Friday, December 23, 2016

To Claim the Wrentit as Clanswoman

Modern Rome; Campo Vacino, by J.M.W. Turner 1839

I wrote the following poem the morning of November 9th, sitting out in the bishop pine forest in Inverness, watching one of my favorite tiny birds, the wrentit, and taking what solace I could from their companionable cheeps and calls. I published it over on my subscription-based poetry journal, A Green Language. Despite its initial darkness, I wanted to share this poem today with all of you, in the heart of the yule season, in honor of what can be born of darkness, and care, and rooting deep in place. In the spirit of magic, in honor of the wrentits and all the other small plain animals we forget so often to see, may we make new maps together out of hope, and fallen twigs.


This morning, we woke to a truth:
we are Rome, at the end, afire
A man is ordering roadways
to be lined with the bodies of the dead
and a wall to keep out Others
the ones who clamoring for peace, for shelter
for a land that once was, long ago and wilder
Their women carry babies on their backs
They are dark as the earth forgotten
Their men carry axes and rope
Their fires line the perimeter
of the end of the world
where they are singing the songs
our ancestors knew

All that is left is that circle
where the fires gather
I don’t know which to light
or how to get there yet
only that it’s time to go
to flee the deadstrewn road, the wall
Not away, not a distant country
but down, under and in
To claim the wrentit as clanswoman
she who lives her whole
life eating spiders in the brush
where she was born
knowing every name
for every branch and leaf

There is a dark country* just below
your feet, just outside your window
where the roots live where the spiders spin
where our ancestors have gone
where they are lighting fires now
Every day and every fallen tree
is a threshold
There is nowhere to run but in, into
the dark country where warriors
cannot walk, but only we the humbled
we the strong, the keepers, tenders, lovers
who’ve lost the map
and now must make a new one out of twigs.

*The “dark country” is a phrase that came to me from a very inspiring essay by Ursula K. Le Guin. You can read an excerpt of it here.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Winter's Dark

Despite the dystopia America has awoken to in the past month, this is one of the most beautiful winter seasons I can remember here on the coast of California, where the fir trees find their southernmost range, and the black sages their northernmost. I have always loved winter in California, and by winter I mean the rainy season, which normally (in the past) starts in October and lasts until the end of March. I have loved it ferociously, almost desperately in recent years, when drought dried the grasses dead gray until January. I love it with the love and fear that loss entail. I do not know what our rapidly changing climate will do to California. If we will become a desert or a floodplain. But I do know that I love the specifics of winter in this bioregion, as I have known it since I was a little girl. Back then, I despised the sight of blue sky between storms. It made me sour, and a little bit depressed. I coveted my time by the fire with a book and my berry tea as it raged and rained outside. I rejoiced when the power went out and we had to light candles and shower in cold water. When the lights came back on suddenly and without warning, I was petulant, disappointed. I ran outside in the street or in the back garden in the heaviest rain, and when I was older, and falling in love, I walked the mountain's flanks and rejoiced in that drenching. 

You must remember that winter on the central coast of California is a mild, generous affair. Cold enough to warrant sweaters and wool underwear, certainly (we do have frosts, you know, despite what you might imagine!), but rarely below freezing in the daytime, and mostly well above. Winter is our season of renewal. In other places throughout the northern hemisphere, from whence we get our seasonal myths and expectations, it rains in the summer, and so the summer is thought of everywhere as green and fecund. Here, summer is a dry bone. High summer is a northern winter in terms resources for plants and animals, until the berries come in toward the end. But Winter, she carries the green in her darkling pockets.

Green is the color of winter, gold is the color of summer, here on the coast of California. It is a beautiful, unusual combination, and the Northern European myths of yule and solstice only match to a point, but not beyond. If you want to really understand the winter here, you have to imagine the feeling of the deep darkness of short days and long nights, and all the magic and old voices that darkness kindles, while all the while that feeling the way that darkness is itself making a basket full of green, and everywhere you walk through the shortening days, the grass is an iridescence along the pathways, the nettles are leaping up from the earth, the raptors and waterbirds that summer elsewhere are suddenly everywhere on the bays and the telephone lines. This is the place they come for gentleness, for shelter. White kites with kohl-rimmed eyes that hunt aloft like angels. Kestrels with poppy-orange feathers and coats of smoke.

Ours is a sheltering kind of winter, for this is a land of many gifts. But it is still a dark winter, and the nights are long, with very sharp stars. The kind of darkness that roots grow full in. The kind of darkness that allows the unseen world to dance at all the corners of your perception. This, I think, is why I love winter so fiercely. The other day, walking down through the rain-wet redwoods in the early dusk, I asked myself why is it that I love the winter and the darkness so? Immediately many external answers came to me— because of the green, because of the rain, because of the dark, because of the time to sit by fires, by candles, with books and food and good company, because of the fecundity of darkness and of wet, because stories and ideas spring up through me like so many mushrooms... Yes, I replied to myself, but why? Why this deep thrill at the early nights, the short golden light, the wet, the dark?

And then it came to me, a glimmer of new understanding. I think that in winter (and especially in this landscape where winter also means new growth) the unseen world—the spirits that dwell in trees, in stones, in waters, in birds, in stars, in us—is a little easier to see, because it seems to me that all things relating to Otherworlds, to Mysteries, to Magic, prefer the cover of darkness. They are not beings or forces that can be seen with your eyes in broad daylight. They do not, as John O'Donohue would say, appreciate the "neon culture" that surrounds us, the need to shine the bright lights of fact and reason into every gentle burrow or wounded valley of land and spirit. In winter, night holds the day in her cupping hands, encircling and informing it. Night, stars, and moon hold the ground we walk, and hold us too, and the beings that dwell only in the unseen corners of earth and consciousness surround us more closely, more often, so that we are more likely to glimpse them there, just before dawn, just after dusk. In rain, in wet, in cold and greening forests, in long nights full of dreams and firelight, everything that we cannot see but that we know is there, dancing in us and in the world, is there, very close, and something in the darkness helps us to believe in it all again, at least for a little while, despite everything we've been taught and told. 

Then, of course, I remembered this poem by the great mystic, Rainer Maria Rilke. 

You, Darkness

by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Robert Bly

You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.

But the darkness pulls in everything:
shapes and fires, animals and myself,
how easily it gathers them! —
powers and people —
and it is possible a great energy
is moving near me.

I have faith in nights.

Our seasons are becoming so unpredictable. It is easy to spin out into anxiety, to worry about next year, or tomorrow, or January. But right now, it's pouring. The redwoods are winedark with rain. There is much in the human world to cause outrage, to demand action. But also, there is the shelter of this darkness, of rain's undeniable beauty, of the unseen world, so lonely, lately, for our quiet and loving attention.