River otter tracks, webbed and clawed, five-toed and perfect. Beside them, a great upheaval of sand where, at dawn, the silky-dark family of five rolled and tumbled and slid back down again into the lagoon. The mind’s eye sees this, a knot of water-wet bodies, those wise black snouts. But my first instinct is always to reach down with my own hand and lay a pad in a pad, a fingerprint in the print of a metacarpal the shape of some curved island. A teacher once told me that deeply skilled trackers, like the San Bushmen of the Kalahari, can place a finger in a track, or cup the hand just above, hovering as if over a living flower too beautiful to touch, and in a flush that I imagine like rain coming, see the animal who made the track and where it went, how it moved, where it is now, in that eye of the mind where dreams and stories are also made.
I can’t see with any certainty the river otter who made these tracks, or the coyote who made others as she side-trotted down the muddy trail just up from Wildcat Creek at dawn. I do know that when I cup my hand above those pawprints like they are alive and holy, my hand hums. Once or twice I have, for all of three seconds (and apparently ‘now’ — or maintenant, literally ‘time-at-hand in French(i) — lasts for three seconds in the human mind) felt my whole mind become coyote, shaggy and trotting at dawn, body a lithe taut joyous thing, the whole world a web of smells so sweet and rich and rank and big they filled as much of my senses as sight. It’s a flash, a breath, a story I’ve made from my hand to my head, then gone. And always coyote. He has an interest in humans that the other animals don’t in the old indigenous tales of this land — Coast Miwok, Ohlone, Pomo, depending on where you are. Creator of the world from the tops of various local peaks (Mt. Diablo, Mt. St. Helena); fire-bringer; maker of death. Maybe he’s curious about this five-fingered, deadly-dexterous, beautiful hand, and so the story of his morning sniffs nearer than the river otter’s, the newt’s, the white-crowned sparrow’s.
The human hand has more neural innervation than any other part of the body save the lips and tongue, where our speaking and our loving and our tasting come from. Lips and hands give caresses, carrying the story of love or healing between two bodies. Lips and tongue taste and take in the lives of others — plant, animal — that sustain us as food. There’s a reason, when you see something beautiful that lifts your heart to your throat and lurches it sideways, that you reach out your hand to touch: orange poppies in full bloom in sunlight, shimmering suppler than any silk. Maybe your nose follows, to test the smell, to get dusted with pollen. Somehow, having your hands near or touching those petals brings the bloom in, as if your heart had done it. Reaching out with a foot, or an elbow, or even your lips wouldn’t be the same. The hands, cupping, seem to understand, as if in the touch they are imagining the whole creation of that flower, in whatever humble or rash way they can manage. Because this is what hands do, at their best: they make. They play creator, like Coyote at the top of Mt. Diablo crafting humans from feathers and land from mats of tule.
Our hands are muscled and shaped the way they are for and from the crafting of tools, and then the crafting of other things with those tools — arrowhead, awl, basket, bead, shoe, cape, hat, pot, flute. And on, and on. You know where this may lead — has lead, does lead. When I see a little Bewick’s wren rasping her tinny voice above me in the grape vines, distressed about a cat near her nest, her underbelly and tail feathers an intricate banding of brown and white, my hands itch a little, not to catch her, but with wonder, imagining that small wren in my palm. How light, how quick, the prick of her claws and the warm ferocity of her feathers. Somehow, I can’t imagine knowing her intimately without touch — taking into my body the story of hers. Neural innervation: the nerves in the hands making stories for the mind (and, I would add, the heart too, for we have many neurons there as well).
Viscerally, all of this makes me understand, inside my gut — that root place where the world very literally becomes me — something of the emotional gist of the utterly stunning handprints that accompany the Palaeolithic cave paintings of horse and reindeer, lion and auroch, in such caverns as the French Pech-Merle and Chauvet. The first time I saw an image of the multitude of handprints at Chauvet — ochre red — I felt a thrumming chill through my whole body. I wanted to weep. I felt like the breath had been taken out of me.
Those handprints reach out like ghosts, exactly the same as your own would look if you dipped them in ochre-red paint and placed them side-by-side: 30,000 years luminous between your palms, and theirs. In Pech-Merle, the handprints, thought to belong to adult women or boys due to their size, undulate around the bodies of gloriously speckled horses. Those handprints are like signatures, saying — I (or we) created these creatures on the womb-walls of this cave. But deeper yet, the hands reach out, riding the wild gallop of those hooves, dancing in a kind of palmed frenzy. They get to join with the Being of a horse by making it in cinder and ochre red. Something of the shape shifting of ancient animistic shamanism is at work in this union of hand and horse, hand and cave-wall, hand over coyote track, hand itching to feel the tender wonder of a Bewick’s wren landing there, on the skin.
