life, Plants and Herbs

Quantity: 15 (or, I will be eating strawberries until I die. Possibly of strawberries.)

We’re officially past our last expected frost date here, so I’ve been having Notions about making the balcony all fancy.

I started with two railing planters od garden sage, calendula, basil, and dill. While our spot doesn’t exactly get full sun, it gets several hours of direct sunlight in the afternoon, so these seemed like a suitable experiment. After all, I figured, if they don’t thrive out on the balcony, I can move them to my south-facing windows.

I also moved my hanging plant stand out there, and festooned it with mosquito plants, snapdragons, and pansies. We even got a small cherry tomato planter, some lettuce, and a raspberry bush.

Oh. And strawberries.

I had an idea that I thought would be neat — I could use a terracotta strawberry pot, plant it all around with strawberry starts, and put a vining plant at the top. I could train it to grow using the balcony as support, and it’ll look neat. I wasn’t really able to find a suitable plant with a vining habit, so I went with some crookneck squash in the end. I was able to find some strawberry starts, so I picked three different varieties and trucked them home, excited and ready to get my hands in some dirt.

The thing is, there are a couple of different ways that plant starts are sold. When we went to Home Depot, they had tons of individual Burpee starts in little dark green pots. When we went to the independent garden store, they had starts in white square packages. They were about the same circumference as the Burpee pots, so I figured the only difference was branding.

I’m going to pause for a moment to mention that I was also wearing a brand-new pair of glasses, which I feel may not be quite the correct prescription.

Anyhow, this is how I ended up with 47 strawberry plants.
I did not need or want 47 strawberry plants.
I have no idea what I’m going to do with 47 plants’ worth of strawberries.

Once I got the starts home and got a better look at the packaging, my stomach dropped into my knees. I pressed every spare container I could into service — old planter liners, spaghetti sauce jars, cartons, some terracotta pots I’d been planning to use for another project, you name it.

A windowsill filled with terracotta pots of tiny strawberry plants.
This is my bedroom windowsill, and also every other horizontal surface that gets basically any sunlight.

My balcony is covered in strawberries. My windows are covered in strawberries. I have strawberries growing in the fancy-pants greenhouse cabinet in my partner’s office. I wake up to strawberry plants. I trip over strawberry plants. I have yet to find anyone who wants spare strawberry plants.

A gif from Forrest Gump. "There's pineapple shrimp and lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp..."

They are the first things I see in the morning, and the last I see at night. I’ve been looking up recipes for pies, jams, sauces, salads, and brews. I’ve been hunting for reusable multi-gallon freezer bags. I’ve been researching deities who enjoy strawberries as offerings, in the hopes that I might be able to unload some of them like an overly friendly neighbor with too much zucchini.

It’s been about a week, and they’re flowering and thriving. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t have the heart to just toss them, and, like I said, I don’t know anyone who wants them. I wouldn’t know how to ship them even if I did.

An image entirely filled with strawberries. Nothing else is visible.
An artist’s rendition of my life for the foreseeable future.

I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m going to get very tired of strawberries in the near future.

life, Plants and Herbs

Reskilling: Learning to Brew (and how it almost shot my partner)

Hello!

I haven’t updated in a while — it hasn’t been for lack of material, either. As we move into spring, I’ve been working on planting my balcony, developing new skills, and seeking out more connections. It’s the time of year for planting seeds in the anticipation for growth, and I feel it.

Anyway. You’re probably wondering about the title, so here goes: I’ve been making tibicos, also known as water kefir. This is a kind of probiotic beverage that’s made from granules that naturally develop on Opuntia cacti. These are essentially a SCOBY, kind of like kombucha, in a sort of gummy polysaccharide matrix. The balance of bacteria and yeast is quite a bit different, however, yielding an end product with a very different taste and bouquet of probiotics. Also, unlike kombucha, water kefir grains form little clear to beige squishy lumps instead of a mushroomlike “pancake.”

So, the process of making water kefir goes like this:

  1. Boil some filtered water.
  2. Add sugar. I usually use a half cup or so for a half gallon jar.
  3. Make sure the sugar’s dissolved.
  4. Let it cool.
  5. Add the kefir grains.
  6. Cover the jar with a piece of cloth or loose-fitting lid.
  7. Wait 36-48 hours.
  8. Strain the liquid into a bottle (save the strained-out kefir grains).
  9. Add juice, crushed fruit, spices, or whatever you want the final flavor to be.
  10. Cover the bottle with a cap, or one of those fancy swing-top corky deals.
  11. Let it sit on the counter for another 24 hours. Burp it occasionally.
  12. Put it in the fridge.
  13. Enjoy.

Note the part that says “burp it occasionally” in bold letters. This is extremely important.

I’ve been working with a flavor blend that my partner and I really like. It’s about a half-cup to a cup of tart cherry juice and a cinnamon stick, in a 32-ounce swing-top fermentation bottle. There’s only one problem: It’s been very warm here, and cherry juice has a lot of sugar.

Even if you’re watching your sugar intake, the sugar content of water kefir is kind of the opposite of a problem. The fermentation agents in the grains break almost all of it down and produce CO2, a bit of alcohol, and more of themselves. In the end, you get something that’s fizzy, very slightly alcoholic, and flavorful, without being too sweet. The warmer the environment, the faster the bacteria work.

That is, if you get the ratio of juice to water kefir right for that second fermentation. And if, as I said, you burp the bottles regularly. Otherwise, you’ll get something that’s fizzy, alcoholic enough to peel paint, flavorful, not too sweet, and capable of detonating your entire kitchen and giving anyone in the room with you a traumatic brain injury.

I know this all sounds like hyperbole. I cannot emphasize enough to you how much it is not.

I popped that swing top off, and the force of the gas (from a bottle that I’d already burped a few hours ago) was enough to blow the wired-on top completely off, ricochet it off of the cabinet and into another room, and soak the ceiling in a geyser of cherry and cinnamon water kefir. I stood there in shock, holding the now half-empty bottle, while a sticky red rain fell around me. My partner, who very narrowly avoided having a wire and rubber bottle top embedded in his left temple, was in a similar state. It took a minute for the adrenaline rush to calm down, and I hope the probiotic benefits are enough to make up for the eight years the experience shaved off of our lives.

As it turns out, uncorking things can be way more dangerous than you’d think.

Anyhow, we poured out two glasses of what was left, and it was delicious. I think the fact that it was just this side of moonshine also helped calm us down a bit, which was a plus.

(Fortunately, I’ve gotten my better-ratio-of-juice-and-burping-the-bottles-often together since then, and no longer produce things that could conceivably be used to rob a bank.)

I’ve also made another version, where the water kefir grains feed on brown sugar for their first ferment. I add some lemon juice, ginger, and cinnamon for the second, and the end result is a very tasty ginger ale with just a tiny bit of sweetness. Since I have my process more or less nailed down at this point, I’m also working on adding herbs and fruits for various intentions to make drinkable potions.

Though I’m limited by space, I have a long list of skills I’d like to rediscover and build upon. Hopefully none of the others produce ersatz explosive devices.

life, Plants and Herbs

The Sludge of Immortality

I’ve developed a concoction.

I don’t have any of the right letters after my name to do so, or reams of scientific papers to justify this particular blending of ingredients. I can’t even claim to follow the doctrine of signatures — in most cases, I ask a question before sleeping, and wake with the answer in my ear as if whispered there by some helpful spirit who doesn’t really understand personal space.

Either way, I’ve found that this is good enough to take the place of any meal. I have it for breakfast nearly every day, but it’s also stood in for lunch or a light dinner on occasion. Once mixed, it tastes almost like a virgin Bloody Mary. It also makes my various component parts happy.

You will need:

  • 8 ounces of good vegetable juice. Store-bought is fine, but choose one without added salt.
  • 2 tablespoons of chia seeds.
  • 20 grams of hydrolyzed collagen.
  • A heaping quarter teaspoon of ground turmeric root.
  • Several generous dashes of black pepper.
  • Approximately 75 drops of tincture of dandelion leaf.
  • 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar.
  • Horseradish, to taste.
  • A glass or jar.
  • A fork.

Put the chia seeds into a cup or jar first. Add the collagen powder, turmeric, and pepper, and stir well with a fork to combine. (This will evenly distribute the seeds through the various powders and keep them from clumping later.) Pour in the vegetable juice, add the vinegar and horseradish (if applicable) and stir very well. The longer you wait, the thicker it’ll become courtesy of the chia seeds. Drink.

It’s filling, high-fiber, and, courtesy of the seeds and collagen, relatively high in amino acids. Collagen supposedly keeps the skin young-looking and elastic, but this depends entirely on what type of collagen you use. Turmeric is said to help with inflammation, while black pepper potentiates the compounds in turmeric. Dandelion leaf is a bitter herb that acts as a mild diuretic and digestive tonic. Vegetable juice is (generally) high in potassium and various anti-inflammatory compounds. Apple cider vinegar is said to help with digestion, blood sugar levels, and inflammation, and all kinds of things. Horseradish is delicious.

It comes out to about $1.99 per serving — this will, of course, vary depending on where you buy your ingredients. (You can save money by preparing your own dandelion tincture, as long as you know the dandelions you use haven’t been sprayed with anything.) Best of all, every calorie in it comes with side benefits. They provide energy, but, unlike “empty calories” from very refined carbohydrates, come with a pile of proteins, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and so forth.

Will this lead to immortality? I can’t be sure, but it does make me feel better. All I can say is: So far, so good.

Neodruidry, Plants and Herbs, Witchcraft

Spruce Folklore and Magical Properties

I’m finally moved, and luckily settled in to a place that my partner and I absolutely love. Seriously — we decided against buying a house right now (it’s very much a seller’s market), and it’s going to take a very special house to get me out of here once we are ready to buy. There are lots of very lovely trees around, from neighborhoods full of crape myrtle and magnolias, to a Kousa dogwood whose fruits tempt me every time I walk past it. (I always have to tell myself no, it’s part of the landscaping, not really owned by anyone in particular, and there’s no way to tell what it’s been treated with.)

My favorite, however, is a big blue spruce.

It has a weeping growth habit, so its massive branches of smoky blue needles hang dramatically. It has a really cool energy, too — not necessarily the “loving, supportive, enlightened” feeling a lot of herbal energy guides point to, more like a very old and wise thing who is also very curious about the tiny things around it. I get a gentle amusement from it. It even has a natural face in the bark. I love it.

How to Tell a Spruce vs. Pine vs. Fir

First, the big question: What kind of tree are you looking at? All of these species fall under the general category of conifers, meaning that they are cone-bearing seed plants. Spruce, pine, and fir all produce needles, too, which can make identification tricky from afar. Fortunately, there’s a pretty easy way to tell.

Pine

Are the needles long, thin, and sprout from a single spot in groups? You’re looking at a pine.

Fir

Are the needles short and flat? Pick one up (there’ll probably be plenty shed on the ground) and pinch it between your index finger and thumb. Does it roll easily? If the answer’s no, then you’ve got yourself a fir.

Spruce

Are the needles similar to fir needles, but have a square cross-section instead of a flat one? Try rolling them between your index finger and thumb. If they roll, that’s a spruce.

Spruce Magical Uses and Folklore

In western Sweden, researchers have found a spruce that may be the world’s oldest living tree. It’s nearly ten thousand years old, and has survived by cloning itself via layering.

According to the Hopi people, the spruce was once a medicine man who turned himself into a tree. It’s a sacred plant.

To the A’â’tam, the father and mother of humanity escaped a flood by floating in a ball of spruce pitch.

Northern Algonquian people used it to prevent illness.

One source indicates that blue spruce is a symbol of pure intentions, while, in a more general sense, spruces represent generosity, enlightenment, protection, healing, and intuition.

Using Spruce

Just befriend one. It’s both easier and more difficult than it sounds.

Trees are individuals, so the easiest way to tell if you’re barking up the wrong tree (ha ha) is by sitting near one. They have natural ways to mount a defense against creatures they don’t want around them, so see if you end up covered in ants, breaking out in a rash, or otherwise having a bad time. That’s a sign that this tree doesn’t want to be friends — at least not yet.

On the other hand, if you’re sitting by a tree and smell a sweet fragrance, maybe feel a gentle breeze and the sun on your face, hear the birds singing, get a sense of comfort and acceptance, and otherwise generally feel good, this tree might want to get to know you.

Once you’ve found a tree to be friends with, look at it. Look at it from afar, and examine the bark close up. Let your pareidolia take over, and see what features you can see in the bark. The tree might choose to show you its face to make it easier for the two of you to connect. After all, it’s easier to converse when you can see the other party’s face, right?

Talk to the tree. It doesn’t have to be out loud. Hang out. Make it little offerings, like fresh water or an interesting (and plant-safe) rock. Remember, this is a friendship — do small things to show you’re thinking of it, and don’t forget that, sometimes, the best gift you can give is your time.

The relationships you forge in the natural world are part of the foundation of magic. You’ve gotta learn to speak the language if you’re going to try to ask for help.

You can also consume spruce buds, as long as you’re sure the tree hasn’t been exposed to a systemic pesticide, industrial runoff, or car exhaust. Spruce buds are high in vitamin C, and have been used for tea, in syrup, and even to make a beer to sustain sailors over long voyages. You can also eat the young buds directly, if you’re into that.

Spruce trees are beautiful things native to the northern regions of the world. I can’t speak for all of them, but the ones I’ve known have been very nice to work with, even if that “work” is just sitting and exchanging energy for a time. If you don’t live in an area with native spruce trees, and you’d like to work with them, consider using spruce bud tea or syrup to experience some of their power.

Blog, life, Plants and Herbs

The Winding Skyline Drive

I didn’t think much when I posted a picture of a cool rock. (It was columnar basalt, which always reminds me of some surreal, alien landscape out of Kenshi.)

“Hey,” a friend replied in not-those-exact words, “There’s a neat example of that not too far from us.”

“Oh sweet,” I approximately replied, “Where?”

And so that was how my partner and I ended up loaded with snacks and music, navigating our way down a gorgeous scenic drive through Shenandoah National Park. When I say scenic, I’m not messing around, either — it was gorgeous, the kind of beauty that pictures can’t really do justice.

Of course, we tried anyhow.

You know how when the landscape is uninterrupted for far enough, you can see the way the hills fade to blue in the distance, and the shadows of the clouds moving over them? I live for that.

We even stopped for a bit of a hike at Compton Gap, where the columnar basalt was. The entrance to the trail showed a picture of it, but we weren’t able to find the specimen itself — the trail branched, and I think we ended up taking the wrong fork. Not that I minded at all. The air was fresh and sweet, the trail was quiet save for the song of birds and bugs, and everything was a fresh, deep green so intense, it almost didn’t seem real.

There was a small mushroom friend (a Russula, I think), bright orange trumpet creeper, and some very busy insect buddies — including a spicebush swallowtail and an American bumble bee!

The drive was long enough that we were in the midst of golden hour on our way back. The sun painted the clouds shades of pink and lavender, and the light took on that warm, comforting, well… golden tone. We paused at all of the overlooks to soak it up, relishing the warmth radiating from the granite rocks, and the cool, fresh breezes all around.

We’re planning on going back in the autumn, when the leaves start to change. It should be amazing!

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.

Blog, life, Plants and Herbs

In the conifers.

As much as I love cypress trees literally any time of year, November to early December is my favorite time for them.

Why?

Because they make everything smell fantastic.

Bald cypress trees turn orange and shed their needles in autumn to early winter — as I write this, most of the ones here are, indeed, impressively bald. The result is a carpet of needles mingled with sticky, resinous cones.

The cones are particularly interesting to me. They start out as small, hard green buds. Sometimes you can find them on the ground as early as October, but they don’t really ripen for another month after that. Then, they expand and become almost crumbly, their scaly surfaces separating and falling apart to reveal the fragrant seeds inside. That’s when it’s really nice to find a stand of them and pick up a few from the ground. I live for the smell of the rich, autumn soil, the earthy-spicy-sweet smell of decaying leaves, and the fresh, piney, almost citrusy scent of cypress resin. If I can meet some mushrooms or a neat patch of lichen on the same trip, I’m ecstatic.

(I’m a pretty easy organism to please, all told. I’m pretty much a beetle with different ideas.)

We went and gathered a few cones not long ago. I keep a small jar of them on my altar, right next to a bald cypress knee. The seeds, I sneak into various concoctions — nothing ingestible, though. While cypress trees are generally not considered poisonous, they’re not edible, either. It’s a bit of a bummer, if you ask me. I’d love to be able to have it as a twist on pine tip tea.

After that, we took a trip to the arboretum. Naturally, there’s not much to see this time of year — the flowering dogwoods are not, the lilac is long since asleep, and the oaks and maples are skeletal — but there’s a kind of architectural beauty to a lot of the bare trees. Now is when they get to show off colors and patterns in their bark, the strange, Escher-like twists of their branches, and all of the other things leaves hide in spring and summer.

Most of the conifers, of course, are still going strong. I met a Norway spruce that I found especially pretty — I hadn’t realized that their immature buds look like flowers before, their papery brown petals unfolding like tiny roses.

It wasn’t late when we arrived, but this time of year, the early sunset and angle of the planet slants the sunlight in a way that makes everything look almost surreal. It’s a cold beauty, but I love it.

crystals, Neodruidry, Plants and Herbs, Witchcraft

7 Ways to Set Up a Pet-Proof Altar

Let me preface this by saying that I love my cats. I do. But one of them has an odd obsession with getting into any plant that’s within reach (and several that aren’t), and the other will hurl things and scream if one of us fails to sit on the kitchen floor with him in the morning. I don’t know why this is, but it’s the reality of the situation.

Anyway, as you can probably tell, this makes setting up and maintaining a home altar somewhat… challenging, shall we say. Not only do I not want my altar disturbed, I also don’t want to have to worry about someone eating something they shouldn’t. So, here’s how I keep everyone (and everything) safe:

Train Your Cats to- hahahahahaha

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Couldn’t finish that thought with a straight face, either.

She might be your familiar, but that doesn’t mean she cares about your stuff.

Choose Portable Altar Decor (But a Permanent Space)

In my opinion, part of an altar’s power is in its presence even when it isn’t being used. Some of that is lost when you have to set up and take down your altar every time you need it, but that doesn’t make a portable altar any less beautiful or meaningful.

If you do have to go the portable route, however, I’d recommend keeping a dedicated altar space. Even if you can’t have food offerings out without your dog getting into them, or your cat tries to knock over all of your statuary, you can still have a specific space that’s only used for your temporary altar. Get a nice accent table and cover it with a cloth. Set it with a good-sized crystal or a vase of flowers (if your animal companions will allow for it). Save the other altar tools and decorations for when you’re actually performing a working, but keep that space as a designated altar even when it isn’t in use.

Use a Drawer

One of the best ways I’ve found to avoid my felines’ penchant for destruction is to choose a table with a nice, deep drawer, and set up an altar in that. You can still have a permanent space, and all you have to do is pull the drawer open to get to work.

Remember to close it gently, though — you’ll keep your altar tools and decorations from rattling and knocking around that way.

Use the Floor

If having things knocked over is your primary concern, why not just put them on the floor to begin with? The fact is, having chairs and tables so far from the floor isn’t a universal thing — plenty of cultures around the world use low tables, floor cushions, or nothing at all.

Designate a space for a floor altar. Set it with a small accent rug and your altar supplies. Place a comfy floor pillow in front of it, and you’re golden.

Use the Outdoors

If your interior space is too thoroughly dominated by your four-legged roommates, consider working outside. It’s a bit less convenient if the weather’s bad, but outdoor altars are beautiful, functional, and, if you work closely with your local nature spirits, immensely powerful.

The only tip I’d offer here is to choose altar decorations that are resistant to walking away. Expensive statues might disappear on you, and shiny crystals may prove irresistible to the local bird population. Materials that aren’t durable enough might end up a bit worse for wear after a few rainstorms and a couple of rounds of sun bleaching, too. Largish stones, garden statuary, candles, and — of course — plants are inconspicuous, not likely to disappear, and can handle being outside.

Watch the Center of Gravity

Few things are as nerve-wracking as a tall, lit candle. This is especially true when that candle is in the same room as a cat. If candles are part of your practice, make sure to invest in some good, heavy candle holders. If you can make sure your candles are sufficiently bottom-heavy, they’ll be less likely to tip over easily. For this reason, I also recommend tealights and jar candles over, say, long, fancy tapers.

The same is true of any statuary or other decorations. Avoid choosing items that have a high center of gravity, because they’re much more likely to tip over if, for example, a very zealous boxer puppy wags his tail too close to your altar.

Invest in Some Museum Wax

Museum wax is what helps keep museum displays in place. It comes in several types, from an opaque, gummy material to one more like clear dental wax, and can help things stay stationary if they get bumped. The only caveat here is that it doesn’t work on an altar cloth — museum wax provides a tacky surface between two smooth finishes, so it won’t really help to keep your statues in place on top of fabric.

Know Your Poisons (They May Not Be What You Think)

So, we probably all know not to let our pets get into toxic herbs or houseplants. The ASPCA has a good list of plants that can trigger adverse reactions.

I remember watching a video by a crystal worker a few years ago. In it, they mentioned being guided by their intuition to charge a piece of cinnabar(!) using fire(!!). The reason I mention this is that, sometimes, the list of things we know we should keep away from our pets isn’t as long as it ought to be.

For example, cinnabar is an ore of mercury. Some specimens even have droplets of mercury on or in them. Metallic mercury is, itself, not that toxic — organic mercury compounds are far more dangerous — but inhaling heated mercury vapor is a super bad idea. Honestly, you shouldn’t even really handle cinnabar or wear it next to your skin. If you want to work with it, use gloves, keep it in a glass container, and definitely don’t let your pets touch, lick, or play with it. Definitely definitely don’t heat it up.

Some other gemstones contain toxic materials, like lead, arsenic, or antimony.

Plants and mineral specimens aren’t the only sources of a potential poisoning, either. Some pottery — particularly very old or inexpensive stuff — may not be food safe. This means that its paint or glaze can contain toxic minerals that might leach out if you use it to cook with or eat from. While this isn’t usually a super serious concern for altar tools, it can be if you have a pet who tries to sneak a drink out of your altar’s water vessel or steal your food offerings!

The bottom line is, it’s important to know what goes on your altar. If you have pets, it’s equally important to assume that everything is going to end up on the floor or in someone’s mouth eventually.

Environment, life, Plants and Herbs

Sharks’ Eyes and Poison Orange

Some parts of DC are weird.

I mean, some parts of everywhere are weird, don’t get me wrong. Where I grew up, our favorite activity was spelunking in the sewers (I found a stray femur and was almost eaten by geese). When I lived in Delaware, it took me a bit to get used to the way the landscape was broken up — apartment complex, forest, strip mall, pasture, wetlands, wetlands, wetlands, city. In California, the neighborhood was a very tiny island in the middle of fields and pastures. Sometimes, you’d wake up and see all of the puddles shimmering strangely with whatever the crop dusters were spraying the day before. At night, even without seeing any cows for miles, you’d hear their eldritch moos as if they were right in the yard. The songs of coyotes carried for untold distances. Uncanny-valley strangers would come and knock on your door, ask to borrow things, and disappear. It had a very Southern Gothic atmosphere, especially for a place that was emphatically neither.

DC is weird in its own way. I love it here, and there are some extremely cool places and people. The architecture is gorgeous, and you can find some very lovely Victorian-style houses and unexpected details. Still, there are plenty of other areas here that I try to avoid if there’s any way to help it.

This was one of those.

My partner and I were picking up food at this place we found at the beginning of COVID — a little pricey, but they’ve got the best damned catfish po’boy and blackberry shortcake I’ve ever had. (I’d drop the name, but the location is called four different things depending on whether you go there on foot, find it via Google Maps, read their bags, or try to order through a delivery app. Like I said, weird.)

It’s situated in an area that, not unlike the rest of the city, combines historical architecture with modern touches. The thing is, where other areas of DC seem to give the impression that this is done out of necessity, or to fulfill actual human needs, this seems almost malicious. Concrete angel faces stare mutely out over doorways to imposing office and municipal buildings, expressions framed in equally-stony olive branches. At street level, there are stores — jewelers, Nordstrom Rack, a seemingly impossible number of Starbucks cafés — with large, thoroughly modern plate glass windows with the dead, flat gleam of sharks’ eyes.

There’s something about it that strikes me as very calculated. There’s a cultivated air of diversity here, but the kind of diversity that wouldn’t welcome anything that wasn’t a high-end department store, a Starbucks, or an eatery capable of suiting a very narrowly defined sensibility. Some of it is very pretty, but stifling, almost.

On the sidewalks, people sit too close together at outdoor tables. A maskless couple walk by, pushing a leather-clad baby carriage that mommyblogs say could pay a month of my neighbors’ rent.

People live here, too, but everything feels aggressively tailored to those who work here instead. I don’t think they’re the same population. Thinking about it too much makes my teeth itch.

I need to get the fuck out of here,” I whisper-hiss to my partner, “Because I’ve got maybe ten minutes before this place turns me into an anprim.”

I wonder if this is how fireflies feel when you put them in a mason jar with a stick and a leaf.

Fortunately, getting elsewhere only takes about ten minutes. It might be a strange byproduct of this one self-hypnosis program I sort-of-kind-of-maybe did wrong a few years ago, but the sight of the color green makes my nerves finally start to unknot themselves.

We park and walk a ways. I know my food’s getting cold, but I don’t really care. I take big breaths — there’s smoke coming from somewhere, and it tinges the smell of soil, gently decaying leaves, and damp wood with an earthy sweetness.

We find a picnic table. I always eat fast, but today I manage to finish before my partner’s done unpacking.

“Okay! Gonna go climb on that tree and look for friends!”

He’s grown used to this. I think you kind of have to, after awhile — it’s something that seems pretty firmly baked-in to me. I’m told that when I was very little, maybe four, we had some kind of family function at a beach. My dad says he heard me walking around making tiny proclamations: “Anyone who wants to go find bentures, follow me!” (Then I disappeared into some trees for awhile and he had to peel me off of a sheer clay cliff face, but that’s another story.)

When I was dating one ex-partner, it was a near-constant bone of contention that he never wanted to go exploring with me. I ended up having a lot of adventures with my dog, including finding a broken wooden footbridge that led to nowhere, covered in graffiti that dated back to the ’40s. (I’m almost positive it was Extremely Haunted.)

After that, another ex-partner used to give me survival equipment for every holiday. They figured the odds were pretty good that I’d end up disappearing into the woods some day, and they wanted to hedge their bets on me coming back alive eventually.

In short, I think most of my loved ones throughout history have adapted to the idea of probably seeing me show up on the internet after being mistaken for some kind of pygmy sasquatch.

There’s so much moss. Damp and feathery, sporophytes reaching up on stalks like delicate red threads. I could probably photograph it all day, to be honest — the structures are so beautifully complex when you get close enough.

My partner comes to join me, so we can look for mushy boys.

Some type of Mycena builds a tiny cathedral in a fallen tree. I find another type growing from a separate tree, its cap an almost ghostly translucent white. It’s the only one there, and I don’t have the heart to touch it, see what color it bruises, or try to take a specimen for a spore print.

“Oh, hey,” my partner points to a dead stump. I make a kind of excited pterodactyl noise and get on my stomach for pictures. I haven’t seen jack-o-lantern mushrooms before, but their intense “fuck off” orange and fine, deeply-ridged gills are weirdly, poisonously beautiful.

I can see why they’re often mistaken for chanterelles, though it makes me wonder what came first. Did the chanterelle grow to resemble the false chanterelle and jack-o-lantern mushrooms because it kept it from being eaten, or was it a case of convergent evolution?

It strikes me with some irony that I feel better about poisonous mushrooms than I do about the “Welcome” sign in a shop. Warning orange is easier to look at than shark-eyed windows, I guess.

life, Plants and Herbs

New Leaves and a Public Universal Friend

We went to one of my favorite places in the whole city: Ginkgo Gardens. (It is not, however, my wallet’s favorite place. I never manage to leave there without at least a hundo in plant friends, pots, or sculpture. Whoops!)

Even though my window plant shelf is pretty full, my Calathea is doing so well that I wanted to find it a few buddies to fill out some empty spaces on the etagere next to my desk. Right now, it’s mostly occupied by picture frames and whatever oils I’ve set to infuse at the moment — it could definitely benefit from the acquisition of some new plants.

And oh boy, acquire I did!

It was rainy, but that’s okay. Rain always gives me a headache and makes it a bit tougher to get around, but I ain’t made of sugar. A little misting won’t keep me home!

I could probably spend all day walking around their outdoor area. It’s not large, but it’s packed with the most beautiful stuff. (Also, I thought the masks on the statues near the entrance was a tiny bit of brilliance.)

In the end, we came home with several treasures: a Pilea, a Calathea, a Maranta, an Asplenium (you know how much I love ferns), and a Tillandsia. I also found a lovely little brass pot tucked away on a shelf…

And this guy.

When my partner and I saw it, we both went, “Oh, whoa.”

“A Friend,” I declared.

He agreed, and we immediately set about figuring out which plant made for the superior hairstyle.

The Pilea won, hands down.

After calling it a Friend, I couldn’t really think of a suitable name. (I’m terrible at naming things, so this didn’t exactly come as a surprise.) I figured Public Universal Friend was as good a name as any!

Here’s hoping the weather is treating you well, and there are many small, green buddies in your future.

This image is the cover of the folk album I am never going to make.