I remember, very clearly, the day I first realized I could eat grass. Another neighborhood kid let me in on the secret. Apparently, there was a kind of grass that tasted like onions, and you could eat it (!) All you had to do was find the tall tufts, the ones that felt round when you rolled them between your hands and were hollow inside. You didn’t need parents or gadgets or even a fork, and you could collect it yourself anytime you pleased.
It was as if I had just found the closet door to Narnia. The whole world shifted on its axis, like stepping from my day-to-day life into a fairy tale. Only the fairy tale was real.
I was four or five years old at the time and it had honestly never occurred to me that you could eat actual food directly from the earth. I knew in a “barnyard storybook” kind-of-way that food came from the earth, but it had never really landed until this moment. Growing up in deep suburbia with processed cereal and wheat toast, I thought you had to do a whole lot of hard, technical out-of-reach adult stuff in order to create food. I never realized until this moment that food was freely given by our earth. That I could simply wander in the world and be fed. That there was nothing I had to do to deserve such a gift, except be a denizen of this planet. And that the nourishment offered by the land was abundant in a way I could never have imagined.
Once I knew what to look for, I saw onion grass everywhere! Whereas before all I spied was an endless monotonous expanse of lawn, now I found a feast offering itself to me. A wide, open, endless plain of magic.
The more I ate from the wild earth, the more magic I became. Suddenly, I was a bird, nuzzling in the grass to find my dinner. A deer, a bee, a creature dusted with pollen and sanctified by my being in the world.
It was a revolution in thinking, an expansion of essential possibility. And it changed everything for me.
I was so enthralled I told every other kid on my block about the magic of onion grass. For days I ate as much as I could, giving myself a belly ache more than once. But I didn’t mind, I was filling myself up with something more than food. I was padding my cells with wildness, imprinting my being with a vision of what the world once was and what it continues to be.
As silly as it sounds, onion grass was my first “spirit plant.” It was the plant that came to me and opened my eyes to see the world in all its wonder and generosity. Onion grass helped me to see (as the luminous herbalist Frank Cook once put it) beyond the “green wall,” and to realize that living on earth doesn’t have to be so complicated or out-of-reach. It can be nourishing, satiating, cozy.
I picked up a few other wild edibles in the twenty odd years between my onion grass revelation and my time studying at the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. But when I entered the Chestnut school as a student that first spring my heart and pantry were swung open in ways I had only imagined before. I entered into Narnia, equipped with my onion grass wizard staff, and found a heaven on earth.
Violets, burdock, elder. Daylily, mimosa, rose. Wildcrafting and gathering my own food has become one of the greatest joys of my life. To know how to fill myself with the bounty of the earth. To greet the plants by name. To rejoice as the seasons shift and my herb friends return is truly what gives structure to my spiritual life on earth. It inlays the months of the year with meaning, gives the seasons texture and taste.
A truly powerful way of living came into being for me when I studied with the Chestnut School and now, I feel so much delight to be able to share all of this wondrous learning with you.
I’m honored to be one of the core teachers for the Chestnut School’s new Online Foraging Course. A nine month program in becoming a wildcrafter and co-conspirator with the earth. What this school has created is nothing short of stunning. It’s become the most comprehensive online foraging course in the world! And I’m so tickled to be a part of it.
Registration for the course closes on January 15th! And if you use this link One Willow gets a part of the compensation from your tuition, which is just wonderful. So if you are feeling the nudge to open your connection to the earth to Narnia-like proportions, check it out.
You’ll also be able to see me pretend to be a news anchor with an allium-sized stick up my bum. And get one of my all-time favorite wild food recipes—Wild Rose Cordial.
p.s. Did you know that wild onions are one of the first edible greens up in early spring? Check out my legendary Spring Greens Pâté recipe and remember that when the onion grass is up a whole season of foraging will be just around the corner.
I first moved to these mountains in spring. Early spring, when things are still raw with beginning. It felt fitting. I had left behind my entire life in New York City— my relationship, my community and career— to start anew in Appalachia. I brought only what would fit into my car, leaving space for the bigness of what I was carrying, the dream of what life could possibly be like moving forward: To live in daily communion with the natural world, to come into the vividness of my being, to open up the doors of self-initiation that had only been hinted at previously.
Continue reading “When Violets Speak”
This year’s spring has been a revelation, sweet and slow. The mountains here held winter much longer than usual—we’ve even seen April snows. Crocuses were the first to awaken, scattered across a wild lawn by the lake. It was such a welcome sight, I stopped my car in the middle of the road. The pageant of blooms has been a leisurely unveiling, requiring the patience of a sugarbush pan over a woodstove. Soon after the first amethyst-colored crocuses the daffodil greens arrived, pushing up out of forgotten soil like vines. The Bradford pear down the street flushed out like a white-chested goose and the very first Cherry blossoms blushed— the bosom of spring had begun. Every day I’ve had new eyes for the world. I watch the hyacinths unfurl low to the ground, rich as embroidery on the earth. The tulips pop up with shocks of color, as sensuous as parted lips along the road. The dandelions have already flashed from teeth, to green, to yellow, to puff in less than three weeks. Sometimes I think I can barely keep up! In the woods the ephemerals have come and gone and come again. Bloodroot petals have already disappeared into the duff, the first spring beauties long gone. I sit on my haunches like the trilliums and count the mayapple umbrellas before they unfurl.
Spring is a many-petaled season. It is beautiful and fickle, exacting and loose. It bequeaths our hearts with so much hope and abundance, and then flits by as quickly as a cardinal at the window. It is a slow pour of both fulfillment and longing, our spring. The pain and the beauty both, gentle.
Spring is the traditional time of cleansing. After a long, internal winter Spring bursts forth, gracing us with the inherent energy needed to slough off that which has begun to feel stagnant or stuck, relearn how it feels to bloom. Every Spring I teach a class on Spring Cleansing. In the class we meander through all the fresh greens that grow wild in early spring: dandelion, chickweed, cleavers, violet, bittercress, creasy greens, poke… We discuss the mechanics of fasting and explore how to incorporate our herbal allies into our cleanse. I love this class because it encapsulates one of my greatest passions— connecting to the earth in her subtly, in her seasons, in her bounty of medicine changes. This year, however, we began the class much slower, quieter. I had every student sit down in meditation, take time to breathe, and do some gentle stretching to get our energy to begin its flow.
Fasting and strict cleansing rituals have their time and place. They are vital, transformational tools for a detoxification on all levels of being. But sometimes, like the first meandering snow melt stream, the kind of cleansing you most need will be subtle, gentle, incremental and deep.
When we cleanse, no matter how we cleanse, it is the intention that we bring to our process that initiates transformation. All healing comes from within. Our bodies are constantly working to repair and detoxify, our bright spirits will never cease in their insistency to come through. Why else are we so struck by a newly opened daffodil? We recognize within its sunny disposition our own ever-returning light. Conscious cleansing is simply a way to acknowledge this process, and deepen its process by lending the power of your conscious mind.
