Tag Archives: seasons

Mugwort Harvest!

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Fall fell with a thunk today, as the air turned from summer-fog-wet to winter-is-coming-cold. You have to live here for a couple years at least to feel the shift, but California does have four seasons, and they change roughly at the cross-quarter days: May 1 for Summer, Aug 1 for Fall, Nov 1 for Winter, and Feb 1 for Spring.

We have been socked-in all summer here, with only occasional glimpses of sun. This has been fine with me, since I find the quality of light under cloud cover to be extremely conducive to creativity, and besides, all you need to do is travel 10 miles inland to be in the hot sun again.

As weather anomalies go, I think the California coast got the better part of the deal compared to the rest of the country this summer. It has been a prolific season in the garden; all the flowers and herbs are going out of their way to celebrate the cool greenhouse-like conditions, and the colors have been extravagant. Here is just one bouquet I picked last month.

Everybody warned me that planting mugwort was akin to saying I wanted my entire property covered in mugwort. With some extreme pruning and digging up of runners over the winter months, I am happy to say that so far it is staying put in its bed—but it has taken over the entire bed, crowding out the other artemisias planted there and providing me with a lifetime supply of mugwort in just one season.

Last summer I made the mistake of harvesting the mugwort too soon; only afterward did I read that you’re supposed to wait till it flowers to pick it. This year I have been much more patient, but even now, late in the summer, it is not quite ready to harvest. The cool weather has delayed its ripening, but it is the most amazing slow-motion transformation. As the buds develop, the stalks and leaves turn a burnished purple-red and the plant gets strongly fragrant, reminding me of another common psychoactive plant (one that is much more lucrative to grow, sadly for me).

My friend Corey came over and asked what I was going to do with all this bounty, but I haven’t quite gotten that far. After hanging it to dry, I will use some of it to make dream pillows, but that still leaves about 90% unspoken for.

Mugwort tincture seems excessive; it is such a strong plant already that putting it into tincture form could be more harmful than helpful. Mugwort oil sounds like a good choice, but I would love to hear from others on what works best. Are there any dreamers and/or herbalists out there with great suggestions to share? Meanwhile, here is another view of the garden, where Pacific mugwort, yarrow and rosemary all mingle and kvetch, overheard by a nosy strand of passion flower.

The Earth Turns Color

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Fall is a beautiful season here in Sonoma County. Being a California native, I have taken umbrage at those who claim that California doesn’t have proper seasons. These people can only see two: rainy and dry—and they usually complain about the rain. Yet to me, the four seasons fit perfectly with what I see, feel, smell, and experience through the year here.

Fall begins hinting in mid-July when the acorns start dropping from the oak trees. Then around early August the oak leaves start to turn brown—slowly at first, but by September when the heat comes in waves and the whole region is baked by the harvest sun the oaks are joined by the fruit trees, the grape vines, and lastly by the maples which need a good cold snap to really turn.

At the Fall Equinox, the season has been around for about six weeks by my calendar. Then comes the browning of the earth, one of the most difficult points of the year for me. The chickory, which blooms by the roadside in brilliant blue late into August, has finished its flowering and turned to seed. The grasses are long since harvested, the cows have trampled the golden hills so even the pastoral vistas look tired, overused. Taking a walk through nearby Ragle Park into the seasonal wetland around Atascadero Creek, the ground which stays damp so long into the summer is baked dry. The foliage is not only dry and brown but sparse, as though picked over far too many times by hungry critters. Even the birds are brown, fat little nondescript birds the color of mud, with no song of brilliance to offer the day, only monotone chirps as they go over every stalk once again on their rounds.

The land, the animals, the people, all wait for the rain. It is a wait with an edge of pleading to it: many of us remember the seven years of drought within the last decade, when the rains started hopeful but soon petered out, leaving the hills a delicate green that barely lasted through mid-spring. But even without the rains the air changes in late fall, dropping its pollens and the dust from harvest’s tractors, stripped down to some essence of fall-turning-to-winter. As the air changes, the browning of the year starts to feel less like fall and more like winter. It still can be hot during the day but the air is crisp and cold at night, and even the fog rolling in from the ocean has a stinging bite that is characteristic of winter.

Finally, the rains begin. The earth opens her pores, everyone tilts their heads up to wet their faces. The trampled grass of the fall turns to wet straw, and finally to a mat of mulch which helps the land conserve the water that is falling. The dirt-brown birds go away somewhere and their hapless cheeping is replaced by the erotic sound of frogs in the wetlands. Frog singing is a very wet sound, like slick skin enveloping yours. It comes from all around, not a single source, and if you time it right you can walk through the deafening sound and be completely transported to the Dreamtime.

The frogs bring winter but it’s a bebop winter, full of wild syncopation, surges and silences that catch your attention and keep it enthralled. The dampness freshens the air, plumping it up and making it feel so good in the lungs. It’s as though with every breath we re-hydrate ourselves after the long waiting spell. Rather than causing the air to lose its clarity, the rain makes the air crystalline, brilliant. Standing on a hillside after a rain, there is such an incisiveness to the air that one feels capable of seeing with perfect acuity well beyond the horizon.

That is the weather I love the best here: the kind that finally warrants pulling out the wool sweaters and dressing in layers. Sure, it rarely snows in the coastal foothills, but an arctic storm is an arctic storm no matter what temperature it is. I love it when the wind howls and the rain pounds and finally sunny California is forced to batten down the hatches and cease activity, if only for a long night. Maybe it’s the revenge of the introverts, this love of winter in a sunny clime. Inwardly I sneer and scoff at those who complain of the cold and damp. I can be tipped into road rage upon hearing one too many radio djs refer to winter storms as “bad weather” and sunny December days as “good weather.” For heaven’s sake, didn’t we learn anything from the drought?! Seasonally-appropriate weather is good weather.

