Sunday, March 24, 2013

Turning Our Fairytales Feral Again: at Dark Mountain

A new essay of mine called "Turning Our Fairytales Feral Again," is now up at Dark Mountain. Do come see! Here are the first two paragraphs...

"There are some stories that have weathered the ages. Weathered them, literally— from the mouth of an old man around a fire of peat, smoking until the story he is telling is black and tobacco-stained, to the girl who heard it and carried it with her out into the sheep fields, then into the city, working two jobs to feed her children, all the while touching on the strength of wild swans in her memory; from the ancient fire pit around which it was first told and shaped, maybe as far back as the making of bronze things, maybe just at the time the priests came and built churches, to the anthology of Irish Folktales in which some semblance of it was written down in the late 19th century, and the subsequent re-printings, slightly changed re-writings, the battered pages, the dunks in bathtubs, the days left out on the porch in the rain. We may call many myths fairytales, now, as if to diminish their seriousness; whatever we call them, they are old and powerful, when we peel them back. They are full of the magic of animals, land, and people.

Humans are storytelling creatures. We need story, we need deep mythic happenings, as much as we need food and sun: to set us in our place in the family of things, in a world that lives and breathes and throws us wild tests, to show us the wildernesses and the lakes, the transforming swans, of our own minds. These minds of ours, after all, are themselves wild, shaped directly by our long legacy as hunters, as readers of wind, fir-tip, animal trail, paw-mark in mud. We are made for narrative, because narrative is what once led us to food, be it elk, salmonberry or hare; to that sacred communion of one body being eaten by another, literally transformed, and afterward sung to." 

Come read more! (Cached version)

Look closely to find the outline of what I am almost certain is a mountain lion print, from a cat who wandered through the wild hills above Woodacre a few weeks back. We put hazel catkins in the toe prints as a little thank-you offering.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Inaugural Gray Fox Epistle

My goodness, what a whirlwind of magic it was getting the very first Gray Fox Epistle, a retelling of the Children of Lir, off her tender padded feet. And as with all spring whirlwinds of sudden blossomings (one day it seems the hazel catkins are dangling, the next furry leaves are pushing out, flanked by magenta strings), it is already time again to sign up for April's Epistle.

Here is a taste of the very first Epistle and its packaging. It was a deep joy to write and to bundle each letter with love and old fabric scraps from the magical textile studio of Molly de Vries. I cannot quite describe the meditative and tactile pleasure of these simple tasks: wrapping with fabric, stamping, addressing, sending.

Each tale sent to each one of my blessed subscribers was a small gift of wild words, old myths and the wonder of fabric scraps. Who says the experience of reading a story should not also be tactile in some way?

Molly studio is in an old greenhouse-barn by the mudflats, near the 101 freeway and its whooshing noise, but a world apart; a sanctuary. I stood for hours at that piled table, picking scraps, wrapping ribbons. It was meditative. 

Her studio is full of its own textile-tales and wonders.

Into late evenings and mornings I stamped, seal, addressed, lighting candles, listening to music and storytelling. I'm used to the writing of a tale: at sunrise, with tea, in the afternoon with the windows open, the robins outside, more tea. Running out of ink cartridges, changing them, eventually the long haul of typing up the story from my notebook, editing, re-editing. I've never had the pleasure of handling a tale this way, of dressing it up like a present, sending it off into the hands of dozens of other people.

When I dropped the first batch in the mail (bound for the UK, Australia, and Thailand), a little bit of my heart went into the blue bin with them, like seedlings you have sprouted and grown but whose blossoming will happen in the care of someone else.

I've made a hand-felted, hand-sewn "story-case" for my first subscribers; it is being given away to one of them, whose name will be drawn from a hat. I will make more in the future, on commission, for anybody who thinks they might like a roll-up-case for these wild-bundled tales.

The buttons are wild harvest hazel sticks, from a fallen branch beside a sweet leaf-blooming tree in the redwood forest just up the hill.

It fits six-months worth of tales, in hand-felted pockets, nestled in a scrap of Japanese cloth from Molly's studio, in an outer case made of a mix local wools.

What a magical month it has been; this project fills my heart and my spirit too. May the webs of myth-tale-letter connection keep growing between us! Thank you deeply to all of my first, brave subscribers.

