Last week when I wrote about transformation, I think I forgot to point out that Salmon themselves are great Transformers. As their life circles around, they start as eggs which become freshwater fish in rivers, then transform themselves into travelers journeying downriver to the vast ocean, and next into adult saltwater fish. These are not trivial changes. And when the time comes, they change again as they journey back upriver to the place of their birth, where they breed and lay their eggs. There they die and begin their transformation in many different forms — human, bear, eagle, young plants, the Forest that protects their river. In their journeying, salmon carry bountiful gifts in their bodies. They bring themselves as food for the ocean’s web of life and then, in their return, food for life on land. And to the land it is not only the obvious gift of their own flesh that they bring, but also the ocean’s gifts of missing salts and minerals needed to sustain the living forest community. The salmon’s many changes are special glistening threads woven in & out through the warp of Earth’s community, helping connect and thus create the boundless tapestry of life.
No wonder Salmon are celebrated in myth & story wherever they are found — beloved & admired not only for their beauty, their strength & their generosity, but for so much more. The ancient Celts, for example, told of the salmon who dwelt in the Well of Wisdom and acquired all knowledge of the worlds when he ate nine hazelnuts that fell from the surrounding hazel trees. Whoever should eat the first taste of the Salmon of Knowledge would receive that knowledge and wisdom……..which, of course, led on to more wonderful, expansive myths and tales of adventure and change.
I was so happy, this week, to come across a salmon tale still being formed in our present time, written down by Marc Dadigan .
The first paragraph begins “Thousands of relatives of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe arrived at the McCloud River floating inside a little orange cooler earlier this week.” And those relatives were the “20,000 fertilized endangered winter-run Chinook salmon eggs which were about to return to an old home on the McCloud River, the Tribe’s ancestral watershed.” The preceding chapter of this story, leading up to the salmon’s return, includes both years & years of difficult negotiations and the steadfast spirit of the Winnemem Wintu people. “According to the Tribe’s genesis story, salmon gave its voice so human could speak and in return Winnemem Wintu people promised to always speak for them.” As the Tribe’s song captain Helene Sisk, “We’re always going to stand up for salmon, because they stood up for us.”
Salmon lives, unable to find appropriate breeding grounds below the dam that cut short their journey 80 years ago are returning to the upper river that had been barren and lonely for too long. The salmon were greeted & celebrated by strong ceremony, just as it should be. “We’re praying,” the people said, “that they remember these waters.”
The people native to this place refused to let the building of the dam be the end of the salmon’s story. The event described in the article is just the beginning of a new story with much more to unfold as the Winnenmem Wintu people continue to speak out for their relatives, the salmon.
I’ve been spending time — full of learning & not without frustration — trying to discern a context for The Keeper of Rivers. Just in the contemplation of colors & forms, I have deepened my empathy for rivers and for the many ways of their being & the many different spirits they gather.
Thinking of rivers reminded me of the message that came from the Hopi people after 9/11/2001. It uses the River as it speaks about the flow of changes we are all experiencing:
“You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour. Now you must go back and tell the people that this is The Hour.
And there are things to be considered...
Where are you living? What are you doing?
What are your relationships? Are you in right relation?
Where is your water? Know your garden.
It is time for you to speak your Truth.
Create your community.
Be good to each other.”
Then he clasped his hands together, smiled, and said,
“This could be a good time!
There is a river flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.
They will try to hold onto the shore.
They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly.
Know that the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore,
push off into the middle of the river,
keep our eyes open, and our heads above water.
And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate!
At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally.
Least of all ourselves.
For the moment that we do,
our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.
The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!
Banish the word “struggle” from your attitude and your vocabulary.
All that we do now must be done
in a sacred manner and in celebration.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!’”
I finally felted this this piece yesterday & found (as I always do) that the wools & silks have been transformed by the process. A few surprises….
This still doesn’t feel finished, so I haven’t sewn on the mask yet. There may — or may not — still be some flowing and changing needed. I’ll pause and listen to the rivers’ songs.
P.S. Since I was late posting this blog — running slowly & wobbly this past week — I shared this beautiful & wise poem at the regular 5 a.m. time for any first-day readers. I include it here so you all can enjoy it.
The Way It Is by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer
"Over and over we break
open, we break and
we break and we open.
For a while, we try to fix
the vessel--as if
to be broken is bad.
As if with glue and tape
and a steady hand we
might bring things to perfect
again. As if they were ever
perfect. As if to be broken is not
also perfect. As if to be open
is not the path toward joy.
The vase that's been shattered
and cracked will never
hold water. Eventually
it will leak. And at some
point, perhaps, we decide
that we're done with picking
our flowers anyway, and no
longer need a place to contain them.
We watch them grow just
as wildflowers do--unfenced,
unmanaged, blossoming only
when they're ready-- and mygod,
how beautiful they are amidst
the mounting pile of shards."
