As spring unfurls

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Spring is unfolding especially slowly this year. We’re still warming the house with the wood stove each morning, and as recently as last weekend there has been a blanket of icy snow on the ground. It makes us appreciate each warm or sunny day that much more, I suspect.

And there’s still warmth enough for tromps through the marsh and foraging expeditions in the pastures; prairie burns and garden prep.

However cold, spring awakens us. Stirs us back to life with the promise of warmer days to come.

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Last week (despite threat of snow) the kids and I loaded up and headed for Milwaukee. My sister lives there and leads a coalition to address children’s mental health needs (The Milwaukee Coalition for Children’s Mental Health). Lupine and I planned to join her for the day to help teach a workshop about herbs and herbal self-care.

It was an energetic day filled with parents and grandparents, community organizers, and some truly fabulous kids. We talked about home herbalism, urban foraging, making remedies, and our general adoration of plants. Together we infused oils, made a balm, and blended an herbal tea from my new book, Herbal Adventures.

We made seed bombs with native wild bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) seeds that I gathered last fall, and engaged in some serious earthworm appreciation (complete with screaming!). What fun!

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Settling in back home yesterday, Lupine and I realized it was May Day, and couldn’t resist spreading a little magic around the neighborhood, as befits the day. Every year we stealthily deliver May Baskets (amidst raucous giggles!) to several of our neighbors. How could we resit?

This small, annual celebration is one of my greatest delights.

Because the truth is, it’s this easy to bring joy, love, and magic to those around us. To lift someone up. And to celebrate the earth and the turning of the year.

A few wildflowers, a sprig of catnip, and a sprinkling of the fairy dust that each of us carries.

Oh, spring. How I love you.

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Fire and wind; sun and snow

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20190331-DSC_3113Spring is prairie burn season.

And up and down our quiet valley, you’re bound to smell smoke most evenings.

There are many restored prairies (or in-process restorations) in our neighborhood. Most are an endangered ecosystem known as “goat prairies”. In the absence of fire, these small, steep, dry, and largely south-facing prairies are readily overtaken by juniper trees.

When this occurs, the rare herbaceous, reptilian, and invertebrate occupants are shaded into scarcity.

But with the help of fire, we can (perhaps counterintuitively) help coax them back to life.

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Don’t get me wrong. It’s terrifying.

Inherently so. Because, of course, you are intentionally creating a leaping wall of fire surrounded on all sides by dry grass and tinder forests. Something that in normal life we do our best to avoid.

But it is also terrifying because the first time we had a prescribed burn, some six years ago, that fire jumped the break and raced across dry grasslands that we never intended to burn.

It was one of the more terrifying experiences of my life.

I didn’t talk about it here when it happened because it was too raw and I felt too vulnerable, and the what-ifs kept rolling through my mind.

What if someone had been hurt? What if it damaged a neighboring farm, cabin, or house? What if we hadn’t been able to bring it back under control? Acres burned, and the half-dozen or so volunteers who were there for the burn worked tirelessly to extinguish it, literally stomping the last flames as the fire trucks arrived.

I can still picture Sage, then ten, beating out flames with his jacket, his face like stone, his eyes flashing with primal fear.

As one friend put it, we call them “controlled burns”, but that’s a little arrogant. It’s fire. So they’re never completely under our control. 

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But that was six years ago. This year (and honestly, every year since that first burn), it went off without a hitch. If you look closely at photos above and below, you can see my family (and one neighbor) illuminated in the firelight. We’ve mostly worked through the fear that took root after that first fire gone awry.

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We’re providing what the prairie needs to continue to thrive.

While it is terrifying, it’s also exhilarating.

This year so far we have two burns under our belts, plus two more for Pete. The first was on adjoining restored prairies that we share with one neighbor; the second with an adjoining restoration in the other direction.

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Since the burns have extinguished and the hillsides cooled, we (and much of Wisconsin/Minnesota) have been hit by a spring storm that is tearing down power poles and uprooting ancient trees, coating interstates and backroads in ice, and generally being moody and unpleasant.

Indeed, we lost a tree of our own early in the morning of the storm. I heard it fall in the still darkness of early morning, sounding something like snow sliding off of a metal roof, and landing with a “whoof” on the ground.

