Sacred Earth

Exploring nature and culture

Nature Notes 

Samhain

Samhain

At Samhain, the Goddess retreats below the earth to join her dark lover in the Underworld. Life withdraws and the landscape turns bleak, cold, and grey. There are no more fruit or flowers and the birds have left to journey south. We mark this time of death by remembering and honoring those who have gone before us. Death is but a stage on the wheel of life. Far below the ground the Goddess regenerates her powers, sheds her old cloak, and falls into a deep meditation. We face the darkness of the cold season when the Sun has little power left to warm us.

This is a good time to remember that life and death are aspects of the same eternal cycle. One cannot exist without the other. As the light needs the darkness, the creative spirit needs its periods of rest and restoration. This is a time for reflection and reminiscence, and for gathering our inner strength in contemplation – for soon the wheel of the year will turn and rise again.

Welcome to the Sacred Earth website!

Hi there! Thanks for stopping by! My name is Kat Morgenstern, and I am delighted that you have found your way here!

I have created the Sacred Earth website as a forum for nature lovers of all stripes. Come and join me on a journey down the garden path, and off into the virtual woods, where we will explore, learn and discover all about the intertwining roots of nature and culture.

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Current issue

The Bittersweet Story of Sugar

The Bittersweet Story of Sugar

The story of sugar is bittersweet indeed. It is a story of addiction that is responsible for millions of deaths, unspeakable suffering, despicable abuse, savage cruelty, ruthless exploitation, social injustice, ecological destruction, and last, but by no means least – a legacy of public health problems including dental decay, diabetes, obesity, and cancer, which combined cost millions of dollars in annual health budgets around the world.

The story of sugar can starts somewhere around 15000BC. Sugar cane is a tall reed and a member of the grass family. It originating in New Guinea, but it must have been pretty popular, even in prehistoric times as by 6000BC it had spread to India, China, and the Fiji Islands. The Arabs introduced it to the Occident and planted it in what is now Iraq and Persia. At that time, the Arabs were spreading throughout southern Europe, taking their most important food plants with them and traded in sugar, back then an expensive rarity that was mostly sold as medicine.

Sugar’s reputation as a medicinal substance actually has a long tradition. In Ayurvedic medicine, various forms of sugar were used for eons and still play a role as adjuncts to countless compound remedies. As early as 600BC it was mentioned in numerous ancient texts, where it is referred to as ‘Sharkara’. It was classified into twelve different types according to the quality. A thin type of reed known as Vamshika was considered ‘superior’ quality.

sugar

It appears that the art of making sugar was invented in India, in about 100BC. Originally the cane was simply boiled to obtain a concentrated, unrefined type of sugar known as jaggery or ‘gur’. Ancient Greek historians described it as ‘a kind of honey from a reed, produced without bees’.

A turning point came in 1097AD when some crusaders robbed a caravan in Palestine and made off with 11 camel loads of sugar. Very soon after, in 1100AD Venice became the most important trading port for sugar – and as a result, it prospered mightily!

But the competition was stiff, even back then. By around 1400AD, the Portuguese had taken over to become the biggest force in the sugar trade. In 1420AD they started to settle the island of Madeira, which they had only discovered the year before. Soon they had stripped the island of its natural vegetation in order to plant sugar cane. Of course, laborers were needed to do all the hard work.

That problem was solved by Henry the Explorer, who in 1444, on one of his voyages to circumnavigate Africa, had kidnapped a group of 235 natives from Lagos, which he had brought back to Seville. The Portuguese bought them as slaves to work in the new Portuguese sugar plantations. Columbus himself is said to have been involved in these early plantations. Soon after, the Canary Islands suffered the same fate. And, as we all know, it was from here that in 1493AD Columbus began his second voyage to Hispaniola, carrying in the vault of his ship some sugar cane cuttings- the beginnings of a very dark chapter of history that was to change the world forever. The story of sugar shows that European expansion did not happen haphazardly. It happened by design and should be regarded as a crime.

sugar harvest

At first, sugar cane was only planted on a fairly small scale, in Hispaniola. the biggest problem of the Conquistadores was that the native population was utterly unwilling and ‘unsuitable’ as a workforce. Work on the sugar plantation is very hard. Clearing land, planting, and harvesting by hand in the heat of the tropical sun was back-breaking enough, but processing the canes in the presses and boilers to make sugar is what became known as the proverbial sweatshop, and a dangerous one at that.

The natives simply refused, preferring to die rather than to perform the work, or if they were forced into this horrendous slavery, they soon died in droves from the inhumane working conditions. Within 20 years of Columbus’ arrival in Hispaniola (now Haiti) the native population shrank from an estimated 800 000 – 2 million inhabitants to only 15000, and 30 years later they were completely annihilated.

