gather and grow

Homegrown, hand-spun living in the city

From the sea to the mountains to the lake. I’ve made it to our family cottage by a small lake in Central Finland, and will be spending the next few weeks here. This is our family’s sanctuary, the place where we gather every summer, very close to the farm where my father was born and where my ancestors cultivated this land for hundreds of years. The roots go deep here.IMG_1856 It’s Finnish language immersion for my one-year-old daughter (who is having the time of her life, by the way). For me, it’s immersion in all the sensations and experiences that evoke memories of childhood summers spent in the Finnish countryside: the smell of birch leaves and freshly chopped wood and smoke coming from the sauna chimney; the flavors of new potatoes — just dug out of the ground — with butter and dill, and tiny wild strawberries warmed by the sun; the slow swaying of the tall trunks of pine trees, the nighttime birdsong (for it never really gets dark here this time of the year), the feeling of wet sand beneath my toes at the lake’s edge.IMG_1893 It is here that I get to embrace a more natural way of living — as in, literally close to nature — that’s not possible in my urban rental home in the US. Vast expanses of wild, uninhabited forest spread out from our doorstep. I spend most of the day walking barefoot on duff and rocks and grass. We practice nutrient cycling through composting and humanure. We drink water from the spring that’s on the property.lahde Often, we eat fish caught from the lake the same day, potatoes and salad harvested from the garden, and berries and mushrooms picked in the woods. (Full disclosure: my Dad’s new specialty, “salmon on the plank” below is not such fish. But it sure looked gorgeous in the evening sun and melted in the mouth.)IMG_1887

I have some projects in the works here that I’m really stoked to share with you soon. Stay tuned!

Things were buzzing at the Plattner Bee Museum.

Bees are amazing. The signs swinging in the pine trees at the museum conveyed that the ancient peoples knew this too. Though this may be a disastrous case of lost in translation — since I’m translating them from Italian, without really knowing Italian, and who knows who translated them into Italian in the first place — I can’t resist sharing a couple of them: “The tears of the god Ra are transformed into bees” (an Egyptian saying). “The bee is the spirit which becomes intoxicated with the pollen of knowledge” (an Indian sage — but which one?).

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Most of us know that bees have an astonishingly accurate inner GPS system that helps them to orient themselves as they fly. But did you know that they can also feel the Earth’s magnetic field, and that that helps them to keep track of time, as if they were carrying an inner watch as well? They can also “hear” sound — not with ears, but rather they feel the sound on their whole body, especially with their antennae and body hair. Add to that their ability to make honey, and wax for the best candles in the world, and the work they do in pollinating the plants that become our food… We human beings think of ourselves as beekeepers, but the bees are the real keepers. Which is why the news on the ever-worsening colony collapse disorder (CCD) is so disconcerting (one third of the honeybee population in the US along gone!).

Although the reasons behind the collapse are complex, I’ve heard more than one beekeeping teacher say that the modern ways of beekeeping, including factory-made honeycombs and sugar water feed, are interfering with the bees’ natural way of living and keeping themselves well.

This is partially why I think it’s valuable to learn about ancient beekeeping methods and implements. Among the museum’s display of all the different kinds of beehives that have been used over the centuries, I was most impressed by the ones below that have been woven like baskets — some with little windows even! With their organic shapes, they’re much more successful in mimicking the bees’ natural habitat — hollow trees — than the box-like hives that most beekeepers use today.

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The ancient beekeepers pulled out the honey out of them along with the honeycomb, and had to squeeze out the honey, destroying the honeycomb in the process. (The wax from the comb was used for making candles and canvas.) The invention of the honey extractor in the 1860s allowed the separation of liquid honey while leaving the wax comb intact. And that’s the method that’s still in use, although the modern extractors look a bit different than these antiquarian ones… The honeycombs are placed in the frame basket, and when the handle is rapidly turned, the centrifugal force makes the honey flow outwards and down the spout.

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The museum tour had a sweet ending, as you might expect: you can sample 17 different flavors of honey! Rosemary, coriander, acacia — or my favorite (hands down): the lavender honey. You can then go on to smell all the different kinds of honey and beeswax and bee pollen soaps. I could choose only one bar because I’m living out of one suitcase this summer, and we’re on to our next destination, but it’s a lovely purple-brown propolis soap. I’ll be carrying some of the work of this mountain’s bees with me even as I leave.

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One of my themes for this summer is to learn about the traditional ways of living in these rural places where I’m fortunate to spend my time. For when Dan and I get to build our little self-designed cob or strawbale house (and I say “when” rather than “if” because anything is possible if you believe in it enough, right?), we want to incorporate as many time-tested features for down-to-earth, resilient living as possible. So I’m on a mission to see how our ancestors did it.

