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23 June 2014

in an alley in Bisbee, Arizona

This was written on 14 June 2013.

In an alley in Bisbee, there’s a coffee stand, a woman who sells hand-painted silk scarves, and a metalsmith who sells the most amazing jewelry of precious metals and stones. This is Peddler’s Alley. Seth runs the coffee stand, giving out free espressos and selling bags of coffee beans. June sells her scarves. Autumn is the metalsmith. Trez, the hotel manager from across the street, likes to hang out and drink coffee in the alley. When the guests are all settled in for the night, she joins us for a beer or some of Seth’s whiskey. Sometimes Belle and Patty come over from the cafe next to the hotel. The Honey Man, Reed – he makes our local honey – comes to get some free espresso from Seth and chat with the rest of the alley. I’m there, too, but I’m not usually a productive member of our little alley-family. Sometimes I do oracle readings, which are like tarot readings but less complicated, for whoever wants one. That’s my contribution.
Today, we had dinner together. The cafe was getting ready to close for the day. It had been a slow day, so they had an entire quiche left over. Seth bought the quiche and a pitcher of ice tea. Belle, Seth, and I handed out the ice teas in the alley. Patty heated up the quiche and brought it across the street to the alley. I cut and served the quiche, while Patty and Belle went back to clean up the cafe.

The conversation went like this –
June: Cut small pieces, Katy. We just ate a bunch of this (gesturing to a lidded pot).
Katy: Sure thing.
Seth: Oh you need – (reaches for a roll of paper towels) – something to put that on.
Katy: Nope, Patty brought us wax paper.
Seth (not hearing, handing over a paper towel): Here –
Katy: No need hon, I got this covered. (Winks.)
June: Yeah Seth, she’s got this covered.
Katy (to Seth): Thank you sweetheart. You’re awesome. (Takes the offered paper towel; passes the first piece of quiche to June.)
June: No, give that to her. (Pointing to a tourist who was looking forlornly at the nearby, but closed, restaurant.)
Katy (to the tourist): Would you like some quiche?
Tourist: Oh, no thanks, we have to eat dinner in an hour, so...
Katy: (Shrugs.) Ok, your loss. Here Trez, this is for you. (Handing quiche slice to Trez.)
Random local person who happened to stop by right then: Haha!
Trez: Thanks!
Reed: Hey, lemme try some of that quiche. That looks good... Oh man, that’s rich. Who made that?
Katy: Patty.
Reed: That’s delicious. I have to take home some of that for the old lady. Can I take some home?
Seth: Sure – that’s what it’s there for.

Customers came and went; some joined our conversations, some shrugged us off. Most of them got espresso from Seth.
Trez: Maybe that’s my guests – (runs across the street, just ahead of a couple tourists carrying luggage; she disappears into the hotel).
(June nods sagely.)

Seth: I’m thinking about going to upstate New York.
Katy: Really? What part?
Seth: Upstate.
Katy: Where in upstate? I’m from there.
Seth: Finger Lakes.
Katy: I’m from the Finger Lakes! Where are you going?
Seth: Lake Chitaqua. My dad turned me on to it. There’s this place he goes in the summer, and he lives for it.
Katy: Cool! It’s so beautiful there, especially in the summer.
Seth: I might do an event there.
Katy: Need a helper?
Seth: Maybe –
Katy: Ooo, pick me!
Seth: Yeah!
Katy: So when are we going?
Seth: This summer. I don’t know.
Katy: Well, I have til the end of July.
Seth: Sweet, that’s my time frame.
Katy: So what’s going on at Lake Chitaqua?

Seth told me the story, then, of how he and his father came to terms with each other, just a few years ago. He didn’t like his dad much, growing up, he said, and he moved out quite young. After he moved out, he’d call his dad once in a while, but hated doing so because the conversations were never pleasant. They didn’t argue, or anything like that, but his dad was something of a hypochondriac and would tell Seth that, someday, Seth would have the same health complications he believed himself to be plagued by. Seth felt his dad was trying to bequeath those illnesses to him, and he found himself reluctant to call his dad. He’s say, “Hi Dad, how are you?” Then he’d kick himself for asking, because he dad would respond with a listing of medical misfortunes.

Seth: And I never wanted to go home unless I could do it on my own terms. I pay for everything. If I want to go somewhere with him – last year, I wanted to go to Santa Fe. I called my dad and said, “hey, let’s go to Santa Fe. I’ll send you a plane ticket, you just get on the plane and meet me there. I’ll rent a car at the airport.” And I did. I flew us both in to Albuquerque, rented a car there, and drove us to Santa Fe. And it was great. But I never wanted to make him provide the vacation. I provide the vacation. He just comes along. I like it that way.

