Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Witch-Dance of Lupine

The coast bush lupine is blooming in strange dancing spires that sway in the sea breeze, little lupine-witches, reaching for the salted sun. Their purple-pale petals, their soft smell of berries, their dip and sway in the wind, spell stories of the ocean-side to me, the beaches of West Marin in the springtime, when the lupines bloom and the spring wind picks up, foaming the waves, turning the sand to ghost-ribbons across the shore. Lupines and wind and osprey hunting and the warmer coastal waters of spring; these are all one poem, one story, one being, in my heart, in my experience of this landscape.

When the lupines are blooming, the osprey have returned and the sunny days are often full of wind, the water is warm enough to swim in. Warm is a relative term, of course-- warm meaning you can plunge without feeling as though you might have a heart attack from the shock. Warm meaning you stumble out of the foam feeling like you've been given a new skin made of ocean-breeze, lupine petals, the flight of osprey. And so it was this past week, at Limantour Beach with my brother, paying homage to osprey and lupine, wind and an ocean warm enough to shed a skin or two inside of.

I came out of the water feeling a great gratitude for this land, from which all of the thirteen Gray Fox Epistles sprung, from which the Leveret Letters continues to unfurl, from which my beloved novel-project with the beautiful Rima Staines, Tatterdemalion, was born. I had this sudden realization that these tales really have grown from this ground here, from salt-tide, alder-wood, lupine scrubbrush, just the same as any sown seed. It occurred to me that maybe sometimes the best way to gather inspiration is to stop lunging about for new tidbits, new scraps, and to water the ground with thanks, with great awe and gratitude at the roots down below and all the tales they've made and fed. To unfurl pieces of those tales and hang them as if on a clothesline to bathe in the wind and sun; to take pages from those stories and lay them down for the nettle-roots to suck nutrients, for the osprey to fish up out of the waves, for the woodrats to secret away to their lodges and turn into bedding.

And so below I have included three excerpts from the three mentioned projects— the first from Tatterdemalion (we are in the process of finding it a publishing home!), the second from the Leveret Letters, and the third from "Our Lady of Nettles," the twelfth Epistle, as flags of my gratitude to the wild places and animals and plants from which they were born, as markers along the Road of Story to inspire me as I carry on, mulching the land from which they came.

They were born from the jagged doorways in crab-shells, like the ragged-edged waxing moon, at once rough and delicate as embroidery.

They were born from the seal-people, the bugling elk and sledding children, the long-nosed court fools and blooming roses and racing sleek greyhound dogs that live inside the ever-shifting shapes of seafoam... and that place where the sole touches the cold salty water, and suddenly the foot becomes the bridge between the body and the story rising up from a scrap of foam to the heart, and then the beloved right-hand clutching its fountain pen.

*    *    *

Bells, Perches & Boots 

(excerpt from Tatterdemalion, a novel-in-progress collaboration with Rima Staines)

