Friday, August 15, 2014

Elk Lines: The Stamps & the Story-Cases

On Saturday August 2nd, Lughnasadh, the inaugural mailing of Elk Lines began its arrival from here to Australia and back again. This time, much to my pleasure, all of the stamps on the envelopes were my own design... for of course I needed a strange elk with a hand on his belly, Old Sally's tea kettle and the alder-burl teacup of the Elk People, the Point Reyes Peninsula itself, a lupine flower, a California poppy. My several months' Gathering Time inspired in me enough confidence to begin using more of my humble sketching and watercoloring skills to enhance and decorate these Wild Tale offerings...and how liberating and satisfying it feels! I tend to draw very much from things I see, unlike in my writing life; it is a nice change for my brain I think, and I find I've learned the details of certain plants, landscapes and animals really well only through the act of sketching.

This new project of mine, this Elk Lines, is among other things (besides being a retelling of the Handless Maiden story) a deep exploration of the songlines and storylines of the Point Reyes Peninsula, its animals, plants, stones, waters, winds. So the stamp of the Peninsula herself is a particular favorite of mine; she is her own nomad creature, roaming ever north.

Here is an excerpt, to give those of you not subscribed a flavor and a feeling of this strange and many-faceted novel...

It is very simple. There is a doorway on the western edge of Tomales Point, where a line of granite stones, millennia old, bisects a footpath carved first by elk and native human feet, then, much later, by Spanish longhorn cattle, then the dairy ranching Pierce family, and later still, the National Park Service. Naturally, the doorway is difficult to see except in a particular slant of sun or moon, while the tide far down to the west reaches a particular degree of zenith.
 That’s where the Elk People came from. They sprinkled ocean salt, removed their shoes and held them in one hand, right foot first, and refrained from sneezing, though Old Sally later joked with her even older husband Mino that she might have ruined it all had she not plugged her nose, looked away from the sun, and made her cataracts very much worse for the effort. Nursing babies were pulled temporarily off the breast. Antonia and Zsusannah sang the offering songs—of fog, of elephant seal, of badger, of lupine, of ghost—and even the elk, weighted though they were with tents and kettles, fiddles, pots, pans and skins, stepped softly. When they were all through—twenty-nine men, women and children, nine elk, and one grizzly bear with a cub who had only just learned to walk—Antonia closed the door and locked it with a bone key. It is best to keep such doors closed, on the whole; one never knows who might stumble the wrong way to here or there.
The Elk People arrived on the morning of the first summer fog. In Point Reyes, as in much of coastal California, summer was not a neat three months in a seasonal round of twelve, nor was spring, nor winter, nor fall. Summer began when the last of the rain was gone from the bellies of the grasses, and the hills went gold, the color of mountain lion haunches and elk withers. Summer began when the pink clarkias and pearly everlasting flowers bloomed inside that dryness, and the fog began to roll in almost every morning along the coast, holding the wild beaches of Limantour and Drake, North, South, Abbott, Kehoe, McClure, with shifting, salt-sweet white. Summer began also when the last golden-crowned sparrows left for the northern tundras and the frequency of their mournful songs was replaced by the fecund trill of the just-arrived Swainson’s thrushes.
So the Elk People did not arrive in summer, exactly, but rather on the morning when summer first hinted again of her existence within the brief green hills of spring: a hip of fog along the Inverness Ridge that moved down its canyons like cloth unfurled from a woman’s hands. It was a morning in mid-April, when the wildflowers—baby blue eyes, irises, shooting stars, ground lupines, cream cups—were still at the height of their lives and pounced hourly by pollen-drunk bees, no hint of withering or yellowing yet at their petals. Only the faintest blush of gold had appeared on the south-facing slope of Black Mountain, which rose to the east of Point Reyes Station like a knuckled fist.

I am now hard at work on the second installment, which will arrive on September 21st, the fall equinox. This is also when the next round of new subscriptions will go out, so you are welcome to join in the elk-hoofed caravan and receive your first Elk Lines on the fall equinox! The whole thing works on a rolling basis... You can sign up here. 

