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.
I knew something important was aching to unfold, and that stepping out into the great unknown, on my own, was important. And so I did. I started those first lonely weeks without a single piece of furniture or any connections in town. It was exhilarating and terrifying, and some days I wondered how I would handle the bigness of it all.
I was still sleeping on a pallet on the floor of my room when the violets arrived. It started with a few small handfuls of violets, scattered here and there, like tiny daubs of lavender amongst the winter-flattened grass. And then one morning I awoke and the entire hillside was alive with grape and hyacinth. Stretching for almost an acre, I was living amongst a sea of Viola. It was spectacular, and often stirred me to tears. When I looked at them I had the distinct feeling that I too was being seen.
I didn’t know it then, but this was one of my first initiations into Intuitive Plant Medicine.
Like most denizens of mainstream culture, I grew up seeing violets but never really seeing them. Suddenly, at this pivotal moment in my life it was as if I was experiencing violets for the very first time— and I was drinking it in. I munched on the flowers and leaves in every salad. I made violet tea (a gorgeous amethyst-hued brew). I candied the flowers and tried my hand at violet syrup. I sat amongst them, drew them, spoke to them. I walked past them and felt them reach out to me.
I had a hard time communicating what I was experiencing but it often brought me to tears. They were healing me. I was in herb school at the time, learning the ins and outs of plant constituents, but there was something lacking from all the violet material medicas I read through. It didn’t capture the sunlit spectrum of what I was experiencing. There was something more, something singing. I could hear it in a place before words.
So I stepped out of the textbook knowing and into my direct experience and I was given something absolutely life changing, a shift in the deepest well of my being. I began working directly with Violet and everything I had been hoping to embody, approach, and initiate through my move to Appalachia came to fruition.
A solidness in my sense of self. A slow removal from the pattern of people pleasing that had defined my life before. An ease in my aloneness, when once there was fear of disappointing others. It turned the tired stereotype of the shy violet on its head, so I could understand (finally) that my long-begrudged inwardness and empathy was a powerful strength indeed. I saw my unique sensitivity for what it is— a gift.
I began to experience myself, and the world, in ways I had never accessed before. And I realized that this was the kind of medicine I came to the mountains to practice. The kind of medicine that brings you to your knees in profundity, the kind of medicine that helps you activate the medicine of your own being. This was Intuitive Plant Medicine, and this was what I was here to learn, teach and share.
Since that time I have had violets come up again and again in my practice, and I am always amazed by how it continues to appear in people’s lives during such similar transitions and big moments of finding one’s medicine.
This kind of direct, multidimensional experience of healing is what Intuitive Plant Medicine truly is. And this is what we (the plants and myself) are so exited to be sharing with you in the new Intuitive Plant Medicine online course.
Packed into this eight week online experience is a deep wealth of such aha moments. Big gateways of inner-growth, self-understanding and truly luminous connections to the plant realm. If you have been waiting for the time to ignite your own inner knowing and profound direct relationship with plants, come join us!
Registration closes on April 28th and we begin as a group shortly thereafter on May 1st. See you in the field of dreams!
>> The Medicine of Violets <<
As a physical medicine, violets are rich indeed. Both violet leaves and flowers are edible, and are some of my favorite additions to early spring salads. The heart-shaped leaves are highly nutritive, subtly flavored, and a wonderful source of Vitamins A and C. They are also quite mucilaginous. Herbs that have mucilage are deeply soothing for our stomachs and internal mucosa, helping to ease inflamed throats and impaired digestion. Mucilage is also chock full of soluble fiber, so it can be helpful in easing constipation, feeding our beneficial digestive flora, and lowering cholesterol levels. The mucilage of violet leaves can be a lovely addition to thicken soups or a batch of pesto. I like to take a walk-about every spring morning and gather a small handful of wild greens like chickweed (Stellaria media), dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) and violets to have with my morning eggs.
