Rights of Rivers

Photo credit: Isaac Lang

Apalachicola River, Photo credit: Isaac Lang

Rights of the Rivers

(This is a slightly revised version of a keynote talk I presented at the annual gathering of the Apalachicola Riverkeepers on 3/26/16.  It’s longer than usual!)

You cannot live in the Southeast without noticing how rivers define the places where we live. They bring us fresh water and so much more, but their geographical delineations of bioregion are among their most magical qualities.  I first noticed how the rivers embrace us in the early 1990s, when I traveled often to south Florida, learning about swallow-tailed kites.

But as essential these waterways are–to who we are as humans–some rivers nevertheless become ghosts.

Several times a year, I fly to the west coast to visit my beloved son David, who attends medical school, and his fiancée Hannah, in Los Angeles.  The last leg of the long flight takes me over the San Gabriel Mountains and then down into the Los Angeles basin.  Always, I am struck when I see what remains of the Los Angeles River.

Once upon a time, an underground aquifer in the San Fernando Valley and the surrounding mountains, fed the headwaters of Los Angeles River, which in turn created a lush coastal plain. Today, the river is largely encased in concrete and hardly recognizable. After catastrophic flooding, Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to tame the Los Angeles in 1934. They encased three-quarters of the river in a concrete ditch, fixing it once and for all in its current—artificial—path.

From above, it appears to be an irrigation canal or a “water freeway” at the base of gray concrete slabs. It saddens me when I see it from the window of a plane.

But I also sense that the Los Angeles River is still a reality, holding its potential, waiting for its waters to be returned. Waiting for its needs to be honored so that it may again breathe in and out, up-and-down, with seasonal rainfall and even tidal movement, as all coastal rivers are born to do.

It’s very, very clear, when you consider the Los Angeles River, that it is not the river that is broken, but rather the human relationship to it, that has caused the near death of this ancient waterway.

It touches me deeply to learn of the field trips and the passionate advocacy that some Los Angelenos have undertaken on behalf of their wounded water. And it is encouraging to learn that small mileages of that river are being restored.

From Georgia to the Gulf

From Georgia to the Gulf

Let’s consider our River, our powerful Apalachicola, the western boundary of north Florida’s Red Hills and Gulf Coastal Bioregions.

The River is the sum of the rivers pouring into her body (the Flint and Chattahoochee and Chipola and East), and a myriad of creeks, and bayous, and sloughs, and springs (such as Owl and Spring and Graham and Cash and Whiskey George).

Think of all those waters blending and surrendering themselves into the Apalachicola.  Think of how each of creek and bayou and slough loses its name and individual identity.  And then, how the Apalachicola herself dives into the Gulf of Mexico, and seems to be lost.  Now think of how those waters will rise again as fog and cloud, and eventually be reborn again as rain……..and river.

Next, let’s imagine as far back as we can to the source of the River, the physical source, and its source, in time.

Imagine when the Appalchiam Mountains stood as tall as the Sawtooths are today. All that rock had to go somewhere....that's what our beaches are made of.

Imagine a time when the Appalachian Mountains stood as tall as the Sawtooths are today. All that rock had to go somewhere….that’s what our beaches are made of.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, mountains as tall and rugged as the Sawtooth Range of the Idaho Rockies rose from the footprint of the Appalachian Mountains. Over unimaginably long eons, those granite peaks weathered into milky white quartz and dark feldspar–and sluiced down the rivers, first the Chattahoochee and the Flint. And then, at their confluence, the Apalachicola carried the sand down to the Gulf of Mexico, where it opened like a fist, showering and shaping ground up mountain sediment into brand new land.

Over time, as sea level rose and sand accrued, a circlet was formed around what we now call Apalachicola Bay. And: This River collaborated with the Gulf of Mexico and the rising sea, to create islands, an island chain so very precious to us: St. George, St. Vincent and Dog. I like to remember that when we cup a handful of white sand from the beach at St. George in our palms, we hold the bodies of mountains in our hands.

