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.

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The Hot Time of Year

Late July through August is the hottest time of year here. After the rainy season in May and June, a high pressure system usually parks itself right over Texas, things dry out, and temperatures soar above 100 degrees every day. We don’t get any relief until a hurricane hits the Gulf of Mexico just right, or we get our first cold front in late September, usually right around the Autumn Equinox.

Lammas was August 1, and I admit I pretty much skipped it this year. I know, bad pagan. This is the holiday I’ve had the most trouble adapting to my climate. It’s usually celebrated as a harvest festival. Some Heathens consider it a holiday for Frey. In Medieval England it was the first grain harvest and time to bake bread, which also fits with Frey. I like Frey.

Problem is that baking bread is often the last thing I feel like doing in early August.

My lawn is crunchy when you walk on it. The only things left alive in my garden are the sweet potatoes, pumpkins, hot peppers, blackeyed peas, and okra. And they’re only alive because they are especially heat-tolerant plants, I have them well mulched with straw, and I still have to turn their drip irrigation on at least once a week to get them through.

At night temperatures dip down into the high 70’s at best. I’ve been skipping my evening walk with my husband lately, which is bad for me to do, but even after it gets dark there’s waves of heat coming off the pavement, and by the time we get home I’m soaked in sweat.

At least this year we got an El Nino, and finally an end to the terrible drought we’ve been in for several years, and we got a good rainy season in May and June (along with some terrible floods that killed some people). But we’re still having a normal August, which means it’s really hot.

I feel like I shouldn’t just skip this holiday. I think it’s significant that it’s the hottest time of year, and that should be acknowledged with some kind of observance. Perhaps it should be a more solemn one, to prepare for the celebration that comes in September and October when it’s finally not hot anymore.

I took another look at John Beckett’s post about adapting the Wheel of the Year to Texas. He lives in North Texas, and I live in South Texas, so we’re close but not exactly the same. He says he has the most trouble with September 21, but that one is easy for me because it usually is really close to when we get our first cold front, and temperatures go from 102 degrees to a “refreshing” 92 degrees. I’m only joking a little.

We do sometimes get rain from hurricanes in September, but that only happens if the hurricane hits the Gulf in just the right spot and doesn’t end up in Mexico or Louisiana or Florida instead. It’s unreliable enough that I don’t think I could make it a regular observance. The first cold front of the year is a bit more reliable. We get the biggest storms when both those things happen at the same time, so the cool air from the north hits the hot tropical air from the south.

But I digress, back to August.

John calls August “The Corn Harvest.” Now that you mention it, you might be onto something there. There are some cornfields a few miles from where I live. Something weird that my husband and I recently discovered since living out here is that when they harvest corn with their huge machines, it blows a bunch of big corn leaves high enough up into the air that they can get caught by wind currents up there and travel for miles. Then they land in the most unexpected places, like my backyard. A couple of weeks ago a great big corn leaf just plopped right down on my back porch and scared my cat. On our evening walks we found several more in some of our neighbors’ front yards.

The corn they’re growing out there is probably some kind of industrial grade stuff for animal feed or ethanol, but meanwhile at the grocery store, they have sweet corn on the cob on sale 6 for $1, so it must be the season for all corn, not just the stuff no one wants to eat.

I haven’t attempted to grow corn in my garden yet. I think I tried once when I was a kid and didn’t have much luck. The ears were undersized, weren’t completely pollinated, and had corn earworms. Corn is tricky to grow because it’s a heavy feeder and you need to plant a large block of it for adequate pollination.

But now that I have a pretty big garden, and have been doing a lot of work adding manure and compost to it, maybe I can try again.

I’ve been meaning to try corn again anyway. Even if I don’t get a big harvest, corn is a sacred plant. It’s the native grain of the Americas. It deserves respect and reverence. Instead of growing a super sweet hybrid corn like I attempted when I was a kid, I should order an heirloom corn variety that’s adapted to my climate and try that instead. It’ll probably do better.

Another good thing about corn is you don’t have to bake it into bread. The wheat harvest is all about baking bread, which is something I only like doing in the winter. But I love grilled corn on the cob, and I do a lot of grilling in the summer. Even cornbread is quicker and easier to make than wheat bread and better for eating in the summer. A lot of heirloom corn varieties are dual-purpose. You can eat them at the “green corn” stage or let them mature for cornmeal. They’re not as sweet as sweet corn used only for fresh eating, but they have a lot more flavor.

