First We Forage, Then We Feast

I received a new book in the mail the other week, Dina Falconi’s Foraging and Feasting. It’s one that I had been coveting for some time, and finally justified the expense as necessary to furthering my training and growth as a forager and herbalist.
Foraging

Some professionals are required to obtain continuing education credits to ensure they stay at the top of their game. I am under no such obligations to any certifying body, but am dedicated no less to apprenticing myself to nature and the plants. There is of course the experience gained from working directly with the plants themselves and I study with beloved teachers whenever I can. Then there are the much coveted books that arrive sporadically in the mail.

I open the nondescript packaging with all the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning, softly palming the cover, relishing that first crack and bend of the spine, eager to discover what magic each page holds. Whatever task held my attention in the moments before opening the book completely disappears as I allow myself some minutes to take in the general sweep and scope of the content. Later, I come back to it and really dig in, when time allows. When I found time to settle in with Foraging and Feasting, the opening pages put a big ole’ grin on my face and had me longing for spring so bad I could have burst.
Foraging 014
Part field guide, part cookbook, Dina approaches foraging and wild food cookery as an art, a dance and celebration of life. Working with illustrator Wendy Hollender, the book contains some of the most useful and beautiful botanical drawings I have seen. Then there are easy to use charts that document habitat, growing conditions, timing of harvest and plant uses. The recipes are drool-worthy and somehow manage to be wholesome yet decadent. Berry butters, wild tapenades and salads, elderberry coulis, green goddess dressing, herbal truffles…I want to make them all!
Foraging
But it’s Dina’s foraging philosophy that really makes my heart go pitter-pat. She speaks of empowerment, connection and food security. “Yet I still find it empowering today to feed myself directly from the wild earth. Foraging skills, coupled with access to land- local parks, community gardens, back yards or vast wilderness- equals food sovereignty. Foraging restores our ancient place within the web of life.”
Foraging
Woman after my own heart, she encourages regenerative harvesting and a deep, intimate knowledge of ecosystems. “As foragers, our relationship within nature- our complete interdependence- becomes crystal clear…With this comes the rewarding responsibility of caretaking the land and the plants that feed us.”

Some foragers look at wild food and see dollar signs. To them plants are simply another resource that can be extracted from the environment for profit. Thankfully these folks are few and far between, but with the increasing interest and growing trendiness of foraging, I do worry about the potential for negative impacts on ecosystems and plant populations. It’s very heartening and encouraging to know that the message of foragers like Dina Falconi is reaching the broader community.

If you are interested in learning more about foraging, how to identify the weedy plants that grow around you and how to harvest and prepare them for food or medicine, I am offering a wild edible and medicinal plant course this summer from May to September. You can sign up either for a 5 or 10 class package or just come on a single walk. Come forage and feast with me this summer!

For more details or to register please visit this page.


Harvesting Willow

The seagulls and Canadian geese have returned to the river. The temperature readings are all above zero for the long range forecast and everywhere the crust of snow is peeling back, revealing the earth beneath it. This is the moment I have been waiting for. I can finally get to work in the garden.

The first order of business is to try my hand at coppicing. A lot of willow (Salix spp.) grows on my plot and I’m eager to coppice this for fencing material, trellising, material for hugelkultur beds and of course medicine.

From what I understand, coppicing is done when the plant is still dormant in late winter. Bark harvested for medicine in the spring is best gathered just before bud break. The timing doesn’t line up perfectly, but close enough that I’m stacking functions and performing both tasks at the same time.

Willow bark is a wonderful anti-inflammatory herb that can help ease the pain of headaches, sore muscles and achy joints, particularly where there is excess dampness and heat. It can be beneficial as a gargle for sore throats and to stimulate digestion. Rosalee de la Foret has a wonderful write up on willow.

willowbark

I hope to add more videos to the site this year. Here’s my first one!