We tend to imagine the Palaeolithic people who worshipped and sang and painted in these caves as so different from ourselves that they are barely relatable or comprehensible: men and women in furs and skins with stone tools and nomad ways, saber-toothed cats in their dreams and life-spans we scoff at. And yet, and yet, I see those handprints and I see a longing that has not left us. I see a longing that has become tempered or misshapen by sadness, by a story of exile, but the same — held up in praise, in awe, to touch the mystery of the wild beings so like us, and yet not us at all. Held out because in touching we make, we love, and we kill, and how can we know all three, and not carry a sorrowed praise through all of our days?
Our hands made our minds what they are. It is the hand that separated us from the rest of animal-kind, in the sense that it allowed us to eventually step out of the natural processes of evolution and natural selection. It allowed us to make, yes — and so beautifully — but it has also allowed us to take as much as we want, at least to a point. We have yet to reach that point, but we are near, and we know already the kinds of devastation — myriad as the kinds of song — that we can wreak. It is the hand that makes us different (not better, lord no, for in it is our own undoing, and the world’s). Yet it is also the hand that reaches out in the cave paintings of Pech-Merle to make a bridge between human and horse; my own hand reaching down to bridge woman and coyote.
Superficially, our hands don’t look very different from a chimp’s. But beneath the outer structure, our hands are muscled — especially our thumbs, which rotate in a complete circle in their sockets, able to make precise, firm contact with each finger-pad — and innervated in ways that are utterly unique. The combination of flexibility, strength and precision in our grip, our palms, our forearms and our fingertips, is so complicated that it instigated a total overhaul, or re-working, of a large part of our mammal brains in order to make it all work. The nervous system had to change dramatically in order to respond to each new need and action of the hand — from the overhand throw of a rock to the flint-knapping of an obsidian blade to the incredibly difficult and precise act of threading a fishbone needle. Or, more literally, they evolved together — hand, nervous system, brain.
Neurologists such as Frank R. Wilson, author of The Hand, asserts that tool-making came first, and after it, or from it, our own particular brand of spoken language. He claims that ‘evolution has created in the human brain an organ powerfully predisposed to generate rules that treat nouns as if they were stones and verbs as if they were levers or pulleys. […] We humans are instructed (or constrained) by our genes to build sentences the way we build huts and villages. (ii) Just as the making of a tool has steps — a beginning, a middle and an end and then the anticipated use that has nothing to do with the present moment but an imagined future, or even an imagined array of futures — our minds likewise took form around this growing sense (or feel) for sequentiality.
In other words, as our hands became unusually skilled and deft at making tools, clothes, then objects of ritual beauty and adornment, our minds started making things too — stories. They started making narratives, sequences of events that told us who we were, that attempted to explain the inexplicable all around us. Being makers-with-hands, we want to know how everything else is made, and functions, especially that most inexplicable thing of all at the far end of the sequence: carve, polish, lash, aim, throw right into the heart of a deer. Death. Our making hands made our making minds, not the other way around, and our knowledge of the workings (think tools) of the world all around us, our own bodies and lives and deaths, made us the beautiful and terrible creatures that we are.
I could go on with this topic in a pinwheel of directions, each spoke offering a new thicket of connection. How we speak of mental understanding as grasping, getting a feel for, getting a grip. How, as babies, we learn to speak simultaneously as we learn how to manipulate objects with our hands; or, as Wilson writes, ‘playing with anything to make something is always paralleled in cognition by the creation of a story.’ (iii) How palms have been read for thousands of years as somehow containing the story or map of a person’s life. How many healing traditions have centred around the power of the hand, as in the story of the Greek god Asclepius (whose statues were later made with gold hands to represent the healing power of his touch) or the ancient Japanese practice of Reiki. But my mind — and my writing hand, as it were — lingers with the way a skilled palm can read the story of an animal track, the way 30,000-year-old handprints beside the roiling backs of wild horses make my own palms hum. I am caught by the idea of the hand as a bridge as much as it is also a scissor, severing us. And I am above all, as a writer and a maker of myth-inspired, ecologically-rooted tales, waylaid by the idea that stories might actually, in some sense, reside in — or come through — the fingers and hand as much as they do the mind.
