A Story for Our Times

This week the Shaman/Lady of the Forest and I [see previous post] have been engaged in a long and deep conversation. Like all good conversations, once expectations & preconceptions have been released, this conversation has taken many interesting twists and turns, and needs to continue a bit longer.


The story I want to share with you today is based on an old Slavic tale. I first heard it several weeks ago from the storyteller, Audrey di Mola. I was enthralled and immediately thought: “This is the story we need to hear now, in these perilous times.” I’ve listened again and found other tellings — each unique. And, as I listened & read, I saw more and more shiny threads in the story’s tapestry — the same threads that are being woven into our on-going story today. So I offer it to you with gratitude to the Old Ones who first told the story and to Audrey and other storytellers that have kept it alive through the ages. It’s a long tale, so settle in comfortably and listen for what the story wants you — in all your uniqueness — to hear. 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.

Once Upon a Time — yes, that time; or this time; or any time — Once upon a time, there lived a handsome hunter and his beloved horse, just at the edge of the deep dark forest. Every day the hunter and his companion would set off into the forest to look for deer or bears or even small creatures with which to sustain themselves by selling the extra meat and fur in the village market. And so it was that one day, like any other day, the hunter and his horse walked into the forest to follow the trails that animals had made. But this day, as they walked, the hunter saw something shining on the path — not a paw print, not a stray feather from a nearby bird, but a feather that glowed and seemed to burn in its own light. ….. It was a feather from the Firebird.

The hunter bent down and started to reach for it when his horse said firmly, “Do not pick up that feather. If you do, you will have great troubles.” The hunter heard his horse. He hesitated …. but he felt the call of the feather pulling him forward. “Oh,” thought the hunter, “if I take this precious feather to the Tsar, surely he will reward me with great riches.”

The hunter picked up the feather. He marveled at its flaming colors. He felt its warmth in his hand. … And so they set off to the great palace of the Tsar. It was a long journey, but the feather stayed bright & warm in the hunter’s hand, flickering with the brilliant light of its inner flame The horse walked beside him, shaking his head all the way.

After a time, they neared the palace, with its many stone turrets & gleaming golden domes. With some trepidation, the hunter knocked at the great gate. Once. Twice. Three times. …. And finally the gate — creaking slowly with almost a moan — opened before them.

When the guard saw the Firebird’s feather in the hunter’s hand, he stared for a long minute…. And then, after asking someone to take the horse to the stables, he led the hunter straight to the throne room.

The hunter paused a moment, taking in all the glitter & gold & rich brocades. He had never seen such wealth before. For a moment he longed to be back in his familiar forest, but he gathered his courage and spoke to the Tsar. “Your majesty,” he said, “I have come to give you this feather of the Firebird.”

The Tsar took the feather from the hunter’s hand. For a moment the Tsar’s face radiated wonder & delight. But soon his face changed and he spoke. “You are a great hunter to find such a treasure. Surely, next you can bring me the Firebird itself and I will reward you with riches beyond your dreams.” The hunter started to shake his head, but the Tsar, pulling his sword from its embroidered velvet-covered scabbard, continued. “But do you see this fine sharp blade on my sword? … If you fail, it will slice your head from your body.”

Trembling, the hunter left the throne room and sought his horse in the palace stables. He threw his arms around the horse’s solid warm neck & told him of the Tsar’s order. The horse nuzzled him and then said, “Fear not…The worst is still to come!”

The hunter began to weep, but his horse continued, “Ask the Tsar for oats & wheat & barley & rye from his great granaries — enough to fill a dozen large wagons. Then we will catch the Firebird.”

The hunter returned to the Tsar and made his request. “Of course,” said the Tsar. “This is a rich realm and I have grain to spare!”

That evening the hunter & his horse took the grain to a beautiful field and spread it all around, leaving enticing piles of grain here and there. They waited. Night fell. Their eyelids felt heavy. Still — with eyes wide open, they waited and waited until, at last, down from the sky swooped that Firebird in all his glory. The Firebird ruffled his feathers — sending sparks like stars into the dark — and he began to gobble the grain.

The hunter hid behind the horse. Slowly, slowly, forward they crept. The horse proceeded step by step in a roundabout route, keeping his head low, pausing now & then to innocently eat of the golden grain, but always drawing nearer to the Bird.