Spring is Come

Looking out my office window I take in the river. It is still frozen. But it’s raining outside and the puddles on top of the ice are slowly growing, much to the delight of the large flock of mallards that has overwintered here. It’s the first day of spring and social media in this part of the world is full of complaints and frustration. People are done with winter.  But winter it seems, might not be quite done with us.

Still, there is no denying the cosmos, and regardless of what is happening outside our doors, the plane of the earth’s equator is  passing the centre of the sun, and the tilt of the the earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards it. The sun will rise and set due East and West and the days and nights are of nearly equal length before beginning their climb to the summer solstice. It’s a significant event and I take comfort in that amidst the ice and snow.

Another event, worthy of celebration, is happening today. It’s the launch of The Rhizome: A Permaculture Journal for Ontario & Québec. I’m so excited to have a journal that documents and highlights Canadian permaculture. The inaugural issue is jam-packed with articles, reviews and news that will inspire, invigorate and excite!

So if the weather where you are still has you in hibernation mood, curl up with the journal and take heart my friends. Have faith in the sun, spring is come.

Below is the article I contributed to the journal.

 Winter Reflections in the Wild Garden

snowtracks

It’s just after 5pm and the February sun is blood orange and low in the sky. My boots squeak and crunch in the snow. Overhead I hear the occasional crow squawk on its way to its nightly roost. It’s winter on the farm where I have access to a half acre plot of land as a project partner with Just Food, and my Wild Garden is buried under a few feet of snow.

On this visit, I notice deer tracks and the prints of much smaller creatures, various rodents who bound atop the blanket before diving for cover. I also take notice of where the sun is in the sky and the shadows it casts across the expanse. I look at the line of trees bordering the east side of my plot. It is a mix of conifers and deciduous species, with shrubby meadow willow at the leading edge. The plot itself appears deceptively flat with its white blanket, but I close my eyes and see the slight slope of the land, the dips and the low spots.

I remember when the willows bloomed in the spring and understood then that the sodden soil condition at the time was likely going to be the rule more so than the exception. The nature of this particular patch of earth is to be wet a significant portion of the year. Conventional, well-meaning advice has been to rip out the willows and drain the excess water with ditches.

“Observe and Interact: By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.”

Digging and ditching seems wasteful, invasive and destructive to me and frankly like a lot of work! Instead I’ve been observing and brainstorming more balanced and integrated approaches that will work with the conditions I’m presented with, rather than against them.

“Use edges & value the marginal: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.”

“Use and value diversity: Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.”

This especially wet part of the garden is at the edge of a thin strip of trees: tall conifers giving way to pioneering poplar saplings, ninebark, dogwood and the meadow willow. The woodland strip provides morning shade, wildlife habitat, microclimates and wind breaks. Since my goal is to increase biodiversity, not decease it, I want to enhance this area, support it and nurture it.

“Use and value renewable resources and services: Make the best use of nature’s abundance to reduce our consumptive behaviour and dependence on non-renewable resources.”

“Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.”

willow

While some may view willow as a nuisance and weed tree, I am delighted by its presence. Meadow willow (Salix petiolaris) is well-suited to coppicing and I plan to use the wood for wattle fencing and other structural elements in the garden. I can make a rooting hormone from young willow bark, and of course the plant has wonderful medicinal uses as well and I look forward to harvesting willow bark for its anti-inflammatory, pain relieving properties.

“Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between them and they support each other.”

“Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.”

Ditching and tile draining are common techniques to drain wet fields in agriculture. In permaculture, alternatives include swales, French drains and pond installations, which all work toward slowing, spreading and sinking water into a system. Large hugelkultur beds can absorb and hold large amounts of water as well.

When I contemplate the section of the garden that held standing water until well into July last year, an image keeps returning to my mind. In this space I see a small grove of alders. Another weed tree to some, it is an excellent nitrogen-fixer and beneficial medicinal plant that loves to have its feet wet and can easily be coppiced.

