The Druid's Garden

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

Wild Food Recipe: Autumn Olive Fruit Leather at the Equinox September 21, 2016

I can’t get enough of autumn olives. I wrote about them, honoring them, around this time last year and shared my autumn olive jelly recipe. In my area, the sacred time of the equinox is the sacred time to go out and gather–it is just when they start getting really tasty and ready to harvest in large quantity!  This year, I introduced a number of new friends to them, and we gorged ourselves eating handfuls of them for hours.  I wanted to share, today, my favorite recipe for these delightful treats–a fruit leather recipe!

Autumn Olive Close up

Autumn Olive, Close up

So, let’s just start by saying that Autumn Olive is awesome, and it is certainly one of our first responder plants–fixing nitrogen in the soil, bringing health and fertility back to the land, providing nectar and habitat, and perhaps most awesomely, producing bountiful tasty berries that are high in lycopene and delicious.  I know some people crab about it, but that’s not the subject of this post–instead, we are here to celebrate Autumn Olive’s awesomeness with another recipe.

 

A few words of advice on harvesting–different bushes ripen at slightly different times, and may have smaller or larger fruits. They also have slightly different flavors–taste your way around bushes, if you have options, and find the ones that have abundance and excellent flavor. Usually, the harvest window on these is a few weeks, up to a month, if you have access to a lot of bushes. I have more details on harvesting and finding them in my earlier post.

Amazing Autumn Olive in the Equinox Afternoon Sun!

Amazing Autumn Olive in the Equinox Afternoon Sun! Oh beautiful, bountiful one!

Autumn Olive Fruit Leather

For this fruit leather recipe, you want to get at least 8 or so cups of autumn olives (not hard most years).  Look for trees that have extra juicy and abundant berries–if you look around, you will likely find enough. The nice thing is that this recipe has one ingredient (or two, if you want to add some honey) so you don’t really need to measure anything.

Ingredients:

  • Autumn Olives (fresh and rinsed)
  • Small amount of water
  • Honey (if desired; makes sweeter)

Note that this fruit leather recipe works for any fruit–you may have different ways of processing your fruit (removing seeds, pits, etc) but essentially you need cooked (or pureed raw) fruit and optional sweetener.  It really is that easy!

 

Making Your Fruit Leather: Step by Step

Preparing the autumn olives. You are going to start out by “garbling” your autumn olives. This means you want to make sure there aren’t little spiders, or bugs, or something that isn’t autumn olive in with your mix.  Also pull out any leaves, etc, that might have gotten harvested.  As part of the garbling, I like to give them a rinse and save any little bugs who accidentally got harvested.

Autumn olives after harvesting

Autumn olives after harvesting – like little gems waiting to be eaten

Now, add your autumn olives to a pot and start mashing.  You will likely need to add a bit of water (I added about 1/2 a cup for my 8 or so cups of autumn olives) to get a good mash and make sure they don’t burn.  As they cook, they mash easily.  Here’s a photo after about 5 min of cooking.

Cook them and mash them!

Cook and mash!

As you cook and mash, stir frequently to prevent burning.  You’ll see that as they cook, they turn really opaque and creamy.  Eventually, you’ll end up with some autumn olive puree, that will look like this.

Autumn Olive Puree

Autumn Olive Puree – finger lickin’ delicious!

It doesn’t matter if they are 100% mashed–what I have above is fine for the food mill that I own.

At this point, you will want to let it cool a bit and then remove the seeds.  The best way to remove the seeds is with a small food mill. You can find these readily at thrift stores, garage sales, and the like. Here’s mine in action.

Food mill taking out the seeds

Food mill taking out the seeds

The nice thing about cooking is that it kills the seeds, so you don’t have to worry about thousands of autumn olives coming up in your compost pile. After you have processed all the autumn olive (which takes maybe 5-10 min) you can then add any sweetening agents you’d like.  I find that honey and autumn olive go perfectly together.  In this case, I had some amazing early season honey that was actually made from autumn olives and I added this.  Talk about full circle!  Wow!

Early spring autumn olive honey!

Early spring autumn olive honey.  I can’t believe this survived a whole year of me eating it.

I added honey to taste–for my batch, about 4 tablespoons took the edge off the tartness and added delightful sweetness. To incorporate the honey, the mixture should still be warm (or you can warm it up again on the stove, but stir frequently!)

Transfer the mixture to some dehydrator trays.  Sometimes it can stick, which you can address by slightly greasing the trays (although it will come off).  Wax paper doesn’t’ work nearly as well, and if it dries out too much, can get really stuck on there permanently.

Ready to dehydrate!

Ready to dehydrate – don’t spill your trays!

Then, you dehydrate till the water is gone–typically, somewhere around 24 hours depending on your dehydrator.  You could also do this in the oven on the lowest setting with the oven door slightly cracked.

Autumn olive fruit leather is super flavorful and amazing.  I like to take little bits of it out on the trail with me and eat it with nuts, etc.  It stores well for over a year in a simple mason jar (cool, dark place).  I hope you enjoy this recipe–and happy foraging!

 

Balance at the Equinox: Magical Crafting a Balancing Mobile September 18, 2016

When I was a new druid, many moons ago, I celebrated my first holiday with another person at the Fall Equinox. During that celebration, my friend had the idea that we could do a holiday craft, what we ended up calling a “balance mobile.”  In the weeks leading up to the Equinox, we gathered up materials representing the four elements and then, at the Equinox, crafted them carefully into small mobiles. We took these mobiles to a river shore, where we did a ritual to bless and empower them.

 

A beautiful balance mobile!

A beautiful balance mobile!

In the years since, I have often made these little balance mobiles as gifts for druid friends as ways for us to remember to work to balance our lives.  The mobile offers both a reminder for the need to balance our lives, a physical representation, and also a “gauge” for the ways we might be unbalanced. I think its a nice follow-up to my article last month about finding equilibrium in these difficult times.

 

So, as an equinox activity, I wanted to show you today how to make such a little mobile and share with you the simple ritual for empowering it.  This is a wonderful equinox activity to do with friends, loved ones, or just by yourself to celebrate this powerful day.  It doesn’t require artistic talent, and it can be done with really simple things, like printed out images or photographs.  In fact, the mobile I started to design for this post will be finished with some friends next week as part of our own ceremony for a new group!

 

Three Versions of a Balance Mobile

The first decision you have to make is to the nature of what the mobile represents.  It can represent either a balancing of the inner and outer realms (version 1) or a personally focused/inner work focused mobile that emphasizes the relationships between mind, body, spirit, and the creative arts (version 2).  Or you can just work with the elements themselves! Choose one you like, or use these as a basis for your own interpretation.

 

Version 1: Balance of the Inner and Outer Realms

  • East – Air – Balance of the Mind
  • South – Fire – Balance in Work/Outside life/outside obligations
  • West – Water – Balance in the Heart
  • North – Earth – Balance in the Home and Hearth
  • Center – Spirit – For centering and balance

In this version of the mobile, you are working to balance both external aspects (your work and/or community life and outside obligations; your home life/family) as well as your own inner mind and heart. This version works well for people who are feeling pulled in many directions, with little time for themselves and their own inner work.  The energy of this particular mobile can help you balance all the many things going on in life.

 

Version 2: The Inner Work Mobile

The second version of this mobile is fully inner focused, with different representations at each of the directions/quarters.

  • East – Air – The Mind, knowledge seeking and learning
  • South – Fire – The Creative and bardic arts; expressing and exploring one’s gifts and purpose
  • Water – West – The Heart, Intuition, and spiritual life; exploring the inner realms
  • Earth – North – The Body, working on the physical vitality, rejuvenation, replenishment, and restoration of your physical home while on this plane
  • Spirit – Center – The center of all things; connection to the divine

This second version is particularly good for people who are currently doing a lot of inner work or work on themselves in some way; its good for those who are inward focused, whether that is on working on themselves physically, mentally, or spiritually.

