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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Thor and San Juan on Midsummer

Well, this is a nice coincidence. I was just looking at the website for one of my favorite seed sources, Native Seeds/SEARCH, where I found this article on their blog:

Celebrate Dia de San Juan!

This is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about in my last post on Thor and giving him thanks in June for bringing the rains to the garden. I knew that June 24 was the feast day of St. John the Baptist, but I didn’t know that he was the patron saint of rain. It makes sense though.

Now I’m even more certain that Midsummer is Thor’s holiday in Texas! He fits perfectly to make a Heathenized version of Dia de San Juan.

This year’s Midsummer celebration went very well too. I did my usual barbecue and invited over several guests. Thor got honored, but also Loki. I gave the Trickster a piece of meat by throwing it directly in the fire once the meat was done. The feast contained a lot of vegetables and herbs that I grew in my garden, and the meat was smoked with oak wood from dead branches we trimmed off our own trees.

Then after the feast, even though it was a warm night, we made a bonfire in the fire pit in the back yard out of juniper wood, which repels mosquitoes. Bonfires are supposed to purify the area of evil spirits, right? Well, even if they don’t, it did purify the area of those darn mosquitoes!

Then we had a symbel around the fire with the last of my mead. I think it was the first symbel I had where some magic actually happened, rather than it being just a bunch of people getting drunk and chatting. What happens in symbel stays in symbel, so I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say after that I was like, “Oh, that’s why symbels are a big deal!”

It was pretty cool.

Thor the Rainbringer

cenizo 002

A black swallowtail visits the Cenizo in my front yard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ostara’s Sacred Birds

Tomorrow is the Spring Equinox, and it looks like in my household it will end up being a low-key affair because my husband and I have both been very busy and under a lot of stress lately. We haven’t had the time or energy to make a lot of plans for it. But I have to do something because in theory anyway, Ostara/Easter is one of my favorite holidays. Probably because when I was a kid, our secular celebration of Easter was tied with Halloween for second favorite holiday (after our secular Christmas, of course). After all, Easter is when the Easter Bunny came! That was always very exciting. I tend to make the date I actually honor Ostara flexible. I do it some time between the actual Spring Equinox and Christian Easter. That gives me some wiggle room in some years, but unfortunately this year is one of the ones where Easter comes at the end of March.

I’ve written here before about how Ostara, Goddess of Spring and the Dawn, is definitely a real goddess to me, no matter what anyone else says. So I was very happy when I found out that she’s definitely a real goddess in Urglaawe. They seem to have more information about her than any other Heathen group I’ve come across.

The Spring 2015 issue of Hollerbeer Hof was all about Ostara (or should I say Oschdra?), including a myth about how she brings color to the world. In the story, she’s one of a trio of sisters, the others being Nacht (“Night”) and Helling (“Daylight”). I know that in Norse myth there is a male deity named Delling associated with Dawn, while Nott is the goddess of Night in Norse mythology. Hmm, that’s interesting.

But what’s more interesting is the role of the Goldfinch (Distelfink) in this myth. Oh yes, there’s a Hare too, but I already knew that hares and rabbits were Ostara’s sacred beasts (like goats are to Thor or cats to Freya), but the goldfinch being her sacred bird is new to me. It makes a lot of sense though! For one thing, she just should have a sacred bird. Odin has ravens, Freya has falcons, so why shouldn’t Ostara get a bird too?

And the Goldfinch is a perfect bird for her, because it’s so colorful, and Ostara is the goddess who brings color to the world. It’s why we paint colorful Easter eggs for her holiday (or her Lagomorph helper brings them and hides them for children to find). I already associate Ostara with spring blooming flowers, so why not colorful birds as well? Especially migratory ones that leave during the winter and return in spring.

The original Distelfink was probably the European goldfinch. When European colonists came to the New World, they had a bad habit of naming North American birds that kinda sorta looked like birds from Europe with the same names, even if they aren’t the same species or even the same family, much to the annoyance of ornithologists! The American robin vs. the European robin is a notable example. At least American goldfinches and European goldfinches are both finches.

