Saturday, December 14, 2013

Decembering: Touching Winter With My Hands

Sometimes, all it takes to bring a small seed of calm into my heart is to lay down my pen and paper and do something simple and tangible with my hands— chop rosehips from the garden and pack them into a jar with brandy, knit, run outside and lay my fingers and my palms against the dirt, sit by the peach tree with my hands against the ground until the first star twinkles out at dusk. This winter-time is stirring up an especially strong and old yearning in my soul for the humble, but deeply vital, sensual pleasures of hand and needle, hand and herb, foot and path, foot and frost, eye and moss, eye and rose-thorn branch, nose and winter air, nose and smell-of- damp-coast-live-oak, heart and living land. These things seem to feed the rooting and hibernating animal part of my body and mind.

I think what I mean is, we live in a highly cerebral, analytical, "rational" world, in a culture that does not recognize that when the cold and dark come, even in coastal California, our bodies and our minds long for quiet, for the restfulness of hands-to-wool, hands-to-root, hands-to-watercolors (regardless of whether one is any good with them, ahem). It is time to take shelter in the hearth of home, to make warmth, to make healing remedies in whatever way suits you—soups, tinctures, songs, baths—to let your hands create while your mind, for a little while, can dream into the dark rootings of the winter world, the winter land.

We've had some record-breaking cold here, frost everywhere in the hills so thick in places it resembles snow. The cold invigorates me, it stirs something old in my heart, it makes me long for rain and for the solace of the hearth after a long outdoor ramble all at once.

And so I have been doing my very best, despite the business of the holiday season, and the business of this wonderful writing life I tend and cultivate around myself like an ever-growing forest of alders all tangled at their bases with nettles and native blackberry, marvelous and blessed and utterly unruly, to keep my feet often against the wild earth, and my hands often tangled in wool, or touching the glass of my tincture bottles, or placing one finger-print in the foot-pad of the coyote.

So here is a little bit of a (patchwork) taste of some of my hand-and-foot-made Winterings...

Out in the hills, the manzanitas, marvels of geometry, of water-preservation, of wine-dark barked strength, are getting ready to flourish with the first big storms. I sat recently for some time, trying to draw and paint these shapes, with frustrating results. But as I grew frustrated over my pencil, and set it down, and lay back against the ground instead, staring at the cold blue sky, I remembered that a large part of painting and drawing (for me) is the act of seeing more clearly what is in front of me (and not necessarily rendering anything of great accuracy on paper...). Hence the photo here of the manzanita leaves, instead of my scratchy painting...

The thorns of the wild California rose are as thick as fur, protecting the tiny wild rosehips, those rubies of the fir and bay wood; the poetry of thorns and the sweetness of those hips together sing out into the dark canyons.

I went out on a recent ramble to see if I might find the artist conk mushroom, which I very recently learned is in the same family as the venerated Reishi mushroom of immortality-herb-fame. Ours is called Ganoderma appalatum, and doesn't look a whole lot like the glossy red Asian Reishi. It is a bit more humbly rough around the edges, and, as I realized, is the mushroom I've called, my whole life, the fairy-ledge, not knowing any other name for it.

Although it is not considered as potent as the "official" Reishi, (Ganoderma lucidum), I believe very strongly in the magic of the plants who we share our homes with, our wild ecosystems. We of the Bay Area, and of California, share the air, we share the wind and rain and sun and specifically storied climate, slope, creek, of this place with the artist conk mushroom; we share the stories of gray fox and winter wren and red-shouldered hawk and mountain lion; we share, somewhere, even our dreams. I like to imagine dreams drifting down through our floors, through our house foundations, into the earth, trailed behind tunneling moles, passed off between earthworms, swallowed by hermit thrushes and robins, shat out again at the base of some bay tree, seeped into the soil by rain, taken up into the hard gills of the conk mushrooms...

I didn't gather any at our first meeting; I wanted to just sit, and take the hardy conks in with my senses, and my hands— the fleshy underside is as soft as the finest creamy velvet. This is potent immune medicine, medicine for the nervous system too, grounding and healing on many, many levels; next time, I will come with a little gift to leave the mushroom-folk and the bay-tree sisters from which they seem to enjoy growing... And then I will report back about the making of medicine!

Satsuma tangerine time is upon us here. The orange and lemon trees on the streets are heavy with fruit. Breaking the skin of a tangerine with my nail, peeling it in one S-shape, eating the fruit in one sweet bite, is one of the old childhood smells of winter to me. I've eaten copious amounts of these jewel-sweet planets of citrus in the past few weeks, while feverishly writing out the latest Chapters of the Leveret Letters....

