Friday, June 27, 2014

The Handless Maiden as The Feral Palmist

A couple weeks past, I wrote an entry here called "The Feral Palmist," one of my Gatherings for the now launched Elk Lines, my latest Wild Tales by Mail project. That exploration of hand and land and story birthed an essay, which is called "A Feral Palmistry," and is now up at Dark Mountain! It is about the relationship between hands and mind and narrative, and it also includes a deeper exploration of my thoughts about The Handless Maiden story, which is the central storyline of these new Elk Lines. The essay was a joy to write; it felt as though it just flowed out through my hand and my pen, so do go and enjoy it if you are so inclined!

A wee excerpt, to whet your palette: 

The human hand has more neural innervation than any other part of the body save the lips and tongue, where our speaking and our loving and our tasting come from. Lips and hands give caresses, carrying the story of love or healing between two bodies. Lips and tongue taste and take in the lives of others — plant, animal — that sustain us as food. There’s a reason, when you see something beautiful that lifts your heart to your throat and lurches it sideways, that you reach out your hand to touch: orange poppies in full bloom in sunlight, shimmering suppler than any silk. Maybe your nose follows, to test the smell, to get dusted with pollen. Somehow, having your hands near or touching those petals brings the bloom in, as if your heart had done it. Reaching out with a foot, or an elbow, or even your lips wouldn’t be the same. The hands, cupping, seem to understand, as if in the touch they are imagining the whole creation of that flower, in whatever humble or rash way they can manage. Because this is what hands do, at their best: they make. They play creator, like Coyote at the top of Mt. Diablo crafting humans from feathers and land from mats of tule.

I spent the first part of this week in Big Sur, having had the blessing of a guest pass and the company of a good friend sweep me along to a very special place called Esalen, where we wandered the gardens and farm, got drunk on the dark blue sapphire sea, heaving with kelp beds (oh, how I longed to see a sea otter there amidst those green braided ropes!), soaked in sulphur hot springs, scrambled up a redwood creekbed scattered with swimming holes in the smooth white granite, and down a steep, narrow stone pathway arched with sycamore leaves to the rockiest and wildest of coves, my favorite sort.

Big Sur is a very wild land, despite the destination many of its coves have become for vacationers. It is too steep, too rocky, too ocean-heaved, too chaparral-dense, to be developed, and so something timeless hangs about its cliffs and hills and tides, the kind of timelessness that I like to evoke in my own writing: the life of the land that lives on under and through and around our current iterations and manifestations of culture.

As I dive headlong into the writing of Elk Lines, this time in Big Sur—envisioned at first as a brief and delicious hotspring soak between workdays—seems to have deepened and widened the landscape of Eda Crost's story in me more than I could have hoped, fueled in part by the poetry of Robinson Jeffers.

I've visited Big Sur many times before, beginning at age 16, and I had also read much of Jeffers' poetry before this adventure. Poet of Big Sur, they call him, of this whole coastline. He lived most of his life in a granite house along the Carmel coast, hewn by his own hands in the early 1900's from local stone, and wrote with beauty and melancholy and yearning about this landscape, about its timelessness and the way it makes human concerns small. This time around, when I came home, I pulled down my big book of Jeffers' poetry and felt the Big Sur ocean-blue, granite-white, pelican-flown landscape come surging through his words like it never really has for me before. He evokes Big Sur and its stones, its birds, its people, its timelessness, like the granite itself is speaking through him; he inspires the way I hope to evoke Point Reyes, my own muse.

Tor House, photo by Jessica Malikowski
And, since we are on the subject of hands, and feral palmistry, and all that, I find it poignant to note that at the height of his creativity and success, Jeffers wrote poetry for part of the day, and worked on building the structures of Tor House, all granite, all hewn by him alone for his wife and family, for the rest. He and the granite somehow became kin through his palms, and his poetry deepened with that hand-making. What verse flowed back from granite to fingerprint, and up into his poet's mind?


Old garden of grayish and ochre lichen,
How long a rime since the brown people who have vanished from here
Built fires beside you and nestled by you
Out of the ranging sea-wind? A hundred years, two hundred,
You have been dissevered from humanity
And only known the stubble squirrels and the headland rabbits,
Or the long-fetlocked plowhorses
Breaking the hilltop in December, sea-gulls following,
Screaming in the black furrow; no one
Touched you with love, the gray hawk and the red hawk touched you
Where now my hand lies. So I have brought you
Wine and white milk and honey for the hundred years of famine
And the hundred cold ages of sea-wind.

