Usnea- A Medicinal Lichen

Here in Southern Appalachia we’ve had a lot of storms lately. We had a couple hurricane remnants come through as well as the typical storms that come with the change of the seasons. That means a lot of branches are falling from the tree tops covered in Usnea, a long tendriled lichen that is sometimes also called Old Man’s Beard.

Lichens are very cool “composite organisms” comprised of a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an algae (or cyanobacteria). Animals and most fungi cannot make their own food, they eat/absorb other organisms for their nutrients, they are called heterotrophs. Plants are autotrophs, they can make their own food from water and sunlight via a chemical reaction. This is why some fungi and algae formed a relationship, one is a heterotroph and the other an autotroph. The algae provides the organism with nutrients and the fungi provides it with structure, allowing both parties to grow where they otherwise could not. Here is an article that discusses this in more detail, if you want to know more.

Usnea grows on tree bark but only uses the tree as a substrate. It is not a parasite of the tree, it does not need to be, since it gets its nutrients from the algae half of its being. Like most lichens, it only grows where there is very little pollution making it a bio-indicator of air quality. Usnea is a fruitcose lichen which grows in a “shrubby” branching pattern anchored on the bark or branches of trees. It is grayish green in color and has a kind of hairy look. Usnea is an entire genus of lichen with over 400 species. This genus can be distinguished from similar looking lichens by pulling on one of the strands. If you pull slowly you will see a small white filament inside the lichen branches. 

This white filament is the identifying characteristic you need to check for. If the filament is black or any color other than white, or there is no filament, you have a different organism. I have found what appears to be at least 3 different species of Usnea in the woods behind the house. From what I’ve read, all the species of the Usnea genus can be used interchangeably for the medicines I will discuss here but I have seen some references specifically to Usnea barbata though most of those references say something like “Usnea barbata and other species”.

Ok, before I go any further I am going to reiterate a disclaimer I have mentioned before: I am not a doctor, trained herbalist, or medical provider. I am not an expert in herbs, I am a beginner. I am learning from herbalists and research I have done on my own. Like with any medication, natural or otherwise, you should consult with a trained medical professional before taking any new medication. Also, since we’re discussing something that is foraged, not cultivated, I will remind you to be 100% SURE of your identification before using anything you forage.

Look closely. See the fine white filament core in the section I pulled to the right?

Usnea has been used for centuries across many cultures including Asian, European, and Native American traditional medicine. It is edible, although it’s not very tasty and I have read that you don’t want to eat it in large quantities due to potential liver toxicity, which I will discuss more in a bit. It has also been used in diapers and menstrual products due to its absorbent nature. It has been used in dyes, deodorants, cosmetics, and other products.

Here is an excerpt from a collection of research on Usnea that I think nicely summarizes the known medicinal uses of Usnea: “Significant research has been done on Usnea and its metabolites which confirm various biological activities including anti-microbial, anti-oxidant, anti-tumor, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular protective, and hepatoprotective properties. These are closely correlated with the ethno-medicinal uses. Recent pharmacological studies have revealed significant anti-cancer, anti-genotoxic, anti-proliferative, and anti-neoplastic activities and these potentials have further put Usnea under the spotlight.” (PDF) The genus Usnea: A potent phytomedicine with multifarious ethnobotany, phytochemistry and pharmacology. Available from:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/292212820_The_genus_Usnea_A_potent_phytomedicine_with_multifarious_ethnobotany_phytochemistry_and_pharmacology [accessed Oct 29 2018].

The most common use of Usnea seems to be in fighting infections of mucosal membranes such as Urinary and Respiratory Tract Infections. Specifically, Usnic Acid, one of the active agents in Usnea has been shown to be effective against gram positive bacteria (like staphylococcus, tuberculosis, streptococcus, and more). Some studies have even shown it to be more effective than penicillin against certain types of bacteria. It does this by affecting the bacteria’s metabolism and production of ATP (energy), killing the cell when it cannot produce the energy it needs to live and reproduce. Usnic acid has also been found to selectively kill certain types of cancer.

Usnic Acid isn’t the only active chemical constituent found in Usnea either, there are a number of other beneficial organic acids and polysaccharides as well. I won’t get too scientific on you, but here’s a link to a great summary of research on Usnea; the same article I pulled the quote two paragraphs up from.

In my reading about Usnea and other medicinal plants and mushrooms, I have noticed that when modern science tries to verify ethnobotanical uses of plants and mushrooms, it tends to choose a chemical in said organism, extract it, and test to see if that chemical does what the whole organism is said to have done historically. This is often because the funding for research into medical plants comes from the pharmaceutical industry which is looking for chemicals it can synthesize to make money. They cannot make money from whole organisms that grow wild, especially ones that resist cultivation, like Usnea; therefore they aren’t motivated to invest in research toward whole plant application. In the case of  Usnea, Usnic Acid is living up to the medicinal claims history has made about Usnea but this isn’t always the case and it’s important to note that while many whole plants (or lichens) and whole plant extracts have been used for centuries for various medical conditions, once you start to separate the plant into individual chemicals you may have different effects.

So, how do we use Usnea that we foraged from our land (or purchased online)? Well, the most common uses are in tinctures, teas, powders, and poultices.

First things first, you need to clean the Usnea. When foraged it often has soil and other plant matter on it. To get the Usnea clean I soaked and swished it in cool water and changed out the water several times until the water had very little sediment (other than Usnea parts). Then, in most cases you will want to dry it for storage or use in a tincture. Remember, moisture can lead to spoilage. After drying I also cut off the little base ends that anchored the Usnea to it’s tree. I didn’t read anywhere that I needed to do this, but bits of bark from the tree were attached so I figured I should.

The active parts of Usnea are only minimally water soluble so if you want to make a tea, you need to “catalyze” it with some alcohol. To make a tea, finely chop or grind Usnea and put just enough alcohol on it to wet it. Allow this to sit for 30 minutes. Then add hot water and allow to steep for another 30 minutes.

To make a tincture, finely chop or grind Usnea and cover with alcohol (at least 50% ABV) in a glass jar. Allow to sit for 6 weeks. Strain and use the liquid. I have seen some people suggest that “hot alcohol” extractions are better for getting the most out of Usnea but I cannot seem to confirm how important this is, if at all. And since heat and alcohol can be dangerous to mix, be sure to research how to do this properly if that’s the route you want to take. I have not personally tried any “hot alcohol” extractions, but I’ll let you know if I do.

 

Whole Usnea can be used in bandaging wounds since it is absorbent and antimicrobial.

A poultice (moistened whole Usnea, possibly chopped) can be used on wounds and is said to be beneficial for staph infections, MRSA, cellulitis, and other infected wounds.

Usnea can also be dried and powdered and applied to wounds that way.

I have seen some people suggest that you could make a slave with Usnea by powdering it and adding it to a salve base (usually oil and beeswax), but this seems to be uncommon and I couldn’t say if it works any better or worse than the other preparation methods.

One final word of warning, these preparations, depending on who you ask, are all for TOPICAL use, not ingestion. Some people say you can take the tea and/or tincture internally, but others say you cannot due to possible liver toxicity concerns that have arisen recently. Because Usnea has been used to treat Urinary and Respiratory infections I figured it had to be able to be taken internally… so I did some digging. It seems that Usnic Acid has been used as a weight loss supplement recently, some people taking large doses of this Usnic Acid supplement have experienced liver toxicity, which is very serious. This has lead to concerns that Usnea may not be safe to take internally… but it’s important to remember that dosage is often the difference between medicine and poison. Herbal supplements in general have been under fire lately for causing/contributing to liver failure/toxicity issues. One article I found via the National Institute of Health said that 20% of the hepatotoxicity instances in the US currently are caused by Health and Dietary supplement-induced liver injury! A lot of these instances are from things like Vitamin C, Green Tea Extract, Iron, and other commonly used supplements.
That said, remember what we discussed about whole herbs versus extractions of individual chemicals a few paragraphs up…

Our bodies, and all of the organisms around us are very complex. As advanced as modern medicine is, there is a LOT we don’t know. The more I learn the more I know that even Doctors and scientists know relatively little about our bodies and how they work and interact with the world around us and the things we come into contact with and consume. Even FDA approved drugs and therapies often have mechanisms of action that aren’t fully understood.

In addition to the links I already shared within the post, here are links to some more of the articles I read while writing this post. I always encourage you to do your own research, don’t take my word for it.

