Witnessing: Life, Death, and the Wisdom of the Crone

Triple Hecate, William Blake, 1795 (wikipedia)

I love the promise of eggs laid by songbirds in nesting boxes on my land. I should have learned by now that it’s foolish to get attached. Life is fragile and precarious, especially this cool wet spring.

There were five blue eggs in a nesting box and then five thriving hatchlings when the Bluebird mama disappeared. Since this box is near my house, I noticed she wasn’t around even though her mate was there.

After a few days of no feeding activity, I opened the door to the box and wept. I’ll spare you the quiet photo of the babes huddled together—wet, cold, and dead. Did a Hawk grab the mama? Many Hawks soar over my fields this year. They’re hungry, too.













I removed the nest, buried the little ones, and sterilized and aired the box before closing the door. Then I waited. Just down the fence, a Tree Swallow built her nest and laid four eggs surrounded by feathers. I watched and hoped, quickly forgetting the price of attachment to what I can’t control.

Further down the trail, I found a nesting box with four Bluebird eggs. My feelings soared. A few days later, the eggs were gone without a trace or shell. An egg swallowed whole is usually a snake’s work. They have to eat, too.

3 newborn Tree Swallows & 1 unhatched egg

A few days later, in another new nesting box, I found three Bluebird eggs. They’re still there with an incubating mama. Will they survive?

Three naked Swallowtail babies hatched in their feather bed with one egg waiting. Will it make it? There are no guarantees. All I can do is watch.

The box where the Bluebird babies died now has six Wren eggs. A Chickadee built a moss nest in a seventh box, but there were no eggs.

Six Wren eggs


Birds teach me to try again when things go wrong. Even more, they teach me to witness the rough places in life with less attachment.

I search for a deeper wisdom within that watches nature and my own life with fewer opinions about the outcome. Who says a Bluebird is more valuable than a Wren? Both are native birds. And, like humans, predators are hungry.

I’m doing all I can to protect birds and butterflies. The milkweed thrives and waits for Monarchs. I plant parsley and encourage dill for Swallowtails. The bird nesting boxes are in places that have worked for years and I take care of them as I always have. It’s hard to accept that the outcome is not up to me.

I want to learn how to stand at the crossroads of life and death with the Goddess Hecate, the Wise Crone.

Triple Hecate watching in all directions, Chiaramonti (Vatican Museum, wikipedia)

Hecate doesn’t save us from taking large or small initiatory journeys down under, those experiences we’d rather avoid. As the Wise Feminine or Lunar Consciousness, She witnesses our going down and coming up, our transitions at the crossroads where we stand. When someone we love dies or our health fails or we leave home or suffer any loss and don’t know where to turn, we’re in Hecate’s realm.

This ancient moon goddess is with us in our deepest transformations. Hecate is at the crossroads in our darkest hour, in our biggest challenges, in the confusing waiting times, in the darkness before a new beginning. Win or lose, She’s there.

It’s never too late to practice the Art of Witnessing.


Are you learning to watch how life develops rather than thinking you know the right outcome or the best plan? For another post about the Greek Goddess Hecate, see one of my most well read pieces Have They Forgotten They Are Mortal? Lessons from Hecate. For another post about Nature’s lessons, see Healed by Nature, Inspired by Love.

  1. For the first time ever a beautiful wren nested in our garden this year. The excitement was huge and the nest box a hive of activity! However, around day 14, in turns, the squirrels, magpies and a jay relentlessly attacked the nest, sadly losing two chicks in the raids. So the next day (day 15) I decided to go on “wren watch” in a small and hopeful attempt to help the family out. I sat outside all day scaring off any potential predator and was gloriously rewarded late afternoon as I witnessed the remaining chicks fledge. It was amazing to see!

    To watch life and death (to be in Hecate’s realm – I love that Elaine!) from only a few feet away was such an honour. To really grasp that others are hungry and are good parents too as they seek out food for their own young. Thank you for sharing your wonderful bird tales with us. Your love for feathered and other winged friends shine through your poetic words! Fortunately, I was called to witness something important that day and now I know more than ever there’s so much to be gained in the art of watching alone. Love and light, Deborah.

    • Dear Deborah, Once again we are kindred spirits, watching over our sacred winged friends. We can only do so much, but whatever we do to protect them feels right. I have two boxes of wrens and they’re both doing well, although they adults are extremely secretive and hide themselves rather than perching in plain view. I have to catch the mamas looking out of the boxes early in the morning to see them at all. Sparrows are a problem here because they’re small enough to get inside the nesting boxes, so I run outside and make a racket when I see them in the spring. “I wish you well, but go live somewhere else!!”

