Category: Articles

Local Gardens Foster an Ethic of the Land


by Clea Danaan

(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)


How can we create a sustainable world? Are we doomed to extinction, or is there hope? I believe we can craft a new world, one garden at a time….

Into my sturdy canvas bag I put heirloom tomatoes, giant zucchinis, and shiny green peppers, picked fresh that morning. The farm pickup volunteer sits in his wheelchair, calmly surveying the hubbub of shareholders as they weigh out cherry tomatoes and choose the right chilies. My daughter, wrapped around my leg, watches the bustle with interest.

"Hey, Baby, want to go pick some flowers?" I ask as I choose a bunch of chard and nestle it atop the carrots. We head out into the hot afternoon.

As we tromp the dozen yards out to the flower bed and past great piles of compost, I wave at a Somali Bantu elder harvesting cucumbers. My toddler picks marigolds by the fistful while I pluck a few more peppers in a nearby bed. Though the farm's fields are large, I know she is safe. The other shareholders know she is my child, and I can see her bright pink sunhat from wherever I go.

The summer before her second birthday we visit DeLaney Farm weekly to collect our share, pick flowers, and run over the rock pile. "Farm!" she shouts joyfully as the white buildings and prairie-like fields come into sight. Half an hour from downtown Denver, DeLaney is an urban farm, surrounded by city, housing parks, and greenway trails. It is one of many urban gardening projects managed by Denver Urban Gardens (DUG). To my daughter our visit is another summer diversion in the endless days of toddlerhood, but to me it is hope. It is a promise to my daughter that I will do all I can to preserve this teetering earth so that she may have a future. This is where I work my magic, crafting a paradigm shift through local, organic gardening.

It becomes clearer each day that a lot must be done right now to save our species (and millions others) from extinction. One place to do so is in a community garden. People come together to share skills and knowledge, grow their own food, and cultivate the very paradigm we will need to survive global climate change.

Urban community gardens like DeLaney Farm bring together diverse people growing their own food or supporting local farmers while cultivating better lives and stronger communities. In a community garden, language is not important. One’s agricultural or educational background is not important. Religious and political conflicts give way to an ethic of the land.

Community gardens are especially beneficial to people who have faced adversity in their lives. In one Denver garden, special education students gain a sense of pride and self-efficacy. They take on leadership roles and learn to work with others1. Another DUG-sponsored garden memorializing nearly 100 murdered youth offers families solace and hope. This garden has become a safe community gathering place and a symbol of what connection through the land can reap2. At DeLaney Farm, Somali Bantu refugees who fled persecution and slavery in Africa grow food for their community while learning marketable skills and the English language. Through their work at the farm they will one day be able to purchase their own land. These are all examples of the power of the garden to transmute adversity and craft a better society.

In another local garden, Jeff Tejral of Aurora Water illustrates how gardening can be integral to city life, a crucial piece of what I call the gardening revolution. With the Aurora Xeriscape Demonstration Gardens and experimental gardens at local water treatment plants, Jeff hopes to show individuals and businesses more sustainable ways to use water than traditional lawn. The Xeriscape Demonstration Garden boasts nine varieties of low-water turf and over 350 varieties of perennials, trees, and shrubs. These include a few edibles, like the alpine strawberries my daughter loves to poke through, and herbs. The garden is just down the road from DeLaney Farm and across the parking lot from the city's municipal building. They are another example of the new urban land ethic.

Tejral feels strongly that the next revolution will be about food. The water and energy crises we now face already affect our food economy. When imported bread and soda and milk all become unaffordable for the average family, we will learn we need to focus our resources at home. Instead of paying the government taxes to subsidize corn and petroleum companies to transport that corn, instead of dumping gallons of water and chemicals onto lawns, we will invest our money, energy, and water into our own gardens and community farms. Jeff's gardens and the urban community gardens around the city show us that such a life is possible right now. We can grow our own food. We can create the kind of world we want to live in, one that is healthy, affordable, and beautiful. We can live in harmony with the planet.

