Standing Still 2022: From Darkness

Maybe I am more like Demeter, weeping for the hold darkness has over others, while reaching and hoping for a time when we can bring everyone back into the light.
Standing Still 2021: Demeter Waiting

Green-Wood Cemetery, early November 2022
I write again for the solstice. The sun “stands still”, as do I.
I continue to grieve for the many lost to darkness, their own and others’. Though amplified over the past several years, it’s not new in my lifetime. From civil rights in the 60s to trans rights in the 20s, resistance and liberation are always met with hatred and violence.

Grieving Angel on Headstone in Trinity Church Cemetery

Out of that grief, I am resolute.
I resist.
I will not quench joy.
I will not subdue celebration.

I will not hide our light from darkness.

Striped green sweat bee (Agapostemon) visiting Vernonia noveboracensis flowers in my front yard, 2022-08-31

Related Content

All my past Winter Solstice posts:

  • 2021: Standing Still 2021: Demeter Waiting
  • 2018: Standing Still in 2018
  • 2016: Standing Still 2016
  • 2015: Standing Still
  • 2014: The Sun stands still
  • 2010: From Dark to Dark: Eclipse-Solstice Astro Combo
  • 2009: Standing Still, Looking Ahead
  • 2008: Stand Still / Dona Nobis Pacem
  • 2007: Solstice (the sun stands still)



Insect Year in Review 2021

Observing the diversity of life that coexists in one place is one of the rewards of visiting the same natural area over a long period of time. My garden not only offers myself and passersby such an observatory. It’s also a laboratory in which I can research how insects engage with their environment – both biotic and abiotic – and imagine, design, and create habitat to better provide for their needs.

The Front Garden, November 2021

I use iNaturalist to document the diversity of life in my garden. Although I only posted my first iNaturalist Observation in 2017, my garden Observations now span more than a decade. As of this year, I’ve documented over 400 insect species making use of my garden.

iNaturalist Observations · Flatbush Gardener - Top 25 Species - 2021-12-31

This biodiversity, and my documentation of it, is intentional. And although all of this is by design, all I can do is uncover the latent urban biodiversity in and around my garden. Each new species I find is a surprise to me.

Native Plants

As I explained in last year’s Home of the Wild, native plants have been a significant focus of my gardening since we bought our home and I started the current garden in 2005. I’m always researching and experimenting with new species. And, like any avid gardener, I’m always killing things off, too.

I do my best to track my acquisitions, and failed plantings, in a spreadsheet. I categorize the species by whether they are native to the five counties of New York City, native to the NYC region – e.g.: within two counties – or are some other species native to eastern North America.

This chart summarizes the increase in native plant diversity in my garden over the years. Stacked columns, plotted against the left axis, show the number of species I acquired each year: blue for NYC-native, red for NYC-regional, and green for eastern U.S. native plant species. The large undated bar on the left represents plants I brought with me from prior gardens, or for which I’ve lost track of when or how I got them. The lines, ploted against the right axis, show the total number of species: blue for NYC-native plant species, and green for everything else.

Native Plants in my Garden by Year - 2021-12-31

2014 stands out as an exceptional year for plant acquisitions. That was my first year visiting the Native Plants in the Landscape Conference in Millserville, Pennsylvania. It has an enormous accompanying native plant sale with vendors from all over the mid-Atlantic, of which I took full advantage.

I maintain a Wish List of plants I want to try to grow in my garden. (Anyone know of a NYC-regional source for dwarf prairie willow, Salix occidentalis?!) The past few years I have targeted species for their ecological value in my garden:

  • Fill in plant families that are missing, or under-represented, in my garden, such as Apiaceae, e.g.: Zizia aurea.
  • Extend the flowering season, especially early in the year when native plant blooms are scarce. For example: Packera is the earliest-blooming Asteraceae I’ve found, so I’m trying to establish that in my garden.
  • Grow more plants to support specialist flower visitors, such as bees.

As of this year, I’m growing nearly 300 species of native plants, over 200 of which are native to New York City. With that increase in plant diversity, there’s been an increase in insect diversity (though habitat needs more than having the right plants).

Insect Species

Most of the insects that have visited my garden over the past decade fall into one of six groups:

  1. Diptera, flies: 103 species
  2. Wasps. i.e.: other Hymenoptera, excluding bees and ants: 70 species
  3. Coleoptera, beetles: 57 species
  4. Epifamily Anthophila, bees: 55 species
  5. Lepidoptera, butterflies, moths, and skippers: 55 species
  6. Hemiptera, bugs: 43 species

That’s where things stand today. But this didn’t happen all at once. This chart shows how I’ve accumulated species records in my garden for each of these groups over time. We can see that the slope of the lines increased sharply over the past three years, from 2019 through 2021.

