life, Plants and Herbs

Grassassination II: Revengeance.

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-

Wait.

Alternaria is a large genus that belongs to phylum Ascomycota (Sac fungi). A majority of Alternaria species are saprobic, which means that they are largely involved in the decomposition of various organic matter. As such, a good majority of these species can be found in environments with organic material and water (or moisture).
involved in the decomposition of various organic matter. As such, a good majority of these species can be found in environments with organic material and water (or moisture).
decomposition of various organic matter.
decomposition

FFFFFFFFFffffffffffffffffjkglhlrughjkfhvm,nmb

Okay.

So, the same measures we were taking to help tamp down the grass allergens and get rid of the invasive plants were also creating a gigantic allergenic cesspool. I mean, I knew that there would be fungi. At least 90% of the point of smothering the lawn with a tarp was so it’d die and break down, thereby enriching the soil, and you need fungi to do that. I did not exactly count on the fact that the grass would fight back by mounting an assassination attempt of its own.

Well played, lawn.

But that’s okay. I have another weapon up my sleeve. One they’ll never see coming.

Clear sheets.

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 will 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.

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.

life, Plants and Herbs

Strawbin’.

Okay! Hear me out.

We… went strawberry picking.

If you’ve been following this blog, I know what you’re probably going to say.

“J. You already accidentally bought 47 strawberry starts. You were concerned about what you’d do with up to 140 pounds of basically-almost-free strawberries. Why did you go pay to pick strawberries somewhere else?”

You’re right. This was part of a meetup with one of my Druidry groups, and, to be honest, I wanted to go hang out. Besides, my own strawberry plants aren’t pumping fruit out just yet, so I figure this’d give me some tasty fruits for the meanwhile.

We went to Larriland Farm about an hour after the fields opened. You pay for your container in the beginning, take it to a designated area in the field, and fill it up as much as you can. Since you’re not paying by weight, the more you can fit, the better. My partner was initially going to get us two of those little blue molded fiber baskets, but we soon decided a larger flat box was a better idea.

J. crouched in a strawberry field, filling a flat cardboard tray with fruit.
To think, I thought the box was getting full here.
J.'s partner standing in a strawberry field, holding a flat box filled with berries.
To his credit, he did.

A little less than an hour later, we had pounds upon pounds upon pounds of juicy, very ripe berries. I kept warning him that the box was full, but he was determined to heap them as high as possible. “Nah,” he said, “I can totally Tetris more in.”

All of us paused for meditation (and to eat a few berries) before leaving. Then, after tucking the box of strawberries in the back seat like it was a newborn baby, we carefully trucked them home.

At home, I pureed a bunch of the fruit with spinach, then poured it into an ice cube tray to freeze. Once frozen, it’ll be an easy, space-saving way to keep smoothie ingredients. Some of the fruit will be for salads, frozen for later use, used to flavor water kefir, or macerated in sugar for waffles and shortcake. I sliced a whole bunch, layered it with caramel and pastry, and made a tarte Tatin. Even with all of that in mind, there are still so many strawberries.

A very gooey strawberry tart, with vanilla ice cream.
I hadn’t counted on how juicy the berries would be, so I ended up with a bit too much liquid. Neither of us complained, though!

It’s kind of funny. The blue paper pulp boxes wouldn’t’ve been nearly enough. The next size up, I feel like I’m drowning in berries. It is a problem I enjoy.

I also discovered that it’s possible to break out in a rash from touching strawberry plants, even if you’re not at all allergic to the fruit. Strawberry leaves have trichomes, which are possibly best known as the little hairs on cannabis plants. Strawberry trichomes come in two types: glandular and non-glandular. The non-glandular ones are just little poky hairs that are kind of physically irritating, and help keep bugs at bay. The glandular ones, on the other hand, are attached to glands. These trichomes can inject tiny amounts of defensive compounds.

Imagine if, to protect yourself from bears and muggers, you never left the house without putting on a special anti-bear-and-bandit coat covered in hypodermic needles filled with acid.

The end result was one mother of a rash from the back of my hands to my elbows. This probably isn’t a true allergy, and more a product of spending like an hour accidentally injecting myself with tiny amounts of liquid “fuck off” in strawberry language. I even tested this idea by taking a fresh berry, eating a tiny bit, and rubbing the bitten portion on the inside of my elbow. Aside from a red stain, there was no rash, no itching, no welts, nada. So I’m pretty much free to gorge myself on as many strawberries as I desire.

