Straight Up - No Chaser

"Trees are very honest and they don't care much for fancy people." ~Byrd Baylor

The curling bark of the Madrone Tree (source). Arbutus menziesli grows along the Pacific Northwest and inland along the western slopes of the Sierras and Cascades. 

The curling bark of the Madrone Tree (source). Arbutus menziesli grows along the Pacific Northwest and inland along the western slopes of the Sierras and Cascades. 

You don't need Super Secret Magic Crystal Powers (SSMCP) to hear your own inner voice, or the voice of the earth.

You don't need to be taught by a shaman with SSMCP to feel and nurture a spiritual connection to nature, or to become attuned to the needs of your body or the needs of your garden, or to understand how to give and receive love.

You don't have to wait until the full blood moon to go traipsing and foraging in the forest...although it does help to know when things are in season. (It also helps to be able to distinguish Madrone berries from Poison Oak berries.)

You don't need to surround your tarot reading with every quartz, antler and feather you've ever collected to gain insight to your soul, even if you do like pretty things.

You also don't need to infuse your tea water with good intentions, positive vibes or love to quench your thirst, either physically or spiritually.

And you don't have to bless your food, your medicine or your humble offering.

Curls of Madrone Bark, ready for tea making. Harvest in late summer, early fall, when the tree is naturally shedding its bark. DO NOT peel off bark that is still strongly attached to the tree.

Curls of Madrone Bark, ready for tea making. Harvest in late summer, early fall, when the tree is naturally shedding its bark. DO NOT peel off bark that is still strongly attached to the tree.

Because everything is holy, regardless of how you perceive it.

Because having a quiet mind, a pure heart and childlike curiousity is all you need, to understand and know.

Because we all like people who let us be our authentic selves without projecting all over us, and animals and plants are no different.

Because plain and simple is magic enough, when you are no longer afraid to be boring. 

Because you have enough.

Because you are enough.

Because This World, with its mysterious phenomena and beauty, with all it's capacity to bring you to your knees in an awe-inspired Yes, or to buckle your legs from under you with it's gravitas...is enough.

One part bark curls to 4 parts water makes a light brew, perfect for hot sipping or iced savoring. You can bring out the cinnamony, fruity tannins by adding more bark per cup.

One part bark curls to 4 parts water makes a light brew, perfect for hot sipping or iced savoring. You can bring out the cinnamony, fruity tannins by adding more bark per cup.

Because of all these things, I offer you the first in my Straight Up - No Chaser series on foraging wild medicinal and edibles. Sometimes I may offer you myth to fire up your imagination, historical or indigenous uses, or sometimes I will have used my own imagination to give you an old recipe with a new spin. In moments of bravery, I will share techniques for directly perceiving plants with your heart. There will be humor, and exuberance, and pretty pictures, and information and one very important ingredient...

You. 

Because I want you to know that you don't have to be fancy to connect with nature, animals, plants, or your own inner quiet voice. Whether you actually do have a SSMCP shaman as a teacher, or whether you don't, it doesn't matter. People's food, people's medicine, people's knowledge...it will be offered here with accessibility, straight up - no chaser.

Got Madrone near your home? Now's the time to harvest the bark (scrape lightly from tree trunks or collect fallen pieces). While you're out there, how about filling up a basket with acorns?

Got Madrone near your home? Now's the time to harvest the bark (scrape lightly from tree trunks or collect fallen pieces). While you're out there, how about filling up a basket with acorns?




The Sacred Surrounds You: Making Bioregional Incense

I smelled the elderberries before I saw them. I was wandering around the edge of a parking lot with the kids, who were running around like maniacs, blowing off the pent-up energy from "behaving" during a dinner out. As we approached the bank of a dried-up, seasonal creek, I experienced a full body recognition of a well-loved plant ally. Part of this was the scent, that pongy smell of elderflower that just begs for sugar. But it was also as if I smelled the berries with my entire being, taking in the essence through my pores. Like a plucked string on just the right note, I vibrated to the tune of elder. A short walk along the embankment, and about twenty yards away we spotted them...blue elderberries, juicy and abundant. Elderberries are notoriously hard to de-stem, but these were so ripe that within 15 minutes we had tumbled all our bounty into two pint jars, delighted and blessed, giggling and giddy.

We've all experienced this type of immersive experience brought on by smell. Catch a hint of lilacs in the spring, and an entire childhood floods around you, with memories of the blooms that grew right outside your front door. For folks who orient towards a spirituality that involves the use of incense (Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoga, Roman Catholicism) or smudging (Shamanism, Wicca, New Age), sacred smoke serves a purpose to not only clear the air of physical and energetic impurities, but also as a reminder...a signal to the psyche to dive past the surface, a call to the parts of the self that live in the imaginal realm to come forward. The body relaxes and remembers it is safe to begin healing.

