Friday, June 26, 2009

Gifts from the Mother

The new moon in June this year marks the beginning of the Mother's Moon. The neo-pagan and Wiccan traditions the Mother is the unconditionally loving Goddess, the source of all fertility and all growth. She provides for her children, the plants, animals and people of the earth, and cares for us on a daily basis. She has many names and many faces, but she is the Mother who brings life to our planet.

I probably first heard about a mother goddess through the novels of Jean Auel and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Bradley's The Mists of Avalon is a re-telling of the King Arthur story from the point of view of the women in his life. The narrator of the story is Arthur's sister, Morgaine, who is brought up in the Goddess tradition of ancient Britain. Auel's Children of the Earth series is set in prehistoric Europe and her main characters travel the breadth of the continent meeting different groups of people who all share a reverence for the Great Mother. Both are fictional but based on archeology and legend as much as is possible. Both served as inspiration to a young woman who felt drawn towards "god" but had no reasonable images of the divine in her own life.

One thing that struck me about Jean Auel's books in particular is how the people she describes live completely off the gifts of the Mother. These are people who, like all pre-industrial people, collect all of their food, shelter, tools and everything else they use or own from natural materials. There was no option to go to the hardware store or grocery store, you had to make, find or build everything you ever used. Envisioning the divine as an ever providing Mother seems only natural to people who live this way.

In college I read a book for a class called Salmon Without Rivers by Jim Lichatowich that explored the indigenous salmon cultures of the Pacific Northwest. The Chinook people of the lower Columbia River were shrewd traders and had relative material wealth when compared to many other groups in the area. In fact, Lewis and Clark were not fond of the Chinook people because they felt them to be greedy and a bit too clever. Really, their culture was more like that of Europe than any other Native group they had met so far. They were too much like the traders of European influneced America. Lichatowich notes that there was a fundamental difference between the Chinook economic system and that of the European and American capitalists.

The Native people worked in what he calls a gift economy, while we work in an economy of extracting wealth. The Chinook understood that the salmon and beads they traded, along with every other material good they had, were a gift to them from the Earth and that gift requires an equal exchange in the future. They were not free to extract that "resource" from the Earth with no repayment, and they were not free to exploit other people or their goods. They could use them, but that use came with a price, with a debt.

The Pacific Northwest tradition of a potlatch is a tangible example of this philosophy. From our Euro-centric view a potlatch seems to be simply an act of great generosity but in reality each gift given at a potlatch must be repayed, in equal value, in the future. The potlatch is both a display of wealth and a binding of community members through indebtedness. Members of these tribes would keep tally of blindlingly complex webs of indebtedness but the ultimate indebtedness was to the Earth, the ultimate source of all wealth.

I too aspire to live off the gifts of the Mother, however difficult that may be in our capitalist, consumerist, industrial society. The Goddess is still here, still providing for us, but in some very real ways we have forgotten how to recieve those gifts. Another fantastic mentor and inspiration of mine is Riana of These Days in French Life. She has worked hard over the years to create a life without money. She gardens, forages, dumpster dives, barters and creates. At first it seemed so easy for her and so hard for me, after all, she lives in the south of France. She has wild tangerine, almond, loquat and lemon trees in addition to a wide variety of herbs and a fantastic growing season for vegetables. The more I looked around my environment the more edible plants I identified. I started dabbling in foraging last summer and learned to identify a number of plants that I have actually collected and used this season.

Last week I made a meal out of foraged grape leaves stuffed with beef and rice. The beef and rice were not wild harvested (I need to learn me how to hunt next!) but plenty else in the dish is.

Wild Stuffed Grape Leaves

1/3 lb ground beef
1 tbs goose fat or other cooking fat if necessary
A handful of green onions (home grown)
1/2 tbp chopped peppermint (wild foraged)
1/4 tsp dried dill (home grown)
salt and pepper
2/3 cup rice
1/3 cup canned tomatoes (home grown and home canned) diced with their liquid
1 cup chicken stock (homemade) or water
1/4 cup raisins (wild grown and home dried)
1/4 cup chopped almonds
12 young grape leaves the size of your hand (wild harvested)

