Why You Should Have Comfrey in Your Garden

By: Gabe Garms

Comfrey (Symphytum uplandicum)

Comfrey (Symphytum uplandicum)

When we moved to the new Raven's Roots campus in November of 2015, I brought one particular plant along with me in large quantities, and it was comfrey. As a permaculturist, I strive for diversity in my gardens and out of the hundred or so species that we are currently growing, comfrey is far and away the most useful plant of them all.

Cultivated comfrey (Symphytum uplandicum) is a perennial plant in the Borage family, and the variety typically grown in gardens. It can propagate itself through it's roots (which spread by clumping) and also by seed. The uplandicum species also has a variety that doesn't spread by seed, called Russian comfrey. We have both growing at our farm and each produces beautiful pink and purple flowers all throughout the spring, summer and fall.

Since comfrey isn't easily attained at a common nursery, we are left to get them from friends, specialty nurseries and in the wild.  Because of this, I believe that it's important to note that you should be certain that you are actually getting comfrey, and not one of it's native lookalikes (Including one which is highly toxic). Here in the Pacific Northwest, burdock, dock, foxglove and mullein seem to be it's closest lookalikes.

The toxic lookalike is foxglove and it can make you incredibly sick and can even kill you. So it's important to distinguish the plants from one another before we use them in any way. While all are easily distinguished from one another while in flower, the early stage growth is when it gets tough. Below are pictures of the leaves of comfrey, burdock, mullein, dock and foxglove and how each one differs from comfrey.

ComFrey (Leaves have stiff hairs and edges of leaf are smooth)

ComFrey (Leaves have stiff hairs and edges of leaf are smooth)

Burdock (Edges oF Leaves Are wavy. The leaf veins also aren't as pronounced)

Burdock (Edges oF Leaves Are wavy. The leaf veins also aren't as pronounced)

Mullein (Has Lobed Leaf Edges where comfrey has smooth edges. Also look how hairy the new growth leaves are to the left in the photo)

Mullein (Has Lobed Leaf Edges where comfrey has smooth edges. Also look how hairy the new growth leaves are to the left in the photo)

Yellow Dock (Don't have any hairs on the leaves where comfrey has hairs)

Yellow Dock (Don't have any hairs on the leaves where comfrey has hairs)

Foxglove (Lobed leaf Edges where comfrey has smooth edges - very similar otherwise)

Foxglove (Lobed leaf Edges where comfrey has smooth edges - very similar otherwise)

So what is it about comfrey that makes it such an amazing plant?

  • Accumulator of nutrients - In permaculture it's referred to as a dynamic accumulator, and out of all of the dynamic accumulators that grow in North America, it's considered to be the best. As rainfall leaches down through our soils, it takes nutrients with it. But before they run off into the water table and vanish for good, they are often stored in the subsoil (typically the banking soil horizon) where the shallow rooted crops cannot access them. Dynamic accumulators are often biennial and perennial plants, which live long enough to penetrate their roots deep within the soil to access the leached away nutrients. Then when the plant's vegetative growth dies back in the fall, the biology in the soil converts them into plant soluble nutrients which all of our plants (including our shallow rooted annuals) can now access. Comfrey accumulates multiple nutrients in much higher quantities than all of the other dynamic accumulators.
     
  • Breaks up soil - Comfrey's thick roots break through compacted soil. It's important to allow plants to perform this function rather than pulling out a spade or shovel and tilling the ground ourselves. When we till, we commit a biological genocide with bacteria, fungi, protozoa and micro-arthropods being the victims. Even a slight disturbance in the soil can rip an appendage of a small mite and I have pictures at 400 times magnification to prove this. I will write another separate blog post on the importance of not tilling shortly. 
     
  • Edible - Before I get into the ingestion of comfrey, it's important to understand that there is some controversy out there on this subject. Although I personally have had it regularly in my diet now for years, I would be remiss if I didn't encourage you to do your own research. The controversy lies with the plant containing a pyrrolizidine alkaloid that leads to liver toxicity when consumed. Problem with this is that comfrey has been consumed by humans for centuries before it was considered unfit some time in the late 70s/early 80s. There also isn't one single human case of toxicity that has been reported. Funny right? If you want to delve deeper into this issue, Susun Weed wrote a great article that you can read here

    As far as nutrition is concerned, it's incredibly high in protein. It's 7 times the protein of soy and produces 20 times the yield. Any vegetarians or vegans reading this? It's also incredibly high in vitamins A, C, E and B12 as well as calcium, phosphorus and iron. I typically steam it or eat it in my nightly stir fry. I also drink it as a tea/infusion - see Medicinal section below. Just to be safe, the larger leaves contain the least amount of alkaloids and can be used as a precautionary measure.
     
  • Medicinal - Due to it's ability to quickly heal anything broken, torn or cut on the body, comfrey is often referred to as 'Knitbone". While comfrey can easily heal open wounds, it can also seal in infections so using it topically for a cut should be done with caution. I always take it on my backpacking trips with me as a salve to prevent blisters from forming on my feet. As soon as I feel the burning sensation of a new blister forming, I apply the salve and the blister never even gets to forming.  I also drink it as an infusion once or twice per week to encourage skin and upper respiratory health. Overall, you should know that it's a cell proliferant (meaning it promotes cell growth) and it's list of medicinal uses could go on for pages.
     
  • Mulch plant - It's significantly more efficient to cover your soil with organic matter than to leave it bare. One of the principles of permaculture gardening is keeping a mulch layer on top of your soil, mimicking how soil is built in nature (which is NEVER bare). When you leave your soil bare, water is easily evaporated, weeds aren't suppressed, nutrients get quickly leached away, erosion takes place faster, your plants succumb to extreme cold/heat easier, and the good insects and arachnids which eat all of our garden pests (so we don't have to use pesticides) won't have any habitat to live in. Once your plants get big enough, they should always be mulched. 

    The leaves of comfrey can get enormous and can easily be chopped and dropped around either itself or other plants growing nearby, covering a lot of bare soil. The best part about it is that comfrey can be chopped and dropped numerous times throughout the growing season and provide lots of mulch. 
     
  • Promotes healthy teeth - Swirling an infusion (tea of the fresh or dried leaves steeped for a few hours or overnight) can strengthen weak teeth. I have an old roommate who couldn't afford a dentist when he had a cavity, so he put chewed up comfrey leaves on the tooth for a few days. The pain went away and he didn't have any further problems after that.
     
  • Livestock forage - It has a long history of livestock forage and I personally feed it to my chickens and rabbits. Neither really eat it fresh due to the stiff hairs on the leaves, so I typically let it dry a little before feeding them so the hairs can wither. We run our chickens and rabbits in tractor systems all around our land and we actually plant the comfrey in the pastures where they run so they can eat it at will. Here is a great blog post about comfrey and rabbits
     
  • Bee forage - Bees absolutely love comfrey and it can produce quite a lot of flowers very quickly. If you don't give your bees enough food in your own garden, they can travel up to 20 miles to find food and chances are they will feed somewhere where chemicals or GMO crops have been used. So if you're going to have bees, you need a significant amount of forage for them on your own property. Comfrey will provide the bees with plenty of forage.
     
  • Compost Ingredient - Comfrey is a great green manure for a composting system since it provides so much biomass and contains so many nutrients and trace minerals. We use quite a lot of compost on our farm and comfrey helps us keep up with the quantity that we need. 
     
  • Will withstand climate changes to come - In a previous blog I wrote on how possible droughts and temperature fluctuations may (You can read it here) make it difficult for shallow rooted crops to survive. Comfrey however, can access not only nutrients from deep in the soil, but water as well. That, along with it's ability to take abuse (I've accidentally poured boiling water on it and it came back in a couple weeks), make It a great all around crop that can feed both wildlife and ourselves in whatever climate changes are in store for us next.

All in all, comfrey is an amazing plant that has so many uses and is incredibly easy to care for. If you're in NW Washington, we have some comfrey for you if you want to come pick it up. You won't regret it.

 

Bigleaf Maple Syrup

By: Jamie Weaver

Everyone has had a taste of maple syrup from eastern sugar maples,  but few people realize a similar syrup can be made from the sap of the bigleaf maple trees that grow here in the pacific northwest (as well as alder, birch, sycamore, hickory, walnut, and even tamarack trees).  The process is basically the same, but there are a few notable differences.  The main one being the duration of the tapping season.  Sugar maples are generally tapped in the spring when the weather has warmed enough to thaw during the day and speed the flow of sap, but before buds start growing on the trees.  Due to the much milder winters in the zones where bigleaf maples grow, our syrup season is much longer.  One can collect sap from the time the leaves fall off the trees, until the leaves start budding in the spring.  Although the best flows seem to happen in January and February.

Tapping

Tapping maples is a fairly simple process involving just a handful of widely available tools and materials.  They include:

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  • A Spile (the spigot-like thing you insert into the tree for the sap to flow through)
  • A Drill
  • A Drill Bit - sized to fit your spile
  • A Container to Catch Sap
  • A Tube to Transport Sap to Container (Optional)

The Spile is the specialized part here, but it can easily be improvised.  I tend to use a 3/8” nylon tube fitting.  They cost about $1.29 and you can get them at any hardware store.  You could also hollow out a wooden dowel or use any other tube-like object.  The goal is just to provide a spout for the sap to flow through to get it out and away from the tree.

Once you have your materials it is time to find your tree.  The ideal bigleaf maple tree is not the biggest one you can find.  Older trees tend to have thick furrowed bark that is hard to get through.  Younger, smoothed barked trees are your better choice, those ranging from 4 to 18 inches in diameter.  Bigleaf maples tend to have multiple trunks growing from the same root system.  Likewise, when cut, they send up multiple new shoots from the stump.  If of an adequate diameter, these trunks are often good targets because of the more established root system that reaches a greater radius from the tree.  Not every tree produces an equal amount of sap.  There are a variety of unseen factors and just because one tree isn’t flowing, doesn’t mean the next one over won’t be.

To check a tree to see if it is flowing I like to drill a smaller diameter hole than is necessary to tap the tree.  This way I can minimize the size of the wound I leave.  If it is flowing, you will know in a matter of seconds as liquid will start to seep from the hole.  If so, it’s time to drill the hole for the tap.   

When you tap a tree you want to drill a hole about 2 - 2 ½ inches deep with a slight upward angle to help the sap flow out.  The cross section of a tree is composed of the dead heartwood cells in the center followed by the living sapwood, then cambium, and finally the bark layers.  The hole should go deeper than your spile to provide a collection space for the sap, but not so deep that it goes into the heartwood.  Once the hole is drilled I like to pass the drill through a few more times to get out all the woody debris.  This helps prevent your spile from clogging.  Then it’s time to tap your spile into place.  It should be a tight fit to avoid leakage. 

You can just hang a bucket from your spile and call it good, but I like to keep a closed system to keep out debris, insects and other creatures that might be attracted to your sweet liquid.  And since I use tube fittings as my spiles, it is easy to slip on a 3/8 inch plastic tube and run it into a jug.  I just drill a hole in the top of my container and slide it in. 

As sap contains sugar it will spoil if left out too long.  I therefore make sure I collect my sap every 2 or 3 days.  If there is a good flow a single trunk can produce a gallon of sap or more in 24 hrs, so if your containers are small, you might have to check them more often.  I rarely get more than half a gallon in a single day.  I consider it a descent flow if I get a drop from the spile every 5 - 8 seconds or less. 