American Botanical Council-Usnea
Health Benefits Times- Health Benefits of Usnea
Grow Forage Cook Ferment- Foraging for Usnea: A Super Medicinal Lichen
Sustainable Homesteading- Usnea, Medicinal Herb of the Forest
Herbs with Rosalee- The Usnea Herb
Alandi Ayureveda-Usnea barbata
Kivas Enchangments- Usnea: Healing From the Forest
The Naturopathic Herbalist- Usnea barbata
Herbal Living- Medicinal Benefits of Usnea
ITM Online- Safety Issues Affecting Herbs- Usnea: an herb used in Western and Chinese medicine
National Center for Biotechnology Information-Review of Usnic Acid and Usnea Barbata Toxicity
Consumer Reports- Liver Damage From Supplements Is on the Rise

Prepare for the worst; hope for the best.

Prepare for the worst; hope for the best.

That’s basically my life motto, well, one of them. Bad things happen. All you can do is try to be prepared for them when they do happen. There are those out there who make fun of people who prepare. We are called crazy, paranoid, pessimistic, and a host of other unfavorable adjectives. I actually used to be one of the people who made fun of preparedness minded individuals. I remember the first time I heard of “Bug Out Bags” I thought it was ridiculous. In my defense, the individual (who shall remain unnamed) selling them is/was crazy. Their presentation of the bags as something everyone should have in case the “sh*t hit the fan” (SHTF)and the world as we know it ended seemed silly to me. At age 20(ish) I couldn’t fathom the world as I knew it ending.

Fast-forward 10 years and now I am a “prepper”. Not the kind that lives in a bunker with 30 years of food stored, but the kind that recognizes “life as we know it” is fragile and can be disrupted in the blink of an eye. The end of the world as *I* know it could end without anyone but me noticing. The end of the world as *I* know it wouldn’t take much. It’s happened before, and it’ll happen again. So, we do what we are able to ensure we can carry on through any scenario that may befall us.

For us, preparedness is and forever will be, a work in progress. No one is ever 100% prepared. There are people who will tell you they are, but there is ALWAYS room for improvement. For us, improvement does not mean just buying more and more supplies. Although we do buy some supplies, a huge part of being prepared (that a lot of people, even preppers, forget) is knowledge. Having a generator will do you no good if you don’t know how to use it. Having a cache of weapons will do you no good if you don’t know how to use them and don’t have awareness of your surroundings. Living in the woods will do you no good if you don’t know how to take care of yourself in the wilderness. Learning how to forage and live without electricity is a prep that cannot be lost or taken away from you. Knowledge is power; never forget that.

So how did I go from laughing at preppers to being one? The first step was understanding that “prepping” is not like it’s presented on TV, where people prepare for the “apocalypse”. For us, part of being prepared meant moving to a new area and changing our lifestyle from one where we were always completely dependent on other people and the systems of our society, to one where we are pursuing self-reliance and get closer and closer to independence every day. YOU don’t have to move to the woods to prepare though, you can work toward preparedness anywhere. Your preparation may just look different than ours. Preparedness isn’t an all or nothing thing. You aren’t “prepared” or “unprepared”, it’s about degree of preparedness. You can prepare to a level you are comfortable with.

Contrary to popular belief, most of prepping is being prepared for smaller, more local, events. The place to start is with yourself and your family. What can happen to you and your household that would significantly disrupt your life? Major illness, loss of job, house fire, etc. Many people prepare for those things by getting insurance and saving a little money. But you can do a little more than that and be significantly more prepared. Gardening and having food storage is helpful if you lose your job and need to save money on groceries for a while, not just if the SHTF. I keep a Get Home Bag (GHB) in my car that contains what I’d need to get home from wherever I am. It also contains things I might need if an emergency arises. This is a simple thing to do, but will leave you infinitely more prepared. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used something from that bag since I put it in my car a couple years ago. Just be sure to replace any items you use right away so you don’t get caught without something you need.

Let’s zoom out in scope a little. What could affect your community? This could be things like an active shooter situation, flood, or wildfire. Seeing people on the news flee their homes with a raging fire bearing down on them encouraged me to re-think Bug Out Bags (BOB). If you have only minutes to get out of your home, this bag is something you could grab, throw in your car, and go- it should have things like important documents/identification, change of clothes, food, and first aid supplies. You can Google and find great, comprehensive lists of BOB (and GHB) supply ideas.

 

Zoom out a little further. What could affect your state or region? This may be things like hurricanes, earthquakes, larger scale wildfires, and things like that. When a hurricane approaches the unprepared masses run to the store and buy water, bread, canned food, batteries, and anything else they decide they don’t want to be without, and they buy ALL of it. With our “just-in-time” delivery of goods to stores there is no back stock to deal with these panic buys. This is why before a hurricane the selves end up bare and people end up desperate. If you’re already prepared with several weeks (minimum) of food and the other basic supplies you need long before the hurricane even starts to form, you don’t need to contribute to the scarcity that the impending disaster creates when unprepared people descend on the stores like locust. So, being prepared helps your community, in addition to yourself.

Now, let’s zoom out even further. What could affect your country? This is where you start seeing more of the apocalypse scenarios like economic collapse, terror attack, and things like that. This is the level where people start to feel like preparation is unreasonable or crazy. But, people who lost everything in the “Great Recession”, or lived through the 9-11 terror attacks, or the people who are living in Venezuela right now, will tell you preparation for these scenarios is still important. While the likelihood of these things happening in your lifetime is less than the likelihood of the lower-level, more personal, emergencies we talked about, the effects could be even more devastating if one is unprepared. If you start with the small stuff and work your way up, by the time you get to the big stuff it won’t seem so overwhelming. A lot of the “preps” you made for the personal disasters will be the same things you need for big disasters.

The Survival Podcast is a great place to start exploring the idea of preparedness. Their motto is “Helping you live a better life, if times get tough, or even if they don’t” which really speaks to what we’re trying to do. We’re designing a life we love that is better for us physically and emotionally now. That life also puts us in a better position to deal with disaster. Here’s a podcast from TSP that discusses the various preparation levels in more detail. It’s a great one to listen to if you’re relatively new to prepping.

FEMA says you should have 72 hours of supplies to prepare for a hurricane. But, after hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast people waited significantly longer than 72 hours for help (I won’t even go into what Puerto Rico dealt with after they were hit by Maria last year). People lost EVERYTHING. Many even lost their lives, not just from the storm but from what came after… A lot of people think they will just go to a shelter. But, even the shelters ran out of supplies and the shelters were NOT safe. After hearing what happened in them I knew I would never go to one, I’d rather sleep in the woods. So, I am prepared to do just that, if necessary. I looked back at what others went through and realized I had to be prepared to take care of myself. The government was not going to save me.

Around the time I had these revelations, I started getting into apocalypse novels. I don’t know what made me read the first one but once I did, I couldn’t stop. Sure it’s fiction, but the books provide a mental exercise of “If this thing happened, then what?” which allowed me to think of possibilities that hadn’t occurred to me before. I started to apply those lessons to real life. If there was a terror attack resulting in a widespread grid-down situation (like in the famous book “One Second After”, the premise of which has been acknowledged by members if our government as possible) what would I do?….. Well…. Prior to my preparedness awakening my answer was simply “hope that doesn’t happen” or “go to a shelter”. Now, my answer involves a number of actions we’ve already taken (like moving to the mountains, growing a food-forest, educating ourselves on off-grid living, foraging, and other skills we would need), and a number of actions we would take at the time (ramp up food production, initiate security protocols, and so on).

Photo from The Weather Channel

Our area experiences relatively few natural disasters but we are currently preparing for hurricane Florence. The preparation for a hurricane here in WNC is a bit different than it was in Florida. Here in the mountains we don’t have to worry about hurricane force winds (they’re expecting winds of about 15 mph near us for Florence), our roof isn’t going to be ripped off, there’s no need to board the windows or anything like that. There will likely be some flooding in the area. It’s been a wet summer; the creeks and rivers are already high and the ground is already saturated. When looking at homes, we immediately ruled out anything in, or close to, a flood zone, so WE won’t flood. Our only real worry is losing grid power or something preventing us from being able to leave our property (by vehicle) for a while (like a mudslide or flooded roads). Neither of these things concerns us much, because we’re prepared for both scenarios. We’d actually enjoy being trapped on our property for a few days. Lol  We’re not expecting Florence to get here until Sunday but we may see some bands of rain before that. Assuming we have internet/cell signal we will keep you all updated throughout the storm. If we don’t have signal, we’ll update you when we can. In the meantime, we’re prepared for the worst but hoping for the best for ourselves and everyone else in the path of this storm.

