Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bringing in the Harvest

Blog Party! Check out other posts on harvesting at Gais's Garden; http://desertmedicinewoman.blogspot.com/

I set out this afternoon armed with my large basket, camera, and the usual assortment of dogs. I head down the graveled road in search of things to pick, dig, and carry home in my basket and my memories. The dogs are excited about our daily walk, never growing tired of it, always spying or scenting something new to chase, eat, or roll in.

I take a picture of one of the many Poke plants in the yard. The berries hang like bunches of purple black grapes, and I cut several bunches to hang and dry in my sunroom. They make great little pills that way, and I take one every time I feel the slightest hint of a cold or other virus. With her as my ally I am rarely sick. I indulge myself in a little childish face painting while I’m at it.

My garden is almost dead now, a few tomato plants with no more tomatoes, dying squash vines, and some spent pepper plants. But crowning the upper end are my Jerusalem Artichokes, “Sunchokes” that I planted for the first time this past spring. The bright yellow flowers top the towering stalks and I know I will have a nice crop of inulin filled tubers just after first frost.

I pause to cut a bunch of goldenrod flowers. This sweet herb has recently teamed with others to help me pass a very large kidney stone. I stroke her leaves and whisper my gratitude as I gather more to dry for winter teas. Delicate white flowers of Queen Anne’s Lace join the Goldenrod. She too has helped me with the stones, and I gather flowers in all stages from full bloom to dried birds’ nests with mature seeds.

I pause as always at the place of the Fairy wands, and am excited to see several tall stalks sporting not yet ripe seeds. I will gather a few of them to share with friends in another few weeks. For now I enjoy my picture taking and the energy of this special place.

I hear a sudden explosion of wings and look up in time to see all three dogs flush a small flock of turkeys we have surprised. They take wing and head up to a higher spot on the ridge while the dogs, ever futile but always game give chase. Bella yips her hunting call while Bear runs at breakneck speed up the steep slope. They will no doubt join me on the path as it climbs later.

I find a large Lobelia inflata plant right at the crest of the trail and stop to speak. I don’t need to harvest any this year, as I have plenty on hand, but I pay my respects just the same. I’ve only used her for my friend’s migraines, and mild asthma a client has had since childhood, but have made a mental note to use a large dose on myself if the pain from my remaining kidney stone becomes unbearable. A powerful plant, she commands respect, as she will hurt you if used unwisely.

I am joined by the dogs, panting and hot now as they greet me on the upper trail. The turkeys are nowhere to be seen. I step over a few of the outer husks of hickory nuts and know that the squirrels are doing their harvesting now too. The scarlet leaves of a maple contrast with the still deep greens and the few yellows of early fall. Bear pauses to rest a moment and I get a rare shot of him. And when I reach the place where I make my daily prayers Bella allows me a quick shot of her too. Rusty, getting slower as his eyes continue to fail is almost always under my feet.

I walk on and spot bright red berries, Solomon’s Plume, and more berries that turn out to be Spice Bush. I pick a single berry and chew it slowly, enjoying the burst of spicy flavor in my mouth as I continue on the trail. I find a single pink-purple turtlehead blossom near several varieties of morning glory. I have loved this plant since I was a child and I have future plans to encourage them to grow up a home- made trellis.

I see Solomon’s Seal as well and pause to thank her for the help she has given me with my friend T’s shoulder problems. I don’t need to dig a root this year as the one I got last year was huge and will last me through this winter easily.

As I walk back down toward the house I think about harvesting Joe Pye roots, and decide to wait a bit longer, digging them when I dig the roots of Black Cohosh, Goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace, Dandelion, and Poke, all of which are better after first frost.

Heading to the pond I gather a few Buckeyes to make salve and tincture for my friend’s varicose veins. I drop them into the basket and go back to the yard to finish filling it with chestnuts from my two large trees. I toss a few cracked ones to the chickens and laugh as Bear harvests a few for himself and chews them, spitting the shells. I cut sage, oregano, rosemary, and thyme from my small culinary garden and begin filling a second basket. I add cuttings from Mugwort, Tansy, and Wormwood to them and a bunch of Comfrey leaves.

Back in the house I empty the basket, tying herbs in small bunches and hanging them to dry for teas and winter dishes. I chop some of the Goldenrod and Queen Anne’s Lace for tinctures and crack and chop the Buckeyes for tincture and oil. The chestnuts go into the refrigerator to be roasted later. They will make a sweet addition to some home- made bread and the stuffing for my Thanksgiving turkey.

The next few weeks will be much like today. I will harvest a few plants at a time, and smells of oils, drying herbs, berry syrups, and teas will fill my home.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Update on the home front

I can't believe it's been six weeks since I blogged! Time flies this summer, and my computer time has become limited as my outdoor activities increase, but life is good. I have no complaints. Lets see, where to begin? The orchard first, since so many have asked.

I left the orchard the day of my first scheduled Herb Walk for the season. When I arrived at my scheduled time, the orchard was being sprayed. Great I thought, perfect timing. I was told to go ahead with my walk, and that I would be in no danger. All my instincts disagreed, and when I stepped outside into a cloud of drifting toxic mist the orchard keeper reminded me of the dangers of the chemicals used, and not to go into the orchard at all. So I went back inside and cancelled my walk, disgusted and apprehensive that this was likely the first of many times I'd face this during the season.