I find I write best when the work of the mind is balanced with the work of the hands, as I've written many times by now. So I've also been felting and embroidering story-cases, to hold said Elk Lines.

These days, my studio desk is increasingly a haystack.

And since I was embroidering while using a haystack as a desk and textile studio combined, with hay everywhere underfoot, I learned the true meaning of trying to find a needle in a haystack. Let me tell you, this is a very frustrating experience. Needles glint just like hay when the sun is on them. They vanish immediately, even if you think your eyes have followed them to the ground. I lost at least two, and felt rather stupid, since it was after all my own fault, sitting in a hay-pile while sewing. I did, however, also find my needle in the haystack at least once, which made me feel like a fairytale luck had momentarily been bestowed upon me by the watching bushtits, or perhaps the mysterious hay itself.

Lost needles aside, sewing is much more interesting when done outside. These story-cases were felted and sewn as the towhees and hummingbirds watched, as the sun changed and the fog rolled in and the wind blew.

Some are naturally dyed an olive green with coyote brush, while others I kept the natural browns and whites of their wool.

I can imagine Old Sally or Antonia with such a felted case strapped to the side of their elk. When unrolled, it would reveal not envelopes full of stories but something far more mysterious and strange; I shall leave that tale up to you!

And so there you have it, a taste of these Elk Lines in word, image and textile. This story seems to want to come out of me through all possible mediums; and what a delicious feeling that is, to feel engaged hand and heart with it in this way with a tale, and to be able to share it all with you.

If you missed the link above, and would like to look more closely at these story-cases, follow along here. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hands & Hearth: Elder In the Heart of the Volcano

During the week of Lughnasadh, my love and I visited the heart of that old, sideways volcano called Sibley, up in the dry coyotebrush hills. In the late spring, I had noticed that right there, in the center of that quarried landscape once volcanic, once grazed by American camels and strange, trunked horses, grew a small and hardy elderberry. It felt like some old enchantment to me, that this lone elderberry was growing in the heart of a fallen volcano, and so I made a note to leave her umbels of white flowers, and come back in late summer for those berries.

Something about an elderberry elixir put away for winter colds and flus, grown on the dry soil of an ancient volcano, feels deeply healing, as if the old songs of the volcano might somehow echo in the hollow branches of the elderberry. Who knows what her roots gather in that deep down soil; what stories they hear.

The elderberry also grows at the entrance of a labyrinth created four decades ago by a woman who walked her goats in these hills. A small seep runs seasonally along the edge of the quarry-bottom, and so a stand of tules grows to the north, and a stand of willows to the south. The elder must gather some of this moisture too.

There is a strange poetry about the place to me; that a quarry happened to open the heart of a volcano so that now, people come to walk a labyrinth there, where magma and ash are somehow mixed into the soil and stone. The elderberry has a timelessness about her that is suited to such a place; so much Northern European lore tells of the dryads and fairy beings, elven folk and old witch women associated with elders, how they may be doorways to other realms on full moon nights. But my favorite of all magics associated with the elderberry comes from the beliefs of the native California Indian people, specifically the Coast Miwok, told to me by Malcolm Margolin of Heyday books. Below is an excerpt from a book I co-authored with him called Wonderments of the East Bay, coming out this fall, detailing some of this magic...

"When the elderberry flowers bloomed in heady umbels, this signaled to the native people of the Bay Area the end of the shellfish season. No more could be gathered until the elderberry flowers turned to dusty black berries at the cusp of summer and fall. In between, during the dry summer months, shellfish were subject to the red tides caused by algal blooms, which turned them toxic for human consumption. {....} The elderberry is a doorway of sorts out of the shackles of mechanical time, back into the rhythms of natural time that are dictated by such mysteries as the moment of blossom, the moment the golden-crowned sparrow returns, the moment of fruit. The elderberry was also a more literal time-keeper in the older world of native California. Her light branches were made into clapper sticks. For every dance, those elderberry sticks beat out the rhythm, they sounded the time to the music, to the dancer’s feet. And so she both marks the passage of time, and measures it, beat by beat.

