Friday, April 4, 2014

Making A Patchwork Nest in the Orange Blossomed Tree

First and foremost and above all things, it is impossible for me to resist sharing with you the leapings and adventurings of dear Hawthorn. And the truth is, what better a guide through these weeks of Gathering inspiration and beauty and strangeness and the tastes of new plants, like a bushtit gathering cobwebs for her nest, than Hawthorn in his ramblings? He is my companion as I sit in the garden with my notebook and my pen, as I explore the canopy of the orange tree and taste the flourishing cleavers.

He reminds me to weave under and over and through the chard and nasturtiums, rather than around. He is an advocate of sticking-your-nose-into-the-fennel (or the chard, as he is here!), and also random moments of leaping frenzied joy, in which he speeds off and covers half the yard in the blink of an eye (and it's a big yard!).

So I thought it only fair to share with you his bounding bunny-bottom; I thought it prudent, because his rabbit ways are wise and wonderful and rooted deeply in the winds and soils and secret places under the comfrey bush, and they make me smile and my heart relax and open up every morning.

So now that we've sniffed the air, and tasted the wild radish, and romped a few times down the hay-strewn path, we can away into more serious business...

I wrote in my previous post that I would share weekly Gathering Time findings with you here, and I would like to add that I see these posts as collections, like magical patchwork skirts, like the sacred items in the Irish Crane Skin Bag, like a small gathering of treasures, of spices and herbs thrown into a copper pot, and who knows what precisely they will make! But that is also precisely the point, and the beauty, of Gathering from the heart instead of the mind for a little while.

I am going to number these spices, these patches, these treasures, as one would the steps of a recipe...

And what better a way to begin...

1) A Nest in the Orange Tree

... than with a home in the heart of the fragrant orange tree, with its purple doorstep!

For many weeks now I've been swooning at the sweet smell of these blossoms (oh, at dusk, it is enough to make you weep!), and I have been slurping up the juice of these beautiful oranges, ripe all winter long. Then, peering deep into the green fragrant canopy one day...

I beheld this soft hanging nest, held together with cobwebs and lichens, with dryer lint and grass and who knows what else! And lo, in alarm, who flew out but the tiny and wonderful little bushtit?

I realized then that I had been seeing at least two bushtits fly back and forth from the plum trees with lichen in their beaks, from the overhangs of sheds with cobwebs, to the heart of this orange tree, for several weeks, and I hadn't even thought to look for a nest! They are the tiniest birds in the garden, besides the hummingbird, and they forage for spiders and other insects in sociable chipping flocks, all moving together from tree to tree.

Every so often, one lands on the oak branch outside the kitchen window, which is right above the sink. I have to say, being eye to eye for a split second with that adorable, elfin face is almost too much for me. And not to belittle them with words of cuteness—but, my goodness, I can't help but soften, to be in the presence of such a quick light being.

The bushtit's nest is unique among all North American birds; in fact it is the only member of its family in the Americas. The seven others dwell in Eurasia, and all have hanging nests. Even more unusual, several younger birds may hang around and help the mated pair during breeding and nesting season—and these helpers are usually males! This is almost unheard of in the bird kingdom!

American Bushtit, Psaltriparus minimus (c) Audubon  
Now, I notice two bushtits in particular coming and going from the mouth of the nest every day. I wonder if they have chicks yet, or only eggs, or no eggs at all, and they are still putting the finishing touches on their home. But what a fine snug home it is; if I were a bird, I'd choose the orange tree too, for its thick canopy and its sweet heady fragrance. Imagine, upon waking and going to sleep, that special crepuscular perfume of the citrus-tree, wafting near. 

The orange tree and her blossoms have been held in special esteem for wedding ceremonies the world over, from China to the Middle East and eventually to Spain and then the rest of Europe during the Crusades. Those heady blossoms symbolize purity, innocence and fertility in Chinese tradition, and were worn from ancient times in wedding crowns in the Arabic tradition.  

It seems only suitable, then, for the young bushtit couple to make their wedding bower in the arms of the orange tree, with her orange-blossom lanterns. May their little ones be healthy safe and strong, and their days full of many spiders and small moths. 

2) The Gifts of Meadows

My love and I wandered the meadows of Mt. Tamalpais and of Point Reyes' Bear Valley this past weekend, in rain and sun, and I did not bring my camera, because sometimes the world is too beautiful for the camera, if you know what I mean? Or rather, sometimes, it is better to be without it, so that you remember to use all of your senses, and to sit with the beauty and the mystery you see, rather than trying to capture it. I saw such beautiful small and big things, the sorts of things a part of me desperately wanted to photograph. But now, they are so deep in me, because my body and my eyes were the only place to gather up and store away, and I am glad the camera was in the car.

In the big meadow beyond the first alder-riparian corridor along the Bear Valley Creek, the ground was covered in orange poppies, all heavy and glistening with rain. A small raptor burst from a bush and winged to a lone little fir tree in the midst of those poppies, and her tail feathers were just the same color. I waded through the rainy grass to the tree, knowing the kestrel would not wait for me, feeling overwhelmed by all those orange silken poppy heads. Sometimes, just touching a tree (so squat, I could almost touch her perch!) where a bird has sat feels like a moment of grace. And laying down amidst the California poppies (a tincture of which I made last year, and which affords me deep relaxation and peace) the same color as kestrel feathers; that is the brightest patchwork-scrap of silken ember-gold.