I did not dream the taste of wine could bind with granite,
Nor honey and milk please you; but sweetly
They mingle down the storm-worn cracks among the mosses,
Interpenetrating the silent
Wing-prints of ancient weathers long at peace, and the older
Scars of primal fire, and the stone
Endurance that is waiting millions of years to carry
A corner of the house, this also destined.
Lend me the stone strength of the past and I will lend you
The wings of the future, for I have them.
How dear you will be to me when I too grow old, old comrade.

-Robinson Jeffers, from Tamar (1917-23)

And finally, as you shall see if you scamper over and read "A Feral Palmistry," I didn't need to go looking nearly so far as the Paleolithic cave art of France to find handprints on stone walls. Look no further than Big Sur, for there are handprints left behind by its original Esselen native people, striped and speckled and singing out to the granite, to the ocean, to the moving of time itself.


Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara 
The vault of rock is painted with hands, 
A multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men's palms, no more, 
No other picture. There's no one to say 
Whether the brown shy quiet people who are dead intended 
Religion or magic, or made their tracings 
In the idleness of art; but over the division of years these careful 
Signs-manual are now like a sealed message 
Saying: 'Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws. All hail*
You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters 
In the beautiful country; enjoy her a season, her beauty, and come down 
And be supplanted; for you also are human.'

-Robinson Jeffers

* This phrase troubled me at first. It reminds me of Hitler and of subjugation and despair and slaughter, and I thought that Jeffers was using it colonially, as if to say yes, European settlers deserve to be hailed, we are better, this land is ours. But upon further consideration, understanding Jeffers philosophy of inhumanism, I believe he employs this phrase knowingly, to imply the great grief and horror of this "regime change" in the beautiful country. And whatever Jeffers original meaning, and more importantly whatever the original intention of the Esselen people who made these hand-marks, I think they speak to us of the great sorrow and beauty of being human—all the sadness of conquest and violence, all the sweetness of creativity and loving "in the beautiful country" held in those palm-pads. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Summer Solstice Launch of Elk Lines!

My dear and blessed readers—today, as you know, is the longest lightest day of the year, the fullest flowering of the great spinning of our earth as she dances around the sun. "Earth the vagrant, the flagrant minstrel, singing out her songlines to the universe. Earth the revelry, Earth the circus [...] Earth the nomad, Earth the maenad, Earth the shaman, Earth the clown in boots too big, walks the wild way, the curly way, curling the stars, on, on, in fecund riot and feral grace," as Jay Griffiths writes on the last page of her Wild. On this day of flowering and dance, of fecund riot and feral grace, I bring to you, as I promised, the open blossom of my new Epistolary project, and I do so hope you all come to taste of its strange and golden nectar like so many bees, taking it into your lives to make your own honey.

Ring them bells, the Elk People have come! And with them, a maiden without hands. Yes, my friends, this next project is a retelling of the old Hungarian version of "The Handless Maiden." I've been wanting to wade all the way into this story for so long, and it seems that now is the time! You have all been reading about the many strands of inspiration threaded through this tale, so you already will have a wee bit of a feel for it. And since you have met the narrator of The Yellow on the Broom, Sophia of The Summer Book, Juliette de Bairacli Levi, the philosophies of Jay Griffiths and Robert MacFarlane—well,  throw in Nan Shepherd, author of The Living Mountain, which I just read this past week, and you already know, to some degree, the heroine of Elk Lines, Eda Crost. 

And yes, in case you were wondering, Elk Lines is rooted exclusively on the Point Reyes Peninsula, beloved landscape of my heart, wandering nomad-scrap of granite and shore, home of elk, mountain lion, snowy plover and dairy rancher alike. I am so excited to spend a whole wheel of the year walking with Elk Lines, and Eda, and the Elk People, and you, through this place.

I have created a new website to house this new project, and all of my old ones as well: ! So, without further ado, I will send you over there to read more about Elk Lines, and to subscribe, if you so please. Your first installment will arrive on Lughnasadh, the old Celtic harvest holiday. Here, the blackberries will just be ripe. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Patches of Wren & Burr

Every patch is a story of something that came before. Summer days of use: bending to pull weeds and pick lemons, sitting repeatedly in dry meadow and patch of dirt and sanddune. Or a moment of snag: on a door-knob, a branch, a thorn. The wearing and tearing of the everyday. Maybe this is why patchwork has always held a special magic for me. Not the fake sort of patchwork that is made to look like something worn to pieces, and re-made, but rather the idea that a dress might be worn so often, so well, because it is practical for so many different kinds of activities, that eventually it becomes as much patch as original fabric, storied by one's days. 