Sending you all love as we float or swim in the rivers of change —-
"We must assume
our existence as broadly as
we in any way can;
even the unheard-of,
must be possible in it.
That is at bottom the only courage
that is demanded of us:
to have courage for
the most strange,
the most singular,
and the most inexplicable
that we may encounter."
--- Rainier Maria Rilke,Letters to a Young Poet
Dear ones, I am writing to you on Wednesday rather than my usual Thursday evening scramble before the Friday morning post. This has been, for me, a week about change.
I’d expected to have The Keeper of Rivers completed to share with you, but the design keeps changing, flowing away in many different directions — unlike anything I might have imagined when I began the felt piece. I’m stepping away for awhile to let the waters settle and to wait for clarity.
Change has been the theme of the rest of life too. The on-going heatwaves, fires, floods & wars and the all the political & cultural crises around the world…. And, for me, there’s the personal turmoil of trying to get ready for a move that will change our lives in significant ways. Last Saturday, my body decided to join the dominant chorus of change, my heart shifting rapidly back & forth between a more-or-less steady beat and A-fib (which doctors have described as the heart just lying there quivering.) I’m scheduled for a couple of rather invasive cardiac tests tomorrow morning to get more information for a possible surgery. I do plan to watch the Jan. 6 Committee’s hearing in the eveining, with its information about big changes –past, present, future. And so life goes along….
As they say, Change is the one constant in life. I was delighted to come across Rilke’s inspiring encouragement (above) as I sorted through papers yesterday!
All this has led to larger thoughts about Change & Transformation, including the intrinsic role these play in mythologies from all over the world.
Tricksters, of course, are the ultimate transformers, changing both themselves & the world as they go along their way. Certainly this transforming is one of the things that drew me to Trickster. But myths & tales of transformation are by no means limited to tricksters. They are, rather, an intrinsic theme of many old myths, legends, and tales. I love the ancient stories of Selkies & of Swan Maidens (see post on 1/21/22) & other such tales that blur the line between human and other-than-human lives. I believe these stories tell deep truths. I’ll think about this some more.
Last week I included a striking example of a Salmon Transformation Mask. I love how these masks seem to show one individual being, but then open wide to show that the One is truly Many and the Many are One — humans, plants, animals & spirits woven into an inextricable web of connections.
This week I want to share the images of a Sun Transformation Mask from the Nuxalk people. This magnificent creation was “collected” ca. 1865 and now languishes — undanced — in a European museum. Still, it is filled with a power that I can feel, even if only through its image on a page.
I do not know how the Nuxalk people read this image. The closed mask makes me think of Raven with his prominent curved beak. The open mask is typical of Sun images throughout the northern Pacific coast of North America. And at least this speculation fits with one of the Nuxalk creation stories.
Way back in my 2nd post of Sharing Trickster’s Hoard (3/19/21), I told you the Haida story of how Raven brought the Light. The story that follows here is the Nuxalk verision of the myth depicting Raven as Light-bringer. It is quoted from the website of the Nuxalk Nation: http://www.nuxalk.net/html/four_carpenters.html :
“Nuxalkmc Elders tell us that in the beginning of time, when the world was covered in darkness, the very dim light was the colour of copper. The people were in constant sadness and prayed to the Creator, Alhkw’ntam, to give them light. Alhkw’ntam held the sun in a box in his long-house in the land above, Nusmata, and let no one see the light.
The Four Carpenters who made the world were sitting around a fire in Nusmata, when the eldest, Yulm, grabbed a piece of charcoal out of the fire and shook it in his hands. When he opened his hands it was a bird. The second Carpenter then made the wings. The third one made its eyes. The youngest one gave it life. The Carpenters asked the bird to say his name and the bird flew into the sky and cried out, “qwaxw, qwaxw, qwaxw!” The Carpenters gave the bird the name, Qwaxw, Raven. The people begged Raven to get the light for them.
He flew to Nusmata and observed Alhkw’ntam’s granddaughter, Skimina. He thought of a way to get the globe of light from her grandfather. Raven transformed into eagle down first and lay on the water where she drank every morning; but, she blew him away. Then he became a hemlock needle; but, she blew him away. Finally, when he muddied the water, she drank and he was taken in. She became pregnant and Raven was born to her very fast.
Raven grew up very fast and Alhkw’ntam loved him. When Raven cried for the box holding the globe, his grandfather refused to give it, until he could no longer bear the cries. Raven rolled the globe of light back and forth and finally, broke it against the wall of the longhouse. The light leaked out into the world through the smoke vent and became the sun, stars and moon. The people were no longer sad, because the darkness was gone.”
Today, who & where are theTricksters who bring not darkness but Light?
In his extraordinary book Being Salmon, Being Human: Encountering the Wild in Us and Us in the Wild, Martin Lee Mueller asks:
“How can we begin to think (as well as intuit, feel, and sense) salmon not as discreet ontological units, but as radically relational creatures: intelligent beings who engage creatively, cunningly, and fluidly in the metamorphic depth of the real? How can we alert our awareness more capably to an embodied sentience so unlike our own, one attuned to the Earth’s magnetic fields, to the oceans’ somatic soundworld, to the vaulted movements of celestial bodies, to drifting weightlessly in their waterworld as if gravity did not exist?”
