Healing the Earth, Healing Ourselves: 7 New Books

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Vicki Noble, co-creator with Karen Vogel of the Motherpeace Tarot Deck, recommends seven new books to heal us and give us hope.

A Writer’s Journey Guest Post:

Vicki Noble:  I have seen so many wonderful books come out in the last year or so—many of them done by respected friends of mine—that I decided to share them with you. Given the state of things in our materialistic and celebrity-focused culture, it’s rare that such out-of-the-box books are even published these days, let alone marketed and distributed properly.

1.  Starhawk’s wonderful visionary novel, City of Refuge, the happily-awaited sequel to her earlier book, The Fifth Sacred Thing. I’ve read them both more than once and recommend them as heart-warming, thoughtful, intelligent, and incredibly hopeful versions of future possible realities in which the power of nonviolent, magical consciousness becomes contagious and carries the day. Starhawk is in the process of getting these novels made into movies, which would be fabulous. May it be so!

City of refuge, Starhawk

2. Mary Mackey has come out with a “prequel” to her earlier feminist trilogy of books in the Earthsong Series, based on the impeccable archaeological research of Marija Gimbutas into ancient prehistoric Goddess civilizations of Old Europe. Mary’s newest book in this series is called The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale, and it’s a page-turner.

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3. Charlie Bensinger has released a futuristic trilogy of quirky, suspenseful novels called Radical Option, Beyond Fire, and Primal Source—all part of a series he calls People of the Change—that I have totally enjoyed reading. I’m not going to spoil the intrigue here by telling you the plot, but trust me, it speaks directly to our current global situation and offers up unique and imaginative solutions to world problems and dilemmas.

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4. Craig Comstock released a book late last year called Gift of Darkness, in which (as I said in a blurb for the book) he “captured the poignancy of a young, frightened human being” faced with what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” as a teen in Amsterdam during the terrible period of the Nazis. It has eerie similarities to our own time.

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5. In a whole other vein, the Goddess movement’s own Ruth Barrett has compiled Female Erasure, a brilliant anthology of essays by authors speaking discerningly about what they perceive as the “dogma of transgender politics” in our culture at the moment. In a time when this controversial subject has become so heated and the debates so downright violent—often delivered with highly-charged sound bites, rather than the depth the subject deserves, it’s a relief to have this whole book of thoughtful analyses from diverse feminist positions and backgrounds.

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6. Starr Goode’s brand new book, hot off the press, shares decades of her research into the enigmatic and archetypal image of the Sheela na gig (or what Miriam Robbins Dexter has called Female Sacred Display). The exquisite hardcover book is called Sheela na gig: The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power. Well written and beautifully illustrated!

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7. Also, in memory of Lydia Ruyle, I’d like to recommend her final book about the marvelous banners she created to honor Goddesses all over the world; Lydia’s banners have graced the walls of temples, festival halls, and museums around the world. This book, Goddesses of the Americas, presents images, stories and mythologies of Goddesses she found in North, Central, and South America. A fine memorial!

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8.And last but not least, I hope, I have included the anthology compiled by me and Miriam Robbins Dexter and published at the end of last year, Foremothers of the Women’s Spirituality Movement: Elders and Visionaries; the book features the personal stories of many of the women who were there from the beginning. We wanted to share some of the vision, originality, and vitality that emerged spontaneously in the late 1970s and early 1980s to became a global Goddess movement.

Foremothers Cover

 I wish all the other progressive authors out there the very best in getting your books into print and out into the world. Goddess knows we need inspiration in these times!   Vicki Noble

 

Using Trance To Get Ideas For Novels And Poems

Mining Your Unconscious Using A Simple Trance Technique

   Sunset Sacramento on American River Your unconscious is packed with ideas, metaphors, visions, plots, dreams, colors, characters, emotions—in short, everything you need to write a great novel or collection of poems. But how do you get to it? How do you step out of the social agreement we call “reality,” and dip into this incredibly rich resource?

