Beltane and a Black Heroine

My Regular Pagan Holiday Greeting

The entrance to Beltane Ranch on Hwy 12

Dear Friends,

Beltane, May 1, is a pagan holiday celebrating the spring at its peak and the coming of summer. It is halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice. 

Driving by the Beltane Ranch, I’ve always wondered about its history and its association with the holiday. It turns out Beltane has historical representation right here in Sonoma County. Just outside the city of Santa Rosa, settled by pro-slavery Confederates from Missouri, Beltane Ranch has been recognized as a Black historic site by the National Park Service.

The reason is that Mary Ellen Pleasant, called the “Mother of California’s civil rights movement,” once owned Beltane Ranch in Sonoma Valley, near Jack London’s Glen Ellen home.

Mary Ellen Pleasant

Most stories about Mary Ellen Pleasant lead with the fact that she was the first Black female  millionaire in the U.S., years before Madam C.J. Walker earned that title. And this is true, but for me the most important fact about her is that she financed John Brown’s raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry with $30,000, (about a million in today’s dollars) and secretly traveled to the Eastern Seaboard to rally slaves to Brown’s militant cause from 1857 until 1859. 

John Brown believed violence was the only path to end the institution of slavery and he planned to lead a slave rebellion with guns captured from the armory. After the raid failed, Brown was convicted of treason and hanged. In his pocket when he was arrested was a note signed with Mary Ellen Pleasant’s initials. She asked that her gravestone read “She was a friend of John Brown,” and that marker was placed on her grave in 1965 by the San Francisco Negro Historical and Cultural Society. 

Born in about 1814 in Virginia, Mary Ellen spent her early years in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where she worked for an abolitionist family. She was of mixed race and was able to pass as white. She married James Smith, a wealthy former plantation owner and abolitionist who died four years later. After her work on the Underground Railroad in the East attracted the attention of slaveholders, Pleasant relocated first to New Orleans and then to San Francisco in 1852 where she continued her abolitionist work. 

Mrs. Pleasant’s New Orleans style ranch house

In a city overwhelmingly rich and male, Mary Ellen put her skills to work as a cook and housekeeper, learning about finance and picking up investment tips from eavesdropping on her employers’ conversations. She encountered Thomas Bell, a native of Scotland, who would remain her close confidante and business partner for a lifetime. Among his future ventures, Bell would serve as director of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad of Nevada and then director of the Bank of California. Often, Mary Ellen would be a silent partner in his real estate and mining transactions.

The entrance to Calabazas Creek Open Space

In the 1860s and 70s Mrs. Pleasant filed several civil rights lawsuits mostly against the trolley companies fighting for the right of Black people to ride public transportation, most of which she won. She also rescued enslaved people from the Fugitive Slave Act and found jobs for former slaves in her many establishments.

Pleasant was regularly called the derogatory slur “Mammy Pleasant” by local whites and the press, but she did not approve.

“I don’t like to be called ‘Mammy’ by everybody. Put. that. down. I am not ‘Mammy’ to everybody in California. I received a letter from a pastor in Sacramento. It was addressed to Mammy Pleasant. I wrote back to him on his own paper that my name was ‘Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant.’ I wouldn’t waste any of my paper on him,” she said.

An old olive tree left at the remains of a ranch along Calabazas Creek

Mrs. Pleasant continued to maintain a close business association and friendship with Thomas Bell. She introduced him to his future wife, Teresa, and they married in 1879. Then Mary Ellen designed and constructed a 30-room gothic mansion on a lot she owned at Octavia and Bush streets where the three of them lived together. Mary Ellen handled all business matters for the residence and managed the Bells’ finances. 

In 1890, Mary Ellen and Thomas and Teresa Bell purchased the Nunn Ranch on Calabazas Creek in Sonoma Valley. They soon acquired several other homesteads in the area and in 1892 purchased the Drummond Ranch, where California’s first bottled cabernet sauvignon had been introduced in 1884. They named it Beltane, perhaps in recognition of Thomas Bell and his Celtic heritage. 

After Thomas Bell died in 1892, Teresa and Mary Ellen continued to run Beltane together, with Teresa owning the more mountainous 575 acres and Mary Ellen the lower 986 acres. Mary Ellen designed the ranch house with New Orleans influence and supervised its construction. She spent many weekends there in her later years. 

Wild lupine

With phylloxera present in Drummond’s prized vineyards, Teresa determined to convert the property to other uses, including starting a dairy, planting an apple orchard, and leasing the land to pasture livestock.

Mary Ellen Pleasant lost her fortune I would argue because of racism and sexism. After Thomas died, his widow sued for the estate and won in court. Teresa Bell took all the wealth Mary Ellen had created.

