Saturday, April 19, 2014

Poetry In the Beaks of the Woodpeckers

"Sun, moon, mountains and rivers are the writing of being, the literature of what-is. Long before our species was born, the books had been written. The library was here before we were. We live in it. We can add to it, or we can try; we can also subtract from it. We can chop it down, incinerate it, strip mine it, poison it, bury it under our trash. But we didn't create it, and if we destroy it, we cannot replace it. Literature, culture, pattern aren't man-made. The culture of the Tao [the path, the street, the natural inevitable Way] is not man-made, and the culture of humans is not man-made; it is just the human part of the culture of the whole.

"When you think intensely and beautifully, something happens. That something is called poetry. If you think that way and speak at the same time, poetry gets in your mouth. If people hear you, it gets in their ears. If you think that way and write at the same time, then poetry gets written. But poetry exists in any case. The question is only: are you going to take part, and if so, how?

"Poetry is what I start to hear when I concede the world's ability to manage and to understand itself. It is the language of the world: something humans overhear if they are willing to pay attention, and something that the world will teach us to speak, if we allow the world to do so."

-Robert Bringhurst, from his beautiful essay"Poetry and Thinking," in The Tree of Meaning

The first time I read this essay, it took my breath away. It hit me right in the heart--poetry, as the Way or the Language of the living wild world. Poetry is what I see and then what moves in me because of the beauty or the bigness or the mystery of the life around me. Bringhurst explores in the beginning of the piece how the word "poetry" comes from the Greek verb meaning "to do" or "to make. He writes:

"Does this imply that poetry is made by human beings? That it only exists because of us? I think, myself, that making and doing are activities we share with all other animals and plants and with plenty of other things besides. The wind on the water makes waves, the interaction of the earth and the sun and moon makes tides, sun coming and going on the water and the air makes clouds, and clouds make rain, and the rain makes rivers, and the rivers feed the lakes and other rivers and the sea from which the sun keeps making clouds, and there is plenty of poetry in that, whether or not there are any human beings here to say in iambic pentameter or rhyming alexandrines that they see it and approve" (page 141, The Tree of Meaning).

I love this idea. I love the feeling it brings into my whole body and mind: that poetry is somehow the very dance of life around us; that poetry is the bracken fern unfurling a fiddlehead, the grass and its bright green, the Douglas firs and their new tips; the stars and the fog and the moon moving over my head while sleeping out in the down-sleeping bag, sheathed in wool (to be fair, regarding said sleeping-under-the-stars, I ended up moving under the oaks before dark because the fog was thick and the trees keep you nice and dry, but in the cushion of that duff forest floor, a different sort of night-poetry emerged: the poetry of the wee woodrat who lived in the tree, going about her nightly forage!).

I spent last weekend out in the big green hills near Occidental, in Western Sonoma County, a few ridges away from the ocean. I'm participating in a 9-month women's wilderness skills immersion program, and so around each full moon, I join a dozen other women on the land, learning fire-making and hide-tanning and basket-weaving, deepening my plant medicine knowledge, my understanding of bird language of animal tracking, all the while watching this one wild space transform through the seasons, trying to train my ear to its own myriad Poetries.

Below are a handful of those Poems, along with my  "Earth Constellation" sketches for April 12-13th — that cluster of blooms and bird-cycles, weather and mammal-song that together make up the poem of a place under a particular moon. I suppose these journal scribblings and watercolorings are an attempt to gesture toward the Poetry of What-Is.

Wild turkey feathers scattered clean over the ground, the leftovers of some nourishing meal. There were very fine scratch marks on some of the feathers, not photographed alas, which put me in mind of a bobcat--razor-thin, about the width of a stretched cat-paw. The next morning, the turkeys in their tree roosts woke us with their bouncing gobble-songs. How sweet, to wake up laughing at the laughter of turkey calls, how they sung out the dawn almost before any other bird, their big voices carrying far down the hills to other woods, where other turkey voices joined in. 

The fresh throw-mound of a gopher and her tunnel entrance, round as a dark moon. I'm not sure I've ever come across a tunnel as fresh as this one. The earth was a little bit warm and damp, lush as fresh cacao nibs, deliciously aerated. A single tiny bulb of some little grass or flower sat at the entrance, like a gift. I was very moved for some reason by this damp fresh doorway into the earth, and so I came back with madrone flowers in an acorn-cap and left them near the entrance. I know--a gopher doesn't want to eat madrone flowers. In fact I wonder now if I scared her, because when I came back the next day, as this photo shows, the entrance was closed up, as if it had never been there. Gophers, however, do block up their tunnels when they are no longer in use--and the area was covered in many mounds of dirt with no holes in sight--so perhaps it was coincidental, and such a treat to see. The Poetry of the Gopher who brings aeration to the great rolling hills (along with her sister moles and badgers and voles).

Pacific madrones in bloom. This sentence is surely its own poem. I've grown up around these muscled, silken-trunked trees, with their gorgeous red berries and their peeling bark (I always imagined the fallen pieces were scrolls! And now I know too that soaked, they make a beautiful face wash)... but for some reason this is the first year I've encountered a tree so fully in bloom, so heavy with lantern white blossoms, that the air everywhere around was thick with the smell of honey and vibrating with the buzzing of ecstatic bees. Truly, this madrone intoxicated me.

