Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Somewhere New: Portland, Maine

I got off the plane in Boston and just couldn't contain my smile. Boston, oh Boston, what fond memories we have together. I rented a car and hurried over to Veggie Galaxy to dig into a warm breakfast of pancakes and found myself thinking about how cute and quaint Portland was bound to be. A mini Boston I imagined. I was eager to get to my tiny Boston and so I jumped on the most direct route, the dreaded 95.

The two hour drive up through Massachusetts and into Maine is a long stretch of bland highway. My buoyancy wavered as I searched for grander scenes. Phallic sumac pierced the sky and densely bordered the roadside, occasionally giving way to tiny man made lakes and catchment pools. 
"Where is the mystery? Where is the wild? Where are the lobstermen?" I thought to myself. 

I saw signs for Kittery and pulled off, desperate to see a glimpse of the ocean to restore my faith. I wound over to Route 1 and into Kittery. Strip malls greeted me moments after passing the 'Welcome to Kittery' sign. Wild, mysterious strip malls. Where were the crumbling light houses? The white sailor shacks on the cliffs? How far would I have to drive to see something beautiful.
I gave up and turned back, disappointed in my own impenitence. 

Soldiering on I finally pulled up to my host's house on Mellen Street. After a quick tour around Ellen's beautiful little apartment she was off again and I was alone to plan out my day.
But I kinda didn't feel like it. 
I don't really know why I was being so sour. I just wasn't enthused. I sat on the bed with my bag wishing I had just stayed in Boston for the weekend. While this type of obstinate mood doesn't befall me often, this isn't the first time my Somewhere New has encountered the melancholy, naysaying Lacey, whom I shall henceforth refer to as Macey.

The best course of action that I've found is just to ignore her until she's done pouting. So I plodded around the house changing my clothes and unpacking my toiletries and the bundled up and headed out into the city while Macey muttered derisively in my ear.

"Well aren't we smart, coming to Portland in the fall when it's 2 goddamn degrees outside. 
Brilliant idea. How far are we going to have to walk before we find anything worth finding?"

She mumbled and muttered and I just kept walking in search of lunch until I found Local Sprouts and sat down with a giant salad and a bowl of vegan macaroni and cheese. 
When ignoring doesn't cure Macey, food does.

After lunch I walked, as I often do on my first day in a new city, just to explore and see what there is to see. It turns out, when I'm not being grumpy, that Portland, while not the mini Boston I envisioned, is rather cute. I ducked into a second hand store and bought a sweater to add an extra layer to the mix and found that this too helped to reduce the Macey and open up my mind to the possibility of liking Portland.

Later that night I met up with a couch surfer who had reached out to me. We met at the month's green drinks and he ended up being my long weekend friend and almost constant companion for the rest of the trip. While perhaps I might have kept Macey at bay on my own, I credit John with really being able to show me a side of Portland that was much deeper than I would have expected.

It's funny, because as I write this post I am just recently returned from a second trip to Portland. Thinking back to my first trip to Portland and my impressions, and reading what I wrote about Portland in my most recent travel journal, the opposition of feelings could not be more stark. While my first trip started begrudgingly and almost forced, my second trip was like visiting a long distance lover, with all the expectation and excitement therein. 

I can't wait to share the next few posts of the quirky touristing I happened into during the rest of my stay in Portland.

Peaks Island from the lighthouse

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Farm Day: Little Red Bird at Clagett Farm

Holly of Little Red Bird Botanicals tends a small plot at Clagett Farm. Amidst the farmyard chaos and despite the screech of the turkey she's managed to carve out a little slice of herb filled peace over the last five years. There's an air of quiet anxiety when a gardener first visits their piece of land after a hard winter. A held but hopeful breath. 
Will the plants come back? What was lost? What survived?

Keesa enjoying the sunshine

My experience with farming and gardening has always been with with the more macho sense of the word. Beefy tomato plants get yanked and discarded at the end of the growing season, seeds are snatched and hung if they are even kept at all, and a quick batch of winter-kill field peas gets thrown into the ground to the mercy of the first freeze.

An herbal garden is much different.  

As we approached the bed Holly and her mother started to call out the name of plants. 
"Oh look at the Mullein popping up."
"Good, we've got peonies here and over there the hyssop is looking good already."