This Spring I have embarked upon a very gentle cleanse, a slow shedding of layers that fits the subtly of my own shifts perfectly. I’ve shared a few of my favorite allies and practices for cleansing below. Each day might have seemed very small, but at the end of nearly two months of intentionally focusing my energy on healing the changes I’ve witnessed, the blooms in me now open and free, are astounding. Every day I continue to give the gift of myself, my presence and peace of mind, to the world, and I am excited to see just what unfurls from here.
Now matter how you decide to cleanse the most important element is simply honoring where you are, and allowing the space for unforeseen transformation. All winter we witness the bare trees and forget about blooms or leaves. Then, suddenly, there will be buds and we will only wonder what lies inside them. And finally, on a day so gloriously sunny that we will have forgotten all else, they will blossom and we will come to know the world with even newer eyes.
// Violets //
Violets might be my most beloved springtime allies. When I first moved down to these mountains I was in a time of deep transition. I had left a long-term partnership and had just arrived in a town where I, frankly, knew no one and nothing! It felt like the right decision for me, but there were moments where I felt profoundly adrift. That spring it was as if I was seeing violets for the very first time. Suddenly, they were everywhere! They blanketed the half-acre around my house; a moss of purple so thick you forgot the grass even existed. I couldn’t get enough of them. I would pick them by the handful, eating the sweet blooms and heart shaped leaves while lying on my back and staring up at the trees. They were a comfort, a companion; I hoped they would never leave. The next year I made an essence from their blooms and the information that came through was revelatory.
Violets are incredible allies for helping you to feel comfortable and content with yourself. They are flowers of self-acceptance, harbingers of self-care. As a powerful alterative, Violets are potent physical allies for clearing and detoxifying the body. If nothing else you could cleanse solely by munching on a fist-full of violet flowers every day! On a more energetic level, violets help us to do the internal clearing of habits that have kept us feeling stuck or small. Violets consistently encourage me to let go of negative patterns of relating (most especially to myself) and foster a deep desire for self-exploration. They help me make a commitment to be warm and generous to myself, and honoring of the space and time, the stillness that I need to heal.
If violets are calling to you simply spend some time sitting with them. Explore their petals and their roots. Nibble on their flowers and heart-shaped leaves, sprinkle their medicine in a spring salad or fresh sandwich. Steep a violet tea and drink this dark amethyst brew for a daily detoxification ritual. Don’t forget about the power of on–the-body medicine. Lay down for a spell in the sunny grass and get a friend to cover you with blooms.
// Clear Quartz //
Known as the “master harmonizer” in Chinese medicine, clear quartz is a powerful cleanser and amplifier. On the physical level clear quartz is thought to increase and regulate the Qi, bringing vitality to all areas of the body. Clear quartz is one of my favorite stones to work with because it is so deeply versatile. Like our own spirits, it can be focused and attuned to any kind of purpose. In traditional Taoist medicine clear quartz was often used to draw energy from other stones, animals, elements or lands. By pointing quartz at a certain celestial body, for example, the stone inherently absorbs some of the energy of that entity and can become an emissary of that medicine wherever it goes.
Experiment this Spring with programming clear quartz with your favorite medicine places. Take quartz with you when you wade through the rivers and bring this medicine home to make elixirs, grids, and mandalas. If you have a specific intention for healing, hold a clear quartz in your hands and gently ask the quartz to take up the power of this medicine. Speak your intention clearly and imagine that everything you need to heal is infuse directly from you into the stone. Clear quartz will hold this intention for you, reminding you to return to its flow. Let yourself play. there is no end to the manifestation of healing that can take place through quartz. If there is a particular cloud or concert that seems to be calling your name, ask its energy to go into a piece of clear quartz and take this moment in time with you wherever your go. Sleep with quartz until your pillow to get to bring this healing with you into your dreaming. Make healing elixirs by putting your programmed stones in water over night. Drink your elixir water first thing in the morning and witness how you feel.
// Presence + Breathing //
This element of cleansing might seem too simple for some, but if you can master the art of truly being present all healing will happen on its own. This season I’ve simply practiced being present. I take time every day to walk and witness what new leaf has budded out, which bulb has finally bloomed. By connecting into the seasons with presence and gratitude, I give my body and spirit permission to simply cycle naturally. I allow myself to soak up the medicine of a single moment and allow my own inherent healing to bloom. So much imbalance is caused by worry, anxiety, projection and regret. When we take our attention out of what will be or what was, and simply return to what is we relocate the incredible power of our energy into the present moment, where it is available for our healing.
Whenever I feel an edge of anxiety creep in I simply stop what I’m doing, walk outside if I can, and breathe. Three deep belly breaths are usually enough to bring me back down. If that fails, I’ll trying a few rounds of alternative nostril breathing. On the high-stress days, when my heart continues to race, I put one hand squarely on my chest and speak out loud: “I am here. Now. And it is beautiful.” It is always such a potent reminder. There is no time but the present, so why not begin our healing in this gentle moment of spring?
Many blessings on your cleansing journeys this spring! May your days be full of bounty and peace, may every bloom surprise you with its destined unfurl.
The Initial Daydream
This August I fulfilled a long haunting dream of mine – to harvest rice in the wild beds of Minnesota. The idea began as a simple seed in my early twenties. I was idealistic, entranced with the world and still exploring the ideas of living close to the land, harvesting the natural nourishment around us. I was in college and devouring land-based literature of all kinds, including a healthy stack of contemporary indigenous writers. One book in particular catapulted me into a new era of interest: Night Flying Woman by Ignatia Broker. An Anishinabe (Objibwe) elder of the Ottertail Pillager Band, Broker tells the entrancing creation tale of her matrilineal heritage from pilgrimage to work to deliverance. And at its heart, was the rice. Soon, this book, along with an influential teacher (poet and scholar) Molly McGlennen, sent me across the country to intern for a short summer month with WELRP (White Earth land Recover Project), an initiative founded by the awe-inspiring Winona Laduke. I lived in a house with a collective of native women and worked on the initiative’s farm to school project. The direct link between land and bodies, wild berries and children running along the narrow lines of the playground, entranced me. But the most bewitching of all, was the rice.
I remember when the time came on the reservation to pick lottery numbers for the best ricing lakes. I was days away from leaving, and the parting felt almost painful. Someday, I vowed to myself, I would return during ricing season. Explore the slow ponder of a boat, part the thick waves of rice and paddle silently into the deep beds. This year, that possibility became a reality.
