Thursday, October 5, 2017

To Lay Down in the Middle of the Forest When You’ve Lost Your Way

Earlier today a dear friend asked me about poems that have to do with the forest. And I remembered one I wrote a little over a year ago, part of my A Green Language poetry project (no longer up, but hopefully a printed book before too long!). 

It came to me almost entire in a single sitting one July morning last year, as if spoken by a kind and gentle old woman in a time when I very much needed such kind and gentle words. 

It seems we need words of gentleness now more than ever, so I share this with you here in the spirit of hope, and of another way which is not fighting, which is not part of the binary of good or evil, us or them, but something other, and older. 

To Lay Down in the Middle of the Forest When You’ve Lost Your Way

Never forget that it is all
the pilgrim’s path, that you are walking
a long, long way, that whatever
end you think you are seeking has
already changed its name, and is
not the end that’s seeking you.

On good days it will seem a romantic,
bright thing, this adventure, your boots
thick with mountain dust, a cane cut
from hazel in your hand, a rucksack full
of apples and oatcakes given to you by
someone who loves you on your back,
and on those good days you will think
the easy path goes on forever through
the open, that spring hills will always
be green and the kestrels always hovering
on amber wings.

Of course you know better:
that it’s only a spring stroll if you never
reach the forest, and no adventure at all.
It’s only a spring jaunt for wildflowers if you
don’t fall down on your knees and weep.
And nowhere is it spring forever.
You will find the pinewood inevitable.
The path will dissolve into a hundred paths,
each made by deer. There will be no waymarkers
and no stars. Your rucksack will feel empty,
and you will lose your hazel cane and
all the songs you ever learned
in the face of what scares you, in the face
of what is ugly in your own heart, in the face
of what is tearing the world to pieces.

Many will tell you to forge onward, to show courage,
to fight back, to look for signs on the duff, to not
stop moving for fear of cold, to not give in, to seek
the sunrise through the trees, to tell yourself
something stirring, something bright, to run away.
This is all well and good but most often the forest
isn’t done with you yet and fighting it is like netting
wind; all you will achieve is a tattered pair of boots,
an aching heart, a fresh strength of despair
and the sunrise no closer.

That’s just it, says the humus when you’ve
come at last to your knees.
Ah, say the pine needles when you begin to weep.
There, there, rest your head, as you cry out for help,
for guidance, for mercy, that the box opened long ago
might be closed, and as you lay down in the middle
of the pinewood in the depth of your sorrow,
whatever its name, the earth will swallow
you, and it, right up. Do not be afraid.
You are not dead yet.

All you must do is lay down just there
where you’ve lost the path, and
you will be taken into the heart of things
where three women tend an ancient pine tree
and a spring of hot water that bubbles up
from a vent in the earth. They will coo and fawn
over you like a little child, they will strip your
roadworn clothes, they will send you and all the
unwanted guests in your soul into the earth’s
hot water to be made beloved again.

After a long while, as long as it takes
(for they have been singing old lullabies
in a minor key and you may have been asleep)
they will help you out and dry you off
and rub you down and comb your hair
and braid it new and in that combing you will
hear a thousand blessings sung may you be
well may you be safe may your mind be gentle
may your way be bright may your thoughts go
gleaming may you measure your worth and
your days not by hours spent or money made
but by the quality of light in your soul and
how often you have asked yourself
what you might give away.

They will dress you in the dark skirts and aprons
and beads and leather slippers and long
embroidered vests of your ancestors and then
they will press a lantern in your hands and point
your way back up through roots and badger dens
to the surface again, to the forest where you lost your way.
Your rucksack will be full of strange new flatbreads,
a flask of mead, a pouch of tobacco,
a book of poems from very long ago.

You may still wander the forest a good deal
longer, but in a different manner, looking carefully at
the leaves of the many trees, trying to identify
birds by their songs, or where the bobcat walked.
You may gather the golden resin that falls
from the pines to ease your aches, or sit
quietly for long hours listening for the
voices inside the creaking limbs. You will have
stopped your striving, walked a hundred
figure eights without complaint, made a web of
your own footsteps, for once undesperate and slow.

