Ruby Slippers

It is midnight under a waxing crescent moon, and I am in the north yard, wrapped in darkness and stardust, listening to the sounds of a suburban night. When I considered buying this land and home, I thought the traffic noises from the distant highway would bother me forever. I was surprised by how quickly they became white noise, less than background music, a subaudible automatically registered and filed away by my brain. From my seat in the shadows beneath the locust and eastern red cedar trees, I can hear other sounds that are far more intriguing.

The sky is clear, and it is a beautiful thing to look up through the branches and beyond the tops of trees to watch the stars shine as they make their holy music. No wonder so many creatures sing with the night sky.

The “Ruby Slippers” Hydrangea (S. Barker)


The habitat fence is in front of me. This sturdy, dense line of brush, downed limbs, and Christmas trees in their third incarnation provides shelter for small wildlife. It is also the space the land spirits claimed for their altar. Soft rustling sounds come from the lowest levels of the fence a few feet to my left. I wonder who is awake and moving around.

“Is that you, little rabbit?” I whisper in the dark. “Maybe it is you, wren, settling on your clutch of eggs. Best to be still; the night hunters are about.”

No one replies, but I hear no more evidence of movement from within the fence line. Even the land spirits are quiet. I sit silently for a while, thinking of everything and nothing, and then a rooster crows from the north end of this little valley. His call is answered with bravado by the hunting dogs nearest to him; their staccato barks and baying cries sound a warning to every creature passing within range of hearing. Then my rooster joins in, followed by the rooster further down the street. Another part of the nighttime chorus, I think to myself. Then I chuckle because it seems none of these loud voices have changed the behavior of whatever larger-than-a-rabbit creature I have been listening to as it moves around the woods across the way.

I am not surprised when my thoughts move beyond these interactions to the occupants of nearby human homes and communities. Lately, my guides are consistently pulling on the threads of unity, encouraging me to consider the importance of healthy connections, even for a solitary practitioner with increasingly hermit-like tendencies.

Over the last few years, a coincidental byproduct of my personal journeywork has been the creation of a sort of map of the significant points of development in my personal belief system and the relationship between my intuition and external points of influence. The pushpins and red strings connecting those points in my childhood are as dense as the brush pile in front of me now and closely resemble a crime scene or conspiracy board. Yet as the timeline of my life expands, the lines made by those strings grow longer, and the distance between pins thins out.

I marvel at how infrequently those pins represent interaction with other living human beings and wonder at the few of those that became points of origin for other significant threads running through my life. Never ones to miss an opportunity to teach, my guides use the magic of midnight darkness to summon a TV screen image of Dorothy, finally safe at home in Kansas, trying to convince the adults in her life that her liminal journey really happened.

I hear her voice as she says: “And you, and you, and you, and you were there.”

How invaluable and dear those connections were to that child, at least in the movie. Clearly, that made an impression on my child self.

I was five years old when I first watched The Wizard of Oz on television. I remember sitting on the floor with a bowl of popcorn when the movie started, enthralled by Dorothy, Toto, and the yellow brick road. By the time the apple tree fight happened, I was sitting on the couch in the safe space behind my mother’s legs. That night I had a nightmare about the Wicked Witch throwing balls of fire at me, and it became a reoccurring dream that plagued me for several months. I suppose I must have talked about the nightmare until tales of it reached ears that understood me.

Cover of the author’s copy of The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (S. Barker)


Before too much time had passed, a copy of the 1963 Companion Library edition of The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum and The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling was put into my hands. This wasn’t just two books in the same binding; it was much more fanciful and fantastic than that. It was two books bound together in a head-to-tail (tête-bêche) style, each with its own front cover. One had to rotate the book 180 degrees to read the second book, and either book could be the first. I cannot recall how it made its way into my life, but perhaps my great-aunt Edith had something to do with it. She had a lovely personal library and always nurtured my love of reading.