Despite being listed as the owner in Sonoma County records and as the result of ongoing litigation of the Thomas Bell estate, in 1895 Mary Ellen was declared an insolvent debtor. Even though Mary Ellen claimed her debts were due to guaranteeing Teresa’s debts, the titles to the San Francisco mansion and Beltane Ranch were transferred to Teresa Bell. 

Mrs. Pleasant spent her final years with her friends, Lyman and Olive Sherwood of Napa and when she died in 1904 she was buried in a Napa cemetery. She is seen by many historians as “The Harriet Tubman of California.”

Beltane Ranch and Mrs. Pleasant’s house are still here, right off Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and Napa. The house is now a bed and breakfast and most of the property is now part of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. It will open to the public as a park in the future. I got to walk there recently with local naturalist Sarah Reid along Calabazas Creek, where remnants of old homesteads are still visible.

Mary Ellen Pleasant was indeed a fascinating historical figure and I’ve enjoyed researching her life, full of San Francisco stories and scandals not recounted here. I still want to read a couple of books about her. The Jamaican-American author Michelle Cliff wrote a fictional account of her life, Free Enterprise. And Lynn Hudson wrote a biography, published in 2008, The Making of Mammy Pleasant.

Here in Sonoma County on Beltane we celebrate the height of spring and our wildflower season.

Wishing you all a lovely holiday.

Hope for a New Day

My Regular Pagan Holiday Post

Dear Friends, 

Happy Ostara, the celebration of the vernal equinox, which takes place this year today, March 20. Searching for spring festivals and hoping for inspiration, I found one from Iran.

“In Iran, the festival of NowRuz begins shortly before the vernal equinox. The phrase “NowRuz” actually means “new day,” and this is a time of hope and rebirth.

Boy, am I feeling the need for hope and rebirth right now.

“The Iranian new year begins on the day of the equinox, and typically people celebrate by getting outside for a picnic or other activity with their loved ones. No Ruz is deeply rooted in the beliefs of Zoroastrianism, which was the predominant religion in ancient Persia before Islam came along.”

Getting outside—yes! The vernal equinox must be celebrated outdoors.

Another inspiration comes from my neighbors, many of whom are my age, in their 70s. In Santa Rosa people take their gardens and landscaping seriously. When I walk down the street and see Dan and Karen tending their gardens or Howie down on the ground pulling weeds, or Pam planting natives in her front yard, or Susan wielding digging tools I think yeah I can do that too!

Gardening and planting plants—what a great way to celebrate spring!

I’ve always seen myself as a big strong woman and I’ve spent my adult life telling other women working in the construction trades “We Can Do It!” Admitting that I can’t do something is still hard for me, even though I’ve been practicing it for a decade now. At 72 I discover new limits to my ability constantly.

So, after Holly and I acknowledged to each other that there are some garden chores we just can’t do anymore, we hired a laborer to dig out crab grass, matilija poppy roots and a couple of stumps.

There is also this: I don’t want to do it. I might have felt like I had to in the past, or I was required to show that I could meet some physical challenge. Now I no longer have to make a point.

Or that’s what I thought before Maximo, the laborer, weighed in on my ability. He was digging out the poppy roots with an adz. I said to him, “that’s such hard work.” I knew this because I had dug out the roots a couple years before and found the job taxing.

“Yes,” he said, “you couldn’t do this.”

My hackles went up immediately. What do you mean I can’t do it! I thought to myself. He had said that as he worked without even looking at me. What was it about me that made him think I couldn’t do the work? Gray hair? My gender? To me them’s fightin’ words.

So of course after that I had to do it to prove I still could. I decided to start celebrating spring a little early, on the Ides of March. I know the last day of frost in Santa Rosa is April 15 but I can never wait that long and I figure global warming has moved it up at least a couple of weeks. And I was willing to take a chance. If my seedlings froze I’d just have to start over.

Holly had ordered seedlings from Annie’s Annuals and we set out to plant them in the front yard, which required squatting for long periods.

Look, I’m not decrepit and I’m proud that I can still pee in the woods and get up off my haunches (except for that one time after a back operation when my quads were so weak I needed help from a tree). But peeing is a short operation and planting takes longer. Especially since I get obsessed with pulling out the bermuda grass roots, an unending task (I do know we will never be rid of them).

After working at it for a while and feeling pretty good about my athletic ability, my neck and my hands started sending pain signals. Then suddenly the muscles in my legs objected, seizing up and screaming for me to move, but I was stuck in the position. Oh My Goddess I can’t get up!

I remembered the episode of Grace and Frankie where both Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda fell and couldn’t get up. They both raced for the phone by swimming across the floor on their backs. And the episode when Jane pulls a MacGyver, lassoing a sculpture to pull herself up off the toilet. If only my elderly exploits could be so funny!

I rolled over to get up the way they teach old people to do and I finished the job on hands and knees.

I did it! Not very gracefully, but I did it.

