Hermes Beckons: A Mystery Shrouds Life Itself
Chapter 9
© 2006 John Caris

Sand. Sand and fog. Wind blowing fog and sand from ocean to bay. San Francisco, the city of sand and fog, of wind and water. San Francisco of hills rolling across seven miles of dunes and rock from bay to breakers. San Francisco once hosting marshes and meadows, streams and lakes. San Francisco once covered with plants and trees, teeming with wildlife.

During the past four days the fog bank had vanished in the morning sun, not returning until late afternoon. Along the coast temperatures hovered in the high 60s, the sun’s heat moderated by a cooling ocean breeze.

The Garlands were wandering along Ocean Beach and heading south toward Daly City. They had established a weekly beach walk after he had acquiesced to join her for a stroll along the ocean shore two months ago. Ralph had discovered once again nature’s healing power. The surf washed up around them, erasing their footprints. They paused often, searching for treasures that the sea had left behind. Unique shells and stones, pieces of driftwood—these were the prized collectables of their quest. Each carried a large cloth bag with a colorful image of a basket on it to hold their found treasures.

A flock of sandpipers scampered across the sand behind the outgoing waves, probing for small aquatic animals, as cliff-dwelling swallows darted gracefully through the air chasing their meal. Strident squeals of gulls blended with the pounding of the surf on the beach. For traditional people like the Ohlone shore birds symbolized the bond between the water and land. Medicine people often acquired a specific shore bird as a spirit helper.

The clarity was such that Point Reyes Peninsula could be seen to the northwest, and the Farallon Islands, twenty-six nautical miles from the Golden Gate Bridge and located a few miles east of the continental shelf’s edge, were visible on the western horizon. They stared out at the small, angular pieces of land jutting above the immense waters. During the late Pleistocene, 20,000 years ago, land had extended out to the Farallons. Because of the glaciers the sea level had been about 400 feet lower than the present. San Francisco Bay had been a valley with streams and marshes, the land covered with grasses and shrubs. The great river, formed by the joining of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers at Carquinez Strait, had flowed through the Golden Gate and twenty-seven miles of dry land, emptying into the ocean beyond the Farallons. The river bed was still there, and it was used by the large shipping vessels that arrived and departed from San Francisco Bay. On either side of the channel were treacherous rocks that had destroyed many ships and still waited under shallow waters to rip the bottom of unsuspecting vessels.

Ships were important to the city, not only those that sailed away but also those that stayed, sunk and mired in the mud of Yerba Buena Cove on the eastern edge of the city. The cove was a natural place for human settlement. Streams ran down from the hills, providing fresh water. The Yelamu, the indigenous people, had small villages scattered throughout the region that became San Francisco. Some were used during the summer months and others during the winter. The availability of food supplies determined where they lived during the seasonal cycle.

The Spanish had begun to make expeditions into the San Francisco Bay Region from Monterey in 1769, and in 1776 they established themselves by using the Yelamu for forced labor to build and maintain the fort at the Golden Gate and the Mission, which became the main Spanish village. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain, the mission system started to decay. In the late 1830s a few European immigrants gained permission from Mexican authorities and began a settlement at Yerba Buena Cove, so named for the aromatic and medicinal plant that covered the land. Such was the beginning of San Francisco.

The filling of the cove started in 1847 as the town pushed eastward into the bay. Tons of sand were carted and dumped into the cove. In the early days of the gold rush, vessels arrived and everyone, including the crew, abandoned ship and headed for the gold fields. These vessels eventually disintegrated and sank, adding to the fill. Some were destroyed by fire, which frequently raged through the settlement. Others were used as warehouses, shops, and saloons when piers were built out to them. Today a large portion of the downtown business section of the city is located on the filled-in cove. From this fill emerges the pride of contemporary architecture, steel and glass highrises.

The sea breeze increased its strength, rippling the ocean’s surface. Untroubled by the salty spray, they continued their trek. Their bags were filling with nature’s gifts as they blended into the vast natural rhythms. The ocean spread its water onto the land and then withdrew it, an immense tidal force moving in a ceaseless cycle. The tidal energies gathered up tons and tons of sand, relocating it and forever reshaping the shoreline. Spending millions of dollars, the city tried to maintain the beach against the relentless might of the ocean. Large sections of parking, however, were closed because the earth underneath had been undermined by water power.

The ocean wind flowed eastward into the central valley, attracted by warmer temperatures, yet the valley struggled back, at times causing hot winds to flow toward the ocean. The fog was carried by the west wind pushing against the warm air of the valley in an endless struggle between ocean and land.

An even greater power lay deep in the earth itself, faults in the rock structure which caused movements, sometimes immense enough to destroy cities. As the tectonic plates shifted and slid against each other, energy built up and eventually was released along the faults.