Here, as a philosopher, Mueller seems to emphasize “thinking.” I believe — and I believe he does too — that even “scientific thinking” is intertwined with and nourished by intuition, feelings, and senses. So, when I hear these questions, I say that Art & Story are good places to start. These are the ways that humans have connected with the larger-than-human world since our earliest beginnings.
The beautiful wooden mask shown above is a good example. Among the indigenous peoples on the northwest coast of Turtle Island/ North America, these masks are not mere decorations or disguises. The masks are sacred objects imbued with active spirit and deep meaning, treated with reverence at all times. When a mask is danced, the Spirit of the mask is present and active.
In the words of Kwakwaka‘wakw Chief, writer, & curator Robert Joseph (Down from the Shimmering Sky):
“The masks of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast are powerful objects that assist us in defining our place in the cosmos. In a world of endless change and complexity, masks offer a continuum for Native people to acknowledge our connection with the universe. …. Masks have an important and significant place in our evolution. Every mask is quintessential to our desire to embrace wholeness, balance and harmony. In a simple and fundamental act of faith we acknowledge and reaffirm our union through song and dance, ceremony and ritual.”
Chief Robert Joseph began dancing the masks as a boy. He speaks of moment the mask is donned:
“It is a moment when all the world is somewhere else. I am totally and completely alone. My universe is the mold of the mask over my face. I am the mask. I am the bird. I am the animal. I am the fish. I am the spirit. I visualize my dance. I ponder every move. I transcend into the being of the mask.”
Most of the masks are carved from one piece of cedar (or, occasionally, maple). The transformation masks like the one above are different, are hinged. Closed they show one being (here a salmon). But when the dancer opens the mask, another being is revealed — a beautiful assertion of the Oneness of all Being….
I do not know the precise meaning to the powerful mask in this photo, but it reminds me of a story that is told — in many variations — by many of the peoples of the NW coast. I have heard and read quite a few different tellings. This is my telling for this moment, offered with humble gratitude to the Old Ones whose wisdom drew this story from their land & its beings, and to all the generations of storytellers who opened their hearts to this story & offered their voices to keep it alive. I don’t know if this exactly how it happened, but I know that it is true.
There was a boy who was loved by his parents. They gave him the best place to sleep by the fire & a precious copper collar to adorn his neck. When it was time to eat, they always gave him the biggest piece of meat.
Now there came a time of the year when the stores of dried salmon were almost gone. “I am hungry,” the boy cried. “I am hungry!” His mother gave him a small piece of the remaining salmon. He stamped his foot. “No!” he said angrily. “No! It is not enough!” And he threw the piece of salmon into the bushes & stomped down to the river to play.
That boy didn’t think about what he had done, but the Salmon People knew and they were angry.
The boy threw sticks into the river & watched them float swiftly away, One stick did not float. He stepped right up to the edge of the riverbank and looked down to see if he could find his stick in the deep water. Something was there. Something was moving. He saw a silver gleam. He leaned further and further forward. That boy fell into the water and went down, down, down.
At first, he was afraid. But after awhile it seems as if he were in a canoe being carried into the depths of the water. When the canoe stopped, the boy stepped out and looked around. He was in a village not unlike his own — with small lodges & the Great Longhouse with its totem pole and carefully carved doors. And the village was filled with people.
These were the Salmon People. They took the boy in and fed him. They were kind to him and taught him their ways. After a time had passed, the Salmon Chief called all the village into the Great Longhouse. There as drumming and sacred dancing, and as the boy watched his eyes grew round. Then the Council of Elders said, “We are all ready for the journey. Now is the time.”
That boy felt how round his eyes were. He felt himself begin to change. His body glistened with silvery scales and his tail was strong. He was flying through the water with his friends, heading downstream.
And then the water, too, changed. It was salty, it was wide, it pulled at his body in ways different from the river. That boy slapped his tail and leapt high. He was filled with life!
Years passed. That boy journeyed far. Sometimes his friends were close and sometimes he was alone. That boy ate and ate. He become a young man. He grew and grew, fat and strong, until one day he felt himself turning towards home. Something was calling the Salmon People & they swam and swam until they reached their river. Upstream they swam, even when the current tried to push them back to the sea. Up they swam, leaping over rocks & rapids. Oh, they were fearless, fierce, and strong!
At last that boy found himself in the river beside his parents’ village. One evening he began to leap out of the water. He leapt high, and higher still. And his mother saw him and called her husband to see the great fish.
And his father speared him.
Quickly his mother brought out her knife to cut the fish open. But suddenly she stopped. She saw the copper collar around his neck. “This is our son!” she cried. “This is our son!”
