Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Clay Magi


I've always believed that when you make something with your hands, it comes alive. Hares and bears and mountain lions and roses and hearth-homes and strange wheeled vehicles, they all wait inside the iron-dark clay. Our hands know how to pull and coax and sing them out. It is, in no small way, magic. At least that's how I find the process of working with clay, the act of sending a bisque-fired creature off into the kiln, to be engulfed in flames, to come out bright-skinned, umbered, new. I always feel a little bit tender, watching them go in to that great old chamber of transmutation. And when they come out; well, they are no longer wholly mine. They can speak. They can carry light. They have dreams of their own. 

I believe old houses are this way too. Made by hand and tool out of materials that were once alive, filled with human love stories and heart-breaks, holding on to the memories and sorrows and passions of those who lived within their walls. 

Behind those taffeta curtains the color of mustard, a dark eyed, white-haired weaver might live, coming and going by the third-story door which has no staircase, but simply opens onto the air beneath the redwood trees on the old road called Cascade. 


Maybe she comes and goes by way of the ghost of the Mt. Tamalpais Railroad, the Crookedest Railroad in the World, which snaked up the mountain at the turn of the century, and left behind only fireroads and a few old railroad ties. Maybe she sits at the top of the mountain on summer evenings when the fog is so thick she can only see her own body, and the nearest rocks, and the moisture on gold grass and the summer mariposa lilies just coming up, singing to the ghosts of grizzly bears. The last one in all of California was shot in 1911. 

Dreaming, singing, storytelling, shaping grizzlies with clay in our hands; all of these things are an act of hope, a declaration of embodiment and the mystery of this world.


Recently a friend asked me what I meant when I talked about magic. I realized that I do talk about it a fair bit, not always remembering that in the dominant culture, "magic" as such pretty much begins and ends with Harry Potter style wizards and green-faced Halloween witches at best, and sexy teen vampires at worst. Or, perhaps just as confusing and ultimately misleading, a kind of sparkling fairy wonderland full of chiffon dresses in the shapes of bluebells. There is also in the word the sense of illusion-- as in the rabbit-out-of-a-hat sort of magic tricks. Perhaps it's partly the word that is to blame, for magic, in its literal etymology, actually doesn't mean quite what I intend it to mean when I use it.

Its roots are Latin, and therefore Indo-European, the language group that came cascading out of the Caucasus some 5,000 years ago on horseback. "Magic" comes from the Proto-Indo-European root magh, "to have power," which, as we all know, is a complicated and dangerous thing to wield. In Old Persian, "magush" meant one of the members of the priestly learned class, and by the late 14th century "magic," from the Old French magique meant something along the lines of "the art of influencing events and producing marvels using hidden natural forces." Apparently the word "magic" displaced the Old English wiccecraeft and drycraeft (dry having its roots in the Old Irish drui, related to druid). 


Magic, to me, isn't so much about the power to influence events in the world, though I do believe that human beings throughout time, from Kashaya Pomo shamans to medieval Persian priests to ancient Transylvanian grandmothers have been able to influence and even control some of the unseen forces at work around us all the time, and that wherever power resides, there is always the possibility of misuse. (Across much of indigenous California, people ran into regular trouble with witchdoctors gone bad—the jealous, nasty sorts of power-hungry shamans who would put the eye on you out of jealousy or revenge, and Poison you.) 

In this lifetime, in this world, magic to me is about the force of life itself. The fact that the fog coming over the mountain makes the shapes it does, impossibly beautiful wisps and coils and tendrils of mist. The fact that the mariposa lily, opening on a hot day, is so perfectly spotted and furred. What can possibly create such yellow? And how can it be that the bees (according to recent studies which only put into scientific language the Miracle that poetry and ancient stories have known all along) talk to the flowers through the hairs in their legs? More to the point, magic to me means that everything is alive. Everything speaks. The entire world is animate. Speak to the clay in your hands, and it will become a bear. Bury that bear in the earth with a prayer for the old grizzlies who no longer walk this land, and I do mean this most sincerely, you never know what might come to pass. 


We are very literally made up of all of the same stuff as the mariposa lily, the grizzly bear, the young rattlesnake sleeping in the shade of a log, the mountain itself. Even the stars. Look to Darwin or to the Creation Stories of the First People all across North America. You will find the same story. This is what magic means to me—all the unseen threads that weave us, one to the next, star to firtop to bear-ghost to human woman to wildflower to ocean to air.

This is why I tell stories the way I do. This is why I imagine dark-eyed weavers at the tops of old houses, and shape animals from clay that take on lives of their own, and dream of ghost-trains and the possibility that grizzly bears are still here in the land of California, somewhere; because I believe that without this faith in the unseen, in the possibilities of unfathomable Dreaming within every form of life, in the understanding that we are all made of one fabric, a brilliant many-seamed and many-colored patchwork—without this we are lost. We are heart-broken. At the beginning of human time, the earliest religion, the earliest form of "magic," was embodied by the shaman, the one who mediated between the human community and the more-than-human realms of animals, plants, stones, waters, winds, celestial bodies, and spirits. The shaman's job, at its most basic and most generalized, was to keep the balance, to not let the people forget who they were, where they stood, how every other being was elder and kin.