The world over, elderberry’s hollow branches have been also been used as delicate flutes— in fact, the name Sambucus comes from the ancient Greek sambuke, a stringed musical instrument, likely made from elderberry wood, as were other European instruments. Here, in native California, elderberry flutes were used for courting. It was said that in order to pick just the right branch for flute-making and wooing, you had to find the tree with music in it. And in order to find just that elder, you waited for a windless day, and then you wandered until you found an elderberry with a leaf moving in the still air. Such a tree had music held inside. Such a tree reminds us that it is the world itself in which music resides; we don’t impose it, we only do our best to coax it out. And when we do, that music weaves us back in again to the flow of elderberry-time, and gives us a glimpse of the calendar of the living land."

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Notes from the Wild Folk: Coyote, Her Fur, and the Flowers of the Dunes

Out at Abbott's Lagoon, where the summer fogs hang thick and a family of river otters splashes through the fresh blue water, there is a narrow path at the base of a great sand dune, flanked on the other side by cattails and lagoon, where not so long ago a bobcat patrolled up and down on the regular, presumably from a resting place in the willows, catching marsh birds, the mice who run the dunes, the rabbits out in the scrub.

Recently, I heard tell from other trackers that there seemed to have been a change of guard—the bobcat seemed to have gone elsewhere. Yesterday, a tracking friend and I went rambling along the lagoon edge and through the dunes. We followed the trail where once the bobcat(s) walked. The tracks in the sand were loose and indistinct, and we could not determine whether they were bobcat or coyote. The tiny footprints of deer mice skittered everywhere. 

Then, we began to find small clumps of fur. 

Above is the largest clump we found. All of them contained some combination of coarse, sturdy, long guard hairs banded black, white, golden or rust, and a rough, wavier undercoat. Guard hairs are generally the hairs that lend an animal's coat its characteristic color, while also wicking away moisture and retaining body heat.

Whoever was scratching herself, snagging on bushes, or shedding, she left an excellent trail! I've never tracked by bits of fur before, but when we crawled into a thicket of willows that comprised the entrance to some sort of resting place, or den, or hideaway, we found several more matching guard hairs caught on the bark or in the humus below our hands and knees.

Guardian oak (or poison oak) characteristically guarded the thicket about seven feet in, so we didn't make it very far, but the stiff guard hairs in our fingers were like little treasures, with the story of a recent creature's passage in them.

We didn't want to linger long, because we felt we were trespassing on someone's secret and guarded front doorstep. (And what a doorstep! You can see the willows below to the left, and the beginning of the lagoon to the far right.)

While it is always a good idea to keep the mind and heart full of questions and myriad possibilities when tracking, and while I am no expert in the identification of small scraps of fur, we were very much reminded of the pelage of the coyote as we examined the hairs, and felt their coarseness. That banded black-cream-rust color very much matches the general coloration of these clever, quick beings. 
Coyote portrait, by Christopher Bruno
Out on the great sand-dune above the willow-den, where the coyotes sidetrot, the bobcats prowl, the deer wander, the deer mice skitter, the raccoons amble, all leaving the stories of their passage in lettered trails, we sat for a time amidst this netted skein of wild lives. At our feet, the dune strawberries made their own constellated nets, somehow surviving on sand, in salty air.

Tiny dune primroses (a fraction of the size (probably 1/10th!) of the evening primroses so similar in appearance that are flourishing in the garden) reached out through the sand and bloomed their bright primrose yellow. They must be drinking the salty fog alone, for there is no other water here at this time of year. 

Together, it seems to me that the dune strawberries and dune primroses must know the secret stories and lives of the animals who pass through the sand at dusk and dawn and the middle of the night; they probably know if it is a coyote or a bobcat who, for a little while, rules over the willow patch with its magnificent front porch. 

And we wondered, all along—was there a coyote watching us from just beyond, in the thick scrub of the hills, bemused that we would crawl on all fours into her hideaway, and take a few of her hairs like pieces of an old enchantment?

For Coyote is a wise old Creator, and knows well the ways of humans...

