Dinnshenchas

Places, names, and things in California

Chronicles of Ubo: Pirate Cove, Big Corona, Newport Beach, California

Looking west/northwest at Pirate Cove

Looking west/northwest at Pirate Cove

Today, I biked across the Newport mesa to Pirate Cove. I go there like a homing pigeon now that I’m older and more cautious about waves and the ocean’s temperament. The ocean is usually pretty mellow at Big Corona. This is by design, of course. The Army Corps of Engineers did a lot of work to calm her down back in the thirties. Still, the ocean always has a temperament, and today, it was a bit feisty.

The first thing I saw as I stepped onto the sand was a used plastic tampon. I see, I thought. The ocean is having female problems today. I walked down to the shoreline.

A used plastic tampon left on Big Corona's beach

A used plastic tampon left on Big Corona’s beach

A grey whale was nosing around looking for food a few yards away from the end of the south jetty. People were standing with their hands on their hips, looking entranced but concerned. (Their body language seemed to suggest they were worried the whale didn’t know what it was doing.)

Seagulls fought over the litter left on the sand. I walked towards the water. My first inkling that maybe this wasn’t the day for a swim was the layer of rocky detritus lining the littoral zone. Rocks and shells banged around my ankles, forming a dark line along the zone: it was as if the ocean was daring me to step into it. The waves were glassy green tubes with faces of just about 4 to maybe 5 feet, breaking in steady intervals. The waves weren’t huge, but they had a decisiveness to them that unnerved me. How you doing, mama? I murmured like Barry White to the ocean. I’m just here to have fun. Nothing big. It’s your party. I just want in for a while. I went in and instantly felt the hard suck of the undertow. I got it. It wasn’t in the mood. It wasn’t screaming get out of my room, but neither was it inviting me in. The tide was coming in and the ocean was just doing its own thing. I got my stuff, and proceeded to Pirate’s Cove. I should have just gone there first, I thought.

Pirate Cove is starboard as you enter the Newport Harbor, and is notable for its sandstone cliffs, or bluffs which I assume gave the beach its name. The crown of sandstone and a line of rocks creates a curvy little cove, that has a small beach which totally disappears during very high tides or storms. Pirate Cove became a fixed point in a shifting marine environment sometime in the 30’s because of human engineering: there is a south jetty and a north jetty, both of which were put into place during the Roosevelt administration. The Public Works Administration accomplished what all the private money in Newport couldn’t, namely, building jetties that were stable and stayed put through fierce winter storms. (Yes, Newport has fierce winter storms.) The jetties formalized the harbor entrance: how the entrance was determined way back before the jetties were built is kind of unclear. I think it was a moving target. The bay, left to its own devices, periodically developed sandbars. Some of that topography still feels present, even after years of dredging. The small beach is shallow with a really changeable floor with waves and dips that demonstrate its dynamic response to the tide. I instinctively feel that some of the sandbars must have extended from where the small beach was.

Annotated map of the Newport bay river delta, circa 1915? Photo courtesy of Douglas Westfall

Pirate Cove was derided when I was growing up as a beach for losers or babies or both. Cool kids didn’t swim in the bay in the sixties or seventies. There were some good reasons for this: the bay, even near the mouth, was nasty. The water quality sucked. Too many boats, too many damn houses, too much urban runoff with too much crap in it: too much of everything really, conspired to give Pirate Cove a dubious reputation. That was then. It is now, and has been for some time, an absolutely beautiful little beach, a little gem with smooth sand and mostly beautiful water. Sometimes, though, it get a little bay-y. Often there is plastic crap that floats in the water. And it has more litter than it did when I was growing up.

And it has a cave.

A still from DW Griffith's silent film 'Macbeth", which was filmed on location at Pirate Cove.  Photo from "Corona Del Mar - My Kind of Town", written by Douglas Westfall.

A still from D.W. Griffith’s silent film ‘Macbeth”, which was filmed on location at Pirate Cove. Photo from “Corona Del Mar – My Kind of Town”, written by Douglas Westfall.

The cave looms large in my memory because of an offhanded remark by my dad. It’s located under a shelf of overhanging sandstone and is no more than a slit, like a downturned mouth. There are impressively old-looking rusted iron bars that block the entrance. I have no idea where the cave goes, if it goes anywhere. Does it burrow underground, through a secret passage and out to sea? Does it deepen and widen into a beautiful grotto, where opal green anemones and purple sea urchins cluster? All I’ve ever been able to see behind the rusted iron bars is an impressive collection of beer bottles and litter that gets pushed in with every high tide. I think the bars only keep people out, not litter (which is a pity.)

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Dad, I asked when I was very small, maybe 4 or 5 years old. What is that? I pointed to the dark slit in the rock.
It’s a cave, he replied.
Why are there bars on it?
To keep people out. It’s dangerous.

And then he told me in words unremembered by me, but with an emphasis that carried the message explicitly, that teenagers used to party in the cave and then one day the tide came in and they all drowned. I gaped. I looked at the cave and imagined the long blonde hair, the smell of Coppertone, the flashing white teeth, the puka shells encircling the tanned necks of the heedless teenagers WHO WERE PARTYING. AND WHO DROWNED. Did they know what was happening? OR WERE THEY ON DRUGS? In any case, I believed my dad. Weird things were happening to teenagers in the late sixties and early seventies. The beach was sunny and so was the rest of Southern California, but there was darkness, too, if you knew where to look. The cave was dark, and The Teenagers ( I could never think of them any other way) had crawled into its darkness to do bad things. The lesson I took from this ghosty story was: Don’t party, especially in beach caves and you’ll be fine. This didn’t stop me from partying and doing drugs in beach caves when I was a heedless teenager, but I was responsible. I chose Little Corona because those caves were not flush with the waterline. None of my friends ever drowned. SAM_4539

The wonderful thing about Pirate Cove is the rock, that pliable, friable sandstone and sedimentary rock made of thousands of geologic years of compressed sand, clay and the chitinous exoskeletons of tiny sea creatures.  The bluffs are gorgeous— golden yellow in the late afternoon sun— and fragile. The tawny sandstone has been carved and whittled down by the ocean, the wind and the rain over thousands of years. It’s easy to gain a toehold in the round hollows of the stone crown of Pirates Cove because of years and years of beach goers swarming up and down it. It’s also easy to fall off of it.

I fell, once. I was there with my Girl Scout troop. In my recollection, I was up very high and then suddenly I was down on the sand with the wind knocked out of me. My pain was equal to the chagrin I felt. There’s no dignity to falling, especially when you’re wearing a green Girl Scout sash with no badges sewn onto it. (I was a unambitious girl scout who didn’t understand the whole badge thing. I was supposed to want one, but getting one involved doing things with people. I liked to read.)

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The cliffs of Pirate Cove.

Today I scramble up and down the cliffs (cautiously) and wonder how much longer they’ll be around. The bluffs must be the barest nub of what they once were. It’s now listed on climbing sites as a place with “juggy” and “greasy” cliffs: I have no idea what this terminology means, but I assume that climbers clambering up the sides is going to be a factor in its eventual erosion. SAM_4535

The city of Newport Beach, ever concerned with the quality of life in Newport, keeps an eagle eye out for the potential dangers of living along the coast of Newport. The report “Safety Element” which is part of the city’s general plan, takes pains to detail exactly how the shit might hit the fan in the serene and sunny city of Newport Beach. There’s an assortment of big waves that could erode beaches and ocean bluffs: tsunamis, rogue waves and storm surges are all mentioned as actors in the future of Pirate Cove and other ocean bluffs. Local tsunamis, are apparently enough of a potential reality to be discussed in this document. “Modeling off the Santa Barbara coast suggests that locally generated tsunamis can cause waves between 2 and 20 meters (6to 60 feet) high…” That could do it; that would wash some of that beautiful sandstone away. You’ll be comforted to know, by the way, that foreign tsunamis coming in from the south— say, Chile— take at least 12 hours to arrive in Newport Beach, which is plenty to get the hell out. If I’m at Pirate Cove when the call comes to flee a Chilean Tsunami, I plan on taking the Tsunami evacuation zone on Dover. I think Jamboree will be really crowded. And who wants to be in a panic on Jamboree Road? Pas moi.

Given the concern over super storms that climate change is expected to trigger and the fact that the Balboa Peninsula and Big Corona get really big surf every summer because of storms in the southern hemisphere, it’s anyone’s guess what will erode the cliffs the most, or first. Rodentia, burrowing away in bluffs? Maybe. Seismically induced slope failure caused by a strong earthquake on the Newport Inglewood fault? Back in the nineties, a mild earthquake on this fault shattered my grandmother’s china in Newport Heights. Just think of what it would do to Pirate Cove.

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Today, it was untroubled, except by climbers dusting their hands with chalk and looking speculatively at the sheer wall. Someone had left an open can of pickled jalapeno peppers (really?) for someone else to throw away. I saw the can as I was taking a picture of the Haunted Cave of The Teenagers. I snapped my picture and then prissily picked up the can and carried it to the trashcan up the stairs, making sure that everyone on the beach could see me do this. (I hate litter and I go into rages when I find it.) Boastful men stood on the rock that’s just to the left of the now unused lifeguard’s chair; in silhouette, they looked like Douglas Tilden bronze statues until they jumped, with clownish bravado, into the clear green water of the bay.

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This is actually looking west out the harbor mouth.

Sometimes the wealthy residents of Corona del Mar complain about the popularity of Big Corona and Pirate Cove, and I understand some (but, for sure, only some)of their discomfort. The litter— I can’t say this enough—is bad and seems to have gotten worse. I think because of this and the increased density in general, the fire rings suddenly became suspect three years ago and almost got completely banned. The fire rings are public resources. That is, I believe, their actual classification. Banning them was a step towards making the beach less accessible, less desirable to the masses. There are more people in Orange County now, and hence there are more people at the beach. I’ve never trusted the wealth in Newport Beach, nor have I ever liked the drive to privatize. What would it take for homeowners to try to shut down Pirate Cove? I doubt it will happen- it’s a city beach- but if it could happen anywhere in California, with its old tradition of public access for all beaches, it could happen in Newport Beach.

