Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Spiral Dance of the Celtic Year

Over the years, I have realized the increasing importance of living according to the seasons, and have felt the peace that comes from harmonizing ourselves with the cycles of nature.  I am happy to have discovered Mara Freeman's wonderful book, Kindling the Celtic Spirit, just in time for the transition to autumn  - my favorite season.

This book describes the seasonal traditions, legends, recipes, plant uses, and many ancient customs of the Celtic peoples for every month of the year, and has become a treasured reference book for me to connect more deeply with the Earth and nature-based wisdom of my Scottish and Irish ancestors.

I was most amazed by Freeman's description of why we might align ourselves with a more cyclic view of time, and a way of life based on complimentary opposites.  It is the best that I have read yet:

"Everywhere we look, we see that life moves in a spiral motion.  From snail shell to sunflower, from the invisible coils of the DNA molecule to the boundless whirling galaxies, life unfolds as a spiral.  This simple pattern holds the secret to the whole universe, for within its form lies the feminine circle and the masculine line.  Without these two movements, there would be no motion and consequentially no life in this world of opposites.  Spirals swirl through the art of the early Celts as they swirl on the stone walls of the burial chambers of their European Neolithic predecessors.  In Celtic countries people have danced in spirals since time began.  Even today the people of Brittany dance in all-night festivals where the music of bagpipe and hurry-gurdy never stops.  Slowly and rhythmically, they move into the center and out again in huge spirals.  Arms closely linked, bodies swaying, they stamp the earth, mimicking the sowing of seeds and other farming tasks.  Their dance reflects their participation in Earth's mysteries of blossom and leaf fall, the ebb and flow of the circling year... 

 Awareness of life as an unfolding spiral is something that, sadly, we have lost today.  In the modern world progress is seen as a linear upward march.  If we do not consistently improve and achieve, we think there is something wrong.  But through consciously aligning ourselves with sacred time by attuning our lives to the spiral of the Celtic year, we are accepting the invitation to the grand dance of the universe, in which our partners are the sun, moon, and stars and every living thing.  With this greater sense of connection to the flow of the cosmos, we find a greater appreciation of the present moment and can now enjoy the journey instead of grimly fixing our sights toward a distant goal on an ever-receding horizon.  By embracing a "spiral attitude" toward life, we can gracefully take each step of the dance as we are led joyfully along by what the great Irish hero Fionn McCumhaill once called 'the music of what happens'"

It is not only within the Celtic tradition where we may attune our lives to the spiral year and to sacred time, but within all traditions.  There is knowledge and macrobiotic wisdom to be found in all cultures and ancestries.

Let us again live according to sacred time and the seasons of the Earth! Let us share with our families, friends, and community the peace and well being that comes from living orderly lives.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Fire Drill

I've been practicing making fire by friction with the hand drill, which was the traditional way to start fire here in the Americas for thousands of years.  Christopher Nyerges first taught me to make a hand drill kit using a hearth of split willow, a mulefat drill, and mugwort tinder bundle, but I have only recently practiced in earnest and been able to master this skill consistently on my own.

Once the principle of creating a friction fire is understood, it only takes a moderate amount of practice to learn this ancient skill.  Your hands may blister the first few times, but the feeling of forming that coal and blowing your tinder bundle into a flame is exhilarating!  

To make your own native California fire making kit, learn to gather plants ethically so that they thrive from being tended properly.  Grow your own native plants, and learn about responsible practices from the Arroyo Seco Foundation's Hahamongna Cooperative Nursery.

Willow (Salix spp.)

Mulefat (Baccharis salicifolia) 

Mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana) 

I gathered already-dead willow branches for my hearth, dead mugwort leaves for the tinder, and used a mulefat drill which Christopher once cut for me.  The below video demonstrates the hand drill technique:

New Fire Ceremony

One aspect of making fire with the hand drill that I find interesting is the lore surrounding it.  The Nahuatl-speaking people of Mexico performed the New Fire Ceremony, or the Binding of the Years, once every 52 years - a full cycle of the Mesoamerican calendar.  At the end of the calendrical cycle, old household items were discarded, people fasted and purified, and all the fires in the community were extinguished.  