What would it take to make organic farms and gardens as ubiquitous as Starbucks coffee shops? The change must come from within, beginning with local farms, back yards, and parks. We need to completely rethink our parks and green spaces; as Jeff Tejral says, "Getting back to parks before the time of the lawnmower3." We will need to make room for outdoor community spaces that offer multiple uses. Not just walking the dog and playing Frisbee, but growing mint and eggplant and quinoa. Raising chickens and goats and bees. Holding community rituals that unite diverse peoples and foster hope.

I envision a world where the "empty" lots are transformed by neighborhood residents into gardens and gathering places. Where every child knows where her food comes from and how to grow it. Where water and energy are used with the whole in mind. I know this world is possible because I have seen it in action at DeLaney Farm, the Xeriscape Gardens, the urban gardens across the city, and programs like these around the world. I also believe people want this world. Friends of mine who don't utilize the city's recycling program and don't care about how their meat is raised ask me for help growing tomatoes and herbs in pots, and they shop at the Farmer's Market. Our bodies and spirits feel drawn to the land. We need that relationship. We just need a little help getting there via new infrastructure and education. With a paradigm of interconnection, personal responsibility and empowerment, buying local, growing our own food, and living a truly green lifestyle will become a way of life for all people.

At the end-of-season potluck at DeLaney Farm, one of the young translators for the Somali Bantu urges me to try one of their traditional dishes, amboga. Made from wild pigweed, or machichi in MaayMaay, it is a traditional African recipe using greens, onion, curry powder and peppers. The spicy, tangy dish melts on my tongue. I smile at the young man, so different from me in many ways, yet here, transforming the earth by my side. This is deep activism and powerful magic: putting down roots, growing interconnections, and creating lives based fundamentally on an ethic of the land.

1"Meaningful Harvest: Discovering a landscape of wonder, youth flourish in community gardens." The Underground News. Denver Urban Gardens. Autumn 2004 (Vol 10 No 1).
2Denver Urban Gardens brochure.
3 ibid.

Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2008. All rights reserved.


Bavarian Root Doctors and Herbal Lore


by Nancy Arrowsmith

(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)

I was once a stranger in a strange land without a job. Beyond that, I was broke and in a problematic relationship. At one point, I found myself wandering through the streets of Munich, looking for a place to work, for a day job that would pay the rent. Schwabing, the publishing/film/artistic part of town, had few possibilities for a so-called unskilled employee, so I went further afield. At some point, I found myself standing outside of a quaint little shop near Munich's main market, the Viktualienmarkt. In German, it was called "Kräuterhaus Helvetia, D' Original Oberbayrische Kräuter- und Wurzelsepp," which translates, with some geographical confusion, to "The Swiss Herb Shop, by the Original Upper Bavarian Herb and Root Doctor." I found this fascinating, since I was working on a new herb book after finishing A Field Guide to the Little People. It seemed that this might just be the possibility I was looking for—a chance to nab two birds with one stone: pay the rent and research at the same time. I had discovered that herbs were the "little people" of the plant world, and that there were innumerable references to them in the books of folk wisdom I had consulted for my first book. Eager to learn more, I had already filled out stacks of large index cards with information, but felt that my knowledge was too theoretical and not practical enough.

A few days later, I went to the herb store, and asked if they were looking for someone to work there. The owner, Wilhelm Lindig, was very kind and talked to me for a long time. At the end of our conversation I had a job, starting at 7:45 in the morning and ending at 6:15, five days a week, with half days on Saturday. Founded in 1887, the herb shop sold about five hundred loose herbs and spices, as well as countless herbal preparations. Herr Lindig had learned the trade from his father, who based a good portion of his knowledge on the teachings of the Swiss herbal priest Johann Künzle (hence the misleading name of "Swiss Herb Shop"). Wilhelm Lindig Senior had taken over the shop in 1923 and ran it during the very difficult war and post-war years. In those hard times (WWII), the only medications people had access to were herbs, because normal medications were not available or were prohibitively costly. So the two Lindigs would get on their bikes early in the morning and ride to the outskirts of town and the mountains to gather fresh herbs. In the afternoon the shop was opened, and the herbs were sold to customers, who returned, and told others of the wonderful herbs the Lindigs were selling. With time, the reputation of the store grew beyond its Bavarian customers, and people came from all parts of Germany to buy "Swiss" herbs from the Lindigs.