I’ll leave you with this thought, a quote I heard years ago that I’ll never forget:

“The apocalypse is not something which is coming. The apocalypse has arrived in major portions of the planet and it’s only because we live within a bubble of incredible privilege and social insulation that we still have the luxury of anticipating the apocalypse.”

Terence McKenna

Useful Plants On The Homestead

As promised, we are going to talk about some of the plants we learned about from Becky Beyer, of bloodandspicebush.com . I first met Becky at an edible plant walk she led at my work that I got to do as “professional development” (how neat is that!). After that one hour walk I knew we had to have her come to the homestead to help us learn to identify useful plants growing here. Becky is an ethnobotanist, that means she studies the historical uses of plants, specifically for Southern Appalachia; she is a wealth of knowledge. You can read a bit she wrote about ethnobotany here. While you’re there, take the time to poke around the site (I’m guessing it’s for her masters thesis). There’s a TON of great info in there! My book list got way longer after going through her resources. I am so grateful to Becky for putting the website together and sharing it with the world! Even more so for providing the badly needed service of educating people (us) about the plants around them (us).

My original intention was to write a post that went over all the plants that we discussed with her, how to identify them, what their uses are, recipes, etc. It’s just not possible to cover that much information in a single blog post, especially in a level of detail that will be helpful to you. For perspective, the packet of information she sent me about some of the plants we found is 25 pages long.

In this post I will list the plants that Becky helped us identify with some very basic info so that you can begin researching on your own if you wish. I included a little more info about a few that I’ve already begun researching. As I increase my knowledge about these and the other plants on the homestead I will do more in-depth posts about each individual plant. That way I can really take the time to go into detail about each of them and do the plants justice. Since we are just beginning to learn about plants and their uses, a lot of the information I present here was found through research online. Over time, we will begin to understand this knowledge first-hand and will continue to share our findings.

Unfortunately, before I go any further, it’s necessary for me to say: I am not an expert, doctor, or trained herbalist. This information is for educational purposes only. I am not responsible for what you do with the information or the plants themselves. While I do my best to verify everything I share from more than one source, the internet is a mysterious place filled with misinformation. It is good practice to do your own research before acting on any personally unverified information, from things you share on Facebook to strange plants you plan to ingest, especially when it could affect your health or life. Always be 100% sure you have the correct identification before eating anything you find in the wild. Also, be aware that while a plant may be edible or useful for most people, there’s always the chance that you have an allergy, or drug interaction, that will make the plant unsafe for YOU personally.

Without further delay, mostly in the order we encountered them on our walk, some of the *useful* plants we learned about from Becky, all of which grow wild on our homestead. *Notice I said useful, not necessarily edible.


Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis)- The pretty purple flowers of this vine are edible. We have quite a lot of it growing behind the house. It’s somewhat invasive and smothering some of the trees. But, the plant is prized by some bonsai enthusiasts so we may be able to dig up some stumps and bonsai them in order to curb its takeover.

 

 

Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)- Daylily has edible flowers, shoots, buds, and tubers. Make sure you have the right species though, some lilies are poisonous!


Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)- This very common plant, often seen as a “weed”, has edible flowers, buds, and leaves. It has also been used medicinally.

 

Carolina Sweet Shrub/ Sweet Bubbies (Calycanthus floridus)- This is one that we hadn’t ever heard of before. It’s leaves and twigs are used in tea and mead.

St. John’s Wort (Hypernicum sp.)- Having heard of St. John’s Wort and it’s medicinal uses, we were thrilled to learn that we have quite a lot of it growing on the homestead. You may have heard it’s useful to combat depression and anxiety. But it’s also said to be useful to reduce inflammation, help heal wounds, and ease the pain of sore joints and muscles. I have already started making a tincture and infused oil from this plant. I will share more on that process with you soon.

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)- This is another one we have quite a lot of. People use the twigs, leaves, and buds in teas. Its bark can be dried and powdered and is said to be an acceptable cinnamon substitute. Its ripe berries can be used to make what is often called “Appalachian Allspice”. Here’s a good article about it and its uses.

Smilax (Smilax sp.)- Smilax is a semi-invasive vine, also called Cat Briar or Blaspheme Vine. It’s soft tips are a delicious edible that Becky described as “lemony-asparagus” and she was so right! I learned about this one from my first walk with Becky at my work. I was super excited to find it growing around the property when I got home. It’s a fun little trail snack, but can also be lightly steamed or sauteed. We tried it sautéed and it was good, despite being late in the season and them being a bit woody. They are best earlier in spring before the plant gets too big and tough.

There is a lot of variation in leaf shape throughout the genus but all members have both thorns and tendrils, which is one way to differentiate it from other vines. The thorns up on the edible part the are still rubbery, not sharp, and not a problem for humans to munch on raw (in small quantities). To harvest just snap off the top few inches (up to a foot) of soft growth. If you run your hand up the vine starting where the spines get rubbery harvest the part that snaps off easily. Here’s a great post about identifying smilax.

Violet (Viola sp.)- The Violet is a great plant to know. It’s quite common and is available most of the year. It’s leaves and flowers are edible.  Here’s a particularly great article about Violets. 

It’s important to note that this plant has a poisonous look-a-like, the Golden Ragwort, Packera aurea. The leaves can be confused and they grow in similar locations. So be careful when harvesting; check each individual leaf and verify it is a violet leaf before putting it in your basket. To tell the difference look at the serration on the leaves. The Violet, all the serration points down and the leaf ends in a point. As Becky said, “Violet gets to the point”. Golden Ragwort, on the other hand, has serrations that point in all directions and is more rounded.

Asiatic Dayflower (Commelina communis)- This flower we found growing in the bottom of the woods. It’s flowers, stems, leaves, and immature seeds are edible.

Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)- This plant is said to be medicinal but its cut flowers are more often used as decoration.

 


Pennsylvania smartweed (
Polygonum persicaria and other sp.)- Is one also said to be medicinal. The butterflies really like it.

Ground-Ivy (Glechoma hederacea)- Also called catsfoot, creeping-charlie, and a number of other names, this herb is the bane of lawn-growers everywhere. When you search the name most the articles you will find are about how to kill it. But, it’s edible and said to be medicinal.

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)- Red clover flowers are edible. They can be added to salads or dipped in pancake batter and fried. The most common use seems to be for tea. They are also said to be medicinal though modern research has not confirmed any of the claims yet. 

Hosta (Hosta sp.)- Hosta’s are a relatively common decorative plant. But, it does more than provide curb appeal. It’s young shoots, flowers, and buds are edible

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus and sp.)- Mullein has been used medicinally for generations, primarily for respiratory conditions. It was often used to treat tuberculosis. It’s leaves can be smoked, chewed, or made into tea. It’s roots are said to be effective as a treatment for urinary tract infections. I’ve heard of the flowers being infused into oils. The flower stalk can also be dipped in beeswax to make candles. It’s fuzzy leaves have also been called cowboy toilet paper, just make sure to wipe with the grain of the fuzz, not against it. I also hear the leaves make a great bandaid for cuts and scrapes.

Maiden Hair Fern (Adiantum pedatum)- This beautiful fern is often grown as a coveted house plant for it’s delicate and interesting look. But, it has also been used medicinally for a number of conditions.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.)- Goldenrod’s cheery yellow flowers are seen all over the area in the late summer (right now). All it’s above ground parts are edible. It has also been used medicinally, most commonly as a tea to fight allergies.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)- Jewelweed is a plant that I’ve heard can “cure poison ivy” and is “always found growing near poison ivy”, but this isn’t entirely true. This is a good example of why you don’t just swallow any random “medicinal plant” recommendations on the internet. While Jewelweed has been shown to be effective in neutralizing the oil from poison ivy that gives you a rash, it is slightly less effective than soap… It is also only effective when fresh, so all the salves and soaps you see claiming the poison-ivy-curing-powers of Jewelweed are likely untrue. From what I’ve been told, once you have actually broken out in a poison ivy rash Jewelweed probably cannot help you. (Although, other herbs like Plantain can.) That said, if you’re out in the woods and come in contact with poison ivy, but don’t have access to soap, crushing the leaves and stems and rubbing the juice on the affected area is more effective at neutralizing the oils than doing nothing!

