Breaking out the bowdrill kit again, I arrange my instruments on a flat patch of grass, fighting myself the whole way. I've been complacent about starting to make fires by friction, and now that I'm in a smaller camp to begin the rice harvest and we're determined to not use matches, if we don't use bowdrill, we won't have fire.
I place the fireboard in front of me, settle it under the arch of my bare foot. Tighten the tension of the string on the bow, keep my knife ready to the side. I twist the spindle into the string and meticulously adjust my posture for maximum efficiency.
I don't want to do this, I want to be able to flick a tiny wooden stick and feel the burn of sulfur in my nose and just know that I'll be able to have fire and cook--
The resistant chatter ricocheting through my brain fades into the rhythm of the bow, the constant flow of tiny adjustments. More speed here, less pressure there, until I hit the sweet spot, the thrum of friction that my body remembers even after two turns of the seasons, and fragrant smoke drifts into my face.
Consistency, I remind myself. I don't need to be stronger, I don't need to be faster, I just need to be smooth, consistent.
I stop, arms trembling, and the smoke holds, winding steadily upward from a tiny pile of black powder, its heart breathing red. Shaky, I sandwich the living ember between two pieces of charcoal and blow, watching the nascent fire spread like lava between my hands. I blow and blow and when she is ready to give birth I hurriedly set her down in the ashes of the hearth and place a bundle of tinder and blow again. A flicker of blue and yellow, then a lick of flame, hungry, reaching, consuming, crackling, fire.
This is solar power at its most basic, most powerful. Solar radiation from a fiery star reaching across the vacuum of space, filtered through a gaseous soup of atmosphere. Drinking light and carbon dioxide and water, the trees in an act of alchemy convert it to carbon, to living wood. The wood dies and ages, and a dance of friction and heat releases the very power of the sun.
I breathe one word of awe and gratitude, a reverence matches never taught me.
It's the most satisfying sound I've ever heard. I can barely describe it, a sweet rain of plops as rice lands in the water, then a musical wooden sound as the rest lands in the canoe.
I push the paddle against the shallow bottom of the lake, finding purchase on rice and lily roots, a wavering gold and green corridor that embraces us under a hot, open sky as Kerstin sweeps the rice over the boat with a cedar stick and give the ripe heads a decisive knock.
I am always amazed at th variation I find when foraging. Why is this rice tall and this rice short? Why do these lush green heads fall so easily and these ripe purple ears cling so tenaciously to the stalk? Why are these burgundy heads empty, and others filled with long, dark grains?
All these questions and more pop into my head and I make no conscious effort to solve their mysteries. I can feel all my conscious and unconscious observations being sorted and filed, amalgamated and reconfigured in the 90% of my brain most of my life hasn't had a use for. I have this instinct that the knowing will come as I open myself and simply let myself experience, season after season.
It was the same with the blackberries at Hazelnut Camp. Why do these shrubs that come only to my knees give small, hard berries that taste miraculously ripe and sweet, while these swooping vines draped over with huge, plump, juicy berries taste bland and bitter? Why is this patch still white-green blushing red, and this thick with black? Is it the direction of exposure to sunlight? Afternoon or morning sunlight? Relationship with other plants? Soil nutrients?
Some of this I will discover through research, but largely I find myself content to let all the information drop deep into my complex human brain. An ancestral ferment has been passed down to me through thousands of generations, from a time when the average human had the depth of knowledge about their ecosystem that I have about Pern, Arrakis, and Middle Earth.
In an open pocket of lilypads and water I ponderously begin turning the canoe around to start another row in the rice bed. Amid all the vegetation the long, narrow boat has the turning radius of the Queen Mary. My hair is finally long enough to tie back into a high club, and with a Swedish military surplus bandana to guard me from a skin-crisping sun, my silhouette suggests either desert princess or viking warrior.
Swish, knock, rain, as Kerstin twists to the side to gracefully sweep more stalks over the boat. Swish, knock, rain.
On this tiny rice lake I can envision back a thousand turns of the seasons, each wheel of time layered on the other, every one the same and every one unique, a palindrome of the continuum of rice that has lasted for a millenium.
We are movement within the greater movement. And the rice is moving, moving through time. The Mother provides, and she does not wait. It doesn't matter our preferences, the projects we wanted to do, our mood. The rice is now, and we are ricing.
Drifting on the subtly rippled surface of the lake, I toss out a slug on the end of my line and take out my notebook to write.
I have just returned from eating an irresponsible quantity of raspberries.
