Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Where the Mountain Lion Walks

Although we didn't come bearing handfuls of hazel catkin, or juniper berry; although we didn't come scattering mica in our wake or chanting or praying or walking down on our knees in honor, it still felt like a small act of communion, or pilgrimage. At least it did to me. To come to deep and lonely forest canyons, to high and misty ridges, for the sake of mountain lions. For the big cats who call Mt Tamalpais home, more so than I could ever dream. 

I said it quietly, to myself, to the trees, to the serpentine outcrops and into the mist so the message might somehow be passed along—I love and honor you, great cats. I always have. 

The equipment of this pilgrimage came in the form of plastic bags full of data cards and a plastic box full of dozens of different keys. I like to dream that reverent words and juniper berries left at tree roots, stories written with a strange and wild seam through their hearts, might be enough in this world to change the way we relate to the animals and plants around us.

 But the truth is, wildlife cameras help a great deal. I daresay a great deal more. Especially in places like the Bay Area, which are rich with open space (a huge, blessed amount of wild open space preserved largely in the 1960's by heroic & saintly human beings who fought hard and long), but also very dense with human beings, and only becoming more so. The Bay Area Puma Project, part of Felidae, an organization that looks to protect big cats world-wide, came into being originally in the South Bay, tracking and tagging mountain lions in the Santa Cruz mountains, because of legitimate fears that the encroachment of development in the Silicon Valley would start to cut off wildlife corridors, creating a kind of island out of those mountains that could result in inbreeding, more aggression toward human beings, and therefore more lion fatalities at the hands of Fish & Game.

Now the whole project is moving into Marin and the East Bay, putting up wildlife cameras in all the windy wooded wild places that mountain lions like best, to try to make sure that they always have room to roam, to hunt, to stay secretive and silent as they are most wont to do. 

A lot of the work involves actually tracking and tagging mountain lions with radio collars, great bulky things that make them look strangely like pets. And while the romantic and the luddite in my heart both balk a little at some of the implications here—I've read terrifying plans to create Facebook pages for wild radio-collared animals, to affix tiny needles to the collars that release a sedative into the bloodstream of an animal too close to a road or a livestock pen (seriously, this sounds like science fiction; but then we seem to be living a lot of the fantasies of science fiction all around us, don't we?)—this is deeply important work.

We've made a mess of things, and while we can work to deeply re-align our stories and re-wild our bones, in the meanwhile development can happen brutally fast, and without hard data that says--mountain lions use this ridge, this canyon, right here, right now—no amount of reverent words will be worth a damn. So I am really grateful for Felidae, for the scientists of the Bay Area Puma Project-- and very happy to be tagging along to check cameras and walk the canyons where the lions come down in the quiet hours to roam and hunt and rest and love.

Since I was a little girl, big cats have always held a special, fierce place in my heart. They've always stirred an almost painful longing in me. I remember a very clear memory of wanting so badly to know what it was like to be a cheetah, running at the speed of wind over a savannah, that it made my heart hurt. As an an adult, I went through several years of intense mountain lion dreams, in which I would finally, at last, encounter one face to face, and it would  lunge at me, ready to bite-- and then I would wake. When I started tracking animals almost four years ago, the dreams stopped. I've seen the flash of a mountain lion, golden and quick, only once, so fast and stealthy across a trail and up a fallen log I almost could have imagined it. It was fluid as a dream. When I walk alone I walk with mixed nervousness at the base of my belly, and intense, quivering longing-- to behold this quiet, beautiful animal. She has such a hold on my soul. 

To walk up here on the misty ridges of Mt. Tamalpais, near Kent Lake, where serpentine outcrops grow deep green under the hands of fog, in honor of mountain lions, for the sake of mountain lions; even if it is a small thing, this makes me feel happy inside. It feels like an honor. Like I am reaching out to her with my head bowed.

And the serpentine looks on, with stories in its creases about time, about stars, about fire, about the great fleeting beauty of animal life.

Tarweed is in bloom now up in the dry hills, one of those hardy, resinous wildflowers of our summer season, a thousand fallen suns.

The mariposa lilies, which look to me so delicate, so enchanted, wait for this dry time of year to bloom too, opening up the furred cups of their bodies to the heat and to the fog-drip.

And the pearly everlasting blooms have arrived too, white and papery and smelling so warm, like incense.  Like summer heat held in tiny hands.

