Sacred Earth

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Nature Notes 

Easter/ Oestara

Easter/ Oestara

Easter is a festival of sacrifice and resurrection. We commemorate Christ’s sacrifice on the day he died on the cross as Jesus, the man, only to be resurrected as Christ, the son of God and the redeemer of mankind. However, the cross, which in Christian mythology signifies the crucifixion, is a much older symbol.
In pre-Christian traditions, it symbolised the cosmic order: the four directions, the axis of time and space, and the surrender of the ego, which is bound to the material world.
In the symbolism of the ancient world, sacrifice was not a celebration of death, as it may seem, but of life. It was seen as a way of giving back, so life may continue. Death and rebirth were seen as two sides of the same door. Like the Ouroboros, life feeds on itself, thereby continuously regenerating itself.
For a sacrifice to be meaningful, it had to be of value. It had to be something special. Any old rat would not do! This was meant to be a gift to the Gods!
Originally, only the king himself was worthy of being sacrificed. But in time, Kings were not so keen on being sacrificed and instead of themselves, they offered up their first-born. But in time, that too was deemed too much. Animals now had to play the part. At Ostara, when the Earth renews itself, that sacrificial animal was an innocent lamb – which it still is to this day: a lamb roast serves as the centrepiece of the Easter feast. This is a distant echo of an age-old sacrificial tradition.
Easter is a movable feast – a clear indication that this festival pre-dates Christian times. The exact date changes every year. It always falls on the first Sunday following the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox (Worm Moon). Originally, Easter, or Ostara, as it was known, was the festival of the Goddess Eostre, a Mother Goddess that is known by many names: Ishtar, Astarte, or the Great Mother Kali.
Her sacred ‘Moon Hare’ (a symbol of fertility) has become the ‘Easter Bunny’. The eggs symbolise life as unborn potential as well as the promise of rebirth. Traditionally, the eggs would have been dyed red, the colour of blood as a conduit of life. A gift of such dyed eggs is a symbolic blessing: A gift of life and abundance! May your potential unfold and blossom!

Source:

The Woman’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets, Barbara G. Walker, HaperCollins, 1983

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Permaculture – Paradigm Shift for a Sustainable Way of Life

Permaculture – Paradigm Shift for a Sustainable Way of Life

It is easy to get down on the way things are going in the world – climate change is no longer a fringe topic, yet any plans to address it fall far short of what would be needed to halt it. Growing levels of pollution, consumer goods designed for the landfill, destruction of habitats and ecosystems all contribute to our demise.

It is easy to give up and resign oneself to the ‘that’s just the way it is,’ mentality while burying one’s head deeply in the sand. One person alone can’t do much anyway, so why bother worrying about anything, right?

Wrong! It doesn’t have to be that way. And right now, as we are beginning to see the light again at the end of the tunnel, we have a unique chance to do things differently. One thing many of us have learnt to appreciate over the past year or so is the importance of nature when all the entrapments of our postmodern lifestyles begin to crumble.

Paradigm shift

Things are changing, quietly and persistently. People are looking for a quieter, more sustainable way of life and the idea is spreading, sprouting at the grass-roots level, from one community to the next.

It has been said that the next revolution will be fought in our gardens, and I am beginning to see it that way, too. It will be fought with peas and love – a non-violent, lifestyle revolution called ‘Permaculture’, a growing movement, not just across the country, but across the entire globe.

You may have heard of it. Sometimes referred to as the ‘no-dig system of gardening’, many conventional growers, and even organic growers, dismiss it as a naive and impractical way to feed the multitudes around the world. And, perhaps that would be true if the aim was to swap industrial farms for permaculture farms while continuing with ‘business as usual’ with our economic system.