 

Version 3: The Elemental Mobile

If you want, you can keep it more abstract and just work with the elements themselves, allowing them to flow in your life. Here’s some simple correspondences, colors, and animals from the druid tradition for this version.

  • East – Air -Yellow – Spring Equinox –  The Hawk
  • South – Fire -Red  – Summer Solstice –  The Stag
  • Water – West – Blue  – Fall Equinox – The Salmon
  • Earth – North – Green – Winter Solstice – The Bear
  • Spirit – Center – White/Silver – Time of No Time – (Interpretations vary, I use the soil web of all life for this)

 

Materials Gathering

Now that we have a sense of the mobiles themselves and what they represent.  The next step is gathering up your supplies to create the mobile.  I want to share what you’ll need:

  • Representations of each of the five elements
  • String, wire, ribbon, yarn to hang the five elements
  • Sticks or strong wire (coat hanger, etc) to hold the mobile together
  • Beads, feathers, and other embellishments for decoration

 

My elemental representations

My elemental representations

Representations of each of the five elements:
The entire mobile is based on the representations you will have at the for corners of the mobile, and if you choose, also at its center.  You want some small objects, of about the same weight, that represent each of the elements as they are manifesting in your mobile (version 1, 2, 3 or some other version you create for yourself).  For my original mobile, I created paintings, and then wrapped them around some air dry clay.  I then sealed the whole thing. My friend created small sewn items that she hung.  Other friends have shaped things of air dry clay, or painted images, or used small rounds of wood and printed out images–it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as they are clearly representative of the element and meaningful to you.

 

You can, for example, gather four smooth stones, paint them, wire them, and affix them to your mobile.  You could paint and hang four used canning jar lids! You can print out images you really like and glue them to some cardboard.  It doesn’t matter–what matters is that you have something that resonates with you and that is of equal weight. (If they are not equal weight, hanging extra beads to balance them out is also ok!).

 

For finding your items, I would really recommend repurposed items or found items for these as we all work to tread lightly on the earth.

 

String, wire, ribbon, yarn, etc.  The look of your mobile is very much up to you.  Some funyky and fun ribbon or yarn can add a lot to your mobile. But even simple string or wire will do!  You can find ribbon, wire, yarn, etc most of these kinds of things at yard sales/thrift shops really cheaply (if you don’t already have a stash).

 

Sticks for the mobile itself.  For my mobile, I created a hanging apparatus out of river sticks–I had gathered many of them along a river, and fashioned them into a small box-structure, and then my mobile pieces hung from the four corners (see photos).  River sticks work well for this, as do any other fallen sticks or found sticks.  Even Popsicle sticks are fine!  An easy way to do this (which I demonstrate below in the photos) is to find two sticks of about equal length, and drill holes right through the center.  Then you can add a simple string and a knot, and you are in business!

Start with two nice sticks (in my case, two pieces of bark gathered near a waterfall)

Drill a hole right through the center of both sticks. The more centered you are, the more it will hang centered (which matters!)

Drill a hole right through the center of both sticks. The more centered you are, the more it will hang centered (which matters!)

Put a string through both and let them hang. You can now drill more holes for the four edges. You can also put a knot below it, and then let the string hang down for something in the center!

Put a string through both and let them hang. You can now drill more holes for the four edges. You can also put a knot below it, and then let the string hang down for something in the center!

 

If you want a more elaborate setup, you can construct a little stick box, like pictured below.  I made this one with river sticks and wire.  Apparently, I like to use sticks and things found by rivers in my mobiles!

Elaborate mobile top!

Elaborate mobile top constructed with wire!

Or, you can even use a circular item, like a coat hanger, or a wooden or plastic plate, or anything else.  The key is to have something to hang all of your elemental representations on.

 

Embellishments.  Beads, feathers, glitter, whatever it is you want to make your mobile a little more pretty. This is highly personal and is part of the fun.  You can use things here that are personally meaningful to you, that you’ve gathered over the years, etc.

 

Putting your Mobile Together

I like to create a magical crafting space in which to work before I begin.  Before I setup the space, I setup an elemental altar and make sure I have all of the supplies that I need at hand before I start the ritual.

 

Setting up a magical crafting space is easy–you can just use whatever typical sacred space opening you like (I use the AODA’s Solitary Grove opening, which includes the Sphere of Protection as my go-to magical crafting ritual).

 

I talked about creating such a space in this post a few years ago. In a nutshell, set the intention of setting aside a space in which to do spiritual work, in this case, crafting your mobile. At minimum, ground and clear your own energy, set your intentions for the space (creating and blessing a mobile), call in the elements that you will be working with, create some kind of protective barrier or shield energetically (or physically, with stones or candles).

 

Once you’ve created your sacred space, focus on the work at hand. As you put it together with string, glue, yarn, wire, and so on, think about the balance in your life. Consider, as each piece goes on, how that element/aspect manifests in your life, and envision balance in that area.

 

I find for this, some low key music is also nice. Magical crafting, at least for me, is very much a meditative activity and the music helps set the mood and tone.

 

If you are doing this with a group of people, you want to set some expectations and ground rules before you begin.  Is this to be a solemn activity, in quietude, or a fun one?  Talk through it and make sure everyone is on the same page.

 

Blessing your mobile

After you’ve completed your mobile, you can do a simple blessing.  You don’t need a script, just representations of the four elements (in four small bowls: incense/feather; candle; water; and a bowl of salt and/or earth.  Take the mobile to each of the elements (or bring them to the mobile) and speak about your own life.  Talk through what is currently balanced in that domain, and what is unbalanced, and then empower each of the aspects of the mobile with that energy (you might, for example, move the representation of the element around the mobile 3x in a clockwise direction and envision the energy of that element going into the mobile).  You can conclude your ritual with setting some goals for balance and a short period of meditation.  Again, there is no right or wrong way to do this, but the importance of making it a ceremony, and taking the space to do that, is important.

 

Once you have your mobile made, you can work with it at the two equinoxes.  Each year, at the fall equinox, I re-empower it at the Fall Equinox and think through the progress I have made.  It has become an old friend, journeying with me through the wheel of the year, hanging there and reminding me of the lesson of balance in my life.

 

Hanging your mobile

The nice thing about this as an Equinox activity is that it gives you something to remember and something to keep with you as you move through the year.  In this case, the magic very much “keeps on going”🙂.

 

One of the things you might notice, over time, is that the mobile can shift. Take note if it shifts–that might be a sign that one area of your life is particularly dominant (or needs attention) at the moment.  I learned to “read” my mobile over the years and it has always helped me know where I might be a bit out of balance.  For me, if the element is high, it means that element might be dominant in my life–too high and it is out of balance.  If one goes high, one of the other three go low, and then I can see what is suffering.  It has become an excellent little gauge as to how things are going.

 

Concluding Thoughts

I hope this Fall Equinox activity brings you joy this season! Blessings upon you during this upcoming fall equinox! Next week, we’ll return to the longer series on permaculture (maybe with a post on foraging as well!).

 

Chickweed (Stellaria Media) as a Healing Food, Medicine, and Magical Plant Ally June 6, 2016

After a long bout of cold weather, things are quickly warming up.  This means we are about at the end of our spring emphermals and summer is quickly approaching.  I would be remiss if I didn’t post about at least one delightful spring plant, and so today I want to share about the edible, medicinal, and magical properties one of my favorite plants is in abundance in the spring—chickweed (stellaria media). I found some incredible specimens of this plant just this week, so it is still out there, working its magic, in its own very humble way. This post will talk about chickweed’s medicinal and edible qualities, sharing recipes for chickweed pesto and chickweed salve, as well as its incredible magic and symbolism.

