Category Archives: magic & ritual

pinon liqueur

How to catch the light.

(or, what to do with your Christmas tree)

I liken chasing time to hanging out with cats. You cat people out there will understand this scenario:

You want a cuddle, and you want it bad. Little fur ball is doing her thing, looking fluffy and cute. If you’re a normal, non-cat person, you pick her up and clutch her to your chest tightly. She might make a low mewing noise or she might go very still. Now you are happy because you have the kitteh, and this is good. Give it about 15 seconds before she starts wriggling. And then maybe if you’re lucky she can escape without scratching your face off. Every cat person knows that the best way to get a cat to cuddle you is to ignore it, or to develop a cat allergy, or to put on clean black clothes that are freshly ironed. In other words, to let go.

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plantmatterwater

The elegance of water.

Water both scares and excites me. Unlike my husband who can’t stay away from the stuff, I have a healthy respect for it due to a. being a not-so-strong swimmer and b. two almost drowning incidents on the sea shore. I grew up on the water, some of my earliest memories are of the smell of boat, of the sound of water lapping against the hull as I drift off to sleep, of the sounds of halyards tinking against masts and seagulls squawking as the wind picks up. Of sea spray, and of the terror that overwhelms me when land disappears from sight. Even now, when the depth radar goes to ‘too bloody deep’ and there’s no land, I start thinking about being swallowed. Of things like the Marianas Trench with its crushing darkness. Of what exactly is and could be down there, and of the crushing fluidity of it all. Out on the sea, one is truly and absolutely subject to the elements. Water and air, colliding on a surface, and us, tiny people, on the frontier.

Water is in us and water is outside of us. Water that seeps through our skin and water that we drink to quench thirst. Water, life provider, water as the primordial ooze that we emerged from billions of years ago. Water as our great ancestral mother and water as the soothing coolness that fills our bodies from the inside. Water heals. Water is sacred. Water is one primitive drive that we all have both towards and away from, in longing and in fear. Water is gentle, water can kill in no time at all, and water can heal. From the salt that dissolves in it to the blood in our veins, to the healing springs that bubble forth from deep below the earths crust, to a handful of herbs sprinkled over a hot pot and left to infuse as the water ekes out the goodness, and then there it is, the beauty of the elements: they are as powerful as the hand that wields them.

And water can be medicine. Alone, its hydrotherapy: the use of hot and cold water to draw circulation to and from places. Got an injury? Jump in the shower and blast the area with water as hot as you can bear for a couple of minutes, and follow that with 30 seconds of cold. Repeat, a couple of times, and you’ll stimulate circulation to the area. I’d almost guarantee swifter recovery (especially if you use Busted Joint Ointment at the same time ;)).

There’s the cold sock treatment, and the cold wet rag on throat treatment*. There’s hot springs and cold springs and plunging oneself into an ice cold lake after a hot sauna. And then there’s my favourite: the bath.

My old apartment lacked a bath tub. I would curl up on my side onto the floor of the shower, blasting the hot water, pretending. It didn’t work. One of the reasons I moved in with Jam was that he had a bathtub. True story. In our bathroom, we have a few big buckets: Epsom salt (available in bulk here); Mustard salt bath. And then we have a shelf with bath scrubs– I like to take a big scoop, scrub myself down and then let the oils float to the top of the bath. My all-time favourite, however, is the herbal bath. With a big pot of water on the stove and a handful of herbs simmered until the water is dark and fragrant. There is magic in these baths, deep and powerful.

Skin is absorbent, and its our biggest organ. Like a giant waterproof lung creating a permeable barrier between our bodies and the world. Everything you put on your skin is absorbed into your blood stream. Absolutely everything. Sitting back into a hot kava bath, for example, and within minutes the effects of the kava have penetrated your skin. You feel relaxed, you feel slightly woo-woo, and you feel, well, good. I add meadowsweet, and do the two in combination. The kava relaxes and unwinds your mimd, while the meadowsweet eases aches and pains, and the result is a pretty darn relaxed, social and all around good-feeling night.