Apalachicola Bay, from the bridge to Eastpoint

Apalachicola Bay, from the bridge to Eastpoint

The River has co-created so many beautiful species. She has developed a setting where millions of plants and animals thrive, in her channels, in her floodplains, and in her Bay.  Most often, we think of how, in the embrace of warm, mocha Apalachicola Bay, generations of oyster larvae rooted themselves on layers upon layers of shell, thriving on the nutrients delivered from deepest Georgia. The River created conditions in Apalachicola Bay perfect for oysters to thrive, so perfect that 90 percent of all the oysters produced in Florida were once harvested here each year.

But in the Apalachicola, other beings beyond count or calculation were also born and died, their bones and teeth and fins and stems dissolving back into the Bay and the Gulf.

Some people may think of the River as inanimate. But when we look deeply, we can see that this is not mere water, not simply a commodity. The River has her own spirit and intelligence.

Photo credit: Shannon Lease

Photo credit: Shannon Lease

The Apalachicola is immense, beautiful, precious and unique in all time. When we travel on her body, rock on her current, we feel her perseverance and her equanimity.  We know her power—taut and muscular and green, brown and warm and welcoming.

The River is not an object.

If we did assume that the River and her occupants: oysters, sturgeon, swallow-tailed kites, floodplain forests, kingfishers–if we did assume they are just a collection of objects, then we would believe they have no moral standing. And we would be wrong. In fact, it does not matter whether we think a particular species or river is important or natural or beautiful.  We did not create them, and we do not own them.  Earth’s creations have intention, agency, worth and rights, far beyond what we humans ascribe to them.

Visionary cultural historian Thomas Berry observed that humans created the concept of rights—and then awarded them all, to themselves. And that is the deep pathology of our time to consider our rights as human beings to be different from those of the rest of creation. This leads us to believe that we may take whatever we like, and it also lulls into thinking that our future is unrelated to the fate of the rivers, the shorebirds, or the islands.

Owl Creek, photo by Shannon Lease

Owl Creek, photo by Shannon Lease

It comes down to this: We have to change our whole relationship to the River. This requires that we look at her offerings as gifts, not resources. We are required to separate our needs from our wants, and to rein in the consumptive mindset that currently dominates our culture. We must continue to initiate conversations around the following question: How does the River sustain me, yes, but, more importantly, how do I sustain the river?  As we do this, our reverence for the River will deepen.

It’s demanding and stressful work to be an activist in these times. We can feel trapped by the political and legal system that gives certain humans (and corporations), power over every other being “just because we said so.”

Where do we get the psychic energy we need to do this? How do we keep from being overwhelmed?

By remembering that we are not asked to succeed, but only to be faithful, to show up for the work!

By REMEMBERing, over and over again, that we are not separate, cannot be separate in any way from the planet.

And by believing that if we align ourselves with the true purposes of the Earth, and the River, we will know what to do, and have the strength to do it.

I’d like to leave you with a short poem by Adrienne Rich, in honor of the incredible work of Apalachicola Riverkeeper. I am proud to be a member, and I honor you.

“My heart is moved by all I cannot save

so much has been destroyed.

I have to cast my lot

with those who age after age,

perversely, with no extraordinary power,

reconstitute the world.”

Postscript: If you have read Coming to Pass: Florida’s Coastal Islands in a Gulf of Change, you will recognize some of this writing.  I recommend to you the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, Kathleen Dean Moore, Miriam MacGillis, Joanna Macy and Thomas Berry, for their teachings about inborn rights.  And if you are not already a member, please join the Apalachicola Riverkeepers.  Learn all about their amazing work, and how you can help, at http://apalachicolariverkeeper.org/

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On My Knees


The beautiful urgency of the garden has brought me to my knees.

Spring harvest and spring planting require that  I turn away from the concerns of our suffering world for the hours it takes to grow our family’s food.



Rows of Garden of Eden pole beans shake free from their brown seed jackets so they can climb.  The tomatoes are still orderly, restrained by the cool of these nights. I keep pace with their growth by pinching off side shoots and tying up the leading stems.


Putting up collards



After we harvested and froze most of our collards and kale, I turn the soil with a spade, and finger loose the roots of dollar weed, sorrel and rattlesnake root.  The fat worms I tuck back into the ground.  Garden spiders skip away from my work, carrying their precious egg sacs.