How are we to keep the balance now, in this world, when "magic" at its most literal, and its most popular, means a fantastical manipulation of power? How are we to keep the balance in this world, without remembering how to Dream, how to imagine, how to tell stories that bring the houses alive, the clay alive, even the plastic and the concrete alive? The truth is, humans love stories full of giants and talking stars and wise bears. We know it well when we are children. When we grow up, we tend to forget it for a little while. But, even so,  it's never to late to start looking for doors with no staircases and the old wise ones who use them...



Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Soliphilia (or, Finding the Light-Green Heart): A Workshop

My sweet brother
Recently, there have been days when the only solace is to be near the edge of myself, reaching out to touch the ceanothus with more than just my hands. When the only way to be a sane human being in this world is to remember that my identity rests not in my mind alone, but in the place where I end and the world begins. In that interface, that frontier, that edge-country where the astonishing blue and pollen and the buzzing of a thousand dizzy bees is enough to quench any sadness that had been stalking my soul. David Whyte says something to this effect. So, I think, does anyone who loves, and is loved by, a place in this world. Who doesn't want to be alone any more. Who knows what it means to come home. 

Blooming ceanothus, Johnstone Trail Tomales Bay
Because coming home—even just for a moment—to the smell of ceanothus arching over a path through the pines, the sound of bees shaking loose every thought for just long enough to finally breathe, is the only hope that I believe we have left in this world. Coming home to the land that nourishes us. Coming home to the people who love and support us. Coming home to the people in our communities who have been forgotten and forsaken by us and the world. Coming home—god, and isn't it the hardest thing?—to the places inside of ourselves that scare us so badly we would run for a thousand miles across deserts instead of letting them wash over us, for fear they'd pull us under. When in fact this is the only remedy— to turn and face the wind, the wave, the undertow. To trust that, as Rilke writes, that wave, that wind, will part for you, and close again behind you, and will carry on its way, leaving you in peace.

O you tender ones, walk now and then
into the breath that blows coldly past. 
Upon your cheeks let it tremble and part;
behind you it will tremble together again. 

Part I, Sonnet IV, from The Sonnets to Orpheus*

Ground lupine, sheep sorrel, Tomales Point
It's the way any planet or humble seed is made; each layer whole in itself, from core to skin, and also together in union more than the sum of parts. This is coming home—to the darkest center; to our families and loved ones; to the communities of humans and plants and animals and stones right where we are, who have missed us.


Yes, the springtime needed you, writes Rilke in his first of the Duino Elegies. Often a star 
was waiting for you to notice it. The line between self and world is very thin. Perhaps it is almost non-existent. And yet we are taught to stay far from that edge—for isn't it insanity to believe yourself fluid with columbine flowers? We are taught to bury ourselves in ourselves instead. When in fact in here, and not out there, is where madness prowls. And all along the stars and the columbine flowers have been reaching out to catch our eyes, to receive our praise, to give us the almost unsayable gift of their Presence. The reminder that we are walking always a hair's-breadth from what is numinous, from what will heal us.



Trust me, this is not something I've mastered. I've only gotten so far as to know how much I need to be engaged in such conversations with the world around me. Harder for me are the inner places. Bringing the same attention and care and curiosity and spirit of homecoming to the places in myself that are afraid to settle, to land, to home. That have, since I was a small girl, been skittish horses running from their own tails. (I wrote tales first by accident, and maybe the slip was telling. There is always a dark side to the coin of being a tale-teller.)

On the last new moon, I set out for the moor-hills of Tomales Point where the tule elk and granite outcrops live, a place very special to my heart. I knew I needed to kneel down with the quail tracks. To pay attention to small things. To delight in the discovery of a trail of snail shells, robbed of their snails all among the quail tracks-- proof of the quail's meals!

Many quail tracks among the yellow bush lupine, coyote brush, and other human, elk and coyote tracks
To notice and note the state of bloom or seed among the plants. The cowparsnip, making seeds. 


The salmonberries, ripe. The song of a returned Swainson's thrush in a wet canyon bringing them, and summer, into ripeness. Letting myself go for a time in favor of Other selves. Giving attention to them for their own sake, not just mine. 


What I mean is, instead of going up to a salmonberry and saying, in my head, hello, how can you heal me?—which would make for a rather awkward introduction between human beings—going up to a salmonberry and saying, oh my, look at you, look at your berries and your flowers, how is it here today, you are just lovely, has the gray fox whose scat full of seeds I saw on the trail been visiting you? Invariably, going out of yourself in order to attend to the lives of other beings feels so much better than seeing them always through the lens of one's own need.

A hill of wild radish, invasive but beautiful
There is a wonderful word for all of this— Soliphilia— which I discovered while in collaboration with the ecopsychologist and naturalist, Mary Good. It means the love of and responsibility for a place, bioregion, planet and the unity of interrelated interests within it, as defined by the Australian professor of sustainability Glenn Albrecht, in contrast to another term he coined, Solastalgia, used to describe the feelings of grief, dislocation and loss we experience when the environment where we live is damaged, changed or taken from us. Soliphilia is about coming home to the wholeness of a place and all the pieces that make it so. About finding belonging. About finding belonging together; a community of homecoming; a sense of solidarity in the face of great change and sorrow. About loving all of those pieces in their own right.  About finding that homecoming in a shifting world, a world beset by climate change, by unknowns. Even so, we can come home to it. We must.

