Just Breathe!


It's been a long summer and as I face the summer's end I've begun additional research on dolphins, the focus animal of the Lowcountry Summer Trilogy. I'm hoping to spark new inspiration as I push through the end of the storyline, The Summer's End.  Writing is a lonely, confined, indoor activity.  For the past several months I've cut out activities and have been spending way too much time locked inside while outside my windows the seasons change.  I feel tense, uneasy, like a balloon about to pop.
I miss walking the beach.  I long to go out and stand on the Hunley bridge over Breach Inlet seeking out dolphins.  I miss my sea turtles that have left my island on their solitary journeys in the great sea. My only escape lately is to go out to my butterfly garden.  I rush outside multiple times a day, just long enough to steal a moment from my computer to search milkweed leaves for monarch eggs, feed the growing caterpillars and, perhaps, release a newly emerged butterfly to the garden.  Sometimes I just stand quietly and watch the sweet new monarch join the other butterflies to dance on the flowers, feeling the sun on my face. 

Yet, most of the time I'm  trapped indoors.  And it has been raining...a lot.  I feel a disconnect with nature--with the infinite vast and wild that takes my breath away and fills my soul.  Too much confinement makes me feel uneasy and agitated.  I'm out of sorts.  But... my deadline looms over my head (and I know y'all want the next book!) so I dutifully persevere.   

Which brings me to this morning.

In this grumpy frame of mind, I began prowling my library, digging through tomes for some new inspiration for this trilogy that is set against the adorably intelligent and compassionate dolphins.  I didn't know exactly what I was searching for but knew what I sought would be found in a spiritual realm rather than factual.  My hand fell on Ted Andrew's book Animal Speak. I paused.  Joseph Campbell stated that artists were the shamans of today and I believe this is true.  We must trust our intuition.  

I pulled out this book that is a dictionary of animal symbolism and the spiritual powers in all creatures, great and small.  These symbols are sometimes called totems. Since prehistoric times images have helped us transcend the physical to ascertain the spiritual.  To honor nature and to embody its wisdom in our lives.  Shamans believed that every species, every aspect of our natural world had the power to remind us of what we should manifest in our own lives.  They often dressed in animal costume to elicit the sense of wonder, even magic.  Shamans performed rituals that were tied into the rhythms of the seasons to bridge the natural world to the supernatural and offer richer, deeper meaning to their lives.

I can't say I fully understand how this connection to the spiritual power of nature works.  I do believe, however, that one can gain insights into one's life's journey and purpose by simply paying attention to the powers that surround us in Nature.

I realize some people think this kind of thinking is just silly.  Or "woo woo."  I, too, have second-guessed the messages I've heard, or ignored my intuition and the instincts that flared in my gut.  Too many times I've regretted not paying attention to the signals.  Never, however, have I regretted listening. 

Over the past twenty five years I've worked with many different species and I am confident that our connections with nature--both physical and spiritual--are essential to our well being.  And that they are just as powerful today in our modern era as they were in ancient times, if we only open our minds and hearts to what is possible.  We need this inclusive wisdom, perhaps even more today than ever before. 

So, this morning I grabbed the book Animal Speak for no apparent reason.  Just an intuitive hunch.  I searched for the totem dolphin because I thought surely the dolphin would be my current messenger.  Here is what the passage said:

"If dolphin has shown up as a totem, ask yourself some important questions.  What are your words and thoughts creating for you?  If unsure, when dolphin arises you will soon discover. Are you getting outside and enjoying fresh air? Are you holding in tensions? Are others? When dolphin shows up it is time to breathe some new life into yourself. Get out, play, explore, and most of all breathe."

 Just breathe!

I had to smile, even laugh!  I believe this is no mere coincidence.  Yes, I could easily explain it as such.  But to do so would be to deny the intuitive power that I believe lies within myself.  And within each of us if we open ourselves to possibility and listen.

As Andrews states, "humanity has lost that instinctive tie to the rhythms and patterns of Nature."  I wonder if we are so caught up in our technology that we have lost--even deny and ridicule-- our ancient connection to the natural world?

I am listening. Today I will take a long walk in the fresh air. I will find time to laugh and play.  I will take deep breaths.  And in the quiet I will open my mind to creative ideas.  I smile, because I know the words will flow.





This past week I had the honor and joy of speaking to thousands of high school and college students, many of whom had read either SKYWARD or THE BUTTERFLY'S DAUGHTER for their summer reads program.  Bravo to Principal Rodney Graves at Crest High School in Shelby, NC; Principal Jeff Stevens at Spartanburg High School; Dr. Terry Pruitt of Spartanburg School District 7, SC; and Dr. Colleen Keith at Spartanburg Methodist College and their staff and the entire communities for encouraging strong reading programs!  Especially the summer reads program that included contemporary books the students selected. Use it or lose it doesn't only apply to the brains of older folks. 