In the meantime Holly had finished her part of the planting without mishap, but she is a decade younger than I.

Acknowledging that I might not be so good at planting seedlings, I can still throw seeds around the garden and rake them into the dirt while standing up. And that’s what I did last fall for cover crops of mustard, red clover, calendula and fava beans. Now they are flowering and I’m appreciating the fruits of my labor.

Maybe next year I’ll find a new way to celebrate the advent of spring, something I can do while standing upright.

In the meantime I wish you all NowRuz Mobarak–Happy New Year. May this be the start of a new day.

Sending love to you all,

Molly

Celebrating National Freedom Day

My Regular Pagan Holiday Greeting

Happy New Year! February 1 gives us many reasons to celebrate.

Imbolc, the Celtic pagan holiday celebrated February 1 and 2, marks the mid-point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. And February 1 is the first day of Chinese New Year.

February 1 is also National Freedom Day. Have you ever heard of it? Me neither, but I plan to start celebrating it now that I have. Feb 1, 1865 was the day President Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. The amendment was ratified by the states on December 18 of that year.

Major Richard Robert Wright Sr.

The holiday was created by a former slave named Major Richard Robert Wright, Sr., a committed community builder who founded a college and a bank. Born into slavery in Georgia in 1855, after the Civil War ended he moved with his mother to Atlanta where he enrolled in the Storrs School, the forerunner of Atlanta University. In 1876 he married Lydia Elizabeth Howard, who bore nine children. Wright was the first African American paymaster in the U.S. Army (appointed by President McKinley). As a major he was the highest ranking Black officer during the Spanish American War.

In 1948, the year after Wright’s death, Congress passed and President Harry Truman signed into law a bill to make February 1 National Freedom Day. It later became Black History Day. This gave impetus to national recognition for Black History Week and, in 1976, Black History Month.

Wright envisioned National Freedom Day as a day for “all Americans” to celebrate our freedom. Harry Truman, Major Richard Robert Wright and the U.S. Congress saw America itself as a symbol of freedom. 

The arc of the moral universe is a lot longer than I had thought and I’m not convinced it bends toward justice without a lot of help. As we now lose freedoms we fought for in our own lifetimes—the freedom to vote, women’s freedom to control reproduction, the freedom to live without fear of fascism—let’s celebrate National Freedom Day by appreciating the freedoms we do enjoy and joining the fight to regain freedoms lost. 

God Jul and Good Solstice

My Regular Pagan Holiday Letter

Our family never did that thing where white-robed virgins with candle crowns bring breakfast, but we did celebrate Swedish Christmas. Culture was supplied by my grandmother, Gerda, who grew up on a farm near Lake Vänern in central Sweden in an age when you really did hitch the horse up to the sleigh to go anywhere in winter. The farm, Stora Myren, is still there. The nearest village, Lugnås, hasn’t changed much since Grandma emigrated in 1905.

My grandmother Gerda Persson

I hate a lot about Xmas—the whole religious thing, the requisite shopping to keep the economy afloat, the pressure to give the perfect gift, to give gifts at all. Bah humbug. I’m an atheist who joined the Church of Stop Shopping decades ago. https://revbilly.com

But, as my brother and I delve into the Swedish side of our family, we’re rediscovering ways that Swedish culture has influenced our family. One thing we all agree on: Christmas was the most important holiday of the year, when the Swedes pulled out all the stops.

The tradition is long. The winter solstice, representing the return of light and warmth, held great importance for pre-christian peoples. The earth had died and would be resurrected.

Solstice is a Saint Named Lucy

As with most northern European cultures, a christian holiday usurped the pagan solstice celebration. Catholics took over solstice festival and made it into St. Lucia or St. Lucy’s Day during the Middle Ages. Now, and ever since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Lutherans rule in Scandinavia, but they continue to celebrate St. Lucy’s Day. The holiday is on December 13 because that was the date of the winter solstice on the Julian calendar before it was changed to the Gregorian. The actual solstice is now a week later, but St. Lucy’s Day retained the old date.

St. Lucy’s Day card

St. Lucia was a fourth century virgin christian martyr in what is now Italy. She invented the head lamp, putting a candle wreath on her head to keep her hands free as she hid christians in the catacombs. Or so it’s said. The name Lucia translates as light.

Candle wreaths have not yet been replaced with head lamps in modern celebrations, but I see it coming. I mean when I see pictures of people walking around with lit candles in their hair, all I can think of is–fire hazard! 

The celebration is, or was, an all-female affair with one young woman playing Lucia and a court of girls and women. There are white robes, candle wreaths, singing and the serving of food. Lately, though, the boys have nudged their way into the celebration with a boy or two being elected to play Lucia. Traditionalists are not amused.

We grandchildren knew nothing of St. Lucy’s Day. It was, apparently, a Swedish tradition left in the Old Country. 

