Saturday, September 29, 2012

Harvest Moon and the Last of the Monarchs

Today was a drizzly, gray day on the river, and as a result, the full harvest moon remained hidden behind a blanket of clouds and ended up being quite a non-event. The last time I saw the (nearly full) moon, it was busy climbing trees and rolling along one of the bridge cables, and I hope it will roll back soon because I do so love moonlit kayaking!

Despite the moon not making an appearance, something rather special happened today when the harvest moon was at 100% fullness: My very last monarch butterfly was born. I found her when she was a tiny caterpillar barely 1/4" long and watched her munch milkweed leaves for about two weeks before becoming a chrysalis. My students and I kept a close watch as the chrysalis changed, gradually becoming more transparent.

For the past two days, I kept the chrysalis (in a tent) by my side constantly, not wanting to miss the birth. I brought him home with me, placed him in the front seat of the car while I chauffeured my children to and fro, and even kept him next to my bed at night. I was convinced he was going to emerge yesterday and at bedtime had my fingers crossed that he wouldn't accomplish this great feat while I was sleeping. I was thrilled to wake up in the morning and see he was still a chrysalis.

The saying about waiting for water to boil also applies to waiting for a butterfly to be born! I carried him from room to room with me and then finally decided to focus on lesson plans for the upcoming week.

A butterfly's birth is a silent event, and when I looked up from the computer, he was a crumpled-winged butterfly, probably a couple minutes old.

There is an old wives' tale (apparently unsupported by statistics) about more babies being born during the full moon. Whereas I never experienced this myself, I'm nonetheless surprised it never occurred to me during the two days of chrysalis toting that the full moon would be the perfect time for this butterfly to be born! I named him Harvest.

I continued to observe Harvest throughout the day, and when the temperature was warm enough, I brought him outside and introduced him to a marigold.

However, Harvest didn't leave the flower and was still there as the temperature dropped, so I brought him back inside and put some flowers in the butterfly tent. I'll try again tomorrow to get him outside when the temperature is warm enough for him to fly. I could care for a butterfly for several days in the butterfly tent, but Harvest really needs to get on his way. And he seems to know this. Disinterested in the flowers, he spends time at the top of the tent, appearing as if he wants out.

Harvest has a great journey ahead of him, and it's getting late in the season. He is part of the fourth generation of monarch butterflies this year and has a longer potential lifespan that those of the previous three generations (who only live for two to six weeks). The generation of monarch butterflies born in the fall migrates to a warmer climate and may live up to nearly nine months, clustering on special trees that keep them warm throughout the winter. (When I read about or see images of the monarch butterfly trees in Mexico, the sacred tree in the movie, Avatar, comes to mind.) Yet, cool weather is only one threat to the monarch butterfly's survival. Rainstorms and predators are also dangers along the way.

It takes four generations of monarch butterflies to complete the 4,000 mile round trip from the northeastern United States and southern Canada to Mexico and back. Harvest's generation makes the trip, having never made a long journey before - and yet, each year the fourth generation of monarch butterflies somehow finds its way to the very same overwintering destination as its predecessors the year before. Born alone without parents to guide them, they are following something. Their inner navigational system knows what to do. Wow.

In addition to the dangers they face while migrating, there are also beneficent forces at play. The migrating monarchs are able to give their tiny wings a break by soaring on thermals. They have a keen sense of direction and also know to stop when conditions are not favorable and wait it out until winds have shifted in their favor. Of course, I perceive all this as one big, incredible metaphor for the human potential to awaken to and follow our own internal guidance systems!

I have observed Harvest's life cycle for the past 26 days and have grown attached to him. I want him to make it to one of the monarch butterfly tree colonies down south, somehow experiencing the victory of a successful journey and being all he can be - fulfilling his potential and helping his species to continue. However, knowing what is best for him, I will need to let Harvest go tomorrow.

When I put Harvest up to a flower today and let him creep down my fingers to the colorful petals, it reminded me of the letting go involved with my oldest child beginning college and being a newly licensed driver this semester. That was the metaphor that was alive for me today.

It is not enough to wish the world will be kind to my daughter and this newborn butterfly. I remember when my daughter went through a prolonged Wizard of Oz stage when she was little. How many pairs of glittery ruby slippers must I have bought for her as she kept growing out of them and wearing them out? How wonderful it would be to have magical shoes that can protect you from all the dangers along the way! I always wanted a pair for myself when I was a child. Visualizing my daughter surrounded with protective white light is the practice that seems to come closest - and until my children were about ten years old, I did a white light visualization with them every evening at bedtime. However, the other part of the equation is wishing that she (and Harvest) will develop strong wings and a strong inner guidance system to carry her through life's storms. These are a mother's prayers.