Mary and I went for a walk back in January at Abbott's Lagoon to talk about all of these things, and about the vision of a workshop taught together that was brewing between us. A threading together of animal tracking and inner somatic exploration and homecoming. If you don't know Mary's work already, drop everything and go have a look.  It's really a joy to be in collaboration with her, and through that work get to know her as a friend too. She is a compassionate, devoted, skillful naturalist, grounded in observation and fact and her own senses; and at the same time she has an incredible understanding of the unseen, of our inner worlds, of how the inner and the outer meet. Not to mention the fact that she has a wonderful, warm sense of humor and is just a joy to be around. I feel very lucky to get to offer something with her to all of you.


That day in January, we knelt over otter and bobcat tracks; we watched white-crowned sparrows in the brush; we drank reishi hot-chocolate provided by the wonderful Mary; we talked about the human history of Abbott's Lagoon; we ate a picnic on a sand dune as mist turned to rain and we found we were eating raindrops along with our cheese-toasts and lettuce. We rejoiced in that rain. We talked about the feelings of anxiety that arose around the current drought in California; I expressed my own sense of fear and panic around the rain ending this year. Around not knowing if it will return. Wanting to hold the new green, the winter, forever, like a little girl resisting being left alone at preschool.


Now, after a spring full of wildflowers I hadn't seen in such numbers in years, wildflowers so abundant and beautiful that being in their presence made me at once ecstatic and anxious-- that they, too, would go so quickly—the hills are just beginning to tinge with brown. The buckeyes are blooming, full-spire, full intoxication. The antlers on the elk and deer are starting to branch, nubbed with velvet. The days are long. Summer is near, and with it the memory of drought, the sorrow of changing lands.


And, as if in perfect time and perfect grace, the date that we at last settled upon for our workshop comes just at the right moment. We are offering Soliphilia: Tracking the Wildscapes of Land and Soul in Uncertain Times just at the cusp of summer, on Sunday June 12th, a full day affair at Abbott's Lagoon in Point Reyes. This is the point of the year at which I begin to get uneasy again-- at least for the past three years, with the increasing changes in climate. Talking on the phone with Mary recently about our lesson plan, I had to laugh, saying, I think I need to take this workshop. Oh wait, I get to go for free! This is the joy of collaboration. That as teachers, Mary and I get to learn from each other as well as share with all of you.

We will spend the morning getting deep into the details of animal tracking— honing our senses, our curiosity, our empathy. After broadening these capacities in the morning on the sanddunes, and finding the expansiveness and quiet kindle of joy that comes from just looking with an open mind and heart, Mary will lead us in several afternoon exercises and wanders that will bring these new skills home to our inner ecologies.



Throughout the day, we will be exploring what it means to come home to a place, and to ourselves. What stands in the way of such returns, and how we might begin to transform, or surrender, or arrive, or all three, or nothing at all except bask in the flight of a heron and the shape of skunk tracks. Discovering that our hearts, as Rilke writes in his Third Elegy, are light-green.


All at once now, trembling, how he was caught up
and entangled in the spreading tendrils of inner event
already twined into patterns, into strangling undergrowth, prowling
bestial shapes. How he submitted—. Loved.
Loved his interior world, his interior wilderness,
that primal forest inside him, where among decayed treetrunks
his heart stood, light-green. 

That despite the chaos, the decay, the struggle, the tangles, our hearts are light-green by nature, without our effort, and always have been. We only have to look, and remember.


If you'd like to join us—and we would love to have you!— you can read more details, and sign up, here! Note that at the bottom of the page, where the sign-up button resides, there are three payment options, based on financial need.

* All Rilke translations are from the Stephen Mitchell edition  of Duino Elegies & The Sonnets to Orpheus

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How To Build A Story Like A Vessel


I've been reading a lot of Ursula Le Guin recently. I won't hesitate to call it an obsession. But maybe the better word is an apprenticeship, or a hunger, or both. I've apprenticed myself unconsciously to her words, because they are full of something I am hungry for, something I didn't know I was hungry for until I found it. For a while I couldn't articulate what "it" was. Only that the way she made worlds, and words, filled me up with a sense of both light and dark, a sense of rightness and of wonder, an astonishment at the breathtaking imaginings that humans are capable of, the strange familiarity of her planets and peoples. But it wasn't until I came across a few brief descriptions in Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew and the introduction to her short story collection A Fisherman of the Inland Sea that I understood what it was I was responding to. Naturally, Ursula needed to explain it to me.