        No one knew where they had come from, how far or how long they had been walking, when they arrived at the edge of the ocean called the Pacific and unloaded their blue and gold cart in the center of a meadow-bluff of purple needlgrass and iris, just at the edge of a village. The one called Perches stuck his tongue out to taste the air, while the one called Boots sifted a handful of dirt and the one called Bells closed his eyes, plugged his nose, and listened. They reached their conclusion in unison—“it is good”— and got to building a fire. Boots hung a cast iron pot over the flames. In it cooked a quail and wild onion bulbs. Perches set loose the four tawny jersey cows who pulled the cart, and they began to graze.
The children of that village by the meadow-bluff of iris bulb and seed were the first to investigate. They came in pants of pigskin and nettle, here and there a special patch cut in the shape of a star, clamshell, wheel, from an old velvet or corduroy. They hung at the edges of the field, daring each other to creep one step closer, and one more, until a boy named Henrymoss had touched the blue and gold stripes on the cart, bringing back news to the others that it was real, sturdy and wooden, that it smelled like oiled leather and rust, with the faint sweetness of blackberries, that inside he had seen piles of bells, neat shelves full of boots, a bucket full of sticks, branches, wires, each with a leather tag and letters etched on it. That around the corner four cows were grazing, and their eyes were dark brown.
“We are connoisseurs,” a voice called out to the children where they huddled behind the cart, whispering. “We are pilgrims.” The voice had a lilt and a roughness that made several children, the younger ones, run off to the pine trees, to the huts where their mothers sat gossiping and spinning nettle fibers while sipping shots of dark mead.
  Bells hung along the edge of the cart roof, and a pair of fine calf-skin boots was affixed to the front, above the door, like a figurehead. The boots were dyed red, laced with grommets, and embroidered with small crosses like stars. Ontop of the boots perched a kestrel, smaller than the shoes, cream and charcoal and pink-orange feathered, with the most beautiful, kohl-dark eyes the children had ever seen. She made a shrill call when she saw them.
  Henrymoss, having been the one to touch the cart, felt he should maintain his reputation, particularly because the girl Jay, hair tousled and so black it seemed blue, was there with the others, watching and twisting her fingers in the tufts of her dark feathered hair. He wanted to run when he heard the kestrel but instead he walked around the cart, right to the fire where Bells, Perches and Boots sat stirring their quail stew and fiddling with a cowbell, a eucalyptus limb carved with crows, and a rubber rain boot, respectively.
  “I thought pilgrims did it for religion,” Henrymoss managed through a dry mouth, after a moment’s staring at the blue tattoos all over the men’s hands, corresponding with their names; their beards like nests, their clothes which were simple robes like monks once wore, very rough-spun and sturdy, all mottled shades of brown and red.
Perches looked up at him solemnly. He had big brown eyes and a skinny, hawkish face.
“Oh yes, indeed. We have each chosen our worship, our path to perfection. You see.” He held out the carved eucalyptus stick. The crows etched into it were glossy, impossibly detailed. “This,” said Perches, “is where they are at ease, in a perfect balance with the wind, the light, the bark. They know exactly the branch. Is it not what all men and women seek?”
  Boots stood then and slapped a broad hand on Henrymoss’s back, laughing. The boy jumped.
“This fellow is full of shit.” He winked. “It is my way that is holy. The Boot. How is it we tramp through the world? The Perfect Boot is the perfect union of foot, earth and path, weathering all mudslides, all asphalts, all heartbreaks. Come my boy, have a drink with us.” Boots was the biggest of the three, blonde and freckled, with a flushed, round face and nimble leatherworking fingers. Henrymoss noticed that he was barefoot, his soles and toes so callused and battered they looked like rocks. He sat down on a wooden folding stool next to the third man, Bells, who polished a coppery cow-bell in his lap, and poured Henrymoss a glass jar full of wine. Bells looked up at the boy, grinned, showing three missing teeth like black doorways, and rang the cowbell.
  “Listen,” he said. “The bells toll in and out the ends of the world. Did you know that? Have you heard that they carried Bells, all those players, and their Lyoobov?” He ladled soup into a ceramic bowl and offered it to Henrymoss.
  “Hey kids!” Bells yelled, whistling two tones through his three missing teeth. “Come out from behind the cart, come sit and have a bite and a tale.” Henrymoss took a big gulp of his wine, hoping it would make him look at ease and adult when they came. It was sour and strong in his mouth and made his temples pulse. The girl Jay was the first to pop her head around the side of the cart, hair making a spiked blue silhouette with the late sun behind it. She darted, taking leaps through the meadow. Two boys, Jeremiah and Samfir, followed her, and then slowly another girl, the small one called Mouse, though her real name was Mara, who could climb a tree faster than anyone, who always stuck her hands in holes in the ground first, just to prove she was tough, and did not deserve to be called Mouse. Still, her hair never grew longer than a thick fur, her ears were rounder than normal, and she was short; it stuck.
  No one else followed. They’d crept back to the trees, to tell their brothers and their aunts—something new has happened, something strange. Throw dimes and old wires into the fire, leave out the wishbones for the old women with bobcat tails who live in the brush. Come see, come see!
  And so the children Henrymoss, Jay, Jeremiah, Samfir and Mouse sat around the fire of those ramble-palmed tellers, those wheeling seekers of the True Path, all walking it together though their grails were myriad. A pipe full of strong tobacco was produced, and a set of fine china plates wrapped up in a child-sized quilt, tied with gut string. Perches fetched silver forks and knives from the inside of the cart, kept in a box lined with velvet full of slots and bands to keep the cutlery separate.
  “Like corralling horses, ducks and pigs,” said Boots, handing each child a fine white napkin, a porcelain saucer-plate painted with fading bucolic scenes from a long distant rural past—neat brick farmhouses, maids in gowns, gentlemen on horseback—and a set of silver, buffed to a bright shine. Amidst the ragged simplicity of the three travellers, this supperware felt bewitched, molten in its fineness to the children. Like holding the stolen wares of a king from a story they thought was made up, but had turned out to be real, there amidst a rough whispering meadow, beside a blackened pot of stew and a cart all hung with bells and leathers and scratched by the talons of raptors.

*     *     *

These tales were born like the unfurling umbel of the stately and strange cow parsnip, that magnificent-stalked, human-sized flower of riparian corridor and scrub-hill. She always reminds me of the wiliest, kindest, wandering lady escaped from some mad-house, now running about with her white parasol stamped with the true love stories of the clouds.

