Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Clay Magi

I've always believed that when you make something with your hands, it comes alive. Hares and bears and mountain lions and roses and hearth-homes and strange wheeled vehicles, they all wait inside the iron-dark clay. Our hands know how to pull and coax and sing them out. It is, in no small way, magic. At least that's how I find the process of working with clay, the act of sending a bisque-fired creature off into the kiln, to be engulfed in flames, to come out bright-skinned, umbered, new. I always feel a little bit tender, watching them go in to that great old chamber of transmutation. And when they come out; well, they are no longer wholly mine. They can speak. They can carry light. They have dreams of their own. 

I believe old houses are this way too. Made by hand and tool out of materials that were once alive, filled with human love stories and heart-breaks, holding on to the memories and sorrows and passions of those who lived within their walls. 

Behind those taffeta curtains the color of mustard, a dark eyed, white-haired weaver might live, coming and going by the third-story door which has no staircase, but simply opens onto the air beneath the redwood trees on the old road called Cascade. 

Maybe she comes and goes by way of the ghost of the Mt. Tamalpais Railroad, the Crookedest Railroad in the World, which snaked up the mountain at the turn of the century, and left behind only fireroads and a few old railroad ties. Maybe she sits at the top of the mountain on summer evenings when the fog is so thick she can only see her own body, and the nearest rocks, and the moisture on gold grass and the summer mariposa lilies just coming up, singing to the ghosts of grizzly bears. The last one in all of California was shot in 1911. 

Dreaming, singing, storytelling, shaping grizzlies with clay in our hands; all of these things are an act of hope, a declaration of embodiment and the mystery of this world.

Recently a friend asked me what I meant when I talked about magic. I realized that I do talk about it a fair bit, not always remembering that in the dominant culture, "magic" as such pretty much begins and ends with Harry Potter style wizards and green-faced Halloween witches at best, and sexy teen vampires at worst. Or, perhaps just as confusing and ultimately misleading, a kind of sparkling fairy wonderland full of chiffon dresses in the shapes of bluebells. There is also in the word the sense of illusion-- as in the rabbit-out-of-a-hat sort of magic tricks. Perhaps it's partly the word that is to blame, for magic, in its literal etymology, actually doesn't mean quite what I intend it to mean when I use it.

Its roots are Latin, and therefore Indo-European, the language group that came cascading out of the Caucasus some 5,000 years ago on horseback. "Magic" comes from the Proto-Indo-European root magh, "to have power," which, as we all know, is a complicated and dangerous thing to wield. In Old Persian, "magush" meant one of the members of the priestly learned class, and by the late 14th century "magic," from the Old French magique meant something along the lines of "the art of influencing events and producing marvels using hidden natural forces." Apparently the word "magic" displaced the Old English wiccecraeft and drycraeft (dry having its roots in the Old Irish drui, related to druid). 

Magic, to me, isn't so much about the power to influence events in the world, though I do believe that human beings throughout time, from Kashaya Pomo shamans to medieval Persian priests to ancient Transylvanian grandmothers have been able to influence and even control some of the unseen forces at work around us all the time, and that wherever power resides, there is always the possibility of misuse. (Across much of indigenous California, people ran into regular trouble with witchdoctors gone bad—the jealous, nasty sorts of power-hungry shamans who would put the eye on you out of jealousy or revenge, and Poison you.) 

In this lifetime, in this world, magic to me is about the force of life itself. The fact that the fog coming over the mountain makes the shapes it does, impossibly beautiful wisps and coils and tendrils of mist. The fact that the mariposa lily, opening on a hot day, is so perfectly spotted and furred. What can possibly create such yellow? And how can it be that the bees (according to recent studies which only put into scientific language the Miracle that poetry and ancient stories have known all along) talk to the flowers through the hairs in their legs? More to the point, magic to me means that everything is alive. Everything speaks. The entire world is animate. Speak to the clay in your hands, and it will become a bear. Bury that bear in the earth with a prayer for the old grizzlies who no longer walk this land, and I do mean this most sincerely, you never know what might come to pass. 

We are very literally made up of all of the same stuff as the mariposa lily, the grizzly bear, the young rattlesnake sleeping in the shade of a log, the mountain itself. Even the stars. Look to Darwin or to the Creation Stories of the First People all across North America. You will find the same story. This is what magic means to me—all the unseen threads that weave us, one to the next, star to firtop to bear-ghost to human woman to wildflower to ocean to air.

This is why I tell stories the way I do. This is why I imagine dark-eyed weavers at the tops of old houses, and shape animals from clay that take on lives of their own, and dream of ghost-trains and the possibility that grizzly bears are still here in the land of California, somewhere; because I believe that without this faith in the unseen, in the possibilities of unfathomable Dreaming within every form of life, in the understanding that we are all made of one fabric, a brilliant many-seamed and many-colored patchwork—without this we are lost. We are heart-broken. At the beginning of human time, the earliest religion, the earliest form of "magic," was embodied by the shaman, the one who mediated between the human community and the more-than-human realms of animals, plants, stones, waters, winds, celestial bodies, and spirits. The shaman's job, at its most basic and most generalized, was to keep the balance, to not let the people forget who they were, where they stood, how every other being was elder and kin.

How are we to keep the balance now, in this world, when "magic" at its most literal, and its most popular, means a fantastical manipulation of power? How are we to keep the balance in this world, without remembering how to Dream, how to imagine, how to tell stories that bring the houses alive, the clay alive, even the plastic and the concrete alive? The truth is, humans love stories full of giants and talking stars and wise bears. We know it well when we are children. When we grow up, we tend to forget it for a little while. But, even so,  it's never to late to start looking for doors with no staircases and the old wise ones who use them...


  1. love this..."the unseen threads", the magic of all life drawn from the same mysterious place, all connected, timeless...

    and i love the idea of the clay bear prayerfully tendered to the earth. homage to those that were, hope for those that may return. who knows what may happen, indeed?

  2. I love this. I wrote about magic just the other day myself, and had similar thoughts to you about what it really is. That resonance, it tells me to listen deeply to what's being said.

    The idea of making a clay bear and then burying it - I can't tell you how this touches me. To create art and give it back to the earth. Art not for display, or use, but as a gift of reverence. We talk often about how art is a conversation between artist and audience, but I love so much this way of making it a conversation between artist and bear-spirit, clay and dreaming.

    And the house. Oh my.

  3. I am nodding here, my heart thumping yes, yes, yes. And now there is sense of gratitude rising up, a little voice that is says, thank goodness for the ones like Sylvia~ for those who have not forgotten that there are wise bears at the edge of the wood, and dark-eyed weavers at the tops of old houses, that magic, as L. Cohen once so poetically said, "is afoot." Love to you my dear friend from the bears and I both, and goodness me are there bears in my life these days. wink;)

    1. And look at your clay creatures, ohmystars, they are alive. Wow.

  4. Delighted to find your magical blog (via One Willow Apothecaries). Thank you for the way you speak of Magic and the many (infinite) possibilities of its expression. THANK HEAVENS we are now in a time when we can come out and play in the light, take back the joys of remembering what is real! And if there are any Clay Magi seeking a good home, do indeed let me know. I am seeing a row of them on the shelf over my desk as playmates!