Hunkering Down for Winter

Winter decided to come early for us in upstate NY this year–probably in a lot of other places too. Part of me is still not ready to accept it. I haven’t even turned on the furnace yet, just been using space heaters. But today I will finally fire up on the old gas monster; there’s just no way around it anymore.

henbane flower 113014 smallEvery year, I actually look forward to winter. I like snow; it changes the way we see our surroundings and it usually makes things quieter. I like winter activities–no, not skiing or sledding, but reading and watching old movies and my favorite, planning out the garden for the following season. People have told me they don’t like winter because things are dead, but most things aren’t dead–they’re just waiting: seeds deeply asleep in the soil, roots of perennials resting from the work of storing food all summer, little critters hibernating in their burrows, all waiting for the return of the Sun. When I look out at a “dead” landscape, this is what I see: life abiding. It makes me feel hopeful.

This winter I’ve got a bunch of mandrakes growing under lights in the basement. I’ve done this a few times in the past but never have had this many. I like going down there every morning wth my cat Blackie. I check on the plants, clean and groom their leaves, water, fertilize, adjust the lights. There’s a silence around them while Blackie does his own work, checking his perimeter to ensure that no other cats have managed to slither through the tiny hole in the door, sniffing around for field mice invading from the yard, and then rolling in the dust on the concrete floor for the sheer pleasure of it. I’ve got three large plants that I hope will flower in spring if they do well over the winter. For the past several years, I’ve focused on harvesting the roots of these plants instead of encouraging them to flower and perhaps produce fruit. Now I want to do both.

henbane Moon this one smallMeanwhile, I’ve already purchased all the seeds I will need for next season’s garden. One of the most pleasant things for me in the winter is plotting out the garden. I use GIMP, an open-source image manipulation program (free but hard to learn, IMO), to make a grid of my yard and have labeled squares for all the different sized plants. I like doing this at the end of December best, when there is a kind of lull after Yule and you can almost feel the Earth tipping towards the Sun again. I’ve been having such success growing plants in large pots in my yard that I will greatly expand this way of growing next year. I love my yard full of trees and shade, but the soil here, already problematic because it is so full of rocks it does not even qualify as topsoil according to the Cooperative Extension, is absolutely full of tree roots. Even my belladonnas were losing the battle with them, especially compared to the belladonnas I grew in pots. This year I dug them up and will grow belladonna in pots from now on.

As my own personal winter approaches (or I guess I have already entered it at 61), I prepare for a different way of working, one that will allow a lot more leeway for creaky joints and the health issues of getting old. I’m going to be focusing more on providing baneful herbs, especially to shops. This is a good niche for me, I think. I love growing belladonna, henbane, and mandrake anyhow, and growing them to harvest and dry for sale should allow me a small income to supplement Social Security down the line. It also encourages me to get off my butt and get outside in the garden. I’m not going to be closing Alchemy Works any time soon, so don’t be concerned about that. I’ll keep it open for at least several more years. I hope I will be writing a bit more, stuff that is less challenging than the herb book I am trying to finish now–books composed of the recipes I have developed over the years for oils, incense, and other witchy stuff. But I would like a bit more focus on things I grow myself instead of items I must purchase from far away, for one, and for another, these plants give me strength. They build in me the sense of wonder and amazement at the natural world. I think we all need those senses to have a good and happy life.

And the other thing that gives me strength? My art. I haven’t been blogging, but I have been painting, as you can see. These are for the book–henbane flower and henbane pods in moonlight.

Wild Lettuce Binding

I had a dream this week about wild lettuce. I do not normally dream about plants. In fact, I rarely do. Even when I have had visions about plant spirits (as opposed to the individual plants themselves), it has been when I napped, a time that I am apparently especially open to spirit contact, and the plant spirit is not identical to the plant form. This was just plain sleeping, and I saw the rosette of wild lettuce repeatedly, as if I were in my own garden looking at the material plant.

But there were other aspects of this dream that were unusual. For one, it was a series of dreams. I’d dream about wild lettuce, I’d wake up, and then I would fall back to sleep to have another dream about wild lettuce. This happened about five times, so I knew it must be important. All the dreams had the same message–that wild lettuce in the rosette stage was stupefying. All I can say is I’m glad I’m a witch, because otherwise, I might be deemed nutz. :)

wild lettuce stampede 2013Wild lettuce is a biennial (takes two years to come to fruition–to produce seeds). In the first year of its growth, it forms a rosette, as it is called. This means that the leaves grow out from a central crown and do not form a stalk or flowers (see photo of wild lettuce rosettes in my garden a couple years ago). Other plants form rosettes too. Some people, like the anthroposophists, have said that the rosette form of plants has a Sun aspect to it on account of the shape. Makes sense to me. I think of the rosette as a period in which the plant forms a sort of solar collector that will funnel energy down into the roots so that the plant has enough oomph to make it through the winter.

Some plant information on medicinal herbs is refined enough to note the differences in the power of alkaloids between first-year and second-year growth, like with belladonna. But not so with this plant.