Here until the ocean wears rubber pants to keep its bottom dry,
j.

life, Plants and Herbs

Pennyroyal Folklore and Magical Properties

There’s been a lot of buzz about pennyroyal on the interbutts. Even if you don’t fall in the demographic of people likely to ever have to worry about pregnancy, you might know what large doses of pennyroyal can do just through cultural osmosis.

Photo from Gardenology.com.

Unfortunately, this lovely herb’s use is controversial for good reason.

Pennyroyal Magical Uses and Folklore

Pennyroyal is either feminine and ruled by the planet Venus, or else it’s masculine and ruled by Mars. While this is confusing, I feel like it illustrates the dualistic nature of this herb very well — it’s an objectively beautiful plant, with its lush, creeping growth and clusters of purple flowers invariably covered in bees and butterflies, but it’s also a deadly poison.

As an herb for travelers, a few leaves placed in each shoe was believed to offer protection and guard against tired feet.

Because of the herb’s use as an emmenagogue, it’s sometimes used as an ingredient in sachets and jars for blood magic and protection (especially for sex workers).

Interestingly, this herb is also used for peace. When carried or hung in a space, it helps keep tempers from flaring. (Be very cautious to avoid hanging it where pets or children might ingest it!) This might be an extension of its use as protection against the evil eye. If you think about it, it makes sense — it’s a soft, fuzzy, flowery herb with an unassuming appearance, but it hides a potent poison. Pennyroyal is pretty much the embodiment of an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Pennyroyal is also used to break hexes and curses.

The botanical name, Mentha pulegium, stems from its ability to repel fleas. This might also be the source of its protective powers — it chases fleas and negative or malevolent energies away.

Image by Alex Lockton, used under CC BY-SA 4.0.

In ancient Greece and Rome, wearing a crown of pennyroyal was believed to relieve headaches. The herb was also used to flavor savory foods.

Pennyroyal is still used in North African cuisine to this day. The US Food and Drug administration allows naturally-derived pulegone, a compound found in pennyroyal, as a flavoring agent.

Pennyroyal as Medicine

Pennyroyal is a mint. Members of the mint family contain a naturally-occurring compound called pulegone, which appears to be the primary source of this herb’s toxicity. Even when it isn’t acutely toxic, pulegone has been found to cause pre-cancerous changes in the organs of rodents. The thing is, while herbs like catnip and peppermint have much less pulegone, pennyroyal has a lot.

With that in mind, let’s talk about something called the “therapeutic window.” Put briefly, this is the range where you get the benefits of a medicine, without significant adverse effects. Some medications have a pretty broad therapeutic window. Some do not. Some therapeutic windows are so narrow, they’re not worth considering as treatment.

Pennyroyal falls squarely into that last category.

The thing is, pennyroyal does have some medicinal benefits. Traditionally, it was used as an ingredient in teas. It’s said to be good for flatulence and stomach cramps, like many other members of the mint family.

This is all in very low doses, however, and the beneficial effects of pennyroyal can be found in other, much safer herbs. Flatulence? Try a carminative like caraway seed. Indigestion? Regular peppermint will probably do you just fine.

Pennyroyal also has a reputation as an abortifacient and emmenagogue, meaning that it can trigger an abortion or bring on a period that’s been delayed. The dosage required to do this is pretty much at the far end of the therapeutic window, and the variability in strength of herbal medicine makes it impossible to figure out the difference between “safe and effective” and “deadly.”

Think of it this way — plants aren’t inert. They respond to their environment. If there’s heat stress and a lot of pests, they produce more of the volatile compounds that help them survive. If they’re in a relatively low-stress area, or pampered in a greenhouse, they’ll likely be less intense. This means that, if you’re trying to figure out your own dosage of pennyroyal, you’re pretty much flying blind. You have no way of knowing how much pulegone a given dosage of pennyroyal might contain.

That means that not only might you not actually trigger an abortion, you could end up destroying your liver, kidneys, and lungs instead. Worst case scenario, you will die and it will hurt the entire time. Just like everything else, there are much safer herbs that can help bring about a late period.

