Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Apple Farm School And Restoring A Garden

A thoughtful Lord Firestar in the garden

Without me deliberately intending to get back in full-groove homeschooling (it is after all, only mid-August!), the rhythm of Apple Farm School (how we are registered in California) is well underway.

Constant to our daily life (homeschooling or not) is hours spent outside with our chickens and plants. Here in the suburbs that means our backyard. We're blessed to have a mature garden, with diverse shrubs, trees, and herbs in this small space, which attracts some lively wildlife: the shy gray-brown towhees scrabbling in the leaf-litter, hummingbirds, squirrels, the bold and brash raccoons, a little woodpecker whose name I have yet to learn, jays, crows. This morning I even heard the raspy sounds of Raven somewhere in the neighborhood. It's not total asphalt and buildings around here!

In our backyard, I read aloud each day. Gradually this summer, our reading time has been preceded by work on penmanship. We work with the Italic Manuscript Series, a system that offers a graceful, clear printing style that morphs gently into its cursive version. We don't have to learn a whole new style when learning cursive. We all work on our own books: my younger daughter with the first in the series, my older daughter and me on the last of the series (suitable for adults).

Our outdoor reading is currently the children's classic, The Secret Garden by Frances H. Burnett. We all love it -- delighting in the impassioned characters (the tantrums are a big hit), the magic of the garden as it transforms and as it transforms the children ... there is so much to enjoy in this book. As a nature mentor, I appreciate the book all the more for its beautiful depiction of the how immersion in one's senses and in the natural world, and connecting with the natural world has everything to do with connecting with oneself and bringing us into a joyful, fullness of being that literally transforms the lives of those around us.

The magic within The Secret Garden led us to look at our own garden with renewed eyes. First we dug up the seeds we'd collected from our farm last year before we moved (way more than I'd remembered collecting!). We stuffed seeds into the spare corners of three large pots I already have going with stinging nettle, kale, calendula, lemon balm, rosemary, raspberry, spearmint, chives. To all these, we've add bantam corn (!), sunflowers (!), California and Shirley poppies, and who knows what all. The girls love to plant seeds. It was at this point we determined it was time to restore some of the garden so that we could actually dig the soil and plant there -- theoretically a better location for a number of the seeds we'd shoved into those pots.

Well, the ground is solid hardpan clay. No topsoil. I don't know how the plants that are here actually thrive, because the soil is awful. So we've been banging away at a patch of ground with a hoe and shovel, spraying the dusty earth with water (and then spraying ourselves and have a general great time with water), and adding some compost. In two days, the patch (about 5' x 5') looks a lot more inviting, but not yet yummy enough or deeply enriched enough in which to plant. I need to feel as if I was gazing at and plunging my hands into a pan of the most delicious chocolate cake batter!

Okay, so that's the beginning of our garden. Our homeschooling, to me, is grounded first and foremost in a healthy lively family rhythm, complete with working with and tending to the things that nourish us. That includes shared household tasks, planning nourishing meals, growing our own food and herbs when we can, or at least using well good veggies and herbs that we find. In the food realm, I'm finally back in stride with this, having the girls help me plan meals for the week (and prepare them, of course). This week, we've been using Molly Katzen's Honest Pretzels for inspiration.

Smoothie Digresssion: Yesterday I concocted my favorite smoothie to date. First, I made a decoction of burdock root, dried elder berries, a little allspice, cloves, and orange peel. Then we blended strawberries, blueberries, whole milk vanilla yogurt, banana, and cinnamon. We added the decoction as the liquid. Yummy! Healthful too.

Back to homeschooling:

Our homeschooling has been different each year. In past years when the girls attended a lovely children's program two or three days a week, our style was mostly unschooling. In the past few years -- especially as we've been in transition -- we've shifted to a relaxed homeschooling approach. I find that having a more overt homeschooling lends our lives a beneficial rhythm and a purposeful nature, especially since we don't have a farm right now, or other regularly scheduled activities (classes, group activities, etc.). Unschooling-to-relaxed homeschooling worked very well for us on Vashon Island, when we were in the midst of a very active community and farm life. In our transitional state (the months preceding our move off the island, our ten months in Oregon, our temporary home here in California) working more overtly on subjects (rather than "coyote mentoring" with them as they come up naturally in our work and play in our days/weeks) helps stitch our days together in a pleasant way.

Having ordered the Second Grade Curriculum from Christopherus (Waldorf-inspired homeschooling resources) for my younger daughter, I've dug out our First Grade Curriculum, and have launched into the final lessons blocks of the book. Last spring, Andy had taken on up homeschooling the girls, using resources that appeal to his style and nature: The McGuffey's Eclectic Readers, and some Mathematics and Grammar books, also from that era (19th century). That certainly works great for him and the girls. I have a different style -- and the imaginative, artistic, holistic perspective of Waldorf (especially via Christopherus) works very well for me when I work with Gwynne.

My older daughter, being 15, is in a different sphere. Here what she and I do is discussion and reading at the center, and moving out from there. She directs a lot of her own learning. Anyone who has doubts about unschooling can have those doubts assuaged by seeing teen unschooling in action! My daughter has fully-developed passions and interests which have led her to all kinds of in-depth learning in an array of areas: biology, animal husbandry, writing, math, electronics, .... What Andy and I do with our daughter is support her passions (and offer our own skills/knowledge in relationship to those interests) and offer "unit studies" (we don't call them that -- but other homeschoolers would) on different topics we think she might do well to have in her knowledge-and-experience tool-kit, or that we just think are fun and cool :-). As a former English major I find literature to be cool and fun, so from The Secret Garden, we'll move into reading Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (I'm intrigued by similar motifs in all three of these books!). From there, we might move on to a unit study of Comedy & Tragedy ... Or perhaps Jane Eyre will inspire an excursion into a different realm ....

