Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How To Build A Story Like A Vessel


I've been reading a lot of Ursula Le Guin recently. I won't hesitate to call it an obsession. But maybe the better word is an apprenticeship, or a hunger, or both. I've apprenticed myself unconsciously to her words, because they are full of something I am hungry for, something I didn't know I was hungry for until I found it. For a while I couldn't articulate what "it" was. Only that the way she made worlds, and words, filled me up with a sense of both light and dark, a sense of rightness and of wonder, an astonishment at the breathtaking imaginings that humans are capable of, the strange familiarity of her planets and peoples. But it wasn't until I came across a few brief descriptions in Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew and the introduction to her short story collection A Fisherman of the Inland Sea that I understood what it was I was responding to. Naturally, Ursula needed to explain it to me.


Here are the two passages that, when read close together in time, brought with them a revelation—

"The rhythms of prose—and repetition is the central means of achieving rhythm—are usually hidden or obscure, not obvious. They may be long and large, involving the whole shape of a story, the whole course of events in a novel: so large they're hard to see, like the shape of the mountains when you're driving on a mountain road. But the mountains are there." (from a chapter on Repetition in Steering the Craft)

"The beauty of a story may be intellectual, like the beauty of a mathematical proof or a crystalline structure; it may be aesthetic, the beauty of a well-made work; it may be human, emotional, moral; it is likely to be all three." (from the introduction to A Fisherman of the Inland Sea) 

What she doesn't say outright, but what I took away from both of these tidbits, is this sense that a story's structure is meant to be as beautiful and sound as the language with which it is told. Structure can mean many things, but it isn't primarily about how you've ordered your paragraphs or the clever way you've fragmented your narrative. That's still surface stuff. Structure to me is primarily about the inherent rightness (be it moral, human, emotional, ecological) with which the story is constructed. The way its characters, landscapes and themes move and dance around each other. The pattern they make, which should be in some way harmonious, but never perfect. This is the innerness of the story, like the interior structure of a clay vessel thrown on a wheel or built by hand.

The brilliant potter and poet M.C. Richards writes about the innerness of vessels; how in throwing a pot you are really shaping empty space, not clay. How, long after the pot is broken, its interior space still remains, somehow made eternal by the shaping of its clay. Which makes me think of Rilke's "unusable space" built from the "tremulous music of stones": a temple (Sonnet X from Part Two of The Sonnets To Orpheus)

Andrew Cornell Robinson
Somehow the shaping of clay feels like a useful and important metaphor for the shaping of a story. Words are the clay, but a story is more than words, like a vessel is more than clay. The inner structure of the vessel must be able to carry the beauty of its exterior; they must be in balance, must match, must create an inner and an outer that together is a whole. 

This is what Ursula Le Guin's writing does. This is why her novels satisfy on a deep profound level. Their prose, which is deceptively simple but in reality profoundly poetic,  perfectly mirrors an inner narrative beauty, a strength of story, of psyche, of plot, of the things that make the rhythms of ancient myth last for thousands of years. Just read The Telling or Tehanu and you will see what I mean. It's an ineffable thing, but you know it when you read it, when you feel it in your bones. 

So, my question is, how do you learn to shape a story like you would a vessel, its innerness shaping its outerness? I will be the first to admit that I tend toward the poetic, the lush, the (at times) overly dense. This has always come easily to me. What is more challenging for me as a writer is carrying plot, and yet this is what truly shapes the story. Its inner structure—the way humans, animals, plants, land interact through conflict and resolution. The way microcosms and macrocosms are evoked, repeated, sung... You see, I can hardly write about it in any clear way.

We all, of course, have our own ideas about what makes a beautiful story. It's very subjective. In the same way that we all have different ideas about what makes a beautiful vessel. 

Akira Satake
In the midst of all of this thinking about the inner and outer beauty of stories, I discovered the art of Japanese tea bowls, also known as chawan (thanks to my dear friend Catherine Sieck, who is an incredible potter). More to the point, I discovered something of the original philosophy behind these utterly feral vessels. It's the concept of wabi-sabi, one of those terms so overused and yet so generally misinterpreted that I at first balked and didn't even want to read about it. But my local library had a copy of Leonard Koren's classic Wabi-Sabi for Artist, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, and I read it in one sitting. Lucky for me. I'm not going to get into all the details here, as it's even harder to write about than the innerness of good stories. 

In very brief, wabi-sabi is an aesthetic and spiritual system based on the impermanence, imperfection, and yet astonishing, deep, melancholic beauty found in nature, not so much in its glorious blossomings and epic mountain peaks, but in "the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral, things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes," in the "moments of inception and subsiding" (page 50). Wabi-sabi honors the imperfect, the earthen, the processes of growth and decay and rebirth, the fluidity and also impermanence of all things. And, just a little bit more (it's delicious, isn't it?)-- "Wabi-sabi suggests the subtlest realms and all the mechanics and dynmacis of existence, way beyond what our ordinary sense can perceive. The primordial forces are evoked in everything wabi-sabi" (page 57).

