Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Smell of Buckskin & the Lay of the Elk Lined Land

Please forgive my absence here. It has proved harder than I imagined to keep up a 3 post a week regiment (why I did not think this would be difficult I cannot tell you, except that I have a large writing appetite and always bite off more than I can quite chew, out of sheer excitement, love for words, and for the magic of this world!) My Juniper Way is perhaps, I realize, better served in a fluid and un-regimented fashion, in the daily practice of my life but not always here. I'm sure many of you walk (while juggling, it sometimes feels) this strange path with the internet—how to use it as a tool, as a resource, as a rich web of interconnection, sharing, exchange, without letting it seep too far into your daily life. I do not like the feeling that the experiences I have are lived with a blog post in mind. This does not sit well with me, however successful a model it may be for others. I realize I need these sharings to be spontaneous, to be fluid. So while you will be reading about Hearth and Hands, my notes from the Wild Folk, my patchworks of inspiration, and scraps about Elk Lines and other projects, it will be in my more usual ambling rambling fashion, a few threads taken from here and there. Wily bird's nests, these posts often turn out to be, lined with elk fur but made of spiderweb and lichen and dryer lint all. This works better for me I think, and perhaps for all you dear readers too. It's more like ecology, less like a path of stepping stones.


So, that said, I want to write here about the smell of buckskin, all smoke and animal in one. I want to write about how it is the same color as the summergold land, and the fur of the tule elk out in the hills, and how under my hands, the awl and the buckskin feel like a homecoming. This past weekend, I learned to make simple sandals (above!) and to work with leather, specifically buckskin (deer hide tanned front and back with brains and then cured over a woodfire)*, with a group of women out in the hills of Sonoma County. We gather once a month, learning wild skills, rolling fire with handdrills of elderberry wood to cook our food, talking around the fire into the dark about what it means to be a woman today, what it means to be empowered by our monthly cycles, what it means to feel rooted and competent and connected out on the land. It is good and challenging and nourishing on many levels.

This time, we did not tan the buckskin (it takes longer than two days), but I was fortunate to get to use a beautiful little piece, tanned by our teacher's son when he was six (!) to sew a small bag. And I was seduced, utterly and completely. The smoked smell, sweet and resinous both, the buttery feeling of the skin under my fingers, the precision and strength of the piercing awl, the tightening stitches. Two moons ago, we processed a goat and tanned rabbit skins, and a longing as old as these bones, as old, I would wager, as the human spirit, filled me this time as I stitched, to learn the process of tanning buckskin. We've danced a dance as old as time with the deer and the elk of this planet, the dance of the hunt, but also a dance of great reverence, and it feels to me that the processing of a skin (which at this point in my life I would only ever procure from an animal killed on the roadside) can be an act of worship and gratitude. For we should not forget that our very first clothing items as a species came from the bodies of animals, and that like it or not, we are tied to them in a dance of life-death-life. I would go so far as to argue, as Paul Shepard does, that animals have shaped who we are in every possible way, that they are our elders and our guides, and should be worshipped as we now worship God, or the Machine, or the Economy, or Technology. But that is a story for another day.

Paul Shepard writes (from his book The Others: How Animals Made Us Human)

Death is a tender subject, with its imagined pain and terror, vistas of roaring carnivores killing beautiful deer and lions raging among themselves over bloody bones. images of predation as the power of the strongest confuse our monkey politics and its endless skirmishing for power with food chains in ecology, making the false analogy of nature to violence and war. [...] The grass eaten by the buffalo and the flesh of the buffalo eaten by the wolf we imagine as taken by force. But the milk, grass, [...] buffalo [...] and wolf, transmit something more important than themselves. In the ethos of the ancient conjunction of "to prey on" and "to pray to," the hunt is not a seizure but a voluntary immolation. Hunters preserve the lore of wild things who oversee the ethics of their own transformation into food, observe atonements, and return again and again (37). 

