Friday, October 31, 2014


One of my favorite things about Halloween is coming home to a porch illuminated by glowing jack-o-lanterns on dark, rainy nights. I can think of few things that are so cheerful and spooky at the same time. Perhaps this ambiance has something to do with their history. Jack-o-lanterns have been around for quite some time, and are named after a phenomenon of strange lights flickering over peat bogs, also referred to as will-o'-the-wisp.

 The custom originated in Ireland where turnips and beets were carved into lanterns on Halloween to protect homes from the undead and ward off vampires.

The folklore of the jack-o-lantern has many variations across Europe, one of the most notable being the old Irish folktale of Stingy Jack, a blacksmith who outsmarts the Devil from stealing his soul, but is barred from both Heaven and Hell. With nowhere to go, he creates a turnip lantern with an ember from the flames of Hades tossed to him by the Devil and wanders the earth forever looking for a resting place.

May your jack-o-lanterns burn bright tonight and light your way home!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Devil's Club

With Halloween around the corner, I thought this plant deserved a post. Devil's club or Devil's walking stick is a plant I grew up knowing, and one you will want to know too if you spend time bushwhacking in the woods. My main association with them from childhood is the pungent smell that filled the creek ravines I played in, and more importantly,"Don't touch!" The spines on the stalks break off easily, really work their way into your fingers and are hard to get out. My association with that smell was so ingrained that a few years ago, when some wildcrafters were using the walk-in dehydrator at the farm where I was living, I recognized what plant they were drying right away and had many fond childhood adventure memories evoked as the aroma wafted around my farm cottage for several weeks. It's a scary plant to be sure, but it still holds a fond place in my heart.

Devil's club (Oplopanax horridus), (Cukilanarpak: Native Alaskan for “large plant with needles”) is mostly found in the moist, cool forests of western North America. Interestingly, it also grows in isolated populations on islands in Lake Superior. They are sensitive to disturbance and slow-growing to reach maturity, so often old growth forests are the place to find them in abundance. If the scientific name doesn't sound horrifying enough, the common name's reference to the Devil gives a pretty good idea of the formidable nature of those thorns. In one Tlingit tale, a piece of Devil's club is tossed behind the hero who is escaping from the moon, and the single piece grows into a thorny, impenetrable wall. A stick of Devil's club hung above the doorway was believed to ward off evil.
Devil's club has a history as a traditional herbal medicine of Northwest Native American Tribes with a variety of uses and preparations, including topical ointments and poultices and an oral tea. It is still used today in the treatment of adult-onset diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, tuberculosis, colds, depression, stomach issues, lice, burns, and inflammation. Because it is a botanical cousin of Panax ginseng, it is also known as "Alaskan Ginseng". It also carries powerful spiritual and ceremonial associations.

 Last but not least, this is another plant that pertains to bears. Among Northwest Coastal Tribes, Devil's club was associated with bears. It was believed that they chewed on the roots to heal their wounds from battles. Bears are known to eat the red fruits and spread them around in their droppings, thus propagating the plant.

And here are a few good links I came across about Devil's club:

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Dream Pillows

When the nights get longer in the fall, there is more time to spend dreaming. It's the perfect time of year to pile extra blankets on the bed, get out those warm flannel sheets, and prepare for our winter slumbering. A tradition I enjoy in my house is sewing dream pillows for everyone in the family to slip inside their pillowcase, filled with fragrant herbs to promote restful sleep and peaceful dreams.

For filling the pillows, I dried and saved some hop flowers from our friends' herb farm that were left over from making garlands for the house. Hops are known for their relaxing properties and as an aid for sleep, plus they smell delightful.

I had a blend of dried lavender and mugwort saved in a jar from the last time I made dream pillows. Lavender is a helpful herb for relaxation and is useful in treating insomnia. Mugwort is also a relaxing herb that promotes more vivid dreaming.

This is a good way to use up scraps of fabric left over from other projects, and in my case this is usually wool, which lends itself nicely to embroidering designs. I had some funky blue yarn that I used to make moons, stars, shooting stars and a moonlit mountain scene. Everyone's dreams are unique, after all, and so should be their dream pillows.

Dream on!

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Fall Fire Lookout Adventure

Of all the great places around Oregon to have a weekend getaway in the outdoors, I have found fire lookout towers to be one of the finest. Over the last decade I have stayed in a number of them all over Oregon, in every configuration of company. Sometimes I have gone with my family, sometimes with friends, sometimes as a getaway with my adventure partner, and even once by myself, and every single one has been a grand time. I wrote this post a couple years ago about all the adventures to be had renting and staying in fire lookout towers: Sittin' on top of the World.  I was also pleased to find this site recently called, with information on renting lookouts all over the Northwest, including Idaho and Montana:
Out of all of them, Bald Knob Lookout, located at the edge of the Rogue Wilderness, has been my longtime favorite both for the views and reliably good condition, and that's where we decided to have our fall weekend adventure.