I have only one piece of advice when it comes to using pennyroyal medicinally: Don’t, unless you’re doing so under the guidance of a doctor. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have an antidote for pennyroyal poisoning.

Using Pennyroyal

While it’s still used in dishes like batata bel fliou, if you don’t have experience cooking with pennyroyal, it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid putting it in brews, potions, or foods.

Oil of pennyroyal is the most toxic form of the plant, so you may wish to find an oil with comparable magical uses instead — especially for anointing.

Other than that, pennyroyal is fine to use in jars, sachets, and spells that don’t involve taking the herb internally. Since it’s been shown that it can cause pre-cancerous changes in the lung cells of rats, I’d probably avoid putting it in incense. (Members of the mint family tend to smell awful when burned, anyhow.)

If you’re a sex worker (or just someone who enjoys sex and wants to protect themselves), you might want to include it in a jar for attraction and sensuality as a sex-specific protection herb. Combine it with ingredients like rose petals, jasmine, and sugar, seal with the wax of a red candle, and keep it under your bed.

For protection, fill a jar with pennyroyal, cactus spines, garlic, and hawthorn. Keep it under your porch, or bury it near/under your front steps.

For peace, mix pennyroyal with lavender and thyme and put it in a jar. Seal it with the wax of a white candle, and keep it in a safe place near the heart of your home.

Pennyroyal isn’t immediately and intensely poisonous like some herbs can be, but the people most likely to look for it for medicinal purposes are at the most risk. If you’re experiencing menstrual irregularities or a late period, there are other treatments out there that are much safer for you.

life, Neodruidry

Could 15th century poetry have an antidote for toxic positivity?

So, toxic positivity. If you haven’t personally encountered it, you might be thinking, “J, you absolute drill bit, how could positivity be toxic?” Just roll with me on this.

What’s toxic positivity?

Eat a healthful diet and exercise regularly, and that’s healthy. Obsessively count calories and jog for hours to burn off every meal, and that’s an eating disorder. Play video games to relax, and that’s good and fun. Play video games for hours on end, to the point where you’re eating at your desk and your room looks like a Superfund site, and that’s unhealthy escapism. Looking on the bright side of things is healthy. Police your thoughts to avoid having an iota of negativity sneak in, and that’s toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity shows up in a wide variety of ways. In this context, I want to talk about the stay-positive-at-all-times-to-attract-a-better-life-for-yourself that still seems to pervade the internet and new age thought in general.

In some sects of fundamentalist Christianity, women are told to “keep sweet.” Despite what they may feel, they must be “joyfully available” to their husbands. No matter what, that positive facade must be upheld.

This happens in new age circles, too. Concepts like the Law of Attraction tell people that negativity begets negativity. That means that you should fill your life and thoughts with positivity, so your life gets better. If things are bad, you’ve clearly brought it on yourself by being negative.

Positivity becomes toxic when it’s rigidly enforced in the face of all sense and reason. When you’re told that your negative thoughts and feelings attract bad things to you, thereby holding you responsible for all of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, that’s not healthy. It’s natural to feel bad — and even act on that feeling — when bad things happen. People who are born into poverty, become disabled or very ill, or experience other misfortunes don’t manifest these things for themselves.

Toxic positivity happens in a climate that enforces a status quo. When you’re made to feel responsible for misfortune in your life, and, above all, not to ever let on that you’re unhappy, you’re less likely to agitate for necessary changes in your life and the world around you.

It wasn’t always like this.

It’s also not uncommon to see new age gurus misappropriating very spiritual concepts in order to push this modified version of the prosperity gospel. You can see this in the idea that ever having or expressing a “negative” emotion could block one’s chakras, disrupting one’s internal energy flow (at least, until you pay a guru for a class, video, tool, or treatment to fix it).

The thing is, while this idea isn’t exactly new, it’s relatively recent. It’s also something that crops up as a means of control — tell people that their negative emotions will harm them, and it saves you from the inconvenient work of having to care about other people. Get enough people to believe that their misery is their own fault, and the rich and powerful get to stay rich, powerful, and beyond criticism.

The Three Cauldrons as a Remedy for Toxic Positivity

Amergin was a Druid and bard in the Irish mythological cycle. The idea of the Three Cauldrons is attributed to him, taken from a collection of poetry and prose that dates back to the fifteenth century CE. While these writings come from that period, the ideas within them may hearken back as far as the eighth century.