To solve the labor problem, plantation owners imported slaves from Africa. Africans were brutally rounding up like animals, tied together, and marched for miles to the shipping port. How is it possible that human beings can be so cruel and heartless towards another fellow human being? The answer is denial by means of ‘dehumanization’. Europeans were high on sugar: they were greedy, power-hungry, and willing to sacrifice their humanity for profits. They simply denied Blacks the status of a human being.

They regarded them as subhuman and considered their lives to be inconsequential, except as a workforce. The brutal excesses of slavery are well documented and there is no need to spell them out in every bloody detail again. Suffice to say that over the course of 400 years about 20 million Africans were forced into slavery and transported across the Atlantic (several million more were sold into slavery elsewhere). Millions died from the unspeakably harsh conditions (20% of those that were captured never even survived the journey). In the 18th century, the value of one ton of sugar was considered equivalent to one slave. In 1801 alone, 35000 slaves died for the 70 000 tons of sugar that England imported that year.

sugar press

Sugar plantations dramatically changed the demographic face of the world. Over the course of 400 years, the native population of the Caribbean Islands was practically obliterated, Africans from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds were imported. Irish, Welsh, and Scottish immigrants followed and after the abolition of slavery, Chinese and Indians were lured in as a cheap workforce.

In 1747, a German researcher by the name of Maggrave discovered that sugar beets yielded a substance that was identical to cane sugar. Europe began its own sugar production, but it was only when Napoleon issued a trade embargo against products from the transatlantic colonies that Europe’s domestic sugar production really took off.

sugar plantation

Apart from the devastating human impact, sugar plantations also had dire ecological effects. Sugar demands good soil as well as plenty of water, and it is extremely hungry for expansion. Millions of acres of native forests were decimated to make room for this monoculture cash crop. Water supplies became polluted from the industrial waste and water tables sank. As in all monocultures, pesticides and fungicides need to be applied in vast quantities, thus further polluting the soil and the water as well as poisoning the workers.

Social injustice is programmed into each and every cash crop economy and the vestiges of unfair land distribution determine the political, socioeconomic, and demographic patterns in all parts of the world where colonial powers with their cash crop economies once ruled.

And yet, in comparison, sugar cane is easily the most destructive cash crop the world has ever exploited. Apart from the human and environmental production costs mentioned above refined sugar offers no nutritional benefit what-so-ever. It provides nothing but empty calories while causing major damage to our physical health. Yet, we classify it as a food. Health problems related to excessive levels of sugar in the diet, such as obesity and diabetes, are costing health services literally billions of dollars each year. Yet, sugar’s grip on society’s sweet tooth continues unabated – in fact, global sugar production and consumption are still steadily increasing. This sweet drug has driven the world economy for hundreds of years, and as we have seen, with disastrous consequences. It is not the sugar plant that is at fault, but our addictive minds.  Addiction and denial go hand in hand. As long as we refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem we can simply go on ‘as normal’, fulfilling the cravings while ignoring the consequences. Whether the object of desire is sugar, coffee, tea, cocoa, tobacco – or oil, the patterns that drive consumption and ruthless exploitation are the same.

Plant Profile:

Plant Profile: Walnut

Plant Profile: Walnut

Walnuts (Juglans regia)

It’s ‘nutty season’! (No, I don’t mean politics, in this case) I have was reminded of the fact by the intermittent popping noises coming from outside my window and by the mass of fuzzy hazelnut balls that are piling up on the front porch. These Turkish hazelnuts are plentiful, for sure, and easy to collect. But they are small and extremely tedious to crack. Thankfully, nature provides plentifully and these are not the only nut trees around. We also have some Walnut trees – English Walnuts, that is! Majestic to behold, Walnut trees, are among my favorite trees, and seeing them laden with nuts is a joy.

The ‘foreign tree’

Walnut trees (Juglans regia) are well integrated foreigners in our northern latitudes. Their home is in the warm, and fertile regions of south-east Europe, northern Greece, northern Italy, and France, where they are widely cultivated. Walnuts reached the ‘Low Countries’ north of the Alps in the pockets of Roman soldiers. But, it took several centuries before they really made themselves at home. Teutonic tribes, who gave them their name, apparently regarded them as an oddity, which is expressed in the name they gave the tree: ‘Walnut’ is derived from the Germanic word ‘welsh’, meaning foreign.

They did not reach Britain until the 16th-century and are only found in the warmer, southern parts. The Roman nut became known as the ‘English Walnut’, perhaps to distinguish it from the American walnut (Juglans nigra), or the Pecan nut (Carya illinoinensis). So, it seems this ‘foreigner’ has not only well adapted to its new home but has also been adopted by the locals, who think of it as one of their own.

