This week we continue our series about the role of mythology in uncertain times. We’ve asked six writers who work with story – as teachers, storytellers, anthropologists, poets, performers, activists – to choose ‘a myth we live by’ and explore what a mythological response to an age of converging crises might look like. Today we bring you an essay about storytelling and belonging by writer and animal tracker Sylvia V. Linsteadt.
There was once, as well could be, a king. He had two daughters, who were mean and ugly, but the third was as fair and sweet as the bright day, and the king and all were fond of her. She once dreamed about a golden wreath, which was so lovely that she couldn’t live unless she got it. But as she couldn’t get it, she began to pine and could not speak for sorrow. And when the king found out it was the wreath she was grieving for, he had one made almost like the one the princess had dreamed of, and sent it out to goldsmiths in every land and asked them to make one like it.
They worked both day and night, but some of the wreaths she threw away, and others she wouldn’t even look at. Then one day, when she was in the forest, she caught sight of a white bear, which had the wreath she had dreamed of between its paws and was playing with it. And she wanted to buy it.
No! It wasn’t to be had for money, but only in return for herself. Well, life wasn’t worth living without it, she said; it didn’t matter where she went or who she got, if only she got the wreath. And so they agreed that he was to fetch her in three days’ time, and that would be a Thursday.
– from ‘The White Bear King Valemon‘, collected by Peter Christen Asbjorsen and Jorgen Moe, ‘Norwegian Folktales’
It is no ordinary wreath, the wreath of your own longing. It is not made of any ore mined by human hands, but only the gold of the world given of its own free will. It is the gold of hazel pollen released from the stretching spring catkin; the gold on the backs of bumblebees; the rut-polished tines of elk; the ring round the great-horned owl’s pupil; the sun as it spills suddenly over the green horizon at dawn.
All the golden wreaths wrought by the king’s goldsmiths are but facsimiles of the real thing, the wreath of the girl’s dreams, the wreath held in the bear-king’s paws. You can’t buy wholeness, you can’t buy belonging, you can’t buy relationship. But you can dream it, and you can seek it in the pinewood and in the scrubbrush and on the coastal strand until you begin to recognise its shape, and some intimation of its name.
When it comes down to it, when at last you glimpse the bear who carries the wreath of your own longing through the trees, it really just amounts to saying yes. But saying yes to a bear is actually a very frightening thing to do. Certainly in our present culture, storied through with narratives of conquest and possession, man vs. nature, city vs. wild, nature as either sublime-pristine-wilderness or deadly unmerciful terror, and either way an object for us to use and abuse and dismiss as we desire, we have made it hard to say yes to the bear-king, because the bear-king will tear down all our walls. After all, it is the great old mother goddess herself who will look back at you through the eyes of the bear-king and say: very well, you want the golden wreath? Well, I want something too. And that something is your active devotion, your hand in marriage, your self. Real life, real commitment, not only the romance, not only the dream. Together, they make a closed circle, an ouroboros, the beginning of wholeness. After all, doesn’t longing, true longing, always have something to do with being made whole?
For a long time now I’ve been obsessed with the idea of belonging. Of what it might look like to let a place, a landscape, claim you. To be accepted by its bobcats, its wood pigeons, its skies. Specifically, for me, I have wanted to belong to a peninsula called Point Reyes, a beautiful otherworldly place of firs and pines, of bay edge and violent ocean strand, a geologic patchwork not located on the North American plate at all, but the Pacific, stitched there along the San Andreas fault.
This longing has felt difficult and fraught for me as a woman of mixed European ancestry living on occupied Coast Miwok land in California. How can I live in right relationship to this place? What stories can I carry and tell that might be rooted here? How do I respectfully interact with the indigenous Coast Miwok legacy, language, and culture, without being appropriative? What new mythologies might I listen for, spoken by bishop pines and grey foxes and hazel trees? To be honest, I’ve gotten myself worked up into knots over this subject many times. I can end up feeling very serious about all of it, a bit desperate, and quite exhausted. And it’s one thing to long for that wreath, to visit a place and go misty and romantic over its thickets of stars, its manzanita flowers, its wild irises blooming, and then drive back to the city again. It’s quite another thing to actually get the wreath. And to realise that you must give yourself in trade for it.