They carried the fish to their lodge and wrapped him in a blanket. With great love, they laid him on the best furs to rest. During the night he felt himself changing. In the morning, when he arose, he stepped out of his fish-skin.
His mother heard something and turned from her cooking. With a great cry, she ran to him and hugged him to her heart. And he put his arms around his mother and knew he was home.
All the village gathered to hear his tales of the Salmon People and their village. He told of his adventures in the great salt water with its plentiful food & plentiful dangers. He told of their fearless journey back up the river. He taught his people the ways of the salmon and how they must welcome the salmon’s return each year with drums & prayer & ceremony. He taught them that the salmon give themselves as gifts to his people. He taught that they must use every part of the salmon they can and they must place the bones & the leavings back in the river with great reverence. In this way the salmon may be reborn & come again.
And the people named him Salmon Boy.
Oh, as the years passed, Salmon Boy became a great teacher and shaman and healer…. And so he is remembered to this day. And so Salmon Boy is reborn through the telling of his story, that he might teach us what we need to learn.
I’ll leave you with Martin Lee Muellers’ beautiful & insightful “scientific” description or definition of Salmon (Being Salmon, Being Human:
“A salmon is a sensing, sensitive being making conscious choices inside a sensuous aquatic world she coinhabits with other sentient beings. She is also the unique smell of that one estuary, that place where she once passed from her freshwater youth into saltwater adulthood. She is the magnetic field that spans from pole to pole and sends waves of recognition through her sensing body on the long journey back home. She is the anticipation of riverside humans who hungrily await her return from the ocean. She is the pace at which riverside Sitka spruce metabolizes icy skin into wooden bark, and the way in which grizzly bear metabolizes her into hair and fat that will sustain grizzly through another cold season. She is the river’s topography, its resistance, its moods. She is all that.
To define the creature away from her web of relations, and the web of relations away from the creature, is to open the way to exploiting this creature, to diminishing her, violating her, abusing her, denying her. We are who we are in relation to others. Salmon are who they are in relation to tress, rocks, ravens, rivers.”
We have heard the stories of how trickster Raven stole Light from Old Man Undersea [3/19/2021] and stole Fresh Water from the Beaver People [10/15/2021]. Greedy Raven was planning to keep the Light and the Water all for himself but, in his haste, spilled them, accidentally making Light and Fresh Water available for all the People. In the story of The Coming of the Salmon, Raven seems to manifest a more benevolent approach to the sharing of resources.
I give thanks to the Haida people whose wisdom gave birth to this story. I give thanks to all the storytellers before me — from the long ago days when it happened until now — who opened their hearts and offered their voices to keep this story alive. This is my telling for this day. I don’t know if this is exactly how it happened but I know that it is true.
It began, as so many things begin, with a dream. It began when the Chief’s young daughter lay dreaming of a great and beautiful fish. He was almost as long as she was tall and his scales glistened brightly. He was silver as moonlight and his back was speckled with tiny black dots as black as the night sky above her as she slept. Oh, this fish was strong! He leapt over rocks and up the rapids that churned the river. Oh, how the Chief’s little daughter loved that fish!
When morning came, the little girl ran to her father and told him of the great fish she had seen in her dream. “Father,” she said, “please bring me this fish.” But the Chief shook his head. “I am sorry, my dear daughter, but I have never seen such a fish.” And the Chief’s daughter began to cry.
The Chief asked in the Village, but no one had ever seen such a fish. And his daughter cried, and she cried, and she cried, for she longed to see that beautiful fish once more. Oh, how she cried!
At last, the Chief gathered all the elders, the wisest ones in the Village, but they all shook their heads. No one had ever seen such a great silvery fish who could leap and leap over the rocky rapids on his way upstream.
At last, the Oldest Man in the Village spoke up. “Raven lives in the cedars just over the hill. Often I bring him tidbits to eat and he speaks to me in a friendly way. Raven flies over all the world. Let me go ask Raven if he has seen such a fish on his journeys.”
The Chief and all the elders looked each other and nodded their heads. At last the Chief said, “It is agreed. Each of us will send with you a fish or a meaty bone as a gift to wise Raven.”
Soon the basket of the Oldest Man was filled, and he set off through the forest and up the hill, carrying that heavy basket. At last he approached the tall cedar trees where Raven liked to sit and look at the world. Raven smelled the beautiful fragrance of fish & meat. He flew down to sit beside the Oldest Man and croaked his greeting.
“Wise Raven,” said the Oldest Man. “I come to you bringing gifts from all the Villagers.” He set down the basket, and Raven began to feast. Raven ate & ate and when he raised his head from the basket, that basket was as empty and clean as if it had just come fresh from the basket-maker’s hands.
Raven cocked his head & looked at the Oldest Man and — since Raven is always curious — there was a question in Raven’s bright eye. “Why have you come?” he croaked.