So when the Pennsylvania Germans came to North America, the American goldfinch became the Distelfink. They have a lot more gold coloring on them anyway, so they actually make a better Distelfink.

I only occasionally see American goldfinches around here. That’s why I was really happy to read in Hollerbeer Hof that there is conflation between the American goldfinch and Painted Bunting when it comes to the identity of the Distelfink. It also notes that Painted Buntings are uncommon in Pennsylvania Dutch country.

But guess where they are common!

male painted bunting 1

A male Painted Bunting at my birdfeeder

Painted Buntings are actually in the Cardinal family, but unlike their red cousins who are here all year, they spend the winter in Mexico and the summer here in Texas. That makes them a good Ostara’s bird because they don’t arrive until Spring.

They’re also the most colorful birds we have here. It looks like a kid’s drawing of a bird come to life, a kid who used every crayon in the box.

 

I started getting them at my bird feeder when I discovered by accident that their favorite food is millet. I had been putting nothing but black oil sunflower seeds in the feeders, thinking most birds like them better than millet. Then one day the grocery store had this seed mix on sale, so I went ahead and bought some, even though it had lots of “filler” seeds like millet. That’s when the buntings started showing up.

female painted bunting

A female Painted Bunting

Female painted buntings are less colorful. They’re more of an olive green, which makes them camouflage really well with green leaves up in the trees.

I haven’t seen any Painted Buntings here yet, but I know they are coming soon. When they get here, the feeders are ready for them

There is one more Distelfink that we actually have here in Texas, the Lesser Goldfinch. It’s a close relative of the American Goldfinch. I wish it had a better name. It’s called Lesser Goldfinch because it’s smaller than it’s cousin, but that makes it seem like it’s not as good of a finch or something. They’re very cute birds, though the Painted Bunting is much more colorful and Easter egg-like. The Lesser Goldfinch is still a striking bird. It looks like its back was colored with a black Sharpie, while its belly was colored with a neon yellow highlighter.

Lesser Goldfinch

A Lesser Goldfinch at the bird bath

So unlike the Groundhog, this is one sacred animal that we do have a Texas version of. If we had a Texas version of Urglaawe, we could have a version of the Oschdra myth with a Painted Bunting in the role of the Distelfink and a Jackrabbit as Haas (the Hare). They can bring color to the world by causing the Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrushes and Texas Redbuds to bloom. Someone needs to write that!

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.

The Sacred Waters

It always amazes me how much we take water for granted.

My husband works at a water company, so I know a bit about the sorts of things that need to happen behind-the-scenes to ensure that safe, clean, toxin and pathogen-free water can be delivered to the inside of your home with the turn of a tap. But most people never give it much of a thought. They certainly never consider the possibility that one day either the water won’t appear on demand, or if it does, it would be unsafe to drink.

Both of us have been following the story of the poisoning of Flint, Michigan with great interest. I think the story is probably more complex than most news outlets are portraying it, but Rachel Maddow seems to be doing a good job explaining things, as usual. (Yes, I’m a fan. I really like how thorough she is when she covers something.) In a nutshell, to save money, politicians decided to change the source of Flint’s drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The corrosive river water leached lead out of the old lead pipes in the town, elevating the lead levels in the water to over 10 times the EPA’s maximum allowable limit. And by now we know that lead is extremely toxic. We aren’t making water pipes out of lead anymore, but there are still plenty of lead pipes around. Lead is especially bad for children, causing permanent brain damage. That’s why people are making such a big deal out of the lead, but it sounds to me like there were lots of other nasty things in that water too. Ten people have died of Legionnaires’ disease, which is caused by an aquatic bacterium that needless to say should not be in a public drinking water supply.

People are focusing on which politicians to blame, but I don’t think I understand the situation well enough to weigh in on that. Apparently there was weird political stuff going on in Flint where the state government had taken over the city. I’m not sure how that works, but I do think that whoever made the decision to switch the water source and not do the proper treatments that would have prevented the water from corroding the pipes needs to be brought to justice. May Tyr insure that they do.

