Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Leveret Letters: A New Project!

In honor of the full solstice moon of June, the big silver mistress of tide and tale, I am launching a new branch of the Gray Fox Epistles called The Leveret Letters, for children and adolescents. Similarly, it will arrive monthly, and it will involve myth, magic and deep ecology. However, instead of separate tales, the Leveret Letters will be a series of installments in one larger story, a chronicle of sorts...

This is how the tale goes: two young black-tailed hares, the leverets Myrtle and Mallow, lead a normal country girl named Comfrey and a normal city boy named Tin on adventures through the mole tunnels, the coastal scrubbrush, the fir forests and the seal-filled beaches of the wild world right beside the one we know. It is just off the highway, through the stands of fennel and blackberry. It is just through the salmonberries, where the foxes have made tunnels. It is just there, between the city sidewalk cracks where the dandelions grow, and just here, beyond the pages of our books, in the chittering of the chickadees out the window.

The place where a hare sat, Limantour beach
Loosely based upon the overall tale-arch of the Russian fairytale Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf, the Leveret Letters are monthly installments in the adventures of Comfrey and Tin as they learn to navigate the magic of the wild natural world that always knew their names, and was only waiting for them to begin to speak its language.

Come along, follow the quick-bounding tracks of the twin leverets Myrtle and Mallow as they lead the children from thimbleberry thickets where kindly women give them tea, to Kings demanding the retrieval of magical animals, to an open prairie full of tule elk, whose Queen longs to be re-united with her stolen sister, to an island in the wild Pacific full of nesting murres and seal-people, and the web being made there that must be retrieved before the world is too lost to be rewoven by it.

In the spirit of Redwall, Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, the children’s fairytales of George MacDonald, Alice in Wonderland, My Side of the Mountain, and The Chronicles of Narnia, the Leveret Letters are a modern-day epic, told in installments, of adventure, deep wild magic, myth, ecology, and the wisdom of children. These chronicles are very much rooted in the landscape I call home—the watersheds of the Coast Range mountains north of San Francisco and the geologically unique Point Reyes Peninsula, just over the San Andreas Fault. They encourage their readers to locate myth and magic not just in the Old European wilds of so many familiar stories, but in their own backyards and nearby preserves.

Each month’s letter, similar in packaging to the Gray Fox Epistles, is a piece in this chronicle, ranging in length from 10,000 words (the opening Letter) to a general average of about 5,000. Tales will build on each other, but also will stand alone. Any sign-ups after the first month will automatically receive the opening Letter for free, and can fill in with intervening Letters as they see fit. One or two simple line-illustrations will accompany each installment, and a sweet token of wildness, along with a handful of magical worlds to reconnect young readers with the wonders right out their backdoor in a new way, will be folded into each Letter.

All Leveret Letters are written for an audience anywhere from age 7 to age 13, and beyond! Advanced younger readers are certainly welcome—content may be complex and detailed at times, but not inappropriate.

I am passionate about creating inspiring and magical tales for younger readers that reconnect the heart to the wholeness of our place in the natural world. Our young ones need as much steeping in the true magic of the wild, and reconnection to their place in the family of things, as possible.

I am also passionate about creating an experience of tactile excitement and pleasure related to the receiving of a physical parcel in the post. In a world of increasing digital dependence, I believe that children and young adults especially need more “magic” to arrive in their hands not via the computer screen, but via the real, sensory world.

These stories can be taken out in the garden, up a tree, on the rooftop, on the beach, and can be read aloud there, or silently. Of course, bedtime reading with a cup of hot milk and honey is a perfect place too! These Leveret Letters can be berry-smudged, smeared with dirt, and read aloud to nearby trees, rosebushes, cats, honeybees.

So do come along and sign up your children,  your grandchildren, nieces, nephews, young friends, little sisters, little brothers, or yourself, just there, in the right-hand column! The opening installment will arrive around the FULL MOON OF JULY (the 22nd).

And here, to whet your appetites, is an excerpt from the beginning of the very first installment:


When Tin saw an ember-orange glow near the low boughs of a fir tree just down the next hill, he crouched quickly behind a rock covered in green lichen. The hare Mallow, moving his dark-tipped ears, raised his eyes just above the stone, then darted back.

