Saturday, April 19, 2014

Poetry In the Beaks of the Woodpeckers

"Sun, moon, mountains and rivers are the writing of being, the literature of what-is. Long before our species was born, the books had been written. The library was here before we were. We live in it. We can add to it, or we can try; we can also subtract from it. We can chop it down, incinerate it, strip mine it, poison it, bury it under our trash. But we didn't create it, and if we destroy it, we cannot replace it. Literature, culture, pattern aren't man-made. The culture of the Tao [the path, the street, the natural inevitable Way] is not man-made, and the culture of humans is not man-made; it is just the human part of the culture of the whole.

"When you think intensely and beautifully, something happens. That something is called poetry. If you think that way and speak at the same time, poetry gets in your mouth. If people hear you, it gets in their ears. If you think that way and write at the same time, then poetry gets written. But poetry exists in any case. The question is only: are you going to take part, and if so, how?


"Poetry is what I start to hear when I concede the world's ability to manage and to understand itself. It is the language of the world: something humans overhear if they are willing to pay attention, and something that the world will teach us to speak, if we allow the world to do so."

-Robert Bringhurst, from his beautiful essay"Poetry and Thinking," in The Tree of Meaning

The first time I read this essay, it took my breath away. It hit me right in the heart--poetry, as the Way or the Language of the living wild world. Poetry is what I see and then what moves in me because of the beauty or the bigness or the mystery of the life around me. Bringhurst explores in the beginning of the piece how the word "poetry" comes from the Greek verb meaning "to do" or "to make. He writes:

"Does this imply that poetry is made by human beings? That it only exists because of us? I think, myself, that making and doing are activities we share with all other animals and plants and with plenty of other things besides. The wind on the water makes waves, the interaction of the earth and the sun and moon makes tides, sun coming and going on the water and the air makes clouds, and clouds make rain, and the rain makes rivers, and the rivers feed the lakes and other rivers and the sea from which the sun keeps making clouds, and there is plenty of poetry in that, whether or not there are any human beings here to say in iambic pentameter or rhyming alexandrines that they see it and approve" (page 141, The Tree of Meaning).



I love this idea. I love the feeling it brings into my whole body and mind: that poetry is somehow the very dance of life around us; that poetry is the bracken fern unfurling a fiddlehead, the grass and its bright green, the Douglas firs and their new tips; the stars and the fog and the moon moving over my head while sleeping out in the down-sleeping bag, sheathed in wool (to be fair, regarding said sleeping-under-the-stars, I ended up moving under the oaks before dark because the fog was thick and the trees keep you nice and dry, but in the cushion of that duff forest floor, a different sort of night-poetry emerged: the poetry of the wee woodrat who lived in the tree, going about her nightly forage!).

I spent last weekend out in the big green hills near Occidental, in Western Sonoma County, a few ridges away from the ocean. I'm participating in a 9-month women's wilderness skills immersion program, and so around each full moon, I join a dozen other women on the land, learning fire-making and hide-tanning and basket-weaving, deepening my plant medicine knowledge, my understanding of bird language of animal tracking, all the while watching this one wild space transform through the seasons, trying to train my ear to its own myriad Poetries.

Below are a handful of those Poems, along with my  "Earth Constellation" sketches for April 12-13th — that cluster of blooms and bird-cycles, weather and mammal-song that together make up the poem of a place under a particular moon. I suppose these journal scribblings and watercolorings are an attempt to gesture toward the Poetry of What-Is.


Wild turkey feathers scattered clean over the ground, the leftovers of some nourishing meal. There were very fine scratch marks on some of the feathers, not photographed alas, which put me in mind of a bobcat--razor-thin, about the width of a stretched cat-paw. The next morning, the turkeys in their tree roosts woke us with their bouncing gobble-songs. How sweet, to wake up laughing at the laughter of turkey calls, how they sung out the dawn almost before any other bird, their big voices carrying far down the hills to other woods, where other turkey voices joined in. 


