Tatterdemalion: The Juniper Tree

Sylvia Linsteadt Point Reyes


Two winter’s ago a bit of mycelial magic reached out and touched me. Through the webs of the internet, and the crossing lines of one apothecary parcel and a hand-stamped bundle of written tales, I met one of my dearest friends and ever-source of inspiration in my life: Sylvia Linsteadt.

We all hear stories of familiars and soul friends, past life connections and the fact that we are all made from the same stars. But every once in a while it actually happens, you meet someone who stirs up something very ancient, very old and very familiar inside of you, and the concept of our interconnection ceases to be a concept at all. Suddenly the unseen meaning that binds me to you, and you to me, is as real as strands of wool tied within a single nest.

Sylvia is a keeper of such wisdom. Both shamaness and wordsmith, Sylvia is a writer whose work is nothing short of revolution, and magic. Her stories, woven from ancient folklore, ecological exploration and land-based knowledge, have become gateways for me to remember. What strikes me most about Sylvia’s earth-nourished writing is her ability to re-connect. Human to hawk, heart to stone, past to the future, devastation to hope.


Sylvia & Irises


It’s in these encounters, these moments of such transcendental connection that we remember who we really are. That we need the seals and the poems and the iris patches and the mythologies. That we need stories to help us reimagine a world so whole. That we need each other, after all.

In celebration of the birth of Tatterdemalion, a book written and woven from Sylvia’s connection with our storied world the mystical work of artist Rima Staines (and what a lovely story of stardust and reconnection this is!) I am honored to be hosting Sylvia, and her words, on this month’s blog.



Sylvia Linsteadt walking point reyes


Stories are everywhere, waiting to be gathered up like juniper berries, dusty and blue, in your hands. Stories are waiting in the flicker’s call, in the eyes of the elk bulls about to drop their antlers. They are waiting in the mica-flecked granite. They are waiting in the spray of gray whales, migrating south to birth their calves. Stories are waiting just there, under the surfaces of mole hills, in the hands of fresh green nettles, in all the places where you and the world touch. Wherever you are touching, there they can come in.




We live in a world that defines “story” as something solely of human making; an invention that defines us apart from the rest of the living beings of this planet. But what if story is really the thing that weaves us back in, and always has been? All the wise old cultures of this earth call stories medicine. As Pueblo author Leslie Marmon Silko writes in her wonderful novel Ceremony


“[Stories] are all we have, you see,
all we have to fight off illness and death.
You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.
Their evil is mighty
but it can’t stand up to our stories.
So they try to destroy the stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then.”


When stories of interconnection, stories that belong to flickers and junipers and elk as much as they do to humans, are lost, so too are those connections, and we begin to believe that the things we do tell stories about are the only things that really matter. I am passionate about bringing the voices of the more-than-human world back into our stories—not only our news articles, our essays, our poems, but our fiction. Despite a robust and blossoming ecological consciousness coming of age in the world right now, the novels we read, the films we watch, the stories we tell, still most often treat animals, plants, stones, waters, as beautiful backdrops at best, as objects secondary to the plots of human characters. Well—and look how it happens: that’s the true story of our treatment of the natural world too!




Three years ago, I started writing a book called Tatterdemalion. It was born out of the figurative doorways I found in the paintings of the magnificent English artist, Rima Staines, and it features fourteen of them, the bones that shape the stories in the novel. Tatterdemalion explores a post-apocalyptic future in a wildly re-imagined Northern California, from the coast to the Sierras, but it does so in a folkloric way, rooted in the stories of Old Europe. In a ruined world, what survives are the tales we tell, and the characters in Tatterdemalion share these tales one by one with the reader—from Poppy, the boy who speaks the languages of newts & ravens, to Molly, the woman so desperate for a child she wears her own death in a needle around her neck, and will dig a baby up out of the earth if she has to; from Martin, who discovers the thumb-bone of St. Francis of Assisi, and an ancient magical salmon, to the Juniper Tree who tells the boy Poppy (through her wise and dusty berries) the story of the mysterious & revered Anja Born of the Buckeye, and thus the story of his whole world. These many tales are stitched together to create a whole mythology: a story of hope, of a new world where wild places are protected by Wild Folk (part human, part animal/plant beings who serve as guardians for every stone, stream and species left), and where old ways are followed with care.


