Environment, life, Neodruidry, Plants and Herbs

Persimmon Foraging Quest

Hello! If you’ve been reading here for a while now, you may have come across the Persimmon Quest.

This is an annual quest my partner and I go on every autumn. We call around or visit grocery stores in order to find out who actually has persimmons (preferably the astringent kind, but non-astringent will also do). Then, we purchase and eat massive quantities of persimmons.

The first time I had one was when I still lived in California. It was a Fuyu persimmon (Diospyros kaki), crunchy and sweet, and I was sold. When I had my first perfectly ripe Hachiya, like a water balloon filled with sweet, flavorful jelly, I was smitten. When I realized that one of the trees planted here by one of the former occupants was probably a persimmon, I was ecstatic.

A Druidry group I belong to recently offered a small foraging expedition. One of our members is a biologist, and he’s kind and generous enough with his time to lead seasonal foraging walks. Last spring, we hunted for ramps. Now that it’s persimmon season, we went to track down some trees.

And oh, did we ever.

Three bags of soft, bright orange American persimmons, along with a sprig of coralberry and some dried mountain mint.

Several of them were already bare, picked over by wildlife and wind. Some were still laden with fruit that fell at the slightest touch. We picked only the ripest, squishiest ones, leaving the rest to soften in the sun and feed other things.

My partner and I came away with several pounds, which I cleaned and froze for future use. They’re very different from Japanese persimmons — we snacked on a few as we foraged, and it was striking just how much the flavor seemed to vary from tree to tree. American persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) are most similar to Hachiya-type Japanese persimmons, in that they’re very astringent before they’re ripe. When they look like they’re nearly rotten, they’re at their best.

Most of the ones I tasted were almost floral when compared to a Hachiya. Still very sweet and soft (with a slight astringent bite in a few places), but floral like lavender lemonade is floral. The comparatively large seeds got in the way a bit, but I’ve read some interesting recipes for roasting and grinding them to make a coffee substitute. As someone who doesn’t drink coffee, I’m intrigued! If I can get a foraged equivalent for Dandy Blend that isn’t dandelion root, I’ll be excited.

I haven’t yet decided what to do with the persimmons themselves. I might separate the seeds and pulp, then freeze the pulp again in an ice cube tray. I figure, if I want to add them to smoothies, sauces, or desserts, I can just thaw out some cubes of prepared persimmon mush fairly quickly and easily. I could even pop a cube or two in a jar for making persimmon kefir. (One member of the group was considering doing fruit leather but based on my experiences trying to make strawberry leather in the oven, I don’t think I want to tackle that without a dehydrator.)

There was a lot more to see than just persimmons, too. Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) with its stringy bark (good for stripping and braiding into twine). Horsenettle (Solanum carolinense) with its bright yellow, tomato-like, deceptively delicious-looking poisonous fruits. Fragrant tufts of mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), gray and brittle with age. The most striking were the coralberries (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus), their tiny, bright magenta fruits standing in vibrant contrast to their bright green leaves.

I found these berries particularly intriguing. As it turns out, they’re a valuable native food plant for birds, grow in shade, can stabilize banks, don’t have any major pest or disease vulnerabilities, and thrive on neglect. I’m still looking for native/non-invasive plants to help feed the yard’s hard clay soil and reverse some of the damage from supporting a lawn, and coralberry fills a very important niche here. From what I have read, coralberries aren’t of much value as food for humans. That’s okay, though. Not everything in the yard has to — or should — be for me to eat.

Plus they are so pretty.

I’m considering growing some mountain mint, too. Like other mints, they can take over a yard. Since they’re a native plant, I think it’ll be easier to keep them at a reasonable level than, say, the old peppermint that’s slowly eating part of the back yard. Interestingly, it’s closer to bee balm (monarda) than it is to peppermint, and there’s a faint bee balm-ness to its scent that gives that away. Mountain mint also attracts an incredible variety of native pollinators and predatory wasps, and is both edible and medicinal. Medicinally, it’s treated almost as a panacea — it’s considered a digestive, carminative, emmenagogue, expectorant, and more, though I haven’t thoroughly researched the active constituents myself yet. If it can serve as a home-grown, native substitute for peppermint tea, I’ll be all for it. The flavor does lead me to think that it’d be great for seasoning poultry or wild game, and I’m eager to try.

That’s what I love about foraging trips. Not only do I come away with tasty food, but I also get a better idea of ways to try to heal the land I’m now responsible for. Seeing a wide variety of native plants shows me what this patch of grass could be and tells me how I can help it get there. I’m excited!

Environment

When art meets environmentalism meets soup.

Friday, protesters from Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers fourth version (don’t worry, the painting itself is fine) before gluing themselves to the wall. This was ostensibly a protest against climate change, but it’s left a lot of people with a lot of feelings.

