Archive for the ‘Salve’ Category

Winter / No Nut Blues

January 18, 2011

Well, lots of people have been talking about a New Year, making all kinds of New Plans, dreaming all kinds of New Dreams, and for the most part my (unspoken) reaction has been one of: “WTF, you guys: it’s January, it’s cold, it’s winter – shouldn’t you still be asleep along with everything else, waiting for the sun to come back and warm your marrow before you even begin to think about stirring and emerging from your dens?”… I first noticed it last year, but it really hit home this winter just how strange it is to have the snows come down and blanket everything with silence and frozen stillness – to walk about and everywhere notice animal and plant beings so quiet and withdrawn into themselves with only the barest glimmer of life-light visible to the observer – and then come back to a civilised humanity breaking its back to keep everything running in exactly the same way it was during the height of summer. People leaving their homes before dawn and getting back after dusk, others in the employ of transport and civil infrastructure working around the clock to keep roads, railways, airports, schools, hospitals, offices open and functioning as ‘normal’. And when these efforts failed, many took their frenzied activity into the outdoors. Here’s a photo from last January in the local park, presenting the typical scene after a medium-heavy snowfall:

Where have all these people come from? Where did they find so much energy at this time of year? Where were they during all the other seasons (the park is almost never this full)? I see in these gatherings a kind of revolutionary fervour: “We have decided that the Laws of Nature don’t apply to us. Now we’re going to flaunt it and dare the world to break us if it can. Together we are strong!” Any wild creatures still out and about must think we’re nuts. As Dougald Hind observed on the Dark Mountain blog (speaking about the materialist emphasis of Christmas celebrations, but the point generalises), ‘the activities prescribed are utter foolishness: biologically they make no sense and only a culture as out of sorts as ours could fail to notice this.’ He continues:

The effect of the northern winter on the mood was remarked on by the 6th century historian Jordanes, writing his history of the Goths from the kinder climate of Constantinople. Modern medicine labels the phenomenon Seasonal Affective Disorder, but is there anything out of order about a lowering of the spirits, as the life ebbs from the landscape around us?

The midwinter customs of northern cultures recognise and work with this. The weeks before the solstice are handled with care, with an awareness that the forces of life, light and warmth are at their weakest. In Shetland, the week before Yule was a time when trolls were at large and to be kept off with rituals at gates and doorways. In Latvia, the fortnight before the winter festival is called “the season of ghosts.” The Christian season of Advent, a time of quietness and waiting, itself reflects the wisdom of going gently through these ugliest weeks of the year.

I have been feeling the sap rise up in me again lately, being out & about spotting the new buds, shoots and even a few flowers opening up on my herbal task-of-the-month (more on this shortly). But the last 3 or 4 months have been particularly hard and depressing for me, so I anticipate it might take a little more than usual for me to pull out of the seasonal funk; a little longer to awake from hibernation.

Basically I got thrown out of whack when the trees apparently decided that none of them were going to produce any nuts that Autumn, and I never recovered. The previous year I had enjoyed bumper crops from beech, hazel, oak and chestnut (three of these for the first time) which gave me a feeling of confidence that I could nourish myself well on these neglected foods and that, at a push, they could serve as my caloric staples for a sizeable chunk of the year. When October and November came and went this year with only a few immature sweet chestnuts and a failed experiment trying to make an edible flour out of conkers* I felt a kind of terror with the knowledge that if I were relying heavily on these harvests I would probably die, coupled with a lingering sense of betrayal – the land had chosen not to provide for me. I learned from Feral Kevin that Valley Oaks in California only produce large quantities of nuts every 2-3 years and furthermore ‘[...] are pretty much on the same cycle. They’ll either all fruit heavily, or none of them fruit at all’ and H speculated about unusually dry summers followed by heavy rains discouraging trees across the board, all of which helped my brain not to take it too personally. But beyond the intellect the bitterness and feelings-of-rejection persisted, leading to a withdrawal from wild foods and interest in The Outdoors generally. I know it must look immature and petulant in a throw-your-toys-out-of-the-pram kind of way, and that I should have simply and without fuss moved my attention to other foodplants like nuts and berries – diversity being the great strength of foraging as a subsistence strategy†. In fact I recognised this at the time, as you can see from my comment on Kevin’s post, and I did try to re-direct my frustrated enthusiasm with:

#1 – Double-infused Elderflower oil (later mixed with grated beeswax to make a moisturising salve):

#2 – Apples (coring, grating and hand-pressing for juice to ferment into cider; drying leftover pulp for fruit leather – thanks for the windfalls Elsie!):

#3 – A leaf container (oak leaves left to rot down in wire frame bracketed onto hazel poles foraged from local coppice):

#’s 4 & 5 – Apples (chutney, more or less following this recipe) and More Apples (filtering and siphoning the now super-strong dry cider into screwtop bottles):

… plus a few other first-time experiments and many of the usual jams, jellies and syrups. Nevertheless the blues settled in to stay by November/December, bringing apathy, introspection and a grey lack-lustre to my internal landscape, closely fitting the one I saw outside. I don’t think I was much fun to be around, no matter what brave face I happened to be trying at any given time… H thought I had chosen to ‘feed the darkness'; that the landscapes only seemed bleak because I was focusing on their negative aspects and turning a blind eye to the positives. I didn’t (and don’t) feel confident enough to deny the suggestion. As ever, I just hope that I learned something from the experience; that the crap was worth wading through and taking seriously (or primarily – as ‘evidence’ valid and undeniable in its own right), and that better things lie ahead.

Please feel free (and welcome) to share your winter horror-stories in the comments section below!

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* – the PFAF entry suggested a combination of roasting and leaching, as with acorns, but my results tasted worse than the raw nut.

† – Richard Borshay Lee writing in the early 1960s about the Ju/Hoansi-!Kung Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert:

Apart from the mongongo [nut - caloric staple, providing '50 percent of the vegetable diet by weight'], the Bushmen have available eighty-four other species of edible food plants, including twenty-nine species of fruits, berries and melons and thirty species of roots and bulbs. The existence of this variety allows for a wide range of alternatives in susistence strategy. During the summer months the Bushmen have no problem other than to choose anmong the tastiest and most easily collected foods. Many species, which are quite edible but less attractive, are bypassed, so that gathering never exhausts all the available plant foods of an area. During the dry season the diet becomes much more eclectic and the many species of roots, bulbs, and edible resins make an important contribution. It is this broad base that provides an essential margin of safety during the end of the dry season, when the mongongo nut forests are difficult to reach. In addition, it is likely that these rarely utilized species provide important nutritional and mineral trace elements that may be lacking in the more popular foods. (‘The Hunters: Scarce Resources in the Kalahari’ – p.110 in Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology)

…but then, they’ve got whole tribes and thousand-year cultural traditions backing them up in their subsistence efforts. I’ve got maybe 2-3 years paying attention to this stuff with the dubious assistance of authors writing in books about different times & places, AND practically all of the people in my culture are pulling in entirely the opposite direction to the one I want to take. Go figure if enthusiasm is hard to come by…

Wild Food June/July – pt.2

July 8, 2010

Sorry for the delay – I originally meant to have this post up a couple of days after the first, but hit a wall of lethargy & writer’s block and somehow couldn’t find the energy to finish it until now. My principle (thanks DJ): yelling at the plants won’t make them grow any faster. They will do their thing at their own pace and the best thing you can probably do is leave them to it.* Without further ado:

3) – Yarrow. I really like this plant, first making a spicy, aromatic tea from the flowers & leaves after identifying it last summer in Italy. The book talked about how Achilles purportedly used it to dress the wounds of his soldiers (a leaf wrapped around a deepish cut on my finger later stemmed the bloodflow pretty quickly) and how there was ‘scarcely an ailment for which the various applications of the herb weren’t effective’ [approx.] With the white, sometimes pink flowers out it looks a bit like an umbellifer (member of the carrot/parsnip family) but the feathery leaves distinguish it and make it unmistakeable once you’ve seen them a few times.