I have long known that something very particular and very important happens for me when I make use of those very fine human motor skills needed to delicately wield a pen — a grip and an action very similar to the threading a needle and sewing: embroidering a tale, spinning a yarn — and put it to paper. I cannot write fiction on the computer at all, unless I am already so fully in the flow of the story that it has unfurled far, far down the path of my imagination. Something is loosened, or triggered, or whatever it may be, in my mind when my fingers grasp the pen and the ink flows across the page. I’m no good at all at telling a tale aloud, probably in part because some circuit, luminous in my heart as any moon, has been made in me (since age seven or so) between index, thumb, pen, and mind, so that the story comes out best when those muscles are activated, and my eyes can read the words like coyote tracks across the page as I go. When I’ve seen truly brilliant storytellers spin their tales aloud, such as the wild and wonderful Martin Shaw, their hands move with their words, mesmerising, perhaps helping to coax those syllables out of the air and firesmoke, the wingbeats of passing pelicans. A story told aloud without the dance of the hands is hard to imagine; the hands can’t help themselves. They want to make that tale too, be it wooden spoon or fairy-tale.
There’s a story that holds all of this in its palms. It’s a story so old and so unshakeable that it can be found from Japan to South Africa, from Hungary to Egypt to England: The Handless Maiden. A young woman’s hands (or arms) are cut off by her incestuous father, or the Devil, or an evil brother. Handless, she wanders the woods and becomes a wild thing herself, tended by does, eating as they do by reaching out for food with only her teeth. She steals pears from the orchard of a king in the Hungarian version I know best. The king falls in love with the handless maiden; marries her; makes her silver hands. They are happy for a time, but a war breaks out and the king must leave. Alone, the handless maiden gives birth to a child, and all seems well until the Devil meddles again, tricking both king and then queen-mother so that the handless maiden is cast out once more, alone in the woods again, this time with a baby at her breast. As she wanders, and eventually finds refuge with wood-folk (or underworld folk, or desert folk; wherever the tale might be set, these are the folk of the wild ways, in my mind, the folk who know the many-tongued language of the living land), her hands grow back like two fruits, like the stalks of evening primrose, from bud to bloom, re-storied. The king, at the end of those seven years, having sought her for just as long, and become himself a bearded wild-man, finds her and the child at last. All of them transformed.
Some say the loss of the woman’s hands is about patriarchal control and oppression, the feeling of one’s ‘hands being tied’, of powerlessness in body and mind, that their loss ‘represent[s] a feminine being-in-the world that is psychically so bedeviled by the patriarchal attitude that the emblematic hands of self-expression are rendered passive.’ (iv) All of this may be true—stories in the mythic tradition have room for countless meanings. Yet I believe there is another, older layer of resonance here. I agree with Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés that this is a very ancient story of female initiation, a story whose roots find themselves in the goddess cultures of the early Neolithic. But I will take a creative, mythic leap and hazard to push the origins of this story back even further, into the 40,000-year depths of the Palaeolithic, because I see her, the girl without hands, in the handprints on the walls of Pech-Merle.
In its initiatory significance, I believe that this story is about coming into right relationship with the more-than-human, with the wild land, the creatures whose lives we take in hunting, in gathering berries and nuts and medicines (in fingers, in palms, in baskets). The story is about a falling-out of that relationship, and then a healing, a regrowing, a rebalancing, all situated in the hands. Something goes sour in the human community: fathers desire their daughters, or bargain away their daughters’ hands for riches offered by a Devilish stranger. And yet, when the girl loses her hands there is this echo of the shaman who is dismembered by wolves or other animals in the initiation stories and visions of animistic peoples the world over. Dismembered by animals, one is restitched with a wild needle. Hands lost, the handless maiden is at last somehow only animal again. Her arms become weight-bearing limbs, no more, like a coyote’s front paws — maybe used to bat down pears from trees, but not capable of grasping.
Without her hands, does her mind start to change in the way it experiences the world? What might a girl become, inside, without her hands? Does she become more doe, more hare, and the world too? As Estés writes, ‘it is not by accident that the one-eyed, the lame, those with withered limbs or other physical differences have, throughout time, been sought out as possessing a special knowing. Their injury or indifference forces them early on into parts of the psyche normally reserved for the very, very old.’ (v) What part of the mind-spirit grows differently in the maiden, without her hands? How is the mind re-storied, or rather un-storied, without the hands to read and make, to sow and take, the hands which have a nasty habit of laying claim and ownership over that which cannot be owned? A silver pair, no matter how lovingly made, no matter how ingenious the maker, will not solve the problem. The woman must regrow, not remake — like a plant and not a human — her ten fingers, her two palms, in the company of deer, and woods, and strange folk who dwell at the edges, mediating the boundary between human and ‘more-than-human’, as David Abram likes to say. Those two new hands have been tempered in the fire of the great, fecund mysteries of the wild land, the world of wren and fox and lizard, bee and herb and oak and dirt and sky. Those hands are the hands that know how to paint shifting lionesses and antlered reindeer on the womb-walls of caves, leaving palm-prints like proof of a pact of honoring, of right balance, of humility. The handless maiden’s new hands have a whole new set of fingerprints, wildly re-mapped, and you bet she can cup her palm over a coyote track and see the whole story.
