Category Archives: Cooking

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Animism at the Dinner Table

By | Animism, Bioregionalism, Cooking | 18 Comments

Some of you may not be aware of this, but food is my first passion above herbalism and above magic. I am a mom, then a cook, then a plant lover, and then a witch. The artist is in there too, but often gets to create through food rather than illustration most of the time. My parents taught me to cook from a very young age, from the garden, from scratch, from whole foods. I cooked while I was going to school and then went to culinary school out of high school rather than university. I worked at hotels and restaurants all over the great cities of Canada: Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Victoria.

I saw the truffle seller come in the back door and peddle her fragrant wares out of a basket by candlelight in a restaurant in Montréal. I remember picking herbs fresh from the gardens of a lakeside hotel to cook dinner for a wedding in rural Ontario.  I’ve cleaned endless fir needles out of pounds upon pounds of wild harvested chanterelle muhrooms for a cafe in Victoria. I’ve felt the steam of the line kitchen, the heat of the deep fryers, and the feel of flipping a pan of perfectly browned vegetables in my hand over a gas flame. My dream at nineteen was to become like my German-Ontarian idol Michael Statlander as famous chefs Magnus Nilsson and Rene Redzepi have become in recent years but with simplicity instead of their superfluousness… and well, maybe it could still happen one day.

Further in the past there was once a little girl who had very odd parents. On the surface they appeared normal just like every other child’s parents; they dressed normally, had normal jobs, went to church, and read her bedtime stories at night. But they were… odd. You see, they talked to plants and animals as if the flora and fauna understood them and were going to answer back. Her green-thumbed mother talked to and expressed love for all the plants in her garden and they flourished for her. Her father lovingly spoke to his cows and pigs as if they were friends and fed them better than most people and they loved him back, tamely following him around like he’d walked out of a Disney movie or was some kind of animal whisperer. These odd parents would take the little girl and her sister deep into the forest of tall, moss-covered trees with a floor of ferns and teach her the names of the wild plants and the animals they were lucky and quiet enough to spot. The girl learned how to say please and thank you to all the bushes she picked and ate delicious juicy berries from and to give a friendly hello to any forest creature she met.

My kitchen table

Preparing a feast at my kitchen table for workshop attendees

These are my parents and it took me a long time to realize that they were rare people when it came to their ethics and philosophy regarding the natural world. My father loves his 83 acres of field and forest as if it were a person and he loved his livestock as much as his dogs and his children. My mother simply cannot live without her garden and being surrounded by the beautiful green of nature – the city just won’t do. It’s not that they grew up with a rural mindset. They both grew up in towns and cities, attended university, and have travelled extensively. This is the life and philosophy they have chosen to live, not one they were born into. And yet, my parents are Christians who attend church every Sunday who have never heard of animism and have never put much thought into environmentalism aside from recycling, not polluting, and generally not being a jerk to nature. Without intending to, through their own everyday actions, they had taught me ethical livestock husbandry and land stewardship.

It is my belief, that if most people quietly went on about their lives living and breathing such a philosophy every day as my parents do, no matter their religious denomination, that our severely damaged relationship with the natural world would slowly be repaired.

When the world was awash with animism, the people viewed food as sacred and precious. Nature was God and thus food was God. Little berry deities on the bush, succulent root deities in the earth, sweet deity blood as sap running from a tapped birch tree. Animals were deities too, presided over by the wild and fearsome forest gods who could curse or kill those who did not treat their realm with respect. Ancient hunters would ask permission of these wild gods before hunting their deer or boar. Ancient gatherers would ask permission before picking berries or harvesting the soft edible cambium or underbark of trees. All that is left of these beliefs and practices is folklore and prayers from both the Old and New Worlds, collected as anecdotes rather than as a body of living lore.

below: beets and carrots at a farmers’ market

foraged saskatoon berries preserved from the hot sun with sweetfern

produce

Talking to Our Food

What if we didn’t strive to be like the ancients, whose true ways are long lost and whose skills are beyond many of us at this time, but instead decided to bring the philosophy of animism to the dinner table? What would it look like? To be honest, it would look foolish to an outsider as it would involve talking to plants and animals, talking to our food sources, as if they were sentient and could understand us. Most of the old prayers collected as folklore weren’t really prayers at all, they were people talking to plants and to wild spirits. What would it sound like? Something along the lines of: “Hey there beautiful thimbleberry bush. I’m not going to harm you. I’m just going to pick some of your berries to eat. Don’t hurt me and please tell your friends good things about me. Thank you for your gift of food.” It is informal dialogue showing honesty, politeness, and respect.  Following up your words with matching actions completes the circle by practicing ethical wild harvesting or hunting and fishing methods. Somehow, saying such things aloud to a plant or a fish eventually feels less silly and more ritualistic, more necessary. It creates a connection between you and your food source – the natural world.

Mistress of the woods, Mielikki,
Forest-mother, formed in beauty,
Let thy gold flow out abundant,
Let thy silver onward wander,
For the hero that is seeking
For the wild-moose of thy kingdom;
Bring me here thy keys of silver,
From the golden girdle round thee;
Open Tapio’s rich chambers,
And unlock the forest fortress,
While I here await the booty,
While I hunt the moose of Lempo.

~ Rune XIV, The Kalevala (1849)

The Kalevala is a Finnish epic, it’s true age isn’t known as the oral lore wasn’t written down until the 1800s. Above is an example of a hunter buttering up the guardian spirit of the forest so that she will show favour to him and let him hunt her caribou successfully. Below a travelling musician kindly asks that he may walk through the forest without being harmed by the bears who dwell within it.

Otso, thou O Forest-apple,
Bear of honey-paws and fur-robes,
Learn that Wainamoinen follows,
That the singer comes to meet thee;
Hide thy claws within thy mittens,
Let thy teeth remain in darkness,
That they may not harm the minstrel,
May be powerless in battle.
Mighty Otso, much beloved,
Honey-eater of the mountains,
Settle on the rocks in slumber,
On the turf and in thy caverns;
Let the aspen wave above thee,
Let the merry birch-tree rustle
O’er thy head for thy protection.