Violet flowers and leaves are considered to be a blood purifier, or alterative, and are often used as food medicine in spring cleanses. High in both Rutin and Vitamin C, the leaves help to strengthen the blood vessels, lessening varicose veins and the tendency to bruise easily (which can be particularly helpful if you like to ramble in the springtime woods). In clinical trials violets have been shown to be a rich in antioxidants (just look at the color! of course they are!), as well as anti-inflammatory and blood thinning compounds.
The Viola genus has around 550 species, including Johnny jump ups, hearts ease and pansies. Many violet species are used similarly to our familiar lawn-native, Viola sororia, but there are always differences between plants, and some woodland species are endangered so always use your head, guidebook and heart when harvesting. Violet leaves also have some toxic look a-likes so make sure to harvest when the plant is in bloom if you are in any doubt of your ID.
Violets actually have two different flowers. The characteristic purple flower we notice in spring, and a hidden white-blanched bud that flowers just underneath the surface of the soil later in the year. The common above-ground flower is what we use as food and medicine.
As a flower essence, Violet opens a space of deep self-acceptance, contentment, and individual wellbeing. Calming, steadying and maternal, the flower helps you to feel comfortable and supportive of yourself as an individual. Letting go of negative attachments and patterns of relating (especially to oneself). Violet helps us to foster good connections that come from a deep recognition of self-importance. It is often helpful during breakups, major heart transitions, or in times of self-exploration. The essence can be indicated for those who tend towards shyness and introversion as well as those who would do well to spend more time in quiet reflection and reverence of their lives.
Violet helps us to appreciate stillness— mindful observation, moments of silence, and the important joy of just being. It can expand your abilities as a listener, both to yourself as well as to others, and open you to a powerful place of acceptance. Violet encourages a commitment to be warm and generous towards oneself, it can help separate the negative feelings of loneliness from the incredible gift of alone-ness. It is sometimes within such still spaces that we recognize just how joyful it is to be ourselves, a being in springtime.
Whenever I travel I always pack a medicine pouch. Over time this has evolved. From bandaids and first aid salves to tinctures, feathers, stones and talismans. As the years flow by my very definition of medicine changes, grows, and transforms– from the sturdy resiliency of the western medical breastplate, to the more ineffable healing of the natural world, quiet and effective as the swoop of silent downy owls. More than a balm for physical aliments, Medicine is anything that helps you to grow, transform, fulfill, and remember. Medicine is a kind of energy that can bring us back to the truth of our mystery. Medicine, real medicine, reminds us of who we are — infinite creatures who are capable of infinite healing.
Traveling itself is a deep kind of medicine for me. It is a time when I am allowed a kind of shamans-view of my life. I slip out of the confines of my day-to-day and journey, meeting strange and wonderful allies, encountering obstacles, seeing life from an expanded perspective. Every time I travel I come closer to home. I am able, with distance, to see more clearly – what is feeding me, and what isn’t? What newness would I like to call into my life? And what would I like to let go?
Over these next past few weeks I’ve be traveling from the mossy hollows of Washington state to the canyon lands of red-drenched Arizona. In just a few short days I’ll be arriving at the HerbFolk gathering for my teaching debut, and I am elated to be passing the time until then swimming in streams and lounging amongst their lemon and limestone banks. My medicine bag for each journey is different, as I change and grow and transform, so does my medicine. As a snapshot in time, I am offering a petite view into my medicine bag for this trip. This is where I am. This is my medicine.
Spilanthese flowers: This zesty eyeball-like flower is one of my most important travel remedies. A brightening immune stimulant, I nibble on a flower head or take a couple droppersful of the tincture whenever I feel the icy approach of a cold or illness. It is particularly helpful when wanting to avoid airplane plagues. I like to dry the flower and wrap them up in smoky pieces of buckskin for safekeeping. It’s simple to travel with on trains or trails, and still packs a considerable punch! Spilanthes is easily adaptable to a wide variety of garden soils and such a curiously fun plant to grow.
