Here’s What They Don’t Tell You

IMG_0805My ex liked to move about every two years (just moved again, as a matter of fact)–probably one of the many reasons we’re no longer together.  If you’re always running, you never let yourself have the time to be affected by relationships, whether it’s with neighbors or the land itself.  I hated being rootless.

Listening to the land is what being a Druid is all about though.  If a single sacrament exists that unites all Druids, it would be to Know Thy Lands.  But what form does this take?  We are undeniably people of the Sun; her journey thought the sky dictates our celebrations.  By and large, our rituals are as open to outsiders as they are to the sky.  Knowing the land will bring health, wealth, prosperity. The overflowing arms of a fecund Mother, bucolic prancing lambs, and a piping Pan are among our most beloved images.   And that makes sense, after a fashion, even if it smothers the raw truth of what the land is in a gloss of anti-industrial Romantic bubble wrap.

Here’s what they don’t tell you.  Sometimes being tuned into the land isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Dreams of giant squash bugs, visions of creeping fungus and of garden beds crying out for blood.  Holding a dying mother turkey in your arms as her pullets cry out for her.  Maggots in the compost heap, rats’ nests in the hay.  Keeping a dead chicken in your fridge until the Ag Department can come to determine if it’s bird flu.  You can’t turn your back on the compost, shite and death. The Black Hen of Cerridwen, if you will, that’s one call you can’t ignore.

After five years of watching, writing, listening, tasting, I’m finally settling into the rhythms of being Wachusett’s long shadow.  Even as I know nature owes me nothing, I marvel in being able to eat from my garden and get eggs from our chickens.  And now, at the end of the season, I’ll revel in the catabolic processes that will work their magic in the fallow months to make the land fruitful again come spring.

No, they don’t tell you that before the wonder of Pryderi’s return comes a terrible claw seeking revenge. But now that you know the land, do they really need to?

The Grass is Always Greener

IMG_0558Last week coming home from work, I stopped at the farmers market hosted by one of the rest stops on the Mass Pike.  A woman, a bit older than I, was selling a variety of hand-milled goat milk soap. Local hand-made soap in and of itself is nice, but what really attracted my attention was the variety of herbs she incorporated into her bars and lotions, and the fact that she made very good use of their natural medicinal properties. They smelled absolutely wonderful, and as I browsed we began chatting.

“Are you heading home?” she asked.

“Yes, I work down in Greenwich, Connecticut on weekends.”

“Oh? What do you do down there?”

“Believe it or not, I’m an archaeologist.” This is the point in the conversation when most folks get this rather starry eyed look, and the soap lady was no exception.

“I was so interested in that sort of thing back in high school!” she gushed. “But then I got to college and had no idea how I would make a living at it. What’s the job market like?”

“Truthfully, I’ve been very lucky. I only have a AB, but through my advisor was able to get my current position after I didn’t get into grad school. But most people aren’t so lucky. That being said,” I added, “I’m only a research archaeologist. I don’t do any fieldwork, or go on digs, or discover new artifacts. I just sit at a desk and help edit papers.”

“But still, that’s amazing! I wish I had been able to do something like that.” She swiped my debit card and finished wrapping up my soap selection, a lovely calendula-lemongrass  blend. “You’re really an inspiration.”

I blushed, embarrassed. “Um, thanks.” This is the point in the conversation where I always feel like a fraud, because no matter how many disclaimers I make, that Indiana Jones archetype seems to override all of my caveats. I forced myself to meet her eyes. Blue and clear, the first signs of crows feet perched in the corners.

In a rush I said, “You know, this is what I really want to be doing.” I gestured at the soaps and herbs displayed on her table. “I’m an amateur gardener and herbalist, and I’d love to make a full-time go of it. So really, to me, you’re an inspiration, too.”

“Me? I’m just a farm girl.”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “The grass is always greener.”

Taking in the Midsummer Harvest

Midsummer is really the beginning of summer here in central Massachusetts.  We are about six weeks off from the traditional British harvest holidays, with the cross quarter fire festivals marking the height of each season rather than its beginning. At least that’s been my experience.

There are a number of sacred herbs that can be harvested from my land. Midsummer seemed like a good time to accomplish this, but I also wanted to incorporate some lunar correspondences. The Full Moon was in Capricorn just after Midsummer, which traditionally is a time where  pruning, or harvesting, is done to promote more vigorous growth in the plant. (Although why I would want this for the Mugwort is beyond me.)

And then it rained on the day of the full moon. All my lovely plans were foiled.

So, I went out the next morning, which was still within 12 hours of the moment of the Full Moon. It was the hour of Venus on a Thursday, the day of Jupiter, both of which should be auspicious for harvesting healing herbs. I managed to bring in the Motherwort, Agrimony, and Mugwort then. For future reference, I will be harvesting Motherwort much sooner next year, as it’s seedpods are very sharp and spiky.

Unfortunately I had to complete my harvest in the afternoon, which is when the essential oil concentrations are the lowest. On the “bright” side (ha!) this was now during the hour of the Sun and I brought in Sweetfern, Lavender, and Feverfew.