The fresh throw-mound of a gopher and her tunnel entrance, round as a dark moon. I'm not sure I've ever come across a tunnel as fresh as this one. The earth was a little bit warm and damp, lush as fresh cacao nibs, deliciously aerated. A single tiny bulb of some little grass or flower sat at the entrance, like a gift. I was very moved for some reason by this damp fresh doorway into the earth, and so I came back with madrone flowers in an acorn-cap and left them near the entrance. I know--a gopher doesn't want to eat madrone flowers. In fact I wonder now if I scared her, because when I came back the next day, as this photo shows, the entrance was closed up, as if it had never been there. Gophers, however, do block up their tunnels when they are no longer in use--and the area was covered in many mounds of dirt with no holes in sight--so perhaps it was coincidental, and such a treat to see. The Poetry of the Gopher who brings aeration to the great rolling hills (along with her sister moles and badgers and voles).



Pacific madrones in bloom. This sentence is surely its own poem. I've grown up around these muscled, silken-trunked trees, with their gorgeous red berries and their peeling bark (I always imagined the fallen pieces were scrolls! And now I know too that soaked, they make a beautiful face wash)... but for some reason this is the first year I've encountered a tree so fully in bloom, so heavy with lantern white blossoms, that the air everywhere around was thick with the smell of honey and vibrating with the buzzing of ecstatic bees. Truly, this madrone intoxicated me.


Her tiny white-bell blossoms turned all of her edges creamy, a glow.



As I sat there in the curls of fallen bark, in the dry leaves of nearby oaks, having my lunch, beneath the great buzzing sound was this tender drop-drop of the spent blossoms as they fell, the ones whose pollination was complete. They fell constantly, a gentle rain, a honeyed snow.


Acorn woodpeckers cackling in their quick flights between old fir snags. The snags stand like ancient towers, riddled with little holes made by the family groups of acorn woodpeckers, where they stuff thousands of said acorns, storing them for winter, their voices echoing like clownish laughter through the trees. Here are there are the bigger, older holes of pileated woodpeckers, the acorn's more staid and larger cousins, with their regal red mohawks.


In studies done in the Puget Sound, it was discovered that the holes drilled by pileated woodpeckers created habitat for more than 80 other species of mammal and bird. I love this idea--the woodpeckers carving homes in the dead trees, and those snags as crucial pieces of habitat, dead in one sense, but utterly teeming with life in another, reborn at the beaks of birds, the little mouths of insects, the dangling glory of the deeply medicinal usnea.


Yellow and purple wildflowers a carpet that lifts the soul to flying. I don't know who these tiny yellow ones are, amidst the bluedicks, but sometimes giving a human name doesn't matter much, compared to the welling-up sun in the heart. And that meeting of yellow and purple-- oh! In Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass, she writes about her own love affair with the meeting of yellow and purple wildflowers--goldenrod and asters. As both a trained botanist and a Native woman, she tries to tease out the concept of beauty, how it might function biologically: "Bees perceive many flowers differently than humans do due to their perception of additional spectra such as ultraviolet radiation. As it turns out though, goldenrod and asters appear very similarly to bee eyes and human eyes. We both think they're beautiful. Their striking contrast when they grow together makes them them the most attractive target in the whole meadow, a beacon for bees. Growing together, both receive more pollinator visits than they would if they were growing alone." (Page 46)



The fog coming in from the ocean at night with the songs of gray whales and their young travelling north again in its salty arms. 

Closer to that coast, and a bit south, at the edge of the Point Reyes peninsula, under the gentle firs, the miner's lettuce, chickweed and cleavers are still growing lush and huge. The green tongue of the shade. Those succulent leaves are so green, the photosynthesizing chlorophyll seems to positively sing! How miraculous to remember that plants consume the sun, so very literally. I know it's obvious, but sometimes I forget the wonder that this statement really holds. Plants eat sun. So often I feel that this language of mine does not hold enough words to adequately evoke the muscled livingness of the world beyond-the-human.