~ Rune XLVI, The Kalevala (1849)

“O Lady Artemis, do not loosen your golden chains. See your hounds of plain or forest, white or coloured, let them not with open jaws seek out the fields of the plain, let them come empty and let them go empty. Make them run off, and let them not come to our farm, nor touch our cattle nor harm our donkeys.”

~ Latin incantation inscribed on a copper nail found in northern Europe

In a related tale from the highlands of Scotland a deer woman comes out of the forest and tells the hunters to leave a deer once a month as an offering at a cairn and when they do their hunt is successful, if they don’t leave the offering they bring home no deer. This mysterious woman’s own hunting hounds are often wolves and it is her in the Scottish tales asking the hunters to tie up their hounds (Davidson). Such themes and incantations are found across cultures and continents from the Coast Salish of the Pacific Northwest asking a Red Cedar tree permission to harvest its bark to the Amazonian Huacharia’s tea ceremony asking permission of the forest to hunt and forage to incantations from 19th century Scotland recorded in the Carmina Gadelica asking plants to lend their magical and medicinal powers to the forager. They all announce themselves and ask permission of the forest, or the individual flora and fauna who compose it, to trespass, to forage, and to hunt.

River may I cross your waters and fish them for food? Forest, trees, please reveal to me your mushrooms edible to humans and free from slugs and worms. Berries, shining jewels, may I pick you? Roots, deep medicine, may I harvest you and nourish my family with your starch? I won’t take too much, just enough for me and mine while still leaving plenty for you and yours who belong to the forest.

Lake Superior, Ontario

Lake Superior from Northern Ontario

The more you do this the more you may start to notice that the natural world responds back. Maybe the forest will reveal its best berry picking and root-digging spots to you after your good treatment of its denizens, its resources. Maybe it will get less and less hard to find deer during hunting season after you’ve consistently asked for permission from the forest. Maybe you’ll end up with more fish from the river than you’ve ever caught before after years of giving it simple offerings, asking respectfully for a good catch, and cleaning up any garbage you find. If you dwell in a more sub/urban area, maybe it will be simply that your vegetable garden flourishes as never before and your chickens lay the best eggs after being treated with love. Perhaps you’ll find an incredibly productive blackberry bush in an unexpected corner of the city away from pollution that yields its fruits to you scratch-free. Whatever they may be, the rewards for your philosophy in action will become apparent and very much real.

There are other ways we can bring animism to the dinner table. Some are simple and already practiced by many of us such as choosing sustainably or organically grown local produce from a local farmer who cares about quality and about their land. A locally grown tomato, ripened on the vine in season will always taste leagues better than a tomato grown thousands of miles away out of season, covered in chemicals to kill pests and molds, picked green, and artificially ripened. If hunting or raising livestock for your own meat isn’t an option, then try your best to purchase local, ethically raised meats and eggs. The prices in shops and city farmers’ markets are always higher, but if you drive out to the country to pick up meat and eggs yourself, you may find the pricing more digestible along with a much healthier and tastier result.

below: a wild hare

Dead wild hare

The Grey Ethics of Killing to Eat

An indigenous approach is more concerned with honouring the body of the creature by taking the most nourishment possible from it, where the modern attitude is to use only some of the creature’s body if it is convenient, sterile, and socially acceptable.”  ~ Miles Olson

I was raised on a farm and in the wilderness with hunters. When I was a little girl I saw moose butchered in garages with every part to be used; meat for eating, sinew for crafts, bones for stock, the hide for leather, the skull and antlers for decoration. The locals’ favourite part was the tongue. I helped my Tahltan neighbour carefully pick sockeye salmon out of his traditional long pole net in the Stikine River and then gut them – some for smoking and some for canning. I sat by that same river alone with a fishing rod of driftwood with a hook and salmon eggs as bait and caught salmon, knocking them out with a club, gutting them, and wrapping them in newspaper to place them in the freezer. I lived on a farm with cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys. My parents named every livestock animal, talking to them as if they were human, and treating them well with good food, a good life, and a good death. Our love for them didn’t stop us from eating them. Through the actions of my parents I learned that as we loved and cared for our animals, they in turn cared for us by nourishing us with their fat, meat, minerals and vitamins.

“I feel a deep kinship with the animals I hunt; most hunters do. We get to know them in a far deeper way than all but a few other sorts of human: We know their personalities, their foibles, their habits. Where they like to live, what they like to eat, and what they might do in any given situation. Yet most of us take delight in being fooled when a deer or rabbit shows us some new quirk of their behavior. Hunt any animal long enough and it ceases to be the Disneyfied caricature of itself most people know and blossoms into a clever, free-thinking entity – an entity not so different from us.

My mind settled onto this seeming paradox the way a leaf settles onto the forest floor. Sitting in this meadow, in this place, as a hunter and a human animal, it felt serenely right in a way I find wildly incapable of explaining to those who have not experienced the same feeling.”  ~ Hank Shaw

I saw and lived this way of life from a young age. I saw the good, but I also saw the bad. I saw coyotes pick off livestock when drought caused them to starve. I saw hunters come from the city to kill bears for sport, taking nothing but photos and the hide and wasting the rest. I saw chickens kill their own deformed chicks. I saw cows and pigs accidentally kill their own young by crushing them. I saw pigs locked in pens to grow fat leading to health problems and atrophied limbs. I saw pregnant animals killed without a thought, the fetuses thrown onto a pile of refuse. My father used to buy animals from farmers who treated their livestock like this to give them a better life. We took in cows, pigs, and chickens. I remember one time the vet came to our farm to inspect our animals and give them shots. He refused to vaccinate them because they were so healthy, friendly, and intelligent, he didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t broken “you’ve got some healthy organic meat here, you don’t need me.”

