Outside my window, snow is falling over a congregation of grosbeaks, bluejays, chickadees and squirrels as they chatter over the birdfeeders; later, our resident red fox will stop by to scavenge whatever is left on the ground. This artificial bounty promotes shared harmony and well-being – I am rewarded by the very sight of them, these wild, beautiful creatures - unaware of my concerns, happily fortifying themselves for what’s left of winter in the Appalachians. I’ve made a small difference in their precarious pursuit of existence. That knowledge is a solid, grounding me against the crazy world down the road, that tangle of conflicting perceptions, questions, and threats, creeping in through my phone to attack my consciousness with bafflement and unease. Here on South Ridge, participating in my own view is enough. I’ll keep it simple for today.
Behind the menagerie, a bank of towering dark spruces reaches up for the sky. From them, I’ve collected a cupful of fragant resin and a handful of wispy old man’s beard lichen; later, I’ll mix it them with beeswax and olive oil to make an antibiotic salve. I learned last summer that no store-bought potion can top this age-old remedy for itching and infection; spring is coming, and I know I’ll soon need it for bug-bites and scratches. I plan to be spending a lot more time in the woods.
So much has changed over the past year. I reconnected with my high-school sweetheart, quit my job and moved from the prairies to the Acadian Forest to join him in an old hunting camp at the headwaters of the Mirimichi River. I’ve put aside allopathic medicine to learn the old ways, gaining skills and self-reliance; studying plants, the animals, and the seasons; harvesting, drying, concocting, writing and learning. Disconnecting from rectangles and right angles, streetlights and power-lines, and signs everywhere telling me where to go and what to do. Rash? Radical? No. This change is something I’ve dreamed of ever since I was a kid, but never thought would manifest. I’ve always had both art and medicine in me; here, I have a place quiet enough to hear myself think, to listen to the wisdom of nature, to become more fully who I truly am: an artist, a healer, and a steward of the wild.
After a year spent nesting and exploring, life is about to change again. Daily walks with Jeff in the woods have been a continuing education, as he passes on his skills in land navigation, firecraft, shelter-building, predator awareness, tracking, and much more; but it’s time to expand my repertoire of human offerings with formal study, while Jeff’s natural bent for teaching needs a wider audience than just me.
So I’ve begun learning the art and science of plant medicine in earnest with Rosemary Gladstar, while Jeff has decided to go back to work teaching bushcraft and survival skills with Dave McDonald at the International Canadian School of Survival. This is an opportunity that will take us both to wild places all over Canada; I’ll be joining him for trainings in the field and sharing what I’m learning about plants.
In March, I’ll be flying west to attend Thor Froslev’s memorial. The founder of the legendary Brackendale Art Gallery and eagle activist had a profound effect on my life and art, as well as the entire community of Squamish; I encourage you to read about him in my blog pages, here, here, and here. I’ll be stopping by Alberta to visit family and friends on my way home, stepping into the past and revisiting the forces that shaped me, happy in the knowledge that it all brought me here to South Ridge.
June 2-4, I’ll be teaching a workshop in local plant medicine for the New Brunswick Chapter of the Becoming and Outdoorswoman Society at their annual women’s gathering at Green Hills Camp, Lower Hainsville, New Brunswick. In July, Jeff and I will travel to Alberta to attend worshops on wilderness and plant first aid at Mahican Trails Indigenous Experiences; a good foundation for what lies ahead.
These pursuits are an exercise in self-reliance. I admit that much or what I read and hear of life down the road makes me fear for the future; changing societal norms, political upheavals, and technological advances are occurring at a dizzying rate, making me wonder how I landed in the unexpected role of a fuddy-duddy, bemoaning the passage of “the good old days.” Man has always lived on the edge of apocalypse, whether the threat be a saber-toothed lion or a nuclear bomb; is it only self-centeredness that has me believing we are closer to disaster than we’ve ever been?
Learning primitive skills and modern survival techniques has the effect of quelling anxiety with self-confidence and the simple joy of staying in the present. If this idea appeals to you, I suggest you check out the learning and adventuring resources I’ve mentioned. Over the next few months I’ll continue to share what I’m learning in my blogs and essays, so let’s stay in touch. If you’re interested, visit my website, which has undergone some changes to reflect my new lifestyle and current obsessions. By way of a parting gift, I’m including a recipe for the salve I’m making, with the assurance that by gathering and preparing medicine for your body, you are also feeding your soul.
OLD MAN’S BEARD AND SPRUCE RESIN SALVE
¼ cup Spruce Resin
½ cup Usnea-Infused Oil
1 oz Beeswax
FORAGE. Head to the woods after a storm and look for a downed conifer or tree branch. Notice the wispy, gray-green lichen that grows from its branches; this is Usnea, or Old Man’s Beard, a powerful antibiotic and antifungal medicine. You’ll know you have the right stuff if it snaps like an elastic when you pull a strand apart.
Taking Usnea from felled trees and branches is the most sustainable way to harvest; this lichen takes years to grow, and it is a staple winter food for many species. Gather only what you need: for our purposes, enough to squeeze into an apple-sized ball.
Next, look for some spruce that has suffered damage to the bark. You’ll see some dark matter collecting in hard lumps on the surface; dislodge it with a knife, taking care to take only take the excess, not digging into the tree to take it all. This resin is the tree’s own medicine, healing and protecting it’s wound with the same properties that will heal you. Collect a quarter-cup.
Remember to thank the forest for your bounty before you leave!
PREPARE. Clean the debris from your ball of Usnea. Chop it into small pieces, press it into a heatproof mason jar and cover it with twice as much usnea-infused olive oil. Put the jar, uncovered, in a pan of water on low heat for at least 4-5 hours, and as long as 12 hours. The longer it infuses, the stronger the medicine will be. Strain through a cheesecloth after simmering to obtain a ½ cup of oil.
While your Usnea is infusing, take your resin, place it in a square of cheesecloth with a stone and tie it into a bundle with string (don’t use elastic – it will melt!). Place it in a large, clean tin can and cover with 3 inches of water; the stone will weigh your bundle to the bottom of the can. Place the can on the stove and boil for 45 minutes to an hour; as you boil, the resin will melt and escape the cheesecloth, leaving the debris inside the cheesecloth. Remove the cheesecloth, pour off the water, and measure out a ¼ cup of liquid resin.
Combine the resin, oil and an ounce of grated beeswax in a heat-proof mason jar. Place it in a pot of water filled to reach the top level of your mixture in the jar. Simmer together over medium-low heat until they combine, then pour off into a small container for use. Give it an hour or so, and you’ll see your mixture turn into a soft salve. Not only will it close your wounds and relieve itching, it also smells divine.