The Dream We Dream Together: Bringing Pennsic Home

I was told, early on, that I would either love Pennsic or I’d hate it.  Not true.  I love this event – the biggest yearly festival put on by the Society for Creative Anachronism – to distraction, but I have a laundry list of things that trouble me, turn me off, or just plain tick me off.  And yet…

They say that once you start going to this event, you’ll spend the rest of the year looking around (at camping equipment, pottery, projects, fabric) and thinking, “That would be great at Pennsic!”  I find that it’s the other way around:  Pennsic is an inspiration for the rest of the year.

IMG_1153My first Pennsic was my first time camping.  I’d spent plenty of time outdoors, but never spent several days without being indoors.  My little orange tent, the swaying trees, the walls of the pavilions, the sheetwalls, and the ubiquitous tapestries and draperies all made quite an impression.  That fall, I hung my walls with scarves and other hangings, which, in my attic-level apartment, swayed from the angled walls and rippled in the breeze from an open window.

One day this year, a campmate walked into camp spinning on a drop spindle.  It reminded me of contact juggling.  I used to walk from class to class on my college campus doing simple contact juggling moves until they became second nature.  Here was someone practicing a form of object manipulation that not only was mesmerizing, but made a practical and enjoyable product.  She was kind enough to answer my somewhat manically excited questions and give me a demo, showing me how you could spin and ply yarn by hand, even without a spindle.  Of course, I had known that people managed to spin and weave and sew before factories were around, and I’d done a bit of the latter two myself, but the moment when I saw her ply the yarn, the moment when it went from wool to yarn in my eyes, I admit was a realization.  “Who needs the industrial revolution?” I asked.  Granted, technology makes things easier, and makes greater production possible, but it’s powerful to realize that you can take fiber all the way from sheep to shirt, just as it’s powerful to realize that food grows on trees and medicine can be dug out of the earth.

IMG_1695I visited the vendor Minerva’s Spindle, and brought home a lovely, modestly priced spindle with a rectangular whorl, as well as a couple ounces each of several different fibers to experiment with.  I’m a baby beginner, but I love practicing spinning, and find it as meditative as contact juggling.  My big realization so far was to discover that I could really thin out the wool and, not only would the spun yarn not break, but my spindle actually hit its stride.

I was as grateful as ever for my time at Pennsic this year, but—since it fell on the heels of a death in the family and some other challenging news—I found that the things that trouble me about the event stood out in even greater relief:  Pennsic, like Game of Thrones or World of Warcraft, can cross the line from good-natured recreation into consuming escapism.  Pennsic seems to become more and more commercial, with more and more factory-made kitsch alongside the classic SCA handcrafters.  It often suffers from the “Christmas must be perfect” syndrome, which happens when a holiday has been anticipated as being so wonderful that any disappointment feels mammoth.  The event cultivates (melo)drama as scads of no-matter-how-awesome people get dehydrated and depleted in this indulgent, outdoor environment.  With more and more smartphones in use, it’s is not the escape from glowing screens that it used to be.

S5003367And yet…

At Pennsic, 10,000 people, mostly adults, gather to wear strange garb, practice skills that are regarded as having been made redundant, and spend most of their time talking face to face with each other.  While crunchy bohos like myself are represented, this is not, predominantly, an “airy fairy” group.  There are lots of attendees with military backgrounds, people who work at box stores, doctors and lawyers, desk jockeys, truck drivers, academics, restaurant owners, and more.  And they all gather, once a year, to pretend the world is different than it is.

That fact is remarkable:  Here, 10,000 people gather each year and pretend the world is different – and they succeed.  They make that different world appear for two weeks.  There is suspension of disbelief involved, but mostly the world is created by showing up, digging ditches, building walls and villas, crafting garb, and sharing meals.  This strikes me as deeply hopeful.  We all want the world to be better.  As Yoko Ono said, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”  Pennsic is an example of just how concrete, how tangible, how real that dream can be, if we can only commit to actively pretend, actively imagine, build, and craft that dream into being.  We don’t have to limit that to just two weeks a year.  What shall we dream together?