I had a lot of thinking to do, and some research. So when I arrived home I emailed and asked for the names of the chemicals used. I then researched the MSDS on all four chemicals and quickly determined that I did not belong there at the orchard. I have been anti-chemical for years, choosing not to use toxic chemicals in my home to control bugs or other pests. I don't even vaccinate my dogs. My friend Linda calls me the "chemical Nazi". I cringed as I read warning after warning, and saw documentation of the effects these chemicals had on humans and other animals and wildlife, water quality, and long term pollution of land. All this went totally against my conservation minded brain. So I cancelled all my appearances for the season.

I was able to find another place fairly quickly however, so will be doing my walks at the local Inn property, as well as conducting my herb classes at the local meeting house. Cool! One door closes....

Dogs; All the dogs are fine. The Bear puppy has doubled in size and remains a joy to be around. He's attended a couple of cookouts with me and we enjoy lunch one day a week at the local pet-friendly Cafe. Sadly he killed one of my chickens that had gotten out, and fetched it to the sunroom to feast on, where I took it away from him. So, I guess he'll be more of a pet and companion than a livestock protection dog! Bella is his favorite playmate, Rusty tolerates him, Mintaka likes him, and Diva still wants to kill him, so things are going well in that department.

Chickens; Well, things are not so good in the chicken department. After I moved them all to their larger area I had two more escape and get killed by the ever watchful Akitas. I'm down to three now, one of the White Rocks and two of the New Hampshires. And to make matters worse, two of them are roosters, and are learning to crow. So now I'll have to eat one of them, and get more chickens. And still they are not old enough to lay eggs. Bummer.

Other; I found a great email list that discusses Sally Fallon's "Nourishing Traditions" book, called "discussingnt@yahoogroups.com. I'd purchased the book when I was in herb school and tried several of the recipes, dabbled in kombucha, got good at whole grain sourdough bread, and loved making yogurt and kefir, which have become regular staples in my diet. But I slipped gradually, going back to storebought (tho still organic) yogurt and kefir, and abandoning my last kombucha scobi on my counter. I stopped making bread when the weather warmed. This non-air conditioned house gets so very warm with the oven on and I found too that my body actually does better on a semi-grain-free diet then even the whole and fermented grains, so I'll leave that for now.

But that email list has gotten me recharged and wanting to get back into fermentation projects, so I started last week. I made yogurt and kefir, using them in my morning smoothies, and today I started a batch of beet kvass. I had a couple of organic beets that I peeled and chopped, and I have a couple of cups of kefir on the counter now straining the whey from it to add to the beet jar. I'll also end up with a bit of soft cheese from the strained kefir. I love beets, and hope that my body will love the kvass more. I'll crank up the kettle in a bit to make a batch of kombucha too, maybe my shroom is still alive.

My garden is doing well. I lost my winter squash plants as seedlings for some reason, but the peppers, tomatoes, summer squash and Jerusalem Artichokes are all doing well. I'm eating squash almost daily now. The herb gardens are fine too, except for my Skullcap. My Mugwort and Wormwood have grown so tall they completely shaded out my Skullcap and those plants are tiny and likely won't produce. I'll have to relocate my artemesias and let them have more room to expand, and replace them with smaller herbs that will get along better with my Skullcap.

My Comfrey is doing TOO well. Silly me decided to transplant it from one garden to another last fall. Every teeny tiny root I cut as I dug it up turned into a thriving huge comfrey plant that shoved out my Oregano, Thyme, Basil and even a Rosemary bush. So I figure I'll have to cardboard it this fall and hope it doesn't come back in that spot. The ones I transplanted did well and like their new spot, so I just have to get rid of the extra. My compost pile is loving the extra green stuff I feed it weekly, chopping down the growth and adding it to the pile.

With the almost normal rain fall this year the mountain is green and happy. The herbs flourish, and all around me I see blooms of Black Cohosh, Solomon's Seal and Plume, Elder, Queen Anne's Lace, and many many more. This fall I expect a good harvest of many herbs I've been supporting for years by planting extra seeds, moving plants threatened by development, and just talking to them. It's nice to see that I've had a positive impact on many of the rare and endangered herbs, as their population has doubled and even tripled where I added my own bit of help.

Gotta run now.....kvass calls.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Whippoorwill sighting!

I had a rare treat this morning. It was just before dawn, around 5:30am. I was outside with the new Bear puppy waiting for him to potty in the front yard. I always go out with him and the weenies when it's darkish, in case there's a stray bear or coyote lurking about hoping for a tasty treat. This morning I was enjoying a cup of tea while I waited, and listening to the Whippoorwill calling from somewhere in the back yard. I love his song, and am fortunate that he and his mate return each year to nest nearby. He got quiet, and I knew he was moving to another spot to take up his song again.

To my complete surprise he flew right across the path in front of me and landed on a log not ten feet away. In the light from the porch I could make out every detail of this elusive bird, even the white stripe around his throat glowed. I stood very still so he wouldn't get spooked. He knew I was there, and Bear was only fifteen feet or so away. For some reason he didn't pounce. He too froze like me, seeming to know what a special moment the three of us shared. Whippoorwill stayed where he was for maybe thirty seconds, then flew up and away to land in an unseen tree along the drive and once again take up his sweet song.

What a blessing, and a reminder of how close to this land I have grown in my twelve years here. I will carry that memory in my heart and enjoy his daily song even more.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


The chickens seem to be doing well. Two weeks and counting and I’ve managed to keep all of them alive. They have most of their feathers now, and look a bit moth eaten in a few places where pin feathers are still coming in. They’ve grown a great deal, and have started eating a wild bird seed mix and herbs from my garden in addition to their commercial chick starter. And they catch and eat every bug and fly they can. I found some recipes on an Organic Chicken list I joined (OrganicChickens@yahoogroups.com , nice list) and will be purchasing whole grains later this week to add to their diet.

