The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Sustainable Living

Taking Advantage of Abundance and Learning the Lesson of Scarcity November 18, 2014

Ripening Strawberry!

Ripening Strawberry!

I think one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the past six years as a wild food forager, organic gardener, and localvore are the lessons of abundance and scarcity, and the interplay between the two. Crops fail, others boom, patches of mushrooms are discovered and never found again.  You never know what a year will be like on your homestead, or what the season will be like for foraging.  You’ll never know when you go somewhere new what you will find–if anything.  You have something really great happen one year–like a huge patch of wild berries turned into jam–and then the next two years, the berry patch isn’t producing because the weather early in the season was too cold or there was a late frost.  Or the sap runs abundantly one year, or in the next, its gone. When you do find something exciting, or something you like is in abundance, taking the time to preserve it is an important step.  And when the seasons change, as they inevitably do, scarcity sets in, and the stores you’ve put by, the jars of food you’ve canned, become an important part of your daily life.  Through these lessons over the years, I’d like to say that I’m beginning to understand abundance and scarcity–and through these lessons, I realize how valuable of concepts they are to help shift our broader cultural consciousness.

 

On the Nature of Abundance

Abundant harvest of black raspberry!

Abundant harvest of black raspberry!

The “abundance” principle thriving at our grocery stores creates some problems within the modern human mind, to say the least. When you always have access to something, like strawberries, those things become commonplace, everyday, routine.  The strawberry that is always abundant and available loses its magic, any sacredness it has.  That strawberry also has little to no value. It further loses this sacredness and value because all you have to do to get your (now tasteless) strawberries is to go to the store and put a plastic container of strawberries in your cart.  You aren’t connected to the strawberry, you didn’t plant the plants, you didn’t watch them flower, grow, ripen.  You haven’t had the bliss of putting that first strawberry of the season in your mouth.  You certainly aren’t thinking about drought or famine or pesticides or who picked it under which conditions or any other concerns about that strawberry.  The cost of the strawberry and the look of the strawberry are the only problems.  The taste isn’t even a factor when you pick it off the shelf in most cases.  The strawberry is just another good to be consumed. Never, at any other time in human history, were people so disconnected from the contexts in which their food is produced and grown.  Food always being abundant in the grocery store masks the circumstances in which it is produced, masks the manner of the production, masks anything out of balance that might be  problematic.   It also disconnects us from the seasons and cycles of our landscapes.  But the most deep problem, I believe, is that we assume its always going to be there, like magic, when we want it, and if its not perfect, we can throw it away and get more.  And because we can get all of it anytime we like, its not really sacred anymore; the act of eating and communing isn’t a sacred act.

 

If food isn’t valued or sacred, it ends up going to waste.  The food waste data on this country (and many industrialized nations) is appalling: in the US, up to 40% of the food produced in this country is wasted at some step: in the fields, in the factories, at the supermarkets, at home.  Waste happens all along the system, from homes to restaurants, from corporate food policies, to grocery stores.  Most of it is not composted or returned to the cycle of nutrients, but is thrown away.  If food waste could be gotten under control, that’s 40% less land we would need, less pesticides, less fossil fuel…less of everything (even assuming an industrialized food model).   And we have many hungry people here and elsewhere that could benefit from that food.  I think part of the way we can get food waste under control is by people growing a bit more of their own, which introduces the concepts of abundance and scarcity and also increases the value of the food to them because they have put hard work into growing it.   The principle of waste doesn’t just apply to food–we are inundated with “stuff” in this culture; cheap stuff that wears out quickly and stuff that encourages us to produce more waste.  This, also, is a problem of abundance–too much stuff = too little value.

 

Abundant Quinces

Abundant Quinces

Furthermore, supermarket abundance isn’t real abundance.  Its abundance propped up by fossil fuel, which is really only condensed, trapped energy from the sun under pressure and transformation for 10′s of 1000′s of years.  And this is a critical distinction to make–abundance in our immediate landscapes is different than perceived supermarket abundance. Fossil fuel abundance isn’t the land producing extensively; its the factory farms producing a shoddy, likely GMO, and likely pesticide ridden thing that masquerades as abundant food.

 

What does abundance in the land (as opposed to the grocery store) look like? Last year, we had one of the most abundant apple harvests that anyone here in Michigan can remember.  The trees were literally so full of fruit that they were breaking under the weight of their branches.  Most people I saw on the streets in my nearby town bitterly complained about the apples falling in their front yards.  They piled them up in heaps on the curb with their fall leaves.  And then those same people would go out to to the store and buy jars of applesauce and little bags of apples that were more “perfect” than the ones that fell off the trees in the backyard.  The permies in the area, of course, had huge pressing parties.  I’d like to think the apple harvest last year had something to do with our yearly Wassail rites, but I digress…This year, the apple harvest in this area was literally non-existent.  Apples, hawthorns, crabapples, most other tree fruit crops largely failed to produce any harvest, even a meager one.  And when you depend on wild apples for applesauce and pressing into cider, you begin to understand the meaning of scarcity.

 

The strawberry in an abundant year is different.  This year, I had a prolific strawberry harvest out of my little strawberry spiral I planted two years ago.  The strawberries didn’t do much their first or second years.  This year…magic happened.  The strawberries crawled over the spiral path and it was lost.  They bloomed, and bloomed, and finally burst forth with delicious fruit.  These were the best strawberries I have ever eaten, the most incredible food I could ever have imagined. I harvested and canned almost 50 lbs…and then friends came over, harvested, and canned themselves.  Other friends wanted plants for themselves, and the strawberries were so abundant that they took 100′s of plants without making a dent in my patch.  Then in the fall, they fruited again and I had a few handfuls before the frost made everything die back earlier this month.  The little patch is now covered in snow, and  I now have jars and jars of strawberry jam, strawberry rhubarb jam, and strawberry vanilla jam.  I appreciate the abundance of the strawberry, and recognize that it will once again be scarce.   So I value it and make the most of it when it is around!

 

Understanding Scarcity

The lesson of scarcity is a critical one, and one we’ve completely lost in modern consumerist societyConsumerist society, with its grocery stores full of perfect(ly chemical ridden) produce is season-less and context-less.  In my lifetime, the grocery stores have nearly always been abundant.  Strawberries are always in season in my grocery store.  Tomatoes and peppers are always available.  I can pretty much have whatever I want, when I want it, and as much as I want, provided I can shell out the cash. If something I want isn’t on the shelf, it will be back in only a few days’ time, if I even have to wait that long.  And the food is context-less because I rarely know where it came from, perhaps a state or country of origin, but literally nothing else. In other words, consumerist society has pushed us to believe that everything is always abundant.  This is not how it really is on my homestead, in the places I forage or the lands that I walk.  This is not how it really is at all, nor how it has been for most of human history.

 

Scarcity is a lived experience of so many around the world, including plenty in this country, but for those with privilege, its possible they have never experienced it.  Scarcity also takes many forms–it can be scarcity in resources to pay for food, scarcity in the food itself, scarcity in other life’s necessities.  And its not always pretty, but it certainly does have lessons to teach.  In the foraging and organic gardening world, scarcity is what makes things special, magical, and full of value.  It is scarcity that allows me to savor every bite of the strawberry jam I made, because my strawberries taste better than anyone else’s, and my jam is better than I can buy, and I only have a limited quantity of it.

 

Scarcity teaches us value.  I found zero chicken of the woods mushrooms that were in the condition to eat this year–but my parents found some, and the few bags of them they gave me are prized, important.  I will savor every bite.  We had few black raspberries or blackberries this year, so again, the stores I had from the year before are valuable, sacred, and eaten with reverence and respect.  It is only when you do not have something, or you lose something, that you really understand its value.  When I was a kid, my parents didn’t let me eat crappy sugary cereals.  Once a year, my sister and I could pick out any cereal we wanted.  That cereal was valued, important, special, cause we only got it once a year.  While my parents did this to promote health, it taught us a valuable lesson–that of scarcity.  They made the act of eating a sugary cereal a special thing, not a commonplace occurrence.

