Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Kelp & Mist & Badger Claws

My father's ancestors are from this land. The bluffs of coastal Mendocino. Before that—the journey across this great heaving country, and a ship from Ireland. 

We spent a long weekend at the end of June gathering here with my big and kind and raucous and beautiful extended family. But I felt that we also spent time with an older family, the family of the sea wilds. Something happens in me, in both of us (Simon's people are from Nova Scotia and long before that, Scotland, so the rugged kelp lorn coast sings up through his heart just as strong as mine), when clambering over rough tidal rocks to gather seaweed. A quieting. A happy peace mixed with that mournful terrible beauty that the ocean can stir up. A sense of being perched between the greatest beauty and the greatest awe, together. 

As I knelt on a rock covered in mussel shells, my knees searing, the waves knocking up far closer to me, perched out there, than was probably entirely safe, leaning down to gather a variety of kombu off the cold-tossed stone, I felt for a long instant a dizzying sense of the world's power, and myself enfolded within it—ocean rocking against stone, kombu growing into the salt, the immense lapis tide, the ancient wheeling cries of oystercatchers, watching us with red eyes and black wings, the animal thrill of all of my senses, soaked. And the feeling that women before me, women of my blood perhaps very long ago, knelt on stones and gathered seaweed, crooning little thank you songs, surging with the mystery of it all, of the soaking salting foaming living sea. 

I found a perfect swimming place, a long pool where the waves were tamed by rough rocks, so that they moved the water only gently, with a rocking exhalation and gentle inhalation, moving the thick-haired kelp in and out in a motion so delightful, so completely beguiling, I found myself leaving my clothes in a pile and plunging in to that shock and sweet of cold.

Let me tell you--as I am sure you know-- there is nothing in the world like standing waist deep in the bracing cold arms of a tidepool with kelp dancing soft around your knees and the waves rocking and seething with all the pull of the moon through them. Maybe it's a memory of the womb. A memory of being undivided; entirely held, without question made of the same substance as the universe. Of course, we still are. But we forget. Gosh, is it easy to forget, especially as the cool quick interiors of our little touch screen boxes, our keyboard click oblivions, further and further fragment our inner resources and keep our minds in a scattered state of spin.

But then, no matter our strange modern addictions, the way our necks are growing hunched and our fingerpads more sensitive to the touch of screens, in many cases, than soil, a fact we may recognize and mourn but see no easy way out of—go down to the shore, put your feet in the cold, and I swear the wholeness of your own self will flood you, the wholeness of yourself in the world. It is much older than the brief veneer of our modernity. Our bodies are very wise, and they know the language of the world, even if our minds have been trained to shut it out. 

We slept on the dunes, under the mist. Sometimes I forget that fog is sea-made. That it is ocean-drops condensed around salt, cold air sucked in toward the hot inland valleys by the air-pressure vacuum made between hot and cold. All night long, it sprinkled us. It laid tiny fingers across our noses. It tasted of kelp. It tasted of that mystery, the great tide.

On our way home, we took the long winding route along the coast to greet the rocky, sheer blue breadth of the edge of this land; to remember its span, which can be forgotten flying down freeways lined with gas stations and strip malls. 

Beside a cow pasture and a stand of willows, Simon spotted this beautiful being, recently dead. During my most recent tracking work this spring, we focused on the life and natural history of the badger. But she is a very elusive, very mysterious being, rarely seen. 

She is a deep digger of hillsides, bringing huge amounts of necessary aeration through the soil. Since badgers dig to hunt (mainly gophers, their favorite prey) the amount of holes they can riddle a landscape with is truly staggering. They churn the tidal sea of soil. The plumb that depth with broad scooping claws. It was a true honor to behold these enormous sickle claws, the perfect toe and heel pads, to imagine all the soils she swam in life.

We pulled the beautiful badger away from the road, down into a patch of willows, where we partially covered her in boughs, sprinkled juniper, said small words in the hope that her badger-soul had found its endless dirt-dark peace, returned to the great womb of things, the salt and tide of all hope.


  1. A beautiful place to lie down and sleep

  2. My Dear Sylvia~ This is so very beautiful, as always. And your description of the sea; the juxtaposition of sea-salt and mist against the madness of modernity, it touches the very centre of me. Thank You, for your clear and soulful reflection. Your words refresh like the sea itself and urge us toward wakefulness. Oh and this blessed Badger, she is incredible, and look at her paws. Xo Nao

  3. I read this the day after we took some New Zealand house guests to Kilve, which is close to us on the Somerset coast in England: very similar landscape at the edge of the sea. It's shale, though, and you can't light a fire on the shingle in case the rocks catch ablaze. Years ago we met a young badger up in the reed beds, muttering and grumbling to himself, in broad daylight.

    Thank you for this piece.