A Forgotten Piece: A documentary about my life as an herbalist

Life with a baby has certainly hindered my blog posts, so I apologize for the lack of content these past few months. I have been busy however, and wanted to share with you a beautiful video a University of Oregon graduate student made about my life as a forager, herbalist, and mentor. Andrea did a beautiful job piecing together my story along with clips of me foraging, making medicine, and Jasper of course. I want to share this with you all and give you a little inside scoop of my life and vision for living with the Earth.

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Pitch Wood: How a wounded tree can save your life

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It was the old bait and switch. Our four apprentices all aged 12 years were going to get a bit of a surprise that wet spring afternoon. This ‘outing’ was supposed to be their last hurrah to wind down their year long apprenticeship learning survival and naturalist skills. We told them to be prepared for a day hike – bring the necessities such as a water bottle and a snack.

After several hours of hiking the kids felt it was time to head back to the cars. It had been raining all day and was around 45 degrees on a moist Northwest spring day. That’s when we pounced.

“Oh by the way, you guys are staying the night out here.” Silence.

Then, “Wait, are you serious?”. Disbelief and fear began to permeate their thoughts as we assured them that yes we are serious and we better start making a shelter.

After an hour of finding a place to bunker down we made the decision that this shelter needed to be fire dependent and built to fit all seven of us. We brought a bow drill but the look of desperation on the kids faces made us relent and so we offered the “thumb drill” aka lighter.

If you have ever been in the rain soaked Pacific Northwest rainforest you would note that everything is dripping, soaking, water logged, and cold. So how does one make a fire out of materials found in the woods? There are of course the hidden away places, underneath logs, in hollows, or the lower dead branches of conifers. But these are still damp and take a lot of time to dry out underneath clothing and an immense amount of patience is needed when trying to blow a damp tinder bundle into flame.

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Walking along the trail I spotted a stump of a Douglas fir tree. It was only waist high or so but had long thin pillars sticking out like the sky line of a major city. I called the kids over and asked them what was strange about this particular stump. They made some interesting observations but hadn’t yet gotten to the point. Finally one of them touched a spire and noted it was very hard wood while the bottom of the stump was rotting out. I told him to take a whiff – “It smells like sap!”. What those apprentices smelled was pitch wood or “fat wood”, the resin soaked wood that is sometimes left behind after a tree dies.

Our Northwest forests are an amazing source of this phenomenon due to the massive logging industry and clear cutting. When a tree such as a pine, fir or Doug fir is wounded or cut down it sends sap or resin to the wounded area. In the case of our majestic Douglas firs these have the richest resins which makes it highly flammable. After a tree is cut down the resin will fill the heartwood (the inner living part of the tree) and make this inner layer hard, flammable, and rot resistant.

The key to finding this survival gold mine is keeping an eye out for the tell tale signs of stumps with pillars or spires that stick out while the rest of the stump is rotting away. Use your nose to detect the smell of resin then pull off the chunks. If you have a lighter try lighting it. If it is good solid pitch wood it will stay lit like a candle wick.

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I had the kids take off pieces from the stump and to scout out for others. Back at camp we began to shave off tiny pieces into a little pile. Once we collected enough fire making materials we lit a pitch stick and caught the little shavings on fire. The two girls began to very slowly feed the fire more pitch wood shavings then gradually began to add pencil lead sized twigs. The entire process took over an hour to achieve a self feeding crackling fire. Without the pitch wood we would have been stuck with damp tinder material which could have taken twice as long to make.

I have been saved by finding pitch wood countless times even in wet snowy conditions. I am thankful to the trees who provide us with so many gifts – even after they have died trees keep on giving.

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“Nurse Ratched” AKA Camp Healer

Every year Whole Earth Nature School holds our seven day overnight, Big Bear Camp.  Kids from across the county sign up for an epic adventure of survival camping, archery, creek walks, gnarly hikes, friction fires, and crazy night games such as “Invisible Capture the Flag”.  Each year this camp grows in leaps and bounds and Whole Earth is proud to say that we had 27 wild kids sharing nature with us.

