Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tinderbundle


Just like a newborn ember needs dry grass, usnea lichen, mugwort leaves, cattail down, a good long breath of air, to light, so too does the creative ember (la chispa) in each of our spirits need its own nest of bundled fuel. Tinderbundle is just such a figurative nest of twigs and moss and down, to tuck the embers of your own dreams inside. 

Tinderbundle is my newest Wild Tales by Mail project. It has been crackling away in my imagination since early autumn, fueled by an embered conversation with my dear friend Nao Sims, of Honey Grove, my own love of the crafts and magics that come not just through the pen but also the making hands (medicine, dye, watercolor), and my experiences over the last year learning to make fire by friction. The first time I attempted to do so, I was very taken by the tinderbundle that I and the women I was with were instructed to make out of dry grass. I was moved by the idea that an ember is a newborn being that needs to be caught in the gentlest of beds before it can be blown into flame. That it is not just the act of producing a coal with spindle and hearthboard that is important, but also the act of caring for the ember so that it may reach the age of fire. 

All of this feels deeply resonant to me with the process of creativity. 


And so I give you... Tinderbundle. A firestarter for the wild soul. Each bundle is a nest of inspiration and small kindling for your own creative fires, for the path you are walking in your own place, slowly learning its wild songs. They arrive on the new moon-- so the first Tinderbundle is set to arrive December 21st! A wonderful yule gift...


Each Tinderbundle is wrapped in a vintage or naturally dyed piece of cloth and tied with my own handspun, naturally dyed wool (each dye relevant to the month's theme, and wildcrafted nearby). Once unrolled, you will find a short story vignette (of roughly 1500 words), two hand-painted divinatory cards (4 by 6 measurements, on watercolor stock), and an herbal salve (1/2 oz.)

Because these bundles contain such lovingly made items, I will only create 45 each month. So it is best to sign up early! Right now, I only have 14 Tinderbundles left for December's new moon.

Nettle, madder and black walnut dyes
Each Tinderbundle is woven around a single word, like a lone ember in the hand, a word whose roots stretch far back in the mothertree of the English language, to its roots in Old Norse, Old Dutch and Old Germanic. For example, the first month's word is Mast, from the Old English Maest: the fruit of forest trees, such as acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts and hazelnuts, as well as the pole on a ship that supports the sail.

The word is the organizing principle for all materials within the bundle. 


A note on the cards: I describe these cards as divinatory not because they particularly resemble what we think of as tarot cards, nor because they in any way predict the future, but rather in the sense of the word divination at its roots, and the old spirit behind the tarot. Divination comes from the Latin divinare, "to be inspired by a god," and the concept of seeing into the unknown. Regarding the tarot, I've heard it said that the "original" tarot was a set of playing cards in which the magic keepers (witches) of medieval Europe hid their knowledge, so that it might live on and not be entirely destroyed throughout the era of the Inquisition and beyond. These cards are about looking deeply into the wisdom of the natural world and the stories of the land, and so in that sense, they are divinatory--looking into the unknown, inspired by the gods and goddesses which dwell everywhere: in the coyote, the candle, the hazelnut, the Fool. 

One of the cards contains the word (Maest, for example), a related painting, and a set of questions and tidbits to create points of departure for your own creativity. The other card contains an animal associated with the monthly word-theme. (So for Maest it might be a bear, it might be a deer, a squirrel, a woodpecker...) The animal card will not, however, resemble a "medicine" card, but rather will provide you with some basics of the creature's natural history, track and sign, so that you might go out on the land near your home and forge a relationship of your own. 


A note on the salve: All herbal salves will be both practically useful (for bruises, for wounds, for sore muscles, for chapped lips, etc), but they will also carry a magical component (as all herbal medicine does), as they are doorways into a conversation with whatever plant they are made of. I will provide a little scroll of information with each small salve. They will be made in a base of happily harvested beeswax and olive oil, and created with the moon. Salve is from the Old Germanic/Gothic root salben, "to anoint," which holds to me both the meaning of healing, and of magic. 



A note on the yarn: in the old Gaelic tradition of knot-magic and witch's ladders, the string wound around your Tinderbundle will carry sacred knots tied with blessings upon you, the recipient, and the four-leggeds, two-leggeds, waters, winds, stones, plants, and fire embers that surround you—the family of things in which you reside, and are inextricably connected to.

Follow any of the links above to purchase, or right here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Embered Eye of the Buck

It is an old, old tradition the world over, that when the nights grow long and dark, the hearth becomes the sun, to carry the seed of light through the winter and on into spring. The fire becomes the axis around which stories are shared. Through the dark nights of the year, people held (and hold) vigil for the sun on its journey through the darkness, in all of his/her manifestations—Lugh, or Ra, or Sunna, or Cernunnos (the Stag, the Green Man, the Horned God)— as it travels through the underworld of the Cailleach, of Hel, and back out again into spring.  


