Thursday, July 26, 2012

Of Otters and Words with Roots

A family of five or six river otters swam under the bridge at Abbott’s Lagoon, rippled beneath the hem of marsh-pennywort that gleams green along the edges, and climbed up the great edge of the dune. They tumbled and they played, did belly-slides, tangled up in a ball of wet brown fur, huffed and loped. Their fluid playful bodies, whisking tails and clever wise faces— I could barely breathe for joy. Maybe they were Dobharchu, King of the Otters, and his companions, who in the Irish tales would grant any wish if captured to win their freedom back. Their black pelts could protect a warrior from death, and keep a person from drowning. Whatever deities they might have been (for all wild things are to me, in a way), with curling black-brown tails and dark, dark eyes, scrubbing the lagoon from their fur into the sand, I could see, watching them, why otters seem to represent "creativity" all over the place in the human traditions. They catch you right in your stomach and make you want to sing with their grace.

Which brings me to the unexpected exploration, here (when all I set out to do was post this video—poor resolution, I'm sorry!— I took of the otters at their morning play!), of creative inspiration, the source of it in my life, the dance between madness and muse so beautifully offered up by Terri Windling and others as a "Moveable Feast," right here. Not very long ago, maybe a year and a half, I realized that for me, writing is about place. Deep involvement with place. I've always loved tales of magic, of other worlds, or other times. These are the stories, in one way or another, I've always tried to write. Stories where the edge between girl and tea-plant is thin. Where deserts reflect back dreams. Where women with heron-feet come into bedrooms on storm clouds and demand impossible things. But all through college on the East Coast, so far from the native mountains and seaside of my California upbringing, I couldn't find my voice in those stories. I couldn't find that river-otter, lagoon-slick tangle of joy and purpose, sand-dune belly-sliding and all, that deep abandon, which accompanies the creation of truly meaningful work.

Then, two summers ago, in the Big Sur mountains with my family, after just having read Gary Snyder's Mountains and Rivers Without End, and while driving past the Point Sur Lighthouse (a truly magical almost-island, fog wrapped and rough, with a lighthouse at the tip), I was knocked over the head with a sudden revelation. THIS place, the place I was born and raised, was my muse. THIS place, these redwood forests, manzanita and oak woodlands, coyote brush and sage chaparral, wild coasts, fireroads dusty and wide, was my muse.

I wanted my words to grow roots and veins. I wanted to seek the myths and magic of this land; it was so close to me I hadn't stepped back to see it with my writing eyes and hands.

A living, speaking, real landscape is always full of magic. Magic is the language of elk as they speak to each other through the fog. Magic is the way granite forms over millennia, the way murres lay green eggs. Magic is the sounds of tall grasses in the wind. Magic is the way fog is formed. Magic is the stories people leave behind in the places they inhabit, the spirits, ghosts and gods they talk to. Magic is the towhee poking about in the dirt for worms and seeds, singing her own peculiar tune.
Slide marks from the otter-bodies.
So I began writing this way, and my first novel length piece, Tomales Point: Creation Stories emerged—the story of a part of the Point Reyes peninsula, told from the perspective of mountain lions, dairy ranchers, grasslands, Coast Miwok remains, an old woman riding the granite in the tectonic plates over millennia. A mythos, part my own imagining, part this land, was born. I haven't looked back since.

I’ve found that beneath the surface, this place has old women with heron feet, men whose shadows are coyotes in the dark, voles tilling and tilling the earth, tunneling it into labyrinths, a worship of aerated earth, woodrat nests that witness generations, land masses like the bodies of tule elk. But most important, perhaps, for the act of writing— this place has my heart buried in it. California, and more specifically the ecosystems in which I grew up, are not just a physical landscape to me, but an emotional one too.  And Abbott's Lagoon is at the heart of it all. I've been coming here since I was small. It is my place of pilgrimage.

I used to come to Abbott's Lagoon for picnics as a little girl, with my parents and my younger brother. The drive was about an hour and a half from our house, around a mountain and through several valleys, but it felt like we entered another world. In that way of little children, time passed in long leaps on car-rides, and I was completely disoriented, dropped into a different landscape of blue lupine, orange and black caterpillars crossing the paths, a bright blue lagoon, a dune like something from a fairytale, the thrashing white-capped ocean beyond, thundering her song.

