Monday, November 23, 2015

Mt. Vision

Photo by Kyle Lemle
The wind was so strong it was clarifying. It came through all cold and quartzite, a wind off northern seas or the tips of faraway mountains laced in ice, and Mt. Vision seemed to rise up inside it, recognizing something of its old and elemental making in such gusts, something from the beginning of time. It came through my knitted coat and woke up all my skin, and Point Reyes, from that vantage, was swept with it, the long ocean shore to the north one great seam of foam, the fingers of Drake's Estero a silver undulation, the hammerhead of the headlands splayed flat under its hands. 

Sometimes, a view is precious. Bird's-eye. To stand on a peak and look out over land you love so much (a love that sometimes hurts, inexplicably) it takes your breath and replaces it with wind; to stand and hold it all with your eyes, the valleys and ridges and curves and headlands and long shorelines and estuaries and forests all part of one creature which has come into your body through your eyes; this is holy. This must be why the mountain top is thought to be a holy place, why this one is called Vision. To sense that which is very ancient, older than this shape of Point Reyes, old as oceans; to sense the spread of bedrock, the shift of plates, the seethe and quilt of many different stones below, from the land's long nomad journeys, the way waves mold coasts. 

Photo by Kyle Lemle
There is another aspect to the perspective that high places give: inner vision. Not of the human psyche (though that may come incidentally, naturally, from these other Visions), but a sense of the innerness of the ridges and valleys themselves. A doubling of vision, holding the pine-skin over the ridges on one level, sensing an incandescence below, like the hills and slopes might be full of shards of light.

Maybe it was in part the wind that made me feel this way as I stood inside of it, taking the estuaries and fingers of land through my eyes into my bones. The way a wind that strong strips things down. The way the world started: before anything, some howling weather, some vast winds whose gases could kill us, searing across stone, whittling it. Maybe these memories are held under the fur the pine trees make, under the topsoil, the rootplace, the tunnels of moles and gophers and shrews, inside the rocks of Point Reyes, and the hum in wind.

This place steps me sidelong into a different kind of time. 

Much of Mt. Vision burned in the 1995 fire; you can track the places fire touched by the thickness and age of the bishop pines, which are all twenty years old now, a young eager forest so dense that to pass through it is to enter a dense hush, tunneled, strewn with golden meteors of resin and the ch-ch-ch of ruby-crowned kinglets, foraging tiny spiders. 

Bishop pines are dependent on fire to pop open their hard-sealed cones. The fire, though devastating by human terms, was one great cacophony of pine seeds, burning like fireworks, bursting free, nestling into ash to be reborn. There is fire under the surface here. Bishop pines don't live much longer than a century; they expect a rhythm of flame to come through and give them rebirth, a hundred thousand phoenixes from the ash. 

Photo by Kyle Lemle
So in the tunnels of Mt. Vision, time is made of fire, and though the trees are small and young, this rhythm of burn to ash and regrowth is as old as the trees themselves, which are a very, very ancient species, endemic to particular granitic soils in coastal California which bear remnants of the island chain that was the First California millions and millions of years ago. 

On Point Reyes, they grow where the soil is thick with granite and the air is thick with fog, drinking up that mica below and that drip above through the long dry summer, growing shaggy coats of lichen and moss in the clean, clean wind. 

Usnea, an abundant lichen bearding these pines, is a beautiful and potent medicine (for pneumonia, for strep, for virtually any infection in the body, topically and internally), and if you look sidelong, it grows in tiny microcosmic thickets: wee pine trees, girding the pine bark. 

I love this mirroring; how the form of forest is held in the eager lichen; how the seethe of foam on the shore is sometimes exactly the same as the seethe of cloud; how one pine seed is also a great red star, Betelgeuse or Aldebaran.

How the pine sap, dripping, is a liquid fire, stalactites, beaded constellations that catch light, bits of pure quartz from the inside of Mt. Vision. 