 

Life in the Water

Life in the Water

I think about the drought going on now through most of the west, especially in California.  Water is another limited resource that we often take granted, and I think when you lose it and it becomes scarce, you learn to value it.  I learn this same lesson about water and electricity every time our power goes out–the well is powered by electricity; if there is no electricity, there is no water.  When the power went out for 7 days last November, I very much appreciated it when it turned back on. In many ways, the lack of water is much harder to deal with than the lack of electricity!  These scarcities, temporary or more long-term, teach lessons that are hopefully longstanding–that all resources on this earth are precious, valued, and limited.

 

This is, I think, the most important lesson that scarcity has to teach us. Scarcity teaches us about limitations.  Despite the way that humanity is acting towards this planet, the planet is finite, precious, limited, magical, valuable.  When you understand the limitations and what scarcity does, it teaches us to be mindful and aware.  It gives us a sense of appreciation for what we do have.  If we can get into this mindful mindset taught to us through the experience of scarcity, we can apply this mindset broadly in our lives and come to the understanding that everything is precious, valued, magical.  We can realize that every action has consequences, every thing we buy is something that should be considered for the long term.  We can can monitor everything that goes into the trash, or hopefully stop having trash at all.

 

I think if we can better understand the nature of scarcity, and experience it in our lives willfully, it allows us to make better choices.  We can live simply, better, within our limits, and without so much stuff.  And that is of benefit to ourselves, our communities, and our world.

 

Don’t Bag Your Leaves: An Analysis of Nutrient Loss and Soil Depletion for Leaf Removal November 7, 2014

This is the time of year when the leaves all drop in their delightfully whimsical fashion.  And yet, it seems that fall is not an enjoyable time for many, especially if those leaves end up on the lawn. I’ve discussed problems with the practice of keeping a lawn before, and today, I’d like to look at our relationship to leaves and typical practices for dealing with leaves.  People spend quite a bit of their own energy and fossil fuel energy removing leaves from their lawns (raking, blowing, mowing, and so on).  These leaves seem to end up in three places for a typical American household in the sprawling urban and suburban areas:

 

  1. In bags on the side of the roads for “compost” (most common in my area by far)
  2. Blown onto the side of the road and left there and/or picked up by the city (more typical in urban settings)
  3. In a burn pile smouldering away (this also happens a lot where I live).

 

Some of the more radical folk, like permies and guerrilla gardeners the like, might end up composting their leaves in our gardens or otherwise keeping the nutrients on our properties; but this is a rather rare approach and one not practiced by the bulk of the American populace. Many of us who are radical gardeners go out seeking the bags of leaves left on the curb to bring additional nutrients to our properties (I do this every year).  However, not all of us have the benefit of composting or keeping our leaves–not raking, mulching, or composting leaves is illegal in some township or city mandates and also in many subdivisions throughout the US. And leaves aren’t often the only things found in the leaf compost bags–usually when I go out to collect, I find a good deal of other matter and live plants.  This year, at about 10% of the houses where I picked up leaves, I also found the remains of someone’s backyard garden (tomatoes) and at another 10% I found other kinds of food from trees just thrown away (walnuts, apples, acorns, pears, etc).

 

And so, today, I’d like to explore this practice a bit and its long-term impacts on soil health…and what we might do instead.

 

Leaves from the side of the road for my garden!

Leaves from the side of the road for my garden!

What’s Written on the Bag: Linguistic Framing of Leaves

When people talk about the leaves that drop from the trees in the fall, they often call it “leaf litter” or “yard waste.”  Looking at the brown paper bags that people buy to store their leaves in for pickup, they say “Lawn refuse” or “Yard Waste” or “Refuse” on the sides. We label the bags and then frame what we put in them as waste or refuse; something to be discarded.  So we are already creating a framework for seeing materials that come from our yards as “waste” rather than seeing the nutrients in the leaves as a valuable thing.

 

What’s in the Leaves: Nutrients Contained in Fallen Leaves

The other issue I’ve been pondering for some time is the nutritional content of the leaves, and how many nutrients leave a typical American lawn in suburbia each year when they are discarded.  I found a reasonable analysis about the nutrient content leaves here; their calculations are based on one ton of leaves (which, granted, is a lot of leaves).  This section presents a look at the nutrient content in leaves and how much is lost when we put them on the curb (or how much is gained by picking up someone else’s leaves).

 

According to the analysis above, 1 ton (2000 lbs) of leaves has the following:

  • 940 lbs of carbon
  • 20 lbs of nitrogen
  • 2 lbs phosphorus
  • 2 lbs potassium
  • 32.8 lbs calcium
  • 4.8 lbs magnesium
  • 2.2 lbs sulfur
  • Plus other nutrients and a great deal of organic matter (organic matter not calculated)

 

Before I get into my analysis of how much we lose by putting leaves on the corner, I have a few caveats.  First, this kind of analysis requires quite a bit of assumptions and estimations; I’ve done my best, but what I have found might be specific to my local area in South-East Michigan.  Second, I’m certain that leaf nutrition varies pretty widely based on the  soil profile of the region, the nutrients present or absent in the soil already, the types of trees, the weather for the year, and so on.  With that said, I do think even a rudimentary analysis, like the one I’m presenting, gives us some starting points.

 

Methods: On my trips out to get leaf bags from the side of the road this year,  I did some counting in my area to estimate the amounts and weights typical bags of leaves had.  I went out for three weeks and brought back 46 bags of leaves; I went out twice each week to different areas within a 3 mile radius of where I lived. I counted how many leaves people left on the curb and when I got back, I weighed them to get their average weight.  In a fourth week it rained, and while I collected bags, I did not weigh them because the water weight would have impacted my findings. I then did some simple math using the numbers above.

 

Amount of leaves per bag and per yard: Most leaf bags I picked up ranged from 8lbs – 22lbs, depending on whether or not they were shredded. Shredded leaf bags typically account for about 20% of the bags I pick up.  Even unshredded bags are often compacted and pretty heavy, especially if the leaves fell relatively flat or were slightly wet when they went in the bag.    The average for the bags was just above 10 lbs.  People in the suburban area where I go leaf hunting put out an average of 4.5 bags of leaves on collection day; some had many more, and most had been putting them out for a period of weeks. My estimate is that most families in my area put out at least 7 bags of leaves in a fall season assuming they have a few trees in their yard dropping leaves; this amounts to about 98 lbs of leaves (I’m going to round this to 100 lbs to make the math simple).

 

So for each 10 lb bag of leaves put on the curb, it has:

  • 4.7 lbs of carbon
  • .1 lbs of nitrogen
  • .01 lbs of phosphorus
  • .01 lbs of potassium
  • .16 lbs of lbs of calcium
  • .02 lbs of magnesium
  • .01 lbs of sulfur
  • And Iron, Zinc, and much, more.

 

That’s a lot of nutrients.  And that’s just the leaves–I don’t have any way of figuring out what whole tomato plants and other plants ripped up from the soil are also contributing, but I suspect these numbers are much higher.  And then, if homeowners are also removing their grass clippings all season long, that’s a whole other calculation to include.

 

There are alternatives!

There are alternatives!

 

What’s Left in the Soil:  Long-Term Removal of Nutrients and Inadequacy of Fertilization

Now one bag of leaves makes an impact, but perhaps a small one.  The problem is that one bag of leaves isn’t what’s being removed–this is about the long-term systematic removal of nutrients from our landscape.  As I was driving through a bunch of Detroit communities last weekend, what really struck me was the age of the houses.  Many of the houses I was looking at literally were 75 years, 100 years, or older.  In my research on dandelions, I discovered that typical lawn practices prevalent today really rose to popularity after World War II, which suggests that people haven’t been bagging up their leaves forever, but likely they have been doing it for some time.  So let’s assume that for the last 50 years, most citizens of Metro Detroit (or any other city or suburban area) have been removing their leaves from their property.  So if we take the numbers above and assume 100 lbs of leaves being removed each year, we end up with nutrient loss something like this:

 

Nutrient Loss over Time

Nutrient Loss for Fall Leaf Removal for 100 Years (all numbers in pounds)

 

These numbers are striking, but what is even more striking is the fact that I haven’t accounted for any other kinds of “yard waste” such as grass clippings (put out on the curb weekly or bi-monthly by many) or other kinds of yard compost that people don’t want.  I might do a case study of this at some point, but for now, we can see the potential for soil nutrient health decline.