The students I talked to were excited about reading. The day I visited Crest High School was the culmination of their summer read program. I walked through the halls while 100 classrooms were filled with students all talking about books! Does that even happen anymore?  It was thrilling to witness.  At Spartanburg High I was part of a panel with students discussing my books. I sat back in awe and listened to them debate plot and characters with emotion. At Spartanburg Methodist College, a two-year college, I was impressed by the commitment of the faculty and staff to support their students so that 80% of the graduates continue on to a four-year college.  An astonishing feat that beats the standard. The faculty and staff of all these institutions are spreading excitement about reading, putting books in students' hands, making reading relevant in their communities.
Yet, literacy begins at home.  Encouraging reading is not only the responsibility of our schools.  We parents and grandparents model behavior for our children-- and that includes reading. Many of us read to our children when they sat in our laps as toddlers or very young readers.  Too often, however, as our children get older we relinquish our role as reading mentor to the teachers.

I challenge parents, grandparents, and concerned relatives to read a book that is being read by your child. Then discuss it! Bring the book discussion to the dinner table.  Unplug the electronics and turn off the TV.  Talk about it in the car.  How often do you ask your child, "How was school?"  And then get the dismissive answer, "Good."  Try asking your child who his/her favorite character was in the book, or did he agree with the choice the character made, did she like the ending or what did she think the characters might do after the book ended?

If we want our children to read, we must read ourselves.  If we want to improve communication with our children and each other, we must create a calm and safe atmosphere that encourages discussion.  As parents, we must listen to and respect our child's opinion, even if--especially if--it differs from our own.  My son and I have polar opposite political opinions. But I love that he feels he can share his ideas and thoughts with us. Books that are read together can be a great jumping off point for discussions.  You'll be amazed, as I was this past week, by some of the strong voices and opinions you will hear!

High school and college are golden years.  A time of self discovery and dreams. Of finding one's own voice. Give a child a book and you give him or her the keys to his imagination.  Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis said,
"There are many little ways to enlarge your child's world. Love of books is the best of all."



           The monarch butterfly is back in the news again. The Center for Biodiversity is petitioning the federal government to declare the monarch butterfly an endangered species.  An estimated 90% of the species has been lost over the past two decades.

          Why?  The monarch's migration is unique to this continent.  One small, fragile bug joins millions of others every fall to travel back from the northern area of North America to their overwintering grounds in the mountains of central Mexico.  That covers a vast amount of land! Then again in the spring, this same butterfly heads north, as far as Texas, to lay the first generation of eggs before dying.  Milkweed is the host plant of the monarch butterfly. This is a critical point.  Different butterflies lay their eggs on specific families of plants.  It is the ONLY plant they will lay eggs on, and the only plant the caterpillars will eat.  For the monarch butterfly, the host plant is Milkweed.

          Thus, milkweed in abundance is a necessity for the survival of monarch butterflies. There are over 100 different types of Asclepius or milkweed.  Different types grown in different climate zones of the continent.  It's important to know what native species grows in your area.  Over the past two decades a number of factors have contributed to wiping out the breeding grounds of the monarch.

  1. Urban sprawl.  Open, weedy fields, especially across the Midwest, have been paved over for development.  Estimated loss of summer breeding ground is the size of Texas.
  2. Genetically modified plants kill adjacent "weedy" plants.  These so called "weeds" include milkweed.
  3. In Mexico, continued illegal plundering of the oyamel forests in the monarch sanctuaries are destroying habitat.  Doing this is like punching holes in the delicate microclimate in the mountains where the monarchs overwinter.  Recent storms killed countless monarchs.
  4. Along the barrier island coast, residents cut back the shrubs (groundsel, sea myrtle) for a better view. The migrating monarchs depend on these shrubs as they journey south.

           If you're like me, when you read facts like this, your heart aches and you want to know what you can do to help.  Allow me to make a few suggestions of things we can all do in our own back yard to make a difference.

             In a nutshell, remember this:  SPRING  Plant host Milkweed!  FALL  Plant nectar flowers!

            1.  Plant milkweed.  That's the number one thing you can do.  It's an easy plant to grow, needs full sunlight and that's about it.  The spring and summer is when the monarchs are laying eggs and increasing the population.  In the fall, the migrating monarch goes into diapause, does not mate, and uses its energy to journey south to Mexico.

·       seeds  You can buy seeds on line and plant them in the spring or fall.  In the fall, pods form on the milkweed. They're just beginning now so it's a good time to harvest and collect seeds.  I sprinkle them on tilled soil now and let nature take its course!

·       milkweed plants  You can buy milkweed as plants at many local nurseries now, as well as online.  Here's what is important to ask: Has the milkweed been sprayed with pesticides?  If it has, the plant will kill your caterpillars! If the nursery doesn't know, it probably has been sprayed.  I wash mine thoroughly in the spring and let it sit out of the garden in pots for a month before planting it. And I try to only buy milkweed from an organic source.  Once you have your milkweed patch established in your garden, the plant should survive and seed additional plants.