Here's a couple of pics of the chickens.

I moved them outside a week ago, into a chicken tractor made from an old Akita crate, with one of the converted dog houses as a chicken house. All that is set up inside a dog kennel, so I can have double fencing between them and my curious dachshunds and Akitas. They love being outside. I put their heating pad inside the chicken house under their perch for extra warmth and it came in handy last week when the weather took a turn and got cold and rainy again. I put a tarp over the crate so their area stays dry. The first two nights I closed the door, but after that I’ve just left it open and they seem fine. Next week I’ll turn them out into the large dog kennel their tractor is inside, and give them a week or two there before moving them down to the pasture to their permanent home.

I got them a dog of their very own too! He’s a Great Pyrenees mix puppy I call Bear, and he likes them. Right now he stays inside their big kennel whenever I’m away. He showed mild curiosity toward them the first day, and now ignores them. He sleeps lying up against their cage and they peck at his fur. He’s quite different from the dachshunds and the Akitas, who wouldn’t hesitate to eat them. Hopefully I’ll be able to leave him with them as they mature and he’ll be protective.

Monday, April 28, 2008


I got chickens yesterday! I went to the flea market in Morganton and found a woman selling all kinds of baby chicks. She gave me a quick rundown on the colorful breeds, and I settled on White Rocks and New Hampshires, only because those babies were three weeks old and stood a better chance of survival with a novice like me.

I'd taken two of my old "Ruff Hause" dog houses to my brother's last week and got him to convert them to little chicken houses based on a design I found online from Mother Earth News. He did a fine job, making a ramp for each one out of some scrap beadboard he had, putting in a divider to make nesting boxes in the rear of each, and a perch in the "livingroom" for nighttime roosting. Adorable.

But my little babies are too young to deal with the cool nights we have here, and by the time I got them home I'd decided they needed to stay in the house for a week or so, at least until this cool rainy spell passes and we have sunny days again. This posed a problem, as I have cats, and I was pretty sure my dogs wouldn't think they were anything other than fresh meat. After all, raw chicken is one of their primary protein sources. This was dinner on the hoof! The cats I decided to leave locked in the sunroom. They are in there every night when Shine comes in anyway, as she thinks they are tasty too. They'll be ok for a few days.

Having bred and showed dogs for years I have quite the collection of crates in various sizes and designs. I set up a "weenie crate" that usually serves as travel crate for one of my dachshunds when I go to visit friends. I added a heated mat that doesn't get over 100 degrees and covered that with pine shavings. A small waterer, bowl for food, and a perch across the front completed it nicely. Then I covered it with a blanket to hold in heat and keep it dark at night.

To protect my new babies from the dogs I stuck that crate inside an Akita sized one by the front door. So they had their own little bedroom inside a protective crate. It worked! Both Akitas and dachshunds checked them out, summoned by the cheeping, and were unable to get to them to sample them. Shine was the most interested, having a very high prey drive evident since puppyhood. Bella climbed up on my back as I lay on the floor watching them and peered over my shoulder from her vantage point. Rusty gave a sniff and wandered off, as did Diva. Babies and I slept well, and this morning I was delighted to see they'd already learned how to use their perch, and had eaten all their food.

I cleaned and filled bowls, scattered additional seed around in the pine bedding for foraging practice, and added some grit to help their digestion. They have a light on during the day and as I type this I can hear them cheeping busily away as they forage and peck.

This is going to be fun I think. I still want some Guineas for fly and bug control in the yard, but will have to wait until I find some locally. The babies will go outside next week into a chicken tractor with one of my new chicken houses inside. I'll post more pics when I make that move.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sounds of Spring

We all know of the visual signs of spring; the Green Man steps softly across the land, leaving his footprints in the form of tender new growth. We celebrate each new sighting of old friends and new.

I was reminded this week of sounds of spring, and I remembered how each is unique and as welcomed as those green sightings. I think the earliest sound is that of the peepers, the tiny frogs amongst the trees around the pond below me. Like the white blooms of the Bloodroot, they suddenly appear one evening as the sun begins to set behind the ridge to my west. They come like the Chinook comes to the great north.

I am reminded of my Akita dog Scooter. We shared spring sounds every year, me standing on my porch and him sitting on his favorite rock at the edge of my yard overlooking the pond below. He’d lift his great head and taste the breeze, then turn and give me that smile, knowing I too am in awe of the moment. The peeper sounds always came on a warm spring day after several preceding days of sun had warmed the mud and allowed the blood to stir within the little creatures that depended on that warmth to give them new life. As one they’d awaken and start to celebrate. The warm breeze would caress me and my sweet dog as it carried the sounds to our ears and the scents to his questing nose. I celebrate without him this year, but his memory awakens with the sounds we used to share.

More sounds appear as the days continue to warm. Soft gentle rain falling on new green growth and trickling into the downspout right outside my bedroom window, earth shaking thunder booming from the storms that echo across the blue ridges and rattle my windows. Mother Nature doing her spring cleaning, the creek singing joyfully as it flows noisily across boulders and the roots of ancient hemlocks.

The Eastern Phoebe that makes her nest under the eaves on the south side of my house every year calls noisily for her mate, her Fee Bee song among the first sounds my ears register in the early morning. The chickadees and house wrens add their high pitched cheeping to the crickets’ dance. I hear the hum of bees poking their heads into early blossoms of Ground Ivy and Cherry as they do their tireless work of gathering nectar and pollen.

