Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Patchwork of Summertime

Here are some scraps from the quilt of my summer, from days of heat and then of fog, light evenings even in the forest, the bounty of this dry-land, gone already to its drought-season, with the buckeyes starting to loose their leaves.... These are some highlights, some patchwork-bits of joy, amidst the everyday ups and downs that we all sail. I am trying to make a practice of honoring said everyday joys, and the great peace that comes of making small things by hand—medicine, felt, knitting—instead of getting too caught up in the whirlwind-stress of to-do's and emails and deadlines and rent-checks, which I am not often so good at...! So, a few quilt-squares:

A pile of Gray Fox Epistles, with a cup of tea, ready to be made into beautiful parcels out on the back deck in the firwood, where the pacific wren watches with his gnome-elf face and the woodpeckers cackle and drum.

A tall jar of Bavarian cough syrup, which I learned to make from herbalism teacher Catherine Abby Rich— layers of lung herbs for winter, from comfrey to plaintain to sage to redwood tips to mullein leaves, hyssop, rosemary, bougainivillea, with brown sugar and lemon slices between.

A handsome quail-man singing in the coastal scrub of Point Reyes, showing us his beautiful top-knot.

A precious nest of goldfinch eggs tucked deep into the coyote brush, while on a mission with fellow trackers to find signs of the elusive Point Reyes Mountain Beaver. I got teary at the tender miracles of those eggs, and apologized profusely to the mother goldfinch who I accidentally (like a good blundering human) scared off her nest. I do so dearly hope those beautiful eggs are now healthy and hatched to sweet young goldfinch souls learning the ways of the goldfinch-world.

Huge artichoke-thistle head bigger than my hand, what purple to lose your heart to!

A smooth-wheeled cart amidst the yellow cats-ear flowers...

near a friend's little cottage where my brother recorded his own album out in the Chileno Valley of cow and gold-hill and wind.

Circles of redwood trees, to lay amidst, back to earth, hair full of needles, dizzy in the spires of those trunks.

Another story-case for Epistles, coyote-brush dyed, tied up with velvet ribbon.

And perhaps the most exciting thing of all (to me!), my very first batch of elderberry elixir, from an elder tree down the road, elderflowers up the hill and over the ridge, honey, and brandy, made from the recipe of the magnificent Kiva Rose.

But then of course there are the blackberries, ripe a tad early this year. My love and I went berry-gathering a few days ago, and stayed out in the thickets till evening fell, in that most delicious of blackberry trances, so focused on the black sweet sun-full fruits under our fingers, the thorns, the next bunch almost in reach, that the whole world fell away and we were only this— body, breath, laughter, berry-juice, thorn-scratch, transcendent sweetness on the tongue. Really, what could be better? Really, what does a body crave more of a summer eve than to stand in the berries, hands out, fingers a whirlwind of picking, mind at ease?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Wild Talewort

In celebration of the 6-month mark of my Gray Fox Epistles, Wild Tales By Mail, project, I've created a new website and centerpoint for all of my "business" endeavors. It is called Wild Talewort, and it is the umbel that holds beneath it the Gray Fox Epistles, Leveret Letters, and any new projects related to the intersections between ecology and mythology. Below is the short essay I have written to explore the name and purpose of Wild Talewort. 

Also, for those interested in receiving the 6th Epistle this August 6th, please sign up by this Thursday the 25th, right here. 
Arthur Rackham: The Fairies Are Exquisite Dancers
Stories are medicine, and strongest when wild, like plants and animals. When a nettle grows wild in the wet soil near alders and a creek, in green-spined thickets of nourishing and fierce leaves, they are made of their own will. They are made also of the will of the alder, the phoebe who shat out their seeds, the young doe who carried them at her ankles. The nettles therefore have absorbed the medicine of the creek made by rain and the topographies of time & earth, the alders who fill the soil with nitrogen-dreams, the deer who pass and drink, the bobcats who brush past at dawn, the black-coated phoebes who dart and eat bugs off the water. Only a wild plant grown in tangled interdependent, fierce community can have this particular sort of medicine—the medicine of a living place.

Stinging nettle
Stories are wild when they come from the part of the mind that the Baba Yaga stalks in her house of gray fox bones on great blue heron feet through old fir forests thick with primordial elk right off the cave-walls of the Paleolithic. Stories are wild when they come from the part of us that is that dark firwood we don't always know the way out of, and it scares us. In that place of tree roots, owls, silver mycelia, we glimpse the evolution of our own bones out of primeval oceans and the bodies of primordial amphibians, and it shakes us further, until we see we are made also of stardust and planetary mineral. Stories are wild when they place us back in the family of things, back in the family of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, fungi, bacteria and air. And when they show us that our heart is its own watershed, many-streamed.

