Winter Solstice: When the Buckwheat Turns to Rust

Winter solstice arrives today in the northern hemisphere, the shortest day of the year. Our planet tilts on its axis at its farthest point from the sun. From this point onward through June’s summer solstice, the days will lengthen as the growing season begins again.

Solstice in December also marks the northern hemisphere’s longest night. Traditionally it’s a time to immerse oneself in the dark of the outdoors, and also to go deeper into one’s own inner darkness. This is sometimes called soul-searching, or the dark night of the soul.

The year’s difficulties and painful losses, all the battles that were fought and all that was lost, will all pass as well. In nature, death is a pause before the cycle of life begins again. Dead leaves, buckwheat flowers that turn reddish brown, and other organic matter break down and combine to create the rich soil that nourishes earthworms, and hosts the mycorrhizae of fungus and its symbiotic partner plants.

Watching these natural processes each year, I’m reminded of my parents especially now, and all they taught me about how to love nature and how our connection to it nourishes the soul, and nourishes us as we prepare for the gorgeous bounty of the coming year. Happy solstice, with love and gratitude for all our friends and family!

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Samhain: Living in Fire Country

Samhain/Dia de los Muertos/Hallowe’en. Home…safe: two of the best words in any language. Are there any more precious, especially to those without either or both?

The Kincade Fire, the largest in Sonoma County history, also forcing the county’s largest ever evacuation, is now largely contained. Evacuees have been trickling back home, the entire process made more traumatic by massive power outages. Ostensibly done to avoid power lines igniting fires in bone-dry landscapes, these also-historic blackouts could have been avoided if the utility had prioritized public safety and service over bonuses and shareholder profits, and done proper line maintenance and land management. Southern California has its own fire emergency situation, dire and growing.

Fire season now seems to last half the year, due to climate change. Unheard-of hurricane-force winds, drought, bark beetles that destroy weak trees and turn them into kindling, even rains make weeds grow higher and become fuel for the flames.

The dread at smelling (and tasting) smoke in the air, the anxiety of seeing embers or burnt leaves (or even something resembling these!), hearing sirens, phones blowing up with emergency alerts and evacuation orders…. All of these activate PTSD from the North Bay wildfires of 2017 and the Camp Fire in Paradise in 2018, remembering the terror of those who fled and got out alive, and the tragedy of those who didn’t. The stress alone of readying for possible power loss and evacuation – how little could you live on for extended periods? What would you take if you never saw your home again? Then there’s the matter of entirely losing your home, your loved ones. 

What to do? Leave? Where, if anywhere, is safe? I’ve talked about this with friends: everywhere has its issues: wildfire, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes. Or do you stay, accept what is, and work to change it for the better?

We are fortunate here in northern California to have resources like Pepperwood Preserve, where fire ecologists and climate scientists are on the forefront of fire research; Fibershed, building resilient communities that sustainably produce clothing; and the Laguna Foundation and the Permaculture Skills Center – both of whom help educate the public about landscaping and maintenance for fire and drought.

As in previous years, humans have proved resilient, pouring forth from all over in the spirit of generosity and volunteerism, opening their homes and offering donations of items and money, hard work and time. The Redwood Empire Food Bank, Undocufund, Corazon, Sonoma Family Meal, Daily Acts, and the Red Cross – as well as other local groups – have been amazing, and continue to accept donations and volunteers from those able to help. 

This time of year, when we wind down the growing season, the veil between the worlds of living and dead is thinnest, and we hold especially close those we’ve lost. May we also hold close our dearest ones in this life! In preparing for the new year, each seed we plant – whether with a kind gesture or sowing in the earth – represents hope.

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Autumn Equinox: When the Buckwheat Blooms

Fall is in the air, even on these hot Indian summer days. Our tomatoes are drying, beans being canned, pumpkins overgrown. If we don’t stop during these moments of pure beauty, as when a burnished dragonfly graces our yard stakes for a few precious seconds, or buckwheat blossoms turn to “cotton” on the bush before “rusting” in winter, then when? So begins the sad slide into autumn, the shorter days and less daylight, when I wonder about things I haven’t done.

Perhaps a typical human attribute, to do/not do then regret later, upon reflection. But how to change, to act in the moment? I over-ruminate about the smallest decisions… The time to act has never been more urgent: Scientists have for decades warned of global warming and climate change. People across the world, of all backgrounds and political persuasions, see their cities inundated in floods, wildfires ravage their landscape and rob them of their homes, and they lose clean air and water. This is to say nothing of the animals that share our planet. Alarming new research shows that fully a quarter of American birds have already gone extinct in the last 50 years due to habitat loss, pesticide use, and global warming – far worse than scientists imagined. And as birds fall away, our entire ecosystem unravels on earth: whether bird, insect, predator, or prey.

An author friend recently wondered if writing these blogs isn’t a way to retreat from the world, from our responsibility to inform ourselves, to act and to help others. But I rather think it’s a necessary reminder to observe seasonal changes and appreciate the mundane moments that comprise a year; that the haven of nature – even a small garden – creates a foundation, a guiding light that’s always nearby. Rather than an escape, it fortifies and prepares me to go out into the world and continue the good fight. Younger activists are filling the streets, as should we all, to fight for a healthier future. Happy Fall, to you and yours – may you celebrate this moment, and the renewal of the coming seasons!


