbfounded, and wrestle with a sense of guilt for quite a few days.

And at last, this summer, after a day of pouring rain, I step outside and find a large spider – an uncomfortably large spider, dead on the deck floor, her eight legs wrapped around her egg sac. I gently lay spider and sac on an index card and add it to my box of “treasures”.

I am both saddened and fascinated by my intimate engagement with spiders – in particular, the last two close encounters. What compels a spider to drag her offspring fifty yards across the grass? What compels a dying spider to wrap her arms around her egg sac? These two images haunt me, and I am not sure why. It has something to do, I think, with where I began this musing: the bad rap that spiders suffer in the minds and at the hands (and vacuum cleaners) of humans. At first blush, spiders are kind of ugly and creepy. We’re afraid, repulsed, and therefore we hate them. We teach our children to say “I hate spiders.” We teach our children to crush them.

Yet spiders are beautiful, and they are fascinating. Close encounters such as these make me want to know more, and so I begin to explore the role of spiders in the ecosystems of earth. I am not surprised to learn that they prey and are preyed upon. As my husband Jim too often remarks, “everybody is somebody else’s lunch.”

This is what I already knew: spiders are good gardening partners, as they feast on other destructive insect populations. And they don’t eat cabbage leaves, or squash blossoms.

What I now know that I didn’t, is that spiders, because of the way the newly hatched move on silken tendrils at the whim of the currents of wind, they are often the first to catalyze the development of ecosystems where before now, there have been none.

The naturalist and teacher Chris Buddle argues this: spiders and their webs represent little pockets of concentrated nutrients in landscapes that are void of much other life.  He reminds us, for example, that after the eruption of Mount St. Helens, spiders were the first to repopulate, and therefore the first to catalyze the recovery of the ecosystems of the Cascades.

I am inordinately pleased by this idea. It reminds me of what I already know; all created forms – animate and inanimate – have role and function on this magnificent planet. It is to our earth, and therefore human, peril that we take so lightly the 200 or so per day extinction of earth’s creatures.


Sense of Place ~ Today my Home Floats

It is two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, the spring semester of 1971. I am sitting in the back row of a basement classroom. The room is hot and airless; my black beans and rice squat heavily in my stomach; it’s the drowsing hour. We are beginning part two of a three hour senior level seminar whose focus is Thomas Aquinas. I am trying to appreciate Thomas Aquinas despite what is for me, the near incomprehensibility of his written word. Aquinas writes in questions, though, quite a lot of them, in fact, and then proceeds to answer them. I like that. It’s good pedagogy, I am thinking, but not good enough, apparently, to keep me awake; I’ve got the slam nods.

It’s the conversation about angels (how many of them?) dancing on the head of a pin which lifts me from my post-prandial stupor, and for the few frantic moments required to reorient myself, I am playing catch-up. As I learn that of the one hundred eighty nine questions Aquinas raises, angels dancing on the head of a pin isn’t one of them, I am inexplicably relieved. That question comes several centuries later, and lives among the satirical writings of the sixteenth and seventeenth century philosophers who are taking pot shots at Aquinas’ verbosity.

I close my eyes, rest my elbow on the desk, my chin on my elbow, and nod off once again.

Now that I have formally retired from congregational life, I can be found celebrating the ten o’clock hour in my kayak at the north end of Enfield, New Hampshire’s Grafton Pond. Today I am remembering the early morning adventures my late mother and I shared. My mom had a sixth sense about keyhole openings which, if you hadn’t eaten that second piece of toast for breakfast, you could slink through, clearing the sunken and rotted trees by mere centimeters. But on the other side of these obscure openings lay the marshlands, nearly primeval in appearance. Marsh reeds woven in arbitrary patterns over the water’s surface, stumps emerging from the shallow waters, wild iris in clumps welcoming the swallowtails. Today dragon and damsel flies alight on my hands, my arms, my knees, and stay to visit. The hum of bees is evident, and from time to time I swat at a mosquito which dares to infiltrate the magic. (Try as I might, I’ve not been able to include the mosquitoes in the mystery and magic of this place!) All of this unfolds against the backdrop of the songs of the shy thrushes, hidden deep in the woods which border the marshes. A parent loon is teaching her babies to dive in the shallow waters, and I am waiting with confidence (a failed confidence, as it turns out) for the cow moose to appear. I know she is there, because my friend Candis met her right here just a few days ago.

The frogs have formed an orchestra along the banks, and from time to time one and then another leap into the water. The lily pads have sent up their flowers, yellow and white buds on vertical stalks. Most of them have yet to open, and as I glide through their midst, I happen to glance down, my face only inches from the buds. Some miniscule movement catches my attention, and I stop my lazy drift with the end of my paddle against a rock. I count more than two dozen tiny creatures of all different sorts, jockeying for a tenuous hold. This single bud is teeming with life, and once again, I am stunned and enchanted by how little I know about so many things.