"English is a noun-based language, somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent. Which means that 70 percent of the words have to be conjugated, and 70 percent have different tenses and cases to be mastered. [....] A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa— to be a bay—releases the water from bondage and lets it live. 'To be a bay' holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise—become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive" (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, pages 53-55).


To be a water-lily. To be a pond floating with orange-bellied newts. 


To be a golden-crowned sparrow, getting ready right now to fly far north to the tundras of Alaska, to build a nest of bark and fern and the fur of caribou. To be a golden-crowned sparrow, hatched in a pale-green egg in a bed of caribou fur, flying yearly between the olive and walnut trees out my attic window to the flowered summer-fields of the northern tundras.


To be the blooming avenues of cow parsnip. 


To be a coastal Douglas fir, velvet-lush with new green tips. 


To be a thimbleberry, flowering through the spring into the heart of summer. 


And so there you have it, a little taste of the Poetry of What-Is that has been moving through my days.

For those afternoons when it's harder to hear that Poetry, when the spirits need a lift, there's always teacake and tea, made all the better by a few handfuls of garden petals.... This is one of my very favorite cakes, a lemon-masa rosemary cake, found here. For in the words of the 16th century Chinese poet, Tien Yiheng, "Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world," and tea does go down better with a little slice of cake, after all...

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sharing a Cup of Alder-Creek Tea: Of Wrentits & Cleavers & Old Sanitariums


Welcome to the alder-creek tea-room of my Gathering Time. Come, sit by the rush of the water, the strong sway of the pale alders, and rest awhile with a cup of assam and milk, while I unfurl a new patchwork, a constellation of earthly happenings, at your feet like fallen stars.


This past week, the sun came back big and hot. After a good drench of rain, the green and the flowers and the leaves are bursting. We leapt from spring to summer, or so it felt, in a matter of days, as often happens here in the languor of April.



It is the sort of heat that inspires everybody in this old Victorian house, and the house next door, to string up the laundry. (Our line is more shaded than these, alas, but still effective!) This sight makes me so happy. I couldn't quite say why; I just love laundry-on-the-line, like flags. And when you bring it in-- oh, that sunny smell, there's nothing to rival it!


Out in the East Bay Hills, the checkerblooms are opening fresh pink-striped petals,  beside...


.... the umbels of the cow parsnip, a favorite of mine. She grows so tall in riparian corridors and meadows near water, and often in big groups, like women with white umbrellas and strange green jagged hands. New cow parsnip shoots were peeled and eaten as a late winter green by native people, and those big hollow stalks were used to carry water.


The narrow-leafed mule's ear with its wooly leaves is truly its own fallen star. The Coast Miwok native people of Marin County, where I grew up, roasted the seeds of this plant (I imagine they are like tiny sunflower seeds), ground them and mixed them in to their pinole meal. The leaves, in a bath, will help relieve fevers (interesting, given what a sunny plant this is—as if it knows well how to deal with the fire of fever because it knows how to handle that fiery sun).


And oh, oh my-- the constellations of elderflowers, one of my favorite of all the plants--they are nearly open here! I have heard tell from herbalists a few dozen miles up the coast that the elderflowers are already blooming in Sonoma, and in some parts of Marin. I imagine this has to do with the rainfall, which has been (and always is) more prolific to the west and the north than here. There are so many microclimates around the great lung of the San Francisco Bay—they make up their own patchwork, their own quilt of many colors!


This sweet (and very reachable, for a person of my height--an important consideration!) blue elderberry tree grows just up the hill from the old ruins of the Belgum Sanitarium, in Wildcat Regional Park. When we lived in Berkeley, Simon discovered this strange and magical place after a long day's tramping through the hills and valleys near the Wildcat Creek, just down a little ridge from our home. I find it a very magical place, full of old songs and gentle ghost-memories.

