January 9, 2011
A Water Spirit dwells beneath our hill. She was once a mischievous Sprite emerging in clear springs between the knees of great spruce and birch trees, a trickster who danced in shafts of sunlight through an understory of fern, columbine, and devil’s club. Birdsongs punctuated her secret laughter. A decade ago you could get lost on our little hill, knowing only down, the way water knows down—into the open sunlight where the surf calls her restless child to Mother Ocean. Stumps the size of kitchen tables now dot the hill where the Sprite has become a fretful and confused Crone.
Maka told me. Maka is wise and, like the Old Woman under our hill, a little crazy. Who can blame them? Maka has loved our wayward Nymph and sacred hill for decades, even though her cottage is sinking into the land. In a strange paradox, Maka, with her good heart, was the unwitting instrument of change. She wanted city water for the scattered homes of her neighbors, but as heavy machinery penetrated with roads and pipes, the land was desecrated. Following the scent of money, developers shaved the forest, sliced the hill into neat rectangles, and pounded gravel foundations into its soft flesh. It’s ironic that Maka couldn’t afford city water and still hauls her water in jars.
Tom and I might not have bought this house had we known of the Spirit trembling beneath it. But the spring of 2009 was mild and the Old Goddess lay dozing when we first stepped upon the land. Even so, my feet sensed her brooding, and I knew. Did I, like the developers, really think that ancient Soul could be subdued with truckloads of gravel and drains? She is wild and will not be forced into a ditch. Mike and Maka never tried. Their little home sits lightly on the land, tilting precariously as the Old One gropes blindly toward the ocean. Far from taming her, the tramp of progress has thwarted her natural course and forced her to rear up in surprising places.
Maka leads me into the small sanctuary behind her house. It is summer and her acre is layered in shifting green. Here lies a remnant world, so different from the sterile subdivision. The Old One is humming softly as we step into the shadows. I feel my body take a deep breath. “Yes,” it answers. “Yes.”
“This is all that’s left,” Maka tells me. Her long hair blows like the ferns; her eyes are deep as forest pools. She is light on her feet like a girl as she bends under a curtain of foliage to show me the massive bole of a spruce tree. “Little Blacky used to hibernate in there. He never hurt anyone. They killed him because he was a bear.”
We return to my home across a desert of gravel with buckets with wild herbs. Maka knows all their names and uses. “I was wary of settling on this damaged land,” I tell her as we poke the sprigs into our cold and sodden ground. “I wanted a secluded place in the woods. Now I want to heal this hill and return it to its namesake, ‘Forest Glen.’ Maybe not in my lifetime, but we have to start.”
“Your home sits on the heart of the hill,” Maka assures me. “There was a deep sinkhole near here, a spring that bubbled up. You couldn’t find the bottom. I can’t remember exactly where,” she blinks under the empty sky as if still surprised that the trees are gone, “they’ve changed it all so much. The first year they put in the road, water sprang up in the middle like a volcano, angry, spitting rocks.” She pushes her face close. “It was a Forest here!” She breathes it like a prayer. Her eyes are flooded with grief.
“I’ve never seen mud like this,” I phone my sister, Annie. “It’s more like suspended clay. Water usually runs downhill, but this wells up from below.”
“Don’t try to control it,” my sister advises. “Plant a water garden with hanging walks. Work with the land and enroll it.”
I gaze at the soft green of moose-browse summer, the land awake. Tom digs a ditch around the house, backfilling with gravel over a perforated drainpipe meant to guide the underground flow into our little creek. We sculpt it into a ribbon like a dry streambed. I work with my shovel, trying to sooth and direct the water. Leaning close to the earth I hear the whisper of forgotten forest. The land misses its trees. It doesn’t want lawn. Behind our house, the sickly grass is a floating mat. I step carefully, afraid of punching through. The rocks I placed to stabilize the creek have disappeared. Tom and I plant trees, it’s a slow process, but the young spruce nestle eagerly.
January and the land is still. After Christmas we had a week of rain, now thankfully frozen again. The snow is gone and dry streambed we placed last summer has dropped a foot, pulling rocks and gravel into that strange darkness. Ice flows like a glacier, oozing out of the hill. I stand on the glassy cascade and feel the Water Spirit powerful beneath me. With my little shovel I play in the rising creek, which is layered like a croissant: water and ice crystals. It trickles and talks, even in the coldest weather. I cut channels, knowing I cannot direct its flow, but enjoying its morphing autonomy.
Developers have built what amounts to floating houses, which ride uneasily on a vast seep. Last spring I watched the yellow machines scoop through chocolate malt and stamp down enough gravel down to support structures. But the water did not go away. She is restless and indomitable. Our new neighbors planted a spotty mesh of grass, the thinnest of skins, and pump foundations. There’s a sound like breathing mud, just beyond the range of hearing. Maka knows, and so do I. Something still lives here, older than man. The Water Spirit is very much alive and She is not at peace.
I love Her. That’s my answer: like the pheasants and marsh grass, I surrender to Her Mystery, deeply grateful for the blessings of Life that She alone brings. I accept her capricious moods. There is no other sane course. She may take our home, as She is taking Mike and Maka’s—one drop at a time—or perhaps in a cataclysmic rush to the Bay. Maybe my love will negotiate an uneasy reprieve, for a time. This small ridge is, after all, the heart of her domain. One cannot fight Nature and win. Oh, it may look like victory for a while: divert and redirect, cement over and pave. Manipulate the genes and stack warehouses with crates of living pigs. We think we are clever.
There are deep and uncharted currents below our settled lives, wild places we cannot enter with arrogance. We may ignore them and say they don’t matter, but they run strong and mysterious below our painted walls. So what do humans do when our desire for comfort and security collides with the untamable forces of our Planet? For that matter, what happens when we attempt to force the wellspring of creativity within ourselves into paved canals?
We transgress on our deepest Selves when we hitch creativity to the plow of expedience. When we cease to honor the inner Quest, it doesn’t die: like the spring beneath this hill, the Energy is driven under pavement to erupt like an abscess in illness and unrest. The playful girl mutates into a vindictive coworker; the agile youth becomes an angry man. More laws and stricter penalties cannot straighten the meandering rivers of our lives. The Water Spirit will not be tamed, and contrary to all predictions, does not always run downhill. If respected, She dances in joyful shifting pools, unpredictable but beautiful. When impounded, she blisters up beneath our roads. She is not ours to command, only to celebrate.
Don’t you hear it? The song of running water.