Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Talking About The Weather

Fog walking on light feet across Abbott's Lagoon, Point Reyes 

Yesterday just before dusk, the fog came in. The fog came galloping, a herd of ghost elk with the wet western ocean in their hooves. It came pouring down the valley between two bishop pine ridges, straight from the sea. It marched east, brisk with salt and damp. And it was a greater balm to lung and heart than it had ever been before, though I have always loved the fog. I nearly shouted my gladness when I saw and smelled it, I nearly got down on my knees.

It has been a harrowing ten days in Northern California. Fires turned the gentle, beautiful agricultural counties and communities of Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino into the closest vision of hell I've yet seen in my life. I am lucky to say that I only saw these visions second-hand, in photographs and videos online. We live one county away, on a ridge between Tomales Bay and the ocean, in dense, dry pinewood, and have been on high alert every night, our hearts sick with sorrow and fear for the thousands who have lost homes, the dozens that have died, and the possibility of more fires starting. Stories from friends at the edges of evacuation zones, watching a black sky; stories from friends who fled at 1 am and drove past walls of flame, who lost everything; the air has been thick with the smoke of their loss for hundreds of miles. The air has been sick with the immolation of thousands of houses, cars, hotels, wineries, shopping malls, forests, hillsides, pastures, fields. In traditional Chinese Medicine, it is our lungs that hold and process grief. Our lungs are breathing wings, sifting the sorrow of thousands, and the voice of the screaming earth.

Native California grassland on a serpentine-rock hillside at the Oak Granary in Potter Valley, one of the areas in Mendocino affected by the fires (the Oak Granary land did not burn, but the fire came very close)


We have always been at the whim of the weather. Fire, wind, water, moving earth; these are the first deities we ever named. I believe the time is upon us when we are being called to name them again.  I do not think we have a choice, now. It is clear that no matter how safe we thought we made ourselves behind the trappings of industrial civilization, we are as vulnerable as we ever were. More so, because we have forgotten that these elements, they comprise our home. We are given everything we ever had by the selfsame soils, waters, winds, fires, and this remembrance is a balm and a strengthening gift that can nourish and buoy us every day.

We are so small in the face of such titans, these old earth deities, these weathers. And they are everywhere growing more erratic, more intense, more unpredictable, and more dangerous to us, because they are the earth's own voice, describing a total systemic imbalance. We are animals dependent on a living planet, a fact we've been trying to hide from ourselves in the West for centuries.  We can't hide from it anymore, and it is frightening and sad to see so suddenly and so clearly the truth that all the scientists and all the predictive models have been saying for years: this is only the beginning.

The old god called Mt. Tallac (in modern parlance), and the other, called Fallen Leaf Lake

In Homer's Odyssey, no king or sailor or soldier would dream of setting out on a journey of any length without first propitiating the gods of water and weather, pouring wine upon the earth and offering a fine flank of beef to the fire. (I know for a fact that the women were doing it too, in their hearths and homes, to their spindles and baskets of wool, to their fires and flocks and gardens, only the ancient Mycenean epics are male-oriented, so it's mostly the men we see.) In fact I think this is my favorite part of the whole tale-- the sheer preponderance of passages in which men offer wine and meat to the gods. Because it mattered; not necessarily in the sense that those propitiations bought their givers much protection (though they may have now and then), but because they demonstrated a worldview in which human beings understood that they must bow down to Thunder, to Wind, to Rain, to the Ones Who Walked the Mountains. When you pour wine to the earth and pray for safe passage to the deities of storm and tide, it's not that you think you can control them; it's that you know you are small before them, and that your respect toward them is a thing of value. To them, and to you. Because it repositions you within a network of living influences and beings, and feeds  you in turn, in ways both seen and unseen.


Don't get me wrong. I'm not in any way saying that these wildfires, fueled by years of intense drought and heat in California, and 80 mph hot Diablo winds from the Valley, could have been stopped by wine poured out on the earth and meat given to the gods, or by any other kind of prayer. Or that any of the other natural disasters we've seen this year could have been. Hurricanes, earthquakes, heat waves, floods. These are the weather of the world responding to biosphere-wide, human-made climate imbalance. They are enormous and terribly powerful and impersonal in their scope Welcome to climate chaos. Or so a voice has been ringing in my head all week. And another voice, a far-down-in-the-center-of-the-earth kind of voice, saying the supremacy of humans has ended. Not that we are all going to be swept off the face of the planet, or die en masse (I pray nothing of the sort ever happens), but more that we are being asked again to acknowledge the old gods. For real. Fire. Wind. Water. Earth. They are walking again. They are here to tell us something.


