Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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In Praise of Catalpas

The catalpas are in bloom: thank Goddess.

Catalpa speciosa, the northern Catalpa. They're huge trees, catalpas: often the tallest on any given block. Heart-shaped leaves, bigger than your out-stretched hand, and those flowers: creamy with spotted tongues, like little orchids, really, if you can imagine tens of thousands of orchids all in one place. (Thus does superabundance render even the greatest beauty banal.) The city's catalpas are towering pyramids of white right now, that you can smell a block away: that sweet, spicy, nutmeg-y smell of Midsummer.

They're weedy kinds of trees, actually. Soft wood, not good for much of anything. They're also "dirty" trees: first the fallen flowers, which coat the sidewalks with slime, then the long, carob-like seedpods that litter the lawn by the thousands and (I swear) tens of thousands.

Oh, but they're in their glory now, and that means Midsummer can't be far away.

I grew up calling them (PI alert) "Indian tobies." Oddly enough (it took me a while to figure it out), "tobie" is short for "tobacco." Here's why. 

When my dad was a young juvenile delinquent growing up in hard-scrabble Depression-Era Steeltown (he and Uncle Saul bought their first rifles at the age of eleven and, for fun, used to set the dump on fire and take potshots at the rats running out), the kids used to dry the seedpods and smoke them.

Once my grandfather caught dad and Uncle Saul back in the garage trying to smoke Indian tobies.

"Don't waste your time on that garbage," he told them. "What you boys want to smoke is a cigar."

Then he gave them each a cigar and made them smoke the whole thing. (They were 10 at the time.) Of course, they were both sick as dogs.

Predictably, to this day my father never smokes.

Equally predictably, until he died a few years back, Uncle Saul always smoked cigars.

Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't.

Well, times have changed. (Can you imagine anyone selling rifles—over the counter, no less—to a couple of eleven-year olds?) For now, I'll just sit here and savor the rolling waves of perfume that wash over the block with every breath of wind. Yukio Mishima was right: the ephemeral has its own inherent beauty.

Thank Goddess, the catalpas are blooming.

Must be almost Midsummer.


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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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