No better place to start than the country houses on this mountain, where people survived demanding conditions: cold snowy winters and physical isolation on the mountain, which required a hefty dose of self-sufficiency and can-do attitude.

The oldest house still standing on the mountain — at least 500 years old — is the traditional farmhouse that now houses the Plattner Bee Museum. I’d been there once before, and remembered the beautiful thatched roof proudly peaking on a hill above the village of Wolfsgruben. But I remembered little about the house itself — apparently, I was too focused on sampling the different-flavored honeys and smelling the honey and beeswax soaps. Now it was time for another visit. plattner-17Until 1975, the last remaining members of the family — two strong, wiry elderly sisters — lived here, with no electricity or running water. They grew barley, rye and buckwheat and once a week made the trip barefoot to the nearest city to sell vegetables. The house is preserved as it was then, so it’s an excellent showcase of simple subsistence living on a mountain.

The house still has a traditional thatched roof made of rye straw, complemented with larch shingles. It doesn’t get much more local than that: the rye straw was from the house’s own fields, and the larch shingles from the larches that line the path up the hill. I imagine the stones for the stone walls were also dug up from the surrounding fields. I guess that would be the No. 1 house design tip if you built a house on a mountainside in the year 1500: keep your materials local.

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How did the inhabitants keep warm in the winter? First of all, here, as in traditional houses in many cultures, animals were kept on the bottom floor (where beekeeping implements are now on display). People lived on the second floor, benefiting from the warmth generated by the bodies of the animals, which rose upwards. Also, notice the small windows to minimize loss of heat.

plattner-6A second tip for keeping warm is spending most of the indoor time in the winters in the one room which could be heated, the Stube. It has a masonry oven, a beehive-shaped mound of bricks, which stores heat incredibly well and releases it slowly through the night. A wide shelf was built above the masonry oven — surely the coziest spot in the house on cold winter days and nights!plattner-2The fire was fed from outside in the hallway, so there would be no smoke coming into the Stube. The hallway, on the other hand, was so smoky that the walls are still pitch black — but this was on purpose, as that’s where meat was smoked and cured.

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In the warmth of the Stube, the evenings were spent working on crafts, such as spinning wool and twisting rope (below).plattner-5The kitchen, across the hallway, was wood-heated, of course. It has one of the most ingenious waste management systems I’ve seen: a chute underneath a window, which allows discarding compost waste directly onto the compost pile underneath — or possibly for the pigs which were kept directly below this window. Cooking water went the same way, down a little dent in the chute. No need for trash bins or compost hauling trips!

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What’s remarkable about these mountains of South Tirol is that much of the farming is still done using traditional methods and manual labor, because many of the mountainside fields are simply too steep for large machinery. Over these weeks of June, we’ve seen so many farmers, wearing their traditional blue aprons, cutting and bundling hay for their animals with scythes and rakes.

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Oh yes, and the house is now a bee museum. There were bees. And honey. And lots of learning about traditional beekeeping methods. More about that next time!

In honor of midsummer, I have for you a recipe for the perfect summer drink, should you be so lucky as to find elderberry bushes where you live.

The elderflower (Holunderblüten) cordial is something I always associate with these mountains of Central Europe. I first tasted it when I was on a solo train tour of Europe in my early twenties, and arrived at the house of my Austrian friends living outside of Salzburg just when they were in the process of bottling enormous quantities of elderflower syrup. We mixed it with bubbly water. I’d never tasted anything quite like it — so sweet and delicate and aromatic. Dan and his brother remember their grandmother serving them the same beverage when they first visited this mountain house at age twelve, and it made a similarly lasting impression on them.

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The elder trees grow abundantly here along the paths in hedgerows and woodlands. Right now, at midsummer, they are filled with the delicate, lace-like, fragrant flowers. To make this cordial, simply gather about 25-30 flower heads on a dry warm day, just when the tiny buds have opened. Be sure to leave some flowers on the trees for elderberry picking later on.elderflower-2

In fact, what an amazing plant! I’ve written before about other uses for the elderberry tree: elderflower pancakes and elderberry syrup for colds. Many people swear by the medicinal properties of elderberry; it’s also long been used for making country wine. The berries also make a really beautiful dye, with hues ranging from pink to lavender and purple. The flowers can be used in jam, sherbet… Or how about this elderflower lemon cake? (Hmm. I may just have to give it a try this weekend.)