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I’m okay with the bars over the cave. I don’t need access to it. But I would be destroyed if there was no access to Pirate Cove. I’m not sure why I thought about that, looking at the cave and the garish red can of pickled peppers sitting in the sand next to it. The beach is loved and used and littered and battered over and over again with people, with wind, with rain and possibly in the future by ARKstorms, great mega-storms which will bear down on the little beach and its proud crown of sedimentary rock. There are always forces at work (I guess) to limit, to bar, to change. I hope this part of my world and the California coast survives most of them.

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 Many thanks to Douglas Westfall, the author of two books I plan on reading: “Corona Del Mar – My Kind of Town” and “The Costa Mesa Bluffs”.

 

824 Florida Street

joepats

Sunday, after a late morning breakfast of hot cross buns and coffee at Joey & Pat’s, my husband and I slowly perambulated the Mission, doing errands in a desultory way. On Florida Street, between 20th and 21st, we encountered a scrum of people on the sidewalk.

Two men in their fifties or sixties were presenting a building plan to the neighborhood. Blueprints were on a folding table. You could take a copy. The men and the table were in front of an old, white house with a garage door right at the sidewalk. We stopped to see what was happening. Why were they sitting in front of the house with an attitude of resignation?

The “house” is, or was, a dwelling for someone, but when it was constructed (in 1908, as it turns out) it wasn’t built to house people. It was clearly a garage or a space for light industry.

Two women were looking at the plans. The table was in the shade of the building, a nice place to linger. Two children biked around the women. We walked over to the table.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“We’re presenting these plans to the neighborhood,” replied the sitting man. He was older, maybe in his late sixties. “We’re adding a vertical element.”

“Oh,” I said, looking at the plans. “Are you the owner?”

The man shifted in his chair. “We’re the designers,” he replied. “We’re going to add a couple floors.”

Sensing circumvention, I tried again. “Who owns this place?”

The heavyset man sighed and moved in his folding chair again, almost imperceptibly. Evasion hung thick in the air. Crosstalk prevented the moment from becoming too acute.

One of the women knew the building’s history. The Travertini family had made pottery there. A truck used to pull into the garage and load up, she remembered. She moved to Florida Street in 1965, when she was eight years old, and has lived here ever since. “I’m first generation,” she said. Her parents were from Puerto Rico. The neighborhood was full of Italian families when her family moved to the Mission, she said. “We were the minority. Can you imagine that?”

I said immediately, as I always do when Mission history comes up, “My great-great-grandparents lived down the street!” The woman and I beamed at each other, pleased to find another ancestral Missionite.

The standing man said the building was originally a gymnasium.

Back to the question hanging in the air. “Are you the owners?” I asked again.

The sitting man sensed that I wasn’t going to let it go. “There’s a group of owners,” he said. “I’m the face of the owners.”

He wasn’t going to say who. He wasn’t going to name names. Eleven owners? Twelve? Three? We thanked the men and left.

At home I went online. The San Francisco Public Library has online city directories from 1850 to 1982. I searched the 1963 Polk’s City Directory and found Travertini & Co. Mfg., “plaster casting,” owned by Gino and Ulaldina Travertini at 824 Florida Street. No pictures emerged on Google of Mr. and Mrs. Travertini. The only picture of them with their plaster and lathe and delivery trucks is a memory held in the mind of the woman who moved to the Mission in 1965, the year I was born.

My husband went back to get a blueprint at 2 p.m., perhaps thirty minutes after we’d seen them, but the men were gone. Nothing was posted on the building or the telephone pole in front of the building. Apparently, the men had given notice to the neighborhood.

The men were nice, and spoke to us in a civil fashion about the change in the neighborhood, the alteration of the Travertini place. But a description posted last year on Zillow seemed offhandedly callous. It described the structure as a “Great one open space with bathroom, kitchen, lots light and huge backyard. . . . We will tear down place in 22 months.”

It’s bewildering, this speculative wilding in the Mission, where prices are so high that groups of investors need to pool their money to purchase property, where the blueprints detailing changes to the neighborhood are grudgingly unveiled for a few minutes on hot, sunny Saturday afternoons and then folded up and secreted away so that neighborhood re-visioning can start, and where the perfect moments of the Mission stay preserved in memory.

824-Florida-Street-620x429

This article originally appeared in on March 10, 2015 as a feature in Mission Local, San Francisco’s finest local newspaper. Many thanks to Lydia Chavez.

From the wayback files: Imagined Nation

  Imagined Nation

Kurdistan

The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which was the first pass made by the Allied Powers of the West at dismantling the Ottoman Empire after WWI, made certain promises to the Kurds; then and now a people of a virtually realized nation. Virtual, be cause if you go to the website http://www.kurdishyoungsters.com, you will see an animated image of the boundary line of the imagined nation, Kurdistan, springing forth from Syria, and snaking through Turkey, Iran and Iraq before coming back to Syria and vanishing. The Treaty of Sevres offered the Kurds conditional steps towards full nationhood, starting with dedicated territory and ending with Turkish recognition of their independence. But it was a halfhearted gesture. The bureaucratic doubtfulness of a phrase like “if the Council then considers that these peoples are capable of such independence” reads like a sentence of foretold disappointment for the people under discussion, and so it was for the Kurds. These promises were banished completely from the treaty that was ultimately adopted, the Treaty of Lausanne. It did not mention the Kurds at all.

On June 26 of this year, The New Yorker ran an article by Seymour Hersh, which detailed alleged new alliances between Kurdish regional authorities in Iraq and Israeli intelligence agents. It is possible that Sharon’s government, worried that the Americans could not contain the hornet’s nest stirred up the Bush administration, has decided to do that magic certain nations do, namely, to try to transform a semi-autonomous, regionally-based government into a full-fledged nation, complete with militarily defended map coordinates.

I went looking for a map of Kurdistan. Reading descriptions of where the Kurds were located-North of Iraq, South-East of Turkey-wasn’t enough. After all, these coordinates contain their own confusing and highly mutable polarities Eastern Syria turns into Western Kurdistan or South-Eastern Turkey can transform into Northern Kurdistan, depending on who is doing the describing. I needed to see an enclosed chunk of land, with boundaries and fixed dimensions. I need to see and assess Kurdistan’s spatial relationship to the other countries. Seeing Kurdistan next to or in between Turkey/Syria/Iran/ Iraq would give me a instinctive sense of what it would mean for Kurdistan to heave upward and outward, from the Treaty of Sevres, into the reshuffled and re-mapped Middle East.
Finding one, I found that I have an instinctively fanciful reaction to maps. When I think about The Green Line, I see a line, twanging like a taut harp string, sounding the notes of raging parliamentary debates. Ireland looks like a sow laying on her side, with the jagged outline of the rocky west coast fanning off like multiple teats toward her offspring parishes in America. England reminds me of an ink blot, and America looks like a creature L. Frank Baum invented for his second Oz book “The Land of Oz”, which he called a “Gump”: a flying creature with a bad temper and an enormously over- sized body. The proposed map of Kurdistan looks like an exaggeratedly drawn hominid skull with the occiput jutting into Syria and Turkey and the long jaw facing east.

As a peace organizer in the nineties, it was my job for a while to alert the American public to the fact that Turkey was attempting to massacre the Kurds with American-made weapons. My job was to a provide a vastly oversimplified analysis of the contradictory position America had towards human rights- denouncing, on the one hand, dictators and human rights abuses in the Mid-East, and peddling, with the other hand that was frequently clutching expensive loan guarantees, as many missiles, helicopters and tanks to allied nations like Turkey as we could. I described the Kurds as a distinct people living within Turkish borders, even though describing them this way extended the conversation by a good ten minutes. Most people didn’t understand the idea of a landless nation and I hadn’t heard the word “diaspora” yet. It was hard to prove that Turkey wasn’t simply attacking itself without recourse to that most basic of explanations: a map.

When you view a map, you see circumstance and consequence in one fell swoop handed to you, enclosed and intact, by virtue of the impossible view from the heavens, which is where viewing a map will place you. A map tidily collapses the what-ness, and the why-ness of a people into a concise acknowledgment of their place on this earth. We know the country by the company it keeps (or is forced to keep) as much as we know a country by articles in The New Yorker. Maps leapfrog the endless to-ing and fro-ing of the world’s securocrats, stoking the fires of unrest here, placating them there, reacting militarily there and there and there. Image is everything to finalizing— dictating, really— comprehension. The very word “map” snaps with finitude. The map I stared at the longest was a transparent beige outline. It was superimposed onto the other countries, but still helpfully transparent, so that the boundaries of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, the boundaries that would likely be re-drawn at the behest of America and her allies (a prospect that worries me) were not obliterated, yet. They remained distinct.

The map of Kurdistan is, at this point, floating somewhere between a proposal and an outright demand. It hovers above the Mid East, a nation-in-waiting to itself, and an reminder to other countries, like Armenia or Ireland, whose ancient territories still languish under Turkish and British possession, that some small nations may matter more, especially if they have oil reserves.

In the Treaty of Sevres, the proposed outlines of Kurdistan are described this way: “east of the Euphrates, south of the Southern boundary of Armenia, as it may hereafter be determined, and north of the frontier of Turkey with Syria and Mesopotamia.” It is an appropriately mystical description of a mysterious land. It is suggestive, too, of the beginnings of a Kipling poem. Kurdistan, the hidden land hiding under four different countries. Go forth and discover it. Who will the Explorer be?

Reprinted from: Mississippi Review, Vol. 32, No. 3
Fall 2004

Balance from Division: the water of Potter Marsh in Anchorage, Alaska

A note: although this blog normally only concerns itself with people, places and things in California, occasionally the Californian who authors it goes out of state and see places and things elsewhere. And then writes about them. I wrote this essay last September. I’ve updated the verb tenses for the below post.
This essay was first published in Aontacht, book 7, issue 1

Potter Marsh, in Anchorage Alaska,looking west

In September of last year, my husband and I visited my sister Emily, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. On the 22rd of that month, the day of the equinox, she urged us to get out and see things. “Go south,” she said, in her decisive way. “Go to Potter Marsh. It’s a wetland. It’s beautiful.” Emily knows what I like: water. We took her advice and drove to Potter Marsh, or Hkaditali in the native Athabascan language, which means “Place of the Driftwood.” The driftwood they referred to used to be washed up into the marsh. It still would were it not for a railroad track that keeps the two watery sites apart. As we drove to the marsh, my husband and I saw the work of thousands and thousands of years of glaciation and rain: sharply carved, incised mountain ranges that were shaped by water, both liquid and frozen.