Anyone who would like to join the caravan of fox-pawed wonders, do sign up (to the left just below the Indigo Vat banner) by MARCH 28TH to receive April's Epistle, a re-telling of the Russian tale, Tsarevna Frog.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Maps on Your Bare Feet

Recently, in a fit of restless pent-up fit-to-bursting-ness, right around the full moon (ladies you probably know what I'm talking about here), I tore off my socks, put on my little rucksack, and walked barefoot out the door to the redwood-trail just up the road. I had this strong desire to feel something under my feet, whether it was rocks and sticks poking, the damp cool of humus, warm pavement. I was full of memories of childhood, when I spent long afternoons and weekends barefoot in the back yard. I always stepped on rosethorns, on hard sticks, on hidden rocks. I was proud of my tough soles. Why would I ever want to put shoes on, scrambling through the garden, when I could have muddy feet instead? There is such wild sweet freedom in those simple memories, and it chased me out the door and up the hill, gleeful. 

I've been going almost daily now, up that trail, slow in my bare feet, careful over roots and stones. Something marvelous happens. Your whole body slows, like it is reading the ground through your feet, like the ground is speaking back up through them. They come positively alive, tingling and sensitive as your hands; and you'd forgotten they had such feeling, trapped in shoes and socks. When I drive past the redwood forest now on my way out or back home, and I look into the trees, it's my feet that tingle with pleasure. Literally, they do; they are now as I write.

Barefoot, smaller things come alive; the adder's tongue flower above, a new tiny green life pushing up through the dirt, the trilliums like fallen stars, the smell, oh my, the smell of the redwood humus, of any wild dirt, it overwhelms me with its sweet spice. It's almost as if your feet activate all the sensory organs in your body; they are a gate, they let the world in.

For the past year, I've been seeing an acupuncturist. To me, acupuncture is like a deep old wild magic; put a needle in a little tiny pore, it opens a channel in your body like you are a web of riverways, a great woven map, an ecosystem with each piece interconnected, from your toe to your nose, not just in terms of nerves and veins, but energetically. I've noticed that Claudia, my wonderful acupuncturist, always puts needles in my feet; that the foot seems to have points in it corresponding to your whole body. So I did a little reading, a little thinking, a little talking with her, after my first barefoot walk, and I discovered that of course, wonderfully, in acupuncture the foot is a map of the whole body. All the meridians of the body begin and end there, in great loops.

The feet as a map of the body
When you walk barefoot, the earth is touching the whole great labyrinth of your body. When I step hard on a rock and it hurts, I think of it as the ground's little gift of acupressure; I have no idea what organ that aching spot might correspond to, but perhaps it's the one that needs it the most right then. And in a broader sense, it is an exchange of energies, human body to soil, soil to human body, a language of contact that enters your whole being.

While reading about feet, I came across an absurd concept called earthingI'm not going to go on a rant here, about how utterly absurd I think it is to make a bloody business out of telling people it's good for you to walk barefoot, to lay down on the wild earth and just be. I think it's almost criminal to take it another step and actually sell little sheets and mats that supposedly have some of the earth's electromagnetic goodness in them, to use in the comfort and convenience of your own office, for grounding yourself. This, my friends, is colossally depressing. Do we need to be told this by Doctors? Has it truly come to the point where a walk in the woods barefoot, a good recline in the redwood needles and a gaze up at the branches need be called a clinically proven healthful activity? An activity that a person might make money promoting?

Listen to the maps of your own feet and see how it feels. I'm not disputing that in essence, these "earthing" promoters, aren't right; they are. It is deeply calming to walk barefoot against the earth. It's as old a wisdom as our species, however. I've found my barefoot strolls in the woods to be the most centered and peaceful time of my day. But this is not science, this is not part of a health regime; it's part of what it means to be human, the wild and lovely sensations of the feet, their grounded-ness, the immense peace that rises up through you when you lay down on the ground in a wood and let the needles get all tangled up in your hair. There may be some electromagnetic exchange going on, but dear god please don't go calling it earthing. Call it being fully human. 

The road back down to the house is a transitional passage; my feet can relax a little. It is also remarkably hard after the give and sponge of dirt. Everything feels louder-- the crows, the wind, the robins, my heart.

What magic, that there in those two feet which carry you daily is this great network of feeling, little maps of your body, the soles of your soul.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Walking the Chalk Downs

Over a strong cup of breakfast tea thick with sugar, Mick unfolded a wrinkled and many-times folded map of the surrounding countryside. He pointed to Avebury, to Savernake Forest, to the little cottage called Warren Farm Cottage where we were sitting, horses grazing over the fence, little chickens and geese making a racket out the windows, Aga stove heating merrily away while Heather made toast on its ever-hot burners. He got out a pencil, traced a way, explained a few landmarks and twists and turns on a route amounting to some ten miles or so, and we piled into the front of his bouncing red truck with Imogen the terrier in my lap, the map in the pocket of my black cape, some lunch in my backpack.