I uprooted five of the plants on walkabout last Autumn and replanted them on a very dry, bare patch in our garden, formerly home to an aged conifer. Apparently Yarrow acts as a ‘good ground cover plant, spreading quickly by its roots’. Someone who shall remain nameless unthinkingly dug up all the baby sprouts in April to make way for a red salad, but fortunately I managed to rescue about three of the larger-leaved ones from the compost. Here’s what the patch looked like a few weeks ago, red salad long since disappeared:

Those roots must’ve been busy! Now the whole patch is green with their leaves and we have four stalks straining up into the sun, just about ready to open up their flowers… Anyway, if you want enough leaves to use as a vegetable, I recommend hunting for a patch where they do something like this (picture taken a couple of days ago):

I know two spots in my local area, both near water, both growing among other long-stemmed plants (in this case grasses and nettles, in the other a load of pondside horsetails). It’s easy enough to grab the ends of 3-4 leaves and reach down the stems to snick them all off at the same time with a knife. I’ve been using them to make soup. Here’s a picture of 1 red onion, sliced and simmering in butter & olive oil, with yarrow washed and chopped, ready to go in:

… quickly followed by 1.5l boiling water from the kettle plus salt, pepper and a crumbled veg stock cube. Fifteen minute simmer, then blend (we have one of those electric wand things with a spinning blade) to produce something that looks like this:

Serve with cream, if you so desire. This first attempt tasted a little watery, so I would either put in more yarrow or less water. I put a tbsp flour to thicken the second attempt, but felt the flavour suffered as a consequence. Also lots of stringy bits of stem survived the blending process, so next time I’ll make sure to chop them more finely. PFAF list the herb’s medicinal properties: ‘antiseptic, antispasmodic, mildly aromatic, astringent, carminative, cholagogue, diaphoretic, digestive, emmenagogue, odontalgic, stimulant, bitter tonic, vasodilator and vulnerary’ (ibid. – under ‘medicinal uses’ where you can hover over the words to see them explained). I don’t know how many of these would survive the cooking process, but either way I reckon you’d struggle to find something more healthful to put into your system.

4) – Clover. My first year collecting the flowers for tea. Here they are drying indoors (those in the know tell me sunlight is too harsh for the drying herb), red on the left, white on the right:

I prefer the heavier flavour of the reds. Becky Lerner has a good post on the medicinal uses, noting that ‘Red Clover, Trifolium spp., is highly regarded by herbalists as a blood purifier because it helps support the liver as the body’s detox organ.’ It also has quite a reputation as a ‘woman’s herb’, helping with menstruation, fertility troubles, etc. – see here. I might try grinding the whites up to put their sweet, slightly beany flavour into breads – I hear they’re supposed to be ‘very wholesome and nutritious’ that way.

5) – St. John’s Wort. I found this plant growing wild for the first time just the other day (up on chalky downland and in a cornfield border, where the farmers may have sown it as part of their oxymoronic ‘farming for wildlife’ program). You identify it by the needleprick holes in the leaves when held to the light – hence the latin name, Hypericum perforatum – as in ‘perforated’. Didn’t see so much of it growing, so I only gathered a small bouquet, leaving at least three plants standing in each small patch†:

Another one for infusing as a flower tea. It’s supposed to help relieve depression, though a possible warning: ‘The plant was used to procure an abortion by some native North Americans, so it is best not used by pregnant women[257]‘ (PFAF). I tried a pot yesterday with the whole herb, fresh, and it tasted quite nice – heavy, sweetish, almost oily. As with a lot of the yellow flower-teas, it starts off straw/urine-coloured and darkens through orange to red the longer you leave it. Apparently SJW does the same in its other popular usage – dunked in oil and left in the sun for several weeks to make a blood-red salve which ‘is applied externally to wounds, sores, ulcers, swellings, rheumatism etc[240]. It is also valued in the treatment of sunburn and as a cosmetic preparation to the skin[240]‘. Perhaps I’ll try that if I find it growing more prolifically somewhere. Otherwise for similar skin troubles (including insect bites) I’ll probably stick to last summer’s discovery of the marvelous, cure-all Plantain Leaf Poultice!‡