All the structures have burned to the ground, so the only remaining hints of the story of this place are the gnarled pear and apple trees where cows now graze, like leaning weathered folk with the best of all tales to tell, whose fruits are not perfect and glossy but pocked and scarred and the sweetest of all. There are several palm trees, the single spine of an old stone foundation, and sages and naked lady flowers that seem to have been long ago cultivars gone wild. In an upcoming book I've co-authored for Heyday Books (The Wonderments of the East Bay-- more on that soon!), I wrote a chapter about this Belgum Sanitarium, and I give you a small excerpt here, so you can catch something of the flavor of the place!


"The Sanitarium was founded in 1915 by Dr. Hendrik Belgum, and remained in his hands until an enormous grass fire in 1948 threatened the house; he died in the conflagration while trying to put it out. The estate was passed into the hands of his brother Bernard and his spinster sisters Ida and Christine, and while a few of the patients also stayed on, none of the Belgums had any psychiatric or medical qualifications[...] In the early 1900’s, when the bay edges were still largely undeveloped, these vistas must have been transcendent. Dr. Belgum seemed to take the whole health of his patients into consideration, not only locating his Sanitarium in a peaceful sanctuary of chaparral hills and oak forest, but doubling the place as a sort of oasis-homestead, with apiaries, dairy cows, fruit orchards, a vegetable garden and a private spring. [...] It is said that local children who snuck around the edges of the Sanitarium at dusk (a delightfully frightening place to sneak around as a kid, no doubt, being full of reputed crazies) often heard eerily beautiful music on clarinet or piano or horn coming from the windows of the main house. Apparently Dr. Belgum held musical evenings with his patients on the regular, and he and his two sisters, who were often called “ethereal,” joined in the dancing."   
 


Though an old insane asylum no doubt has it's share of sadness and sorrow, to me there is something so nourishing about this place, as if Dr. Belgum's original vision of total-healing, from milk to fruit to fresh air to honey to a natural spring, is the ghost that lives on here, this sense that just being in the presence of open land (in a time--the early 1900's-- when the Bay Area was mushrooming overnight into a cutting edge Progressive-Era metropolis) might heal an ailing mind. Oh, yes, oh yes indeed.


Speaking of healing, another fallen star in the gathering-cloth opened before you here, as we sip tea by the alder-shaded creek: the hawthorns are blooming! This little shrubby specimen is located just around the corner from my parent's house, and only a few blocks from the place I grew up. The hawthorn elixir I made last August is from this bush. Because it is so near my childhood home, it holds extra heart-healing for me, extra nourishment, the loving hug of family, and so it is special to me to watch it through the seasons for the first time.

Hawthorn is a supreme and also gentle (to the point of being a  food! A completely safe tonic food) cardiac tonic, treating everything from high blood pressure to anxiety-related heart-palpitations. This is the old May-tree of Beltane, of the Northern European Maying Festivals (blooms later there I presume!), boughs gathered by young lovers. Young maidens supposedly bathed in hawthorn dew to beautify themselves. But there is also a more bewitching side to this plant, a fairy-touched hint to those thorns. It was said that even hanging your washing from the hawthorn tree might invoke the fairy wrath-- for their washing might already be hanging there! And some say that witches made their broomsticks from the spiny hawthorn too...

I like these words about the hawthorn, from herbalist Guido Masé, in his book The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter and Tonic Plants: "She is a lover, half-wild, passionate, full in her affection but vengeful in her anger. But she is also like a mother, older and wiser than her children, revealing the secrets necessary for a full and safe life. She holds the bookends of the most joyful season of the year, bringing in the May and celebrating the harvest with her great gifts. And if we embrace her, with affection and with respect, she opens our hearts and lets our feelings flow to their fullest. Don't underestimate her love, or deny her power. A true tonic she is, desiring little praise, but holding us safe in her gentle hand." (248)



Hawthorn the Rabbit was named well. One look at him bounding through the garden, one nose-nuzzle into that soft fur, has quite the same effect as those nine drops of hawthorn elixir!