Spirit Quartz/Cactus amethyst: Sometimes the medicine chooses us. I was at a stone show earlier this summer when this captivating ally drew me in, flickering iridescent like a hummingbird at its nectar. Once I laid eyes upon the crystal patterns of this intricate amethyst I was under it’s spell. I am always cycling in and out of relationship with different stones (just as I am with plant medicines, new music and the very tides). I almost never consciously chose which stone will be at the center of my new medicine wheel, it’ll simply appear in my life as sudden as the full moon rises from a veil of cloud. I can do nothing but stop, steep and howl. I often will “look up” what others have written about a stone long after the initial romance has begun and, most often, what I’ve intuitively picked up is only further embroidered by other’s experiences. This stone has been a powerful ally for me in connecting with the conscious creativity of my wider spirit, inviting deeper awareness of my particular brand of power and an invocation to personal evolution.
Black tourmaline I almost always carry this piece of black tourmaline on me. It is helpful for creating healthy psychic boundaries as well as protecting against negative energies. As someone who identifies as unavoidably empathic (sometimes detrimentally so!) I value the companionship of this stone deeply. Known to help those who hold a lot of energy to “decharge”, it is a vital stone for anyone who facilitates healing work. I like to hold a piece of black tourmaline after my consultation sessions or classes to return to my own naturally grounded state of being.
Kunzite + Mimosa Elixir Every time I travel I choose one vibrational elixir to imbibe every day. These past few weeks I’ve been exploring with Kunzite + Mimosa, a deeply inspirational (and impeccably timed) vibrational pairing. This past summer an idea for a new line of medicine called Earth Alchemy began to take shape. Like dawn through the earliest fog, it began with a whisper. I had never thought to combine kunzite stone and mimosa flower together when one day, like a songbird landing on the ledge of a clearly lit window, the two of them simply appeared to me. I certainly never ignore the implorings of any kind of earth messengers, and so began a whole new era of medicine making. I’m hoping to do a longer post where I can visit on the inspirations these two vital medicines have brought to me but, in the meantime, I continue to be this elixir’s devotee. Joy exists in every moment, and in every moment we have the opportunity to simply enjoy. A natural pairing of soft heart openers, Kunzite + Mimosa helps us to inhabit our innate spirit of optimistic effervescence and glee. I couldn’t think of a better medicine to accompany me on these travels. How blessed I’ve been on this journey…Rose Petal offerings It is important to me to bring offerings whenever I travel. Handharvested sage, tobacco from my garden, stones I found and greatly love. I like to leave offerings where ever I lay my head– at the roots of tree, in the banks of rivers, and with friends who graciously offer to host me. This trip I’ve brought a very special offering with me. These rose petals graced a creativity altar of mine from this past spring. The altar, which was laden with fresh roses, citrine and zincite, was instrumental in helping me to begin working on a long-dreamed project– my book! I lovingly dried each rose petal from that altar and now, over 8 months later, I’ve decided to take these vibrantly creative offerings with me. I give gratitude with all my heart, my hands, and from the deepest flow of my spirit’s creativity.
Elecampagne Root I love to dry roots and bring them with me as an easy-to-chew remedy. Elecampagne is such a valuable ally for me in times of digestive upset, coughs, colds and bronchial disparity. I particularly love to gnaw on a knob when I’ve had one too many airport meals. When I’m nervous I pull out a thin root to chew steadily, it never fails to assuage shaky or nervous energy.
Fresh herbs, warm breezes and evenings that come to life. Summer is one of my favorite seasons for luxury and languor. When the days are hot and the hours long I usually find myself gravitating toward nighttime kitchen crafting and, of course, cocktails.
I am a night owl by nature. I thrive like a moonflower in rich evening hues. When the clock strikes midnight something about those high shadows bring me to life. It’s been that way since before I can remember, I imagine it’ll remain that way for the rest of my life. Summer, in all its bounty of cucumber nights, tangy sunsets and sherbet-colored sunrises, is the one season where such late night behavior is not only condoned, it’s encouraged.
