Archive for July, 2012

Amphibios: Prophetic Silence and Vital Song

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Intro: The following essay is on the mythos of amphibians and what their reductions in population tells us, a classic piece from Kindred Spirits – a book of mine no longer in print. We’ve decided to give all the chapters away free here over time, and chose this piece to start with after hearing that one of our On-Site Helpers, Mattie, had been overcome with emotion after reading it. An important issue when I wrote it so many years ago, my projections for amphibian extinctions have actually been exceeded, and their worsening plight tells us something prophetic and urgent about a potential future for humankind as well. Get into your frogness, and tonight sing out….

Prophetic Silence and Vital Song

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Anima School and Sanctuary  –

“The toad beneath the harrow knows
Exactly where each tooth-point goes”

-Rudyard Kipling

Listen! Listen hard for the happy orchestrations of moon-crazed croakers, and the story such songs tell.

Amphibians, and frogs in particular, are living metaphors of evolution. The distinct stages in their lifecycle parallel the evolutionary imperative, from a unicellular egg into a purely aquatic tadpole, slowly developing the legs and shape of the adults. Each new frog reenacts their ancestors’ first fated gulp of air, and initial ascension onto the verdant land mass. They teach us the crucial processes of metamorphosis— changing appearance without ceasing to exist, changing form to reveal the realized self. Listen! Their raucous and amorous songs are the unequivocal announcement of a still-livable ecosystem. Their buoyant social chirps and echoing mating grunts are an environmental sound-check— a tonal, rhythmic, soulful “all’s well!”

Thus, there’s certainly no more dire portent than a quieted frog pond, no more certain omen than the recent world-wide disappearance of amphibians. Like the audible pleas of Cassandra, the plaintive silence of the frogs is a certain prediction of unfolding catastrophe. And as with Cassandra, no one heeds the crushing hush of wetlands once alive with the croaks and bellows of jeweled songsters. It is in their arresting absence they take on the role of soothsayers, forecasting disaster in a descending wall of terrifying silence. The extended silence of extinction.

We get their name from the Greek word “amphibios,” meaning to “lead a double life” above and below the waterline. The adaptation to a dual-habitat contributed to the success of a three hundred and ninety million year existence, surviving almost unchanged for the last one hundred and fifty million. It now spells double jeopardy, with high-risk exposure to both air and water borne poisons. Their common food source is insects, the victims and carriers of pesticides. An amazing, permeable skin that allows for the direct absorption of oxygen also allows the easy passage of industrial pollutants. Sensitive to changes in water temperature, reductions in cover, and situation, resident populations are effectively halved wherever subjected to logging operations. Acid deposition in the form of rain or snow retard the growth of their eggs. Once the most abundant by weight of any forest animal, amphibians are quickly disappearing worldwide, setting off a great biological alarm.
The Las Vegas leopard frog vanished when its entire range was appropriated by the city it was named for. Adapting to the warming deserts of the west following the recession of the last great ice age, they prospered in one of the driest ecosystems in this country. Finally succumbing to suburban sprawl and the theft of the remaining surface water for the city of glitter, they were only named and classified after the last known specimens were jarred in formaldehyde.

Close to extinction are the tiger salamander of Arizona, the Oaxacan salamander in southern Mexico, the Yosemite toad of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, Michigan’s chorus frog and the western spotted frog. The completely logged and polluted Willamette Valley of Oregon is seeing a frightening decline in the population of the once prolific red-legged variety. There are believed to be less than a total of fifty Wyoming toads left, tucked away in the folds of the Laramie basin. By the mid-1980’s the southwest U.S. lost the relict and Tarahumara frogs. The golden toad was assumed safe in the protected preserves of Monteverde, Costa Rica. Within its misty embrace, beneath giant orchids and moss dangling from rainforest trees, the males stood out in a burning show of orange brilliance. In less than ten years they’ve completely disappeared.

The natterjack toad is a study in adaptability, and yet it too is on the way out. While preferring a hot dry climate, it’s learned to exist from Scotland north to Sweden, and on into western Europe. Its favorite domain however, is the loose-soiled terrain common to the open heaths and dunes of Great Britain. With digging spurs called tubercles on the back of their hind-ankles, the dig down from two to ten feet in the ground to survive the varying winters. With a yellow strip down their back, and a characteristic “gunpowder” smell, they were once a common sight in old England before being listed as endangered there in 1975. The coast to coast spread of housing tracts, industrial parks and golf courses result in deaths from pesticides and automobiles, while usurping their remnant habitat.