OK, that’s it. It’s settled. When I order seeds this winter I’m getting some maize from Native Seeds/SEARCH, which is one of my favorite places to get seeds, since they specialize in Native American varieties of the Southwest. Then next year I’m going to try celebrating August 1 as the Corn Harvest. Even if I don’t get my own harvest, I can still buy some at the grocery store. Growing my own is much better though.

The main thing I’d have to grapple with is which gods and spirits to involve. I’d still want to honor Frey, because he’s my harvest god, but the spirit of corn is a Native American goddess called Corn Mother (it’s unclear to me whether there is one Corn Mother known to many corn-growing tribes, or many Corn Mothers). It really wouldn’t feel right to me to not acknowledge the Native American character of maize in a ritual featuring it.

Oh no! Eclecticism! Cultural appropriation! I know, I know. I have a whole year to think about it, but it seems more like appropriation to just shove maize into a totally Germanic-style ritual as if it were wheat or barley. It’s not wheat or barley; it’s maize. That’s the whole point. I’d do it from the point of view as a respectful guest on their land, not a fake Indian wannabe. “Hey, Corn Mothers, thanks for this corn that is so much easier to grow here than wheat. It’s delicious!”

Nothing growing in my garden right now is European. The pumpkins, hot peppers, and sweet potatoes are American, and the okra and blackeyed peas are African. I grow European stuff like carrots and turnips in the winter when it’s cool enough for them to grow. And since I’m an animist, I have to acknowledge that those plants have spirits, and the spirits aren’t European either, and I shouldn’t treat them like they are. The pumpkins, peppers, and sweet potatoes were first domesticated by Native Americans and then adopted by European colonists. The okra and blackeyed peas were brought from Africa along with slaves. They’re what feel at home in this climate, not the plants of my European ancestors.

Maybe that’s why August 1 is such a difficult holiday. It’s the time of year when Texas is most unlike Germany or England or Scandinavia. I can either ignore that or embrace it.

Yule Preparations

Father Christmas in Blue

Final grades were due Monday. I usually try to get that all done by Friday of finals week, but this time I had to spend a few hours at the library on Monday grading some late assignments, calculating grades, and entering them into the computer system. Oh, and answering the slew of “What did I get on my final?” emails from students. But now I’m DONE!

Yesterday I spent almost all day working in the yard and garden. It’s supposed to rain for the next three days, so this was my only chance to get some of that done before Yule. I did some mowing, which is a big task because we have an acre of land, but I refuse to get a riding mower like our neighbors have. We don’t mow very often, and we don’t have much “lawn” anyway (most of our yard is either too shady, or gardens), but I like to have the grass neatly trimmed when we’re expecting company. I also had to turn the compost pile, which means my arms are pretty sore today.

We have had very unusual weather so far this “winter”. We usually get our first killing freeze around Thanksgiving. This year we ended up having a light frost the week before Thanksgiving, and we were supposed to have a hard freeze a couple of days later. So I harvested the sweet potatoes, picked the last of the eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers, and my husband and I worked hard to bring in the potted plants and cover up the dwarf citrus trees we have planted in the ground.

And then one night it got down to 30 degrees, and since then it hasn’t gotten below freezing again at all. Down to the high 30’s at worst during the night, 60’s and 70’s during the day. My tomato, eggplant, and pepper plants lost some leaves, but have since started growing new leaves back. There are still no freezes in the forecast. It’s certainly not going to freeze again before Yule.

I know I’m not supposed to attribute any one specific weather event to climate change, but I do think this is a preview of the kind of “winters” we’re going to have much more often in future decades. Some people thought we were a bit crazy planting our dwarf citrus trees in the ground instead of pots, but maybe some day we’ll be able to grow bananas here! (But I’m not looking forward to what the summers will be like then!)

One good thing about being an educator is the time off. I teach summer classes, but still get a couple of weeks off in May before the summer semester. I also get Spring Break, Thanksgiving Break, and about three weeks of Winter Break. On the downside, that means I can’t take a vacation at any other time of year (so I’ve had to miss out on happenings in February and October, for example), but it’s still much better than when I worked in retail and had to work on most weekends and holidays. This means I get all 12 days of Yule off work, which I realize is a huge luxury most people don’t get.

