Alfred has gone with the Wild Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Raising a Horn for Tom Petty

Monday morning, as usual, I had the local news on while I was getting ready for work. I was brushing my teeth when I noticed they were playing footage of Tom Petty and thought, “Oh, he must be putting on a benefit concert for hurricane victims or something like that,” because that’s the kind of thing he’d do, or maybe he was going to be at the Austin City Limits music festival coming up soon.

And then I saw the headline at the bottom of the screen and realized that Rockalfheim, the realm of the mighty rock and roll dead, had suddenly and unexpectedly gained another member. Again.

I’ve had a busy week, so it took a while for it to sink in. Tom Petty never inspired the same passion some other musical artists did. On the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band I watched a documentary about how musically complex and brilliant it was. No one would ever make a documentary like that about Tom Petty. After David Bowie and Prince died, the television and internet were full of analyses of their musical genius. Tom Petty wasn’t that kind of musician.

He just wrote good songs that made you happy when you heard them. When I saw him in interviews, he didn’t seem to have a pretentious bone in his body. He talked about how it only took him 30 minutes to write one of his most well-known songs, “Free Fallin,” and about how most of his songs only have four chords anyway, so any beginning guitarist could play them.

When I was a teenager, Tom Petty was “comfort music” for me. My generation’s music was Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. When I was depressed, I’d put on that music to wallow in misery.

But sometimes I didn’t feel like wallowing, so the CD I’d put in was Into the Great Wide Open. My dad got that album when it first came out, and I liked it so much and kept “borrowing” it so much, he let me have it. I still have it.

Since his death, I have seen articles praising Tom Petty for his storytelling ability, and I completely agree. He was a modern day Bard or Skald. Sure, his songs were musically simple, but songs like “Into the Great Wide Open,” feel like the plots of a whole movie or novel. He took well to the MTV era because his songs already evoked so much imagery.

But I think the reason I always found Tom Petty’s music comforting was that his songs felt optimistic, but at the same time acknowledged that life was hard. But just because life is hard doesn’t mean you just give up. You pick yourself up and keep going anyway. Maybe “I Won’t Back Down” is a more famous example, but when I was a kid, I really loved “Learning to Fly.” I remember listening to this song over and over again.

Well some say life will beat you down, break your heart, steal your crown, so I’ve started out for God knows where. I guess I’ll know when I get there.

I haven’t gotten to go to a lot of concerts in my life, but I did get to see Tom Petty back in the early 00’s. The boyfriend I had at the time was more of a heavy metal fan, but he knew I liked Tom Petty, so he surprised me once by getting us tickets to go see him when he played the Coca-Cola Starplex in Dallas. With the possible exception of when I got to see Paul McCartney, it was the most enjoyable concert I’ve been to. We got pretty good seats (unlike when I saw McCartney or the Rolling Stones), and the Wallflowers opened. I didn’t even know that until Jacob Dylan walked out on stage and started singing “One Headlight,” so I was pleasantly surprised to get a bonus band that I liked.

But Tom Petty sure knew how to put on a fun show! The venue was small enough to feel a bit more intimate than the huge stadium I saw in the Stones in. And he did that thing where he turned his songs into a sing-along for everybody.

My favorite part of the concert was when he sang “You Don’t Know How it Feels,” and on cue, he let the whole audience sing the chorus for him.

Let’s get to the point! Let’s roll another joint, and turn the radio LOUD! I’m too alone to be proud, and you don’t know it feels to be me.

That song came out in 1994, and that reminds me of another thing about Tom Petty I noticed a long time ago. There was some kind of timelessness about his music that he could keep going through the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s still making hits. A lot of artists who got their start in the 70’s didn’t manage to do that. Even if they were still creating albums and touring by the 90’s, people came to their concerts to sing along with the old familiar hits from the 70’s, not the songs that came out recently.

I have a feeling that as long as people are strumming guitars, they’ll be strumming Tom Petty songs.

So it’s the end of the line for Charlie T. Wilbury Jr. Next stop is Rockalfheim, where two of his Wilbury brothers are already waiting for him, along with Prince, and David, and Freddie, and John, and Jimi, and many others…

Maybe somewhere down the road a ways, you’ll think of me, wonder where I am these days. Maybe somewhere down the road where somebody plays Purple Haze…

I don’t want to burn my Butzemann.

Back in February I made my first Butzemann, Alfred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tilikum 1981 – 2017

tilikum_credit_paul_wigmore

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.