How the woodrat builds its nest like a small mountain, a personal Mt. Vision of tunnels and chambers, some full of obviously useful stashes of seeds and nuts and bits of mushroom, or bay leaves for pest fumigation, others used exclusively for shiny treasures--dropped pennies bright as resin or quartz, silver-capped pens, fallen earrings and bits of necklace; and from older generations
(nests are passed on in families, sometimes for thousands of years), gleaming black arrowheads, lost abalone-shell beads, polished bits of soapstone.

I've never seen a woodrat nest made of bark like this before-- a resourceful fellow (who I left a shiny new penny for, my usual woodrat protocol when passing their castles), who clearly gathered up all the ember-bellied bark from this old bishop pine snag (a fire victim, likely the mother-father of all the surrounding youths) and used it to build his own mountain. Woodrats are known to adorn their nests with all manner of unusual items, apparently for looks alone, such as lost CD's or bones-- so perhaps the pine bark is all turned orange-belly out for a mysterious but important decorative purpose.

There are days when I burn with curiosity at the foot of a woodrat nest-- what is it like inside, when you are a woodrat? With lizards and tiny mice lodging in abandoned wings. With treasuries of penny and bead. What is it like when the coyote comes sniffing, comes pawing like a terrible wind, and you must dash into an underground redoubt and stay very still until the worst is over?

((AN ASIDE: I am suddenly wondering, as I write this, if the mystery paw I found in what I think was coyote scat on the trail belongs to an unlucky woodrat. It definitely belongs to a rodent, with the several distinct metacarpal pads, and not a digger—the claws are too small, unless it's a gopher's back foot— nor a mouse, as this paw was pretty big, about the size of a penny. A ragged little mystery, there, gone through the underworld bowels of Coyote.))

The old fire-seared pine is full of constellations where small woodpeckers once tapped, and one big dark moon, where a pileated came long ago, flashing her red crown, and hollowed a home (which after a season became home to others, one by one—maybe a gray squirrel, maybe a long-tailed weasel, maybe a mouse, an owl, a bat). 

How many homes there are tucked deep in the brush, or up in the pine branches, or under the duff-rich soil, of these hills; when I stop and sense and wonder—how many eyes are on me now? how many brush rabbits, bobcats, lizards, foxes, spiders, tucked just out of sight?— the land takes on another layer of luminosity, not the inner kind of fire and quartz, but the outer kind, of warm-blooded life, homing and bright. 

The mycelia of it, spreading everywhere, a web of lives— both the literal kind that fruits as rich wet mushrooms, and the metaphoric kind, of the net of relationships between beings, one life folded into another and another via hunger, the hunt, the slow transmutations of decay, the quick fires of love and newborns and feasts on fallen pinecones. 

I have returned to reading a lot of Robinson Jeffers recently (after a pilgrimage to his Tor House on the Monterey Coast, a sacred story for another day, connected to another pilgrimage, to England and Dartmoor, also for another day). He is an old inspiration of mine, one of the very first poets who inspired me to tuck my word-seeds into the land, and he is partly to blame for the sudden hold that the "transhuman" has upon my heart these days—the grand scale of things, of stars and cells and mountains and the bright eyes of hawks, the way all life is mirrored within itself, from the tiny cell to the sun, and how it was always so, even when the bishop pine and her resin were only a dream in the belly of a primordial algae.

"I believe the first living cell
Had echoes of the future in it, and felt
Direction and great animals, the deep green forest
And whales' track sea; I believe this globed earth
Not all by chance and fortune brings forth her broods
but feels and chooses."

- from the poem "De Rerum Virtute," in the collection Hungerfield. 

In this autumn blaze of sunset on the wind-seared Mt. Vision I watched a red-tail soaring, buffeted, star on his wings. I saw three kestrels, shards of arrowed light, tossing and veering and crying out, chasing him, and for a moment I was their feathers, scrimmed with wind; I could feel their lightness of being, the ferocious and radiant purpose of wings and beak, the absolute joy of such soar. Then the feeling was gone, and I was myself again, below, watching the kestrels, the hawk, the sun on old pines, the land reaching out its hands to the ocean, shaken. 

But is there anything sweeter to the tongue of the mind than for a moment to be lost in kestrel-flight?