Past all of these, the lions pad silently, leading secret lives of deep rest and sudden blood-sharp strength, of languid tenderness and terrifying precision. It is so good to remember that other feet pad where our feet tread; that other lives are watching ours with light, knowing eyes as we pass through the dry grass.

I learned recently from a friend that the spiders who build tunnel webs, or parachute webs, only do so once in their lives. The classic webs of orb weavers are often re-spun daily. But these webs, hammocks full of mist in the chamise brush, are the work of a spider's lifetime. What sacred baskets, these little homes. What a precious thing, a wild home, safe in the hands of the hills.

I pray that we begin to see, more and more clearly, with gathering strength,  in greater numbers, that we are not the only ones deserving of homes, and with a right to space and security. That in preserving the homes of the more-than-human people, we are also preserving a home for our own souls. As Jay Griffiths writes of the English poet John Clare, in her magnificent A Country Called Childhood (Kith in the UK)— "as a child he could feel safely nested only when the land around him was a safe nesting-place for every other kind of creature, knowing that the human mind can nest or make a home only when the ecology provides a home for all species." (p. 25)

Yes. Yes. (Thank goodness for Jay Griffiths.) And may we do what it takes to honor again all the nests, all the homes, all the quiet cat-lit dens of this world.

Mountain lion image caught on a Bay Area Puma Project Camera

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Kelp & Mist & Badger Claws

My father's ancestors are from this land. The bluffs of coastal Mendocino. Before that—the journey across this great heaving country, and a ship from Ireland. 

We spent a long weekend at the end of June gathering here with my big and kind and raucous and beautiful extended family. But I felt that we also spent time with an older family, the family of the sea wilds. Something happens in me, in both of us (Simon's people are from Nova Scotia and long before that, Scotland, so the rugged kelp lorn coast sings up through his heart just as strong as mine), when clambering over rough tidal rocks to gather seaweed. A quieting. A happy peace mixed with that mournful terrible beauty that the ocean can stir up. A sense of being perched between the greatest beauty and the greatest awe, together. 

As I knelt on a rock covered in mussel shells, my knees searing, the waves knocking up far closer to me, perched out there, than was probably entirely safe, leaning down to gather a variety of kombu off the cold-tossed stone, I felt for a long instant a dizzying sense of the world's power, and myself enfolded within it—ocean rocking against stone, kombu growing into the salt, the immense lapis tide, the ancient wheeling cries of oystercatchers, watching us with red eyes and black wings, the animal thrill of all of my senses, soaked. And the feeling that women before me, women of my blood perhaps very long ago, knelt on stones and gathered seaweed, crooning little thank you songs, surging with the mystery of it all, of the soaking salting foaming living sea. 

I found a perfect swimming place, a long pool where the waves were tamed by rough rocks, so that they moved the water only gently, with a rocking exhalation and gentle inhalation, moving the thick-haired kelp in and out in a motion so delightful, so completely beguiling, I found myself leaving my clothes in a pile and plunging in to that shock and sweet of cold.

Let me tell you--as I am sure you know-- there is nothing in the world like standing waist deep in the bracing cold arms of a tidepool with kelp dancing soft around your knees and the waves rocking and seething with all the pull of the moon through them. Maybe it's a memory of the womb. A memory of being undivided; entirely held, without question made of the same substance as the universe. Of course, we still are. But we forget. Gosh, is it easy to forget, especially as the cool quick interiors of our little touch screen boxes, our keyboard click oblivions, further and further fragment our inner resources and keep our minds in a scattered state of spin.

But then, no matter our strange modern addictions, the way our necks are growing hunched and our fingerpads more sensitive to the touch of screens, in many cases, than soil, a fact we may recognize and mourn but see no easy way out of—go down to the shore, put your feet in the cold, and I swear the wholeness of your own self will flood you, the wholeness of yourself in the world. It is much older than the brief veneer of our modernity. Our bodies are very wise, and they know the language of the world, even if our minds have been trained to shut it out. 

We slept on the dunes, under the mist. Sometimes I forget that fog is sea-made. That it is ocean-drops condensed around salt, cold air sucked in toward the hot inland valleys by the air-pressure vacuum made between hot and cold. All night long, it sprinkled us. It laid tiny fingers across our noses. It tasted of kelp. It tasted of that mystery, the great tide.

On our way home, we took the long winding route along the coast to greet the rocky, sheer blue breadth of the edge of this land; to remember its span, which can be forgotten flying down freeways lined with gas stations and strip malls. 

