Cleansing, Detox and Seasonal Tonics

It’s now late March and we have passed the vernal equinox (how did that even happen?) We are past the onslaught of New Year’s resolutions and social media commitments to juice fasting. We are into Spring! In case you didn’t know, the dead of winter is the absolute worst time of year to consider cleansing your body. Our bodies are built to hold on to nourishment for that time of year, and so forcing a cleanse is actually biologically inappropriate. There are many reasons why I don’t recommend hardcore cleansing or fasting for the average person, but here are a few reasons in a nutshell:

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A selection of wild and garden greens.

  1. Most people need nourishment, not punishment. For most people in most cases, a cleanse is the last thing they need to do. Many people choose to do a cleanse after a period of illness, or feeling run down for a while. When this is the case, the body generally is depleted and needs nourishment, not punishment. This is not to say that cleansing does not have its place, but that its place is much smaller than the health food industry would have us believe. Add to that the fact that as our soil and food supply is severely depleted of minerals, so too, are our bodies. Most of us really need building up, not a massive clean out.
  2. Our bodies are already great at cleansing themselves-lets’s support it! Cleanses are chosen sometimes due to weight gain, or because a person knows they have been eating crap for a while, and they don’t feel good because of it. Our bodies know how to detoxify our system. We have kidneys to extract waste from our blood and our liver to detoxify chemicals and other foreign substances. We also have an entire lymphatic system that does a damn fine job of filtering out and moving out most of what is harmful to us. We can definitely support these organs/systems in doing their job more effectively, but that happens by cutting out the crap and letting them do their job!
  3. The way we like to cleanse is not at all ancestral in nature, although cleansing itself can be. Hello, master cleanse! I’m looking right at you here. While I don’t dispute that many people report positive changes while subsisting solely on lemon, maple syrup and cayenne powder, many people also have had less than optimal experiences on that type of fast. Sometimes the shift itself, regardless of what the change is, that is the healing agent.

What I recommend instead:

Seasonal Tonics! This is what our ancestors did, and we can play with that to create some unique and delicious seasonal tonic blends for ourselves and our families. Right now, my family is feasting on the veritable bounty of detoxifying wild greens. We make juice with cleavers and chickweed, add in henbit and deadnettle to our smoothies, eat lots of salad with fresh garden greens, make pesto with all of the above wild greens plus plantain leaf, dock leaf, dandelion leaf and more. We also infuse these wild greens into a mineral rich spring tonic vinegar to add into other recipes. We take advantage of the short season for poke greens, preparing them properly and adding to fritattas, curries and more for a more substantial yet powerfully cleansing and lymphatic system supporting seasonal food.

In addition to all of the fresh wild greens available right now, there are other traditional springtime cleansers. These herbs generally fall into the category of alteratives, which by their nature cleanse and purify the blood. Some locally available and bioregional alteratives to consider are yellow dock root, burdock root, red clover, sassafras root, and prickly ash.

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Precious dandelion root and leaf

Nutritive herbs We want to build the body by giving it an abundance and variety of minerals and vitamins. Typical nutritive herbs  would be nettle, oatstraw, raspberry or blackberry leaf, dandelion leaf, plantain, and red clover teas. Polysaccharide rich decoctions with burdock root, dandelion root, yellow dock root and medicinal mushrooms like turkey tail and reishi also build and nutrify the body on a cellular level; massage oils infused with those same herbs listed above provide another pathway for the herbs to work.

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Reishi- one of the medicinal mushrooms listed above

Have you ever committed to making a nourishing infusion for yourself regularly? There is a lot that can shift by deciding to add in a mineral rich herbal brew to your routine every day, without having to take away anything or deprive yourself. My hunch is that you will find yourself craving junk and sweets much less, because that is just what happens when a body is optimally nourished. If you are looking for a place to start, start here. Take one ounce of dried nutritive herb (see those listed above-nettle, oatstraw, dandelion etc.), put it into a large quart sized mason jar and pour hot water over the top to fill the jar. Cap and leave for at least two hours, but overnight is great. Strain and drink that quart over the course of the day and evening. Switch out your herb over the month, and once you develop a taste for the plants you can always mix and match following your tastes and intuition.

Digestive fire Coming out of winter, when the nature of things is to slow down and hibernate sometimes the truth is that we need a kick-start for our digestion. Warming herbs such as ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and chili pepper can be added liberally to food. Spicy curries are great this time of year, as are steaming mugs of aromatic chai tea (have you tried chai made with our native yaupon holly leaf instead of black tea? Still caffeinated yet bioregional and local). Homemade lactofermented sauerkraut with added garlic and chili pepper is a great addition to any meal to not only increase our digestive fire (Agni) with the spices but also gut healing probiotics. I wholeheartedly recommend that anyone who has ever experienced digestive upset to increase their probiotic intake- whether through supplementation or ferments.

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Spicy native Chiltepin peppers

Bitters (though generally cooling) can be used to start the physiological digestive process and prepare the body for food.  The bitter flavor is one that in our modern diet, we have shied away from and decided that we don’t enjoy it. It is however, a fundamental flavor and part of an entire cascade of processes that the digestive system goes through to get the body ready to eat and digest. One drop of bitters is enough to activate the salivary glands and stomach enzymes necessary for proper digestion.

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Lacto-fermented radishes are spicy, bitter and probiotic rich. Perfect!

Exercise. If you don’t have a routine already, starting small and gentle is the best way to go. Walking around the neighborhood, exploring a local nature park, YouTube yoga videos, working on your squats- all of those are wonderful.

Specifically for building and amping up your digestive fire, Sat Kriya is a great standalone exercise from Kundalini Yoga. It involves breath of fire and mantra practice. Start out at one minute and work your way up to 11 minutes at a time.

Sat Kriya video

And lastly,

Sunlight The healing effects of sunlight in general and Vitamin D in particular cannot be overstated. It’s no secret that we spend entirely too much time inside, especially during winter when the cold, rain and depending on where you live, snow, make it not the most appealing prospect to be outside in the elements. Well, now we can! Sometimes that means that we have to shift some habits to open the time and space to make it happen. Committing to 20 minutes of being in the garden each day and/or a weekly nature walk are both so necessary for our body, mind and spirit.