There is an old story says the world was made by Coyote, who got stranded at the top of Mt. Diablo when the ocean waters were high and right up around its craggy neck. He threw down mats of tule. These became land. He blew feathers from his paws, different kinds, and these became people. His wife, little Frog Woman, helped him, swimming. The world, born right out of Mt. Diablo, a womb of schist and granite, silica, sandstone and coal. The world, held up in the paws of Coyote, nudged gently by Frog.
There is an old story says once there was no death in the world, but Coyote brought it, saying yes you will hate me for this, but how else will there be renewal? How else can we all fit?
There is an old story says Coyote lost his daughter, and went to the Land of the Dead to bring her home again, alive, but in the last moment, carrying her up a mountain, he slipped, he looked back at her, he lost her truly, forever. Then, he cursed the laws he had made, but it was too late to change them, and so he howled long, knowing now the sorrow of humans.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Patchwork Coat of Muses: The Fiddler & the Bear

The Fiddler, by Kai Fjell
When the Fiddler came to town we turned the biggest of the empty barns into a stage. We sisters painted it the dark green of the fir trees on the ridge where the Fiddler walked from, himself as long as a fiddle bow, with a young face and old hands. It was a rare person could play that instrument well, and everyone had heard about this Fiddler, though nothing of his name or his story, only that he had been passing through, town by town, and each place he played was not the same afterward. 

Our town is far out of the way, up a hill beyond the fir forest. Even people who are lost hardly find us, and they are good at finding the unexpected. We are known for our creeks lined with nettles tall to the neck, and the cloth we weave from them. 

A little boy saw him coming from a distance, on the road several miles away. The boy was up a fir tree, looking for robin eggs, smelling the sap, feeling the sun. We sisters had already started our painting, but we had not thought he'd come so soon. The green paint wasn't dry by the time the Fiddler arrived. He had long legs. 

When he played that evening, nobody could let their skirts or their hats touch the walls. Some of us left with green streaks on our clothes and our arms anyway, and those patches of green would always remind us later. Not just of his playing, which filled the whole barn so that there was no room to move even a hair, which danced and mourned and capered and swayed with the tone of water and of wind, of stone, of the embered hearth, of what it must sound like as roots grow, which moved with the mourning of the lost world in it. Not just of his strange boyish face, his hair a color we had not seen, gold as the summerdry hills; not just his arms long as fiddle bows and his hands old and lined as a grandfather's, his plain-woven wool coat and pants patched of a hundred pieces, his dark shoes the finest black leather we had ever seen, his kind, pale eyes. Not just of the way we all wept for the things we loved, for our losses, for our childhoods in the treetops now gone from us forever, and for some greater, inexplicable sadness that lives like a seed in ever human heart. 

No, those green streaks of paint from the barn where the Fiddler played would remind us, above all things, of what happened after, when we stepped, weeping and dazed, back out into the air, into the night which had since fallen, full of stars, and saw that our town was overgrown with one hundred year's worth of blackberry vines, our houses mounds of thorn. Some were split in two by firs that had been only saplings that afternoon.

We had none of us aged more than a few hours, but we had been gone for a century. There were great grizzled brown bears feasting on the berries growing over our houses. Bears, and nobody had seen one since before the Fall of the world. Bears, with the weight of all that time on their backs. The Fiddler was nowhere to be seen, and we were left in the dark, our clothes streaked green, watching the bears move, like great furred mirrors of ourselves, through the waist-high grass where once had been the town square.
The Bear Who Couldn't Bear, by Trisha Thompson Adams

Monday, August 4, 2014

Hands & Hearth: Shorn

Every two to three moons, the venerable Hawthorn must stand to have his fur shorn. I know it is not nearly so great a thing to shear a rabbit as it is to shear a sheep—and I've at least gotten as far as flipping a ram and holding him still with my knees, his horns to one side, which was so difficult it made my legs almost give out—but I am still getting used to the process, and so is Hawthorn. With an angora, it is very important not to delay when the wool starts coming out all over the hutch, because they are prone to "wool block" (essentially an enormous fur ball in the gut which they cannot cough up like a cat, and which will cause them to starve to death if not noticed soon enough—and rabbits like to hide any discomfort until the last moments, likely a survival tactic from those days, still close to the surface of their skin, when they were wild). So although he isn't very keen once I reach his chest or his belly, and I haven't yet managed to flip him on his back—apparently rabbits will go "tharn," to use a word from Watership Down (a state of paralyzed fear) when held down on their backs, which makes me feel awfully bad, and between that and Hawthorn's fierce claws, so far it can't be done—I can report that I am getting better at it. And so is he.

