Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Rabbit that Sat, the Coyotes that Courted, the Deer that Danced

On the early dunes of Limantour, in this window of winter warmth we have been enjoying just around the corner from Imbolc, that old seasonal celebration of the return of lactation in ewes, the stirring of buds and sap, the animals are out. I can imagine them in the waning moonlight and early dawn, busy. Here are a few traces...

The place where a rabbit-- I believe a black-tailed jackrabbit, judging by the size of this mark, though I may be mistaken— paused, lowered her haunches perhaps to sniff the air, before bounding off into the pale green dune grass.

 The tiny leaping feet of a deermouse, skittering in wild veering highways up and down the dunes.

The grasses and the hills soft with early light, like the body of some hare, some mouse, some coyote, some rumbling tender beast. 

A deer leapt in wild, sand-spraying curved lines up and down the beach, eventually circling back on his own trail. It was quite a sight-- unlike anything I've ever seen, and no sign of anyone chasing him. For the life of me, it looked like he was dancing in the moonlight, bounding for the joy of his legs. Is this just my fancy? Someone will correct me and say that animals never waste energy in this way... Perhaps not, but perhaps they become full of moon-joy too.

Two coyotes trotted side by side in a courtship dance, their prints almost perfectly in sync, sometimes so close their bodies must have been touching. Here and there, you could see a mid-air switch of paws, like they were kicking up their heels. It was the sweetest spiral-dance I've ever seen, I could almost smell and hear them under the moon, in the salt air, the sea crashing, their paws and noses all focused in on each other. I left a little braid of dune grass in a circle around their four paws, to honor their love this winter season.

Their trail went on for miles down the beach, like perfect runes of coyote-devotion. What a story. I wonder where they are now. 

And the little shore birds, snowy plovers maybe, made their own constellations by a salty pool. A whole Milky Way of them.

Meanwhile, the dune grass moved in the wind like a thick pelt, the willows and dogwoods still bare and red-orange as fox-fur, the animals left their footprint stories on the skin of the beach, and bending down to see and touch them was like some sort of devotion. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Elephant Seals Who Bring Winter & Rest

A few weeks ago now, the northern elephant seals arrived for the winter. I like to imagine them bringing the spirit of winter with them on their backs as they arrive, the females first to give birth to tiny dark babies, then the males, to fight and to find mates. I like to imagine that the seasons are carried in the bodies of animals as much as the bodies of planets and stars. As this broad fellow above, who has taken possession of the only flat, warm surface on the beach, trumpets his dominance to the other males, perhaps he is also trumpeting to the windy soul of winter.

I went on a pilgrimage of sorts, with my love, my brother and one of his friends, to see them where they rested (and rest still) on the beaches near Chimney Rock, on the edge of Point Reyes. 

Out at the hammerhead headlands of Point Reyes (which from a birds-eye view looks like the nose of an elephant seal!), much of the land is grazed by dairy and meat cows, so it is very green. Astounding, bright, life-giving green. If I were a deer, like this crooked-eared doe, this grass would be dessert.

The elephant seals rested in clusters along the beach. It is hard to see here, but the tight bunch in the middle I believe was comprised largely of new mothers-- each one had a tiny, dark, rumpled baby next to her, all of them mewling and hooting loudly. Their skins still looked too big for their bodies, wrinkled as wet velvet.

When they come to shore, they do not eat or drink for the duration, and so  must rest deeply as they nurse, shed skin, court. For them, these winter shores are truly the place and the time to go deeply and darkly in, using up fat reserves and all their last shreds of strength to raise babies to maturity, to find lovers, to set forth again.

I love their strange long trunk noses, their dark eyes, their utter release into sleep.

There is something so sweet and wise and ancient in that resting face, like he knows all the stories of the deep sea, where he and no other seal can dive, spiraling down and down in search of squid, octopi, profound and salty darkness. I wonder what he has seen, how far under he has gone.

We came across that sleeping bunch down by the old Life Saving Station, where men were trained to come to the rescue of shipwrecked sailors. During the early 20th century, when the station was built and heavily used, elephant seals were almost extinct, having been so over-hunted for the oil in their blubber, which was used in lamps, among other machinery and soaps. The population has since rebounded, but it is believed that all northern elephant seals alive today are descendants of the scant 100 individuals left in the mid-1900's. A great big family of them migrate up and down the Pacific coast, from Baja to the Aleutian islands, just like the Point Reyes peninsula itself, which will one day end up in the Aleutian trench, molten.

I don't know who lived here once, or who lives here now-- Park Rangers, I imagine. Whatever the stories, these are houses perched at the edge of the continent, deep in the fog and the wind, howling with the ghosts of hunted herds of elephant seals, lost sailors, lonely milkmaids, all the Coast Miwok men and women who wandered here before.