As my hands sort weeds from soil, my ears sort the songs of the wild birds: wintering goldfinch and cedar waxwing tuning up fragments of their breeding songs in the oaks; and parula and yellow-throated warblers, red-eyed vireo, and yes, the great crested flycatcher, all shouting their own return from the South.  My senses are in pleasant confusion: is the scent of lemon blossoms I inhale, or the bird song?  Or both?




From the floor of the garden, as I kneel and disentangle weeds, I meditate. How might we disentangle our world from its war-saturated ways?

I pray: Earth, ally me with what is life giving, beyond this simple planted plot of food.  Teach me how to come into more powerful service to You and all Your beings.

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True Currency of Spring

imageJust when I can’t take the thievery of our Florida politicians, monetizing and robbing our public lands, fresh water, oil, black bears….spring comes! And reminds me of the true value and proper scale of Earth’s gifts.





Carrot coins straight from our garden

Carrot coins straight from our garden

From our garden, I harvest my lunch every day: carrots more golden than the brightest coin, butter crunch lettuce, greener than any dollar.








Cedar waxwings in Southwood

Cedar waxwings in Southwood

I watch the cedar waxwings do the same, swarming the red berries of holly, and the gold fruits of our loquat tree. Don’t miss them: soon they will fly north to breed, nourished by Florida berries.







Cedar waxwing, image from Audubon.orgThe redbuds! The red buckeye trees! The first golden chested parula warblers of spring, trilling from the high oaks!  And ever so soon, we will see our first swallowtailed kites. We we must never forget the truest gifts of Earth.

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St. Vincent Island: An Anthem

St. Vincent Island: An Anthem


Velma Frye and Becky Reardon

Last May, New Mexico composer and singer Becky Reardon and Florida’s beloved songwriter and performer Velma Frye joined me for a week to explore St. Vincent Island, on the northwest Florida coast.  The island, a National Wildlife Refuge, became both inspiration and subject of an anthem written by the two musicians.  I was the privileged observer of their creative process—the only observer, besides the dolphins and the wild birds.  My contribution was to introduce the artists to the island and its wildlife, touring them on foot and by kayak, and once with Jeff and his boat.

“St. Vincent Island” is ready for its public debut now, nine months after conception.  The recent illegal takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, as well as unspeakable forays against Florida’s state parks and public lands, remind me that we need every kind of advocacy and passionate outcry on behalf of our wild places.

If you’d like to hear our Refuge’s new anthem, click here:

Here are the score and words to the song: Saint Vincent Island in key of C

Please read on and immerse yourself in the creative processes of artists Velma Frye and Becky Reardon. The format is question and answer, taken from a series of conversations and interviews we’ve shared this past year.

Sue: Tell me why you both devoted so much time composing and recording this song.

Becky: As I read your book, Coming to Pass: Florida’s Coastal Islands in a Gulf of Change, I began to dream of a song-writing adventure, a creative collaboration among you and Velma and me at Indian Pass. I knew we had just the right combination of skills.

image by David Moynahan

St. Vincent Island, by David Moynahan

Velma: We felt like St. Vincent Island needed an anthem. Whenever someone sings it, they will be reminded about how beautiful this Refuge is, and why we should protect it.

Becky: That’s right. I often think about the question of a songwriter’s responsibility at this time on the planet.  It’s very important to speak up, to be a voice. I wondered how we could write a song of both celebration and concern.  Velma and I asked ourselves: What is a prototype of the song that celebrates the commons? We thought of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and initially wrote lyrics to fit his melody, although in the end we composed our own tune.

Sue: What were the particular challenges in writing a song of advocacy?

Becky the intrepid

Becky the intrepid

Becky: We had to take everything we’d seen and read, this huge block of information, and turn it into something relatively short and singable.  The red knots, the eagles, the mingling of waters between the Pass and the Gulf of Mexico. All the different little micro-ecologies!

Velma: “This Land is Your Land” was a good prompt, because we thought it was important to keep our song simple.