 

I’d like to offer one other piece of evidence as well. My house was built in 1945, so my yard likely suffered the same fate for most of the last 70 years as well.  When I got at my homestead a few years ago, prior to putting in the garden, I ran soil tests.   These are exactly where the leaves (and lawn clippings) would have been taken from (and I knew from taking to my neighbors that the people who owned this house did such practices).  I found that the soil where I wanted to put in my garden was pretty much sand.  It had little organic matter and a P.H. of 8.2 (our PH is high in this area, but the lack of organic matter made it higher).  It had only 8 PPM of Phosphorus (considered extremely low), 22 parts per million of potassium (low) and magnesium of only 27 parts per million (extremely low).  To get my soil prepared for growing crops…what did I do? Went around and picked up everyone’s leaves, imported massive amounts of organic matter in the form of manure, compost, and this year, even a pile of seaweed from a local pond.  And now my soil tests are beautiful and my soil is rich and healthy (and much lower in PH thanks to the organic matter all of the leaves helped create).

 

What’s going back into the soil?  Not enough.

In a natural process, assuming no removal of nutrients, it takes 500 years or more to produce one inch of topsoil.  This gives you a sense, I think, of the enormity of the challenges that face us in regenerating landscapes with these destructive lawn practices.  But, you say, aren’t people putting things back into the soil?  Yes, and we’ll take a look at that next.

 

1) Plants can pull certain kinds of nutrients from the air; typically this is nitrogen and oxygen. So certainly, some nitrogen theoretically could be being brought back into the soil, although typical lawn ornamentals and grass don’t do this well.

 

2) Most nutrients are in the soil, and those nutrients are cycled through the dropping and decay of organic matter.  Trees and other plants (like Burdock, Comfrey, Dandelion), penetrate deep into the ground and pulling up nutrients to the surface, which they then deposit as leaves or dead plant matter.  But how many nutrients are down there for the taking?  If nutrients are systematically removed from the same spot over a 25, 50, or 100 year period, I suspect that at some point, the ground underneath will simply run out of those nutrients. I also have a theory (untested) that this is part of why we have so many plant and tree diseases.  We keep removing organic matter and nutrients from our landscapes in this form, through logging, etc, and those aren’t going back into our system.

 

3) People also often add fertilizers; but most commercial fertilizers focus only on the three macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.  All of the micronutrients (some of which are critical to plant and human health, such as magnesium or calcium) are not added.  Fertilizers also come in a water soluble form (nitrate) and cause substantial problems for our waterways (I am not going to spend the time today to describe soil ecology, but a good introduction to it is here).

 

4) Mulch is sometimes also added to select areas.  But wood mulches are very high in carbon and little else.

 

5) Some people do buy compost and add it in select areas (say, a garden) but this is in select areas; I don’t see people dumping compost all over their lawns to make up for the loss of nutrients.  More on this in my next post.

 

So even with the inputs, it seems likely that a substantial net loss in nutrients in the soil immediately surrounding most of our homes and communities due to the “composting” practices of leaves and grass clippings.

Concluding Thoughts

What concerns me about this analysis, if its in the ballpark range at all (and I have reason to believe it is) is that each year, the soil surrounding our homes and in our communities gets more and more depleted as we continue to remove nutrients from our soils systematically through fall leaves and grass clippings.  This leaves me with a few serious concerns:

 

1) More and more people are becoming interested in urban gardening, homesteading, and the like, and yet, if they want to dig up their backyard, they are facing soils with literally no nutrients, organic matter, or life in them (as I faced when I started my homestead).  If we all wanted to do this, where would all the nutrients come from?

 

2) We aren’t looking at a few places of depletion, but probably we are facing it with nearly every suburban and urban home in the US.  When we combine this with modern industrial farming practices that kill soil life and strip the soil bare, its a very worrying issue.

 

3) The systematic loss of particular kinds of nutrients is also concerning; in my herbalism course, we have spent a great deal of time talking about magnesium deficiency (which the bulk of Americans are suffering from) and deficiency in other micro-nutrients; interestingly, many of these showed up in the list of what was in fall leaves and being removed.  Even if you were to grow some veggies in your soil that you added some organic matter to, would there be enough magnesium and other essential nutrients for your own body’s needs?

 

4) Perhaps most worrying of all: if history has anything to teach us, the widespread degradation and depletion of soil and other resources leads to a civilization’s collapse.  Combining this with many other ecological challenges suggests the widespread and systematic need for radical change.

 

I’ll elaborate on these concerns and what we might begin to do about this in my next blog post, which will discuss the concept of restoration agriculture and further discuss permaculture design.

 

Don’t Let End of Season Veggies Go to Waste! Making Nutritive and Healing Soup Stocks/Broths October 26, 2014

What the heck, broccoli? Why did you never produce broccoli?  Into the pot you go!

What the heck, massive broccoli? Why did you never produce broccoli? Into the pot you go!

So its the end of the season, a very hard frost is on the horizon for the week and several lighter frosts have already occurred. You look out across your garden with its overflowing abundance. There are still beans, swiss chard, tons of herbs, celery, kale, cukes, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and more. And while some of these veggies can make it through a few hard frosts and will last well into the late fall (like kale) and some will last in the ground over the winter (like onions or carrots), for others, their time is very limited without a hoop house for cover. Even with a hoop house, some won’t survive another week outside.  And then there’s that pesky broccoli.  This year, my broccoli grew to 3 and 4′ tall, leafed out, got woody, and never produced a single flower head.  My friend and garden mentor says its likely because my soil is too rich; it never was forced into its reproductive stage.  Regardless, I have all this broccoli biomass and nutrients locked up in something not really all that edible. So, given the excess of veggies and the darn broccoli, what’s a homesteader to do?

Its simple: this is the perfect time of year to make a few huge pots of broth for the soups in the winter months. Take all of those extra veggies, even the ones that maybe had some frost damage or lots of imperfections, and toss them in a big pot of water. Take that pesky broccoli that never produced anything, chop it up, and get its nutrients into your stockpot and eventually into your belly!

 

Applying a bit of herbal knowledge, any kind of stock is better with a little nutritive and tonic herbs and veggies as well, so in addition to the typical garden vegetables, I also will add several kinds of nutritive and tonic foods to make the stocks more nutrient dense and healing–nettle, hen of the woods mushroom, turkey tail mushroom, burdock.  These are wild foods that are fairly abundant this time of year, if you know where to look.  And I think this step is important–if we work to make our foods as healing and nutritive as possible, we are better equipped to fight off disease and illness.  I always take the extra step to add nutritive plants and mushrooms to my stocks and gain their benefits each time I open up a jar of the stock :).

