gather and grow

Homegrown, hand-spun living in the city

This is the story of how I came to make flour out of acorns. Not that adventures in wild food foraging are anything new around here, but acorns are a new frontier for me.

Two things happened in a space of a couple of days: first, coming home from my favorite coffee shop, I noticed plentiful acorns literally covering the ground in a small park under four oak trees. And second, I listened to the episode of the Permaculture Podcast with Mark Shepard, the author of Restoration Agriculture, where the podcast’s host, Scott Mann, took on a 31-day “perennial foods only” eating challenge inspired by Shepard’s work.

I’d read Restoration Agriculture before, and am completely sold on Shepard’s proposal of large-scale agriculture centered around perennial food crops, specifically trees. Not only do perennial plants yield more over time, with less labor input; but many of the cultivation practices that are destroying soil and ecosystem health and contributing to climate change are characteristic of large-scale annual cultivation: tilling and plowing, the resulting depletion of soil life and nutrients, the need for heavy amendments and machinery, and so on. I had to face the fact of a huge disconnect: I’m the first to extol the benefits of perennials versus annuals, yet my diet – like that of most people around the globe – absolutely relies on staples from annual plants, such as rice, wheat, and corn.

So I decided that the next step for me is starting to incorporate more staple foods derived from perennial crops. Restoration Agriculture makes a pretty convincing case for the nutritional benefits of the foods you can grow, for example, in an oak savanna system (as opposed to monoculture fields) – most notably, chestnuts, hazelnuts, berries, and animal meat. But Shepard also mentions the food potential of acorns:

“Acorns are large, high-calorie nuts. They are rich in protein and minerals and 50-70 percent oil, which can be pressed and used as an industrial food processing ingredient, cooking oil, or as a fuel. Spain or Italy have an entire industry and culinary tradition in place where pigs are fattened on acorns.”

Acorns are also freely available for the forager. They were a staple in the diet of many Native American communities, who called acorns the “grain from the trees.” Here, then, we have a nutritious “grain” that can be locally harvested, even in urban areas.

So I set my goal: acorn bread and acorn pancakes this weekend! I collected a bagful of acorns and got to work.acorns-2

There are a few variations to the process — see some links at the bottom of this post for resources — but the basic steps seem essentially the same:

  1. Harvest acorns, taking care to leave out any that have holes in them or appear moldy.
  2. Shell the acorns using a nutcracker. This is easy to do, since the shells are thin and pliable.acorns
  3. Crush or pound the acorn meats into smaller pieces or a coarse meal in a blender, food mill, or the equivalent.
  4. The acorns must then be leached to get rid of the excess tannin, which gives them a bitter taste. Immerse the crushed acorns in boiling water, boil until the water becomes muddy in color, strain and move to another pot of already boiling water. Repeat until the acorns no longer taste bitter. For me, this took about a couple of hours of boiling.
  5. Dry the acorn in the sun, a dehydrator, or an oven with the pilot light on until they are light and completely dry.
  6. Grind into flour.

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I promise to come back to report on the acorn bread/acorn pancake experiment soon! In the meantime, here are some resources:

 

wintercolors

Midwinter is the time for bright colors. When the landscape outside is resting, with the subdued neutral colors and quietness of winter, introducing a splash of color into our days brings with it uplifting energy… something we could all use a little bit right now, yes?

The new winter colorway, now available in my little yarn shop, is just that: bold, bright, and joyful. I created strong reds, greens, yellows, blues, and browns — all with natural dyes derived from plants — perfect for warm winter woolens. As before, the yarns are all 100% domestic wool milled in North Carolina. The fiber for the indigo (blue) yarns is also sourced regionally, from fiber farms in North Carolina. And here are the dyes:

  • butterscotch brown: black walnuts all gathered here in Columbia, SC
  • yellow: marigold flowers from my dye gardens
  • coral red/orange: madder root, partially sourced from my dye gardens
  • deep sky blue: indigo (not local)
  • forest green: basil from my garden, overdyed with indigo

I can attest to the energizing effect of these colors. My home doubles as my dye studio, so for the last few weeks I’ve had these splashes of bright color around the house at various stages of the dye process  — yarns being dyed, rinsed, drying, being re-skeined — making sure no day or no room is too dull. I particularly love the almost-electric blue of the NC-grown indigo yarns, and the lively variation across the skein, from lighter to darker shades, on the forest green and madder red Merino yarns.wintercolors-4wintercolors-2
If these yarns are calling out to you and your knitting needles, or you want to support ecologically responsible, locally sourced textile culture, or just want to learn more, please visit my Etsy shop. Happy Winter days, folks!