The cleavers, or goosegrass, or stickyweed, have been popping all through the garden since our first big rains at the end of January. Now, they make veritable tangles, emerald green and climbing everywhere! What a robust abundant offering they are! I attended a spring plant class last Thursday evening, and learned of the wonderful lymph-cleansing properties of the humble cleavers. So I picked some new tips right when I got home, rolled them between my hands to crush some of that stickiness, to avoid the feeling of velcro in the throat, and was just astounded by the pea-like, watery, refreshing taste of this beautiful plant! It literally tastes of spring to me; it is a burst of energy-- and it had been clambering through the garden, offering itself day by day! I can't believe it took me this long to try it. Now, I nibble it whenever I pass through the garden, just like Hawthorn—he adores it, and slurps it up like pasta— sometimes bending to nip it off with my teeth if my hands are full. It also makes a very cooling wound-wash, and a refreshing tea.

From the attic window seat, I am watching the leaves of the black walnut unfurl, obscuring many of the holes left by the red headed sapsucker. I haven't seen him in a while, though I think I've heard him! I wonder when he will return.



In that windowseat, and out in the garden, and by our big front windows (with Gertrude Jekyll roses from my mother's garden intoxicating me with their perfume), I've been researching and note-taking and drawing and painting...


This spread here is a constellation of some of the beings out on the steep green land of Mt. Barnabe, in Lagunitas on April 9th, as observed with a tracking mentor and friend, as the fog crept over the far ridge for the first time this season, perhaps pulled in from the ocean by our days of heat. These pages are a hint of the seasonal gathering, the almanac making, that is to come... To leave you with another tidbit, though, this idea is brewing-- of earth constellations (term coined in brainstorm with tracking-mentor and friend, Scott Davidson): the groupings of beings that, moon-by-moon, make up the pattern of what's happening out on the land, the same way Aries, for example, is a grouping of disparate stars that has become this Zodiac-story of April, with supposed bearing on our lives. Don't the networks of plants and animals, blooming and birthing and migrating through the land we walk on, the air we breathe, grouped roughly by the subtle changes of each moon here (which feel each like their own season, in a way), have just as much of an effect on us, if not more?


A bald eagle winged through at almost eye level (due to the very steep slope of the hill we sat on, and its view far far down into the valley that leads to Kent Lake)-- breathtaking, truly, deeply, breathtaking.



The mourning cloak butterfly seems to just be returning from its winter sleep... and as I've learned, likes to tap the sap-holes made by sapsuckers! I wonder if I will see any come to this garden, and our black walnut.

And also, about the sweet wrentit whose bouncing voice makes my heart ache with the beauty of wide open scrub-hills it evokes, the smell of coyotebrush and sage, the expansiveness of a hill rolling down to a valley, I discovered this most wonderful tidbit:

"Wrentits are believed to mate for life. A pair will remain together in a suitable site, even as small as one acre. A bonded pair have been observed to snuggle up together at an overnight roost to the extent that they intertwine their legs, and intermesh their feathers; and, with their inner legs drawn up, they form a tight feathered ball (Erickson, M. M., 1948)." (From the Audubon Wrentit page)


My pages are full with notes about the wildflowers that are opening-- too many to keep up with! One of my favorite fallen-star pieces, gathered here to share with you by the alder creek over tea, is the baby-blue eyes. While wandering Potrero Meadow two weeks back with my love, we came upon  one open grassy patch between two fir-woods, unfurling thick with bracken ferns. Around the ankles of those ferns were more baby-blue eyes than I've ever seen, hundreds of little blue faces dense as forget-me-nots. They brought me down to my hands and knees, touching their delicate striped petals still wet and translucent with the rain from the day before. An enchanted place, that forest of tiny blue flowers. Then, Simon noticed a fresh hole beneath a tussock of grass, amidst all of these blue blooms, and we peered in, and quite envied whatever soul lived within, to have such a doorstep!