We pulled into the parking lot and looked around. From the lot, I could see the long, blue water of Cook Inlet. The water in the marsh wasn’t visible yet. A man who was leaving told us there were bald eagles roosting in the trees on the north end. “You from here?” he asked. We told him we were from San Francisco. “Welcome to Alaska,” he said. “This marsh is great for birding.” He secured his toddler in a safety seat for the ride home. My husband and I walked into the marsh.

Potter Marsh exists as a freshwater marsh now, but it used to be an estuary. It’s part of the Alaska Coastal Wildlife Refuge, which stretches for 16 miles along Cook Inlet, southwest of Anchorage. The slopes of the Chugach mountain range rise above the marsh in the east . The foothills are dotted with houses, and riven with watery streams. Three of these creeks flow into Potter Marsh: Rabbit Creek, Little Rabbit Creek, and Potter Creek. In 1917, the Alaska Railway built an embankment for the railroad track and so impounded the fresh waters of the creeks. This division ended the marsh’s existence as an estuary, a place where salt water and freshwater meet and mingle.

It is an oft-quoted fact that estuaries contain some of the most life-sustaining habitat on this earth, equaled only by rainforests and coral reefs. Some estuarine conditions still persist in Potter Marsh. In nature, it’s tough dividing whole ecosystems, especially when they’re as watery as a wetland. But the partition happened, and now where there was once a mingling of different waters, there is a freshwater marsh on the east and a saltwater mud flat to the west. The heterodox, estuarine nature of the place has changed.

There’s a lot of water in Alaska, especially in September, which is the tail end of the rainy season in Anchorage. “It sort of rains all the time,” my sister told, sounding both exasperated and proud. This seems miraculous to me, a Californian, who is living in a state which is enduring its fourth year of drought. “Forty-three percent of Alaska is wetlands,” a friend of my sister’s told me. My sister’s house (built long before she moved to Alaska) is situated over a now-buried creek which used to be former spawning grounds for salmon. There’s water everywhere you look: in the streambeds, trickling out of cliff walls, falling from the sky: it’s a very pluvial place. The mountains of Alaska loom over broad flat lowlands, which were made by rivers scouring silt and carrying it in their water columns; this silt, which was the mountain’s rocky skin, got dumped on the lowlands the minute the grade changed and the water was forced to slow down.

The ocean is a master builder, too, using its vigorous tidal prism to push finely ground sand and silt ashore. The tidal fluctuations in one arm of Cook Inlet, by the way, are among the highest in the world with a mean range of 30 vertical feet. There’s a tidal bore that surfers have discovered. “It’s kind of dangerous,” another friend told me. “But it hasn’t stopped the surfers.”

From 1917 to 1971, the marsh was a place of little interest, an accident made by man. To construct the railroad embankment, the builders dredged silt from the estuary, creating deep pools which are now freshwater ponds (and still slightly brackish; as I said, it’s hard to partition water). In 1971, the Alaska legislature decided to recognize what salmon, eagles, ducks, and other animals had signaled through their stubborn habitation of the marsh, namely, that the site had maintained some ecological integrity, even in its mutilated and partitioned state. You could argue that the animals created the refuge first, simply by refusing to leave. The legislature took its cue from the animals and legally formalized an informal and semi-historic ecological arrangement.

In Potter Marsh, nature exists on its own terms. This is the meaning of the term “refuge.” Human activity is limited. There is no hunting. No fishing. No domesticated animal can be grazed there; no mud, silt, sand, oil, or any other mineral from the marsh can be extracted. No houses, office parks, or hotels can be built along its ragged edges. What there is to do in the refuge, most days, is watch, listen, and learn. You can stand on the elevated boardwalk that the state built, and peer through the viewing glasses to try to identify all there is to see.

And all that one can see the marsh is enabled by water. Transport, habitat, nursery, nourishment: water builds, water moves, and water shields and protects. From conception to death, the waters of Potter Marsh maintain life and seek balance.

Although the waters were divided, the capacity of the wetlands to support life remains. It isn’t clear from the available studies how much biodiversity was lost after the building of the railroad: a lot, most likely. The salinity gradients changed. So did the water quality. The rapid urbanization of Anchorage and the surrounding areas infused the water with oil, leached minerals, and other nasty mid-century toxins. But the creeks that run into the marsh and fill the freshwater ponds support a cohort of flora and fauna that are dependent on each other. There is a food chain. We wouldn’t have seen two bald eagles sitting in cottonwood trees on the northeast end of the marsh if there were nothing there to hold their interest. One was an adult, with a shining white head. The other was a dun-colored juvenile. Both cried out at least once, with their odd, high-pitched cry. The juvenile, perhaps sensing the eyes scrutinizing him from the viewing deck, flew away. Bald eagles lose a bit of their innate dignity when they take to the air they fly with great, loosey-goosey flopping strokes, so huge is their wing span. But the power of their wings is remarkable.

Bald eagles, of course, eat salmon. And the salmon, that deeply totemic creature of Native American and Celtic cultures, are present in the marsh. The marsh is spawning habitat. Two culverts, put into place by human beings, link the marsh with Cook Inlet, creating access between the two formerly conjoined sites. We might have been unaware that we could actually see the salmon, were it not for a chance encounter with a little boy named Adrian. He told us in an exultant tone that, if we liked, he’d show us a salmon. Together, we peered over the railing. Below us were a few darting fingerling salmon—juveniles—and the ruddy, glistening back of what appeared to be a coho salmon.

“He’s spawned out,” said Adrian’s grandmother, who was standing nearby. I sensed exhaustion coming from the fish, although this might have just been my overly empathetic projection. But maybe not; if anything on this planet has a right to be exhausted, its gotta be a spawned-out salmon. They’ve swum hundreds of miles while their bodies slowly disintegrate, all in the service of reproduction. The grandmother, who was Native American —“Aleut,” she told me— said that the salmon was disoriented. “He’s confused,” she said affectionately. “Usually, they aren’t in this pond. They’re over in that one,” and she waved her hand southward toward another pool. It was really something seeing a salmon dying, in the crystal clear water, a native of that place, coming back to a point of origin that was greatly changed but still existed. The water hugged the salmon’s body and rocked it side to side with the current. We walked on, along the boardwalk. The late afternoon sun shone on the water in the deep ponds, making them glint like silver glass.

A creek rushed underneath us, flowing from the marsh downstream through two steel culverts. We glanced over the railing again, just in time to see the strong body of another salmon flash past us, swishing its powerful tail, pushing its way past the opposing current, moving upstream in the ancient pattern. It could do this because it had the means: a stream that flowed and an instinct to swim, a quality closely associated with the west, and the element of water. That was what I saw in the marsh that day: the persistence of instinct. This marsh was heavily engineered and divided critically from itself, and yet the ancient urge to reproduce and die in the traditional way still led the salmon from the ocean to the marsh. We could tell what here, long ago, by what is here, now.

In the living waters of her womb the salmon swam, insistent and instinctive. We watched it move away from us.

Balance can be achieved between two objects of unequal size, my husband once told me. That’s true, I thought. I just witnessed that. The salmon was small compared to the size of the ocean. The creatures in the marsh were in some sort of equilibrium with each other, and in relationship with two enormous hydrological systems, one riverine, the other oceanic.

Nature is plastic: it makes endless adaptations, seeking balance. This capacity can be pushed too far. What would (what will) change if the freshwater flowing down the mountain dries up? What will happen if the rushing bore tide inundates the marsh? Both things are likely to happen, someday. What deal will be struck then?

And what would we be without water? Would we live without instinct, dry-brained, and witless, a wandering species with no home to return to and no way to live? It’s a horrible thought, and yet, it might happen. I’ve seen large swathes of California go up in flames. Communities in West Marin in California have had their wells run dry. And as of this writing, there is no rain in the forecast for California.

Water needs balance, from us, really: balance between the city and the wetland, between real need and mere desire, between what rains (or does not) down on us from the sky and into our homes and bodies.

Balance can be achieved between two objects of unequal size. A raindrop and a human body; different objects, vastly differing in size. What is that relationship? What can, what will, that balance be?

Potter Marsh, looking east

 

– Written on Mabon, 2014 and re-posted on the first day of the new Snow moon, January 21st, 2015

 

Ready to wear: vintage clothing and the ILGWU.

I got an early Yule giftie: a lovely vintage dress, given to me by a friend who got it from a vintage clothing store named Tippecanoe’s, which is now closed. The dress itself is an artifact from the history of unionized labor. It’s likely that a skilled garment worker living and working in New York City put this dress together.

SAM_4015

Tippiecanoe’s was housed in an old beach cottage in Laguna Beach, CA. Three flights of rickety steps took you up to a small room that smelled of cigarette smoke, mildew and old wood. We’d walk on the uneven floor and, turning to our left, walk into an even smaller room which was crowded with clothing. We’d marvel at what we’d find there: ratty furs, suede gloves, boxy silk shantung cocktail dresses, narrow-soled Sabrina heels encrusted with dirty rhinestones. The collector in me wishes I could time travel to buy half of what I saw. There would be women’s suits from the forties, sober and mannish, yet still feminine, with wide lapels and A-line skirts. I’d look at Adrian-inspired dressing gowns made of polyester (and sometimes wool: the moth holes were the tip off) with wide shoulders, billowing sleeves with leg-o-mutton cuffs and tightly fitted armscyes. (Don’t be lazy. Look it up.) And, especially, and most tantalizingly, wasp-waisted “New Look” dresses made from thick satin, or pebbly wool crepe, or lightweight wool, sometimes in pristine condition, mostly moth-eaten with a tattered crinoline dangling below the hem. They were still beautiful and structured expertly, with the tightest and surest seams I’d ever seen. Often the only thing that was still intact were the seams.

