Thursday, March 9, 2017

Riding on the Back of the Bear King, Part II.

          The following is a sequel to the essay titled “Riding on the Back of the Bear King,” posted today on the Dark Mountain Blog as part of their “Myths We Live By” series. It tells the story of our move into a Mongolian ger in the woods of Point Reyes this winter, the coming of The White Bear King Valemon tale into my life, and a little bit about what I think it might point us toward in these times, and what it might teach us. What follows below is a deeper look at the story’s main seven facets, which seem to me to offer a shaggy-edged map into deeper belonging with the living land. It is a map that you might follow in a single day’s wander alone among the pines, listening and watching and laying long on your back under the trees; but it is also an entire life’s journey. If I give the impression of experience or expertise, know that in reality I have little, as little as a very young tree; I can only offer what my first foray into this wise old tale has taught me thus far, what I sense of its shapes and movements and gifts.
             As described in the first part of this essay over on Dark Mountain, I learned the story in order to tell it as part of an animal tracking workshop near my new home in Point Reyes. I was curious to see how such a big old myth might be woven into the experience of tracking animals on the wild edge of coastal California; how we might track traces of the story as well as the pawprints of coyotes. 
         All the while, the story was teaching me about coming home. 
         This map, these seven pieces, are only a beginning, the first sketch of the map-pelt of the white bear king. The first and most important part of this journey for me has been to actually tell the story out loud to the land. The rest, I think, unfurls within us and without us in its turn. 

Greek golden laurel wreath, 4th century BCE

The Golden Wreath

Relationship starts with longing. Longing starts in the body, in the senses. The smell of manzanita flower nectar on the February wind. Storm-puddles rimmed with a golden tideline of pine pollen. Wind through the bay laurel trees, ruffling their slender leathery leaves like one skin, turning them all to flashes of light. 
This is maybe the easiest part; to follow the gleaming of what delights you, not just in your mind but in your body. To notice the wholeness of its impression upon you. The back of a river otter in a swollen creek between tules and a marshy field, shining gold with sun as she curves in one great sinuous movement and dives under again. The eyes of a young-great horned owl peering from a myrtle bush near dusk, two rings of yellow around the black pupils, opening into total darkness. The late, rut-polished antlers of male tule elk as they rest together, lounging in a meadow on Tomales Point, their bodies tawny, russet, strong.
The golden wreath the king’s youngest daughter dreams of, pines for, and finds in the paws of the great bear king has much to do with true wholeness. No facsimile will do, though we are being sold facsimiles right and left every day.
It all begins here, in your senses, where the bright wholeness of each living thing rests, and shines. Where does this longing live in your body? Of what is that golden wreath made? 

Kay Nielsen, East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Riding the Bear’s Back

Sometimes, just for a moment, I can sense the Point Reyes Peninsula as one great, breathing animal, shaggy with firs and pines, oaks and bays, with a long grassy snout cropped close by tule elk, and granite claws deep down in the ground, under the sea floor. Such sudden glimpses produce a vertiginous feeling; how a single humped hillside clad in young bishop pines is suddenly part of an unbroken skin, and all that unseen sinew, vein, blood, there in the invisible watertable where the rain goes, where roots spread and spread and spread, one touching another touching another. Imagine it, all the roots across an unbroken swathe of wild land. The mycelium between them. A skin, a pelt, indeed. 
            This is the body of the beloved. The bit of land that claims you, the bit of land you long for. The great bear king. The story says that you must give yourself to the bear king in order to have that golden wreath. You must give your whole self to this feeling of belonging. When the bear asks each of the king’s three daughters upon his back in turn “have you ever sat softer, have you ever seen clearer?” he is asking what my tracking teacher would call a sacred question. "What are the bobcats eating on this land at this time of year?" is also a sacred question, though of a different variety. The latter, followed to its end, leads you deeper into relationship with the outer world. The former brings you right into the center of your own self. And then what?
            Where have you truly sat softest? When have you truly seen clearest? Can a whole landscape be a great unknowable creature, willing to carry you home? What does it feel like to dream this, and sit thus?