A few days before the end of the year — just in time! — I finally finished my locally sourced, all-handmade outfit of 2015.

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Black alpaca cardigan spun and knitted from alpaca fiber from Sea Ayre Suris Farm, grey bodice of Alabama Chanin organic cotton jersey dyed with comfrey and blackberry leaves, and a pale pink skirt of the same fabric dyed with purple basil.

See earlier progress reports on this outfit here, here and here. And special thanks to This is Moonlight for the #1year1outfit challenge!

My big reveal comes so last-minute because the final part of the project, the black alpaca cardigan, took much, much longer than I had expected. I finished dyeing and sewing the cotton bodice and skirt already in September, and thought I was way ahead of the game… except that October and November somehow got swallowed by other enterprises, and when I finally sat down to work on the cardigan, spinning the yarn took so, so long. I’d never spun Suri alpaca fiber before this, and I found it much more challenging than spinning sheep wool because it has no crimp and tends to slip as a result. In addition to which it was almost impossible for me to spin if my toddler was in the same room because she was far too enthusiastic to “help.” So, picture many, many late-night spinning and knitting sessions during the pre-Christmas weeks…

But now it’s done. And I got to wear my local outfit on the shores of the Atlantic on the unseasonably warm Christmas Day of 2015.

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A few notes for the fiber nerds out there:

  • The three-layered skirt is my own design. No, I’ve never made up clothing patterns myself before — well, not since I was thirteen — but I couldn’t find anything ready-made for what I had in mind. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. Unfortunately, the purple basil dye, which was really pretty pink right right after dyeing in August, has turned out not to be very light- or washfast. Lesson learned: better stick to stronger, more reliable dyes like indigo, madder or osage orange when working with cotton.
  • The pattern for the top is the Reverse-Applique Corset from Natalie Chanin’s Alabama Stitch Book… but without the reverse-applique technique. So the pattern is from the Southeast too… keeping it within the fibershed!
  • The cardigan pattern is the Home and Away Georgetown cardigan — really, really lovely to knit. I had to tweak and improvise a little, because my handspun alpaca yarn tended to be bulkier than what the pattern called for. The end result is not perfect. But it works. And it’s just about the warmest knitted garment I have, and silky soft thanks to the high-quality Suri alpaca fiber.
  • Finally: I did not wash the alpaca fiber at any point. What I knitted, what I’m wearing, is virtually what was sheared off of the living, breathing animal in the spring. I learned that pre-washing alpaca fiber prior to spinning is not really necessary because it didn’t have lanolin. I intended to wash my yarns after spinning and before knitting, but simply forgot. The fiber was remarkably clean, so I don’t think anyone but me would be able to notice. At some point, I’m going to finally give the entire cardigan an initiatory wash… but for right now, I’m thoroughly enjoying the warm, earthy feeling of really being connected with where this fiber came from!

On the shortest day of the year, I bring the growing crescendo of the end-of-the-year busyness to a halt. I unplug. I light a candle. I spend the day in retreat mode, reflecting on the past year, the present moment, and my hopes and intentions for the coming year. I settle into the darkness of midwinter a little bit more, get cozy with it. Because in that darkness, nascent dreams, unarticulated hopes, and moments of honesty dare to come to the surface in a way that often doesn’t happen in the glaring light and noise of the everyday. As the northern half of the planet begins to turn towards the sun, and we transition into another year, I want to embark on that journey from a place of clarity, honesty, groundedness, and open curiosity. Especially since — from what I can tell — the coming year is going to be a big one for me.

solsticeThis is my fifth year of engaging in this process, this annual inventory, and it has become a personal tradition that I truly love — and fundamentally feel that I need. It really is very powerful. Each year, before beginning, I read my notes from the previous year’s reflections, and each time I’m astounded by how the insights and intentions and commitments from that time have unfolded and borne fruit, often in unexpected ways.

