Interview: Sylvia Linsteadt + Elk Lines
The rugged and fog-softened beauty of the California coast. Myths, mysticism and re-wilding. Warm pots of tea and delightful trails through time-warn fables. This month I am delighted to be sharing an interview with one of my favorite authors alive– Sylvia Victor Linsteadt. Sylvia is both shamaness and wordsmith, a creator and collector of gorgeously spun tales and deeper states of mystery. Each one of Sylvia’s stories is as glitteringly unique as a songbird’s nest. Woven from ancient folklore, ecological exploration, land-based knowledge and the enduring webs of mythology, Sylvia’s tales are nurturing portals to a new world. Almost a year ago Sylvia and I stumbled across each other’s work at the same time (fated re-meetings seems to work like that, I find!).
The first time I read one of Sylvia’s stories it felt like climbing back into the great tree of who I was… that ancient, standing, growing being who was intricately connected to the living world around me. I am forever grateful to Sylvia and her tales– not only for their sweeping vistas and sensuous detail, endless inspiration and intricacies– but for what they incite in me. Within her stories is the flicker of the ancient, the glimmer of a thoughtfully re-imagined destiny. Through her tales I can see, once more, the cradling mystery of everyday being, the endurance of this beautiful world existing, always, around me. I am so thankful for Sylvia and her story medicine, her Wild Talewort.
Drink deep from the following interview and enjoy. If you find you are thirsty (and I think you might just be) head over to Sylvia’s gorgeous blog and website to find out about how you can receive tidings from her brand new project, Elk Lines, hand-stamped and sent to your very own postbox.
Your stories are such a jaw-droppingly vibrant mixture of ecology, naturalism, mysticism, and myth. You are, in my esteemed estimation, a truly exciting boundary bender! If you had to define your writing style (or that stories that most want to come through you) what would you say?
This question has always been a challenge for me, because in this world of ours we so enjoy making boxes around genres, severing the bonds between poetry and prose; we delight in calling a thing “Nature-writing” or “Romantic Poetry” or “Literary Fiction,” but have trouble when Literary Fiction becomes streaked with the fantastic, a lyric voice, and the wild lives of trees. Is it fantasy? Is it nature-writing? I’ve always felt that writing is the loom upon which I can weave the many strands of wonder, sorrow, beauty and story I see in the world—poetic, ecological, folkloric, downright magical, whatever it may be. So my writing style is all of it at once. Sometimes I think I’m really a poet wearing the patched and furred coat of a storyteller, so even “fiction” can be tricky for me as a category to place myself in. Anyhow, I’m rambling on here, but in a nutshell I’d say this style of mine is some wild country where poetry, magical realism, myth, animism and ecology meet.
The easiest. The hardest question… Why do you write?
Indeed. And it is a long and a short story. Writing is my way into the heart of the world—its wildness, its strange magic, its beauty, its terrors, its sadness, its joy. Metaphor (a favorite of mine) is an act of shape-shifting, of remembering that each thing is hitched to the next in the great cyclical transformation of energy, from sun to seed to doe to cougar and back to worm; the line between ourselves and the wild world is thin indeed. Writing (thick with metaphor) is the means through which I can praise the wild mystery of this world, and also explore its unseen realms—the realms inside the hearts of bears and granite stones and buckeye trees; the lands just the other side of the moon and the fog, the lives of men and women long ago or just around the corner. If I were buckeye tree, then writing would be the buckeyes that fruit at the ends of my limbs come late August. In other words, writing is the thing made in me from all the waters and winds and soils and stories that come through my five senses (or six), and it feels very inevitable, like the buckeyes at the end of summer.
Also, I have always been an avid reader; especially as a child I devoured books that told of magical worlds and lands, lady-knights and healers, the everyday peasant life of Old Europe (especially Scotland & Ireland), talking animals, caravans of camel nomads, druids, long adventures on horseback. Such books literally shaped and changed my life. They informed the way I see the world today—as a place much more mysterious and full of wild magics than we tend to believe, where everything is alive and everything speaks. So I write because writing is even better than reading in the sense that you really get to go to those places in your imagination, and give them to other people. The stories we tell ourselves and each other form the world in which we live, and so I write both selfishly—shaping my own way of seeing the world—and because if I can give single ember to another like the tales I have read have given to me, then I am happy.
