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I often imagine life as a river and myself in a boat of my own making, floating on it. I don’t picture a sailboat, having no experience of one, but a small boat that glides with the current and can be paddled. I don’t imagine a single river, but a vast network, far more than I could ever explore in this lifetime. Sometimes it’s a river of water, sometimes a river of stars. Sometimes it’s a river of green moss carving a path through thick forest. Sometimes it’s an air-borne river of leaves and feathers and pieces of sky.
Sometimes it’s a river of stone.
The thing about rivers is they take me where they take me. I can paddle and steer, but whatever river I’m on at any given moment is a living thing in itself. I’m not its master and it doesn’t ask me where I want to go.
Of course, I don’t have to surrender to this kind of movement. I can refuse to make a boat in the first place, refuse to learn how, refuse to try. I can take a short cut and buy a premade boat or jump in someone else’s boat. If I do manage to create a boat, I can still make my way to the shore at any point and stop.
I can always throw myself out of the boat, too … but then I’ll never find out where the river is taking me.
I can also fight with the current.
I know a lot about this.
In the last few days, I’ve been floating on a river of stone.
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Stone is very, very, v…e…r…y slow. Oh, it moves, in the deep foundations of life. It shifts and compresses, slips, breaks down, heats and cools. It tells an old, old story, whole volumes of which are faded and weathered into illegibility, or hidden so well I know I’ll never read them. Now and then, though, a period of grace arrives in which I inadvertently enter a river of stone and have an opportunity, which I reject, avoid and try to escape, to hear whispers of stone stories.
During these times, others on the river are out of sight and out of hearing. My calls echo back to
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me off stone canyons and cliffs. I reach out for another in my sleep and wake with bloody knuckles. On the river of stone others do not respond. They don’t follow through. They don’t keep their word. My password doesn’t work. I can’t log on. There is no clarification or confirmation. I’m alone, in my little boat, and I feel adrift and forgotten, unseen and unheard, left behind.
The river of stone tells me a story of foundations, of beginnings, of layers of time and events, of family and tribe. My agenda, my insistence on movement and progress, my puny frustration with things not done, make less impression than a fragile-winged dragonfly that flung itself into the stone’s embrace uncounted aeons ago and flies now forever in the river of stone.
The river of stone is inexorable. It forces me to slow down. It provides me with no distraction and no easy entertainment. Creativity falls into sleep from which I cannot wake it. Those tasks and activities I call “productive” cease. Frantically, I paddle my boat, one side, then the other, until my hands are bloody blistered and my shoulders are a block of pain. All the old demons in my head leap into life, jeering and heckling, joining hands in gleeful celebration, and they have their way with me because I’m trapped in a river of stone.
I accomplish nothing on a list. I write no pages. Plans fall through. I wait too long to walk, and then it rains. Dirty dishes sit on the counter. All I want to do is get lost in an old familiar book — if only I could stay awake long enough!
Then, gradually, frustration, panic and fear exhaust themselves and lie down to rest. I rediscover the beauty of emptiness. I begin to see veins and gems and stardust in the stone around me. I remember the difference between doing and being, and the delicate balance they must maintain. The stone speaks to me of strength, of endurance, of centering and grounding. I give myself to the pause in communication and creative work. I put down the paddle, the oar, stretch out in the boat and rest, dreaming of stone-lipped wells refilling with spring water, dreaming of a spray of words leaping off waves or trailing behind stars in a river ahead, dreaming of friends whose faces I haven’t yet seen and broken connection repaired.
I doze, rocked in a cradle of stone. I rest, floating on a river of rock. I sink into the slow, deep, stony heartbeat in the center of all things, imagine inhalations and exhalations, each lasting 100,000 years.
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I surrender to the river of stone, and in doing so I float out of it.
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My partner and I have hired a permaculture group called the Resilience Hub out of Portland, Maine, to collaborate with us in the development of a 30-year plan for our 26 acres.
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Permaculture, for those of you who didn’t follow the above link, is “the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.” In other words, it’s a holistic management plan that includes plants, animals (insects, birds and reptiles), people, water and land. The land we live on consists of wetland, a river, a pond, a year-round daylight spring, streams, fields and woodland.
That’s what we tell people, anyway. I’m beginning to understand what permaculture really means to me, though, is a commitment to love.
I’m interested to discover I’ve achieved the ripe old age of 53 and discarded nearly my entire definition of love after two marriages, two long-term non-marriage relationships and raising two children. At this point I know a lot more about what love isn’t than what it is.