 

Chickweed (magical painting by yours truly)

Chickweed (magical painting by yours truly)

Chickweed is certainly a plant in abundance in the spring and fall through most temperate regions in the world, and it can still be found throughout the summer months.

 

Chickweed is a small, succulent plant that has a smooth stem with a line of hair running along it like a horse’s mane. It has a tiny white flower with 10 petals (in five directions). In fact, M. Grieve writes that, “It has been said that there is no part of the world where Chickweed is not to be found…it has naturalized itself anywhere that man has settled” and I have found this to be the case in many places that I have visited. Here, it is a plant that you find both in urban and wild areas–I find it here near the edges of sidewalks, around telephone poles, growing graciously in the lawns, or tucked into the edges of the woods.

 

Chickweed is a Healing, Tonic Food

Chickweed it is an extremely nutritive, healing food. We herbalists call this a “tonic” food; its when a plant is both medicinal and edible, and when you eat it, it is restorative to multiple systems in the body. Chickweed is the reason we call food medicine, and medicine food. Chickweed is very nutrient dense, like many delicious wild foods, and is high in Vitamins A, B, C, Magnesium, Manganese, Zinc, Calcium, Phosphorous, and potassium, among others.  It also helps the metabolism, broadly, to more effectively eliminate waste and soothe inflammation.  It can be consumed moderately and with effect.

 

Chickweed Pesto: You can make a chickweed pesto that is nutritive and delicious.

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup of chickweed (or more)
  • Small handful of garlic mustard (also abundant and easy to find) or 2 cloves garlic
  • Walnuts or pine nuts
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • Optional: 2 tbsp Parmesan cheese

This delicious pesto can be used in all sorts of ways: tossed in noodles, baked into bread, as a sandwich spread, as a dipping sauce for treats.  You can freeze this (I like to freeze it in an ice cube tray and once frozen, put it in a bag so I can pull out a few cubes at a time).  Then you can enjoy it all year, even when chickweed is not in season.

Close-up of chickweed (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Close-up of chickweed (courtesy of Wikipedia)

 

Chickweed Salad: I also like to make a salad with various spring ephemerals (garlic mustard, dandelion greens, chickweed).  Make sure you chop the chickweed up pretty good.  Raw, it tastes a lot like a mild corn silk.  Toss it the greens with a vinaigrette and enjoy!

 

The Healing of Chickweed

Chickweed is a first-rate herbal plant ally, helping with a number of conditions. Chickweed is a demulcent (that is, it coats and soothes dry or inflamed tissues); is cooling (addressing hot conditions, like burns or inflammation).  It is also an alterative, working broadly on the metabolism to help the body more effectively absorb and use nutrients and more fully eliminate waste. As a gentle tonic plant, it can help rebuild these systems over time.

 

Chickweed is considered a “slimming remedy” for those that specifically have underactive thyroid issues. It has a folk reputation for being a “slimming remedy” when underactive thyroid is a cause of weight gain.   But more broadly, because it works with the metabolism, it also supports digestive processes.

 

Most people use Chickweed as a skin healer—in fact, in many Amish stores in my area, you will see chickweed salve for sale! It is particularly good for any dry and inflamed skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or the may minor bites, cuts, scrapes, brush burns, bee stings and so on.   It pretty much works for any skin conditions that are dry and inflamed—although because it is demulcent, you don’t want to use it for damp or mucus laden skin conditions. You can use it fresh as a poultice for this purpose (and combine it with plantain for added effect). You can also make an amazing salve from it. A fresh poultice of chickweed is good for poison ivy issues as well.

 

I want to stress that in all of the medicinal actions I’m describing above, chickweed is an extremely gentle plant.  She is powerful, yes, but in a gentle and soothing way.  I kind of see her like a friendly old grandmother who has a careful touch, yet powerful knowledge and healing ability.

 

Chickweed Healing Salve

Here is my recipe for a simple chickweed healing salve, which you can make and use for at least a year or more.  It is fantastic on burns, scrapes, sunburns, bug bites, cuts, etc.

 

Harvesting plants: Pick some chickweed in a place where it is safe to gather (not from a yard that is sprayed, for example; see my post on foraging for more on how to harvest safely).  Please be very careful where you gather chickweed–it is often in places other things can’t grow that are typically sprayed. For added medicinal effect, also pick some plantain and add this to your mixture! The two of these combined are really stellar.

 

Ingredients and materials

  1. 1 cup chickweed (or 1/2 cup plantain, 1/2 cup chickweed); more is even better
  2. High quality olive oil (about a cup)
  3. Double-boiler with a lid
  4. Beeswax
  5. Strainer
  6. Small jars to place in salve

Begin by cleaning your chickweed (wash it off, and garble it to make sure nothing else is in there; sometimes speedwell can look very similar).  Lay it out on a towel to dry.  You will want to wilt it for a few days–let it sit on a counter or table for 24-48 more hours before continuing the recipe.  If you are using plantain, treat the plantain like the chickweed.

 

Double boiler with plant matter

Double boiler with plant matter

Chop up your chickweed/plantain fairly finely and place in a double boiler.  Bring your water to a boil, and then keep it on low, infusing for at least 24 hours (if you have to turn the heat off for a few hours while you leave the house, that’s OK).  Beware of using a crock pot for this–crock pots typically get too hot and fry your plant matter.  You want it infusing, not frying!  If you don’t have a double boiler, you can place it in the sun for about 10 days infused in the oil.  Make sure the oil fully covers your plant matter.  I just prefer the double boiler method for the reason described in the next paragraph.

 

Chickweed is a very wet plant, so you need to make sure the water is getting out of the mixture.  This is why we wilted it!  Water will make your salve go rancid very quickly.  You can do this by putting a lid on your double boiler for about 10 min and then lifting it, seeing if there is condensation.  As long as there is condensation, there is still water in the mixture.  This is ok–you just need to be aware of it.

 

After you are done with your mixture, let it cool and then strain it into a clear glass jar.  I usually put the strainer on top of the jar and let the oil drip out.  Squeezing it is sure to bring water into the mixture, which you don’t want.  Let the mixture settle overnight–if there is water in it, it will look like little bubbles on the bottom.  Pour your oil back into your double boiler. When you pour it off, avoid those bubbles and pour off only oil.

 

Reheat your oil gently in the double boiler and add beeswax (I would start with 2 tbsp to a cup of oil). You can add as much wax as you want—the more wax, the thicker your salve will be. You can check the thickness by dropping a tiny bit of the salve onto a cold spoon (put the spoon in the freezer for 5 min). Once you are happy with the thickness, you can add a few drops of your favorite essential oil if you’d like and then pour it into small tins. It will keep a year or more this way, and can be used for many purposes. It also makes nice gifts!

 

The Magic of Chickweed

Chickweed might be a humble, gentle plant, but she packs a magical punch.  I have spent a lot of time working with this plant over the last few years, and one of the things that I realized is that she is a very potent magical plant, emphasizing protection and healing. In fact, I’d argue magical symbolism is drawn from her botanical features (see image above).  I came to this conclusion not by reading through herbals (although they certainly have a lot to say about the matter), but through my own powers of observation.

 

Barn Sign (Hex Sign) in Ligonier, PA

Barn Sign (Hex Sign) in Ligonier, PA

One of the things we have around here a lot are barn signs; these are painted signs, called Hex signs, that people placed on their barns to ward off evil or to encourage the good to come in. They primarily come out of the Pennsylvania Dutch magical tradition. So many of these signs feature a pentacle or ring ray of petals facing outward–just like chickweed.  Here’s one such barn sign (left) that I think looks a lot like the petals of a chickweed plant.

 

When you look at the chickweed itself, close up (see photo, below), the petals themselves are paired and shoot off in five rays.  The sepals (the small leaves right behind the petals) form a pentagram.  The  pistil is shaped almost like triskele.  So much magical symbolism is present here, in this tiny, unassuming flower. Culpepper puts chickweed as under the dominion of the moon.