  • Trim the stems from the grape leaves with scissors or a sharp knife. Pile six leaves together and dunk them in boiling water, holding them with your tongs, until they change color to a darker, almost olivey green. Take them out and rinse them under cold water. Repeat with the second batch. You want to hold onto them because you want them to stay whole and not tear. Handle them carefully before and after blanching.
  • Cook up the ground beef along with the onion, salt, pepper, and dill. Add more fat to the pan if it's looking dry and add the rice to the pan. Stir and cook until the rice is coated in oil and starting to look a little translucent around the edges. Add the tomatoes, mint, rasins and almonds and liquid and stir to combine. Bring rice mixture to a boil, turn the heat down to a simmer and cover.
  • Cook approximately 20 minutes until the rice is cooked, but the contents are still a little wet. Turn out onto a plate or shallow bowl so it can cool a little.
  • Lay one grape leaf down on your work surface shiny side down. Add about 2-3 tbs of filling on the "palm" of your grape leaf in a little rectangle or log shape. Fold the bottom of the grape leaf over the filling, then the two sides in. Then roll the filling into the leaf as tightly as you can without ripping the leaf or spilling the filling. Lay the filled leaf, seam side down, in a bamboo steamer basket and continue to fill the rest of the leaves.
  • When they are all filled and in the steamer place over boiling water and steam for just a few minutes to heat through. Serve warm or room temperature, as is or with a yogurt sauce.
It feels so freeing to eat a meal of wild harvested greens and fruit and know that the only debt you owe is to the Mother herself. How do you fully take advantage of the gifts of the Mother? How do you honor those gifts and the gifts of other people's skills and time? What have you been growing or collecting this seasons?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Summer Solstice Fishing Extravaganza!

Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year, and one of the most widely celebrated earth holidays around the world. People who use the sun for a clock and a calendar throughout the world watch as the sun seems to move further north in the sky every day between mid winter and mid summer. On mid summer's day the sun seems to stand still before beginning it's move back south towards the winter solstice. Summer solstice is also the day of the longest daylight and generally mild weather throughout the northern hemisphere.

Just like for the winter solstice and the equinoxes I make a point to celebrate the longest day of the year by waking up for the sunrise. This year I had an especially important reason to wake up for the 5:30 am sunrise - I was going fishing!

A student as the school I work at is a charter boat captain during the summer. He offered me and a friend a trip on his boat and I said yes! My friend David and I drove down to Garibaldi, a town on the Northern Oregon Coast on Friday night and pitched a tent at a campground about 10 minutes north of town. We were lulled to sleep by the roaring of the ocean and the whisper of wind in the shore pines. The cell phone alarms went off at the absurd hour of 4:45am and I laid in my sleeping bag for a few minutes listening to the birds. The sky was still quite dark and it was that fantastic hour of the morning chorus. I was thrilled to hear my favorite birdsong, the varied thrush. It's a woody flute like, spiraling sound that has always sounded like fairy music to me.

It only took us a few minutes to pack up camp and get down to the docks in time for the 5:30 check in. It was a cloudy morning but the sky was distinctly lighter as we headed out of the Tillamook Bay into the Pacific Ocean. Once the sun came up over the coastal mountains there was a few minutes of sunshine on the water and clouds. How magical!

The magic only lasted a few minutes, unfortunately, as my increasing nausea crested along with the sun slipping back behind the clouds. The boat was roomy enough for the dozen adults on board, but still a very small thing in a very large ocean. Once we got to the fishing grounds I gave in and fed the fishes before casting my first line. Apparently all those years of drinking in college have finally paid off and I was fine with getting sick and then getting right back to fishing. I've always been a trooper like that.

We were fishing for rockfish, a bottom dwelling group of fish that are generally not terribly pretty to look at. My first catch was a canary rockfish, an exception to that rule. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to keep the pretty orange fish but I quickly pulled out another rockfish that I could keep. As the day went by my seasickness did not really diminish but neither did my enthusiasm for fishing. The highlight of the day was when I pulled a humongous, 30 inch ling cod out of the ocean. I promptly named him Fred and started daydreaming about how I was going to prepare him for eating.

The day was fantastic for sightseeing as well. We saw grey whales on the way out and blackfish (a toothed whale inbetween dolphins and orca in size) on the way back. We stopped in a cove at Oswald West State Park and got a close up look at the seastacks and seacaves. The whole day was filled with seabirds like brown pelicans, auklets, and my favorites, the murres. Murres fill the same ecological niches as penguines and, like penguines, look dapper in their black and white plumage. They are quite graceful underwater but rather ungaingly on land or in the air and always look like their on the brink of falling right out of the sky.

