Friday, July 24, 2015

A taste of plant medicine, meetings with trees, and a small surprise

The themes of caretaking and stewardship wove through our June weekend. Our second morning, like our first day, was grounded at Alexis and Bobbi’s place, home of Earth Tracks Outdoor School and Rebel Roots Herb Farm.  

We spent the morning in two groups alternating between two herbal medicine-making activities using common wild plants.  Alexis took a group through the process of harvesting plantain and making an infused oil, to use on its own or as a later base for medicinal salve. Lee and I led a second activity, harvesting some of the abundant wild thyme whose fragrance wafted around our tents, and creating a thyme-infused medicinal apple cider vinegar.  Alex joined in at Alexis’s station to strain off and share the lemon balm cold infusion she had made the previous day: a welcome refresher to the morning’s heat. Each group researched the plants while working with them, using field guides and each other’s knowledge to understand the medicinal properties of the plants we harvested with our hands.  

Our afternoon location was a short drive away: the forested property where Earth Tracks had been based until recently.  The brightness of sun and openness of the agricultural landscape where we had started the weekend was transformed into the coolness and cover of dense trees; the industriousness of the morning’s activities into a grounded and aware exploration of this new place and its energy. 

We began the afternoon identifying trees on the property; but quickly moved into several activities that shifted our awareness to more subtle information around us.  A paired blindfolded “meet a tree” exercise gave each person the opportunity to use their less dominant senses – including intuition – to get to know an individual tree and then find it again with the blindfold removed.  We followed this with a focused sit spot, each of us tuning in to the space around us and asking the questions “what can I do to help?” or “how can I give back to this land?” and listening to the possible answers: moving branches, lifting up weight, pruning.  It was in introduction to listening deeply to the land as an expression of caretaking.

To close the afternoon, we worked on one more caretaking project, a deer trail that the apprenticeship group of three years ago had begun clearing.  Alexis spoke of his connection to the deer on this property, where he had hunted as well as stewarded the land. We moved on to the trail, thinking through the mind of a deer which obstacles would hinder our progress, especially at low energy and hungry times of year.  As we moved branches, our intention was also to create brush piles, as we had the day before, to provide shelter for small mammals and other creatures. 

As I stood on a trail clearing branches onto a pile beside me, I did not expect what happened next.  I lifted a particularly long branch and dropped it to my right with a small crash.  The crash was followed by several more, the rustling of leaves and the crashing of small panicked feet.  I looked up to see a small dappled fawn dashing fleetly away from me, looking for its mother, who would not have been far away.  I was astonished at how well this small creature had been camouflaged two feet beside me, and shaken to have found myself scaring it in this way.  A few people around me working on the same trail gathered together to look at the spot where the fawn had been – a tiny kidney-shaped spot in the earth still warm to the touch.  It was a gift to see this fawn, to know that there were young here needing shelter, and to see that the brush piles we made would be used exactly as we intended.  It was a powerful experience to walk away with while reflecting on caretaking as one of the gifts and responsibilities of humans to the Earth.

Written By: Malgosia Halliop - 2nd year Earth Tracks Wild Plants Apprentice

Caretaking and Land Stewardship for Future Generations

Friday was a day of stewardship and caretaking on the new Earth Tracks land. 

Getting our hands into the dirt was the priority for the morning.  We each researched a herb that had been brought up in the Rebel Roots greenhouse to learn about its medicinal qualities and where it might grow best.  With flats of classics like nettle, calendula and chamomile we put a lot of seedlings into the ground. There were also some heritage tobacco plants and a strong vermifuge called wormwood. We learned a few growing techniques, like scratching up astragalus seeds to help them sprout. We will check back on our newly planted medicinals next weekend to see how they’re doing.

We worked on some stewardship projects after lunch.  The sugar maple trees that we had potted last weekend were ready to go into the ground.  We planted them along the driveway into the house.  The location we selected was in between the row of pines that shadow the southern edge of the road into the property.  When the red pines have past their peak, these sugar maples will hopefully take on the role of snow and windbreak, provide shelter for the gardens, lawn and thicket on the other side and encourage animal habitat. 

Building animal den/cover sites was another after-lunch project. We made these structures to encourage small mammals like voles, mice, rabbits and hares to live on the property.  These included spheres we made called “mouse houses” or “vole domes”.  Made of tree branches and shrub bows, these homes have a soft, grassy interior and would be a welcome place for any small mammal on a winter’s night! Even a chipmunk or red squirrel might want to move in.  More small mammals means more diversity in the ecosystem and can attract predators like foxes, hawks and coyotes to visit the farm.  We also built brush piles, a collection of sticks and shrubs that can serve the same purpose. 

A walk around the Earth Tracks property helped to animate our work. We looked at the various permaculture and ecosystem restoration projects that are in store for the land. As we dropped off the vole domes and built brush piles along the way, we were inspired by the many ways that humans can work to improve a landscape.  By being true “caretakers” of a land, we can increase the diversity of species that live there and enhance the richness of life for all the species nearby. 