IMG_7143.jpg

But the burning of incense can also deepen us into relationship with the land we live on, and I believe that while this was once an obvious purpose, it is an aspect that has all but disappeared from my current experience of ritual. When I say "smudge", what do you think of? Chances are, if you've ever been to a sweat-lodge, solstice gathering, alternative wedding, house clearing or full moon ceremony, there is one plant that comes to mind. Sage. Usually white sage, native to the south-western US and north-western Mexico. Some other familiar scents are cedar, sweet grass and palo santo. 

The reason these plants are used is for their incredible perfume, as well as their anti-fungal and anti-septic qualities ("cleansing" is not only energetic...the burning of sage also literally cleans the space of "impurities", otherwise known as "germs".). Another primary reason is because they are native plants to the areas where the cultures that use smudging reside. As the use of smudging in ritual has been co-opted from select spiritualities from different parts of the world, the plants involved no longer necessarily represent the bioregion of the practitioner.

Everybody likes an offering, especially the little beings

Everybody likes an offering, especially the little beings

When I first came across this post on making bioregional incense, I had a no-duh!, forehead slapping moment, otherwise known as Why Didn't I Think of That? But it simply hadn't occurred to me that incense evolved from being in deep relationship with The Land You Live On. What happens when I throw the dried grasses on the nightly fire? What do I do if I want to imbibe myself with the complex beauty that surrounds me, or if I want to offer it to the Spirit Allies that wander the edges of my dreams? What is it that arises from the flames like blessings on the air? It's the alchemy of transformation, released from the confines of matter by fire, and it comes from the fields and forests in which I spend my life.

It was several years from that first introduction to making bioregional incense, or Kyphi, until I got to try it myself. One of the main ingredients in kyphi is resin or propolis, and neither are easy to come by, especially for free and in an urban area, which was my bioregion until 6 months ago. I was hiking the trail from Inspiration Point down to El Polin Spring in San Francisco this past summer, and I smelled the resinous love from towering pines. I really want to make pine resin salve, I thought. And I wonder if I will ever find enough resin to make that incense I read about so long ago? Two minutes after these prayerful thoughts, I ventured off the path and literally stumbled over multiple large chunks of fallen resin, like nuggets of ambered gold. I stuffed my pockets like a greedy dwarf, hee hee heeing all the way home.

The recipe and instructions I used are from Kiva Rose, over at The Medicine Woman's Roots. Kiva was also inspired by that first post, but she took the whole process and broke it down into a recipe-ish format. While crafting the incense still requires some trial and error on your own part, her guidelines were helpful enough that my first attempt has yielded the incense my wild self has been dreaming of.

Clockwise from top: Pine resin (crushed in a mortar and pestle), grated beeswax, hummingbird sage, fir tips and elderberry (ground in a coffee grinder) and flowers of pearly everlasting.

Clockwise from top: Pine resin (crushed in a mortar and pestle), grated beeswax, hummingbird sage, fir tips and elderberry (ground in a coffee grinder) and flowers of pearly everlasting.

For this first batch I decided to create an incense that encompasses my native Californian heart, with plants from Shasta County, San Francisco and my own back yard (literally). Hummingbird Sage is a coastal native that smells like pineapple sunshine, and the particular plant I used is my own baby I've been nurturing for over 4 years. I also included the dried flowers of Pearly Everlasting, from the hills around my childhood home in Shasta, and they lend their mapley warmth to the mix. I added elderberries from Petaluma, fir tips from the ranch where we live, local honey and the pine resin from SF. My daughter wanted to make her own, and she concocted a mix of green tea, rose petals, elderberries and pine. 

Northern California Heart

Northern California Heart

Kyphi by the true inner child

Kyphi by the true inner child

After waiting two long weeks for our incense to dry and "cure", my daughter and I had our moment of triumph on the Autumnal Equinox. We delighted in watching our magical creation melt and smolder, little popping bubbles on the surface creating mini smoke rings. Surprisingly, although a seemingly large amount of smoke was released, it did not choke up the room or linger in a heavy haze. Rather, the sweetest perfume of all these plant friends filled the space and then dissipated, leaving warmth and glow. My only critique for the next batch would perhaps be to use less honey, since 3/4 of the way through the burning, things started smelling a bit like scorched sugar.