Here are the two passages that, when read close together in time, brought with them a revelation—

"The rhythms of prose—and repetition is the central means of achieving rhythm—are usually hidden or obscure, not obvious. They may be long and large, involving the whole shape of a story, the whole course of events in a novel: so large they're hard to see, like the shape of the mountains when you're driving on a mountain road. But the mountains are there." (from a chapter on Repetition in Steering the Craft)

"The beauty of a story may be intellectual, like the beauty of a mathematical proof or a crystalline structure; it may be aesthetic, the beauty of a well-made work; it may be human, emotional, moral; it is likely to be all three." (from the introduction to A Fisherman of the Inland Sea) 

What she doesn't say outright, but what I took away from both of these tidbits, is this sense that a story's structure is meant to be as beautiful and sound as the language with which it is told. Structure can mean many things, but it isn't primarily about how you've ordered your paragraphs or the clever way you've fragmented your narrative. That's still surface stuff. Structure to me is primarily about the inherent rightness (be it moral, human, emotional, ecological) with which the story is constructed. The way its characters, landscapes and themes move and dance around each other. The pattern they make, which should be in some way harmonious, but never perfect. This is the innerness of the story, like the interior structure of a clay vessel thrown on a wheel or built by hand.

The brilliant potter and poet M.C. Richards writes about the innerness of vessels; how in throwing a pot you are really shaping empty space, not clay. How, long after the pot is broken, its interior space still remains, somehow made eternal by the shaping of its clay. Which makes me think of Rilke's "unusable space" built from the "tremulous music of stones": a temple (Sonnet X from Part Two of The Sonnets To Orpheus)

Andrew Cornell Robinson
Somehow the shaping of clay feels like a useful and important metaphor for the shaping of a story. Words are the clay, but a story is more than words, like a vessel is more than clay. The inner structure of the vessel must be able to carry the beauty of its exterior; they must be in balance, must match, must create an inner and an outer that together is a whole. 

This is what Ursula Le Guin's writing does. This is why her novels satisfy on a deep profound level. Their prose, which is deceptively simple but in reality profoundly poetic,  perfectly mirrors an inner narrative beauty, a strength of story, of psyche, of plot, of the things that make the rhythms of ancient myth last for thousands of years. Just read The Telling or Tehanu and you will see what I mean. It's an ineffable thing, but you know it when you read it, when you feel it in your bones. 

So, my question is, how do you learn to shape a story like you would a vessel, its innerness shaping its outerness? I will be the first to admit that I tend toward the poetic, the lush, the (at times) overly dense. This has always come easily to me. What is more challenging for me as a writer is carrying plot, and yet this is what truly shapes the story. Its inner structure—the way humans, animals, plants, land interact through conflict and resolution. The way microcosms and macrocosms are evoked, repeated, sung... You see, I can hardly write about it in any clear way.

We all, of course, have our own ideas about what makes a beautiful story. It's very subjective. In the same way that we all have different ideas about what makes a beautiful vessel. 

Akira Satake
In the midst of all of this thinking about the inner and outer beauty of stories, I discovered the art of Japanese tea bowls, also known as chawan (thanks to my dear friend Catherine Sieck, who is an incredible potter). More to the point, I discovered something of the original philosophy behind these utterly feral vessels. It's the concept of wabi-sabi, one of those terms so overused and yet so generally misinterpreted that I at first balked and didn't even want to read about it. But my local library had a copy of Leonard Koren's classic Wabi-Sabi for Artist, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, and I read it in one sitting. Lucky for me. I'm not going to get into all the details here, as it's even harder to write about than the innerness of good stories. 

In very brief, wabi-sabi is an aesthetic and spiritual system based on the impermanence, imperfection, and yet astonishing, deep, melancholic beauty found in nature, not so much in its glorious blossomings and epic mountain peaks, but in "the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral, things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes," in the "moments of inception and subsiding" (page 50). Wabi-sabi honors the imperfect, the earthen, the processes of growth and decay and rebirth, the fluidity and also impermanence of all things. And, just a little bit more (it's delicious, isn't it?)-- "Wabi-sabi suggests the subtlest realms and all the mechanics and dynmaics of existence, way beyond what our ordinary sense can perceive. The primordial forces are evoked in everything wabi-sabi" (page 57).

Akira Satake
Tea bowls made in this style, and sipped from with presence and stillness and attention to the here and now, are meant to create and evoke a unity of self and nature in all of its imperfect beauty. I wonder what a story built like this would look like. What kind of innerness, shaped to hold the tea properly but also the wild shapes of decay and unfurling both, might translate into story-making? How does a story shape itself around impermanence? And at the same time, how does a story grow like a natural thing, like a piece of granite in the earth or a head of kelp in the sea? How does it speak with authenticity, right up from the ground of the ground and of the soul, both in its words and in its structure, its innerness? 

How might we leave space for stories in the world, stories that can be temples where stones sing, stories that have nothing to do with our own egos? Stories that are our gifts and our leavings, life offering vessels at the edge of the wood?

These are open-ended questions, a delicious exploration inspired by Ursula Le Guin and the pottery traditions of Japan. At first glance, I found this connection a bit unexpected. At second, I remembered that Le Guin has translated the Tao Te Ching and is a great student of Taoism, from which concepts of Wabi-sabi, tea ceremonies and chawan clay techniques have arisen. To fulfill that which is naturally so. A story and a vessel should feel like this: that they have grown up from the ground of themselves. That they could not be any other way. That there is always a crack left open for mystery.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Warp and Weft of Old Europe

Almost exactly a year ago-- one journey around the sun-- my dear friend Asia Suler (of One Willow Apothecaries) and I began the collaboration that would become WEFT.  In the mountains of Appalachia where Asia lives, the wild violets and irises were up, and she dreamt and then brewed up a potent violet elixir, purple with the medicine of those dark petals, stirred over the stovetop to the hymns of Hildegard Von Bingen. With the intuitive dreaming unique to her old heart, Asia then began adding essences of flowers and stones to the elixir, weaving a medicine that spoke back through many millennia. She sent a small phial to me and I began to take drops of it as I wrote, allowing its own mysteries to unfold inside, in the way-down-dark places where stories come from. She didn't tell me anything about what plants and stones comprised the elixir. The very first image that came to me as I let the elixir settle into my body was of the old island of Malta; of an ancient village made of stone; of a woman in deep purple robes; of snakes. 