I thought I had found a reliable metric: When they stop tasting good, stop eating them. My body sends me a gradual but clear signal-- Stop, I'm sated. But some primordial urge keeps me plucking berries so ripe they look bruised, trembling pendulously from their drooping vines.
I hear Fridolin and Andrea calling to each other, trying to find their canoes on the peninsula. Fridolin sings a shamanic chant from his heart, echoing through the bog and across the water.
I haven't intended this as a serious fishing trip. I'm borrowing someone's slugs and it's more a way to multitask. But bass are breaching all around me, and I spy a fat worm in the slug pile.
I'm not considered a squeamish person. I've dealt with any number of open wounds on humans, dogs, and horses, and I started giving my mom injections of multiple sclerosis medication when I was nine. I still squirm in empathy with the half worm I've cut with my thumbnail as I push the hook through his body, imagining an echo of a barbed iron spike being driven through my ribcage and belly.
No sooner do I toss him overboard into a bed of rushes off the tip of the peninsula than the chip of red pine bark I've wound the line around bobs under, and I haul in a lovely medium-sized bass. She flops for her life as I carefully hold the rest of my line out of the way to keep it from getting tangled. Wrapping my hand around her supple, armored body behind the gills, I silently thank her for her life, and acknowledge the pain of the death blow I'm about to deliver.
I'm always sad when I kill. I don't try to stop the sadness. I embrace it, accept it. It feels right. I am ending a life in one manifestation so that it can continue in another-- the life of my people, literally, as the bass' flesh becomes our flesh; psycho-emotionally, as we honor our relationship with the bass by celebrating their wonder and hunting them respectfully with regard to their needs as a species; and spiritually, as the spirit of Bass becomes the spirit of Human. Human blood becomes mosquito's flesh becomes dragonfly becomes bass.
The Hoop of Life, the food chain, it's all the same thing.
"Gio, these shells need to go into the nutshell basket."
I glance pointedly at the overturned cast iron lid filled with shards of fire-blackened almond shells.
"Those aren't mi-ine," Gio squeaks, somewhere between a bird and a mouse, one of the plethora of voices in his estimable repertoire.
"Gio, I watched you roast the nuts, crack them, eat them, and put your shells in there." Squatting with his tummy sticking out between his knees as he helps Zander saw off chunks of bearfat into a pot, Gio gives me a serene smirk, and ignores me.
Something hard and sharp starts to rise out of my inner depths. I take a breath and let it go, my waters receding, calm, still. There will be another opportunity.
The children are a culture within our greater camp culture, and for the next eight suns I have been granted a visa into a strange, foreign land. I'm in the children's food drop. My allotment of the food we don't forage, which is provided by the support center, is divided with theirs, apportioned by their rules, cooked with theirs, and eaten on an entirely different schedule. A few adults are periodically rotating in to experience the children's culture and support them around the hearth --help them motivate themselves to gather their firewood and fresh boughs, cook, wash their hands and take out their compost.
Annika, our pioneering predecesor in the children's food drop, is a vivacious and child-like graduate of the Yearlong Program who has seemingly endless energy to play Pied Piper with the boys to accomplish all their tasks of daily living.
I do not. It's exhausting, something like herding reluctant statues.
I drop the issue of the nutshells and go back to chewing my squash. I watch Zander's mat of sunlight hair dangle over the pot as he concentrates on cutting bearfat with what I don't doubt is a profoundly dull knife.
Finished munching my squash, I eye the chipmunk making furtive forays around the edges of the children's hearth, and stash the rest of the cooked squash in a pot. Looking around the squalor of withered boughs littered with eggshells and squash seeds, I can't find the lid-- until I realize it's exactly where we left it, full of nutshells.
"Gio, I need that lid to cover the squash, so I really need you to put your nutshells away."
Glancing up, Gio stands wordlessly, wipes bear grease off his little hands, and goes to pour his nutshells in the bin.
Watching him, there are no thoughts in my head. Then my eyes narrow faintly. Something is fighting to click into place in my brain, as if I am just on the cusp of understanding.
"Miigwetch,It is enough (used like 'thanks')." I tell him, puzzled, not at him, but at the jigsaw puzzle within myself. "That was really helpful."
"Do you know where the boys are?" I ask Dakota, realizing how quiet camp is.
Rocking back on her bare heels at the intersection of the trail with the log bridge to the drinking spot, her closed face and the slight shake of her head suggest to me harried exasperation.
"I believe Zander and Ishi are across the lake picking berries," she tells me in her precise diction, hands on hips over baggy pants, "and Jason might be with them."
