Friday, July 25, 2014

Walk With Me Past the Fennel Tree



You've probably guessed that my longer than usual silence here has to do with Elk Lines, and the rhythm this big beautiful new writing project brings to my days, filling them up to the brim. Well, the good news is--the first installment is finished, and has been sent out to its faraway subscribers beyond the oceans (and northern borders)! Eda, the Elk People and I have had a wonderfully intense month getting to know each other, and it feels a fresh and tender thing, like a birth, to send out the first pages of their tale through the air and over the water, to the hands of faraway readers. 


I was struck today, eyeing the first pile of these wild Lines (pictured here in my summer Felting Studio...) by how grateful I feel to all my readers and subscribers; that this is what I fill my days with (including all the frantic printer escapades, post office debacles and late-night wax-sealing meltdowns)...Thank you & bless you all; I put my whole heart into these tales, and into each little brown-paper parcel too. This week I feel like a dandelion seed-head sending the little ships of her seeds far out into the world, giving a little dance in the wind. 


Besides the long days of hand writing pieces of Elk Lines, typing them up, editing, drawing the Feral Palm Reading that accompanies it, I share my daytimes with this darling fellow, my beloved Hawthorn, who has grown up into such a handsome and rambunctious young buck, always escaping his pen to have adventures in the fennel bush, or to steal bites of other people's kale, or make himself a bedchamber in the sage. Long stints hunched over my little writing table (a lovely old Victorian letter-box my aunt gave me several years ago, tilted upright and so at a perfect angle for pen and paper) are broken by rambles in the yard with Hawthorn, who does indeed bring light and infectious happiness to the heart whenever one is near him. 




He leads the way, and I wander. Right now, the garden is a jungle, well and truly.  Those bean poles stand a good eight or so feet high, and I think the fennel is almost there with them. A fennel tree. This beautiful fecund vegetable plot (below) is tended by our landlords, who live through the main entrance of our big old Victorian home with their four sweet children. Regularly the little ones are sent on missions for string beans and tomatoes, to feed the chickens or collect the eggs, and I am privy to all sorts of strange and wondrous child-conversations as I sit in the shade with my notebook, or a needle and thread. Of course when Hawthorn is about, I may sometimes be seen with a small caravan of children behind me as we follow his hopping through the garden.



The amaranth grows in rich magenta spires, and puts me in mind of some great trunked being.



Old grandmother Comfrey has grown her leaves nearly as big as my torso.


The fennel seems to live in the sky, a gathering of yellow stars.


And the dark and elegant poppies have turned from lustrous purple silk to the old magic of seedpods.


The apricots and peaches are all but done on the garden trees, and the apples are starting to ripen. Nothing quite like a warm apple right off the tree, and ever-so-slightly under-ripe, so that it's tartness puckers the tongue.


In our own garden plot, the tulsi (holy basil) is vibrant and near to seeding.


Both the tulsi and the motherwort, harvested above, I grew from seed this year; I'd never grown either of them at all to begin with, and to have known them since they were tiny unfurlings, to their full medicinal splendor--what a treat! The motherwort is away in tincture form now. She is one of my greatest plant-friends, working wonders for moon-cycle related tension, anxiety, hysteria, and cramps. Hawthorn isn't especially fond of the taste of motherwort, as it is very, very bitter. I've gotten used to it, perhaps because I associate the flavor with an almost immediate sense of calm and grounded-ness, as if my mother has just given me a hug. But otherwise, this rabbit truly is a small herbalist. His diet is entirely medicinal, not on purpose but simply because rabbits adore herbs! Nasturtium, raspberry leaf, comfrey, plantain, dandelion, sorrel, basil, lemon balm, rose, borage, mallow—the main cuisine.