Out over the ocean, as the sun sets and turns the sky all to fire, the Farallon Islands rise like a dream of the Otherworld in the distance. There, it was said by the Coast Miwok people, the spirits of the dead traveled. There, the sun sets, and for a moment turns the world to flame. 


In autumn, the fire from the sun is made manifest in the acorns abundant on all the trees, in the madrone berries, the manzanitas, the black walnuts, the golden chinquapin nuts, the buckeyes. All year long, the trees have been drinking up the heat from that great star to turn it to sugar. An acorn, in your hand, is transmuted sun. My hands have been full of acorns these past weeks, and the fallen flames of leaves; of roots and the bones of stags and what it means to honor the coming of winter on this land. So here are some threads of my days for you to warm your own hands by...


There is a beautiful Coast Miwok story about the origin of fire. It begins something like this: "In the early days, the only fire anyone knew about was kept by Starwoman, who lived near an elderberry brake to the east, in the mountains beyond the Great Valley. She kept her bright treasure in a box that she had carved from the burl of a buckeye tree. In those days it was cold and dreary here on the coast. Coyote decided to remedy that situation, so one day he sent little hummingbird out to steal the fire from Starwoman." (from Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula, by Jules Evens) 

Hummingbird, being so quick and tiny, managed to steal a piece of ember from Starwoman's immaculate buckeye box. He carried it all the way back to the coast, where Coyote, naturally, had already lost interest and wandered off in search of some amusement or other. Hummingbird, desperate to keep the ember safe, hid it in a buckeye tree. To this day, the throats of the hummingbirds in my garden are flashes of magenta flame, as bright as any fire. 


To this day, the buckeye holds fire inside. Make a hearth board from a split branch, and a spindle from a thin straight one, and if you have a good amount of hand-drill fire-spinning skill, you will make an ember right there, between the alchemy of hand and buckeye wood.  

Buckeyes are beautiful trees. They drop their leaves in late August, long before anyone else, in order to cope with the long dry season. Now, their silvery limbs are bent down with the planets of their buckeye nuts. If you've ever come eye to eye with a male deer before, and shared that long moment of surprise, and then timelessness, as you stared into his very large, very dark eyes, you will see why the nuts are called buckeyes! 


It is no easy feat, let me tell you, to coax fire from buckeye wood with your hands. It took a circle of nine women to make these flames by hand, but my goodness, when an ember is birthed before your eyes, and blown to life in a cradle of grass, the fire thus made becomes a being in a way that no lighter or match can approximate, a deity you have welcomed to share your meal, your stories, your hottest wood. 


We roasted bay nuts and chestnuts over the flames, and cooked ash cakes, and simmered madrone berries, red as drops of blood, over those hard-earned flames. (All of them fruits of the year's sun-turned-to-sugar, turned to seed). 

Madrone berries
I am whittling away at my own buckeye hearthboard, and a spindle of elder, to coax an ember all on my own from the wood. This is a hard task for my shoulders, but I do believe that there is something besides strength which helps to birth an ember by hand; I believe we all carry an ember in our gut, in our womb, the spark of creation, and that it is not so much strength, but breath and focus, which brings a literal ember into the world. Anyway, I'm not there yet, but these dark nights have me dreaming. Perhaps by the Yule...


In my mother's garden, the persimmons (great pockets of sun-sweetness) and their leaves are all fire. These fruits are one of my favorites in all the world. They taste of autumn to me, crisp and sweet and cinnamon. There are half a dozen persimmon trees within a five minute walk of my home; this climate suits them well!


And out in the woods, the black oaks, new friends of mine, are leaving beautiful gifts, each an ember in its own way, amidst the leaves. I have been on an acorn-gathering high. Though my yield is rather pitiful, the pleasure I have derived from the slow search amidst leaf litter for the gift of an acorn, velveteen and luminous as amber, is impossible for me to quite put into words. 



Having my hands or my pockets heavy and clacking with acorns gives me a deep old satisfaction. I can hardly imagine anything more beautiful than these perfect parcels.  I can hardly imagine an activity more grounding than crouching down, sifting the bounty of sun-gold leaves, like any bear or deer.
Black oak acorns

We brought some of the leaves and acorns and oak galls from the woods into our home for Samhain, and feasted, letting the wild and our ancestors sit at the table and feast too, bringing the fire inside with candles and the dying leaves.  


