Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Last night sometime, one of the grand old oaks in the woods fell to the earth.  I did not hear it fall, but I heard the barred owl change her hunting patterns.  Instead of hunting for voles down by the creek, she brought her young up into the meadow to hunt rabbits.  I listened to her "who cooks for you" call through the early morning.  Animals change their patterns for a reason and when I went for my morning walk I found the huge oak down across the trail that runs along Rocky Hollow Creek.  The crash must have driven the owls away.

So this morning I spent cleaning up and cutting the oak into stove size pieces that will soon go into the woodshed.  It is the warmth that will keep me going through the coming winter.  All of this got me kinda grimy.  Okay, I was filthy dirty and really sweaty.  Since I was so close to the swimming hole I decided to treat myself to a cool dip at the pond.  Aaaahhh, what a treat. I could swim here all day...except there is still plenty of work to do, work that had been put on hold to clean up the oak.  So to give myself another excuse to swim in the pond I decided to gather a few wild medicinals to take home.  The video above is my attempt to share this with you.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Harvesting on the Prairie

 One of the greatest joys of living where I do is that my farm straddles two very important ecosystems.  The northern part of my farm is part of the great taiga, the forests that once circled the northern tundra of the whole earth.   The southern part of my farm is still held in the remnants of the largest grassland on the planet, the American tallgrass prairie.  The original peoples who lived here traded with each other but developed their own tribal way of life, customs and even languages that limited them to one or the other habitat.  The HoChunk, members of the Siuoxian nations, living a more nomadic existence, following the great herds of bison that roamed the prairie.  The Ojibwa were forest people, living in seasonal camps; maple camp in the spring, wild rice camp in the fall, winter and summer camps where the weather was suited. 

My farm rests at this in between place, this hedge of two worlds, this threshold of nature.  In parts it is ruled by the great forest trees, to walk there is to step into the mysterious darkness.  The plants and animals adapt to this darkness in strange ways.  The prairie is watched over by the blinding sun, there is nothing hidden here.  To escape the heat it is said that 2/3 of the prairie lives underground.  This way the great fires could sweep through and not kill everything, the roots of the plants and the animals that fed from them were insulated by the earth herself.  The prairie is maintained by fire's cleansing--no fire, no prairie.  The cold, darkness of the taiga, the hot, brightness of the prairie; two worlds coming together all around me.

What all these musings means is that I have to adjust my hunting and foraging technics to suit the habitat, but it also means that I have plenty of different resources to work with.  Because it is still cool I have gone to the prairie, to walk in the in the big blue stem grasses with the badgers and the pheasants.  In fact I flushed several small broods of pheasants just walking into the prairie, the young all feathered out and flying.  The fox and coyote of the hills no longer have easy prey with the chicks, their young now have to learn to hunt in earnest or they won't survive the winter.

The most famous wild medicinal of the tallgrass prairie is, of course, Echinacea, or purple coneflower.  The root, when used fresh is an amazing healer, boosting the immune system to help fight everything from the common cold, to infections, to the flu.  My great grandmother gave it to her sons to chew on during the great flu pandemic of 1918 (though it didn't hit here until 1919).  They never got the flu while millions were dying.  The main fact that must be remembered about Echinacea is that it needs to be used fresh or in a very, very strong tincture.  If you don't feel a tingle in your mouth when you use it, the medicine is gone. 

I'm not gathering purple coneflower today though.  I save that as one of the last roots that I gather for the season, just before winter freezes the ground too solid to dig without damaging the shovel.

Today I chose to gather three wild medicinals of the grasslands; blue false indigo, lousewort, and cup plant.  All are plants that demand respect and if not given can make a person quite ill.  In the modern world we often think that if a little of something is good then a lot of something must be GREAT!!!  With medicines, whether they be natural or synthetic, this is a dangerous way of thinking.

