The Druid's Garden

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

A Druid’s Guide to Connecting With Nature, Part III: Nature Engagement July 22, 2018

Leading you in deeper!

Leading you in deeper!

I’ve heard a lot of conversation in the nature spirituality community, including the druid community, about not touching nature, leaving it alone, to simply “be”.  I remember one influential druid speaking at an event and saying, “The best thing you can do in nature is pick up the garbage and get out.”  From a certain standpoint, this perspective makes a lot of sense. It is the same perspective held by many conservationists trying to preserve pristine lands or lands that have been replanted and are healing; the best thing that can be done is figure out how to keep people from mucking them up, pick up garbage, and leave them undisturbed. Because people have a tendency to come in, move things about, pick things, disrupt ecosystems, and generally cause havoc.  Or worse, much, much worse. Further, in a world where most humans can’t identify even five trees or have any idea if the ecosystem they are looking at is healthy or not, it is a good perspective for nature to be on her own.  This is a perspective ultimately rooted in the desire to care for nature, to preserve nature, and to do good. I do think there are cases, for ecologically sensitive areas, during breeding season, and so on where this is still the best philosophy.  But I think in many more cases, it is not.

 

However, as I began my own journey to understand and connect with nature more deeply, I came to a different understanding.  Through deep study of permaculture, bushcraft, wildcrafting, and so on, and reading the works of many authors, including M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, Jon Young, and Wendell Berry, I came to a different understanding. The perspective of “pick up the garbage and get out” implies that we put nature on a pedestal; that we enshrine her and look at her from afar, that we leave her alone. She becomes like the object in the museum behind the glass wall with the lights shining on it; interesting to visit once in a while, but please don’t touch.

I see at least three problems with this perspective, as a general principle:

 

  • It fosters separation and disconnection from nature. The minimal interaction with nature maximizes separation.  But we are part of nature, we are not separate from her.
  • It fosters fear about nature or about our own interactions with nature. Particularly, the fear to do harm, the fear to do the wrong thing, makes us fear doing anything. And so then, we do nothing.
  • It fosters ignorance about nature. Last week, I talked about how nature wisdom had two parts: the book learning through nature knowledge and the  experiential interaction through nature understanding. Because we are separate from it, we have no opportunity to learn from experience.

 

An alternative perspective–which I’m advocating today through nature engagement and next week through nature reciprocity–is a very different one. It is a perspective rooted in connection, wisdom, and in a deep-rooted responsibility. Nature engagement is the opposite of “pick up the garbage and get out”–its the idea that we are part of nature, we can learn to use her, to work with her, help her grow, and tend her, and use her responsibly. (And for earlier posts in this series, please see the framework, nature wisdom, and nature engagement).

 

A place to explore...

A place to explore…

One of the concepts that really shaped my thinking on this was how M. Kat Anderson describes the indigenous peoples of California’s view on “wilderness”.  While in English, the concept of wilderness is a largely positive, in that it has been untouched by humans, it is pristine, it is wild, the concept of “wilderness” for the indigenous peoples of California is very negative: it meant that land was unloved, untended, and not under anyone’s care. For western people, humans touching nature is assumed to be bad/destructive, so wild places that are untouched are therefore good (as long as that wild place isn’t someone’s front lawn). But for the indigenous Californians, touching nature and interaction is good and nature that was left to go “wild” was a sad thing. Indigenous peoples all over the world and, going back far enough, everyone’s ancestors, understood and still understand this: if we are going to survive, and thrive, we do so in partnership with nature.

 

What I’m actually talking about is dependency. With the rise of industrialization, factories and mass production replaced home cottage industries; consumer goods and purchasing replaced hand-created, foraged, and grown goods; and humans in western civilization, in a few short generations, lost the ability to learn to live from nature. Today, for many people living in industrialized nations, we have lost nearly everything our ancestors knew about how to live abundantly from the land. This included everything from growing food to foraging, from fishing and hunting to natural crafts, to building things naturally or with wood (a topic I explored in my “way of wood” post some time ago). We need nature, we depend on her, her survival is our survival–even if systems present in consumerism and industrialization have separated many of us from this truth.

 

If we enshrine nature, if we put her on a pedestal and look at her from afar, we will never develop the sacred relationship and co-dependency that leads to deep love and knowledge.  If all we are willing to do is “pick up the garbage and get out” then that’s all we will ever be willing or allow ourselves to do. The connection stops there–with a distance of respect, and reverence, but without interaction or interactivity.  Part of why nature is so powerful to us is that she can–and does–provide all of our needs. You step on a lawn; there is an incredible abundance of healing food and medicine there. Each time you walk into a forest, there is so much there to offer you.  Looking at a beautiful plant is one thing; looking at a beautiful plant that can help heal your pain is quite another. Through interacting with nature, and instead, prefer to interact with nature, to learn how to use her, to learn how to heal her (which all go hand in hand).

 

And, with all of the above in mind, we come to the three ways of nature engagement:

To engage with nature we can:
use nature for healing, living, and sustenance
enjoy nature’s beauty and adventure
be creatively inspired by nature

Using Nature

Humans use nature every day–it is how we survive as a species. From the oxygen in the air to the clothes on our back, nature is with us.  Everything that clothes us, feeds us, heals us, and shelters us ultimately comes from the earth in some form.  We in the western world might be very disconnected from the original source of materials used to create the things we wear, sleep on, or eat every day, and see it as wholly human made–but in the end, it has a natural source, and it is important that we learn to reconnect with nature as provider.

 

Elderflower harvest

Elderflower harvest

Because of exploitation, because we have such damage in many ecosystems, we are hesitant to directly take anything from nature; hesitant to do harm, when the very materials we thrive upon and food we eat comes from the land.  But “using nature” in a druidic sense needs to account for more than what we take–for a nature-based spiritual experience, it is less about “what can I take” and more about relationship, both give and take. Previously, I’ve mentioned Wendell Berry’s concepts from the Unsettling of America: approaching the natural world from a perspective that exploits (which is only taking, taking without reservation, and taking in a way that degrades and destroys life) vs. a perspective that nurtures (taking only enough, paying attention to the health of the land and considering long-term issues). If we approach using nature in a place of nurturing, we are already in the place to develop a relationship with nature. To me, I see this issue as one of reciprocation. I know that with each meal, with each moment I spend in a warm and heated home, I am taking from nature.  So my goal, then, is to give back in every way that I can.  If I pick our native black raspberries to eat (like I did this morning–yum), I save some and scatter them into new areas where they will grow and I leave some ripe ones for the wildlife.

 

Here are a few, of many, ways that you can learn to more fully “use nature”:

  • Foraging and Wild Foods: This hobby is a wonderful way to learn how to use nature and enjoy some tasty treats. I always balance foraging activities with ways that I directly give back to the land: scattering rare woodland species seeds, helping the plants I am harvesting (when native) by spreading their seeds, and so on (more on this next week). Sometimes, foraging helps manage species that are too abundant (or what others might call “invasive”); thus helping keep that species in check. You can never harvest too much japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, kudzu or dandelion!  Two posts (here and here) introduce you to foraging activities and give ideas and suggestions.  Lots of websites and books are available–and I often post material on foragable treats (like Hostas and Milkweed, both of which I covered this year).
  • Bushcraft. Another take on the “using nature” is by learning bushcraft skills. These are various wilderness survival skills like shelter building, fire starting, making cordage from natural materials, and more. There are various bushcraft skills scattered throughout the country and they offer a rich variety of classes. One I have attended is the North American Bushcraft School in West Virginia, who offer a wide range of classes on a variety of topics.
  • Herbalism. Learning how to heal the body with plants is another amazing way to “use” nature and learn how to engage with her more fully. I have found the herbalism community in the US to be rich, and delightfully earth-affirming and earth-honoring.  It is a wonderful practice to learn with a lot of good people to learn from. I have a post here detailing some of the ways to get started in this practice. You can learn both how to grow your own herbs and also how to harvest from nature and tend to wild patches of herbs to help them better grow.
  • Natural building. One of my long-time favorite ways of learning to use nature is through building using materials right from the land–through timber framing, cob construction, and more. I’ve written on this topic a bit here and will have some upcoming posts on the topic later in the year!

