Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Notes from the Wild Folk: A Visit to the Alpine

For a week of days and of star-thick nights, I was steeped and clarified both by the Sierra Nevada air, by the wind down the granite passes that sang the trees to oceans, by the sight of ancient ragged ridges 9,000 feet high and more, by the company of my family and of my new friends—juniper and aspen, rowan, goldenrod and chickaree. I am still adjusting to sea-level. I never thought I'd say such a thing, being such a lover of wild coast and fog! The last time I was in the Sierras, closer to 11,000 feet, I was desperate for the lower elevation because I found it very difficult to sleep. This time, I felt like Nan Shepherd in The Living Mountain, when she writes, "I am a mountain lover because my body is at its best in the rarer air of the heights and communicates its elation to the mind [...] At first I thought that this lightness of body was a universal reaction to rarer air. It surprised me to discover that some people suffered malaise at altitudes that released me, but were happy in low valleys where I felt extinguished." (Page 7). While I certainly do not feel "extinguished" in the low valleys where I live-- and in my heart am an ocean-side, misty forest kind of girl—I did experience the "feyness" of the heights that Nan Shepherd so joyously describes. I felt giddy at the end of each day with the richness of our rambles on the high ridges, to the clear lakes.

Goldenrod, yellow herald of late summer, bloomed everywhere (well, mostly near water, though not this ridge-top adventurer), so sun-bright it was impossible not to smile at the sight of her. 

For the first time, I met mountain ash, aka rowan, a native variety of that small tree of mythic proportions. I've known about rowan since I was a young girl, reading books full of medicine women and Celtic magics. Once, I thought I spotted a rowan tree growing in the front yard of a strange, stained-glass windowed house around the corner from the home where I grew up. I'm not sure if it really was, but I was certain this tree meant that the woman inside was a witch, and possibly one of dubious intentions.

 Up here, in the Desolation Wilderness, the rowans provided sudden bursts of scarlet amidst a landscape dry with summer,  colored mostly with the dusty silver shades of granite and juniper, the fawns of bark and stone, the evergreens, the sharp blue of the sky. I gathered some berries to string up over our front door, for protection, though some say that rowans attract fey folk as well as guard against them. Mostly, that string of red will stir my blood with the beauty of those alpine waterways where she grows, singing soft songs of protection to the ducks and the grouse, the beaver and the mountain chickadee, come night.

Thanks to my trusty Laws' Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada  (a fabulous book I've had since my time at Heyday, but hadn't really found the opportunity to use until now, full not only of the usual flora and fauna but also insects, lichens, mushrooms, stars, tracks, clouds, all hand illustrated with both character and accuracy), I fell into an ecstasy of identification. There were so many new plants and birds 7,000 feet in the air, and some 200 miles east of my usual haunts. This coffeeberry, for example, I could identify as such, but something about it was different-- the shape of the berries, that array of autumnal colors-- and then I learned that the Sierras have their very own coffeeberry (no doubt a favorite of the gray foxes as well as the Sierra red fox, as it is down by the sea too), Rhamnus rubra. After a day long ramble, upon returning, I would grab my Laws' Guide, make a cup of tea, and flip through it pleasurably, seeking the new friends I'd met.

And then there were the aspens. Their trunks white-dusted and full of dark eyes, their leaves a dance and a shimmer in the wind. As my mother said, there are certain winds that you only notice because of the aspens, who pick up the slightest breezes and ripple. Their full name is quaking aspen, or Populus tremuloides, and the flower essence of this tree is used for panic and anxiety. The latter I can understand, but not for the reasons often used—there is nothing about the dance of the aspen that reminds me of fear, of tremors, of quaking. Not at all. This tree is all light and water and lilt. It shimmers and flickers. It does not quake like a man trembling in his boots at the sight of a bear, such as the name evokes. Aspens remind me that in the face of a wind, sometimes the best thing to do is come totally and fully alive.

The sight of aspens dancing thus is immensely, immeasurably calming. It has the same effect as the sight of water rippling or waves spreading with foam. Why these things are soothing and centering, I cannot quite articulate. Aspen leaf stems are flattened at the base, so that the leaves may move back and forth, fluttering in the slightest breeze. I wonder why the aspens have chosen, over many millenia, to grow thus. And why one side of the leaf is dark green, the other silvery, so that in that flutter is the effect of light on water—this is a Great Mystery, indeed.

At Lily Lake, rimmed with aspen, alder, cottonwood and willow (how I love the water-loving trees!) my mother and I shared morning tea, a short walk up from our cabin, and spotted the home of a beaver, probably made from the silvery aspen branches, a beaver favorite!