“It’s her, no doubt about it.” His whiskers quivered when he spoke, like he’d caught a little of the bird’s fire there, just from looking at her. “I suppose you must have some wits about you after all, to have got us here,” the leveret continued, then turned to crop at the lichen on the rock. Tin took his words as a compliment and smiled. “Beginner’s luck,” concluded the hare, back still turned.

“No,” said Tin quietly, “it’s the feather. Like it’s gotten into my chest and licks flames at my heart when we get near her.” He pulled the feather from his corduroy coat, already ash-stained and torn at the back from all their crawling through the brush. The feather was the color of the hottest part of a fire, built to perfection, but it was only warm, not burning, in the boy’s hands, and as long as his forearm. Tin stood slowly then, with the feather raised like a candle to cast light, though it was broad day.

“What are you doing?” hissed Mallow. Tin didn’t respond. He walked gingerly, like the ground, a green glow with the new grass coming up after the winter storms, was the skin of a sleeping animal. The red-tailed hawk, fire-bright from the stars her wings had grazed while migrating many centuries before—Firebird, Phoenix, Bird of Light—turned her head slowly to watch the boy. Her tail was long with flames, an even deeper red than the rest of her body. Her eyes, yellow, black-rimmed, were two suns upon him. Tin felt warm. 

“What, are you going to sing her down, some kind of Bird-Whisperer?” hissed Mallow again, loudly, getting angry. “Since when are you a Bird-Whisperer? You’re going to get caught!” 

For a moment all of Tin’s life dissolved in his mind, and he was only that fire-hawk gaze, the line it made between them, umbilical and ember-hot. He felt very peaceful. 

A loud cracking whipped through the fir-forest edge between the Firebird and Tin. The boy jumped, dropped the feather, and the bird lofted to a high branch. She let out a piercing whistle of irritation; she enjoyed adoring gazes, and she had never met, eye to eye, a little boy before. The cracking was followed by the patter and shuffle of feet on duff, little panting breaths, and then a girl burst out of the tree-line into the clearing. A hare-leveret identical to Mallow, only a female and therefore slightly wider of hip and narrower of bone, bounded at the girl’s ankles. The girl yelped when she saw Tin, and he yelped back in surprise. 

Tin had never seen a girl quite like her before—his age, and, as far as he could tell, a normal child, not part-bobcat, part-thimbleberry or part-coyote. She had a backpack too, a red one, and familiar canvas sneakers tied to it. But she was barefoot, wearing an unusual, tattered but sturdy green skirt patched in red, and a normal sort of blue T-shirt. She had a few necklaces— gold chains with shells or rocks with holes through the middle strung onto them. She wore her dark hair in braids that came to a pronounced V at her forehead, a widow’s peak. Her cheeks flushed very pink and her ears stuck out. She was smiling broadly as Tin stared. 

“Myrtle!” cried Mallow from behind the rock, and leapt out, reaching his twin sister in a single bound. They pressed noses, tangled ears, and began to crop at new green together, muttering in low leveret voices.

“Hopeless,” Mallow was saying, and, “you never do know,” from his sister, between bites.

“Who are you? You’ve got her feather!” said Comfrey after a silence. She herself was not used to seeing a boy her age dressed quite so smart—clean-cut, a tucked in checkered shirt, a collared corduroy jacket with two flaps at the back. His hair, she smiled to herself, was sticking out every way, reddish and tousled with restless sleep.

“Well, it’s my mission after all,” said Tin, putting the feather away fast into his coat. 

“Yours? Your what?”

“None of your business.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Myrtle sighed from near their ankles. “Comfrey, this is Martin, Tin for short. Tin, this is Comfrey. Look, you’re meant to be friends. Partners, see?”

“What?” said Comfrey, thinking Tin looked a bit scrawny, and at the moment rather full of himself, to be of much use on any kind of adventure.

“Her?” said Tin, looking at Comfrey’s bare dirty feet, everything about her winded, wayward, and altogether too energetic for him to understand. He’d liked feeling as though he had a task made only for him. He glared.

“And what,” said a voice behind all of them, “exactly do you think you’re doing here, in my Firebird’s Meadow, in my Place, King San Andreas of the Phoenix?”