Mandrake root, from Naples Dioscurides, a 7th c. Greek Herbal
WILD—(of an animal or plant) living or growing in the natural environment; not domesticated or cultivated
TALE— a fictitious or true narrative or story, especially one that is imaginatively recounted
WORT—a plant, generally medicinal, often used in combination, as in motherwort, mugwort, liverwort

These are words with old native roots in the soil of primeval English, the language into which I was born and raised, the language whose mycelial fibers and taproots I follow and map each time I create and write a story from the wild place in my mind, the place in the firwood, the place where the healing nettles grow. Wilde, from Old English, of Germanic root. Talu, from Old English, of Germanic root. Wyrt, from Old English, of Germanic root, and, as an aside, related to that very word, root. 

May the healing of wild stories take root in our feral imaginations. It is my hope that the work and offerings here help to foster that uncultivated, undomesticated space in all of our minds, our hearts, making us better caretakers of the families of plants, animals and weather systems that share our backyards, making us better dreamers of the songs the land is humming below us all the time, no matter if we live on urban streets or in the open coyote-chorused hills.

Kay Nielsen
Follow along if you haven't already to the new Wild Talewort. Don't worry, the Indigo Vat will remain the same as ever. I just wanted to streamline & separate the two sites. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Mendocino Town of Occult Nasturtiums and Kindly Ghosts

My great grandmother Edith Irene DeVilbiss grew up on this Mendocino coastline, outside a little town now called Rockport (then called Cotineva). She grew up on a sheep ranch that ran down to the edge of the ocean, and rode through those coastal prairie bluffs with her long black hair flying.  Highway 1 went right through the ranch, with orchards on one side and a way down to the ocean for surf-fishing on the other. At my yearly family reunions, which are held about 15 miles south of Rockport outside the old town of Fort Bragg, where my father's mother grew up (and my grandfather just a little ways inland, in the redwood-rimmed town of Willits), it's always repeated that Edith was the best bareback horse-rider in Mendocino county, and the prettiest, too. I've always felt a special love for this wild coastline, and for sheep, and riding bareback, which I haven't done in many years... so maybe it gets passed on in the blood! As well as the obsession, from an early age, with Irish-Celtic music, story, animistic lore. Black-haired Edith came from a thoroughly Irish mother (both of her mother's parents were from County Cork Ireland), and a French-Swiss-rooted dairy farming father... perhaps it makes sense!

I have been reading a most brilliant novel by Brian Doyle called Mink River, set in a small coastal town in Oregon. It is pure magic, something like Dylan Thomas's Under Milkwood, which is one of my favorite things, period, but in a landscape very similar to the wild northern coasts of California (all except for the redwoods, which are only through the very southern tip of Oregon. But the alders, the Douglas firs, the thimbleberries, the salmon, the black bears, the bobcats, the salmonberries, yes). And as I've been reading it in big delicious inhaling bites out on the back porch in the firshade with my morning tea, I've been thinking about the beautiful old town of Mendocino, up on the coast near where my great-grandmother is from. I was just there a few weeks back, around the solstice-full moon, for the annual family gathering, and spent an afternoon wandering the summer-misted town.

It has always felt so deliciously full of story to me, all these old structures preserved and nurtured into the 21st century, a thing that does not happen generally in this country. My grandma Teresa (daughter of Edith) has seen the town of Fort Bragg transform dramatically since she was a girl— a Chevron station in the place she lived as a child. The "old town" of Mendocino has been historically preserved on purpose, and thank heavens for that... When old buildings are allowed to stand, old stories stand with them, and places keep their layers, their many ragged skirts, their wild berry bushes. In any season Mendocino is full of vibrant blooming plants, because of the year-round ocean fog.

This is the kind of place I think of when I read Mink River, when I imagine the community in Under Milkwood. Everybody held together by the seasalt fog, the gray foxes nesting out in the wild mustard grass, the ghosts of old covered-wagon pioneers and Pomo medicine ladies roaming the cemetery at dawn.

I imagine little girls making stews of nasturtiums in the side-garden and playing make-believe: that heart-hole in the fence, if you look through it you'll see a fortune teller wearing a dress made of ocean waves; no you'll see a knight but he's also a coyote like that one we saw last week and his sword is made out of rat bones; ew that's gross, no I think there's a lady wearing a big fushcia for a dress and she has a pet bumblebee who flies next to her and knows all the gossip of the whole town. Mm, says the other girl, that's nice.

And here, at the bakery, the owner has put up sheets instead of curtains because she likes how crisp and  sturdy old cotton bedsheets are, the kinds made by hand half a century or more ago. And really behind those curtains though it appears she is only making croissants and morning buns and scones she is in fact also, in the wee hours when only a baker is awake and the whole town dark and quiet so that the sound of the ocean is very big, she is also making little dolls out of dough for each person in the town, piece by piece finding the right scraps and berries and thorns to make them with. Not to poke with pins and cause pain, no, but to heal them, to keep people from getting sick. And so for a whole generation, nobody does, not a even a cold...

In the peaked tower above the health food store, which is housed in the red chapel, lives a family of mourning doves and the ghost of a little orphan boy named Samuel whose father was a logger. Samuel has a ghost-pet, a marten, from the big old growth forest where his dad worked and took him out one day, the day of the Accident. Samuel is a nice ghost, though his marten sometimes goes out at night and steals pieces of people's slumber, so for a moment their dreams are full of the sharp crack-snap endlessness of an ancient redwood, falling and falling. Samuel likes the sad cooing of the doves, and the doves like how gentle his hand is when he touches their feathers, just like fog.