Here are a few scraps of footage of those dreaming elephant seal bulls, their testy competitions, and the harem of mothers and babes sleeping on the beach around the corner. Their hooting, croaking voices come from somewhere other and wild, singing of all the dark mysteries of the world, of the winter, and of birth. (Apologies for my shaky hand! This is a very home made little video...)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Brugmansia Sanguinea: the Fire at the Heart of Winter

In the heart of a cold coastal winter, these red Andean brugmansia sanguinea flowers are blooming, darker than embers. They are also called red Angel's Trumpets, and are endemic to the Andes, from Colombia to northern Chile, thriving at 6,600 to 9,800 feet, in the high thin air. A sacred guest in my parent's garden, from the southern part of this hemisphere. They are intoxicating to look at, jeweled and thriving. Several years ago, Simon gave me two tiny seedlings in pots that fit in my palms. He and his brother Spencer had snatched a seedpod the shape of a big green egg off a flourishing brugmansia up near Bodega Bay, and had sprouted several dozen starts. As a gift, I was given two, which I tended like a nervous and thrilled new mother, stroking their little green leaves and doting, sometimes even singing.

Eventually, I planted the two young Angel's trumpets up near my mother's herb garden in rich soil that, long ago, was annually flooded marshland. They thrived. Now, the blossoms are blood-red, fire-red, and deliriously beautiful. Just looking at them is like touching a dream; you can tell they are hallucinogenic, and treading the line toward deadly. Their hallucinogenic properties are very strong, described as terrifying by those who have tried to ingest the plants recreationally. In many indigenous South American cultures, however, varieties of brugmansia were and are used in ritual divinations, to commune with ancestors, to prophecy and to poison. This is a plant that undoubtedly requires deep respect, that calls up the deeps and the darks of the human mind and the realms of spirits.

The blossoms hang like red bells of winter, tolling in the cold and the darkness. "Angel's trumpet"; I love the holy musicality of that name, the image of sere beings treading the fog, blowing into blood-red trumpet flowers—saintly and utterly pagan at once.

This plant grows near the grave of my childhood cat Delphi, who acquired this thoroughly oracular nickname from his full name, Delphinium, which I bestowed upon him at age five, inspired by his blue eyes. I wonder if this particular plant is thriving because his body has seeped its nutrients nearby. I wonder if he is in the red bells, my first pet, never really mine, with his crossed eyes and his temper.  

A newer blossom, unfurling, damp with its own birth. The skin of it looks like lizard's, holy.

 Inside, many fires are being lit and tended into the long dark evenings, the boughs of people's Christmas trees (left out on the street for garbage pick-up) stolen for kindling. I like to think of the old tales, the Northern European ones of my own mutt-like heritage, and others the world-over, in which the winter sun lingers, like a dark red heart, for a long time each night in the underworld. The night, earth's shadow, holding that heart of fire, red as brugmansia blossoms. The winter, time for the dream-realms and stories that a plant like the red Angel's trumpet can bloom in the human imagination. The red bells, planted with love, growing blood-dark in the cold, open like a dozen winter suns.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Shapes of the Seashore: the Salt-Tangles

An old dear friend and I spent the first day of the year by the seaside, watching the stones and kelp-nests, the pelicans gliding close to the waves. I love the sound of the tide washing out against dark rocks, how they purr against each other. 

Ocean and wave-woven.

The dome-shell of an old urchin, like a battered and spiked planet, unmoored.

We found the mouth-beak alongside, where all the food goes in and all the waste goes out. What otherworldly lives these ocean-creatures lead. Humbling, purple spiked, kelp-grazing lives. Once, a healthy sea otter population kept these purple urchins in check, a balance of kelp, otter and urchin. Now, the otters are gone, over-hunted by Russian & American fur-traders in the early 19th century. The massive kelp-beds of yore are gone too. The urchins, wild little spiky creatures, are still about.

Sun-bleached urchin-spines. 

There is a perfect perforation of lace inside each urchin shell.

And the stones, silent on the shore, smoothed over and again by water, have deep and restless histories, tossed by tectonic plates, the living earth.

Kelp-fronds that dance like ripple-robed witches, all connected to some great and slippery umbilical cord.

I love how water wears perfect circles, perfect wholes. I'm not sure what it is, but they are immensely pleasing to look at, to touch with your fingertips. In old British traditions, I once read that stones with holes through them were good luck, for healing and fortune, made by fair folk. Maybe it is universal—to be pleased and comforted by water-worn holes in stones.

I am just madly in love with the wild coast where I live. A thousand thanks to it and all of its creatures this new year.