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.

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Tilikum 1981 – 2017

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I grew up in the Dallas area, and when I was a kid, one of the main places we went for summer vacation was SeaWorld of San Antonio. We went many times, and I loved it. I was obsessed with whales and dolphins as a kid. I had posters of them on my walls. I had plush toys. When I grew up, I wanted to be a Sea World trainer so I could swim with them.

As I got older, my feelings about it started to change. I watched nature documentaries about wild orcas and started to learn more about what they’re like. I saw footage of them hunting seals by tipping icebergs the seals were on, sliding out onto the shore to grab them, and tossing them in the air before killing them. It was a lot different than the “cute and cuddly gentle giant,” image that SeaWorld was trying to portray. David Attenborough made them look more like the lions of the ocean than pandas. And then there was their intelligence, that different groups of orcas had different cultures and spoke different languages, and that they lived in close-knit, matriarchal family groups.

I took another trip to SeaWorld with my family as a teenager, and this time I saw the Shamu show for what it was, a Siegfried and Roy style circus act with orcas instead of tigers. I didn’t enjoy it, and that was the last time I went to SeaWorld.

And then in 2010 I heard about the trainer in Florida, Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by one of the orcas there. They tried to spin it as being her fault, but I always thought that was unfair. After all, she was living the life I had dreamed of as a kid. She got to swim with the orcas. I’m sure she loved them. After all, you don’t get a job like that if you don’t love animals. She wasn’t the one who had captured them from the wild. She didn’t own them. But finally one of the orcas lashed out. Maybe he didn’t mean to kill her, maybe he did, but when an animal that weighs several tons has a temper tantrum, a little tiny human doesn’t stand a chance. Circus elephants and tigers have been known to “turn on” their trainers, sometimes killing them. Circus orcas doing the same thing shouldn’t be surprising.

When Blackfish aired on CNN, I watched it with great interest. I found it very moving. I remembered how much I loved SeaWorld as a kid, and how badly I wanted to be a dolphin trainer someday, and how I had no idea how wrong it was. I had figured out it was wrong before I saw the documentary, but the documentary showed me that it was even worse than I thought. Of course, SeaWorld keeps saying that Blackfish is misleading propaganda and their whales are very happy, but they don’t have any supporting evidence refuting the specific claims in the documentary, so as a scientist that makes me very skeptical of their position.

At least they’ve promised to stop breeding orcas, even if reports of them ending their orca shows were greatly exaggerated (they merely reduced some of the more circus-like aspects of the shows). I do hope they keep their promise that they won’t breed any more of them. Maybe now that their main stud male is dead, that will make it more likely that they’ll stop.

I have mixed feelings about keeping wild animals in captivity. Captive breeding, when done responsibly, has saved some species from extinction, and I do think there is something to be said for captive animals acting as “ambassadors” for their species to inspire people to support the conservation of animals in the wild. After all, I went from being a zoo-loving kid to perusing an actual career in biology. Seeing pictures of some of these animals is just not the same as seeing them in person.

But some species do better in captivity than others, and I think there are some that just shouldn’t be kept in captivity at all. Killer whales are one of them. There’s just no way to come anywhere close to mimicking their natural environment. These are animals that roam for thousands of miles in the open ocean. On top of that, whales are one of those species of animals that are so intelligent, with such complex lives and societies, that they seem more like “non-human people” than animals. I feel the same way about elephants and (other) great apes. It just seems weird to “own” a being like that, as if it were a pet dog or cat. Captivity is the natural habitat of domesticated animals, but keeping cetaceans, elephants, and apes in captivity feels like it’s bordering on slavery.

Now, in the case of elephants and apes, they are endangered species. In the wild they are under constant threat of being killed by poachers. Maybe having some in captivity is necessary for their conservation. But in that case they should only be kept in the best conditions possible, with plenty of room to roam, plenty of activities to keep them from getting bored, and a good social group. If a facility can’t provide that, they shouldn’t have them.

I don’t see any benefit at all for keeping orcas in captivity. They’re not endangered as a species (though some populations are). Even if they were endangered, I don’t know of any captive orcas that have been bred in captivity being successfully released to the wild, so breeding them in captivity wouldn’t help with that anyway.

As for the educational aspect, SeaWorld educates people about orcas as well as Siegfried and Roy educations people about tigers, or Barnum and Bailey educates people about elephants. In other words, they don’t. If they teach people anything about these animals, it’s that it’s fun to teach them to do tricks for our entertainment. I don’t think that’s a good message to teach.

Modern humans are very cut off from the natural world, and I think one symptom of that is how we view dangerous wild animals. Like many top predators, such as wolves and bears, orcas were once seen as an evil animal. It’s where the name “killer whale” comes from. Then in the 1960’s people started capturing them live and found out they can be trained to do tricks. That changed people’s view of orcas from vicious predators to cute and cuddly and safe to pet and ride. It’s a type of black-and-white thinking. An animal has to be either good or evil. Wolves were evil, so we exterminated them, and now they’re all over t-shirts and posters and wall calendars. We exterminated grizzly bears, and then we have people like Timothy Treadwell wanting to pet them and give them cute names, until he gets eaten by one. Even though Roy of Siegfried and Roy was almost killed by one of his tigers, he still insists to this day that the tiger wasn’t really trying to hurt him. So which is it? Are these animals our friends or our enemies?