As an herbalist, naturalist, lover-of-nature-ist, I find that the more I come into relationship with members of my bioregion, the deeper and more self-perpetuating these relationships become. There is a cascading effect when you grab onto one of the strands in the web of life...it's impossible to have an isolated learning experience. Seeking to understand one species brings the added bonus of getting to meet all of its friends. Cooking with a wild edible, for instance, includes harvesting it within its ecosystem, where you are surrounded by all the parts of a whole. As the senses are engaged, by seeing, touching, smelling, tasting and being nourished by, true intimacy occurs, a dynamic is begun between self and other. Your engagement then becomes less about consumption and far more about sacrament. This is full body learning, and your physical being has a better memory than your intellect. The next communion will always be more complex than the last, because the integration of new information on all levels creates expansion of self into the environment. One becomes intertwined, literally, with the other beings of one's bioregion. When you no longer know where you begin and end, this is when you can say true re-wilding has begun.

This is the Only Dance We Dance

I carry each one away from the pavement into a corner of grass or brush out of decency, I think. And worry. Who are these animals, their lights gone out? What journeys have fallen apart here? ~ Barry Lopez "Apologia".

Moving roadkill off the asphalt is just about the last thing I want to do. I love the idea of it, and desire to respond to the senseless waste of life in such a reverent way, as an act of respect, a technique of awareness (Lopez). But there is a resistant and immediate response that has also always been there for me whenever I see crushed beauty...I don't want to look at it, I can't touch it, I can't bear the sorrow, the rage.

Death by the side of the road was one of my most immediate reinitiations to country living. Having been spared its daily countenance by the swept city streets for 18 years, I had almost forgotten the toll it takes, the carnage piling up in my soul when witnessing it day after day. Slowly cruising the back roads of West County, I also have noticed my own anger around it acruing. Folks drive too fast...not everyone, but many...often dudes in big trucks with tinted windows. I remember the sneering indifference towards animal welfare that was the hallmark of the ranching town I grew up in, and so I imagine all drivers as a conglomeration of that community, accelerating at the opportunity to hit an animal like it's a video game, upping their score. Sometimes it's an accident, not every tragedy on the shoulder was purposeful, but I also know too well the kind of bizarre hate towards nature that can lurk in rural communities, and I struggle with my own hopeless hurt around it all.

As of late, I have also been struggling with mortality. Mortality, capital M. Brought up in part by my return to a more immediate experience of the cycles of life through living on land, rather than just the perpetual 25 yr. old sparkle party that was SF. It also has to do with my age and health, the 40s having arrived with a bit more of a downwards slope than the plateau of the 30s. My body now shows undeniable unwinding, and the horizon of my ultimate destination is coming into focus. A joint, Netflix and the Mythology of Someday used to be my recipe for escapism and denial, but it doesn't cut the edge anymore. A quote by Carl Sagan has become my favorite dharma, summing up the terrible and beautiful acuity;

"I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.” ~ Carl Sagan

I have been following Jonathan Balcombe on FB, drawn in by his erudition and love for animal people. Jonathan has the lengthy title of Director for Animal Sentience for the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, and is also the author of several books including "Pleasurable Kingdom: animals and the nature of feeling good" and "Second Nature: the inner lives of animals.". I was captivated by one of his recent posts (WARNING: graphic photo):

Rather than look away in dismay or horror, I took in the photo as fact, his words as truth, and resonance in my chest as a compass needle finding north. Even so, I wasn't exactly delighted when presented with opportunity the very next morning.

I was nearly to the half point of my daily run when I saw the skunk, the fluff on her striped tail moving from a sudden gust of wind, in paradox to her stillness. Not now, I thought. I don't have gloves. I can run back and get a shovel. It's too early, I haven't had coffee. Just then, another car approached at high speed and barely missed repetition with its wheels. She was still intact, the kill was recent. If it was going to be an act of respect, the time to move her was now.

There were no spilled guts, no gruesome show. She could have been in a narcoleptic repose, only taking a rest in an ill chosen location, except for the ants. The first to arrive, I thought. They were exploring her face, her nose, her closed eyes. With a pool of her spray behind her, I chose to pick her up close to the front shoulders. The weight of her body was reassuring. My normal indignation at roadkill is light and hot and bangs into window panes at the corners of my mind. In contrast, her heavy death in my hands was real. Like touching into a pool of cool grief after flailing around in anxiety, carrying her body across the road brought relief. This was simple...my palms and fingers, her coarse fur and cool meat, my sorrow and reverence meeting ground. It was so much better than turning away, than just driving by.