I happened to find an old book on trees on a bookshelf here. It may have belonged to Dan’s grandmother. And what do I find in it but a section on elder trees?IMG_1667

Here’s the recipe for the cordial. Gather for free from nature, follow a few simple steps, and enjoy!

Elderflower cordial

  • About 30 large elder flowerheads
  • zest of 3 lemons and 1 orange (unwaxed), plus their juice
  • 1.5 liters/6.5 cups of water
  • 1 kg/2.2 lbs sugar
  • 1 headed tsp of citric acid

Place the flower heads in a large bowl or pot along with the citrus zest. Bring water to boil and pour it over the flowers, leave to infuse for a few hours or overnight.elderflower-3

The next day, strain the liquid by pouring it through cheese cloth or the equivalent into a saucepan. Pour in the sugar and the citric acid, then stir while heating until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to a gentle boil for a couple of minutes, then cool. Funnel into glass bottles (sterilized if you will be storing the syrup for a long time).

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Happy midsummer!

We’ve made our way from the sea to the mountains. The Dolomite mountains of Northern Italy, to be precise. We’re in South Tirol, Italy’s northernmost province — a meeting point between the Alpine Germanic and the Mediterranean cultures, which is what gives the region its unique character. It’s fully bilingual, with Italian being more commonly spoken in the warmer valley towns and German up on the mountains. The cuisine, too, is a fortunate mix of the best of each — hearty dishes that the Austrians and Germans do well, such as Knödel and Kaiserschmarren and Apfelstrudel , and then the amazing Italian flavors of mozzarella, tomato, olive oil, basil, good bread, gelato…

I probably don’t need to tell you that much of our day revolves around planning our next meal. Especially since mountain air, and hiking up and down these slopes all day, apparently builds up a very healthy appetite.

This is the view that I wake up to in the mornings:IMG_1563IMG_1548

The house we’re staying at belonged to Dan’s great-grandfather, and it’s where his grandmother and her sisters grew up. We’re fortunate that the family has been able to keep the house, as that allows us to come and stay for an extended period — and, this time around, host some good friends up here on the mountain. Our days are spent hiking in the postcard landscapes, always with a coffee break at one of the many Hofs along the way. In the evenings, we cook a meal together and make a fire and play board games or watch a movie.

This is the kind of landscape where you can half expect that, from behind some picturesque rustic fence or old stone wall, the von Trapp children will soon emerge, holding hands and singing songs in matching dirndls. The cows look fat and healthy and happy. The brook runs pristine down the mountain… as it trips and falls over stones on its way… (I’m sorry. Enough with the von Trapps now.) The farmers are out making hay, with traditional blue work aprons, many of them doing the work manually with scythes. The church bells are ringing. The cherry tomatoes are sweet as candy. Everything feels so wholesome, almost to a point where it’s a bit too much.IMG_1569IMG_1572IMG_1532IMG_1618IMG_1588IMG_1625

Until the next day dawns and I get up to go to the bakery for freshly baked muesli buns and I find myself ready, quite ready, for more.

My father-in-law’s cabin by the Black Sea is simple and rustic, but so comfortable. The indoor space is just one big space of about fifty-five square meters, with running water but no electricity. IMG_1321

Water is heated in a coil on the outside wall. It’s just enough water for a nice warm shower (as long as you time your showers for the late afternoon).IMG_1325

Lighting is provided by the sun. The batteries for nifty little solar lamps, like these ones, lie out in the sun charging all day long, providing night-time light.IMG_1319

There’s a fire pit and small gas stove for cooking in the outdoor kitchen. There’s no refrigerator, but one is not needed, really – we eat food bought fresh from the village the same day: goat cheese, honey, yogurt, turkey eggs, bread and fruit and vegetables. IMG_1329

In fact, everybody has a big vegetable garden here — and you’re likely to also find some chickens and a goat in the backyard as well. Not because it’s eco-chic, but out of necessity: economically, many people are struggling (especially in a sleepy country village like this) and practice self-sufficiency simply because it makes sense. I have to say that this is what has been most impressive to me here. All available land is put to use to grow food. And all the gardens look so damn good too! People use organic growing methods — again, not because of some label, but because it’s a commonsense thing to do. It reminds me of what many people say about permaculture: it’s just another word for common sense.

The simplicity of this place feels as refreshing as the sea air. We spend the entire day outside — walking on the bluffs, going to the beach, cooking in the outdoor kitchen, playing the guitar, sitting and drinking Turkish-style coffee while watching Aava play in the little washing tub with sun-heated water. There’s minimal internet, or other media, or distractions, or ready-made foods. Just the wonder and magic of this place. We sleep deeply every night and wake up refreshed for another day by the sea.