In these writings, humans are regarded as having three cauldrons within them: Coire Goiriath, the Cauldron of Warmth; Coire Ernmae, the Cauldron of Motion (or Vocation); and Coire Sois, the Cauldron of Wisdom. These should not be conflated with the energy centers found in other spiritual writings and systems — the Three Cauldrons aren’t simply a European equivalent to chakras. The writings don’t actually specify where, exactly, the cauldrons are. Are they in the body, the soul, both, or neither? Despite this, it’s generally accepted that Coire Goiriath resides in the lower belly, Coire Ermae in the chest, and Coire Sois in the head.

With this in mind, people are generally considered to be born with their Cauldron of Warmth upright, filled with vitality and the capacity for physical growth. Their Cauldron of Motion/Vocation is on its side, and turns upright only after growing, learning, and experiencing things. The Cauldron of Wisdom is upside-down. It should be noted that not everyone’s cauldrons are oriented the same way — some people have differing talents, levels of physical vitality, and so forth. There is no ideal way for your cauldrons to be, they simply are. It’s your job to do the work to maximize the potential of what you’ve been given.

My own existence springs forth from the Cauldron of Poesy,
Which was created by the gods from the dรบile;
Enlightened is each inspiration
That streams forth in my speech and from my center of being.
I am Amergin White Knee,
Ancient in years and gray of hair.
My inspirations are found within
The many forms of poetry
That are born within my Cauldron of Warming.
The Gods do not orient each personโ€™s Cauldrons equally
Or fill them with the same talents and abilities:
Some are formed upside down, some tilted or upright.
Some are empty, while others are half full,
Some are filled with knowledge like Eber and Donn,
Capable of creating chants of life and death,
Through a skillful combination of words
In the power of three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter,
And possessing the strength of three measures: double letters,
Long vowels and short vowels.
My Cauldron of Vocation is trained
Through a study of the arts of poetry
And sustains me through proper composition.
I sing also of the Cauldron of Knowledge
That allocates the gifts of wisdom
According to the laws of each art
And the work of each artist in general.

Amergin, The Cauldron of Poesy

The Cauldron of Motion

While people can be born with their cauldrons oriented in different ways, they don’t need to stay like that. For people who wear blinders throughout their lives, their Cauldron of Motion may be upside down. Those who practice the arts may have their cauldron on its side. Those who go through the depths of sorrow and heights of ecstasy may turn their cauldron upright.

I want to highlight that last part: the depths of sorrow and heights of ecstasy. Eighth century poetry acknowledged that, in order to write, sing, and create art, you needed to experience things. Not just one kind of thing. Sorrow is as integral to the process as joy is.

The writings get more specific here, too. Longing, grief, envy, and the search for the divine are all acknowledged forms of sorrow. Good health, marriage, and accomplishment are some of the acknowledged forms of joy. The concept of balance — not just between joy and sorrow — is further emphasized:

The Cauldron of Vocation
Fills and is filled,
Grants gifts and is enriched,
Nourishes and is enlivened,
Sings praises and is praised,
Chants invocations and is enchanted,
Creates harmonies and is harmoniously created,
Defends and is strongly defended,
Orients and is aligned,
Upholds and is upheld.

Good is the wellspring of measured speech.
Good is the home of the well of speech.
Good is the joining of their powers:
Strength is made durable.

It endures longer than any fortress.
It is better than any tradition.
It is our guide to wisdom,
As we free ourselves from ignorance.

Amergin, excerpt from The Cauldron of Vocation

This power comes not from upholding positivity in the hopes of attracting a better life. It comes from the work of experiencing both joy and sorrow, devoting yourself to a greater pursuit, and acting and speaking with honesty and integrity. This is the origin of strength, endurance, and freedom. This is what lets us change things not only for ourselves, but for the world.

life

I will become… Five Punch Man.

Studying Neodruidry has given me a lot of exercise for mental discipline, but didn’t really come with a physical side. Plogging is something that follows that mindset, but is also something I’ve been doing for ages and don’t really consider an additional physical activity. I wanted another way to make myself stronger, enforce physical discipline, and burn off some of the extra ADHD energy.

Even if you aren’t a degenerate weeb (just kidding — ily degenerate weebs) you’ve probably seen/read/heard of One Punch Man. Even if you haven’t done any of that, you’ve probably seen a meme or two based on it.

