“I believe it was the silence that woke me, an unnatural quiet in the silvery half-light before dawn, the hour of wood thrushes’ songs. As I rose through the clouds of sleep, their absence grew alarmingly real. An Adirondack morning usually arrives to the accompaniment of veeries’ and robins’ songs, but not on this day. I rolled over to look at the clock. 4:15. The light outside suddenly shifted from silver to steel and thunder grumbled in the distance. The aspens turned up their leaves to flutter stiffly in the stillness, giving their rain call in the silence left by the birds. They must be hunkered down, I thought, in anticipation of the rain. Around here they say, “Rain before seven, done by eleven.” I’d probably get to go canoeing after all. I snuggled back under my covers to wait it out. That’s when the pressure wave hit the cabin like an axe against a tree.
Jumping out of bed, I ran to shut the cabin door, which had been suddenly flung open by the force of the wind. The cabin windows looked out onto a lake frothing and churning like the ocean, under a sky which had turned a sickly shade of green. The paper birches on the shore were bent nearly horizontal, their thrashing gyrations caught in the strobe of lightning, white on white, as a curtain of electricity advanced across the lake. The big pine over the porch began to wail and the windows seemed to press ominously inward. I herded my small daughters to the back of the cabin. We cowered in anticipation of shattered glass and splintered pine, small and speechless before the storm.
The thunder rolled and rolled, like a long freight train rolling by, then leaving silence in its wake. The sun rose over a placid blue lake. But still there were no birds. Nor would there be for the rest of that summer.
On July 15, 1996, the Adirondacks woke to a landscape battered by the most powerful storm ever recorded east of the Mississippi. Not a tornado, but a microburst, a wall of convective thunderstorms riding a pressure wave off the Great Lakes. Trees were snapped and uprooted in swaths of blowdown that took every tree. Campers were pinned in their tents and hikers stranded in the backcountry, where trails disappeared under piles of timber thirty feet high. Helicopters were dispatched to carry them to safety. In a single hour, vast tracts of shaded woodland became a jumble of torn trees and upturned soil, exposed to the glare of the summer sun.
Such land-clearing events are rare, but forests exhibit remarkable resilience in the face of disaster. I’m told that the Chinese character for catastrophe is the same as that which represents the word opportunity. And the blowdown, while catastrophic, presented opportunity for many species. Aspens, for example, are perfectly adapted to take advantage of periodic disturbances. Quick growing and short lived, aspens produce light wind-blown seeds that sail away on cottony parachutes. In order to travel fast and far, aspen seeds come with minimal baggage. They can live for just a few days, and will die unless they germinate. An aspen seed that lands on an undisturbed forest floor hasn’t a chance of success. Its tiny rootlet, the key to self-sufficiency, cannot penetrate the thick leaf litter and the dense canopy shades out the sun it needs. But, in the aftermath of the storm, the forest floor has been churned up into a tumult of logs and soil thrown up by uprooted trees. In the full sun, on clean mineral soil, the aspen seedlings will be the first to colonise the devastation.
Storms such as this one come perhaps once in a century, but the wind blows nearly every day, rocking the canopy trees and weakening their hold in the soil. The predominant cause of tree mortality in the northern deciduous forest is windthrow. Gravity always wins in the end. In frequent storms, or under winter’s load of ice, individual trees come crashing down with great regularity, like pendulum strokes of the ecological clock. Even on a calm day, you can sometimes hear a tree groan and lean with a whoosh to the ground. The fall of a single tree punches a hole in the canopy and a shaft of light follows it to the forest floor. These small gaps don’t provide enough light for aspens to get started, but there are other species poised to take advantage of someone else’s demise. Yellow birch, for example, thrives on the small mound of earth thrown up by single treefalls and quickly establishes, growing up along the column of light to meet the maples in the canopy. The mound eventually erodes away, leaving the birch standing on stilt-like roots. Yellow birch is generally considered to be a “climax” species, a member of the dominant triad of mature beech-birch-maple forest, and yet its very presence is due to disturbance. Without treefall, yellow birch would disappear, and the triad would be diminished. Paradoxically, disturbance is vital to the stability of the forest.
A forest’s resilience after disturbance lies in its diverse composition. A whole suite of species is adapted to disturbance gaps of different types. Black cherry comes into intermediate size gaps where the soil has been exposed, hickory into small gaps on rocky soils, pine after fires, striped maple after disease. The landscape is like a partially completed jigsaw puzzle in varying shades of green, where holes in the landscape can be filled with one particular piece and no other. This pattern of forest organisation known as gap dynamics is known in forests around the world, from the Amazon to the Adirondacks.”
-from ‘Gathering Moss’, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2003
I pull a splinter out of my thumb and inspect it. It’s knife-sharp, shockingly so. It cut my fingers as I removed it. How was this inside me for so long, something so vicious, and I’d carried on as if it were never there? I toss it aside, and tell my companion that it’s been in there a very long time- I’d forgotten about it, actually, or perhaps I’d given up hope of ever being rid of it, so it was hidden where I wouldn’t think of it.
