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.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Burning Quail Woman

Quail, the lady of bronze and smoke, she died midmorning. Neck snapped, not a mark.
The little sparrowhawk with red eyes must have dropped her in the long grass.

Mother found her. I carried her limp and warm in my hands, stroked her feet and her beak, laid her with yellow tidytips lupine, baby blue eyes, at the uproot of an old pine.
Her eyelids closed, peace on the dust-blue lids, full in elsewhere now.
A male called from the bough.

Once she danced for him, tail feathers swinging, a fan of desire: charcoal copper dun.
The sway of her plump body
in the leafmold
in the amber duff
in the thrushsung dusk
was the sway of all abundance, the promise of worlds.

A man with brown feet and brown hands helped to skin her. One cut at the breast, the rest with fingertips, like taking off a coat. I gave her juniper smoke and roses.
Cicadas clicked their wings in the dry oak hills, and called it summer.

Before Olympus there were the Titans. Big women and men of earth. Asteria, daughter of Phoibe, was mother of falling stars and dreams. She gave birth to Hekate. Her mother was the moon. When Zeus chased after her for sex, she became a quail to escape him.
She fled, leaping into the sea, and became the island Delos in the blue Aegean.
It had no bottom. It floated, and the quail flocked there on their journeys south. Later when Zeus chased after her sister Leto, the island sheltered her.

Asteria was aunt of Artemis who loved the woodbirds and the wood, who loved the ones she hunted, who was the deer she ate. Artemis wore quail feathers at her waist, and helped them birth their spotted eggs.

I placed the quail in the adobe brick kiln we built at dusk to fire earth-made pottery.
Skinless, plump, wet, she smelled of sweet flesh and comfort, an offering
to the clay to the fire to the night and stars, to her mother and her sisters
Asteria, Artemis, Leto: women of the quail, of instinct, wilderness, care

She burned with her tailfeathers still on so she could take them up there with her, dancing
Her fat glazed the pots, her fat popped and sparked, her bones turned to white dust, delicate as crabshells by morning.

Up there in the stars, quail women are dancing.
They are dancing with her spirit they are singing in the smoke
They are shaking their hips and lowering their blue-dusked lids to look upon their lovers

I was so sad at first for her beauty, lost to death. Her body was perfect in my hands.
I could not bear it. I thought of her mate, his loss. I did not want to erase his sorrow, the love that birds know. I felt so sorry for him, for her.
But she was far wiser than I, that quail, little woman.
She showed me her death, she let me see it
How her beautiful feathers were only a skin; no less precious for it, but a skin nonetheless.
That what was underneath was tender, that it could nourish me, a gift.
The body is a gift, but more than that the body is an offering on the fire
Borne on embers above the coiled pots she was transmuted
She became smoke and heat and air
She glowed, her bones molten. She became starmade again, the first sacrament

A woman offers a quail to the goddess, offers flesh to the earth and stars
In the face of what we perceive truly there is nothing else to be done
Learning to be fully human is learning to handle the dead this way
The old hunters say that animals offer themselves to the arrow because they want to come into the human camp to be sung, to be turned to fire, to be danced, to be part of that pathos, that beauty, that blaze.

I did not understand fully how to offer her, but she did. She went to my hands and the fire and taught me that we are not whole without this, without looking into the underworld, into the body of the quail, into the earth's hearth and there giving up what we know for the sweetness of a grief that is feathered, that is wise.

Down there quail woman is carrying an ember in her feathered hands. Through the underworld she is carrying it. Underground the dead are but sparks in the bellies of seeds. The spark does not go out, only leaves our view for a time. Quail woman is dancing there. Quail woman is dancing in the stars. As above, so below, and the kiln in the center where all is transformed.

Back home I buried her bones, half dust, in the bishop pine wood where she was born. With rose petals, red wine and a pot sherd from her fire I buried them. At dawn, two quail called, flapped, sang, right outside our door, nearer than I'd ever heard them. All through the daybreak they carried on. Mating maybe. Mourning, maybe. She lives everywhere now.