All four turned, children and leverets. Both hares felt their fur rise, that they hadn’t heard him coming, they who heard All. The man before them leaned on a cane made of mica. It glowed darkly. He hunched over it. His beard was white, long and braided, but his skin was oddly unlined, his eyes very bright, a green-brown like wet stones. The Firebird circled and landed right on his head, like a crown, her feet wrapped gently around the edges of a wooden platform he had balanced there on his skull. Somehow, it didn’t catch fire. She rearranged her wings and sparks flew. The King caught the embers in his bare hands and ate them. His eyes, thought Comfrey, were not unkind, only pained. He wore a clean brown garment resembling the habits of monks.

“We—that is, I—was sent by…” Tin swallowed and trailed off, not sure now if a thief was meant to reveal his provenance, the origins of his orders. “That is to say, your Firebird—”

“Yes, yes, the King of Hawk Hill sent you to steal her. Very transparent, hm.” He cleared his throat. “I could have her cook and eat you right here, you know. Hungry lass.” The King reached up a knotted hand and the Firebird nipped his fingers with affection, then turned her eyes, now wholly hunger, on them, particularly the leverets, who leapt simultaneously into Tin’s and Comfrey’s arms. 

“But of course, a King always has his own requests, hm. His own needs, yes indeed. Bargains, trades.” King San Andreas gestured a hand for them to follow him, and began to make his way, limping, across the meadow, through the fir trees, and toward a tumbledown white house, all stitched together with blackberry vines, that was his Castle. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Oh, the Sun, the Sun Full of All Seeds

Blessings this summer solstice to the star who fills us each with light, who grows the plants, who warms our bodies, the seeds of our every making. May we honor that long-light-sun, may we be glowing, may we cast our rays upon those seeds which most need to grow healthy and strong in ourselves and in the world.

May our hearts be flowers drinking sun and planting our dozen, dozen seeds.

I followed the lovely recipe of Mystic Mamma this afternoon, high noon, sun bright and big overhead, and went to a dry hill to gather special flowers for a solstice flower essence—farewell to spring, California poppy, a sprig of yarrow, a single wild rosehip. What a lovely thing! I am enchanted, utterly, by this new concept, the healing of a few lovingly-picked flowers, steeped in sun (or in moon, for that matter, I think I'll do another this full moon Sunday!) It felt so much like being a little girl again— I thought to myself, oh, right, this is what you did all the time as a child. Oh, the things we forget, and how good it is to remember how easy they are, how playful, and how good it feels to be playful in the midst of all the Things that would tell you not to be.

These two make 8 (a different set I'm pretty sure). They wandered through once I was back,  near the next cabin down the hill. Goodness, I can't get enough of gazing upon these fawns!
Along the way I saw six deer— three fawns, growing up but still speckled, three does, one of which I think was a yearling-daughter with her mother and her mother's new fawn, as does will often do. This was a very short walk, mind you—and quite a lot of deer for the distance, I daresay! They are so common around here, so sometimes it is easy to forget how completely beautiful and steeped in grace they are. But oh my, I was transfixed by them, particularly the sweet fawns eyeing me curiously, and then their mama, protective, watching with all her strength. They walked right past the secret place of my flower-gathering... Somehow they felt like sun-priestesses, leading the way. From Siberia to ancient Mexico, deer have been depicted through the ages as carrying the sun between their antlers... so maybe there is something to that hunch (though none of these ladies of course had antlers).

Solstice blessings upon all the deer and their fawns growing up this beautiful summertime, and upon all the sun-seeds in our hearts, and of course, great thanks to the Sun Itself, on this longest day of the year (on this side of the planet, that is...)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Flowers That Made Us

The magnificent spring umbel of the cow parsnip
It has officially begun, this new obsession with the stories and voices and forms of the flowering leafing seeding fruiting world. One dip into the realm of herbalism, and the world has blossomed astoundingly around me. We interact with plants daily, breathing the oxygen they release, trailing our eyes over them, and maybe our hands if we are walking, as we pass street trees, grassy hills, forests, even freeway center strips. Eating of them, oh yes, everywhere, everyway, everyday.

I've long loved to be amidst them, but subconsciously, like breathing, not in this new and deeper way, this longing to know them all, like friends, like mentors or brothers, who have great and deep knowing and medicine in them that we have evolved, with them (and more so all of our older hot-blooded mammalian and avian ancestors), to learn and to use.