So many people dream of supporting themselves through their craft, but in our culture it’s assumed that making a living through ones arts is not only daunting, but entirely unattainable for all but an inspired few! What has been your relationship with such commonly culturally held beliefs? How have you been able to cast aside such (if any) doubts?
Stubbornness, a dreamer’s heart, fierce love. These are the three things that keep my feet on this path, this wild and difficult and beautiful way. I think that especially in the age of this great strange internet, it is much more possible for independent artists to make their way, because we can circumvent the usual channels and reach out ourselves to our readers, our listeners, our viewers. This also means that we have to be creator, secretary, office assistant, publicist and marketing specialist all in one, but when you are doing what you love, and the thing you love is touching the hearts of other people, somehow you can just manage it all, juggling five different work-hats. (Though sometimes this means that things like weekends or work hours stop existing, and you may find yourself working Sunday morning, Tuesday night at eleven, etc.) In the end, it is actually very simple, in the sense that you must simply decide for yourself that this is just what you’re going to do, and then stubbornly, doggedly, hold to that promise with all of your heart and soul, because it is what you love, because this is your life, your path, your chance to be here, and the world deserves what it is you are best able to give. This is not always an easy thing to believe, or to hold to, but it can be done. Personally, I’m simply stubborn as a mule. Once I got the taste of this path, I knew there was no going back. Oh—and that dreamer’s heart. You have to believe in it, despite all the voices; you have to believe in the way that dreamers and children believe, your heart a balloon of hope. It’s hard to believe like this all the time, but if your heart is a balloon of dreams and hopes at least once every day, it sure smoothes the way.
Tell us a bit about your new project: Elk Lines!
Elk Lines, my newest Wild Tales By Mail project for adults, is a rewilding of the old Hungarian version of “The Handless Maiden” tale, set on the Point Reyes Peninsula of Northern California. Each of its eight installments make up one continuous novel, and are mailed to my subscribers—wax-sealed, in lovingly hand-stamped envelopes!— to arrive upon the eight seasonal festivals of the year, in the old Celtic tradition: the Autumn Equinox (September 21st); Samhain (November 1st); the Winter Solstice (December 21st); Imbolc (February 1st); the Spring Equinox (March 21st); Beltane (May 1st); the Summer Solstice (June 21st), and Lughnasadh (August 1st). My own hand-drawn “map” or “songline” of the season accompanies each installment, to further root readers into the landscape of Point Reyes and the lives of the plants and animals who dwell there.
Elk Lines is a roving, ambling novel about the power of our walking feet and our story-making hands. At it’s core, it is the tale of Eda Crost and the re-growing of her lost hands, but it is also the tale of the mythic Elk People, who roam Point Reyes with herds of tule elk, emerging from the Peninsula’s sudden fogs, and who show Eda how to follow the songlines, the hooflines, the feral palmistry of the land: the way to dig a root, trail an elk, gather a bulb, tend a seed to blooming, and to laugh long and loud into the ragged, airplane plumed night. Elk Lines is set in the world we know, with its highways and telephone wires and lightbulbs and gas-stations, but it is also set in the mythtime that has always, and will always, interfuse our every moment: in the place bare-foot touches dirt, the place just the other side of the fog-bank, the place inside the eyes of elk, who have known us longer than we have known ourselves. And don’t worry—amidst all the elk and the foot-prints, the wandering and sparrow song and summer-gold dawns, there is a love story, there is the birth of a little boy, there is an orchard full of pears, there is a childhood, and violin music, and the ringing, laughing kindness of strangers.
As it happens, now is a perfect time to come and subscribe in time for the autumn equinox, September 21st, when the next mailing arrives in post boxes all around the world! Please sign-up by September 12th to receive your Elk Lines by the equinox. All subscriptions begin with the first installment, of course!
What are five things/places/people that always inspire you?
