Let’s make friends (or, basil and beyond)

I’ve been thinking about the word “community” a lot lately. What community means to me, how communities are formed and grow, and how each of us relate to the communities we find ourselves in.

It’s a big word, which describes our personal corner of the big world. Siblings, cousins, neighbors—if you’re astrologically-minded, you might notice that these keywords are connected to the third house. Indeed, the third house is probably best described as the House of Community.

Messages, short journeys, early education—these are also intrinsic parts of community.

We connect with our community through communication (and note the similarity of those words). Our daily rounds take us through our community, whether for work or play. And what is our earliest form of education? Learning to socialize. Pediatricians in the United States appear universally convinced that teaching children good social skills is critical, especially during the brain’s early development.

So let’s lean into this concept of “community” and see if we can’t do a little magic. Maybe we can try some herbal magic this time.

Magic and herbalism have gone hand in hand for thousands of years. The idea of using of “plant allies” to get things done is found in traditions all over the globe, and the Western magical tradition is no exception. Modern, Medieval, and Renaissance grimoires are full of lists of herbs for all that ails you, and although some of them can be expensive or hard to find, a very good one for this “community” theme is probably sitting in your kitchen cupboard.

Basil: it’s not just for pesto

Basil has been used in religious and magical rituals for thousands of years, and can be found just about everywhere these days. Its culinary uses are legion, but it’s also a very good herb for relationships: forming them, fixing them, and dealing with them when they aren’t meant to be.

Look through any book on magical herbalism, or do a Google search, and you’ll see this property of basil mentioned over and over again. Whether it’s the plant’s attractive, sweet smell; its welcoming, vibrant green color; or its unusual resistance to “pests,” it seems obvious that this particular plant will be particularly good for “community” work.

Grow some

Never underestimate the power of keeping plant allies in and around your home. If you have the window space or a suitable yard, consider growing some basil. Living basil kept in or around your home encourages meaningful, positive relationships which generate little friction. It can also help “keep the pests away,” if you need that sort of thing.

Whenever you grow a plant, from seed or seedling, you’re building a relationship with it. You offer it nutrient-rich soil, water, and daily companionship. In exchange, it offers you its culinary, medicinal, and magical gifts—not to mention its friendship.

Growing your own plant allies is hands-down the easiest way to get to know them.

Buy some

If your gardening chops aren’t up to snuff, or you simply don’t have the space to grow a plant, hit up the spice rack of your neighborhood grocery store. The dried basil they sell in jars is fine.

You might do well to keep the jar on your altar for a while, make some offerings to it, and show some respect to the spirit of the plant before trying to get up to any magic with it.

I mean, let’s face it, it’s sort of rude to ask a total stranger for a favor.

The home

Community starts with your home and those living within it. Whether these people are friends, relatives, or roommates, cultivating good relationships with those you live with seems like a good first step. And the simplest way to use basil in this regard is to cook a meal with it.

Food is powerful magic, and the sharing of food is one of the hallmarks of community. Throw together some pasta and sauce, using and thanking some of the basil you’ve either grown or bought. Invite everyone and enjoy a friendly meal together.

A pinch of dried basil placed discretely in each corner of your home or apartment (or in each corner of every room) is another common way of smoothing out tensions, mellowing everyone, and keeping “pests” away. And if this latter is a significant issue, a good pinch of basil scattered on the welcome mat outside helps make sure that only those things which actually are welcome come in.

The neighborhood and beyond

Basil scattered about the four corners of your block, or at the nearest crossroads can help cultivate good relationships with and between your neighbors. You can also toss a bit of it around your neighbors’ yards, though that might look a little weird if you’re caught.

Another way to spread some “basil cheer” is to write a few greeting cards or short, friendly notes to friends and neighbors in your community. After you’ve composed them, burn a little basil as incense and pass the cards through the smoke. You don’t want to get carried away with this, otherwise the card might smell like a pizzeria. Just a little will do ya.

(As an aside, in case it isn’t obvious, sending cards and small gifts to friends and neighbors through the mail is, on its own, an excellent way to cultivate strong relationships. It’s a fading practice we’d all do well to revive.)

There are endless possibilities for the use of basil in forming and strengthening communities, and I encourage you again to do some digging for other ways to work with this plant. It’s an ally which seems to absolutely love meeting and working with new people, which shouldn’t be surprising given what it’s so very good at.

Let’s talk about plants (baby)

Would you look at that. I almost went a whole month without a post. Oh well. Hey, check out the seeds I’m planting this year!

