Category Archives: Healing

The felted, matted mess

imageLast year, I purchased a beautiful Suri alpaca rose-grey fleece from a local farmer. It was the most beautiful natural colorway I had ever seen in a fleece, with hints of autumn-rose and oatmeals and grey. I handled the fleece with extra care, checking the temperature of the wash and rinse water carefully, handling it gently, quietly contemplating at each phase of the wash-rinse cycle all that might be made from these gorgeous fibers. And then I did something stupid.

I don’t like that word stupid, but it’s the word that really works here. Fiber demands its process. You can’t rush fiber. You can’t tell it to hurry up and dry or get clean. You can’t shear an alpaca and make socks within the next five minutes. If you could, we crazy fiber nuts would find something else to fawn over.

Eager to begin carding, I decided to place the washed fleece in a pillow case and put it on air dry in the dryer for a good 15 minutes. This is something I had done with other fleeces and without issue, but I did not check the air temperature in my eagerness to dry the fleece. Anyone who works with fiber knows the most fundamental of rules:

Heat + agitation = felt.

By the time I realized my error, I lifted a matted piece of felt the size of a corgi out of the dryer. And yes, there were real tears.

I tried in vain to make something useful from the felted monstrosity. I even hung on to the fiber for months, hoping I would come up with something useful to somehow make up for the error. But what I realized was that this felt was destined to compost, as beautiful as it was. And that I had learned a lesson worth 10 times the price of the fleece; that process is important and, in instances like this, vital.

It’s so easy to try to take the short-cut, or to give up when someone tries to throw a wrench in your plans, but when you look at life as a process of growing, of moving from this raw, dirty fleece to a clean, organized useful yarn, it’s easier to see that those little bumps in the road aren’t there to deter you, but to help you broaden your awareness.

There’s a reason Gandhi was so wise; he was a hand-spinner! 🙂


A Tribute to the Small Town Doctor

Growing up, I never knew anything about long waits or white coats when meeting with my doctor. His office, small brick building on River Street in Elk Rapids, held artifacts of medicine in cabinets and never changed in all the years I went there. It was comfortable, familiar. So was Doc Green, the son of a physician, who worked tirelessly to help those who needed him. I also remember his candid sense of humor – that I never left the office without a good laugh, even when feeling sick. Even as an adult my mother would call and say, “I spoke to Doc Green about this or that problem you’re having, and he said…” Free advice from someone who really cared about keeping me (and all of his patients) healthy.

Doctor Green was the idealized television doctor in small town America, only he was a real man and we were so fortunate to have him in our town. When we couldn’t afford medicine, he provided samples. If we couldn’t afford a visit, he saw us anyway and let us make payments, no matter how small.

I learned this morning that he passed away. The man practiced medicine for all of his adult life. Was humble, kind, and practiced medicine the old way – the way that valued patients and their well-being above all else. And I consider him one of the staple characters in my youth. So sorry he is gone, but as his obituary asks, let his memory remind us to practice kindness and compassion, the real medicine in this world.

Please click here for the full obituary.

Three Ethics, 12 Principles, a chicken, and an apple tree… and Zone 00

Permaculture is an integrative system design approach inspired by highly evolved, productive ecosystems. It’s not simply a spiral herb bed or layer composting, but about interactions that take place within the soil and bio-web within a space, and how those interactions relate to place, time, other elements within the garden, people building the system, neighboring community, wildlife, and the ecosystem surrounding the garden space. That makes not only for a dynamic food forest system, but also for some pretty dynamic external thought processes, and hopefully, a huge amount of introspection.

There are plenty of designs out there that are “permaculture inspired,” but permaculture, as described through the principles, is a process, not simply an implementation of design. When someone says (or when we say to ourselves), “I want a permaculture…,” we, as designers, have to pull back and examine the, “I want.”

While Zone 0 is centered on the place where we spend the majority of our time, Zone 00 represents intentions, ego, learned knowledge, intuition, dreams, etc. It envelopes all things us. And while most of us have no problem evaluating our zones and sectors during the design process, we’re not often asked to look within; to take time to observe our intentions within a space; to keep our ego in check and hold our designs accountable.

That would take time. RealTree-white-BG time.

And time is something our egos fight against in favor of immediate gratification. So, rather than work against ego, we need to inquire about the urgency. Is there a need that is essential and must be met? Or are we eager to see a certain tree planted, so we can enjoy the fruits as soon as we are able? Working with this sense of urgency, we can loop back around to those useful elements of the existing landscape, and highlight areas that must be addressed. Take one step forward, then look back and see how the system responds. Short, concise feedback loops.

While in appearance, working from Zone 00 out appears to take longer, in the long run, it requires fewer additional inputs and results in a system well-suited for participants, whether a helpful microbe in the soil, a cedar waxwing perched on the branch of an apple tree, or you, the budding permaculturalist seeking a better way of living. In reality, permaculture is a philosophy that doesn’t just work externally. When examining a site, we ask ourselves why certain plants and animals are thriving within that environment; it’s time to seek the same answers from within.


Healing the Tree: the Science Behind Plant Distress Signals

Apple trees do not suffer in silence. The other day, my husband called from the farm to tell me one of our apples had been badly damaged by rodents. Before asking, I was certain I knew which tree. Last summer, when selling our house, I had transplanted three healthy apples out of dormancy (a horticultural and pomological no-no).