My companion is very tall. She usually is, in dreams, that’s how I can tell it’s Her. She asks me what zodiac sign I am. I wonder if we’re flirting. She comments on my-
“Water. Cardinal water.”
-and tells me she’s Scorpio.
I’ve never seen a hurricane before. Barely seen a tropical storm, a smaller one here and there, and even then I was terrified. It’s hard to connect to images of hurricanes, I think, if you are urban and English, southern-English for that matter. It’s alien, something that happens to Other People.
I couldn’t imagine wind pushing mature trees to kneel and break. The relentless rain crushing herb gardens under it’s weight. Rivers and drains that swell and consume and kill, and clear skies and sunlight that cook and desiccate and scorch.
I complained to my sister about how Americans don’t complain about the weather enough. What do they talk about? we despaired. Sport, we concluded. Silly Americans.
If there was ever a time to meet the Raging Lady of Storms, this is it. I’ve been broken down over the last month, a solid year’s worth of crust painfully peeled away, the accumulated armour of solitude and thoughts cracked open like a shell.
“Water. Cardinal water.”
Destruction in service of creation. Death in the service of life. Descent into darkness, so that transformation may be achieved before rebirth. The Heroine returns stronger from the cave of trials, so that she is uniquely and properly prepared for the next part of her quest. Persephone, returning from the Underworld, armed with the kinds of gifts only darkness and pain can bestow.
Transformed and reborn, like the Phoenix.
I went to a workshop in stone-coloured Derbyshire last weekend, ran by Iris Lican and Lila Nuit. Iris and Lila are Portuguese, Portuguese medicine-women-artist-weavers. They read me a Portuguese song about collecting feathers to build wings, so that we can fly. Like the Fire Bird, they said, like the Phoenix.
Did you know the word for ‘feather’ in Portuguese is the same as the word for ‘sorrow’?
In Portuguese it comes from two sources; the Latin noun ‘poena’, for punishment or penalty, and the Latin nouns ‘penna’ and ‘pinna’, for a feather, a wing or a quill-pen.
As far as I can tell, Portuguese is the only language that includes the second meaning, ‘feather’, although other Latin-led languages all have related meanings of punishment and pain.
I collect feathers. I’ve collected them in earnest for about three years now, moving from only picking up pretty ones to picking up every single dropped plume I see, regardless of beauty or brilliance. Every single feather. I have bags of them. It’s no haughty collection; there is no organisation, categorisation or separation. I have no idea which feathers are from villages of Italy, mountains of Zurich or grey streets of London or Houston, Manchester or Paris. I have no idea how old any of them are. Very few are identified, only the easy ones. The bulging glut of gulls from my heart-home in Cornwall. The black vulture primaries from Brazos Bend, just south of Houston, where I got married. The new additions; two raven feathers from Scotland, (gifts from an Israeli raven-eagle-soul-brother), and a fresh, fluffy down from, I suppose, a dove, picked from the grass by my best friend, who handed it to his wife, who handed it to me, who tucked it behind my ear and gave a prayer of thanks for people and for penas.
But am I collecting sorrows, punishment and pain, or feathers, wings, and quill-pens to write with?
Does understanding the desired meaning depend on context? Or it is something more nuanced than that?
I love words. I hope I can get good enough one day to do words justice. I like to speak carefully. I like to choose the words that express exactly the truth, even when truth itself can be slippery.
My favourite types of words are evocative ones. I like ‘rapacious’, because the sound of the word, from the growling beginning to the harsh SHH at the end, all evoke the unquenchable, grasping hunger the word is trying to recall. Say it out loud. Feel and see those ugly, teeth-baring faces as you speak it.
RRRRRAP – AY – SSSHHUS.
I like to hear and see meaning in a word.
I like words with complex meanings, too.
I like ‘lofty’ because it says height and airiness, your nose rises with the hard ‘O’ sound and your entire face relaxes into quiet bliss on the second syllable, but it’s meaning has an undertone of venom, a sneer from the speaker. To be called ‘lofty’ is not to be called ‘honourable,’ or ‘illustrious.’ To choose ‘lofty’ to describe a person or a thing is to say something very specific about them.
I like the clarity of expression from a carefully chosen word.
I think words with some complexity of meaning and feeling, some opaqueness around them, give us more room to express our complicated truths, emotions and sensations. Words alone cannot capture the richness of our experience, so words that come close to this are a gift.
So from pena, I am gifted. Not with one meaning or the other, but with both at the same time.
I am collecting sorrows, punishment, pain, feathers, wings, and quill-pens to write about it all with.
Which I suppose is what I’m doing now.
Something like a Fire Bird, like a Phoenix, right?
When I was a kid I was alone for a very long time, and I was afraid. That is another story, for another time. I did what lots of other kids did, and I made up many characters and stories and spun yarns into escape ropes. That is also another story for another time, but a couple of characters in particular stuck with me from my teens.
One was Redbird.
I feel like we’re friends enough that I can show you art I did in my wayward teens without fear of judgement, no? Good, I thought so.