Insects in my Garden - Cumulative Species at the end of each Year by Taxonomic Group - 2021-12-31

It’s a little easier to see which taxa contributed most to the increases if we look instead at just the new species, instead of the total number of species. This stacked column chart shows the number of new species I’ve found each year in my garden, for each of my six focus taxa. Again, the last three years stand out as being responsible for most of the increase.

Insects in my Garden - New Species each Year by Taxonomic Group - 2021-12-31

The color codes of the stacked column segments are the same as the lines in the previous chart to make it easier to draw comparisons between the two:

  1. I’ve seen most of the fly species in just the past two years.
  2. It’s the same for the wasp species.
  3. Beetles saw a spike in new species observed in 2017 and again in 2020. Otherwise, a fairly steady uncovering of new species each year.
  4. Bees have seen a remarkably steady discovery of new species over the years. The first few years found lots of new species. More recent years not so much. 
  5. Butterflies, moths, and skippers have also shown up mostly over the past three years.
  6. Most of the bug species were found during the three year span from 2018-2020. Not so much this past year.

I believe that at least some of these increases reflect success in creating habitat for diverse insect species. But my observing behaviors have not been consistent over the years. Am I seeing more species just because I’m spending more time looking for them? And — if so — how much observation do I need to do to be confident I’m adequately sampling my garden?

Insect Observations

I ramped up my Observations the past two years – 2020 & 2021 – to increase my contributions to two iNaturalist Projects:

As mentioned above, I wrote about the first Project, and the history of my garden as insect habitat on my blog last year. ESNPS was originally scheduled to run only three years, from 2018 through 2020. Of course, the pandemic changed those plans; they decided to extend the iNaturalist portion another year, into 2021.

By concentrating on these two efforts, I increased my Observations in my own garden by a factor of 8. This year, I also invested in better macro equipment. So I was spending a lot more time in my garden, and was able to capture many more individuals with photographs good enough for identification.

Insects in my Garden - Observations per Year by Taxonomic Group - Chart

The Empire State Native Pollinator Survey includes bees and Syrphidae, flower and hover flies, among its focal taxa. Although my increased observation found more of everything, bees and flies took up a greater proportion of the total observations.

How many observations do I need to make to have high confidence I have found most of the species present in my garden? This chart compares the number of species observed against the number of observations for the four most diverse taxa: flies, wasps, bees, and beetles. I’ve added labels for the two most recent years, to highlight that not only did they have the most observations, they are also the years I found the most species.

Insects in my Garden - Number of Species by Number of Observations - Chart

Last year was not a pace of observation I can sustain indefinitely. There’s a lot of effort in taking high-quality, identifiable macro photographs of insects in the garden to uploading them as verifiable observatinos in iNaturalist. Some days it took most of my waking hours, spread over multiple days, just to process all the photographs from a single day of observation.

My iNaturalist activity the past year was artificial, driven by the gamification offered by the two Projects in which I was actively “competing”. But this past year gave me a strong foundation for continuing to make effective observations. I look forward to being surprised by future discoveries in my garden.

Related Content

Hot Sheets Habitat, 2021-11-19
Documenting Insect-Plant Interactions, 2021-10-29
Home of the Wild, 2020-05-13


Standing Still 2021: Demeter Waiting

Today is the December solstice: the winter solstice in my hometown Northern hemisphere, summer in the Southern.

Persephone and her Pomegranate

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Proserpine', 1874

The millenia-old story of Persephone and her pomegranate, in all their incarnations, strikes me as a deeper analogy this Winter. Persephone was abducted, held hostage in hell, and starved. Only under this extreme duress did she eat anything she was offered: a few seeds of the pomegranate to stave her hunger.

I can relate to “being held hostage in hell”. I feel as though I’ve endured six years of it. I know others do, as well.

While our personal histories may provide us with tools and resources to endure, so much of our resiliency is shaped by systemic forces. Conservative forces of this country have worked for decades, all my adult life, to destroy all social supports – health care, housing, education, food, transportation – that should be our common responsibility, “privatizing” them into for-profit enterprises available only to those who can afford it, and parasitizing what should have been our collective wealth into the hands of fewer and fewer.

The past six years has broken people.

Endurance trauma takes unique forms in all of us. We can become numb. We can become paralyzed by fear. We might take risks we would not have accepted before. We may lash out, seeking targets for our rage. It can lead us to embrace the dark places. I have lost friends and colleagues to those places throughout all this, especially over the past year.

