Plant Birthdays

Autumn Croci growing in the dirt

Autumn Croci growing in the dirt

Tell me of what plant birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you a good deal about his vocation, his hobbies, his hay fever, and the general level of his ecological education.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

For Leopold it’s the cutleaf Silphium, blooming in the corner of an old cemetery. For me, it’s the autumn crocus, blooming on my birthday (September 4). It always catches my by surprise, even though I watch for it as my birthday approaches. I didn’t see a trace of it in its usual habitat but coming home from a BBQ on Sunday night, I spotted these autumn croci springing up from the dirt.

017Then on my way to work yesterday, I found them in the place I’ve grown accustomed to seeing them. With the sunlight shining on them, they truly resembled “the lamps of the ghoul,” the name the Arabs give this plant (according to Wilfrid Blunt) because they are so poisonous. Other names for them: naked nannies and bare bottoms.

So what does that say of me, that this is the plant birthday I oberve?

First published Sept 9, 2009

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Fourth of July as Midsummer

I like to think of Fourth of July as a secular version of pagan Midsummer festivals.

Like many historical holidays, Fourth of July seems to have co-opted many of the symbols of the earlier celebrations at this time of year. For centuries at Summer Solstice, people stayed up all night, dancing around bonfires and rolling burning wheels down the hillsides, to honor the sun. On Fourth of July, we set off pinwheels in the street (evoking the circle, the symbol of the sun), wave sparklers around in the darkness (they look like the embers dancing up from a bonfire) and gaze at fireworks blazing overhead late into the night.

Many families spend the daytime hours on Fourth of July, at parks and lakes, enjoying a picnic lunch and eagerly waiting for the sun to set on the longest day of the year. We worship the sun and may pay for our devotion with sunburns.

Both Midsummer and Fourth of July are associated with heavy drinking. In fact, Fourth of July is one of the deadliest holidays in America due to alcohol-related traffic accidents. The traditional Fourth of July BBQ combines many of these elements: drinking and fire and spending hours outdoors with friends and family.

Midsummer has always been a time of revelry and romance. A Swedish proverb says “Midsummer’s night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” The Fourth of July places a little more emphasis on family than on coupling, but there’s no denying the romance involved in lying in your lover’s arms in a grassy park while watching fireworks burst overhead.

Of course, there are many differences between Fourth of July and Midsummer. Midsummer festivals also celebrate flowers and herbs, and often include the element of water (which we acknowledge here in Seattle by setting our fireworks off over Lake Union). Still, when I’m annoyed by the drunken crowds or frightened by the sound of firecrackers exploding, I remind myself this is just the traditional way to celebrate the height of Summer and the glory of the Sun.

First published July 3, 2010

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A Poem for St David’s Day

FebruarySince March 1st is the feast day of St. David, the patron saint of Wales, I thought I would share a Welsh poem with you. And since March 1 is famously the start of a windy month (March either comes in like a lamb or like a lion, reversing its nature at the end of the month), I wanted to share a poem (see the YouTube video below) about the Wind by Dafydd ap Gwilym (who is named after the saint as Dafydd is the Welsh spelling of David).

Dafydd ap Gwilym is one of my favorites of the Welsh poets. He wrote in the fourteenth century and his poetry is clearly influenced by the troubadour tradition. His favorite topics were nature and romance and he combines them beautifully in poems about trysting with the woman he loves in a grove of birch trees. In this particular poem, the poet addresses the wind and asks him to carry a message to his beloved.

If you would like to hear the Welsh version of this, you can listen to it here.

For a really interesting (but somewhat academic) article on the meter of Welsh poetry and why Wales has produced so many great poets, check out this article on “Extreme Welsh Meter” by Gwyneth Lewis from Poetry magazine: I’ve tried writing poetry using Welsh meters myself while I was in Wales and it is both incredibly difficult and incredibly rewarding. Can still recite whole verses form the poems I wrote because the rhyming and meter schemes made it so memorable.