You could go to sleep and try to mine your dreams, but even if you dreamed an entire novel, the moment you woke up, you would forget most of it within seconds, because you hadn’t processed the ideas into your long term memory. Worse yet, when you dream, you are not in control, so you can’t do specific things like talk to one of your characters or work out a specific plot problem. Granted, some people manage lucid dreaming, but lucid dreaming is not a practical writing technique for a number of reasons. For example, you cannot always go to sleep when you need to.

Many years ago, I started looking for a technique that would allow me to be asleep and awake at the same time. What I came up with, after much trial and error, was a form of creative trance that allows me to delve into my unconscious whenever I want to, get the material I need for my poems and novels, bring that material up to my waking reality, remember it, and write it down.

Developing this technique wasn’t easy. Besides relying on my own imagination, I drew on many sources such as self-hypnosis, theta cycle sessions, neurophysiology, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and the Surrealist technique of Automatic Writing.  As you might expect, I had many failures, but in the end I came up with a deceptively simple technique, which has proved extremely effective. Since I taught myself how to use creative trance, I have written many novels, collections of poetry, and screenplays. Better yet, I have avoided writers block.

I’ve used my creative trance technique weekly, sometimes daily, for many years. As with all things that are visionary and out of the range of ordinary consciousness,  it can’t be completely described in words, only experienced. So, since I cannot sit down with you and personally guide you through the process step by step, I am going to give you a chance to get a feel for it by taking you into the heart of  my creative process as I worked on my most recent novel The Village of Bones.

The Village of Bones is Historical Fiction which has visionary elements, but even in my novels which are purely Historical Fiction (such as my bestseller A Grand Passion, the story of three generations of women involved in ballet), I created most of the original storyline in a voluntarily induced creative trance.

Unlike A Grand Passion, The Village of Bones presented a special problem. On one hand, it was meticulously researched historical fiction firmly based on archaeological evidence, yet at the same time, it was set in Prehistoric Europe in Goddess-worshiping cultures that were filled with myths, visions, and prophecies.

With this contradiction in mind, I put my phone in Airplane Mode, sat down in a comfortable chair, picked up a pen (I find computers get in the way), opened my notebook, closed my eyes, took several deep breaths, and counted backwards to ten, imagining as I did so that I was walking down a flight of stairs. By the time I got to the bottom, I was in a light trance. The word “light” is important. I was neither awake nor asleep. Instead, I was poised on the threshold between my conscious mind and my unconscious mind, ready to move in either direction.  

On this particular day, I had some work planned. Sabalah, my main character, was in big trouble. She was caught in a storm, her boat had turned over, and she was drowning. As she struggled to stay afloat, she going to have a vision of the Sea Goddess that might or might not be a hallucination. There were no surviving statues of this particular Neolithic Sea Goddesses as far as I knew, so my task for this afternoon was to envision the Sea Goddess so I could describe her.

I started with the Goddess’ name which I had created the previous day: “Amonah, Amonah, Amonah,” I silently chanted. ”Come to me”. A vague, shadowy form began to materialize behind my eyelids.  

Before I go on, I want to be clear about what was happening. As I thought the word “Amonah,” I didn’t believe I was conjuring up a real spirit, channeling a mystical force, or having a religious experience. I believed, and still believe, that  I was simply unlocking the resources of my own consciousness and my own imagination using the very practical tool of creative trance. I don’t claim to know where these visions come from, but I am convinced that under the right conditions,  anyone can have them.

The form grew brighter and more distinct. I saw a woman walking toward me across the waves. Walking on water. Interesting. Since question/answer is the key to this technique, I settled down and began to ask myself questions.

“What color is her hair?” I asked myself. “Black, brown, blonde?” Suddenly the word “seaweed” came into my mind. Instantly, the woman’s hair turned green.

“What kind of jewelry is she wearing? Diamonds, topaz, garnets?” No, she’s wearing pearls, and something else, something reddish, something like . . . coral!

