Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Heart of Acorn and Mouse


This autumn has felt every bit as abundant as the fall of acorns from the oak trees, and only this year have I finally learned to turn these sacred nuts to food; only this year have I come to realize in my body and not just my mind that acorns are food scattered all over the ground, given by the arms of the oak trees. They are more precious than any gold.

It has been a ridiculously long while since I wrote here, due to said abundance; I have felt a bit like the acorn woodpeckers who rush cackling between snags, stuffing all their careful holes with acorns, in a frenzy to make sure they get enough in before the squirrels and the deer and the woodrats do. The days grow shorter. I just looked out the window to find it fully dark and only just seven. The stars and moon hold us longer now than the sun. I feel things slowing. I feel the earth below saying--now, to the roots...

So, I feel I can catch my breath and share some of this harvest with you here... a harvest of the sweet moments and rambles that feed all of my words, and all of my spirit.


I learned to process acorns because, in a last minute sort of way, I ended up helping the wonderful Jolie Elan, of Go Wild, to put on her Oak Ceremony on Mt. Tamalpais, the sacred mountain I wandered so often as a girl. I sat in her backyard for many hours, cracking tanoak acorns, and eventually turning them to cake. I wrote about the whole process, and some of the lore of oak trees for her here (and painted a few acorns too).


We held the ceremony under big hearty tanoaks, the likes of which I have hardly seen. I am used to tanoaks that are small and scraggly, dying or already dead, covered in the black fungus known as Sudden Oak Death. Jolie decided to hold the Oak Ceremony for the tanoaks in particular. They were once the favored, and most sacred, of oak trees among the native people of this land. Their acorns are far and away the tastiest--the flavor is all butterscotch.(Perhaps this had something to do with the esteem in which they are held.) Now, as Jolie said, their kind is leaving this world, all but forgotten, alone, untended, unloved.


Unloved in the sense that, even if we admire and appreciate them, we do not gather their acorns any longer. We do not depend upon them for food, and thus we don't feel that more entwined, interdependent love for them that comes from necessity, from being humbled before our own hunger. We do not feel love for them as we would to a mother, and yet the oak trees are mothering in their abundance.

As Julia Parker, a wonderful California Indian basket-weaver and elder (and beautiful woman) says: “They told me when it comes, get out there and gather even if it’s one basketful so the acorn spirit will know you are happy for the acorn and next year the acorn will come.”


The Oak Ceremony was an attempt to remedy this neglect, to sit and sing and pray in conversation with the oaks, treating them as fellow beings.


We built altars to the land, expressing our reverence, our grief, our sense of loss and of wonder. We marched in a parade of singing through the trees. We held a Council of All Beings.


Some scientists believe that Sudden Oak Death has taken such voracious hold due to a lack of healthy wildfire and controlled burns on the land, as the native people used to practice. Others believe it is connected with a lack of phosphorus in the food chain, which was once provided by the abundant bodies of spawning salmon as they ran in silver ribbons up every creek, their bodies returning to the soil via the bellies of other animals--bear, hawk, raccoon. The web of things is so very delicate, and the trees teach us that when you pull one string, you really do find that the whole universe is attached.

 Even if our sorrow and our singing and our acorn gathering do nothing in the face of the tanoak's possible extinction; even if no abundance of ceremony and story will save the life of this beautiful being, and so many others, it seems to me that we can never stop our singing, our praise, our expressions of grief and awe both; we have to keep talking to the trees, to the salmon, to the acorns, telling them that we appreciate their beauty and their lives. Because when we all stop doing this--well, I think then we shall be well and truly lost.


Sometimes, such sadness weighs on my heart very heavily. Sometimes there are so many things that fill me with grief, that make me weep, that I don't know how a heart can manage to hold the beauty and the great sadness of this world at once. Sometimes it seems to me that as a culture we have collectively turned away from our grief at the destruction of so much of this wild world because it hurts far too much. And it's true; it does. But inside of grief is love, and no matter how fraught our world can some days seem, no matter how frightening too... then there is the doe who comes suddenly wading through the marsh grass, stopping to watch you with black eyes and enormous velvet ears.