Anyway, at one point, someone asks Saitama how he became One Punch Man. His answer?

100 Push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats, and 10km running EVERY SINGLE DAY!!!

It’s not bullshit, either. There are tons of breakdowns of (and testimonials about) the One Punch Man Workout all over the internet at this point.

My only problem is that, while I covet the muscular limbs of a Percheron, my own are noodly and disappointing. Shovelglove has absolutely helped my upper body and my endurance, but I need something for my most-of-me.

So, for now, I’m adding in what I call the Five Punch Man workout. It is basically the same as Saitama’s, just… one fifth of it for now. Twenty push-ups, twenty sit-ups, twenty squats, and about a mile and a half’s worth. I’ll work my way up to a hundred, assuming my knees don’t come apart in the process.

Wish me luck!

Neodruidry, Plants and Herbs, Witchcraft

Fennel Folklore and Magical Properties

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a Mediterranean herb related to carrots. The type you see in supermarkets is bred for its large bulb, which is eaten as a vegetable. You can also find the dried leaves in teas and herb blends. It has a flavor very reminiscent of anise or licorice that becomes mild and sweet during cooking. It’s also related to silphium, a plant that was both considered a delicacy and included in formulas to cause miscarriage.

Flowering fennel tops.

One of the most interesting things about fennel is its action on the endocrine and reproductive systems. While it isn’t true that the ancient Romans harvested a relative of fennel to extinction for to use for herbal abortions, alcohol extracts of a relative of giant fennel (the source of the spice asafoetida) have been found to prevent egg fertilization and induce miscarriages in rats.

Fennel Magical Uses and Folklore

While fennel isn’t exactly the same plant as asafoetida, fennel seeds do act as a uterine stimulant. Part of this is due to an estrogenic effect, possibly courtesy of the compounds anethole, dianethole and photoanethole. Fennel also contains an enzyme that effects the body’s ability to process certain drugs. In the 3rd century, a doctor named Metrodora included a species of fennel in a compound of herbs to cause miscarriage.

Fennel is one of the plants in the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm. To wit:

[C]hervil and fennel

very mighty these two plants created the wise leader holy in heaven

when he hung set and sent into the 7 worlds

for wretched and rich all to remedy

stands she against pain

stands she against poison.

Who is mighty against 3 and against 30

against fiends hand

against spells

against enchantment by wicked wights.

An excerpt from the Nine Herbs Charm, from the Lacnunga

Interestingly, Pliny the Elder claimed that silphium (the much-desired fennel of ancient Greece and Rome) had a powerful purgative effect when initially consumed. It was said that the plant purged the body of undesirable “humors,” effectively causing a kind of physical purification. However, Pliny also thought that snakes ate fennel to improve their eyesight, so maybe don’t take everything he says at face value.

A trio of fennel bulbs.

When planted around the home, fennel acts as a magical ward. This may be based in part on its use as an insect repellant — the idea being that it repels evil just as well as it does bugs. As an extension of this idea, medieval households would hang fennel above the door and fill their locks with fennel seeds to keep wandering, unsettled ghosts away.

Fennel seeds are burned to purify spaces. You can also dress a candle with fennel seeds to break streaks of bad luck and crossed conditions in your life.

Fennel’s estrogenic effects were sometimes relied on to improve libido. By extension, the flowers and seeds are often used in sachets and charms to enhance one’s love life.

Planting fennel and dill together can result in hybrid plants that look like a cross between the two and taste like neither.

Followers of Dionysus carried wands made of fennel stalks.

Fennel is used for courage. Chew the seeds or drink fennel tea before you have to do something scary or difficult.

Using Fennel

Consume the seeds or drink the tea to help trigger a late menstrual period. The maximum dosage of fennel seeds for an adult human is about 6 grams. More than that may cause unwanted effects.

You can use pretty much any part of the fennel plant — chew the seeds, put them in tea, eat the bulb and stalk as a vegetable, you name it. This means that you’re pretty much free to choose whichever part of the plant resonates best with you, and use it however it suits your purposes. If you plan to consume it, be sure to do your research to make sure it won’t interact with any other herbs or medications you’re currently using. It’s generally safe in food amounts, but the risk of adverse side effects increases with the dose.