Here’s my current working definition: A relationship revolving around what we want others to be is not love. A relationship revolving around the question “Who are you?” is love. Notice sex is not part of the definition. I’m talking about love in the wide sense here, the act of loving another human being, independent of legal or blood ties. For me, this is also the root of self-love. Do we endlessly tell ourselves what we should, must, and have a responsibility to be, or do we allow ourselves to discover who we in fact are?
Creating a permaculture plan for this piece of land is a deliberate and intentional journey into what the land and the life it sustains is, as well as what we are as individuals and as partners. From our most private thoughts and beliefs to the boundary of the 26 acres we live on, we become note takers and observers. We practice surrender and acceptance. We listen and watch with curiosity and attention. We are present every day with ourselves, one another, and the land. We don’t think about imposing our will. We think about collaboration and cooperation, weaknesses and strengths, effectiveness and healing.
The consent to see and be seen is a profound and intimate expression of love rippling from the inside outward. We are not intruders here. We inhabit this land and want to protect and preserve it. The porcupine living in the barn cellar, the owls down by the river, the phoebes nesting in the barn, the passing bear who wiped out our suet feeder, are not intruders, either. The poison ivy, stinging nettle, ticks and mosquitos live here. The snapping turtles in the river and the leeches in the pond call this place home, just as we do. Permaculture is a peace treaty, the practice of appreciation for the variety and complexity of life around us, and the humility to admit much of its elegant mystery is beyond our knowledge or understanding.
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As I walk these acres, alone, with my partner or in a group with the Resilience Hub, I’m learning the land as I would learn a beloved’s body. I’m noticing the animal trails wandering from field to forest to river, lines and wrinkles of use tracing their way along the land’s contours and folds, suggesting where we, too, might make a path, a place to pause, a spiritual resting place.
I map old stone walls like the delicate sculpture of a spine, huge mossy boulders and landmark trees, learning the texture and landscape of this place. I wander in the thin-skinned places where old bones of ancient glacial esker are revealed. I think about bird nesting boxes, bee and pollinator boxes and honeybee hives.
Over the years, my partner has discovered all the delicate veins of water, daylight and underground, seasonal and year round, the lifeblood of the land. Thick forest hides damp, humid hollows and shallow bowls where mosquitoes fill the leaf-dappled air and the turkey and grouse hide. The grassy hair on the open slopes and fields is twined, in this season, with black-eyed Susan, purple vetch, queen Anne’s lace, wild pinks, blooming milkweed, and red clover.
The land shows us where wildflowers thrive, and which type decorate which season. It demonstrates where water runs, so we know exactly where to position a well. The trees inform us of water availability, drought, crowding, disease and age. The raptors flying over us, hunting, help us know where raptor roosts would be welcome in order to protect the woody agriculture we think of introducing against rodent damage.
As we wander this terrain, we look for nothing and try to see everything. This is how the sun falls during each month of the year. This is where the field floods when the river ice dams thaw in the spring. This is where the doe that was hit on the road lay down and died. This is the special spot where I come, early in the morning, to sit by the river and be alive. This is where the wind strokes the exposed slope, and this is where the trees shelter a small clearing that catches the sun. This is the place where a bittern pounced like a cat on some small rodent by the pond one morning. Here the snow drifts, and here it lies late in the season as the bluets bloom in the boggy field. Here was the old fox den.
Trees topple, decay into humus where fungus thrives and new trees reach for the sun. The land stretches, sheds, sloughs away and reconfigures. Species populations rise and fall. We aspire to that resilience and sustainability. We aspire to the harmony and complexity innate in the landscape around us. We don’t want more than we need to eat, to live, to love. We don’t want to be well-groomed, civilized, obedient and sterilized. We want to root the rest of our lives in the color and scent and texture of the primordial wisdom of life and death as naturally and unapologetically as the raven, the fern or the tree.
Who am I? Who is my partner? What is this land? I believe these are questions that open the way to true love; to sustainability; to reciprocity, respect and surrender. As long as we ask and cherish these questions and receive and cherish the answers, hour by hour, day by day, season by season, cycle by cycle, love endures.
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I came across a prayer to Baba Yaga recently. I’ve spent a lot of time with Baba Yaga, who is a supernatural female figure out of Slavic European folklore. I’ve told stories about her for years, and she’s an important character in my book. She’s a powerful life-death-life-death figure and has many names, among them Storm Raiser, Primal Mother, Lady of Beasts and Mother of Witches. In spite of our long acquaintance, I’ve only lately begun to love her.
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Sometimes I think the most important thing to understand about life is power. It structures every single relationship, most of all our relationships with ourselves. Power creates wars, cults, murderers, abusers, tyrants, rebels and perhaps angels.
