After some emailing back and forth, the location for Gemmy’s coffee with Dale turned out to be the grassy hill between the Capitol and and its reflecting pool. On her way out the door, Gemmy stopped, went back to the fridge, and pulled a chestnut seed out of her carefully-preserved stash. Unsure exactly why she was bringing it, Gemmy tucked the seed into her pocket, gave Peschecat a final scritch for good luck, and headed out for the Capitol on a sunny, Summer Saturday.
She’d guessed maybe there was a coffee stand there, or a nearby Starbucks, but she didn’t see one as she walked over from the Capitol South metro station.
It took Gemmy a moment to recognize Dale, dressed in a grey twill skirt and what Gemmy’s Aunt Jen would have called a twinset, complete with an old fashioned sweater-guard. She was seated on the grass next to Roy, the man who’d thanked Gemmy for giving up her metro seat. He stood up and waved when he saw Gemmy and she waved back.
“Almost didn’t recognize you two without your peasant shirts,” Gemmy laughed, shaking Roy’s hand and sitting down on the grass next to Dale.
“Oh, we can be surprisingly normal,” Dale joked. “Or at least pass for it.”
Dale pulled a thermos out of her large straw bag and Roy took three small mugs out of his backpack. “I hope you like it hot and black,” Dale said and Gemmy nodded.
“It smells great,” she said. “Thank you.”
The three of them chatted pleasantly about the Capitol, Olmstead’s design for the grounds, and the stretch of lovely weather D.C. was experiencing.
“I keep hearing about the humidity,” Gemmy said, “but it hasn’t been too bad, so far.”
“You’re new to the area?” Roy asked.
“Since January,” Gemmy answered. “I moved down here from Pennsylvania to take a job at Interior. I’m living in Arlington, actually, and still getting to know the place.”
“Didn’t take you long to get involved in local politics,” Roy said. “Dale tells us you’ve made friends with a water activist.”
“You could call her that,” Gemmy said, and then asked a question to move the conversation away from the Potomac Nymph: “So tell me who you all are? Are you a church group? What is it that you do?”
Dale reached over and tapped the pentacle hanging under Gemmy’s t-shirt.
“We’re eclectic,” she said, surprising Gemmy, who somehow hadn’t expected them to be even vaguely Pagan. “I’m a Witch, like you. We have several Druids and, just recently, a Celtic Reconstructionist. Roy’s a Unitarian and we have one couple who are Radical Faeries. But we’re mostly people who care deeply about dirt, soil, earth. We learn as much as we can about it and we do energy work on the soil in local gardens, parks, developments. And, as you saw, a bit of political work and political magic, too, when we think the soil is endangered.”
“Right now, we’ve got a few projects going to decontaminate some soil near the Anacostia with sunflowers and ferns, which are great at sucking the chemicals out of the ground,” Roy added. “But then the plants have to be disposed of as toxic waste, and that’s expensive. We do some guerrilla gardening, from time to time; slip in at night with compost and native plants and leave a small spot more alive.”
“What about you,” he asked. “What’s your passion?”
“Trees,” Gemmy answered. “You’re looking at a genuine tree-hugger. I’ve always been fascinated by them and been most at home out in the forest. Studied Botany and Natural Resource Management in college and was working at Promised Land State Park in Pennsylvania. I got laid off due to budget cuts in 2009 and my husband lost his job about the same time. We lost the little home we’d bought and our marriage just seemed to fall apart. I’d been looking for a long time when I got the job offer at Interior, writing pamphlets, mostly, but doing a bit of historical research, as well. Not what I’d choose to do, but I need a paycheck. My aunt died and left me just enough money for a down payment on a tract townhouse near East Falls Church.”
“What trees have you met here in D.C.?” Dale asked.
“Have you ever been to the Arboretum?” Gemmy asked. “There’s a tree there that’s really special. A bonsai that was outside Hiroshima when we dropped the atom bomb. I’ve been spending time with it every few weeks; no car, so I can’t get out there too often. There was a grove of trees I loved in Pennsylvania, but my friend had to sell it to help her son’s family keep their home. It left a hole in my heart, but the bonsai is helping me feel better. Anyway, trees are my passion. And trees need good soil.”
“Have you ever been a part of a magical group or a group that did energy work?” Roy asked.
“Before I moved,” Gemmy said, “I was in a great Circle for several years, and I really hated leaving them. We’re still in touch, but email and phone calls aren’t the same as being there.”