Two of the trees went into healthy soil, and suffered very waxhealingtreelittle. The third tree, my personal favorite, I planted at a point that represents the entrance to the future orchard. The soil in that spot had been tilled and was badly depleted, but I nursed the tree along with high hopes. I pinned this hope on the fact that the tree was a highly disease-resistant Liberty on standard root-stock.

“The Liberty?”

It was. The sweet disease-resistant apple had taken yet another hit from an impressive rodent population living at the farm. Having already suffered through intense winter cold and heavy snowfall, it was no surprise that the tree had attracted the attention of some common orchard grazers. I knew this, not because I understood the science, but because it’s a pattern repeated in nature. Even predatory animals hunt the weaker of the herd.

The Science Behind the Pattern

It turns out, the scientific community has long been interested in the phenomenon of trees and plants putting out distress signals. A more recent study conducted by the Netherlands Institute of Ecology concluded plants and trees emit an odor that attracts predatory insects and birds to help ward off infestation or future attacks long enough for the tree to heal.

According to the journal article published in Ecology Letters, scientists examined apple trees specifically, and found that damaged or insect-ravaged trees attracted more birds than their healthy neighbors.

The journal article abstract concludes:

Birds were attracted to infested trees, even when they could not see the larvae or their feeding damage. We furthermore show that infested and uninfested trees differ in volatile emissions and visual characteristics. Finally, we show, for the first time, that birds smell which tree is infested with their prey based on differences in volatile profiles emitted by infested and uninfested trees. Volatiles emitted by plants in response to herbivory by lepidopteran larvae thus not only attract predatory insects but also vertebrate predators.

Scientists hope to apply their research to developing better (and natural) pest management strategies in commercial orchards.

In the meantime, I’ve treated the tree with a small amount of honey, some cinnamon (a natural insect and deer deterrent), and wax tape, affording the Liberty a little time to heal and a good bit of hope.

Building a new foundation

The land has a way of talking.

Yesterday, while unpacking the first shipment of apple trees, we discovered something. The roots had been packed in shredded paper, what looked like old files. I wasn’t paying attention to any of the writing, my eyes were trained on the varying colors of bark and form of each tree, but at one point Chris stopped me.

“Do you know what these are?” he asked.

“Shredded receipts or something from the co-op?”

“Look again.”

I picked up one of the file tabs, still visible. It read: “Radiation Oncology.”

My eyes followed the littered paper now strewn across the garage floor, heaped over roots of the future orchard we’ve so long dreamed of planting. An orchard inspired by my own experience with cancer, rooted in the very nature of changing convention to reduce human exposure to chemical compounds linked to the disease. And all these files, closed and shredded, now protected the roots of the trees.

I like to find poetry in the mundane. But sometimes it finds me and leaves me wondering if something so simple as mulch can carry so beautiful a message. That there is hope.


Confucius Conscience

esb-observation-deck-1940sYep, we’re still in 1940, but I think I’m beginning to understand why. Between baking bread, polishing the floors, and visiting with guests today, I realized there’s quite a lot of sense in a bit of Confucius-style antiquity-loving thinking.

It wasn’t the abandonment of 21st Century ideals, but the adoption of an attitude that appears to have slipped by the wayside, outpaced by convenience.

There was a rhythm in the work. Not tedium, but tenacity; an adherence to an ethic that transcends the work, and is on par with meditation. Like religion, like knitting, like working in the soil by the light of day.

ideasIt isn’t enough to get through each day. (That thinking never built bridges or sky scrapers.) It’s about how each effort engages our senses, reminds us we are human, reveals our humility, and allows us to find strength in a kind cyclic certainty.

And at the end of the day, we can retreat to a peaceful slumber aware of sore muscles and knowing the comfort of solitude in a way no sliced white bread could ever afford us.

Give me the seeds and let me plant the grain, mill it, collect yeast from a passing breeze, work the dough with my hands, bake it with a fire I build, and share it with those I love.

Confucius was right. A little antiquity begets contentment.


Wishing you a Very Merry New Year

pinetreeIn 2003, we purchased a house off Cedar Run Road. Our agent left us a gift on the front porch. It was a small, potted blue spruce. Since it was early December, we brought the tree inside, decorated it, and it remained perched before the window until late February.

At that point, the tree was looking rough, and everyone assured me it was a lost cause, but I did not give up on the little tree. I kept it on the front porch, where it lost most of its needles and nurtured it, watered it, and once the ground thawed, dug a hole where the root ball would have room to grow.

The tree had lost its central leader. It looked terrible and I was chided for planting this very Charlie Brown Christmas tree in the most central location out front for all to see. I continued to water it, for there were a few tiny green sprouts of life remaining. And by the end of the year, enough new growth remained that I was confident the tree would survive.

That same year, we began converting the back acre into a large garden plot that would later serve as the start of Healing Tree Farm. And all the while, through the years, the tree, though crooked in places, having lost that central trunk, and missing branches, and looking rough, grew.

This December, 10 years later, living at our new house, I drive past the original site of HTF and see the tree each day on my way to the farm. It’s a bold, beautiful spruce. You can hardly tell it generated a new central leader. It’s boughs and branches are even and full. It’s thriving.

And it’s a reminder. That with a little nurturing of ourselves, of others, we can also thrive. Live to our fullest. Heal over the old and grow. May 2014 bring about many positive changes for you and yours. May you celebrate with love, practice kindness, and seek adventure. Do not allow old wounds to dictate your path forward, but be prepared for the wonder-filled life ahead.

With love,
Samantha, Christopher, Kennedy, Ava, Lucy, and Topher Noble