Then there is the sky, and the fog, and the marsh dotted with a dozen white egrets.


Really, I don't think I can articulate it as well as Mary Oliver can, so I shall let her do the talking:

“I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.” 






Yes. Your heart must be broken open first, in order for the great old sacred world to come in, all bird-sung and root-thick and miraculous. In order for any of it to matter at all.

On the same afternoon walk with an old dear friend through the marsh at Limantour toward the strand, we saw first a doe, and then a stag, wading through the marshgrass. It is their courting time. Perhaps the stag was looking for her. They are vessels of pure longing at this time of year; they are so addled they are often hit by cars because they spend so much of their time wandering about in an erotic stupor. Seeing a stag surveying the marsh felt like a glimpse of the Green Man of old lore; the horned one of the woods, taking a last sweet roaming through his land before the fall into winter.


On the trail on our way back, we saw yet another doe with her adolescent child, who peered at us with great curiosity from amidst the brush. The mother did not seem very perturbed by our presence. She let me come very near, watching me. Our eyes locked for a long moment. I could hardly bear the beauty of her black eyes, her dark lashes. I felt entirely, calmly, reckoned by her gaze. It felt like some soft and hoofed benediction, or blessing, though I know it was just a doe, ascertaining whether I was going to leap after her child, perhaps distracting me from him.

Sometimes, the best thing is to be humbled before the eyes of another creature, before the dark mystery of them; we can be too quick to assume an animal crossing our path has some symbolism for our lives. The truth is, the world does not revolve around me (!)... The world is a web and the life of a doe and her almost-grown fawn is much more meaningful in its own right than it is symbolically, in relation to mine. The deepest gift from the eyes of a doe, touching mine, seems to me to be the gift of connection; that we are two beings sharing this world, and that of the two of us, her kind is far older and wiser than mine, and therefore above all things I should learn what I can about her life, her world, her ways.


That's what animal tracking has always been about for me. This is the oldest medicine: to kneel on the sand and learn the landscape of a bobcat track. 


That it looks like it belongs to a female (if I were Tom Brown Jr. I would know for certain; as Sylvia Linsteadt I am not going to bet my life on it, but it feels like a solid educated guess); that she is in a direct register trot, which is a slightly quick gait for a bobcat. "Baseline" for a bobcat is a quick (overstep) walk; a trot means something pushed her slightly out of a comfortable dawn ramble—a sudden sound? Or maybe just the downhill slope?


Up the dunes and around the corner, the trails of brush rabbits were everywhere, and coyote too. These prints show a brush rabbit in a fast bound—out of baseline, hopping quick, perhaps between dunegrass cover.


Every track is a country and a doorway into the real lives of the animals on the land; every track brings me back into the great broken-open landscape of the heart. 


Serpentine (stone) outcrop on the top ridge
This autumn has had a certain serendipitous magic to it, all acorn-strewn and bobcat-pawed. Around the corner from my house, a magical little shop opened up for the months of September and October, and I met its two very extraordinary creatrixes, Catherine Sieck and Rachel Blodgett, through a dear old friend. I am astounded by the beauty of their work, the old earthen wisdom of it-- Rachel's plant-dyed, batik printed garments (including indigo moon underpants!), Catherine's exquisite shadow puppets and cut paper snakes and wreaths and hands. I was very honored to give a reading at their shop, called Serpentine, on the evening of October's full moon, along with a wonderful performance artist, Quenby Dolgushkin, who performed masked monologues of the feminine archetype. 



It felt so good to share my own wild-pawed stories aloud and candle-lit. Sometimes it does feel as though the words enjoy ringing and winging out loud through the air, and off into the starry night...

Serpentine, a metamorphic stone formed at ocean and tectonic plate boundaries

Catherine and I have some magic up our sleeves... it involves cut paper and shadow puppets and tents and tales and tanoaks and who knows what else... for that you shall have to wait and see (and so shall I! Sometimes the harvest of new creations takes a while; though you can see the acorns up there in the branches, you must wait for them to fall!)



Meanwhile, mysterious small beings make immaculate tunnel-towers amidst the stones, all spiked with pine needles...


and the firs, growing tall amidst the manzanita, glow and sway in the glowing autumn light.