Maybe I am more like Demeter, weeping for the hold darkness has over others, while reaching and hoping for a time when we can bring everyone back into the light.

A Single Candle

Related Content

All my past Winter Solstice posts: 

  • 2018: Standing Still in 2018
  • 2016: Standing Still 2016
  • 2015: Standing Still
  • 2014: The Sun stands still
  • 2010: From Dark to Dark: Eclipse-Solstice Astro Combo
  • 2009: Standing Still, Looking Ahead
  • 2008: Stand Still / Dona Nobis Pacem
  • 2007: Solstice (the sun stands still)



Garden Design Pattern Languages

Adapted from a tweet thread.

In a guest post on the ASLA’s “Dirt” column, Alden E. Stone, CEO of Nature Sacred, writes:

[Our new report] is part research and part practical guide, and shares key insights gained through having co-created more than 100 Sacred Places across the country in communities, many under-resourced; in prisons, at universities, and in hospitals. A handful of these sites were also implemented as part of an expansive, decade-long design, build, and research project. …

For the research portion of this paper, we focused our attention on four domains: nature’s impact on individual, community, economic and ecological health. …

for many of the individual and community health benefits to kick in, people must engage with nature. Spend time in the green space. And this is where Nature Sacred has spent a lot of energy over the past two decades — looking at how to best engage the community and how to best design so that the community embraces, and spends time in, their green space.

She describes four “design elements”:

  • Portal
  • Path
  • Destination
  • Surround

These design patterns recur in many different types of gardens, whether intentionally healing/sacred or not.

My backyard embodies all four elements. What follows is an exploration of the history of my backyard, from inception to its current state, viewed through the frame of those four design elements.

The Backyard, House Opening Party, October 2005 The Backyard, ready for visitors, June 2021


My first sketch of the backyard, just after we bought our house. You can see portals/transitions, paths, seating as destinations, and the surround of enveloping plants. (Even though we had just moved in, I was also fantasizing about changing out the whole back of the house and adding a rear porch to better connect it with the backyard. That never happened.)

Backyard Garden Design Sketch, 2005-06-22


By our second Spring, I better understood how light and shade shifts over the garden throughout the year. The plan is refined and made more specific, less conceptual. The Gardener’s Nook is now defined. The driveway-backyard portal shows up: the garage and house both connected and separated by a fence and trellis through which one would pass to enter the backyard from the driveway.

Backyard Garden Design Sketch, 2006-04-30

Using the sketch as a guide, the loose circle shown in the opening photo gets tightened up, better defined. Bringing the sketch to life, the desination Gardener’s Nook – the upper left of the sketch directly above – makes it first appearance with a pair of Adirondack chairs and some decor. Plants in containers begin to define the surround. An umbrella substitutes for the missing tree canopy.

The Backyard, May 2006


A year after that, things are really coming together. A trellis establishes the portal entrance from the driveway into the backyard. This filters the line of sight into the backyard, which beckons one to venture through, and past.

Filtered View into the Backyard from the Driveway, July 2007

The center of the circle gets filled in. A table both provides central desination, and defines a circular path around itself, echoing the initial concept sketch. Logs double as seating and a layer of surround. The plants are now getting large enough to provide a second layer. My rear neighbor thankfully provided a fence, closing off the backyard and completing the surround.

The Backyard, July 2007


Winter 2009: My Garden Design class final project is my backyard, striking a balance to maximize planting area – a deep surround – while retaining space for people. Curved borders echo the original spiral.

Final rendering, backyard garden design

Although the built environment of that design is never realized, the plan and its rough dimensions inform all later changes. Later that year, I transplant a large shrub. This gives the backyard a sense of enclosure, the “surround”.

After transplant


I plant an “understory” tree which will provide overhead enclosure, a vertical surround. As I had specified in my garden design, I selected an Amelanchier, which goes by many wonderful phenologically evocative common names. It serves as a replacement for the old apple tree my north-side neighbors had in their backyard, adjacent to our shared fence. Eventually, it brings back the cedar waxwings I enjoyed seeing amongst its flowers.

The new serviceberry, planted and mulched, May 2010


The portal/entrance to the backyard gets a major makeover. I register with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat. My garden itself becomes a destination, and welcomes its first public visitors.

Arbor entrance
Certified Wildlife Habitat sign


The garden hosts a wedding, its first use as an intentionally sacred space.

