Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Samhain of Coyote, Deer and Mist

On this old, dark, deep holiday—called Samhain in the ancient Gaelic traditions— which is a celebration of the dead, the ancestors, the harvest brought in, and also of a new year, I wish upon you all the blessings of coyote and deer, the kind of heavy mist that brings the colors of the land out, spiderwebs hung with rain, the tangled bare branches of buckeyes, the new bodies of mushrooms, springing up like perfect cities.

I find it beautiful, and instructive too, that in older, land-rooted traditions, the new year was celebrated at this time of gathering darkness, when all the buckeyes and the grasses and the apple trees are putting their energy down in their roots, for the dark sleep of winter. By the time our western New Year rolls around in January, new grass is already poking up its green hair, flowers are starting to open up again. We forget that all the work has already been going on, down there where the dead go—leaf mulch and fox and worm, the bones and flesh of all things. In the darkest time, new seeds are gathering up their tiny hearts to grow. What a different mindset this forces one into! To acknowledge that all growing things need first to root in the humus, the dark soil, to germinate beneath the ground, in the underworld.

Today I drove out to Point Reyes to look for bobcat tracks (it's beginning, to me, to feel like hunting for treasure, for little metacarpal pad grails). It was misty and damp and dark, and all the creatures showed themselves.

Let me just say, this was almost a car-accident in the making. I saw him dart off the road ahead of me, and, well, I just stopped the car and got out! Good thing no one was behind me (it is a narrow country road after all)— I was downright quivering with the joy of seeing this beautiful coyote so close. (This is a problem I sometimes have--driving slightly off the road to peer out at hawks, etc.)

He was no more than ten feet from me, and we held one another's gaze for quite some time before he began to slink away, glancing back several times over his shoulder. Myself, I was in a state of mild euphoria, staring after, wishing so badly to be able to hear him truly, to speak back. He is a trickster, a seducer too, that cream and gold and grey coyote with his almond-elegant eyes, watching with a tiny smile.

The bobcat of Abbott's Lagoon, padding past misted marsh rosemary. He (or she-- or perhaps a mother with adolescents?) uses the edge of the lagoon, it's marshy border, daily, hunting the waterfowl.

Quite a busy lady! These tracks are probably from this morning, between rain and mist.

And we surprised this doe while she was eating her afternoon meal. She only blinked at us with perfectly black eyes, those lashes delicate and tapered.

The spiderwebs held onto the mist, making their own small universes, places for chaparral-imps to lay down for a rest.

And the cows, far away between the hills, grazed gently, with black calves bounding between them.

In this dark turning toward winter, in this time of wild storms and the remembrance of the dead, the animals are beside us, always just over the fence, watching. Samhain is thought to be the day when the veil between worlds is thinnest, when ghosts and old spirits and magical creatures pass through the mist. I don't know if there were spirits out today as I walked the Abbott's Lagoon fog, but the wild things were certainly wandering, with that rich dark animal otherworld in their eyes. That is a deep magic, and we all walk amidst it every day-- past the pigeons on city streets, the hawks hunting over freeways, the mountain lions way up in the hills.

A deep dark delightful pagan new year to you all!

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Ocean's Dreams

In the strange, staged, black and white, red and blue, increasingly 1984-esque theater that is our presidential race, it is hard for me not to feel a deep sort of rage, hopelessness, fear. True, serious fear. For the rights of my gender most obviously, but also for the rights of all the things so beyond our societal gaze at this point that it is "ok" for men to say things like "the United States is the hope of the world" or "the United States is the best country on earth." I don't even want to get into this. I don't want to start slipping my angry typing fingertips down that pathway, beginning with-- how can a claim like that possibly be made, when our way of life is destroying the whole wild (and wide) world, human and animal and tree and seed and atmosphere, as we know it? I mean, seriously, there is some dark, devilish, poisoned blindness at work here. We are the land we inhabit, the land we are eating up and killing from all angles. There is no way around this. There is no way to talk about this without rage.