Beside a cow pasture and a stand of willows, Simon spotted this beautiful being, recently dead. During my most recent tracking work this spring, we focused on the life and natural history of the badger. But she is a very elusive, very mysterious being, rarely seen. 

She is a deep digger of hillsides, bringing huge amounts of necessary aeration through the soil. Since badgers dig to hunt (mainly gophers, their favorite prey) the amount of holes they can riddle a landscape with is truly staggering. They churn the tidal sea of soil. The plumb that depth with broad scooping claws. It was a true honor to behold these enormous sickle claws, the perfect toe and heel pads, to imagine all the soils she swam in life.

We pulled the beautiful badger away from the road, down into a patch of willows, where we partially covered her in boughs, sprinkled juniper, said small words in the hope that her badger-soul had found its endless dirt-dark peace, returned to the great womb of things, the salt and tide of all hope.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Seeding the New Moon Heart (And Introducing Two New Story Projects!)

A small revolution has been recently taking place in my heart. A humble upheaval of an old order. Perhaps it is better to say that the revolution has taken place in my mind; my heart (all of our hearts) always knows, always has known, and has been doing its work despite certain aspects of my mind for many years. The revelation is really quite simple, but its effects on me have been rather profound.

Over the past few months it came to light in me that for a very long time--since I was a little girl, in fact--I've been using urgency and high stress to motivate myself to get things done. This is hardly news to any of us I'm sure, because this is the story of our culture. This IS the story of Western Capitalism, no doubt about it. A story of urgency, fight or flight panic, even competition over who is the most stressed out, the most burnt out, who gets the least sleep and never takes a weekend, etc. For some people, this model may work well enough; for others, like myself, it's actually quietly devastating. I'm a very stress-sensitive person; I've struggled with anxiety and panic since I was small. For a long time I've seen them as the other side of the coin of devoted creativity; two sides of one whole. As richly as I can spin a story onto paper, I can also spin off into obsessive panic about any number of worst case scenarios.

But recently, I've come to see that by following the story of the over-culture, I am helping to create conditions in which this kind of mindset can thrive. By using urgent stress to motivate, I create a landscape in which anxiousness and fear thrive. (Sound familiar? Sound like the world we see on the news?) It is not an inevitable state, nor is it even native to me. I don't have to claim stress as a birthright. I can see it as a product of the power of storytelling. It's funny, because I make my living, and feed my own spirit, by writing stories that grow taproots through the cement, that offer wild windows, old valleys and firesides full of hope, that attempt to give voice to the more-than-human world, to offer another set of narratives in which to view this place, this life, the problems at hand.

My heart is well versed in this way, devoted to it, and fiercely loving. When I am writing a story, I am deep in the heart of the pulse of things. Everything else falls away, and there is only this, the flow of words which is a flow of blood and wildwater and light through me. And yet crowding in around the work, when I step away from notebook and writing desk, are the tensions and conflicts of the overculture. I run my own business and make my own days and yet I find that the stories I am trying to subvert in my writing are still there in the narrative I tell myself as I work—a narrative of urgency, of stress, of strain. I've bought into the scarcity mentality our economic system feeds us, despite my every effort! This is rather funny, all of it, when I step back and look at it. Quite hilarious, and humbling too.

I know I am sharing more personal details than I normally do here, but I am doing so because I have a feeling that a lot of you out there know exactly what I mean; because I hope that sharing something of this struggle and the ways in which I am moving through it may be helpful, or galvanizing, to others, in addition to the hope that some of you may have wisdom or stories in this regard to share in the comments with all of us!

So, back to my revelation. It came while I was on my moon cycle last week. I think this is an important detail to share here in part because I will admit that it makes me slightly uncomfortable to do so, despite the passion I have around the deep feminine power of menstruation, the rage I feel at all the subtle and not so subtle stories we're told from a young age that make us feel shame and shyness and embarrassment around this most sacred of cycles. My slight discomfort is another example of an over-culture story that has deep roots in me, in so many of us.

Anyway, the revelation was really a synthesis of thoughts that had been stirring in me for a while, and amounts to this—let the heart, not the mind, be in charge. The heart is its own mind; let the brain-mind bow down before the way of the heart. Let beauty motivate you. Let the absolute astounding beauty of this life motivate everything you do. 