 

I have come to understand chickweed as an extremely protective and potent plant.  I very much welcome in it in the beds around my house, and cultivate it when it appears–its protective, healing energy is always welcome.  She is an excellent guardian, functioning quite similarly to those barn signs of old, a quiet and yet potent protection for all who cultivate and welcome her.

 

New Herbalism Blog: Star and Thorn Botanicals

I wanted to end this post by telling you about the herbalism blog I have started–this is a joint effort between myself and my sister, Briel (who is also a practicing herbalist).  You can visit the blog here. It will cover a variety of different herbal techniques and plants, drawing upon traditional western herbalist practices. I’ll post wild foods and these kinds of magically-enriched posts here, however, still🙂.  Please check it out!

 

The Druid’s Garden Refugia Project – Site Preparation & Garden Map January 15, 2016

In my last two posts, I shared the philosophy of wildtending–the idea that we can nurture and regenerate the lands around us as a spiritual practice. In this post, I wanted to share the start of a new garden–a refugia garden–that I’ve been working on since the early summer when I moved to PA. It will show some basic strategies for taking a damaged piece of land, full of garbage, debris, and common plants, to a garden focused on biodiversity, rare and medicinal plants, and the developing of a “seed arc” for spreading these plants back into our native ecosystem. I’ll be updating you a few times on this garden as it progresses into its first season.

 

As I am currently landless in my transition from Michigan to Pennsylvania, I’m using a small chunk of land on my parents’ property for this garden. I thought it was an appropriate site, given that my father is very committed to replanting our lands with trees (which I shared in an earlier post), and that my father has been cultivating extremely rare woodland medicinal species (ginseng and goldenseal).  In fact, he was one of the people who inspired this whole series of posts and line of thinking!

 

The first step to designing any new space is what permaculture designers call “site analysis and assessment.” That is, we take a look at the site as it currently exists and examine what challenges and potential the site has.

 

The Site and its Potential: Like any good permaculture designer, I found the most damaged piece of land (the spot that nobody cared about) on my parents’ property.  Here’s a shot of the site in early June, before we got to work on it.  This is primarily in full sun at the bottom of a hill (that keeps on going down past the site), so that’s important to l keep that in mind when deciding what to plant (full sun, access to nutrients).  I’ll have a shady back area, behind the trellis I have planned, for some shady plants.  The house is about 40 feet away and on an uphill slope, so I also plan on digging an off-contour swale and a trench to help move the water under the driveway and directly from the house downspout into the garden itself. Finally, given the abundant water as a resource, I also am planning a small wetter area using the downspout off of my parents’ house for a few water-based rare plants (calamus and horsetail).

The future site of the refugia

The future site of the refugia garden

Challenges with the Site: The site was literally a garbage heap, where my father had been throwing in various brush and debris for at least 15 years. A very long time ago, this was where we once kept chickens and rabbits when I was growing up–now, it is nothing but an eyesore.  There was old rusty wire throughout the area, old animal cages, a huge buried pile of bricks, stones, and much more. One of the key challenges of the site was  the piles and piles of black locust bark that my father peeled there from the logs in his woodpile–the black locust bark resists rot and inhibits the growth of many other plants.  A second challenge was the soil, which was pretty much straight clay with little to no organic matter (this was once a potato field, and an airport before that, and clear cut before that).

 

Initial Site Cleanup: The site had some common medicinal plant allies growing (which I harvested as we were preparing the site: lots of yellow dock and poke, some black raspberry, blackberry root, and some goldenrod). Once we started clearing out the space,we also found a boatload of bricks and more bark…and more bark…and more bark. The locust bark took a long time to remove! We raked it out piece by piece!

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

In this photo, we are removing a small black cherry tree–the bark of which we use as medicine. In permaculture design, we work to produce no waste and see waste as a resource. As we were clearing, none of what we found in this space will go to waste.  The locust bark we can’t use was relegated to a small compost pile on the edge of the forest where there are black raspberries that can grow in the locust bark successfully. We’ll use the bricks either for edging the garden or for a small outdoor kitchen/pizza oven. Most of the other material we pulled out from the garden ended up back on the garden site to keep the cycle of nutrients flowing, in the compost pile for next season, or as medicine. Literally everything that could be used or saved, was used or saved.

Medicinal plant roots

Medicinal plant roots

After about 4 hours of work in mid May–and the site was starting to take shape.

Site starting to take shape!

Site mostly clear!

At the end of the day, we piled all of the non-seeded organic matter back onto the site to start to a sheet mulch. The last thing we wanted to do is remove any nutrients from the soil–and that’s what we would do if we simply removed it all (especially on poor soils like this one, most nutrients are in the plants themselves).

 

I’ll note that this initial prep work was done before I did my PDC, now I’ve learned a new sheet mulch technique and would have used all of the seeded material as well as the non-seeded material instead and kept everything except the locust bark.  Even so, we did pretty good. We also raked up the grass clippings in the area around the bed and added them as well.  Mom and dad started throwing in their fresh compost for added nutrients.

Adding organic matter

Adding organic matter

On another work day in June, my father procured a great pile of manure locally, and we added all of that on top of the site to help build the soil fertility. My parents’ land used to be a potato farm, and the soil is mostly clay, rocky, with little to no organic matter. A simple soil jar test confirmed this (as did just looking at the light brown color of the soil).

Adding compost

Adding organic matter is always the solution!

The site was starting to shape up by July. Dad said he’d be moving his woodpile, and sure enough, he did when I came back later in the summer to continue to work on the garden after my PDC. He also decided to cut down two of the locust trees for firewood bordering the site, which he had been planning to do even before my garden went in. At this point, I started shaping the pathways and added some free woodchips we got from the township (they give them away for free).

 

I had learned a lot about pathway management in my homestead in Michigan–namely, square gardens aren’t fun to maintain, because nature doesn’t work in square forms. Also, 4′ garden beds may be standard for many gardens, but they are way too big for me to comfortably work in (I think that someone who was 6′ tall with long arms came up with that as a standard garden bed measurement!)  In terms of the paths themselves, I wanted a more natural shape that embraced the sun and encouraged it in, and also was reminiscent of ancient mounds upon the earth–so I used an arc and a line. This gave me easy access to all of the beds without uncomfortable reaching and made a few paths to sit and to walk (I also considered a spiral here).  But really, this pathway choice was all about maximizing growing space using “keyhole” designs.

Establishing pathways

Establishing pathways

You’ll notice a few small patches of green in the garden.  There was a really lovely black raspberry that I decided to keep in the garden–its a bit rare in this particular area, and one of my favorites. I have also not found any stinging nettles in the wild, at all, in this area, so I put a few of those in after getting them at the Mother Earth News fair from a local grower.  You’ll also see my father’s giant brush “burn” pile behind the garden–I convinced him that burning it and releasing that carbon into the air is not a good idea and so, we are going to let it rot down for another year or two, let the blackberries stay on the north side of it and then turn it into a hugelkultur bed with a sheet mulch.  Hooray!

 

As fall approached and the leaves began to drop, I used a basic sheet mulching technique to extend the garden outward. It was the technique I described in this post years ago and involved beginning by garden forking the ground to address soil compaction (this spot has been run over with the mower for years and is super compacted).  Then I added a layer of cardboard and newspaper to suppress grass, wet it down, and then added thin layers of compost and maple leaves.  Maple leaves break down really quickly (as compared to say, oak) and they don’t mat as badly.  Worms will quickly make their way into these piles and by spring, they will be ready to plant in.  Even a month later, the piles had sunk by 2/3 in volume.

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

That takes me up to where I’m at today with the preparation work–the ground is now frozen (finally, after our delayed start to winter) and I am now looking at the seeds and planning for the next phase of the refugia garden.