In the past half-moon, I learned to properly patch the holes in two of my most beloved dresses because whomever first owned this lovely pale paisley left her teachings in stitch and scrap within. I don't know who she was (and yes, I'm assuming she was a she), but I do know the dress is about seventy to eighty years old (the fabric is very worn and threadbare in most places!), found at an antique market this past September. According to my father, it looks the spitting image of one of my great-grandma Anne's dresses, who lived in Willits a few hours north, in the redwoods. Now, I know it would be nothing short of miraculous if this dress were, in fact, my great-grandmother's, somehow found its way into my hands, but as you all know by now, I am prone to magical thinking. Whatever its story, I smile to think that my great-grandmother wore a dress like this one. And I did feel this strange, heady kinship with whoever first patched this dress, because through her stitches I felt I could almost talk to her. 

Hers are much sturdier and straighter than mine, but I felt I could read them like words, saying—first, my girl, you must cut out the place where the fabric is worn. Then, you must tuck and hem the edges. No, you do not patch from the front, but from the back, silly child, for strength, for neatness, for the look of the thing. 

Those little patches of old grey fabric, left behind by a mysterious woman half a century ago or more, are small soft-edged windows into the past. They are the stitches that came before, the stitches turned to in order to learn, before striking out on one's own with needle and thread. 

And so, on this almost-summer day in June, as the fog rolls in and out at dawn and dusk, the true banner of a new season in this coastal land, I thought I would share with you a little collection of animals, plants, and passages from wonderful books, as a patchwork of "That Which Has Come Before." Often, artists will trace their lineage of inspiration from painter to painter back through time, writer to writer, musician to musician, and I too have my armloads of writers and visual artists who have deeply inspired me. But here, I thought I'd play the patchwork pan-pipes, and include fog and bird and flower in this gathering of "That Which Has Come Before," or "That Which Teaches." For in the creating of a new project, a nod of praise should always be given to the things that have fed it, the stitches that have come before and shown the way to turn a worn-through place into a bright new scrap. 

It is my aspiration in all of my work to extend the boundaries of contemporary human fiction-writing to include the more-than-human communities, to be in conversation with them, to dip into their own Mythtime, Dreamtime, songlines, because I believe we are not whole without this re-positioning, or remembering, of ourselves within that web. 

Golden chinquapin, in the beech family & likened to a wild chestnut in flavor
In the words of Jay Griffiths' Wild: "The shaman-fool wears the motley coat, the variegated cape; Harlequin had his checkered costume, Pierrot the pied suit, the clown has diamond patches on his trews. In this, too, they are representatives of wildness. The multicolored and pied beauties belong to wild lands, which are places of diversity, the panthology of variegated life. The motley coat suits the shaman-fool, it fits his psyche, for he is motley minded. His mind is the creature of change, the mood-swinger, mercury-born, the changer, the transformer, the trickster, with the wisdom of reversal." 

Golden chinquapin nuts ripening and nibbled open, likely by squirrels

Like the early growing of nuts and fruits and seeds out in the wild hills of the Huckleberry Preserve, the new project is ripening within my imagination, where it wears a tattered, patched coat and a spiked hat of chinquapin burrs. Each week, I add new patches to that coat, learning from the animals and books and plants that have come before. 

Out in the garden, as the summer fog rolls in at dusk, a Cooper's hawk has been coming in to roost daily in the tree behind the chicken coop. Their breeding season is May through July, and I've been noticing the neighborhood crows relentlessly harassing this bird daily, at his other perch in a redwood tree a few blocks away. I wonder if his mate is there, brooding on a nest of eggs. 

Female Cooper's hawks are almost half again as big as males, and they hardly leave the nest or their babies until they are nearly fledged. The smaller, quicker male does all the hunting for mama and the little ones. His slighter build is critical, because Cooper's hawks specialize in the hunting of songbirds (and in cities, mourning doves in particular). This niche requires rapid, coordinated flight over and under branches. A study of Cooper's hawks showed that 23% had old, healed over fractures and wounds to their chest bones, in particular the wish bone, from collisions with trees! The females, on the other hand, benefit from being larger, so that they can better defend the nest during the breeding season, which crows and bigger hawks love to rob. 