The wild rice itself (Zizania palustris) is one of the most elegant plants I have ever encountered. Suspended gently in the silty mud at the bottom of the lake, each stalk sways strongly in the passing breeze. It covers the low lake, skirting the shallow shores of mud and cattails, old beaver paths and fallen logs. It is food, habitat, home. They provide shelter for the sweet and matronly mud ducks and an underbelly of fish hidden in the tea-colored water. Some stands are sparse, like grass at the edge of a long stretch of stand, and some so thick your boat runs aground onto the flattened stalks and is stuck in their woven arms. Sitting within a canoe in the middle of a dense bed feels tantamount to being lost in a graceful, fertile maze. There is nothing before you and nothing behind you, but the rice and its falling.
The act of ricing, or gathering the ripe seed of the wild rice, requires some equipment and a good deal of practiced skill. At the outset, you will need a canoe, a pair of “knockers”— tapered wands carved smooth and easy to handle, and a long pole (upwards of 17 feet) either forked or attached to a “duck bill” so you can push gently along the thick bottoms. In Minnesota the knocker sits in front of the puller, her back to the effort so she can see the coming rice. It is the knocker’s job to develop a fluid rhythm, a movement that looks like conducting a rapid symphony. With one wand, you pull the rice gently into the boat, careful not to bend the stalk too hard or knock any of the ripe seed before you are ready. With the other, you lightly but swiftly run the length of the knocker along the stalk, directing the barbed rice into the boat. Side to side: bend, swipe, swish, follow through. Meanwhile, the poler balances herself at the back of the boat, pushing the silent, rice-laden barge through the green stalks. A good puller matches her pace to the skill of the knocker, keeping her in well-falling rice. A well-seasoned poler can lift up her pole from the lake’s soft bottom (a motion akin to a sailors hand over hand climb up to the crows nest) without disturbing the steady movement of the canoe, evenly placing it back into the silt for another glide farther into the bed. (If you are interested in a more in-depth ricing “How-to” check out Samuel Thayer’s incredibly informative chapter in Foragers Harvest)
When the rice is good, it rains into the boat. Sometimes all you have to do it touch the furtive stalks and the bearded grains of purple and green fall into your palm. The act of ricing is near to addiction. Every morning we were up early, pulled out of bed by some magnetic force, pushing off the muddy landing with our lunches and cool jugs of water in tow. As a pair, you move out into the flowage and the shoulder-deep stands of rice. Once within, the forest of stalks obscures the senses. Sounds and sights seem dimmed. All you hear is the tiny, bell-shaped sounds of the rice falling into the newly empty boat, the dip of the pole in the water, the alternating absence and presence of wind.
Some days, it felt akin to prayer. All there was to ponder, to accomplish, to call in, was the rice. The intensity of the sun, the heavy water-laden pole, the long ache of our impeccably worn muscles, would fade into a rhythm. When I stood poling, I was contemplative, and soaked by the cascade. When I sat and knocked, every inch of my arms and legs, clothes and hat, was covered in the fractured beards of rice. I watched the boat grow fur as more and more of the grain piled in. Small spiders encircled the inside of the boat like garland, creating delicate trims of translucent lace. Rice worms wriggled free of the fallen grain. The landscape was a strange and teeming stillness, and within it I felt my mind itself fill with the possibility of each new stroke, a hearty and fecund fall, and the emptiness of such simple movement. Every once in a while, there was an interlude. Mud ducks scared silently from the thicket of their homes, taking to the sky in hush of quiet wings. A gust of wind strong enough to shake the stalks. The faraway hum of another boats conversation. And then, once more, silence.
The other ricers on the lake were mostly old timers – those who fell prey to the rice’s enchantment long, long ago. For these ricers, the few weeks of good rice falling was a holiday for which they waited all year. Many reserved their vacation days specifically for this— the lakes, the motion, the ability to harvest a whole years worth of precious grain in only a few days. Out on the flowage, you come to know something intimate of divinity, and of gifts. Here grows wild some of the most nutritious, delicious and filling grains in the world— and you can harvest it by the ton. On a good day a well-seasoned ricing team can pull in over 300 lbs of green rice. Parched, hulled and processed, this translates to at least 150 lbs of finished grain. It is not only possible, but easy, to harvest enough rice to last you an entire, nourished year.
The Poetry & The Process
We camped back in a planted pine forest, alongside the flowage and next to a large meadow— ideal for drying the bounty. We bent a landing out of an old beaver path. A dark corridor of decomposing cattails and wapato (duck potato) over which we walked. It was like crawling over partially set pudding. Every few steps you’d plunge in unexpectedly, sunk up to your thighs in the thick wet humus. Pushing off in the morning was one thing…pulling a canoe laden with over a hundred pounds of rice back to shore was another. My ricing partner and I (both petite, yet tenacious women) would count to three, after which, with each gargantuan effort, we’d move the canoe forward a good six inches. At the end of a long day a swim is absolutely necessary. With thigh-high lines of pond muck and an unseen, yet supremely itchy, layer of broken “rice beards” covering your whole body—a good dip in the deep part of the flowage felt like a rich treat.
At night we cooked over an open flame: beaver and goose, bear fat and duck potatoes with wild rice and any greens that graced our camp. By the time we were all done eating, many of us shirked the pleasure of building up the fire for the comfort of our sleeping bags and a long night of sleep. For me, even in my dreams, the ricing continued. Every night, late into the night, I would awake from a dream with the high paranoia that I was still out on the lake, rocking in the small waves. A feeling like I was missing something, had somewhere yet to be. Then, the lake itself seemed to wake me up and I would remember: yes, I was allowed now to drift into other dreams and sleep. And so I would.
Harvesting was a breezy kind of labor—the variety of work that you marvel at in its making and reflect back on with pride. Processing, however, was a purer and more brutish form of drudgery. Most people these days bring their rice to a processor, and for good reason. The whole event— from start to finish— is marked by intensity, toil and, at times, extraordinary boredom. Laid out to dry in large tarps for several days, the brittle green-hulled rice in brought in grain bags to a parching station. There, it is tipped into a big metal pan, under which we build and continually feed a hot, ember rich fiber. Two stirrers sit with paddles (which we hewed from green wood) and constantly shift the rice back and forth, back and forth, walking in circles around each other and the fire. Careful not to burn the rice, parching makes the outer hull brittle and easier to remove. Parching also lends the rice a secret, smoky scent, a taste that far succeeds any spices or salt. Once properly parched, a process that usually takes about 45 minutes, the hot rice is brought over to the dancing pits.
The pits themselves are dug and lined with thick hides: in this case we used elk and moose. We constructed a kind of frame around each pit, so the dancers would have poles onto which they could bare their weight. Each dancer laces themselves into buckskin booties and then lowers themselves into a scalding pit of rice. The dancing, or jigging, which sounds so sweet and stoic is actually more of a prolonged cardio workout consistenting of one repetitive motion. The goal is to grind the chaff from the grain—pulverize it. And so you jig in a motion that looks like Elvis on an elliptical. Over and over. The faster you jig, the easier it will be because the heat makes the chaff give way. As the outer barbs turn to crumble, each jigger becomes increasingly more covered with a fine layer of the itchiest dust imaginable. By the end of a days span, many of us looked like woolly mammoths or unsightly Muppets. Jigging is intense: plain and simple. By day two I could hardly walk. On day five my ricing partner blew out one of her knees. Everything hurt— your shoulders, your feet, your hands. Blisters between the toes were common and dehydration an ever-present concern. We began in mid-morning and often danced until after dark.