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Perfect sunlight filtering through the forest on a walk in Arkansas last year

I want to link to a few Red Earth Wildcrafted products that are the perfect support for this time of year. While collecting and using your own weeds and herbs is ideal, I recognize that it isn’t always possible or practical for everyone, which is why I created my apothecary line. I want for everyone to have access to the healing and restorative power of nature through the experience of wild foods and bioregional herbalism. So here are some springtime tonic offerings for this moment in time:

Nourish and Balance is a blend of nettles, holy basil and red clover. This tea blend helps support the liver in detoxifying stress hormones from the body and provides a healthy dose of mineral rich nourishment. Great for those who want to incorporate nourishing infusions into the routine.

Mineral Vinegar Tonic is chock full of wild spring greens gently infused into apple cider vinegar in a way that can replace your regular ACV in salad dressings, splashed in to brighten up soups, stews and grain dishes, added to bone broth at the beginning of cooking, or mixed with water as a cleansing morning shot.

We also have our Spring Clean Liver and Lymph tincture formula locally at the Agora Borealis or in our shop by request. This seasonal blend of wild greens and liver supporting herbs is a great way to support your body in doing what it does best. We like to add a few droppers to our water bottle throughout the day for ease of use.

I hope this helps! Let me know what you are doing to take advantage of this auspicious time for awakening our body and senses to spring.

 

Adaptogens in Bioregional Herbalism

“All plants contain adaptogenic/tonic compounds, because plants have to contend with a good deal of stress themselves.” -James Duke

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Homegrown Holy Basil

Adaptogens are a trendy topic nowadays, with herbs such as astragalus, ashwaganda and shatavari  being household names in some cases. This is partially due to adaptogens being highly publicized in health food store marketing, publications and products.  I think it also has to do with the fact that so many of us are struggling to be sane in an insane world. We live in a time where for most people, literally every aspect of our lives is lived contrary to our biology and adaptation. Sitting on a chair in an office cubicle for 8 hours a day at a desk while staring at an artificial light emitting box is something that many of us do for a large percentage of our life. If it’s not in an office cubicle, then it is in our homes. This is not an adaptative behavior that humans have evolved, and doing so creates physical strain and stress on the body, as well as mental and emotional stress and a whole host of other issues related to it (lack of sunlight and Vitamin D synthesis, breathing in recycled air, wearing professional/uncomfortable/restrictive clothing, etc.) These have impacts on our health over the course of our lifetimes. For folks who are awake, aware and conscious of the impact of our “business as usual” behaviors and lifestyle on our own sense of health and wellbeing, there is an enormous sense of stress that comes with the feeling of inability to change or subvert the culture in which we are a part of.

Point is, we are all stressed out. We all have busy lifestyles, live in a culture of stress, and that is the definition of an adaptogen! An adaptogen is an herb that helps the body respond to stress in a better way. In the book Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief by David Winston and Steven Maimes,

Adaptogens are remarkable natural substances that help the body adapt to stress, support normal metabolic functions, and help restore balance. They increase the body’s resistance to physical, biological, emotional, and environmental stressors and provide a defense response to acute or chronic stress. They are unique from other substances in their ability to restore the balance of endocrine hormones, modulate the immune system and allow the body to maintain optimal homeostasis.

That said, the functional definition, as defined in 1968, is:

  1. An adaptogen is nontoxic
  2. An adaptogen produces a nonspecific response (an increase in the power of resistance against multiple stressors including physical, chemical or biological agents.)
  3. An adaptogen has a normalizing influence on physiology, irrespective of the direction of change from physiological norms caused by the stressor.

It is interesting to note that the term ‘adaptogenic’ is relatively  new to herbalism. It was first coined in 1964 by Russian scientists studying Eleuthero (Siberian Ginseng). It is a new category of herbal action that was not used in Traditional Western Herbalism, although it can be thought of as analagous to the Chinese TCM ‘chi tonics’ or the Ayurvedic ‘rasayanas’

Some of the adaptogenic herbs I have worked with the most are:

  • -Eleutherococcus senticosus (eleuthero)
  • -Astragalus membranaceus (astragalus)
  • -Ganoderma lucidum (reishi)
  • -Panax ginseng  (Asian ginseng)
  • -Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng)
  • -Ocimum sanctum (Tulsi/Holy Basil)
  • -Schisandra chinensis (Schisandra)
  • -Asparagus racemosa (Shatavari)
  • -Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice)
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American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), a native medicinal that is now extremely rare in the wild.   photo: US Fish and Wildlife Services

Now, each of the herbs listed above are adaptogens. Each of those herbs has a set of energetics, an affinity for a particular (or set of) body system, organ or tissue, actions and constituents that are unique to that plant. That means that some herbs might not be the best choice for one particular person with a particular set of circumstances. Adaptogens are generally safe (hence number one of the functional definition above), but this is one of many reasons to work with a practicing herbalist!

Another piece for me is the bioregional piece. This idea of adaptogens or “tonic herbs” in the TCM sense isn’t as well developed in the western materia medica. This goes back to the term being coined in the 1960’s.   That isn’t to say that we don’t have analogous herbs, but this hasn’t been researched fully as far am I as aware.

As a bioregional herbalist, a gardener, and a person who is concerned about the consequences of our global economy, buying ANY herb from across the world is not my first choice. I believe in local herbs, and finding alternatives that work for us on a local scale. Holy Basil grows wonderfully in my bioregion, and I suspect some of the other herbs would too. I have heard it discussed in the permaculture world that my state, Louisiana, has much in common with certain regions in China in terms of climate and topography. It would make sense that many plants that grow well in those regions would do well here too. There is a native species of Schisandra, but like with many plants, it is now very rare. I don’t know much about it’s use as an adaptogen or a medicinal herb in general, as there is very little information and it would be impractical to find any AND also unethical to harvest any amount of such a rare plant. There is much to be said about the sustainable use of Panax spp., but that is not in the scope here.

Wise Woman Herbalist Susun Weed has discussed the invasive shiso or perilla mint as an adaptogenic herb with energetics similar to tulsi. I saw some of this growing in a yard on my walk to the post office this morning. I don’t personally find the flavor of it as compelling as that of tulsi, but I do like it and use it in practice quite a bit.