The photo of the bird flying over the ocean was used to illustrate the month of Windy in my French Republican Calendar in 2013 and was taken by Melissa Gayle West. The French Republican Calendar for 2016 is still available and Melissa’s wonderful photo of sprouting moss decorates March (the month of Germinal, Sprouting).

First published February 28, 2015.

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Candlemas Collages

My New Year’s practice is to make a collage that represents the experiences I hope to enjoy in the new year. For the past few years, I’ve been making Soul Collage (R) cards to embody the themes I’ve chosen for the year.

To the left, you can see my three themes for 2010 as works in progress: Refreshment, Sustainability and Sovereignity.

On the other side of the table you get an upside-down view of the collage my friend Janis made.  We love this ritual which we have been sharing for years. We light candles, make wishes, drink tea, nibble on cookies and play with images.

In 2011, my theme cards were Spaciousness, Clarity and Surrender to the Mystery.

Spaciousness

Clarity

(I did note that most of the images in this card were out of focus and the goal remained fuzzy as well; however the bird theme really showed up in my life in 2011)

and

Surrender to the Mystery, a theme that stayed mysterious all year.

Here’s a photo from my 2013 session. This card is called Presence, not pasted down.

Once they are done, I put them up on the wall in the entry way of my home where they will remind me every time I enter of my themes for the year.

Here are my 2016 collages on the piano:

new year collages

From left to right, Creative Expession, Rising Above the Drama, [mystery card? maybe Flow?], Spaciousness and Abundance.

Originally published 2/9/2010.

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Hanukkah: Festival of Lights

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA This blog was originally written for the holiday lore blog at Amber Lotus. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, like the stringing of Christmas lights on trees and houses, and the lighting of the Advent candles, celebrates light during the darkest time of the year. The Jewish holiday calendar is still a lunar calendar and that means that the theme of light and dark can play out in the timing of the moon as well as the sun. Hanukkah always begins on the 26th of Kislev, three days before the dark moon closest to the full moon that is closest to the Winter Solstice, so at the darkest time of the moon and at the darkest time of the sun. Most Jewish holidays are linked to a pivotal moment in Jewish history. For Hanukkah, that moment is the victory of the Maccabees against the Hellenistic overseers of the Land of Israel who outlawed Jewish religious practices (and punished them with death) while reinstating pagan rituals. In 166 BCE, when the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem, they chose the 26th of Kislev as the day to purify and rededicate the temple which had been desecrated three years earlier. But the temple contained only one sealed flask of oil, only enough to light the lamps for one day. Miraculously that oil lasted for the eight days of the ceremonies. But as Arthur Waskow points out in his wonderful book on Jewish holidays, Seasons of Our Joy, the Greeks were probably celebrating a Winter Solstice ritual on that day and by claiming the same day for their festival the Maccabees

were rededicating not only the Temple but the day itself to Jewish holiness; were capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellenized Jews, in order to make it a day of God’s victory over paganism. Even the lighting of candles for Hanukkah fits the context of the surrounding torchlight honors for the sun.

The main ritual for Hanukkah involves lighting candles in the menorah, a candelabra that contains eight candles in a row. The first candle on the right is lit on the first night (December 25 in 2016) and each night an additional candle is lit until all eight are burning. Since the lit candles are not to be used for any practical purpose, many menorahs have a space for a ninth candle, a shammas or shammash, which is set above (or below) the others and used to light them. The candles are lit just s night falls and are left to burn for a half an hour. No work is to be done while the candles are burning (just as the candles are not to be used for practical purposes). Instead this half hour is a time for contemplation, for saying blessings and singing songs, eating special foods and playing games. In some Sephardic communities, women do not work at all on the first and eighth days of Hanukkah, and in some places, they don’t work on any of the eight days. Just as the Sabbath is the day for rest provided during the week, so are the eight days of Hanukkah a time of rest at this pivotal point in the year. hanukkah geltHanukkah foods are cooked in oil: potato latkes and fritters and jam-filled doughnuts, all recall the miracle of the long-lasting oil. Children play with a dreidl and are sometimes given gifts, particularly Hanukkah gelt. I’ve always loved those thin gold-foiled chocolate coins which remind me of the gifts of money so common at New Year festivals (the Romans, for instance, gave coins as New Year Gifts) and certainly,with the return of light in the darkness, the new year is born. Photo of Hanukkah gelt was taken by Liz West and posted at Flickr. Photo of the silver menorah (found at Wikipedia) was taken by Ladislav Flaigl and released into the public domain.