Boho on a Bike

By neznámý (scan, reklamní leták) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I bought a motorcycle helmet.  I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to spend $200 so quickly.  But I wanted full face protection from the wind, not to mention that I like my jaw just the way it is.  Really, a Vespa’s more my style than the big old bike we’ll-call-him-Logan recently acquired.  Don’t get me wrong, the bike’s super cool.  But I’ve never been a speed demon, so if I’m ever at the wheel of something with two wheels and a motor, it’ll be a scooter…

I would love to see more people (calling all bohos!) – including those who don’t fit the black leather image of motorcycles – utilize bikes (and scooters) for everyday transport.  With less cars on the road, bikes would be safer.  The demand for fuel would drop and with it pollution, not to mention money spent on transport.

The first time I rode on a motorcycle, Logan picked me up at the train station in Philly on his Yamaha 250.  The bike – for all I ended up loving it – was small, and my helmet was smaller.  We jumped on the highway within minutes and the wind tucked under the face plate and smacked me hard enough that I had trouble breathing.  Not to mention that we were flying down a highway populated by crazy city drivers, my knees scant feet from their fenders.  I chanted affirmations in my head, and we did make it through alive and well, except for the massive pressure headache I had from the ill-fitting helmet.  Thus my willingness to sacrifice income for one that felt just right.

There’s a store in Bar Harbor, Maine called Jekyl & Hyde: One side is full of bright colors, jingly hip scarves, and flowing skirts; the other is knives and black leather.  My sister has commented that this store is a metaphor for my relationship: me the crunchy boho, Logan the biker in black.  That being said, motorcycles are a pretty awesome boho mode of transport, since they’re easy on gas and get you out into your environment.

The latter was what really won me over: Once we got off the highway, I could feel the moisture rising off a nearby stream, smell the pine needles and the farm fields.  There’s no real separation between you on the bike and the family on the sidewalk or the horses in the field or the deer by the side of the road.  Cars put boundaries between us and the rest of the world.  On a bike, it’s impossible to pretend those exist.

I think we’ve gotten comfortable with our boundaries, and lots of us are a little scared to be out there without doors and windows.  That takes courage…  It turns out you do have to be pretty badass to ride a bike, after all.

(Just rediscovered this draft.  It’s a little out of date, but what the heck.)

Farmers and Moonshiners


I posted earlier in the fall about how I tried growing some of my own herbs this year, but came up against an unexpected roadblock (in the form of contaminated compost).  Luckily, I have some pretty awesome sources for herbs:

My cat quickly decided that this bag from
Zack Woods was hers.  The catnip (which had been
in a plastic bag inside the paper bag) was so
yummy and fragrant that she played with the empty
paper bag for days.

For dried herbs, my first stop is, without a doubt, Zack Woods Herb Farm of Hyde Park, Vermont.  These wonderful people grow, harvest, and dry herbs so full of life that it seems you can still smell the summer breezes and the warm earth when you open up a jar of their herbs.  Anything I can get from Zack Woods, I do.  While I would love to have gotten to work with more fresh herbs from my own garden this year, I really feel that anything I make with Zack Woods herbs is vibrant and nourishing.

My other go-to business for dried herbs is Mountain Rose.  While this company isn’t local to me, they are pretty awesome, and provide a lot of info about their herbs, which are all either organically cultivated or wildcrafted.  From everything I’ve heard, they’re really good people.

I was lucky to win some Urban Moonshine
bitters from Mountain Rose earlier this year!

For extracts, my original favorite – the company whose products made me realize just how much more fun it is to sip herbal extracts than it is to swallow capsules – is Urban Moonshine.  This company is local and run by awesome people, who you can “meet” in this video.  I’ve found their bitters and tonics to be extremely effective – not to mention delicious.  As an added bonus, their packaging is really cool, which means that a bottle of Urban Moonshine makes a hip hostess gift.  Far from the grannies of ages past who would pinch your nose until you swallowed your medicine, Urban Moonshine makes it fun to take their tinctures, and there are all sorts of recipes for cocktails and other tasty beverages.  While I love formulating my own extracts, I also always keep some Urban Moonshine bitters and tonics on hand.  They’re great go-to formulas, add wonderful flavors to drinks, and – thanks to their beautiful packaging and general yumminess – are perfect for introducing newbies to the world of herbal extracts.

So, while I haven’t gotten to experiment as much as I’d like with making herbal preparations from seed to sip, I’m grateful to know some wonderful people who do good work.  I feel that buying from people I genuinely like, whose work I respect and trust, is the next best thing to doing it yourself.

Thank you to Pagan Blog Prompts, where “Who Makes Your Tools?” asks, “When it comes to the tools of your practice, does it matter who made them or where they come from? Does something you made yourself have more power?” for the inspiration for this post!