And speaking of Hawthorn, he is also the inspiration for a new piece of writing—a column, possibly for the rest of the year (though this is not certain yet) in the Plant Healer Magazine! As it stands now, this column will be for children and adults, and it will be the tale of a rabbit and his young herbalist companion, and all the thing she learns from him and from the Rabbit-witches who live in the brush. And by way of a small hint—the tale, which will include some plant illustrations, and which will be filled with herbal learnings, will also be set in the world of the Leveret Letters, in Wild Folk Land and Country, in the early days of the Holy Fool's Inn. Some of you will know what I'm talking about...In any event, I'm quite excited and honored to be sharing these writings in Plant Healer! 




Otherwise, I've been trying to balance the work of the head with the work of the hands. While writing with pen and paper does come from the hands, there is something different that seems to happen in the heart and body when other tasks are undertaken, such as the preparation of herbal medicine, or textile-making. Near the full moon, a dear friend and I gathered rosemary, yarrow and comfrey from the garden and made a salve with beeswax and coconut oil.



We named it "Wise Wound Salve," because the triad of herbs all have an old, strong crone feeling about them, the wisdom of the ancient grandmothers. And standing over the stove, stirring a pot of strained oil with shavings of beeswax—this feels an old, old, task, one that lives in the blood. Shortly thereafter, my lovely six-year-old downstairs neighbor came up to see if I had anything for burns, and she went away again with a little cap full of Wise Wound Salve! It rather made my day to actually have something useful to give her (though of course I would rather she hadn't burned her finger on a pot!). Both comfrey and yarrow in particular are excellent for burns, though probably best made into a cold compress/poultice rather than a salve. Still, one uses what is on hand, eh?


My busy fingers have also been at work sewing and embroidering and felting in my outdoor "textile studio," where the haystacks are my side-table.



These are soon to be up for sale at Wild Talewort--new story cases, embroidered with antlers, to hold Elk Lines! 


Something so nourishing happens in the mind when the hands are the ones literally telling the story against cloth, or wool, or chopped herbs, and the narrating brain can have a little rest. As I know I have already written many times, there certainly is a reason for the saying, "to spin a yarn"— as the hands make thread, the mind is free to roam and to wander.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Four Elk of Old Cotineva Ranch

At the end of June, I spent a long weekend up the coast in Fort Bragg for a family reunion, from which area (the Mendocino coast) my father's side of the family hails, all the way back to my grandmother's great grandmother, Mary DeVilbiss Lowell, who arrived here in the 1860's in a covered wagon train, recently widowed by the Civil War. 

This year, I got to walk the songlines of some of my ancestors along the Mendocino Coast. My grandmother drew me a family tree (which she'd written about to me several times, but which I still couldn't keep straight!), and with my parents and my brother, I set off to find in particular the old Cotineva Ranch, 1,000 acres that reached right up to the Pacific tideline somewhere north of Westport, which was originally owned by Mary Devilbiss Lowell, then her younger son George and his Irish wife, Ellen Roach, parents of my great-grandmother Edith, who was known as the best bareback horse-rider in Mendocino County, and who grew up on that ranch full of fruit trees, sheep pasture, cows. It was a place so beautiful and beloved to her that after her father died when she was still a teenager, and the land passed on to a less agriculturally inclined brother (I believe!), she couldn't bear to go back and see it un-tended. 


First, we stopped in Westport, and admired an old white house right along Highway One that looked out down the coastal bluffs to the ocean. Later, my grandmother said—why yes, that's the Phee's old place, my cousins! Naturally. I soon realized that there were family houses all over Westport, a town which was once a thriving lumber port, and which now is a very lonesome haunting place, made more ghostly by the pall of illegal marijuana plantations deeper in beyond the hills.

It is a beautiful place all the same, and human history a complicated, layered thing: at once I long for the past of my great-grandmother riding bareback on the coastal ranch of her childhood, and her mother, grandmother Mary, and on down the branches of the family line, before Westport became a haunting husk, and yet I know that their lives here were predicated on the abuse, the destruction, of the native people who loved and tended this land before them with more grace and dignity than any of us can hope to replicate.