But that is an illusion. Industrial farming is on the brink of collapse – its ‘paradigm’ based on ‘war against nature’ and ‘war against insects’, its soils are depleted and ecosystems have been degraded, just to maximize short-term profits. To that end, GMO seeds are engineered to withstand being doused with toxic chemicals. The result is predictable: resistant ‘competitors’ – so-called superweeds and insects from hell. Has the message got through yet, that we cannot win this war? And that continuing to fight it will mean our certain demise?

paradigm shift

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

The paradigms of Permaculture, on the other hand, are based on abundance, cooperation, and sharing. Permaculture seeks to restore rather than exploit ecosystems. ‘Thinking globally and acting locally’ – If yields are higher than what is needed, they can be sold on a wider national or international market. But, let’s produce local food for local people.

Presently the marketplace is based on cash crop economics, exploiting disenfranchised communities. Their land is ‘grabbed’ by multinationals and turned into monocultures – like palm oil, coffee, or bananas. Peasants have no land nor time to grow enough food to feed themselves. Instead, they barely survive on the pennies they earn for their labour in this ‘feudal’ system that has its roots in colonial times.

We can’t change the whole world at once, but we can start in our own backyards. We can create cooperative permaculture farms sharing harvests with neighbours and friends, thus reducing reliance on industrial agriculture that brings us products from around the world at an enormous human and environmental cost.

How is Permaculture different from Organic Farms?

Permaculture design is fundamentally different from all types of conventional agriculture – even organic farms. Permaculture seeks to imitate and cooperate with nature. One of the ‘fathers’ of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, grouped its philosophy into three ethical paradigms and 12 principles.

The ethical paradigms speak for themselves:

  • care for the earth,
  • care for people and
  • fair share

The 12 principles of permaculture require a bit more of an explanation:

1. Observe and Interact:

Permaculture aims to work with nature. The gardener observes and tries to understand the processes that are at work in a given habitat, then interacts with these to support some features and maybe discourage or relay others.

2. Catch and Store Energy

Resource management is a crucial aspect of the system – water and compost are crucial resources. By recycling greywater and building catchment areas for rainwater, it can be harvested and retained instead of losing it to run-off.

Likewise, biomass is returned to the soil in the form of compost and mulch. The continuous process of nurturing the soil restores its vitality. Instead of becoming depleted it is invigorated and restored.

3. Obtain a Yield

Permaculture is not intended as an act of ‘self-sacrifice’. We all need to live and our ‘input’ must produce some kind of worthwhile ‘output’. Ideally, our gardens would provide for all our needs, but it is limiting to think of ‘yield’ only in terms of consumable ‘products’. Aesthetics or relaxation can also be a ‘yield’.

4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

In a world of limited resources, we need to strive for balance and ensure that not only our present needs are met, but that the needs of generations yet to come can also be met. And that the ecosystem as a whole (with all its interactions) must be taken into consideration. Permaculture aims to produce abundance for all the species that share a particular space. The effects of our actions take a while to manifest. We should always observe and respond to the ‘feedback’ we are getting and be prepared to change our ways if the effects turn out to be damaging to any part of the system as a whole.

5. Use and Value: Renewable Resources and Services

Nature supplies us with everything we need. Make use of all the resources that are already available, share and trade, upcycle or repurpose things that are already at your disposal instead of buying new stuff.

6. Produce No Waste

As an extension to the 5th principle, consider the impact of everything you buy or produce. Kitchen scraps can be composted – but what about all the plastic? If it can’t be recycled, reused, repaired or repurposed it is ultimately designed for the waste dump and will continue to be a burden on the planet for a long time to come. Aim for zero waste.

7. Design: From Patterns to Details

Before starting to work on a plot, consider the seasons and weather pattern, geological patterns and features. Clever design can save you work. Utilize whatever is available to maximum effect. Focus first on the overall patterns, then fill in the details.

8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate

Nature does not create monocultures – they leave crops vulnerable to pests and diseases. Instead, nature creates eco-systems that thrive in unison. The pests of one plant are the ‘helpers’ of another or food for the birds. The balance is kept in check and neither becomes dominant if the garden is geared towards producing abundance and diversity.

In Permaculture, garden plots are not planted with single varieties, as plant communities composed of various species that can thrive together within the garden ecosystem.