Harvest is struggling with cooler fall temperatures just as my daughter struggles with coordinating transportation and balancing the demands of two part-time jobs and full-time coursework. It seems both my daughter and the butterfly will need the endurance of an Olympic athlete to succeed in their journeys, and I can only do so much at this point. It is their time to fly, and I need to stand here and watch them try out their wings for the first time and hope they will discover, trust, and follow that little voice that knows the way.
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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss ( with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Dewdrops of Light

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
-Mary Oliver

This morning, encouraged by the interplay of colors, shapes, and textures in the sky, I sat at river's edge to photograph the sunrise.

The sunrise was lovely enough on its own. However, as I sat waiting for it to evolve as the sun floated higher behind the trees, I noticed I was surrounded by spider webs that were beginning to glisten and gleam in the expanding sunlight. So I turned my attention toward them.

And then I noticed beads of dew shimmering in the sunrise, clinging to bent plant stems, capturing inverted images of their immediate surroundings, and reflecting the sunlight spider webs, both at river's edge and in the field, continued to glisten.

It occurred to me that the spiders in their webs, the clinging dewdrops, and I were dwelling together in this moment, collecting and reflecting the light, each in our own way. What a great way to spend a sunrise - or a lifetime, for that matter!

The dewdrops continued to capture my attention - and this image in particular:

I wondered: What is it about this image that calls to me? Something about the dewdrops in the foreground and the presence of the river...

And then I realized:

Each tiny drop of dew comes from the river/ocean and will return to it.

However, here it is in this moment manifesting as an individual water droplet, with its own beautiful shape. Examining the dewdrops close up, I noticed that each carried its own little world inside of it, its own (somewhat skewed) representation of the world around it.

And each dewdrop was radiating light.

If I were to return to the river's edge right now as the noon sun crests in the sky, those tiny dewdrops would no longer be there. By now, they would have evaporated or been absorbed, assuming their role in the great water cycle. However, I was blessed to experience them during their brief existence as individual dewdrops. What a precious opportunity it is for a drop of water to shine in the sun like that!

Sometimes I wonder how much of an influence one human being really can have on the world around him or her. When I get pulled into the drama of the world - and especially when I don't get enough sleep - I tend to shortchange myself and everyone around me by truncating the endless possibilities that could be engaged in this lifetime. However, witnessing those tiny dewdrops this morning awakened me and improved the quality of my day. They reminded me not only of the brief and precious nature of human life forms, but also of how one small entity can be a channel of blessings that brings more light into the world.

We need to allow the sunlight to shine through us and not grumble and groan our way through life. Maya Angelou offers this sage advice:

If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. Don't complain.

If a dewdrop can make that kind of impression on me - well, just think what one human life can accomplish, and what we can do for one another if we allow the light to shine through us despite it all.

May each of us discover our own unique way to collect and reflect the light and engage the magic of this new day.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss ( with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Story of Patrick Cottonwood

This year, I have spent much time observing the Eastern Cottonwood trees on the riverside and have fallen in love with them. They have amazing energy and a fascinating life cycle, and I want to share their story with you. Recently, I learned that cottonwood trees are sacred to the Lakota people and are central to the Lakota Sundance ceremonies. I experience cottonwood energy as quite powerful and therefore was not at all surprised to learn of the cottonwood's significance to the Lakota.

Spring came early this year, and I was able to start kayaking in March, which was unprecedented. I took a lot of photos of trees along the shore, to share images of tree life cycles with my students on our SMART Board. Actually, I was quite blown away by noticing that leaves in spring begin with colors quite similar to the colors of autumn. (How can it be that it took nearly half a century for me to notice or remember this?) I photographed maple, oak, and willow trees and a mystery tree that took a while to identify. The mystery tree turned out to be an Eastern Cottonwood.

First came the buds.

The buds continued to grow

...developing more scales.

When I showed my kindergartners the photo below, they loved the "starfish" and began calling it the "Patrick tree," after a starfish character in the SpongeBob cartoon. After seeing this picture, they made a habit of asking if I had more pictures of the Patrick tree. Naming the tree was a very important development, which came entirely from the children. Once the tree had a name, it seemed to come alive and become interesting to them. Even I began to think of Patrick as a personality and wanted to learn more about him.

I still didn't know what kind of tree Patrick was but continued to photograph his changes. Next, the catkins developed -  drooping strands of tiny flowers.