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Wild Shiso (Perilla frutescens)

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the growing body of evidence that adaptogens are being used by many people unsustainably- to power through fatigue without changing key lifestyle components contributing to stress. In some studies, even though taking an adaptogens results in an initial reduction of cortisol levels, long term use of the adaptogen actually showed increased cortisol levels, which can result in adrenal burnout- one of the main conditions that adaptogens are used for.

One of my teachers, Paul Bergner, has discussed this in a lecture entitled  “The Dark Side of Adaptogens: Appropriate and Inappropriate Use”

To end, I would say that adaptogenic herbs can be an incredibly helpful allies for many folks during times of acute stress. My personal approach is to use them daily, as foods,   for specific and limited periods of time.

Sometimes I like to rotate tulsi into my daily nourishing herbal infusion. I like to add astragalus root, reishi, and even eleuthero into my bone broth when I make it. Shatavari and tulsi both work very well added into a nice chai tea blend.

I haven’t gone in depth on any particular adaptogen, but I hope to have discussed various aspects of the larger idea of adaptogens. I wrote about Reishi in a previous post Reishi Mushroom: Ancient Forest Being as Medicinal Ally for Trying Times and will be writing monograph style entries on a few more soon.

If you’d like to try one of our products that contain adaptogenic herbs, we have available here on Etsy:

  • Tulsi tincture, made with fresh homegrown holy basil.
  • Reshi tincture, made with wildcrafted reishi mushrooms
  • Open to Joy tincture, with tulsi, mimosa, lion’s mane mushroom, and milky oat tops.
  • Nourish and Balance tea, a calming and nutritive blend of tulsi, nettles, red clover and lemon balm.
  • Magic Broth Maker, our herbal broth blend, contains reishi, astragalus, and/or eleuthero.

Crossvine: Native Medicinal for Rejuvenation

I want to talk about one of my favorite wild plants, Crossvine. Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) is a perennial native vine that is common in forests of the Southeast. Crossvine is also sometimes grown as a garden ornamental because it has incredibly gorgeous trumpet shaped orange and yellow showy flowers that hummingbirds love. It flowers in early spring, when most other plants have not begun to bloom, and is one of the first sources of nectar for ruby throated hummingbirds as they journey back into the area. Crossvine is preferred forage for the swamp rabbit and is also eaten by white tailed deer.

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It is a member of a largely tropical family of plants that includes Catalpa, trumpet creeper and Paulownia or Empress Tree. Crossvine has leaves that are semi evergreen and opposite, compound with 2 leaflets appearing as 4 leaves per node. Oblong, lanceolate with rounded bases. The leaves are smooth and hairless. There are branched tendrils for twining and clinging between leaflets.

 

There is a long documented history of use as a medicinal herb, although it is not usually included in the materia medica of modern herbalists (even those from the southeastern US). Native American usage of Crossvine was passed to slaves, but largely fell out of use as modern medicine popularized and traditional herbal remedies fell out of favor. The leaf was used by the Cherokee as a blood purifier or alterative herb; the Koasati used the leaf for rheumatism and the bark was also used in baths a a remedy for headaches.

Crossvine was brought back into use by Alabama Appalachian folk herbalist Tommie Bass. I first learned about Tommie Bass’s use of crossvine for mules worked to exhaustion and as an adaptogen from Darryl Patton, who himself learned from Tommie Bass. The only other reference in popular herbalism that I have found is from Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal: New World, where he references both Darryl Patton and Tommy Bass.

 

Chemically, crossvine is interesting. It seems to contain an indole alkaloid (reserpine) which was previously thought only to be found in another plant family. The small studies that have been done on crossvine seem to show that yes, crossvine does have an effect on human physiology, but that most likely it isn’t down to the effects of that one alkaloid (surprise!)

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Crossvine is drunk as a tea. Traditional usage is 3 leaves per cup as an adaptogenic herb for fatigue and exhaustion. It was also used by Tommy Bass together with pippissewa as a “renal rejuvenative”

I find crossvine to have a very mild and ever so slightly sweet green flavor. Crossvine is intended to be used over the course of time, and people say that after a week or so of drinking crossvine tea, they find that they feel less worn out and tired than before. My favorite blend to make with crossvine is combined with goldenrod and nettles for when allergy season is in full swing. I react to our juniper species here in northwest Louisiana, Eastern Red Cedar, and find this blend to be helpful to mitigate some of the symptoms, as well as the general tired malaise that comes from a histamine response in the body.

The only possible look alike I can think of comes from the same plant family, trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), but the leaves are really quite different. Compare the leaf in the two photos:

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Bignonia capreolata Crossvine

With the crossvine above, leaves are opposite and pinnately compound. The leaves have a branched tendril between them. When they are growing on a tree, it can appear that there is a cluster of four leaves (see second photo above). Also, the blooms generally appear mid March to June.

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Campsis radicans Trumpet Creeper

Trumpet creeper have leaves that are pinnately compound, with 4 to 6 pairs of leaflets and a terminal leaf. This means that the leaf is a lot more complex looking than that of crossvine. Also, trumpet creeper generally begins to bloom when crossvine goes to seed.

  • Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany
  • Patton, Darryl- Plant walk November 2015, Stalking Wild Louisiana
  • Wood, Matthew The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal       Plants
  • Miller and Miller Forest Plants of the Southeast and their Wildlife Uses
  • Personal experience

All photos thanks to wildflower.org

Reishi Mushroom: Ancient Forest Being as Medicinal Ally for Trying Times

First off, let’s define what I mean by Reishi. Reishi is a polypore fungus, which means that it is a mushroom that does not have gills. It has pores underneath the surface of its’ shelf like fruiting body that release the spores. Reishi, like other polypores, grows on the wood of dead and decaying trees. In a forestry service guide to forests I read once, it described reishi is a “pathogen” for trees. I’m not going to argue with the forestry service, but I’m not quite sure I agree with that loaded definition.

Reishi is a beautiful mushroom, don’t you think? Just look at that shiny lacquered appearance, the coloration, the kidney shaping. I am always in awe of this mushroom when I have the good fortune to cross its’ path.

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A beautiful specimen

There is some debate around the taxonomy of Reishi. To be sure, various species have been named.

Ganoderma lucidum is the species that has been most studied and used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Opinions differ as to whether or not we have G. lucidum in the US.

