One of the really hecking sweet parts of having more physical endurance now is that places I already loved to go have opened up a lot more to me. Take Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, for one.
It’s a very quietly beautiful place most of the year, other than summer when the lotuses bloom in a sea of brilliant pink. It’s never very crowded, there are always plenty of places to sit, and you rarely hear people over the orchestra of insect calls and birdsong. Even the city traffic dulls to a low, forgettable roar in the background.
Even though the gardens are arguably at their best in summer, I like them the most in autumn. My favorite part of them isn’t the lotuses, really (though I have a certain appreciation for their alien-looking pods), it’s the bald cypress trees.
I love bald cypress trees. They’re my favorite tree. I love their scent (I once knelt down to take a picture of one, and ended up ruining a good pair of jeans by permanently staining the knees green. I felt embarrassed afterward, like a child ruining a set of school clothes on the playground, but sweet, fresh smell of crushed cypress needles was almost worth it). I love the way their needles turn brilliant orange in autumn. I love that they’re one of the few weirdo conifers that actually loses their needles in winter. I love the way they grow, in the liminal space between land and water. I love their alien-looking knees — mistaken for people, animals, and even monsters once they get large enough.
Anyway, before I launch into another paean to bald cypress trees, all of this is to say that we took a long walk in the park and it was pretty nice. The boardwalk is especially pretty this time of year, with the leaves falling on it like confetti in shades of burgundy, vermillion, violet, and saffron.
There weren’t as many flowers, of course. I found some kind of yellow asteraceae, and these very pretty silver cock’s combs, but that was about it. I did also spot some aggressively purple berries on (what I think is) a viburnum, though. Judging by the number of bare twigs, the birds have been hitting them up for snacks pretty hardcore. I know cardinals will happily eat them — I used to have a bright red buddy who hung out outside of the window of my old apartment.
My partner and I sat on a bench for a bit, enjoying the sound of the insects chirping, birds warbling, and wind soughing through the trees.
“What… What are you doing?” He asked.
“Taking off my shoes,” I replied.
I shrugged. “Something about ions. Mostly because it feels good. Dirt. Moss. You know.”
(He eventually followed suit and realized I was right — the cool ground felt wonderful, and the moss was very soft.)
As I write this, it’s Saturday night, I’m snuggled up and waiting to watch a livestream by Gareth Reynolds. I’ve got my partner, my cats, and a fantastic slice of pie. All told, not a bad end to the day!
I mean, some parts of everywhere are weird, don’t get me wrong. Where I grew up, our favorite activity was spelunking in the sewers (I found a stray femur and was almost eaten by geese). When I lived in Delaware, it took me a bit to get used to the way the landscape was broken up — apartment complex, forest, strip mall, pasture, wetlands, wetlands, wetlands, city. In California, the neighborhood was a very tiny island in the middle of fields and pastures. Sometimes, you’d wake up and see all of the puddles shimmering strangely with whatever the crop dusters were spraying the day before. At night, even without seeing any cows for miles, you’d hear their eldritch moos as if they were right in the yard. The songs of coyotes carried for untold distances. Uncanny-valley strangers would come and knock on your door, ask to borrow things, and disappear. It had a very Southern Gothic atmosphere, especially for a place that was emphatically neither.
DC is weird in its own way. I love it here, and there are some extremely cool places and people. The architecture is gorgeous, and you can find some very lovely Victorian-style houses and unexpected details. Still, there are plenty of other areas here that I try to avoid if there’s any way to help it.
This was one of those.
My partner and I were picking up food at this place we found at the beginning of COVID — a little pricey, but they’ve got the best damned catfish po’boy and blackberry shortcake I’ve ever had. (I’d drop the name, but the location is called four different things depending on whether you go there on foot, find it via Google Maps, read their bags, or try to order through a delivery app. Like I said, weird.)