Thank you to the Cooper's hawk, for showing me the precise moment of true dusk—when it is time to roost. For creating balance within the songbird-rich habitat of my home. For lacing their air with hisses and sharp, laughing calls that slip into my pen ink as I write under the grape arbor. While it might seem easy to dismiss totemism among indigenous peoples as merely a form of "magical thinking"—that one might have Eagles for ancestors—in fact, of course, if you believe in evolution, then all birds are absolutely our ancestors. Those scaled feet of theirs, so like the lizards that came before them, yet their bodies warm-blooded, like the little mammal shrews who came later, who are our oldest placental ancestors. 

And so the story-cape, the Holy Fool from which every new project is born, gains a fringe of dark Cooper's hawk head-feathers.

Nearby, hanging from said grape arbor, is a hollow gourd with a hole in it, and inside that hole, a family of baby bewick's wrens. Mother and father come and go all day long with insects in their beaks, momentarily quieting the chorus of cheeps that erupt from within. Surely these little fierce wrens are sometimes on the menu of the Cooper's hawk, as they perch on branches, repeatedly wiping their beaks to clean them after a meal.

The other day, while writing near the nasturtium patch, I heard some scrambling and thrashing, and a strange little noise which was not at all the usual bewick's wren scold—sharp and loud and rasping. This was a small sound like the creaking of a door hinge, and I spotted the wren from whom the noise was issuing. He (or she) was hopping from nasturtium-stem to nasturtium-stem, creaking his little call and staring deeper into the thicket, at the source of a different rustling. I peered closer, and saw the face of a rat, craning toward the wren. It made a leap at the bird, but he was too quick, fluttering angrily away. Later, I saw the rat climbing up the inside of the lemon verbena, and the wren making that creaking noise again. I have never heard it otherwise. They make a very different call when the cat is near. I can only conclude that this creaking noise has something specifically to do with rats, or maybe more generally with nest-robbers. 

At dusk, the wrens have a final frenzy of feeding, as if they know the Cooper's hawk is at his roost, and it is still too early for owls. Then, as the evening primroses open to their fullest, they go silent. 

Evening primrose has come into her own fullness in the past couple of weeks, as the Cooper's hawks and bewick's wrens nest, as the chinquapins ripen and the fog is reborn, pulled in off the ocean by Central Valley heat. The evening primroses have begun to flower, and they have swept me into their moon-sung sweet-nectar spell.

I already knew that this plant was wonderful for menstrual cramps, for anxiety, for stomach complaints, which is why I wanted to grow some this year. I was not prepared for her moon-heady beauty. I was not prepared for the sense of sweetness and ease and comfort she brings when I come out at dusk to check and see if her blooms have opened again, letting out their lemon-sweet scent. And you know what? She opens at almost exactly the same time that the Cooper's hawk comes to roost! I've come out slightly too early before, thinking it looked like "dusk," only to be disappointed that neither the hawk was there nor the flowers open. Then, fifteen minutes later-- both! They know true dusk in their skin and blood and hearts, the one resting, the other opening to drink in the moon and star and fog-filled night.

The plants, of course (in particular angiosperms), are our even older ancestors than the birds, their seeds and fruits and medicines co-evolving with mammal-kind. 

And so the story-fool wears a skirt of evening primrose leaves, a new cap of evening primrose buds, red and striped and spiked with chinquapin burls, and anklets of the bewick's wren feathers...

As the Cooper's hawks roost, the bewick's wrens nest, the evening primroses flower, the spikenard (Aralia racemosa) blooms, the thimbleberries-berry, I will at last weave in a few scraps of the writings of others, pieces of inspiration that have been filling my mind these past weeks. The flavor or feather of all of them will make its way into my new project, but for now, only the story-fool knows precisely how...

The queenly Aralia racemosa
First, from Bessie Whyte's wonderful memoir, The Yellow on the Broom, about her childhood as a Scottish traveler:

"My spirits soared as we left Brechin behind us. We joined Uncle Andy and Aunt Nancy at a farm near Meikleour. His married sons, their families, and Bella and Willie later joined us with the children. Later we went back up Glen Isla as we had promised to do the turnip thinning for 'Hearken the Grouse' [a wonderfully mad Scottish lord]. Isla was not there and I was a bit disappointed. Daddy pearl-fished the Tay after that while we picked strawberries and raspberries. Then we spent some time travelling from camp to camp seeing other travelers and having ceilidhs with them. We went halfway up Argyllshire then made our way back again—leisurely and happily.