In the past, wild lettuce was in the British Formulary and was a part of American botanical medicine before the domination of chemical medicine in the 1930s. In the old days, the stems of wild lettuce plants that were in the flowering stage (second-year plants) were slit and the milky juice, bitter with alkaloids, was gathered and turned into lactucarium, a sort of poor-man’s opium. The highest alkaloids were gathered right as the plant was first blooming in the second year. The alkaloid in question is hyoscyamine, which linguistically inclined folk might recognize as being an alkaloid present in henbane (Hyoscyamus species). Kind of interesting connections between wild lettuce and henbane, the quintessential witching plant (IMO).

But there is no mention of gathering the sap in the previous, first year of growth. However, from what I know about plants’ use of alkaloids, they specifically concentrate alkaloids in parts of the plant that are most precious to the plant’s survival at any point in time. So for instance in the fall, there will be a high concentration of alkaloids in roots in order that the plant be protected from predation (because bitter = yucky to most animals, including most bugs) just prior to it falling under the spell of winter. Likewise, in the spring, when the plant is putting on new growth, the highest alkaloids will be found in the new leaves, and in the seed-forming stage, in the unripe seeds. So the rosette stage of wild lettuce should not have especially large amounts of alkaloids in it, certainly not enough to stupefy anyone. For that matter, we can hardly use “stupefaction” and “wild lettuce” in the same sentence. This is a mildly sedating herb, even when gathered at the most appropriate time (of highest alkaloid content). In fact, some sources question whether there is any alkaloid in the dried sap harvested from flowering stalks. This might be evidence of simply adulterated product, however.

I think these dreams are in fact a message from the spirit of the plant of wild lettuce, a plant that I have grown in the past in order to gather seeds, as they are quite expensive in commerce and because the plant produces jillions of seeds. They are a PIA to gether on account of the sticky sap, but their numbers and expense makes it wortwhile. In fact, I still have wild lettuce “volunteers,” as they are called, appearing in my garden from plants I grew a couple years ago. The seeds have parachutes and so go everywhere; once you grow this plant from seed, you will never have to plant it again. Right now I have several rosettes of wild lettuce in its first year in my garden, and this is after I religiously weeded them out in spring in order to prepare the ground for planting foxglove, clary sage, wild daisy, and hollyhock.

As I got this message–repeatedly–about wild lettuce being useful for stupefaction, I also got the image of a Haitian sort of zombification: that is, not the perhaps entertaining movie-type zombie that is the result of some creepy virus and that is actually dead, but the Haitian Ton Ton Macoute version of the individual drugged and made into a spiritless slave who will do the bidding of its master. Talk about a metaphor for a subdued populace, eh? So wild lettuce is calling out to be used to shut people up, to make them pliable, malleable. But only in its rosette stage. It was very specific about that. You can bet that I am going to be harvesting some–about half–of the leaves of the wild lettuce plants in my garden this fall. Because you never know when you might need to stupefy someone. :)

However, I also saw an image together with this information from the dream. It showed people walking along a midnight dirt road outside a town. The head of each individual–and they had lost much of their distinction as individuals–was swaddled in bandages represnting the stupefaction of wild lettuce in the rosette stage. They were zombies of the old school–biddable slaves, stupid and not on the level of “dumb” animals.

Anyway, a word to the wise. If you have need of such a powerful type of binding, grow some wild lettuce and harvest the leaves in the first year. Dry them carefully and save them for the day when they are needed.

Because of this dream, I’ve decided to swap out wild tobacco for wild lettuce in my book, which I hope and pray will be done by the end of October, with the help of the gods.

I forgot to say–wild lettuce is a Saturnian herb, and if Saturnian herbs are not good for binding, I do not know what is.

Stuff of a Saturnian Nature: Rant Ahead

A bit ago I began a project to put a fence up on the east side of my back yard because my neighbor’s dog(s) kept getting out and smashing my plants. That side of my yard has a lot of old, dead lilacs that come out like rotten teeth, with a bit of wrenching, leaving a satisfying hole. But the rotten lilacs have been further kicked to the curb by Norway maple saplings. I don’t know if you have Norway maples where you are, but here they are basically the plant world’s version of young punks with their underpants hanging out listening to obnoxious music real loud (and what music is NOT obnoxious if it is loud enough?). One of these trees is trying to remove the power line from my house, for instance. I enjoy lopping them. But they are not the issue. The issue is that Saturnian place–the border–and Saturnian values like definitions and limits.

Bones of the Dead

Bones of the Dead

Lately, I’ve been feeling like my borders with some of the rest of occulture are getting schmutzed up with the grime of Drama Poisoning. I’m talking about out-of-control wackos putting death curses on some twerp for stealing their content, loons attacking the death curse person and seeing conspiracies everywhere, buffoons who set fire to chickens on one side, just plain lying, cheating frauds on the other, and this latest where some eyeliner-wearing jackanapes told someone she should get raped and call his name in the process. Feh.

There will always be nasty, self-dramatizing jackasses, or so I have been telling myself, but lately I have felt very much like I do not want to participate in the world of occulture on account of them. It feels like a pool of piss posing as a bowl of chicken soup. These people have their shops, their lessons, their schools, their titles like Doctor Bullshit Bone or Mambo Insert-Bogus-Name-Here or Whorelock Darker-Than-Thou or the High Grand Mage of Malarkey and Spin. I am starting to feel like I am seeing occulture from the perspective of the Bunko Squad, ya know? These are not honest people. They are, at best, loons, at worst, lying cheats and bullies.

