Nature in the City

A Corner of My Garden Plot

A Corner of My Garden Plot

As part of my quest to integrate “being close to nature” and “living in the city,” I got a copy of a book that promised to help me find the language to explain this impulse: Cities and Natural Process: A Basis for Sustainability by Michael Hough, a landscape architect and a professor. He first wrote the book in 1995, and updated it in 2004. Although the book was primarily written for landscape architects, and has an academic flavor, it’s gentle and readable and, at the same time, revolutionary, because it overturns existing paradigms.

Hough points out that most buildings in the downtown of older cities were designed to create a monumental effect, but, instead, especially when grouped together, they create an arid landscape. I love downtown Seattle but there are places you can’t stand because the wind whipping down those barren corridors is too intense. Hough also describes the aesthetic of most parks as modeled after an English country estate, which in turn is a representation of an ideal woods. So true! No wonder I love parks. But, actually, though they seem natural, these elegant older parks, like Seattle’s Volunteer Park, don’t have the ability to regenerate that a healthy wood has because there is no undergrowth, just those carpets of beautifully mowed grass. Many of Hough’s suggestions—exposing streams, replacing lawns with vegetables, using indigenous plants—have become commonplace. Others are still cutting edge.

One thing I realize after reading the first two chapters of this book is why I have had a hard time gardening in community gardens. I’ve been a community gardener for 15 years, but I am constantly under pressure from my fellow gardeners to conform to their notions of an ideal garden. I frequently get notices telling me my plot is too weedy or it looks abandoned. I believe that’s because I like volunteers. I am always curious about what plants will show up in my garden and just let them grow. I like chickweed and woodruff and dandelions, plants others might consider weeds. I’ve got several fennel plants higher than my head from which I harvest fennel pollen and fennel seeds and fennel stalks, which can be used to stake other plants, but fennel plants aren’t popular in my community garden because they are so hard to dig out when they show up where unwanted. I also have two tall mullein flowers. I don’t do much with these, although I once gave a visitor one of the big, fuzzy leaves because she complained about sore feet. My rose bush is a prickly rosa rugosa, which doesn’t produce the kind of beautiful flowers that most people think of when they think of roses. The flowers are flimsy, pale pink petals that have the most delicious flavor.

Most of the gardeners in my community garden grow vegetables and I watch visitors stroll around identifying the plants they know. No one ever comments on the beauty of my garden, although they do like my bay tree. It started out as a five inch herb in a pot and is now taller than me. I’m shaping the top of it so that it has a topiary effect (a throwback to the English country estate garden). Which brings me to my point, that the aesthetic, even for this humble community garden, is based on clean lines, groomed paths, cultivated plants, useful plants, decorative plants, not the wild, weedy mess I cultivate.

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Healing Waters

Hot Spring at Breitenbush

Hot Spring at Breitenbush

After two weeks of reflection, I don’t think the huge headache I developed after the Herbal Conference at Breitenbush was due solely to caffeine withdrawal (maybe I’m in denial here). It might have been part of a healing process sparked by some of the workshops I attended. I’ve come up with this theory because I started dreaming again, within days of returning from the conference, and I haven’t had a really remarkable dream for years.

These dreams have been both vivid and significant. In one, my father (who died over 25 years ago) was being healed. He was lying on a beach and healer was painting his face with reddish pigment. A huge green wave came and washed over his body as I watched. In another dream, I was with my family and we were trying to escape a tidal wave by jumping into and floating around in the large lake in back of our house. The water was warm and green in color.

Both of these dreams emphasized water. Breitenbush is famous for its healing hot springs. And at the conference, I attended a workshop on Spiritual Bathing led by Rosita Arvigo who was trained by a Mayan shaman in Belize. She spoke about some of the conditions that require healing in that culture, conditions we might consider emotionally based, like fright or envy or grief. Then she created a florecida (a floral water) by placing herbs and flowers in a bowl of water and squeezing them with her fingers, while reciting this prayer she learned from Don Elijio Panti, a Mayan shaman with whom she studied:

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I give thanks to the spirit of this plant and I have faith with all my heart that you will help me to make a healing, purifying bath for [person].

