Friday, April 11, 2014

Sharing a Cup of Alder-Creek Tea: Of Wrentits & Cleavers & Old Sanitariums

Welcome to the alder-creek tea-room of my Gathering Time. Come, sit by the rush of the water, the strong sway of the pale alders, and rest awhile with a cup of assam and milk, while I unfurl a new patchwork, a constellation of earthly happenings, at your feet like fallen stars.

This past week, the sun came back big and hot. After a good drench of rain, the green and the flowers and the leaves are bursting. We leapt from spring to summer, or so it felt, in a matter of days, as often happens here in the languor of April.

It is the sort of heat that inspires everybody in this old Victorian house, and the house next door, to string up the laundry. (Our line is more shaded than these, alas, but still effective!) This sight makes me so happy. I couldn't quite say why; I just love laundry-on-the-line, like flags. And when you bring it in-- oh, that sunny smell, there's nothing to rival it!

Out in the East Bay Hills, the checkerblooms are opening fresh pink-striped petals,  beside...

.... the umbels of the cow parsnip, a favorite of mine. She grows so tall in riparian corridors and meadows near water, and often in big groups, like women with white umbrellas and strange green jagged hands. New cow parsnip shoots were peeled and eaten as a late winter green by native people, and those big hollow stalks were used to carry water.

The narrow-leafed mule's ear with its wooly leaves is truly its own fallen star. The Coast Miwok native people of Marin County, where I grew up, roasted the seeds of this plant (I imagine they are like tiny sunflower seeds), ground them and mixed them in to their pinole meal. The leaves, in a bath, will help relieve fevers (interesting, given what a sunny plant this is—as if it knows well how to deal with the fire of fever because it knows how to handle that fiery sun).

And oh, oh my-- the constellations of elderflowers, one of my favorite of all the plants--they are nearly open here! I have heard tell from herbalists a few dozen miles up the coast that the elderflowers are already blooming in Sonoma, and in some parts of Marin. I imagine this has to do with the rainfall, which has been (and always is) more prolific to the west and the north than here. There are so many microclimates around the great lung of the San Francisco Bay—they make up their own patchwork, their own quilt of many colors!

This sweet (and very reachable, for a person of my height--an important consideration!) blue elderberry tree grows just up the hill from the old ruins of the Belgum Sanitarium, in Wildcat Regional Park. When we lived in Berkeley, Simon discovered this strange and magical place after a long day's tramping through the hills and valleys near the Wildcat Creek, just down a little ridge from our home. I find it a very magical place, full of old songs and gentle ghost-memories.

All the structures have burned to the ground, so the only remaining hints of the story of this place are the gnarled pear and apple trees where cows now graze, like leaning weathered folk with the best of all tales to tell, whose fruits are not perfect and glossy but pocked and scarred and the sweetest of all. There are several palm trees, the single spine of an old stone foundation, and sages and naked lady flowers that seem to have been long ago cultivars gone wild. In an upcoming book I've co-authored for Heyday Books (The Wonderments of the East Bay-- more on that soon!), I wrote a chapter about this Belgum Sanitarium, and I give you a small excerpt here, so you can catch something of the flavor of the place!

"The Sanitarium was founded in 1915 by Dr. Hendrik Belgum, and remained in his hands until an enormous grass fire in 1948 threatened the house; he died in the conflagration while trying to put it out. The estate was passed into the hands of his brother Bernard and his spinster sisters Ida and Christine, and while a few of the patients also stayed on, none of the Belgums had any psychiatric or medical qualifications[...] In the early 1900’s, when the bay edges were still largely undeveloped, these vistas must have been transcendent. Dr. Belgum seemed to take the whole health of his patients into consideration, not only locating his Sanitarium in a peaceful sanctuary of chaparral hills and oak forest, but doubling the place as a sort of oasis-homestead, with apiaries, dairy cows, fruit orchards, a vegetable garden and a private spring. [...] It is said that local children who snuck around the edges of the Sanitarium at dusk (a delightfully frightening place to sneak around as a kid, no doubt, being full of reputed crazies) often heard eerily beautiful music on clarinet or piano or horn coming from the windows of the main house. Apparently Dr. Belgum held musical evenings with his patients on the regular, and he and his two sisters, who were often called “ethereal,” joined in the dancing."   

