Cottonwood

“Spring is the mischief in me”. This is a quote by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a writer, storyteller doctor of Jungian psychology, teacher, and reminder to all of us about the beautiful and mystical side of life.  If you haven’t read her work, or listened to her stories, and are into the meaning behind dreams and archetypal symbology in folk tales, I can tell you with enthusiasm that she’s the cream of the crop.

 

I love the simplicity and fun in that quote, and when I go into the woods on any given early spring day, when the sun is coaxing the moisture out of the ground and up into the warming air, tree sap is running and buds are beginning to grow, a green blush moves through the canopy of alders, the cottonwood comes alive with its intoxicating perfume, and I imagine the trees embodied as that quote.

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The aroma of cottonwood wafts gently through the sunbeams and birdsong. It smells of newness and sticky mineral-rich liquid amber both peppery and sweet. I read somewhere that Cottonwood trees have been revered as spiritual conduits to some first peoples. Because they are so very tall, and reach way up high into the sky, they are close enough to touch the heavens, and send messages to the spirit world. If I couldn’t love cottonwood any more for it’s scent, its for this beautiful concept.

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So, at first sign of spring, I go into the woods and under the giants to harvest the resinous buds from cottonwood windfall resulting from the winter storms. You know, it sometimes takes a while for a fallen branch to realize it’s no longer a part of the tree. It still contains the energy of life and will form buds in a glorious final attempt to show appreciation for the warming days, and the very cycle of the seasons. And this is all received graciously, like a gift, by me.

 

But not just me. The bees are also gifted these resinous buds as they wake up from their winter slumbers, and they cleverly use them to make propolis which is basically their own medicine and glue to help protect the hives. It probably goes without saying, “a friend of bees is a friend of me.”

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So, I collect the buds in late March or early April, and my fingers turn brown and sticky. I bring my hands up to my face often to breathe in the invigorating sweet smell of the wetland woods, the fragrance of the sky and breezes of spring.  It smells like my happy childhood out in the bush and the nostalgic energy that comes with days getting longer, and emergent growth all around.  I can spend hours out there, communing with the birds and the bugs, all of us happily saying hello to each other, getting reacquainted after a long winter apart, tucked away each in our own little worlds.

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Cottonwood buds make a really nice topical medicine. The thick red sticky resin in each bud is packed with antimicrobial properties, anti-oxidants, and contains a chemical compound called Salicin which is an anti-inflammatory also found in willow trees, and is the origin of aspirin. Mixed with oils and beeswax, this resin can be made into a salve often called “balm of Gilead”.

 

(I have made some salves which will soon be available for order here)

 

Little Owl

White Owl Flies Into and Out of The Field

Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,

in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —

as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

-Mary Oliver

Forest horses

Annie and Sally, the darling forest horses, were two of the sweetest creatures I have ever met. They tolerated, and maybe even liked Duggy’s puppy energy, never lifted a foot as he nipped and pulled and begged them to play… They wandered the forest, visited me often with their big hearts, and gentle nature, and they will be deeply missed. Their spirits are home.

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Wild Harvest

Robinwood is rich with wild edible and medicinal plants and herbs. An abundance of roots, berries, and herbs to be harvested each summer and fall…

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Burdock
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Usnea
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Elderflower
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Maple buds
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Dandelion
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Yarrow
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Mint
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Blackberries
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Huckleberries
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Meadow flowers
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Self-heal
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Wild rose
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Spruce tips
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Wild strawberries
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Cottonwood buds
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Turkey tail mushroom
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Grand fir
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rose hips
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burdock
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A pot full of river mint and a tiny orphaned robin egg found down at the river

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split leaf/ evergreen blackberries
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Vanilla Leaf
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Cleavers
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This was a most epic Chanterelle harvest!
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Fiddleheads on site. My most favourite food in the world.

Mt H’Kusam

Looking almost directly north, Mt H’Kusam towers over the meadow. Perfectly framed but the giant Sitka Spruce, it is hard not to focus on this incredible mountain view, and watch it change in all the different light and seasons.

And Mt. H’Kusam has many stories. In my brief research this far, I’ve read that H’Kusam is named by the Kwakwaka’wakw (pronounced  Kwak-wak-ya-wak) First Nations people meaning “having fat or oil.”  This is said to refer to both the Salmon River and the large First Nations village once located on its Southern bank.