Grandma Remembers

But Grandma did envelop us in Swedish culture at Christmas.She brought with her the tradition of cooking the foods of her childhood when she immigrated to the U.S. In our hometown of Yakima, Washington, she was famous for her cooking, and especially her baking. 

Our mother had the foresight to record Grandma’s childhood memories of Christmas in Sweden. My brother printed up a little chapbook of the stories, titled A 19th Century Swedish Christmas by Gerda Wick. Grandma was in her 92nd year but her memories were still clear.

Here are some excerpts.

“In Sweden we could, of course, always count on a white Christmas—snow that was “deep and crisp and even” and a great abundance of evergreen trees growing all around us. Christmas Eve was the official time for celebration and gift giving; Christmas Day was a religious holiday and holy day.”

“In a day without rural electricity or other conveniences that we now take for granted, our preparations for the annual celebration had to start in the fall with butchering of beef and pork and turning the slabs of dried cod into the famous and favorite holiday dish, lutefisk.

It is hard for me to realize now that all cooking was done on an open fire in the brick fireplace and all baking in a very large brick oven, heated by large logs about the size of railroad ties. In this oven breads of all kinds—flat bread, rye loaves, traditional braided coffee bread and dozens of cookies—were baked for weeks before the big day. Many kinds of sausages and head cheese were prepared and meat readied for another traditional food, Swedish meatballs.

“The food at Christmas Eve was a smörgåsbord of breads, homemade cheeses, pickled herring and korv (homemade sausage), but best of all the lutefisk which had been in preparation for several weeks from a dry slab of cod, by soaking in water and a “lute” of lime and lye. Served with a rich white sauce and white potatoes, it was and still is a favorite native winter dish. This was followed by meatballs made of ground beef and pork, sweet and sour brown beans and a dessert of rice pudding with wild lingonberry or strawberry jam (from berries we children picked in the nearby woods), or fruit soup.”

Loving and Laughing at Lutefisk

Lutefisk jokes elicit laughs in both cultures. Garrison Keillor told a story about people arrested for bringing toxic waste across state lines when they took lutefisk to Minnesota for Christmas dinner. Most actual Scandinavians abhor the fish, but Americans still eat it with gusto and most lutefisk is exported to the U.S. Served with white potatoes and white gravy, it resembles a blob of glue. Still, for my family, lutefisk symbolized Scandinavian culture. 

Don says he has made Swedish meatballs and lutefisk many times since our childhood, but I only tried it once, recreating my family’s holiday meal for my gay San Francisco family. I bought frozen lutefisk from the Scandinavian Deli on Market Street near the Castro. No soaking necessary. I attempted to bake Grandma’s cookie and bread recipes, making krumkake using the pancake maker that you heat over an open flame. It didn’t go so well. No one would even try the lutefisk. I neglected to have a distribution plan for the cookies, which quickly got stale before we could eat them all. But I can say I did it!

In her small kitchen in Yakima, Grandma ground the pork and beef with a meat grinder to make Swedish meatballs. My brother Don served as Grandma’s little helper, and so his memories are best, butI do remember helping her make krumkake, Smörbakelser cookies and fancy braided breads. Don has her old Swedish cookbooks whose frayed binding opens to favorite recipes. Recently he challenged the family to remember the secret ingredient in Grandma’s meatballs. He kept us in suspense for a month. WTF Bro! It turns out the secret ingredient is crustless bread torn in pieces and soaked in cream, then wrung out and added to the meat. Never would have guessed that!

Gerda Persson was the second youngest child in a family of 12 kids. Born in 1888, she was 12 when the century turned. Her memories were about more than just food.

Birds and mittens and tree trimming

“My father would put my younger brother and me on a sled and take us with him into the woods to select a tree for our house. He would also cut other trees to place on the outside of the house and at the barn. Not forgotten in our celebration were the birds and our domestic animals. Papa mounted a large sheaf of oats on a pole for the birds and gave the animals an extra share of hay.

“Most of the tree trimmings were hand-made and our favorite was the customary paper-wrapped candies which we children could help make, wrapping hard candy in colored tissue paper. There was a variety of candlesticks for candles of all sizes, many of them hand-wrought of brass and wood. A candle was always displayed in the front window.

“We exchanged gifts, though this was not the ritual it is today. The gifts were mostly handmade and very practical—knitted socks, mittens and caps—all from yarn spun on my mother’s spinning wheel, wooden toys—a doll cradle or sled—and gifts like sewing boxes for the older girls and Mama.

“Christmas morning it was up early to be at church at six o’clock. Our church was the most important building in our village; it had been built in the 12th century and still stands and is in use today. Our family walked to church and those further away came in horse-drawn cutters (sleighs). And what a joy it was in the early morning light to see a lighted candle in the window of each home, reflecting on the deep white snow, and to feel the crisp crunching and squeaking of the hard-packed snow under foot. 