Some are angry at the choice of painting. After all, Van Gogh was poor, mentally ill, a lover of nature, and unappreciated during his lifetime. If there’s an artist likely to align with environmentalism, it’s him.

I’m not here to debate the relative merits of attacking a priceless cultural artifact. The most effective protests are ones that shock and inconvenience us, forcing us to notice things we haven’t considered before. In that respect, this kind of action can be effective. The road to any kind of progress was never paved with politeness and respectability.

The fact is, though, that you have a very limited window of time to convey your message with that kind of action. Once you’ve thrown the soup and whipped out the glue, security is already on their way. You have at best a few minutes to convey why you’re there, what you’re doing, and why people should care. There is no room for confusion. Your window is limited, and your shit needs to be extremely together.

That’s where this ultimately falls apart. At first, I even wondered if it was intentional performance art intended to critique the movement.

It’d be charitable to say that the call to action was a bit muddled. The world should stop allowing new drilling for oil, but also fuel prices should be cheaper so people can heat up soup in the winter. British Petroleum raises fuel prices so they can donate to museums, which leaves people cold and hungry. Since this is theoretically an environmental protest, I’m assuming that the intended message wasn’t supposed to be “BP needs to stop donating to museums and make oil more accessible.” I figure that this wa intended to convey that we need decentralized grids made up of renewables, but there are several layers of abstraction between that message and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers doused in tomato soup.

It also invokes the idea that life is more valuable than art. This is true, but art is also our only record of some extinct species. Life is also a nebulous concept — “life,” in general, will continue. The planet will recover. Human life will not, but that’s always been our fate. The only thing that will outlast us and hold any echo of us, whether our species is taken out by climate change, an asteroid, or simply by evolving into a genetically distinct descendant, is the artifacts we leave behind. Maybe another species will come along to see it, maybe it won’t. In either case, a piece of artwork is a perplexing vehicle ‘for the message the protesters seemed to be trying to convey.

There’s also something very “pink ribbon” about it. I don’t know that there’s anyone in the world who isn’t aware of climate change and the need to switch away from fossil fuels. Hell, even the companies that profit from it know they need to try to cleanse their reputations. That’s one benefit of this protest, though — it did draw attention to the fact that many museums are funded by oil companies (in this case, British Petroleum) in an attempt to make themselves look bett-

Oh.

Still, maybe some oil heirs are sincere in their desire to divest from the industry that gave them their money. Ideally, nobody would accept “blood money” funding from something that’s actively destroying the envi-

Oh.

Ever since “The Merge,” Ethereum touts itself as an environmentally friendly form of cryptocurrency. While this did reduce this specific crypto currency’s energy consumption by 99.9%, it should be noted that its prior consumption was roughly equivalent to the entire country of Chile (which consumes about 73 billion kWh per year). This change is a positive development in the world of crypto, and more currencies should adopt it, but .1% of that is still massive. It’s touted as being good for the environment, but this is a bit misguided — it’s just less of a massive energy sink when compared to its competitors.

This isn’t to suggest that individuals or organizations have to pass some kind of ideological purity test in order to make a statement, but it’s important to remember that they aren’t exempt from scrutiny just because they’re saying something that you agree with. No one is immune to propaganda, and this kind of thing is literally why greenwashing persists. Know who’s cutting the checks.

The whole thing is especially baffling when you consider this that the National Gallery is just a few minutes’ walk away from a British Petroleum office. There’s already a problem with pushing the responsibility for climate change onto individuals rather than the big businesses that contribute the most. Big business, especially oil companies and the fishing industry, love the fact that people focus on making incremental lifestyle changes. While the rest of us squabble about who is and isn’t allowed to use a plastic straw, they get away with (often literal) murder.

It’s no secret that many individuals found the soup-throwing upsetting, but what impact has it had on the key players driving climate change? Why is this action directed at the public? Even if every person at the museum left and wrote angry letters to BP, is boycotting BP’s product something that public infrastructure will actually allow them to do?

There was also concern that one of the protesters flashed what appeared to be a white supremacy hand gesture as she was led away. I haven’t seen the photos or video of this, so I can’t speak to its veracity. It makes me wonder if it was genuinely a white power signal, or if she was trying to make the “OK” hand gesture because a thumb up doesn’t really work in cuffs. (The “OK” hand gesture is now listed as a hate symbol, but this is entirely because a bunch of dipshits on 4chan back in 2017 tried to convince the internet that it was.) Assuming that the accusation of racism is correct, the use of any kind of white supremacist gesture in this context is kind of baffling. Women of color are the group that’s the most negatively impacted by climate change. I guess a white supremacist might want to contribute to the oppression of other people by discrediting the environmental movement? They’re strange concepts to link together in the context of some soup-throwing, I tell you what.