I understand her resignation. Berries are one of the few areas where the children have any self-motivation whatsoever. That and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Thing is, if we don't get firewood, we're not going to have much to eat.
The gears in the creative chaos fermenting in my mind fracture and shift, reforming a new picture.
"This may work out perfectly," I inform the world in general.
Dakota cracks a smile, the light back in her hazel eyes.
"What're you up to?" she asks me, eyebrows quirked quizzically.
"I'm going with the childen's flow," I call over my shoulder, already hurrying through the fragrant zhingobbalsam fir corridor toward the canoe canal.
Paddling furiously across the sunlit lake, I start tying the pieces of my idea together, entirely unsure if it's going to work, and insecure in the face of seven- to eleven-year-old rejection. What if they just think I'm stupid? The boys responded well once before to this tactic when I took them on a camoflaged stealth strike to the armored vessel of the visiting dignitaries (picking up moccasins from the car at the trailhead), and I don't know if I can score two for two.
I head first for the berry hill directly across the lake from the canoe canal, and as I approach the shore I hear Ishi and Jason's voices carried across the water a little to the south.
"Guys! Thank Paladine I found you!" I call, hurrying to the tiny landing where they've stashed their canoe. "I bring new intelligence!"
"What?" Zander yells back, all three faces appearing at the shore.
"What you haf to tell us?" Jason calls.
"Wait! Our voices may carry over the water. There might be spies."
"What is it?" Jason insists blankly. I swear, they have no appreciation for suspense.
"I'll tell you when I'm on shore. We don't want to be overheard."
"What is it?" he asks again, same tone, same inflection, same blank face.
"Jason!" I huff as my canoe bumps the shore and I hurriedly climb out. "I told you, there might be spies."
Bemused, they follow me inland over a thick carpet of umber pine needles. As we sit down in a clear patch amid a tangle of tipups I tell them, "Comrades. Two ravens came to me and told me of a mighty battle between the god of the North Wind--" I glance at the direction the tipups are laying. "--actually, looks like it was the god of the South Wind, and the dryad soldiers of the dragon god of light, Paladine. There are dozens of the slain, and among the bodies of the fallen there are spoils to be had."
All three children stare at me dumbly.
"Treasure," I emphasize.
"What means dryad?" Jason interjects, studying me intently from beneath his tangled bangs.
"Tree people," I tell him. "And look! You're already here!" I throw out my arms to encompass the tangle of tipups. A more perfect location I couldn't have imagined. "Did the ravens already tell you?" I ask incredulously.
"Noooo..." says Zander, dirt-smudged face mystified.
"Then how did you know?"
I can see Ishi's literal mind is already at work decoding my story, the same way he did with the stealth strike scenario.
"Sooo..." His down-turned chocolate eyes regard me seriously. "The fallen trees are the dead dryads."
"Here lie many of the slain," I agree solemnly, squashing any frustration that his unraveling might kill the opportunity for Zander and Jason.
"And the treasure is... firewood?"
"The bodies of these dryads are imbued with the power of the god Paladine, who is the god of light and warmth. Right?" I glance at Zander for confirmation.
"He's the dragon god of light," he recites from his mental encyclopedia of home-brewed D&D.
"Exactly. So we may take back his treasure and release its magic in our hearth."
"... Fire?" Ishi guesses.
"If we want to eat this sun," I agree.
Then, to my surprise, "Okay." They pad over and start snapping off branches.
"This is almost like real life!" Ishi says, half puzzled, half cheerful. I suppress a smile.
"Nooo it's not!" Zander rebuts, probably just because his brother said it. "I'm gathering these twi-igs!" he giggles, taunting me in his constant quest to follow the letter and not the spirit.
"If you only gather twigs I'm going to serve you two twigs worth of squash," I threaten, and he giggles again, scraping his mat of sunlight hair out of his dirty face.
Abruptly, Jason hauls a dead pine sapling upright.
"Look! De tree mans are coming back alife!"
Handing Jason a stick Zander squeals, "And this is his sword!" as I exclaim, "A survivor!"
Jason, now a ravening, PTSD-stricken dryad, rumbles threateningly at us, towering high above.
"Faithful servant of Paladine, fear not!" I drop to my knees in front of the sapling, my hands raised in supplication. "We are friends, come to help!" And rob your dead... "I am a healer!" Wilderness EMT surely counts. "Allow me to tend your grave wounds."
The dryad wavers, torn between smashing us in a beserker frenzy and accepting a little TLC. Jason pokes his lips out, considering, then the dryad slowly sinks to the needle-carpeted forest floor. I lay my hands on the sapling.