Even if refrigerated the sap can turn quickly. Anything I am storing in the fridge I bring to a boil every few days to keep from spoiling.  I also taste my sap before combining any 2 containers to make sure it hasn't started to go bad, that way I don't ruin the whole batch.

Making Syrup

Sap is considered syrup when it is 66.5% sugar.  The sap however starts out at about 2% sugar.  The ratio of sap to syrup ends up being about 43:1.  For every 43 ounces of sap you collect you end up with about 1 once of syrup.  This means you need to drastically reducing your sap collection.  This is best done by boiling it outside or somewhere with a good venting system.  Woodstoves work great, and if you have one in your house you can just set your pot of syrup on top and have it passively cook down as well as humidify your house.  If your house already contains a lot of moisture, like mine, this might not be the best choice.  I use a 2 burner propane camp stove that I can just set up outside and forget about for awhile.  The boiling process takes time and if I have a good volume of liquid I can walk away for a full 2 hours and not worry about it.  The wider your pan the more surface area you create for evaporation to occur, speeding the process.  I use this rectangular steel tray which holds about 1 ½ gallons. 

Once I have a few gallons of sap saved up I like to boil it down to fit into a much smaller container then put it in the freezer until I am ready to do my final processing.  The final processing takes time and attention, so I would rather do it just once or twice a season.  I can boil 3 gallons of sap down to a pint and I will still have a good margin of error before it becomes syrup (one gallon of sap will yield about 3 ounces of syrup).  By pre-condensing the liquid like this, I can keep my fridge from filling up with gallon sized jugs.

This is also when I like to filter the sap for the first time.  A coffee filter will work fine to get out those little floaties and leaf particles that got in your sap. 

When I am ready for my final processing I thaw out my frozen sap and bring it back to a boil.  Your sap has a much higher sugar content at this stage so you must keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t burn. 

The boiling temperature of syrup is 7 degrees higher than water.  So, the best way to know you have reached your goal of 66.5% sugar is with a thermometer.  The boiling temperature of water can change daily based on pressure, so you will want to boil a pot of water next to your syrup to check the temperature.  When your syrup seems like it is getting close to done insert your thermometer and see where you are at.  Waiting for those last few degrees can take an impressively long-time, so be patient.  If you stop too early the resulting syrup will spoil more easily and if over-condensed the syrup will crystallize.

Once you’ve reached your target temperature you are just about done.  You just need to do one more filtering.  As you boil, the natural minerals in the sap solidify into “sugar sand”.  Removing this sand improves the flavor and texture.  You can buy a syrup specific filter, but I find that coffee filters work fine for small batches.  The filter may clog several times in the filtering process and need to be replaced, but they are cheap and easily accessible.  Filter the syrup while it is still hot since it will thicken as it cools, making the process more difficult.

Then there you have it!  Your own homemade Maple Syrup.

Interested in getting some hands-on experience processing syrup as well as a myriad of other wild foods?  Check-out our Hunter-Gatherer Immersion Course.  This course starts the last weekend of August and meets 1 weekend per month for 10 months.

How to make your own plant based soaps

By: Gabe Garms

Homemade soap is both cost effective and typically of much higher quality than anything that you can buy in a store. Plus, it's relatively simple to make and only requires a few ingredients.There are primarily two types of soaps. One is made from plant based oils and the other made from rendered animal fat. In this post, I'll be going over how to make soap using plant based oils using the cold process method. 

What you'll need:
-Scale that measures weight
-Plant based oils (Olive, sunflower, sesame, canola or any oil you have around the house). I typically always use at least 2 although it can work with just one
-2 mixing bowls (one cannot be made out of aluminum - the lye will eat away the aluminum)
-Lye (sodium hydroxide). Read how to make your own here.
-Distilled water
-Gloves and protective eyewear
-Stirring spoon or stick
-Essential oil of choice (in this recipe I'm using silver fir essential oil)
-Parchment paper
-Pan or molds (to form the soap)
-Something to wrap the pan with so heat won't escape (blankets or old clothing work best)
-Vinegar (Neutralizes the lye if it comes in contact with the skin during the soap making process)
-Stick blender (optional but recommended)

 


STEP 1:  Measure out your oils by weight (it's very important that you don't measure by volume). The amounts of water and lye you'll have to use for your recipe will be completely dependent upon both what type and how much of each oil that you have available. In this recipe, I have 24 ounces of olive oil and 24 ounces of sunflower seed oil.

 

Before I begin measuring, I tare my scale to read 0 when my empty measurement container (a plastic cup in this case) is placed on top of it. The picture on the left is before I tared the scale (the cup weighs 1.5 ounces) and the one on the right is after the adjustment was made by turning the knob on the back of the scale.

STEP 2:  Calculate how much lye you will need. Every type of oil has a specific SAP value associated with it. The SAP value reflects how much lye is required to saponify (or turn to soap) 1 ounce of that particular oil. There are quite a few websites which list the SAP values for different types of oils, but I've included a list below of some common ones that are readily available at most markets.

SAP Values (also included are soap characteristics associated with each type of oil):
Almond - .136 (lathering, conditioning)
Apricot Kernel - .137 (lathering, conditioning)
Avacado - .133 ((lathering, conditioning)
Borage - .133 (lathering, conditioning)         .
Canola - .132 (lathering, conditioning)
Coconut - .191 (hardening, lathering)
Corn - .136 (lathering, conditioning)
Evening Primrose - .136 (lathering)
Hazelnut - .136 (lathering, conditioning)
Olive - .135 (lathering, conditioning)
Palm - .142 (hardening, lathering)
Sesame - .133 (lathering, conditioning)
Soybean - .136 (lathering, conditioning)
Sunflower - .136 (lathering, conditioning)
Walnut - .135 (lathering, conditioning)

NOTE: You can also use butters (shea, avacado, cocoa etc) in addition to oils. Butters are very moisturizing and make soap milder. Butters, as well as animal fats, all have specific SAP values and they can easily be found online. 

Once you have the SAP value for your oil, simply multiply that value by how many ounces of oil that you have. In this recipe we are using 24 ounces of sunflower oil and 24 ounces of olive oil so our calculation looks like this:

Olive OIl: 24 x .135 = 3.24 ounces of lye
Sunflower Oil: 24 x .136 = 3.26 ounces of lye

3.24 ounces + 3.26 ounces = 6.5 total ounces of lye.

STEP 3:  Superfat your recipe. What I mean by this is the 6.5 ounces of lye that we calculated in the last step will saponify all of oil in the mixture, leaving us with a dry and harsh bar. What superfatting does is ensure that some of the oil is left in the soap when it's finished, making it softer and less harsh. This is done by reducing the amount of lye that was calculated in the last step by between 5-10%. Most soap makers superfat their mixture by about 8%, and that's what we'll do it this particular recipe. So to superfat for this recipe, we take our lye amount and multiply it by .92 (or 8%). 

6.5 ounces of lye x .92 = 5.98 ounces (I round to 6 for ease of measurement).

STEP 4:  Calculate how much water you'll need. To do this, simply multiply your 6 ounces of lye (from Step 3) by 2.5.

6 ounces of lye x 2.5 = 15 ounces of distilled water. 

So just to recap our measurements, here is what we are working with:

24 ounces of sunflower seed oil
24 ounces of olive oil
6 ounces of lye
15 ounces of distilled water

 

Now let's make some soap!

STEP 5:  Get your vinegar and keep it by your side for this entire step (I'll tell you why at the end of this step). Pour the distilled water into a bowl (remember to avoid aluminum bowls) and take it outside. Once outside, put on your rubber gloves and goggles and slowly pour the lye crystals into the water while stirring with a spoon or stick (don't use aluminum for your spoon either).

When the water and lye are combined, the solution will heat up to a very high temperature and become very caustic (highly alkaline). If the solution does come in contact with the skin, it will start to turn the oils in your skin into soap. This is why we keep the vinegar by our side at all times since it will neutralize the burn caused by the lye water (vinegar is acidic). Keep stirring until the crystals are dissolved in the water. The solution will be cloudy at this point.

NOTE:  It's very important to mention that you should never put the lye into the bowl first and then pour in the water. Please follow this step very carefully since it's the step where most people are injured in during the soap making process. Follow these exact steps and you'll be fine. 

STEP 6:  Set aside the lye water and let it cool down to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. You can use a thermometer if you'd like to periodically take the temperature, but I found it to be very effective to just keep my eye on the solution and wait for it to become clear. 

STEP 7:  While your lye solution is cooling down, it's time to mix the oils together. If your oils are in liquid form, just pour them together into a bowl (see bowl on the right in the STEP 8 picture). However if you're using solidified oils, like coconut or palm, you'll want to melt them down first before you mix them with the other oils. If you are using solid oils, I would recommend using a double boiler to melt them down so that you don't burn them. Burnt oil makes bad soap, trust me.

STEP 8:  When the lye water becomes clear (like the bowl on the left below), or reaches 100 degrees, then proceed to the next step.

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STEP 9:  Slowly pour your mixed oils into the bowl with the lye water and begin to stir with either a spoon or a stick blender. While a spoon can be effective, it takes significantly longer to mix the oils with the water than it would take with the stick blender (you can pick stick blenders up at thrift stores for under $10).

 

You'll want to continue stirring until you've achieved 'trace'. Trace is when you lift your stick or spoon out of the mixture and the trail of soap dripping from the spoon or blender sits on the surface of the mixture. See the picture below for an example.

 

STEP 10 (OPTIONAL):  Now that your soap has been mixed, add your essential oil (for this batch I added about 1/4 ounce of silver fir essential oil - picture on left below) as well as any flowers, conifer needles or plant material of your choosing and mix into the soap. In this recipe, I'm adding needles from a Douglas fir tree (picture on right below). Not only do they smell great, they also help exfoliate the skin and are great additions to the soap. In other recipes that I've made, I've used rose petals, chamomile, calendula and lavender flowers. Be creative. 

STEP 11:  Line your baking pan with parchment paper and pour in your soap.

 

Once the soap has been poured, place a hard top over your baking pan (I used a hard cover book for this batch) and wrap the pan with a blanket or any material that can be fully wrapped around the pan (See pictures below).

The oils and the lye are still reacting with one another and generating heat, and you want to keep this heat trapped near the mixture (hence the blanket). Let the mixture sit for 24-48 hours.

STEP 12:  After 24 hours, the soap will have solidified enough for you to cut it into bars. I typically let the soap harden for another 24 hours in the pan before I remove the bars and then air dry them for 4-6 weeks.

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After the 4-6 weeks are up, the soap is ready to use! Experiment with different oils and fragrances and let me know if you come up with any great recipes. 

Winter Tracking in Washington

By: Filip Tkaczyk

Winter can be extreme in western Washington state, despite what you hear about our "gentle winters."  As I prepared to take the Raven's Roots Tracking Immersion Course students out to the Olympic Peninsula, my friend and fellow tracker Kristian brought to my attention the extreme weather anticipated: 40+ mile an hour winds at the sandy coastal location I wanted to take the class, plus torrential rains.

Maybe you say to yourself, well tough it out! But, think about it for a moment.  If you are trying to track wildlife, and your tracks are blown away and at least half of your attention is on making sure you and your students don't get hit by fallen trees, perhaps it's really not worth it.

