Friday, August 31, 2012

The Luminous Depths of Black Walnut Dye

A month ago I found a beautiful, branching black walnut tree at the top of a lane called Upton. It dropped its green husked nuts all over the stairs and the ivy beneath, as well as the tops of someone's garbage cans. The squirrels happily munched them from the boughs above me, dropping half eaten husks on the ground. I gathered a sack-full as the sun set over Mt. Tamalpais, beyond the San Francisco Bay, and lit up the roofs with gold.

Balcony doors, flung open to let in the orange sunset.

I poured the sack of black walnuts, husks and all, into a pot, covered them in water, and let them soak for several weeks, following a recipe for black walnut dye found in Rebecca Burgess's excellent book, Harvesting Color. 

Yesterday, I decided it was time to use the dark sludge inside the pot for dye. I heated the pot briefly, strained out some of the walnuts, and lay inside of that vat, like some strange cauldron of transformation, a wet-felted creature I'd made earlier in the day, a black-walnut woman-fool, with three spikes on her head which will become a jester hat of sorts.

There's something alchemical about making beings out of felt, with your hands, rubbing and coaxing until they are the right shape, and then dunking them in a big living vat of walnut dye. It feels like magic to me, and the creature-woman who emerged, well, she's truly alive to me. And, by the way, that wool started out a very bright white.

She isn't quite finished yet, because she seems to belong with this magnificent thistle that Simon brought back for me from the wilds of Tilden Park, where he also found the ruins of an old sanitarium, where rich people once sent their batty relations (in the early 1900's) with "nervous disorders,"or addictions, to drink fresh cow milk, eat pears from the orchard, and have musical evenings.

The old road in. I love to imagine the horse and buggies trotting down it, under the shade of elm trees, bearing someone's mad cousin in the back, with her trunks in a neat stack, as truly wild hills closed all around her. Back then, these hills were quite remote.

Palm trees were planted. Now the mansion has burned, all but the founding stones, but the palm trees are strange and healthy in the thickets of blackberry and thistle.

From the old orchard (see the grand apple tree on the right, half in shade? Still heavy with fruit), the view of the once-oasis, where visitors report having heard strange and beautiful music often emanating from the sanitarium walls.

Anyhow, this is all to say that the strange little felted woman shown above, dyed a truly stunning brown (I never expected the color to turn out so deep), will have a thistle embroidered on her dress, and a small felted fox head emerging from her heart, as a nod to the wild tenacity of thistles, and the beautiful madness of this overgrown place. She has three spikes on her head, meant to indicate a jester hat, like I said, for she is a fool of sorts, dancing between wisdom and madness.

I was so moved by this living, rich, luminous brown, that I threw some coils of raw wool into the vat as well, along with one of my shirts.

These are the browns of living soils, of chocolate, of the dark strong coats of bears and elk, the underbellies of martens. Truly, it is hard to find anything more beautiful than a natural color, once your eyes have been treated to its depth of hue, its nuance, the way the sun takes it in.

And here are the beauties, the nuts, now rotten dark, from whom this color, so full of magic, was fermented and cooked. I am in awe of them.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Enchanted Old Houses and a Bobcat Skull

After a long evening stroll about the neighborhoods, peering through fences and between trees at the bits of magic held everywhere in front yards and side alleys, footpaths, sidewalk gardens...

.... imagining candlelit windows thrown open to let the stars in at night, to touch the ancient books and soft secrets held inside....

... smiling with glee at this telephone pole, so completely covered in her skirts of ivy, marveling at how easy it is for wild things to take over our sidewalks and wired contraptions, when we let them....

.... smelling the heady brugmansia (or angel-trumpet) flowers, themselves a powerful form of magic if ingested, though quite dangerous as well, truly doorways into another realm...

.... and, good heavens, wandering through the rose garden  on Euclid street, full of longing and nostalgia for my childhood garden, filled by my mother with Abraham Darby roses, Icebergs, Cecil Bruners, the Prince, all so wild and thick I could play games in their caverns, hoist tiny basket-elevators up into their thorny branches....

.... after all this, peering into other people's sun-rooms, thinking of morning tea, I stopped by the house of an old, old friend, just around the corner from ours, and was stopped in my tracks as I came in by this creature, sitting on the window sill....