About a week ago, with that same group of fire spinning women, I had the great privilege of listening to a Northern Pomo woman named Corinne Pierce speak about her relationship (and her people's relationship) with the plants of this landscape. This is a kinship that stretches back thousands and thousands of years on this very land. When she spoke, I ached, and cried. I looked around and saw many other women crying too. Corinne herself wept when she spoke about a new Caltrans bypass being built through Willits, the territory of her people and an area where she has gathered plants for her entire life. Those plants, she said, are her family. My elders tell me not to tell anything to white people, she said to us. But the plants--the oak trees, the madrones--they tell me to share all that I can with those who will use it. Because the plants long to be used. They long to be loved again by people, to be in communication, in kinship.

Black oak
 I ached when she spoke of her rootedness in this place, how she was literally made of its acorns, because she had eaten them as a child, as had her mother, as had her grandmother, and on and on back into an ancient time far beyond my imagining. I ached because it was a gift to be in the presence of a human being who still carries such a story; I ached because it is so rare; I ached because my ancestors were the reason she is one of only a handful remaining of her people. I ached because I, too, want to belong to this place. 

Coast live oak
Then she, extraordinary woman, told us something so simple and so wise. She said: let the plants tell you what they need. Devote yourself to your place. Learn the plants and animals so that they are your family. Take care of your place. This is how you belong. Taking care, she said, means staying in communication. 

When you gather acorns, bring gifts for the oaks. Her people once left leather, shells, ash, baskets at the bases of their oaks. Much later, when archaeologists discovered these "middens" around the roots of trees, they called them garbage piles. They did not realize that the people who left these gifts were leaving not only beautiful presents for their tree-kin; they were leaving nourishment. All of these things (leather, ash, plant matter) balance out the pH in the soil, lowering acidity. Those "middens" were ancient conversations, held over millennia between humans and trees.


When we don't gather their acorns, the oaks know it. They know it in the language of tannins. Without the presence of human beings and grizzly bears (who we killed off), two of the biggest acorn eaters, most of an oaks acorns stay where they fall (remember, a tree may drop a thousand pounds of nuts in a season). When it rains, the tannins in the acorns leach back down to the roots of the trees, sending them a message—you are not needed. Do not make as many acorns next year. Some trees will begin to produce less, and less, and less...


As I wrote in the essay I helped Jolie Egert Elan of Go Wild craft for her Oak Ceremony last month, before the advent of agriculture, acorns were the staple food for people all around the temperate belt of the world. The word Druid means "oak-seer," or "one who knows the oak." Their rituals were originally held only in oak groves. And of course, before Druids, they were Dryads, women-priestesses who knew the oaks like they were kin, who each had a tree they called sister. My name, Sylvia, means "one who comes from the forest," or forest spirit, or wood nymph. I feel a strange familial thrum in my bones at the thought of women dancing long ago in oak groves. I think I carry them in me still. I think many of us do. When I stand under oaks, with my hands full of acorns, I feel at home in my blood, no matter that my ancestral roots are far away. 
Anyone know the species of this glorious oak? Looks like a coast live oak, but not quite...
All of this—the fire in the heart of winter, and buckeyes, and food made in its heat, and the gathering of acorns—I think the gift beneath the surface of it all, the reason that acorns in the pocket feel like medicine, is because these things make us feel very human. In all of our senses. Fire making. Gathering. Cooking. As Corinne said, we can learn all we need to learn about living in balance on this earth from the plants. They will tell us. If it becomes hard to hear them, we can watch the animals, and learn from them too. 


Yesterday morning, Cernunnos, the Stag Lord of the Woods, eater of acorns, visited my life. A friend had called late the night before to see if I would help her process a young buck she'd found on the road on the edge of one of our regional parks. She had to get to class by eleven, so we rose at dawn. In the early morning light, I found myself with a knife, another woman, and a young buck whose back leg was shattered, whose body was bruised from its impact with a car. There were shards of headlights in his skin. 

I have only done this once before, but it seems that something comes over the body and mind, so that the process itself is somehow natural—no big deal, I am pulling the skin off a buck's body, I am cutting through tendons; I am separating the leg at the joint over my knee, as I might break a stick; etc. We said our prayers over him, of course; we left him offerings of acorns and cornmeal and sage, but the processing itself was efficient, practical, somehow familiar.

It is only later that the true, bone-level impact of the thing comes to you; how much pain he must have been in, and how afraid, battered to death by a car. How his little antler-nubs were just growing for the first time. How beautiful his delicate hooves. What places they must have roamed. Who his mother was. Where he was born. 

I did not take any photos of the process. Somehow it didn't feel right. But I took home the cannon bone from his back leg, the one that was broken. I remembered that bone awls (tools used to pierce leather when sewing it) have been made for thousands of years from the knuckle bones of deer. I found that the break in his leg was shaped just so, like the beginning of an awl. And that the skin around it would make the perfect pouch. 