Amphibians are suddenly and dramatically vanishing from the face of the Earth. Species after species join the ranks of the recently extinct. Of these, one the most unusual was the gastric-brooding frog. Sheltered for millennia in the deep tangles of Australia’s Blackall and Canondale mountain ranges, they developed a singularly unique method for protecting the unhatched eggs from the abundant predators— stowing and hatching the eggs inside their stomach. Somehow they managed to suppress the secretion of digestive acids throughout the incubation period, restimulating their flow after a return to feeding. Following its 1973 discovery by the “modern world,” scientists rushed to study the anomaly of the gastric-brooder. By 1980 the frog that regurgitated live babies lived no more.

Amphibians first appear on the fossil record between the late Devonian and Mississippian periods. Their ancestors were the crossopterygian fishes, with flipper-like lobed fins, and lungs as well as gills. It’s unlikely they ever chose to leave the water. More likely they were caught in isolated, evaporating seas, their first excursions above a search not for land, but for more water. They were pre-adapted to life on land. Lunged fish thrived without leaving the water for hundreds of millions of years, and survive to this day in the form of prehistoric-looking coelacanths of the Indian Ocean. It was however, the existence of already developed lungs that made their land travels possible.

You can see the timelessness of amphibios in the unfocused, dinosauric stare of the rough skinned newts. Their endangered habitat is the last of Pacific Northwest’s temperate rainforest, where they float in the perfectly clear pools of rainwater. They absorb oxygen from the water, supplemented by occasional sorties to the surface for a gulp of mountain air. They rise from the depths in slow spirals in an economy of movement, their almost still tail following behind. With intense, vertical pupils, here is the “eye of newt” staring back from many a witch’s brew. The headwater seeps feeding these pools shelter the rarest of California amphibians, the Olympic salamander. Intolerant of any rise in stream temperature, they easily succumb wherever logging reduces the total amount of shade. Their rapid disappearance is a direct and accurate measure of ancient forest destruction.

The oldest frog fossils are of the family Ascaphidae, dating back two hundred million years to the Jurrasic Period. The remnant wilds of the American northwest are also home to the last living member of this family, the tailed frog. The “tail” is actually a rosy, spade-shaped cloaca, or penis. Needless to say, the female is “tail-less”. They are the only frogs that fertilize the female internally, having adapted to the coldest, hardest-rushing streams where typical external fertilization would be untenable. The eggs are then laid in a sticky secretion cementing them firmly to the rocks, and to the same end the tadpoles employ large suction-cup mouths. This creature of the torrent, muted by the roar of whitewater, faces an uncertain future. Like the Olympic salamander, the tailed frog’s sensitivity is what makes it so vulnerable to human impact. A change in average water temperature of less than five degrees can kill them.

Besides the draining of wetlands, damming of rivers and other habitat loss, amphibians suffer disproportionately from the effects of ultraviolet radiation due to atmospheric ozone depletion. The increase in acid-rain is resulting in the deformation of egg and tadpole, reducing their chances of survival. In addition, they face a mysterious “red leg” epidemic, a spreading immuno-deficiency disease often referred to as “amphibian AIDS”. Given their susceptibility to toxins, there is likely a causal connection between the disease and existing environmental pollutants.

Human beings are far more tolerant of adverse changes, and measurably less vulnerable to the toxic residues of our consumerist civilization. It would appear at first glance as if we could proliferate indefinitely, immune or insulated from the deleterious effects of such promulgation. An insular, detached humanity often seems lost in denial, desensitized, oblivious to worsening conditions, to the silencing of the frogs— conditions that in the end, will prove as disastrous for us as for them.

The coal miners of recent American history carried into those cold, black shafts a bird locked inside a cage. The golden “miner’s canary” was markedly more sensitive to the accumulation of underground gases than the men working beside them. Thus, the silencing of their song was a sure signal of impending doom. In the same way, the quieted ponds of the frog serve an imperiled planet as a tocsin for toxins, a harbinger of destruction, a red alert. Alert. Alert. Alert…

Amphibians have been communicating with our species since well before the first writing of human history. In ancient MesoAmerica, the Earth Mother was often portrayed as a giant, clawed toad squatting in the traditional birthing position. Like Kali, she wears adornments of human skulls, her gaping maw the opening to the transformative womb, the threshold of death and rebirth. In Europe as well as the New World, toads were associated with hallucinogenic mushrooms— the mythic “toadstool.” No doubt, given that the skin secretions of Bufos contain a similarly powerful psychedelic alkaloid used for centuries for shamanic spirit-travel. Vilified in the middle-ages as agents of Satan, and then as embodiments of the devil himself, amphibians have long told a story of transformation the dominant society could not afford to hear.

