Sometimes, all it takes to bring a small seed of calm into my heart is to lay down my pen and paper and do something simple and tangible with my hands— chop rosehips from the garden and pack them into a jar with brandy, knit, run outside and lay my fingers and my palms against the dirt, sit by the peach tree with my hands against the ground until the first star twinkles out at dusk. This winter-time is stirring up an especially strong and old yearning in my soul for the humble, but deeply vital, sensual pleasures of hand and needle, hand and herb, foot and path, foot and frost, eye and moss, eye and rose-thorn branch, nose and winter air, nose and smell-of- damp-coast-live-oak, heart and living land. These things seem to feed the rooting and hibernating animal part of my body and mind.
I think what I mean is, we live in a highly cerebral, analytical, "rational" world, in a culture that does not recognize that when the cold and dark come, even in coastal California, our bodies and our minds long for quiet, for the restfulness of hands-to-wool, hands-to-root, hands-to-watercolors (regardless of whether one is any good with them, ahem). It is time to take shelter in the hearth of home, to make warmth, to make healing remedies in whatever way suits you—soups, tinctures, songs, baths—to let your hands create while your mind, for a little while, can dream into the dark rootings of the winter world, the winter land.
We've had some record-breaking cold here, frost everywhere in the hills so thick in places it resembles snow. The cold invigorates me, it stirs something old in my heart, it makes me long for rain and for the solace of the hearth after a long outdoor ramble all at once.
And so I have been doing my very best, despite the business of the holiday season, and the business of this wonderful writing life I tend and cultivate around myself like an ever-growing forest of alders all tangled at their bases with nettles and native blackberry, marvelous and blessed and utterly unruly, to keep my feet often against the wild earth, and my hands often tangled in wool, or touching the glass of my tincture bottles, or placing one finger-print in the foot-pad of the coyote.
So here is a little bit of a (patchwork) taste of some of my hand-and-foot-made Winterings...
Out in the hills, the manzanitas, marvels of geometry, of water-preservation, of wine-dark barked strength, are getting ready to flourish with the first big storms. I sat recently for some time, trying to draw and paint these shapes, with frustrating results. But as I grew frustrated over my pencil, and set it down, and lay back against the ground instead, staring at the cold blue sky, I remembered that a large part of painting and drawing (for me) is the act of seeing more clearly what is in front of me (and not necessarily rendering anything of great accuracy on paper...). Hence the photo here of the manzanita leaves, instead of my scratchy painting...
The thorns of the wild California rose are as thick as fur, protecting the tiny wild rosehips, those rubies of the fir and bay wood; the poetry of thorns and the sweetness of those hips together sing out into the dark canyons.
I went out on a recent ramble to see if I might find the artist conk mushroom, which I very recently learned is in the same family as the venerated Reishi mushroom of immortality-herb-fame. Ours is called Ganoderma appalatum, and doesn't look a whole lot like the glossy red Asian Reishi. It is a bit more humbly rough around the edges, and, as I realized, is the mushroom I've called, my whole life, the fairy-ledge, not knowing any other name for it.
Although it is not considered as potent as the "official" Reishi, (Ganoderma lucidum), I believe very strongly in the magic of the plants who we share our homes with, our wild ecosystems. We of the Bay Area, and of California, share the air, we share the wind and rain and sun and specifically storied climate, slope, creek, of this place with the artist conk mushroom; we share the stories of gray fox and winter wren and red-shouldered hawk and mountain lion; we share, somewhere, even our dreams. I like to imagine dreams drifting down through our floors, through our house foundations, into the earth, trailed behind tunneling moles, passed off between earthworms, swallowed by hermit thrushes and robins, shat out again at the base of some bay tree, seeped into the soil by rain, taken up into the hard gills of the conk mushrooms...
I didn't gather any at our first meeting; I wanted to just sit, and take the hardy conks in with my senses, and my hands— the fleshy underside is as soft as the finest creamy velvet. This is potent immune medicine, medicine for the nervous system too, grounding and healing on many, many levels; next time, I will come with a little gift to leave the mushroom-folk and the bay-tree sisters from which they seem to enjoy growing... And then I will report back about the making of medicine!
Satsuma tangerine time is upon us here. The orange and lemon trees on the streets are heavy with fruit. Breaking the skin of a tangerine with my nail, peeling it in one S-shape, eating the fruit in one sweet bite, is one of the old childhood smells of winter to me. I've eaten copious amounts of these jewel-sweet planets of citrus in the past few weeks, while feverishly writing out the latest Chapters of the Leveret Letters....
I am reminded of one of my very favorite Pablo Neruda poems, Ode to the Lemon, and the very last stanza:
So when your hand
Squeezes the hemisphere
Of the cut
Lemon onto your plate,
A universe of gold,
You have poured out
Full of miracles
One of the sweet-smelling nipples
Of the breast of the earth,
A ray of light that became a fruit,
The diminutive fire of a planet
On another of these wintering-rambles, squeezed in between tale-writing, when I intended to be looking for the tracks and signs of animals, I got quite waylaid by the beauty of bay laurel bows, eucalyptus and bracken fern, monterey cypress, sword fern, coyote brush, and went a bit overboard gathering bits for a wreath for the door, woven through with a few madrone berries, a few hawthorn berries to bring protection to our home, and clusters of the red berries you see above, whose name I don't know (anybody know? They look like our native toyon, but are not! I think perhaps an exotic plant?).
I love that every time I come home now, this moon-shaped wreath of clippings from the wild hills, where the coyotes roam at dawn, is there to hitch my thoughts and my heart back into the forest.
I've finally gotten around to labeling many jars and bottles of medicines made in the summertime. These jars of alder-bark and usnea lichen fill me up to the brim with joy—just looking at them, giving them a shake, thinking of the places they were gathered from. I think this must be part of the healing of plants—the relationships you form with them, the places they come to occupy in your heart, growing forth from there as well as the ground.
(And for you herbalists out there-- I know, my alder isn't quite all the way covered... some of those sticks won't go under! But I shake it frequently, never fear!)
Here are a few samples of the tinctures made over the last six months-- my very first batch of medicines, a delightful harvest on the shelf this wintertime!
And the Bavarian Cough syrup I mentioned some six months ago (!), in this post , has also finally gotten its proper label. Good heavens, it is so delicious I am often tempted to eat it for dessert...
I believe that our hands have an intelligence all their own. How else is it that the hands remember a piece of music on the violin when the mind does not? May your hands make small winter magic this cold and quiet time of year. May your hands, stitching or stirring or sketching or stroking plant leaves or strumming instruments or scattering seeds (if you live in California...) or stalking deer through the thickets (that would be your feet, I suppose) bring just a little bit of solace, and rest, to your busy mind this wintertime, so that it may have a moment, or two, or twenty, to drift and to dream.
P.S. For some more thoughts on the need for quiet and gentleness and dreaming through the winter, read this by wondrous herbalist and owner of One Willow Apothecaries, Asia Suler.