We were in no hurry to return to the loneliness of the council house, so Daddy found a potato merchant between Alyth and Meigle who was desperately in need of people for the potato harvest. His camping site was nice and cosily sheltered in the broom. We noticed a bell tent at the other end of the site. Daddy and the other families who came with us erected winter dwellings, with the fire inside, as October would soon be in. The potato harvest would not be starting for a fortnight. 

We awoke the next morning to hear a howling wind, with sleet battering on the canvas, and it persisted during the day. At about one o'clock we heard someone shouting outside. 'Is there anybody in there?'

Father opened the door flap and standing there was shivering, drookit [drenched] young man. He spoke with a Glasgow accent, and had in his hand a syrup tin of water for which he had made a little wire handle. 'I saw the smoke coming out of your lum,' he said, 'and I was wondering if you would boil my can for me. I have been trying for hours to get a fire going but the sticks are too wet.'

'Surely, surely laddie, come on in,' Daddy told him, taking his wee syrup tin and hanging it on the jocky above the fire. 'Here, this is a great place! You are fine and cosy in here,' the young man went on, edging closer to the fire.

 'Laddie, dear, you will get your death of cold going about like that,' Mother said. 'Are you biding in the bell tent down there?'

'Aye, missus, we were waiting for the tatties [potatoes].'

She opened a huge kist and pulled out a vest and shirt and, turning to him, said 'Here, take off those wet things and put these on. Have you no jacket?'

'I'm staunin' in ma wardrobe,' he answered, pulling off his soaking pullover and shirt.

'Would you like a plate of broth?' Mother asked him. 

'Would I no' hauf!' he said.

He told us there were six of them in the bell tent—three from Glasgow, two Fifers and one from Edinburgh. At that time there were droves of young men desperately seeking a livelihood all over the country. 

[...] It cleared up by early evening and Daddy built a huge fire outside. Uncle Jimmie was playing his pipes and Daddy was playing quoits with some of the other men. [...] The young men from the bell tent gradually edged their way down, and stood watching the quoit players. Soon they wanted to have a go and, when Mother waved to Daddy that his supper was ready, he invited the young men to come over with him. Mother had baked some huge scones [...]. Daddy whispered to a word in cant which told Mother that the poor boys were hungry. It was so typical of Father, but Mother had anticipated this. She weighed the young men up, without appearing to, then said, 'Would any of you laddies care for a bite?' and soon they were all feeling at home. 

Soon they were telling us all about themselves. They were absolutely broke and had no possible way of survival except by going at night and stealing potatoes from a field, a turnip or a few eggs from a henhouse. The one from Edinburgh would have died of hunger. He was different from the others—educated, well-mannered and well-spoken but quite hopeless in the art of survival. He lacked the quick wit and shrewd sense of the hard brought-up Fife and Glasgow boys. Mother said that he must have been brought up in plentiful surroundings, with a silver spoon in his mouth. The other boys called him 'The Professor.'

[...] I was much taken with 'the Professor.' He always jumped up to help Mother lift the kettle, or Katie to carry the water—in fact, anything that he could do to help. For the next couple of days we didn't have to carry any water nor sticks. The young men did all the hard work for us. Father and Uncle Andy and Willie and some of our young cousins showed them how to snare rabbits and gave them hares which the dogs had caught, and the women always brought home cigarettes and even sweeties for them. We used to have great fun in the evenings and this was greatly enriched by the antics and singing, and especially the comical humor, of these strange boys. To fill the time Mother and Father were gathering rags and metals, going from door to door with the yoke [...]" (pages 134-7)

And second, from Tove Jansson's The Summer Book:

"Except for the magic forest, the island became an orderly, beautiful park. They tidied it down to the smallest twig while the earth was still soaked with spring rain, and, after that, they stuck carefully to the narrow paths that wandered through the carpet of moss from one granite outcropping to another and down to the sand beach. Only farmers and summer guests walk on the moss. What they don't know—and it cannot be repeated too often—is that moss is terribly frail. Step on it once and it rises the next time it rains. The second time, it doesn't rise back up. And the third time you step on moss, it dies. Eider ducks are the same way—the third time you frighten them up from their nests, they never come back. Sometime in July the moss would adorn itself with a kind of long, light grass. Tiny clusters of flowers would open at exactly the same height above the ground and sway together in the wind, like inland meadows, and the whole island would be covered with a veil dipped in heat, hardly visible and gone in a week. Nothing could give a stronger impression of untouched wilderness.