 Since I was a tiny girl my mother grew and tended beautiful, tangled gardens full of sunflowers, string beans, roses. I remember being maybe three or four, and, in summertime, standing with my feet deep in wet mud in the garden, rooted down so I felt very solid in the ground. I remember wondering to myself if this was what it felt like to be a sunflower... and wouldn't it be nice to try, for an hour or two, standing very still, hands reached up to the sun? At all the three houses I grew up in, at different ends of the same small town at the base of Mount Tamalpais called Mill Valley, my mother grew such gardens, in a way that seemed effortless to me, the roses wild and tangled enough to make caves, the summer annuals blooming in such color-riots it almost made you want to weep, just looking at them— how can there be such beauty in the world? Thank goodness there is this beauty in the world!

My whole life, they have been there, they have been here, and I am so grateful for my mother and her green thumb.

In the midst of my recent excitement, every plant new all over again to me—the redwood tips, the false solomon's seal all over the hillside, the elderberries, dandelions, plaintain, California poppy, manzanita, all singing out the things they've always held that I've only just begun to ask— I read a magnificent piece of writing by Loren Eiseley, called "How Flowers Changed the World." It is an excerpt from his longer book, The Immense Journey. In it he beautifully describes how the evolution of hot-blooded, fast-metabolizing mammals and birds really could only take off once flowering plants, with their nutrient dense seeds, flowers, pollen and fruits, had evolved too. That we deeply and directly shaped and leaned on each other. In the time of slow-moving, huge reptiles, the world was giant in its proportions, and mostly green, but when the angiosperms arrived, the world transformed, butterfly-style....

California poppies, dry clovers, so many grass seeds!
"The world of the giants was a dying world. These fantastic little seeds skipping and hopping and flying about the woods and valleys brought with them an amazing adaptability. If our whole lives had not been spent in the midst of it, it would astound us. The old, stiff, sky-reaching wooden world had changed into something that glowed here and there with strange colors, put out queer, unheard of fruits and little intricately carved seed cases, and, most important of all, produced concentrated foods in a way that the land had never seen before, or dreamed of back in the fish-eating, leaf-crunching days of the dinosaurs.

Blooming California buckeye, intoxicating to smell
"That food came from three sources, all produced by the reproductive system of the flowering plants. There were the tantalizing nectars and pollen intended to draw insects for pollenizing purposes, and which are responsible also for that wonderful jeweled creating, the hummingbird. There were the juicy and enticing fruits to attract larger animals, and in which tough-coated seeds were concealed, as in the tomato, for example. Then, as if this were not enough, there was the food in the actual seed itself, the food intended to nourish the embryo. All over the world, like hot corn in a popper, these incredible elaborations of the flowering plants kept exploding. In a movement that was almost instantaneous, geologically speaking, the angiosperms had taken over the world. Grass was beginning to cover the bare earth until, today, there are over six thousand species. All kinds of vines and bushes squirmed and writhed under new trees with flying seeds.

The red elderberry of the Pacific northwest
"The explosion was having its effect on animal life also. Specialized groups of insects were arising to feed on the new source of food and, incidentally and unknowingly, to pollinate the plant. The flowers bloomed and bloomed  in ever larger and more spectacular varieties. Some were pale unearthly night flowers intended to lure moths in the evening twilight, some among the orchids even took the shape of female spiders in order to attract wandering males, some flamed redly in the light of the noon or twinkled modestly in meadow grasses. Intricate mechanisms splashed pollen on the breasts of hummingbirds, or stamped it on the bellies of black, grumbling bees droning assiduously from blossom to blossom. Honey ran, insects multiplied, and even the descendants of that toothed and ancient lizard-bird had become strangely altered. Equipped with prodding beaks instead of biting teeth they pecked the seeds and gobbled the insects that were really converted nectar.

Little wild plums
"Across the planet grasslands were now spreading. A slow continental upthrust which had been part of the early Age of Flowers had cooled the world's climates. The stalking reptiles and the leather-winged black imps of the seashore cliffs had vanished Only birds roamed the air now, hot-blooded and high-speed metabolic machines.

The seeds of the wild cucumber fruit, and behind my hand the huge cone of a sugar pine from the Sierra foothills
"The mammals, too, had survived and were venturing into new domains, staring about perhaps a bit bewildered at their sudden eminence now that the thunder lizards were gone. Many of them, beginning as small browsers upon leaves in the forest, began to venture out upon this new sunlight world of the grass. Grass has a high silica content and demands a new type of very tough and resistant tooth enamel, but the seeds taken incidentally in the cropping of the grass are highly nutritious. A new world had opened out for the warm-blooded mammals. Great herbivores like the mammoths, horses and bisons appeared. Skulking around them had arisen savage flesh-feeding carnivores like the now extinct dire wolves and the saber-toothed tiger.

