Feb 15, 2015

New Green Hope

I have just returned from a walk by the river - something I haven't done in months. The flattening of the wild flora on the path and the laying of a good half-foot of rock to "improve" the road made for a depressing scene, so I left that place I love for a time.  Over the winter, the snow and ice seems to have settled the earth again, and in most places an easy walk is possible. There are even areas where grass is working valiantly to come up through the rock.

I shall shake every seed-pod I find. There will be wild things again.

I spotted the gloriously prickled pods of burdock - one of the few plants that survived the earth-movers last Fall.  Along the outermost edge of the riverbank some staghorn sumac, a few mullein stalks, and a handful of wild rose canes have lingered on, along with a sampling of other assorted plants clinging between rocks and water. These will spread this year, populating whatever spot they can, and I am already looking forward to the summer months when the barren path will have life on it again.

Where the road meets the hillside, the red willow is the showiest plant to grace the trail. Until it is covered with leaves, the red bark stands out as an emblem of February cheer.  It is ripe for cutting now - almost a bit too ripe, as the weather has perked up and with the warming, the buds are growing rapidly.  I snipped a few stems and will find some time today to carefully skin the two layers of bark off in little spiral strips to dry for a local incense mix.

At home in the garden there are little signs of life.  The chives have popped up, lime green shoots cheerfully working their way through the soil.  I planted cold weather lettuces and green onions* yesterday. It is the earliest I have ever put seeds in the earth, but with the warm weather we are having and the raised beds I garden in, these cold-loving crops will be just fine.

The rest of the yard is still a deep Winter brown. There are perennials to trim, raspberry canes to cut back and train, new flags to raise, and so much planning. But the seaons is very early yet. Imbolc marked a turning point toward warmth for us here in the West, but I'm afraid the groundhog was not so kind to those East of the Rockies.

Be warm and safe. Be well and of good cheer. Winter can not hold out forever. Sending you sunshine to warm your coldest days, and plenty of new, green hope.

Assorted ways to get a little celebratory in February:
~ Starting today, V-day chocolate is half-off!
~ If you are down South, Mardi Gras is about to kick off! Here's is what is happening in NOLA.
~ If you aren't going to make it to Mardi Gras, you can still have pancakes!
~ And if pancakes are not your style, a King Cake is on the menu too.
~ Chinese New Year begins February 19th - the year of the Sheep/Goat!

* I planted green onion seeds, not onion sets. Seeds will survive the few frosts we have left to come - onion sets would be too far along to survive several frosts and would likely rot in the earth. If you would rather plant onion sets - wait until most of the frost danger has passed.

Jan 25, 2015

On Shortbread

This morning a malaise struck, and while I took care of myself with herbal tea and minerals, I yearned for some old, familiar comfort. When I'm terribly sick, bone broth and pillows are my usual choice of nurturing, but today's odd ache called for a spell of baking.

There is something about a warm kitchen and the scent of a sweet creation being conjured up, that soothes me. I have many happy memories of helping my mother bake, or being in my grandmother's kitchen while she whirled about.

Today I pulled out my grandmother's shortbread recipe, written in my mother's hand - well used and loved.  It's a simple recipe, usually made from memory, and often only at Christmastime.  I don't know why the family only makes it once a year. I spoke with my aunt tonight and she gasped at my making it. "All that butter" were her exact words.

Should you too decide to toss your cares about butter to the wind, here is my grandmother's simple recipe:

1 cup of butter, softened
1/2 cup of fruit sugar
2 cups of unbleached flour

English, Scottish, and Irish shortbread are similar. There are untold variations, not just from people to people, but even among family members. All involve butter, sugar, flour. You can use the exceptional Irish butter if you can find it, or true Amish butter, but good-quality, regular butter is perfect too. If your butter is unsalted, add a pinch of salt to the recipe.

We use "fruit" or "berry" sugar which is simply a finer grade of sugar than regular granulated. Regular sugar works too, or you can pulse it in a food processor a few times to make it a bit more fine. Scottish shortbread sometimes calls for brown sugar.

Cream butter with sugar and then add flour 1/2-1 cup at a time, kneading with your hands until the dough starts to crack.

Roll the dough and place in a pan or a cookie mold, or roll into balls and flatten - whatever rocks your shortbread socks.

Cookies - bake 350 degrees for approx 12 minutes
Bars - bake 350 degrees for approx 20 minutes

I am told that it's all about the hand-kneading, with shortbread.  Once I've got my butter and sugar together (I use a pastry cutter) I get in there.  In the pictures below, the top-right photo is the dough as I am adding flour. It gets a bit crumbly at first - keep kneading!