“What color are her eyes?” For a moment her eyes shifted back and forth between brown and green. Then, suddenly they glowed.

“Skin color?” All colors. No colors. She’s a Goddess. She is all of us.

“What’s she wearing?” Not skinny jeans for sure. (Odd thoughts sometimes interrupt the flow of the trance). Long dress. Yes. She’s wearing a long dress. Wave-like. Blue of course like the sea.

“What does she smell like? Wind, salt, kelp?” Like flowers.  She smells like flowers. “What kind of flowers?” Roses.

“How much does she weigh?” She weighs nothing. She’s a spirit.

For a long time, I sat there asking specific questions and waiting for answers most of which came in the form of wordless images. For some reason, I never could figure out how tall She was. My unconscious wouldn’t give that one up. But by now, the Sea Goddess Amonah looked real to me. I could see Her distinctly right down to the coral rings on Her toes.

Slowly I began to count backwards from ten to one, moving out of the trance as I climbed back up the stairs toward waking consciousness. On every step, I paused and made myself visualize Amonah again, and  I commanded  myself: “Remember. Remember.”

This final command to “remember,” is perhaps the most important part of a creative trance. If I couldn’t carry a complete image of Amonah back into the waking world, I’d have to start all over again.

When I got to ten, I opened my eyes just wide enough to see my notebook. Grabbing my pen before the last bits of trance faded away, I quickly wrote everything down paying no attention to grammar, spelling, or logic. I even wrote down the silly bit about the skinny jeans.

The result was not something I could use immediately. What you get out of your own unconscious is raw material. After creativity comes craft. So over the course of the next year, I polished this description of Amonah. Now I worked wide-awake, using all the techniques of novel-writing that I had learned over the years. I read the passage out loud over and over again. Searched for better words. Took out commas and put them in again. Here is the result which appears in Chapter One of The Village of Bones:

A woman emerged from the wall of crashing waves and walked across the sea toward Sabalah. Sabalah abruptly stopped crying and stared at the woman, stunned. This was impossible! . . .The woman kept walking, stepping over the waves as if they were furrows in a field of wheat. Her flowing dress was blue as a summer sea; her hair long and green, twined with seaweed and pearls. Her skin was dark and light at the same time, her eyes so bright, they glowed like the last flash of the sun when it falls into the sea at midsummer. . . . A sweet scent suddenly filled the air like the perfume of roses blown across water.

“Don’t be afraid,” the woman said. “I am Amonah, Goddess of the Sea,” and water is my path. I can walk above or beneath it as I wish.

Sitting down beside Sabalah, Amonah let Her feet dangle in the water. They were bare except for toe rings of rose-colored coral. She must have weighed nothing, because the end of the mast didn’t tilt the way it would have it a flesh-and-blood human being had sat there.

     The Village of Bones was created from scores of similar visions, as were all the poems I wrote that year, and even part of one of the screenplays which I co-wrote with director Renée de Palma.

Using creative trance is a gentle, pleasant way to create the raw materials for a work of fiction. It is not like meditation because your goal is not transcendence. It is not like many forms of self-hypnosis because you are not trying to lose weight, stop smoking, or change your behavior in any way. It is not like prayer, because you are not seeking a closer relationship with God. Creative trance is a tool, a key if you will, that lets you unlock the riches you already have stored in your own unconscious.

Yet its power should not be underestimated. So let me leave you with a warning: If you decide to go deeply into your own unconscious, you have to be ready to deal with what you find there. Creative trance is not therapy. If you are upset, unhappy, depressed, or anxious, wait until you have a calm mind and specific writing goals and can set firm limits on what you will accept from your unconscious.  

When you are in a creative trance, you should always be in control. If your Goddess appears before you with a hairdo made of snakes, you should be able to instantly turn those vipers into cobwebs and seaweed. Nothing you experience should harm you, scare you, or make you uncomfortable for more than a few seconds. A creative trance should be enjoyable from start to finish.