The kneejerk prejudices of news anchors and commentators towards the weather also shows up in their near total lack of understanding of the seasons. December 21st is the Winter Solstice, also known as Midwinter. Here in California, Midwinter means exactly what it says: it’s the middle of winter. Not the beginning of winter, as you will hear everywhere. Winter begins here with the rains and the turning of the air around Samhain, or the beginning of November—give or take. By the mid-winter holidays, it’s been around for quite a while.

I will write more about winter when we finally get there, but now we have entered the long waiting period, the browning of the earth, and the sun is beating down on us in great waves of inescapable heat and the dust rises in anticipation of each foot setting on the trail. The fall teaches a plodding patience, and is interspersed with moments of almost unbearable sweetness as a choice ripe fig or luscious pear comes within grasp. May we all bow to the lessons of the seasons, and come to ripeness in our own time.

Walking in Paradise

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I woke up this morning with a stiff left shoulder and clavicle, stretching all the way to a stiff neck, especially on the left side. This is something that happens off and on, and I deal with it in several different ways. Today I decided to take a long walk, my favorite meditative way to deal with physical imbalances. So I got up early, threw on some clothes, and headed out the door for a 45-minute circuit walk through the neighborhood.

I’ve been taking this walk ever since we moved to Sebastopol over 16 years ago. Back then, with a 1-year-old and 3-year-old, it was the only time I really took for myself. It helped me clear my mind and heart from the relentless work of mothering, and more importantly, it helped me get acquainted with my new home. We had just moved up from San Francisco, and I missed it terribly. All my friends, my community, my favorite haunts, the things I relied on to stay centered while raising children, we had left behind in the City. Here, just outside of town on a semi-rural piece of land, I knew I needed to get rooted somehow in my new home and I knew it would take some time. So I figured out a way to walk through our neighborhood, down a connecting street, and back along Occidental Road, which borders the Laguna de Santa Rosa. Then walking up a private road and cutting briefly across a neighbor’s back field, I made it back to our house.

I took this walk as much as I could, all year round (except for when the back field got too wet during the winter). I watched the berries ripen in the summer, I picked rosehips in the winter and made them into tea, I noted when the willows bloomed in the early spring and where to find the best oak galls in the fall for the kids to make little creatures out of. It took me about a year and a half of taking this walk before I felt rooted in this land, and it taught me a lot about what it takes to be at home somewhere.

This morning I couldn’t take the dog with me on my walk, because to straighten out the kinks in my shoulder I had to let both arms swing free. For being in reasonably good shape, I sure felt stiff and sluggish walking. I felt like I was packed in about 6 inches of jelly-like invisible substance that made freedom of movement just an artifact of memory. It was early enough that the big noisy machinery our neighbors are using to build their new house wasn’t in full swing yet, nor were our other neighbors’ dogs with their barking. Eventually, I perked up enough to notice some beautiful red roses blooming along a neighbor’s fence, and how another neighbor really needs to do some weeding along the curb.

My body loves walking uphill, and this walk has a nice hill to climb early on. By the top of the hill, my heart felt like it was humming along and my lungs had cleared out all the whatever-it-is from sleep that makes me so sluggish in the morning. I was still feeling a lot of stiffness in my shoulder, but at least it was now a localized stiffness. With every step, I imagined my shoulder carriage hanging relaxed from my spine, swinging effortlessly with the steady rhythm of my gait.

By the time I turned down the hill toward the laguna, I started feeling that sense of skeletal clarity and muscle coordination that I love the most about walking. It’s as though I have internal x-ray vision, and I can see my bones all working together the way they’re supposed to. My head could swing from side to side easily, and I started noticing plants: pearly everlasting, Queen Anne’s lace, chickory, fennel, dandelion, scarlet pimpernel, star thistle. Juniper, willow, Himalayan blackberry, Scotch broom, wild rose. Fir, eucalyptus, valley oak, live oak, cedar, redwood.

Humans are meant to walk. When my body gets really warmed up, I can imagine feeling like this walking across the savannah tens of thousands of years ago. I imagine that the penchant for identifying roadside plants is a remnant of gatherer’s mentality, and the simple act of pausing to eat ripe berries becomes infused with ancestral awareness.

So there I was, enjoying this delicious split awareness as I walked alongside the beautiful, lazy laguna. The local herd of cows was grazing on the grassland there, and a few turkey vultures made their rounds among the trees by the waterway. By this time, all the stiffness had left my shoulders, and I just had a few sore muscles left there as reminder. My walk felt powered by that mysterious force of locomotion that is centered in the pelvis. Like a great, subtle gyroscope, its figure-8 movement is enough to kick our legs out for the next step forward, and send a slight weaving motion up our spine, which like some ancient plant stem just knows how to move and sway to keep us perfectly balanced as we walk.

Thus aligned, I braved the increasing traffic speeding down the road (note to self: get started a little earlier next time to avoid commuters) till I got to the oddly named private road which leads me back home. The apple rancher who lives there was busy loading up a huge flatbed trailer with empty apple-picking boxes, stacked three high. Though the apples don’t look so good this year—late rains this spring made them kind of scaly and gnarled-looking—they still make great juice, and he and his crew must be starting the harvest through Sebastopol’s remaining Gravenstein orchards.

Across our little shared seasonal wetland, through the berry brambles and towering valley oaks of the laguna uplands where we live, and up the slight rise to our house. I’m not sure I have words adequate to describe the feeling of gratitude, centeredness and belonging that comes to me with taking this walk. This afternoon I have to drive to Sacramento and back, a hellish errand, which will I’m sure reinstate my neck and shoulder tension with full force. But then, looking on the bright side, maybe tomorrow morning I can get up early and take another walk in paradise.