Alfred has gone with the Wild Hunt

I waited as long as I could, but Sunday it was time for my Butzemann, Alfred, to leave for the Wild Hunt.

My husband still wasn’t happy about the idea, but I told him again that Alfred wants to leave, and if we don’t burn him by Tuesday, he’ll just leave anyway and leave his empty body behind. And besides, since I stuffed him with a stem from a frost-killed tomato plant from last year, I guess that means his soul was the soul of a tomato plant. Tomato plants usually only get to live for one year, so he got to live an extra year as a Butzemann.

Thankfully, it had finally gotten cold outside, or at least cold by Texas standards. In early October we had still been getting highs in the 90’s, so it really didn’t feel like Wild Hunt season. But just in time, we got a cold front that gave us nighttime lows in the 40’s. You know how cold air has a smell? I’m not sure what that smell is, scientifically, but it definitely has a smell, and just like how I associate the smell of rain with Thor, the smell of cold air means the Wild Hunt is in town.

Sunday morning I still had some garlic and onions left to plant, so Alfred helped me with that. That means I got to plant almost all of my winter garden before Alfred left. It’s a little tricky to adapt these traditions to my local climate, but I think it will work out having the Butzemann created right before it’s time to plant warm-weather plants (like tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, etc.), and burned right after planting my cold-weather plants (kale, collards, carrots, radishes, garlic, onions, etc.). That way he can participate in both growing seasons.

Alfred and I also sat down together and went over the seeds that I plan on planting next year, which will be looked after by his son. I’ll stuff his son with the stems of the tomatoes that Alfred watched over this year.

I decided I should make him a special dinner before he went, and since he’s a Texas Butzemann, I made a big pot of chili. That’s the thing that Texans always want to eat when it finally gets cold. I made it the long way with stew meat, dried beans, and chili powder made from grinding whole dried peppers (instead of the shortcut way with ground meat, canned beans, and pre-made chili powder – which is fine in certain situations, but not for special occasions). I cooked it for about 3 hours. Yes, I know some people say real Texans don’t put beans in chili, but I’m born and raised in Texas and I always do. I don’t like the idea of eating a big bowl of meat without any vegetables in there, and beans are one of the Three Sisters, and I got some very good quality beans that I knew would get nice and tender. Oh, and speaking of the Three Sisters, I also put some pumpkin puree in there to thicken it, and that was pumpkin that I grew in my garden. The sweetness from the pumpkin smooths out the spiciness without people noticing it has pumpkin in it.

I also made cornbread in a cast iron skillet to go with it. That’s the best way to make cornbread! So all three sisters were represented (along with peppers and tomatoes which are sort of honorary fourth and fifth sisters, or maybe cousins, or something like that).

I set three places at the table, one for me, one for my husband, and one for Alfred. He got his share of chili and cornbread and some Shiner Bock beer, a local brand. But then when dinner was over, it was time for him to go.

My husband made a fire in our patio fire pit. He put some juniper in there which smells really good when it burns, keeps the mosquitoes away, and burns really hot. He built up the fire so that it would be really big and hot to… you know… make it quick.

I also came up with an idea for one last thing Alfred could do for us that I hope isn’t taboo or something. Since my husband and I both have dead loved ones we remember at this time of year (both human and feline), and since Alfred was leaving to join up with the Dead, maybe he could deliver some notes to them for us. We wrote some notes for our dead loved ones and tucked them into his jeans.

Then it really was time for him to go. The fire was roaring. He was sitting on the bench on the porch and seemed ready. I got two sticks from the brush pile and used them to lift him up under his arms to stick him in the bonfire. Thankfully, he was engulfed in flames almost instantly. In fact, later I noticed I had singed my eyelashes putting him in! The flames gave off some interesting colors like blue and green before going back to orange. My husband and I sat on the bench watching the fire until it burned down to embers. I noticed there were tears in my husband’s eyes. There may have been some in mine too. Maybe some of the smoke got in our eyes.

Then we went inside and watched The Book of Life before going to sleep. I’d been wanting to watch that movie for a while, and this seemed like a very appropriate time.

I kept the ashes from the fire and will sprinkle them on the garden this weekend.

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My First Butzemann

Meet my first Butzemann, Alfred der Nei.

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Ever since hearing about the Urglaawe tradition of making a Butzemann, I’ve wanted to make one, especially since I’m an enthusiastic gardener. I finally did last weekend.