Celebrating Allelieweziel this year

This year Halloween/Samhain/Allelieweziel is going to be a private thing with my husband and I. No parties. No festivals. Much of that is for practical reasons; right now we are having to avoid spending any money that’s not absolutely necessary, but I think it might be good to have a quiet Day of the Dead this year.

Since Oct. 31 is a Monday, I think I’ll cook a special meal on Sunday and honor the Dead then. Monday we will be giving out candy to the Trick-or-Treaters and probably watching Young Frankenstein honor Gene Wilder who joined the Ancestors this year.

This year I think I will try to do a little more of an Urglaawe-influenced observance. That means honoring Wudan (Odin), Frau Holle, and maybe even Ewicher Yeeger as they start the Wild Hunt.

Of course, Odin is already one of my main deities, but the other two are less familiar. I’m interested in learning more about them. Several months ago my husband found an old sickle that looked like it had been lying around for a very long time. He put resin over the cracked old wooden handle and polished up the metal blade to remove the rust. An old sickle is an odd thing to find, so I took it to be a sign, and added it to my altar as something for Holle.

I’ve been doing some research on Allelieweziel, and read that it can be celebrated as a 12 day holiday that doesn’t end until November 11. Well that’s nice. That means if I don’t have time to do everything I’d like to do next Sunday, I’ll have some more time.

Ever since my dad died, I’ve been thinking about Death a lot more than I ever did before. Sometimes it really troubles me. It feels like my life is wooshing by faster and faster. Even though I’m in my 30’s, and people don’t usually call you “middle-aged” until you are in your 40’s or 50’s, I’m already over half as old as my dad was when he died. I already started getting some strands of gray hair a couple of years ago. (And I didn’t pluck them! They’re still there. I earned those gray hairs, dammit! Even if they do remind me that I’m not a kid anymore.) It’s good to remember that we are mortal, but I think sometimes I let it depress me too much, especially when I think about my loved ones eventually dying. I have yet to find the right balance between the awareness of my own mortality being a motivator to live life to its fullest without letting it get me too depressed.

In Urglaawe, the Wild Hunt is Holle gathering up the souls of the Dead, and then on Walpurgisnacht she grinds them in her mill so they can go on to the next life. I like that better than the idea of Vallhalla, which I always thought seemed too Christian-influenced. The thing is, once you’re ground in the mill, what is left of you? Is it anything recognizable as being you anymore? The person you were still becomes just a memory.

My Ancestry.com DNA Test Results

I know very little about my ancestry. I know some families keep records of their family histories going back generations, but my family is just not that kind of family. More often, my family is the kind that doesn’t like to talk about (or to) other family members, living or dead, keeping secrets from each other and keeping those skeletons firmly in the closet. Otherwise that means we’d have to talk about the abuse, alcoholism, or mental illness that lurks in there, and we don’t want to talk about that.

But I think this is one of the reasons I was attracted to Heathenry. My lack of knowledge about my family history gives me a feeling of rootlessness, while Heathenry is all about connections through the Web of Wyrd to your ancestors, the land, the gods, and everything else.

When I was a kid I once asked my mom what nationality I was, and she told me I was half German, at least a quarter English, and the rest maybe some Scottish and French. I think this was based on the surnames of my ancestors going back only a couple of generations. My mom was born in Germany and moved to the United States as a small child. My dad was born in Oklahoma, but had an English surname, so he must have been of English descent. That’s all I knew. So getting into Heathenry I assumed I was mostly German and English and prioritized what scant information I could get on Anglo-Saxon and Continental German practices.

Most Heathens I know are very focused on Scandinavia and I have some friends who practice Irish paganism. That’s all great, but my mom was born in Germany, so I’m a German-American, right? So that’s the traditions I should focus on if I want to revive the spiritual practices of my ancestors.

Yet I was still curious about my ancestry, so when I heard DNA tests were now commercially available at an affordable price, I knew I wanted to do that. Since I only know the names of my grandparents and no further back than that, who knows what else could be lurking back there? My dad was from Oklahoma. There are a lot of Native Americans in Oklahoma. My dad had dark hair and difficulty growing much of a beard. Sometimes there was speculation there was Native American lurking back in his ancestry somewhere, which would have been really funny given how his parents were pretty racist. But who knows?