I visited Malta and one of its very ancient matrilineal temples six years ago and was very moved; but still, when this of all images came up upon first taste of the elixir, I was a little confused! I was expecting to write something set in California, as I tend to do, something rooted here, relating to the plants, animals and stones that I know. And yet each time I took the elixir, and wrote, and daydreamed, it was all sandstone walls and snake priestesses, caves deep in the earth, the smoke of bay leaves, an old grandmother or aunt telling a young girl that it is women who keep the world whole, who weave the filaments between things. Back then, the image in my mind was of lace, of generations of lace makers.

(Only very recently did I learn that some believe the islands of Malta and Gozo might have been schools for priestesses. The islands, after all, are literally riddled with Neolithic temples and there are legends of extensive labyrinths below them. "Such island-schools are common in legend," writes Barbara Mor in her incredible book The Great Cosmic Mother. "Ancient Celtic myth tells of sacred islands inhabited and ruled by women, where the mysteries were kept and taught" (113). Well... perhaps this is why Malta came up!)


This was in the summer. A very, very dry summer after three years of serious winter drought. Inside, I was experiencing my own kind of drought. Not writer's block, but a terrible sun-baked kind of overwork. Old intense patterns of anxiety returned, suddenly and in full force. Without proper winter, without water in and on the land, I realized I was having a very hard time watering myself; giving myself rest, nourishment, green. Over the previous three years, I had written four novel-length manuscripts (Tatterdemalion, The Gray Fox Epistles, The Leveret Letters, Elk Lines).  They were a joy to write, but the well was beginning to look rather dry. More than that. It was starting to feel a bit abused. Untended. We cannot be in bloom always. In California, many of the creeks go dry in summer, and no one expects them not to. In every landscape there must be rest, dormancy, quiet. The true sort, not a false promise of rest and then suddenly, two weeks later, another project! 

So I tried and tried with the elixir to create a story, but in truth, I was at the end of my rope. I wrote bits of something set in an imagined world-- partly Crete, partly Malta, partly a future California-- about a girl, a temple of snake priestesses, a sacred shroud dyed with saffron, an island and a garden full of fennel. But it wasn't right. It didn't work. And the elixir seemed to know it. To tell me-- now is not the time. And rest rest rest. And take to the waters, take to the springs. Replenish, replenish, replenish. 


I know now that it was the Grandmothers (of Asia's Grandmother's Elixir) talking. I know now that this was part of the medicine for me. That this collaboration was not just about creating a project to share with the world, but also about beginning to tend to old patterns. After all, who was I to think that I, too, didn't need healing from that medicine? That perhaps I, most of all, needed it— not to write from but to remember with? 

Female figurines, Cucuteni, Draguseni Botosani County Museum, Botosani, from The Lost "The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC," NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World
Back in the summer, hearing those voices, I took to the hot springs. I soaked in the old lava waters. Asia and I decided to let the project rest for a time. She revealed to me the names of the plants and stones in her elixir, and her descriptions sent a shiver through me. (Here is an example of what she wrote about one of the stones in an email: Feldspar is considered the "grandmother" of many stones. Over time Feldspar will become Labradorite, Sunstone, moonstone, and Amazonite (among others). Feldspar is like the first grandmother is a long matrilineal lineage. In Daoist medicine Feldspar represents the broth of our life, that thick nourishing beginning from which any variation can happen. It is a stone that helps us to locate ourselves when we are in the process of becoming and encourages us to simply surrender to the light that wants to flood through us so we can become aware of the the large Shen (or heart spirit of the divine) that we are a part of. From there, is it so much easier to value and give voice to our little shen (our own individual spirits).

The whole elixir is comprised of violet syrup, wild iris essence and an elixir of aquamarine + feldspar stones, and Asia describes it as "an elixir to invoke the initiatory magic of the womyn ancestors and our collective matrilineal line. Once upon a time we were all born from women who understood the mysteries of herbs and roots and death and beginnings. This elixir is a gateway to help remember our place in this continuum of hedgewitches and healers."

Cucuteni vessel

Well, it certainly opened that gateway for me, in unexpected and beautiful ways. The best part about the process of experiencing this medicine was that it seemed to work first like an old undercurrent, taking matters into its own waters while I wasn't looking. For after the hotsprings, I went to England to at last meet my dear friend Rima (that is a whole other story, one maybe you have already read), and the old seed of Tatterdemalion at last began to bloom. When I came home, rejuvenated by my time with Rima and Tom and Dartmoor, I was full of this fresh energy to research, to study, to take to the books. Weft was still on the back burner, simmering. I wasn't ready to work on it yet, I told myself. I asked myself a question, like I do in the world of animal tracking-- a sacred question to hold and carry through to its end-- what stories did the Bronze Age people of Grimspound (which we visited on Dartmoor) tell around their fires?


