The Life Sentence


“Disagreement can be both intelligent and honorable.”

I have just emerged from three weeks as a juror in a trial to impose a sentence–either life imprisonment or the death penalty–on a man convicted of murder. The victim was Deputy James McGrane, who was murdered in Tijeras, New Mexico, on March 22, 2006, while he was on duty. The defendant was Michael Astorga, who was convicted of the crime in 2010. Serving as juror in this matter has been the most intense and grueling experience of my life.

The salient facts are that, minutes after calling in a license plate that was traced to Astorga, Deputy McGrane was killed by a bullet from a 10 millimeter Glock. The bullet entered his jaw and severed his spine, and he died instantly. It was traumatic seeing all the photographs of the murder scene, and the horror deepened as the jurors learned more about how dedicated and well-liked McGrane had been. We repeatedly saw so many photographs of him in death; but finally at the end of the trial, his parents and sister shared pictures of how attractive and appealing he had been in life. Their testimony was heart-breaking.

During the course of two weeks, the jurors had gotten a major review of evidence from the previous trial, but additional material was brought in. The incriminating testimony that was presented from Astorga’s friends and acquaintances provided a glimpse of a reality that must have been pretty alien to all of us. His community was basically completely dysfunctional. Who can say all the reasons–poor parenting, lack of intelligence and education, psychological disorders, and poverty–but his circle seemed to be a collection of people living disordered lives based on mistakes that continually multiplied. They made matters worse by begetting children who would inevitably extend the reach of the disorder.

They did so many stupid things, and the first and foremost was to get involved in drugs in any way, shape, or form. The undertow of misdeeds included criminal records in some cases, tax evasion, irresponsible parenting, possible infidelity, drug running, and keeping drugs and equipment in the home. It all resulted in panic and vulnerability to police inquiry. Those who testified repeatedly contradicted themselves, compromising their credibility; and they all paid a price for even knowing Astorga. The undertow of misdeeds will get you. Read Full Post »

Lessons at the Bird Bath


It’s hard to know how to intervene appropriately in nature.

I am referring to feeding the birds around my home. When I first moved here, there was a desolate feel to the property, which had sat vacant for about five years. There is a lot of open land in the development, and the lot behind me is vacant, adorned only by the occasional juniper. I hung a bird feeder on the tree beyond my coyote fence, and after what seemed like a surprisingly long time, birds began to appear. Soon I added a birdbath, and it was fun to watch the pigeons, sparrows, and purple finches begin to visit. Doves arrived late in the spring, and then mountain bluebirds and western scrub jays passed through.

After a while, brown squirrels with almond-shaped eyes began to appear, and they sipped from the birdbath and became gymnasts on the juniper, harvesting from the bird feeder. Ground squirrels multiplied, and the entrances to burrows both small and large aerated the sandy soil. My property was now full of life and interest, but some of it was tragic.

Various birds crashed into my window and died on the portal–a dove, a goldfinch, several sparrows, and a pigeon. I felt badly. I wanted to provide for them, not put them in danger. And then, of course, a variety of hawks began to game the system, including a red tail and a Cooper’s hawk. Things were getting complicated.

Over winter, only the birds visited while all else hibernated. And then this spring, I began to realize that I had created a problem. I had attracted quite a community, and the land around my home was now riddled with holes that seemed to be getting bigger and bigger and threatening some of my utility devices. I had to face the need to begin to retreat on my hospitality, and I have begun gradually to reduce the amount of seed I put out, hoping all the creatures will venture farther afield. I worry about having to deprive them just as breeding season begins.

This reminds me of an observation I made about prairie dogs in Frenchy’s Park in Santa Fe. There is a big open field where the prairie dogs roamed and a small area in the middle of the parking lot where a “save-the-prairie dog” group left food for a little community. My elderly dog loved the excitement of their emergence and chatter when we walked there several years ago. Then the day came when I realized that the prairie dogs were getting so fat they could hardly move. People were leaving piles of lettuce and watermelon and vegetables near their burrows, and they had become avid diners. The next time I dropped by the pet shop where the prairie dog lovers collected donations, I told the owner, “You’ve got to get them to back off. The prairie dogs are becoming morbidly obese!”