9. Use Small and Slow Solutions

We frequently think that we need ‘big’ solutions to deal with big problems. But often the opposite is true – especially when it comes to gardening. The earth is made up of millions of micro-environments that call for special adaptations rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. Working at a smaller scale also means it is more manageable.

10. Use and Value Diversity

Diversity is a key concept of permaculture. Natural conditions are constantly changing and organisms respond by adaptation. Different species have evolved to thrive in different conditions. We never know what sort of weather we may have during the growing season – and given the effects of climate change, weather extremes have become the norm, rather than the exception. The best way to safeguard food security is to plan for these extremes by planting different varieties of the same species to spread the risk. Depending on actual weather conditions that year, certain varieties will thrive while others won’t. Food security depends on diversity – not on just a few, patented seeds that have been manipulated to resist the chemical weapons of industrial agriculture.

11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal

The margins are the most interesting areas of the garden. This is where different elements can interact and adapt. In nature, marginal environments are often the most diverse. Socially, too, the ‘fringe’ is where new ideas are born.

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

Change is the only constant. By anticipating change rather than resisting it, we can use it as an opportunity and adapt to the challenge.

The 12 principles of permaculture apply to small or large scale horticultural projects and even to large scale ecosystem restoration. But permaculture is not only about food. It is ultimately about ecology, which includes human ecology – human/nature interactions. It is about restoring the integrity of the web of life, of which we are but one strand among many.

Resources:

Banner image by John Hain from Pixabay

Plant Profile:

Sugar Maple – A Sweet Miracle

Sugar Maple – A Sweet Miracle

Sugar Maple is an iconic tree of the northeastern parts of the US. In the fall, when its foliage turns bright orange and red, thousands of people come from far away just to dee this fabulous color display. But that is just one facet of this beautiful tree with its rich and varied history.

Botany

Sugar Maple is a stately tree of the Acer family. It can reach a height of up to 130 feet. Its growth rate is relatively slow, however. A mature tree can reach an age of about 200 years. In the southern range of its distribution, it associates with Oaks, while in northern and northeastern regions, it grows among birch and beech woods.

Habitat and Distribution

The Maple Tree family is widely distributed throughout the world. Altogether, there are almost 200 different species and about half of them occur in the northern hemisphere. Most of them are indigenous to central and eastern parts of Asia but some are indigenous to Europe and the Mediterranean. About 13 species, including the Sugar Maple, are indigenous to North America.

Its distribution ranges from southern Canada down to Arkansas, Tennessee, and the southern Appalachian Mountains. Sugar Maple is the dominant and most conspicuous tree of the eastern forests famous for its showy display of brilliant red, orange, and yellow autumn foliage.

Ecology

In the woodland ecology of the northeastern forests, Sugar Maple plays a key role. It provides nourishment for various species including the white-tailed deer and plays host to a number of insects.

Environmental factors are the main threat to the Maple population. The growth of mature trees is decreasing and ‘infant mortality’ among saplings is increasing, due to acid rain. Because of their shallow but extensive root systems Maple trees are especially susceptible to surface soil pollution. Global warming also poses a threat.

Pigmentation

The striking coloration is due to the breakdown and dispersal of chlorophyll, which reveals other pigments such as carotenes, tannins, and anthocyanin, which react differently depending on the pH level of the soil.

colourful maple leaves

History

Sugar Maple’s distinctive palmate leaf has gained world fame as the national emblem of the Canadian flag. It has served as the state tree of four US states (New York, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin).

Economically, Sugar Maple is one of the most valuable hardwood trees of the northeastern forests of the US. Its wood has a fine grain and is lighter, yet stronger than that of White Oak, making it useful for the manufacture of many household items such as rolling pins, cutting boards, ladles, and spoons. Carpenters, woodturners, and instrument makers value its beautiful close grain. As a durable hardwood, it has also been used for floor boarding and skirting-boards, etc.

But Sugar Maple is one of the few trees whose most important economical role is not the value of its timber, but the yield of its sweet-tasting sap.

Maple Sugar and Maple Syrup

European settlers first learned about this sap and the technique for tapping it from First Nation Natives, who had been using it as one of their most important food sources for as long as anybody could remember.