It’s situated in an area that, not unlike the rest of the city, combines historical architecture with modern touches. The thing is, where other areas of DC seem to give the impression that this is done out of necessity, or to fulfill actual human needs, this seems almost malicious. Concrete angel faces stare mutely out over doorways to imposing office and municipal buildings, expressions framed in equally-stony olive branches. At street level, there are stores — jewelers, Nordstrom Rack, a seemingly impossible number of Starbucks cafés — with large, thoroughly modern plate glass windows with the dead, flat gleam of sharks’ eyes.
There’s something about it that strikes me as very calculated. There’s a cultivated air of diversity here, but the kind of diversity that wouldn’t welcome anything that wasn’t a high-end department store, a Starbucks, or an eatery capable of suiting a very narrowly defined sensibility. Some of it is very pretty, but stifling, almost.
On the sidewalks, people sit too close together at outdoor tables. A maskless couple walk by, pushing a leather-clad baby carriage that mommyblogs say could pay a month of my neighbors’ rent.
People live here, too, but everything feels aggressively tailored to those who work here instead. I don’t think they’re the same population. Thinking about it too much makes my teeth itch.
“I need to get the fuck out of here,” I whisper-hiss to my partner, “Because I’ve got maybe ten minutes before this place turns me into an anprim.”
I wonder if this is how fireflies feel when you put them in a mason jar with a stick and a leaf.
Fortunately, getting elsewhere only takes about ten minutes. It might be a strange byproduct of this one self-hypnosis program I sort-of-kind-of-maybe did wrong a few years ago, but the sight of the color green makes my nerves finally start to unknot themselves.
We park and walk a ways. I know my food’s getting cold, but I don’t really care. I take big breaths — there’s smoke coming from somewhere, and it tinges the smell of soil, gently decaying leaves, and damp wood with an earthy sweetness.
We find a picnic table. I always eat fast, but today I manage to finish before my partner’s done unpacking.
“Okay! Gonna go climb on that tree and look for friends!”
He’s grown used to this. I think you kind of have to, after awhile — it’s something that seems pretty firmly baked-in to me. I’m told that when I was very little, maybe four, we had some kind of family function at a beach. My dad says he heard me walking around making tiny proclamations: “Anyone who wants to go find bentures, follow me!” (Then I disappeared into some trees for awhile and he had to peel me off of a sheer clay cliff face, but that’s another story.)
When I was dating one ex-partner, it was a near-constant bone of contention that he never wanted to go exploring with me. I ended up having a lot of adventures with my dog, including finding a broken wooden footbridge that led to nowhere, covered in graffiti that dated back to the ’40s. (I’m almost positive it was Extremely Haunted.)
After that, another ex-partner used to give me survival equipment for every holiday. They figured the odds were pretty good that I’d end up disappearing into the woods some day, and they wanted to hedge their bets on me coming back alive eventually.
In short, I think most of my loved ones throughout history have adapted to the idea of probably seeing me show up on the internet after being mistaken for some kind of pygmy sasquatch.
There’s so much moss. Damp and feathery, sporophytes reaching up on stalks like delicate red threads. I could probably photograph it all day, to be honest — the structures are so beautifully complex when you get close enough.
My partner comes to join me, so we can look for mushy boys.
Some type of Mycena builds a tiny cathedral in a fallen tree. I find another type growing from a separate tree, its cap an almost ghostly translucent white. It’s the only one there, and I don’t have the heart to touch it, see what color it bruises, or try to take a specimen for a spore print.
“Oh, hey,” my partner points to a dead stump. I make a kind of excited pterodactyl noise and get on my stomach for pictures. I haven’t seen jack-o-lantern mushrooms before, but their intense “fuck off” orange and fine, deeply-ridged gills are weirdly, poisonously beautiful.
I can see why they’re often mistaken for chanterelles, though it makes me wonder what came first. Did the chanterelle grow to resemble the false chanterelle and jack-o-lantern mushrooms because it kept it from being eaten, or was it a case of convergent evolution?
It strikes me with some irony that I feel better about poisonous mushrooms than I do about the “Welcome” sign in a shop. Warning orange is easier to look at than shark-eyed windows, I guess.