We had the Las Conchas fire nearby last year, which burned up over 150,000 acres, and I hate to think how much wildlife perished. We continue to be in a drought that seems only to deepen, and development around here will continue, so the amount of wildlife will inevitably diminish. I think I will focus mainly on the birdbath as time goes on; because the wild creatures will be best served, I guess, by adjusting their numbers to the food naturally available. An important lesson for all of us perhaps.


Worm Day


So how did I get to be “the worm lady?”

Next week, I will have my last worm day of this school year, and I’m sad.

For five years now, I have been volunteer-teaching a class on the composting worm at Acequia Madre Elementary School in the historic, residential area of Santa Fe. It is a small school, only about 177 students, very charming, very friendly, and graced by a beautiful garden where students learn how to grow all sorts of flowers and vegetables. All that time, I have worked with Barbara McCarthy, a third-grade teacher who lives on a farm and is passionate about environmental issues. She is retiring this year after teaching at the school for almost 30 years. It feels like the end of an era, and I have the most wonderful memories of my time with her and her students.

So how did I get to be “the worm lady?”

It started when my  younger sister, Kate, inherited a worm farm southeast of Albuquerque from her late partner. I was living in Tennessee at the time and volunteered to help her develop promotional materials. Through my research, I became fascinated with eisenia foetida, better known as the red worm or the red wriggler or wiggler. When I divorced and headed to Santa Fe to make a new life, I immediately began to help her with the worm farm on weekends.

For three years we worked very hard to make it go, and hard physical labor was involved tilling 39 raised beds measuring 4′ x 8′  in a big barn. We worked in shredded newspapers, horse manure, and vegetable and fruit garbage from a wildlife sanctuary. Unfortunately, a tragic event decimated the population. A Tennessee Walking Horse breeder inadvertently donated manure from horses that had recently been “wormed.” It took us a while to figure out what had happened, and at that point, Kate called “Time out.”  The enterprise was never profitable, and she had a very successful software consulting business that needed all her attention. The High Desert Worm Farm was shut down.

While it was operational, we attended many conferences about organic production, selling containers of about 2,000 worms each that we harvested ourselves. (Very tedious work.) Teachers would often come up to us at these events and say something like, “I’d really like to work with worms in the classroom.” The idea intrigued me, and so I set about writing The Red Wriggler Teaching Manual, which contained lesson plans on how to use the worm to teach science, language arts, social studies, and math. Barbara McCarthy and Bonnie Granieri, a teacher at Alvord Elementary which has since closed down, gave me the opportunity to try out my curriculum with second and third graders.

I always embarked on a class whimsically hoping that the angels would be with me. Nevertheless, there would be times when I returned to my car thinking, “Well, I’ll never try that again.”  At other times, I would exit feeling as though I were walking in the light. It was that much fun, that rewarding. Read Full Post »

The Moon Speaks


“The sad truth is that humans junk up everywhere we go. In that respect, I hope we are not part of the moon’s destiny.”

Alerted by moon-wise friends and family, I set out at sundown with my camera on Saturday, May 5, to get a photograph of the moon’s perigee–the rising that brings it nearer to earth than any other time during the year. It was a suspenseful journey, because the moon didn’t show itself coming over the mountains and through clouds at the time predicted. I went through a tiny panic: Has something happened to it? And then when it did appear, huge and bright, my heart leapt in a romantic way. What a beautiful, beautiful thing it is. It is all the more precious because it seems pristine in its most brilliant moments. I have to admit that I would like to keep it that way, and this may be a uniquely feminine perspective.

Newt Gingrich, for example, was very much in favor of establishing a moon colony, believing that “it really is part of our destiny.” From my perspective, the moon has already proved itself part of our destiny. Most recently, we have left a good deal of NASA equipment on its bright face. The sad truth is that humans junk up everywhere we go. In that respect, I hope we are not part of the moon’s destiny.