I spent this past weekend up in the hills of West Sonoma, carving buttons and bone and stone beads with a group of women. I processed nettle cordage for the first time, from a beautiful harvest of nettle stalks from the Sierras so tall I made about my own height in string from a single plant. To sit under the shade of oaks, twisting and twisting nettle fiber in my fingers; sanding manzanita buttons over and again, rubbing sheep fat on to shine them, with a group of women and the horses passing by at dawn in the mist, and the varied thrush singing for the first time I've heard this season; and a fire lit... this is peace. 


But of all the gifts of autumn, fallen down from the trees, the one that has flung my heart open widest I found shivering beneath an oak during my time with that group of women, carving buttons and beads. I was about to dump the dregs of my tea onto the ground when something gave me pause. I looked down and saw a tiny silver creature hunched on a leaf, shivering and shaking. I crouched near, and found it to be a baby mouse. My dear readers, I have never seen anything so dear in my entire life. I could hardly bear it. 

It was very clear that this wee one had been abandoned, or orphaned, and while I know that baby mice are a tasty treat for many a creature, this mouse lay in my path so pitiful and sweet, and my heart would not let me leave him to die slowly of cold, or starvation. Predation was unlikely until all of us had cleared out. So another woman and I scooped him up in some wool and moss and tucked him into an empty can. Immediately, he curled into a little ball, paws to nose, and stopped shivering. I nearly wept at the sight of the small pleasure he found in wool and curling nose-to-paws. I nearly wept, at the zest for life which all creatures have. 

I couldn't reach WildCare that evening, so I took him home with me. He squeaked expectantly and robustly when I opened his box, and his little chirrups nearly undid me with their sweetness. I got up in the middle of the night like a fretful new mother to change the hot water bottle for a fresh one, so he stayed toasty warm. The next morning, I was beside myself with worry the whole drive across the Bay to the wildlife shelter. I didn't dare peek in his box, for fear the little one had died; after all, he had taken no water or nourishment in at least 18 hours, and was so small his eyes were still closed. But when I arrived, he was still breathing. I rushed him in, all shaken up and teary. The kind people behind the desk indulged me, though of course they see a thousand baby mice a year! They are very good at what they do, and they whisked him off to be cared for. They will re-release him into the wild when he is old enough. Even if it is only for a week, the little deer mouse will be able to enjoy the pleasures of what it means to be a wild deer mouse, bounding and burrowing in the grass and soil and eating all manner of nuts and seeds. 


This little mouse did something to my heart. I stood there, outside Wildcare, for a good ten minutes, idly looking at the beautiful birds of prey they keep, birds that can no longer hunt or fly in the wild. Really, I was trying not to cry. Really, I was thinking of the tenderness for that single baby mouse which had seized me like a prayer; I was thinking of the love all mother animals have for their children, and the utter helplessness of a baby mouse without his mother, and all the tenderness there is in this world. Every creature is born into tenderness, though it may last only an hour. This baby mouse, he was a tiny silver miracle, and we were blessed to meet him for an evening, and see him on his autumn way. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Smell of Buckskin & the Lay of the Elk Lined Land



Please forgive my absence here. It has proved harder than I imagined to keep up a 3 post a week regiment (why I did not think this would be difficult I cannot tell you, except that I have a large writing appetite and always bite off more than I can quite chew, out of sheer excitement, love for words, and for the magic of this world!) My Juniper Way is perhaps, I realize, better served in a fluid and un-regimented fashion, in the daily practice of my life but not always here. I'm sure many of you walk (while juggling, it sometimes feels) this strange path with the internet—how to use it as a tool, as a resource, as a rich web of interconnection, sharing, exchange, without letting it seep too far into your daily life. I do not like the feeling that the experiences I have are lived with a blog post in mind. This does not sit well with me, however successful a model it may be for others. I realize I need these sharings to be spontaneous, to be fluid. So while you will be reading about Hearth and Hands, my notes from the Wild Folk, my patchworks of inspiration, and scraps about Elk Lines and other projects, it will be in my more usual ambling rambling fashion, a few threads taken from here and there. Wily bird's nests, these posts often turn out to be, lined with elk fur but made of spiderweb and lichen and dryer lint all. This works better for me I think, and perhaps for all you dear readers too. It's more like ecology, less like a path of stepping stones.