Ancestor's Altar, Jay & Syd's Big Fat Queer Wedding, October 2014


Five years later, the shrubs and other plantings have matured, and the surround of enveloping greenery and flowers has been realized. The Gardener’s Nook is now a fully-sheltered spot, a desination tucked into the larger embrace of the garden.

Morning Glory: My urban backyard native plant garden & wildlife habitat


This garden continues to be a sacred/healing space for many over the years. It was sanctuary for our dear friend David. After he entered home hospice, he would call a car service to deliver him to the garden. Here he is in the Gardener’s Nook two weeks before he died.

David Charles Ashley, in my backyard, July 2018, 2 weeks before he died


Today, 16 years after that first sketch, the backyard has realized its final form. Visitors say they feel like they’ve walked into the woods, the highest praise.

Portal, path, destination, surround – all embodied, and felt, in the garden.

Entrance through the arbor to the backyard, June 2021

Related Content

Hot Sheets Habitat, 2021-11-19
Home of the Wild, 2020-05-14


Alden E. Stone, New Research and Roadmap for Creating Healing Green Spaces, ASLA Dirt Guest Column, 2021-12-14

Nature Sacred


2022-12-01 (World AIDS Day): Added more Related Content links.

2022-09-20: Where available, added locations of panels in the AIDS Quilt.

Book Cover, "The AIDS Epidemic," 1983, anthology of a NYC symposium

These are some of the people, all men, I have lost over the years, nearly all to AIDS. With the exceptions of those additions noted, I stopped actively maintaining this list in 1994. In alphabetical order.

  • William “Wolf” Agress, a lover, died in 1990
  • Andre, a bartender at the Tunnel Bar in the East Village, now defunct
  • Vincent Barnes
  • Jerry Bihm
  • Bobby
  • Colin Curran
  • Erez Dror, co-owner and -founder of the Black Hound Bakery in the East Village, New York City, now defunct (AIDS Quilt Block )
  • Jeffrey “Jeff” Glidden, 1958-1987, a lover (AIDS Quilt Blocks and )
  • Paul “Griff” Griffin
  • Martin Noel Jorda
  • David Kirschenbaum, 1962-1993, community organizer with the New York City Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project
  • Art “Artie” Kohn, 1947-1991, founder of the BackRoom BBS in New York City, now defunct (AIDS Quilt Block )
  • John Larsen, a lover, died 2007 (Added 2021-12-01)
  • Jim Lewis
  • Luis
  • John Mangano, 1955-1991 (AIDS Quilt Block )
  • Jeffrey Martin
  • Morris Matthews
  • David Mayer (Added 2021-12-01)
  • Karl Michalak, 1958-1997
  • Mark Melvin, 1962-08-27 – 1992-06-03 (AIDS Quilt Block )
  • Norm
  • Tony Panico, my first lover in New York City, and the first person close to me to die from AIDS. His name appears twice on the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the first on Panel 05A when it was displayed in 1988. (AIDS Quilt Blocks and )
  • Charles Pope, barfly extraordinaire
  • Gordon Provencher, 1955-1992 (AIDS Quilt Block )
  • Tom Raleigh
  • Craig Rodwell, 1940-1993, founder of the Oscar Wilde Bookstore in Greenwich Village, NYC
  • Tony Rostron
  • Jurgen Schmitt
  • Giulio Sorrentino
  • Buddy Volani
  • Jeremy Wells
  • David Joseph Wilcox, 1957-1996

Tony's Quilt

Most of these men – including three of my ex-lovers – died before I was 35 years old. (A fourth died in 2007.) There are countless scores, hundreds, more whose names I did not know, whose fates I never learned, or who died since I stopped maintaining this list in 1994.

Related Content

Grief and Gardening: Ashes (Remembrance Day for Lost Species), 2019-12-02 One Score Years Ago, 2016-01-21
An earlier edition of this list: Names, World AIDS Day, 2009-12-01
David Joseph Wilcox, 1957-1996, 2008-01-22
In the Shadow (How shall my heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?), 2007-08-28
Back in the Day, about the Backroom BBS, my first online community, in the 1980s.
Grief & Gardening #1: 1, 5 and 25, 2006-09-04


NY Times Obituary for David Kirschenbaum (PAYWALLED)
Wikipedia: Craig Rodwell
Reagan’s AIDS Legacy / Silence equals death, Allen White, SFGate, 2004-06-08, following Ronald Reagan’s death

World AIDS Day

Recipe: Maple Sugar Cookies

2021-12-13: Updated with tweaks from my latest batch, the best yet!
I also added weight equivalents for most of the ingredients.

