June is mulberry (Morus alba) season here in the Mid-Atlantic and the upper parts of the Southeast. At hide camp here near Esmont, Virginia, Bodean--both friend and gracious host of the beautiful land on which several of us are gathered for this heartwarming time--took me and our neighbor Mara on one of her mulberry harvest routes in Charlottesville.
I came home with about a gallon or so basket full of heavy & sticky purple & gold fruits--one third of our day's worth of shaking down heavily laden tree branches into a tarp, climbing trees, hand picking from branches, and hand picking from the carpets of already halfway sun dried mulberries covering the scorchingly hot sidewalks of that 90s degree weather week.
I'm bespelled by sun drying this year. After a lifetime of what feels like nonsense, I am finally struck by the beauty, simplicity, importance, & magical powers of sun drying foods for Winter. (Well, and the magical powers of goat milk, & wild greens, & tanning hides...you know). Yet, sun drying is something I have found difficult to do during Southeastern Summers.
Encouraged by the definitely non-rotten sweetness & delicious tacky texture of the mulberries already sun drying on the cement sidewalks, I decided to use my whole gallon in a sun drying experiment. I also felt suddenly possessed by the need to get purple sticky mulberry juice smeared and stained all over a particularly perfect, ultra soft doe buckskin hide I've been traveling around with in my hide bags for far too long. How do you make buckskin truly happy? Use it. Use it for the everyday, beautiful & mundane of things. They want to be a part of all the deeply human activities of life.
The weather was dry (for central Virginia) & hot, so I laid out all the mulberries immediately that evening on the doe hide, right on the ground, to catch the last hour or two of direct sun. I was surprised how easily that heavy basket of berries all fit onto one hide once spread out.
Mulberries are a very wet, very high water content fruit. Just in delicately spreading out this amount, my hands were thoroughly stained in purple juice, which I had to do several times during the first two days. So I wasn't sure how well this sun drying would do. Some of the fallen mulberries in Charlottesville, which had landed in shady pockets instead of right on the hot sidewalks, were filled with tiny little worms, and those mulberries tasted quite bad. I figured that all of these mulberries could easily go that direction with an unfortunate day or two of cloudy weather.
By fortune, this week's weather was perfect. I got to sun dry the mulberries for three full straight days (plus the first evening) in direct, very hot sun. On the hot dry ground. Three days is what they took to become the most beautiful, most alluring, fragrant, & deeply arresting wild foods. We fell quiet. Chewing one mulberry each while sitting around a hide smoking pit one evening, where punk wood smoke filled the very corners of everything, and our own fingers and hair. The vastness of the sun, contained in tiny, warm, chewy dark things that tasted like smoked wine.
Here (above) are the mulberries in the evening after their second full day of sun drying. Most of the water content of the berries left during the first 2 days. After this, the berries no longer felt wet and sticky. They were easy to handle and gather up, and dry and chewy in texture. The third full day of sun drying seemed to just be drawing out the last deep bits of moisture from the berries.
Overall, though bespelling & beautiful, this method of sun drying food on a hide was labor intensive. Because I had to gather up the berries each evening, to move the hide into my wall tent (& re-spread out the berries there) each night. Then each morning I moved the hide back outside in the field, & delicately spread out the berries. I did this both to protect them from dew & to deter ants & other animals from getting too used to eating on them in the same place.
During the second & third days of sun drying, house flies swarmed & landed on the berries pretty aggressively (though they were pretty much absent on the first full day). This may have been due to a very smelly groundhog being processed nearby. So one lesson I can take from this is that processing animals and trying to sun dry very wet foods during the same days is, in an ideal world, not the best mix.
Even though the flies never laid any eggs on the mulberries, the aggressiveness of their swarming & landing unnerved me. So for much of the second and third days I kept two little tins of punk wood (one on each side of the hide) smoking on and off (as much as I had the time to tend to them while passing by). This heavy smoke deterred the flies about 50% to 80%. Frankly, I was surprised how much some continued to hang around and land even while being blasted by cedar punk. Still, for its simplicity, this was a very decent solution.
Ants came and went a little bit over the 3 days, but honestly I was surprised by how little they amassed on the buckskin, & how little of the berries they carried away. So, aside from the houseflies, insects really weren't a problem sun drying directly on the ground.