A page from Marija Gimbutas' The Language of the Goddess 


This, unexpectedly, led me back before the Bronze Age and into the work of the inimitable Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. There I dwelt all autumn and winter, reading The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, pieces of The Language of the Goddess and The Civilization of the Goddess, and then a related book called The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology and the Origins of European Dance (by Elizabeth Wayland Barber), not to mention bits of Andreas John's Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale.

My spring office under the apricot tree, entirely hidden by shoulder-high wild radish
I seemed to be following an invisible thread-- Gimbutas' controversial Bird Goddesses of Neolithic Old Europe connected themselves to Barber's exploration of Eastern European vilas/ willies/ rusalki and their connection to seasonal agricultural rituals of death and rebirth and Andreas John's treatment of the numerous Baba Yaga theories, many of which connect her with ancient snake and bird deities, female initiation, underworlds, the rebirth of seeds. Meanwhile, I was taking a ceramics class and hand-building a veritable menagerie of creatures and vessels inspired by the artifacts Gimbutas dug throughout Eastern Europe and documented in her magnificent books.

Bird-shaped vessel 

Marija Gimbutas
I had first discovered Gimbutas back in college, in a small used bookshop that served as a sort of sanctuary for me. I saw her enormous The Civilization of the Goddess displayed prominently on a front shelf, and wondered why on earth I had never heard of it before (being a bit of a nerd for the ancient world). I paid $50.00 for it with only the smallest moment of hesitation (it was a very, very big book, hilariously heavy to carry in a suitcase home!). What I found inside absolutely staggered me. Not only was it the life work of an incredibly intelligent woman who had personally excavated many of the artifacts she wrote about from village sites all across Eastern Europe and the Aegean, and through them and her 30 some years of deep study reconstructed a vision of a matristic and deeply earth-based culture she named Old European. It was also a deep exploration of ancient feminine spirituality and the worship of what she called the Great Goddess, who was really just a manifestation of the cycles of creation, death and rebirth found in the natural world, cycles that have been both sacred and intimate to the daily lives of human beings all over the world for most of our history as a species.

As Gimbutas explains in The Language of the Goddess, "it seems [...] appropriate to view all of these Goddess images as aspects of the one Great Goddess with her core functions—life-giving, death-wielding, regeneration and renewal. The obvious analogy would be to Nature itself; through the multiplicity of phenomena and continuing cycles of which it is made, one recognizes the fundamental and underlying unity of Nature. The Goddess is immanent rather than transcendent and therefore physically manifest" (316).

Source here
However, soon after discovering Gimbutas' work when I was 20, I also discovered the intense controversy around it. I will admit that for a while, that controversy kept me away. Attacks on her work were loud and strong, consisting of assertions that she had made everything up, that she had absolutely no grounds for much of what she was claiming about the symbolism she read into on pots, figurines, vases, that it was a load of feminist hogwash, etc., truly startled me.

I have a deep, old adoration of the ancient world, of goddesses at their most primordial and earthen especially, of grounded witch lore and mythology, of the sacred rhythms of women's crafts, of the moon and my own bleeding, but I have a rather equally strong aversion to what can feel like ungrounded New Age goddess-stuff.  I got a little concerned for the sake of the latter, and I backed away. I fell for what I see now as a culturally ingrained prejudice against not just feminism but the feminine (say the word "god" and no one bats an eyelash; say "goddess" and immediately the eye-rolling begins). We are all, to one degree or another, held under the sway of the scientific, linear-minded, masculine patriarchy in which we live.

(As an aside before I go further, I will just say now that I have nothing whatsoever against men; I love men. I don't, however, love a totally out of balance patriarchal system. I don't think any of us do. As women we are just as complicit as men in this system. Sometimes the re-iteration of patriarchal structures and ways of thinking by women upon other women is in fact the most intense and damaging rhetoric of all.)

I've since discovered that the vast majority of criticism for Gimbutas' work in fact amounts to little more than slander. Frighteningly effective slander absolutely inextricable from a subconscious and fearful sort of misogyny. I'm not trying to say here that her work contains no flaws--whose work, especially in the field of archaeology, is perfect? That's a complete unreasonable concept. But the intensity with which Gimbutas was debunked speaks to something beyond reason and fact...

What really riled people up about Gimbutas (men and women both) was that her approach to the material of a matrilineal Old Europe and its religious system was interdisciplinary, and that it had to do with a "goddess"-oriented religion. (Gimbutas herself found the term "Goddess" limiting, but used it for lack of a better word to describe an intensely potent feminine power inherent in the earth itself, both nurturing and terrifying and very much revered by Neolithic agricultural peoples, as well as indigenous cultures across the world and traditional peasant folk to this day.) Before she wrote The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe and things began to get sticky for her in the academic world (in part because feminists took to her vision whole-heartedly, with good reason), Gimbutas was highly regarded in her field. She received numerous fellowships and awards. Her work on the Indo-European Bronze Age, on Lithuanian folk customs, on the prehistory of Baltic and Slavic peoples, was highly respected. Her book Bronze Age Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe was ground-breaking and praised. She, after all, had been the one to personally excavate much of the material she studied.  Whatever she hadn't excavated, she had read the reports about in their original languages, something few others in her field could do.