In The Village of Bones, the Goddess Earth gives Her people six commandments. The First Commandment is: “Live together in love and harmony.” The Sixth is: “Enjoy yourselves, for your joy is pleasing to Her.”

(An earlier version of this essay appeared as a Guest Post on the Visionary Fiction Alliance Blog on October 10, 2016).

 

 

Celebrate the Day of the Dead With Pandemonium Press

 Tuesday, November 1, 2016, Oakland CA at the Spice Monkey Cafe

PandemoniumPandemonium Press  celebrates the the Day of the Dead/Dia de Los Muertos with readings by poet/novelists Mary Mackey, Rafael Jesus Gonzalez, Cassandra Dallett, and Andrew O. Dugas, followed by an Open Mic. Curated by Leila Rae. Come listen to the featured readers and showcase your own work at the Open Mic. TIME: 6:30 pm. PLACE: Spice Monkey Cafe, 1268 Webster St., Oakland CA.

 

Celebrate With Me Nov 9 at Time Tested Books

party-animal-golden-retrieverDear Friends, Colleagues, Former Students, Poets, Writers, and Literary Party Animals, you’re invited to come to Time Tested Books on Wednesday, November 9th, at 7:00 pm for the Sacramento launch of the paperback edition of my new novel The Village of Bones.

Time Tested is hosting this event as a celebration of my many years as part of the Sacramento Literary Community, and some great local poets will be reading with me including Tim Kahl, Susan Kelly-DeWitt, Joshua McKinney, Trina L. Drotar and Mary Zeppa. Come celebrate with me even if you already have a copy of the novel, and at the same time celebrate one of Sacramento’s great independent bookstores. Bring your friends, your students, your family, your lovers, your Book Club members, and any cheerful-looking, literate strangers you may encounter on the way.

Date: Wednesday, November 9. Time: 7:00 to 8:30 pm
Address: Time Tested Books, 1114 21st St, Sacramento, CA 95811 (Between L and K)

Brenda Knight, WNBA President, On Novels of Life and Death

brenda-knight-headshot-196x240Today I’m talking to Brenda Knight, the current president of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA), San Francisco Chapter. WNBA was established in 1917, several years before American women had the right to vote. Brenda is a twenty-year publishing veteran who started out at HarperCollins, and the founding editor of Viva Editions, a division of Cleis Press. A writer as well as an editor, she has authored the American Book Award-winning Women of the Beat Generation, Rituals for Life and Wild Women and Books; and has worked with many bestselling authors including Mark Nepo, Phil Cousineau, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, and Paolo Coehlo. In her spare time (and it’s amazing she has any!), she volunteers for the American Cancer Society as a counselor for the newly diagnosed and leads writing workshops entitled “Putting Your Passion on Paper.”

Mary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Brenda. I understand that October is WNBA’s National Reading Group Month, and that on October 8th, the San Francisco Chapter is sponsoring an event at Books Inc, connected with San Francisco Litquake entitled Ghost, Bones, and Dust: Novels of Life and Death. That’s an intriguing title, but before we get to Ghost, Bones, and Dust, could you please tell us more about WNBA?

wnbasanfranciscoBrenda: WNBA is broad-based, non-profit organization with individual chapters in twelve cities plus individual members scattered across the country. There are  numerous corporate Sustaining Members plus Honorary Members drawn from the world of books and beyond. We give out three distinguished National Awards every year and sponsor major literary events in our chapter cities and elsewhere such as the WNBA National Reading Group Month event that is coming up on October 8 as part of San Francisco Litquake.

Mary: How is WNBA different from, say, PEN or The Authors Guild?

Brenda: Membership in PEN and The Authors Guild is limited to traditionally published writers Although most of our members are writers and editors, anyone who wants to help promote literacy on the international, national, and local level can become a member of WNBA.We not only celebrate women in the world of books, we’ve been dedicated to connecting, educating, advocating and leading in the literary community since 1917.

