dissolved in salty water
flows in on the tide.
For days now I have wandered Port Townsend’s long empty beach, fascinated by the salt rimed grasses with their lance sharp leaves cutting through the sand, the calligraphy of seal prints that tell the story of late night forages for food, and the twisted, sea bleached driftwood that has traveled, maybe as far as I have, from where it grew.
Everything is new to me here. I don’t know the names of the shells that lie wave broken on the beach or the lifecycles of the creatures that called them home. Every walk is an adventure and my pockets bulge with bits of sea glass, the occasional half shell still in one piece and iridescent with pale green and blue luster, and whatever bits of floatsum and jetsum that catches my eye. I will make a little arrangement on my desk so that I can appreciate them as I work. It is part of the nesting process I suppose, this urge to create a home, however temporary, in the place you find yourself.
But like the crab, who waves a dispirited claw at me, I am still very conscious of the fact that this is not my home ground. I will always feel “out of place” by the sea. For ten years I lived in Tacoma, happy enough with my family and friends and job, but deep down inside there was a longing, a longing made more intense by the endless grey months of rain, to get back to the mountains where I grew up. To get back to the snow. To get back to brown hills that were not clogged with undergrowth so thick it felt threatening sometimes.
I think everyone has a landscape where they feel as if they have come home. Sometimes it is the place where they grew up, but sometimes they must search until they find that place that sings to their soul. My friend Natasha grew up in London, but inexplicably feels bound to the mountains of Montana. She came, as John Denver said in a song, “home to place I’d never been before.”
My husband, on the other hand grew up by the sea, and after we moved to Montana, he must have felt the same longing I had, but instead it was for rhythm of tides and the smell of briny air and the endless expanse of water where he could roam free in his boat . I am amazed in the generosity of his spirit that he was able to leave the seascape he loves so much, and to be satisfied with no more than regular visits back. Perhaps when we first meet someone we should ask, not what their sign is, but what their landscape is. What is your landscape?
There is a place in the backwoods, down near the river where the trees open into a clearing and the clearing is carpeted in moss. I refer to it as the dying place because often when I go back there a new deer carcass has appeared, hide and bones scattered here and there. It feels like a sacred place, but not a sad place. In spite of the death that happens here, it is such a beautiful, gently quiet place. It’s the perfect place to sit on the soft cushion of moss and listen to the river and watch the herons going back and forth from the rookery, sometimes with gleaming fish in their needle long beaks.
It is also an ideal place to get lost in the miniature world of the moss forest. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss has opened my eyes to the complex ecosystem under my feet and opened my mind to a new way of relating to the natural world. Her book is a combination of science and personal reflection, born out of her life as both a scientist and as a Native American writer who experiences the world within the framework of indigenous ways of knowing.
She writes: “In indigenous ways of knowing, we say that a thing cannot be understood until it is know by all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit. The scientific way of knowing relies only on empirical information from the world, gathered by body and interpreted by mind. In order to tell the mosses’ story I need both approaches, objective and subjective. These essays intentionally give voice to both ways of knowing, letting matter and spirit walk companionably side by side. And sometimes even dance.”
With her encouragement I have taken small samples of the moss back to the house and placed them under the microscope, which allows me to wander at will through the stems, branches and leaves of the moss. There I have an ant’s eye perspective and I’m able to wander in this intimate forest, not in search of answers to any specific questions, but as an explorer open to whatever discoveries I might stumble upon. This is the joy of being an amateur naturalist and not a professional scientist. I am not trying to probe and prod data from the moss, I am simply listening to whatever it has to tell me. I love what Kimmerer says about learning in traditional indigenous communities.
“Learning takes a form very different from that in the American public education system. Children learn by watching, by listening, and by experience. They are expected to learn from all members of the community, human and non. To ask a direct question is often considered rude. Knowledge cannot be taken; it must be given…Much learning takes place by patient observation, discerning pattern and its meaning by experience.”
As I peered into the world revealed under the microscope’s lens, I found a different way of learning, “to let the mosses tell their story, rather than wring it from them.” It is way of learning I hope to carry out into my other explorations of the backwoods and beyond.
It is the Bitterroot blooming time in Missoula. Their appearance signals the end of the harvesting season for these roots that were one of the main staples in the Native American diet in the region. The fleshy green shoots of rosettes began appearing on the rocky hillsides around town soon after the snow began to melt, beating out even the earliest flowers. The Native Americans traditionally dug the root in May, before the rosette withers away and the flower blooms, because afterwards the woody brown skin on the root is difficult to remove. Among the Flathead and Kutenai Indians of western Montana, a special ceremony honored the Bitterroot and opened the root and berry picking season. Early settlers reported great gatherings of Flathead, Kalispell, Pend d’Oreille, Spokane and Nez Perce tribes camped in the Missoula valley to collect the roots.
Lewis and Clark encountered the plant in the Big Hole Valley in 1805. Captain Lewis tried the boiled roots, finding them quite soft, but complained that they had a bitter, nauseating taste. The first time I tried the Bitterroot I too found them bitter, but I rather liked their astringent taste. Bitters have long been used as a way to stimulate the digestive juices and given the Native American’s meat heavy diet, I imagine that the roots were very beneficial.
