I wrote this back in 2014, after coming back from the UK. I was looking for my ancestors, and instead, I found that home was right where I’d left it–under my feet.
Most of us in this country are a rich blend of many different places and peoples. We can be mixed up and homeless, or we can learn to live with the people and in the places we ended up in.
Just maybe we’re about to learn to be one human race.
Erin Rose Conner · Find Me A Place
I’m standing on the shores of Llyn Tegid, where Cerridwen brewed the Awen. I, too, did that task, with a pack of Druids I’d never met. One of them was sent down to Sussex, where I was Called, though I didn’t know it. On his shopping list was a Gwion, to stir her cauldron, and I, bumbling my way across England, Scotland, and Ireland, heard the summons and altered my trek to Wales. It was a picaresque journey, I was teased and scared, and ultimately invited in by Scathach, ferried over to Ireland, my supposed destination, to sing of Macha on the mound at Emain. A few precious minutes in the chamber at Brugh na Boinne, and a lovely session in Dublin. I busked the price of a couple of pints at Temple Bar and laid my head in the quietest hostel I’d ever stayed at.
Cerridwen made me prove my resolve. I found out why the Sail Rail fare was so cheap. Six hours on the train station floor at Holyhead, and there was no hostel to be had at Bath. I would have been better off staying on Anglesey. Eventually I found myself on the shore of the Lake. I hadn’t even known where I was going! A chill ripped through me as I realized what I’d gotten myself into. A weekend of beginning the brew and tending the Cauldron, then a year of full moons spent stirring. I knew I’d be returning to finish the brew when the ogam wreath Cerridwen had been offered washed ashore where I was camping.
In my mind is a Grove. In the apparent world it grows at the top of Mount Tamalpais in California. Over the year the circle of stones within it became a Well, spring-fed, in my mind. The stream that ran from it tumbled down the hill and I chose one day to follow it, to see where it led. It grew, fed by other freshets and I found myself on the path to the Lake. I came to the bridge that I’d crossed during that weekend of brewing in Wales. I climbed over the stile and found myself beside Llyn Tegid once more. The green, the rocks in the streambed, all led me back to that place where I can journey any time I wish, in my mind’s eye.
When does one wave end and another begin?
I have always felt let down after Pantheacon. That first day back at my fairly colorless job, no one to share the insights, highs, and shenanigans of the weekend, my friends scattered to the four winds yet again, is always hard. This year I took the rest of the week off. One of the few joys of my job is that I’ve been there long enough to have enough vacation time to do this. I was fortunate enough to have a couple of days in the primeval redwoods of Big Basin with Druids, and when we parted I went on alone to Point Reyes.
It was a beautiful couple of days. Cold and clear, a perfect slice of winter in California. Did I say cold? Oh yes…
I was warm and toasty when I woke up, my bivy sack was covered with frost, as was my pad and my cushion, but it is waterproof and my sleeping bag is excellent. I took an early morning walk on the deserted beach and it was then that I realized that the waves breaking on the shore are a Druidic koan of sorts. The video shows my estimation of three complete waves, but you might count five, or two, or nine. Does it matter? Just watching the cycle, listening to the deep note of the water hitting the sand, rising in pitch as it flows up to become a necklace of white foam, and slides back with a prolonged hiss is a mental cleansing.
I went down to the beach that morning to explore the tide pools.
I had drawn a pot of water on the way down to the beach and it was right where I left it when I came back. One thing I love about back country camping is that it’s fairly safe to leave your gear out. I didn’t want to lug it down the beach, and I wanted to spend the limited time I had drinking tea, sorting pictures, and writing. Soon I had hot chai and a lovely workspace set up.
I had discovered that my bike trailer had a flat tire on the trail to Coast Camp, and of course this was the one time I didn’t have a pump and an inner tube with me. I could still pull the trailer, and resigned myself to destroying the tire and possibly the wheel. Luckily, I can buy a spare if I need to. The trailer is very well designed, but cheaply made. I had looked at the map the evening before and found an alternative route out via the fire road that was several miles shorter, and hopefully less rutted than the Coast/Bear Valley trail route I’d planned to use. I gave myself till noon before beginning the walk out. The last bus was at 8 PM, and I thought I could probably make the four miles out in plenty of time for the 4:30 bus, but with bad gear and an unknown trail I decided to play it safe.