 

I actually think that part of the great tragedy of the modern consumerist movement is that nature has lost much of her “value” to humans.  I watch people cutting down apple or walnut trees, cutting back big swaths of dandelions or burdock, cutting down whole forests–and there is so much “of value” in those spaces, but the value isn’t known any longer.  When I teach wild food foraging classes in the summer, what strikes me the most is how learning something even small about a plant completely changes a person’s perspective on it–it changes their relationship, changes the “value” the plant has, and ultimately, connects them more deeply not only with that plant but with the ecosystem in which it grows. I’ve had people come back to me several years later after attending a plant walk and saying how they stopped spraying their lawns because they didn’t know that you could make wine from dandelions and salve from plantains, etc.

 

And use of nature absolutely builds nature connection. What I’ve found as I’ve delved more deeply into the above practices (some moreso than others) is that the more that I learn to use nature, the more connected I am, and frankly, the more value something has.  As a druid, I approach every aspect of nature with reverence and respect. But, its amazing to come across a patch of wild dogbane in the summer and be so excited because in the early winter, I know I can come back and harvest the dried stalks for cordage.  That really adds something to my interaction with this incredible plant and the ecosystem in which she grows.

 

Nature Activity

Being on the water!

Being on the water!

Our second category under “nature engagement” is nature activity. This refers to the many nature-based activities that we can engage in and be out with and part of nature.  Hiking, kayaking, cross-country skiing, backpacking, camping, and much more are an assortment of things that can be done in nature. My general rule, as someone who is focusing on cultivating a nurturing relationship with nature, is to focus on activities that have minimal impact or no impact and use minimal to no fossil fuel.  So I am happy to kayak down a river paddling using my own human power and navigating the river’s current, but don’t want to take a big speedboat. There are so many ways we can engage in activity, exercise, and healing through “doing” nature. I also think that activity can be paired with wild food foraging and herbalism, which really enhances your experience with being part of nature and connected to nature!

 

Another thing I like to do is combine sacred activities in nature (nature reverence, which we will explore in more depth in two weeks) with getting out in nature.  So planning a kayaking trip that also has a ritual component; bringing along a healing blend of herbs to make offerings to the land and a bag of American Ginseng and Ramp seeds to scatter, and so on.

 

Creating With/Through Nature

In addition to providing all of our needs and offering us incredible experiences through exploration, nature offers us inspiration.  Many poets, artists, musicians, dancers, fine crafts people and other creative artists throughout the ages have found their inspiration in the living earth, in the flow of the waters, in the spark of first light in the heavens, in the bloom of a flower or the soaring of a hawk.  In the druid tradition, we cultivate and work with the Awen, the force of divine inspiration, that flows from nature and through a person seeking to create.  Here are some ways that we might create with/through nature:

Learning basket weaving from downed willow

Learning basket weaving from downed willow

  • Nature as a muse: nature can be an incredible muse for all different kinds of creative practice.  I am a visual artist, and I am often sketching and photographing what I see to bring into my paintings; a dancer might choose to interpret the pattern of the clouds through motion, where a musician might play the song he hears in the waterfall.  Being present with nature, being in nature, being observant in nature, learning to meditate in nature–all of these can bring you inspiration.  I also find that when I travel somewhere new, outside of my usual places and outside of my own bioregion, inspiration of new natural places often floods within me.
  • Nature and Artistic Media: Using nature as part of your creative process is another way to bring nature centrally into creative practice.  This might be doing woodcarving and using wood, creating berry inks, vine-based charcoals, hand papermaking, and more.
  • Wildcrafting: There are many kinds of artistic materials and craft projects that you can do. I love finding ways of working with nature directly in my artistic and bardic practices. Berry inks, handmade papers, homemade decorations, smudge sticks, herbal offering blends, and so much more can come right from the living earth. For these, I only take what is in abundance, what I grow myself, or what needs to be managed.

I’ve also seen artists who work with whatever is abundant–a wonderful basket artist who works with bittersweet vines; harvesting the vines helps keep them under control and produces lovely works.  Or a woodworker who collects deadfall from the side of the road and turns it into masterpieces.  Or a mosaic artist who works with stones and shells from the ocean. Part of this, I think, is finding the parts of nature that speak and resonate with you and that bring you inspiration.

 

Conclusion

This post has covered a lot of ground–so we’ll end for here, and next week, we’ll pick up and explore the other side of the coin to  “nature engagement” which is “nature reciprocation.”  Blessings as always!

 

 

Sacred Tree Profile: Sassafras’ Medicine, Magic, Mythology and Meaning August 20, 2017

The fall months are coming and the leaves here are just beginning to turn.  Apples are starting to ripen, nuts are starting to fall. And with a quiet walk through the fall woods, you might be lucky enough to see a sassafras (sassafras albidum) in her fall splendor. She will be decked head to toe in yellow, orange, red, purple, and magenta; an old sassafras tree in full fall foliage is certainly a sight to behold. With her wavy trunk and twisted branches, Sassafras makes no apologies about her ability to stand from the crowd.  Her four variable leaf patterns (mittens (right or left), single leaves, double mittens) help show her flexibility and charm. While Sassafras is not present in the traditional Ogham or other Western Magical Traditions as she is distinctly an American magical tree, she is a powerful tree with much to offer us.

 

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves

An ecoprint I made of the variety of sassafras leaves\

Growth and Ecology

Sassafras has been called by many names and these names help teach us some of her power: auge tree, saxifrax, cinnamon wood, cinnamonwood, saloop, smelling stick, chewing stick, tea tree, winauk (Native American in Delaware and Virginia); Pauane (Timuca Indians); Kombu (Choctaw); and weyanoke (Algonquin).

 

Sassafras is typically a fairly small tree, growing 20-40 feet in height with a trunk 1-2 feet in diameter in the northern end of her range. In southern portions of its range, she can grow much larger, up to 100 feet high. Her wood is soft and light-colored with a faint aromatic Sassafras smell.  Her wood is brittle, coarse-grained, and rot-resistant although it is not very strong.  Typically, her wood has been commercially used for posts and lumber, but wood carvers also enjoy working with it.  Sassafras is dioecious, that is, the male and female flowers appear on separate trees. The females will eventually have fruits ripen (which occur around midsummer) whereas the male trees will not.

 

If you’ve ever met a mother sassafras in the forest, you will likely have seen her many babies surrounding her on the forest floor.  Sassafras reproduces through cloning through her lateral root system.   The mother tree, usually much larger, sends off rootlets that pop up new baby trees. The babies live by the nutrients of the mother tree and hope that the forest will open up enough to give them life and light to reach into the canopy. Sassafras is a sun-loving tree that needs at least part sun to thrive.  This is why you will often find her on the edges of forests, or in forest openings, but certainly not in dark forest spaces.

 

Sassafras and American History

Sassafras is a tree native to North America, and as such, played a critical role in the Western colonization of North America by the Europeans. Sassafras was the first “discovery” and export from North America back to the Old World, at a time when wood and wooden objects were central to everyday life.  In A Sampler of Wayside Herbs, Barbara Pond suggests that it was the hunt for Sassafras that actually inspired early Colonial exploration; for example, in 1602, Gosnold was very excited to discover  growing on Martha’s Vineyard Island.  In the 1600’s, massive amounts of ships called “Sassafras carriers” brought Sassafras wood and roots to the old world. In 1570, Thomas Hariot included in his report from Virginia, “Sassafras, called by the inhabitants Winauk, a kind of wood most pleasant and sweete smel, and of most rare vertues in physic for the cure of many diseases.” Eric Sloane in In Reverence of Wood writes about it as the “American Wonder Drug” and it grew in popularity such that it became known to cure any ailment or disease and as a genearl health tonic to keep one prime and to allow one to live a longer life. Even as early as 1577, a book by Dr. Monardus, a Spanish Physician, was translated into English titled, The Joyful News from the West Indies and it described the medicinal uses of Sassafras, which helped continue its prevalence of an import from the New World. In 1600, from a book by John Brereton, he reports sassafras selling for at least 3 shillings a pound; 1 ton was sold 336 british pounds (which was quite a lot in those days).