      The swallow babes hatched, but I haven’t been back to disturb. I don’t see predators around. I’ll wait a few more days but both parents are taking insects into the box each morning. Speaking of other winged friends, I see many Swallowtail Butterflies in wild flowers and have only seen a few Monarchs. It remains cool here so everything is a little late–but I await their arrival soon. I shared your gorgeous June poem on FB since you haven’t been present on Twitter–and I’m rarely there either. Sending love and a new nesting. When the wrens are done, you can clean out the nesting box and someone else may move in. At least that’s what happens here.

      • Oh, I love your insightful descriptions of the wrens being ‘quiet and hidden from the world’ because as a deeply introverted, feeling type, I can relate so well. In fact, I did wonder why it was the ‘wren’ herself who nested here and not the more widespread sparrows and tits who live nearby in large flocks. Okay, I’ll clean out the nest box this weekend and all being well, a new visitor may come along. How exciting, to be in the front row of ‘Hecate’s realm’ again!

        Thank you so much Elaine for sharing my ‘June’ poem on FB! Since leaving Twitter (which I interestedly named … the land of the little blue bird!) sharing my poetry has become much quieter yet infinitely richer in other ways too …. and although it was fun meeting other like-minded souls there, in the end it wasn’t the place for me … however, it ‘was’ all part of my journeying, I can see that now! I shall look forward to hearing more of your bird tales soon.

        • I have two wren families nesting near my house and rarely see any action at the nests except a head sticking out in early morning or evening or a short flight from the box to nearby tall grass. When they feed the little ones, both parents are involved, so I’ll see more action at the boxes soon. And, wren-like that you are, you may decide to peek into twitter or facebook or even Instagram to share your luscious poems. My son persuades me to try Instagram, but I’ve resisted so far. I’d rather watch birds.

  2. Oh, this was so sad Elaine. It’s sad about death, and it’s sad that the little babes were abandoned and left to die. Life can be cruel, especially when we do our best to save them. Not sure we can ever grow accustomed to loss. 🙂

    • It is sad, Debby, but it’s necessary for me to become a better witness to these hard things. Hospice work helps me learn the art of contemplative witnessing of others. Life gives me more ways to practice on myself. When I try to block or avoid the sad parts, I can’t move on to love and joy.

  3. As I read deeper into your story, the lines from Wordsworth popped into my mind: “Come forth into the light of things,
    Let Nature be your teacher.” English literature and ancient mythology teach us the same things with a different perspective. I love how you protect the birds and butterflies. They are lucky to be itinerant residents on your farm. 🙂

    I suppose it’s human to want to control things, especially if we are working for a good result. I notice how you admit, “It’s hard to accept that the outcome is not up to me.” Applying this to my pre-pub plans for my memoir, I realize that I do not know the best plan. Now I am finding that other authors come into my life at just the right time to give me “free” tutorials.

    As you can guess, I would use different language to explain my “take” on the art of witnessing, but they both tell us that control is an illusion. I’ve noticed that confusion often precedes transformation. You’ve given me a lot to think about today. Thank you, Elaine!

    • Thank you, Marion. I don’t know the right plan with birds and didn’t know the right plan with my book. I had to make choices and hope they were the right ones. Sometimes they were and sometimes (looking back), I could have done better. I learn more every year about caring for birds and growing plants. I also don’t know the right plan for my future. I’m awaiting further inner instruction.

      The Art of Witnessing is part of every spiritual tradition I’ve explored. I first learned about the importance of witnessing even when we feel helpless to change the outcome from Quakers in anti-war work in the late 1960s. It’s part of Hinduism, Buddhism, contemplative Christianity, and what little I know of the Middle Eastern traditions, too. Certainly Rumi and Hafiz speak about witnessing in many ways along with the lessons of nature. I hope the confusion and exhaustion I’m experiencing precedes transformation. Healing and learning to hear again, a little like grief, takes more time and energy than I imagined.

  4. Thank you for this lovely, simple story of deep truth, Elaine. I’ll be forwarding this to the eight women in my Crone Council. Hecate’s wisdom has been abandoned for so long that it takes tremendous depth and stability to make a home for her again in our psyches. This is certainly my intent in these later years, and to invite other women to welcome and house her as well!

    • How wonderful, Andrea. My ego-judge was so sure this piece would resonate with no one except me, but I was wrong. My inner core calls me to become more familiar and comfortable with standing at the crossroads as a witness. It’s essential in hospice work, but just as essential for me to find this place to stand within myself with fewer opinions and more acceptance of what is. Sending best wishes to you and your important work.