Conifer baths are a glorious thing- simmer fir, spruce or pine needles until they’ve made a strong brew, and add to your bath for a fragrant, anti-inflammatory and somewhat expectorant bath (really, if there’s grunge in your lungs, after bathing in the stuff you’ll hack it up). Lavender baths relax the liver, until you’re so comfortable with the present moment that you don’t remember what you were worrying about in the first place. Ginger and mustard baths warm and stimulate the circulation making your fingers tingle and your toes feel on fire which, in the middle of the winter, can be a beautiful thing. Chapparal baths smell like the desert, especially with a sprinkling of desert lavender in there. Its anti-fungal and kills anything it comes into contact with (jock itch, athlete’s foot, you name it), and I’m not sure how it’d smell to a non-desert lover but to me its glorious. Rosemary stimulates circulation and smells good to boot (though careful if you tend towards high blood pressure because it can give you a nasty headache), Bladderwrack is pain-relieving, slimy, good for the skin and chock full of iodine (and bathing in it is a lot more pleasurable than drinking it, in my opinion). Eucalyptus for your respiratory tract, Arnica for joint pain, linden because its sweet, relaxing, heart-opening and beautiful, and mugwort, for the aromatics, for the blood-moving, for the crazy dreams you’ll have afterwards and for the ache-easing of both body and heart.

Favourite combinations include kava+meadowsweet for either joint pain or stress relief or both (and if the pain is really bad a dropper of arnica tincture); Eucalptus+Rosemary for feeling like you’re full of grunge; Douglas fir + pine for inflamed and sluggish and desperately in need of some fresh air; Chapparal + Desert lavender for missing the desert so much my heart hurts; Bladderwrack for sore joints and wanting to play Siren for the night (it is, however, required to lie in the bath and sing); Ginger + mustard for the kind of cold that seeps to your bones and makes you think that you’re never going to be able to move properly again; Linden + lavender, for the kind of sweet relaxation that makes you smile dreamily all evening; and mugwort + motherwort for achy moon time when you just want to sink into the earth and close your eyes and bite the head off anybody who tries to disturb you.

Simmer the herbs in a big pot on the stove for at least 20 minutes. I do about 2 cups of herbs per 2 gallons of water; you can find your own amount as you might like more or less. Then strain through a sieve and add to the bath.

Candles and a dark room are, of course, a must.

Almost all the above are available from Mountain Rose Herbs; I recommend buying equal quantities of whatever you’re using, putting them all together with big labels in big jars in whatever blends you so desire.

And in April, for my Monthly Herbal Surprise Box I’ll be sending out a herbal bath infusion, so if you’d like to receive a special bath, you can sign up.

And if you’ve made it this far, tell me please, what are your favourite herbal baths?

*For flu: wet socks, covered with dry wool socks, to stimulate fever. For sore throat: cold wet rag over the throat until it warms: stimulates circulation to the area; works wonders.

apple conifer tart

Happy happy.

(Spiced conifer infused apple tart with a bonus tea recipe to boot!)

As I write this, Los Angeles is [relatively] quiet, the afternoon winter sunlight is streaming through the windows, through the incense smoke that clouds the air, onto my legs which are half covered by a very fat cat (actual fat cat, not metaphoric rich person fat cat). As I write this there is a tart in the oven, which will be left to cool and sliced up and wrapped in foil and hiked deep into the mountains early tomorrow morning, while Jam and I hunt for mushrooms and picnic.