She also called on the Blessed Virgin Mary and Ix Chel, the Mayan goddess of the moon, water and healing. She told us we could use any deity we wanted, though it was important to call on a deity as the power to heal came through this connection with the divine. We could use any flowers or herbs we liked in creating a bath for ourselves, but we should choose a significant number, for instance, 9 sprigs of each plant, and non-toxic plants or flowers, especially those that evoke certain qualities.

She worked the plants with her fingers until they had discharged their qualities into the water—it should be a greenish color, and, since she used some mallow family flowers, it was also slimy.Normally she would let this sit out in the sun for several hours but since we were doing a one-hour workshop, she walked around the room and asperged us, that is, sprinkled us with this special floral water, using a branch of cedar. I definitely felt the clearing energy of the water as she sprinkled it around my head, and I noticed the atmosphere of the room change as well, as she went around, asperging everyone.

But I don’t think I realized how profoundly this affected me until I began dreaming in the days that followed. After reading through Spiritual Bathing, the book of water rituals compiled by Rosita Arvigo and Nadine Epstein, I noticed that green water was mentioned in descriptions of certain rituals, including the preparation of agua de florida, used in Ayauasca ceremonies. Rosita also mentions the green color of the florecidas prepared by Julia Riveras during a workshop on the Amazon.

If you are looking for an overview of spiritual bathing traditions from all over the world, Spiritual Bathing is a good place to start. The book is beautiful, full of wonderful photographs but the coverage is a bit shallow. We get only the most general discussion, a page or two for each culture from Rome to India, Russia to Turkey, Japan to Peru. And the suggested rituals, though intriguing (I will try several of them), don’t seem traditional but rather adapted for modern American readers. I think this probably the nature of any glossy coffee-table book. One of the aspects of the book I enjoyed most were personal accounts of spiritual bath experiences from the two authors.

But if you want a really engaging, personal account of baths all over the world, I recommend Alexia Brue’s travel memoir: Cathedrals of the Flesh: My Search for the Perfect Bath, which details her trips around the world, searching for the perfect bath. However, she is more interested in the culture of the bath than the spiritual aspects of it.

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Signs of Autumn

A frosty late autumn, early morning photo of a churchyard in Llangathen, West Wales. The mist is rising from the river Tywi Valley (Towy in english). The ancient hillfort of Grongar Hill is in the distance. Taken by Sara Polke-Johns.

Please leave your Signs of Autumn here in the Comments.  Thank you!

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Herbal Conference

Lodge at Breitenbush

Lodge at Breitenbush

Just got back from attending the Herbal Conference at Breitenbush Hot Springs. I haven’t been to Breitenbush for 17 years, yet it felt so familiar that I wondered if I had simply forgotten a previous visit. Five years ago, I would have called this feeling deja vu. Now I simply wonder if I am losing my memory.

Perhaps it felt familiar, because it was so comfortable. I could sit down besides anyone and immediately fall into a meaningful conversation. And I had friends there–my herb teachers, Eaglesong and Sally King–and I met a School of the Seasons reader: Carmen, who won the Sniffathon (I only placed third). (The Sniffathon involved correctly identifying drops of 13 essential oils dripped onto index cards.)

I always have a hard time at group meals, after I’ve filled up my tray and have to find a place to sit (bad memories from my year at Reed College). But on Friday night, I was lucky enough to sit at a table with two women who became my new Best Friends: Mary Lou and Amber. Amber was a green-haired, tattooed, 21-year-old from Dallas who had driven to the conference on her own and was camping for the first time in her life in a tent borrowed from her grandfather. I loved her energy and excitement and enthusiasm about everything. She also had that great Texas twang and Southern generosity. When I wandered late into my first class, she made sure I got a handout. Mary Lou was closer to my age but like Amber, she was also at a crossroads, since she had just quit her job as a dietitian for a nursing home and was searching for something meaningful to do with her passion for healthy foods and herbs. She was in every class I took and probably ended up taking the one class I missed, after I developed a bad headache.