It took a day and a half for our troupe of ten people to parch and dance the thirty gallons of finished rice my partner and I brought in. A week later, the day I left, I stood in an open field for hours, winnowing. After the tumult of harvesting and processing, winnowing was a serene luxury. The feeling of completion was tangible, something I could taste— as the chaff billowed in the air and the finished rice fell into our buckets. A poem formed in my head: A Good Day for Winnowing. And I think it might do the process more justice than I could manage in prose—
<<<< = >>>>
A Good Day for Winnowing
First, you’ll need a wind.
Rather than seek, you’ll wait
like a young wife at empty docks
—expectant, sensory, humble.
Ignore the fickle breezes, breaths that
begin and end in the same syllable murmur.
Abide the long moments of still, deflated exhale.
For winnowing, you’ll need a straight-forward wind,
one that you can read
the direction of it like Braille on your skin.
On a good day, it doesn’t take long.
Heft the sacks of some earlier harvest
to a place cleared, cleaned by wind
and let the world separate for you
Take your basket to the altar, the ever-open mouth
and toss, toss, all that must be tossed
until that which has weight, falls
and that which has been crushed, spent
is whisked away.
Our lives are fed by the smallest nourishments.
A single revolutionary idea that must be freed.
So hold the empty pans, hold the separating
and pray that the wind inside of you
takes even the smallest grains away.
<<<< = >>>>
For two weeks I thought of nothing but rice, and of everything kept waiting in my life. I knocked a thousand tiny ideas into the small movements of my mind— and I allowed the possibility of a single path of nourishment to unfold in the marsh. I walked in circles and I danced, I forgot what it felt like to dip my hands in hot water and remembered how to read the direction of the wind on my skin. Every repetition, repeated, was something new. From the lake, I drove—my car heavy with many gallons of rice and my heart light as butter. Ready, I felt, to allow that which has weight to fall and that which is spent to stay behind… in the soil of the fields, the surface of the water, the moments of time crushed, exhilarating, crude. The toil, already forgotten, the food of a new year replete and ready to be served.
It’s summer in Appalachia and there is endless rain. Some days it has poured from grey dawn to greyer twilight, the sound of it like trees harshly arguing. It’s become a rhythm: the rain, the rain. Last week, it reached a pitch. The soil was saturated; every step raised small lakes of footprints. Low fields became like shallow ponds, their basins filling with mud from the river and the tiny eggs of tadpoles. Up north, whole bridges washed away. Times like these I wonder if the earth itself doesn’t experience that same sharp catharsis we call crying. The moment when something inside finally tears, and there is nothing to do but allow the fresh gift of deep weeping.
Rain is a part of these mountains, as ancient as the softened curves of its stones. It is a harbinger—sometimes soft, sometimes thunderous— of the dying and the born. Old trees topple with sodden roots to the forest floor. The waterfalls carry boughs away. Plants grow heavy, yet ravenous. Moss and mold cover all unmoving things. Deeper still, in the rotted logs of the woods, death is transformed, stunningly and sudden, into life. This is the time for mushrooms.
Mushrooms have always held a great and murky magic in my mind. They are mysterious. Neither plant, nor animal, nor mineral, mushrooms occupy a space of being that is hard to communicate…let alone conceive. Like us, mushrooms breathe. They take in the same oxygen we so unconsciously praise, and exhale the same spent carbon dioxide. Many people lump mushrooms in with the plant kingdom but mushrooms are actually as different from those chlorophyll-loving beings as we are from a blade of grass.
The shrooms that we see growing from soft logs and standing trees, are actually the wisely-timed blooms of a much larger, hidden network of vegetation called mycelium— colonies of branching beings that extend underneath the soil of our entire world.
Mycelium breaks down massive amounts of organic material, turning winters leaves into the rich humus of a forest floor. Without mycelium, life on our planet, and the great relief of dying, would be irrevocably altered. Mycelium is not only an organism (and some say the largest organism on earth) it also functions as a vast network of interaction. Some scientists believe that trees and other plants are able, not only to communicate, but also send vital nutrients to each other through the infinite strings of this mysterious web. Mycelium is so adept as breaking down organic compounds, many think they might be the first to adapt to the new chemicals of our world, transmuting radiation and pollutants into something more benign.
Mushrooms, often as ephemeral as an orchid in the rich cove of spring, are rare heralds in our world. They remind that we are all connected, in vast and unfathomable ways. That our lives, singular and unique, are but a single bloom enriching the whole. They lay bare the pungent, primal fact of existence: that the release of one form ignites another. From death and decay, the darkened sway of one life extinguished, new life arises and is born. They show, exquisitely, how all are really one in the same. Here in Appalachia, the birth story of reishi begins with the death of the Eastern Hemlock.
Our abundant local species of reishi is Ganoderma tsugae, named for the scientific genus of the tree on which they flourish. Eastern hemlocks (Tsugae candensis) used to dominate large swaths of southern Appalachia. Today, almost all of these great hemlocks are falling. The wooly adelgid, an invasive East Asian insect, has single-handedly brought down an entire population. As the hemlocks falls, the reishis boom.
In these mountains, reishi is sought after, searched for and prized like gold. Every season I try to dry enough to get me through the long winter. I like to decoct reishi for an everyday immune tonic tea, and add it liberally to my soup stocks and broths. For many people, finding a good patch of reishi in the woods is tantamount to being blessed inexplicably by a fabulous, life-affirming dream. You feel unshakably on the right path.
The Asian species of Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) is called “Ling zhi,” which translates as “spirit plant” or the “immortality mushroom.” In traditional Chinese medicine, this rare wild mushroom was reserved for the emperor and his court. Reishi was cherished for its ability to nourish the heart and safeguard shen (the Chinese word for the concept of a person’s mind/consciousness and emotional balance). Chinese reishi is considered an adaptogen, cardiotonic, immunomodulator and gentle nervine tonic.