Anja in the Horse Chestnut (Artwork by Rima Staines)


All the way through the process of writing Tatterdemalion, the stories seemed to come from dandelions and towhees and newts as much as they came from the paintings, and from me. Writing about the Juniper Tree in particular felt like an act of transmutation, of transportation. When I wrote her chapters for the first time, I had yet to meet the actual juniper trees of the Sierras. And yet, I knew them. I knew this tree, deep down inside her dark roots and ancient lightning-struck caverns. Then, about a year after completing her chapter, while hiking in the Sierra Nevadas with my family, up near a high mountain lake in the Desolation Wilderness, I found her. I stopped dead in my tracks, then ran and climbed right up into her arms, tears in my eyes. I’d been savoring and praising the sight of junipers all the way up the crags and talus slopes, marveling at the way they grew straight out of granite, beautifully wind-scored. But this Juniper, she was ancient and enormous, half silver deadwood flanked by healthy growth, and I knew her immediately. There were openings in her bark, suggestions of a far-deep-down underworld. I wanted to weep. Poppy had been here. The tree had found me, or I had found the tree. We had been touching all along, mysteriously, miraculously. She had given the story to me.




I don’t know how these things work, not in a way I can articulate with words. I only know that the land around each of us—whether it’s the trees and mourning doves on your city block, or the humus-rich fir-forested hills and their stillness— is heavy with stories, and that these stories are in desperate need of being told. That they want to be told. We all can tell them, starting by simply by going out to listen. By bringing gifts (a few beautiful and heart-felt words; a cup of tea; a poem scrawled and buried). By returning home, and letting them come in with us.

Tatterdemalion is one such story, a novel that offers a new way of imagining our relationship to the more-than-human world. And it is being published by the revolutionary publisher Unbound, who puts the fates of books in the hands of readers by having them raise the print-cost via pre-orders before publishing. This means that right now, Tatterdemalion needs each and every one of your help to be born into this world.




Just pre-order a book (link: https://unbound.co.uk/books/tatterdemalion), and you will be helping us on our wheeled & wild way! Every book purchased is a cobblestone laid on the road to publication! Better yet, give yourself Tea & A Book —a special edition hardback of Tatterdemalion that comes with a Forest Campfire Tea, to be sipped with your back to a tree while reading, or listening to birds, or roots. The tea is a blend of Russian caravan black tea with boreal chaga mushrooms, bishop pine tips, and California poppy petals—to transport you to ancient northern campfires, to soothe and uplift you with the fresh and hearty flavors of California. There are only 25 available!

You can learn more about Tatterdemalion, watch the film, see more of Rima’s beautiful paintings, and order your own book, here.




I am so grateful to Asia for letting me share these words with all of you beautiful souls. Asia is one of my very favorite writers and medicine women in all the world, and it is an honor to step into this space today to introduce you to Tatterdemalion, and to share some of my thoughts about story, land, and our relationship to both. Happy story-gathering to all of you.

With that, I will leave you with words from the boy Poppy, and his first encounter with the Juniper Tree…

Artwork by Rima Staines


“I went alone. Nobody noticed me going. I had just my silver coffeepot hitched on a string over my back, like always. Lyoobov stayed, eating the embers one by one, letting smoke spell poems into the night from her coiled trunk, her ears. She let the women come and rub her gray skin with the oils of pine nuts and wildflower essences. The shadows from the fire leapt onto the wind-shaped pines. I held that red seed and I walked through the dark, feeling ahead with my feet.