Besides you, dear and wonderful Asia, Mistress of One Willow? (Seriously, you would be one of my five if you weren’t doing this interview!) Okay…
The Point Reyes Peninsula—I’ve been visiting this “Island In Time,” since I was a little girl, and it has thoroughly stolen my heart. Land of fir and alder, oak and bay, land of great wild beaches and coastal prairies, tule elk and pelican. If I could call one place my muse, it would undoubtedly be Point Reyes. It seems to have claimed me, in a sense; I find I must write about it. Nettle, mountain lion, bobcat, fence lizard, woodrat, coyotebrush, lupine, seal; muses, all. (That’s more than five right there!)
Rima Staines— I blame Rima for inspiring me to leave the realm of office work two years ago in order to whole-heartedly pursue my own art. The first time I came across her work and her writings about her life and the world, my heart flipped up and then down and then up again with such relief, I think I might have cried—because she reminded me that yes, it can be done. Your feet can follow the wild path you most love. You simply have to start walking. Rima is an extraordinary artist of paint, wood, puppet, wheel, song. She lives in Devon, England, where she paints the most earthen and otherworldly beings—human, animal, outcast, wanderer, jester, tree. Of all wondrous things, we are at this very minute working to get a book we created together out into the world (my words “illustrating” Rima’s paintings)! Stay tuned!
Nao Sims— beekeeper, dancer, tender of the wild homestead land of Honey Grove, on Vancouver Island, Nao is a very dear friend of mine and also one of the most extraordinary people I know. She was one of my early subscribers to the Gray Fox Epistles, but I had known of her previously because of a beautiful book she wrote called Moon Mysteries about reclaiming women’s menstrual wisdom, and because of a very wise and wonderful blog of hers called The Teatime Traveller, which lifted me up during a rough patch and reminded me of the bounty of beauty in every moment. So of course, when I found she was a subscriber, I was overjoyed! We got to emailing, and found a very old & uncanny sense of familiarity. I went to visit last fall, and the rest, as they say, is history. To me, Nao embodies the character of Juniper in Monica Furlong’s Wise Child, a favorite book of mine—keeper of the wisdom of land, woman, bee, flower. I am inspired by Nao every day! Oh, and as it happens, she and her husband Mark have a very wonderful vacation cottage on Honey Grove Farm, so if you are in need of a good steep in beauty, I recommend it highly!
Juliette de Bairacli-Levy— I daresay this wonderful woman needs little explanation from me, considered as she is the mother of modern herbalism. Born in the 1930s to a wealthy British family, she cast Veterinary School and aristocratic life aside in favor of learning from the gypsies and peasants of the world all they knew about the healing herbs. What an independent, joyous, wild spirit this woman was! For a taste of her voice, her knowledge, her adventures and her spirit, I recommend her book Traveller’s Joy. And it was a small and beautiful film about her called Juliette of the Herbs that inspired me a year ago to finally embark on a dream I’ve had since I was a small girl—to learn the medicine of plants. Oh, and as an aside, Juliette de Bairacli Levy is a partial model for the character of Eda Crost in Elk Lines.
Gary Snyder — the deep-rooted, muscular, wildly Californian poetry of Gary Snyder was the first true piece of inspiration in my adult life as an artist. When I found his work, I felt all of these little old locks and keys and wheels clicking and turning and what have you in my heart and my soul. I finally felt that my writing had found its voice. In particular, his philosophies about wildness, bioregionalism and rooting in a place—choosing a place and learning it deeply, deeply, as just as valuable a life pursuit as this incessant need for change we seem to have acquired as modern humans—changed my life. Somehow Gary Snyder led to animal-tracking, which to me has become my own “Practice of the Wild,” both spiritual and intellectual; I trace my writing “lineage” directly back to him. I’ve been known to call him “my hero,” which has garnered more than a few laughs, but I do mean it!
You’ve recently been sharing visual maps of the shifting seasons around you in your gorgeously hand-drawn “Feral Palm readings.” If you could draw us a palmistry map of your inner season right now, what would it look like?