*****

So, that said, I want to write here about the smell of buckskin, all smoke and animal in one. I want to write about how it is the same color as the summergold land, and the fur of the tule elk out in the hills, and how under my hands, the awl and the buckskin feel like a homecoming. This past weekend, I learned to make simple sandals (above!) and to work with leather, specifically buckskin (deer hide tanned front and back with brains and then cured over a woodfire)*, with a group of women out in the hills of Sonoma County. We gather once a month, learning wild skills, rolling fire with handdrills of elderberry wood to cook our food, talking around the fire into the dark about what it means to be a woman today, what it means to be empowered by our monthly cycles, what it means to feel rooted and competent and connected out on the land. It is good and challenging and nourishing on many levels.


This time, we did not tan the buckskin (it takes longer than two days), but I was fortunate to get to use a beautiful little piece, tanned by our teacher's son when he was six (!) to sew a small bag. And I was seduced, utterly and completely. The smoked smell, sweet and resinous both, the buttery feeling of the skin under my fingers, the precision and strength of the piercing awl, the tightening stitches. Two moons ago, we processed a goat and tanned rabbit skins, and a longing as old as these bones, as old, I would wager, as the human spirit, filled me this time as I stitched, to learn the process of tanning buckskin. We've danced a dance as old as time with the deer and the elk of this planet, the dance of the hunt, but also a dance of great reverence, and it feels to me that the processing of a skin (which at this point in my life I would only ever procure from an animal killed on the roadside) can be an act of worship and gratitude. For we should not forget that our very first clothing items as a species came from the bodies of animals, and that like it or not, we are tied to them in a dance of life-death-life. I would go so far as to argue, as Paul Shepard does, that animals have shaped who we are in every possible way, that they are our elders and our guides, and should be worshipped as we now worship God, or the Machine, or the Economy, or Technology. But that is a story for another day.


Paul Shepard writes (from his book The Others: How Animals Made Us Human)

Death is a tender subject, with its imagined pain and terror, vistas of roaring carnivores killing beautiful deer and lions raging among themselves over bloody bones. images of predation as the power of the strongest confuse our monkey politics and its endless skirmishing for power with food chains in ecology, making the false analogy of nature to violence and war. [...] The grass eaten by the buffalo and the flesh of the buffalo eaten by the wolf we imagine as taken by force. But the milk, grass, [...] buffalo [...] and wolf, transmit something more important than themselves. In the ethos of the ancient conjunction of "to prey on" and "to pray to," the hunt is not a seizure but a voluntary immolation. Hunters preserve the lore of wild things who oversee the ethics of their own transformation into food, observe atonements, and return again and again (37). 


Out on the buckskin colored hills of Tomales Point, the bull tule elk are gathering great lekking groups (or harems) of females that they will keep at their sides until winter. Here: the sun, the fog, the grass, the bodies of elk, the mountain lions who (very occasionally!) pick off a young calf. The antlers that fall and provide minerals to the mice and rabbits. The bodies that decompose again into the earth, buckskin gold through the summertime drought. Sun-grass-elk-mountain lion: the great wheel, turning, and somehow the act of sitting, watching, pressing fingerprints to an elk hoof print, reading their movements through track and sign, feels like a way back in again, back into the wheel. As does the working of buckskin between finger and palm, and what it means to hold the life of an animal in your hands—what an ancient responsibility, and worship.  You must not forget to sing and to dance in return. 


The bull elk in the centers of the lekking groups are the very strongest of all, the ones who've fought off all the other bulls (for the time being). They bugle often into the fog, perhaps asserting their territory. The sound is haunting and high, like a child's cry or a hunting bird. For the autumn season, they control and protect these great herds of females, and make love to all of them. This can be very exhausting work, apparently, because the strong elk surrounded by lekking groups are often the first dead come winter—the act of courting so many women and constantly fighting off other males totally drains their strength! 

