Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mourning the Rains of California

I am a child of rain, a child of storm and fog and thunder and the smell of a wet road, a wet garden, and oh my, the wet forest—fir trunk, bay trunk, oak trunk, duff. I remember, growing up, that when the rains came, I would dash out back and run around as the grass got muddy, reveling. I would do rain dances in the side garden with an old friend, invoking our own pantheon of water deities inspired by the Egyptian ones. (Once, it even worked!) When the sky started to get a little patch of blue showing through, I would feel upset— go away, blue, keep raining! Keep raining! 

Rain to me has never meant indoor weather, though certainly the book-worm in me delighted (and delights) in the warm evenings by the fireside with my various books (generally, at a young age, chronicling the adventures of various medieval herbalist-animal-speaking warrior-type girls...). It is weather that, for me, demands interaction. It makes me want to throw on my coat and pull up my boots and head straight for the hills. I love the sound of it pattering on the leaves of trees, on the dry grasses as they soak and soak and get ready to turn green again. I love it on the roof at night--few sounds comfort and delight me as much. I love it dripping down my nose and eyelashes out in the hills. It sparks something in me, some kind of fire that sends me dashing and whirling and leaping, perhaps like the roots underground in this drought-prone place, who must surely go into throes of ecstasy when that first big storm comes, who must positively sing as they drink, and drink, like my own soul does.

But this year, as you well know by now I am sure from all the News, no storm has come. 

The dry hills of Pfeiffer Ridge in Big Sur. Just south of this photo, a whole ridge was burned in a bad wildfire in late December. A winter wildfire is never a good sign.
The hills are caught in summertime, an aged summertime that has gone from gold to grey to old-bone grey-brown, ready to catch fire at any second. The air itself is dry, the sky so big and blue it unnerves me. I feel a palpable weight lift when we get cloud-cover for a morning or afternoon; it is winter, it is the time for muted gray skies, for slowness, for dark. As the News tells us, the reason for this drought in California and the Southwest has to do with a High Pressure Ridge larger than the Sierra Nevadas (2,000 miles long, 4 miles high) that has been clamped over the Pacific Ocean for the last 13 months, deflecting storms north and east of us. When the sky is blue and empty of clouds, I can almost feel that pressure-- or perhaps it is just a pressure system inside my own chest, clamoring for downpour, clamoring for release of rain from that silent, too-still sky.

Oh beauty, Oh Big Sur

I know that deep drought has touched California before (though not this deep since around the 1500's, according to geologists and those folk who study historical weather patterns and climate). I know that the seeds of the wildflowers in the ground are not dead, just dormant, even as the hills turn a darker and grayer dry brown than I have ever seen, a ravaged color. I know that heat can cleanse, like a fever. I know that an oak tree has deep tap roots that touch the dark cold waters of the ground.

But my animal body mourns the dry. My animal body craves the change of a season—and for you eastern folk, yes, California does have seasons, indeed, and they have to do with rain, and the blooming of different flowers, and fog, and the migrating of whales and of birds, and so many other things. My animal body has dreamt of running through rainstorms, only to wake and smell the air out the window and know that the sidewalks are dry. My animal body feels grief, it feels great unease that seems to leak into my all-too-human-mind, making anxiety rise more often, unbidden, like wildfire, able to catch light anywhere.

The plants are frozen in time, dry husks. They are wise, though. These chaparral and coastal scrub plants of Big Sur (and the rest of California), like the black sage below, know about droughts in their seeds, in their genetics, in their resinous hearts. They know how to keep water from transpiring off their leaves. They know how to go dormant into the dry times. They smell sweet, and strong, despite everything.

A part of me wants to run north, run toward the rain—some kind of wild and nomadic instinct, to follow the water, to run from drought. And without a doubt nomadic peoples of the past and present did and do just that. I've said to friends, laughing—I may need to take a train to Oregon and go lay down in a rainstorm, to be renewed, partly joking, partly serious. But another part of me, the part that is full of a grief beyond just the "soft animal of my body," as Mary Oliver would say, the part that feels, somewhere sick and sorrowful in my stomach, that this is our fault— that part of me knows that we have to stay with this. We have to stick with it, like the black sage, like the coyote brush, who cannot leave.