So, here’s an environmental protest, but one that’s funded by oil money and crypto donations. A protest that wants to end the use of oil, but also wants fuel to be cheaper and more accessible. An action that targeted a representational artwork of nature, by an impoverished, mentally ill artist, instead of any of the British Petroleum corporate offices a few minutes’ walk away. One that, like so many actions before it, seems to push the responsibility for climate action on individuals instead of corporate entities.

In the end, I feel bad for these kids. I remember having intense, unfocused passions that I dedicated to causes I strongly believed in (but weren’t always well thought-out). If this was their idea, I hope they can learn and do better in the future. If someone put them up to this, I hope that person is held responsible.

As an artist and environmentalist, it all leaves me with one question: What was the actual end game here?

Environment, life

In which the squirrels pay their tab.

So, remember how I accidentally got a bunch of squirrels hammered a bit ago?

They paid their tab.

Like I mentioned in that previous post, permaculture requires a lot of fallow time, at least initially. There are a few things I could plant, but otherwise it’s mostly observing, identifying what’s already there, and tending to the raised beds in the front yard. In this process, I’ve decided on a few plants that I think will do very well.

So, imagine my surprise when I went out and noticed a bunch of seedlings of these same plants, newly growing adjacent to the squirrel kegger.

A squirrel peers down from a branch.

Seriously. My delinquents planted tomatoes (so many tomatoes), beans, and a whole host of other plants I’m excited about. It’s late in the season, so I don’t know how well they’re going to do right now, but still. I’m basically feeling like the hillbilly trash Snow White of gardening right now.

It was slightly annoying to have a band of rowdy rodents making and chugging bathtub squirrel gin in my platform feeders, but I’m not even mad.
Well done, my dudes.

(I’m still not buying you more cranberries, though.)

Environment, life

I made a rodent speakeasy.

I’ve tried to be conscientious in the way I take care of this yard. Permaculture isn’t achieved overnight — it can take up to a year of just observation to understand what should actually go in a space, and what arises naturally. While I’ve been on a crusade to get rid of a lot of the less-useful, non-native plants that were introduced here, I’ve tried to balance this with working slowly, patch-by-patch, and providing more sources of food, water, and habitat to replace what I’ve removed, and then some. (I even found and transported a yellow woolly bear caterpillar from a soon-to-be-doomed spot in the front yard, to a thriving bee balm plant in the back.)

Still, until I’m able to provide more food plants and water sources, I figured I’d put out some simple platform feeders. I’d already noticed bees descending on my yard after I watered the raised bed there — even when nothing had been planted yet, they were attracted to the water. Thirsty little buzzy people bobbed from tiny puddle to tiny puddle, eagerly drinking it up and trying to beat the heat. A platform feeder, I figured, would allow me to provide some water sources and a little bit of food for the larger guys out there.

I started fairly simply. I threw in a handful or so of sunflower seeds and some sulphite-free dried cranberries that I’d had laying around for a while, and put a bit of fresh water in the water dish.

Then I forgot about it. I mean, I had a lot of other things to contend with, like my war against lawns as a concept (and this lawn specifically). It was after a few days of rain and a bit of a hot spell that my partner called me into his office.

“Those feeders are really busy!”

“Yeah?” I asked, leaning in to peer out of the window overlooking the deck.

“Yeah! There’ve been a bunch of squirrels there all day!”

“Huh. Weird, they weren’t paying any attention to it befo-”

I squinted at the squirrels as it all clicked.
Fruit. Water. Heat.
The feeders didn’t collect rainwater, but it had rained enough to make those dried cranberries plump and juicy. The warmth just helped the sugar, water, and natural yeast along.

“Oh, shit,” I muttered.

Those hairy little delinquents were doing shots of fermented cranberry on my deck.

There was an excellent reason why these fruits, long ignored and forgotten about, were suddenly teeming with squirrels.
Glassy-eyed squirrels.
Glassy-eyed squirrels with burgeoning alcoholism.

Through my own negligence, I had managed to create some kind of speakeasy for squirrels. And they were having a fantastic time. Fantastic enough that I hesitated to rush out and try to chase them away from their ersatz kegger. (I mean, I don’t know how many drunken squirrels it’d take to kick my ass, but I knew how many they had on their side.)

I haven’t yet found any of them nursing tiny hangovers or passed out in the grass, but I still discarded the old fruit and put out fresh cranberries. If they liked dried fruit, they could have those.

Then I noticed that they were putting them in the water dish next to the feeder, presumably to create some kind of backyard rodent pruno.

I’m a little worried about what’s going to happen when I run out of cranberries, to be honest.

Environment, life, Plants and Herbs

Grassassination.

I’m not lawn people.

