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. 


  1. I read your piece over at Dark Mountain. It was superb, passionate, and expertly written. It has me quite intrigued for your Elk Lines project. I'd like to go back and read an original of the Handless Maiden. Do you know of an online resource for something close to the Hungarian tale you are familiar with?

    1. Hello there Abby! The version I am referring to is the one retold by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, who was told it by her Hungarian grandma (or aunty). Thank you so much for your kind words!! Yes, Elk Lines is going to be great fun, you should come and join the caravan! ;) xo Sylvia

  2. I also read your Dark Mountain piece and have sent the link to some friends. Excellent essay and I look forward to reading more. I am also appreciative that you are influenced by Jeffers, as are many at Dark Mountain. I'm a tour docent at Tor House, so if you are down this way again, let me know and I can give you a tour -- we are generally open only Fridays and Saturdays for tours but I can arrange something special if you can't make it on those days. "Hands" is one of my favorites to read on tours and your latter interpretation is what I believe was his intent. Love your writing style and depth of knowledge. Cheers.

    1. Wow, how wonderful to have a Tor house docent reading these words!! Bless you for your kind thoughts; I am so glad you enjoyed the Feral Palmistry essay. And goodness, thank you for the kind offer regarding a visit to Tor house; I will certainly let you know if I am going to be heading that way. I have always wanted to actually take a tour-- only seen it from the outside. Best wishes in all that you are doing!

    2. You reference Tom Killion's work on your blog, also a favorite artist of mine. He came on one of my tours and is doing a book on The Wild Coast, Jeffers and Snyder. Ask him how it's coming along since you are neighbors. We are eager to see it.

  3. I enjoy your blog so much. Recently another blogger gave me a Very Inspiring Blogger award and I decided to pay it forward. Your writing and photos inspire me so I'm passing along the award to you.