None of this, I daresay, sounds like news. In fact when I look at it, it sounds very obvious, like I've heard it five million times. But sometimes something shifts subtly in the way of the telling, and everything becomes clearer. In part this shift in perspective came from an interview I'd listened to earlier in the week, on Unlearn and Rewild, with Charles Eisenstein. In it, he discussed the "sickness" our culture has around time and efficiency. That it's an obsession with being efficient that makes us get things done (aka urgent stress). He suggested this alternative, to ask yourself--how can I create something in the most beautiful possible way? And this just astounded me. When the hostess, Ayana Young, asked him--well what about those environmental concerns which are really quite urgent, shouldn't we be efficient there?—his reply was: and how well has that been working for you so far?

And I just had to laugh, and laugh! Not well at all, of course! Not well at all on the cultural, global scale, nor on the individual level either! The mind balks at the idea of doing things with beauty alone as a motivation, fearing that nothing will get done. The mind balks at the idea of letting the heart really and truly lead the way. But perhaps what's really balking is an old story, hearing its death-knell. For there is a great, deep relief in the body at this idea too—what if I let beauty and heart lead me, truly? What if I trusted this wholly, every step of the way, not just with pen in hand? What if we all did? What would this world look like? Oh my.

The radio program Unlearn and Rewild describes the revelation occurring inside my mind rather well. Commitment to really unlearning the stories we are fed, not just the stories I see outside myself, but also the stories hiding within me despite my best efforts. Commitment to rewilding the body and the mind by letting the heart lead. Herbal healer and writer Stephen Harrod Buhner has written extensively on the neural networks that exist within the heart, and between the heart and brain; I think we all instinctively know that the heart "thinks," the heart knows things, before even the mind. It is the heart the speaks with the plants, animals and stones. Indigenous and pre-modern peoples the world over located the self not in the head but in the heart. If you think about it, the heart is a far, far more ancient organ than the human brain. The human brain, beautiful thing, is a troubled brain. The heart is the wilder of the two in the sense that it isn't very different from the heart of a rabbit or a doe or a fox. So by letting it have full rein—well, who knows what might come?

I would add that it's all well and good to come up with this kind of decision, to say oh yes of course, my heart is in charge, Let the Beauty You Love Be What You Do, etc. I've come to this decision many times before. What has changed this time is the realization that in order to change a story you have to tell yourself the new one all the time. Just as obsessively as you told yourself the old one. You have to practice telling it. You have to bow down to the heart, take the leap, putting your hand over your chest every time you forget, starting again each moment.

All of this leads me, in a very wordy fashion, to two new projects which I'm very excited to share with all of you. Both of them are as much medicine for me as I hope they will be for you—for in the end isn't this how the cycles of nature work? The berries are as much fed by being picked as they are food for the eater? And the creation of them as necessary to the plant as their consumption?

The first is called Morningstory. Here is its description from Wild Talewort.

For twenty-eight days, the number of days in a moon cycle, receive an illustrated story-vignette (500 words) in your email box, a cup of story to wake you into the wildness of your own body, to help re-story your morning, your afternoon, your night, your month, with the voices of the wildly human and more-than-human worlds.

In the face of the social, ecological and spiritual starvations and destructions of our time, we cannot hope for true transformation without also transforming the stories we tell ourselves and each other about our own hearts and our relationship with the more-than-human world—our belonging (t)here, and also our necessary humility in the face of so much robust, miraculous, diverse life and all the ways that it cradles us, from birth to death. We become the stories we tell, for good or for ill. May Morningstory be a cup of embers to fill your morning with, to warm you through the day, to help your soles stay wild, stay on the path of dust and elk-hoof and beauty, despite all attempts to sway you.

Every day, the culture we live in will try to steal you from yourself, says the inimitable Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Every night, she says, you must steal yourself back. Every morning, come sunrise, full of a skein of star-thick dreams, you are your own once more. The night has made you wild. Your heart has moved the rivers of your blood through every bit of you as you dreamed quietly under a changing moon. The earth has turned on her axis in the great black ember-bed of the galaxy and the sun has climbed up over her rim to feed every last thing the warmth and light it needs.

May Morningstory help to keep you stolen back every morning, back inside the great, feral cup of your own heart.

I've written a full sample Morningstory vignette, and it's available for you to read over in my shop! The first cycle will begin on the new moon of July, the 16th.