I lay her by the cattle fence, close to the Bessies and their calves, a pond reflecting the sky, the branches of the dead oak leafed with blackbirds. I looked up at the fog breaking into blue and thought of the turkey vultures that would arrive later that morning. Of the yellow jackets and the micro-organisms, the green flies and the bacteria. Off the road, her funeral would be attended, her body laid to rest. I felt the rightness, my own desire and hope for a similar goodbye.

I ran back home, only needing to stop once, dry-heaving from the smell. Despite my careful choice in holding her, my hands still stunk. I scrubbed with baking soda and vinegar to no avail once home, and I thought What will the other parents think when I pick up my daughter from school? But by mid-morning, after going about the usual chores, the smell had faded away. 

I do plan on putting together a kit for my car, and look forward to shopping for a small shovel. I also want to get a couple of boxes, in varying sizes, with towels inside, in the case of rescue. Perhaps a bottle of water and a small dish too. I don't know if I will stop for every one. I think so much of it will have to be gauged on timing, traffic, a sense of I can handle this. But it would be an honor to continue this technique of awareness. It feels like the least I can do, for them, and also for myself.

But next time, I'll probably wear gloves.

 

When Artemis Hunts

Recently I was helping a friend move house when I spotted a book on her floor. Immediately captivated by the cover, I picked it up.

Mother and Daughter by Meinrad Craighead from "The Mother's Songs: Images of God the Mother"

Mother and Daughter by Meinrad Craighead from "The Mother's Songs: Images of God the Mother"

It was "The Mother's Songs: Images of God the Mother" by Meinrad Craighead. In the introduction, Meinrad writes;

"I listened to the sound of the water inside, saw a woman's face, and understood: This is God. Because she was a force living within me, she was more real, more powerful than the remote 'Father' I was educated to have faith in. We hid together inside the structures of institutional Catholicism. Through half a lifetime of Catholic liturgies, during school years, in my professional work as an educator, for 14 years in a monastery, she lived at my inmost center, the groundsill of my spirituality."
Enclosed Garden

Enclosed Garden

After her 14 years in a monastery, Meinrad says that the presence of God the Mother in her life could no longer be quelled and "erupted"in her imagery, where the Mother God has continued to guide her hand in art. Since the early 80s she has explored the human-divine relationship, particularly the "brooding, watching, beckoning power she finds in the land around her"...that land being from Europe, cradled in the arms of the Black Madonna, to the American Southwest and its indigenous cultures, where she currently lives. 

Wisdom

Wisdom

My friend let me borrow the book, and since bringing it home, I haven't been able to pry it out of my daughter's hands. I googled Meinrad and discovered some of her later work, most of which I share with you here. One painting in particular made me catch my breath. Called "When Artemis Hunts" it plucks the strings of my DNA, much as it did the first time I saw it.... I had a copy of this image by my altar for years, but I never knew the name of the artist. 

When Artemis Hunts

When Artemis Hunts

Perhaps it's the Scorpio in me, but there is a dark element to her work that I really appreciate, and her work feels more honest to me because of it. The forces in nature and the spirits of land and animals often do feel "brooding" to me. Although at times these energies manifest as menace (as long-time readers know, this comes from personal experience!) mostly they are loving, sometimes benign, always powerful and ancient beyond human time and omnipotence. My relationships with animals and spirits of places are ones that I cherish, and they are also ones that I respect. Like having a three headed giant dog for a pet...you're pretty sure he's got your back, and you also never forget that he could bite your head off in an instant, just for kicks. So it is with these deep archetypes. Profound, yes. Nice and domesticated? Not really.

My reacquaintance with Meinrad's work has a sense of right timing. Moving back to a rural area has brought on a process of re-rooting, re-membering, and re-wilding, and with it I have felt humbled and awestruck. The darkness that frightened me at a younger age now unveils itself as truth and blessing . And so it is with honor that I pass the introduction on to you. 

Enjoy.

Sacred Hearts

Sacred Hearts

Sound of the Rio Grande

Sound of the Rio Grande

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Crow Mother, Her Eyes, Her Eggs

Crow Mother, Her Eyes, Her Eggs

Death of a Dog (I particularly love this one...Crow as reaper, Anubis standing by to usher the soul)

Death of a Dog (I particularly love this one...Crow as reaper, Anubis standing by to usher the soul)

Flight of Maat Moon

Flight of Maat Moon

From "The Bosque Fire Collection: Coyotes Burning". When a wildfire swept through a forest near her home, everyone was evacuated but Meinrad refused to leave. She lay awake that night listening to the destruction and thinking of the animals who were fleeing or being killed. Then she took that sorrow and painted it into beauty.