The trail was indeed much better, there were fairly steep parts that were hard to get up, but the roots and ruts of the Coast Trail were absent. I met up with a bobcat in the middle of the Laguna trail, but we saw each other in plenty of time, and neither of us wanted to have anything to do with the other. I decided that the trail sign was an excellent place to drink the last of my cold orange tea and have something to eat. The bobcat rose, walked away down the trail and sat in the middle of it to watch me. I studied my map, but there was no practical way around. The cat decided it had had enough of me and ambled into the woods. I gave it twenty more minutes or so, then, loudly singing, I slowly walked up the trail. We saw no more of each other, which was just fine with me.
The last stretch was a paved road that was fairly decent, if boring, and only a couple of short stretches where the traffic was faster than I liked. I reached the bus shelter at six and decided not to chance the last mile or so into Point Reyes Station. I ate, drank the last of my cold chai, and caught the 7:30 bus.
The more I look, the more I find that, while it isn’t always easy, it is perfectly possible and enjoyable to get to great campgrounds via public transport. Our culture right now is most definitely car-centric, so this is hopefully the hardest it will ever be. What could it be like if we invested in a system that gave equal priority to those of us who choose to use alternative modes of transport? There are some real benefits to be had, after all. I was able to alter my route to one less hard on my broken equipment because I had no need to return to the same trailhead I’d come in on. There are many more possibilities to be had by being able to use different entry and exit points. One of my favorite ways to camp at Pan Toll on Mount Tamalpais is to go in at Pan Toll and walk down to Stinson Beach for lunch before catching the bus back. While I could of course do that by car, the trail down is beautiful, with many interesting places to stop and enjoy some world class scenery. Besides. when driving those winding roads, one’s eyes had better be on the road, not the view…
Deep peace of the Grove.
Silence in the back of my head.
Like the Druid’s tonsure, forbidden at Whitby.
When the Wild Celtic Church was tamed,
Rome had its way at last.
Or did it?
The Yews still stand in churchyards.
Ancient, filled with silence.
The deep peace of the grave is not so different
Once grief has fled.
The slate shedding
The names graven upon them.
I touch the young Yews,
Planted in a row on Hyde Street.
Have they seen a century yet?
I touch that Peace
Is it the same?
I spent the first day of summer on the mountain. I had planned to go up there by bus, as I generally do, but a good friend offered me a ride, and so the trip began with us in a grove of huge firs on the edge of the continent.
Being carless can open up possibilities that aren’t available if all you have to do is walk out the door and turn a key to get somewhere. A shared experience can be, like yesterday, deeper and more satisfying than being up there alone. That particular grove was full of ghosts last time I went there by myself. It was nothing more than the passage of time. The people who first took me there, in the morning of my life, are both gone. So many other friends who shared the place with me are scattered, gone or moved elsewhere. There are so many memories, mostly sweet, associated with the place and those moments in time. How could I not miss them? My partner and I were wed there. So were some of our circle. The only cure seems to be bringing others there, and making more memories.
The grove has changed over the years. Some of the trees are gone, others are growing, not in their place, but as a younger part of the grove. I remember the aftermath of a fire that wiped out a new stand of saplings. It taught me something about the role of fire in this landscape, for the following year the blackened, bare ground was transformed and the grove was new and fairy-beautiful. The thickets that had been taking over the edges were gone, and the green had returned, delicate and more varied than before. The saplings returned too, in time, and now they are taller than I am. Going there with others is similar to the greening after fire. I may have gone alone for a bit, but others use the space as well. After all, it is only my circle of friends who had their time and are now gone. We found the remains of flowers near the altar stone on this day before Beltane. The circle of stones around it was scattered and I did not put it right. Maybe next time, or maybe that is yet another change that has come. That circle was not there when I first came there, after all.
My camp was minimal, but comfortable. Pantoll is first-come, first-served, and since my days off are Sunday and Monday, I usually have the campground largely to myself. If you come without a car, there’s a hike and bike spot that is considerably cheaper than the rest of the sites, but I chose to take a site by myself at the top of the hill instead, a place where I could see the sunrise and be away from the noise of the road. I had a new tent and camping stove to try out and wanted to see how much it would add to my load. The bus stops at the ranger station, so it is possible to camp by bus with more than you might want to carry long distances. The camp has lockable food boxes, and I brought a lock with me, so I dropped my gear, pitched the tent and was off to enjoy the last day of Spring.
From Pantoll there are many paths to explore. I chose the Old Mine Trail, which is steep, but beautiful. There are plenty of places on the way up that will tempt you to linger, and it’s only a mile and a half to the top of the hill. All those places were full on this day–the entire mountain was full of people–but they were all there to enjoy this day between Spring and Summer—and they were outside. I hiked up slowly, the peace of the mountain settling around me. It’s changing again. So many oaks are dying, sudden for them, but years of human time encompassed in their passing.