I decided to go ahead and paint one for you! There is a rabbit and a grizzly bear and a mountain range at once Carpathian and Sierra Nevada, for I just visited the latter, and the former has been strong in my imagination and my writings these past weeks. There are hawthorn berries, ripe, and juniper berries, just turning dusty blue up in the mountains. There is a teapot the color of a hawthorn berry, because there is always a teapot in my inner season, I believe! There are aspen trunks, white-dusted, which grow up in the mountains to the east and bring me great calm, and a stag I dreamt of, with a buckeye tree growing like a third antler. The buckeyes are dropping their leaves now, at the end of summer, because our summers here are so dry— this is their defense against drought. All that’s left are the planets of their buckeyes. This is a sign of autumn to me—the bare buckeyes like planetariums. There seems to be a movement toward fall in my heart, though the sun is still strong, the days dry and long. My painting looks positively wintry! I love winter, so all the threads of its coming fill me with joy. The plants love winter here too—it means rain. It is, unlike the seasons of the East Coast, the time of flourishing.
What is one mystery you are aching to explore?
There are so many ways I would like to answer this question! But for some reason, one thing keeps floating to the top of my mind—nettle processing! I would love to really dive into the mystery of turning stinging nettle stalks into the flax-like material I know my Northern and Eastern European ancestors used for many millennia in place of linen. I’m a spinner, felter & knitter on the side, and ever since I wrote a story last spring called “Our Lady of Nettles,” a retelling of the Seven Swans fairytale, I’ve been itching to really delve into this process from start to finish. Nettle is my favorite medicinal plant (if I had to pick)—I drink her almost every day, and I love that she was also such an important textile plant for so many thousands of years. I think this qualifies as a mystery—because I am sure the process of retting and scutching and all the rest of those arcane words used to describe flax-processing (not to mention the spinning, the weaving, etc) would take me into a place of very deep connection with both the nettle and the ways of my ancestors long, long ago. I also believe that this process might be a very useful thing to know, down the line, when the world is no longer this crazy overseas network of sweatshop labor-commerce. (All empires must fall, after all…)
Stories have power, words create worlds. When I read your writing I often feel the burgeoning of a new earth underfoot. In your heart of hearts, hopes of hopes…what do you feel is being birthed through your work?
Above all things I hope that through my work a renewed sense of the tenets of deep ecology and animistic thought can be re-infused into the world of contemporary human literature. The stories we tell shape the world we see, and the world we see is one of terrible environmental and humanitarian catastrophe, degradation, and extinction, both of animals and plants, and of human cultures and languages. I hope for my writing to convey a sense of the animism of all beings; that elk and alder and lichen and stone, bear and lizard and fog and oatgrass, are all subjects, characters, integral players in the stories of our lives and this world, not the objects we have made them into with our cultural narratives. For when a deer or a tree is a subject and not an object, it is not as easy to destroy it without a care. I also hope to keep the old human magics and beliefs surrounding this wise old world of ours alive in my writing—the ways of weedwife and hunter, wandering jester and gypsy and shaman and witch. And if my tales can be wild woodrat nests which lead to the other worlds inside this world, all the better. If they can somehow gesture at the weedier, wilder, dustier footpath which leads us back into what it really means to be human (and not the big tar roads)—well, that would be grand indeed.
As someone who works for herself (doing what she loves!) what does a typical “work day” look like for you?
Rise early. Feed Hawthorn the rabbit. Gather flowers and leaves for a little wild art left in my garden patch to greet the day—its birds, its soils, its winds, its sun, its four-leggeds. Tea, breakfast, an hour of writing (often my favorite hour of the day). I go to a dance class almost every morning, and when I come back I write again until noon in my little loft office. A quick break for lunch, which often involves gathering Hawthorn various greens and herbs and letting him have an adventure through the garden. Then I write again until about 3, at which point I generally experience an afternoon slump (the hours of 3 to 5 are really not my strongpoint). I try to work on non-creative things during this time—emails, various social media updating, queries, etc. If I can’t stand to do so (or don’t need to), I like to spend some time making with my hands in a different way—felting, embroidering, gardening, medicine-making. Around 5, I may have a last surge of creativity and write a bit more, or I might spend the time until about 7 editing or reading for research. At 7 or thereabouts, my love returns home from work, and this is the signal that my own work-day is over, thank goodness. Having him home, I feel I have an excuse to stop and savor the evening. Otherwise, I will work off and on until bed! I try to spend every Wednesday out on the land of Point Reyes, tracking (alone or with friends) the lives of plant and animal, tracing the songlines of that beloved wild place, so that my work remains infused with its many voices. This isn’t a schedule I always hold to—sometimes it’s more fluid, for better or for worse, because things come up, sudden deadlines arise, the creativity just isn’t flowing. But I find that keeping a bare-bones schedule is a life-saver. We can flourish better, it seems to me, with a few boundaries, markers up to help us find the way.