Akira Satake
Tea bowls made in this style, and sipped from with presence and stillness and attention to the here and now, are meant to create and evoke a unity of self and nature in all of its imperfect beauty. I wonder what a story built like this would look like. What kind of innerness, shaped to hold the tea properly but also the wild shapes of decay and unfurling both, might translate into story-making? How does a story shape itself around impermanence? And at the same time, how does a story grow like a natural thing, like a piece of granite in the earth or a head of kelp in the sea? How does it speak with authenticity, right up from the ground of the ground and of the soul, both in its words and in its structure, its innerness? 

How might we leave space for stories in the world, stories that can be temples where stones sing, stories that have nothing to do with our own egos? Stories that are our gifts and our leavings, life offering vessels at the edge of the wood?

These are open-ended questions, a delicious exploration inspired by Ursula Le Guin and the pottery traditions of Japan. At first glance, I found this connection a bit unexpected. At second, I remembered that Le Guin has translated the Tao Te Ching and is a great student of Taoism, from which concepts of Wabi-sabi, tea ceremonies and chawan clay techniques have arisen. To fulfill that which is naturally so. A story and a vessel should feel like this: that they have grown like mushrooms up from the ground of themselves. That they could not be any other way. That there is always room for mystery.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Warp and Weft of Old Europe

Almost exactly a year ago-- one journey around the sun-- my dear friend Asia Suler (of One Willow Apothecaries) and I began the collaboration that would become WEFT.  In the mountains of Appalachia where Asia lives, the wild violets and irises were up, and she dreamt and then brewed up a potent violet elixir, purple with the medicine of those dark petals, stirred over the stovetop to the hymns of Hildegard Von Bingen. With the intuitive dreaming unique to her old heart, Asia then began adding essences of flowers and stones to the elixir, weaving a medicine that spoke back through many millennia. She sent a small phial to me and I began to take drops of it as I wrote, allowing its own mysteries to unfold inside, in the way-down-dark places where stories come from. She didn't tell me anything about what plants and stones comprised the elixir. The very first image that came to me as I let the elixir settle into my body was of the old island of Malta; of an ancient village made of stone; of a woman in deep purple robes; of snakes. 


I visited Malta and one of its very ancient matrilineal temples six years ago and was very moved; but still, when this of all images came up upon first taste of the elixir, I was a little confused! I was expecting to write something set in California, as I tend to do, something rooted here, relating to the plants, animals and stones that I know. And yet each time I took the elixir, and wrote, and daydreamed, it was all sandstone walls and snake priestesses, caves deep in the earth, the smoke of bay leaves, an old grandmother or aunt telling a young girl that it is women who keep the world whole, who weave the filaments between things. Back then, the image in my mind was of lace, of generations of lace makers.

(Only very recently did I learn that some believe the islands of Malta and Gozo might have been schools for priestesses. The islands, after all, are literally riddled with Neolithic temples and there are legends of extensive labyrinths below them. "Such island-schools are common in legend," writes Barbara Mor in her incredible book The Great Cosmic Mother. "Ancient Celtic myth tells of sacred islands inhabited and ruled by women, where the mysteries were kept and taught" (113). Well... perhaps this is why Malta came up!)


This was in the summer. A very, very dry summer after three years of serious winter drought. Inside, I was experiencing my own kind of drought. Not writer's block, but a terrible sun-baked kind of overwork. Old intense patterns of anxiety returned, suddenly and in full force. Without proper winter, without water in and on the land, I realized I was having a very hard time watering myself; giving myself rest, nourishment, green. Over the previous three years, I had written four novel-length manuscripts (Tatterdemalion, The Gray Fox Epistles, The Leveret Letters, Elk Lines).  They were a joy to write, but the well was beginning to look rather dry. More than that. It was starting to feel a bit abused. Untended. We cannot be in bloom always. In California, many of the creeks go dry in summer, and no one expects them not to. In every landscape there must be rest, dormancy, quiet. The true sort, not a false promise of rest and then suddenly, two weeks later, another project! 

So I tried and tried with the elixir to create a story, but in truth, I was at the end of my rope. I wrote bits of something set in an imagined world-- partly Crete, partly Malta, partly a future California-- about a girl, a temple of snake priestesses, a sacred shroud dyed with saffron, an island and a garden full of fennel. But it wasn't right. It didn't work. And the elixir seemed to know it. To tell me-- now is not the time. And rest rest rest. And take to the waters, take to the springs. Replenish, replenish, replenish. 


I know now that it was the Grandmothers (of Asia's Grandmother's Elixir) talking. I know now that this was part of the medicine for me. That this collaboration was not just about creating a project to share with the world, but also about beginning to tend to old patterns. After all, who was I to think that I, too, didn't need healing from that medicine? That perhaps I, most of all, needed it— not to write from but to remember with? 

