I didn’t think much when I posted a picture of a cool rock. (It was columnar basalt, which always reminds me of some surreal, alien landscape out of Kenshi.)
“Hey,” a friend replied in not-those-exact words, “There’s a neat example of that not too far from us.”
“Oh sweet,” I approximately replied, “Where?”
And so that was how my partner and I ended up loaded with snacks and music, navigating our way down a gorgeous scenic drive through Shenandoah National Park. When I say scenic, I’m not messing around, either — it was gorgeous, the kind of beauty that pictures can’t really do justice.
You know how when the landscape is uninterrupted for far enough, you can see the way the hills fade to blue in the distance, and the shadows of the clouds moving over them? I live for that.
We even stopped for a bit of a hike at Compton Gap, where the columnar basalt was. The entrance to the trail showed a picture of it, but we weren’t able to find the specimen itself — the trail branched, and I think we ended up taking the wrong fork. Not that I minded at all. The air was fresh and sweet, the trail was quiet save for the song of birds and bugs, and everything was a fresh, deep green so intense, it almost didn’t seem real.
There was a small mushroom friend (a Russula, I think), bright orange trumpet creeper, and some very busy insect buddies — including a spicebush swallowtail and an American bumble bee!
The drive was long enough that we were in the midst of golden hour on our way back. The sun painted the clouds shades of pink and lavender, and the light took on that warm, comforting, well… golden tone. We paused at all of the overlooks to soak it up, relishing the warmth radiating from the granite rocks, and the cool, fresh breezes all around.
We’re planning on going back in the autumn, when the leaves start to change. It should be amazing!
I mean, some parts of everywhere are weird, don’t get me wrong. Where I grew up, our favorite activity was spelunking in the sewers (I found a stray femur and was almost eaten by geese). When I lived in Delaware, it took me a bit to get used to the way the landscape was broken up — apartment complex, forest, strip mall, pasture, wetlands, wetlands, wetlands, city. In California, the neighborhood was a very tiny island in the middle of fields and pastures. Sometimes, you’d wake up and see all of the puddles shimmering strangely with whatever the crop dusters were spraying the day before. At night, even without seeing any cows for miles, you’d hear their eldritch moos as if they were right in the yard. The songs of coyotes carried for untold distances. Uncanny-valley strangers would come and knock on your door, ask to borrow things, and disappear. It had a very Southern Gothic atmosphere, especially for a place that was emphatically neither.
DC is weird in its own way. I love it here, and there are some extremely cool places and people. The architecture is gorgeous, and you can find some very lovely Victorian-style houses and unexpected details. Still, there are plenty of other areas here that I try to avoid if there’s any way to help it.
This was one of those.
My partner and I were picking up food at this place we found at the beginning of COVID — a little pricey, but they’ve got the best damned catfish po’boy and blackberry shortcake I’ve ever had. (I’d drop the name, but the location is called four different things depending on whether you go there on foot, find it via Google Maps, read their bags, or try to order through a delivery app. Like I said, weird.)
It’s situated in an area that, not unlike the rest of the city, combines historical architecture with modern touches. The thing is, where other areas of DC seem to give the impression that this is done out of necessity, or to fulfill actual human needs, this seems almost malicious. Concrete angel faces stare mutely out over doorways to imposing office and municipal buildings, expressions framed in equally-stony olive branches. At street level, there are stores — jewelers, Nordstrom Rack, a seemingly impossible number of Starbucks cafés — with large, thoroughly modern plate glass windows with the dead, flat gleam of sharks’ eyes.
There’s something about it that strikes me as very calculated. There’s a cultivated air of diversity here, but the kind of diversity that wouldn’t welcome anything that wasn’t a high-end department store, a Starbucks, or an eatery capable of suiting a very narrowly defined sensibility. Some of it is very pretty, but stifling, almost.
On the sidewalks, people sit too close together at outdoor tables. A maskless couple walk by, pushing a leather-clad baby carriage that mommyblogs say could pay a month of my neighbors’ rent.
People live here, too, but everything feels aggressively tailored to those who work here instead. I don’t think they’re the same population. Thinking about it too much makes my teeth itch.
