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 paganprompts.blogspot.com .

Dear Cooper’s: What the Frack?

Dear Cooper’s Lake Campground,

I thought we really had something.  When I first met you, you were healthy and full of life.  I loved contemplating the lake and sitting under the shade of your tall trees.  Walking from Merchant’s to Camp, I’d end up out of breath and then collapse into my tent, and sleep like I never sleep away from you.  Even the noise from the road took on the quality of waves, or breath.

We celebrated Pennsic together.  You introduced me to a lot of your friends, who have become dear friends of mine.  I met Logan at the intersection of Free Will and Good Intentions.  I have a lot to thank you for, Cooper’s, and not just for two weeks a year.

I thought it would last forever.

But Cooper’s, now I hear you’ve been thinking about fracking around on me.  You’ve even signed some sort of agreement to frack on your grounds, under the trees where the woods battles used to be held.  When I heard, I was livid.  You say you’ll use protection.  You say you’ll get tested.  But don’t you know you’re endangering your own health as well as mine?

Here in Vermont, they’ve banned fracking.  Say what you like about our relationships with trees, but we’re not prudes.  It’s even legal to walk around naked in public!  Just so long as you’re not being lewd or lascivious – or fracking.

I’ve loved you for ten years now, Cooper’s.  I’m not going to break up with you via blog.  I’ll come back just once, to say goodbye.  But once you and your new buddies have fracked, it’s over.


PS:  I hope we can find a new home for Pennsic.  You say you don’t understand why you should give up custody, but I think Pennsic deserves to be somewhere healthy, with fresh air and water.  Your fracking is a bad influence. Pennsic XXXVIII

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 :)

Stonecutters Kitchen, Doolin, Co. Clare

If you’re on your way to Doolin or the Cliffs of Moher, be sure to stop by Stonecutters Kitchen.  It’s right on the main road between Doolin and the Cliffs, and has some of the freshest and tastiest food I’ve eaten in Ireland.  One of my favorite ways to pass a day on holiday in Doolin is to walk from the Rainbow Hostel, past Fisherstreet, uphill to this restaurant, enjoy some soup and tea and dessert while reading or writing, and stroll back downhill.

The owners and staff are very friendly, as is the resident sheepdog, and the views can’t be beat.  Their plates and teaware are made by a local potter (who, sadly, has moved out of the country) and are a pleasure to use.  Plus, the desserts are absolutely scrumptious.  My favorite is their banoffee pie – a wonderful concoction involving caramel, banana, a graham cracker crust (actually made of digestives), and chocolate.

Learn more and make sure to check out their hours (which vary by the season) at http://www.stonecutterskitchen.com/,  and keep track of their delectable specials via facebook here.  I wish I could stop by for lunch now!

Vaguely Bohemian Angels

My sister has a knack for getting me presents no one else would have thought of.  For my high school graduation, she filled a small wooden chest full of everything from smudge sticks to a fountain – in short, a complete kit to make a boring old dorm room into a home.  For my twenty-first birthday, she bought me a mini waffle maker.  Not a traditional choice, but I lived on whole grain waffles under various toppings for the next two years.  For my most recent birthday, she commissioned custom cookies.

‘Custom cookies?’ you might ask (though you know that custom-made creations are indeed near to my heart).  Yes, when you know Angelica Howland of Scrumptious Angel.  This woman is – as my sister put it – the Vienne Rocher of cookies.  (If that reference doesn’t ring a bell, read or watch Chocolat.)  I can easily see Angelica setting up shop in a stiff little puritanical town and bringing out everyone’s best and most joyous traits with her deliciously original cookies and brilliantly creative self.