And quite suddenly one evening the Whippoorwill calls. I am reminded of my childhood summers spent on my grandparents’ farm. I loved to walk up the long driveway with my aging grandfather and his pack of dogs to get the mail. We’d walk at sunset, after the heat of the day and watch the dogs chase rabbits while we were serenaded by the song of a Whippoorwill down by the creek. This year is no different. I start from my chair and sneak quietly to the window when I hear him. He starts down by the creek, calling sometimes a hundred times before he flies silently to a fresh spot to begin again. His call lasts for many minutes as he makes his songful way up and across the ridge to disappear from my hearing as he appears in someone elses’. I saw him one year, a soft gray brown shadow sitting on the stump of an old pine in the back yard. He flew when he sensed my presence and I felt fortunate to see him, as many never get that chance to spot the minstrel ghost of the forest.

Soon the call of the Barred Owls that make their nest high in an old grandmother hemlock down on the spring branch will punctuate the night as they too rejoice in the arrival of another spring, and they will lay their eggs and hatch their young and teach them to hunt among the trees. Sometimes a Great Horned owl calls too, but they are more rare.

I wait for the day the Broadwing hawks return and keen their thin cry high in the air as they circle, hunting for mice to feed their broods. I find myself missing the call of the great Redtail I have always loved, but the forest here is too thick for them and they stick to the tops of the mountain where the view and the hunting is better suited to their great wingspan. The crows caw their secret code to one another and gather in numbers to descend on every hawk they spot, trying to drive them away, their war with the raptors ancient and ongoing.

Spring brings back the Harleys too, awake from their sleeping in safe barns and garages to once again sail around the curves and add their own special thunder to the mountains. I smile as I anticipate the rumbling of my own sweet Pearl when I roll her out for a first spring ride. We always go to Grandfather Mountain on that first journey I like to call a Medicine Ride, riding along his aged back beneath the thunderheads that seem to be always present there.

I close my eyes and let my ears bring in the sounds of spring on Grassy mountain and my heart smiles.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Medicine Walk 4/10/08

Spring has come to the mountain, and she is waking up. Another warm sunny day finds me eager to walk my trail, hoping to see more plants peeking up. The dogs and I head out, me armed with camera and walking stick, they with their noses. The recent rains have encouraged new growth, making me hunger for sightings of old and dear green friends, and I am not to be disappointed.

We come to the place of the Fairy Wands, and I stop, straining my eyes to see the first shoots. I am rewarded to see many new young rosettes poking up through the thick mulch of last year’s fallen leaves. The Fairy Wands are back, and I stop to gently caress one on the bank beside the road. My camera captures the new growth and I move on, heading up now toward the old logging road.

More ferns unfurl their stalks, reaching up toward the sunlight that shines through the trees unhindered by new growth. Partridge Berry vines cascade down a cut in the bank, glossy round leaves looking like green rosary beads against a background of red clay, mosses gently cushioning the graceful foliage. I like to imagine miniature people living in caves here, their homes lined with moss made beds.

Sassafras is beginning to send out her first blossoms, and I stop to smell the green citrusy scent, and I gather a few for tomorrow’s tea. The Rhododendrons are adding fat buds to dark green leathery leaves and soon the forest will be decorated with the amazing white flowers with pink accents.

I stop near the crest and wait while the dogs hunt, Bella’s eager yipping indicating a rabbit nearby, and she is joined by Rusty and my younger Akita Mintaka, who goes along as backup. I love to watch them. I see their wildness, something that can never be bred out of even the most domestic of dogs. They rejoice in the freedom of this mountain retreat we have found, and their happiness fills my own heart.

We continue and come to a place where construction has begun on a new homesite, the raw earth red and crumbling, trees crying spring sap from bare stumps that will never again sport green leaves and branches or provide homes for the multitude of wild things that inhabit this place. I am sad that development continues, but also hopeful that these new people will have the same appreciation of this place that I have.

We hurry by that place and as I walk I spot a tiny patch of white against the still brown background, low to the ground. I step from the trail and am elated to see the first spring blossom of Bloodroot. I take a picture and come back to the trail, knowing that when one blooms, they all do, and that I will soon see many as I approach the watershed. Sure enough I see more and more, hundreds of them now, some single, some in clumps, flowing down the mountain following the path of the recent rains. They look like little snow balls among the browns and greens. I take a few more shots, trying to capture the magic of this little endangered herb that has such a history of use. The leaves are still small, wrapping the single stalk, waiting another few days to unfurl their bear paw shape.

The dogs gather around me, curious to know what I have found, and then wander away when they see Mom is overly excited about nothing but a plant. Their goals differ, wanting warm furry scents in contrast to my need for green. They again busy themselves checking out holes in the bank or those small hollows that seem to be in every other tree. More homes for the Little People I smile to myself.

I spot a small dot of lavender and I move to take a picture of a violet, but it’s not violet. Toothwort! I’d forgotten how this lovely graceful plant blooms along with the Bloodroot, thin straight stem supporting a cluster of bell shaped flowers. I see several of them, growing among the leaf litter and one sticking right out of the otherwise bare and muddy bank.

I reach the crest where the road splits and I stop for my morning prayers. As I look around gratitude flows in my veins, my spirits lifting in response to the awakening mountain. The trees are beginning to sprout tender green leaves now, and I see the red blossoms of maples contrasting with the pale green yellow Sassafras flowers. The honeysuckle vines are climbing already, green split leaves that will soon turn to the more rounded and familiar ones. I remember the heady scent and know that soon enough they will bloom.

I look upward, across to Linville Mountain and I see that she too has green growth, the far away foliage lending color to the formerly drab winter coat. Soon that mountain and my own will be a solid mass of green when viewed from the highway, punctuated by the rock cliffs and outcropping and the dots of homes at the ends of roads that look like veins amongst the green.