It is all still in process--the skin scraped to removed the membrane before tanning, the bone left out for the yellow jackets and the ants to clean for me. But there is something in this, some healing I hope—that the terror of this breaking might become something beautiful, a sewing tool, to sew him back together on his spirit's journey with Cernunnos, Lord of Stags, to the Otherworld of Deer. That his body, tossed sidelong by a car, was been honored by being used, not left ignobly to be further battered on the roadside.


It is said that once, animals gave themselves willingly to the bows of hunters, just to hear their stories and songs around their fires as they ate. Like the acorns, relationship comes through use, through need. Relationship comes through recognizing the personhood of all beings, the ember that sparks in the spirit of all things and then, deeper yet, seeing that we are situated within a web of consumption, a web of eating and being eaten one day in return. 

For the rest of that day, I felt like I was in a dream. I couldn't focus on writing, or reading. I needed to move, to use my body. I dug up the garden and put it to bed for the winter, covered in hay. I pulled the roots of my motherwort, and held them for a long time, seeing in them the branches of trees, the antlers of stags, the rivers in the wombs of women, the wisdom of winter, all there in the roots underground. The roots that reach back in my blood, in  your blood, through time, to women and men long ago who crouched under trees, and gathered acorns, and knew what it was to worship and to eat the Lord of the Forest, the old hart. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Beatrice and the Mail Truck

John Bauer, Leap the Elk
I have a quilt-square of story to share with you this fine November evening. It fell in to my notebook through my pen a couple of months ago, as I was sitting by the window, watching the UPS truck make its regular stop outside our house, just as the leaves were starting to change. I had this sudden wild dream—what if a UPS truck did not deliver boring boxes ordered from Amazon and whatnot, but instead delivered parcels of a strange and talismanic variety? Not in the way of Santa Claus and his sleigh full of presents, but something far wilder, far weirder, far less materialistic and more concerned with the stories of things, and the journeys of stories, and the things the land beneath a city longs for, but cannot create on its own...

So here I give you the first bit of this tale which I am calling Beatrice and the Mail Truck.... I don't normally share such large amounts of my fiction here, because my fiction is my livelihood, and publication on a personal blog amounts to first publication rights in the eyes of magazines and publishers alike, no matter if it is one's own. But this story seems to want to be delivered right to you, a gift of good old magic in this dark time of the year, when stories are the richest currency. But since this is my livelihood, I have placed a tea-kettle button at the bottom of this page. If you read this and enjoy, do consider dropping even just a dollar into the kettle, to keep me in tea and in pen ink, so to speak. If this feels like a nourishing exchange for all involved, I will continue to post stories from Beatrice's adventures for all to read, probably on a biweekly basis, and create a separate page here for your ease of navigation!

Blessings on your long dark evenings and your gentle autumn mornings, wild ones!

John Bauer

1.