And even so, to see the grave of my great great grandfather Patrick Roach, buried right beside his wife Kitty Purcell, in a sweet little graveyard overlooking the ocean, California poppies blooming above them—this moved me deeply, as did all of my encounters with family places that day.







Down the street from where my great-Aunt Teresa (really my great great Aunt), the youngest sister of Edith (who was one of fifteen!) lived, bluff and beach (up to the tideline) that were once owned by Edith's husband, Buster Stanley (are you lost now?), are now protected wild-land. Thank goodness. Nobody should own a beach; and yet that was how the world worked then, and it is that said Buster loved this land with all of his heart.




My brother and I stood on the bluffs, looking out over this great maze of rock and foam, as cormorants and oystercatchers wheeled and called, and laughing, said, well of course, it's no wonder this is my favorite sort of landscape. Both of us, the same love for a wild coastal California shore, that particular slant of bluff, the grass gone gold, the firs dark green against the hills to the east. We both felt it stirring in our blood, a shiver up the back of the neck. Maybe land stays with us, somewhere, especially land that was loved.

We kept driving a good fifteen miles or so up the windy One, until it headed inland, east, where there is a great break in the ridges. That's where the Cottoneva Creek meets the ocean. The creek was also called "Cottonwood" by early settlers, of whom A.J. Lowell, Mary DeVilbiss' second husband (and therefore not a blood ancestor of mine) was the first. This fact of course gives me some unease, because naturally there were other people there, the people who named the creek Cotineva, which in their language meant "low gap." I take this to be a reference to the low-point between the ridges created by the creek-valley. And what a nourishing place it must have been for those First people; a lush, alder-lined creek thick with fish, that lead right to the prodigiously bountiful ocean.



In any case, we drove along, beyond that "low gap," looking for a sign for Rockport, which was to be our indication that we were nearing the old Cotineva Ranch. Suddenly, out the window, I spotted this:


Of course, dear readers, you can imagine my excitement, given my general love of elk, and my current project, Elk Lines. In fact I made some sort of bellow from the back seat and yelled to stop the car! There was nowhere to stop, and though I was in something of a froth in the back, we kept going, until we reached a very big bend in the road which my grandmother had said would be the sign we'd gone too far; the ranch was all the land south of the bend in highway One, where it goes inland to meet highway 101 (the old Camino Real). So we turned around, and then I remembered the satellite image my grandmother and I had looked at on google-maps (yes, this song-line travel involved not only oral history but satellite technology)—a long, thin patch of land beside the road that was the old pasture.


We returned to the place of the four roosevelt elk, because they were grazing at the fenceline of the Old Cotineva Ranch. Yes indeed. I could hardly believe it; I was downright shaking when I got out of the car and went toward the elk. In fact I could hardly bear their beauty, and the beauty of the land they grazed. I could imagine my great-grandma Edith, who I never met, riding between pastures, and I wanted to cry. The elk grazed just beyond the beautiful alder forest lining the Cottoneva Creek (not cottonwoods at all— this must have been a misinterpretation of the native word on the part of the settlers). I have a particular love of alders. In my favorite patch of them nearer home, at Muddy Hollow in Point Reyes, elk abound, rubbing them red with their incisors and antlers, leaving their enormous hoof-prints along the muddy creek. I felt a dizzy mirroring, standing at the shore of this land, guarded by alder and elk. 







An old house still stood, and several sheds, just where my grandmother said they would, all looking as though they were about to collapse into the earth. My brother went up to investigate while I stood gaping at the elk, and returned rather shaken, having walked right up to the windows because he was certain the place was abandoned, only to see a mattress, a blanket, chairs. I had to be dragged away from the elk, and the alders, and the sweep of meadow, before anybody noticed us parked right by the house—and me bouncing about giddily after the elk with my camera no less!