After a time, they found themselves next to the Firebird, whose head was still bent to the grain. … And … in less than a blink of an eye … the horse raised his foot and — down it went! Right onto the tail of the Firebird! The hunter rushed in and bound the beautiful bird with ropes. He picked him up and felt flames leaping into his heart. He felt awe and wonder as he gazed upon the feathers of gold and crimson and shimmering copper. The Firebird did not thrash or call out, but just answered his gaze with a proud glare. Oh, it seemed wrong to bind such a free spirit! For a moment, the hunter hesitated.

But then he remembered the reward the Tsar had promised and, with his horse, hurried back to the palace.

When the Tsar saw the Firebird in the hunter’s arms, he gave the bird a fleeting glance of admiration. But then, stuffing the bird into a bejeweled cage of gold, the Tsar’s face changed. He looked from the bird to the hunter. “Oh, my boy,” said the Tsar. “You are a brave and clever hunter indeed. A man such as you can surely bring back the one thing I most desire. The beautiful Princess Vasilisa lives in a far kingdom. She shines like the sun, the most beautiful of all the women in the world. She must be mine! Bring back Vasilisa and I will give you riches — heaps of gold so high you will not see their top. ….. But if you fail, I will throw you into the moat. It is filled with ravenous beasts. And if you somehow survive their teeth, their tentacles, their claws, their ugly tusks — if you are able to lift your head out of the water –” The King paused and drew his sword. “There is still this blade to separate your head from your shoulders. Do you understand?”

The hunter trembled. He nodded once — then turned to go out to find his horse. When the horse saw the hunter’s face wet with tears, he asked “Now what?” And the hunter hung his head and replied, “Now I must bring back the Princess Vasilisa from a faraway kingdom. And if I fail, not only the blade, but teeth & tentacles, claws & tusks…. What shall I do? What shall I do?”

And the horse answered, “Fear not! … The worst is still to come! …. Go to the Tsar and ask for pack horses laden with gilded pavilions, ask for the best meats and wine, parquet tables and soft pillows for reclining. And tell the Tsar he must send with you his best singers and musicians.”

Still shaking, the hunter repeated this request to the Tsar. “Of course, my boy! Anything you want! But you must bring me the beautiful Vasilisa — or….”

And so it was. Early the next morning the hunter and his horse set off with all they had requested. It was a long, long journey. There were flooding rivers to cross, rocky cliffs to climb, deep dark valleys where wolves & thieves lurked.

I do not know how long they traveled or how many adventures they had along the way, but late one afternoon they reached a lake. Far out upon the still blue waters, a lady rowed a golden boat with silver oars. And even from such a distance, they could see her beauty, her proud straight back, her flowing ebony hair. Surely this was the Princess Vasilisa.

Quickly, they set up camp. They raised the pavilions and decorated them with fine rugs and soft pillows of silk and velvet. They spread out the meats & fruits & bread & wine upon fine silver trays and set them on the polished parquet tables.

Then, just as the sun was dipping low in the sky, sending its last rays to set the silvery flags and the golden tent tops ablaze in beauty, the musicians began to play and the lady reached the shore.

Gallantly the hunter held out his hand to help her up from the boat. He bowed low. “Princess Vasilisa, it is getting late. Will you join us for supper?”

Vasilisa smiled and nodded her head, and the hunter led her into grandest pavilion.

I do not know exactly what transpired, but I do know that the hunter and Vasilisa talked and ate and drank and laughed. They fell into a long conversation and their heads were close together and finally, in the dark, they fell asleep on plump pillows under quilts of embroidered silk.

In the morning, they rose and smiled at each other. “Will you come with me,” he asked, “to the court of the Tsar?”

Vasilisa agreed, so off they went. And it was a long, long journey. I do not know exactly what happened, but the hunter felt himself changing with each mile they traveled. And Vasilisa smiled.

At last, Vasilisa and the hunter stood in the throne room and faced the Tsar. At once, the Tsar sprang from his throne and stood before the beautiful Princess Vasilisa. Seeing her dark eyes, her fine straight nose, her hair as black as a raven’s wing, & her shapely supple young body, the King crowed, “At last you are mine! I will marry you and you shall be mine forever.”

The Princess Vasilisa took a step back and, holding her head high, spoke to the King. Her voice was pure music, but her tone & her words were firm and strong.