Castle Ellen, Athenry, Co. Galway

I’ve realized I’ve posted about several places I’d stayed or visited in Ireland, and neglected to mention one really special location.  A few years ago, I was lucky enough to get to stay for a couple of weeks at Castle Ellen in Athenry, County Galway.  This 200-year-old domicile is undeniably impressive, and is situated on some absolutely beautiful grounds.  There’s a gorgeous tree-lined avenue, and a large walled garden where I used to play hide-and-seek with Sydney, the resident terrier, when I was on a break from my writing.

The owner, Michael Keaney, is very gracious and has taken on the massive project of restoring Castle Ellen.  Michael opens the property to visitors in the summer, and I’d highly recommend a visit.  You can find out more here.

You can also learn something about Castle Ellen’s history – and see Michael and Castle Ellen on film – in this very interesting program from TG4, Ireland’s Irish-language TV station.  (Don’t worry!  It’s subtitled.)

Fall Harvests for Dark Days

This last spring I planned for some fairly ambitious container gardening, which unfortunately came to naught.  The mustard thrived, and the roses survived just fine, but most of the seedlings just stopped growing and the poor tomatoes looked like they were being tortured.  It turned out the compost I’d purchased had been contaminated with some nasty persistent herbicides.  It was heartbreaking, but still, I’m lucky to have a source for stunningly vibrant dried herbs (Zack Woods Herb Farm, here in Vermont), and so I was able to order lemon balm, and tulsi, and angelica among other good things.  They’re all tucked into mason jars in alphabetical order on my shelf, ready to get me and others through the winter and remind us of greener times when things were growing.

I was also lucky enough to complete Rosemary Gladstar‘s Advanced Herbal Studies program this year.  We began in May, and that first Friday as I came over the hill into Orange, VT, it was like driving right into a cloud.  We experienced all four seasons through the program – even, during the last weekend in October, a bit of winter with snow that stayed on the ground and temperatures solidly below freezing one night.  (Since I was camping, I was distinctly aware of those temperatures!)  The last Sunday, as we each stood up to receive our certificates and congratulations from our teachers, another cloud enveloped Sage Mountain, recalling our first day there.  Of course, then the mountain and roadsides and our gardens were swelling with new growth, whereas now each frost seems to trim back what greenery is left.  It’s time to tuck in for the winter, to rest more, to hunker down and reflect on the year.  After six weekends (one each month) packed full of invaluable herbal information and inspiration, I felt (and feel) that I have a lot to reflect on, so it wasn’t so sad to leave, that afternoon, as I’d expected it would be.

As much as I’ll miss the sunshine and long afternoons stretched out in the summer heat (I could have used a few more of those, really…), I’m content to be moving into darker days of rest and reflection.  One song has it that “summer’s a lover who always leaves before it’s the right time to go,” but this year, after something of a breathless summer, I’m ready for the exhalation that winter brings.

This post is inspired by the prompt “What have you harvested this year? How are you saving your harvest so that it lasts through the winter? What other preparations are you making before the snow falls?” over at .

Book Review: Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs

Click on cover to buy
from your local bookstore.

I’m far overdue in posting about this book, which has been out since the spring.  This is the newest from Rosemary Gladstar – an inspiring herbalist who I’ve been lucky enough to study with, and one of my absolute favorite herbal authors.  Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs is an ideal book for the beginning herbalist.  It starts out with easy-to-follow instructions on growing and using herbs, and continues with profiles of 33 easy to use and easy to find herbs.  Having read this book – written in Rosemary’s friendly and inviting style – I think even the most tentative students of herbalism will be inspired to dive in and start gardening and harvesting, concocting and decocting. I’d also recommend this for more experienced herbalists – in large part because this book focuses on some of the herbs that are so widely available that it’s easy to forget they’re also medicinal.  This is a gorgeously designed book that’s a pleasure to own and use.

The Green Man and the Lady of the Seasons

I think it was about a year ago that I was lucky enough to win the Green Man pictured below during a giveaway over at Confessions of a Country Witch.  Nydia of Carioca Witch and Bringing Up Salamanders makes these beautiful hand-embroidered felt god and goddess figures.  She put her etsy shop on hold a while back, which is why I put this post on hold, but I’ve noticed some new designs over at the Carioca Witch Facebook page, so I thought it was about time to post this thank-you.