This week, I wanted to dive back into Ogham divination. I’ve been practicing working with a pendulum made of a fallen cypress root, and the set I have is probably the most conducive to using it.
When I first learned pendulum divination as a preteen, I did it a simple way: hanging a ring or pendant from a piece of string into an empty glass, and asking it to show me “yes” and “no.” Usually, an even number of taps on the glass was a “yes,” while an odd one was a “no.” I’ve always enjoyed using pendulums, and I’ve been having a really interesting time devising ways to mix different types of divination together. Driftwood Ogham fews and a wood pendulum seemed a natural match!
I didn’t ask a specific question this time. So far, this set seems pretty good at telling me what I need to know. It isn’t much like tarot or Lenormand, in this respect. It’s less about answering questions than providing a different, more nebulous kind of insight. If Lenormand describes actions and situations, and tarot describes the energies and emotions surrounding those situations, Ogham is another layer entirely.
The pendulum was still over every oval of driftwood, except for two that made it swing in swift, ever-widening circles: Rowan and Heather.
Heather came up for me last week, when I asked specifically about working through some old patterns. These are things that are going to take more than a week to get past, so I’m not surprised to see this friend appear again.
Rowan is Luis. In Ogham divination, it represents protection from every kind of danger — physical, emotional, and spiritual. It’s defense, precaution, and care. Bind two rowan twigs into an equal-armed cross with red thread, and you have a protective charm. This points to either having protection, or needing it. In either case, it’s time to look to the things that make us feel safe.
Honestly, it reassures me. If Heather points to needing to metaphorically “burn down” old protective patterns so new growth can emerge, Rowan tells me that they aren’t necessary. I am protected, I am safe. I don’t need them. There are healthy behaviors and mechanisms there, better ways to protect myself that don’t involve self-sabotage.
I can keep doing the work without fear, and I’ll be better for it.
For this week’s divination, I went back to my driftwood Ogham set. I asked the question that, probably unsurprisingly, has been plaguing my mind lately:
How do I heal my self-confidence and get used to self-promotion?
I drew Alder and Heather.
Alder is Fearn, the fourth consonant of the Ogham alphabet. Symbolically, alder is a battle-tree. Magically, it’s said to help us face the things we fear. Alder likes to grow in areas that give it “wet feet” — this creates an association with the liminal space between earth and water, between the logical and the emotional, between the body and the heart. It’s wood is also naturally water-resistant, a useful characteristic for creating structures designed to last underwater! It’s a supportive, protective tree spirit, with strong connotations of defense in battle, whether that’s against others or oneself.
Alder tells us to create strong boundaries and defenses, so we don’t undermine ourselves with negative emotions and self-doubt. Any decisions made right now should be carefully considered, so your emotions don’t lead us to burn the bridges we should be building instead. Seeking guidance from the spiritual realm will be helpful here — the roots of the alder help us resist being eroded by our negative emotions, the way they help the earth resist erosion by the water, but, despite this assurance, it’s a mysterious tree that isn’t always forthcoming with how it’s going to do this.
Nice. I can see it. It matches the tarot reading I received the other night, when I was told that not only am I not self-promoting, I don’t always necessarily make the right decisions when it comes to things of that nature. So… Way to call me out, alder tree!
Next is Heather, Ur, the third vowel of the Ogham alphabet. Symbolically, it’s a plant of contrasts — it’s passion and enthusiasm, and the consequences of both. Magically, it’s said to open portal to the realm of the fae. (And fairies associated with heather are said to be particularly attracted to shy people, to boot.) Burning it brings rain, sleeping on it brings prophetic dreams of good luck, and carrying it is protective. Heather tops can be brewed into alcohol, and heather honey is particularly dark and thick. It’s a flowery, sensual, intoxicating plant.
Unfortunately, heather also doesn’t produce terribly well. At least, not if it isn’t periodically burned to the ground! The word-Ogham kennings refer to cycles of growth, or the earth. It’s said to be connected to death and fate through its connection to the soil (a connection which is somewhat reinforced by its magical use for prophetic dreams).