 

Refugia Garden Seeds & Garden Design

So the other piece of this is the plants themselves–at this point in early January, I have my seeds ordered and am setting about a planting schedule.  I’ve also done a design of the garden, considering primarily the height of the plant and its role in the ecosystem.  There’s a lot I wanted to fit into this small garden–here’s my first rudimentary design!  Note that the south of the map is south-facing, and this garden is in full sun (except for the back part, which will be trellised and provide some shade.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

Next up comes some seed starting–most of the seeds I will start in March or April for an early June planting.  Some of the seeds I already started – the ones that require cold stratification I put in big pots outside for the winter months.  In March and April, depending on how long the seeds need to germinate and get started, I’ll plant them by the moon (a technique taught to me by my dear friend Linda); where you start seeds on the new or full moon. I’ll also use some of the seed starting magical work I described in this post.

 

So there you have it–the first start to my small, yet diverse, refugia garden!

 

Backyard Healing Salve Recipe with Plantain, Chickweed, and Ground Ivy November 20, 2015

One of the great things about fall is that so many of our spring ephemeral plants, those who dominate the springtime, come back to us again before the snows set in. This is the case this year with chickweed, one of my favorite plants for making a healing salve.  I have been seeking her out for medicine making and most of the summer she was a bit elusive. Finally, she is abundant again! So its time to make some green healing salve for gifts for Yule for friends and loved ones–I thought I’d bring you along for the journey.

 

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

Healing Salve in Tins (tins purchased from Mountain Rose Herbs)

This post will provide the recipe for my healing salve as well as insight into three plants used in the healing salve, all of which can be found abundant in most lawns and mowed areas (see these two posts for information about ethical harvesting, avoiding toxins, etc). For quite a while, I sold these salves at a farmer’s market booth. The salves were a big hit–people reported back that they used them for all kinds of ailments: bee stings, bug bites, small burns, scratches, scraps, rug burns, sore and inflamed skin of all kinds, and so on–everyone who bought one loved them very much! Even after I moved to PA and obviously wasn’t selling the salves any longer, I had people contacting me wanting more salve. The plants in this salve can be 100% locally sourced and you can locally source the beeswax.

 

Salves can be made from any herbal ingredient that can be used topically.  Because salves are oil-based, they are particularly good for cuts, minor burns, bug bites, skin irritations, dry and chapped skin, scrapes, bee stings, brush burns, and so on.  Salves typically should not be used for puncture wounds (they can lock in contaminants), on anything that is wet or pussy (for the same reason, a fresh poultice or honey preparation would work better), nor should any oil-based salve be used for poison ivy (it is an oil-based issue, so an oil-based salve can spread poison ivy, use lineaments or fresh poultice). You can use this same recipe for other kinds of infused oils and salves, like goldenrod, St. Johns Wort, black birch, and so on.

 

The Healing Salve as Plant Ambassador

My choice of using three plants–chickweed, plaintain, and ground ivy–commonly found in the lawn is a careful one.  For one, they make a fantastic healing salve.  But for two, their work as healing agents can help begin to shift people’s minds and practices towards the lawn. If you had a splinter or cuts that could be easily–and more effectively–healed by plants in the lawn, the plant gives you relief and that healing changes your relationship to the plants and to the lawn. If people know that there are healing plants they might gather from the lawn, its easier for them to stop spraying it. Its for this reason that I believe these little salves like these are wonderful ways of being a plant ambassador and doing the work of building awareness about nature’s great gifts. And without further delay, let’s meet the three plant allies that go into this delightful salve!

 

The Plant Allies for Healing Salve

Botanical Illustration of Broad-Leaf Plantain

Botanical Illustration of Broad-Leaf Plantain

Plantain (Plantago Regalia, Plantago Major)

Plantain is the gateway herb!  Its an easy herb to identify and find and can be used for a VERY wide variety of issues and conditions. If you only made this salve with one ingredient, make it with plantain.

            Identification: Two kinds of plantain typically can be found in a lawn: broad leaf (see picture, left) and narrow leaf plantain. They are used interchangeably.  See the botanical illustration for a detailed look at plantain.

Actions: Demulcent, Astringent

            Medicinal Uses:  Plantain has a host of uses, both internally and externally.  The best way to think about plantain is that it works on the mucus membranes. Plantain is very mild yet effective as a mild demulcent (it wets tissues) and mild astringent (it also helps tone tissues). It functions as a fantastic drawing agent, where it works to draw things out (like splinters, drawing out infections, drawing out debris from a dirty wound, puncture wounds). For these uses, fresh plantain poultice is the best, but the healing salve is a close second! Plantain (poultice, fresh) works very well on poisonous snake bits and spider bites. Plantain can be safely used with animals (so for cuts and scrapes from a cat fight). A plantain infusion can be used as an eye wash for goopy eyes (conjunctivitis) if you add a little salt to it (1 teaspoon of salt to 1 cup plantain tea). Plantain is very effective for inflamed tonsils, bleeding gums (just keep it in the mouth and chew it).  We are using plantain in this salve for for its drawing action, astringent action, and demulcent action.

Preparation:  Oil infusion/salve; dried for tea; tinctured; fresh poultice or chew.


Chickweed (Stellaria Media, spp.)

Chickweed Botanical Illustration

Chickweed Botanical Illustration

Identification: Chickweed is a small, succulent plant that has a smooth stem with a line of hair running along it like a horse’s mane. It has a tiny white flower with 10 petals (in five directions). It is a spring ephemeral plant; it can be harvested in abundance in the spring and again in the fall. You could also make this salve just with chickweed.

Actions:  Demulcent, Tonic

Features:  Chickweed is used in several ways, and in all, it is a very mild yet effective plant. Chickweed is particularly good for any dry and inflamed skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or the may minor bites, cuts, scrapes, brush burns, bee stings and so on.  It should not be used for pussy/mucus laden/wet/damp skin conditions. A fresh poultice of chickweed is good for poison ivy (use similar to Jewelweed).  Another way that Chickweed is used is that it is an alterative, metabolic tonic (it is thought to work on underactive thyroids, drying and causing the release of fluids). Chickweed can be eaten as a nutritive, healing food.  It is very rich in nutrients and nourishing.

Preparation:  Fresh plant in food, poultice, healing salve, tincture, dried for tea.

 

Ground Ivy Botanical Illustration

Ground Ivy Botanical Illustration

Ground Ivy (Glechoma Hederacea)

Identification: This plant will uptake any heavy metals in the soil—so make sure you are harvesting it from a safe area.

Actions:  Aromatic, Astringent

            Medicinal uses:  Ground ivy is an aromatic herb in the mint family with a very wide range of uses—it is generally a very safe plant to use for many different issues.  It has an astringent property, specifically for the kidneys and urethra (can be made as a tea for urinary tract infections).  It can be used for a sore throat, especially if the inflammation is making its way up your throat and into your ears or if you have a dry, scratchy throat. Its good for ear issues in general, like fluid congestion or vertigo or ear pressure from a head cold. Its also used for digestive issues where there is laxity or mucus in the stool and gassiness (again, it is used as a tea in this fashion). One of the traditional uses of this plant is to treat lead poisoning – a ground ivy tea increase the removal of lead from the body (and some herbalists are currently experimenting with its ability to remove other toxins from the body).  The whole plant (above ground) can be used.  Finally, ground ivy can be used as a drawing agent and used to help treat, according to Culpepper, “old green wounds.”

Preparation:  Oil infusion/salve; dried for tea (note-it loses its aromatic quality fairly quickly); tinctured.  Please note that ground ivy does not have a long shelf life–I’d say 4-5 months at most.