The ocean tides began rolling in, ever higher toward the cliffs. The Garlands decided to turn back when they reached a jutting cliff where the sandy beach was now under water and only a few sharp rocks protruded above the surf. They stood, looking out at the great expansive of water. The Farallons were now covered by fog. The ocean, that wondrous mystery, that begetter of life, rolled rhythmically up against the rocky cliff and then back out, drawing sand and rock and shell with it.

A mystery shrouds life itself: the conception, the development of the embryo, the birth, the aging process, and finally death. Mystery surrounds each and every part. Even when we know intellectually what has happened, whether described by science or folktales, mystery is ever-present. The why of it all continues to nag us. The how always remains in secret. We know the how scientifically, that is, the process can be described, but the how of the underlying principles and forces is hidden. Then there is the mystery of existence itself—again the why and the how. We humans crave and desire meaning in our lives. Because purpose generates meaning, we seek it. When we assign a purpose to our behavior, we feel good. If we can give a purpose to existence and life, the universe will become more human, reasonable, and secure.

The steady tidal rhythms are the heart beat of life. This alternating movement is found in all living things. Living cells operate a sodium-potassium pump: pumping sodium ions out and potassium ions into the cell until the inside is electro-negative compared to the outside. This polarization counteracts the osmotic attraction of cell contents for water outside the cell membrane.

The human embryo in its nine month development goes through the evolutionary stages of its distant ancestors, from invertebrate to vertebrate, from fish to amphibian to mammal. At one stage in its growth, the fetus develops gills, demonstrating its watery past, and webbing between the toes, which soon disappears, also is formed. Sometimes an infant is born with the gill marks still present.

The heart of the human embryo also goes through changes that reflect the evolutionary process or at least connect humans to other animals. On the twenty-second day the embryo’s heart has the four chambers of an early ancestor: venous sinus, atrium, ventricle, and arterial cone. Later the heart is shaped into that of a fish’s with the venous sinus and atrium above and back of the ventricle and arterial cone. Gradually, while the venous sinus and arterial cone become smaller and smaller, the atrium and ventricle become larger. Then the heart is transformed into the shape of an amphibian’s with three chambers: two atria and one ventricle. Finally, in the last stage the heart becomes that of a mammal and bird’s with four chambers, the right and left atria and ventricles.

A chilling breeze had sprung from the fogbank that was fast moving toward the land. The beachcombers, tired and feeling the cold in their bones, carried nature’s treasures back to their car and departed for home to enjoy a warm fire in the hearth.

Several plovers had joined the sandpipers eagerly seeking dinner.

Tides go in and tides go out: Di-as´-tl-e, sis´-ta-le. Di-as´-tl-e, sis´-ta-le. ***

The heat of the brightly burning fire was dispelling the chill in the living room. Ralph was observing the basket collection, meditating on design and craft. Willow rods were split and prepared for the primary material while maidenhair fern or rosebud was used in the design elements. Weaving is an amazing craft. He had often wondered how the concept first emerged in human consciousness. Most stories that relate the origins of human technology portray spirit beings or demigods as the source. Prometheus brings fire to the ancient Greeks while Raven gives it to the people of the Northwest. Grandmother spider teaches weaving to people of the Southwest. According to some stories, she creates the world with her weaving.

He felt her presence and put his arm around her waist. She snuggled against his shoulder. They embraced and for a moment melted into each other.

“That was fun today.” Shasta took his hand. “Come and see my table setting.”

In the center of the rosewood dinner table Shasta had created an assemblage of shells, stones, and small pieces of driftwood. In the middle stood a small vase of pink, white, and blue flowers.

“It’s lovely.” Ralph touched several of the pieces, enjoying the texture. “I’m inspired. I’ll make a setting for the studio. Perhaps I can get some alchemical ideas.”

They went into the kitchen, and after he fixed the martinis, they returned to the living room where the kitties had already settled themselves, Karma in the armchair and Lucy on the couch.

“Beach-walking opens and cleanses all my senses—not only those five that are linked to external reality but the inner ones too. Several insights have emerged.”

“What are they?” Shasta asked.

“Spending our leisure time collecting nature’s gifts puts me in mind of ancient humans who gathered their food and supplies. We moderns must still gather our food, clothes, and essentials for living, but we spend most of our time working, that is, earning money to use for our gathering. The working activity is nonceremonial, useless, and in many cases destructive. If we gathered directly from nature, our leisure time could be used for ceremonial, spiritually useful, and creative activities. What a big difference! The more removed we are from nature, the more our activities are less useful, destructive, and empty.”

“Our sense of mystery and wonder is weakened, if it exists at all. The popularity of detective and suspense stories, I believe, demonstrates that modern people are emotionally deprived. Our ordinary lives are so mechanical that we are starved for those primal emotions we once experienced in our childhood.”