Dire wolf skeleton, from La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles

"Flesh-eaters though these creatures were, they were being sustained on nutritious grasses one step removed. Their fierce energy was being maintained on a high, effective level, through hot days and frosty nights, by the concentrated energy of angiosperms. That energy, thirty-percent or more of the weight of the entire plant among some of the cereal grasses, was being accumulated and concentrated in the rich proteins and fats of the enormous game herds of the grasslands."

To read this whole marvelous essay, I found an online pdf here.

These words are just deeply and wildly moving to me, to remember how we have all grown together, feeding each-other, the insects little seeds of nectar, the deer made up of the grass, our own bodies nourished by all— deer, seed, fruit, bird, fish. Being omnivores, Eaters of All, from nectar to mammal blood, we have the honor of bringing all life into our bodies, like placing prayers upon an altar. But with this honor comes immense responsibility, and I daresay the other side of the coin seems more our forte at the moment—consuming, destructively, everything in our paths, without heed, without honor, with great violence and blindness.

Perhaps if we remember more often the wise words of Gary Snyder, below, we can begin to right this balance, at least in our own lives...

Song of the Taste
Gary Snyder

Eating the living germs of grasses
Eating the ova of large birds

the fleshy sweetness packed
around the sperm of swaying trees

The muscles of the flanks and thighs of
soft-voiced cows
the bounce in the lamb’s leap
the swish in the ox’s tail

Eating roots grown swoll
inside the soil

Drawing on life of living
clustered points of light spun
out of space
hidden in the grape.

Eating each other’s seed
ah, each other.

Kissing the lover in the mouth of bread:
lip to lip.

* * *

We are, after all and always, that which we eat, that which we breathe, that which we drink, and the  tales we tell ourselves. May they be wild, may they be magic, may they be joyous, may they be honored.

Lupines on the steep coast of Mt. Tamalpais (a few months ago. Now these hills are entirely gold)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Wise Child

When I was a girl of 8 or 9, my dear friend Elsinore and I spent long afternoons in the hedges and flowers of her mother's wild garden, in the yellow roses, the raspberries, the shade of pear trees, pretending to be dorans, inspired by the magnificent Juniper of Wise Child. We set up a camping tent in the overgrown place called, by her mother, the Secret Garden, flanked with roses, left the door open, went about the garden gathering various plants to make herbal potions. We whittled ourselves wands from some tree, I can't remember which, and rubbed them with rosemary to make them "magic." Those wands of ours felt full of some immense but inexplicable magic. They didn't do anything, but they felt alive to me.We took paper bags of her mother's wool, and a spindle each, and tried to spin, to no avail— we had little patience for it. We carved little wooden necklaces, polished them using her father's toolshed, set in turquoise, tiger's eye, amber, very proud of our careful creations. One day, when we could spin and weave, we were determined to make our own doran capes, woven with the colors of our spirits, the animals and plants of our hearts.

I am still getting there, the whole cape part— all the skills are in place except for the cape itself, which is quite a large undertaking once you've learned to weave, but have only yet made a slender scarf! Elsinore, on the other hand, studied textile design at the neighbor-sister school to the one where I studied creative writing and mythology (the latter not formally, but in all my class-choices), and has by now woven many a river or fox or meadow-inspired textile, if not a doran cape, precisely....

Hawthorn berries and below, tree
That longing to be like Juniper has never really left me; that wise and elegant vision of the doran, as described in Monica Furlong's beautiful book (a Gaelic word that describes a person most closely resembling a witch, in the whole earth-magic Druidic sort of way), was, in a sense, what I wanted to be when I grew up. For Juniper, on top of everything, is a weaver of tales full of magic and the inextricable web-wonder of all beings.

The vision of Juniper's home, up on a hill overlooking a little Scottish town, has never left me— neatly swept stone floors, a capacious and generous hearth, an attic with a loom woven with beautiful, naturally dyed colors, a little stable for goat and mule, a cool stone shed for drying and processing herbs, a wheel-shaped garden with the most everyday and useful medicinal plants the closest in, the dangerous and strong ones the furthest out, and beyond that the woods and meadows full of creatures, wild plants, ocean winds, the wholeness of life.

