the harrow and the harvest

Over the course of the last six or seven years, I have grown increasingly closer to and more aware of plants.  Plants of all kinds.  Vegetable, herb, annual, perennial, native, invasive, medicinal, poisonous…. if it’s green and it grows, I love it.

As I said, I have not always been so enamored of flora as I am now.  I am the fourth of five children to a farmer, and growing up, plants meant serious work- ICK!  And farms were boring- LAME!  (Who cares about making hay bale forts and petting cows, let’s go to your house- you have CABLE!!)  Dad worked from sun up to sun down with the help of his farmhands.  Most of my childhood memories of Mom involve her standing behind a steaming stove, or sitting hunched over a quilt stand wearing her silver thimble.  And Nana…. well, she just never stopped.

She retired from teaching so she could do MORE farming.  I mean, COME ON.  What a woman.  She also lived in a small house across the backyard, so she was ever-present.  Store-bought jellies and vegetables were non-existent in our house, and all our meats came wrapped in white freezer paper thanks to the steers that lived in the barnyard and the on-premesis meat store.  In between summer chores, we mostly spent our time sneaking strawberries from Nana’s truck patch and swimming in the pond that she had dug herself.  As idyllic as that all sounds, I had little appreciation for the way we lived because it made me drastically different than my friends.  In hindsight, I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything, and I can only hope that my boys can say the same thing one day.

Of all the householding and homesteading skills I absorbed by watching and helping, using plants as medicine wasn’t one of them.  One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t ask more questions of Nana.  She breathed her first and last on this farm, and was a quiet wealth of wisdom.  I managed to glean a handful of her life’s experiences, but I know she kept most things to herself.  In many ways, her death left a great chasm in our lives.  It wasn’t until very recently that my grandfather told me about a mustard plaster he received when he was younger for pneumonia.  I have to believe that in the not-so-distant past, my family was using and making their own medicine as part of their daily lives right here on this soil.  So, I’ve been doing a little digging up of the past, shaking loose a few clues as to how they lived when they first settled this plot of land.  Being the 8th generation to grow up on the same farm, you are surrounded by the things that belonged to everyone who lived and died there before you.  Old farmhouses have lots of great hiding spots, too.  Above one of the doorways in the house I grew up in, there is a transom space where a few dozen pocket-sized, leather bound journals were tucked away, written by my greats and great-greats.  The oldest one I’ve found dates back to 1884.  So much of my ancestors’ daily lifestyle and language have been replaced by modern convenience and technology.  In only a few generations, we have become detached from our roots.  Children today don’t even know how potatoes grow, or that a cow should subsist on grasses and not corn.  One of my most favorite patients is a college professor, and, through no fault of his own, had no concept of what an heirloom tomato was (gasp!).  There is a wealth of knowledge in this country that is going to die with its oldest generation if we don’t start digging it up and harvesting it.  There are a couple of paragraphs in the introduction to the Foxfire Book that I think best capture one of my sentiments for this blog:

“Daily our grandparents are moving out of our lives, taking with them, irreparably, the kind of information contained in this book.  They are taking it, not because they want to, but because they think we don’t care.  And it isn’t happening just in Appalachia.  I think, for example, of numerous Indian reservations, Black cultures near the southern coasts, Ozark mountain communities, and a hundred others.
The big problem, of course, is that since these grandparents were primarily an oral civilization, information being passed through the generations by word of mouth and demonstration, little of it is written down.  When they’re gone, the magnificent hunting tales, the ghost stories that kept a thousand children sleepless, the intricate tricks of self-sufficiency acquired through years of trial and error, the eloquent and haunting stories of suffering and sharing and building and healing and planting and harvesting- all these go with them, and what a loss.” (Eliot Wigginton)

What a treasure I have found.

It wan’t until after Nana passed away (the very day, to be exact) that I felt an undeniable pull towards the earth; to harrow, to sow, to tend, to harvest, to put up.  The day she died, I was given an evergreen sapling.  I brought it home and set to planting it right away.  I can remember kneeling, digging the hole, like every trowel full of dirt was a small, intentional ceremony.  That’s when I knew my lot.  I had to make the most of this little plot of mine.  I’d been given the land and enough knowledge to get me going.  It would be a disservice to my relatives not to.

Most recently, I’ve been taking a year-long Homestead Herbalism course and loving every minute of it.  It only meets once a month, but I’d be completely content to meet once a week.  I wasn’t necessarily seeking the class out (well, consciously, anyway), but it came to me in the most delightful bit of kismet (that’s a story for another post, though).  I feel like it has helped me to fine-tune my self-reliance compass.  Plants and healing are two things that are inextricably linked to who I am, so studying herbalism makes total sense for me.  A lot of what I have learned over the past year was completely new, but at the same time, strangely familiar and comforting-  a deja vu of sorts.  (Haven’t I heard the words “galactagogue” and  “switchel” before?)  Somewhere in my cells, this has all been lying dormant, just waiting for the right spark to bring it back to life.

I have only begun to scratch the surface of my ancestors’ farm journals, but I can only hope to find some evidence of plant healing somewhere in the script of those delicate pages.  My hope for this blog is that I can revive and re-inspire through my own experiences (with some old farm journal entries sprinkled in) some of what was lost to so many of us; living closer to the land, being her good and grateful steward, tuning your householding to her seasons, and making use of her many gifts.

The farm where I was raised. A little hard to see, but the house on the right is where I grew up. The barn still looks much the same, and cattle still graze in this pasture.
The farm where I was raised. A little hard to see, but the house on the right is where I grew up. The barn still looks much the same, and cattle still graze in this pasture.

On this day in 1884, J.H. Keim writes….

“Clear and cool.  Helped J. Schlip to butcher.  Neriah & I killed 2 hogs weight 316 & 315.  Got done in good time.”

On this day in 1940, Miriam Keim (Nana) writes…

“Rain, rain.  Will + Vane went to town.  I went to the farm + helped Aetna awhile.  After noon, I baked over 450 cookies, 4 different kinds.  Sent Mae a little gift.  Evening home.”

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