I mean, I can appreciate a carpet of grass from an aesthetic perspective, but only because I find its unnatural smoothness and homogeneity both pleasing and unsettling. If the Uncanny Valley has plants, they are all putting green grass.

When we purchased this place, we also become responsible for several thousand square feet of lawn. I should probably put lawn in scare quotes, because it’s less “lawn” than it is an amalgamation of grasses and weeds that look just enough like grass from a distance. The “Hello, fellow kids” of grass, if you will.

Grass is also a major drain on the local environment here. While its vital to areas like the African savannah, keeping it lawn-perfect requires too much water, fertilizer, pesticide, and either gas or electricity to mow. I say “too much,” because grass gives virtually nothing back when it’s confined to a postage-stamp of lawn. You can’t eat it, it’s too short to weave into anything useful, and mown grass is too tiny and insubstantial to make decent fuel. Lawns aren’t even good at feeding wildlife. If grass were allowed to go to seed, it could feed birds, but maintaining a lawn means cutting it short long it before it gets to that point. All lawns do is take, take, take. In a place where droughts are likely to become both more severe and commonplace, and habitat loss drives away native species, lawns can suck it.

A cocker spaniel puppy, sprawled on a lawn, looks up at the camera.
Shown: The only useful purpose for a lawn.

Besides, all grass lawns are are socio-economic symbols. The ability to use a property for aesthetics and leisure alone signifies a certain level of economic security, which, back in History Times, was pretty much a form of rich people gloating. Turning the land around your fancy estate into an immaculate green carpet meant that everyone could see and marvel at your fancy estate. Having a grass lawn around your house, as a concept, is pretty new.

“But j,” you might be saying, “Flowers are grown for aesthetics, too!” This is true, but not entirely. Flowers are pretty, but they also feed pollinators. Grass is wind-pollinated, so it barely even feeds bugs. Flowers are also often the precursor to edible fruit. Even roses fruit, and they’re good for you!

I have a patch of soil at my disposal, so it feels more responsible to use it for the production of either food (if not for humans, than for wildlife) or native habitat. I don’t have a homeowner’s association, so nobody can tell me what to do with the dirt and I am free to create the habitat my wretched little goblin heart desires.

I also have very specific feelings regarding the stewardship of a yard. It’s land that was taken, carved into a suburb, had all of the native flora scrubbed off of it, and made to grow a boring, repetitive lawn. It just feels more respectful to the people, plants, and animals who once called it home to turn it back into something… I don’t know. More nourishing. Less sterile. More diverse. Abundant. Comfier. Sustainable, and sustaining in turn. Even if I live here until I die, this place will outlast me. I gotta do right by it.

I’m fortunate that not everything here is grass, though. On the margins of the property, you can see where the people who lived here before made a mark. There’s a rose bush, rue, a potted sedum, crape myrtle, and azaleas. Tucked away, there are some blueberries, an apple tree, a young persimmon, and a red maple. Like islands in squares of lawn, there are two tiny, tiny Japanese maples.

All of this is to explain why most of my front yard is currently a black tarp. Even if we’d needed to have a grass lawn for some reason, the front yard is about 50% actual grass, and 50% other kinds of plants (mostly invasives) that just kind of moved in when the intense light and heat killed off patches of the grass. Doing anything useful with the grassy areas pretty much involves going scorched earth — literally.

A large black tarp, held down with rocks and a metal rake, covers a rectangular patch of grass.
This is the gardening equivalent of having a rusted-out truck up on blocks in your driveway.

I spent a lot of time researching different ways to get rid of — and subsequently replace — an entire lawn, and this is the solution that seemed to be the best for our situation. A black tarp, when placed over closely cropped grass, captures a lot of heat. This, coupled with the deprivation of moisture and sunlight, kills the plants under it. They break down over a period of weeks, and you get a nice, nutritious patch of soil for growing better plants on. Right now, the plan is to replace everything with a mixture of sun-loving local groundcovers and plants that can pull double-duty as ornamentals and sources of food — Passiflora incarnata, for example, which produces these amazingly alien-looking blooms followed by tasty fruit. I’d also like to adopt the custom of growing edible plants near front gates and fences for passers-by. Even if people don’t want them, the birds will.

The tarp thing is just one method of grass assassination (or grassassination, if you would). We’re also using the “lasagna method” in other areas, which entails mowing the grass short, covering it in layers of paper and cardboard, and smothering that in compost, mulch, and soil. The grass dies, it and the paper break down, and you’ve got the foundation for a very fancy raised bed. (So far, this method is working very well for some bee balm and elderberry plants I put down in one corner of the yard, but more on that another time.)

So, if you’ve been reading here and wondering why I haven’t been posting, it is not because I’ve been kept busy with paid writing or have abandoned society and gone on a bender in a forest. I have been battling one of my greatest foes: LAWNS.

