Mount Tamalpais and the Wildflowers of Persephone

I hung a right at the Stinson Beach fire station, and the trailhead appeared. My friend Tami and I had tried to hike this trail in February, somehow missing the trailhead and hiking the Cataract Trial farther up Mount Tamalpais instead. But because no fewer than three people told me the Matt Davis Trail was their favorite, I decided to give it another shot. And now here I was.

I followed the trail into the forest.

The Persephone of myth was radiant, referred to as “Kore” or simply, “the maiden.” She was gathering flowers with Artemis and Athena—what need the huntress and wise woman of war had for flowers isn’t clear. Perhaps they simply liked them. The three of them, along with some nymphs, were gathering flowers when the earth opened up.

forest1

See, Persephone was really hot. Legendary hot. Every single god asked her to be his wife and she wasn’t having it. So Hades, god of the underworld, kidnapped her. This is called the Rape of Persephone, and told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Hades came up through the crack in the earth, grabbed her and pulled her onto his chariot, and went back down to the underworld.

forest2

It had rained yesterday and the day before. The plants were so green they practically glowed. I walked under a canopy of oak trees, with plenty of verdant underbrush: vines, wildflowers, grasses. It was like the plants had reacted to the rain with hysterical growth.

I came to recognize a pattern: every so often, steps appeared. They were old railroad ties ground into the trail, usually, although sections of stone steps weren’t unknown. The steps were a mixed blessing—I hate stairs and elevation, but every time I got to the top of some stairs, I’d find a waterfall. Nothing too big, and nothing falling too far. They were modest as waterfalls went. But they were nonetheless generous across the trail, sometimes running across it in places.

forest3

Persephone’s mom, Demeter, kind of went nuts when her daughter disappeared. She neglected her work. This is entirely understandable, given the circumstances. I know parents who have lost children; it changes people. Except Demeter was the goddess of the earth, and forbid the planet to produce anything while she was looking for her lost child.

Eventually, Helios the sun took pity, and told her what happened. Demeter was rightly enraged, but for reasons of the patriarchy, could do nothing. So that’s what she did, nothing. The earth wilted. The plants died. The people starved.

Finally, the King of the Gods, Zeus, intervened. He decreed that Hades must return Persephone, because when mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. Zeus sent Hermes, the messenger god, to retrieve her. When Hermes arrived in the underworld, he discovered that Hades had tricked Persephone and given her pomegranate seeds to eat.

coastline

At one point, I climbed through a tree to catch a glimpse of coastline. Standing on a tall rock, I could see Stinson Beach below, and beyond that, a curving horizon of ocean. No wonder people used to think the end of the world was a place, just beyond the view. That you could sail forever until you reached it and then enter the underworld.

I heard shouts on the trail and began climbing out of the tree. I almost dropped on top of a girl, perhaps six. We both said “Oh!” to each other, startled, and then laughed.

“What’s back there?” she said.

“A really pretty view,” I said.

“DAD! ALERT! A REALLY PRETTY VIEW!”

“Are you the advance scout?” I said.

“I’m just a regular scout,” she said, and I realized she hadn’t taken my meaning. I smiled at her and climbed out of the tree, then she climbed in. A little boy appeared around a bend in the trail, followed by a thin middle-aged man with a long gray-streaked beard.

“It’s pretty empty,” the man said. “You’re the first person I’ve seen here today.”

The little boy began to follow his sister, climbing through the tree.

red

Those dumb seeds, that was all it took. Since Persephone had tasted the food of the underworld, she was obliged to return to it for three months to six months—the myths vary. Demeter, who really understood the meaning of a strike, would refuse to produce during those that time. And that is how a horny god of death gave us winter.

lupin

After about two miles of climbing, I emerged onto a meadow. The hilltops looked like something out of Dr. Seuss, striped by patches of purple-gray dead foliage. The trail cuts along the hillside, and flecked in the grass are patches of California poppy. Up close, the dead grass is sharp and unpromising—clearly not the field were the goddesses would bother with flowers, unless their skin was impermeable.

Scattered closer to the trail were other flowers, some I didn’t recognize. A purple-flowered shrubbery caught my attention. Not lilacs, or not the ones that had grown outside my bedroom window when I was a kid. But lilac-like. Lupin clustered so closely that they were as dense as a bush? Hard to say.

Everything smells fresh in the springtime. It’s still all possibility. In both the forest and the grassland above it, the birds sang. Some I didn’t know. At least one was a whippoorwill.

field

There’s a kind of surreality to a place of heightened beauty. Standing above the forest I’d just climbed out of, looking at the flowers and the cartoony hills, it can turn a woman’s head. A field of flowers is an ordinary miracle, which happens with or without us, and has no interest in the kind of intoxication extreme beauty brings. I begin to understand believers: there must be a god, to have created this. To imagine otherwise creates more astonishment still. I expect I will be contemplating the vast indifference of nature until the end of my days.

yellow

The myths of Persephone’s power vary. Her first mention is on a 3,400 year-old tablet found in Pylos. She gets called a lot of things besides Persephone and Kore: Persephoneia, Pesephatta, Perepapha, Periphona and Phersephassa. Apparently the Greeks had some trouble with her name, possibly because she predates them. Among some of the mystery cults, her name was forbidden since she was now Queen of the Dead—so Nestis, Melitodes, and Hagne were also used.

