I kept thinking, looking at the bare fresh rock of all these granite mountains, what is it, underneath? What is the inside of the mountain? I don't mean literally all that endless dark and seeps of gas and pressure, though maybe I do mean this too; but mostly I mean what is it, the life of the mountain? What does it feel like, beyond the surface my eye can see, to be rock all the way to the center, and trapped bits of light? What is it, that mountains dream?
The Sierra Nevadas seem to do this to a person; shudder your vision out into a thousand bright pieces, so that everything seems very big and old and also full of clarity at once, like the color you feel shot through your body when you jump into a snowmelt lake—yes, I am snow, I am stone, I am pine. Oh god, how could I ever forget? At least they do this to me, turning my thoughts toward origins, toward the source of things, towards the macrocosms of mountains and the microcosms of dead logs, and stones, and the sweet plump bodies of chipmunks. Toward remembrance: that the mountains are also in me, and I am in the mountains, and so are the stars. Heady stuff I'll admit; and maybe it's just the altitude talking, though that in itself is something, how thinner mountain air transmutes the thoughts of a sea-level girl.
These mountains are the source of most of the water that runs across California, snowmelt coming down like grace through valleys and fields, through culverts and seeps, forty percent of which drains into the San Francisco Bay. So coming here, I come to the headwaters, not to mention the origin of Point Reyes granite. (The peninsula--then island--brushed along the Sierras a hundred million years ago when the Sierras were newborn and made up the edge of the continent, before journeying up to her current position hitched to the San Andreas Fault west of Mt. Tamalpais).
Being here feels like touching down through many layers to bedrock.
The first night, alone on a rock outside the cabin while my family slept, I sat and watched the full moon, how clouds moving in front of it turned iridescent and vanished like snowmelt. And for a brief but staggering moment I could feel the size of the mountains surrounding me, all that elemental heaving of stone for hundreds of miles in each direction; I could feel their silence and their size, their solemn reckoning of the stars; I could feel something indescribable, maybe just their actual presence, and it quietly astonished me, so that I carried the feeling for the rest of my stay, and watched all of its manifestations closely.
I saw stars made by the beaks of woodpeckers in silver dead wood, gathered close as the silver constellations that come out by night. And I learned one cold evening waiting with my brother on a boat dock that the first bats seem to come out just when the first stars do; they require the same quality of dark.
I saw the runes left by beetles, and in them read that the forest floor is one long story of decay and rebirth that goes on without cease, like the rising and falling of mountains.
This is one of those things you know in theory, and then one day you're walking through conifers, studying the scattering of dead limbs and twigs like the fall of the ancient oracular yarrow sticks of the I Ching—and suddenly you get it; you know?
I love those moments; when suddenly you can see the deadwood turning into a cosy home, turning into food, turning, at last, into baby trees.
I watched the myriad chipmunks, the golden-mantled ground squirrels and tassel-eared chickarees, marveling at their bustling efficiency and also realizing that they, too, are the mountain. That while a scree slope jutting with granite and blanketed sheer with the green of huckleberry oak may look vast, and elemental, and may suggest a grandeur of feeling to the soul, also every square yard of it is known intimately by some or other chipmunk (not to mention the many tinier beings) who has nosed about each shrub and pine, and knows where the good seeds will fall, and the precise shape of this very huckleberry oak, and how far along its acorns are.
Knowing this makes looking up at a ridgeline very different indeed—at once expansive and tender and mysterious in ways that are small and homely as well as vast and glacier-smoothed.
I've more than once wondered at both the abundance of chipmunks and the abundance of conifers in these mountains (trying in vain with my brother to tell the difference between a Jeffrey and a ponderosa from a distance-- up close Jeffries give themselves away by smelling of butterscotch); and then, again, as with the deadwood, the obvious struck—the chipmunks come with the conifers; they are constantly busy dropping bits of cone down from the heavens, and rooting out the sweet little seeds. They are made of pine cones.
And so the mountains are made of pine cones too, which root down in the fall of wood and moss and decay and become trees again, with roots that touch down through the layers to the minerals made by stone.
I like thinking on tree roots; how far down they must reach to find groundwater, how they navigate layers of rock, how the rock navigates them, how when you look at a ridgeline the trees stand with such patience, receiving the sun and then the shadows and then the sun again; how their whole lives they stand like this, reaching deeper and deeper into the parts of the mountains that we cannot see, and though they stand still, how their existence expands ring by ring like a stone dropped through a snowmelt lake, and who knows when it will touch bottom.
