What. A. Year. After the past 12 months, I would like to go back to living in precedented times, thank you very much.
But hey, a long time ago in a galaxy far away — when COVID-19 was just a whisper on the wind — I wrote a 2020 prospective, where I set the theme of “green witch.” As I do every year at this time, I’d like to reflect on how that theme played out over the course of the year.
Staying in touch with the natural world
Despite its awfulness — despite a pandemic and losing my job — something beautiful came out of the year for me. When my time-intensive social hobbies (like larping) disappeared overnight, I had much more time and energy to devote to the natural world.
This year, I made ~700 observations on iNaturalist. I learned to identify many new taxa — mostly plants, but I also started getting into mushroom identification and mycology. I foraged wild foods, and made things out of them. I discovered new conservation areas and hiking trails. I laid on the ground by a vernal pool for nearly an hour, observing fairy shrimp. I did several “socially distant” hikes with friends, teaching them what I knew about the natural world.
For once in my life, I saw the turn of the seasons, day by day and week to week.
To my points from the original post:
Planting a garden. I did this, to varying degrees of success; I tried to grow tomatoes, bell and jalapeno peppers, parsnips, and lettuce from seed. I had my hands in the earth; I tilled the soil; I watered my plants; I repelled woodchucks and blossom end rot.
The final product was meager — a bumper crop of tomatoes, a few peppers, and not much else — but the experience was worthwhile. Caring for plants was something that took me outside nearly every day, even when I didn’t have the time or inclination to dive into the deep woods.
Foraging wild foods. I did this, too! We discovered the brambles growing as volunteers in our backyard were in fact blackberries, and Matt harvested them and made a delicious blackberry ice cream from it. I also made zucchini bread with autumn olive I had harvested from a local tree. (And learned, in the process, that autumn olive really should be pitted before doing so).
Sadly I did not find a great source of elderberries this year — I saw a few plants, but not close to me or in a place I’d feel confident with harvesting.
Taking a nature walk once a month. Sort of? I was out in the woods a LOT this year, and it probably averaged out to once a month. But most of it was in the spring and early summer, my favorite seasons for natural observation. I don’t think I got out in the woods at all in July, and December was also a wash for me.
But I also logged more iNat observations this year than I had in previous years combined, and I participated in a two virtual bioblitzes, so I really don’t feel like I “failed” here.
Also it’s important to remember that one doesn’t need to “get out” in nature. Wildness is everywhere! I found new-to-me plants like bush honeysuckle and broad-leafed helleborine and European beech while out on my runs. I got up close with a garter snake basking on the tarmac of my road. And I just now returned from a walk down my street where I saw a red fox cross the road in front of me.
Honoring the cycle of the year
My first thought is: I would have liked to spend more time on this, on slowing the passage of time through observing it, turning regular time into a festival heterotopia. I especially wanted to honor the solstices and equinoxes, those turning points of the year — but I never quite managed to make it happen.
But I’m thankful for what I did do. I observed my usual traditions around traditional Western holidays — Muppet Christmas Carol at Christmas, Vincent Price movies at Halloween. In celebration of finishing another (final!) round of Lioness edits, I hosted watch parties of several Three Musketeers movies. I bought holiday and birthday presents, and took pleasure in selecting the right gifts.
Plus, one thing observing the natural world regularly did is help me see the passage of time. I watched maple buds turn into leaves turn into forest litter, and that taught me much. I saw the mycelium underlying the whole forest floor, and learned you cannot kill me in a way that matters.
Given all that, maybe it doesn’t matter that I didn’t do anything to celebrate the solstices.
I got to know my town and neighborhood much better this year. I chatted with neighbors (and sometimes argued with them) on the Facebook community for my town. I learned where to find one of my favorite spring ephemerals from my local nature group. I started having milk delivered to my house weekly from a local dairy. I discovered new trails, new landmarks, new lands, within the boundaries of my own town.
To the individual points:
Attend a town meeting. I did not do this — perhaps because the last town meeting was held in a gymnasium at the height of the pandemic. However, thanks to vote by mail, I did vote in local primaries for the first time, which was enlightening.
In January, before the pandemic hit the U.S., I attended a meeting of the landowners’ association I’m part of, and learned about our efforts to fight fanwort in the lake. (I also walked the two miles to the high school where it was being held, rather than drive).