Blue false indigo is also a wonderful immune stimulant, sometimes given along side or in place of Echinacea. While not as powerful, it's medicinal values last a bit longer than purple coneflower and the root can even be sliced thin and dried to be used in a decoction, which is the safest way to use it.  I also will have people bite down on a piece of dried root if they have sore, infected gums or even a toothache.  Made into a tea, cooled and sipped it can calm an upset stomach and even stop vomiting.  Use only as much as is needed and there aren't problems.

Lousewort grows in many grassland habitats all over the world, going back through the Middle Ages and it was even written about by the Greeks.  Long before garlic was used to ward off vampires, lousewort was planted in churchyard and gateways to protect the faithful from evil spirits that walk the land.  It was grown in most healing gardens and can still be found growing around foundation of old buildings.  It was even believed that wounded animals would search out lousewort to heal themselves. 

Personally I like to stuff the aerial part of the lousewort into a clean jar and cover it with honey.  I let it set in the window for eight weeks or so and then I have a sweet medicine that helps with sore throats, coughs, and even just a cold.  In a few weeks, as the plant dies back, I'll harvest the root.  This I mix with hawthorn berry to strengthen a weak heart or mix with cramp bark and vervain to ease the pain of sore muscles.  I even add it to my ginger, wintergreen, and cayenne pepper massage oil to help ease those pains from the outside in. 

Harvesting from the cup plant this time of year is a bit different than most plants.  Instead of taking leaves, flowers or stems I am harvesting the sap itself. I break off a single leaf from the plant and collect the oozing, yellow sap.  This I let dry until it gets chewy, sometimes even until it gets hard.  Chewing in this sap not only can freshen the breath but swallowing the juices can help with "wet" coughs or coughs that seem to want to produce sputum.  It doesn't actually stop the cough but it does help to break up congestion in the lungs so that the coughing can be productive.  The HoChunk found it to be sacred and drank a concoction of the entire plant to purify themselves before large hunts.  It should be used sparingly, no strong tinctures here or you may upset your stomach.  It's also a fun plant to harvest from just to look down into the "cup" of the plant (where the leaves come together at the stem) to see who has stopped for a sip of water.  I have found many a tree frog swimming contently in this hidden oasis.

By late morning my shoulder bag is full, the ground itself is warming fast, the flowers are buzzing with insects getting on with the business of pollinating.  This time of year, with the prairie in full bloom, this is a magical place.  With no trees, one can see for miles and at the same time can not see their own feet through the thick grass.  I look to the tree line and the great forest that stretches north.  Two world, so different and yet able to live within the shadow and sun of each other for millions of years now.  Perhaps there is a lesson for the human that walks between them; all different, yet all one.  Life is beautiful not because we are carbon copies of each other, but because we are so very diverse.  When one ends, the other begins.  We fill in all the spaces to create an amazing world. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sweet Fern Uses

Sweet fern is one of those herbs that is fun to use.  There's no need to apologize when you hand someone a cup of sweet fern tea or when you lead them to a sweet fern bath.  Most people like the flavor and the scent.  It's not like trying to coax them into drinking a cup of barberry root tea.  And drying sweet fern will make your herb room smell wonderful.

What sweet fern is mainly used for is as a wash for itchy rashes like poison ivy or bug bites.  It is easily made into a strong tea then allow it to cool, dip a cloth into the tea and wipe down the affected area.  For larger rashes it is often just easier to pour that strong tea into a bath, giver the person an oatmeal filled cotton bag, and let them soak while rubbing the oatmeal over their skin.  I also powder the dried leaves, mix them with dried plantain leaves and slippery elm bark.  This I keep in my picnic baskets and coolers.  If the bugs bite too badly water can be added to this powder to make a thick paste and smear on the bites to sooth them.  I have had several of these spicy smelling, tiny poultices on my arms when the black flies are biting.  Aaahhh, what a relief.  It works well on bee stings as well.