“I need to get the fuck out of here,” I whisper-hiss to my partner, “Because I’ve got maybe ten minutes before this place turns me into an anprim.”
I wonder if this is how fireflies feel when you put them in a mason jar with a stick and a leaf.
Fortunately, getting elsewhere only takes about ten minutes. It might be a strange byproduct of this one self-hypnosis program I sort-of-kind-of-maybe did wrong a few years ago, but the sight of the color green makes my nerves finally start to unknot themselves.
We park and walk a ways. I know my food’s getting cold, but I don’t really care. I take big breaths — there’s smoke coming from somewhere, and it tinges the smell of soil, gently decaying leaves, and damp wood with an earthy sweetness.
We find a picnic table. I always eat fast, but today I manage to finish before my partner’s done unpacking.
“Okay! Gonna go climb on that tree and look for friends!”
He’s grown used to this. I think you kind of have to, after awhile — it’s something that seems pretty firmly baked-in to me. I’m told that when I was very little, maybe four, we had some kind of family function at a beach. My dad says he heard me walking around making tiny proclamations: “Anyone who wants to go find bentures, follow me!” (Then I disappeared into some trees for awhile and he had to peel me off of a sheer clay cliff face, but that’s another story.)
When I was dating one ex-partner, it was a near-constant bone of contention that he never wanted to go exploring with me. I ended up having a lot of adventures with my dog, including finding a broken wooden footbridge that led to nowhere, covered in graffiti that dated back to the ’40s. (I’m almost positive it was Extremely Haunted.)
After that, another ex-partner used to give me survival equipment for every holiday. They figured the odds were pretty good that I’d end up disappearing into the woods some day, and they wanted to hedge their bets on me coming back alive eventually.
In short, I think most of my loved ones throughout history have adapted to the idea of probably seeing me show up on the internet after being mistaken for some kind of pygmy sasquatch.
There’s so much moss. Damp and feathery, sporophytes reaching up on stalks like delicate red threads. I could probably photograph it all day, to be honest — the structures are so beautifully complex when you get close enough.
My partner comes to join me, so we can look for mushy boys.
Some type of Mycena builds a tiny cathedral in a fallen tree. I find another type growing from a separate tree, its cap an almost ghostly translucent white. It’s the only one there, and I don’t have the heart to touch it, see what color it bruises, or try to take a specimen for a spore print.
“Oh, hey,” my partner points to a dead stump. I make a kind of excited pterodactyl noise and get on my stomach for pictures. I haven’t seen jack-o-lantern mushrooms before, but their intense “fuck off” orange and fine, deeply-ridged gills are weirdly, poisonously beautiful.
I can see why they’re often mistaken for chanterelles, though it makes me wonder what came first. Did the chanterelle grow to resemble the false chanterelle and jack-o-lantern mushrooms because it kept it from being eaten, or was it a case of convergent evolution?
It strikes me with some irony that I feel better about poisonous mushrooms than I do about the “Welcome” sign in a shop. Warning orange is easier to look at than shark-eyed windows, I guess.
October marks the best timing for one of my favorite hobbies: mushroom spotting.
(Not the fun ones. The regular ones.)
I usually have far more luck finding them in autumn than I do in spring or summer, so I was pretty excited when my partner and I drove out to Jug Bay to hike the trails around the wetlands. AND RIGHTLY SO.
Last time we went, I couldn’t walk as far as I’d’ve liked. This time, I was able to go a full 2.25 miles from the visitor’s center to… well, the visitor’s center, but the long way. (I’m also starting to get actual triceps, so all the recreational sledgehammer-swinging is paying off!)
The weather was absolutely perfect — sunny, breezy, and cool, with nary a cloud in the sky. We rarely saw another soul on the trails, but we had our masks so we could pull them on by the ear loopies any time we passed near anyone. Most of the trees were still green, though there were a few splashes of scarlet, saffron, and gold. Winterberries were abundant, lining the boardwalk beside the marsh with bright yellow-green leaves and shining red fruit. Asters, their white faces like miniature daisies, looked up from the side of the trail. Long, hanging stalks of goldenrod, bent under the weight of their blooms, and tall sunchokes seemed to catch and hold the light in their yellow flowers.