A bobcat skull. Every tooth sharp and pointed, for eating voles and brush rabbits, fawns, deer mice. The nose canal like a perfect heart. Her son had found it on the narrow trails that look out over the ocean, at Slide Ranch, in one of those moments, he said, where he just looked straight at it, suddenly, like it had been whispering to him. I remember going to the Slide Ranch summer camp as a little girl, milking a goat, making necklaces from wild fibers and shells, visiting the bone hill, where all the dead things were cleaned by the elements, their bones left white like this. It scared me, then.

Now, the bobcat skull astounded me with its beauty. A vessel that had carried the mysteries of a feline spirit for many, many moons across the misted chaparral of those Mt. Tamalpais hills. A strange and magical home for a small and perfect huntress.

It made me think of the Russian story of Vasilisa the Wise, in which she is sent by her evil stepmother to retrieve fire from the Baba Yaga, that crone of death and rebirth, that old woman who I imagine with all manner of small bones braided into her hair, riding her mortar and pestle through the sharp starred night, ambling in her house of bones with bird legs through the darkest pine forests. From this being, she has to win fire. It is a beautiful, beautiful story. One of my favorite versions is told by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves.

At the very end, after passing all the tests the Baba Yaga has given her (scrubbing the house, cooking up a dinner, separating mildewed corn from good corn), Vasilisa is given a skull full of fire to take home.

"It was night and Vasalisa came through the forest with the skull on a stick, the fire blazing from ear, eye, nose, and mouth holes of the skull. Suddenly, she became frightened of its eerie light and thought to throw it away, but the skull spoke to her and urged her to calm herself and to continue toward the home of her stepmother and stepsisters.

As Vasalisa came nearer and nearer to her house, her stepmother and stepsisters looked out the window and saw a strange glow dancing through the woods. Closer and closer it came. They could not imagine what it could be. They had decided that Vasalisa's long absence meant that she was dead by now and her bones dragged away by animals and good riddance.

Vasalisa advanced closer and closer to home. And as the stepmother and stepsisters saw it was her, they ran to her, saying they had been without fire since she'd left, and no matter how hard they had tried to start one, it always went out. Vasalisa entered the house feeling triumphant, for she had survived her dangerous journey and brought fire back to her home. But the skull on the stick watched the stepsisters' and the stepmothers' every move and burnt into them, and by morning it had burnt the wicked trio to cinders." (From pages 79 and 80 of Women Who Run with the Wolves.)

Ivan Bilibin, "Vasilisa the Beautiful"
There is something deeply powerful in this image of the skull glowing with fire, leading the way out of a dark wood, wild and true in its light. I can imagine that little bobcat skull, held aloft in the darkest oak forest, casting a deep light through the shadows.

Lynx Rufus
And more importantly, to be able to hold that bone vessel, fanged and smooth, was to touch a little bit of this world, the world of the bobcat, soft-eared and knowing.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lonely Pleistocene Bones

In Los Angeles, a place I hadn't visited until two days ago, though I'm from California, born and raised, I went to a museum full of Ice Age bones. Between high rise hotels, the ubiquitous billboards, the stop and go traffic from stoplight to stoplight that struck me with dystopic visions, the flat sprawl of tight packed houses on one side of that luminous ridge, the Santa Monica Mountains, and the other, there are a series of tar pits. Fields of tar in this area, just under the skin of the earth or at the surface, bubbling like the belches of strange black devils, were mined for oil in the early 20th century. The hot bodies of fermented microorganisms and ancient geologic pressure, were scooped into our automobiles so we could zip around encased in metal, packed side by side on highways made of asphalt as we headed home from work each day— the beginnings of our tar cult, our asphalt country.

But also trapped in the La Brea Tar Pits are the fossilized skeletons of thousands of animals from Pleistocene California. Hemmed in from every side by roads and megaplexes, excavated tar pits are being combed for bones. 

The pelvis of a giant ground sloth, who liked to eat the tops of desert Joshua trees. The leg bone of a saber-toothed cat, one of those early and ferocious felines who imprinted our psyches with her teeth, who drove us into caves, who draws us still to the shelters of our houses at night, away from the glowing green eyes of a darkness now almost unimaginable to us, a darkness heavy with creatures many times our size and our strength. 

Men and women dig them up and clean them off, pack the bones into crates to be taken inside, out of their pungent asphalt grave, into the laboratories of paleontologists. 

Something in my stomach tangled up when I saw that crate, neat wooden slats and a cloth over the top, packed tight with the bones of animals so strange to me, so ancient and special they are like the fantastical creatures of a bestiary, sacred and wise at once, holier than any saint's relics. We learn great things from studying those bones; I would not have them left in the ground. But I also wonder, seeing the skulls and skeletons behind glass and on podiums— are they lonely? 