Well, I'm off again into the nasturtium-tangled pathways of this Gathering-Time! May your heels be lifted off the ground too by the green movements of spring, and may we always give ourselves time for alder creek-side cups of tea! (Easier said than done, I know; the creekside can be the deep rush of a good book, the alders can be the handful of roses brought in from the garden, the dandelion flowers picked out of sidewalk cracks, whatever small token of the wild world you can bring into your home!) I need to remind myself of this so often—to slow down, to pour the tea, to do nothing but sit and listen and be. Often I feel defined by what I produce--stories, research in my notebook, sketches, books read, classes taught, challenges faced. I am doing my best, during this Gathering-Time, to remember that the body and mind and spirit are whole and complete and just as valuable when they sit by the creekside together, sipping tea, thinking of nothing but alders and the sun-ripple on water. Maybe in such moments, we are most ourselves, because we have stepped out of ourselves a little, and are part alder, part creek, as we have always been, deep down.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Making A Patchwork Nest in the Orange Blossomed Tree


First and foremost and above all things, it is impossible for me to resist sharing with you the leapings and adventurings of dear Hawthorn. And the truth is, what better a guide through these weeks of Gathering inspiration and beauty and strangeness and the tastes of new plants, like a bushtit gathering cobwebs for her nest, than Hawthorn in his ramblings? He is my companion as I sit in the garden with my notebook and my pen, as I explore the canopy of the orange tree and taste the flourishing cleavers.


He reminds me to weave under and over and through the chard and nasturtiums, rather than around. He is an advocate of sticking-your-nose-into-the-fennel (or the chard, as he is here!), and also random moments of leaping frenzied joy, in which he speeds off and covers half the yard in the blink of an eye (and it's a big yard!).


So I thought it only fair to share with you his bounding bunny-bottom; I thought it prudent, because his rabbit ways are wise and wonderful and rooted deeply in the winds and soils and secret places under the comfrey bush, and they make me smile and my heart relax and open up every morning.


So now that we've sniffed the air, and tasted the wild radish, and romped a few times down the hay-strewn path, we can away into more serious business...


I wrote in my previous post that I would share weekly Gathering Time findings with you here, and I would like to add that I see these posts as collections, like magical patchwork skirts, like the sacred items in the Irish Crane Skin Bag, like a small gathering of treasures, of spices and herbs thrown into a copper pot, and who knows what precisely they will make! But that is also precisely the point, and the beauty, of Gathering from the heart instead of the mind for a little while.

I am going to number these spices, these patches, these treasures, as one would the steps of a recipe...

And what better a way to begin...

1) A Nest in the Orange Tree

... than with a home in the heart of the fragrant orange tree, with its purple doorstep!



For many weeks now I've been swooning at the sweet smell of these blossoms (oh, at dusk, it is enough to make you weep!), and I have been slurping up the juice of these beautiful oranges, ripe all winter long. Then, peering deep into the green fragrant canopy one day...


I beheld this soft hanging nest, held together with cobwebs and lichens, with dryer lint and grass and who knows what else! And lo, in alarm, who flew out but the tiny and wonderful little bushtit?


I realized then that I had been seeing at least two bushtits fly back and forth from the plum trees with lichen in their beaks, from the overhangs of sheds with cobwebs, to the heart of this orange tree, for several weeks, and I hadn't even thought to look for a nest! They are the tiniest birds in the garden, besides the hummingbird, and they forage for spiders and other insects in sociable chipping flocks, all moving together from tree to tree.

Every so often, one lands on the oak branch outside the kitchen window, which is right above the sink. I have to say, being eye to eye for a split second with that adorable, elfin face is almost too much for me. And not to belittle them with words of cuteness—but, my goodness, I can't help but soften, to be in the presence of such a quick light being.