In the fir duff near another, different meadow, Potrero Meadow, on the west-facing flanks of Mt. Tamalpais, the calypso orchids were up everywhere. They are small and low enough that in order to smell the heady vanilla sweetness of their nectar, you have to get down on your hands and knees and bow your head so that your nose is almost touching the earth, then tilt those lips toward you; the sweet scent is divine. The name "Venus's slipper" makes quite a lot of sense, as does Calypso orchid, for these wildflowers are like nymphs, hidden in the shade of the forest, waiting to beguile you into their speckled arms.

Their blossoming window is so brief, so delicate, and very specific to certain areas beneath the firs, where some mysterious confluence of soil nutrients and light and weather and a particular species of mycorrhizal fungi support their flourishing. I love to wonder at such things. Why here, why right here, are there five dozen Calypso orchids nodding pink and fragrant at my ankles, begging each to be gently touched, and smelled, and praised, before they are gone again for a whole new turning about the sun? I wonder what it is like, to be that tiny new seed in the duff,  or to be those basal leaves, waiting and waiting and dreaming sunset-colored dreams until the next winter rains, the next touch of spring sun, in which to send up a new stem, a new pink flower?

3) Juliette de Bairacli Levy

This week I have been reading Juliette de Bairacli Levy's Traveler's Joy. It makes me nearly weep with its beauty, and ache for the world, so nearly lost, of the footloose wandering herbalist with her owl companions and her Afghan hounds and her courage. I am so utterly inspired by this woman; I have been ever since I watched the film Juliette of the Herbs roughly a year ago, and found that she brought me to my knees, this wise old woman speaking with such love to her olive trees, her rosemary, her hounds.

She pushed me straight onto the path of herbal study that I had been longing to walk since I was a girl of eight or so, reading countless books full of heroines who were medicine women, midwives, herbalists, adventurers. The Way of the Herbs had always felt a bit closed to me before hearing Juliette speak (even through a film!)-- huge and overwhelming and a tad bit frightening. But something changed in my heart after that, and though I am utterly at the beginning of this beautiful journey of learning the herbs, my life has changed in the past year because of them, and because of her—nettles and motherwort and raspberry leaves hang from wherever they can through the house, crampbark and skullcap and motherwort and tulsi are growing out in the garden, a maze of tinctures sit upon the shelves, and the plants, most importantly, are beginning to feel like old friends, and like the greatest of teachers.

Motherwort (toothed leaves)
Anyhow, I thought as my final strands of cobweb for the day, I'd leave you with a handful of quotes from this gorgeous book, from the wise and wonderful Juliette de Bairacli Levy.

"When I used to travel on horseback for long distances over sunburnt moorlands, on journeys to the Gypsy horse fairs of the North of England, on days of fierce sun I used sprays of elder blossoms in my hat. This truly cooled the air; it was taught to me by the horse-trading Gypsies of the Pennine hills." (page 107)

"There is also soapless washing when heavy, smooth stones are employed, preferably from rivers, and the washing done in rivers. Clothes are slapped hard upon the stones, by hands or supple branches from such trees as willow or alder. After being slapped, the clothes are rubbed lightly over smooth stones, to release the dirt. Then they are treaded upon with bare feet in the water, and placed over reeds or flat stretches of grass, for sun bleaching and air sweetening. I learned this way of washing linen in Portugal, in the swift rivers there. Then the toil of laundry was turned into a sort of revelry, of singing and dancing in the water (with much laughter), and I have never known linen more white or fragrant, so that it rivaled the swathes of white marguerite flowers growing there." (page 29)

"The tin of glowing embers of many colors from pale yellow to deep crimson always reminds me of the Persian proverb: 'the fireside is the tulip bed of a winter day.'" (page 44)

"I am most happy when swallows make their nests in any home of mine, and in Galilee, for years I had nearly seventy swallows sleeping in one of my rooms. Every dusk they would come winging homeward, happy and rejoicing as returning children. They enjoyed my welcome of praising words and knew that the windows would always be open for them. They darted throughout the entire dwelling, eating up the mosquitoes, and they would come in by day to catch the houseflies. My useful and beautiful swallows! Every night I counted them in my lantern light; it was a sort of rite, and the birds would look down at me in friendliness as I counted them to make sure all my seventy were safely home." (page 91)

"The patchwork cover is the nicest for travelers. First, it is beautiful to the eye, and further, it does not show wear marks as quickly as a plain one, being of many colors as the biblical coat of Joseph. For patchwork I collect snippets of cloth as I travel; they are everywhere. I seldom visit a new area without finding some rags of colored cloths. Many of them come to me washed up from sea and river. Their different designs are a fascination, and when it comes to using them, and to the sewing of them in place on lengths of cloth, it is like painting pictures, using bits of cloth instead of paints. Patchwork shirts, blouses and skirts, also window curtains (if one uses such) can be made as well as the usual bed covers. I expect that this famous Biblical 'coat of many colors' was patchwork. For the wise Sufis, patchwork has magical properties and powers, and they wear it very often as part of their clothing." (page 80)

And so, there is my first patchwork for you!


  1. This is beautiful! I love how you think. Your nature journal is so inspiring. Thank you.

  2. Oh, this is exquisite. Such a beautiful path you walk my dear friend. There is nothing else to say, every drop of this post is delicious. And that bushtit nest, I can think of no better place to live. Xoxo Nao

  3. Bunny butts & plant lit ~ could there be a better blogging? x

  4. what a grand time hawthorn is having!! and how wonderful to have glimpses of him :) i'm so glad you're sharing your gathering time and also bits of your beautiful journal. i was also unfamiliar with the work of Juliette de Bairacli Levy, so thank you for that! as usual after visiting you, i'm fit to bursting with inspiration!!

  5. Ahh, that plant is motherwort? It is growing many shady places in my backyard and is tough as anything...I had no idea what his name was. Thank you! Your patchwork is rich indeed.