Recently a question came up on the Troth Facebook group on whether celebrating 12 days of Yule is historically accurate, or a Christian thing. Honestly, I quit caring about being historically accurate a while ago. I consider Yule lasting from the solstice to New Year’s Day, which works out to be about 12 days. During this time, I try to do as little work as possible (except for “work” I enjoy, like cooking or gardening), and try to make the most of my time spending it with my family, friends, cats, plants, and gods (not always in that order). That means I have three more days to get chores done before Yule.

I haven’t yet figured out something to do for all 12 days, but I usually do something for the solstice, something on Dec. 24-25, and something for New Year Eve and Day.

I’ve had a party on the solstice (or the weekend closest to it) for at least ten years now. It started when I was in college, and it’s sort of waned over the years as my college friends have graduated, moved away, gotten married, and had families. However, this year it looks like we’re going to have a good turnout. I also plan on making this party more Heathen than in the past, rather than just a party. Of course, Yule is a joyous occasion, but this year I’m going to make it more obvious that the gods are invited as well.

I’m going to set up an altar to Frey in the sacred circle in our backyard. Yule is a good time to honor any of the gods, but I usually associate Odin with winter and Frey with summer. However, this year I have something important to request of Frey, so I’m making him a bit more prominent. One of my good friends just got married to a Heathen (she’s a Celtic pagan), and asked if her husband could bring a goat effigy to burn in the Yule fire. I told them that would be fine, so perhaps Thor will be honored as well. I’ll probably try to work something in for Odin and Frigg too.

Every year we burn a Yule log, started with a piece of last year’s log. We usually use a nice big piece of live oak. This year it will be a piece of one of the trees on our land that died in the 2011 drought (right before we moved here). Since it looks like this year will be a warm Yule, we’ll probably have it outside in our fire pit. In years past when it was actually wintry on Yule we burned the log in the fireplace.

Of course, we’ve already hung our stockings on the mantle, decorated the Yule tree, and hung the LED lights on the eves of the house. Yule has got to be one of the easiest pagan holidays to celebrate. I figure any Christmas traditions that aren’t explicitly about the birth of Jesus are fair game. Then again, my husband has a really beautiful porcelain nativity set that I wish he could put out, but he doesn’t trust our cats to not break something from it. So I don’t even mind the Jesus stuff either.

My friend’s husband also offered to bring his drinking horn for a symbel after the feast. He did the same thing when he came over for Midsummer, and it went well. Depending on how chilly it is, we could have it either around the fire pit, or in the sacred circle like we did at Midsummer. (We can’t have the fire pit in the sacred circle because there are too many trees around that might be injured by a fire that close.)

But never mind about that stuff! Of course the most important thing about Yule, or any holiday, is the FOOD! I’ve been thinking about what I’ll make for the Yule feast for weeks!

One holiday tradition I’ve started is to make a fruitcake during Thanksgiving break so it has time to soak in rum. I’ve been doing this ever since I saw the fruitcake episode of Good Eats. I never tasted fruitcake before, but the recipe sounded delicious, so I had to try it, and I’ve been making it ever since. How can anyone not like a cake full of dried fruit, nuts, spices, and rum? Well, turns out my husband doesn’t like it! But I was making this fruitcake before I met him, so I still make it even though he doesn’t eat any. (By the way, you can vary which fruit, nuts, and booze you use for that cake as long as you keep the portions the same.) I just hope some of my guests like it, so I won’t have to eat the whole thing myself. (I’ll do it, though! I sometimes have a slice for breakfast.)

I’ll also make some Christmas cookies… I mean, Yule cookies… for the fruitcake haters, but I haven’t yet decided which kind. Alton Brown has a melt-in-your-mouth sugar cookie recipe. I also really like gingerbread cookies, which have the benefit of a long Germanic tradition behind them. I’d also like to try my hand at making Chocolate Crinkle cookies this year, which I’ve never made before. Darn it, I might just have to make several different kinds of cookies! I could make the cookie dough ahead of time, since it lasts well in the fridge for freezer, and just take out and bake some of it for the solstice, and maybe some more for family Christmas later.

