I don’t want to burn my Butzemann.

Back in February I made my first Butzemann, Alfred.

And then about a week before the Autumn Equinox I remembered: I’m going to have to burn him soon! And I was supposed to have been giving him offerings this whole time!

I did give him offerings of coffee regularly at first, and took him out to show him the plants, especially when I was planting my spring garden, but then summer got pretty crazy with me teaching summer classes, and then we went on vacation, and at some point in all that I started neglecting him.

While having coffee with my husband, I brought it up. “I feel bad that I’ve been neglecting Alfred lately, especially since he’s going to die soon.”

My husband goes, “WHAT? What do you mean he’s going to die?”

I told him, “Remember? We have to burn him some time between the Equinox and Halloween.”

He insisted I never told him I was going to burn him, but I’m pretty sure I did. Then he suggested that we keep him for one more year, since he hasn’t been getting his coffee, but I told him about how if we keep him past Halloween, his soul will leave to join the Wild Hunt anyway, and an evil spirit will inhabit his body.

Ugh, when I first made him, I knew I’d get attached and burning him would be hard, but it’s turning out to be harder than I thought. The Autumn Equinox is already a sad time for me anyway. Four years ago on the equinox is when one of our cats died AND I found out my dad had terminal cancer. So ever since then in late September I’m reminded of that.

And when I honor the Dead on Halloween, I have started to notice how my altar to the Dead has started to grow, and realize it will only continue to grow for the rest of my life as I add more and more loved ones (human or otherwise) to it.

So I know my little Butzemann is just a doll, but suddenly he symbolizes the inevitability of Death. And my husband saying maybe we can keep him a bit longer reminds me of people saying maybe our cat would be OK and will live a bit longer or maybe my Dad would be OK and pull through his illness. But nope, that didn’t happen.

I did tell my husband that I will make another Butzemann next year, who will be Alfred’s son. That made us feel a little better, but still, it’s not the same.

And I did decide that I’m going to wait as long as possible to burn him. I’m definitely in no hurry to do it. I’ll probably end up doing it on October 28 or 29. My excuse is he has to stick around long enough to watch me plant all my fall/winter crops. In Texas, this is the beginning of the winter growing season. I already took him with me to watch me plant the kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, and lettuce. He still needs to help plant the carrots, beets, turnips, garlic, and onions.

But then once all that’s done, I guess it’s time for him to go.

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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.

In Search of Texas’s Groundhog

Last weekend I celebrated Imbolg/Candlemas/Groundhog’s Day/whateveryoucallit with my usual Charming of the Garden Tools ritual. My husband and I gave the hoes, shovels, and spades a good cleaning and sharpening before taking them to our backyard ritual circle to be sprinkled with wine that was then given to the land spirits.

I’m still trying to figure out what to do with this holiday, and I’ve decided that I like the idea of doing a garden and garden tool blessing based on the Charming of the Plow tradition from England and will keep doing it. Yes, I know that was technically in late January, not February 2, but close enough.

I also like Groundhog Day, which is a big deal to the Pennsylvania Dutch Heathens (Urglawwe). I like the idea of celebrating critters coming out of hibernation as part of an early-spring holiday. Besides, we need a holiday between Yule and Easter. I guess in secular American culture that’s covered by the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day, but I like having a more nature-oriented observance in there too.

But the problem is groundhogs don’t live in Texas.

And I’m not sure if any mammals hibernate here at all. In Germany the hibernating animal was probably a badger, but the closest thing we have to a badger here are skunks, and I don’t think they hibernate. Groundhogs are actually a type of ground squirrel, but the squirrels here don’t hibernate either and seem just as active in January as they are in March, judging from how fast they eat up my birdseed. Austin does have an armadillo named Bee Cave Bob who’s supposed to be our version of Punxsutawney Phil, but armadillos don’t hibernate either. The last time I saw one it was digging around in my neighbor’s lawn under their Christmas lights in mid-December.

The only critters here that definitely hibernate every winter are cold-blooded critters like frogs and toads. In fact, weekend before last we had to “rescue” some hibernating toads that were under a boulder in our backyard that we had to move. Thankfully we didn’t squish any of them, but five of them had burrowed under there, and that night it was going to get very cold, so we kept them in a plastic tub in the house overnight. When we found them under the rock they were comatose, but after spending the night in the warm house they were up and hopping around and looked healthy. We released them around noon so they’d have plenty of time to find a new shelter before it got cold again that night.