The picture on the left shows the dough "cracking." Again, it depends on which family member you ask, but kneading takes 5-10 minutes or until you are foolishly bored. I spent the time thinking of my grandmother - I'm sure that is why the cookies taste so good.

I opted for the quickie-cookie route, but you can do whatever you like when the dough is ready. It is more traditional to press the dough into a pan or roll it out, and carve it into bars.

I'm a stickler when it comes to baking time. The perfect shortbread is slightly golden on the bottom - not brown. Don't overcook your shortbread - you want it to melt in your mouth when you eat it.

Today, January 25th, also happens to be Scotsman Robert Burns' birthday. Raise a glass of whisky then, or a cup of milk, and enjoy a bit a shortbread with me. We sung his "Auld Lang Syne" just over three weeks ago, and now let's leave off with his "Grace After Dinner."

O Thou, in whom we live and move,
Who mad'st the sea and shore,
Thy goodness constantly we prove,
And grateful would adore.

And if it please thee, Pow'r above,
Still grant us with such store;
The Friend we trust; the Fair we love;
And we desire no more.

Jan 14, 2015

These January Nights

What is worth a glance in January is so small, so fleeting, or so grand and impossible, that I seem to either rush by without notice, or stop and stare - and not so much in between.  The white that blankets us here in The Valley can bless an individual plant with an icy, crystalline dress, and at the same time turn a meadow into a vast sort of nothingness.  The endless hills to the north can blend, dull and white, into the low clouds or they can sparkle like evergreen-dotted fairytale castles in the sky when the sun breaks through to shine upon them. The views each day swing wildly from breathtaking to bland.

So too, are the first days-melting-into-weeks of the year. We've finished off or frozen the holiday leftovers and the decorations have come down, leaving everything a little more stark and uninspiring than the opulence of last month.  Yet there is still an excitement about starting a new year - a fresh calendar with 365 open spots for us to fill up with plans and dreams and celebrations.  There is hope for a year sprinkled with achievements and adventure.

I'm not quite ready to give up every last ornament and source of illumination. I need a small amount of festivity.  I like a bit of flickering light on these dark, cold January nights. I've kept back a tiny tree in a bottle - the most miniature Winter vignette.  And there are fir boughs here and there. Soon they will be picked clean for incense making and dreamy oil infusions. There are so many candles too, dancing shapes and shadows up the walls and on to the ceiling.

There is much to do during the day. Aside from the occasional date with the snow shovel, the daily offerings to the birds, and my local coffee shop to haunt, I've got plenty of year-end work to keep me head-down at the office.

The evenings are a different story. The days are lengthening, but the night still has its rule. It offers much time for cooking satisfying meals and gathering up blankets, books, and cats for a good long settling-in. There has been altar work too, and endless, steamy baths.

The rattles have made an appearance during meditation and a perfect little bell, gifted to me by a dear friend, is rung each night. There is so much quiet this time of year (however needed, appreciated) that to invite some moments of sound seems to me to encourage Winter along - not showing it the door just yet, but to let it know that while we are resting, we are also beginning to stir.

What stirs you on deep Winter evenings?  Are you venturing out, or staying in?  Does the new calendar send you bounding into the year ready to take anything on, or do you linger yet around the fire, letting your plans and dreams form as you gaze into your tea cup?

These January nights won't last for long - we are half through them already. I hope the remaining eves give you much pleasure or time for planning - whatever this first month of the year inspires.

Dec 31, 2014

I Love Your Spark

2014 was...interesting.  There were some stellar moments, and some uncomfortable lessons. There was adventure, and wildness and love, and some rather spectacular crashing.  I feel as though I have walked the Major Arcana from Fool to the Tower to Judgement, and today the World card turned over, and the cycle is both complete, and beginning again at midnight.

Today the sun shone brightly on the snow-covered hills, the cattle in the meadows of the next valley were breathing out dancing mist-creatures into the air as I drove by, and the moon has shown herself handsomely and so very near in the cold sky.  Today was rather stunning.  It was a good way to end this year - with the heart-aching beauty of the Valley I love so much.

It is also a good time to say Thank you.

I didn't speak much about the icky bits this year.  I was on my own alchemical journey, churning things up and out, and refining, refining (hello Temperance).  I suppose I didn't share because I thought it was meant to be a lone journey (and there's the Hermit), but these things never are. Because each time you visited Rue and Hyssop, and commented on a post, or read something here via a social media link, or chatted with me on Facebook or Twitter, or bumped into me somewhere out there in the 'verse, you left a little spark for me.

And the sparks - they added up.  And on my darkest days this year, there were sparks like fireflies that lit up my small world. I showed up here six years ago hoping for a little connection, but what I received was so much more.