6) – Lime. Another splendid tree currently doing amazing things:

This beauty is one of several they’ve allowed to mature in the local park. Close-up:

The flowers make a calming infusion known by the French name Tilleul. Last year I spent quite a while up trees plucking the flowers individually and trying not to get stung by the clouds of bees & other insects feasting on the nectar. Tired of this labour I then tried shaking low-hanging branches over a tarp to collect the snow of petals that came loose. This worked quite well, but I later learned from my (French) grandmother that the light-green bract was supposed to go into the tea as well – in fact I found that it added a cool, mellowness to the flavour, which otherwise could be a little harsh with just the flowers. So this year I grabbed flowers and bracts by the handful (2-3 at a time worked best, with a hand steadying the main branch) and stuffed them straight into the bag, no fuss. Here they are drying:

They smell really great when fresh & concentrated like this. People say the tea has a calming, almost sedative effect. I include myself among those people :) – a mug or two prepares me for a deep, sound sleep. Intriguingly, ‘Lime flowers are said to develop narcotic properties as they age and so they should only be harvested when freshly opened’, though I have nothing to report on this (yet…) I should also mention, perhaps belatedly, that permaculturalists like to rave about lime leaves as a suitably abundant (and much hardier) substitute for lettuce in salads. They taste quite pleasant, albeit slightly bland in this capacity to me. In Food For Free Richard Mabey writes that ‘Some aficionados enjoy them when they are sticky with the honeydew produced by aphid invasions in the summer’. While I would’ve preferred not to know that it came from vast quantities of insect poo, I did rather enjoy the sticky sweetness of the leaves I tasted while gathering the flowers the other day. Something to serve up to unknowing friends and watch their expressions after explaining what they’ve just eaten!

That’ll do for now.

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* – See also Ran Prieur, who writes:

The most fundamental freedom is the freedom to do nothing. But when you get this freedom, after many years of activities that were forced, nothing is all you want to do. You might start projects that seem like the kind of thing you’re supposed to love doing, music or writing or art, and not finish because nobody is forcing you to finish and it’s not really what you want to do. It could take months, if you’re lucky, or more likely years, before you can build up the life inside you to an intensity where it can drive projects that you actually enjoy and finish [...]

† – A Native American foraging rule I once heard (maybe via Ray Mears??): Don’t harvest either the first or the second specimen of a particular plant in any given area because they may need to cross-pollinate in order to reproduce. Something like that… [citation needed]

‡ – Read ‘Grandfather’s Footsteps‘, an Anthropik classic, telling ‘new stories about our rediscovered friends':

Then, one day, a bee stung one of the Grandfathers. He cried out in pain, and he heard the little plant call out, “Grandfather! Grandfather! Take one of my leaves, and crush it into a poultice with mud!” The Grandfather did so. As the mud dried, it pulled the blood and the stinger’s tiny shot of venom out of his arm. The leaves stopped the sting from infection.

“You have powerful medicine, don’t you, little friend?” the Grandfather asked.

“Indeed I do!” the little plant replied. “Wheresoever the soil is upturned, I grow quickly, and heal the soil, and that is why I grow in your footsteps, for you walk heavily and leave deep footsteps, and much soil for me to heal. But since healing is in my nature, I can also heal your scrapes, cuts, insect bites, stings and rashes. I can soothe your pains and heal your cuts, and a tincture or tea of my healing leaves will help you breathe easier when you grow ill.”

For general use saliva works just fine, either dribbled on the plant as you pulverise it with fingernails, or mixed directly in the mouth, mincing with the front teeth.


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