Instead: the ocean at North Beach, along the 10-mile strip of shore at Point Reyes, just shy of that perched lighthouse hundreds of steps down the quartzite cliffs, it has its own language and its own dreams. We are very small, compared to them.

But somebody built a sculpture of driftwood and kelp anyway, all silvery and smooth, with stains where the sea foam, algae-green, had dyed old bark. They left it, an offering, facing the wide white thrashing tide, a tide so strong it would take any of us down and in so fast we would barely have time to struggle. To me, it looked like words, the oldest kind, runic, sung back to the ocean, saying: here, I am honoring you. I am seeing you. You are worth my songs, my written words, my art, my attention-- you are the salty cold-tossed source of all life, you are the hush in all of our ears when we sleep at night. We have filled you with gyre-islands of trash. We are pushing you to flood at all your edges. I am so sorry. I don't know what to do.

In the center, this somebody-- there is such beauty in the anonymity of wild, found art, the ego-less-ness of it—arched and tied sea-pale sticks with bits of bull kelp and gull feather into a shape like a series of interlocking eyes, like an odd driftwood dreamcatcher, a net for the ocean's dreams to drift through, rest within, peer out of.

Why do we so like to stand driftwood upright in sand and make odd-shaped, wind-curved, sea-tossed sculptures or huts at the lip of all that thrash and wildness? There must be something in us that can't help but leave these edge-walking offerings, this sad longing for connection, for conversations we don't think we are supposed to want to have, with things like pelicans and plovers, bits of kelp, foam coming in, whole tidelines, whole cliffsides.

What does the ocean dream?

Our words and our art and our actions must leave room for this, for such questions. Of course they are already considered hopelessly romantic, poetic, fantastical, dreamy, irrational, downright dangerously ignorant and childish, the list goes on. But in desperate seriousness, in true earnest, what does the ocean dream? 

I don't know if this has much to do with politics, presidents, Iranian nuclear weapons, oil, the economy, but it does have to do with what it means, in the very bone and blood and soul, to be human-- to be part of the conversation with a more than human world. When I was sixteen, I wrote the first poem I was proud of, called "The Order of the Machine," while sitting on the steps of the back porch, near the old tangles of Cecil Bruner roses I grew up playing inside of. It ends like this:

"Even as our future buckles straight
I will not let the woods
relinquish my heart
nor the fog my soul.
I will not let the Order of the Machine
steal the waves, crush the wildflowers
starve the river stones.
There is yet hope
in the foam of the full moon
in the careless green of apple leaves
in the light between two palms."

I have no idea how to go about following my own sixteen year old advice, but I believe it even more now than I did then. It seems to be that it must begin, at least, by staying in the conversation. As an artist, that means the words I use, the pen and keypad I write with-- occult, magical things, remember they have their own sorcery in the creation myths of old--- they are also offerings to the wild things around me. The hermit thrush on the fence, the stag I came face to face with this morning in the rain, the ocean, the soil still under the busy avenues and shoulder to shoulder houses of Berkeley, the dandelions poking out of every spare crack, the hawks hunting from streetlamp poles above highway 580, the bits in each of us that call out to the ocean-thrash and the crow that swoops on black wings. This is the Mother Tongue.

A witch-woman in the green foam line.

Insect and maybe bird-scrawled, this is a truly wild text, a constellation, maze, set of runes. A word, sung back to the ocean.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Post-Collapse Storytelling: Tule Elk Herders, Abandoned Haybarns, the Skeletons of iPhones

The following is an excerpt from a novella/novel I am working on. In it massive earthquakes have broken off a piece of the California coast—the Point Reyes Peninsula— into the Pacific Ocean. Those left living in this severed world must learn the primordial rhythms of the tule elk that inhabit the unmoored peninsula in order to survive. Rather tongue in cheek, I have described it as a post-apocalyptic bildungsroman that blurs the boundaries between body and landscape, using the anatomy of elk as its roadmap. It is told from different perspectives, one of them the voice of the rocky peninsula-island itself, who conceives of herself as a granite elk mother leading her stony herd, ever north. 