Jeff Hart, in his priceless book Montana—Native Plants and Early Peoples recounts one of the origin stories of the plant: “Long ago, as the story goes, in what we now call the Bitterroot Valley, Flathead Indians were experiencing a famine. One old woman had to meat or fish to feed her sons. All they had to eat were shoots of balsamroot, and even these were old and woody. Believing that her sons were slowly starving to death, she went down to the river early one morning to weep alone and sing a death song. The sun, rising above the eastern mountains, heard the woman singing. Taking pity on the old woman, the sun sent a guardian spirit in the form of a red bird to comfort her with food and beauty. The bird flew to the old, gray-haired woman and spoke softly. ‘A new plant will be formed,’ said the bird, ‘from you sorrowful tears which have fallen into the soil. Its flower will have the rose of my wing feathers and the white of your hair. It will have leaves close to the ground. Your people will eat the roots of this plant. Though it will be bitter from your sorrow, it will be good for them. When they see these flowers they will say, here is the silver of mother’s hair upon the ground and rose from the wings of the spirit bird. Our mother’s tears of bitterness have given us food…’”
Even as a twenty first century white woman, when I see the blossoms of the Bitterroot, I feel a deep emotional connection to this mother’s story. But more than that, I am struck by the world view this story illuminates. The idea that the natural world is responsive to us in such an nurturing way is so different from our western view of nature being at best indifferent to us, or, at worst, if it does respond it is always in a violent, revengeful way (you shouldn’t fool with mother nature!) What if nature really is both responsive and benevolent and interconnected to us in such an intimate way? It certainly is worth further exploration and reflection.
Opening the back door it immediately felt as if something was off. I was late putting the chickens in their coop. In the dark, if not for the moon, I wouldn’t have seen that the gate to their pen was already closed. They had been roaming the backyard freely and the gate was always held open with a bungee cord, but the cord dangled uselessly from the chicken wire. How could the gate have shut on it’s own? Then I remembered my husband had mowed the lawn. He must have forgotten to reopen it after he passed. I knew the chickens wouldn’t have been able to get into the coop to roost, but I headed toward it anyway, hoping to find them milling around outside.
No sign of the chickens. I called to them, rustling the bag of scratch feed, but the yard was eerily still. I searched the grove of ponderosas in the back corner where the chickens liked to browse in tall grass, but that too was empty. Still calling chick, chick, chick I turned toward the bush where they took their dust baths.
A ferocious snarling erupted from the dark cover of the snowberry bushes crowding the back fence–a deep guttural snarling, as if the creature were tearing something apart. My eyes scanned the woods, looking for any sign of movement or even the glow of eyes, but a cloud had crossed the moon and the bushes disappeared into black shadow. I waited, heard the snarl again–close, much too loud to be a raccoon. Definitely not the canine sound of a fox or coyote. Too cat like.
We have never seen a mountain lion in our backwoods, nor any tell- tale prints in the mud or snow, but I have seen dead deer down by the river with their hair shaved off, the way a cat will do. Could a cougar have gotten all three of my chickens? I went to get a flashlight and when I returned I searched every nook and cranny of the yard. At last I heard a very plaintive clucking from behind the garbage can in a corner of the garage and gate. Pulling the can away, I found two of my chickens huddled, one on top of the other, clearly terrified of something. They would not budge and finally I grabbed them, one under each arm, carrying the trembling birds back to the coop and locking them securely inside. Then I went in search of Big Red.
The flashlight beam caught the white shine of fluff, a scattering of tail feathers on the grass. I looked to the snarling bushes, but all was silent and still. Clearly something had been in the yard and chased the terrified chickens. That something must have gotten Big Red.
I love living on the edge of the wild. The sound of coyotes in the backwoods lulls me to sleep and I thrill to see tracks in the forest that tell of my wild neighbors comings and goings. But tonight a line had been crossed. The fence, though it keeps out the deer and protects my fruit trees from their hunger, is not of course enough to keep out a mountain lion. But there was something about the wild coming so close into my home space that discomfited me. Though I knew it was irrational, a primal sort of fear crept into my body and made me toss and turn all night.
The next morning I went out to feed the chickens and there, under the apple tree, Big Red, completely tailless, scratched at the ground for worms. Last night I must have opened the back door just in time for her to escape the cat’s jaws. What then, had the cat been tearing apart? Or was it simply letting me know it’s displeasure in my interruption?
I am eight years old, hiking through the meadow, slogging along behind my mother’s long strides. We stop at a clump of columbine, their sky blue petals offset the crisp white centers folded into elaborate origami shapes. It is the flower that means home to me—the Colorado mountains and their secrets enfolded its form like the magic phrases of the cooty catchers we make in school. I reach out to pick one, a columbine of my own to place in a rusty tin can and set in my room, a way to bring the mountains home with me. But my mother’s hand stays my own.
“Don’t pick the flowers,” she says. “We have to leave them for others to enjoy.”
I look across the acres of meadow around me. We have not seen another soul since we camped here a week ago. The meadow is blue speckled with clumps of columbine as far as the eye can see. I don’t understand. Why can’t I take just one? Why can’t I hold onto this symbol of the perfect week for awhile anyway?
I don’t want to go home, back to the city and my friends and school and all the little dramas that play out among a group of preteen girls. I want to hold on to this week of sleeping in the silent woods, listening for the stirrings of a world beyond the human one. I want to run across the meadow and feel the freedom of it, not go back to the playground where I never run for freedom, but in competition against the others, trying to prove myself. I want to stay here where I do adult tasks, where I saw logs and chop wood and build fires. I want to live in clothes saturated in woodsmoke and let my long hair tangle and mat, my tennis shoes get crusted in fine red dust. I don’t want to go home where I have to wash the earth from my body and put on stiff clean clothes and skirts that restrict what I can do and try to make my flyaway hair conform to some style from a teen magazine.
I defy my mother’s prohibition. I pick the flower, soak a kleenex in the cold little creek and wrap it around the stem. My mother says nothing. When we get back to camp she gives me a water bottle to prop it up in.
But by the time we home, the columbine has wilted, tucking all the mountain’s secrets into its crushed petals.