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. 


  1. I like this all very much. I tend to run my hands along things as I pass - tall grass, bark, castle ruins, or just lay my palm on the earth or a standing stone or in someone's hand. I like the idea of asking "where have theses hands been?" "What have you done with these two hands you've been given? " Can't wait to see what you are weaving up with those fingers and palms of yours.

  2. Such words and ideas to sink into, like long grass on a summery day; such rich, dream-provoking ideas. I am so much looking forward to your new project.

  3. Love this post, Sylvia. It brings to mind Ursula K. LeGuin's quote from her novel "Always Coming Home": "It was a good thing for me to learn a craft with a true maker. It may have been the best thing I have done. Nothing we do is better than the work of handmind. When mind uses itself without the hands it runs the circle and may go too fast; even speech using the voice only may go too fast. The hand that shapes the mind into clay or written word slows thought to the gait of things and lets it be subject to accident and time. Purity is on the edge of evil, they say."

  4. A beautiful post, Sylvia! Your words are always soothing and filled with much truth.

    Many, many moons ago, in an Anthropology course in a humid basement classroom, we spent time considering how learning to stand upright led to freeing up our hands, which led to tools, and abstract thinking, and shaping the world in space and worldview. While it gave me a better appreciation of our evolution, it wasn't until your words touched my mind that I ever really appreciated my hands not just for their physical utility, but their cultural beauty.

    merci pour vos paroles aimables

  5. What a stunningly beautiful post Sylvia.

  6. Such beautiful words and photographs

  7. Yes..... even late on this firefly night I am deeply tempted to look and get lost in my own hands. Thank you Sylvia, for such re-membered inspiration

  8. Beautiful post, and thank you very much for leading me to A Story as Sharp as a Knife. It's a wonder.

  9. Hmmm, this is very interesting to me both on the anthropological level, and the personal. I never considered that as our hands became more dexterous, so did our mind. I like this idea of our minds grappling with and creating story as we learned more storied behaviors. That makes sense to me, whether it is true, or not. The mind is a vast and weird place, I've been learning.

    Secondly: I've noticed that there is a connection to my mind and my heart-energy when I am writing with my hands with a tool such as a pen or a pencil, but not as much when I am using a computer. I think it's something a lot of creative people have noticed, certainly I've talked to writers and poets and visual artists who notice the creation that seems to spill forth and clear the mind when using those long, thin objects.

    I tend to use a computer to compose my perfume posts, for ease of drafting and revision, but when I journal or write to a friend, it is always pen to paper. And those items clear my mind and ease my heart much more than even one thing I've written on a computer.

    I love your writing, it speaks to my heart. Maybe because it comes from the pen, the paper, the heart, the hand? :)