There has recently been a crisis of confidence in the world of Southeastern herbal medicine. Some herbalists in the region have become so convinced that our local species of mushroom is inferior to the imperial G. lucidum as to declare it useless. To that, I say, “phooey!” I live in Appalachia and I believe, fixedly and with all my heart, that the medicine you need is always growing around (and within) you. When I collect our local reishi, I feel its medicine radiate through the very air we both breath. The experience is sensory, incandescence, pungent with a humid and fragrant fate. I believe in the medicine of this reishi.Recently I went for a solo hike at a beautiful high elevation trail. I was hoping to skip between the breaking bouts of torrential rains to find a hint of this illustrious mushroom. I hiked down the slippery mud-laden path through the fog to a spot rumored to be rich with early summer buds. Finally, after two hours, I dropped down into a forest of old hemlocks, and slowed my pace. For a while, I only spotted last year’s reishi, far off the trail and up high on the dead standing trees. I passed several streams, swollen with water. I saw no one. And then, in the soft distance, I heard the rush of a much madder flow. A waterfall, or a new river, pushed from the stones by our recent deluges of rain. As the sound grew, and I neared closer…I suddenly knew: in the middle of the torrent there would be a soaked log laden with reishi. Without question, without expectation, without pomp, I opened into the white water clearing, and there it was. If you listen long and hard enough, you can always hear medicine speaking.
I couldn’t help it. I threw caution to the wind (and my shoes in a nearby tangle of roots) and climbed up onto the precariously perched log. It was slippery, bogged with water and furred with moss. The fresh sweet buds of reishi and the illustrious varnish of their mature orange fans cascaded down its long body. I angled myself with my camera, careful not to let an elbow slip lest I tumbled myself into the falling mass of white water. Underneath me the wood radiated the fragrant, mineral breath of loose earth. I lingered for a long time, exploring life at the edge of such a deluge, listening. When the reishi gave its soft nod, I harvested. I cut a few creamy nibs off the fleshy buds, to be slow cooked later in warm butter and a cast iron pan, and took precisely four mushroom blooms. On the hike back the sky grew ponderous, unhinged and finally poured. I sloughed through the rain in a wide poncho, singing to myself as I climbed the trail, already dreaming of the enchanted reishi concoctions to come…
Dark Magic Reishi Maple Truffles
I crafted these bittersweet delights on a dangerously stormy afternoon. The soft music of the kitchen was swallowed by the drum of the rain and the thunder shook the whole house. Lightening drew close and gave an electric spark of energy to these dark magic creations.
This recipe is a decadent way to incorporate reishi medicine into your life. The combination of the cacao with a luscious dash of dark maple syrup, makes for some seriously addictive incantations. Night owls be warned. These chocolates have kept me up into the wee hours of the morning. On their own, neither reishi nor cacao have ever been able to keep me from sleep, but there is something in the synergy of these truffles that had me (and my roommate) twiddling our thumbs and daydreaming until dawn. Eat one before a rich evening of conversation, live music by firelight, or studying in your library.
1 cup dried chopped Reishi (if you are using powder I would reduce the amount to ¼ cup)
3 cups Water
1/3 cup Maple Syrup (depending on your sweet tooth)
1/3 cup Cacao butter (melted) – you can also substitute coconut oil
1 cup Pecans ground (or nut of choice)
½ cup Coconut flakes
½ cup Cacao powder
Optional: Maca powder, to taste
[Makes approximately 20 heaping teaspoon-sized truffles)
The medicinal constituents of reishi are most soluble in water. To encapsulate the medicine of these mushrooms, this recipe involves the finesse of creating a truly delicious bitter syrup. To start, combine your dried reishi and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and cover. Simmer until the water content is reduced to 1/3 cup (The water line will be just covering the reishi. You can press the decocted reishi through a cheesecloth or potato masher to get out every last drop of bitter mushroom goodness. Save the spent reishi in the fridge and add to your next tea for a gentle taste of mushroom).
Pour your concentrated reishi decoction back into your empty saucepan and combine with maple syrup. Gently heat (uncovered) until you have reduced your syrup in half.
Pour your reduced reishi syrup into a separate bowl. Taste to determine strength (Ideally you would have a perfect balance between reishi’s bitter medicinal and the mellow sweetness of the maple). Reserve a spoonful of syrup to drizzle over the finished truffles if you so desire.
Melt cacao butter over low heat and then combine with your reishi syrup to make a small pot of pure manna.
In a separate bowl combine ground pecans (or nuts of choice), coconut flakes and cacao powder until well mixed. (Add your optional maca or other super food powders)
Slowly pour the liquid cacao butter and reishi syrup into your combined dry mixture. Stir well. If it still feels runny, add an extra dash of coconut flakes or nuts. It should be warm, supple consistency.
Put your finished mixture in the fridge for at least an hour. Remove when it is solid enough to roll into teaspoon-sized balls. Finished your truffles with a variety of creative toppings. You could try toasted sesame seeds, candied ginger and cayenne, or ground pistachios and sea salt. Drizzle with your reserved reishi syrup and serve on any rainy day.
We’ve slipped into one of the most delicious times of the year– that liminal, lofty space between spring and summer. The raucous rush of springtime ephemerals has died down, leaving a haphazard cascade of petals dissolving beneath the trees. And yet, the hot days of dry grasses and hibiscus have yet to arrive. Like the anticipation of a full moon, the coming of this new season has stirred something inside me that I can only recognize as a honeyed, exhilarating mixture of nostalgia and desire.
The plumping of the oats, sown in the earliest days of Spring, is yet another indicator that the heat of Summer is near. Milky Oats is one of the most sensuous, enthralling and enchanting herbs I have ever had the pleasure to grow. (Even its scientific name is utterly delicious: Avena sativa). Most people are familiar with oats as a cover crop or a cereal grain. Growing up I, quite frankly, thought oats were supremely boring! (Although, having been raised as a Quaker, I did feel a strange modicum of pride in our small, oat-bound, claim-to-fame. There was something about that simply dressed Quaker character and his good old-fashioned stoicism…) Turns out, oats are wild, exciting and truly incredible medicine.
Growing at breakneck pace, the green stalks of oats are unbeliveably nutritious and mineral-rich. Infused in hot tea, oat straw is considered a tonic nutritive, feeding our body and nourishing a calm state of mind. It is an excellent source of calcium and magnesium and can help ease the stress of rough transitions and dark moods. If you grow oats as a cover crop, you can snip the greens at anytime. Cut them into sections for easy drying and store as a delicious tea beverage throughout the year.
Let your oats keep growing, and their magic will continue to unfurl in the tiny, delicate wands of their seed heads. Soft, prancing, seriously delightful, the semi-mature oat seeds should be harvested for medicine at a very specific time. It requires finesse, and maybe a whispered hint from a fairy or two, to get it just right. You must develop a relationship with your oats, squeezing them gently every day until you see that telltale drop of “milk” appear at their tip. This milk is a naturally occurring latex, and signals us herb-worshipers that the time is ripe to gather this medicine.
Blended with alcohol to make a tincture (using a ratio of one part herb to two parts alcohol), Milky Oats forms a vibrant, verdant green slurry of medicine. After it sits for at least 6 weeks, you can strain your alcohol off and enjoy the many blessings of Milky Oats. Note on Gluten: As someone with an extreme gluten-sensitivity, I have never had a reaction to any reliably grown oat medicine. Grown commercially, many oats are processed with wheat, rendering them unsafe for anyone with celiac or gluten sensitivities. I do not generally buy oat straw from the store. However, oats that I know have been grown and processed separately from wheat have always treated me kindly and should, technically, be completely gluten-free.