But even before the politicians made that decision to switch the water, the Flint River had been poisoned by years of industrial pollution. When they said they were going to switch to Flint River water, locals freaked out because they knew that river was nasty. If the water source isn’t already polluted, you don’t have to do that much to treat it before you can pipe it into people’s houses safely. But since we don’t appreciate water, we’ve been dumping our toxins into it for hundreds of years. Some rivers are so polluted it’s unsafe to swim in them or eat fish from them, let alone drink from them. Humans made them that way.

 

We have a different problem here in Texas. I live in an area where the water is extremely clean, on the edge of the Edwards Plateau, which is studded with springs from the Edwards Aquifer. The water coming out of those springs is crystal clear. Water companies only have to do a minimal amount of treatment before piping it into people’s houses. In the hot Texas summer, one of the most popular things to do is go swimming or TOOBING (pronounced “tubing” but definitely spelled “toobing!”) in one of our spring-fed rivers.

They’ve found artifacts here going back to the Ice Age, and local Native Americans still consider the springs sacred today. The major springs of the Edwards Aquifer stretch in an arc along the Plateau from Barton Springs in Austin, to the San Marcos springs in San Marcos, to the Comal Springs in New Braunfels, to the San Antonio springs in San Antonio. There’s a good reason why the major cities from Austin to San Antonio each contain a spring. The springs are why the cities are here in the first place. Civilization requires water to exist. Going all the way back to ancient times, you could only put big cities where you had a reliable source of clean water for the people living there. One of the most basic functions of government is to ensure its citizens have water. Think about the aqueducts the Romans built. No water, no civilization.

The problem we have is not the quality of water, but the quantity. In 2011 we had a horrible drought and the Comal Springs stopped flowing for the first time since the 1950’s drought. The San Marcos Springs are home to several species of animals (and one plant) that only live there and nowhere else on Earth. If that spring ever stops, they’ll be gone forever. The San Marcos Springs have never run dry in recorded history, but when the Comal Springs next door run dry it’s still worrying.

Droughts are a natural part of life here, but humans make them worse. Climate change is probably going to give us more severe weather extremes in an area that already has a drought-flood-drought-flood type of weather pattern. And then of course there are the golf courses!

Why do we even have golf courses in this ecosystem at all?

Why is there a golf course right next to the San Marcos Springs? It just seems to send the wrong message.

At least xeriscaping seems to be gaining in popularity. Many nurseries now carry native, drought-resistant plants. Most homeowners associations still require residents to maintain a green lawn (I’m so glad my neighborhood doesn’t have an HOA), but a few are coming around.

But this is also one of the fastest growing areas in the country. Many environmentalists are afraid that we simply don’t have enough water to support the population doubling in the next few decades like demographers are predicting. But local governments continue to do things to encourage more people to move here. They call it “development,” and that’s a good thing, right? No one seems to be considering the realities of carrying capacity, or that we shouldn’t be making plans based on wet years rather than drought years.

Last year in California they came close to actually running out of water. When that was going on, I saw people being interviewed on TV saying they are still watering their lawns because they are wealthy and can afford the water bills. Do wealthy people not understand that you can’t just make water appear out of nothing if you pay enough money? Or maybe people are just in denial that it’s possible run out of water.

That could happen here. We need to realize that water is precious, and quit wasting it or polluting it. The first people who arrived here back in the Ice Age knew they found a good place when they saw it, because it had water. The Spanish missionaries and German settlers couldn’t have put down roots here without the water. But now people are so disconnected from nature that a lot of my students don’t even know what the Edwards Aquifer is.

I think any local polytheistic/animistic cults here in Central Texas needs to include the springs and rivers as a point of veneration. The Native Americans hold a pow-wow honoring the springs in San Marcos every year, but I think it would be appropriate for us in the modern pagan revival to do likewise. I think it’s necessary to honor something that important to our survival, especially something most people take for granted. Let’s not be like those people who think the water is magically summoned from nowhere when you turn on the faucet.

I also think that pagans living anywhere should find out where their water comes from and give it due honor, whether it’s a lake, river, or aquifer. Water is precious no matter where you live, even if it’s an area that receives a lot of rain. As we’ve seen from the Flint example, even a wet climate can have water problems if people take it for granted.