Seed packets for mint, hyssop, echinacea, yarrow, lavender, and sunflowers.

You might notice a few themes here, not the least of which is that everything but the sunflowers are perennials. It is my firm hope that not only will these plants survive and thrive in my garden, but also that I’ll never have to replant a thing after this year.

Another theme is that these perennials could perhaps best be described as “wildflowers,” or more accurately, “able to hold their own and spread.”

This year, I’m taking a more hands-off approach with my garden and the surrounding yard. Rather than fuss about, pulling “weeds,” and constantly watering, I’m more or less just going to let it be.

See, back a couple of months ago, I was flipping through one of my many Peterson field guides and recognized a few of the “weeds” I pulled last year. More specifically, I learned that half the plants I yanked were either edible, had medicinal properties, or both.

Free food and medicine, just torn out and tossed on the compost heap.

For this and other reasons I’ve decided to treat my garden and yard as a kind of “learning laboratory.” I’m going to stuff the garden with the seeds I bought, then basically just sit back and watch what happens. By which I mean that I’ll be spending a lot of time outside, sitting on the ground with a stack of field guides, and making friends with whichever plants show up.

And believe me, I’m ready for the plants to start showing up. Winter has been…winter.

Speaking of my garden, last year I tried something different. Or, at least, I tried to try something.

I had heard of this thing called the “Ruth Stout Method” of gardening, named for this amazing woman who, at about the age of sixty, realized that modern gardening is kind of silly actually. Tilling the soil, fertilizing it, etc.? Nowhere in nature did this sort of backbreaking manual labor occur, and yet the woods are full of plants. So, one year she decided to just throw a bunch of straw mulch down on the earth at the end of autumn, and the next year she dropped her seeds into the mess and waited to see what happened.

And plants were what happened. Her garden not only did absolutely fine, but it did better than ever. The straw held moisture so she didn’t need to water, it prevented invasive plants from coming in so she didn’t have to weed, and as the straw broke down it fertilized the soil all by itself.

Photograph of my garden, covered in broken down leaves.

This kind of “no dig” gardening really appeals to my lazier side, and I’d hoped to use all the leaf litter and pine needles we rake up every year in the fall as my mulch. Unfortunately, that plan didn’t exactly work, since it turns out that we don’t actually have enough leaves to get the six-to-eight inches of mulch the Ruth Stout Method requires.

I can’t tell you how surprising this was, given how much work it takes us to clear the yard of detritus every year. Still? Free fertilizer!

The leaves sat out in the garden all winter, and I plan to till them into the ground in a few weeks. I also plan to drop another half a dozen bags of good garden soil into the mix, since I’m still trying to build up the soil quality of the yard.

As for the sunflowers? We have a strip of lawn which sits between our driveway and our neighbor’s fence. Not only is lawn something which I hate in principle, but this particular stretch of lawn is a nightmare to mow. The soil is soft and prone to bogging down the wheels of the lawnmower, and the grass itself is some kind of extra-thick super species which even a freshly-sharpened blade struggles with.

So this year, it dies. We’re ripping it all out, tilling the ground, and putting in seventy-five sunflower plants. Hopefully we’ll get to eat a few seeds, but my guess is that the neighborhood squirrels are going to treat these sunflowers as an all-you-can-eat buffet.

But whatever. At least the yard will be a little prettier.

Photo of a forsythia bush full of yellow flowers.

And speaking of pretty, check out our forsythia. This thing has really taken off these last couple of years. Fun fact: forsythia fruits are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as an antibiotic and antiviral, so I’ll definitely be learning how to collect and process them this year.

Which brings us to the point of this post, I suppose.

Years ago, I was standing around in my local bookstore when, for some reason, I picked up the first of those Peterson field guides I mentioned. I flipped through its pages, glanced at the drawings and color plates, then decided to buy it. To this day, I couldn’t tell you why I bought it, just that I had the feeling I should do so and I’ve come to trust those feelings…to a certain degree. (I’m a terrible, impulse buyer and so I do have to pump the brakes on these feelings from time to time.)

After buying that guide, I ended up going down the rabbit hole of wildcrafting, foraging, and what is commonly called “wilderness self-reliance.” I watched hundreds of hours of YouTube videos, dug through dozens of websites filled with herbal info, and bought several additional field guides. All of this basically so that I could go into the woods and look for plants to work with.

And yet, sitting right there in my backyard, and “clogging up” my garden, were dozens of plants which I had been ignoring. Or “weeding.”

What’s in your yard?