When Nature’s Cupboard is Bare

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I don’t learn do I. How many times have I told people to listen to their bodies?Yet, the ‘cold’ that I’ve had for two weeks and been ignoring, pressing on with work, hoping it will go away, hasn’t gone. Half three this morning, I wake feeling rotten, and coughing up copious amounts of dark, yellow-green phlegm – in plugs. Yuck. Got back to sleep and woke up mid morning feeling worse – and more yellow-green snot. Had a listen to my chest, and it sounded like a bowl of rice crispies. Snap, crackle, and pop. Yuck. A proper resp infection.

So, I defaulted to mushrooms. They’re easy to use at times like this. 3 reasonable sized dried Blushing Brackets (Daedaleopsis confragrosa), and three strips of dried Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) in a litre of water, decocted until water has reduced by half. Drank a cup every two hours and had the decoction going all day.

By bedtime (5 AM!) I’m feeling better but still a bit shit… Snot now clear. Blushing Brackets really do seen to work like antibiotics. I’ve used them a few times, and the results have been spectacular both times. I save using them for when I really need them – there could be resistance issues. I suppose this breaks the herbal ethos a bit – using natural medicines like pharmaceuticals, when I should have rested and strengthened my immune system weeks ago. But at the moment I don’t care… I’m just glad to be feeling better!

‘Diary’ entry from my dispensary notebook, 23rd November 2018.

When Nature’s Cupboard is Bare

Vivid blushing bracket

A stump covered in exceedingly vivid coloured Blushing Bracket at their absolute best! This is what I was hoping to find on my walk…

The next afternoon, I’m feeling better, but still taking the decoction. A bit like antibiotics, I think it’s prudent to take a ‘course’ of a few days worth to make sure that the infection has well and truly gone. Unfortunately, yesterday saw me down to my last 6 or 7 dried Blushing Brackets. Oh dear. Today I’ve run out. They’re a funny fungus really; they grow almost exclusively on Willow, which is pretty much a dominant tree in the bottom of our valley. And, as there are a lot of fallen Willow branches here, we’re never usually short of them. 2016 was a bumper Autumn for mushrooms and fungi of all kinds, and I got good stocks of almost everything. Last year wasn’t as good, but still reasonable. I still had a large bag of dried Blushing Bracket so I didn’t bother to pick any more – there was no need and I had other things to concentrate on. Now I find myself running out.

Blushing Bracket are at the peak of their fruiting here between the end of October and the end of January. So they should be at their absolute peak now. Knowing that there are a lot of fallen willow trees across a stream only quarter of a mile from my house, I wrapped up and headed off into the late afternoon sunshine to pick some more. There are bound to be an abundance after all, and a bit of fresh air would do me good… I walk along the path, looking for the abundance of rusty-brown brackets that usually cling to any dead Willow wood within reach. Not a single one. I walk further along until I find a promising looking log, hiding by the path. Yes, that’s it! I walk up to the log, and find… brackets that are definitely a bit past it. They look like the brackets I dried two years ago… but a bit more weather beaten. I can’t make up my mind if they’re last year’s leftovers that have been sitting on the log since then, or fruited earlier this year and have now gone a bit ‘past it’. No matter, I harvest a small basket full, 20-odd brackets, and return home – thankful that I found some and can make more of my decoction, it’s better than nothing.

I feel slightly stunned. Something so ‘common’ should be out after all! It sets me thinking back to the Summer, and Autumn. It’s not been a terribly good year for fungi here… it was a hot summer, but still a surprisingly cool, dry Autumn, and many fungi either didn’t appear or fruited quickly and aggressively, over the blink of an eye; for they like warm, moist Autumns more than anything. I also sets me thinking about my short-sightedness in gathering when I had the chance last Autumn. I suppose, at the time I thought that gathering more of something I didn’t need would likely lead to wastage of something I might not use, and take valuable time… …And here I am, caught out.