Every single log had someone's name on it

Every single log had someone’s name on it

So what to do? Today I got out in the garden and ripped out dead lilacs. It helped. I try to ignore these people, but sometimes I am pulled in by my own anger at what they do and sometimes they drag me into their stupid, overheated world. It’s just getting tiresome. Real tiresome.

So you say, well, go live in a Kaczynski cabin off the grid and have done with it. But I enjoy the internet. Without it, my life would be diminished. I’ve met interesting people here for the past 20 years, had a couple of very enjoyable businesses, learned about all kinds of things, laughed a lot at the innocent antics of humans and, of course, cats. But it also is an opportunity for bullies and frauds to ply their trade, and the occult world is no exception. Maybe it’s just the times. I had to quit reading a large gardening forum a few years ago because every single thread would be hijacked by some cranky teabagger with a gun. The last straw was when we were talking happily about compost and some loose cannon started yapping about how he was going to shoot the census taker if s/he dared to come onto his property. I had been a subscriber to that forum for 11 years and spent plenty of ad money on it, but that was it for me. No more. Life is too short to be rolled around in someone else’s murderous dogshit. CONSTANTLY.

saturnian stuff loppage


I’m starting to feel the same way about occulture. I made the decision a while ago not to participate in any occult forums or lists because there were just too many ignorant donkeys out there. You know: the Kabbalah was invented in Atlantis, Elijah saw a flying saucer, you can change lead into gold in a pipe bomb, “now that I’m an Ipssissimus, I am looking for new challenges,” “my family trad goes back to the Druids” and other such halfwitlessness. It was a good choice for me. I did not feel so much disdain for my fellow occultist because I was not exposed to so much stupidity. But it seems to be almost inescapable now. And the stupidity is more like the rabid teabagger shit from the gardening forum than the stupid plainly uninformed boasts–death curses for trivial offenses, telling someone to their internet face they should be raped, and so forth. Oh, and the ever popular Jewish reptilian meme.

I don’t know what to do about it. So I’ve been wrenching out rotted logs and lopping Norway maple limbs to redefine and re-emphasize my borders, my beyond which no one has my permission to go. That’s in my yard. On the internet, I have been trying something new for me–what I call Happy Posts. These are things about my garden, cooking, my experiences in magic, just stuff that I hope show another aspect of life, a non-grimey, non-skeevy, non-fraudulent side–a real side of a real person, not someone who is wearing eye makeup or putting death curses on twerps or giving myself a bogus title. Just stuff: the innocent antics of a fellow human. I will try my best to stick to that, although I do slip and say mean and nasty things sometimes. Yep. I sure do. I’m no saint. Not spiritually elevated in any way. Not a mage or a high priest or a grand sorcerer or anything. Just a person and a plain witch doing the best I can, but someone who has limits and who is taking the time now to redefine those limits, to redelineate my borders.

Because I really am a Saturn kind of guy.

Saturnian Maters :)

Indigo tomatoes on the vineI was quite taken by the pictures I’ve seen for the past couple years of Indigo tomatoes, a new variety that was marketed as being a very dark purplish blue. I wanted to try them for myself and to save seeds to sell on Alchemy Works if they were worth saving. Here they are on the vine. They are indeed a very beautiful (and very Saturnian) indigo color. They kind of remind me of the color of those purple tomatillos. Indigo does seem to be a Nightshade family kind of color–think of eggplants, black and deadly nightshade berries, etc. It suits their association with Saturn.

White Queen Tomato almost ripe

White Queen Tomato almost ripe

The plants I’ve grown are very vigorous–more so than the other tomatoes I grew this year, with the exception of White Queen. The Indigo plants have made tons of tomatoes so far, but there has been a bit of a problem with them falling off before they are ripe. I’m not sure if this is something about the variety or if it’s because of the very cool summer we’ve been having. I’ve lived here ten years now, and this is the coolest summer ever–only 2 days so far of 90F/32C, none higher, and most days in the low 80sF/26C or even mid 70sF/21C. Last night it was like a night in September. Very unusual, but apparently predicted by something to do with El Nino that I don’t pretend to understand. I am very much enjoying the temperatures, and if I had my druthers, I’d rather summer remain this way, but it is good to have a sense of whether this kind of summer is now going to be normal for us here in upstate NY. Then us witches can plant accordingly.

indigo ripeThe weather might also contribute to the Indigo tomatoes’ lack of taste. You really need plenty of good hot weather for tasty tomatoes. These are pretty mediocre. Better than the ones you buy in the store, and softer. You can see that when they are ripe, they are quite beautiful. They make me think of vampires. :) Probably if I were growing tomatoes just for taste, I would not grow these. But I love the way they look, so I might well grow them for that and have them in salads. They are not that big, so they’re handy for that. Still, they are the first to ripen so far. My Wapsipnicon Peach tomatoes, a fuzzy one that is a favorite of mine, is nowhere near ripening. One White Queen is ripening (these are beefsteak type and so will tend to ripen later, IME). Generally, the tomato plants are way smaller than normal by this time. A number of my tomato plants bit the dust early on because of the cool temperatures and my cruel negligence.