As we were walking along the trail, a butterfly fluttered up to say hello, made a loop around my legs, and passed back into the trees. It moved too fast to get a good look or a photo — judging by the color, I think it was either a red-spotted purple or a type of swallowtail. (And a late one, in either case!) I also spotted the most perfect spiderweb, threads intact and shimmering iridescently in the sunlight.
(Two crows hopped up on a parking sign in front of the car earlier that day, too, so this afternoon was just full of good omens!)
Turtles sunned themselves on logs, sleek heads occasionally poking up like curious periscopes. All around, you could hear the chorus of insects in the trees.
It was idyllic as fuck.
It wasn’t until we were close to the visitor’s center again that we spotted some mushy boys. Forest cryptid that I am, I got down on my knees and elbows on the trail, in the leaf litter, said a silent prayer to whatever deity’s in charge of urushiol, and crept as close as I could to get a few pictures. Identifying mushrooms is always dicey if you can’t check them for bruising, spore prints, and other signs that require more than a cursory examination, but they’re beautiful nonetheless!
(I believe the first is a kind of brittlegill, and the one at the top right is some type of gilled polypore. I’m not sure about the other two, but I really love the cream-and-brown one’s mossy home.)
I saw one mushroom that had been snapped off where it grew, so you could see its round butt and the little divot where it once sat nestled in the ground. Inside, the soil was lined with a silvery, cottony web of mycelium — the stuff that actually makes up the bulk of the fungus. I didn’t get a picture of it, but it was fascinating to see past the eye-catching fruiting bodies and into the “heart” of the mushroom.
We rounded the day off with crêpes from Coffy Café (I went with the Bootsy instead of my usual Mr. Steed — I think I might have a new favorite!), and a long, hot bath.
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This weekend, my partner and I decided it’d be a good time to give everything a nice, solid deep-clean. Everything. The windows, the stove, the weird, hard-to-reach area behind the toilet, everything.
Cleaning house is a great opportunity to refresh the energy in a place. While there are small, day-to-day things you can do to keep the flow from going stagnant on you, nothing really beats a solid top-to-bottom scrubbing and airing out.
Due to a combination of frugality and scent-sensitivity headaches, I make pretty much all of our cleaning products. (What I save in glass cleaner and counter spray, however, I more than spend on ethanol, vinegar, baking soda, and castile soap.) I keep a canister of homemade cleaning wipes in the bathroom, and another in the kitchen. I’ve got pretty cobalt glass bottles of spray cleaner on my kitchen counter, and another of tub and tile cleaner under my bathroom sink.
Frugality and lack of synthetic scents aside, the nicest thing about these DIY cleaners is that the ingredients easily pull double-duty; the same things that keep stains from my counters and rings out of my tub also have a history of use as spiritual cleansing agents. Make them on the right day, in the right moon phase, during the best planetary hour for whatever you’re trying to do, speak your intentions as you add each ingredient, and charge them by whatever method is preferable for you. (I would, however, advise against using sunlight — depending on what ingredients you use, heat and UV light might denature them, leaving you with a concoction that’s mostly water.)
We opened up the curtains and all of the windows. We played upbeat music. We scrubbed everything.
When the physical cleaning was done and my partner was figuring out lunch, I worked on the other side.
I love tarot cards. Not only are they useful divination tools, they’re useful aids for focusing magic. Whatever you’re trying to draw in or push away, there’s a card for that. In each room, I set up a small altar with a candle or incense, a clear quartz,and three cards: The Sun, The World, and the Ten of Cups.
These three cards are among the most positive omens in the deck. The Sun speaks of radiant positivity, abundance, and optimism. The World speaks of auspicious beginnings and infinite possibility. The Ten of Cups speaks of ultimate fulfillment. Good stuff to bring into your life and home, right?
I treated them the way you might treat a crystal grid — placing them, charging them, and releasing the energy. It was a small ritual, moving room-by-room, setting up each grid, and putting them to work, but it felt more uplifting and powerful than I can say.
I definitely needed it after the day before that. Friday, I had ambitious (well, relatively ambitious) dinner plans. I made penne, a quasi-homemade mushroom risotto, and grilled vegetables marinated in balsamic vinegar and herbs. Everything came out tasty, and all was well.