It was ironic that I left a conference full of healers because I was sick but I’m one of those folks who when sick, wants to crawl off into the bushes, rather than admit I need help. And I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it was probably mostly caused by caffeine withdrawal (no caffeine served at Breitenbush–just vegetarian food and herbal teas). The headache started to ebb after I stopped at the first rest stop with free coffee.

sept09 008So did I learn anything new about herbs? Not as much as I expected. Mostly I learned about nutritional anthropology and metabolic types and intuitive eating (that’s Paul Bergner‘s term–I loved it–it means asking your body to inform you of what it wants for your highest good). I also learned about stress and susto (as it’s called by healers in Belize where Rosita Arvigo lives and works, fright in English) and how the production of adrenaline and subsequent crash (the body’s response to trauma) can create imbalances that can later be treated by herbs, vitamins, nutritional supplements, polarity massage (Leslie Korn’s methods)  and spiritual practices (Rosita taught a great class on spiritual bathing). I also went on a great plant walk with Paul Bergner where he taught us to draw plants by memory. More about this later.

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Rose Desserts

My Vacant Lot Roses

My Vacant Lot Roses

As part of my experiment with edible flowers, I made two desserts out of rose petals this past weekend and to my surprise, both of them produced wonderful results.

Rose Sorbet
I used the delightfully spicy-smelling petals from my favorite vacant lot rose to make a rose sorbet. The recipe I was using called for petals from 16 roses, but I only had four so I cut the recipe by one fourth.

1-1/4 cups castor (superfine) sugar (I used powdered sugar–I think regular sugar would work fine too)
2 cups cold water
4 oz scented unsprayed rose petals (about 16 roses)
6 tbsp rosewater
2 tsp glycerin
juice of 1 lemon [optional]

1) Put the sugar and 1 cup of water in a saucepan and heat until the sugar dissolves. Put the rose petals in the syrup and allow them to wilt, then add the second cup of cold water and the rosewater. Let cool for 20 to 30 minutes. Then add the glycerin (this preserves the wonderful bright color of the roses; without it the sorbet will be muddy looking and not so appetizing).
2) Let this mixture steep for 5 hours or overnight.
3) Add the lemon juice (I didn’t) and push the mixture through a sieve, to get all the juice out of the rose petals. Discard them.
4) Cool the mixture over an ice bath (I didn’t do this since it was already cool since I kept it in the refrigerator overnight), then churn using an ice cream machine. I don’t have one so I made the sorbet using instructions for making ice cream by hand from David Lebovitz, author of The Perfect Scoop.

Basically, you put it in a plastic dish in the freezer and set a timer for 45 minutes. At 45 minutes you stir it up with a whisk or a spoon, breaking up all the ice crystals that are forming. You set the timer for 30 minutes and do that again. And then another 30 minutes. And then another. And so forth for about two to three hours or until it seems done.

I have to confess I stopped stirring my sorbet after two hours. It stayed rather icy, more like a granita than a sorbet. That wasn’t a problem for me as I enjoyed the texture, the flavor and the color. I had much better success with this method of making ice cream when I made the recipe below.

Rose Ice Cream
I was so happy with the sorbet I wanted to make ice cream but I didn’t have any fresh rose petals. So I made this recipe, which requires fresh flowers, with the dried flowers from my pink rosa rugosa. They are much sweeter and pinker than the red rose.

