Monday, April 8, 2013

Herbalism 101

Libbie had never been to Cold Antler Farm before, but she made the trip this weekend. She arrived a little early for the Herbalism workshop Saturday, and pulled up alongside my mailbox to quietly read and wait for the event to start in her car. I know this because when her car arrived I was sitting on Merlin's back in my front lawn, trying to get the stubborn creature to get excited about a workout. Libbie pulled up and Merlin watched, his ears turning towards the silver hatchback with interest. If Merlin is curious (and he naturally is) I don't have to beg him to investigate. I gave him a simple nudge with my heal and he walked down the paved road to our guest's car.

I didn't think about my first impression at the time, but I realized this woman who only knows me from books and this blog was about to be introduced to me for the inaugural time on the back of a fussy, thousand-pound, draft horse. It would have been more polite to dismount, halter and tie off the horse on the hitching post and walk over I suppose, but that thought didn't even cross my mind. So I rode up to the small car (all cars seem small from a saddle) and welcomed her.

She apologized for coming early and I told her we had about an hour or so till go time. She said it was a long drive and she wasn't sure about time or such so would it be okay to just wait. I replied of course, but I would still be working with Merlin for a few moments. Libbie didn't mind and joined another guest and friend, Mikaela, who was watching from the front lawn. I continued work with Merlin, who is still being ridden sporadically (once or twice a week) and off his winter break of eating and doing little but the occasional cart ride. He was all crow hops and kicks this morning but I know him and myself well enough to work through it. We trotted and sauntered down and up the road until he acted like a gentlemen and not some cattle thief's getaway car. Which for a Fell Pony is going against ingrained breeding, since long before fells pulled mining equipment in copper shoes they were the highlanders mountain raiding horse. These stout horses the color of night with sure feet and the ability to carry heavy loads were what many a swarthy clansman took out on nights that ended with stolen stock and horses. So Merlin acts up, or acts predictably, and I guess I should be thrilled he didn't take the money and run.

Anyway, back to the workshop. Libbie was here and she was smiling. I knew a little of her story. She is a librarian near Washington DC, and decided that Kathy Harrison's Herbalism workshop was the perfect excuse for a road trip as well as a chance to meet the author she only knew through the 600's in her Card Catalog system. I was honored to have her, and all the guests, that decided to come for the full day of fellowship, farm culture, and lessons in one of the timeless skills us humans have come to learn: healing through plants. Herbalism 101 included 15 women from all over the eastern side of the country, folks driving up from North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. As well as locals (well, comparatively) from New York, Vermont, the Berkshires and Boston. It was a full house.

I must admit that I always am a little nervous about workshops, and the strangers who come to them. I never know who is going to show up when a new person arrives. But every single time someone walks into my Hobbit Hole it feels like welcoming an old friend. I think it's because of our shared interests in farming, homesteading, and primitive skills. We just fit together, and everyone was of like mind and in good spirits. Kathy Harrison was as well.

I adore Kathy. She has done several workshops at this farm and will do more and every single time she arrives she draws a crowd and we all learn so much. Kathy knows gardening, and herbs, and was happy to oblige my request to teach Saturday. She had a card table set up in my living rook overflowing with jars of dried planted and flowers, tools, mortar and pestle, oils, gin (for tinctures) and bottles and books. It looked like a Kitchen Witch of great import was about to cast a healing spell on us all, and in a way, she did. Because what started as a morning on jostling horseback with nerves of new faces quickly turned into a happy conversation of healthily living and gardens.

I learned a lot on Saturday and got very inspired to focus on a small but productive herbal garden. last year I planted mints, lemon balm, echinacea, sage, and rosemary but besides some dried teas and soap blends I didn't use it much. After Saturday I feel armed with an army of uses! Kathy showed me the way! She talked about the best beginner herbs and their uses. She showed us how to make tinctures, infusions, teas, salves and adaptions for lotions. She gave us book recs, online sources, and answered every single question that was thrown at her, including ones that had more to do with her personal story and hometown missions. She was gracious, professional, and kind with what she knew and had to teach us.

I must share with you this highlight: homemade cold and cough syrup. Kathy poured organic apple cider vinegar and honey (I believe in equal measure) into a pan on my wood stove. To this happy stew she added chopped onion, garlic, and ginger and let it simmer over the heat for around half an hour. When it had cooled a bit she strained the veggies out and poured the golden, savory, syrup into a white bowl and passed it around for us to smell or taste. It was enchanting! I can not tell you how smooth and good this felt, both to my throat and mouth and to all my senses. One woman said she wanted it poured over ice-cream, I said it should be swirled around cream cheese as a party dip. Whatever it was it was soothing, smooth, rich, and powerful. One of those things you don't realize made you feel better until you experienced it. I highly recommend this syrup. Kathy says you can bottle it and store it in the fridge for up to six months, too.

And so the rest of the class went on much like that. Tips and tricks, conversations and happy stories. We learned much, laughed often, and ended the day with a talk more about blogs and the internet (my current lack of comments was a topic of interest) and garden and hunting stories. What I love about the workshops is how safe I feel being honest about myself at them. I feel no stress talking about things I could never post here, and when I do share stories like that I see strangers faces light up and laughter flow and I feel a little better about my own path. Perhaps I should start paying you guys to come, as it always feels more like a therapy session and group laugh than a service rendered. Alas, a girl's got to pay the mortgage.

Thank you to all who came out, specially those who traveled so far. I hope you all had a wonderful time and made notebook lists about infusions, tinctures, folklore and advice. And I hope to see all of you again at one of the future events like Livestock 101, Prepping for the Rest of Us, and so on. I have changed the dulcimer workshop to early fall, and if you are interested in an autumn in New York visit to learn this beautiful Appalachian instrument I have 5 spots left. Anyway, enough of the hard sell. I'm off to the co-op in town to buy supplies for that amazing syrup. And I might pick up some cream cheese too. Don't judge now.

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