This Dusty Earth: Witchcraft in the City

A blog about mental health, magic, and the cycles of nature in parched Los Angeles.

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A Lesson in Carrots and Sticks

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Two Christmases ago, my husband gave me a lemon tree for my garden. Last month, after I spent a whole year waiting and watering and wringing my hands, it finally produced one full-grown lemon.

For awhile, the lemon looked more or less yellow, but I held off on picking it because it still had a blush of green on the underside. I had elaborate plans for it: I would give it as an offering to the Morrigan, my matron deity, and dry the skin for magical work. I would use the juice for some very special dish or drink--a sacred mojito, maybe! I dreamed and planned and admired my lemon until one day, it disappeared.

I knew there was a squirrel who’d eaten a couple of my late-season zucchinis the previous summer. But I hadn’t realized the extent to which it was ravaging my garden. When I saw that missing lemon--my very first lemon!--several mysteries suddenly resolved themselves. I abruptly understood why my tomato and strawberry plants had never produced a single fruit over the summer, why most of my seeds had seemingly never germinated at all. The squirrel (or squirrels) hadn’t just taken a few bites of zucchini. It had been ravaging my entire garden for months.

The summer before that, I’d harvested all my crops with no problem, but now it seemed the little glutton had moved right in. A couple of days after the first lemon disappeared, another, unripe one went missing, along with every single one of my fava bean, nasturtium, clover, spinach, and mustard green seedlings, and all the flowers off my strawberry plants. It had even rooted around in my chamomile for good measure. At this point, as I seethed over the destruction, it was hard not to anthropomorphize. Rationally I knew that the thing was just hungry, that if I were a creature with no concept of private property and I found a giant pile of food, I would help myself, too. But part of me couldn’t help but see the squirrel as a rotten little jerk, obliterating my garden just for kicks. What had I done to that squirrel? Nothing! And yet, for some reason, it wanted to hurt me.

Talk to any of your Republican relatives over Thanksgiving dinner and you’ll learn a lot about the Strict Father model of society. This is the punitive model that advocates Three Strikes laws and the incarceration of drug addicts. It’s a major factor in the militarizing of police. “Some people” are just inherently inclined to do bad things, the reasoning goes, and the only way they’ll behave responsibly is if they know they’ll be punished otherwise.

Of course the model doesn’t actually create a healthy or just society. Three Strikes laws lead to bizarre consequences like getting life in prison for stealing a slice of pizza. Treating drug use as a criminal act has always been a cynical ploy to target the poor. And militarized police...well, I think we’ve all seen lately what that system leads to. Yet the Strict Father model is the prevailing mindset in American culture. If you can’t behave yourself, then any punishment, no matter how outlandish, is justified.

So why on earth to people swear by it? I never really understood until that squirrel ate my lemon.

My husband and I looked up solutions online. We found something interesting: leaving food for squirrels can actually deter them from raiding your garden. Squirrels are territorial; feeding them purportedly doesn’t attract more of them, but does fill the stomachs of the ones you have.

At first, I balked. Feed that little butthole? After what it did to me? I liked the harsher solutions we found, like popping it with a BB gun. (Not fatally, of course. Just enough to teach it a lesson.) Hot pepper spray seemed nice, too. I liked the thought of that moment of surprise when the squirrel sank its teeth into a lemon and got its comeuppance.

Then I realized something: the goal of the deterrents I liked the most wasn’t to keep my garden intact, but rather to punish the squirrel. Yes, the deterrents would do the job--but what I found attractive was that they would make the poor, hungry squirrel pay. That was when I finally understood the Strict Father mentality. This was why so many people subscribe to it: because it feels good.

But ecosystems, whether they’re natural or social, don’t function through punishment alone. There has to be a give-and-take. Creatures behave according to what their circumstances dictate; trying to change their behavior without changing their circumstances is futile. It just can’t be done. Even if you manage a temporary victory, the behavior will creep back.

So I took a breath, gritted my teeth, and set out a plate of nuts on the other side of my patio. Oh, I took other measures, too. I decided to build a chicken wire cage for some of the pots, and a few days later, a giant roll of chicken wire and a pile of bricks with which to weigh it down appeared on the curb outside of my building. (My humble and heartfelt thanks, Morrigan.) I used a little hot pepper spray, too, hoping that the squirrel would get only a teensy burn before it backed off. My goal was to make the nuts way, way more enticing than my garden. I wanted to make getting around the chicken wire and searching for an unspicy lemon not worth the trouble.

And guess what? It worked. Now the nuts disappear almost every day, but the garden itself has been pristine for weeks. Yeah, the chicken wire’s kind of a drag, and I accidentally got a little hot pepper myself when I didn’t wash a lemon thoroughly enough. But overall, the strategy of give-and-take worked.

And an interesting thing happened the first time I set out the nuts: it felt like an offering. And in a way, it was an offering, as sacred as any candle or libation. In feeding my unruly little neighbor, I nurtured empathy and compassion for it, rather than anger and hatred.

A healthy ecosystem works through checks and balances, boundaries and cooperation. The heart of witchcraft, for me, is learning to feel and move with these rhythms.

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Asa is a sliding-scale tarot reader, intuitive, and witch blending pellar craft with animism and earth-based Judaism. Instagram: @theRedTailWitch


  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Monday, 02 March 2015

    Interesting story, but I don't see where the gratuitous Republican straw man bashing adds anything positive to your essay.

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