I love my toads, but Toad Day doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it.

I’ll probably keep calling it Groundhog Day just because that’s what everyone calls it, and that Bill Murray movie was great, but the search for a Texas groundhog substitute continues. Texas weather is just so weird and unpredictable this time of year that it’s hard to pinpoint “this is spring now.” In the past week it’s been near freezing on some nights AND in the low 80’s on some days.

Which I understand is kind of the point of this holiday. Is it spring yet? It’s hard to tell. With no groundhogs around, which creature to I trust to make that call? Armadillos, skunks, and squirrels all don’t seem to have the best judgement to me. Hrrmmm.

Honoring the Land this Thanksgiving

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. My sister-in-law is hosting this year, and I’ve been asked to bring pies. We’ll have enough people there that we’ll need two pies, though I’m sure a lot of people will want to have a slice of each. This year I’m going to make a pecan pie and a pumpkin pie. The secret to making a good pie is a homemade crust made with butter and lard. This is no time to be worried about saturated fat, and I don’t think anyone there is a vegetarian. Butter tastes delicious, and lard is what makes the crust tender and flaky. Yum!

Last year I talked about how I have decided that Thanksgiving is a time for me to honor the North American land spirits. Here are some ideas I’ve come up with to incorporate that into the usual secular American celebration of turkey, pie, and football.

Incorporate sustainable ingredients into your feast.

My pumpkin pie will be made with pumpkins I grew myself in my garden. If you have a garden, try to make at least one dish incorporating something from your garden, even if it’s just sage from a potted sage plant on your balcony.

If you don’t have a garden, check out your local farmer’s market and see what they have for sale. Get some fruits or vegetables to make a dish from something locally grown. If you don’t know much about the kinds of things that are grown in your area or are in season right now, now is a good time to learn.

For the turkey, I highly recommend getting a free-range bird if you can afford it. You have not tasted turkey until you’ve tasted one that got to run around outside. Butterball turkeys have been bred to have such huge chest muscles they can hardly walk. Free-range turkeys are going to have less white meat and more dark meat, but I prefer dark meat anyway. But even the white meat of a free range turkey is much more flavorful than a Butterball. I think it’s worth it.

Burn off some calories with a hike in your local ecosystem.

Maybe you can do this with your family after dinner in a local park, or maybe you can take a trip to a state park on Black Friday. It probably won’t be very crowded since everyone else will be at the mall. Take a look at what’s happening in your local ecosystem. Are the trees changing color or losing their leaves yet? Here they’re just starting to turn color. The Cedar Elms and Western Soapberry are turning bright yellow, while the Texas Red Oaks and Flameleaf Sumacs are living up to their names and turning bright red. Those are mixed with Live Oaks and Ashe Junipers that stay green all winter.

Are there any migratory birds passing through your area on their way south? Since I live in Texas, this is south for a lot of migratory birds. There are several species I only see in the winter, like Orange-Crowned Warblers and Ruby-Crowned Kinglets. There are other species of birds, like most other warblers and the hummingbirds, that only live here in summer and go to Mexico or South America for winter. Then of course there are the cardinals, wrens, blue jays, and mockingbirds that are here year round.

Or maybe where you lived there’s already snow on the ground, the birds have left, and the remaining animals are hibernating.

If you don’t know how to identify your local trees or birds, maybe some field guides would be a good thing to put on your Yule wish list. Our ancestors had detailed knowledge about flora and fauna that many modern people have lost. There’s even a trend among professional biologists that knowing “natural history” isn’t important, which I discovered when I was in grad school. I think that’s a big shame. I don’t think you can fully appreciate something unless you can name it. It’s kind of like the old adage about how the Inuit have all these different words for “snow”. To most people a tree’s a tree. Once you learn to identify which tree is which, suddenly you notice so much more about all the amazing variations of what a “tree” can be.

Visit a museum or historic site to learn some real history.

This might be a good idea if the weather’s bad and you don’t feel like spending much time outside. Learn about the people who lived on the land before you. The Thanksgiving story we were taught in elementary school about Pilgrims and Indians at Plymouth Rock has been mythologized quite a bit, so maybe it’s time to learn about the real Native Americans and various immigrants who lived where you live now.