Sage came into the room and asked if I saw it fall. He happened to look outside just as it went down.

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Last Autumn…

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Last Thursday…

But there’s more to that story as well.

You see, we have dozens of trees around our yard, barn, and home, and hundreds more in our woods. Yet last week, walking by the box elder that frames our house, I felt something. I paused, and laid my hands on its trunk.

Pete came around the corner and saw me standing there, listening to the tree. He raised one eyebrow. “The tree wants you to know that it looks healthy, but it’s going to fall soon. And it doesn’t want to fall on our house. And it wants you to know that it’s okay if you cut it down instead,” I told him. “Okay. We should do that,” he replied, somehow rolling with my bizarre and unexpected tree whispering.

One week later it fell.

Unaware of our conversation about this tree, Sage told me that in the night before it fell he woke and looked out his window. He wondered what would happen if that tree fell. Would it hit his bedroom? Then he looked out in the early morning darkness just in time to see it fall. It landed away from the house, thankfully.

I miss that tree already. It was “just” a box elder, sure. But one that I was fond of. It’s been here since long before we moved in, and there’s a hole with it gone. We will use the branches and trunk as a base for a few new permaculture (huglekultur) garden beds that we’re building in the next few weeks. Then this tree that whispered to us can nourish our family as well.

When it fell, it landed squarely on my greatest garden love, a hedge of elderberries that I planted three years ago from cuttings started by a friend. All things considered, the elder looks pretty good, but a few plants were lost to the blow that the storm and tree dealt.

After a friend requested cuttings, I realized that it was a perfect opportunity to transform this two-fold loss into something magical. So this morning I gathered all the broken branches I could find, and made cuttings to root, plant, and share.

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As the old saying goes, “When life gives you a downed tree and damaged elder bushes, make garden beds and propagate medicine.”

Or something like that.

Camp Hygge

The kids and I slipped away for a little “Camp Hygge” time beside the river this week. We embarked last Friday for one week away: our small car piled high with too many books, too much food, and more knitting projects than we could complete in a year. And, of course, three sets of snowshoes and cross-country skis.

We brought board games and sourdough starter; art supplies and wool socks; read-aloud books and bags of yarn. Everything we’d need for a hyggely week away from home, snuggled down in the northwoods at my parent’s cabin.

While it has been a snowy winter, we honestly had no idea how much snow would greet us upon our arrival. I can’t recall the last time we’ve had so much snow! Thigh deep! (And I’m nearly 6′ tall.) So much show, like all of my childhood winter dreams come true.

Needless to say, we’ve spent much of each day outside–snowshoeing, skiing, making ‘camp’ in the woods, and building a quinzhee (our favorite sort of snow fort).

Then back inside we would go, for hot tea, comfort food, and time thawing out by the fire.

Each night, our sleep was long, well-earned, and deep.

On one favorite day, we packed up a can of baked beans, some cold sausages, and a few oatmeal cookies. We added matches, a hand saw, and pocket knives, then strapped into our old woven snowshoes and headed into my family’s woods.

We walked atop of the knee- to thigh-deep snow for some time, then, finding a sunny clearing in the balsams and hemlocks, we set to work clearing snow, gathering firewood, and making camp.

It was only a day camp, but cozy and homey nonetheless.

After a spell, our fire crackled, and our lunch sizzled.

We spent the day in our makeshift camp before extinguishing our fire, packing up, and returning home. We rolled back inside cold and damp, but well fed and contentedly tired, then warmed ourselves with tea and a fire in the fireplace.

After a full, delicious week away, we stumbled back home to the Driftless last night. So happy to reunite with Pete (this is a trip that just the kids and I take each year), Moose and Grandpa (the dogs), the barn cats, and this quiet valley we call home.

We returned much changed.

We are more sore and more fit; more fed and relaxed. We are simultaneously more tired and more rested than we’ve been in a very long while.

And all of it felt just right.

Back home, unpacking our cooler and our car, another adventure is behind and within us; another hyggely winter week enjoyed.

The scent of woodsmoke lingers in our hair, a memento from our magical time away.

Cold weather magic

I posted a video on Instagram earlier this week that caused a bit of a buzz! Shot by Sage, it showed me throwing a pot of just boiled water into the air, the liquid flashing into a cloud upon making contact with the cold air.

