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.