I don’t have a sewing machine, and if I did, I wouldn’t know how to use it, so first I went to the craft store to see what they had there that I could use. They had 12 inch blank muslin dolls and straw cowboy hats to fit them. Perfect!

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If I wasn’t going to make his body myself, I wanted to at least make his clothes. I used the bottom of one of the legs of a pair of worn-out jeans to make overalls for him, and for his shirt I used the sleeve of a worn-out green t-shirt. I know that Butzemenner are supposed to have new clothes all to themselves, so I hope he doesn’t mind that his clothes are made out of recycled materials. I did have to hand-cut and hand-sew them with needle and thread, which took a lot of effort, so I hope that infused him with more energy, even if they did turn out a bit ragged and asymmetrical.

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Butzemenner also need to have some plant material from the land they are supposed to protect, and a heart of some kind. For that, I had to do a little “surgery” on him. I undid the seam on his left side (you can kind of see that in this picture) to insert a “spine” into his back made of a branch from one of my tomato plants that was killed by frost. For his heart I used one of the Calico lima beans I grew in the garden this year, so his heart also doubles as more garden plant material. After those things were inserted through the incision, I sewed him back up and got to work on his clothes.

When his clothes were done, I drew on his face and hair with a Sharpie. When I read up on how to construct a Butzemann, it suggested including runes in his creation. I drew four runes on him: Inguz on his right hand, Berkano on his left hand, Jera on his right foot, and Othala on his left foot. I then breathed Ansuz into his mouth, trying to mimic how Odin gave the breath of life to Ask and Embla.

I gave him the name Alfred, which is an old English name that means “Elf Counsel.” I thought it would be good if he was counseled by the Elves. That means the rest of his family line from now on will have the surname of Alfredsen.

Next it was time to take him around to show him what he will need to tend and protect for the next nine months. I introduced him to our two cats, Basil and Lily (it was easy for Lily, because she had been lying beside me the whole time when I was working on Alfred’s clothes). I showed him the back garden, which has peas and kale growing in it right now. Then I took him around to the front garden where the garlic and potatoes are growing. I also showed him the tomato, pepper, and tomatillo plants I have started in pots that will be ready to plant in the ground in a few weeks.

He then got introduced to the fruit trees. While we were out there we noticed the pomegranate is starting to leaf out, and the satsuma is starting to recover from the freeze, but the Meyer lemon still looks like it’s in bad shape. It’s lost all its leaves and there is no sign of new growth. I really should have done a better job covering it up when it got down to 23 degrees. I asked Alfred to give it some special attention to help it recover and grow back. The kumquat, loquat, and fig tree are all in good shape. This year I would like to plant some more fruit trees, maybe a couple of dwarf apples, or maybe a peach or pear.

The last thing I did was introduce him to my husband, who was working on a flower bed he’s building in the front yard out of cut limestone.

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Since I have crop plants in both the front and the back of the house, I decided that Alfred should live on the mantle in the living room where he’s in the middle of everything. If I posted him facing one garden, he’d be facing away from the other one, and I don’t want him to neglect anything.

I made a cake to celebrate Groundhog’s Day, so Alfred got a slice once I was done making him and giving him a tour of the house and he was on the mantle. The next morning I gave him a cup of coffee so he’d be ready for his first full day on the job. I have this little coffee cup that I think was originally a votive candle holder. It’s about the size of a shot glass, and I think it makes a good mini cup for him.

I’ve also decided that whenever I do any major work in the garden, like planting or harvesting, I’ll bring him with me so he can watch. I also had him watch over our usual Charming of the Garden Tools ritual I’ve been doing every year since we moved here.

Now if only I knew how to pronounce “Butzemann.” When I was trying to explain all this to my husband, he was like, “butts – a – man?” I guess that’s how you pronounce it. Pronunciation is a problem I’ve always had with Heathenry, and Urglaawe is no better. I’m not sure how to pronounce Urglaawe either, now that I think of it.

Oh well, I’ve already gotten pretty fond of Alfred. It’s going to be hard to burn him come October, but I guess that’s part of the point.

Gardening as a Spiritual Practice

It’s Lammas, and since I’m one of those people who associate this holiday with Frey, I’d like to talk about one of the main reasons why Frey gets a lot of worship from me.