During this sun drying week, the humidity varied probably between 60% and 80%. So, without direct sun, nothing in this part of the continent really dries well. After gathering up the mulberries after their 3 days of sun drying, simply sitting overnight in my tent, they got tacky again from absorbing the humidity of the air. This is such a thing in the South. It's often something I struggle with when shade drying herbs and greens also.
So, on day 4, I laid out the berries on the hide once again, just for an hour or so in direct hot afternoon sun, to pull back out that bit of atmospheric moisture before storing them air tight in glass ball jars. The berries were quite hard, and made a rattling sound when shaken in the jars.
They filled about a quart and a half.
Here (above) is the size & texture of the finished dried berries right before putting them in jars. The gold colored fruits were from a white mulberry. These got considerably better in taste after sundrying. (The purple fruits were delicious both fresh and dried). Confusingly enough, the purple fruiting trees and white fruiting trees here are all the same species of mulberry, Morus alba. This is the case for most of the Mid-Atlantic zone. I can only guess that it is genetic mutation that leads to the differently colored varieties. I'm less familiar with the thinner, more elongated fruits of Morus rubra, which grows more frequently deeper in the South (& almost never in the Mid-Atlantic zone).
Honestly, these finished fruits were so hard and crunchy, that though excellent for storage, I think that before eating a portion, they should probably be left to air out for a day in order to absorb some moisture back from the air and have more of a tacky, chewy texture, rather than crunchy.
These sun dried fruits are fabulous. They are my new most loved way of storing mulberries (even better than wine). If the weather is right, I highly recommend doing this --on screens, plywood, or whatever materials you have.
I was particularly interested in not using metal screens for this project, not to be "primitive," but to be, more clearly, land-direct. The myth of primitivism is a tragic one. That the word primitive be associated with "easy," "elementary," or less "developed" or "advanced" human culture is a lie born and tended by a modern, white, & industrialized culture which would dehumanize all indigenous people of the world, including all our own ancestors, in order to shield us from the living truth that land-direct ways of living and thriving are the most advanced human technologies on the planet. Because they are art forms, that respond elegantly to the organic changing conditions of the earth, a life form in itself. All with a limited choice of materials which must be born directly from the land your feet walk upon.
I would like to learn better how to live yearly with the rhythms of storing mass local foods using these ancient, soulful, & healthful methods such as sun-drying. But I am a long way off.
Because, right after this perfectly sunny week, the weather shifted to 10 straight days of rain and almost total cloud cover. Typical of Summers in the South, when any dried herbs or plant material not stored air tight bloom with mildew and spoil. (It can happen to my fur hides too. Some of you are aware of my yearly freak outs about this in simple off grid living). So much of my drying greens & herbs went bad this week.
My first thought of a better method to sun dry mulberries in a land-direct way, would be to dry them on large rectangular woven cattail mats, raised above the ground on wooden stakes or on a wooden frame. With hides or fabrics or some other material thrown over the berries every evening to protect them from the night's dew, and then removed every morning. Underneath these hoisted cattail drying mats could be small smoke fires to deter the flies.
In unrelenting rainy weather though, Summer food drying would need some much better solution. Perhaps within covered earthen structures. Which, no doubt, the many indigenous peoples who lived North and South throughout the Eastern forests knew, and practiced, possibly for 30,000 or more years. Methods which, like hide tanning, have not so clearly survived with these oppressed communities to today. Neither did the detail & nuance of these methods survive into ethnobotanical record. Because European male conquerors, colonizers, and botanists did not see, feel, and understand the invaluable value of such a common and holy thing.
// Tallow Candles in 90s degree Summer heat //
I am in love with tallow candles. I am constantly in awe of how perfectly they work, and how utterly simple they are to make. I say this as someone who normally invests hundreds and thousands of hours into landscape direct crafts (like hide tanning, fiber processing, and dyes) that can end in constant failure, troubleshooting, & the need to perpetually return to the re-imagination stage in order to make garments & materials that really work.
Tallow candles are not like that. They work. As perfectly as any candle should. No real learning curve about it. You just pour hot rendered fat into a container & place a wick into it (held in place somehow) until the fat cools & hardens.
This is the first time I have kept & daily used tallow candles in 90s degree Summer weather. I had wondered if they might get too liquidy, & the wicks sink or otherwise become difficult to burn. I was pleasantly surprised that in the shade (but still stifling afternoon heat) of my wall tent, all my tallow candles remained solid. The deer tallow candles behave just the same as the cow tallow candles. They're essentially indistinguishable. All the wicks are wood nettle bast fibers (Laportea canadensis), hand twined simply as you would make cordage, from the short waste scraps of my processing of wood nettle fibers this past Winter for spinning.
