Shasta Wildflowers: Berberis piperiana


Berberis piperiana or Oregon Grape. Photo by Leo Michels.

When my parents bought their house in Shasta County, California, in1976, I was struck by two things: the intense incenselike fragrance of the eighty acres of dense forest opposite my bedroom window, especially on warm summer mornings, and the pleasantly acrid scent of the thickets of manzanita and digger pines, especially on rainy winter nights. Because the forest was composed of both, plants which do well in that mostly arid climate of hot summers and rather mild winters. Whole families of deer lived among the trees, though I can’t imagine where they actually slept and bore their young: perhaps somewhere along the Sacramento River which ran at the base of a bluff not too far away. There were jackrabbits too, large and really mangy looking creatures which came boldly into our front garden to nibble on the blades of grass in the early morning. They often had large ticks attached to their ears. My brother and I were fond of exploring the woods, sometimes following the low arched deer trails which led into the depths of the trees. And we would occasionally come across clumps of picturesque Oregon Grape.

Botanists know it as Berberis piperiana, and there are other related varieties by various names. Berberis aquifolium is the state flower of Oregon, for example. B. piperiana is an upright shrub that grows to a foot or two in height, new plants arising at intervals from the ground, emerging from a creeping root-stock. Native Americans used it for seasoning meat and soups. The leaves were used to make a beverage similar to our grape juice. A yellowish dye was extracted from the flowers and used to decorate baskets and fabrics. Bears seek out the berries for food, and humans today use them for making jelly. 

A fairly regular companion on our jaunts through the woods was our black long-haired German Shepherd dog named Max, who had a nasty habit of escaping from us instantly whenever he sensed the presence of a rabbit. Eventually he’d turn up, but occasionally such events resulted in near disaster. As the time he ran at top speed across an open meadow, heedless of our calls to return, until he was stopped abruptly by a sturdy barbed wire fence, beneath which the rabbit had escaped. We heard only Max’s astonished howl as he bounced several feet back from the fence and landed on his feet. And there was the time he vanished into an especially dense thicket of manzanita, resulting in more howls, until after a very long wait on our part he emerged, apparently unscathed but minus his rugged chain collar. Max lived a very long life, but I’ve never been able to understand how he did it. He was not actually forced to forage for jackrabbits in order to survive, of course, and that certainly had something to do with it. 



Georg Trakl: Birth


Hugo Noske (1886-1960). Nocturne. Woodcut on paper. 

Here is my translation of a poem by Georg Trakl (1887-1914). It is part of his 1915 collection entitled ‘Sebastian im Traum’ (‘Sebastian in the Dream’). Trakl’s German original follows.


Mountains: blackness, silence and snow.
Red from the forest the chase descends:
O, the mossy glances of the prey.

Stillness of the mother; beneath the black firs
The sleeping hands open,
When decayed the cold moon appears.

O, the birth of man. Nightly blue water
Roars in the rock abyss;
The fallen angel glimpses its image with a sigh,

A pale shape awakes in the musty room.
Two moons 
Light the eyes of the stone crone.

Woe, the birthing cry. With black wing
Night grazes the temples of the boy,
Snow that softly sinks from the purple cloud.


Gebirge: Schwärze, Schweigen und Schnee.
Rot vom Wald niedersteigt die Jagd;
O, die moosigen Blicke des Wilds.

Stille der Mutter; unter schwarzen Tannen
Öffnen sich die schlafenden Hände,
Wenn verfallen der kalte Mond erscheint.

O, die Geburt des Menschen. Nächtlich rauscht
Blaues Wasser im Felsengrund;
Seufzend erblickt sein Bild der gefallene Engel,

Erwacht ein Bleiches in dumpfer Stube.
Zwei Monde
Erglänzen die Augen der steinernen Greisin.

Weh, der Gebärenden Schrei. Mit schwarzem Flügel
Rührt die Knabenschläfe die Nacht,
Schnee, der leise aus purpurner Wolke sinkt.

The Basket Maker


Home of Mary Hunter Austin, Independence, California.

As I periodically return to savor the language and ideas found in Mary Hunter Austin’s 1903 classic ‘The Land of Little Rain’, an extended meditation on life as she observed it over the years in the Owens Valley below the eastern slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada range, I have marked certain passages as my favorites. These are taken from the chapter entitled ‘The Basket Maker’, about an Indian woman named Seyavi, widowed young with one child, who makes her living weaving baskets. And by way of explanation: the word ‘campoodie’, which Austin frequently employs, refers to a small encampment or village of Native Americans in that part of the world and at that time in history.

‘”A man,” says Seyavi of the campoodie, “must have a woman, but a woman who has a child will do very well.”‘

‘To understand the fashion of any life, one must know the land it is lived in and the procession of the year.’