And the education of Wise Child, which is the central arc of the book, has always struck me as the most profoundly right mentoring I've ever encountered in the Western tradition. The mornings of hard simple chores that force the mind and the body into presentness, discipline and quiet, the study of stars and languages and myths, the gentle teaching via example of the uses of herbs, their handling, of the plants that live out in the woods and how to gather them, the animals and how to interact with them. So much time outside. This is Coyote Mentoring, people—the basis, I imagine, of nature-based learning throughout historical and geographical time and space. Wise Child absorbs through being by Juniper's side, by coming to metabolize and be nourished by Juniper's own relationship to the world.

Of course the whole thing is immensely cosy as well, which I can never resist, in case you hadn't noticed: the simple wholesome comfort of Juniper's home, fire, daily routines, milk goat, herbal preparations, walks. Ah...

I think I have all along held Juniper somewhere in my mind. She has in some way reached out her gentle hands and touched my interest in wool, in sheep, in spinning, weaving, felting, natural dyeing, in the Old Magic of the world, of wild animals, their tracks, their signs. Most recently, I have started to delve into the learning of medicinal plants, their ways, their names, their magic— oh my, what wonders, and Juniper has been there all along, gently guiding.

Juniper tells Wise Child that being a doran is about seeing the patterns of energy that connect and move through all beings, the great web of things. She says that doran is related to the word dorus, meaning an entrance or a way—into seeing the life moving through all creation. About halfway through the book she begins to teach Wise Child a strange and frustrating language the girl can't understand but must memorize, for nights on end. In a scene of great wonder, in a gathering of other dorans, Wise Child realizes what it all means:

"The singing continued, and to my surprise I began to know what The Language was about, not just the part we were singing now but the whole poem. It began with the praise and joy in all creation, copying the voice of the wind and the sea. It described he sun and moon, stars and clouds, birth and death, winter and spring, the essence of fish, bird, animal, and man. It spoke in what seemed to be the language of each creature. [...] It spoke of well, spring, and stream, of the seed that comes from the loins of a male creature and the embryo that grows in the womb of the female. It pictured the dry seed deep in the dark earth, feeling the rain and the warmth seeping down to it. It sang of the green shoot and of the tawny heads of harvest grain standing out in the field under the great moon. It described the chrysalis that turns into a golden butterfly, the eggs that break to let out the fluffy bird life within, the birth pangs of woman and of beast. It went on to speak of the dark ferocity of the creatures that pounce upon their prey and plunge their teeth into it—it spoke in the muffled voice of bear and wolf— it sang the song of the great hawks and eagles and owls until their wild faces seemed to be staring into mine, and I knew myself as wild as they." (p. 162-3)

If that doesn't sum it up, well...

Wise and beautiful creature. Since I was young, a little horse-rider, I've always longed that we could travel about thus, on these noble animals, hoofs clopping, to get from town to town.
Juniper tree, High Desert

If such things move you, do read Wise Child. It is full of much wisdom; it helps to re-root the feet in not only the wonders of ecology, but also of the magic that holds all things together, otherwise known as life and creation, the seed growing, dying back, growing anew.
Elder mother

Once you've got your hands on a copy, settle in with a strong cup of tea, go out under the trees, and enjoy. It is a touchstone to me, a yearly read. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Eating Of the Land, Feeding Of the Soul

Some landscapes are so full of light, of wind, of motion and vastness, they seem to lift your soul right out of your body, or maybe, better put, right into your body, deep into your bones and into the chambers of your heart. Like these tawny hills, so dry gold right now, so green in winter, that look steep one thousand or more feet down to the Pacific Ocean. Really, this place feels like the definition of sublime to me. The fog is often in over the water like this, so it feels like you are above the clouds, looking out over their endlessness. And the hills are so steep that you can watch red-tailed hawks soaring from above, and when you look down, vertigo, sweet and heady, fills you up— the plunge, down all that gold to the ocean.

Here and there are patches of douglas firs or bay laurels, all wind-stunted. They provide shade, and nuts and seeds for birds, for squirrels, but for the most part, in my humble imagination at least, and my humble physical experience of these hills, this is a place that feeds the soul, the fog, and the sun. It is fed upon and fed by the big sun and the moving of the fog, the salt winds, the open edge-dive into the Pacific horizon, grey-whale and great white shark travelled, pelican-woven, seal-sung.