It wasn’t hard to find the tree Sare meant because it was ancient and its trunk silver as all the stars, as time. The hard blue-dusted berries were thick, everywhere, a thousand blue earths. I picked up handfuls and stuck them through the top of my coffeepot, impulsively. The whole tree in my ears thundered like a fast heart. It creaked in the wind. It wanted me near, under the rounded spires of branch, up to the trunk, my body a warmth to keep company through the night. I set the red bead into a crease of the trunk. I smelled the bark. I found that to the left of my feet, in the shadows, was a darker shadow, like a hole. I crawled to see and it was just as wide as my shoulders, gaping, darker than any night can be dark. I went in because Sare told me that I would be able to hear the stories and bring them back.

I’ve wanted, I’ve always wanted, to do one single thing you all approved of.

The bear tooth Sare gave me glowed. I saw the inside of that Juniper. Time had carved waterways of lines, the color soft as firelight or amber. The patterns of stars seemed to be glinting wherever I looked in that hollow of bark, which went deep down below in root tunnels, and up further than that glowing tooth could shed light. That’s when the voice started. It unpeeled from the layers of bark and echoed. It was, and was not, human. It was juniper berry blue in my mind where I held it as it spoke, in my hands where I felt it, dusty, weathered. Steeped and smoked with the centuries of Juniper growing, Juniper seeking water, Juniper breathing and releasing the thin air. It was her, the tree, whispering.

“Little child,” came that voice, and a smell of soft smoke. “Little child. You are only a little child.” All along the inner bark, stars gleamed, in familiar and unfamiliar constellations, from the old stories which I never paid much heed—the one in the shape of a wheel which we call Wheel, after the long ago Fool; the one like an owl, for Margaret, with a bell in its claws; the one like a fiddle, for Rose; the tiny cluster, for the Holy Beggars. And more, gleaming and shifting all around me, ones I couldn’t name. I felt I might have clambered into the beginning of a world.

“I’m Poppy,” I said, deep inside the tree now, in a ruckled chamber whorled with bark. “I am little, it’s true.”

“You have come to learn the true story of Anja.” This time, the voice was nearer, and I turned. In the shadows, on the walls of her trunk, was a woman. She was all hunched up, rounded like the blue berries I’d stuffed into my silver coffeepot. Then she seemed to peel right off the wall, a dark shade. She came and she sat opposite me. In the glow of the juniper bark around us, I saw an ancient little lady with a dozen spindly arms lined as juniper branches, with a spiking mass of hair like spired juniper needles. White hairs grew on her chin. Her eyes were all patched with cataracts, but she had a good set of teeth. I noticed this, I don’t know why, maybe because they flashed.

“Yes,” I stammered.

“But do you even know your own?”

“Well enough,” I replied, staring into my coffeepot because her eyes were too strange, and clear, and the silvery inner bark of the juniper tree too alive with its own stars. “My mother found me in the earth, only really I am part of Lyoobov, and Lyoobov is part of me—”

“But who is Lyoobov, and how, and why?”

“Lyoobov was born out of the dream of Rose, a long time ago, Before the Fall. But what have I got to do with Anja?”

“You were there at the beginning, because Lyoobov was there. You are here now, at the end. But what about the middle, little child, little Poppy, little heart? How can you ask for Anja, without everything that came before? How can you know a whole world, without every tattered thread?”


The silvery bark of the juniper’s inner trunk was shifting, the stars scattered there wheeling, like they might across a whole night, not a single moment.

“Did you know that some stars are only memories of light, already dead? Like the voices of people, echoing long after they are gone?”

There were figures gathering against the bark, the way the Juniper-woman’s had, ghosts that one by one peeled away, edged in stars. Rose. The Holy Beggars. St. Margaret, with owl wings. Wheel. Martin. Ffion.

“When you hear a story, little child, it has been folded and unfolded a hundred times in the mouths of its tellers. But the truest stories come right from the source.”


The starry ghosts gathered, and waited, glinting.”


{{ Tatterdemalion, from the chapter titled “Poppy.” }}


p.s. Read deeper into Sylvia’s world + the medicine of heartfelt relationships in our interview from 2014