I refused to cancel class, but we did move to a back up location in a totally different environment: the shrub-steppe of central Washington's Columbia Plateau.

Our drive over was foggy and frost clung as thick as snow in some places on bowing plants, just above actual patches of snow on the ground. Conditions were colder than on the "wet side" of the state, but ideal for tracking.

Between the open, sparse vegetation at our first field location, lay ribbons of snow.  They were perfectly clinging to the wildlife trails that veined across the landscape of shrub tufted rolling hills and broken basalt cliffs.  They made these trails pop to the eye, and thankfully for us, the animals obliged us and chose to use these snowy passageways, leaving us beautiful tracks.

Our first sighting was of an odd shape in a small stand of willows that at a distance looked like a misshapen owl. As we neared, it was clear it was a porcupine, which was contentedly feeding on the cambium of the upper branches of a spindly willow.  It didn't even stop when we pulled up in our van, but did suddenly take notice when we opened our doors.  It decided to take evasive maneuvers and climb carefully backwards out of the tree, using its tail between each step not unlike a 5 limb to help slow its decent.

Shortly after the porcupines decent we decided to move on and arrived at our first tracking location: the semi-frozen muddy edge of a lake.  At times the mud creaked and crunched under foot, and in some spots in squelched softly. It was a fine, thick, clinging mud that allowed for even tiny tracks to register.

We were not the only ones uncertain of the mud. In one spot, a deer mouse walked carefully off the edge of a partially submerged rock and stepped one tiny foot into the mud.  Then, it quickly decided to change direction. Its tiny, deep foot print is dwarfed in the picture by the beautifully clear tracks of a killdeer.

Nearby, crossing the trail of that same mouse were two strange parallel lines of grouped marks. You can see the mouse's tracks crossing the trail along the bottom of the image from right to left.

After careful investigation we could see that the marks were grouped into 4 clustered dots. We discussed what kind of creature would leave such a trail, especially one leaving a shelter spot under a rock full of water? A crayfish!

Higher up, in the more thoroughly frozen mud was a strange, abstracted sight.  They were 7 inch long tracks of a great blue heron that had become filled in with drifting snow.  Spattered between these were small bits of snow.  Viewed sideways, the tracks looked so much like a flock of origami birds amongst wispy clouds.

Our wandering took us along the shore to the dam on the lake, who's flood doors were open for reasons unknown to us. I got a little ahead of the group, pondering what route to take but student, Annika, called me back and pointed down below us into a narrow canyon-like channel.  In the low water below the damn was a wide sheet of ice, and through the middle of it was a splendid sight: the dots and dashes left by a sliding otter!

We walked onto the dam and looked down at this find with smiles.  Looking in the opposite direction along the water way, we could see broken sheets of ice covering the channel, graced for at least a quarter mile by the energetic, joyous trail of the same sliding otter.

It is difficult to explain in words the elation a tracker can experience seeing the pure abandon an animal can express through its tracks. Otters in particular express such beautiful, child-like joy in their movement. It is difficult not to be moved.

After lingering for a moment, we moved on to pick up pieces of other stories. This time we came upon the braided trails of 2 coyotes.  As we back tracked them through the patchy snow, we came to a place between some shrubs where both coyotes had stopped and sat down.  The haunches of their hind legs visible behind their hind tracks, and their front tracks positioned just ahead.  They both seemed to face the same way.  Our tracking group stood around pondering what they were doing.  Then it hit me, literally, albeit gently. There was a steady breeze blowing from the narrow, rocky canyon we had just come from near the dam. The coyotes must have sat there and inhaled the breeze blowing gently to them and bringing them news of what was around the bend and out of sight.

Again, the intimacy of these tracks struck me deeply. These two animals were utterly relaxed and in their element when they had made these tracks. For the briefest moment as trackers, we had a connection with the minds and hearts of these two coyotes. We stood where they stood, and smelled the same breeze. And remembered our animal selves.

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The following day, we packed up our camping gear and walked a short distance from camp through the snow.  The previous night had brought to us hooting great horned owls, chorusing coyotes and rain.  I thought the rain might sour the tracking conditions to the point where it would not be worth spending much time around camp.  But, we walked out to look and did not come back for nearly 4 hours.

As is so often the case, when you start tracking, start looking at the landscape closely and listening you get sucked in.  Swept away and into some kind of adventure.

First, the tracks of the ubiquitous eastern fox squirrels crossed and re-crossed most of the patches of snow in the campground.  In our site alone, we observed at least 6 individual squirrels climbing together through the Lombardy poplars and sycamores.

We could see from their tracks that they were traveling from tree to tree, as well as pausing now and again to scan and sniff the breeze. As we walked, we crossed a set of tracks of similar size, but different pattern.  Rather than group in sets of 4, these showed the hinds landing partially or mostly on top of the fronts.  That shape of the toes and pattern they made was different as well.  They were the tracks of a mink. It was interesting to see where the mink had foraged, away from the water's edge and meandering through the campground itself, across largely barren ground and between sparsely planted trees.  We pondered what it might be seeking, and thought that it was likely after the squirrels as there was not much else in the way of prey in that particular spot. We followed it as it bounded and loped in circles, until its trail was lost in on the road in a patch of ice and gravel.

Not much further on, we saw the beautiful trail of a beaver through the snow, coming up out of a creek and circling around. As we looked around, there were many areas that showed both new and old sign of this animals presence.  Including wire fencing around some of the campground trees to protect it from the beaver's felling.

Here two of our students are investigating the details of the beavers trail. The second image is of a left front track of that same beaver.

Further along the creek, we found more evidence of the beaver's activities, including a spot where it walked away from the creek into the dry uplands and harvested a group of big sagebrush branches. This is an unusual food for a beaver and we wondered why would it harvest this strongly aromatic, bitter plant? Building material? Insect repellent for inside the den? Eaten as a source of particular nutrients? We left with questions churning in our minds.

Nearby, dramatic tracks showed the powerful impact of a fleeing mule deer's movements.  The tracks were punched clear through the snow to the dirt underneath and sand sprayed out and ahead of the tracks.  I paced out the distance from one set of 4 tracks to the next set.  It was 16 feet! At first I assumed it was a pronk: a powerful, spring-loaded hop used by mule deer to cover distances over rough terrain.  But the way the front and hind tracks were arranged, it looked more like a lope or a gallop.  One thing was sure, this animal was moving incredibly fast!

There were no associated tracks we could locate that clearly showed it was running from a particular threat or being chased. We pondered this mystery, as occasional distant shotguns sounded off from duck hunters along the far shore of the nearby reservoir.

Spending time out in such an open landscape, you quickly notice the obvious lack of trees.  We are so use to them on the wet side, that it is rather startling to have so very few.  And there is another reason to take note: they are wildlife magnets.  We passed several thickets composed of Russian olive and willow.  As we were nearing one, the perfect 2 by 2 tracks of a walking raccoon led across the trail and into the maze of branches. We decided to follow.  Inside, at the base of the largest Russian olive we found an impressive raccoon latrine.  They often poop directly below their preferred sleeping trees.

Some of the trails under the cover of the trees were worn well into the ground, clearly familiar and intimate pathways for the raccoons. It was oddly comforting space, and free of snow.  We searched the tree tops closely, but no napping raccoons were seen.

We followed another trail out of that thicket, laughing at ourselves for having gone in the hard way and continued on.  The next thicket was a treasure trove.  Just off to one side of the trail, under some roses and dense willows was a perfect circle of feathers. I crawled in carefully to get up close and investigate.  Meanwhile, Kristian and the students found several scats and a owl pellet a few feet away.

The mostly gray circle of feathers was accompanied by several white uric streaks from a bird of prey.  That, along with the minimal damage on the feathers indicated the likely culprit was a hawk like the Cooper's hawk we watched hunting right next to our camp in a very similar thicket of willow.

I poked around with my nose down in the feathers, and found more tracking treasures: the gizzard and the lower mandible with half the beak of the bird who's feathers were now matted onto the leaves! Looking inside the gizzard, it was packed full of the husks and black, shiny seeds of amaranth.  The feeding hawk had clearly pulled out and discarded the gizzard.  The plain gray lower beak portion was short and surprisingly broad for its size.

Who was this bird? I looked closer and closer among the sea of gray feathers for something distinct.  Something that would trigger a memory of feathers seen and identified before, or perhaps, of the bird to whom these once belong.  There was no skeleton, no body to look at for clues.  But, I did find some beautifully streaked feathers I recognized.  Scapular feathers (those that hang down on the shoulders, helping meld the wing into the body and helping add some flare to this birds wardrobe.  They were sodden, but then I saw it in my mind's eye: a quail! These belonged to a California quail.

Meanwhile, Kristian and the students had dug into the contents of the owl pellet.  Out of its dark, furry embrace emerged 2 skulls, from two different rodents.  One of a deer mouse and one from a vole. They were nearly the same size, and it was only their skull features that allowed us to tell them apart.  It so happens, that not a few paces further down one of the skulls would help us solve another mystery.

An over-hanging rose along the trail edge showed gouge marks on its attached numerous rose hips. Both some of the seeds and the rind were missing. Below, some of the hips had dropped or may have been helped to drop by one or more animals. The hips on the ground looked more disheveled, bits torn out and tossed about and more seeds missing within.

We discussed whether or not these were being disturbed by the same animal as those that hung above.  And here, the skull of the deer mouse came into its moment of brief glory.  We messed around and found that its paired orange incisors fit perfectly into the groves made in the skin of some of the rose hips.

The hips on the ground looked to have likely been pecked open by birds, perhaps quail.

It is wonderful when things can be confirmed so perfectly and immediately, if only tracking were always so easy!

We found more wonders as we walked through the patches of snow.  But, I will only mention one more and that was one we glimpsed being made.  A flicker was flushed up from between the sagebrush shrubs as we moved forward.  We followed it visually to a post, were it perched momentarily and dropped below it to leave some beautiful zygodactyl (K-or X-shaped) tracks. 

Walking back to where it had flushed from, we located the paired hopping tracks of where it moved around on the snow.  Its final track showed how it pushed its feet down forcefully and left a nice impression of the pointed keel of its breast bone just before it lifted into the air.


This has be a rather brief description of the many things we saw and experienced on just one weekend of tracking with the Raven's Roots Tracking Immersion Course!

Keep an eye out for more soon and come join us for some time in the field. You never know what we might find together!

Special thanks for Kristian Boose for providing most of the images in this article!

Turning your wood ash into lye for soap making

By: Gabe Garms

On our campus, we constantly have our wood burning stoves going throughout the winter months and we generate quite a lot of ash. This is great because this wood ash can be turned into lye, which is one of the primary ingredients in soap. Lye is also commercially used to clean drains and ovens and is quite valuable to have around the house. In this post, I'm going to show you how to make your own with minimal materials.

While this may be a relatively easy process, it's also a process which should be approached with care. You see, lye (sodium hydroxide) is formed when wood ash (which is mostly potassium carbonate) is mixed with water. The mixed solution is extremely alkaline and if it comes in contact with your skin, it begins to absorb the oils and turns your skin into soap. It's pretty painful so before I ever begin, I make sure that I have vinegar nearby to neutralize the burn if the solution does happen to come in contact with my skin. I also wear rubber gloves and goggles in case there is any splash back during the mixing process.