It is steep and vast and spins the body into an ecstatic sense of smallness, and often inspires the reading of books of myth in shady places, where those myths can wing out like red tailed hawks over the fog and gold.

I have memories of deep wonder of reading aloud from the Kalevala here with my love, at sunset, with the fog beginning to actually rush over us and turn the world to spirits.

The life I lead here on the edge of fir forest, the edge of ocean, north of the San Francisco Bay, here in the 21st century, is not one of dependence upon the literal wild foods of this land. Most of you reading this are probably in a similar boat. I have lots of conflicting and complicated and dead-end-leading feelings upon that subject that lead me often to great distress. However, one thing I can say for certain is that our souls certainly need wild relation to vast as well as to brambly weedy places where foxes and blue bellied lizards and thrushes live, in order to maintain our own sanity. They need to be fed by wide open spaces, by views of the place the sun goes down and the curve of the earth and the sense that we will always be small and full of wonder at the fact that a STAR, (a bloody star, people!) touches us with its beneficent light every day. And equally (more literally, once), we are fed by thickets of berries which thrill the body to eat and to savor, even if we don't rely on them for our entire sustenance, patches of nettle for tea, and glimpses of young bucks, brush rabbits and hawks, to remind us of our bigger family.

This past weekend my love and I made a Sunday journey to the western edge of Tomales Bay, fifteen or so miles north of those golden sublime hills facing the ocean. We found ourselves, in a gentle mist, in one of the richest food-filled habitats I've ever seen here. Not just soul-feeding, in that more abstract sense, but really full of food for the tum. Truly, we were astounded. Thimbleberries abounded in tangles with hazel trees, growing with a heaviness of fruit and nut neither of us is used to seeing at all. These thickets grew right down to the beach of Tomales Bay, right down to the edges of the salt marsh and creeks that wound through the alders out into the water.

This place, near Heart's Desire Beach, was once home to many small Coast Miwok villages. Below are two reconstructed redwood bark houses.

I couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of this sign! I know, I know, it wouldn't be any good to have all sorts of random folks lighting haphazard fires inside, it's more the sadness of such a scene that makes me call it absurd. It fills me up with wistfulness, with melancholy, with downright anger and with heartbreak too. The bones of a world forever gone (in that pure form it once had), and what strange ways we deal with that truth now! Quite mad, if you ask me.

Anyhow, knowing that this place had been deeply used for up to 6,000 or 7,000 (or even 9,000) years by Coast Miwok peoples, we began to wonder at the food-thickets anew, as anthropogenic, as having been tended over millenia, now forgotten and let to go leggy, but still utterly abundant.

What rich tangles of food and medicine, reaching out along this path just at arm's and eye's level! I imagine this road, whatever its subsequent history, was once tromped down by hundreds of years of Coast Miwok travel. It skirts the edge of the marsh all tule-fringed and full of fish and shellfish.

Past the cow parsnip and horsetail above is a thicket of salmonberry canes that looked positively planted, pruned neatly at the edges (once), covered in little red-orange berries.

Even yerba buena, one of my favorite herbs, lemon-mint sweet, was present, all along the sides of the trails, across from stands of healing nettles, under coffeeberry bushes (a medicinal favorite of the gray fox and Coast Miwok alike) and hazels.

And salal (below), a relative of the abundant huckleberry (which I forgot to photograph, perhaps because it was everywhere, growing in neat leggy stands and abundant with unripe berries—they taste like smaller, slightly tarter blueberries), was also a common sight. I'm not very used to seeing salal around here (might just be because I'm not always looking), but it was robust and happy here, and only along the path, in easy reach. 

It felt so good, deep down in the bones, to wander through this immense productivity, to imagine how in a few weeks the salmon berries will be ripe, and in a little longer the hazelnuts. And it also felt sad, in that way so much about our relation to the wild makes me feel sad, to look out into this place of such richness, and imagine the way it had been tended for centuries with fire, coppicing, pruning, harvest that always respected the life of each plant and its right to flourish. It made me feel sad to confront the reality that to pick fruit and nuts from the wild is now actually illegal in this place (a state park). I know of course that without proper respect, knowledge and reverence, letting people come harvest right and left would be devastating. But this place was once abundant beyond imagining (and still is in certain areas), and people once saw the plants as their kin. Now, it is even difficult for tribal California Indian peoples to be granted "Gathering Permits," let alone anybody else. What fences we've put up between ourselves and the land, not just the physical ones, but worse even, the ones in our minds!