Do more local shopping. This was hard to do this year — again, because pandemic, and the shortage of many goods at the beginning of it. (I never thought I’d be lining up at the Hannaford at 7am for toilet paper).
But also during the pandemic, my local dairy started delivering door to door! I now enjoy having local eggs and milk and creamer on my doorstep every Thursday morning.
Other than that, I shopped at Aubuchon more than Home Depot (small chain vs. large chain), and I tried to use Target rather than Amazon (chain that generally treats its employees decently vs. putting more money in Jeff Bezos’ pocket).
Improve my relationship with my neighbors. I can’t say I made much progress on this, even though the pandemic might have given me the opportunity to.
Not being wasteful
Complete Uber Frugal Month challenges in January and June. I did this in January but not in June, ironically, even though in June I was out of a job and strapped for cash flow. I found the exercises interesting to do, teaching me a great deal about my relationship with money, and what my goals were.
Read The Zero Waste Home, and incorporate at least one of the tips into my life. I did not read this specific book due to interminable waitlists (thanks, pandemic), but I did read 100 Ways to Go Zero Waste, so I think that counts. I took notes on the tips I liked, but there was a lot of dumb in there, I gotta admit. It was emblematic of “clueless city dweller has some bullshit ideas about the natural world,” which tends to get my virtual panties in a wad, since ecological consciousness is intrinsically linked to nature appreciation in my head.
What I am doing differently, trash-wise, from 2019:
- Cleaning out K-cups to recycle the plastic and aluminum. I also canceled my standing order for them, with the goal of eventually not using them at all. (Once I get through the backlog).
- Recycling a few more things I didn’t know I could recycle (Recycle Smart MA is great for this, if you also live in the Bay State).
- Using handkerchiefs and rags instead of paper products more reliably. (Still not gonna clean up cat sick with a rag, though).
- Driving a lot less — again, thanks to the pandemic and now having a fully-remote job.
- I asked for a bunch of things for Christmas that would help with less wasteful living — Stasher bags, beeswax wraps for food — but, alas, did not get them. Will have to invest in some myself.
I’d like to do more in the future, of course, but as in everything, home environmentalism is a practice, not a destination.
Pay off my student loan and Matt’s car loan. Done! Actually, we paid off all our consumer debt this year, despite my not having a job — including the balance on our HELOC post-bathroom reno, and credit card debt for Brianna’s health crisis in January/February. The combination of frugality, a severance package with release of claims, increased unemployment due to the pandemic, and finding a new job relatively quickly actually left our bank account in a pretty good state.
As I said in my original post, intellectual curiosity is already a huge part of my life, so I expected this sub-theme to be easy to accomplish.
In some ways I was right — if nothing else, I know far more about identifying fauna, flora, and fungi than I did a year ago! However…
Join the “friends of the town library.” As I mentioned, this goal required me to print out a form, write a check, and go into the library LIKE A BARBARIAN. (A barbarian librarian?)
… and then said library shut down completely for the first six months of the pandemic.
It’s been open for browsing-by-appointment for a couple of months now, so if I was really determined, I could have done this. But let’s be real, I was more determined not to get COVID.
Visit a few new-to-me local parks, attractions, hiking trails, and businesses. The pandemic made this difficult for inside locations, but as far as hiking trails and conservation areas went, I get a gold star here.
I visited Robbs Hill for the first time to photograph hepaticas, on a tip from someone in my local nature group. I visited Cowdrey Nature Center for the second time ever, taking a new trail that made a ring around the river/swamp in the center, and identified all kinds of new-to-me mushrooms and spring ephemerals. I discovered the Lane Conservation Area and the Large Town Forest, both of which border the Hickory Woods I know well. Speaking of, for the first time I walked the ring/main trail of Hickory Woods, from the “official” trailhead back to my house. I also visited the Peabody Conservation Area, another patch of conservation land affiliated with the North County Land Trust.
My Buy Nothing group also played a part in learning more about the roads of this town! My journeys to pick up gifts brought me to parts of the town I’d never explored before, including the weird warren of roads northeast of Hickory Hills Lake, disconnected from the rest of the town when the lake was created as a reservoir.
