Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Autumnhouse


A field vole (c) Barrie H. Kelly

Vole, who lives at the root of an old fallen pine, knows the way in.

Her doorway is humble and easy to miss, but if you leave marigolds, or the last gold leaves of the buckeye, or the first acorn, at the root of a snag, she will most likely appear, plump with the last of summer's seeds, black-eyed, and kind. She will show you that the doorway is just here, through the hole in the rootplace of the tree which she uses regularly but which is also suddenly a smooth-carved, rounded door made of pine, with a bronze knob made of the bronze of ancient women who long ago tempered it among the embers of your blood, and now Vole is a plump, kind-eyed woman in a great tawny-furred shawl, opening that door for you, holding out a hand of welcome, gesturing you through. 

Inside, you are in a root, hollowed and smoothed and snug, a house that smells of ancient resins and fresh humus, nuts roasting, woodsmoke. There are windows, odd and random, glimpses of the afternoon's long gold light, the slantwise shade of rich sky blue, a buckeye heavy with shining nuts. The fire is new in the round-bellied hearth. Hazelnuts roast on top, and an earthenware bowl within, bubbling scents of corn and bean and sage and a hundred savory roots, a thousand. Only a Vole-woman knows how many. In the center of the round root room is a cushion woven thick of green and brown and yellow wool, and beside it a table made of a polished branch where all manner of wooden birds are perched. The woman settles back onto that cushion, taking a thin, sharp knife and a bit of wood from her belt. She begins to whittle and carve, singing high whistled vole songs that are almost too strange for your ears to follow. 

Varied thrush are coming, coming, coming through the night. Varied thrush are winging, winging, winging with the light. She chants as she carves. Pleiades are rising, varied thrush are flying, Scorpion has gone, Scorpion has gone. As she carves and sings, the root is no longer a snug house but a deep rush of sky and star and feathers. It is the inside of a thrush-breast, speckled as night, pulsing with a compass magnet and a map so old the stars sing to it like the singing vole. There the earth calls south, south. The stars have changed to gloaming. There is a place the thrush knows and flies toward, right into the window of the autumn house, guided by a thousand thousand ancestors. For the briefest moment the thrush flies right into your hands—a big songbird, orange and bluegray in painted swathes, with a song of two tones in one note that opens you up sidelong and brings the acorns swelling everywhere in the trees, and every ghost in your blood released to feast at last among them, welcomed home. 


The  Enclosed Garden, by Meinrad Craighead

Vole-woman stops singing. The house is only a root again, warm and safe. The hazelnuts have roasted. She places the wooden thrush she's carved in a window that peeks out onto a different forest where the stags are wild-antlered, big-chested, weaving after the long-necked and prancing does. Then she hands you a nut, hot and crisp and oily, the papery husk of it flaking into your hands. As you eat it, there is a sound around you like the rustle of falling leaves—buckeye, bigleaf maple, curls of madrone bark, old pine needles. It's a skin, vaguely shaped like you but also like a snake. Vole-woman scoops it up in a deft hand and throws it into the fire as you eat more nuts and listen to the thrushes as they arrive, singing autumn in to roost. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Talking About The Weather

Fog walking on light feet across Abbott's Lagoon, Point Reyes 

Yesterday just before dusk, the fog came in. The fog came galloping, a herd of ghost elk with the wet western ocean in their hooves. It came pouring down the valley between two bishop pine ridges, straight from the sea. It marched east, brisk with salt and damp. And it was a greater balm to lung and heart than it had ever been before, though I have always loved the fog. I nearly shouted my gladness when I saw and smelled it, I nearly got down on my knees.