I also added some notes for what, if anything, to adjust when doubling the recipe, which is what I usually do for giving away cookies during the holidays.

Leaves of Acer saccharum, sugar maple, Inwood Hill Park, November 2015

Living in New York City most of my life, I’m not in what one would think of as “maple country”. But the northeast is rich with sugarbushes – the managed groves and forests of maple trees from which sap is harvested and boiled down to make this nectar of the gods. And nearly every NYC Greenmarket (farmers’ market) has at least one farmer that sells maple syrup and other maple prodcuts, even if it’s not their primary business.

The key ingredient to this recipe is DARK maple syrup. If you only have regular/light maple syrup, to keep the mapley flavor, you can use that and add 1/8 teaspoon of real maple flavoring, available from specialty baking suppliers.

The extra spices are optional. I found the ginger and cloves enhance the mapleness of these cookies.


Double, as needed. Do not attempt to halve this recipe; it calls for one egg.

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted (“sweet”) butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening, softened to room temperature
  • 1 cup (213 grams) dark brown sugar
  • 1 cup (312g) DARK maple syrup
  • 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract (I really like vanilla. Original recipe calls for 1 teaspoon)
  • Optional: 1/8 teaspoon real maple flavor, either to make up for lack of dark maple syrup, or to boost the flavor
  • Optional: ¼ teaspoon ginger
  • Optional: 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • Optional: ½ teaspoon salt (I nearly always omit this from my baking. These cookies don’t need it.)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 4 cups (480g) pastry flour, or pastry blend flour, sifted to remove lumps.
  • Optional: maple sugar or white granulated sugar, for decoration

Preparing the Dough

  1. Cream the butter and brown sugar together until light and fluffy.
  2. Add the maple syrup, vanilla, and your chosen flavorings.
  3. Scrap down the bowl, blend thoroughly, and taste to adjust, as needed.
  4. Add the egg and mix thoroughly.
  5. Add the baking soda and mix thoroughly.
  6. Add the flour gradually, blending at slower speed, until all flecks of flour are gone. 

Chill the Dough

This is a very soft dough. Chill the dough, covered tightly to keep out air, for at least two hours. It’s even better overnight.


  1. Preheat the oven to 375F. 
  2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  3. Scoop out tablespoon sized balls of dough.
  4. If you want, roll them in the sugar.
  5. Set them far apart on the cookie sheet. They will spread.
  6. Bake for 11 minutes.
  7. Let the cookies cool on the sheet until they are firm enough to remove.

Maple Sugar Cookies, November 2020

Notes and Tips

  • You can use all butter, if you don’t have shortening, or prefer not to use it. This is already a very soft dough, so you may need to use less maple syrup to compensate for the increased moisture from the butter.
  • If you double the recipe, 2T = 1/8C for the vanilla.
  • Real/natural maple flavor can be over-powering. So taste the batter before adding the eggs, and adjust as needed. Even when doubling the recipe, 1/8 teaspoon is likely enough.
  • The original recipe called for 2 teaspoons of baking soda, and the cookies came out more poofey/cakey than sugary/crispy. If you prefer your cookies that way, you may want to experiment with increasing the baking soda by 1/2 teaspoon.
  • This comes out as such a soft dough, it can be difficult to work with when forming the cookies. I want to try substituing some of the brown sugar with maple sugar. I would probably need to also substitute some of the baking soda with baking powder to compensate for the reduced acid.
  • Pastry flour has a lower gluten content than others and makes for a more tender cookie.You can use all-purpose white flour, or even white whole wheat flour, instead.

Related Content


This recipe is adapted from “Maple Cookies” from AllRecipes.

Molasses Spice Cookies

A friend just asked me for my spice cookie recipe. I was surprised to find my current recipe wasn’t already up on the blog – the last time was in 2008! So, here it is …

King Arthur Flour provides weight equivalents for the volume measures in many of their recipes. I use a kitchen scale and weigh bulk ingredients like sugar and flour whenever possible. It’s much faster, more accurate, and leads to more consistent results. It also reduces cleanup, since fewer measuring cups are involved! This is especially convenient for liquid or sticky ingredients like the molasses in this recipe.

I used whole wheat flour instead of all-purpose, sifting it and leaving out the coarsest remaining bran to give it a finer texture. Since I had “robust” molasses, and I was using whole wheat flour, I increased the total amount of spices. I also added vanilla, allspice, and of course cardamom, none of which were in the original recipe. This created a complex taste, where none of the flavors overwhelm, but I think I would miss any I left out.


