Sturdy in her mud-caked boots,
her white hair – a dandelion mane,
she walks, alive with the riotous laughter
of water running over stones,
among the wisest of the
willows that grow along
the banks of Redwood Creek.
Oh! Patron Saint of nettles
and Dharma transmissions,
champion of the lowly springtail,
keeper of the soil’s dark secrets,
we beg her – do not leave us to a world
of watery tomatoes!
Instead, across an abyss of
time and hard memories,
she calls the Seneca Nation –
guardians of the Western Door.
Though wary of our West Coast ways,
they teach us the wisdom
of the three sisters:
we learn that to save the bear bean
the squash and gourds,
the Iroquois corn,
is to save ourselves.
As we stare at each other
in the dappled plains of understory
we are invited to dance
beneath the coast live oak
with the Hamadryads,
losing ourselves in the absurdity
of old limbs and stiff backs,
rolling our ankles on acorns.
In the borrowed words of Alan Chadwick
Wendy tells us, her unruly students – The garden makes the gardener;
the farm makes the farmer.
And we whisper back – And so patience and noble heart make the teacher.
After passing more gas giants
than he’d like to remember,
after stalling for days
at a failed brown dwarf,
a small, fastidious archeologist
from the exoplanet Tau Boötis Ab
landed on a smaller, bluer planet
that had been emitting faint
on its journey around
a tired star.
Curatorial by nature,
he searched for relics:
a jaw bone
temples buried by the sands of time or
broken by vines and lichens
a dormant seed –
anything from the
of past digs.
What he found at the bottom
of a barren plain was a small
sticky label, stuck to a piece
of the hide of something,
mostly made of carbon,
black and mummified and
possibly preserved by
adhesives from a tiny tag
bearing the faded glyphs
He found no other biologics anywhere.
His life-form detecting scanner
was suspiciously silent on the subject.
He checked his map
then scratched the little
silica strands on his bulbous
translucent skull where his dual
brains rose and sank
like blobs in a lava lamp.
fastidious and thorough,
cursed with tedious longevity,
spent the best light years
of his life searching impact craters
volcanic vents, suspect alluvium,
vast seabeds, long since evaporated
by a cataclysm the great makers
of the mystical sticky dot
didn’t see coming.
He analyzed every molecule
in the cylindrical sections
taken by the advanced
core drills of his tiny probe
until at last he packed up his tools,
slept the fifty-one light years
it took to return home empty-handed,
his reputation in ruins,
to his native Tau Boötis Ab
with nothing but a
hard luck story.
To the naive observer
she is an old fisherwoman, perhaps,
or a hovel dwelling hag.
Her coarse skirts hitched
above her sagging knees,
she wades alone at night
in the warm shallows
of the tropics under the blinking
bygone brilliance of a billion stars.
She might say to you,
stirring her witch’s brew
staring up at the Eternity machine,
that we have all been alive together, here
at this Fat Chance crossroads of space
in our drip-droplet of Time
a blip from bang to wheeze
in which all histories become one
in Gravity’s dying breath.
Upon the Dog Star
she may make a last wish:
to stand at the water’s edge;
to hold, once more, the warm hand
of her only son snugly in her own;
to catch the scent of coconut
and Castile soap
in the tangled copper curls
of her island cherub.
Never did there live
such a man
She dodges poles of far away trees
felled in distant storms
arriving on the tide
with a thousand green bottles
cork bobbing in the whitewash
bearing such desperate messages
from such lonely places.
She steps over the stinking mounds of
starfish, spent by some plague
of the waves sent by Proteus.
She makes no guesses as to when
the primary dreamer
of this world will awaken from
her prolonged paralysis, asleep
in the sealed up chambers
of those sublime organelles –
the mind palace of progress:
buildings with no windows,
schools with no yards,
dams with no rivers,
prairies shrinking below the
asphalt wonders of the world,
ports and stations.
She may wish, as the hour draws near,
to know our Time for what it is:
the story we tell ourselves
to lighten the leaden grief
wrought in the final moments
when our atoms abandon us
but mourn us nonetheless.
When her eyes at last fail,
she begins to see the patterns
in all things above and below –
from the tiniest roots
to the frailest twigs
bud-dreaming of bees
and the sweet perfume of her garden
where the Ilex Oak grows –
anchored in the bedrock of the
ancient rivalries between
space and solidness –
into and out of which
all spirits may pass freely.
In this solemn moment
wherein she witnesses the
blazing bauble of the sun extinguish
in the darkening sea – a sea
rocked and angered by the
hostility of storms and hurricanes
soothed by the lapping tide–
a free child of low birth
scavenges bobbing fruit
in the tepid waters
of an amniotic sea
chasing gulls down the wide beach
of driftwood and kelp
watching the wading shorebirds
make the first marks of writing
in the mirrored sands
as they did then
and do now.