"Brave servant, by the power of the dragon god, be healed!" An aside to the boys: "There's a ring of light expanding from my hands."
Jason hoists the sapling upright again, rumbling again.
"Please!" I entreat. "We have come for the gifts of your people. Who are the most powerful of your warriors that we might gather from them?" Jason considers again, then the dryad points with its sword at two tipups.
"We thank you!"
"Okay, de tree mans again dead," Jason announces and drops the sapling.
"Did you make up that story?" Ishi asks me as we scale a mother tipup and I start passing him branches. His round face is full of his unique innocence, framed by his Beatles bob and bangs.
"The ravens told me," I tell him, watching him process that illusory line between fiction and reality. Jason, to my complete surprise, is even breaking up firewood, and he and Zander start to bicker about who's going to carry it to the canoe.
"I liked it," Ishi says after a long silence.
"Would you like to hear more stories like that?"
"Okay. Let's go cook lunch."
Being As a Question
"When I was walking through here I saw so many hazelnuts it just boggled my mind." Dakota guides us down a National Forest road west of our new camp, a manic gleam in her merry eyes.
Peering through the hazelnut bushes lining either side of the two track road, eyes straining, I do not feel encouraged. I've been to an abundant hazelnut area about an hour and a half away via a box on wheels that feeds on noxious fumes, and what I'm seeing doesn't even remotely compare. My search image is not refined yet, and I can only pick out a handful of fuzzy green bells. I've heard from people who have lived here for years that we don't have a lot of hazelnuts and it's almost impossible to wrestle them from the squirrels.
I didn't exactly believe Dakota at first when she returned from her walkabout and enthusiastically proposed a spontaneous Hazelnut Camp to take advantage of the mountains of wild foods she was finding. We would form a separate camp about three miles away from Wabanong(camp) in the south and live entirely off the land, no food drop from the support center, basically for as long as we could stand it.
"I realized I could drop off the face of the earth, or I could take half the clan with me," she laughed. "We're going to go out for a quarter moon! Maybe even half a moon!"
Uh-huh, I thought.
On my morning scouting the area with Rab, high on an irresponsible volume of blackberries, I allowed myself to get excited. If there were enough nuts we could live off them and send them back to Wabanong to cure and put up for the White Season. But I've lived with people who have gone out on eight sun trips into these woods with no food, people with a decade of experience on us, and listened to their stories of how hard it was. But here I am, dedicated to trying.
"We're gonna be out here half a moon," Rab says with his typical mellow confidence and a small nod, all square framed glasses and surfer hair.
Three suns, I think, maybe four, and we might be fasting the last two, and we'll be back at Wabanong.
In the westering light I heft my pillowcase and start plucking. The soft peach fuzz is deceptive, and my hands rapidly fill with tiny spines.
"I'm leaving the little ones," I say to Dakota as she cruises by me in green army wool and graying curls, enviably efficient, her search image already fine-tuned.
"I'm taking them all," she tells me gleefully.
Thinking of the squirrels and future generations of hazelnuts, I'm torn: There's not a lot here, and we're going to need everything that we can get. When gathering plants we generally have a Rule of Three-- take one third of what's there and the plant or area will be able to recover and reproduce. Should I only take one in three hazelnuts when there are so few here?
The question nags at me as I pick everything I find, my hands rapidly desensitized to the needles.
Finally, I ask Hazelnut, What should I do? How much can I take?
And she says to me, Take it all. You're the only ones doing this in this time and this place, going to this edge to relearn how to live with us. Take what you need.
"There is so much food here," Rab enthuses, eying our dinner feast spread around the hearth through his square frames. A pile of beaked hazelnuts, a pyramid of fish, skewers of grasshoppers, bandanas full of greens, a handful of frogs. Culinary quality and variety we lack not.
"I know!" Chris says, stripping a toasted grasshopper off the skewer, still looking after four moons in the woods like he stepped out of a city gym in a sleeveless hoodie. "It's amazing."
My estimation of our calories is different, but I don't say anything. I know we're not getting as much food as we would on the food drop, but many people don't feel hungry. They're being filled by something other than food, filled with the empowerment of independence, of being able to do something about being hungry instead of just waiting for the food drop to magically arrive at the trailhead.
"I was thinking, 'The Mother provides,'" I tell them, "but can we keep up?" I crack another hazelnut, hull spraying lemony juice, and pick out the white meat to add to my pile. I'm pretty sure hazelnuts are our best source of bulk fat right now, the one thing our diet is really lacking, and I'm hitting them hard. All sun every sun we gather food, and the rest of the time we crack hazelnuts and sleep.