I've included some photos throughout, to evoke a world collapsed and re-claimed by vine and stone and wind. And yes, several of them are NOT in fact, on the Point Reyes Peninsula at all, but in Greece (which is at this moment, of course, experiencing its own set of catastrophes). 

I. Ursula

This is the story of a lost boy and a slim black box that was once called an iPhone. This is the story of a scrap of granite, a furl of limestone, quaked off the North American tectonic plate and onto the Pacific. This is the story of my hooves dark as biotite, dark as the center of the world, darker than your nightmares, my hooves that walk the ocean floor, ever North.

This is the story of a boy who lost his way with one of your dark black nightmares in his hands, searching for stories that were best left dead. They were best left where they lay under the refuse of your condominiums and banks, your endless plastic bags and take out cartons, your days even and bland as cement. At least the weeds had gotten to that refuse. The dandelions broke through first and grew blossoms as yellow as fire, as yellow as sin, as yellow as a coyote’s eyes watching in the dark of night, waiting to howl and then to eat your lambs or fuck your little white dogs.

It’s always an old elk cow who leads the rest, the hundreds, when mounting bulls with their velvet antlers have subsided, have laid it to rest. An old elk cow who’s pushed out dozens of calves, whose tits are dry, who kicks her sharp hooves at the bulls with their hard cocks, who leads the other females to the secret, quiet places where they can drop their babies, to the safe green places in spring time, to the water holes. I’m that old cow, that old silver sack of bones. I have been leading them behind me millennia by millennia, on hooves of magma and schist. I keep them close to me. I find soft pastures.

Sometimes we move against the continent, following its easy trail. That’s when I’m lazy, and tired, and the winds have been laying their wild fingers on me too harsh. We scrape granite full of mica into our stomachs, four each, the stomachs that grind and grind as we walk with our hooves darker than nightmares in an ocean deeper than any one of your cranes or submarines, your sonic telescopes, your Mars Rovers, could have ever fathomed. It is full in its salty wombs with creatures who generate light inside their own bodies. They glow more beautiful than any light bulb, LED or Edison.

It was nice to rest against the continent, that other groaning mass of lithosphere. Things crossed over onto our backs when I leaned into it. They made homes in our skins, our dark fur. Hundreds of species of bird. Pine trees. Mountain beavers. Once, saber-toothed cats. Mammoths with hooked tusks and dusk songs deeper than the moan of a tractor. Eventually, people. We liked the first ones.
Later, when we’d had enough, I changed our course. I left the sharp pathway of the continent. I broke away, and my granite-boned cousins followed me on their biotite hooves. They bugled as we went.
Much later, the few people who were still left made up stories. They’re not so bad. They’re very apt, in fact. They must have figured out how simple it is to press their ears down to the dirt and listen, between the bishop pine roots and stones. How to hear us, moving, grazing on oceanic crust, walking onward, taking them with us. Someone listened close enough, and heard me calling back to the rest through the fog, through the heat and grind of our stone bodies, our hundred hearts beating, hot as fire, slow as stars. That someone, I guess, started to catch on.

So they have these stories about my organs—my guts, wombs, heart, brain—and the land they call Tomales Point, which is also my granite and prairie grass body, which is also my tangled and wind beaten old heart, which is also my strong nose, pointing the rest toward the North, finding the easiest footing, making a new trail through the ocean.