This past new moon, I sheared his wool for the third time, managing to cut it much closer, and preserve longer hanks of the lustrous stuff. I didn't actually mean to align the shearing with the phase of the moon, but I do hope the serendipity of it will encourage his wool to grow back thick and strong, as it does our own, and the seeds we sow. It took me until this round of shearing to really relax, and of course, once I am calm, so is Hawthorn. 

Hawthorn came into our lives because I was enamored of the idea of keeping a small creature whose wool I could shear to spin yarn. I did not anticipate quite how much I would fall in love with him, so that the act of shearing has become also an act of reverence—that this little being, fed nasturtiums and comfrey and raspberry leaves, and let loose to have adventures through the yard, creates upon his back every season a crop of the most silken thick fur imaginable. What a gift, what bounty! I'm sure those who keep animals feel the same—that there is something miraculous about the generosity of this exchange, no matter the histories of domestication. That the bees produce honey and the goats milk, the chickens eggs, and though some may argue coercion and domination in this pact, at our best I think these relationships humble us and remind us that we can't do this thing, this human thing, alone. Whether we are hunters or farmers, we take from the land and the animals in order to live; we need them, desperately. And we also need to be in right relation to them. But that's a story for another day, a deep and tangled one.

As for angoras, the harvest of their wool (which of course has some very negative sides in commercial settings) has more the ring of a strange, far northern, mountainous fairy tale about it. Hawthorn's is so soft and thick it lifts away from my fingers in the slightest wind. According to what seems to me a mildly legendary piece of history (for nobody is quite certain), angoras originated in the Carpathian mountains, probably in a slightly less furry state, and were tended there by mountain tribes who found their wool to be very warm and softer than that of the goats they also kept. Much later, in the 1700's, angoras found their way to France and England aboard Turkish ships bound from the port of Ankara, hence the name.

I don't know if this is true, but I do know that angora wool is so hot spun and knitted up into a sweater on its own that such a garment is unwearable, except in literally arctic or high mountain winters. Angora is better blended with wool, or made into smaller items, such as hats and scarves and gloves.

In any case, here it is, part of the Hawthorn harvest, his wool a tri-color, silken gift with the echoes of mountain bells and snowy peaks within it. What gratitude I feel, for the fur of animals.

And here he is, looking like a raggedy hare, except for his back end, which still needs one more trim. I think he's pleased, because now he can romp through the deep bushes and emerge with slightly fewer burrs and bits of leaves stuck all over the place. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Juniper Way & Some Changes Afoot

A year or so ago, I wrote here about one of my very favorite books, Wise Child, by Monica Furlong. Those ramblings sum up rather well my adoration for the wisdom, the wildness, the strange beauty, of that slim book. Since around that time, a little phrase, "the Juniper Way"  has hung about my heart and mind, my feet and my hands like a guiding light. I can't articulate precisely what walking the Juniper Way means, but it is surely a way, as in the Taoist concept of the term. It is inspired by the wise Juniper, mentor to Wise Child, who is a doran. 

Juniper and Wise Child, from the cover of Wise Child

Juniper explains to Wise Child that a doran is the true word for what she is (not a witch, which can mean many things, and only sometimes what doran means). She tells Wise Child that a doran is one who has found a way into seeing or perceiving, and that the word comes from the old Gaelic root dorus, an entrance, gate or way. When Wise Child asks what is seen or perceived by these dorans, Juniper tells her "the pattern," and I imagine she means the great web of connection between all beings, that hitches the bobcat to the brush rabbit to the oatgrass to the dry soil to the earthworm to the magma heart of the earth, and the other way too, from the bobcat to the fir tree its carcass will one day feed to the oxygen the fir tree makes and the moon far above. And us, too, tangled somewhere in the middle of it all. 