This is for that summer you made me spend on prednisone, you little green S.O.Bs.

Environment, life, Plants and Herbs

Foraging for Flowers and Ramps

The more I think about it, the less sure I am that alien invaders would be able to set up shop here for an appreciable amount of time. They’d probably get eaten. (Even the really weird-looking ones. Especially the weird-looking ones. Maybe in an etouffee, like crawfish.)

A garlic mustard plant.

I like to consider myself an invasivore. If it’s here, causing harm, and tasty, I will find a way to eat it. This is why I was very happy to learn how to identify garlic mustard on a recent foraging walk with some friends. (A lot of invasives are valuable as medicine or food — they wouldn’t’ve been brought here if someone didn’t think they were useful for something.)

Of course, not all tasty things are invasive, which is why it’s important to be conscientious. In general, it’s best to take as little of a plant as you can, and avoid taking the roots unless absolutely necessary. One of the nice things about eating invasive plants is that you don’t need to be particularly careful about damaging their population, but this isn’t true for native species. Like ramps, for example.

A cluster of wild leeks at the base of a tree.

Ramps are wild leeks, and sadly trendy in the culinary world. In some areas, they’re delicacies that have been harvested to endangerment. They’re a spring vegetable very similar to a leek you’d get from the grocery store, which means they’ve got an onion-like bulb topped by flat leaves. The whole plant is edible, but it’s not uncommon for a nice patch of ramps (which can take years just for the seeds to germinate, then another seven years for the plants to mature) to get harvested to oblivion for the bulbs.

Fortunately, since the leaves are also delicious, this isn’t necessary. You can enjoy ramps and still leave the live plants behind. All it takes is harvesting one leaf and moving on, rather than digging up the entire plant. (I’m planning to chiffonade the leaves for potato soup. I’ve got some new potatoes from the farmers’ market, creamline milk, and a whole bunch of home made vegetable broth!)

A cone-shaped inflorescence of bear corn.

One of the neatest things I saw recently wasn’t something I was looking for — in fact, I’d never encountered it in my life, and had no idea it existed. Conopholis americana, also called cancer root, bear corn, or bumeh, is a profoundly odd-looking parasitic plant that lives near oak and beech trees. At first resembling an upright corn cob or the cap of a fungus, closer inspection revealed cream-colored flowers.

Despite the name cancer root, it doesn’t appear to actually fight cancer. However, it does have some pretty powerful astringents that help with wound clotting. This plant was also used to help induce and progress labor (which gave rise to another, more offensive name that has largely fallen into disuse). It’s also a diuretic and laxative, which is what gave it the name “bear corn.” After months of hibernation, bears need to “unplug,” as it were. They’re attracted to the springtime blooms of bear corn, and eating it seems to help get things moving.
This idea is plausible enough, though I have chosen not to test it myself.

We also spotted a black squirrel, though nearly missed it. He skittered quickly along a fallen tree, and was far out of sight by the time I managed to try to get a picture. Still, even without photo evidence, it was pretty neat to spot two very rare things. (Melanistic squirrels only occur in about 1 out of every 10,000 eastern gray squirrels!)

Here ’til the day breaks and night falls,
J.

Environment, life

Fines don’t matter when you’re rich.

Monetary punishments only work as a deterrent for poor people. For the wealthy, fines are just the cost of doing business.

This happens across the entire legal system, too. To someone living at or below poverty level, parking fines actually work — you think twice about parking illegally if it’s going to get you hit with a $200 fine. For someone who can afford to lose that money, the world looks different. There are no illegal spots, just spots that cost more to park in than others.

If that sounds outlandish, look at this bullshit here:

Developer In Takoma Cuts Protected Heritage Tree, Over Protests From Neighbors

The title buries the lede a bit. This wasn’t a bunch of nosy neighbors protesting the felling of a tree. This was a developer outright breaking the law in a way that impacts an entire community, and that community attempting to stop them.

A pair of very old trees, with their trunks and roots covered in moss.

Looking deeper, you can see where the parking space analogy comes into play:

“‘Get off my property, I’m going to cut this tree down,’’ Giancola recalls him saying. Neighbors told the owner that cutting the tree was illegal, Giancola says.

“He said, ‘I don’t care. Everybody does it, all developers do it. We pay the fines, nobody cares,’” Giancola says.

[…]

Eutsler says the property owner is facing as much as $72,000 in fines for cutting down three protected trees — the heritage oak, and two smaller “special trees.”

It’s the same thing. Only, instead of talking about a $200 parking space, we’re talking about a fine potentially over $72,000.

And it doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t it matter?

“If by removing a protected heritage tree, you can add substantial square footage to a building, you’re probably able to simply recover the cost that the fine imposes,” says Eutsler.