From "The Bosque Fire Collection: Coyotes Burning". When a wildfire swept through a forest near her home, everyone was evacuated but Meinrad refused to leave. She lay awake that night listening to the destruction and thinking of the animals who were fleeing or being killed. Then she took that sorrow and painted it into beauty.

Artemis with Burning Coyotes

Artemis with Burning Coyotes

Birds Falling

Birds Falling

For more of Meinrad's work, you can visit her website, and keep your eyes peeled at used bookstores for those books that are out of print.

One Hand Clasped in Prayer

"We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house." ~Annie Dillard

I drive like a grandma through the back roads of West County, and even slower at twilight, that magical silver hour when birds and animals clock out of the day shift, and the nocturnal patrol comes on duty. These pot-holed roads go right through their homes, such human rudeness, and it's the least polite thing I can do, to drive at a snail's pace. For the most part, other drivers are understanding, going under the speed limit themselves. But I have seen the fury and apathy of others, like the truck that gunned it when it saw a hen stray from her companions on the side of the road. She tumbled up and under the carriage, spit out on the other end, bloody, crumpled and suffering. I cradled her broken body, knocking on her owner's door, the bearer of bad news.

The flicker was already gone when we spotted her, lying on her back in the middle of the road, feet in the air. There was blood at the corner of her mouth, but she was otherwise whole, as if she was bucking bird tradition and taking a nap, reclined. I brought her over to the side of the truck to show my daughter. She searched my eyes, wondering whether to be sad or curious. With my soft smile as reassurance, we both took in the amazing beauty, never before so close. She has polka dots on her chest my daughter whispered. Yes, I say and look at the orange when you fan out her wing.

The next day I run with scissors during my morning exercise. At first I can't find her in the tall grass where I placed her final rest. I am relieved, hoping that she became a meal for a hungry mouth. But then I do see her, as still and pristine as the day before. My heart breathes her in once more, the air sharpens, and then I clip one feather from her wing. 


Some mornings the fog moves through like miniscule sideways rain. I feel accompanied on my run, with air made a visible presence, bringing news from far away. After four weeks, I am finally able to run the entirety of my 1.5 mile loop, and I am celebratory in new found health and strength. My feet slow at our dirt driveway, the long walk with open fields on my left too good to speed through. One day, the fog has gathered to create magic. At first I stand confused, wondering just what it is I'm seeing. I run to the house and call to the children, who dash out in their pajamas and stand in awe. 

The next day I bring my camera just in case. My intuition is rewarded. Two older women who are also morning walkers have taken a detour down our drive and are watching the display in shared stillness. We exchange exclamations I've never seen this before, It happened yesterday but I was up on that hill, Can you email us the photos, that's my house over there, at the end of the arc. 

Back at home the kids try to come up with names. Hazebow. Fog Bubble. Pastel Rainbow. They wonder if there's still a pot of gold at the end and think I should ask one of the old ladies if she found any treasure.

At night I sit curled on our one comfortable chair, staying up too late reading frightening news. I've decided to become better educated on the specifics of Climate Change, able to understand the entire spectrum of possible impacts, perhaps better equipped to come up with a prioritized list of What To Focus On. I'm googling terrestrial carbon sequestration and whether Methane or Carbon should be given the title of Enemy Number One. The Arctic Methane Emergency Group thinks things are dire, that we have a number of months to respond. They want to implement geoengineering, creating reflective haze over the arctic to slow melting. I think of our fog bubble.

Outside, during the two hours that I am stuck in this ecoanxiety hole, I hear the screechy call of a barn owl. It keeps getting closer, until I am sure it must be right out the front door. I close the iPad, slip on shoes, open the door. The wind is shaking the poplar leaves, nature's baby rattle. The owl calls again and then makes a tremendous crashing noise in the tallest tree. Was it the sudden end of a hunt, pouncing on it's prey, perhaps a rat who made an ill-timed trip to the compost pile below? Moments after the crash, I see the owl's ghostly shape take flight, swooping low directly in front of me, and then instantly gone. I invite my anxiety to do the same.