In my morning stoop sessions, lately I’ve been thinking about arbitrary dates, and what an arbitrary date our ‘new year’ is. As we were falling asleep last night Jam and I decided that in future our new year will fall on the solstice, as that makes the most sense. A [sweet, lovely, beautiful and insightful] friend pointed out to me this morning that the fiscal new year starts in January and so between the solstice and the fiscal new year is a kind of free-fall; a timeless zone, where presents are given and puddings are eaten and wine is drunk and merry is made. And I like it that way. The last couple of weeks have been timeless in a good way. I’ve taken long walks in the desert. I’ve watched storms round the top my favourite mountain, and snow coat the peak over a couple of hours. I’ve gone searching for chanterelles on an almost daily basis, climbing and resting in my favourite tree, wandering out in the now green rolling hills, following deer tracks, picking up hawk feathers and animal bones and other earthly treasures. I’ve woken up before dawn and done yoga practice in a cold living room as the light slowly creeps back into the world, and I leave  you with that picture: of the world waking up from a dream. Freefall is about to end. Happy arbitrary fiscal new year even though the real new year (as I’ve decided) actually happened on the solstice. More importantly, thank you. For existing. Thank you for reading and commenting on this little corner of the interweb. For providing constant conversation and inspiration and support. I hope the next year is bigger, better, more nourishing, more exciting, more adventurous, more prosperous and more restful than ever before. I’ll be back with recipes and adventures in a few days. Until then, here’s a tart.


Spiced conifer infused apple tart

**edit** Have recently remade this putting half a bag of frozen blackberries over the middle of the tart before drizzling the caramel. Inspired decision; you must. try. it.

Spiced conifer brew: 

1 cup conifer needles (I use a combination of white fir, pinyon pine and jeffrey pine. You can use what you have around, which might even be a Christmas tree)

1/4 cup juniper berries

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground cardamom

pinch clove

pinch mace

pinch ground ginger

Mix all the ingredients together. To serve as tea, for a tablespoon of tea, pour over 1 1/2 cups boiling water and steep for 10 minutes. Strain and add honey and cream. Serve hot.

 

 

Spiced conifer caramel: 

2 cups sugar

1 cup water

2 tb conifer tea

5 tb butter

5 tb heavy cream

big pinch salt

Bring all the ingredients to a slow simmer for 30 minutes. Strain out the plant matter and return to the stove. Bring to a boil and reduce to a thick syrup- about 20 minutes. Add the salt. It’ll be a rolling boil and quite thick at this point. Throw in the butter, let it melt, then remove from the heat and stir in the cream.

 

 

Conifer-spiced apple tart. 

1 portion sweet tart crust 

apples. Forgive me I don’t know how many you’ll need. Let’s say 3 big granny smiths to start; that’s about what it took for my 9-inch tart pan.

Conifer-spiced caramel

Peel the apples, and cut the flesh into thin half-moon slices. Roll out the tart crust and lay it over a 9-inch tart pan, and prick the bottom with a fork. Lay out the apple pieces in a pretty pattern, I do concentric circles. Pour about 3/4 cup of the caramel sauce over the top, then put the whole thing in the freezer for 20 minutes.

Heat the oven to 350, and bake the tart for 30 minutes, or until the apples are golden and soft and the tart crust has taken on a golden brown colour. Serve hot or cold, drizzled with heavy cream.

 

Neruda Ode to enchanted light

Ode to enchanted light

(A recipe for acorn scones to welcome, nay, hurry the turn of the seasons)

A few days ago, I was sitting watching the light change when it struck me that the seasons are turning. The weather doesn’t agree: it’s still in the 80′s, I’m still sleeping with the covers cast off to the side, and my shoulders haven’t seen a sweater in weeks. But the air, you guys, the air is saying something different. I imagine sometimes that the air is filled with tiny little light particles, and that they all dance in a certain direction. In spring, they start to wiggle, moving up, slowly at first, as if they are taking a while to wake up, and then quicker and quicker, as summer approaches. By summer, everything is in full fervent swing. The bugs mirror the pace: frantic, ecstatic. The leaves reach skyward with such power and speed (as they were born to reach these great heights and they know what’s coming). For a second they hover in the air, suspended, weightless, and then, one by one, the particles start to fall. Slowly. Like feathers, in space. Slowly, like slipping into a dream.