The juniper is one such tree, and though I don't like to play favorites I believe also that sometimes we have affinities inside, and part of us speaks especially to some or other being in particular. It is this way for me with juniper, and I could write pages on the subject (in fact, I have done, for the November 2014 issue of EarthLines Magazine)— but I will say simply here that this tree, above all others, knows the stones, and the wind that has shaped the stones. She seems to choose to grow where no one else will, straight out of the heart of granite.
Her taproot may be double or triple her height, reaching straight down in one long pathway to water, to mineral, to the light inside rock. And you can feel this when you lean up against her rough bark, when you huddle close, give her your arms in an embrace; she is unshakeable, an old grandmother who looks you in the eye and says child, root deep and do not be afraid.
In juniper, I bring the mountains and their silent presence home; how the whole of them is contained in a single dusty blue berry, which the bears covet as soon as they are ripe. I gathered her green tips in bundles, to burn each morning throughout my sea level home; there is nothing in the world like the smell, all spice and campfire and snowpeak, and the quiet of bears too, and granite; nor is there any plant that feels so protective to me, so clearing, so strong.
Our very ancient ancestors understood this too, I believe. (Below, a bit from my Juniper essay).
"In at least one very literal instance, a juniper tree really does mark the way to the underworld: the opening to the Paleolithic caves of Lascaux. The caves were discovered when, in the 1940’s, a young man named Marcel Ravidat found a pit created by a recently fallen juniper. Just below the pit was a vertical shaft leading straight down into the cave. This might seem like nothing more than a delicious coincidence—after all, surely other trees grow near or over other patches of earth beneath which portions of Lascaux echo, and who knows by which route Paleolithic peoples actually entered and exited the caves. But scattered throughout those womb-like chambers, thick with the silhouettes of reindeer and bison, auroch and lion and vulva, were at least 130 lanterns whose wicks were all pieces of juniper wood, soaked in animal fat. A juniper fuse to light the way into the rocky womb of the world.
There is no way to know for certain what significance those wicks of juniper held for the men and women who painted and likely worshiped deep in those caves. But I would imagine that the wick brought down the shafts of stone and into the heart of the earth, the wick that lit the underworld, was just as important as the animals on the walls themselves, or close—for how else, pray, would you see them, or the caves, at all? Furthermore, many argue that the way in which the lions and horses and rhinos were painted suggests movement, and that a flame held up to the walls, flickering both light and shade, would cause the animals to come to life, and dance. In that case, a juniper wick, afire, would have literally been the animating power, shapeshifting the charcoal marks on the stone into spirits." - The Juniper Tree, Earth Lines Magazine
Juniper makes a pathway straight to the granite source of things, and in this, she is my teacher and my guide on how to live hearty and hale and true, and so visiting the mountains is a pilgrimage too, to leave gifts at her feet and linger long by her heart(h).
There are many other stories too-- how a weasel almost ran right into my lap, chasing a chipmunk nearly as big as she was (can you spot the weasel up this tree, peeking down at me from the base of a middle-right branch?); how my mother and I saw a mother black bear and two cubs feasting on dogwood berries with their big and hungry paws; how inside the last blooms of the mountain heather, there is still a dream of water, and the faces of stars.
How all of it—stone, snowmelt lakewater, juniper, bear, heather, weasel, pine, chickaree, glacial talus—is the dream of the mountain, and each one dreams of the mountain in turn.
But there is one more gift to show you, yet, one final mountain dream, found like the answer to a question as I wandered down from a lake called Genevieve, a little apart from my family, musing about pines and what it looks like to be still and spacious inside, about the dreams of stones and bears alike, and this path called life, and how to walk it wisely—and then for no reason I looked down to my left and beheld. This.
He was just laying there, already detached from whatever fallen pine log he'd lived on for many long years, old and a little battered but sitting in wait. Often I am hesitant in my gathering; I like to circle, and say hello, and sometimes I get a no instead of the hoped for yes, you may gather me-- and I am careful of this. But this mycelial being-- he practically leapt up into my arms. Seriously. Much to the alarm of the rest of my family, who are still a little uncertain of the fact that I will, at some point, turn this great wise one into medicine to be consumed. For this is a Pacific Northwestern variety of reishi, that most holy of mushrooms called by the Chinese the plant of immortality; auspicious one; being possessed of soul power; numinous mushroom. This particular species is, I believe, Ganoderma tsugae, which grows off the trunks of western hemlock trees, turning their sugars into its own nourishment, turning the mountain into medicine.
For several nights, I couldn't let this being out of my sight. I put it beside my bed to gaze upon before sleeping, and inhaled its chocolate-humus fragrance at dawn. And it gazed back at me wisely, smiling a small, sage little smile, saying: see, all the things you need are there right along the path, if only you are looking, if only you let there be room for the dreams of mountains in your heart.