• 2 sticks (1 cup, 8 ounces) unsalted butter
• 7 ounces (1 cup) sugar
• 6-1/4 ounces (a little more than 1/2 cup) molasses, robust flavor. (6 ounces would have been 1/2 cup.; the extra 1/4 ounce was a mistake on my part, but I recorded it as what I did.)
• 2-1/4 teaspoons baking soda
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon cloves
• 1 teaspoon ginger
• 1 teaspoon allspice
• 1 teaspoon cardamom
• 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
• 2 extra large eggs (original called for large)
• 14 ounces whole wheat flour (not sure of the volume equivalent)
• sugar, for coating (This gives the outside of the cookies some crunch. The recipe calls for coarse or even pearl sugar, for more crunch. I’d use them instead if I had them.)


1. Let the butter come to room temperature, if possible, for easier creaming.
2. Preheat the oven to 350F. (Be sure you have an accurate oven thermometer! I had a devil of a time baking in our horrible kitchen until I bought a thermometer and discovered that the oven dial was off by 100F!)
3. Prepare a small bowl with some of the sugar for coating the cookies.


1. Cream together the butter and sugar until they’re light and fluffy.
2. Beat in the molasses, salt, and spices. (Here’s where you can taste-test to adjust if needed. I added the spices at 1/4 or 1/2 teaspoon at a time to make sure I didn’t over do it. I ended up with 1 teaspoon of each, as listed above.)
3. Beat in the baking soda.
4. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until they’re mixed well into the batter. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beaters and mix well.
5. Slowly stir in the flour. (Stirring the flour in at low speeds keeps the cookies tender. Beating the flour in at higher speeds makes the cookies tougher.) Scrape down the sides of the bowl and the beaters and mix well.
6. This is a fairly soft, wet dough. Refrigerate the dough for a few hours, or even overnight, to set up before baking.


The recipe calls for greasing baking sheets or lining them with parchment.

1. Using a tablespoon cookie/ice-cream scoop, create a small ball of the dough. (A scoop is the fastest, easiest way to get a consistently sized, professional looking, batch of cookies. You could also just use two tablespoons.)
2. Drop the dough ball onto the coating sugar. Coat thoroughly.
3. Place the coated dough ball on the baking pan. Space them evenly, and leave plenty of space for them to spread. (The recipe says leave 2-1/2″ between them, which sounds about right.)
4. Bake for at least 10, at most 11, minutes at 350F. (With experience, your nose and eyes are the best guides here. When they smell like they’re just starting to burn, and the edges are visibly just darker than the center, they’re done.)
5. Remove the pan and let it cool for 5-10 minutes.
6. Move the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. (But try at least one with a glass of cold milk while it’s still warm!)

Grief and Gardening: Ashes (Remembrance Day for Lost Species)

Detail, label, "Our Lady of Abundance," inside lid

My alarm wakes me Saturday morning. I go downstairs to the kitchen, nuke myself a cup of coffee, and get a fresh batch going. I didn’t sleep well. Today is the Remembrance Day for Lost Species.

I start prepping my mother’s breakfast. I put some orange juice in her small cup, and add some thickener, probiotic, and her liquid medications. I start working on crushing her morning pills. Each of the half dozen takes a different approach. Some crush easily. Others need to be split first.

Their remains collect in the well of the crusher. The easier ones are reduced to dust. The harder ones leave grit, and small, sharp shards.

A black cat with one spot on her chest, like a priest’s collar, finds me in my garden. She adopts me immediately. I name her “Spot”. She dies in my arms as we try to find the veterinarian emergency room in a snowstorm.

We bring her home in a small tin. Inside the tin is a bag. We transfer it to a reliquary box, an artwork of hammered copper, beads, and glass.

She carries me through 15 years of recovery, reconnecting, and relationship. She comforts the man whom I would later marry through his mother’s dying, and death.

The bag doesn’t quite fit the box. I want to rearrange it. It’s my first time handling cremated remains. I open the bag. Its contents are not what I expect. They are not ash. They are crumbs, and grit, and shards of bone, chalky and white. It’s all that’s left of her.

Tomorrow is World AIDS Day. My partners, my lovers, my friends, my neighbors. I think of the photo one friend took of another, spreading his dead lover’s ashes from a plastic baggie – before he died – on their property in the Catskills. The images of ashes thrown over the White House fence. A sea of quilts, holding the names of my partners, my lovers, my friends, my neighbors, so scattered across the acres of battlefield, it takes hours to visit them all.