Her tiny white-bell blossoms turned all of her edges creamy, a glow.

As I sat there in the curls of fallen bark, in the dry leaves of nearby oaks, having my lunch, beneath the great buzzing sound was this tender drop-drop of the spent blossoms as they fell, the ones whose pollination was complete. They fell constantly, a gentle rain, a honeyed snow.

Acorn woodpeckers cackling in their quick flights between old fir snags. The snags stand like ancient towers, riddled with little holes made by the family groups of acorn woodpeckers, where they stuff thousands of said acorns, storing them for winter, their voices echoing like clownish laughter through the trees. Here are there are the bigger, older holes of pileated woodpeckers, the acorn's more staid and larger cousins, with their regal red mohawks.

In studies done in the Puget Sound, it was discovered that the holes drilled by pileated woodpeckers created habitat for more than 80 other species of mammal and bird. I love this idea--the woodpeckers carving homes in the dead trees, and those snags as crucial pieces of habitat, dead in one sense, but utterly teeming with life in another, reborn at the beaks of birds, the little mouths of insects, the dangling glory of the deeply medicinal usnea.

Yellow and purple wildflowers a carpet that lifts the soul to flying. I don't know who these tiny yellow ones are, amidst the bluedicks, but sometimes giving a human name doesn't matter much, compared to the welling-up sun in the heart. And that meeting of yellow and purple-- oh! In Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass, she writes about her own love affair with the meeting of yellow and purple wildflowers--goldenrod and asters. As both a trained botanist and a Native woman, she tries to tease out the concept of beauty, how it might function biologically: "Bees perceive many flowers differently than humans do due to their perception of additional spectra such as ultraviolet radiation. As it turns out though, goldenrod and asters appear very similarly to bee eyes and human eyes. We both think they're beautiful. Their striking contrast when they grow together makes them them the most attractive target in the whole meadow, a beacon for bees. Growing together, both receive more pollinator visits than they would if they were growing alone." (Page 46)

The fog coming in from the ocean at night with the songs of gray whales and their young travelling north again in its salty arms. 

Closer to that coast, and a bit south, at the edge of the Point Reyes peninsula, under the gentle firs, the miner's lettuce, chickweed and cleavers are still growing lush and huge. The green tongue of the shade. Those succulent leaves are so green, the photosynthesizing chlorophyll seems to positively sing! How miraculous to remember that plants consume the sun, so very literally. I know it's obvious, but sometimes I forget the wonder that this statement really holds. Plants eat sun. So often I feel that this language of mine does not hold enough words to adequately evoke the muscled livingness of the world beyond-the-human.

"English is a noun-based language, somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent. Which means that 70 percent of the words have to be conjugated, and 70 percent have different tenses and cases to be mastered. [....] A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa— to be a bay—releases the water from bondage and lets it live. 'To be a bay' holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise—become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive" (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, pages 53-55).

To be a water-lily. To be a pond floating with orange-bellied newts. 

To be a golden-crowned sparrow, getting ready right now to fly far north to the tundras of Alaska, to build a nest of bark and fern and the fur of caribou. To be a golden-crowned sparrow, hatched in a pale-green egg in a bed of caribou fur, flying yearly between the olive and walnut trees out my attic window to the flowered summer-fields of the northern tundras.

To be the blooming avenues of cow parsnip. 

To be a coastal Douglas fir, velvet-lush with new green tips. 

To be a thimbleberry, flowering through the spring into the heart of summer. 

And so there you have it, a little taste of the Poetry of What-Is that has been moving through my days.

For those afternoons when it's harder to hear that Poetry, when the spirits need a lift, there's always teacake and tea, made all the better by a few handfuls of garden petals.... This is one of my very favorite cakes, a lemon-masa rosemary cake, found here. For in the words of the 16th century Chinese poet, Tien Yiheng, "Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world," and tea does go down better with a little slice of cake, after all...


  1. My dear friend, this post is a kind of poetry. In fact I am quite convinced that world as seen through Sylvia's lens should be a verb; something that means: wild and soul-filled and whimsical and ancient and heartfelt and humble and beautiful all at once. Spring Blessings~ Nao

  2. I love the scent of blossoming madrona trees each year. It always makes me envious, however, of a long ago friend who had an oil still. She could have made madrona blossom essential oil! And captured that luscious smell...

    Ah, well, seasonal pleasures will remain seasonal!

  3. Lovely. Just lovely. I am eating your words.

  4. Wow! The richness of this post!
    Thank you, thank you, for compiling such a wonder~
    And those gray whales---I sat on a mountaintop on the northern Oregon coast almost this time last year and marvelled. But I can't help weep for the ocean life, at the same time. What have we done? Bless them xx

  5. Thank you for sharing the beauty of HILLS, which make such a lovely shape against the sky. What a wonderful book Braiding Sweetgrass is, I am slowly savoring it, chapter by chapter. To be a writer as gifted as Robin Wall Kimmerer....

  6. and the world is more beautiful with you here with me...with all of us.