I was lucky enough to spend the morning in Lafayette. It’s heavily wooded, as many of the more affluent East Bay suburbs are, and at 11 on a Tuesday morning, I had the back streets to myself. It was finally Fall today. Cloudy and cool, and the streets are covered with oak leaves and acorns. I used to come here on days like this to collect acorns, as oaks are the dominant tree here. I chose three perfect acorns of three different species, scarlet, valley, and live oak. They are all three tasty, but processing acorns is very hard on the hands and these days I choose to save the limited use I have of mine for writing and music.
I thought, as always, of the wealth of this community. Between the oaks and the deer, how could anyone possibly starve here? Huge trees and huge yards for gardening. I heard more than one chicken singing egg song as I walked.
I saw redwoods as well, and as always felt a little sorry for them. They’re all in ones or twos, rarely a planned development has a forest of young ones planted. They try hard to form a forest, throwing out shoots all around themselves, but vigilant landscapers take care of those before they get too big.
One potential mother of a grove was sly, throwing out a potential trunk high in its side. By its size, this one has been allowed to remain as it is far above eye level and growing close against the trunk. In the forest, a tree like this would produce a branch of trees, growing in the sky.
When I got back to Oakland, I rode my bicycle through my own urban forest. The olives growing in the beds created by the traffic calming curbs:
The hawthorn a couple of blocks away, at the top of the hill:
The birches in front of the apartment building on 8th Avenue:
There are many others as well. The trees in my neighborhood resemble the people. Few of us are natives, but we have all made a home here. Except for the spreading oaks and redwoods, the only large trees are those that were planted on the grounds of the great mansions that were the first houses built.
What does your neighborhood look like? what trees do you share your home ground with?
We’ve always imagined what our future might look like, as individuals, and as a species. Whole genres of literature have been created out of our need to know what we might become. We need to explore our possibilities before we can create them. In the century before we ventured into space we took flight in our imagination, and the passion that was ignited in the hearts of people like Robert Goddard led them to do the work that led to the rockets that took us to Moon
Looking at our own lives from different points of view can likewise be useful in understanding who we are, and where we want to go. You can make this journey in writing, or in song, You can likewise draw or paint it. It’s a valuable exercise, however you choose to do it, for it takes you deeper within, and can lead you places you had never imagined you would go. This is how mythic writing helped me travel to the lands of my ancestors.
Back in 2012, I was facing turning fifty. Born and raised in California, I’d never traveled off the continent of North America. The only other country I’d ever been to was Canada. In a country like the United States, this isn’t unusual. Most of us are hundreds of miles from the border of Canada or Mexico. In many of the larger Western states, it isn’t unusual to be a hundred miles or more from the border of the next state. I had always wanted to travel, but had never had the means to do much of it. I decided to make the means. I couldn’t justify taking from our living expenses, as I’d be going and my partner wouldn’t. So I turned to my music. I’d been a busker at the Renaissance Faire in my twenties and thirties. When the Black Point site had been lost, I’d given it up. I decided to try my luck in the transit stations. I discovered that I could make at least ten dollars an hour doing this, and Chris Guillebeau’s travel hacking course made me realize that airfare wasn’t the insurmountable obstacle I thought it was. I thought it might take me a year or two, but I was determined to go, so my days off became busking days. With some unexpected help from my father, I made that first trip, and the year after, a second one. I’m working on a third one now, and another project as well.
I got, and am continuing to get, a lot more than experiences in the lands of my ancestors, though. My own journey is becoming clearer, and I’m writing more songs than I ever have in my life. One of the tools I used to create the trips is a mythic version of my travels. Placing my story in mythic time is something I’ve been doing for years. Here’s a portion of that ongoing tale:
It came into the Hero’s mind to travel to the land of her ancestors. She had little gold and fewer prospects, but she had sung in the streets in her youth and she still remembered the old songs. She picked up her drum and her basket and set herself to earn the money in the Caverns of Travel. The journey would be short, but the distance vast, and the price to fly across the Eastern Sea on metal wings was dear indeed. What would she do when she got there? Where would she stay? She knew no one, had never been so far from her home, but no matter. She began the task, and with a purse of gold her sire tossed into her basket, she was on her way much sooner than she had hoped to be. A shaft of sunlight came through the glass and fell across her as the metal bird touched the Land of Albion. She gave silent thanks, for she knew her feet had found the path at last.