There is no one to say it better, so I will leave you in Jeffers' hands:

"One light is left us: the beauty of things, not men;
The immense beauty of the world, not the human world. 
Look—and without imagination, desire nor dream—directly 
At the mountains and sea. Are they not beautiful?
These plunging promontories and flame-shaped peaks
Stopping the sombre stupendous glory, the storm-fed ocean? Look at the Lobos Rocks off the shore,
With foam flying at their flanks, and the long sea-lions
Couching on them. Look at the gulls on the cliff-wind, 
And the soaring hawk under the cloud-stream—
But in the sage-brush desert, all one sun-stricken 
Color of dust, or in the reeking tropical rain-forest,
Or in the intolerant north and high thrones of ice—is the earth not beautiful?
Nor the great skies over the earth?
The beauty of things means virtue and value in them.
It is in the beholder's eye, not the world? Certainly.
It is the human mind's translation of the transhuman 
Intrinsic glory. It means that the world is sound,
Whatever the sick microbe does.* But he too is part of it."

- the last verse of "De Rerum Virtute," in the collection Hungerfield. 

* the "sick microbe" is us, for those not versed in Robinson Jeffers' worldview. Harsh it is, but I always have been greatly relieved by his great epochal, geological outlook, his hawk-sharp criticisms. He was, and is, controversial for it. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Inside Mountains, There May Be Fallen Stars

I kept thinking, looking at the bare fresh rock of all these granite mountains, what is it, underneath? What is the inside of the mountain? I don't mean literally all that endless dark and seeps of gas and pressure, though maybe I do mean this too; but mostly I mean what is it, the life of the mountain? What does it feel like, beyond the surface my eye can see, to be rock all the way to the center, and trapped bits of light? What is it, that mountains dream?

The Sierra Nevadas seem to do this to a person; shudder your vision out into a thousand bright pieces, so that everything seems very big and old and also full of clarity at once, like the color you feel shot through your body when you jump into a snowmelt lake—yes, I am snow, I am stone, I am pine. Oh god, how could I ever forget? At least they do this to me, turning my thoughts toward origins, toward the source of things, towards the macrocosms of mountains and the microcosms of dead logs, and stones, and the sweet plump bodies of chipmunks. Toward remembrance: that the mountains are also in me, and I am in the mountains, and so are the stars. Heady stuff I'll admit; and maybe it's just the altitude talking, though that in itself is something, how thinner mountain air transmutes the thoughts of a sea-level girl. 

These mountains are the source of most of the water that runs across California, snowmelt coming down like grace through valleys and fields, through culverts and seeps, forty percent of which drains into the San Francisco Bay. So coming here, I come to the headwaters, not to mention the origin of Point Reyes granite. (The peninsula--then island--brushed along the Sierras a hundred million years ago when the Sierras were newborn and made up the edge of the continent, before journeying up to her current position hitched to the San Andreas Fault west of Mt. Tamalpais). 

Being here feels like touching down through many layers to bedrock.

The first night, alone on a rock outside the cabin while my family slept, I sat and watched the full moon, how clouds moving in front of it turned iridescent and vanished like snowmelt. And for a brief but staggering moment I could feel the size of the mountains surrounding me, all that elemental heaving of stone for hundreds of miles in each direction; I could feel their silence and their size, their solemn reckoning of the stars; I could feel something indescribable, maybe just their actual presence, and it quietly astonished me, so that I carried the feeling for the rest of my stay, and watched all of its manifestations closely. 

I saw stars made by the beaks of woodpeckers in silver dead wood, gathered close as the silver constellations that come out by night. And I learned one cold evening waiting with my brother on a boat dock that the first bats seem to come out just when the first stars do; they require the same quality of dark. 

I saw the runes left by beetles, and in them read that the forest floor is one long story of decay and rebirth that goes on without cease, like the rising and falling of mountains. 

This is one of those things you know in theory, and then one day you're walking through conifers, studying the scattering of dead limbs and twigs like the fall of the ancient oracular yarrow sticks of the I Ching—and suddenly you get it; you know?

I love those moments; when suddenly you can see the deadwood turning into a cosy home, turning into food, turning, at last, into baby trees. 