Butchering a duck

Butchering a duck into meat, fat for rendering, and bone & organs for stock

My parents taught me to care where my food comes from and when I became a professional cook it was just as important. I learned that the meat from a pig who lived a happy life with other pigs, was fed a good and varied diet, was allowed to run around, roll, in mud, and forage, and was given a good, quick death led to amazingly tasty meat. I learned that if that same pig was locked up in a small pen alone, fed only the same commercial feed and water, was never allowed to see the light of day, and was terrified before death, resulted in disgusting inedible meat.

Studies have been done on cows that revealed a good, quick death devoid of fear resulted in good meat, whereas a frightened and panicking cow before death results in bad meat; the adrenaline and hormones released from fear poisoning the muscle. I grew up knowing there were no absolutes in the ethics of killing for food, but that it’s our individual actions and treatment of our food that really matters.

Apple whiskey roast pork

My recipe for slow roasted pork with apples, bacon, and whiskey

I learned I should not kill an animal because I can, but because I need to and that when I do kill for food it should be the easiest, most painless, and best death I can provide. It is much easier to believe that animal life is not really life equal to ours and make ourselves cold to them so we can stuff them into slaughterhouses for frightening, painful deaths so we can have convenient access to mass amounts of faceless meat in supermarkets. It is much harder to admit animals deserve fair and good treatment with respect and reverence towards their feelings and needs and spend extra money and time making sure they receive that good treatment.

It isn’t so easy to give meat a good death, even if you are a farmer. Abattoirs (or slaughterhouses) are fewer and fewer with independent butchers closing up and retiring faster than they can be replaced. Where I live in Canada meat has to be federally inspected before it can be legally sold to the public. This results in many small farmers not being able to afford to send their livestock to a federally inspected facility and it’s often the meat farmers in any rural area I’ve lived in within Canada who go out of business first. There is simply no legislation in place for small meat producers and even for small egg producers. This is one of the many reasons we need change so badly. If we change the demand for how our meat is raised and slaughtered, it is more likely to lead to the necessary change in laws so we can legally and more easily access healthy, local, whole foods.

Carrot Juice is Murder

Listen up brothers and sisters, come hear my desperate tale.
I speak of our friends of nature, trapped in the dirt like a jail.
Vegetables live in oppression, served on our tables each night.
The killing of veggies is madness, I say we take up the fight.
Salads are only for murderers, coleslaw’s a fascist regime.
Don’t think that they don’t have feelings, just ’cause a radish can’t scream.

~ The Arrogant Worms

The world is not our oyster and we need to change how we think and act when it comes to our food supply.

Many people’s solution is to become vegetarian or vegan to stop participating in the industrial machine that treats animals this way. We laud ourselves for being so ethical, but in doing so we can easily forget that plants deserve fair treatment just as much as animals do. We forget to think about the forests and wetlands destroyed so they can be replaced by fields of organic carrot and soy bean monocrops in California.

We forget to think about the environmental footprint of importing fruits, vegetables, and grains over long distances. We forget to think about if our produce has been genetically modified or altered or covered in herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides and what the health effects of such things are upon the land, its waters, the animals that live on it, the bees who pollinate it, the farmers that tend it, and our children who eat its fruits. We forget to think about if the produce was commercially grown on land raped of its nutrients and filled with fertilizers to compensate, leaching into the water supply and contaminating it for animals and humans. Yes, even organic agriculture is guilty of this.

We forget to think about if our produce was grown with long-term sustainability in mind. Farmers,  animals, and whole ecosystems are dying so we can eat organic soybeans and corn we don’t actually need. How many people have to die and how much more research has to be done before we abandon the Frankenstein that is modern commercial agriculture? Even organic agriculture is not sustainable, not the way we are currently practicing it. How many studies must be done proving plants are intelligent and can feel pain before we start to treat them better and stop splicing their genes and covering them in toxic chemicals? How long until we realize maybe we can’t always do this better than Nature naturally does?

Garden harvest

Effecting Change

The answer is simple, but hard to accomplish. As a collective we need stop buying and eating the fruits of the commercial food industry. If we don’t feed the greed machine it ceases to make a profit and therefore will eventually cease to exist as it is. Money is the only thing big agri-business understands and the only language it speaks. If we demand change and vote with our dollar, we can all make that change happen. If you want to see organic, sustainable, permaculture, and forest farming based agriculture succeed, you need to buy produce from farmers who apply its methods or do so yourself. If you want fairer treatment of livestock animals, then raise your own or purchase your meat and eggs from local farmers who treat their animals well and feed them gmo and chemical-free feed. If it’s not an option where you live, you may have to hunt, forage, garden, or become vegetarian. Don’t let a poor economy or a low income get in the way of choosing how you eat. Food is power. If we can feed ourselves we have power over our own lives.

“I realized something had to be done; I had to take action! It was clear that I was a ‘food victim’ and it was time to take back control. I discovered it’s possible when you grow your own fruit and vegetables, raise your own meat, and know what to eat from the wild. This is how I made the switch.”

~ Rohan Anderson, Whole Larder Love

I encourage ecologically friendly agricultural practices and ethical animal husbandry because I always keep in mind the darker side of rewilding the dinner table. There are simply too many of us for everyone to return to foraging and hunting as our main food source. There would be nothing left in the wild in very short order. The remaining forests would be raped and pillaged with our good intent and Nature would have nothing left to feed their own. Farming, forest farming, permaculture, land stewardship, animal husbandry, and other forms of sustainable food production should never be cast to the side, but improved upon for the benefit of all –wild and civilized.