Then I see the violets. They are everywhere now, decorating the forest floor with blooms ranging from pure dark purple to a pale lavender to various stripes and dots. So many! The green heart shaped leaves grow in small clumps now, looking like little bouquets of happiness. I bend low and try to catch the fleeting scent, and am rewarded with a hint of fragrance. I take many pictures here.

We reach the road again and I stop to munch on Chickweed, happy and green and lush growth loving the cool wet spring we are having. I see the tiny star shaped white flowers. I munch a few of them too. Dandelions are now out in full force and I know I will be digging up a few to add to my supper, and I’ll be gathering flowers before they can turn into the fluffy seed heads to make massage oil. I toy with the idea of making wine or mead this year as well. A large
rosette of Mullein sports drops from the morning dew like jewelry, and I see the first Robin’s Plantain with its many petaled lavender colored flower.

I pause before we reach the yard, taking in the beauty of the dogwoods, now in almost full bloom, the white cross shaped blossoms on branches just now beginning to sprout green leaves. Sparrows and finches dart out of my boxwoods as I stop to admire yet another variety of purple striped violet. I grab a few young Plantain leaves and enjoy their flavor too. Soon everything will be green and summer will be here.

My new garden bed still sleeps under a thick cover of straw and leaf litter. I will plant the first week of May, having learned hard lessons my first few years here about late freezes and spring snows. This year I will have squashes, winter and summer, sweet potatoes, peppers, beans and tomatoes here.

Heading to the back yard I check my herb gardens. In my small culinary garden I see garden sage, oregano, thyme, and chives, which winter over, providing me with fresh tastes through the cold months. Comfrey leaves peek through the straw here and I sigh at my foolishness of the year before when I transplanted it to the other medicinal garden closer to the house. Each root left in the earth is now a new plant, and I figure I’ll have Comfrey for the whole neighborhood.

I see tiny new leaves of Yarrow as I approach my medicinal garden. I love this plant, as she is one of my allies and teaches me. Here Comfrey grows in earnest, a long row of leaves already large enough to harvest and eat or make medicine or soap. Motherwort that stayed green all winter is growing tall now along the back next to my climbing rose bush and my clematis vines that share the trellis attached to the house below my bedroom window. Rosemary treats me to her fragrance as I brush by. Echinacea leaves poke up in rosettes beside the Feverfew, and the silvery green foliage of Wormwood stands beside the Tansy. In the front row I see the first leaves of Skullcap coming back, and I stop to caress the Mugwort. I taste a fresh new leaf from Lemon Balm and smile at the lemony flavor. I will have good tea this year.

I turn then and head to the back of the property to my circle, hoping to see the Lady Slippers coming up. Too soon. I long for the sight of the delicate pink moccasin shaped blooms of this rare orchid. My feet sink into the deep carpet of moss here under the Hemlocks that surround my Green Man and I stop to admire him and
thank him for his presence. I rake a few of last year’s leaves from around the collection of crystals and stones that I have slowly added each year around the Man standing guard at the east side of my circle.

Wandering down to the pasture I check the apple trees I planted a few years ago. They were tiny twigs when they arrived, dwarfs with five varieties grafted to each tree. They are taller than I now, but have no blooms. I sigh. Green leaves already coming out. Maybe next year they’ll bear. My Cherry bushes are fully leafed, the multitude of blossoms from a couple of weeks ago now gone. I hope there were enough bees out to pollinate so I can have my first crop of cherries this year. My Wisteria is up, sending out new tendrils to climb my fence and the suckers from the old Chestnut stump.

I peer over the split rail fence between the pasture and the lower part of my land that borders the creek, trying to spot the first shoots of the Black Cohosh that grows profusely there. Nothing yet, but I smile at the Bloodroot that happily blooms.

I return to the house through new growth of Blackberry canes and wonder if I should eliminate some of them. The ground is dotted with more and more new green growth, much that I cannot identify.

I pause to hug dogs who are now all muddy from a quick trip to the pond to hunt frogs and head into the house. My walk has recharged me and readied me for another day’s work at computer and kitchen.

Tomorrow we will go again, and we will see new things.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Plant Spirit Journeys; Poke

Sonny was sick with cancer, and Sonny was going to die, soon. All the Vets said so. The form of cancer he had was aggressive, and no chemotherapy was even offered. No hope, just surgical removal of the offending kidney and a death sentence, a precious few months at best.

I was devastated and paralyzed with fear. Cancer had touched my life before, as it has so many others, and I’d watched as my grandfather, friends, and even my husband suffered and died under that curse.

As an herbalist and a hard headed woman I couldn’t simply accept that. I thought of all the possible things I could try, and suddenly Poke came to mind. I had harvested a root last fall and tinctured it, long before I had any idea that I would be using it against such a powerful entity as cancer. I needed to know more; could this plant help? What dose should I give? Was it dangerous? Could it make him sicker or even kill him? To gain the answers I knew I needed to journey into that realm where everything is the same, yet everything is different. Colors brighter, sounds clearer and more easily understood, and the plants and animals, well, they’re different too, and they use this special and sacred place to speak to us, if we dare to ask.

And so I sat with a poke seed in my hand and the bottle of tincture in the other, and waited for the door to the otherworld to open and take me down among the spirits of animals, stones, flowing waters, and plants. My body remained still and in trance on the futon while my own spirit, freed of my earthly body and limiting beliefs soon found the way.