The kids hadn't been in a while, so they were excited for the trip. Something I really love about my kids is that they get so excited about a weekend in a fire lookout tower with no electricity and only their books and drawing supplies for entertainment. It feels good to know I'm imparting some values about simpler living to the next generation.

Everyone took some time to appreciate the views when we arrived. You really can't beat accommodations perched up above the treeline with views of all the mountains and valleys as far as the eye can see. One of the things I like about this view is a glimpse through the trees of the Rogue River and some open flats where it rounds a bend. I still have yet to hike the Rogue River Trail and am looking forward to exploring it one day.

It was nice having a break from daily life and homestead chores to enjoy simple things like working together on a puzzle someone kindly left on the shelf. We also took advantage of the amenities like the gas lights and oven by reading ghost stories and eating fresh baked chocolate chip cookies in the evenings. It ended up being warm enough for us to not really need it, but having the heater in October was a definite bonus.

Everyone spent a good amount of time catching up on reading...

And more reading.

Never wanting to miss the opportunity to enjoy a favorite swimming hole, the kids braved the cold waters of the Coquille River in October. Oh, to be twelve and invincible...

When times get busy, it is reassuring to know there is renewal in nature. Getting out and enjoying the peace and quiet, the open expanses, and the beauty of the changing seasons is recharging beyond measure.  It's also nice, from time to time, doing this in a place with a few creature comforts. I would gladly turn down a getaway on a cruise ship or resort spa any day for a few days in a fire lookout tower with my family, away from it all.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Flowers of Autumn

"Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower."

~Albert Camus

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Trail

I always loved reading stories of pioneers on the Oregon Trail when I was growing up. The idea of packing it all up and heading off into the wild unknown completely intrigued my imagination. I often pretended to be a pioneer when playing out in the woods, and on special occasions at school, we would play the Oregon Trail game in the computer lab, and I was in bliss. As an adult, I have tried to find a good film about the pioneers, but have been sorely disappointed. Finally, I found a gem on Netflix, written and directed by William Parker called "The Trail." With a tagline like "The greatest journey is the one within", it promised to be thought provoking, and I was not disappointed. The film revolves around a young housewife trying to survive a winter alone after being stranded along the Oregon trail. Rather than being a hardcore survival story, or an action movie portraying the dangers of the frontier, it is the story of a woman's internal struggle to survive and re-examine her spirituality and relationship to nature. The way in which it was filmed was simple and artistic, and the scenery was beautiful. I cannot recommend it more highly.

To see the movie trailer and learn more about it, follow the link below:

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Things We Find in the Pumpkin Patch

Our pumpkin crop was hit and miss this year, leaving us in need of a couple of good jack-o-lanterns. I remembered our CSA had offered that members could come out and pick a pumpkin from the patch if they missed the farm celebration, so one day after school last week, the kids and I headed out to finally visit the farm that feeds us. Now, you might be asking yourselves why we still get a CSA share when we are modern homesteading and growing our own food, and the answer ties into the heart of defining modern homesteading. With jobs, the kids' school schedule, and other modern obligations, homesteading has to happen in parts. We grow part of our own food, we get part of our food from a local farm CSA share, we go out and forage a part of our food in the wild, and we get part of our food from the grocery store. Now, if you are also asking yourself "what is a CSA?", it is Community Supported Agriculture, which involves buying a share in a local farm in the spring and getting a share box of veggies every week for the growing season. It's an excellent way to support local food and local farmers. I am a huge fan.

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, getting pre-teens excited about going out and doing various family activities can be an interesting aspect of parenting. This is where I have found pumpkin patches to be a magical place. No matter how enthralling the book they are reading, or how wrapped up they are in the goings-on of their friends and who said what to so-and-so; the second you step out into a pumpkin patch, kids remember that they are still kids, and begin looking for their perfect pumpkin as though it were the most important quest in the world. They step right back into the yearly tradition as though no time had passed at all since last year's trip to the pumpkin patch. I felt an added layer of excitement in the whole experience this year finally getting to see Groundwork Organic's farm and new farmstand. They let us munch on some delicious apples and said we could pick as big a pumpkin as we wanted as part of our share. We took them seriously on the offer. After this, my son still insisted his perfect pumpkin would have warts, so we went across the road to another farm where he found the object of his heart's desire. It was indeed the wartiest pumpkin in the patch.

As we watch kids grow up, and repeat the same family traditions with them season after season and year after year, we have a great opportunity to observe the ways in which they have grown and changed and the ways in which they are still exactly the same. The experience may be no different from the previous year, but we are always seeing it through a different set of eyes influenced by another year of living in the world. This is not only true for our kids with whom we carry these traditions, but for ourselves as parents. Traditions provide us with other things as well, like a framework for life, a sense of the dependable, and something to look forward to and mark the turning seasons. They are invaluable.

Every October, we go out to the pumpkin patch to find the perfect pumpkin. We can always expect to return home with that prize, but the other things we find in the pumpkin patch are valuable beyond measure.