Friday, August 30, 2013

Little Treasures from the Dry Ridgetop

I took a walk on the East Blithedale Ridge today, a long loop with just my feet and water and an apple, an old route once, I daresay, and Indian footpath, now a fireroad. It was a walk we used to take often when I was a child, coast live oak lined, steep and sunny dry chaparral, that smell of dusty bay-spiced Mt. Tamalpais. I'm housesitting for my parents for a few days, wandering the streets of Mill Valley and getting sweet nostalgic whiffs of old memories in the lanes, roads such as Catalpa and Sycamore that have much meaning in my heart. Up on the ridge, my dad and brother and I would go in the evenings with the dog before dinner and look at the mountain or the stars coming out. Feeling overwhelmed, I often went up there and lay down in the redwood needles. Home from college, having missed the smell of redwoods (down the north facing slope), the color of bay leaves, the shape of the oaks (on the south facing slope), so much, I would walk almost in tears with my parents on the little footpaths during winter break. 

Now, the madrones are peeling off their bark, the coast live oaks are shedding a few (though never all) leaves along with some unripe beautiful acorns (I have so many memories of getting poked by their spiny edges barefoot as a child!), the bays are dropping a few (but never all) of their spicy leaves, a bird, perhaps a small accipiter such as a cooper's hawk, left behind a feather. I learned just yesterday that madrones actually photosynthesize through their (delicious, satiny) bark. Those trunks that curve like muscles, like arms, are sugar-making factories from stem to stern! And the bark peels off to protect the tree from pests and unwanted fungi (making scrolls that I always used to imagine, and still do, belonged to small dark beings on the backs of chipmunks or riding the dark blue wings of the jays). Magic.

These little treasures are scraps of the coming autumn, the shift in season into the depths of drought and out the other side. They are runes— Acorn, Usnea, Madrone Bark, Spiny Oak Leaf— of this move toward harvest, toward softer light.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Symbols for Breakfast: Umbrella

These days, I've been starting my morning with a strong cup of tea, a good dose of birdsong, and then an entry from The Book of Symbols, a marvelous compendium of image and word, a great tome of Apron, Umbrella, Ladder, Dove, Demon, Fog, Liver, Crossroads, put out by Taschen and the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism. Still half in dreams, I skim and read and settle and then I write some strange little story-start. I thought now and then I'd share a few with you.

The Umbrellas, Renoir

In the spring in the slanted old city by the marsh there were sudden deluges and the streets ran like rivers. The sky filled, dark, and the air started to smell wet with the freshness of damp sycamore leaves. Then it came, the rain, big and soaking. The river that curved through the city held in by stone walls that made a cement cradle puckered and spiraled with drops. You could tell a lot about a person by how they responded—running in frustration to get inside, laughing, sucking the water from their hair, continuing to walk, umbrella-less, grinning, feeling their shoes soak. In the sudden storms of spring, the Umbrella-People emerged at every street corner with chipped wheeled carts—blue, red, yellow—pulled by patient and wet mountain goats, full of cheap umbrellas. The kind that would get you to a business meeting but then break a few hours later, blown permanently inside out, a spidery silver spoke unhinged. They carried racks of the cheap ones up and down the wet sidewalks, calling out their wares, receiving mostly irritated looks and every now and then a sudden buyer.

 In the carts, in a trapdoor under oiled sealskins, each Umbrella-Hawker kept several very special, very carefully and beautifully made umbrellas, in case the right person came along. The cheap ones were only a front, an excuse to patrol the sidewalks in the spring rains, swallowing waterdrops, watching for lightning, observing the passersby for the Ones Who Went Slowly Laughing Through A Storm. Such people came in all shapes and sizes, and they never came up desperate for a cheap retractable umbrella, only walked past with a mild nod. An old man in soaked tweeds and a hunting coat with a happy scruffy dog leaping beside him; an old woman loaded with a heavy basket of green-shelled walnuts and sesame seedpods, who set the baskets down, sat on a low wall in front of a limestone mansion, took off her knitted cap, and turned her face up to the rain; a sixteen year old girl in sandals and a blue dress, braids, who stomped in the puddles and held out her arms, sucked the water from her hair and was completely unaware that her young body was beautiful beyond reason through that wet dress, nipples cold and sharp, breasts high, thighs lean but round at the top, stomach soft and supple, and that several men and one woman had stumbled, sloshing soggy paper cups of coffee, or had simply stopped silently, watching her. She moved unaware of her own body, innocent of it—and what could be more lovely, just the same as a young doe walking long-legged and slow through a wet field at dawn?