Claire nibbles on a leaf across the hearth, ever quiet, notebook out and ready on her knee to record her many thoughts.
"More berries," Fridolin informs the after-dinner-glow, attempting to finger comb through the snarls in his shoulder length hair, a cherry stuck in his beard.
"Don't talk to me about berries," I moan. Even the thought makes me feel mildly ill, considering I ate a ball of them about the size of my head for breakfast.
"There can never be too many berries," Rab informs me, popping to his feet and scrubbing hazelnut stickers out of his hands on the front of his pants.
"Look at this one!" I hold out a hulled hazelnut almost as big as the first digit of my forefinger. I've always heard that beaked hazelnuts are smaller than the wild American Hazelnuts I've gathered before, but these nuts rival or surpass any American Hazelnut I've eaten.
"Whoaaa," Rab says.
"And look at this," I continue, holding up what appears to be a small nut, still tightly encased in spiny hull. "Looks small in the hull, inside, totally average nut. The big hulls are all full of air space."
It's sun five of Hazelnut Camp, and I wasn't even convinced we would make it to sun four. My mind opening up to the ever expanding universe of possibility, I realize that I haven't been as a question. I always heard there weren't a lot of hazelnuts, that they were small, so I didn't believe they could be worth gathering. The people I know with Turns of experience were severely challenged by eight sun trips living off the land, so I didn't believe we could do it. But I didn't open myself to the potential of seasonal variation, a low squirrel population, or that my more experienced clanmates were giving themselves other challenges, like going into the wild without fishing hooks and line, or going in the White Season, or going in the Hunger Moons.
We have hooks and line, and thanks to Dakota's scouting and Rab's initiative to go the very next morning after Hazelnut Camp was proposed, we have had the incredible opportunity to go as incompetent infants into the wild and be consistently fed. Closed to possibility, sure I had the answers, I could never have been a catalyst for this experience. What Dakota saw as abundance I compared to my previous experience and wouldn't have bothered with. But for five suns the hazelnuts have fed nine people.
"Berries?" Fridolin proposes, dusting off the thick wool coat he wears even on mild suns.
Chris: "Fer sure, man!"
I dream Amazon.com has given me a $10,000 gift card as part of a credit card promotion. I don't believe it. It has to be fake. When I hit refresh on my internet browser it won't be there.
But it is.
I let myself get excited, thinking about all the things I can buy. With my lifestyle I can live ove this for Turns. I keep thinking that it's going to be taken away, that it's a mistake, but it keeps being proven again and again that it's real.
At the end of my dream I'm in a cafeteria line and there's a whole rack of gourmet food that is only 25 cents a serving because it's a couple of suns old, and I can afford as much as I want. But there are so many choices and I can only fit so much in my belly, and I don't know what to choose.
When I wake, a bleak grief overwhelms me. It was just a dream. I don't really have a $10,000 gift card. All my excitement and sense of security weren't real. The symbolism is obvious, my dreamself's metaphor for all the abundance around me. But my feeling self doesn't care. The abundance is not for me.
The abundance is not for me.
We've been invited to the Naming Feast of two of our campmates back at Wabanong, and I make the hike toward celebration amid the cheery company of the other Nutters heavy hearted. I gather oxeye daisy, basswood, strawberry, dandelion, plaintain, raspberry, and red clover blossoms for a salad on the way. I want to be present for my campmates in their joy, but as I touch the pain inside me all I can feel is like crying. I find myself irritated by the people around me, judging their small idiosyncrasies and greater patterns.
After the feast Rab and Scott have decided to stay in Wabanong. They've learned what they need to learn at Hazelnut Camp. Sewing up my shoe by firelight for my hike back in the overcast dusk, I know that my pain and discomfort mean I am dancing on my edges, on the cusp of a threshold to I know not where.
And I just know-- I have to go back.
The sound-sensation of ripping hair as I pull a few strands from my scalp and let them drift from my fingers to the forest floor. They are my offering, a token gift from my body in preemptive gratitude for what I am about to receive; a physical manifestation of a sacred pause for me to consider the lives I will take or alter to sustain myself.
I am so hungry, I tell the world. Please, I need food.
After eight suns eating nothing but what we forage the hazelnut rush has dried up, and I just made a five mile round trip I didn't really have in me to attend the Naming celebration of two of my campmates. My energy is low, my balance unsteady. I leave my shoes at a fork in the leaf-matted trail so I don't have to hunt to find them, roll up my pant legs and cut through the woods to the bog creeping out over the lake.