The truth is that wolves, bears, tigers, orcas, apes, and elephants are all powerful, dangerous animals. They are not pets. People shouldn’t be cuddling them and petting them and riding them and having them do tricks. But they’re also not evil demons who need to be exterminated. They should be respected for what they are and allowed to live their lives as naturally as is still possible in this human-dominated world. Sometimes I wonder if animals that are dangerous to humans have a place in this world anymore, or if they’re destined to only exist in zoos and go extinct in the wild. If (or when) that happens I think we’ll really lose something. These are animals that rival us, as top predators in the food chain, or as intelligent beings with complex societies, or both. They teach us that not all of nature can or should be controlled by humans.

Tilikum was taken away from his family as a small child and lived the rest of his life in a completely unnatural environment. Even after he murdered three humans, the humans kept using him in their shows, and used him as a stud to sire 21 children that would also be destined to live their short lives in concrete pools.  In the wild, male orcas live to be about 60 years old, but Tilikum was about 35 when he died of drug-resistant pneumonia. He would have lived such a different life had he remained in the ocean where he belonged.

Maybe there is some sort of Orca Vallhalla, and Tilikum is there now, swimming freely with his ancestors with no more concrete walls in his way. I just hope one good thing comes from his life, and that it leads to an end to orcas in captivity.

Not good news for people who care about the Land

Ammon Bundy and those other assholes who took over a Federal Wildlife Refuge last winter, vandalized public property and Native American sacred sites, and terrorized the local people, have been acquitted.

The Bundys are part of a larger movement to privatize public lands. They don’t like that some lands, such as wildlife refuges and national parks, are set aside for preservation instead of resource exploitation.

And they don’t like it that when some federal lands allow resource exploitation, like those stewarded by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Forest Service, they have to pay a small fee. When they graze their cattle on public land, land that belongs to all American citizens, subsidized by taxpayers, they won’t even pay the small fee that we request of them. While at the same time, they complain about “Negroes” on welfare getting government subsidies.

They want us to just give them our land for them to profit off of, for free. That’s what their movement is all about. It’s not OK for the government to give subsidies for food and shelter to people living in poverty, but they are millionaires who want to be given free land.

Meanwhile, it’s totally OK to build an oil pipeline through Native American land, because hey, we need oil. We’ll do anything for oil, even destroy our water. Sometimes I wonder if people actually realize that we can’t drink oil.

In a related story a little closer to home, another oil pipeline is threatening the Big Bend region of Texas, a region which I’ve written about on this blog before.

We seriously need to get our priorities changed. As the Day of the Dead approaches (whether you call it Samhain, Halloween, Alleliewezil), we need to think about the kind of world we’ll leave behind when we’re gone. As future ancestors, will we be worthy of honor? Or will our descendants curse us for poisoning their water and destroying their land?

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.

America’s Best Idea

Today is my country’s 240th anniversary, and before I go to a local city park with my husband and in-laws to eat very unhealthy food from food trucks (I’m thinking some kettle corn, hot dogs, and I hope they have those chocolate-covered frozen bananas again this year, yum!), listen to a band play music on the stage while small children dance in front, and then at sundown watch people set off multicolored explosives, I wanted to post something quick for this occasion.

There aren’t a lot of things going on right now that make me proud of my country. We’ve been at war for 15 years, we keep having mass shootings, we keep having unarmed black men shot by police or vigilantes, we still treat rape as if it’s not that big of a deal, but for some reason what public restroom you use is a huge deal, and one of our major political parties is about to nominate someone who admires Mussolini and is loved by white supremacists.

Theodore Roosevelt and John MuirBut there is one thing that makes we swell with patriotic pride: our national parks. Ken Burns was absolutely right, that was America’s best idea. All the other things that make America great are ideas we got from other places, but the concept of the national park was born here. Yellowstone National Park was the first national park in the world. And while there is a lot of talk in Pagan circles about honoring the “founding fathers” on the 4th of July, I’ve always felt better about honoring Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir as great Americans worthy of hero cults.

(Yes, I know John Muir was from Scotland, and yes I know Theodore Roosevelt had some problematic things about his presidency, but dammit, they gave us the national parks! And Teddy was a Republican. Can you imagine what he’d think about the Republican Party today?)

The idea of the national parks is that contact with Nature is a human right, just like free speech or the right to vote. That’s a pretty revolutionary idea. And now there’s plenty of research out to prove that Nature is vital and necessary to human health, both mental and physical.

And though the national parks were founded “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” they led to the modern American environmental movement and the idea (or rediscovery of the idea) that nonhuman life has a right to exist too.

The last episode of Ken Burns’s documentary series on the national parks had a segment about the return of wolves to Yellowstone, and I admit it, that part made me cry.