It has been a harrowing ten days in Northern California. Fires turned the gentle, beautiful agricultural counties and communities of Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino into the closest vision of hell I've yet seen in my life. I am lucky to say that I only saw these visions second-hand, in photographs and videos online. We live one county away, on a ridge between Tomales Bay and the ocean, in dense, dry pinewood, and have been on high alert every night, our hearts sick with sorrow and fear for the thousands who have lost homes, the dozens that have died, and the possibility of more fires starting. Stories from friends at the edges of evacuation zones, watching a black sky; stories from friends who fled at 1 am and drove past walls of flame, who lost everything; the air has been thick with the smoke of their loss for hundreds of miles. The air has been sick with the immolation of thousands of houses, cars, hotels, wineries, shopping malls, forests, hillsides, pastures, fields. In traditional Chinese Medicine, it is our lungs that hold and process grief. Our lungs are breathing wings, sifting the sorrow of thousands, and the voice of the screaming earth.

Native California grassland on a serpentine-rock hillside at the Oak Granary in Potter Valley, one of the areas in Mendocino affected by the fires (the Oak Granary land did not burn, but the fire came very close)


We have always been at the whim of the weather. Fire, wind, water, moving earth; these are the first deities we ever named. I believe the time is upon us when we are being called to name them again.  I do not think we have a choice, now. It is clear that no matter how safe we thought we made ourselves behind the trappings of industrial civilization, we are as vulnerable as we ever were. More so, because we have forgotten that these elements, they comprise our home. We are given everything we ever had by the selfsame soils, waters, winds, fires, and this remembrance is a balm and a strengthening gift that can nourish and buoy us every day.

We are so small in the face of such titans, these old earth deities, these weathers. And they are everywhere growing more erratic, more intense, more unpredictable, and more dangerous to us, because they are the earth's own voice, describing a total systemic imbalance. We are animals dependent on a living planet, a fact we've been trying to hide from ourselves in the West for centuries.  We can't hide from it anymore, and it is frightening and sad to see so suddenly and so clearly the truth that all the scientists and all the predictive models have been saying for years: this is only the beginning.

The old god called Mt. Tallac (in modern parlance), and the other, called Fallen Leaf Lake

In Homer's Odyssey, no king or sailor or soldier would dream of setting out on a journey of any length without first propitiating the gods of water and weather, pouring wine upon the earth and offering a fine flank of beef to the fire. (I know for a fact that the women were doing it too, in their hearths and homes, to their spindles and baskets of wool, to their fires and flocks and gardens, only the ancient Mycenean epics are male-oriented, so it's mostly the men we see.) In fact I think this is my favorite part of the whole tale-- the sheer preponderance of passages in which men offer wine and meat to the gods. Because it mattered; not necessarily in the sense that those propitiations bought their givers much protection (though they may have now and then), but because they demonstrated a worldview in which human beings understood that they must bow down to Thunder, to Wind, to Rain, to the Ones Who Walked the Mountains. When you pour wine to the earth and pray for safe passage to the deities of storm and tide, it's not that you think you can control them; it's that you know you are small before them, and that your respect toward them is a thing of value. To them, and to you. Because it repositions you within a network of living influences and beings, and feeds  you in turn, in ways both seen and unseen.


Don't get me wrong. I'm not in any way saying that these wildfires, fueled by years of intense drought and heat in California, and 80 mph hot Diablo winds from the Valley, could have been stopped by wine poured out on the earth and meat given to the gods, or by any other kind of prayer. Or that any of the other natural disasters we've seen this year could have been. Hurricanes, earthquakes, heat waves, floods. These are the weather of the world responding to biosphere-wide, human-made climate imbalance. They are enormous and terribly powerful and impersonal in their scope Welcome to climate chaos. Or so a voice has been ringing in my head all week. And another voice, a far-down-in-the-center-of-the-earth kind of voice, saying the supremacy of humans has ended. Not that we are all going to be swept off the face of the planet, or die en masse (I pray nothing of the sort ever happens), but more that we are being asked again to acknowledge the old gods. For real. Fire. Wind. Water. Earth. They are walking again. They are here to tell us something.