There is also Ganoderma tsugae, which generally grows exclusively on hemlock trees and has a reddish coloring. I am not referring to this species when I talk about reishi, simply because it is too warm in my bioregion for G. tsugae (or red reishi).

One reishi that we do have in our bioregion is Ganoderma curtisii, which I like to call affectionately Deep South Reishi, as it appears to be native to the Southeastern U.S. Some mycologists and taxonomists have said that G. curtisii and G. ludicum are actually the same, and that G. curtisii should be lumped togethere with G. lucidum.

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A young Ganoderma curtisii

I am not an academic mycologist, but I will say that the morphological differences of these two mushrooms are great enough that I will refer to them seperately. G. curtisii lacks the distinctive laquered shiny coating of G. lucidum and the coloring tends toward shades of yellow/gold/white instead of red/brown.

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A much older specimen of G. curtisii. Note the distinct lack of laquered appearance.

Other species of Ganoderma that I have worked with are Ganoderma sessile, which I consider to be comparable in action and quality to G. lucidum and G. curtisii;

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and Ganoderma applanatum or Artist Conk. Artist Conk is absolutely a potent and valuable medicinal mushroom, but I feel like it is different enough to be considered something entirely different.

I haven’t attempted to cultivate reishi, but it can definitely be done. I am lucky to know a mushroom farmer in Texas who does grow it, and I have gotten some of their beautiful reishi.

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reishi grown at Fallen Oak Mushroom Farm in Wimberley, TX

As an herb, reishi is one of those panacea herbs. You can look at a list of conditions it is helpful for and wonder who couldn’t benefit from reishi. It has been in the pharmacopoeia of Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years, and in fact there is a term “reishi babies” to describe the super calm and happy disposition of infants whose mothers used reishi mushroom both during the pregnancy and also breastfeeding.

Actions:

  • Adaptogenic
  • Antioxidant
  • Hepatoprotective
  • Immunomodulator
  • Nervine
  • Antimicrobial
  • Blood sugar balancing

Constituents:

  • immunostimulating polysaccharides (Beta glucans)
  • bitter triterpenes (ganoderic and ganoderenic acids)
  • ling zhi 9 protein

Uses:

  • strengthens immune system and down regulates excessive immune response in autoimmune issues and allergies
  • For “shen” disturbances- anxiety, insomnia, bad dreams, moodiness, listlessness, poor memory
  • Has positive effect on cardiovascular function
  • Anti-inflammatory activity for asthma, COPD, Hepatitis B and C
  • Improves adrenocortical function
  • Cell protectant. This can be useful in the treatment of cancer- 5 to 20 fold increase in cancer fighting compounds. It can even be used safely in conjunction with modern medical interventions.

Body system affinities:

  • heart
  • lungs
  • nervous system
  • bone marrow

On an energetic level, reishi has much to offer as well.

Mississippi herbalist Lindsay Wilson, writes of reishi in her blog post on Madhupa Maypop:

“What I have gathered from my dreams is that this mushroom works on our DNA structure; it addresses and positively alters family lineage health and spiritual issues that have been passed down for generations.”

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On a personal note, my mother is/was an artist. I say was because she is now too unwell to create much of anything these days. We certainly have our mother/daughter dynamic issues, but there is also a deeper ancestral rift that has become evident  to me via experiences in non ordinary reality. My mother used to go out to the woods when I was younger. She never took me, because it was church to her, and I understand that now. She came back with turtle shells, animal bones and sometimes these mushrooms which she lacquered to preserve them and used them in her art. This is one of the pieces that contain reishi. She didn’t know that they were medicine for the body, but she recognized them as powerful and that they had something for her that she needed. I’m not sure yet what will unfold with my work with reishi in this realm, but I definitely sense something there. I’ll let you know.

I will be teaching a class this spring on Medicinal Mushrooms in Shreveport, Louisiana. I don’t want to give too much away, but I can’t help being a tease about it. I’m really really honored to be in a position to share about these beings so near to my heart. I hope you will join me.

References:

  • Winston, David Adaptogens
  • Hobbs, Christopher Medicinal Mushrooms 
  • personal experience

 

Ideas for Interacting with Pine as Food and Medicine: Syrups and Soda

It might sound a little basic, or boring, but my absolute favorite way to enjoy pine needles is in a syrup. I know, I know. Syrup has sugar and sugar is pretty much evil. I hear you. I do. Most of the time when I ingest pine needles as a wild food, I do so either in infused vinegar form or in tea form (the step right before the sugar part in the syrup recipe below). Sometimes I make the honey sweetened version, but usually I just use the syrup sparingly in the occasional cocktail or medicinally in cough syrup.

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Pine Needle Syrup

  • To make pine needle syrup, cut your pine needles up into finely chopped pieces.
  • Use about two cups of needles to 1 quart of water
  • Bring water to a boil in a large heavy pot
  • Add the pine needles.
  • I like to let them boil slowly for a few minutes, then turn off the heat.
  • Cover and let steep for an hour or two.
  • At this point, you strain it and you can do one of two things.
  • You can make a simple syrup by returning the strained pine needle tea to the pot and adding an equal amount of white sugar.
  • Over medium heat, stir until the sugar is fully melted.
  • Let cool and store in the fridge.
  • Use within a few weeks.
  • You can also add an equal amount of honey to the tea.
  • This one also needs to be stored in the fridge and should probably be used a little quicker. Having said that, it would probably turn into pine mead instead of going bad!

Shout out to Highland Cream for using our pine needle syrup in a special pine flavored ice cream for an event at Red River Brewing a few months back.  See, pine syrup is a thing, y’all.

One of the easiest and most classic uses for pine syrup is in a cocktail. It really works. This recipe is delicious, and I am going to call it The Caddo because I never considered that it might need a name, and that’s the best I’ve got right now.

The Caddo

  • 1 part yaupon tea
  • 1/2 part apple cider
  • 1/2 part pine syrup
  • 1 part sparkling water
  • 1 part bourbon

Shake together in cocktail shaker and serve over ice.

It works wonderfully as a non-alcoholic but still punchy beverage, thanks to the caffeine in the yaupon tea.

Shameless plug

Easy Peasy Pine Soda

  • 2 cups sparkling water
  • 1 oz pine syrup

Mix the two ingredients together, and serve! Delicious.

