Witch Like Me

It is late October, so naturally the best time to publicize Diana Helmuth’s The Witching Year: A Memoir of Earnest Fumbling Through Modern Witchcraft.

It looks to me like she took A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (2008) and Wiccan-ized it.

Instead of avoid cloth of mixed fibers (no polyester-cotton blend for him) or seeking an adulterer to stone, Helmuth decides to celebrate the feast of Lammas:

I realized this while reading a book, flipping through some pages, and I go, oh crap. I don’t have the sacred knife. I don’t have an altar. I don’t have anything.

Like Jacobs, she was a “none” who wanted to venture among the savages — actual believers, as she told National Public Radio interviewer Mallory Yu:

I wanted to be thought of as intelligent. So I rejected most religion and most spirituality throughout most of my life.

And then during COVID, and in general, as I got older, the idea of a self-directed religion that promised me a way to have some control over the universe – I think increasingly we find ourselves facing things that really affect us deeply that we have very little control over – right? – climate change, housing prices, health insurance bills, pandemics, who’s going to become the president?

And here’s this religion – this spirituality – that says, you can have an effect on these things that feel so much bigger than you. You just need a couple of candles and some willpower.

There is a long tradition of “among the savages” writing in America. As a young reporter in the 1980s I briefly met a tall but baby-faced guy who, having graduated from Colorado College, as I recall, went back to high school and passed himself off as a senior in order to write about high school from the inside. (At least one female writer has done that too.)

Maybe the best example is a book that was a classic of the Civil Rights Era but would probably never get published now, although it is still in print after sixty years:  John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961). A white writer from Texas, Griffin, who lived from 1920–1980, decided that the only way he could write about African-American life was to temporarily become one. His experiment was underwritten by the black-oriented magazine Sepia in return for first publication rights. From Wikipedia:

In late 1959, John Howard Griffin went to a friend’s house in New Orleans, Louisiana. Once there, under the care of a dermatologist, Griffin underwent a regimen of large oral doses of the anti-vitiligo drug methoxsalen, and spent up to 15 hours daily under an ultraviolet lamp for about a week. He was given regular blood tests to ensure that he was not suffering liver damage. The darkening of his skin was not perfect

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, so he touched it up with stain. He shaved his head bald to hide his straight brown hair. Satisfied that he could pass as an African-American, Griffin began a six-week journey in the South.

But even Griffin was following the footsteps of another white journalist who made a similar journey eleven years earlier.

So there is a pretty good way to get a book: pass yourself off as a member of Group X and write about it. If you do in graduate school, it is ethnography; otherwise, creative nonfiction.

On Getting Reaped at Lammas

large hailstone in palm of hand
The scythe of the gods — multiply by several thousands

A friend in Poland has a small farm, and he has been teaching himself to mow the meadows with a scythe. We have email conversations sprinkled with words like “snath” and “peening,” which I know only from reading.((He is an American expatriate, but I suppose that he has learned the equivalent Polish terms as well. He says that his elderly neighbors think his scything technique is amateurish, whereas the younger ones wonder why he does not use a machine.))

Nevertheless, we were scythed at  Lammastide.

On Friday the 4th, M. and I went to Colorado Springs for a “city day,” hanging out with my cousin at Coffee Exchange, thrift-store bargain-grabbing, picking up her laptop that was being repaired, buying wine, visiting a bookstore,  and also Nightingale Bread, where an Orthodox Christian baker speaks of “the spiritual symbolism of death and resurrection cycles (a plant’s grain milled into flour and revived as bread) inherent in bread-making.”((A hefty loaf made from organic Turkey Red winter wheat costs $8, which makes it an occasional treat, but it is very good.))

Then we came home to destruction. The first clue was the piles of leaves on the road when we left the state highway. Then M. looked at her gardens and went into shock.

Sunflowers—decapitated. Beans and tomatoes—blasted. Squash and gourd plants—nothing left but stems.

The corn looked as though though it had been machine-gunned. Many herbs were shredded. The nettle patch was reduced by half, while the woods were carpeted with fresh needles of pine and juniper, pruned from the trees.

I found a broken panel in the greenhouse roof, and the crank-up roof vent on the camping trailer was shattered. The plants in the greenhouse, mostly tomatoes, were unharmed.

All this just nine months since the last big forest fire and a week since some minor flooding on our road.

In the car the next day, she said, “Do you think we angered the gods?”

Who are “we”? The people on our road, under the narrow path of the hailstorm, which was less than a mile wide?

When you do anything agrarian — even vegetable gardening — that makes you vulnerable to weather, it is so easy to think that you are punished by some god when drought or insects or wind or hail wreck your crops. It is easy to think that someone is trying to teach you a lesson.

So what is the lesson?

Suillis granulatus
Slippery jacks. A little annoying because leaves and needles stick to them, but they *are* edible.

This morning while walking the dog I found “slippery jacks” (Suillus granulatus) appearing up behind the house under the pines — we see them only in wet Augusts, and this is one of those.

So it’s time to change and adapt — and look for mushrooms, while we hope that some parts of the garden will recover.

After Lammas, it’s hunting-and-gathering time. So that’s the lesson — move on.

In Praise of Harvest Time

Some (Northern Hemisphere) Harvest/Lammas celebrations, only not called that.

This one, I think, is from Iran:

This one comes from the island of Cyprus:

And while we’re in the mood, let’s not forget Whitman McGowan’s “White Folks Was Wild Once Too,” with video that is NSFW if you work in a monotheistic or cultural-marxist environment:

And don’t forget “John Barleycorn”!