That weather, seasons, the elements, the circle that is earth-time, the web that is the living biosphere—these are not peripheral to our existence as a human species, though we have behaved as though they were for at least the last 200 years in the industrial West. Treating them with the reverence and mythic-thinking that the words "god," "deity," or "goddess" confer is not spiritual hogwash. It's not New Age woo. It's a thing that science can't do for us, but which we desperately need—to address the unseen dimensions of our planet's forces, the vast and mysterious powers that we can never hope to control. We should never have hoped to control them, but we did. Now, it seems to me that one of our only hopes for long term survival as a species, is to acknowledge what we don't understand, what we can't control, not with fear but with respect, awe, and humility. Storms, fires, floods, earthquakes; if we began to approach each in this spirit, acknowledging that we will have to change our ways of building, transporting ourselves, feeding ourselves, healing ourselves, in order to survive them in the coming century, would we find ourselves within a culture of reverence again, and the names of old gods surfacing on our tongues? 

The old pines and native grasses of the eastern edge of Fallen Leaf Lake, northern Sierra Nevadas
I don't know. I've been feeling helpless, and heartsick, and so sad for what has been lost in the communities across Sonoma and Napa and Mendocino that have been burned in these fires. So sad for the homes and lives ruined, for the thousands of undocumented people so deeply integral to our communities who have no insurance to protect them and no guarantee whatsoever for their own safety in this present political climate to begin with. So sad for the untold number of animals dead among the ashes. So sad for the continued barrage of storms and shootings and bad news of every stripe. I have been feeling, to be honest, a bit hopeless.

 Last week in the smoky air, I wrote the following poem-chant-cry in a state of deep grief. I wept the whole way through, but when the words were out, and the crying ceased, I found I had come to the threshold of hope after all. I wasn't expecting to, but I had.

So, I share these words with you here that you may grieve and then hope in turn.

Ashfall: a rain of white from other houses, other hills
Ashfall, it is a language of too-late, of sorrow.

Today I cannot find it in me to hope for utopias to spring up from the ashes,
for seeds we had forgotten to grow where everything has been destroyed

Today I don't know any longer how to tell a story that is that kind of seed
how to be honest and still say:
it will be better, my unborn daughters
it will be fine, my someday sons

Today what I see is a dark smoke across the ridges, the settling ash, a red sun
and what I smell is a sorrow five thousand years old
burning heavenhigh in a language of smoke that only Earth knows, keening to Sky

All week we have together breathed the ash of these five thousand sorrows
All week the great old bay and her lands have lain gasping under
the smoke of a scream that is still tearing across the dry hills from a throat of fire

Earth's dragons are searching for something we took from them and then forgot we took

Oh Goddess, Oh Earth, we took your children, we took your daughters, we took your sons:
the hills, the stones, the soil, the water, the air where the snowy geese go flying a thousand leagues to get back home; we took them but we didn't know we did because we had forgotten your name, and the names of your children, and we thought there was no cost, and we needed them badly because our own children were hungry and we were hungry and so afraid and lonely because we had forgotten that
we
are your children too.

White ash is falling
Dragons are awake, and walking.
No one is going to take us home now; we must take ourselves. 
That is not a mountain, but a god of granite and earth
This is not a fire, but a dragon of loss who will burn the world to hold her children again. 

Listen, the atmosphere speaks in stories made of weather, of wind, of drought, of flood. 
The earth speaks by moving, by fire, when we have forgotten how to hear the subtler words 
We are so small. The air is full of ashes. Our lungs are full of each other's houses, and sorrows, and the hills that know no ending but the seeds. 

Weep for me my children, says a voice. 
Weep for me, tears on ash. Then dry your eyes. 
In the garden, the ruby-crowned kinglets 
have returned for the winter from somewhere far away
Ring the bell of greeting
Kiss your husband 
Praise what flies and what carries and what holds forever
For we are home among the stars


* * * To raise money to donate to fire relief funds, and specifically to support undocumented families who have lost homes and livelihoods and will not be able to apply for any kind of federal aid, I am offering my novella The Dark Country for sale again for a short time. ALL PROCEEDS (besides shipping & printing costs which are about $4.00 per book), will be donated to the Graton Day Labor Center (Centro Laboral de Graton). LINK HERE * * *