Hippie Project of the Week

The succulent has gotten too big for its tiny pot.

But the 80-cent terra cotta pot is too plain. We want to make it look dressier.

It’s going to look like this. Directions: turn it upside down on newspaper. Squirt acrylic paint on it in alternating stripes of white and black. Now take a stiff brush and smear the white and black paint together. Careful, don’t blend too much or you’ll end up with an even grey. Let dry overnight.

Here is Ms. Succulent in the new pot after transplanting. Since we do not have an oven to fire the paint in (and we probably used the wrong kind of paint for that anyway), the paint will bubble a little bit around the bottom whenever you water the succulent. But that is OK because we are only watering twice a month. The paint job might not last forever, but it will last a couple of years.

Thank You, St. Boniface

This post is about how we got our Christmas trees. For the record, I would probably still have a Christmas tree in the house even if it they were pagan in origin. (I’ll explain why in a different post, drawing on G.K. Chesterton.) But Christmas trees aren’t pagan. At least, not entirely.

My Barbarian Ancestors

Yes, I had barbarian ancestors, in Ireland, England, Friesland, and probably among the other Germanic tribes as well. Some of them were headhunters, if you go back far enough. (For example, pre-Roman Celts were.) All of us had barbarian ancestors, right? And we love them.

St. Boniface was a missionary during the 700s to pagan Germanic tribes such as the Hessians. At that time, oak trees were an important part of pagan worship all across Europe. You can trace this among the Greeks, for example, and, on the other side of the continent, among the Druids. These trees were felt to be mystical, were sacred to the more important local gods, whichever those were, and were the site of animal and in some cases human sacrifice.

God versus the false gods

St. Boniface famously cut down a huge oak tree on Mt. Gudenberg, which the Hessians held as sacred to Thor.

Now, I would like to note that marching in and destroying a culture’s most sacred symbol is not commonly accepted as good missionary practice. It is not generally the way to win hearts and minds, you might say.

The more preferred method is the one Paul took in the Areopagus, where he noticed that the Athenians had an altar “to an unknown god,” and began to talk to them about this unknown god as someone he could make known, even quoting their own poets to them (Acts 17:16 – 34). In other words, he understood the culture, knew how to speak to people in their own terms, and in these terms was able to explain the Gospel. In fact, a city clerk was able to testify, “These men have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess” (Acts 19:37). Later (for example, in Ephesus) we see pagan Greeks voluntarily burning their own spellbooks and magic charms when they convert to Christ (Acts 19:17 – 20). This is, in general, a much better way. (Although note that later in the chapter, it causes pushback from those who were losing money in the charm-and-idol trade.)

However, occasionally it is appropriate for a representative of the living God to challenge a local god directly. This is called a power encounter. Elijah, a prophet of ancient Israel, staged a power encounter when he challenged 450 priests of the pagan god Baal to get Baal to bring down fire on an animal sacrifice that had been prepared for him. When no fire came after they had chanted, prayed, and cut themselves all day, Elijah prayed to the God of Israel, who immediately sent fire that burned up not only the sacrifice that had been prepared for Him, but also the stones of the altar (I Kings chapter 18). So, there are times when a power encounter is called for.

A wise missionary who had traveled and talked to Christians all over the world once told me, during a class on the subject, that power encounters tend to be successful in the sense of winning people’s hearts only when they arise naturally. If an outsider comes in and tries to force a power encounter, “It usually just damages relationships.” But people are ready when, say, there had been disagreement in the village or nation about which god to follow, and someone in authority says, “O.K. We are going to settle this once and for all.”

That appears to be the kind of power encounter that Elijah had. Israel was ostensibly supposed to be serving their God, but the king, Ahab, had married a pagan princess and was serving her gods as well. In fact, Ahab had been waffling for years. There had been a drought (which Ahab knew that Elijah — read God — was causing). Everyone was sick of the starvation and the uncertainty. Before calling down the fire, Elijah prays, “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (I Kings 18:37)

Similar circumstances appear to have been behind Boniface’s decision to cut down the great oak tree. In one of the sources I cite below, Boniface is surrounded by a crowd of bearded, long-haired Hessian chiefs and warriors, who are watching him cut down the oak and waiting for Thor to strike him down. When he is able successfully to cut down the oak, they are shaken. “If our gods are powerless to protect their own holy places, then they are nothing” (Hannula p. 62). Clearly, Boniface had been among them for some time, and the Hessians were already beginning to have doubts and questions, before the oak was felled.

Also note that, just as with Elijah, Boniface was not a colonizer coming in with superior technological power to bulldoze the Hessians’ culture. They could have killed him, just as Ahab could have had Elijah killed. A colonizer coming in with gunboats to destroy a sacred site is not a good look, and it’s not really a power encounter either, because what is being brought to bear in such a case is man’s power and not God’s.

And, Voila! a Christmas Tree

In some versions of this story, Boniface “gives” the Hessians a fir tree to replace the oak he cut down. (In some versions, it miraculously sprouts from the spot.) Instead of celebrating Winter Solstice at the oak tree, they would now celebrate Christ-mass (during Winter Solstice, because everyone needs a holiday around that time) at the fir tree. So, yes, it’s a Christian symbol.

