Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Calendar of Willows & of Waves

In the beginning of December, my dear friend Nao Sims (of Honey Grove) came to visit from British Columbia. You know that feeling with a friend who is kin—how you step into another kind of time. How you go to a place that is an eternal hearthside, an endless seat by the fire with a cup of wild tea and a conversation that you've been having always. 

Nao and I did a lot of literal sitting by the fire with tea and talking, taking up that old and eternal dialogue. We did a lot of wandering too, and gathering plants for said tea (usnea, bishop pine, fresh yarrow sprigs, plantains, yerba buena).

We visited the old growth redwoods of Muir Woods, a place I haven't been since I was a girl, though I grew up right next to it, because it is always overrun with tourists. But ancient redwoods are too important to miss when visiting California, and we found that their immense size and age absorbed all of us human visitors like a great benediction. They are a cathedral, and everyone, no matter how perfumed, how carefully groomed, lowers their voice, and cranes up. 

There is nothing like an old growth redwood tree, after all, to set you straight about eternity. 

Such a tree (born probably around 900 or 1000 AD) is Time, as far as I'm concerned. As far as any of us, and the sword ferns, and the northern spotted owls, and the moles, are concerned. Such a tree is all the air and the water and the wind and the nourishment of stones for a thousand years, in one column of fibrous and silent bark, in one column of smoldering light. And it is this Time that we touch with dear friends, with beloveds, in the dark heart of winter. It is this Time that we are always swimming in, if we slow down and reach our hands out to living things, to remember.

When Nao left, I felt disoriented for at least a day. Time, which was the vast silence of a redwood tree, which had been moving in circles, or not moving at all, bent straight again. Things To Do loomed. The tea kettle and the eternal hearth had to be again gathered up inside, to be tended there. 

This was in the dark dip of winter just before the solstice, when, to me, the world and the night and the solace of silence seemed to gather the thickest, rain in the air, soothing me to the very quick. 

Then, suddenly, the days turned into January, and the nettles began to press up through the muddy earth, and I find myself resisting, wanting to dig under ground with the roots of trees, not ready for the movement, the way the days on the calendar seem to fly by again (the 21st, how did it become the 21st?).  In part my resistance has to do with the long drought these past years, and a terror that summer will come again too fast, too soon, too long; that the winter will be over before I blink an eye, that I will not have properly beheld the Rain. But it also has to do with our cultural conception of time, the ticking off of days and weeks as numbers in a long line that seems to be eaten up behind us. 

And then, recently, something occurred to me about Time. It was born out of my days with Nao, and my days embracing midwinter, and the low, low voices of the redwood trees. It is not a new idea, but as with all useful ideas, I had to come to it on my own, through my own body, in order to really understand it. It's a thought I've had before, but this year, it has really taken root. 

Only in the human mind is time a line. And only some human minds in certain cultures, for some spans of human history. Everywhere else—for the deer, for the dunes, for the bishop pine, for the toyon, for the Coast Miwok, the first people of this place—it is Always, and also right now. Everywhere else besides the modern calendar, there are circles, and inside those circles is an ease, because circles are the shape of the planet, and our star, our moon, and everything in our solar system. Circles are the shape of solace.

I think our bodies and minds actually resist the Straight and Narrow, resist moving in a clear line, because they understand what everything else understands—that we are right here where we are, with the fruiting toyon and the cold earth and the long nights, and we are also made of the eternal, every edge and seam touching Myth Time, the time of Creation, the beginning of the world. It's just that our minds are very strong, and like to make rules; they have the capacity to accept lines, and even like lines, and they mold themselves easily to dominant narratives (by no fault of their own-- we are made to absorb story and we do it by default from the moment we are born). 

What occurred to me more specifically about Time had to do with experiencing the world not as a series of boxes and numbers, as our calendars subtly imprint upon our minds, but rather reaching out to the land around me and allowing Foam Time, Ocean Time, Toyon Time, Newt Time, Rain Time, more fully in. What does this turning of the moon right now mean for the tides, and what does it mean for the rain, and how do they interact? What are the newts doing right now? What is the weather up to, the great oceanic currents and atmospheric rivers? What does Right Now mean to the toyon, the river otter, the great blue heron? How can I wrap myself up in the this rhythm of Time, stand within it, instead of the numbers and the boxes?

For me, really allowing these many layers of Time in has begun as a practice of observation, of journaling, of documentation. And it has started not with the name of a month (January, after the Roman god Janus, with one head in the new year and the other into the old year, god of thresholds), but with the moon. One new moon to the next, a circle of days divided into four quarters—(new, waxing quarter, full, waning quarter)—with frogs and bobcat tracks, migrating newts and swollen creeks threaded with pencil & watercolor around the wheel. Literally documenting for myself, based on my personal experience, the lives of plants and animals and waters as they change through the changing of the moon feels to me like making a basket. A basket made of moon, and of the many threads of more-than-human time, each different, calibrated to a different inner life-rhythm, but also the same, aligned with everything, as they have been since the beginning of Creation. 

In the middle of that basket, I feel at ease. I feel at home. I feel like this measuring of time makes sense to me. 

from the Winter Solstice & surrounding weeks, 2014 (copyright Sylvia Linsteadt)

Last year, from 2014 through 2015, I created eight of these hands, one every six weeks, charting a "feral palm reading" of the land during those weeks. They accompanied the eight installments of Elk Lines. It is a similar idea to the calendar of moons I am describing above, only a little bit less of a documentation tool, and more a synthesis of weeks and moments. When my first moon to moon calendar is finished, I will certainly share it with all of you-- as I think this is a wonderful tool for each and every one of us to explore if we feel so called. For now, imagine this palm and its beings turned into a circle marked by moons, woven in a basket-round of the many threads of Time....