Several folks took a turn at using the bow drills and Basia got a coal that lit our dinner fire. As we built up the fire, we got ready for the evening and our meal.  We harvested some wild edible leaves for our dinner and finished up our projects. Ox eye daisy, red clovers, lamb’s quarters and more went into our wild salad for the evening. Before we ate, we shared some gratitude and reflected on all of the work, learnings and stewardship that had made up our time together.  We looked forward to tomorrow as we ate.  As night fell, we settled into our tents and listened to the bull frog droning on, calling out each time he saw a mosquito fly by… or so it seemed. J.

Written By: Alex Thomson - 2nd year Earth Tracks Wild Plants Apprentice

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Tracking in the Sauble Beach Area

Saturday, June 13th, 2015 - Story of the Day

Congregating at Alexis’s place before starting our drive to Sauble, we travellers arrived with stories of our adventures.  Sue, Aster and Luke had stopped to investigate some road kill, get hair samples and pull the bodies to a more peaceful resting place. Miriam shared her experience watching the fireflies come out the night before and was grateful for the peaceful misty morning drive. Following a quick tour of the beautiful place we’d call home for the weekend, we set out.
Arriving at our destination we headed to the sandy areas to look for tracks.  We passed some yellow lady slippers that grew just off the path – a cheery welcome. A chance meeting with a grandfather and his grandson concerned about the debris being dumped in the area made us mindful of how important stewardship is to our interaction with this land.
How rewarding it is to find an animal at the end of the track you are following…and so it was with one of our first finds….a millipede (North American maybe?) A close look afforded a view of the tiny leg tracks. Close by was a curious raised line that when uncovered exposed a wee round tunnel a mere 1/8th of an inch in diameter.  Clearly the makings of a creature much smaller than the millipede.

Off at the edge of the wooded area Luke and Sue located what they suspected might be lagomorph signs. Investigating further we discovered more clues including prints, a small enchanting opening into the cedars we crouched to look through, and some intriguing scat. Lagomorphs are “coprophagous” which means they eat their first scat to glean nutrients from the undigested material contained therein. By comparing two scat samples we think we might have found some uneaten first scats. Is there a story behind this? Might the nearby fox scat, though older, be a clue?
Back onto the sand we found more lagomorph tracks. Cottontail or  Snowshoe Hare? Careful measurement of trail width, track size and stride length helped us to place our bets on cottontail. Drawn by the activity of the egrets and crows in the distance we set off to see what we might find of bird tracks, and of course anything else of interest…bear tracks were on all of our wish lists.
Lunch at the point was a lovely time of spectacular views, ideal weather (Alexis wished he’d brought his bathing suit), and happy companionship. After lunch Luke went to look for frogs, Miriam and Aster investigated the area barefooted in the cool water, and Sue and Alexis went looking for the nest of the killdeer we’d sighted. Though the nest was never located, when we all joined up again to move inland we suspected we must have come pretty close to the nest because the killdeer performed its characteristic broken wing diversion trick. A female redstart sighting led us on a journey into the woods in search of more bird sightings…male redstarts? and if we were lucky maybe a redstart nest. Alexis drew our attention to a tree rising proud above its neighbours, spreading its almost leaf-bare arm-like branches out to the side. An attractive perch for large birds? Binoculars allowed us to see the worn bark in places and confirmed our suspicions. The base of the tree beckoned…what treasures might be found? Luke found a skull that remained a mystery even after consulting the skull book later on. Lots of white wash. A green feather! Heading back came across a few egg shells – of a similar mottled colouring but of a much smaller bird than the killdeer eggshell we found earlier.
Out in the open again we encountered clusters of pitcher plants. Like all carnivorous plants, pitcher plants grow in locations where the soil is too poor in minerals, especially nitrogen and phosphorous, and/or too acidic for most plants to survive. The digested insects, and sometimes larger creatures like mice and frogs! provide the pitcher plants their needed mineral nutrition. More bird prints. Having encountered a number of prints throughout our journey we were able to compare and contrast our findings and use these comparisons and our resource guides to help us distinguish, in particular, sandhill crane and great egret tracks. Noting the toe positioning was helpful identifying some smaller prints as likely corvid tracks. What a treat to then come across some turtle tracks! A fun experience trying to identify them…the penny dropped for all of us when Alexis gave us the hint that he didn’t think they were mammal tracks.  The drag marks and ambling gait finally made sense if it was a turtle!  While inspecting the turtle track we encountered tiny frog and vole tracks too. What day filled with richness.  From the tiny millipede tracks to the grand wingspan of the great egret in flight passing overhead. From the close inspections of the finest details of our finds to the expansive vistas out over the land and water.

Back at Alexis’ place we enjoyed a potluck dinner of delicious food and story sharing. Under a starlit sky we ended the day spending time together around the campfire before heading to sleep to the sound of the night creatures.