Milky Oats is known as a nervine and a trophorestorative for the nervous and endocrine systems (meaning that oats are a deeply nutritive restorative for these systems. I’ve heard people describe Milky Oats as “nerve food”). Milky Oats can work wonders for those who feel burnt out, exhausted, fried, tightly wound or scattered due to overwork and stress. They’ve been known to cool and relieve states of high anxiety and anger, irritability and addiction, grief, and panic disorders. Often indicated for those who are experiencing a loss of libido, Milky Oats can help plump up your general juciness and replenish deep reserves of energy. A steadfast and calming companion to help ease the transitions during major life passages. (Interested in Milky Oat Medicine? Check out our shop!)
Personality wise, Milky Oats is akin to a sweet, round, sensuous water nymph…asking you to slow down, simply drink, and enjoy. Milky Oats is a tonic in the traditional sense, you will see the most profound shifts in physical and emotional states when taking Milky Oats over a longer period of time. I recommend 1-2 dropperfulls of tincture up to 3x day taken for at least three months for long-term benefits (although, as a supremely safe herb, you could increase that dosage to 3-5 dropperfulls as needed).
One of my favorite expressions is the old adage of “sowing ones wild oats.” When you seed oats you broadcast them, recklessly and with abandon, knowing that at least one of them will take and, frankly, not caring very much which one! Recently, a younger friend of mine broke up with her long-term high school sweetheart and has had a string of brief love affairs and amorous encounters. When asked about it, her mom simply shrugged and smiled, “she’s just sowing her wild oats.” Far from the negative stereotyping of wild foolishness or reckless naivety, sowing one’s oats can be incredibly empowering. It’s about striking out into the world, finding levity and the space to play, trying new things and seeding the light of your curiosity and creativity in all kinds of crevices. (In this way it reminds me of the stone known as Fools Gold, or Pyrite).
Wild Oat Flower essence, a form of energetic plant medicine made from a wild variety, embellishes this same narrative. This sweet essence is also called the Vocation essence, as it can help those who feel distracted or distanced from their life purpose, or squarely confused about the nature of their path, next step, or greater calling. Often indicated for those who feel consistently restless or dissatisfied with their life. Taken in drop dosages, Wild Oat flower essence can help you find and feel enlivened by the call of your individual destiny. Vivid and true, Oat essence shows you the uniqueness of your path and helps you to invoke and appreciate work as an expression of your true spirit and inner calling. A clearing of purpose and conviction, this essence is wonderful for those graduating from school, stagnating in a limiting or boring vocation, or perhaps even experiencing a mid-life crisis.
* * *
Yesterday, I went out to the garden to harvest my last batch of oats. Soft and slender, I held each one like a small dancer. On my knees, I clipped them slowly. I was in no hurry. I let them fall into an old willow basket and felt the late afternoon sun warm like orange on my skin. The breeze moved across my arms gently, carrying the distant scents of fresh grass, wet earth, and faraway roses. Summer was coming, and she was speaking to me with each methodic clip and quiver. She was whispering something that felt like a daydream and sounded, in hollows and vowels, like destiny.
Spring is the season of renewal. It is a time for cleansing, releasing, letting go of all that which you kept and counted and swaddled throughout the long winter months. Every spring, the thaw has each of us dropping the heavy robes of winter, and inviting in something entirely new. In the forest, flowers bloom with ephemeral abandon, catching the first rays of light that hit the floor before fading completely under the coming canopy. There is a small window, in the early spring, before the chores and the buzz and the clamor of growth set in. There is a clearing where we all have a moment to decide– do I trust in the coming of spring? What do I have to leave behind? When and how, and for what joys, will l I bloom anew? Spring is a moment, an opportunity for deep, unimpeded rejuvenation and a real recreation of soul.
Spring is also the traditional season for cleansing and detoxification. Backyards and hills grow flush with some of the best spring tonics and wild greens– medicines for clearing the body and mind. Abundant, easy to identify, and delicious, these early spring plants are some of our most potent medicines for renewal. I personally think one of the best spring cleansing rituals is simply to eat wild greens– and lots of em! They are easy to incorporate into salads or stir frys– just toss a small handful in with your other ingredients. Some of my favorite additions to a mid-day salad are: purple dead nettle, chickweed, mustard greens, wild chives and violet flowers (the leaves of violets are highly nutritious, too!). Creasy and Daylilly greens are also delicious cooked, but fair warning, a small percentage of people are allergic to daylilly. Try a tiny nibble at first. (read more about eating daylillies on blog Castanea). Wild greens are also absurdly delicious in pestos and pâtés. (keep reading for a spring greens pâté recipe that will knock your socks off).
Why Cleanse? Over time our bodies accumulate toxins from our environment, both within and without. The Ayurvedic term for these accumulated toxins, ama, hints at the deeper story of toxicity. Ama can be experienced as dullness, difficult digestion, frequent infections or just plain heaviness. When we experience ama we are not just encountering the physical impediments of sluggish organs or overworked lymph, but the stagnation of negative thoughts, stressful environments, and limiting beliefs as well.
The Importance of Disturbed Areas Some of our most powerful, and available, medicines grow in the most disturbed natural areas. Roadside ditches, abandoned garden beds, in-between cracks in the pavement. This is no accident. Look to these plants as your first healers. The medicine they offer can help settle the disruption in our own bodies, as well as our communities. Often written off as weeds, these plants are actually some of our strongest and more tenacious plant messengers! **Note: Since many of these plants thrive in contaminated soil, take care when harvesting. Make sure the land is free of buried pollutants and at least 100 feet from the road.
The Beauty of Bitters: Largely eliminated from our modern diet, bitters are a cornerstone of traditional eating. They stoke the digestive fire, bolster the liver and help increase the elimination of toxins. They are even known to help alleviate depression. Eat a handful of early dandelion leaves every day to get a good dose of bitter into your life.
Some wild greens growing in a yard near you: Dandelion, Chickweed, Cleavers, Poke, Lambs Quarters, Purple Dead Nettle, Day Lilly Greens, Creasy Greens, Wild Chives, Field Garlic, Dock leaves, Sorrel, Garlic mustard, Violets, Bittercress, Lady’s thumb, Purslane, Stinging Nettles
1. Chickweed: (Stellaria media) Commonly found along roadsides, in garden beds and creeping into disturbed areas, Chickweed is an alterative, vulnerary, diuretic and antirheumatic. It is known as a traditional “blood cleanser” and eaten by the handful in salads and pestos in early spring. Full of vitamins and minerals, the fresh greens have a neutral, sweet taste and a lovely crunchy texture. Chickweed is also a first rate skin healing herb and often used in salves or as a chew and spit poultice to encourage skin growth and tame rashes, inflammation, itching and hives. Cooling and rejuvenative, Chickweed is called upon for heartburn, ulcers and as a food for those in recovery or convalescence.