Indeed, it was magic.

So when a friend posted his own video of this cold weather experiment, his version backlit by the sun, I knew we had to give it another go.

At sunrise.

On the coldest day I can remember in 46 Wisconsin years.

So this morning I encourage my sweet family to bundle up and head out into the the -30 F/-34 C morning as the sun crested the hills, for the sake of some winter fun and some photos.

Here are the results:


A necessary postscript, because, safety: You can burn yourself terribly while doing this if it’s not properly executed. Because really. You are literally pitching hot water into the wind.

The water does not cool instantly, and if thrown poorly can easily rain down scalding water onto your head. If you try this at home, be safe and start slow. Notice how in the photos of my kids (versus my husband) they are throwing small quantities carefully away from themselves, not overhead. And mind the wind!

Also, this was simply hot tap water. (Possibly not even hot by the time we hiked to the marsh.) It worked brilliantly because, well, -30 F. If you’re using hotter water be careful for goodness sake.

Also, cold this intense can cause frost bite within minutes. We made two brief trips outside to capture the shots above.

A HUGE shout out to Pete, Sage, and Lupine for indulging me with this foray into the cold, and to our friends and Driftless-neighbors Mary G. and Joseph F. for the sunrise inspiration.

What’s the weather like in your neck of the woods?

Stay cozy, dear ones!

Love,
Rachel

To the ridge top


20180930-DSC_7521It’s not always easy- to leave the comforts of fireside and head out into autumn: wind, drizzle, and all. To feel the weather on our skin without the buffer of walls, roof, and wood stove.

But Lupine and I have begun to make a habit of it: heading outside for nature medicine and movement therapy. (I think some just call it “going for a hike”.)

I’ve needed it lately, my heart heavy with the happenings of the day.

So we head to the top of the goat prairie above our house, cleared only last winter of invading honeysuckle and junipers. It might be our favorite perch, with a view of the valley for miles around.

The farm dog (Grandpa) followed. Though he’s old, he can navigate this hill with more grace than I, and we let him lead the way.

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As we headed up the hill, a barred owl in the forest beyond the creek had much to say, and we listened with rapt attention. We felt the thrum in our chests as a flock of sparrows – moving as though with one mind – danced and wove beyond our reach. They’re thinking of autumn, too.

Barely audible, the creek whispered her song to rock and tree. And maybe to us as well.

And I exhaled.

Near the top, I found a cluster of a plant whose identity has eluded me all summer long.

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Despite multiple attempts, I failed at keying it out in books or online. I only took photographs however; never picking a sprig to get to know her subtleties.

Finally, last night (the flowers long since faded) I paused again to wonder at this plant. Who are you? I crushed a leaf between my fingers and inhaled her scent. Normally my first instinct when getting to know a new plant, I had missed this simple, often vital step, and missed the trait that would hint to who this plant might be.

With this fragrance still on my fingers, I found her name after just a moment’s search. Narrow leaf mountain mint – Pycnanthemum tenuifolium. It grows in abundance in our prairie and pasture and the scent is reminiscent of bee balm and oregano. Full of the medicinal components that make thyme such a potent ally during times of cough and cold, we decided to taste for our selves.

The kettle boiled, and I filled our cups.

As night fell on the hillside above us, we sat by the fire (the first of the year), our mugs full of fragrant tea of Mountain Mint. Brewed from the sprig that I brought home, it tasted of summer’s end, of monarda, and of thyme.

It tasted of healing, of autumn, and of home.

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Back home beside the fire again, this wild tea in my cup, I am changed.

My fingers smell of mountain mint, bee balm, and wormwood; my shoulders have softened; the furrow between my eyes has gone. There’s medicine waiting out there – outside – beneath the cloudy sky.

And each time I hike this ridge I leave a heaviness behind, and bring home magic in its place.

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Caterpillar to butterfly


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Remember my little friend, Buddy, the monarch caterpillar? He emerged from his chrysalis!

I found him on a walk a couple of weeks ago on a milkweed patch in the path of the country mower. So I brought him home and set up our butterfly house, and we’ve been obsessively watching him ever since.

He formed a chrysalis a week and a half ago, we’ve been watching closely for days, awaiting his emergence.

