Monday, March 4, 2013

Magic at the Corners of the Everyday: Nettle Soda, Spring Winds, Early Morning Myths

It has been a green and burgeoning February. Much is afoot, including the green grass pushing and pushing up from the darkness of winter, though the rains have been scarce these past weeks. The new nettles are creating perfect spiky leaves, which we gathered together, along with some dandelion root, for wild yeast-bubbled soda.

I love the green but tangled chaos of late winter-- all the new growth is pushing up, but the old dead hemlock sticks and brambles from last year are still thick like pale bones.

The dandelion roots were bitter and sweet at once, and looked like wiry little creatures.

Some of the nettles went into a dye bath as well— I'm a bit more the mistress of dye baths than soda making, as they require that you let them only sit and steep and ferment a little bit. Alas I have no photos of the soda itself, which we drank too fast for me to remember to fetch my camera--a bubbly sweet rooty sort of flavor, more refreshing and rich than I can describe, like a tonic full of the sharp of winter and the tenderness of spring at once.

The mama tule elk are gathered together now in big female harems, the males off in their own bachelor groups, away from the pregnant cows, who wander the Tomales Point hills, following the oldest and wisest cow to the places of sweet grass, of water, of birth.

The winds are beginning to whip up foam on the wild beaches of Point Reyes, as they always do in spring (though we aren't quite there yet). The froth at McClure's beach was so thick, so alive, like pale green whipped cream, that when we rubbed it between our hands, my lovely friends and I, it made a lovely green face paint, which you see here, happily smeared across our cold cheeks.

A mussel perfect and shining and the shape of a heart. Imagine, if inside, your heart were so iridescent, so smooth and sea-worn and blue.

There is something so exhilarating, almost frightening too, in the strength of wind and wave out here on  the very edge of the land. 

The mornings have been cold and beautiful up in the little carriage house where we find ourselves living at the moment. I bundle up early, sometimes light a candle, make tea and write. It is a habit so deeply pleasurable to me, this weaving of tales early in the morning, as the sun is being born (or has just been born recently). The tea is an essential piece, and the fountain pen my love gave me last year on my birthday, which is now almost 1-year old itself, and such a remarkable tool. Sometimes I think it does all the work... enchanted thing.

Last weekend, in this white barn, out in the green cow-cropped hills of Petaluma, myths of true magic were told by the Dartmoor native, Dr. Martin Shaw. To sit in an old barn, woodstove lit, as a story of wildness and ancient magic is told by a man who can sing up the bobcat-clawed, fox-eyed, osprey-hearted truth of an old tale with utter grace—this is joy. I can't quite describe the feeling of opening up again, like a child, to the story of the Handless Maiden, of Ivan, the Wolf and the Firebird, of Dame Ragnelle.

Back in January, after the first evening Simon and I heard Martin Shaw tell a tale in the church in Point Reyes Station, I woke up in the night feeling elated. It was a feeling very similar to the night after my very first tracking class; I woke up almost in tears of happiness at the memory of side-trotting coyote tracks. It's something to do with touching your heart to the great wildness of the world, both self and animal.

We spent the two mornings listening to tales, the afternoons walking those tales out in the hills. I felt dreamy, wandering with the Handless Maiden in my bones, thinking of magic apple trees and undergrounds, of silver hands and the does who fed her from their own teeth.

The world took on a glow, delicate as moss, strong as the neck of a white horse seen in the sun across a perfect open field.

"We remember your face, we remember your face, we remember your face," Dr. Shaw chanted as we went off on our solo walks with the stories in our hearts; he meant the faces of the characters in the tales, the tales themselves, and also all the wild creatures around us—oak tree, gray-wacke stone, fence lizard, deer. There is something very intimate in that phrase, full of honesty; if we do not remember the faces (faces being individual, with eyes that see you back, even if they look only like cracks in stone) of salt harvest mice, of Ivan and Koschei the Deathless, Vasalisa and the Baba Yaga in old Russian tales, of black oaks and white horses with brown eyes, they cease to be alive to us in the world; we act in ways that are harmful; the animate world—story, language, human heart, fox— begins to wither.

My basket, full of the tea, the tales, the warm layers and bags for lunches, from the weekend; it pleases me still to see it, as if some of the magic of the stories and the wanderings came home with me in that basket, curled up like a mouse under my scarves.

I felt a glow around me the color of that mustard-field, watched over by a red-winged blackbird, which I nearly drove off the road staring at on my way back. Old stories, told to you and eaten straight up  by your heart, can do this...

And amidst all of these green wanderings, nettle sodas, green wind-beaten sea foams and tea-strong myths in old barns, at the meeting place between winter and spring, I have been hard at work on the very first Gray Fox Epistle. My lovely friend Molly let me come to her textile studio by the marsh, in an old greenhouse, to use scraps of beautiful old fabrics to wrap each tale.... I'll give you only a taste for now, more photos when all of my blessed and wonderful subscribers receive their first tales.

May the lace-white bones of winter and the new green magic of spring (how is it, truly, that a hazel catkin becomes a perfect, folded hazel leaf, bright green against a silver branch?) bless you all. Amidst all the frenzy of the everyday, the drives to post office and bank and grocery store, the gas and the plastic and the cell phones, which seem to eat at the corners of wonder, may you gather up in your arms the small beauties of green and old white bones, the scraps of magic at the edges of all of our worlds,  like forgotten and perfect lace, made long ago by capable fingers and lost in a box.