2. Poke: (Phytolacca americana) Native to the Americas, poke may be one of the most traditional and controversial spring cleansing herb. Early poke greens have been eaten by indigenous Appalachians for thousands of years. The greens are full of vitamins and fat-soluble betacarotene but, as poke contains some poisonous compounds when mature, only eat the young spring shoots (6-8” tall) and boil them at least twice for a traditional “Poke salat” (see recipe below). A powerful lymphagogue, Poke berries and root have been used to treat conditions of the lymph, cancer, rheumatism and arthritis. Valued in folk medicine as a weight loss tonic, poke actually helps reduce congestion in bodily fat, clearing and redistributing soggy tissue. Toxic in large doses, poke roots and berries should be used in very small amounts under the supervision of an herbalist. Topically, poke root washes can help relieve various skin diseases such as eczema, ulcers, scabies, ringworm and other fungus infections.
Poke Salat: Wash and chop your leaves coarsely. Bring two pots of water to a boil. Add your leaves to one pot and boil for one-two minutes. Drain the boiling water and add your leaves to the second pot to boil for 10-15 minutes (or until nice and tender). Amend with fat and spices of choice.
3. Cleavers: (Galium aparine) Unmistakable in early spring, this succulent green makes an excellent juice, tea or succus (juice preserve with alcohol. 3:1). To eat it raw, roll it into a ball to disengage its cleavers and swallow. Alterative, diuretic, anti-inflammatory and a lymphagogue, cleavers is a tonic blood cleaner for conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. Beloved for it anti-itch properties, it is often combined with chickweed, violet and plantain in salve. Used to sooth both UTIs, interstitial cystitis, cleavers is also known as a cancer remedy and preventative, both internally and topically for tumors.
4. Dandelion: (Taraxacum officinale) A proliferate medicine with a strong affinity for the skin & liver. Hepatic, cholagogue, alterative, diuretic and slightly laxative. Young dandelion leaves are one of the best spring bitter tonics. High in vitamins and minerals, the leaves are known to contain more vitamin A than any other garden plant. The leaves can help to banish ama, flushing the kidneys and stoking the digestive fires. The root is traditionally used as a liver and skin remedy and as a blood tonic for fasting. Helpful with eczema, psoriasis, acne and hives, Dandelion is both cooling and strengthening for the liver. The root is also high in inulin (a natural prebiotic for our intestinal flora), which can help heal digestive issues, balance blood sugar, and moderate estrogen levels. The white latex in the stem has been known to dissolve warts.
“Back in my boyhood days, we used to eat dandelion greens just like they were going out of style. Whew boy! They were just so good to eat and were good for us…” –Tommie Bass
//Recipe: Spring Greens Pâté//
This recipe is vegan, gluten-free and incredibly rich. Customize with a selection of your favorite spring greens and nuts. Serve with warm bruschetta, thick slices of cheese or with an array of crunchy vegetables. Perfect for any spring fling garden parties or Sunday Brunch.
Preparation & Exploration
First, roll around on your lawn. Then, collect handfuls of your favorite spring greens. Chickweed, garlic mustard, creasy greens… Nettles are delicious too, but it can be quite fibrous so keep this in mind when you’re deciding on proportions. I love to include a hearty does of garden chives as well.
You can use any type of nuts you please, but I just adore black walnuts. Hearty, abundant, and easy to collect, Black walnuts add an incredible richness and flavor to any dish. It’s taste is quite distinct, earthy and almost meat-esque. Harvest them in fall. Break off the black hull and let them dry for a week or so before storing. To open them I sit splay-legged in my yard and crack them between two stones and then pick out the nut meat with a bent fork, seam ripper, or awl.
1. Pour your olive oil and garlic into a food processor or blender. Pulse until garlic is finely minced.
2. Add your spring greens and walnuts into the mixture bit by bit to avoid overtaxing your blender. (reserve some walnuts for garnish). Blend until nice and chunky or smooth as butter, whatever suits your fancy.
3. Once you reach desired consistently add in the nutritional yeast and salt and pepper. Blend to combine.
4. Garnish with nuts, chopped chives, or edible spring flowers (violets would be divine)
Optional: Caramelize and onion. This adds a whole new dimension to your pâté. Sweet, hearty, flavorful, yes. Chop your onion coarsely and put in a pan with some oil over low heat. Let them cook until they are just beginning to brown, and then stir (if you over-stir they won’t caramelize). Let them cook for at least 1/2 an hour. An hour or more would be ideal. Get fancy by adding a dash of brandy and covering for 10 minutes.
Autumn has passed swiftly. In one momentous sweep the mountains around my home turned from yellow, to gold, to amber, to ruby and then finally– with a last groan– to earth and brown. Here in the Blue Ridge we watch steadily for that first bit of color. It seeps down from the top of our hearty navy mountains slow and liquid, as if the sky had poured its technicolor honey straight down onto the tip of their crowns.
I love fall. I love how sublimely the earth shows its individuality. One tree might be totally bare by mid-october, while another is just beginning to let go. We spend so much time plodding through unkept piles of leaves that we get lost in their commonplace and collective familiarities. But I love thinking about each leaf. To our eyes, they are always falling. But to a single leaf, the moment is singular, irreplaceable. There is a surrender in Fall that takes my breath away. It’s almost ecstatic, how the living let go to the cold’s embrace. Some die, some sleep, some pull inwards and prepare for the season of their magnificence. I imagine it must be powerfully peaceful, transcendent.
Fall is the time for harvesting. Collecting roots and the fruits of your labor, taking stock of all that you have tended and grown over the year and letting go of the rest. Harvesting means more than embracing that which has flourished and nourished you, it also means leaving behind that which no longer serves you. I am simply in love with how this season defines abundance– in Autumn’s shape, abundance is not just the acquisition of what you need to feel full and happy, abundance is a kind of inward expansiveness, a steadiness and contentment that allows you to let go.
My fall was infused with joyful and conscientious gathering (and partings as well). Wild fruits like autumn olives, maypops (passionflower fruit) and persimmons (which should be collected when soft and mushy, otherwise you risk an astringent mouth straight jacket like you have never experienced before). There are leafy fall medicinals making their return on the other side of spring– stinging nettles, chickweed, and cleavers– as well as some herbs that only appear this once, in the waning of the season’s warmth. Goldenrod, a common roadside adornment, is one of my favorite fall medicine flowers. Known to many as an allergen, Goldenrod actually works to combat the symptoms of allergies, alleviating the sinuses as well as helping to improve kidney function and heal UTIs.