Mary: I was intrigued to learn that WNBA is a member of the United Nations.  Could you please tell us more about that?

Brenda: WNBA has been a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) member of the United Nations since 1959. We’re associated with the United Nations Department of Public Information, which means that among other things, we are committed to conducting effective information programs about UN Activities by publishing newsletters, bulletins, and pamphlets; organizing conferences, seminars and round tables; and enlisting the cooperation of the media.  In short, it’s our responsibility to support the United Nations in its goals and win support for those goals among members of the wider community.

Mary: What are some of the specific goals WNBA is trying to win support for?

Brenda: Our present goals include promoting gender equality, empowering women world-wide, and reducing child mortality rates. Plus, of course, we are always working to encourage reading and literacy.

Mary: Which brings us to WNBA National Reading Group Month. What is it?

Brenda: WNBA National Reading Group Month celebrates shared reading by promoting the formation of new reading groups and providing the members  of existing reading groups with suggestions for Great Group Reads. Great Group Reads are a key element in National Reading Group Month.

Mary: So, if I have this right, you’re putting out a list of great books that the members of the thousands of reading groups in this country will enjoy reading together?

Brenda: Exactly. In our opinion, these books are the best of the best for reading groups to read together.

Mary: How many books do you recommend each year?

Brenda: We recommend 20.

Mary: How are the books chosen?

Brenda: The great reads are chosen by a WNBA panel of writers, reviewers, booksellers, publicists, and committed readers. The titles cover timely and provocative topics, and always include under-represented gems from independent presses and less-known mid-list releases from larger houses. Authors are often surprised to hear that their book has been selected by the National Great Group Reads Panel.  

Mary: and pleased.

Brenda: We’ve never had any objections!

ghosts-bones-dustMary:  Now let’s talk about “Ghost, Bones, and Dust: Novels of Life and Death,” the National Reading Group Month panel WNBA is hosting on October 8th as the Kickoff Party for San Francisco Litquake. Where is it? When is it?

Brenda: The Great Group Reads panel Litquake Kickoff Party will be held on October 8th from 2:00 to 4:00 pm at Books Inc., the West’s oldest independent bookseller, which is located at 601 Van Ness in San Francisco (Opera Plaza). Lara King, an Edgar-winning mystery novelist, and five best-selling authors will discuss their books and the joys of shared reading. Refreshments will be catered by Max’s Opera Café.

Mary: Refreshments and good books. A great combination. Who are the five authors whom people will meet at this event? I believe I know one of them rather well.

Brenda: Cara Black, author of 14 books in the Private Investigator Aimee Leduc series, which is set in Paris; Patricia V. Davis, author of the bestselling Harlot’s Sauce: A Memoir of Food Family, Love, Loss, and Greece; Jessica Chiarella, author of the stunning debut novel And Again; Mary Volmer, author of Reliance Illinois; and Mary Mackey, New York Times bestselling author of 14 novels including The Village of Bones, the prequel to your Earthsong Series. The Panel will be moderated by Laurie R. King, New York Times bestselling author of the Mary Russell series of historical mysteries.

Mary: I’m honored to be one of the authors featured at this event. So, everyone, please come to Books Inc. on October 8th, celebrate WNBA National Reading Group Month, and buy books from the West’s oldest independent bookseller. We need to support literacy, reading groups, and our independent bookstores!