Pine and Reishi Winter Wellness Decoction

If you are wondering what in the heck reishi is, you are in luck. I’ll be publishing an article specifically about it in the next week, so check back. In the meantime, know that it is a powerful medicinal fungi that can be cultivated or found all across the globe (including in our bioregion). It is amazing for the immune system, so it is included in this two ingredient herbal decoction.

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For this decoction, you start off similarly as to the pine needle syrup, but instead of chopping pine needles only, we are going to use the entire small twig. The bark contains a different set and ratio of constituents, and I feel it to be more medicinal in action. To the chopped pine branches, I add chopped and dried reishi mushroom. I generally use 2/3 pine and 1/3 reishi.  For two cups of chopped pine and reishi, use two quarts of water. Bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer. Let it slowly simmer for at least 45 minutes, although the longer the better. A long slow simmer for a number of hours is great, and does a good job at slowly extracting the goodness from the reishi mushroom. If you are worried about it being too similar tasting to pine cleaner, then you can decoct the reishi for longer first, and then add the pine the last half hour to hour of simmering.

If you like the idea of the pine soda I mentioned above, but you really like fermented things, behold:

One extremely imaginative and fun recipe to make is a naturally fermented soda with pine needles. I first learned about this technique for making soda from Pascal Baudar, who wrote The New Wildcrafted Cuisine, which I highly recommend, and is also quite generous with his time and skill on social media. His style of making a soda is posted online, here:

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photo credit: Pascal Baudar

“Pine Needles Soda – Super delicious and loaded with vitamin C. I’ve made it with Eastern white pine needles in Vermont and all kinds of other pines from Oregon to California. All pines are “edible” so you can chew on a few needles to get an idea of the flavors. My favorite is using pinyon pine from Gloria’s place in the local mountains. Some fir trees such as white or balsam fir had great tangerine flavors too. You can even use spruce tips too. The technique I use is super simple. Raw honey already contains wild yeast so I place maybe 10 to 20% raw honey in purified water (you can go by taste), cut my pine/fir/spruce needles a bit and place them in the container. Cover the container with a cheesecloth to protect it from critters like flies, bees, etc… Stir 3 times daily with a clean spoon. After 3-4 days you get a nice fermentation (if your honey was truly raw). You can let if ferment for a couple more days, just go by flavors then bottle it in a swing-top glass bottle or recycled plastic soda bottle. I usually let the fermentation go for 8 to 12hrs in the closed bottles then place in the fridge and drink within a week. There are no rules, you can let the solution ferment for much longer and get a sort of boozy soda too. You can use regular sugar and purchased (wine or champagne) yeast if you don’t have raw honey.”-Pascal Baudar

I love our local Loblolly pines, because they develop a distinctive vanilla flavoring during the fermenting process. This makes perfect sense, because pine has actually been used in the vanilla flavoring industry. Most of the world’s vanilla flavoring comes from pine chips, and has been since the late 19th century. I have not yet had the opportunity to see for myself, but the bark of the Ponderosa pine is meant to have a marked and distinct vanilla aroma.

I will be sharing about some of the bath and body uses for Pine that work well in my household in the coming days, so stay tuned for that, too.

Pine Tree Medicine

Northwest Louisiana has its fair share of pine trees. The Pineywoods region extends here from East Texas, and there is a long history of logging and timber replanting in this area. It is not uncommon to see forests that are essentially pine tree plantations.

We have a few different pine tree species in the area:

  • Pinus taeda-Loblolly Pine
  • Pinus echinata-Shortleaf Pine
  • and rarely, Pinus palustris-Longleaf Pine

Different pine species of the genus Pinaceae can be differentiated by various methods, one being the number of pine needles per cluster or fascicle. Being able to tell which pine tree you are looking at is pretty cool. We have far more Loblolly pines here in and around Shreveport, LA than the other two species, and it is not at all difficult to key them out. I am primarily talking about identification by fascicles, but you can also identify various pines by the cones (size, shape and texture), the bark, and also overall size and shape of the tree.

Shortleaf pine has two needles per fascicle. They are flexible and sometimes slightly twisted. The cones of shortleaf pine are also markedly smaller than the loblolly.

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Image from A.C. Moore Herbarium at University of South Carolina

Loblolly Pine has two or three needles per fascicle. Loblolly hybridizes easily. You can also see how the cone of a loblolly is directly attached (sessile) to the branch.

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Image from A.C. Moore Herbarium at University of South Carolina

Longleaf pine has three needles per fascicle.and have markedly long needles.

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Image from A.C. Moore Herbarium at University of South Carolina

Pine savannahs are actively maintained by fire. They need periodic quick and dirty burns to be healthy. Many pine species have seeds that will simply not germinate without the high heat of a flash fire. When you imagine that this fire clears out brush and debris from the forest floor, making way for other understory plants to grow, which then encourages in fact more wildlife as they are able to feed on the young shoots of those understory species,  as well as eliminating the habitat for potentially harmful pests (like ticks!), you can see that our misguided relationship to fire is not providing a positive outcome for any life involved.

I adore pine because of their abject abundance and ubiquitous presence here. It feels good to make use of and to learn the personality of pine through the lens of herbalism. That is really what herbalism is to me- deepening my relationship to plants. Here in Louisiana, it’s a pretty good idea to get to know pine!

First off, let’s talk about the useful parts of pine. That includes, well, all of them! I have made and used: pine needle vinegar, pine needle sugar, pine syrup, pine scrub, pine oil, pine hydrosol and pine resin tincture and salve. I have also collected, tinctured and eaten the pine pollen. I’ve made infused honey with the unripe catkins, and burned all parts of the pine as a smudge. I’ve also used various preparations of pine as a household cleaner.

Needles– rich in Vitamin C and lemony tasting. They are nice infused into vinegar, oil, and honey, made into a syrup and processed as a body scrub or hydrosol. The needles can also be burned as a smudge. Pine needles are possibly the easiest to collect and to use  of all wild edibles. They are available year round, and are a resource that it would be quite hard for us to have a marked impact on plant populations.

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Pine needle sugar for bath scrubs and culinary use

Unripe Catkin-juicy and lemony. Can be infused in honey, to make mead, and as food.