In the city of Tenochtitlan, atop a mountain called Huixachtlan, a new fire was started once the constellation known as "the fire drill" (Orion's belt) rose from the horizon.  This fire was required to be started with the hand drill, and signaled the beginning of the New Calendar Round.  It was used to light a huge bonfire of bundled wood representing the bundling of the 52 year cycle, and from it runners would light torches and rekindle the temple hearths throughout the city.

The imagery of lighting a new fire with a hand drill was used to denote the beginning of a new era, such as an ascension to power.  In the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca, a person wearing a coyote skin is depicted lighting the new fire above Chicomoztoc; the "seven caves" which were the mythical origin place of the Nahua peoples.  This new fire ceremony represents the emergence of the people from these caves, and announces the beginning of their migration south.

The Fire Drill

In his book "Survival Skills of Native California" Paul Campbell describes how Ishi, the last member of the Yahi people of California, classified the hearth of the fire drill as the "female element" and the drill as the "man piece" or male element.  (According to eastern principles, the drill would therefore be classified the "active" "hot" "fast" or yang component of the set, and the hearth the "passive" "cold" "still" or yin component, relative to each other.  Interesting how complimentary opposites are found in all things.)

According to Campbell:

"The hand fire drill was universal and ancient.  Mayan hieroglyphs of the fire-making hand drill extend back in an unbroken line to the Olmec iconography of San Lorenzo -- the first American Indian civilization -- some 3,000 years ago.  Undoubtedly, the skill is thousands of years older, lost in the Paleolithic.  Fittingly it was the Olmec god of the north and darkness who made compensatory fire with the sticks... the Karok of California made new fire with the sticks to begin a new year.  So important was the drill, young Aztec men had it burned onto their wrists in the form of the fire drill constellation... The ancient Maya ritual of the Bakabs exhorted, 'To be charmed, the fire is always kindled with a fire drill.'

It was the simple two-piece hand drill that the ancients revered... The ability to make fire in the wild is perhaps the most important survival skill one can possess -- literally the difference between a dark shivering death and a hot meal in the glow of a warming blaze.  It cannot be taught by theory.  Only through familiarity with the range of materials and techniques... in a variety of environments and by practice does the fire come forth."

Mamalhuaztli - "the fire drill"

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Soul of a Place - Linda Vista

In the face of globalization and the increasing homogenization of our architecture, landscaping, language and culture, many of us are beginning to appreciate the value in having a sense of place.  A good place has a soul; a sense of continuity.  Cities can have souls.  Neighborhoods can have souls.  Mine does.  So I wrote this piece about the place where I grew up, and tried to capture in writing the soul of my neighborhood -- Linda Vista.

Rising high along the Arroyo's edge, Linda Vista is a peaceful neighborhood of unique homes, beautiful gardens, and tree-lined streets.  Nestled against the San Rafael Hills, Linda Vista extends from Devil's Gate Dam south to the Colorado Street Bridge.  Meaning "pretty view" in Spanish, Linda Vista exceeds expectations, with picturesque bridges, old fashioned street lamps, and sweeping views of the magnificent San Gabriel Mountain range.

Long occupied by the Gabrielino/Tongva people of Southern California, Linda Vista was originally known to early settlers as "Indian Flat."  In 1784, the area was granted to Corporal José María Verdugo during the California Mission period as a part of the vast Rancho San Rafael.  Following the Spanish and Mexican rancho era, early Pasadena settlers transformed the landscape with bucolic farms and orchards.

Gabrielino/Tongva woman living in the Arroyo near the Linda Vista Bridge, 1880.

A close-knit community formed which exists to this day.  The neighborhood grew to include an elementary school (now a park and children's center), public library, fire station, and the Art Center College of Design.  The Linda Vista-Annandale Association, a voluntary neighborhood association (the oldest in Pasadena), holds an annual Picnic in the Park in the spring, and a Pancake Breakfast at the local fire station in the fall.

The author engaging neighbors on behalf of ASF during the Picnic at the Park.

Linda Vistans also enjoy easy access to Brookside Park, the Rose Bowl Stadium, and the hiking trails of the Central Arroyo.  On the 4th of July, neighbors gather along Parkview Avenue or in their own backyards to view the fireworks show at the Rose Bowl.