The church at Lugnas

“The two bells in the steeple were rung by hand. My father was an official ringer of the smaller bell, which required skill in alternating its sound with the large bell, and also very strong arms.  The church was lighted with hundreds of candles at the communion table, the large hanging chandeliers and at each row of the pews. It was a thrilling festival of light and sound to a child growing up in a simple farm village in Europe before the age of industrial wonders. Inside the  church Christmas hymns from the time of Luther were played on our ancient organ. This, too, required man power to operate, and my father served often as “pumper.” We children sang in the choir accompanied by the organ. The rest of Christmas day was quiet with a dinner of ham and goodies of the night before.” 

Carry it on

Our family continued the Swedish traditions of trimming the tree with hand-made ornaments and of opening gifts on Christmas eve. My mother filled the house with colorful Swedish decorations like wooden horses and straw reindeer. After the big dinner with cousins at Grandma’s house, one of the men would excuse himself and (we later realized) would go back home to place all the presents under the tree. My father would drive home slowly from Grandma’s looking at all the outdoor decorations. Of course, we kids couldn’t wait to get home to open gifts. 

I was glad Christmas Day wasn’t a religious holiday for us. Watching football, playing with toys and eating took up our day. Mom cooked the traditional ham and Grandma joined us for dinner. Her memories end with another delightful custom—robbing the Christmas tree.

“The neighborhood children took turns having these “untrimming” parties before the Christmas tree was taken out. Each child was blindfolded and allowed to pick a paper-covered candy from the tree until all were gone. There were cookies and cakes and milk for the guests. Since many homes were involved, the shared candies and goodies made a happy ending to the holiday for all the children.”

God Jul 

And Good Yule to all.

Love, Molly (and Holly)

We Thank Mexican Culture for Day of the Dead

My Regular Pagan Holiday Post

Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, has become one of my favorite holidays. Credit should go to the influence of Mexican culture.

I couldn’t remember when I first started celebrating Day of the Dead, at this time of the year when the veil between the lands of the living and the dead thins and we celebrate the lives of our ancestors and others who have died. I asked friends and family when we first learned of this holiday. No one could really remember. It just seeped into American culture when we weren’t looking.

Now the holiday is a cross-cultural experience. Though it originated in Mexico, it is commonly celebrated worldwide, especially throughout Latin America. Day of the Dead is a joyful celebration of life and death that originated thousands of years ago among Aztec, Toltec and other Nahua people. They believed that death is a cyclical part of life and that when someone died, they would go to the Land of the Dead. This tradition differs vastly from Halloween in its life-affirming tone and its rejection of death as a finality. In a modern culture whose chief way of responding to death is denial, the addition of this celebration to American life seems much needed.

Posada illustration

I was lucky to live in San Francisco where Rene Yanez and Ralph Maradiaga had launched our local version of the celebration in 1972. Day of the Dead evolved into a gigantic procession up 24th Street, the Latinx district, on November 2. The Mission Cultural Center would sponsor events and we gathered to erect altars, or ofrendas. My Old Lesbians group one year made a beautiful altar for our friend Tita Caldwell, who had been active in our Occupy Bernal organization in 2012. San Franciscans gather at Garfield Square Park (perhaps we should rename it Frida Kahlo Park) to walk through the park and view the altars. Rene describes the history here: https://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Day_of_the_Dead. In the interview Rene refers to Posada (Jose Guadelupe Posada Aguilar), the Mexican artist who created illustrations of la calavera catrina that have become ubiquitous symbols of this holiday.

Now I live in Sonoma County where we have many options for celebrating Day of the Dead. Our Sonoma County Museum and our art district have exhibits. The town of Petaluma sponsors events all month, ending with a candlelight procession at the fairgrounds that has been going for 19 years. This year the town of Windsor is sponsoring its 6th annual event. Every town now has one. These events are led by Mexican and Latinx people, who make up the largest ethnic group in Santa Rosa at around 30 percent of the population. 

October is Latinx Heritage Month. This month we also remember the murder by a deputy sheriff of 13-year-old Andy Lopez October 22, 2013. Andy was walking in his neighborhood when sheriffs spotted him carrying a toy gun. Erick Gelhaus fired eight shots that killed the boy. No charges were filed against the shooter, he returned to work and was later promoted before retiring. A civil suit filed by Andy’s parents resulted in a $3 million settlement. 

Sadly, Andy’s murder has defined the relationship between the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department and its citizens, especially the Latinx population. In the seven years since the shooting, people have staged multiple protests, organized to build a park at the site of the shooting and pressured the county for more police accountability. This year we met at Andy’s Unity Park in the Latinx neighborhood of Roseland to remember Andy. 