Plantago major, Broad-Leaf Plantain

Plantain (Plantago major and lanceolata)- This is an herb that nearly everyone in North America who doesn’t spray their yard with weed killer has in their yard. In fact, it grows in most of the world. You’ve probably stepped on it thousands of times. The even more exciting part is that many of the claims about its usefulness seem to be backed up by actual scientific studies. One such study found it to be more effective than cortisone on various skin conditions like rashes and bug bites, not to mention the fact that it’s been used with much success for thousands of years. This makes it one of the most important herbs to know and a great one to start with if you’re just starting to explore your interest in medicinal herbs, or wild edibles. It is also edible and a great substitute for spinach.

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)- Black Locust flowers are edible. The wood is a good hard wood that is often used for fence posts due to its rot resistance. Be careful though, it’s covered in sharp spikes that can do some real damage and are known to lead to Staph infections.

 

 


Black Walnut (
Juglans nigra)- Black walnut produces edible nuts. Its hulls have been used as a stain/dye. The hulls are also used as a vermifuge (de-wormer). Its wood is prized for furniture and other wood crafts. As a matter of fact, we had a big one fall in a storm and my dad took home some huge logs he will be making some beautiful wood-crafts with. The catch is that it produces a growth inhibitor called juglone which it uses to cut down on competition by hindering the growth of most nearby plants. It has even been used to create a “natural” herbicide. So, the one growing next to the garden might need to go…

Horsechestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)- Unfortunately, the one huge chestnut tree we have is not an edible one. But it’s wood is a good hardwood used for smoking food, fire wood, and wood crafts.

 

The underside of Hemlock needles.

Hemlock Pine (Tsuga sp.)- A lot of people immediately think of poison hemlock when they hear the name Hemlock Pine, but poison hemlock is a totally different herbaceous plant, not a tree. The hemlock pine is edible! The soft tips of the branches can be eaten. Its needles are also a good tea. They are rich in Vitamin C and said to be helpful for kidney ailments, colds, and a number of other conditions. The bark is said to be medicinal as well.

Pine, White and Virginia(Pinus strobus and virginiana)- We have some White Pine and Virginia Pine too. Like the Hemlock Pine (but note not the same Genus) it is high in vitamin C and has been used medicinally. It’s needles are often made into a tea. It’s pollen, bark, and sap are all medicinally useful as well. I have a longer, more detailed (half-written) post I am working on about pines I will share soon.

Sourwood bark

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)- You may have heard of sourwood honey before. Well, it’s made from the flowers of the sourwood tree. The leaves and bark of the tree have been used medicinally. Becky told us the leaves are good chopped in salads or to wrap around fish for steaming. She also said she likes to carve spoons from the wood.

 

 

 

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)- Sassafrass is the tree that the original “root beer” was made from. It exhibits a relatively rare phenomenon called heterophylly. That means the plant has multiple leaf shapes on the same plant. You can use this as an identification tool. This plant has also been used to make medicines, but some modern research shows it contains a chemical called safrole that can be dangerous.

Wild Cherry: (Prunus serotina)- Wild cherry produces edible cherries but is also medicinal. It’s used to make a number of remedies including cough syrup.

Ironwood/ American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)- While I’ve read that this tree has edible seeds, Becky told us this one is great wood for tool handles and things like that. 

 

This list contains just over 25 plants; we encountered all of these useful plants (and more) in one, two hour, walk around our property. I am currently working on a massive, super exciting (if you’re a spreadsheet nerd, like me) spreadsheet of all the plant (and mushroom) species we find on the property. So far, that list has 60 useful (mostly edible and/or medicinal) plants on it, and we haven’t even been here a year yet! Once you begin to open your eyes, mind, and heart to all of the life around you it’s amazing what you’ll find. To be able to just walk out into the yard and harvest food and medicine is an incredible feeling. I hope I was able to pique your interest enough that you’ll continue exploring on your own. I look forward to continuing to share what we’re learning with you!

Bailey’s Farm Dog Apprenticeship Program

Bailey’s Farm Dog Apprenticeship Program has enrolled its first young student. Jaxson was rescued from a not-so-great situation by some caring people who couldn’t keep him, but wanted him to have a better life. Luckily for everyone involved, they happened to ask me if I wanted a puppy. Well, of course I wanted a puppy! I had been wanting a puppy for a while. We were finally on our homestead but still renovating the house and really not quite ready to get a puppy. So, we were holding off, despite my urges to go to the local shelter and bring all the doggies home with me…

 

Me and Emberbeast on the day of her interview with her new family (2014).Bailey, Ember, and another former foster (2014).

I had specifically been wanting a “Pit Bull” puppy. Never mind the fact that that’s not a real breed… I have known a number of pitties and they were all wonderful dogs. We fostered a pitty-pup back in Florida who I totally fell in love with… but, we had goals. We had to get to the mountains. Finding a pet-friendly rental house while we found land was going to be challenging enough with a dog and two cats… it might be impossible with two dogs and two cats, especially a “pit bull”. Not to mention the logistics of moving, selling a house, buying a homestead and moving again, with the additional living-being to care for. So, when Ember (our former foster) finally got adopted, I cried and cried, but I let her go. And kicked myself ever since… Of the over a dozen dogs we fostered, she’s the only one that broke my heart to let go.

 

I was going to need a pitty-pup of my own once we got settled. I had been looking forward to that day with excitement. But, despite my eagerness I knew it would be best to wait, at least until the renovations were done.  

The stuff in *asterisks* is my internal monologue. Lol

At work a few weeks ago, one of my students saw the photos of Bailey and some of our former foster dogs in my office. He’s about to leave and turns to me and says something to the effect of “You don’t want a puppy, by chance, do you?”

“Um…..” *Sarah, you cannot just take every puppy someone offers you.* “What do you mean?”

He explains that their neighbor’s dogs keep having puppies (insert eye-roll here) and one of the pups from the newest 9 week old litter was getting beat up. *Oh! Gosh! Sarah! You have to save him!* They took the puppy home to get him out of that situation. But, their dog was not thrilled with the new addition and they didn’t have the time or experience with those kinds of issues to deal with that. So, they were looking for a new home for him but couldn’t wait much longer. If they didn’t find a home for him soon, they would have no choice but to take him to the shelter. But, he said he could tell from the photos in my office that my dogs are happy and well-loved. So, he gave it a shot.

I asked “What kind of puppy is he?”

“He’s a Pit”

*Don’t do it….*  “Do you have any photos?”

He pulls out his phone and proceeds to show me photos of an adorable little black and white *AHH!!! Moo-cow spots like Mr. Bailey!* (I might have actually said that out-loud… at work…) puppy with scabs from sibling-attacks on his head. At that point, I nearly told him I’d take the dog, but I restrained myself because I am one half of a partnership and we don’t make those kinds of decisions without the other partner. I told the student that I would have to talk to Michael and asked if he could send me some photos for me to show Michael. He obliged.

On the drive home  with Michael (since we work at the same place we usually ride together) that evening I broached the subject. Mostly thinking it’d get shot-down; this isn’t the first time I mentioned my desire for a puppy. *He didn’t say no…*

When we got home I showed Michael the puppy pictures the student emailed to me. We “aww’d” at the cute puppy photos and went about our evening activities. *He still didn’t say no.* About an hour later, I couldn’t take it anymore. “So, what should I tell him about the puppy.” Very casual… you know.

I don’t remember Michael’s exact words but it was something like: “Oh, I thought it was already decided…. We’re going to need puppy food.”

*AHHH!!! PUPPY!!! …Act casual*

“Are you sure? I can tell him we need some more time to think about it.”

“We can’t let him go to the shelter.”

“You’re so right.”

*AHHHHH!!! PUPPYYYYY!!!!*

So, I emailed the student back and told him we’d take the puppy. The student said he’d bring the pup to the office the next day.

On our way to work the next morning, I brought up the subject of puppy names. It often takes me weeks to name a pet, but 2 names I’d thought of since agreeing to take the puppy were sticking in my head. I suggested Jaxson. Michael just said “Wow”.

I was like, “Well, I was thinking since we’re in Jackson county and he kinda looks like a Jackson, but more a Jax. But I have another name I was thinking too, wanna hear it?”