Linda Vista is surrounded by nature.  It is not uncommon to spot a family of deer walking down it's secluded streets, or the occasional coyote or bobcat.  Red-tailed hawks circle the sky by day, and the sounds of crickets and owls fill the dark night air.

Blanche Dorn, an early settler of the area, wrote in her memoirs that "The years rolled by and Linda Vista became a charming, sleepy little country village.  In the spring when the orchards were in bloom and wildflowers covered the hillsides, it was paradise."

It still is.

*Originally written for Pasadena Beautiful Homes.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Bring Our River Back!

The Central Arroyo ca. 1913.

"In and out among the trees, a trail has been worn, often leading down to the bed of the brook; and here one can wander for hours… in this leafy retreat, with the birds singing all about, and trout darting from the horse’s feet.”

-Charles Holder, “All about Pasadena”

Such memories still exist within the minds of Arroyo old-timers. Memories of an Arroyo Seco as a living river; an Arroyo with dark forests, verdant trails and trout darting through the stream.

As it was before, so it can be again!

The Arroyo Seco has been named one of the best candidates for urban stream restoration in the United States, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently formulating various alternative plans that could turn that vision into a reality. The Corps’ Arroyo Seco Ecosystem Restoration Integrated Feasibility Program provides an enormous opportunity for massive river restoration throughout the urban portion of the Arroyo watershed.

What does this mean?

The objective of the plan is to remove as much of the cement channel as possible, and to restore a natural soft-bottom stream. This change will enhance the quantity and quality of aquatic, wetland, and riparian habitat — meaning a natural stream environment that will support more fish, more plants, and more birds.
The Corps’ vision of a restored Arroyo at its confluence with the LA River.

In addition, along the restored stream, the Army Corps is considering the expansion of biking and hiking trails. The Corps may also add educational signage and other amenities to enhance the visitor’s appreciation of the newly restored stream.

The Arroyo Seco Foundation has developed a guiding vision for this restoration — theArroyo River Parks Program. This program would link existing parks and open spaces to each other and to the river, thereby connecting the surrounding Arroyo communities. Imagine being able to walk, hike, or ride from Altadena to Downtown L.A. through a series of beautiful, connected River Parks!

Public participation will play a critical role in determining which of the alternative plans the Army Corps of Engineers will recommend. The Corps is currently accepting comments on the Notice of Preparation for the plan until May 23.

Join the Arroyo Seco Foundation in advocating for the most expansive plan for restoring the Arroyo. Together, we can return the Arroyo Seco stream to its original splendor.

*Originally published in 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Faces of the Arroyo -- Danny Aldahl -- Crest Runs

There are some people who you just trust with your life.  People in whose abilities you feel completely confident.  When it comes to driving, my buddy Danny is one of those rare individuals.

A skilled mechanic, Danny is also a talented precision driver who can push it to the limit on the track, yet be completely cognizant of the physics and mechanics of his every move.  He has always been one to explore the limits, going back to our days as skating buddies when we first became friends.

With our skateboarding days mostly behind us, we’ve taken up new pursuits over the years.  Hiking and exploring the Angeles National Forest has become a big one, and we’ve gathered more than a few adventure stories and good times up in those mountains.

Fixing up and maintaining his own car -- a 1989 BMW E30 -- going on drives up “Crest” has become a regular part of what we do.  On a recent drive, Danny shared some thoughts:

“Well I mean, it’s like an unused resource.  Not everyone has the same outlook on driving as I do, but I come out here and it’s no cellphone service, no other cars, no traffic, no stop signs, no red lights, no green lights -- none of that stuff.  There’s wildlife and rocks, and that’s pretty much all you have to watch out for.”

“It’s so close!  We could get from 6000 feet to the bar at the Standard Hotel on the rooftop in an hour and a half, and that’s with traffic in Downtown.  We could be down there in 50 minutes if we do it at midnight.”

“It’s just different up here.  It’s quiet, it’s nice, I mean, if you have a fun car it makes it a little more exciting, but in any car it’s fun, it’s an adventure.”