High-stepping and barefoot, my blackberry scarred shins are sensitive to the thicket of labrador tea. I weave around a clump of stunted tamaracks, tipped with their little scruffy tufts like the mind of Dr. Seuss brought to life. Finally soft, deep sphagnum moss, its spring green burnt to Christmas red by constant exposure to the sun. The sky stretches out above me, mesmerizingly complex, threatening either sunshine or thundershowers as I reach the edge of the lake and take out my fishing pole.
The floating bog undulates beneath me as I reach into my breast pocket for the worms Fridolin gave me. A stream of bubbles burbles to the surface as the bog sinks under my weight, leaving me ankle deep in tannic water.
Opening the bandana, I stare, and want to cry, or sit down and never get up. There's nothing there but a single shred of dried worm, veritable worm jerky. I don't even know if I have the energy to walk the twenty-five canoe lengths to where Fridolin stashes his fishing gear for more bait.
Scouring the bandana I find one more piece of worm jerky that I can break in two.
All right, I tell myself, more than a little overwhelmed. Let's see what happens.
I fenagle the worm jerky onto the hook and toss the line over the edge of the sinking bog, watching the bright spot of the worm fade into the dark water.
Instantly a jerky nibble, a bait thief on a lightning strike, but no fish. I toss the hook back in again.
Another tug and I set the hook and out of the water in a furious silvery spiral erupts a sunfish, thrashing for life at the end of my line. Hurriedly I swing her over the bog before she fights free, reaching out to gently cup her against my thigh, careful of her flaring dorsal spines. Killing her with a few sharp raps from the hilt of my knife, I stow her under some moss out of the sun, untangle my line from a fluffy seed stalk, and toss the worm back in.
Out spirals another sunfish, dappled with glorious orange spots, as big as my whole hand, the biggest I've ever caught.
Again and again pumpkinseeds and bluegills give themselves to the hook, all on three reconstituted worm pieces, until ten fish lie at my feet.
All My Relations
Stuffed full of two dozen little crispy fish and the good fellowship of my campmates, I slowly pick through the brief stretch of woods between the trail and the tiny lake we discovered near camp. Leaving the needle carpeted pine highland behind, I step into a calf-deep sea of soft, bright green grass broken only by our meandering trail to the water. The fragrance of mint drifts up around me as I walk through their soft leaves and tiny purple flowers, the warm firelight of the setting sun saying farewell to me. Only an elbow of the lake is visible here, so that this bowl of water and grass and mint seems embraced by the pine highlands.
I am so filled with gratitude that I start to choke up. I could easily hold it in, but I release my feeling into the world and let myself sob.
So many have cared for me in these nine suns. Every hazelnut bush who gave me her children, every sunfish who gave himself to the hook, the sickeningly abundant blackberries, the grasshoppers and frogs and ants, the oxeye and evening primrose flowers, the strawberry and dandelion and basswood leaves, my campmates. So many beings who have given me their lives, their children, their guidance.
"Thank you," I whisper under my breath, wet tracks dripping down my face. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
Suddenly I am overtaken with the sense that every living thing in the embrace of the lake --the pines, the water, the leeches, the birds, the frogs, the grass, the breeze, the clouds, the sky, the mosquitoes, the fallen logs-- is welcoming me back. As if I've been prodigal my entire life, or for the past twenty generations, but my place has been saved for me and all I have to do is step back into it.
It's as if I've been here for these four moons, but I wasn't here until I gave myself to this direct relationship with the beings who sustain me. There is no farmer between us, no store, no exchange of imaginary numbers or meticulously designed paper, not even the food drop from the support center. I give to them of my body and my spirit, and they give to me of theirs.
Nine suns of doubt, fullness, revelation, hunger, excitement, weakness, satiation, bliss, discomfort. Standing there in the soft, bright green grass under a burning sky, I cry like my heart is broken, and maybe it is, just broken open.
One-thousand seventy-eight, one-thousand seventy-nine, one-thousand eighty--
"For why do you haf dis?" Katja asks, popping another bit of banana into Jokim's mouth as we sit on the the fresh balsam fir boughs wreathing the hearths.
"Mmm," I tell her.
"Because we never use dis, and that is why I was wondering."
"Mmm-mm-mmm.Four minutes." I try to reclaim her attention as she picks a fleck of leaf out of Jokin's brilliant blond head, pointing at the thermometer in my mouth. I hold up four fingers and her pale eyes stare at me uncomprehendingly from under her curls.