Kelsey (WOOFer) preparing chard for veggie stock

Kelsey (WOOFer) preparing chard for veggie stock

 

Vegetable Stock Recipe:

The idea is to fill a large pot at least 2/3 of the way full of veggies before you add water.  I don’t work with a specific recipe, but throw in what I have.  My last batch had this:

  • Whatever is left in my garden (this year, primarily broccoli stalk, beans, swiss chard).  Anything pretty much works here, different veggies will give different flavors, e.g. pumpkin will be much different than cabbage.  All turn out just fine though :).
    • With this, however, do be aware that the brassicas (broccoli, cabbage) should only be in the stock for about 45 min total.  Otherwise, my friend who is a chef tells me, they release sulfur compounds that give your stock an “off” taste. So consider adding these towards the end of your soup stock.
  • At least a few tomatoes (more for a more tomatoey broth) or a jar of stewed tomatoes if you are out of fresh ones.  This helps give the broth color and richness. Again, this is great for the end of the season.
  • Several large onions
  • Several large carrots
  • A bunch of celery stalks (I cut three whole plants from my garden for my huge soup pot)
  • Fresh herbs (thyme and sage)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • At least a foot-long piece of burdock root, peeled and chopped up (I dug this fresh from my yard for this purpose; more is always good)
  • A handful or two of fresh or dried stinging nettle (I had dried this earlier in the year)
  • A few handfuls of dried or fresh hen of the woods (miatake) mushroom or turkey tail mushroom (threw in some of each that I had fresh and dried)

 

The last three ingredients are the nutritive and tonic plants that provide amazing amounts of nutrition, making this super awesome healing veggie stock.  Burdock is a plant I recently discussed on my blog in my last post. Burdock has antioxidants, inulin (a prebiotic that helps reduce blood sugar, body weight, cholesterol), potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, iron,  and lower amounts of many other vitamins and minerals. Nettle, likewise, has extraordinary amounts of vitamin K, along with vitamin E, calcium, and manganese and again lots of smaller amounts of other things.  Finally, hen of the woods has Naicin, Riboflavin, and Omega 6 fatty acids.  By adding these last three “wild” ingredients, I am supplementing the already powerful nutrition that the more standard garden vegetables provide.

 

If you don’t know where to get a large pot, believe it or not, you can sometimes find stock pots in a well stocked hardware store near the canning isle.  You want a stainless steel one or an enamel one.

Stock pot with awesome ingredients

Stock pot with awesome ingredients

I cook my veggie stock on low for at least 12 hours before pressure canning or freezing it.  You know its done once the veggies look drab, like the photo below (then you can strain the veggies, compost the veggies, and pressure can the broth).

Drab, spent vegetables going to the compost

Drab, spent vegetables going to the compost

 

Chicken Stock

The other stock I’m doing this year is a chicken stock.  This is a simpler stock, and consists of the following:

 

  • 2-3 pounds of chicken feet (procured from a local farmer at an extremely good price); you can substitute a chicken carcass or other meat bones
  • Three large onions
  • A pound or two of carrots
  • A pound or two of celery
  • Rosemary and sage
  • Salt and pepper to taste

 

And for this, I try to fill a stock pot up at least halfway with ingredients and the rest with water for the stock.  For this, I find that the ideal flavor hits somewhere around 12-24 hours.   For other kinds of bone broth (like chicken bones) I might go up to 48 hours.  But for the feet, a shorter cooking time seems better for ideal flavor.

 

This chicken stock recipe again uses up the material from the garden (especially the celery, which does not like getting too zapped by the frost) and in the case of my chicken feet, also uses a meat product that a lot of people don’t want.  Most of the organic, free range, local chicken I can purchase around here runs $3.50 or $4/lb.  For a whole chicken, it can be anywhere from $20-$30.  This kind of seems like a waste if I’m just making broth from it.  I can get the chicken feet for about $2 a pound, and since its only for soup stock, the chicken feet work much better.  And they really do make a great stock.  The deal is, of course, you have to look at chicken feet while you are making them and deal with the fact that there are feet in your stock.

Chicken feet in soup...for real.

Chicken feet in soup srock…for real.

The alternative would be to roast the chicken, enjoy it, save the bones, and use the bones for making your stock. The idea here is that by making a “bone broth,” you are extracting a lot of minerals and vitamins not found in the meat of the animals. This includes high amounts of calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, certain amino acids, and collagen.  By, again, cooking this broth over low heat over a period of days, you extract maximum nutrients and maximum flavors.

You can add the nettle, hen of the woods, turkey tail, or burdock (or mix and match) to your chicken stock as well, of course.  These recipes are very flexible and fluid.

 

Stock that has been strained, ready to go into the pressure canner!

Stock that has been strained, ready to go into the pressure canner!

 

After your stock cools, you can strain it and compost the veggie bits.  The meat bits I put out into the woods for some happy rodent or raccoon to come across.  At this point, I pressure can it (85 minute pressure can for quarts; 75 minute for pints).  You could also freeze it (again, if you’ll remember from my earlier posts, I don’t freeze much because the power grid is poor around here and we go days and days without power).

 

All winter long, I will be able to enjoy the richness of the veggie and chicken broths and stay healthy and warm.

 

Wild Food Profile – Burdock Root (spring and fall) October 20, 2014

Great Burdock (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Foraging is an important part of my spiritual path, as it is one of the ways that I build a closer relationship with nature.  I also think its an important part of the “oak knowledge” that druids should consider cultivating.  As we regain our understanding of the plants, trees, and herbs around us, we grow closer to that landscape.  By harvesting food from my backyard growing wild, I’m taking that landscape within and allowing it to nourish me.  This nourishment comes in many forms, and not all of them are physical. As our amazing spring returns after a long, hard, winter, I am so excited to get out there and enjoy  wild foods!

The early spring or late fall is a wonderful time for wild foods. From violets to ramps to dandelion greens and dryad’s saddle and morel mushrooms, the leafy veggies, edible flowers, and mushrooms are just amazing.  What I like about fall is that many of the things you enjoyed in spring are back again, for round two, before the winter sets in.

Today I’ll be covering Burdock.  My experience is with arctium minus (common burdock) but what I’m saying can also apply to other burdock species, such as great burdock (arctium lappa).  Samuel Thayer, in his awesome book Forager’s Harvest suggests that the great burdock is more tasty than the common burdock.  But I only have common burdock, and it tastes just fine to me!

 

Burdock and its Nutritive and Healing Qualities

Burdock is a wonderful plant, despite the fact that most people who encounter it only remember it for its spiny seed pods that stick to you–and everything else.  Burdock is often one of those plants that end up on various township and city’s “noxious weed” lists because of its seed pods.  And yes, they can be absolutely wretched and itchy if they end up stuck to your clothing, socks, hair, and so forth.  And yet, here is a plant that provides us with nutritive, healing food and medicine anytime the ground is not frozen solid.

Burdock primarily is a nutritive and metabolic tonic; that is, it is rich in minerals and vitamins, and eating it is beneficial for digestion.  It is best eaten fresh or tinctured.  For a complete list of burdock’s medicinal qualities, I highly suggest Jim McDonald’s discussion of burdock.  Grieve’s Modern Herbal also has a nice entry. Burdock is one of those great plants that you can eat like food, cause it is food, but it has such good medicinal qualities that its like medicinal food.  Its really great and, I think, is really unappreciated!

 

Identifying and Harvesting Burdock Root

You can find Burdock three seasons of the year–in spring, summer, and fall.  Burdock root is best dug in early spring or late fall in late fall. I have a healthy burdock patch on my property, and more comes up each year.  I let the seeds fall in the fall and try to push them into the ground with the bottom of my shoe (being careful not to have them stuck to me), because I want the roots and stalks for good eating :).

Based on some tincturing experiments by my dear friend Sara and consultations of some herbals and my herbal instructor, we’ve concluded that the inulin in burdock, which is a source of much of its medicine, is much higher in the fall than in the spring (the plant likely lives off of inulin  in the winter to survive).  Inulin is a natural carbohydrate found in many plants. So you will want to keep that in mind when gathering your burdock roots.

Late Fall Harvests: The leaves die back in the fall, sending their energy back into the roots.  After a good hard frost or two, the burdock leaves will mostly die back on the first year plants.  This is the time to harvest the roots, especially for medicinal purposes.  You can wait a while to gather after this point, however, eventually the ground will freeze and then you won’t be able to dig the roots deeply. Its easier to identify the burdock in the fall, with its huge green leaves and long skinny stalk, and fuzzy green (and later brown) burs.  Usually first and 2nd year plants will be near each other–2nd year plants die off and go to seed at least a month before the 1st year plants lose their leaves.

Early Spring Harvests.  Likewise, in the spring, the energy is still in the roots, where nutrients  were kept all all winter long, and the nutrients push those nutrients upward and outward and leafy greens and flowers emerge once more. Before that energy returns completely, however,  early spring can be a prime time to gather root crops like cattails and burdock.  Once the plants just peek above the soil (or the water, in the case of the cattail) then you are ready to harvest. The key with harvesting root crops in early spring is to harvest them early, just when you see them peeking up and can identify them.  The longer you wait, the more energy from the roots goes into the leaves, and the roots become less tasty and nutritive. .In early spring you want the early 2nd year plants (the ones that didn’t go to seed the year before).