The next two days are sizzling. Mornings are clear and in the 90s before I've finished my coffee. J returns from shaving in the bathroom and announces There's a grey fluffball show outside the window. Bushtits, tiny peeping birds that resemble dusky cottonballs, have been enjoying our sycamore tree, and the tips of dry grasses at the side of the house. This particular morning there is a lot of bird activity, and something is going on over by the sunflowers. Clinging upside down and pulling out seeds on the small red heirlooms is a bird I don't recognize. It looks like a finch, but with rosy wingbands, a golden back, a gray head. I spend ages perusing local id sources and then do a broader search. Turns out, it's a gray-capped rosy finch, and according to migration maps, it shouldn't be here. I'm not that surprised. New is now normal. We are in a drought, food is scarce, time to branch out. But what I want to know is, how did it find my sunflowers, when it's new to the area, when there's never been a garden here before?

Bushtit

Bushtit

The hot days have us searching for shade. My daughter and I decide to go to Santa Rosa to ride the carousel at Howarth Park. She's already buckled in the truck when I realize I don't have my keys. I run back to the house and am bemused when the only open window is the tiny one in the bathroom, three feet above my head. I try multiple precarious climbing structures until I finally find a small ladder. Scratched and dusty from the tall grasses, I swing my legs over the sill and am triumphant as I jump off the sink with a thump. I grab my keys and go back into the bathroom to close the window and am stopped short. There, in the middle of the floor, right where I leapt down, is a giant, dull green praying mantis. I understand that she'd hitched a ride, probably on my back, as I was clambering around in the grass. I crouch down to say hello and notice that she is missing a hand. I am horrified in wondering if it was my clumsiness that may have caused her injury. As if in answer, she cleans her other intact hand, then sweeps her antennae, and looks back at me, clearly not bothered by an old wound. I hold a glass in front of her saying Climb in sweetheart and I'll give you a lift back outside. She nimbly climbs on and clings to the lip. I find a weed that matches her color, and let her blend back in.

Back at the truck, my daughter and I wonder, Is she still a praying mantis if she can't clasp both hands in prayer?

Days tumble one over another, my daughter starts kindergarten, autumn elbows her way in, practically shoving summer into the dust. It's another morning and I'm running again, spry despite my occasionally heavy heart. I run along the razor edge of the road, the razor edge of the moment, grateful for each passing truck that moves to the other lane, even if they don't return my wave. I wonder what good I can really do, for this world I love so much, only being one voice, one heart amongst billions. Who do I think I am anyway, my inner critic likes to ask, given my own track record of mistakes. Wounded healer, that's who, I answer back to the mist, now silent. I watch brewer's blackbirds, in town for the harvest, making braille on the telephone wires. I have a favorite gnarled old oak tree in a field, next to a pond, and the blackbirds fly to and fro, now shadows on the tree, now notes on the wires. Back and forth. Something falls in a spiral from the sky, like a bay leaf, and it is right in my trajectory. It reaches eye height in front of me and I recognize it for what it is. A blackbird feather. It lands at my feet and I pick it up. I hold it up to the light, the diffused hazy light, and witness another marvel.

Blackbirds have stripes. Hidden stripes that you can only see when the light shines through the dark.

Tresspassin

Every morning it calls out to me on my daily run. First it was the family of quail, framed through an opening in the brambles of poison oak, the children running in a line, the parents calling back over their shoulders. Once it was a barn cat, all eyes and stealth and skittishness. Most of the time, it's the space itself, enclosed in arms of scrub oak, blackberry, the bank of a dry creek bed. The field lies fallow, and in its disuse, the fertile possibilities are a palpable pulse.

Last week, I accepted the invitation, and stepped over the crushed barbed wire fence. An oak at the parameter held spider webs like elven trip wires. I took the suggestion to slow down and heard each sneakered foot as I announced my presence on dry leaves. It is early August, but the drought has fast forwarded us into mid-fall, and everything underfoot is crunchy and dust covered. One more extra deep ducking down, and then I was in the clearing, light headed and exhilarated. 

I walked in silent witnessing. I noticed fox or coyote scat. I heard crows, stellar jays, towhees, gold finches. My meditation was electric, and I was so excited that I almost missed it. But something tugged on my elbow, and I turned toward the steep embankment that waits to hold the water's voice. The conversation under my feet changed, and I looked down to discover I was standing on someone's threshold.

Oh hello I whispered. 

Did it belong to the fox, the red beauty who likes the same trail that we do at the bottom of the ranch? I looked into the dark, hoping to catch a glimpse of eyes, or ears. I crouched down and scanned the dust for prints, letting my focus go soft so I could see the larger pattern. Coyote paws. Deer hoof. My heart beat a hope for fox fox fox...but the doorstep was clean, and foxes like to leave traces of their dinners. Then I expanded my myopic looking and saw what was all around me. 

Many homes.