Then the Oldest Man told Raven of the Chief’s little daughter & how she had dreamed a great silvery fish that leapt upstream like a dancer. He told of how she longed for that fish. “But none of us have ever seen such a fish,” he said. “And so she cries & cries. She cannot eat. She cannot sleep.”
Raven nodded his shining black head & spoke. “I know such a fish,” he croaked. “I will come with you & speak to the Council.” And so he did.
When all the Council had gathered in the Village, Raven spoke. “I know the tribe of whom the little girl dreamed. They travel far, but just now they have gathered to enter a river on the other side of this inlet. You have been generous to me, but I shall bring an even greater gift to you.” And off Raven flew.
Raven flew fast, and soon he returned, carrying a huge silvery fish. He gave it ceremoniously to the Chief’s daughter. “This,” Raven croaked, “is the fish you long for.” And the Chief’s daughter opened her eyes, red with weeping, and beheld the fish. She smiled. She laughed. She reached out her hand to stroked the gleaming silver scales. She offered her thanks to wise Raven.
Then Raven explained, “I have brought you the son of the Chief of the Salmon People. They saw me take him & watched to see which way I flew. The Salmon will come here to get back the Chief’s son. If you treat him with honor, they will enter a pact with you & return every year to hear your drumming & your songs of praise for them.”
Quickly the Villagers filled the biggest cedar canoe with seawater & put the great salmon in to swim freely. And as he swam, the Chief’s daughter sang to him — songs of love & praise, honoring his strength & beauty.
Soon the Salmon tribe swam into sight, lashing their strong tails & leaping up to show off their silvery beauty. The Chief of the Salmon spoke. “Give me my son.” And the Villagers placed his son back in the sea with his own people.
After the Salmon Chief’s son had told his father of how he was cared for and honored, after he had told his father how the little girl had shown her love for him with her songs, the Salmon Chief spoke to the village people saying, “Because you have cared for & honored my son, our people will return each year to feed you. But you must remember to honor us as well with your songs & prayers. And when we have given you good food to eat, you must place our bones back in the river so we can return again.”
And so it has been since that day. Each year the people of the Village welcome the Salmons’ return with songs & prayers. And — after they have feasted & have dried just enough fish to feed themselves during the hard times of the year — the people must gather the bones of the Salmon and, with words of thanksgiving, return them to their home in the river. And so the Salmon & the Villagers have cared for each other as the seasons & the years turn and turn.
With gratitude to the Salmon and to Raven and to all the Rivers of the world, I have been weaving. The Keeper of Rivers is beginning to reveal her shape & I have been gathering fibers to begin dreaming the River.
SONG FOR THE SALMON
~~~ by David Whyte
For too many days now I have not written of the sea,
nor the rivers, nor the shifting currents
we find between the islands.
For too many nights now I have not imagined the salmon
threading the dark streams of reflected stars,
nor have I dreamt of his longing
nor the lithe swing of his tail toward dawn.
I have not given myself to the depth to which he goes,
to the cargoes of crystal water, cold with salt,
nor the enormous plains of ocean swaying beneath the moon.
I have not felt the lifted arms of the ocean
opening its white hands on the seashore,
nor the salted wind, whole and healthy
filling the chest with living air.
I have not heard those waves
fallen out of heaven onto earth,
nor the tumult of sound and the satisfaction
of a thousand miles of ocean
giving up its strength on the sand.
But now I have spoken of that great sea,
the ocean of longing shifts through me,
the blessed inner star of navigation
moves in the dark sky above
and I am ready like the young salmon
to leave his river, blessed with hunger
for a great journey on the drawing tide.
~~~ as defined by Robert Macfarlane, with an illustration ~~~
I’d planned this week to share some of the salmon myths from around the world, a perfect follow-up to last week’s post. But this has been a turbulent week & I find myself distracted.
…The continuing wars & crises all around the world & the rips in the very fabric of Life on Earth….. Here in the U.S. I am still reeling from the Supreme Court’s decisions to expand so-called gun “rights,” to overturn Roe v. Wade, and now to limit environmental protections. I was shaken this week to hear Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) proclaim that “The church is supposed to direct the government.” Although it confirmed what I’d expected, I was still stunned by Tuesday’s Jan. 6 hearing in which Cassidy Hutchinson bravely & explicitly described how the explosive, tantrum-prone former-president and his collaborators plotted to overthrow our government & destroy any attempts at democracy — a plot that is still alive and well in many state legislatures and in the extremist views of many of our citizens. And I am grieving the deaths of people seeking a safe life — this week more than 50 human beings killed, left locked in the over-heated back of a semi in Texas.
Add a couple of slightly stressful appointments this week and I have ended up feeling like Dorothy dropped into Oz, like Alice stepping through the looking glass & falling down the rabbit hole. I wonder where I have landed.
I am taking off a couple days to ground myself and to try to figure out where I am. I am spending time and finding solace with animals and garden and trees.
"Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you."