I believe we have a great longing for our individual mislaid power, such a longing that we’ve lost track of what it is or how to recognize it in our hunger and desperation. I don’t know how else to explain our mindless obedience to the media, to our culture, to our religions, to the almighty “they” who instruct us how to live, how to eat, what to believe, how to look, how to buy and how to be.
At this time in my life, and at this time in my country’s history, I cling to Baba Yaga, because she represents sanity in a world becoming more insane by the day. The prayer reminds me of what true female power is — and is not.
True female power wastes no time on despots and bullies who conceal their fear and impotence behind dishonesty and the willingness to use force. It’s not her business to prop them up. They have nothing she needs and they’re not worth her attention, for they shall not endure.
True female power is real. It’s authentic. It’s not bound by chains of political correctness, manners, fear or ideology. A woman in her authentic power is, according to need and whim, a child, a wild woman, a bitch, a seductive temptress, a crone, and a creature of magic. Obedience and compliance are not in her nature.
True female power seeks the hidden thing, within and without. She pares away layers, stories, masks, facades, dreams, visions, expectations, and shoulds. She’s a persistent poker, prier and meddlesome busybody in holey tennis shoes. She opens drawers, boxes and jars, looks behind forbidden doors and never stops asking questions. She refuses to shut up, close her eyes or pretend, and views everything by the stark light of a fiery skull without flinching. She doesn’t need anyone to agree with her, and she doesn’t need everyone to agree with her. She doesn’t argue with what is. The truth cannot escape her.
True female power doesn’t prostitute for love and validation. Baba Yaga eats sulfur to make her farts more momentous and fertilizes her body hair to make it grow more abundant. She’s hairy legs and iron-tipped fingers and teeth sharpened on bones. She takes a lover when she feels like it, but she kicks him out of her bed before dawn and doesn’t offer breakfast. Her body is not for sale, her hair is the color it wants to be, and she has no use for a painted mask over her face.
True female power is a teacher of magic. She teaches the sorting of one thing from another, cleansing, lighting a fire, the alchemy of cooking. She’s the power of the cauldron, the cup, the womb and the growing seed. She’s the wisdom of bone and blood, seed and water, life and death. A woman in her authentic female power learns to feed and nurture the magic of her intuition and creativity. She knows they are the most priceless jewels she will ever have.
True female power feels huge, deep feelings of rage, grief, joy and lust. When fear accosts a woman in her power, she spits in its eye and knocks it down on her way forward. An authentically powerful woman knows how to cause earthquakes with her dance, bring rain with her tears, melt rocks with her passion and sow stars with her joy. She allows no one to make her small.
True female power expresses all her fine feelings. She shrieks, curses, cackles, stomps, grumps, slams and mutters. She will not be silent. She stays up all night drumming and dancing if the mood takes her, and sleeps all day when she wants. She collects secrets, stories, marbles and insults with equal enjoyment. In fact, she says and does exactly what she wants to do and say.
(Yes, I said marbles.)
True female power is ancient and enduring. It’s coarse silver hair, aching bones, pearly stretch marks, lumpy thighs, scars and wrinkles and cracks and crevices. A woman in her power bleeds, first red and then the invisible silver blood of wisdom that arrives when the children of her body have become ghosts living only in her memory. A woman in her full authentic power smiles kindly on the young and beautiful, because they are not yet capable of her wisdom.
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True female power knows how to live through the night alone, how to wander in the desert, how to go underground and live in a cave among the roots of life when necessary. She survives the conflagration, the invasion, the prison sentence, the betrayal, the loss, the beating, the chaos, the flood. A woman in her authentic power is rooted in the stars, in the trees, in the mountains, in the sea and in the earth. She welcomes cycles and seasons. Change is her strength. She knows how to bide her time and let die what must, because she knows her power will endure in women who come after her.
A woman in her power is not confused. She knows there’s no authentic power in money or position, youth or beauty or hairless legs. She knows her wellspring of power is internal and if she can’t find it, no one will. True feminine power defines her own success, her own goals, her own agenda, her own spiritual practice, her own beauty and her own rules.
Baba Yaga’s specialty is too-good maidens of all ages. That’s how I met her. When the Baba is finished with such a maiden, she’s either saltier and wiser or dead. Baba Yaga eats the dead ones with vinegar to cut the sweetness.
It’s a good time for prayers. Perhaps it’s always a good time for prayers. Here’s mine:
Baba Yaga, Grandmother, we offer you our sweat, tears, blood, milk and urine. Initiate us into life and death with our own blood and bone. Lead us back into love for ourselves, our bodies and our earth. Help us, your daughters, find our authentic feminine power again.
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