Becky: Yes, we wanted something that people could sing right away.  I tend to compose music with a lot of complicated chords, but for this song we didn’t let ourselves veer into jazz or classical.

Velma: I wanted something you could learn after hearing it just one time. I followed Becky’s lead on the words. I knew the sentences were forming when Becky sat back in a big chair and closed her eyes.  Whenever I see that happen, I stay silent and I wait. You dare not interrupt that creative process.

A working altar for a singer looks about the same as for a writer....

A working altar for a singer looks about the same as for a writer….

Becky: Then we went away to our separate rooms. We both developed ideas for how the melody should sound. Then we would come back together and play our ideas to each other, back-and-forth. “I like that, how about this….?” Sue: Technically, how do you go about making a song simple and easy to sing?

Velma: By writing melodic patterns within a narrow range, about an octave, and by using repeating rhythmic patterns, quick to learn. The trick was to find descriptive words that added up to about the same number of syllables for the next phrase. Or sometimes we changed the melody to fit the words.

And we wanted the song to sound good a cappella, so we made the melody’s rhythm interesting to hear, even without a guitar or band. Sometimes the sounds of the water and the birds will be the best accompaniment

Sue: Tell me about Heyo, hey-ai-yah. What does that mean?

Velma: There was so much to say about the island that the song was getting too long and too text-heavy, so I suggested adding a super-easy, short phrase that could be sung loudly after each chorus.

Becky: Heyo, hey-ai-yah is a vocable, words that comes from no particular language, at least no human language. I use vocables to express the language of the world–whatever the birds are singing in, or the whales.  Think about the howls of the wolves, or sounds made by human babies before they settle on what we think of as language.  Those are vocables.

V tries out a tune

V tries out a tune

Velma: The last few days of our retreat were all about editing.  Remember how I worked at that big dining room table, cutting up the various verses that Becky had written and moving them around?   Some I just knocked on the floor. We already had the melody. Now we had to make sure the pitches and rhythms and words worked together, with great precision.

Sue: Please explain to me about why the chorus couldn’t be “St. Vincent Island, rare and free, where wild things live in harmony.”  I really wanted that word rare in there, Velma!

Velma: I knew that, and that was precious of you to want that word in the song. But to my ear, it didn’t sound good.

Sue: But why not? Rare is precisely how I think about the island.

Velma: As composers, you have to think about the sound, not just the meaning of words.  When you sing the second “r” in rare, it closes your mouth.  The word we ended up with—green–“St. Vincent Island, green and free,” opens your mouth.  “Rare” sounds like a cat wailing, and “rare and” sounds like “rear end!”

Supper on the beach makes for happy songwriters!

Supper on the beach made for happy songwriters!

Sue:  I witnessed how the two of you worked together to create “St. Vincent Island” last May.  Yet you tell me you’ve never written a song together before.  How do you each usually compose your music?

Velma: I write only at certain times of the year, mostly the summer. I save poems and quotes that are meaningful to me, and then when a stretch of space opens up, I read what I’ve collected, over and over and over. Eventually I will hear a song. I work inside with altar and candle, alone, and make the time sacred for songwriting. Often the whole song comes at once. I can hear me singing and playing it, in my head.  I hear the melody, the number of beats per bar, the chord qualities and progressions, even the volume, how loud it should be played or sung.

Becky: I spend a lot of time hiking on mountain trails, and down along creeks in New Mexico where I live, and I carry a little notebook with me when I hike. Sometimes I can tune into a song that’s out in the universe somewhere, and I just write it down.  When I catch a first line, it’s like a magical thread. The whole song is right there in that first line.  It’s like an entrance into a dream. You have to stay in that dream and follow that first image, because the whole song comes from that. You have to follow it, stalk it. You spend the whole rest of the composition doing that, staying true to it. In my dream, my song, I get images that have a lot of sensuous detail.  And the music comes with motion, and that motion becomes a sweep of the melody.

Sue: So there you have it:  A week I’ll never forget, and a gift of a song we hope is sung widely, especially in Gulf and Franklin counties. 

I will leave you with a fragment of a verse that didn’t make the final cut, but summarizes the whole of my personal commitment to the island.