It is a winding tale, how I found myself sitting at that cozy table, down a country road outside the medieval market town called Marlborough, with the sister of an old British man who worked at a bookshop around the corner from the house I grew up in, and her husband Mick, six thousand miles or so from home. It was a beautiful journey, and a lonely one for me too, involving beds of soil to be weeded, raspberry canes planted, hedges clipped (they nearly swallowed me whole, all those thorns), sheep fed, goats milked, chapels in graveyards to be slept in, and also a tale for another time. 

Right now, I want to write about walking, and the gentle slopes of the chalk downs and forests of Wiltshire that Mick, giving me detailed directions on the worn out map, knows like his own hands, which have been cutting wood, building stone walls and picking bluebells on this land since he was a little boy.

We made a stop at the West Kennet Long Barrow on the way to Avebury, mist whipping at our hands, Imogen dashing off through the wet grasses on her old but quick little legs. It is hard to describe the experience of feeling such ancient human age above and around you, deep in the ground, where people were buried from 3700 to 2000 BCE in little graves and catacombs like the tunnels made by wise burrowing animals, such as moles, in the ground. The hair was up on my neck the whole time, truly it was, in that great and dark silence.

This is a stone cairn in Wales, not England, but this was my walking uniform everywhere I went, the adventurer's garb-- the Irish walking cape, all black wool, my aunt gave me for my seventeenth birthday (or thereabouts) which I'd been waiting several years to use for just such an occasion as this, lucky blue skirt from many hikes and picnics and nights under the stars at home, sturdy red boots.
I stepped out of the red truck at Avebury, on a little back road made of cobbled stone behind the site, thanked Mick for the ride and the map, laughed about whether or not I'd really make it back at all, the ten or so miles over rolling hill I'd never seen in my life, and off I went.

The peace of walking, and walking, on long straight gently sloping roads such as this, through great open rolls of country; it enters the bones and then the soul, and you are in a trance with fresh air cold in your lungs. The peace of walking, and walking, not knowing precisely where the turns will be, the newness of a path, a crossroads, a patch of wood, a little village--it expands the heart, even your very skin.

I can't tell you what I thought about, where my mind was those morning and afternoon hours, walking. This is not just because it was almost three years ago to the day that I found my red-booted feet and my black swinging walking cape ambling through the downs; I'm not sure I could have told you the next morning either. The land and the dirt roads seemed to swallow up my psyche into their psyches. I had aimless little thoughts, like ravens darting in and out, like fog. Mostly I think my mind was still, thumping gently with my feet, turning into chalk down, hill by hill. 

At that time, there was nothing I needed more than to be my feet, my walking legs, the cold air, the green tender rolls of hill, so subtle their motion and their shape came over you like a caress, and not my mind. I think there are times when we all need this; every day, in a sense, but there are also times in our lives when we need this very badly, like I did then.

Maybe the grey of the sky, the newly coming green of hills, the bare silver of trees, added to the soft lilt of my walking mind, my rambling feet, the dust and bootfall and cape-flutter I was becoming. I had a compass, a silver one my aunt (my lovely wonderful aunt, always feeding the adventure and the romance of my soul, even since I was a small girl and she talked of taking me with her to Egypt, where she had worked at an archaeological dig, riding camels, taking big old traveling trunks like they did in the old days) had given me for another birthday, another year. I had never really needed it before.

On these walks (two or three in all, I can't quite recall), I truly did need it. I think it was the only reason I got back before dark. I discovered that my sense of map-reading and direction wasn't great, particularly amidst all the slow-sloping chalky hills. I took half a dozen wrong turns, sometimes long ones down long wrong paths, and back-tracked, and asked the one or two souls I saw out on the roads for directions, a little nervous of being all alone, a woman in red shoes and a black cape with a silver compass, a sandwich and a bottle of water. Not much except my feet to get me anywhere, and the compass pointing north.

The paths led me through towns, the sort you'd never walk through in the United States, truly old towns that have always been passed through by these truly old walking and horse-riding paths. I wondered, passing through towns and out again, how long ago these footpaths were made; if there were traces of them as far back as four thousand years, when the men and women in the West Kennet Long Barrow lived and died, and if so, what stories, oh my, what stories their feet had told against the dirt and the dust of the chalk down trails of Wiltshire.

I passed houses older than the whole history of the city called Yerba Buena, (now San Francisco). The age showed in their sloping roofs, their uneven windows. I derive so much pleasure from old houses that are slowly giving way to the elements, that are slowly letting themselves be touched and moved by wind, by rain and blackberries, roosting doves and the mice in the walls. 

Walking through these chalk downs where for so long men walked their flocks of sheep, ringing bells, whittling the perfect crook for catching lambs, dreaming strange daydreams, maybe a little like I did, their minds somewhere quiet where the land under their feet started to seep in— robin, badger-set, woods where the bluebells would soon bloom—walking these long old roads from town to town and back to the little cottage where I was staying, this filled me with a very particular longing, one I've had since I was a girl.