from The Blue Fairy Book's version of East of the Sun, West of the Moon

The Art of Beholding

        When he takes her to his castle, all the bear king asks is that the girl look after the hearth and keep the fire going. And, of course, never to lift that tallow candle and look upon the man who comes to her bed by night. Tending the fire is easy enough. It is a tender, gentle courtship. She learns the language of embers. But when her mother forces a little candle stub into her hand, saying my daughter, you must look, she can resist no longer. With that flush of light, and the drip drop of three bits of tallow, she beholds the most precious thing she has ever known, and loses him.
I find that both stories and wild animals have to be approached sidelong. Staring fixedly at a doe in a field will only scare her off. What stares fixedly and desirously at a deer in a field but a mountain lion? This is a predatory gaze. You will never get very close behaving that way. Even so, I’m afraid my default is often the cat-stare. I can’t help myself. When I see something beautiful, or an idea for a story or poem flickers through me quick as marshlight, my tendency is to pounce. To turn the whole intensity of my gaze there, smoldering, a little too bright with eagerness. And yet I have learned as both a writer and an animal tracker that the approach has to be a little bit more roundabout than that.  More subtle, intuitive, humble. Both stories and wild animals are shy. The gentle steps of a slow approach are important. Walk sideways, look the other direction, crouch down and eat a bit of miner’s lettuce. Glance up, and you will find the doe has gone back to grazing. Such steps allow her to read you, to smell the air around you, to sense your heart. Same goes for stories, and perhaps whole landscapes too. Learning each other mostly in the dark; the soul can see well there, even if your eyes cannot.
There is a time to tend, to gently approach, to never seek anything brighter than the soft glow of the embers. But there is also a time to bring what is being courted into full consciousness. To raise that candle and look. Its light, after all, is still hospitable to shadow, as John O’Donohue so beautifully says. But inevitably, the bear king flees. And inevitably, the girl goes chasing after him. There is no other way to step deeper. He is guiding her into the heart of the land, beyond the warmth of his hearth and arms, to learn for herself the Way—the way of trees, the way of streams, the way of stones, the way of birds, the way of coming home.
Part of this process will always involve reaching too far, trying to grasp too soon, and losing what felt so close. Failure, perhaps, is a sign that you are doing something right; that now is the time to run deeper into the forest and not look back!
What does it mean to sit quietly, tending the embers of something holy? Sitting day by day under the hazel, watching its ruby-filamented flowers open until at last you hear the beginning of words? What part of your life requires a slow and embered approach? What part of your life requires that you drop everything and run to catch up?

The Norns (1889) by Johannes Gehrts

Following the Golden Thread

There are always three old women in this story, whichever version you read. I like it best when they give gifts of thread and spindle and carding comb. These are the gifts of the Fates, the Norns who sit in the roots of the World Tree, spinning out the stuff of lives. These are the ones the girl must encounter in her quest for her bear king, her wholeness. These are the ones we must bow to, pray for, and seek. In the European tradition they are the old, old deities of the land, whose names are sometimes the names for the Earth. The Fates and their threads of Being are everywhere. They are in the little spiderwebs on the magenta-flowering hazel trees, the tiny threads between manzanita branches that flash rainbows in the sunrise, the footprints left behind by animals, the pulse of blood or sap or water or lymph in eddies and pathways and spirals through all things.
When the king’s third daughter comes seeking, the first old woman gives her a golden ball of yarn and says here, throw this ball before you and follow where it leads. Follow its gleaming. If you want to find the bear king, there is no other way to walk. No trails will do, but only the bright gleam of intuition, where the sun falls on spiderstrings, and what it is that makes you sing.
When what seemed close, and clear, is lost, seek out the Fates, the threads that bind things, that make a place a living being and not just so many disparate parts.
Where do you sense these old spinners in the landscape around you? Where do you glimpse that web-wise wholeness? What is the name of the making, the place in you that creates?

