Thursday, November 19, 2009


There's an ember in my soul

smouldering with sweetgrass

and red cedar

stoking me onward

keeping me breathing

There's a mist in my song

gifted to me

by velvet leaf and translucent idea

A mountain in my eyes

melting snow and staring down detonators

making mistakes

missing the roots growing before them

within them

There's a forest on my skin breathing

mushrooms in and branches out

of slippery mossed rock body under sky

over ancestors and between worlds

There are ferns in my back curving

perfectly into cliffs over hemlocks under laughing

rolling children in between times and moments

alive with river rushing thrill and trill and hoot

and loam

There's leaves in my trees and toes

akin to evergreen joy

under whispering bark above nut covered ground in

between gifts

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Hooked on Hickory

Shagbark Hickory ~ Carya ovata ~ "the oval nut"

I've fallen madly in love with the Hickory tree.

I'm not sure exactly when it began, but a series of events has slowly lured me in.
Of course, I have always admired this beautiful , eccentric style tree for it's likeness in my mind to the Lorax. I wonder how on Earth I missed the telegram that the nuts were edible. Even with the ten acre parcel of land my parents owned when I was a child, which they dubbed "Hickory Haven", I was too busy with the Mulberry trees.

Last December, our Homeschool staff member brought back a bushel of Pignut Hickory nuts and with the students he made an intoxicating warm Hickory milk. Yet since the nuts were from Tennessee, I dismissed them as a local harvest possibility.

About five weeks ago I sent my Jr. Herbalist class to scout an appropriate habitat to plant the Bloodroot cuttings we were learning about and propagating. They returned with a confession of partial distraction after planting, when they discovered a mast of nuts on the ground and proceeded to target one another. My son, who happened to be involved in the aforementioned Hickory milk project, knew the nuts and announced they were better to eat than throw. Of course that resulted in children shape shifting into squirrels and filling pockets and packs so full that they all returned heavy and looking even more like hamster cheeks.

I watched one student sit himself down and feverishly smash a nut and pick out the meat, little by little, as though it were the most exquisite thing he'd ever eaten. I just watched, trying to figure out what nut it was. Of course, the kids already knew.

A little over a week ago, I went out behind my beehive looking for sweet fern. I'd been enjoying this as a lovely, Sage-like tea, and wanted to dig a root for my friend and mentor Kiva Rose, so she could plant it in her garden. However, when I got there I saw that my memory had not served me, and what I have growing is Maidenhair fern, not sweet fern. So I puttered around in the woods for a few minutes and took some photos of the trees.

I'd recently been lamenting about our New England acorns and the fact that I really don't even try to use them for they are so extraordinarily bitter that they require several leaching steps before they are palatable enough to use. Bother.

Slowly did I walk back from the beehive, as my camera often elicits slower walking, and what did I see before my very eyes?

A nut.

Light hazelnut in color, and a pretty oval shape. I picked it up to ponder. Towering in front of me were three, beautiful Shagbark Hickory Trees.

Something in that moment clicked and I wish I could remember what words accompanied my epiphany, but next thing I knew I was tickling the leaves all around me and filling my basket with nuts.
As I gathered, the squirrels around me took it upon themselves to target me with falling twigs, Hemlock bits, and nuts, just as the children had done to each other. This spirited, mischievous play was clearly part and parcel of Hickory's message. Go on, get a little nutty. It's fun!

So who, then, would I ask how to prepare these morsels? My kids, of course. "Smash the nut and boil 'em. The bad ones float to the top." I was instructed - correctly. I have to interject here with honor for our previous instructor and co-founder of our Whole Earth Home-school program, the wonderful Ethan Elgersma, and his sweetheart wife Melissa, for bringing back those nuts from the South and teaching the kids how to use them. Will they know in their hearts the wisdom they gifted has grown and flourished? Perhaps, like the Hickory, many of the seeds they have planted won't bear fruit until 15-40 years have passed.

My daughter was the first to crack the nut with a heavy bread knife. This quartered the nut nicely, but as we soon discovered, the nut needs a better smashing to render a good strong brew. It turns out our lucky rock, a quartz from the riverside which fits nicely in the palm, was just right. This same rock is a beloved tool in my apothecary, as it holds layers of grape leaves so they stay submerged in brine, and used similarly to other fresh, floating plant material.

Now it's a treasured nut smasher, and has been working diligently, day after day, for the last 8 days.