It is said that toads and frogs can live buried in mud for years, hibernating, mindlessly awaiting the thaw that will release them. There are incredible folk-stories of them somehow becoming entrapped in solid stone or coal, then jumping out unharmed when the rock is unexpectedly broken open. One hopes that within the core of humankind’s hardened, impermeable sheath a secret still rests, fetal, toad-like— a wilder spirit ready to spring forth, ready to belie the extinction of its kind, ready to leap the bounds of muted testimony!

Us humans seem to find it so hard to hear, so hard for even the most inspired teachers to accept the leading guidance of the creature world. I knew one particularly sure of himself educator, a brilliant cynic who needed regular visitations and miracles in order to keep his belief alive. And so long as he was open, Nature and Spirit provided. One of his lessons in perspective came at what used to be his school for “troubled youth” (meaning “hurt, conscious, and fed-up kids”)— through the timely attentions of amphibios. It happened inside of the “Earth Classroom,” a dome structure made entirely of earth and branches from the surrounding area, and completed largely due to the obsession of a particularly gifted student with the proud nickname of “Frog.” Before graduating the program, he gave a talk to the kids and counselors. For his “final” he put on a “show and tell” on all the flowers, pieces of moss covered wood, bones and such that he had brought with him, explaining their significance, and concluding with the admonition that these, rather than words and textbooks, told the real “story.” At the completion of his presentation, the young man carefully took the frog he had brought in to show and ceremoniously released it outside.

A few months later the educator was back at the earth shelter trying to find a way to talk about Spirit to his assistant Cathy— trying once again to conquer his incessant doubts, his cynicism, and the demon-making propensities of a troubled mind. As if on cure it began to thunder and lightning, and a storm was soon ripping through the forest. They sat inside, to the south of the fire, trying their hardest to relax and to receive, praying to quiet their thoughts long enough to truly feel. Suddenly into the hut hops a frog, perhaps the very same frog the student had released so much earlier! He moves into the perfect position to look them eye to eye, patiently waiting for them to notice. Once they did it began bobbing up and down, its pink little mouth opening and closing as if to remind them of a magic so easy to ignore and deny.

Without a doubt, we ignore the attentions of the animal world at our own peril. One by one the shrinking ponds cease to ring out with the glad-croaking songs. One by one they are hushed by the weight of our presence— and by what we, as lovers of this Earth— have yet failed to do. The moonless nights may soon be as still as stone. In the face of such a final silence, we should be “all ears”: attentive, concerned, and vigorously responsive.
Surely we can still learn from the example of amphibian metamorphosis. Let us look to our own cyclical unfolding— for a manifestation of self more conscious of miraculous life, more in tune with the processes of our shared Nature.

And like the so-vocal surviving tree frogs outside our cabin… let us sing.


(RePost and Share Freely)

Medicine Bear Novel Announcement – With Excerpt

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012


It’s Here!  Fresh off the press, Wolf’s new novel


The first boxes of this exciting book have arrived, and Wolf is currently signing copies for mailing out to all who ordered one.  I highly recommend it!  As I wrote for its pages:

The Medicine Bear is a powerful novel of love, healing, devotion, coming of age, and sense of place, but more than any single element, it is a tapestry of the vital medicine that connects the people to the land, and all of us to each other. The skillful hands of the curandera heal even while the soldiers endure a bloody struggle. Through it all, the medicine of this tale is found in the power of personal transformation and bone-deep passion.  Readers of novels as diverse as Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter will be pulled into the mythic yet eerily relevant story of the Medicine Bear. The vibrant weaving of the many cultural elements that make of the American Southwest on the border are beautifully represented, transporting us to the lapiz skies, red clay, and lush canyons of New Mexico but the tale is applicable and relatable to the reader wherever they might be.

Jesse Wolf Hardin with Medicine Bear Novel

Never has a story of magic and healing, clarity and wildness been so needed as now.  Wolf’s masterful approach to magical realism and history grants us a seldom seen view into the events that have shaped the borderlands and its people… a master storyteller’s tale of a mestiza healer and her true love.

Part of the Announcement is pasted below, for you to please repost or forward, and an initial excerpt follows for those of you who may not have already gotten to read sections of it in the pages of Plant Healer Magazine.

