Plant Adventuring and Fall Wildcrafting
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
I rouse early, as I almost always do, but this morning it was with designs on a trip outside this special canyon. Opening my eyes to the sparkling river and clucking ravens, white barked cottonwoods and swaying pines, it requires a task or destination with mighty heavy draw to tempt my eyes and mind away from this place even for a short while. Depending on the need, circumstance or season, it most likely means an inescapable shopping trip or dental visit, an invitation for me to speak at an event within a day’s driving distance of our sanctuary. Or when it comes to a relaxing break from writing on the computers, it most likely means a plant gathering trip.
Here you see recent photos of our cabins, as taken from the river, looking through the arbor of cottonwood trees that I’ve grown and protected for the past 31 years. Our new set of solar panels can be seen between the cabins, one of which is actually my old schoolbus-home covered over with untreated wood.
Our trips are are never just about plant gathering, of course, but about our family gathering together in order to take in the beauty and knowledge that experiences in new and wild places afford.
The flora of the arid Southwest are extraordinarily diverse yet easily impacted, and so as a personal conservation practice we never sell – and seldom trade – any of the gathered bounty… thus a relatively small amount of our time away is expended on the actually clipping or digging of needed medicines. Far more of our hours apart from dear home and ongoing mission, are given to plant exploration, estimation, classification and deep appreciation, to energetic exchange and mutual recognition, communion and reunion, to what might in aggregate be more accurately referred to as plant encounters, excursions or adventures.
Due to the very nature of our purposeful work and ambitious mission, such adventures inevitably feel both a little mischievous and a mite truant, and therein undoubtedly lies a fair portion of the pleasure. In spite of their often sudden and impromptu feel – dashing away between needy emails and essential deadlines – these are very much planned trips, talked about days or weeks in advance, with local medicinal plants researched, trail guides and maps poured over and promising areas circled, the days checked off with my partner Kiva cautioning me not to change my mind. Before we go to bed the night before, she’s already filled the preferred green canvas daypack that I bought her, with the most relevant and trusted plant identification guides and botanical keys (research being an important adjunct to intuition, energetics and impressions), tools like her root-scooping hori-hori and small clippers, protective work gloves, a waterproofed map and compass or GPS. Bags for plant storage, preferably porous burlap, are stacked by the door, with the camera on top so we can’t possibly forget it. Youngsters are known for getting extra excited on the night before Christmas, but in our odd-otter daughter Rhiannon’s case it is anticipation of an upcoming plant trip that spurs her to spin and spin before going off to her treehouse to sleep.
Gathering the plants that Kiva needs for making medicine, is compelling enough. But what excites us most is the exploring of new terrain and what feels like exotically different elevations, varied biota in places we’re visiting for the first time. And for me especially – much more of an ally and aficionado of plants than an herbalist – a good part of the thrill is in coming across an interesting or unusual species that whether medicinal or not, I might never have laid eyes on before. The overriding inspiration for this trip was the end of the growing season and the certain and soon emergence of Winter, a final chance this year for gathering most varieties of fresh plants, and an opportunity to gasp and giggle over the high country’s mad display of Fall color.
Everyone climbed into the jeep for the trip through the river crossings, a ten or fifteen minute bit of bouncing before being disgorged at the back gate of the Owl (Land) Rover for the remainder of the trip. Our destination this time was alpine meadows and draw at 8 to 10,000 feet, the habitat of white skinned aspen and coal black bears, deep rooted osha and hearty lupine. We had permission this time to do some gathering as well as exploring on a private inholding near what is called Hannagan’s Meadow, not very many miles over the New Mexico border and into the mountains of eastern Arizona.
It seemed as if a number of conditions had combined and concluded, such that the meadows area trails remained moist year round, with a soft and padded feel to the bare feet uncommon in this part of the country.
The brilliant crimson and gold colors of the oak and aspen leaf skylines, was found duplicated in miniature on the verdant forest bottom.
Loba and Rhiannon rested on the trail, after recently fending off colds with the help of Kiva’s elderberry elixir and herbal steams.