“You don’t even know why I said ‘wow’”
“Um… Why?”

“Because that’s the exact name I thought of when I saw his photos last night.”

*Woah!*

Of all the names out there, for us to both independently pick the same one for different reasons, told us something. We had a name, as long as it fit him when we met him.

After what seemed like the longest workday ever, that evening we met the student in the parking lot and this little pupper was snoring in the passenger seat of his pick-up. We chatted a bit while watching the pup stumble around the grass and chew on mulch. His wife is an herbalist (how neat is that!?) and they are interested in a lot of the same stuff Michael and I are. So, we made plans for them to visit the pup in a few weeks and go on a plant walk. He gave Jax a hug, and we took our new pup home. 

The introductions at home went well. Jaxson was a bit intimidated by Bailey. Which makes sense considering his history. But, this plays to Bailey’s insecurities nicely. Bailey is boss, but is a (mostly)   patient, benevolent leader.  Bailey and Jax are two peas in a pod; Jax wants to do everything Bailey does, just like big-little brother relationships should be. Jax and Trigger can wrestle and play for hours since they both still have their puppy exuberance. Jax wants to play with the cats, they do not agree. He’s just scared enough of them to stop him from getting too rambunctious and that’s about as much as you can ask for with a pup. He’s got to learn not to chase the chickens but, again, he just wants to play. He doesn’t understand why they don’t want to play with him, he’s a fun guy. He’s a fast learner. He learned his name in a matter of days and already knows a bunch of words like NO, sit, lay down, go potty, outside, and some others. He knows what he’s supposed to do but sometimes lacks the self-control to do it. He’s super sweet, snuggly, loving, goofy, awkward, handsome, smart, and an all-around good guy. We look forward to seeing him grow into his giant paws and mature into the fantastic ambassador for his breed we know he will be.

 

So, Everyone, Meet Jaxson. Apprentice to the great Mr. Bailey, of Bailey’s Farm Dog Apprenticeship Program.

Getting To Know The More-Than-Human World

A couple of generations ago useful plant and mushroom knowledge was something that nearly everyone had. These days it’s rare. I read recently that people now can identify more company logos than they can plant and/or animal species. More specifically, the assertion was that children could identify thousands of company logos but fewer than a handful of local plants and animals (although I can’t access the original study from which these findings are cited). I find that incredibly sad, even though I only recently began to see what I was missing. We are so disconnected from the earth that we live on, and the nature that we are a part of, that we don’t have any idea what’s really going on around us. I’ll try not to get too philosophical here but if you’re interested in that I can recommend some good books (I’m putting together a list I will link here)!

Nathan (Sarah’s brother), Sarah, Becky (the foraging teacher), and Bailey on our foray.

Having been fortunate enough to grow up before the age of social media and tiny portable computers, Michael and I both spent a lot of time outside as children, playing with bugs, building forts, and getting dirty. My family had a garden, Michael’s had some farm animals; we both knew where our food came from, for the most part. Even so, neither of us were raised with the knowledge of the names and uses of wild plants (and mushrooms) around us, nor the framework for how to identify these things. Being new to Southern Appalachia made the limited knowledge we did have less applicable. Feeling it was important to remedy this lack of knowledge and connection we’ve been slowly learning about the world around us. We found an expert in foraging and Southern Appalachia and hired her to come to the property and show us the bounty in our woods and meadow. I will share some of the specifics of what she taught us soon.

An important part of permaculture and being a good steward of land is observation. Through this observation comes understanding. So, as we take our hikes around the property we observe all we can about it. Where is the water flowing and how does that change over time; what’s growing, blooming, or fruiting where and when; what kinds of soils are where; what different micro-climates do we have? The more we observe and learn the more we hunger for knowledge and understanding.

Overlooking a section of the creek that has drastically changed numerous times in our <year of visiting it. A storm knocked the tree down and that changed the flow. Then another storm pushed the tree and scraped away some of the creek-bed changing the flow again.
Some of the groups I am in on Facebook.

We are finding that knowledge anywhere we can. There are some great books out there, but sometimes they can be a difficult starting point. Surprisingly, a great place to start is Facebook. I joined a bunch of plant and mushroom identification groups on FB and started watching what people were posting and what answers they were getting. You do have to be VERY careful because there are a LOT of people who confidently comment incorrect identifications (it’s really quite frightening!)– always verify the identification via at least 3 sources (preferably at least one knowledgeable human you trust), especially if you’re planning to eat it! Even so, FB groups are still a great way to see a wide variety of species in a wide variety of settings and developmental phases. Incorrect identifications can be a learning experience too, you can look for similarities between the confused plants, and differences. Thinking through this allows you to learn from someone else’s mistake. Over time, I started to recognize the plants and mushrooms as they came across my feed and started to treat the ID groups as flashcards and quiz myself. If I don’t know, or want to confirm my guess, I can open the comments and see what other people think it is. I can google the binomials for more information, pictures, and identification tips.

Be careful with common names! Common names vary from location to location and person to person. I have seen at least 4 completely different species called “pigweed”, for example. Always identify a plant by its Latin binomial to ensure accuracy of the identification.

Some Cantharellus cinnabarinus, or Chanterelles, we found on the property after seeing the coveted mushroom online and in books.

It’s really exciting to meet a plant or mushroom in person the first time after seeing it online and in books for years. It’s probably my version of meeting a celebrity! The coolest part is when I meet these plants and mushrooms on our property I can get to know them in ways that most of us will never get to know any celebrity. I can establish an intimate relationship with each plant and mushroom. I get to know what they look, smell, (and if it’s safe*) taste, feel, even sound like.

Daucus carota displaying it’s double-umbel flower with a single purple flower at the center and “birds nest”. D. carota has a deadly look-alike in Conium maculatum, also called Poison Helmock.

I heard an analogy once that went something like this: There’s no such thing as a look-alike; it’s all about how well you know them; this applies to people and plants. People who don’t know me well may mistake me for other people with long red(ish) hair. People who do know me well wouldn’t make the same mistake. If you only ever saw one photo of a person (or plant, or mushroom) online and then were asked to pick them out of a lineup (or field, or woods) of similar looking individuals you would probably have a hard time. But if you saw 100 photos of them, it’d be easier. If you met them in person, in their typical habitat, even easier. Once you looked at them closely in person, making note of all their features, held them, smelled them, tasted* them… then you would probably recognize them anywhere. It’s crazy what happens when your eyes are opened to the more-than-human world. Everywhere you go you will start to see your new plant and mushroom friends. Going to work, school, and the store you’ll start to recognize them in parking lots and roadsides.

 

One of the Amanitas we found on the property. We’re not sure of the exact species but the warty cap, remaining partial veil, and bulbous base are the clues that lead to Amanita.

*It should be noted that (again, kinda like people) some plants are NOT safe to put in your mouth. Some plants are not safe to even touch (I’m lookin’ at you, poison ivy). You should not move on to that that level of getting to know a plant until you know who it is and that it’s safe. No one wants to break out in blisters (or die), ya know? Unidentified mushrooms on the other hand, are safe to touch (allergies aside), even the deadly ones. We have about 3 different species of deadly Amanita mushrooms (some are also called Death Angel or Destroying Angel) growing all over the woods. I have touched them multiple times, broken some apart with my hands looking at all it’s pieces. I am told mushrooms are all safe to put in your mouth and chew, as long as you don’t swallow (I, personally, am not that brave and can’t recommend it– DO NOT put Aminita’s in your mouth). The chew and spit test is a part of telling certain species apart. I won’t lie, I licked a mushroom to confirm it’s edibility, once. But at the time I had a professional forager standing next to me telling me how to confirm the species of Lactarius, and that required licking the milky excretions of the cap. 

Impatiens capensis, also called Jewelweed.
Suspected Tylopilus rubrobrunneus, also called Reddish-Brown Bitter Bolete.