So Redbird is obviously the red lady. I drew this in my late teens, as I was starting to get better at digital painting. I didn’t stick with Redbird’s story long enough to call it developed, so I don’t know much about her. I know she was older than the usual fantasy waifs, so she was in her thirties (which isn’t old but come on, I was a teenager!). She wasn’t the ‘chosen one’ or anything special or magical, just a merchant. She travelled alone, she was a savvy saleswoman, she knew about trees. I liked her independence, her strength, her earthiness and her visibility in an otherwise male-dominated trade.
More than that, I liked that she protected Eleanor. Eleanor is the other one in this picture, the smaller one, the one closer to my age when I drew this, the one who is unmistakably magical.
Here’s a Halloween postcard I drew & sent to my family that year;
I had no real plot set down, but I knew in general that Redbird had a sad and complicated past, she was strong and sorrowful. Eleanor was outcast, alone, but with the zest that comes with being young. She held magic, but I never figured out what kind exactly. And Eleanor always had bandages on her feet and legs.
The story was never written past it’s barest bones: Redbird ended up hiding and protecting little Eleanor, always, somehow.
“On Writing” by Stephen King is one of my favourite books. He is an artist that makes other artists (art is an isolating condition sometimes), feel like family.
“By 1985 I had added drug addiction to my alcohol problem, yet I continued to function, as a good many substance abusers do, on a marginally competent level. I was terrified not to; by then I had no idea how to live any other life. I hid the drugs I was taking as well as I could, both out of terror – what would happen to me without dope? I had forgotten the trick of being straight – and out of shame. I was wiping my ass with poison ivy again, this time on a daily basis, but I couldn’t ask for help. That’s not the way you did things in my family. In my family what you did was smoke your cigarettes and dance in the Jell-O and keep yourself to yourself.
Yet the part of me that writes the stories, the deep part that knew I was an alcoholic as early as 1975, when I wrote ‘The Shining’, wouldn’t accept that. Silence isn’t what that part is about. It began to scream for help the only way it knew how, through my fiction and through my monsters. In late 1985 and early 1986 I wrote ‘Misery’ (the title quite aptly described my state of mind), in which a writer is held prisoner and tortured by a psychotic nurse. In the spring and summer of 1986 I wrote ‘The Tommyknockers’, often working until midnight with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.
‘Tommyknockers’ is a forties-style science fiction tale in which the writer-heroine discovers an alien spacecraft buried in the ground. The crew is still on board, not dead but only hibernating. These alien creatures got into your head and just started…well, tommyknocking around in there. What you got was energy and a kind of superficial intelligence (the writer-heroine, Bobbi Anderson, creates a telepathic typewriter and an atomic hot-water heater, among other things). What you gave up in exchange was your soul. It was the best metaphor for drugs and alcohol my tired, overstressed mind could come up with.”
-”On Writing” – Stephen King, 2000.
This little patch of text (in what is a forest of advice and empathy from a writer I really admire), stuck in me, like that splinter.
“Art is a Way of Knowing.”
Redbird was sad and strong. Eleanor was a hidden power, magical, alone, and with bandaged feet.
Maybe I can learn about my Redbird, protecting the magical and wounded child, flying on wings of collected penas.
Something like a Phoenix, right?
To be honest, I always struggled with the metaphor of the Phoenix. It arises from it’s own ashes, reborn after it’s cataclysmic destruction. Beautiful, inspiring.
But I wonder sometimes if I would rather be Hydra, or at least the version of Hydra from later stories.
Hydra is a multi-headed water serpent. In these later tales, the Hydra grows like a plant: for every head chopped off, two sprout in it’s place.
Rather than being reborn again, exactly as perfect as we were before, like the Fire Bird, the Phoenix, we can be as Hydra, growing stronger and bigger and different every time we are cut down.
In the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus, the goddess Hera sends the Hydra to kill Hercules. Hydra lives under the earth, in caves and in the ocean, far from the lofty heights of the rainbow Phoenix. Hercules called upon his nephew Iolaus to help destroy the Hydra, and had Iolaus cauterise the neck stump of every head Hercules cut off, to stop Hydra from regenerating. Seeing that Hercules & Iolaus were winning, Hera sent a giant crab to distract the warriors during the fight, although to no use, as both giant animals were defeated.
Upset at their demise, Hera placed both her creatures in the blue tapestry of the sky, as the constellation Hydra and the constellation Cancer.
Luckily for me, I believe in ‘both and more’ rather than ‘either/or’, and am happy to be both the shining perfection of a resurrected Fire Bird, and the ugly tenacity of the subterranean water serpent, growing stronger with each defeat.
But I think, as I lean into my watery sorrows, my frozen and ugly parts, I am more Hydra than Phoenix at the moment.
What do you think? Hydra or Phoenix, or do you think one can successfully channel both? Have you read either of the books I mentioned? (‘Gathering Moss’ by Robin W. Kimmerer and ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King.) I recommend them both, and no doubt I’ll read you more from them some day.
Keep thinking of Texas ❤
Love and blessings,
HOUTEX and Hurricane Harvey, 27/08/17