That weather, seasons, the elements, the circle that is earth-time, the web that is the living biosphere—these are not peripheral to our existence as a human species, though we have behaved as though they were for at least the last 200 years in the industrial West. Treating them with the reverence and mythic-thinking that the words "god," "deity," or "goddess" confer is not spiritual hogwash. It's not New Age woo. It's a thing that science can't do for us, but which we desperately need—to address the unseen dimensions of our planet's forces, the vast and mysterious powers that we can never hope to control. We should never have hoped to control them, but we did. Now, it seems to me that one of our only hopes for long term survival as a species, is to acknowledge what we don't understand, what we can't control, not with fear but with respect, awe, and humility. Storms, fires, floods, earthquakes; if we began to approach each in this spirit, acknowledging that we will have to change our ways of building, transporting ourselves, feeding ourselves, healing ourselves, in order to survive them in the coming century, would we find ourselves within a culture of reverence again, and the names of old gods surfacing on our tongues? 

The old pines and native grasses of the eastern edge of Fallen Leaf Lake, northern Sierra Nevadas
I don't know. I've been feeling helpless, and heartsick, and so sad for what has been lost in the communities across Sonoma and Napa and Mendocino that have been burned in these fires. So sad for the homes and lives ruined, for the thousands of undocumented people so deeply integral to our communities who have no insurance to protect them and no guarantee whatsoever for their own safety in this present political climate to begin with. So sad for the untold number of animals dead among the ashes. So sad for the continued barrage of storms and shootings and bad news of every stripe. I have been feeling, to be honest, a bit hopeless.

 Last week in the smoky air, I wrote the following poem-chant-cry in a state of deep grief. I wept the whole way through, but when the words were out, and the crying ceased, I found I had come to the threshold of hope after all. I wasn't expecting to, but I had.

So, I share these words with you here that you may grieve and then hope in turn.

Ashfall: a rain of white from other houses, other hills
Ashfall, it is a language of too-late, of sorrow.

Today I cannot find it in me to hope for utopias to spring up from the ashes,
for seeds we had forgotten to grow where everything has been destroyed

Today I don't know any longer how to tell a story that is that kind of seed
how to be honest and still say:
it will be better, my unborn daughters
it will be fine, my someday sons

Today what I see is a dark smoke across the ridges, the settling ash, a red sun
and what I smell is a sorrow five thousand years old
burning heavenhigh in a language of smoke that only Earth knows, keening to Sky

All week we have together breathed the ash of these five thousand sorrows
All week the great old bay and her lands have lain gasping under
the smoke of a scream that is still tearing across the dry hills from a throat of fire

Earth's dragons are searching for something we took from them and then forgot we took

Oh Goddess, Oh Earth, we took your children, we took your daughters, we took your sons:
the hills, the stones, the soil, the water, the air where the snowy geese go flying a thousand leagues to get back home; we took them but we didn't know we did because we had forgotten your name, and the names of your children, and we thought there was no cost, and we needed them badly because our own children were hungry and we were hungry and so afraid and lonely because we had forgotten that
we
are your children too.

White ash is falling
Dragons are awake, and walking.
No one is going to take us home now; we must take ourselves. 
That is not a mountain, but a god of granite and earth
This is not a fire, but a dragon of loss who will burn the world to hold her children again. 

Listen, the atmosphere speaks in stories made of weather, of wind, of drought, of flood. 
The earth speaks by moving, by fire, when we have forgotten how to hear the subtler words 
We are so small. The air is full of ashes. Our lungs are full of each other's houses, and sorrows, and the hills that know no ending but the seeds. 