“(Blue roads) are the older roads.  They’re the roads that are the scenic byways.  They’re not there to make you get anywhere quicker.  This road is purely recreation nowadays.  There’s no reason that people use this as a commute.  

It’s like driving up to San Francisco.  You can get there faster if you take the 5, but if you take the 101 or the 1, you’re going to have a way better time.  The road isn’t as direct, and it’s slower and it’s windy -- but the reward is far greater, I think.  If you’re going for time, then that’s one thing.  But if you’re going for the experience, then that’s another.”

“On a global scale, there aren’t many places in the world that exist like Los Angeles.  You go to Europe and there are great roads there, but they’re hours out of anywhere.  You have to sit on a freeway for two hours before you can even get to the mountain pass.  Not all of them, don’t get me wrong -- but here you can drive this twice, three times, four times a week.  I mean, I do!  It’s very accessible.  

And the caliber of road is unbelievable.  Every major motor journalist in the United States has tested a car up here, I’m willing to bet.  They film car commercials up here.  Part of it’s the industry in the area, and part of it is that it’s a very good road.  It’s exciting, and you can test a car without really breaking the law.  It’s absolutely world class.”

The scale at which we traverse the landscape has truly made the mountain range feel like our own.  We’ve made ourselves locals, and every peak, turnout, and trail we pass become familiar to us.  What a life-affirming experience it is to go high upon the mountain at night, to gaze out at the stars from a darkened turnout.  What a gift it is to so easily recharge in our local mountains -- a place which has melded to form our very identities.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Plant Profile -- Wild Cucumber

Following the recent rains, I’ve noticed wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpus) has begun to make it’s seasonal appearance.  I first learned about this native plant when I was a fourth grader at Linda Vista Elementary School.  That year, our class was taken on weekly field trips to Hahamongna Watershed Park as part of a nature program.  It was during these trips that I viewed a free flowing stream for the first time within my own city limits -- something I’d never seen outside of the Sierras.  It blew my mind!

I remember that our instructor and guide through the park was a young woman named Gigi.  We used to do all sorts of hands on crafts with her, and it was during one of our explorations of Hahamongna that she first showed us wild cucumber.  Shortly thereafter while playing in my backyard under the oak trees, I was astounded to discover it growing right there on my own hillside!

The author.  May, 1998.  Hahamongna.
Wild cucumber traditionally had many uses for native Californians.  Roots were used as a fish poison. Seeds were used to treat rheumatism and to create pigments.  The dried seed pods were used as hair combs, and used by Shamans to carry their poisons.  Wild cucumber is also one of the first signs of spring in native California.

Whenever I see wild cucumber, I am reminded of what a great impression can be made in the lives of children when you show them somewhere special in their own backyard.  That’s something I’ve kept in mind when guiding kids through Hahamongna with the Arroyo Seco Foundation.

Unfortunately, we now stand to lose this special place to a shortsighted plan by the LA County Flood Control District to scour the Hahamongna basin and destroy it’s irreplaceable habitat.  The District has ignored alternative proposals which would achieve needed flood protection in the area without such significant impacts.  I hope that you will learn more about the effort to Save Hahamongna, and help us ensure that future generations have the same chance that I did to benefit from this amazing community resource.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Plant Profile -- California Holly

In the old days, Toyon, or California Holly, was the most abundant native food available in the winter, which was traditionally a time of hunger and relative scarcity as far as tending the wild.  People used to chew tobacco leaves to suppress hunger, and relied on Toyon berries to supplement their food stores during the cold months of the year.

Toyon berries may be eaten raw, but usually taste astringent and chalk-like.  When dried, Toyon takes on a subtle sweetness, and may be added to trail mix, or ground into meal and added to acorn porridge or flour for baked goods.  The berries may also be cooked, and are great to add into a stir fry!

Toyon berries added to a nopal, corn, pepper and onion stir fry.  Delicious! 
California Holly is a beautiful, drought-tolerant, native shrub, and tolerates full sun to full shade conditions.  A wonderful plant to grow in your yard, Toyon provides rich habitat for birds and wildlife, and keeps them fed as it  kept people fed in the old days for thousands of years.