I watched the myriad chipmunks, the golden-mantled ground squirrels and tassel-eared chickarees, marveling at their bustling efficiency and also realizing that they, too, are the mountain. That while a scree slope jutting with granite and blanketed sheer with the green of huckleberry oak may look vast, and elemental, and may suggest a grandeur of feeling to the soul, also every square yard of it is known intimately by some or other chipmunk (not to mention the many tinier beings) who has nosed about each shrub and pine, and knows where the good seeds will fall, and the precise shape of this very huckleberry oak, and how far along its acorns are. 

Knowing this makes looking up at a ridgeline very different indeed—at once expansive and tender and mysterious in ways that are small and homely as well as vast and glacier-smoothed. 

I've more than once wondered at both the abundance of chipmunks and the abundance of conifers in these mountains (trying in vain with my brother to tell the difference between a Jeffrey and a ponderosa from a distance-- up close Jeffries give themselves away by smelling of butterscotch); and then, again, as with the deadwood, the obvious struck—the chipmunks come with the conifers; they are constantly busy dropping bits of cone down from the heavens, and rooting out the sweet little seeds. They are made of pine cones.

And so the mountains are made of pine cones too, which root down in the fall of wood and moss and decay and become trees again, with roots that touch down through the layers to the minerals made by stone. 

I like thinking on tree roots; how far down they must reach to find groundwater, how they navigate layers of rock, how the rock navigates them, how when you look at a ridgeline the trees stand with such patience, receiving the sun and then the shadows and then the sun again; how their whole lives they stand like this, reaching deeper and deeper into the parts of the mountains that we cannot see, and though they stand still, how their existence expands ring by ring like a stone dropped through a snowmelt lake, and who knows when it will touch bottom. 

The juniper is one such tree, and though I don't like to play favorites I believe also that sometimes we have affinities inside, and part of us speaks especially to some or other being in particular. It is this way for me with juniper, and I could write pages on the subject (in fact, I have done, for the November 2014 issue of EarthLines Magazine)— but I will say simply here that this tree, above all others, knows the stones, and the wind that has shaped the stones. She seems to choose to grow where no one else will, straight out of the heart of granite. 

Her taproot may be double or triple her height, reaching straight down in one long pathway to water, to mineral, to the light inside rock. And you can feel this when you lean up against her rough bark, when you huddle close, give her your arms in an embrace; she is unshakeable, an old grandmother who looks you in the eye and says child, root deep and do not be afraid. 

In juniper, I bring the mountains and their silent presence home; how the whole of them is contained in a single dusty blue berry, which the bears covet as soon as they are ripe. I gathered her green tips in bundles, to burn each morning throughout my sea level home; there is nothing in the world like the smell, all spice and campfire and snowpeak, and the quiet of bears too, and granite; nor is there any plant that feels so protective to me, so clearing, so strong. 

Our very ancient ancestors understood this too, I believe. (Below, a bit from my Juniper essay)

"In at least one very literal instance, a juniper tree really does mark the way to the underworld: the opening to the Paleolithic caves of Lascaux.  The caves were discovered when, in the 1940’s, a young man named Marcel Ravidat found a pit created by a recently fallen juniper. Just below the pit was a vertical shaft leading straight down into the cave. This might seem like nothing more than a delicious coincidence—after all, surely other trees grow near or over other patches of earth beneath which portions of Lascaux echo, and who knows by which route Paleolithic peoples actually entered and exited the caves. But scattered throughout those womb-like chambers, thick with the silhouettes of reindeer and bison, auroch and lion and vulva, were at least 130 lanterns whose wicks were all pieces of juniper wood, soaked in animal fat. A juniper fuse to light the way into the rocky womb of the world. 