 

Because early Sassafras ships made it back to England without harm, Sassafras also quickly developed a reputation for being a “lucky wood” and a “protective wood”; Eric Sloane writes about how people soon were making many things of sassafras, such as spoons, cradle inlays, and bible boxes (to keep away evil spirits).  Sassafras wood was included in new ship designs to keep away evil spirits and prevent the ship from being wrecked.  Further, for over a century, it was considered to be able to extend life, cure all things, and drive away any sickness.  And so, from the time of early Western exploration in the new world, Sassafras was a highly regarded and sought commodity that offered healing and protection.

 

Safrole and Safety

Sassafras has a long history of use in traditional Native and Western medicine, but today, safrole, which is concentrated in the roots is considered “possibly carcinogenic” by the US Food and Drug Administration. Safrole is the primary aromatic ingredient in sassafras root bark; it was declared as a weak carcinogen on the liver by the FDA in 1976 and is still listed as such. Safrole is, notably, also present in lesser quantities in camphor, nutmeg, and mace.

 

In the herbal community at present, given this tree’s extremely long relationship with healing and humanity, a lot of folks sassafras occasionally without adverse effects.  A lot of folks in rural Appalachia also drink sassafras tea regularly, just as their ancestors drank sassafras tea in their spring tonics and root beers.  When I studied with Jim McDonald, he noted that Nutmeg contains almost as much Safrole as Sassafras and yet it wasn’t banned–he wondered if was banned because it can be made into ecstasy/MDMA in a lab.  He also noted that the studies took sassafras essential oil and injected it into rats–and no further research has ever been done (such as what happens to humans drinking tea as opposed to huge consumption of concentrated essential oil).

 

Matthew Wood in his New World Herbal notes, “Safrole is a neurotoxin and carcinogenic in isolation, but tests have shown that people who drink the tea for years actually have a reduced rate of cancer.  Still, the unadulterated sassafras root and root bark remain suspect” (315).  Further, in the Peterson Guide, it is noted that there is more carcinogenic substances in a can of beer than a can of traditional root beer with sassafras as the main ingredient.

 

Given the complexity of the issue, I would suggest that you read for yourself (looking at the original studies of which there were not many, and they were done on rats) and make up your own mind about whether or not you want to consume any tea on an occasional basis. I certainly enjoy it on a regular basis.

 

Note that the leaves of Sassafras, which are used in Creole cuisine as a thickener for soups, are perfectly safe and do not contain any safrole.

 

Harvesting Sassafras

Understanding Sassafras’ growth habit and reproduction through lateral roots is a great way to get copious amounts of root without damaging a large tree.  Sassafras seedlings can’t survive long in full shade, so they either need an edge or a forest disturbance (like a tree falling and making a clearing).  You can harvest some of the roots between a seedling tree and a mother easily.  I harvest roots of seedlings particularly in full shade areas–I know the seedlings won’t live long without a forest opening.

 

The other easy way to harvest sassafras roots is to wait for a storm to drop one–then you can simply saw them off and harvest all the roots.  The inner root bark is the most aromatic and medicinal, so even very large roots from a mother tree that has fallen would work very well.

 

The roots of small Sassafras trees can be used as is; the larger roots from a fallen tree have to have the tough, outer root bark peeled and removed prior to use.

 

Medicinal Uses of Sassafras

Sassafras Root Spring Tonic: As described above, the Sassafras was taken internally for a variety of healing purposes throughout the ages.  Traditional herbalism recognizes Sassafras as a “spring tonic” or “blood purifying”  or “blood thinning” herb and is used in the spring in quantity for this purpose.  In 1830, Constantine Rafinesque wrote, “The Indians use a strong decoction to purge and cleanse the body in the spring” (Quoted in Wood, 315, New World Herbs).   Wood notes that it “promotes clear thining in old age from good circulation to the brain, to improve the peripheral circulation to rid the joints of arthritic depositions, and to promote diuresis” (316).   Euell Gibbons in Hunting the Wild Asparagus notes that traditionally, Sassafras Root tea was made with maple sap water for spring tonic.  He noted that even in the 1950’s, when he wrote his book, that many folks still drink Sassafras tea “as a spring tonic, believing that it thins the blood and prepares the body to better stand the coming heat of summer.” Gibbons offers this medicinal tea: 3 tablespoons of honey, 3 tablespoons of vinegar (I would suggest a fire cider here) and 1 quart sassafras tea. Chill and serve as a spring tonic.

 

Blood and Circulatory System: Today, herbalists recognize sassafras root as a warming, spicy, and aromatic herb that functions as an alterative (tonic) for the liver with mild antiseptic qualities.  It has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation. It is also used to prevent heart attacks from thick, coagulated blood.  Jim McDonald notes that it has a specific action on the blood and circulatory system, stimulating blood flow and enhancing periphery circulation.  It can address circulatory congestion issues (such as cold fingers and toes, varicose veins, or pelvic circulatory issues).  Matthew Wood notes that could also be used to help increase circulation during a fever (along with boneset and elderflower).  It can function as an aphrodisiac if poor pelvic circulation is causing the reduction of the libido.  This is typically taken in tea form.  Because the aromatic qualities are the medicinal ones, Jim McDonald recommends a shorter boil (3-5 minutes) and then let the roots sit for a long time (like overnight) before consuming it.

 

Matthew Wood also notes a number of other Native American uses.  One such use as a fever remedy; they used the heartwood of sycamore, wild cherry bark, mountain mint, and Sassafras as fever remedies. Sassafras root bark was also Native American bruise remedy; they made an oil or powered the bark and added mullein for bruises, swollen faces, etc.  Native Americans also used the leaves to treat wounds by rubbing fresh leaves on an open wound.

 

Cooling and Demulcent Leaf: Sassafras leaf is cooling and demulcent and is traditionally used as a demulcent for coating and soothing scratchy and dry throats.  To do this, prepare boiling water and pour over dried leaves; let sit till it is cool and strain. Wood notes that, “The root bark is picked in the spring to thin the blood, the mucilage in the fall [leaves] to thicken it.”

 

Other Uses for Sassafras

The entire tree–wood, leaves, and roots–of Sassafras has offered humans a range of benefits.

 

Dyes: Sassafras root has been used as a nature plant dye. Typically, you get either a pink or a warm brown, depending on quantity.  The Pennsylvania Dutch used it often to dye linen or hemp that they grew. I haven’t used it much for this purpose as I’d rather make root beer and use other plants to obtain similar shades. Sassafras root is not always abundant to harvest and so when I do harvest it, I want to make the most use of it.

 

Flavoring: People have traditionally used Sassafras essential oi for flavoring gumdrops, drinks, and also for soaps. Today, you can purchase commercial preparations of Sassafras EO with the safrole removed that can still be used for this purpose.

 

Moth and Bug Protection:  Sassafras wood has been used to make boxes and chests for protection against bugs and moths (similar to Cedar). Traditionally, people even built henhouses out of it to keep insects out of the henhouse.  I’ve made my chickens’ perches out of sassafras and cedar with great results in this regard.  You can also us a bag of sassafras wood chips near your clothes to repel moths.

 

Culinary: Sassafras leaves (dried and powdered) are a wonderful thickener for soups and stews.  To harvest them, you can get them anytime they are mature throughout the summer.  Remove the stems and veins from the leaves, and then powder them up in a mortar or pestle.  You could also use a food processor, but I’d take it outside as it can produce a fine dust that you don’t want to breathe in in your house.  In Cajun cooking, file gumbo (file = Sassafrass) is a particular kind of gumbo that is thickened with the sassafras leaf.  The leaf offers a really nice flavor (when compared to flour or cornstarch) that is a bit sweet.  Here’s a link to a recipe I really like. 

 

Wild Food- Trailside Nibble and Salad: You can enjoy sassafras leaves fresh while on the trail.  They have a scent similar to fruit loops and a sweetness that is very nice and soothing.  You can also use the young leaves in salad.  Even in the winter and early spring, you can nibble on the winter buds.

