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. 


  1. I really look forward to the unveiling of the new project, when those wonder mists dissipate to reveal the real magic. I also always look forward to your blog posts which are more lovely and deliberate than most others out there. I always wonder if you do you journaling on the spot, the watercolors and sketches and writing, or if you do that afterwards at home.

    1. Thank you so much, Abby!! Yes, I'm hard at work getting ready for the unveiling... So glad you are looking forward. Regarding the journaling, I do it later, at home. When I'm out in the garden or the field, I like to just be all eyes and ears. Also I do need a good model to draw from, in a book (one that isn't moving, in other words!). xx, S

  2. Another lovely post again, and keep them coming Sylvia!!!!!!! You know all the beautiful creatures! If you ever publish your journals, I'll be the first one to buy! :)

  3. I am of the same world as you, thinking yes it is your great grandma's dress that has found its way to you.....

  4. Lovely, lovely, lovely. Sylvia-- you never fail to inspire me to fall further in love with this world!

  5. Oh my dear friend, with all the busyness here, I am just reading this now, and what a beautifully crafted offering it is! Ohmygoodness me, the whole thing is a magical and enchanted patchwork of exquiste words and thoughts and inspirations.You are such a rare gem Miss Sylvia, and such a marvelous story-teller. It's a good thing you are out there, reminding us of the magic and the mystery and the beauty of this good earth. Sending so much love to you my sister of the southern coast. May you know what a beautiful one you are and may this message drift down from the north, infused with the hum of the bees and the sweet nectar of blackberry blossom. xx Nao