  1. Oh wow. This was such a treat to read and to see. Where do I even begin?

    I love the photos of you working with the plants, with nettle and dandelion, these bits of the earth that you transform into drinks & dyes.

    You and your friends are so beautiful, the clay reminds me of a scene in "The Mermaid Chair", in which the protagonist lays by a river and spreads the bank's silt over her body, as an offering, as a ritual cleansing.

    Perhaps this is what the hearts of pirates and fisherman and kelpies and mermaids look like...

    The photo of your candle and tea and notebook absolutely took my break away. I had to stop the impulse to run and light my own candles, as this is so magical and ethereal I instantly wanted a bit of it in my own home, here, now.

    And the arrangements of crystals and flowers, that's more familiar to me, bits of ritual all over the home now...

    I've just finished editing a scene in my current work in which Baba Yaga appears...

    Oh and the horses and the story telling and the art studio. All of it. Just glorious and wonderful and I'm so grateful you've shared this.

    Sending blessings

    1. Wow, thank you so much for your beautiful words, Raquel, it really warms my heart to be able to touch hands, so to speak, across the web ether :) I've been admiring your writings on your blog from afar myself.. such magic stuff you do too. I love the idea of the hearts of pirates and fishermen and kelpies looking like this foam. A friend told me once that sea foam battered and washed up like that, separated from the sea, is really the bodies of dead mermaids.. not sure where that comes from!

      Yes, you should light candles while writing! I don't do it always, as I don't want to use up the nice beeswax, but once in a while it's just magical. And actually the crystals and flowers were in the center of the room while Martin Shaw was telling his tales. We are between homes and so our stuff is all in boxes now but normally I too have little altars up, though they are a bit more pagan even than that one, with lots of feathers, bones, stones, scraps of shell... you know. :)

      What are you writing with the Baba Yaga?? She's such a brilliant myth-woman isn't she? Actually she is going to show up in my next Gray Fox Epistle too! Anyhow, I'm so honored by your kind words. Thank you!


    2. I've never heard about the lone foam bits being the bodies of mermaids. Sometimes they look very body-like, long and lanky, maybe that's why. I grew up on a beach so I had my own little reasonings for the beach-y occurrences. I once found an enormous crystal on the beach, quartz and pointed. Still have it, matter of fact (in my plant altar). :)

      I think I will light a candle or two the next time I write. Or probably now, while I edit, because I think I really need that magical support for this. Good luck with your move. I hope you're able to set up your altars soon.

      I'm working on a YA/crossover novel. The contemporary telling of the myth of Demeter and Persephone. With loads of archetypes and characters from other tales visiting in the plot. Baba Yaga was unplanned and I did find her to be brilliant, honest, wise. My husband, who's read the rough draft, found her to be incredibly frightening which I think she is to many, even I have to admit she's intimidating.

      I do believe I'm going to get a subscription of the Gray Fox Epistles for my birthday. As well as a new tattoo!

      Blessings, blessings always

    3. Yes, editing seems an even better time to light a candle, actually. :) I hate editing. I hate even typing anything up that I've written. I think I'm lazy and would like really to dwell always in my notebook with my fountain pen, spinning and spinning. But part of the work and the craft of writing tales is this editing process, isn't it? It sounds like you are already wisely and deeply treading that path, I commend you! I have a novella I wrote back in August, in this delicious four week spilling-- a lot of it was written in the closet of our little house because there was nowhere else to go to be alone. (Really it was a pantry, so I wrote and wrote with tea and the rice and beans behind me!) And truth be told, I've done no major revisions since.... you've inspired me. I'm going to buckle down.

      And your YA novel sounds fabulous!! Will you post excerpts? :)


  2. Oh, Sylvia, beautifully written, as usual. Such a treat to end the day.

    Tea - is my great companion too - I drink a lot of it.

    Nettles yum! I'll have remember to look for nettles when I go into the woods next time.

    BTW I hear an owl as I am writing this..........

    Love - V

    1. thank you for visiting dear Vino, & glad you enjoyed. Yes yes to tea. The nettle soda was soooo good. Planning maybe a nettle souffle next... easy, and yum! xox

  3. Enchanting post, Sylvia!
    Thank you.

  4. Dear Sylvia,
    Your blog is such a beautiful, wild, and kind place. I love reading your gracefully woven posts and can only wish and practice so that maybe one day I can write as beautifully as you do. Pure magic!
    I too am a fermentation enthusiast and would be so, so grateful if you posted the recipe for nettle soda. Thank you kindly and all the best from under a heap of snow :)

    1. I'm honored by your words Tanja, they touch my heart! Yes, the nettle soda was delicious, though it was my partner Simon, and not me, who was the master of it! Still, I watched and helped stir and strain things-just nettles heated up and then dandelion roots thrown in later (so it didn't get too bitter), sugar, champagne yeast. Must be careful when you bottle because if you leave it out too long the whole thing can explode. Thanks for visiting!

  5. Thank you, dear Sylvia. Can' wait for the first shoots of nettles and oh, dandelion how I miss it in salads! But over here, there's still so much snow...melting finally under the warm March sun. Have a relaxing weekend,