There is an elk cow peering from behind the alders...
II. Intestines

The intestines of an elk are very long. Colias knew this because he had held them in his hands many times, long and wet and folding, while he helped with the butchering. They always did it outside, so the blood ran back into the dirt and grass. Colias’s mother had him collect some of the blood in an old metal tea pot. They cooked it up later and drank it, like hot cocoa.
When he held the intestines for the first time, Colias thought about all the grass, chewed up and still sitting in the wet coils. What that last meal had tasted like. That spring, the spring Colias was eight and big enough to hold the curving mass of guts without dropping any piece of it, they were camped in Divide Meadow, just off the Bear Valley trail. Colias liked to walk along the remains of an old barbed wire fence, sunk almost to the brim in tall grass, and touch the metal spikes with his fingers. Fifteen other families were there too, in the portable round tents with thick felted walls that everybody lived in during the Moving season. The other twenty-two families on Point Reyes were scattered across the peninsula throughout the warm, open meadows of spring. The tent Colias lived in with his mother, father and great-aunt was admired by everyone else in Divide Meadow that spring; Opheodrys made the strongest felt they had seen, tight and rippled and sturdy. She used wide sheets of bubble wrap found in a rotting closet in the Inverness Post Office building to agitate the wool, and carefully crushed soaproot bulbs to produce a fine suds. And she was patient, rubbing and coaxing and muttering to the neat rows of wool. When she was done, the long banners of felt puckered and shone in the wind. She embroidered them with antlers and wheels, with wings shaped like pelvic bones and the silhouettes of cars, which lay at the sides of roads, growing blackberries and fennel from their plastic seats, casting long feline shadows.

One of the structures from Before, a collapsing wood and cement bathroom, sat under the trees to the north of the meadow. The plastic signs for Man and Woman—white form on brown background—were still there, crooked and smudged. Pinus Jefferyi taught his son to leave small offerings at buildings like that whenever they camped near one. A handful of dried manzanita berries, strung up with glass beads. A splash of elk milk. An arrowhead tip made from car door metal. Just to keep the sadness of the people from Before away. It was a feeling that sat down in your chest. Colias felt it once, near the collapsed picnic tables and wooden lockers at the place that was called Wildcat Camp on a faded metal sign. The ocean was just down the hill. The elk were grazing meadowfoam and checkerblooms in the thick grass, and Colias sat on a corner of one of the tables. He saw initials, A + M, carved into the top. A heart around them, messy. His chest felt so tight, then, that he thought he couldn’t breathe. It was a dark gripping feeling, like dread and like grief and fear, all at once. He stood up so fast that he caught a splinter in his palm, and ran over to sit down in the grass near the elk. A small calf came by and nudged his legs, sniffed around for a seedcake with her wide nose. The seaglass looped around her neck, which Opheodrys looped over all of their elk, to distinguish them from the other herds, tinkled and glinted amber. The ocean threw its big blue waves against the sand down on the beach, and Colias felt better. The tightness lifted.

The day they arrived in Divide Meadow the spring Colias was eight, Pinus took him to the falling down bathroom structure with the two white and brown people nailed to the walls, and left a crabshell full of the black seeds of California poppies just outside the door. A pile had grown there over the centuries—polished pieces of blue glass, old photographs worn to cracking pieces, the whole skull of a pelican, the dust of hundreds of bouquets of flowers.

When Colias stood holding the guts of a bull tule elk in his hands for the first time, he thought about the chewed up grass inside. Then he dunked the intestines in a big plastic tub full of cold water, and cleaned them, turning each section inside out. He carried the tub far away from their encampment, up an old trail into the Douglas fir trees, and dumped the dirty water into pine duff. He wrapped the intestines like long wet snakeskins around both of his hands walked back with them to the tent. Inside, his great-aunt, Ceryle Alcyon, uncoiled the guts from his palms. She hung them, loop by loop, over the low wooden ceiling poles. Colias tried to imagine how that slimy river of skin would become the smooth tight strings on an instrument. He couldn’t.
            “Before all the work,” said Ceryle, cupping his chin in her hand, “you can read the intestine like a roadmap.” She drank a long swallow of cliffrose liquor mixed in cream from the morning’s milking. She always kept a bottle of it in her belt, pushed against her left hip like a new organ. Colias had a tiny sip when she offered it. He liked how just one swallow made warmth spread all over his chest.
            “It’s not like fortune telling or tarot cards or any of that shit—” continued Ceryle Alcyon.
            “—Aunt Ceryle,” said Colias’s father, who was outside the door, smoking the meat.
            “It’s just like reading tracks in the sand, or books. It’s a story and a map together. Look.”
Ceryle Alcyon pulled the intestine skin down and laid it out on the packed dirt floor. It was wrinkled, amber-grey, and so long it could have wrapped around the edges of the tent more than once if spread all the way out.
            “It’s like a windy road,” said Colias.