So, in short, wealthy developers are incentivized to break the law, because doing so lets them squeeze another couple hundred square feet out of a property. That allows them to absorb the cost of the fine, and then some.

A gnarled old olive tree.

What’s even more laughable is that this is, at the moment, completely unpreventable. The channels that handle this aren’t empowered to actually stop it from happening. Forestry has to wait for the trees to be felled, and then the fines (the completely pointless fines that developers don’t care about) are levied.

The thing is, bigger fines wouldn’t even necessarily help. Making them proportional to the perpetrator’s income would, as well as keep poor families from being bankrupt by a minor infraction. The angry treehugger in me, however, wishes it was a jailable offense. If Forestry can’t order them to stop work, then they need to be stopped somehow. (I should note that I’m not in favor of the carceral state. However, in the absence of a law that would allow the forestry department to stuff perpetrators into burlap sacks, I figure you need to work with what’s available.)

This isn’t even necessarily about the trees themselves, as much as I hate seeing a 100-year-old oak fall. It could’ve been a street sign instead. It could’ve been a tree that was getting ready to fall over. It could be anything, and the fact that money allows people to break the law with impunity would still be abhorrent. Fines don’t work to deter crime except for at the poorest levels of society, but poor people aren’t the ones going around dumping hazardous materials, lying about safety, or chopping down heritage trees.

An old oak tree with twisted, spreading branches.

I could get into the urban heat island effect, the importance of old trees as micro-ecosystems unto themselves, the deleterious impact of urban deforestation, or that people of color (especially women) bear the brunt of the impact of poor conservation and climate change, but I don’t think anyone has that much time.

Just remember. Environmental destruction isn’t a faceless, unstoppable phenomenon. It’s perpetrated by people, and they have names.

Environment, life, Neodruidry

Silvering the Well

One practice that’s part of my tradition involves “silvering the well.” This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like — making an offering of silver to the well.

The well, in this case, is a vessel of water (taken from three different natural sources). Outside of a ritual, it’s just a bowl. During a ritual, it becomes something more. It’s a representation of the primordial waters. It’s the healing cauldron, the sacred spring, and the sea of Manannán mac Lir. It’s representative of Water as an element, and the past from which we all spring.

The thing is, silvering the well is more complex than it seems. To people who’re used to ceremonial magic, it probably looks pretty simple. You have a vessel to serve as your well, and you make an offering to it. Silver goes in, boom.

There are also multiple different approaches to making this offering. One involves purchasing (or upcycling) small silver or silver-plated beads, which are then offered to the Earth once the ritual is concluded. Another uses a dedicated silver object which is designated as the offering anew each time, then taken out, dried off, and saved for the next ritual.

I spent a lot of time teasing out what this part of the process means for me. I’ve always understood the word “offering” to be a kind of euphemism for “sacrifice.” When you offer something, you no longer have it. Even if you don’t necessarily get rid of it (like dedicating an altar sculpture to a deity), it isn’t for you to use anymore. In this context, it makes sense to use small offerings of pieces of silver, requiring you to sacrifice the time, money, and energy it takes for you to get more when you run out.

On the other hand, international supply chains make the ethics of buying literally anything incredibly dubious. (I mean, a hobby store got caught trafficking antiquities, for crying out loud.) Even if it wasn’t, making an offering of small pieces of new silver involves mining silver (and possibly other base metals, for silver-plated objects) and then offering them to a place they didn’t come from. In less confusing words, you’re taking valuable material from one part of the Earth, and putting it somewhere else. Sure, silver isn’t exactly blood diamonds, but it’s still something that stuck in my mind like a fishhook. How do I know that the material for these “disposable” pieces of silver didn’t come from child labor, or a mine that dumps poison into the waters of the very people who have to work there? Could I justify offering something to the primordial waters, knowing that it might be poisoning the water?

(The environmental chemistry nerd in me isn’t even going to get into rainwater, leachates, and their effect on the soil, or I will be here all night.)

Eventually, I managed a compromise. I found a coin collector who had a stash of silver Mercury dimes. They weren’t suitable for collecting, since they’d been heavily circulated and were worn nearly smooth by time. I bought one, and this is my offering. I give it to the well, and the letter of the ritual has been fulfilled. The well is silvered.

Fulfilling the spirit of offering comes afterward. The coin itself is almost collateral — it’s a token of a promise, the symbol of an offering rather than the offering itself. Once the coin has been removed from the well and dried off, I make the sacrifice. Each ritual costs a monetary donation to a water charity — from the Water Protector Legal Collective, to Ocean Conservancy, to Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary, to one of the many other organizations working to protect people’s access to clean drinking water, remediate water pollution, or preserve vital wetlands. Failing that, it costs an afternoon of cleaning a beach or the banks of one of the smaller local waterways.