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Harvest Bounty on Lughnasa

Lughnasa (also called Lammas) marks the halfway point between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox. Celebrating the first harvest of the growing season, the holiday provides a perfect time to appreciate our garden’s bounty. Winter’s copious rains have nourished our clay soil, normally hard as a rock. Keeping the crops watered with drip irrigation in the summer allows fragile seedlings to transport nutrients from soil, compost, organic fertilizer, and mulch up into the stems, leaves, and eventually the plants’ flowers and fruit.

I appreciate so much just being out in the fresh (or hot, depending on the day!) air – redolent of the rich perfume of tomato flowers – and putting our hands into the soil, surrounded by the buzzing of innumerable native bees, butterflies, and songbirds like finches. Each plant we lovingly placed in the soil, each hole we dug in spring, when the earth was still moist from all the precipitation, will feed us, our friends, and neighbors thru the season and beyond. And each reminds us of our loving families, who nurtured our love of plants and nature; and of our good fortune at this wonderful time of year!





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Summer Solstice: The Longest Day

The Summer Solstice marks the longest day, shortest night, and the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere. The sun appears at its highest, northernmost, point in the sky. Our planet will be at its farthest, or aphelion, in orbit around the sun. Then the days grow shorter as the earth continues to revolve around our star.

Traditions around the world since ancient times include bonfires and feasting in the US and UK, and all over Europe. In Russia the holiday celebrating fertility can involve casting flower garlands and nude bathing in rivers – many of the rituals centering around water.

In the fullness of the season, the outdoors thrums with activity: bees and other pollinators pouring into the ceanothus and other flowers in our yard, including poppies – the very face of summer.

This June, my mother’s birthday also fell on Father’s Day, reminding me even more of my parents – whom I already think of constantly. I’m flooded with memories of my father taking me on hikes around the hills where I grew up, poppies and lupine lulled by summer breezes; and my mother’s rapture over her garden’s every flower.

Artichokes continue to feed us, while also nourishing the bees that cluster into their massive open blossom. Such moments especially fill me with gratitude for each day, and for this glorious season. Happy Summer!

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May Day Blues

On May Day, or Beltane, we celebrate spring as well as honor the hard work of people around the globe on International Workers’ Day. International traditions variously involve marches, and rituals like dancing around a May Pole, bonfires, and crowning a May Queen. Just getting outside feels like a celebration.

Sunny weather awakens and warms the earth, enlivening seeds to sprout. Longer days give plants more exposure to sunlight, providing energy for photosynthesis. This transformation of carbon dioxide and water into sugars feeds plants, quickening and helping them grow and flower, like these baby blue-eyes.

This is acutely evident out on the Sonoma Coast, one of my favorite places in the world. Just knowing I’ll soon be there restores my spirit and calms a worried heart.

For a few years, I’ve been volunteering at Bodega Marine Lab, out on their reserve. This land includes over 360 acres of beaches, coastal prairie, scrub, bluffs, and wetlands; providing habitats for an incredibly diverse number of species – many of them threatened. BML’s research puts them at the forefront of conservation.

Bodega Head is one of the most stunning natural landscapes I’ve ever seen. There, high cliffs lashed by waves border narrow trails that take visitors past vast fields of wildflowers, where deer and coyotes share an uneasy detente. Falcons nest along the bluffs, and red-tailed hawks hover and screech high overhead, diving earthward after sparrows and voles and other prey. Seabirds like cormorants and black oyster catchers abound on spectacular rock outcroppings. Depending on the time of year, whales are seen regularly on their migrations. Breathing in the fresh air, wind whipping past, makes you feel the year coming alive.

Happy May Day!


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Spring Equinox under a Full Worm Moon

The vernal equinox is upon us, and with a bonus: the Full Worm Moon. The supermoon appears larger than usual as it reaches its closest point to Earth in its oval-shaped orbit. As the sun crosses the celestial equator, both northern and southern hemispheres experience equal daylight and darkness – equinox in Latin means “equal night.” The earth’s axis is exactly perpendicular to the sun’s rays, before returning to its tilted orbit around the sun. The sun rises and sets equidistant between sunrise and sunset locations of the summer and winter solstices. Now the days grow longer, as the sun continues its northward journey, until June.


This full moon signifies soil’s softening after winter rains, and the return of earthworm castings, which beckon to robins – a sure sign of spring. In the garden, I marvel at the fluffy white plum petals like snow against a field of blue: ceanothus, forget-me-not, grape hyacinth. Delicate scents of all the flowers are like spring’s first breaths. This time of year, as farmers have done through the ages, we dig compost into the soil and begin planting for the new growing season.

The burgeoning blossoms draw many species of birds (robins, cedar waxwings, house finches, goldfinches), their songs drifting inside through open windows. The air is filled with the frantic buzz of native honeybees and bumblebees on blooming rosemary, newly energized with the warmth of the sun. Such abundance and birth of new life in nature beautifully symbolize life’s possibilities of renewal. Happy Spring!

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