I challenge you to learn something new about the wild life around you this week. Go out into your yard. Find a plant you don’t know what it is and try to identify it. Join a couple ID groups. While not specifically an ID group, the Mountain Bound Community group is a place where we can discuss plants and mushrooms, too. To get a good ID it’s important to take clear photos. Take photos in the specimen’s natural surroundings whenever possible and always note where you found the mushroom setting wise as well as map/geographical location. For plants, get a clear close-up photo of each part, leaves (top and bottom), bark, branches, flowers, and fruit.– these are all the parts that are important to look at when identifying a plant. For mushrooms, take a photo of the top of the cap, under the cap (to see the pores, gills, or other structure), the stipe (stem), and the base of the mushroom. You may also need to get a spore-print, cut the mushroom in half, poke it to see if it bruises, and/or lick* it. Take the time to learn the names of different parts of plants and mushrooms too. This is part of the foundational knowledge you will need to begin your relationships with plants and mushrooms.

Infograph I downloaded. I did not make this.

Porch Chicken

In a previous post I talked about our predator issues and mentioned that my lap-chicken was injured in an attack. I wanted to tell you a little more about that and the predator post was long enough so here is Porchy’s story. Some of the description is a little graphic but there aren’t any graphic photos.

The morning of the wolf attack Porchy was in the wolf’s mouth when Michael shot at the wolf. The wolf dropped Porchy and Michael brought him back to the house. The wolf tore off the skin on the back of Porchy’s elbow and his elbow bone was sticking out. We cleaned the wound out really well and then stitched up the poor things elbow as best we could (Michael did the stiching). We bandaged the wing and bound it to his body to immobilize it. The wound didn’t close quite right because there was too much skin missing but it was better than leaving it open. We put him in a pet carrier on the back porch with some comfy bedding, food and water and hoped for the best.

For the first week or so he couldn’t really stand. Then he could only stand for short periods of time. We made him a little run outside his carrier on the porch. During the day he would come out and hang in the run and at night he would put himself to bed in the carrier.

I did wonder if it was cruel to put him through all that. I though he must be in a LOT of pain, looking at the wound and seeing how miserable he was. Many people would cull a bird that was in Porchy’s situation. Michael thought he deserved a chance to try and make it and after talking to some other chicken people about what their chickens survived I believed he could make it too. There were many good signs. Through it all he maintained a good appetite, even right after the attack and while we were doing chicken surgery. He was such a trooper. During his healing stay on the back porch, he would talk to us with his little beeps and we would beep back to him. He seemed to like that and sometimes still does, even though he has now rejoined the flock.

When chickens are young it can be hard to tell if they are boys or girls. We originally thought he was a pullet but over the time he spent on the porch he started developing rooster-y feathers so it became clear he was a rooster, even though he didn’t look as rooster-y as the other roosters of his kind. We couldn’t think of a name and called him Porch-Chicken for so long it kinda stuck and then got shortened to Porchy. I kept meaning to give him another, more bad-ass name, but I think we’ll probably stick with Porchy.

His wing mostly healed. The wound closed and he can move the wing a bit but he doesn’t have full range of motion by any means. Some of his feathers are growing weird because of the missing skin and the way the wing had to be stitched. This means he can’t fly as well as the other chickens (not that any chickens really fly well) and he looks a little lopsided. I was nervous to reintroduce him to the rest of the flock, thinking his time away and injury would put him at the bottom of the pecking order. But I underestimated that bird, again. He is darn near the top of the pecking order! Even the bigger, stronger, more-developed roosters don’t wanna mess with him but they all accept him as part of the flock. He’s also an excellent hunter. He chases and catches bugs better than the other chickens. I can’t tell you how proud I am lol

 

Trigger

In the last post I discussed our predator issues. I mentioned that we had some issues with stray dogs and that we “dealt with it”. Well, here’s that story.

One morning we were hiking the property and 2 dogs showed up, followed us back to the house, and started chasing our chickens. Michael shot at the ground with his pistol to scare them and one took off but the other was unphased. As you can see in the photo to the left he was also not stopped by the hose. He just kept going after the chickens. We eventually caught him and locked him up in fenced area of our yard. I posted his photos on lost and found pet pages and didn’t hear anything all day. So, we put some blankets in a dog house that was in the fenced yard and fed him (he was SO skinny). The next day I started searching through old posts on the lost/found pet page and saw that same dog we had in our yard posted 3 different times (within 2 weeks) by different people who had found the dog and returned it to his “owner”.

I contacted the “owner” and returned the dog and had a chat with him about his dog going after our chickens. The “owner” told me “he won’t stay home”. I asked how he was escaping. I volunteered with a dog rescue for several years and have some experience containing dogs in fenced yards they want to escape from; I thought I could help the “owner” secure the dog… Well, he wasn’t technically escaping, they simply never secure him in any way. Ever. And had no intention to. Anyway, I gave the dog back to him and went home, feeling uneasy. Less than 24 hours later the dog was back! Chasing chickens again… grrr… Again, we caught him and locked him up. I wasn’t going to be bringing this dog back to his “owner” every day or worry about it showing up when the chickens were out and killing one… The local shelter has very few spots and is always full, so bringing a dog there is often a death sentence for someone. The common homesteader wisdom is “The 3 S’s – shoot, shovel, shut up”. But I’m not really down with shooting a puppy who hasn’t ever been taught better. We did the only thing we could think of and locked him up in our fenced yard again until the chickens went to roost then we let him out and hoping he’d go “home”.

NOPE. He wouldn’t leave. The next morning he was in that little dog house we have in our yard. Where we still find him every morning (don’t worry we ran heat to it for the winter).

 

This was in October…. The dog is still at our house and despite having every opportunity to leave, he won’t. Which I find strange considering I was told he “wouldn’t stay home” (not that strange, actually).  In the meantime, we’ve been training him not to chase the chickens… It mostly works until he has a relapse. Now that he’s got some training, he’s a really great dog. He is very high energy but is eager to please. He just needed some direction on how to do that. He loves to chase… obviously. He gets along great with Bailey and is terrified enough of the cats that he doesn’t bother them. He wants nothing more than to be at our heels while we take on whatever task there is to be done (and chase things). He saw a pack he wanted to be a part of and made his little doggy-dreams come true.

 

So, everyone, meet Trigger, also known as Little Pup or L.P.

Predators

TRIGGER WARNING: If you don’t want to hear about death, the food chain, and the circle of life, you might want to skip this one. This post also presupposes that humans eat meat. If you will be upset by the idea that we are meat eaters and not morally opposed to killing for the purpose of eating (or protecting life and property, for that matter), again, you might want to skip this one.

Our 9’ish months of having chickens has been full of predator issues. We free-range our birds, or we did… When you free-range, predation is an inevitability. We knew we would have to deal with predators but I don’t know that we truly understood what that meant. And, we had a false sense of security having never seen any predators around…

The first predators we dealt with were the human kind. They came and took our chickens out of the coop at night (at least that’s what we figure happened). Human predators we handled by putting up game/trail cameras to capture activity on the property. But to be honest, that problem probably solved itself, and the cameras are more for our piece of mind. I think that neighbors thought the former owners of the property abandoned the chickens, and technically they did. When they left they set loose their 50+ chickens on the property. So, neighbors who knew the property had just sold and saw chickens all over the place probably figured they were fair game… until they realized we were moving in and keeping the chickens.

Next we had stray dogs, one in particular who kept coming around to chase chickens. We dealt with that (not what you’re thinking, I explain in a separate post). Then we had several month a lull and thought we were safe….

Then came more trouble. I heard the chickens making a ruckus outside. I ran outside and could tell the chickens were upset so I looked around the area they ran from and found a patch of feathers and one of our laying hens was gone. Ok, it sucked and we felt bad for the bird, but we knew some loss was inevitable and feel that all the benefits of free-ranging outweigh that cost. Especially because when we moved in the coop was in BAD shape… there was years worth of poop in there and way more birds than is proper for the space. It wasn’t healthy for them to be in there all the time. The coop is much improved now, which is why we are willing to keep them in the coop sometimes. But, we still know they are healthier when they can free-range and eat plenty of grass, seeds, and bugs, not just store-bought feed.