I viewed all of this glamour through the eyes of a slightly overweight goth girl who loved fashion illustration, especially Rene Grau’s illustrations for Vogue. I knew what these dresses demanded: an elongate spine, slim hips thrust forward insouciantly, a narrow ribcage, a small waist and a curved neck rising elegantly from between the crest of the clavicle. I couldn’t give the dresses any of this. I was five feet four inches tall, and stout, thanks to my pot habit and the late night fast-food trips my friends and I took through the Naugles drive-through at 3 in the morning. We’d stuff our faces with cheap Mexican food and drink chocolate milkshakes, hungry with the munchies and tired after partying all night. I was feral, yet a part of me felt strongly that these dresses must have something to do with me. We were both allied in our desire to be seen, elegantly poised, out in the world. justbetsyblackdress

I did manage to find some garments that fit me. A near-pristine Jacques Fath petticoat was one. Another was a silk shantung three-piece suit, an Oleg Cassini-knock off. I wore it to work, to parties, anyplace that would have me. I wore dresses and coats that today I’d encase in archival bags, only to be worn at the opera, dresses that probably garbed housewife-socialites in Lido or debutantes in Glendale. I traversed the underground scene wearing these clothes, taking them into social situations they weren’t made for, like the illegal one-night-only dance clubs of Los Angeles and Santa Ana. I still find treasures. Last week, I found a navy-blue jacket, made by Alvin Handmacher, from his “Weathervane” line. Now that I exercise and eat sensibly, I fit most of what I find.

This will be a lengthy aside, but I must ask: Does anyone remember the color “cerise”? Not fuschia, not hot pink, but a soulful pink infused with deep blue. My mother had a gorgeous cotton velvet skirt which I wore during my stint as goth in eighties-era Orange County. I loved how the color set off my dyed blue-black crew cut and pale skin. I called it pink once in front of my mother, and she quickly corrected me. “It’s Cerise,” she said, dragging out the last syllable: Ceer-eeeze. “It means cherry.” It was a very popular shade in the fifties, she told me, and one of her favorite colors because of the way it set off her dramatic coloring achieved without my level of artifice: chestnut brown hair, pale skin and snapping dark eyes.

Back to the dress: it’s made of pin-striped, densely woven cotton and it has an extremely fitted waist. I have an up-and-down relationship with fitted waists. I approve of the design’s dictatorial editing of my torso: the tailored, nipped-in waist organizes the terrain of my stomach and hips into two sharply edited geometrical shapes— an inverted triangle resting atop an upright one. It has ten darts around the waist and two hook and eye closures that ensure that the dress fits snugly. There are some assumptions that drove the design of this dress. One is that the young lady who purchased this dress would willingly wear a girdle and bra that tipped the breasts up and straight forward, allowing the space between the bosom and the hips to emerge. She was assumed to be out and about in the vita activa, public places of work and action located outside the confines of private domesticity. She was probably a mid-level, possibly unionzed worker of some sort (a clerical worker? A teacher?) who needed a well-made, affordable and becoming dress to waltz blithely out into the post-war world. The other of course, is that there would be garment workers who had the skills to handle all that meticulous tailoring. (Try hand-setting a dart, sometime. It isn’t easy.)

There’s a large label in the dress that reads Gigi Young New York. Manufacturing tags, sometimes made from a SAM_4014high-gloss sateen, are usually sewn into the collar of the garment and often have the designer’s name spelled out in a brash script: Lilli Anne from San Francisco. Eleanor Green of California. Irene (I’ve seen this label a few times, and, I think, actually owned a few garments. I had no clue what I had. Ouch.) Alfred Shaheen. A month ago, I found a mint-condition, navy-blue cashmere trench coat. The word “Ransohoffs” tells you everything you need to know about the provenance of the coat: It was obviously manufactured for Ransohoff’s, the extremely glamorous department store made famous by one very uncomfortable scene in the film “Vertigo”. It’s a dream of a coat.

These labels, the imprimatur of industry leaders who made it big in the heady mass-production years following the war, were not the only historic markers sewn into the garment. Often I’d find a small label bearing an unusual insignia sewn into the side seam. The label had a highly abstracted symbol of a needle pulling thread with tiny words arranged in a circular pattern around the letters ILGWU. I know now that this is a label for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the powerful union founded in 1900 to combat dismal working conditions of workers in New York City. This small label was sewn into place by a unionized worker working in New York’s and Los Angeles’s garment districts. They worked an eight-hour day, with a union contract, in (hopefully) safer working conditions than had existed previously, doing the work to mass produce these highly designed pieces.

1348816860_official-seal-of-the-international-ladies-garment-workers-unionRose Pesotta, an anarchist labor organizer, was sent to Los Angeles from New York in 1933 to organize the supposedly un-organizeable Latina workers in Los Angeles. The powerful Associated Apparel Manufacturers of Los Angeles insisted on ignoring the state minimum wage of 16.00 dollars a week and instead preferred to pay their workers a wage that was sometimes as low as .50 cents a week. Rose PesottaPesotta wrote a book about her experiences organizing labor on both coasts.

In the second chapter of California Here We Come! she described the crazily inefficient manner in which dresses were manufactured in “open” (non-union) factories: women were given the “freedom of the building” which meant they were forced to wander around the multilevel factories looking for work. “Doors leading to staircases were left unlocked, so that they could take the elevator to the top floor, ask at each shop if there was work, walk down to the next floor, and repeat the performance until, if lucky, they found a few days’ employment for the price offered.” The idea that the women were unable to stand up and fight back was proven false: Local 96 of the ILGWU was given official union recognition in September, and went on strike a month later, in the famous 1933 strike, shutting down the garment industry for 26 days. They won the concessions they’d sought from the employers. By 1950, which is about when my Gigi Young dress was made, most garment workers in New York and Los Angeles were unionized. They sat at their machines, attaching the swank labels of their employers as well as their own ILGWU bug to dress after dress. The label is a another assumption embedded into these dresses: that there would be a union, and no more horrible deaths by fire or industrial accidents. And no more unpaid labor.

It’s hard to tell, without access to the ILGWU archive, which garment manufacturers cooperated with the ILGWU. My Gigi Young dress, which probably cost about ten dollars (maybe less) has no union bug in it. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t union made. In fact, as I write this, there are dresses for sale from online vintage retailers that list Suzy Perette (the parent company to Gigi Young) dresses as having the union bug sewn inside. I think it’s probable that my dress was made in a union shop—it’s clearly a design from the early to mid-fifties, which in when the garment industry was mostly unionized in New York. The availability of other union-made dresses from this time on second-hand vintage clothing sites is enough to reassure me on that point. But without research at the archive, it isn’t possible know this with certainty.

But. If the gorgeous Gigi Young dress is union-made, it exposes the untruth in the idea that in order to purchase a gigiyoung beautiful, affordable, well-made garment, some worker somewhere has to suffer. My dress, along with every other piece of vintage clothing I own that has a union bug sewn into it, puts paid to that awful lie. Every dress, every coat is better made with higher quality fabrics through the skill of fairly paid workers who had recourse to collective decision making. The dress could have retailed from between from 6.00 to 10.00. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a 60.00 to 80.00 dress, which is comparable to today’s prices. I’d certainly never find anything like it for sale in today’s department stores produced by a worker who had union representation, a contract and a decent paycheck.

The impoverished vision that only hires the most desperate worker in the most unregulated environment turns out, with depressing precision, crappy and hastily produced clothing, dispirited in design and construction. The fabric is horrendous, too: it’s adulterated with Lycra (blech) to provide stretch. This innovation, which serves to soothe women’s fears of being the “wrong” size, also usurps the skill of the (missing) unionized garment worker who could actually tailor clothing (ah, for the days of precision darting!). The crappiness of the clothing is matched by the shoddiness of the illusion, promoted by manufacturers like INC, or Guess! that because we can afford the clothes they sell, we are somehow well-garbed and living in an age of unheralded luxury. We are not. My beloved grandmother, petite, blonde and reflexively anti-union, sailed in and out of Bullocks Wilshire, when she could, purchasing dresses that were union made and which suited her trim figure. Today she’d be confronted with slip shod dresses with the barest trace of design. The union bug has disappeared and the clothing it has left behind has nothing to recommend it.

The aftermath of the 2012 Tazreen Fashions factory fire. Photo by Andrew Biraj/Reuters

Let me pause to wipe the beads of sweat from my brow (the above peroration has been brewing for some time). If you want the precision of a waist seam that defines your waist to perfection with twelve darts- six in front, and six in back-surrounding it- you must pay for it. And maybe this is what people should do. Find out how much it costs, truly costs, to make a beautiful garment under decent working conditions. Shop vintage if and when you can. Consider bespoke clothing whenever you can, especially for clothing you know you’ll wear for years. Or learn to sew. (The above mentioned anti-union, beloved grandmother was a dab hand with a needle, and made many of her own dresses, probably as many as she purchased.) Find out what it costs in terms of time and labor to make this princess-seamed dress, a classic design from the fifties. Or, for those of you who prefer to stay in the present moment, perhaps this un-constructed Lynn Mizono pull-over dress is more your style.

Take any pattern you want to a skilled garment worker and find out much it costs to be well-dressed. And then pay for it.

******

I wrote this whole thing, and then found this excellent article written by Elizabeth L. Cline in 2011 that really breaks it down, to wit: “In 1930, the average American woman owned an average of nine outfits. Today, we each buy more than 60 pieces of new clothing on average per year. “ Fabulous. And here’s her book. I’ll be purchasing this, but NOT from Amazon. Special order it from your local bookstore. They’re still out there.

-written in San Francisco, CA, on the night of the Wolf Moon.

Crisis at the laundromat

A Clean Slate

It’s Monday, December 15th, and it rained hard all morning. The clouds cleared at about two. I went to the laundromat to wash my clothes, walked in, and saw a crowd of people standing in the smallish space. My heart sank. Nobody loves a crowded laundromat, especially not when you have a week’s worth of washing to do. A man sat slumped on the metal folding table. Earlier, he’d walked past me on 22nd Street and greeted me with a low hello. Now he was munching a bag of Fritos and watching man pile clothes into a large front-loading washing machine.

I eyed the top-loading machines, the one I like to use because you get a 30-minute wash. The man who was piling his clothes into the washing machine stopped me. I don’t know if you want to use those, he told me, because the display wasn’t on. I think it’ll eat your quarters. This is how you know who your neighbors really are, as opposed to those taking up space in the neighborhood: do they care about your quarters?

Thanks, I replied. Shit. The Frito-eating man said, You could use those other machines, indicating the row of top-loading machines against the northwest wall. But I don’t like them. They’re 3 bucks a wash and you only get fifteen minutes of a half-hearted swishing. I have sensitive skin. I need all the soap to be washed away. Eh, I said. Those machines are sketchy.

Another woman walked in with a bag of clothes on her back, looking determined.

The clothes washing guy said to me don’t try to use the soap dispensing machine either. It’s broken. I had detergent, so it didn’t matter. But this laundromat, which always has something wrong with it, suddenly seemed unusable. Three washing machines down. A broken soap dispensing machine. An older man, wearing a beret at a rakish angle turned around and said the dispensing machine is broken ? in tones of dismay and disbelief.