When I was a kid we had a small vegetable garden in the backyard. We grew cherry tomatoes, sweet banana peppers, yellow crookneck squash, and blue lake bush beans. The tomatoes and peppers were plants purchased from the garden section of Home Depot or Wal-Mart. The beans and squash were Burpee seeds from the seed rack there. We fertilized it with Miracle Gro, killed bugs with Sevin, and killed weeds with Roundup.

Eventually my mom said she had grown tired of the garden and I was old enough to be in charge of it now, if I wanted to still have a garden. The garden was now mine.

Soon an obsession was sparked in me. This was pre-internet, so I had to read books on the subject that I got from the library. I started to read about how harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides were, so I went organic. I started reading about heirloom varieties that they didn’t have at the big box stores, so I started growing those instead. I started tomatoes and peppers from seed in yogurt cups in the windowsill of my room instead of buying plants from the store.

When we moved into a new house with a postage-stamp yard, I had to downsize. I was constantly frustrated that I had so little room to grow much, just four tomato plants, four pepper plants, two bush squash plants, and some pole beans climbing up chicken wire I attached to the fence. I kept dreaming of one day having a huge garden where I could grow fruit trees, berry bushes, long rambling melon and pumpkin vines, and enough tomatoes to can and freeze.

Then I went off to college and lived in a tiny studio apartment. I couldn’t stand not being able to grow anything. I felt so cut off from Mother Earth and the cycles of the seasons. Eventually I heard about a community garden in town, so I got a plot there. It was great at first. I could finally grow things, and had a lot more room than I did in my mom’s backyard. The problem was I now I had to drive a few miles to putter in the garden, instead of just walking out the back door. For a while I had a part time job in the bookstore across the street from the community garden, so I would visit it every day after work. I didn’t want to get my work clothes and shoes dirty, but at least that way I could check on my plants almost every day, harvest anything that ripened, and take note of things I had to do on my next day off when I’m properly prepared to dig in the dirt.

But then I got a job further away and visiting my garden required a 15 minute drive to get there. And then I had a car accident and wasn’t hurt but totaled my car and now relied on public transportation to get there. Now it was a 45 minute bus ride to get to my garden, because public transportation in Texas is terrible. I have a vivid memory of dragging a large sack full of freshly harvested potatoes and onions onto the bus after spending a few hours digging them up. The bus driver and I had an interesting conversation about it.

The garden started getting neglected. Sometimes tomatoes would rot before I got to them. The weeds started taking over because I never had enough time to pull them all. I was going to college full time plus a part time job, so I could only visit the garden once a week.

The other gardeners at the community garden were almost all retired people who had a lot of time on their hands. Some thought it was really cool that a college student was trying to grow a garden there and were friendly and encouraging, but the lady who had a plot next to mine started getting increasingly annoyed. She kept her garden perfect with no weeds and little cherub statues and lattice fences around. She started making rude comments about how unkempt and ugly my garden was looking. I started trying to avoid being there when she was also there, which cut into the time I could spend in my garden even more.

Then one day I got to my garden and there was a yellow flag. That happens when someone puts in a complaint that a garden had excessive weeds or unharvested crops, so the garden might be abandoned. You had a week to clean it up or they would put up a red flag, and now that means you lost your garden and they were going to rent it to someone else. I don’t know who complained about my garden, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to clean it up in time, so I sent management an email saying I was giving up my garden. I didn’t want to get that red flag signifying it was abandoned, because I’d heard the complaints about all “those people” who come and get a plot and be enthusiastic for a few weeks and then realize it was hard work and disappear. I didn’t want them to think I was one of “those people.”

I ended up going to graduate school at a different university in a new town which had community gardens, but I had learned my lesson that I didn’t have time to tend a garden I had to drive to. The old saying goes that the best thing for a garden is the gardener’s shadow. A garden really needs to be checked on daily.

The best I could do was get a CSA membership, so I got fresh produce delivered once a week to my apartment. I made friends with the farmer, and would sometimes come and help him with his farm, which was about a 20 minute drive away. One time I went and helped him pick peaches for a few hours, and he let me take home all the bruised ones he couldn’t sell. Another time I got a bunch of imperfect tomatoes. I bought a canner and canned them in my tiny apartment kitchen. I bought a Meyer lemon tree and a Key lime tree for my apartment balcony. I even harvested a few lemons or limes from them each winter. It wasn’t much of a harvest, but at least it was something.