Sudden Oak Death is endemic now. The trees that have it can’t be removed, doing so would only spread it faster. I can see the mountain adapting. So many places that were shady and green are now bared to the sun. Firs and laurels are moving into the light left, and like any dying thing, portions of the process of the oaks being reclaimed by the earth are not pretty, but there is such beauty in others.
Once their tangle of twigs and branches is cleared, the fallen limbs fall apart in rivers of rich brown. Their silver branches contrast with the green around them, particularly in this year of abundant water. The new growth on the living trees is so pale it approaches chartreuse, and so luxuriant this year that whole young firs shine that color. The laurels and firs will have their time now, for the rest of my short human life I’ll watch the oaks decline, but they too will adapt. The ones who learn to survive will have a place in this woodland and we will learn from them in our turn. For now, the dead and dying oaks stand like ancient statuary, shorn of limbs, shooting out new growth for as long as they can. Their trunks are marked by their disease, myriad patterns and so many shades of brown all the way to the silver that surrounds them in their dead fallen branches.
I sat with that grove of oaks for a while. I was sorry I hadn’t seen it in its green coolness, but on a day like today, I was venturing farther off to the sides of the trail for rest. I could see what it had been, and I’ll have a chance to see the beginnings of what it will become. By the time I got up to Rock Springs the parking lot was so full people were pulling to the sides of the road, using any turnout they could find. I find that being without a car limits me a bit in what green places I can get to, but it also allows me to get to know the places I do go in a deeper way. A place like the mountain has so many layers and so much beauty that I am still discovering places I’ve never seen after years of exploring.
There was so much water! The whole mountain was singing the song of it. I could hear Rock Springs before I got there and filling my bottles took seconds. I drank deeply of the cold, clear water in a way I haven’t in a long time.
I came back to a nearly empty campsite, wanting a cup of tea. The ranger at the window when I’d checked in couldn’t sell me kindling for my camp stove, only a bundle of wood, but when I came back there was a plastic mesh bag with kindling in it lying on the stump at my site. At a campsite, you really do subsist on the kindness of rangers… It turned out to be more than enough to boil a pot of water and I found out that while the new biolite stove (URL) is indeed efficient, and the perfect toy for a firebug like me, it is also voracious. It turns little bits of wood into power, heat, and light, but you have to be there to feed it. It seems a fair trade to me and I was happy to be able to top up the charge on my phone. It was actually nothing short of magical to know that here is a tool that feeds off of what is abundant in any forest–small sticks, and with nothing more than a steady supply of that I can cook without damaging the ground and keep my electronics topped up.
I woke up as the sun was coming up. I’d had a fire as well, since I had the wood and who doesn’t like a fire when camping? I fired up the stove again and made a cup of tea, then went walking on the trail to Stinson Beach. I wanted to see the wildflowers and walk in the early morning. When I got out there I wished I’d taken the time to pack up, because I’d have been free to walk all the way to Stinson Beach. Another nice thing about going without a car is not having to return to where you’re parked. It’s a different kind of freedom. I can’t stop at every place that looks interesting by the side of the road, but neither am I tied to the road. The trail to Stinson Beach is only 4 miles, but by the time I got back to camp and packed up, there wasn’t time to walk the whole way by the time the bus left.
There wasn’t enough time by any measure. I only had a day and a night, and I knew I’d only get a taste of what I was after. A car wouldn’t have made much difference and I wouldn’t have been able to spend the whole time on the bus down the mountain looking at the scenery if I’d driven. The trip would have had a different quality and I would actually have seen a lot less than I did. Walking every day has slowed me down in ways I never expected. The journey is every bit as important than the destination, and I’m free to spend that time in conversation with the landscape.
The trees and the rocks tell stories, and not all of them can be photographed. In a wooded section of trail, for instance, an oak had begun to fall. A crotch in a limb broke its fall against a fir. The oak was sick, the two ends of the limb were ravaged by Sudden Oak Death and reached out in something that looked like terror–or was that just a trick of perspective? It had hit the fir many years ago, hard, because the trunk was knocked well off center, but the fir had had time to grow upward again in a graceful arc. Both trees were still alive, and the drama beside the trail will likely be playing out for many years to come, barring further catastrophe.