I am reminded of one of my very favorite Pablo Neruda poems, Ode to the Lemon, and the very last stanza:

So when your hand
Squeezes the hemisphere
Of the cut
Lemon onto your plate,
A universe of gold,
You have poured out
Yellow cup
Full of miracles
One of the sweet-smelling nipples
Of the breast of the earth,
A ray of light that became a fruit,
The diminutive fire of a planet

On another of these wintering-rambles, squeezed in between tale-writing, when I intended to be looking for the tracks and signs of animals, I got quite waylaid by the beauty of bay laurel bows, eucalyptus and bracken fern, monterey cypress, sword fern, coyote brush, and went a bit overboard gathering bits for a wreath for the door, woven through with a few madrone berries, a few hawthorn berries to bring protection to our home, and clusters of the red berries you see above, whose name I don't know (anybody know? They look like our native toyon, but are not! I think perhaps an exotic plant?).

I love that every time I come home now, this moon-shaped wreath of clippings from the wild hills, where the coyotes roam at dawn, is there to hitch my thoughts and my heart back into the forest.

I've finally gotten around to labeling many jars and bottles of medicines made in the summertime. These jars of alder-bark and usnea lichen fill me up to the brim with joy—just looking at them, giving them a shake, thinking of the places they were gathered from. I think this must be part of the healing of plants—the relationships you form with them, the places they come to occupy in your heart, growing forth from there as well as the ground.

(And for you herbalists out there-- I know, my alder isn't quite all the way covered... some of those sticks won't go under! But I shake it frequently, never fear!)

Here are a few samples of the tinctures made over the last six months-- my very first batch of medicines, a delightful harvest on the shelf this wintertime!

And the Bavarian Cough syrup I mentioned some six months ago (!), in this post , has also finally gotten its proper label. Good heavens, it is so delicious I am often tempted to eat it for dessert...

I believe that our hands have an intelligence all their own. How else is it that the hands remember a piece of music on the violin when the mind does not? May your hands make small winter magic this cold and quiet time of year. May your hands, stitching or stirring or sketching or stroking plant leaves or strumming instruments or scattering seeds (if you live in California...) or stalking deer through the thickets (that would be your feet, I suppose) bring just a little bit of solace, and rest, to your busy mind this wintertime, so that it may have a moment, or two, or twenty, to drift and to dream.

P.S. For some more thoughts on the need for quiet and gentleness and dreaming through the winter, read this by wondrous herbalist and owner of One Willow Apothecaries, Asia Suler.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Wild Stories for the Solstice: A Gray Fox Gift Parcel!

Outside today the air is cold as it rings the crisp bells of the walnut leaves. The air is cold in the feathers of the towhees as they call to each other across the garden, it is cold in the bare branches of the peach tree where I like to lean, and listen to the wind and birds and the ground below. It is tea and rooting weather, tea and tale and candlelight weather, and as such I have finally gotten around to arranging a small solstice offering this year...

The traditional time for storytelling and sharing is in the dark of winter, as the sun wanes and the fires are stoked. Just in time for the coming winter solstice, I am offering a little Solstice Special in case you are looking to give the gift of wild tales to a loved one this winter. Follow along to my small story-stall here in these Etsy Thickets, and you will find a set of four tales for $35, one set to arrive in time for your solstice-christmas-etc. gifting, the others a regular three-month subscription, so that the gift of wild tales keeps coming for your beloveds through the winter time.

And if you'd like to know a bit more about these wild-pawed tales, come along over to Wild Talewort and have a look!

Monday, November 25, 2013

From Madrone Berry Hills to Rosehip Gardens: Reflections on a New Home

Last week on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, where we now make our home, we had huge winds that rattled our attic bedroom and seemed to want to rip the roof off in the dark waning moon night. In the morning, in the farm-garden, as I call it, our yard a shared space as wide as the whole city block, with chickens and bees and fruit trees and tangles of herb wild enough for the bewick's wrens to deem them livable, many fruits and seeds were wind-torn from their stems.

 Here, above, are a few, and also a little picture of the diverse bounty of plants that grow in this rich piece of earth in the Temescal neighborhood, in the city of Oakland, in the mild California fall. I do wonder, since this home is a Victorian built in the 1880's, and the lot behind it so huge, so intact, if this is the original land still, which at the time the house was built had been flooded and reflooded with the rich silt from the nearby Temescal Creek, home to numerous groups of Huichun Ohlone Indians, for over 10,000 years (the Bay herself is only about 13,000 to 15,000 years old, before that a rich wet meadow land with the huge Sacramento River winding through to the ocean). I think of that when I put my hands in the dirt, and feel a deep peace.

We were so excited to move in that we came for a night with no furniture, and in the morning, I found a corner on the floor with my tea and notebook, and felt right at home.

Now we have filled the tops of bookshelves with treasures (and in the far corner, very important, a collection of bird books and binoculars for peering out the front windows with, where the bird life in the sidewalk tree is immense)...

And we have made many pots of morning tea...

... and outside in this mild November the kiwis swell, and I take cups of tea at midday, for a break, to sit with the green and rooting beings of this bit of land, to sit with the chickens and the bees and the old whisperings of the dirt below.

Inside these thickets, the bewick's wren makes his home.

The orange tree glows with hundreds of buttery sunset-hued fruit...

... and the tree dahlia, gentle giant who reaches a good fifteen feet into the sky, catches the autumn sun with her (now slightly wind-battered) pink petals.