I walked, along the banks of a rushing creek tangled with huge boulders, greeting familiar spirits I’d conversed with before, eyes ever watchful for whatever form the one I was seeking might take. Most of my visions involve women, old women, old wise women, and this time was to be no different. Very soon I came upon a grove of Poke weed, tall and stately, huge green leaves shading magenta stalks, dark ripe berries hanging in clusters almost breaking the stalks with their juicy weight. Among the wrist thick stalks I found a smallish tree stump and sat to wait for her to appear in the green faery light that filtered through her leaves.

Quite suddenly she was beside me, and I studied her as the silence between us remained. She was old, that ageless kind of old, skin like paper, hands cracked and lined with deep veins much like a dried and fallen leaf. She sat stooped as if by years of arthritic changes, joints enlarged, fingers claw like. Her clothes were hard to distinguish from the green and magenta and purple and red clay. She seemed to materialize from these things with no beginning to her form, no end to that of her camouflage. Her face was deeply lined, hair long and tangled and gray with none of the silver highlights mine possessed, and she looked at me with ancient eyes, in which I saw a multitude of things; wisdom, knowledge, patience, compassion, and yet underneath I felt a sense of her power, deep, moving, undeniable, even dangerous. I hesitated. She waited.

When I finally spoke I greeted her as respectfully as I knew how, telling her who I was, sensing she already knew both my name and my reason for the visit, yet feeling I should go ahead with the formal statement anyway, out of courtesy. She nodded and waited, letting me sit in my confusion and shyness, while I sensed she got a tiny bit of enjoyment out of my feeling intimidated. Finally I blurted it out; my Sonny has cancer, and they sent him home, and I don’t know what to do.

She looked at me, still waiting.

Can you help us? I asked finally. She looked confused for a minute, and I pointed to where I could see Sonny with his sister Shine nearby. She turned back to me then and spoke, nodding. Her voice as dry as her skin, but with that same power I’d sensed earlier she simply said; “We love Sonny. We love to watch him play.” I knew then we’d connected. One thing Sonny was known for was his playful puppy like attitude, his joy of life, and the games he played continually with Shine in their fenced in area, heavily populated by Poke herself.

I sat for awhile with Granny Poke, telling her his story, and the frustration and helplessness I felt. She never said another word out loud, all our communication was internal and unspoken, but when I finally rose to leave I knew what dose to use, and for how long, and I knew that it would have a powerful effect on his health. I got no promises of a cure, nor did I ask for one. I would be content to simply have my dog as healthy and free of pain and suffering as possible, and I knew she’d give us that for as long as she could.

I knew I’d earned myself an ally, a very powerful teacher and mentor, and that my journey with her was beginning here with this one dog, this one question answered.

I gave Sonny that poke tincture. He got strong again. He thrived. His blood and lab results returned to normal values. He lived for another two years and nine months, well past the time given him by the experts, and a long full life of almost twelve years for an Akita. He played among the Poke stalks with his beloved sister in summer, sleeping with her in their shade. He sported stains from the berries on his thick coat. I like to think that Poke marked him with her own tattoo.

As for me. I felt no loss when Sonny did die. I felt victorious instead. I had become empowered by a plant spirit. I got answers when there were none. I got miracles when there were none to be had. I had an ally, a very powerful one who is always there for me whenever I ask. I walk my herb walk trail with children and tourists and I tattoo my own face with her juice in celebration of her warrior spirit. The children laugh, the adults no doubt resolve to get away from this strange lady, and Poke smiles at us all.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Medicine Walk 03/12/08

The morning sun is bright as I gather my small pack of dogs and my walking stick and head out to hike along our favorite trail. The slight breeze is warm and hints of a spring not far off. As we stroll along the graveled red clay road I watch for the first early plants along the banks.

We pass the place where the Fairy Wand grows and I pause, but they still sleep. Climbing now I watch my older Akita, closely. At twelve Shine is old, her limbs weak and sometimes she stumbles in the steep places. Today she drags her hind feet slightly, but as she turns, feeling my gaze upon her, she smiles, eyes bright with joy and I know she is fine. Bella, one of my dachshunds, yips excitedly and I know she has found a rabbit trail. Off she goes followed by my blind dachshund Rusty. He follows the sound of the tinkling bell on her collar and her footsteps rustling through the dry leaves of last fall. He inspires me daily with his positive attitude and his delight in being out in the awakening world.

I continue the climb to the upper trail, this path an old logging road, paved only by leaves and mosses and the occasional downed limb. The round leaves of Golden Ragwort dot the trail, but her yellow blossoms are yet to come. The dogs catch up and for a few minutes we walk together, still climbing, and Shine begins to fall behind. I am looking still for new signs of life while they do the same with their noses. At the crest I stop to sit on a pine log while I wait for Shine to catch up. I spot the first tiny dark green leaves of Partridge Berry, peeking out from under the carpet of leaves my feet have disturbed. A single leaf from Mistletoe lies there too and I glance up to find the tree it came from. A woodpecker beats a fast rhythm on another dead pine above us, seeking the bugs that hide there. I can’t spot him but I know he is a Downy, as they are plentiful here, and his drumming lacks the depth and volume of the great Pileated that shares this territory.

Shine reaches us and I give her a few minutes to sniff the hiding places of mice and to check the scent left along the deer trail that crosses here. The sun warms our little spot and I take off my denim overshirt before rising to continue.

We eventually reach the intersection of two trails, this one continues and the other heads down steeply to my small house. I stop here to make my morning prayers, greeting the sun, the earth, and the spirits of this place I am fortunate to live in. I pray for friends, family, my fur children and for my own education that I might continue to grow and serve this small community I have come to love so much and to call Home. Leaving a small amount of tobacco in gratitude I open my eyes again to my immediate surroundings.