  5. Your beautiful piece resonates very well with me Elaine, thank you. And with others as you have ‘witnessed’ by the depth of feeling of their comments. Witnessing with an open heart has to be just about the most important thing we can do and not turn aside from that which causes us discomfort and distress. And to know that life is full of tragedy and joy and humour and sadness and the unexplainable and mysteries … and that Hecate is there with is in all these moments.

    • Thank you, Susan. I’m churning after reading news. There are too many opportunities to witness the beautiful distressing in nature and human realms. Sometimes I can help, but often I feel helpless. I’ve never been so sad about my country and what we’re doing to migrants, especially children. I just can’t understand how this is seen by some as acceptable and necessary. It’s criminal! I’m trying to find that place where Hecate stands at the Crossroad watching with more detachment. Nelson Mandela was an incredible teacher of holding that perspective while taking action.

  6. I love what you wrote, Elaine, about the Art of Witnessing and how birds teach you “to witness the rough places in life with less attachment.” And how you wove this in so beautifully with the realm of Hecate. A recent experience with learning to watch how life develops, rather than thinking I know the right outcome, took place with our two ducks. A little over a month ago, we realized our female duck was broody, as she started sitting on a large nest of eggs she had laid right outside our bedroom window. We were worried about not locking her in her duck house each night with her mate (as we have lost many ducks to raccoons over the years), but there was no way these eggs were going to hatch if she was not sitting on them. Each day she took a very short break to eat, swim in the pond, and then was back on the nest. Each night we slept rather fitfully—jumping out of bed on more than one occasion to check on her when we heard an unusual noise. After 31 days had passed, we had just about given up hope—and then one of the eggs hatched. The other 16 did not, but still we were overjoyed at the arrival of the little duckling. We watched the male and female ducks attend to their offspring, but then the next day we found the little duckling dead, with the parents frantically trying to keep us away.

    As sad as this was to witness, there is a way it still feels as though it belongs to the realm of the natural world. Referencing your reply above to Susan, what we’re doing to migrants, especially children, does not. Maybe the difference is that we are called upon to do more than just witness with regard to the latter.

    • Thank you, Anne. Sometimes, and today is one of those days, it’s only a goal to witness with less attachment rather than being a reality. You’ve nailed the reason why. The baby ducks and birds and all the wild things struggle to survive because they’re part of Nature. There’s no intentional harm being done, but the suffering of children that could be prevented feels unbearable. It happens many places on a scale I can’t imagine. It’s much harder to accept the intentional harm humans do to each other, especially when it’s my government creating the policy. Where are our hearts?

  7. Yes, Elaine, I also keep wondering “Where are out hearts?” Is it that we have “lost heart” because of our separation/alienation from Mother Nature?

    • Could be, Anne. We’ve also lost our connection with each other, but maybe it’s an illusion to think we ever had it.

  8. “… and encourage dill” This makes me smile every time I think of it. Dill is in no danger of extinction! 🙂 It pops up all over my yard and I just leave it, or eat it, add it to gazpacho, but try to collect most of the seeds before they spread still further. Lately, though, I have started leaving sprouts and starts if I recognize them as future flowers, such as the odd cosmos from last year, or the Love-in-a-mist that popped up 2 years after the original plants were grown. I’m thinking of sowing all kinds of seeds for hardy flowering things in every crevice I can find in my yard, even Portulaca (or moss roses) in sidewalk cracks. Just to see what would happen. 🙂 Sounds like you’re doing well. I’m remarking how I was doing a year ago at 18 months, and now. Much different, softer, reflective nowadays.

    • My friend dill, most loved by Swallowtail caterpillars. I saw Swallowtail butterflies laying eggs in the voluptuous dill patch yesterday. By encourage dill, I mean I don’t pull it out like I do more pesky weeds, but you’re right. It doesn’t need encouragement. Other wildflower/weeds are thriving in this area that used to be garden space. Next spring I’ll buy Northeast Wildflower Seeds to scatter there (it’s a big area) and turn it into an untended wildflower garden–with dill. My son plants thyme of various sorts in the cracks between stones on his patio and they’re beautiful and fragrant.

      I’m glad you’re going through a softer period, Joe. I have waves of strong grief followed by quieter times. The wildflowers, especially the lupines, don’t let me forget Vic’s early June death day. I miss him all the time, but sometimes it has more angst as on those big anniversaries. Finally, thanks for being so supportive and full of information about the cochlear implant. I’m doing well with hearing and I’m experimenting with music, but I still struggle with fatigue (the brain working hard). My summer is dedicated to deep rest.

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