Healing Salve Ingredient List

  • Good quality olive oil (2-3 cups, depending on the amount of salve you want to make)
  • Good quality beeswax (get it from a local beekeeper if possible); it should smell amazing if its a high quality wax
  • Good amounts of your three plant allies (I like to use 40% plantain; 40% chickweed, and 20% ground ivy); you can use 100% plantain or 100% chickweed; or you can use 50/50 plantain and chickweed.
  • Skin-safe essential oils of your choice (optional, consider: lavender, tea tree, sweet orange, and lemongrass)
  • Jars or tins
  • Labels for your salves

You’ll also need some equipment: a double-boiler; a grater for the wax; a spoon or ladle for pouring salve into tin and mixing salve; and wax paper for protecting work surface.

Making the Healing Salve: Part 1 – Infused Oil

The first thing to do to make a healing salve is to make an infused oil, that is, an oil infused with plant matter.

Pouring salve on herbs (these are a little too fresh, but I was in a hurry!)

Pouring olive oil on herbs (these are a little too fresh, but I was in a hurry!)

I typically use olive oil for this recipe because it is both very shelf stable and readily available in organic oil. You can also use other oils (like coconut oil) but most herbalists use olive oil.  Coconut oil has a very low melt temperature, which can be a problem with a healing salve meant to travel with you (say, in your pocket, or in your car on a hot day, etc).

 

Wilt Your Herbs (if using fresh): All herbs, but chickweed in particular, should be wilted 1-2 days prior because of their high water content. Wilting just means to pick the plant matter and let them sit out somewhere for a few days while they slowly dry out. You can also use dried ingredients. Failure to account for the water content means that the oil you infuse may have a bit of water on the bottom–you need to avoid this or you’ll end up with a salve that goes rancid quickly.  But you can just pour off your salve and leave the water in the bottom (see photo below).

Double Boiler for Salve Making with Herbs

Double Boiler for Salve Making with Herbs

Use Heat or Time to Infuse: You can infuse oil in a lot of different ways, but the way I like to infuse oils is by using a double boiler over low heat for 12 hours (don’t boil the herbs), and then letting the herbs sit in the oil with the heat off for another 12 hours.  After this time, the herbs can be strained and the oil ready to use.  If you are using fresh plants, beware of any water content in the oil—it will be sitting on the bottom of your pot and look like little dark bubbles.  You do not want ANY water in your oil or it will spoil quickly.  You can store your infused oil in a cool, dark place for 1-2 years.

 

Herbs just starting to infuse

Herbs just starting to infuse

The Healing Salve, Part II: Making the Salve

My Backyard Green Healing Salve Recipe:

My favorite backyard healing salve is made with 40% plantain, 40% chickweed, and 20% ground ivy; handfuls of each infused in olive oil (enough olive oil to cover the herbs).  Another plant that can be used in this salve is Jewelweed (but it is a wet forest plant, not a yard plant!) or comfrey (a cultivated plant in most areas).

 

1. Once your oil is done infusing, strain it. I prefer to strain it through a cheesecloth or fine strainer overnight. The gravity will do nearly all of the work for you if you wait.  Also, if you try squeezing the plant material and you are using fresh plants, you could end up with more water in the bottom.  Again, an overnight straining prevents the need to squeeze.

 

2. Put your oil back in your (clean) double boiler. To make the salve, start with your filtered infused oil and return it tot your double boiler.  Make sure the oil is 100% free of plant mater or water (which will look like little bubbles on the bottom) – either of these will make it go rancid.  See photo below for example of water at the bottom:

Example of water at bottom to avoid

Example of water at bottom to avoid

3. Heat your infused oil up till its hot enough to melt beeswax (but no hotter).

 

4. Add shaved or chunked beeswax (about 2 tbsp per cup of oil) stir it to melt the beeswax fully. Your oil needs to be thickened into a salve that will hold its shape and have some body–and for that, we add beeswax. After adding your beeswax and melting it in, test the consistency by dropping a tiny bit of oil onto an ice cube and see how hard it gets. If its too hard, add a bit more oil. If its too soft, add a bit more beeswax.  You can get it as hard as you’d like, but I recommend keeping this salve fairly soft since it will need to be spread upon a lot of sore, tender spots.

5. Remove the oil from the heat.

 

6. Add any essential oils you like to the salve for smell.  The salve has a pretty “green” smell without the oils; its not unpleasant but isn’t really pleasant either, so I like to add the oils. My favorites for this blend are a few drops of tea tree oil, lemongrass oil, lavender oil, or orange oil.  (Lavender-lemongrass is a great combination, as is tea-tree orange).  For 1 cup of salve, I add 20 drops of essential oil.

 

7. Prepare your workspace for pouring the salves. At this point, I will set wax paper down and set out my tins or jars.  The wax paper prevents salve from getting all over my counter when I’m pouring.

 

8. Pour off your salve into the small jars or tins and let cool. You can use mason jars, little Altoids tins, whatever you have around that will hold a solid salve.  I also like to make a harder version of this salve (with a higher beeswax content) and then fill lip balm containers with it for hiking, backpacking, etc! Make sure you fill them slightly fuller than you want them to be, as the salve sinks and contracts a bit as it cools.

Filling jars and tins with salve

Filling jars and tins with salve

 

8.  Label your salves with a fun label!  Here’s an example of my salves at the farmer’s market with their cute labels (I was nearly sold out that day!)

Healing Salve at Farmer's market booth

Healing Salve at Farmer’s market booth

I hope you enjoy this wonderful backyard healing salve!

 

Cycles of the Sun and the Moon in Our Lives October 8, 2015

Humans evolved in alignment with the movement of the sun and the moon. As the sun moved, so did human camps of hunters and gathers. As the sun moved, so still move many birds, fish, and mammals as they migrate to avoid the biting cold. As the moon moved, so do the cycles within our bodies, the tides and flows, and wildlife. The sun and moon cycles are literally woven into our blood, into our DNA, and however disconnected some of humanity currently is from the cycles of the sun and moon, they are still there, ever present. How many friends or co-workers still talk about the full moon and how intense people get? How many people in the USA celebrate thanksgiving and a harvest season? How many people feel like staying inside during the darkest time of the year? The cycles of the celestial heavens are there, shining each day, if we only heed them. So today, I’d like to spend some time reflecting on the cycle of the sun in our lives, and how we can use this cycle within and without. This is especially pertinent because, at least where I live, the grumblings of winter have already begun and reflection helps us through the cold and the dark times.

 

The Moon and the Sun’s phases repeat themselves throughout our lives (whether or not we want them to), and we can see their same patterns occurring again and again. The graphic that I’ve used as a teaching tool that accompanies this post helps explain one way we can interpret these phases of the sun (and also we can apply this to understanding the moon phases as well). These are my own interpretations, but they are drawn from many years of living by the seasons as a homesteader, herbalist, and wild food forager, as well as 10 years of study in two druid orders, where we celebrate and meditate upon the cycle of the seasons.  Even if you don’t celebrate these events as holidays, they still have much to teach all of us in terms of life cycles.

Wheel of the Sun

Wheel of the Sun

The yearly cycle of the sun encourages us to understand that there are times of scarcity and abundance in our natural world, that there are times of high energy and growth and times of death and quietude, and that everything has a season. Why does winter come? So the trees and land can rest before spring is reborn anew. This cycle encourages us to understand that we must have both of these times in our lands and in our lives. The summer solstice (Alban Hefin in the druid tradition) is the high point of energy of the year, with the longest day. The winter solstice is the low point of energy of the year, with the longest night. On either mid-point, we have the equinoxes–the explosive growth and time of new beginnings at the spring equinox, and the harvest and reaping rewards and winding down at the fall equinox. The Sun’s full phase takes 365.256 days, and often teaches us lessons that are more long-term in nature (as each “year older” we are is a passing full phase of the sun); while the Moon’s full phase is 28 days (with each phase 7.38 days), and mirrors the phases of the sun in a shorter period of time. As the moon goes from dark to full and back again, it energetically creates periods of growth and beginnings, building energy, peaking energy, falling energy, and quietude.