The second is a long awaited and deeply treasured collaboration, called Kith & Kin Medicine, with the wondrous medicine maker, writer and dreamer, Asia Suler, of One Willow Apothecaries. Back around the solstice, a dream fell into my mind—Asia's medicine is always so full of story, so full of her own potent dreaming (truly, this woman is amazing), so full of threads and lands that resonate deeply in me. A vision came to me of a project in which Asia, in her wildwood witch way, would brew up a special medicine whose ingredients she kept secret from me. I would then take the medicine and write a story based on the visions, paths and beings that arose in my imagination through it.

We decided to call it Kith & Kin in honor of our own storied connection, in honor of the kinship between stories and plant medicine (stories, after all, are one of the oldest medicines we have), in honor of the lands and all their inhabitants which we both love and are devoted to, me in northern California, Asia in the mountains of North Carolina. Originally, the term Kith referred to the living land, the countryside upon which one lived, and so the phrase "kith and kin" meant family, friends, and all the wider relations in the more-than-human world. Asia puts it beautifully: "Named Kith & Kin Medicine for the wild lands that gave it life and the kinship (between medicine and makers and dreamers alike) that it arose from." This is a deeply co-created project that blurs the lines between story, stone, root, petal and word.

Today the collaboration officially began, under the dark moon of June. I sat down at my desk, cleared my heart and mind, took several drops upon my tongue, and let the sensations and images begin to flow in. For several days, I will make no attempts to grab at stories; I will simply sit with the medicine, and see what tidbits, seeds and feathers come in. I will get to know it. More than that I will not yet share, for it is a secret place, the early stirrings in the creative heart. As the project evolves and matures, we will be sharing little peaks into the journey, here, for you to follow and see. In the spirit of intuition and wild-heartedness, we have no set release date yet, though rest assured it will be within the summer season.

The end result will be a story in the mail and this vial of Asia's extraordinary, earth-moving medicine, for you to follow into your own heart of hearts.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Off the Train, into the Gooseberry Patch

Well, I had meant to share with you my long, slow train journey down through the heart of California to visit a dear friend in Santa Barbara--photographs of burnished gold hills and lone oaks, thick riparian corridors full of cottonwoods, strawberry fields green contrasting dust dry ridges, oil rigs off the coast, oil being pumped on the coast, old train shacks and herons in drainage canals amid the subdivisions, accompanied by my train scribbled musings from my notebook, my rambling thoughts about the stories of an older California to be glimpsed between drought-gold grasses and leaning oaks, sloughs and fog banks and ranch houses out in the open without cover for miles. About the soothing pace of trains, as compared to planes or cars. But alas, I've just lost everything off my computer since last December, due to a mysterious software failure and my own carelessness at having not looked into why my external hard-drive wasn't backing things up properly... So my photographs out train windows of blue sea and kelp beds, graffiti at the train stops and the sudden hills of San Luis Obispo--well, they are all gone, poof! Which is all a very good reminder of the strange unreality of all the things that exist here, on the internet, inside our computers, and how we relate to them. How we can get sucked very deeply into this odd dream-machine, which does the dreaming for us; how things lost here don't feel like things lost in physical reality--a photo album, say, or a collection of vinyls. It reminds me of the general attitude of disposability we have in our world, which informs how we relate to so many things. 

The blue kelp filled sea, the drought-dead cliffs of Santa Barbara (photograph courtesy of Elsinore Smidth Carabetta)
Luckily, of course, all of my stories and the three novels I've written to date were safely stored in emails. Those lost would have been devastating; but it reminds me that much of what I do on this computer is somewhat disposable, and shouldn't that be a lesson? I know I can take dozens of photographs, hundreds, and so each individual image becomes less precious. When we can read snippets of ten wonderfully written articles or stories at once, and a hundred more just beyond the click of a mouse, their value shifts. I don't know what to do about all of this; I'm only noticing, and pondering, and sulkily wishing I could share that photo of the train snaking around a long curve through the mountains with you, or the hellish beauty of an oil field north of San Luis Obispo as the sun set, illuminating the pumpjacks ceaselessly hauling oil from their wells like terrible chained creatures desperately doing their duty, and desperately hating it. What it is that oil means in our culture and world (speaking of disposability) and how that one field knew the whole story. 