I sat for a while one day a few weeks ago, in the midst of writing the most recent Elk Lines chapter, watching the male and female elk interact. For the rest of the year, the females live in big groups together, led by the oldest and wisest among them. I wonder how they feel about these young bulls who chase them around and herd them up and down hills, often with displays of aggression. Some seemed perfectly pleased with the situation while others, I noted, often ignored the bull until the very last minute, when the rest of the herd was halfway up the hill. I know that elk minds work differently than human minds, and that the inner workings of a herd, and an elk, are very mysterious indeed, but I also believe that it is important to remember that all animals are individuals, following at once the ways of their species and their own predilections, as we do; and so it made me smile to see how each female responded a little differently to their temporary liege lord & lover, and how wonderful a thing it is, to remember that each animal is its own unique being, with its own set of stories and tastes and (dare I say it? Yes I do dare) loves.

The land felt very dry, as it always is at this time of year to one degree or another. But this summer, it feels like bone.

 The way the green drains from this landscape is always astonishing. The sun crisps it away. 



 At the beginning of May, the same path looked like this. The herbalist Asia Suler and I wandered here then, when the idea for Elk Lines was just a bright seed, a glinting stone, in my heart. (She recently interviewed me on her website, Woolgathering and Wildcrafting--do go have a read! I am very honored indeed.)


We sat amidst the Douglas irises (whose purple my camera did not properly capture-- they are much darker!) and watched the elk cows move together in groups with young calves at their heels. 


Now, the irises are going rust-orange at the tips, and making twisted, strange seedpods.



The only thing blooming, as far as I can see, is the coyotebrush. These are the male flowers. The female flowers are in bloom too; they more resemble dandelion propellors, tiny and furred, like a coyote's pelt. Coyotebrush is an incredibly drought-resistant plant, with tiny resinous leaves that deflect sun and conserve water, deep taproots, and the ability to regenerate from fire. It also, in my opinion, smells like sun and dry stones and the spice of this coastal land.


White Gulch, a favorite spot among the tule elk, has lost all of its green. The elk are now harder to spot, their bodies the same color as the hills.


And the lines they make with their travel up and down the combes and valleys—how they resemble the creases in buckskin!



The land has always felt to me like a great animal with skin and fur, her bones the granite rocks. Sometimes, when I walk barefoot especially (or in sandals such as the ones I just made, which keep me very close to the texture of the earth just below the sole), the ground feels very alive, like it has its own blood and heat and the ability to reach up through all of my bones as I go. Surely, it does. All the ancient people of this world believed it—the land a great dreaming animal—and now science tells us that walking barefoot is "good" for us because of the earth's electric charge (but please don't get me going about the absurdness of "Earthing" or I will never stop). While I'm sure it's true in those terms, I prefer the idea that she is a great creature, and your bare feet to her skin are like the tender touch between two animals. Both, to me, are the same story, just told with different words.


This time on the land with the elk, my feet in the buckskin hills, always feeds my own story-making in the truest of ways. Last week, I carried a heavy box of the latest Elk Lines back from the printers. How good it felt (though my arms did ache!) to walk with such bounty in my arms, fueled by the elk, the wild hills, and every reader whose eyes and hearts touch these words.


I hope very much that these Elk Lines can somehow let the voice of the land (whatever tiny humble scrap I've managed to approximate) sing through into each of you. As I wrote to Asia in our interview:

"Above all things I hope that through my work a renewed sense of the tenets of deep ecology and animistic thought can be re-infused into the world of contemporary human literature. The stories we tell shape the world we see, and the world we see is one of terrible environmental and humanitarian catastrophe, degradation, and extinction, both of animals and plants, and of human cultures and languages. I hope for my writing to convey a sense of the animism of all beings; that elk and alder and lichen and stone, bear and lizard and fog and oatgrass, are all subjects, characters, integral players in the stories of our lives and this world, not the objects we have made them into with our cultural narratives. For when a deer or a tree is a subject and not an object, it is not as easy to destroy it without a care. I also hope to keep the old human magics and beliefs surrounding this wise old world of ours alive in my writing—the ways of weedwife and hunter, wandering jester and gypsy and shaman and witch. And if my tales can be wild woodrat nests which lead to the other worlds inside this world, all the better. If they can somehow gesture at the weedier, wilder, dustier footpath which leads us back into what it really means to be human (and not the big tar roads)—well, that would be grand indeed."


