Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Embered Eye of the Buck

It is an old, old tradition the world over, that when the nights grow long and dark, the hearth becomes the sun, to carry the seed of light through the winter and on into spring. The fire becomes the axis around which stories are shared. Through the dark nights of the year, people held (and hold) vigil for the sun on its journey through the darkness, in all of his/her manifestations—Lugh, or Ra, or Sunna, or Cernunnos (the Stag, the Green Man, the Horned God)— as it travels through the underworld of the Cailleach, of Hel, and back out again into spring.  

Out over the ocean, as the sun sets and turns the sky all to fire, the Farallon Islands rise like a dream of the Otherworld in the distance. There, it was said by the Coast Miwok people, the spirits of the dead traveled. There, the sun sets, and for a moment turns the world to flame. 

In autumn, the fire from the sun is made manifest in the acorns abundant on all the trees, in the madrone berries, the manzanitas, the black walnuts, the golden chinquapin nuts, the buckeyes. All year long, the trees have been drinking up the heat from that great star to turn it to sugar. An acorn, in your hand, is transmuted sun. My hands have been full of acorns these past weeks, and the fallen flames of leaves; of roots and the bones of stags and what it means to honor the coming of winter on this land. So here are some threads of my days for you to warm your own hands by...

There is a beautiful Coast Miwok story about the origin of fire. It begins something like this: "In the early days, the only fire anyone knew about was kept by Starwoman, who lived near an elderberry brake to the east, in the mountains beyond the Great Valley. She kept her bright treasure in a box that she had carved from the burl of a buckeye tree. In those days it was cold and dreary here on the coast. Coyote decided to remedy that situation, so one day he sent little hummingbird out to steal the fire from Starwoman." (from Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula, by Jules Evens) 

Hummingbird, being so quick and tiny, managed to steal a piece of ember from Starwoman's immaculate buckeye box. He carried it all the way back to the coast, where Coyote, naturally, had already lost interest and wandered off in search of some amusement or other. Hummingbird, desperate to keep the ember safe, hid it in a buckeye tree. To this day, the throats of the hummingbirds in my garden are flashes of magenta flame, as bright as any fire. 

To this day, the buckeye holds fire inside. Make a hearth board from a split branch, and a spindle from a thin straight one, and if you have a good amount of hand-drill fire-spinning skill, you will make an ember right there, between the alchemy of hand and buckeye wood.  

Buckeyes are beautiful trees. They drop their leaves in late August, long before anyone else, in order to cope with the long dry season. Now, their silvery limbs are bent down with the planets of their buckeye nuts. If you've ever come eye to eye with a male deer before, and shared that long moment of surprise, and then timelessness, as you stared into his very large, very dark eyes, you will see why the nuts are called buckeyes! 

It is no easy feat, let me tell you, to coax fire from buckeye wood with your hands. It took a circle of nine women to make these flames by hand, but my goodness, when an ember is birthed before your eyes, and blown to life in a cradle of grass, the fire thus made becomes a being in a way that no lighter or match can approximate, a deity you have welcomed to share your meal, your stories, your hottest wood. 

We roasted bay nuts and chestnuts over the flames, and cooked ash cakes, and simmered madrone berries, red as drops of blood, over those hard-earned flames. (All of them fruits of the year's sun-turned-to-sugar, turned to seed). 

Madrone berries
I am whittling away at my own buckeye hearthboard, and a spindle of elder, to coax an ember all on my own from the wood. This is a hard task for my shoulders, but I do believe that there is something besides strength which helps to birth an ember by hand; I believe we all carry an ember in our gut, in our womb, the spark of creation, and that it is not so much strength, but breath and focus, which brings a literal ember into the world. Anyway, I'm not there yet, but these dark nights have me dreaming. Perhaps by the Yule...

In my mother's garden, the persimmons (great pockets of sun-sweetness) and their leaves are all fire. These fruits are one of my favorites in all the world. They taste of autumn to me, crisp and sweet and cinnamon. There are half a dozen persimmon trees within a five minute walk of my home; this climate suits them well!