I've had a number of parents of young children talk to me recently about homeschooling, and what I can say here is that homeschooling can be very idiosyncratic! It can look and feel quite different from family to family, reflecting the values, passions, and style of each family. I call what we do "homeschooling", but honestly, love of learning, self-directed learning, and sharing our learning is so much a part of who we are as a family that I almost don't regard "homeschooling" as a separate subject in our lives (i.e., what we do instead of school). If anything, I use the term "homeschooling" as a marker: designating particular sorts of foci in particular points in a day, just like we have meal-times, or chicken time or clean up or chore time (or time on the computer!). Learning, of course, takes place anytime (okay, I couldn't resist writing something so corny & cheesy :-)!!!).

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Simpling My Life

Listening to the last audio in's Think Like An Herbalist course taught by Heather Nic an Fhleisdeir, I was struck by the notion that the whole thrust of my life in the past few years has been an attempt at creating a Simple. What's a Simple? Creating a medicine (be it an infusion, tincture, what have you) using a single herb. That sounds simple, but actually, a great deal can go into the process of choosing that one herb. You might (as Heather suggests) indulge in creating a list of gripes and complaints about your health, then list all the herbs you have available that would assuage those complaints, then circle three herbs that resolve the most complaints on the list. Then see which herb of which you have an abundance. You might choose that one herb as your Simple, because there are no coincidences. If you have an abundance of it, it may be a kind of "pick me, pick me!" or a "calm waiting for you to notice". (this is my interpretation of Heather's words!). Anyway, choosing a Simple is a personal and individual process. Two people with lists of similar complaints are likely to choose two different herbs as their Simple.

Okay, so I'm going about with my list in a mixed-up way. One thing I notice is the abundance of Rose in my garden, and in my jars (vinegar, tincture, dried ...). Notice, too, this bread which I made recently:

I used hand-ground spelt ...

And added rose petals and a bit of lavender from the garden, and some dried calendula and dried nettles.

Okay, the mix of herbs is not "simple" -- but I'd have to say, that if any herb speaks as a Simple in my life right now, it would have to be Rose.

So, my thought is: okay, backwards is fine. How about listing my complaints now, and then researching Rose absolutely thoroughly. With which systems of the body does Rose work her magic? What, where, when, why, how does she work? Is there something about Rose that might soothe my achy wrists and shoulder? (too much typing) I've never heard/read of Rose working in this way, but what if certain qualities of Rose might be just what I need -- a Rose salve for instance? The Rose might inspire me to -- ah, slow down and smell the roses (so I spend less time on the computer, and less time furiously pecking away at the keyboard). But some aspects might be particularly soothing and healing to my body in other ways ....

A trail of thought, reflection, research, and experience to follow ....

Anyway, back to the idea of "Simpling my Life". I realize that actually a huge amount of reflection, experience, research, living is bundled up into a Simple, and there lies its potency -- because the herb is just right, just what you need, the perfect ally. In the past years of shedding many possessions, sifting through my passions, moving home a few times, it has been about finding the one place, the one expression of art and purpose that bundles all-that-I-am, that nourishes my entire system, and allows me to offer my self in my most potent fashion. How far do I carry the metaphor of Simple? The answer: as far as is useful. In the end it's an intriguing exercise of thought, and perhaps practice. I might do well to attend as well to the art of creating effective Formulas (using a few herbs together), and see what light this shines on who, what, how, why, I can live my most soulful, purposeful life.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Lovely Pres. Lincoln, Salve, and More

Here's a President Lincoln rose. Lovely, yes?

Today I checked on my various rose mixes. My rose petal vinegar has a delightful bouquet. My rose petals tinctured in kirsch smell yummy. My yarrow tinctured in vodka has an intriguing spicey smell (in a good way). My cottonwood buds collected this past spring in olive oil have an, um, unusual smell. Not rancid, but ... I screw the lid back on and shove the jar back into the pantry, to inspect again later. Perhaps the trees I'd collected these buds from hadn't been Black Cottonwood ... Hm.

On the other hand: I open the jar containing my Black Cottonwood buds in olive oil, collected on Vashon Island in 2007. Wow, luscious. The buds have been there for two years! I take a small jar, shave some beeswax, filling the jar a quarter way. Then I pour the beeswax into a sauce pan, and gently melt the wax I pour some of the Black Cottonwood oil through cheese cloth, filling the jar 3/4s of the way, then add the filtered oil to the melted beeswax. After mixing it, I turn off the heat, pop a spoon into the mix, then put the spoonful into the freezer and leave it for a few minutes. When I check the consistency of the salve, I find it is just right. Hurrah! Last time I made Black Cottonwood salve (a couple of years ago), I'd added too much beeswax.

Back to the saucepan. I turn on the heat enough to warm the salve some more, and melt the salve from the spoon. Pour the salve into the jar. The salve now sits on the counter til it cools completely, then I'll screw on the lid and stash it away. I've tried some of the salve, and boy does it have a warm, delicious feel. And the scent -- mmmm!! My Balm Of Gilead salve is a success!