            “The guts know all the things about what the body needs. When they digest the grasses, they turn them into something new and useful for the body. They send the nutrients all back out. You can see all the creases from folds, weak places that cause stomachaches, they’re letters. When you kill your first elk, I’ll tell you what they say. And when you’re older, a man, after you hunt Tomales Point for a wild one, well, then you can read them back to me.”
            “Is it always true stuff?” asked Colias. He was remembering how hot the elk blood was when it splashed on his hands earlier, collecting some in the teapot. How the bull’s eyes changed when his father pulled the knife over the throat with a strong hand. By the time the knife reached the other side, the eyes were endless and glazed. Colias wondered if some of the soul could have gotten into the teacup, or if it all blew straight out to sea and into the fogbanks. He wondered if his father felt sick in his stomach too.
            Aunt Ceryle looked at Colias, and smiled a small smile that made her white widow’s peak raise slightly with her forehead.
            “Here,” was all she said. “Look how it kinks. Look at this little red scratch. What do you think? A sudden turn, a wound.” She put her hand on Colias’s chin again and laughed. “Let’s clean these out fast, before the fat congeals.”
            They soaked and salted the feet and feet of amber coils. Turned them inside out, split and stretched, twisted and scraped, soaked again in water mixed with wood ash, twined the fibers together like rope. It took days, checking and twisting and curing and cleaning, hands growing so used to the weight and suppleness of that long tube that they barely had to look at their fingers as they moved along the joints. When he closed his eyes at night next to the fire, Colias saw gut-colored pathways, strange and looping, on his lids. Those gut-pathways made him a little afraid of what might be at the other end, of where they were leading and what they might feel like under his feet.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Mountain Lion Living in the Middle of Los Angeles

Griffith Park, in the center of Los Angeles, city of cars and dry mountains, rogue and devil, thief and artist, where the ocean is blue and the beaches warm, city of a thousand contradictions, built up on the river-dammed water empire of western dams-- Griffith Park, only 4,200 acres, is now home to a mountain lion, named "P-22," after his wildlife monitoring tag. He descended the Santa Monica Mountains, crossed the notoriously dangerous 405 highway, and took up residence back in February. These photographs and words from an August article in the Los Angeles Times, are truly, deeply, moving.

The fact that he moved in to the middle of the park speaks not only to the cougar's courage and adaptability, but also to his desperation, hemmed in on all sides by urban landscapes. Mountain lions, particularly male, need up to 100 square miles of territory, sometimes more-- and they will kill other males who step over the line. When cities grow up in every direction around wild spaces, it seems to be move in or die.

This is him, P-22, as photographed by the National Park Service, in Griffith Park
And I must say, while I'm at it, that the following image grabs at my gut and makes me upset in too many ways to name:

The new logo for Apple's latest operating system, Mountain Lion 10.8.

On the most visceral level, this is disturbing because the precise location of Apple Headquarters— this twisted new Eden of technologies (blessing and curse at once, indeed, these new Apples we pick)— the Silicon Valley, enroaches more and more, with every new contraption made and business drawn to that insanely rich area, on the territories of mountain lions in the Santa Cruz mountains. This is actually of enough concern that the Bay Area Puma Project was created to study and monitor mountain lion populations there and throughout the rest of the Bay Area, in order to gather enough data to make an argument for the creation of wildlife corridors between wild spaces, so that lions don't become trapped in mini-wilderness-islands, like P-22, with, soon enough, no where else for their kittens to turn to.

Mostly, I don't mean to rant. I just wanted to share this article about P-22, the extraordinary cat who lives in Los Angeles. What a brave creature. The photograph of his face, staring directly at the camera, is haunting. It cuts right into your heart.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

That Blue and Falling Away Coast, and the Tree Roots that Talk There

I am back home now, in the hills overlooking the San Francisco Bay, with fog at our doorstep in the morning, the light getting long and golden, the towhees chasing each other along the fence tops. But I wanted to share a bit more of the deep blue wildness of the Canadian Gulf Islands, and the big one, Vancouver Island, so stunning to look down upon by airplane as I left that it almost made me cry-- green ridge beside green ridge beside green ridge, steep and sharp and feral, what wonders of plate tectonics were at work there, I do not know. It is land, falling away into ocean, cracked and patchwork, ragged-edged, tree-thick, still wild. 