Apparently President Bush hoped to send astronauts back to the moon and set up a permanent home there by 2020. The program called Constellation had to be shelved by NASA due to a $150 billion price tag, and the Obama administration cancelled it. Now there are ideas floating around about how NASA could establish a prize to encourage private enterprise to undertake this goal. It has been suggested that some technology billionaires might want to do this in pursuit of fame, since they’ve already made their fortunes. I may be odd, but the thought makes me want to bite my fist until it bleeds.

Such an undertaking is not feasible, however, until something is done to ensure the safety of future astronauts. This is due to the fact that there is so much detritus from satellites, rockets, and etc., buzzing around the earth that it probably looks like a dog with fleas. In fact, the National Research Council has recently issued a report that this material–some of it reportedly the size of a Greyhound Bus–will soon result in a cascade of collisions if something is not done. Working satellites that track weather and are involved in military surveillance could be affected. The Air Force currently tracks 20,000 pieces of space junk orbiting at about 17,000 miles per hour, and about 500 belong to us.

There is a great deal of research afoot about how to deal with the clutter, and much of it has to do with bringing it back into the earth’s atmosphere so that it will burn up. But of course, there is the political problem of disposing of some other country’s junk. Russia, for example, has twice as much clutter out there as we do. The diplomatic challenge makes one feel tired. A professor of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M, John L. Junkins, suggested that we forego international negotiations and simply begin to clean up the items that are our responsibility. Brilliant. Read Full Post »

For the Tree People


“I was a little shaken, and I later concluded that this was a witness tree.”

On Friday, May 4, psychiatrist and Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen spoke to a packed audience at the Center for Spiritual Living in Santa Fe on the subject of “Trees and Tree People.” Her most recent book, Like a Tree, inspired the talk, but she ranged widely over spiritual, feminist, and earth-conscious subjects. There were a number of men in the audience, but it was overwhelmingly female, of the vintage addressed in Crones Don’t Whine.

Bolen is Asian, and she speaks with the quiet eloquence and humor that comes with wisdom and a lifetime of study, teaching, and activism. A major advocate for the World Conference on Women, she has created a body of work on archetypes and sacred symbols that seeks to restore stature, dignity, and purpose to the feminine.  My favorite works include Goddesses in EverywomanThe Tao of Psychology, and Urgent Message from Mother. I have just started Like a Tree, which provided her with the means of transmuting the devastating destruction by her homeowner’s association of a Monterey pine that graced her home in California.

At the beginning of her talk, Bolen explained her understanding of “tree people”  as individuals who are very aware of trees; who have special memories of playing in trees as children; who sense a presence, a spirit, and sometimes a voice in them. At the end of the talk and by odd coincidence, a handful of people stood up and addressed various cottonwood issues, including what seems to be a growing concern that they are not reproducing here as usual. As we left the lecture, my sister Kate. who had also attended, reminded me that I have a special memory of a cottonwood, and I decided to share it here.

We played around cottonwoods growing up in El Paso, and there was a very special member of the species here on a property where I lived for two years before it was sold following my divorce. It was a wonderful estate, a large hacienda and a casita under big trees with the acequia running through it. There had been trouble on the grounds associated with the caretakers, and the Realtor recommended that we have it energetically cleansed by a shaman (only in Santa Fe). Lena Stevens of the School of Shamanism came over one afternoon and spent several hours on the grounds performing ritual.  She knew of recent events but said there was also an issue of unresolved grief, possibly historic in origin, in a particular area of the garden.

As she was leaving, she told me that two special trees were the guardians of the property, a giant elm near the front of the house, and a cottonwood in the enclosed garden. She suggested that I touch them at some point and thank them for their protection. I readily agreed, having had some training in shamanism and written a memoir (Lizard Diary) about my experience with a power animal.  The day came when the moment seemed right, and I first approached the big elm. It was encircled by a stone wall, and I stepped up and put my hand on its trunk and expressed my gratitude. Then I walked through the gate and approached the cottonwood, an unprepossessing tree backed up against the coyote fence. This time as I put my hand on its rough bark, I was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion, and tears of unknown source welled up in my eyes. I was a little shaken, and I later concluded that this was a witness tree. A terrible dog fight resulting in the death of both animals had occurred a few yards away, and there had been violence in the nearby hot tub. The tree was also in the area that Lena had identified as the location of some historic tragedy.