I've been listening voraciously to a series of podcasts called Unlearn and Rewild, and in one interview, the eloquent Zen Master Dr. Susan Murphy Roshi says something to the effect of—"we are addicted to the absolutely extraordinary energy of oil, all the many, many things that oil can produce for us." This struck me very deeply; how powerful, how seductive, oil is, this ancient, deep-buried, condensed energy straight from sun in the dead bodies of primordial plants and animals--how much its power thrills us, even as it destroys us, like staring too long at that great sun. How can we treat such a thing as disposable? My god, it's the blood of time, and yet look how we treat it! Perhaps this is because, like many of the things stored on our computers or found on the internet, we don't interact with any of it directly, with our bodily senses; all of it is somehow abstracted. Even when I pump gas into my car, and a little spills, that toxic smell; still I can't feel in my body what oil really is—dug up refined primordial sunshine. It's too far gone for me to know it, and my lungs reject the scent.

Well. Instead of these things, what I am left with is a handful of photographs my dear old friend Elsinore took. How we scrambled down a dry creekbed and found a patch of wild mint, growing with more vigor and health than the mint in my garden has ever managed. How we gathered pocket-loads of black sage, which smells of sun and peace. 

How in that creekbed we found the most beautiful, robust wild gooseberries I've ever seen, striped like hard candies from another time. How we popped one, just one, out of its spiny skin and sucked the flesh and seeds like the squirrels. How tart-sweet, how utterly delightful.

Ribes amarum (bitter gooseberry)
How the ocean was warmer down south, and calmer, and when the sun came out, a dark lapis blue, heady with kelp beds, so different from the paler green-gray-blue of the ocean up here.

Perhaps all of this is to say that it is the small, sweet and slow things that keep us sane. Feet in the tide, hands full of sage and mint, tongue tart with gooseberries from the creekbed. How we value and love the things we can take in directly with our bodies and hearts. These, we will not toss aside. In the end, it is the things we make roots for that we will stand to save. We cannot save the world, but we can each strive to save home, and after all, together a hundred hundred million homes (of human, of seal, of fox, of spider) make a world.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

To Ring A Bell

In our garden, the earliest south-facing peaches, the ones that live next to the beehives, are a ripe riot of velvet and sweet. It seems that this year, the bees managed to pollinate just about every single flower, so the boughs are heavy and a little too crowded with small but glorious fruits. 

Fruit is made to be enjoyed by the tastebuds of animals, just like flowers are made to be enjoyed by the tastebuds of bees and butterflies and other nectar-lovers. Fruit is made to evoke pleasure, to make the tongue curl with sweet giddiness. Plants offer fruits like a great ringing of wedding bells to the palates of birds and foxes, bears and squirrels, mice and coyotes and humans alike. All of us, seduced by that chiming sweetness, help the fruit by carrying its seed off into the world, into new soil. This is an ancient pact, a primordial relationship; the earliest original fruit trees shaped us as much as we then shaped them. 

Their sweetness—the way a handful of fresh blackberries or the first bite of a perfect apricot is almost indecently sensuous, erotic even—knows us, wants us to enjoy it. After all, as Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells us, the word erotic in its essence means to be in relationship with. This is the original wild wedding: between body, tongue and the fruit of the land.

Apricots, ripening
The taste of fruit rings bells in our bodies older than our species, as old as tongues and stomachs and mammalian milk. It is sometimes hard for me to believe that our bodies have changed very little in the last 200,000 years of our history as Homo Sapiens. Our bodies were made wedded to the land, in deep relationship with the fruiting of fruits, the blooming of blooms, the coming and going of seasons, the calls of birds, the births of fawns, because all of these things were wired deep into our survival. We carry the same bodies and the same brains as those created in such a context; it is no wonder we find ourselves in trouble these days--globally, culturally, individually, emotionally, spiritually, physically. It is also no wonder that certain things ring bells in us older than words; that sometimes we feel our blood or our hearts stirred far deeper than the knowings of this lifetime. 

Certain plants draw us in when we need them (like this collection of friends from a walk in Point Reyes did me last week, a most excellent tea: nettle, horsetail, california poppy, alder leaf, monkeyflower); our bodies know their medicine, even if we've never even learned their names. Certain places—the marshy edges of bays, with a thick cover of alders—make us feel safe though we've hardly spent any time in them. The experience of examining animal tracks in sand--gray fox, river otter, bobcat, vole--makes us feel almost giddy with excitement, not just with the newness of it all, but with the deep familiarity too. 

It makes me feel comforted, safer somehow in this big strange modern world, to know that these relationships are still available all around us; that even if our minds are clouded or forget, even if we are overly dependent on our light switches and sleek computers, our cars and running water and grocery stores, our bodies still, after all this time, have systems of little bells that ring ring ring when an old connection is made, an old friend encountered (poppy, robin, peach), when the primordial beauty of earthen things is near. 