The water between the mainland and Vancouver Island is an deep and luminous blue. Orca-full, seal-slick, a blue deeper than skies. 

On Salt Spring Island, smaller Douglas Firs and madrones grew right up to the edge of the water. I wasn't used to this abrupt transition between land and sea-- barely a beach, just a drop away into blue, where herons hunted and seals sometimes showed their selkie heads.

Our last morning on Salt Spring Island, bright and early, we climbed to the tippy-top of Mount Erskine, a steep climb through sunrise-orange madrones, then Douglas fir forest growing straight out of a luminous green moss.

Along the way, one or several blessed souls have created "fairy doors" in the rocks and stumps. When you see the moss, and the stillness, of this peak, you can understand why.

Walkers leave offerings-- from pennies to plastic trucks and pieces of gum. Perhaps they leave wishes, too.

Even the mountains were blue on Vancouver Island, as we drove up north in a little red car with a kayak on the roof, banana-snacks on the dashboard, and a cut-out photo of Callie's much-missed cat to guide our way.

Autumn came in on crisp cold footsteps through the blueberry fields at night, from out in the forest, in the fur of black bears, where she lurked and sang. In the little cottage where we slept (between blueberry picking shifts), we stoked the woodstove high and hot. My bed was really right next to it, and I loved the feeling of it being so hot I only needed a sheet. Of course, by 1 a.m. or so I was freezing again, but it was delicious-- the heat of a woodstove, Canadian pear cider, the words of magician-writer Catherynne M. Valente to lull me to sleep.... I've never lived in a home--only visited them--with a woodstove, so perhaps I got over-excited in my log-feeding. But, truly, there is such magic to fire-stoking, fire-warming, the hypnosis of embers, that full-body heat, the gratefulness it fills you with for the bodies of trees.

Blueberry picking shanties were sung in the fields, and accompanied by Callie's concertina when the day's work was over.

The great rift in stone this waterfall made was staggering, breath-stealing, a white foaming roar. It's hard to sense the breadth from this angle, but note that the bare log is at least forty feet long!

There were pools of cold water along a creek on the far side of the falls, surrounded by Douglas firs and red cedars, mossy knolls and clearings that would have been the perfect place to sleep. Dipping in the cold pools of early autumn, your skin comes out smelling like firs.

They are big and old up here, turning most of the island-landscape as green as the water is blue. The bark of Douglas firs is a marvel-- rough and rune-etched, it is storied beyond comprehension. And beneath the ground, these trees are all touching at their roots, sending messages to each other via minute fungi who move along those underground pathways like thoughts. 

Suzanne Simard, a professor at the University of British Columbia, explains this tree-magic in the following video, which I recently found. It is stunning. Do, please, watch!

These are the roots of a big fallen red cedar, not Douglas fir, but I believe they entwine and send along their commands and their dreams in much the same way. The brain, buried in the soil with the fungi and the worms, the mica and the magma-songs of the crust. It is a holy place, I think, the basket of a tree's roots. (Of course, right after this photo was taken, I discovered I was sitting feet from a wasp's nest, after one flew up into my scarf and stung my chest-- they are guardians of the temple, perhaps...)

It is moving to imagine that one day, the Point Reyes Peninsula, near where I live, hinged as it is against the Pacific tectonic plate, only resting against North America, will drift and rift and buckle its way northwest, past Vancouver Island and its small companions. Perhaps it will rest against them for a while, in that deep blue place, before carrying on, north and north, until it subducts and combusts into the earth, below the Aleutian Islands.

For now, it is nearby, this Douglas-fir forested, coastal chaparral covered, elk-grazed and lion paced peninsula, and I believe I am in love with it (as if that needed stating!). To see new lands is a beautiful thing, but to find roots in a single place-- this is a different kind of beauty, a difficult and profound adventure, a life-long task, really. I'm only just beginning it.