I live for this time of year. Without a doubt. The light looks different during the summer. I await those 30 seconds of perfect hued morning light as the sun comes up and hits the tree in the front garden. But its coming, you guys, it’s coming. Soon the air will grow thin. Soon the acorns will be ripe. Soon the leaves will fall. Soon everything will be suspended halfway between waking and dreaming.

Of course, its still hot. Weather hasn’t caught the memo. Nature is bureaucratic, it seems, and these changes take a while to implement.

But looking at the light changing. Looking at the dust falling. Feeling that downward pull beginning, I can tell you that it’s not long off. Savour the summer while you can; though I couldn’t be more delighted.

Acorn scones.

These are really easy and quick to make. No fancy equipment needed. If you don’t have access to acorn flour (I bought mine at the Korean market because my supplies are done until Autumn), then try chestnut, almond, hazelnut, or just use regular flour.

makes 12

2 1/2 cups gluten free flour (or regular if you don’t need gluten free, just halve the amount of baking powder and remove the xanthan gum)

4 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp xanthan gum

1 cup acorn flour

1 stick butter

1/2 cup sugar (scant)

1/2-1 cup buttermilk (start with 1/2 and keep adding till its the right consistency)

Put all the dry ingredients in a bowl. Cut the butter into chunks, and mix in with your hands, pinching it together, as you would with pastry, until the whole lot has a kinda course sandy consistency. Slowly add the buttermilk, a quarter cup at a time, mixing it all together with your hands until it forms a smooth dough.

Press the dough into an inch-high disk, and cut out scone shapes (I used a small mason jar, you can use whatever you like). Brush the top with buttermilk and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes.

They’re best eaten warm out the oven but will last a few days until they just don’t have a good consistency anymore.

Cut in half, spread with butter, then a dollop of clotted cream (which is really hard to find in the US- I use creme fraiche or whipped cream) and jam.

juniper white sage incense

Holy smoke

Lately, I’ve been too restless to get anything useful done. In my mind there are these lists of things to do. Newsletters and website updates and blog posts and dealing with traffic tickets (*cough*) and parking tickets (*cough*) and returning phonecalls. I think it’s the coming spring; I want to be outside so much that all this other stuff makes my brain short-circuit. The words all swim together and stop making sense. Cursors blink on white pages and minute hands tick by and become hour hands and I’ll type a sentence and delete it then go to the kitchen for another snack and a cup of tea. On Wednesday, instead of repeating the process, I went to the Farmer’s Market in Santa Monica with Carly. Early. While it was still cold, and while the day was still yawning awake. I’m giving her cooking lessons, so each week she’s armed with a list, and each Thursday night we get together and I unleash my inner dictator while she does exactly as I say*.

As we were picking some very handsome carrots, she mentions that she wants to buy some white sage to ‘cleanse’ her apartment, and asks if I believe in that stuff. And it got me thinking. Because although there are plenty of people who see these things the way I do, my opinions aren’t necessarily the most popular in a city where people talk about ‘energy’ like everybody should understand what it is. But Carly was obviously asking me because of my superior intellect and rational thought process. So I did what any normal human being would do with an opinion that might counter that of others: I’m putting it on the internet. So, a bit more about smoke, smudging, incense, clearing bad energy, and all that stuff…

Smoke is sacred. Look at the way smoke from incense curls through the air, fluid, like water or fire, shapeshifting and changing and bringing that scent with it. It’s hypnotic, it reaches into stagnant corners, it can alter minds and intoxicate senses. But when it comes to ‘clearing bad energy’ as an isolated function, I think this is a belief that has rolled over into our time from the dark ages**.