Becky fell in love with the Pass

Becky fell in love with the Pass

“From my small kayak, watching the plover
I vowed that I’d never let the fight be over
Keeping St. Vincent Island, rare and free, where wild things live in harmony
St. Vincent Island, let it be, forever a sanctuary!”

On behalf of St. Vincent Island, heartful gratitude to Becky Reardon and Velma Frye!

For more information about Velma and Becky’s music, performances and classes, check their websites:



Hard at work

Hard at work

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On the Fourth Day of Christmas, the Marshes Gave to Me……

imageI wish I could juggle a camera with a good close-up lens along with my binoculars, spotting scope, bird book and lists, so I could share with you the beautiful beings I was amongst, these last two days. But I’m not that good. Instead I’ll paint you a picture with my words.




West Pass

West Pass

Imagine standing on the lip of Tahiti Beach, with the West Pass, a warm gale and the rising sun at your back, and miles of salt marsh spread to the sky. That’s where I was on Monday for the 116th year of the Christmas Bird Count.  These international counts show how and where bird populations come and go, and more than 72,000 citizen scientists take part.

The view from Tahiti Beach, St. Vincent Island, 12/27/2015

Where marsh sparrows live. Tahiti Beach, St. Vincent Island, 12/27/2015



I scuffed through the short grasses with my boots, hoping to herd sparrows toward the other birders in my party. Three different species of marsh sparrows piled up like Christmas tree ornaments in one small, skeletal shrub, long enough to clearly be identified.





What Sibley says about marsh sparrows! A lot!

What Sibley says about marsh sparrows! A lot!


Using our bird apps and field guides, we compared size and shape, nape and crown color, breast-belly contrast, and various streakings and stripings.





Debbie Segal, serious student of wild birds

Debbie Segal, serious student of wild birds


With my intrepid birding companion Debbie Segal, I had studied hard for the sparrows, pre-count.  Imagine the joy, then, of a circumstance where you could easily distinguish a seaside, from a Nelson’s, from a saltmarsh sparrow.







Down at Sheepshead Bayou, I trained my binoculars on a group of white wading birds standing at the water’s edge.  I needed to make sure they were all snowy egrets before I added them to the day’s growing list.

St. Vincent NWR, CBC, with Debbie Segal, Donna Gaudet and Grayal Farr

St. Vincent NWR, 2015 CBC, with Debbie Segal, Donna Gaudet and Grayal Farr

My other team members had their backs turned—they tallied bufflehead ducks, horned grebes and common loons in the lagoon, and entirely missed the miracle that happened next. Magnified in my binoculars’ field of view, I saw a full-grown, soaking wet otter emerge from the salt water and shoulder a path through the gathered egrets (9 snowy, 1 common). For all the world, it was as if the otter said: “Make way, make way. I’ve important business over in the marsh!”  The egrets kerfluffled their wings, and stepped out of the mammal’s path. It humped briskly over the white sand and dropped into the juncus marsh, out of sight.

I admit I let out a little scream of excitement. I love this world so much.


We had begun our first full day of counting birds the day before at Cape San Blas, with a different kind of outcry. The first thing you do on the Christmas Bird Count is listen for owls in likely habitat in your assigned territory, while also searching for the glinting red eyes of whip-poor-wills on the ground.

Salinas Park, Gulf County

Salinas Park, Gulf County

The best owling in my count circle is among the huge old pines that grow in Gulf County’s shady Salinas Park, near the junction of 30-A. I swung my car into the park entrance an hour before dawn. Instead of mature pines and owls, my headlights flared over bare sand.





What was needlessly lost

What was needlessly lost

Someone had cut dozens and dozens of the trees.  Their bodies were stacked in the parking lot, branches strewn on the ground. Their stumps oozed sap, like blood.

Damn, damn, damn.  No place left to for owls to roost, or bluebirds, or nuthatches, or the beautiful yellow-throated warbler.




The last year or so, Gulf County has exploded in ruthless development, lot after lot after lot cleared and filled on 30-A, the Cape, and Indian Pass. The saw palmettos and native shrubs that filter pollutants from Indian Lagoon are replaced with illegal fill, trailers and septic tanks that will eventually drain into, and contaminate, the beautiful Gulf waters.