Sept 21 Mary Mackey at University Press Books in Berkeley

University Press Books Berkeley, CAWednesday, September 21, 2016, Berkeley, CA: Celebration of the paperback edition of The Village of Bones. Mary will read selections from The Village of Bones and sign books. There will be time to have fun, browse the books in one of the West Coast’s finest bookstores, and talk to interesting people. TIME: 5:30 to 7:00 pm. PLACE: University Press Books, 2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley CA

Mary Mackey Reads Tomorrow Night At Modern Times In San Francisco

Modern Times logoThursday, September 15, 2016, San Francisco, CA: Mary will read selections from The Village of Bones and sign books at Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco’s Mission District. TIME: 7:00 PM. PLACE: Modern Times Bookstore, 2919 24th Street, San Francisco, CA

Women’s Visionary Fiction: Visions, Magic, Prophecy

WHAT IS WOMEN’S VISIONARY FICTION (Part II)

cosmic dustLike all visionary fiction, Women’s Visionary Fiction gives us visions, magic, prophecy, spiritual experiences, the ability to see the future, to walk through the past, to hear the dead speak, and see other worlds that exist behind the thin veil that separates us from them. But Women’s Visionary Fiction gives us something more. That something, simply stated, is women.  Women write this fiction. In it, all the world, visible and invisible, mystical and real, is seen through female eyes.

In Part II of this series, I want to take you inside one novel written by a woman, and show you how the visionary aspects unfolded. The novel, which was only published a few weeks ago, is The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale. I am the author, and I know it inside out, having researched it for three years and put it through at least twelve complete drafts.

As the subtitle suggests, The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale is written from the viewpoint of a woman named Sabalah, a young priestess who lives six thousand years ago in a Europe inhabited by Goddess-worshiping people who are on the verge of being invaded by marauding nomads who are about to bring male gods, warfare, and genocide to lands that have known peace for thousands of years. It’s an epic adventure of magic, prophecy, and passion that involves a perilous journey, a deadly threat, and a lover who is more than human.

So what, you may ask, are the visionary elements that make The Village of Bones Women’s Visionary Fiction, as opposed to simply Visionary Fiction?  Well, first, as you can probably guess from my name (Mary), I am a woman. But more to the point, I wrote the first draft in a trance that produced a novel deeply saturated with female consciousness.
 
I didn’t write all of The Village of Bones in a trance, of course. You need your entire mind and all your rational facilities to structure and polish a novel, not to mention that I can’t type on my computer with my eyes closed. But the visions I describe in The Village of Bones are visions I saw as clearly as if someone had been running a movie inside my head, and the director of that movie was definitely a woman.

Was She me? That’s a good question. I developed this creative trance technique several decades ago, and I still  don’t know whether the someone who gives me visions is my Muse, a Goddess, a spirit, or simply my own imagination. All I know is that when I called up the story of The Village of Bones, I saw female things: A Sea Goddess, dressed in coral and foam, who told Sabalah she would give birth to a magical child. A Huge Snake Goddess floating in mid-air who warned Sabalah to take her newborn daughter Marrah and flee west to escape the nomads. A powerful Oracle, neither completely male nor completely female, who gave Sabalah a sacred text called the Mother Book, which contained all knowledge past and present, and which could destroy all humanity if it fell into the wrong hands.

As I entered this prehistoric world of visions and prophecies, I saw everything through Sabalah’s eyes. Dolphins that would let you ride on their backs. Great temples sacred to the Bird Goddess built in the shape of birds. Powerful beings with psychic powers who could shape-shift. And one of the most powerful of all these strange beings was a not-quite-human woman.  

I tell you all this to let you know that Women’s Visionary Fiction is not simply a category or a sign in a bookstore that tells you what kind of books you can find on the shelves below. Women’s Visionary fiction, in my case and in the case of other women writers I have spoken to, is not only ecstatically visionary. It is crafted from women’s lives and emerges from the deepest recesses of their unconscious. It is, in short, the stuff women’s dreams are made of.

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Resources:
Read Part I of “What Is Women’s Visionary Fiction?”