Our fireplace mantel ofrenda

Holly and I celebrate this season by making clay catrina sculptures for our ofrenda on the fireplace mantle and telling stories about our friends and family who have died. I like to walk by our altar and commune with the figure of my mother who is sitting in an armchair reading Esquire (from a 1940s picture). Holly’s dad sits in a recliner nearby and her dog Mattie lies at his feet.

What do I say to Mom? She was a news junkie who kept a close watch on world events. She liked to imagine what the world would be like in 50 years. I tell her if she were alive today she absolutely would not believe it.

Sending big virtual hugs to all.

Lunasa Greetings

Dear Friends,

Lunasa or Lammas is the first of three fall Celtic harvest holidays, celebrated on August 1. It marks the halfway point between summer solstice and fall equinox. Amidst the joys of harvest, this year Lunasa brings with it anxiety. We worry about fire and toxic smoke, about covid, about drought.

As we move into harvest season this year a historic drought confronts us in the West, with Sonoma County at the crux of the crisis. The city is asking citizens to cut back water use 20 percent and we have exceeded that. Lawns are turning brown all over town. Now at the end of July two major water sources, Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, are dangerously low.

Fires burn throughout the state. The smoke hasn’t reached us yet, but East Coast cities are suffering from the smoke of over 50 major fires burning across 10 western states. The smoke caught up with us in Sacramento while visiting Holly’s brother this week. The air had been fine when we woke up, but smoke from the Dixie fire rolled in fast, creating that familiar orange sun and low visibility. We donned our masks and headed for home where the air quality was still good. But there’s no reason to think we will be spared here in Santa Rosa.

They live in the neighborhood

Our Sonoma County harvest festival season will be again impacted by covid. This year the Gravenstein Apple Fair is being reimagined as a benefit concert. We bought tickets with the hope that we’ll feel comfortable wearing masks in a crowd. The Sonoma County fair is happening in reduced form but they cut out our favorite part—the hall of flowers. You can still go on rides at the midway and eat fair food but I think we’ll skip it this year. Maybe we will get to the Sonoma County Harvest Fair scheduled for October

The delta variant is more virulent and more contagious. This virus has affected me more personally than before. The 42-year-old son of a friend is in the hospital on a ventilator dying. We have gotten word that his lungs have been too damaged to survive. He and his wife just adopted a baby. He was not anti-vax, just suspicious enough to put off getting vaccinated. His family and friends are devastated.

Travel plans have again been cancelled. Holly and I had planned a trip around the South but that’s now the last place we want to go—where the fewest have been vaccinated and numbers of covid infections and deaths are rising. Though we have been vaccinated we are learning that we could still be carriers.

In my summer solstice missive I told about newborn fawns and a fire in the neighborhood. Here’s an update on both. About the fire I must issue a correction. I wrote that it was started when someone threw a cigarette onto a yard that had just been landscaped with bark. It turns out that rumor was false. The fire was started when PG&E’s electric lines hit against each other in the wind, causing sparks that ignited the bark. The power company came out and put plastic insulators around the wires, an easy fix.

The fawns have been seen around the neighborhood. They live here in the place they were born. But sadly I’ve just heard of an epidemic among deer that is killing fawns. Someone posted on Nextdoor that three fawns had perished in her yard. The disease is a virus that had a big outbreak in the mid-90s among deer and came back again last year. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has confirmed outbreaks of cervid adenovirus 1 —CdAdV-1 — as the cause. Deer fawns are at greatest risk, with high rates of mortality following infection. Yearlings and adult deer are more resistant but deaths do occur in those age groups. The virus is not known to affect people, pets or domestic livestock. Anyone who observes a deer exhibiting symptoms, or encountering a deer that has died from unknown causes, can submit the information to CDFW through the department’s online mortality reporting system.

Despite all this worrying, we are doing well. Our garden, while not as lush as last year, is surviving on less water. Holly has planted dry land natives like Epilobium, yarrow, buckwheat and verbena and they look great right now. 

Sending big virtual hugs to you all.

Love, Molly (and Holly)

The Hilaria: Ostara 2021

Celebrating the Spring Equinox

Looking into ways that humans celebrate the turning of the seasons I discovered the Hilaria (plural of Hilaris). They were spring festivals celebrated by the cult of Cybele, the great mother of the gods, in Asia Minor and Greek and Roman cultures from about the 5th century BCE onward. Cybele’s consort, Attis, was born of her via a virgin birth and resurrected in the spring (sound familiar?). The day of this celebration was the first day after the vernal equinox, or the first day of the year which was longer than the night. I imagine there was a lot of laughing.

I write these pagan holiday letters eight times a year following the pagan wheel of the year, the annual cycle of seasonal festivals observed by modern pagans. Pagans and wiccans have divided the year into eight parts consisting of the chief solar events (solstices and equinoxes) and the midpoints between them, called cross-quarter holidays. Many of these holidays were stolen by the christian religion while colonizing and absorbing pagan customs. Think Christmas and Easter.