I marvelled at each one, imagining the labyrinth underneath the surface and wondering Who? Too big for ground squirrels. Too numerous and clean for fox. Coyotes like elevated homes so they can see what is going on. Skunks rent homes from other creatures, and certainly don't build multiple doorways. Perhaps...rabbit?

Wait...did I just stumble upon Watership Down?

Jack rabbits, and other native hares and bunnies don't build warrens, instead making little depressions in the grass, like shallow nests. European bunnies are what we're talking about when we think of Hazel-Ra. The soil certainly would be perfect for it, light and sandy, with enough brush cover nearby and plentiful food and water. European rabbits are an introduced species to North America, and these holes could be from those wild visitors, or even from hutch rabbits gone rogue. Raising rabbits for meat has become popular, especially in the "farm to table" culture of Sonoma County. So if these holes belong to refugees, more power to Brer and her cousins, I say.

If the residents were still underground, I was probably making a ruckus with my giantess footsteps. I tip toed away and walked down the creek bank, into the secretive shade of oak and sycamore. More deer tracks and scat, more scolding from the jays. Following a thin trail used by many tiny feet, that lead me down into a rocky alcove, I came upon a fallen tree. Full of termites and acorn woodpecker holes, it also was home to a colony of turkey tail mushrooms. My heart bloomed in thanks for one of my favorite medicines, an immune booster that devours breast cancer cells. I took one small shelf to show my daughter and made promises to return.

I came back the next day with my camera, feeling more nervous than the day before, like I was pushing trespassers luck. Sure enough, as soon as I set foot into the clearing, far on the otherside a tremendous crashing shook the trees. I paused, waiting for more, then continued on. I began to photograph the holes, and then heard voices. Two older women, early walkers like myself, had heard the commotion and were coming to investigate. What should I do? Feeling more than a little ridiculous, I crept towards the embankment and ducked down. My shirt was the color of the earth, my hair the color of wheat. I froze, rabbit like, my eyes barely peering over the tops of the grass. The women stopped in tandem by the fence and scanned the field, their glances unbelievably missing me. They walked on, calling for Penny, a dog, perhaps the cause of the ruckus.

I stayed in stillness until I could hear above the beat of my heart. The birds began singing again, an all clear. I left quickly, not to push my luck.

That first day, the day of discoveries and blessings, I found something else after I left the creek bed with my mushroom prize. I did one more weaving around the little hobbit holes, look for tracks and traces, and then was stopped in my own. 

At my feet, bones, partly buried, mostly bleached white by the sun. A small pelvis and three vertebra. I picked them up and in their marrow felt the story and humming of the entire field. Of the passing of days, of seasonal turning, of fertility and fallow. In their depths I heard the pregnant pause and the promise of death. 

I brought them home, holding them as precious treasure and raising the eyebrows of advancing drivers. My family gathered tightly around when I arrived home, listening and looking in awe.

I passed the field this morning just in time to see a red bushy tail disappearing in the tall grass. I will wait until the water's voice returns before I trespass again, knowing it is best to tread lightly and that the distance between shining moments is a leanness that is worth cultivating. 

My Lord Who Hums

We have a lot of flies in our house. Visitors as J likes to call them. And they do visit, frequently, flying in through the door left open by my daughter, through the unscreened window, cracked to the early morning fog, the sweet smell of hay in the hot afternoon. They announce their presence with tickling legs on a forearm, or the mini-version of a bird flying into a window, a small plink as they hit the glass. Sometimes, if they spend the night, they are polite, sleeping on the ceiling until after we wake up. Other times they are like Simon's Cat, landing on our nose or face, an obnoxious wake up call.

Mostly the flies hang out in the kitchen, sometimes finding their way to the bedroom where they do their rounds and go back to the more enticing morsels left from breakfast. They like the table, the back of chairs where we often put our hands, and less frequently, the dishes in the sink. Occasionally, they find their way into the bathroom, where they like to keep the toilet seat warm for us, or alert us to which towels have begun to mildew.

Housefly

Housefly

There are three types of flies that visit the most. The greenbottle fly, a metallic green beast with a loud buzz, who prefers to fly frantically from one side of the room to the other, an annoying back and forth. Then there's the housefly with its red eyes, fancy stripes and glossy wings and its relative, the little housefly, with darker eyes and smaller composition. The houseflies are better guests, with a near silent buzz. The greenbottle almost makes up for his irritating presence with his beauty. Almost.