So don’t forget to honor the water spirits, and to use their gifts wisely.

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!

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.

The Power of Water

Saturday, May 23 was when I got back to San Antonio from Alpine after spending a week there for a workshop for science educators hosted by Sul Ross State University. It was raining pretty hard when we unloaded our luggage out of the bus we took to Alpine and into our cars to get home. Driving north on the interstate, I noticed the warning signs that usually warn of car accidents said something very strange: flooding had caused the interstate to be closed up ahead. Fortunately it was north of where I had to exit to get home, so I didn’t get caught in the growing traffic jam.

It turned out that the normally placid Blanco River had been hit by some very heavy rain up in the Hill Country by Wimberley and had flooded a record 40 feet, spilling over the interstate, washing away homes, trees, and cars, and killing several people. It made not only national but international news. By Sunday I had received several calls from people asking if my husband and I were OK. Fortunately our house is on high ground.

This is how droughts end in Texas: with floods. When my dad died, he left me his canoe, and the first time by husband and I took it out was on the Blanco River in Wimberley near a weekend cabin my sister-in-law has on its banks. We had to drag the canoe for quite a ways before we found water deep enough to float it. Last weekend the flood waters made it all the way up to the back deck of my sister-in-law’s cabin, and she was one of fortunate ones. Some of the other ones in the area were washed away or at least badly damaged. She also wasn’t out there at the time, which was good because the bridges that lead out there were washed away, and some stranded people had to be rescued by helicopter.

This is what the Element of Water can do when you have enough of it. Try thinking about that the next time you are at a Wiccan style ritual and turn to the West. There’s a good reason why cities and civilizations are built on rivers, but rivers giveth and rivers taketh away.

Sunday my husband and I went out to the shores of the Blanco River to look at the damage. I was amazed at the size of the trees the flood was able to uproot and wash away. Huge cypress trees ripped out of the banks of the river, stripped of bark and leaves, and thrust onto bridges 30 feet in the air, or smashed into any man-made structures in the way. Others walked around gawking, searching for treasures the flood might have washed up, and taking pictures. I wish I had brought my camera, and I don’t have a smartphone. I didn’t know what to expect when we decided to go out there to look at what had happened. I thought maybe the media was exaggerating, but I had never seen anything like that in my life.

I saw places where harvester ant nests had been washed out, the underground tunnels now exposed, with worker ants busy trying to repair the damage. They didn’t seem much different from the humans scurrying around the scene, except the ants were more focused on rebuilding rather than gaping in awe at the destruction. Ants don’t think about how small they are, and when their infrastructure is destroyed, they just start rebuilding right away. Humans forget how small we are, so when Nature reminds us we are just like the ants, and can be washed away so easily, we are stunned and surprised.

I’ll try go out there later this weekend and take some pictures to show you what I’m talking about, but the news has already been full of similar images you might have seen already. It’s just different actually standing there, next to a tree maybe four or five feet in diameter that the flood waters had picked up, dragged across a soccer field (leaving a deep gouge in the muddy ground for several yards) and smashed into a bench, pulverizing the concrete and limestone blocks it was made of. You can’t take a picture of the smell of wet wood and mashed vegetation and water and mud in the air. I’m sure the city hasn’t started cleaning up yet, since we’ve had flood warnings almost every day since then. No use in trying to repair the damage when we could get another flood any day now. But now it’s starting to look like things are calming down. The chance of rain is only 20% for the next several days, and at my house at least, the sun is out again.

I can tell we’re going to be talking about “The Memorial Day Flood” around these parts for a long time to come. Last I hear they’ve found six bodies, ranging in age from 6 to 74. Six more are still missing, ranging in age from 4 to 81, and at this point it’s unlikely they’ll be found alive, though I guess there’s always some hope until the actual bodies are found. May those who were swept away by the River be received well by their ancestors.