Of my many mentors (most of them don’t know they serve in that capacity) Edward O. Wilson, whom I’ve never met and can’t imagine that I will, has taught me that in a pinch of garden soil, about a gram in weight, live millions of bacteria, representing several thousand species. In fact, that gram of garden soil might contain around a million fungi alone. Add the nematodes, the roundworms, algae, and protozoa, life forms not visible to the naked eye, not to mention the visible – earthworms, insects, small vertebrates, and plants.

Who needs angels? And who needs angels dancing on the head of a pin?

As I drift slowly out of the marshlands and rejoin the waters of the pond itself, I am hearing familiar voices in my head. They are the voices of the people of churches, who, in their arrogance and righteousness, perhaps even in their vague and nameless fear that they are missing out on something, are proclaiming ever so loudly and with indefatigable authority – to those of us who dare suggest that the ponds and the woods and the meadows offer sacred encounters we’ve never experienced in churches – “You’re not in church. The woods and the lakes aren’t church. Church requires community.”

I am thinking about more than a couple dozen insects (and these are just the visible ones) on a single lily bud, thinking about the trees, the frogs, the parent loon with her babies, the moose who’s the no-show today, the fish under my kayak, the dragon and damsel flies, the grasses and rocks and irises. I am thinking about all of these and am asking a Thomas Aquinas-like question: if this isn’t community, then what is?

I am not of the place in which I was born. I am of a different place. It’s a place that’s getting bigger, meaning I am more at home wherever I go. Not altogether at home, but more today than yesterday. It gives me hope. It gives me peace. It allows me to release a little more of my anxiety about my own sense of place. This is important. The greater my sense of belonging, the greater my connectedness to the biotic community. And the greater my connectedness to the biotic community, the better I understand my role as servant.




The Dance of the Caterpillars ~ In a Time Before Texting

This is a publication announcement for The Dance of the Caterpillars ~ In a Time Before Texting. The back story is embedded in the post itself. It has taken me twenty-five years to see it in print, the reason being that I needed – and couldn’t persuade – a “legitimate” publisher. It was an ego thing. A week ago, with gratitude to The Gau Family Studio, I published this story through Amazon CreateSpace, under my own imprint, Flatlander Press. To have released the ego need around publishing has been one of the finest and most essential accomplishments of the “third half” of my life. Fisher has waited a long time for his debut, but here he is. I hope you’ll be glad to meet him at last! I am excited!

I have adopted a phrase from a friend, Marjorie, who once wrote that she was “a poet widely unread,” substituting the word writer for poet. Of all my books unread, The Dance of the Caterpillars is my sweetest. This story has suffered two failed contracts, and has languished in my filing cabinet until I might find the time to bring it from the 1980’s into the 21st century, a challenge I have resisted for years, assuring myself that I have moved on. Clearly I have been wrong. This particular filing cabinet sits in our basement, and although I have little reason to pass by it on a regular basis, when I do pass by, I can hear Fisher calling. “Hey!” he yells. “I’m still here!” So, a year ago I brought Fisher upstairs, having made the decision to bring him into the 21st century with regard to both technology and fourth grade pedagogy.

But let me take a step back and introduce him to you the way he introduced himself to me. In the 1980’s I drove a city bus for Seattle’s Metro Transit. I arrived early enough each morning (4:30 am) to read the morning paper. One day I read a Letter to the Editor from a man who wanted to tell the world about his best friend Fisher, who had died recently. He explained that Fisher was always spelled with an exclamation point (Fisher!) because he was usually in some kind of trouble.

That afternoon, after my shift, I went to my Pioneer Square office as I always did, took a short nap on the naugahyde couch that left brown streaks on my already brown Metro pants, bought myself one beer, and went to the typewriter (typewriter!) on my desk. No sooner had I rolled in the sheets of paper, sandwiching the carbon, when Fisher! leaped onto the page. “Hey!” he shouted. “Where have you been?”

Fisher then proceeded to tell me his story, a story pretty much untouched in the pages which follow. Thus began our joint journey of “almosts” with two publishing houses. When the second contract fell through, Fisher was relegated to our basement, where, from time to time, I continued to hear his intrepid voice shouting, “hey!”

When I brought him upstairs, it was to do the work of bringing him into the 21st century. I gave him a smart phone. I talked to several elementary school teachers about “teaching to the test,”“Race to the Top,”and “Core Curriculum.” I learned a great deal about smart classrooms.