Then I met the man who would become my husband, and we moved in together in a rented house. Shortly after that I graduated during the recession and was unemployed for almost a year. We did ask permission from the landlord to have a garden, but I bet he didn’t realize I’d take up the whole back yard. When you’re unemployed they say you’re supposed to make looking for work your full time job, but you can really only keep that up for a few weeks before you run out of places to apply to, and then what do you do with your time? I also looked for places to volunteer at, but they were all full and said they didn’t need any more volunteers. I guess many other people out of work had the same idea.

At least my garden made me feel like I was doing something productive, and I did get a bountiful harvest, especially of tomatoes, squash, and garlic. I doubt I made a big dent in our bills, but I think it certainly helped with my mental health.

Then I finally got a job, we got married, and bought our own house. And that’s where I am today. Our house is on a 0.8 acre plot, but most of it is heavily shaded with oak trees, which is nice, but gardens need sun. I have two vegetable gardens, one in the front and one in the back, in the two sunny spots we had. I also have fruit trees in a row in the front yard between the oak trees and the road: a pomegranate, the Meyer lemon I used to have on my balcony, a satsuma, a kumquat, a loquat, and a fig. We tried planting the Key lime where the kumquat is now, but during its first winter it died down to its roots. We dug it up and put it back in a pot, and replaced it with the kumquat. I guess my area isn’t quite warm enough yet for a Key lime to survive in the ground (it did manage to sprout back from its roots and now seems to be thriving in its pot). I would like to have more fruit trees like apples, peaches, and pears, but I’m not sure where I have the room to squeeze them in.

I know most people don’t have gardens, but I simply need to have one. Fellow gardeners will understand that, and other people don’t get it at all. When my husband and I were looking for a house, my first priority was that there had to be room for a garden.

 

The main deity I associate with my garden is Frey. I know some people might think that my gardening doesn’t count as an act of devotion to Frey, since it’s something I enjoy doing anyway, and would do with Frey or without him, but that’s how it is with me. It’s also shaped how I view Frey. I’ve seen other people’s depictions of him where he ends up looking like Fabio, with long flowing blonde hair, but I have a hard time picturing him like that.

To me, Frey has hair and a beard the dark brown color of fertile soil and green eyes the color of healthy vegetation. He has the physique and tanned skin of someone who works outside most of the time. If he’s wearing clothes, they’re also green and brown, and he smells like soil and fresh cut grass. His sacred animals are the deer and the wild hog, which is ironic since both of those animals are very destructive to gardens. Deer are overpopulated here since we removed their natural predators, and wild hogs are a non-native invasive species. Maybe there’s a lesson here somewhere.

The idea that Frey is sacrificed and reborn every year is probably a bit of modern lore. I don’t remember anything about that in any of the Norse mythology I’ve read. But I don’t care, because it fits so well with him. The cycle of life, death, and rebirth is so obvious when you garden, and especially when you save your own seeds, like I do. It also makes sense for him to die on Lammas, because here that’s the hottest time of year, and that’s what ends up killing most of the spring-planted crops (the tomatoes, beans, etc. that were planted in February or March). Then there’s a second planting season for overwintering crops in fall when it cools down sometime around the Autumn Equinox.

In order to be a good gardener I also have to be on good terms with the local land spirits and the plant spirits, and that’s where things get a little trickier as a Heathen, because most of them are not European. Yes, Europeans have been here for a while, and many of them are buried around here and still haunt the place, but they are in the minority as far as local spirits go. As for the plants I grow, most of them are either native to the New World (squash, beans, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes), or to Africa (okra, black-eyed peas) because of the hot climate here. In the winter I can grow some peas, carrots, turnips, and other European things, but for most of the year my garden is full of stuff that wasn’t domesticated by white people. I don’t think it’s right to ignore native spirits when I’m using their land and growing their crops, but cultural appropriation is always such a touchy subject. How I deal with this is still in the learning stages.

And I mean “growing their crops” quite literally sometimes. I get a lot of stuff from Native Seeds/SEARCH, which is an organization in Tucson, Arizona whose goal is to preserve Native American plant varieties from the Southwest. Some of their plants are native to the New World (like corn, beans, and squash), and some were brought by Europeans and then adopted by native tribes (like melons). Tucson is a bit hotter and drier than here, but that often means their plants think South Texas is a lush paradise. Sometimes I hardly have to water them at all. They do have a few varieties that are from the San Antonio area, like what is now my favorite okra, but I’m on the very eastern edge of the geographic range they cover.