I will probably grow the Indigo tomatoes again next year. They do make me want to grow matching purple peppers. Oddly enough, the pepper plants are doing okay, despite the coolness. I did choose hybrid varieties this year, with the exception of Bullnose, which didn’t make it. I just wanted to have a lot of peppers. And here we get such a cool summer than I won’t get lots. So far, Pimiento Elite is the biggest plant and has the most peppers on it by far.

Potting up

I’ve been really a laggard this year when it comes to potting up plants I started. Even though my garden is nowhere near as big as it was, say, ten years ago, it does get overwhelming sometimes. And since I have been working pretty hard on writing and painting lately, I kind of blew off the chore (one I usually enjoy) of potting up plants–moving small plants to larger pots, where they can grow larger yet. I started way too many plants, as usual, and that made the task all the more daunting. But I knew that I wanted to finally get them done this weekend, so this morning I went out and spent three hours potting up plants and got MOST of them done. Not all by any means. I think that shows just how much I bit off that I could not chew.

Caucasus belladonnasI potted up 6 Caucasus belladonnas (Atropa caucausica) that I hope to get seeds off next year, although I might get a few this year if I’m lucky. This belladonna is supposed to have larger berries than the regular and to have purple stems. I’m not sure how different it is from Atropa belladonna, since it is a subspecies, not a separate species (kind of like the pallid henbane turned out to be a subspecies of black henbane). But it sure is a vigorous little sucker.

White henbanesI also potted up 6 henbanes, mostly white henbane. I’d really like to carry seed from this variety. The plants are much more compact and way fuzzier than black henbane. The cream-colored flowers are smaller (but those white flowers you see there are wild white petunias I am growing for seed and just because I love them). The white henbane flowers also lack the fly-wing netting of the typical black henbane. I’ve read conflicting info, but this henbane seems to have been the one that was once cultivated for medicinal purposes. One of them in this pic is a black henbane–the one that is “lax,” as they say in garden argot. You can see the leaves are much more pointy than those of the white henbanes next to it. The black henbane seems to be much more anxious to form seedpods than the white also.

I potted up two mixed pots of woodland tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris), Western wild tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis–I’ve already harvested some seeds from this), and wild white and purple petunias. The Western wild tobacco is much more delicate looking than its Eastern cousin (Nicotiana rustica). The leaves are long, thin, and pointed, and the flowers are long white trumpets that are much daintier than those of the woodland tobacco. I haven’t noticed a scent. An interesting plant I will grow again.

Pimiento EliteIt was a day for the nightshade family, as I also potted up six peppers. My peppers started off great and then sank into despondency as we have not had a warm summer. One, for some reason, has become quite large. This is a somewhat industrial hybrid called Pimiento Elite, which I believe was developed specifically to make olive stuffings from. I love pimiento peppers, though. They are thick and very sweet, excellent for pickling or frying or just eating out of hand. And they are beautiful. I have grown this variety almost since I first began gardening in the eighties. This year, though, I got a good batch of seeds or something, because this plant is LARGE, as you can see. The other varieties that seemed to do okay despite the unusually cool summer have been Lipstick and Carmen, both of which are also hybrids and which form a longer sweet pepper. In upstate NY, not exactly the pepper capital of the world, hybrid peppers can help in terms of getting any pepper harvest at all. Unfortunately, my very favorite pepper, Bull Nose, did not make it. So I hope for great things from these others.

White Queen tomatoe getting bigI didn’t grow any peppers or tomatoes last year for the first time in ages, but this year I have not only peppers but some tomatoes as well. I wanted to grow Indigo out to get seeds, and although it has been growing okay, the fruits have a tendency to drop off before they are anywhere near ripe, so I’m not sure what’s going to happen with them. On the other hand, a favorite of mine, White Queen, a Victorian variety used as a fruit in the past and which I love for its creamy texture, is doing quite well. I should get a few sandwiches out them! I decided to keep it simple and not only grow the maters in pots but just to tie them to bamboo stakes instead of how I usually support them with cords. I have only a few plants kind of in a nook next to the furnace stack. Next year I think I will grow more again, though. Even the best store-bought tomato just doesn’t cut it in comparison to maters grown in one’s own garden. And sliced on a piece of toasted, buttered German pumpernickel–you don’t get much better than that.

Three hours of potting up included dragging 3 cubic feet of peat moss up from the basement and mixing up wheelbarrows-full of peat moss, compost, and perlite. I think I overdid it a bit. :) But what’s gardening without overdoing it?

Clary sage and columbine

Aquilegia vulgaris podsIt’s been so long since I posted, but I want to get back into the swing of things. I’m going to be writing shorter posts for a while, just stuff I’m doing day to day. This morning I harvested a bunch of columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) seeds from my garden. I love the way the seedpods look – they remind me of the hands of Thai temple dancers. Here they are leaning over a self-seeded patch of Chinese lanterns (Physalis alkakengi v. gigantea) and a little lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) here and there. This year I’m going to try the berries inside the Chinese lantern pods for taste. They are edible, related to the ground cherry, but many members of that family produce berries that are either insipid or kind of funky. I hope I will be adding seeds for Aunt Molly groundcherry this fall. That variety tastes pretty darn good, like pina colada.