Looking down I spot what might be the first leaves of Plantain, but am not sure. They are so small and I left my glasses at home. My eyes rise and across the way, to the east, I see Linville Mountain rising up to the clouds, the steep rocky outcrops visible even here. My own mountain, called Grassy, looms behind me, rising to the tiny resort town of Little Switzerland and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The trees surrounding me are poplars, oaks, hickories, and maples, all gray still, waiting a few more weeks to send out their tender leaves. Punctuated between them I see the green of small hollies, the White and Yellow pines, and my beloved but dying Hemlocks. Along the leaf littered ground are unfurling ferns, with patches of moss between them. I hear the sounds of a few hardy birds. Chickadees and titmice cheep their tiny conversations, a crow caws to his friends about us, and the drumming of the woodpecker we met earlier fades into the soft background. I watch the joyful dachshunds, still on their endless and mostly fruitless hunt for mice and other small creatures.
When I am ready to continue I assess Shine’s condition, knowing it is she who will decide which trail we take. She is tired, and she looks down toward the house, so that is the way we go.

I pause by the path the water follows after the storms and look longingly for the first blooms of Bloodroot, knowing even as I look it will be weeks before I see them. The red clay is crumbling here in fresh piles where my neighbor, who owns this trail we walk has been widening the road with his backhoe. While I love him I am glad he is not here today, his noisy machine would destroy the magic and mood of our walk.

As we reach the last turn I hear the breezes rustling through the dead leaves still clinging to the Beech trees, whispering like tiny people, their secrets unknown to me. I freeze suddenly, spotting a bright patch of purple and I lean down to see the first blooms of a Violet. There are several here, poking their heads out from under more leaves, the blossoms striped with white, the heart shaped leaves glossy. I smile and think of my mother. Violets were her favorite flower, and I always think of her when I see them and remember the many varieties she’d dig up on trips and bring home to color her yard with.

We turn and at last reach the graveled road that leads home. Along the side are familiar faces. Chickweed greets us, a special friend of Rusty’s. I see Mullein that has overwintered and will soon be shooting up her tall spike and decorating it with yellow flowers. I thank her for the tea I made this past winter from her fuzzy leaves. Honeysuckle peeks out, ready to begin her spring climb up the trees lining the road. My cherry bushes are ready to bloom, and I hope the warm weather holds so I can harvest my first crop this year.

We reach the yard and the dogs head as one to the water bucket to quench their thirst. I pause in the front yard, studying the ground and sure enough I see tiny leaves, veins running lengthwise and I know that it was Plantain I saw up top. This part of my yard is a patch of the wonderful weed I’ve allowed to take over, ignoring the comments of friends that grass would look pretty here. I peek under the boxwoods for violets but they are still sleeping in the deep shade. In front the Periwinkles that cover the north side where the yard is steep are already blooming, sweet star-shaped blue highlights against a dark green background.

As I step onto the porch I once again offer a short prayer of gratitude for the gifts this morning has brought, and my smile is bright and my step light as I hear the creek answer before I close the door and return to my chores inside the house.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Herbal Allies; Nettle

Herbal Allies; Nettles

I love nettles, Urtica dioica and other nettles. Although one would believe her to be an unfriendly plant, reaching out to sting anyone who walks too close and brushes up against her foliage, she is actually quite helpful and beneficial. There’s even a silver lining to that sting.

My first adventures with nettle came when I purchased a book; “Healing Wise” by Susun Weed some years ago. Reading it, I found myself drawn to nettles and oats, and promptly purchased quantities of each and ventured into the new (to me) world of herbal infusions. I can’t say my first experience was positive. I guess the closest I can come to describing that taste was “pond water”. But I persevered and very soon found myself loving the fresh green taste of the dark emerald liquid. My body liked it too; my energy improved, my skin cleared, my mild allergy symptoms improved, and my kidneys, prone to gravel, formed fewer stones. I guess I can say that nettles marked the beginning of my journey into the green things. People starting out with the infusion would do well to stick with only a cup or so a day, until their body gets used to it, as more than a few have reported headaches when they drink more than that. After one has grown accustomed to the herb, as much as a quart a day can be consumed without headaches.

I’ve not found Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) growing on my property, but her cousin, Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis) grows profusely along the creek that runs by my house. She stings too, and tastes almost as good, so I use her. On a trip to my brother’s in Hot Springs I found the path along his creek literally covered with Wood nettle. This nettle grows very tall, and a walk along that path in shorts is a painful adventure at best. Fortunately the area is also covered with Jewelweed, so I can soothe my stings immediately. I’ve harvested them there, eaten them steamed, and made tincture from the leaf and root.

But my most profound experience has come from using stinging nettle seeds. I made friends with nettle seeds several years ago when one of my dogs developed renal cancer, and subsequently renal failure. While poking around for something to help him I found David Winston uses them for renal failure, and I found an article about how effective the seed tincture is here; http://www.herbological.com/images/downloads/Urtica%20semen%20CH.pdf

Armed with that bit of information I purchased a supply of the dried seed from Jean’s Greens www.jeansgreens.com and made myself a standard tincture using 100 proof vodka. I’m a fan and follower of Matt Wood’s “drop dose” technique so I started dosing Sonny with three drops a day. The results were pretty much immediate, and miraculous. Over a period of two months or so, his renal values came right back into normal limits, and I was able to put him back on his regular diet instead of the phosphorus-restricting one I’d had him on. Until the day of his death almost three years later his kidney values remained normal.

My Veterinarian soon began to use this wondrous stuff on her other patients, and more often than not, improvement, and sometimes reversal of disease was seen. Since then I’ve heard of and read many similar accounts.