A few years ago, his dad called him. While they spoke, Seth realized that the neediness usually so present in his dad’s voice was – gone. His dad told him about going to this retreat at Lake Chitaqua, and how it was a life-changing event. Seth’s dad learned, at the retreat, that in all his life, he had never learned to say “I love you.” Further, he learned that all his life, he had been going to doctors when he needed to feel cared for. Seth’s dad said, “my biggest regret, is that I didn’t do this sooner in my life,” and he wanted very much to share the experience with Seth. After some resistance, Seth agreed to go spend a week with his dad at the retreat at Lake Chitaqua. He stayed an extra week; when it was time to leave, he let his dad go and booked the extra week for himself. This year, he wants to go back.

Seth described the retreat location: hundreds of acres of gated land where no cars were allowed. People would drop off their luggage, then park their cars by the entrance for the week – or weeks – they were staying. They’d walk everywhere – around the lake, to the opera, the theater, the symphony, the lectures. Speakers come from all over the world for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to speak at Lake Chitaqua, and there is a different theme every week. The second week Seth stayed there, the theme was National Geographic: Oceans. They would talk about science all morning, and theology all afternoon, then go to the opera in the evening.

I wondered what the theme was the week Seth’s dad discovered how to say “I love you,” but I didn’t ask. He was telling his story and we were sipping Irish whiskey from his flask. It wasn’t a good time to get interrogative.

At the end of the evening, Autumn has packed up and gone to dinner with her husband, Logan, who came to visit toward the end of the day. June has gone, too, with her rainbow of scarves, and Nicole and Kirsten have parted ways. I tell Seth about the paper I have to write, and how I’m not sure that I’ll be able to, since I’m not around many families at the moment.

Then Kirsten stopped by to see Seth; she and I introduced ourselves to each other. The three of us talked about road trips and motorcycles and cars. Seth pondered how he would drive to New York. Not a direct trip, he said – he wanted to be in each place. He wanted to enjoy every stop on the journey, to have lunch with people who knew his coffee. He has at least 200 customers in every state. Every place he goes, if he gives enough warning, he can meet someone who drinks his coffee and have lunch with them. He wants to meet as many people as he can. He loves people, he says with a smile, and people love coffee. I think he’s right.

Nicole stops by next. I’ve never met her before, either, but she’s familiar, like we’ve seen each other somewhere, somehow. It’s a small town; that’s not surprising. Nicole is full of life, a flower about to burst in a pink velvet dress and brown boots. Nicole and Kirsten talk animatedly about Santa Cruz and Nicole’s latest gig, managing the creation of an art installation at the MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Tucson. Her friend Chico had asked her to be part of the team. The piece her team created is called “Chrysalis,” and she talked about all the changes in her life and how the project was so appropriate for this period of her life. She talked about being the only woman, in charge of a group of men, and how that made her want to “do fist pumps every day.” She felt like the butterfly emergent and powerful.

On a whim, I decided to do an oracle reading for Seth. While he entertained customers and Nicole and Kirsten caught up with each other, I shuffled and drew my oracle cards. When the customers departed, I nodded Seth over to my cards and explained the reading to him. The reading helped him make a decision: he’s going on a road trip this summer, north to Colorado, then east to New York. He’s going to sell his coffee at Lake Chitaqua. I’m so proud of him.

Then I notice, for the first time, the beautiful stained glass windows on the second floor of the building across the street. I mention it to Seth. He agrees. We stare at the glass for a moment, slightly inebriated and almost out of whiskey.
"I feel like I'm going to cry," he says.
I ask, "Good cry or bad cry?"
"Good cry."
"Oh, good then."
"I can just feel it. You know, life is so beautiful. It's like how old people's eyes always have that sheen of wetness. Their eyes have seen so much, and it's all there, all that beauty, and there's so much that they're about to burst. They've seen so much beauty. The tears are always just about to fall because life is so beautiful. It's like that."
"That's going in my paper," I say.
"That's cool. It should," he replies.

Norman stops by, seeing Seth and I still there. Norm is one of Seth’s employees. We chat. A kid stops by with a young sparrow on his finger. It can’t fly because some of its flight feathers have been damaged. A cat, maybe, from the looks of the sparrow’s matted downy and torn tail. The kid thinks the bird is “part finch and part sparrow” but the rest of us doubt that very much. He’s looking for food for the little bird, and I recall that I have chia seeds in my kitchen. So I say good night and leave the alley, kid and bird in tow, hoping to write a paper after I feed the bird.

19 June 2014

bones' apothecary: agave

I have an agave in my front yard. You'd think a plant in a category called "succulent" would be... I don't know, nicer.

