A couple weeks past, I wrote an entry here called "The Feral Palmist," one of my Gatherings for the now launched Elk Lines, my latest Wild Tales by Mail project. That exploration of hand and land and story birthed an essay, which is called "A Feral Palmistry," and is now up at Dark Mountain! It is about the relationship between hands and mind and narrative, and it also includes a deeper exploration of my thoughts about The Handless Maiden story, which is the central storyline of these new Elk Lines. The essay was a joy to write; it felt as though it just flowed out through my hand and my pen, so do go and enjoy it if you are so inclined!
A wee excerpt, to whet your palette:
The human hand has more neural innervation than any other part of the body save the lips and tongue, where our speaking and our loving and our tasting come from. Lips and hands give caresses, carrying the story of love or healing between two bodies. Lips and tongue taste and take in the lives of others — plant, animal — that sustain us as food. There’s a reason, when you see something beautiful that lifts your heart to your throat and lurches it sideways, that you reach out your hand to touch: orange poppies in full bloom in sunlight, shimmering suppler than any silk. Maybe your nose follows, to test the smell, to get dusted with pollen. Somehow, having your hands near or touching those petals brings the bloom in, as if your heart had done it. Reaching out with a foot, or an elbow, or even your lips wouldn’t be the same. The hands, cupping, seem to understand, as if in the touch they are imagining the whole creation of that flower, in whatever humble or rash way they can manage. Because this is what hands do, at their best: they make. They play creator, like Coyote at the top of Mt. Diablo crafting humans from feathers and land from mats of tule.
I spent the first part of this week in Big Sur, having had the blessing of a guest pass and the company of a good friend sweep me along to a very special place called Esalen, where we wandered the gardens and farm, got drunk on the dark blue sapphire sea, heaving with kelp beds (oh, how I longed to see a sea otter there amidst those green braided ropes!), soaked in sulphur hot springs, scrambled up a redwood creekbed scattered with swimming holes in the smooth white granite, and down a steep, narrow stone pathway arched with sycamore leaves to the rockiest and wildest of coves, my favorite sort.
Big Sur is a very wild land, despite the destination many of its coves have become for vacationers. It is too steep, too rocky, too ocean-heaved, too chaparral-dense, to be developed, and so something timeless hangs about its cliffs and hills and tides, the kind of timelessness that I like to evoke in my own writing: the life of the land that lives on under and through and around our current iterations and manifestations of culture.
As I dive headlong into the writing of Elk Lines, this time in Big Sur—envisioned at first as a brief and delicious hotspring soak between workdays—seems to have deepened and widened the landscape of Eda Crost's story in me more than I could have hoped, fueled in part by the poetry of Robinson Jeffers.
|Tor House, photo by Jessica Malikowski|
TO THE ROCK THAT WILL BE A CORNERSTONE OF THE HOUSE
Old garden of grayish and ochre lichen,
How long a rime since the brown people who have vanished from here
Built fires beside you and nestled by you
Out of the ranging sea-wind? A hundred years, two hundred,
You have been dissevered from humanity
And only known the stubble squirrels and the headland rabbits,
Or the long-fetlocked plowhorses
Breaking the hilltop in December, sea-gulls following,
Screaming in the black furrow; no one
Touched you with love, the gray hawk and the red hawk touched you
Where now my hand lies. So I have brought you
Wine and white milk and honey for the hundred years of famine
And the hundred cold ages of sea-wind.
I did not dream the taste of wine could bind with granite,
Nor honey and milk please you; but sweetly
They mingle down the storm-worn cracks among the mosses,
Interpenetrating the silent
Wing-prints of ancient weathers long at peace, and the older
Scars of primal fire, and the stone
Endurance that is waiting millions of years to carry
A corner of the house, this also destined.
Lend me the stone strength of the past and I will lend you
The wings of the future, for I have them.
How dear you will be to me when I too grow old, old comrade.
-Robinson Jeffers, from Tamar (1917-23)
And finally, as you shall see if you scamper over and read "A Feral Palmistry," I didn't need to go looking nearly so far as the Paleolithic cave art of France to find handprints on stone walls. Look no further than Big Sur, for there are handprints left behind by its original Esselen native people, striped and speckled and singing out to the granite, to the ocean, to the moving of time itself.
Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara
The vault of rock is painted with hands,
A multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men's palms, no more,
No other picture. There's no one to say
Whether the brown shy quiet people who are dead intended
Religion or magic, or made their tracings
In the idleness of art; but over the division of years these careful
Signs-manual are now like a sealed message
Saying: 'Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws. All hail*
You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters
In the beautiful country; enjoy her a season, her beauty, and come down
And be supplanted; for you also are human.'
* This phrase troubled me at first. It reminds me of Hitler and of subjugation and despair and slaughter, and I thought that Jeffers was using it colonially, as if to say yes, European settlers deserve to be hailed, we are better, this land is ours. But upon further consideration, understanding Jeffers philosophy of inhumanism, I believe he employs this phrase knowingly, to imply the great grief and horror of this "regime change" in the beautiful country. And whatever Jeffers original meaning, and more importantly whatever the original intention of the Esselen people who made these hand-marks, I think they speak to us of the great sorrow and beauty of being human—all the sadness of conquest and violence, all the sweetness of creativity and loving "in the beautiful country" held in those palm-pads.