Environment, life, Plants and Herbs

Foraging for Flowers and Ramps

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

A garlic mustard plant.

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

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

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

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

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

A cone-shaped inflorescence of bear corn.

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

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

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

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

Blog, life, Neodruidry, Plants and Herbs, Witchcraft

Back into the woods.

it’s a rly good deal tho, I texted.

My phone buzzed a second later.
I’m literally about to get on a plane right now, he’d sent back.

This back and forth happened a few more times, before he finally agreed that a couple hundred dollars off a four-day vacation was, in fact, a very good deal.

This all started when my partner realized how much vacation time he had left over at the end of last year. It doesn’t roll over and he can’t cash it in, so it was pretty much just kind of wasted. Ever the supportive devil on his shoulder, I urged him to make sure he takes all of the paid time off he could this year, especially if it was just going to evaporate if he didn’t.

“Your job’s able to offer you this because of the value created by your labor. It’s not a free perk or a fun bonus, it’s literally something you’ve earned. If you can’t get the equivalent value in your paycheck, you should take whatever you’re offered. You’re basically giving up part of your salary otherwise.”

(I also have the same attitude toward expensed meals, fitness equipment, and other benefits. Just because it isn’t money doesn’t mean it isn’t compensation, friends!)

And this is how, on a shuttle immediately before boarding a plane, my partner prayed that his phone’s battery and internet would hold out long enough for him to book a four day stay in a Getaway cabin. It was a scramble to schedule everything before the sale ended or his phone gave out, and he succeeded with almost no time to spare.

A sign on a cabin that says "Getaway Shirley."

We’ve stayed in a Getaway tiny cabin before, so I knew this’d be a good deal for us. Last time was during winter, so I was pretty excited to experience the area when it was a bit warmer and greener. That part of Virginia isn’t exactly in full bloom just yet, but was still beautiful — especially if you’re a weirdo like me who experiences aesthetic arrest from the sight of, like, an extremely good mossy log.

Interior of an apothecary shop, with shelves full of incense, candles, herbs, and remedies.
Image from Visit Waynesboro.

When we weren’t walking in the woods, taking pictures, trying to identify plants, or “catch and release” mushroom hunting, we were reading or writing. One day was a bit too chilly and rainy to do much outside, so we went for a drive down Skyline to Waynesboro, VA. There’s a fantastic apothecary there called PYRAMID, with some really wonderful locally made candles, incense, artwork, jewelry, herbs, teas, remedies, and curios.

A close-up of violet flowers.

The environment of the cabin was just as relaxing as last time. There was a very beautiful patch of violets right near our fire pit (I picked a few for pressing), and we were tucked far enough away in the trees to have privacy but just close enough to other cabins to not feel completely isolated. Along the stream in the woods, Christmas ferns were sending up tons of spiraling fiddleheads. The moss was verdant and bright green, and the lack of leaves on the trees was more than made up for by the abundance of lichen and mushrooms on the ground. The weather was cool, alternating between sun and a light, silky drizzle that made everything seem fresher and brighter. Though the trail we took was relatively short, it took us a while as we kept stopping to get down, snap pictures, sketch, or identify something.

We packed well this time around, though we brought way too much food for the two of us. Pasta, salmon, shrimp, steak, cinnamon rolls, ingredients for s’mores… He cooked the meat and fish over the fire, and made some of the most amazing, crispy salmon I’d ever had. It was simple — just fish cooked in the cabin-provided olive oil, salt, and pepper — but the texture and subtly smoky flavor were perfect. We had it with lentil pasta all’arrabiata, and I’ve been craving campfire cooked salmon and pasta ever since.

A close-up view of the inside of a violet flower.

(We did run out of salad greens at one point, which got me wondering how I’d scrape together some from the surrounding landscape if I had to — there were violets, dandelion greens, and the pink flowers of redbud trees… Christmas ferns can be eaten the same as ostrich ferns, so fiddleheads too. Fortunately, I did not become responsible for foraging for our vegetables, because I did not want to play “Fuck Around and Find Out: Salad Edition.”)

Coming back took a bit, mostly because we’d scheduled things so we still had a day or so between going home and going back to work. It meant that we were able to visit all of the pottery shops, antique stores, and farm stands that we passed along the way. We ended up coming home with coffee beans, copper sculptures, and a cypress knee(!!!) that we hadn’t originally intended to, so I’d say our sidequesting was a success.

Here ’til the crow flies and the flies crow,

J.