I think that it is only through our emotional bodies that we can really access the great environmental griefs of this era we are living through. And our emotional bodies are activated, at least in my experience, by those things which occur right around us, on the land we love, in the air we love, amidst the people and plants and trees and streets we love. Global warming and climate change have been horrifying, sad, frightening but somehow impersonal concepts to me until now. Until this dryness, this drought, which may, it's true, be "just another climate cycle," but really, honestly, let's just be straight with each other here—we've had a hand in this, we know we have. The really bad ramifications of a prolonged drought here— agricultural shortages, massive wildfires, eventual clean water scarcity—have yet to even set in, though I know that our local, small scale farmers are already panicking, and tapping into their ground water, and they, more than anyone, deserve their rain-prayers answered. I dearly hope we can avoid the worst of this. But even now, as I feel the scratchy dry air in my throat, it makes me want to yell. I can feel my rain-loving soul thrashing around, as I search the sky in the morning for clouds.

It has been believed through the ages that a drought was a sign that humankind had offended the deities of earth and sky. Whatever the "true" cause of this one, I think we might benefit from a healthy dose of this sort of humility, this kind of morality, remembering that our actions really do affect the great web of life, from ants to rainclouds, that we have a responsibility to this earth which nurtures us every day—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the blood in our bodies. At this point, of course, I'm not sure a rain dance and offerings of sorrow left out on every roof would do the job. I think we're in a bit too deep. I'm not sure we deserve a mythic solar-hero to go and fight the dragon out over the Pacific who holds the rains in his stomach, and yet I so, so desperately wish he would come along. I think it is a lesson—that we have overreached, here in California, much of which is as arid as parts of Morocco.  That we have built up our civilization in a period of record wet, and while this drought is very likely much exacerbated by global warming, it is also part of California's character to go dry for periods of time.

Despite this calm rationality, I am writing these words because really, I am sad, because I am scared, because I am a lover of rain, because, like a good soft animal, I do not want these cycles of dryness to change the land I love, even though I know the land I love has many faces, and many phases, and part of learning to be fully human is to learn to ride through change, and adapt to it. I am writing this because I do not think we are given the space in this culture to grieve the changes we have wrought upon our landscapes, our air, our clouds, to express the anger and fear and helplessness that we often feel, or repress. After all, when we call most non-human beings "Resources" instead of "Kin," not much room is left for emotions such as sadness, such as loss and sorrow. You cannot mourn a resource. That's why I like the language used in many Native American cultures, such as the Yurok, who called all beings "people"— frog people, cloud people, human people. You can mourn the cloud people, after all, the rain people, the thirsty deer people, the newt people who have had no winter rains to spur on their mating season, the salmon people who can't make it upstream.

At the same time, as naturalist and herbalist Jolie pointed out to me this weekend, it's good to remember that while we may grieve, the plants do know about drought, like this Big Sur succulent above, which has dry and water-conservation and heat written all over it. And the native bunchgrasses may make a come-back this year, she said, pointing to the only tufts of green coming up under the dry grey-gold, which were, indeed, growing in those classic perennial bunches. At long last, perhaps they will have a chance to outgrow the invasive grasses.

In our own tangled and wild garden, the daffodils are already up, and the bees are busy gathering their pollen, and it is hard not to smile at a bee in a daffodil, with pollen on her legs, and the smell of that daffodil up to your nose. It is hard not to smile at the smell of the apple blossoms, so early, the magnolias on the street, the bright yellow faces of the sourgrass exploding everywhere along sidewalk edges.