Rubbing the fresh leaves on the skin acts as a bug repellent in the field and tucking a few leaves into your hat band may even keep the flies from flying around your head.

I do add a bit to any teas that are made to help with long term diarrhea.  It does help to "dry up" loose stool that is persistent and helps other herbs go down a bit easier.  I don't usually try to cure diarrhea for the first day or so because obviously the body is trying to get rid of something, but if it hangs on the person can get too dehydrated and needs to be treated.  A few blackberry leaves or if entrenched blackberry root bark and some sweet fern leaves will usually gently end loose stool.  Add a bit of cramp bark and vervain to settle down cramping muscles and the suffering person can finally rehydrate and rest.

If there are infected sores in the mouth I will again add sweet fern to the gargle to make it more pleasant and to help take down swelling.

Then there's just lining fresh leaves into my berry gathering buckets to keep the berries fresher longer.  I also will put some into a simple syrup or honey to use as flavoring for wines and cocktails. 

Nice to gather, to process and to use...I can't see why anyone who can doesn't add sweet fern to their apothecary, if only to spend a few hours in the wild lands, gathering this wonderful herb to spice up a cold winter's night. 

Harvesting Sweet Fern in the High Sands


The morning starts off pretty cold for the end of July.  It is a gentle reminder that summer can not last forever and I had best put up stock for winter.  Yesterday's mist ended sometime in the night and the day starts off quite dry.  It was too cold to head to the bogs to gather up the wintergreen that is dwindling in my herbal room.  Instead I head up...I want to smell that spicy scent of summer, sweet fern on the high, sandy hill.  The hilltops here are treeless, the sand not giving enough nutrients for such a large life form and the lightning fires burning off whatever does make the effort.  The sun is warm here, warm enough to melt winter's snows sometimes.  It almost always feel dry up on the tops of the sand hills, with few plants other than tansies, raspberries, everlastings, and sweet ferns surviving the heat and lack of water.  It is a good place to go on a cool day after the rain.

The deer trail I follow to the top has fresh tracks since the rain stopped.  A large set and a tiny one stepping over the larger one...a fawn following its mother. No bear tracks but then the raspberries aren't quite ripe yet.  Once they are I'm certain I would see my sow bear's sign along the same trail I follow through the thickets as I wind my way to the top.  I make a whistle call just in case to warn her I am coming.  With our Wisconsin bears this is usually enough to send them on their way.  I can hear the drumming of the rough grouse down in the aspens below me.  He isn't drumming as crazy as he was this spring but he is still hopeful the ladies are listening.

I break out of the thickets to the balds or open area at the top of the sand hills.  The predominant plant here is the sweet fern, growing in masses right up to the edge of the lower thickets.  The sun has already warmed them enough to release their heavenly scent.  I strip some of the leaves off a branch of one bush, crushing it to give myself even more scent, then rub it on my skin and into my hair.  It's still too early for the flies to be out and biting but that won't last.  Crushed sweet fern rubbed on the skin will keep them from eating me alive as the sun gets warmer.  It also disguises my scent from the animals, making me smell wild.  I blend in with the sense that counts, the sense of smell means more in the woods that the sense of sight.  We wild ones lift our noses before we lift our eyes.  

I go from plant to plant, stripping a branch here and there, never taking everything from one.  When I get across the bald I look back and can scarcely see where I walked.  Yet my shoulder bag is full to overflowing.  The sun is growing warm against my skin and I am grateful for the northern breeze ruffling my hair.  A redtail hawk screams her hunting cry overhead, waking me up from my meditation of breathing in the wonderful scent of the sweet fern all around me.  It is time to go home and process my herbs, but I do so reluctantly.  My wild self is not so easily harnessed.  She wants to fly with the hawk, sneak through the thicket with the deer, and pound along the trails with the bear.  But my healer self knows I came here for the reason of harvest and I must not let this harvest go to waste.  Winter must be prepared for.  My feet find the deer trail once more and head for home.

