Monday, November 25, 2013

From Madrone Berry Hills to Rosehip Gardens: Reflections on a New Home

Last week on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay, where we now make our home, we had huge winds that rattled our attic bedroom and seemed to want to rip the roof off in the dark waning moon night. In the morning, in the farm-garden, as I call it, our yard a shared space as wide as the whole city block, with chickens and bees and fruit trees and tangles of herb wild enough for the bewick's wrens to deem them livable, many fruits and seeds were wind-torn from their stems.

 Here, above, are a few, and also a little picture of the diverse bounty of plants that grow in this rich piece of earth in the Temescal neighborhood, in the city of Oakland, in the mild California fall. I do wonder, since this home is a Victorian built in the 1880's, and the lot behind it so huge, so intact, if this is the original land still, which at the time the house was built had been flooded and reflooded with the rich silt from the nearby Temescal Creek, home to numerous groups of Huichun Ohlone Indians, for over 10,000 years (the Bay herself is only about 13,000 to 15,000 years old, before that a rich wet meadow land with the huge Sacramento River winding through to the ocean). I think of that when I put my hands in the dirt, and feel a deep peace.

We were so excited to move in that we came for a night with no furniture, and in the morning, I found a corner on the floor with my tea and notebook, and felt right at home.

Now we have filled the tops of bookshelves with treasures (and in the far corner, very important, a collection of bird books and binoculars for peering out the front windows with, where the bird life in the sidewalk tree is immense)...

And we have made many pots of morning tea...

... and outside in this mild November the kiwis swell, and I take cups of tea at midday, for a break, to sit with the green and rooting beings of this bit of land, to sit with the chickens and the bees and the old whisperings of the dirt below.

Inside these thickets, the bewick's wren makes his home.

The orange tree glows with hundreds of buttery sunset-hued fruit...

... and the tree dahlia, gentle giant who reaches a good fifteen feet into the sky, catches the autumn sun with her (now slightly wind-battered) pink petals.

Cover crops of peas and I'm-not-sure-what else sprung up like a green fur after the season's first rain last week.

From our attic windows, we look into the top of this tall black walnut tree, where a red-breasted sapsucker visits on the regular to tap his careful lines of holes, where the robins trill at dawn. At night, the stars of Orion move past the tippy top branches, and I feel blessed, and grateful, that despite the noise from the highways, and the busy roads nearby, and despite the asphalt and urban-ness that of course comes with moving to a city, that this, somehow, is where we have landed, with a black walnut greeting us each morning at dawn, full of birds.

Kinglets and white-crowned sparrows dart about the rose thorn vines...

... and along with the nasturtiums, the two make me smile and feel full and light, because they remind me so fiercely of my mother's garden, growing up.

A short windy drive up into the eastern ridges that look out over the city of Oakland, and beyond it, the city of San Francisco, and to the north of it, the Golden Gate bridge and the wilds of West Marin, takes one to a long string of Regional Parks (bless, oh bless, the men and women who fought to preserve this open space land, it is a great gift), including Huckleberry Botanic Preserve, tangled with rare manzanitas that grow all over Mt. Tamalpais to the west, but are almost non-existent on this side of the Bay. Their presence here has something to do with the soil substrate, and the violent geologic history of this landscape, and I can think of few nicer things than running my hands over their wine-dark bark.

From here, Mt. Diablo rises to the east, the Mountain of native Ohlone creation myths.

Shale and chert dominant the geologic-soil terrain here, and the manzanitas, magnificent hardy beings (who photosynthesize through the bark, let me just add!) slip their roots right through, thriving in the nutrient-poor conditions that most plants can't handle.

The hazels are already pressing forth tender, downy new catkins.

And the ground below the coast live oaks was thick with acorns, and prickly leaves. I could not resist clambering up the branches and laying with all my limbs dangling off, nose in the moss and bark, finding the support of the tree a balm to the busy city below, a blessed being who I am honored to be able to visit, and clamber through like a gray fox.

It was beautiful, and grounding, to connect in my mind the wild preserve full of manzanita, madrone, coast live oak and bay in the eastern hills above the city to the flatlands, now cemented over, where we live, and where, despite the odds, the ancient Temescal Creek still flows (originating, of course, up in the hills), albeit in culverts below ground. Even though it is harder to sense the connectivity of a landscape when it is covered in roads and grid-blocks of streets, in cars and restaurants and people busily bustling and working and not often going barefoot, when it is so obviously fractured, and in many ways bereaved, for me it is still important to do so, to sing out in my heart the stories below my feet, the stories exhaled from one street tree to the next, all the way to the manzanitas up the ridge.

Above are a few tinges of the red bounty of autumn from this new home— madrone berries from the wild hills down to the rose hips from the garden, and a sprig of bougainvillea from the streets nearby.

And so, there is an introduction to our new home, to the new wilds that I will be writing about and exploring here, not so very far from the fir-surrounded cabin we moved from as the crow flies, but a wholly new place at the same time, with new stories and new streets and a new sense of bustle and traffic. As the very wise and very wonderful Nao of Honey Grove Farm once wrote to me, living in a more urban place can force you to seek and find and cultivate the wildness in yourself and around you, to cultivate seedlings and to talk to birds and maple trees and stars overhead with a new need, a new tenderness, a new gratitude for their presence in the landscape around you that can sometimes feel very inanimate, very cold, very overwhelming. But if we do not also sing up the wild roots of our cities, seeing the connectivity of all land and animals, where, in the end, will we find ourselves, and how lonesome?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Wild Tales go to a Flea Market

Of a misty morning a couple weeks ago, I rose early and set out for a small parking-lot flea market in Mill Valley with a big red basket of stories, where for the first time, I sold my tales at a little booth. I packaged them up in a rich array of colors, and skirted them with stones and rosemary sprigs, old scarves and books of tales-- both fairytales and the tales made by animal feet.