Although I came to like the movie, I enjoyed the written version of Dorothy’s adventures in Oz even more. There were a few illustrations, and Baum’s simple descriptions of characters and scenery were wonderfully engaging. But the true magic of his story resided in words printed in black and white on the pages of his book. Those words held the power to restore agency to the youthful imagination upon which the technicolor glory of Hollywood had encroached. Baum’s Oz became my own, as did Kipling’s jungle. For me, the written words were the magical slippers.

Even at that young age, I realized the importance of manifesting my own interpretation of a story or information and having the power to carry my thoughts wherever I wanted them to go. The ability to nourish my imagination propelled me along in my journey of discovery as a witch.

In this here and now, tracing these thoughts and memories along the red string lines of my map, I travel back to the very first pin in the jumble of my childhood. My mother, who never realized she was a witch, taught me my first spell one night when I was three years old and afraid to sleep.  Later, when I had nightmares about the wicked witch, Mom repeated that spell with me until I felt safe and strong.

This sweet memory of my mother and thoughts of Dorothy’s adventures are interrupted by the call of a barred owl from somewhere nearby. No tornadoes or winged monkeys here. Smiling, I collect my thoughts and flashlight and walk around to the front of the cottage. Significant changes are happening with the gardens and the orchard this year, and all are the result of nurtured connections. I sit on the ground beneath the arch that leads into the soon-to-be native plant garden and think some more about the web of my magical life.

I have spent three years learning about vegetable gardening, with a limited self-taught base of knowledge, a willingness to experiment, and many hopes and dreams. I have yet to achieve the levels of self-sustainability that I would like to see. Through community, I connected with a garden mentor who would help me design and build a small greenhouse and vegetable garden, then walk me through my first growing season in the new space. The irony of asking for assistance to become self-sustaining is not lost on me, and it amuses the dickens out of the land spirits. But the magic involved in finding a mentor who is a female farmer whose views about land relationships and stewardship are in line with my own kind of blows my mind.

One of the most significant plantings of my cottage life dream is the four apple trees that form the small orchard. Last year it became apparent that the trees were not growing as they should, and I had hoped to get some help this year from the master gardeners with the local Cooperative Extension office. However, a friend came to the cottage to forage for greens and wild onions one day. It was a lovely visit, working at a companionable distance from each other, harvesting fresh air and sunlight along with healthy food.

The conversation turned to the orchard, and she mentioned the apple guy who maintains the apple trees on the homestead she shares with her husband. Apple guy? Who even knew there was such a thing as an apple guy? All the literature and blogs I have read about homesteading have yet to mention finding an apple guy to help with the orchard. My friend put me in touch with him, and in one conversation, I learned that my trees, as they are now, would never have produced apples. In April, this apple guy will come to help me save the orchard, and this is thanks to several strings that ran from other pins to the pin that represents my relationship with my foraging friend. Connections.

Leaning back against the arch, I let my gaze slide into the sea of cardboard that will become a native plant and pollinator garden over the next few months. This change was born of my relationship with this land, the land spirits who reside here, and their desire to reclaim part of their own identity. I often think and speak about this land as having once been farmland, but the truth is this fertile river valley soil had its own identity long before humans made an appearance here.

The work to convert 700 square feet of grass to a garden will take several months, but I started the process last fall by setting some native species plants in parts of the ground that were already ready for planting. Milkweed, Joe Pye, false blue indigo, and a few others, but my first two must-haves were native hydrangeas. One is called Oak Leaf Hydrangea, and the other is called Ruby Slippers.

I could not have given a reason for having to have the hydrangeas; I just knew they were part of the plan. Is it possible that my guides or the land spirits had a deeper meaning in mind all along? Of course it is.

Here I am, sitting on the ground in the dark at 1:00 in the morning, thinking about Dorothy and her adventures and how the right companions not only sweetened her journey but helped her be successful. About how the power to do what she wanted most to do had been hers all along. How these are the very messages I have been receiving for quite some time. Yes, spirits, I am listening to you.

The ruby slippers in this garden will be another pin in the map of essential connections. They will also be sweet, gentle reminders of the messages above and of the times when my mother’s love helped me feel safe. I am eager to see them grow.

Author’s note: As a child, I knew nothing about Baum’s political views or the imperialism represented in Kipling’s works, and I defend neither of them now.

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