Friday, September 27, 2013

Flea Markets, or The Lives of Lampshades

I've always loved flea markets, antique markets, little green stalls full of old moldering books and maps, trays of silver spoons, shelves of old Hungarian linens hand embroidered with somebody else's initials. A few weeks back my dad and I spent a Sunday morning at the famed Alameda flea market, on that man-made island in the East Bay, in a big old tarmac lot that once housed the Naval Air Station, and now hosts a monthly gathering of tents and tables and trucks and masses of old coats and trunks and spoons and buckets and lanterns.

What I love is the stories of old used items, the life of them, and also the basic handmade energy of even such simple things as old crates made to ship fruits in-- wood! In our prefabricated mass-produced world, a storied, hand-made object that has survived through decades, that has felt the hands and palm-lines of many people upon it, has its own life, its own magic, its own meaning.

As a writer and tale-weaver and lover of all things magical, I of course love to imagine up little stories about objects that catch my eye— the old metal tea-cart discovered one day at the top of the lane, rusted and slightly bent, and wheeled down to the stone cottage, patched up, used for bringing tea out into the garden of a spring afternoon, until one day the cart started to produce strange little plates and cups made from shrew-bone and acorn-cap, and rolled off of its own accord through a blackberry hedge, on the other side of which stood a small old man brown as a buckeye who demanded payment for the borrowing of said tea-cart in fish-bones, bee's wings and, most importantly, the fetching of a pot of tea brewed on the particular cold and snowy mountain peak where the twin stars Mizar and Alcor (in the handle of Ursa Major) came down to take their rest and have a warm drink every winter solstice....

You get the idea.

Some things, of course, really were alive once (as in flesh and blood), like the sad small shrunken face of this red fox. I wanted to bring him home with me not because I like the idea of the skinning and selling of foxes for fancy fur trimmings on fancy coats or muffs (though I do respect and admire the conscious and skilled use of animal furs in far northern regions and among indigenous peoples where the relationship between human and animal-to-be-coat is one of compassion and honor) but because, as he is already in this state, I thought it would be nice to give him a warm and happy home, to do him that honor, now he is a scarf. And of course I wondered what stories that little red body had known, both as a live fox and as a dead fox about a woman's neck.

My whole perspective on those things which we call "inanimate" really shifted a few years back when I read this interview between Derrick Jensen and David Abram. Here are Abram's wonderful words on the subject:

"To speak of anything as inanimate is kinda disrespectful.  It's insulting to the thing.  Why do it?  It cuts me off from listening to what that thing might want in the world, to what that object, that presence, might be asking of me.  I don’t see any usefulness in making a conceptual division between that which is animate on one hand, and that which is inanimate on the other.  And I know of no healthy culture that makes such a division between animate and inanimate matter. [...]

People always want to draw the line somewhere.  But you see, it's drawing the line at all that’s the problem: the idea that at bottom matter is ultimately inert, or inanimate.  The word “matter,” if you listen with your animal ears, is basically the word 'mater,' or mother.  It comes from the same Indo-European root as the word 'matrix,' which is Latin for 'womb.'

We all carry within us an ancient, ancestral awareness of matter as the womb of all things, a sense that matter is alive through and through.  But to speak of matter as inanimate is to think of mother as inanimate, to imply that the female, earthly side of things is inert, is just an object.  If we want to really throw a monkeywrench into the workings of the patriarchy, then we should stop speaking as though matter is in any way, at any depth, inanimate or inert.

Every indigenous, oral culture that we know of -- every culture that has managed to sustain itself over the course of many centuries without destroying the land that supports it -- simply refuses to draw such a distinction between animate and inanimate matter. [...]

In relation to certain human artifacts, particularly the mass-produced objects, it ís difficult to make contact with and feel the unique life of that presence.  Yet one can find that life pulsing, most readily, in the materials of which that artifact is made.  In the wood of the telephone pole, which was once standing in a forest, in the clay bricks of the apartment building, even in the smooth metal alloy of the truck door that you lean against -- there, in those metals originally mined from the bones of the breathing earth, one can still feel the presence of patterns that are earthborn, and that still carry something of that wider life. But if I look at the truck purely as a truck, what I see is not something that is born, but something that is made.  And there is surely an important distinction between the born and the made.  But even with that distinction, the made things are still made from matter, from the flesh of a living cosmos."

