Thursday, January 20, 2011

learning herbs: in the forest with darcy

one of the coolest things jason and i did in mccall last week was visit darcy williamson and participate in her “apprentice wednesday.”

darcy is a brilliant herbalist and forager living in mccall. i’ve been wanting to meet her ever since i saw her website and this food and wine magazine article on morel hunting (“good morels”--seriously, give it a read, it’s such a cute story.) jason is friends with a few of her apprentices and was eager to meet her, too.

so, wednesday morning we got up early and headed up the road toward new meadows and, in the midst of a heavy snowstorm, we climbed the unplowed, winding roads of a tall hill to reach her house. then we drove down, then part way up again, then we were informed we’d picked the wrong hill. down again and across highway 55 we found the right hill, drove up that one and eventually found darcy’s tucked-away house and neighboring studio.

greeting us were chatty birds by the treeful—mostly steller’s jays. we made our way to the studio, a roomy structure with a tall ceiling and big, bright windows, lined with shelves full of tinctures and soaps and the various other products darcy and her interns create. in the middle of the room is a long table with products in various stages of production, and on the near wall is a lending library with what looks like every book ever written on mushrooms, wild foods, foraging, wildflowers, herbs, herbal healing and so on.

darcy herself has written a multitude of books--two dozen so far. before we left on our trip i checked out one of them from the boise library, “the rocky mountain wild foods cookbook.” each of the 28 chapters features a different wild edible that can be found here, with a drawing for identification, brief article on its history, characteristics and healing properties followed by a number of different recipes and treatments for using it.

almost as soon as we walked in the door we were assigned a task: collecting branches from a pair of grand fir trees to make fir hydrosol. hydrosol (or essential water) is a byproduct of the distillation process when making essential oil. rose water is a common example. hydrosol made from the needles of fir trees is used to treat SAD (seasonal affective disorder). more on all this in a minute.

jason strapped on a pair of snowshoes for the first time, waddled out into the forest and started trimming branches while i watched and photographed and made friends with a pair of playful doggies.

once he’d harvested enough to fill a large trash bag we went back inside, sat down on the floor and started stripping needles from the branches.

it was tedious work, but fun! we both enjoy repetitive, meditative tasks that don’t take any brainpower, so we happily plucked away. our hands smelled AMAZING. while we plucked, more and more apprentices joined the party.

i knew one of the apprentices, a woman named claire who i interviewed for an article on the mccall community gardens. we didn’t get around to meeting everyone there, but we did talk to some cool people: a local artist named gail who’s one of the kindest, friendliest people i’ve met in years, and a very sweet woman named des (not sure if i’m spelling that correctly--it’s short for desiree) who owns and operates a farm and brings her homeschooled kids with her to learn from darcy.

eventually darcy asked one of her senior apprentices to explain the apprentice program to us: basically you complete eight wednesdays of work, learn how to harvest and/or make every type of product they sell (tinctures, soaps, teas, hydrosols, essential oils, capsules, native seeds, etc.), and learn pretty much everything there is to know about eight different herbs and what to do with them. then there’s a graduation ceremony and you’re made a senior apprentice, and after that every hour of work counts as an $8 credit toward product and darcy will help you start up and sell your own line of products.

jason and i are trying to work out a plan for this program. we want to start in spring, when the focus is much more about going out and sustainably harvesting plants and mushrooms from the forest rather than working indoors. she takes her apprentices on educational walks and picnics--how fun and fascinating would that be? so we’re thinking we’ll go about every other week, switch off driving, maybe drive up tuesday night and stay at the cabin then drive back down wednesday night. i hope we can work it out--it’s such a special opportunity to learn from this woman.

we already started discussing what kind of products we’d have in our lines. jason’s very interested in healing, so he would do tinctures and other products with a medicinal focus. i would be more into in making lotions, soaps, lip balms and the like.

once we finished stripping all the branches, the fir leaves were dumped into this distillation machine.

it’s not all the way set up in this photo, but you can see the little spout--there’s one spout for essential oil and another for hydrosol. all those needles will only add up to about 16oz of hydrosol and just a few teensy-tiny vials of oil. makes you appreciate how much work goes into these products.

the distilling machine is pretty neat. there’s a separate heating unit underneath the main chamber, so it can be used on top of a woodstove if the power goes out. i believe the first tank is similar to a pressure cooker, then the middle tank is full of water for cooling and condensing the liquids as they make their way out the spout.

the grand fir hydrosol we helped make wouldn’t be finished for a few days, but darcy gave us a bottle of balsam fir hydrosol to take home. we opened our mouths like baby birds and she squirted a few drops for us to try. it smells like fresh snow on a pine tree and tastes like bright winter sunshine.

later we went downstairs to talk to jill, another senior apprentice who’s been there for years and knows just about all there is to know about everything. she showed us around the room where they store huge vodka bottles full of tinctures, bags and jars full of dried herbs and buckets full of mushrooms.

she explained to us that one reason a lot of commercial herbal remedies don’t work is because the people who create them don’t know the first rule of herbal medicine, which is to avoid combining substances that are alkaline with those that are tannic. i guess they cancel each other out.

one of the services darcy’s company provides is collecting specimens for research laboratories, especially european ones.

these buckets are full of polypore mushrooms, very hard, dry fungi that remind me of horse’s hooves. jill showed us two different types: red belted and artist’s conk. they contain substances that are being studied in cancer research.

artist’s conks are so awesome. she told us people sometimes carve them, so i looked up pictures online. here’s a cool one. here’s another, with info on engraving the mushrooms. i’d like to find one of these for myself and art it up.

before leaving the studio we did a little shopping. both of us picked out a bar of this fantastic ponderosa pine sap soap. the scent is so fresh and intense. jason also grabbed a couple packets of herbal smoking blend and a bottle of pain reliever. when we took everything to darcy to see how much we owed her, she looked at it, nodded and was like, “ok, you earned it.” i already thought it was way generous of her to give us the hydrosol, but all that, wow.

while we were there i had the opportunity to do a brief interview with her about huckleberries. i’m writing a story on them and i knew she’d be the best source. i learned there are six different varieties in the mccall area, learned some of the best places to look for them, and she told me all about the medicinal properties. turns out the berries are good for combating macular degeneration, and the leaves (steeped as tea) are good for managing blood sugar in people with diabetes. that only scratches the surface of what we talked about...she’s so knowledgeable it blows my mind.


the Knottie Knitta said...

oh wow, spoony! how fun! you'll have to let me know if you learn anything interesting for pain for ang to try :)

GoneferalinID said...

Wow, she reminds me of a real life fictional character from "The Clan of the Cave Bear". I'd love to learn some of her knowledge.

Emily said...

spoon--i was thinking of that too. i bet darcy would have some ideas for treatments. jason has a certain oil he thinks ang should try (i think you know the one i'm talking about.)

goneferal--you should come with us to apprentice wednesday sometime!

Tammi Thiele said...

That sounds like alot of fun! Wish we had something like that around here.

Emily said...

yeah, i feel really lucky to have this opportunity so close by.

be said...

oh man, i totally want to go do this! my friend bonnie was just telling me about her the other day!