Lime Hollow Nature Center
Covered Bridge at the Lime Hollow Visitor Center

From My Sit Spot

by Pete Angie

Bee BalmFall is, of course, a time of endearing beauty, radiant colorful leaves, brisk breezes, and of gathering in. So many creatures participate in a harvest of the abundance that the summer begot. White tail deer browse under the oaks near my sit spot eating acorns, fortifying themselves for the coming winter. A troop of turkeys—this spring's poults now the size of large chickens—were foraging on the forest floor for seeds, insects and larva just the other day, unaware of my eight year old son and I watching. A brash young one flew over the fence of my near-by garden, entering forbidden territory to pick among the tomatoes, leeks and hardy kale. Like the turkeys, the earth has given us much. Carrots and parsnips fill my fridge and butternut squash waits in the cool mud room.

Putting up root vegetables, drying dill and canning salsa prolong the harvest and the nutrients brought to my table by the sun, soil and rain. How fast the surplus dwindles through the fall, though. How quickly our grocery bill rises again after the harvest has passed always points out to me what a hobby our garden is. Despite all the satisfying hours spent working the rich dirt and listening to birds, kneeling to weed while feeling the sunshine on my skin I am still utterly dependent on a vast, interconnected modern food network. By Christmas we rely entirely again on produce and foodstuffs grown or made elsewhere, transported by trucks, scanned by lasers and purchased among a hub bub of shoppers in climate controlled buildings. How very far my life is from the more self-reliant homesteaders of yesteryear, from Native Americans and pioneers long ago, from the chipmunks filling their underground larders and the squirrels that bury walnuts in my lawn and cache them in the hollows of trees.

As I dug up beets in September my lungs were wracked by a relentless cough, my body weakened with aches and chills, my nose alive with sneezes. At the supermarket I chose from a variety of antihistamines in blister packs, which I used in conjunction with my inhaler. That piece of pharmacopoeia is a silver canister cased in plastic, that sprays a mysterious chemical mist which instantly opens my lungs and allows me to sleep at night when sick, but leaves my vocal chords diminished. I—along with my wife and children, who were also sick—consumed healthy doses of extracts and tinctures of mostly unfamiliar herbs, and apple cider vinegar, all packaged in glass and purchased from a store. The illness gave rise to my curiosity and I borrowed a few guidebooks on medicinal herbs and plants, a knowledge older than writing. I was overwhelmed with what I found.

I have long known that rose hips, chewed or steeped, are a vitamin C boon, and that jewelweed can soothe a rash. I’d been fascinated to learn some time ago that the reason modern cough syrups are more often than not cherry flavored lies in the fact that Native Americans used the inner bark of the black cherry tree to make tea and syrup to treat coughs. What the guidebooks taught me, however, was much more—a host of Native American and folk remedies that can be easily produced from leaves, flowers, roots and even stems. Echinacea root is of course good for the immune system, but it can also be chewed for toothaches, and juice made from the plant can treat fevers, stings and burns. Goldenrod, which I shunned since childhood due to its allergy inducing pollen, has been used to reduce nasal secretions, and by the Chippewa to treat lung issues. The flowers can be chewed to sooth sore throats and the leaf tea drank to treat ailments of the urinary tract. It is plentiful close to my sit spot, and so eager was I to try something that I quickly picked a handful of leaves and made a bitter, dark green tea. I didn’t like the taste, but somehow couldn’t stop taking sips until it was gone.

I found out I’d been using and proselytizing about jewelweed wrong all along. It is not the juice of the succulent stem that is most effective on rashes, but a poultice made of crushed leaves applied to the skin. Jewelweed’s frequent companion along creeks and river banks, stinging nettle, is not all bad. Nettle leaf tea has been used to treat allergies and asthma, and nettle's healing properties are further credited with treating bronchitis, digestion problems, poor circulation, internal bleeding and a host of other ailments. Suffers from arthritis have kept potted nettles on the window sill—believing that an occasional sting helps the joints. Modern medicine has applied its properties to treat prostate cancer. Blue cohosh can help induce labor (indeed my wife Danielle used a tincture of it when delivering Odin), and the seeds of Queen Anne’s lace have long been used as a contraceptive (recent studies in mice support its effectiveness). Willow root was used by the Chicksaw to treat headaches, and in Europe for fevers and aches. In 1893 its compounds became the basis for Asprin. The list of local plants and remedies goes on and on.

Bee balm blossoms in red legions throughout the summer around my house and I was glad to read that its leaves can make tea to to remedy fevers and colds. I made the tea and Danielle and I enjoyed its mild, herbal flavor. Later I served cups to my children, who drank it all. What struck me most when I cracked open the guide books is that medicinal herbs and plants are everywhere. In my yard and near my sit spot are the plants mentioned here already and so many more: chickory, raspberry, black-eyes Susans, milk weed, astor, yarrow to name a few. I can’t step outside without running into half a dozen or more medicinal plants, each one with the potential to treat several ailments. Outdoors I now feel like a mostly illiterate man walking through a library. But instead of feeling overwhelmed or daunted, as someone who struggles to read might feel in a library, I feel stunned and inspired. My four year old daughter Naomi and I gathered leafy bee balm stems using scissors and hung them to dry in bunches on the porch, near our garlic. As leaves everywhere change color and drop through October and fall the bee balm on my porch will dry and be available for tea as cold season begins in earnest. It is another bundle of summer’s sun and fall’s harvest stored away—in novelty proportion like the vegetables of my garden. Medicinal plants are another example that there is so much nature offers and so little I understand, though I am surrounded by its riches. With curiosity and a bit of time given to explore, the same world looks new again. Nature keeps doing that to me. The longer I live the less I know and the more intriguing each plant, animal and wild place becomes.

Cichoke, A. 2001. Secrets of Native American Herbal Remedies. New York, NY. Penguin Putnam