•    Syllabi for courses in Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Women’s Visionary Film can be found on Mary Mackey’s Educators Page at http://marymackey.com
•    To get the latest news about Mary Mackey, Women’s Visionary Fiction and The Village of Bones, click here.
•    Mary Mackey, Ph.D. writes novels, poetry, and film scripts. A Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Sacramento, she is the author of thirteen novels and seven collections of poetry including Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award. Garrison Keillor has featured her poetry four times on The Writer’s Almanac. Her novels have made The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists and been translated into twelve languages. Her visionary novel The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale is a prequel to the three novels in her best-selling  Earthsong Series (The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring). Mary welcomes your questions and comments at marymackey.com  where, you can sample her work, read her interview series People Who Make Books Happen, and sign up to get the latest news about her visionary fiction and poetry. You can also Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @MMackeyAuthor. Mary’s literary papers are archived at the Sophia Smith Special Collections Library at Smith College in Northampton, MA.

“What Is Women’s Visionary Fiction (Part II)” originally appeared on the Visionary Fiction Alliance Blog as a guest post by Mary Mackey.

 

Swimming In The American River

The Distant Cataract About Which We Do Not Speak (By Mary Mackey)

     Sunset Sacramento on American RiverThe air is full of drifting cottonwood seeds; the water is turning from translucent green to puddled copper; it is 105 degrees Fahrenheit; and once again I am about to sneak up on the ducks disguised as one of their own. Donning a blue baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses, I slip into the river, sink until my nose is just above the surface, and begin to do a slow, underwater breaststroke toward a flock of mallards.

The water comes from Sierra snowmelt that has been held behind Folsom dam like a cache of liquid ice. Even in mid-July, it is still so cold, it takes my breath away, but over the years I have learned that, if I grit my teeth and keep swimming, my body will gradually acclimatize. 

The mallards do not notice my approach. They never do. Perhaps ducks are nearsighted, perhaps they have a limited ability to sort out foreground and background, perhaps they are too busy dunking under to grab a beak-full of duckweed, or perhaps they just don’t give a damn. I have never been sure why they always fail to notice the weird thing moving toward them, particularly on days like today when I approach against the current. Logically, I can not possibly be a log or even a lost beach ball.

I swim nearer. No one looks up. The mallards continue to quack and duck their heads under the water. Over to the left, a male is engaged in a display of splashing and wing beating aimed at impressing a female who appears to be more interested in grooming her tail feathers. I take a few more strokes and float silently into the middle of the flock. The water is so clear I can see tadpoles scattering beneath me in all directions. The shadow of a large fish, a carp perhaps, slides under my feet. I am now close enough that I could reach out and grab the legs of the nearest drake, but I am a duck-observer, not a duck-eater.

For a moment, I relish my presence among them. Again, I wonder why they are not seeing me. Does the bill on my baseball cap make me look like a large mallard? Does their universe include the possibility of a bright blue duck with no eyes or tail feathers?

Suddenly, a female with six tiny ducklings trailing behind her paddles toward me, freezes, and does a double-take. That THING is definitely not a duck! She gives a terrified squawk and my cover is blown. Instantly all hell breaks loose. Quacking in panic, the ducks scatter like swimmers who have just realized that the log floating toward them is actually a crocodile. Most of the flock takes to the air; the mothers lead their ducklings into the reeds and disappear.

 Finding myself alone again with only a few floating feathers to keep me company, I turn and begin to swim back toward the island, still keeping a low profile. Sometimes on the return trip, I see other animals. I can not get anywhere near the four-foot tall blue herons who are too smart and much too wary to be taken in; but once a green heron actually perched on my cap for a moment, perhaps mistaking me for a small, blue island. On another occasion, near dusk, I looked up and there on the bank, staring at me with unguarded curiosity, was a large buck with a fine rack of antlers. Once, only once, I saw a coyote playing catch with a stick.

Only a week ago as I swam in a warmer backwater, something sneaked up on me. It was not, thank goodness, a rattlesnake. I have only seen one of those in the seventeen some years I have been coming here and one was enough to last a lifetime; but it gave me quite a start nevertheless. I was swimming under the cottonwoods toward a patch of ripe blackberries that can only be pillaged by water, when I heard a huge smack behind me. I did exactly what the ducks do under such circumstances: I squawked and began to paddle toward safety only to discover that I was sharing the lagoon with a large beaver.