Better now??? Not for the birds, or the trees, or ultimately, us.

Moreover, the county has been inviting development by widening the roads and scalping the cabbage palms and yaupon holly from the roadsides, so prospective investors will think…what?….south Florida? A local friend called Gulf County yesterday to investigate the tree cutting in Salinas Park.  The parks director told her that the area destroyed was low-lying, buggy and “unusable in its present condition.”  His goal, he told her, was make the residents proud of their park, and that it would be “gorgeous” when the “renovations” were complete.

I thought it was already so beautiful—and you and I know it was necessary–in its natural state. So do the owls and the other 89 species of wild birds we tallied on that territory during the Christmas Bird Count.

Friends, please, let us all find ways to speak powerfully for the nonhuman world in the coming year. Parks and refuges, under any jurisdiction, aren’t guaranteed protection.  How badly our voices are needed!

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The Story Instead

Dr Orrin Pilkey and Dr.Jeff Chanton at Stump Hole

Dr Orrin Pilkey and Dr.Jeff Chanton at Stump Hole

This could be a story about the privilege of co-hosting Duke professor Orrin Pilkey as he toured our barrier island coast last month.  I could have relayed his urgent and fascinating take on islands like ours, because Dr. Pilkey has visited most of the 2200 barrier islands on our planet. And you would have been interested in his findings, that almost every single one is thinning on both front and back sides.

“I have come to think of islands as living things,” Pilkey told us. “They have to get skinny in order to migrate. And they have to migrate because of sea level rise.”



Dr. Orrin Pilkey "reading" the signature of the beach

Dr. Orrin Pilkey “reading” the signature of the beach

Or: this could be a profile of Dr. Pilkey.  The man has written 47 books about the world’s beaches and shores, launched 2000 graduate students, and studied the coastlines of all seven continents.  I could have told you how unexpectedly open-hearted and dear—and fearless–was this 82-year-old coastal geologist.







"Brute Force Engineering" and its results

“Brute Force Engineering” and its results


Dr. Philip Froelich had escorted Orrin to Dog and St. George Islands, and also to Alligator Point. Jeff and I were to take the pair in our powerboat around the periphery of St. Vincent Island, but the winds were from the east, and too strong to allow us to safely circumnavigate the Gulf and passes.  Instead we went to Cape San Blas: where better to illustrate short-sighted coastal policy decisions then Stump Hole?  Orrin shook his head and dubbed the giant rock revetment a great example of “brute force engineering.”

Instead of facing the facts of how our beautiful coast faces inundation as sea level rises, we have to talk about how our visiting dignitary was greeted by our climate-change-denying state administration.  Governor Scott’s henchmen at DEP forbade use of the educational Apalachicola National Estuarine Sanctuary for Pilkey’s public lecture.

Nevertheless, a venue was found at a community center in Apalachicola, and powerful truth was spoken about what’s happening to our beaches and why.  Under a different administration, and with a willingness to talk about the real challenges facing Florida, a reverent welcome would have been offered to this world renowned authority.  That did not happen.

I invite you to read Dr. Pilkey’s editorial in the Tampa Bay Times regarding his experience in our state.  I hope you will share it widely!http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/column-the-future-of-floridas-beaches-and-the-publics-right-to-know/2256553


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A Community Requiem for Florida’s Lost Bears

An altar to remember, by Norine Cardea, Jennifer Clinnard and Linda Hall.

An altar to remember, by Norine Cardea, Jennifer Clinnard and Linda Hall.

Today, I offer you a guest post from Rev. Candace McKibben, my beloved friend and partner in all things ritual.  The photos are by the always amazing David Moynahan. There’s more to come on bears, and restoring them to their deserved sacred status, but we feel satisfied with this start.

This column appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat, Saturday, November 28, page 1C.


