Leaders grasp nettles

“Leaders grasp nettles” ~ David Ogilvy, (Scottish born British military intelligence officer and later top advertising executive, 1911-1999)

While leaders sometimes must metaphorically grasp nettles, the humans of Seven Trees Farm look forward to a brief frenzy of literal nettle-grasping this time of year. We’ve written a lot about the medicinal, culinary, recreational and agricultural uses for nettles, but not so much about the magickal and metaphorical meanings our ancestors attributed to this prickly plant.Urtica dioicaIn 1838, Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story about a girl who saved her brothers from their fate of being turned into swans by weaving them shirts made from nettles. She had to gather the nettles with her bare hands, process the fibers with her bare feet, weave the fabric and sew the shirts without speaking.

Unspoken nettles’ seem to be a standard requirement in getting the most efficacy from the plant, whether for magic or medicine. The Folklore Journal of January 1884 recounts this tale: UnspokenNettles also figure in many proverbs:  “If they would drink nettles in March and eat mugwort in May, so many fine maidens wouldn’t go to the clay.”

“Tender-handed, grasp the nettle, and it stings you for your pains. Grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains.”

Old Norse/Germanic belief was that nettles were important to Thor/Thunor, and throwing nettles on the fire during a thunderstorm would protect you from his lightning bolts.

Nettles gathered before sunrise will drive evil spirits away from cattle, according to German folklore, ans a pot of nettle under a sick person’s bed indicated recovery if they stayed green, but death if they wilted.

This old Scottish rhyme needs a little translating, but advises harvesting nettles early in the day, cutting them low to the ground, in shady places, and substituting them for ‘kail’ or greens:

“Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle, stoo the nettle

Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle early

Coo it laich, coo it sune, coo it in the month o’ June

Stoo it ere it’s in the bloom, coo the nettle early

Coo it by the auld wa’s, coo it where the sun ne’er fa’s

Stoo it when the day daws, coo the nettle early.”

(Old Wives Lore for Gardeners, M & B Boland)

Wikipedia says: Coo, cow, and stoo are all Scottish for cut back or crop (although, curiously, another meaning of “stoo” is to throb or ache), while “laich” means short or low to the ground. Given the repetition of “early,” presumably this is advice to harvest nettles first thing in the morning and to cut them back hard [which seems to contradict the advice of the Royal Horticultural Society].

Nicholas Culpepper, in his classic work Complete Herbal and English Physician says that Mars governs nettles. ” You know Mars is hot and dry, and you know as well that winter is cold and moist; then you may know as well the reason nettle-tops, eaten in the spring, consumeth the phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moistness that winter hath left behind.”

Danes believed nettle patches marked the graves of elves, and Scottish Highlanders thought they marked human graves. Archaeologists know that nettles can mean ground that was disturbed by settlements, and where to start digging.

Gravestones among nettles

One last quote to keep in mind when you’re out harvesting your own nettles: “He who is afraid of every nettle should not piss in the grass” ~Thomas Fuller (British Clergyman and Writer, one of the most prolific authors of the 17th century. 1608-1661)

For more herbal folklore, check out these sites:

The Herb Society – Nettles

Nettles – Weeds or Wonders

The Practical Herbalist

In like a lion

Fire1The vernal equinox is this coming weekend, but we started celebrating a bit early with a bonfire, beer, and a few rounds of darts. DartsInterruptedThe dogs and cats figured out they would get some attention if they got between the throwing line and the board, so it took a while to play a few rounds. Luckily that day was one of our magical previews of summer, with temps near 70 and nature busting out all over. Merlin2Some Wild Kingdom kind of nature was going on right next to us as we walked around, chatting about summer projects. A closer look revealed a female Merlin, hopping around the ever-renewed burn pile next to the fire pit. The brush pile serves as cover for the assorted native birds that frequent the seed feeder above, and apparently as a hunting ground for ravenous raptors. MerlinShe kept jumping down into the branches, then popped up to look from different angles. She may have stashed a previous kill in the pile and was trying to get it, or had a live bird at bay, but we couldn’t see anything in the brush.