Though an old insane asylum no doubt has it's share of sadness and sorrow, to me there is something so nourishing about this place, as if Dr. Belgum's original vision of total-healing, from milk to fruit to fresh air to honey to a natural spring, is the ghost that lives on here, this sense that just being in the presence of open land (in a time--the early 1900's-- when the Bay Area was mushrooming overnight into a cutting edge Progressive-Era metropolis) might heal an ailing mind. Oh, yes, oh yes indeed.

Speaking of healing, another fallen star in the gathering-cloth opened before you here, as we sip tea by the alder-shaded creek: the hawthorns are blooming! This little shrubby specimen is located just around the corner from my parent's house, and only a few blocks from the place I grew up. The hawthorn elixir I made last August is from this bush. Because it is so near my childhood home, it holds extra heart-healing for me, extra nourishment, the loving hug of family, and so it is special to me to watch it through the seasons for the first time.

Hawthorn is a supreme and also gentle (to the point of being a  food! A completely safe tonic food) cardiac tonic, treating everything from high blood pressure to anxiety-related heart-palpitations. This is the old May-tree of Beltane, of the Northern European Maying Festivals (blooms later there I presume!), boughs gathered by young lovers. Young maidens supposedly bathed in hawthorn dew to beautify themselves. But there is also a more bewitching side to this plant, a fairy-touched hint to those thorns. It was said that even hanging your washing from the hawthorn tree might invoke the fairy wrath-- for their washing might already be hanging there! And some say that witches made their broomsticks from the spiny hawthorn too...

I like these words about the hawthorn, from herbalist Guido Masé, in his book The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter and Tonic Plants: "She is a lover, half-wild, passionate, full in her affection but vengeful in her anger. But she is also like a mother, older and wiser than her children, revealing the secrets necessary for a full and safe life. She holds the bookends of the most joyful season of the year, bringing in the May and celebrating the harvest with her great gifts. And if we embrace her, with affection and with respect, she opens our hearts and lets our feelings flow to their fullest. Don't underestimate her love, or deny her power. A true tonic she is, desiring little praise, but holding us safe in her gentle hand." (248)

Hawthorn the Rabbit was named well. One look at him bounding through the garden, one nose-nuzzle into that soft fur, has quite the same effect as those nine drops of hawthorn elixir!

The cleavers, or goosegrass, or stickyweed, have been popping all through the garden since our first big rains at the end of January. Now, they make veritable tangles, emerald green and climbing everywhere! What a robust abundant offering they are! I attended a spring plant class last Thursday evening, and learned of the wonderful lymph-cleansing properties of the humble cleavers. So I picked some new tips right when I got home, rolled them between my hands to crush some of that stickiness, to avoid the feeling of velcro in the throat, and was just astounded by the pea-like, watery, refreshing taste of this beautiful plant! It literally tastes of spring to me; it is a burst of energy-- and it had been clambering through the garden, offering itself day by day! I can't believe it took me this long to try it. Now, I nibble it whenever I pass through the garden, just like Hawthorn—he adores it, and slurps it up like pasta— sometimes bending to nip it off with my teeth if my hands are full. It also makes a very cooling wound-wash, and a refreshing tea.

From the attic window seat, I am watching the leaves of the black walnut unfurl, obscuring many of the holes left by the red headed sapsucker. I haven't seen him in a while, though I think I've heard him! I wonder when he will return.

In that windowseat, and out in the garden, and by our big front windows (with Gertrude Jekyll roses from my mother's garden intoxicating me with their perfume), I've been researching and note-taking and drawing and painting...

