On a warm Sunday afternoon, a group of people gather for a tour around Oakland’s Lake Merritt. It isn’t just any tour – it’s a Witches’ Walking Tour.
Phoenix Love Armenta, who calls herself the “Woke Witch,” leads the monthly, two-mile plant identification walk. She stops to point out boring-looking trees and shrubs that have hidden properties – magical, edible, or homeopathic. They’re plants we might normally ignore, but today they’re the stars of the show.
Phoenix says that appreciating the scientific, cultural and symbolic properties of plants is just one way of finding “magic.”
“It's just a framework for seeing the world. Really seeing the magic in things and appreciating it so that then, the more you appreciate it, then the more magical your life becomes,” she says.
All sorts of people come along with Armenta: a young guy carrying his longboard, a high school student in black fishnets, a retired registered nurse in brightly-colored leggings.
Sam Hinds is a bubbly young student, who takes detective-quality notes throughout the tour.
“I’ve been wanting to heal my alienated relationship with the wider community of non-human beings. I think what Phoenix is sharing is a way of reestablishing communion with the wider world,” he says.
Sam is quick to point out a cultural reemergence of the witch archetype.
“You can think of the sort of negative stereotypes that were propagated: witches as these scary women making pacts with the devil,” he says. “I think really it was devaluing having technical knowledge and relationship with the earth.”
For every magical element around her, Phoenix is explains how that magic might hold up to more rigorous scientific barometers.
“Science is just magic understood,” she says, standing beside a shrub of fuzzy leaves. “The magic that you should understand with sage is that the smoke itself is anti-microbial. So when you are smudging or cleansing your house you are literally cleansing the bacteria. It has a real actual practical use, in addition to the spiritual cleansing that goes along with it.”
As Phoenix shares her technical knowledge and witchy lore, the crowd follows her from one stop to the next. She invites a sort of crowdsourcing of botanical information.
Under an oak tree, Michael Sarkisian, a disaster preparedness teacher, offers tips on how to prepare acorns for food (split the nut and leach them in water for a day).
Perched on a hillside lush with yellow dandelions, Lloyd Sparks, an avid mushroom forager, says that the best thing you can do for a dead lawn is to let dandelions grow free. Their deep roots aerate the soil and surface renewing nutrients.
Phoenix nods, happy to learn about what she calls bioremediation. She adds that dandelion tea is also good for “divination.” Then she points to wooly lamb’s ear, a type of salvia that she says can be used as an antibacterial bandage.
“There's magic and mystery all around. You just have to know where to look,” Phoenix says. “And that's just what I want to do: show you where to look to find the magic in your life."