Clary sage tinctureI also strained a clary sage (Salvia sclarea) tincture I made for a friend. I used 95% alcohol on this, because it works so quickly and really extracts almost everything from the plant material. I love the color of a clary sage tincture. It’s interesting how different herb tinctures turn out to be different colors. I just made a bunch of mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) tincture also, and in contrast, it is a dark green, almost the color of old-fashioned fatigues. And the henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) tincture I made is a greyish green, the color of forest gloom. Clary sage leaves are quite beautiful. I think I like them more than even the showy bracts (“flowers”). This is a plant that deserves a place in any witch’s garden. Just finished what I hope are the final edits on the clary sage chapter in my book. I took the opportunity to discuss tincturing in that chapter and covered a number of menstrua that are not usually discussed or even mentioned in witchcraft writings – wine and vinegar – and some other tips. A little more advanced than the Witchcraft 101 approach.

Campanula or Adenophora who knowsI’m so enjoying my garden this year. I’ve got lots more in pots, including several different species of belladonna and henbane, and the perennials came back full blast, especially the valerian. Now that is turning to seed and the ladybells are blooming.  I have no idea where I got the ladybells–they might be from an old pack of rampion I tossed. Some people really hate them because of the way they spread, but they don’t seem too evil in my garden, and the bees love them–and so do I. I have always been fond of bell-shaped flowers. The queen of the meadow (Eupatorium purpureum) and the wild sunflowers (Helianthus maximillianii) are getting really tall. I am looking forward to their blooms. Hope your summer garden is making you happy!

Spring finally here?

Some of the smaller mandrakes potted up

It’s been a long and hard winter most places in North America, I think. Certainly a much tougher winter up here in upstate NY than I have experienced since moving here ten plus years ago. It was long, cold, and had lots of snow, but perhaps it is over. I am going for it, anyhow.

Tomatoes and peppers potted up 4/12/14

After not growing any food plants last year because I needed soul healing, not food, me and my healed soul started the usual suspects–tomatoes and peppers–a month or so ago. I loved White Queen tomato when I grew it a couple years ago. It’s a Victorian beefsteak variety that is more like a fruit than a veggie, very creamy in texture and mild in taste. Now, when some variety descriptions say “mild,” they really mean it has no taste whatsoever. But White Queen does have a taste–a somewhat fruity one. I know it will make good preserves, and that is what it is destined for. Today I potted up those seedlings, along with a neat new variety with purple skin called Indigoand a hybrid (yes, a regular hybrid, not a GMO, totally natural) called Aria Yellow Pear. This is a small pear-shaped mater that is supposed to be better tasting than the usual yellow pear tomato, which tastes like nothing. We shall see.

Bullnose pepper 2012

I also potted up some peppers. I do love peppers, especially the pimento types. These are a very old-fashioned type of pepper, usually heart-shaped, with thick walls and sweet flesh. They aren’t that common a pepper type, but to me, they are the best, especially if you are going to stirfry or pickled your peppers. I also like old-fashioned so-called “bull’s horn” peppers, the traditional Italian type, and so I planted Carmen, which is a hybrid version. I’ve been wanting to grow that variety for quite a while. It has good reviews from home growers. Thinking it was Bullnose, I bought a hybrid variety of bell pepper called Red Bull Hybrid, and those babies are up. Bullnose is my absolute favorite pepper variety. It is a small bell with very thick flesh. YUM. The pic is of Bullnose peppers I grew in pots on my driveway a couple years ago. This very old variety was grown in Thomas Jefferson’s garden. You can actually get the seeds from the Monticello garden shop.

Nicotiana quadrivalvis, rustica, and sylvestris

Still left in the pepper/mater tray are a bunch of Nicotianas, including N. rustica (wild tobacco), N. quadrivalvis (wild tobacco used by Western tribes in North America), and N. sylvestris (woodland tobacco). These have a little way to go before I pot them up, but I also potted up 40 foxgloves this morning. These are the foxgloves I grew from pelleted seeds. Almost all of them came up. Very handy. I hope to get flowers the first year from these, which I will dry and sell on Alchemy Works. And of course I also potted up 12 of the smallest mandrakes.

Forty foxgloves!

The mandrakes are actually two-year-old plants, although you’d never know it from their size, especially compared to their siblings. But they seem to be quite happy to be in much bigger pots and in full shade outside. These probably won’t be ready to sell for roots in the fall, but the others should be, and I have about 30 of those, half of which I will sell in October/November, depending on when our hard frost hits.

Illustrations and Planting

Today I got to work on the illustrations for my herbal witchcraft book. Does it ever feel great! The first chapter is on poppy, so I started there. I did sketches of a bud, a pod, a seedling, and a flower. I’m going to start the paintings based on them tomorrow and do some more sketches in the meanwhile. For reference, I used photos I took of my own Elka poppies that I grew year before last. I have to say that I like working on this smaller scale. The images are no larger than 8″ and will be reproduced no larger than 6″ x 9″–more like 3″ x 4.5″–so they are quick to do and easy to maneuver around in terms of space. I like to turn the paper all around while I am drawing or painting, and that is easy with something this size.

