Winter’s Gifts

This Groundhog Day, also the ancient festival of Imbolc – traditionally celebrated with spring cleaning, as well as great feasts and bonfires – brings us new beginnings: a new year, new US presidential administration, and renewed hope for combating the global COVID pandemic and ever-present strife and violence. As plants and animals, too, take their rest in order to regenerate for the coming warmer months and growing season, so must we take nourishment and inspiration from nature. 

Storms blowing through our area recently brought with them spectacular clouds and waves, and left behind damp, mossy forests dotted with multiple types of spectacular mushrooms. This trip we did not find our usual edible chanterelles, so we left everything we found in the earth, taking only photos.

Earthstar puffball

Slimy lavender cortinarius

Coral mushroom

Fly agaric

Amanita phalloides? (if yes, the death cap mushroom is deadly toxic!)

Mossy knoll


Posted in Local Area Hikes and trips, Nature, Seasons, Uncategorized, Weather | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Winter Solstice and the Longest Night

Today marks Yule or Winter Solstice, the year’s shortest day and the longest night, here in the northern hemisphere. As the earth grows dormant and plants store nutrients deep within their roots for the winter; so we clean up the garden, store and preserve food for the winter, and prepare for spring planting. Traditions dating back to ancient times include bonfires, and eating and drinking in celebration. For a long moment of darkness as our planet tilts away from the sun, we await the eventual return of its warmth and light.

This year, 2020, which we can’t chase away fast enough, the solstice also brings a special astronomical event: in a rare planetary conjunction, Jupiter and Saturn will rendezvous in the night sky. For the first time in nearly eight centuries, these two planets will appear conjoined. Not since the time of Marco Polo, have we been able to witness such a phenomenon from earth. The fleeting union occurs for just a couple hours after sunset, to the west-southwest as the sky darkens. They should be visible to the naked eye, but using a telescope or binoculars will show them individually, glimmering through the twilight. As Jupiter twins with Saturn as a “double planet,” we watch the gods play in the winter sky. 

Now we’re cooking with pumpkins, and due to a hotter year we even have winter tomatoes! In the garden, squirrels chitter and laugh as they run up and down large walnut and oak trees, storing their nuts. We hear the (new) caw of ravens, come to disrupt our neighborhood crows; and the songs of oak titmouse, white-crowned sparrow, finches and towhees.


Winter signs are everywhere: the air’s icy bite when I swim at the city’s outdoor pool, as my kicking foot leaves the water. I lost my father almost four decades ago to the day, my mother just eight short years; I still see their faces in the night’s cold stars.

Writing about this powerful, magical change of the seasons, British author Susan Cooper’s poem “The Shortest Day,” says it simply and beautifully:

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us—listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome, Yule!

Posted in Astronomy, Birds, Family, Garden, Mythology, Nature, Poetry, Seasons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

A Feast for All the Dead

Halloween, known in Gaelic traditions as the festival of Samhain, marks the end of the harvest and old year, and the beginning of the new year with the coming dark of winter. Now, the veil is thinnest between the worlds: time to put plantings and gardens to rest, and to honor our beloved dead.

This year, 2020? Nearly a quarter of a million people have died of COVID-19 in the US alone, as the pandemic runs rampant around the world. Wildfires, massive unrest, political and racial violence. There’s not much more I can add to what’s been remarked on repeatedly in a year of such global chaos.

The tradition of Dia de los Muertos joins the others in feasting and honoring our loved ones who are gone – whether through bonfires, special food and drink, visiting graves and other monuments and burial sites. 

Earlier in October I set out alone for the coast, thinking of my mother, who died 8 years ago. I think of her every day, with almost everything I do: gardening, cooking, getting out in nature. Her words wash over me like a soothing balm and I hear her voice, feel her presence so strongly, looking out at the sun setting, in the dimming light of day. Taking a moment to remember those most precious to us helps to keep strong those unbroken bonds of love.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Fall/Autumn equinox

These are dark days. Literally, as it was for Sonoma County and the SF Bay Area when we awoke to an oddly dim daylight resembling a post-apocalyptic doomscape. Amidst brutal heat, the very air we breathe has for weeks been choked by wildfire smoke that’s now traveled around the globe. Climate change is here for us all, with a vengeance.

This Autumnal Equinox – when the sun crosses the celestial equator and day and night are, as it seemed that day, nearly equal – comes in one of the strangest and most difficult years in memory. Covid-19 laying waste to the world’s populations, massive social unrest in response to historic injustice, and a dangerously divided citizenry. Yet fall has still arrived, showing up in some of its old reliable ways: leaves falling, shorter days, change in light, familiar constellations like Libra, Virgo…

This equinox has traditionally been the celebration of the harvest, with feasting and merriment. Humans have an ancient connection to growing plants that feed us and give us pleasure (as well as cleaning the air, feeding and hosting other creatures, and feeding the spirit); as does getting our hands dirty in rich, brown soil. Planting and the associated work (such as tending, mulching, composting, and harvest) ties us close to the cycle of seasons, to nature, life itself. And indeed, being outside in the (usually) fresh air, together, helping feed each other during these hard times, bonds our communities as well.

The joy of planting is quite literally the joy of life.


Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Garden, Nature, Seasons | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Celebration of the Harvest

Lughnasa, or Lammas, is here – traditionally the time to celebrate the harvest, and appreciate Earth’s bounty. Lugh, the Sun God, and Demeter, the Harvest Queen, are honored with feasting, bonfires, and dancing. Here we are, in high summer, during the strangest year in memory!

I want to express the great gratitude I feel for our garden, our friends and family, and most of all, for B. We are also lucky enough to live in community-minded Sonoma County, a place filled with opportunities for sharing and helping each other during these very, very tough times. These range from checking in on neighbors, to gleaning crops ripe for the picking and donating to distributors, to food banks and nonprofits dedicated to aiding struggling folks and businesses. Visit your city, county, or state websites for more info; and because it’ll pass before we know it, enjoy the season!

Posted in Family, Friends, Garden, Nature, Seasons | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments