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.
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.)
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.
If you go on an allergy diet, you do it by eliminating common allergens, then re-introducing them one at a time over a period of weeks. This lets you figure out exactly what you’re reacting to, and how.
If you have sensitive skin, you probably also know not to add a lot of new products to your routine all at once. You add them one at a time, with space in between, so you can see how your skin responds.
If you have environmental allergies, it’s a bit trickier. When you move to a new place, you can’t really add in new allergens one at a time — your neighbors have flowers, and grass, and trees, and there are even new microorganisms to contend with.
So, when my partner was sniffling, sneezing, and miserable, it was hard to figure out what was causing it. He’d had an allergy test years ago, but no longer had the results. With so many new trees (and far more of them), there was no way to really tell what was making him feel so bad.
“Hey,” he called out to me, “What’s ‘Alternaria’?”
Alternaria. It sounded familiar.
“It rings a bell, but I’m not sure. Why, what’s up?”
“I found my old allergy test, and I was off the charts for that.”
Huh. It certainly seemed worth looking up, so I did. Fortunately, Microscope Master had some useful inf-
But that’s okay. I have another weapon up my sleeve. One they’ll never see coming.
I’m very much against using plastic where it isn’t absolutely necessary. Part of the reason we initially chose to use a tarp was because we could use it for other things afterward, so it wouldn’t be single use. Fortunately, we were able to find some heavy-duty clear plastic sheeting that, while absolutely not ideal, I will use elsewhere after pressing it into service for grassassination. Glass would be better, of course, but is in no way practical. We considered layering the whole yard in paper, cardboard, and compost, but that wasn’t practical either (and a lot of soil amendments contain ingredients that aren’t sustainably harvested, like peat). Renting a sod cutter, or calling out a service to peel off the grass for us, was too expensive. We’d also probably have to replace the topsoil that’d be stripped away by the grass’ roots, which would be expensive and require many single use plastic bags.
I mean, I already feel like I’m being The Worst Druid by killing this lawn in the first place. The end result with be worth it, but the whole series of events feels very, I don’t know… Machiavellian. Still, a grass lawn represents a lot of waste (and wasted potential). I console myself with pictures of lush violets, wild ginger, and partridgeberries.
Anyhow. Clear coverings inhibit the growth of fungi by allowing more light to pass through. They still inhibit photosynthesis, to a degree, and don’t trap quite as much heat as dark-colored ones do, but they work. They just take a little longer. And so, by the time you read this, I’ll be out wielding a mallet like Mjolnir, pounding giant staples into my lawn while cursing at the sludgy, dank mass of what used to be grass.
The lawn may have won the battle, but I shall win the war.
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.
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.
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.
Hello! I am writing this in between drying fruit and trying to explain to one of my cats that there is a very good reason why he isn’t allowed to eat the cacti, and that reason is not that I don’t want him to have any fun. This is a round up of stories and articles that I found interesting or inspiring, or just made me feel a little bit better about the state of things. I hope they can do the same for you:
A new battery design could last for an entire 100 years. Power storage has long been the bugbear of renewables. Coal and oil, unfortunately, have been mainstays for this reason — if you need more power, burn more. If you don’t, save it. While batteries and renewables have made enormous strides, these new designs could produce a battery that’s much more energy-dense than anything currently on the market.
The Chemistry of the Sun: Resolving a Decade-Long Controversy About the Composition of Our Star. Speaking of power sources — scientists have recently updated their ideas about the composition of the Sun. For a long time, ideas about the Sun’s internal structure and ideas about what the internal structure should be (based on how stars happen) have been somewhat in conflict. After all, the Sun is very hot, very far, and it’s not like we can just go grab a scoop of it to see what it’s made of. New calculations have resolved this conflict, and it turns out the Sun has a lot more oxygen, neon, and silicon than everyone figured.
Eat These Vegetables To Reduce Air Pollution Toxins in Your Body. Okay, I’m honestly very skeptical every time an article says you need some superfood in order to combat some vague notions about undefined “toxins.” These vegetables, however, have science behind them. As it turns out, apiaceous vegetables (think carrots and parsley) may provide a protective benefit against a specific toxin called acrolein, which is abundant in car exhaust, cigarette smoke, and other forms of air pollution. They can help reduce acrolein-based oxidative stress and signs of toxicity via the liver, since their phytonutrients help the body convert acrolein to a water-soluble, easily-excreted substance. Best of all, you don’t need much — based on researchers’ calculations, a cup or so a day may be enough.
“Superworms” Can Happily Eat Polystrene, Offering Help To Plastic Problem. This news isn’t super new — we’ve known for a bit that the larvae of darkling beetles can eat and process Styrofoam just fine. They have a special enzyme, courtesy of their intestinal flora, that allows them to break the stuff down and actually use it. Researchers have identified the genes that code for this enzyme, and have theorized that you could produce the enzyme itself and allow it to work on polystyrene directly, no worms needed.
(The only downside to using superworms for this is that they produce a lot of CO2 in the process. I’ve actually been refining a design that’d allow me to keep superworms in a tub under one of my plant cabinets, and use a small duct and fan to direct the CO2 into the cabinet itself to help with growth. It’s a bit of a slow process, and I’m still trying to figure out how to best dispose of the superworm waste. As far as I know, nobody’s really chemically analyzed superworm poots. If they don’t contain plastic residue, they could be composted. If they do, then disposing of the waste outdoors could introduce microplastics into the water and soil. Dilemma!)
Tribes Halt Major Copper Mine on Ancestral Lands in Arizona. The Tohono O’odham Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and Hopi Tribe, among others, managed to take a mining company to court and win. New technology (like the batteries mentioned above) requires minerals, but there are no reasons why those need to come from sacred ancestral ground.
This landmark decision further validates that Rosemont’s foreign owners have neither the legal right nor the valid mining claims for their proposed plan to destroy sacred sites beneath a mountain of poisonous mine waste[.] The ruling thoroughly dismantles the error-riddled process and reinforces the importance of protecting these sites and the entire region’s water supply. As decisive as this decision is, Rosemont’s foreign investors will likely continue to try and profit through environmental and cultural destruction. We must not allow this to happen.
How Building a Bee Hotel Can Help Protect Your Local Pollinators. A lot of buzz (ha) has been about protecting honeybees, but honeybees aren’t indigenous to the US. While a lot of our food supply has come to depend on trucked-in bees for pollination, that’s a whole other conversation about the problems inherent in monoculture. Unfortunately, native bees have been getting the short end of the stick for a long time. Many of them don’t live in hives and produce a ton of honey, so they’re largely ignored. Loss of habitat, pesticides, and the use of non-native plants in agriculture and landscaping have negatively impacted them. Building a bee hotel to provide a living and breeding space for these species can help.
Hello! I was going to make a post yesterday, but was forced to take a brief hiatus. Apparently racoons and possums can just show up and dig through people’s trash, but when I do it, it’s “trespassing” and I “need to put some pants on.” Ridiculous.
Anyhow, here is a small round up of news and articles I found interesting or inspiring, or just made me feel good:
Painting the Porch ‘Haint Blue’ Is a Great Way to Deter Wasps. Want to deter other sting-y bugs without harming bees? The answer may lie in a color called “Haint Blue.” Originally, the Gullah people used this color to deter ghosts and malevolent spirits from trying to enter the home, hence the name “haint” (“haunt”). As it turns out, it can confuse wasps too.
Scientists Discovered The World’s Largest Known Plant, And It’s Over 100 Miles Long. Seagrasses are one of those plants that can reproduce via rhizomes — by sending out specialized stems through their substrate that allow new leaves to emerge. These are all effectively clones of the parent plant. Recently, scientists discovered an absolute unit of a seagrass. While DNA testing individuals in a large deep-sea meadow, they made a surprising discovery: It was all the same plant!
Paper Constructions Confine Skeletons to Uncanny Spaces in Jason Limon’s Paintings. “The uncanny structures trap his recurring skeletal characters in cramped boxes and funhouse-esque constructions, where they attempt to disentangle themselves from their surroundings. Rendered in muted pigments, or what the artist calls “repressed tones,” the paintings utilize the anonymity and ubiquity of the bony figures to invoke emotional narratives.”
Rebelious Princess – Ana de Mendoza y de la Cerda, Princess of Éboli. While I was searching for medieval and Renaissance portraits to see what might have inspired the Isabellas, I came across the story of Princess Ana. She lost an eye, perhaps to a fencing accident, was widowed at a young age, had an affair with a king, entered a convent, decided it sucked, left the convent, was caught up in political intrigue, and eventually placed under house arrest — where she apologized for nothing, and, let’s be real, probably died with both middle fingers upraised. I love her.
329 years later, last Salem ‘witch’ is pardoned. A curious group of middle schoolers had taken up the cause of Elizabeth Johnson Jr., who had no descendants to clear her name. While Johnson wasn’t executed, neither was she pardoned — until now.
DC Spring Animal Sightings, Ranked From Worst to Wildest. DC might be a city, but some of the wildlife here is… well, wild. Here are the spring animal sightings, including a rabid fox with an appetite for congressmen, savage turkeys, an Assateague pony who was just being a bit of a dick, and a hungry bear in Silver Spring.
The news is bad, and I don’t think anybody’d blame you for thinking most things suck right now. To help, I’ve collected a bunch of articles I think are neat, interesting, inspiring, or just made me feel a little more optimistic. I hope they can be of use to you, too.
There was also a Striking New Species of Snake Discovered in Paraguay. Piggybacking on the above sentiment, I also love hearing about the discovery of new animals and plants. This one’s non-venomous, semi-subterranean, and very cute (if you’re into snakes, which I am)!
Is the world’s oldest tree growing in a ravine in Chile? According to some estimates, the Alerce Milenario (Fitzroya cupressoides) is over 5,000 years old. While some colonies of trees cloned from a single organism are older, this would make it the world’s oldest individual tree.
I love reading about OOPArts (out-of-place artifacts, or objects discovered in a place that doesn’t quite make sense for their origin in place and time), so I also really enjoyed Ancient technology that was centuries ahead of its time. While this tech isn’t exactly the same as OOPArts, they both make me wonder — what else did the ancients have that was lost to time? For example, the Land of Punt was a trading partner for ancient Egypt. Scholars at the time called it “God’s Land,” and wrote about trading ships laden with gold, frankincense, aromatic resins, exotic wood, and even more exotic animals. Unfortunately, they never really bothered to record its location, because why bother? I mean, everybody knew about Punt! There’s only one problem: Nobody really knows where it was anymore. It might have been Somalia, it could’ve been Libya, Eritrea, Sudan, or any number of other places. If history could let an entire kingdom slip, what else have we missed?
Anyhow, we bought a ton of hamburger buns for an event that ended up postponed, which means that we now have a ton of bread pudding (with extra cinnamon and loads of chocolate chips). I’m gonna go eat some. Have a good weekend!
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.
One of the really hecking sweet parts of having more physical endurance now is that places I already loved to go have opened up a lot more to me. Take Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, for one.
It’s a very quietly beautiful place most of the year, other than summer when the lotuses bloom in a sea of brilliant pink. It’s never very crowded, there are always plenty of places to sit, and you rarely hear people over the orchestra of insect calls and birdsong. Even the city traffic dulls to a low, forgettable roar in the background.
Even though the gardens are arguably at their best in summer, I like them the most in autumn. My favorite part of them isn’t the lotuses, really (though I have a certain appreciation for their alien-looking pods), it’s the bald cypress trees.
I love bald cypress trees. They’re my favorite tree. I love their scent (I once knelt down to take a picture of one, and ended up ruining a good pair of jeans by permanently staining the knees green. I felt embarrassed afterward, like a child ruining a set of school clothes on the playground, but sweet, fresh smell of crushed cypress needles was almost worth it). I love the way their needles turn brilliant orange in autumn. I love that they’re one of the few weirdo conifers that actually loses their needles in winter. I love the way they grow, in the liminal space between land and water. I love their alien-looking knees — mistaken for people, animals, and even monsters once they get large enough.
Anyway, before I launch into another paean to bald cypress trees, all of this is to say that we took a long walk in the park and it was pretty nice. The boardwalk is especially pretty this time of year, with the leaves falling on it like confetti in shades of burgundy, vermillion, violet, and saffron.
There weren’t as many flowers, of course. I found some kind of yellow asteraceae, and these very pretty silver cock’s combs, but that was about it. I did also spot some aggressively purple berries on (what I think is) a viburnum, though. Judging by the number of bare twigs, the birds have been hitting them up for snacks pretty hardcore. I know cardinals will happily eat them — I used to have a bright red buddy who hung out outside of the window of my old apartment.
My partner and I sat on a bench for a bit, enjoying the sound of the insects chirping, birds warbling, and wind soughing through the trees.
“What… What are you doing?” He asked.
“Taking off my shoes,” I replied.
I shrugged. “Something about ions. Mostly because it feels good. Dirt. Moss. You know.”
(He eventually followed suit and realized I was right — the cool ground felt wonderful, and the moss was very soft.)
As I write this, it’s Saturday night, I’m snuggled up and waiting to watch a livestream by Gareth Reynolds. I’ve got my partner, my cats, and a fantastic slice of pie. All told, not a bad end to the day!
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.