Big Bend National Park: A Holy Place

When American pagans think of sacred places, they usually think of somewhere like Stonehenge or ruins of Greek temples, but you really shouldn’t ignore the places closer to home. Some worry that it would be cultural appropriation about Native American culture, because they were here first and first regarded these places as sacred sites. However, I think the Native Americans were just the first human beings to recognize them (unless of course it’s a site they built themselves), and we should respect them for that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean these places belong to them. They were here for millions of years before our species even existed. I think they’re sacred in their own right, independent of any human observer, and should be recognized as such by anyone who believes that the natural world has sacred power.

I’m going to tell the story of my relationship with a place near and dear to my heart: Big Bend National Park.

Petroglyphs along the Rio Grande left there by kindred spirits from long ago.

Petroglyphs along the Rio Grande. Left there by kindred spirits from long ago?

Getting to Big Bend from here requires a day of driving west. I’ve heard people say the long, “boring” drive is a reason why they don’t go, and to those people I say, “Good!” If you think it’s not worth the drive, then you don’t belong there. It’s one of the least visited national parks in the country, and that’s one of its great advantages. I’ve never been there on Thanksgiving, but I’ve heard that’s their only “busy time”. If you go there during summer, like I usually do, there’s hardly anybody there. You certainly won’t get caught in a crowd like you might at the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone.

I live in the Texas Hill Country, which is on the eastern edge of the Edward Plateau ecoregion. Driving to Big Bend, I first have to pass through the rest of the Edwards Plateau, with its familiar oak-juniper woodlands, herds of goats, and peach orchards. Going west, the climate gets drier and drier. The woodlands open up into grasslands, and finally, after several hours of driving, you reach the Chihuahuan Desert. The vegetation changes to agaves, cactus, and the majestic ocotillos standing tall among rocky hillsides.

It’s really not a bad drive at all.

Driving through the harsh but beautiful desert landscape.

Driving through the harsh but beautiful desert landscape.

The last bit of “civilization” is Alpine, the largest city in the Trans-Pecos, with about 6,000 people. That’s big enough to have a supermarket, shopping center, and fast food restaurants. Stock up here, because after this, there are only gas station convenience stores in little towns. The Museum of the Big Bend on the Sul Ross State University campus is also worth a visit to stock up on some knowledge about the history of the place if you have never been here before.

From Alpine, Big Bend is straight south, into that “bend” in the Rio Grande that gave the region its name. Things are so “big” out here, that after you reach the borders of the park, you still have a long drive before you get to the headquarters at Panther Junction.

The first time I went to Big Bend I had just moved to Austin for college. I also just joined the Pagan Student Alliance, and that Beltane I went to my first pagan festival. My new friends, knowing I was majoring in biology, introduced me to a lady who worked for Bat Conservation International, and she started talking to me about an opportunity to have something to add to my resume. It was so strange “talking business” at a pagan festival with a lady who was wearing nothing but a sarong around her waist, but at the end of the conversation I had agreed to go with them on a trip in June to Big Bend National Park to study endangered Mexican long-nosed bats. My job was to be the camp cook, errand-runner, and laundry-doer for the scientists, who would be on a nocturnal schedule just like the bats.

I gave one of the other scientists a ride out there. Neither of us had been there before. When we arrived at Panther Junction and got out of the car, I was hit with the most wonderful fragrance. I asked my companion what it was, and she didn’t know. I laughed and said maybe it was fresh air. It wasn’t until later I found out that I was smelling creosote bush, which is known as “the smell of desert rain”. June is the rainy season out there, and when it rains, creosote bush gives out a scent that I think is invigorating.

A field of creosote bush.

A field of creosote bush.

The Chisos Mountains are the centerpiece of the park. Out in the middle of this harsh desert, these mountains rise up, creating an island of lush forest. There are several legends about the mountains being “enchanted” or “haunted,” which means people long before me recognized their spiritual power. Imagine being among the first human beings to make it out here, after crossing miles and miles of desert to find mountains with lush forests of Douglas fir, aspen, and madrone growing on top. There’s a winding road that takes visitors into “the Basin” where you’re surrounded by the mountains. On my first trip there, it had rained, and there were waterfalls cascading over the rock faces. The Basin is also a good place to camp in the summer, since it’s much cooler up in the mountains than the desert below.