More recently I’ve been led to using nettle seed as an adaptogen. In an ongoing discussion on the Herbwifery forum http://herbwifery.org/forum/ Kiva Rose mentioned how the seeds gave her increased energy, using just a tiny pinch of the dried ones daily. I tried it, and sure enough, I had scads more energy. Now we’re talking focused energy here, the kind that won’t let me sit down for very long, the kind that makes me get up and look for projects to do, and to complete them. I turned several friends on to them, and most report an increase in energy almost immediately. It makes sense, as this is an herb known to support the adrenals, and many of us suffer from “adrenal burnout” due to daily stressors, environment, poor diet, and health problems.

I’ve used the root tincture of stinging nettle in a formula for BPH and prostatitis in male dogs, and I understand it is equally effective with the males of my species. It combines well with saw palmetto and licorice root for this purpose, and for dogs I add some Chaste tree berry to help calm those urges that contribute to the condition.

And now for that silver lining in the sting I mentioned earlier. Urtication is a time proven technique that can lessen the severity of arthritic pain and inflammation in joints. The brave (or the masochistic) will take a bunch of the tops of stinging nettle and flog the offending joint, to produce the characteristic sting from the formic acid. The subsequent irritation brings additional blood to the area and helps reduce the inflammation in the joint. I haven’t personally tried this approach, so I can’t add my own experiences to it.

So the next time you get stung by a nettle, turn and thank her, and consider that she might just be trying to tell you something.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A lifelong dance with SAD

Here I am in the middle of February and I’m not SAD.

SAD stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the acronym fits. When the days become short and the nights long, some people react by becoming depressed. I have been this way most of my life, feeling the need to hibernate in winter, to withdraw from social contact, even becoming overwhelmingly SAD to the point of hospitalization.

I was first diagnosed in the late 80’s, after my therapist returned from a lecture on the topic. It was a “new” disease then, unheard of in the US. I remember he was elated that he’d finally identified the cause of my depression. We went back over my files together and sure enough, I peaked in summer, and was down in winter. Of course he had no treatment offers other than the usual antidepressants I’d been on and off of for years. But I had other ideas. I had a diagnosis. I was empowered by it.

I’m a pretty simplistic thinker. This SAD stuff was simply sunlight deficiency and interrupted circadian rhythms. The first thing I did was quit my job of fourteen years. I was required to work rotating shift work, the worst kind. I knew my biological clock was completely confused, my circadian rhythms out of sync. How could they not be, with me working and sleeping all kinds of odd hours? Soon after leaving my employment I got myself off the antidepressants I’d been forced to depend on for all those years. I wasn’t cured, but I was better, much better. I was on the path to healing myself.

A few years later I read an article on SAD. Treatments had evolved. Light boxes were available now, but I didn’t get one. Who needs light from a box when there’s this big old ball of light right outside? I kept increasing my sun exposure. It helped minimally. Then I found another article that made mention of sunlight and SAD that proposed a theory. This theory linked SAD with wearing glasses and contact lenses, which block the beneficial light rays needed by the body to keep that biological clock ticking properly.

Another light bulb went on in my head. I started wearing glasses when I was about 9 years old, and I can remember my depression beginning around the same time. I began sitting in the sun for fifteen minutes a day during the winter with my glasses off. I’d face the sun, eyes closed, and let my eyelids soak up those bright rays, turning my head slowly back and forth as the article suggested. It became a ritual, and later a part of my daily prayers. Following this idea I had Lasik surgery, so I no longer needed glasses to see except for reading. I improved still more. I felt just about normal now, with a mild tendency to be anti-social in winter, but not hibernating or depressed. Cloudy days still effected me, especially if there were several in a row. I’d want to sleep in, and tended to be lazy.

Then I enrolled in herb school. The very first thing they taught me was that diet is the single most important factor in health, and that the proper balance of nutrients from quality sources can heal disease without medicine. I learned about another form of SAD, the Standard American diet, and how detrimental it is to health. How interesting that these two acronyms are connected! I learned about the importance of Omega 3’s. I added flax seed and fish oil caps to my diet, eliminated most of the “white stuff” and made sure I ate colorful fruits and vegetables from organic sources. I experimented with fermented foods and baked my own bread from whole grains. I cut down on red meats and sought out organic sources, and added more fish to my diet. I added organic dairy products too.

When we talked about seaweeds and their effect on the thyroid I added them too. Now I’m the first to admit I don’t like seaweeds. I grew up along the banks of a tidal river and seaweed always reminds me of low tide. Not a good smell or taste. But my body temperature was low, about 97.8, and I knew my thyroid was probably sub clinically low. So I hid my daily dose of Fucus in my morning smoothie.

Months pass. I start noticing differences. I have more energy, more vitality. I look for things to do instead of being a couch potato. I lose weight. My thoughts are clear and my desire to learn continues to grow. I start seeking out social contacts right in the middle of winter, something I’d never done before, and I enjoy meeting new people and making new friends. My friends had gotten used to my lack of communication in the winter months. It was just a part of my personality they learned to put up with.

I am no longer depressed, even on cloudy days. I am consistently happy, energetic, creative, and whole. I have come a long way, one small step at a time, toward health, both physical and mental. I look in the mirror and I see that my gray hair is turning dark again. That’s a bit of a bummer. I started going gray at the age of thirty-five, and now in my mid-fifties am almost totally silver. I like to believe that each of those gray hairs is a badge of honor, earned through a lifetime of hardships and woes, and a symbol of my crone hood. But that darkening hair is yet another sign of my body’s good health, so I accept it with only a small amount of grudge.

And suddenly I realize. Here I am in the middle of February and I’m not SAD.