The materials that you'll need are a bucket (DON'T use aluminum), a mixing spoon or stick, wood ash, flour sifter, water, an old t-shirt, a pot and a pan. And don't forget the gloves, goggles and vinegar! 

1. The first step is to separate the white ash from the large unburnt chunks of wood that are black and still contain carbon. You can make the lye with the chunks but I've found that if you remove as many of them as you can, the clarification process of the liquid that we're going to produce won't take anywhere near as long. I simply put all of the ash into the box directly next to me in the picture below and sifted the white ash from the chunks into a five gallon bucket. I used the box closer to the camera to store all of the chunks. The picture to the right below is what the sifted ash looks like in the bucket. 

2. Once all of the sifted ash is in the bucket, I put on my gloves and goggles and use a watering can to pour distilled water onto the ash. I do this with another person so that I can be stirring while the water is being poured in slowly. I keep mixing until all of my ash has been absorbed by the water and I have a solution with the consistency of a thin milkshake. The picture on the left below is pouring on the water and the picture to the right is roughly the final consistency.

IMG_0661.JPG

3. Once the solution is mixed, let it sit from between a few hours to overnight. We let our solution set for about 4 hours for this batch. This allows the sediment time to settle on the bottom of the 5 gallon bucket and the liquid to rise to the top. Then we slowly poured the liquid into a cooking pot and placed the remaining sediment into an old t-shirt. Be sure to have your gloves on for this step. We then squeezed the remaining liquid from the tshirt into the pan and brought the liquid to a boil on the stove. Once the liquid comes to a boil, take it off of the heat and let it sit again so that the sediment can settle. Once it has settled, the remaining solution should look like the picture below and to the right. It's a color very similar to apple juice.

4. Take your apple juice colored solution and pour it into a frying pan with a large surface area. We usually leave a small amount of the solution in the jar so that we don't pour any of the sediment from the bottom of the jar into the pan (the sediment is visible in the photo to the above right). 

5. Simmer the solution until you see it start to bubble. Once it does, keep it on really low heat and stir with a spoon until it starts to thicken like the picture on the left below. When it's all done, you should have a fine powder like the picture on the bottom right.

That's it! We store the crystalized lye in a mason jar and cap it for the next time that we want to make soap, clean out our drains or our oven. I'll post another blog within the coming weeks on pressing your own oils for soap making and finally with a post outlining the soap making process itself. In the mean time, do something productive with your fireplace ashes instead of just throwing them aside.

Spider Sign

By: Filip Tkaczyk

There are cannibals living in the shed. The bodies of their victims lay sprawled on the floor, legs akimbo. Bodies drained of their insides. I would have not noticed them in the gloom of that space because they are very small. I would not have noticed, that is, if it were not for the white, liquid scat one of them left on the brake handle of my bicycle. Little dots the size of pin-heads speckling the black paint. The scats also spattered the plastic floor of the shed, between the spent bodies and below these creatures silken homes. 

Here is the scat of the American house spider (Parasteatoda tepidariorum) and the carcasses of giant house spiders (Tegenaria duellica) who were her meals.

 

Who are these cannibals, you might ask? Well, they are Parasteatoda tepidariorum. More commonly referred to as the "American house spider." All the ones I could see in the shed were females, as was visible by their bulbous abdomens.

Here is a female American house spider with her prey, a yellow bear caterpillar.

 

You share your spaces with spiders. It is not a matter of keeping a clean house. Even the cleanest houses have spiders in them, at least as part-time residents. One of those is the American house spider, who is a member of the Cobweb weavers or Comb-footed spiders (Theridiidae). This family includes the most famous and perhaps some of the most feared spiders on the North American continent, the black widows (Steatoda ssp.). The American house spiders do not possess the kind of potentially dangerous venom of their more famous relatives and are harmless to humans.

These spiders are shy, unobtrusive and silent neighbors. They are also excellent predators of the very large, fast running funnel web weavers (Tegenaria ssp.) which often invade houses at certain times of the year. The victims of our American house spider are most likely to be the wandering male funnel web weavers, as they go out in late summer and early fall looking for females of their own species. One of the species in this funnel web weaver group - the hobo spider (Tegenaria agrestis) - has been falsely accused of being a dangerous species with a bite that causes necrotic wounds. There is little evidence to support this, however, and as its name "agrestis" implies, it has long been a common part of agricultural/rural areas of Europe. It is not considered a species of concern in Europe.

Here is the old, tattered web of a giant house spider (Tegenaria duellica).

 

In several of the webs in and around the shed where the gray-to-tan, tear-drop shaped, papery silken purses which are the distinct egg sacs of our American house spiders. Most of them still looked plump and full. I found one female closely tending her egg sacs. You can see her in the image below. Notice the egg sac on the far left is shriveled and there are a few tiny young out of focus in the background.

 

In another females web, a tight cluster of tiny young can be seen. They cling tightly to the silk and rest after just hatching out. Notice the line of liquid silk droplets on the far right. These may have been added to this nursery web to give it extra tensile strength and flexibility.

 

How big are these little guys and their egg sacs? Well, here is the tip of my finger for scale.

 

The tracks and sign of the invertebrate world has really been getting my attention lately. You cannot take a step outside without being next to or on top of some kind of invertebrate sign. Though scary to some, I find spiders especially fascinating. I am very grateful to people like Noah Charney and Charley Eiseman - authors of Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates - for bringing my attention, and the general attention of the tracking community at large to the wealth of this kind of sign.

Enjoy looking for the tracks of those wonderful mammals, birds , reptiles and amphibians, but don't ignore the little guys all around you!

Hope you enjoyed this read. More to come soon!

What are you connected to?

By: Kristian Boose

Recently Raven’s Roots reached out to make some new connections and attended the Rainingman Festival put on by the fine folks at CascadiaNow!  The festival was held outside of Olympia, Washington near, and practically on, the Mima Mounds.  Pronounced M-eye-ma, these mounds are quite the geological mystery.  They are being continually studied, and debates are unsettled as to quite how these mounds formed.  8 – 10 low circular dome shaped mounds are clustered every acre in this prairie ecosystem and explanations range from Indigenous belief that it is the land showing expression of waves left over from a great flood, European settlers originally thinking them burial mounds, to theories of seismic activity, sediments blowing around vegetation and creating dunes of a sort, or even the burrows of extinct prehistoric pocket gophers.  However they got here, they are beautiful and powerful, and this is where we found ourselves for a special weekend of making and revealing connections.  Our CascadiaNow! hosts are a visionary grassroots nonprofit social movement for the bioregion of the Pacific Northwest known as Cascadia.  They are raising positive awareness of the region’s identity and helping to highlight connections between culture, economy, geography and environment.  We went there to connect with them, and they welcomed us in kind. 

 

All day Saturday Jamie and I hung out at a table decked with Raven’s Roots swag and examples of wild crafting, plaster casts of animal tracks, and tinctures from some of our Immersion courses.  We talked for hours with dozens of interested folks about the school, our classes, tracking, making bows and friction fire, medicinal plants, and our connections to this place we call home in Cascadia.  Jamie taught a cordage making workshop which was well attended and led to lots of smiles and people working on cordage all the rest of the day and into the night while bands played live music in the barn.  People gathered around the community campfire and in the community kitchen sharing stories of connection.  There was an unconference to discuss priorities facing Cascadia and the priorities needing to be worked on moving forward together.

Our school Raven’s Roots is located in Cascadia, a region not defined by lines drawn on a map or by politics.  It’s a region defined by connection.  A region defined by ecosystems, by fault lines and tectonic plates.  Cascadia is a bioregion stretching from sea to mountains. To the west is the Pacific Ocean and its undersea plates, faults, and coastlines and to the east the crest of the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide.  Stretching northward up to the Gulf of Alaska and Mt Logan and southward to Cape Mendicino in Northern California.  Cascadia is a place of distinct character where water and mountains have a voice.  I think that those who live here and call this place home feel it and instinctively know it once they begin paying a deeper level of attention.  I know this is happening for me.  The flora and fauna of these ecosystems, the patterns of weather, and the people all have a distinct character.  Cascadia is as much culture and social value as it is about landforms.  It is a connection of all these things.

When you think about what you are connected to, you’ll probably find yourself thinking about many different people, animals, places, events and experiences throughout your life.  For me, friends and family come immediately to mind.  The places I grew up, spent time learning valuable life lessons, and where I met certain people or have certain special memories.  I feel connected in different ways to where home is deep in my heart and where my body, mind, and life are now.  Central Pennsylvania where I grew up is the land of my heart and is made up of mountains, rivers, and forests, all of which I feel a connection to.  Mount Nittany, the Susquehanna, Black Moshannon, the PA Wilds.  Where I call home today is the land of my mind and body here in the Pacific Northwest and it’s also mountain, river, and forest.  Cascades, Olympics, Skagit, Duwamish, Okanogan.  As I actively explore this question of connection I discover it is of an ever-increasing breath and depth.  It includes new places like the high-steppe sagebrush desert in eastern Washington. There are now connections to certain species of trees and plants in those prairies, on those mountains, along those rivers, and within those forests.  Cedar, Sitka Spruce, Salmonberry, and Camass.  There is connection to the wild neighbors that live on the land with me.  Salmon, Wolf, Raven, Sage Grouse, and Osprey.  I am connected to so much here in my new home in an ever increasing and deep way.  When we start to pay attention, we start to see and feel how we are connected.

An important part of what Raven’s Roots wants to do is help our students begin discovering and feeling that connection.  To each other, the community, the land and wild life, and to these lessons we teach.   It already all exists within us and all around us, so we’re not so much creating it as we are teaching some of the skills necessary to recognize it and become more comfortable and familiar with it.  To embrace it.  From that place of recognition come a greater and deeper understanding, pride, and of course…more questions. 

We spent this recent weekend celebrating and exploring known connections and also making new connections…to each other and to every person who stopped by to talk with us, to Brandon and Naomi of CascadiaNow!, and to the land where the festival was held.

We encourage everyone to look more into CascadiaNow! (http://www.cascadianow.org/), into the Mima Mounds (http://www.dnr.wa.gov/mima-mounds-natural-area-preserve) and into the courses we are teaching here at Raven’s Roots (http://www.ravensroots.com/immersioncourses/ ).  We encourage everyone to explore and deepen his or her connections.

Wild Fruit and Nut Bars

By: Jamie Weaver

Today I made some wild fruit and nut bars.  My goal was to use acorns to make something portable, tasty, and energizing with only wild harvested ingredients. 

Acorns are one of my favorite wild foods, largely because I've found them to be one of the most efficient calorie sources.  It’s true that acorns require a good deal of processing.  The nuts have to be shelled then leached in order to make them edible.  But the ease and speed of harvest more than makes up for this.  Under a productive oak tree I can fill a 5 gallon bucket with acorns in less than an hour.  According to Samuel Thayer, author of Nature's Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants, this bucket equates to about 8 calorie days of food.  In my experience, even after all that cracking and leaching, I am capable of procuring a lot more calories from acorns than if I were to have put my energy into cattails, hazelnuts, burdock root, amaranth, or any number of other wild starch sources.  