The Chisos Mountains

The Chisos Mountains

To study the bats, we had to hike up the Emory Peak trail, higher into the mountains, to where the bats roosted, stay there all night catching bats in a net and attaching radio transmitters to them, and then hike back down in the morning. That night I went with the scientists so they could show me how it was done, but I had to go back earlier than everyone else so I could get up the next morning to cook. I was freezing up there because it had rained, and I had gotten sweaty on the hike up, so I ended up leaving at about 3 am. The problem was that now I was hiking down a mountain trail I was unfamiliar with, alone, in pitch darkness (with only a small, fading flashlight), with thoughts of mountain lions stalking me running through my mind.

When you’re in that situation, your mind starts playing tricks with you. I kept thinking I heard something coming up behind me, but when I stopped walking, the sound stopped. It took a long time before I figured out it was my canteen knocking against my backpack when I walked. I walked as fast as I could, and ended up startling some large animal just off the trail in the blackness outside the narrow beam of light coming from my flashlight. All I heard was a snort and crashing through the brush as it ran away from me, and I ran away from it. To this day I have no idea if it was a deer, a javalina, or a bear that I disturbed.

Later on, I lost the trail somehow. I must have gone down a deer trail, and slowly it faded out until I found myself standing in the middle of a patch of lechuguilla with no sign of any trail at all. I looked all around, and everything looked the same. I started to panic, and then I remembered what they told me to do if I had trouble, which was “curl up like a bear on the trail and wait until we come down and find you in the morning.” Yeah right! I wasn’t on the main trail, and I had no idea how far off I had wandered. I ended up finding a rock to sit on, turned off my flashlight, and just sat there a while. This turned out to be a good idea, because the adrenaline started to fade, my eyes adjusted to the starlight, and I calmed down as I looked at the black silhouettes of the mountains against the spectacularly starry sky. That was the first time I was anywhere that was dark enough at night to see the Milky Way.

After a while my eyes had adjusted to the point where I could actually see a small metal sign several yards away. I walked towards it and found the trail. I thanked the mountain spirits for not killing me this time, and managed to make it all the way back to the parking lot, to my car, and then safely back to the research station out in the desert where I was staying.

Sunset over the mountains.

Sunset over the mountains.

Modern pagans (and modern people in general), seem to either idealize Nature or hate it. They’ll say nature is good, and go camping at pagan festivals, until they get stuck with a thorn and then they want to go home back to air conditioning and soft beds. I think if you really want “nature-based spirituality”, then you have to embrace the fact that Nature is amazingly beautiful and healing to the spirit, and can also kill you. I probably wasn’t really in any danger as I hiked down the mountain that night, but it sure felt like it to me when that primitive part of my brain kicked in, and I was reminded that out there I’m not at the top of the food chain. And really, you’re not supposed to hike on those trails alone at night like that. If a mountain lion wanted to eat me that would have been her opportunity to do so. A few days after that, as I was running an errand in Study Butte, I bought a walking stick made of a sotol stalk. It’s become sort of a magic staff for me (I later burned my name in runes on it), but I also carry it on hikes to make any predators think twice about pouncing. (Though it’s more of a psychological thing. If a lion really set her mind to it, the staff probably wouldn’t help that much.)

Terlingua

Terlingua, an old mining “ghost town” turned quirky tourist spot next to Study Butte.

Since I was there during the rainy season in June, every morning there was a thunderstorm. Huge claps of thunder would blast through the desert, and out there nothing obstructed my view of the towering clouds and flashes of lightning. The desert plants soaked up the water and burst into bloom. After that, the sun would come out, and rainbows arched across the blue sky. Then the desert heated up, and by mid-afternoon it was baking hot until the sun went down, and nocturnal creatures like rabbits, coyotes, and kangaroo rats came out of their burrows as the temperature rapidly cooled. The next day the cycle would start over again. Fortunately the fridge at the research station was well stocked with beer, and I managed to sneak out into the desert to pour offerings for Thor and Heimdall and the desert spirits at sunset a couple of times.

