Phoenix Armenta Is a ‘Woke Witch’ With Practical Magic
Her Witch’s Walking Tour of Oakland shows off the surprising magic of Lake Merritt’s landscape.
Photo by Pat Mazzera
Lake Merritt is a witch’s paradise. That’s what attendees learn on Phoenix Armenta’s monthly plant-identification walks, where Armenta — who describes herself as a “woke witch” — shows off the lake’s variety of plants and their uses, both practical and magical.
Armenta has a special connection to the lake. A few years ago, while struggling with health issues, she started walking the lake daily to relax. She developed a fascination with the lake’s wide variety of plants and began teaching herself about their identities and applications. A friend suggested she share the hobby with others, and in 2015, she started the Witches Walking Tour of Oakland. Now, Armenta, a former city worker and Exploratorium educator, leads a walking tour for dozens of interested Oaklanders every month.
To Armenta, a witch is “someone who understands that we are co-creating this world together.” Co-creating? “It’s this idea that the world we’re living in is actually created by our words and our concepts all collectively.”
A lot of people have magic in their life, she says, but they don’t recognize it. Say you’re thinking of your college roommate one random morning, and the next day she calls you. “People who are witches or into witchcraft don’t see it as coincidence, they just see it as a magical phenomenon,” she said. “And once you start to see the magic around you, then the world just starts to look more and more magical.”
Someone on the walks once described science as “magic understood,” a description Armenta enjoys. She defines herself as an “eclectic witch,” someone who incorporates lots of different approaches and teachings in her spirituality, but she’s guided by her reverence for plants and the natural world (a passion that follows her to her day job at an environmental nonprofit). She makes moisturizer from dandelions and cough syrup from pine needles and uses the walks to show people the bounty that Oakland’s landscape has to offer.
The walks meet at the lake’s amphitheater. The $10 to $40 suggested donation includes an herb bundle that Armenta has enchanted to help inspire people to create their own “regenerative side hustles,” a passion project that sustains them but doesn’t hurt the earth or their community.
After casting her Brooklyn Tribe Gets Its Heaven on Earth spell — “To open people’s minds to the concepts that this world is a heaven so we can all start collectively building it together,” she said — the groups heads to the bathrooms nearby to examine a patch of hummingbird sage. Afterward, they walk to a eucalyptus tree, and Armenta teaches the group how they can communicate with trees and other plants. Then, they move onward to other plants: garlic grass, roses, madrone berries. For each of the 20-plus plants that they’ll look at over the course of the next two hours, Armenta talks about its various practical, medicinal, and magical applications. That sage? It’s used to break hexes, but it can also be made into a tea to soothe a sore throat.
“You get to meet new people in your community and share that love for wanting to know what’s around you and how you can use these plants in your daily life, whether that be on the witchy side or the medicinal side or somewhere in between,” said Lindsay Ivy, who attended the first walking tour and quickly bonded with Armenta over their love of plants. “She cares so much about her community and wants to give back and educate and enrich her community.”
Armenta hopes to broaden her offerings, and one day start a Woke Witch Collective, a collaboration of witches like her. She’s offered classes including “Political Witchery” and “Earth Goddess Training,” and she wants to expand, to help more people recognize the magic around them and use it to build a better, more just world. And Oakland is the perfect place to do that, she said. “Oakland has a little bit of everything: every type of person, every language you would ever want to speak, every problem you would ever want to have,” she said. “And people here are so forward-thinking in their perspective that you can be an out witch and that’s OK. People get it.”