Greenbottle fly

Greenbottle fly

Suggestions on how to keep fly populations down consist primarily of 1. Having screened doors and windows and 2. Not keeping giant piles of horse manure near your home. Seeing as how we live on a horse ranch in a small converted barn that lacks screened windows, we're pretty much screwed. I guess we could go buy screens. So far it hasn't seemed like a priority.

Before moving here, it had been decades since I'd killed a fly. Living in SF for 18 years meant that we were mostly insect free, with occasional fruit fly parties, and once, a cockroach infestation. Growing up in rural Northern California, with varying farm animals over the years, I vividly remember the wars we raged on flies, from sticky paper traps hung near the doors to The Fly Trap we had outside. The fly trap was a wicked thing, a large jar with an opening on the top for the flies to get in, with no option for a round trip. At the bottom was placed a giant piece of rotting meat. Over the summer, we would watch the level in the trap slowly rise, a morgue of the damned.

Even though our visitors were only occasional at first, when my daughter swooned over the hot pink fly swatter at the local hardware store, a very logical voice in my head encouraged me to buy it. By the time June temps hit the 9os and fly population soared, I would grimly determine to "just kill 5 flies" and 20 flies later there were still 5 flies too many. At first the kid took on fly killing with a disturbing joie de vivre, and brought her brother into the game, but like all things at 4 years old, the obsession du jour soon passed. I tried passing the buck to J, handing him the swatter and mumbling instructions while I slipped outside to water the garden and escape the slaughter. But rooms in the hotel filled up, and as my temper rose, so did my zest for the hunt. I went on killing sprees, restless until I had gotten Every. Damn. One.

Lesser house fly

Lesser house fly

My desensitization began to color other experiences. I discovered cucumber beetles in my garden, and in adopted zealousness and an attempt to be A Real Organic Gardener, I did as I should: I filled a bowl with soapy water and began knocking them off leaves into a watery grave. I had collected over 7 when I looked down and saw that they were all desperately struggling to stay afloat. I brought the bowl in and showed J and his eyes grew soft as he looked up at me, "They're really beautiful". It was true. With chartreuse shells and black spots, like a dayglo ladybug, they are gorgeous and they also potentially can ruin your cucurbit crops. But I hadn't noticed any damage to my garden. After our earwig fiasco in May, where every baby seedling was obliterated by those pinchy fuckers, I was trying to be proactive in stopping another threat. In that moment however, looking down at the struggle for life in my hands, I couldn't pull the trigger. I dumped them out at the back of the house with a warning not to come back. 

So far they haven't.

Cucumber beetle

Cucumber beetle

Houseflies have teeny tiny feet that walk around on all kinds of gross stuff and pick up teeny tiny germs. Like anthrax, tuberculosis and salmonella. They can supposedly transmit these diseases to humans, by walking on our food, or on our eyes. (I guess that trick I was teaching them to dance on my outstretched tongue is a bad idea.) You can definitely make a case for why opening frequent cans of whoop-ass on flies is totally justified. But after 41 years in this fly infested world, as far as I know, I haven't gotten sick from a fly. We keep a clean house. I wash my hands frequently. I don't tend to sleep with my mouth open. In other words, I'm not that worried about it. 

I appreciate flies. I like their tenacity, their ninja moves, their kaleidoscopic vision. If they weren't so tickly, I could even appreciate their explorations on my skin. In the moments before swatting one, I could sense the hum of its life, as if its buzz extended beyond flight. It would be washing its feet, or combing its wings, or tasting something with that long tongue. And then the swatter would come crashing down and there would be silence. No hum. No curiosity. No living of life. 

And for what? Supposed sanitation? Peace of mind? A sense of control? I couldn't find a reason bigger than that silence.

image.jpg

So I've been experimenting with different methods of removal. Instead of brushing them away in irritation when they land on me, I take the opportunity to escort them to the door. Offering a ride to freedom, I crack the lock and blow them into open space. I discovered that the little houseflies like honey, although not so much their bigger cousins. But the little fellas will take an offering of honey on an outstretched finger, and stay distracted until well outside. The greenbottles will knock at the windows and then it's easy...open one and away they go. But the big houseflies...sometimes the only thing left to do is swat. Each time it feels like a shame.

The other morning I removed 16 flies using these alternative methods. Rather than feeling like a trollish huntress, I felt clever and playful. Fly-like, if you will. Even more so, I had a sense of being in the hum of things. Communication and communion, connection and charity. With each catch and release my sense of irritation decreased, and I wanted to get Every. Damn. One. Because it was fun. Because it gave me a peaceful heart.

Because it liberated us both.

 

(All photos from wiki commons)