Greetings from A Briar Witch

Hello!  My name is Melissa Cowen...well...actually it's not.  Melissa Cowen was a pen name I took 20 years ago when I wrote my first and only book.  The book did so poorly that it made around $600.00 after cost with close to $200.00 of that coming from my family and myself.  You would think that with that kind of luck I would ditch the name Cowen and never speak of it again.  The problem is I have always like Melissa's name and have looked for an opportunity to use it for all these years.  Now that I'm starting to blog I thought that perhaps Melissa would rise from the ashes of her failed book and see if the internet is more to her liking.

So...Hello, My name is Melissa Cowen.  I live on a farm in the driftless area of Wisconsin, which has been passed down for seven generations.  The land itself is part of my family, part of who I am, and colors much of what I talk and write about.  The connection, not only to the Earth as a whole but to this particular piece of the Earth is what has led me to the path I follow now.  I am a farmer, a teacher, a homesteader, an animal trainer, a landlord, a entertainer, a healer.  I touch this land through my growing food, pasturing my animals, harvesting my herbs, hunting with the wild ones, sleeping out under the stars, and my spirituality. 

Well, one can not talk about being a witch without actually talking about spirituality in some way.  Yes, I am a witch, but before you shut down completely and shake your head, I am not a New Age-y witch.  In fact I am darn near as redneck as a person can be without marrying my first cousin.  I am a witch mainly because I consciously practice magic.  Everyone practices magic...ever driven past an accident and think something on the order of, "Oh, that looks bad. I hope everyone is okay."  Why did you do this hoping?  Why do you hope your team wins, or pray that the kids get home safe the first time they go out on their own?  Because you are practicing magic.  Whether you pull the energy from yourself or if you are asking a deity to do it for you, when you want something to happen and you put energy behind it, you are practicing magic.  A witch just goes a step further and puts conscious effort behind her hopes and wishes.  No big deal.

But as I said, I am not a New Age-y witch.  In fact the term I use for myself is "Secular Witch" with the term Briar Witch to say that I live with the wilds of nature,.  I have no religious beliefs behind my magic.  I do not believe in religious laws, which I believe to come from basic human nature.  I don't want you to hurt me, the best way this can happen is if I don't hurt you...Walla, don't do something you wouldn't want done to you.  First rule of survival.  Stallions don't just walk right up to each other and start beating on each other.  They first posture, scream, warn, dance...and only as a last result do they take to fighting.  All animals go out of their way to NOT fight, humans are no different.  It's just that we turned animal instinct into religious laws with punishments built in for those who do not follow those laws.   I follow what all animals instincts dictate I follow; I try to be the best person I can be, not for fear of invisible reprisals but because I WANT to be a good person.  I can't be one without at least putting some effort to the task.

I am a witch through my connection to the land, to nature itself.  I live with nature, my electricity comes from the sun that shines on me, from the wind that blows around me.  My food comes from the earth beneath my feet.  I am warm because trees sacrifice their wood at the command of my chainsaw.   I am cooled by the spring water flowing into my spring house.  I am surrounded by wild lands where I forage and hunt.  My medicine is my food, my herbs, my exercise, my animals, and my loved ones.  Even my income comes from my farm and land.  I own several "artist's retreats" where people can stay in solitude for artists to use when they need alone time to work.  They are also used for romantic get aways, and retreats for those who want privacy.  A barn on the retreat site is used for weddings and other gatherings.  And I teach at a folk school that I am part owner of.

I love my life, mainly for the simplicity of it.  It is hard work, running several businesses, keeping a farm going, taking care of loved ones and friends.  But it is simple.  That is who I am...a simple person.  I do not over think many things.  They are what they are and it is up to me to accept the universe for what it is and work with its energies.  It is not good or bad, right or wrong, black or white.  It is survival in all its beauty and ugliness.  I revel in it with all my heart every day.