Eventually, tiny leaves came out and began to unroll. 

The leaves continued to grow, appearing shiny and waxy at first.

At this point, I had become downright intrigued with the "Patrick" tree, did some research, and was able to identify him as a cottonwood. The next day, I went to school, excited to tell the children that I learned Patrick's last name. He has been "Patrick Cottonwood" ever since, and I just love that name!

Patrick Cottonwood's leaves continued to grow in size and deepen in color, losing their waxy sheen.

I have read in multiple sources that one of the reasons why the cottonwood tree is considered sacred is because its leaves provided a pattern for the tipi. According to The Cottonwood Tree: An American Champion by Kathleen Cain, Lakota (Sioux) holy man, Black Elk, explained that children began making little play houses from cottonwood leaves, which inspired the elders to construct tipis. In addition, if an upper branch of a cottonwood tree is cut, the cross-section reveals a five-pointed star (which seems to explain the five-pointed starfish pattern of the buds).

I read that cottonwood trees are either male or female, and that the name "cottonwood" derives from the appearance of the female cottonwood tree in fruit stage. I was eager to see which cottonwood trees would go through this stage in late spring. Patrick didn't, which meant he was, indeed, male. But here is a photo of a tree across the river from Patrick producing green fruits that contain cottony seed clusters quite similar to milkweed. The children named this tree "Fluffy."

I explained to the children that Fluffy was Patrick's girlfriend, and he sent gifts (pollen) to her through the wind, and then she would reciprocate by becoming cottony and releasing cottony seed fairy babies into the air when the little fruits opened. Patrick and Fluffy love to give each other gifts!

On windy days in late spring, I enjoyed stopping to float near the cottonwoods and watch the seed fairies fly into the wind. (Fortunately, I seem to have outgrown my pollen allergy.)

Here (below) is Patrick, living peacefully on the riverside. Cottonwoods are similar to aspens in that their leaves quiver and rustle in the wind. When I approach Patrick Cottonwood by kayak, he is an endearing sight because it looks like his heart-shaped leaves are waving hello and beckoning me to pay him a visit - which I do. I rest for a while beneath his canopy of leaves. This is one of my peaceful places where I bring my questions and often find answers. Patrick teaches me a great deal about patience.

Patrick looks pretty much the same throughout the summer.

But now, on the first day of autumn, his leaves have begun to turn gold, much like human hair turns gray with age and wisdom.

Soon he will be completely golden and then will release his leaves throughout October until a late October breeze comes along and leaves him bare. And then he will take a long nap. When he awakens, the fascinating process will begin again - one big circle that includes a time for rest. As I watched what seemed like millions of cottonwood seeds floating on the river back in late spring, I wondered where the new generation of cottonwoods would make their home. Only time will tell.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss ( with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Monarch Magic

When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take that step into the darkness of the unknown we must believe that one of two things will happen: There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly.   -Patric Overton

Ever since I began teaching kindergarten, my husband and I have made a tradition of searching milkweed plants for monarch caterpillars over Labor Day weekend, right before the school year starts. The goal is to collect a few caterpillars so my students can observe the dramatic and colorful  transformation from caterpillar to butterfly; however, it is an activity we truly enjoy doing together each year. My husband has fond memories of his mother packing him a picnic lunch before he headed out to look for monarch caterpillars as a child, and he cherishes the opportunity to continue this tradition with me. Observing the monarch life cycle is a magical way to begin kindergarten and a powerful reminder of the potential for transformation and transcendence. There are so many metaphors to be found in the monarch life cycle, and it is interesting to notice which ones resonate most strongly each year.

Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed leaves, and when the caterpillars hatch they begin eating the leaves, which is their entire diet. During August, we note the locations of the most promising milkweed patches. Some years, despite a great deal of effort, we come up empty handed. Last year was such a year. We didn't find any monarch caterpillars but returned home with a great story. After combing all of the known milkweed patches, we expanded our search along the country roads near our home and noticed an impressive field of milkweed across the street from a farmhouse. Feeling both desperate and adventurous, we decided to knock on the door and ask permission to look for monarch caterpillars in the field. The old man who came to the door obliged our request; however, the grass was so tall that we gave up soon after beginning. On our way back to the car, the man came back outside to ask us if we had any luck, and we ended up having a lovely heart-to-heart conversation with him about life in this day and age. I wish we could have filmed him talking. He was a retired dairy farmer and spoke about how much better farming is in Canada because farmers get paid better and can afford to maintain their property and equipment, which is not the case here. He really opened up to us and talked about his perception that too much damage has been done to this country by greed, and said he is not sure we can fix it at this point. It was such a joy to interact with this kindhearted man and to hear an old farmer share his wisdom. A couple times during the conversation, I actually found myself choking back tears because I felt my grandmother's spirit coming through him quite powerfully. (Her urn is decorated with a pastoral farm scene, paying tribute to her Vermont roots and her love of Vermont farm life, which was an important chapter of her life.) Without ever mentioning this to my husband, as we were driving home he remarked that he felt my grandmother's presence during that conversation. That is one caterpillar mission I always will remember.