Colony Farms Community Garden in Port Coquitlam, BC

Colony Farms organic community gardens in Port Coquitlam, BC

Maybe you’re a conservative person and don’t like to rock the boat. Maybe you don’t understand politics, don’t care about politics, or don’t have the time to spend figuring out the system so you can effect change in your own life or in the lives of others. Maybe you still feel you need to do something regardless, to get your hands dirty to make a better world. One thing we all share in common, one thing we all care about, is food. Food is where we can start a peaceful revolution forcing the corrupt system to change. If the system isn’t working, opt out. Maybe no one told you it’s a choice before, but it is. You can choose not to participate. You don’t have to be a radical hippie living on a farm or in the backwoods.

You can live in the city or a small town and still grow your own food and choose where your food comes from. There are so many resources for growing food anywhere (apartments with or without balconies, rooftops, yards, containers, empty lots, community gardens, etc) that there’s no excuse not to try. Excuses are our way of opting out and not feeling guilty about it. “I can’t do that, I don’t have enough time or money.” We make time for the things we are truly passionate about. You may have to rearrange your life and give up some things in order to achieve your own food security. I personally think it’s well worth it whether you choose to grow and harvest your own food or simply to make more careful food choices.

Blonde morel mushrooms

Eating as Animists

Does this relate to bioregional animism? Yes! What better way to reinforce your practice and beliefs as a bioregional animist than to focus your diet on wild food and food grown and harvested in a way that sustains the local ecosystem? Besides shopping at seasonal farmer’s markets, you can learn about local wild berries, nuts, fungi, roots, and greens you can forage and eat. Discover native tea and coffee substitutes. Be ethical and sustainable in your foraging and wild harvesting practices so nature can continue to renew itself each year, producing the same wild foods in the future. If you’re a hunter you can learn which animals to hunt for food and what seasons to do so in. If you’re not a hunter, many cities now have butchers devoted to wild game meat – often locally sourced. To learn all these things you can research local wilderness schools, nature field guides, or foraging guides and sign up for a hunter’s licensing course. This new-old way of thinking about food is gaining popularity making resources easier to find.

“Taking back a little bit of control where your food is produced makes life tend towards the simple side. That’s the idea anyway. Simple doesn’t mean you don’t put in effort or that you just lay back and watch things happen. Simple can sometimes mean more work, more planning, and even more thought put into your philosophy of life. The work comes in the form of getting soil under your fingernails, blood on your shirt, and beads of sweat on your forehead cooking over a hot stove.

The planning comes in the form of seasonal preparations and annual events that keep your food stores in check and your vegetable patch happy and productive. And finally, bringing it all together, is your approach to life in general. My philosophy is basic: nature rules supreme. We are only little gears that make the bigger machine do its thing. Although, fools that we are, as a species we often live as though we are the operator of the machine.”

~ Rohan Anderson, Whole Larder Love

As spiritual people who pride ourselves in being reverent of nature, we should care where our food comes from and how it is treated. We should care about plant life just as much animal life. We should care with the deepest passion from our hearts and souls. As a pure animist I see no difference between catching a salmon and killing it for food and pulling up a beet root and cooking it for dinner. No matter what, it’s a life for a life so I can eat and live. We are all eaters of spirits and those spirits deserve to be treated well. All life deserves respect and reverence. How do we show it? Show it through your food choices. Show it through growing your own food and treating your plants and your land well. Show it by giving thanks to the spirits on your plate before each meal. But most of all, show it by teaching your children to care too. If we teach our children where their food comes from and how to make good choices, the next generations will learn from our mistakes and change how things are done to the benefit of all life.

It’s not up to anyone else, it’s up to us. No one is going to do this for you. Look what has already happened when we let the government and agri-business do it for us by monetizing food; something which should be a basic human right and not something we can’t afford to farm or purchase. Take back your power as a living being on this earth and feed yourself and your family. Share the excess with your neighbour and when we all source our own food sustainably and take care of ourselves and each other, then we will have food security and a food system with an ethical philosophy. Then we can start to become part of the earth and its natural food chain once more.

RESOURCES

Blogs

Grow Forage Cook Ferment

Hunger and Thirst

Fat of the Land

Pixie’s Pocket

The Three Foragers

Wild Harvests

Websites

Forager’s Harvest – Samuel Thayer

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook

Northern Bushcraft (Canada)

Northern Farm Training Institute

Overgrow the System

Rodale Institute

Publishing

Audubon Field Guides

Chelsea Green Publishing

Lone Pine Publishing

Mother Earth News

Peterson Field Guides

Books

Adventures in Edible Plant Foraging: Finding, Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Native and Invasive Wild Plants by Karen Monger

Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram

Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook by Dina Falconi

Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast by Hank Shaw

Sacred Food: Cooking for Spiritual Nourishment by Elisabeth Luard

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

The Hair and the Dog – Scottish Deer Lore by Hilda Ellis Davidson and Anna Chaudhri

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

Unlearn, Rewild: Earth skills, ideas and inspiration for the future primitive by Miles Olson

Whole Larder Love: Grow, Gather, Hunt, Cook by Rohan Anderson

 

harvesting-fir

Forest Chai

By | Bioregional Herbalism, Cooking, Recipes | 5 Comments

Chai tea is a delicious way to start working with local plants. Tailor your own chai recipe with aromatic herbs native to the forests of your region and then learn how to identify, seek out, and properly harvest the botanicals needed for the recipe. The process will lead to you becoming comfortable with identifying, harvesting, and preparing a good handful of edible plants which grow all around you. Then maybe out of curiosity you’ll research the medicinal properties of each botanical, then maybe other edible uses, and then maybe you’ll stumble onto some traditional indigenous uses for folk magic and ceremony… Then you will have more plant knowledge than you can shake a stick at (ok, at least much more than you started with). The result won’t be a true chai, but it will be your chai and will become your tasty gateway drug to the wonderful world of bioregional herbalism.

Boreal Forest Chai

2 tsps Fresh or Dried Chaga Mushroom, ground
1-2 tsps Dried Large-Leaved Avens root, roasted and ground
1 tsp Dried Balsam Fir Needles
2 tsp Cinnamon Bark, crushed

Non-native suggestion: The avens root and the chaga are chocolatey, but raw, freshly ground cacao nibs push this combination over the top. Without the cinnamon this becomes balsam fir hot chocolate (which is not a bad thing at all).