Out on the buckskin colored hills of Tomales Point, the bull tule elk are gathering great lekking groups (or harems) of females that they will keep at their sides until winter. Here: the sun, the fog, the grass, the bodies of elk, the mountain lions who (very occasionally!) pick off a young calf. The antlers that fall and provide minerals to the mice and rabbits. The bodies that decompose again into the earth, buckskin gold through the summertime drought. Sun-grass-elk-mountain lion: the great wheel, turning, and somehow the act of sitting, watching, pressing fingerprints to an elk hoof print, reading their movements through track and sign, feels like a way back in again, back into the wheel. As does the working of buckskin between finger and palm, and what it means to hold the life of an animal in your hands—what an ancient responsibility, and worship.  You must not forget to sing and to dance in return. 

The bull elk in the centers of the lekking groups are the very strongest of all, the ones who've fought off all the other bulls (for the time being). They bugle often into the fog, perhaps asserting their territory. The sound is haunting and high, like a child's cry or a hunting bird. For the autumn season, they control and protect these great herds of females, and make love to all of them. This can be very exhausting work, apparently, because the strong elk surrounded by lekking groups are often the first dead come winter—the act of courting so many women and constantly fighting off other males totally drains their strength! 

I sat for a while one day a few weeks ago, in the midst of writing the most recent Elk Lines chapter, watching the male and female elk interact. For the rest of the year, the females live in big groups together, led by the oldest and wisest among them. I wonder how they feel about these young bulls who chase them around and herd them up and down hills, often with displays of aggression. Some seemed perfectly pleased with the situation while others, I noted, often ignored the bull until the very last minute, when the rest of the herd was halfway up the hill. I know that elk minds work differently than human minds, and that the inner workings of a herd, and an elk, are very mysterious indeed, but I also believe that it is important to remember that all animals are individuals, following at once the ways of their species and their own predilections, as we do; and so it made me smile to see how each female responded a little differently to their temporary liege lord & lover, and how wonderful a thing it is, to remember that each animal is its own unique being, with its own set of stories and tastes and (dare I say it? Yes I do dare) loves.

The land felt very dry, as it always is at this time of year to one degree or another. But this summer, it feels like bone.

 The way the green drains from this landscape is always astonishing. The sun crisps it away. 

 At the beginning of May, the same path looked like this. The herbalist Asia Suler and I wandered here then, when the idea for Elk Lines was just a bright seed, a glinting stone, in my heart. (She recently interviewed me on her website, Woolgathering and Wildcrafting--do go have a read! I am very honored indeed.)

We sat amidst the Douglas irises (whose purple my camera did not properly capture-- they are much darker!) and watched the elk cows move together in groups with young calves at their heels. 

Now, the irises are going rust-orange at the tips, and making twisted, strange seedpods.

The only thing blooming, as far as I can see, is the coyotebrush. These are the male flowers. The female flowers are in bloom too; they more resemble dandelion propellors, tiny and furred, like a coyote's pelt. Coyotebrush is an incredibly drought-resistant plant, with tiny resinous leaves that deflect sun and conserve water, deep taproots, and the ability to regenerate from fire. It also, in my opinion, smells like sun and dry stones and the spice of this coastal land.

White Gulch, a favorite spot among the tule elk, has lost all of its green. The elk are now harder to spot, their bodies the same color as the hills.

And the lines they make with their travel up and down the combes and valleys—how they resemble the creases in buckskin!

The land has always felt to me like a great animal with skin and fur, her bones the granite rocks. Sometimes, when I walk barefoot especially (or in sandals such as the ones I just made, which keep me very close to the texture of the earth just below the sole), the ground feels very alive, like it has its own blood and heat and the ability to reach up through all of my bones as I go. Surely, it does. All the ancient people of this world believed it—the land a great dreaming animal—and now science tells us that walking barefoot is "good" for us because of the earth's electric charge (but please don't get me going about the absurdness of "Earthing" or I will never stop). While I'm sure it's true in those terms, I prefer the idea that she is a great creature, and your bare feet to her skin are like the tender touch between two animals. Both, to me, are the same story, just told with different words.