Yield

When the snow starts to thaw and life returns to the woodlands, the tree sap begins to rise. Sugar Maple produces copious amounts of sap, which contains about 3% of sugar (on average). To produce 1 gallon of strong-flavored maple syrup requires 30 -4 0 gallons of sap. The sap is boiled down to evaporate the water and thus concentrate the sugar content. The ideal density of 66. 5%. sugar. At higher concentrations, the syrup begins to crystallize while at lower concentrations it can easily spoil.

An average tree yields about 12 gallons of sap per season, which can be turned into 3 pounds of sugar. Large trees (at least 25 – 30 inches in diameter) can sustain 2 or 3 taps. Younger trees with a diameter of 10-12 inches (at about 65 years of age) only sustain one tap.

Maple sugar is now produced on a commercial scale.  Enormous amounts of sap are tapped for local as well as for international consumption. Vermont is the largest producer in the US today, followed by New York and Maine. However, Canada is the largest producer worldwide, covering about 75% of the international demand. Other species of Maple also contain sweet sap and can be used to obtain syrup, although Sugar Maple is by far the most productive.

Traditional sugar camps

Maple Sap TapNative Americans set up semi-permanent sugar camps in the forests to which they traveled for the annual ‘sugaring season’ (from about mid-February to early April). The camps usually consisted of two structures: a small birch-bark-covered lodge where the utensils were stored and the sugaring lodge, which also served as a temporary living space.

Every year, before sugaring could commence, the sugar-making lodge had to be freshly restored and repaired. The lodge consisted of one or two platforms set up along the inside walls, while the middle was kept as the cooking space.

Each camp harvested between 900 – 1500 taps. To set up a tap requires a diagonal 4″ incision to be cut into the tree at about 3 ft above the ground. Perpendicular to the cut the bark was removed for another 4 inches and a 6×2” wooden spout, usually made of Slippery Elm was inserted below. Beneath the spout, a birch-bark vessel was positioned to collect the sap.

Sugaring-off

The taps had to be checked regularly. Once the container was full, their contents were transferred to a larger pot which was placed near the edge of the fire and slowly heated. This process, known as ‘sugaring off’ was a delicate affair requiring great care. It was done at low heat so as to avoid excessive frothing and bubbling.

Birch bark containerBefore there were kettles, pots, and pans made of metal, the Native Americans used birch bark containers and vats made from moose skins. To heat the syrup, they would place red hot stones into these containers filled with the syrup. These were then cooled in the snow. Once the water had frozen into a sheet of ice, it was simply discarded.

The fire was kept going all night and people took turns to watch over it and to attend to the sap, cooling it and reheating the syrup, all the while stirring it with ladles made of maple wood.

When the syrup reached the right consistency, it was strained through a basswood mat, or through a well-worn linen cloth. For the final sugaring-off, all the equipment was carefully cleaned and scoured. The syrup was reheated once more and some bear grease or deer tallow was added to render the sugar softer and less brittle. Gradually, the the mass thickened and stirring it with the maple wood paddle was getting harder. As soon as it reached just the right consistency, it had to be crushed quickly so as to pulverize it. If cooled beyond a certain point the sugar solidifies crushing it becomes much harder.

The settlers soon learned the technique and adapted it to their equipment. Although the tools have changed, the process is essentially the same except for some small modifications that have simplified the procedure.

For Native Americans and for some of the small family producers ‘sugaring off’ was not just a commercial endeavor. It was a cultural event, an integral and important part of the annual cycle, and a joyous, festive time that heralds the coming of spring.

maple sugar sweets

Other Maple delicacies

Some of the thick syrup was used to make special delicacies. It was poured into fancy shapes which solidified as they cooled down. Another special treat was known as ‘gum sugar, which nowadays is known as maple taffy. To make this sticky stuff, the syrup was poured onto the snow, where it quickly hardened. It was then scooped up and portioned into small packets wrapped in birchbark.