Simmer in a pot on the stove on low for 20 min, strain, and add milk or cream and your favourite sweetener. I highly recommend homemade balsam fir tip syrup, maple syrup, or local honey. Unlike other coffee/black tea substitutes, chaga must be simmered low and slow rather than steeped and the same tea bag can be used up to three times to make three equally strong and tasty pots of tea.

Forest Chai

Eastern Forest Chai

2-3 tsp Acorn Coffee (avoid acorns from the poisonous Red Oak)
1 tsp Dried Eastern Hemlock Needles
1 tsp Dried Labrador Tea Leaves
1 tsp Dried Sweet Fern Leaves
1 tsp Dried Sweetgrass
1 tsp Fresh or Dried Wild Licorice Root

Non-native suggestion: A cinnamon stick and/or a few cloves will complete the chai flavour.

West Coast Forest Chai

2 tsp Dandelion Root, roasted
1 tsp Chicory Root, roasted
1 tsp Dried Western Hemlock Needles
1-2 Dried Salal Leaves
1 tsp Dried Rocky Mountain Juniper Berries, crushed
1-2 tsp Fresh or Dried Wild Ginger Root, thinly sliced (specifically Asarum Caudatum)
1 tsp Fresh or Dried Licorice Fern Rhizome, sliced or crushed
1-2 tsp Dried Vanilla Leaf

Non-native suggestion: just a cinnamon stick!

Place the herbs in a drawstring muslin bag, a self-fill paper tea bag, or cheesecloth tied with string and place in your favourite tea pot. Pour freshly boiled water over top, put the lid on the tea pot and cover it with your tea cozy or a dish towel to keep it hot. Wait 10-20 minutes to steep the tea. When ready, remove the tea bag, pour the chai into a mug and add milk/cream and sweeten with honey, maple syrup, birch syrup, or a herbal syrup to taste.

Forest Chai

Forest Tea Ceremony

With a nod to a simple animistic practice from indigenous peoples, create your own tea ceremony to connect with local plant spirits. Go to the edge of a forest or your favourite spot in nature with your travel mug of pre-made tea or be a hardcore hippie and brew it on site with a fire. Pray to the plants as you brew the tea and call the genius loci you wish to work with, spirits great or small. Sip the tea with calm, focused intent. Pray and ask what you want of the spirits: a relationship as spirit ally, their healing powers for an ailment, for their blessing to go into the woods and harvest plants or hunt… whatever your desire may be. Ask for a sign or a dream to reveal their blessing: “grant me your blessing in the form of a raven’s call.”

A herbal tea of local plants is a simple way to connect with your wintery wildwood, but also warm yourself at the same time with the exotic spices. Leave a cup as an offering at your ancestor or genius loci shrines, serve it to guests to show hospitality, or give out cups of it to warm up participants of outdoor winter rituals. Good tea is always worth the effort of harvesting, preparing, and sharing!

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Calendula and the Lily of the Valley

By | Cooking, Folk Medicine, Herbalism | 11 Comments

I’d forgotten about calendula. I used to grow it years ago. I buried grandmother crow under its roots and it flourished into a massive bush of fuzzy green leaves covered in the brightest orange flowers. I put it in my salves and magical oils. The flowers reminded me of gold coins so I used it to draw money in spells of folk magic. But then I lost my garden and I forgot about this plant many herbalists consider an essential medicine. And then, there it was again, growing by the door of my new house. It’s hardiness impresses me. We’ve had many frosts and snow three times now, but it still blooms.

Soothing Skin Salve Dehydrating food and medicine

I decided to do something with it before the old winter hag finally kills it off with her icy touch. I plucked the flowers along with those of toadflax and evening primrose and combined it with sweet violet leaves in jojoba oil. Like many people, I get itchy dry skin in the winter and the plants who are supposed to help all happened to be growing in my yard. After a couple weeks the flowers and violet leaves are strained out and a little vitamin e oil and a few drops of rosemary essential oil are added to preserve it. Now it’s ready to massage into dry, cracked skin or to add to a lotion recipe.

The raspberry patch has been incredibly hardy, still producing flowers and fruit after hard frosts. The berries still sweet and lovely. I dug up so many ash tree saplings from the untended patch that I am convinced it contained more baby ash trees than it does raspberry canes! I am hoping that with more sunlight and root space, the patch will be productive next year with lots of new growth. I planted garlic cloves from my mother’s garden next to the patch because garlic and raspberries are supposed to look out for each other.

The hardy raspberry patch Planting garlic in the fall

I am sweet on a friend of my mother’s. She is a gardener like me and thinks herbalism is fascinating. Her name is Lily and she is ninety years old with a thick German accent. She lives alone in the woods. Her husband passed away ten years ago and her kids are long gone, busy with their own grandchildren now. She invited the whole family over for lunch last Sunday and I couldn’t very well say no. I was excited to get to know her better. My mother winced when I told her the news.

“You never know what you’re going to get when you eat at Lily’s, it could be squirrel or worse!”

“I don’t mind, I’m hoping for venison!”

So we dressed up the wee man in the coat his great grandma made him and all of us hopped in the car and off we drove down the beautiful country roads past the colourful poplars and maples, farmer’s fields, and marshes full of dead trees and bushy native willows. We drove up a very long dirt drive, half wet from a marsh, and came up a hill to a beautiful view of silver lake and there was Lily’s home, an old converted cabin with a green sun room lush with plants.

Lily's House

The wee man was completely in love with her birds. She has fat chickens, a regal goose named Georgina, and a family of peacocks. He chased them all over, but wasn’t fast enough to even get close. The goose was the most tolerant of him. I asked Lily if I could take pictures and she told me to take as many as I wanted as long as they weren’t of her. She told me she didn’t think she was pretty enough. Despite her killer cheekbones and beautiful smile, I couldn’t talk her into a portrait. She is small and spry with short cropped grey hair and a hooked nose, very funny and full of mischief. She was frying onion dumplings when we came in and the house smelled amazing.