~~~ David Wagoner
I’ve been thinking about Water these last weeks. But this past Tuesday was the Solstice. In Celtic traditions, the Summer Solstice is — like Samhain (our Halloween) in late autumn — a Fire festival associated with the lighting of great bonfires and the opening of thin places between worlds. Still I kept musing & wondering about Water. Then I found a story of the relationship between these two Elements as told by mythologist Michael Meade and quoted in Terri Windling’s blog https://www.terriwindling.com/blog/2021/08/water-wild-and-sacred.html:
“Of the elements (which some people count as four, and others count as five), water is the element for reconciliation. Water is the element of flow. When water goes missing, flow goes missing. The ancient Irish used to say that there are two suns in the world. One you see rise in the morning. The other is very deep in the earth, and it’s called the black sun or inner sun. It’s a hot fire in there; no one knows how hot. The earth is roughly seventy per cent water because of that hidden sun inside. When the water goes down, the earth heats up too much – part of the global warming that’s happening everywhere. It happens inside people also, because people are like the earth. People are seventy per cent water like the earth, and people have a hidden sun – or else we wouldn’t be ninety-six degrees when its forty degrees outside. Everyone in the world is burning, and the water in the body keeps that burning from becoming a fever. What happens literally also happens emotionally and spiritually, so when people forget how to carry water and how to use water to reconcile, you get an increasing amount of heated conflict, as we’re seeing around the world today.”
So — it is, as always, a matter of Balance. I was able to celebrate both Fire & Water at the Summer Solstice.
I was born in the U.S. Midwest & have visited but never lived on the NW coast of North America. My brother and two women I have known since our earliest childhoods in Iowa have long lived there. My niece & nephew were born there and stayed. My sister has lived in Oregon & is now a short ways south, near majestic (and perhaps mythical) Mount Shasta. And I often find my heart drawn to the great forests, beautiful island-studded coastline, and native arts & myths of British Columbia — the home of Raven and Salmon, who people my dreams.
Somehow, Raven and Salmon have both lodged more and more firmly in my heart over the years. I have, hanging in my studio, a set of prayer flags I made many years ago in a workshop with the eco-activist Julia Butterfly Hill. We were given 3 prompts for the flags:
The first is the picture of my inner self, who I really am.
The second is that which hinders me from manifesting my true self.
The third is a symbol of what it would feel like to come home to my self — and it surprised me by being a Salmon.
I recently came across a poem, written even further back, that intertwined Salmon & Language (and is used to close today’s post). While looking for that poem today, I came across another old poem of mine that I’d quite forgotten:
SALMON SINGS OF HER RETURN
Suddenly I felt a change, a shift
in the wide dark salt,
narrowing my world from
flash of chase and feast to
strict path clenched
by desire more ravenous for
movement than for flesh.
No longer consuming but
consumed by some austere
pulse, my every sense alert to
the pulling and tugging steering me
through vast and briny plain until
at last — familiar somehow —
the faintest of traces in the tide, then
a new sweetness surging,
A beautiful current presses my snout
and I answer with thrust and
plunge of tail, spine against
the spate, channeled, bound,
devoured now from within as
my skin reddens, flesh flames.
Let me swim higher up, deeper in.
Let me leap past rock, talon, teeth.
Let me dig nests in gravelly birthing bed.
Let me pour out from my belly
ten thousand fiery suns.
Let my body be given to raven, bear, river silt.
Let ocean feed mountain.
Let my next body be in this place
a tree --
rising, rooted, and green.
Let my roots inhale water to
once more into this
circling and radiant world.
This week I’ve been weaving the doll I mentioned last time — curious to see what she would teach me about the colors I’d gathered and about myself. For such a small piece of weaving, I’ve been amazed and amused by how many missteps, lessons, and stories she contains!
When I took her off the loom, I saw not only the long warp ends but also the many many weft ends streaming off her body.
As I sewed in the ends, I found myself collecting even the smallest pieces of yarn I cut off, thinking “Not a drop should be wasted!” She is now filled, along with a water-worn stone & 5 seashells, with these bits of yarn — “drops of Water” from the weaving of her body.
As soon as I saw her, I knew what offering her arms would hold. Two or three years ago, I wove an amulet bag & placed inside it a long-treasured ceramic salmon button to which I had added her golden roe being laid in the river. Now, that salmon has swum into the arms of my prayer.
She is a Prayer for Earth's Waters & for the Salmon,
messengers between sea and stream, saltwater and fresh
What is prayer but the
unbarring of the heart,
the freeing of its rivers for return to the sea.
Sometimes it is not enough to depend on seepage through the old hidden cracks.
Sometimes it is not enough to let the concrete spillways do their job.
Sometimes it is not enough to open the floodgates.
Sometimes you must turn off turbines, abandon irrigation ditches, just
dismantle the whole damned thing.
Let the rivers run free:
rainfall, snowmelt, even the ancient glacial ice from distant peaks.