Wiccans have named the spring equinox Ostara with a nod to the ancient Tutonic goddess, but of course equinox celebrations have been practiced by humans for millennia. The Anglo-Saxon goddess is Eastre or Eostre.

I can call myself a pagan even though I don’t worship any goddess or god. Pagan is just a pejorative term used by early christians to refer to polytheists, animists or other non-christians. But modern pagans and wiccans have embraced the term and fashioned a religion of sorts. They borrowed the holidays from various pre-christian traditions. This earth-centered practice beats all to hell the christian teaching that humans have dominion over the earth and its animals (interesting that Genesis leaves out the plants). 

I appreciate the wheel of the year because there is no beginning and no end. Life is a cycle. I find this a compelling way to look at and think about the year. The holidays are just far enough apart for my taste. They correspond with the seasons and the movement of nature. The next holiday is only eight weeks away from the current celebration. Now at Ostara I find it easy to think ahead to the next holiday, Beltane on May 1. What flowers will be blooming then? What will I be planting and harvesting from the garden? When will nesting birds be fledging?

One great thing about these holidays is we can make up our own. My version of paganism takes into account the earth and all its beings, not just humans. My version is anti-capitalist and all-inclusive. My personal Hilaria celebration begins on the Ides of March, maybe a bad day for Caesar but an auspicious date in my life. 

One year ago at this time I had spine surgery at Oakland Kaiser, the last of the elective surgeries just as the pandemic was announced. We had our last restaurant meal on Piedmont Avenue and at the time I thought it might be my last out meal for months, maybe years (I was right). A year later, I’ve recovered from surgery and covid restrictions are being lifted. I’ve just had my first shot of Moderna vaccine.

It was on the Ides of March three years ago that Holly and I hired movers and said goodbye to our San Francisco home, Richlandia, moving to our new home in Santa Rosa, Hylandia.

And here is another reason the Ides of March is auspicious. We are selling the last of the property in San Francisco that I bought in 1980 with my then-collective house of lesbians. I lived there for 38 years. That three-unit building has been the center of my life for four decades. I spent nearly a decade (the 2000s) with my partner at the time, Barb, remodeling the units and turning them into condos with the help of tradeswomen friends, especially carpenters Carla Johnson, who died in 2016, https://mollymartin.blog/2016/06/12/losing-carla-jean/ and Pat Cull. See my blog posts about the building: https://mollymartin.blog/2017/09/16/still-standing/

When we bought Hylandia, we sold the condo we lived in and continued to rent the other two units. I was committed to never evicting anyone from their home, but I did want to get out of the absentee landlord business. Then, last month, both the tenants gave notice allowing us to sell the apartments. 

I was so very attached to Richlandia, into which I put so much blood, sweat and tears. But because letting go has spanned years now, I think I’m ready. And the building, given new life by me and my tradeswomen friends, awaits a community of new occupants.

It is a time of new beginnings and as I write this I think What a cliché. Everyone is writing this. Still it seems momentous, life changing. I know that after this year of trump and covid and the fires and fascists assaulting our capital and Black Lives Matter uprisings and the growing throngs of homeless that things can never “go back to normal.” Nor do I wish for that. Life is a circle with no real endings or beginnings. I’m looking forward to what comes next.

Imbolc Is Imminent

Feb. 1, 2021

Dear Ones,

It’s been a rough year. Impossible to say that without understating. But, as we celebrate Imbolc, I feel like it’s a new morning.

My covid walking outfit. Brew is the local gay cafe.

I’m on the pavement thinking about the government. But I hesitate to write about that because it’s been written about so very much. Suffice to say Holly and I are maintaining our sanity here in Santa Rosa. And we ain’t goin’ nowhere. We haven’t been vaccinated partly because of a shortage of vaccine here in Sonoma County. Also because we are in no way essential.

Actually I’m lying not on pavement but on the redwood deck in the backyard after having pulled out as many oxalis as I can from the garden. I’m starting to worry about getting a sunburn when clouds roll in swift from the south. Rain is coming but it won’t be a hard rain. Not today.

This day of sun and weeding and planting and gray clouds has got my mind off wintertime. And I think that’s the whole point of Imbolc, one of my favorite pagan holidays because—spring!

Imbolc falls in the middle between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The old Celtic pre-christian holiday was a day to honor the pagan goddess Brigid, who invoked fertility rites. She also oversaw crafts, poetry and prophecy—the domain of us old folks. 

Brigid was a powerful Celtic god and so of course the christians had to turn her into St. Brigid, whose day is still celebrated in Ireland. Here at Hylandia we prefer to celebrate the goddess. I can already feel myself becoming more prophetic. Maybe more poetic and crafty too!