Her knowledge of Lithuanian folklore, art and songs informed everything she did. She had, after all, received her doctorate (from the University of Tübingen) in archaeological prehistory, the history of religion, and ethnology. When digging an old Neolithic village across Eastern and Central Europe, she sometimes recognized patterns on figures or pots that were still in use in her native country among the peasant people. No one else had a comparable grasp of languages, folklore, mythology and religion. Her blending of disciplines was tolerable in the academic world until she shifted her focus from the patriarchal, highly stratified, war-like Indo-European cultures which arrived in ancient Europe around 3500 B.C.E. (the ones from which our own culture is still directly connected) to an older strata (beginning around 7000 B.C.E), the Old European peoples who had been there before the horse-riders swept in from the eastern steppes and changed the world. 
What she observed across Old Europe was a village-based culture with virtually no social stratification (no highly ornate burials, no obviously elite dwellings), no weaponry or military fortification and therefore little or no war. She observed that neither sex dominated the other (as in either a patriarchy or a matriarchy) and so she called what she saw "Matrilineal" because clear importance was given to the female line, to the burials of old women and young girls in particular. Because virtually all of the little clay figurines found by hearths, by looms, by temple altars, were of big-hipped women. And because the language of symbols that Gimbutas interpreted from the thousands of pots, spindle whorls, shards, figurines, vases and vessels she dug and documented over 30 years was all about the regenerative powers of the earth, whose womb-dark soils and amniotic waters have been considered "feminine" by most human cultures throughout all time. 

A vessel, when cut in half, was found to be full of small female figurines. From Ghelăiești. Photo by Cristian Chirita

She interpreted an intensely spiritual culture from the vessels and figurines she dug up from the ground. (She was in fact the first archaeologist of Neolithic Europe to focus on religion at all, in a post World War II archaeological era intensely concerned with economics and materialism.) Many of the vessels she found seemed to be left as offerings—in pits dug beside houses, layered over the centuries; in temples beside sacred hearths. These vessels were women's work, as was the weaving of cloth, the gathering of fibers and seeds. So much creative potential lay in the hands and bodies of women, and was honored as such. She never claimed matriarchy or utopia, as many of her later critics somewhat hysterically claimed that she had; rather she noted a culture oriented toward the feminine inherent in the earth, but honoring of both genders. 

Double-vessel, Cucuteni culture

Image source here

The backlash against her work began during the last years of her life in the early 1990's, as she battled lymphatic cancer, and came first from within the old, established patriarchy and archaeological monarchy that is Cambridge University, initiated by a colleague/friend Colin Renfrew (a Baron and Lord). I won't go into all the details of his attempts to undermine her work, nor what followed. Charlene Spretnak has written a fantastic and infuriating overview ("Anatomy of a Backlash: Concerning the Work of Marija Gimbutas" in the Spring 2011 issue of the Journal of Archaeomythology) of the erasure of Gimbutas' work from the archaeological canon over the last two decades. However, I will repeat here a quote of great relevance that Spretnak uses in her essay, written by Dale Spender in Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them: "techniques [of control] work by initially discrediting a woman and helping to remove her from the mainstream; they work by becoming the basis for any future discussion about her; and they work by keeping future generations of women away from her."

Goddess vessel from the Cucuteni culture,  Collection of National History Museum of Moldova 

This is precisely what happened to Gimbutas. The sweeping, scathing, slandering criticism of her work (which, when you actually read it, often sounds more childish than academic; more defensive than constructive, like "goddess" and "feminism" are dirty words, but "god" and "patriarchy" are entirely neutral, objective, reasonable and sane) effectively removed her from the archaeological world. Almost no professors, except the brave, teach her work. I didn't really believe this kind of thing still happened. I do now. I have been warned. 

This is the reason I wanted to take the time to get into some of the details here. Because it is an act of radical re-storying to bring her back into the archaeological forefront, back into the dialogue about what is possible for human cultures, back into women's hands. What a shame, what a loss to all of us —not just womankind but humankind—to have Gimbutas' work hidden away, buried. Most of the criticism of Gimbutas comes across to me as semi-hysterical, and mostly propagated (with intense vehemence) by people who haven't even studied her work with any great care, but rather have heard second hand of this archaeologist who "pandered" to new age Goddess- worshippers and obsessed over "matriarchal utopias" (neither of which she did in any way). 


Gimbutas was a brilliant woman. She worked very much within the scientific structures of the archaeological discipline. Many call her the "grandmother of the goddess movement," but this was entirely by chance, not of her own doing. She did not overtly seek out either goddesses nor feminism; she simply sought to see what she thought was truth, with her whole heart and mind. Her work is an incredible gift to all of us, and worth taking the time to read for ourselves, in order to form our own opinions. 

You can see that all of this has me deeply inspired and also furious. Seriously, furious. So furious it's actually hard for me to even gather my thoughts. So furious it might appear I've gone a great distance from Weft. But I haven't, not really. Because you see it was Gimbutas' work that stirred Weft out of me. I didn't even realize it at first. 