If you’re interested in exploring this process, I can’t recommend enough the solstice reflection by Christopher Kuntsch, freely available on his website. You may want to edit the guiding questions a little and make them your own, as I’ve done. But the most important thing, I would say, is to give this practice enough time, and a quiet space. Let it take the time it takes… and then re-join your loved ones in celebration. In the evening, my mother-in-law’s house will fill with people and good food and laughter and singing late into the night, and I will emerge from my solitude to join them in celebration of this time of darkness and light.

Happy midwinter,

Love,

Mari

I finally get to share with you something that I’ve been working on for the last couple of months. If you are a regular reader here, you’ve already probably noticed that my passion for natural dyes and local fiber has sort of taken over in my life. You may also remember that I opened a small Etsy shop to sell my stash of naturally dyed wool yarns. But that’s not all. I’ve been working towards a vision that’s more true to my values: sourcing only local and regional materials for my craft, and in so doing, being a part of restoring local and regional textile networks.

The pilot yarn line that I am now launching, the Gather & Grow “Carolina” yarn, is all domestic and regional wool, milled at an eco-friendly North Carolina fiber mill and hand-dyed with locally sourced natural plant dyes at my backyard dye studio here in Columbia, South Carolina.carolinayarns-2

I’m proud to collaborate with Echo View Fiber Mill in Weaverville, North Carolina, which produces luscious, high-quality yarns out of fiber produced by local fiber farmers and farmers across the country. I’ve come to really respect their ethics and integrity. I selected two yarn bases for my naturally dyed yarns: one is a wool-mohair-alpaca mix sourced entirely from North Carolina (the mohair and alpaca come from their own farm); the other is 100% US grown, soft Merino wool yarn.carolinayarns-3

And the dyes are natural plant dyes that I myself gather and grow (how appropriate, isn’t it…). The only exception is indigo, which I haven’t yet been able to source locally, but that will change, hopefully as soon as next year as indigo growing returns to South Carolina. The first colorway I launch are soft pastels: a sunny yellow and olive green from goldenrod, shell pink from madder, smoky purple and mint green from purple basil, and earthy straw and bark colors from Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan). This winter, I’m dyeing darker and brighter winter colors with indigo, madder, black walnut and staghorn sumac. These plants grew in our local soils, and I can tell you where each came from. Some grew in the dye garden I planted in the spring; others I’ve foraged wherever I found them — by roadside, on abandoned lots, by the Congaree River and even in the yards of friendly neighbors (with permission, of course). I am conscious of the environmental footprint of every step of the dye process, use only non-toxic dyes and mordants, and have built in systems to minimize waste and conserve water.carolinayarns

These yarns are my craft and my passion, and I’m happy to share them with the world. If you want to support locally based, ecologically responsible fiber culture, and get some colorful wool to keep you warm this winter — or give it to the knitter/weaver/crocheter in your life — head over to the Etsy shop where they are now available.

In case you’re wondering what I’ve been up to lately…

I’m proud to announce that I’m again on the teaching and organizing team for the South Carolina Permaculture Design Course, taking place here in Columbia, SC, in Spring 2016.

Check out the 2016 course website!

Last spring’s pioneering course was a success — and for me as a facilitator, one of the most positive and empowering experiences I’ve ever had. I wrote about it here and here. In May, we sent out into the world 21 certified permaculture designers who have gone on to apply their learning to their incredibly diverse life situations and home sites.