This year, however, we saw several monarch caterpillars and butterflies the week prior to Labor Day and knew we would be successful in fulfilling our goal of collecting caterpillars.

Sure enough, when it was time, we ended up collecting seven caterpillars. We begin by looking for tender, green milkweed leaves that have some holes eaten through them. We also look for droppings. Often, the caterpillars munch on the underside of milkweed leaves and thus are cleverly hidden, so we need to look for clues suggesting their presence. We squat down low to the ground to see the underside of the leaves.

This year, we found three large, plump caterpillars that looked like they were nearly ready to turn into chrysalises and were likely to do so before school started. We also collected four very small caterpillars so the children would be able to observe the active larva (caterpillar) stage.

We put the caterpillars and some milkweed into a butterfly tent with mesh sides and a transparent top that zips open. The very hungry caterpillars munch their way through leaves until they have had their fill and somehow know it is time to enter the next stage of their life cycle. I am amazed and inspired by this part of the process and how the caterpillars know when it is time to change. I wonder how often the human capacity to think suppresses an inner knowing that it is time for us to change. How often do we convince ourselves to resist doing something different that would result in living a more authentic life because we are so used to a particular way of being - and it feels too risky to do otherwise?

Each in his or her own time, the caterpillars climb up the walls of the tent to the top, and eventually begin making a silk button from which to hang. The caterpillar hangs in a "J" shape for a large portion of a day before turning into an emerald-jade green chrysalis by molting its skin. The skin, which has become too tight, begins to split around the bend of the "J," and the caterpillar wraps itself into a chrysalis. It wiggles and jiggles its way into the chrysalis stage.

This year, all of my caterpillars managed to turn into chrysalises when I wasn't looking. The link below will bring you to a wonderful, real time video of a caterpillar turning into a chrysalis. My students have asked to watch it over and over again:

Monarch Metamorphosis: Caterpillar to Chrysalis in Real Time

The monarch chrysalis is an elegant sight - an emerald green case embellished with numerous, patterned golden dots, like a jeweled crown.

For about ten days, the green chrysalises hang, quiet and still. The children check the butterfly tent every day when they enter the classroom to see if a butterfly has appeared. Throughout the week, the chrysalis fades gradually in color until it becomes transparent, like a window. Although this is the time when the least activity appears to be taking place, it is a powerful time of metamorphosis. It reminds me of the human potential for great transformation to take place during periods of stillness.

In time, the chrysalis splits open, and the butterfly emerges. This was just beginning to happen when I entered my classroom this morning, and I grabbed my camera quickly!

The butterfly lowers itself out of the pupal case, extends its legs, and clings to the pupal case.

The abdomen is swollen with fluid that needs to be pumped into the tiny wings to help them expand.

Eventually, the wing tips will fill with fluid.

And then the butterfly will wait for its wings to stiffen and dry.

After several hours, the adult butterfly will be ready to fly. The monarch butterflies born in our area at this time of year will migrate to Florida, Eastern Texas, or Mexico and gather on trees that are literally covered with monarch butterflies. It is amazing to think that such small, delicate wings will carry them thousands of miles on a rigorous journey and that each butterfly somehow is able to find his or her way!

When it is time to release a butterfly from our butterfly tent, I gather the children on the playground outside our classroom and let the butterfly perch on their fingers if it is not in too much of a hurry to try out its wings for the first time. The expressions of wonder and joy on the children's faces are priceless, as is the gentleness with which they pass the butterfly along to the next classmate and the sincerity and hope with which they wave and exclaim, "Fly, butterfly, fly!" This is an authentic learning experience that leaves an impression on the soul that no assessment tool could ever measure.

It is a truly magical way to begin the year, and I continue to be inspired and fascinated by the process every year.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss ( with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sunrise on the River

To begin a new week, I thought I'd share some images of a beautiful, misty, Sunday morning sunrise! May your week be blessed!

Geese, flying in formation, appeared as I snapped this picture! (Click to enlarge.)

More geese!

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss ( with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.