Growing Claws

“Only one with wings or claws could make it up the mountain where the bear king went,” the last old woman tells the king’s youngest daughter, and gives her a pair of bear claws so she can climb it.
It’s time to become a little bit more animal. To look out at the land through other eyes. Sometimes, when I cup my hand over a coyote track and close my eyes, reaching out along that golden thread to the paws of the very being who made the prints, those little needle-pricks of claw, I get a jolt of brief sensation that both terrifies and thrills me. I can feel the feeling from inside the body of the coyote. Panting, the air cold and sweet on my tongue, my coat shaggy and good and thick; but mostly it’s a brief explosion of sensory awareness that is totally other than my own. The whole landscape woven of smells that seem in my mind to be colors or shapes or brightnesses, all of it vivacious and layered one layer upon the next, shivering with potency with the trilling of birds the tiny vibrations of gophers underground the fluid unbroken being of it all, colors that are smells that are sounds, every creature singing out its name every creature singing out its death every creature singing out its life.
            Sit here, among your own senses and the senses that are not your own. Feel your own nails as claws, the place on your backside where once was a tail, the memory of paws.
For only animals can climb that mountain.

1915 watercolor by John Bauer

Meeting the Troll Hag

I’ve learned to pay attention when women as large as mountains, women as ugly as roots and underworlds and rot, show up in stories. My furry cat ears perk up. Trolls, Titans, giant stone-heaving Cailleachs—I’ve come to see each as a sign left behind in a colonized story, a glimmer of its most ancient strata, of an indigenous Europe before the many Bronze Age invasions from the east.
     On the surface, the story tells us that the bear king has been cursed by a terrible Troll Hag, and that when the king’s youngest daughter fails to break the enchantment, he must return to said Hag and wed her. On a deeper level, this is all part of the necessary process of becoming whole; this is how a seed sprouts. It must first be held in the arms of decay, of the great life-death-life crone. Earth herself is the most ancient keeper of justice, the most ferocious of devourers.
            “Human beings have made much of purity, and are repelled by blood, pollution, putrefaction,” writes Gary Snyder in his piece Unnatural Writing. “The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots. Coyote, Orpheus, and Izanagai cannot help but look, and they lose her. Shame, grief, embarrassment, and fear are the anaerobic fuels of the dark imagination.”
            Until we face the Troll Hag and barter with her—golden ball, golden carding comb, golden spindle, all the pieces of Fate—for a deeper understanding of what we love, of the bear king himself, we will only have encountered half of his wholeness, and our own. This is about looking at the darkest places in us and in the land—shit, rot, waste—and allowing them to be part of something bigger, essential even. Perhaps most of all, our own fear—not as a stagnation, but as a necessary expression that may be released at last into rot, and thus reborn.
Else this, nothing ever grows.

Snake Tube ritual libation vessel, from 2nd/1st millennia Greece, courtesy of the Suppressed Histories Archives

Cleaning Out Three Drops of Tallow

            It was the three drops of tallow by which she lost him. Three drops from the tallow light. It is by cleaning them from his furred coat that she wins him again, back from the Troll Hag and into her arms.
            I will be honest. This part of the story still mystifies me, and yet it satisfies me deeply too. The first time I read it, I was disappointed; I felt like our heroine won back her bear by playing the neat housewife. It felt too domestic, too patriarchal. And yet I believe now that there is something deeper at work here, something about ritual purification before an altar, something about the haleness of clean water. Something also about a power that only women know. And my mind comes back round again and again to Tomales Bay, where the harbor seals watch with dark eyes. The bay is narrow, made by the San Andreas Fault zone, and its tidelines gleam with mica. My mind comes back round to the feeling of a dunk in cold salt water. How much the water eases from me in one cold rush. Always it seems to give me a new skin, a baptism by salt.
            What would it mean to release the parts of you that want to know, to grab, to hold? What would it mean to give back something that is asked of you by the land, purely? What is it you can give? What bits of tallow can you remove from the pelt of the earth, left there by over eager hands? What act of cleansing and of absolution can you offer back again, with a mind at last as clear and empty as water, and a heart as full?



  1. Beautiful and profound ,Thanks for a glimpse into the mysteries of Point Res - Old stories only mutate never go away.

  2. Good grief, Sylvia.
    This is something else!

  3. I love your writing. I will be passing Silt around my coven, so they can also know you for your stories.

  4. I love your version of this story, and the threads of rewilding that infuse it. I havent come accross a Version of this tale that has the golden thread element, and the cleaning of the drops of tallow. Would you let me know your source?

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