Happily, as it turns out, I was unable to make the shift. I couldn’t recreate this exquisite child, bringing him into 2013. I added to the original title (The Dance of the Caterpillars), so that it now reads The Dance of the Caterpillars ~ In a Time Before Texting.

I have entertained the notion that it is sheer laziness on my part; I have entertained the idea that I have indeed moved on. That, however, is but a small part of the truth. What embraces far more of it is this: today’s I.T. world of smart phones and classroom computers and standardized testing has cost our children greatly, perhaps too much. In The Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, a San Diego fourth grader admits in an interview with the author that he would rather be indoors, because that’s where the electrical sockets are.

As mystical and spiritual as the experience in which Fisher is invited to engage, and as much biological license as I have taken with the metamorphosis itself, I want to believe that that there are still Fishers in this world, that there is still the possibility of mystery and magic. In the words of Mary Oliver, “I want to believe I am looking into the white fire of a great mystery.” I have my doubts; yet I long for my own Fisher nature.

What I want to say is this: we have become a disconnected species, disconnected from our place in the ecological systems of a healthy planet. And the disconnection has cost and continues to cost all of us, human and non-human alike. Not only that, the pace of separation is one of alarming acceleration.

It is not my desire to speak from any platform but that of grief in combination with hope. This is a story of what I believe is still possible . . . an ancient memory that all creation has emerged and continues to emerge from the elements of dying stars, that indeed we are all made of the same stuff. I want to believe that mystical experiences are still possible among us ordinary folk, that a human soul can unite as deeply as Fisher does with the non-human, that the universe has everything to teach us, and is calling out ceaselessly.

David Wagoner, in The Silence of the Stars, tells of a man named Laurens van der Post, who has lost his capacity to hear the stars. Even in the quiet dark night of the Kalihari Desert, he cannot hear them. His sadness – and the sorrow of his companions the Bushmen – are palpable.

We all share in the loss of Laurens van der Post. It is a great irony that the systems and institutions we ourselves have created for the sake of greatness, freedom, and power, have cost us our hearing and our vision; they have compromised our intuition; they have eclipsed our core of wisdom and knowing. They (and, therefore, we) have transformed our sacred world into toxic pools of expedience, exploitation, and self-aggrandizement.

In the mid ’80’s, a young child whose name is James Fisher Ford – Fisher to his family and friends – refuses to sever his deep knowing of the mystical nature of the universe. He insists that he be an intrinsic participant in the ongoing song of the spheres. It seems at first that Fisher must pay too great a price for his choices, in terms of his relationships with family and friends. Yet even as he himself is transfigured – and the work is deep and difficult – so does he become a catalyst for the transfiguration of others.

Caroline Fairless









The Three Trees ~ an old story told anew

“I should be content,” writes the poet David Ignatow, “To look at a mountain for what it is, not as a commentary on my life.”

As many of us have experienced, this winter of 2014 has been snowy, cold, and interminably long. For me personally, it has seemed even longer, for I had my left shoulder replaced with titanium in December, and, until recently, have been pretty much homebound. As a result, our two rescue dogs have spent at least three and sometimes four days per week in “day care”.

Jim is their taxi and they arrive home in a heap at about 6 pm. Then it’s my turn. I put on my goose down parka, my red hat with its tassel and ear flaps, my mittens, and my Bogs boots which have had crampons attached since early December. Out we go, the dogs and I, into four degrees, maybe eleven degrees, maybe snow. They romp, and I sit on the deck chair that is buried up to its seat in snow and ice.

Whether the sky is cloudy or clear, the view from my perch is the same. I look at three trees in the woods, two oaks and one maple, just their trunks and branches, no leaves. It has seemed to me these denizens of the woods have a message for me, and I have been listening as intently as I know how.

I think of Jalâluddîn Rumi, “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you, don’t go back to sleep,” even though it’s evening, not dawn, and trees, not breeze. What is the message? I strain to hear, and nothing comes to me. I listen, and hear no words. This has been my evening ritual since my December surgery.

One evening it hits me. I have been asking and listening in the wrong language, and I find myself singing snatches of an ancient hymn, “What language shall I borrow?” What is the language of trees?

It is now close to 7 pm, and the sky is a deep blue; the trees are black against the night sky. I marvel at their stalwart trunks and stark bare branches, even the most scrawny among them with distinct clarity, as it is still too cold for the early swelling of spring buds. I am looking at three trees, true, but what I am looking at, what I can see is that only which lives above the surface of the ground.

Below the surface, the story is different. The roots of these trees form a broad network of intricate exchanges, roots from one tree interweaving with roots from the others, a highway of interconnections. The tree roots work as one, breathing one another into life, feeding and nourishing one another into life.