I wonder if the addition of water-loving alders and tending to the willows might manage some of the excess moisture through hydraulic redistribution and by serving as bioirrigating nurse plants?

I open my eyes and the willows and alders of my imagination disappear, to be replaced once more by the blanket of snow. The sun has dipped below the horizon, the sky rapidly darkens from dusky pink and mauve to deep blue. I pause my ruminations for the moment, satisfied that I have the seed of an idea, a possible design element in my mind that I can play and experiment with as I tend my Wild Garden through the seasons.

Resources:

http://permacultureprinciples.com/

http://www.ct.gov/caes/lib/caes/documents/biographies/white/26.pdf

Image source


Air and Expectancy

(This is a longer, edited post of an article that appeared in the March CSA newsletter.)

More and more I find myself measuring the passage of time in mason jars. When all the jars I own are full to bursting, the shelves sagging under their weight and I have to scrounge through recycling bins to find another one to press into service, I don’t have be outside to know it’s late summer/early fall. Full Jar season is bountiful and abundant with the fruits of harvest and the pantry is a riot of summer preserved.

Apothecary

Now begins Empty Jar season. I have, over the last few months, steadily emptied the contents of one jar after another. I go through 5 or 6 pints of homemade bone broth a month. There’s a 4 quart sized hole in the freezer that used to be taken up by apple sauce made from feral apples I picked in the fall. In the fridge there are mostly empty jars with just a spoonful of jam or jelly left in the bottom, or a bit of brine from sauerkraut and pickled turnips. These precious dregs find their way into sauces, dressings, glazes and marinades, before the jars come full circle again.

At this time of year there is always a collection of  empty jars and bottles to wash. I stand at the sink, plunge my hands into the hot, soapy water and peel off labels.  I contemplate the recent history that those labels capture and record. For the next few minutes, I leap and travel through time.

There is the day in July when I gathered red raspberry leaves, setting out early in the morning before it got too hot. After I filled all the paper bags I could carry on my bike, I ate lunch under the shade of a large maple tree, my back resting against its sturdy trunk, stretching my legs out alongside the tree’s roots, feeling utterly connected to everything around me. The empty jar that held dried cleavers releases a deep green, mineral scent when I take off the lid. I inhale molecules of May, in awe that traces of the plant still linger in this way. Suddenly it’s the end of November, the last day before the first snow storm of the season that would mark the end of my root harvesting.  I gathered enough dandelion greens that day to fill  one jar and those greens made their way into tea,  soups and stews and powders throughout the long winter.

Jars

The jars now dry and clean are taken into the apothecary and it is here that the passage of time is most pronounced, as the space taken up by jars with herbs in them is significantly less compared to the jars now filled only with air and expectancy. I don’t feel sad or anxious about this seeming scarcity though, rather I feel content and deeply grateful to have been the medium through which so many plants have passed.

I recently read an article by an herbalist I admire, Renee Davis. She wrote about the herbalist’s chain of custody that connects and embeds our work in the living landscape and that offering plants to the community also offers a deep understanding of the relationships and interactions that unfold between the plants, people and the ecosystem.  “It’s as if we have one hand stretching into the landscape; formulating, crafting. And with the other, we can offer another a connection, language and, in some ways, a truth.” When I look at all those empty jars on my shelves I feel honoured to have a role in that chain of custody.

All last year during the growing season, I grew and gathered plants. I dried them carefully and lovingly. I prepared, blended and formulated the plants and blessed them with healing intention. For a few brief months they were under my care, gathered from the earth, stored properly, and finally sent back out into the world, into the homes and hands of people in the community, where, in their experience of the plants, they just may have discovered a sense of that connection and perhaps even a truth.

Empty Jar season is not about lack or endings, deficiency or a desire to possess something anew. I perceive it as the closing of a loop and the beginning of a season filled with anticipation and promise. It is the promise of once again reaching my hand to the earth, connecting with the landscape, tending to the plants, and taking them into custody with reverence and respect before sharing them with the community. Those jars, waiting and open to receive, fill me with excitement for what’s to come.