I read dozens of books as a child set in some medieval landscape, European mostly, though some set further East, in desert lands or steppe lands or thick snowy lands. Always, people walked or rode the roads and paths to get from one place to the next. They had adventures every time they went the next town over, even if those adventures just consisted of a flask of tea, a sandwich, a new tree, a slip in the mud and a strange woman met by the roadside. Now, I know I'm being a hopeless romantic, an idealist; I know such roads were rife with highway men and bandits in trees, that a woman like me would barely ever walk such roads alone, that part of the reason I felt safe wandering ten or fifteen miles alone through the countryside was because barely anyone else walks them any longer, because it is novel and recreational. But I've always, since I was a little girl, wanted to get everywhere by horseback, with a picnic in my pack, or by foot. This isn't really convenient in the world we live in. Clocks, schedules, highways.

But I think about this a lot as I drive on Highway 101 (once called El Camino Real by the Spanish missionaries who carved it from San Diego through Sonoma, wanting a route to send the king's troops on in case the Russians, with their Fort on the Pacific coast from which they hunted sea otters, decided to expand their colonial efforts) to go see my grandparents, to buy bulk envelopes, to visit a friend in another city: imagine if I had to feel this journey, truly, bouncing in my joints, settling into my feet? What if the only way was by horse; what would I see? What would the air taste like, what thoughts would I have, how sore would I be when I arrived? How mellow would my thoughts be, compared to the frenetic static I feel in my head when I drive?

I know that when I walked from Avebury on paths whose names I don't know all the way back to Warren Farm Cottage, where Heather and Mick were having afternoon tea and toast, lost and aimless and found again, full of a pure joy when I realized that far down below, I could see the road to their house, almost back again, legs weary, stomach growling, nose cold and running and hair flying every way—I know that on that day, I felt very alive. I felt very truly human, in my walking feet, my sore legs which had carried me not on a "hike," but actually home again from Avebury, those sacred and mysterious standing stones.

That there are still paths like this in Wiltshire (and other parts of England), is a very special thing. Paths that skirt the human settlements but also take you through them; they are practical roads as much as they are recreational. They function both as beautiful lanes to stroll on, and routes through and around the village centers, older than any of the cement highways.

I spent the months of April and part of May in Wales, then Rome, but I came back again to Heather and Mick, my gatekeepers of this journey at once long and short, good for my feet and my soul. In May, Mick told me the best places for bluebells, and so I found myself walking again, looping through Savernake forest, utterly disoriented, taking random paths and roads, heady with the bluebells.

My thoughts felt different this time, in the woods and then the glowing iridescent blue electricity of bluebells; walking, I felt tenderness for all the new green beech leaves, I felt sweetness and also yearning for my love, who was far across the Atlantic and across the whole North American continent from me. 

My ears rang with bluebells, with the impossible yellows and blues and purples and greens that had pushed out of the land since I had been walking last. My eyelids were tattooed with the silhouettes of trees, my thoughts were leaf-shaped, bluebell scented, drifting like my feet in the green and the new mud.

When we walk a place, we get it into our lungs, into our moving bones, through the soles of our feet. Horseback riding, though four hooves removed, is similar, with that added layer of this whole being beneath you, breathing and watching and thinking as she clip clops along, graciously carrying you, skittering sideways now and then at strange noises in the bushes or sudden walkers coming around corners in bright clothing.

 My musing and rambling point here, through all these twists and turns, is this question of transportation and how it affects our minds and our souls.

I know it isn't practical; I know I'm somewhat unreasonable, a total romantic, completely useless with implementing anything reasonable in the world in this regard, but what if those highways you drive were empty of cars? What if they were full of bicycles, not just men in spandex logo-ed suits, but people just getting around, not afraid of getting slammed into the gutter by a speeding car? Better yet, what if they were clattered with the hooves of horses? What if the hiking trails over Mt. Tamalpais, which can get you from Mill Valley (where I'm living now) to Larkspur, Mill Valley to Fairfax, Mill Valley to Point Reyes, if you really wanted to, were our only way of getting to the next town? It would take a lot longer, sure; some days you really wouldn't want to make the trek. You'd have to expect less in a day; everyone would-- how far you could go, how much you could get done.

But imagine, the softness of your mind and your walking feet. Imagine the dreams of redwoods and robins that might drop through the crown of your head. Imagine the things you might see—a deer, a hawk, now and then even a mountain lion. Imagine the blood moving from your feet to your face and down again, your living body moving through the living world, sole to sole, eye to eye, breath to breath. It is a dreaming thought, a walking dream.