Inverness Almanac combines the practical and the poetic

David Briggs
ARTS: Inverness Almanac editors Ben Livingston, Jordan Atanat, Nina Pick, Jeremy Harris and Katie Eberle deep in the coastal bush.
03/12/2015

What week of the year should you plant spinach? When will California poppies bloom and pygmy nuthatches start nesting? What is it like to listen to the language of the natural world on a hike, to walk on Tomales Bay every morning for 20 years, to watch a deer die on the side of the road? What’s the best way to make huckleberry pie?

In the first edition of the Inverness Almanac, which arrived in town this week, you will find the answers to those questions. The almanac is focused on the landscape of coastal Marin, painstakingly designed and edited in a small office above the Old Western Saloon by five young editors in their 20s and 30s. It covers both practical, seasonal information and more cerebral, even mythical, inquiries and meditations. And that’s exactly the point.

“The almanac is this idea of a marriage between the mystical and the mundane,” said Nina Pick, an editor largely in charge of its literary content. “It offers a model of ‘meaning in place’ that is fundamentally spiritual in nature. That’s what we’re lacking today.” 

Jordan Atanat, a cabinetmaker who has lived in West Marin for six years, said the idea for a journal centered on the landscape of coastal Marin came to him about four years ago, when he was living in Inverness with roommates who routinely foraged and cooked on their hearth. But he didn’t take it too seriously until he mentioned it to a friend a year later. Soon he and other friends—including two current editors, Inverness native Ben Livingston, composer Jeremy Harris and David Bailey, who later moved away—started hashing out exactly what the journal would become. 

About a year and a half ago, two more friends came on: Katie Eberle, who works at KWMR, and Ms. Pick, who moved to Inverness in 2013 and teaches at a Waldorf high school. The new editors (and, perhaps, the injection of some feminine energy) catalyzed the group into more concrete action, and they sent out a call for submissions last May. 

They have made a few changes along the way. They originally envisioned a seasonal journal, but are now aiming for a biannual publication. Still, the vision of a journal focused on the land has remained constant. (The first page of the almanac quotes a 13th century Zen Buddhist teacher as an introduction to its contents: “The mountains belong to those who love them.”)

The editors have read a number of West Marin-based arts publications, including the West Marin Review and the Tomales Bay Times. They say their most direct literary predecessor is Floating Island, a four-volume journal published by Michael Sykes in the 1970s and ’80s. (Like the almanac, it too had an office above the Old Western.)

Ms. Pick and Mr. Livingston added that they see the publication not just in the context of other West Marin-based journals but situated in the wider field of place-based literature.

But at the end of the day, they said, what the almanac ultimately is lies outside their control. They established the vision, read through every entry, raised money, found a nonprofit to operate under, set up a website and designed the journal. But its guts are comprised of whoever chooses to contribute, and the editors used the vast majority of what was submitted, they said. (The ages of contributors ranged from teenagers to septuagenarians.) 

The submissions, Mr. Atanat said, “are what make up the almanac. We didn’t define those things… Part of the idea is that we’re collecting stories. The depth of knowledge we can convey will deepen over time.”

The index that prefaces the journal provides an inkling of the knowledge and wisdom it seeks to impart. It tells you on which pages you will find pieces on solitude (five entries), waters (seven entries), struggle (nine entries) and life and death (nine entries). There are also entries on less-common topics in the journal, like silence (two), music (three), skulls (three) and toast and jam (one). These are not catalogued by page number, because there are no page numbers. Instead, there are days of the year.

Grounding the almanac is the tide log, an oscillating line that runs continuously along the bottom of the entire journal. It offers the time and height of high and low tides in Inverness—from March 20, the spring equinox, until Sept. 23, just after the fall equinox. (Tomales Bay native Matt Gallagher wrote a computer program to make the waves, using data points from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.) Each page of the almanac is comprised of two days of tidal information.

Just above the tidal oscillation are natural tidbits corresponding to the time of year; around May 13 and 14, the almanac says, Steller’s jays are nesting, owl’s clover is flowering, western fence lizards are courting and the moon is at perigee, the time when it is closest to the earth. Other days offer advice about when to plant spinach or when salmon berries are booming. The information was garnered from a mix of research, interviews with locals and direct observations by Mr. Livingston, who works at a farm in Point Reyes Station and spends hours a week hiking and wandering around West Marin.

The practicality of the almanac isn’t limited to the tide log. There are recipes, plant profiles and instructions on how to harvest stinging nettles. There is also an eight-page historical atlas of Tomales Bay created by historian Dewey Livingston, based on an 1863 map and peppered with information on ranches, the Coast Miwok, trading points and more.

Other pieces, like the poems and pictures that run throughout the almanac, balance that information by embodying the joyful or serene aspect of observation and connection—a central part of a journal that aims to encourage a mindful awareness of the environment we inhabit.

One piece by Mr. Livingston, “Language Poem I,” documents what he calls the language of the natural world, whether visual, aural or symbolic: “cursive snake of mycelium/fruiting scripture across/south facing slopes,” “rattle of lupine seeds,” or just “the cold stare of a hawk.” 

A coyote a few pages later, eyes closed, catches the animal in a moment of ease and the photographer in a moment of observation. An essay by animal tracker Richard Vacha closely documents the animals that emerge in the spring—rabbits, coyotes, gophers, raptors and insects, all on the move. On the page for the day of the summer solstice is a serene print of Chicken Ranch Beach by Sirima Sataman. Throughout the journal are illustrations of local birds and plants, some painstakingly representational and others happily imaginative. 

Other contributions tackle some of the thornier problems of the relationship between people and the land. Those pieces bring into focus another dichotomy that appears to present itself in the contents of the almanac: the celebration of, and struggle with, relating to the land in West Marin. 

In one essay, Arron Wilder, a vegetable farmer, writes that neither his body nor his pocketbook could last with just hand tools. He struggles with the fact that using tractors that run on fossil fuels, or disposable bags to sell the vegetables to restaurants, contributes to the very problem his small-scale organic operation seeks to combat. He believes that a well-run farm can benefit the land, but whether or not the trade-offs and risks can be completely eliminated seems unlikely. 

Another essay, written decades ago and published in the Tomales Bay Times, also speaks to the urgency of finding a way to sustainably grow food—one of the most fundamental and basic relationships between people and the land. Yet another piece—a poem by Brendan Clarke titled “Recompense”—recounts the story of a deer dying on the side of the road. The narrator wishes to give the animal an honorable death with his knife and use it for meat and leather, but a sheriff dispatches it instead, and tells him not to go near it. The piece embodies the loss of the old ways of honoring the animals we kill, either by accident or with intent. 

For Mr. Atanat, all these differences—between the mystical and the mundane, between celebration and struggle—aren’t fundamentally differences. 

“To me, there’s a central intent of the almanac, which I am loathe to put into words. But everything in it is just a different way of pointing in that direction,” he said. “Struggle is just as much a manifestation of that thing as joy. Or an observation, or something objective, points to it just as much as something that’s completely expressive or abstract…There are so many facets and so many ways of getting at this most basic thing—which is our feet on the ground, right here.”

 

A release party for the Inverness Almanac, including readings by contributors and music, will be held from 7 to 11 p.m. this Friday, March 13, in the Dance Palace Church Space. $10 to $20 sliding scale donations. The almanac can be purchased at Point Reyes Books or online at invernessalmanac.com/buy.