So I got a DNA test from Ancestry.com. All I had to do was spit in a vial, seal it in a special bag, send it in, and then wait a few weeks for them to do my tests and email me the results.

Here are my results:

Scandinavia 25%

Great Britain 23%

Europe West 16%

Ireland 14%

Italy/Greece 8%

Iberian Peninsula 6%

Europe East 4%

Finland/Northwest Russia 2%

European Jewish <1%

Caucasus <1%

Well, I’m all European, unless you count the Caucasus as Asian, even though “Caucasian” is used as a synonym for “white”. That region includes Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, etc., which I think a lot of Americans would not consider to be white. That just goes to show how the whole American concept of whiteness is dubious.

As a scientist, I appreciate that Ancestry.com had a long explanation on their website about what these numbers actually mean and how many salt grains they should be taken with, though I’m sure most people taking this test will have no idea what it means, if they even bother to read that stuff at all. I just gave you the averages on my list above, but each of these ethnicities came with a range and error bars. Interestingly, of my four “dominant” regions, only Scandinavia and Ireland had error bars that didn’t include zero, which I guess means I definitely have at least a little DNA from those places, right? Great Britain and Europe West, the places I thought the majority of my ancestry was from, hand ranges of 0% – 51% and 0% – 43%, respectively (Scandinavia had 1% – 49% and Ireland had 1% – 28%).

Interestingly, by modern American standards, I’m “pure white”, but by the standards of my pre-Christian ancestors, I’m of mixed race. Until very recently, Irish people were considered a different race from English or Nordic people. I really wasn’t expecting to have Irish ancestry. Scandinavian wasn’t as surprising, just because those guys really got around, but I didn’t expect it to be at the top of my list. That’s where Western Europe was supposed to be.

After my main four regions, there’s Iberian and Italy/Greece. Perhaps I can blame the Romans for that. They really got around too. And then last I may have a few people from a little further East apparently, but that’s about it.

As for its implications for spiritual work, I guess it’s not so bad I’ve been borrowing from the Scandinavians after all, even though I feel like I have no cultural ties to Scandinavia. When I think of Scandinavian culture, if I want to get away from the Heathens who like to play Viking, all I’m really left with is Ikea and delicious meatballs and Abba. Not like there’s anything wrong with that. Abba had some catchy tunes.

Then there’s Ireland. That’s a very interesting place. I have several friends who are really into Ireland. They’re the sorts who really can trace their ancestry all the way back to whatever Irish clan they came from. Celts in general seem to be a very proud people, maybe because they have been historically oppressed. Ireland has some very interesting folklore and traditions, and then Irish-Americans continued with some very interesting traditions of their own. Maybe I need to take another look at Ireland.

But should I do what this guy in this commercial did, and “give up my lederhosen for a kilt?”

No, I still have fuzzy yet fond memories of my German immigrant grandmother, even though she died when I was only 4 years old. She was my only real tie to any sort of “old country,” with her thick accent and how she’d eat liverwurst straight out of the casing with a spoon. You have to be REALLY German to do that! She got me eating it, which now I realize is a really weird thing for a small child to eat, but I would always spread it on German rye bread from the German bakery to make a sandwich. I always liked bratwurst and sauerkraut when I was a kid too. Comfort food!

That kind of stuff matters. Nurture matters at least as much as nature, if not more. That’s why I think it’s OK for dark skinned people to be Heathens, especially if those dark-skinned people grew up in a country founded by European colonialism, which covers quite a lot of dark-skinned people, because like I said, my ancestors really got around.

So I’m going to keep being a German-American, if y’all don’t mind,

For the most part I don’t have anything cultural transmitted down to me by my European ancestors. No traditions or recipes or folklore or anything like that. I haven’t tried Ancestry.com’s family tree thing yet. I might go ahead and try it out it sometime, but with the scant knowledge I have of even people’s names or birth dates, I probably won’t get very far. Maybe it would have been different if my German grandmother hadn’t died so young, or my maternal grandfather hadn’t been such an abusive asshole, or I had a better relationship with my dad or his side of the family when he was alive. Those are the kinds of things that cut people off from their ancestors.

I just have my DNA to show that most of my ancestors even existed at all.

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.

A Lokean Rock Star?

I spend a few hours yesterday watching David Bowie videos on YouTube, and finally remembered something I should have mentioned in my last post, especially since it’s a little more relevant to a Heathen blog.