Thank you for buying a copy, and for  helping getting the word out about this special book, recommending it to your students and friends.  It really means a lot to me personally.    –Kiva

Order your own personally signed copy now:

For a Medicine Bear Announcement to share with your friends and readers, download the following pdf:

Medicine Bear Announcement

Wolf and I with his new book... I hope you love it!


“The story of a healer, a love, and a time of transition”

in the Enchanted Southwestern U.S. during the closing days of the Old West
by Jesse Wolf Hardin

“An incredibly powerful novel of love, healing, devotion, and sense of place…
a tapestry of the vital medicine that connects the people to the land, and to each other.”

–Kiva Rose (N.M. Medicine Woman)

“If you have ever loved, healed or been healed, bemoaned a changing society,
and felt the animal spirit within you, this tale is for you.”

–Charles Garcia (Curandero; Director, Calif. School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism)

Follow the wild-woman herbalist and Omen, the impassioned writer and adventurer Eland and archetypal Medicine Bear through a time of great cultural as well as personal transition, down plant-filled paths of discovery and healing and to the juncture of our own return to wholeness and health, rooted home and true love, meaningful mission and – ultimately – satisfaction and contentment.

Taking place primarily in the mountains and deserts of the American Southwest, we experience the confluence of Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo cultures that was and is New Mexico.  Spanning from the birth of Eland in 1892 to 1964 in its closing scene, its central event is a little known retaliatory raid in 1916 by Pancho Villa’s poorly equipped Indian revolutionaries, in what was the sole invasion of the U.S. by a foreign army since the War Of 1812.

Eland 1961

“The teachings of The Medicine Bear shine bright, like sunlight through a canopy of thickly branched trees. Here is found the deep wild wisdom of curanderas and curanderos of yesterday and today, disguised as story. One can almost smell the copal smoke and rain-dampened desert as we follow how Omen’s “don” unfolds, encouraged first by the spirits of plant and tree, stone and animal; the true teachers of those called by the guardians of the medicine ways. Later, honed by the old yerbera, Doña Rosa. Like we Mestizas, it walks between worlds: the world of matter, the world of spirit and the world of culture and language. Of brujas and curanderas. Of European healing and Indigenous medicine. It is also a love story… a tender unfolding of the Aztec spiritual principle of balance and harmony, of Ome Cihuatl and Ome Tekutli, Two Woman and Two Man, complementary opposites who embody soulful unity.”
–Grace Alvarez Sesma, Curandera

Omen 1911

At the very heart of this story is always Omen, gifted, abused as a child, resilient as a pre-teen studying with the curandera Doña Rosa, determined as an adult to move past her wounds and further her craft, forever experiencing the beauty and complexity of the world through her awakened senses and caring heart.

“To Omen, they were not just wondrous sunshine-eating entities, without whom humans and most of the life on Earth would die.  Plants were proof of miracles, and reason for hope.  The inspiration for a good and balanced life, and examples of how to live it.  They were her ever growing, ever reaching truth, the medicine she would need.” (from the text)

Over 70 full page, 6×9” illustrations compliment the text, a combination of original drawings by the author Hardin, and antique photographs from the period adapted for this role.  Character portraits and regional stills help tell a story Hardin first painted with his descriptive and evocative words, reflecting a vision that is Omen’s, Eland’s and ours to share.

“The Medicine Bear is an unabashedly magical, sensual, and yes, romantic tale of love and loss, of longing and renewal. It is a paean to wildness within and the southwestern wilderness that Eland and Omen are married to, along with each other, and whose exquisite beauty we are drawn into through the soulful eyes and language of Eland.
Plants intertwine with the lives of the main characters in The Medicine Bear. Eland knows his plants well, and as he watches his beloved Omen, an herbalist, at work and play, we are shown that plants are healers and beings in their own right. This matches my own sense of plants as beings of deep spirit and great generosity. There is so much plant lore and wisdom shared in the book, along with hints at how to gather and work with herbs, that the Medicine Bear will be a pleasure for herbalists to read, and a great education for those who long to become more intimate with healing plants.
The plants, the mountains, and the medicine bear sing to us, calling us each to full aliveness. While the old west is fading and the grizzlies are dying, love inspires, even beyond death itself.”
–Robin Rose Bennett

For Information or to Order:


Moonheart 1897

A Wild Seed:  Omen & Moonheart
(White Mountain Apache Reservation, S.E. Arizona, 1897)
Excerpted From
by Jesse Wolf Hardin

The day the one called Omen was born, Moon had determined to spend the morning walking.  This, even though the hours spent among river Cattails or ridge-top Aspen were hours when no dough was being mixed to rise, no Melons watered, no cistern cleaned.  Her ruddy-faced husband lay sleeping off a hangover on the sitting room couch, and there would be no one to strip the leaves of the Quelites off their stalks or to set the trays out in the blazing July sun.  Any number of tasks were predicated on the season and the weather, and she knew she approached the end of the drying season.  In another week the annual monsoons could start, the long series of afternoon thunderstorms that would make all the White Mountains quake.  But Moon needed time outside as much as she needed air to breathe. It was only the child swelling her belly, she was sure, that kept her from smoking and drinking.  And only the woods that kept her lifelong sadness in check.