Nutrition and Uses:

The nutrient value of acorns varies greatly depending on species.  One very long article, entitled Acorns in Human Subsistence by Sarah L. R. Mason, shows the nutritional breakdown of over 60 species of acorns.  Mason shows that acorns range from 50-90% carbohydrates, 3-11% protein and 1.5-31% fat.  Our native Garry oaks fall towards the high end of carbohydrates at 88.8% carbs, 4.3% protein and 4.9% fat. 

Acorns are a very versatile food.  When leached and ground they can be used as a flour substitute in many recipes from muffins and biscuits to pancakes and pie crusts.  However, acorns do not contain gluten so as a flour it doesn’t readily rise and tends to be a bit crumbly.  They can also be used to thicken stews, eaten whole or made into porridge.  For this project I wanted to make something to substitute for an energy bar that I could take on hikes.  I make fruit leather fairly often and it occurred to me that I could use fruit in a similar manner to hold together seeds and nuts in a granola bar of sorts.  This account represents attempt number one. 

In addition to acorns, I decided to add amaranth to the mix.  Amaranth is also known as pigweed and can take over a garden bed with ease.  Many a gardener has spent hours pulling out pigweed without ever knowing what they had.  Amaranth is actually a sort of super food.  It is very high in protein, particularly lysine, one of the amino acids needed in highest quantity and among the most difficult to obtain.  This makes amaranth a complete protein.  Many of you probably know that protein from plant foods are not generally complete, meaning they do not contain adequate amounts of all the amino acids necessary for proper cell growth, and must be combined with other foods to make a complete protein, like whole wheat bread and peanut butter.  Beyond protein, amaranth is also a good source of calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, B vitamins, and polyunsaturated fats. Due to this high protein and nutritional value, I thought amaranth would be a good companion to starch filled acorns in a wild energy bar, providing long lasting fuel.  

I used blackberries as my glue to hold it all together.  They are producing abundantly at present, and of course provide vitamin C and natural sugars, for a more immediate energy boost.

The Process:

So let’s start from the beginning.  The first thing I had to do is leach some acorns.  The acorns are just about ready here in northern WA, but I had some Garry oak acorns left over from 2 years ago.  Once dried, acorns will last a surprisingly long time.  I shelled the nuts by hitting them with a rock and pulling out the meats, then I hot leached them in boiling water.  Cold leaching will retain more nutrients and make for a stickier flour if that is your goal, but for this application I planned to leave the nuts whole and hot leaching is much faster.  To hot leach you bring the acorns to a boil in at least twice as much water.  Boil until the water turns red, this is the tannic acid leaching out.  Pour off the water and stick them in a new batch of boiling water, pouring off the tannin rich water until it stays clear.  It is important when leaching acorns not to put boiled acorns into cold water. This will cause the tannins to bind, so that they will not leach out.  To expedite this process I always have a second pot of boiling water ready when I drain the first.  This process took longer than I expected this time around.  I am developing a theory that the longer the acorns are stored dry, the more the tannins begin to bind and the longer it takes to leach them.  Sort of like how it takes longer to cook dried beans if they are really old.

After they were leached I put them in a dehydrator to dry them then sprinkled them with some sea salt I had dehydrated from a local beach, and roasted them in the oven at 375 for about 15 minutes.  To be honest, before roasting I added some raccoon fat that I had rendered and clarified to improve the flavor and add a higher fat content.  Acorns can be bland and contain less fat than other nuts.  I also likened my conglomeration to Pemmican, a nutritious high-energy food used by indigenous cultures.  Pemmican is made of dried meat and rendered fat with the occasional addition of dried berries.  

I also roasted the amaranth in the oven for a few minutes.  Raw amaranth contains anti-nutritional components that block the absorption of some nutrients.

At some point during this process I went out and picked about 6 cups of blackberries from the thicket around my house.  These I put into a blender and pureed them.  Once all the ingredients were ready I mixed the whole roasted acorns into the berry mixture then added the roasted amaranth.  The proportions were random.  My goal was to make more of a granola bar than a fruit leather, so I used a lot of acorns and a fair amount of amaranth.  Half of this I spread out on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.  The parchment paper keeps the berry goo from sticking to the pan, but doesn’t stick to the berry goo.  I once tried to make fruit leather on wax paper…bad idea.  The paper stuck to the fruit leather and I spent hours trying to scrape it off.

I wanted to try out some variations so I put the other half of the mixture back into the blender to chop the nuts (the nuts could have been chopped before hand as well, making it easier to control the size).  I then spread most of this out on the tray next to the chunkier mixture.  I spread it about a half inch thick.  As the fruit dries the thickness of the bars will decrease a bit, though not as dramatically as pure fruit leather, so it is best to spread it thicker than you would like the resultant bars to be.  With the last bit of pureed fruit and nut mix I formed 2 small patties with my hands to see if they would hold together and not stick to the pan (this is closer to how you would dehydrate them primitively, on a rock by the fire).

The next step was to dry them, so I put the pans in the oven at the lowest setting until they were sufficiently dehydrated.  Below 150 degrees is best, but if your oven doesn’t get that low, just keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t burn before they’re dry.  I probably dehydrated them for about 4 hours.  The nuts were already dry so I just had to wait for the fruit to solidify a bit.  The desired consistency is up to you.  The drier they are the longer they will keep.

I am satisfied with the results of my little fruit and nut bar experiment.  They turned out mildly sweet and nutty, with a crunch. They are surprisingly filling, though a bit crumbly.  I like the crunchiness of the larger chunks of acorns, but they do fall apart more than the pureed mixture.  I think a higher ratio of fruit to nuts would help.  The patties, on the other hand, actually stayed together the best.  

I hoped you liked reading about my wild food project.  Enjoy experimenting on your own, and if you are interested in learning more, checkout our Hunter-Gatherer course www.ravensroots.com/hunter-gatherer

Climate Change and the Future of Food Growth

By: Gabe Garms

The drought that we're experiencing here in the Pacific Northwest has really been unsettling to put it lightly. Farmers in the foothills of the Northwestern Cascades are reporting that summer crops were approximately 4 weeks early this year. They've even been receiving letters from the USDA Farm Service Agency stating this year has officially been declared a disaster. Even the Washington Department of Ecology called it the worst drought the state has ever seen. To give you an idea, the Olympic National Forest on the Olympic Peninsula (one of the wettest places in North America) caught fire for the first time in history. Outside of our region, the heat index broke a world record in Iran (165 degrees Fahrenheit) and I don't think I really have to go too much into the drought that's currently happening in California. What made me so intent on writing this post is that all of these events are by no means an anomaly and not only will the droughts/heat waves continue, but they'll get worse.

The reason that I feel the droughts will continually worsen is primarily based on two factors. The first being that our carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels continues to increase each year on a global level. This is despite market introductions of alternative energy sources and environmental regulations, which is scary. Secondly, we are deforesting the planet at an almost equally alarming rate as we are creating CO2. One thing most people don't realize about trees is that they're responsible for between 30-50% of our rainfall. Not only that, trees are also one of the best mechanisms for sequestering carbon from the atmosphere (thus reducing temperature). So while emissions are overheating the planet, the disappearing trees are reducing the rainfall when we happen to need water more than ever.

So enough with the pessimism already right? Believe it or not, this article wasn't meant to scare you (maybe a little?), but to help you both come to terms with what is happening (although I presume many of you already have) and prepare you for what's to come.

In Mark Shepard's book, Restoration Agriculture, he states that every human society throughout history which has collapsed, has done so because of it's reliance on annual crops as the staple food source. Today, close to 80% of all food that we consume are annual crops, with the 20% perennial consumption consisting mostly of fruits and nuts. When Mark wrote that, he was mainly referring to the fact that in order to grow annual crops, we have to till the soil, which destroys the soil life and eventually the soil itself. But this time in history, it's not tillage (well it's partially due to tillage) but lack of water which will likely be our downfall.

You see, annual crops have shallow root systems because they're only alive for one year. Because of this short window of time to complete their life cycle, they have to put a good amount of their energy into above ground growth, flowering and eventually going to seed. These shallow root systems are easily dried out by the sun's heat - hence why we have to irrigate so frequently. Another problem is that since annuals are short lived, their immune systems are relatively weak and are more susceptible to disease and pests than other types of plants, such as perennials and biennials.

Perennials are defined as being herbaceous plants, vines, trees or shrubs that live for 3 years or longer (biennials live for 2 years). They're not in as big of rush to grow like annuals and have time to send their roots deep into the soil where they can access water/nutrients in places where the annuals can't. Look at your lawn the next time it doesn't rain for a few weeks. The grass, while it's technically a perennial, is shallow rooted like an annual and dies quickly without water. But the perennials/biennials in the yard like dandelion, chicory and plantain will be doing just fine because they have developed root systems that can access water and strong immune systems to ward off pests and disease.

These are the types of plants that we want to start converting our agricultural systems over to if we're to grow food with little to no water. I'll write a separate article soon about building soil with no till systems and holding water within it, but for the time being, I simply want to get you warm to the idea of perennial/biennial crop agriculture. While we're familiar with many of the perennial tree crops that are fruits and nuts, we are largely unfamiliar with perennial crops with the exception of asparagus, kale and rhubarb. Eric Toensmeier wrote an amazing book called Perennial Vegetables which lists all the perennial vegetables that grow throughout the world. Did you know that there are potatoes that grow in the air and shrubs with leaves that taste like salty pretzels? Get his book, trust me (he's not paying me to say that by the way).

But while perennials themselves are more resilient than annuals, we want our staple crops to be the toughest, most resilient of the perennials that will survive the worst of conditions. Then we can begin to grow crops like the one's in Eric's book. The toughest are usually the native plants or introduced species which we classify as being aggressive or invasive. They're largely considered invasive because we typically plant them next to weak, shallow rooted plants. When grown in harmony with other perennial/biennial, spreading plants, they don't get as out of control. And in cases where they do, it's our job to intervene and bring the system back into balance. Unfortunately there aren't many resources that document perennial plant communities that grow together so we largely have to experiment ourselves and share our findings with one another. This is what we plan to do at Raven's Roots and if you've had success growing perennial plant communities, we'd love to hear about it.

So where to go from here? I'd recommend taking a class or getting a book on wild edibles in whatever region that you live in. See which ones you like and study the plant as it grows in the wild. Once you have an understanding of it, and it's appropriate, plant it within a garden at home. Also take note of what plants grow beside them in the wild. Mimicking nature should be our ultimate goal when it comes crop production so get out there and learn these resilient plants. Just remember to be 100% sure that the plant is what you think it is before you consume it -many wild plants can make you sick and even kill you. That's why it's best to take a class if there is one offered in your area. 

So in the end, everything is going to be alright. I think.

Tracking Walk With Fil

By: Fil Tkaczyk

I wanted to invite all of you readers to join me for a moment on a little tracking experience from my day today.  Just a short foray into everyday tracking and it's rewards. 

Here you go, hope you enjoy!

________

A wet, cool day dawns in western Washington. The brief rain last night left everything fresh, and moist this morning. I decided to go for a short walk, before I start work for the day.

Looked around inside the house, I looked at the wildlife sign present, literally on every corner.  Our house cat regularly rubs his facial scent glands against the corners of the spaces he frequents.  If you look close, you will see they just about at his head height there is a thin line of discoloration.  Since its oily, it is very hard to clean off.

