Sunday, February 1, 2015

Candelabras of Bishop Pine

There really is something about a brown paper package, tied up with string. Just wrapping up these Tinderbundles in mid-January, with an audiobook crackling away, gave me all the pleasure of receiving such a parcel, crisp and plain, carefully protecting something tender and bright and strange within. 

Making a Tinderbundle is a journey into the threads of the season for me, a different kind of spark kindled—of questioning, and looking. What word (last month's was Wick/Weoce) feels like an old-fashioned candy on my tongue, just right? (I think of the rhubarb candies my wonderful Danish  friend would bring back from Denmark after summer vacations when we were children, red and glossy on the outside, yellow and honeycomb-pocked within.) And more important, what word has a story hitched to it, glinting, that won't leave me alone? How does that word relate to what's blooming and growing on the land right now, that I might use for salves and dye?

I picked the word Wick/Weoce for January's Tinderbundle because this is the time of year that the light returns, the time of year Imbolc, or Candlemas, is celebrated (today!), to note the tipping again toward spring. And I picked it because the bishop pines are growing candles, and the manzanitas the first belled blooms, like tiny lanterns, and because the whales, once hunted near to extinction for their blubber, to be used in oil lamps, are migrating south right now off the coast, from Alaska to Baja, with calves in their bellies waiting to be born. 

In the beginning of January, when I created the Wick Tinderbundles, the Bishop pine trees, gentle conifers that grow only along the coastal edges of California and Baja, were sending up bluish, waxen pollen cones like clustered candles. They smelled of every sweet resin you can fathom. 

Bishop pine trees flourish best when wildfire regenerates their populations once every 50 to 100 years; as I wrote in a recent chapter of Elk Lines:

Fire lives here, in the ground, just the same as earthquakes do, and stone. The forests of bishop pine grow old and weak without a fire to make them new. Their cones are sealed shut with resin, and though a hot day may pop a few of them open, it’s only through wildfire that they may truly be renewed. They burn like torches when the flames reach their tight-closed cones. They blossom, all ember, and shower their seeds down into the charred ash.

 Much of California is fire adapted, even fire reliant. There are whole libraries of seeds in the soil, which will only sprout from the taste of ash, or the extreme heat of wildfire. They've been there since the last conflagration--seeds of rare lupines and manzanitas and rush roses that recolonize burned landscapes. The whole span of a hillside one great wick. 

I gathered a small amount of pollen tapers for a salve. On some of the trunks, tule elk had thrashed their antlers. Resin ribboned through, healing the bark. This, I did not gather; taking resin right off a tree wound is like peeling off a scab before a cut is healed. But wherever drops had crystallized and fallen into the needles, I gathered these. They are like bits of fallen flame, brewed inside a trunk.

The willows and alders were mostly bare of their leaves, the willow branches the color of little flames. All that fresh new growth.

During the last storms, in December, a red alder fell across the trail where I walked, searching for the tinder of this bundle..Alders are one of my favorite trees, partly because their trunks are like the legs of great beasts, with eyes, and because the tule elk love to rub their antlers on them and expose their red flesh, and because nettles grow at their feet, but a lot of this love comes also from their incredible healing properties. 

Alder is one of the first plants that I gathered, tinctured, and used-- and it really, really worked! It healed up (with the help of usnea), an infected blister which was previously bright red and as painful as glass, in a matter of two days; the sort of thing I was considering, with great trepidation (I have been known to panic at the sight of white coats) visiting a doctor for. There's something about having really taken something into your body that forms a level of relationship not easily reached otherwise. To me, sitting and listening with great focus to the subtle net of bird language, to the call of a wrentit, the song of a golden crowned sparrow--this is a "taking into the body" too. All of the senses are doorways into the wise body, not just taste.

Now, when I smell the musk of alders, and lean up against those white trunks, my body remembers that red-barked medicine, and is always amazed. Walking among alders is like walking among friends. And so the sight of a fallen alder is both a magnificent gift-- normally I only gather catkins and cones and twigs to tincture, not wanting to harm the tree by taking bark—and a moment of sorrow.

We sat, my wildcrafting friend and I, and gave our thanks for a while to that beautiful tree. Sang a song, patted her great trunk. It seemed to me as we sat, and listened, that the alder had no sorrow in her falling. That a fallen tree is a whole new life— shelter for new animals, food for bugs, the slow nourishment of bark decomposing into the ground.