The more kids though equals more need for first aid and I had the distinct honor of acting as ‘Camp Healer’.  I have found it a challenge to practice my herbal healing and first aid skills since I am not going through medical school or any other training that requires constant practice and repetition.  Even with a couple of re-certifications  in First Aid/CPR and Wilderness First Aid it’s just not enough practice to become proficient or automatic.

Still I value every opportunity where I can help heal someone whether it be physical or emotional.  Most of ‘camp’ first aid is simple – a bandage here or an ice pack there.  However, I find the simplicity to be deceiving for what I am truly gaining skill in is tracking.

Diagnosis is probably one of the most scariest and exciting aspects of treating people especially working with children.  There is always SO much going on underneath that even the child may not know!  Practicing the ‘art of questioning’ while diagnosing a person is crucial to getting to the ‘meat’ of the problem.

We do some pretty dangerous activities at camp that involve sharp implements, hot, dry weather, flying objects, off-trail hazards, bees, allergies, sharp sticks, fire, and cooking.  Yet I only had two “serious” cuts, one wasp bite, one vomiting kid, two belly aches, and a various assortment of ailments.  Pretty good for seven days in the woods.

My job is fairly easy when I have a kid with a cut and visible blood.  Always my first response is “Let’s go get some plantain!”.  Having the child pick a plant, chew it up, and put it on the cut does wonders for their mental state and he can see the wound change for the better by his own actions.

When a kid comes to me with no wounds and no visible ailments then my tracker mind has to come out along with a barrage of questions.  I have learned to never take a situation by just face value – dig, dig, dig!  Here is a great example:

A 12 year old boy comes to me complaining of itching arms.  “Oh my god they itch!” he exclaims as he frantically scrapes his nails up and down both arms.  I took his hands to stop the scratching and to get a good look at his arms.  No redness, no swelling, no hives, no bites.  So I pump him for more details and from what I gathered the arms had just started itching a few minutes ago, he hasn’t had this before, he has no known allergies, and it is driving him insane.

I pull out my lavender essential oil and put a little on to make sure it didn’t make things worse.  It does not so I liberally apply his arms while he prances around the room doing the ‘itch dance’.  It seems to calm him more but not by much. Meanwhile as I am applying I grill him more about the circumstances, then a question struck me that I hadn’t asked before.  “What were you doing when the itching started?”  He replies “I just put my hands in the dish water to do the dishes.”  Ah ha!  Well that narrowed it down to two things 1) he has a sensitivity to the soap or the warm water was causing the blood to go to his arms and 2) perhaps you can guess this one?

I decided to use a different tactic.  The boy wasn’t in real distress he actually seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the attention.  One plant I always keep in my first aid kit is Osha Root because some herbalists believe it can stop allergic reactions.  (I have had personal success when one evening I started getting hives, of which I have never had before, and took three drops of Osha under the tongue and within two minutes my reaction went away. )    Because of the nature of the situation I wasn’t concerned with any sort of major allergic reaction or systemic reaction and so did not automatically reach for Benedryl.  Instead I asked him to smell the Osha first.  FYI it is a very strong aromatic if you have never tasted or smelled it before.  He said “Oh it smells like maple syrup!” Sure I’ll take that.  I put one single teeny drop on his tongue and away he whirled like a dust devil running to rinse out his mouth.  “Yuck! That’s like insane maple syrup!”

I always carry with me peppermint candies and pulled out my bag to give him one to take away the taste.  He looks at the bag and notices some ginger candy.  “What are those orange things?” he asks.  I tell him and he wants to try one.  Gingerly I hand a small chunk to him and once again he is whirling around the room screaming about it being spicy and what not.  He yells for the peppermint candy and runs out the door and I never hear another word about itching arms.

I am always looking to expand my knowledge and experiences in order to blend herbalism with conventional medicine.  To me I think it is a perfect blend of heroic medicine and holistic healing.