I had spied a glorious Yarrow by the side of the road earlier that morning. Sadly, someone mowed it down between that time and when I went out in the afternoon to harvested. I was really cheesed off. I did find a couple of other smaller sprigs though, and I’ll see what wild crafting I can do down in the conservation land for this little herb.

I’ll likely be doing another round of harvesting during the Dark Moon, especially for Mugwort (and probably the Agrimony as well, just because I don’t want it going to seed). I’ll probably wait until the next Full Moon for the rest of my culinary herbs like Sage and Oregano.  But for now, it looks like a goodly supply drying on the walls of my kitchen!

Victory Gardens

Victory gardens first became “a thing” back in World War I and II. The name evoked the struggles occurring “over there,” and what people back home could do to aid in that conflict. One of my earliest memories is of a poster that my uncle, a WWI historian, had hanging in his dining room.  It showed an enormous basket overflowing with produce, boldly stating “Food IS Ammunition.”  Something like 8 millions tons of food was produced by victory gardeners, by some estimates 41% of the vegetables consumed at the time.

Eventually, victory gardens fell out of fashion, and growing your own food was a sign of poverty rather than patriotism. Then in the 1980s, WGBH Boston ran a series called Crockett’s Victory Garden. This along with the Joy of Painting (“happy little trees!”), was a Saturday afternoon staple of my childhood. Mr. Crockett led viewers through the basics of growing all sorts of vegetables and fruit at home. It was a great introduction to gardening, and I still frequently refer to his planting timelines in my very dog-eared copy of his companion book.

Unfortunately, Mr. Crockett’s methods were less than organic. He advocated the use of 5-10-5 fertilizers, as well as excessive soil augmentation with peat moss. Compost was mentioned for sure, but not in the amounts that most organic gardeners today would recommend.  Our understanding of soil biology and species interdependence has increased greatly over the past 30 years, casting a very different light on what used to be time honored practices.

Still, I think Mr. Crockett’s message of growing your own food not only for survival, but for pleasure was an important one.  I know in raising my own son, I very much want him to understand where his food comes from–both animal and vegetable.  To this end, we help raise chickens as well as encourage Hufflespawn to work with me in the community garden. The child who will not eat tomatoes in a restaurant has no problem plucking them off the vine and munching on them while we’re out in the garden.  It’s one more example of how the food that we get from the supermarket is so inferior to what we can grow ourselves.

Now we find ourselves in another era where gardening is becoming not just a hobby, but a necessity. With rising food costs, many people find that being able to provide one’s own vegetables can greatly decrease grocery bills. In addition it reconnects us with the land in a vitally important way. I’m not a big fan of declaring war on anything (look where the wars on drugs and poverty have gotten us), but seeking victory in the realms of nutrition, self-sufficiency, and land-connection is surely a worthy goal for its own sake. And I do think it’s possible to declare a victory without ever declaring a war.

Long live the Victory Garden!

Lavender & Rosemary Scones

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One of the things I stopped doing while I was married was baking.  It’s a shame because it’s an activity that always brings me comfort. The past week has been more than a little rough in places, so I decided to flex the ol’ culinary muscles and see if I still had that kitchen magic.

Yep. I still have it.

Basic Scone Recipe

2 3/4 c flour (or substitute GF flour with xantham gum if desired)
1/4 c brown sugar
1/4 c butter
1/4 c baking powder
1/3 c honey
2/3 c milk (or almond milk)
3 T lavender flowers
1/2 T rosemary, finely chopped

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Preheat oven to 400F. Mix dry ingredients, then rub butter into the mix. Add milk and honey. Roll out dough (should be very crumbly, barely holding together) and cut out scones with a biscuit cutter or an inversed drinking glass. Place on greased baking sheet 1″ apart, and bake for 12 minutes or until top is lightly browned.

This recipe is quite good with an herbal tea. In my case, I blended lemon verbena, sage, basil, and some lime juice. No doldrum can stand up to that combination!

Magic in July

July has been a rather magical month all the way around.  It’s easy to find components this time of year in New England. It seems like they’re veritably bursting out of the earth.

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First, I gathered some lavender for a house blessing that our Grove performed for one of our members. It was a wonderful ritual, with much drumming, smudging, food, and song.  Not much surprise on the last two as this was the residence of a bard par excellence!

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The next bit of magic I concocted was for cleansing, warding, and brightening my dwelling space. I had been going through a particularly rough patch with the community, and needed a little extra boost to feel safe in my own space. This was a mix of nettle and raspberry for protection, and dandelion and ginger for cleansing/enlivening. Worked pretty darned well, if you ask me.

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Before I had a particularly difficult meeting, I took a lustral bath with agrimony, loosestrife, and marigold.  Smelled great and acted as the perfect relaxer.

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Last bit of spooky-fu this month was a lucky frog for a neighbor.  She’s usually focused on banishing things, but if you don’t fill the void with something good, you’re just going to end up in the same place.  Since I have a soft spot for frogs and tend to think killing them in the name of a spell is bad juju for the health of your garden, I’ve started making origami frogs instead. Still effective in my experience, with without taking away a valuable predator from my veggies and herbs.