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 cup sugar
5 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cups loosely packed, very fragrant rose petals, washed and spun dry

1) Prepare an ice bath by placing ice cubes in a large flat-bottomed container that will hold the bowl where the ice cream will be chilled
2) Combine the rose petals and sugar in a food processor with the metal blade and make into a paste. (Since I used dried flowers, it was more like rose sugar than paste).
3) Combine the cream, milk and sugar paste in a saucepan over medium heat and stir until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a simmer and then take off the heat.
4) Place the egg yolks in a bowl and whisk until light. Then add the hot liquid slowly, whisking until thoroughly mixed. Return to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until it reaches 180 degrees on a candy thermometer or coats the back of the spoon.
5) Strain the mixture into a clean container (I didn’t do this since I didn’t mind the faint texture of the petals) and place in the ice bath.
Then you would proceed to make ice cream either as above or with your ice cream machine.

This recipe did not call for glycerin, but I think I would add that to the rose and sugar mixture to bring up the color. I added red food color instead and the end result was a muddy pink. It looks a bit like Play Doh and the texture is somewhat chewy as well but the flavor is like nothing I’ve ever tasted. I dream about it all day long. Luckily I still have some in the freezer.

Let me know if you have any success with these recipes or if you have another recipe you like.

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Lavender Cheesecake

Sunset Over Mutiny Bay

Sunset Over Mutiny Bay

Last weekend I went to Whidbey Island for a wine tasting at a friend’s beach house. It was lovely event: amazing food, great wines, fascinating conversations, and some spectacular sunsets.

I promised to bring a dessert since I wanted an excuse to cook with flowers as that is my assignment for this month.  My plan was to make a lavender cheesecake.

I already had a recipe which I adapted from a regular cheesecake recipe and made successfully years ago. I put a few lavender stems into the hot milk mixture as it’s cooking, then remove them after they’ve imparted their flavor. I also sneak lavender into the crust by making a praline: grinding lavender buds and sugar together in the blender, then stirring that into hot water, which I pour onto a pie plate and freeze in the freezer. When I make the crumb crust, I add the lavender praline (ground up) in place of plain sugar.

But this was before the days of the Internet, and this time when I looked for a recipe, I found dozens. I chose the one that was the simplest (no-bake!) and it created such a silky, smooth dream of a cheesecake that half of the guests at the dinner wanted a copy of the recipe. (It was the women who wanted the recipe, not the men, which is odd as lavender is supposedly one of the scents that men find erotic. Maybe men just don’t make cheesecake.)

Here’s my version of the recipe:

1)      Smash 2 cups of shortbread cookies into crumbs. (You could really go for the lavender theme and use lavender shortbread. Or perhaps just toss some ground up lavender buds into the crumb mixture. Not too much! Subtle is the adjective for lavender.)

2)      Melt five tablespoons of butter and mix with the crumbs. Press into the bottom of a springform pan. Put in the refrigerator to chill while you make the filling.

3)      Crush three tablespoons of lavender. Pour two and a half tablespoons of boiling water over them. Let it steep for at least 15 minutes. Then strain out the lavender buds. This is your lavender infusion.

4)      Mix together ¾ cup of honey and one 8 ounce package of cream cheese that you’ve left out to soften. I used an electric beater. You could use a whisk, if you prefer.

5)      Add the lavender infusion, mixing carefully, not too much.

6)      Whip one and a quarter cups of heavy cream. Again I recommend an electric beater. This took a long time even with one.

7)      Fold the whipped cream into the honey/lavender/cream cheese mixture. Then pour it into the crust.

8)      Refrigerate for three to four hours before serving.

You can find the actual recipe here.

The next time I do it, I think I will add a second package of cream cheese as the filling layer was pretty thin, but no one complained about that. The texture was as smooth as silk and the lavender flavor pronounced but subtle.

I thought about garnishing it with lavender stalks dipped in simple syrup and set on tinfoil to dry. I think that would have worked out nicely but I didn’t try it. I also didn’t take a picture of the cheesecake so you’ll have to make do with the sunset.