We are traveling upstate, our first real vacation together. Everywhere we go the mood is quiet, subdued. Whereever we go, people ask where we’re visiting from. When we tell them, their eyes well up.

I walk to and from work. The streets and gutters are filled with ash. It takes months for the rains to wash it all away.

We step out of the shop. I ask him to wait. I walk back inside. I return to where I saw the box. Its title is “Our Lady of Abundance”. I buy it for the meaning the word has for him. It goes to his apartment, then our apartment, then our home. Waiting.

I am standing in a mountain river, cold over my feet and legs. I am here for my father. I am here with my father. I take the small, ornate bronze container out of my pocket. I open it, and begin releasing its contents to the wind and water. It’s not what you expect: They are not ash. They are crumbs, grit, shards of bone. Tomorrow is the anniversary of his death. It’s all that’s left of him. I am here for my father.

It is Lost Species Day. We are burning the remains of countless organisms. Even long dead, we could not let them be. We are burning the world.

In the Catskills we watched the towers fall, again, and again, a hundred miles away. Where I bought a box of hammered copper, beads, and glass to give to a man to mark a relationship that arose out of deeply shared loss, like a phoenix, from ashes.

Related Content

Standing Still in 2018


Standing Still in 2018

These days, I feel like a single candle, cursing the darkness, both literal and figurative.
A Single Candle

The Anthropocene weighs heavy on my mind, and heart:

  • Global atmospheric CO2 (carbon dioxide) concentration has increased 30% in my lifetime, reaching levels that have not been seen for at least hundreds of thousands of years.
  • Global climate change is accelerating. We are seeing the effects in more extreme weather events. Our complex earth systems are driven toward chaotic respones by warmer termperatures, greater atmospheric moisture, destablizing air and ocean currents.
  • What fossil carbon we haven’t burned, we’ve converted to plastic, contaminating the deepest ocean trenches, and our food supply.
  • We are causing the Sixth Great Extinction of species, and life, on the planet.

Not only is there no political will to interrupt our collective psychosis, the kleptocrats insist on doubling and tripling down, forcing ever-wider disparities in wealth and income. As long as they get theirs before the final bell rings, screw everyone else.

Poor Persephone got off easy. She got to leave hell six months of the year.

Persephone with her pomegranate. Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Proserpine (Oil on canvas, 1874) – Tate Gallery, London

This season’s solstice (Winter in the Northern hemisphere, Summer in the Southern), occurs at 22:23 UTC, December 21, 17:23 Eastern Standard Time (UTC-05:00). Etymology: Latin solstitium (sol “sun” + stitium, from sistere “to stand still”)

The name is derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because at the solstices, the Sun stands still in declination; that is, its apparent movement north or south comes to a standstill.
Solstice, Wikipedia

So we light a candle against the darkness, and try to keep it lit. If I’m feeling hopeful, I might reflect on these lyrics from Peter Gabriel’s song written in memory of Stephen Biko, who would have been 90 this past week:

You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire.
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher.

Wishing for peace, wishing you peace, these dark days.

This page has a little MIDI file which bangs out the tune so you can follow the score.

Illumination of Earth by Sun at the southern solstice.

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Wikipedia: Solstice

Grief and Baking: Rolled Holiday Butter Cookies

Today is World AIDS Day. By coincidence, the 41st president also just died, reminding me – and the cohort of survivors from his dark reign – how many more of us died on his watch from inaction, and more active hatred.

It’s also my dad’s mortiversary, the 10th anniversary of his death.

As I did ten years ago, I turned to baking. In anticipation of our upcoming tree-trimming party, and a hoped-for cookie-decorating side activity, I chose a rolling cookie recipe from King Arthur Flour. Since I’m unfamiliar with this type of cookie, I stayed as close as I could to the original recipe.

Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018

I consider these a qualified success. There are some improvements I can make, mostly about technique. I’m happy with the basic recipe.


  • Confectioners’ sugar, 1-1/4 cups / 5-1/2 ounces (Their recipe gives 5 oz as the weight equivalent, but this is what my scale came up with)
  • Unsalted (“sweet”) butter, 18 tablespoons = 1 cup + 2 tablespoons, room temperature (I neglected to let mine come to room temperature, but with an electric mixer, it whipped up just fine, anyway)
  • Yolk of 1 large egg (reserve the white to brush the cookies and add decorative sugar before baking)
  • Salt, 1/2 teaspoon (I usually omit salt from my baking, but this was my first time with this recipe. The “Tips” section of their recipe suggests using 1 teaspoon when using unsalted butter. It wasn’t necessary.)
  • Flavoring:
    • Vanilla extract, 2-1/2 teaspoons
    • Lemon oil, 1/4 teaspoon
    • (I started with 2 teaspoons of vanilla. a taste test indicated it needed more assertive flavor, and a little something more than vanilla.)
    • (The original recipe calls for 1/4 teaspoon of Fiori di Sicilia. I’ve never used that; I’ve only ever seen it in their recipes.)
  • White whole wheat flour, 2-3/4 cups / 11-1/2 ounces  (The original recipe calls for unbleached all-purpose flour)