That was my first trip to Big Bend.

A Vermilion flycatcher at the Cottonwood Campground.

A Vermilion flycatcher at the Cottonwood Campground.

A couple of years passed. I neared completion of my Bachelor’s degree at UT. When I graduated, it felt like my entire life fell apart. My boyfriend broke up with me the day before I walked across the stage, several of my friends moved to other states, and I had no idea what to do with my life. I had no job, and I was just starting to find out a Bachelor’s degree in biology is worthless, but I wasn’t sure if I could handle graduate school. None of my family or friends was in the sciences, so they couldn’t give me any advice. My relationship with that boyfriend was very unhealthy. I spent months putting a huge amount of emotional energy into trying to make the relationship work out, and then he dumped me right before my graduation. I felt worthless in just about every way.

I moved in with some friends after I had spent most of college living alone in an efficiency apartment. Living with supportive friends helped, but I still slipped into a deep depression. It felt like I had spent the last few years working so hard but everything I worked for had been worth nothing.

So I started planning another trip to Big Bend. This time I would go all by myself, and I wouldn’t tell anybody I was going. I told myself it was so that they couldn’t stop me, but part of me also wondered if anyone would notice I was gone. I needed to get out there and away from my pathetic little life.  I was also aware it was a bit dangerous taking a trip like this by myself, but I was at that point where you’re not quite suicidal, but you don’t really care if you just so happen to die somehow, you know? The thought of dying in Big Bend had a certain appeal.

DSCF2764

You are so small out here.

That morning I got up early and was loading the camping gear into my car, and of course one of my roommates caught me. I instantly realized the whole sneaking away idea was one of those stupid things that the fog of Depression comes up with, and my roommates would have noticed and would have called the police to report me missing. She made me promise I wasn’t going to kill myself and would be careful, and then she told me she’d let my other friends know not to worry, and she wouldn’t worry about me until I was gone for more than a week. Then she thought it was an awesome idea for me to take this pilgrimage.

I spent a week in Big Bend by myself. Since it was summer, I camped in the Basin where it was cool. I had only been there a little while before the depression was swept away. Since this was the first time I wasn’t there “on business” I got to leisurely hike lots of trails I hadn’t before, like the Lost Mine Trail. The rangers advised not hiking on any of the desert trails in the summer because of the potentially deadly heat, so I didn’t. I did take some of the scenic drives through the park, and at one point became overwhelmed by the mountains. It was when I was looking at an interpretive panel explaining how some rock formations in front of me were built, and I saw the tiny road I had been on an hour or so before off there in the distance, with a tiny little car driving along it, and realized how tiny I am, and how huge these mountains were that took millions of years to form. Some of the rocks in the park are billions of years old. It actually wasn’t a very pleasant feeling. I get a similar feeling when looking up at stars. “Feeling small” isn’t a strong enough description for those moments, but I still think that’s a good thing to experience. If more people really knew how small they are, they might change their priorities a bit.

Looking out over the mountains from the top of another mountain at the end of the Lost Mine Trail.

Looking out over the mountains from the top of another mountain at the end of the Lost Mine Trail.

When I got back, I enrolled in graduate school. That turned out to be another really, really difficult time in my life. I didn’t know what I was getting into. My thesis didn’t work out. I thought I would have to quit and had wasted all that time and money for nothing, and I still wouldn’t be able to find a job. Thankfully, the department chair, when I thought he was about to kick me out, suggested I change my degree plan. It freed me up to take classes I was much more interested in, like Ornithology, Mammology, and Field Botany. For those classes, we had field trips where we traveled all over Texas learning about the different ecosystems, and I ended up going back to Big Bend two more times. It reminded me of why I got into this career field to begin with.

After I abandoned my thesis and started taking those classes, I finally learned what I wanted to learn this whole time. I learned bird calls, and animal tracks, and how to identify plants, all knowledge my previous thesis advisor thought was useless trivia, while real scientists program ecological models on computers or run electrophoresis gels in a lab all day.

A Great Horned Owl looks down from a cottonwood tree.