If you want to serve it with wine, I’d suggest a Muscat (might be too sweet) or an ice wine, maybe a late-harvest Riesling. We tried a regular Riesling at the recommendation of my wine merchant and it didn’t really work, though it was a lovely Riesling (I like the ones that smell like gasoline and this one did).

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Many Moon Names

Photo by Cate Kerr

Photo by Cate Kerr

Wow! Havi Brooks mentioned my book Slow Time on her delightful blog, the Fluent Self, and suggested her readers play with one of the exercises, the one where you get to make up your own names for the moons. I’m reveling in all the creative names people posted as comments. Check it out!

I’m illustrating this blog entry with another one of Cate Kerr’s magnificent moon photos. This one, like the one featured on the Celebrations article, is the August full moon. Cate always provides a long list of traditional names for each full moon as she did in the blog entry that accompanied the photograph.

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Edible Flowers

my first flower salad

my first flower salad

When I decided to get to know the flowers in my neighborhood, I assigned myself different tasks for every month and my task for July was to eat flowers. I’m a little behind on this task, but I’m getting started now.

Flowers are most often used in sweet confections like desserts and drinks. In fact I own a great book, Cathy Barash’s book of Edible Flowers, which focuses on those two food groups. But I wanted to start with something simple. Raw flowers.

Remember when every green salad was garnished with flowers? Whatever happened to that trend? (I was happy to see chef Christopher Émé of Ortolan decorating his plates with flowers on a recent episode of Iron Chef.)

My first experiment involved making a salad and decorating it with fresh flowers from my garden: cornflowers, arugula flowers, chive flowers and some violas. Here’s a photograph I took of my first salad. Obviously, I have a lot to learn as a food stylist and food photographer. Still the flowers looked great. Unfortunately they didn’t add much flavor.

The arugula flowers were best. They had a bit of a kick to them, though not as much as arugula leaves. The chive flowers have a faint oniony flavor, which is odd in a flower, but they taste like paper. The same is true for cornflower petals which have absolutely no flavor as far as I can tell (one web site I visited said they tasted spicy, clove-like flavor—I wish! I notice that they’re an ingredient in many flavored teas. I wonder if they actually impart flavor or if they’re just there for the color). The violas supposedly taste like wintergreen but to me they just tasted green.

After wandering around the web, looking for articles on edible flowers, I realize I have many more flowers in my garden I can try. Borage is next. And the clove pinks. And the hollyhock blossoms. I want to snag a few of the last honeysuckle blossoms from my neighbor’s garden and try them in a fruit salad. I could sprinkle in some rose petals as well. And I’m eager to try calendula petals.

And that’s just the start of this edible flower adventure. In future posts, I’m going to make lavender-flavored desserts, candied flowers, rose honey almond brittle, and feature some vegetables that are actually flowers. Let me know what you make with flowers.

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Summer Slowly

Pepe moving rather quickly

Pepe moving rather quickly

A long-time School of the Seasons reader and contributor, Taffy Hill, sent me a link to a blog entry by Beth Dargis of My Simpler Life about things that should be savored and done slowly.

I loved Beth’s list and was even more delighted to see the thread was started by my friend and colleague, Christine Valters Paintner, at her blog, Abbey of the Arts when she asked her readers to submit ideas for things to do slowly.

Let’s expand this idea here. I’d love to entertain your suggestions for things to do slowly.

My favorite is walking slowly. I find this easiest to do while walking the dog. Right now my walking companion is Pepe, my daughter’s Chihuahua. He likes to go slow, especially in the summer. He often plops down on the grass and refuses to move

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Signs of Summer

Photo by Christine Valters Paintner,

Photograph © Christine Valters Paintner at Abbey of the Arts

From Alyss in Portland, Oregon:

Summer is here!! The Solstice was only a few weeks ago so it is still light late and the warm, dry weather has come into full swing. I’ve been enjoying long evenings with friends on decks and patios all over town since it’s hardly dark at 9pm. The gardens are overflowing with greens still and fruiting trees and vegetables are starting to share their bounty as well. I’ve had three people give me cherries this week because trees are so overloaded! The tomatoes are starting to show green fruit and so are the apple trees.