* I want to add a quick note about buckskin, cultural appropriation, etc. We tend to associate buckskin (especially that particular term) with the Wild West, and of course with the native people of this country. A few things to note—first of all, in California, traditional garb varied widely, but especially along the coast, buckskin wasn't really a big clothing item, except in the winter, along with other furs. The climate is so mild that plant fiber clothing (such as tule skirts) or no clothing at all was preferable. (In the early 20th century, at horribly racist "museums" or "demonstration sites," such as those in Yosemite National Park, native California people were made to dress in buckskins with fringe and beading, like the Plains Indians who the American public seemed to think represent the "best" kind of Indian.) In addition, the process of tanning hides, and making buckskin (which is just deer skin tanned on both sides, as I mentioned above, so that all the hair is gone), is about as old as we are as a species. (Read an interesting little history here.) It is an ancient human inheritance, and craft, so when I write about it here I am not trying to appropriate a Native American tradition, but rather I am trying to reconnect with the roots we all share. The Native people of this (and many other) continent(s) just happen to have held onto that tradition (and the deep old wisdom of what it means to be human and connected) longer than anybody else, before we white Europeans showed up here and nigh on ruined everything. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Patchwork Coat of Muses: The Star Fishers

A scrap from my morning writings, a glimpse of stars, inspired by the transcendent work of Jeanie Tomanek. 
The Star Fishers, by Jeanie Tomanek
It may not be until you're all of five-and-twenty that they let you go out in the boat alone, only your hunting dogs to keep you company. It may take you that long to make an acceptable net. Net-weaving, you might be surprised to learn, is more than half of star-fishing. They don't swim very fast, after all, but they are dreadfully hard to hold, stars—slippery and steaming, singeing, bright and embered. This is no berry-picking, nothing like fishing in the creeks with nets and weirs, where you can scoop them up with your hands.

Our nets are made not of plant fiber, twisted into cordage, no, but of the sinew of creatures who live in the far north, among the whitest snow, and near the pole. Snowshoe hares, caribou, lynx—these are the proper sorts of animals. Their bodies are shaped by cold, and must be tough to survive, and so their sinews are just the thing, tempered by cold and the endurance of glaciers. They are our neighbors, our big family in the cold. For how do you imagine we get up and down to do our fishing, except by the pole itself, and the colored aurora too, when it lays down its silk, and hoists us up?

Our country, the country of the Star Fishers, is the pole. We keep it nice and straight, all polished, pointing north and hitched securely to Polaris, who we would never fish and eat, no indeed--and upset the great order of the world? Not yet, anyhow. It is not yet time to unravel the very stars. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Notes from the Wild Folk: A Visit to the Alpine


For a week of days and of star-thick nights, I was steeped and clarified both by the Sierra Nevada air, by the wind down the granite passes that sang the trees to oceans, by the sight of ancient ragged ridges 9,000 feet high and more, by the company of my family and of my new friends—juniper and aspen, rowan, goldenrod and chickaree. I am still adjusting to sea-level. I never thought I'd say such a thing, being such a lover of wild coast and fog! The last time I was in the Sierras, closer to 11,000 feet, I was desperate for the lower elevation because I found it very difficult to sleep. This time, I felt like Nan Shepherd in The Living Mountain, when she writes, "I am a mountain lover because my body is at its best in the rarer air of the heights and communicates its elation to the mind [...] At first I thought that this lightness of body was a universal reaction to rarer air. It surprised me to discover that some people suffered malaise at altitudes that released me, but were happy in low valleys where I felt extinguished." (Page 7). While I certainly do not feel "extinguished" in the low valleys where I live-- and in my heart am an ocean-side, misty forest kind of girl—I did experience the "feyness" of the heights that Nan Shepherd so joyously describes. I felt giddy at the end of each day with the richness of our rambles on the high ridges, to the clear lakes.


Goldenrod, yellow herald of late summer, bloomed everywhere (well, mostly near water, though not this ridge-top adventurer), so sun-bright it was impossible not to smile at the sight of her. 