 

Each of these phases is consistent, unavoidable, and part of the human experience. I think we’ve forgotten this quite a bit in our modern world, where each day is regimented into work weeks and we are always supposed to be at our peak performance. Dear workplace and modern life, it is not always high summer in our lands–why should you expect high summer performance 365 days a year? There isn’t a time for rest, there isn’t a time for reflection–its just go, go, go. Modern life gives us no time for anything but full “high summer energy” from us, and yet, that’s not realistic of human limitations and needs. This unrealistic expectation and leads to the glorification of busyness and the burnout of so many of us.

 

I think its interesting that we talk about it as a sun cycle, because that’s how we see it from earth. But its really an earth cycle that we are talking about–the movement of the earth around the stationary sun. The cycles are affected by the sun, but they are really earth cycles–how the sun is impacting the earth. The sun is masculine, and it is protective in nature. The moon, on the other hand, revolves around the earth and is impacted by earth much moreso than the sun–and the moon is the passive and feminine principle. So even the movement of the celestial bodies themselves reflect the principles they embody.

 

One of the wheel’s main lessons is that everything comes in a season and a cycle—if we feel we are in a time of darkness (as we might find ourselves in the Winter Solstice), we know that this will pass and that the sun will eventually be bright and full again. The cycle of the Sun, therefore, provides us the promise of change and growth.  Let’s take a look at each of these periods of time:

 

Balancing and Planning: Its during the Spring Equinox (March 21st) that we can first look to the start to a new season and begin to cultivate plans in our lives. The spring is a time where, after the long rest and rejuvenation of winter, we are able to start anew and build new ideas.  When we are excitedly making plans for the future, the message of balance is a critical one, and one that physically manifests during this period. In the physical landscape, by this point, farmers and gardeners have ordered their seeds and have begun to start them; and while we don’t see much in the way of new growth in many places in the Northern Hemisphere, the melting snows and returning light show the promise of spring. I remember on my homestead in Michigan, as soon as the pond ice would melt around this time period, you would see life in the pond. The water was only a few degrees above freezing and the ground was still covered with snow, but there was all this moving about on the warm edges of the melted water!

 

Sowing: May 1st marks the point where the “spring” energy is really coming back into the land. Traditional celebrations around May 1st (May Day) involve many fertility symbols, like the maypole or the Beltane fires. The energy of this time isn’t only about physical fertility, but rather how we might sow seeds for many other kinds of things: creative projects, more positive relationships, finding ways of expressing ourselves, and more. This is the time when the flowers come back, when the nectar begins to flow, and when green is slowly returned to our lands.

 

Energizing and Growth: With the sun shining at its brightest and strongest of the year on June 21st, the Summer Solstice is a time of energizing and growth! The sun provides Vitamin D, a critical nutrient that supports strong bones and teeth—the very foundation of our bodies. Upwards of 60% of Americans are deficient in Vitamin D–we are all in need of more sun. Spending time observing nature at this time shows us that we are in the height of summer—the first summer berries are in, the plants are growing vigorously, the trees are thick and lush, and much herbal medicine is ready.

 

Celebrating: Its not surprising that July and August are traditionally the months where people take a vacation—these months, even in a traditional society—were less busy than the coming fall harvest season. We don’t take enough times in our lives to truly just celebrate the positive things in our lives and simply spend time with those we care about—and this period of the sun’s cycle (around August 1st) encourages us to do this. These are the lazy days of summer, before schools begin again, when there is time to camp, to frolic in the fields, and to enjoy the coming harvest.

 

Balancing and Harvest: With all the work of planting, sowing, and growth comes the expectation and excitement of the harvest—when all of our hard work pays off. The land, too, is literally bursting at the seams in late August and throughout September with many of the traditional foods that would sustain people through the long winter: nuts, fruits, apples, pumpkins, winter squash, potatoes, and more. The Fall equinox (Sept 21st) also marks the point where we move from the light half to the dark half of the year—and a time for us reflecting and regaining balance in our lives.

 

Composting: We are uncomfortable with compost in this culture. Things are thrown away, discarded, but not always composted. The lesson of this time in the sun’s cycle can be a difficult but necessary one. As things that are no longer needed or no longer serve us build up around us, it is critical to clear them away and transform them so that we can move forward in our lives. Composting, in a physical sense, is what happens when the trees drop their leaves each season—these leaves turn into soil over time and that soil is host to a whole web of life. In the life of a farmer or gardener, this is when you clear out the old annual plants, trim things back, mulch your perennials, and prepare for the cold season—this is necessary work if anything is to grow. Failure to clear out the old prevents the new from coming forth. And by Samhain around November 1st, the land (at least where I live) is cold and appearing lifeless.

 

Resting: Despite modern surrounding productivity and cultural values encouraging staying busy and being workaholics; the lesson we learn from the sun cycles is that in order to be abundant and produce a harvest, we must rest, and this rest must be equal to every other phase in our lives. It is at this point, during the darkest night of the year (December 21st), that we can look to nature for guidance. The trees are still, their roots growing deeper into the earth; the perennial plants are alive and yet resting in their toots; living off of the stored nutrients of the past year. The beehive is sealed up, living off of honey stores, waiting for spring. Even many animals rest and hibernate during this part of the year. Without this resting period, the land would quickly be worn out. Without rest, we too are quickly worn out. This period of the sun’s cycle also provides an additional lesson: this is the time of darkness on our lands, but it is a naturally occurring process. This does not suggest that the dark are evil or to be avoided—they are a natural parts of our lives, and we can learn from them—and look forward to the sun’s light again.

 

Rejuvenating: As part of our rest in the dark half of the year, we need to find ways of rejuvenating our bodies, our minds, and our spirits—and February 1st is a perfect time to do this: light candles, take hot bubble baths, drink warm teas, find creative time, and get a weekend away! Rest is different than rejuvenation—after a period of rest, we are ready to inspire ourselves, treat ourselves, and start to look ahead.

 

Even if our lives in practice don’t reflect the cycles of the sun, what they do reflect for us is the importance of these periods of time in our lives. Do we get real relaxation? Do we get to nurture our own creative energies and birth things in the world? Do we have times to celebrate, to harvest, to compost, and to simply be still? The sun is there, each day, teaching us its careful and patient lesson. The moon, too, is always in her phase bringing in her quiet light. These cycles give us deeper understanding of ourselves, and principles to live by, principles that can help us create harmony and balance in our lives every day of the year.

 

I like to take time regularly to reflect upon the sun and moon cycles in my life. They help me balance, they remind me to rest, they comfort me when the composting or dark times are happening. I hope they do the same for you.

 

For more writings on the yearly cycles, see my posts on the Druid Wheel of the Year, a guided meditation, and Sustainable Activities for the Fall Equinox, Winter Solstice, Spring Equinox, and Summer Solstice.

 

The Silence of the Hive October 1, 2015

A full hive with bees working

A full hive with bees working

What you quickly learn as a beekeeper is that the sound of the hive matters.  When you first get into a hive, if the hive is in good health and has all of its needs met, the hive is generally pretty quiet (I talk about the hive as a single organism, because that’s really what bees are: a single super organism.)  Sometimes, a hive is louder when you arrive–the bees are fanning the hive with their wings to keep it cool, or they are beating their wings to generate heat in the winter to keep it warm (you don’t open the hive under 50 degrees). But in the absence of extreme hot or cold, a happy and healthy hive emits only a very soft sound, discernible only up close when you open it. Beehives always have some buzzing in them–the bees move around, beat their wings, and go about tending their young and storing away pollen and honey. You can sense the happiness and contentment of the bees in a quiet hive a going about their work. As you begin doing whatever it is you need to do and disrupt the bees, like pulling out frames or moving around hive boxes, they escalate to a louder buzzing sound, where the hive is on alert. The louder the buzzing, generally, the less happy of a hive you have on your hands. They get extremely loud and start flying at you and trying to sting when they think their hive is in danger–this is usually after you do something stupid, like kill bees, bang on the hive box, drop something, etc.. I used to think that this loud buzzing was the worst sound you could hear. Now, I realize there is a much worse sound you can hear–and that is the sound of silence.