As we surveyed the survivors I was struck by just how different this first day felt from past first days on agricultural farms. There was such palpable rebirth and regeneration here. 
Like seeing old friends at your old favorite bar. 

Black or perhaps Blue Cohash

I spent the morning with Holly getting acquainted with her herbs, my head reeling with all the new plant names. We attended to each plant as individuals. Some budding plants needed to be freed from smothering encroachers, others we covered in a soft blanket of pine needles and others we just simply recognized with a few words before moving to the next.
As you weed an herbal medicine garden you learn that the traditional foes of farming: the chickweed, dandelion, plantain leaf and dead nettles, aren't really foes anymore. But even friends can overstay their welcome and butt in where they aren't invited so out we plucked them. We made a tidy little pile of chickweed for Holly to bundle home and mix into her smoothies. She praised their superior nutrition and invited us to take chickweed as well. 
But wait. If they are so nutritive why cast them out of the garden?

"I don't bother growing things like chickweed in my garden when it's so abundant in our environment. Why plant something I can easily wildcraft?" Holly explained.

And she's right. Walking from my car to my apartment later that day I spotted chickweed growing between sidewalk slabs and clustered around the front steps. It's everywhere if you know what to look for. But where does one wildcraft in the city? How does one know where it's safe? 

I still have much to learn it seems.

The time passed quickly with multiple hands at work and before we knew it the weeds were gone and it was time to wake up the nursery and start planing some seedlings. I watched and chatted with Holly as she placed the chamomile seedlings in neat little rows.

"I wish it was possible to get just one seed in each little hole, you know. It always ends up being these little clusters that you have to pull apart. But I'm going to plant them pretty close together so they grow up kinda bushy, like one big chamomile bush."

The slow, intentional act of planting is such a calming experience. 

I'll be helping Holly throughout her growing season this year and documenting the growth of the garden and I can't wait to learn more. She sent me home with a hyssop and several little chamomiles of my own that I dutifully planted in close knit rows. Now all there is to do is water and wait. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Somewhere New: Indian Wells Hike, PA

Sometimes I like to bend the rules of Somewhere New and see an old friend. Jonathan and I take turns driving the windy back roads of Pennsylvania to visit each other every so often. For the month of October, Phil and I packed up for a long weekend in the mountains at Jon's.

I'm not a fan of Halloween. I started loosing interest in it about as soon as I started loosing teeth. Don't get me wrong, I still liked candy, but Halloween just seems so terribly contrived. So devoid of any real culture. As a teenager it was an excuse to stay out really late with friends running around the neighborhood. As a young 20 something it was an excuse to drink excessively. I just wasn't into it. 
And yet the peer pressure to dress up and show up is high.

And actually, that's how Somewhere New started in a way. That first trip to Boston in 2011 was a protest against a party I didn't want to go to. Not because I don't like my friends. Because I don't like what Halloween has become. Where are the scary movies? The all night pumpkin carvings? 
The celebration of past spirits and the embracing of current life? 
Getting together in costumes and drinking doesn't fulfill any part of me.

I know this view isn't popular though so I chose my getaway location wisely by choosing to spend my time with another self-styled social curmudgeon.

We visited the budding Penn State Arboretum one evening. We watched old, silly scary movies. We carved pumpkins and ate my famous butternut squash mac and cheese. And generally we just gave Jon a big ole dose of socialization that he is usually too studious to seek out.

One thing I insisted on doing was taking a hike in the untapped wilderness of PA. We chose Bear Meadows and did a long winding hike through the tall laurels and up to the vista of Indian Wells
Bear Meadows - which gets its name from the common inhabitants of the area - is actually a bog, not a meadow. The area is unique in its variety of trees which are usually found further north - things like Balsam Fir and Yellow Birch, but it actually has strong feelings of the south too. Walking the trail from the parking lot, as you start to climb, you enter a dense forest of laurel that stretches well above your head. Every so often Phil would let out a "Hey OH!" to ward off any roaming bears. 
The hike is about 6 miles with a pretty good climb that empties out to a rocky outcropping and a great view of the fall foliage. 

