Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Gleewomen

My dear Indigo Vat has at last undergone a long overdue Naming. For a while now I've been aware of the fact that I appear to be running a natural dye website, when in fact I am a writer of fantastical and ecological fiction and essays. I do now and then mention natural dyes, but I think this has become confusing. I've been waiting for the right time, and the right name, and now both seem to have come! Welcome to my Gleewoman's Notes. I plan to be using this space more often, shifting my focus a bit to emphasize shorter, more informative posts that explore particular facets of natural history, human history and the many literatures and myths of the fantastic, as they come up in my life and catch my interest and my heart. There will also be posts about daily life, but I hope to create a space here that is a bit more honed and focused, a space that can be a resource for all who visit.
The Musicians, Lucas van Leyden 1524
So, without further ado, a little bit about gleemen, the Old English term for minstrels, bards, jongleurs. I chose the word "gleewoman" (modified to the feminine) for the new title of my blog because the role of the traveling singer and taleteller has always plucked a deep cord in my heart, ever since I was small. Before newspapers and movies and books read in bed, there were the wandering ones who came bearing not only local gossip and news from the next village, not only bright silks and juggling balls to entertain the small ones, but stories ripe as apples, stories with their roots so far back in time and in the land that no one could say where they had begun, or where they might end. It is this tradition—of the stories passed on round fires for millennia, stories that always had hearts made out of wonder, hearts threaded with hulda and vila and dragons and trolls—that I write in, to which I sing my songs at dusk. 
Girl Playing Music, Marie Spartali Stillman 1844-1927
I love that the literal etymology of gleeman is exactly as it looks—a man who is mirthful with music; a man who brings the joy of music; perhaps most specifically a man whose trade is the glee of song. Glee in its original sense was connected with music, but also with the Old Norse gly, for joy, which had its hooves in other gl- words associated with shining, smooth, radiant things. And of course back before the printing press, and up until today in oral cultures, story and poetry and song were inextricably linked. So glee is the joy of good tales as well as good songs. 

A gleeman or gleemaiden (as the rarer women-minstrels were also called) was not the fancy sort; not the kind of minstrel who was invited to the king's court. No; these jolly gleemen were for common folk, and their stories were all the richer and freer for it. Getting roped in to the life of a court bard surely had its advantages in pay and comfort, but it also meant that the poet had to tell tales and sing ballads to the liking of those in power. You danced the king's dance, not your own. And so although gleewomen and men probably rarely dressed in shining robes, the stories they told could gleam brighter than any buried treasure. And to juggle from town to town, trading in the glee of story; well, that must have been a shining life in many ways, despite its inevitable hardships. 
Sapho jouant de la harpe, 1475, French illuminated manuscript
When I was seventeen, I did my final project for a medieval European history class on jongleurs. These were the French equivalent of the English peasant gleeman—not the aristocratic troubadours, but the fellows who rambled town to town hawking every kind of entertainment. Jongleur, after all, is where we get the word "juggler." For my project, I created the leatherbound journals, complete with watercolors and pressed flowers, of one such roaming taleteller. "... In which one wayfaring jongleur recounts his journeys in Southern France in the year of our Lord one thousand two hundred and eight," reads the title page. I remember staying up very late the night before it was due, dashing out paintings of St. John's Wort and scrambling to find something suitable for affixing dry oak leaves. The tale—a bit florid, I daresay, with this decade of hindsight—is threaded through with factual information about the lives of jongleurs. Here is a little taste below, to bring that old world to life...

Rebec player, medieval illuminated manuscript

I spent the night beneath an oak tree, arms stiff and wary around my harp, as if she were an anchor, holding me steady against the waves and eddies of the darkness, against the small voices of the little folk who dance with the full moon. [...] 

I am bound to no one, nothing but the wind, the winding roads, and my harp. The villagers are delighted when I pass through, because it is not often that they hear the sweet voice of a harp. Such instruments are usually played only by the troubadours, the nobles, and since they rarely travel beyond their castles and manors (preferring their luxury I suppose), the folk must settle for the more common sounds of whistles, drums, rattles and gitterns, on occasion. [...]