Our Sycorax is one of the liquid –
a creature of neither house
nor mountain but a great energy
of the valleys and great basins
the sinks of the oceans
calderas and gypsum caves
of storm clouds racing across the sea.
She gives little thought to scribes
at the moment she joins with
swimming in the deep
waiting to be reborn.
In ancient China some believed that
behind all mirrors other worlds existed
inhabited by strange fauna
each unique to its proper mirror
all unknown and strange to even
those men and women
who once knew the ways of
the Pig-footed bandicoots
the Honshū wolves
the Dusky Seaside sparrows
the Golden Toads, or
the rhinoceroses –
the Blacks of the West and Whites of the North.
Perhaps owing to industry
or perhaps a lack of imagination
the worlds behind the mirrors were shut
to us and our distrust of mirrors grew
as did the blinding glare
of their reflections.
In the many thousands of years
since the worlds were shut
we have forgotten to look
into these ancient mirrors –
those that shine in the end of an icicle
a quiet alpine lake
a polished hubcap or a cup of coffee
the eye of a black snake
or a desert mirage.
We turned our attention instead
to those mirrors that spoke to us
and believed we saw ourselves
Yet beyond the quicksilvered surface
of all mirrors, infinite in number,
the Fauna lives in the myrtle forests
sips nectar from the yellow asphodel
and grazes in fields of cry pansy.
They hunted and slept
called and mated
were born and died
drank from coldwater brooks
burrowed, nested, and flapped
a million iridescent wings in the stirring breeze.
They waded in the sheeting water
of a tide receding across the sugar fine sands
alight with the fireball orange
of the evening sky.
Borges took inventory of this fantastic menagerie.
For all we know, may be among them now.
Only few mirrors are left
through which we may
one day glimpse the
swaying of root-spine palms
or reach the canopy of Rhea’s kapok tree
where the Lamed Wufniks
mourn their last sunrise as men.
All hope is not lost.
And what of the cracked mirrors?
Somewhere on Earth, at midnight
a plastic hand mirror, perhaps
dropped in the morning rush
harbors the last of the illusive black Ping Feng –
a pig with a head and another
where a tail should be.
Behind the persisting oil slick
gelatinous, clinging to the marsh grass
the slithering Hua Fish resides
foretelling of drought
to nobody listening.
In a coal black puddle
at the bottom of a mineshaft
the shy Quilin – famed unicorn of China –
moves silently amidst the Wuda tree ferns
which once grew taller than an oak.
All hope is not lost.
Quilin, protector of men
from the one-headed dog with two bodies
known as T’ao T’ieh the Ravenous,
longs to walk the overgrown roads
the buckling tarmacs
and falling bridges
of our ancient cities.
One who might dare to look
into the poisoned slurry of
the once might San Joaquin
now dying slowly of thirst –
one who might push aside the floating leaves
to scoop away bad residues
may chance to glimpse the rare
rain bird – Shang Yang.
Shang Yang, by carrying river water
in its beak, creates rain
and could be of great comfort to us now.
All hope is not lost.
Yet the Fauna of Mirrors
being of animal mind
has no memory of this place
and does not remember well-traveled paths
between their worlds and ours.
It is said that the last time
anything bothered to come back
was to deliver us one of our own
– the Devourer of the Dead.
Tripping on the torn hem of an apron
the neighbor, Patron Saint of Scrub Jays,
scatters handfuls of unshelled peanuts
on the dry ground.
It is mid-December, and yet
the rains have not come;
she and the birds are taking austerity
measures, planning for deserts.
She sets her clock to ‘bird time’
as she once said that a lifetime of unwinding
ticking clocks is required to know
just one of these inquisitive creatures –
‘They are the guardians of dry Western lowlands,
spies of pinyon pine-juniper forests,
the watchers of denatured empty lots
overrun with mustard and milk thistle’ –
Flying Thieves, she calls them.
Betrayed by the years,
the burrowing lines on her face,
the milkiness of her eyes, her tremors,
have forced a hermit’s life upon her.
She works at home alone,
processing claims in the kitchen –
the place of her extradition,
the shadowy country of old age;
her friends too are taking measures,
saving copper pennies.
On sunny days the scrub jay
steals peanuts from the
the brim of her old straw hat;
she has learned
its many vocalizations –
The cat is in the field!
The bird bath is refilled!
The crows are on the light post
plotting raids on the blackbirds’ eggs!
The old lady is in the backyard!
In the amber light of her years
the rivers run thin and
salmonless through dark
tunnels in the great concrete dams –
The Damnation of the West:
sublime organelles of industry,
post-human tombs of free running water.