When Wise Child asks what dorans do, Juniper then tells her: Some of us do healing things, like me and my herbs. Some of us sing, or write poetry, or make beautiful things. Some don't do anything at all. They often stay in one place, and they just know [...] how things are" (83). 

Each day, she schools Wise Child subtly in the ways of the doran. They gather herbs together, process them, milk the goat, learn the stars, the old stories of the world, the lives of animals. They engage deeply, joyfully, and with great hard work, with the simple everyday tasks of life, from sweeping to root-scrubbing to wildcrafting. 

Pearly Everlasting along the Muddy Hollow Trail-- a native summer medicine!

I try to bring the wisdom of Juniper into my every day, and so I've decided to share a bit of that Way in a slightly more orderly manner here. If you all enjoy, I shall carry on with it! My plan is to have three to four different themes, under which I will post new thoughts and images two to four times per week (!). They will obviously be little bit shorter than usual! And yes, things are going to be much busier around here than before...

The categories are as follows: 

Catskin, by Arthur Rackham

Patchwork Coat of Muses— in which inspirations, learnings, and small scraps of my own stories are shared. This will generally mean passages from wonderful books, ranging from fiction to ancient, medieval & indigenous history, ecology, natural history, folklore, etc. The personal writings will generally come from my morning exercises, in which I often choose a painting (from all over the place) or symbol (from my Book of Symbols) to spin a small yarn. (Wise Child learning astronomy, geography, poetry, calligraphy...)

Hands & Hearthin which makings of the hand, held within the sphere of hearth and home, are explored, from felting to embroidering, herbalism, spinning, plant-dyeing, rabbit-tending. Tea too. (Wise Child milking the cow, sweeping the floor, learning to weave and dye, tending the herbs in the garden)

Notes from the Wild Folkin which the Songlines of the wild land beyond my back yard are explored, from the tracks of coyotes, brush rabbits and ravens to the fruiting of the manzanita bushes, and the language of wrentit, towhee, robin, & more, and their places in the great web of being. (Wise Child and Juniper wandering the woods and heath, wildcrafting and learning the ways of the animals and plants of the self-willed land beyond the fence.)

Elk Linesin which I share more occasional explorations of my latest Wild Tales by Mail project, this rewilding of the Handless Maiden fairy tale. Insights into the process, excerpts and some illustrations will be posted like small windows into this strange writerly realm. 

And finally, I would like to invite all of you dear and blessed readers to come join the strange blue gathering-place of my new Facebook page for Wild Talewort. This was a very big and difficult decision for me. I have resisted and avoided this for many, many years. Sometimes I want to throw in the towel and flee from the entire internet, for the way it dissociates and deadens, distracts and destroys, as much as it also connects and empowers individuals, artists, activists, in ways never seen before. And yet I must thank it, that I can make my living and my path as a tale-weaver in this world. This is an enormous blessing, a great gift, and sometimes a very difficult way to walk, let me tell you! 

And yes, surely Juniper had no blog, no Facebook, no none of it, but this is the world in which I live, and you live, and I am trying to navigate it the best I can, because it is where we all seem to increasingly gather. I know it is a very complicated and fraught issue, but at the end of the day I say to myself—yes indeed, old girl, you & your love could run off alá Juniper to the woods and meadows happily for the rest of your days, making do, milking goats, growing herbs, tending fires, off the human grid and deep in the wild grid (no easy feat, I should, and also one that I do dream of, and see somewhere down the line, if a bit far off), and maybe one day the world will shift and these Internet webs will be no more, nor many of the structures we so depend on. But for now, I am a writer, and a tale-maker, and it is no fun writing stories for yourself, nor is that quite the point, not in my heart. So there you have it, and here I am, on the Book of Faces, trying very hard not to run away again with my tail between my legs in terror. Do come and say hello!

If you would like to read some truly brilliant and more in-depth thoughts about said Book of Faces (a term I borrowed from Rima Staines), come along and read her excellent post on the subject here. You won't regret it. 

And you can expect the first of these Juniper Way sharings tomorrow!