Last month we hosted our annual summer cocktail soiree. Every year we kick the gathering up another notch. Usually we put out at least several herbal cocktail potions for people to sample, often with a written invocation to read and a deep intention to set the mood. This year, inspired by the rainbowed bounty of our well-tended garden, we offered a whole bar of fresh squeezed juice, seasonal syrups, and medicinal bitters for our guests to peruse.Herbs are the original liqueur accoutrements; they have the ability to give any drink a touch of the sensational. Long before herbalists were making tinctures, herb folk of all kinds were using plants to ferment meads, spice cordials, and smooth liquors. The whole ritual of a pre-dinner cordial originated as a way to improve digestion by imbibing medicinal digestive bitters.
Crafting your own bitters and syrups is simple, and sure to make a wave at your next soirée. I love to focus on what is most currently bursting into bloom. Medicine making, like superb hostessing skills, is about way more than just combining the ingredients. It is an alchemical mix of season and sensation, temptation and mood. I prefer to create my syrups and bitters in tune with nature’s own rhythm, encapsulating each herb at the height of their potency or bloom. By doing so each bottle becomes a kind of capsule, an entryway into a distinctively fragrant, intoxicatingly specific moment in time.As a hostess, I am interested in creating an experience that can be remembered with every one of the senses. Unique, exploratory, and delicious—Herbal bitters and liqueurs will never be forgotten. Interested in crafting your own medicinal syrups and sensational brews? Read on for some simple how-to’s…
+++ Medicinal Syrups +++
Medicinal syrups are simple, versatile and oh-so delicious. Syrups make wonderful medicine for young children or the picky of palate, and are simply divine when mixed with late-evening cocktails.
- Gather, Harvest, Chop. To start, harvest or gather your material. I like to collect what is most fresh, abundant and seasonally sensational. How much material you harvest will depend on how much syrup you’d like to create! In general, you can guesstimate by chopping or otherwise pressing your herb into a measuring cup. You can expect the finished product to produce about as much volume as the original fresh herb. (Ex: If I harvested ½ oz of fresh lavender flowers, I will generally expect ½ oz finished syrup)
Note on processing: Some small or delicate herbs, like lavender flowers for example, will not need to be further chopped or processed. Simply add them straight to your water. Bark, like black birch, will need to be stripped from the branches with a knife. Roots must be roughly chopped, a butchers knife or pair of pruners work well.
Dry vs Fresh: Fresh herbs already have a good amount of water content inherent to them, so they will be fluffier, bigger, and more voluminous than dry herbs. As a general rule I use a 1:1 ratio of herb to water if using fresh herbs, and a 1:2 ratio of herb to water if using dried herbs.
- Make a strong tea. Once you have your herb chopped or otherwise processed you are ready to make the base of your syrup…a strong tea!
If using herbs + flowers: Make an infusion- bring your water to a boil separately, than turn the burner off completely. Remove from heat and add your herb content to the hot water. Cover the whole concoction for 20-30 minutes to steep. (Examples of herbs to infuse: lavender, lemonbalm, mint, basil)
If using bark, roots, berries or seeds (tougher material): Make a decoction- add your herb directly to your water and bring the whole mixture to a boil. Reduce the boil to a simmer and cover for 20 minutes. (Examples of herbs to decoct: sassafras, cinnamon, elderberries coriander, black birch, wild cherry)
- Strain your tea. Once your tea is done steeping or simmering, run your tea through a strainer to filer out all the plant material. (A fine mesh spaghetti strainer perched over a wide mouthed bowl works supremely well)
- Gently reheat your tea (sans herb material) and add the sweetener. What makes a syrup so sweet? Why, sweetener of course! The sweetener is also a natural preservative, which is how syrup came about in the first place (and to get children to drink their medicine!). A general ratio is 1 cup sugar or honey per 1 cup water. But you can add the sugar/honey to your taste. The higher the sugar content the longer your syrup will keep.