·       resources for plants and monarchs:

     a.  Bring Back the Monarch  http://monarchwatch.org/bring-back-the-monarchs/resources/plant-seed-suppliers

     b.  Live Monarch: I love this site. Great for getting seeds, plants, supplies!  http://www.livemonarch.com/free-milkweed-seeds.htm 

      c.  Learner.org   A major source of information  for butterfly lovers. Great reports on monarch migration. http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/monarch/indexCurrent.html

·       The three rules for all milkweed: 1. DO NOT EAT  2.DO NOT GET SAP ON SKIN OR IN EYES. 3. EDUCATE AND PROTECT OTHERS FROM #1 & 2.

I hate it when milkweed is referred to as a "weed."  I find it quite pretty!  I plant milkweed directly in my "nectar" show garden.  See how pretty it looks? Which is the milkweed?

 I have a "rear" garden for host plants that can look raggedy after the caterpillars chew it up.  But that's what its there for! I refer to this patch as my "host" garden.  In the early summer I tossed in a few tomatoes, too.  There is milkweed, passion vine (for the Gulf Fritillary) dill, fennel and parsley (for the swallowtails) rue and paw paw.
           In my zone I grow turberosa and curassavica "tropical" milkweed.  There is a debate as to whether the tropical milkweed, a non-native, is interfering with the monarch migration by providing a milkweed source for butterflies that, simply put, tricks them to staying and breeding rather than moving south.  I have also heard from local butterfly experts that late travelers stay in our region through the winter in SC and Florida where the weather is mild and nectar sources abundant.

          I strongly support the planting of native species of milkweed.  Here is an informative article to read to help you make your own decision.

            In my area, a barrier island, however, we are having difficulty finding suppliers of native milkweed.  Frankly, if I lived in the Midwest I'd plant only native species that would die down naturally in the fall.  Here on Isle of Palms, tropical milkweed grows abundantly and I've decided to continue planting it to increase the species. I also cut it back in the winter.

             2.  Plant Nectar plants.  Nectar is the food of butterflies.  They need nectar during the breeding season and the really need it now, as they migrate south.  This one brave butterfly that travels thousands of miles must reach the sanctuary in Mexico having gained weight! Yes, gained enough weight to survive the winter months.
           My garden looks sparse by September, just when the monarchs are racing through searching for food.  Over the past few years I've planted only those flowers that I know will still be in bloom in the fall.  My favorites here include: penta, coneflower, Joe pyeweed, buddleia, sedum, Mexican petunia.  Even still, I'm going to the garden center this week to buy some "fall stock" for the garden. I'm pumping up the supply for migrating butterflies and boosting the garden's appearance as well.  Learn what plants butterflies prefer in your area, especially those that continue blooming through the fall.

            3.  Don't spray pesticides in your garden!  If it kills spiders, ants, etc it will also kill caterpillars!  I oppose aerial mosquito spraying, especially during the migrating season. Be aggressive in your own back yard to not let standing water stay in your birdbaths, planters, etc.  Try some of the fabulous mosquito "zappers" that use lure to draw the varmints in. There are alternatives to spraying with pesticides.  Your flower/milkweed garden should be a "no spray" zone.

            4.  Urge your local politicians to support the petition to put monarchs on the endangered species list.

              5.  Raise Monarchs   Finally, if you are really interested, and you want to share your passion with your children, try raising monarchs!  If I can do it, so can you! 
          It's not hard, but it does require daily diligence AND a big supply of milkweed--estimated one plant per caterpillar.  I wrote a children's book-- A BUTTERFLY CALLED HOPE with gorgeous photographs by Barbara Bergwerf to help you see what you should do to raise monarchs.  I find actually "seeing" the process is both educational and a relief. For more detailed information (which you will want) I highly recommend getting MY MONARCH JOURNAL by Connie Muther.  Also online, go to www.monarchwatch.com  for an excellent resource on rearing monarchs and all things monarch.

          Currently in my "nursery" I have 60 caterpillars chomping away! I have a number of swallowtails too.  I'm spending long hours every day alone in my office, finishing a novel. It's exhausting work.  Many times a day I take a break to go downstairs to the garden, with Buster and Maggie trotting faithfully behind me, to check on the nursery.  I replenish food supply then go out to the milkweed to scout for eggs.  I find some every day! This brief connection to nature nourishes my creative self.  I feel an "ahhh" outdoors with the butterflies that is instant gratification in my own back yard.  After my break I go back upstairs to work once more on my novel, my batteries recharged.

          The nursery will continue to grow as more eggs hatch into caterpillars.  I can only raise as many as I have milkweed to feed them.  When the milkweed is gone I must let nature take its course.  But next spring I will plant still more milkweed, and more the following year and share seeds with friends so they will plant milkweed, too. 

                                           If you plant it--they will come!