Friday, August 30, 2013

Cooling it on the Bogs; Day One

The heat is back on here in Wisconsin.  Yes, I know those of you who live in the south are rolling your eyes right now and you have the right to.  Heat is part of your world and our little 90 degree days would be a cool relief.  But for those of us who work through minus 30 degree days in the winter, plus 90 is getting a bit much. 

It is days like this that I appreciate the cool of the bog.  Deep in the forest, past the swamp, past the tall standing white pine, past the fresh running creek lies a dark world of strange things.  Here the ground swells and moves under your feet.  If you step down here it raises up over there.  And if you step wrong...well, let's just say that every now and again a lost hunter is found 30 or 40 years after they disappeared, frozen solid deep in the cold quicksand like ground of the watery bog.  Here there are plants that lie in wait for unsuspecting animals to fall into them where they slowly digest and become part of the meal.  Some plants even entice unsuspecting beasts with a honey like nectar, only to be snared and eaten.

It is a world many of the animals skirt.  Not many whitetail deer, with their sharp hooves dare to step on the fragile ground for fear of falling through to the icy waters below.

See, a bog here in Wisconsin was once an ancient lake that because it was so cold it did not allow things that fell into it to rot.  Leaves and pine needles, sticks and pinecones, many things fell into the icy water and did not rot.  Slowly, over many years, maybe even decades or centuries these things fell into the water and piled up on top of each other, none of them rotting.  Each layer weighed down on the year's debris before,  pressing it into an almost cake-like mass, ever growing until finally the layer was thick enough for tiny plants to grow on.  Now, because those things aren't rotting there isn't a whole lot of nutrients in a bog, but many plants adapt to this, some in very strange ways.  As these plants died they too built up the bog mat until it was thick enough to support trees.  Some trees, like tamaracks do well on the cold acidic bog mat. 

After awhile you can not tell the difference between the old lake bed and the hard ground that surrounds it.   Except for the coldness that radiates from it.  Because that icy water now has a thick bog mat on top of it, it is insulated, never getting to see the sun.  Often, even during the hottest year, there is ice in the water beneath the bog mat.  When I was poor I had a hole cut into the mat that I sunk  box into and used that as my freezer.  This is why it is so dangerous.  If you step wrong and break through the mat, you drop down into that icy water, so cold it sucks the air right out of your lungs.  In the worst case scenarios the bog mat closes in above you and your body is preserved as part of the mat, maybe to be found 30 or 40 years later, still frozen in almost pristine condition.

So what fool would ever go down onto the bog?  Well, this one.  I was raised around these bogs and learned how to read the ground a long time ago.  This does not mean I travel them without my walking stick.  If I was to go in, the best way to save myself is to hold my walking stick across my body and hang on for dear life.  Of course this means you gotta be ready to move fast if the ground disappears from under your feet.

But why go onto one to begin with?  If even the whitetail deer refuses to go, why would a human think it was a good idea?

Because the bog has some of the best wild edibles and medicinals there are.  Because these plants have to adapt to such a harsh environment, they have developed some one-of-a-kind medicines that are not readily found anywhere else.

The first wild medicinal I gathered today was Usnea or old man's beard, a lichen that like to grow on the pines in the moist air of the bog.  It is hard to believe that something so delicate looking can be as useful as it is.  Old man's beard is one of the top plants I reach for if I need an antibacterial for most anything.  It has been used for thousands of years all over the world for this.  The great thing about old man's beard that I have never found with any other wild medicinal is that seems to only work against bacteria that has over produced.  Basically it seems to bring the bacteria back into balance so it helps the body fight harmful bacteria without stripping the body of  the bacteria that it needs to remain healthy and keep the immune system working.

I like using Usnea dried in a tea, often the extra water a tea gives the body help with the healing process as well.  The nice thing is that if you let it dry and then keep it dry it will last for two or three years before it needs to be replaced.  Though if you dissolve it into 80 proof vodka it will last for five years or more.  As using any antimicrobial it is best used in the smallest dose possible before mocing onto a larger dose.  Twenty five drop of tincture into a glass of water would be a good starter dose for an adult.

Here in Wisconsin our old man's beard grows to a couple inches in length but in the swamps of the deep south it can be measured in feet as it grows in ropes hanging from ancient trees.  There is always something mysterious looking about old man's beard, making a person realize that there are always secrets out there waiting to be discovered...if you dare.

My second plant that I am harvesting for medicine is wintergreen.  Wintergreen is one of my favorite herbs to gather because it is so tiny and yet so potent.  Crushed between the fingers and it gives a smell that seems to clear the nasal passages in a pleasant way.  While I can find wintergreen in other places besides the bogs, it grows in large groups here on the bog.  I can usually gather enough for the year in a matter of minutes, get up from my knees and not be able to see where I picked the leaves.

As I said, wintergreen is a tiny plant, growing not much more than a couple inches tall and more often not even getting to be an inch tall.  Yet it is probably the best tasting natural pain reliever of the north woods. While willow bark can cut through pain well it is a bitter tonic to swallow.  Wintergreen, which does the same thing, has a much more pleasant flavor, especially if you add a dob of honey to the tea.  Wintergreen works with salicylates, the natural form of aspirin.  Yes, if you aspirin allergies wintergreen is probably something you should avoid.

Dried as a tea is how it is mostly used.  The patriots that built the United States drank it when they fought against The East India Trading Company and its control of their lives.  The patriots back then knew to not give their money to evil corporations and from their stand the United States of America was fought for and won.  This little plant was one of the ways they helped get themselves through the hard changes they accepted to build this wonderful country. 

I drink it more often if I have a headache or have a body that is a bit overworked.  I do also make a tincture from it but I use a stronger medium than my normal 80 proof vodka.  Because the leaves are a bit tough a stronger liquor is needed.  Personally if I was to buy my alcohol I would use Everclear to get the full potential of this healing plant.  I also heat it in oil, especially with cayenne peppers and use this as a pain relieving rub to massage right into sore areas.  Add a little bees wax to this and you have a homemade tiger balm that is less greasy than just the oil.

My satchel is already bulging and I have just started working in this dark, cold place.  But this is not a problem for me.  This heat wave is not expected to break until Sunday so I will be back.  This world calls to me on these hot days, reminding me that here in Wisconsin, no matter how blazing hot it gets, winter's icy grip will come soon, not that the water under the bog will notice, it already sparkles with shards of ice that you can just see if the sunlight touches the ground.  A warning of what lies a few feet beneath my shoes.