I have no idea why she was out in mid-afternoon. As a rule, beavers are crepuscular creatures. When we paddle our canoe back to the boat launch after sunset, we often encounter as many as twenty of them: large, plump, shadowy balls that slap their tails on the water like a rhythm band as we float by. But this one was up early, and she did not enjoy sharing the lagoon. For a few minutes she swam circles around me, slapping and diving. Then, to my great relief, she slid under water and disappeared. I have never heard of anyone being attacked by a beaver, but I got a good look at her, and just for the record, beaver teeth, when seen up close, are formidable.

But today, I make it back to the island without encountering anything more than a small muskrat and a swarm of Bluetail flies. Stumbling out of the water across a spread of small, unreasonably sharp stones, I towel off, sit down in a lawn chair, pick up the thermos, and pour myself a cup of iced tea. In a few minutes my husband, who originally introduced me to this place, swims up and joins me. We sit, chatting, drinking tea, eating cold melons, and waiting for the sun to set; and in the distance, as always, we hear the sound of The Distant Cataract About Which We Do Not Speak.

Of course, it is not really the sound of a cataract. It is the roar of rush hour traffic, half of it crossing the Howe Avenue Bridge, half of it crossing the bridge at Watt. We are sitting on an island in the American River, right in the middle of Sacramento, the state capital, a metropolitan area of well over a million people, but my husband and I like to preserve our mutual delusion. We have agreed to imagine we are not a five- minute drive from our home and a twenty-minute walk from the university where we both teach, but instead in some remote part of California where just out of sight a magnificent waterfall foams down into a green pool.

The American River Parkway makes this fantasy amazingly easy. For over thirty miles, it runs through the heart of the city from Folsom Lake to the point where the American River joins the Sacramento. This is a town where if you float in a canoe or sit on an island below the levees you can not see houses (except in a few places where, alas, the zoning restrictions are being violated). This is a town where some state employees kayak to work; where, no matter how hot it gets, you can get goosebumps and blue lips just by going for a swim.

Over the years, we have seen Hmong families in brightly embroidered, traditional dress picnicking on the banks. We have come upon a circle of Somoans, up to their chests in water, drinking cold beers and singing “On The Boardwalk” in perfect  harmony. When we launch our canoe, we often find ourselves having conversations in Spanish with recent immigrants from Mexico or Central America. About 75,000 Russians live in Sacramento county, many of them Baptists. We have watched them build huts of reeds and flowers and carry flowered crosses out into the water as part of their baptismal rituals. African-American congregations baptize here too, dressed in white robes. Like the Russians, they sing hymns and pray. I am always moved when I hear them. This, I think, is the spiritual heart of the river.

Once, during a January when it looked as if the levees might break, my husband and I came upon a pile of candy wrapped in gold foil, pineapples and oranges sliced in half, several beheaded guinea fowl, a pack of matches, and a handful of popcorn: traditional offerings made to the goddess Oxum by devotees of the African-Brazilian religion Candomblé. On another occasion, we went down to the river to launch our canoe and found the parking lot occupied by a Russian Orthodox priest and his congregation. The priest appeared to be blessing the river with incense. A procession made its way to the edge of the river bearing banners painted with holy icons. I believe their prayers were in Old Slavonic.

But nothing can compare to a night in early August when my husband and I came to the river and found it full of small, floating lanterns. A Japanese priest stood at the boat launch chanting as the lanterns drifted toward him and his congregation. We found out later that this is a traditional ceremony for souls lost at sea, but that now it is done to commemorate those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. Above the lanterns, a full moon rose into the sky, bright and large as a second sun. The flames swirled in the current, the night primroses blossomed, the beavers were silent, and for a few moments the American was a river of light.

Note by Mary Mackey: This description of my swims in the American River was originally written for My California (Angel City Press), an anthology published to raise money for the California Arts Council and school writing programs statewide.