As a child I think most of us enjoyed that magical sense of suspended disbelief, wherein an old wooden clock, an enamel milk-jug, a rusty blue toolbox, might have a djinn inside, a story to tell when the lights go out and the humans go to bed, a whole life going on downstairs in the cupboards.

But something happens as we grow up, this distancing from the immediacy of the senses and the imagination, that makes the idea that a post-box could be animate totally ridiculous. Reading Abram's words, I felt like I got clocked on the head-- he reminded me that everything in this world is made of this world, from electrical cords to the more obvious things such as wooden chairs. Some objects require more violently intense (and destructive) making-processes, but nonetheless, they are all mater, of the mother earth. A difficult concept for me to swallow, but an important one I think!

Anyhow, the point of all this as I began writing was about the stories of old things, the items cast off and reused, the garbage of one era become the flower pots of the next. Strolling the many stall-lanes of the fair, my dad and I laughed about how human beings seem to hoard, what pack rats we are! And how, I thought to myself, there is more than enough stuff in the world, if used cleverly, re-shaped, re-stitched, to last us all a good long time, if equally shared.

Which brings me to a little excerpt I'd like to share with all of you, part of the quilted-novel that I have been working on (and recently finished) inspired by the paintings of the wonderful Rima Staines. We are very excited to bring it into the world soon! (In the process of doing so now!) The novel is set in a sort of folkloric post-apocalyptic future, and so it is very much concerned with the tattered recycling of strange old things. There is a scene of a little gathering under the stars in an old parking lot by the Bay that I think suits the spirit of this whole post.... It is based upon Rima's beautiful painting, The Bells:
The Bells, Rima Staines

"I listened to the man in the black top hat play on the violin the saddest song I’d ever heard until the moon was all the way up. That’s when I saw the rest of them; that’s when I saw how the music came from every direction along the water’s edge, on the old moldering docks and overgrown lawns, up the overpass that no longer held cars, only walkers. Drums played with sticks, dozens of violins, accordions, bamboo flutes, guitars, strange stringed instruments of knobs and sizes I couldn’t name, women ringing big fistfuls of bells. They spilled up from the bay in groups that gathered around small fires, like a set of tiny sprawling camps. The music made no sense all together, close up. It was a chaos of sound, different tunes and melodies and keys and cultures from one fire to the next. [....]
I can’t speak or write of that evening without crying, now. I can’t tell of it like one tells a normal story, with a narrative arc, with a beginning, middle and end, because it filled me to bursting. My nose, my eyes, my fingers, my stomach, my skin, my ears, my young heart. It filled me like music will, all at once, utterly, so no lines can be made between moments, notes, feelings. Nothing in my life has been like it, before or since—the celebration, the carelessness, the joy, the ragged edges that comforted rather than repelled me, the sense of purpose. We are all ragged inside; why not fray out into the world, dressed in red?
I can only tell it in scraps and pieces, a quilt that has come to cover my heart in order for me to continue despite the fact that it is all in ruin, bones and broken refuse, the joy gone from the world.

It was rabbit skin and fat in my teeth, a feral grassy sweet flavor, rough wine and rougher stars, tipping me with dizziness and warmth, the carts of roasted nuts, of porridges and cakes set up on the old roads, making all the painted lines blurry; a boy playing a grand piano on the top of a hillock above the marsh, a piano on wheels as big as a bike’s, and pulled by tame deer, how he sat up there amidst the brackish smell of mud and played old songs that waltzed and mourned, how beautiful his face was in the moon, a face I loved that instant and will love until I die; how the woman nursing the babe on her wrinkled breast decked me in velvet ribbons with gold bells at the ends, gave me a ragged silk skirt to twirl and flow over my straight pants, blue as any jay, the ceramic pipe of the old grandmother stuffed and smoking with wild sagebrush and orange poppies, the shapes of two hundred small fires along that cement road and in and out of gray patches, parking lots, so the whole bayfront was a walk in the Milky Way, each bonfire a star, its own shape, fed by its own unique pile of branch, chair-leg, willow shoot, shingle."

So, here's to the stories, the ghosts, the lives, the magic, of all the old baubles and trinkets and lampshades and salt shakers that we have made and cast off and repurposed, and here's also to the wonder and the joy of small things. 

Oh and in case you were wondering, I came away with a pile of old Hungarian linens (a nod to my dad's grandmother Anne, whose ancestors came from that land), a nine-tine candelabra (pure magic, let me assure you), and a silver spatula engraved with quite fancy little knots, a birthday present for my love (we lost our other one in the process of moving and then found it again right after I gave him this one, ha!)-- which I've taken to calling something like "the spatula from Camelot," as it is rather ornate in a funny way for a thing so everyday as a spatula. We have begun to wonder if one day it will start flipping oatcakes out of thin air.