The coop when we purchased the property…

One foggy morning I looked out the front window and saw an odd white blob in the driveway and then I looked closer and saw another black blob a little bit away.It was 2 of our chickens, not moving; something wasn’t right….  I stood there for a couple seconds processing what I was seeing. I looked a little closer and between the 2 blobs of feathers was a WOLF (red wolf, we think, otherwise a VERY large coyote…) well camouflaged in the woods and fog. I yelled for Michael and he ran out after it with his pistol at the same time it took off after another bird. Just as it grabbed the other bird Michael shot at it (we’re pretty sure he missed, it was kinda far) and the wolf dropped the bird and ran. We lost at least two birds that day, one of which was Michael’s favorite, and one bird was injured, my little lap chicken (lap-chicken’s story can be found here!). At that point we decided that we would no longer free-range the birds when we weren’t home, even though the attacks happened when we were home… We felt like we needed to protect them in some way but also feel that keeping them penned up is cruel and less healthy for them. So, we tried to strike a balance. Unfortunately, some of the chickens figured out how to escape the coop and over the next 2 weeks we came home several more times to find chicken carcasses in our driveway, killed but not eaten. Now, we’re left reevaluating our chicken philosophy. Those are the facts, now let’s discuss…

Our flock was being whittled down by some other predator in a series of attacks. We did see one of the attacks and the wolf (possible coyote) that committed it. But, since we didn’t see the others, we can’t be sure all the losses were from the same predator. The majority of the birds that were killed were just left there. The predator didn’t eat them or even take the kill with them, in most cases. Of all the birds we lost, there are only 3 that were eaten/removed from the place they were killed. So, that may mean at least two different predators (the ones killing to eat, and the ones killing for sport)… but we don’t know. Our cameras were placed to catch human predators which means we need to place more cameras in different locations but we’d rather stop the killing than film it. I’ll tell you the truth, my initial reaction was blood-lust. I wanted that wolf dead and his pelt to be a new rug for my floor…….

But, I happened to be reading a book called “Prodigal Summer” by Barbara Kingsolver while this was going on. In this book one of the main characters is a wildlife person who specializes in apex predators, like wolves and coyotes. The book shows through a story how important apex predators are for the environment, all the negative effects of the removal of apex predators, and the benefits of allowing them to co-exist with us. Basically it goes like this: apex predator is eradicated > the population of the prey animals being kept in check by the apex predators balloons > the food of the prey animals gets decimated due to over-consumption by the now huge prey population > erosion and other negative environmental impacts increase due to loss of plant growth and increase of large herbivores trampling steam banks and such, which can lead to many other issues, as well > the end result is an ecosystem that is all out of whack! The best example of this that I have come across is from the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995. But, the truth is that explanation is over-simplified; it’s much more complicated than we can understand with our limited knowledge of the interconnectedness of the environment around us. So, while we take “apex predator theory” into consideration it’s important to note that simply stopping the killing/removal of apex predators, like wolves and coyotes, isn’t all there is to maintaining a balanced ecosystem. There are examples of wolf and coyote overpopulation too; this is another type of imbalance and the one that most homesteaders feel is the bigger problem. These predators are our competitors in a situation where we share the same land and the same food source, chickens.

We also read (listened to the audiobook) Ishmael by Daniel Quinn during this time. This also talks about man attempting to dominate and control nature and the havoc that can cause. One part of the book that stands out in my mind talks about what Quinn dubbed “totalitarian agriculture” or, in part, the elimination of competition as a means to dominate and control nature. With the end goal of directing resources (food) to man and not other “lesser” species. Let me try to describe briefly, without diving too far down the rabbit-hole. Man eliminates competitors for it’s food source (i.e. other apex predators and animals that destroy crops) > man eliminates it’s food sources competitors (i.e. “weeds” and such producing a monoculture of ONLY the food that man wishes to be there). This would lead (is leading) to a significant loss of diversity. Diversity is important for many reasons but the one focused on by the book is that as diversity decreases the chances of ecosystem collapse increases. Let’s say that again.. As diversity decreases, chances of ecosystem collapse increases. It makes sense; the fewer species there are, the less chance some of them will survive any change in their environment. Think about that for a second… we are currently losing species at an alarming rate. We’re in what is being called the 6th mass-extinction event here on planet earth. We, humans, are a large part of the cause of those extinctions via habitat destruction (both intentional, like deforestation, and unintentional, like oil spills), killing of competitors (both our competitors and the competitors of our food sources), and over-consumption.

The wolves that originally lived in Southern Appalachia are said to be extinct. The red wolf which is believed to be a wolf-coyote hybrid is endangered and one of the rarest wolves in the world. Luckily, or unluckily, we haven’t seen the wolf other than that once but we have found more birds killed and not eaten. Now, if the birds were being eaten I could probably just go with the “fish gotta swim, birds gotta eat” proverb. When you plant a garden you’re supposed to plant extra knowing that the birds, squirrels, deer, etc will eat some. So, maybe we just get more chickens than we need knowing that the wildlife around us deserves to partake in our bounty, as we partake in its bounty. But this creature is killing and not eating… that’s different. I have read that this happens at certain times of year when the adults are teaching the pups to hunt but… we didn’t see any pups so it’s hard to know if that’s the case when there are plenty of people out there who will tell you wolves and coyotes kill for “no reason” or “fun”.

So, what’s an ecologically conscious homesteader to do when a red wolf starts killing their livestock? I honestly don’t know… I know that’s not a very satisfying answer, but it’s the truth. It’s not as simple as you might imagine at first glance. We humans like our solutions wrapped up in a labeled box with some good instructions and a pretty bow on top. But life isn’t like that, and homesteading is definitely not like that. For now, we will do what we can to protect our birds while maintaining a balance between over protection and no protection as best we can. And we’ll hope the wolf won’t come back… If it does *maybe* we can have it relocated, but I doubt it. If you have any great solutions other than “kill it” we’d love to hear them!


I will leave you with this thought: Man is a part of nature, not apart from it.

 

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Long Overdue Update

It’s been a LONG time since I posted anything on the blog, too long. The last post was when we closed on the homestead– over 6 months ago. I kept meaning to post, I truly did, but I couldn’t. You see, after we finally got our homestead we hit a rough patch. A series of unfortunate events ensued and I didn’t know how to talk about it without sounding like a complainer. I mean, let’s be honest, to many people we’re living the dream– and it’s true! We ARE living our dreams, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges. And while I know that our challenges are so small compared to all the craziness going on in the world, they are a part of our journey and so I feel it’s important to share them accurately represent this life. We made it through this particular set of challenges, learned some things, and are moving on… it’s time the blog moved on too. So, I am going to do my best to give y’all an update.

The first thing that went wrong was with the car that I just purchased this summer (because my previous vehicle ceased to function properly). LONG painful story short– it needed a new engine. Over $4500, a couple weeks of stress, and a few life lessons later, I have the new (used) engine. While this is going on someone came on our property and stole several of our hens, our rooster, and a feeder and waterer. That really violated our sense of security on our new property. We have since installed some cameras to be sure if anyone else comes uninvited on our property we know. Around the same time, I got poison ivy. BAD. I had to go and get steroids because my body had a secondary autoimmune response and the poison ivy was spreading fast. It took over a month to heal and I still have scars where the worst spots were. A couple weeks later Michael and I got the flu, at the same time. We were so sick and couldn’t really take care of ourselves or each other. We got through it but were both out of commission for over a week. Then, in the process of moving the last of our things out of the rental house we learned the mold there was worse than we thought. Some of our things needed to be thrown away. Some family heirloom furniture pieces had mold on them. I couldn’t bear to get rid of them so I am doing my best to clean them and replace parts that were too moldy to clean. On top of that, the pipes froze at the rental house during a particularly cold spell (while we had the flu). So, we had to have the water shut off to protect the house from potentially burst pipes. Luckily the pipes were ok. We were so relieved when we finally turned in the keys to that awful place and got our whole security deposit back. I never want to see that house again, ever. Then, the radiator in my car broke (yes the same car that got a new engine a few months prior). Luckily it was something that Michael was able to fix so we didn’t have to spend too much money to get it back in working order. More recently, we lost a bunch of our chickens to some predators. My little lap chicken was injured in the attack and we had to do chicken surgery to save him. I will likely discuss this in more detail in a separate post because it is turning out to be elemental in shaping our vision of the homestead. There were a few other things too but that covers the majority of the bad stuff.

There have been lots of great things happening too though! My parents have visited us twice (and we’re looking forward to them and my brother coming for a visit in a couple weeks). They got to see our new place and we got to spend some time with them. While they were here, they were a huge help on progressing our renovations forward. We are so grateful they spent their vacation helping us work toward our dreams and make our home beautiful. We did a good bit of the demolition work of taking down walls (thanks, Dad!) and all the existing kitchen fixtures. We refinished the kitchen walls, installed new floors, and got our new appliances in place. Coming soon will be new cabinets (which Michael is building), counter tops, and pantry. I am SO excited for my new kitchen to be done!! Don’t worry, I’ll post before and after photos soon. Then, after the kitchen and dining area are done, we’ll finish the master bedroom and bath. Since we now have all our furniture at the homestead we are sleeping on a real mattress, instead of the air mattress we were sleeping on for months.