People have asked me before whether you could make dipped taper candles from tallow. I'm sure you can, but I honestly don't think tallow is meant to be this way. Because they would much more easily soften & deform in hot weather. They would also be more unnecessarily labor intensive to make. With tallow poured into a container (any container), the slight softening of the fat in high heat isn't of any consequence. I use small scrap glass jars. Willa Moore, who was recently visiting here for Summer hide camp, reminded me that small bark baskets (the square folded kind with no seams on the bottom) would be great for tallow candles. An old partner of mine also once showed me years ago, a candle he had made by carving out a little bowl into a large dried polypore mushroom.
So there it is. Tallow candles used all the way into the heat of Summer work great. I also don't mind if tallow candles go a little rancid. When burning, I don't notice any real difference in smell. I'm almost never making candles out of good fat anyway. All good fat I save for eating. Candles I make from fat that is too smelly from bloated gut juice to be appetizing, or overly freezer burned, or things like that.
I've noticed this season that I am using my lanterns much less at night, because I'm always reaching instead for the tallow candles.
// Bloodroot for Armpit Fungus //
This past Winter I was finally visited by the dreaded armpit fungus. The orangey-yellow kind that looks like very tiny lumps amassing at the base of the hairs in the armpit, gradually spreading along the length of the hair. Mine was also accompanied by a persistent bad smell, even right after washing.
Apparently this is called trichomycosis axillaris or trichobacteriosis. Anyway, while living with others who've had it, I had somehow up until this point been blessed to have avoided it. I attribute it's arrival perhaps to the menacing anxiety and panic episodes I was plagued by (which in stress probably kept my armpits more damp than usual), combined with Winter's lack of sun.
I tried scrubbing several times a day with soap and water, washing my armpits several times a day with isopropyl alcohol, and also by dabbing my armpits liberally with black walnut tincture combined with a little bit of bloodroot. None of these things worked. Black walnut husk was my first herbal idea, not only because it's antifungal but also because it's such an abundant and readily available herb (I usually make too much tincture every year). I added a little bit of bloodroot tincture to it as an afterthought. This mixture stained the yellow armpit fungus brown, but didn't seem to do enough to remove it.
After struggling with this for several weeks, I tried simply applying 100% bloodroot tincture, several times a day or whenever I thought of it. Amazingly, this completely cleared up the stubborn fungus after only a few days. A couple of weeks later and there was still absolutely no sign of it or regrowth. I have to say, I'm impressed.
Since then, I've been using the bloodroot tincture as a preventative, dabbing some on whenever, every couple of weeks, my armpits start to get a little bit of persistent odorousness that remains even right after washing. Which happens, working outside most of every day in Virginia's sweltering heat & humidity, drenched in sweat, splashed by kicked milk buckets, rangling goats, & shoveling & stepping in cow poop, goat poop, & rabbit poop like it's my business.
I don't normally strive to encourage the use of slow growing woodland plants with sensitive populations as medicines. Like bloodroot, cohosh, goldenseal, ginseng, etc. I prefer to focus on other plants with similar herbal actions. But in this case, I have to admit that bloodroot has been perfect for this job.
The tincture I used was a low dose fresh root tincture made according to the formula of Patricia Kyritsi Howell in her book Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians. I had made, to my memory, nearly a half gallon of this tincture four years ago while having to carefully dig out bloodroot, amidst a whole mountain of bloodroot, from the small spot where I was planning to build a stone hut on 40 acres on the Southern border of North Carolina. I made good use of the precious blood root harvest at the time, including mailing out live roots for propagation, drying a lot, tincturing a lot, and studying the book Cancer Salves: A Botanical Approach to Treatment, by Ingrid Naiman.
Patricia Howell's formula, which is intended as a low dose tincture for internal use, is 1:10 fresh root, in 50% alc.
So there you go, a herbal solution to help me and others not perpetuate the fetishization of womanhood with pre-pubescent children's bodies by becoming hairless as a babe. Womanness is about ugliness, rawness, rage, strength, power, & wildness too. These are the things that make beauty powerful & whole. Our whole culture has forgotten this. Just as it wants nature's sweetness & ease, without her ferocity, coldness, heat, mosquitos, ticks, shit, blood, green gut juice, maggots, & stench.
June 28, 2020