I hung a bird feeder on the cottonwood to cheer it up and later moved a desk into the main house where I could work with a view of the garden–and the tree. I was working on a creative project there one evening when I happened to look up. Instantly the idea for a story was with me, as though it had landed on my desk like a bit of seed fluff from the female tree. I soon began to work on it, thinking all the while that it was the gift of the tree. It was very different from anything I had ever written before, and the main character was a man. I always loved the story, but I was never able to get it published. My sister made me think that it needed to be presented in context, so I have decided to share it here for the benefit of other tree people. Read Full Post »

Step Over Rio


“It’s not like a one time drug sale. You can sell a kid over and over.”

Sometimes the things we need to know about are things we don’t want to read about. With regard to the horror of child trafficking, Martha Everhart Braniff has written a novel, Step Over Rio, that confronts the issue boldly through sympathetic characters and a plot that advances with breathtaking speed.

The story begins with the heroic escape from Guatemala City of Alex Sifuentes, a teenage boy who would otherwise be hunted down by a death squad that has murdered his brother. He is helped in his escape by a Catholic priest who risks his life daily to protect homeless children who would otherwise be exploited in ways too horrifying to imagine. Alex believes that he will work in a cantina when he arrives in Houston, but he soon realizes that the “coyote” who transports him will turn him over to a gang that traffics drugs and prostitutes kids. A female reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a special agent for the Diplomatic Security Service are the main characters, and even as they become allies in saving Alex and capturing the gang leaders, the competitive and sexual tension between them makes the sparks fly. Read Full Post »

The Sun Thing


“Back to the sun thing again.”

The publishing industry is in turmoil. The effort to create, adapt to, and benefit from change is feverish on every front. How will things shake out? Will Amazon rule? Will the e-book rule? Will bookstores disappear? Will writers be able to make a living from their work? Apprehension reigns in this industry, but another more general question arises: Is there any aspect of modern life that is not in turmoil?

That question sent me to the bookshelf for Cosmos and Psyche by Richard Tarnas, which was published back in 2006. As stated on the flyleaf, the purpose of the book is “to demonstrate the existence of a direct connection between planetary movements and the archetypal patterns of human experience.” Tarnas is a professor of philosophy and psychology who has always been interested in the esoteric. An earlier book, The Passion of the Western Mind, is a narrative history of western thought, a besteller, and now required reading in many universities. Read Full Post »

A Weed Speaks


“The earth is not in trouble. We are.”

An errant plant can deliver a very powerful message. I realized this a couple of days ago as I walked the asphalt trail skirting the desert and my neighborhood. I usually go late in the day to enjoy a beautiful sunset, and I travel alertly. A beautiful white Samoyed I walked with for fourteen years taught me to pay attention, and I have discovered that nature often has an eloquent voice.

The trail is well-constructed and may have been established as long as five years ago, but I have been here only about a year. I soon realized that two different kinds of cacti have found amenable flaws in the asphalt, but something entirely new is afoot this spring. A plant with frilly leaves as gritty on their surface as a nail file has begun to erupt like a volcano under pristine surfaces. This seems to be a community effort, with eruptions in clusters.

As I kneeled to take a picture of the tough little invader, I felt a surge of respect. This is a familiar feeling in the desert simply because survival is such a challenge–or so it seems to the human observer–and things are getting a lot more so. The daily temperature has been many degrees warmer than “normal” for most of this spring. It varies by neighborhood, but the maximum amount of rainfall recorded in the area is just over one inch so far this year. I suspect that there has been less than half an inch out here.

One notices that the plant specimens vary widely annually depending on rainfall, the character of winter, and temperatures. This weed must have started from a seed beneath the asphalt, a toxic zone of impenetrable darkness. Just imagine the will and the mobilization of energy required to burst through into the sunlight. Why now? Is there something about soil temperature that has signaled opportunity? Has the deepening drought spoken to it in a special way? Has the specimen’s consciousness worked out a strategy over several years that has finally succeeded?