This final photo provides a crazy juxtaposition to those covered stalls full of old and reused items, old crystal brandy decanters and satin chairs and tin pails— the huge shipping freighters coming in from Asia and the unloading cranes waiting to do their job (which since I was a girl I've always thought looked like huge elephantine beasts, skeletal ones-- ha! See, it's hard to stop thinking that way once you've started!).

I know that it is complicated, and fraught, and violent in certain ways, to imagine what it would mean if we lived in a world without massive shipping containers full of masses of plastic and packaged and fabricated items come across the great Pacific in great huge freighters, a world not seamed and oiled with freeways and the cars that speed along them, but nevertheless it is important to dream, to tell oneself and one another stories that are not in the language of shipping container and SUVs, but rather in the language of animate beings and materials, of living bodies. For as David Abram says, when we start drawing a line, saying this thing is animate and this thing is not, we automatically produce hierarchies of value and meaning, and it becomes easy to objectify and mass-produce, and thus, destroy.

 But if everything is "animate," well... the thought spirals outward like a thousand dandelion seeds, and who knows where they land... but they do love sidewalk cracks!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Leaping Harvest Moon Leveret Letters

Today the first chapters of the Leveret Letters should be arriving in the post-boxes of little children, middle-school children and adults alike, from my very own village, Forest Knolls, to faraway Australia! Truly, it has been a deep joy to get this project out into the world. It took a tad longer than expected, due to summer vacation and slow sign-ups, and then a bit of a sea-change for me in the story plotting itself. But now Comfrey and Tin are well on their adventurous ways through a folkloric post-collapse Bay Area. I have to give great thanks to the books of Philip Pullman, which I reread this past August, and which re-informed my whole attitude and approach to the Leveret Letters. I hadn't read these books since I was 11, and, oh my, I was even more hooked this time.

Pullman writes with deep intelligence and strange, dark, living magic. He writes in some ways above the heads of his younger readers, but Lyra is the lifeline, the golden thread. As a girl of 11, I felt like Lyra in the world of His Dark Materials. A little overwhelmed, a little bit afraid, wholly and deeply and deliciously enchanted, and cosy too. As a woman in my mid-twenties, I was in deep awe of the whole world Pullman created, a world that holds the adult mind as well as the 10-year old. I threw my back out rather badly at the beginning of August, and these books kept me cheerful and enchanted as I was forced to lay about and try not to groan often at having to be cooped up!

I am by no means comparing the Leveret Letters to His Dark Materials. Oh my, no. Only saying that those books reminded me of the particular kind of magic that took me by the heart as a younger girl. These Leveret Letters are written for that girl, and for my partner Simon when he was a boy, and for my brother when he was a boy, and on, and on.

And I daresay, in the writing, Comfrey and Tin and Mallow and Myrtle quite swept me up in their world! It felt like warming my hands near a good fire, the writing. Or filling my arms with miraculous flowers. 

The adventures of Comfrey and Tin are very much rooted in the fireroads of the mountain I grew up near, the fireroads and oak-madrone-bay laurel ridges so near the great sprawling cities around the Bay, so near the very large state prison, San Quentin, on the left side of this photo, jutting out cream-colored into the bay. A strange place, this whole area, full of many unlikely juxtapositions and tensions and much beauty too.

So imagine the Greentwins rolling along a fireroad very similar to this one here, where my love and I took a birthday stroll a week past, our feet travelling the dusty trails we know so well.

Here is an excerpt from the very beginning of the first Leveret Letters, to whet appetites!


Fir boughs reach out over the cart, its wooden wheels trundling and creaking on the wet dirt road. The mud and the wet air smell damp and sweet. Four female tule elk pull the cart, which is painted green with yellow stencils of weedy plants climbing in spires and vines and spiky leaves all over the sides. There are three glass windows tinted a reddish-rose, a silver chimney-pipe coming out one side and a balcony at the back, painted blue, with a driftwood railing. Most often one or two jackrabbits can be seen sitting on the balcony, grooming their white belly fur and smelling the breezes. Several pots full of herbs, of the weedy variety, are perched on the back balcony—the kinds of plants people in the City pull and poison from all sidewalk cracks and patios. Nettles, dandelions, plantain, chickweed and one blackberry bramble, which grows all over the back wall of the cart, staining it a permanent darkish-purple.