In Albion she met the Druids of Anderida, friendly folk full of wisdom and hospitality. Together they sang around the great leaping fire and shared all that they had. There, before Arianrhod, the Hero shed her name and her former life and became a Bard.
The Hero become Bard had traveled to Albion to find her ancestors, but she had found the Land instead, and new connections to it, and to the folk who lived there. Her few songs became many, and many more, and she sang them into forms that would last well beyond her, if people found them worthy to do so. She sang of the wonderful, terrible, pivotal age she lived in, and created choruses memorable and easy to join in on because music creates connection, and spreads joy, and many voices were needed to change the doom that was rushing towards the folk of all lands. Her words likewise spoke of connection between the people, the Land, Sky, and Sea, the trees and the birds and all beings, for humanity had forgotten that all of us are one greater being, as a single human is likewise a collection of smaller beings joined together in the song of life, cooperating in the dance and nourishing each other.
What would your life look like, told in mythic terms? How could you find the means of expressing the pattern of your life in this way? This is a tool that may or may not fit your hand and your inclinations, but it is there to be picked up if you feel so inclined. We are all the heroes of our own story. This is as it should be. If we just remember that every other person in the world has a life as rich and precious to them as our own, we can use this tool to grow wise, rather than insufferable.
You don’t have to have a plan to get to the future, but it helps to know where you want to go. I thought I was going to Scotland to get the song of Scathach. We had a great adventure together, but it was really Cerridwen I went there to see, and to Cerridwen I will return.
where the river flows I may never know
but i remember the spring in the mountains
where it falls from great heights
and runs clear and bright
tumbling over the glistening rocks
to wend its way down
filling the thirsty cup
inspiration of dreams
it’s the source of all life
my mind drifts away on its ripples
i follow its flow
down from the source
to its verdant and greenest pastures
without it there’s drought
the dryness of earth comes to nothing
When I began studying archaeology, one of the big questions was, what makes humans different from other animals? The answers have been shifting throughout my life, from our use of tools and language, to our adaptability. Now the changes we have made in our world have caused us to name the current epoch in geological time for ourselves. Whether that is hubris or simple assumption of responsibility only time will tell. I no longer think that there is any point to this question, beyond simple classification of species. We are part of a greater whole, and our place within it shifts, as do the places of the rest of this organism called Planet Earth. One of the things we humans do exceedingly well, however, is tell stories. We can’t really help it, this capacity is such a part of us that most of the time we don’t even realize that that is what we are doing. We have been choosing to tell the ones that set us apart from every other being, the ones that make us special, that give us the right to determine the fate of all beings.
We have done our best over the last few centuries to pull apart our world, to turn each piece over and see how it works and what it does. This, in planetary terms, is the equivalent of a baby discovering its fingers and toes. The antiquarians and Victorians created marvelous catalogues of the life on this planet. Useful and beautiful, they are a guide that allows us to orient ourselves and our studies, but they also shape the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world. The tree of life has us at its apex, evolved from the lower animals. Since we are the storytellers, it is no surprise that we are the center. The story of archaeology gets even more specific to us, chronicling our rise from hunter-gatherers to the heights of civilization. While I learned the pitfalls of ethnocentrism, and that the hierarchical model of our evolution, cultural and physical, was only a portion of the truth, the idea of the great chain of being is so deeply embedded in our psyche that it is difficult to see it. Egalitarianism is an idea that we find attractive, but we’re really not very good at thinking of ourselves or our world in that way. It is an option, not an imperative.
I don’t think it was always this way. We know how to share, and we are as capable of cooperation as we are of domination. While it is very difficult to separate the assumptions of the first ethnographers (or even the current ones) from the realities of life in the cultures they studied, it appears that the closer to the land the groups studied were, the more cooperative their ways of life were. While it is very easy to create from this idea a myth of an interdependent Eden, it’s also possible to use it as a means of breaking the invisible bonds of hierarchy and allow us to see ourselves and our place in the world more clearly. We can compare ourselves to other animals, weigh our various cultures against each other, and get an idea of how varied the ways we are capable of interacting with each other and our world are, but the one thing I do not believe that we will ever do is find the one best way of being human.