The bushtit's nest is unique among all North American birds; in fact it is the only member of its family in the Americas. The seven others dwell in Eurasia, and all have hanging nests. Even more unusual, several younger birds may hang around and help the mated pair during breeding and nesting season—and these helpers are usually males! This is almost unheard of in the bird kingdom!

American Bushtit, Psaltriparus minimus (c) Audubon  
Now, I notice two bushtits in particular coming and going from the mouth of the nest every day. I wonder if they have chicks yet, or only eggs, or no eggs at all, and they are still putting the finishing touches on their home. But what a fine snug home it is; if I were a bird, I'd choose the orange tree too, for its thick canopy and its sweet heady fragrance. Imagine, upon waking and going to sleep, that special crepuscular perfume of the citrus-tree, wafting near. 

The orange tree and her blossoms have been held in special esteem for wedding ceremonies the world over, from China to the Middle East and eventually to Spain and then the rest of Europe during the Crusades. Those heady blossoms symbolize purity, innocence and fertility in Chinese tradition, and were worn from ancient times in wedding crowns in the Arabic tradition.  

It seems only suitable, then, for the young bushtit couple to make their wedding bower in the arms of the orange tree, with her orange-blossom lanterns. May their little ones be healthy safe and strong, and their days full of many spiders and small moths. 


2) The Gifts of Meadows

My love and I wandered the meadows of Mt. Tamalpais and of Point Reyes' Bear Valley this past weekend, in rain and sun, and I did not bring my camera, because sometimes the world is too beautiful for the camera, if you know what I mean? Or rather, sometimes, it is better to be without it, so that you remember to use all of your senses, and to sit with the beauty and the mystery you see, rather than trying to capture it. I saw such beautiful small and big things, the sorts of things a part of me desperately wanted to photograph. But now, they are so deep in me, because my body and my eyes were the only place to gather up and store away, and I am glad the camera was in the car.



In the big meadow beyond the first alder-riparian corridor along the Bear Valley Creek, the ground was covered in orange poppies, all heavy and glistening with rain. A small raptor burst from a bush and winged to a lone little fir tree in the midst of those poppies, and her tail feathers were just the same color. I waded through the rainy grass to the tree, knowing the kestrel would not wait for me, feeling overwhelmed by all those orange silken poppy heads. Sometimes, just touching a tree (so squat, I could almost touch her perch!) where a bird has sat feels like a moment of grace. And laying down amidst the California poppies (a tincture of which I made last year, and which affords me deep relaxation and peace) the same color as kestrel feathers; that is the brightest patchwork-scrap of silken ember-gold.


In the fir duff near another, different meadow, Potrero Meadow, on the west-facing flanks of Mt. Tamalpais, the calypso orchids were up everywhere. They are small and low enough that in order to smell the heady vanilla sweetness of their nectar, you have to get down on your hands and knees and bow your head so that your nose is almost touching the earth, then tilt those lips toward you; the sweet scent is divine. The name "Venus's slipper" makes quite a lot of sense, as does Calypso orchid, for these wildflowers are like nymphs, hidden in the shade of the forest, waiting to beguile you into their speckled arms.

Their blossoming window is so brief, so delicate, and very specific to certain areas beneath the firs, where some mysterious confluence of soil nutrients and light and weather and a particular species of mycorrhizal fungi support their flourishing. I love to wonder at such things. Why here, why right here, are there five dozen Calypso orchids nodding pink and fragrant at my ankles, begging each to be gently touched, and smelled, and praised, before they are gone again for a whole new turning about the sun? I wonder what it is like, to be that tiny new seed in the duff,  or to be those basal leaves, waiting and waiting and dreaming sunset-colored dreams until the next winter rains, the next touch of spring sun, in which to send up a new stem, a new pink flower?