It could double as a guard, if it were just a little closer to the gate. Back before I knew what this cursed plant was (not so long ago), I referred to it as "that stabby plant out front." It's kind of a jerk, with its stabbiness. The sharp points are actually darker than the rest of the plant, so if you're not looking right at them (and are unfamiliar with the plant, as I was), it'll sneak-shank you as you walk by.

Yeah, me and this plant did not start out as friends. And honestly, "friends" is too nice a word for our current working relationship, which mostly involves me leaving That Stabby Plant alone.

Recently (tonight) I learned that pretty much that whole plant is edible. Also, when roasted, the inside of those pulpy leaves (aka, your shank-wielders) tastes like molasses.
You hear that Stabby? I could totally eat you. And revenge shall be sweet. 

Fortunately for Stabby, I don't own this property, and me removing a 7-foot agave that's probably ancient would not go over well with my landlord. So Stabby and I won't be parting ways any time soon.

Unless. Unless Stabby decides to flower.
I've learned all sorts of things about agaves tonight. For instance: most species only flower once in their lifetimes. Once they've flowered, they die; in other words, agaves are semelparous. A few (not the ones my region of the world) can get away with flowering twice before they're done. One gardening blogger recommended being "mean" to your agave plant - not encouraging them to reproduce, by not making their environment ideal. Withhold the pampering - the extra rations of water, the especially fertile soil - and your lovely agave could last decades! I might start fertilizing mine.

Not only out of spite though. No really! These plants are incredibly useful!

The seeds can be ground into flour.
The blossoms can be eaten, though they're bitter if not boiled first.
The flower stalks can be roasted and eaten, or juiced to make pulque - the main ingredient in tequila. I'm pretty sure that means agaves are medicinal.
The leaves can be roasted and eaten (you'll want to remove the husk after roasting, and before consuming).
The fibers from the stalks and leaves can be used in all sorts of things, if you're crafty like that. Weaving, brushes, et cetera.

It takes For Ever for one of these plants to bloom, though. Their common name is "century plant," because it feels  like it takes them a century to bloom, especially if you're waiting for it. Typically they'll bloom much sooner, within 20 years or so. And of course there's variation on that timeline by species. It appears - from my brief internet search - that smaller agaves tend to bloom sooner than larger ones. (Which makes sense - the larger plants spend more energy on somatic development as opposed to reproductive development.)

(Incidentally, the gardener I mentioned above refers specifically to the agave americana variety, which is the most common in the Southwest and probably what I have in my yard. Alternatively, mine might be an agave durangensis, which also appears similar to mine in the web pictures. It's hard to say though. I'm not finding any definitive information to discern the two, or any great pictures. All I can be certain of is that mine is not the striped variety of a. americana.)
one version of a. americana
a. durangensis

I've found very little to support any medicinal uses of agave, other than in the production of tequila (which really should not be ignored). There's some mention of agave sap as a disinfectant, but absolutely zero reason to suspect that's true; this is not a reference to the disinfectant properties of tequila, but a claim that the unprocessed sap has disinfectant properties. At best, I would venture that the sugar-like nature of the sap might  have similar preservative properties to other sugars.

As a representative in magical uses, I personally would consider agave an excellent guardian. The rosettes (the radially-oriented cluster of leaves) are fiercely protective of the plant, as are the stalks.  In fact, if you don't handle the dried stalks properly they'll get ya. The plant as a whole makes me think of fire: abundant in it's usefulness, but inherently dangerous and requiring mindful handling.

If you decide to work with the dried stalks, wear gloves. The fibers of the stalks are quite pokey, and they are so fine that it's nearly impossible to see them once they've embedded themselves in your flesh. They make wicked, hair-like splinters. There's one under my fingernail right now that's still working it's way out. I can tell it's still there, because the dried blood around it is still there. Also, it hurts. So wear gloves, and sand that thing down with a very fine grit sand paper. That'll make it better, but it's probably next to impossible to get all the fibers smoothed out, so I also recommend giving your agave stalk some sort of wrap where you plan to grasp it. I have both a wand and a staff made from agave stalks (wild harvested, not from Stabby). They came to me through my ten year old son, who collected them and brought them home as gifts. I used rabbit fur on my staff, but I don't hold it a lot. Leather would probably be better for something you're going to use often. Or any fabric thick enough to tame stray fibers and keep them out of your skin.

This staff is ridiculously tall, and I'll probably end up shortening it a bit. If I do, I'll take some off the top. I really like how the bottom 'bulbs' out and makes a solid base for the whole thing. It's good for grounding.


By the way, yuccas are part of the agave family, too, but they're a different genus. I'll talk about yuccas separately, and later.