Written by Miriam Snell - 1st year Tracking Apprentice

Tracking on the Sauble River

Sunday June 14th, 2015 - Story of the Day
 Written by Tamara Anderson


Bob Marley wrote, “Some people feel the rain and others just get wet.”  The rain reminds us of mindfulness - to live in the moment and welcome whatever it brings.  We were immersed in rain and mindfulness for most of Sunday’s outing to the Sauble River.  The Sauble River flows through Bruce and Grey County into Lake Huron.  The river was named “Rivière aux Saubles” or Sandy River by the French explorers in 1759.  I wonder if the local Saugeen First Nation has a different name for this river?

The maple forest revealed a few gems, like a brave garter snake.  The snake patiently let us hold him/her.  Beaver, coyote, raccoon and muskrat tracks were also spotted along the silty shoreline of the river.  Nearby, Alexis found an otter latrine site with a freshly killed garter snake.  Had the garter snake fallen out of the grasping talons of a bird of prey?  The otter scat contained scales from fish and the rusty-coloured remains of crayfish.  A Red-Eyed Vireo serenaded us once again while we ate lunch beside the river.  After lunch, we found Giant Hogweed, an invasive plant whose sap can cause intense blistering and even blindness.  Strangely enough, we noted deer browse on the tips of the Hogweed. Deer never cease to amaze me with their ability to eat noxious plants.  My impression of them as adrenaline-seeking risk takers continues to evolve. 

We were soon on a quest for Kingfisher holes after seeing a steep, sandy river bank on the south shoreline.  Success!  A square-looking hole was found near the top of the bluff.      The Belted Kingfisher excavates a nesting burrow that is two to three metres long in a vertical sand bank.  The blue and white lightning bird digs the tunnel with its beak and feet.  We wandered south towards a colourful, alvar-looking landscape.  Sandy trails revealed coyote scat and mystery tracks.   We debated the track-maker’s identity and finally resolved to call the animal a fox-walking raccoon.  A short drive to Sauble beach on Lake Huron completed the day.  In our closing circle, each person shared their focal species for the next 8 months.  Aster chose the beaver.  Sue is learning more about deer.  Miriam is also studying deer.  Luke is thinking about lagomorphs.  Alexis is going to learn more about the European hare.  I am choosing to focus on the black coyotes that live around my place.  Strangely, no one chose the fox-walking raccoon?

Trillions of trilliums and other adventures in the understory

Story of the Day for Sunday May 17

 After a beautiful Saturday night potluck full of wild foods, and a beautiful fire, our plants group got up on Sunday morning with a transplanting mission. In the long grasses under some pine trees, tiny sugar maple seedlings were trying to grow. Before the mower could reach them, it was our plan to plant some of these maples elsewhere.
Mixing the native soil with some of the potting soil so that the young plants would not be shocked, we each took turns digging out two seedlings and potting them up for our trees and stewardship weekend in June.

We then got into vehicles, and headed to an established hardwood forest on the Niagara Escarpment. Moments after being on the trail, there were little bunches of white flowers and single magenta-pink blossoms lining the way. What were some of the differences between the various types of native cherry we wondered? Choke, Pin and Black Cherry. . . and what (if anything) can be done with their blossoms?

Past honeysuckles, wild strawberries and endless amounts of deer browse, we climbed. Stopping at a Hop Hornbeam, a member of the Birch family, we found out that it has edible seeds that hang in a cluster similar to hops. The maple and ash trees nearby also have edible seeds, which are more palatable before maturing, as the older, the more bitter they seem to get.

Hiking up the slope, we encountered many, many trilliums, varying in colour from bright white to dark maroon, some with a distinctive ripe smell that attracts some of the pollinators (tricked into thinking they will get a carrion meal). There were also some examples of both false and true Solomon's seal, which can be differentiated by the way they flower.

Many spectacular orchids were found, including the Yellow Lady Slipper, whose flower smelled of mango! , and a beautiful patch of pink and white Showy Orchis. After a lunch atop the mountain, we listened to birds and even saw a beautiful Rose-Breasted Grosbeak.

Traversing down the slope, on our way to refill our water bottles from a natural aquifer, we passed the Coffee Plant - a cool find with plenty of further research about how to get that delectable brew from it!

Visiting the "supermarket" of the lowlands, a name Euell Gibbons imparted upon Cattail, we tasted some young shoots and discussed survival uses and foods from all seasons that could be made from this plant. Even the mucous/slime that lines the inner cattail can be useful as a bit of natural topical painkiller.

As we headed back to our starting point, before closing our circle with porcupine browsed poplar buds, we encountered our final member of the Solomon Seal family - Star flowered - with some very young and delectably edible shoots. Our last edible find - a morel! To more  adventures next time!

Written by:  Lee Earl - 2nd Year Plants Apprentice