On an art forum I’m a member of, trolls asserted that the reason why artists paint abstract art is because they can’t draw–and pretty much the same goes for people who even just LIKE abstract art, which I do. I can say with confidence that I know how to draw. It’s funny how many things as you age get kind of rusty or even lost. I know I couldn’t do calculus today if you held a gun to my head, even though I did well with Advanced Calculus in college back in the seventies. And I can’t believe I used to knit European style with two different colored yarns in hand to make Fair Isle sweaters. My hands just won’t work that way nowadays; I can hardly knit even plain. But I can still draw, and it is so so heartening to dip down in that well and find that yep, there’s plenty of water down there. Still, I won’t be posting most of these. They’re reserved for the book.

Today I ordered this book on fantasy illustration in watercolor. Reviews say it’s a bit of a beginner’s book, but that’s fine; I was very inspired by the images inside. I like the composition. That’s something I’d like to work on. One thing about straight art vs. illustration is that often the illustrators seem to have a better sense of how to approach an image, how to display it. Especially people who do comics often have a really creative and dynamic way of showing whatever it is they are illustrating. Yes, sometimes they get carried away using point of view from the ceiling or something, but I like how creative they are with that. It’s easy to get in a rut with straight painting and just show whatever it is dead on, end of story. I have also been impressed with how knowledgeable some comics folks are about pens. I was looking all over for information about whether I could use Dr. Martin’s Bombay India Ink in a Rotring Artpen and found a discussion amongst comic artists where someone knew exactly which inks could be used in which pens (and yes, you can use Bombay India ink in that pen without ruining the pen, which is cool because I have a ton of that ink and five of those pens).

The other thing I am appreciating about doing these illustrations is that I do not feel the slightest compunction about manipulating them digitally, whereas I don’t feel comfortable doing that with the paintings I am turning into prints. The most I have done with those is to intensify the color so that they print better, because giclee printing seems to wash out the colors a good deal. I’ve resisted even doing any cleaning up of blips and blobs on those digitally. But I don’t feel that way at all about the illustrations. Whatever makes them look the best when they are printed on paper seems fine to me. And I feel perfectly okay about using, say, ink or colored pencil on top of a painted illustration, because the goal is just to get the best image, not to stay within the boundaries of a technique. Also, if I wanted to I could use colors that are not lightfast in the illustrations. It widens my choices a LOT. It is so exciting for me, so freeing. I am loving that I can combine writing and art as well. This whole project is finally coming together, turning into something I am loving doing instead of a chore.

In other news, I started 50 foxgloves yesterday, and that means the 2014 planting season has officially begun for me (“Ladies and gentlemen, start your seeds!”). These varieties are not as tall as the regular foxgloves, but they’re supposed to flower the first year: Camelot and Dalmatian. I got pelleted seeds, which I rarely use because I am normally okay with planting small seeds, but that was the only way they were available. It sure made it a lot easier. The seeds are just basically rolled in thin layer of white clay that hardens and makes them easier to handle. It’s much simpler to plant just one per peat pellet. They stand out well against the dark soil so you don’t end up overplanting (which I normally do with foxgloves because the seed is so fine). The clay disintegrates pretty much on contact with the moist soil. Today I’ve got tomatoes, peppers, wild white petunias, and white and lavender toloache to start. I want to harvest both seeds and some foliage from the toloaches this year.

Woodland tobacco volunteer with mandrakes under lightsPotted up four mandrakes yesterday, and they had the most wonderfully twisted roots! I also have two volunteers in the mandrake pots–a henbane in one and a woodland tobacco that has really taken off. Since I was moving plants around, I thought I’d pull the woodland tobacco out and give the mandrake in that pot more room. When I slid the pot out from under the lights, where the tobacco had twisted itself up in between the fixtures, I found that the tobacco had flowered! I thought this meant I should leave it in the pot. Last night when me and Blackie went down there so I could shut the plant lights off and he could check the perimeter for marauding cats and have a roll on the cement floor, the tobacco flowers were shedding scent. If you have not grown this plant, it’s worth doing. It is not the most beautiful in terms of its foliage, and it will snare mosquitoes in its sticky fuzz (and in the basement it has trapped and killed a few fungus gnats the same way, sort of the plant equivalent to putting someone’s head on a pike), but the scent of the flowers, wow! I just love them. Last year I had a woodland tobacco volunteer in a crack in the driveway right near the back door. It got huge, five feet tall.

It’s going to get cold again here, but I feel spring is on the way now.

Henbane Moon: Art & Magic

First version of Henbane Moon

I’ve been working on a painting I’m calling Henbane Moon, since it features a branch of henbane with some dried pods on it. It’s based on a photo I took of some of my henbane in the summer of 2013, but I’ve modified it quite a bit, because for one thing, I don’t believe in tracing photos or even imitating photographic effects, and for another, modifying a picture is what makes it art, IMO. And not just in my opinion, but also in the opinion of others. I read a pretty good book on painting landscapes called Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting, written in the 1928. Carlson won a lot of awards as a painter but also taught landscape painting. His paintings are fairly traditional, so it is all the more striking when he says that beginners tend to copy everything they see in a scene in front of them. As we become artists, we begin to leave out or put in elements that bring out the essence of the scene for us as individual artists. This leaving out and putting in is what makes an artist an artist. Technique is just a tool for the expression of the artist’s personality, he says.