For the first time, I met mountain ash, aka rowan, a native variety of that small tree of mythic proportions. I've known about rowan since I was a young girl, reading books full of medicine women and Celtic magics. Once, I thought I spotted a rowan tree growing in the front yard of a strange, stained-glass windowed house around the corner from the home where I grew up. I'm not sure if it really was, but I was certain this tree meant that the woman inside was a witch, and possibly one of dubious intentions.

 Up here, in the Desolation Wilderness, the rowans provided sudden bursts of scarlet amidst a landscape dry with summer,  colored mostly with the dusty silver shades of granite and juniper, the fawns of bark and stone, the evergreens, the sharp blue of the sky. I gathered some berries to string up over our front door, for protection, though some say that rowans attract fey folk as well as guard against them. Mostly, that string of red will stir my blood with the beauty of those alpine waterways where she grows, singing soft songs of protection to the ducks and the grouse, the beaver and the mountain chickadee, come night.


Thanks to my trusty Laws' Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada  (a fabulous book I've had since my time at Heyday, but hadn't really found the opportunity to use until now, full not only of the usual flora and fauna but also insects, lichens, mushrooms, stars, tracks, clouds, all hand illustrated with both character and accuracy), I fell into an ecstasy of identification. There were so many new plants and birds 7,000 feet in the air, and some 200 miles east of my usual haunts. This coffeeberry, for example, I could identify as such, but something about it was different-- the shape of the berries, that array of autumnal colors-- and then I learned that the Sierras have their very own coffeeberry (no doubt a favorite of the gray foxes as well as the Sierra red fox, as it is down by the sea too), Rhamnus rubra. After a day long ramble, upon returning, I would grab my Laws' Guide, make a cup of tea, and flip through it pleasurably, seeking the new friends I'd met.


And then there were the aspens. Their trunks white-dusted and full of dark eyes, their leaves a dance and a shimmer in the wind. As my mother said, there are certain winds that you only notice because of the aspens, who pick up the slightest breezes and ripple. Their full name is quaking aspen, or Populus tremuloides, and the flower essence of this tree is used for panic and anxiety. The latter I can understand, but not for the reasons often used—there is nothing about the dance of the aspen that reminds me of fear, of tremors, of quaking. Not at all. This tree is all light and water and lilt. It shimmers and flickers. It does not quake like a man trembling in his boots at the sight of a bear, such as the name evokes. Aspens remind me that in the face of a wind, sometimes the best thing to do is come totally and fully alive.



The sight of aspens dancing thus is immensely, immeasurably calming. It has the same effect as the sight of water rippling or waves spreading with foam. Why these things are soothing and centering, I cannot quite articulate. Aspen leaf stems are flattened at the base, so that the leaves may move back and forth, fluttering in the slightest breeze. I wonder why the aspens have chosen, over many millenia, to grow thus. And why one side of the leaf is dark green, the other silvery, so that in that flutter is the effect of light on water—this is a Great Mystery, indeed.





At Lily Lake, rimmed with aspen, alder, cottonwood and willow (how I love the water-loving trees!) my mother and I shared morning tea, a short walk up from our cabin, and spotted the home of a beaver, probably made from the silvery aspen branches, a beaver favorite!


The original architects, those fellows, inspiration, I'm sure, for the earliest tents and houses.


High up the ridges, I fell completely in love with the tatterdemalion silhouettes of the old, wind-tossed junipers. The more gnarled and silvery-barked, the more ancient—and the more beautiful, in my mind. These trees seem to grow straight from the granite. 


Their dusty blue berries are a favorite of many birds, especially robins, as well as the numerous species of chipmunk and ground squirrel who live here, and the black bear too. 


The juniper is a sacred, wise plant, and I am writing an in-depth column on the subject for the wonderful EarthLines magazine, so I shan't give away too many tidbits here. Suffice it to say, juniper's berries and boughs are at once medicinal and magically powerful—clearing, cleansing, warming, and rooted in underworlds of stone. I spent a fair amount of time with my hands to their bark or rock-bound roots, wondering what stories they held inside.