Farther along is a laurel that lost the battle with wind and torrential rain. It lies downhill, roots like a wall next to the trail. The crater that they occupied has now become the trail and there’s a rock there that was the perfect place to sit and look at the parts once firmly in the soil. I was sitting where the tree had once stood, looking at the stones still wrapped in roots, and each other.
In a forest that has been allowed to have these conversations with itself there is much to be learned. Root and branch and rock intertwine and shape each other. Straight, salable timber is nowhere near as interesting or as alive as a forest that has had time to get to know itself and has many different species living and growing together. The meadows, largely bare of trees, are full of flowers now and the dark green and the light show us where the water is. It is early summer now, and every flower and green leaf is singing life with all it has in it. Very soon, now that the rains have gone, the green will slowly fade to gold. The song of bees will turn to grasshoppers and the high song of Summer with its one clear, clean note. If I go there then the days will be hot and dusty, and just as I smell of oak right now, then I will smell of Lugh as I walk the trails. I’ll be doubly grateful for the spring then.
If you want to camp on Mt. Tam, directions and total trip time from your location are available on 511.org. Just search for directions to Pantoll Campground. You can get a number of buses out of San Francisco near Civic Center that cross the 61 South Route.
This is how my bodhran came back from Ireland. Yes, we had a good time, and this would have happened eventually, but it is also going to be an adventure returning this instrument to playable condition. I asked around in Dublin as to bodhran repairs and was told that people generally replaced the drum. If this advice had come from a general music store I’d thank them politely and go looking for another opinion, but this had been a little traditional music store where you had to knock to be let in. The experience that followed was a conversation as much as a shopping expedition and the place was filled with traditional instruments of all descriptions, and nothing else. They only sold D and C tin whistles, as that was all session players needed, but no matter. They knew their business and I was out of options.
I was playing in a session in a Dublin pub when I stuck my beater through my bodhran head. I slapped cellophane tape over both sides and kept playing. I babied the drum the rest of the trip, but knew in my heart this was it. Back in the ‘90s there was a music store south of San Francisco run by a rennie who could get bodhrans reheaded. My bodhran lost her perfect milky white head, but her voice remained deep and perfect. I didn’t realize how rare that was, or had become, till I tried to get the head repaired the first time it tore. Cody’s was gone by that time. I was afraid of changing this drum’s voice. I’d replaced the head on a cheap bodhran to learn the skill of doing it and while the tone is good enough to make it a good backup drum, it isn’t what I wanted and so when I got home from this latest trip I put my broken drum away.
I knew there was no point in patching the head again, as the skin was so rotten that even a patch with a huge overlap, using the old version of Barge cement (the kind that had enough volatile petroleum distillates to make your head spin, but bonds like a dream), but I was only delaying the inevitable.
On Monday I got brave. What’s the point in having a drum I can’t play? I’ve had a good goatskin lying around the front workroom for a few years now. I grabbed some tools and took the head off. That, of course, led to me having a good look at the state of the varnish.
Knowing that I’d pay for it later, I grabbed a sander and some 220 discs and cleaned up the rim. I’ve had this drum since my teens, and I just didn’t want anyone else to do this job. I’d forgotten how beautiful the inlay work had been when the drum was new.
Four days later and I still hurt from the sanding job. I was hoping I’d bounce back faster, but this is the exact task that disabled me from my deckhand job. It’s worth it. I’ll post the actual reheading job when I get the rim refinished and the new head on.
I’m looking for the stars in their eyes at the sight of tall masts and white sails.
I’m looking for the woman I once was, eyes on the horizon, feet on the topgallant footropes and hands on rough canvas. She’s out there, I’m hoping that she will still be out there a century hence doing the work I once did. Now that I can no longer do it, I’m looking for the next set of hands who will take joy in making ships brave with paint, bright with varnish and black with tar.
I work in a museum of ships. I came there with stars in my eyes. I was so taken with them, their beauty and the adventures that could be had aboard them, that I took the hands of the sailors that came before me and volunteered to help care for them. My weekends were filled with the lessons that only an historic vessel and living sailors can teach. I learned the precise language required, the names of things and tasks that allow specific instructions to be passed in few words. By doing the various jobs that must be done if the boat is to make it to the future, I forged relationships with every vessel I worked in. I couldn’t help it—I came there in love with adventure and the sea, and it wasn’t long before I fell for the ships too.