The Hummingbird With An Amaranth Throat

Everything else about the street outside Beatrice’s window looked normal, all except for the big brown truck that brought packages in the mail. The houses across the way, blue and white and wood, with clotheslines strung up between and lemons starting to ripen on the tree that grew in a pot by the sidewalk; the red and purple poppies at the end of their blooming; the man who walked his beagle at half past three and always wore striped socks, which Beatrice noticed in flashes at his ankles, under his pant cuffs like they were a secret—all were in order, all were as they should be, as they always had been. The trees were losing their leaves in red and orange and purple across the ground, just like yesterday—a little early in the season, it was true, but that was because men had come and dug up the sidewalks and paved new ones, due to the hazards of lumps and bumps in said sidewalks. They had cut the roots in the process. Beatrice’s father told her so when she exclaimed that it was fall already in the last week of August. He had told her that cutting the roots to make the sidewalks had shocked the trees, and they had started to shed their leaves early. This news only made Beatrice dislike the cement pavers more than she already had—the sidewalks had always been a patchwork of veering pieces pushed upward and cracked from the roots of trees. She liked this. She had always lived in the old blue house on River Street, the whole eight years of her life, and the sidewalks had always been crooked. She hated them all smooth and straight.
Despite her grievances, they looked exactly the same as they had since August. Nothing amiss about them. But the tortoise-shell cat named Walnut who lived across the street had stopped his grooming and was standing very still to look at the brown truck, like it was an enormous bird, and in need of stalking. Beatrice’s heart caught in her chest. She looked closer too—cats can see ghosts, after all, and therefore anything of a potentially uncanny nature.
The brown truck had all the basic appearance of the usual UPS vehicles in size and shape and color, except for one very obvious detail. It had no lettering of any kind that she could see. Beatrice reasoned that maybe this truck only had the UPS logo on one side, the far one? That would explain it. But this did not satisfy her, particularly because the driver’s compartment did not look like a mail vehicle at all, but the front seat of a travelling circus. The floor was wooden. The windows—she blinked— were stained glass (how did he see anything as he drove?), which, she realized now, was the reason the whole compartment glowed blue and yellow and red all at once. The driver’s seat was a tall stool with a velvet cushion, and the wheel appeared to be made of a circular spinal cord—Beatrice could see the vertebrae.
Walnut the cat had not moved. The exterior of the truck had about it a slight glow as well, which might, yes, have been the cider-light of late September, slanting from across the San Francisco Bay, but there was also something decidedly unpaintlike about the actual brown hue of the truck’s sides. It had more the luster of soil—a textured, rich, multi-faceted brown. Beatrice blinked. Then something stirred in the back of the truck. She saw the flapping of wings through the doorway which led to the area where all the packages were stored. Then, a small man emerged with a brown parcel in his hands. Dozens of birds sat on his arms, his shoulders, his head—finches with red breasts, chickadees and bushtits, several black phoebes, towhees, one shy hermit thrush with a speckled chest, even a hummingbird with a glinting throat the color of amaranth. On the sidewalk, Walnut thrashed his tail and looked ready to spring.
 The man himself was not dressed in a brown mail uniform, nor anything remotely similar. He wore a loose striped shirt, a vest made of rabbitskin, and a pair of green velveteen trousers tucked into sturdy walking boots. He was all over the color of an acorn, but his eyes were very green, and he turned them suddenly toward Beatrice’s window. She jumped. He was looking right at her, and his eyes were sharper than any cat’s. He took another step, toward the open door on the side of the truck, where folding steps led to the ground.
He gestured toward the package, as if impatient, and even from her bedroom window, Beatrice could see the faint silhouette of her own name there on the brown paper. Her stomach jumped, but she couldn’t be sure if the sensation there was fear or delight. Without considering any further, drawn by something in her heart far older than her years, Beatrice ran from her bedroom. She had been taught, of course, not to accept gifts from strangers, and certainly not to climb into the trucks of unknown persons, especially men, but by the time she had thought of these things, she was already on the porch stairs, barefoot and panting. She descended slowly, patting down the flyaway pieces of her hair, smoothing her red corduroy skirt. The small man regarded her with a thoughtful expression. The birds on his shoulders had spooked to the various perches of the truck and peered at her with eyes that were dark and glinting and full of an old, wild language she had never longed for, nor even know of, before that very moment, as they fixed her with their gaze. She stood for a moment, startled by the birds and their eyes and the small man, by the clarity of her name penned there on the parcel. What was she supposed to do? Announce herself as Beatrice? Reach out her hands? Snatch it away and run?
 “You’re a bit small,” the man said suddenly, coming to the first stair step down from the driver’s compartment.
“So are you!” retorted Beatrice without thinking, surprised and blushing as it came out. What had gotten into her? The sight of that parcel, crisp paper, her name in lettering as delicate and strange as birdprints in sand—all of it made her heart singular with longing. She wanted to open that package desperately. It made her palms itch. The little man smiled a crooked, secretive smile and tipped his chin down slightly, raising an eyebrow, as if he knew her thoughts. She noticed that the hummingbird with the amaranth throat was still sitting on his shoulder. It made an irritated sound, rasping and insistent. Beatrice realized it was a sound she heard often in the garden, coming from the treetops, but she had never realized who made it until now. The little bird glared at her like a strange jewel.
“I’m sorry to be rude, sir,” Beatrice stammered. She felt a little dizzy—the man’s face was so layered, so lined, his vest so lustrous and thick, the sun on the hummingbird’s throat so bright, and all the while he regarded her with eyes at once kind and biting.
“It is no matter,” said the little man at last, as if he was satisfied with something he had discovered, though what he could have discovered only by staring Beatrice could not fathom. “You may be small but you have spirit, Beatrice.” He handed her the parcel, and the movement stirred the air with his smell of bergamot and a hint of freshly dug roots. The parcel was just the right weight in Beatrice’s hands—heavy but not too heavy, and the shape of a shoebox, though not as tall. The itching in her palms and fingers turned to a hum, a heat. She noticed that only her name, Beatrice Fletcher, and not her address, was written in that script of loop and ancient line. How could it, and he, have found her without an address?
She looked up to ask him this, and saw that the man had flitted into the back of the truck and was returning again with a silver kettle in one hand and two small cups in the other. The kettle steamed, releasing a rich scent of cinnamon and chocolate. The man sat on the steps and, holding the kettle at a great height, poured a dark stream of chocolate into each cup. Then he beckoned for Beatrice to sit down as well.
“We must drink to your parcel,” the man said solemnly, handing Beatrice a steaming cup. It was porcelain, the sort of small cup used in the coffeehouses of an older world for shots of espresso. A phoenix was painted on the sides in green, rimmed with vines.
“To my parcel?” Beatrice clutched the package closer to her breast and, hesitating, sat down on the lowest step. She took the tiny cup carefully. It burned her fingers, and she almost dropped it.
“Indeed,” said the man, and the hummingbird made that sound of scolding again. Beatrice looked around, wondering suddenly what her mother would think if she were to look out the window now.
“But why?” said Beatrice more quietly. “Who sent it to me?”
The little man laughed, raising his cup to hers with a clink before drinking the chocolate down in a long swallow. Steam trailed from his nose. Beatrice took a cautious sip and burned her tongue.
“Oh my dear child!” the man snorted when he had regained his breath. “Sent? Such parcels are never sent, Beatrice! They are discovered, and then delivered.”
This was neither amusing nor informative to Beatrice, as the little man believed it to be. A trickle of fear hitched along her spine.
“Discovered,” she said, taking another sip of chocolate. This time it was cool enough not to burn her, and despite everything around her, she closed her eyes at the rich river of flavor, the dark musk of the chocolate and the bright embered flavor of the cinnamon, more delicious than anything she had ever tasted. “But in order to discover something, it must be a surprise, like a thing you find on the beach,” she said as she opened her eyes again.
She started, and the chocolate spilled on her red skirt. She was sitting on the sidewalk and the brown truck was nowhere to be seen. The porcelain cup fell from her fingers and shattered on the cement. For a moment, Beatrice thought it all some terribly beautiful hallucination, or daydream—perhaps mother had made hot chocolate, and she had been sitting here all along, imagining things as the sun lengthened along the street…? But then she saw the parcel sitting there, spattered now with chocolate, her name just as beautifully written as before. A hummingbird with a throat of amaranth scolded from the fuschias in front of the house, where he was busily drinking nectar. For a moment he paused and looked right at her. His throat gleamed.
 Beatrice looked around. The world was quiet. There was no breeze. Inside that stillness she ripped the brown paper from her parcel, careful not to tear the letters of her name, and untied the string from around the brown box beneath. Her fingers trembled as she lifted the little lid, and for a moment she closed her eyes, wanting to savor that feeling of expectation, that delicious mystery. She opened them. Inside the box was a small garden spade made all of iron. A red carnelian flanked by two green polished serpentine stones was set in the handle. The shoveling edge was caked in dirt. Beatrice’s heart sank.
A spade? Why had somebody sent her a dirty old garden spade? Or rather, why had the strange man in the brown truck delivered it to her? She was beginning to believe once more that he had been a dream; perhaps a friend had left the parcel on the sidewalk as a joke? Maybe it was Aya, or her brother James, who lived next door; they were always trying to throw paper airplanes with secret messages from their window onto her roof.
She turned and her palm pressed into the shards of the porcelain cup that had shattered across the sidewalk. One cut through her flesh, making her bleed. She smelled the chocolate, the cinnamon, and remembered the eyes of those many birds, looking right into her heart. Walnut the cat was still staring intently at the place the brown truck had recently been. Beatrice smiled to herself, and gingerly took the heavy spade from the box. It was cold in her hands.
I know what I saw, she thought, and so does Walnut. But what on earth am I meant to do with a spade?




Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Heart of Acorn and Mouse


This autumn has felt every bit as abundant as the fall of acorns from the oak trees, and only this year have I finally learned to turn these sacred nuts to food; only this year have I come to realize in my body and not just my mind that acorns are food scattered all over the ground, given by the arms of the oak trees. They are more precious than any gold.

It has been a ridiculously long while since I wrote here, due to said abundance; I have felt a bit like the acorn woodpeckers who rush cackling between snags, stuffing all their careful holes with acorns, in a frenzy to make sure they get enough in before the squirrels and the deer and the woodrats do. The days grow shorter. I just looked out the window to find it fully dark and only just seven. The stars and moon hold us longer now than the sun. I feel things slowing. I feel the earth below saying--now, to the roots...

So, I feel I can catch my breath and share some of this harvest with you here... a harvest of the sweet moments and rambles that feed all of my words, and all of my spirit.


I learned to process acorns because, in a last minute sort of way, I ended up helping the wonderful Jolie Elan, of Go Wild, to put on her Oak Ceremony on Mt. Tamalpais, the sacred mountain I wandered so often as a girl. I sat in her backyard for many hours, cracking tanoak acorns, and eventually turning them to cake. I wrote about the whole process, and some of the lore of oak trees for her here (and painted a few acorns too).


We held the ceremony under big hearty tanoaks, the likes of which I have hardly seen. I am used to tanoaks that are small and scraggly, dying or already dead, covered in the black fungus known as Sudden Oak Death. Jolie decided to hold the Oak Ceremony for the tanoaks in particular. They were once the favored, and most sacred, of oak trees among the native people of this land. Their acorns are far and away the tastiest--the flavor is all butterscotch.(Perhaps this had something to do with the esteem in which they are held.) Now, as Jolie said, their kind is leaving this world, all but forgotten, alone, untended, unloved.