Candace McKibben, community healer

Candace McKibben, community healer

The Sacredness of Life
November 26, 2015
Rev. Candace McKibben

About a month ago now, I was asked to participate in a remembrance service for the Florida black bears killed in the recent hunt.  No one was sure just how it should look and feel, but that something needed to happen to mark the loss seemed right and important.  It took a while to form, but when we met on a recent Friday evening to prepare the space and our hearts for the Requiem for Black Bears to be held the next day, it was clear that healing was happening.  Sue Cerulean, who loves the Florida Panhandle and all of its rich life, was deeply impacted by the loss of bear lives and the threat to the orphaned cubs.  She likened her feelings about the hunt and her incapacity to do anything about stopping it to the helplessness she felt when her son was critically ill.  Knowing the intensity of that maternal pain for my friend, Sue, deepened my understanding of the gravity of the bear hunt and my desire to say yes to her invitation to be a part of a remembrance ceremony.

Art helps us See and Feel Truth. Norine Cardea, with mask by Linda Hall

Art helps us See and Feel Truth. Norine Cardea, with mask by Linda Hall


On Friday evening, Norine Cardea was standing high on a ladder, adjusting the bamboo that arched over the altar creating a woodsy cathedral.  Working with Jennifer Clinard, their eye for beauty and meaning was stunning.

The magnificent quilted bear resting on the black altar, his teeth and claws giving realism to his otherwise iconic body and bejeweled head, was powerful.





Linda Hall, great community artist, bearing our pain.

Linda Hall, great community artist, bearing our pain.


Linda Hall, who created the altar bear and several others, along with creative masks of woodland creatures used in the opening processional, seemed gratified that her art was being used to bring healing and hope.  Luka Sharron was hard at work in the background setting microphones and speakers in just the right places to create sound that would provide clarity as well as an ethereal feeling.   The Ursine Chorale, a group of loving, talented singers from the Tallahassee Area Threshold Choir, gathered to practice.  Among them was Donna Klein whose love and creativity helped produce the requiem.  A church member from the lovely United Church in Tallahassee where we had rented space for the requiem stopped by the church on another matter.  I invited her to come into the sanctuary to see the altar and my heart was moved by her generous response.  She fell to her knees, bowed her head, and wept.  “There is too much killing,” was all she could say.

On the morning of the requiem, those creating the service gathered early to be certain that every detail had been cared for.  Artist and musician, Patrick McKinney, tuned his guitar and worked with Luka on the sound.   He helped the volunteers who participated in the woodland creature processional understand how best to create the desired mood as they brought the quilted bear down the aisle.

We will never forget.

We will never forget you

It was a prelude like none I’ve ever been privileged to witness.  Velma Frye, healer and musician, rehearsed her exquisite offering of “Canticle for Brother Sun and Sister Moon.”  Exquisite photographer, David Moynahan, made helpful suggestions about how best to reposition some of the elements of the altar to take advantage of the light.  Everyone was giving their best selves and gifts to create the finest offering of love to the bears.

The words spoken during the ceremony were of respect for the bears and understanding that all of life is sacred and holy.  The bears lost, the cubs, the wounded bears, the hunters, the commissioners, those who feel powerless about the hunt, those who favor the hunt – all of life is sacred and holy.

Crystal Wakoa...on opening our hearts to pain

Crystal Wakoa…on opening our hearts to pain


Crystal Wakoa from her Buddhist perspective eloquently encouraged us to hold all of life in our hearts and pray for healing, happiness, and peace.   We considered the words of Jewish and Christian scripture that compel us to be good stewards of creation.






Honoring the Bear. Photo by Daivd Moyahan
Honoring the Bear. Photo by Daivd Moyahan



We came to the altar and selected a flower from people’s yards to place as a symbol of life and beauty in gratitude on the quilted bear.  We each took a blueberry, a part of the bear’s diet, to remind us of our connectedness with the bear and to nourish our souls.



Margaret Richey attended to her own healing and ours, by collecting and offering these bear paw shells.
Margaret Richey attended to her own healing and ours, by collecting and offering these bear paw shells.



We then selected a bear claw shell, that Margaret Richey had loving gathered on St. Joe beach, as a talisman of our commitment to hold all of life sacred.   Specifically not designed to be political, the ceremony was a safe place to grieve the loss of the bears and the diminishment of our own spirits, to honor the importance of holding life sacred, and to renew our souls.  It was a tremendous outpouring of love and on this Thanksgiving weekend, I am grateful to be a part of such a sensitive, caring community.