There is no way to know for certain what significance those wicks of juniper held for the men and women who painted and likely worshiped deep in those caves. But I would imagine that the wick brought down the shafts of stone and into the heart of the earth, the wick that lit the underworld, was just as important as the animals on the walls themselves, or close—for how else, pray, would you see them, or the caves, at all? Furthermore, many argue that the way in which the lions and horses and rhinos were painted suggests movement, and that a flame held up to the walls, flickering both light and shade, would cause the animals to come to life, and dance. In that case, a juniper wick, afire, would have literally been the animating power, shapeshifting the charcoal marks on the stone into spirits." - The Juniper Tree, Earth Lines Magazine

Juniper makes a pathway straight to the granite source of things, and in this, she is my teacher and my guide on how to live hearty and hale and true, and so visiting the mountains is a pilgrimage too, to leave gifts at her feet and linger long by her heart(h). 

There are many other stories too-- how a weasel almost ran right into my lap, chasing a chipmunk nearly as big as she was (can you spot the weasel up this tree, peeking down at me from the base of a middle-right branch?); how my mother and I saw a mother black bear and two cubs feasting on dogwood berries with their big and hungry paws; how inside the last blooms of the mountain heather, there is still a dream of water, and the faces of stars. 

How all of it—stone, snowmelt lakewater, juniper, bear, heather, weasel, pine, chickaree, glacial talus—is the dream of the mountain, and each one dreams of the mountain in turn.

But there is one more gift to show you, yet, one final mountain dream, found like the answer to a question as I wandered down from a lake called Genevieve, a little apart from my family, musing about pines and what it looks like to be still and spacious inside, about the dreams of stones and bears alike, and this path called life, and how to walk it wisely—and then for no reason I looked down to my left and beheld. This. 

He was just laying there, already detached from whatever fallen pine log he'd lived on for many long years, old and a little battered but sitting in wait. Often I am hesitant in my gathering; I like to circle, and say hello, and sometimes I get a no instead of the hoped for yes, you may gather me-- and I am careful of this. But this mycelial being-- he practically leapt up into my arms. Seriously. Much to the alarm of the rest of my family, who are still a little uncertain of the fact that I will, at some point, turn this great wise one into medicine to be consumed. For this is a Pacific Northwestern variety of reishi, that most holy of mushrooms called by the Chinese the plant of immortality; auspicious one; being possessed of soul power; numinous mushroom. This particular species is, I believe, Ganoderma tsugae, which grows off the trunks of western hemlock trees, turning their sugars into its own nourishment, turning the mountain into medicine. 

For several nights, I couldn't let this being out of my sight. I put it beside my bed to gaze upon before sleeping, and inhaled its chocolate-humus fragrance at dawn. And it gazed back at me wisely, smiling a small, sage little smile, saying: see, all the things you need are there right along the path, if only you are looking, if only you let there be room for the dreams of mountains in your heart. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Where the Mountain Lion Walks

Although we didn't come bearing handfuls of hazel catkin, or juniper berry; although we didn't come scattering mica in our wake or chanting or praying or walking down on our knees in honor, it still felt like a small act of communion, or pilgrimage. At least it did to me. To come to deep and lonely forest canyons, to high and misty ridges, for the sake of mountain lions. For the big cats who call Mt Tamalpais home, more so than I could ever dream. 

I said it quietly, to myself, to the trees, to the serpentine outcrops and into the mist so the message might somehow be passed along—I love and honor you, great cats. I always have. 

The equipment of this pilgrimage came in the form of plastic bags full of data cards and a plastic box full of dozens of different keys. I like to dream that reverent words and juniper berries left at tree roots, stories written with a strange and wild seam through their hearts, might be enough in this world to change the way we relate to the animals and plants around us.

 But the truth is, wildlife cameras help a great deal. I daresay a great deal more. Especially in places like the Bay Area, which are rich with open space (a huge, blessed amount of wild open space preserved largely in the 1960's by heroic & saintly human beings who fought hard and long), but also very dense with human beings, and only becoming more so. The Bay Area Puma Project, part of Felidae, an organization that looks to protect big cats world-wide, came into being originally in the South Bay, tracking and tagging mountain lions in the Santa Cruz mountains, because of legitimate fears that the encroachment of development in the Silicon Valley would start to cut off wildlife corridors, creating a kind of island out of those mountains that could result in inbreeding, more aggression toward human beings, and therefore more lion fatalities at the hands of Fish & Game.