This, I think, is what Dr. Estés means by the erotic. A relationship with the living world that sets the body's bells ringing with memories both near and very far, memories as new as yesterday and as old as the mammalian placenta, or even older-- the bird's egg, the snake's nest. 

A lady anna's hummingbird has made her nest in the bamboo outside our bathroom window. In it, she's laid two eggs. She sits diligently every day, her fuschia throat a tiny jewel. To watch her, to praise her; this rings an ancient bell, an almost painful bell, in the heart.

The black phoebes have had children, now fledged, who sit on fence posts all throughout the garden, looking somewhat confused and cheeping loudly for food. Two very harried parents dart around after bugs and try to keep their children, who flap very clumsily, out of the sights of the cooper's hawk who makes an appearance every afternoon. They ring bells too.

The garden is alive fruit, with eggs, with tiny babies hidden in spidersilk nests (and, I suspect, nests made with fluffy bits of Hawthorn's wool). Sometimes I sit under the apricot tree (whose fruits are still green), and for a moment get this overwhelming sense of the pulse of life, just in this one big garden. It's a great bell, ringing. How many bird families are being raised around me. How many precious blossoms are now on their way to fruit. How many bees.

Kiwi flowers
"When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world."

-Mary Oliver

And so, in honor of bells and fruiting and the wild marriage of humans and land, I introduce June's full moon Tinderbundle, Bell. When Catherine Sieck (the Marvelous Mistress of all paper cut art) first sent me her extraordinary cut, inspired by a series of conversations we'd had about the theme, I was, as usual, blown away. In reply I sent her these words, which seem to touch on something essential about this bundle, something loose and free:

We are the seed of the fruit, stitched with that sweetness, dangling from the vine, the fruit plucked somehow our own heart and hearth...And these dancing faces--- I see them as masks; I see a great dance of humans masked like the giddy spirits of the earth, honoring the harvest, honoring our own many faces, from maid to mother to crone and all the ones between, lover and jester, fool and fiend, fruiting and dying and fruiting again within us. Dancing round fires, wassailing the orchards in masks that blend the worlds. How there is a pear in the heart. The stars as sacred fruit. The monkeys in our own limbs, our fruiting primordial roots in trees. 

So. June's Full Moon Tinderbundle, Bell, is about what it means to be the bride or bridegroom of the living land. What it means to be part of this feral fecund marriage. What it means to give your heart to the world, and your body too, in honor of the sensuous long days of a fruiting summer, in honor of the bells of joy that live inside every single one of our bodies, that ring in sympathy with the bells of all life, when they are first alight and alive within us. In honor, too, of the dying back that necessarily follows the fruiting, that nourishes the next season, and what new, ringing seeds may root there. 

As such, Catherine and I decided to time this Bundle to arrive in time for the full moon of June (the 2nd), instead of the new moon of May-- since the great Strawberry (or Rose) Moon is, in its silver fullness, its own great Bell.

It will be a chiming invocation of the bells that ring in our bodies; it will be a celebration of fruit, of the tales that exist the world over of children born in the pits of peaches, the cores of pears; it will be a love song and an incantation both.

It will also be the last Tinderbundle. 

Don't fear! There are many more things on the horizon, but this will be the last Tinderbundle in this form and under this particular name. Catherine and I have other projects simmering away, similar but simpler; and I have a few collaborations coming up with some beautiful herbalist women this summer... New fruits are ripening on the trees of the imagination as the seasons shift and sway.

So if you'd like a Tinderbundle this June; if you've been thinking about purchasing one but haven't gotten around to it, now would be the time! This bundle will also include, besides a story/poem and two prints, a silk scarf dyed with loquat leaves, a tin of gardener's hand salve made with herbs from my garden, and a tiny bell....

There are only 20 Bell Tinderbundles left! So hurry along here for yours!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Taking Elk Lines to the Elk Lines

Under the Beltane full moon, under the milk moon, I took the nearly completed manuscript of Elk Lines out to a little cabin on the Inverness Ridge, in Point Reyes, to walk it among the real elk lines of the land. It has been a wonderful and enlightening and sometimes challenging experience to send a novel out in parts every six weeks; it's the way Dickens and other Victorian novelists first wrote some of their own stories, and they too learned, long before me, that a novel written thus needs a good tighten once it's done. 