What does this mean for other people? Probably nothing. It’s just something that sat in my mind for a while, and a practice that I put in place years ago. Maybe it’ll have value for others, maybe not. Either way, I thought it might be worth writing down.

Blog, divination, Environment, life, Neodruidry

Friday: Black. Hike: Taken. Hams: Strung.

I don’t like Black Friday. Part of it comes from several years of retail work, part of it comes from reading way too many stories of people getting shanked over Elmo dolls and discount TVs. It sucks for workers, it sucks for shoppers, it just sucks all around.

So, when a Meetup group I’m in posted a late afternoon hike this past Friday, I was more than happy to do that. The weather didn’t look promising, but there’s no such thing as bad weather — just the wrong clothes. As long as it kept me from being bombarded with reminders of Black Friday, I would’ve hiked in a storm.

This came right after a Zoom session about the role of walking as a spiritual practice. It was a really enjoyable discussion, and I was intrigued by the number of different roles it seems to occupy for people. I never really gave walking much thought — it’s part of my spiritual practice, but not one I really had to devote brainspace to, if that makes sense. Some talked about entering a kind of flow state, where the walk itself was a way to disconnect from the body. For others, walking was the opposite — a chance to focus on mindful movement, and quiet the mind. It all depends on what you need from it. Will walking be an external practice, or an internal one?

For me, it’s always been a weird form of augury. I don’t want to use the phrase “connect with nature,” because I feel like the wellness movement has worn it pretty thin. Really, it’s a way to make friends, as long as your definition of “friends” is flexible enough to include fungi and holes in the ground. If I meet a lot of new friends, it’s a pleasant walk and a good omen. If I don’t, it isn’t.

It can be a more specific divinatory practice, too. I know it’s not uncommon for people experiencing a lot of synchronicities (angel numbers, and the like) to ask for a sign or some kind of answer. Asking for one, then going out for a walk to see what you get is a useful form of divination. It’s definitely easier than trying to find a haruspex in this day and age.

It’s also a gratitude practice for me. I’m not about to get all gratitude journal on you, but, after spending several years too sick and deconditioned to do much of anything, I feel like the best way to express thanks for still having a mostly-functioning body is to use it for stuff.

We started out by meeting up in a parking area near one of the picnic groves. (There are trails all over this area, so you can pretty much start walking in any direction and end up on one.) It was really good to finally meet some of the people I’d only be able to speak to on Zoom calls, and the hike itself wasn’t too tough — three miles start to finish, through trees that helped cut some of the blustery wind and whose leaves lit up like lanterns once the sun sank below the lead-colored clouds. The air was scented with the vaguely spicy smell of gently decaying leaves, and so cold that I could feel it like a razor every time I reached the top of a hill.

Which is exactly how I ended up having to stop and catch my breath a bunch of times, wrestling with my jacket to pull out the carton of warmish coconut water I’d kept snuggled against my chest like a newborn. Fortunately, I brought a bandana-style mask with me. It helped warm the air before I breathed it in, which made things a bit easier, and also allowed me to pretend to be normal while actually gasping like a malfunctioning Billy Bass.

The entire forest is slowed down for the cold seasons, so it wasn’t like hiking earlier in the year. While the moss was still green, it was confined to neat, short little mats without their long, almost eerie-looking spore capsules. There were no eyelash cups or jack-o-lantern mushrooms. I did spot some neat-looking shelf fungi, and scrambled down into a space under a fallen tree for a picture. Another branch held some tiny specimens that were so fine and woody, they almost looked like ruffled feathers.

We all made it to the end, just before sunset. The light had that “golden hour” magic going on, which turned the treetops and patches of sky into a stained-glass canopy and the fallen leaves into a blanket of gold and copper. There was a peaceful moment where we paused before leaving, to make offerings of water and close out the experience. My partner and I picked up tea and dinner, then headed home.

It was the longest uninterrupted hike I’d been able to do in years. It gave me a chance to push my limits a bit more, and feel the edge of where my endurance is now. I get winded and dizzy easier than I did before IH, but I did it, and I’m intensely happy and grateful.

A good walk, and a good sign.

Environment, Plants and Herbs

Aloeswood Folklore and Magical Properties

I always have a tough time writing this time of year — there’s just not much going on. This is especially true this year, for reasons I probably don’t have to elaborate on.

So, I did what I often do. Before I went to sleep, I asked for inspiration. Something to write about. Anything.

I had a dream of holding a piece of wood that wept golden tears. I held a flame to the raw, jagged edge of the wood, and it released a fragrance that I have trouble describing — woody, of course, but indescribably sweet, floral, and fruity. A mélange of beautiful scents that seemed to come together and complement each other in a way that even the most expert perfumer couldn’t hope to achieve. The dream was so vivid, I could almost feel the textures and scents still lingering in my senses when I woke up.