Around midwinter, I saw what was going on. I realized that all of this reading and research about Old Europe was the warp (the vertical threads in a weaving, the structure) for my collaboration with Asia. I was feeding the creative well, yes, but in feeding the well I was feeding the story that needed to be told, the gift born of Asia's Grandmother's Elixir. It was still at work. It was filling me up. It was apprenticing me to the archaeology of sacred vessels, of ancient women's work—the warp weighted looms, the spindle whorls, the earliest gardens, the pots shaped like bird goddesses, bears, deer. 

Symbols carved on a Romanian spindle whorl, 5th millennia B.C. Vinca-Turdas culture (Photo from "Signs of Civilization")

I believe that over the decades of her research and deep observation of the village sites and artifacts of Old Europe, the vessels and spindle whorls and temple ruins whispered their stories to Gimbutas. This is thoroughly un-academic of me, but I believe in intuition, in magic, in voices speaking across centuries, in some knowing that is in the blood or the soul. I believe that when this kind of knowing is in balance with the powers of the mind, the intellect, deep study and careful thinking, very, very powerful things can emerge. The likes of Lord Colin Renfrew would take me to the stake for this kind of talk, or more likely in this day just laugh me off the stage; but don't we know it, as women, to be true? That the world is far more mysterious, and the knowing in our bodies far more ancient, than we are taught to believe? That when the very ancient knowing of heart and womb is in balance with a sharp, clear intellect, great beauty of thought and action is possible? Gimbutas never claimed anything of the sort, and yet after over thirty years of study, she said that the symbols carved on all of the artifacts she had written about and poured over just started to coalesce. To come together as a language of mythopoeic dimensions. I believe that all of her work was an act of magic; or, in other words, of communication across great distances of time, and the very small distances within the soul. 

And isn't is the point, in the end, of all true study? 
Old European Vessel
It felt like something similar happened inside of me when I encountered Gimbutas' work for the second time this autumn, embracing it with an open heart and mind. The story came out in a rush, and yet in pieces. Like an ancient pottery vessel, dug up in shards. It has its own archaeology, its own warped loom, waiting for the reader to pick up the weft threads and weave it all whole. 

At its heart, Weft is the tale of a girl, a drought, an underworld, and the most ancient roots of the Baba Yaga, set in partly historic, partly imagined Neolithic Transylvania around 6500 B.C.E. At this time, settled agriculture brought by small bands of Mediterranean travelers (and their grains, goats and sheep) was taking root across southeastern Europe, woven relatively peacefully into the framework of indigenous Mesolithic hunting and gathering tribes. 

A reconstruction of Neolithic wattle and daub houses, based on archaeological findings and the structures of traditional Romanian peasant dwellings, from the  Câmpiei Boianului Museum 
I dreamed into my own version of Old Europe, rooted as much in research and fact as possible. Reading about these ancient village sites full of offering jugs and sacred ovens, their houses of wattle and daub, perched at the edges of mountains and woods, felt like indigenous ground in me. On a pathway of my own ancestral blood through Austria, through Hungary, through Poland, through Russia, I felt that in working with this material I could follow a part of myself back to a source, a place of balance, a set of ancient lifeways to look to for wisdom, for strength, for wholeness. 

Vessel from Cucuteni culture, in the Cucuteni Neolithic Art Museum

For you women who are of European descent, this is indigenous ground. This is a place to put our roots, to drink up, to learn from. Gimbutas' Old Europe represents to me a culture, a set of stories, that were in balance with the cycles of life around them. A narrative of living to re-learn, to re-member. We are in desperate need of this wisdom today; in desperate need of places to source our own stories and sense of connection, not appropriating those of the indigenous people who still survive and flourish today, but seeking our own rootings, groundings, retellings. 

Weft is about that which tips us out of balance, and that which brings us back again; about ritual and the sacred and how we make such things manifest with our very hands. It is a celebration of the deep beauty and power of ancient women’s work: weaving, spinning, pottery, child-bearing, plant-tending, medicine gathering. It is a hymn to the dying we undertake every moon in the underworlds of our own bodies, even if we no longer bleed, and the process of being reborn.
 
I want to dedicate this work not only to all the women of my ancestry—back to the very beginning of time, when women weren't women at all, but birds, or perhaps deer, bears or even the roots of the plants which cleanse and heal—but also to Marija Gimbutas, whose work has been pushed into an underground current over the past twenty years, but whose wisdom we sorely, sorely need. 

I read yesterday that by the year 2050, the weight of plastic in the ocean will outweigh that of fish. I really hope that this fact isn't true, but I fear that it is. Please, may we have the courage and the strength, both women and men, to defend other stories, older stories, stories of rootedness and the immanence of the natural world, before it is too late.  In some ways, it is already too late. But not entirely. For aren't all of these female figurines, these patterns of line and triangle and diamond, about rebirth? "There is no simple death, only death and regeneration," Gimbutas writes (320, The Language of the Goddess.

I will leave you with this wonderful film about Marija Gimbutas' life and work. It is well worth watching, perhaps with spinning, knitting, weaving, mending, in hand...