The obligatory question: what books are on your night stand?
This is a bit embarrassing, as it shows how indecisive and eclectic my reading has been these past few weeks, on top of the fact that I tend to hoard books by my bed for a while. I think they must comfort me.
The Reindeer People- Piers Vitebsky
The Others: How Animals Made Us Human- Paul Shepherd
The Steppe & other stories- Anton Chekov
Marcovaldo- Italo Calvino
Momo- Michael Ende
The Short Works of Leo Tolstoy
What is some advice you can give to anyone who is thinking about launching further into their creative flow/work?
This doesn’t sound immediately romantic, but the first thing that comes to my mind is—give yourself a schedule. I don’t mean this in a boring way; I like to think of it more like bones. An animal without bones cannot stand or walk. Similarly, it feels to me that the creative flow requires structure to flourish. So I love deadlines and scheduled tea-breaks and that sort of thing. At the same time, of course, too much structure can kill inspiration. One thing that really helps to start my own work in the morning is a sense of ritual, which is structured into my day. If you’re just starting out, make the time and space for your creative work sacred. I like to burn rosemary and light a candle when I start. Give yourself an hour every morning for a week, candle lit, tea at hand. It’s not so long as to intimidate, and not so short as to be useless. Get your computer and phone away from yourself, by god! (These can be the great killers of flow.) If you tell yourself, “I will write/paint/sing for this set amount of time every morning, for seven days, and see how it goes,” instead of “I am now a working artist and I must work 8 hours a day and be extraordinarily brilliant and productive for all eight hours, etc. etc.,” you will feel as though your goals are actually manageable. With the latter attitude, I daresay one might never begin. Another very important piece for me every day is to get out of my own way—don’t think of your reader, your viewer, your editor, as you let the work come out. This is why I am adamant about writing by hand. I hardly look back as I go. I just go. There is always time to edit, but you can destroy your flow by going back over too early with critical eyes. After all, it needs to come from a place of joy and passion, or it won’t really be your true voice.
All of your words are such a blessing. Would you mind leaving us with a wee prayer?
For some reason, what immediately came to mind was the very first poem I was ever proud of, the first poem that really seemed to come from this place of flow — “Order of the Machine.” I wrote it when I was sixteen, sitting on the back steps in the garden of my childhood home. It came down through my pen as if from elsewhere. I’ve changed it to second person here, for it feels more prayer-like, thus. Here’s the very last stanza.
Even as our futures buckle straight
do not let the woods
relinquish your heart
nor the fog your soul.
Do not let the Order of the Machine
steal the waves, crush the wildflowers
starve the river stones.
There is yet hope
in the foam of the full moon
in the green of apple leaves
in the light between two palms.
Sylvia Victor Linsteadt is a writer and a student of local ecology and ancient myth. She likes to follow gray fox tracks through the brush, gather wild plants for dye and medicine, dream up and write down poems and stories, short and novel-length, all in one way or another concerned with the relationship between human beings and the more than human world (bay laurel, barn owl, bobcat). She is the creatrix of Elk Lines, the Gray Fox Epistles, the Leveret Letters, and all projects associated with Wild Talewort.
She is a wanderer of the wild spaces of the Bay Area (where she was born and raised at the base of Mt. Tamalpais), a spinner of yarns (literally and figuratively), a felter of felts, and an animal-tracker. Good strong black tea with milk and a little honey is her fuel. Pennywhistle music, a hearty fire in the hearth, fog, fairytales and myths, all the voices of the birds in the morning in the black walnut out her window bring her joy.
For her official blog of musings, scraps of tale, track, dye, myth and wander, please visit The Indigo Vat.