Fennel seeds are great additions to sachets, powders, and potions.

Growing fennel is fairly easy. It can grow in zones 5-10, and is a perennial in zones 6 and up. Nonetheless, it’s usually treated as an annual — it self-sows prolifically, and you’re likely to harvest and use the whole plant once its mature anyhow.

Sow fennel in early spring, about 16-18″ apart in an area that receives full sun and has enough headroom for the plant to reach its full 5′ adult height. (It’s best to direct sow, because fennel isn’t very receptive to transplanting.) Avoid planting it near other plants, since it secretes a compound that prevents competition. Coupled with its sun-blocking height, and you may find that its neighbors really struggle. Fennel also hybridizes readily with some other plants, so you may find that the seeds you get from it aren’t true to the parent plant at all.

A swallowtail caterpillar crawling on a fennel flower.

Water fennel regularly until its well established. The plant generally doesn’t experience many problems, though you might find swallowtail butterfly caterpillars chewing on the leaves!

Harvest fennel after about two months, once its mature. Cut off the flowers as they appear, unless you want to gather the seeds (or would like the plant to self-sow).

Burn the seeds or stalks for purification or protection. Blend with rose petals, cinnamon, and other love and lust herbs for use in aphrodisiac formulas.

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

Hello! I’m full of holes.

So, I had an electromyograph and nerve conduction test done on Tuesday.

When I say this, it sounds like I took a car in to figure out why the dashboard was full of warning lights. (I think. I don’t know how cars do.)

I’ve been through a lot of medical tests in my life, including spinal tapping and having to put my face in a machine that blasted soundwaves into my eyeballs and took pictures of my optic nerves. I have to say, nothing really drives home the point that we’re just perpetually faulty bags of electrified meat like an EMG and NCS.

A plate of grapes and Swiss cheese.
It me.

The idea is this: If your nerves or muscles go all fucky, they can’t do electricity right. This is measurable. Like when an electrician uses a multimeter to check for shorts, a neurologist can stick electrodes on you, stimulate your nerves, and see what happens.

Of course, by “stimulate your nerves,” I mean “jab you with a thing that feels like the unholy spawn of a TENS unit and a cattle prod.”

If you’re lucky enough not to know what the hell a TENS unit is, it’s a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator. It’s often used in physical therapy. Basically, they place a pair of electrodes on the muscles that need doing, and hook them up to a battery. It makes you all twitchy and feels super weird, but I am assured that it is sometimes necessary and not just an elaborate practical joke created by bored physical therapists.

To be honest, the nerve conduction study wasn’t bad. The only part that actually sucked was when they had to test the nerves as they ran through my elbow. That felt bad, but also took barely any time to do. Afterward was a bit crap, too, since I was there because of a burning nerve pain down my arm. As you can probably surmise, jabbing a burning nerve with a tiny taser doesn’t do much to improve matters.
Hey, it’s diagnostic, not therapeutic.

The next part was the EMG. This, admittedly, made me nervous as hell. I’d never had one, so I looked up what to expect. Five minutes later, I was positive that the entire internet was fucking with me.

The EMG is similar to the NCS, only for muscles instead of nerves. The NCS sees how well your nerves send and receive signals, the EMG figures out what your muscles are doing about them. In more complicated terms, it measures the electrical potential your muscles create when they’re stimulated by either electricity or signals sent by your nerves.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of reading about people’s experiences with EMGs. (Don’t do this. I was smart enough not to read about spinal taps before getting one, and it helped a lot with my anticipatory anxiety. I didn’t do the same this time around, and it sucked a ton.) Most described it as extremely painful — some to the point where they had to stop the test halfway through. Everyone responds differently to pain, and I have a fairly high threshold at this point, but I still felt really anxious about it.

Fortunately, between a very kind, reassuring neurologist with an excellent bedside manner, and enough tincture of chamomile to sedate multiple kaiju, it wasn’t too bad. After the NCS, the doctor came in, asked a few questions, conducted a physical examination, and then stabbed two inch needles into all of the muscles of my arms, one at a time, and had me try to move them while a machine blared static into my ear.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.

Was the static uncomfortable to listen to? Kind of, but it was also really cool. Needle goes in, static is quiet. Muscle moves, static gets louder. It was neat to actually hear the electrical stuff that goes on in a body. I don’t often go out of my way to remind myself that I’m just a sack of organized seawater and electric meat, so it’s kind of cool in an eldritch-body-horror-biological sense.