Flood, drought, the ups and downs of season upon season, heading
And after a long, long time, the sweet water may
call back the salmon to spawn again in the furthest pools.
Let them come in silvery leadings, insistently struggling
upriver against all odds to the place they know is their own.
Words are salmon, prayers returning.
And if they are as certain to die in the safe pool of your page
As salmon are to die in the riverine shallows, remember the
fertile eggs they leave—minute, perhaps unnoticed, yet desiring life.
Then, too, their flesh is
in any case
- - - MCK
These days, we seem to have been set adrift by all the violence of the environmental, political, cultural turmoil in which we are living. Even the regular circling of the seasons — which has always been a way for me to ground myself — has been changing. Last year, here in central North Carolina, the weather at Winter Solstice was still so mild it felt like late October. Some daffodils and even a few cherry trees bloomed in January and February. This spring, even before the end of May, we have experienced high temperatures that I would normally associate with late July or August. And if I find this disorienting, it can only be more so for the plants and the animals.
In the midst of all this, It is easy to despair, to self-isolate, to hide from the chaos. “What next?” seems to be the lament of the day.
Yesterday, by delightful serendipity, I discovered an excellent article in Emergence Magazine, by the writer, wilderness teacher, mythologist & storyteller Martin Shaw.
It is filled with the reminders I needed just then to help me out of the all-too-easy swamp of dismay and gloom & back onto the path, into the play of Life.
This very rich and, for me, nourishing essay is filled with examples from folktale and myth & concludes by offering four areas in which we may, if we choose, begin the Work of navigating Mystery. You can read — or listen to Shaw read — his full essay at https://emergencemagazine.org/essay/navigating-the-mysteries/ . Here I offer a some excerpts [lengthier than I’d expected] that speak, I think, to the heart of his message.
Excerpts from “Navigating the Mysteries”
by Martin Shaw
“The correct response to uncertainty is mythmaking. It always was. Not punditry, allegory, or mandate, but mythmaking. The creation of stories. We are tuned to do so, right down to our bones. The bewilderment, vivacity, and downright slog of life requires it. And such emerging art forms are not to cure or even resolve uncertainty but to deepen into it. There’s no solving uncertainty. Mythmaking is an imaginative labor not a frantic attempt to shift the mood to steadier ground. There isn’t any.
But—a major but—maybe there’s useful and un-useful uncertainty. The un-useful is the skittish, fatiguing dimension. The surface of the condition. The useful is the invitation to depth that myth always offers. Because if there’s uncertainty, then we are no longer sure quite what’s the right way to behave. And there’s potential in that, an openness to new forms. We are susceptible to what I call sacred transgression. Not straight-up theft but a recalibrating of taboo to further the making of culture.“ [sounds to me like the Trickster spirit!]
“What if we reframed “living with uncertainty” to “navigating mystery”? There’s more energy in that phrase. The hum of imaginative voltage. And is our life not a mystery school, a seat of earthy instruction?
There are few tales worth remembering that don’t have uncertainty woven into them. Without uncertainty we have mission statements not myth. We have polemic not poetry, sign not symbol. There’s no depth when we are already floating above true human experience. And true human experience has always involved ambiguity, paradox, and eventually the need for sheer pluck. Uncertainty doesn’t feel sexy, I admit. It can derail confidence, make us neurotic, doubt ourselves. But mythic intelligence suggests we have to negotiate such terrain for a story of worth to surround us. I don’t say this lightly; it has real testing attached.“
“But to navigate mystery is not the same thing as living with uncertainty. It doesn’t contain the hallmarks of manic overconfidence or gnawing anxiety. It’s the blue feather in the magpie’s tale [sic]. Hard to glimpse without attention. There’s no franchise or hashtag attached. Navigating mystery humbles us, reminds us with every step that we don’t know everything, are not, in fact, the masters of all.
As humans we’ve long been forged on the anvil of the mysteries: Why are we here? Why do we die? What is love? We are tuned like a cello to vibrate with such questions. What is entirely new is the amount of information we are receiving from all over the planet. So we don’t just receive stress on a localized, human level, we mainline it from a huge, abstract, conceptual perspective. Perpetual availability to both creates a nervous wreck.
The old stories say, enough; that one day we have to walk our questions, our yearnings, our longings. We have to set out into those mysteries, even with the uncertainty. Especially with the uncertainty. Make it magnificent. We take the adventure. Not naively but knowing this is what a grown-up does. We embark. Let your children see you do it. Set sail, take the wing, commit to the stomp. Evoke a playful boldness that makes even angels swoon. There’s likely something tremendous waiting.“
“I haven’t got a damn thing to say about living on Mars with Elon Musk. The essential ingredients of mythmaking are down here on our tangly planet, species whispering and muttering about each other. Really good gossip across species becomes a story and eventually a myth. So what are the stories that will come from the mysteries of our present moment?