Lily's sun room

There was no squirrel, but there was melt-in-your-mouth slow cooked venison and delicious candied black bear ribs served with endless vegetables and salads from her garden; raw kale salad, red cabbage, fresh herbed carrots, boiled potatoes, tomato and garlic brushcetta, and of course the onion dumplings (which were amazing with the bruschetta). For dessert Lily had made an apple crisp with apples from her trees. We ate the fruits of her harvest and we ate well!

A shared feast Lily's kitchen

I am glad to have a found a friend who also walks the green path and has many decades of wisdom and practical gardening advice to share. When I am ninety and wrinkled and grey, I hope I am as full of energy and wit as Lily with all my marbles and a massive jungle of a garden.

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Snow and Warmth, Darkness and Light

By | Cooking, Festivals & Sabbats, Folk Magic | 4 Comments

You can feel her coming. She’s not subtle. The chill bite in the air hurts your lungs, makes your eyes water, and nips at your bare skin, turning it bright red. Frost and ice cover every green thing and every trace of water. Then a soft grey blanket covers the sky like a gentle reprieve followed by a strange silence and softly falling flakes of pure white snow. Then you know An Cailleach Bheara has arrived. She shakes her grey wool shawl and it snows. She strikes her staff on the ground and everything nearby freezes, frost splaying outward like cracks in ice. Neither benevolent or malevolent, she is a force of nature.

Western Hemlock Tree

Holly and Snow

“Why is my face so dark, so dark?
  So dark, oho! so dark, ohee!
Out in all weathers I wander alone
  In the mire, in the cold, ah me!”

~ From the tale “Beira, Queen of Winter

I like to appease the old one-eyed, blue-faced crone when she comes to visit as I figure it’s better to be friends with such a force than to face her icy wrath. She likes whiskey, but her arrival this year surprised me and I had none. A hot cup of honeyed rose congou tea spiked with a good dark rum left on the window sill seemed to work in a pinch. I think it helped to serve it in a tea cup from the lovely Nikiah painted with horned owls sitting in bare branches and a sly fox. The biting cold left the air but the beautiful snow remained. Not enough to cause trouble, but enough to inspire delight in the winter season and make people’s hearts sparkle in anticipation of the winter solstice and christmas.

Tea for Beira

The beautiful snow and my beautiful new kitchen certainly inspired me this December. Since I took the month off from my on-line shop to move house and unpack, I was able to cook and bake and cook some more once the broom was hung by the door and the hearth candle lit. I made wild mushroom soup with bacon and beer, pork tenderloin candied with chocolate-orange port and honey, roasted acorn squash and persimmon soup, beef and chanterelle mushroom pasties, candied pears tossed into salads, roast chicken covered in grainy mustard and bacon, and, of course, the desserts. I baked persimmon spice cake, ginger snaps, chocolate whoopie pies, shortbread, and crafted homemade chocolates of rose petal & vanilla bean, candied ginger & bee pollen, swirled into delectable dark Belgian chocolate.

Snowy Trees

Snowy Hawthorns

My belly grew and grew, not from all the rich food, but from my little one growing inside – getting bigger and bigger with only two months left until the baby’s arrival. With morning sickness seemingly behind me I was able to meet with friends, catch up, and exchange gifts. The Poisoner and I had our first dinner guests to spoil and I had a professor and an artist visit to discuss flying ointments, psychoactive herbs as ritual incense, books, and musings on ancient history.

There were farmer’s markets and christmas markets and now we are well stocked with vinegars, syrups, jellies, jams, pickled veggies, herbal teas, and dried wild mushrooms. It warms my hearts to find so many delectable edibles made with wild local plants at the markets – salmonberry, huckleberry blackberry, elderberry, dandelion, Nootka rose, Oregon grape, sea asparagus, and more wild mushrooms than I can name! It was inspiring and many came home with me for the Poisoner and I to cook with.

Blood on the Ivy

December marked the conclusion of The Pagan Bundle project. Many heartfelt thanks to all those who purchased the bundle and to those who donated more than its value. Thanks to you, eight people (all independent self-employed authors, artists, and musicians – including myself), were able to able to enjoy a yuletide season free of financial worry and strain when we’d normally be pinching pennies and unable to visit loves ones. So, from our hearts to yours — Thank You!

Other wonderful things that happened this month included an extended version of my “Breaking Tradition” article and some of my artwork being published in Aeon Sophia Press‘ new Thirteenth Path Journal  (now sold out) as well as an epic interview I took part in with Patrick Bertlein of the awesome and long-running Heathen Harvest Magazine – “Closer to the Garden Once More: An Interview with Sarah Anne Lawless“.

And, if you didn’t hear about it last month, I also did a podcast interview with Chris Orapello (of Infinite and the Beyond fame) on his Down at the Crossroads show. We tackled serious issues within the greater Pagan and magical communities while managing to still have fun at the same time. His podcast features interviews with lots of cool people and I highly recommend it. I had a great time and hope he’ll have me back on in the future for more mischief.

You can listen to the interview here: Episode #39 – Sarah Anne Lawless

Yule Tree

With all the best kinds of chaos going on, all of a sudden the winter solstice was upon us and it was time for the Poisoner and I to celebrate our first Yule living together. There was freshly fallen snow on the ground and covering the beautiful yew trees lining the yard. I brought clippings of fragrant evergreens indoors to decorate our new home and to banish evil spirits and energies: blue spruce, western hemlock covered in tiny cones, noble fir, red cedar, yew, holly, ivy, and bright red firethorn berries. We brought home a little sacrificial Yule tree and, after smudging and thanking it, decorated it with beeswax candles and traditional Scandinavian straw ornaments of suns, hearts, wheat sheafs, and julboks. After the season is over I turn the tree into incense, cookies, syrup, and wood to carve so I don’t feel so bad about not having a live tree.