Michael and Bailey got to experience their first snow. We got around 10 inches of snow over 2 days, so it was a good one! And then several more smaller snows in the weeks after. We got quite a few snow days over the winter and took full advantage of them! They are much more enjoyable than hurricane days, in our opinions.

In February we got baby chicks and Michael built a beautiful brooder box for them. Then he made a nice outdoor run for them to get some sun and fresh air. They are so much fun to watch, even now that they’re almost mature and have been integrated with the older flock we “inherited” with the land.  We took down the goat fence and put up the new garden fence. I started an asparagus bed and planted some peas and green beans. But, the rest of the garden didn’t get finished in time for this season. There’s just too much to do, unfortunately. Such is the homestead life! It’ll be ready for next season though! Luckily, there is lots growing that we didn’t have to plant but can still eat. The amount of stuff growing out there that is edible is mind-blowing! We have been getting to know our land, which is so much fun! We take walks around the acreage as often as possible. We’re observing and thinking and planning. Deciding where to put the new chicken coop, garden, greenhouse, etc. We’re also doing a whole bunch of information gathering on mushroom and plant species that we share the land with and what we want to introduce on our property. I will write a post about all the edible and medicinal stuff we’ve found so far soon!

We have officially been living in the mountains for over a year and been on our homestead for over 6 months. At the end of every weekend for the last few months, after working hard all weekend, I keep telling Michael “I don’t think I have ever been this sore in my life. Every muscle in my body hurts.” and then I tell him about which specific muscles hurt the worst and which task caused the pain. The funny part is that I’m not really complaining. I find the pain gratifying. I tells me I was productive and that makes me feel good. Soon I’ll have built up my homesteader muscles and I won’t feel the pain so much. It’s getting easier and easier to climb up and down the mountain, which is exciting.

So, there it is. Some of the bad parts and good parts of our last few months. Hard times are a part of life; everyone experiences them. There will always be things we can’t control or can’t keep from going wrong (no matter how much I hate it). But we can control how we respond to those situations and our response is the important part. To not let life’s difficulties drag us down we need to do our best to respond to the troubles with determination and gratefulness. There were some tears shed, sleep lost, and hard lessons learned but we came out stronger and smarter!

If you’re not already following us on Facebook and Instagram, you’re missing out! We make regular posts of pictures and updates on there that sometimes don’t make it to the blog.

We got our HOMESTEAD!!!

For those of you following closely this is not new information… I simply haven’t had time to write a blog post until now.

     We closed on our property last Wednesday and it is been a wild ride. There were a number of bumps in the road (isn’t there always when dealing with real estate?) but I won’t bore you with the details of all that…. The important part is that we got our place! It does need a ton of work but it’s ours!

The property is a little over 12 acres with a double-wide on it. The property has a nice creek running through it, at least one spring, and a well. We had the well water tested during the inspection process and the water is better than bottled water. No, I’m not exaggerating or biased, it is literally cleaner and more alkaline than even the best bottled water– and that’s with NO filtration; it comes straight out of the well that way! How neat is that! There is some land that is cleared already, maybe a couple acres. The rest of it is wooded. We will likely leave most of it wooded for privacy and wood for burning in the woodstove we plan to install. But, some of the forest will be converted to a food forest!

Since this is the mountains, some of the property isn’t “usable” in the traditional sense. As a matter of fact, I’d guess only an acre of it could be considered “tillable” due to the slope. But that’s ok since we don’t plant to till! The cleared area right in front of the house is southern facing so it will get great light and be the perfect spot for the giant kitchen/herb garden I am planning. We will likely do some terracing to get some more plantable space.

In the last post I told you I was reading all of Bill Mollison’s books on permaculture and was thinking about doing a PDC. Well, I took the leap (as if I needed something else to do) I am currently in a Permaculture Design Course. I am getting and refining all sorts of ideas on how to set up our homestead to be as efficient as possible. You know how I hate wasted time and energy! That’s why I felt like I needed to do the course now. If you haven’t learned about permaculture yet, I highly recommend it! It is truly an eye-opening, amazing, epiphany-inducing concept. It’s about more than just gardening or raising animals, it is about whole-system design. To me it seems like the science of everything; it’s part biology, chemistry, botany, geology, psychology, philosophy, etc. Permaculture touches it ALL. My mind is constantly processing and planning with the new information I am learning. 

The former owner of the property left his chickens behind. There were about 50 of them and when he left they opened the coop door and let them all out. When I went to do the final walk-through on purchase day, there were chickens all over! I ended up talking to a neighbor who was able to take a bunch of them since we aren’t there to properly care of them yet and we want to be somewhat selective about the chickens we will have going forward. There are about 15 chickens left on the property and I think that’s a good place to start. I made sure they had access to plenty of water and am told they will get enough to eat free-ranging on the property (their crops looked pretty full at the end of each day). We left the coop open so they can still roost in relative safety at night. When we were there this past weekend I spent so much time just watching them scratch and peck and wander around the property. I couldn’t help it; they are such funny little creatures. We even got fresh eggs for breakfast one morning! The yolks were SO dark! I have bought eggs from farmers markets plenty of times but these were definitely the darkest yolks I’ve ever seen. It might be because they are solely foraging right now. Most people, even if they free-range their chickens, feed them store-bought chicken food. We also were awakened by a rooster crowing each morning; perhaps preferable to an alarm clock… except they can’t be turned off on the weekend. Even so, I can’t wait to be there full time to be able to better care for and enjoy them.

I have already begun to attempt to identify the existing plant species on the property. I noticed a number of medicinal herbs like plantain (so much plantain), jewelweed, mullein, goldenrod… There are also a number of black walnut trees and at least one giant hickory nut tree. We haven’t found any fruit trees yet, but there are some raspberries and blackberries. I am hoping I can find a local plant expert to help me identify the infinite other plants I don’t know what they are yet.    

I will do a more detailed post (probably several) soon about the renovation projects we are doing to the house. For now, suffice it to say it needs a LOT of work. It’s got good bones (for a trailer), as they say. The structure itself has a good layout and is in great condition, solid even floors, solid walls, new metal roof, great big back porch, large windows letting in plenty of natural light… That’s where the positives end though… The double-wide was constructed and placed on the property in the 90’s and absolutely no updating has been done since then, it also seems like it may not have been cleaned since then… It’s got popcorn ceilings, horrible blue carpet (that is literally covered in crap), and the walls are VOG paneling that has a wallpaper type look to it that is not attractive (IMO). We plan to rectify all those issues ASAP. We can’t quite “move” there yet because some of these projects are messy and we’re going to tear out the carpet. So, we can’t move our stuff into the house until we at least scrape the ceilings and get the crap-covered carpet out. We “camped” in a tent in the living room last weekend though so we could get as much work done as possible and not waste time traveling between the new place and the rental we are living in…. The plan was to continue this camping there on the weekends until the home renovation was (at least mostly) done…. but I am thinking that plan is going to need to change.

For the last few months I hadn’t been feeling well (on and off). I eventually came to the conclusion it was allergies and started taking allergy medicine and felt mostly better. I have had allergies for as long as I can remember but have never needed to take allergy medicine until now. I was a little concerned that after our years of planning and dreaming I was allergic to North Carolina! Wouldn’t that have been a tragedy? Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to be the problem…. As it turns out, our rental has a SERIOUS mold problem! As we were packing some things to move to the new house we were finding mold on more and more things! It’s disgusting. And apparently, it’s making me sick! The whole weekend at the new house, I didn’t take my allergy medicine and I felt great, despite how filthy the new house is…. As soon as we got back to the rental Sunday night, my allergies went crazy again. So, YAY! I’m not allergic to my dreams… BOO! I am allergic to the house we’re living in. I am still debating it in my head but I am thinking I will just take my clothes and go to the new house semi-permanently to get out of the place that’s making me sick. Plus, then I will be able to get more work done on the new place!

Brace yourself, folks! Mountain Bound is about to be a lot more active and exciting! Make sure to follow the Facebook page as I will be posting photos and progress updates there too, probably faster than I am able to get updates to the blog.