Lupine noticed on Wednesday morning that the wings could be clearly seen, folded tightly behind the transparent membrane. We marveled at him for a long while, then stepped outside for only a moment. When we returned, we found him fully emerged!

Needless to say, we were awestruck.

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We watched as he pumped and opened his wings, then rested and dried them, while hanging suspended from the ceiling of the cage.

Finally, it was time to set him free!

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My mom was visiting, so she gathered with the four of us to witness his maiden flight.

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(Last photo courtesy of Lupine.)

I refer to Buddy as “he”, because a friend taught us how to determine gender on a monarch! See those two black spots above on the lower wing in the photo above? And the delicate (thin) black lines throughout? That told us that he was a male, and not a female as we had been guessing all along.

So “she” became “he” in an instant, just after emergence.

The things we learn, side-by-side with out kids! Next up we’re raising Luna moths. A friend gifted us a few luna babies that we’re raising with great excitement. Much to our delight, these amazing chrysalises jiggle and vibrate when you set them down.

They. Are. Incredible.

And a tiny bit creepy.

I shared a video on my Instagram highlights if you want to watch!

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And after that? We have a Polyphemus colony that’s happily munching on oak leaves in our kitchen. Another gift; same friend. This bundle of big fat adorable caterpillars will turn into these beauties.

Needless to say, I’m geeking out on this as much (if not more) than my kids.

Sometimes people ask us when we have our last day of school; do we take the summer off from homeschooling?

Not really. I mean how could we? Life is learning, and our curiosity just won’t quit.

So we don’t have a “first day” or a “last day” of school–not this year, and not ever. Because honestly, we couldn’t stop learning if we tried. And why would we ever want to, with this magic in our kitchen?

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A few postscripts (and a couple of handy afflinks) follow:

1. We were dumbstruck by this podcast and, weeks later, still talk about what we learned from it often. I hope you enjoy!

2. The zippered butterfly tent that we’re using in the photos above we picked up a few years ago. It was a part of this butterfly kit that we really bought just for the house. (Though raising the butterflies that came with it were fun, too.) A friend had one and her butterflies seemed to do so much better than ours did when raised in a makeshift house or gallon jars. Maybe it’s just that I fret about them injuring themselves less in this soft-side tent.

3. And if you’re new to lepadoptera or just looking for a good field guide to caterpillars, this one is a good place to start.

Happy caterpillar hunting, friends!

What else are you going to do?


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Most of the previous mid-April snow had already melted, and we were hopeful for spring.

But then yesterday more snow began to fall in the morning, and we stayed hunkered down by the fire with our homeschooling. The kids had asked for spelling, math, and science (yes, asked – I’m happy to discuss our educational model more for those who are interested!), so that was what we were working on as more and more snow fell.

We refilled the bird feeders. We pulled out the field guide to identify a few visitors that we hadn’t seen in a while. We marveled at how many birds our feeders can hold at one time, then refilled the feeders again.

And despite ourselves we were captivated by the beauty of the falling snow.

Around Lunch time, Sage (winter’s #1 fan) said that he wanted to walk to the creek while the snow was still falling. So we did a bit more homeschooling, working on our herbalism class, and then set to bundling up in our winter gear (that we were either wise – or lazy – enough to not have packed away yet).

And off we set!

We picked up Pete along the way, who was working from home (because: blizzard), and the four of us embarked – with two barn cats and one farm dog in tow (as often happens).

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There was a snowball fight to have, gigantic snowballs to roll up and into the creek, and a family of snow Totoros to sculpt into life. There were belted kingfishers to marvel at, wood ducks to watch descend, and snipe to see winging across the pasture.

We stayed out for hours.

Despite it being dinnertime. Despite it being April. Despite there being a very distinct possibility that we were feeling quite done with winter and ready to move on into flowers, gardens, foraging, and sunshine.

And yet…

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This day was magical.

It was one of the best days we had all winter, never mind that we’re already well into spring.

Because here’s the thing: we’re given one day to do with what we will each morning.

And how we spent it – how we interpret its meaning – is completely up to us.

And we could have spent it worrying about the birds that are hungry on account of the snow, but instead we filled the feeders. And we could have been frustrated that with the Narnia-esque spring we are having and grumped about the weather, but instead we found magic.