Evergreens for Yule

We hung our stockings over the fire, both of us having better memories of “opening” stockings over presents from our memories of childhood christmases. And then the morning was upon us. We brewed coffee and tea and then exchanged gifts. Stockings full of chocolate, oranges, and little goodies.  A parcel sent from my parents back at the farm was full of home made preserves of apple butter, apple jelly, peach pit jelly, vinegars, oils, porcini salt, and alder wood smoked salt. There were cooking knives, artist pens and pencils, and illustrated books of Scottish fairy tales. My mother is very talented at putting together beloved gift parcels!

Under the tree were beautiful little calendars for the new year from the lovely Rima Staines and the Old Farmer’s Almanac (one of the most “pagan” calendars I’ve found – especially for the green/kitchen witch). There were gorgeous large yew wood trivets to protect my dining table from hot foods and there was a stack of hunting and foraging cookbooks to be inspired by: Pacific Feast, Whole Larder Love, and Hunt, Gather, Cook by the awesome Hank Shaw. The Poisoner gave me epic gifts of Christian Ratsch’s gigantic and heavy Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants that I’ve been coveting for a while as well as a perfect blue and white beer stein from Germany for me to enjoy my favourite craft beers out of after the baby is born (and hopefully some home made beers too as I gifted the Poisoner a book on brewing!).

Fruits for Feasting

We feasted on goose liver pate spread on oven-crusty bread, apple wood smoked cheddar, pickled cucumbers and turnips, and freshly baked bacon-maple cinnamon buns (oh my goodness!) I made while we surveyed our loot. We ate with our spirits and ancestors and felt our loved ones were close through their cards and gifts even though many were far away. We avoided the big community Yule rituals this year, and thus most of the illnesses going around, and didn’t feel a bit guilty about it! It was a wonderful lazy weekend of feasting and watching movies snuggled with warm blankets in bed.

I hope that whichever day you celebrate the season on, that it was full of family, friends, love, laughter, good food, good drink, and more than a small amount of mischief. A blessed Winter Solstice and a happy New Year to you all!

Now to prepare for Hogmanay

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Forest Spirit Fest

By | Animism, Cooking, Ethnobotany, Events, Festivals & Sabbats, Herbalism | 44 Comments

The Shaman, the Poisoner, and I arrived at Raven’s Nest when the sun was at its height in the blue sky. As we set up our tents and the axe throwing targets, we quickly discovered how the camp site got its name; ravens circled with loud croaks and the flapping of their great black wings. The Poisoner croaked back, having a conversation with a particularly large grandfather raven. It was a pleasant discovery for all in attendance at the festival as Tynehead Park is in the middle of a booming, ever-expanding city.  Unlike crows, ravens do not like cities or people, preferring wild places. The park is likely one of the last hideouts for all the wild creatures that once spilled out over the land where rows of suburban houses and box stores now rule. We also learned many of the park’s serpent names are not coincidence either – there are plenty of snakes to be found! Tynehead is most well known for its Serpentine River full of salmon. The salmon have attracted black bears, coyotes, ravens, eagles, and all manner of smaller creatures creating a wonderful biodiversity which the city folk don’t seem to appreciate as they keep trying to remove the bears.

Caution Bears

Forest Spirit Fest kicked off with a tree walk through the park hosted by The Shaman (aka Grant) with me helping where I could. We were introduced to Alder, Hawthorn, Big Leaf Maple, Vine Maple, Western Red Cedar, Western Hemlock, Willow, Oak, Birch, Crab Apple, Bitter Cherry, Western Beaked Hazel, Black Cottonwood, and more. There were great old cedar stumps so big around it would’ve taken the group of us to hug them, logged long ago, but still intact and many were hollow so we could go inside. They would make excellent forts or fairy houses. The tops of the stumps were covered in opportunistic Western Hemlock and Red Huckleberry saplings as decaying Red Cedar is one of the best natural fertilizers in the forest.

Serpent's Hollow

As much as I am in love with all of the trees, there is a great English Oak hidden away in Tynehead Park and I’m glad we visited it on the tree walk. It is the biggest oak I’ve seen in my province as they don’t do well here. The ground is bare underneath its heavy branches which touch the ground, making it perfect for ritual and its perimetre is surrounded by its much smaller children creating a ring of oaks, a mini grove. The red-berried Hawthorn trees and the Oak are not native to the Pacific Northwest. Once upon a time, a century or more ago, Tynehead was the site of vast farmer’s fields. The farmer must’ve been from the UK or Europe as he brought Blackthorn and Hawthorn trees with him to use as traditional hedges between the fields instead of fencing. The great Oak must’ve been close to a house once upon a time, though it is long since gone. The forest was so cool and shady, it was a shock to come back to the hot and sunny open meadow of the camp site after the walk.

The Great English Oak

After the walk my wonderful friend and festival co-host Dianne hosted a discussion on making herbal elixirs and had quite the rapt audience, enjoying the shade and the forest. I wish I could’ve listened in, but I had to set up the site for the big event of the evening. There were a few surprises at Forest Spirit Fest that only close family and friends knew about. Before the feast that night, The Poisoner and I were to be handfasted surrounded by family and friends in a beautiful forest ceremony performed by my good friend Nikiah (many of you know her as the bee priestess, but she is also a professional wedding officiant at Red Moon Ceremonies). My family had flown in from Ontario and we had friends come from as far away as Vancouver Island, Washington, the Okanagan, and the Kootenays. The Poisoner and I’s hearts could have burst from being surrounded by such a large crowd of people who had only love for us.