On this particular morning in late December, the morning of the winter solstice, the Greentwins are passing in this strange green caravan along a fireroad on a ridgetop that looks down at a large reservoir. The twins are conjoined at the hand, brother on the left, sister on the right. Just the forearm and hand are shared between them, no other parts of their bodies. It is their charge to track and tend the whole wild Country around the Bay. Some mornings, it is the brother who greets and gathers the yerba santa leaves, the plantain, the chamise, that grow thick beside the roads and trails, while his sister places her palms over the pawprints, scratches, burrows and scats left by animals. Other mornings they swap jobs, one tending to the animal life, the other the plant life.

 In either case, their shared hand is always used to make the Medicines. Dandelion infusion for a bobcat who ate several lizards who themselves had ingested some non-degradable pocket of insecticides. A comfrey poultice for the leg of a white egret who broke the bone while escaping a hungry coyote. Elderberry tinctures for a whole pond of frogs infected with a strange and sudden fever. Bucketloads of kelp for small oak trees struggling to grow again through the cracks of 300-year-old abandoned sidewalks. False Solomon’s seal ointments mixed with the petals of weedy St. John’s Wort flowers for the constricted or sore places in the landscape: paths that people feared to walk alone, places animals still avoided because of the memory of fast cars on the freeways of Before.

To the Wild Folk, the brother and sister in their green caravan are known as the Witchtwin Doctors of the Land. To the people of the Country who live in small hamlets called Camps, which are situated in meadows, clearings, or near marshes and creeks, they are not known as anything more important than a strange pair of Wild Folk, to be left Offerings like the rest. Children who catch sight of them call them the Greentwins, and pass on stories of every last glimpse of that green cart pulled by elk. People in the Camps do not know that the Witchtwin Doctors of the Land are the most important of all Wild Folk, and held apart. In the City, nobody knows about the Wild Folk, let alone the Greentwins. The Greentwins, of course, know more about all the people of City and Country combined than anyone would care to imagine.

Nobody is quite certain how far they range either, only that they seem to keep to the watersheds around the big blue-gray Bay that drains the rivers of the faraway Sierras, and in particular to those regions to the north of the Bay, where the hills and valleys hold the most wild creatures and flourishing plants. In the darkest nights when there is no moon, they also skirt the edges of the eighty-foot high metal Wall that seals the City off from everywhere else. There, they listen to the news from the rats and pigeons and crows, from the little patches of grass and old puddles of rain.

From the fireroad ridge where their cart now passes, its wheels crunching and squeaking through the mud, they can see the silhouette of the City, sharp-lined and tall, across the water. They stop in a wide patch of road where the view is the best and light a fire in the belly of the woodstove.

“Now listen, Mallow,” Angelica, the sister-twin, says, stroking the ears of a young hare-leveret who sits in her lap. Her brother Gabriel holds a big barn owl in his own lap, and Mallow, the young hare, eyes it in a panic. “She isn’t going to harm you. We’ve worked this out. She knows it’s for a larger good so she’s going to curb her appetite and carry you gently.”

“Abominable,” hisses the hare, blinking his dark eyes and lashes, kicking out his back legs. “This is what you did to my sister too? After all this time feeding and caring for us, and teaching us the language of humans, it’s for this? This blasphemy to the name of haredom? To allow oneself to be—” Mallow stutters here—“held by an Owl? An Enemy?”

“Calm down, Mallow,” says Gabriel in a stern tone, touching the hare with the hand he shares with his sister. This seems to soothe him slightly.

“You have to trust us,” says Angelica. “What would be the point of feeding you to an owl after all this time? Now listen. Let her carry you, and don’t fight. If you fight she’ll loose her balance and drop you. Now, the owl knows her way straight to the Cloister of Grace and Progress. She’s going to drop you there in a courtyard at the second hour past midnight. You are to find a boy named Tin. Tin is your charge.”

So if you'd like to run along and sign yourself or some young one you know up for the Leveret Letters, come along here and do so right here! Your subscription will start with the first chapters, and roll on accordingly, arriving at every full moon. A little magical escape....

Oh yes, and one more very important tidbit. My partner Simon is going to be doing little line illustrations for the Leveret Letters, and here is the first! I won't post them in the future, so they come as a surprise, but you can get a sense of his magical dark slightly haunting but also rather cosy style right here:

Simon Woodard (c) 2013
Marvelous, eh?