Across the road, the property extended beyond a "No Trespassing"-signed gate. I suspect that the pathway you see below is the one my grandmother spoke of, which led to the little family graveyard and then down the ridge to the ocean, where her mother's family, and her father's before them, sea-fished, gathered abalone, sent boatloads of sheep down the coast to market. I wasn't quite brave enough to jump the fence without being sure it was the right one (family have rights of passage to the graveyard), knowing this to be the sort of place where people really don't appreciate trespassing, but I hung over the rungs for a while, dreaming.



Elk and alders, fir forest, ocean and coastal meadow, old families, old ranches, the native stories held deeper and older within the land; well, it turns out all of these things are woven deep into my Elk Lines too, and not on purpose! Though perhaps it is not an accident either, but rather by some need in the heart and blood, some path the body and the mind follow along with the writing hand. So if you haven't yet subscribed, and would like to, click on that handsome fellow above (who is part of a wee surprise for Elk Lines subscribers upon receipt of their first installment!), or this link here.  Subscriptions are open until July 21st for the first installment, which will arrive by Lammas, August 2nd. 

I suppose I didn't know it, but in walking the family songlines that day, I was also walking the elk lines. And whatever the case, I stood so very close to those elk with their antlers all in velvet that I could hear them chew and snuff the air at one another. They looked me in the eye, wild and gorgeous beyond all words, and I will not be the same again, for that beauty, and how they regarded me with gentle, ungulate unconcern, breathing softly, utterly confident in their velvet strength. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Handless Maiden as The Feral Palmist



A couple weeks past, I wrote an entry here called "The Feral Palmist," one of my Gatherings for the now launched Elk Lines, my latest Wild Tales by Mail project. That exploration of hand and land and story birthed an essay, which is called "A Feral Palmistry," and is now up at Dark Mountain! It is about the relationship between hands and mind and narrative, and it also includes a deeper exploration of my thoughts about The Handless Maiden story, which is the central storyline of these new Elk Lines. The essay was a joy to write; it felt as though it just flowed out through my hand and my pen, so do go and enjoy it if you are so inclined!



A wee excerpt, to whet your palette: 

The human hand has more neural innervation than any other part of the body save the lips and tongue, where our speaking and our loving and our tasting come from. Lips and hands give caresses, carrying the story of love or healing between two bodies. Lips and tongue taste and take in the lives of others — plant, animal — that sustain us as food. There’s a reason, when you see something beautiful that lifts your heart to your throat and lurches it sideways, that you reach out your hand to touch: orange poppies in full bloom in sunlight, shimmering suppler than any silk. Maybe your nose follows, to test the smell, to get dusted with pollen. Somehow, having your hands near or touching those petals brings the bloom in, as if your heart had done it. Reaching out with a foot, or an elbow, or even your lips wouldn’t be the same. The hands, cupping, seem to understand, as if in the touch they are imagining the whole creation of that flower, in whatever humble or rash way they can manage. Because this is what hands do, at their best: they make. They play creator, like Coyote at the top of Mt. Diablo crafting humans from feathers and land from mats of tule.



I spent the first part of this week in Big Sur, having had the blessing of a guest pass and the company of a good friend sweep me along to a very special place called Esalen, where we wandered the gardens and farm, got drunk on the dark blue sapphire sea, heaving with kelp beds (oh, how I longed to see a sea otter there amidst those green braided ropes!), soaked in sulphur hot springs, scrambled up a redwood creekbed scattered with swimming holes in the smooth white granite, and down a steep, narrow stone pathway arched with sycamore leaves to the rockiest and wildest of coves, my favorite sort.






Big Sur is a very wild land, despite the destination many of its coves have become for vacationers. It is too steep, too rocky, too ocean-heaved, too chaparral-dense, to be developed, and so something timeless hangs about its cliffs and hills and tides, the kind of timelessness that I like to evoke in my own writing: the life of the land that lives on under and through and around our current iterations and manifestations of culture.


As I dive headlong into the writing of Elk Lines, this time in Big Sur—envisioned at first as a brief and delicious hotspring soak between workdays—seems to have deepened and widened the landscape of Eda Crost's story in me more than I could have hoped, fueled in part by the poetry of Robinson Jeffers.