Despite the seasickness and the jelly legs when I got back on dry land it was an immensely fun day. I like to spend solstice days outside as much as possible and this was the epitome of being outside. The weather was great and my freezer is now stocked with more fish than I've eaten in the last year combined.

All good celebrations should be culminated with a feast so the next night I brought one fillet of Fred to a friend's house to share. Half the fish fed four of us to stuffing point, with extras for my breakfast the next day.

Pesto Baked Ling Cod

1/4 cup olive oil
1/8 cup water
3 green onions
2 tbs fresh basil
2 cloves of garlic, pressed
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tbs prepared pesto
1 1/2 tsp lemon juice
The biggest white fish fillet you can find - or four regular sized portions

  • Combine the olive oil, water, onions, fresh basil, salt and pepper in a small blender jar. Blend until combined and then stir in the pesto. Reserve approximately 5 tbs of the marinade in a resealable container and add the lemon juice.
  • Lay the fish out on a parchment paper lined sheet of aluminum foil. I had to use two sheets of foil crimped together to make a bed big enough for the fillet. Cover the fish with the pesto marinade and wrap well in the parchement and foil. Be sure to fold the parchment over so the foil doesn't touch the fish. Marinate in the fridge up to 24 hours.
  • Place the fish packet in a preheated 350 degree oven and bake, still wrapped, until fish is cooked through and flakes with a fork. My fillet was approximately 2 inches thick and took 40 minutes. Thin fillets will take less time. Remove fish to a serving platter and drizzle the reserved marinade and lemon juice over the cooked fish. Serve with rice, salad, and more lemon for squeezing over top.

One of the key elements of nature based spirituality is the understanding of the cyclical nature of life. Death and winter are not the end, they are the middle. All life on earth requires the death of other life to survive. Solstice is a time when the Father Sun's energy is at it's peak, but also the time when that energy starts declining. In the wiccan Great Story this is the time when the God is starting his descent toward his sacrificial death - giving his life so all life may survive. Fred gave his life, however unwillingly, so that I and my friends may share in the life giving aspect of a celebratory feast. Thank you Fred! May your relations live long and happy lives in the depths of the ocean. And may we all feel the blessings of the Sun God on these, the longest days of the year!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Journey for the Journey Moon

One of the major themes of the Journey Moon is the balance between the security of a homebase and the renewal of new horizons. Annette Hinshaw says "we can die of having no roots as surely as we can of not moving." I feel like I've spent the last few years getting settled and growing roots. I don't think I'm ready to go adventuring again in a grand sense, but I was ready to get out of town earlier this month. Sometimes, going just makes you realize what you have left.

Over the weekend my mom and I went to Central Oregon, a prime vacation destination. My mom had heard about the Paulina Lake Lodge outside of LaPine so we went as a late Mother's Day present. The city of Bend is the main town in Central Oregon and is about a 3 hrs drive from Portland. In college I spent a fair amount of time in and around Bend for work and visiting friends so it was comfortably familiar despite the markedly different landscape. People think of Oregon as wet, verdant and soggy when the fact of the matter is that 3/4 of the state is high desert painted in shades of brown and dusty green. As someone who has spent years studying geology and biology it's always fun to watch the ecology change as you drive east over the Cascade Mountains. In some places you can actually pinpoint the line between the Douglas Fir and rhododendron forests of the wet west and the Ponderosa pine forests of the east.

We had a lovely weekend looking at mountains, lakes and pine trees. We experienced thunderstorms and clear blue skies, fantastic sunsets and drizzly rain. There was snow on the ground and overly warm air temperatures. Central Oregon can keep you reeling, that's for sure. We drove the Cascade Lakes Highway and saw quaint fishing lodges in stunning scenery. It was a fun filled weekend but the part that sticks in my mind most was on the drive home. Coming over the Santiam Pass out of Sisters I felt it and saw it. That same line in the vegetation between dry pine and wet fir was there on this pass too. And it felt good to be coming home.

I've always been a bit of a homebody and the few times in my life I've not had a "home" have been very frustrating times. I like my own bed, my own kitchen, my own shelves with my own stuff on them. In college I spent a number of years adventuring but always felt best when I had a home to come back to. Now that I have a home I sometimes feel a bit stifled and long for those carefree days of picking up and moving across the country just because I could.

I guess this is the lesson of the Journey Moon, isn't it? Finding that balance between growing roots and expanding your horizons. Where do you feel most comfortable? Are you a rolling stone or a home body hobbit? What do you do to break out of your rut?