A southerner in northern climes

Although in time walnuts adapted quite well to the much harsher northern climate, their southern origin becomes evident in spring. Despite the fact that they come into flower quite late (April), they remain vulnerable to late frosts, which can quickly ruin the prospects of a good harvest.

A generational tree

In previous centuries, walnut trees were considered so valuable that they were specifically itemized in the will. A productive grove could cover a good part of a family’s livelihood. But that aside, planting a walnut orchard was an investment in the future: walnut trees are slow to mature. Although they start to produce nuts from the tender age of 15 years, they don’t become fully productive until they have reached the age of thirty. A mature tree produces about 50kg of nuts per year.

The American Cousin

The American (Black) Walnut is quite a different fellow. They are native to the US and occur wild throughout the eastern United States. However, they are not as well-loved as the ‘English’ variety, since they have the rather unsocial habit of emitting a chemical from their roots that inhibits, and eventually kills other plants in its vicinity.  Besides, they are incredibly hard to shuck. People report placing them on their driveways and driving the truck over them in order to crack their shells. Crows & co have picked up on this trick. The birds strategically place nuts in the flow of traffic (e.g. at stoplights) in order to enlist our help in cracking the nuts.

Foraging

In a good year, a mature walnut tree is laden with nuts, which begin to fall in late September/early October, depending on your growing zone.

The nuts are covered by a hard, green hull that is exceedingly difficult to remove and besides, will stain your hands, clothes, and work surface.  Wear gloves, if you don’t want your hands to look like you have been chain-smoking. It is best to harvest the nuts when they are fully ripe, at which point the green cortex will split open to reveal the nut inside, or sometimes it disintegrates into a black mush, leaving the nut behind.

Remove the black stuff as much as possible. It is very high in tannin and can affect the quality of the nut inside. Once you have removed the outer cortex wash the nuts. Put them into a bucket of water. This will naturally separate the good ones from the rotten ones. Bad walnuts tend to float, while the good ones will sink.

After washing the nuts, you can either shuck them or dry and store them for later use. If dried and stored properly, walnuts can keep for a year. Shucking exposes them to oxygen, which will cause them to turn rancid more quickly, due to their high levels of unsaturated (as well as saturated) fats. Keep the nuts in a cool and dark place where there is no danger of worms or vermin looking for a free lunch.

American Walnuts are much harder to crack than English walnuts. It is said that soaking them in water for 8 hours prior to cracking makes the job much easier. For English Walnuts, this is not necessary. They readily succumb to the persuasive powers of an ordinary nutcracker. Black Walnuts need a more forceful treatment.

Walnuts are very rich in oil – 2 kg of nuts will yield about one liter of oil. which is considered a delicacy. It is not so easy to obtain from your foraged nuts, though. Native Americans are said to have boiled the nuts to extract the oil. But this also destroys some of their nutrients.

Walnut oil has a delicious nutty flavor and is excellent in salad dressings or home backing to impart a delicate nutty flavor.

Most of all, forager appreciate walnuts for their delicious ‘meat’, which can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. (see recipes below)

Medicinal uses

The soft kernel on the half-shell vaguely resembles a brain, surrounded by the protective cover of the cranium. The ancients took this likeness to mean that the nut must be good for the brain.  (according to the doctrine of signatures). Scientists have confirmed that walnuts are indeed beneficial for the brain. This is due to their nutrient content, and especially the omega-3 fatty acids (of which walnuts are a rich source). Omega-3 fatty acids support the body when it comes to dealing with stress and is said to help alleviate depression. (see https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/omega-3-fatty-acids-for-mood-disorders-2018080314414)

Native Americans have used various parts of the tree, not just for food, but also as medicine. The leaves and root bark was used in anti-parasitic preparations and to treat skin diseases. The root bark is very astringent and makes a good anti-inflammatory wash that can be applied to herpes, eczema, and scrofula. Taken internally, it stops diarrhea, stays the flux, and dries up the flow of milk in nursing mothers.

Dyeing

The leaves repel insects and can be used as an ad hoc insecticide. The hulls, husks, leaves, and bark are all used as vegetable dyes to yield various colors ranging from yellow to dark brown or black.

Paints

The oil is drying and can be used in oil paints as an alternative to Linseed oil. Recently, powdered shells have been incorporated into new types of ‘designer paints’ to produce interesting textures or in-floor paints, to produce an anti-skidding effect.

walnuts

Recipes

Pickled Walnuts

If you want to pickle walnuts, you have to pick them while they are still green and hanging in the tree. They have to be in an unripe state so that the inner shell is still soft and hasn’t turned woody yet. Typically, they should be picked in June.

Prepare a brine: 6oz salt to 1 quart of water.