From the moment I first inhaled the steam of this brew, I knew I was hooked. There is nothing like it. It's rich, maple-y, hazel-nutty, and utterly mouth watering. Not to mention, free for the gathering in my very own backyard - now that just takes the cake.

Lucky for me, Kiva has been making exquisite creations with her native acorns, and so along this journey I have had the blessings of like-minded inspiration and side-splitting laughter to accompany me.

If you have Hickory trees near you, well get to it because the season is closing and those squirrels and chipmunks are very busy.

Hickory Brew

~1 part smashed hickory nuts, shell and all
~3 parts water
~Simmer for 30 + minutes
~Strain a cup at a time, leaving the rest to continue steeping.
~Add milk and sweetener if desired

Hickory nuts are among the most delicious and nutritious of the tree nuts. They are especially rich in protein, healthy fats, amino acids, Vitamins A, B6, E and K, Calcium, and vital minerals. As a Native Tree of North America, it has been a valued food source throughout history. Native North Americans, particularly the Algonquins, favored their winter survival food of Hickory butter; a smooth, fatty-sweet spread they rendered from skimming the top layer off a multi-day long process of reducing a concentrated brew.

Mammals are dependent on Hickory for both food and habitat. Birds nest in their high branches, as this tree can grow to 100 feet tall, between 200 and 300 years old. Opossum like to make their homes inside the base of larger Hickories, and bats use the shingles of the bark for their shelter. Omnivores of the forest including black bear, snack on the nuts, but for the Eastern Chipmunks and Eastern Grey Squirrel who depend on them for up to 25 % of their diet, they are vital.

For their slow growing and long wait before nut harvest, they are often (sadly) disregarded for landscaping projects. Considering the ratio of building to replanting, this is a grim outlook for Hickory trees. Lucky for us, there are plenty of them for the time being, as long as we take notice of land clearing and work to stop it, to prevent future devastation. Another pressure which adds to this concern, is its remarkable lumber. Hickory is prized as a flavorful smoking wood; hickory smoked ham and BBQ sauce might remind you of summer parties with the yummiest of meals. The wood is extremely hard, and treasured as fuel for it's high B.T.U. output and long burning time. Natives fashioned precise hunting bows from Hickory wood, and many generations of craftspeople have made durable furniture to pass down to their own descendants. Easy kitchen cutting boards can be acquired by purchasing a slab of untreated hickory lumber from your local lumber yard, or should you have enough abundance to cut one of your own for you and your family, you could fashion a number of long lasting household objects.

The striking, shaggy bark of this tree (my particular spp., Carya ovata) has also been used in special recipes to flavor maple syrup as well as for a delicious syrup in it's own rite. I wanted Hickory syrup too, so I made up my own version using the nuts.

Hickory Syrup

~1 part smashed Hickory nuts, shells and all
~2 1/2 parts water
~Simmer down (the nuts and water) for at least an hour, or until very rich and almost creamy looking. You will see the yummy natural oils swirling on top
~Strain the brew, reserve the nuts for a second round later

~Return the liquid to a pot, and add 3/4 part brown sugar

~Simmer well while stirring until reduced a little more and a little more syrupy

~In a separate bowl, mix some corn starch with a little cold water.
~Drizzle the corn starch/water mixture into the syrup while whisking to combine. Use just a little at a time, as it thickens quickly.

~ When you have the consistency you want (pourable like maple), transfer to a cream pitcher or gravy boat.
~Use right away on top of pancakes, oatmeal, or however you like.
~Your syrup will thicken now throughout the day. You can rewarm to use again, or use is as a jelly-like spread on cookies or banana bread.
~Store remainder in the fridge.

The trick to getting the best nuts is not to use the bad ones, :) When collecting or just after, look at each of the nuts, remove the husk and compost or throw back any of the following:

*Nuts which have a small hole. This means it is home to larvae - which, if you like, you can eat, but most do not like that.
*Nuts that have a damaged shell implying rot or larvae
*Moldy nuts
The darker colored nuts and even the ones with a slimy coating between shell and husk have proven inconsistent in their goodness, so I harvest those anyway.
Store your nuts in shallow flat baskets and check on them each day, removing any critters who may have hatched and checking again for nuts with small holes.

I always smash them one at a time, so as not to mix any bad ones in with the good. Which isn't too big a deal if you're making a big batch as they will float - but not as reliably as I would like. Plus I just don't want to taint the incredible flavor.
And it *is* incredible.