 

Traditional Root Beer

The most traditional root beer here in the US uses sassafras as a primary ingredient along with black birch branches (or wintergreen).  Traditional Root Beer was not just used as a fine drink, but as a tonic–it was medicinal as well as enjoyable. Here’s a simple recipe I’ve used to make a great traditional root beer:

 

For this root beer, you make a simple syrup and then add seltzer/fizzy water to the end result. Simple syrup is made of equal parts of water and sugar (or another sweetener of your choice, like honey or maple syrup, both of which are more healthy).  You add ingredients to this and simmer them for a certain amount of time (depending on the nature of the ingredient).  Roots are typically simmered at least 20-30 minutes (with the lid on).

  1. In a saucepan, combine 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar/honey/maple syrup.
  2. Add 1/2 cup Sassafras roots and handful of black birch branches. I like to add juniper berries or star anise here as well (1 tablespoon each).
  3. Simmer the mixture, stirring often, for 20 minutes with the lid on. Be wary of boiling off too much water (and you can always add back a few tablespoons if necessary).
  4. Strain your mixture and pour into a mason jar. Let cool and store in the fridge (it will keep up to a month; you can also can it and/or freeze it).
  5. When you want to drink it, add about two tablespoons to seltzer water and enjoy.

 

Sassafras in the Native American Traditions

I couldn’t find a lot of information on the role of Sassafras in the Native American traditions.  I think it is likely due to the fact that the Eastern tribes were displaced early on, particularly in the areas that were the Native range of Sassafras.  Overall, it seems that Sassafras is considered a “cure all” for ailments, both physical and spiritual.  However, several good pieces of more detailed information are available:

 

Curse Removal. IN Sacred Medicines of the Cherokees, a book on Cherokee Shamanistic practices, Sassafras was part of a magical and medicinal treatment for children who were cursed by having the shadow of a bird fly over their mothers while they were still in the womb.  The medicine consists of a warm decoction of the bark of Sassafras, Flowering Dogwood, Service Berry, and Black Gum with the roots of two wild rose species.  The bark is always taken from the east side of the tree as are the roots (growing to the east).  The roots and barks are seeped in warm water for four days and then the child is bathed for four days and four nights with the decoction. At the end of each treatment, the Shaman then blows the decoction out of his mouth, showering the child, while the child keeps his/her hands out while a prayer is recited.  Then the child drinks a bit of the decoction.

 

Further, in Cherokee Plants, Hamel and Chiltoskey note that sassafras flowers were often combined with beans and then planted.  Its unclear why, but it might have been to protect them or help them grow in some way.

 

Safety. The Chocktaw Flood Myth, which shows up in various versions depending on the source, discusses how humans grew corrupted and the Great Spirit sent a flood to the land.  One man who as a prophet tried to get people to change their ways, but it was to no avail.  Eventually, the storms came and he was directed to build a raft of strong sassafras logs, which saved him and various others (the myth neatly parallels the Noah’s Arc myth).  Here, the Sassafras logs were the instrument of safety from the raging waters.

 

Sassafras, Taboos, and Fire. Tribes seem to have varying relationships with sassafras when it comes to fire. Sassafras is tabooed among burning.  For example, among the Cherokee, burning Sassafras is considered taboo (one white author reporting on the taboo notes it might be because sassafras pops when burned and could set things on fire). Another ethnographer notes that other tribes used it to start fires.

 

Sassafras in the Western Magical and Folk Traditions

Because Sassafras is a new world plant, the Western Magical tradition has very little to offer.  One exception to this is Hoodoo, which is a distinctly American magical tradition. In this tradition, Sassafras has a very specific use as being tied to wealth and money.  Cat Yronwode in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic suggests that sassafras can be used to bringing in wealth, good fortune, and overall success in business.  She notes that people have used it to make money mojos (for holding onto money) to sidewalk scrubs and carpet sprinkles to bring money into a business. I strongly suspect that this use of sassafras is directly related to the relationship that Sassafras had to colonization, exporting, and its status as a highly sought commercial commodity in the 160o’s and beyond.

 

However, if we delve into other kinds of folk magic practices, also tied to the commercialization and belief that Sassafras could cure any ill, we see Sassafras having a number of different roles, again, mostly concerning its “curative” properties. In Travels into North America, from 1772, P. Kalm writes, “Swedes wash and scour the containers in which they intend to keep cider, beer or brandy with water in which sassafras root or its peel has been boiled; which they think renders all those liquors more wholesome.” Further, the Pennsylvania Dutch also added sSassafras root to their apple butter or applesauce to enhance flavor; they also added pieces of sassafras root to dried fruit to keep out worms and add flavor–and possibly for other reasons (which was hinted at in an old cookbook I have here on the shelf!).

 

Sassafras Magic and Meanings

So if we take everything from the above, in a modern American Ogham or tree divination system, Sassafras may offer us the following overall themes:

 

Wealth and Financial Gain: Sassafras is certainly tied to financial gain and “keeping” wealth or resources (or bringing it into one’s life).  This is clear not only from the plant’s 400+ year old history here in the US, but also from the preservation of this focus in the Hoodoo tradition.

 

Good Health: Sassafras has broad healing powers, particularly associated with longetivity and having overall good health and a good life.  We see this first in the Native American herbal uses and lore, and that knowledge was clearly transferred into Colonial America as well as back to Europe.  Part of this good health aspect seems directly tied to consuming the root in various ways (in Gumbo, teas, etc).

 

Protection and Safety: Both in Native and in Western/Colonial lore, it is clear that Sassafras wood has strong protective qualities.  When this wood is shaped and used in various applications, it offers protection, not only from bugs or mites (as in the case of chicken coops) but also from stormy seas, travel, and general woes and ills.  We also see this tied into the idea that she might be used to remove curses in various ways (through a brew of her bark).

 

Sassafras is a wonderful and powerful plant ally who is certainly worth getting to know better–may her magic and mystery unfold within your own life!

 

Poison Ivy Remedy: Jewelweed Infused Witch Hazel July 11, 2017

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

Jewelweed and Poison Ivy Like Each Other A Lot

As I spend copious time in the outdoors, I often end up covered with poison ivy at least once or twice in the summer.I happen to like poison ivy as a plant a lot–she is beautiful, she is powerful, and she teaches us awareness (more on her soon).    But the contact dermatitis that I get from her on a regular basis kind of sucks.  Given that, I have a simple recipe that I make and keep on my shelf that seeks the healing power of two other plants: witch hazel and jewelweed.  This jewelweed infused witch hazel is a great remedy for poison ivy and clears it up very quickly.

 

If you can’t find jewelweed, I believe this recipe would be fairly effective with plantain or chickweed.  But Jewelweed is really the best.

 

Harvesting Jewelweed

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is also known as spotted touch-me-not, orange touch me not, and orange balasm.  It is an annual plant that self seeds readily, so once you know where it grows, you can easily find it in the same spot year after year.  It prefers damp, shady, forested enviornments, although I’ve also found it in wetter part sun or mostly sun environments.  The key is that it likes a moist forest floor.

The characteristic hollow stem of jewelweed (these leaves have a bit of insect damage)

The characteristic hollow stem of jewelweed (these leaves have a bit of insect damage)

On a recent plant walk, one of my attendees told me that jewelweed was named this way because if you put it under water in a flowing stream, it looks like a beautiful jewel!  So try it and see if you agree.

 

This plant’s primary use in herbal medicine is as a poison ivy remedy.  You can use it in two ways:

  • Fresh jewelweed can be applied to a location that was just exposed to poison ivy.  For this, simply pick a plant (especially getting the lower stem area and the places where the leaves join the stem that are very juicy), crush it, and rub it on the affected area.  This may take off the oils from poison ivy and prevent you from getting contact dermatits also known as poison ivy.
  • You can pick it and tincture it in witch hazel (or vinegar, in a pinch) and use this to dry out and soothe the poison ivy.
A patch of jewelweed along a damp forest path

A patch of jewelweed along a damp forest path

If you are making the remedy, you will need enough jewelweed (chopped up and crushed) to loosely fill a mason jar of whatever size you want to make.  Unless you are in poison ivy all the time, probably a pint or half pint jar is all anyone needs for a while.  It does keep indefinately, so it doesn’t hurt to make more.