But with climate change, maybe things from further southwest might be even better adapted to growing here over time. That seems to be the opinion of the founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH, Gary Nabhan. He’s probably right that the world is going to need these desert-adapted crops in the future. I’m just not sure if it’s going to get wetter or drier here overall. So far it seems like we’ve just had more extremes: floods, then droughts, then a flood, then more drought. That actually makes it even harder than it would be if it was just getting consistently wetter or drier. Plant something from Florida during a dry year and it roasts to a crisp. Plant something from Arizona during a wet year and it rots.

 

Now my gardening has progressed into seed-saving to preserve heirloom varieties. I’ll probably join Seed Savers Exchange soon because I’ve gotten to the point where I have enough to share. I’ve also started a little bit of amateur plant breeding to get varieties that are even better adapted to my growing conditions, inspired by an author named Carol Deppe. I own all three of her books, and she’s one of those people who I think would make a good pagan (even though she says she’s a Taoist). There’s a lot of animism in the way she writes about the relationship between a gardener and her plants. She’s one of those gardeners who is not afraid to admit that she talks to her plants, and talking to them helps them grow better, and sometimes they do actually talk back.

Saving your own seeds closes the circle. I associate it with the rune Ingwaz. In general I think of Ingwaz as the rune for the legacy you are going to leave to future generations. It’s a counterbalance to Othala in that way, as Othala is the rune for what the ancestors left us.

I like to think that I’m doing my part to preserve seeds and knowledge for future generations who are going to really need them when climate change forces us to adapt the way we obtain our food.

But even if there wasn’t some “greater purpose” to what I do in my garden, I’d still enjoy doing it anyway. It’s just fun.

Thor the Rainbringer

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A black swallowtail visits the Cenizo in my front yard.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, one of my long-term goals is to adapt Heathenry to Texas. I think this is necessary in order for Heathenry to survive into the future. We can’t keep Heathenry stuck in Viking Age Scandinavia. It has to be allowed to evolve and adapt. Of course, transplanting Heathenry to Texas is going to be difficult because of the climate difference between here and Northern Europe, but I think it can be done.

Part of that is adapting seasonal festivals to the local climate, which is what I’ve mostly been writing about, but I also think that the gods manifest themselves differently in different regions. That could be because I’m a very nature-oriented person, but I don’t think I’m the only person who has noticed this. For example, I have a lot of trouble with Skadhi because she’s a frost giantess, and last winter we didn’t even have any freezes! That will only become more common as the climate warms. I also don’t have much to do with Njord because I don’t live by the coast. Even if I did live on the Gulf Coast, I have a feeling Njord would manifest a lot differently there than he does in Scandinavia, since the Gulf Coast of Texas is semi-tropical. Texas Njord had better like palm trees and sea turtles!

That being said, some Germanic gods seem to have no problem making themselves known here in Texas, and I’d say the easiest one is Thor. He fits right in. Come on, can’t you imagine him wearing snakeskin cowboy boots?

In Northern Europe, Thor fights the Frost Giants, but here heat and drought are his main adversaries. Though he comes from a long line of Indo-European thunder gods, in Texas he takes on the job of the bringer of life-giving rain, giving him a bit more of a fertility aspect which is downplayed in the Scandinavia lore. I don’t live in the desert, but my ecosystem is still drought-prone. We had an especially bad one in 2011, making it obvious how much we rely on Thor’s blessings. There’s nothing like getting a nice thunderstorm rolling in after enduring another Texas summer of 100 degree heat. The brown landscape comes back to life after it soaks up the life-giving water. There are several plant species here that bloom right after a rain and are dormant the rest of the time. I consider those plants sacred to Thor.

But as it often is with natural forces, there is another side. My area is also prone to flash floods. Last year we had some especially bad floods that killed several people and caused massive amounts of destruction. Then there are the tornadoes. I’m actually a little too far south to have a lot of tornadoes, but they do show up occasionally. However, I grew up in the Dallas area where tornado watches and warnings were common.

Thunderstorms also bring hail. If you are a Texan, it is not hard to understand why Hagalaz is one of the most dreaded runes. It was only a few weeks ago that San Antonio got baseball-sized hail that broke many car windshields and roofs and windows of houses. Now imagine if you are a farmer and your livelihood depended on your crops, and just as they’ve started to grow up nice and green, a hail storm pulverizes them. And now it’s too late in the year to replant and get a crop in time. Your entire year’s income just got wiped out in one day.