Sometimes it is poured onto vanilla ice cream. Once it hardens, it can be picked up with a spoon or stick to be eaten like a lollipop. The settlers added their own variations to the range of Maple products. Among them, is a thick spread known as maple butter, maple vinegar (which by all accounts appears not to have been too tasty, but is said to improve with the addition of whiskey), maple beer, and maple punch.

Maple SyrupComposition of Pure Maple Syrup:

The flavor, abundance, and exact composition of sap depend on environmental factors such as the weather and the pH level of the soil. Little snow and deep frost during the early part of winter, followed by heavy snow, were said to produce the best harvest. Rain changes the flavor of the sugar and thunderstorms are thought to ruin it.

In contrast to white sugar, maple syrup and maple sugar are highly nutritious.

Carbohydrates (%):

  • Sucrose 62.65
  • Hexose (glucose, fructose) 0.5 – 3
  • Other trace sugars

Organic acids (%)

  • Malic 0.090
  • Citric 0.009
  • Succinic 0.007
  • Fumaric 0.004
  • Amino acids (%):
  • Phenols 300-960
  • Amino nitrogens 30-190

Minerals (PPM)

  • Potassium 1500-2200
  • Calcium 400-1000
  • Magnesium 100-300
  • Phosphorus 50-125
  • Manganese 5-80
  • Zinc 5-50
  • Sodium 1-25
  • Iron 1-15
  • Tin 0-25
  • Copper 0-2

Vitamins (micrograms/liter)

  • Niacin (PP) 276
  • Pantothenic Acid (B5) 600
  • Riboflavin (B2) 60
  • Folic Acid Traces
  • Pyridoxine Traces
  • Biotin Traces
  • Vitamin A Traces

 

Ethnobotanical uses

Native Americans also used Sugar Maple medicinally. Particularly the Iroquois medical tradition made ample use of it. It is included in compound medicines to purify the blood, while a compound infusion of the bark was used as eye drops to treat blindness. They also used the leaves to prepare a decoction that was used as a wash to treat the affected parts of a skin condition known as the “Italian itch”.

Forest runners would take an infusion of the bark together with another plant for shortness of breath, while the inner bark was used as cough medicine. The dried and ground inner bark was sometimes used as flour substitute. A purple dye was obtained from the rotten wood but it was rare, as the wood is quite rot-resistant.

Maple autumn foliage

Potash

The white settlers soon found it more profitable and less bothersome to turn their stands of Maple trees to ash which could be turned into economically valuable potash. Maple wood yields a relatively large amount of ash (4% compared to only 1% of Douglas Fir). During the 18th and 19th centuries, potash was a valued raw material destined for export to England. It was destined for the British textile industry, where it served as a vital ingredient in the processes of making soap, glass, and gunpowder.

In 1751, Britain even passed an act in Parliament ‘to encourage the making of Pott Ashes and Pearl Ashes in the British Plantations in America’. An acre of woodland could be reduced to 2 tons of potash – with a tidy profit for the farmers. Sometimes, however, it was their only significant source of income: in 1800 a ton of potash demanded a price of $200 – $300. Eventually, Thomas Jefferson stopped all exports of any goods including Potash as a reprisal against the search and seizure of American ships by France and Britain – with the result that illegal export (i.e. smuggling) became even more lucrative.

Recipes

 

Maple Gingerbread

Ingredients:

  • 2- cups flour, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1½ teaspoons powdered ginger
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup maple syrup
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 4 tablespoons melted butter

Method

Sift together flour, soda, ginger, and salt. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg vigorously, and then stir in the maple syrup, sour cream, and butter. Mix cream and butter. Combine the flour with the other dry ingredients and then stir into the egg mixture. Pour into a greased flat pan and bake for 30 minutes at 350°F, or until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan.

Maple frosting is a tasty option.

Maple Wine

From “Valuable Secrets”, 1809

“Boil 4, 5, or 6 gallons of sap according to its strength into one and add yeast according to the quantity you make. After it is fermented, set it aside in a cool place well stopped. If kept for two years, it will become a pleasant and round wine.”

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