However you celebrate have a happy Imbolc. 

Sending big virtual hugs to you all.

Celebrating Lughnasa in Quarantine

August 1, 2020

The Gaelic festival Lughnasa, midway between summer solstice and autumn equinox, celebrates the first fruits of the harvest season. 

Here in Santa Rosa, at a more southern latitude, we picked our first fruits at the beginning of July—tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peaches and plums. The neighbor’s Gravenstein apple tree that hangs over into our yard was ready for harvest around August 1 last year, but this year the apples were a couple of weeks early, maybe because we are in a drought, or maybe it’s just global warming. Everything is early this year.

Apple harvest here is usually celebrated at the ides of August at the Sebastopol Apple Festival, but of course all of our local gatherings have been cancelled for covid.

We will miss the Sonoma County fall fairs and expositions. The Heirloom Expo in September is one of our favorites and last year we heard a presentation about native bees by a company based in Woodinville WA that propagates bees and sells them. We bought some—mason bees and leaf cutter bees. They came in the mail with detailed instructions. Native bees don’t live in hives like honey bees. They are solitary and nest in holes, often in undisturbed ground (so don’t dig up your whole garden) and they don’t sting like honey bees.

Introducing the mason bees to our garden went well. They are kept in the refrigerator until you place them in the top drawer of their bee house, mounted on the fence facing east so the morning sun hits it. Mason bees place their eggs in the wooden straws provided and then cement them in with mud to protect them from predators. They emerge with the daffodils in spring. The male bees fly only three weeks and the females seven weeks. We were instructed to leave a patch of wet clay in the garden for their masonry work.

The leaf cutter bees came in June and, before reading directions, we put them in the refrigerator till we could let them out. Only the next day did we read the directions which warned against refrigeration. We killed our bees! But we ran to the refrigerator and dumped them all out on a plate on the deck hoping for revival. Then we watched, transfixed, as they slowly crawled out of their shells, stumbled to the edge of the plate and flew off into the garden. Most of them survived.

For us humans 2020 has been a disastrous year, but for bees in our garden—honey bees as well as native bees—it’s been a great one. 

Sending virtual hugs to all of you as we continue to shelter in place.

Summer solstice 2020

Dear Friends,

We think of you as we sit on our porch sipping aquavit and eating gjetost cheese on rye crisps looking out at the fjord in our cozy cabin for six in the village of Flam, Norway. To our backs are steep forested mountains and waterfalls. To our west is the North Sea.

Just kidding. That’s where we were supposed to be at midsummer with Scandinavian American cousins. We had made all our reservations and even bought plane tickets when the corona virus hit. Still waiting for refunds.

We had planned to visit the ancestral homes of our Scandinavian ancestors. I wanted to be there at midsommer, a celebratory holiday which marks the summer solstice. Instead we sit in our zero gravity chairs in our Santa Rosa backyard watching our flowers and veggies grow. In June I harvested the last of the oranges and then artichokes, the last of them now blooming magnificently. Tomatoes, eggplant and cucumbers are just coming on. It’s not so bad. Life has slowed way down (though it was already pretty slow around here.) 

The Norway trip was the idea of my cousin Gail. She lives in Gig Harbor, Washington in a lovely house that has been sort of a retreat center for the family for the last several years. We would gather for reunions and also to go through Gail’s extensive family history archives, saved in cardboard boxes in her attic. Lately my brother Don has been researching the Swedish relatives.

We share a Norwegian grandfather and Swedish grandmother who emigrated at the turn of the 20th century and met and married in South Dakota where their relatives had homesteaded. They soon moved further west to Idaho, Oregon and Washington, settling in Yakima.

Our grandfather, Bernt, or Ben in American, left Norway in 1898, never to return. He was born in 1878 in Borsa, a fishing village on a fjord not far from the town of Trondheim.

So we may never get to Norway but we have used this opportunity to educate ourselves about Norwegian culture, reading literature and history. My mother Flo and I had already made a pilgrimage to our Norwegian and Swedish ancestors’ homes. Thanks to Flo’s 1979 travel diary, I reconnected with a woman who we met at the Oslo feminist center and who let us stay in her apartment when all the inns were full. In letters, Bente has caught me up on 40 years of her life. She is a lesbian feminist and was part of a back-to-the-land movement in Norway when she returned to her family farm in the north. Now she’s working at a historical museum near Oslo.

We also discovered that our next door neighbors had taken a family trip last year back to his ancestral home in Norway and we had planned to meet up and hear all about their trip when coronavirus hit. Perhaps our neighbors are my cousins too!

Still sheltering in place in NoCal, we shall just have to pretend we are up in the north country. I think I have some aquavit around her somewhere. Skol!

(My Danish friend corrected me. Aquavit is not to be sipped. It is downed, ice cold.)

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