“Your Highness,” she declared, “I cannot marry until I have my wedding dress.”

“Oh, never mind about that,” the Tsar said quickly. “I will give you a wedding dress of lace embroidered with gold and encrusted with jewels — far more elegant than any old dress you might have.”

“No.” Again Vasilisa spoke slowly and carefully. “I will not marry without my own wedding dress. Better than jewels or rich embroidery or lace, my wedding dress is covered with the words wisdom spoken by my mother & sisters & aunts, and by their mothers & sisters & aunts, and by their mothers, and their mothers, and their mothers, and on back to the wisdom of the Old Woman of the World. This precious dress is under a granite rock deep, deep, at the bottom of the sea. I will not wed without it.”

In a flash, the Tsar turned to the hunter. “You heard her,” shouted the Tsar. “You must go and bring back her dress. And if you fail, I shall hang you high and then cut off your head and throw your meat into the moat so that the ravenous beasts can dine at their leisure.”

The hunter moved to the door and, sobbing, went out to find his horse. The horse listened patiently to the hunter’s woeful tale. Then, shaking his mane, the horse said, “Fear Not! The worst is still to come!” and said no more. The hunter, still weeping, asked what he should request from the Tsar. “Nothing. You need nothing the Tsar has to offer,” said the horse. So off they went together, seeking the sea at the edge of the world.

I do not know how far they journeyed. I do not know how many tall mountains they climbed, how many deep valleys they crossed, how many fierce wolves & thieves they met in the dark forests. But I do know that it was only after many days and twice as many adventures that they reached the sea at the edge of the world.

The wind blew and the sea tossed. White-crested waves rose above them. Still, pausing only to kiss his horse, the hunter stripped off his ragged clothes and plunged into the icy depths. Down he swam. And down and down until at last he could dimly see, far below, a gigantic granite boulder. Down he swam. Beneath the great rock, the hunter glimpsed what might be a corner of white fabric — but, push though he did, the hunter could not budge the boulder. His lungs were bursting, he had to breath…. The hunter struggled upward through the wild waters until, gasping & gurgling, his head rose into clear air and he swam to the shore.

The hunter was startled to see his horse talking to a large lumpy bumpy creature who appeared to wear a circlet of silver about his hard, shell-bound brow. His horse introduced the King of the Crabs. The hunter bowed and then told the tale of his dive into the deep. When he finished, he turned to the gigantic Crab King and asked, “Can you help me?”

The King of the Crabs replied haughtily, “Why should I help a two-legged one like you?” The hunter answered, “I shall give you…” he reached into his pack. Nothing. He shook it upside-down…once…twice…. On the third shake, a small crust of dry bread fell out of the very bottom of the pack.

Ashamed, the hunter hung his head. He held out the bit of bread. Without hope, he said, “Your majesty, I can give you this.”

The King of the Crabs raised his great claws and placed them on the hunter’s shoulders. The hunter’s heart thudded with fear. But the Crab King spoke gently. “My child,” he said. “It is enough. I will help you find that which you seek.”

The Crab King gave a shrill whistle and the waves seemed to calm. He whistled once more and the water began to churn not with wind or tide but with the motion unseen creatures. When he whistled a third time, all the crabs in the sea crawled up on the beach to listen to their King. “My beloved brothers & sisters,” said the King, “this hunter seeks a wedding dress hidden beneath the biggest boulder in the sea. I ask you please to roll the rock aside and bring him what he desires.” And so they did.

With the white linen dress folded carefully in his arms, the hunter and his horse set off once more — over hill and dale, through strange villages and dark forests — to reach the palace of the Tsar. Their adventures were too many to tell, but every mile the hunter felt a change within himself as what had been too soft grew firm & strong and what had been too hard softened & relaxed. And on they went to the gleaming palace of the Tsar.

Entering the throne room, the hunter handed the dress to Vasilisa. “Here, as you asked, my lady, is your dress inscribed with the wisdom of all the women of the world.”

“Quick,” ordered the Tsar. “Prepare the wedding feast and the royal chamber, for tonight I sleep with my new wife, Vasilisa!”

Then Vasalisa held up her hand for him to stop. “No,” she said. “There is yet one more thing I require. I require this man to jump into a cauldron of boiling water.” She pointed to the hunter.