The Lindigs combined many of their herbs in the mixtures made famous by the Swiss herbal priest Johann Künzle. He was a learned man who taught himself herbal lore when he realized that his parishioners didn't have access to medical aid. They were so grateful to him that they supported him in a referendum—the medical establishment had become upset with him for the equivalent of "practicing medicine without a license." At the ripe age of 65, Künzle was forced to undergo an examination to prove his medical competence. He flummoxed the authorities by asking them if they would prefer him to take the exam in Latin, Greek, or German? Needless to say, he passed with flying colors. His booklet Chrut und Uchrut, full of pithy folk humor, was an instant bestseller, and sold over one million copies in Switzerland alone. President Woodrow Wilson was rumored to have been among his patients, and his reputation was heightened because he did not lose a single patient during the deadly Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918. To give just one example of his style, he compared the stinging nettle in his main herbal to a bristly old man with a heart of gold, and insisted that God had given the plant its stinging hairs so that it could protect itself against greedy animals and humans.

The herb mixtures sold in the Munich shop were based on the mixtures of the Swiss herbal priest, but were then adapted to the symptoms of individual patients. It was the job of the three salesgirls working in the shop to hear the patient's story and decide which mixture we would give them. As our expertise grew, we were able to add a little bit of chamomile here and some masterwort there, but the difficult cases were always referred to Herr Lindig. According to the patients, he would look them deep in the eye and know just what was bothering them. In fact, he admitted to me that he practiced iris diagnosis, looking at their irises while they were talking to him, which often gave him a better idea of what was bothering them than their rambling explanations. He would then tell us, for example, to use the #23 bronchial mixture, but to add a measure of plantain and give them an extra portion of red elder (Sambucus racemosa) berries to make a decoction. His patients seemed to thrive on his attention, and swore by his remedies.

As was customary in southern Germany, we closed the shop during the noon hours to be able to catch up with postal or special orders, and to get some lunch ourselves. One of the most entertaining parts of our day was the half hour before the shop reopened. Customers would line up on the street, often in the cold and snow, ignoring the discomfort but enjoying the social contact. Most of the older women would gossip, endlessly relating their symptoms, and tell the others about how the "Herr Doktor" was able to miraculously cure them. It was an ongoing gabfest, repeated every day without fail. We sometimes couldn't keep from cracking up at their antics while we listened from inside the shop.

At the time I wasn't truly fluent in German, but soon learned to appreciate the earthy Bavarian folk humor. Once, when an unusually prissy higher-class northern German woman was monopolizing Herr Lindig's attentions for an inordinately long time, the other women further back in line mumbled Bavarian imprecations in such a way that they were only audible to trained Bavarian ears: "Such a Prussian sow, a nasty Japanese one…" Half of the store caught on to what she was saying, but the Prussian lady was completely oblivious to what was going on around her, which was probably for the best.

On a typical day, we each served about fifty customers, filling requests for kitchen herbs, herbal shampoos, tinctures, and salves, as well as endless quantities of medicinal teas. The store was almost always filled to overflowing, and we all tended to catch colds. The customers lined up on the street would push and shove to get into the warmth of the shop, leaving the front door open in the middle of winter.