To understand this, we have to know a bit more about what this ‘bad energy’ is, what needs to be cleared in the first place. Back when pathogens were unheard of, sickness was often thought to come from ‘evil spirits’. Great ceremonies were made to get rid of said ‘evil spirits’ and herbs were often burned to aid in the process. Fast forward 2 thousand years and people are burning herbs to ‘clear energy’ in houses and such or to perform appropriations of Native American ceremonies without fully understanding what’s going on. Evil spirits, back then, were airborne pathogens. Burning aromatic plants is fantastic for killing these airborne pathogens. If you’ve got a bunch of people in close quarters, smoke is great to have around- burning frankincense in a church, for example, or hinoki wood in a temple. Palo santo, that treasured Ecuadorian wood, myrrh, white sage, juniper, mugwort. The list is long, and effective. Having these herbs around to burn when someone’s coming down with something is really useful. Having them just to burn in general because they smell good and because smoke is pretty is fine as well. And yes, you can use them in ceremonies to ‘clean’ the energy of a space, but it doesn’t need to be a specific type of herb, or something that someone else has deemed ‘sacred’, and it doesn’t even need to be smoke in the first place, if that is your purpose.

Ever walked into a place and it just felt weird? Ever had something horrible happen in your house and you just want to clear the walls of those memories or the space of lingering horrible-ness? When it comes to getting rid of that kind of thing, few things beat salt. Plain old fashioned salt, a little sprinkled in the corners, will get ‘bad energy’ out of a place quicker than you can say BOO. Open all the windows and chase out the stuff you don’t want with a broom or by clapping your hands but most of all with your intention to get rid of it. Then, close the windows and sprinkle salt in each corner, intentionally (whatever your intention is). Let me be clear- I did say that you can use smoke, but the smoke in itself isn’t what’s going to chase out the stuff you don’t want. YOU are. The smoke isn’t powerful, the person guiding the smoke is powerful. Clearing a space is an active endeavour, not something that happens by default because stuff is burning.

White sage is overused. Even in this area where it actually grows it’s overused. Walk down Hollywood boulevard or the Venice boardwalk and you’ll see stoners selling piles of smudge sticks for people to buy, bring home, clear the energy of their houses, and do their own ceremonies with. White sage itself IS sacred to one tribe in our area (it has a very small growing range) and its so sacred that they burn one leaf at a time, not massive smudge sticks. Sacredness, with plants, is something that happens, not because someone else deems it so, but because of the connection you have to that plant. The fact of the matter is that any plant can be sacred, any ceremony can be meaningful. You can burn rose petals and have an effect on your space just as much as you would with sage leaves.

When it comes to a sick room, however, smoke excels. On its own. As a force in itself. Those compounds that smell so good are often antiviral and antibacterial and in inhaling them, you breathe them directly into your respiratory tract, which then goes directly into your blood stream, and before you know if you have all these little fighter compounds in your blood and in your lungs. When one of us is sick at home, we’ll burn a combination of things- my favourite is white sage and juniper (which grow around here and thus are easier to come by, cheaper, and more sustainable), but frankincense smells pretty darn amazing too. There are tons of other burnable resins available commercially, and other things you can try with what you have around. My recipe for sage and juniper incense is ridiculously simple- it’s not a complex scent or kyphi, but a simple mix of herbs with medicinal properties for the purpose of killing airborne pathogens and keeping folks healthy. But, as I’ve mentioned before, medicinal doesn’t need to mean gross, or single-purposed. You can burn it anytime, for any purpose, it’s all about the intention.

Also, for more information about sacred smoke and making your own incense, please see Kiva’s recent article. I’ve been lucky enough to try her hand-made incense and it’s mind-alteringly intoxicating. That right there, is sacred stuff…


 White Sage-juniper incense

charcoal discs

1 part juniper berries

2 parts white sage leaves

1 part pine resin (I get mine from the tree in my front yard which is an araucaria not actually a pinus)

 

In a pestle and mortar, grins up the juniper berries. Add the sage leaves and pine resin, and grind it all until it’s a pretty even consistency.