Female figurines, Cucuteni, Draguseni Botosani County Museum, Botosani, from The Lost "The Lost World of Old Europe: The Danube Valley, 5000-3500 BC," NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World
Back in the summer, hearing those voices, I took to the hot springs. I soaked in the old lava waters. Asia and I decided to let the project rest for a time. She revealed to me the names of the plants and stones in her elixir, and her descriptions sent a shiver through me. (Here is an example of what she wrote about one of the stones in an email: Feldspar is considered the "grandmother" of many stones. Over time Feldspar will become Labradorite, Sunstone, moonstone, and Amazonite (among others). Feldspar is like the first grandmother is a long matrilineal lineage. In Daoist medicine Feldspar represents the broth of our life, that thick nourishing beginning from which any variation can happen. It is a stone that helps us to locate ourselves when we are in the process of becoming and encourages us to simply surrender to the light that wants to flood through us so we can become aware of the the large Shen (or heart spirit of the divine) that we are a part of. From there, is it so much easier to value and give voice to our little shen (our own individual spirits).

The whole elixir is comprised of violet syrup, wild iris essence and an elixir of aquamarine + feldspar stones, and Asia describes it as "an elixir to invoke the initiatory magic of the womyn ancestors and our collective matrilineal line. Once upon a time we were all born from women who understood the mysteries of herbs and roots and death and beginnings. This elixir is a gateway to help remember our place in this continuum of hedgewitches and healers."

Cucuteni vessel

Well, it certainly opened that gateway for me, in unexpected and beautiful ways. The best part about the process of experiencing this medicine was that it seemed to work first like an old undercurrent, taking matters into its own waters while I wasn't looking. For after the hotsprings, I went to England to at last meet my dear friend Rima (that is a whole other story, one maybe you have already read), and the old seed of Tatterdemalion at last began to bloom. When I came home, rejuvenated by my time with Rima and Tom and Dartmoor, I was full of this fresh energy to research, to study, to take to the books. Weft was still on the back burner, simmering. I wasn't ready to work on it yet, I told myself. I asked myself a question, like I do in the world of animal tracking-- a sacred question to hold and carry through to its end-- what stories did the Bronze Age people of Grimspound (which we visited on Dartmoor) tell around their fires?


A page from Marija Gimbutas' The Language of the Goddess 


This, unexpectedly, led me back before the Bronze Age and into the work of the inimitable Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. There I dwelt all autumn and winter, reading The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, pieces of The Language of the Goddess and The Civilization of the Goddess, and then a related book called The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology and the Origins of European Dance (by Elizabeth Wayland Barber), not to mention bits of Andreas John's Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale.

My spring office under the apricot tree, entirely hidden by shoulder-high wild radish
I seemed to be following an invisible thread-- Gimbutas' controversial Bird Goddesses of Neolithic Old Europe connected themselves to Barber's exploration of Eastern European vilas/ willies/ rusalki and their connection to seasonal agricultural rituals of death and rebirth and Andreas John's treatment of the numerous Baba Yaga theories, many of which connect her with ancient snake and bird deities, female initiation, underworlds, the rebirth of seeds. Meanwhile, I was taking a ceramics class and hand-building a veritable menagerie of creatures and vessels inspired by the artifacts Gimbutas dug throughout Eastern Europe and documented in her magnificent books.

Bird-shaped vessel 

Marija Gimbutas
I had first discovered Gimbutas back in college, in a small used bookshop that served as a sort of sanctuary for me. I saw her enormous The Civilization of the Goddess displayed prominently on a front shelf, and wondered why on earth I had never heard of it before (being a bit of a nerd for the ancient world). I paid $50.00 for it with only the smallest moment of hesitation (it was a very, very big book, hilariously heavy to carry in a suitcase home!). What I found inside absolutely staggered me. Not only was it the life work of an incredibly intelligent woman who had personally excavated many of the artifacts she wrote about from village sites all across Eastern Europe and the Aegean, and through them and her 30 some years of deep study reconstructed a vision of a matristic and deeply earth-based culture she named Old European. It was also a deep exploration of ancient feminine spirituality and the worship of what she called the Great Goddess, who was really just a manifestation of the cycles of creation, death and rebirth found in the natural world, cycles that have been both sacred and intimate to the daily lives of human beings all over the world for most of our history as a species.

As Gimbutas explains in The Language of the Goddess, "it seems [...] appropriate to view all of these Goddess images as aspects of the one Great Goddess with her core functions—life-giving, death-wielding, regeneration and renewal. The obvious analogy would be to Nature itself; through the multiplicity of phenomena and continuing cycles of which it is made, one recognizes the fundamental and underlying unity of Nature. The Goddess is immanent rather than transcendent and therefore physically manifest" (316).