*    *    *

The Leveret Letters, Chapter 9: The Cabinet of Wonders, excerpt

     “The story goes that, after the Fall, at the beginning of the Camps, twins were born, conjoined at the hand. But the midwife, when told by the leader of the Camp to take the babies up and leave them for the coyotes, she couldn’t leave them alone. She stayed up the hill, under an oak tree, all night, praying. At dawn, a strange being emerged from the far edge of the oak forest. It was a Hill Saint. It was the spirit, you see, of that hill where the midwife sat. It looked like a very broad woman with a skirt of thick dirt and grass, with the big dark eyes of a vole. Her arms were twined with so many tiny rootlets they looked like they were covered in lace. She took the little twins in her arms and nursed them, not with milk, but with the sweet nectar that all hills have inside their veins.
     “The next time another such child was born this side of the Bay, seven years had passed. The midwife of its Camp brought the baby up to the edge of Wild Folk terrain, as she was told. But she knew, from the stories passed between midwives, to call upon a Hill Saint, to raise that baby as its own. Instead of a Hill Saint, the twins conjoined at the hand emerged from the shadows at dusk and took the baby in their three hands, cradling.
     “They were only seven years old, but it is said that those twins had become part Wild Folk, since they were nursed by such a one as a Hill Saint. They knew all the languages of all the animals and plants and stones, and all the Wild Folk who tended to their well-being. For a while, they took up residence here in the Inn, which was then very ramshackle, and healed sick animals. One by one, they raised little Strangelings. That’s what we like to say, instead of Poisoned Ones. The babies are Strangelings, and we, Holy Fools.
      “Eventually, after a few of them grew old enough to take over the running of this creaking Inn, teenagers only, but that was old enough, and the twins had taught them about living, about tending bees and plants and birds, about playing, and never giving up on Joy, because nobody else in the world has that job, the twins built a green cart. They charmed a small herd of elk, and set off to rove, to roam. Sometimes, in those early days, they returned with books and linens and teacups from abandoned houses far, far North, miles beyond Point Reyes.
      “That was four hundred years ago. Now, they are called the Greentwins, and while they look human, they are as immortal as Hills. They are mostly wild, a little bit angel.”

*    *    *

To all of the Holy Fools, and the ragged nettle who is their Queen, I give thanks. I give thanks to the ragged Nettle-Queen whose stinging language I've felt in my fingers so often as I gather and gather her leaves for my tea, the tea that sustains me as I write... the tea that thus is inside each word, the tea made from the body of that fierce and beloved weed so dear to my heart, Lady Nettle, friend of the Greentwins. 

There's nothing like tromping through the hedge nettle with his rank scent filling the air from underfoot while gathering green nettles bare-handed to make one feel humble, feel overwhelmed with the sensory intensity of life—fingers buzzing, nose wide as an elk's, heart flung open. I imagine the hedge-nettle (Stachys chamissonis)  somehow like the vegetable version of the old edge-walking jongleurs of the medieval troubadour era, the bards who played and juggled and sang for the common people, around campfires, not in court halls, the singers who had the hearts of coyotes. Something about the hedge nettle, always cooling his feet by the alder-creeks, smelling rank as a wild fox and sweet as lemon balm at once, puts me in mind of such wayfaring players who keep to the borderlines and the shadows, who are difficult to befriend but then suddenly, like the hedge nettle, you realize you love, for the feral rasp of that smell and all the memories and songs it holds—like Bells, Perches and Boots, like the Holy Fools and the little Strangelings. I imagine they line their shoes with hedge-nettle, they perfume their armpits and temples with it, to smell of animal and plant at once, rambling and fierce.

These green beings of the alderwood hold a deep dear place in my heart (as comes out in these story-scraps--so many nettles, so many alders!), both their physical medicines (what a triad-- red alder, stinging nettle, hedge nettle!) and the medicine that comes from being near them, the story-medicine of their lives.

*    *    *

Our Lady of Nettles, excerpt


      For the first year you may not pick the nettles with your own hands. Every morning for a year, when the dew is still touching the nettle leaves in glinting speckles, you will brush your fingertips to the stalks in order to be stung like she was stung, in order to bring life and blood to your hands for the day’s work. The spines shine with dew, delicate as glass, and your fingertips will become strong. You will choose a patch of nettles to touch, to pray beside, to sit with daily. You will learn about more than nettles, this way. You may touch the tops of their leaves, and their seeds when they come pale-green and hanging in soft coils, but you may not pick. You may ask the nettles for the story of Nain, but only once you have given them your own story.
      Every morning you will touch the nettle-needles with a fingertip, and you will leave white goose feathers at their ankles. You will bring water from the creek cupped in your hands. You will watch every new leaf begin and end at the patch of nettles where you sit, and every small bushtit who comes to eat the aphids from the stems, every red admiral butterfly who lays her eggs there. How, after all, can you cut and kill a thing, before you know who it is, before you do it the honor of your love?
      You will walk the dirt path of offering every day. You will carry alderwood trays of nettle tea into the spinning room when it rains, tonics of nettle seed and the roots of dandelions for your sisters in the weaving room. When the Sisters of the Harvest cut the nettles in autumn, you will watch, and you will mimic how they offer handfuls of nettle seeds, a dab of comfrey oil to that open wound.
      You will learn to leave the new pollen of hazel catkins in the fresh pawprints of bobcats, alder-catkin pollen in the pawprints of the two mountain lions whose territories cross here, when they come to drink from the creek where the nettles are retted, swinging the black tips of their enormous tails.
Leave the scarlet juice of the thimbleberries in the pawprints of the gray foxes. Leave shiny pieces of glass from the Bayshore at the entrances of woodrat nests. Leave handfuls of spiderweb on tree branches for the winter wrens to make their nests. Leave soaproot stalks wherever the deer have walked. In rain puddles, float the petals of the winter-blooming calendula flowers, from long ago gardens. Where the newts with orange bellies cross the paths from the hills down to the creek to mate after the winter storms, leave tiny red stream stones, one in the wake of each newt, so that the next walker might pause, and know the newts are out, shimmying each toward their own love, and step gingerly.
      There is an ancient garden rose gone wild at the front door of the Convent of Our Lady of Nettles. It is as big as the whole wall, as big as an alder tree, branching and twining everywhere. The wall faces the southeast and the rose-light of the summer sunrise. At night, pick a rosebud and put it under your pillow. It is an offering for your own heart, to keep it open, despite everything, despite each day of your life before now which may have taught you that to close off the heart was the only way to survive. It is not easy to learn to soften, to touch each small creek stone and bare dirt where a skunk has nosed, with love, when it has been the safest thing to close, to hate, to use fear like a net around the body.
      Ask the nettles, and they will tell you.