For the main course, I have a heritage turkey in the chest freezer that’s been there for quite a while. A couple of years ago I caught an after-Thanksgiving clearance sale by a local farmer who raises pastured and grass-fed meat. I was so excited by the good price on an otherwise very expensive product that I bought three turkeys from him. This is the last one left. I have a brick smoker in the backyard that I always use for my Midsummer barbecues, and this year I’m going to cook the Yule turkey in there. This morning we set aside some firewood in the garage to stay dry (I hear the rumble of thunder now), and I’m going to cook the turkey with the mesquite. Yum! It’s supposed to rain until Friday, and then clear up on Saturday just in time. Perfect!

Since free range heritage turkeys are much smaller than Butterballs, I’m also going to make some Norwegian meatballs from a recipe I got from the Penzey’s spice catalog a few years ago. They’ve become another holiday tradition around here (one that my husband actually likes). I’m not really sure what’s the difference between them and Swedish meatballs, but this recipe has ginger, nutmeg, and cardamom, which turn out to give a very interesting dimension to a savory dish.

For vegetables, I’m going to roast the rest of the sweet potatoes I harvested from the garden, including some purple ones, which should get some fun comments. I’ve got arugula and radishes ready to harvest from the garden that should make a nice salad. Too bad my turnips, carrots, beets, and parsnips are not quite ready yet.

Oh, and I’m going to make cranberry sauce from scratch (none of that canned stuff), because that goes with both the turkey and the meatballs. Not sure if I’ll also make stuffing, or mashed potatoes, or both stuffing AND mashed potatoes! Maybe I should make some additional vegetables. Might depend on how much time I have left after all that. I’m going to try to do as much ahead of time as possible, because it seems I’m always rushing around at the last minute with these things.

But that reminds me that first I need to do a good housecleaning! I hate cooking in a dirty kitchen, and the rest of the house needs some dusting and vacuuming as well. I can almost hear Frigg whispering in my ear, “Get off that computer and get to work!”

I also haven’t done ANY GIFT SHOPPING YET! On December 25 I do secular Christmas with my in-laws (I get along with them much better than with my birth family, who I can barely speak to without hostility these days). I love gift-giving. I could write a whole post just about that (and how to avoid commercialization ruining all the fun). At least I finally got people to tell me what they want. I just need to go out and find it now.

OK, time to get to work. I hear more thunder rumbling in the distance. My garden should really like that. Hail Thor! Time to get all these house chores out of the way before Yule. Then I’ve got cookie dough to make, a turkey to brine, groceries to buy… oh my gosh, so much to do!

Lammas is Coming

Summer is rough.

I’m an adjunct professor, so I teach every summer, because if I don’t,  I’ll go three months without a paycheck and have to go on COBRA for my health insurance (I know I’m very lucky to have health insurance at all). Summer classes are on a compressed schedule of 4 hours a day, 4 days a week. Being revved up leading my class for that long with no break is pretty exhausting. Usually when I get home I just want to crash. To cram everything in, I have to give a test every week, so I have a lot of grading to keep up with when I’m not in class. I also have to get up very early every morning (5 am!) and have been having trouble getting to bed in time to get enough sleep.

I’m really dragging here.

Then there’s how summer just IS in Texas, regardless of what’s going on in my own little life. This summer hasn’t actually been too bad. Here at the end of July and beginning of August, we’re in the Dog Days of Summer, the hottest time of year. It’s been at least in the high 90’s if not 100 every day for at least a week and at night it doesn’t get below the mid-70’s because of the humidity.

Maybe this is why Lammas is a difficult holiday for me. It doesn’t have any secular equivalents in my culture, and it takes place during the most uncomfortable time of year. At Midsummer, I still feel like doing some things outside, like cooking barbeque, but by Lammas I just want to stay in air-conditioned buildings and avoid going outside as much as I can.

Maybe this is similar to what my European ancestors felt during January and February when it was too cold to do anything but huddle inside by the fire.

But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean you give it up. I know the Eightfold Wheel of the Year is a modern invention, but it is based off a combination of Celtic and Germanic holidays, so it’s not too far off the mark for a Heathen like me, and I like the idea of having seasonal holidays evenly spaced out like that. I think it’s good to mark the turning of the seasons, even the seasons I may not like very much. Texas is my home, so I just have to deal with it being scorching hot at this time of year.

So what does Lammas mean to me?