My first taste of Scrumptious Angel cookies came when a box packed full of Elegant Angels, Drunken Angels, Sparrows, and Streaks of Lavender arrived for my birthday.  Holy deliciousness, Batman.  I’ve had a lot of good chocolate chip cookies, but Angelica’s have the richest and most indulgent texture I’ve come across yet.  Plus, they’re not chocolate chip cookies; they’re chocolate chunk cookies, and dang good chocolate too.  Plus, they’re not just chocolate chunk cookies, but cookies with the most creative and balanced of flavorings and wonderfulness.  Just try these, for example:

Streaks of Lavender:  Dark chocolate with toasted almonds and a touch of actual lavender.  These were my first favorites, both indulgent and subtle.
Elegant Angels:  Dark and milk chocolate in cookies sprinkled with a touch of sea salt.  Absolutely addictive, in a way that makes you savor every bite.
Drunken Angels:  Amaretto-soaked cherries, cinnamon-roasted almonds, and dark chocolate.  Did I say the other two were my favorites?  This was definitely a favorite.  Scrumptious is exactly the right word.
Sparrows:  Dark chocolate, dried blueberries, and roasted sunflower seeds.  Frickin’ beautiful.  In the end, these are the ones I was saddest to finish.

Luckily, that wasn’t the end.  Next came the development of the custom Vaguely Bohemian Angels.  Angelica and my sis had brainstormed some ideas, one of which was oats, Earl Gray, and dark chocolate.  ‘What about oats, dark chocolate, and chai?’ I asked.  Angelica took that, added crushed fennel, and came up with the most delicious…I’ll start at the beginning:

When the cookies arrived from the Scrumptious Angel test kitchen, I’d been drinking some spicy herbal tea.  Because of this, upon my first bite, I tasted mostly cookie gorgeousness and dark chocolate.  ‘I don’t really taste the spices,’ I though to myself, ‘but damn, I have never tasted a cookie that is so rich yet so packed with oats.  This is pretty amazing.’  As I went on, I started to taste, subtly, the fennel – almost like, I imagine, the sensation of breathing out after a sip of absinthe.  Then, the taste of chai spices began to grow in my mouth.  It was as though the cookie contained the progression of bohemian beverages, from the absinthe of early 20th century Paris to the chai of my favorite bohemian teahouse.  In the second cookie, I was able to taste all of these flavors together.  Alas – although I knew I’d only get another box of samples if there was something I wanted to change – the cookies were perfect!

If you’d like your own box of Vaguely Bohemian Angels, or to find out more about other scrumptious Scrumptious Angel creations, you can find them on Facebook right here.  (Just click on “about” to see the listing of flavors and ordering info.)  The business is relatively new, and so far without a fully developed website, but you can keep an eye out at scrumptiousangel.com.  Believe me, if you’re ever so lucky as to taste any of Angelica’s creations, you’ll be as devoted as I am!

Rainbow Hostel, Doolin, Co. Clare

In front of the Rainbow Hostel.
Photo by Kasia.

The first time I stayed at the Rainbow Hostel, I meant to come for a weekend and stayed for over two weeks.  I’ve been returning as often as possible ever since.  This past June was my most recent visit.  It had been four years since my last visit to Ireland, but when the bus dropped me off at the Rainbow Hostel, Carmel gave me a warm welcome, and I felt like it had been no time at all.

The Experience:

Hostel guests on Mattie’s tour.
Photo by Kasia.

Everything about this hostel is great, but Mattie and Carmel Shannon really make it a home away from home.  They’re both so welcoming, and wonderful resources if you have any questions about the area.  Carmel runs the hostel (and the B&B next door) beautifully.  Her delicious, fresh-baked scones are often available in the hostel dining area in the mornings.  Mattie leads fun, informative (and free) walking tours of the Burren.  He points out prehistoric and historic sites, geological features, and wildflowers and plant life that I never even would have known to look for.  They both go out of their way to help.