I'm testing thermometers for the first-aid kits. Mercury free, analog, I hold each one awkwardly tucked under my tongue, approximating the requisite four minutes by counting to two-hundred and forty.
One-thousand ninety-two, one-thousand ninety-three...
Lips cramping, I finally can tell her, "I'm testing if they're accurate."
"Hi there," hails father-Alex, as I distinguish him from my Mad Latvian Scientist Alex, Austrian Alex, and Alexandros. The third and final wave of our clan has arrived, and the camp is buzzing with families scoping out campsites, those of us who have already settled in assisting with setup.
"We are looking for a site for our tent," he starts, "and we and Sarah would like to be close to the hearth for the children taking naps, and Chris said to ask if you might be willing to move."
Something in me turns rigid.
Explore possibilities, I tell myself robotically in that frozen instant.
"Maybe you could see if your tent could actually fit there first," I manage to suggest.
Alex and Sarah go off to scope out my site, and I stare after them.
"It's like it's your destiny," Lety says with gusto, her strong brown healer's hands working a woman's shoulders.
"I'm going to freak out," I tell her.
Moving my living space to accommodate other people is a circumstance that has haunted me for the past three Turns of the Seasons. It began so innocuously: I've moved across state lines and international borders so often that moving within the bounds of the same three buildings didn't seem like that big of a deal. I've even considered it an asset, the ability to be flexible and adaptable around personal space and concept of home. So someone wanted more privacy, we needed more space, whatever the reason, I packed up and moved from house to house to tent to house to house to tarp to house. Until one day someone asked me to move my personal effects out of my workspace, my one place that I could call consistently mine, and I just snapped.
I traced the pain back to my childhood, and even though I know the reason, each time the situation arises again I still feel like snapping. But it keeps coming up, like the universe going out of its way to serve me opportunities in personal growth on a silver platter.
Sarah approaches the hearth, her luxurious dark hair trailing down her back.
"Hey there! It looks like Alex and Sabrina have a spot by the hearth, and I think our tent would fit in your spot. How are you feeling about that?"
I think about arriving, exhausted after at least seven miles hiking cross-country while fasting and suffering from a cold, with no one there to help me as I systematically leveled my tent site, dug out rocks, and made it comfortable. I imagine packing my things, collapsing my tent, and moving out to do it all over again, and I imagine doing it alone. At the imagining I want to go into the woods and cry.
"Is it a need?" It feels like choking.
"Does Gio take naps?" Lety asks, looking up as she kneads, all her sinewy strength against knots of muscle and connective tissue.
"Well, he doesn't really take naps, but it would be nice to be close to the hearth in case he did, or he forgot something. You know, I'm always going to get another pair of socks, and then this and then that..."
No, they showed us two one person tent sites and I already gave up the spot farther from the hearth to to someone else if it was a three person tent site they should have marked it why is everyone looking at me to move they're so lazy they don't even want to walk twenty more feet to get socks-- I am not doing this again, not again, never again.
"You're not looking too happy," Sarah comments.
"I'm feeling really reactive," I tell her, a little wide eyed. "It's not about you, moving for other people is just a major issue for me. I'm not saying no, but I need some time to think." I can feel the charge thrumming through my voice, can't stop it even though I know it's not fair.
"...I'll go look at some other sites," Sarah tells me, and edges away.
My rational adult mind can see that it would be ideal for all the families with itty bitty kids to be closer to the hearth, and that it's easier for me to move as a single person than for a family of three. I'm used to moving. I've never lived in one place for longer than five years. Just as my father grew up playing revolving homesteads around the oil fields and my geologist grandfather, my family has moved from church to church, following my father's job.
When I was eleven, my parents offered me a choice.
"Papa has a job in Colorado, but if you don't want to move, we don't have to."
They gave me the choice. And I was eleven years old and I wanted to be with my parents and do what would please them, do the good, mature, responsible thing.
And I said, "Of course we should go. Papa has a job. It'll be fun."
It happened again when I was sixteen, my last year of high school. My parents had promised me that I could stay in the same place for all of high school, so when my father found a job in North Dakota, they gave me the choice to stay at my school and live with my mom for my senior year.
And I said, "Oh, no, of course we should go. Papa has a job. We should stay together as a family."
Again and again I left my relationships behind, and watched as the friendships I maintained over miles fade as my friends moved on. And there's this voice screaming inside me, No no no not again you should have just said
My throat squeezes into a hard knot, my eyes wet and burning, an inflammation of chronic childhood pain as I share twisting loss and anger and victimization with the women around the hearth. Even though the trigger is something as insignificant as moving my tent fifty yards, the pain is crushing. Out of the corner of my eye I spy our resident documentarian catching my emotional meltdown in HD.