Every chance she could, she’d visit the snares she set for Rabbit, gather and spread the seeds of those plants preferred by the Deer, and poke around for Mushrooms in the forest litter.  She fed on them, but made sure they in turn were fed.  She tried to keep an eye on every creature and plant, and how well they were doing, taking on the responsibility for guarding their well-being and seeing to their needs.  These walks had become a bit of a test over the last couple months, carrying the weight of her first child in front of her in a way that made balance difficult, a protrusion that got her tangled more often in the stands of brush and Willow.  The pregnancy never seemed anything less than right to her, even if it meant raising a baby alone.  The stretching uterus felt as good and natural as taking a man inside her, regardless of the causes or consequences of either.  Over the years, she exercised little more resistance to her instincts than a wild animal might to the cycles of rut and procreation, mostly in a series of monogamous relationships with generally abusive men.  The best that would usually be said of her in these situations was that she was nearly as hard on her oppressors as they were on her.

Moon put on her olive wool poncho and headed out.  What better way to prepare her nineteen-year-old body and spirit for what lay ahead, she thought, than a hike to the head of the valley, over the creek in front of her cabin, past the log outbuildings, through the fields of purple-crested Beeweed to the grove of Grandmother Ponderosas.  Normally her head felt heavy as rock, a terrible burden to her neck, with a mind clouded by floodwaters of illusion and regret.  But the further she walked, the lighter it inevitably felt… and clearer, until only a lens to see through, a conduit through which to reach out and connect.  Barely out of sight of her abode, the incessant self-analysis had already slowed to a halt, with even the words in her thoughts beginning to break apart into snippets of wind and bird songs.  Halfway through the Beeweed, she was as a Bee herself, giddy with pollen, tipping unsteadily but willingly on the very edge of the blossom of life.  Entering the Pines, there was neither comment nor qualification left, only hushed reverence for something she felt akin to, something huge and palpably thrumming.  The woman who so depended on her boundaries and defenses, felt her walls quaver in its presence, and then dissolve around her.

It was in this opened and vulnerable state that she first heard the baying of dogs ahead, followed by unintelligible conversation.  A few yards further, the trail spilled out into a glen circumscribed by a ghost-white choir of Quaking Aspens.  She stood before what she took to be a pair of middle-aged Mormon settlers with clean-shaven faces, with lever-action rifles of some make or other leaning up against the nearest tree.  One held back a pair of hounds struggling against the taut leather leashes, while a second knelt down in front of a huge blonde Bear with its skin half peeled back.  She watched as he deftly cut strips of meat off the back, slapping them into a pile on a canvas tarp next to him.  Eerily, the dogs paid Moon no more mind than if she were a resident bush, and the settlers looked up only ever so briefly with looks of neither surprise nor interest, scarily devoid of feeling.  Turning back towards home, she realized that it was this apparent absence of malice or love, passion or compassion, empathy or anger that scared her most about her human kind, and she sensed in their shadows an aura of detachment more perversely evil, even, than heated acts of hatred or conscious ill intent.  She was a hunter herself, a taker of life and consumer of flesh.  And while Grizzlies were always rare as Hen’s teeth, they were hell on livestock and could expect to get back a little of what they put out.  But there was nonetheless something about this particular Bruin’s death that gnawed at her guts.  Something in it that followed her home.

Moon was barely out of the pine grove when the tears started to flow, and only halfway through the Beeweed before her water broke.  The same oceanic fluids that floated all life gushed down her legs as she walked, soaked her Spanish dress, filled her sandals and drained out onto the welcoming ground.  Before she got back to the creek the dress was already off, wadded together with her poncho.  She stepped naked into the crystalline current and sat down, first watching the patterns it made as it swirled around her distended belly, then the water striders that skimmed about on its surface.  The water felt only slightly cooler than her own body, thanks to its day in the sun.  She’d just started to relax when the painful contractions started, and Omen’s life began.