You know how some people have genetic quirks that keep them from enjoying certain foods? I don’t even necessarily mean allergies. Some people are lactose intolerant, some think cilantro tastes like soap, and so on.
As it turns out, some people can’t handle boletes.
Like, really can’t handle them.
I am apparently one of them.
I know the mushrooms weren’t actually toxic, because they came in a prepared blend and I really hope Trader Joe’s knows better. I was lucky, though. Some pretty intense gastric pain and dehydration was the most I had to deal with, though I was legitimately concerned that I was going to need some kind of intervention if things didn’t improve quickly enough. I definitely didn’t want to need a spinal tap because my intracranial and blood pressure decided to shoot way up on me. I definitely definitely didn’t want to go to the hospital and have to explain that I was there because my dumb ass decided now was the time to try eating unfamiliar fungi.
Lesson learned. If you’re trying to avoid using ER resources, maybe stick with things you’re absolutely certain you can tolerate. Save the risotto experiments for the future.
Here’s hoping you’re safe, staying sane, and not eating anything weird.
Since today is Earth Day, I figured it’d be a good time to post about a small, simple daily meditation that I use to start my day.
It’s a combination of a grounding exercise and a planet-healing. You don’t need anything to do it, other than a comfortable, quiet place to sit (or even lie down) and five or ten minutes to spare. It’s based around the incredibly important role that fungi play in every ecosystem.
Though we often picture mushrooms when we imagine fungi, fungal fruiting bodies make up a tiny portion of the whole organism. Beneath them, spread out in a web, is a vast network of mycelium. The hyphae spread out like thin threads, transporting nutrients, secreting enzymes to break down organic matter, and supplying nutrients to the plants that depend on them. Everything in the world relies on fungi for survival, in one form or another. They secrete carbon dioxide as part of the carbon cycle, and can break down almost anything that isn’t actively toxic to them — even plastic, petroleum, or pesticides. Some fungi turn carbon into melanin, a very stable carbon-containing compound, while others help soil retain moisture. Certain fungi increase soil aggregation, potentially increasing soil carbon storage.
Still, fungi respond to a very careful natural balance. While the soil is a carbon sink, soil fungi also return carbon dioxide to the air — especially in situations where elevated levels of carbon dioxide encourage plant growth, increasing nitrogen demand and upsetting the delicate balance of carbon and nitrogen. Fungi can be vital environmental allies, but the balance needs to be preserved.
Soil fungi don’t just comprise one or two species, either. Every patch of soil could be a host to a thousand distinct species. Just like the natural microflora of the body shift and change in response to illness, stress, diet, and medication, different stressors affect how these fungi grow, compete with each other, and evolve.
It’s never been more clear that protecting the planet means preserving all of the microscopic activity below the soil, not just the plants and animals above.
To begin, position yourself comfortably. Let your shoulders drop. Relax your jaw and the muscles around your eyes. Unclench your hands, and let them rest softly in your lap.
Inhale deeply, using your diaphragm and pushing out your belly to take in as much air as you can. Breathe in for a count of four, gently hold your breath for a count of three, and exhale for a count of seven. Repeat this three to five times.
Visualize your energy reaching from the base of your spine, through your seat, the floor, and into the soil. You don’t have to go far below the grass here — once your energy reaches the ground, let it spread out like the roots of a tree. Picture the filaments of your energy reaching through the soil, touching the filaments of mycelium that connect everything. Let your roots engage with the hyphae, gently befriending. When you have spread your energy as far as you can, begin sending a stream of loving light down through your roots.
Don’t worry if you don’t know all of the ins and outs of your local soil’s chemistry. Visualize your energy stimulating where it is needed, calming where it is needed, and balancing where it is needed. Visualize the soil fungi doing their microscopic jobs to break down what is no longer needed, and return it to the earth in a usable, nourishing form. Let your contact with the living soil recalibrate your energy, grounding you.
Continue this visualization for as long as is comfortable for you. When you are ready, gently withdraw your energetic roots from the soil. Open your eyes, stretch your limbs, and go about your day with a renewed awareness of how our actions affect everyone — and everything — around us.