Unloved in the sense that, even if we admire and appreciate them, we do not gather their acorns any longer. We do not depend upon them for food, and thus we don't feel that more entwined, interdependent love for them that comes from necessity, from being humbled before our own hunger. We do not feel love for them as we would to a mother, and yet the oak trees are mothering in their abundance.

As Julia Parker, a wonderful California Indian basket-weaver and elder (and beautiful woman) says: “They told me when it comes, get out there and gather even if it’s one basketful so the acorn spirit will know you are happy for the acorn and next year the acorn will come.”


The Oak Ceremony was an attempt to remedy this neglect, to sit and sing and pray in conversation with the oaks, treating them as fellow beings.


We built altars to the land, expressing our reverence, our grief, our sense of loss and of wonder. We marched in a parade of singing through the trees. We held a Council of All Beings.


Some scientists believe that Sudden Oak Death has taken such voracious hold due to a lack of healthy wildfire and controlled burns on the land, as the native people used to practice. Others believe it is connected with a lack of phosphorus in the food chain, which was once provided by the abundant bodies of spawning salmon as they ran in silver ribbons up every creek, their bodies returning to the soil via the bellies of other animals--bear, hawk, raccoon. The web of things is so very delicate, and the trees teach us that when you pull one string, you really do find that the whole universe is attached.

 Even if our sorrow and our singing and our acorn gathering do nothing in the face of the tanoak's possible extinction; even if no abundance of ceremony and story will save the life of this beautiful being, and so many others, it seems to me that we can never stop our singing, our praise, our expressions of grief and awe both; we have to keep talking to the trees, to the salmon, to the acorns, telling them that we appreciate their beauty and their lives. Because when we all stop doing this--well, I think then we shall be well and truly lost.


Sometimes, such sadness weighs on my heart very heavily. Sometimes there are so many things that fill me with grief, that make me weep, that I don't know how a heart can manage to hold the beauty and the great sadness of this world at once. Sometimes it seems to me that as a culture we have collectively turned away from our grief at the destruction of so much of this wild world because it hurts far too much. And it's true; it does. But inside of grief is love, and no matter how fraught our world can some days seem, no matter how frightening too... then there is the doe who comes suddenly wading through the marsh grass, stopping to watch you with black eyes and enormous velvet ears.


Then there is the sky, and the fog, and the marsh dotted with a dozen white egrets.


Really, I don't think I can articulate it as well as Mary Oliver can, so I shall let her do the talking:

“I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.” 






Yes. Your heart must be broken open first, in order for the great old sacred world to come in, all bird-sung and root-thick and miraculous. In order for any of it to matter at all.

On the same afternoon walk with an old dear friend through the marsh at Limantour toward the strand, we saw first a doe, and then a stag, wading through the marshgrass. It is their courting time. Perhaps the stag was looking for her. They are vessels of pure longing at this time of year; they are so addled they are often hit by cars because they spend so much of their time wandering about in an erotic stupor. Seeing a stag surveying the marsh felt like a glimpse of the Green Man of old lore; the horned one of the woods, taking a last sweet roaming through his land before the fall into winter.


On the trail on our way back, we saw yet another doe with her adolescent child, who peered at us with great curiosity from amidst the brush. The mother did not seem very perturbed by our presence. She let me come very near, watching me. Our eyes locked for a long moment. I could hardly bear the beauty of her black eyes, her dark lashes. I felt entirely, calmly, reckoned by her gaze. It felt like some soft and hoofed benediction, or blessing, though I know it was just a doe, ascertaining whether I was going to leap after her child, perhaps distracting me from him.

Sometimes, the best thing is to be humbled before the eyes of another creature, before the dark mystery of them; we can be too quick to assume an animal crossing our path has some symbolism for our lives. The truth is, the world does not revolve around me (!)... The world is a web and the life of a doe and her almost-grown fawn is much more meaningful in its own right than it is symbolically, in relation to mine. The deepest gift from the eyes of a doe, touching mine, seems to me to be the gift of connection; that we are two beings sharing this world, and that of the two of us, her kind is far older and wiser than mine, and therefore above all things I should learn what I can about her life, her world, her ways.


That's what animal tracking has always been about for me. This is the oldest medicine: to kneel on the sand and learn the landscape of a bobcat track. 


That it looks like it belongs to a female (if I were Tom Brown Jr. I would know for certain; as Sylvia Linsteadt I am not going to bet my life on it, but it feels like a solid educated guess); that she is in a direct register trot, which is a slightly quick gait for a bobcat. "Baseline" for a bobcat is a quick (overstep) walk; a trot means something pushed her slightly out of a comfortable dawn ramble—a sudden sound? Or maybe just the downhill slope?