Lammas, Wild Harvest, and “the Notch”

nibbled bolete
About two days too late for this big bolete. The squirrels had already been at it, and most of it was too soft. M. said it was a Great Mother Mushroom and we had to leave her to spread her spores. OK.

Many of the Pagan bloggers are putting up their “Happy Lammas/Lughnasad” posts. My archaeoastronomical friends who study mysterious ancient solar alignments point out that “real” Lammas is still six days away.

But there is “the notch.” In 1986, when I moved to this part of Colorado, a friend told me, “Something changes around the first of August. It’s still hot, but there is a change.”

This year I really felt it. On July 30th I was standing out in front of our volunteer fire department at sunset — there was a little rain squall to the west and a partial rainbow to the east, and the air just felt . . . different.

Liatris is blooming too, the flower that marks the turn into High Summer.

After one quick trip on July 10th, M. and I geared up yesterday for our harvest. Never mind the garden, it’s mushroom time in the Southern Rockies. Off we went to the boreal (OK, subalpine) forest —  up, up, up, about a 4,000-foot elevation gain.

A shock. Someone was parked in “our” spot on a certain dirt logging road. And a bulldozer had been working the road too — there is some salvage logging going on. We parked the Jeep a few yards further on. Shock again! Someone was camped up there—a vehicle and a blue tent.

On the warpath now, we communicated by signs and whispers. This way . . . circle right, check the little patch of woods we call “the mushroom store.” There’s a good bolete, grab it.

Then we come to the Forest Service drift fence, follow it to “the little gate” (there is also a “big gate”), walking quietly.

A man is calling a dog — “Sheena, come!” — on the other side of stand of firs.  Into a further maze of old logging roads, now snowmobile trails in the winter, we plunge, walking quickly.

I stand in a clearing, waiting for the GPS receiver to access its satellites so that I can re-locate some good spots saved as waypoints a year ago. M. circles me, looking down. After years of mushroom-hunting in this area, I know the lay of the land, but how far up the edge of “the boggy meadow” was that good stand of Boletus edulis? Technology has its place.

Once we are a quarter mile from the Forest Service road, we start to relax. As so often happens, the farther from the road, the fewer people you meet.

In Westcliffe, the Wet Mountain Tribune, a weekly, headlines, “Shroomers are Coming.” The Search & Rescue volunteers will be ready.

The truth is, SAR spends most of its time on climbers falling off peaks in the South Colony Lakes/Crestone Needle area of the Sangre de Cristo Range. Go into their building, and the main room is papered with topo mags and photos of that area.

But there was Frida. She was one of the “old German ladies,” an acquaintance of Dad’s, and a member of the mycological group in Colorado Springs, as was he. Military town that it is, Colorado Springs has a population of German GI brides like her. Years ago, M. and I encountered some of them walking through the woods with their shopping bags on the back side of Pike’s Peak. They taught us some mushrooms (Dad was away in Washington state then.) They became iconic to us.

A decade or so ago, Frida was lost overnight in these mountains. She was found the next day, in good shape. But somehow Search & Rescue locked onto her as a type specimen of the absent-minded mushroom hunter.

For Christmas 2001, Dad bought us a memberhip in the mycological society. Colorado Springs was too far to go for membership meetings, but we hoped to rendezvous for their “forays,” as the serious mycophiles call them. We signed up for one — it was cancelled due to drought.

That was a dry year, big forest fires popping up, including the Hayman Fire that threatened suburban Denver. (“All of Colorado is burning today.”)  And then Dad was gone.

This is not a “foray,” this is a meat hunt. M.’s Opinel mushroom knife is flashing. Boletes. Hawk’s wing. Velvet foot. Even a puffball, just for bulk.

“We need to leave by 2:30,” she says. Other responsibilites. We make a wide circle back to the Jeep; then she steps behind a big fir with the bags while I, wearing just my day pack, stroll to it, start the engine, and drive down the road to pick her up.

We plan to go back on Thursday. That is almost solar Lammas — the Sun hits 15° Leo on Friday. It is really “Lammastide,” not “Lammas Day” — a short season. And we will be harvesting.

The Wheel of the Year Slips its Cog…

. . . to borrow a phrase from another blogger.

This summer has been a tough one, trying to keep the garden alive, always watching for forest fires — fighting a couple of small ones with the local volunteer fire department.

The hummingbirds have been working the feeder hard for weeks — broad-tails and black-chinned, and for the last three weeks, the rufous hummers on their slow way south. I had to rinse and fill it twice a day.

Suddenly, on August 1st, there were noticeably fewer buzzing skirmishers around it. Oh, we still have hummingbirds, but some have left.

After a sort of poor mushroom hunt last week, M. and I went up on our favorite mountain today and had a real wild harvest.

After an early supper, we worked on the veranda until the light was gone, filling the dehydrator and covering two large screens with sliced mushrooms. Dried until they are crispy, they will go into jars for storage. The process actually concentrates the flavor.

The dark closed in faster, and the cool of the evening came more quickly too. The air outside smells of mushrooms from the dehydrator sitting on the outdoor dining table.

It is now late summer.

And the Corn Palace Too

Victorian Slind-Flor puts the “Loaf” in Lammas, with photos of the Palouse region and, even closer to my heart, the sacred Corn Palace of Mitchell, South Dakota, one of the great Roadside Attractions of the northern Plains.

A quick flashback to a 1980s cross-country drive with M.: camping in the Black Hills and the Badlands, Wall Drug, and then showing her the Corn Palace–all memories of boyhood years spent in Rapid City.