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The Fertile Void

Happy 2022 from the intertidal zone, a cove off Richardson Bay, which makes up San Francisco Bay, the largest estuary of the Pacific Ocean. Ruddy and Bufflehead ducks are feeding on seaweed growing from tie-up lines and the sea lions are roaring as they chase the silver shoals of herring. Pelicans and cormorants are tufts of light and darkness, filling the sky and dinging the water in pursuit of the herring. These herring come into wetlands outside my window to lay their eggs on the eelgrass. It’s as predictable as the calendar, as miraculous as creation itself.

Where two ecosystems overlap is known as “the edge” in permaculture and these places are where life transforms.

Rivers and rain wash terrestrial minerals into the sea, enriching it; tides carry microscopic plants that capture sunlight during low tide, tiny animals eat these, bigger fish eat those. Wetlands, salt marshes, tidal zones, the buffer of the sea and land, are the ocean’s nurseries. Here is the catalyst for life on earth, the primordial thumbprint of creation.

Yet only 8% of the wetlands of the San Francisco Bay are left. We are invasives here in the intertidal zone- the worst of the worst. But I feel my essential connection to it every time I walk down the dock and the briny, seaweed, creosote, rusty, clean and murky smells engulf me. Low tide, when my houseboat settles into the mud, is sinister when first experienced, but the bottom of the bay laid bare, I recognize it as part of my truest, rawest self, where sorrow and vulnerability reside. The smell of high tide buoys me into optimism and my best self.

There is no season on the San Francisco Bay quite like herring season, bright silver, omega-3 rich silver schools of fish ushered in on King tides. The sea lions, seals, shorebirds, dolphins, and more all feed on the herring so they are plump, healthy, and fertile for spring mating. The arrival of herring isn’t spring – it’s pre-spring, or as I like to think of it, the fertile void. The Fertile Void is attributed to Gestalt therapy and the cycle that the creative process takes. It starts and ends, with the fertile void. This is the resting phase; the dark stillness, the bog. From here, there is inspiration, and a need arises. We acknowledge it, mobilize, meet our needs, feel satisfaction, and then withdraw, once again to the fertile void.

The fertile void makes me think of Kali, the primordial Hindu goddess of destruction that has the power to return creation to the dark void it once was. She is also the goddess of creation and rebirth, she’s fertile darkness, the sacred promise of the deep dark void. Demeter is also the fertile void – the goddess of seasons, of plentiful plants and of famine.

These rainy days, lying low due to the most recent COVID surge, I try to drop into the void. The still, silent ending and beginning. Yet when there’s a lull in the rain, Flora Jayne and I head into the woods to look for chanterelles and hedgehogs. And what the rains have done to the forest! Jack O’lanterns bigger than my head, devouring a pine tree. Fairy rings of death caps, bright orange mildew coating branches, a tumescence of brilliant moss, and through the decaying pine needles and leaves, there are beautiful little hedgehogs, cinnamon brown candy caps, and under a sword fern, a small cluster of chanterelles. The mycelium had been under there all along. It just needed a lot of rain to interest the mushrooms into growing. The fertile void is the herring spawning, the mycelium getting ready to fruit. To drop into the fertile void requires trust that grace is always present.

I've created a Fertile Void menu inspired by this season for a Good People Dinner in San Francisco on February 5th. There are a few spots left for this.

The Lost in the Woods, fungi-centric pop-up on January 30th is sold out but there are spaces for the Salt Point mushroom foraging and cooking camps on February 12th or 13th.

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