And then all at once without warning you will
find the edge of it, a meadow beyond, and the
sun coming up. There it will be again, your path,
shining through the grass, gilt with dew, easy
as morning, unruined, unhurried, but just in time.

(c) Sylvia V. Linsteadt 2016

Monday, July 24, 2017

Tidal Runes

There is a language the world speaks, and I think I have been listening for it my whole life. For a long time I thought it was only something that existed in the fantasy novels so beloved to me as a girl, where women spoke with birds and knew the whisperings of plants and the medicine they carried. But I know it for something real now, of this world, the one I live in, the one my body moves through every day and every starry night, the one that feeds and sustains me in every way. I know it for something we humans once knew how to understand, and still can. I know that the books I read as a girl preserved, under the guise of magic, what all of our ancestors knew, if you follow the rivers of your blood back far enough. 

Now, the voice of the thrush in the hazel tree, the spotted towhee rooting in the huckleberry, the patterns left by kelp on the shore, have started to become deeply familiar. Kin, and beloved. I do not know what they are saying, but I know that what they are speaking, and that their meaning is one of the most precious things in this world. 

One day last month while on the Mendocino coast for a family reunion, where my father's family is from back to the 1860's, I stopped in my tracks on the seashore. The tide had washed up a collection of words. In wave-wracked kelp and mussel and crab and bone I saw them. Ocean runes whose meaning I did not know, but whose shape I recognized for something oracular, something spoken by the sea.  

Looking around I began to see words everywhere. In lines cut by time and pressure in sedimentary rock. In the tide-cast of driftwood, like the yarrow stalks of the ancient I Ching.

Every time the waves rushed up the shore, indigo and bracing with the summertime California Current, they cast the runes anew. Battered kelp stalks crissed and crossed with the skull of a gull into fresh patterns. I was transfixed. In me an old woman stirred; the old woman who knows the reading of such things, and always has.

So often we humans think of the idea of divination as a communication that only concerns our own lives. A question about health, a relationship, a career choice.

But as I watched the tide move in and out I was struck by a wholly different possibility. That originally, oracles like those who prophesied by the rustling leaves of the oaks of Dodona, were translating a non-human language into human terms; that what it said was not about our affairs at all, but rather about our relationship to the oak, to the wooddove, to the mountain or the sea, and theirs to earth herself.

I began to suspect that those old sibyls were attuned to what the ocean or the oak said, on their own terms. Kings might come and ask about the fates of wars, and the sibyls did their best to prophecy them, but what the tidal runes speak of is not the destiny of men but the destiny of oceans, and the lives of kelp and sea snail, seal, oystercatcher, bladderwrack and loon. 

That a word written in driftwood, shell and kelp-stalk is as old as time, and alive; a saltmade rune that is a doorway into other worlds, the ones that live mostly deeply within this world, just beyond our normal sight. 

Gutted sandcrab, moonbead of jellyfish, cross of saltgrass, stone and dulse, green moss marbles and coiled calligraphy of rotting kelp; what word does the solstice tide spell through you, cast upon the shore? 

I think it is a lifetime's work, to understand the first word of such incantations. 

But simply to be on the lookout for them is its own pleasure and beginning; to rest your eyes on patterns made by wave and time and wind, and know that they are slow and ancient words spoken in the many tongues of the living world, more unhindered and alive than any words we have ever known.

Words that abalones carry under their pink-bound shells; words that urchins chant over and again from their secret orange navels; words that carry all the holy strangeness of this earth, where looking into the low tide pools of the summer solstice while gathering seaweed is to scry another world, where all of precious life on earth began. 

It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man's hand and the wisdom in a tree's root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.

- Ursula K. Le Guin, from A Wizard of Earthsea

Cast out, little brindled snail, upon the slicklands of the tidal kombu; may your way be well and fathomless. May we bend our heads to watch the words you leave behind in your iridescent wake, and in that bending, pray.