“Have you found a new group down here?” Dale asked, pouring more coffee into Gemmy’s cup and then Roy’s.
“I’ve looked,” Gemmy answered. “I’ve met some nice people, but, so far, nothing’s jelled. So I’ve been practicing as a Solitary and hoping that, eventually, I’ll link up with the right group.” As she said it, Gemmy hoped it didn’t sound too leading. She’d come here just expecting to get to know Dale better, not to find a Circle. But she found herself feeling really comfortable with Dale and Roy and interested in what they did.
“If you’re interested,” Dale said, “I think we’d like you to meet a few of our other members. We’re getting together for a dinner on Summer Solstice, just potluck at a little park near one of the community gardens we care about. Nothing formal and no commitments; just a chance for you to meet a few more of us and vice versa.”
“And, I’m bringing my world-famous potato salad,” Roy said. “You definitely don’t want to miss my potato salad.”
“I’d love to come,” Gemmy said. “And I’m a big fan of potato salad.”
Dale laughed, “He’s been ‘perfecting’ this recipe for years, Gemmy. It’s never the same twice. And, to be honest, I think it’s really Melissa’s world-famous potato salad and Roy just takes credit for it.”
“You wound me, madam, you do,” Roy protested. “I peel the potatoes and that’s the most important and difficult part.”
“Well, if Gemmy comes, she can ask Melissa who does most of the work,” Dale teased.
Gemmy had a feeling this was a long-standing joke. She liked the informal, easy banter between this old woman and young man.
“And speaking of my lovely wife,” Roy said, “she’s not a member of our group, but she’s supportive. How about you? Any significant other you’d like to bring?”
“I’ve been dating a guy,” Gemmy said. “He runs the local garden store and we met when I went in to buy some seedlings and pots. He’s native, grew up around here. He’s not Pagan, mostly agnostic, I think, but he’s fine with my religion. I’ll see if he can come, although getting away from the store on weekend days can be tough for him.” She suddenly realized that she wanted Paris to meet these folks and for them to meet him. “I think he’d like you all; just be careful because he can go on about soil pH forever.”
“I like him already,” Roy said.
“What’s that in your hand?” Dale asked.
Gemmy looked down and realized that she’d pulled her chestnut seed out of her pocket and was rolling it around in her hand.
“It’s a chestnut seed,” she said. “One that’s almost full American chestnut.”
“Oh, the blight,” Dale said. “Most chestnut trees nowadays are from Chinese stock, aren’t they?”
“Yes, but there’s a group of people who are working to cross-breed and re-introduce the American chestnut. You know, they used to be everywhere up and down the East Coast. Huge trees. I, well, don’t laugh, but I had a vision a few weeks ago of people planting American chestnuts on a mined-out mountaintop. It was, well, I’m just very inspired and maybe someday . . . .”
“What impact did the trees have on the soil?” Roy asked.
“Well, I never thought about it, but, of course, they had huge root structures. Prevented erosion. There are still a few trees left from before the blight with live roots. They send up trees that live for a few years and then die back. I never thought before how the loss of the roots might have impacted mycellium in the soil. I don’t think we know enough, but certainly the loss must have changed the underground network. The nuts were food for lots of different kinds of wildlife and even people and farm animals. So the shells and the leaves decomposed. It’s an interesting question,” Gemmy mused. “It never occurred to me before.”
“An American chestnut tree on the Capitol Grounds,” Roy said. “Would you like to plant it?”
Gemmy looked confused. How would they plant it here?
Roy took out a Swiss Army knife and casually dug a small hole in the ground. No one seemed to be paying attention to them. He looked up at Dale and Gemmy with a twinkle in his eye. “Ladies?”
Gemmy clasped the seed and Dale placed her hand over Gemmy’s. Gemmy could feel warmth flowing through her hands into the seed. Dale took a bottle of water out of her bag and poured a little bit into the hole. Gemmy carefully placed the chestnut seed into the ground and Roy covered it back up with dirt. All three of them held their hands over the seed and Gemmy suddenly had a vision of a giant tree shading the reflecting pool and the Capitol, feeding the squirrels, restoring the soil.
“So mote it be,” Dale said.
“So mote it be,” answered Gemmy and Roy.
And so, dear readers, may it be for you, as well.
*This chapter is dedicated to CB, whom I love.