‘In our kind of society, when a woman ceases to alter the fashion of her hair, you guess that she has passed the crisis of her experience. If she goes on crimping and uncrimping with the changing mode, it is safe to suppose she has never come up against anything too big for her.’

‘Every Indian woman is an artist,–sees, feels, creates, but does not philosophize about her processes.’

‘…but Seyavi’s baskets had a touch beyond cleverness. The weaver and the warp lived next to the earth and were saturated with the same elements.’

‘Oppapago looks on Waban, and Waban on Coso and the Bitter Lake, and the campoodie looks on these three; and more, it sees the beginning of winds along the foot of Coso, the gathering of clouds behind the high ridges, the spring flush, the soft spread of wild almond bloom on the mesa. These first, you understand, are the Paiute’s walls, the other his furnishings. Not the wattled hut is his home, but the land, the winds, the hill front, the stream.’

‘These he cannot duplicate at any furbisher’s shop as you who live within doors, who, if your purse allows, may have the same home in Sitka and Samarcand. So you see how it is that the homesickness of an Indian is often unto death, since he gets no relief from it; neither the wind nor weed nor sky-line, nor any aspect of the hills of a strange land sufficiently like his own.’

‘Indian women do not often live to great age, though they look incredibly steeped in years. They have the wit to win sustenance from the raw material of life without intervention, but they have not the sleek look of the women whom the social organization conspires to nourish.’

‘But suppose you find Seyavi retired into the privacy of her blanket, you will get nothing for that day. There is no other privacy possible in a campoodie. All the processes of life are carried on out of doors or behind the thin, twig-woven walls of the wickiup, and laughter is the only corrective for behavior. Very early the Indian learns to possess his countenance in impassivity, to cover his head with his blanket. Something to wrap around him is as necessary to the Paiute as to you your closet to pray in.’

‘So in her blanket Seyavi, sometime basket maker, sits by the unlit hearths of her tribe and digests her life, nourishing her spirit against the time of the spirit’s need.’


Alcuin of York


Lindisfarne, or the Holy Isle, off the coast of Northumberland, England.

In undergraduate days, aside from all the usual general education courses, I focussed on the liberal arts and majored in French and German. Then some years later, after some major twists and turns in my educational, career and life paths, I completed a graduate degree in English with a specialty in the field of translation–something I really enjoyed and did merely because I wanted to. One of my professors, the lone medievalist on campus, suggested that I follow in her footsteps, and for awhile I was devouring back issues of the medievalist journal ‘Speculum’ and page after page of fantastic Anglo-Saxon texts, before I realized I had simply stumbled onto all that too late. Other obligations ensued, and I have had all kinds of other adventures since, but I still return to those medieval treasures on a regular basis. I may not be writing scholarly papers in minor pre-conquest Anglo-Saxon dialects as one of my precocious fellow students delighted in doing, but I still have fun. 

And so for the last couple of weeks I have been reading things related to the life and work of that great and somewhat mysterious Carolingian figure, the scholar and educator Alcuin of York (died 804). I first encountered him a quarter of a century ago in some courses on the Carolingian Renaissance, and he periodically haunts me in a very charming way. Because he’s connected to all kinds of places and people I find intriguing: the late 1st millennium Germanic world; the great Northumbrian monasteries at Lindisfarne, Wearmouth and Jarrow; ecclesiastical and cultural figures like Bede the Venerable and Sts. Willibrord and Boniface; the incredible figure of Charlemagne and his successful efforts to unite much of western Europe into a cohesive empire based on military, cultural and religious foundations. Alcuin was involved in much of what Charlemagne accomplished, though education was his forte. And he has left us some marvelous quotations, like ‘Oh how sweet life was when we sat quietly…midst all these books’; ‘And do not listen to those who keep saying, “The voice of the people is the voice of God,” because the tumult of the crowd is always close to madness’; and the inscription on his own tomb reading ‘What I now am, you will soon be’. 

You can instantly download all kinds of free books on Alcuin of York and his times from the California Digital library, copies of books long since out of print and difficult to find otherwise. There are ‘The Life of Alcuin’ by Frederick Lorenz (1837), for example, ‘The Letters of Alcuin’ by Rolph Barlow Page (1909) and ‘Alcuin’ by E.M. Wilmot-Buxton (1922). You can also download complete copies of  many of Alcuin’s own works, available in the original Latin on various websites, things like his influential treatise ‘On the Virtues and Vices’ (De Virtutibus et Vitiis), his hundreds of extant letters, and his works on grammar, dialectic, rhetoric and astronomy. And, if you become thoroughly addicted to Alcuin, you can seek out the many works of the German 19th century Alcuin and Carolingian scholar , Ernst Drümmler, including complete original texts of just about everything Alcuin and his associates have left behind. As for me, I’m hoping to recover from this mania before I’m anywhere near that far gone.