Saturday was kind of a holiday, and we were always treated by the Lindigs to a feast of Bavarian Weisswurst made from finely minced veal and fresh bacon, together with a crunchy fresh roll or yeasty pretzel, mustard, and a bottle of foaming Weissbier from the market. There is a saying that these sausages should not hear the midday bells, or they will lose their flavor, and, traditionally, the sausages were heated in hot water on the wood stove in the back room shortly before noon. Because I was a vegetarian at that time, I always got a thick slice of fresh cheese instead of the sausages. A friend of mine once commented that this was one of the last truly traditional Bavarian stores in town.

The workrooms were much larger than the store itself, but were cold, since they were not heated. There was one herb packaging room, a small kitchen heated with a wood stove, and a long storage area ending in an inner courtyard. In the main store, the herbs were stored in wooden containers with loosely-fitting lids, and the hydroscopic herbs were kept in tightly-sealed glass containers. In the storage areas in the back, large burlap bags filled with herbs were stacked next to large cardboard bins. Mixtures were prepared next to the open back door by shoveling scoops of herbs into a large cement mixer, and letting it mix the herbs evenly. The rumbling noise of the mixer and the fine dust of the many herbs were always present in the storage rooms. When I rode in buses after work, there would invariably be someone who mentioned something about "that unusual smell, something like pepper," and wondered from where it was coming. Actually, several people who worked at the herb shop ended up getting sick because their respiratory systems did not tolerate the extremely fine and potent herbal dust.

Unfortunately, the powers that be did not treat Herr Lindig as well as they treated the herbal priest Johann Künzle. When he was almost ready to retire, the German government passed a law to the effect that medicinal herbs could only be sold in a store owned by a licensed apothecary. There was no possibility for him to take an exam, so Herr Lindig teamed up for a while with an apothecary before selling the store. He had no children, and, to my deep regret, much of his knowledge went with him.

In the book Essential Herbal Wisdom, I have attempted to include as much of this traditional knowledge as possible, and to incorporate many of the tricks of the trade taught to me by the herbal master Wilhelm Lindig and others of his kind. I am truly and continuously in their debt for their excellent work, their generosity, and their unending devotion to all things herbal.

Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2009. All rights reserved.


My 10 Favorite Things About Spring

IM 6

by Doreen Shababy

(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)

What a great time of year this is, Spring, so full of promise and wonder. I found it difficult to narrow down what I like best about the season, not the least of which is Cinco de Mayo (one of the anniversaries my husband and I share, plus another great excuse to eat Mexican food). Here are ten of my favorite springtime indicators… what are yours?