*    *    *

And so I carry on down the Road of Story, pausing to get on all fours, put my forehead to the dirt, and give thanks for where I've come from, and to where I am going, following sole and hand and heart, following the murmurings of the wily hedge-nettle, the irreverent dancing cow parsnip, the soft-skinned lupine-witches who poison the bodies of deer and rabbit and human but shoot the earth full of nitrogen-nourishment, walking the Road of Story to see where the next one will appear, quick as a bobcat darting down the path ahead, graceful as an osprey flying the shoreline. What a joy it is for a moment to dash as fast through the sand as the osprey flies, feeling like you are all wings too.

I think this feeling of gratitude rose up in me because I spent time this past week specially packaging up five back issues of the Gray Fox Epistles to be sold in Molly of Ambatalia's beautiful store in the old Mill Valley lumber yard.

I made a set of small cards, to be drawn like a tarot from a litte basket by customers, so that they might get a sense of the spirit and origin of each tale, and also a hint of the wild-ones who inspired them, from whose claws and umbels, talons and stinging leaves they were ferried and born.

I think pausing to create these cards, and then plunging into the salty ocean as an osprey wheeled overhead and the blooming lupine danced their witch-dances in the spring wind, hitched my heart open and knocked me sidelong with a kind of stunned gratitude for each and every wild encounter that has dusted pollen upon the story-embers in me and sparked them to light. Sometimes you stop, and look at a collection of things you've made, and shake your head, grinning, thinking-- where on earth did this come from in me? I can only say that I think it has something to do with the conviction of both Martin Shaw, David Abram, and many others I'm sure—that, in Shaw's words: "the psyche is far larger than the body. We dwell within the story, not the other way around. Telling the stories is a triadic engagement between the velocity of story, the intelligence of the tongue, and the imagination of whatever is listening in-- and something is always listening in." (xvi, from Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet, Black Branch of Language). That something is the big old wild land (in Shaw's perspective); the psyche within which we and all our stories dwell is the psyche of the earth herself.

And so the great blue heron, the blue elderberry, the sea lion, grizzly bear and stinging nettle, somehow they are listening in, they are part of each of us— and isn't it a relief to imagine that perhaps the things we make don't need to come from inside of us in this intensely personal way, but rather are galloping through the landscape, looking for a hand to be written (or sung, or painted, or spoken) through?

This puts me in mind of the reflections of the poet Ruth Stone, as described by Elizabeth Gilbert in her wonderful TED talk. Gilbert says that growing up in Virginia, "[Stone] would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, 'run like hell.' And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it 'for another poet.'"

I love this image, that stories and poems are these great romping beasts migrating through the land outside of us, not some divine "genius" within, as we are taught to think about creativity. What a relief!

These cards hold reflections of the beings who sang inspiration into my heart for each tale. I imagine them like pieces of an old tarot deck, pulled out of the dusty recesses of the cart of Bells, Perches and Boots, kept at the Holy Fool's Inn, read by the women in the Cloister of Our Lady of Nettles.  And at once they are my lupine seeds of thanks, scattered across the edge of the sand dune to root and fill the ground with nitrogen again, fecund and fierce.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Poetry In the Beaks of the Woodpeckers

"Sun, moon, mountains and rivers are the writing of being, the literature of what-is. Long before our species was born, the books had been written. The library was here before we were. We live in it. We can add to it, or we can try; we can also subtract from it. We can chop it down, incinerate it, strip mine it, poison it, bury it under our trash. But we didn't create it, and if we destroy it, we cannot replace it. Literature, culture, pattern aren't man-made. The culture of the Tao [the path, the street, the natural inevitable Way] is not man-made, and the culture of humans is not man-made; it is just the human part of the culture of the whole.