Pollen-protein rich food and hormonally active medicine for males. Pine pollen is incredibly fiddly and time consuming to collect in abundance. It is not hard, but we have definitely seen the learning curve in the collecting, processing and storage of pine pollen.

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If you are at all interested in pine pollen, this is the book you need!

Resin– aromatic and sticky. Wonderful medicinal in oil, as a salve, or tinctured. Also useful as an incense or fire-starter. Collecting pine resin is for me an exercise in restraint. Some pine species drop huge balls of resin at specific times of year, but I have found that with our primarily loblollies, the resin produced is generally  not in excess of what the tree needs to heal its own wounds. That is what resin is- the healing substance that pines produce to heal, close wounds and prevent infection. That said, you have to make sure not to take too much. This is one of those areas where for me, clear intention and need are of the utmost importance. An act of gratitude or an offering are also non-negotiable after collecting pine resin.

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Aromatic  Pine Resin Salve from our Red Earth Wildcrafted product line

The cambium layer of the inner bark is also an edible part of the pine, but I don’t have experience with it, so I won’t talk about it. I don’t feel good about using it, as it does harm the tree to collect it.

So, I guess the question is Why? Why do all of this? What is so great about pine?

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Mature backyard pines

Pine is high in volatile oils (as are most conifers). This is one of the many reasons that forest bathing is so beneficial for humans. Those anti-inflammatory volatile oils are present in the air, and simply breathing in a forest full of them is enough. That is original aromatherapy right there!

Pine contains antiseptic compounds called monoterpenes. These monoterpenes are antibacterial and antifungal, and are one of the reasons that pine has a history of use as a wash for fungal and other skin infections.  In addition to that particular chemical, pine is rich in a host of other constituents. It contains tannins, resins, essential oils, terpenes and a chemical called pinipricin.

In herbalism, we tend to talk about herbs in terms of actions. Some of the actions that pine has are:

  • antiseptic
  • expectorant
  • anticatarrhal
  • stimulant
  • tonic

We can then take those actions and see how they line up with traditional use. Pine has been shown to be effective in bronchitis, sinusitis, and upper respiratory catarrh (coughs and colds). An expectorant that helps to bring up phlegm and mucus residing in the lungs and other mucous membranes of the respiratory tract would be helpful in that. To that end, I like to add pine to my homemade cough syrups and also make a chest rub with the resin.

The antiseptic properties have been effective at keeping cuts, skin irritations and the infections mentioned above from getting worse. I like to use pine resin mostly for infections, and I find it to be effective not only externally but internally as well especially for upper respiratory infection.

Pine has also been used for conditions like rheumatism and arthritis. I don’t have either of these conditions, but I have observed that when pine infused oil or salve is rubbed onto skin, that the area turns red. That redness is due to increased blood flow to the area (that herbal action is referred to as rubefacient), and increased blood flow can decrease pain in swollen and achy joints.

Next up on the blog is a compilation of recipes that include pine. I’ll be including basics and ways to use them, and also some recipes that build on those basic recipes. I’m excited to get more active and share more of my experience here, so give us a follow to keep up to date if you haven’t already. I also share some over on Instagram, and I see the Facebook page as a clearinghouse for all else, plus a space to share the work of other herbalists, wildcrafters, chefs and professionals in the health and wellness sphere.

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Resources/Bibliography

personal experience

Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany

Ganora, Lisa Herbal Constituents

Hoffman, David The New Holistic Herbal

 

Acorn Recipe: Acorn and Purple Corn Banana Bread Muffins

The original recipe came from this site, but I changed a few things to suit my needs and this is what we wound up with! They are ridiculously delicious and really easy if you already have overripe bananas on hand. Mine were incredibly ripe and totally black on the outside but super sweet on the inside. I could have really cut down the sweetener even more for my tastes.

Acorn and Purple Corn Banana Bread Muffins

Dry ingredients:

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 3/4 cup purple corn flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • pinch vanilla powder
  • pinch salt

Wet ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup melted butter or coconut oil
  • 3 bananas
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup honey or maple syrup

Either blend or vigourously wisk all wet ingredients until they are fully incorporated and smooth. Add to dry ingredients and stir. Pour into greased muffin pan and bake at 350F for 20 minutes or until the edges begin to shrink away from the pan and a toothpick comes out clean.

 

Acorn Awareness

Disclaimer: I am not going to include references or footnotes in this article. Although I bring up some points and ideas that would perhaps be well served by doing so, this article is 100% my opinion and is not intended to be taken as the truth. I just want to share a perspective.

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Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata) Just one of the many oaks common in Louisiana

While this isn’t the first year I have eaten, collected or processed acorns, this is the first year that I have made such a large investment of time or energy into it. I also can see quite clearly how much time and energy I will need to invest next year in order to meet specific goals for how much I would like to prepare and in order to store a surplus. Hopefully, we will have the opportunity to invest in a large cracker in order to make this more possible logistically.

Acorn collecting and processing is not difficult. Not in the least. Oaks are among the easiest trees to identify, and even those who could not tell you which oak an acorn came from, would still be able to recognize an acorn. What it IS however, is time consuming, and I fully get that many if not most people living their lives and going to jobs, after school activities etc. do not have hours to spare. It can be turned into a family activity, which kind of changes the dynamic of collection.

I’ve made acorn pancakes, acorn crepes, spiced apple acorn cake and muffins and acorn banana bread this year so far. The crepes, and even pancakes can be used as a savory food but I would like to do more experimenting with non-sweet muffins, breads and crackers so that they can be even more of a staple food for part of the year in our kitchen. I have definitely reduced our food budget in the past few months because I am not buying almond flour, which is pricey, generally already rancid and absolutely not optimal for health to have as a staple food.

There has been talk about this acorn season in 2016 as a mast year. The word ‘mast’ refers to both the fruit of nut bearing trees (the acorns being oak tree mast) and the years of overabundance that cycle with years of minimal production. I’m not really sure about anywhere outside of my particular bio-region here in Northwest Louisiana but we can definitely all agree that this year has seen large acorn production pretty much all over the country.

It’s interesting to note that we don’t really know why oak trees have mast years. We know that this kind of boom and bust cycle doesn’t occur every year, or with regularity. It is true that part of the equation is weather, but we also know that it isn’t related to the weather/rainfall in the last year or two, but instead a response to broader and long term weather patterns.