Weep for me my children, says a voice. 
Weep for me, tears on ash. Then dry your eyes. 
In the garden, the ruby-crowned kinglets 
have returned for the winter from somewhere far away
Ring the bell of greeting
Kiss your husband 
Praise what flies and what carries and what holds forever
For we are home among the stars


* * * To raise money to donate to fire relief funds, and specifically to support undocumented families who have lost homes and livelihoods and will not be able to apply for any kind of federal aid, I am offering my novella The Dark Country for sale again for a short time. ALL PROCEEDS (besides shipping & printing costs which are about $4.00 per book), will be donated to the Graton Day Labor Center (Centro Laboral de Graton). LINK HERE * * *

Thursday, October 5, 2017

To Lay Down in the Middle of the Forest When You’ve Lost Your Way


Earlier today a dear friend asked me about poems that have to do with the forest. And I remembered one I wrote a little over a year ago, part of my A Green Language poetry project (no longer up, but hopefully a printed book before too long!). 

It came to me almost entire in a single sitting one July morning last year, as if spoken by a kind and gentle old woman in a time when I very much needed such kind and gentle words. 


It seems we need words of gentleness now more than ever, so I share this with you here in the spirit of hope, and of another way which is not fighting, which is not part of the binary of good or evil, us or them, but something other, and older. 



To Lay Down in the Middle of the Forest When You’ve Lost Your Way


Never forget that it is all
the pilgrim’s path, that you are walking
a long, long way, that whatever
end you think you are seeking has
already changed its name, and is
not the end that’s seeking you.

On good days it will seem a romantic,
bright thing, this adventure, your boots
thick with mountain dust, a cane cut
from hazel in your hand, a rucksack full
of apples and oatcakes given to you by
someone who loves you on your back,
and on those good days you will think
the easy path goes on forever through
the open, that spring hills will always
be green and the kestrels always hovering
on amber wings.

Of course you know better:
that it’s only a spring stroll if you never
reach the forest, and no adventure at all.
It’s only a spring jaunt for wildflowers if you
don’t fall down on your knees and weep.
And nowhere is it spring forever.
You will find the pinewood inevitable.
The path will dissolve into a hundred paths,
each made by deer. There will be no waymarkers
and no stars. Your rucksack will feel empty,
and you will lose your hazel cane and
all the songs you ever learned
in the face of what scares you, in the face
of what is ugly in your own heart, in the face
of what is tearing the world to pieces.

Many will tell you to forge onward, to show courage,
to fight back, to look for signs on the duff, to not
stop moving for fear of cold, to not give in, to seek
the sunrise through the trees, to tell yourself
something stirring, something bright, to run away.
This is all well and good but most often the forest
isn’t done with you yet and fighting it is like netting
wind; all you will achieve is a tattered pair of boots,
an aching heart, a fresh strength of despair
and the sunrise no closer.

That’s just it, says the humus when you’ve
come at last to your knees.
Ah, say the pine needles when you begin to weep.
There, there, rest your head, as you cry out for help,
for guidance, for mercy, that the box opened long ago
might be closed, and as you lay down in the middle
of the pinewood in the depth of your sorrow,
whatever its name, the earth will swallow
you, and it, right up. Do not be afraid.
You are not dead yet.

All you must do is lay down just there
where you’ve lost the path, and
you will be taken into the heart of things
where three women tend an ancient pine tree
and a spring of hot water that bubbles up
from a vent in the earth. They will coo and fawn
over you like a little child, they will strip your
roadworn clothes, they will send you and all the
unwanted guests in your soul into the earth’s
hot water to be made beloved again.

After a long while, as long as it takes
(for they have been singing old lullabies
in a minor key and you may have been asleep)
they will help you out and dry you off
and rub you down and comb your hair
and braid it new and in that combing you will
hear a thousand blessings sung may you be
well may you be safe may your mind be gentle
may your way be bright may your thoughts go
gleaming may you measure your worth and
your days not by hours spent or money made
but by the quality of light in your soul and
how often you have asked yourself
what you might give away.

They will dress you in the dark skirts and aprons
and beads and leather slippers and long
embroidered vests of your ancestors and then
they will press a lantern in your hands and point
your way back up through roots and badger dens
to the surface again, to the forest where you lost your way.
Your rucksack will be full of strange new flatbreads,
a flask of mead, a pouch of tobacco,
a book of poems from very long ago.