I’ve had some of the best conversations at this hostel and met an impressive range of people:  This last

Written in one of the many guestbooks
in the Rainbow Hostel’s common room.

year, I met a Polish couple who stood with me at the bus stop for twenty minutes – in the rain – even though they weren’t leaving that day.  I’m still in touch with them, as well as with a Japanese photographer, a French dancer and archeologist, and an American sculptor I met there, just to name a few.  Families, couples, individuals, and even the occasional big group all seem to settle right in at the Rainbow Hostel and become part of the ever-changing community there.  I know I’m not alone in my enthusiasm for this hostel:  The guest books (dating back to the mid-nineties) in the common room contain much the same message again and again:  The Rainbow Hostel is a home-away-from-home, a place where you’ll instantly feel welcome and at ease, someplace you’ll be eager to return to.  I know I am!

The Hostel Itself
The hostel is kept meticulously clean.  All the rooms feel spacious and light.  The bunk beds in the dorm rooms (where I usually stay) are solid wood, and are super-cozy.  The bedding is bright and fresh.  The showers have plenty of hot water.

The kitchen (recently redone) has three full stovetops, two big sinks, and everything you might need in the way of pots, dishes etc.  There’s also plenty of refrigerator space and spacious, lovely wood cubbies for storing food in.  You can find tea, coffee, and lots of other goodies on the spare food shelf, as well as on the top shelf of the fridge.  There are two solid wood tables to eat at, as well as some picnic tables in the back yard.

The common room is my favorite place at the Rainbow Hostel.  It manages to be both cozy and bright.  There is a small but very toasty woodstove, two cozy couches and several chairs, plus a bookshelf filled with titles in a range of languages.  The view out the door is of a stone wall, a lush hillside, and cows grazing outside the ruins of an old stone church up the hill.

A pint outdoors at one of the
pubs down the road.
Photo by Kasia.

The Location
The location is ideal.  The hostel is a short stroll from two pubs, a small food shop, and some restaurants.  It’s only a short walk to O’Connor’s, the convenience store, and several craft shops.  Gorgeous scenery is all around, including the Burren, farms, an incredible range of wildflowers, the ocean, and historic and prehistoric sites.  The Cliffs of Moher can be reached by a quick drive or bus trip or a hearty walk.  The pier (from which you can take a cruise to the cliffs or day trip to the Aran Islands) is an easy walk from the hostel.

Doonagore Castle, a nice walk or
a very short drive away.
Photo by Kasia.

If you have a car, there are tons of options for day trips, including Galway, Clare Archeological Center, the Burren Perfumery, and much more.  I’m just as happy without a car, in which case my favorite plan for the day is to have breakfast and tea, go for a long walk (perhaps across the burren, down the coast to the pier, or up past Doonagore Castle) with a picnic lunch, stop for tea and cake at one of the local cafes and spend the afternoon reading or chatting, come back to the hostel for a leisurely dinner and more great conversations, and then head to the pubs for some brilliant live music.

Thank you so much to Kasia, one of the brilliant people I’ve met at the Rainbow Hostel, for permission to use these photographs!

Dysart O’Dea Castle, Clare Archeology Centre

Watch Kristen flee the Vikings!
(A round tower used by monks to
escape from Viking raids.)

Dysart O’Dea Castle, part of the Clare Archeology Centre, may be a little ways off the beaten path, but it’s very much worth a visit.  While there are castles every which way in Ireland, most of them are closed to the public, since Americans seem so prone to suing people.  Dysart O’Dea Castle, however, is not only open to the public but contains a modest but fascinating museum of local artifacts, as well as a charming film of the history of the place.  The ground floor contains a small gift shop along with a gracious tea room.  When we visited last summer, we had tea and scones – in a castle!  As Americans, that’s quite out of the ordinary.  The tea service was very modestly priced, as was the entrance fee to the rest of the castle/museum.

Beautiful knotwork on a Celtic Cross
gravestone a short walk from the castle.