But Grandmother sat in the magic forest and carved outlandish animals. She cut them from branches and driftwood and gave them paws and faces, but she only hinted at what they looked like and never made them too distinct. They retained their wooden souls, and the curve of their backs and legs had the enigmatic shape of growth itself and remained part of the decaying forest. Sometimes she cut them directly out of a stump or the trunk of a tree. Her carvings became more and more numerous. They clung to the trees or sat astride the branches, they rested against the trunks or settled into the ground. With outstretched arms, they sank in the marsh, or they curled up quietly and slept by a root. Sometimes they were only a profile in the shadows, and sometimes they were two or three together, entwined in battle or in love. Grandmother worked only in old wood that had already found its form. That is, she saw and selected those pieces of wood that expressed what she wanted them to say.

One time she found a big white vertebra in the sand. It was too hard to work but could not have been made any prettier anyway, so she put it in the magic forest as it was. She found more bones, white or gray, all washed ashore by the sea. 

"What is it you're doing?' Sophia asked.
"I'm playing," Grandmother said.
Sophia crawled into the magic forest and saw everything her grandmother had done.
"Is it an exhibit?' she asked.
But Grandmother said it had nothing to do with sculpture, sculpture was another thing entirely.

They started gathering bones together along the shore. Gathering is peculiar, because you see nothing but what you're looking for. If you're picking raspberries, you see only what's red, and if you're looking for bones you see only the white. No matter where you go, the only thing you see is bones. Sometimes they are as thin as needles, extremely fine and delicate, and have to be handled with great care. Sometimes they are large, heavy thighbones, or a cage of ribs buried in the sand like the timbers of a shipwreck. Bones come in a thousand shapes and every one of them has its own structure. 

Sophia and Grandmother carried everything they found to the magic forest. They would usually go at sundown. They decorated the ground under the trees with bone arabesques like ideographs, and when they finished their patterns they would sit for a while and talk, and listen to the movements of the birds in the thicket. Once, they flushed a grouse, and another time they saw a tiny owl. It was sitting on a branch, silhouetted against the evening sky. No one had ever seen an owl on the island before.

One morning, Sophia found a perfect skull of some large animal—found it all by herself. Grandmother thought it was a seal skull. They hid it in a basket and waited all day until evening. The sunset was in different shades of red, and the light flooded in over the whole island so that even the ground turned scarlet. They put the skull in the magic forest, and it lay on the ground and gleamed with all of its teeth.

Suddenly Sophia began to scream. "Take it away!" she screamed. "Take it away!"

Grandmother picked her up and held her but thought it best not to say anything. After a while Sophia went to sleep. Grandmother sat and thought about building a matchbox house on the sandy beach by the blueberry patch behind the house. They could build a dock and make windows out of tinfoil. 

And so the wooden animals were allowed to vanish into their forest. The arabesques sank into the ground and turned green with moss, and the trees slipped deeper and deeper into each other's arms as time went by. Grandmother often went to the magic forest when the sun went down. But in the daytime she sat on the veranda steps and made boats of bark." (13-17).

Barn owl feather beside guano of (presumably) the same bird
And finally, from Robert Bringhurst's non-fiction exploration of the incredible oral mythic poetry of the Haida people, A Story As Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, a book which has been providing much deep structural inspiration for me regarding what re-wilded stories and myths might mean:

"It is a peculiarity—or a pathology, perhaps—of centrally administered and urbanized societies to want to see the world, including the gods, in strictly human terms, or to see it still more narrowly, in terms of a single language, faith and culture. Industrial societies habitually go further, dropping the gods overboard and classifying all nonhuman beings—and often other human beings too—as 'natural resources' waiting to be used. In classical Haida literature and art, humans never exercise such dominance. The ritual combat of man against man, man against nature, and man against literature—are never more than secondary subject matter here. Classical Haida poets spend much more time exploring the connections between humans and nonhumans—sea mammals, land mammals, fish, birds, and sghaana qiidas, 'those who are born as spirit powers,' the spirit beings or gods. Skaay and Ghandl [the two main mythtellers discussed in this book] speak of three distinct realms—forest, sea and sky—each with its native populations. None of these, however, is the human realm. Humans are only at home on xhaaydla, the boundary or intertidal zone, at the conjunction of all three. A few strokes of the paddle or a few steps into the bush are enough to leave the human world behind." (page 157)

And so I leave you with a little girl born to the Scottish mist-people, with her sturdy, kind, ambling, patchwork tale; I leave you with Sophia and Grandmother's magic forest and its haunting bone and wood-folk, and all the strange bewitchment of gathering, and of growing up; and I leave you with the sea-to-sky wisdom of the ancient Haida people, their stories which grew out of the more-than-human world. And I leave you also with the laughing dance of the Story-Fool, so close to its beginning (keep your ears and eyes perked and peeled next Saturday, the Solstice, for the Launch of my next epistolary project!) all dressed in feather and petal, burr and piebald coat, rooted in the tales and words, stitches and birds and flowers that have come before. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Feral Palmist

These days the sun comes in long and bright through the morning windows, and the house is full of flowers. What, truly, is better than armloads of summer blooms?