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Bon Odori Dances

For years, my holiday calendar contained a reference to the silent, gliding dances of the Bon Odori perfomed during the O-Bon festival in Japan. The image always seemed marvelous to me, and even more so, when I read this fantastic description of the dances written by Lafcadio Hearn, in 1894:

And at another tap of the drum begins a performance impossible to picture in words, something unimaginable, phantasmal—a dance, an astonishment. All together glide the right foot forward one pace, without lifting the sandal from the ground, and extend both hands to the right, with a strange, floating motion and a smiling, mysterious obeisance. Then the right foot is drawn back with a repetition of the waving of hands and the mysterious bow. Then all advance the left foot and repeat the previous movements, half-turning to the left. Then all take two gliding paces forward, with a single simultaneous soft clap of the hands, and the first performance is reiterated, alternately to right and left; all the sandaled feet gliding together, all the supple hands waving together, all the pliant bodies bowing and swaying together. And so slowly, weirdly, the processional movement changes into a great round, circling about the moonlit court and around the voiceless crowd of spectators.

The Bon Odori dances are part of the O-Bon festival honoring the dead, who return to visit their families at this time of the year. The festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 7th month in Japan (July 15; although in some parts of Japan it’s celebrated on August 15), but it used to be celebrated on the full moon of the seventh lunation in the Chinese calendar, which would be the full moon of August in 2016).

Like our Western festival of the dead, Halloween, this holiday mingles several elements: the traditional end of the summer retreat for Buddhist monks, the Full Moon of the Hungry Ghosts, and a midsummer lantern festival. The dances were designed to welcome and honor the spirits of the ancestors; one can see that reverent and otherworldly aspect of the dances in Hearn’s description.

A few years ago, my friend, Susan told me about the O-Bon festival held at the Betusin Buddhist Temple in Seattle. And I finally got a chance to see the dances. My first impression was that they were not particularly gliding. And they are not silent: each is accompanied by recorded music, which is played on a loudspeaker, accompanied by a drummer. The crowd gathers in the street and makes a long shuffling circle around the yagura, a temporary stage set in the middle of the street, from which the dances are announced and where the drum is placed. In Seattle, everyone is invited to participate, even if you don’t know the dances, and so the crowd is diverse, with people dressed in traditional summer kimonos and people in jeans and flipflops, some who perform the dance elegantly, others who look lost and are always off the beat. Some of the dances are quite playful and whimsical.

The Wikipedia article on Bon Odori describes some the various dances, some of which are quite old and others which come from popular culture, for instsance, the Pokemon ondo. Another website, which calls the Bon Odori dances, the spiritual dance in the midsummer night (I love that phrase), describes and provides videos of several types of bon odori dances.

I was a little disappointed in my first Bon Odori, although I enjoyed the friendly crowd, the camaraderie of the dancers, and the generosity of the Buddhist temple which opens its doors to make this festival possible. It has the atmosphere of any small community event, complete with princesses (beautiful young women wearing tiaras and kimonos), food booths, a beer garden, a display of crafts (including ikebana arrangements and bonsai trees), and little kids sitting on the curb to watch the dancers lining the street.