This makes such perfect sense to me, and now I think of it every time I make sketches for paintings or work on the paintings themselves. With the sketch I made from my henbane photos, I exaggerated the characteristics of the henbane pods to make them seem more like henbane pods, I shifted their position so that they were more symmetrical, I deleted the true background, I removed a couple dead leaves, and I completely changed the lighting. I did all of this to make my depiction of these pods more of a depiction of these pods as I see them–their henbaney quintessence.  Although I am considering this my first version of this painting because I am not happy with the way the sky came out (and I still have to experiment with putting a mist around the Moon, which is why the Moon is not perfectly round–it wasn’t important since it is going to be covered with mist), I am satisfied with it in terms of my depiction of the pods themselves. The painting gives information about the plant in a pleasing way, but IMO, it is not pleasing enough, so I will work on the sky more.

But I have thought of this whole putting in and leaving out as a manifestation of maturity of vision in terms of magic as well.

Lately a kind of nostalgic orthodoxy seems to have overwhelmed all sorts of spheres of our culture. I see it in art in people who get their undies in a huge twist about abstract art, like it is killing their babies and making them live on the street. These same folks believe that “real” art is done with the methods of centuries ago or at any rate is realistic. Abstract or non-representational art makes their blood pressure go up and they snarl about how such artists can’t draw. The same reheated orthodoxy is popular in magic nowadays as well. Folks assert that we must follow the rules of grimoires exactly, that if we are not for instance drawing a sigil with real dove’s blood on calf skin parchment as opposed to using a red ink on paper, that we are not making authentic magic. We are informed that if we don’t actually SEE a spirit we are working with, the experience is not real and instead we are suffering from terminal New Age fluff-bunnyism. Others insist that anyone who is not part of a tradition that allegedly goes back to angels who got kicked out of heaven–or at least goes back to Pagan times–is not a real witch. Etc.

For example: After I put up the herbal codes page I have on my shop site, I saw a link from a traditional witchcraft group about how my info was so New Age and laughable really and that REAL witches kill animals for spellwork and use their blood and bones and anyone who doesn’t think so is a Wiccan, which word is used as a term of abuse for someone they disrespect and has nothing whatsoever to do with real Wicca. I frowned when I read this, partly because the tone reminded me of grade school but also because I thought I had seen herbal codes mentioned as far back as the Middle Ages, so having four planets in Scorpio, I decided to research it. Well, herbal codes go back to the Greek Magical Papyrus, which is the late ancient world. And that is a hell of a lot older than any traditional witchcraft. So using some sap or resin instead of some animal blood is perfectly authentic. It just does not fit into the new orthodoxy of magic.

Orthodoxy, shmorthodoxy. Like art, the bottom line is whether magic works. I can testify that using ordinary ink on paper does indeed work, and so can thousands of other magic workers in the course of history. I am sure you have had similar experiences in your magical practice. Sometimes the simplest magic that was never a part of any big huge impressive tradition is the most powerful, and sometimes the most orthodox magic that has the best and most props and cool ingredients and secret words is a huge flop. Partly that’s because of the skill of the practitioner, but partly it’s also a question of the spirits or the energy or the will of the gods or whatever we want to call it. Sometimes the universe works with us and sometimes it works against us.

But what’s all this got to do with my henbane painting? Only this: just like as artists become more skilled, we learn what to leave in and what to take out to make the best image, to make art instead of just a picture, so as witches we learn which rules we can bend or break or even invent in order to make the best magic. And what is the best magic? It is the magic that works. Not the antique magic, not the magic with the best props or seekrit sauce, not the magic with the big names, but the magic that just plain works. That is real magic. We can learn this by doing, by seeing what happens when we take things out or add other things in. Yes, I have heard all the dire warnings about the spooky & ‘orrible things that will happen to someone if they don’t follow the orthodox rules of magic exactly. But IME such folks are far more likely to be spurned by the orthodox people around them than to be injured by pissed-off spirits or karma, which is otherwise absent from our world.

This is not to say that I think following some tradition or book magic is needless. But it is like the list of properties of pigments for the artist. That is basic knowledge that then must be of use to the artist’s own personal expression of the world. But a list of pigment properties is not art, just like the rules of a tradition or a grimoire are not magic. The magic–and the art–is in the synthesis that the artist or witch creates from their knowledge, intuition, gut, and practice. Magic should be no less an expression of the witch’s personal vision than a painting should be the expression of the artist’s personal vision. That perspective makes a hash of magical orthodoxy or of slavishly imitating the Old Masters of painting.

And with that, I am off to start my foxglove seeds. Because spring will come eventually.

More Magic, More Wonder, More Satisfaction

I made a New Year’s resolution for myself that I would do a lot more magic in 2014–for myself. I have done plenty for other people, and as many know, it’s part of my business–making talismans, for instance. I haven’t done spells for hire–not because I am in any way opposed to it (I’m not), but just because I’m not sure if I could deal with the amount of hand-holding required for that type of work. But when it comes to doing magic for myself, I have been remiss.