Purged, calmer, ready to move on, I sheepishly look at the man behind the camera.
"I'm going to go find Sarah to tell her about my process," I tell Michel.
"Is it all right if I come along to film?" he asks.
"Sure," I say, wriggling uncomfortably against the edge of my embarrassment. We make a circuit around the hill to where Sarah has apparently found a new site she likes, and Michel trails after me with the camera.
To the chagrin of the part of me that thinks I should be willing to move, in the time it's taken me to process Sarah has already set up her tent.
"Hey, Sarah? Do you have a minute?"
"Uh, sure," she says, dusting off her hands and ducking out from under the rain fly, eyeing me I imagine a little warily.
"I was going through a lot earlier, and you were getting a lot of that charge directed at you, so I just wanted to share what was happening for me."
We sit across from each other and pretend the camera isn't there as I recap my emotional journey.
"I really feel nothing but empathy," Sarah tells me as I finish, the fullness of her feeling painted across her lush, thick eyebrows and endlessly expressive face. "I just want to hug you!" She folds her hands over her heart. "I actually really like my spot here." She pauses, thinking. "I guess the one thing I have a concern about is if I might be enabling you in a belief, or a pattern, that you have to go to a painful place to say, 'No.' I hope you'd be able to say from a place of centeredness, 'No, I'm really comfortable where I am, and I don't want to move.'"
Something in me resists that piercingly clear insight, then it clicks, and slides into place.
I don't move. Even though I can, I don't.
A moon later it becomes clear that Sarah's site is unsafe from the dead trees that might fall on her tent during heavy winds, and my site is still the best option for her and her two boys. With the help of three of my clanmates I pick a new site, level it, and move my gear. It's quieter here, more restful on the outskirts of camp. In fact, I infinitely prefer it to my first site. I just needed the space to reclaim my power to say no, so I could serve my circle by saying yes.
"How can my suns be so full of meaning, and yet I feel so purposeless?" I asked Chris as we watched naked children cavorting in the water, bathed in the intense golden light before evening. I didn't expect an answer. It was the question I'd been asking myself the past few suns as in the still spaces --between gathering firewood, milkweed, boughs, playing with children, cooking, getting to know the people around me-- I would suddenly wonder, But what does it all mean?
Squinting at me against the glare cutting across the tree line on the western shore of the lake, Chris listened to me seriously through the splashing and screams of laughter. With his wavy, graying hair down, the shape of his beard and the fine, aristocratic features of his face have always led me to imagine him serving some Spanish court. Or as a big cat, calmly watching, relaxed and always a predator.
Later in our conversation he told me, "Energy conservation. That's really important for you. Every time you ask yourself, 'Okay, what do I do next,' don't. The Toltecs called it literally 'not-doing.' It's important that we stay engaged, and it's also important that we have those spaces of rest to rejuvinate ourselves so we can give to our circle."
The moon has died and her belly swelled with life again, and after three suns of closely packed meetings and relaxing in between, I'm ready to do. The sun is setting, yet I feel like I've done so little, I think, I still haven't gotten my fishing gear together, or I could work on my tomahawk handle... or I could watch the sunset.
Meeting Joanna, our resident master of hook and line, I get a kit together under her supervision. The colors in the sky have faded and I wonder if there will be anything left to see as I pad down the trail to the swim area through a tunnel of fragrant zhingob saplings.
Settling down on the rock-shored beach, I prop my feet on the wave-worn log. My few framed by the sweeping branches of cedar and pine, I wonder how I could have possibly thought that these faded colors would somehow be less than their earlier glory.
Silhouetted conifer spires line the western sky along the shore of the lake, tipped with a warm rose that fades to beige. I've never thought of beige as a sensual color, the shade of prefab middle class housing developments and the pants of young urban professionals. But here, a swathe of color that fades to a shade I can only describe as dust, then to a powdery blue, all mirrored in the rippled canvas of the lake, it has a delicious richness I've never seen before.
I notice the globes of sturdy needles of the red pine bowing over the water, each spine etched against the sky. A fat-bellied spider wends her way from one puff to the next, as if walking on air. I feel myself drawn into the flow of photosynthesis, imagining for the first time in conscious memory drinking in the sunlight from such a narrow, tough surface, feeling the bloodstream of the tree flushing from needle to trunk, then breathing out again, releasing oxygen, which I drink into my lungs.