We’re bringing the course back in Spring 2016, again at the fantastic City Roots urban farm — with the best of what worked last year and new improvements such as guest teachers who are experts in the area. October’s disastrous floods alone showed that our region — and the world — needs the tools to build resilience, regenerative ecosystems and human systems, and vibrant communities. That’s what permaculture has to offer. IMG_1088

P1030256IMG_9337IMG_0968It’s going to be good, folks. Help us spread the word or, if you are in South Carolina, come join us in the spring!

IMG_2669A year and a half ago, when we became a family of three, I promised myself that Gather & Grow wouldn’t become another mommy blog. Even another eco-friendly mommy blog. Not because I have anything against such blogs — I read some of them: high up on my list is, for example, SouleMama, which I was reading regularly long before I had kids or even thought I wanted to have kids. It’s just that I wanted this space to stay focused on the topics I’ve been focusing on from the start: home-made organic living, making from scratch, permaculture, simplicity, sustainability, crafts and among them natural dyes and fibers in particular. I wanted my readers to sort of know what they would find here. Toddler antics or discussions about nursing products might not be it.

But what this means is that there is a big part of my life that I don’t share here. Because of it, I don’t post as frequently, or ambitiously, as I otherwise might. Because of it, I probably also don’t get as many home-made projects finished (or started) in the first place as I otherwise might. Much of my day is spent playing, and singing, and reading the same story over and over, and running around in the park. Just being. (Something that my daughter is very good at and I am not.) I don’t blog about that. I don’t Instagram every moment. My days are very, very full — and not the least because I also have a full-time job — and sometimes intense and heart-breakingly amazing and I don’t share that here… but THAT is the true center of my life right now.

And yet I’ve come to realize that my attempt to keep Gather & Grow and my life with my daughter somehow separate is quite artificial. For all that I share in this space, all that I do — well, first of all, she participates in it. Bouncing in my backpack carrier while I go foraging for dye plants or wild edibles. Coming along on field trips to alpaca farms and permaculture events. Watering the garden and hanging up laundry with me. Some crafts I have to do after she’s gone to bed — candle-making or soap-making, or blogging, for that matter — but for others, I’ve worked out a system to get them done even when she’s in the same space. She finally lets me knit without obsessively pulling the yarn and getting it all tangled up. We’re working on the same with the spinning wheel, but it’s still far too fascinating to not touch while it’s going round and round.

And secondly, the truth is that I do it all for her. I want to be able to share with her the immensely gratifying arts of slow living and making from scratch and knowing how to grow that I write about here as she grows older. I want to instill in her the confidence that she can create and collaborate with nature to meet her needs. I want to be very deliberate about the kind of home environment Dan and I create for her, and all the aspects of Gather & Grow that I mentioned above — let’s see, what did I just say? home-made organic living, making from scratch, permaculture, simplicity, sustainability, crafts and among them natural dyes and fibers in particular — are the building blocks of that home.

No, I still don’t think this will become a space focused on motherhood and raising kids. But I wanted to come out and give you a slightly fuller, slightly truer, picture of my life beyond this particular virtual nook.

It’s been quite a ride, these last couple of weeks, with a 1,000-year rainstorm and flooding hitting our state and bringing this city to a halt for a few days… Preparing to teach a cheese-making workshop, twice (because one had to be cancelled due to the weather), and making about six-seven different cheeses in the course of a week… Taking some big steps towards a future I’ve been dreaming of for so long (you’ll hear about that soon enough)…

And in the midst of all this, opening my first yarn shop!

You can now find the Gather & Grow fiber shop on Etsy, with my wool yarns all dyed with natural dyes. It’s a modest collection at this point, but I’m proud and happy to be able to share my craft with knitters, crocheters and crafters who will put my yarns to a good use. For, at the rate I keep dyeing more fiber, I’ll never be able to knit it all myself! onionskinsOn the virtual shelves of the store, you’ll find both hand-spun yarns and mill-spun yarns. Everything is dyed with botanical colors, with no synthetic dyes or toxic materials whatsoever used in the process. At this point, some of the fiber is regionally sourced, but not all; and some of the dye materials are gathered and grown locally by me, but not all. My vision for what happens next is to focus on producing those locally sourced yarns. That’s what I want Gather & Grow to be about, and I’m presently doing the researching, gathering and growing that that involves. But in the meantime, I’m really excited to hang up my shingle and find these yarns a home.