With the help of a long needle poke the walnuts all over (don’t remove the green hulls) and cover with the brine. Steep for about 1 week.

Drain, and repeat: cover with fresh brine for another week.

Drain again. Spread the walnuts on a tray and let the sun dry them. Turn them from time to time.

When the walnuts are dry and have turned black, fill them into pickling jars. (Kilner jars, mason jars))

Prepare a spiced vinegar with:

  • 1oz mixed peppercorns
  • 1oz allspice
  • ¾ inch ginger root (fresh)

Add some dried chilies or coriander seeds, if you like. Lightly crush the spices and place them into a muslin bag. Simmer the bag in the malt vinegar for 10 minutes. Then let the vinegar cool down before removing the spices. Pour the vinegar over the walnuts and make sure the liquid covers them. Close the jar tightly. Macerate for 6 – 8 weeks before tasting them.

Stuffing

Walnuts make an excellent stuffing for mushroom, marrows, or puff pastry parcels.

Ingredients:

  • 12 medium-size mushrooms caps
  • 1 tbs. olive oil
  • 1 tbs. butter
  • ½ cup finely chopped onion
  • 2 tbs. coarsely chopped walnuts
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
  • 5 ounces frozen spinach, thoroughly defrosted and squeezed to remove most of the liquid
  • 1 oz feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 oz Gruyere cheese, crumbled
  • 2 tbs minced fresh dill
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper and nutmeg to taste

Method:

Preheat oven to 400° F. Clean the mushrooms and remove the stems.  In a small skillet, heat the olive oil and butter. Add the onion and cook over medium heat, cover and sauté until soft.

Add walnuts and cook for another minute. Add the spinach and stir continuously for about 5 minutes. Take off the heat and cool slightly. Stir in cheeses, dill, nutmeg, and salt and pepper, to taste.

In an oven-proof pan arrange the mushrooms, cavity side up. Plop a wallop of the spinach/walnut mixture into each mushroom cap and bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until the filling turns brown and the mushrooms are thoroughly heated.

Walnut Liqueur

In Italy and France, walnut liqueur is considered a regional specialty. ‘Nocino’ in Italian –  although there are many versions of the ‘original’ recipe. The idea is simple: macerate green, unripe walnuts in a blend of clear alcohol, (e.g. grain alcohol), and syrup.

Method

In June, when the Walnuts are still green and soft inside (traditionally on St. John’s Day=Midsummer), pick your nuts straight from the tree. Wash and quarter the nuts.

Remember to wear gloves!

Fill a large jar with the nuts and add some spices, such as a couple of cinnamon sticks and a few cloves and perhaps a vanilla bean. Chop up an organic, untreated lemon (or orange, if you prefer) and add to the mixture. Pour in about 1 ½ pound of sugar and cover with 3 liters of grain alcohol. Close the lid tightly and steep for about 6 weeks. Keep in a warm dark place.

Test the liquid and adjust to suit your taste. Strain through filter paper and bottle. Store in a cool place.

Green Walnuts preserved in Syrup – from Mrs. Grieves – A Modern Herbal

‘Take as many green Walnuts as you please, about the middle of July, try them all with a pin, if it goes easily through them they are fit for your purpose;

lay them in Water for nine days, washing and shifting them Morning and Night;

then boil them in water until they be a little Soft, lay them to drain;

then pierce them through with a Wooden Sciver, and in the hole put a Clove, and in some a bit of Cinnamon, and in some the rind of a Citron Candi’d:

then take the weight of your Nuts in Sugar, or a little more; make it into a syrup, in which boil your Nuts (skimming them) till they be tender;

then put them up in Gally potts, and cover them close.

When you lay them to drain, wipe them with a Course cloth to take off a thin green Skin. They are Cordial and Stomachal.’

– (From The Family Physician, ‘by Geo. Hartman, Phylo Chymist, who liv’d and Travell’d with the Honourable Sir Kenelm Digby, in several parts of Europe the space of Seven Years till he died.’)

Walnuts are incredibly versatile – even if they are not the star ingredient, they never fail to give a dish a refining note. I sprinkle them on salads or use them instead of pine nuts in a pesto blend. They are also fabulous in desserts and cakes.

Caution:

People who are allergic to nuts should stay away from walnuts and all products derived from them or containing them. Likewise, people who are scared of calories should treat this nut with respect. However, replacing some of your normal dietary fat with walnut oil can be a very wise choice as walnut oil has an excellent nutritional profile and can help to fight free radicals while lowering cholesterol levels. Walnuts are a good source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Always wear gloves when handling walnuts – especially as long as they are still green. And leave some for the wildlife – it is an important source of food to carry them through the winter.

wildlife

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