I have to leave, I thought. There are too many people in here, and too many mechanical failures to accommodate us all. Before last week, I might have staggered with my heavy laundry load to 23rd and Bryant street to the spacious Super Lavar laundromat. But it was gone. A new restaurant was opening in what is now an empty space under construction. The commons are shrinking, I thought, with a surge of irritation. The enclosures are being built.

SAM_3800I saw the new red awning while walking down Bryant Street with my husband a week before. We stopped and scoffed at the name of the restaurant: “Buttermilk Southern Kitchen”. We stood there for awhile, feeling dismayed that the laundromat had closed. We use A Clean Slate, the overcrowded, mechanically challenged laundromat at 22nd and Alabama, because it’s close to our house, but in a pinch we knew we had the option of walking two blocks to do our laundry. Not any more, said my husband grimly, as we stood on the corner. Now there’s just another expensive restaurant.

Laundromats are basically external domestic spaces for urban dwellers. I grew up in suburbia, and had to adjust to them. Even after 23 years of living in San Francisco, laundromats still seem like a major pain in the ass, and indeed, A Clean Slate is a major pain in the ass. I have had to call the number tacked up next to the change machine several times. Your dryer has eaten my money! I’ve barked. Your washing machine just stopped in the middle of the cycle! I want my money back, I’ve said curtly, acting the part of the entitled consumer whose panic over losing four quarters belies that facade.

Laundromats always meant to me that I had a place to live but with some contingencies: in my case, no washer and no dryer and a weekly walk down the street to the closest laundromat. What is the closest laundromat isn’t down the street? What if the closest laundromat is several blocks away?

And what is the meaning of Buttermilk Southern Kitchen, a restaurant whose owner has described it as not expensive? (Most dishes will average 15 dollars, which is, in my opinion, fucking expensive, especially when you’re talking about a cuisine heavily dependent on green leafy vegetables, legumes and corn. Do you know how much cornbread is per serving? About four cents. Hopping John? Two bucks.) This: the domestic spaces of the Mission are changing to accommodate a work force which is highly paid and rarely at home. The restaurant is perhaps, the most relevant external domestic space right now. Whipping up a meal of oven-roasted sweet potatoes finished in sage-garlic butter and walnuts and served with farfalle is, I guess, out of the question. This is what I’m cooking now, as I write this. The traditional coming-home time of 6 or 7 doesn’t exist any longer, so instead of making a dish like this, most people are trooping off to the nearest restaurant, and paying 18 staggering dollars for it. The contingency of not having access to a kitchen with which to cook because of insane work hours seems far worse to me than the contingency of an apartment with no washer and dryer. But not having a laundromat would really suck.

Anyway. I just went back to A Clean Slate and started my laundry. The man who was eating the Fritos was asleep on the floor, his face soft and childlike in repose. When I went back to throw my stuff in the dryer, I brought him some of my farfalle/sweet potato/sage-in-brown-butter sauce with a sausage added to it.

He thanked me and said yeah, I saw you leave earlier.
I was annoyed, I told him. There was too much going on!

Laundromats are a pain in the ass, but they have this going for them: the comfort of domestic labor, and evidence of family relationships, hearth and home. I see children’s clothing being washed by adults and watch as mothers chase their scrambling, squirmy children around, barking at them to watch their sister— ver su hermana! Get down off the washing machine! Everyone is working together, however unknowingly, as we bend to the demands of the material world and the traces it leaves on our clothing, food, shit, baby puke and stubborn ink stains. There is nothing seamless, nothing not real, as we wash together, dry together, fold together, moving in the unconscious rhythm of the body at work in an atmosphere rich in the polyglot language of Mission laundromats.

Once, the gentleman who ran Super Lavar gave me a small scented candle at Christmastime. Para ti, he said. Gracias, I said. Yep. I don’t think I’d get anything for free at Buttermilk Southern Kitchen.

Super Lavar, by Sarah Newton http://www.sarahmnewton.com/

Super Lavar, by Sarah Newton. Go to  http://www.sarahmnewton.com to see more of her work.

This is a good recipe for a squash/pasta/sage dish. Make it some night. Feed yourself.

Never leave

waveNever leave.

Ah, the beach dream, the oldest and most frequently recurring dream I have. I had it last night after a long week of disorienting sadness. The dream involves a tossing grey ocean, and a steep, sandy bank.

Am I in the ocean? Sometimes.
Am I trying to get away from/out of the ocean?  Yes. That’s where the steep sandy bank comes in.

What’s interesting about this dream is that it’s based in reality. The south-facing beaches of the city of Newport Beach are built up; highly engineered. Back in the day, by which I mean anywhere from 10 BCE on, the ancestor of the Santa Ana River ran all over the Tustin Plain, in that wavery way water has, but with force because of the tremendous amount of water in its riverine column. By and by, it incised its bank so deeply that it couldn’t wander the way it used to. The river built its own prison, in a manner of speaking and, until it was disturbed again by men from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and entombed in a box culvert, stuck, more or less, to one route. After a flood in 1825, the river carved a water gap through the chalky, wave-cut bluffs of what would become Newport Beach, and began work on its last creation: an estuary, and a peninsular structure. The former was later called the Newport Harbor, after the estuary was dredged and turned into a commercial, deep-water harbor. The latter structure became the Balboa Peninsula. The water shouldered its way through the estuary, took a right-ish turn under a rock formation, now called Pirate Cove, and flowed out to sea.

I mention all this geological history because forceful nature, and later civil engineering, made my dream vocabulary. The meandering river, shaped by its own forces and later by the busy hands of men, gave me a symbol, a picture with which to express to myself the very image of anticipation, fascination, immersion and abject fear. When I dream about the tossing grey sea and the steep bank, they are so perfectly posed next to each other that I see them in my waking hours almost as a woodcut image of curvilinear shapes and a straight lines. I could, perhaps, make a pictograph of this and hang it on my wall to remind me of what I always seem to do in that dream (and probably in my waking life): confronting a force which is much bigger and more powerful than I.

Newport storm eroison

Photo Courtesy of Newport Mesa

 

The peninsula was later augmented and built up by the dredged mud and sand of the estuary which was dumped on the sand-spit beaches, making them wider and longer. Buttressed by a jetty at the harbor mouth and a few fishing piers, the beaches held onto their allotment of sand, and, with a few exceptions, did not erode. But the engineers of the beach left their signature: a steeply graded, littoral zone. The grade of the beaches is wholly artificial and the ocean has never reconciled itself to this new arrangement. How steep these zones are depends on how roughly the sea is thrashing. Closer to the Newport Pier, the approach is moderate. But in front of Newport Elementary, the step you take from the dry sand onto the wet shore, can be 2 to 3 feet down.

The waves on these south-facing beaches are typically 3 to 5 feet. The waves form in deep water and then break against that engineered shore line, cutting and slapping away the sand. This makes for a shore-break that is tough to contend with. The waves smack you down when you enter the water, as if in outrage at your trespass. When you leave the water, the grasping suck of the undertow grabs you by the waist. With the full weight of the ocean pulling on you, you walk out of the water only to encounter a wall of sand. The ground underfoot is treacherous and shifts. You sink, ever so slightly, into the sand.

All sorts of dreams combine in this charged moment: the dream of the ocean that the river followed, as it murmured and sank ever deeper into its banks and the dreams of the 20th century’s big-minded civil engineers who tunneled under mountains and built cities on sand-spits. Standing in the grey water of the dream-ocean, the greedy water pleads with you to never leave. Never Leave.

This is the dream.

wave

If you inquire into the nature of a thing, your consciousness will change.

In the Mendocino Woodlands lived a spider: this is how a children’s version of my story might start. She was big and black, it would continue, and she had many children.

Here is the adult version: In the Mendocino Woodlands lived a big black insect. It was huge and scary. It did not like the sun, and so clung to walls and other dark places in the woods. The shift in pronoun— from unidentified object to beloved subject— is the fulcrum, the hinge, upon which this story turns. From it to She: this is the start of a query into the nature of the spider, her doings and her fate. The pronoun is the consciousness.

It’s hard to have to insert another pronoun at this point (the maddeningly self-centered “I”) but I have to. I was at the Mendocino Woodlands for a ritual retreat. It was my muddied consciousness and gaze that entered the woodland, beheld the spider as an “insect” and mis-saw things.

This is very un-witchlike, in my opinion. Witches should have gazes that are soft and wide, and sharp and discerning. The gaze is all. The molecular frenzy of all objects, the clash and collision of the smallest material particles of making can been sensed, if not with seen, by the eyes. Even my impoverished gaze cannot avoid seeing the systemic failure of rotting fruit, the overly fermented & rapidly liquefying cells collapsing into mold minute by minute, hour by hour.

I first sensed the presence of the spider as an elongated extension of the dark gloom inside the canvass walls of the tent I and my tent-mates slept in. And then the darkness moved, gingerly, in that precise, angular way that insects move. My consciousness leapt forth to meet it. But unwillingly. I didn’t want to greet the angular shadow, didn’t want to see the finicky, practiced movement of one of its (many) legs. I put my glasses on.

She was big and black, with eight elegant legs, and a powerful ovipositor.

It was impossible to miss seeing the largest insect I’d ever seen. Its thin black legs were thrice-jointed and impossibly long. The “body” was enormous and deeply black, so black that it was hard to tell where the shadow ended and the body began. My head reared up; a general feeling of revulsion coursed through my body. Dear reader, does this sound like the start of a bad H.P. Lovecraft parody? No surprise there- the thoughts and feelings I experienced at that dismayed moment were parodic, a cognitive gesture towards knowing without knowing.

“Oh my god, you guys, there is the biggest fucking insect EVER,” I announced, like a callow Valley Girl, to my tent-mates, who promptly shrieked.

I did not know what I was seeing.

Pimoa cthulhu

She was the oldest creature in the woodland, and the most powerful. Her power went beyond the length of her body: she had power because she knew things. It was said by beaver, salmon, and even raven that she knew everything there was to know about the woodlands. She had crawled inside the deepest holes. She had lived in every branch of every tree. Every leaf was a well-known room. And She was understood to mean not just one spider, but all spiders of her kind that had come before and would come after: the countless generations of spiders; too many to count, all with the same knowledge, the same wisdom that floated above them like a cloud. They shared it and passed it between themselves and anyone who cared to listen. Where She had not gone, her children had and would go. When it was time for a woodmoot, to discuss the woods and what happened there, they would end the long meetings by asking her for stories. She would speak at length and they would listen, far into the dark night.

