Friday, December 18, 2015

The Inner Rhythms of Winter

Here in the lichen green house all nestled in fruit trees, here in the sky blue attic dormer where the winter stars are clear at night despite the city lights (Orion, the Pleiades), I have been doing my best to move to the quiet and slower rhythms of winter. I love this season. I love the long nights and the frost in the morning. I love the rain (oh god, how I love it) and I love the birds that visit at this time of year and fill the air with sweet notes—cedar waxwings, ruby-crowned kinglets, varied thrush, pine siskins.

I love the lemons, ripening all at once like a thousand yellow morning stars. 

(Says Neruda of the lemon: 

So, when you hold
the hemisphere
of a cut lemon
above your plate,
you spill
a universe of gold,
yellow goblet
of miracles.)

I love the way the persimmon leaves (which have now fallen) turn to embers, turn to flame. There is a stillness I find harder and harder to find in this loud and sad and chaotic and bright-screened world, but I have been seeking it nevertheless, as the days dwindle and the light feels more and more like a low and smoldering hearthfire.

There is a savoring of small things through the senses, letting them rest thus in the house of the body, that this season asks of me, and so I am doing my best to listen, and taste, and smell, and feel, and behold. Most of all, to behold. John O'Donohue talks about beholding—how each day we have the opportunity to behold great and simple beauty. It doesn't matter where you are, there is always some beauty to see; it's just a matter of taking the time to see it. I like the world behold, because it is tactile, because it is about holding things inside of ourselves with our eyes. In the Old English and Old Anglo Saxon sense, bihealdan means not only to "hold in view" but to "belong to." I love this—that we can belong to the beauty we take the time to behold. I find that having something belong to me matters far less than belonging to something bigger than me.

Like the winter sun rising low and iridescent across the ocean. 

Like the vulture under a changing sky, riding thermals of rising heat. 

Like the scarlet intoxication of the ancient and magical fly agaric mushroom, keeper of primordial and dangerous wisdom. 

Like the sanddunes under the hands of late afternoon light. 

Once, the vast expanse of western San Francisco looked like this: covered in vast and blowing dunes, some one hundred feet high, where rare blue butterflies lived on the fragrant yellow lupines. Now, the dunes are all a memory, save the brief spit of sand at Ocean Beach; they are entirely flattened and forgotten. This puts sorrow in my heart, to think of the sand and the unhatched chrysalises there under the cement blocks of that place; but it also gives me a bittersweet seed to hold close; that by learning, and remembering, we keep the sand under the city alive. 

Out at Abbott's Lagoon, where the sand dunes still thrive, the coyotes are courting, dancing across the vast expanses side by side, paw prints tripping close but never quite overlapping, one coyote sometimes veering off in a giddy loop, flirtatious and full of the joy of fresh autumnal air, the gentle light, a beautiful pair of canine eyes...

The bobcats, meanwhile, are hunting the edge of the lagoon for the hapless and plump black coots, a favorite wintertime meal.

Newts are out in merry droves, making their annual pilgrimages from their summer estivation burrows to the creeks of their birth to mate. They walk slow and steady, so deliberate, so unswayed, their bellies and feet flashing an orange warning (they are highly toxic to everyone save the garter snake) that is the same color as the satsuma oranges whose flavor is the flavor of this time of year (and my childhood), and same as the bright skin of persimmons, whose fruit I crave throughout the summer, anticipating their arrival in fall. 

Under my hands there is knitting for various little nieces and nephews. Between my teeth are the roasted nuts of the bay laurel tree, which taste of the land I gathered them from, and of cacao and coffee and popcorn all at once. They are oily, and rich, and bitter, and give you a little zing right to the brain, like you are out walking in a wet forest with cold hands and a bright heart. These, too, I wait all year to cure, and roast, and savor. When the days grow darker, I start to crave them, like the persimmons, as if my body knows just what minerals it needs. The minerals of the dark season, its sweet, its strong, its smolder. 

And in my soul (the food it craves) these days are the words of poets—Dylan Thomas and Robinson Jeffers, Alan Garner (poetry written in prose form) and Ursula Le Guin (the same). And also the brilliant words of hedge-speaking poet Tom Hirons in his poem Sometimes A Wild God, illustrated by the wonderful Rima Staines. 

I had the pleasure and honor of visiting them at the beginning of fall—and there are some very exciting things (in Book Form) afoot, and close to fruiting, but these I cannot share quite yet for reasons you will soon see. Suffice it to say that the story of my adventures on Dartmoor, and this Wonderful Surprise, will be coming to you soon, but not just now... like the very earliest trillium wildflowers of January, waiting to bloom when the time is right.