My father gave me away with a big grin on his face and the ceremony started. Heads wreathed in hawthorn, the Poisoner and I first left an offering of whiskey, bread, and cheese in the trees for the outdwellers who were not welcome inside the circle. Then we left a similar offering inside the circle for the Ancestors. A skein of red wool was passed person to person and then wound around the altar to bind the circle and us inside it. The Poisoner and I walk around the inside of the circle to our elders and gave them hugs while they bestowed blessings upon us – some with humour and some with tears. The beautiful ceremony Nikiah had written then began.

She bound our hands with the handfasting cord and revealed our second surprise to the crowd: three cords spun together – one for me, one for him, and one for our baby – a pleasant but intentional surprise we discovered after we’d planned our handfasting. If you’ve been wondering why I’ve been quiet, not crafting as much, and seemingly ill, it’s because I’ve mostly been hiding in bed with not-so-fun morning sickness for the past few months. Surprise! Most people in attendance were!

Handfasting Collage

While our hands were bound Nikiah splashed us with fresh sprigs of wild sage dipped in water. She smudged us with a bird wing.  She had us light our egg-shaped hearth candle with a beeswax taper. She fed us blackberries dipped in honey and de-alcoholized mead from a traditional Scots Quaich. She spoke beautiful blessings to us both. Suddenly we heard the loud flapping of wings, and the huge grandfather raven flew low, right over The Poisoner and I, letting out a loud pleased croaked. We laughed in delight and thanked him for his blessing, a blessing from the ancestors. And then we jumped the broom (which we had forgotten, but luckily a friend had gifted us a beautiful one by chance that day). They say we jump the broom to sweep away the old and make way for the new, but really it’s a phallic symbol and in old European folklore, if a woman crossed over a broom, it was believed she’d get pregnant — too late!

Still bound, The Poisoner and I walk around the circle with an offering of chocolate heart cookies and delicious mead from a bull’s horn to all our guests. “May you never hunger, may you never thirst!” Many gave us their blessings and all gave us big smiles. And then it was done. “Time to feast!” I shouted to everyone’s glee. And feast we did – what a potluck! And what cakes! Both Nikiah and another very good friend of ours had made us cakes – four in total! It was a lucky thing though as we ended up needing them all to feed the crowd. Chocolate beet, spiced carrot, vanilla, and sponge cake.

The Handfasting Cakes

The tables were covered in green cloths and decorated with lanterns, canning jars full of wild flowers, and pots of every herb imaginable which my Auntie had brought. More lanterns hung from the picnic shelter, creating a soft glow at sunset. Jan lit the bonfire and we all celebrated by its warmth with food and drink and excellent company.

The next morning Nikiah hosted her honey bee workshop in a great bell tent decorated with red blankets and saris and goodies from her beehive.  The tent was packed to the gills with people who wanted to learn about the unfortunate plight of the modern honey bee as well as their importance, their sacredness, and their long history of coexistence with humans. It was a wonderful workshop, full of excellent lore, a delicious honey tasting, and a simple meditation.

After lunch Dianne, Seb, and I hosted a Pacific Northwest native plant walk also covering wild herbalism 101. We had quite the turnout! It wasn’t a short walk, but they were all troopers and we had them identifying plants on their own by the end. It was sad to see that many areas of the park had been allowed to be overrun by invasives like Himalayan blackberry and jewelweed, but it could’ve been worse. Even though it had been a very dry season and most flowers and fruits were now gone, we lucked out finding bolete mushrooms, nettles, herb robert, false lily of the valley, false solomon’s seal, skunk cabbage, some seriously prolific wild comfrey, as well as covering tree medicine and many edibles. Dianne’s forté is wild medicines, Seb is a pro when it comes to edibles, and I know a lot about traditional magico-religious uses of native plants. Between the three of us, we managed to fill in the gaps in each other’s knowledge resulting in well-rounded teachings.

When we returned from our plant walk we received another surprise. Catamara, the host of the Esoteric Book Conference had come to visit with a good friend of hers as she just happened to be in town that weekend DJing. It was lovely to meet more fellow occultists and we had some lively discussions before they had to run off to the gig. If you’re a bibliophile within driving distance to Seattle I highly recommend the conference. It’s affordable and entrance to the esoteric art show and book fair is free.

In the afternoon there was a discussion on home brewing, and distilling to make essential oils and hydrosols. At the same time was an informal fire-starting workshop. Jan taught the adults how to start a fire with a bow and drill and the Shaman taught the kids how to start a fire with flint and steel. No matter what age you are, I don’t think one ever tires of lighting things on fire.

Forager's Feat Appetizers

Fire Roasted Quails in Blackcurrant Sauce

That evening we had a truly impressive forager’s feast – a potluck of wild and local foods everyone had brought. There were moose burgers, venison and herb sausages on buns with mustard, fire roasted quails in black currant sauce, elk and juniper salami, wild boar salami, duck proscuitto, and a local cheese platter. There were homemade wild jams and pickles, salal berry muffins, piles of tiny wild plums, Seb’s amazing from scratch blackberry jello, homemade wild fruit syrups we made sodas with, and so much more. We ate until we were so full of meat we resembled a pack of wolves with fat bellies after having gorged on a deer. We socialized, drummed, and danced around the fire that night, the children cooking us marshmallows and delicious smores for desert.

In the morning, we woke up, ate bacon, and then began the take down and clean up of the site. It went faster than we could’ve hoped with all the campers pitching in. Seb and I took the wildflowers from my handfasting, a bottle of mead, and a pile of wild seed biscuits to a hidden, mossy and old Hawthorn grove Dianne had discovered and left them there as an offering of thanks to the genius loci of the forest for letting us share their land for the weekend. We all hugged and made our farewells and hit the road home. I was very sad to leave the forest and all the wonderful people at the festival, old friends and new. We had such a good time and received such good feedback that Dianne and I will host another Forest Spirit Fest next year, either in the same form, or at a bigger site with cabins and showers. The big difference will be that next year the Poisoner and I will be coming with a tiny new baby.

Tree Spirit in Tynehead Park