The pace of change has become a race, run for its own sake, with no clear goal. We are falling over our own feet in our haste to get to a future whose shape is unknown. We have become Kali, trampling the earth to mud as we dance in celebration of our own godhood. We have moments of remembering our connection to that which we are destroying, but distraction in the form of new possessions, power, or other means of changing our consciousness is infinitely preferable to utter terror, so we keep dancing, keep consuming. We keep reaching for that golden finish line, not realizing it is the light of our own destruction.
We can change the storyline any time we want to. Some of us have spent their whole lives working towards this. We have, as a result, a vast number of very useful tools to hand. We know how to harness the power of the Sun, and how to read the book of life that resides in every cell. The knowledge we have gathered, and the disciplines that grew out of them, have shown us how our world works and where we came from, and the story is growing clearer with every discovery and every connection made. We have clearly seen the faces of the planets in our solar system, and of the Earth.
We stand at a wonderful, terrible, pivotal moment in time. We are in the midst of a change that is as monumental as the discovery of agriculture, when we discovered how to strike a bargain with plants and animals that changed the nature of life on this planet. We are still bound by the terms of that agreement, no matter how hard we try to forget we ever made it, and now we must extend it to the whole planet. We have gained the power to reshape the world in a way even more fundamental than the domestication of a few species who were willing to cooperate with us. We are now being called to partnership with the planet as a whole.
Our ability to tell stories is not unique. The Earth, the solar system, the Universe tell them all the time. We can read the book of life, and our stories are written within it. The story of our choices now will be there as well, if there is anyone left to read it.
I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. Now that my book, ‘’Dancing to Irish Reel” is out, I’m being asked the inevitable question, “How much of the story is true?” Everyone who knows me personally knows I picked up and moved to the west coast of Ireland without much of a plan, and that I stayed for a year. Add that to the fact that the book is written in the first person, that the narrator’s interior monologues in the story are unabashedly confessional to the point of unnecessary risk. I’ve been told the book reads like a…
PS: The extra ordinary woman is the everyday woman you meet on the streets, in the driveway or in your office. She has feelings just like everybody, she has good days and bad days just like everybody, and she makes mistakes just like everybody. The only thing she does differently is she lets nothing stop her from achieving her goals and when she fails, she keeps trying, when she falls, she rises..
Ever since I can remember, one of the things I always heard and keep hearing is ‘’Women Talk’’. True statement!. And this statements has been a topic for discussion and has been used as jokes on different platforms at different places in different times, something to laugh about if you can only find the humor in it. But what if you don’t? One scenario that keeps popping up in my head is from my days in primary school…
The stones whispered “connection” to me. It took a while. A whole year, and the answer came from a different place entirely. Stones are like that. They just exist at a slower pace. Their connection spans the earth, through the crust of the planet. Sea, Sky, Land, from the changes that occur in the space of a deep breath at the planetary timescale, to the eons-long drift of the continents. One year I stood silent and listening at Calanais, the next, at Long Meg, I heard.
We have a hard time listening, we humans. There is so much to be heard around us that the subtle gets drowned out. The night sky is dimmed by our lights, the soundscape of the planet dulled by our sounds. Answers that come softly and slowly over time are often missed, with all the distractions of daily life. Luckily for us, the conversation the universe is having with us is never over. We just have to get quiet enough to hear it. The plants on a hillside will tell you where the water is, if you take the time to look. What do the weeds in your yard tell you about the soil? Are there crickets in your neighborhood? Where do the birds gather? More importantly, what does each small nudge of awareness say deep inside you?
Spending time in the same place has rooted me in it. I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, and have never really left it. Truly, where you have done your living is the measure of your life’s connection to land. I have watched the land change here, returning to the same places year after year. The trees that formed the back of the grove at Mt. Tam are fallen now, returning to the land. Trees that were seedlings when I first came here are now taller than I am.