While its easy to identify burdock in the fall, its still pretty easy in the spring once you know what you are looking for and where to find it–soft, light green heart shaped petals, usually growing in small clusters.  The spring clusters will first have two leaves, and then a small rosette.  They will have the distinctive burdock smell–slightly bitter.  They come up at the same time that the violets bloom, and generally (at least here) before the dandelions bloom. I knew exactly where to look this spring, just in front of my garden along the pathway.  Here are the rosettes of the freshly sprouted burdock plants.  These burdock plants have to be dug up, because eventually if I let them remain, they will grow burs and the burs will stick to me each time I try to enter my garden.

The following photos are from my spring burdock harvest.  The fall burdock plants have much bigger leaves!

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Once you find yourself some burdock rosettes, the real fun begins.  Ideally, you’ll have a long, narrow shovel (called a drain spade, like this).  I don’t have such a shovel, so instead, I put the shovel on one side of the burdock and jump on it, going as deep as I can.  Then, I do the same thing on the other side of the burdock.  One one side, I dig a small hole as far down as I can next to the burdock root, and finally, pry as much of it as I can up with the shovel.  Rarely does the whole root come up, but there is plenty for me to work with using this method.  The drain spade is MUCH better.  The key to buying a good burdock digging shovel is that it is sturdy–place your foot on the middle of it and try to bend the shovel.  If the shovel bends badly, its no good for burdock digging and you’ll break it on your first time out.

Digging Burdock

Digging Burdock

While you can get massive roots out of the ground like the one featured in the image below, these are usually more woody and a bit hollow on the inside.  Sometimes they can get long black cracks as well.  They are still ok to eat, but the younger roots, less than a year old, are much more easy to work with.

Huge burdock root!

Huge burdock root!

The day a friend and I were digging burdock, we filled up a 5 gallon bucket in less than 30 min.  We harvested in about a 15′ square area, and there is still a ton of burdock out there for the harvesting.

Bucket full of burdock!

Bucket full of burdock!

After we harvested the burdock, we didn’t wash it (you want to wash it right before you eat it to avoid any water loss–water loss is one of the biggest challenges for storing vegetables, even short term).  Instead, we put it in bags and stuck it in the fridge.  You also want to chop off all the green heads–the greens will cause water loss.  Storing in a root cellar would be better for this, but alas, I don’t yet have a good root cellar.

Burdock harvest

Burdock root harvest

Eating Burdock

To prepare burdock root, you’ll want to start by washing it well.  I use a carrot scrubber, which gets off most of the dirt.  I don’t wash my burdock until right before eating it.  Once you scrub the dirt off of it, you can peel it (I find peeling pretty much necessary b/c its impossible to get fully clean).  You’ll see that it looks and acts like a carrot–this is true for the whole preparing process.

Washed burdock (upper portion of photo); peeled burdock (lower portion of photo)

Washed burdock (upper portion of photo); peeled burdock (lower portion of photo)

You can cook it in the same manner you would a carrot, and it has a similar cooking time.  I sliced up this burdock root and threw it in a pan to saute.  I then added some leftover rice noodles, leftover pesto pasta, and topped it off with feta cheese.  Nums!

Burdock dish

Burdock root with rice pasta, pesto, and feta cheese

 

Flavor and Taste

Burdock root doesn’t show up a lot in western cooking, but in Japan, it is a highly valued ingredient (you can search for “gobo root” and find all kinds of awesome recipes). I think its really delicious in the right kind of meal.  I treat it pretty much like I would a carrot in terms of where I would use it.

In terms of taste, I find burdock to be very mild and slightly sweet.  It tastes kinda nutty and earthy, and I find that it compliments many dishes.  Since it also has tonic, regenerative, and nutritive qualities, its just great to eat when you can get it. Its also a fantastic food because traditionally one would have long ran out of carrots by this point in the year, and burdock root would get you through the “hunger times” of early spring.

 

Invasive Plants and Invasion Biology as Destructive Concepts: A Druid’s Perspective October 9, 2014

When people talk about plants, one of the common conversations that comes up is whether the plant is native or invasive. Invasive plants have taken on monstrous qualities of epic proportions, and people in organized groups nationwide argue for the eradication of invasive plants using harmful, chemically-based methods. The native plant community, whose conferences are sponsored by Bayer Chemical and Monsanto, advocate the use of noxious chemicals to deal with problem plants. I’d like to spend some time today discussing the “invasive plant” movement from a druidic perspective, where this movement came from, and provide an alternative perspective.  I’ll also note that while I think the term “invasive” is a problem, I haven’t yet come up with a better term, so I’ll use it in this blog entry.  I don’t think its a good term, however, and it creates more problems than it solves.

 

Invasives as a Cultural Construction: The Case of Autumn Olive

Let’s start with an example to see how these “invasive plants” are framed. When I was researching my recent post on Autumn Olive, I came across this video produced by the University of Maryland discussing the evils of Autumn Olive.  The piece opens with a pathos (emotion) driven argument that these “invaders” are scary, are “the nightmare that threatens your garden” and that one must be vigilant and protect one’s home and garden from such invasion.  This immediately puts humanity in an adversarial relationship with the said plant invader and encourages us to get angry and upset over the incursion of these plants upon the landscape.  When we move into the video itself, the narrator, who has a bunch of fancy titles, suggests that the autumn olives were “another good idea gone bad” and how they were once “promoted heavily” by state governments and the like, but now are “invaders.” So here, we have the obvious fact that we A) messed up the ecosystem to the point where we needed plants to help and B) brought these plants in willfully and systematically into the environment and C) didn’t consider the long-term impact of said plants before introduction.

 

Autumn Olive Berries

Autumn Olive Berries

The narrator continues by suggesting many things that, frankly, are not founded in reality. First, she argues that in every case Autumn Olives crowd out all native plants (an overgeneralization fallacy; tell that to the Boneset and New England Aster happily growing next to the Autumn Olive in my back yard). Perhaps the most ludicrous part is when she argues that Autumn Olive’s nitrogen fixing qualities are a terrible thing. As one of the few non-legume nitrogen fixers in many ecosystems where it grows, Autumn Olive helps regenerate soils, particularly in wasteland areas where the soils have been degraded by intensive farming by adding nitrogen to the soil and allowing the soil to become more fertile for other kinds of plants.  In his book Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience, David Theodoropoulos he demonstrates many cases of this nature: that if a native plant fixes nitrogen or creates compost matter its considered good, but when an invasive does the same thing, it is considered bad. The video narrator concludes by suggesting that the “easiest thing to do” to get rid of autumn olive is to cut it down and “treat the stump with a systemic herbicide.” Yes, that’s exactly what we should do to the poor plant we put here who is regenerating the ecosystem and providing us and wildlife with tasty free berries (note my sarcasm).

 

Autumn olive presents an excellent poster child for the invasive plants debate because it highlights many of the problems that an “invasion biology” mindset has concerning plants. Specifically, it illustrates the contradiction that is so inherent in nearly all invasive plant species: we brought it here, we introduced it, and we damaged the landscape so that it has a niche in which to grow. And then we become unhappy when it does grow and works to regenerate the problems we caused, so we treat it with chemicals that further damage the landscape, creating an even greater niche for the plant to grow.

 

The Origins of Invasion Biology

One of the striking things about the invasion biology movement is its connection with the Nazi’s xenophobic and genocidal thinking, as detailed by David Theodoropoulos in his book (and also discussed to a more limited extent on his website). The Nazis had a very similar “native plant” movement in Germany where they worked to eradicate the landscape of non-native plants; this, of course, parallels the atrocities committed in their attempt to eradicate humans from the landscape who didn’t fit their idolized image. Theodoropoulous argues that invasion biology is connected to the same kinds of destructive thinking prevalent in Naziism, that is, an easily identified enemy that one seeks to exterminate, an emphasis on genetic purity, the goal of preserving one’s lands, and a root cause of dissatisfaction with where things are currently.  I’d add to his arguments that it becomes easy to construct an enemy, get people angry with the enemy, and then work hard to eradicate it, all the while stripping them of the facilities for rational thought through fearmongering and intense emotional reactions.  From a rhetorical perspective, when we begin setting up multiple logical fallacies in order to generate hatred of plants (straw man arguments, post-hoc fallacies, either-or fallacies, overgeneralization fallacies) we get into a mode that allows us to react emotionally rather than reason logically about our interaction with our landscape.