 

I also like to leave an offering (a pinch of home-grown tobacco) for the jewelweed for the harvest, of course, to honor the plant and the land.

 

Making Your Poison Ivy Remedy

Poison Ivy on the skin is caused by the oils in the plant reacting with the skin.  This makes the skin blister up and get very itchy.  The more you scratch, you the more spread the poison ivy (by spreading the oils) all over your skin.  What this remedy does is help heal and take out the itch (jewelweed) and dry out the afflicted areas (witch hazel).  It works wonderfully.

 

Ingredients and Materials:

Scissors or a knife

1 bottle of witch hazel (you can make your own from the witch hazel plant by distilling the branches in the early spring or you can go to the drug store and pick some up)

5-10 jewelweed plants (depending on how much you want to make)

1 mason jar

Ingredients and materials (I was doing a plant walk and demo, so I have a lot more witch hazel than I needed for one jar!))

Ingredients and materials (I was doing a plant walk and demo, so I have a lot more witch hazel than I needed for one jar!))

 

Step 1: Crush up your jewelweed.

To make your preparation, you will want to get as much juice from the jewelweed as possible into your preparation.  To do this, I like to first crush the jewelweed with my hands or a blunt object. I don’t crush it too much, but enough that it will expose more surface area to the witch hazel.  Pay attention to the thicker areas where the leaves attach to the stem–these are very juice filled (and the juice is the medicine).

Crushing up the jewelweed

Crushing up the jewelweed

Step 2: Chop up jewelweed finely into the jar.

Chop up (or tear up) the jewelweed and add it to the mason jar. A good pair of kitchen scissors will help this process quite a bit–I find that better than any knife for this work.  You don’t want to over-fill the jar, but do fill it up loosely.

Chopping up Jewelweed

Chopping up Jewelweed

 

Step 3: Crush it some more in the jar.

At this point, I continue to crush the jewelweed.  Here, I used my fingers, but I oculd easily use a pestle (the round thing used to grind herbs in a mortar) or some such similar tool.  Get as much juice out as you can at this stage.

Crushing further

Crushing further

 

Step 4: Add witch hazel.

Now, pour in your witch hazel, ensuring that it covers the Jewelweed fully.  If the jewelweed is too firmly packed, you’ll end up with less (after you remove the plant material in a few weeks).

Add witch hazel

Add witch hazel

 

Step 5:  Lit sit (macerate) 2-3 weeks and then strain.

Let your preparation sit for a few weeks in a cool, dark place.  Then, you can strain out the jewelweed (you can do this by hand, or with a hand held potato ricer or tincture press).  Place the liquid back in the jar, ensuring that you don’t have any extra plant material.

 

Using your Jewelweed Infused Witch Hazel

You can use the jewelweed infused witch hazel when you have an active outbreak of poison ivy dermitis. Use a Q-tip or cotton ball and liberally apply the preparation to the affected area. Repeat this several times a day (or more, I usually do it 5-6 times a day or any time I enter the bathroom).  It will clear up the poison ivy very quickly!

 

I hope this small remedy helps many a forest wanderer this summer!

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Wild Food and Wild Medicine Profile: Wild Strawberry (Fragaria Vesca) June 7, 2017

The delicious and delightful wild strawberry just came into season here in Western PA, and I thought I’d share a bit about how to find this plant and why it is worth seeking out both as a wild food and a wild medicine. Wild strawberry is incredibly flavorful and delicious, and in my opinion, is a really high quality wild edible that is worth seeking out (which, thankfully, isn’t that difficult). Strawberry leaves also serve a medicinal purpose as a gentle astringent. This post will detail where wild strawberry typically grows, its overall growth habit, two look-alikes that should be avoided, and some information on how to harvest and enjoy wild strawberry.

Delicious Wild Strawberries!

Delicious Wild Strawberries!

The wild strawberry is also known as the woodland strawberry, alpine strawberry (although there are other cultivars also known as alpines that are clumping, fragaria vesca is a running variety), or european strawberry. It is abundant and diverse and grows in many temperate places in the US and beyond. It is a great beginner wild food and wild medicine!

 

Wild Strawberry Growth Patterns

At the right time of year, you can spot the little white wild strawberry flowers underneath or alongside the wild strawberry leaves. They are in the rosacacea family, and so, have five white petals with five bracts (little leaves in between the petals) and a number of small pollen pods that are yellow surrounding a yellow stamen. About a month later (in my region, at least) you can find the delicious red fruits.

Wild strawberries on rocky soil marching across the road...

Wild strawberries on rocky soil marching across the road…

Wild strawberry prefers to grow in full sun and is found in open fields or along edges of fields and brush/forests.  This is where you will find it fruiting. I have found it a lot in fields that were once farms and with low soil fertility, also on the edges of roadways, etc.  It seems to have no problem with poor or rocky soil or soils that are partially bare and hot. But I’ve also found it along lush edge spaces–interestingly enough, the poor soils seem to produce smaller, but more flavor rich fruit. Like other wild berries, if there is little rain, fruits will be more potent and delicious than if there was a lot of rain before ripening (like this year). Wild strawberry grows other places as well, like inside forests with a bit of light, but often these plants do not have enough light to fruit.

 

Strawberry is a plant that travels as it grows–strawberries slowly creep from one area to another.  A single strawberry patch will expand eventually into a ring, and then break off in different directions; the older plants send out new runners and slowly expand as they go (which is an awesome thing to see)!  I saw this firsthand at my homestead in Michigan-what started as a sizable single patch, later turned into a ring and into diverse new patches; the original patch was taken over by ground ivy and cinquefoil, primarily.

 

 

Wild Strawberry Look Alikes

Wild strawberries are very easy to find, but so are their look alikes (and sometimes, they are all growing in the same area). There are two plants that look like wild strawberry, false strawberry (Duchesnea indica) and Cinquefoil / Polentilla spp. I’m going to cover each so you know what the differences are. 

Creeping Cinquefoil  (typically, Potentilla Reptans) is found in the same places as wild strawberry, often growing alongside it. Cinquefoil has five leaves and yellow flowers that look similar to strawberry flowers. Cinquefoil never gets a berry, however, so its pretty easy to avoid. In the photo below, There are some cinquefoils right in the middle of this strawberry patch (there’s also some small goldenrod shoots on the right next to the Cinquefoil).

Here’s a closeup of the Cinquefoil leaf (bottom) and a strawberry leaf (top).  The strawberry leaf has three leaves (trifoliate) while the Cinquefoil has five radiating leaves (palmately compound).

Cinquefoil (bottom) and Wild Strawberry Leaf (top)

Cinquefoil (bottom) and Wild Strawberry Leaf (top)

Cinquefoil itself is medicinal, its roots are moderately antimicrobial when put in contact with infected tissue (so you can make a salve or wash with them).  But they aren’t tasty like strawberries!

 

The second look alike is known as “false strawberry”, “mock strawberry” or “indian strawberry.” It produces berry that looks a lot like strawberry, and it has leaves similar to a strawberry, but the berry is flavorless. You can eat it, but who would want to? It tastes like nothing. The berry also has seeds on the outside (not indented like the wild strawberry) and many seeds in a very orderly fashion (see below). It has a yellow flower (so if you can ID the flowers earlier in the year, you will know it is a false strawberry vs. the white flower of the wild strawberry). A simple rule of thumb is to not eat anything with yellow flowers, and stick only to the white flowers. Its been a while since I’ve seen one of these; they aren’t nearly as abundant around where I live as the Cinquefoil (which is as abundant as strawberry herself).

Here’s a photo of one (courtesy of Wikipedia, I forgot to take a photo!)

Mock Strawberry

Mock Strawberry

The false strawberries grow up, pointing towards the sky while the wild strawberries are usually hanging or growing on the ground.

 

Harvesting Strawberry Leaf and Strawberry

When doing any wild food foraging, you should make sure that you are harvesting in a safe environment, free of toxins and not too close to houses with lead paint, roads, and so forth (see my earlier post on foraging part 1 and part 2).