Fire Cider of the People, by the People, for the People

There’s quite a controversy brewing in the herbal world these days, and at the heart of it is a traditional folk remedy called Fire Cider. The recipes can vary but usually combine some mix of garlic, horseradish, onions, ginger and cayenne infused in apple cider vinegar with added honey. It can help stave off and treat colds and flus, is immune-boosting, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and has decongestant and circulatory stimulant properties. It is a perfect winter remedy to have on hand and take on a regular basis.

Rosemary Gladstar popularized this remedy, gave it the name Fire Cider and has written and taught about it extensively throughout her long herbal career. Here is a video of her discussing and making her version of Fire Cider.

Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? So how could this much-loved folk remedy be causing such an uproar in the herbal community? It seems that a small company the makes and sells their own version of Fire Cider (as many small herbal businesses do) has trademarked the name Fire Cider and sent Cease and Desist orders to other small business that have been making and selling this preparation as well. Many herbalists are disturbed and upset by this as they feel that Fire Cider is a folk remedy that should belong to the commons.

“The thing is, Shire City did not invent the name “fire cider.” That name has been around for decades (if not longer) and was coined, or at least made famous, by Rosemary Gladstar of Sage Mountain. Shire City was just the first to legally claim it as its own. It now officially belongs to them, not to all of us fire cider makers. It’s as if they took the name of their grandmother’s family recipe and slapped a trademark on it, preventing any other grandchildren from calling their versions of the recipe the original name. What was once a part of herbal folklore is now legal property of a business.” ~Steph Zabel: Herbalist, Ethnobotanist & Plant Educator

“Herbal medicine has a long history of being the people’s medicine. The knowledge of traditional and historical plant-based remedies has been a SHARED one; handed down through families and communities by many generations of healers, mothers and fathers, grandmothers/fathers, aunts/uncles, etc.” ~Sue Kusch

“…someone from the company [Shire City] or their counsel contacted Etsy and Amazon and that a number of small herbalists were shut down . They insisted on their right to trademark the name, describing its use as unknown before they publicized it. Given the patently untrue assertions, the high regard Rosemary Gladstar is held in and the history of fire ciders, the herbal community erupted with petitions that picked up thousands of signatures in a few hours, calls for boycotts and the Shire City Fire Cider Facebook page was flooded with critical comments.” ~Karen Vaughan

“Herbalism is intrinsically about lots of people sharing, modifying, and adapting practices to their local landscape or the needs of their community. To share something as if you’re the only place it can be gotten doesn’t empower people to take care of their own health; that’s not what herbalism is about. It’s great if they want to buy it from you because they don’t have time to make their own, or yours is of really excellent quality, but they should know, too, that anyone can make this stuff, and that traditionally, everyone did.” ~Ryn Midura

“…it is most important that the name and product “Fire Cider” be returned to its rightful owners, the herbal community, many who have been making, using, and selling Fire Cider longer than Shire City Herbals has been in existence. When I first made Fire Cider, named it such, and taught hundreds of other people how to make it through my books, videos, classes, and conferences, I never imagined for a moment that anyone would think they could claim it as their own, or worse, deny others the right to sell it.” ~Rosemary Gladstar

I agree with Rosemary and all the other herbalists. As with so many folk remedies that have been passed down from generation to generation, Fire Cider belongs to the herbal community. If you feel the same way, I invite you to stay up to date on all the Fire Cider news here and to sign the petition. Then, make your own Fire Cider, give it away, share the recipe and heck, even sell it!

This Saturday I am offering a workshop on herbal vinegars and oxymels and the infused vinegar we are going to make is a bottle of Fire Cider that everyone will get to take home with them. Join me and others to ensure that this herbal folk remedy stays where it belongs: in the hands of the herbal community.


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