Blog, life, Plants and Herbs

Come. Let us frolic among the violets and- *upset bird noises*

I struggle with setting up and changing routines. I thrive with structure, though it’s very difficult for me to adhere to, and I don’t like having to move things around. This isn’t to say I don’t like spontaneity — but I need to schedule opportunities for spontaneity around the stuff I gotta do. Maybe it’s my Virgoan tendencies, maybe it’s the unmedicated ADHD and the fact that I have the executive function of a brine shrimp. Who knows!

A vase of flowers and jar of chalk next to an open day planner.
You want spontaneity? I can be spontaneous for four hours next Thursday.

Anyhow, all of this is a roundabout way of explaining how my partner and I went to frolic with the polycorns and run amongst the brain trees. See, we try to hit up farmers’ markets whenever feasible. This is partially out of a desire to shop local, our duty to support our community, the need to make sure the market keeps happening in our city, and also because the food is way better (and generally cheaper) than our other options here.

A head of lettuce growing from the ground.
A fresh lettuce with the roots still on absolutely beats the metaphorical balls off of an anemic head of iceberg, and I do not apologize to anyone.

There’s only one problem — the market we usually visit is open on Sunday, and we had a Thing scheduled for that day. So, we roused ourselves on Saturday to go track down another farmers’ market, which meant that the morning I usually spend sleeping in (and being slept on, in turn, by a small orange cat), I instead spent buying produce, cheese, a batch of really kickass empanadas, et al.

This meant that both partner and I were bright eyed and bushy tailed, with a whole afternoon ahead of us and nothing to do with it. I suggested a walk, so we went to find an entrance to this pretty little local trail.

As it turns out? It was a really good idea.

We didn’t walk very far, but there wasn’t a need to. The area we found was carpeted with violets, and a little flowering dogwood had burst into a riot of bright pink blooms. There was even what may have been an apple tree nearby — it’s hard to tell, because a lot of that branch of Rosaceae look similar when they flower — perfuming the air with a bright, sweet scent. Some deer had evidently paused there, leaving tracks in the soft, damp sand.

The trail was full of dogs, too, from an adorable miniature schnauzer, to a huge, sleek, jet-black pit bull. (His ears were cropped, and he crossed the little footbridge before his owners did. When I first saw him, a tiny caveman part of my mind warned that I might somehow be looking at a panther. I’d say this is silly and ridiculous, but this is also a world where the Tiger King exists and zebras just kind of wandered around the DC area for a while.)

My partner and I looked for four-leaf clovers between the sweet purple and white violets, poked around the shore of the nearby creek, and picked up litter along the trail.

A faded, wet, beaten-up sign saying "Love thy neighbor, no exceptions. Black lives matter. God is love. LGBTQ+ people are of sacred worth."
Even the litter here is extremely wholesome.

Then, in the midst of this sweet, flowery idyll, I heard what could only be described as the sound of someone trying to feed an uncooperative bagpipe into a garbage disposal. There was a crashing noise, the crunch and rustle of leaves, and a pair of shapes darting through the trees.

Well, one was darting. One was kind of… scramble-flailing? Whatever it was, it wasn’t flying and it wasn’t falling, but it looked extremely uncomfortable.

A large crow had chased a falcon to the end of his family’s territory, and was in the process of escorting the interloper out (with violence). I’d read about crows doing this, had even seen videos of it, but nothing compared to the sight of that massive, almost eerily silent corvid turning an entire-ass raptor into a crying mess.

Now, I had a front row seat. I was fortunate enough to be standing right where there was a break in the trees, which gave me a really good view of the whole situation. It happened too fast for me to record any of it, though it had the same kind of weird time-dilation you experience watching a car crash. It was an amazing experience, though, and I felt honored to have been privy to it.
It was also the most absolutely metal thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

(The falcon and crow were fine in the end, from what I could see. The falcon beat a very embarrassed retreat, and the crow went back to survey his spot.)

Even in a flowery park, nature is hardcore.

Now I’m gonna go have empanadas. (They are spinach and cheese.)
Have a good day!

A photo of my partner and me, framed by some dogwood flowers.
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

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.

Environment, life

Fines don’t matter when you’re rich.

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

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

If that sounds outlandish, look at this bullshit here:

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

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

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

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

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

β€œHe said, β€˜I don’t care. Everybody does it, all developers do it. We pay the fines, nobody cares,’” Giancola says.

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

A gnarled old olive tree.

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

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

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

An old oak tree with twisted, spreading branches.