Did the needles hurt? Some of them, yeah. Most hurt less than a vaccination, and much less than getting an IV. A few areas, like the heel of my hand, hurt quite a bit. Fortunately, testing each individual muscle doesn’t take long. A few seconds, and the needle was out again. Weirdly, I barely felt the ones stuck into my neck or the back of my forearm. Go figure.

Did I bleed a lot? Not really. I am covered in those tiny little roundyboy band-aids, but that’s probably because I’m on sertraline and it tends to make me bruise and bleed a bit easier. The doctor mostly just put them so I wouldn’t end up with little bloody spots on my clothes and didn’t come out looking like I’d been roughed up by a gang of drunken biker wasps.

I came home, made lunch for my partner and myself, and got some writing work done. I did feel like I needed a nap in the afternoon, but that was probably the burnout from all of the anxiety I was experiencing.

Now, I wait and find out why my nerves are bad at electricity.

life, Neodruidry

The Wheel of… Kind of Whatever at This Point

I’ve never been big on New Year’s resolutions. Honestly, there’re few things more disheartening to me than making big plans, anticipating changes, trying to improve myself and my life, then waking up to… the rest of January. Bleh.

This year is especially weird, because it’s less, “What do I want to do to improve my life this year?” than, “What will my desire to stay out of the ICU let me do?” (I’ve been in one before. I ain’t going back.)

Usually, I make summer resolutions instead. A lot of Wiccans, Neodruids, and other Pagans try to live following the “Wheel of the Year” — that is, living alongside the rhythms of rest, sowing, growth, harvesting, and so forth. My particular rhythms have always precluded that. Summer is my downtime, because I don’t do well in heat, summer storms worsen my intracranial hypertension, and I’m allergic to grass pollen. No thanks. Winter is when I have more energy, though the rest of the hemisphere doesn’t seem to want to follow suit.

So, I’ve been using this New Year energy to time a psychological exercise that my therapist showed to me. It’s fairly simple, and I won’t go too far into details, but the Wheel of Life has been tremendously helpful for visualizing changes I want to make, prioritizing them, and turning vague hopes into actionable plans.

You take a wheel, divided up in the manner of pie. Each slice is part of your life: Finances, Health, Social life, and so forth. You rank your level of satisfaction with each area. You then note where the biggest gaps in your current level of satisfaction, and ideal level of satisfaction lie, and choose areas to prioritize. You figure out where you can conceivably raise your level of satisfaction in one month, three months, six months, and a year. Lastly, you come up with three actions you can take to measurably increase your satisfaction, and set a deadline for them.

Honestly, life is pretty good right now. My creativity’s flowing like a dingdang fire hydrant and, while I haven’t been able to write for myself much, I’ve been getting lots of paid writing assignments (as well as working on a book proposal with my partner, but that’s another story). My home life is harmonious, and I’m surrounded by love. I’ve even managed to socialize more, both online and off, since I’ve increased my physical endurance to the point where I can do more stuff. I’m not wealthy, but I have enough money for what I need, extra for helping people, and enough discretionary income to pay my friends to create the things they love making. It’s pretty rad.

I’d still like to make improvements, because who wouldn’t? I want to sell some of my original art, because I can’t hold onto it forever. I want to resume my language studies. I want to learn how to write poetry that doesn’t make me cringe so hard that I swallow my own face. I want to learn more about regenerative agriculture and landscaping, so I can put it into practice once my partner and I are in a place where we can do so. I want to continue down the path of the Neodruid.

(I also want to set up a way to recycle Styrofoam into usable carbon dioxide for a grow cabinet. I’d like to turn my partner’s old coffee grounds into a useful mushroom substrate, but, so far, all of the mushrooms that seem to do well on coffee grounds are also the ones that make me feel like I’m being beaten up internally by a horde of drunken fairies, so more research is needed.)

Of course, pretty much everything is hijacked by COVID, but there’re ways around that. A lot of the things I want to do don’t involve contact with other people. Even socializing can be done remotely, to an extent, and this distanced socializing helps forge bonds and build anticipation for when we’re all actually able to hang out in person.

Here’s hoping the New Year’s energy helps us all get better at the things that are important to us.