I gathered great scales of bark for my dye bath because, despite alder's affinity for water, and for the lymphatic system of the body (waterways!), in old European lore alders also have a reputation for creating the hottest, best fires in which to forge magical swords, (or just heat up a long cold night); they are trees of fire and of water both, great pale candles rising up from the creekbeds, clearing heat from the body, always smoldering red just under that white skin. 

In a great vat in my kitchen I steeped the bark and dyed the many petals of these little crocheted "candle-carpets," as I called them, each a sun-wheel and a square. Their making was a long and careful affair. I think I may have listened to an entire audiobook, with countless cups of tea, as well as numerous garden birdsongs, before all fifty were done!

Every month, the Tinderbundle is just as much a surprise for me as it is for you. What plants call out to be used, what stories coming knocking at the edges of my mind with strange and red-dyed hands. This month, I am following a strange and wild word-- NET. 

I'll leave you with an excerpt from January's tale--of lanterns, of lights, of whales....

<< Old Iris was eating fresh clams from a net on a rock beside her tule hut when she saw a figure out on the marsh. Two dancing blue-flamed lamps were lit, hanging from willow branches, to illuminate her front porch. There appeared to be a mist rolling in behind the figure, though it was coming from a most unusual direction—east. It always came from the ocean to the west. Her eyes were not as sharp as they had once been—hence her love of lanterns—but her other senses were keen. She heard the ghosts of whales and seals before she could make out the phantom gauze of their forms. A high and lonesome melody that rattled the stars above and below the marsh, in the hot muck of the fault zone. She could hear them rattling, like great bells. 

She stood abruptly. Clam shells clattered and then fell from her muddy apron. She took one step, then two, on her broad heron feet, in the way of the hunt, one foot paused long above the mud before silently entering it again. The air carried the smell of boy, and city, and tweed. She wrinkled her nose, then smiled a small smile. At last, a visitor. At last, the blue marshlights had caught someone’s eye, or soul. The world seemed to have become full of skeptics. She had resigned herself to it; almost. Superstition buried in science. But here was one. She could see his heart now, through the dark. The color of will-o’-the-wisps. The color of fallen stars. She could see that he did not know it, how hot it glowed, how bright. 

“Hello?” the boy called, seeing her form now by the light of those fish oil lamps. The humpback whales dove and danced in the air, very high up, having caught sight of the ocean beyond the Inverness Ridge. The elephant seals circled and barked terrible grinding barks of pleasure at the smell of fish oil burning in Old Iris’ lamp. A gray whale with the ghost of a baby in her belly sang a single long note at the sight of the whale roads far out over the ocean, where her family had once travelled. 
“Young man,” Old Iris called back in her rough and croaking voice. It was just like the rough calls of herons. “You are trailing the ghosts of whales. You are tangled in the ghosts of seals. Are you a braggart or a rogue, following my blue lights to find your own fortune? Or are you simply lost?” >>


  1. Wonderful. Simply wonderful. I can hear the songs of the whales and taste the air. Thank you for feeding my wildness.

  2. Thank you for feeding my wildness - yes that's exactly it. Thank you for all this soft pawed ferral beauty.

  3. I am so entranced by this story vignette and long to know more. Beautiful, soulful writing.

  4. You are a wonderful writer! I have a special connection with alder as well, from growing up in the woods. Over here alder is called elle træ (=tree) - and has given its name elle or elver to some of the most known spirit beings. The Elle folk lives under the trees, and people used to believe that it was very bad luck to cut down an alder, since the elle folk would bring bad luck on you if you did. There is an elle king, a foul looking creature, which daughters are very beautiful and dangerous. They're dancing and singing in the moonlight, and will try to make you dance with them. If you do, they will cast a spell on you - and you will be lost to the world. If/when you return, many years can have passed, which only felt like minutes. Also, they make bows and arrows from the alder tree (and willows. The danish word for willow means arrow - pil), and if you're hit by one, you will become ellevild, (meaning crazy as/from alder) and you will dance like a maniac untill you eventually die. The only way to tell if the blond beauties you've meet dancing in the woods are human or elle, is to look at their backs - elle girls have hollow backs, and sometimes you can even spot an elle baby inside. Uh, there are so many stories about the elle folk, but you've probably read all about them, maybe they'll differ from country to country though ...