I started a traditional summer infused alcohol last week called Vin de Noix. It is eau de vie and wine infused with green walnuts, cloves, vanilla and sugar. It is said that it is best made between Saint Jean’s feast day on June 24 and Bastille Day on July 14. I started mine on July 4th, an American high summer tradition. It smells fantastic (anything with cloves, vanilla and sugar will) but needs at least 40 days to fully infuse. By Lammas I will taste it and see how it is doing. I hear it might be a bit bitter from the walnuts, but that will eventually fade into a smooth, thick after dinner sipping alcohol.

Summer is a frantic time too. My friends complain that their weekends are booking up and that there just isn’t enough time to do everything we want to do during this glorious but brief warm, light, dry season. I get to feeling it too. So much to pick, to preserve, to cook, to eat, to see, to do. Last fall I remember feeling such kinship with the trees losing their leaves. That is time for letting go and focusing inward. This time of year though I like to give into the frantic energy. Yes, let’s go out! Yes, let’s go harvesting! Yes, let’s can, let’s play, let’s live while the sun shines and the days are long. There will be time for rest when the year is dark again.

Alyss lives in Portland Oregon and blogs at The Wheel and the Disk.

From Lu in Florida:

(Photo by Lu Merritt)

Hope in Our Hot Season/Moving Toward Fall in Florida

Harvest time comes early here in subtropical paradise, North Central Florida almost to the Georgia state line. Our seasonal shifts are more subtle here than in other parts of the country, but if you know what to look for, there are definite markers.

By mid-July, our local crops—corn, cantaloupe, watermelon—have peaked and been picked. The only things still ripening in the garden are late tomatoes, so thankfully it’s still possible to have one of summer’s perfect joys, a fresh tomato sandwich: Slather mayonnaise on two pieces of your favorite bread, cut slices of a freshly-picked tomato to your preferred thickness, lay the slices on the bread, and season with salt and pepper. Heaven.

Perhaps the most obvious marker of the season’s shift is a change in the quality of light. At the summer solstice, the light has a fierce, bright, almost blinding quality, like a giant searchlight that casts no shadows. Around the first of August, there is a change—the light begins to get noticeably softer, and while the days are still long, the afternoon shadows take on a smokier glow.

Right about now, too, the farmers begin to mow their hay fields, and we begin to see haystacks—or really, big rolls of hay—scattered throughout some of the neighboring fields. “Hay!” we call, and point out the fields to each other as we pass them, happy and excited to be the first to spot this particular universal sign of fall.

The night-blooming jasmine, which grows dormant and gets cut back in the winter, has been growing since springtime and now begins to put out flowers whose fragance will soon become noticeable. The beautyberry bushes, which flowered back in May, start to form little green berries that will turn a beautiful shade of purple a bit later in the season.

Grass and trees, all so verdant green this summer because we have had a lot of rain, begin to take on a yellowish tinge that is a definite harbinger of fall. We begin, eventually, to notice that a few leaves are starting to fall from some of our trees.

Newspapers are filled with flyers advertising back-to-school sales. The local newspaper’s sports section steps up its coverage of the area’s football teams; diehard football fans start counting the days ’til the first big game. And we all begin to keep wary eyes on weather reports about tropical systems and possible hurricanes; it doesn’t do to go into August and September without extra stocks of peanut butter, other canned goods, and water—just in case.

Fall isn’t here yet, by any means, but we definitely have some pointers to let us know it’s on the way­—giving us hope for cooler weather in the middle of our hottest season.

Lu Merritt lives in northern Florida and blogs at A Word Witch.

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