A Great Horned Owl looks down from a cottonwood tree.

I took my husband to Big Bend in the summer of 2013. He had never been before. I told him about all my past history with the place, and now that I was happy, done with graduate school and with a job I liked and a nice husband, I wanted to share it with him. We went to Davis Mountains State Park for a couple of days first. Neither of us had been there before. We stayed at the beautiful Indian Lodge. That was so nice, he said maybe we should stay here the whole time, but I told him Big Bend was even better, so we went there next, and he said I was right. All the pictures in this post are from that trip.

The Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park.

The Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park.

While we were there, I bought a book at the gift shop called Death in Big Bend by Laurence Parent and read it on the drive home. It was interesting reading about these now-familiar places in the park and how they turned on some people. There are several tales of people who died of heat and thirst. I always give offerings of water to the land spirits for that reason. When people have actually died out there from not having enough water, giving some away to the spirits is a huge sacrifice. There are also stories of people freezing to death, getting hit by lightning, and even suicides and murders, but no one eaten by a mountain lion.

I really related to some of the people’s stories, like the old man in the first story who hiked the Outer Mountain Loop without enough water (and possibly suffering from the early stages of dementia) and died of thirst. He left a journal of the whole thing. He had been going to Big Bend for years, sometimes taking his kids with him. I got the sense that he felt a similar love for Big Bend that I do, and when he figured out he was going to die there, it didn’t seem like such a bad way to go.

My husband and I didn’t bring enough water hiking the Window Trail. One bad thing about that hike is you go downhill first when you’re fresh, and then have to go uphill to get back when you’re tired. We ran out of water about halfway back up, and were feeling pretty bad by the time we got to our vehicle. It’s a popular trail, so I’m sure if we really got into trouble we would have been found soon enough, but you never know. One story in the book was of a man who died hiking Grapevine Hills, which is a short, 2 mile trail in the desert right next to the road. He didn’t bring any water, got disoriented, wandered off the trail, and his body was found in an arroyo.

Looking out The Window.

Looking out The Window.

The Window was worth it though, because at the end you can look out over the desert for miles. As my husband was looking out, and I was getting a drink of water in the shade, we heard this strange bird call I’d never heard before. My husband yelled at me to come look, and a golden eagle swooped past. Of course I didn’t get a picture of it, and when I talked to a ranger later, they said they didn’t know of any golden eagle nests down there. But we’re absolutely sure it was a golden eagle after looking up its call on the internet when we got home. That was the first and only wild eagle I’ve seen.

I know a lot of people are afraid of the wild because of the dangers, though I’m much more likely to die in a car accident on my way to work than anything else. There’s just something humbling about being somewhere like that where human beings aren’t in control. For most of us it’s rare to be in a place that hasn’t been altered and tamed for your comfort, a place where there’s no air conditioning and all the plants have thorns and there are animals there that look at you as a food source. And I think that makes it even more important to visit these places sometimes and get reminded of what that’s like.

One of the things I look forward to about having a kid one day is bringing her (or him) to Big Bend as soon as she’s old enough. I thought about that a lot when I was there with my husband. I want to pass on my love and reverence for that place to another generation.

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

This May I’m going to Sul Ross University in Alpine for a week-long workshop for STEM educators. I just got the itinerary, and most of the week will be spent taking classes on things like scanning electron microscopy and GIS, but it looks like at least on Friday we’ll be going to Big Bend for a Field Geology workshop, and then to the Davis Mountains that evening for a Star Party at the McDonald’s Observatory. I hope I get time to sneak a quick hello to the mountain spirits, the rivers spirits, and the desert spirits. It’s not quite the same going there “on business” as going there when I can do what I like, but at least it’s a free trip to Big Bend. All my expenses are being paid by the university, including room and board, and I’m getting a stipend.

I haven’t been to many other national parks, and I haven’t been to any other national parks more than once. I haven’t gotten to travel much in my life in general. But I think even if there are more impressive parks out there that I may see some day, Big Bend will still seem special to me.

Some locals enjoying the shade at the Cottonwood Campground.

Some locals enjoying the shade at the Cottonwood Campground.