Later, there were two of the insect-beasts splayed out on the frame of the cabin tent; seeing them, I’d instantly thought of slim San Francisco women, dressed in their best black Lulamon schmatta, striking yoga poses. No urban yogini I’d ever seen could have achieved this insect version of downward dog, so perfectly balanced on the long legs, so sinister in its perfect articulation. My tent mates and I decided to displace the insects (I really didn’t know what it was. The legs suggested a spider, but it was so big that my mind reeled at the thought.) I went looking for George, the camp organizer, a patient man with brown eyes, who was known to be helpful.

“George,” I said tentatively “There’s an enormous insect in our tent and it’s making us nervous.” George looked at me warily. He knew what I wanted.

“Remember that scene from Annie Hall?” he replied. “The one where Woody Allen is trying to kill a spider? That’s me.”

“Yes, I remember that scene, but…” I felt bad asking him. He works hard on behalf of the Reclaiming community. I also felt bad because the ethics of displacing a woodland creature were (even in my deeply phobic state) clear to me. This is wrong, my consciousness whispered. You’re being an asshole. I ignored it.

“Please?” I pleaded. This insect was as big as a Buick. I just couldn’t go near it. I didn’t know what it was. Later, at dinner, I asked him how the insect displacement had gone.

“It jumped around a lot,” he said.

Oh, Christ, I thought. It hadn’t been a neutral experience for the insect-thing-monster, not a clean, surgical operation. It obviously didn’t want to leave the tent.

Pimoa cthulhu

The woods were big and there were many animals, but there were humans too, and the humans came into the wood. They walked carelessly, picking things up and taking them away; rocks, branches, sometimes even animals. Sometimes they took the trees away, by cutting them apart with long sticks and sharp shiny heads. Later, the men came back with things that roared and belched through the cool woods. It seemed that the whole wood would be taken. The insects, birds and spiders lost the dark holes, or warm nests they’d built, sometimes with their eggs still laying soft and warm in the small private places of the great dark wood. Of these events, the spider sang in her shivering voice.

 “Moth’s wings and thistledown.
Twigs and rocks and stones.
Beetles shells and river rocks,
These places are our homes

 And when the branch is broken
Or when the stone is turned
When the water runs no longer
Or when the woods are burned

 Then we will build our homes again
I spin my web from beginning to end
From the end to the beginning, I go back again.
From start to finish. There is no end.

“You must return to the place you were, even if it is no longer there,” She told the animals. “There will always be Somewhere.”

I returned to my tent that night and saw that the insect was gone. But a shadow along the board suggested a poised black body which was … still there. A small vibration seemed to shiver from the precise spot the insect had been; a finger of black shadow stretched along the length of the wooden beam, marking the spot where the spider had been resting. Why did you turn me out? The utter silence of the evening was absolute. But the question, a quivery whisper, echoed in my head.

 Why did you turn me out?

I felt many eyes on the back of my head as I turned over and down into sleep.

Pimoa cthulhu

The next morning, Nature flexed her muscles and showed me the strength of her persistence. I discovered a spider, a different species from the creature I banished, hanging in a crack above my head. This spider was immediately recognizable as such:  it had the classic arachnid profile of a stout-ish round body, again with those wicked, wicked legs ranged round it and the aura of quiet, menacing complacency that spiders at rest so often have. A black widow? I wondered and then rounded on myself sharply: what the fuck, Elizabeth? Why are you acting like this? Knock it off! Where was this fearful antagonism coming from? Was it real? Why did I feel compelled to act against beings that were no threat?

They weren’t a threat. I knew that: had the Buick-sized monster in my tent been a threat, the tent wouldn’t be there, or I wouldn’t, or the insect wouldn’t. The state of California likely would have posted signage, or the non-profit that ran the Mendocino Woodlands would have. Anyone who’s hiked or camped on California’s coast or in the mountains or along the foothills has seen all the warning signs: mountain lions here. Bears here. Guard your trash! Watch out for Scorpions. For rattlesnakes. (For toxic waste). Watch out for all the animals that creepeth and crawleth on this earth. (are we are all so tragically unreconciled to each other?) Ye shall know the animal by its picture on the warning sign. Anything that might harm us in California’s formalized recreational/rural/natural spaces tends to be acknowledged.

That’s the issue with healthy ecological spaces. They are inherently equal. We’re all in the same place at the same time with any numbers of different beings and any number of different outcomes. Usually, of course, it’s the animals that pay the price.

***

At lunch, I saw a man wearing a broad-brimmed ranger’s hat and uniform. He’ll know, I thought. He’ll tell me what that thing is. Curiosity had been working on me all morning; curiosity over what the insect was and curiosity over my own passive aggressive reaction. I made bold to walk over to the man.

“Excuse me,” I said. “There’s a large, leggy insect in my tent.” I sketched out the dimensions with my hands. “It’s freaking me out. It’s got a large structure on its abdomen. What is it?”

The man looked at me. “Oh, ya got one in your tent? That’s a spider. It’s an arachnid. We call ‘em cave spiders. They’re all over. She won’t hurt you,” he said and grinned. It was a female, he told me, and the large structure was an ovipositor. “The females carry their eggs with that, and drop ‘em down to hatch. It’s funny,” he said, warming to his story (he could see he had my full attention), “I’ve seen cave spiders hold onto their eggs longer than most. Usually spiders just drop their eggs, but the cave spider, I’ve seen her hold onto her egg, like she didn’t want to let go,” he said. “When they’re threatened, they lay a gazillion eggs- they just push ‘em out, even if they’re dying.”

Like she doesn’t want to let go, I heard the man say. She doesn’t, I thought. She has something to guard, to care for. She’s a Mother, the Great She, flushed out of her tent by fear.

***

It was no longer a question of what I had been thinking. I hadn’t been. I was just phobic, a pitiable state which feeds on a lack of knowledge. My champion, Curiosity, came charging to my rescue and, putting paid to feeble fear, directed me to right action: asking a simple question. What is it? And its equally simple answer (it is a female spider ) changed the world inside me. I changed my consciousness. This is what is meant by the saying. I had changed from fear to compassion because of a quick conversation that recast the unknown as something more known. And it changed me. This is how it works.

The best moment of near-instantaneous comprehension is the gape of one’s wide-open astonished mind and spirit (and sometimes, mouth). O, the simplicity of enlightenment, I thought. I am so happy to move from ignorance to comprehension. It really is a sublime feeling.

“Glad you asked,” said the man, wrapping up the conversation. “A lot of people don’t.”

Pimoa cthulhu

Later that evening, we walked into the woods for the first part of the last ritual of the retreat. The second part was to take place around the campfire. This part had been called A Wild Requiem, which, I thought, could mean so many things. Mournful chanting? Frenzied debauchery? Were we to act as crazed maenads, ripping meat apart with our teeth and hands? Was there a vegan option? Would we scream out animal sounds to the wild gods? (You see here how easy it is to summon the spirit of Lovecraft.)

Someone had been dispatched to build the fire; it was leaping by the time we got there and the heat was intense after the cool dampness of the woods. We were handed small instruments, rattles, maracas, drums. The drumming started. People began to sway back and forth, summoning their energy, wakening their bodies

Ah, shit. The wild requiem is a dance, I thought. They want me to dance. Why does it always have to be a dance? I hate dancing. The people moved hesitantly at first, pushing out from the shoals of self-consciousness, of weariness, pushing away the routinized movements of daily routines, long immiserating commutes, the dulling stupidity of the workday world. The flames gained strength. Slowly, slowly, the swaying people became dancers.

I sat wrapped in my energy which had become still, quiescent after the ritual. I liked it that way. The prospect of change (Again? my outraged consciousness yelled) seemed onerous; hard work for an uncertain outcome. Why change? I thought. I’m fine the way I am. Why do these people always want me to be ecstatic? All around me the dancers shook their instruments, leapt and yelped. The orange column of flame shot up into the night sky. I sat feeling mulish.

A Kentish man named Gwion, one of the dancers, came swooping past those of us who still sat stolid in our chairs, frozen at the prospect of change. He sailed swiftly over to me. With one fluid motion, he pulled me to my feet.

I saw the fire leap behind him and thought of something a teacher told me once: Elizabeth. Sometimes ya gotta dance with what brung ya.

And that was the last conscious thought I had for awhile.

***

Much later, I returned to my cabin. I shone my headlamp on the wooden beam. Two cave spiders, both female, were at rest. I took off my clothes and turned down and into sleep.

We were all very quiet that night.

Pimoa cthulhu

I spin my web from the beginning to end,
From the end to the beginning, I go back again.

This is the song the spider sings, I am convinced of it. There are likely more stanzas and many more stories, but I cannot recite all of them here. One thing, though, that I think She’d tell me, were I in the woodmoot, is this: If you inquire into the nature of a thing, your consciousness will change.

The spider is likely a species named Pimoa Cthulhu. I have tentatively identified it as such; its known habitat is restricted to the woodlands of Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

A note on the Spider’s song: The theology of Nature’s persistence and the possibility of eternal return does not work out so neatly in real life. If there is no water, a North American beaver (Castor Canadensis) cannot build a dam. That’s just reality. Other animals may come in its place and slowly, given the time, space and active support (meaning non-interference and respect) from homo sapiens, may build an entirely new ecology in which many animals, vertebrates and invertebrates relate to each other mutually, amensally or parasitically. Harm, help, or total neutrality: all of these are possible outcomes. But there are limits.

Finally: in the matter of the Great Cave Spider, I believe my consciousness had what it needed to shift because (of all things) a Star Trek episode entitled “Devil in the Dark”, which was written by the wonderful Gene L. Coon. In this episode, Spock telepathically communicates with a fearsome creature, the Horta, only to find out that it is a female— a mother— trying to protect her remaining clutch of eggs/children from the predations of miners who. Agonized at the loss of her brood, and a phaser wound, she cries out her anguish and anger into Spock’s porous and receptive mind. “PAIN. PAIN!” says Spock. It is a wonderful episode and should be required viewing for would-be ecologists.

(And I don’t hate dancing. I was just having a fit.)