Gather & Grow has gone nomadic again for the summer. One of the benefits of my current job is the relative freedom to do my work from more or less anywhere during the summers. So in late May, we crossed the great ocean to attend the wedding of two dear friends in the Vercors mountains of Southern France. That was the beginning of our Tour of Rustic European Locations with Family Connections. First, we spend a week at the off-grid cabin that Dan’s dad and his partner built a few years ago on the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria. We continue from there to the house in the Dolomite mountains of Northern Italy where Dan’s grandmother grew up in the 1920s and 30s. Finally, in July, we join my family at my parents’ lakeside summer cottage in Central Finland. In other words, a lot of family time, a couple of permaculture design projects, swimming and wilderness hiking, homecooked meals and no hotel stays – interspersed with some work, of course, but the views from our movable “office” will be nothing to complain about: sea, mountains, a wooded lakeside.IMG_1312

The house in Bulgaria, where we are staying now, is at the edge of a small village, with a view of the turquoise Black Sea. We’re separated from the seaside limestone cliffs by just 150 meter wide strip of steppe-like grasslands. It is part of a protected archaeological and ecological reserve, which means that nothing will ever be built between the cabin and the bluffs. There’s a rawness and beauty to this landscape. Tall white windmills in the horizon. Grass seeds wafting through the wind.

The grassland is dotted with bright splashes of color: wildflowers. Enormous purple thistles with blooms the size of tennis balls, bright red poppies (they grow everywhere in Bulgaria now because the Communist Party used to plant them in abundance because of their red color), yarrow in gold and white, red peony, and so many flowers whose names I don’t know. The wind from the sea carries with it the fragrance of wild herbs like chamomile and wild thyme. The flowers were the first thing I noticed, and will probably be my most distinctive memory after we’ve left.IMG_1300IMG_1310IMG_1304

Oh, and the climb down to the craggy, rocky beach past second- to fifth-century CE tombs and caves and a fortress dating back to the Roman times. (You can just see Dan and my father-in-law making their way down the path on the right.)IMG_1339

This place is, in a word, stunning. What a spot for us to be making big decisions about our future…! For that’s the kind of week it’s been. You never know what catches up with you while you are at the edge of the world.

Earlier this year, I joined the One Year One Outfit challenge: to create one outfit in 2015 that is entirely sourced from my fibershed. I wrote about it here as I initially began to envision what I wanted to do for the challenge, and it’s time for an update.

No, I’m not done with my outfit yet. I’ve been doing extensive research on materials and suppliers, and then making some decisions. I decided I would get cotton fabric grown and processed in the Southeastern U.S. (regional) for a shirt and either a skirt or pants; and South Carolina grown alpaca fiber (local) for what will be either a knitted tunic or cardigan.

The alpaca wool was the easy part: a visit to a friendly local alpaca farm, coming home with bags and bags of fiber, and then slowly washing it and carding it (using my friend Barbara’s drum carder to make the work go faster) in preparation for spinning it and knitting it.

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Finding Southeast-grown organic cotton has been the more challenging part. That’s the irony — we’re in the middle of America’s traditional cotton country here in the Carolinas, after all, yet it turns out to be really, really hard to find locally grown, ginned, and milled fabric that a regular consumer keen on sewing could buy. I thought I’d share here the research I did, in case it ever turns out to be useful for someone else.

  • The place to start, for me, was TS Designs — a North Carolina-based small company specializing in custom-printed t-shirts made out of sustainably produced cotton fabrics. Their “Cotton of the Carolinas” is made out of cotton grown in North Carolina, but it is conventionally grown. When I inquired, I learned that they have struggled with growing organic cotton in NC because of weed issues, but are working on being able to re-introduce it. For the time being, though, they only sell the t-shirts, as they are not set up to process small fabric-only orders.
  • Gaia Conceptions is a lovely eco-chic clothing company also located in North Carolina that sells clothing made out of organic cotton. Among their fabric options is a NC Grown Organic Cotton that is “Farmed, Ginned, Milled, and then finally turned into your garment of choice all within a 60 mile radius in beautiful North Carolina.” However, I learned that their local supplier is no longer producing this fabric. Besides, they too do not sell their fabric, only the custom cut and sewn garments. (Some of them are really lovely, actually, and I would pay a visit to their boutique NOMAD in Greensboro, NC, if I find myself there. But for my purposes, this too was a dead-end.
  • Next, my investigations led me to Alabama Chanin, a well-known and classy “slow fashion” company specializing in hand-sewn garments made from organic cotton and very committed to the sustainability of textiles. Located in Florence, Alabama, it’s definitely regional rather than local for me, but is still included within my fibershed. Their organic jersey cotton is domestically grown in Texas, processed in North Carolina, and dyed in Nashville, TN and Florence, AL.

