Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hands & Hearth: Elder In the Heart of the Volcano

During the week of Lughnasadh, my love and I visited the heart of that old, sideways volcano called Sibley, up in the dry coyotebrush hills. In the late spring, I had noticed that right there, in the center of that quarried landscape once volcanic, once grazed by American camels and strange, trunked horses, grew a small and hardy elderberry. It felt like some old enchantment to me, that this lone elderberry was growing in the heart of a fallen volcano, and so I made a note to leave her umbels of white flowers, and come back in late summer for those berries.

Something about an elderberry elixir put away for winter colds and flus, grown on the dry soil of an ancient volcano, feels deeply healing, as if the old songs of the volcano might somehow echo in the hollow branches of the elderberry. Who knows what her roots gather in that deep down soil; what stories they hear.

The elderberry also grows at the entrance of a labyrinth created four decades ago by a woman who walked her goats in these hills. A small seep runs seasonally along the edge of the quarry-bottom, and so a stand of tules grows to the north, and a stand of willows to the south. The elder must gather some of this moisture too.

There is a strange poetry about the place to me; that a quarry happened to open the heart of a volcano so that now, people come to walk a labyrinth there, where magma and ash are somehow mixed into the soil and stone. The elderberry has a timelessness about her that is suited to such a place; so much Northern European lore tells of the dryads and fairy beings, elven folk and old witch women associated with elders, how they may be doorways to other realms on full moon nights. But my favorite of all magics associated with the elderberry comes from the beliefs of the native California Indian people, specifically the Coast Miwok, told to me by Malcolm Margolin of Heyday books. Below is an excerpt from a book I co-authored with him called Wonderments of the East Bay, coming out this fall, detailing some of this magic...

"When the elderberry flowers bloomed in heady umbels, this signaled to the native people of the Bay Area the end of the shellfish season. No more could be gathered until the elderberry flowers turned to dusty black berries at the cusp of summer and fall. In between, during the dry summer months, shellfish were subject to the red tides caused by algal blooms, which turned them toxic for human consumption. {....} The elderberry is a doorway of sorts out of the shackles of mechanical time, back into the rhythms of natural time that are dictated by such mysteries as the moment of blossom, the moment the golden-crowned sparrow returns, the moment of fruit. The elderberry was also a more literal time-keeper in the older world of native California. Her light branches were made into clapper sticks. For every dance, those elderberry sticks beat out the rhythm, they sounded the time to the music, to the dancer’s feet. And so she both marks the passage of time, and measures it, beat by beat.

The world over, elderberry’s hollow branches have been also been used as delicate flutes— in fact, the name Sambucus comes from the ancient Greek sambuke, a stringed musical instrument, likely made from elderberry wood, as were other European instruments. Here, in native California, elderberry flutes were used for courting. It was said that in order to pick just the right branch for flute-making and wooing, you had to find the tree with music in it. And in order to find just that elder, you waited for a windless day, and then you wandered until you found an elderberry with a leaf moving in the still air. Such a tree had music held inside. Such a tree reminds us that it is the world itself in which music resides; we don’t impose it, we only do our best to coax it out. And when we do, that music weaves us back in again to the flow of elderberry-time, and gives us a glimpse of the calendar of the living land."

1 comment:

  1. As you are Fox kind, I feel a nudge to ask if you know about
    Australian woman, Vali Myers [1930-2003]

    She is one of the gondwanaland grandmothers.