Something more or less like this happened to me this winter. On January’s new moon, my partner and I pitched a Mongolian ger made of oak and chestnut and felt and canvas in the pinewood of Point Reyes, and made it our home. That ger had been my golden wreath for some time. Living in Point Reyes had been my wreath for even longer. Sometimes the feeling scared me a little. Was I just obsessed, single-minded? Why was I so unreasonably narrow-minded about where I wanted to live? And yet it was an undeniable call. Ever since I was a little girl, when my parents regularly took us over the mountain out to the wild beaches of Point Reyes, I have loved this land. In college, 3,000 miles away in an old industrial city on the East Coast, Point Reyes grew even larger in my psyche; the distance made my love for it vast, and I came running to its coves and forests every time I was home. After that, we lived in the East Bay for five years and came out to Point Reyes from Oakland or Berkeley almost every weekend, an hour and a half drive on harrowing fat freeways. Always, crossing over the fault line in the Olema Valley felt like a homecoming.
But actually moving here didn’t feel like I expected it to at all. I felt utterly disoriented for days. I suddenly felt that I didn’t know Point Reyes at all. It was like a flirtatious love affair suddenly gone very serious. Romance transmuting, exquisitely, into relationship. And yet I felt shy and a little bit panicked. These feelings startled me. Hadn’t I wanted to move here for years now? Why was I not dancing immediate dervishes of joy out in coastal meadows among the just-blooming irises?
Well, for one thing we had unknowingly pitched our yurt in the middle of the wettest and most intense winter California has experienced in the last 20 years. Nothing like washing dishes outside in a tin tub with water dripping down your neck and mud on your boots to sober you just a little. Nothing like 60-mile-an-hour winds through shallow-rooted bishop pines in the middle of the night to send you into true animal paroxysms of panic, or the actual thunder of a tree falling just down the hill to send you skittering out the door with less grace than even a mouse on the run from an owl, half-filled kettle in hand, water-spigot running all over the floor.
What I was experiencing was much more animal, more visceral, than I had imagined; the true nearness of a wilder, fiercer world, of its vast and unknowable aliveness. And the feeling that this was serious. This was for real. I’d asked for that golden wreath. Point Reyes was the bear. I understood, subconsciously, the importance of such an agreement. Of what it meant to move here. I was saying yes to that bear. Saying yes does not come without responsibility.
The White Bear King Valemon is a big story, part of a sort of Ursa-constellation of other related tales: East of the Sun West of the Moon most closely, Beauty and the Beast, Psyche and Eros, and more distantly but perhaps most vividly, a California Indian story called in English something like The Woman Who Married a Bear. Trailing such a big-pawed story will often take you halfway across the world. Together these different versions create one great bear-star body in the cosmos of the psyche. This story carries many meanings. It lives its own life. Such stories come in and out of our lives like seasons, like migrations, like planetary crossings.
The White Bear King Valemon came in sidelong, taking me a little by surprise. I thought it had come knocking, asking to be learned in order to be told in the snowy high Sierras for an animal tracking class with my tracking mentor Scott Davidson. I felt a little overwhelmed, as I’ve always thought of myself as a writer first and a storyteller later, not second even but maybe third or fourth or fifth. In truth, telling stories out loud terrifies me. I’d really rather not. But for some reason the story had come knocking and I had said yes. And I found that wandering around the pinewood trails near our new home, telling this story to the hazels and tanoaks and coffeeberries, grounded me. I told it to harbour seals down by the bay, to the big elk-roamed hills of Tomales Point, to a little hazel outside our front door. It made me glad. I didn’t realise that this practice was the first step of truly coming home to this place. That I was actually being asked to offer the story to this very land, and not the Sierra Nevadas at all.
For as it turned out, a day before we were meant to leave for the mountains, we had to cancel our class due to a combination of weather and last minute drop-outs. And the next night I found myself in the Limantour hostel at the edge of an alder wood and the ocean in the Point Reyes National Seashore, telling the story by the light of a red kerosene lantern and a beeswax candle held in the back of a clay bear, to a small but eager group huddled happily in their bunks, as yet another rainstorm thrashed the hills outside. I found myself telling it only a few miles from my new wreath-round home, in this land I love. Somewhere in my very skin I could feel that Point Reyes was listening. And I realised that this story was offering me a map into relationship with this place, a wiser Way than my own overeager, scattered and sometimes egoistic bumblings.