[Two years ago, Martin Shaw spent 101 days visiting a local forest — “primarily to listen.”] I have become more eccentric since my time in the forest, clearer and occasionally kinder. Life doesn’t feel certain, but it feels succulent. Life doesn’t feel assured, but it feels vivacious.
It doesn’t feel safe, but it feels pregnant with possibility. And, like every human before me, I’m going to have to make my peace with that arrangement. To repeat, it was always like this.“
The creative act of making something new always brings us face to face with uncertainty: What will happen if I plant these seeds in this part of my garden? What will happen if I change all the herbs and spices in this recipe? What will happen if I add a diagonal line to this design? Or –for fussbudgets like me — What will happen to the meaning and clarity of this sentence if I take out the comma?
A month or so ago, while I was just starting to grapple with the weaving and felting of “Transitions” [documented in earlier posts & shown in last week’s blog], I assembled this assortment of fibers & yarns from my stash and — having a clear idea, I thought, of how I would work with them — I put them in a bag to be considered after I’d finished my current project.
The “finishing” of Transitions turned into a longer — and more interesting — story than I’d first imagined. But finally, earlier this week, I opened the bag. I am still interested in the colors, but they seem darker than I’d remembered. In most lights, much darker than this photo! In particular, the deep teal fiber [center] I’d fallen in love with & planned to use as a major part of the felted context seemed almost black in ordinary room lighting. Fortunately, the making of “Transitions” gifted me with an ever-needed reminder that plans may (sometimes must) change, that we dwell in uncertainty & becoming. Suddenly seeing these fibers with surprised eyes was no different.
After days of staring at & occasionally rearranging the pile, I still had no idea where I would go with it. I was stuck in and disempowered by my uncertainty. The answer to this situation, I have learned, is to take action. But always there follows the potentially paralyzing question: How to begin?
I realized I could keep butting my head against my “problem” or I could enter it slantwise. As Shaw says, “Set sail, take the wing, commit to the stomp. Evoke a playful boldness that makes even angels swoon.“
So — I decided to weave a doll using some of these colors to discover what they would say to each other & what they could teach me about themselves and about myself.
I am using the doll pattern taught by my teacher & mentor Susan Barrett Merrill. In her book Weaving a Life, Susan says “The doll is the symbol of the soul. It is a small spark of the greater Self. …. The doll is an imaginal form realized, and carries with it insight into the meaning and nature of our journey.“
For example, my “3 Muses for the New Year” (posted 12/31/2021)
Since I have limited left-over amounts of most of the yarns I might use for the still-hypothetical mask, it took me a long time to decide which I could spare for the doll’s warp — but, finally, decide I did & warped my loom. Marking the center of a warp helps with the execution of the pattern. But it can do much more. Susan teaches us to use a red thread in the center of our warp:
“Red is the color of life. The center thread is your core truth alongside which all other values lie. …. This is your own center thread.”
Because the warp becomes the hair of a mask, I have tended to mark the center in other ways. But for the doll, red feels essential. This is, after all, an exploration of myself as well as of the colors. I knew I wanted to remember — with every pass of the weft — to find my center.
As always, I’m curious about what will happen next. For me (as for Trickster), curiosity is a fundamental way of being. And — it suddenly occurs to me — without uncertainty, curiosity is meaningless. Hmmmm……
"Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
A well-aimed jolt of electricity finally got my heart back in rhythm this week. Hooray! I’m still in recovery mode but, in a day or two, I should to be up & running (well, walking — but further).
First I want to share a picture I meant to include in “Thinking of Edges” (5/27): MOTHER MOSS: Spirit of the Small Edge-Dwellers & Boundary-Dancers Who Shape the World
And at last there is this — named (at least for the moment) Transitions: Always Becoming.
Finally, a story for trying times — from seed to treasured seedling growing and strong, then battered and half eaten by some critter, and now this beauty. Somehow it gives me hope, even amid all the disturbances and crises we manage to create in the world. Resilience:
Having been battered this past month by chronic cardiac conditions — resulting in deep fatigue & a fair amount of brain fog — I don’t have much to offer today. But the green and growing world outside does!
Life wants to live! The kale that was munched by the big old groundhog has, in spite of the unseasonable heat, grown again & the Hopi sunflowers, denuded and broken by some neighborhood critter, have valiantly sprouted new leaves and grown some more — a few are even trying to bloom!
The bumblebees are feasting in the salvia.
And the canna lilies in which hummingbirds delight are just beginning to offer their bounty.
MORE THAN ENOUGH by Marge Piercy
"The first lily of June opens its red mouth.
All over the sand road where we walk
multiflora rose climbs trees cascading
white or pink blossoms, simple, intense
the scene drifting like colored mist.
The arrowhead is spreading its creamy
clumps of flower and the blackberries
are blooming in the thickets. Season of
joy for the bee. The green will never
again be so green, so purely and lushly
new, grass lifting its wheaty seedheads
into the wind. Rich fresh wine
of June, we stagger into you smeared
with pollen, overcome as the turtle
laying her eggs in roadside sand."