For the time-being, my office has moved outside, to a rusty chair surrounded by thickets of nasturtium, because I can hardly bear to stay inside when I could be out here... this beloved garden where everything seems to grow twice as big as I've seen it elsewhere (ancient Temescal Creek silt is my guess), where the meaning of a "Wild Garden" truly comes to life. Right now, one must positively wade through the borage and calendula, the reaching arms of wild radish and rose and sage and red poppy. It is a refuge for bird and bee and woman alike.

One family of bewick's wrens has made its nest in this hanging gourd, and throughout the day mother and father dart back and forth, beaks full of insects, going hither and yon throughout the yard to quiet those endlessly cheeping babes within. 

In this riot of raspberry and Queen Anne's lace, lemon verbena and squash vine, bewick's wren domestic life, the crows overhead endlessly harassing the Cooper's hawk who lives in a redwood tree a few blocks away, I've been positively plowing through books. I feel like I'm in college again, only better; I've made the syllabus! And how good it feels, to be guided by creative hunger and the New Project (still a secret, but more on it in a few moments) from book to book. I feel like I'm following a footpath between them, each ending a cross-roads. When I finish one, that creative hunger, that fire to which I've been throwing sticks, tells me where to go next.

And then in I dive, head and hands and heart. Sometimes reading feels more like what I imagine the digging of this American badger hole (big thermos there to show you the size) to be like—handful by handful of soil taking you deeper into the storied language of the book until it is all around you, in your nose and eyes and mouth; until you've fully and wholly entered a new world.

That's how reading has always been for me, since I was very young. I tunnel right in to a tale and, while I'm there, I give it my heart. I think this is why, at around the age I learned to read, I decided I wanted to write stories. Even at that age (seven?) I reasoned that if through a book I could, within the wild landscape of my mind, go on long adventures as a female knight; heal animals with herbs and live with wolves; take tea in rickety cosy cottages with kindly witches; talk to birds and lizards and rabbits—well, as the maker of the tale, wouldn't it be even better? Wouldn't it be even closer to a true act of shape-shifting? Suffice it to say, pen in hand, I've been writing ever since.

Which brings me to the most recent book I read out in the garden with the bewick's wrens scolding and soothing and lullabying all around—The Hand, by Frank R. Wilson. I am writing an essay more in depth on this subject for Dark Mountain, because I am deeply fascinated by the ways our hands have shaped our storytelling brains, by the ways in which are hands are also paws like the pawprints of wild ones out on the sanddunes which bring me so much joy to follow and to read. Hands are the literal and figurative Gatherers of this Gathering Time, and, as fate would have it (for the un-covering of a story often feels more mystical than logical, in the ways that ideas suddenly come upon you around the corner), they will also play a great role in the next Epistolary Writings. On that note, and before I continue further, for those of you who have been wondering—I will unveil the new project on the summer solstice, June 21st, to new and old subscribers alike, and start taking sign-ups then. The first letter, however, will arrive on August 1st, Lughnasadh, the old Celtic harvest festival, and the time of the ripe blackberries on this land. This timing feels more in sync with the seasonal round to me—for the beginning should be a harvest, rather than a zenith, in my opinion!

Back to hands. The most stunning thing I learned in Wilson's The Hand was his assertion that as our hands developed the greater and greater dexterity, muscle control and fine motor skills needed to wield stones, then blades, bows, arrows, adzes, awls, our nervous systems and our brains changed in order to keep up. And as we surpassed everybody else in the animal kindgom with the increasing complexity of our tools (not in any way indicating our superior intelligence—this complexity was more like a very odd quirk or even a desperate attempt to survive in a savannah-landscape which our monkey arms and legs were not adapted to) and the increasing danger and power of our hands, something very peculiar started to happen in our minds.