Beyond the first juniper ridge, we ventured to Grass Lake. My brother (above) and I both swam to a little island in the middle. The water was cool but refreshing, not the gasping temperature of snowmelt that I've felt before. 


However, I learned about halfway across that I'm a mediocre swimmer at best, with no technique and little stamina, and that it was really quite cold. I experienced a somewhat sobering moment in the middle, humbled by the dark blue expanse of water under and all around me, and remembered that floating on one's back in the water provides excellent respite. So I dog-paddled and back-floated, breast-stroked and frog-kicked my way to that granite island, and arrived trembling from head to toe with the effort. There, my brother and I lay on the warm, mica-flecked stones and felt the peace of wild things flowing in through our skin. A chickaree (little tassel-eared squirrel) called, and a kingfisher. The wind hushed through the trees. The stones held the warmth of the sun.


The Sierras are defined by granite, it seems to me. It is foundation and bare bones. When you walk these ridges for a day, your feet get sore from the hardness of the ground, the granite jarring your bones. I am put in mind of more of Nan Shepherd's words:

I have written of inanimate things, rock and water, frost and sun; and it might seem as though this were not a living world. But I have wanted to come to the living things through the forces that create them, for the mountain is one and indivisible, and rock, soil, water and air are no more integral to it than what grows from the soil and breathes the air. All are aspects of one entity, the living mountain. The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird--all are one. Eagle and alpine veronica are part of the mountain's wholeness. (The Living Mountain, 48.)



Even the grasshoppers have come to look like the rust-hued stone. They leap and click through the summer air.

In places, the rocks are newborn and sharp, all edges and rifts.


The air everywhere smells of the dry butterscotch sap of Jeffrey pines, which rises up from those bark clefts like a sweet mountain brandy.



You can almost feel the presence of snow, even in the height of summer, in the way the slopes are shaped, the hardiness of the low shrubbery. All that green, which looks like moss from a distance, I believe is a combination of low growing huckleberry oak, manzanita, and bitter cherry.


Bitter cherry, growing more lanky here, is a new plant to me-- the first wild cherry I've ever met, with tiny vermillion berries and glossy bark.



And I was very surprised and delighted indeed to find a smooth acorn amidst the little leaves of this shrubby plant, which I was desperate to identify for at least half an afternoon. It's the small pleasures that matter...


Like a teardrop stone, a juniper, and a cloud.



Or the very last bloom of the mountain heather, a deep and ravishing pink.


One afternoon, we climbed to a lake high enough that we could look back across the other lakes we had visited. They appeared like blue footprints, trod in granite. Nearer us, on the boughs of fir trees, the cones glistened as if made of ground crystal or the glinting green of certain rocks. "Each of the senses is a way in to what the mountain has to give" (97), writes Shepherd.

The taste of little dry thimbleberries, sweet and tart and full of seeds. The smell of butterscotch and dust, and juniper. The wind down the mountain passes and through the many pines and firs a rush as loud as oceans, with the calls of chickaree and flicker, Stellar's jay, kingfisher, inside. The heat of hot rocks under a lake-cold skin, or the fibrous juniper bark against the fingers. Blue sky, blue lakes fallen from it, sharp granite, the evergreen, the goldenrod, the rowan red. Yes, Nan, I have found my way in.


Come dusk, my brother, father and I went religiously to sit on the boat dock with a pipe of Highland whiskey tobacco (a guilty pleasure) to watch the bats come out, and then the first stars. Of all the small pleasures, this one must be supreme—bats, stars, the lake water painted with wind and crepuscular light. Night is a whole new country, full of stars thick as the mica in granite. Night is when the black bears roam nearer, and the Milky Way makes a path through the mountain passes. Night, and the air had autumn in it, cold.

It is the hinge between dusk and night that I love best. And here we sit, on the edge of it, my brother and I hunched in precisely the same posture (it must be familial), watching the night come in. No matter the myriad distractions and stimulations of this world, nothing can replace the feeling of one's eyes, searching and searching the dusk blue just the same color as those dusty juniper berries, until at last—ah!— they find a star, a chip of quartz, and relax. That first star, Vega, clear as the alpine air.