 

There are a few tricks to harvesting wild strawberries. Like garden strawberry varities, dense foilage can often cover the tasty berries. You can use your hand to gently move away the leaves to get at the berries. You’ll also want to work your way carefully through the patch, trying not to step on any as you work through.  Although they are small, they are often abundant, and if you gather for even 10 -15 minutes, you’ll have several handfuls for fresh eating.  Remember that there might be a ring, or a line, or several patches in the area–so look carefully!  Strawberries ripen over a period of a week or so, so you can come back every day or so for more fresh strawberries.

Wild strawberries on the ground

Wild strawberries on the ground, brush leaves aside to see even more.

Since wild strawberry is so small, I typically just eat them fresh.  If you had them in extreme abundance, they’d certainly make a nice jam.  I once combined about 2 cups of fresh wild strawberries with some I had grown that were much larger for a jam–that was great.  If you had them in a lot of abundance, you can also dry them and enjoy anytime or make a fruit leather (see my instructions here).

 

Finally, a note about balance. I think that it is important to give something in return to the plant itself if you are harvesting fruit or leaves.  This can take a number of forms: a bit of organically grown tobacco is a welcome gift to many plant spirits.   If you are willing to scatter some of the strawberries themselves (with their seeds) the strawberries will be very happy.  You might find other things to do as well, but these are two I have found are very effective.

 

Strawberry Leaf as Medicine

Strawberry leaf is packed full of vitamin C and can be enjoyed as a tea either fresh or dried.  The tea has a mild and slightly fruity flavor (and some substitue it for green tea when a person can’t have caffiene).  I like to harvest leaves (maybe one per plant) when they are first blossoming.  They get a bit stronger after the fruit come in (still fine to harvest for medicine). A lot of folks will use these gentle leaves as a nourinshing tea that is tonic on the body and soothes the digestive system, particularly for those who suffer from diarrhea or loose stools and/or could use immune system support (provided by Vitamin C).

 

Strawberry leaf is also a gentle astringent (with a high tannin content).  I like to use it as part of an eye wash for conjunctivitis/pink eye when the eyes are goopy and watery (in conjunction with plantain for healing).  It is also great for a daily rinse for the gums and teeth.   Herbalists have used this successfully in tooth powder recipes to help treat plagque and bleeding gums (typically with clay, baking soda, and so on).

 

You can also brew up a strong cup of strawberry leaf tea and use it as a treatment for sunburn, simply lathe the affected areas with a soft cloth or cotton ball.  If you combine this with calendula or plantain, it is even more effective.

 

Please know that wild strawberry leaf is much more medicinal than its domestic counterpart.  You can use domesticated strawberry, but I have found the medicinal qualities much higher in wild strawberry (this is similar to Yarrow–the more difficult growing conditions, the more medicinal and aromatic the plant!)

 

Concluding Thoughts

I love the gentle spirit of the wild strawberry.  She is giving, soothing, abundant, and magical!  I hope that you will enjoy some of the benefits of this amazing and easy to find plant!

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Ethical Sourcing of Medicinal Plants: The Case for American Ginseng March 19, 2017

American Ginseng plant in spring

American Ginseng plant in spring

Stalking the Wild Ginseng

When I was a child, my grandfather picked wild American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). I remember him talking about it, and seeing it, and him sharing with me what it looked like. To him, ginseng wasn’t a profitable plant to be harvested and sold, but rather a local medicine that simply helped raise one’s energy.  For him, health was a serious issue as he had spent his whole life in a steel mill. This American Ginseng was family medicine, ancestral medicine, the medicine growing where we lived. As in many things in childhood, this memory faded away until I took up the practice of herbalism in my adult life.

 

When I first became an herbalist, I hoped I could reconnect with wild ginseng and seek it out. I knew the general area that grandfather had found it in. I had no plans of picking it (knowing that it is severely endangered and on the United Plant Saver’s list). I simply wanted to meet this plant, this beautiful and hugely medicinal plant native to the mountains of my blood and birth. What I thought would be a quick search turned into a year, and that year turned into multiple years of searching. I expanded my search to many other locales in the Appalachians, always, seemingly on the hunt for the wild ginseng. I had mentioned my interest in finding Ginseng offhand one day to my father, and he said he hadn’t found any either. As the years went by, I kept looking, but not with the enthusiasm I had before.

 

An Ethical Dilemma

Beautiful wild american ginseng plant

Beautiful wild American Ginseng plant

The lack of wild ginseng in any local forest really  began shifting something for me–I began to be struck not only by what is here but what is missing, especially with regards to medicinal plants within their native range and native ecosystem (this is part of what prompted my wildtending series of posts last year). The experience saddened my heart and resonated deep within me. If I couldn’t find ginseng after so many years of searching, I had no business using it. Any other choice created additional demand. This meant that I was going to entirely avoid using the American Ginseng plant (and by proxy, most of the other rare woodland species also identified by the United Plant Savers: Blue Cohosh, Black Cohosh, Bloodroot, and Goldenseal).  I wouldn’t’ recommend them, I wouldn’t use them, I wouldn’t teach them, and I would just “let them be” if they were to be found at all. I also grew skeptical of the “wildharvested” label for what it implied.

 

Truthfully, I think a lot of us interested in medicinal plants take this “avoidance” approach, which seems completely reasonable. Because these medicinal plants are so endangered, the best thing we can do is avoid using them, let them be in the wild, and not put any increasing demand upon critical species. To use these plants, to source them, or to harvest them ourselves presents us with serious ethical dilemmas.  But what I didn’t understand at the time was that this was not an either-or situation–there were some third options, and they are pretty good ones.

 

The Wild Ginseng Patch

A few years ago, my father, with a gleam in his eye, invited me back into those same woods where I had originally sought out the American Ginseng. He showed me his carefully planted patches of Ginseng roots and Ginseng seeds, little plots with sticks around them so he knew where they were.  He pointed out their little red berries which he also carefully harvested and replanted deeper in the woods.

 

In their third year of growth, some of the Ginseng Dad was growing developed a kind of root rot, so we harvested them, and drank some of the most uplifting and amazing tea you could imagine. My mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, shared how much better the tea made her feel. And these were the effects that pushed so many people, around the globe, to seek out ginseng for its health benefits. This was, honestly, the first time I had ever had consumed any ginseng and it was incredible. And it was ethically sourced, growing right there on the family homestead!

 

Then, recently, I attended a wonderful workshop at the 2016 American Herbalist Guild Symposium put on botanist  Dr. Eric Burkhart from Penn State University. Eric specializes in these under duress Appalachian woodland species, particularly, American Ginseng. At the beginning of his talk, he asked us how many of us used American Ginseng in our practices (and of a room full of 60 people, only 2 folks in the room did). When he asked, everyone shared reasons similar to mine above: they knew it was endangered, they didn’t want to create more demand, and so on.  And he offered us some rationale and alternatives.

 

One of Dad's Many Ginseng Patches

One of Dad’s Ginseng patches

What these two experiences did for me was offer to turn this binary into a ternary, allow me to have a more complex and nuanced understanding of the role of these herbs.  Two experiences changed and deepened my “avoidance” perspective and encouraged me to see this from a permaculturist’s lens through “the problem is the solution” and the permaculture ethics.

 

Behind the “Wild Harvested” Label

When people buy herbs, a “wild harvested” label is often desirable, yet, it has a very dark side. When it comes to American Ginseng, the wild harvesting is literally stripping the plant from our landscape. Currently, there is no policing being done on wild harvesting. Eric Burkhart showed us screenshots from Facebook groups that show people harvesting–not only harvesting the wrong plants or look-alikes (in the case of Black Cohosh) but also reporting harvesting 100% of what they find. And with prices running hundreds of dollars a pound for American ginseng, a 100% harvest might be the difference between paying the mortgage or not for folks that have little other opportunities for income. Companies, regionally, pay top dollar to ship our American Ginseng overseas primarily to Asian markets. Here in Appalachia, we have an unfortunately long history of land abuse; it is to the point that stripping the land for profit is so common that other perspectives are simply not in the cultural consciousness. While there are likely some ethical harvesters out there, I don’t think there are many. And we have no way of knowing the origins of those “wild harvested” plants–there is a level of invisibility in these practices that makes me extremely and deeply uncomfortable.