Thank you, to those who have been stopping by for years, and to those who I've just met. Thank you to the ones who inspire, and the ones who encourage. Thank you to those who do the work, and remind me that the work is where I find the best parts of myself.  Thank you to the ones that bring the magic, and those that share the love, and all of you who leave your little sparks.  You have made my 2014 brighter.

I'm wishing you fireworks, and every beautiful thing that makes your soul sing. For every momentary thought, every good wish, every spark you've gifted me, may it come back to you one hundred times more.

Aside from you, these are a few things that made my heart sing in 2014:

Dec 8, 2014

A Few of My Favourite Things 2014 Edition

We have come upon the final "guaranteed delivery by Christmas" days of the miracle that is online shopping.  I myself, will be pummeling my little post office with an armload of packages that have come to be known as "The Massive Holiday Chocolate Migration," and so I thought I'd share a few of the things that have made my heart soar this year, in case you would like to get those awesome folks on your gift list something special.  There is still time to snap up most of these items - as always, check with the shop proprietors to ensure holiday delivery.  Or just order something for yourself as a "holiday survival" reward!

If you'd like to see what I recommended last year, go here.

Assorted Awesomeness

I love snail mail in a huge way.  There is nothing that makes me happier than finding a hand-written note in my mail box.  I've been a huge fan of Vanessa's postcards for years, and if you've ever won a book from my October giveaways, you will have received one of her cards with your prize.

It may sound odd, but a stack of beautiful postcards might be the best gift ever (if you are shopping for me). There is something perfect and simple about a postcard - just enough room for a fond thought and a good wish.  She has a wonderful selection of art prints and fun labels at A Fanciful Twist too.

Cat Fish Creek Candles is an Etsy shop that was pointed out to me by the lovely Dana, and I'm completely smitten.  A few hundred different beeswax candle designs, ensures that you will find something that catches your eye. Designs range from animals and holiday themes, to food and spiritual symbolism.  As for me - I really need this happy little sheep in my life!

Mischief and Magic

Magic-maker Jacquelyn Tierney created these mugwort sticks from her own beautiful plants and offers them up in two perfect sizes.  I can't think of a better stocking stuffer for a gardener or a witch.

"Fifty-Four Devils: The Art and Folklore of Fortune-telling with Playing Cards" was featured last year, but I'm going to list it here again because the author, Cory Hutcheson, is donating the proceeds of his book until the end of the year to the Peter Paddon Memorial Fund. It is a fantastic book and a great gift for anyone who enjoys cartomancy, and you get the added benefit of donating to a good cause.

Carolina Gonzalez is the proprietress of Camino De Yara, an enchanting shop of charms, magical herbs, and ritual services.  Carolina's products are superb and her selection of herbs is impressive (including rare plants only found in the Canary Islands where she lives).  Because of the distance, shipping from the Canary Islands may not get to you by Christmas, but do bookmark this fantastic shop for your future magical needs.

The Wildwood Tarot is a deck I picked up earlier this year, and I'm lost in it.  I've been using it mostly as a meditation aid, but I imagine at some point I'll get around to doing full readings with it. We are still in our courting phase, I think.

Bath and Botanicals

Adirondack Aromatherapy creates some of the most stunning soaps I've ever seen.  I'm currently scrubbing down with her "Theives" variety, but I'd like to try them all!

King's Road Apothecary is a delightful shop full of incredible goodies created by the talented Rebecca (whose blog Cauldrons and Crockpots is top f*cking notch). Aside from wanting to be her when I grow up, I also really dig the products I've purchased from her.  My current favourite is not even something I buy for me - her "Busted Joint Ointment" helps my mother with the arthritis pain in her hands, and for that I'm a customer for life!

As a last gift,  I'm going to mention my friend Hob's new blog "The Orphan's Almanac" - not just because he is a wonderful writer, but because right now (and for the next 8 days) he is having a "12 Nights of Krampus" celebration, and you can win something awesome each day. Make sure you get your entries in before midnight when Krampus comes and the gift is gone!

*photos are copyright to, and property of, the shops listed below them and are linked back.

Nov 29, 2014

Leaving November Where It Lies

How swiftly November came upon us, and not even a proper courting before the land froze solid, thawed, and then chilled again.  I was walking in the tamarack a brief month ago, and now I can't even drive up the hill without encountering a few feet of snow.  Autumn seemed so rushed to leave - such a fleeting lover.  My lips were barely kissed with warm rain before the winds came and tore every leaf from its job, waving at passers by.  So short-lived were the oranges and the flaming reds. The Summer held on so long this year, that Fall only had time to give a sly wink and then moved on.