  1. More Daylight
    I live up north at approximately 48° latitude, which means the vernal equinox is a much-celebrated event amongst the local gardeners, chicken farmers, and bush hippies alike. Bright, beautiful, glorious spring! Idaho panhandle winters tend toward mostly cloudy skies with intermittent snow and rain, leaving a multitude of chuckholes and mud whomps to deal with. Many a savvy mountain gal owns a pair of dress Wellies for this muddy transition between winter and summer, but who cares? The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and it's finally spring.
  2. Buttercups, the earliest wildflower
    This time of year I take a special detour on my way home from town, just to see if the buttercups have begun to bloom. It's along a crumbling stretch of the old highway, with south-facing cliffs overlooking the lake and the shadowy Monarch Mountains on the other side. Sometimes the cliffs "weep" with spring run-off, where, on a verdant mossy bench, tiny yellow flowers constellate the lush landscape. It is so worth taking the long way home.
  3. Snakes, frogs, and turtles
    I'm very fortunate that I live where all the snakes are friendly and non-poisonous. Our garden area has been home to a garter snake family for at least ten years; I don't know how long their actual lifespan is, but the babies keep showing up each spring, with Big Mama toolin' around and through and under the raised beds with the greatest of ease. The snakes eat insects that might eat our veggies, so they are most welcome. Out near the creek bottoms, the cacophony of frog song in the evening is another welcome spring event, as is the appearance of turtles basking on logs in the slow-flowing side-channel of the river; I have to be careful not to drive my truck off the road craning my neck to see them.
  4. Baby animals, including ducklings and goslings.
    Let's face it, even a baby moo-cow is cute. And seeing the fuzzy baby ducks paddling behind their mama is sheer delight, while the co-parenting activities of the Canada goose offer much food for thought in terms of commitment and dedication.
  5. Fruit trees in bloom, with bees
    There is nothing more exhilarating than the sight of an apple orchard abloom with lovely fragrant, pink-white flowers, honeybees happily buzzing from one flower to the next; bumblebees get in on the action as well. Even the wild hillsides are covered with blooming serviceberry bushes, and if you're very still, and listen very quietly, you'll hear the all-pervading hum of those black-and-yellow anomalies performing a most needful service to the trees—pollination. Without bees, those apples would be far and few between. Flowers need bees as much as bees need flowers—and we need 'em both.
  6. Wild spring greens, especially nettles
    Now is the time to feast on all the wild greens you can get your mitts on—they're everywhere. The easiest to identify include dandelion greens, violet leaf, miner's lettuce (both kinds), chickweed, lamb's quarters, and, in some locations, fiddlehead ferns. Heading the list is nettles—that's right, stinging nettles. Carefully harvested with gloved hands, leaves and tender tops are torn into an enameled pan to cook down into a tasty, vibrant, nutritious mess o' greens—yes ma'am! The sting cooks out, my friends, and you may as well pick a few bunches to hang and dry for using over the winter (I know it's spring, but this is the only time nettles are good to pick for eating).
  7. Asparagus
    Freshly snapped and munched down raw… lightly steamed as a filling for omelets and crepes… cut, blanched and marinated in a flavorful salad vinaigrette… tempura-dipped and fried… pickled spears for that Bloody Mary bruncheon… is there anything this quintessential spring vegetable can't do?
  8. Gardening has begun in earnest
    Sure, we started pepper seedlings and perennial herbs way back in February, and managed to loosen the soil in the large barrel planters for growing early Asian greens. But the real work of the garden season has just begun. Turning, composting, planting, mulching, weeding; it's all a labor of love. And the best darn food you'll ever eat. Grow something good to eat. Grow something pretty to look at. We all have that sparkle of creation inside us, and you can do it if you try.
  9. Rejuvenation and renewal
    It's what Spring is all about, Charlie Brown. It's about opening windows, cleaning house, and taking dandelion root tonic. It's about resurrection and rebirth, Easter and Ostara, Queen of the May, Lord of the Wild, Pan pipes trilling in the distance. It's about ee cummings's "Chanson Innocent" and Sylvia Plath's "Mushrooms," which brings me, finally, to one of the greatest and most ephemeral harvests to grace a spring risotto…
  10. Morel mushrooms
    Pardon me whilst I dab the tears from my eyes, for I have become nostalgic and quivering at the very thought of these unique and flavorful fungi. My mom makes the best fried morels I have ever eaten; yep, that snazzy city girl from Chicago learned from the old-timers here in Idaho when to look, where to look, and how to properly harvest these mighty meaty mushrooms. She deftly rolls them in seasoned flour and fries them ever-so-crisp in an electric frying pan, and are best served hot from the skillet. Then again, lightly sautéed with garlic and added to the above-mentioned risotto, baked into savory gratins, dried for winter soups and stews, you'll always find folks around here ambling about like hobbits with their nose toward the ground, searching for that strangely pitted mushroom cap that can resemble pine cones, dried ferns, or even sun-bleached deer droppings in the right light. But once you find them, once you recognize them, you will know them forever, so distinctive is their appearance, so delicious is their flavor. Do me a favor, look for them in your own neck of the woods, and don't come looking for them in mine.

Aside from always thinking from my stomach, a few other things I like about spring, but had to hold back on for brevity's sake, include fresh chives, spinach, johnny jump-ups, hyacinths, eggs, compost, robins, and yard sales (did I mention Cinco de Mayo?). I'm sure you have your own springtime inspirations and celebrations. The best part is, it's all good.

Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2010. All rights reserved.