Oddly enough, I got inspired partly by rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke. I read it when it came out in 2006 and promptly forgot the plot, so it was worth rereading for me. It’s about magic, and one of the (to me) humorous things about it is the number of faux footnotes, about 200. In them she refers to a work that systematizes all possible spells: 35,000. I thought it was funny, but I also thought, wouldn’t it be inspirational to have such a book? Just open a random page and get an idea for a spell–something you don’t necessarily even know you need. The novel quietly counterposes the magic of books/tradition to nature-connected witchcraft. Both are depicted as very powerful, but the ability to “read” stones or the reflections in puddles, for instance, to learn from them the magic that one needs, is shown to be vastly more powerful than the type of magic more familiar to us all, which is passed down to us either through books or through some tradition. The magic that was the result of a direct interaction with the enspirited world whipped ass. It is the kind of thing I can know but have to be reminded of over and over, because I forget it, especially during winter, when it is difficult to spend too much time outside reaffirming my connection to that world out in the garden, in the woods, or at the lake.

Recently I spent some time being ill. This was capped with getting insurance under the ACA (“Obamacare”), for which I am quite grateful. But I thought I ought to put together something to thank Saturn (the planetary influence concerned with the particular body part, teeth/bones) for his protection in this matter, because it could have been a lot worse.  So I constructed an incense for thanking and praising Saturn for protection and blessing. I put it together in my usual way, but whereas in the past when working for myself as opposed to others, I might stint on ingredients or amounts, I didn’t do that at all. I have, for instance, a nice and very expensive hemp essential oil (no THC, but it is indeed hemp), and since hemp is Saturn, I featured this in the Saturn incense I dubbed “Hearts of Saturn.” I paid special attention to the fineness of the grinding, and since I was working for myself instead of for production, I was able to do some things that I would not have the time to do as a retailer of occult goods, like carefully stuffing individual dried henbane pods with this incense and packing the pods in a box. This is not an incense I could ever sell because of the amount of work involved; people are not very willing to pay for labor, I have found. And in the past, because of the labor involved, I would not have thought of making such a thing for myself either. I would have thought it was a waste of time, even though I am perfectly willing to waste my time in trivial non-magic ways. But having made this incense and feeling so very satisfied with it, I thought about how much time I am willing devote to other people’s magic. Why would I not spend more time on my own? I decided maybe I needed to focus a lot more on myself magically. It feels selfish, but my excuse is that turning 60 allows me a little more leeway in the selfishness category.

My next work involved something for a very strong Mars offensive-type protection, because honestly, someone has been trying to give me shit, and I am fed up with just doing the usual protection that works for a while and then kind of loses potency as I become distracted by daily life. Mars is an influence I rarely work with even though I actually love many Mars scents (and I have a rather hot temper and four planets in my chart are in Scorpio, whom some consider to be ruled by Mars in a dark mood). But I can see that it does not profit me to continue to believe that simply shielding is enough. It isn’t always sufficient. Sometimes you have to kick ass as well.

Normally, I think about what I am going to do when I am making some magical tool. It is a very logical process for me. I research the different materials that might go into what I make and what they work well with or don’t. I look at their individual components and analyze them for unexpected connections. I don’t usually make use of intuition in this kind of process. But this time I had something in my mind, a task to be accomplished, and laid it out there. I felt drawn to go down in the basement to see what was down there in a tiny drawer in the workbench that the previous owner built. I’ve looked in that drawer many times. It has always had a few miscellaneous clasps and orphaned nails in it. But this time it had this rusty riveting hammer head. Rust–how Mars is that? It is the very blood of metal. And how Mars to be dedicated to beating metal. So I crafted a tool of my own devising together with red paint and yarn, and charged it with my own blood. It abides on a bed of black peppercorns in a red tin box. Next time shit comes strolling down the pike, it will be met by the Prick of Mars and get hammered.

This work was enormously satisfying. And satisfaction is for me the very heart and soul of magic. It is the savor that makes it worth doing. For me, the proof of magic is not in the amount of wealth or power or lovers or stuff accrued by the magic worker. People who work no magic at all can do that. IMO, magic has got to offer something more than mere stuff: magic must provide on the one hand, wonder, and on the other, satisfaction. I remember a few years ago some whippersnapper on a forum carping about how Crowley could not have been much of a magician because he ended his life in a rooming house bumming cigarettes off people. That whippersnapper did not know anything about anything, as far as I’m concerned, because I would bet any amount of money that Crowley had had an intensely wonder-filled and satisfying life. That’s the kind of stuff that makes money trivial.

I’m going to continue with this focus on my own work and will post about it occasionally. The main reason for posting about it is to encourage people to be a bit more independent about their magic, to not be so cowed by folks who insist that magic can only be done in one particular way–their way. This is not to say I reject study. I don’t. It gives us the basis to make decisions, to for instance choose red paint instead of green for a tool dedicated to messing someone up. But it can become a crutch, just like tradition can become a cage. You have to know where the lines are before you can color outside of them, but eventually, you should indeed color outside of them, if only for the wonder and satisfaction of it.