The original architects, those fellows, inspiration, I'm sure, for the earliest tents and houses.

High up the ridges, I fell completely in love with the tatterdemalion silhouettes of the old, wind-tossed junipers. The more gnarled and silvery-barked, the more ancient—and the more beautiful, in my mind. These trees seem to grow straight from the granite. 

Their dusty blue berries are a favorite of many birds, especially robins, as well as the numerous species of chipmunk and ground squirrel who live here, and the black bear too. 

The juniper is a sacred, wise plant, and I am writing an in-depth column on the subject for the wonderful EarthLines magazine, so I shan't give away too many tidbits here. Suffice it to say, juniper's berries and boughs are at once medicinal and magically powerful—clearing, cleansing, warming, and rooted in underworlds of stone. I spent a fair amount of time with my hands to their bark or rock-bound roots, wondering what stories they held inside.

Beyond the first juniper ridge, we ventured to Grass Lake. My brother (above) and I both swam to a little island in the middle. The water was cool but refreshing, not the gasping temperature of snowmelt that I've felt before. 

However, I learned about halfway across that I'm a mediocre swimmer at best, with no technique and little stamina, and that it was really quite cold. I experienced a somewhat sobering moment in the middle, humbled by the dark blue expanse of water under and all around me, and remembered that floating on one's back in the water provides excellent respite. So I dog-paddled and back-floated, breast-stroked and frog-kicked my way to that granite island, and arrived trembling from head to toe with the effort. There, my brother and I lay on the warm, mica-flecked stones and felt the peace of wild things flowing in through our skin. A chickaree (little tassel-eared squirrel) called, and a kingfisher. The wind hushed through the trees. The stones held the warmth of the sun.

The Sierras are defined by granite, it seems to me. It is foundation and bare bones. When you walk these ridges for a day, your feet get sore from the hardness of the ground, the granite jarring your bones. I am put in mind of more of Nan Shepherd's words:

I have written of inanimate things, rock and water, frost and sun; and it might seem as though this were not a living world. But I have wanted to come to the living things through the forces that create them, for the mountain is one and indivisible, and rock, soil, water and air are no more integral to it than what grows from the soil and breathes the air. All are aspects of one entity, the living mountain. The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird--all are one. Eagle and alpine veronica are part of the mountain's wholeness. (The Living Mountain, 48.)

Even the grasshoppers have come to look like the rust-hued stone. They leap and click through the summer air.

In places, the rocks are newborn and sharp, all edges and rifts.

The air everywhere smells of the dry butterscotch sap of Jeffrey pines, which rises up from those bark clefts like a sweet mountain brandy.

You can almost feel the presence of snow, even in the height of summer, in the way the slopes are shaped, the hardiness of the low shrubbery. All that green, which looks like moss from a distance, I believe is a combination of low growing huckleberry oak, manzanita, and bitter cherry.

Bitter cherry, growing more lanky here, is a new plant to me-- the first wild cherry I've ever met, with tiny vermillion berries and glossy bark.

And I was very surprised and delighted indeed to find a smooth acorn amidst the little leaves of this shrubby plant, which I was desperate to identify for at least half an afternoon. It's the small pleasures that matter...

Like a teardrop stone, a juniper, and a cloud.

Or the very last bloom of the mountain heather, a deep and ravishing pink.

One afternoon, we climbed to a lake high enough that we could look back across the other lakes we had visited. They appeared like blue footprints, trod in granite. Nearer us, on the boughs of fir trees, the cones glistened as if made of ground crystal or the glinting green of certain rocks. "Each of the senses is a way in to what the mountain has to give" (97), writes Shepherd.

The taste of little dry thimbleberries, sweet and tart and full of seeds. The smell of butterscotch and dust, and juniper. The wind down the mountain passes and through the many pines and firs a rush as loud as oceans, with the calls of chickaree and flicker, Stellar's jay, kingfisher, inside. The heat of hot rocks under a lake-cold skin, or the fibrous juniper bark against the fingers. Blue sky, blue lakes fallen from it, sharp granite, the evergreen, the goldenrod, the rowan red. Yes, Nan, I have found my way in.

Come dusk, my brother, father and I went religiously to sit on the boat dock with a pipe of Highland whiskey tobacco (a guilty pleasure) to watch the bats come out, and then the first stars. Of all the small pleasures, this one must be supreme—bats, stars, the lake water painted with wind and crepuscular light. Night is a whole new country, full of stars thick as the mica in granite. Night is when the black bears roam nearer, and the Milky Way makes a path through the mountain passes. Night, and the air had autumn in it, cold.