The weather turned challenging today though. Wet, windy and wild, like video from the bridge of a Bering Sea fishing boat. Our two resident Anna’s hummingbirds, one male and one female, have been taking full advantage of the feeders we now keep filled year round, but with today’s storm were even more in evidence. HBird1We decided to swap out the heated feeder for the jumbo cafeteria model, and not long after a soaked, tired & hungry newcomer showed up for a meal. HBird2We have another feeder under a south-facing garage eave, and the male Anna’s guards this like Smaug guards treasure. But for the bolder females, coming in under the back porch roof means being able to eat snug & dry, and not be chased off by the male. A few shrubs are starting to flower, red-flowering currant, quince, and oso, but having a back-up source of food is critical to these tiny critters.

Speaking of tiny critters, it’s finally time to dust off the incubator and get the next generation of laying hens cooking. Things have been a bit hectic, so we’re getting off to a later start than usual. So far we’re planning 3 hatches this year, with the first one being from Blaine, our golden cuckoo Marans roo, and 8 carefully chosen hens. We’re going for larger hens with good egg-laying conformation and good quality eggs. Since Blaine’s Marans genes should help add dark brown “paint” to the eggs, crossing him with hens that already lay dark eggs should mean daughters that lay even darker eggs. Some of the hens in that breeding pen lay olive eggs, ranging from deep bronze with brown speckles to glossy buttery avocado. The Marans dark brown gene should make for hens that lay bronze or deep olive, but only time will tell. OverEasyWe finally got around to trap-nesting some of our main flock, and documenting the results. All of our chickens have legs bands in combinations that reflect parentage and hatch date. We use different colors of zip ties on both legs, plus a master spreadsheet, to keep track. The notes in the picture above tell me that the egg on the left was laid by a hen with a brown zip tie on her left leg, and a blue one on her right. BCM x ehb means her parents were a blue/black copper Marans roo crossed with a hen called eagle-head black (a cross of an oliver roo and Welsummer hen with a white head like an eagle’s). The bottom line refers to her color, black copper, like a Marans. This information helps decide if we should use this hen to help build our future flock, and also helps ensure we don’t cross her with too close a relative.

Kailyards and Plantie Crubs, oh my!

Seven Trees:

Seven Trees Farm is just starting to wake up from winter. Our plans to have a hot bed/cold frame ready to winter over greens was put on the back burner again, thanks to life’s steady onslaught of surprises.
The seasonal windstorms we experience here make a traditional greenhouse a losing proposition, but the often-mild winters make year-round gardening irresistible. We had a few hardy greens survive our no-tech neglect style – parsley, chives, chard, soup celery, and some sad spinach. Maybe we need to pile some of those farm-ubiquitous cement blocks into a plantie crub and call it good :)

Originally posted on Seven Trees Farm:

The picture above is of a kailyard c.1936, on the island of Foula, a part of the Shetland Isles. The climate in parts of northern Scotland is so harsh that even today gardening is a challenge. One way early crofters dealt with the cold and salt sea air was to build walled gardens. Even so, not much would grow but hardy plants like Shetland cabbage (kale) and more recently, potatoes.
These two pictures are of the Ham Doon kailyard (also on Foula) in spring and summer. The word kailyard literally refers to a small plot of land or kitchen-garden where cabbage (i.e. kail) and other vegetables may be grown. The word kail is recorded in Scottish sources from the late fourteenth century onwards and derives from Old Norse kál. Kailyard has been in use since at least the sixteenth century, and is attested in official documents such as…

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Black Beauty Breed

Hildegard is just over 10 months old now and while she is becoming a grown up in some ways, she’s still a silly puppy in others.