 

Since nearly all of these woodland medicinals are root-based and very slow to propagate, harvesting all of the roots means that the population of those plants is eradicated from that part of the landscape.  Keep doing this, and we end up not having any left–which is about where we are at present, at least in the area where I live. I’ll briefly mention that previous cultures who depended on wild populations of plants, nuts, roots, berries, etc, worked hard to manage the health of those lands in the long term; to nurture them.

 

This isn’t to say all wild harvesting is problematic–but I believe much of it is. There are many abundant plants that can be sustainably wild harvested (like goldenrod), carefully and with care.  This is especially true if, as I’ve argued in this blog at multiple points, we give as more than we get–we combine wild harvesting with wild tending (that is, scattering seeds, sustainably harvesting only a little, and giving more back to the land than is taken).  In fact, given the dire state many of our lands are in, I would suggest spending 75% or more of our efforts on replanting and wild tending and 25% of our efforts on harvesting as an ethical choice (but that’s an argument for a different post). Right now, I don’t think that’s what’s happening with a lot of plants, and so, the wild harvest label offers a lot of hidden problems–especially for root crops like American Ginseng.

 

Avoiding the Problem is also a Problem

The avoidance problem, however, creates distance. It certainly did for me–I didn’t want to use these plants, but that also meant that I wasn’t cultivating a relationship with them. And I strongly believe that the key to responding ethically to the crisis of our present age, is in connection. As a druid who has helped others along their own spiritual paths, and as a human just living in this world, one thing is obvious to me: humans protect and value things that are of most use and sacredness to them. I’ve seen this in my plant walks–when I teach people about eating Autumn Olives or make wine from Dandelions for example, it completely changes their perspective. They go from being rather neutral about this abundant shrub or “weed” to being excited to see it, seeking it out, and enjoying its bounty.  The problem, of course, comes in with our rare woodland medicinals–we don’t want people necessarily seeking it out and using it in the wild, especially on public lands where hundreds of people might be coming through. But we do want to build connection and value.

 

The American Ginseng is ancestral medicine, it is powerful medicine that folks here aren’t even using. As Burkhart explained in his talk, nearly 90% of what is harvested leaves domestic markets bound for Asia. We aren’t even using the medicine of our own lands. So not only do we have a resource that we ourselves do not use, and know nothing about, it is being used by people far away who have no idea of the environmental toll that this is creating.

 

I don’t think we can honor these plants through avoidance.  And we certainly can’t honor them if they aren’t part of our lives because they no longer exist in our ecosystems. How do we turn this problem into a solution, ethically, and with a nurturing mindset?

 

Cultivating Relationships and Connections

I think we are seeing the same kind of problem with rare woodland medicinal species that we are with a lot of other things: a good example is the meat/vegetarian debate.  Factory farming is very bad and causes considerable harm and suffering.  People solve this dilemma by going vegetarian, and that seems to be a binary choice: vegetarian or not. However, there are other options: raising meat yourself, working with farmers whose practices are nurturing, sustainable, and ethical, and maybe eating only a little meat rather than meat every day. These alternatives offer not one response (to consume or not to consume) but a range of responses (to raise oneself, to purchase from ethical farmers, to limit consumption).  We can apply this exact same thinking to our rare woodland medicinal herbs.

 

Reciprocation and Wildtending. This brings me back to the example of my father–there was no Ginseng to be found, and we both knew it, so he ethically sourced roots and seeds from a PA sustainable farm (see below) and then started growing it. And now, my family has a small supply that is sacred to us, and that we can use understanding full well exactly what it takes to grow, how long it develops, and so on.  We can manage the population in our own woods and make sure it is growing. For more on this, a great resource is a wonderful book (that I recently gifted my father) called Farming the Woods: An Integrated Permaculture Approach to Growing Food and Medicinals in Temperate Forests by Mudge, Gabriel, and Munsell. It offers a holistic view of how to cultivate and grow these sacred plants. I love this approach because it encourages both wild tending and helps us to balance those scales.  But it also encourages us to cultivate a very deep and responsible use of these plants and re-establish connection.

 

“Forest Grown” Herbs Initiative. A second option is to support those who are growing it ethically, to pay a fair price to those folks, and to learn how to use this sacred medicine responsibly.  (By that, I mean extracting as a tincture and maximizing the benefit of these roots.) A recent initiative by United Plant Savers and Mountain Rose Herbs has led to the offering of “forest grown” Ginseng (available here).  The Forest Grown Ginseng is grown without chemicals in forested settings where an emphasis is on the long-term health of the forest–using permaculture design and agroforestry at it’s best. These farmers do not stripping the land bare with wild harvesting–rather, this is a crop, along with others, that is cultivated in a forest setting, focusing on the health and overall welfare of the forest as an ecosystem. If we can create a market for these kinds of plants grown in healthful and nurturing ways, we can make sure more forest lands are used, and we can help put a stop to the wild harvesting/stripping bare practices we are seeing with regards to American Ginseng. Another issue here is that scarcity drives up the price; if more people are cultivating ginseng through the forest grown initiative, it makes it more affordable.  Agroforestry has incredible potential to leave our forest ecosystems intact and gain valuable harvests (shitake mushrooms, American Ginseeng, among others).

 

Education.  The problem with going to an herb catalog, or purchasing a powdered herb or tincture in a health food store, is that the origins and practices that produced that thing are completely invisible.  And so, education and researching each plant and each company is key. Research the company who is producing it, research their sourcing–if the information isn’t clear, ask good questions. If possible, eliminate as many “middle men” along the chain and purchase what you need to purchase directly from small family farms or herbalists. I think that education can go a long way to helping us rebuild our own health and the health of our lands.

 

Fair Share, People Care, Earth Care

With these alternative approaches, responsibility and connection are at the core of these practices.  For one, the scarcity of the roots, and the amount of effort or funds it takes to purchase or grow them, means that we will treat them as the sacred medicine that they are, using them fully and effectively as possible with no waste. What I like so much about this expanded understanding is that it aligns so beautifully with the practice of permaculture design.  In permaculture, the ethics ask us to consider how to care for the earth, care for its people, and engage in fair share all at the same time.  These two alternatives do this: we can have powerful medicine that cares for people, use it ethically, and heal the land while doing so.  We can cultivate deeper relationships with the living earth in all that we do.  We can rebuild connections with the sacred medicines native to our region while protecting them for future generations and honoring them through all things.

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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!

 

Wildtending: Refugia and the Seed Arc Garden January 8, 2016

Over the course of the last six months, I’ve been discussing in various ways philosophies and insights about helping to directly and physically heal our lands as a spiritual practice, weaving in principles of druidry, permaculture, organic farming, herbalism, and more. Specifically, I’ve suggested that we can have direct, meaningful, and impact benefit on our lands and through the work of our “healing hands” we can help heal the extensive damage caused by humanity. The reason is simple: we have lost so much biodiversity in so much of our landscapes; even our forests are in many cases, pale representations of what they once were in terms of biological diversity. This is true of tree species, plant species, animal species, insect life, soil biology, mycology, water-based life and so on.  While nature has the ability to heal herself, with the help of humans, she can do it much more effectively–and that’s where we come in.

 

Fall foliage rising above...

Fall foliage rising above…

In my last post, I discussed the importance of physically healing the land and building biodiversity through scattering roots, nuts, and seeds–this gives nature the building blocks she needs to do some of her healing. I also discussed balancing wildtending with wildcrafting and seeing both as a spiritual practice. In this post, we are going to explore another angle, take this stream of thought it a bit further, and explore the concept of refugia.

 

Refugia

Refugia is a concept discussed by E. C Pielou in After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America among other places. In a nutshell, refugia (also called “fuges”) are small pockets of life that were sheltered from broader happenings on the earth that destroyed a lot of other places.  In terms of Pielou’s work, refugia were small pockets of life that were for various reasons from the worst of the effects of the last ice age when the rest of the lands were barren and covered in ice. These isolated pockets survived as a sheltered spot, a microclimate, a high point, and so on. When the glaciers receded and left a bare landscape devoid of topsoil or life, it was these refugia that allowed life to spread outward again, repopulating areas in North America covered by glaciers. Of course, Refugia aren’t limited to North America–they are a worldwide phenomenon, and even our human ancestors, at various points in our history, have used them to survive challenging environmental conditions.