It is the hinge between dusk and night that I love best. And here we sit, on the edge of it, my brother and I hunched in precisely the same posture (it must be familial), watching the night come in. No matter the myriad distractions and stimulations of this world, nothing can replace the feeling of one's eyes, searching and searching the dusk blue just the same color as those dusty juniper berries, until at last—ah!— they find a star, a chip of quartz, and relax. That first star, Vega, clear as the alpine air. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Elk Lines: The Stamps & the Story-Cases

On Saturday August 2nd, Lughnasadh, the inaugural mailing of Elk Lines began its arrival from here to Australia and back again. This time, much to my pleasure, all of the stamps on the envelopes were my own design... for of course I needed a strange elk with a hand on his belly, Old Sally's tea kettle and the alder-burl teacup of the Elk People, the Point Reyes Peninsula itself, a lupine flower, a California poppy. My several months' Gathering Time inspired in me enough confidence to begin using more of my humble sketching and watercoloring skills to enhance and decorate these Wild Tale offerings...and how liberating and satisfying it feels! I tend to draw very much from things I see, unlike in my writing life; it is a nice change for my brain I think, and I find I've learned the details of certain plants, landscapes and animals really well only through the act of sketching.

This new project of mine, this Elk Lines, is among other things (besides being a retelling of the Handless Maiden story) a deep exploration of the songlines and storylines of the Point Reyes Peninsula, its animals, plants, stones, waters, winds. So the stamp of the Peninsula herself is a particular favorite of mine; she is her own nomad creature, roaming ever north.

Here is an excerpt, to give those of you not subscribed a flavor and a feeling of this strange and many-faceted novel...

It is very simple. There is a doorway on the western edge of Tomales Point, where a line of granite stones, millennia old, bisects a footpath carved first by elk and native human feet, then, much later, by Spanish longhorn cattle, then the dairy ranching Pierce family, and later still, the National Park Service. Naturally, the doorway is difficult to see except in a particular slant of sun or moon, while the tide far down to the west reaches a particular degree of zenith.
 That’s where the Elk People came from. They sprinkled ocean salt, removed their shoes and held them in one hand, right foot first, and refrained from sneezing, though Old Sally later joked with her even older husband Mino that she might have ruined it all had she not plugged her nose, looked away from the sun, and made her cataracts very much worse for the effort. Nursing babies were pulled temporarily off the breast. Antonia and Zsusannah sang the offering songs—of fog, of elephant seal, of badger, of lupine, of ghost—and even the elk, weighted though they were with tents and kettles, fiddles, pots, pans and skins, stepped softly. When they were all through—twenty-nine men, women and children, nine elk, and one grizzly bear with a cub who had only just learned to walk—Antonia closed the door and locked it with a bone key. It is best to keep such doors closed, on the whole; one never knows who might stumble the wrong way to here or there.
The Elk People arrived on the morning of the first summer fog. In Point Reyes, as in much of coastal California, summer was not a neat three months in a seasonal round of twelve, nor was spring, nor winter, nor fall. Summer began when the last of the rain was gone from the bellies of the grasses, and the hills went gold, the color of mountain lion haunches and elk withers. Summer began when the pink clarkias and pearly everlasting flowers bloomed inside that dryness, and the fog began to roll in almost every morning along the coast, holding the wild beaches of Limantour and Drake, North, South, Abbott, Kehoe, McClure, with shifting, salt-sweet white. Summer began also when the last golden-crowned sparrows left for the northern tundras and the frequency of their mournful songs was replaced by the fecund trill of the just-arrived Swainson’s thrushes.
So the Elk People did not arrive in summer, exactly, but rather on the morning when summer first hinted again of her existence within the brief green hills of spring: a hip of fog along the Inverness Ridge that moved down its canyons like cloth unfurled from a woman’s hands. It was a morning in mid-April, when the wildflowers—baby blue eyes, irises, shooting stars, ground lupines, cream cups—were still at the height of their lives and pounced hourly by pollen-drunk bees, no hint of withering or yellowing yet at their petals. Only the faintest blush of gold had appeared on the south-facing slope of Black Mountain, which rose to the east of Point Reyes Station like a knuckled fist.

I am now hard at work on the second installment, which will arrive on September 21st, the fall equinox. This is also when the next round of new subscriptions will go out, so you are welcome to join in the elk-hoofed caravan and receive your first Elk Lines on the fall equinox! The whole thing works on a rolling basis... You can sign up here. 