"When you think intensely and beautifully, something happens. That something is called poetry. If you think that way and speak at the same time, poetry gets in your mouth. If people hear you, it gets in their ears. If you think that way and write at the same time, then poetry gets written. But poetry exists in any case. The question is only: are you going to take part, and if so, how?

"Poetry is what I start to hear when I concede the world's ability to manage and to understand itself. It is the language of the world: something humans overhear if they are willing to pay attention, and something that the world will teach us to speak, if we allow the world to do so."

-Robert Bringhurst, from his beautiful essay"Poetry and Thinking," in The Tree of Meaning

The first time I read this essay, it took my breath away. It hit me right in the heart--poetry, as the Way or the Language of the living wild world. Poetry is what I see and then what moves in me because of the beauty or the bigness or the mystery of the life around me. Bringhurst explores in the beginning of the piece how the word "poetry" comes from the Greek verb meaning "to do" or "to make. He writes:

"Does this imply that poetry is made by human beings? That it only exists because of us? I think, myself, that making and doing are activities we share with all other animals and plants and with plenty of other things besides. The wind on the water makes waves, the interaction of the earth and the sun and moon makes tides, sun coming and going on the water and the air makes clouds, and clouds make rain, and the rain makes rivers, and the rivers feed the lakes and other rivers and the sea from which the sun keeps making clouds, and there is plenty of poetry in that, whether or not there are any human beings here to say in iambic pentameter or rhyming alexandrines that they see it and approve" (page 141, The Tree of Meaning).

I love this idea. I love the feeling it brings into my whole body and mind: that poetry is somehow the very dance of life around us; that poetry is the bracken fern unfurling a fiddlehead, the grass and its bright green, the Douglas firs and their new tips; the stars and the fog and the moon moving over my head while sleeping out in the down-sleeping bag, sheathed in wool (to be fair, regarding said sleeping-under-the-stars, I ended up moving under the oaks before dark because the fog was thick and the trees keep you nice and dry, but in the cushion of that duff forest floor, a different sort of night-poetry emerged: the poetry of the wee woodrat who lived in the tree, going about her nightly forage!).

I spent last weekend out in the big green hills near Occidental, in Western Sonoma County, a few ridges away from the ocean. I'm participating in a 9-month women's wilderness skills immersion program, and so around each full moon, I join a dozen other women on the land, learning fire-making and hide-tanning and basket-weaving, deepening my plant medicine knowledge, my understanding of bird language of animal tracking, all the while watching this one wild space transform through the seasons, trying to train my ear to its own myriad Poetries.

Below are a handful of those Poems, along with my  "Earth Constellation" sketches for April 12-13th — that cluster of blooms and bird-cycles, weather and mammal-song that together make up the poem of a place under a particular moon. I suppose these journal scribblings and watercolorings are an attempt to gesture toward the Poetry of What-Is.

Wild turkey feathers scattered clean over the ground, the leftovers of some nourishing meal. There were very fine scratch marks on some of the feathers, not photographed alas, which put me in mind of a bobcat--razor-thin, about the width of a stretched cat-paw. The next morning, the turkeys in their tree roosts woke us with their bouncing gobble-songs. How sweet, to wake up laughing at the laughter of turkey calls, how they sung out the dawn almost before any other bird, their big voices carrying far down the hills to other woods, where other turkey voices joined in. 

The fresh throw-mound of a gopher and her tunnel entrance, round as a dark moon. I'm not sure I've ever come across a tunnel as fresh as this one. The earth was a little bit warm and damp, lush as fresh cacao nibs, deliciously aerated. A single tiny bulb of some little grass or flower sat at the entrance, like a gift. I was very moved for some reason by this damp fresh doorway into the earth, and so I came back with madrone flowers in an acorn-cap and left them near the entrance. I know--a gopher doesn't want to eat madrone flowers. In fact I wonder now if I scared her, because when I came back the next day, as this photo shows, the entrance was closed up, as if it had never been there. Gophers, however, do block up their tunnels when they are no longer in use--and the area was covered in many mounds of dirt with no holes in sight--so perhaps it was coincidental, and such a treat to see. The Poetry of the Gopher who brings aeration to the great rolling hills (along with her sister moles and badgers and voles).

Pacific madrones in bloom. This sentence is surely its own poem. I've grown up around these muscled, silken-trunked trees, with their gorgeous red berries and their peeling bark (I always imagined the fallen pieces were scrolls! And now I know too that soaked, they make a beautiful face wash)... but for some reason this is the first year I've encountered a tree so fully in bloom, so heavy with lantern white blossoms, that the air everywhere around was thick with the smell of honey and vibrating with the buzzing of ecstatic bees. Truly, this madrone intoxicated me.

Her tiny white-bell blossoms turned all of her edges creamy, a glow.

As I sat there in the curls of fallen bark, in the dry leaves of nearby oaks, having my lunch, beneath the great buzzing sound was this tender drop-drop of the spent blossoms as they fell, the ones whose pollination was complete. They fell constantly, a gentle rain, a honeyed snow.

