Dinnshenchas: Places, names, and things in California

Ecological systems and change in the California Landscape.

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Knowing water

Summer is almost over. In nine days the inevitable slide into darkness begins. I'm ready. I don't know if it's a function of getting older, but June and July are tough: there is so much sun, a surfeit of it. Summer is many-houred and hotter now. For about twenty years, the heat of the sun has lain differently on my skin, more intensely, even in the exceptionally moderate climate of coastal California. My skin shrinks and begs me to get out of it. And into the water.

I'm a Leo, beloved of the sun, born just after Lughnasadh. And yet for most of the three months that make up summer, I'm always looking around for the nearest source of water to jump into. This is tough when you live in a city. San Francisco does not get that hot, really. And the water is chilly. But on those rare occasions when the sun broadcasts intense heat across San Francisco, the ocean is there. Then, I hop on my bike and ride across town to China Beach, a tiny cove situated under multimillion homes. Grey water and urban sludge leak from the houses and the streets in a sluggish stream that divides the beach.  I would enjoy the beach more were it not for this. But it's mostly a clean beach. When the sun is high, it's easy enough to walk up to the ocean and the nearest green wave, which I treat as a portal. I knock three times. A door opens. I slip into the ocean, and under the waves for twenty minutes or so of ecstatic play. It's good times.

Ye shall know the summer by the water you find: this has been (until this writing) an unspoken maxim of mine. This was a three-water summer: a lake, a wetland pond, and a river.

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The river fed a swimming hole on the south fork of the Eel River, a modest river, by California standards, and one that suffered this year in the drought, but still able to yield enough water to fill a substantial swimming hole. My friend and I were driving up the 101 to the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary to scatter her mother's ashes. We stopped in Standish Hickey State Recreation Area to cool down. A fire, as was so often the case this summer was burning in the distance and the air was thick with smoke. We ran straight into the swimming hole. The water was emerald green and fairly clear. The slate grey rocks that fringed it were good places to sit or dive as the spirit entered us. I usually transform in water- no surprise- into a grindylow, but the weight of sadness on my friend's shoulders and face grounded me in the sober truth: her mother was dead and we were scattering her ashes. And we needed to be in the Marsh soon. But the water worked its magic. We felt light and clean after swimming in it.

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We arrived at the wetland pond and the scent of decaying matter hit me as soon as I stepped out of the car. That smell, for me, underlines the true functionality of a wetland: rapidly processing the stuff of life. Organic (and some non-organic) matter is taken in, dealt with and recycled. Nothing is wasted. This is a helpful way to think when you're dealing with human morality.

I did not swim in any of the brackish ponds. Had I jumped in, I might have transformed into Jinny Greenteeth, the dripping pond-hag from Lancashire who guards small, still pools. The name is also used to describe duckweed, a flowering aquatic plant. There was duckweed blooming on almost every watery surface: this, together with the profusion of plants, made the place glow. Jinny was there, alright, lurking and glowering greenly at us.

Something else was there, too. After scattering a portion of her mother's ashes in one of Jinny's ponds, my friend decided to bushwhack, looking for another place for her mother. She stepped off the trail and made her way towards a several cypress trees. I am a trail-follower when I'm in wildlife refuges and the wild, and so I followed hesitantly. She disappeared from sight. I turned around to look for her.

When I turned back, a barn-owl was hovering in sky, three feet in front of me, looking at me intently with its dark, dark eyes and flowery face. I lost it. "Lady! Lady!" I shrieked in rapturous hysteria. I meant to pay my respects to the symbol of divine wisdom and death that was fluttering effortlessly above my head. I think I just annoyed it with my outburst. The owl took off in the other direction, likely irritated by the thrashing, yelling humans blundering around in its habitat. "I meant well," I called after it.

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The lake was sub-alpine, and was formed after a volcano collapsed, and a freshwater spring took over the formerly fiery space. I arrived at the lake after a long, arduous hike up and down a steep grade. I was told that the lake was wonderful for swimming, and it was: wide, long and dotted with rocks. The fact that it was filled by a spring and not snow melt made all the difference. The lake was turbid, filled with rotting matter, and unfortunately the excrement of the cows grazing next to it. Prior to the arrival of cattle in the Sierra, Giardia was not a sure bet; now it is. I wondered if I was doomed after accidentally swallowing a mouthful of the lake while swimming; happily I was not.

I was there with four other people for an Elements of Magic class. For five days we worked with the elements, the directions, the flora and fauna (including the cows). We spoke directly to air and heard it sigh back. We looked at the flame of our campfire and watched it wave and flicker and cast long shadows over the trees. We got unbelievably dirty with the soil of the earth. And each day we worked with the lake: taking our water from it, cooling our bodies in it, staring at it. It was, for me, the anchor of my work, the element I was most aware of. Such riches, I thought, sitting in meditation. Look at all that water.

I was able to make a transformation in the lake into my grindylow self one day, playful, lightly malicious, watchful. Who else was getting in the water? How they would act? Some campers had arrived a day or two after we did. I watched one of them lower himself gingerly into the water.

"Yes," I hissed. "Get in the water."

"Oh, boy," said one of my companions, laughing. "Tell me your name."

"My name is Elizabeth Creely," I said reluctantly. Elizabeth Creely is ainm dom. The phrase repeated itself in my head in Irish. I was Elizabeth Creely, floating in the lake, taking the chill water in my body. I knew that later, even when it was hot and the fire that was all around me urged my body to become hot, too, there would be a reservoir of chill: no warm blood in my veins, but grey water, smooth and cold, running throughout all the channels of my body.

Uisce, pronounced ish-ka, is the word for water in Irish. When you say it, it sounds like a quick pant, or exhale, the sound of relief: Ishhhh...ka.

I said the word in abject relief while immersed in the lake, surrounded by the source of life. Uisce. Water.

Ahhhhhhh.

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Elizabeth Creely lives in San Francisco, and has explored almost every type of environment California has to offer: coastal, riverine, grassland, desert and montane. This blog features an new essay (hopefully) every month. I like quality more than quantity, and intend to write substantive, research-based essays that reflect the best of my conversations, childhood memories, discoveries  and reflections of California. What's Dinnshenchas mean, you ask? It's an old Irish narrative genre that takes its inspiration from a genre of Irish story telling that recounts the origins of place names. It concerns itself with the mythic, and California is nothing if not that.

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