- Storage. Plain syrups are best imbibed within two weeks of creation. If you’d like to keep your syrup for several seasons you can add alcohol to preserve. In general, a syrup with about 20% alcohol content will preserve long-term. If you have dipped into making infused liqueurs or tinctures it’s fun to experiment with preserving your syrup with an already altered alcohol (such as adding a dash of ginger tequila to a cinnamon syrup). If making syrup as medicine, adding a medicinal tincture to your syrup greatly increases its potency. When I make elderberry syrup I combine previously infused elderberry tincture to my freshly made concoction for full spectrum medicinal mixture. Store your syrups in the refrigerator to prolong their life.
+++ Herbal Bitters +++
Herbal bitters are a hot commodity these days, as our modern diets are embarrassingly lacking in this traditional taste. Bitters are amazing agents of digestion, helping to increase the production of our digestive juices, dramatically improving processing, retention and even our mood! (If you haven’t already, check out the bevy of research illustrating our brain/gut connection) Bitter constituents are prevalent in many of our healing herbs, and can often be used as an indicator for a plant’s medicinal strength! Bitters are the prince who has been unceremoniously turned into a frog and I think it’s time to give all our bitters a good kiss on the lips and induct them back into the romance of our kitchens.
Making your own bitters can be as simple as covering a handful of dandelion roots in some alcohol, or as complex as creating your own Peychaud’s. I’m offering a very simple guide here, but feel free to be as creative as a butterfly between hibiscus leaves!
- Gather your bitter herbs. Some well known and deliciously effective, bitter roots include dandelion, sassafras, elecampagne, Oregon grape, angelica and ginger. You might also want to try citrus peels, vervain, cacao pods, coffee beans, fennel, and (the gold standard of bitters) gentian (I recommend using the flowers of gentian, rather than the root, as it is over-harvested)
+Aromatic vs simple bitter: Aromatic bitters are bitters that have a warming, stimulating, often quite spicy flavor. They are bitter… with a kick! Some good examples include elecampagne, angelia, sassafras and ginger. Simple bitters are just that, simply bitter. Simple bitters include gentian, Oregon grape root, yellow root and dandelion .
- Create your tincture. Making bitters is basically just a process of making a tincture. You can choose to create single herb batches or throw it all together into one! The benefit of single herb batches is the ability to mix and match. Also, kitchen-sink batches can sometimes end up tasting dominantly like one herb or another, depending on what heavy hitters you’re using. If you are interest in a whole-shebang type of bitter I suggest looking up recipes for proportions online! (These recipes from The Kitchn look divine)
Chop or otherwise process your herb so it is in small pieces. The more surface area of herb touching your alcohol, the stronger your mixture will become. Put your herb into a glass mason jar and cover with booze of choice. Store your bitter brew in a dark place for 6 days up to 6 weeks! Sample your bitters frequently, their taste will change overtime. If you are in a hurry you can make your bitter batch the very week of your soiree. Just remember, bitter compounds often take a few days to really steep. I have a friend who found this out the hard way when he was making a stevia extract. He let the stevia leaf sit for longer than the recommended couple days and his extract turned out mouth puckeringly bitter, which would have been wonderful for some pre-dinner digestive, but not so stellar for making sweets!
A note on alcohols: I really enjoy vodka for my bitters. Vodka tends to have less of an innate flavor than other alcohols. If you want a fuller, huskier batch of bitters try brandy or even whiskey. Gin is already chocked full of herbs, but I bet it wouldn’t mind a few more companions!
- Press and Bottle your bitters. When your tincture brew has sat long enough to pucker your taste buds, it’s time to press and bottle your bitters. I like to pour my alcohol/herb slurry through a fine mesh strainer first to separate the alcohol from the herb. Then, I take the left-over herb content and press it in a potato masher to extract every last drop of juice. Conversely, if I don’t have such a press, I dish out the herb into a tight weave cloth and wring it by hand. Whatever method you choose, as long as you are separating the alcohol from the herb content you are doing it right!
