I spent the end of March in the high desert—sweet juniper scrub land of pinyon, black bear, kangaroo rat and doe, marveling at the strong magic of plants. I've always been an "animal" person; my way into the wild and my own self seems to be through the magic of animals. Since I was a girl I've been drawn to the shapeshifting powers (in tales) of women who speak to wolves, who turn into glossy brown chipmunks or robins or ravens.
I also read many books about herbalist-witches, midwives of the medieval variety, who knew all the old arcane knowledge of plants, and I wanted to be like them too— like the Scottish witch-woman in the book Wise Child (a beauty of a novel, for all ages) who grew a tangled garden of herbs, who knew all the places in the woods and fields where the wild weeds grew, who knew how to sing out their medicine and honor them properly. But it has been a bit slower for me, in my life, to really get into the knowing of plants, the reverence, in the same way that I have been able to make the magic of animals, the language of their tracks, into a sort of spiritual questing, a deep salve, and also a very real and specific practice, full of research and sketching and exact measurements of metacarpal pads, claws, strides, scrapes. Full of the honoring of the animals on this land, in their own lives, not only for my sake but for theirs.
But my days in the desert of the Cuyama Valley shifted this. Something about the desert plants—juniper, sagebrush, pinyon, madrone, yerba santa—and their hardy quest for water just overwhelmed me. They were each like a flame growing out of the ground. I was so distracted, in the best of ways, by them that it became a sort of plant-tracking trip as much as an animal tracking one.
I brought home with me the dry resin strength of juniper (what miraculous dusty blue berries, larder of so many wild ones out there in those washes), the memory of candlestick yucca glowing in the late afternoon sun, the bright green of scrubby oak mistletoe.
Home, in a new cabin in the fir forest, I have been completely overwhelmed by the green, the abundance of water, the thick tangles of plants every where I turn. The Douglas firs that flank our little home are just staggering to gaze upon, when you really slow, and crane upward, and imagine what it is to be that thick-barked body, first to touch the sun each morning.
I've been gathering yerba buena up the shady hillside, and the new fir tips, for tea. It seems a good way to start a relationship with a new place, and to open into the wonder of the plant world: bring them, literally, into your center.
Fires in the woodstove have been abundant. When your heat must be created nightly by the sorcery, the alchemy, of fire, it becomes warmth much more precious. I've always loved building fires, tending them, poking at the orange embers; it is a belly of magic right in the center of the home.
My runs to the post office this month for the April Gray Fox Epistle (a re-telling of Tsarevna Frog) were much more relaxed than previously. No lines, and a brief walk up and down this hill. Delightful! Mugwort and lemon balm danced up their thick green leaves in the roadside ditches.
It is hard for me to describe what a joy it is to be tucked into these green woods. To throw open the windows and doors and have the shadows of bigleaf maples and bays fall in the openings, along with the calls of robins, the drums of woodpeckers. I feel much more peaceful than I have in quite a while. It makes me believe, more than ever, that our psyches are tied in with the psyche of the land; that time just watching the sun on trees, the juncos feeding, is literally medicine for the mind.
Here is the beloved mail-grocery-wood-whatever basket, full of April's Epistles, looking out into the greenery of our "yard," which is really the forest, and not ours at all. On that subject, it's time to sign up for May's Gray Fox Epistle! Gosh, the days fly. I've been working on a re-telling of the old British tale, Tamlin, set right here in these woods, written entirely outside. It is a sort of love song to this place, a delight to write. So, do sign up (Paypal links in the left column right below the Indigo Vat banner) if you are so inclined!
The cabin is quite teeny, so I've been improvising new "office" space, the latest this patch of steep meadow, drenched in sun, just around the corner and up a fire road. The fir trees sway gently around the edges, and poppies and cream-cups are blooming, and I have come to recognize at least one resident raven by the missing feather in his right wing.
Right as we were heading to our loaded up car to leave Mill Valley and move here three weeks ago, we came across a just-dead mole in the path, perfect, velvet, being harassed by crows. I never do this sort of thing, being rather sensitive and tender of heart (and mildly squeamish, I'll just admit it), but I got out a plastic bag and scooped him in. He seemed to want to come along. I can't quite say why, but I just didn't want to leave him there to be pecked to pieces by crows, as much as they too deserve their lunch. The beauty of his little self overwhelmed me.
We brought him here, gorgeous sweet being, fur so soft and velvety my fingertips were too rough to even feel it, power of the fecund underground, and buried him in the new front garden, back in the deep tunnels from whence he came (and where, I have discovered, there is another mole, a live one, happily digging away but somehow (bless her) thus far avoiding the lettuces). A visiting friend, over a cup of tea, said that perhaps we should name the cabin Mole Hollow— because it is a snug, shady little den of a home— and perhaps we will! I feel blessed to have been able to come so near the perfect form of a mole, sacred tunneler, aerator and keeper of the magic of the underground (a place, in the mind and heart, quite important to the artist in all of us!)
And meanwhile, all around, the flowers are as rich in their opening as the green grasses and new leaves. In my mother's garden over the mountain, the poppies are just ridiculously lovely, and the roses are explosions of thorn and white.
Growing up, there were always dense, wild rose bushes in the garden. They were my favorite place to play, in their thorny caverns, making up worlds. To me, they still hold all that wonder of childhood, all the afternoons imagining speaking animals and fay folk in the brambles. And they do, of course, figure in quite centrally to the fairytale Tamlin, which you shall discover in this month's Epistle (or any version of it you happen to read), as they do to so many tales.
This morning, out on the back steps as a woodpecker explored a nearby stump, I came across Rumi's poem, Roses Underfoot. He writes:
"Going in search of the heart, I found
a huge rose, and roses under all our feet!
How to say this to someone who denies it?
The robe we wear is the sky's cloth.
Everything is soul and flowering."
Indeed, it does feel that way in the sun-bloom of April here nestled in the foothills of the Coast Range, a couple hour raven's flight from the ocean. May we all find the roses beneath our feet, and share them, petal by fragrant petal, share them with all the love we can muster for each other and this land, because what else are we here for?