I came upon the small town of Mailline early this morning, and greeted the stirring folk with the lively plano, followed by the juggling of nine balls stitched from cowhide and painted in colors like the sunrise. It is always wise to capture the ears of the villagers with a quick, loud ditty, then enchant their eyes with flashing hands and colors, woo them with small feats, and then tie them in completely with the sound of the harp. [...] The villagers of Mailline were especially enchanted with my songs, and gathered round, abandoning their chores to listen, cross-legged or leaning against the central well. I played for them an alba about a shepherdess and a knight who, after sharing their love for a night, had to part with the first rays of sun, the first notes of birdsong. I sang a sirvente, criticizing the ever warring dukes of our land. [...] I also recited, without my harp, a simple verse, embellished with my own additions, of the tale of Joseph and Mary. I always like to weave into a performance at least one religious piece, for safety's sake, though I find they don't lend themselves particularly well to romance...
The Minstrel, Kate Elizabeth Bunce 1890 
Although the world we live in is no longer so small nor so simple as that of early medieval Europe, nor as wise as the nomadic hearthfires of the many myth-telling indigenous peoples of the world, I think the allure of the wandering mythcarrier is as strong, maybe stronger, than ever. After all, don't we all pick up our hems and go sprinting (or more literally driving for two hours!) toward Point Reyes Station when Martin Shaw comes to tell his tales at night in the old church? Aren't we all starved for the kinds of stories that make you drop everything to sit at the feet of poetry?

It is this lineage of story-making to which I have been very joyfully and also very humbly apprenticing myself for most of my life. (Not necessarily the traveling, performative bit, but who knows? Perhaps one day...) This past year has seen some changes in my Wild Talewort business and the intensity and speed with which I write and share. These outer changes reflect some deeper inner shifts as I travel with ever more devotion along the gleewoman's path, trying to make sure that the joy of storymaking reaches as deep into my own heart as it can, and then on out into the world, doing its best to sing a song of hope and reconnection.

The Beggars, Lucas van Leyden 1520
Terri Windling said something brilliant about the relationship between tale and music in her recent lecture at the 4th annual Tolkien Lecture at Pembroke College. "I believe there's something in these old stories that does what singing does," she says. "They both have transformational capabilities—the way a melody can change your mood. It can't change your actual situation, but it can change your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape from reality. We create it to be able to stay."

I hope that this refreshed blog space can be a place of respite, gleaming bits of beauty, bright juggling balls and love-songs, amidst all the bad news, negativity and disconnection rife online and in our world. I hope that these scraps of magic will help you (and me!) stay with it, with the true songs in our hearts, no matter how dark the winds that blow. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Clay Magi

I've always believed that when you make something with your hands, it comes alive. Hares and bears and mountain lions and roses and hearth-homes and strange wheeled vehicles, they all wait inside the iron-dark clay. Our hands know how to pull and coax and sing them out. It is, in no small way, magic. At least that's how I find the process of working with clay, the act of sending a bisque-fired creature off into the kiln, to be engulfed in flames, to come out bright-skinned, umbered, new. I always feel a little bit tender, watching them go in to that great old chamber of transmutation. And when they come out; well, they are no longer wholly mine. They can speak. They can carry light. They have dreams of their own. 

I believe old houses are this way too. Made by hand and tool out of materials that were once alive, filled with human love stories and heart-breaks, holding on to the memories and sorrows and passions of those who lived within their walls. 

Behind those taffeta curtains the color of mustard, a dark eyed, white-haired weaver might live, coming and going by the third-story door which has no staircase, but simply opens onto the air beneath the redwood trees on the old road called Cascade. 

Maybe she comes and goes by way of the ghost of the Mt. Tamalpais Railroad, the Crookedest Railroad in the World, which snaked up the mountain at the turn of the century, and left behind only fireroads and a few old railroad ties. Maybe she sits at the top of the mountain on summer evenings when the fog is so thick she can only see her own body, and the nearest rocks, and the moisture on gold grass and the summer mariposa lilies just coming up, singing to the ghosts of grizzly bears. The last one in all of California was shot in 1911. 

Dreaming, singing, storytelling, shaping grizzlies with clay in our hands; all of these things are an act of hope, a declaration of embodiment and the mystery of this world.