There is nothing like being part of a crew. I’d wanted this since my teens, when I was a Sea Scout. A wooden whaleboat wasn’t enough, but being female, there was no way at the time that I could find to take the adventure farther. By the time I returned, in my late thirties, tall ships had become, if not common, far more numerous and it wasn’t long before I made my first trip as a volunteer. Times have changed. Women are an accepted part of this world now. I came to it too late to do it for long, but I have been out of sight of land in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans now, furling sail high above deck, the sky close enough to touch. It has changed me in ways I couldn’t have foreseen and wouldn’t trade for anything. The adventure has been mine for long enough to know how to share it.
I don’t sail in these ships any more. I can no longer do the work, and I won’t inflict myself on a crew if I can’t do my share. But I can still be useful ashore. I know how to do the work and can teach others. I can transmit that DTI—that Deckhand Transmitted Infection of love for the vessel and joy in being part of a crew. Working where I do I can be there when those people walk in with stars in their eyes and I can tell them the things that no one was there to tell me. I can tell the stories of the ships and help everyone who wants one to find their connection to them. So many people come in with a fantasy. Pirates are a starting point, but adventure is a shared experience and sailors are far more interesting. My treasure chest is full of memories, tools, and skills. Sunrises shared as the watch was gathered around the tiller, the ship plunging and rising as the wind carried us along. I went aboard my first ship with a duffle bag full of books. I was afraid I’d run out of things to read in three whole weeks at sea. I’ve never been aboard a ship where there wasn’t an active and varied bookshelf. My canvas ditty bag is on the shelf in the next room, filled with everything I need to repair a sail or for that matter, fix anything else made of heavy fabric or leather. That is something I can still do. The knots I know are just as useful for tying down a load on a bicycle or a truck because these skills are not all limited to ships and sailing.
I’m looking for the next pair of hands now. The tasks and the ships are passed from hand to hand, sailor to sailor. The language of ships is an oral tradition. You can read about it, but what seems incomprehensible on the page is perfectly plain when the tools are in your hand and a living person is showing you how it’s done. When I tell you that the ship will also tell you how to do the job, you’ll probably think me fanciful—or insane—but it’s true. You just have to speak her language. You probably know part of it already. Flaking paint or bare wood or metal is easy enough to spot. Knowing how to prepare and paint the surface is not hard to learn. Is something broken? If the vessel is well cared for, the same equipment on the other side is probably fine and can serve as a guide for repair. Experience will tell you what is dangerous, what is annoying, and what is just unkempt.
A vessel forges a group of people into a crew, by the simple act of caring for her. A vessel without a crew will soon be gone. It’s expensive to take care of a boat. They truly are holes in the water into which you pour money. This is why a boat without a job is destined for the breaker’s yard. The time and effort her survival demands requires a purpose for her existence. The next pair of hands must be sustained by the work. So a vessel and a crew live in symbiosis, we both need to earn our keep.
My museum is that purpose, on both sides. When I talk of the vessels, I count their existences as museum ships as careers, as legitimate as their time carrying cargo, fishing, or any other purpose they served. Their cargo now is memory, education, and to serve as our living memory. I learned the beginnings of a trade in them and would be learning still if injury had not cut my days as a hands-on member of the crew short. I earned a living aboard then, and I do so still. In my own personal symbiosis I, too, carry memory and knowledge. A museum is a place where Muses dwell. Those vessels are nothing less. The people of my nation, and visitors of all nations are willing to pay to maintain these ships, and so they go on living. They grow ever more precious as the years pass because there are fewer of them every year. The sheer amount of work that is necessary to maintain them, and the lack of an obvious economic return for that labor means that many are lost. FALLS OF CLYDE is fighting for her life even as I write. WAPAMA was cut up in 2013, and WAWONA in 2009. Those three are just some of the latest casualties on the West Coast of North America.
Discovery is sexy, maintenance is not, except for the few insane individuals like myself who find meaning in scraping paint and tarring down. Those next sets of hands who will take these vessels into the future are a rare breed, and so my job, essentially, is being paid to be that crusty old sailor who used to haunt the dockside. Being able to make a living doing it is a relatively new development. The maintaining of ships simply to serve as repositories for memory and the teaching of skills is a product of prosperity. It is difficult, when money is the yardstick, to see the sense in it, but how precious is the maintaining of skills in the human database? What price can we put on living memory? If we value it enough to continue doing it, then we as a species will still be able to go to sea under sail, and the bodies and minds of those who choose to do so will still have the option of being shaped by that knowledge. We will retain something rare, a very special way of life and a hard and rewarding school for those who choose to enroll in it. The skills will possibly become very useful if the oil runs out before we find another means of powering our civilization. Wind will always be free, if fickle, and it is up to us whether or not we will still remember how to harness it.