Quite near my Hickories are more medicinal trees. This made it easy for me to be inspired to create my own Wild Woodland Morning Brew, inspired by Kiva Rose who I mentioned above. Kiva has been sharing with us her delectable Acorn recipes, including Acorn infused butter! And if you live in the Southwest, you'll appreciate her Woodland brew before mine. Our acorns here in New England are simply for those who have more time that I, to put through rounds of boiling water.

For my tonic I use Black Birch twigs, Hemlock tips, and Hickory Nuts. It's a complex, wild woman's tonic, not for the tamed senses. Clearly this is a gift of Fey.

Wild Woman's Forest Brew

~1 cup smashed Hickory nuts (yep, you guessed it, shells and all!)
~3 small Hemlock tree bough tips or hand full of fresh White Pine needles
~1 small handful of Black Birch twigs
~3 cups water or until covered fairly well

Simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Strain cup by cup, adding more water and continuing to steep a warm brew. This pot can render at least a few rounds of rich flavored Forest Brew for up to 2 full days without refrigeration.

Sip savoringly under the trees or by the fire. Add milk or honey as desired, and of course tweak the recipe to your preference as well. More delicious tree magic additions are: Wild Cherry bark, Slippery Elm bark, or Sassafras roots. Chai spices are perfectly suited as well.

One of the most wonderful, surprising benefits of this brew, is the serious energy and endurance I feel when I drink it. Really! For you herbal readers, I'll put it like this: it feels like when I eat a high protein meal and chase it with Oatstraw infusion and a spoon of Ashwagandha honey. Yep, real, solid energy - but not a stimulant. This is the perfect reminder of adaptability. How many winters has this one tree seen? 200? Far more than me. I believe one of the secrets to adapting to the winter season is sweetly delivered in the package of a nut.

Speaking of special deliveries, I took full advantage of my Hickory obsession and used it as my topic and activity for this week's plant class. It's the perfect choice for those who teach kids about plants, especially because noticing different tree barks is relevant this time of year, and kids will notice the shaggy bark easily. They love the interesting facts about Hickory trees, and of course, will go to the ends of the Earth to gather as many nuts as possible, even before they think of asking what you will do with them!

It's also a great topic because, as many herbal lessons do, it does not divert you back into the kitchen. you can make the delicious brew right over a campfire, thus keeping the kids immersed in nature, fun, learning, and a little hands on history. Not to mention, what could be more fun than finding rocks to smash nuts with? It's a satisfying art form tailored for kids.

What you'll need to bring as the teacher are:

A Large pot to be used over the fire
Another large pot to rinse nuts in (and a hand towel for a cold day)
Bags/baskets for the kids to put nuts in
Heat tolerant cups or lightweight camping mugs
A Ladle
A large mesh strainer
Milk and Honey or Cream
Flat trays or baskets to hold clean nuts
Reference book - I use The Tree Identification Book
Pot Holders or something to do the job
Access to water

Allow a good three hours for this segment, and pre-scout the area for a good mast and safe fire pit area. Here are a few more Hickory facts you can share with your students:

The botanical name is Carya ovata, meaning "oval nut"
It is in the Juglandaceae, or Walnut family.
It's relatives include the Black Walnut and Pecan.
It is a deciduous hardwood tree.
It's branching pattern is alternate, with opposite, odd pinnate leaflets; 5-7 per leaf.
The leaflets are larger towards the end of the leaf.
Leaflets bear little to no petiole, and have toothed margins and slightly tapered points which almost curl like a frosting tip.
The base of the lateral leaflets are lobed and asymmetrical, similar to to Witch Hazel.
The Bark of the younger trees or younger portion of a mature tree is much less furrowed, possibly smooth.
The trunks are extremely straight, compared to a curvy cherry or apple.
Hickory brew can be used for any recipe you like. Cookies, breads, or coffee can be made using the brew in place of water. Yum. You can also roast the nuts in the oven to help dry the shells for easier nut meat removal and to bring our the aroma and flavor. Experiment and get to know this strengthening woodland gift.

References from the web:

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fall in a corridor of color

This place is a beautiful trail entrance where I work, leading to two sweet spots I call otter bridge and bear river. Along the way, you pass the field of knotweed where epic games of deer and coyote have gone down, and kid-sized paths are matted down in clever loops and lookout piers. On the left beyond the treeline but before the river, is a magnificent meadow with countless herbaceous treasures and troves of goldenrod, as well as prolific small willows coppiced perfectly for weaving. Each step along this trail holds an eye and heart full of frolic and memory.

As part of my 'leaf stalking' project, I am taking repetitious photos of this beautiful spot over time, and will return here to add more as the colors continue to turn.