And I have not seen it yet, but there is a mysterious cloud that appears encircling the top of the mountain, which the Kwakwaka’wakw People called Hiatsee Saklekum,  “Where the breath of the sea lion gathers at the blow-hole”. They believed that there was a tunnel through the mountain through which the sea lions’ breath traveled. I have heard locals calling this strange cloud “Oscar.” I think I will have to investigate further.

Another story this mountain has is one of strength and endurance. Every year on the summer solstice an event is held called the “Kusam Klimb” This is a race of sorts, or just a personal challenge to hike the 23 kms up and down the back side of the mountain. A typical hiker will take 7-9 hours to do the route, but there are those who go for speed and the winners each year finish the Klimb in 2-3 hours.

Kusam Klimb website

more great info on the trail

When the rains come to the valley, our land is at the mercy of the mountain. The rain that falls on H’Kusam soon ends up as our swamp. We watch the snow come and go, and the colours it changes reflecting the sun as it sets. We miss it when the clouds roll in, and aim our binoculars to inspect the distant details. You can see the slides and fallen trees, and we’ve been told that there was a fire on the mountain in the 1950’s or 60’s, but I haven’t found any info on that. What I did find was the story of the great Sayward Fire in 1938 that burned 30,000 hectares of beautiful forest consuming almost 2/3 of Vancouver Island.

There is a Youtube video that tells the story with a song, here

And a great detailed account of the fire here

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Elk Land

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The elk is a majestic forest ghost. They are always there, but rarely seen. I can wake up in the morning and see fresh droppings 10 feet away from my door. There are always fresh prints in the mud and sand. They have carved trails through our woods, and have utilized, and I imagine probably greatly appreciated the trails that we have carved as well.

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A few summers ago while hiking with a friend in the Olympic National Park’s Hoh rainforest, I received a sign that the elk was my spirit animal. Ever since then I have held onto the wisdom of the elk medicine, and wear an elk tooth around my neck. Actually, I suppose I used to wear it….in the city. These days, practicality is winning and the only thing I put around my neck in the woods is a whistle.

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So when we came to Robinwood, and I recognized that it was thoroughly inhabited by elk, I knew it was my home. When I tell people about it, I get a lot of comments about hunting, and how people try their whole lives to win the elk ticket lottery. But Robinwood is a haven. It is a sanctuary for all the creatures of the forest, especially the elk. The Roosevelt elk, the biggest elk in the world, exist only in this part of the world. I’ve read that there are approximately 4500 of the species left today, and of these over 3000 live on Vancouver Island, mostly up here in the north island.IMGP3638

The Roosevelt elk are huge and the males can reach up to 500 kg ( just over 1000 lbs). Their antlers are massive. They live for about 12-15 years.

They travel in herds for the most part, although this summer I noticed a lone female residing in our forest which is rare. Neighbours said she may either be sick or pregnant, but the the best of my observation, she appeared to be neither. (But I’m rookie.)

On rainy days I see the herds come out to the meadow to graze when I’m tucked away in the bus. I’ve seen them hanging out with the horses, and any tiny noise or movement I seem to make is always noticed.

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Hanging out with the horses!

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Of course, each time I travel into the woods is like a treasure hunt for bones. I found an entire well preserved skeleton of a female elk, and several bones here and there on my walks in the woods. Each one is remnant of the story of life and struggle, beauty and pain, and the connectedness of all things enveloped by moss.

White River Provincial Park

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My friend and neighbour Dave is a retired logger. He has been a great wealth of local Sayward Valley intel; weather predictions, wildlife sightings, gravel sources, and is always willing to help with our big jobs, like fixing the road, lifting beams, moving the bus, and digging the well.

He told us about back in the day when he was a faller, working in the area and accustomed to cutting down old growth forests. He said he was at this location for about an hour before he put down his tools and refused to cut. It was simply too beautiful. His fellow workers agreed and together they fought to protect the area making it a provincial park.

(Oh, did you notice the beware of the yeti sticker on the sign?)

The park is beautiful.  Not unlike the Cathedral Grove tourist destination, except here, the paths look like game trails and the woods are all yours…. And you wouldn’t believe the size of the trees.
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Maggie never felt so small, and Rita was the gold in the green.

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