 

 

This scent marking is important to his well-being, helping him to feel at home and to let others know he is here and frequents this spot. Perhaps not ideal for keeping clean walls, but endearing in that simple, animal way that all of us can relate to. What is more comforting than the smell of home? And part of what makes up the smell of home, for both cats and humans, is our own smell. The scent of our bodies in our own space.

Just outside, on the corner of our unpainted wooden fence is his scratching post. Just raw wood that he scratches on regularly before hopping on top of the fence and walking around the corner. The sun-aged wood and the 2 x 4 on the corner normal have a very consistent color to them.  Where he scratches, however, the bright tan of raw wood stands out. The frazzled, shredded splinters that stick out give it a distinct texture too. Once you know to look for this, you can spot it in many neighborhoods.

 

 

From here I walked a few blocks down to a local pond in a small park. On a gray, wooden bench, I saw a yellow jacket working hard.  Its mandibles grating hard against the wood, its saliva moistening the wood temporarily to a darker color. This kind of sign is actually incredibly common all around the cities, suburbs and rural areas. 

Where the surface material has been scraped off, you can see the tan wood underneath forming a short little line as wide as the wasps mandibles. Look very close in the image and you will see much older sign of the same kind. 

What is the wasp doing? Why?

 

 

It is working very hard to collect material to make paper.  For writing bad poetry or trashy novels? 

No, for building and adding to a nest.  Next time you see a yellow jacket nest that you can safely approach close up, notice the many tiny bands of slightly different color paper that make up its structure.  Every one of those bands required a trip to collect wood in just this way. On warm days, the sound of yellow jackets or paper wasp jaws grating and scraping at siding or an old deck can be quite audible. 

Another sound drew my attention.  The tap-tap of a beak on wood.  My first thought was , "woodpecker." Then, I heard the material this bird is breaking off fall through the trees.  I walked over to investigate and felt a pop under my foot.  Looking down, I saw the shells of hazelnuts in various states of destruction littering the ground. 

 

 

I sat there quitely pondering what was the likely cause, until a piece of hazelnut hit me in the head.  I looked up to see a Steller's jay about 50 feet above, banging away on a hazelnut. Sometimes your answers come that fast when you are tracking.  But, not usually!

As I sat watching it, and listening, I noticed there were about 6 of them in total all traveling the short flight and several hops between the filbert tree thicket and the tall, big-leaf maple next to it.  They seemed to prefer the largest, flattest branches as anvils for shelling the nuts. Their black heads and shoulders faded seamlessly into the dark blue of their upper wings. They are mostly quite, focused, and not calling.  One sang out a soft song of gurgles, clicks, chirps and whistles. I chuckled at the sweet sound coming from a bird who's voice is usually so harsh and loud.

My tracking discipline kicked in along with my curiosity.  How would I know this was jay sign in the future? What is specific about it? Is it visible on the bits they leave behind?

So first I looked at the big picture.  How the shells were being dropped.  They were scattered pretty evenly and seemingly randomly all over the trail.  Then, I noticed that the jays often seem to harvest the hazelnuts in small groups, often by breaking them off with a short part of the twig still attached. Not cut at a 45 degree as from a squirrel, but twisted off leaving a rather circular, blunted end.

The nuts have an outer husk that the birds had to remove.  They usually peck at it a few times, then pull it off.  This is what the husks looked like, or at least some of them.

 

 

Next, I investigated the way they entered the nuts.  It seems they generally busted through the shell through the side, by laying the nuts on the anvil lengthwise between their grasping feet and pounding them open. They did not usually try to open them from the very top or very bottom (point) of the nut.

 

 

Many of the shells ended up splitting into 2 or 3 pieces.  But many of those pieces still showed the tell-tale rounded entry marks made by a pounding beak.

 

 

The most interesting bits of feedings sign, however, where those nuts that contained remains of the nut meat inside them.  Looking close at several, I could see that these birds were not always super thorough about getting every last bit. Which is unlike a tidy nut-eater like a deer mouse. In the nuts left behind by the Steller's jays, you could see that the nut meat was repeatedly hit with the tip of a beak.

 


This was so simple and yet satisfying to learn about! To push this just a little further, I grabbed a few whole hazelnuts the jays had dropped and smashed them between my heel and a rock.  I looked at the way the broad, blunt force of my shoe created a very different effect on the shell.  I then extract the nuts from inside and ate them with a smile.

This was tracking at its best.  Not the grand adventure of trailing wolves or grizzly bears in far off wilderness, but the simple pleasure of following your curiosity and learning something about the wild neighbors you share space with everyday. 

Tracking is our path to intimate relationships with the other-then-human beings that surround us and are part of us.

Happy Tracking,

Fil

A Wild Foods Diet

By: Jamie Weaver

I have a tendency to hoard wild foods like a squirrel.  My freezer is filled with wild meats, berries and rendered fats, the cabinets are packed with grains, nuts, dried fruits and herbs, and every excess corner has a bucket of acorns or some other yet-to-be processed wild good hiding in it.  This would not be so bad if I was not such a transient person.  Unfortunately, last week I was moving for the third time this year and found myself faced with the task of dealing with these hoards of food.  As an added difficulty, I could not simply move the frozen goods to a freezer at my new place as there was no such place.  I was putting all my stuff into storage for a month and a half while I go to Alaska.  Luckily, I knew what I was in for and decided in advance that I would take this opportunity to go on a wild foods diet.  

Wild Foods Diet

Day 1:

Acorn / amaranth / cattail / HUCKLEBERRY Pancake 

Acorn / amaranth / cattail / HUCKLEBERRY Pancake 

  • Acorn Pancakes – acorn flour, sea salt (dehydrated from local ocean water), huckleberries, water, fried in deer fat
  • Nettle Tea – dried stinging nettle leaves steeped in hot water
  • Pan Fried Trout – trout, sea salt, wood sorrel, fried in deer fat
  • Smoked Salmon – salmon, salt, smoked over fire
  • Raccoon Stew – raccoon meat, nettle, wild amaranth, salt, water

Day 2:

  • Pancakes – acorn flour, cattail flour, amaranth, huckleberries, salt, fired in raccoon fat
  • Smoked Salmon
  • Raccoon Stew
  • Huckleberries

Day 3:

  • Amaranth & Huckleberries
  • Fresh Berries – red huckleberries, salmonberries, and a few early blackberries
  • Clams with Raccoon Fat and Salt
  • Dandelion Greens sautéed in Deer Fat with Salt
  • Choke Cherry Cakes – choke cherries ground up, formed into cakes and dried
  • Raccoon Stew

Day 4:

  • Amaranth & Huckleberries
  • Cold Tea Infusion – dried nettle, dandelion and wood sorrel steeped in cold water overnight
  • Smoked Salmon
  • Choke Cherry Cakes
  • Raccoon Stew
  • Cattail Battered Trout – trout coated in cattail flour batter, salted, stuffed with wood sorrel and fried in raccoon fat

Day 5:

  • Amaranth, Acorn Flour & Huckleberry Porridge
  • Smoked Salmon
  • Choke Cherry Cakes
  • Deer Stew - deer meat, nettle, wild amaranth, salt
  • Deer/Raccoon Stew – mixed leftovers
Acorn Flour leaching

Acorn Flour leaching

The point of this diet was to use up what I had, not acquire more.  And since I was spending most of this time working and moving out of my house, I was not spending much time harvesting fresh food.  This resulted in a meat heavy diet, though that was not my intention.  I had several 5 gallon buckets of acorns saved up that I was planning to use as my main staple.  Acorns are one of the wild foods that I have put the most energy into experimenting with.  I have made muffins, pancakes, pie crusts, porridges, breads, biscuits, gravy, etc.  And I was looking forward to playing with keeping my recipes 100% wild.  Which is why it was unfortunate when the acorns didn’t work out.

Acorns contain tannic acid, which is incredibly bitter, and can damage your kidneys if ingested in large quantities.  It therefore must be leached from the acorns before eating.  In preparation I started cold leaching a bunch of acorn flour a week and a half before starting my diet.  The method I used involved soaking 1 part acorn flour in 2 parts water and changing out the water several times a day.  

Cattail Flour, Acorn Flour & Wild Amaranth

Cattail Flour, Acorn Flour & Wild Amaranth

Acorns with lower levels of tannins, like our native Garry Oak, can leach in a few days to a week. However most of my acorns came from a red oak with much higher levels of tannic acid, and after 2 weeks of leaching the flour was still quite bitter.  It wasn’t until I had completed my diet that the flour was finally ready to eat. 

This didn’t concern me at first as I had a quart and a half of previously processed acorn flour ready to go.  But as it turned out, this flour wasn’t finished leaching either (I guess that’s why it was still sitting around).  I used some of the flour for pancakes the first few days of my diet.  They seemed pretty tasty at first, but after a few bites they started to taste really astringent and were hard to get down, even when mixed with other flours and adequate portions of huckleberries.   This is the way with acorns; you don’t always notice the bitter at first, which it is why it is easy to quit leaching them a little too soon.  

Smoked Salmon

Smoked Salmon

In the absence of acorns, wild amaranth made a good alternative for porridges and stews and I had a small amount of cattail flour to add to the mix.  But that was about it for starches.  

The majority of my calories therefore came from meats and fats.  This I didn’t mind at first.  I tend to stick to more of a Paleo style diet anyway, as I find that it helps balance my energy levels.  I am not particularly strict about it though, as I love delicious things. 

Among the meats I had available were a couple salmon that I harvested in the fall and smoked over an open fire the week prior so they would be ready to go for quick meals.  I also had a hind leg and a shoulder leftover from a road-kill raccoon I harvested some months ago, along with much of its fat which I had rendered and saved in mason jars.  Not many people know you can render raccoon fat to cook with.  In fact I have never heard of anyone doing it - I just did it as an experiment.  But it actually has a really mild taste, much like bear fat (which is greatly prized in the world of wild fats).  

Cattail Battered Trout

Cattail Battered Trout

There was also one deer roast leftover from a bunch of deer and elk meat my girlfriend’s dad gave us awhile back, as well as a bunch of deer fat I had rendered.  I had additionally put some shelled and unshelled clams in the freezer a few months prior to see how they would keep frozen.  Then there were two trout that I had shot with my bow.  The best meal that I made during this week was definitely one of these trout.  I seasoned it with salt I had dehydrated from ocean water, stuffed it with wood sorrel leaves to add a lemony flavor, coated it in a cattail flour batter and pan fried it in raccoon fat.  Super good!  And not just for wild foods, I would make this any day!

Despite the large amount of meat and fat I had available, I did lose some weight over the course of the week and was feeling a bit weak and slow.  This led me to calling off the diet after the fifth day.  I could have made it another day or so on the food I had, but I was working construction the next day and the thought of running a table saw while feeling a little out of sorts wasn’t sitting well with me.  I was starting to feel the effects of insufficient calories and I didn’t want to compromise my work performance, or my safety, for a personal experiment. 

But, what was strange to me was that I thought I was getting plenty of calories.  The food all tasted pretty good and I was eating until I didn’t want to eat anymore, a feeling I equated to being “full”, even though I was still craving other foods.  I contribute my lack of sufficient calorie intake mostly to a lack of carbohydrates in my diet, although I believe taste can also make an important difference in my desire to eat larger portions. 