This time on the land with the elk, my feet in the buckskin hills, always feeds my own story-making in the truest of ways. Last week, I carried a heavy box of the latest Elk Lines back from the printers. How good it felt (though my arms did ache!) to walk with such bounty in my arms, fueled by the elk, the wild hills, and every reader whose eyes and hearts touch these words.

I hope very much that these Elk Lines can somehow let the voice of the land (whatever tiny humble scrap I've managed to approximate) sing through into each of you. As I wrote to Asia in our interview:

"Above all things I hope that through my work a renewed sense of the tenets of deep ecology and animistic thought can be re-infused into the world of contemporary human literature. The stories we tell shape the world we see, and the world we see is one of terrible environmental and humanitarian catastrophe, degradation, and extinction, both of animals and plants, and of human cultures and languages. I hope for my writing to convey a sense of the animism of all beings; that elk and alder and lichen and stone, bear and lizard and fog and oatgrass, are all subjects, characters, integral players in the stories of our lives and this world, not the objects we have made them into with our cultural narratives. For when a deer or a tree is a subject and not an object, it is not as easy to destroy it without a care. I also hope to keep the old human magics and beliefs surrounding this wise old world of ours alive in my writing—the ways of weedwife and hunter, wandering jester and gypsy and shaman and witch. And if my tales can be wild woodrat nests which lead to the other worlds inside this world, all the better. If they can somehow gesture at the weedier, wilder, dustier footpath which leads us back into what it really means to be human (and not the big tar roads)—well, that would be grand indeed."

* I want to add a quick note about buckskin, cultural appropriation, etc. We tend to associate buckskin (especially that particular term) with the Wild West, and of course with the native people of this country. A few things to note—first of all, in California, traditional garb varied widely, but especially along the coast, buckskin wasn't really a big clothing item, except in the winter, along with other furs. The climate is so mild that plant fiber clothing (such as tule skirts) or no clothing at all was preferable. (In the early 20th century, at horribly racist "museums" or "demonstration sites," such as those in Yosemite National Park, native California people were made to dress in buckskins with fringe and beading, like the Plains Indians who the American public seemed to think represent the "best" kind of Indian.) In addition, the process of tanning hides, and making buckskin (which is just deer skin tanned on both sides, as I mentioned above, so that all the hair is gone), is about as old as we are as a species. (Read an interesting little history here.) It is an ancient human inheritance, and craft, so when I write about it here I am not trying to appropriate a Native American tradition, but rather I am trying to reconnect with the roots we all share. The Native people of this (and many other) continent(s) just happen to have held onto that tradition (and the deep old wisdom of what it means to be human and connected) longer than anybody else, before we white Europeans showed up here and nigh on ruined everything. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Patchwork Coat of Muses: The Star Fishers

A scrap from my morning writings, a glimpse of stars, inspired by the transcendent work of Jeanie Tomanek. 
The Star Fishers, by Jeanie Tomanek
It may not be until you're all of five-and-twenty that they let you go out in the boat alone, only your hunting dogs to keep you company. It may take you that long to make an acceptable net. Net-weaving, you might be surprised to learn, is more than half of star-fishing. They don't swim very fast, after all, but they are dreadfully hard to hold, stars—slippery and steaming, singeing, bright and embered. This is no berry-picking, nothing like fishing in the creeks with nets and weirs, where you can scoop them up with your hands.

Our nets are made not of plant fiber, twisted into cordage, no, but of the sinew of creatures who live in the far north, among the whitest snow, and near the pole. Snowshoe hares, caribou, lynx—these are the proper sorts of animals. Their bodies are shaped by cold, and must be tough to survive, and so their sinews are just the thing, tempered by cold and the endurance of glaciers. They are our neighbors, our big family in the cold. For how do you imagine we get up and down to do our fishing, except by the pole itself, and the colored aurora too, when it lays down its silk, and hoists us up?

Our country, the country of the Star Fishers, is the pole. We keep it nice and straight, all polished, pointing north and hitched securely to Polaris, who we would never fish and eat, no indeed--and upset the great order of the world? Not yet, anyhow. It is not yet time to unravel the very stars.