“Recently, I’ve had this attitude that I was a faux magician. I have a deep desire to perform real magic that charms the audience into an enchanted realm. A feeling of embarrassment from the cut and restored tie routine I did with Gordon still bothers me.”

“Involve the audience as participants with you in doing magic rather than using them as a foil to show off your great powers.”

“That’s true. I often create a conflict between myself and the audience—a putdown, proving my greatness and their stupidity. Yes, that’s definitely a dangerous trap for magicians.”

“In stories there’s the basic difference between good and evil wizards. The good ones are those who use their power to help and benefit people.”

“And the evil wizards are on ego-trips and wantonly harm and kill people to prove their prowess. You know, if I weren’t a magician, I’d be sitting under a live oak tree pondering reality and solving cosmic questions.”

“Could you apply that image in the alchemical show?”

“Dai Vernon—I think I’ve mentioned him—once commented that too many magicians have taken ‘something inherently profound, and rendered it trivial.’”

“It’s the creative process—the center of our being. Back to our earlier theme: modern society tends to separate us from our center. When we’re there, we can peer into the dark recesses of the other side of the soul.”

“From there we can journey in quest for the philosopher’s stone.”

“I had several insights, too.”

“Tell me.”

“It’s about the creative process. A thought is like an amorphous unstructured form, like an amoeba, which requires handling and shaping until it expresses its inner meaning and essence. The writer works with the thought in her language until she understands it. Next if she wants to share it, she must work with the language until others can also understand it.”

“Yes. It’s a process of transforming the potential into something understandable or like reaching into the invisible realm and retrieving a treasure.”

“How are your alchemical studies going?”

“Oh, fine. I’ve branched into the goddess religion.”

“You’re reading Anne Baring and Jules Cashford’s The Myth of the Goddess?”

“Yes. It’s opening doors and shattering many cultural illusions. The experience is very transformational. In fact, I’m developing a thesis that alchemy extends back into the Neolithic, the time of the goddess religion.”

“Why, what have you discovered?”

“Major alchemical symbols and images are from that era, if not even earlier. Of course, the essential process of transformation is found in shamanic culture.”

“Transformational processes are natural, and once humans gained enough awareness, they would learn from their environment. If you want to go further with your study of the goddess, you might discuss it with Nancy. Last year she enrolled in a course about the goddess offered by the Women Studies Department at SF State. I remember her mentioning Marija Gimbutas, who studied Neolithic artifacts. Her book, The Living Goddesses, is filled with many insights and presents an excellent comprehension of Neolithic culture and the goddess tradition. If you ask, she’ll probably share her notes and reading list.”

Nancy Burke had become a free lance consultant for companies using art-design software. She and Shasta had worked for West Bay Media, an advertising company, when they were roommates. When West Bay Media had offered computer training in the new design software, Nancy had accepted and soon became the company’s supervisor of computer processing. Later she had changed jobs and worked for Bacchus Designs, a small software company, which made art and design programs, in the South of Market area. She had moved up the ladder and became a vice president of software design. When the Dot-com boom had burst, Bacchus Designs had first downsized and then was bought up for its copyrights by Kinley Digital Resources, a burgeoning conglomerate which was buying up languishing and near-bankrupt software companies. After cannibalizing them, Kinley Digital Resources would dissolve them. Nancy had saved some money in wise investments but lost a lot of virtual wealth as many others did because Bacchus Designs’ stock had fallen in value before the buyout.

“That’s delightful—combining computing consulting with goddess studies. I’ll phone her.”

“Speaking of phone calls, Merle left a message for you to get in touch. Something about a new idea he’s kicking around. Actually, the message triggered a notion that we might host a dinner party. It’s been ages since we’ve entertained.”

“That’d be fun.” His spirit began to rise at the happy thought.

“We could invite the Leongs and Peppers. Nancy, too; she hasn’t seen them for awhile.”

A bing, bing, bing sounded from the kitchen. “There’s the timer. I’d better check the casserole.” Shasta rose and went to the kitchen. Ralph leaned back in the couch and stared at the flickering flames. He sensed a message there for him if he could decode it. Focusing on the burning logs, he perceived an image of a face which became attached to a human-like figure. The face was peering out of the stove and seemed to exhibit an inquisitive expression. His alertness expanded when the mouth started to move, and then the lower jaw dropped into the hot ashes below it. Had the face spoken to him before disintegration? A thought lurked in the back of his mind out of reach of awareness. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he looked up at Shasta’s smiling face. “Dinner’s ready, dear,” she remarked.

Hermes Beckons Chapters Facing the Absurdity of Existence with Joyous Laughter All Creatures Have Their Spirit Guardians