To exemplify this, after I called it quits on my wild foods diet, I simply added some potatoes, garlic, rosemary, thyme and black pepper to the deer/raccoon stew I had leftover and was easily able to eat my fill.  Adding some seasonings certainly made the meal more enjoyable, but it was the potatoes that allowed me to eat a larger portion, made me feel fuller, and provided more immediate energy.   

Resources I have read on the Paleo diet often like to point out that carbohydrates are not an essential nutrient for proper body function.  The body requires specific amino acids (from proteins), fatty acids (from fats), vitamins, minerals, and electrolytes for proper cell growth and function, along with an adequate supply of macronutrients which provide the bulk of the energy for metabolic processes.  Carbohydrates are generally considered a macronutrient along with fats and proteins; however many believe that the body can obtain all of its necessary energy from proteins and fats alone, without carbohydrates. 

Although this may be true, I found it difficult during this diet to fill myself without adequate carbs.  When eating modern processed foods I find that I feel very hyperglycemic if I am not careful to limit carbs and focus more on proteins and fats.  However, in an actual primitive hunter-gatherer world, carbs are a treasure.  There is a reason our bodies crave them.  They provide valuable calories necessary for our survival.  Wild grains, nuts and rhizomes used for flour and starch sources are a more complex carbohydrate than our modern overly processed grains.  Not only are they gluten-free, which makes them easier on our guts, but they generally have a much higher nutritional value and don’t have the same fluctuating affect on blood sugar levels.

Another important difference in a wild foods diet versus a modern diet is the lack of vegetables.  In the wild you don’t find high calorie vegetables like broccoli, squash, or even salad greens.  Such vegetables are a modern adaptation of wild foods.  Although there are a wide variety of edible shoots and greens, these foods are not nearly as fleshy or filling as modern vegetables and many of these plants have a very high nutrient density.  These foods thereby provide much needed vitamins and minerals, and are essential to a balanced diet, but they will not satiate you.  The way I understand it, your body has a limit to how much of those nutrients it can metabolize, and forcing yourself to eat past that point can make you sick.  This has happened to me often on survival trips in which the most readily available foods were wild greens.

Eating a balanced diet can be a difficult task for anyone without the added difficulty of trying to locate, harvest and process all those food from the wild.  I put a great deal of energy into obtaining meats and fats as I believe they are an essential staple for a healthy wild diet, but I equally pursue starch sources like grains, starchy roots and nuts.  I additionally make sure to incorporate some fruits and greens for nutritional value and can’t help but pursue seasonings like sea salt, maple syrup, wild onion, and various herbs to make it all taste good.

If you would like to learn more about providing for your food needs from the wild, join us for the Hunter-Gatherer Immersion Course starting in September! 

Tracking - A Way of Seeing

By: Filip Tkaczyk

The practice of tracking is a very old art, and skill much older than the written word. In it's essence, it is a matter of looking at patterns in the world around us and learning to recognize their meaning. Everything that passes, everything that moves, leaves some kind of track or sign behind itself. Even the passing of the sun, day after day, on a wooden deck will age different parts of it at different rates. Everything that moves around us leaves us a fragment of its story behind, bits and pieces - evidence - of its passing.  To learn to track is to learn to read such signs in the landscape and understand their many layered meanings.

Wildlife tracking is the practice of observing the tracks and sign left behind by animals.  Their sign might include things such as fur and hair, feathers, scat, holes, scrapes, scratch marks, bones, skulls, lays and beds, trails and tunnels, and other forms of disturbance. Such details carry meaning about what animal passed this way, what it did, how fast it was moving and which way it went. Also, it tells us how it interacted with the landscape, with other species and even with other members of its own species. The approximate time when the animal moved through the area can often be ascertained. Details of its diet can be observed through feeding sign and through details in its scat. 

Looking at the details of wildlife tracks and sign is getting a very privileged look into the intimate aspects of an animal's life. It draws us closer, gets us to pay more attention to the world around us and weaves our story with that of the life around us. Through tracking, we gain a deeper sense of the living community we are a part of, and to which we belong. 

Though a skill, tracking can also become a way of seeing the world. Once tracking has infused your mind and transformed your relationship to your senses, it is a part of who you are. After a time, when you have practiced enough, it is difficult to move anywhere in the world - even around your own home - without noticing the evidence of the lives that surround you all the time and who's paths cross and intersect with your own.

Consider the space where you live right now.  Maybe there is a little green belt or park nearby when you walk.  You notice there is a furry scat at the trail intersection. This is likely the scat of the local coyote or fox leaving its scent marking. On your way back to your place, you notice some hand-like tracks in a drying, muddy ditch which are the tracks of a raccoon. Closer to home, you notice how the line of your neighbors cypress trees has been trimmed.  This is the browse line of the deer that sneak into this area at night. In the same yard, one of the fence posts in your neighbors yard closest to the deck looks odd.  It has a strangely fuzzy, kind of frayed look to one side of it reaching from the ground to about 2 feet up.  This is the scratching post of his cat.

In the lawn near your home, you see two bluish bits of what might be plastic. These are the egg shells dropped there deliberately by the robin who nests in the tree on the corner. As you approach your door, the thin, opalescent film across the entryway is the trail of a slug or snail that passed by the previous night.  The very small, black, slightly disheveled spiral stuck to the wall near your door is its scat.

Even inside your house, there is evidence of others sharing your space.  That dusty cobweb high up in the corner of the main room is the remnants of a cellar spider's web. The spider now probably long gone, has left this gossamer fragment of its unobtrusive presence and the web is only now visible to you as it has collected dust. 

The closer you look, the more you come to realize you cannot help but share your space with a multitude of other beings. Learning to read and interpret the signs of their presence will enrich your life.

 

Tracking is about actively observing and interpreting the world around you and those many creatures that share it with you. Give your attention to one other life around you, follow it and its story and it will surely lead you to another.  So much adventure awaits!

Do you want to learn more about the rich, layered world of experiences and stories you walk through every day? 

Then come join us and learn more about the art and science of wildlife tracking!

How to Tell the Difference Between Poison Hemlock and Queen Anne's Lace

By: Gabe Garms

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is one of the deadliest plants in North America and can be fatal if just a small amount is ingested. It has been in flower here in Washington for the last month or so and can be found across much of the United States. It grows (often in dense patches) along roads, trails and the edges of fields and streams. I actually have it growing in my back yard, right along side one of it's most common look-a-likes, Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota).

Queen Anne's lace is a wild edible (the root) and given that it typically does grow in the same conditions as poison hemlock, being able to tell the difference could save your life. Plus, you'll want to know if you have it growing on your property because it's also toxic to pets and livestock. So let's walk through how to identify both so that you can confidently identify them in the future.

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) vs. Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota):

1. Both are in the Apiaceae family and have hollow stems, but poison hemlock's stem is hairless and has purple blotches. Even a very young poison hemlock will display the purple blotching. On the other hand, the stem of Queen Anne's lace doesn't have purple blotches and is hairy. See the photos below for a comparison.

Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus Carota)

Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus Carota)

Poison Hemlock (conium maculatum)

Poison Hemlock (conium maculatum)

 


2. The flowers of both species are white and bloom in an umbrella shape pattern (called an umbel). Plants in the Apiaceae family have flowers that appear in compound umbels, which means that all of the little umbrellas branch out from one main, central umbrella - if that makes sense. If it doesn't, don't worry about it. Just know that the flowers of Queen Anne's lace have a single purplish/red flower in the center of the umbel the vast majority of the time (see picture below left). Legend has it that Queen Anne pricked her finger while sewing the lace and a droplet of blood fell to the center of the flowers. Also the umbrella shape of Queen Anne's lace is flat-topped, while the poison hemlock umbel is more rounded. Notice the difference below.

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne's Lace

Poison Hemlock

Poison Hemlock


3. The leaves are probably the most difficult feature to distinguish between the two. While they are both fern-like in appearance, the leaves of Queen Anne's lace, similar to the stems, will also have hairs on their undersides. See in picture below to the right.

LEaves of Queen Anne's Lace - Hairy

LEaves of Queen Anne's Lace - Hairy

Leaves of Poison Hemlock - Not hairy

Leaves of Poison Hemlock - Not hairy

4. A final distinguishing feature is that Queen Anne's lace has 3-pronged bracts appearing at both the base of the flowers and the main umbel. It's actually the only member of the Apaiceae family that has this feature. If you look at the picture of the poison hemlock flowers under #2 above, you'll see that poison hemlock is absent of the long bracts.

The long, 3-pronged bracts of Queen Anne's Lace

The long, 3-pronged bracts of Queen Anne's Lace

 

Hopefully, you'll now be able to identify both plants when you encounter them in the wild. And if you can, please pass this information along. It may just save the life of a loved one or pet. Thanks for reading!

Vegetable Oil - A Fuel For Your Car?

By: Jamie Weaver

I was filtering vegetable oil for my truck the other day and decided it would be a good topic to write about.  There are a lot of misconceptions about running a vehicle on vegetable oil and I wanted to clear some of them up.  I converted my 1984 GMC Suburban to run on Waste Vegetable Oil 8 years ago and it hasn't given me any trouble…well the veg oil system hasn't…the truck itself is pretty old and has given me it's share of headaches.  

Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO) means that the oil is used, generally by restaurants, and would otherwise be thrown away.  This is an important distinction as some biodiesel companies are using vegetable oil produced specifically for biofuels.  This poses potential issues as growing crops for these fuels uses land, water, nutrients and other resources that could otherwise be used for growing food.  The growing popularity of these fuels could lead to the decimation of large tracts of land, not to mention all the fossil fuels used in the production of the oil in the first place.

Another word for the fuel I am using is Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO) which means what it sounds like, pure vegetable oil.  This is opposed to biodiesel which is a mixture of vegetable oil and very specific ratios of lye and methanol.  Adding these chemicals to vegetable oil makes it possible for any standard diesel vehicle to run on this fuel, where with SVO the vehicle itself must be converted.  I prefer converting the vehicle over the fuel as I don’t have any interest in dealing with corrosive chemicals on a regular basis.  Also, converting the vehicle is a onetime deal, while converting the fuel must be done every time you get a new batch.

Only diesel vehicles can be run on vegetable oil.  There are other creative things that can be done with standard gas cars such as making your own ethanol from plant matter such as corn, beets or potatoes (much like distilling alcohol) and converting your vehicle to run on 85% ethanol.  But, unless you can find ways to use a waste product, this again creates competition with food production.

Diesel vehicles are actually very well equipped to run on vegetable oil as is. The first diesel engines, though created to run on coal dust, were soon found to be able to run on peanut oil without trouble.  Although present day diesel engines are more suited to run on petroleum based diesel fuel, functionally the main difference from vegetable oil is the viscosity.  Vegetable oil is much thicker than diesel and must be thinned out before it can be vaporized and combusted in a standard diesel engine.  The most common way to do this in a SVO converted vehicle is to heat up the oil until it reaches about 175 degrees Fahrenheit.  This is generally done by running the coolant lines along the vegetable oil fuel lines and through the inside of the vegetable oil tank.  When the vehicle is running the coolant heats up and in turns heats the oil in the tank and fuel lines.  In order for this to work the vehicle must be started on regular diesel fuel then be switched over to veg oil once warmed up.  Since diesel combusts at 410 degrees Fahrenheit, this doesn’t take long.  I generally wait until I’ve driven about a mile and a half before switching over to vegetable oil.  Likewise I switch back to diesel a mile and a half before I get where I’m going.  This purges the lines of vegetable oil and makes sure there is diesel in the engine when I go to start again. 