You may still wander the forest a good deal
longer, but in a different manner, looking carefully at
the leaves of the many trees, trying to identify
birds by their songs, or where the bobcat walked.
You may gather the golden resin that falls
from the pines to ease your aches, or sit
quietly for long hours listening for the
voices inside the creaking limbs. You will have
stopped your striving, walked a hundred
figure eights without complaint, made a web of
your own footsteps, for once undesperate and slow.

And then all at once without warning you will
find the edge of it, a meadow beyond, and the
sun coming up. There it will be again, your path,
shining through the grass, gilt with dew, easy
as morning, unruined, unhurried, but just in time.




(c) Sylvia V. Linsteadt 2016


Monday, July 24, 2017

Tidal Runes


There is a language the world speaks, and I think I have been listening for it my whole life. For a long time I thought it was only something that existed in the fantasy novels so beloved to me as a girl, where women spoke with birds and knew the whisperings of plants and the medicine they carried. But I know it for something real now, of this world, the one I live in, the one my body moves through every day and every starry night, the one that feeds and sustains me in every way. I know it for something we humans once knew how to understand, and still can. I know that the books I read as a girl preserved, under the guise of magic, what all of our ancestors knew, if you follow the rivers of your blood back far enough. 

Now, the voice of the thrush in the hazel tree, the spotted towhee rooting in the huckleberry, the patterns left by kelp on the shore, have started to become deeply familiar. Kin, and beloved. I do not know what they are saying, but I know that what they are speaking, and that their meaning is one of the most precious things in this world. 




One day last month while on the Mendocino coast for a family reunion, where my father's family is from back to the 1860's, I stopped in my tracks on the seashore. The tide had washed up a collection of words. In wave-wracked kelp and mussel and crab and bone I saw them. Ocean runes whose meaning I did not know, but whose shape I recognized for something oracular, something spoken by the sea.  


Looking around I began to see words everywhere. In lines cut by time and pressure in sedimentary rock. In the tide-cast of driftwood, like the yarrow stalks of the ancient I Ching.


Every time the waves rushed up the shore, indigo and bracing with the summertime California Current, they cast the runes anew. Battered kelp stalks crissed and crossed with the skull of a gull into fresh patterns. I was transfixed. In me an old woman stirred; the old woman who knows the reading of such things, and always has.




So often we humans think of the idea of divination as a communication that only concerns our own lives. A question about health, a relationship, a career choice.


But as I watched the tide move in and out I was struck by a wholly different possibility. That originally, oracles like those who prophesied by the rustling leaves of the oaks of Dodona, were translating a non-human language into human terms; that what it said was not about our affairs at all, but rather about our relationship to the oak, to the wooddove, to the mountain or the sea, and theirs to earth herself.


I began to suspect that those old sibyls were attuned to what the ocean or the oak said, on their own terms. Kings might come and ask about the fates of wars, and the sibyls did their best to prophecy them, but what the tidal runes speak of is not the destiny of men but the destiny of oceans, and the lives of kelp and sea snail, seal, oystercatcher, bladderwrack and loon. 


That a word written in driftwood, shell and kelp-stalk is as old as time, and alive; a saltmade rune that is a doorway into other worlds, the ones that live mostly deeply within this world, just beyond our normal sight. 


Gutted sandcrab, moonbead of jellyfish, cross of saltgrass, stone and dulse, green moss marbles and coiled calligraphy of rotting kelp; what word does the solstice tide spell through you, cast upon the shore? 

I think it is a lifetime's work, to understand the first word of such incantations. 


But simply to be on the lookout for them is its own pleasure and beginning; to rest your eyes on patterns made by wave and time and wind, and know that they are slow and ancient words spoken in the many tongues of the living world, more unhindered and alive than any words we have ever known.


Words that abalones carry under their pink-bound shells; words that urchins chant over and again from their secret orange navels; words that carry all the holy strangeness of this earth, where looking into the low tide pools of the summer solstice while gathering seaweed is to scry another world, where all of precious life on earth began. 



It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man's hand and the wisdom in a tree's root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.

- Ursula K. Le Guin, from A Wizard of Earthsea


Cast out, little brindled snail, upon the slicklands of the tidal kombu; may your way be well and fathomless. May we bend our heads to watch the words you leave behind in your iridescent wake, and in that bending, pray.