 

San Francisco, November 20th, 2014

Dedicated to Flame, a Great She indeed, who tells most wonderful stories

The moon and I: dispatches from 22nd street

A dispatch from the 22nd street crossroads on the morning after the night of the full moon, October 8th, 2014

I awoke at 3:00 a.m. to hear sounds of distress coming from the sidewalk. At this point, I can tell you exactly where the drunk/hurt/incapacitated person is likely to be (under the stop sign or on my stoop or in the street or slouched against the corner of the building, back slumped, head low.) This time, the young woman, 20 or 23 or 25 years old, was stretched flat on her belly, lying across the sidewalk, her feet hanging over the curb, her toes in the gutter. The sounds she made were soft and frantic. The softness of the sound seemed to match the burnished glow of the moon: everything outside gleamed mildly, even her hair, which covered her face. I couldn’t tell if her eyes were open.

I was irritated. I’m having trouble sleeping these days. Between menopause, the security lights on the marquee across the street (I think the owner believes it makes his “bottle-shop” look as though Edward Hopper painted it) and the blare of the neighbor’s late-night television, I had a hard time dropping into sleep. But I was asleep when the girl fell in a heap under the stop sign. And I woke up when she started talking to whatever it was that was telling her things. What things, I don’t know. Self-recrimination for drinking too much? A fight she’d had that night, a contest of wills, desire that wasn’t met by someone she was, even then, still pleading with to listen… listen…listen…. escuchame, she said. Escuchame.

Honey, I said, sweetie? (terms of endearment come easily to me when I’m dealing with someone unconscious.) Can you hear me? I smelled the sour smell of alcohol. Her cheeks were round and shiny. She’d been crying. Her legs kicked up and down, slow at first, and then faster, faster, the tips of her trainers drumming into the gutter, the head shaking, not no, I can’t hear you, but the body telling me I am abandoned.

Her eye opened and rolled up, unfocused. The white flashed at me, then elsewhere, roving, searching. You see her eyes are open? Aye, but their sense is shut. That sort of thing. Her physical agitation was proof that under some circumstances, motor function is pure pretense. ‘Seizing’ is what happens when we are hit too hard on the head, or when we drink too much or when we do too many drugs. Our bodies move uncontrollably. Her head shook and chattered slightly on the cement. I called 911.

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How old is she, asked the 911 operator. Is she breathing. And, Ma’am, the operator said, will you ask her if she’s pregnant?

Are you pregnant? I asked, and the girl’s toes drummed in the gutter smoothly without missing a beat.

Stay with her, advised the operator.

Should I touch her? Move her head? I asked.

Don’t touch her. Poor girl, said the operator, a woman with the soft drawl of the south in her voice.

She woke me up, I said. The Mission, I said, is not allowing me to sleep.

Honey, I know, replied the operator. The Mission! we exclaimed in unison.

moon

A taxi driving east on 22nd street saw our little tableau spot-lit by the street light and stopped. I’m on the phone with 911, I said, the ambulance is on the way. He nodded and flashed me a thumbs up. Jay came out, my lovely husband with the glowing silver hair. He is always so calm, so warm. He stood on the stoop, holding one of our bath towels.

Should we move her? Cover her?

The operator told me not to. But she isn’t banging her head, I told him. The girl sobbed and pleaded softly with herself.

I called the police, said the operator. Since you found her like that. I looked up the street and saw the police car coming nearer, with a spotlight sweeping the sidewalks. I got into the middle of 22nd street and danced around in my husband’s ratty green bathrobe, waving my arm. Thank you, they’re here, thank you thank you.

Oh, honey, thank you, she said.

moon

The police car drew to the side of the street in a flourish. Two young men, tall with militant buzz-cut hair, got out. They knelt. Ma’am? Ma’am? Can you hear me? They called to her. They peered into her eyes. Their voices were down-pitched; gentle. One cop cradled her head; the other darted to the car and ran back with a blanket in his hands. Together, they folded it and made a cushion for her head.

I would have done that but the operator told me not to, I said, foolishly. Jay watched, saying nothing.

They knelt beside her in their blue uniforms and stiff belts, holding her head like it was a newborn baby, and muttering quickly into their radios. Did you find her like this, asked the cop and I said yes, I’d come outside and there she was. The ambulance came. Bro, said the paramedic to the cop. What’s up? More hasty consultations, a clipping of a device to her finger, a mask fitted over her face. She was shaking harder. They rolled her over. More muttering into radios, more quick technical talk amongst themselves. She’s seizing, said the paramedic briefly. I can’t get the…and the rest was lost when the girl cried out. The paramedic cut away her blouse; the globes of her breasts, beautiful in a violet demi-cup bra, shone out at once. He put his head down and listened. General, he said curtly, and got a gurney out. There were six of them, police and paramedic alike clustered around the girl, the yellow street light and the silver moon illuminating them all. The girl’s strong young belly rose and fell.

One of the cops fished around in her purse. Nicole, he said. Her name is Nicole.

moon

The paramedics loaded her onto the gurney- one, two, three!– and loaded it into the ambulance. It left the way it came, silently, no siren blaring. The police slowly picked up the scattered wrappings of the emergency medical equipment. They left. I went inside and crawled into bed, next to Jay. Elizabeth’s on the case, he said sleepily. Maybe it’s good you’re not sleeping well.

Earlier that evening, we’d argued about my irregular sleeping habits. You need to go to sleep at 11. You’re getting up too late, he’d said.

I can’t help it, I’d replied. Menopause causes insomnia. I’m trying, I said. I’m doing everything I can. You want me to use Ambien? ’Cause that’s what all my friends do. You get me sleepless or you get me medicated. That’s the deal.

He’d scoffed, hearing me say that. Now, mollified by sleep, he stroked my leg. Did you hear her, he asked. How did you know?

Yes. I heard her. I’d heard everything that night, the whoosh of the cars, the far-off shrieking laughter of late-night techies, and a faint whirr in the distance that was probably the hospital generators, but was maybe, possibly, the sound of the moon itself, the heavenly sphere, twisting and turning in the night.

 

Dedicated with love and affection to Ray Bradbury, the autumn writer; the lovely moon-man.

-San Francisco, Oct. 9, 2014

 

moon

 

Lightning girl

SAM_3123

This is the picture of a fool. Call me Loddfafnir, an epithet for an unwise human. Seven minutes after I snapped this selfie, a thunderstorm broke with a bolt of lightning directly over my head.

Here are some words of advice from Odin to Loddfafnir in the Eddic poem Havamal: On mountain or fjord, should you happen to be traveling, make sure you are well fed. So far, so good: I had more food than I needed for a four-day camping trip with my friend, an experienced backpacker. We were exploring the mid-section of the Sierra. The night before we left, I went through the usual round of preparation; tightening this strap, tucking that flap. I considered taking one non-essential item, a pendant which is a replica of Mjölnir, Thor’s hammer, hanging from a brass chain. I might lose it if I take it with me, I thought. Besides, I don’t want to wear metal. It’s a target for lightning. I left it behind.

My friend and I arrived at Grover Hot Springs State Park mid-afternoon. The sky had been clear up Highway 88, but had darkened while we unpacked. The barometric pressure dropped and rain started spitting from the clouds. Before long, we were fighting our tents which were trying to take flight because of the wind that was whipping through the campsite. We worked hastily to lash down the flapping rainflys. Ever since we’d arrived I’d been hearing mutters and rumbles, and wondered what it was: it had the monotonous sound of routine. Was it a convoy of trucks? I asked my friend what I was hearing. She looked at me, startled. “That’s thunder,” she replied.

Later, tired, we made our way to the hot pool. It was closed indefinitely. We asked why. “The lightning strikes,” said Tara, the gap-toothed lifeguard. “We’ve been watching them all afternoon.”

In my life as a coastal Californian, lightning has always been a special-occasion element. On my 18th birthday, which fell then as it does now, in mid-August, an electrical storm appeared far out in the Pacific ocean. At 2 am, I sat on the cliff above Little Corona, smoked a cigarette and watched the blue forks of lightening illuminate the sky. This is a special birthday, I told myself. The lightning proves it. Why else would lightening appear if not to announce the advent of my future, writ large over the ocean horizon in bolts of pure flame?

1024px-Lightning_strike_jan_2007

Grover Hot Springs was crowded with families which meant that the adolescents shrieking and running throughout the campsite in the early evening were corralled by their parents into their tents by 9 pm  and urged into sleep. The thermal pool was lovely, big and solidly built and wonderful to sit in especially after our first hike: we ascended 1,300 feet in about a mile. Tara, the cheerful lifeguard recommended a trail to us on our second day. “It has a lake, and it’s amaaaazing, “ she said. Her eyes fluttered rapturously. We drove to the trail head the next morning and waited an hour for a thunderstorm to pass.

On the trail, we saw a granite slab, rough-hewn, and oddly symmetrical, an obvious stage to step on, and perform ritual on the roofless rock. (Were we to be driven out of our minds and dwell in the mountains forever?) The lake was indeed very beautiful with blue water and a deep stillness in the dead center that spoke of depth. I cast a quick circle to the four elements and jumped in. We were deeply contented, even though it rained. The wildflowers were lush and the lake was rewarding. We’ve both hiked and backpacked long enough to know that Nature can sprout fangs. But we were reading the signs correctly and there had been no trouble.

But there was always a storm. During those three days, the slate-grey clouds coiled in the northern section of the sky, grumbling, and tetchy. Sometimes I looked at the mass directly, marveling at the intensity of the clouds, and noting the way the high green of the meadow was set off to perfection by a color which seemed indescribable. I became accustomed to it: the storm in the corner of my eye.

1024px-Lightning_strike_jan_2007

On the last day, we broke camp, ate breakfast in Markleeville, and drove on Highway Four to the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, so-called because of the large iceberg-shaped peak located in its western reach. There’s a meadow I want you to see, my friend said the day before, with a large flat stone that has grinding holes, made by native Washoe women thousands of years ago. It’s beautiful. Let’s look. Before we entered the trail head, we waited for a group of men to enter first; one of them had taken off his shirt and was twerking enthusiastically. I pulled out my compass and checked our position. Emily had given it to me at a family Thanksgiving two years before. I treated it like a magic toy: something I used without much comprehension. But I knew to hold it flat, and wait as the red needle swung around, wobbled and resolved itself. We entered the Lower Gardner meadow (elevation: 8,640) around 11:30, walking almost exactly north-east. The west was at our back.