I've taken much of November as catch-up.  I work two jobs in October every year, and with putting the gardens to bed, running wild with the book giveaways all month long, and of course the usual cat, niece, and parent herding, I was a bit ragged by Halloween.

Like a good granddaughter does, I visited my grandparents' graves on All Souls Day, and washed the stones and left flowers and a treat for my grandfather. He usually gets my homemade cookies, but this year I found some Eccles cakes in a shop and knew that it was the perfect offering.  His mother used to make them, and we all keep the recipe sacred in our family.  I'll make some at Christmas and be sure to take him another treat.

I had a lovely chat with my friend's 92 year old mother about her celebrations of All Souls in Bangladesh.  When they lived in the area, there had been a large Catholic contingent, and the celebration on that day stretched through the town.  People would come singing out of the little hill settlements, and down along the roadways, and everyone would meet at the cemetery to clean the graves and lay flowers and candles.  Afterward there were prayers at the Catholic church and feasts later at homes that hosted hundreds of people passing through.  My friend's birthday is on November 2nd and she says that those birthdays growing up in Bangladesh were the happiest of her life.  She felt honoured to have a birthday on All Souls Day.

The souls themselves have lingered as Autumn moved on. The 'thin-time' seems to be always, but it is perhaps a more pronounced feeling as Winter approaches.  The sounds of the vitality of Summer and the buzzing of the earth have been quieted in sleep.  This slipping in to hibernation tends to offer up the space for the softer voices to be heard, leaving no buffer against the silence, save the growing bustle of the holiday season.  And what else are the holidays for, really, but keeping the fires lit and the spirits lifted to weather the long, cold months ahead.  Even as we celebrate we keep an eye to door, lest the wolf, Krampas, or Marley's ghost find their way in.

"There is an old tale that Herne the Hunter,
Sometimes a keeper in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the wintertime, at still midnight,
Walk around about an oak with great ragged horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine* yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner:"

* milk cows

The winds are battering The Valley this week.  The ice has come early, and settled in.  The Wild Hunt is riding and the Old Woman of Winter is sending the deer into the lowlands looking for food. The meagre offerings left in my front flower garden will not sustain them for long, but they are wise and know of the silly woman who talks to deer and leaves seeds and nuts out for birds, and extra helpings hidden under the trees just for them.

And so, as Autumn gives up its last breath and is defeated before the rash advance of ice and snow, I will leave November where it lies, with a quick kiss on its hastily turned cheek.  It gave me but a moment's rest before the excitement begins anew in December, and for that I am thankful.

I hope November leaves you safe, well-fed, and warm, with the good cheer and stamina to enjoy a December as restful or raucous as you like.

My late November-December reading choices: 

"Phantom Armies of the Night: The Wild Hunt and the Ghostly Processions of the Undead" by Claude Leconteux
"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens
"Acadian Christmas Traditions" by Georges Arsenault

*quoted text from Shakespear's Merry Wives of Windsor

Nov 3, 2014

A Note of Thanks and the Final Great October Book Giveaway Winners

Before I draw the last three names, I want to take a moment to thank you all for stopping by this past month (plus a few days).  October was a strange and wondrous month, and it wouldn't have been half as lovely without reading all your comments.  I have bumped into the nicest people on the internet!  I very much wish I could have given each one of you a book (and a big hug).

I'd also like to thank the authors for signing their books as a little extra touch for you, and a special shout-out to Signe Pike, who donated a book and some fun extras, and to Deborah Blake who sent out some bookmarks and cute promo cards that I tucked in to many of the packages that went out - you guys rock! And some very big love to Red Wheel/Weiser who sent me two books from their amazing 2014 lineup, just for you!

And as a side-note for those of you who received books, just in case you are curious - the note cards enclosed were from A Fanciful Twist.

I also want to thank, from the bottom of my little green heart, the kind folks who have directed others to Rue and Hyssop.  These names came up as either having directly sent people my way, or having mentioned my blog somewhere on their site, which led people here - not surprisingly, this is a list of people I adore too:

Magaly Guerrero - Pagan Culture Blog
Sarah Anne Lawless
Lamplighter Blues
New World Witchery
Aidan Wachter

And now...the three people receiving a copy of Llewellyn's 2015 Witches' Datebook are:

Rebecca Powell

Liz Davenport


Congratulations!  Please send me your mailing address and I'll send those off to you!  (rueandhyssop AT gmail DOT com.)

Do stop by and visit the authors/publishers that were featured this month, and perhaps grab yourself a little treat for Yule!  Thank you all again for making my October brighter!