Acorn woodpeckers cackling in their quick flights between old fir snags. The snags stand like ancient towers, riddled with little holes made by the family groups of acorn woodpeckers, where they stuff thousands of said acorns, storing them for winter, their voices echoing like clownish laughter through the trees. Here are there are the bigger, older holes of pileated woodpeckers, the acorn's more staid and larger cousins, with their regal red mohawks.

In studies done in the Puget Sound, it was discovered that the holes drilled by pileated woodpeckers created habitat for more than 80 other species of mammal and bird. I love this idea--the woodpeckers carving homes in the dead trees, and those snags as crucial pieces of habitat, dead in one sense, but utterly teeming with life in another, reborn at the beaks of birds, the little mouths of insects, the dangling glory of the deeply medicinal usnea.

Yellow and purple wildflowers a carpet that lifts the soul to flying. I don't know who these tiny yellow ones are, amidst the bluedicks, but sometimes giving a human name doesn't matter much, compared to the welling-up sun in the heart. And that meeting of yellow and purple-- oh! In Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass, she writes about her own love affair with the meeting of yellow and purple wildflowers--goldenrod and asters. As both a trained botanist and a Native woman, she tries to tease out the concept of beauty, how it might function biologically: "Bees perceive many flowers differently than humans do due to their perception of additional spectra such as ultraviolet radiation. As it turns out though, goldenrod and asters appear very similarly to bee eyes and human eyes. We both think they're beautiful. Their striking contrast when they grow together makes them them the most attractive target in the whole meadow, a beacon for bees. Growing together, both receive more pollinator visits than they would if they were growing alone." (Page 46)

The fog coming in from the ocean at night with the songs of gray whales and their young travelling north again in its salty arms. 

Closer to that coast, and a bit south, at the edge of the Point Reyes peninsula, under the gentle firs, the miner's lettuce, chickweed and cleavers are still growing lush and huge. The green tongue of the shade. Those succulent leaves are so green, the photosynthesizing chlorophyll seems to positively sing! How miraculous to remember that plants consume the sun, so very literally. I know it's obvious, but sometimes I forget the wonder that this statement really holds. Plants eat sun. So often I feel that this language of mine does not hold enough words to adequately evoke the muscled livingness of the world beyond-the-human.

"English is a noun-based language, somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent. Which means that 70 percent of the words have to be conjugated, and 70 percent have different tenses and cases to be mastered. [....] A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa— to be a bay—releases the water from bondage and lets it live. 'To be a bay' holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise—become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive" (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, pages 53-55).

To be a water-lily. To be a pond floating with orange-bellied newts. 

To be a golden-crowned sparrow, getting ready right now to fly far north to the tundras of Alaska, to build a nest of bark and fern and the fur of caribou. To be a golden-crowned sparrow, hatched in a pale-green egg in a bed of caribou fur, flying yearly between the olive and walnut trees out my attic window to the flowered summer-fields of the northern tundras.

To be the blooming avenues of cow parsnip. 

To be a coastal Douglas fir, velvet-lush with new green tips. 

To be a thimbleberry, flowering through the spring into the heart of summer. 

And so there you have it, a little taste of the Poetry of What-Is that has been moving through my days.

For those afternoons when it's harder to hear that Poetry, when the spirits need a lift, there's always teacake and tea, made all the better by a few handfuls of garden petals.... This is one of my very favorite cakes, a lemon-masa rosemary cake, found here. For in the words of the 16th century Chinese poet, Tien Yiheng, "Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world," and tea does go down better with a little slice of cake, after all...

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sharing a Cup of Alder-Creek Tea: Of Wrentits & Cleavers & Old Sanitariums

Welcome to the alder-creek tea-room of my Gathering Time. Come, sit by the rush of the water, the strong sway of the pale alders, and rest awhile with a cup of assam and milk, while I unfurl a new patchwork, a constellation of earthly happenings, at your feet like fallen stars.

This past week, the sun came back big and hot. After a good drench of rain, the green and the flowers and the leaves are bursting. We leapt from spring to summer, or so it felt, in a matter of days, as often happens here in the languor of April.

It is the sort of heat that inspires everybody in this old Victorian house, and the house next door, to string up the laundry. (Our line is more shaded than these, alas, but still effective!) This sight makes me so happy. I couldn't quite say why; I just love laundry-on-the-line, like flags. And when you bring it in-- oh, that sunny smell, there's nothing to rival it!

Out in the East Bay Hills, the checkerblooms are opening fresh pink-striped petals,  beside...

.... the umbels of the cow parsnip, a favorite of mine. She grows so tall in riparian corridors and meadows near water, and often in big groups, like women with white umbrellas and strange green jagged hands. New cow parsnip shoots were peeled and eaten as a late winter green by native people, and those big hollow stalks were used to carry water.