Persephone returns to us every spring and leaves us in autumn. But that’s hardly all. The flower goddess, having seen the dead things, is now queen of the underworld, receiving Orpheus and Heracles in her second role.

In the Eleusinian mysteries, she’s the goddess of rebirth. In one myth, from about the 2nd century A.D., she created humanity from clay, starting a divine fight about who people belonged to. In the end, Zeus and Gaia owned people in life; Persephone owned them in death.

It is perhaps fitting that in Orphic myths, she gives birth to Zagreus after having a fling with Zeus. He was attacked and dismembered by the Titans, though his heart was recovered. Through that, he was reborn by Semele as the god Dionysus, he of nature, wine, and merrymaking.

turkeys

Around a bend in the trial, I saw what appeared to be a miniature windmill. Then it moved, and I discovered I had been staring at the tail of a wild turkey. It was surrounded by other turkeys. Either they were all female or the other males didn’t bother to display. The displaying male pulled his feathers in, walked a bit, and then spread them out again. I was at a distance, so I couldn’t quite tell, but he appeared to have a worm hanging out of his mouth. Below the turkeys were the trees I’d just left. Below them, I could see the Pacific Ocean beat the coast.

The turkeys didn’t seem particularly interested in me, and the trail wound away from them, so I went on.

moth

At one point, Theseus’s pal Pirithous decided it would be a great idea to kidnap Persephone again so she could be his bride. Men are bewildering creatures. Theseus joined Pirithous for the ride, and and when they arrived in hell, Persephone tricked them into sitting down. When they tried to stand, they couldn’t. Heracles decided to come to Hell to rescue them,  and managed to yank Theseus loose. Pirithous is still down there as far as anyone knows.

stairs

I was watching a brown hawk glide ahead of me, when suddenly it dove, grabbed something, and flew toward the forest edge, disappearing into the trees. What was in its claws, I wonder. A vole? A field mouse? I hadn’t seen any small mammals near the trail. Mostly I’d seen beetles and butterflies. And some turkeys.

After walking on paths cut through three grassy hills, I was suddenly in the forest again, back among waterfalls. Like something out of a dream or a fairy tale. The kind of place where, if you were unlucky, you might catch the goddess of the hunt bathing with her attendants. I reached the end of the trail at the Pantoll station, where Tami and I had meant to go. I remembered driving by it, like a doofus, higher up Mount Tam, and reaching a trailhead—also with waterfalls and stairs—and hiking it instead.

The clouds were moving fast in the early afternoon. One of them looked low and threatening, but it was pushed back by the wind from the west, back over Mount Tamalpais somewhere.

It was on the trip back I noticed the dead things.

waterfall

Plato has Socrates tell us that Persephone is named for her touching of things in motion (epaphê tou pheromenou), which means she is wise. Pindar says that after the body’s death, Persephone judges the soul in Hades; if it is guiltless, it passes to the Elysium. But it must return to Earth and die twice more to be eligible. It is Persephone who allows Teiresias, the blind prophet who was made a woman for seven years, to retain his wisdom after death, where Odysseus visits him. Most souls are made to forget when they die.

rodents

They were on the trail. Had I not noticed them, coming in the other direction? Or were they new? Three small things, baby rodents. The beetles were crawling on them. Three or maybe four, depending on whether the mauled-looking one was in fact one rodent, or two that had been mauled together. At first I wasn’t sure whether they were large animal poop but then I saw one of them had a face, though its eyes were gone. Perhaps a baby mole.

I kept going.

Further down the trail, I saw the lizard, Or rather, what had once been a lizard. Now it was just scales, the tail and front of the mouth gone—eyes gone too. Parts of its delicate ribcage bones were exposed in the middle. Work of a bird of prey, probably. I looked past it to the poppies dotting the field.

lizard

The spirits of the dead are kept in Persephone’s meadows in Hades. They are asphodels, whole fields of them, asphodels as far as the eye can see. That’s what the myths say. The myths say that the goddess of the flowers is married to the god of death.

poppies

Elizabeth Lopatto is a science reporter based in Oakland, California.

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3 comments

  1. “Lupin clustered so closely that they were as dense as a bush?”: Yes, your photo is definitely of bush lupine. They’re abundant on the coast north of San Francisco. For example, they grow luxuriantly on the grounds of the Bodega Marine Laboratory, which I visited several times when I was a grad student at Davis and where I heard them referred to as Lupinus arboreus (i.e., tree-like lupine). (I gather that name used to be restricted to the yellow-flowered morph but is now applied to the purple-flowered morph too. I’m not a botanist, so that’s the limit of my knowledge about them.)

  2. This is glorious. When I was a teenager my family lived on the slopes of Mt. Tam, and your account of the trail, and the photos, bring it all back. It’s a miraculously beautiful place.

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