Ground Cedar sporting strobili

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Herbalism: Centro Ashe Medicinal Mushrooms Workshop

On a chilly morning in November I pulled up to Centro Ashe. 
In a rural neighborhood a squat sprawling house and an oversized garage sit back from the road a bit. A tiny slat board sign out front reading: Centro Ashe est 2012, is the only things that sets it apart from the other houses. 
I followed painted signs and shuffled into the garage. A ring of metal chairs in the center of the room were filled with other future medicine makers and curious counterculturists. 
We sat tentatively, sipping nettle tea and milling about to look busy.

Holli is no white-coated doctor. She's not even the flowy skirt, patchouli kind of doctor. 
She's a fungaculturalist - she grows mushrooms for a living.
But she's not ignorant to the abundant healing powers of mushrooms. But many of us were.
We started by introducing ourselves and talking about our relationship with mushrooms.
Answers ranged from:

I eat mushrooms
 I've tried those Whole Foods grow kits without success
I drink mushroom tea, but I don't really know what it does
I've foraged once, but someone else knew what we were looking for
And my personal favorite: I've taken some really magical journeys with mushrooms

She started off our day of fungal fun by asking us to guess what percent of modern medicine is derived from mushrooms. 
10? 15? 20?
No idea.

Turns out that since the medicinal properties of the ennoki mushroom were first studied and proven in Japan in 1972, more than 40 percent of our medicines have been derived from mushrooms.

Now that's not to say we didn't use mushrooms before that. It's just that the scientists, those white coat guys I mentioned before, hadn't approved them yet. Once the powers of mushrooms were chronicled for all to see the fungus hit the pill stands pretty quick.

According to Holli: 

 "Humans are more closely related to fungi than to any other kingdom, including plants, protozoans, and bacteria, and we have developed similar defenses against mutual disease-causing enemies. The idea is that because fungi and animals suffer from many of the same diseases, fungal medicines are active against many of the organisms that infect humans. Though ancient cultures have known this for centuries, scientific studies have only confirmed their incredible healing powers within the past few decades."

The main fear of using foraged mushrooms is the well known fact that some mushrooms are poisonous and many mushrooms look alike. 

A cute little mushroom saying we learned goes like this:

There are old mushroom hunters, There are bold mushroom hunters,
But there are no old AND bold mushroom hunters.

The main rule when hunting for mushrooms is: When in doubt, throw it out.

Holli brought in some specimen for us to ID.
The four mushrooms above are all either Turkey Tail (known to be anti-malarial, anti-microbal, anti-oxidant, and anti-tumom), or look alikes. When fresh and attached to trees their colors are very similar and it is only by a few tells - mainly the texture of their undersides, that can give you a true ID.

Along with the 4 types of undersides there are four basic types of mushroom in the  fungi kingdom:

Sacrophetic - the type that decomposes matter and releases acid
Microryzol - the vast networks that sync up with roots under the ground. Very difficult to cultivate but crucial to healthy plant and soil relationships
Endophytic - the type that invades plant tissue but leaves the host functioning and healthy - these can be grown sans-host
Parasitic- the type that feed on the weak, these slimy specimens don't usually produce a fruit body of their own

Innoculting wood with reishi plugs
As we learned about hyphae and spore prints and tried to wrap our brains around the scale of the underground network attached to the tiny umbrella shaped fruits we cal mushrooms, our eyes started to glaze over from overload. 

Holli wisely put away the power point and started getting us to just jump in and try it. 
For the second half of the class we learned how to inoculate wood for mushroom cultivation and make little fungus boxes to take home.

The general steps were: find some fresh wood that isn't too big around, drill holes into it, hammer the plugs in, cover the whole with wax, bury, wait. 

We learned some interesting do's and don'ts of the cultivating world.

-Start with Oyster Mushrooms - as they are most forgiving to cultivate
- Learn your wood - not all wood will grow mushrooms
- Study your mushroom - what's it's natural habitat? What does it like to eat?


- Inoculate dead wood. Only parasitic mushrooms thrive there and parasitics aren't very useful 
- Try to inoculate Black Walnut, Cedar, or Hickory - it won't work. These trees are naturally anti-fungal or produce essential oils that deter fungal growth.
- Contaminate your specimens before inoculation. 

This class was such a fun, hands on way to start getting interested in the world of mushrooms. Honestly, it was way over my head for what I am ready to do with mushrooms but being around experts in any field is always humbling and inspiring for future endeavors.