It is hard not to smile at the sunny calendula, which hasn't missed a beat since we moved in at the start of November. And as my small 6-year old neighbor told me out in the garden as we searched the dirt for worms—if you spray the yellow flowers, and the lemons maybe too, with a little water at dusk, the fairies will come and collect the gold. Well, I thought, well. I do not know what our summer is going to look like, or even our spring, but now the flowers are coming out gold, today, this moment, and so there is always beauty, every day, everywhere. And so we adapt our hearts and our spirits, just a little bit, just enough, because that, also, is what animals do, in order to survive, in order to stave off sorrow. At once, we do not forget to sing out to the clouds, tell them how much we love their wetness when it is poured up us, how much we love the smell of mud, the sound of rain on our roofs, the taste of it on our tongues.  Whether or not it coaxes thunderstorms, perhaps such songs, such prayers, will douse our hearts with a little fairy-gold, will fill our own souls with enough rain to carry on, to make small changes, to look a warming world in the eye, to look our own guilt in the eye, and some make good of what we do, that it may be somehow in service to the land which holds us, even if that service is just a word of praise, said aloud, to a raincloud.

P.S. Nevertheless, Sir High Pressure Ridge out there beyond the clouds, if you are ready, and only in your own good time, perhaps it is time to let go. Perhaps you, too, would enjoy a big thunderous rainstorm come washing, at long last, through your high-pressure spine. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Hungarian Magic Roots, and Webs of Relation

This winter I've felt a new stirring, like the little motherwort seeds sprouting bravely in my garden, to tap into my ancestral roots a bit more, to bring the old magic of the women of my lineage into this sweet home, built by Italian hands in 1880, on Ohlone fecund creekbed land. Home and hearth, after all, are like our core-- at least for me-- our center, the place our roots do their rooting. I was given a beautiful birchwood broom for the Yuletide, and with it I've been twirling, sweeping out the old, listening to Faun Fables' "Sweeping Spell" , imagining that broom as also a wand of sorts, stirring up and eliminating dust and darkness, sweeping in an ease and gentleness of thought, a bright sweetness to the day. I've read of old broom-witches sweeping their brooms at the sky to bring rain... perhaps I should try this too, since we are experiencing the worst drought in recorded Californian history now.

According to my Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, "Broomsticks were long associated with witches because they figured in pagan rituals of marriage and birth, the Mysteries of Women. In Rome the broom was a symbol of Hecate's priestess-midwife, who swept the threshold of a house after each birth to remove evil spirits that might harm the child" (120).

And, from the Taschen book of symbols, " Full of uncanny energies, broom, unnoticed at the back of the broom closet, bristles with a life of its own; sweeps, dances, flies" (596).

An old cow bell hung on a rosary-string of manzanita berries guards the door, and jangles happily with each entrance and exit over that threshold.

But to get to my point, here, with this business of Hungarian Magic Roots... For Christmas, Simon's brother and wife gave us an old cookbook found used, knowing our particular fondness for sauerkraut, borscht and goulash, to name a few. We opened it at first with a bit of laughter, having no idea what to expect from those bold letters: TRANSYLVANIAN.

Well, let me tell you, this book is a treasure, a deep well of cultural and folk knowledge. All of the recipes are gathered from sources, such as grandmothers recipe books, that are pre WWI, and as such there are, for example, no cooking times, no oven temperatures (as most dishes were cooked over a fire or coals), and the occasional startling ingredient, such as a bear's foot, freshly hunted.

Paul Kovi set out to do for the recipes of his Transylvanian homeland what others have done when collecting folk music, folk tales. Each dish is a story, and the book is full of essays about traditional Hungarian-Romanian food culture, and its myriad Saxon, Jewish, Turkish, threads.

After making, with some trepidation (no cooking times!), the Saxon Sauerkraut and Chicken Pot soup below, which requires a quart of sauerkraut juice, I felt that little seedling unfurling further in me. Perhaps taste can bring up old memories in the blood, the tastebuds stunned and alive and remembering?

For I remembered that my father's grandmother Anne had Eastern European blood, though in the tangle of family histories inevitable when one's ancestors span the width and breadth of Europe, I had always thought her German. So I asked my father, and he told me, no, Grandma Anne was born in a little town called Teremia Mare, part of Hungary at the time, and now part of Romania, in the southern region of the Carpathians, not far from the historic Transylvania. That made a chill run up and down my spine, and I felt her near, though I never knew her.

Perhaps food can sing up an old knowing in the body and blood, as these recipes have for me, a sudden deep longing to see those ragged rugged Carpathian peaks still full of bears, those sylvan dark forests and meadows. And of course while there is much romanticizing in all of this, dreams are food, too.