Source here
However, soon after discovering Gimbutas' work when I was 20, I also discovered the intense controversy around it. I will admit that for a while, that controversy kept me away. Attacks on her work were loud and strong, consisting of assertions that she had made everything up, that she had absolutely no grounds for much of what she was claiming about the symbolism she read into on pots, figurines, vases, that it was a load of feminist hogwash, etc., truly startled me.

I have a deep, old adoration of the ancient world, of goddesses at their most primordial and earthen especially, of grounded witch lore and mythology, of the sacred rhythms of women's crafts, of the moon and my own bleeding, but I have a rather equally strong aversion to what can feel like ungrounded New Age goddess-stuff.  I got a little concerned for the sake of the latter, and I backed away. I fell for what I see now as a culturally ingrained prejudice against not just feminism but the feminine (say the word "god" and no one bats an eyelash; say "goddess" and immediately the eye-rolling begins). We are all, to one degree or another, held under the sway of the scientific, linear-minded, masculine patriarchy in which we live.

(As an aside before I go further, I will just say now that I have nothing whatsoever against men; I love men. I don't, however, love a totally out of balance patriarchal system. I don't think any of us do. As women we are just as complicit as men in this system. Sometimes the re-iteration of patriarchal structures and ways of thinking by women upon other women is in fact the most intense and damaging rhetoric of all.)

I've since discovered that the vast majority of criticism for Gimbutas' work in fact amounts to little more than slander. Frighteningly effective slander absolutely inextricable from a subconscious and fearful sort of misogyny. I'm not trying to say here that her work contains no flaws--whose work, especially in the field of archaeology, is perfect? That's a complete unreasonable concept. But the intensity with which Gimbutas was debunked speaks to something beyond reason and fact...

What really riled people up about Gimbutas (men and women both) was that her approach to the material of a matrilineal Old Europe and its religious system was interdisciplinary, and that it had to do with a "goddess"-oriented religion. (Gimbutas herself found the term "Goddess" limiting, but used it for lack of a better word to describe an intensely potent feminine power inherent in the earth itself, both nurturing and terrifying and very much revered by Neolithic agricultural peoples, as well as indigenous cultures across the world and traditional peasant folk to this day.) Before she wrote The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe and things began to get sticky for her in the academic world (in part because feminists took to her vision whole-heartedly, with good reason), Gimbutas was highly regarded in her field. She received numerous fellowships and awards. Her work on the Indo-European Bronze Age, on Lithuanian folk customs, on the prehistory of Baltic and Slavic peoples, was highly respected. Her book Bronze Age Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe was ground-breaking and praised. She, after all, had been the one to personally excavate much of the material she studied.  Whatever she hadn't excavated, she had read the reports about in their original languages, something few others in her field could do.


Her knowledge of Lithuanian folklore, art and songs informed everything she did. She had, after all, received her doctorate (from the University of Tübingen) in archaeological prehistory, the history of religion, and ethnology. When digging an old Neolithic village across Eastern and Central Europe, she sometimes recognized patterns on figures or pots that were still in use in her native country among the peasant people. No one else had a comparable grasp of languages, folklore, mythology and religion. Her blending of disciplines was tolerable in the academic world until she shifted her focus from the patriarchal, highly stratified, war-like Indo-European cultures which arrived in ancient Europe around 3500 B.C.E. (the ones from which our own culture is still directly connected) to an older strata (beginning around 7000 B.C.E), the Old European peoples who had been there before the horse-riders swept in from the eastern steppes and changed the world. 
What she observed across Old Europe was a village-based culture with virtually no social stratification (no highly ornate burials, no obviously elite dwellings), no weaponry or military fortification and therefore little or no war. She observed that neither sex dominated the other (as in either a patriarchy or a matriarchy) and so she called what she saw "Matrilineal" because clear importance was given to the female line, to the burials of old women and young girls in particular. Because virtually all of the little clay figurines found by hearths, by looms, by temple altars, were of big-hipped women. And because the language of symbols that Gimbutas interpreted from the thousands of pots, spindle whorls, shards, figurines, vases and vessels she dug and documented over 30 years was all about the regenerative powers of the earth, whose womb-dark soils and amniotic waters have been considered "feminine" by most human cultures throughout all time. 

A vessel, when cut in half, was found to be full of small female figurines. From Ghelăiești. Photo by Cristian Chirita

She interpreted an intensely spiritual culture from the vessels and figurines she dug up from the ground. (She was in fact the first archaeologist of Neolithic Europe to focus on religion at all, in a post World War II archaeological era intensely concerned with economics and materialism.) Many of the vessels she found seemed to be left as offerings—in pits dug beside houses, layered over the centuries; in temples beside sacred hearths. These vessels were women's work, as was the weaving of cloth, the gathering of fibers and seeds. So much creative potential lay in the hands and bodies of women, and was honored as such. She never claimed matriarchy or utopia, as many of her later critics somewhat hysterically claimed that she had; rather she noted a culture oriented toward the feminine inherent in the earth, but honoring of both genders. 