Traditionally, it was an English holiday (Loaf-mass), which may or may not have had pagan origins, but was mostly about the wheat harvest. I know some Heathens associate it with Frey, since he’s an agricultural deity. I’ve even read about Heathens and Northern Tradition folks celebrating Frey sacrificing himself and being reborn around this time of year. I have no idea if that’s historically accurate or some sort of modern UPG. I’m leaning towards the latter, but I’m OK with that, really. We know so little about the Vanir, and the idea of Frey being sacrificed and reborn to keep the Earth fertile is in line with other harvest deities from other pantheons.

It just seems in-character for him. Frey is such an optimistic deity. That’s how I relate to him, anyway. Sure, things are rough now, but the harvest will eventually come in. Frey may die, but he will come back.Perhaps that makes it appropriate to honor him at this time of year, when things can be a bit rough. Frey helps me endure the rough times because good times will come again. He reminds me that nothing is permanent, good times or bad.

And I already celebrate Frey’s marriage to Gerd on February 1, which is exactly six months away. It makes a nice balance to celebrate a slightly different aspect of Frey on August 1.

I haven’t done much spiritual stuff since Midsummer. At least back then I had just started summer classes and was still energetic, but now I’m just exhausted and can’t wait until that week I get off in August between the end of summer session and the beginning of the fall semester. When I get stressed out, tired, and depressed, I neglect a lot of things in my life like sleeping enough, eating right, getting enough exercise, and yes, doing any kind of spiritual devotions.

Maybe that’s another reason why celebrating all the modern pagan holidays is a good idea for me. It helps me get back on track every six weeks.
The fact that I’ve been stressed out and depressed a lot lately is another reason why it would be a good idea for me to do a ritual in Frey’s honor. He cheers me up.  I’ve already decided I’m going to make pork loin on the grill, and have it in the fridge thawing. Don’t know what else yet. I’m too tired to come up with some elaborate ritual. I barely had enough energy to type this post! I have laundry to do so I’ll have something to wear to work tomorrow.

Maybe some inspiration will come to me. I’ve still got a few more days.

Celebrating May Day

Last weekend was the Beltane festival I’ve been going to for the last ten years or so. We’re actually a splinter group from a large pagan festival around here, though I wasn’t directly involved in whatever caused the split, and I used to regularly go to both festivals. But in the last several years I’ve only been going to this one since it’s smaller (and therefore more introvert-friendly) and costs only about half as much as the bigger one. I just don’t have the time or energy to go to both anymore, so I’m picking the one that’s not only cheaper and easier, but also more enjoyable for me.

We have one festival at Beltane and one at Samhain. At Samhain we do a dumb feast in honor of the Dead. Then we put offerings and notes for the Dead into a small wooden coffin and burn it on a funeral pyre. It’s always a very moving ritual with few dry eyes once it’s done. Last year one of our long-time members died of breast cancer, and it was pretty poignant realizing that now here we were honoring her as one of our Dead. This is how you build traditions. Maybe one day people will be giving notes to me in that coffin.

However, we never really had any sort of ritual for Beltane, so that campout ends up being not much more than a party. Which is fine, but it seemed out of balance to have this intense, moving ritual for Samhain and nothing for Beltane.

As it happens so often when I think of something that ought to be done and no one else is doing it, I finally went ahead and decided that my husband and I will have to provide a Maypole for Beltane. I’ve danced around a Maypole twice before, once at the big pagan festival, and once when I lived with some pagan roommates in college and we set one up in a vacant lot. Both times were lots of fun. And while Samhain is about remembering the dead, Beltane is about celebrating new life, so the ritual should be fun and full of laughter, rather than serious and solemn like a Samhain ritual. But it should still be a ritual where the gods and spirits are acknowledged and invited to join us in the festivities, rather than just a party with no spiritual component.

So I made the commitment that I would provide a Maypole this year and lead the ritual.

And then my father died of cancer.

I almost backed out. I almost said I couldn’t handle it right now. Maybe next year.

But then I decided to go ahead with it anyway. It would be good for me, I thought. Part of the healing process. To show that in the face of death, life goes on. Plus my devotional practice has really fallen by the wayside during all this, just like everything else (you should see how dirty my house is, and I’ve been eating way too much fast food since I haven’t had the time or energy to cook and eat healthily). So here it is Beltane, and I decided I would put together a fun, live-affirming ritual to mark the beginning of summer.