Now is the time to add in any extras. Perhaps some fresh pressed OJ to your orange bitters brew? Mint syrup or wildflower honey? Is your bitter crafted for any specific drink in mind, or a simple pre-dinner sipping cordial? Your bitter is your tabula rasa, feel free to get wildly creative.
When you bitters are mixed to your taste filter them into a bottle for storage. I will often line the filer with some fine meshed cheese cloth to catch any last debris, and funnel directly into the bottle. Label, cap, store! Your bitters should last decades if they are a simple alcohol solution. If you added any additional juices or sweeteners you can refrigerate and keep your bitters for 2-5 years.
+++ Garnishes +++
Great cocktails (and parties for that matter) are all about the accoutrements. Here are some great hints to add some extra sparkle to your night.
Edible flowers: Summer is a bounty of edible flowers, including calendula, daylily, lavender, beebalm, mint, honeysuckle and sage. Don’t forget to scatter your bar with fresh flowers and garnish your drinks with their petals and blooms. Spilanthes makes a particularly striking edible flower when skewered on a tooth pick and floated into a drink. Sometimes called eyeball plant, this mouth-tingling (and immune enhancing) flower is an oddball cocktail garnish that has been gaining popularity amongst the herbally inclined.
Creative citrus: Simple lemon wedges are so utilitarian. Try slicing a rainbow of citruses into wheels instead to illuminate your drink with vibrant moons. Zest your lemon or lime on top of a well mixed drink for some extra magic in your sipping experience.
Decorative ice cubes: Why should ice be boring? Anoint your ice cub trays with edible flowers from the garden like borage, bee balm or calendula. Just add your flowers to your ice cube tray, cover with water, and freeze. Use immediately to preserve the flowers color and flavor. (On that note, would you like to see the most gorgeous herbal ice cube blog post on the internet?)
+++ Herbal Cocktail Recipes +++
You’ve sampled your syrups and bragged about your bitters, now is the time to become a maestro (and maybe get a bit tipsy) with your herbal creations! For our part we cajoled our friend, and esteemed cocktail Prometheus, Curtiss P. Martin to bartend at our party. After stealing fire (and sassafras syrup) from the gods he came up with the following cocktail mixes. Read on for details about how to shake up such treats, and what medicine is inherent to each drink.
This evening, or sometime very soon, I invited you to whip yourself up one of these drinks. Kick off the day’s to-dos. Let down your hair and get barefoot outside. Drink in the cool of these ephemeral summer evenings. Sip, enjoy, let go, luxuriate.
1oz Fresh-pressed Watermelon Juice
1/2oz Fresh-pressed Lime Juice
1/2oz Tulsi Syrup
4-6 Mint leaves, Muddled
Dry Shake, Add Ice, Soda to Fill
Mint + Lime Garnish
1oz Fresh-pressed Lime Juice
3/4oz Local Honey Syrup
1/2oz Fresh Orange Bitters
Garnish with thin lime wheel and fresh honeysuckle flowers
Birchbark Sassafras Daiquiri
2oz Spiced Rum
1oz Fresh-pressed Lime Juice
1/2oz Sassafras Syrup
1/2oz Black Birchbark Syrup
Thin Lime wheel Garnish
Black Birch bark: Wintergreen minty and delicious, Birch bark is a lovely remedy for muscle aches, joint pain, headaches and inflammation. The secret of Black Birch’s minty relief lies within its methyl salicylates— the aromatic pain-relieving compound from which our modern day aspirin is derived.
Sassafras: One of the original ingredients in rootbeer (and America’s first wildly successful export) sassafras has a distinctly exotic flavor. The root bark of this yummy plant is known to help stimulate our bodies and minds, ease indigestion, alleviate inflammation and cleanse the blood. Used acutely for colds, flus, fever and rheumatism, Sassafras has been a beloved medicine in North America for thousands of years.