So thunderstorms bring us life-giving water and relief from the heat. They fill our rivers and aquifers and water our crops. They also destroy our crops with hail, destroy our houses with floods and tornadoes, and kill people. It should be no surprise then that Thor is prominent in Texas.

In Central Texas, we have two rainy seasons. The big one is just coming to an end. May and June are our wettest months. The summer crops get plenty of water, but this is also when the most flash floods happen. Then things dry out in July and August before our second, less severe rainy season happens in September and October. Either of these rainy seasons would be a good time for a Texan to do a big ritual in honor of Thor.

I often make smaller offerings to him during thunderstorms, especially if it comes when I really needed it. I like to give him Shiner Bock, which is a Texas beer that I like (so I often have it in the fridge), or I burn him some Dragon’s Blood incense. During the dry season, offerings of rain water from the rain barrel seem like an appropriate sacrifice as well. On my altar I have a rain stick for Thor that I sometimes use when offering to him.

Everyone knows that Thor’s sacred tree is the oak, and my area has plenty of those. The main species here is Quercus virginiana, the Southern live oak, and it’s also the most common tree on my property. We also have a few Texas red oak (Quercus bucklei) seedlings and saplings coming up here and there.

Like I mentioned above, there are some native Texas plants that bloom when it rains, and I also consider these sacred to Thor even if it isn’t traditional. One is a shrub called Cenizo, Leucophyllum frutescens, which is a popular landscape shrub around here. It has silvery foliage and blooms with beautiful purple flowers. One of its common names is “barometer bush” because if its habit of blooming when it rains.

Another one of Thor’s plants is the rain lily, Cooperia pedunculata, which waits underground as a bulb until it rains. Then once the water soaks down to the bulbs, their cheerful white flowers emerge. Rain can be spotty around here, so there have been several times I’ve been driving out in the country and commented, “Oh, it must have rained here. Look at all the rain lilies along the side of the road.”

As for animals, Thor is usually associated with goats, and the Texas Hill Country is good for goat farming, judging by how many goats you see driving around out in the country, especially towards Dripping Springs and Fredericksburg. It looks like both meat goats and milk goats thrive here. Locally produced goat cheese is a common sight at farmer’s markets. I think it would be a good offering to Thor. Goat meat still doesn’t seem to have caught on much among white people, but Hispanics love it, so if you are adventurous enough you can go to a Hispanic meat market to get some. I’ve had it once or twice, and it was good. It tasted to me somewhere between beef and lamb.

Thor also has a sacred bird here. In the Scandinavian lore, Odin is associated with ravens and Freya with falcons. It seems to be modern lore to associate Frigg with some kind of water bird, like a heron or osprey, which I think is appropriate. But Thor doesn’t have a sacred bird as far as I know.

Well, for Texas at least, I propose the Yellow Billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) to be Thor’s bird. It’s also known as the Rain Crow because of its habit of calling before thunderstorms. They migrate to Central America in the winter, but always arrive in my area in time for the thunderstorm season. I hear them really often, but they are seldom seen. They like to creep around high in the trees and don’t usually perch out in the open. I have actually seen one three or four times though. If you’re not looking carefully, they can be mistaken for a mockingbird, but they’re bigger, browner, and have that distinctive yellow bill (mockingbirds are grey with a black bill).

The kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk kowlp-kowlp-kowlp sound of the Rain Crow, the smell of ozone, the blooming Barometer Bush, the cool breeze just starting to cut through the heavy, humid air, those are the signs that Thor the Rainbringer is on his way! Instead of going inside, we stay out and watch the dark clouds billowing in the distance and the first few drops of rain hitting the dusty dry earth. “Finally it’s raining. We really needed the rain,” we say before heading under a roof to avoid getting soaked. But we keep watching as the thirsty trees and grass and gardens soak up Thor’s gift and the sky lights up with a spectacular show.

Hail Thor! Hail the Rainbringer! Welcome to Texas. We hope you’ll stay fer a spell!

Sacred Plants: Texas Mountain Laurel

I think that pagans who want to get more in touch with their local environment would do well to learn more about local sacred plants, especially native plants, which I think are often overlooked, though cultivating an herb garden is also a good idea.