Fall is the best time of the year to dig most roots. From fields and wayland to forests– these are the roots for which we have waited all season. I scrambled under fences to low pastures of Yellow Dock, Dandelion, and Poke. I climbed wooded hillsides to find Wild Yam, Black Cohosh and Appalachian Osha. I journeyed to the Pigeon river and dug thin and willowy Yellow Roots from their sandy banks and slanted roofs of river stone. I harvested roots from my garden that I’ve been watching grow for years, waiting for them to return heavy and thick. Valerian, Calamus, Burdock, Echinacea, Comfrey, Angelica, and Elecampagne.
I am in deep awe of elecampagne. The day after I harvested over 5 lbs of root a friend from out-of-town arrived at our doorstep, bemoaning a deep, boggy chest cold that had been lingering for weeks. Hoping to give her at least a little bit of relief, I brewed a big pot of elecampagne tea for breakfast. Everyone exclaimed at its deliciousness! Aromatic, clearing, almost spicy with hints of both sweet and bitter. Walking down to the pasture afterwards our friend began coughing up long stuck muck. When we saw her the next day, she was glowing. “I am completely healed!” she exclaimed. Apparently, after battling this chest cold for almost a month, all of her symptoms completely disappeared. She was breathing easy and her lungs felt unfettered and free. Frankly, I was shocked. I normally think of herbal tea as a pleasure activity with the added benefit of some gentle healing. But this pot of elecampagne tea was powerful medicine. I felt reverent. As the old Latin phrase goes, Enula campana reddit praecordia sans (Elecampagne will the spirits sustain).
Fall is also the season of the nut. Many people are totally unaware of the blissful amount of food that falls from the tress every autumn. When I was growing up I remember thinking of nuts as fun toys or loathsome burrs. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was introduced to the wonderful world of eating wild nuts. Hickorys, acorns, black walnuts, and chestnuts. All of them require a bit of processing, but they are well worth the effort.
The first step is always to remove the nut from their fleshy hulls, otherwise they’ll rot. Once bare, nuts can be stored in their shells for over a year without going bad. Some nuts require additional processing, like acorns, which must be leached of their tannins (an astringent and bitter compound that will turn your digestive tract into an uncomfortable fist). Some hulls have additional uses. Black walnut hulls make potent medicine for parasitic and fungal infections and an excellent dye. In fact, if you process a good bit of Black Walnuts without washing your hands, you’ll end up with dark brown paws. We saved a good bit of hulls to dye deerskin that had already been softened and smoked. You can also use the dye for any other natural fibers like wool or silk.
Red amaranth, which grows in wild profusion at the top of our hill, is known for its deep and jewel dark dye. From seed to bloom, I have worshiped this plant for the richness of its color– an almost maroon, ruby-velvet hue. We collected enough to stuff a tall stock pot and brought it to a boil. Using alum as our mordant (a substance that helps to set dyes in fabric) we plunged a hearty load of cashmere and silk into its depths and simmered our brew for over an hour. As with most things wild and handmade, the process was slow and much less flashy than you might expect. But the soft pink dye that was left behind was simple perfection to me.
This past weekend we had what might be the last of our lovely fall days. It was sunny and bright and the colors of the mountain looked as if they had just been born. I spent the whole day sitting on the hill behind our cottage. I watched the gardens with utter appreciation, loving that which I knew was falling asleep underneath the thick duff of leaves as much as I admired what remained– the hardy fennel and tobacco and the flowers they both still bore. Despite the bareness of the trees and the gray web of their forests, stretching in a fog across the ridgeline of our valley, I cannot remember a day when I felt so sublimely alive. Everything, all of it, was just so delightful.
At the beginning of the week I loaded Mr. Forester (my Subaru who also goes by the name “silver fox”) with sleeping bags and long johns and friends and headed to the woods.
The drive itself was beautiful. We passed through Appalachian farmland, admiring the weathered barns sliding drunk from the hillsides and the empty pastures with their solitary tree swings and watchful grazers. This is the time of the year for which the Blue Ridge Mountains are named. With the trees still bare, the gently rounded peaks of these ancient mountains remain cloaked in a dusky blue twilight. We drove straight into their folds.
By the time we hiked up into the woods, it was already mid-afternoon. Unlike time’s normal routine of skittering past your grasp and forever down its rabbit hole, this bright day just seemed to get bigger and bigger. Sometimes, when you really lose yourself in nature, time stretches so thin it almost ceases to exist. We spent long, sun-dappled moments swimming in the cold mountain river, leaping from one boulder of moss to another and exploring the awakening forest.
I got lost for hours laying in a bed of partridge berry. This lovely, creeping evergreen dripped from rock faces, tree roots, and rhododendron shade everywhere. It was profuse. An incredible native medicinal, I leisurely collected handful upon handful as the day drew on. (If you want to know more about this humble and powerful plant, check out Juliet Blankespoor’s awesome post on her blog Castanea).
We snacked on black walnuts (gathered this past fall by many friends with black hands!) and ate dried wild apples.
That night we cooked local deer and wild rice (harvested, danced upon, and carried back to Appalachia all the way from Minnesota) over an open fire. We rolled our sleeping bags out on the ground, spent one last moment looking up at the black silhouettes of the trees, and then fell asleep under the stars.
In moments like these, I can’t help but be left in wonder. How charmed life can be.
A friend of mine recently returned from the Florida Earthskills Gathering, an event that brings together builders, hunters, herbalists, basket weavers, storytellers, tool makers, woodworkers and other generally talented and awesome people of all kinds. It is also an incredible excuse to jump ship in the middle of Appalachian winter and head down to sunny, breezy, sweet-livin’ Florida, where February means flowers as big as your head and citrus that literally drips from the trees.
Anyways, a couple friends of mine live on land down in central Florida that is surrounded by nothin by wilderness– live oaks, long leaf pines, cypress trees and, you guess it, citrus, citrus, citrus. From what I hear from those lucky post-Earthskills visitors it was a veritable feast. As with all wild foods, you never know exactly what you’re going to get. All the variants that come with living and growing in the wild means, well, that the results are a bit wild too! Some years the citrus is bitter as seed, while others they are all as sour as unripe lemons! This year, apparently, was a very good year.
When my friend showed up in my kitchen last week with a whole potato sack of wild citrus I was elated! He had just spent the entire day traveling back to the mountains, a long drive fueled solely on citrus, so he declined any further bites. I, on the other hand, palmed an orange immediately and dug right in. Wow! I have never tasted such crushingly sweet, juicy, and interestingly delicate citrus in my life! I swear, I can taste the sun inside of them. Every time I imbibe I must eat them over the sink or out on the grass because its like cradling a bowl of OJ. I love everything about them. How rough and weathered they appear on the outside, how stubbornly they give up their skin, even how many seeds pop out into my mouth or flow down my hands like small canoes on a sweet and frothy river. Perfection. Winter has been pretty mild around these parts but, even so, halving open a beautiful wild fruit in the middle of a bare February day in the mountains is nothing short of bliss.