The narrow-leafed mule's ear with its wooly leaves is truly its own fallen star. The Coast Miwok native people of Marin County, where I grew up, roasted the seeds of this plant (I imagine they are like tiny sunflower seeds), ground them and mixed them in to their pinole meal. The leaves, in a bath, will help relieve fevers (interesting, given what a sunny plant this is—as if it knows well how to deal with the fire of fever because it knows how to handle that fiery sun).

And oh, oh my-- the constellations of elderflowers, one of my favorite of all the plants--they are nearly open here! I have heard tell from herbalists a few dozen miles up the coast that the elderflowers are already blooming in Sonoma, and in some parts of Marin. I imagine this has to do with the rainfall, which has been (and always is) more prolific to the west and the north than here. There are so many microclimates around the great lung of the San Francisco Bay—they make up their own patchwork, their own quilt of many colors!

This sweet (and very reachable, for a person of my height--an important consideration!) blue elderberry tree grows just up the hill from the old ruins of the Belgum Sanitarium, in Wildcat Regional Park. When we lived in Berkeley, Simon discovered this strange and magical place after a long day's tramping through the hills and valleys near the Wildcat Creek, just down a little ridge from our home. I find it a very magical place, full of old songs and gentle ghost-memories.

All the structures have burned to the ground, so the only remaining hints of the story of this place are the gnarled pear and apple trees where cows now graze, like leaning weathered folk with the best of all tales to tell, whose fruits are not perfect and glossy but pocked and scarred and the sweetest of all. There are several palm trees, the single spine of an old stone foundation, and sages and naked lady flowers that seem to have been long ago cultivars gone wild. In an upcoming book I've co-authored for Heyday Books (The Wonderments of the East Bay-- more on that soon!), I wrote a chapter about this Belgum Sanitarium, and I give you a small excerpt here, so you can catch something of the flavor of the place!

"The Sanitarium was founded in 1915 by Dr. Hendrik Belgum, and remained in his hands until an enormous grass fire in 1948 threatened the house; he died in the conflagration while trying to put it out. The estate was passed into the hands of his brother Bernard and his spinster sisters Ida and Christine, and while a few of the patients also stayed on, none of the Belgums had any psychiatric or medical qualifications[...] In the early 1900’s, when the bay edges were still largely undeveloped, these vistas must have been transcendent. Dr. Belgum seemed to take the whole health of his patients into consideration, not only locating his Sanitarium in a peaceful sanctuary of chaparral hills and oak forest, but doubling the place as a sort of oasis-homestead, with apiaries, dairy cows, fruit orchards, a vegetable garden and a private spring. [...] It is said that local children who snuck around the edges of the Sanitarium at dusk (a delightfully frightening place to sneak around as a kid, no doubt, being full of reputed crazies) often heard eerily beautiful music on clarinet or piano or horn coming from the windows of the main house. Apparently Dr. Belgum held musical evenings with his patients on the regular, and he and his two sisters, who were often called “ethereal,” joined in the dancing."   

Though an old insane asylum no doubt has it's share of sadness and sorrow, to me there is something so nourishing about this place, as if Dr. Belgum's original vision of total-healing, from milk to fruit to fresh air to honey to a natural spring, is the ghost that lives on here, this sense that just being in the presence of open land (in a time--the early 1900's-- when the Bay Area was mushrooming overnight into a cutting edge Progressive-Era metropolis) might heal an ailing mind. Oh, yes, oh yes indeed.

Speaking of healing, another fallen star in the gathering-cloth opened before you here, as we sip tea by the alder-shaded creek: the hawthorns are blooming! This little shrubby specimen is located just around the corner from my parent's house, and only a few blocks from the place I grew up. The hawthorn elixir I made last August is from this bush. Because it is so near my childhood home, it holds extra heart-healing for me, extra nourishment, the loving hug of family, and so it is special to me to watch it through the seasons for the first time.

Hawthorn is a supreme and also gentle (to the point of being a  food! A completely safe tonic food) cardiac tonic, treating everything from high blood pressure to anxiety-related heart-palpitations. This is the old May-tree of Beltane, of the Northern European Maying Festivals (blooms later there I presume!), boughs gathered by young lovers. Young maidens supposedly bathed in hawthorn dew to beautify themselves. But there is also a more bewitching side to this plant, a fairy-touched hint to those thorns. It was said that even hanging your washing from the hawthorn tree might invoke the fairy wrath-- for their washing might already be hanging there! And some say that witches made their broomsticks from the spiny hawthorn too...

I like these words about the hawthorn, from herbalist Guido Masé, in his book The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter and Tonic Plants: "She is a lover, half-wild, passionate, full in her affection but vengeful in her anger. But she is also like a mother, older and wiser than her children, revealing the secrets necessary for a full and safe life. She holds the bookends of the most joyful season of the year, bringing in the May and celebrating the harvest with her great gifts. And if we embrace her, with affection and with respect, she opens our hearts and lets our feelings flow to their fullest. Don't underestimate her love, or deny her power. A true tonic she is, desiring little praise, but holding us safe in her gentle hand." (248)

Hawthorn the Rabbit was named well. One look at him bounding through the garden, one nose-nuzzle into that soft fur, has quite the same effect as those nine drops of hawthorn elixir!