I really can’t say enough how much I love Nydia’s creations:  They’re beautiful, made with obvious care and skill, and stunningly creative.  Persephone (also pictured, and the aforementioned Lady of the Seasons) was the first that I ordered for myself, and I absolutely the balance of light and dark elements on Persephone, and how subtly the face appears out of the leaves on the Green Man.  Until recently, the Green Man has been living with my jars of herbs, but since our house has been in a bit of a to-do lately, I’ve had them together.  I think they like each other’s company :)

Waking the Wild Spirit Tarot

I recently had the most wonderful thing arrive in the mail:  a tarot deck.  What is a tarot deck to me?  Seventy-two works of art.  A source of endless inspiration for storytelling.  A tool for tapping into my intuition and for finding new perspectives on life’s opportunities and challenges.  An object useful for tapping into magic?  No doubt, as not only do I believe that there is a sort of magic intrinsic in any evocative work of art, but I’m also confident that “there are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in [my] philosophy.”

I’ve seen many tarot decks that I like and admire, but so far only two have spoken to me immediately, and then also stood up to my pet peeves.  I was entranced as soon as I saw Poppy Palin‘s artwork.  The colors are vibrant and the sense of movement and flow in her cards is irresistible.  The artwork is detailed and evocative, and gratifies both my love of nature and my love of storytelling.

One of the first cards I look at when considering any tarot deck is the Fool card, and not just because it’s usually the top card in the deck.  The Waking the Wild Spirit Fool has been renamed the Wandering Minstrel, which suits my sense of story.  Most Fool cards that I’ve seen, following the Rider Waite Smith (RWS) tradition, show the fool about to step blithely off a cliff, with a dog either nipping at his heels or trying to pull him back.  Poppy, though, has depicted her Wandering Minstrel – in harlequin-diamond pants, a jester’s cap, light but sturdy boots, and a patched purple cloak – leaping off a well-trodden footpath.  The sense of movement – up and to the right – is infectious, especially since the dog is leaping right along with him.  Will the Fool’s leap result in good or ill?  We can’t tell, since his momentum will soon take him right past the edge of the card, but the day is bright and the sun smiles down on him.  I’ve always felt somewhat ambivalent about the image of the Fool at the edge of a cliff, which seems bound to end badly, and I much prefer this interpretation.

The Waking the Wild Spirit deck uses Earth, Air, Water, and Fire as its suits instead of Disks/Pentacles, Swords, Cups, and Wands.  I was pleased to discover this, as the symbolism of the elements is more accessible to me than the symbolism of the objects.  One of the first cards I fell in love with, while still exploring decks on screen, was Poppy’s Ace of Earth, subtitled “Seed.”  In this card, a bean seed sends out shoots and roots, under the guidance of a green-skinned man with root-like fingers.  He waves his arms over the seed, mirroring the snaking up of the shoot with movements almost like a belly dancer’s ‘snake arms.’  (I know:  Technically, this is a static image, but Poppy’s artwork is so alive it feels like the figures really are moving.)

One of my pet peeves is that I don’t like decks where all of the characters pictured look like movie stars.  I’m especially bored by decks where all the characters pictured look like Caucasian movie stars.  Extra thumbs down for decks that also show nude women who have obviously had plastic surgery.  The Waking the Wild Spirit deck, on the other hand, features young and old men and women with all sorts of skin tones ranging from pale to brown to blue to green.  Poppy’s characters have interesting and often strong features.  One of my favorite cards is the Wisewoman (a.k.a. the High Priestess), which depicts a woman with long, blue-gray hair and beautiful smile lines and crinkles.  She looks about to turn to the viewer to give advice that we’d be wise to take.  Also, none of Poppy’s women look as though they have helium balloons in bits of their anatomy.

I also feel mildly peeved when the faces of characters look stiff and inaccessible.   This isn’t a deal-breaker for me, but I was still thrilled at how lively and expressive the faces of the Waking the Wild Spirit deck are.

The Knight of Fire, subtitled The Gypsy

One or two of the reviews I read before ordering this deck commented that it might be hard to use at first because Poppy has deviated from much of the traditional (read RWS-based) imagery and meanings.  I’m not a tarot scholar, and I don’t have a real attachment to the RWS system.  Also, while I respect those daddies and grandaddies of tarot – RWS, Thoth, Marsailles, Visconti, etc. – I don’t see any reason why tarot shouldn’t evolve and change.  To me, the Waking the Wild Spirit deck is the best of both worlds:  I get to work with major arcana that are familiar and with suits that recall the suits I’m used to, but I also get a deck that is more evocative to me, closer to nature, friendlier, and that has the potential to tell me different things.  I find Poppy’s progressions of meanings within the minor arcana if anything easier to remember than the RWS meanings.

