By Robin Mayo
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” This quote from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry neatly sums up the Wild Plants Weekend we recently hosted at Kenny Lake Community Hall. Eighteen wild plants enthusiasts, some local and some from across Alaska, foraged in local gardens, fields, and woods, then concocted a wide variety of foods and medicinal preparations from our harvest.
Many of the plants we used were humble ones, commonly considered weeds, nuisances, or even dangerous. At this time of year most gardens are not yet producing much food, but in at a Chitina home we harvested abundant chickweed, lambsquarter, fireweed, and mint. Devils Club is common in the temperate rainforest south of the Chugach, but a few plants can be found in the Chitina area, and we harvested that as well.
Janice Schofield, who led the workshop, learned to wildcraft foods while living in a remote area of the Kenai Peninsula. Gardening proved to be challenging, but she found in her dooryard, the surrounding forest, and the beaches a multitude of friendly plants. In 1989 Janice published “Discovering Wild Plants” which is considered by many to be the bible for Alaskan wildcrafting. She now lives in New Zealand, but visits Alaska often to teach, learn from local traditions, and revisit her old stomping grounds. Her work includes wisdom from Alaska Native traditions.
At the end of the weekend we shared an abundant feast, including chiming bell spring rolls, dandelion fritters, and spruce tip salsa. Students also made insect repellant, salves, lotions, tinctures, and decoctions. In this case, what was essential was under our feet, just waiting to be discovered.
Photo on Left- Janice Schofield explains the benefits of Arnica, which is abundant this year in the area.
Photo on Right- Michael Moody, Cynthia Buchanan, and Darlene Wright and Darlene write work on processing a tableful of locally harvested wild plants
Aspiring and experienced foragers, wildcrafters, and adventurous cooks are in for a treat! Janice Schofield, Author of “Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, the Northwest” and “Alaska’s Wild Plants: A guide to Alaska’s Edible Harvest” will be presenting a workshop at Kenny Lake June 16, 17, and 18th. We last hosted Janice for a weekend in 2013, and it was an incredible experience for all the participants. Janice lived in the Homer, Alaska area for many years, and now resides in New Zealand. Her deep knowledge and respect for natural plants and holistic living are inspiring.
On Friday night, Janice will give an illustrated lecture for all participants, at Kenny Lake Community Hall, which will also be open to the public for a small fee. Janice will present a unique perspective in regards to changes in the ecology of plant communities and the situation with invasive plants. Are these plants just enemies? Are there more thoughtful ways to respond? What do they have to teach?
The weekend workshop will be a hands-on exploration of useful wild plants native to Interior Alaska. As well as classroom time, there will be field trips to different habitats for identifying and collecting plants, and afternoons in the kitchen learning preparation techniques for medicinal and culinary uses.
Janelle Eklund summarized the 2013 experience: “Plants like fireweed, plantain, and yarrow were there for the picking. With our bags and baskets full we headed back to the hall to make our concoctions and recipes….lotions, salves, herbal oils, teas, pesto, chips, sauerkraut, salsa, crackers, lasagna, and wild herb patties.”
This year’s workshop will also include the little known tradition of making oxymels, vinegar and honey based herbal concoctions which extract the active components from herbs, and make them more palatable.
There will be a $200 fee for the weekend workshop, which will be limited to 20 participants. The fee includes handouts, ingredients, and facility use. Spaces can be reserved with a $50 deposit. There is a registration form on the WISE website, www.wise-edu.org/wild-plants-workshop.html
Photo Left- A green drink created by 2013 workshop participants Janelle Eklund Photo
Photo Right- Janice Schofield, center, wears leather gloves while harvesting Devil’s Club. Yes, it does grow in a secret corner of the Copper River Watershed. Janelle Eklund Photo
By Janelle Eklund
A hot wind blew down the Tonsina River valley lifting bluff silt that was born from the Wrangell mountains thousands of years ago. The air was heavy with it obscuring the view of mountain peaks. I swear the temperature was likened to a hot desert wind in the 90°s F. Surely it wasn't that hot but it felt like it. My only gauge was the memory of travels in the hot Utah and Arizona deserts.
Warm temperatures permeated the month of May enticing some plants to spring forth early and take advantage of hot dry days.