If that’s not enough, the grounds are packed with history.  The Dysert O’Dea Archeology Trail, despite being only about two miles long, “contains 25 original field monuments [dating] from 1000bc to 1850ad and include two Romanesque churches, the famous 12th century illuminated doorway and high cross of Dysert O’Dea, two 15th century tower houses, 1st millennium stone and earthen forts, holy wells, fulachta fiadh, proselytising schools, landlords houses, medieval roads and many more.”  We did a chunk of this walk, as you can see from the photographs.  The landscape was beautiful, and the monuments absolutely breathtaking.  I’d go back in a heartbeat, and I really can’t recommend this place highly enough for anyone who has any interest in history or architecture.  Check out Dysert O’Dea, and you’ll find history has flown from the textbook pages and is walking along with you.

Part of an archway in a Romanesque church a short walk from the castle.

Why I Love Valentine’s Day

Godward-An Offering to Venus-1912
“Offering to Venus,” by J. W. Godward

I’m not sure if I know anyone else who really loves Valentine’s Day.  Those without a significant other feel left out of all the hoopla, and those who are attached are either nonplussed or stressed about the holiday.  For me, it’s a stepping stone that helps me through the dourest part of the winter.

New England seems to be tailor-made for Christmas.  We have crisp, cold days and snowfalls that paint the branches of our bare trees white.  Our evergreens look as though they’ve been drizzled with icing.  Our landscapes sparkle in undulating drifts of white or blue or pink, depending on the hour.  Indoors, we deck the halls with garlands and swags, and we dress ourselves in our cheeriest berry red or forest green.  On New Year’s, we might even wear sparkles.

Then, we seem to remember that our states started out as Puritan colonies.  We revert to greys and browns, and occasionally navy blue.  The landscape is still beautiful, but the roadsides grow dull with dirty snow, and even a fresh snowfall might not be quite so cheerful without the contrast of vibrant greens and reds.

“Pink Rose,” by Jonathan E. Russell

We wouldn’t dream of wearing pastels before Easter, but Valentine’s Day, that dear Hallmark Holiday, gives us permission to break out the bold pinks and purples, and to give red another go.  All the gaudy advertising (with its pressures to make sure our partners receive the most expressive card, the sweetest chocolates, the biggest bouquet) is packed full of these colors.  And flowers!  Cut flowers may be the most frivolous indulgence on earth, but in mid-February, I can’t help but be happy for the sight of them.  So, while I’ve never been one for big, expensive gestures on Valentine’s, I revel in the brilliant hues that it throws my way.

I think Valentine’s Day should be a day of frivolity.  Pink hearts and Victorian cupids aren’t the symbols of fully realized love or devotion.  They’re the symbols of fresh affection, of new found delight in each other’s company.  So if you’ve someone to celebrate with, forget expensive celebrations and do something silly and fun.  If you’re on your own, celebrate your own company with an at-home spa treatment.  Either way, consider celebrating Valentine’s like the kids do:  Give a little platonic love to everyone you meet.  One year I signed and sealed a whole basketfull of cheesy kiddie Valentines and handed them out to everyone I saw that day.  People were delighted.  When I handed out the last few cards of the night at the local pub, I had one friend give me a big hug and break into tears.  I’ll never forget that, and I’ll never forget what it taught me:  Even a seemingly insignificant gesture – so long as it’s made out of love and kindness – is worth making.

PS:  Next year, I’m hoping to have Glitter Dragons Valentine’s to hand out…

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.

Book Review: The Night Circus

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Imagine, if you will, a circus.  Or maybe a carnival, since you walk through it from act to act.  This carnival has the artistry of Cirque du Soleil, is completely in black and white, only opens at night, shows up unannounced – and some of the acts might be real magic.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, has an interesting and compelling story with a satisfying ending, but the real reason I kept turning the page was that I wanted to spend just a few more sentences in the richly-textured world of this carnival.  This book has as strong a sense of place as any story I’ve read – and you won’t want to leave.

The Night Circus has been getting a lot of buzz, and is already a bestseller, so maybe it doesn’t really need more attention.  But this book is the most delightful novel for adults that I can think of, so I’m posting this anyway :)

Why’s it particularly boho?  Who hasn’t, at some point, at least daydreamed of running away to join a circus?  (Extra points if you or a friend has actually done this.)