I find I write best when the work of the mind is balanced with the work of the hands, as I've written many times by now. So I've also been felting and embroidering story-cases, to hold said Elk Lines.

These days, my studio desk is increasingly a haystack.

And since I was embroidering while using a haystack as a desk and textile studio combined, with hay everywhere underfoot, I learned the true meaning of trying to find a needle in a haystack. Let me tell you, this is a very frustrating experience. Needles glint just like hay when the sun is on them. They vanish immediately, even if you think your eyes have followed them to the ground. I lost at least two, and felt rather stupid, since it was after all my own fault, sitting in a hay-pile while sewing. I did, however, also find my needle in the haystack at least once, which made me feel like a fairytale luck had momentarily been bestowed upon me by the watching bushtits, or perhaps the mysterious hay itself.

Lost needles aside, sewing is much more interesting when done outside. These story-cases were felted and sewn as the towhees and hummingbirds watched, as the sun changed and the fog rolled in and the wind blew.

Some are naturally dyed an olive green with coyote brush, while others I kept the natural browns and whites of their wool.

I can imagine Old Sally or Antonia with such a felted case strapped to the side of their elk. When unrolled, it would reveal not envelopes full of stories but something far more mysterious and strange; I shall leave that tale up to you!

And so there you have it, a taste of these Elk Lines in word, image and textile. This story seems to want to come out of me through all possible mediums; and what a delicious feeling that is, to feel engaged hand and heart with it in this way with a tale, and to be able to share it all with you.

If you missed the link above, and would like to look more closely at these story-cases, follow along here. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hands & Hearth: Elder In the Heart of the Volcano

During the week of Lughnasadh, my love and I visited the heart of that old, sideways volcano called Sibley, up in the dry coyotebrush hills. In the late spring, I had noticed that right there, in the center of that quarried landscape once volcanic, once grazed by American camels and strange, trunked horses, grew a small and hardy elderberry. It felt like some old enchantment to me, that this lone elderberry was growing in the heart of a fallen volcano, and so I made a note to leave her umbels of white flowers, and come back in late summer for those berries.

Something about an elderberry elixir put away for winter colds and flus, grown on the dry soil of an ancient volcano, feels deeply healing, as if the old songs of the volcano might somehow echo in the hollow branches of the elderberry. Who knows what her roots gather in that deep down soil; what stories they hear.

The elderberry also grows at the entrance of a labyrinth created four decades ago by a woman who walked her goats in these hills. A small seep runs seasonally along the edge of the quarry-bottom, and so a stand of tules grows to the north, and a stand of willows to the south. The elder must gather some of this moisture too.

There is a strange poetry about the place to me; that a quarry happened to open the heart of a volcano so that now, people come to walk a labyrinth there, where magma and ash are somehow mixed into the soil and stone. The elderberry has a timelessness about her that is suited to such a place; so much Northern European lore tells of the dryads and fairy beings, elven folk and old witch women associated with elders, how they may be doorways to other realms on full moon nights. But my favorite of all magics associated with the elderberry comes from the beliefs of the native California Indian people, specifically the Coast Miwok, told to me by Malcolm Margolin of Heyday books. Below is an excerpt from a book I co-authored with him called Wonderments of the East Bay, coming out this fall, detailing some of this magic...

"When the elderberry flowers bloomed in heady umbels, this signaled to the native people of the Bay Area the end of the shellfish season. No more could be gathered until the elderberry flowers turned to dusty black berries at the cusp of summer and fall. In between, during the dry summer months, shellfish were subject to the red tides caused by algal blooms, which turned them toxic for human consumption. {....} The elderberry is a doorway of sorts out of the shackles of mechanical time, back into the rhythms of natural time that are dictated by such mysteries as the moment of blossom, the moment the golden-crowned sparrow returns, the moment of fruit. The elderberry was also a more literal time-keeper in the older world of native California. Her light branches were made into clapper sticks. For every dance, those elderberry sticks beat out the rhythm, they sounded the time to the music, to the dancer’s feet. And so she both marks the passage of time, and measures it, beat by beat.

The world over, elderberry’s hollow branches have been also been used as delicate flutes— in fact, the name Sambucus comes from the ancient Greek sambuke, a stringed musical instrument, likely made from elderberry wood, as were other European instruments. Here, in native California, elderberry flutes were used for courting. It was said that in order to pick just the right branch for flute-making and wooing, you had to find the tree with music in it. And in order to find just that elder, you waited for a windless day, and then you wandered until you found an elderberry with a leaf moving in the still air. Such a tree had music held inside. Such a tree reminds us that it is the world itself in which music resides; we don’t impose it, we only do our best to coax it out. And when we do, that music weaves us back in again to the flow of elderberry-time, and gives us a glimpse of the calendar of the living land."