What plagues incubate in the depths
of the mirrors on the deserts?
A few free rivers ran when
she was a child, running wild
with her friends – free rivers
and fewer fences.
* * *
It is Christmas again and yet no rain has fallen
this year on the wings of the jay or the silk moth.
Yet, here, in bird time, not a day has passed
since the last storm brought floods
and mosses were draped around
the laurels’ slender necks
like emerald-sequined boas.
Under the afternoon shadow of a valley oak,
picking dry burrs from her wool socks,
the old woman dreams of summer’s return–
of the fence lizards basking
upon the pile of rocks placed at the trunk
by an ancient farmer
in the emptied field.
She will pass the year’s end
chatting with the chatterboxes
about the weather
the mast years
the gray squirrel (their shared enemy)
while the machines of the suburbs
unwrapped in the morning’s frenzy
defile the precious silence.
She waits for the black night sky
to close its sparking cape
over the paling remains
of a blue, tearless heaven;
she remembers for both bird and woman
the croaking of chorus frogs in the culverts,
the soft pattering of rain, its gentle music
lost to the anxious drone of
of so many blue sky days.
From the misty heather moorland
Down the green, moss-matted stair
Walks the girl in heathen rags
With purple bluebells in her hair –
In her hand, the deadly nightshade
Blossoms from the glade;
She’s come by way of Doxey Pond
By the bulrush, reed and frond
Where moths and blow wives flutter
O’er blooms of witch’s butter,
Before the night pulls tight its shutters
At the coming of the dawn.
She sings trill and la and tralla-dee!
Under the shadows of the batches;
By stunted oak and withered beech
On wind-wild nights she watches
For the nightjar in the trees
To sing his somber melodies;
She’s come by way of Doxey Pond
By the bulrush, reed and frond
Where milk-white moonbeams shatter
On the black and silent water
As the night pulls tight its shutters
Before the coming of the dawn.
In the peat-dark waters whisper
The phantoms of the deeps
Of an age-old coppiced wood
Where the ancient Mere Witch sleeps
Her ancient sleep;
Still the peat-dark waters seep
Below the crumbling cottage walls
Draped with pennywort and fern;
In the East a darkness falls
Where the elfin bonfires burn.
By the Erl King’s ancient throne;
Made of silversand and stone
They dance beneath the starless skies
They cry: “Awake, Old Jenny Greenteeth
From your deep and troubled sleep!”
Then away, away! The Mere Witch flies!
The girl in heathen rags
With purple blue-bells in her hair
Climbs the green moss-matted stair;
She goes her way by Doxey Pond
By the bulrush, reed and frond;
When the flames are all but gone,
No moths and blow wives flutter
For the night’s locked tight its shutters
To stop the coming of the dawn.
(a poem inspired by Christopher Somerville’s wonderful book Britain and Ireland’s Best Wild Places)
Last week we were in Maui for spring vacation. To get off the busy Hana Highway, I went for a walk up Holomua Road – a beautiful tree lined road that runs through the sugar cane fields and eventually connects back to Baldwin Road after the pavement gives way to a rugged, potholed stretch of red dirt.
I had been for walks on Holomua years ago but never made it as far as the Old Maui High School. It always amazes me that the modern builders of public schools fail to consider the impact profound and despairing UGLINESS might have upon attending students. I have a deep fear of ugly, multi-roomed buildings. The ruins of the Old Maui School – designed by Hawaiian architect Charles W. Dickey, now home to birds and ghosts – stand out in stark contrast to the portable buildings, the acres of concrete, and the overall prison-like facades of many of the schools built during the last few decades in California.
Apparently, many of the former students of the beautiful Old Maui High School felt that what remained of the school, closed in 1973, was worth saving. Read more here.
I’m not convinced money is the only problem for California’s impoverished public schools; trying to get any new idea past most school administrations requires a Herculean effort or, more likely, a full blown revolution. Personally, I’d rather go to class in a ruin than a portable but I teach in the woods anyway. (It seems only fitting that the Old Maui High School is now home to an environmental education center.) But maybe that’s the point – treat students like prisoners by surrounding them with stark, inert walls, feeding them chemical laden, packaged non-food so that the school districts can skim the profits, squeeze every last drop of critical and creative thinking out of the curriculum, remove outdoor education programs from K-8, and prisoners are what they will grow up to be. Prisons are, after all, one of the largest industries in the state.
In his wonderful book The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton writes: “Bad architecture is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design. It is an example expressed through materials of the same tendencies which in other domains will lead us to marry the wrong people, choose inappropriate jobs and book unsuccessful holidays: the tendency not to understand who we are and what will satisfy us.”