Carpeting long stretches of the trail were layers of bright Aspen leaves forming a mind spinning mosaic, their brilliant yellow hue not the result of new pigment but rather, the seasonal leaching out of green chlorophyll. I take numerous photos of this arboreal art, always looking for more shots that can be used for feature illustrations and background layers for the Anima and Traditions In Western Herbalism websites, as well as for the new and full color Plant Healer Magazine.
Looking up, one sees a similar pattern of back-lit leaves, not waiting their turn to fall, but minute by minute sustained by their connection to the tree, delighting in their place in the sky.
…and this is how it must have looked to Kiva:
Stunning in their own way, were the predigous shelf mushrooms, nested in a matrix of lush moss.
These firm bodied mushrooms are a service to the ecosystem, as well as are incredibly beautiful to me. Kiva is currently undergoing research to determine what uses this particular fungal species might have.
Their undersides are a wonderful, creamy, abalone white.
The greenest of the remaining annuals, was this species we have yet to have had tome to key out and identify. Possibly a member of the wild pea family, it grew nearly 4′ high, with no leaf discoloration or die-back yet in spite of the frigid night time temperatures in November at 10,000 feet.
A few plants were actually still blooming, like this hearty wild strawberry…
…and this resilient yarrow, its flowers celebrating life and fecundity even as its leaves are rendered a dark honey brown by the turnover of the mountain Southwest’s distinct seasons.
It’s only at the end of the season, with the leaves of this plant starting to look a lot like the leaves on corn, that it becomes obvious why they named it Corn Lilly.
Winter’s can be heavy enough up here, that we saw many young trees either snapped in half or bent over by the weight of winds and snow. This particular one especially caught my eye, having responded to being nearly broke in half by continuing its heroic skyward climb.
While I seldom feel accomplished enough to feel heroic, I share with this tree certain twists of character formed in response to wound and challenge, and continue a purposeful climb. In our case, of course, the aim is not only to survive and taste the sun, but to consciously and effectively do all we can for this living earth, and help others to awaken and heal.
After Hannagan’s Meadow, we headed over to a favorite place for serious harvesting.
Developing a genuine relationship with landowners, and conserving or even helping to propagate resident species, is great way to secure long term gathering rights. Rural Western landowners are generally against federal environmental regulation, but are often enthusiastically supportive of private efforts to perpetuate the traditional healing herbs used by their pioneer forebears.
One exciting find on land we know about was the Sweet Root plant… and single sniff of the root makes clear why it’s called that! It is known so far mostly for use with digestive upset, gut infections, and yeast infections.
Kiva and Loba always bring home some Whit Fir, rare at lower elevations, and a favorite of theirs for a flavorful and healthy tea.
And while it may sound silly to those of you living in forests of Blue and Engelman’s Spruce, it’s admittedly an extra big treat for me whenever I am high enough up the New Mexico/Arizona mountains to be able to bask among these luxurious and deliciously scented trees.
Note that these kinds of plant excursions earn the title of “adventures” for a reason — not just because of the excitement and surprises involved, but partly for the difficult dirt roads and challenging foot trails they afford, the sudden shifts in weather and vehicle breakdowns. This fact led me to write an entire article of suggestions and guidelines for the upcoming first issue of our new Plant Healer Magazine… crucial for those just getting into herbal wildcrafting or other plant adventuring for the first time, and hopefully a helpful aid to longtime plant folks who could use an organized list of hints and tips to pass on to their herbal students. While the Anima Blog and Medicine Woman’s Roots Blog will continue featuring announcements and stories, after December all of Kiva’s and my most in-depth, information filled articles will be appearing in the Plant Healer instead, with only excerpts appearing on these blogs. For this reason alone, we strongly encourage anyone with an interest in herbalism and wildcrafting, plant conservation and activism, to subscribe to this art and photo filled journal of Western folk herbalism… with articles written by some of the leading voices in the herbal and healing community.
Plant Healer subscriptions will be available very soon. To read the latest of Kiva’s always insightful pieces, my new wildcrafter’s hints and tips and a dozen other engaging articles by featured authors, please keep checking for subscription updates at the
Plant Healer Journal Website: www.PlantHealerMagazine.com