 

In the Anthropocene, that is, the time of human-dominated ecological change we are currently all experiencing, things are a bit different than in glacial North America.  But things are not as different as you might think. For one, the loss of biodiversity and essentially inhospitable landscape can pretty much sum up the 40,000,000 acres of lawns currently in cultivation (in the US alone), the 914,527,657 acres of conventional farmland (in the US), and the amount of concrete and houses taking up land (statistics for which I cannot find). We also have wild areas that, as I’ve described in my last post, have been subject to pillaging and resource mining–these areas are a lot less diverse than they once were. The spaces that aren’t being actively pillaged likely are recovering from pillaging (at least where I live out here) or are subject to their own duress–and the few spaces that are supposedly “safe” and “protected” are constantly under threat from new bills or legislation, logging, mining, etc.. And so, we have a situation where a biological life, generally, has a lot less space to grow and thrive unhindered.  As my post described earlier, we have evidence of the loss of biodiversity in a wide range of ways.

 

Given this, I believe that the concept of refugia is a useful one to consider–and even enact–given the circumstances that we have going on here now. A lot of  us don’t have control over what is happening in the land around us, but we can work to help cultivate small spaces of intense biodiversity, spaces that preserve important plant species, then we can put more of the building blocks back into nature’s hands for the long-term healing of our lands.

 

A rare woodland lady's slipper--the only one I've ever seen in PA

A rare woodland lady’s slipper–the only one I’ve ever seen in PA

Creating Refugia: Goals

We can cultivate refugia in cultivated/human dominated spaces (like lawns, etc), or we can create them in wild spaces (forests, wild fields) that we know will be safe for some time. Today I’ll mainly be talking about cultivating refugia on a small piece of property, and at a later point, will return to cultivating refugia in wild spaces.

 

In the permaculture and organic gardening communities, people have been long creating spaces that are intensely planted, that may be perennial or annual in nature, but they might be doing them with different goals. Most often in permaculture practice, the goals are intensely focused on the site–the goal of bringing a degraded piece of land back into healthy production, with a range of yields, some of which are beneficial to humans, and some of which are beneficial to other life. In other words, permaculture designers often use a kind of sanctuary model. For organic farmers, they may have many of the same goals, but different (more annual) means; both may be interested in some economic benefits as well.

 

Working to actively create refugia can add and compliment these existing goals in the sense that we are creating a protected place (physically and magically) that is richly biodiverse with the idea that this biodiversity can spread if given opportunity (or if we spread it ourselves–you might be able to see where I’m going with this!).

 

I would like to suggest that each of us, as we are able, create biologically diverse refugia–small spaces, rich in diversity and life, that can help our lands “whether the storm” and a place which we can grow seeds, nuts, and roots to scatter far and wide. Or if we are already cultivating biologically diverse gardens, homesteads, sacred gardens, and the like, we add the goal of becoming refugia to our plans–and plant accordingly.  I would like to suggest that we can see this not only as a physical act, but as a sacred and spiritual practice.

 

I’ve been working through this idea quite a bit since I moved back to my home state over the summer. In the process of developing my own refugia site using permaculture principles and sacred gardening practices, I have started with a number of goals. Your goals might be different depending on your situation, but I thought I’d share mine as a good place to start.

 

The refugia garden will contain plants that:

  1. Native or naturalized to this region.
  2. Currently rare or non-existent in the surrounding ecosystem.
  3. Slow growing or hard to establish.
  4. Offer some key benefit to the ecosystem (nectary, nitrogen fixer, dynamic accumulator, wildlife food, etc)
  5. Offer some key benefit to humans (medicine, dye, fiber, food, beauty, spiritual significance).
  6. Are able to grow without human influence or cultivation long-term (perennial focus or self seeding annuals).
  7. Can be spread by nut, root, rhizome, or seed (to think about how to repopulate these species outward).
  8. Are well positioned in terms of how my climate will be changing in the upcoming century.

The refugia will be:

  1. A teaching and demonstration site for others
  2. A site of peace and beauty
  3. A sacred place  for humans to commune, reconnect, and grow
  4. A site of ecological diversity and healing for all life

 

Refugia: Functions and Outcomes

The Refugia garden is, of course sacred garden, a magical place where we can spend time and simply enjoy getting to know these plants, many of which are hard to find or impossible to find in our surrounding landscape.

The other way we might think about these refugia gardens is that they are seed arks, that is, little places where biodiversity and life can spring forth once again.  I’ve been taking to calling the garden I’m designing the “seed ark” for that reason!  We can use this site to grow and scatter seeds, nuts, and roots far and wide. As an herbalist and wild food forager, this is nothing new–taking seeds from wild plants this year and spreading them just a bit further or into new areas.  Ramp seeds, for example, can be gathered the fall and spread easily enough in wet woodland areas, hickory nuts can be planted, and so on.  The refugia garden makes it easier to do that–you will have an abundance of seeds, nuts, roots, and so on in a few short years or less that can be scattered to bring biodiversity back.  Otherwise, you are buying seeds or maybe finding them in the wild when possible (but where I’m at, a lot of what I’m hoping to spread and add to this garden simply doesn’t exist in the wild any longer).

 

Cultivating biodiverse spaces

Cultivating biodiverse spaces

Third, the space itself will be biodiverse and welcoming. Its amazing what a tended space with perennial plants can become in a few short years! Make it a place where people want to go–and add some signage talking about what you are doing!

 

Fourth, when I lived on my homestead in Michigan, one of my favorite things to do was to give away plants–plants are abundant and multiply, and you can easily split most perennials after only a few years.  There are more than enough to go around.  This means that others, too, can be blessed with these rare plants–the more sites like these, the better.

 

Fifth, and most importantly, is the idea of making a difference.  You have no idea what the long-term implications will be of introducing these plants back into the landscape–but the important thing is doing something, we put one’s feet on the path, and seeing where the journey takes us.

 

Refugia Garden Plants

You will want to think carefully about what kind of ecosystem you are designing your refugia garden for–is it full sun? dry? part shade? moist? A woodland?  The good news is that many different needs exist, so you can design a garden for almost any condition.

 

Since we are thinking long term with this principle, I think its a a wise idea to look 10, 20, 50, 100 or more years down the road in terms of climate change.  How will your immediate climate change in the upcoming century?  Will it get hotter, wetter, drier?  Are there species that are rare/at risk, but well adapted to these changing circumstances? A few good resources exist for this online, including NASA’s predictions and information from the US EPA.  I was able to find a specific guide for Pennsylvania (in PDF), which provided exactly the information I wanted to know (about temperature, weather, snow cover and more–as well as about different emissions scenarios)–you should be able to find something similar!

 

Here are some design lists to get you started for at temperate climate (nearly all of these come from the United Plant Savers At risk and To Watch Lists):

  1. Perennials and self-seeding annuals in full sun: Swamp Milkweed, Milkweed, Echinacea, gentian (wet), blue vervain, New England aster
  2. Edge Plants: Part shade, on the edges of forests (bloodroot, black cohosh (damp, part shade), Spikenard (some moisture), Lobelia Inflata
  3. Swampy Plants with Light: Calamus, Horsetail, Cattails (growing rare in some areas, like in MI, due to phragmites)
  4. Swampy Plants in Forests: Ramps, Woodland Nettle, Skullcap, Stoneroot
  5. Dark forest plants: Wild Yam, Goldenseal, Blue Cohosh, Ginseng, Partridge Berry, Mayapple, Lady Slipper Orchid, Trilium
  6. Trees: Slippery Elm, Chestnuts, Butternuts, Paw Paw, Hazels, others unique to your bioregion.  For this, I like to think about the species that are slow to return or that need a leg up!

Of course, you’ll also want to think about sacred gardening techniques as part of your refugia garden–as above, so below, as within, so without.  I have a few good articles on these topics to help you along. We’ll continue this discussion in next week’s post, when we look at the beginnings of the refugia garden I’ve been working on for the last six months :).