Double-vessel, Cucuteni culture

Image source here

The backlash against her work began during the last years of her life in the early 1990's, as she battled lymphatic cancer, and came first from within the old, established patriarchy and archaeological monarchy that is Cambridge University, initiated by a colleague/friend Colin Renfrew (a Baron and Lord). I won't go into all the details of his attempts to undermine her work, nor what followed. Charlene Spretnak has written a fantastic and infuriating overview ("Anatomy of a Backlash: Concerning the Work of Marija Gimbutas" in the Spring 2011 issue of the Journal of Archaeomythology) of the erasure of Gimbutas' work from the archaeological canon over the last two decades. However, I will repeat here a quote of great relevance that Spretnak uses in her essay, written by Dale Spender in Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them: "techniques [of control] work by initially discrediting a woman and helping to remove her from the mainstream; they work by becoming the basis for any future discussion about her; and they work by keeping future generations of women away from her."

Goddess vessel from the Cucuteni culture,  Collection of National History Museum of Moldova 

This is precisely what happened to Gimbutas. The sweeping, scathing, slandering criticism of her work (which, when you actually read it, often sounds more childish than academic; more defensive than constructive, like "goddess" and "feminism" are dirty words, but "god" and "patriarchy" are entirely neutral, objective, reasonable and sane) effectively removed her from the archaeological world. Almost no professors, except the brave, teach her work. I didn't really believe this kind of thing still happened. I do now. I have been warned. 

This is the reason I wanted to take the time to get into some of the details here. Because it is an act of radical re-storying to bring her back into the archaeological forefront, back into the dialogue about what is possible for human cultures, back into women's hands. What a shame, what a loss to all of us —not just womankind but humankind—to have Gimbutas' work hidden away, buried. Most of the criticism of Gimbutas comes across to me as semi-hysterical, and mostly propagated (with intense vehemence) by people who haven't even studied her work with any great care, but rather have heard second hand of this archaeologist who "pandered" to new age Goddess- worshippers and obsessed over "matriarchal utopias" (neither of which she did in any way). 


Gimbutas was a brilliant woman. She worked very much within the scientific structures of the archaeological discipline. Many call her the "grandmother of the goddess movement," but this was entirely by chance, not of her own doing. She did not overtly seek out either goddesses nor feminism; she simply sought to see what she thought was truth, with her whole heart and mind. Her work is an incredible gift to all of us, and worth taking the time to read for ourselves, in order to form our own opinions. 

You can see that all of this has me deeply inspired and also furious. Seriously, furious. So furious it's actually hard for me to even gather my thoughts. So furious it might appear I've gone a great distance from Weft. But I haven't, not really. Because you see it was Gimbutas' work that stirred Weft out of me. I didn't even realize it at first. 

Around midwinter, I saw what was going on. I realized that all of this reading and research about Old Europe was the warp (the vertical threads in a weaving, the structure) for my collaboration with Asia. I was feeding the creative well, yes, but in feeding the well I was feeding the story that needed to be told, the gift born of Asia's Grandmother's Elixir. It was still at work. It was filling me up. It was apprenticing me to the archaeology of sacred vessels, of ancient women's work—the warp weighted looms, the spindle whorls, the earliest gardens, the pots shaped like bird goddesses, bears, deer. 

Symbols carved on a Romanian spindle whorl, 5th millennia B.C. Vinca-Turdas culture (Photo from "Signs of Civilization")

I believe that over the decades of her research and deep observation of the village sites and artifacts of Old Europe, the vessels and spindle whorls and temple ruins whispered their stories to Gimbutas. This is thoroughly un-academic of me, but I believe in intuition, in magic, in voices speaking across centuries, in some knowing that is in the blood or the soul. I believe that when this kind of knowing is in balance with the powers of the mind, the intellect, deep study and careful thinking, very, very powerful things can emerge. The likes of Lord Colin Renfrew would take me to the stake for this kind of talk, or more likely in this day just laugh me off the stage; but don't we know it, as women, to be true? That the world is far more mysterious, and the knowing in our bodies far more ancient, than we are taught to believe? That when the very ancient knowing of heart and womb is in balance with a sharp, clear intellect, great beauty of thought and action is possible? Gimbutas never claimed anything of the sort, and yet after over thirty years of study, she said that the symbols carved on all of the artifacts she had written about and poured over just started to coalesce. To come together as a language of mythopoeic dimensions. I believe that all of her work was an act of magic; or, in other words, of communication across great distances of time, and the very small distances within the soul. 