“No problem,” said the Tsar. Quickly he summoned his servants to build a huge hot fire, and soon a big cauldron of water was bubbling & the air above it was clouded with steam. “Now,” said the Tsar, turning to the hunter. “Do it!”

Once again the hunter trembled with fear and hot tears slid down his cheeks. He remembered all the journeys, all the trials & tests, all the adventures ….. and he remembered his horse.

“Sire,” he said. “May I first take a moment to say farewell to my faithful friend?”

“Oh, all right,” huffed the Tsar. “But make it quick! The sun is falling low in the sky. Vasilisa must be my wife before tonight’s feast begins.”

Yet again, the hunter went out and leaned his head against the horse’s warm neck. But even the soft comforting snorts of the horse &the tickling of his mane could not stop the hunter’s tears. “Goodbye, my dear friend,” the hunter said, and told of the fire, the cauldron, the boiling water.

The horse shook his head. “I will not say goodbye. Just remember our adventures & gather together all the pieces of yourself, all your changes over the miles. Remember what we did, but most of all look into your heart. Cherish what has grown bold & strong. Cherish what has softened & opened. Then run, as fast as you can, and jump into the cauldron.”

The hunter kissed his horse and returned to the throne room to be greeted by roaring blaze & bubbling cauldron. He looked around and saw the Tsar grinning from ear to ear. He saw Vasilisa, standing steadfast & calm. He saw all the courtiers that had gathered to witness the horrifying spectacle. Then the hunter paused and breathed deeply. He looked into his heart. He remembered his journeys. He remembered his changes. He gathered together all the pieces of himself. And he ran straight to the cauldron — and leaped in!

Amongst the crowd there were shocked gasps & nervous titters, but from the cauldron ……. only silence. The crowd waited. They waited for screams. They waited for bits of charred bone to rise to the top. They waited…..

The Tsar turned triumphantly toward Vasalisa and reached out his hungry hand. But … just at that very moment … a roar went up from the crowd — a roar that rattled the stained glass windows & shook the great timber beams above!

All eyes — even the eyes of the Tsar — turned toward the cauldron as — up & out — sprang the young hunter. Oh, he had been handsome before, but now he seemed to shine. His strong muscles rippled beneath his shirt & his eyes glowed with new fire. He turned towards Vasilisa. They both smiled.

Enraged, the Tsar screeched, “I am the Tsar! I am richer than the hunter, and I can become even more handsome than he!” And the Tsar turned to this servants and ordered, “Help me into the cauldron.” And so they did. And so the Tsar tumbled head over heels into the cauldron. ……. And he was never seen again, though a gray scum of fat rose to the surface briefly before sinking again.

The hunter and Vasilisa looked at each other and went to the golden cage that hung next to the throne. Together, they pulled open the jeweled door and freed the Firebird. With feathers flaming brightly once again, the Firebird rose and circled once, twice, thrice above them in gratitude & blessing before flying out the window and home to his nest, where he remains to this day.

Then the hunter and Vasilisa went out to the courtyard where the horse stood, and they bent their heads humbly, and they thanked thanked him.

So the hunter and Vasilisa were married and they lived, as we all do, day by day. And whether they ruled as King & Queen or whether they returned to the hunter’s hut or whether they set off on marvelous journeys I do not know…… But I do know that their adventures were many and the horse was always at their side…..

And so my tale ends. Make of it what you will.

Artist unknown — found in an article by Timothy Judd


"The truth about stories is that that's all we are."
                                                                  --- Thomas King

Salmon Boy

Transformation Salmon” mask by Kwakwaka‘wakw artist Wayne Alfred (shown in open position) from
Down from the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the NorthWest Coast, by Robert Mcnair, Robert Joseph, and Bruce Grenville

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.


artist unknown


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.”


Let's stop and think.  
Who, I wonder, are we?

Dreaming of Salmon at Summer Solstice

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:


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,
insisting, freshening.
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.

Only then 

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 
 breathe out 
 once more into this
 circling and radiant world.

	                             ---  MCK

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
always home.

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

Living Into the Mystery

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.

Illustration by moonassi

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.

The main color of the doll is the same as the deep teal in the center of the earlier photo — showing its darker side here.

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.

                                                                                        — Rumi