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

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

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.

art, life

Gingersquatch, Gingercabra, and Fresno Gingercrawlers.

When I was little, my dad (whose cooking repertoire largely consisted of pancakes and frybread) would get these boxes of premade sugar cookies with printed reindeer, Santa, and snowflake designs, and little tubes of icing. We’d spend an afternoon decorating them and, even if the cookies themselves were always kind of stale, it’s a memory I look back on fondly. We also made snowman ornaments out of wire and beads, and all kinds of stuff. My dad was always pretty good at extracurricular tiny child-type activities.

I was pretty surprised to hear that my partner had never decorated cookies for the Yuletide season before. I’d never made a gingerbread cookie from scratch in my life, but I like experimenting. So, armed with Kanan Patel’s eggless gingerbread cookie recipe from Spice Up the Curry, I set out to make us some gingerbread men.

There was only one problem. Seeing as how I’d never baked a gingerbread man before, I didn’t have any people-shaped cookie cutters. I also wasn’t about to individually freehand a troupe of gingerpeople.

So we made gingercryptids instead.

Raw dough, before trimming and chilling.

Honestly, the cookie recipe was perfect. I used einkorn flour, and didn’t have to make any adjustments to get cookies that were crispy outside, chewy inside, and substantial enough to hold up to a whole lot of decorations. The dough started out crumbly, coming together after the butter managed to melt a little. The cookie cutters are from Kato Baking Supplies on Etsy. They’re actually for fondant, but, with the exception of losing an odd chupacabra spike or two, worked out just fine. We chilled the dough, rolled it out, cut the shapes, preheated the oven while we chilled the shapes again, and they didn’t spread at all. Perfect!

(Featuring Salaryman Chupacabra, Ugly Sweater Nightcrawler, and Sprinkle Hotpants Nightcrawler.)

life

The Benefits of Not Being an Emotional Empath.

Much has been made over the idea of being empathic. This is pretty similar to being empathetic, in that both are based on structures in the brain that fire in response to other people’s behavior. While empathetic people can essentially “feel” the emotions of others, in the sense that they feel happy when others express joy and sad when others grieve, this goes deeper for empathic people.

A lot of articles have been written on the pros of being an empath, and some go so far as to treat it like a kind of superpower. At times, it can get weirdly confusing — some quizzes conflate being empathic with being generally energetically sensitive, when they aren’t the same. I’ve been called an empath because I feel drained after big gatherings and get headaches from floor cleaner, but, even if those are traits that are common to empaths, they aren’t signs of being emotionally empathic.

Anyhow, all of this is to say that being an empath isn’t necessarily optimal. The world needs empaths, but it also needs people whose mirror neurons aren’t doing the equivalent of cutting the brake lines on an F1 car. And so, here’s a list of reasons why it kind of rocks to not be an emotional empath:

Your energy is yours.

Sure, everyone should know how to shield themselves from other people’s energy. For empaths, though, this process is a lot more involved. People whose mirror neurons are more selective don’t have to worry as much about whether the feelings they feel are theirs, or the detritus of someone they came in contact with.

You can provide another kind of emotional support.

Empaths are good at emotional support because they feel what other people feel. Depending on the situation, that’s not always desirable — sometimes, you need someone who has an easier time maintaining distance to provide stability. There are also plenty of emotional situations where it doesn’t actually help to be told, “I understand you.” Some people need a witness to their experience, not someone to be in it with them.

This is a time when sympathy and compassion are helpful, but empathy may become detrimental. Not just detrimental to the empath, either — an empathic response can actually block what the other person needs from you. In the words of Graham Johnston, “using the prefrontal cortex to mentalise […] might be more helpful than using the anterior cingulate cortex to empathise with them.”

You can still be empathetic without being empathic.

Empathy arises in a specific area of the brain. In some people, this is more active than others. There is no hard line between being an empath and being devoid of empathy. It’s a spectrum.

What’s more, even if you’re not able to feel empathy like others do, you can still have sympathy and exhibit compassion. As mentioned above, there are plenty of times when a compassionate response is more helpful than an empathetic one. Even if you can’t empathize with someone’s grief, you can sympathize with their misfortune and treat them with compassion.

Projection is more difficult.

The number of people who consider themselves empaths probably outnumbers the actual empaths in the world. Unfortunately, empathy is often treated like the one good thing it isn’t possible to have too much of, but this is a) not true, and b) something that tempts people to identify with a label that may not actually apply to them.