There are a couple of herbalists I would love to work with in order to be a better first aid herbalist.  Charles Garcia of the California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism and 7Song of Northeast School of Botanical Medicine are a couple of folks I would recommend and give my eye teeth to study with!

Happy healing!

Slingin’ It

It may be no surprise to you that one of my favorite fictional characters is Ayla from Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear Series.  Ayla rocks my prehistoric world.  So, inspired by her hunting prowess, several years ago I decided to make my own sling out of parachute cord and store-bought leather.  I had some success with that rough design. Earlier this year I became re-inspired by the sling and I decided to make one completely by hand using “native” materials.

A sling is an ancient weapon that allows the hunter to throw objects such as rocks with more speed and force than is possible with just the arm alone (think David and Goliath).   The origin of the sling remains unknown however it is a weapon found throughout the world and has been used for thousands of years.  It’s effectiveness is in the hands of the hunter – once you are well practiced the sling can become a deadly weapon.

The weapon is very simple in design:  you need two lengths of cord and a pouch.  At the end of one cord there should be a knot and the end of the other cord a loop to go around your finger. When the sling is hanging at your side it should reach just above the ankle.

I wanted my sling to be a mixture of fiber and leather.  My weaving skills aren’t quite up to snuff and so was rather daunted by the option of weaving a fiber pouch.  I went to a great website called:  www.slinging.org to get some ideas of how to design my sling.  Back in November I had harvested dying Stinging Nettle stalks in order to obtain their fiber.  Stalks that are still green and then dried work best for this as they are not already rotten from the soaking rains that come in the Fall.  I decided I wanted to use nettle fiber for my cords and for the pocket/pouch use the deer hide my husband and I tanned several years ago.  While on the slinging.org website I found an article by Paul Campbell about sling designs.  I found out that the Pomo people of California actually made slings out of nettle and leather.

The first step of my project was to break apart the nettle stalks in order to release the fibers within.  Stinging Nettle fiber is incredibly strong and versatile and has been used for thousands of years for projects from cordage to clothing.  The fibers are in between the pith or inside of the stalk and the outer bark.  Using a rock or a stick I crack the stalk up an down then begin the tedious process of removing the pith from the fibers careful not to tear off the precious fibers.  I ended up with a very nice basket full of fibers.  Before I begin to work with the fibers I rub them between my hands in order to remove the chaff or outer bark so that they become supple.

Next I began to reverse wrap the fibers in order to make a rope.  Reverse wrap is a very ancient and solid way to make rope – it is hard to explain but fairly easy to do.  Here is an article on how to do it from Wild Wood Survival.

I decided to make a sling completely attached, or in other words not having two separate cords tied at the pouch.  I twisted the first side of the string to the desired length with the very beginning twisted into a loop that fits over my middle finger.  At the base of the first length of cord I split this so that I could have the outline of the pocket then reattached the fibers back together on the other side as shown.   Then I twisted the other half of the cord to meet the same length of the first tying a knot at the end.

Now I was ready for my leather.  I cut out the leather adding extra lengths on either side so I could wrap it around the ends that attach the pouch for added strength.  Here is where I hit an obstacle.  How do I sew on the leather over the fibers?  The nettle fibers alone (not wrapped) weren’t going to be strong enough thread and I didn’t have any real sinew on hand.  I caved and went for fake sinew – however once I get some real sinew I will swap it out.

Once sewn, I added a slit in the middle of the pouch for added grip around the stones I will be slinging.  After slinging a few times I am very happy with how it turned out.  I may shorten it slightly for better snap when it goes around or over my head but I am very excited with how silently it turns in the air!

Practicing the sling can be tricky since you don’t want to actually hurt anything while in practice.  Be careful where you choose to throw.   Rounded rocks work very well however it can be a pain finding them then losing them.  A friend suggested rolling balls of clay and letting them dry without firing them and they simply bust apart when hitting your target!