Now the whole project is moving into Marin and the East Bay, putting up wildlife cameras in all the windy wooded wild places that mountain lions like best, to try to make sure that they always have room to roam, to hunt, to stay secretive and silent as they are most wont to do. 

A lot of the work involves actually tracking and tagging mountain lions with radio collars, great bulky things that make them look strangely like pets. And while the romantic and the luddite in my heart both balk a little at some of the implications here—I've read terrifying plans to create Facebook pages for wild radio-collared animals, to affix tiny needles to the collars that release a sedative into the bloodstream of an animal too close to a road or a livestock pen (seriously, this sounds like science fiction; but then we seem to be living a lot of the fantasies of science fiction all around us, don't we?)—this is deeply important work.

We've made a mess of things, and while we can work to deeply re-align our stories and re-wild our bones, in the meanwhile development can happen brutally fast, and without hard data that says--mountain lions use this ridge, this canyon, right here, right now—no amount of reverent words will be worth a damn. So I am really grateful for Felidae, for the scientists of the Bay Area Puma Project-- and very happy to be tagging along to check cameras and walk the canyons where the lions come down in the quiet hours to roam and hunt and rest and love.

Since I was a little girl, big cats have always held a special, fierce place in my heart. They've always stirred an almost painful longing in me. I remember a very clear memory of wanting so badly to know what it was like to be a cheetah, running at the speed of wind over a savannah, that it made my heart hurt. As an an adult, I went through several years of intense mountain lion dreams, in which I would finally, at last, encounter one face to face, and it would  lunge at me, ready to bite-- and then I would wake. When I started tracking animals almost four years ago, the dreams stopped. I've seen the flash of a mountain lion, golden and quick, only once, so fast and stealthy across a trail and up a fallen log I almost could have imagined it. It was fluid as a dream. When I walk alone I walk with mixed nervousness at the base of my belly, and intense, quivering longing-- to behold this quiet, beautiful animal. She has such a hold on my soul. 

To walk up here on the misty ridges of Mt. Tamalpais, near Kent Lake, where serpentine outcrops grow deep green under the hands of fog, in honor of mountain lions, for the sake of mountain lions; even if it is a small thing, this makes me feel happy inside. It feels like an honor. Like I am reaching out to her with my head bowed.

And the serpentine looks on, with stories in its creases about time, about stars, about fire, about the great fleeting beauty of animal life.

Tarweed is in bloom now up in the dry hills, one of those hardy, resinous wildflowers of our summer season, a thousand fallen suns.

The mariposa lilies, which look to me so delicate, so enchanted, wait for this dry time of year to bloom too, opening up the furred cups of their bodies to the heat and to the fog-drip.

And the pearly everlasting blooms have arrived too, white and papery and smelling so warm, like incense.  Like summer heat held in tiny hands.

Past all of these, the lions pad silently, leading secret lives of deep rest and sudden blood-sharp strength, of languid tenderness and terrifying precision. It is so good to remember that other feet pad where our feet tread; that other lives are watching ours with light, knowing eyes as we pass through the dry grass.

I learned recently from a friend that the spiders who build tunnel webs, or parachute webs, only do so once in their lives. The classic webs of orb weavers are often re-spun daily. But these webs, hammocks full of mist in the chamise brush, are the work of a spider's lifetime. What sacred baskets, these little homes. What a precious thing, a wild home, safe in the hands of the hills.

I pray that we begin to see, more and more clearly, with gathering strength,  in greater numbers, that we are not the only ones deserving of homes, and with a right to space and security. That in preserving the homes of the more-than-human people, we are also preserving a home for our own souls. As Jay Griffiths writes of the English poet John Clare, in her magnificent A Country Called Childhood (Kith in the UK)— "as a child he could feel safely nested only when the land around him was a safe nesting-place for every other kind of creature, knowing that the human mind can nest or make a home only when the ecology provides a home for all species." (p. 25)

Yes. Yes. (Thank goodness for Jay Griffiths.) And may we do what it takes to honor again all the nests, all the homes, all the quiet cat-lit dens of this world.

Mountain lion image caught on a Bay Area Puma Project Camera