Up the dunes and around the corner, the trails of brush rabbits were everywhere, and coyote too. These prints show a brush rabbit in a fast bound—out of baseline, hopping quick, perhaps between dunegrass cover.


Every track is a country and a doorway into the real lives of the animals on the land; every track brings me back into the great broken-open landscape of the heart. 


Serpentine (stone) outcrop on the top ridge
This autumn has had a certain serendipitous magic to it, all acorn-strewn and bobcat-pawed. Around the corner from my house, a magical little shop opened up for the months of September and October, and I met its two very extraordinary creatrixes, Catherine Sieck and Rachel Blodgett, through a dear old friend. I am astounded by the beauty of their work, the old earthen wisdom of it-- Rachel's plant-dyed, batik printed garments (including indigo moon underpants!), Catherine's exquisite shadow puppets and cut paper snakes and wreaths and hands. I was very honored to give a reading at their shop, called Serpentine, on the evening of October's full moon, along with a wonderful performance artist, Quenby Dolgushkin, who performed masked monologues of the feminine archetype. 



It felt so good to share my own wild-pawed stories aloud and candle-lit. Sometimes it does feel as though the words enjoy ringing and winging out loud through the air, and off into the starry night...

Serpentine, a metamorphic stone formed at ocean and tectonic plate boundaries

Catherine and I have some magic up our sleeves... it involves cut paper and shadow puppets and tents and tales and tanoaks and who knows what else... for that you shall have to wait and see (and so shall I! Sometimes the harvest of new creations takes a while; though you can see the acorns up there in the branches, you must wait for them to fall!)



Meanwhile, mysterious small beings make immaculate tunnel-towers amidst the stones, all spiked with pine needles...


and the firs, growing tall amidst the manzanita, glow and sway in the glowing autumn light.

I spent this past weekend up in the hills of West Sonoma, carving buttons and bone and stone beads with a group of women. I processed nettle cordage for the first time, from a beautiful harvest of nettle stalks from the Sierras so tall I made about my own height in string from a single plant. To sit under the shade of oaks, twisting and twisting nettle fiber in my fingers; sanding manzanita buttons over and again, rubbing sheep fat on to shine them, with a group of women and the horses passing by at dawn in the mist, and the varied thrush singing for the first time I've heard this season; and a fire lit... this is peace. 


But of all the gifts of autumn, fallen down from the trees, the one that has flung my heart open widest I found shivering beneath an oak during my time with that group of women, carving buttons and beads. I was about to dump the dregs of my tea onto the ground when something gave me pause. I looked down and saw a tiny silver creature hunched on a leaf, shivering and shaking. I crouched near, and found it to be a baby mouse. My dear readers, I have never seen anything so dear in my entire life. I could hardly bear it. 

It was very clear that this wee one had been abandoned, or orphaned, and while I know that baby mice are a tasty treat for many a creature, this mouse lay in my path so pitiful and sweet, and my heart would not let me leave him to die slowly of cold, or starvation. Predation was unlikely until all of us had cleared out. So another woman and I scooped him up in some wool and moss and tucked him into an empty can. Immediately, he curled into a little ball, paws to nose, and stopped shivering. I nearly wept at the sight of the small pleasure he found in wool and curling nose-to-paws. I nearly wept, at the zest for life which all creatures have. 

I couldn't reach WildCare that evening, so I took him home with me. He squeaked expectantly and robustly when I opened his box, and his little chirrups nearly undid me with their sweetness. I got up in the middle of the night like a fretful new mother to change the hot water bottle for a fresh one, so he stayed toasty warm. The next morning, I was beside myself with worry the whole drive across the Bay to the wildlife shelter. I didn't dare peek in his box, for fear the little one had died; after all, he had taken no water or nourishment in at least 18 hours, and was so small his eyes were still closed. But when I arrived, he was still breathing. I rushed him in, all shaken up and teary. The kind people behind the desk indulged me, though of course they see a thousand baby mice a year! They are very good at what they do, and they whisked him off to be cared for. They will re-release him into the wild when he is old enough. Even if it is only for a week, the little deer mouse will be able to enjoy the pleasures of what it means to be a wild deer mouse, bounding and burrowing in the grass and soil and eating all manner of nuts and seeds. 


This little mouse did something to my heart. I stood there, outside Wildcare, for a good ten minutes, idly looking at the beautiful birds of prey they keep, birds that can no longer hunt or fly in the wild. Really, I was trying not to cry. Really, I was thinking of the tenderness for that single baby mouse which had seized me like a prayer; I was thinking of the love all mother animals have for their children, and the utter helplessness of a baby mouse without his mother, and all the tenderness there is in this world. Every creature is born into tenderness, though it may last only an hour. This baby mouse, he was a tiny silver miracle, and we were blessed to meet him for an evening, and see him on his autumn way.