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.

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