Tulsi Gin + Tonic
3/4 Tulsi syrup
Tonic to Fill
Lime wedge +Tulsi sprig Garnish
Tulsi: One of the most sacred herb of India, this holy plant has been grown as a truly miraculous health tonic for thousands of years. Tulsi (or Holy Basil) is a gentle and effective adaptogen– it helps the body and mind to deal with stress, encouraging gracefulness in your every day dealings. Tulsi is also an antibacterial, antiviral, antioxidant, antiinflammatory, antidepressant and immunomodulator. Traditionally, holy basil was called upon for colds and flus, indigestion, and as a tonic for asthma and sinus allergies. This sweet and tasty herb is also a supremely clearing tonic for the mind; it has found to be helpful in unfocused thinking, poor memory, forgetfulness, ADD and ADHD. In Ayurvedic medicine, Tulsi is though to balance all seven chakras and considered to be a rasayanic herb, or a medicine that brings balance to the emotions and promotes the feelings of devotion, love and compassion.
Lavender Blueberry Ricky
1oz Fresh-pressed Blueberry Juice
1/2oz Fresh-pressed Lime Juice
3/4 Lavender Syrup
Soda to fill
Lavender flower Garnish
Lavender: Oh, the joys of fresh lavender. This much beloved flower is known to help soothe digestion, calm the spirit, and settle the nerves. Used for centuries to freshen dwellings, lavender is a renown antibacterial and antifungal, as well as a beloved herb for rest and relaxation.
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.
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.
Lately, I have been a girl in love. Wildflowers are climbing over moss and besides creeks and in every ditch and gully from here to the highlands. It’s some kind of heaven. I always forget, every year, just how stunnily beuatiful these empheral moments of color can be. These flowers dissipate as quickly as the fog on the ground of a sunny morning. One moment they are there and the next, they are gone. Perhaps that is why they call them spring empherals. And perhaps that is why I love them so.
Last week I went on my first true wildcrafting trip of the season. A carfull of botany friends and wildliving lovers packed into my car and drove out north to a spot I have heard much about, but had never visited before. Miles and miles on backroads and a forged creek later, we arrived.
There were wildflowers living in every crease of the landscape. It was thrilling! I walked with one hand out in front me like someone grasping at an apparition, and the other planted firmly on my camera.
There was one flower is particular, however, for which I searched. For a year I have been waiting to meet Pedicularis again. I cannot tell you how steadily I watched the slow progression from slate to blue to green with a sole heartug of wonder….”when will Pedicularis peek up once more?” This wild-haired flower is an important and profound medicine. There are people close to me who use this medicine daily for chronic muscular pain. For some, this flower can be a literal saving grace. A nervine, hypnotic, antispasmodic, and amourant, Pedicularis is one of the best skeletal muscle relaxants on the planet. Eat a leaf while you’re hiking and you will most liking feel as chilled out as this bee. This robust flower bursts from the ground in such an inconspicuous pomp and whorl. Once you spot it, however, it will draw you in hypnotized, humble, and spinning.
If you want to learn more about this incredible flower, please visit herbalist extraordinaire 7Song’s seriously wonderful monograph. He’s included pretty much everything you could ever want to know about Pedicularis. Awesome.
Below are two more beautiful spring medicines. Wood anemone (the shy and mesmerizing white flower on the left) is used for panic and anxiety attacks, migraines, and to help ease out of “bad trips.” Wild Geranium root (on the right) is an extremely astringent medicine that can be especially useful for those with IBD, Celiacs, ulcers, and diarrhea, as it helps to tighten the digestive tract.
What more can I say. Is there anything more exquisite than spring flowers? They are born and live as eternally as fawns, wide eyed and full of purpose for just a few foaling weeks. I would happily settle for such an existence. Wouldn’t you?
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.