There's a boy in the highschool, his name is David, and he won over the prettiest girl, the quiet one always down at the ocean at lunchtime, who none of the other boys could figure out, though they thought she was quite nice on the eyes, and made jokes about her, because one day he stole a whole bowl full of these delicate white fuschias from outside the fancy jewelers where only tourists went, and strung them into a crown clumsily with his mom's thread and a needle, and gave it to her. Well, they called him a sissy after that, the boys did, during gym class, but David knew he was the luckiest out of all of them.

Of course those boys are the same ones who make jokes about the wooden lady's round breasts. Little do they know, as they smoke cigarettes and share a bottle of whisky in a paper bag roaming the empty streets at 3 am, while the baker, unbeknownst to anyone, is baking little perfect dolls of every last person, that the wooden lady can actually hear them, and is laughing to herself. Little do they know that she could consume each one of them with a single kiss, if she were only human. Instead, she busies herself eavesdropping on the guests who come to stay below her perch in the remnant watertower. She has picked up a lot of stories by now, and even more arguments, but if you stopped to ask her, she would only tell you of the very bawdiest or the most tragic.

Meanwhile, the matilija poppies are opening into the heat, the fog, the heat again, flanked by the blue islands of borage flowers. These poppies have much medicine in their bodies for sunburns, for rashes, for soothing any irritation in the inner and the outer skin...They are languishing under the feet of bumblebees. They are carrying on the honey of the world. They are trading old recipes and secrets with the foxgloves, whose knowings are sharp with poison, and vast as the orbits of planets.

The blue house at the edge of the town sits quiet and patient. Nightly he is lapped by ocean fog, and is often re-painted because of the salt-damage. Personally he prefers to be peeling and crystalline. That way little insects come to live under the peeling paint and then small birds follow to eat them, chipping, talking to him. He enjoys when the woodstove is lit in winter, and when the little feet of children run across the wood floors, or when they leave nose-smudges on the windows, or drawings made with fingers when steam from the kitchen has fogged up the glass. 

And finally, the ocean beyond the wild radish and hemlock, she sings nightly, she sings daily, her big waves full of foam and driftwood and kelp and the cosmological theories of sea lions, who have quite a lot of knowledge about the deepest depths. She holds the town in her fog, she gets into everybody's minds when they are falling asleep, her salty ancient tunes, her old crab-riddle heart.

*   *   *

It is good fun to wend and weave and sing my imagination through this old town I've visited so often since I was a little girl. Perhaps my great-grandmother Edith is singing there too, in my blood. When we start to imagine each thing as somehow living, even houses and streets and pieces of wood, each thing with its own stories, the whole landscape around us becomes so very magical, and very enlivening to the heart and mind, because I think we long to be in conversation with the whole world around us, and not just with ourselves, in our heads!

Friday, July 12, 2013

New Publication: Else This Nothing Ever Grows

On this crisp lovely July morning in the fir-wood, I am very pleased to share with you all that a long and magical tale of mine, called "Else This, Nothing Ever Grows," is now up for all to read at Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  This story is full of grizzlies, Sierra Nevada peaks, strange geologic trolls...

Chiura Obata, Upper Lyell Fork, 1930
I love Obata's dreaming-crisp Japanese-style paintings of the Sierras.
They truly capture the magic of the alpine slopes and shadows.
The aliveness of stone.
I wrote this story over a year ago, in scraps of early, dark mornings while working at a publishing company. It was the only time of day I had to write, with my black tea and milk cradled in my lap, and it was delicious. So I have a great soft spot for this wild story set in the cold-tipped Sierras, as it was this ribbon, blue and velvet, through all my mornings. It is a re-telling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon, the polar bear turned to a grizzly... About a year ago I posted a clip of myself reading the beginning of the story, which then I imagined making into a puppet show. Who knows, maybe I still will, in some fashion!

Anyhow, do pop over and enjoy!

East of the Sun, West of the Moon, Kay Nielsen

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Ringing the Songbird Bells

John James Audubon, Goldfinch

Mary Oliver

"Some goldfinches were having a melodious argument at the edge of a puddle. The birds wanted to bathe, or perhaps just to dip their heads and look at themselves, and they were having trouble with who should be first, and so on. So they discussed it while I stood in the distance, listening. Perhaps in Tibet, in the old holy places, they also have such fragile bells. Or are these birds really just that, bells come to us—come to this road in America— let us bow our heads and remember how we used to do it, say a prayer. Meanwhile, the birds bathe and splash and have a good time. Then they fly off, their dark wings opening from their bright yellow bodies; their tiny feet, all washed, clasping the air."

John James Audubon, Junco

This morning, in the heat of the fir woods, the bird song feels just like bells, high and trilling, like the juncos above, quick and rasping, sweet, rough... but all of it together, in the early sun, makes the holiest of churches, bells with tiny fast hearts ringing all around, enough to make you weep for the miracle of a songbird. And yes, what small, what perfect, feet.

John James Audubon, Chickadee