This spread here is a constellation of some of the beings out on the steep green land of Mt. Barnabe, in Lagunitas on April 9th, as observed with a tracking mentor and friend, as the fog crept over the far ridge for the first time this season, perhaps pulled in from the ocean by our days of heat. These pages are a hint of the seasonal gathering, the almanac making, that is to come... To leave you with another tidbit, though, this idea is brewing-- of earth constellations (term coined in brainstorm with tracking-mentor and friend, Scott Davidson): the groupings of beings that, moon-by-moon, make up the pattern of what's happening out on the land, the same way Aries, for example, is a grouping of disparate stars that has become this Zodiac-story of April, with supposed bearing on our lives. Don't the networks of plants and animals, blooming and birthing and migrating through the land we walk on, the air we breathe, grouped roughly by the subtle changes of each moon here (which feel each like their own season, in a way), have just as much of an effect on us, if not more?

A bald eagle winged through at almost eye level (due to the very steep slope of the hill we sat on, and its view far far down into the valley that leads to Kent Lake)-- breathtaking, truly, deeply, breathtaking.

The mourning cloak butterfly seems to just be returning from its winter sleep... and as I've learned, likes to tap the sap-holes made by sapsuckers! I wonder if I will see any come to this garden, and our black walnut.

And also, about the sweet wrentit whose bouncing voice makes my heart ache with the beauty of wide open scrub-hills it evokes, the smell of coyotebrush and sage, the expansiveness of a hill rolling down to a valley, I discovered this most wonderful tidbit:

"Wrentits are believed to mate for life. A pair will remain together in a suitable site, even as small as one acre. A bonded pair have been observed to snuggle up together at an overnight roost to the extent that they intertwine their legs, and intermesh their feathers; and, with their inner legs drawn up, they form a tight feathered ball (Erickson, M. M., 1948)." (From the Audubon Wrentit page)

My pages are full with notes about the wildflowers that are opening-- too many to keep up with! One of my favorite fallen-star pieces, gathered here to share with you by the alder creek over tea, is the baby-blue eyes. While wandering Potrero Meadow two weeks back with my love, we came upon  one open grassy patch between two fir-woods, unfurling thick with bracken ferns. Around the ankles of those ferns were more baby-blue eyes than I've ever seen, hundreds of little blue faces dense as forget-me-nots. They brought me down to my hands and knees, touching their delicate striped petals still wet and translucent with the rain from the day before. An enchanted place, that forest of tiny blue flowers. Then, Simon noticed a fresh hole beneath a tussock of grass, amidst all of these blue blooms, and we peered in, and quite envied whatever soul lived within, to have such a doorstep!

Well, I'm off again into the nasturtium-tangled pathways of this Gathering-Time! May your heels be lifted off the ground too by the green movements of spring, and may we always give ourselves time for alder creek-side cups of tea! (Easier said than done, I know; the creekside can be the deep rush of a good book, the alders can be the handful of roses brought in from the garden, the dandelion flowers picked out of sidewalk cracks, whatever small token of the wild world you can bring into your home!) I need to remind myself of this so often—to slow down, to pour the tea, to do nothing but sit and listen and be. Often I feel defined by what I produce--stories, research in my notebook, sketches, books read, classes taught, challenges faced. I am doing my best, during this Gathering-Time, to remember that the body and mind and spirit are whole and complete and just as valuable when they sit by the creekside together, sipping tea, thinking of nothing but alders and the sun-ripple on water. Maybe in such moments, we are most ourselves, because we have stepped out of ourselves a little, and are part alder, part creek, as we have always been, deep down.


  1. So often your writing leaves me breathless with wonder and deep gratitude for the beauty of it. That last paragraph was perfection. And the idea of earth constellations has me enthralled, I hope so much you will write more of it.

  2. Greetings of the Season, Just recently discovered your exquisite blog and am loving it. As an aging Hippy from Big Sur, your nature ramblings are evocative of my younger life. Love your blog title and wondered if you are familiar with the film, Daughters of the Dust, by the amazing Julie Dash. I've included a link for a brief intro if you don't know it.

    Spring blessings,


  3. What a lovely idea to spring from your post: a tea-picnic. I must tell the Minotaur-husband to get a wee backpack propane burner, I will assemble tea-kettle and cups!

    BTW, I've been reading the latest story-letter in installements like a bedtime story to him, and he is enjoying it greatly.

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