We herbalists often like to think of ourselves as potential saviours of everyone’s health in the event of an ‘apocalypse’ – the collapse of modern healthcare, breakdown of society, or even just the pharmaceuticals stopping working. There is an element of truth in this. We are well placed indeed should something like that happen – we have the skills and materia medica to fall back on should we need to. But for a few hundred yards, I walked – confused, terrified even that nature could have ‘let me down’ like this. But it didn’t. My own opportunity to stock the dispensary appropriately let me down.

Nature doesn’t have any obligation to provide us with anything – it merely provides opportunities, which we can take and use to survive – live, and live well even alongside and in balance with everything else in nature’s creation.

Yet here I was thinking ‘if I can’t find what I need, I’m going to have to go to the embuggerance of going to the GP, to get antibiotics… which are mainly copies of compounds found in the very fungi I’m out looking for’. I would have to fall back… not on nature, but on the path most travelled – of going and getting a pill. The thought fills me with some sense of revulsion.

But it is an emotion that needs meditation, and a subject that requires some thought. Neither my bees, or the field mouse that also scuttles through the hedgerow foraging decide to just ‘let is slip’ and pass up the opportunity to make sure their stores are as full as possible. They work, hard, to ensure that they have what they need. I didn’t. So there is a gentle reminder, that opportunities need to be taken whenever they arise.

The incident also serves as a reminder that, with ever greater fluctuations in our weather, and deviance from the ‘norm’ becoming our new state of normality, that we are going to have to be flexible. Things will get more extreme, and nature may become less dependable. It is essential that we all take the opportunities when they present, and learn to be more flexible. As nature becomes less flexible, we must. Or face snapping like a dry twig.

Many lessons learned… …And even if I hadn’t got my brackets, at least I was privy to seeing winter skies turn to fire while listening to the babble of a river, and harvesting a moment – a reflection – and a beautiful photograph to share with others.

River Llyfni Winter

Yr Afon Llyfni at dusk looking towards a fiery sunset over Yr Eifl.

Categories: Reflections, The Wheel of the Year, Thoughts From the Herbary

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Rachel says:

Reminds me of two permaculture principles ‘catch and store energy’ and ‘creatively use and respond to change’. Hope you feel better soon, and stop earlier next time!

Herbary says:

Or, prephrased, gather and store herbs when able and use what you have innovatively. The use and respond to change is a must I suppose! And things are certainly changing here…

Seems to have been a good year for the mushroom family here – various on tree stumps and popping up on the woodchips between the raised beds. Hope the mycorrhizal ones are doing as well. Not found any magic ones though!
Glad to hear you’re feeling a bit better.

Herbary says:

You did mention the stump! I should really pop up and have a chat when I’m better… it’s been a while! (Mad, strange year…)

Ingvarr says:

Beautifully written. Thank you. Blushing brackets are not well known here in Slovenia, at least to me, to be honest.. But I felt that they are important healing ones. Exploring deeper I go.

Maybe just…, on the next occasion of a similar mystical medicine stock scarcity, which I hope does not happen to any of us for a long time of course, we can remember the good old garlic… Surely more desirable and kind to the body than most synthetic aids..

Sunny greetings:)

Herbary says:

Hi Ingvarr!

Glad you liked the post – and hope you enjoy some of my other writings too. I am comitting to returning to blogging more often!

To be honest, Blushing brackets aren’t one of the medicinal mushrooms that has a lot of ‘buzz’ about them – but I have found them to have useful immune-stimulating and possibly anti-microbial activities. The area I live in is mostly young woodland – less than 50 years as the valley was heavily industrialised until the 1970s – so I have to make do with what we have growing here. And we have a lot of 40-50 year old willow trees that get covered with Blushing Brackets when they fall. So I learnt to use them!

I hope we don’t have a scarcity of medicines – herbal or conventional too! But it’s always good to have alternatives. The events of this post did lead me to be a lot more considerate that nature isn’t a shop and doesn’t always have what we need in stock… so (without taking too much) I’m far more aware of keeping good stores for lean times.

Ah yes… a garden (or medicine chest!) without garlic is a poorer one indeed. It is extremely useful. Stand by for my next post in a week or so on making Onion and Elecampane syrup!

Greetings from a grey and muddy North Wales!

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