Tangentially related, is how for modern humans, the idea of storing a surplus of food for the future becomes a fringe activity, for “preppers” or “doomsdayers” or what have you. Why is our language around storing food surplus- hoarding- so negative, when if we desire to eat seasonally or to incorporate wild foods into our diet regularly, that is what we absolutely have to do.

There is also evidence that the low output of oak fruits (acorns) experienced some years is related to explosions in populations of small animals that feed on acorns. Populations of these acorn feeding and storing animals are able to explode some years with the incredible abundance of mast years and the continued pressure that would exert on the oak populations can create this response. Oaks essentially produce acorns to create more oak trees, not to feed animals. It’s essentially a biofeedback loop, and the implications this brings up for humans that are acorning is immense. To me, that feels like direct evidence of awareness. On whatever level that it is, oak trees are aware of my presence around them, collecting those acorns. That’s truly incredible. If then, oak trees are aware of my presence collecting fruits that have been shed, imagine then the implications for plants that we harvest living tissue from. What about roots, where we literally take the life of that entire plant for the root?

This fundamental understanding of plants and consciousness, which is not shared by the broader culture in which I life, is a little radical. I get it. It sounds nutty and woo. Except that it doesn’t, because all of this is observable both to the layperson and the scientific method.

What is awareness, if not the ability to respond to our environment, to stimuli, to change?

My personal view, due to direct experiences that I have had is this: when we act in a good way with plants, that they generally want to be used. Plants and humans have evolved together. We are fundamentally different beings, but we share the same substance matter (kind of). Plants and humans have experienced some degree of co-evolution, as plants have been both food and medicine for the entire time we have existed at humans (and before!)

When I first began my journey with plants in a serious way, I was a pretty hardcore ethical vegan. And I have to say that it was harvesting wild plants that planted the first seeds that perhaps that way of being in the world wasn’t comprehensive enough. I can remember being in the wilds outside of Madrid, Spain and digging up burdock roots. At that time, it was mostly about food and not medicine, but I was deeply challenged by how it felt to be taking that plant.

There is complication in that for modern humans, living in cities and disconnected from the fabric of existence with the rest of life on the planet. We know there is something that doesn’t feel good about it, but oftentimes we cannot fully articulate what it is. I, too, live a relatively standard western lifestyle but I have made it part of my work to lift the veil and to really see the inefficiencies in our systems, the areas where work is outsourced and sedentary behavior has taken it’s place. I see where aspects of my daily life and the behaviors and habits that comprise my day and thus my life are not in alignment with my core beliefs and desires. And much of this clarity would not have been able to occur without the time spent slowing down and collecting acorns.

Ultimately, all of this is to say: It is never just about the food. I came into learning about plants and foraging for the food- to explore new flavors and textures, and then to have more of a full spectrum of nutrients available to me. And then it became clear that it was never, ever about the food. The food is simply an angle or a lens through which we can explore concepts such as abundance and scarcity as mentalities, the interconnection of all life, this idea of rewilding and what it means to be human on this landscape that is not the landscape that our bodies and minds evolved to live in. Contemplating what we have lost forever and what we can retrieve in some way. More specifically- plant medicine, too. I got into plants for the food, but my deep love and respect for them evolved into a decision to train as an herbalist to more fully understand the entire spectrum of experience.

What a gift the generosity of the plant kingdom is! I feel so grateful most days that I was called to the plants and the work that I do. It is impossible to not be actively aware of it because plants are thankfully so pervasive in my life. I have also worked hard to make that the case. What my greatest hope is-to live my life in a way where I become increasingly more worthy of these gifts, and to have something I say or write be an opening for someone else. 

 

Paleo Acorn Flour Pancakes

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Family plate of pancakes, with grated Lily’s stevia sweetened Gingerbread chocolate, and Shagbark Hickory Syrup ❤

I love pancakes, and I go through periods where I make them *a lot* because they are easy, cheap, quick and versatile (hello flatbread for chili and curry!)

Now that I have discovered I feel so much better when I don’t eat grains, all my go to recipes and mixes for gluten-free pancakes don’t work. Over the last few years, I have experimented with all sorts of recipes for paleo pancakes, including those not so wonderful egg and banana concoction that was an Internet craze in the paleo world, plantain flour, almond flour, coconut flour and more. I know that tapioca is a controversial paleo ingredient, but I am using it for this recipe because it gives a wonderful texture and doesn’t cause my sensitive system any issues. I hope to experiment with arrowroot or kudzu root powder soon as an alternative.

These pancakes have the texture of more of a crepe or a British pancake. If you make them large, you can roll them up. The Brit in residence here approves!

I personally find that acorn flour has a great texture for pancakes. You hear jokes about hockey pucks, but the reality is that I have never had that experience of hard, dry brick like cakes happening with acorn flour. Most of my experiments have turned out, if anything, more like cake than breads or pastry. The tapioca flour seems to be the textural counterpart to a heavy and dense flour like acorn.

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Prepping the acorns first is a must! Crack, grind, leach and dry!

Paleo Acorn Flour Pancakes

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • half cup tapioca flour
  • 2 eggs
  • half a cup of milk
  • half teaspoon baking soda
  • pinch vanilla powder or few drops extract
  • pinch salt

How to:

blend all ingredients until smooth or whisk vigorously until fully incorporated. Cool in hot greased cast iron skillet or griddle and flip once bubbles form throughout pancake.

Perfect with grassfed butter or another great fat. Serve with shagbark hickory syrup or a good maple syrup.

Sometimes we like to do it British Pancake Day (Shrove Tuesday) style and have fresh lemon juice and sugar❤️

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Acorn pancakes complete with a dollop of Kerrygold and shagbark hickory syrup.

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This is the syrup of which I write! We made it and it is so good! Hickory syrup contains sugar, so not paleo! We make a few exceptions for wild food products that we wouldn’t otherwise get to experience.

Coming soon: I did an informal survey of folks who follow our Facebook page, and there was a lot of interest in an acorn processing class this year. That didn’t happen for a few reasons, the largest of which was that with school there wasn’t a weekend day free all Fall long! What I am going to do is compile some of what I think are the best resources, and add my commentary about what has worked and what hasn’t worked for us. It’s not a class, but it might be enough to get you started on it yourself.