Ribs of an ancient species of bison, so big I could lay down and sleep inside.

Do those bones still hold memories of flight and confrontation, of coyote brush between flat strong teeth, the neck of a giant sloth under thick claws, the coat of stars at night, so many and so bright, like its own dense pelt? Do they miss the hot darkness of tar, clenching their bones into the earth where all things are eventually melted like so many candlesticks?

What it was like before: giant sloths, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, camels, mammoths. Their bones under our feet.

The next day I walked with two good friends in the Santa Monica mountains. How much those steep ridges look like the spines of bison, the scapula of ancient jaguars. This was their home longer than it will ever be ours, their paw prints somewhere down below, under thousands of years of earth, their ghosts still walking the canyons at night, calling out.

I wrote a piece while exploring the geology and natural history of Point Reyes about the megafauna (short-faced bears, mammoths, camels) that used to live in the great meadow that is now the San Francisco Bay. It is mythic and strange. You can read a passage of it here. (Or just click on the Mythic Pleistocene page on the top right!)

1,600 dire wolf skulls have been found in the pits. They tried to prey on animals caught in the tar, and died themselves, pack by beautiful pack.

What songs did they howl out in the night? What stars did they see, and follow?

The milk teeth of saber toothed cats, growing.

What creatures did she crush with those long teeth? What did the grass feel like under her paws, what smells come in on the wind through juniper and cypress trees? What life does a collection of bones still hold, what spirit?
The ribs of a short-faced bear and an ancient horse, side by side in death, predator and prey. Their bones chambered and lonely as the bones of stone houses we came upon in a Santa Monica mountain canyon, the bones of hearths and chimneys lost to fire.

A staircase leading into the air. Phantom feet walk it.

Supposedly there is a small statue of the Virgin Mary amid these ruined buildings high up in Solstice canyon. All I could find was this hidden horse, carved deep into a hearth seated high up on rocks near a waterfall. What better a thing to worship than this rearing horse, hooves high, whispering into stone the names of her ancient sisters, who originated on this landmass?

Underfoot, deep down, the bodies of wild mustangs from the Pleistocene are buried, turning to dust. Saints, angels, holy things, those skeletons in the earth.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Turtles on the Lake in the Morning

This familiar path, down the hill a little ways from our home, smells of coast live oak leaves, dust, bay laurel, that spice almost like cinnamon in the dry mild air. I am always amazed how quickly the mind quiets once I'm off the paved road where cars pass and houses line the way.

A thistle-head, going to seed. Still some strands of purple flower hanging on, silken and shining. The goldfinches wait to build their nests until the thistles look like this, so they can use all that down for bedding. Wise creatures.

It was still early enough that human shoes hadn't yet covered up the deer prints from the night. Like two hearts, pressed into the dust, quite small. At dawn, perhaps, a young doe made her way slowly up this same path, foraging calmly. I like to put my fingers in the tracks, imagine the creature they belong to, say hello. When you look hard and long at the shapes made by human shoes, they start to look like strange arcane patterns, carved like spells into the dirt, not anything so mundane as the soles of sneakers.

Down below the oak and bay laurel forest, the thickets begin. The hedgerows, though these were never planted by humans. A path was just carved right through the brambles and vines. Currants, blackberries, thimbleberries, elderberries. To the right, the willow bushes begin, a great labyrinth of warrens and tangles, home to great numbers of woodrats, gray foxes, badgers, weasels, brush rabbits and no doubt a bobcat or two, not to mention songbirds. I am enchanted by it, by the mystery of all the tunnels and passageways.

Who lives in there? Many, many beings, some of them watching me at this moment no doubt.

I passed an old antler rub from last autumn or before. Stags seem to enjoy rubbing their antlers on willow in particular during the rut. Maybe it has antiseptic or soothing properties when absorbed through antler-velvet!

Two turtles sat quietly in the sun on Jewel Lake. The ripples on the surface reflected against the alder leaves and branches. They seemed to be pulsing, like you could see the tree-blood moving through.

So many tunnels and caverns and dens. I love the feeling of walking upon the narrow ribbon of the path that cuts between, knowing that all around me a wild maze of homes tangles and shivers with small particular lives.

Like this fellow, who left wet footprints all along a small wooden walkway by the stream. A striped skunk I think, emerging from the willows after having a drink.

It is good for the mind and for the soul, to leave the human-full streets a while, in the morning, before your thoughts have taken over, and remember all the other lives that happen around you every day— skunk, spotted towhee, doe, big old oak.