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Notes from the Wild Folk: Coyote, Her Fur, and the Flowers of the Dunes

Out at Abbott's Lagoon, where the summer fogs hang thick and a family of river otters splashes through the fresh blue water, there is a narrow path at the base of a great sand dune, flanked on the other side by cattails and lagoon, where not so long ago a bobcat patrolled up and down on the regular, presumably from a resting place in the willows, catching marsh birds, the mice who run the dunes, the rabbits out in the scrub.

Recently, I heard tell from other trackers that there seemed to have been a change of guard—the bobcat seemed to have gone elsewhere. Yesterday, a tracking friend and I went rambling along the lagoon edge and through the dunes. We followed the trail where once the bobcat(s) walked. The tracks in the sand were loose and indistinct, and we could not determine whether they were bobcat or coyote. The tiny footprints of deer mice skittered everywhere. 

Then, we began to find small clumps of fur. 

Above is the largest clump we found. All of them contained some combination of coarse, sturdy, long guard hairs banded black, white, golden or rust, and a rough, wavier undercoat. Guard hairs are generally the hairs that lend an animal's coat its characteristic color, while also wicking away moisture and retaining body heat.

Whoever was scratching herself, snagging on bushes, or shedding, she left an excellent trail! I've never tracked by bits of fur before, but when we crawled into a thicket of willows that comprised the entrance to some sort of resting place, or den, or hideaway, we found several more matching guard hairs caught on the bark or in the humus below our hands and knees.

Guardian oak (or poison oak) characteristically guarded the thicket about seven feet in, so we didn't make it very far, but the stiff guard hairs in our fingers were like little treasures, with the story of a recent creature's passage in them.

We didn't want to linger long, because we felt we were trespassing on someone's secret and guarded front doorstep. (And what a doorstep! You can see the willows below to the left, and the beginning of the lagoon to the far right.)

While it is always a good idea to keep the mind and heart full of questions and myriad possibilities when tracking, and while I am no expert in the identification of small scraps of fur, we were very much reminded of the pelage of the coyote as we examined the hairs, and felt their coarseness. That banded black-cream-rust color very much matches the general coloration of these clever, quick beings. 
Coyote portrait, by Christopher Bruno
Out on the great sand-dune above the willow-den, where the coyotes sidetrot, the bobcats prowl, the deer wander, the deer mice skitter, the raccoons amble, all leaving the stories of their passage in lettered trails, we sat for a time amidst this netted skein of wild lives. At our feet, the dune strawberries made their own constellated nets, somehow surviving on sand, in salty air.

Tiny dune primroses (a fraction of the size (probably 1/10th!) of the evening primroses so similar in appearance that are flourishing in the garden) reached out through the sand and bloomed their bright primrose yellow. They must be drinking the salty fog alone, for there is no other water here at this time of year. 

Together, it seems to me that the dune strawberries and dune primroses must know the secret stories and lives of the animals who pass through the sand at dusk and dawn and the middle of the night; they probably know if it is a coyote or a bobcat who, for a little while, rules over the willow patch with its magnificent front porch. 

And we wondered, all along—was there a coyote watching us from just beyond, in the thick scrub of the hills, bemused that we would crawl on all fours into her hideaway, and take a few of her hairs like pieces of an old enchantment?

For Coyote is a wise old Creator, and knows well the ways of humans...

There is an old story says the world was made by Coyote, who got stranded at the top of Mt. Diablo when the ocean waters were high and right up around its craggy neck. He threw down mats of tule. These became land. He blew feathers from his paws, different kinds, and these became people. His wife, little Frog Woman, helped him, swimming. The world, born right out of Mt. Diablo, a womb of schist and granite, silica, sandstone and coal. The world, held up in the paws of Coyote, nudged gently by Frog.
There is an old story says once there was no death in the world, but Coyote brought it, saying yes you will hate me for this, but how else will there be renewal? How else can we all fit?
There is an old story says Coyote lost his daughter, and went to the Land of the Dead to bring her home again, alive, but in the last moment, carrying her up a mountain, he slipped, he looked back at her, he lost her truly, forever. Then, he cursed the laws he had made, but it was too late to change them, and so he howled long, knowing now the sorrow of humans.