In my mind I could hear the dance start in rhythm to Tchaikovsky's symphony beginning with a profusion of purple Pasqueflowers - some popping up in unlikely places. Lupine joined in their blue fluted dress. Delicate calypso orchid spread their fairy slipper pinkness here and there. It got contagious. Joining the dance, in jumped elf like creamy Pumpkin Berry flowers. Jacobs Ladder in blue billowing skirts joined the merry circle. Tiny greenish Soapberry flowers marched in on woody stems. Snow Potentilla twirled around in their bright yellow tutus. Smiley faced yellow Arnicas pirouetted like a pinwheel on a stick. Languid Ladies gracefully bowed their bluebell heads. Bearberry's dangling white bell earrings tiptoed around the forest floor. Labrador Tea, Highbush Cranberry and American Dogwood donned snowy white headdresses tipping in the breeze. Deep Pink Rose permeating the air with its sweet scent. Pale purple bird wings floated in on Alpine Milk Vetch. Artemisia lined the bluffs and roadsides with green fragrant leaves. Eskimo Potato and Wild Sweet Pea tap danced in deep pink frocks, lining roadsides.
And then on May 31, May began to melt. A hint of clouds started shielding the blue sky and the hot sun peaked in and out. The dancers were getting tired in the heat. Clouds covered the sky June first and bits of rain fell here and there throughout the valley. Temperatures dropped to the 50°'s and 60°'s F. We willed the rain to wet the forest and gardens. It came during the day and it came during the night in spurts. Plants drank in the rain as fast as it fell. Rain cleaned the dust of May making plants shimmer in wetness and exposing earthy scented perfumes.
Red flag fire warnings were lifted giving the trees another reprieve and homeowners a sigh of relief.
By June first, rushed plants already show signs of ending the season. Some lupine are turning their flowers into seeds. Rose petals are falling to the ground. What will the rest of the summer bring? Will the high 70°'s and 80°F return? It is a mystery.
Whatever summer brings we will enjoy the sun, be patient with the wind and grateful for it blowing away mosquitoes, be thankful for the rain, and intoxicate ourselves with earthy smells.
From my light to yours-
Copper River Record January 2015
By Janelle Eklund
Before sun showed its face on a winter morning, light from the orb bathed the sky announcing its arrival on pink hued slivers of clouds hanging out on the horizon. The closer it came to rising the more intense the colors. The light arced across the pale blue sky and settled on steel blue clouds on the opposite horizon, marrying pink with steel blue. As I walked down the Old Edgerton this spectacular phenomenon made its entrance in silence. No drum rolls, no dynamic symphony with flutes and violins and harps. But wait, there was an awakening of sounds that seemed to welcome the birth of a new and glorious day. Now and then the slowly rising sun seemed to be greeted by chickadees with their occasional 'chickadee-dee-dee' as they sat on frost laden aspen branch, a distant raven giving a single 'caw', and chatter from squirrel observing from frosty spruce tree. In between the greetings I stopped to listen to see what else I could hear. In the very far distance a smooth rushing sound laid below the silence. My imagination saw and heard the mighty Copper River on its journey to the sea, carrying chunks of its own frozen self rolling and tumbling with its perpetual current.
As I read, listen, and observe, more sounds resound from some of the most enlightening places - like plants. While visiting my sisters in Oregon last July an elder told us she could hear the plants talking. She was out walking past hop fields when she stopped to listen and could hear water being taken up by the long stems of the plants. She said they were having quite the conversation with all the gurgling going on throughout the big field. After we heard the story my sister and I were walking by a field of wheat. The very dry looking wheat stood stark still in the hot sunny windless day. We stopped to listen and to our surprise the wheat was crackling and popping as it continued to dry under the warmth of the sun.
In Robin Wall Kimmerer's book, Braiding Sweetgrass, she says: "I could spend a whole day listening. And a whole night. And in the morning, without my hearing it, there might be a mushroom that was not there the night before, creamy white, pushed up from the pine needle duff, out of darkness to light, still glistening with the fluid of its passage. Listening in wild places, we are audience to conversations in a language not our own." Last summer's rains urged many mushrooms to explode from the ground, as I saw new ones each day on my walk. In the night I missed the silence of their awakening.
Plants make sounds as they grow and change into their different stages."But (as Robin Wall Kimmerer says) plants speak in a tongue that every breathing thing can understand. Plants teach in a universal language: food." Listening to the sounds plants impart is the rushing sound of their need for a healthy home critical for their survival, which we depend on. Think about it. No matter where we are we are surrounded by plants. We eat them, we use them for medicine, we build homes with them, we use them for heat, and they give us inspiration. We would not be here without them. If we give them thanks and respect their health, they will keep reciprocating by giving us life.
From my light to yours-
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.