Crampbark
3) Juliette de Bairacli Levy

This week I have been reading Juliette de Bairacli Levy's Traveler's Joy. It makes me nearly weep with its beauty, and ache for the world, so nearly lost, of the footloose wandering herbalist with her owl companions and her Afghan hounds and her courage. I am so utterly inspired by this woman; I have been ever since I watched the film Juliette of the Herbs roughly a year ago, and found that she brought me to my knees, this wise old woman speaking with such love to her olive trees, her rosemary, her hounds.

She pushed me straight onto the path of herbal study that I had been longing to walk since I was a girl of eight or so, reading countless books full of heroines who were medicine women, midwives, herbalists, adventurers. The Way of the Herbs had always felt a bit closed to me before hearing Juliette speak (even through a film!)-- huge and overwhelming and a tad bit frightening. But something changed in my heart after that, and though I am utterly at the beginning of this beautiful journey of learning the herbs, my life has changed in the past year because of them, and because of her—nettles and motherwort and raspberry leaves hang from wherever they can through the house, crampbark and skullcap and motherwort and tulsi are growing out in the garden, a maze of tinctures sit upon the shelves, and the plants, most importantly, are beginning to feel like old friends, and like the greatest of teachers.

Motherwort (toothed leaves)
Anyhow, I thought as my final strands of cobweb for the day, I'd leave you with a handful of quotes from this gorgeous book, from the wise and wonderful Juliette de Bairacli Levy.



"When I used to travel on horseback for long distances over sunburnt moorlands, on journeys to the Gypsy horse fairs of the North of England, on days of fierce sun I used sprays of elder blossoms in my hat. This truly cooled the air; it was taught to me by the horse-trading Gypsies of the Pennine hills." (page 107)

"There is also soapless washing when heavy, smooth stones are employed, preferably from rivers, and the washing done in rivers. Clothes are slapped hard upon the stones, by hands or supple branches from such trees as willow or alder. After being slapped, the clothes are rubbed lightly over smooth stones, to release the dirt. Then they are treaded upon with bare feet in the water, and placed over reeds or flat stretches of grass, for sun bleaching and air sweetening. I learned this way of washing linen in Portugal, in the swift rivers there. Then the toil of laundry was turned into a sort of revelry, of singing and dancing in the water (with much laughter), and I have never known linen more white or fragrant, so that it rivaled the swathes of white marguerite flowers growing there." (page 29)


"The tin of glowing embers of many colors from pale yellow to deep crimson always reminds me of the Persian proverb: 'the fireside is the tulip bed of a winter day.'" (page 44)

"I am most happy when swallows make their nests in any home of mine, and in Galilee, for years I had nearly seventy swallows sleeping in one of my rooms. Every dusk they would come winging homeward, happy and rejoicing as returning children. They enjoyed my welcome of praising words and knew that the windows would always be open for them. They darted throughout the entire dwelling, eating up the mosquitoes, and they would come in by day to catch the houseflies. My useful and beautiful swallows! Every night I counted them in my lantern light; it was a sort of rite, and the birds would look down at me in friendliness as I counted them to make sure all my seventy were safely home." (page 91)


"The patchwork cover is the nicest for travelers. First, it is beautiful to the eye, and further, it does not show wear marks as quickly as a plain one, being of many colors as the biblical coat of Joseph. For patchwork I collect snippets of cloth as I travel; they are everywhere. I seldom visit a new area without finding some rags of colored cloths. Many of them come to me washed up from sea and river. Their different designs are a fascination, and when it comes to using them, and to the sewing of them in place on lengths of cloth, it is like painting pictures, using bits of cloth instead of paints. Patchwork shirts, blouses and skirts, also window curtains (if one uses such) can be made as well as the usual bed covers. I expect that this famous Biblical 'coat of many colors' was patchwork. For the wise Sufis, patchwork has magical properties and powers, and they wear it very often as part of their clothing." (page 80)

And so, there is my first patchwork for you!