I had quite a nice time arranging my humble table, and holding in my hands those big piles of coyote-brush stained story-worlds.

It did prove a bit tricky to try to explain these stories in their cosy envelopes-- what did you say you're selling? Stories? In envelopes? Right...

Only a few days before, the Gray Fox Epistles was featured in the local Marin Independent Journal-- what an honor and delight! Aha, people seemed to say with their eyes looking down at it, so you are serious!

It felt like a small corner of magic-making, to get to sit at a table full of parcels, each a mythic tale, each a tribute in some way to the bay mountain shadowing us, to the marshes down the bustling road, to the ocean and beach beyond the ridge, and share them with others in this way.  Personal, face to face--when most of the time I'm tucked away filling notebooks, or wandering through bay and oak and fir forest silently, watching the stellar's jays. And how much more direct can it be than that, the story-writer at a little table, handing out wax-sealed envelopes full of words? Well-- oral storytelling is more direct, I daresay, but a different wild beast indeed than this one...

 Now, all I need is a cape full of pockets just the size to fit Epistles, some sturdy walking boots, and a gray fox to deign befriend me... and a big red basket to carry them in, of course!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Old Friends, Troll-Folk, Silver Coins & Meeting the Sitka Spruce

There is one more story waiting to be told of my time in British Columbia. After visiting Honey Grove, and meeting new friends, and the magic of bees, I travelled back down the island to Victoria to visit one of my oldest friends and her mother and grandmother. Three beautiful generations of Danish, and Danish-American, women. We walked in the old wet troll-sung woods of Sooke, which were dark and lush and made me think of the woods of northern European fairytales, at once dangerous and deeply mystical, where trolls and elk and wayward maidens loose and find their ways.

A young cedar grew her roots like a many fingered hand, like a dripping candle, over the old grandmother stump of an old-growth tree. Root-magic, dirt and earth-magic, these are the purview of the troll-folk, who I see, in my own imagination, as the decomposers of the forest, not Evil, but actually very regenerative, and fascinated with new blooming flowers, new needles on the tips of trees, as much as the underground.
John Bauer, 1913

The big-leaf maples lived up to their name, bigger than our faces, great boats of leaves.

The moss and sword ferns sang out their damp songs into the thin October light.
Princess Tuvstarr and the Fishpond, 1913, John Bauer

The mushrooms adored this stretch of wet wood, like troll-altars, these bursts of fruit from the great networks of the underground mycelium, connecting each tree, so that they may all share minerals, and sugars, and their own stored sunbeams, through the ground.

I met a new species of huckleberry, the red variety, which you can see here growing tenaciously from the top of this old cedar stump, with a cavern quite big enough for all manner of underworldly creatures to dwell in.

Trolls and the Princess Tuvstarr, 1915, John Bauer

The path led us to a sheltered ocean cove, guarded by the graceful creamy alders.

Where we basked in the cool golden sun, golden as the hair of those northern maidens from old tales.

We gathered shells and rocks and examined the seaweeds.

We found grass growing on the tops of ocean-side stones, and wild rosehips, and the canes of thimbleberries, and the salt-reaching branches of the alders.

A speckled seal came very close to the shore, within a few feet of a log where Elsinore and I lounged and stretched like cats, peering at us, curious, hidden within the sun-sparkles on the water, just her back visible in the photo I tried to take. One of the seal-folk, she seemed to me, drawn in to watch us as much as we were drawn to watching her.

On the way back I ran my hands over the bark of the Sitka spruce, a new tree to me, with extraordinary gold-tinged scaled cones. What a marvelous feeling, to meet a new tree!

Stephen J. Baskauf (c) 2005
What could be more perfect than the miraculous shape of seeds, and cones, and fruits?

It seemed, as we walked back, that new mushrooms had sprouted up everywhere, creating small umbrella-lanterns for the little folk who traverse the great ridges of fallen logs...

...and the dark magic reds of the amanitas, a troll-favorite, no doubt.

When I write of trolls, and that particular sort of old dark northern European fairytale magic, I hold in my mind not only the trolls of the imagination, such as those in John Bauer's magnificent paintings here, but also the troll-energies of any landscape, those forces who preside over the decay, the dark places, the root-place where the plants are, at this time of year, storing their resources.

This is the time of year for the sharing of stories over long morning teas, or around evening fires, stories of the trolls of autumn, of the young maidens who befriend elk in the dark mossy forests, the old tales that chronicle some piece of this great seasonal round, the Neverending of growth, decay, regeneration.

Leap the Elk and the Little Princess Cottongrass, 1913, John Bauer
And so, back in the cosy warmth of Elsinore's grandmother's home in Victoria, seated on the little wool and sheepskin covered sofa, beside this most marvelous embroidered pillows, we heard stories of her mother's and grandmother's childhoods in Denmark, stories of lost silver coins and men who bit the noses of their tractors the way they would once have done to their horses, stories of northern winter darkness and stern aunties.

And isn't this one of the great deep powers of stories-- to bring us together, in warmth, in great old friendship, through the autumn and winter, to stir us full again with the wild magic of the world?