We’d lay out the blanket in that vast expanse of sand, like a moon. I was endlessly enchanted by it, the way the wind smoothed and danced across it, the strange tracks criss-crossing every direction, how hard and slow it was to walk through that much sand, into the wind. It made me think of the dunes and camels of Egypt that I read about in books; it made me think of adventures, with a sturdy green sack full of salami sandwiches and tough plums, a wildcat or a river otter as a friend, setting out across a seemingly endless dunescape. 

Abbott's Lagoon is a magic place. Seeing that tangle of playing river otters, relaxed and chortling in their otter-way in the unusual July sun (normally the fog is thick through the summer mornings out there, hanging onto the edge of the Pacific ocean), is just the sort of thing this place always seems to offer, something that goes straight into that imagined organ between heart and sternum, where beauty, soul-magic and creativity reside. I’ve seen giant whale skull bones washed up on the beach here. A moonbow. I fell in love, really, truly, while walking together along that tideline and exploring those dunes. In high school I found my soul, I think, in this fog, in the light green-blue crash of waves. I found myself connected to all things.

Then, last fall, I started taking classes in animal tracking. Many of them took place on the dunes at Abbott’s Lagoon, because they are like a canvas for wild creatures to write with their paws upon. Coyotes side-trot over the sand in flirting pairs, kicking up their heels and leaving claw marks of joy. Jackrabbits bound. Bobcats walk quietly along the very edge of the dune, where it meets tule grass and marsh pennywort. Great blue herons stalk. Ravens land and chatter, gulls circle, deer mice hop between tufts of dune grass. They all leave stories behind.

So, Abbott’s Lagoon has become like a sacred living manuscript to me as well, the heart of my own journey toward understanding a little bit of the languages of wildness all around me. It started when I was six or seven, reading books full of myth and picnicking there with my family. It is my own symbol of creative inspiration, in the inner world I wander to while creating stories and poems.

The point is, through all of this rambling— the muse for me is not something intangible that floats through the ether and grabs my shoulders from time to time, spilling inspiration. The muse IS the land. I write to bring stories of place— that nexus of animal, human, plant, land and weather— back into our literary and cultural landscape. I write to learn the land I live in and on more deeply, and I write to give voice to the more than human world, both as it intersects with our human lives, and as it exists far beyond, in all of its mystery, in all of its true magic.

As to the veering into madness that art can cause, particularly when you are trying to learn the minds and ways of other species, (and other families of life altogether, including the myth-beings we can’t quite see anymore…), well. I think it needs to be a dance, close to abandon but not quite, like those otters tumbling in knots together. Playful but so strong and so graceful they are like water, never losing balance on the steep dune, belly-sliding when necessary, so fierce the bobcat who lives in a den under the nearby willows won’t bother to stalk them. They make their home in water and on land; they walk that line; but they are always up for a good play in the sand. They know the dune is near, if the water gets too deep.

A bobcat lives in the willows to the left, and uses that marsh-edge as her road.
Bobcat prints, faint in the sand (the trail on the right side of the photo)
I’ve read that the old Irish bards carried their harps in cases made of otter-skin, to keep them dry as they travelled through rain and mist, town to town, selling songs. So as I sit down at my little desk to write in the early morning, wielding a cup of tea, I imagine an otter skin over my shoulders. The transforming cape, to take you under, to keep you dry in the lagoons and warm on the sanddunes of the imagination.

(For some mythical writing that is set the landscape of Point Reyes, go here, to a new page I've made with an excerpt of one of my tales.)


  1. This is a thoroughly gorgeous post. Thank you for this glimpse into your mythic world.

    - Terri Windling

  2. This touched my heart. Thank you for a most beautiful post.

    - Sebina

  3. I love the recognition that the land is your Muse-I only really understood that when I moved back home to Texas after being gone for 10 years-but its so true.

    1. Yes, it took that coming back home for me too! I love to imagine what the realm of writing and art would be like if more work reflected this love and sense of connection with place. I think it would change the world! :)

    2. Me too Sylvia...I don't know about you but for me home is such a blend of safety and comfort and security and tension, dissatisfaction, and irritation-along with a bunch of other qualities thrown in! Dealing with that on ground zero so to speak allows me to deal with those tensions in my art and ritual making more fully and honestly.