Please don’t misunderstand me — I am not out to make the literal dismemberment of hands or any human body parts a good thing; I write here in mythic and metaphoric terms, in the language of myth-time, from the land of imagining, the place in the mind that dreams, and stories, and sees the life of a coyote unfurl from a single track. I’m saying that our collective hands have become devilish, terrifying, dangerous; that these hands, made by this world, need to be done away with. The hand of this culture which has lost its wild-knowing palm, which has not been tempered in the mud and deer blood and pure creek-water of reciprocity and humility before the land which is our mother — that’s the hand the Devil has soiled, the hand that needs to go under the blade of the axe. But the handless maiden does not remain handless. We are what we are. Whatever animal wisdom she may gain from wandering the woods without ten fingers, two palms, she is no elk. We are not elk, nor lion, nor horse. We are human, which means we are handed, which means we are full of story. At our best, we temper ourselves, our hands, in service to the balance of the greater ecosystem. At our worst, we are capable of destroying every living thing in our path, as if every being save ourselves (and much of our own kind to boot) were the same as an object we might take or throw away indiscriminately.
A lot of attention has been paid The Handless Maiden story in Jungian circles for the past several decades. Like I said, there’s no doubt about it — The Handless Maiden certainly has a lot of psychological resonance to it, a wonderfully feral example of the female ‘Hero’s Journey’ cycle. But I wonder if it’s still with us (certainly stories hang around for a reason) because it is also about our relationships outside of ourselves, with the more-than-human, with the wren, the orange poppy, the elk, the polluted creek and the warming air. Maybe nothing can really and fully be resolved or healed inside, until the way we handle the wild world in which we live is healed first. ‘To many indigenous people, there is not an ‘inner’ that does not include starlings, tundra and antelope—[…] intellectual retreat is part of the problem. It is making us crazy,’ (vi) writes myth-teller Martin Shaw. Our psyche lives not inside of us but inside the psyche of the whole land. And if our hands somehow have something to do with the shaping of these minds of ours, wherever they dwell, what does it mean (in this culture) that their repertoire of uses is rapidly narrowing around the screen and the keyboard, as machines of all varieties increasingly replace human hands in other endeavors? What stories are we absorbing, and patterning inside of ourselves, this way?
What would happen, on the other hand (pun entirely unavoidable), if we touched the tracks of animals, the petals of poppies, the bark of trees, every day, just for a moment? What would happen if, no matter your day-job, you kept your fingers busy with poems, with sketches, with the strings of instruments and the handles of garden spades? Even though we don’t ‘need’ to weave our own baskets, spin our own yarn, sew our own pants, whittle our own spoons, tan our own buckskins, string our own bows (well, we may very well need to know of all this, and soon, depending on your faith in the current model…) maybe our minds desperately do need us to carry on with the physical tasks that shaped them anyway, for our own sanity, for the sanity of the land wherein our psyches dwell. And so long as those spinning, carving, story-telling fingers pause every day to reach out in the act of caressing and holding something wild — fir bark, rain, earth worm, thistle-down, otter-track, Beloved — maybe we can begin to regrow our hands. Maybe they will come back full of a new story about what it means to be human in a world that is not, and never was, ours to grasp.
It is ours, however, to story, to sing, to praise, palms ocher-red with longing on the cave-walls where wild horses run.
* * *
From March 2013 to April 2014, I sent out re-wilded fairytales (set in the ecologies of my native Bay Area) to subscribers around the world in a Wild Tales By Mail project called the Gray Fox Epistles. They arrived on the new moon, wax-sealed, hand-delivered by post-man or post-woman. I have launched a new Wild Tales by Mail project this summer solstice — called Elk Lines — whose first issue will arrive on Lughnasadh, August 1st, with the ripening of California’s wild blackberries. It is a re-wilded telling of this very story, ‘The Handless Maiden’, told over the turning of one wheel of the year and set in the past, the present and the future of the Point Reyes Peninsula. For more information about this project, and my other work, you can visit wildtalewort.net or contact me at [email protected]
(i) Jay Griffiths, A Sideways Look at Time (New York: Penguin, 2004),34.
(ii) Frank R. Wilson, The Hand (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998),169.
(iii) Wilson, The Hand, 195.
(iv) Ami Ronnberg, ed., The Book of Symbols, (Cologne, Germany: TASCHEN, 2010), 380.
(v) Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run with the Wolves, (New York: Ballatine Books, 1992), 427.
(vi) Martin Shaw, Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet, Black Branch of Language (Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press, 2014), 34.