For example, where I live there was the Tonkawa tribe, and then they got conquered by the Comanches. Then there are all those missions around San Antonio that were built by the Spanish to convert the native people to Catholicism, so that today most Latinos (some of their families go all the way back to when Texas was still part of Mexico) practice a version of Catholicism with a lot of native flavor. A bunch of Germans and Czechs settled the Hill Country and did cool things like inventing Texas-style barbecue. Yes, Texas barbecue was invented by Germans, not cowboys. It was only a couple of years ago that I learned about how the Texas Germans signed a peace treaty with the Comanches, but were persecuted by Confederates during the Civil War because they didn’t support secession.

My point is there’s a lot of complicated stuff about history they don’t teach you in school. I think Thanksgiving is a good time to remember your “ancestors of place.” They may not be your blood ancestors (who are honored on Samhain/Halloween), but they left their mark upon the land where you now live, so that makes them important too. Archaeologists have even found Clovis points only a few miles from my house. Those points were used to hunt mammoths during the last Ice Age. The Clovis people where probably the first people to immigrate to North America (as far as we know) and they lived right here!

 

Well, those are just some of my suggestions. Modern American Pagans celebrate all these holidays that are taken from European traditions. We’re always looking across the Atlantic to our “ancestral homelands” for inspiration. Thanksgiving seems like a perfect time for us to remember that we’re the descendants of immigrants who left Europe and came to America, many because they thought America would be a better place to live than Europe. Don’t forget to give thanks to the land that gave your ancestors these new opportunities, and remember that you share it with the plants and animals and people who lived here before they got here.

And don’t forget that Thanksgiving is the one time of year where it’s permissible to have multiple pies in one meal. I have some baking to do now!

It’s Spring

This past week was Spring Break, so I was off work, though I didn’t have any fun plans. I spent most of Spring Break doing Frigg-type things around the house like cleaning, grocery shopping, and cooking big batches of stews and casseroles to go in the freezer for days when I’m too tired to cook dinner when I get home from work. But the weather was so gorgeous Thursday that I decided to till the back garden.

My acre of land is mostly wooded with more live oak and mountain laurel trees than we can count. It’s nice, but fruits and vegetables require full sun, so I’ve got them stuck in whichever sunny spots I could find. I ended up with one vegetable garden in the back, one in the front next to the driveway, and a row of dwarf fruit trees (consisting of a pomegranate, Meyer lemon, satsuma, kumquat, loquat, and fig tree) lining the street under the power lines. All the rest of the yard is in shade.

The front yard vegetable garden consists of four 4’x20′ raised beds framed with cedar with 3 foot paths between. I felt it was more important to get that garden looking nice since it’s in the front yard. I’ve got nothing but compliments from neighbors about it. It sure is nice to not have a homeowner’s association.

The back garden is messier. Raised beds back there is further down on our to-do list, but I really should do it some time. Since I live in the Texas Hill Country, the ground here is like “would you like some soil with that limestone?” and our back yard is even rockier than the front. My husband is working on building a pond back there, and he dug down about a foot before he hit solid rock. He’s had to rent a jackhammer to work on the rest.

However, the advantage of the back yard is that the deer don’t go back there. They could if they really wanted to. We only have a short chain-link fence they could easily jump over, but so far they haven’t bothered. Our deer are still picky and only eat the really tasty, easily-accessible stuff. For example, over the winter I tried to grow a mixture of salad greens in the front garden, and the deer ate all the lettuce, but left the arugula.

I planted peas in the back this winter because deer find legumes especially delicious, but the rest of the back garden became horribly overgrown with weeds over the winter, especially this one particularly nasty weed that gets these sticky burrs on it.

So this week I finally decided I would just till up the whole thing, hopefully uprooting all those weeds before it’s time to plant warm-season crops.

But when you’re an animist, tilling the garden isn’t that simple. Before I got out the noisy machine with whirring blades that chops up the soil, mutilates plants, and will probably kill some earthworms and insects in the process, I felt I should give an offering to the land spirits first. A combination of thanks and apology for the havoc I’m about to wreak. I poured out a cup of milk for them, and sat there for a bit listening to the songs of the mockingbirds, cardinals, and chickadees for a while.

Then it was time to let the rototiller rip!

tilling back garden 006

The high that day was 78, so it turned out to be sweaty work, but I finally got it done by late afternoon. All that is left back there now are the two rows of peas on their trellises.