Drawing Heather is often interpreted as enjoying a sweetness and time of repose, but the lesson here is clear: There’s time for drinking heather beer and eating heather honey, and a time for burning the heather to the ground. There’s a time for sweetness, and a time for death. Don’t worry, though, because the burning of the heather brings it back with renewed vigor.
Taken together, I can see a path emerge. I have behaviors in place that are protective for me, but paralyzing. (If you can’t handle positive attention, hiding most of yourself away is a great way to avoid it!) Alder’s protection can help me weather my own negative emotions. Heather shows me that, while destroying my deep-seated protective mechanisms won’t be pleasant, I’ll grow stronger and better than before if I do it. Doing what feels good, avoiding my fears, needs to be balanced out by burning the whole damn thing to the ground if I want to enjoy the sweetness of new growth.
It’s going to suck, but it’ll be okay.
Now I’ve just gotta make that list my therapist told me to. Sigh.
I love dogwood blossoms, I think they’re my favorite non-flower flower. Even the wood and foliage of some species is absolutely breathtaking to look at — there’s nothing quite like a bloody dogwood in the snow.
Depending on where you are, dogwoods are either blooming, starting to bloom, or have been blooming for a few weeks. Since I’m missing the dogwoods at the National Arboretum so much, I figured this would be a good week to look at the folk and magical applications of Cornus wood, leaves, berries, and flowers.
Dogwood Magical Uses and Folklore
As a native American tree (eastern U.S. and Mexico), there’s not a lot of writing on flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) as it pertains to European-based witchcraft. Southern Europe does have a plant called the Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), which is in the dogwood family, and most of Europe and western Asia has the common dogwood (Cornus sanguinea). C. mas and C. sanguinea both flower, but neither of these are quite as showy as the big white or pink blooms of C. florida. Since all of these plants are related, it’s possible, even preferable, to make substitutions depending on what species are locally available to you.
Dogwood is associated with loyalty, secrets, wishes, protection, fertility, desire, and illusion. (The illusion part, in particular, makes a lot of sense — the flowers of the flowering dogwood aren’t actually flowers at all, they’re modified leaves.)
The dogwood is strongly tied with Christian mythology, since the flowers form a cross shape. It was believed that the wood was used to form crosses for crucifixion, so Jesus prevented the dogwood from ever growing large enough to be used for this purpose again.
An old folk remedy for treating mange in dogs involved making a decoction of dogwood bark, and washing the affected areas with it.
Leaves, bark, or flowers can be used as a protective charm.
As an herb of secrecy, it’s a good idea to include some dogwood leaves in a diary, grimoire, or Book of Shadows. An oil made from the flowers can be used to dress a letter and keep prying eyes off of it.
Make a wish come true by catching a drop of dogwood sap on a cloth on the evening of Midsummer, and wishing on it. Carry it until you get your desire, then bury the cloth.
It’s bad luck to bring dogwood flowers into your home, or to burn the wood in your hearth.
One theory for the etymology of “dogwood” is that the name stems from “dag,” from which we also get “dagger.” This is related to the straightness and density of the wood — the sticks are pretty much ideal for crafting shafts for tools or weapons (Ötzi was found with dogwood arrows), and the wood is dense enough to sink in water. In a practical sense, this makes dogwood an excellent material for crafting wands or other magical tools.
A lot of dogwood’s associations fit neatly into one another. Illusion, protection, and secrecy all blend well. I probably wouldn’t use dogwood in place of, for example, cayenne pepper as a protective herb because the energy is so different. Dogwood is subtler — it protects by concealment. It’s a smokescreen, not a fiery wall. Even its use as arrow shafts points to a plant that’s best used to take advantage of the shadows!
American flowering dogwood has four bracts. From a numerological standpoint, four is strength, stability, and pragmatism. This blends nicely with its use as an herb for protection and loyalty.
Dogwood is useful in color magic, since the blooms can range from white, to yellow, to pink, to red. Even the leaves can turn from gold or green to pink, yellow, orange, or red.