 

Another problem with the invasives debate is that only certain kinds of plants or insects are targeted.  The European honeybee is an invasive species under many definitions–it outcompetes native pollinators such as the bumble bee. Despite clear scientific evidence for its invasive quality, we keep honeybees and they produce honey and pollinate crops.  And you never hear any invasive species people complaining about Apis Melifera. In the same way, I’ve seen Poison Ivy routinely listed on “invasive species” lists, despite the fact that poison ivy is a native plant filling and important role in the ecosystem.  Wolves suffer a similar fate–wolves are native, but we’ve done our best to eradicate them in the ecosystem because they prey upon farmer’s herds. What counts as an invasive, then, depends on whether it aligns with economic interests and how convenient or inconvenient it is for humanity.

 

The terminology problem continues within the scientific literature within the invasive plant community: practitioners cannot agree upon terminology or  what features actually constitute an invasive plant or animal. So not only do we have a straw man argument (a constructed enemy), we also have no clear definition of what we actually are rallying against, but by golly, we will rally against it.  The problem with fuzzy definitions is that they, like emotions, are easily manipulated to get one to behave in a certain manner–and as I’ll demonstrate in the next section, like everything else in our culture, this ultimately comes back to consumption.

 

Gotta love the dandelion!

Gotta love the dandelion!

Problems with Invasion Biology

All of the above things speak to the destructive origins of the invasive plants thinking, and this thinking leads to a series of problems.

 

Invasion biology as a profit scheme.  First and foremost, its important to understand that the invasive plant industry (and yes, it is an industry) is quite lucrative from the perspective of the chemical companies. Dow’s site, for example, promotes the use of chemical treatments of invasives in order to sell their products. Given their nature, invasive plants are nearly impossible to eradicate and continually and easily spread by human disturbance, the chemical industry has a cash cow of epic proportions–each year, one needs to buy and apply more chemicals to deal with one’s invasives in one’s yard. The more one distrubs the soil, the more readily the invasives will come–and so the cycle continues. The chemical companies have everything to gain by maintaining an adversarial relationship with the plants.  David Theodoropoulos provides evidence in his book that links executives from the chemical industry to the founders of the native plants movement (such as the Monsanto executive and creator of Roundup being a founding member of the California Exotic Pest Plant Council).  Profits are driving this movement, make no mistake about that.

 

Chemical controls are worse than the plants themselves.  What is worse? The damage that Autumn Olive or Phragmites cause or the chemicals and methods we use to eradicate them?  If I had a chance to let species grow or use horrible poisons to eradicate them, I will let them grow and find ways of co-habitating with those species. We do more harm than good in working to eradicate these invasives with chemicals.  We cannot poison the landscape in order to protect it.

 

Human interference and destruction of the land is the root cause.  The ironic thing about the invasive plant movement is that humanity is much more destructive on the ecosystem than any single invasive plant, or any group of invasive plants or other species combined. A few of these destructive tendencies are: the insistence in maintaining a perfect lawn with petrochemicals, the extraction and use of fossil fuels, the use of poisons that shatter the ecological balance of our waterways and reduce diversity, the injecting of hundereds of millions of tons of poisons into our watershed through fracking, the use of clear cutting, the prevalence of oil spills (and so on, and so on). Humans have much to atone for with regards to our relationship with nature. Human interference, to me, the root cause of the whole issue and is the bigger issue we should consider addressing.

 

Promotion of an adversarial relationship with nature.  I’ve written about this fairly extensively on this blog; the promotion an adversarial relationship with nature is going to continue to lead to our treating it harmfully, dumping chemicals on it, and generally not engaging in any kind of partnership with the land.  As long as we see nature as the enemy, we are, like the Nazis, willing to do anything in order to achieve our goals.  And that is an incredibly scary thing indeed.

 

Alternative Perspectives to Invasion Biology

Now that I’ve outlined some of the history and issues with the invasive plant movement, I’d like to offer some alternative perspectives, rooted in my own druidic perspective that “nature is good” and help to demonstrate my shift to more sustainable ways of thinking.

 

Nature is not a static thing to memorialized but rather dynamic and ever-changing. Wendell Berry argues in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture that sometime in the 20th century, our relationship with the natural world shifted from that of collaborators to that of museum preserverationists. At all costs, the US National Parks Service set about preserving nature exactly as it was at that moment, memorialized across time.  Or, if a habitat was deemed too full of invasives, habitats were “restored” through the mass dumping of chemicals and destruction of what was growing there.  And to this day, these practices still take place—the plants that are growing are removed, burned, chemically treated, and new plants are planted, those that are “supposed to be there.”

 

The problem with is that it is a completely unrealistic view of how nature actually works. Evolution is about adaptation and change; our fossil records show that throughout the many millennia of earth’s existence, the only one constant is change and the ability to adapt. Species that adapted to their changing surroundings survived, those who did not failed to survive. This is a natural process and one that has driven all life.  We are already seeing the effects of climate change with the migration of species to areas that are now warming (I think about the redbud tree that is now showing up here in Michigan).  Nature will adapt and evolve, its just what she does.

 

The invasive plant movement assumes that nature is, was, and always will be the same.  But even as far back as Charles Darwin, we see evidence of plant and animal matter being moved all over the globe by natural processes–bugs and animals and microbes riding on a log to a new island, birds carrying seeds 1000′s of miles in their beaks, and so on.  The difference is that humans have perpetuated the movement of species into new areas at a much faster pace and we have done this while systematically destroying ecosystems and wild areas.  Of course we are going to see cracks in the system–but, if we give her space and time, nature will adapt.

 

Adaptation

Adaptation

Nature is not something to be at a distance, rather, something we can interact with. The “nature as a static thing” view puts nature at a distance, rather than something that one interacts with. There is a local county park where I like to go, that has some amazing plants like diamond puffball mushrooms, spicebush, and a small patch of beech-oak old growth forest. There are 6’ wide paved pathways with another 4’ of mowed clearance on each side of the path. People run there, bring their dogs. But what I never see them doing is interacting—getting up close to look at a bug, or sit on an old stump. They stay neatly and perfectly on the path and even while they are in the middle of a forest, keep that forest at a distance. This distance leads us to see ourselves as separate from nature, and certainly allows us to have less empathy about decisions to slash and burn pieces of it that aren’t to our liking, or dump poisons all over it in the drive for trying to put things back the way they were before we messed with it.

 

Finally, this view eradicates any idea of nature as a “commons” that benefits all, where the careful management of natural resources is something that is the responsibility of all. The commons view, used extensively in feudal England, suggested that many of common lands were available for general use (foraging, harvesting trees using coppicing as a method, putting flocks to pasture), as long as that use was kindly and in balance.

 

With the rise of the “nature as a monument” movement, we’ve forgotten how to be in partnership with each other and with the land to promote long-term balance and harmony; this is perhaps no more evident than in the invasive species movement.

 

Most “invasives” are slowly regenerating our landscapes from damage that WE have inflicted. Invasives often work to regenerate damaged soils [see my dandelion post] and do so quickly and effectively. They do often outcompete other native plants that have been previously growing there (and in many cases, were recently removed due to human activity).  They often have benefit to us and to the ecosystem (see Timothy Lee Scott’s Invasive Plant Medicine for a fascinating discussion). The idea that we can somehow preserve the landscape as it once was is, frankly, in my opinion short sighted and pointless.  The landscape changes, and it changes far more often due to human activities – humans can wipe out a forest far more effectively and quickly than buckthorn can.  Most of the role of the invasives are to regenerate the damage that we have continually inflicted.