Just as the making of a tool, particularly a complex one that requires carving and lashing and polishing, has steps— a beginning, middle and end and then the anticipated use that has nothing to do with the present moment but with an imagined future, or even an imagined array of futures—our minds likewise took form around this new sense of sequentiality. In other words, as our hands became unusually skilled and deft at making tools, clothes, then objects of ritual beauty and adornment, our minds started making things too—stories. They started making narratives, sequences of events that made us who we were, that attempted to explain the inexplicable all around us, and especially that most inexplicable thing of all at the far end of the sequence of carve, lash, polish, aim and throw into the heart of a deer: death. Our making hands made our making minds, not the other way around, and our knowledge of the workings (think tools) of the world all around us, our own bodies and lives and deaths, made us the beautiful and terrible creatures that we are.

A wee baby brush rabbit, terrified and spotted through the railing of a bridge
And so naturally, as I've recently been writing about Earth-Constellations and Songlines and whatnot,  I got to thinking about maps, and palmistry, and story-making, and Miguel Angel Blanco's divinatory Library of the Forest from my last post, and how all of this intersects when one is out roving on the wild land. I've always been slightly repelled by the idea of palm-reading. It seems so final, so uninteresting to me, to say--this is your heart line, your life line, your head line. This finger represents Venus, and this one Jupiter (as in the properties of the Greco-Roman deities). I mean, says who? I have absolutely nothing to do with Jupiter. He is one story of many about a planet in the sky, or a force in nature. (I should add here that within its ancient-rooted cultural context, palm-reading is a very different—and fascinating—thing). In my own life and place and context, it raises the same issues that constellations sometimes do to me—the native people of this land had very different tales about those stars, tales that had to do with this place where my feet walk, and my lungs breathe, and my heart loves. If we all have different stories about these forces and these beings in the wild sky or on the wild earth, how can we say that only one is right, and tells the tale of your fate? I'm much more interested in the idea of palms as maps in a more mysterious way. Their lines have always reminded me of river deltas and sand-dunes, the bark of trees and magical cross-roads.

A western fence lizard digging--perhaps a little cavern to lay her eggs?
So as I was out walking the coast this past week, eyes and mind and, as it were, hands open to who was blooming and bustling and mating on the land, I wove all these pieces together (so many metaphors for thinking come from the actions we use when making with our hands!) into my own kind of palmistry. Not the Mount (mound) of Jupiter at the base of the index finger, but the Mount of Osprey. Not Saturn for the middle, but Fence Lizard! Not Apollo but Brush Rabbit, not Mercury but Skunk! In other words, what about a palmistry of place? What if our hands hold the stories of our days and our interactions, just like our minds do?

The Brush Rabbit roads winding through dune grass and scrub
If the hands are the root-source, the seed, for all the story-making in our minds, then what would it mean if those stories actually started in our hands?

And so for this week, the songlines became palm-lines. The stories of a walk on the coastal strand on a fog-to-sun day, the fourth of June, became storied into my hands. 

I imagined some feral palmist living out in the mist at the edge of the estuary, between lupine and monkey-flower, snatching the palm of an unsuspecting passersby and saying—ah yes, I see you've passed through the territory of such-and-such song sparrows, who are just in the process of building their nest in the third lupine bush east of that bishop pine. Oh my, and I see you've been gathering seaweed, and yarrow too, and just when the three osprey passed overhead, winging straight east, with fish in their talons. And the monkey-flowers, how they sing out into the summer sun, voices of brush-rabbit-leaping delight! They have a lesson for us all. 

The osprey flew overhead, literally directing in the sight-lines between those two white yarrow umbels

Such palm-reading wouldn't be about your fate, your future, you, but about the storied lives you had touched in a day, which will be different tomorrow. It would be about the hinge between you and the rest of creation, and the webs of connection sewn there—like the tiny bit of webbing between our fingers, reminding us our hands are animal like the river otter's, like the raccoon's, like the osprey's. Our hands the bridge between these strange heavy-duty brains we're saddled with and the riotous dance of the more-than-human world.

I've always had this hunch, while writing stories, that they might be coming from my hand as much as my head. I've found that I am incapable of starting a good piece of fiction of any sort on the computer (or with any pen other than MY fountain pen). But with my fingers around said fountain pen, and the ink on the paper, something starts to happen which is not wholly me. There is a head-hand connection indeed, but more than that, maybe the hand is a wild map, holding stories in its lines and grooves and mounts and veins, and they come out through the living ink of the pen, or the voice of the storyteller when she speaks, and her hands gesture up down, back, forth, like the tale is unfurling right from her fingertips. Maybe it is our hands that initiate the shape-shifting that storytelling can become, our hands that weave us deep into the weft of the wild world.