I had to leave for a time to get a different perspective on home. Even a month caused me to see my land with new eyes. Returning from Albion allowed me to see two different Octobers, side by side. Green grass and gold, rushing waters and dry creekbeds. The smell of home is much stronger after a journey elsewhere. I was fortunate to have two trips, almost exactly a year apart, to the same place. I was able to spend time walking through the same Welsh forest, and come back to the same place in California at the same season.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. High notes singing in my head, the smell of dry grass, oak and bay laurel. Powdery and golden in my nose, the incense of summer in California, it builds as the months without water pass, enduring until the returning rains wash it from the air and replace it with the crystal smell of water. As I walked farther down the trail, I was embraced by the forest coolness. Brown redwood needles underfoot, gold to copper, and the darkness in their groves. The huge trees towered over me. It was so different from the Welsh faerie forest, some large trees but most of the trees I saw there would be dwarfed by these redwoods. I stood in the middle of a city, but here beside the barely running creek the last remnants of the forest reigned.
I took a number of walks after each trip, to talk to the forest and to look for the connections between this place and the ones 5,000 miles away. It’s as if I’m walking through an Albion newly discovered, the forests still, if not intact, large enough to lose oneself in, given a little imagination. This land might have looked like primeval home to the Northern Europeans, who followed the Spanish, who both wrested this land from the First Peoples. There are place names reminiscent of Scotland, the town of Inverness, and Ben Lomond down south. Now that I have seen a bit of Scotland I understand why. The rocky, craggy shores of California were once part of a great temperate rain forest that stretched across the northern hemisphere, and remains of it still can be found. I chase fog, and in December, when what turn out to be the only heavy rains of that year arrive, I wander through our local redwoods and see the scarlet amanitas appear.
We have remnants of forests, Albion has years of human habitation. Waves of it, leaving traces everywhere. Stone circles abound. What were they for? At Calanais, I was sure I didn’t know. Now, I know something they can teach us today. It took many hands, and many years to create these places. They seem to serve no purpose in keeping us alive–no food, no shelter, few remnants of human habitation from the time of their building. Their building was a cooperative effort, connecting their builders together, and the land as well.
We humans right now are as connected as we’ve ever been–and as far apart. We turn people not like us into the grinning masks of our worst fears, yet I can get online and speak to my friends across the Atlantic in the time it takes us to check our messages. We humans have had a few moments of spectacular cooperation–the International Space Station and the founding of the UN being two that loom large in my mind, but we have also often left our most vulnerable to die. We have access to the rest of the world, on demand, but we don’t have a connection to it. In order to have a connection with people, you have to spend time with them. Working on a project together will create this. Working on something that will benefit people you will never see, your descendants, for example, or our world, is the task I think we’re all called to do right now. We have all lived close to five millennia since the first of these circles were built, and we are distanced from the daily lives of their builders in ways that make it easy to idealize lives lived in partnership with the earth. It is easy to forget that ancient peoples did these things because they had no choice, their culture drawing its strength from working in ways that let them harness the strength of the land they lived in, their technology having to be based on an awareness of how natural cycles worked because they did not have the strength or knowledge to do otherwise.
Now, we’ve achieved power enough as a species to do as we please–for a while. We forgot, however, that we live in a closed system. This planet and what it is made of is all we have. If we exceed the natural cycles of life, by unlocking carbon from the land and sending it into the sky, with no provision for returning it to the land, we literally change the face of the earth, determining what can live, and where. We are doing this with little thought, as we can’t see the faces of the future. The pace of change is accelerating, but for so long it has been gradual, taking generations to pick up speed enough to be seen as a real series of events rather than just a series of measurements taken. It’s as if we climbed behind the wheel of a bus, drunk, and let off the brake. The bus has been rolling, slowly gathering speed, and we are fast reaching the edge of a cliff. If we assume responsibility equal to our power, in effect, apply what we already know as a brake, we could slow the speed of the changes, and learn how to work in harmony with the rest of the beings we share this planet with. As the builders of the circles of stone did, millennia ago.
I walked the hills above my home until I came upon a rock that felt like Long Meg. When I sit there and let the stillness creep into me, I can feel my connection. A year and more have passed since I set my back against Meg, but the rocks of California remember.