There were some other avenues I explored, too. Alabama Chanin has collaborated with Billy Reid to produce garments such as socks, t-shirts and scarves using organic cotton grown in Trinity, Alabama. But due to the limited amount of organic cotton produced for this project, they don’t have enough yardage available for customers. This article describes the clothing brand American Giant working towards re-localizing the textile industry supply chains to create all American-made clothing. Their cotton is ginned and knitted in North Carolina and then dyed and finished at Carolina Cotton Works in Gaffney, South Carolina. When I contacted Carolina Cotton Works to see if I could purchase some cotton through them, I learned that the minimum order was 2,000! So, not exactly the appropriate scale for a “one outfit” project…

In the end, I settled on the organic jersey cotton from Alabama Chanin. Not quite as local as I would have liked, but it seemed like the best option for now. Besides, supporting organic growing practices was important to me. And when the shipment arrived in the mail — oh goodness, it was perfect. So soft, the perfect weight, natural colored (undyed). It made me — and my little assistant — very happy.IMG_1166

Next steps in this project: Decide on local dye plants to use to dye the cotton fabric, and dye it in at least two colors — one for the bottom, one for the top. Research sewing patterns and find something that I would really love, and that would work as an outfit. Spin that alpaca fiber into yarn. Knit that yarn into something warm.

We’re moving forward with this!

The Permaculture Design Course that I am co-organizing and co-teaching is nearing its end — we just completed weekend 5 out of 6, and the students have embarked on their final design projects.

It has been, hands down, one of the most intense and most rewarding experiences of my life.

Our course site, City Roots Urban Farm, is not only our venue and the backdrop for the experiences we go through together, but I like to think that the growth happening on the farm mirrors the growth that’s happening in and among us. Just as these little chicks that joined us earlier this spring are now grown and loud pullets…PDC6

Or just as the farm’s plantings have gone from seedlings to harvest as the spring has progressed…PDC8

…I dare say we have each been growing, as permaculturists and teachers and learners and team members.

On the first day, Matt and Nick and I, as facilitators, encouraged the participants to find and explore their “stretch zone” during this course. The stretch zone is not quite the comfort zone, but not the panic zone either — just that place in between where they find themselves having to push themselves a little, taking risks, trying something new, perhaps feeling a little unsure or even uncomfortable at times, because that is where real learning happens. I can personally say that I’ve joined them in that stretch zone much of the time in this course. I’ve done a lot of teaching in the past, but this course has forced me to face entirely new situations. I’ve cooked for big groups before, but never for almost 30 people. I’ve been involved in organizing events before, but nothing on this scale — a six-weekend certificate course, from start to finish, being involved on every level of event planning and logistics.

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I have so much gratitude towards everyone who has been a part of co-creating this experience — from squinting in our greenhouse on bright mornings to double-digging garden beds to jamming while making solar-dehydrated sweet potato chips to singing songs I brought to this course from my own permaculture roots, the Regenerative Design Institute. The biggest thanks, though, go to my dedicated husband who has made it all possible for me, taking on baby care for the entire weekend several times in a row.

Foraging for nettles is a sure sign of spring in our home. I bring nettles home by the bagful and use them for tea, or grind them into pesto, or use them instead of spinach in a feta quiche.

This year’s variation was using wood nettles instead of the regular nettles. Wood nettle, or Canada nettle, is a perennial that grows in moist, rich woodland soils. It belongs to the same nettle family as its more familiar cousin, the common stinging nettle, but it has fewer stinging hairs and larger, rounder leaves. (It does still sting, though. Wear gloves.)

My little assistant slept in the stroller while I harvested a couple of bagfuls at my favorite spot in this whole town (apart from our home): the Riverwalk, a long, shaded series of walking and jogging paths along the Congaree river. My friend Matt took us here for an edible wild plant walk a year ago, and ever since we’ve come back regularly, enjoying finding something to snack on from nature’s grocery. For free, naturally.IMG_1139IMG_1143

Nutritionally, the wood nettle is just as amazing as the stinging nettle: it packs in more protein than any other leafy green, is also high in vitamins A and C, and is an excellent source of iron, calcium, and a host of other minerals. Add to this the fact that it also has medicinal properties, and can be used as a dye and fiber plant… and I think you’ll agree with me that we’ve got here a true Plant for the Future.

While we’re on the subject of nettles…

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