The cards are also a pleasure to use as physical objects.  The backs are gorgeous:  As one reviewer at Aeclectic remarked, “with each shuffle comes a mini-waterfall of colour”.  The cards have a geometric border around the image and then a white border around that.  In the white border is written the name of the card (at the top), and a subtitle which indicates the meaning (at the bottom).  Usually, I don’t like for meanings to be written directly on the card, but these subtitles are metaphorical rather than literal meanings (e.g. “Seed” for “Ace of Earth”), so I find that they add rather than take away from the experience.

I’ve really just started exploring this deck, and I’m eager to continue to work with it.  While it’s true (and a wonderful thing) that there are almost endless variations on tarot out there and you can rarely tell from one person’s experience whether a deck will appeal to you, I love this deck and would certainly recommend it.  You can see more of the artwork for yourself over at Aeclectic Tarot and at Poppy’s own site, which also includes some meanings for the cards and tells where you can buy this deck, as well as the full-length book that goes with it.  Apparently Poppy has another deck in the works, which I very much look forward to.

All cards shown are (c)Poppy Palin, and are used with permission of the artist.

Burren Perfumery, Co. Clare

As the days get colder here in the northeastern U.S., here are a few more photos from my midsummer trip to Ireland.  When I visited the Burren Perfumery in 2005, for whatever reasons I was nonplussed.  Not so this trip!  We visited the shop first, sampled all of their wonderful new herbal balms, and ended up bringing some borage balm home.  Then we had a walk around the garden, where I took these photos.  Finally, we met a friend at the tearoom for, well, tea.  Everything was so delicious that we stayed on for lunch.  The special was a spiced vegetarian dish served over quinoa, which was an unusual treat, since in Ireland healthy vegetarian options are often limited to a hearty carrot or potato soup.  The Burren Perfumery is out of the way, but well-marked.  If you’re in the area, I highly recommend a trip there, preferably on a nice day so you can enjoy the garden and then sit outside in the cafe.

Taking off from a borage flower.

If you look carefully, there’s a moss-man lying in the bed, and a fireplace to keep him warm.

A moss lady luxuriating in a verdant tub.

First Attempt at Japanese Four-Hole Binding, and a Book Review

Today I made my very first attempt at a Japanese four-hole stab binding, and it worked!  Okay, so it’s not rocket science – but it’s nice when something works on the first try!

This was still a very rough draft.  I want to clean up and tighten the lines of the stitches, and get a bigger awl (for punching those holes):  The one I have was quite a bit too small.  I improvised with a nail, which worked but resulted in the cover getting a little beat up.

Once I’m satisfied with the results, I’ll offer this binding over at Looseleaf Handcrafted Stories, using handmade paper for the covers.  I’m planning on adding some fancier stab bindings as I get more comfortable with them.  Meanwhile, I’m playing around with the text layout:  I’m thinking of using a portrait layout, with the bound edge at the top.

Shop indie bookstores.

The page you see beneath my “rough draft” in the photo above is from Erin Zamrzla’s At Home with Handmade Books: 28 Extraordinary Bookbinding Projects Made from Ordinary and Repurposed Materials.  Like pretty much everything Shambhala Publications puts out, this book is a joy just to hold and page through.  The photographs are beautiful:  They’re artistic but also let you clearly see the project pictured.  The text is clear and friendly, and the instructions for Japanese stab bindings are stellar.  Illustrations help break down the steps for these bindings, making them clear and accessible.

I love how imaginative Zamrzla’s projects are, and what a wide range of materials she includes.  My only complaint when it comes to my own personal use is that some of the projects are a little…Martha Stewart-esque.  I’m just never going to make a “my favorite cleaning recipes” book with a sponge for a cover. an unfolding flower note, or a sewing notions pincushion book.  Still, while many of her specific projects aren’t for me, they do inspire me to consider what crazy, creative types of books could be made out of repurposed materials.

The verdict?  I’m psyched to have this book.  I’m actively enjoying it, and it has a long-term home on my shelf.