Light a charcoal disc and wait for it to be hot, then sprinkle your incense over the top. Inhale. Walk around the house letting the smoke get into the corners. If someone is sick, let them inhale the smoke, brush it through sick person’s hair, then leave it for the smoke to fill the space.

 

 

*I think I missed my calling. I’m a very good dictator. You can refer to me as The Chairman from now on.

** Speaking of which, did you know there’s a flat earth society?

apple blossom

Kitchen herbalism

(a little bit of magic goes a long way)

Waking up before dawn makes me happy. Lately, I’ll put some fuzzy socks on because it’s cold, and will pad downstairs quietly, while the cat weaves her way around my feet. I’ll brew a cup of California Mountain Tea (a blend of rose petals, white sage, black sage and wild mint), add some cream and honey, and then wrap myself in a blanket and sit on the front steps thinking about things and watching the light change.

I spent this morning thinking about creativity. My whole life has been, in some ways, a jump from one creative pursuit to another, be it writing or drawing or dancing or cooking or herbalism. And while the side effects of herbalism might be that people get healthier and happier and more connected to the earth and the universe, to say that’s my primary goal would be lying. I do it because I need to create. To weave a bit of magic into the every day. To make things that affect the world around me. And herbs are a beautiful outlet for that: a little bit of this, a dash of that, a sprinkle of something else. Depending on the person you can add things to make a heart light up or to make roots set deep in the earth, or to make lungs open or simply just make someone go to the bathroom. What is it exactly that makes it work? I don’t quite know. There are chemical constituents and there’s the whole plant and its place is in the biosphere, and then there the intention of the person GIVING the herbs, and then there’s that little bit extra. That little bit extra, I like to call it magic.

When I’m in my kitchen, mixing up a tea or a salve, or pouring brandy and honey over some recently gathered plant matter to make an elixir, or stirring a pot of soup, or putting a few leaves in a cup to make tea for a friend who’s having a bad day, I feel like I’m doing the same thing- weaving, creating, and making things happen. Sometimes I’ll whisper things over a cup of tea or a tincture, things like ‘it’s going to be ok’ or ‘this is a liquid hug’. Sometimes I can even see basil as if basil was a cute little creature made of foggy air, and basil jumps into action, rearranging himself into ‘it’s all going to be ok’. And while it might seem silly, it still works: people realise that it’s going to be ok, or smile as though they’ve been given a hug. There is magic in the world, even in a tiny kitchen in the middle of Los Angeles.

One of the things I love about herbs is that a lot of them taste good. This seems pretty elementary, but people often cook with herbs (like basil, rosemary, sage, parsley) and people pass the herbal aisle at the Health Food store, but I think that the vast majority of people don’t realise that when they’re cooking, they’re using plant medicine. One might assume that, because we use them so often, culinary herbs are weak, but that’s not true at all. Some of the herbs I use most often medicinally are boring old culinary herbs, like garlic, basil, sage, rosemary and thyme.

Sometimes I feel like things are a little disjointed around here. One day I’m writing about cookies and another I’m writing about herbal medicine. The two are not really that separate. So if you guys don’t mind, in the coming weeks I’d like to start talking about herbs that we all have access to. Things you can find at the grocery store or in your back garden or in your neighbour’s back garden in the middle of the night while they’re sleeping. Things that you can tincture yourself or hang to dry and make tea with yourself and then maybe next time you add basil to a stew you’ll smile mischievously because you know that you too are putting a little magic in there.

In the mean time, my recipe for you today is something you can pick for yourself. We’ll call it ‘Herb Garden Tea’.

Herb Garden Tea

What herbs do you have lying around in pots or outside or in a bag in your fridge? Basil? Rosemary? Thyme? Sage? Mint? Rose petals? Peach leaves? Pick a few leaves (or a variety of them!) and drop them into the bottom of a mug. Top with hot water, steep for ten minutes, then stir in a little bit of honey. Add cream if you like. There. You made magic too.