For the Ones Who Went Slowly Laughing Through A Storm, the Umbrella-Hawkers shifted their demeanors, shook their aggressive salesman skills, became pious as streetside monks. They went to the wagon pulled by mountain goats and lifted a trapdoor to a compartment in the cart-bed. For the old man in tweed: an umbrella with a handle made of stained beechwood, like the trees of his childhood, wiring made of the silver-dipped sinews of white harts, the umbrella itself the fine-wrought skin of the grouse, which the man had spent much of his life hunting, and with great precision. For the old woman with her red woven basket of gleaned green seedpods: an umbrella with a cane of elderwood, wiring of the guts of lynx, just like the strings of the old fiddle she practiced twice daily, the umbel itself a quilt of onionskins sewn with raw silk from the cocoon of a silkworm, dipped repeatedly in beeswax. And for the girl of sixteen in her wet blue dress, a delicate umbrella with an unbreakable umbel made of the taut skin of a reindeer preserved in a northern bog who had died 4,000 years ago, when reindeer still roamed all of Europe, wiring made of nettle fiber strengthened with gold-leaf from the mountain streams where the mountain goats were born and suckled, a cane of rosemary wood polished and fragrant in the rain.

The purpose of these umbrellas, and the real task of the Umbrella-Hawkers in doling them out, had to do with a sort of evangelism, a secret religion, whose places of worship were tucked in odd subway alcoves and abandoned lots overgrown with red poppies and blackberries and skinny feral cats, the shadowed alley beside a ruined amphitheater, a bar rooftop with an unusually thick view of stars. What sort of rain those umbrellas were made to keep off, however, requires a long and complicated explanation, one better made by way of a tale.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Gold-Blue Winds of the Chileno Valley

Last week my love and I house-sat for a few dreamy days in the Chileno Valley, beautiful rolling dairy-cow land that is as gold as desert sand at this drought time of year. The little ranch house was close enough to the ocean (over a few ridges) that a soft hot wind blew almost constantly, moving the willows and the pear trees and bringing peace beyond words to our limbs.  I felt a little drunk on that sun!

Pennyroyal is growing like made right now in all the pasture-land, sun-glowing and fragrant little balls of nectar for the happy bees.

And the long sun seemed to turn each simple thing into its essence.

The silken scarlet of pomegranate blossoms in that late summer light had stories of Persephone tucked under their thick skins, stories of summer sun brought through into the winter.

At night the stars were thick and falling, and the Milky Way was clear. We live in the trees now so it was a great treat to lay out under that bowl of sky and be in the presence of so many stars. It would be a lovely thing to make a nightly practice of, turning your body up to the firmament. It humbles immensely, it fills me with joy.

In the morning ocean fogs lay down over the cows in the Valleys and dissipated as the sun rose.

The vegetables went crazy with glee at all that sun in their small planter boxes.

And there was a perfect bench for afternoon sits with knitting, or books, and cups of tea, or glasses of wine.

And chairs under the olive tree for more tea (a great staple in my life...), and more reading.

Calendula blossoms in the garden held perfectly the big sun of that land.

And the blue of the sky was total Blueness.

Lizards sunned themselves like we did and their tiny babies darted out regularly near our feet, small summer dragons. 

Living in the forest and the shade a lot of the time, it is amazing how a good dose of sun and open blue sky can fill you up, make you feel just like the calendula flowers and pomegranate blossoms and squash blossoms and olive trees: open and fruitful and all aglow. Sometimes at this time of summer when all the hills are so dry and easily catch fire and many trees and bushes are dormant (such as the chaparral plants), I start to get impatient for autumn, for the fertile forces of rain and the coming cold, which I love. However, I am so grateful for those few days in the Chileno Valley, for they steeped me fully in the slow glory of the drought season, which has its own pace, its own poetry, its own precious smells and hot winds and blue blue sky.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Catskin: A Chapbook

My strange watch-cog lighthouse-lit scrubbrush dairy-ranch version of the English fairytale Catskin has just been published in chapbook form by Deathless Press. It is full of vole bones and bobcat skins stitched with sharp needles and burrows through coyotebrush leading to underworlds. You can buy a copy here, on Etsy!

Here's what the publisher has written about the tale:

"If you smashed a pocket watch in the wilds of an old California, the cogs would take root with skeletal remains of wild animals and grow into this gnarled and sharp story. With an amazing sense of place, a fierce heroine, a sinister father and help from the Mistress of Bobcats, this is an arresting retelling of the classic English fairy tale."

Most intriguing of all perhaps is the Mistress of Bobcats... you shall have to fetch yourself a copy to see why!

Lynx rufus

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Rucksack Revolution, Guest House of the Heart

“I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of 'em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures.”

-Gary Snyder

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

- Rumi, from "The Guest House"

In the old tales, the world over, gods and goddesses might disguise themselves as beggar-gypsies, tatterdemalion and strange, and come knocking for a warm meal and a place to sleep. Opening the heart-home, blue as the divine sky, to the nourishment of the world, to that vision of eternal freedom and rucksack rambling kindness, letting in the beautiful and the weird, the roadkill skunks and the graceful does alike.

"Nature is not a place to visit. It is home."

-Gary Snyder