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The Tenderness of Shorebirds

Jeff keeping vigil on the Boneyard Beach“I keep vigil…. For those who suffer, and for those who keep vigil.”*

This was my unexpected assignment on Saturday, as Jeff and I walked a remote outer stretch of St. Vincent Island.

I came upon a red knot hunkered down at the water’s edge, a bundle of feathers pressed against the sand. We’d been admiring the knots as they moved through north Florida on their migration, 5 to 10 at a time, mostly.  They feed voraciously, plunging their bills over and over into the wet sand at the water’s edge.  They remind me of a host of paper doll birds, so alike is one to the next.  But this one had been short stopped in her unimaginably long migration from the high Arctic to the tip of South America.  This bird wasn’t going to make it.

Her eyes slitted shut, and her bill opened and closed rhythmically. I crouched at a distance that wouldn’t add to her distress, as she sipped the last air she would ever inhale. Now and again she trembled.

But she was not dying alone.

A tableau of tenderness (apologies for the inadequate cell phone image)

A sanderling, feisty loner of the winter beach, nestled down in the sand near the knot’s head.  I’d never seen a sanderling assume such a position, though surely they do when they incubate their own eggs.  Then a second red knot took up a post at the rear flank of the downed bird. Two lesser yellowlegs (tall shorebirds unusual on this beach) moved in, intervening between the small sheeting waves of the Gulf, and the knot.  They tilted their heads sideways, ascertaining the knot’s situation, and then simply stood close.

The four vigil birds–only one a conspecific–were companioning the rare bird, as she died.

My human mind ran through its tricks. First, as a citizen scientist, I thought I should look for identifying color flags or bands, because the knots are so highly endangered. But I was not going to pick up this bird during her death.  That would be extraordinarily disrespectful.  Then I wondered for just a moment if we should try to take the bird to a wildlife rehabilitator. Considering the 8 bumpy miles we had to travel by boat when we returned to the ramp, and then who knows how far by car to find help–that trauma was out of the question, as well.

The four vigil birds showed me what to do: simply be with. Simply offer tender presence to the incapacitated one.

Image courtesy of picturejedi.com

Lesser yellowlegs, image courtesy of picturejedi.com



The sun glimmered on the yolky limbs of the yellowlegs. The wind lifted the delicately barred back feathers of the downed knot.  The tide continued its rise.  We all continued to breathe.

In our culture, except for domestic pets, we rarely think of animals as having complex emotional states. And we don’t often attribute them with interspecific compassion.

Ah, but we are so wrong.  I saw this hospice for myself.

*This is a line from Leaning into the Darkness, written by Velma Frye and Macrina Wiederkehr.  You can hear the whole amazing song on Velma’s Take Heart CD.

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Ruddy Turnstone @ Hans Hillewaert

Ruddy Turnstone
@ Hans Hillewaert

When worldly events are too hard, or sad–especially then–we need to take time to realign ourselves with life rebuilding the world all around us.

Life and death happen all the time, everywhere, in the natural world, and never is one creature cruel to another, even as they must eat.

I saw a ruddy turnstone down the beach, stamping around in an intriguing fashion, so I quietly sat nearby, interested in what she was up to.

Signs of a struggle

Signs of a struggle

Here in the sand is the record of what unfolded. And what a drama it was! The shorebird hopped into the air, snagged a bright blue dragonfly, dismembered it, and filled her own hungry stomach.  While I felt sad to see the life of the migrating insect end, it was fascinating to consider the instincts of dragonfly digested and transformed into turnstone.



Bitter Panicum grass, an important dune builder

Bitter Panicum grass, an important dune builder


The wind was blowing at 10 or so knots from the southeast, knocking the seeds of a dune grass onto the beach. I watched seeds gather in small pockets of sand, and witnessed the ways the beach rebuilds itself.

Take time to rebuild your spirit, you who are grieving the bears.



Panicum grass reseeding itself

Panicum grass reseeding itself



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