I've visited Big Sur many times before, beginning at age 16, and I had also read much of Jeffers' poetry before this adventure. Poet of Big Sur, they call him, of this whole coastline. He lived most of his life in a granite house along the Carmel coast, hewn by his own hands in the early 1900's from local stone, and wrote with beauty and melancholy and yearning about this landscape, about its timelessness and the way it makes human concerns small. This time around, when I came home, I pulled down my big book of Jeffers' poetry and felt the Big Sur ocean-blue, granite-white, pelican-flown landscape come surging through his words like it never really has for me before. He evokes Big Sur and its stones, its birds, its people, its timelessness, like the granite itself is speaking through him; he inspires the way I hope to evoke Point Reyes, my own muse.

Tor House, photo by Jessica Malikowski
And, since we are on the subject of hands, and feral palmistry, and all that, I find it poignant to note that at the height of his creativity and success, Jeffers wrote poetry for part of the day, and worked on building the structures of Tor House, all granite, all hewn by him alone for his wife and family, for the rest. He and the granite somehow became kin through his palms, and his poetry deepened with that hand-making. What verse flowed back from granite to fingerprint, and up into his poet's mind?

TO THE ROCK THAT WILL BE A CORNERSTONE OF THE HOUSE

Old garden of grayish and ochre lichen,
How long a rime since the brown people who have vanished from here
Built fires beside you and nestled by you
Out of the ranging sea-wind? A hundred years, two hundred,
You have been dissevered from humanity
And only known the stubble squirrels and the headland rabbits,
Or the long-fetlocked plowhorses
Breaking the hilltop in December, sea-gulls following,
Screaming in the black furrow; no one
Touched you with love, the gray hawk and the red hawk touched you
Where now my hand lies. So I have brought you
Wine and white milk and honey for the hundred years of famine
And the hundred cold ages of sea-wind.

I did not dream the taste of wine could bind with granite,
Nor honey and milk please you; but sweetly
They mingle down the storm-worn cracks among the mosses,
Interpenetrating the silent
Wing-prints of ancient weathers long at peace, and the older
Scars of primal fire, and the stone
Endurance that is waiting millions of years to carry
A corner of the house, this also destined.
Lend me the stone strength of the past and I will lend you
The wings of the future, for I have them.
How dear you will be to me when I too grow old, old comrade.

-Robinson Jeffers, from Tamar (1917-23)


And finally, as you shall see if you scamper over and read "A Feral Palmistry," I didn't need to go looking nearly so far as the Paleolithic cave art of France to find handprints on stone walls. Look no further than Big Sur, for there are handprints left behind by its original Esselen native people, striped and speckled and singing out to the granite, to the ocean, to the moving of time itself.


HANDS 

Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara 
The vault of rock is painted with hands, 
A multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men's palms, no more, 
No other picture. There's no one to say 
Whether the brown shy quiet people who are dead intended 
Religion or magic, or made their tracings 
In the idleness of art; but over the division of years these careful 
Signs-manual are now like a sealed message 
Saying: 'Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws. All hail*
You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters 
In the beautiful country; enjoy her a season, her beauty, and come down 
And be supplanted; for you also are human.'

-Robinson Jeffers


* This phrase troubled me at first. It reminds me of Hitler and of subjugation and despair and slaughter, and I thought that Jeffers was using it colonially, as if to say yes, European settlers deserve to be hailed, we are better, this land is ours. But upon further consideration, understanding Jeffers philosophy of inhumanism, I believe he employs this phrase knowingly, to imply the great grief and horror of this "regime change" in the beautiful country. And whatever Jeffers original meaning, and more importantly whatever the original intention of the Esselen people who made these hand-marks, I think they speak to us of the great sorrow and beauty of being human—all the sadness of conquest and violence, all the sweetness of creativity and loving "in the beautiful country" held in those palm-pads.