By Katie Gilman
In order to live well on the land you must first come to understand its history. The previous uses and interactions with the land dictate its current health and potential. Are the nutrients depleted? Is the soil compacted or does the soil drain too well? Are natural resources still available or should you be planning ahead to make them available in the future? Wendell Berry adds to a quote by J. Russell Smith in his book Bringing it to the Table “you have got to fit the farming to the land not the available technology or the market. It is necessary to maintain a proper connection between the domestic and the wild. The paramount standard by which the work is to be judged is the health of the place where the work is done”.
Last week we went to visit some of our closest neighbors, Marcia and Richard Laska. Their homestead is located in the Allegheny Mountains of Pocahontas County, West Virginia. It was originally built in 1847. During this time the homestead location was more of a hub than a secluded retreat as it is today. Some 250 people lived on this treacherous mountain top in the mid to late 1800’s. During the Blue Ridge’s breadbasket heyday a mountain turnpike was built by Claudius Crozet, a civil engineer who Crozet, Virginia is named after, connecting Staunton, VA to Parkersburg, WV. It was an important throughway for business heading to and from the Shenandoah Valley and the Ohio River in West Virginia.
Today the Laska’s are the only residents on this particular knob of the Allegheny Mountains for miles. Although they were given foreboding advice about spending the winter months in this location, they have done exceptionally well here for 20 years. Richard and Marcia spent a lot of time doing what they call “O & C ing”- oogle and contemplating. They have observed their surroundings and drawn conclusions about the best manner to interact with the land, without causing it damage (hopefully restoring the land even) while maximizing the land’s ability to provide for them. Richard told us “the Earth will grow things where it wants. We listen and keep the soil well prepared”. The farmland was fallow when they arrived. They immediately planted apple trees to begin healing the land. Apple trees varieties, such as keepers (which keep well in cellars over the winter) have adapted well to this area withstanding the cold and wind. Richard and Marcia added on to the two hunting cabins that were present when the moved here in 1995 then built a third “retreat” cabin using local hemlock and locust timber. They are fortunate enough to have an ample supply of water coming from a spring along with a well water (Permaculture redundancy). They are living completely off the grid with solar power and soon will be harvesting wind power from the gusty mountaintop. They have a wood boiler wood stove that heats their hot water. They grow food for themselves and the occasional volunteer farmers that find their way to their homestead.
Our cohort oogled over lavender, sage, mint, anise, chives, lemon balm, basil, cabbage, collards, strawberries, peppers, kale and lots of “weeds”. Over the last 15 years Marcia has discovered there is more than meets the eye when it comes to working with these “weeds”. Marcia uses plants as medicine to treat health issues in the realms of reproduction, digestion, and inflammatory processes. She concocts tinctures, tonics, salves and dries herbs. Her herbalism code of conduct is as follows:
1- A little is enough.
2- Respect living things.
3- One size does not fit all.
4- Take delight in the process.
5- Harvest near home.
6- Not all herbs are created equal. * Different herbs like different conditions to produce volatile oils.
7-You are responsible for your health and that of which you are growing. *Do your research. (PUB MED is a good source).
8- Remember your future. *Don’t take more than 30% of a herb patch. Help the plants regenerate, leave seeds behind.
9- Be aware of your body and what it is telling you.
Burdock- not just a weed! It “moves” blood creating balance in the body by helping the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, and liver work more efficiently and filter toxins.
AT HOME HERB DRYING
Marcia hangs herbs to dry for several days then dries them further in a dehydrator (you can also use your oven) at 90-100 degrees F for 4 hours. She does this in two steps to minimize her energy use with the dehydrator.
* Dehydrating above 100 degrees F will ruin volatile oils.
Nail string/twine high up in indoor location that gets minimal light and has low moisture content.
Tie weighted object to the end of string (bolt, fishing weight, etc).
Starting at the highest point possible, wind string around small amount of herb stalks. Continue winding process until there is no more room on string. Proceed to next string.
Allow herbs to dry until they are crinkly to the touch.
Carefully remove dried herbs from string.
Remove stalks with scissors or clippers.
Place herbs in dry bags for storage. Vacuum sealed bags are best.
* If herbs turn beige in color- compost them and start over.
* If herbs are too delicate to wind string around them, lay flat to dry over window screen or similar object.
* The flash drying method can be used on sunny days- this process will take out immediate wetness that could cause mold growth. Lay herbs flat on screen in sun for 24 hours then add to alcohol or oil depending on intended use.
Marcia was drying red clover flowers, sage leaves, nettle leaves, oregano leaves, and comfrey leaves.
SPRING DIGESTION JUMP STARTER TONIC RECIPE - nettle, red clover, and dandelion (1:1:1 ratio)
Gather dandelion leaves and flowers- separate petals from flower- you don’t want any green from flowers. Remember to take delight in the process- this is very tedious!
Gather nettle leaves and whole red clover flowers.
Roughly chop all collected ingredients.Place into jar.
Fill jar ⅔ full with apple cider vinegar.
Steep for 2-4 weeks. Shake frequently.
Strain and add honey at a ratio of 3 parts vinegar to 1 part honey.
Drink 2 teaspoons daily to promote liver, pancreas and overall digestive function.
* If using a metal top on jar, place wax or parchment paper between tonic containing apple cider vinegar and metal top. Metal will react with vinegar causing unpleasant experience with tincture.
Vinegar in the tincture extracts more minerals from the ingredients than would normally be extracted when just consuming them alone. Always drink water after consuming vinegar. Your teeth will thank you.
NETTLE- magnesium, calcium, potassium- good for muscle cramps.
DANDELION- diuretic, replaces potassium while flushing fluids out of body. Flower contains Vitamin C.
RED CLOVER- hormone balancing for men and women- estrogenic element.