I set up an altar to the Vanir at the campground. Last Samhain I set up an altar for the dead that was appreciated, with several people placing offerings on it. I thought an altar for the gods and spirits of fertility and growth would be a good counterpart. I put a white tablecloth on it, and in the middle I placed a vase of spring flowers. The vase itself was one that held a bouquet of flowers given to us by my husband’s coworkers with a sympathy card attached when they heard my father had died. It crossed my mind that reusing the vase for a happy purpose might be disrespectful, but I went ahead with it anyway. I filled it with roses and yarrow from our garden. I also brought my statues of Frey and Freya, a prayer candle for Ostara, Frey’s deer antler I usually keep on my altar, and some marble eggs that I use for Easter décor. The altar didn’t get as much attention as the altar to the Dead got at Samhain, but I did get some compliments on how nice it looked. I hope Freya, Frey, and Ostara thought so too.

The Maypole dance went really well. Of course what always happens is we start going over-under-over-under just fine, until someone gets confused, then it spreads, and next thing you know people are running into each other and getting tangled in ribbon and can’t stop laughing. That’s my definition of a Maypole dance “going well”.

Afterwards when everyone had dispersed and the Maypole was left standing there with the colorful ribbons woven around it, I poured out an offering of beer at its base.

It was fun, but this past weekend didn’t quite turn into the clear-cut, “OK now I’m moving on with my life” type of event I had intended. For one thing, I inherited half my dad’s property and some of that included some nice camping equipment that I used for the first time at this campout, and we drove there in his pickup truck he told me he wanted me to have before he died. That felt weird, like I was borrowing his stuff temporarily and it’s not really mine. It also felt haunted in a way.

This is the time of year when I feel the presence of the Vanir in my life more, and Odin tends to step back a bit. But Frey and Freya are no strangers to death either, even though they’re not thought of as “dead gods” like Odin is. Freya does take half the battle slain, and Frey is associated with burial mounds and there’s the (possibly modern) notion that he’s sacrificed at Lammas and is reborn. So while I was trying my best to honor them last weekend, my mind would still wander back into grief from time to time. I just hope they understood that I was trying my best.

Death reminds us that life is precious. Maybe this is how Samhain and Beltane complement each other. The last time I saw my dad healthy was at my wedding. How was I to know then that he would die of cancer before he even reached 65? He was perfectly healthy until he was diagnosed with esophagus cancer only last fall, then he was dead within six months. Meanwhile my husband’s parents are in their late 70’s and are still in pretty good shape. You just never know. My husband is 14 years my senior, so before I married him, my mom (never missing an opportunity to bring down a happy occasion) was sure to remind me that he’ll die before me and I’ll be alone. But I could die in a car accident next week on my way to work, and then he’d be the one who’s alone.

You really just never know. It’s certain that everyone is going to die, but nobody knows how or when. The lesson here is to embrace life as much as you can. All my gods seem to be in agreement about that.

maypole 2014

Our Maypole

Frey and Gerd

I got the SDF liturgy for the February Cross-Quarter, and this time I’m not waiting until the last minute to plan everything out. I learned a few things from the Yule ritual, so this time I know some areas that need improvement.

One place where I think I dropped the ball last time was honoring the deities of the occasion. Since I’m not an ADF member, I’m unfamiliar with their ritual format, and spent so much time figuring out the well/fire/tree stuff that I neglected the gods! When it came to praising Odin and Frigg, I used prayers I hastily found in Essential Asatru instead of writing my own, and it came out clumsily and didn’t really have much “oomph” to it. I hope I’ve already built a good enough relationship with the All-father and All-mother that they were patient with me.

This time the deities of the occasion will be Freyr and Gerd. I like the idea of celebrating their marriage at this time of year. It has nice mythic resonance with the warmth of the fertility god melting the heart of the cold and reserved Jotun goddess. It goes well with the Blessing of the Plow theme. Plowing is, of course, a euphemism for sexual intercourse, and Gerd is an earthy goddess, so there you go.

I don’t know Gerd very well, but Freyr is one of my favorite deities. I often say that if I had it my way, I would have been a Freyswoman, but Odin had other plans. Fortunately I’m a polytheist, and my gods are not jealous gods, so I’m free to form relationships with other gods. While Odin is the god that shows up in my life most often, Freyr would probably be second to that.

Odin also seems more active in the winter, during the Wild Hunt season, when he rides the sky with souls of the dead. Odin is more a god of cold, darkness, and introspection. Freyr is a god of the light half of the year, a god of warmth, fertility, and abundance. He’s a physical rather than a cerebral god, and springtime is the time to get out in the fields and get to work. Then again, some groups honor Freyr during Yule, so it’s different for different people.