Also, I'm in the market for a good southwest herbalism book. Comment with leads if you have any please!

References Gardening Gone Wild (blog) by Debra Lee Baldwin, "Uh-oh. My agave's blooming." Appears to have been posted in 2009, but I can't actually find a date for that post (I'm basing my estimate on the dates of the comments). Succulent Guide: Genus Agave. Lots of pictures, but no hard data. The Agave Page. Somewhat better pictures and a little more information than the Succulent Guide.

Book: Indian Uses of Desert Plants, by James W. Cornett. 2011. Nature Trails Press. It's more 'glorified pamphlet' than book, but it's a handy little thing to have. It can be found here.

For more information How to make agave nectar (a nice sugar substitute); this is not a step-by-step guide, just an overall explanation. The US Department of Agriculture weighs in with the taxonomy of agave americana. Apparently agave leaves contain potential skin irritants in their pulp.

18 June 2014

a bit of fiction

A bit of fiction, pulled from my dreams last night. 
I have weird dreams.


Eggs scrambled with spinach and mushrooms, a little salt. Peaches, sliced. Cottage cheese.
Check, check, and check.
Naylee will give me that face, the one filled with sweet happiness. I turn off the stove and scrape the eggs onto a plate.
A couple forks from the drawer, and -
There she is. Radiant. Bouncing into the room.
“Jorg! Look what I made!” Naylee giggles and holds up a ridiculous… sea slug? “It’s a sweater, obviously.” She’s laughing outright now, unable to even attempt a straight face. I’m grinning back at her, despite being completely confused. The knitted thing is huge, and orange, and when she holds it up that high it blocks my view of her. Still smiling, I let her hand it to me. It could be a sweater, if I had no arms. I’m helpless. Naylee’s smile quiets. “Don’t worry,” she coos, “you can put it with the rest.” Relieved, I toss it to the top of the kitchen cabinets, where a collection of ill-fated knitting projects is accumulating.
“I’ll get the hang of these things one of these days,” Naylee insists. “I don’t know about that orange though. That might be a trim-only sort of color. A little goes a long, long way, ya know. Oooo! Peaches! Hmmm, you must like me an awful lot.”
That’s my Naylee. Teeny Queen of Distraction. My heart thumps. I reach for her waist, and I like the way my hand wraps from one hip to the other.
“Come here.” It comes out of my throat as a growl.
“Oh, scary! You know sexual dimorphism in humans isn’t supposed to be this distinctive, Jorg.”
“Mmmm, I love when you talk dirty to me, Naylee.”
She’s giggling again and just like that, I’m taken. Again and again.
“Hey there big man,” Naylee bats her eyelashes, “are you gonna feed me first or what?”
I pull her close, so gently, and ask her, so softly, if she’s really that hungry. A kiss on her cheek, then her lips.
“Not really, no,” she whispers back.
“I need you,” I admit.
“Oh please,” she laughs.
I had meant it, but that’s okay. I smile and kiss her again and play along. “My princess, my love, you taste like joy.”
I’m rewarded with a new round of giggles and accusations of romantic delusions. She’s right. She always is, she just doesn’t know it yet. I pick her up and kiss her again.
“Oh, you got me!” she squeals and smirks, “whatcha gonna do with me now?”
I carry her across the kitchen and into her gardening room. There’s a couch there, under the big bay windows.
“Naylee, may I?” I whisper in her ear.
“Yes please,” she says.
I set her down and lay myself on the couch. I’m careful - no need to break any more furniture throwing my weight around. When I’m settled, I tug her hand. She straddles me, her knees at my hips, and leans down for more kisses. I catch her again in my arms and hold her as close as I dare. The air around us seems to heat as we kiss. She rubs her body against me, sending hisses of urgency up my spine. Distantly, I feel myself rumbling and I grow stronger against her warmth. I open my eyes to take in this whirlwind of a woman - sometimes I have to see to believe - and a flicker of movement comes from the open room to my left. Releasing Naylee with my left arm, I grasp her tighter with my right and catch the little fucker in my left hand. My grip dwarfs his fist, and I give it a shove, sending him back across the room. Still squeezing Naylee with my right arm, I pull her in closer to that side. She’s taking advantage of my turned head and trailing little kisses along the side of my neck.
“You really need to do something about that,” Naylee says between kisses.
“I know,” I grunt. A blond scrapper of a boy is taking aim for my head again. This time when I catch his fist, I squeeze. First the bones crack - a very satisfying sound - then they crumble, and the boy disintegrates. I sigh. Naylee trails her kisses back up to my face, and I hold her with both arms again. And I’m taken. Again and again.