Sadly, I think, people of churches, both ordained and lay, will tend to leap too quickly into the Christian theology of Three in One: God the Father; God the Son; God the Holy Spirit, or Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. But do we need to go there? I mean, we can go there, and many do, but might there be a cost? Do we need to make that leap into a trinitarian religion in order to understand the universal narrative as sacred in and of itself? I think there is a cost. For one, it excludes more people than not from the conversation. More damaging, it discourages humans from the recognition that the earth is sacred, period.

It is likely, I believe, that if humans, whether or not we claim a religion, could come to understand the earth itself and the actions of sun, wind, water, plants and creatures as sacred, we would be far more inclined to attitudes of love and compassion. Further, if we could could come to understand ourselves as integral to that vast underground network of root systems, we would be far more inclined to attitudes of diversity and justice.

“I should be content to look at a mountain for what it is, not as a commentary on my life.”

At last I am beginning to understand what the trees behind my garden have to say to me, and they are telling me in the language of trees. What these trees do is sacred work, breathing life into one another, feeding one another into life. This is the very definition of sacrament. And by no means are these three trees a unit unto themselves. Their roots extend deep into the woods, nourishing trees that are weaker, hungrier, sun-deprived, whether oak or maple or birch or beech or white pine.

We may choose to do so, but there is no need, to overlay these sacramental acts of breathing and feeding with any human-organized religious construct.

Three trees, one tree, a diverse community of trees; it is miracle enough.


Sense of Place ~ Part Three

With thanks to Douglas Wood, author of Old Turtle and the Broken Truth, who so generously offered his permission to adapt his work to an outdoor theater.

Continuing my series of reflections on Sense of Place, one of the deepest layers of place holds the beating heart of the local community. Whether or not we know it, deny it, ignore it, we are fast heading in the direction of mutual interdependence, and the relationships that can be built in our own communities will stand us in good stead.

The Transition Movement began as an imaginative activist response to the dire news about climate change and the fact that we are on the downside of oil production (peak oil) – and these realities remain at the core – yet the movement is far more than that. It is about community, about resilience; it’s about optimism and radical hope; it’s about play. It’s about healing, and it is about knowing one’s place.

My husband Jim and I live in a small village in central New Hampshire. We make giant puppets, the kind that require human engagement rather than simple manipulation, and for six years, we have had it in mind to stage an outdoor production, to introduce Restoring the Waters Puppet Theater into our own community. We see it as our our small part in the Transition Movement, but we weren’t going to do this alone.

This was our summer to do it! And it looked like this. In partnership with the Wilmot Community Association, we worked with members of our village, ranging in age from six to seventy-seven, to choose our totem animals, to make larger than life masks, to sew costumes, and – ultimately – to rehearse.

It’s fair to say, I think, that there were skeptics (I include myself among them). Every Wednesday evening over the course of the summer, we met, floundered around in buckets of flour and water, hiding chicken wire clippers from one another, cutting and sewing fabric. Wednesdays got bigger and bigger, with more and more people trying their hand at the art of paper mache.

There was more than the creation of puppets and costumes. Old Turtle and the Broken Truth is a spiritual story of conflict, ecological disregard, and the potential for healing. Each of us was invited to learn about our totem animal: its habitat, food needs, its character, and the stories of adaptation (or not) to the often wanton and selfish ways of the humans.

As the masks and animal characters themselves began to take shape, so – thankfully – did the infrastructure and supportive roles. The word was getting out, through volunteer publicity. Our favorite musician showed up, our friend Tom agreed to direct this motley group of non-actors. We had popcorn makers, a seamstress, lights, sound, and above all, we had an audience! Below is the You Tube video, in three parts. It’s a gem, even with all its warts and glitches. Sometimes it’s good to get them over with early on!

The night was magic. Ten days before the scheduled production, the forecast promised rain and thunder storms. The day itself was perfect; the people who’d come to see watched the sun – reflecting on the water of the pond – disappear, were bathed by the late summer breezes, and the sounds of the crickets. The sound system worked; we didn’t need the lights.

I think all of us – both in the production and watching the production – were a bit surprised to awaken to the power of imaginative collaboration, to the grace of risk taking, and to the possibilities for community art to deepen friendships. We were also surprised, I think, to understand the sacredness of the earth-community, to understand that we humans are part of a much larger narrative than the one we often think (and certainly act as though) we dominate.

Jim and I are grateful to have not only survived our first Restoring the Waters Puppet Theater production, but to have been so greatly enriched by all the creatures of our small village of Wilmot, N. H.