I edited with red pen on the shores of ocean and bay, hoping that I was leaving space, by carrying the manuscript out thus, for the land to have its say. To make sure my words do as much justice as they can to this place. 

There were flowers to be gathered on roadsides to honor the big old moon, and little clamshells to be treasured, for their humble history of nourishment.

The fog was in thick, so thick out on Tomales Point that it did indeed walk with elk hooves, holding everything in a damp palm.

I left bits of juniper from the Sierras in the pawprints of a gray fox I sat beside for an afternoon, pen scribbling away, tightening and cutting and smoothing the story into a new whole. It is a precious place, where a gray fox paw has touched the earth. 

The irises are still a riot of bloom. I don't know how they sustain their delicate purple petals under as much a sun as we've been having. They are so hardy.

I contemplated the three mile, ten foot tall elk fence which bisects the southern portion of Tomales Point, keeping the tule elk in. This fence was erected due to the fact that there are dairy ranches right on the other side, and a tenuous relationship between park land and dairy land, environmental interests and ranching interests... and elk, roaming totally free, eat the grass meant for cows! But something very sad has happened in the last three years, something I only learned in the past week. Over half the 500 tule elk on Tomales Point have died. That's 250 dead elk, in a span of three years. The reason is the drought, but it is a manmade reason-- since the elk can't leave to find year round streams, they're stuck with old cattle ponds that have since gone dry. So over three years, half the elk have slowly parched to death. This is really quiet cruel.  (Note also that the elk that roam free in the southern portions of Point Reyes, near Muddy Hollow and Limantour, have survived the drought in a more regular fashion, since they can travel to find water. In those areas, however, they come into frequent conflict with dairy farms, because they're good at jumping fences! It seems to me that the cows have more than enough room... I'm sure you can guess whose side I'm on here!)

People will argue-- oh, they don't have enough predators out there, some are bound to die in a drought, etc, etc. This may be true. But there's a deeper point--one of relationship, and of responsibility. We make the elk our responsibility by unnaturally fencing them in. And yet a cow, or a dog, would never be left to die of thirst. What does this say about the family of things, and attitude toward it? What is the "value" of an elk, and what is the "value" of a cow?

There is of course the even deeper issue-- who has the right to this land? Yikes. A big topic, a controversial topic. There is a lot of pride around the heritage of dairy farms throughout Point Reyes, and I respect and support this heritage, and all the families it has supported. However, cows may have been here for 200 years, but elk-- thousands, thousands, thousands. Who has the right to this land? It is a question that hurts in me; I love this place deeply, but I don't feel I have a right to it. If I could, I'd give it all back to the native people who cared for it best, people who are almost gone. But then, what would I love? Where would I settle down? It's an unanswerable riddle, but just airing it sometimes feels helpful. And it seems we can only earn our place somewhere if we love and respect all of the beings to whom it belongs, human interests only an equal slice in the pinwheel of needs and niches.

Anyway. I had a startling thought as I studied the elk fence from afar, noting the stark line of shorn grass on the cow side. I wondered if, a year ago when I visited this place with Asia Suler, the first stirrings of Elk Lines just beginning in me, when I first asked the place to guide my writing hand with whatever new project needed to come through-- I wondered if the elk, already dying of drought, had in some way spoken. Tell our story. Tell our story. Asia and I buried a quartz crystal in a patch of iris where we watched a herd of female elk and their calves graze. I knew with certainty on that day that my next story would be about elk. It became very clear. I thought of that quartz often as I wrote, hoping I was writing true. In my story, the elk are dying of disease, spread from the cows. I had no idea the elk of Point Reyes were truly dying in any unnatural way at all, until now. I wonder if this is partly why this story came.

I hope desperately I can do them justice in whatever humble way I can manage. Even if it is "all in the balance," and the "natural order of things," half the population here is dead. Brother elk, sister elk, son elk, mother elk.  Dead too fast. Don't think they do not mourn one another. It is dangerous, when we forget this. When we trick ourselves into thinking animals have no emotions, and therefore death by thirst is no big deal. I read once that when Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist, heard a father beaver discover that his dam with mate and babies inside had been destroyed, the keening sound he made long into the night, circling and circling, was the most heart breaking noise Krause had ever heard. It reduced him to tears. He instantly recognized, in the part of him that was no different than the beaver, the sound of animal grieving.