There are really only a few components that need to be altered or added to your vehicle for this system to work. You need to add a second tank to your vehicle, fuel selector valves, and some toggle switches so you can switch from one tank to the other.  You also need some additional fuel line, a bunch of coolant line to splice into your existing coolant system and an additional fuel filter for your vegetable oil.  But that’s about it.  To get the details and learn the full process you will have to come to our class on Vegetable Oil Conversions (to be announced)

But let’s talk about filtering the oil.  As I stated before Waste Vegetable Oil is the used oil from the deep fryer at restaurants.  Restaurants can only use the same oil so long before they have to change it out.   Prior to the increase in biodiesel and veg oil vehicles, restaurants generally had to pay to get rid of their used oil and were more than happy to have you take it off their hands.  Now many restaurants have contracts with biodiesel companies that pay to take their oil from them.  This makes it much harder to find oil for personal use.  But not all restaurants have been swooped up and persistence pays off.

When you finally get some oil it is often rancid and mixed with burnt French fries and chicken fat.  Don’t worry, this oil will still work fine, however this is not something you put directly in your tank.  It would be great if we could just pull up to a McDonalds every time we were running low on fuel and fill up right there.  But that is generally not the case.  Although I have heard of a quick filtration method using a centrifuge filter that essentially spins the oil and splats all the unwanted solids against the outside, allowing the person to filter oil as they collect it and put it directly in their tank.  Most people however use a much slower process. 

My first step in filtering oil is to let it settle for a week or so.  This allows the fatty solids to settle to the bottom so you can pour the clear oil off the top.  Skipping this step will clog any filter in seconds.  I then pour the oil through a 100 micron screen filter into a 55 gallon drum.  This filters out any old french fries or debris that might be floating in your oil and any fatty gunk that made it through the pouring process.  

The next stage involves running the oil through 2 more filters, a 10 micron filter and a 1 micron filter.  The standard fuel filter in your vehicle filters to about 10 microns, so doing it to 1 micron is a little bit overkill, but doing so means I won’t have to worry about the filter in my truck clogging up mid drive and it is a lot easier on my engine and the injector pump in the long run.  For this process I use 2 standard in-line water filters that I hooked up to the bottom of my drum.  Notice that I attached the pipe a few inches from the bottom.  I try not to pour any new oil into the drum for at least a few days before I start pumping the oil through these filters.  Leaving a little space at the bottom of the drum gives a place for any leftover fatty solids to settle so they don’t clog up the filters. 

To pump the oil through the filters I use a 12V water pump that was made for use in an RV.  I hook it up to my truck battery and attach it to the end of my filters.  It works pretty well and I don’t need an on-grid power source to use it.  Doing the filtering sequentially like this, 100 microns then 10 microns then 1 micron, helps keep your filters from clogging which also keeps the rate of flow up.  It takes about a minute to fill up this 2 ½ gallon gas can, then I pour it into my tank and I’m ready to go!  If your system is set up somewhere you can drive up to you can pump the oil straight into your tank.  The veg oil tank in my truck holds about 30 gallons, so I can get about 2 fill ups from one full drum of oil.  It usually takes me long enough to go through that much oil that the next batch has adequately settled and is ready to filter.

I Hope this has been a useful summary and has peaked your interest a bit about alternative fuel sources.  Thanks for checking us out!

My trusty luck dragon - Falcor

My trusty luck dragon - Falcor

Fuel Selector Valve

Fuel Selector Valve

Toggle switches

Toggle switches

vegetable oil filter wrapped in coolant lines

vegetable oil filter wrapped in coolant lines

100 micron screen filter

100 micron screen filter

Filter System

Filter System

St. John's wort - A favorite summertime medicinal plant

By: Gabe Garms

A good indicator of the arrival of summer here in the Pacific Northwest is when the roadsides begin to pop with the bright yellow flowers of Hypericum perforatum, also known as St. John's wort. It's an introduced species here in the United States and grows throughout most of the country. Hypericum loves human disturbance and tends to grow near edges, such as roadsides and open lots and meadows, where you'll typically find it in abundance. Many consider it a noxious weed, but hopefully after reading this article, you'll see that it truly is a magical plant.

When harvesting wild plants for medicine, the first and most important thing to consider before you begin is that you're harvesting the correct plant. There are other lookalike plants that grow amongst Hypericum in the wild that can be toxic if ingested. So before I dive into the magic that is this herb, let's first learn how to identify it correctly. 

If you look at the picture to the top right, you'll notice the flowers are bright yellow, have 5 petals and numerous stamens bursting from the center. In the second picture, notice that the leaves are growing off of the stem opposite of one another and will occasionally have little red specks on the underside (the red specks are the active ingredient - hypericin). Now look at the third picture and notice that if you hold a leaf up into the light, there are numerous little transparent holes (hence the name perforatum - which is latin for perforated). So now that we've correctly identified Hypericum perforatum, now let's get into all of the fun stuff.

MEDICINAL VALUE:

While this herb is incredibly medicinal, it deserves much respect and can hurt you just as easily as it can heal you. Before I get into it's medicinal uses, I feel it's important to state that you shouldn't take Hypericum if you're taking any kind of pharmaceutical drugs. While it doesn't negatively interact with all pharmaceuticals, I would recommend playing it safe and not risk mixing them together. It should also be avoided by people who are bi-polar or experiencing any kind of psychosis. I've seen someone take it with a form of psychosis and it likely magnified this person's condition. Also review the dosages section below before you begin to use this herb.

The main active constituent (ingredient) in Hypericum perforatum is a red compound called hypericin. It's taken medicinally as either an oil or a tincture (I discuss how to make both towards the end of the article) and it's used to treat the following:

  • Back pain - The oil is used topically to treat pain caused by nerve damage. Specifically, it's great for back pain (ie sciatica nerve damage).
  • Depression - The tincture is used to treat a fleeting bout of depression - caused by a loss or a sudden change in your life. I've found that herbs like motherwort and wild rose are much safer alternatives for prolonged use and for children. But I have seen Hypericum work many times for people who are feeling down.
  • Retroviruses such as HIV and Herpes - The oil can be applied to cold sores and the tincture is used to treat both viruses. There are quite a few scholarly articles (search Hypericum perforatum on google scholar) out there about the effectiveness of this herb in the treatment of both HIV and HSV. I also have a friend who has seen it work with a family member.
  • Attention Deficit Disorder - Since it strengthens and rejuvenates the central nervous system, it eases the anxiety associated with ADD by bringing you back into balance. I have ADD myself and Hypericum tincture has worked great for me at times when I need to focus. 
  • Tonic for the Central Nervous System - The tincture helps rejuvenate, strengthen and restore function to the CNS. However, it should only be taken for a short time. For long term strengthening of the CNS, I personally use oatstraw as an infusion. I'll write an article about oatstraw this coming fall when it comes time to harvest.

OTHER USES:  

  • Sunscreen - The oil is applied to the skin. Many different commercial sunscreens are being linked with cancer, and hypericum is a natural, safe and effective alternative.
  • Pollinator attractor - Hypericum has been documented to attract numerous pollinator insects.

HARVESTING:

June is the best time to harvest the plant, which is why I wanted to post this article now. You want to harvest the top third of the flowering plant (flowers, stems and leaves), and to ensure that you're getting the most medicinally potent plants, you'll want to perform the crush test (this test also helps with identification). Simply take a couple flowers/buds and crush them between your index finger and thumb. If a distinct red stain is left behind (see picture to the right), that means it's loaded with hypericin and you've found a great plant to harvest. After hypericum has been in flower for awhile, it loses it's potency and doesn't stain when crushed. So if you're looking to make the most potent medicine, the crush test is a good habit to get into before the harvest.

PREPARATION:

Just as Hypericum loses it's potency after it's been in flower for awhile, it also becomes significantly less potent when it's dried. Because of this, it's not very useful as a tea and is most effective as either an oil (to be applied topically) or as a tincture. 

To make the oil, fill a mason jar with fresh plant material (see picture above right), and fill the jar with olive oil almost to the top.  Now cover the jar with a paper towel and secure it with a rubber band. This method is recommended because you want to allow the moisture that the freshly picked plant releases to escape the jar. If you seal the jar with a metal lid, the trapped moisture can ruin your oil. Let the oil sit for 4-6 weeks in a cool, dark place and then filter the plant material out. The oil stays good for 1-2 years.

To make the tincture, pack the jar with fresh plant material and add 80-100 proof grain alcohol almost to the top (I typically use unflavored vodka). Now seal the jar with a metal or plastic lid and store in a cool, dark place for 6 weeks. Shake the jar once per day for the first couple of weeks. Filter out the plant material and store in a dark colored bottle. The tincture stays good for 5+ years.

DOSAGES:

I was recently listening to a podcast by one of my favorite herbalists, Jim McDonald, and he said something pretty profound regarding tincture dosages. He said that the correct dosage is the minimum amount of the herb that it takes to cure the ailment. So while some herbalists recommend taking 20 drops of the tincture 2-3 times per day, Jim instead recommends taking 5 drops at a time more frequently throughout the day. I have been trying this with my own tincture intake and I've definitely noticed a difference. So with Hypericum you can either take 20-30 drops 2-3 times per day or 5 drops more frequently throughout the day. But remember not to take it for long periods of time and start slow. What I mean by that is to start your dosages on the small side (5 drops or so) to see how your body reacts before you increase your dosage.

So hopefully you've learned a thing or two about an herb which is probably growing on or near your property. As you get to know it, give it the respect that it deserves and it will become a great ally. Thanks for reading!

DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor and the above information is solely meant for educational purposes. For medical advice, please consult a medical healthcare professional. 

 

Hypericum flowers

Hypericum flowers

Opposite leaves. red specks are hypericin

Opposite leaves. red specks are hypericin

Notice the transparent holes in the leaf

Notice the transparent holes in the leaf

The Crush Test - Notice the Red stain

The Crush Test - Notice the Red stain

Mason jar filled with hypericum Flowers and Leaves

Mason jar filled with hypericum Flowers and Leaves

Some Tips on Bow-Making

Some Tips on Bow-Making

I have been playing with some different methods for working bow staves down to the floor tillering phase, and I wanted to share what I have learned.  I personally prefer using hand tools throughout the whole bow-making process, which can lengthen the time significantly compared to using a ban saw to cut out a blank.  However, where it use to take me most of a day to rough out the basic shape of a bow using a hatchet, I’ve found a method that brings that time down to about  half an hour. 

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Welcome to Raven's Roots

We couldn't be more excited to open our doors to the public in August of 2015. We will be hosting a community potluck on Saturday, August 15th on our campus in Sedro-Woolley, WA to celebrate the new beginning. Our first official course, the Ethnobotany Apprenticeship, will begin during the last weekend of August with the Tracking and Hunter/Gatherer Apprenticeships following on shortly afterwards. We will be offering short courses in Wild Friction Fire, Short Term Survival and Bird Language and Behavior during the Fall months as well.

The purpose of this blog is to educate our audience with videos, articles and general posts which capture all of the projects that we are working on in our free time relative to homesteading and naturalist studies. We're also open to having guest posters periodically to widen our knowledgebase so please contact us if you have anything relative which you'd like to share.