When I first got into Heathenry, before other people’s depictions of him influenced me, I always imagined Loki as looking like David Bowie. Maybe I should add Bowie to my list of “honorary Lokeans”. Hey, if Jim Morrison, another inhabitant of Rockalfheim, can be an avatar of Dionysus, why not?

He was an androgynous, gender-bending, shape-shifting, perpetual outsider looking in. But is he really the crazy one, or is he really the only sane one, and it’s everyone else who’s crazy? I can relate to that feeling.

We need people like that to test our boundaries.

So here’s a song that I neglected to include in my last post, but is a very Lokean song, with a video of how Loki used to look to me (maybe with slightly less eye makeup).

It’s a God-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling no
And her daddy has told her to go

But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen

But the film is a saddening bore
For she’s lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns
But the film is a saddening bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

The Mighty Dead of Rockalfheim

I just got the news this morning that David Bowie has joined the Ancestors. His 69th birthday was just a few days ago, and I did think it was odd that NPR (which I had on my car radio as I was running errands) was talking about him so much on his birthday. Now I realize that they may have known what I didn’t know at the time, that he was terminally ill and probably wouldn’t make it to his 70th birthday. I had no idea he was sick. I guess I just assumed he’d keep on living like Mick Jagger. (Mick Jagger is immortal, right?)

I’ve never been a rabid David Bowie fan, but I have always had a lot of respect for him, and really like several of his songs (and I mean listen to them over and over again and never get tired of them like). I am a rabid Beatles and Queen fan, and consider Bowie to be just as important in music history. As far as music goes, I’ve always felt like I was born 30 years too late. I think rock music reached its peak in the 1960’s and 1970’s and will never be that good again.

John Lennon died a month before I was born, and Freddie Mercury died when I was just a little bit too young to care who he was, so I hope David Bowie doesn’t mind me paying tribute to them along with him today. (I don’t think he would. He was friends with both of them.)

I discovered the Beatles when I was 14 and The Beatles Anthology documentary was broadcast on TV. I watched it because I had heard a few Beatles songs on the local Oldies station, so I was a little curious, and there just wasn’t much else on TV at that time. I think I completely fell in love with them about 15 or 20 minutes in. I had never seen footage of them performing before, and something just clicked when I did.

I became obsessed with the Beatles, and soon branched out into other music of that era, like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who, Queen, and yes, David Bowie. The Beatles were always my favorite though, and John Lennon became a personal hero of mine in my teenage years. Listening to the Beatles now always gives me a warm feeling. They were a big source of comfort during a hard time in my life.

When George Harrison died in 2001 I felt grief almost like someone I knew personally had died. He was the least well-known Beatle, but All Things Must Pass is one of the greatest albums, which is impressive given that it’s a triple album. You’d think it would be full of filler, but it’s not. A lot of it is songs he wrote while he was in the Beatles, but didn’t get on the Beatles albums because he was overshadowed by the other two geniuses in the group.

After that he didn’t put out many more solo albums, but still had some great songs. My dad got Cloud Nine when it came out. I was a little kid at the time and loved it when he’d play it, but I didn’t connect George and the Beatles until later. George Harrison also helped introduce me to the idea that there were more spiritual options out there besides either Christianity or atheism.

I’ve always had a little trouble deciding which rock band was my second favorite after the Beatles, but Queen was always among those competing for that spot. (I’m also sure they wouldn’t be insulted by me saying they were second to the Beatles. They were huge Beatles fans too, so they’d probably agree.)

I can only imagine what would have happened if Freddie Mercury hadn’t died when he did. I could have gone and seen them live. Oh, that would have been great. Any lists of greatest rock frontmen that don’t include Freddie at the top are completely wrong. Yes, Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, and Roger Daltry are all great, but none could hold a candle to Freddie.

 

So now David Bowie has joined that elite pantheon of Mighty Dead. You know, now that I think of it, maybe part of the reason I never got as much into David Bowie is just because I don’t know where to start. He was around for so long, putting out hits through several decades. He was like three or four artists in one. Collecting the complete albums of the Beatles, Queen, and Led Zeppelin when I was a teen wasn’t that hard to do, but David Bowie just had so much stuff. So all I have is his first Greatest Hits album. I know, that’s pretty lame.

I suppose in the coming days there will be a lot of tributes coming out, and some of them will talk about what his best albums were. Maybe that will help me decide where I need to start adding to my collection.

 

 

 

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!