One one of my recent herb walks was in this area with acres and acres of native plants that had be re-introduced by a local state park service (I don’t want to know what they did to eradicate whatever was growing there before).  As we walked up this hill, my herb instructor pointed out something quite interesting–the only place the “invasives” where showing up in the landscapes was where humans were causing disturbances.  In other words, sweet clover (which bees love) and star thistle (Spotted Knapweed) were showing up only on the edges of the paths where they were being mowed (these are the best plants from which bees make honey, for the record).  There were literally no plants of an “invasive” nature anywhere further inside where the soil wasn’t disturbed.  And this is true of many invasives, like dandelion.  They are regenerating the most difficult spaces, those that have no soil fertility, that have compacted soil.  They are paving the way for others to come.

 

Long-term Orientation.  As I’ve discussed on this blog before, the concept of long-term orientation also comes into play here. Because a great deal of the “invasives” grow in conditions where the soil is disturbed, if those conditions were to be removed, the invasives wouldn’t continue to grow.  I discussed the succession of dandelion in my earlier post, and the same is true of many of the invasives that people get uptight about: spotted knapweed, honeysuckle, autumn olive, and purple loosestrife.

Even for those invasives that are displacing native plants in the ecosystem–consider this.  Our planet is in a constant state of change and flux.  Species rise, species fall, and evolution is a constant driving force.  If we stop looking just at today and tomorrow and instead think about 100 or 1000 years from now, I think we can say that yes, the introduction of plants has changed, but nature will also find a way to balance the scales (provided that there are enough natural and wild areas where such evolution can take place).  The much greater threat to our long-term survival as a species and as a world is from human-led destruction, not from plants being introduced.

 

Nature is good.

          One of the common sayings within the druid tradition is that “nature is good.” Notice that its not “only nature that was here before we got here is good” or “some nature is good” or “native plants that are in nature are good.”  No, the saying is simply, “Nature is good.” This is the approach that I take. Whether or not we like it, decisions by humans and actions by humans have irrevocably altered our landscapes, not only from the introduction of non-native plant species but in the wholesale destruction and desecration of the land through the use of chemical means. The idea that we want to “manage” natural evolutionary and ecological processes is just another manifestation of the hubris that we are somehow above nature, and that nature can’t manage itself. If we buy this argument, then I think the best that any of us can do is to truly step back from the immediacy of the “native plant problem” and fight against the wholesale exploitation and nature, both in our immediate lives but also in our communities and countries.

 

The last point I’ll make is this: we have limited energy and time, and how we choose to spend that time can make considerable positive change in the world.  If I choose to focus my energy on eradicating invasive species in my yard and helping others do the same, I’m choosing not to focus my energy on something else that could have a more benefical impact. If we look at the magnitude of the destruction we are facing, it is not from invasive species in our landscape but from humanity’s relentless pursuit of consumer goods and greed.  If what I’ve written here makes any sense at all, I would like to suggest the following: focus on educating others, preventing destruction to begin with, and to working with the plants to regenerate and restore our landscapes.  Focus on educating ourselves and others about how ecosystems work and how we can better live in harmony in sustainable ways.  To me, this seems like a much more productive use of one’s time, and has a possibility for much greater good.  We can cultivate a positive relationship with nature.

 

Reclaiming Our Heritage and Connection With The Land: Herbs, Plants, and Harvests October 1, 2014

Path through the woods

Path through the woods: how many ancestors walked here?

As you might have noticed, my posts on this blog slow down considerably in the months of August – October.  This is because as a single homesteader, I’m quite busy bringing in the harvest canning, drying, and freezing;  preparing my garden for next year’s season; planting garlic and other fall crops; jumping in leaves; drying herbs; and generally enjoying fall, my very favorite of the seasons.  My posts will become more frequent as winter approaches!

 

I’ve been taking a lot of time to reflect this year, because this is the end of my 5th year as a homesteader and I’m coming up on 9 years as a druid–through these experiences, I’m really starting to feel that I am living the wheel of the year much more intimately and that I’m regaining something that my generation (and several generations before me) lost. Today I’d like to posit that many of the activities that I discuss on this blog, from finding wild foods to medicine making and growing and preserving the harvest is as much about reclaiming our human heritage and reconnecting to the land as it is about foraging a sustainable path in an increasingly unsustainable world.  In other words, these activities give us a window both into the work of our ancestors and also to the future.  To do this, I’m going to talk a bit about heritage, and the process of feeling like I am regaining some of mine with these practices.

Grandmothers and Grandfathers: What They Knew and What Went With Them

When I think about the kinds of things that were passed down to me as a child, I think about the time I spent with my grandfather Custer in the forest; where he showed me several edible and medicinal plants, where he taught me to see the tracks in the snow; where we would laugh and play in the forest. I only remember fragments, but I hold onto those dearly. I think about the lessons of my grandmother Driscoll, who would find a shiny penny face up on the road and bring it home and bury it beneath the front paving stones.  Grandmother Driscoll, who made dandelion wine she never drank, who trash picked and made many things from nothing at all–these lessons are all part of my heritage.  But there wasn’t a lot that they passed down; they were all too busy working multiple jobs, raising families, making steel in the mills.

 

My grandmother Custer taught me many songs, songs that her grandmother had taught her. One song she taught me was called “a froggy would a wooin go”;  I didn’t know it when I was a child, but I recently discovered that this song has roots as back as 1558….all those grandmothers passing down the song to their grandchildren. I think about that kind of history–500+ years of grandmothers passing on the song so that I was able to learn it as a child. And I’m glad for that tiny bit of heritage. But I also wonder what my great-great-great-great-great grandmothers knew and how they lived, I wonder what they knew about the kinds of things I’m trying to relearn–knowledge of root and stem and seed.  We have almost no family records, I have no idea of knowing what they knew, how they lived, who they were. Most of all, since I lost all of my grandparents before the age of 15, I wonder what I would have learned if they were still alive, or if I had had a chance to know my great grandparents, or their great grandparents. I wonder what they knew but did not think it relevant to teach in a quickly changing world. I wish, knowing where I am heading now, that I could have conversations with them, learn from them these skills, these ways of living.

 

I will also say, however, that my parents lived quite simply and, while I wouldn’t say they actively passed it down by teaching me the principles, we lived those principles growing up.  Canning and gardening were regular activities in our house. My uncle hunted and brought us venison and turkey.  We ate lots of zucchini from the garden.   I kinda just saw them as hobbies, not realizing their significance till later in my own path.  But I was grateful to have grown up with this framework as I began my own druidic and sustainable practice.

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

Living Without A Heritage

I remember one day, sometime in the late 1980′s, my Grandmother Driscoll sat with tears in her eyes on the stoop where she buried so many shiny new pennies and she said to me, “Things were different when I was a child, Dana. Even during the depression, things were different.  People needed each other then.  We got on with very little.  We were a lot happier. There is so much I know that we don’t need anymore.”  Then we went inside and ate her homemade mushroom soup and made tiny doll clothes from repurposed fabric.

 

I remember looking back on this memory long after Grandmother had died, after they had all died (many due to the illnesses associated with steel mills and coal mines), thinking that I had literally no heritage. That the traditions and knowledge of my ancestors (primarily Irish, Native American, and German) were completely lost to me.  And truthfully, they pretty much were. Much of my family had come to America at least four or five generations prior to my birth; those who were Native had long since been forced to lose much of their own history or died trying to retain it.  Those that were Irish changed their names and eradicated their cultural practices due to discrimination.  The Germans had fared the best, and in my home region, we still had remnants of “Pennsylvania Dutch” folklore, cooking, and even, as I discovered only recently, a magical tradition called “Braucherei.” For all of my 20′s, however, I felt that I had literally no traditions to keep, no heritage to pass on.  This was, of course, compounded by the fact that I had rejected the religion of my parents (Christianity) and most of their holidays, and while I had tidbits of knowledge and songs from my grandparents, I felt like I was a person living with nothing.

Building New Traditions: Honoring the Land and Living Close to it

Dana and Dad cutting up Chicken of the Woods!