We bundled up and got into it. We found the magic and mystery; laughter and beauty in those falling flakes, and we savored every bit. We found connection, creativity, joy and wonder in this wintery spring magic.

Because honestly, what else are you going to do?

You always have two choices of how to play the hand you’ve been dealt, and one of them most certainly feels better than other. The choice of where you dwell is up to you.

Are we done with winter?

Most definitely.

But did magic happen yesterday on account of that unexpected snowfall?

Oh my, yes. Did it ever. And for that I am so glad.

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Prairie burn!


The kids and I hurried home from town last night, arriving to see the hillside above our house already in flames.

That’s a good thing, I assure you.

Pete, two neighbors, and two other area prairie enthusiasts were already at work, burning fire breaks and raking debris to prepare our shared prairie for a prescribed burn.

(All photos are expandable. Click to see a larger view.)

The project began many weeks ago, and truly culminated last night in this long-awaited burn.

Pete, our friend Alan, and our next door neighbor Jeff had spent the past many weeks working tirelessly to restore an expanse of goat prairie (that spans our and Jeff’s land) that was being slowly but steadily covered in juniper trees. Invasive honeysuckle was waiting in the (wooded) wings.

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Alan, who lives just up the valley from us a couple of miles, (pictured here in green) has been champing at the bit to restore this prairie for some 20 years.

His delight was evident – and contagious.

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We’ve done prescribed burns with Alan in years past, burning pastures and bottomlands below our barn. But this time was different.

This was an ecosystem built by fire, but one that had not been burned (in Al’s estimation) for 75 years.

We know that the original homesteaders grazed sheep and goats here (old fences still remain, tangled in the forest at the ridge-line), but other than that it’s been abandoned, largely due to it’s steep slope and shallow, rock-strewn soil.

With the junipers gone, it was time to give the prairie one last push toward health.

With fire.

Moments after we arrived, Sage was “voluntold” (as he good-naturedly put it) to grab a water pack and work a firebreak. Lupine and I skirted the edges, keeping our eyes peeled for any sparks or embers jumping the boundary. (We had lived that experience before, the four of us and Al, and never wanted to do so again.)

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This burn, thankfully, went according to plan.

The excitement in the air was as thick as the smoke, and this remnant scrap of prairie was lovingly – yet dramatically – coaxed back toward health.

From a homeschooling perspective, we couldn’t have asked for more. It’s been a couple of years since the kids were involved in a burn. (Look at how young they were during this one!)

And they jumped in with enthusiasm.

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It was impossible to stop smiling.

The very real sense of community; the feeling of being true stewards for the land; the knowledge that hard work pays off; the contagious spirit of volunteerism – all of it came together as the sun slipped behind the smoking hillside.

I went to bed feeling grateful for good neighbors, old prairies, and no surprise gusts of wind.

What a night! And what a project.

Around the maple fire


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If the photos above are any indicator, we'd have twice as much syrup in the pantry if we hadn't developed such a taste for hot sap at all stages of cooking.

In truth, this ritual is more of our spring celebration than the one that involves hidden eggs and bunnies. This is the one that draws us out, year after year, as the snow retreats. 

I'm so glad.

And I'm happy to give up some syrup for the feeling that it creates.

Because after the long winter cozied before the fire, it awakens us at our core to go out into the chill and spend all of the day, reading aloud, sipping sap, and trading stories as the geese and cranes soar above us.

And so last week, while Pete was busy with bookkeeping and taxes for LüSa, the kids and I headed outside to cook the first of our sap. 

"Bring three mugs!" Sage called from the yard, gathering kindling. I grabbed four, knowing full well that maple cooking was more enticing than taxes in Pete's book. I was right. We weren't outside for 15 minutes before he emerged to fill his cup. (In more ways than one.)

It was also the first run of the new cooker that he made, and I couldn't imagine he'd want to miss that.

It is welded of two steel drums (food-grade drums that our organic coconut oil and other organic oils are delivered in for soap-making) and two stainless steel chafing dishes from a restaurant supply store. It worked brilliantly, and we were so glad to have him join us.

There we spent the day, cooking sap, making syrup, and welcoming spring.

I'll even forget for the moment that there's snow in the forecast for tomorrow.