I also had the opportunity to look at a map of my town from the 1880s, and that’s when I realized the street I live on once cut directly across what is now the bottom of the lake — yet another section of road that once connected the neighborhoods on two sides of the lake. I also saw small roads and farms where the Large Town Forest now is, and that explained for me why the trails looked wide enough to drive a truck through (spoiler: they were), as well as why there were miles and miles of fieldstone walls back there.
(Well, that’s also just… New England. As I tell ANYONE WHO LISTENS, Massachusetts is more forested today than it was in Thoreau’s time. Underneath our feet are the remnants of thousands of Colonial and 19th century farms).
Further reading (literally)
I also did some relevant reading this year. One book I read this year and recommend is Farming, a Handbook, by the poet Wendell Berry. His poetry quietly, beautifully asserts that the people who put their hands in the dirt, day after day — farmers — are the ones who understand the natural world best of all. This is a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with!
Relatedly, I also read Dirt Work: an Education in the Woods, by Christine Byl, who worked trail crew at national parks in Montana and Alaska. This book is a series of essays about that experience, working with one’s hands, and the natural world — including the humans that live in that world. Here’s a favorite quote of mine:
Outdoors is not catalog or movie set, not just work site, not even sanctuary, no matter how nuanced my desires appeared (name the plants, still the soul). Outdoors is a place where salmon swim upstream to die where they were born, where bears eat the salmon so they can survive their winter dens, where humans move through calling loudly, intent on fish and berries and bears. It’s a place to be reminded that, while sport is fun, while the rush of summits, linked ski turns, and belay stances are a joyful thing, they are second. Auxiliary to a world that is not playground but homeschool, where I am taught to settle in, over and over, until being outside isn’t about endurance or leisure, but life.Christine Byl, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods
On a completely different (but also related) note, I read two of the Discworld Witches sub-series, Equal Rites and Wyrd Sisters. I didn’t think Equal Rites had much to recommend it — it is the infamous Early Pratchett, and I really didn’t like the gender-essentialist division of “witch” and “wizard” which is the core premise of the book. I did like this quote, which was very much in service to my theme of the year:
“Do you think I used magic?”
Esk looked down at the queen bee. She looked up at the witch.
“No,” she said. “I think you just know a lot about bees.”
“Exactly correct. That’s one form of magic, of course.”
“What, just knowing things?”
“Knowing things that other people don’t know.”Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett
Wyrd Sisters, on the other hand, edged into what people love Pratchett for: humor not for the sake of humor, but in service to a greater theme. This one is full of Shakespearean tropes, and (like all books I love), touches on what it means to make art. It didn’t quite go as far as I would have liked, however.
This year I also read (85% of) Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. It is mostly about space anarchism — as a friend joked, “the through-line is communism.” But this quote, where the main character observes his wife, felt on-theme:
That’s a lot already! But some other things I am proud of this year:
- Rediscovered Dungeons & Dragons! I’m now in four different games with two different groups, and I love it. Still hope to blog more about that at some point!
- Finished the last round of major edits on Lioness (working on a query packet now!)
- Got my first short story acceptance — “The Mirrors of Her Eyes” is forthcoming from Daily Science Fiction!
- Wrote some poems.
- Wrote some blog posts.
- Wrote (and continue to write) a D&D/Forgotten Realms fanfic, “Bright Future,” which is about my druid’s relationship with a certain NPC in the Out of the Abyss adventure.
- Read 25 books. (Didn’t hit my Goodreads goal, but this was a rough year for reading. FOR SOME REASON).
- Found a new, 100% remote job that (three months in) I absolutely adore. (I am now a senior frontend engineer at Fishtown Analytics, the makers of the data transformation tool dbt).
- Spent a beautiful two weeks with my mom in Plattsburgh (all safety precautions were taken).
- Recorded a bunch of videos about Edna St. Vincent Millay poems for Youtube.
- Started a weekly virtual coworking event, which brought together friends from various different social circles (writing, larping, etc). I think it’s been super beneficial to everyone involved, and it’s been great keeping up with my friends and their projects on a weekly basis.
- Built Teamer, a tea-timing web app.
But most importantly:
- I did not get COVID.
- My (highly vulnerable) mother did not get COVID.
- I did not lose anyone close to me due to COVID.
- I survived possibly the worst year in recent memory.
Next time we’ll have my 2021 prospective! A warning that “next time” may still be a couple of weeks out — the theme will be “making my outsides match my insides,” but I haven’t plotted out the specifics yet.