Recently a friend asked me what I meant when I talked about magic. I realized that I do talk about it a fair bit, not always remembering that in the dominant culture, "magic" as such pretty much begins and ends with Harry Potter style wizards and green-faced Halloween witches at best, and sexy teen vampires at worst. Or, perhaps just as confusing and ultimately misleading, a kind of sparkling fairy wonderland full of chiffon dresses in the shapes of bluebells. There is also in the word the sense of illusion-- as in the rabbit-out-of-a-hat sort of magic tricks. Perhaps it's partly the word that is to blame, for magic, in its literal etymology, actually doesn't mean quite what I intend it to mean when I use it.

Its roots are Latin, and therefore Indo-European, the language group that came cascading out of the Caucasus some 5,000 years ago on horseback. "Magic" comes from the Proto-Indo-European root magh, "to have power," which, as we all know, is a complicated and dangerous thing to wield. In Old Persian, "magush" meant one of the members of the priestly learned class, and by the late 14th century "magic," from the Old French magique meant something along the lines of "the art of influencing events and producing marvels using hidden natural forces." Apparently the word "magic" displaced the Old English wiccecraeft and drycraeft (dry having its roots in the Old Irish drui, related to druid). 

Magic, to me, isn't so much about the power to influence events in the world, though I do believe that human beings throughout time, from Kashaya Pomo shamans to medieval Persian priests to ancient Transylvanian grandmothers have been able to influence and even control some of the unseen forces at work around us all the time, and that wherever power resides, there is always the possibility of misuse. (Across much of indigenous California, people ran into regular trouble with witchdoctors gone bad—the jealous, nasty sorts of power-hungry shamans who would put the eye on you out of jealousy or revenge, and Poison you.) 

In this lifetime, in this world, magic to me is about the force of life itself. The fact that the fog coming over the mountain makes the shapes it does, impossibly beautiful wisps and coils and tendrils of mist. The fact that the mariposa lily, opening on a hot day, is so perfectly spotted and furred. What can possibly create such yellow? And how can it be that the bees (according to recent studies which only put into scientific language the Miracle that poetry and ancient stories have known all along) talk to the flowers through the hairs in their legs? More to the point, magic to me means that everything is alive. Everything speaks. The entire world is animate. Speak to the clay in your hands, and it will become a bear. Bury that bear in the earth with a prayer for the old grizzlies who no longer walk this land, and I do mean this most sincerely, you never know what might come to pass. 

We are very literally made up of all of the same stuff as the mariposa lily, the grizzly bear, the young rattlesnake sleeping in the shade of a log, the mountain itself. Even the stars. Look to Darwin or to the Creation Stories of the First People all across North America. You will find the same story. This is what magic means to me—all the unseen threads that weave us, one to the next, star to firtop to bear-ghost to human woman to wildflower to ocean to air.

This is why I tell stories the way I do. This is why I imagine dark-eyed weavers at the tops of old houses, and shape animals from clay that take on lives of their own, and dream of ghost-trains and the possibility that grizzly bears are still here in the land of California, somewhere; because I believe that without this faith in the unseen, in the possibilities of unfathomable Dreaming within every form of life, in the understanding that we are all made of one fabric, a brilliant many-seamed and many-colored patchwork—without this we are lost. We are heart-broken. At the beginning of human time, the earliest religion, the earliest form of "magic," was embodied by the shaman, the one who mediated between the human community and the more-than-human realms of animals, plants, stones, waters, winds, celestial bodies, and spirits. The shaman's job, at its most basic and most generalized, was to keep the balance, to not let the people forget who they were, where they stood, how every other being was elder and kin.

How are we to keep the balance now, in this world, when "magic" at its most literal, and its most popular, means a fantastical manipulation of power? How are we to keep the balance in this world, without remembering how to Dream, how to imagine, how to tell stories that bring the houses alive, the clay alive, even the plastic and the concrete alive? The truth is, humans love stories full of giants and talking stars and wise bears. We know it well when we are children. When we grow up, we tend to forget it for a little while. But, even so,  it's never to late to start looking for doors with no staircases and the old wise ones who use them...