And out in the woods, the black oaks, new friends of mine, are leaving beautiful gifts, each an ember in its own way, amidst the leaves. I have been on an acorn-gathering high. Though my yield is rather pitiful, the pleasure I have derived from the slow search amidst leaf litter for the gift of an acorn, velveteen and luminous as amber, is impossible for me to quite put into words. 

Having my hands or my pockets heavy and clacking with acorns gives me a deep old satisfaction. I can hardly imagine anything more beautiful than these perfect parcels.  I can hardly imagine an activity more grounding than crouching down, sifting the bounty of sun-gold leaves, like any bear or deer.
Black oak acorns

We brought some of the leaves and acorns and oak galls from the woods into our home for Samhain, and feasted, letting the wild and our ancestors sit at the table and feast too, bringing the fire inside with candles and the dying leaves.  

About a week ago, with that same group of fire spinning women, I had the great privilege of listening to a Northern Pomo woman named Corinne Pierce speak about her relationship (and her people's relationship) with the plants of this landscape. This is a kinship that stretches back thousands and thousands of years on this very land. When she spoke, I ached, and cried. I looked around and saw many other women crying too. Corinne herself wept when she spoke about a new Caltrans bypass being built through Willits, the territory of her people and an area where she has gathered plants for her entire life. Those plants, she said, are her family. My elders tell me not to tell anything to white people, she said to us. But the plants--the oak trees, the madrones--they tell me to share all that I can with those who will use it. Because the plants long to be used. They long to be loved again by people, to be in communication, in kinship.

Black oak
 I ached when she spoke of her rootedness in this place, how she was literally made of its acorns, because she had eaten them as a child, as had her mother, as had her grandmother, and on and on back into an ancient time far beyond my imagining. I ached because it was a gift to be in the presence of a human being who still carries such a story; I ached because it is so rare; I ached because my ancestors were the reason she is one of only a handful remaining of her people. I ached because I, too, want to belong to this place. 

Coast live oak
Then she, extraordinary woman, told us something so simple and so wise. She said: let the plants tell you what they need. Devote yourself to your place. Learn the plants and animals so that they are your family. Take care of your place. This is how you belong. Taking care, she said, means staying in communication. 

When you gather acorns, bring gifts for the oaks. Her people once left leather, shells, ash, baskets at the bases of their oaks. Much later, when archaeologists discovered these "middens" around the roots of trees, they called them garbage piles. They did not realize that the people who left these gifts were leaving not only beautiful presents for their tree-kin; they were leaving nourishment. All of these things (leather, ash, plant matter) balance out the pH in the soil, lowering acidity. Those "middens" were ancient conversations, held over millennia between humans and trees.

When we don't gather their acorns, the oaks know it. They know it in the language of tannins. Without the presence of human beings and grizzly bears (who we killed off), two of the biggest acorn eaters, most of an oaks acorns stay where they fall (remember, a tree may drop a thousand pounds of nuts in a season). When it rains, the tannins in the acorns leach back down to the roots of the trees, sending them a message—you are not needed. Do not make as many acorns next year. Some trees will begin to produce less, and less, and less...

As I wrote in the essay I helped Jolie Egert Elan of Go Wild craft for her Oak Ceremony last month, before the advent of agriculture, acorns were the staple food for people all around the temperate belt of the world. The word Druid means "oak-seer," or "one who knows the oak." Their rituals were originally held only in oak groves. And of course, before Druids, they were Dryads, women-priestesses who knew the oaks like they were kin, who each had a tree they called sister. My name, Sylvia, means "one who comes from the forest," or forest spirit, or wood nymph. I feel a strange familial thrum in my bones at the thought of women dancing long ago in oak groves. I think I carry them in me still. I think many of us do. When I stand under oaks, with my hands full of acorns, I feel at home in my blood, no matter that my ancestral roots are far away. 
Anyone know the species of this glorious oak? Looks like a coast live oak, but not quite...
All of this—the fire in the heart of winter, and buckeyes, and food made in its heat, and the gathering of acorns—I think the gift beneath the surface of it all, the reason that acorns in the pocket feel like medicine, is because these things make us feel very human. In all of our senses. Fire making. Gathering. Cooking. As Corinne said, we can learn all we need to learn about living in balance on this earth from the plants. They will tell us. If it becomes hard to hear them, we can watch the animals, and learn from them too. 