As a fourth-generation Californian (on my father's side), as a mutt woven of so many different European bloodlines none of them seem to matter much sometimes, it can feel dissociating, lonesome, strange, to have no particular culture, no set of stories and recipes handed down through a landscape for hundreds of years, stories and recipes rooted in a place, fluidly incorporating new strands as new people-- Saxons, for example-- moved in. Of course there are many xenophobic and racist tendencies that emerge when people remain too insular, prizing their culture above all others (a story played out through all of human history), but there is also great health and groundedness in tradition, in culture passed on like a chest of hand-embroidered linens.

So while I know that roasting a hare with juniper berries in the Transylvanian tradition does not make me Hungarian, does not make me part of a culture that I do not know, I still feel like it is a dance and a song for my great-grandmother and all of her people who live somewhere in my blood. Such a feeling reminds me that I am a ribbon among a great many currents in the river of my ancestors, and what a sweet feeling that is!

At once, I've been thinking a lot recently about this concept of "All Relations," which I heard a wonderful Cherokee medicine man named J.T. Garrett speak about on Herbal Highway (local radio), a pan-indigenous concept, it seems to me: that when we forget that our relations include all the plants, animals, stones, waters, winds, and stars, a part of us becomes sick. Our families and our ancestors also include the bewick's wrens and ruby-crowned kinglets in the garden, the bears in the mountains, the soil, the stars we watch emerge at night, the trees with their bark and their stillness. If my human ancestors reside in my blood, somewhere, in my heart, then all my other relations, all our other relations, exist in a great web around us, hitched to our hearts. When we build relationships with them —when we return to the garden daily and watch the bewick's wren dart for insects, watch the moon rise differently every eve—we create those web-strands, those ropes, between our own hearts and the rest of the world, until we are thoroughly held, and holding.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

May We

 May we walk light-hoofed and together into the new year, finding the sweet and damp new grasses with our teeth when we need them. (And may the deer of this land find enough moisture this dry, dry winter!)

May we remember that our minds can look like the many rippled and reaching bay laurels, rooted in moisture, undulating their bark and spiced leaves toward the sun.

May there be labyrinths in the sideways hearts of long-gone volcanoes to walk our feet in, holding the seeds of prayer under our tongues.

May there be a bounty of acorns (whether they be dreams, or loaves of bread, or beets, or candlesticks), and may we treasure each one, making the perfect hole to hold it in, as the acorn woodpeckers do all together, drilling the old trees full of bounty, full of their woodpecker songs.

May we stop in our tracks at the wonder of berries and seeds and the sweet sugars of fruits, made for the tongues of birds, the tongues of foxes, the tongues of people.

May we remember that we too are made of so many veins, like rivers, like branches, like leaf-arteries, like wisps of fog, and that within us there are many maps, and many journeys.


May the bracken ferns turn green again (oh rains, do come!), and may our days be full of many gentle colors.

May we spend afternoons with our noses close to the moss of treetrunks, remembering the worlds of the little-folk— lichen, ant, moss, spider.

May we dance with our shadows, and find that sometimes they look like deer, like hares, like woodrats or owls.

May we reach our palms out in kinship to our brother and sister animal-folk, to skunk and squirrel, to deer and elk and lizard and bobcat. 

May we remember that the land is sometimes like the skin and the body and the muscles of a dreaming animal, furred, shifting her colors as the sun sets, receptive to our words of praise.

May we open our hearts to the wind, may we hang them from high places, from bay branches, by the ocean, may they catch the sun and the rain alike, and always be full, and never be dry.

May we pause long in the tide of each new day like the heron, and before hunting a morsel of breakfast, breathe the salt, breathe the sun, taste the air.

Thank you all, dear readers, for your kind words here at the Indigo Vat this past year, and your support of the Gray Fox Epistles and the Leveret Letters. My heart is huge with gratitude for this story-making work! I so look forward to all the new tales to come, and to share, this fresh-growing year.

Blessings upon all of your wild hearts this 2014 Journey Around the Sun!