I hope those sticky plants don’t grow back.

As I sat on the back porch resting, a flock of Cedar Waxwings landed in the tree above and preened themselves for a while.

Cedar waxwings in oak tree

Live oak trees keep their leaves all winter and lose them at this time of year, right before growing catkins and new green leaves. So the oaks aren’t looking too good right now, and my porch is covered with fallen oak leaves.

Meanwhile, the second most common tree in my yard, the Texas mountain laurels, are blooming and filling the air with their sweet, grape kool-aid fragrance.

blooming trees 001

Friday morning, I went out to look over my work in the back garden again, before sitting on the porch to drink my coffee and listen to the dawn chorus. A chickadee landed in the tree above me and starting singing. It’s amazing how loud such a small creature can be. I listened to him for a while, and then a second chickadee flew over and landed right beside him. They started twittering frantically, and at first I thought they were fighting, since chickadees are somewhat aggressive little birds. But then I looked more closely and noticed that they weren’t fighting after all!

Apparently that second chickadee was a female who really liked his song!

The mockingbirds have already got chicks. I heard them chirping in the oak trees in the front a few days ago, and saw one of the parents catching bugs and bringing them up there. A couple of days later I saw a male cardinal picking out sunflower seeds from our bird feeder and giving them to a female cardinal perched above it (the bird version of giving your girlfriend a box of chocolates). Now there were chickadees gettin’s busy right above my head!

It’s definitely spring.

Hail Ostara!

Is it spring yet?

That’s the question that seems to be the underlying theme of all the pagan February holidays I know about: Imbolg, Candlemas, Charming of the Plow, Groundhog’s Day. It’s an important question. Here in Central Texas, February can bring sunny weather with temperatures pushing 80 degrees, or a sudden cold front that brings ice and even sleet or snow.

You have to be very careful to not be fooled by the warmer days and go ahead and plant your frost-sensitive plants, only to have them killed by a sudden late February or early March freeze. Then again, sometimes that late freeze never comes. Sometimes our true last freeze of the winter really is in January. This weekend it’s supposed to be sunny and in the 70’s, even though the last couple of nights have been getting down to 34. I haven’t done a Charming of the Plow ritual yet, since last weekend was cold and rainy, so I’ll probably do that this weekend. I have a nice bottle of mead I got from a home-brewing friend at Yule that will make a nice offering. I also made an absolutely delicious Meyer lemon cake from a couple of lemons off the tree in our front yard. I always like to include homegrown stuff in holiday feasts and offerings. My husband and I had a few slices ourselves already and it’s so good I had to hide the rest to make sure some was left for the gods and spirits.

My husband and I are still trying to figure out what would be an appropriate animal to substitute for the groundhog as a symbol of this time of year. It doesn’t get cold enough around here for any mammals to hibernate. The best we’ve been able to think of so far are the frogs and toads. They do hibernate, and last week when we had another warm spell, I finally heard some croaking again when I got home from work. The sound was coming from a stock tank in a nearby ranch.

Frog’s Day instead of Groundhog’s Day? Would that work?

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!

Feeling Spring

I was afraid this would happen. I’d start this blog and then quit writing in it.

I blame it on Spring.

I always feel much more introspective during the dark part of the year. I keep thinking about things to write about. I wonder about Life, the Universe, and Everything. It starts around the Autumn Equinox, is in full swing by Samhain and Yule, and starts to wear off by Imbolg.

And now that it’s past Ostara and almost Beltane, I just don’t feel like writing anymore. I don’t feel like sitting in my room meditating. I don’t feel like reading.

All I want to do is work on my garden.

We tilled up a 20′ by 20′ patch in the back when we first moved in, and then this spring I went ahead and tilled up another 20′ by 20′ patch in the front yard. When I have spare time, I’m working on that, not blogging.

It might change soon though. March and April are busy times in the garden, getting the warm weather crops in. I think I’ve pretty much planted everything I’m going to this time around. I’ve got beans, squash, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, tomatillos, melons, okra, and cucumbers. I think the only thing I’m still waiting on are the sweet potatoes I ordered that aren’t coming until May.

My garden is vital to my physical, emotional, and spiritual health. During Spring it can be very demanding, but in a good way.

By May or June it will be too hot to do much outside. Maybe by then I’ll feel like writing some more, in the air conditioning.