  1. Whip the butter until it’s smooth and starts peaking. (If your butter is still cold, as mine was, slice it into small ~1/2T pats first.)
    Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018
  2. Gradually stir in the confectioner’s sugar. Once combined, whip some more at high speed. (If you add all the sugar at once, you’ll get a cloud of sugar. I used a pouring shield to add it while the mixer was on slow speed and keep dust down.)
    Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018The batter after whipping together the butter and confectioner's sugar, Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018
  3. Separate one large egg. Add only the egg yolk to the batter. Beat it in until the batter is smooth. Keep the white refrigerated for the cookie-making.
    One large egg, separated, Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018Just the yolk added to the batter, before mixing, Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018
  4. Mix in your flavorings of choice.
    Flavorings for the cookies: 2-1/2 t vanilla extract (right), 1/4 t lemon oil (left), Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018
  5. Add the flour, mixing at slow-medium speeds until just smooth. If the dough is sticky to the touch, add a small amount of flour to adjust the texture. (Their recipe notes: “The mixture will seem dry at first, but will suddenly come together. If it doesn’t, dribble in a tablespoon of water.” This wasn’t a problem for my first time.)
    Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018
  6. Remove the dough from the bowl. Wrap and chill the dough for at least 2 hours, or overnight. 

Preparation and Baking

Our kitchen is tiny, with no counter space. (Seriously: attentive readers may notice that the “counters” in the photos are the side-drain of our sink and the space between the burners on our stove.) Since I was doing this as a tech rehearsal for a party activity, I used our dining room table as the surface for setup and rolling. I rolled the dough out directly onto parchment paper for cutting and pre-decorating, then lifted the parchment directly onto the baking sheet.

Setup for rolling and pre-bake decoration, Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018

  1. “When you’re ready to bake, remove the dough from the refrigerator, and let it soften for about 20 to 30 minutes, until it feels soft enough to roll. It should still feel cold, but shouldn’t feel rock-hard.”
  2. “Sprinkle your rolling surface with flour, and flour your rolling pin. Working with one piece of dough at a time, roll it 1/8″ to 3/16″ thick.”

    Starting to roll out the dough, Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018

    Notes: I found rolling the dough evenly to be difficult. This resulted in uneven baking, both among the cookies, and even across the surface of larger cookies.

    The thicker cookies baked more evenly, and had a nicer “tooth” to them. The thinner cookies ended up more like crackers. I want to invest in some rolling pin rings to eliminate this variation, and get more professional looking cookies. With rolling pin rings, I can do some more precise experimentation with different thicknesses. I think 1/4″ cookies will end up being my favorite.

  3. Use a cookie cutter to cut shapes. Collect the trimmed dough for re-rolling. They won’t spread much in the oven, but leave 1/2″ between them so they don’t butt up against, or into, each other. (Most of the cookies I cut out in these photos were too close together. Lesson learned!
    Cutting cookies, Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018
    Cookies cut out, starting to trim the dough, Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018
  4. Optional Pre-bake Decoration: Mix 1 teaspoon of water into the egg white you reserved earlier. Brush cookies lightly with with the white-water mixture. Cover the cookies with coarse or colored sugars, edible glitter, etc. (I tried some peppermint crumble, but it wasn’t designed for baking; it all melted.)
    Cookies cut out, starting some pre-bake decoration, Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018
    Cookies prepped and transferred to the baking sheet, Holiday Butter Cookies, December 2018
  5. Bake the cookies in a preheated 350°F oven for 12 to 14 minutes, until they’re set and barely browned around the edges.
  6. Remove the cookies from the oven, and cool right on the pan. If you’ve used parchment, you can lift cookies and parchment off the pan, so you can continue to use the pan as the cookies cool.
  7. Repeat with the remaining piece of dough, rolling, cutting, and baking cookies.

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Flickr photo set

Gerard Kreussling, 1931-2008
Grief and Baking: Peppermint Swirl Meringue Cookies, 2008-12-16
Some of my photos of my father [Flickr set]

Other recipes on this blog


Original recipe: King Arthur Flour