 

This past weekend was supposed to be an exciting time for me as a beekeeper–my two hives each had 30 or so pounds of excess honey in the honey supers from the last big nectar flow of the season, and it was time to go harvest. The honey this time of year is the stuff of legends, the nectar of the gods, the honey that can drive away seasonal allergies and warm the soul for the many long months of winter. Its made of plants that heal–goldenrod and aster.  Its dark and rich, extremely flavorful, and highly medicinal. I had been looking forward to this weekend for many months, excited that we had such a good harvest in the second year of beekeeping. It was especially gratifying after getting through the regulatory red tape of moving my hives from Michigan to Pennsylvania this summer and finding a new home for the hives.

 

This is what you expect to see....

This is what you expect to see….

My father joined me to help harvest the honey, and we laughed and smiled as we put on our suits, prepared our tools, and got ready to do the harvest. When we opened the first hive, I noted that the bees weren’t on the honey super–this isn’t necessarily abnormal; the colony is quickly shrinking in size as the weather cools and you don’t always find a lot of bees up in the honey super. But something felt just wrong. We were able to pull off the frames one by one, not even needing the escape board I had planned on using.  Then it struck me–there was no buzzing; the hive was silent. As I leaned into the hive and looked down through all the frames and into the brood box where the bees should still be, I could see straight to the bottom. No bees. I realized that the absence of sound was one of the worst kinds of sounds a beekeeper can hear–the silence of a dead or abandoned hive.

 

Six months ago on this blog, I wrote about the sound of silence and the music of the world–how one researcher found that as species died off and dwindled, as less and less habitats remained, a silence was coming over the world in ways not previously recorded or experienced. This, of course, is decades after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, who documented the effects of pesticide use on bird populations–and who created a national conversation on conservation. And, as I stood there looking at my empty, dead hive, pulling frame after frame, the full weight of the silence was upon me.

 

There are lots of ways that hives can die these days, but the name for what I found in my hive this past weekend is one you’ll probably recognize: colony collapse disorder (CCD). This is when the workers in a healthy hive up and abandon it leaving their young, their queen, and all of their food behind. Its not that the whole hive moves on, but rather, just the workforce of the hive disappears. Its kind of like if every healthy adult who keeps your town functioning were to walk out of town permanently and head who knows where without any food, water, even a change of clothes, leaving their children, elders, and pets behind, and just disappear, never to be seen again. The worker bees have no chance of survival without the honey (especially as it gets colder and colder), the safety of their hive, and the queen for reproduction–especially this late in a season. Even if they somehow made it to spring, without a queen, the bees cannot reproduce and the colony would die. In a careful inspection of the dead hive, I found bees that had just hatched, half out their cells, dead. Many others never had a chance to hatch and died before they were even born. We’ve had some very cold nights, and I’m guessing they froze to death. Without any adult worker bees tending them or keeping them warm, they had no chance. It was awful.

 

Its not just the loss of the hive, a dear friend and companion on my journey, that is so painful. Its the representation of what this loss means. Its seeing the headlines about bee declines and deaths and thinking that you can somehow do better, that your organic beekeeping and the love you pour into your hives will make your bees immune to what’s going on. That CCD will never happen to your hives. That your practices, and faith, and love, can create a protective bubble to keep the harsh reality of what we are doing to this planet out.  I am again reminded of what declines in bee, bird, and other wildlife populations mean for the health of our lands. I’ve been speaking so much of regeneration on this blog in recent months, and the loss of my hive really has weighed on me the importance of this ongoing conversation.

 

In the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of press coverage about Colony Collapse Disorder–what it is, why it happens, what causes it. The truth is, scientists are still figuring it out, but it seems to focus on three areas: pesticides, disease/mites, and the loss of of foraging areas. But it doesn’t take a scientist to recognize the massive changes happening in our lands: all ones needs to do is open his or her eyes and see through the bee’s perspective. Bees need the same things the rest of us do: healthy living spaces free of poison, health and disease free living, no toxins, and adequate food supplies. Those are increasingly under threat, and unfortunately, the situation is not improving at present time.

 

Less than 1/2 mile from the hives, I noted someone in the yard with his small pack sprayer of chemicals, hitting the dandelions and other plants he didn’t want growing there.  After leaving the hives very saddened, I noted on the same road a “lawn care professional” whom I might more aptly name a “poisoner” spraying an entire lawn down with his toxic brew. Some countries in Europe have outright banned the offending pesticides to help bee populations recover, but in the great US of A, the opposite seems to happen. Instead, we get the “Best Recommendations for the Public” from the USDA in the form of the following:

“The best action the public can take to improve honey bee survival is not to use pesticides indiscriminately. In particular, the public should avoid applying pesticides during mid-day hours, when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar and pollen on flowering plants.”

Indiscriminate use of pesticides? Being mindful of pesticides? Are you serious? The first step to addressing a problem is recognizing that we have one, and clearly, as a culture we still aren’t at that point. We have extensive amounts of greenwashing on the part of actual chemical companies and a government entity that panders to them. I think, personally, its time we really start getting louder about these chemicals and frame them for what they are and do: the systematic poisoning of our lands. Seeing that guy spraying the lawn as I was leaving my dead hive was just too much for me.

 

Lawn: be gone!

Lawn: be gone!

Of course, the other big issue with CCD is that the lawn itself is a food desert to bees and many other beneficial insects and wildlife, food desert. We have many, many kinds of food deserts in the USA today: places where people can’t get access to fresh food, and places where wildlife or insects also lack access. Part of the decline in bee populations is due to the lack of food availability for the bees: those chemically-ridden, manicured lawns provide no food or forage for wildlife, and they poison all who are near them. Less food means less abundance and a harder life for the bees and for everything else–the loss of food and habitat, of course, is driving the growing silence in the world. I’m not sure if this was an issue for my hive as they definitely seemed well fed this summer, but its a contributing factor in bee health more generally.

 

When I got into beekeeping, I did so because I wanted to help understand the bees, help tend them and bring them to the landscape; I wanted to help the land heal. And this weekend, I learned a very important lesson about beekeeping–it doesn’t matter how organic and clean your practices are in the hive.  If the people around you are spraying, even out to two miles, it will make it into your hive. And it will make it into your body, and into your children, and your pets, and your trees, your organic vegetable garden, and everything else. I’m not the first person I know to lose a colony of bees to this stuff, and I certainly won’t be the last. The bees are like our canary in the coalmine–the land isn’t safe and the bees die. My question is: how long are we going to turn our heads and close our doors when our neighbors, governments, friends, family, or farmers are literally poisoning the land we hold sacred? When the canary is clearly suffering or already dead?  That’s the question I think that we all have before us.

 

Regenerative and sustainable living isn’t all whimsical and happy. We don’t homestead, harvest herbs, and tend the land just because it allows us to sit with fluffy bunnies, milk happy goats chewing on burdock, and drink oodles of lemon balm tea sweetened with raw organic honey. Maybe there’s that image out there–that of idyllic farm life, perfect and content. That if we can simply build enough of an oasis for ourselves and our families, for our gardens and our animals, that everything that is out there won’t get in. The reality is far from it. We do this because the alternative, for us, and for the life on this planet is, death. Its silence. The emptiness of a beehive, the quiet of the birds that once lived and are no more, the shrinking patches of forest–this is why we do this work. We do this because we have to do something, and doing something, however small, is better than sitting around with our faces in our phones pretending nothing is happening. There are days when, as joyful as this path may be, the reality of the challenges we face in the world come right in our faces in a way that we can’t ignore.  This past Saturday, for me, was one of those days.