Of course the first meadow was beautiful. What else would it be? I began to discern the pattern of the trail: a long stretch of the grassy, flowery field connected by tree-covered knolls. The trail was fine-grained and narrow and crossed at several points by water, which was falling, though not heavily, down the sides of the basalt peaks. Here and there were cow-patties, big plops of shit. ( Most meadows in the Sierra are in recovery from cattle grazing.) It was the classic Sierran subalpine meadow: wet patches in low-lying areas, creeks running diagonally over the trail. In fact, the trail and the creek seemed to be interchangeable. Tall bunches of Corn Lilies were scattered throughout the meadow. Flowers. Birds.

The birds: they were tiny and nervous and on constant alert, flitting and flying and sounding alarms. My friend and I listened as a pair of Clark’s nutcrackers positioned themselves in two trees opposite each other, throwing their songs back and forth over our heads. The trees stood at the entrance of the last meadow we’d enter- the one that had the fabled grinding rock. We entered the last meadow.

SAM_3120

It stretched out before us, beautiful, yes. Was it also monotonous? Doesn’t beauty need balance to keep it from becoming too much of a good thing, I wondered, something so easily digestible it loses distinction? There was nothing ugly in sight. Grass, corn lilies, flowers: everything, every detail, was ruthlessly be-dazzling. There was nothing to mar the verdant loveliness, not even mosquitoes. Was this because of the wind that was kicking up from the west? I wondered. I stopped and took a selfie.

The light was changing. I took another picture. The sky was in a state of becoming. I’m wrong about the monotony, I decided. Look up. There’s lots of contrast there. The clouds, the light, the sky: these nouns denote different objects; but under the influence of wonder (which is based, in part, on ignorance), their differences become insignificant, and they merge into one thing. I saw without perceiving.

I took another picture of the clouds, which were now bigger than ever, majestic, full-bellied and swarming directly towards me. The thunder muttered.

My friend stopped. “We’re almost at the end of the meadow,” she said. “ The  grinding stone rock is over there.” I could see a rock jutting into the field a half a mile away.

“We can have lunch there,” she said. The wind ruffled her hair. Overhead, the clouds shuddered and ground their way west.

I don’t remember what we said next.

Did we agree that the weather seemed to be changing; getting worse? Did we acknowledge the inevitability of the storm? Was it even slightly raining at this point? I had a song playing in my head at the time- it’s part of the trance-like state that descends upon me as I walk- and it was playing the same passage over and over again. I told it to shut up as my friend said something about lightning. Had I seen any, she asked? No, I answered. I had not.

sky

“I haven’t seen any lightning either,” she said, just as a bolt of lightning, bright beyond belief almost un-seeable exploded in the air above our heads illuminating the valley with a bright, white light. A clap of thunder sounded simultaneously; the crack was so loud that it seemed to strike my bones with tectonic resonance. The heated air that was forced apart by the lightning roared. I smelled a bright, high scent. I gasped; covered my face. Mine eyes were dazzled. She died young, I thought and then turned and ran after my friend.

My friend had shown me a few days before what the lightning position was a deep crouch with only the soles of your feet touching the earth, or, if you can pull it off, the balls of your feet. The position tries to limit your contact to the ground to the bare minimum. Levitating would be even better. (I haven’t mastered that yet.) The pose is submissive, which suited the occasion and my state of utter panic. Fear  galloped into my body, unchecked and wild.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s “Lightening Risk Management” booklet, only 3% of all lightning fatalities are caused by a direct lightening strike. Most people are injured or killed because of the ground current: the voltage that travels from the bolt through the earth and up into the human body. Or the fatality happens because of a side flash. The lighting jumps sideways from whatever tall object it hit first to anything else that happens to be around, like a human body. “Lightening Risk Management” makes it clear there’s actually very little “management” one can do. “No place outdoors is safe from lightening,” say the booklet’s authors. “Lightning Risk Management”, perhaps one of the most pessimistic safety manuals I’ve ever read, could be summarized this way: if you’re outside in a lightning strike, well… good luck with that, champ. You might be fucked.

I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take this advice… You should never look upwards in battle. The sons of men become panicked. So do the daughters. I crouched under a small pine tree, snuffling back tears, with my eyes shut. I didn’t want to see anything: the idea of witnessing the lightning had become unbelievably frightening. So, when the hail came, I heard it rattling down rather than saw it. We were soon soaked with melted hail and then with rain. The air temperature dropped noticeably. My body shook. The lightning flashed and the thunder boomed. About four miles away a strike or “downward leader” touched the earth. My friend drew a sharp breath. “Oh. I didn’t want to see that,” she said.

1024px-Lightning_strike_jan_2007

There are no atheists in foxholes. It turns out there are no atheist witches in lightning storms, either. Maybe I shouldn’t have left my Mjölnir behind, I thought. I’d loved Thor since I was a child. I’ve posted my favorite childhood picture of him on my Facebook wall many times: the image of him from the D’AulairesBook of Norse Myths, the book I’d had as a child and still owned. He’s sitting in his cart, drawn by his two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr who are snorting and snarling. Thor is barrel-chested with bristling hair and a bright countenance, and has his fist upraised with Mjölnir held firmly in his gloved hand. I had just written a feature interview with Maria Kvilhaug, a Norwegian folklorist and novelist who studies the ritual structures in the Poetic and Prose Eddas and old Norse poetry. “Today, I’m going to talk about Thor, the thunder god, the great he-man of the old Norse pantheon,” says Maria in her “Lore of Thor” YouTube lecture. “What is all this masculinity about? It is all about protection.”

That’s right. Thor, sometimes called Thor Fjorgynsson (son of Earth), throws his hammer because he loves us. He battles giants in the mountains on behalf of humanity. “Great would be the giant race if they all lived, mankind would be as nothing on the earth,” he tells Odin angrily. He’s a good guy. He’s on our side, hammer and all.

This love of humanity costs him respect from the other Aesir. In the poem Harbard’s Song, Odin laughs at Thor’s humble garb and jeeringly tells him his followers are “serfs”. I might be a serf, but at least I’m Thor’s serf. My childish adoration of the irate, barrel-chested, red-haired god, plus hours spent listening to Maria’s YouTube lectures had led me to this singular moment in the stormy meadow: was it time to take our relationship public?

He was certainly relating to us. Perhaps we’d blundered, uninvited, into his dwelling place, Thrudvangr, the field of power, where Thor resides in his hall, Bilskirnir. (This means “lightning crack and it has 540 rooms. Nordic poetry is notable for its willingness to name and number everything.) After each explosion of pure white light, the air produced sonic booms that tangibly shook the atmosphere. It crossed my mind that there are no stories of human beings who accidentally wander around inside Asgard. Let me out. Thor Fjorgynsson, give us safe passage. Your daughter wants to walk across the meadow in safety, I said silently. Another lightning flash, another shuddering boom-crack.

1024px-Lightning_strike_jan_2007

My hands and legs were numb. I was soaked to the bone and my body was shaking so much it looked like I was convulsing. “Usually these are 20-minute storms. Unless they’re 12-hour ones,” my friend said wryly. She looked at me. “We’re getting out, Elizabeth. Don’t worry.” The muscles of my head tightened, pulling my wet hair up off my neck. I wasn’t sure if this was hypothermia or the charge in the air. Thor Fjorgynsson, open your doors and let me out of your hall, I said silently.

Like uninvited guests, we started trying to leave without attracting attention. We decided to run-walk from knoll to knoll to stay under the smallest trees. We were good at doing this, so good, in fact, that we lost the trail, a fact that went undiscovered for at least twenty minutes. An old cattle crossing alerted me. “I don’t remember seeing this!” I said. My friend looked around at the scenery in the next knot of trees. “We’re going the wrong way,” she said. Her face was set. “Let’s eat. We need to fuel up.” My hands were shaking as I pulled out a nut bar-I advise you Loddfafnir, to take this advice. Make sure you are well fed! – and ate it. My friend bent her head over her iPhone which, miracle of miracles, was functioning. She had downloaded the map of the trail onto her iPhone and I had compassed the direction of the car before we left; working together with old and new technology, we made our way back to the trail, which was doing double duty as a creek.

On the way, there was a another flash of light in the distance. I experienced a spasm of pure irritation. Enough! I thought. I turned my face skywards. “Thor, your daughter seeks safe passage. Will you let us walk in safety?” It was less of a question, and more of a demand: a petulant daughter yelling at an annoying parent. (Dad! Stop bothering me!) My voice sounded strained. The storm unhurriedly made its way south-west as we walked the last twenty minutes back to the car.

In the car, my friend and I looked at each other, shivering and amazed that we were finally sitting down, safely, in a car (cars are safe places in lightning storm, by the way. The lightning hits the roof, and flows down the sides of the car.) It was a sort of Thelma and Louise moment: pure elation mixed with a sense of retrospective dread. What had we done? We started the post-hike debrief as she drove, very slowly, up the now-treacherously muddy and water-soaked road.

My friend expounded on the difference between information and knowledge. “All those people who are the experts…how do you think they got that way? It wasn’t from reading a book! This is what happens. This is how you learn.” She also informed me that I was probably in the early stages of hypothermia because I’d said something to her which made no sense. “There was no content,” she said. “It was like you were in a dream.” Maybe I had been in a dream, I thought. It wasn’t unheard of for people to have dreams that allowed them walk between the worlds. A dream would perhaps allow me to walk unknowingly into the hall of a excitable god.

But this fanciful explanation, while satisfyingly mystical to that non-secular part of myself is also a cop out. (At home, under my roof, it’s easier being an atheist.) What matters more is that blind ignorance (mine) met a weather front. I was wholly ignorant about what a lightning storm is and how they work. I now understand lightning; it’s a discharge of static electricity that tries to resolve the differences in discharged voltage between two objects by moving through a “ground”: whether that’s the earth, a tree or your body is up to you. Theological interpretations have a place and a great deal of meaning from the safety of your own home, or within a ritual. But the more sobering truth is that I was an unwitting participant in a meteorological event because I failed to read the signs. Or didn’t care to. I’m still working that out.

I advise you Loddfafnir, to take this advice. It will be useful if you learn it, do you good, if you have it: I tell you to be cautious, but not over-cautious. Take my advice, Odin says to Loddfafnir. Be pragmatic. And know what you’re doing.

That’s good advice. Yes. I’ll listen.

*********

(Hail Thor!)

thor

San Francisco, CA

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