The cleavers, or goosegrass, or stickyweed, have been popping all through the garden since our first big rains at the end of January. Now, they make veritable tangles, emerald green and climbing everywhere! What a robust abundant offering they are! I attended a spring plant class last Thursday evening, and learned of the wonderful lymph-cleansing properties of the humble cleavers. So I picked some new tips right when I got home, rolled them between my hands to crush some of that stickiness, to avoid the feeling of velcro in the throat, and was just astounded by the pea-like, watery, refreshing taste of this beautiful plant! It literally tastes of spring to me; it is a burst of energy-- and it had been clambering through the garden, offering itself day by day! I can't believe it took me this long to try it. Now, I nibble it whenever I pass through the garden, just like Hawthorn—he adores it, and slurps it up like pasta— sometimes bending to nip it off with my teeth if my hands are full. It also makes a very cooling wound-wash, and a refreshing tea.

From the attic window seat, I am watching the leaves of the black walnut unfurl, obscuring many of the holes left by the red headed sapsucker. I haven't seen him in a while, though I think I've heard him! I wonder when he will return.

In that windowseat, and out in the garden, and by our big front windows (with Gertrude Jekyll roses from my mother's garden intoxicating me with their perfume), I've been researching and note-taking and drawing and painting...

This spread here is a constellation of some of the beings out on the steep green land of Mt. Barnabe, in Lagunitas on April 9th, as observed with a tracking mentor and friend, as the fog crept over the far ridge for the first time this season, perhaps pulled in from the ocean by our days of heat. These pages are a hint of the seasonal gathering, the almanac making, that is to come... To leave you with another tidbit, though, this idea is brewing-- of earth constellations (term coined in brainstorm with tracking-mentor and friend, Scott Davidson): the groupings of beings that, moon-by-moon, make up the pattern of what's happening out on the land, the same way Aries, for example, is a grouping of disparate stars that has become this Zodiac-story of April, with supposed bearing on our lives. Don't the networks of plants and animals, blooming and birthing and migrating through the land we walk on, the air we breathe, grouped roughly by the subtle changes of each moon here (which feel each like their own season, in a way), have just as much of an effect on us, if not more?

A bald eagle winged through at almost eye level (due to the very steep slope of the hill we sat on, and its view far far down into the valley that leads to Kent Lake)-- breathtaking, truly, deeply, breathtaking.

The mourning cloak butterfly seems to just be returning from its winter sleep... and as I've learned, likes to tap the sap-holes made by sapsuckers! I wonder if I will see any come to this garden, and our black walnut.

And also, about the sweet wrentit whose bouncing voice makes my heart ache with the beauty of wide open scrub-hills it evokes, the smell of coyotebrush and sage, the expansiveness of a hill rolling down to a valley, I discovered this most wonderful tidbit:

"Wrentits are believed to mate for life. A pair will remain together in a suitable site, even as small as one acre. A bonded pair have been observed to snuggle up together at an overnight roost to the extent that they intertwine their legs, and intermesh their feathers; and, with their inner legs drawn up, they form a tight feathered ball (Erickson, M. M., 1948)." (From the Audubon Wrentit page)

My pages are full with notes about the wildflowers that are opening-- too many to keep up with! One of my favorite fallen-star pieces, gathered here to share with you by the alder creek over tea, is the baby-blue eyes. While wandering Potrero Meadow two weeks back with my love, we came upon  one open grassy patch between two fir-woods, unfurling thick with bracken ferns. Around the ankles of those ferns were more baby-blue eyes than I've ever seen, hundreds of little blue faces dense as forget-me-nots. They brought me down to my hands and knees, touching their delicate striped petals still wet and translucent with the rain from the day before. An enchanted place, that forest of tiny blue flowers. Then, Simon noticed a fresh hole beneath a tussock of grass, amidst all of these blue blooms, and we peered in, and quite envied whatever soul lived within, to have such a doorstep!

Well, I'm off again into the nasturtium-tangled pathways of this Gathering-Time! May your heels be lifted off the ground too by the green movements of spring, and may we always give ourselves time for alder creek-side cups of tea! (Easier said than done, I know; the creekside can be the deep rush of a good book, the alders can be the handful of roses brought in from the garden, the dandelion flowers picked out of sidewalk cracks, whatever small token of the wild world you can bring into your home!) I need to remind myself of this so often—to slow down, to pour the tea, to do nothing but sit and listen and be. Often I feel defined by what I produce--stories, research in my notebook, sketches, books read, classes taught, challenges faced. I am doing my best, during this Gathering-Time, to remember that the body and mind and spirit are whole and complete and just as valuable when they sit by the creekside together, sipping tea, thinking of nothing but alders and the sun-ripple on water. Maybe in such moments, we are most ourselves, because we have stepped out of ourselves a little, and are part alder, part creek, as we have always been, deep down.