As a result, there are an awful lot of empaths who don’t so much feel what others feel, as they project their own feelings onto other people. What if you honestly think you’re feeling what someone else is, but your feelings are inaccurate? What happens if you misidentify the source of these emotions?

Even if you are empathic, and you do accurately feel another person’s emotions, these emotions aren’t paired with that person’s personal, mental, and cultural context. You can respond to them in a way that you feel would be helpful, but, even if you’re feeling their feelings, you will always be responding from within your own context. If someone is grieving, and you feel their grief, you might want a hug to help soothe that pain within you. If you project this desire onto the other person, it’s not helpful. In the end, the solution is still to act from a place of sympathy and compassion.

An empathic response can actually increase bias.

This is a bit complicated, but follow me here.

Say you wear a red shirt. All of your friends wear red shirts. Maybe you even go to conventions about red shirts. Red shirts are awesome.

There’s another group of people who wear blue shirts. Maybe you understand why they do this, maybe you don’t. That part doesn’t matter. The red shirted people are your in-group. The blue shirted people are an out-group. Your groups’ experiences differ. They don’t go to your red shirt conventions, and you don’t get invited to their blue shirt parties. Unfortunately, this can lead to bias against people who are in the out-group.

In a 2009 study, some researchers performed experiments to see how to mitigate the effects of in-group/out-group biases. One big thing that helped was contact with members of the out-group. Another was empathy toward the out-group. Both empathy and contact reduced prejudice and biases. Here’s the weird part, though: When put together, they negated each other. Empathy plus contact didn’t improve the situation.

The researchers explained this through the concept of a “meta-stereotype.” This term refers to how a person thinks they are perceived by a member of their out-group. When an in-group member anticipates having contact with an out-group member, this concern is activated. Empathy heightens it. When you’re that preoccupied with feeling what a member of the out-group thinks of you, it becomes much more difficult to have a productive, natural interaction with them.

Worst of all, these findings were backed up by another study by a different group of researchers for years later. In this one, researchers found that attempts to take an empathetic stance toward members of an out-group actually reinforced in-group identity and negative attitudes toward out-group members. Oof.

This doesn’t mean that empaths are more likely to be prejudiced against others, of course. It does mean that, when you’re that sensitive to the feelings of others, it creates a heightened sensitivity in yourself that actually makes it much harder to relate to people in a natural, helpful way. High levels of empathy don’t always lead to better interactions between different groups of people. It’s a double-edged sword.

You take longer to burn out.

Feeling all of the feelings is tough. That’s why there are so many resources out there for empaths to learn to shield themselves, ground themselves, cleanse their energy, and generally cope with the aftermath of being exposed to other people’s heavy duty emotions and energies all of the time. This can be extremely exhausting for them, and some may even get burned out.

Burn out is a (sadly) common hazard of caretaking. People who work in medical fields or veterinary medicine, or even just provide care to young children or elderly relatives, can just become mentally and emotionally exhausted. If you’re not in those fields, don’t have access to professional resources to help you prevent burn out, and are still faced with feeling other people’s emotions, it can be pretty grueling. This is especially true when you’re primarily exposed to other people’s negative experiences (grief, loss, et cetera).

People who are empathetic in an average sense, and not empathic, still suffer from burnout. It’s just not quite as rough when you aren’t literally feeling other people’s feelings on top of everything else.

You can still be sensitive.

Being an empath involves having a deeper-than-average response to another person’s exhibited emotions. That is, your mirror neurons go off like a string of firecrackers when someone else has an emotional response to something, triggering those feelings in you.

This doesn’t really have anything to do with other sensitivities, though. You can still be sensitive to foods, scents, energy, sounds, and all kinds of things that have nothing to do with other people or their emotions. Someone may be an emotional empath, but less perceptive to subtle energies. Others are just Highly Sensitive People. Childhood trauma can even make some people extremely sensitive to displays of sadness or anger in others. This isn’t because their mirror neurons trigger feelings sadness or anger in them — they’re sensitive because they have an anxiety response to displays of negative feelings. Their heightened perception is a survival mechanism.

Empaths are wonderful, caring people, but the internet is literally full of articles praising the virtues of the empathic. Being an empath isn’t automatically an enlightened state of being, however, and can be detrimental to oneself and others. There are numerous benefits to having an average capacity for empathy, and it doesn’t exclude you from being sensitive to things other than emotions. Remember, it takes all types. If everyone was an empath, or everyone had low empathy, we’d be screwed.