Now, every holiday tradition, laden with symbols and accretions, draws from all kinds of streams. So let me hasten to say that St. Boniface was not the only contributor to the Christmas tree. People have been using trees as objects of decoration, celebration, and well-placed or mis-placed worship, all through history. Some of our Christmas traditions, such as decorating our houses with evergreen and holly boughs, giving gifts, and even pointed red caps, come from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This is what holidays are like. This is what symbols are like. This is what it is like to be human.

Still, I’d like to say thanks to St. Boniface for getting some of my ancestors started on the tradition of the Christmas tree.

Sources

BBC, “Devon Myths and Legends,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/devon/content/articles/2005/12/05/st_boniface_christmas_tree_feature

Foster, Genevieve, Augustus Caesar’s World: 44 BC to AD 14, Beautiful Feet Books, 1947, 1975, Saturnalia on p. 56 ff.

Hannula, Richard, Trial and Triumph: Stories from church history, Canon Press, 1999. Boniface in chapter 9, pp. 61 – 64.

Puiu, Tibi, “The origin and history of the Christmas tree: from paganism to modern ubiquity,” ZME Science, https://www.zmescience.com/science/history-science/origin-christmas-tree-pagan/

Can You Decipher this Quote from a Sci-Fi Novel?

Contemplation occurred with consequences resulting. Meditation existed on a plane remote from the familiar. By virtue of reflection, resolution simply was. No human, equipped with the latest and most relevant tools, would have recognized the process for what it was. And yet — there were fine points of tangency.

Among the incredibly diffuse but nonetheless vast aggregate worldmind of which the verdure on board the Teacher were an inseparable part, what Was became what Is. Call it thought if it aids in comprehension. The plants themselves did not think of it as such. They did not think of it at all. They could not, since what transpired among them was not thought that could in any sense be defined as such.

That did not mean that what came to pass among them was devoid of consequence. It was determined that, for the moment, at least, nothing could be done to affect what had transpired. Patience would have to be exercised. The disturbing situation might yet resolve itself in particulars agreeable to those whose awareness of it was salient. Their perception of the physical state of existence humans defined as time was different from that of those who inhabited the other, more-remarked-upon biological kingdom.

Alan Dean Foster, Reunion, pp. 110 – 111

Freaky Flower of the Week: Woolly Mullein

As you can see, fields near my house are done with wheat harvest.

This is yet another flower that grows so prolifically on the roadsides, and looks so bizarre, that I was certain it would turn out to be native to the Intermountain West. Will I never learn?

The tall, coarse stalks of woody mullein stand as sentinels along the roadsides. They are biennial plants, growing the first year as a round cluster of large (12 x 4″) radiating basal leaves covered with thick, woolly hair. The second year, they rapidly grow a 1 – 6′ (!) tall stalk, crowded with yellow flowers in a spike arrangement. Then, with all its energy expended, the plant dies.

This introduced (!) weed colonizes disturbed places from the valleys and plains to the montane forests.

Dioscorides, the Greek physician to the Roman armies in the first century, used mullein to treat coughs, scorpion stings, eye problems, tonsillitis, and toothache. Today, herbalists value it as a medicinal herb for asthma, bronchitis, coughs, throat inflammation, earache, and various other respiratory complaints.

Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers by H. Wayne Phillips, page 157

Weed of the Week

(Sounds better than Wildflower of the Week, don’t you think?)

This … is Rubber Rabbitbrush. Or, as I like to call it, “False Yellow Sage.” Or maybe, “Not Actually Yellow Sage, Dummy.” (I am getting the hang of this botany thing. You can just make up any descriptive name, pretty much.)

When I first started noticing this species, I naturally assumed it was some yellow-flowered variety of sagebrush. Reason: it is the same general size, shape, and even color as Silver Sagebrush, and it grows everywhere that Silver Sagebrush does.

Observe:

Here it is growing happily interspersed with Silver Sagebrush, overlooking the spectacular views of Baker, Oregon. But it doesn’t only do this in Baker. It does it in Idaho as well. I see it doing this sneaky little trick everywhere.

Assuming, as I did, that this was some kind of sagebrush, I was completely stymied when I could find it nowhere in my trusty Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers guide, by the illustrious H. Wayne Phillips. Not under Sage or Yellow Sage. Not even in the “yellow flowers” section (the guide is arranged by color). There was no way, I thought, that it wasn’t native to the area. Look at how deserty it looks!

Anyway. long story short, it’s Rabbitbrush. And here is a partial excuse for why I couldn’t identify it until after my trip to Baker. The photograph in the guide shows the leaves looking very grey, as in the first picture above. But most of the Rabbitbrushes that grow around my house look much more green. I had to go to the Oregon Trail Museum in Baker and see, growing around it, an awful lot of different individuals of these plants, in all stages of growth, before I could understand what I was looking at.

For example, here it is when very young.

By the time it is dying, it just looks like hairy brown sticks with dry yellow puffballs on top.

The guidebook says,

Ericameria nauseosa, Aster family. Previously known as Chrysothamnus nauseous. Nauseosus implies that the plant produces sickness or nausea. Jackrabbits often hide under the cover of rabbitbrush to conceal themselves from the watchful eyes of golden eagles soaring overhead. The Shoshone people of Nevada use the plant to stop diarrhea and as a remedy for coughs and colds. The Cheyenne used it to relieve itching and treat smallpox.

Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, p. 107