There's Elk Time, in which the great antlers of summer and fall (some longer than my arms, six tined and shining). grown heavy for the rut and the time of mating, are dropping. The calves born in April and May are almost full grown, but still keep close to their mothers.

The mother elk, lounging in the grass, are pregnant, their babies still tiny, gestating through the long nights of winter, waiting to be born when the grass is tall and the irises in full purple bloom.

In Bobcat Time, the days are made of the plump bodies of overwintering coots, the little black birds who carpet the lagoons and bays at this time of year.

This bobcat scat is marking an obvious crossroads, & a trail down through the pines
In Bobcat time, courting is well underway, the males tracing paths deeper and deeper into the territories of females, each feeling out the other. These are great mysteries though, and such evidence seldom seen...

In Coyote Time, courtship is a dance of paws across the sand; it is heady midnights trotting the open strands, paws flicking sidelong with joy, with flirtation. I like to imagine them, trotting far, panting in great grins, nipping and yelping and whirling under a dark sky. 

In Moss Time, well, it is the time of green glory. Of drinking. Of utter saturated delight.

In Bracken Time, it is the time of dying, of rust-colored old leaves, and the promise of new ones waiting underground.

In Hemlock Time, it's the time of barrenness, of seeds sodden with raindrops, of utter quiet. 

In Hill Time it's the time of new green, bright and close as cut velvet.

In Willow Time, it's the time of bare branches like a gentle fire across the marsh. And it's the time of the very first new velveteen buds, like the tiny soft ears of voles.

Leaves are still a long way off, but in Willow Time, the day the silver buds first emerge is exactly the right and only day for them to emerge, because it simply Is. Willows don't fret about how long they got to be quiet in their roots, because during that time they were all the way there, in the roots, no worries about past or future. Now, when the buds come, it is because it is time for the buds to come. Resisting any of it would only cause struggle, and strife. Resisting any of it would be, well-- very much like a human, and not very much like a willow tree.

It's so easy to understand this on the land, through the eyes of our wiser animal & plant kin. It is so much harder to remember it ourselves. But the thing is, we don't need to remember any of this ourselves, all alone. We were never meant to be alone. We were always meant to look outward from ourselves and touch the things of the world— the elk, the rain, the nettles, the mud, the tracks of bobcats, the new willow buds—and through them understand where we are in the cycle of days, where we stand in the basket of time, how to navigate the tides of transformation.

"We have been put into life as into the element we most accord with," writes Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet,  "and we have, moreover, through thousands of years of adaptation, come to resemble this life so greatly that when we hold still, through a fortunate mimicry we can hardly be differentiated from everything around us." 


  1. Such beautiful wisdom here, as always. I have counted my time by the moons for many years; right now, I am in the middle of King Moon, which I also call Tinder Moon, when the heat is a dominant force but the grass has not yet dried to gold. Cicadas are beginning to sing. The baby birds are no longer hopping awkwardly behind their parents, begging for food, but have become a fully-fledged part of the rooftop community. Neighbours ask those coming home if it's too hot to go out. In my own small world, it's the birthday time of year, as almost every woman I know is a Capricorn.

    I know many people go by the traditional names for the moons, but that makes no sense to me - especially as those names are northern ones, and relate not in even the smallest way to my southern landscape.

    I especially love this that you wrote: "We were never meant to be alone. We were always meant to look outward from ourselves and touch the things of the world— the elk, the rain, the nettles, the mud, the tracks of bobcats, the new willow buds—and through them understand where we are in the cycle of days, where we stand in the basket of time, how to navigate the tides of transformation." This, I will take with me into the day. Thank you for it, and for all you share.

    1. Thank you Sarah, and for sharing all of these beautiful words. I love your description of your Tinder Moon-- the specificity of bird fledglings, amazing! -- and I think here in California we share a VERY similar moon, and it's a really hard time of year for me. Well-- actually by our equivalent of your January (July), our grass is gone gold and brittle as bone, so perhaps we are a moon or two ahead/ extended in terms of dryness & drought season (we get NO rain from about April through the end of October). I really agree with you, re some things you've written on your blog, that this is a very hard time creatively. People always say winter is the time to rest, to slow the creative process, and this year it has been for me because I had to push it so hard in the summer, but naturally, in this landscape-- summer is the dead season, the dangerous season for animals and plants, the time when everything is saving energy in the roots. Anyhow, thank you as always for visiting, and for your thoughtful words. xo Sylvia

  2. My Dear Sylvia~ The lens through which you behold the world is one of such soulful beauty. Thank you for offering me a chair by your fireside, there is nothing quite like an endless cup of tea in the company of a dear friend to dissolve all of the straight lines in the universe. Your words today are a balm for my soul and my gratitude for your company, overfloweth.

    1. Dearest Nao, thank you. I am so grateful to have a friend to share the horse with in this mad world. ;-) I am sending you great armloads of love. XO

  3. dear sylvia, this loveliest of posts has found its way into my own wanderings (thus why i tagged you with willow time on IG :) . i can't do justice to your beauty here with a brief comment, but i will say that what your musings brought to me was the ecclesiastes verse, that pete seeger made popular with his song "turn! turn! turn!". a time for every purpose under heaven would mean Every. Purpose. Under. and how many purposes there are going on all around us all the time. your writing here weaves us back into the time of ALL beings, out of our little human self-important trajectories. thank you. <3

  4. Oh Sylvia, such a magical post. I love your thoughts on time. I have struggled with the linear concept of time for many years, but haven't known a way around it, or perhaps a way to reconcile Time in my mind. I love your idea of Time in terms of the more-than-human around us. I am very much looking forward to seeing your moon to moon calendar when it is ready. Warmest wishes. xx