Cover crops of peas and I'm-not-sure-what else sprung up like a green fur after the season's first rain last week.

From our attic windows, we look into the top of this tall black walnut tree, where a red-breasted sapsucker visits on the regular to tap his careful lines of holes, where the robins trill at dawn. At night, the stars of Orion move past the tippy top branches, and I feel blessed, and grateful, that despite the noise from the highways, and the busy roads nearby, and despite the asphalt and urban-ness that of course comes with moving to a city, that this, somehow, is where we have landed, with a black walnut greeting us each morning at dawn, full of birds.

Kinglets and white-crowned sparrows dart about the rose thorn vines...

... and along with the nasturtiums, the two make me smile and feel full and light, because they remind me so fiercely of my mother's garden, growing up.

A short windy drive up into the eastern ridges that look out over the city of Oakland, and beyond it, the city of San Francisco, and to the north of it, the Golden Gate bridge and the wilds of West Marin, takes one to a long string of Regional Parks (bless, oh bless, the men and women who fought to preserve this open space land, it is a great gift), including Huckleberry Botanic Preserve, tangled with rare manzanitas that grow all over Mt. Tamalpais to the west, but are almost non-existent on this side of the Bay. Their presence here has something to do with the soil substrate, and the violent geologic history of this landscape, and I can think of few nicer things than running my hands over their wine-dark bark.

From here, Mt. Diablo rises to the east, the Mountain of native Ohlone creation myths.

Shale and chert dominant the geologic-soil terrain here, and the manzanitas, magnificent hardy beings (who photosynthesize through the bark, let me just add!) slip their roots right through, thriving in the nutrient-poor conditions that most plants can't handle.

The hazels are already pressing forth tender, downy new catkins.

And the ground below the coast live oaks was thick with acorns, and prickly leaves. I could not resist clambering up the branches and laying with all my limbs dangling off, nose in the moss and bark, finding the support of the tree a balm to the busy city below, a blessed being who I am honored to be able to visit, and clamber through like a gray fox.

It was beautiful, and grounding, to connect in my mind the wild preserve full of manzanita, madrone, coast live oak and bay in the eastern hills above the city to the flatlands, now cemented over, where we live, and where, despite the odds, the ancient Temescal Creek still flows (originating, of course, up in the hills), albeit in culverts below ground. Even though it is harder to sense the connectivity of a landscape when it is covered in roads and grid-blocks of streets, in cars and restaurants and people busily bustling and working and not often going barefoot, when it is so obviously fractured, and in many ways bereaved, for me it is still important to do so, to sing out in my heart the stories below my feet, the stories exhaled from one street tree to the next, all the way to the manzanitas up the ridge.

Above are a few tinges of the red bounty of autumn from this new home— madrone berries from the wild hills down to the rose hips from the garden, and a sprig of bougainvillea from the streets nearby.

And so, there is an introduction to our new home, to the new wilds that I will be writing about and exploring here, not so very far from the fir-surrounded cabin we moved from as the crow flies, but a wholly new place at the same time, with new stories and new streets and a new sense of bustle and traffic. As the very wise and very wonderful Nao of Honey Grove Farm once wrote to me, living in a more urban place can force you to seek and find and cultivate the wildness in yourself and around you, to cultivate seedlings and to talk to birds and maple trees and stars overhead with a new need, a new tenderness, a new gratitude for their presence in the landscape around you that can sometimes feel very inanimate, very cold, very overwhelming. But if we do not also sing up the wild roots of our cities, seeing the connectivity of all land and animals, where, in the end, will we find ourselves, and how lonesome?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Wild Tales go to a Flea Market

Of a misty morning a couple weeks ago, I rose early and set out for a small parking-lot flea market in Mill Valley with a big red basket of stories, where for the first time, I sold my tales at a little booth. I packaged them up in a rich array of colors, and skirted them with stones and rosemary sprigs, old scarves and books of tales-- both fairytales and the tales made by animal feet.

I had quite a nice time arranging my humble table, and holding in my hands those big piles of coyote-brush stained story-worlds.

It did prove a bit tricky to try to explain these stories in their cosy envelopes-- what did you say you're selling? Stories? In envelopes? Right...

Only a few days before, the Gray Fox Epistles was featured in the local Marin Independent Journal-- what an honor and delight! Aha, people seemed to say with their eyes looking down at it, so you are serious!

It felt like a small corner of magic-making, to get to sit at a table full of parcels, each a mythic tale, each a tribute in some way to the bay mountain shadowing us, to the marshes down the bustling road, to the ocean and beach beyond the ridge, and share them with others in this way.  Personal, face to face--when most of the time I'm tucked away filling notebooks, or wandering through bay and oak and fir forest silently, watching the stellar's jays. And how much more direct can it be than that, the story-writer at a little table, handing out wax-sealed envelopes full of words? Well-- oral storytelling is more direct, I daresay, but a different wild beast indeed than this one...

 Now, all I need is a cape full of pockets just the size to fit Epistles, some sturdy walking boots, and a gray fox to deign befriend me... and a big red basket to carry them in, of course!