So today I’m gonna write a thing about aloeswood.

First, Aloeswood vs. Aloe

Aloeswood, also called agarwood, wood aloes, gharuwood, oud, or any number of other names, is not related to aloe vera. Aloe vera is a succulent in the Aloe genus. Aloeswood comes from trees of the Aquilaria genus. It also doesn’t have anything to do with agar, despite the name agarwood. Agar is the jelly stuff used in petri dishes, and is extracted from algae. (It might have sheep or horse’s blood added depending on what microorganisms are being cultured, but no Aquilaria.) Their similar names are just one of those quirks of etymology.

Aquilaria wood does not automatically equate to aloeswood. For the wood of an Aquilaria tree to become aloeswood, it needs to be injured somehow — usually by a boring beetle that digs into its roots or trunk. This injury allows the tree to become infected by Phialophora parasitica, a parasitic fungus. In response, the tree produces a fragrant resin and darker, denser wood. This dark, dense, resin-saturated wood is aloeswood.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of dominoes that have to fall perfectly in place for wood to become aloeswood. First, you need the right kind of tree. Then it needs to get all bit up by a beetle. Then it has to get infected. Then the infection has to be serious enough to warrant a large-scale immune response by the tree. Trees can’t produce aloeswood on a continuous basis, either — it comes from plants that are infected and dying.

It’s probably not hugely surprising that aloeswood is extremely rare. It’s also incredibly expensive. Part of this rarity is due to overharvesting (which is also not surprising), but habitat loss is also a contributing factor. Some varieties of aloeswood are illegal to sell because they come from endangered trees, which has increased the rarity — and therefore desirability — of the stuff that does make it to market.

Sometimes, you can find less expensive aloeswood. This is usually a product of deliberately injuring and infecting trees with fungus. It is also generally not as fragrant or desirable as the naturally-formed variety, and is given a different grade. Natural aloeswood is designated with a #1. Cultures aloeswood is designated with a #2.

Aloeswood Magical Uses and Folklore

Aloeswood is so precious, particular specimens have actually achieved fame. The Ranjatai is the most notable. Its full history is a bit long to get into here, but this particular piece of aloeswood has even shown up in popular culture. Two episodes of the anime series Mononoke (which is visually gorgeous and definitely worth watching) focus on it.

This incense is referred to in ancient Vedic texts for its physical and mental healing properties. Some Ayurvedic medicine for cough and difficulty breathing calls for blending agar powder with honey. When the wood is distilled into oil, the resulting hydrosol is an antacid. A tea made from the leaves — not the wood itself — is said to be very nutritious, relaxing, and helpful for managing blood sugar.

Aloeswood’s scent is said to be an aphrodisiac, and it is included in traditional sexual tonics. Burning a tiny bit on charcoal during sex is believed to improve performance for everyone involved.

In Islam, oud is traditional. It has also been used in Buddhist practices, Christian meditation, and Zoroastrian rituals. It is a spiritually uplifting aroma that releases negativity, soothes stress, raises vibrations, and brings healing.

In ancient Egyptian and Semitic practices, it was used to prepare bodies for burial.

Aloeswood is considered to be ruled by Mars or Jupiter, depending on whom you ask. In western magic practice, it’s generally held to be akin to a “power herb” (like many herbs of Jupiter) and used for boosting the power of any working in which it is used. In the Key of Solomon, is it used to summon good spirits.

Using Aloeswood

Considering its history and primary virtues, using aloeswood in any way that doesn’t allow the practitioner to experience its scent would be a waste. High-grade aloeswood can even release its fragrance through indirect heating, and doesn’t need to be burned completely.

If I were in possession of aloeswood, I wouldn’t add it to anything. As part of an incense burning ritual, I would place a small amount on charcoal, by itself, prior to burning any other incense. Only when the scent has dissipated would I burn anything else. This allows the aloeswood’s full potential to be released, and lets you take advantage of its space-clearing and energy-enhancing powers.

Some modern perfumes contain aloeswood, like Tom Ford’s Oud Wood. These could make a suitable scent for anointing during ritual or meditation.

Aloeswood is a rare, treasured thing, more valuable than gold. It has been regarded as sacred by virtually every civilization that experienced its fragrance — out of a sick, dying tree comes a precious, fragrant wood.

Like sandalwood, this sacred wood is in danger. Ethically-harvested, regulated sources of aloeswood command high prices, but they’re worth it. It would be wrong to obtain a sacred scent through environmentally harmful means. Just like crystals, bones, sandalwood, or any other magical ingredient, make sure your aloeswood comes from ethical sources.