This darkest time of year is the time to court silence and candlelight. This, it seems to me, is its rhythm, and this is also the rhythm of poets, hence this hunger for their words, which are hospitable to silence, which are cloaked in silence and shadow, all that empty space on the page.

Near Samhain I made a pilgrimage with my aunt to Tor House, the hand-hewn granite home of the magnificent Californian poet Robinson Jeffers and his beloved wife Una. 

It was their hearths that struck me almost more than anything—one for each room in that low stone and ocean-blown home, places to gather when the dark was so great outside that it was its own wild being. Jeffers went out every night to read the stars, to watch their movements as the ocean pounded just beyond the back gate, while inside, Una tended the fire, and played the melodeon, and filled the vast dark with an embered sort of beauty. They made their dreams their own, reads a quote (in Latin) carved into one of their walls; they made their  life to the rhythms of their own souls, and their home too. They did it with their hands, and with their dreaming.

This, to me, seems the way to do it. In the gathering dark, as the solstice nears, truths like this stand out more clearly, like the flame of a candle, stark against the shadows. That which is truly bright shines only more fully when the world goes quiet, and dim. 

In my body, the rhythms of autumn and winter have drawn me closer to bedrock; to earth and mineral and stone. To clay, and the working of it, and the delight of watching animals unfurl beneath my hands, and the wonder of learning about glazes, and the transmutations which occur within the kiln. Really, it is pure alchemy. (As are the roses that bloom suddenly in the middle of December in my mother's garden.)

These dark evenings are good for sewing skirts, and burning frankincense, and peering at the tiny (in)consistencies of the moss stitch. (Not a stitch to knit by candlelight!)

And they are good for dreaming, for letting the mind roam to all manner of whimsical lands, where leverets are raised by Wild Folk in wheeled caravans (readers of the Leveret Letters, when I saw this caravan parked on the side of the road in Bolinas, it reminded me so much of the wagon of the Greentwins, or the Basket-witches!), where such wagons might carry a true wandering bard, or a woman who is part goose, or an old man who can mend anything brought to him, including a lost soul.  Or an even older woman with an apron-full of healing herbs, and eyes with the granite of moving fault lines in them.

Out in the hills and forests of beloved Point Reyes the land offers up a thousand cups of tea to heal both the body and the spirit. It seems to me that such cups of tea must be gathered spontaneously, without agenda, open to what offers itself, and just enough for one pot of tea to be shared between friends-- as my dear friend Nao and I did a fortnight past, while she was visiting from British Columbia (more about that beautiful time soon).  Pine needles and plantain, usnea, yerba santa and tiny new sprigs of yarrow, sipped at the hearth of good friendship-- now truly, what could be better? Beholding the forest and hills upon the tongue, inside the belly; an act of communion. (The pine trees dropped some chunks of resin as gifts for Nao to take back north, for muscle-warming oils and salves like the one below.)

Medicines are curing patiently in the apothecary's cabinet (including the first round of a Reishi tincture from the treasured Ganoderma tsugae I found in the Sierras in August), and hanging up through the house, both for the medicine of color and beauty, and to be used in tea when the mood strikes (the pine). 

Meanwhile, sweet Hawthorn is glorious in his full coat, a great satin cloud, lustrous but needing to be shorn. I feel bad, to leave him ragged and close-cut on the darkest days of the year, but a coat left unshorn is very dangerous for an angora (he can ingest too much, and starve), so I will have to snip away soon. Though a bit stressful when we reach the underparts, shearing Hawthorn has become its own rhythm of stillness and soft words and the sudden bounty of wool in my lap, to be spun, and spun, until I have enough for a shawl. How marvelous-- a shawl made by this kind and wise being, and therefore made in large part of the garden plants he eats copiously-- calendula and radish, nasturtium, borage, lavender, comfrey. What a world it is, that such things are possible! We do not need to look far for magic...

It is dark here now, and time, I say, to turn out the lights, shut the screens, and light the candles. May these darkest nights of the year be filled with tea, and time for reflection, and words that nourish your whole soul, that spark little fires in you made of embers the world has never before seen. I find that making time to cut the electric lights, and sit in the glow of fire or flame, is the surest way to hear the quiet but strong voice of the season, whispering its rhythms. 

May you be warmed, may you find the hearth that is always smoldering inside.