Items for an altar to Freyr: a wild boar skull, prayer candle, statue, and shed deer antler

Items for an altar to Freyr: a wild pig skull, prayer candle, statue, and shed deer antler

Back when I was a Wiccan, I seemed to have a much better connection to the Wiccan God than the Wiccan Goddess, which I thought was odd. A lot of Wiccan groups put so much emphasis on Goddess worship that the God is almost an afterthought, but I felt like the opposite. I always invoked both the Goddess and the God at each ritual, because that’s how you’re supposed to do it, but I never could really relate to the Triple Moon Goddess. On the other hand, I loved the Golden God. Later when I discovered Germanic Heathenry, the “feel” of the god Freyr was so similar to the Wiccan God, that I wonder if it was actually him who was answering my invocations the whole time.

H. R. Ellis Davidson, in Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, describes Freyr as a god of marriage. Archaeologists have found lots of these little pieces of gold foil called “gullgubber” in Scandinavia, many of them engraved with two figures embracing, kissing, or dancing. Davidson, among others, believes they are amulets associated with marriage and fertility, and probably pictures of Freyr and Gerd. This fits well with my own experiences of Freyr, especially the most dramatic instance of answered prayer in my life.

A guldgubbe found in Norway in 1747.

A guldgubbe found in Norway in 1747.

It was 2008, and I was in graduate school and trying to get a summer internship, applying to several state parks. I did a ritual to ask Freyr to help. Since he’s associated with prosperity, I figured he’d be a good god to ask for help getting a job. A week or two later I was working on a field project for my wildlife biology class. As I was pushing my way through a thick stand of Texas persimmon trees, pulling a measuring tape behind me to take a vegetation transect, I came across the skull of a buck, missing the end of its snout, but both antlers were still attached. Finding deer bones and shed deer antlers isn’t uncommon around here, but I had never found a skull with antlers before, and I thought it looked cool, so I crammed it into my backpack and went back to work.

I took it home, cleaned it with bleach, and set it on my altar. That’s when I remembered the ritual I had done, and deer are one of Freyr’s sacred animals. I wondered if this was an omen that my request had been received.

Another week or two later I got a call from one of the state parks I had applied to. He wanted to set up an interview! I interviewed for the job, and it wasn’t long before it was offered to me, and I accepted. Only a couple of days after I accepted the job, I got a call for an interview at another state park, one that was actually closer to my home. I regretfully told them that I had already accepted a job at another state park. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, so I wanted to stick with the job I had already been offered, but I was disappointed that other park hadn’t called me sooner.

After settling into my new job, I noticed that one of the park rangers there seemed to be going out of his way to talk to me, or to “just so happen” to pass by where I was working. At first I told myself he was just being friendly. I was happily single at the time and had no interest in a relationship to complicate my life. I was much too busy with grad school.

Long story short, last spring we were married. I really didn’t have time for a relationship, but he was persistent, and as I got to know him, I realized that he was just about everything I wanted in a husband. I had only been going out with him for a couple of months before it felt like I had known him forever, and like Gerd, I don’t usually warm up to people that easily. If I had gotten the job at the park I preferred, the one that was closer to home, I never would have met him. The internship lasted only over the summer, and never led to a permanent position, just another entry on my resume. The marriage has already lasted much longer and meant much more to me. It’s like Freyr did some sort of bait-and-switch. “Ok, you can have a job, but more importantly, here’s a husband for you.” He even reminds me of Freyr, with his gentle demeanor and love of nature.

I look forward to spending more time with Freyr as we move back to the light half of the year. I haven’t meditated regularly for a long time, but I think I really should go back to doing that, even though I’m out of practice. I tried a couple of weeks ago, just for a few minutes, and got a vision of a wild boar rooting through the soil, turning it up with his tusks. Boars are another one of Freyr’s animals, and their rooting behavior is reminiscent of plowing the soil. In my vision the soil was compacted, cold, and stagnant, and as the boar turned it up, it was warmed, aerated, and became fertile once again. I had a feeling this was a more personal message than just, “it’s almost spring.” I have felt a bit “stuck” lately, and perhaps my life needs to be “plowed up” a bit, so I can plant new seeds in it. I suppose this blog is one of those seeds I’m planting, but I’ve got plans for others too.