And isn't is the point, in the end, of all true study? 
Old European Vessel
It felt like something similar happened inside of me when I encountered Gimbutas' work for the second time this autumn, embracing it with an open heart and mind. The story came out in a rush, and yet in pieces. Like an ancient pottery vessel, dug up in shards. It has its own archaeology, its own warped loom, waiting for the reader to pick up the weft threads and weave it all whole. 

At its heart, Weft is the tale of a girl, a drought, an underworld, and the most ancient roots of the Baba Yaga, set in partly historic, partly imagined Neolithic Transylvania around 6500 B.C.E. At this time, settled agriculture brought by small bands of Mediterranean travelers (and their grains, goats and sheep) was taking root across southeastern Europe, woven relatively peacefully into the framework of indigenous Mesolithic hunting and gathering tribes. 

A reconstruction of Neolithic wattle and daub houses, based on archaeological findings and the structures of traditional Romanian peasant dwellings, from the  Câmpiei Boianului Museum 
I dreamed into my own version of Old Europe, rooted as much in research and fact as possible. Reading about these ancient village sites full of offering jugs and sacred ovens, their houses of wattle and daub, perched at the edges of mountains and woods, felt like indigenous ground in me. On a pathway of my own ancestral blood through Austria, through Hungary, through Poland, through Russia, I felt that in working with this material I could follow a part of myself back to a source, a place of balance, a set of ancient lifeways to look to for wisdom, for strength, for wholeness. 

Vessel from Cucuteni culture, in the Cucuteni Neolithic Art Museum

For you women who are of European descent, this is indigenous ground. This is a place to put our roots, to drink up, to learn from. Gimbutas' Old Europe represents to me a culture, a set of stories, that were in balance with the cycles of life around them. A narrative of living to re-learn, to re-member. We are in desperate need of this wisdom today; in desperate need of places to source our own stories and sense of connection, not appropriating those of the indigenous people who still survive and flourish today, but seeking our own rootings, groundings, retellings. 

Weft is about that which tips us out of balance, and that which brings us back again; about ritual and the sacred and how we make such things manifest with our very hands. It is a celebration of the deep beauty and power of ancient women’s work: weaving, spinning, pottery, child-bearing, plant-tending, medicine gathering. It is a hymn to the dying we undertake every moon in the underworlds of our own bodies, even if we no longer bleed, and the process of being reborn.
 
I want to dedicate this work not only to all the women of my ancestry—back to the very beginning of time, when women weren't women at all, but birds, or perhaps deer, bears or even the roots of the plants which cleanse and heal—but also to Marija Gimbutas, whose work has been pushed into an underground current over the past twenty years, but whose wisdom we sorely, sorely need. 

I read yesterday that by the year 2050, the weight of plastic in the ocean will outweigh that of fish. I really hope that this fact isn't true, but I fear that it is. Please, may we have the courage and the strength, both women and men, to defend other stories, older stories, stories of rootedness and the immanence of the natural world, before it is too late.  In some ways, it is already too late. But not entirely. For aren't all of these female figurines, these patterns of line and triangle and diamond, about rebirth? "There is no simple death, only death and regeneration," Gimbutas writes (320, The Language of the Goddess.

I will leave you with this wonderful film about Marija Gimbutas' life and work. It is well worth watching, perhaps with spinning, knitting, weaving, mending, in hand...


Monday, February 22, 2016

Dreaming On Dartmoor

There are stories on Dartmoor that come up singing through the stones. There is a silence underneath the wind on the tops of the granite tors that is ancient with human song. I could feel it, just underneath the skin of green. The wind and the stones and the pulse of story came in like a hallowing, and I was changed.


What I mean is, I felt seen by some Dreaming underneath the moor. Like that Dreaming wanted to be known. It was new to me, but not to the many dreaming artists who live in and near Chagford, on Dartmoor. Their work is in conversation with it; with the stone crones and the rooty doors, the elven folk and the Bronze Age queens, with the bones of primordial horses and the ghosts of the Wild Hunt, with the long dead Bear and the scream of the kestrel, who has been screaming and diving here for hundreds of thousands of years. I have never visited a place like this before. Where you can see the land Dreaming through so many of the humans who live there— in their painting, in their weaving, their story-telling, their singing, and their dancing, in their sculpting, their metalwork, their felted textiles, their clay.


I came because of Rima Staines, and because of Tatterdemalion. (You know this already, those of you who read my last post.) To meet the woman and the land with whom my stories and therefore a part of my soul had been in long conversation. In many ways our meeting was like the gathering up and dusting-off of an old friendship newly discovered again. Something you might sift from out the stones at Grimspound; a gleaming, flint-dark kind of kinship.   


Perhaps I was able to hear whispers of the moor dreaming, to feel the weight of its myriad and ancient eyes (granite, heather, moss, hawk, mouse, root, ghost, bone, tin-vein, thorn) because it was Rima and Tom (and the Boy, the truest little shouter and moor-whisperer of them all) who introduced me. Surely, this made a difference. The vast difference between meeting someone cold on the street, and being introduced by a dear friend by the warmth of the fire.  