Dana and Dad cutting up Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms!

In the Tarot, the “tower” card represents a crashing down, a clearing of the way, with the opportunity to build anew once the dust settles.  In some ways, I kinda see this whole situation in a generational way: me as the 21st century product of the crumbling dust of the tower. I live in the remnants and shadows of the lost ancestral knowledge about how to live from the land, about how to build communities, about how to interact with each other; I live with the fragments of  traditions that hadn’t been passed on because of a rapidly changing world.

 

Through the work of the last five years, I realized rather recently that I was building something anew where I had perceived this empty wasteland of family heritage and tradition.  I became, thanks to two of my close friends and mentors, obsessed with reading old books full of old knowledge (the 1970′s has much to offer, but previous decades and centuries even more so).  I attended workshops, classes, learned by doing, talked to old wisened elders, learned everything I could (a process that shows no sign of ending anytime soon).  I also looked to my parents and their practices and saw their lifestyle with new appreciation.

 

I realized that I was building a new heritage that I could pass on by rediscovering the past, how others had lived, by studying the plants, by learning to grow and forage for my own food, but also melding those practices with druidry.  Druidry gave me the spiritual framework to understand the work I was doing and to understand and refect upon my practice it in useful and productive ways.  Druidry, with its own spiritual heritage paralleling the rise of the industrial revolution (and in many ways, responding to it) provided me with grounding and daily practices that helped me further understand myself and gave me tools to walk the tightrope between the worlds.

 

The other thing druidry and my sustainable practice was doing for me was helping me pull away from the heavy consumerist haze which had dominated the lives of so many of us growing up in the 80′s, falling into video game addictions in the 90′s and 2000′s (and yes…I was deep in fantasy land for way too long).  It helped me regain my footing, my connection to the land, my sense of self.

 

And now, I am starting to understand the power in returning to the land in whatever way one can–by enjoying the fruits of one’s labor and cultivating close relationships with plants.  By making one’s own medicine to heal oneself.  By being happy that one has built up the calluses needed to do a few hours’ work in the garden.  By not only celebrating the wheel of the year, but understanding from a growth standpoint what happens to the plants after the Fall Equinox comes and joyously waiting the return of the Spring Equinox.  By learning the secrets of the soil.  By just practicing being happy and quiet and not running around like crazy all the time.  There is something so powerful about being even a little independent and self-sufficient.  Its a ton of hard work, yes, but it gives you something meaningful.

 

Dana and Dad after visiting the beehives

Dana and Dad after visiting the beehives

Perhaps the most magical of all is that its not just me that has found this path–my immediate family, too, is transforming and regaining the oak knowledge of our ancestors.  Some of the photos I’ve shared in this post are of us doing various activities that we are discovering together–beekeeping, mushroom hunting, and so on.  My mom was the photographer in all of these images. We have, collectively, worked to rediscover and build a new heritage and tradition for ourselves that allows us to once again live close to the land and all of her inhabitants.  Last year, for example, I taught my parents about mushroom hunting–and they have become serious hunters, and now are teaching me new things.   This year, my sister and I are on parallel paths learning the ancient ways of herbalism and medicine making.  I have seen this same thing occurring in the lives of many other friends’ families–its if we are all waking up to rediscover our relationship to the land and working, as families, to build that knowledge once again.

 

I am so grateful to have found this path–not only does it give me ways of living that help me personally address the larger predicament that we face, but it also reconnects my entire family with the knowledge of our ancestors.  It enriches our lives. Even though the chain of knowledge was broken and many traditions were lost–druidic, sustainable practice can help us build new traditions and “oak knowledge” that we will be able to pass on.

 

On the Importance of Mentoring in Spiritual Life: In Honor of my Mentors September 21, 2014

Through the trees

Through the trees

Earlier this year, someone who had been a mentor to me for almost 10 years (almost 1/3 of my life) passed on very unexpectedly.  She was my academic mentor, the person who nurtured me and supported me through my entire Ph.D. and beyond as I became an assistant professor seeking tenure. Despite the fact that this blog is really about spirituality and sustainable practice, I think her lessons are important, and mentoring takes many forms, spiritual mentoring being one form.

 

I have always tried very hard to honor my mentors, to recognize their investment in my life, and to do the best work I can do to manifest their teachings and guidance in my life in positive and productive ways.  Still, looking back, I wonder if I said “thank you” enough to my mentor who passed on, or if she really understood what she meant to me and the others who she mentored. In honor of her passing, I want to spend some time discussing the role of the mentor, and honoring that role, both to honor of my mentor who recently passed on and for the mentors who are still in my life–you know who you are :).

 

Gardening is a good metaphor for a mentor, either in life, work, or in spiritual life.  In their early roles, a mentor is someone who takes a look at the soil you plan on growing something in, and says, “oh my, you don’t have nearly enough organic matter and nitrogen in this soil for anything to grow–yet. Here’s how you might get some more.”  And when you select your plants, let’s say, tomatoes, they may say, “Well, tomatoes require a lot more calcium than you currently have in your soil–what can you do about that?”  Or, “You know, this garden is really shady.  Tomatoes won’t do well here at all.  What else might you plant?” The work of the sowing of the seeds, of fruiting and growth is, of course, your own.  But a mentor might be there to help you prune away those non-producing water spouts from the tomato vines, and they are certainly there to provide trellising and support as needed. Could the plant grow without the mentor? Certainly, but it might not produce as much fruit, and it might be laying on the ground rather than standing tall for lack of support.

 

Mentors are the people who really help us see beyond ourselves, to open up new worlds, encourage us, and nurture us and help us grow.  Mentoring not always an easy task and its not always a pleasant one, however–for a good mentor is not only someone who nurtures and supports, but also is there to prune and tell us the harsh truths that we might not want to hear.  And the best mentors know that both praise and constructive criticism are necessary for growth–if we are only told what we want to hear, we live in a world of delusion.  Sometimes firm words to set us back on our true path are critically important. Mentors help us back on our paths with firm and gentle guidance.

 

Trees

So much to learn from the trees!  They too can be teachers and mentors.

I also think good mentoring is a careful process of knowing exactly how much to help, how much to let the person stumble and fall and learn on their own, and how to provide the right amount of support.  Its a delicate balancing act.  Mentors also recognize that different kinds of people require different kinds of mentoring–I happen to be a rather independent person who doesn’t like others to have too much control over my life.  My best mentors have always realized this and have taken a hands-off approach to working with me, allowing me to come to them when support or advice was needed rather than crowding me.  But others who work much differently may require much more hands on support and guidance; a good mentor recognizes how much support to give.

 

I think about those who have mentored me in my spiritual path, and I realize how important spiritual mentoring is.  Many druid paths are solitary ones, where we practice and learn on our own.  And while this is an extremely useful practice (and something I did for many years), finding mentors who supported me, suggested resources, and opened up worlds to me really helped me develop and grow in new ways.  Sometimes there is only so far one can get on one’s own, and even only a few key conversations or resources can really help one grow.  This is part of why I value mentoring so highly–I’ve seen its effects in my life both from those I mentor and from those who mentor me.

 

As a mentor, I believe its important to see yourself  in both the role of a teacher and that of a learner–you have to recognize that you have as much to learn as you do to teach.  I also have found that the best mentoring relationships are those that are rooted in friendship and mutual respect.  In the best mentoring relationships, I learn as much from those I mentor as they learn from me.  As a mentor, I might know more than they do about a particular subject and have a greater amount of experience, but my mentees always have new things to say, new approaches, and unique perspectives that add to my own knowledge.  This is the case in every kind of mentoring I do, whether its academic mentoring, garden mentoring, or spiritual mentoring.  And think this is also the case for those that mentor me.

 

And even though I often find myself in a mentoring role in my spiritual, professional, and personal lives, I am so grateful to those who take their time to build mentoring relationships and friendships with me.  If you haven’t yet taken an opportunity to thank your mentors recently and show your appreciation, perhaps you could take a moment to do so soon.  You never know how long they will be in your life–please do not take them for granted.

 

 
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