Signs along part of the path detailed some of the indigenous uses of plants such as thimbleberry, bay laurel, acorn. They read like part of a museum, not a living landscape, not a placed storied deeply with human tending. 

"A cookbook of ancient California cuisine would have hundreds of recipes, utilizing perhaps a thousand of California's native plant species (in contrast, modern Western diets rely on only about thirty plant species out of the many thousands with food potential). The Yurok prepared a dish of smelt with a sauce of raw salal berries. (...) The Concow Maidu sprinkled salmon fillets with a flour of deer brush seeds and pulverized laurel leaves (similar to store bought bay leaves) before baking them in an earth oven. Manzanita cider was sometimes employed as an appetizer to stimulate appetite; the Sierra Miwok sucked their cider through straws made of hawk tail feathers. [....] California Indians had an intimate knowledge of how food could be procured from the landscape. John Muir, who spent long periods alone in the wilderness, recognized this as a great advantage over the cultural knowledge of Westerners. 'Strange that in so fertile a wilderness we should suffer distress for want of a cracker or a slice of bread,' he wrote in his diary, 'while the Indians of the neighborhood sustained their merry, free life on clover, pine bark, lupines, fern roots, etcetera.'" (pages 243-245, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources, by M. Kat Anderson)

Anderson also goes on to write: " The plants that provided Calfiornia Indians with food were integrated into tribal cultures in a variety of ways. That these plants were valued by tribal members is reflected in the naming of people and locations. Whole towns, portions of creeks, and other sites often were named after edible plants; examples include that Wappo names Unutsa wa-holma-homa, meaning 'toyon-berry-grove town,' and Oso' yuk-eju, meaning ' meaning 'going-to-make-buckeye-mush-creek.' Gathering sites were also named for the edible plant harvested there. A foothill Yokuts man told Frank Latta, 'We called Eshom Valley Chetutu, or Clover Place. There was always a nice field of sweet clover there in the spring.' [...] Humans were named after food plants too. Examples include Cheso, a  Sinkyone female name meaning 'tarweed blue,' and Kusetu, a Miwok female name meaning 'wild potato sprouting.' [...] A recurring motif in hundreds of Indian myths is that a food plant actually has a human face or origin. For instance, the Cahuilla believe that all food was once human and could speak. The god Mukat chose particular people in the beginning who were to become plants and be converted into food for human use. The opposite transformation also occurs. Many creation myths tell of humans springing forth from seeds. Cattail seeds, in a Washoe legend, were turned into people; some became Miwok, others became Paiute, and still others became Washoe. These myths instruct humans that plants and people are from the same source and are related." (248-9, Tending the Wild).

Imagine if daily, your world were predicated on the assumption that you and the plants around you were kin. Come from the same source (oh, wait— isn't that what our whole scientific Darwinian explanation of evolution really states? All of us branching and evolving from each other?). But really, if such notions were embodied in us, how differently we would treat all of our places...

On the ground all around the edge of the marsh was a layer, like snow, of crushed shells-- the remnants of old shellmounds, of great ancient feasting, over many many many generations.

I think our hills and meadows and shores and bluffs miss us. Or more specifically, they miss the humans who would tend them respectfully, peacefully, reverently, who would speak their names and reach out their hands in friendship, in sisterhood, in brotherhood. I think a part of us lays down sick and lonely without the friendship of the wild, the edible, the medicinal, ones of the local ecosystems in which we live (not to mention the animals of course). I think that starting by just learning their names, their properties, their textures, and saying them when you pass, saying hello, I think that this feeds the soul, the body, even the soul of the land.

This feeding of the soul isn't just about gorgeous wide holy misted vistas, golden hills, feelings of profound awe and smallness. It is also about the humble, the thickets and the weeds and the shores full of kelp, whose tastes and medicines our bodies were made for. If the soul/mind, as David Abram would argue, and I would agree, is really just located in the wildness of the fully alive body, alive in its senses in the world, then eating of the wild thimbleberry is perhaps the best nourishment for the health of the whole body-- mind, heart, spirit, flesh, bone.