For Rima and Tom, in their painting, their story-making, their performances, and also the daily rhythms of their lives (close to the quick, to the fire, of the soul's hearth)—they are dancing with the moor. They are letting its Dreaming through in any way they can—out their brushes, their pens, their words, their bones, their (soon-to-be) wheels. And so being brought by them across hill and dale and down among the stones and Bronze Age circles of Dartmoor was a sacred kind of introduction. 


At Grimspound, a Bronze Age fort (named thus by Viking settlers much later), I felt the stories come singing up especially strong. I saw them; glimpses of a skirt-hem, a leather shoe. Did women once come walking down those hills through the old stone gate with sheep at their heels, bells clattering, talking about the old wolf someone saw down at the river; the long labor of someone else's sister; the ripening of the sloes? Did they go down to the river valley, to the damp and forested places to gather berries in well-woven baskets? Hawthorn, blackberry, wild rosehip, sloe. Did the brown bears forage for sloes nearby, and did the women take care to never speak badly of them while in their hearing?


Did they gather yarrow from the meadows and the sides of pathways in summer, to give to their daughters in childbirth, their sons with wounds from hunting or battle?


What did they murmur to the heather when they gathered it for tea, for ale?


On the muddy paths, what pawprints did they encounter, and how did they tell the tales of them back home, around the hearth? What did they say of Badger, heading home to her sett at dawn? 


Some say these smaller circles of stones within Grimpound's wall are the foundations of granaries; others believe they were little houses. The stones are laid in such a way at the entrance—a sharp turn on your way in—that whatever was inside would have been protected from the elements, from wind and rain. Their shape and size is reminiscent of the clochán huts (the beehive shaped stone buildings) on the Irish coast used by monks and priests as religious hermitages. What was it like, to sit by the fire in here while the wind blew hard; or alternately, to duck inside for a bushel of grain? 


A little leat wound along the outskirts of the ruin, dug by Bronze Age arms to convey water to the settlement. It had a sweet voice like copper bells, all hung with bracken and heather. It is still here, these thousands of years later, like the stones ringing Grimspound, and like the stones it holds whispers, threads of human story, scraps of Dreaming come up from the underground, where the groundwater swells, where the heather roots, where the badger sleeps. Whispers that found their way right in, and rooted, so that I couldn't seem to stop thinking about story, and how it is held in a landscape, and how it arises through the people who live there. 


At night, I slept in Rima and Tom's arctic bell tent in a cow pasture, in the deep dark of that round and heavy canvas. Strange birds sometimes called in the small hours, and everything smelled green though I could hardly see until poking my head out the flaps at dawn. 


My sleep was sound, and round, and soothed by the damp ground below my bedroll and skins, by the creature-dark, by the smoke from my fire (and a lot of smoke it was at first, for this California girl used to dry kindling, and not the ever-damp of England!) At first, I didn't dream, or nothing that I could recall very well. Perhaps it takes a few days to settle in, to let the stories waft up from the underground and into your sleep. 


For suddenly, there they were, vivid and strange. Dreams that I can remember still. In one, I ran through an apocalyptic city with an old childhood friend, chased by gunfire, but everywhere underfoot there were hawthorn berries, and we were slipping on them as we fled. 


In another, I hoisted myself up bareback onto a paint mare, wrapped my hands up in her mane, and galloped like I have never galloped before, knowing that the horse would not stop until she felt like it,  not minding at all, feeling that for once I was completely unafraid. 


In another, I found a hazelnut with the distinctive chew marks of a dormouse, a little treasure on the floor of a silvery hazel grove. This dream must have come from an overheard conversation about the endangered English dormouse, and how its presence can be tracked by examining hazelnuts for a certain pattern of toothmarks—a perfect hole made in the nut, like the opening of an owl den, with a smooth inner rim and tooth-marks at a particular angle.


But also I think that dream drifted up from some longing to meet the quiet and ancient ones of this land more intimately, to follow the wise old mouse through the hazel grove, and into the place of Dreaming, where the Salmon of Knowledge swims under the hazel trees and eats the Nuts of Poetry as they fall into that Well.


The land here, from Dartmoor west and south into Cornwall, was a Celtic holdout, a place where the old ways and the old stories were safe and harbored for a little bit longer than elsewhere in England. Where the stone circles got sung and danced, where people kept their ears to their earth and listened, and perhaps whispered the things they heard back to the stones for safe-keeping, so that when the time was right, another soul, ear pressed to granite, might hear them, and keep the fire lit.


In his book of essays, The Voice That Thunders, the intensely wonderful English writer Alan Garner (turn to him if you want to know how a human being can listen to a place his whole life, and shape those listenings into words) says that even if no one speaks them anymore, and even if no one writes them down, myths are never lost. Not in the Eternal Time of stones and moors and bones and dreams. Only in linear time can they be lost, for a little while anyway.