Come visit my store and see what’s been keeping me busy!!!

I’m spinning into thread the nettle fibers that nature grew and I harvested this summer. (Head over here if you want to read Part I about harvesting and processing stinging nettle fiber.)

What I had at the end of the summer was a bundle of wispy fibers extracted from stinging nettle stalks. Because I was doing this for the first time and had not figured out the ideal length of retting time, there was definitely still a lot of green plant matter (cellulose) from the nettle stalks adhering to some of the fibers. In August, over the course of a few evenings, I carded this silvery green mass using hand carders, and managed to separate a lot more of the fibers from the chaff.nettlespinning2In the end I held in my hands fluffy tufts of spinnable fiber from plants that I’d collected myself from woods and meadows on our family’s land!!!

Those who know me know that that’s the sort of thing that makes me almost burst with excitement, my face beaming and my heart pounding and way too giddy to go to sleep.

The actual spinning of the nettle fibers, it turns out, takes some patience. It’s quite comparable to spinning flax, in that the fiber lacks the crimp of wool, so having that analogy helped me to get the hang of it. I actually tried combining the nettle fiber with some silk, but in the end I went ahead and spun pure nettle thread. Since I hadn’t been able to get rid of all the green matter, now my nettle thread has light green color mixed with its linen-like off-white. Maybe the purists wouldn’t approve, but I love how it looks.nettlespinning3

nettlespinningWhat will I make with my nettle fiber, you ask? I may be able to spin enough to then weave into a scarf once I get the small loom I’m dreaming of. Or I could make a crocheted bra. Doesn’t every girl need a crocheted nettle bra? But whatever I end up making, it’s literally going to be clothing that grew in a forest.

Last week, Gather and Grow journeyed to London to attend the International Permaculture Conference and Convergence.

The conference, in downtown London, was a two-day extravaganza of presentations, workshops, films, book launches, and butt-kicking keynote speeches. After the conference, the Convergence gathered in the huge Gilwell Park outside of London for five more days of workshops, talks, discussions, films, conversations, and hands-on demonstrations… Whew!

This year’s theme was “Designing the World We Want.” Although a sobering shared awareness of the dire global challenges was a constant subtext to all that was said and done, the prevailing tone was one of hope and can-do attitude. There were about 750 of us, representing a global movement now 1 million strong (if you count all the people who have by now done their Permaculture Design Certifications). There’s a lot that a million people can achieve together.IMG_1841

Some highlights:

Reuniting with friends and past teachers from five continents, and making new friends from at least that many.

Meeting in person a number of the formative figures of permaculture and Transition whose names have been on the backs of the books on my bookshelf for so long that I consider them my teachers, too — from Rosemary Morrow and Geoff Lawton to Pandora Thomas, Rob Hopkins, and Graham Bell.IMG_1774

Learning about all kinds of impressive projects from around the world (here Dave Boehnlein of Terra Phoenix presenting the design for a Native American healing center in the Peruvian Amazon).IMG_1812The films! The beautiful Inhabit by Costa Boutsikaris, and Design for Life featuring Graham and Annemarie Brookman of The Food Forest in Australia.

This sample book of natural dyes from the Worker’s Educational Association of England.IMG_1779

Finding in the Convergence Marketplace the ethical knitwear booth of The Snail of Happiness, whom I’ve only known through her blog until now. Most of the people whose blogs I regularly read are people whom I’ve never met. Similarly, most of my own readers (you!) live in other parts of the world, and we don’t get to meet face to face. It would be nice for that to happen more often. Just saying…

Accidentally happening upon one of the Convergence sessions that were arranged on-the-spot, because somebody had the skills and others had the interest. I decided to stay, and got a fantastic refresher on holistic grazing planning and keyline design.

All the spontaneous jamming sessions, conversations over meals, anonymous acts of kindness — and play dates that can only happen when you are traveling with a sixteen-month-old who is much less shy than her mother…IMG_1834

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