Since telling The White Bear King Valemon out loud to Point Reyes, something has changed. Suddenly I can feel facets of the landscape looking back at me with strange and generous eyes. I can sense the threads – golden like the golden ball the old crone gives the king’s youngest daughter to follow in order to find her bear-king when he has been lost – connecting me to the rest of the breathing land. I feel part of something, watched by something. New still, a little clumsy, but clinging onto the back of the bear-king all the same.
What does it mean to ride the bear-king’s back? This seems a very potent question for our time. The story offers this question, but it seems to me it might take us all a whole lifetime to answer it. In the tale, the king tries to give his two less beloved daughters to the bear-king first. Part of us will always baulk a little, backtrack, or flat out run in the other direction. Luckily, the bear is no fool. He will always see through each of them in turn.
‘Have you ever sat softer, have you ever seen clearer?’ he asks them, and I imagine his eyes going a little bit wistful as they quickly reply, ‘Indeed I have! In my mother’s lap I sat softer, in my father’s court I saw clearer.’
‘Ah. You’re not the right one, then,’ he snarls, and chases both of them all the way home.
Only the third daughter, the youngest, the one who dreamed the golden wreath, answers his question with a breathless ‘No, never have I sat softer, never have I seen clearer!’ a little surprised herself. And so off they go, over hill and valley, through forest and shoreline and peak, far, and farther than far, to the bear-king’s home.
Long ago we traded the bear-king’s back for the ease of silken lap and militant kingdom. We are living there still. But as Paul Shepard writes in The Others, ‘as an archetypal figure underlying the forms of culture, [the bear] persists in our dreams and imagination as though some tracks were pressed into the human nervous system during the ice ages, leaving in our innermost natures a kind of preconscious expectation that Ursus’ shaggy presence will give insight into human problems.’ The bear has never all the way left our dreams. Sometimes I can feel old grizzly ghosts wandering the fog on Tomales Point. Land holds the memory of their bodies. Our bodies carry the memory of their bodies, that all-consuming yellow gaze.
Though we may feel safe inside the castle walls of our kingdom, our culture, no iron nor steel can bite the bear-king. No soldier can hold him back. So it goes in this story, and so it goes in our lives, too. The walls of the story we are living in are crumbling, faster and faster, and I think some part of all of us is desperate to see that shaggy head come bursting through the gates of the citadel, breaking the spell at last, the spell that has bound us for a thousand years into believing that bears do not speak, that the earth is inanimate, that the numinous can be reduced to a scientific formula on a piece of paper in your hand. Oh no, says the bear-king. No matter your cities I am stronger. I have only been waiting for you to ask for me, to dream of wreaths, to say my name and know it to be the name of your own longing.
For you cannot have the wreath without sitting on the bear’s back, without trading the softness of safety, the clarity of known structures of power and thought, for that which is utterly unknown, utterly furred, and utterly in keeping with the wholeness of the universe.
At the centre of the story is a golden wreath of longing, a golden thread to follow, and the great wide back of the white bear-king, lost and found once more. At the centre of this story is a question. Have you ever sat softer, have you ever seen clearer, than on the back of the bear-king?
It is time for us to pick up that golden thread, and follow where it goes, though it will lead us far, and farther than far from the walls of the king’s castle. But the good news is, it will lead us home.
I have written a companion piece, a sequel to this one, detailing the story more fully, sketching out my understanding of the lines of this sacred, furred map, a map we might follow into deeper relationship with the land. It is broken into seven parts — the Golden Wreath; Riding On the Back of the Bear; The Art of Beholding; Following the Golden Thread; Growing Claws; Meeting the Troll Hag; Three Drops of Tallow. You can read it here.
Picture credits: ‘Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos)’ by Gregory ‘Slobirdr’ Smith, via Wikimedia Commons; ‘The ger, our golden wreath’, by Sylvia Linsteadt; Illustration from The White Bear King Valemon by Theodor Kittelsen, 1912
Next week we continue our series ‘The Mythos We Live By’ with a post by performer and activist, Ben Mali Macfadyen: The Black Snake and the Road of Flags.
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