They can always be recovered again, in some form. Not by "scavenging" them by tooth and nail, as Garner writes, but by earning their trust again. By sitting for hours, for days, for years, by the river that has carried the souls of moor-creatures for millennia (horse, vole, kestrel, ancient bear).


By wading through leaf-mold and the silence of trees to the edge of the amber river, and asking for nothing but to walk by its side....



....and while walking to dream on ancient acorn harvests and why it is that the river gleams like bronze, and all the things that it has seen.  


Trust is earned again by leaning on the stones, and waiting for the faint murmuring of their mica-voices, and the things they have been protecting there. 


By going out in misty weather to listen to the wind. By introducing your children to that wind, that mist, that granite, that river-gleam, as Rima and Tom and so many of the wonderful folk of this community seem to do. 


This is the work of a lifetime, not a single visit, and so my glimpses and my musings of the Dreams of Dartmoor are only that; threads gathered up in a traveler's pockets. A little wooden box of rememberings, like compass points: a string of hawthorn berries, a chip of granite, a sprig of heather, a shard of pottery, a pouch of dreams full of dormouse-chewed hazelnuts. More to the point though is the shape of this place, and this journey, and what it is we bring home. As I wrote in my journal after our afternoon at Grimspound, "There's something I'm trying to work out around story and myth here; how this is to be carried; why this land so cultivates mythic thinking and dreaming; what to do about it in my own life."

How, in other words, to care for the stories of my own place, this bit of coast on the edge of California, near the Golden Gate, where I am from.


How to listen for the stories in the blood, the ash-house tales just beyond the gates of memory, back in the bones where my ancestors sing.


How to hitch the oak trees of my bloodline, the oak trees of old England, old Ireland, old Russia, old Austria, old Hungary, old Germany, to the oak trees of this homeland I love with all my heart, this California of coast live oaks, black oaks, tanoaks, valley oaks, the memories of grizzly bears coming to feast beneath the trees in autumn, the thousand thousand generations of Coast Miwok and Ohlone people singing for the acorns as they fell, and eating thousands of generations of bowls of acorn porridge.


How, most importantly, to do this not just for myself, but together, here in the Bay Area, in Point Reyes, in California, on the edge of the continent, on all the lands we love; excavating our own myriad ancestries at the same time as we are out by the trees and rivers and stones, listening for theirs, and honoring the people who were here before us: that fraught and tender terrain. 


After only eight nights with my head to the sweet earth in a dark round tent in a village nestled on the great hill-rounded moor, a week driving and walking the tall, close hedgerows of Devon with Rima and Tom and the Boy, I felt as though time had closed into a circle, and that I had been there always. That I had always slept in a tent in a field and spent evenings in a round yurt by the fire with new-old friends talking of things ancient and close to the heart. That I had always felt the snug arms of the hedgerows, and the old voices of the stones, and the big winds of the moor where ravens flip and croak their velvet words. 


When I was a little girl, I dreamed that I would one day live in a stone cottage in England. I have since developed too much of a love for the land I was born to, its mountain lions and coast live oaks, its coyotes and buckeyes and bay nuts and wild irises, to uproot myself in such a way, but I believe that I have discovered the root of this dream. That I found it when I first beheld Rima's artwork. That I found it when I stood at Grimspound, and put my hands to the old granite, and wondered what stories the First People told here. If the leat or the amber River Dart still remember them.

That here is a community carrying the stories of the land as best they can, and with much beauty and care and heart (think of the incredible folkloric work of Terri Windling, of the mythic art of Alan Lee, of Brian and Wendy Froud, the magnificent story-telling and myth-carrying of Martin Shaw,  not to mention of course the truly transformative and deep-rooted painting of Rima Staines and the powerful storytelling and poetry of Tom Hirons, to name just a very few!). That here is a seed of inspiration to bring home again. 
  

And of course, it is our Tatterdemalion which did the threading, which brought me to England, to Dartmoor, to the stones. This book born out of many years'-worth of Rima's paintings, each one a conversation between her heart and the world around her in all of its storied and sad-strung glory, and what happened when I walked through their doorways into my own place here in California, and saw it all anew. (And dear friends, if you would like to be part of our novel's birth, to have your name in its back pages and a hand in its blossoming, you can do so here. We are now over three-quarters of the way there; come race with us across the final hillsides!)

To finish these musings properly, and not on a parenthesesed note, I will  leave you with the words of Alan Garner, from his essay, "The Voice in the Shadow."

By reciting a myth, the storyteller remembers a creation and, by remembering, is part of that creating. It is best understood in that dreadful solecism 'walkabout.' In walking, the Australians speak the land. Their feet make it new, now, and in its beginning, by step and breath that meet in its dance, so that land and people sing as one. It is a symbiosis of multiple times.