Quercus and Community

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After the first and obvious step of finding and gathering your acorns, the next step is to see which ones float and discard those. Unless you are drying them in the shell for later use. In that case, don’t get them wet.

In case you didn’t know, I am currently driving back and forth to herb school every other weekend (and sometimes more). It is a six hour journey one way, and I have been doing this for well over a year now. I’m tired, but it’s all good and this blog post is in no way about how tired I am!

Except for the fact that being gone so much means that I haven’t been able to procure much wild food this season at all. And for anyone who gathers wild food, you know that this season is the staple harvest time- nutrient dense nuts and seeds are what’s up, and it is time to gather till you can’t gather any more, process until your fingertips are achy and calloused, and figure out your ways to prepare and preserve the harvest so you can sit back and enjoy the down time of the winter. Or, at least that is the idea.

Don’t get me wrong- I haven’t been doing nothing- I don’t think I could physically stand to do nothing. I have pecans and hackberries, but I also wanted to collect a good amount of hickory nuts and a goal of 10 lbs processed acorn flour for the freezer, plus more dried in the shell for later in the season. It’s been hard this year- squeezing in medicine making and fermenting the garden bounty, and homework and attempting to balance rest and self care with connection time with my husband and daughter and and and…

Long story short, while out for an evening stroll with the family, we came across the perfect Red Oak with perfect acorns, and the rest is history. I filled my purse, which is nowhere near my goal for the season, but it’s a start and it felt good to make a dent towards an accomplishment.

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Next step, crack em open. Discard browned, damaged or insect infested acorns. Next, I add some water to that Blendtec carafe and blend them into meal that I will then leach. Methods to accomplish said leaching are many, and I will discuss this at a later date. 

Dan put Ami to bed, and he was in another room tending to cracking pecans and jarring up some persimmon kimchi while I sat myself on the kitchen floor and began to crack and crack and crack. As I sat there by myself in silence, listening to two of my favorite podcasts (Rewild Yourself and Why Shamanism Now, for anyone uninitiated to these two gems), I periodically found myself cycling in and out of profound….anger. Mostly anger mixed with some sadness. Super unpleasant feelings to have wash over and refuse to leave entirely. I was reminded of a time in the middle of summer, when I went with a good friend to dig up some roots from sassafras trees that were due to be chopped down (not the ideal time for root digging, but you go with what you’re given sometimes). It was so hot, and the mosquitoes were unbearable that day. We were digging and sweating and pulling and fruitlessly swatting away mosquitoes. There was a moment when I said to her “You know, if I were alone here doing this, I would have stopped a long time ago.” And it was true.

Gathering food and medicine was never, ever meant to be a solitary activity. As humans, and especially as women, this is what we did with our time. We gathered. We gathered, we gossiped, we laughed, we shared stories and experience, we bitched about our husbands and partners, we talked about what we were making for dinner later (probably together), and whatever else friends who know each other intimately talk about. We went back home, rounded up our babies and kids, and got to work processing the bounty. Together. Laughing and singing and complaining about how much it sucked. Because, we are human after all. I have a feeling though, that these tasks were more joyful than not. I have this feeling because 1. Those life-ways persisted until patriarchal systems of agricultural colonialism told us we couldn’t live that way anymore and 2. I’ve participated in tasks that objectively suck- like killing and plucking chickens, and turning it into a party is way, way better than attempting to do it by yourself.

And to be honest, that is why I was cycling in and out of anger. I was angry that I had to do this by myself. The psychology of tedious and menial work, no matter how important that work is,  is that community makes these tasks doable- pleasant even. My lifestyle these days meant that I didn’t have a choice but to be sitting on my kitchen floor at 11 pm, and every mama friend that I know was either sound asleep in bed or kicked back after a long day of parenting and/or working in a world where those two tasks are diametrically opposed. We can thank that dominant paradigm of patriarchal agricultural (now post-industrial) colonialism for that!

In the time that I have been actively teaching in my community, via plant walks, workshops and now my work as a practicing herbalist, I’ve had some critique that it appears as though I want to posit myself as “the expert” and simply hand out nuggets of information from on high. I think anyone who really knows me in any personal capacity at all would immediately know that is bullshit (although, I am always happy to hear feedback and constructive criticism of my work for sure- it’s how we grow as people). I want to be able to sit in community and process my damn acorns. I want to head out in small groups, babies strapped on to backs and kids in hand to gather what we need for our families, I want to be able to trade jars of preserves and plants because this makes our human experience far far richer.  We were never meant to do this kind of work alone. And it is work! Just because something isn’t directly traded for whatever currency is fashionable at the time does not mean it is not inherently work. Let’s stop devaluing some tasks as work and some as hobby or some other word that relegates it to a realm less than exactly what it is.

On the other hand, I seized the opportunity last night to allow every crack of the shell and every pull of the acorn meat out out of said shell to be a meditation on gratitude and abundance. Although it makes me sad that we don’t live lives that allow for these tasks to be accomplished in a way that feels right to me (right now), I am nonetheless extremely grateful that 1. I have worked hard on building the skills for myself to make tasks such as these possible. 2. No matter how much we continue to cause destruction to our environment, the oak trees still keep on having mast years and 3. My life right now does not involve getting up at 6 am to go to a job, so that I can be up late pondering these sorts of things.

Ultimately though, this morning my daughter asked for pancakes. I made some for her with the flour from the acorns I gathered yesterday, processed last night and percolated overnight. These first acorn pancakes of the year are a humble reminder to me that although the process might be less than optimally connected, the ultimate goal is feeding my family with food that is bioregionally and biologically appropriate for human beings, nutrient dense and cheap or free. That goal was accomplished, and my daughter loved them. That being said, gathering wild foods is never just about the food. When you look at these small and seemingly insignificant actions in the larger context of our dominant culture, gathering wild foods is a vote for something. I suppose it is up to each individual to decide what that vote is for. I vote for connection to this land on which I reside. This land that is not, and will never be mine but which provides beautifully and selflessly.

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Acorn pancakes ready to flip. Acorn flour is the only flour I used in these, and I served them with homemade shagbark hickory syrup.