A friend who is a master landscape architect has written a beautiful little book called Removing My Seed Coat about the teaching for humans in the traumatic moment when the seed splits and growth begins. A question is posed: “Am I a mistake/Or a gift?” I decided that the weed was a gift. I could have pulled it up to preserve the path, but I found its presence oddly comforting.

I have just finished reading this wonderful book by environmentalist Paul Gilding called The Great Disruption. He is an Australian, and I like the blunt way he puts things, namely that the global climate crisis will bring the end to economic growth and very soon. That will be the least of our problems, however, as simple survival becomes an issue for billions dependent on inadequate food supplies. Read Full Post »

Swoon Material


“The moment of the swoon induced by art can alter attitude forever.”

Sometimes I wonder if the two sexes really understand what attracts us in each other.  A recent foreign movie at The Screen brought that question to mind yet again.

The title is “Monsieur Lazhar,” and it is a Canadian film in French with English subtitles. The setting is a school that has been traumatized by tragedy–a beloved teacher has hanged herself in her classroom–and the main character takes over her class. He has represented to the principal that he is a teacher, but he is actually a former restaurateur who is seeking political asylum from Algeria, and he is dealing with grief from a personal tragedy of his own.

I attended the movie with two friends, and we were interested because we all were or had been teachers. The one who is currently employed in the school system was worn out and stressed by all the year-end paperwork. There were notes throughout the movie about the kind of bureaucratic interference that besets principals and teachers everywhere. At one point for example, the students, who are around age 11, inform Bachir (the first name they have affectionately decided to call Monsieur Lazhar) that there is no longer any such thing as an “adjective.” It is now called something like a “determinant possessive,” which is representative of the gobbledy-gook afoot in the educational bureaucracy.

The production seems at times more like a documentary, and there is none of the overwrought Hollywoodism that  has become the accepted standard of excellence. The female principal looks haggard at times, and an attractive teacher wears no make-up. You can hear footsteps on hardwood floors, the rattle of paper, and the sound of swallowing when Bachir takes a drink of wine in one scene. I could almost smell chalk in the classrom and the scent of young bodies that had perspired during recess.

As the year progresses at a measured pace through the seasons, it feels as though the audience is a daily companion as Bachir fumbles with curriculum, grades papers, and works with the children to encourage, reassure, and comfort them in dealing with the tragedy. As I said, he has misrepresented himself, but he is sensitive and earnest and continually tries to do the right thing in his role as teacher. Nevertheless there are moments when he seems–and I hate to say this–inadequate.

With regard to his appearance, Bachir is not especially attractive. He is dark-haired and has a goatee and a large nose. He is always well dressed in slacks, shirt, and sports coat. His physique is trim but nothing fancy. What you notice most is his vulnerability, which is both psychic and professional. Then comes this brilliant scene. Read Full Post »

The Magic of Three


“The number three seems to convey comfort and balance to the human mind.”

The new moon will appear Saturday in Santa Fe at 1:20 a.m., and the time suggests that it will enjoy a largely private appearance. However, one can consider the significance of this phase beforehand.

Primitive man thought of three lunar days–the last day of the waning moon, the dark moon, and the new moon–as three days of darkness freighted with fear and hope. One wonders if that is the reason why the number three seems to be so important to the collective mind. It is associated with creativity in general, and the triad is very common in mysticism as well as myth, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales. I once heard that anyone making a speech should hold to three major points because that is about all the audience will be able to remember.

But just think how often threeness does show up. In mythology, there were the three gods that supposedly ruled the world, Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto; the Three Furies; the Three Graces; and the Three Harpies. We envision a threefold world: beginning, middle, and end; body, mind, and soul; earth, sea, and air; animal, vegetable, and mineral; and the three cardinal colors of red, yellow, and blue. In Christianity, we have  Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; the Three Wise Men; the three graces of faith hope and charity; and the world, the flesh, and the devil as the three enemies of man. Read Full Post »