I used to lead a native plant workshop at a local pagan festival, until the festival became prohibitively expensive for me to keep attending with my current financial situation. We went for a short hike around the festival grounds while I pointed out the plants and talked about each one. The workshop was well-attended, but I was somewhat disappointed at how often I got the question, “What kind of spell would this plant be useful for?” as the person snatched up a forb growing in the meadow. Giving people lists of “correspondences” for native plants was not exactly what I intended that workshop to be about. If you just want an herb for your money spell, you would probably do better grabbing a jar of dried basil next time you’re at the grocery store.

What I was really intending for the workshop was to get people to learn more about the native plants of Central Texas. I want them to learn about the plants themselves. What kind of environments they grow in, when they bloom, what sort of mundane things did the Indians or pioneers use them for, as well as any magical properties they might have. I guess I’m too much of an animist to feel right about just pulling off some leaves to use for some spell, without getting to know the plant’s spirit first.

So here’s my first post highlighting a local sacred plant that all people living in the Hill Country should be familiar with, and all pagans living in the Hill Country should revere: Sophora secundiflora. They are in full bloom sometime between Imbolg and Ostara, which is right now.

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Mountain laurels in my front yard

The common names for this plant include Texas Mountain Laurel and Mescal Bean. It is a small evergreen tree in the legume family. There are other small flowering trees in North America also called “mountain laurel” that are unrelated, hence the “Texas” part of the name. It lives in the Hill Country, all the way west to a small area in New Mexico, and south to Central Mexico. I tend to call the trees themselves “mountain laurels” and their seeds “mescal beans”. They’re one of my favorite trees, and I was delighted that most of the trees on our property we moved to a year ago are either live oaks or mountain laurels.

A mountain laurel bloom

A mountain laurel bloom

They bloom in March with these fantastic purple inflorescences, which give off a strong, sweet, mouthwatering fragrance most people liken to grape soda or Kool-Aid. They’re fairly popular as a native ornamental plant. The parking lot where I work has a lot of them in the medians, though many people choose not to plant them, complaining that they grow much more slowly and don’t bloom for as long as that popular Chinese native, Crepe Myrtles.

The thing is, most native plants here grow slowly. It’s how they survive the lack of water. Mountain laurels grow in poor, rocky soil and can take just about anything Texas throws at them. And personally, the short bloom time (the blooms only last two or three weeks) seems to make them more special to me. I guess in a culture where we can get ripe strawberries in winter, people just don’t appreciate these brief, seasonal events that you have to enjoy right then until they’re gone for another year.

mescal beans

Mountain laurel pods and seeds

The purple flowers soon give way to peanut-like pods with bright orange-red seeds that litter the sidewalks and parking lots next to the trees. Maybe that’s another reason why some people are reluctant to plant them, because the seeds are listed everywhere as deadly poisonous. What I’ve heard is that plenty of kids have swallowed the seeds with no ill-effects, because they have very hard seed coats, so they pass through the digestive system unscathed. The toxin is inside the seed, and is only released if the seed is crushed or chewed up. Of course, caution is still warranted, but I’m certainly not going to chop down all my mountain laurels when I have a kid.

OK, so now we come to the part all the pagans are waiting for. What are the magical properties of the Texas Mountain Laurel? Well, to figure that out, you should think about why their other common name is Mescal Bean, those “poisonous” seeds. You see, they’re also hallucinogenic, and were used as an entheogen by the Native Americans living in this area. The Indians would crush them up and ingest them in rituals, though the dosage is a bit tricky, and they can make you very sick or even kill you if you take too much. Once peyote cactus was imported from further south, using mescal beans as an entheogen was abandoned, since peyote gives a better high with fewer side effects.

However, the mescal beans were still considered sacred, and even today Indians wear necklaces made of beads of mescal beans with holes drilled through the middle during their peyote rituals. I must say, they make a very pretty necklace too, and I’m considering making one myself some day.  I certainly have enough of the seeds here in my yard.

So I don’t recommend actually ingesting the seeds unless you’re under the supervision of a trained native shaman (and even then you’d probably do better with peyote or ayahuasca), but the seeds or strings of the seeds made into beads could be useful if you’re doing any sort of divination or trying to receive visions or contact the Otherworld in some other (safer) way.

The mountain laurel behind my ritual circle

The mountain laurel behind my ritual circle

The biggest mountain laurel I have in my yard is right behind the sacred circle. I thought it was an oak tree at first, since it’s as big as a lot of the smaller oaks in my yard. They seldom get that big, but I think it’s a good sign that it’s there. Who knows, maybe that’s why I got such good “vibes” about putting my ritual circle in that spot.