Yesterday morning, Cernunnos, the Stag Lord of the Woods, eater of acorns, visited my life. A friend had called late the night before to see if I would help her process a young buck she'd found on the road on the edge of one of our regional parks. She had to get to class by eleven, so we rose at dawn. In the early morning light, I found myself with a knife, another woman, and a young buck whose back leg was shattered, whose body was bruised from its impact with a car. There were shards of headlights in his skin. 

I have only done this once before, but it seems that something comes over the body and mind, so that the process itself is somehow natural—no big deal, I am pulling the skin off a buck's body, I am cutting through tendons; I am separating the leg at the joint over my knee, as I might break a stick; etc. We said our prayers over him, of course; we left him offerings of acorns and cornmeal and sage, but the processing itself was efficient, practical, somehow familiar.

It is only later that the true, bone-level impact of the thing comes to you; how much pain he must have been in, and how afraid, battered to death by a car. How his little antler-nubs were just growing for the first time. How beautiful his delicate hooves. What places they must have roamed. Who his mother was. Where he was born. 

I did not take any photos of the process. Somehow it didn't feel right. But I took home the cannon bone from his back leg, the one that was broken. I remembered that bone awls (tools used to pierce leather when sewing it) have been made for thousands of years from the knuckle bones of deer. I found that the break in his leg was shaped just so, like the beginning of an awl. And that the skin around it would make the perfect pouch. 

It is all still in process--the skin scraped to removed the membrane before tanning, the bone left out for the yellow jackets and the ants to clean for me. But there is something in this, some healing I hope—that the terror of this breaking might become something beautiful, a sewing tool, to sew him back together on his spirit's journey with Cernunnos, Lord of Stags, to the Otherworld of Deer. That his body, tossed sidelong by a car, was been honored by being used, not left ignobly to be further battered on the roadside.

It is said that once, animals gave themselves willingly to the bows of hunters, just to hear their stories and songs around their fires as they ate. Like the acorns, relationship comes through use, through need. Relationship comes through recognizing the personhood of all beings, the ember that sparks in the spirit of all things and then, deeper yet, seeing that we are situated within a web of consumption, a web of eating and being eaten one day in return. 

For the rest of that day, I felt like I was in a dream. I couldn't focus on writing, or reading. I needed to move, to use my body. I dug up the garden and put it to bed for the winter, covered in hay. I pulled the roots of my motherwort, and held them for a long time, seeing in them the branches of trees, the antlers of stags, the rivers in the wombs of women, the wisdom of winter, all there in the roots underground. The roots that reach back in my blood, in  your blood, through time, to women and men long ago who crouched under trees, and gathered acorns, and knew what it was to worship and to eat the Lord of the Forest, the old hart. 


  1. Down deep in the bone, in the thick burgundy marrow, courses Life and the memory of how to live, in the forest as in the meadow. There, in the dark, we commune with plants and the animals of our place.

    Yes, life is communion.

    Blessings, dear Sylvia. Lovely soul-nourishing words.

  2. Oh Sylvia, I am sitting here, with my morning tea, shivers running up and down my spine, gratitude for your words, for your honest and integral and soulful way. Bless you for loving the earth the way that you do, for holding up the mirror of sacred and magic and ancient so that we can all peer in and see, and remember and have our hearts cracked open by the beauty of this world.

  3. Wow, this moved something in me. Those last few paragraphs rang true to my core, samely felt.