Yes, our country is very flawed, and yes, even the national parks themselves are flawed (they’re horribly underfunded and they don’t do a good job attracting non-white visitors), but I still think they’re a thing that truly makes America great. This year is their 100th anniversary. We must do all we can to ensure they last another 100 years.

Thor the Rainbringer

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A black swallowtail visits the Cenizo in my front yard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Gods and River Monsters

I like it when I see polytheism and animism sneaking into places where you don’t expect, and especially when those beliefs are treated with respect. It reminds people that Christianity or monotheism aren’t the only options out there.

And sometimes I run across an author, television personality, or other celebrity and think, “You would make a good pagan.”

Jeremy Wade, the host of River Monsters, is one of those people.

River Monsters is one of the few shows left on Animal Planet that’s actually about animals (I knew when that tagline, “Surprising Human,” came out it was a bad sign). Basically it’s about a biologist trying to catch large, dangerous freshwater fish, but it’s also a show about the people who live with these fish, and treats indigenous, animistic, and polytheistic beliefs with a lot of respect. Coming from a western society where those sorts of beliefs are usually derided as primitive and superstitious, Jeremy takes them surprisingly seriously.

When I’ve mentioned this before to people, they’ve said, “Oh, it just makes good television” to have Jeremy talking to shamans and medicine men and taking part in rituals, but even so, he could have that “Oh, these savages are so silly!” type of attitude I would expect from most westerners.

But he doesn’t, and I think that if treating indigenous people and their beliefs with respect gets him better ratings than treating them like superstitious savages, then that’s a good sign for our society.

I think it was in the first season when he tried to catch a large catfish in India that was eating partially cremated remains people would throw into the river. The fish was seen as being an agent of the gods who would carry the person’s soul to the afterlife. A guru warned Jeremy not to try to catch this fish, but he ignored the advice and tried anyway.

After trying for weeks to catch the fish, he got one of the catfish on his line, almost reeled it in, and then the line broke. It was one of the few fish he never successfully caught.

In a later episode Jeremy went to Mongolia to try to catch a giant species of trout that lives in the rivers there. It’s also taboo for the Mongolians to catch that fish. They say it belongs to the river god. Jeremy learned his lesson from what happened in India, and got a shaman to talk to the river god and ask permission to catch the fish.

That was one of my favorite episodes. In Mongolia, like in pre-Christian Scandinavia, being a shaman is a woman’s job. The shaman became possessed by the river god and talked to Jeremy directly with this deep voice, and then gave him permission to catch the fish as long as the fish is not harmed. It was amazing to watch.

Jeremy Wade with his Nyaminyami pendant and the giant Vundu catfish from the Zambezi River

Jeremy Wade with his Nyaminyami pendant and the giant Vundu catfish from the Zambezi River

In another episode he’s trying to catch another giant catfish in the Zambezi River, which is ruled by the god Nyaminyami. Fisherman wear amulets that look like a cross between a fish and a snake as a sign of respect to the god, though they all know it doesn’t guarantee that he won’t still pull them to their deaths one day. Jeremy got one of those amulets to wear, and once Jeremy caught the catfish, he remarks that it looks very similar to the amulet, but is Nyaminyami really just a giant catfish the silly natives have mistaken for a god? Jeremy doesn’t quite say that, like I expected him to. It’s left up to interpretation.

I think the last episode I saw was in Canada or maybe the northern United States. Jeremy was trying to catch a giant pike called a “muskie” and was having no luck. He gave an offering of tobacco to a rock that the Native Americans of the area thought was sacred, and then switched to light gear to try to catch some small fish to boost his confidence. He immediately got a muskie on the line.

Jeremy keeps saying that he’s a scientist and he has to think “rationally” about all this, but he also says that “all fishermen are superstitious”. So he’ll do the ritual, he’ll give the offerings, he’ll put on the amulets, and maybe it’s all a coincidence that he catches the fish when he does those things and doesn’t catch anything when he doesn’t, but that’s how it goes in episode after episode.

It’s a tension that I can relate to all too well. I think anybody who works out in nature has that feeling that you’re interacting with things that are beyond your control. It’s easy to start to think that something like whether or not a fish bites your hook depends on the whims of a river god.

And maybe you think that because there actually is a river god.

I just appreciate that the show leaves the possibility open. This show could have easily been about “debunking” these myths about water monsters, and showing how they’re really just giant fish the silly natives have mistaken for water monsters, but it doesn’t have that kind of tone at all. It’s about looking at how there are still wild places in the world where giant freshwater fish lurk that are capable of killing a person (and how maybe, just maybe, some of them are agents of the gods). It shows that there are still places in the world where human beings aren’t in total control.

And even if you look at this in a completely “rational” way, Jeremy still draws attention to the fact that a lot of the large fish are becoming rare and endangered and even extinct, and losing them would be a huge shame. What’s going to happen when creatures like these no longer exist?

If only more shows on Animal Planet were like this.

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.