But the following year, I attended the festival again with my niece, Shayla, and this time I really did see the gliding dances of my fantasy. Perhaps this was because the temple sponsored practice sessions during the weeks before the event (you can see one in this You Tube video) and more of the dancers knew what they were doing ahead of time. Perhaps it was because of the elegant grace of the dance leaders, women in pink kimonos who walked alongside the dancers, demonstrating the movements. But suddenly, I could see how the gestures were intended to welcome and honor the spirits. I watched the dancers move slowly along the street, in a gliding, undulating line. And I saw all the elements Hearn saw in 1895: the swaying, the supple hands, and most of all, that sense of otherworldliness. No silence, but the beat of the drum and the repetition of the movements that began to have a trance-like, hypnotic effect. I even got up and danced to one song and felt I had truly honored the ancestors.

This video was not taken in Seattle but at the Bon Odori at the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles. I think it gives you the feel of the dancing. In LA, they were dancing in concentric circles, which creates an interesting effect. Several of the dancers are very elegant and attentive to what they are doing; others have that dazed look of people just trying to keep up. And from time to time, passers by, oblivious to the camera wander by, making you feel like you are there.

First published 7/20/2010.

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Thanksgiving as Harvest Feast

PAINTING DETAILMost Americans know the semi-mythological story of the first Thanksgiving, how the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony after a successful harvest in 1621 shared a meal with members of the Patuxet People of the Wampanoag tribe who had helped them plant their crops. But what we may not realize is that they were both acting out long-standing cultural traditions. The harvest festival, although it is celebrated at different times of the year and with different foodstuffs, is something found in every culture around the world.

The English settlers probably brought with them memories of the Michaelmas feast (September 29), the harvest festival on the English holiday calendar, a time to return home to eat together. The Wampanoag tribe had their own harvest festivals which coincided with the appearance of green corn and the arrival of certain fish species. In many African countries, the harvest festival, Odiwera, occurs at the time of the yam harvest. In Ireland, the first potatoes. In Hungary and Italy and Argentina, the grapes. In Papua, New Guinea, the pigs. In Bali, the rice. Everywhere, the festival usually involves a lavish meal, dancing, drinking, and ceremonies expressing gratitude to those (the gods or the farmers) who provided the food.

I am sometime annoyed by the insistence on recreating the ideal big family experience that accompanies Thanksgiving, an experience that is elusive but even in sitcoms, always triumphs over the forces of dysfunction arrayed against it. But I am ever so grateful that we have one holiday on the American holiday calendar that has not been co-opted by consumerism, that gathers us around a table to celebrate the food we’ve raised and cooked and shared with those we love.

This blog post first appeared at the Amber Lotus website, as part of a commissioned series of weekly posts on holiday lore.

The painting is called “The First Thanksgiving” and it’s by Jennie Brownscombe. I think it nicely illustrates the semi-mythological nature of the first Thanksgiving.

 

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Link Love: plants and people

I really liked my friend Joanna Powell Colbert’s idea of declaring Friday (or Freya’s Day) as Link Love day and posting some of her favorite links from the past week. (Love because Freya is the Norwegian goddess just as the name for Friday in Latin and other Romance languages refers to Venus.)

So I’ve been collecting some links that I loved this past week and wanted to share them with you. Almost all came from following the threads found in Pam Montgomery’s latest newsletter. (I took Pam’s wonderful Plant Communication workshop at the University of British Columbia’s Botanical Garden in October of 2010.)

Pam mentioned the TED talk about 6 ways mushrooms can save the world given by Paul Stametz which I found here. I wasn’t sure if I could believe Stametz when he said that fungi were more similar to humans than humans are to animals but I found this article on “Rearranging the Branches of the Tree of Life” by William K Stevens that makes the same point.

Probably my favorite link of the week also came from Pam’s newsletter: a link to this amazing video showing a plant singing in the Italian intentional community of Damanhur. It reminded me of one of the exercises Pam gave us when she was teaching us to talk to plants: we were supposed to sing to our plant. I felt very self-conscious about doing this but it did help me establish a connection with my plant (which was the lovely tree pictured in the photo above: a Japanese cedar).

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