We have been exceedingly careful with socializing and training her because of her breed. She went through a 6 week puppy kindergarten class and about a month or so later another 6 week “Grad school” all with Thinking Dog, trainer Laura Berger at Northwest Kennels. We highly, highly recommend Laura and her purely positive reward methods, if you are looking for a trainer in the Bellingham area.

Even trained dogs like the recliner

Even trained dogs like the recliner

When not in class we trained Hilde at home and took her on outings with us, to experience other places and people. Lots of people.

What we discovered is that she is a highly sensitive, intelligent, playful, at times down right goofy, and exceedingly attached kind of dog. She’s great inside the house, quite mellow even, but we always take care of her zoomies with walks, ball throwing, tug, and of course romps with her older brothers plenty.

Hilde has always been very interested in kitties and the chickens, but she was raised to treat them respectfully from day one, so that’s pretty much what she does, barring a few stolen licks or butt sniffs like any other dog would. She really likes Bismarck kitty and they seem to have achieved a certain simpatico.

For the most part she minds well, in fact far better than either of our older boy dogs, consistently being the first to sit, do a trick, or line up for dinner when asked to.

She’s also very attentive, and seems to love doing dog jobs at our little stead like helping us gather eggs or patrolling the yard for squirrels with Stewart and Fergus.

Hilde is so attuned, so much a family member, that I can see where someone who thinks a dog should get shut out in the backyard and ignored, could get in trouble with a Rottweiler. I have no doubt like so many other dogs, they aren’t born to be a problem, but are made that way by humans when they fail to train them or take care of them.

It hasn’t been all easy, we have had challenges along the way, but the work we have put in to this wonderful girl has been more than worth it. This breed takes consistent positive training, and a serious commitment, so we wouldn’t recommend them for everyone.

To the point of this post title… there is a new movie about the Rottweiler called, Black Beauty Breed. It is a documentary about the positive character traits & inherent working ability of this dog told by people who have Rott’s and love them. There are some amazing stories and dogs in this movie. It’s out on DVD now, and we highly recommend picking up a copy to learn why so many people wouldn’t consider another breed of dog after having one.



And I must confess this now includes us!

We are starting Hilde on scent games training next, just because she is so eager to do and work. It should be a fun adventure for all involved.

Charming of the Plow – another flavor of Imbolc/Candlemas

Depending on where you’re located, winter is showing its age and spring is on the horizon. This transition has always been marked by local traditions. In modern East Coast America we have Groundhog Day, Christian Europe has Candlemas, Pagan traditions celebrate Imbolc, and descendants of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons welcome the new growing season in yet another way – the charming of the plough (also known as Disting).

A team of transformed oxen driven by the Norse goddess Gefjun.

A team of transformed oxen driven by the Norse goddess Gefjun.

In Sweden at this time, a religious festival was held called the Disablot, to honor the disir – female gods, landspririts, and ancestors. Included in this observance was the governing assembly called the Thing, where laws were made and interpreted, grievances were adjudicated, contracts sealed, and so on. The combined gathering was called Disting, and marked the start of the growing season in that part of the world.

Engraving of a Disablot by J. Malmsrom, a Swedish author.

Engraving of a Disablot by J. Malmsrom, a Swedish author.

A Scandinavian legend describes early ‘land-taking’ customs in the story of the goddess Gefjon. Like many ancient tales, there are conflicting versions from various sources, but the gist is that a Swedish king promised Gefjon as much land as she could plough in a day with four oxen. She transformed her four sons (fathered by an unnamed jotunn) into supernaturally strong oxen, and: Gefjun‘s plough “cut so hard and deep that it uprooted the land, and the oxen drew the land out into the sea to the west and halted in a certain sound.” Gefjun there placed the land, and bestowed upon it the name Zealand. Where the land had been taken from a lake stands. There has been an association of women and ploughing since time immemorial. Folk traditions in some areas of Russia (where the Vikings settled as Rus) call for women to plough the borders of a community to ward off sickness or calamity. Anglo-Saxons held the Æcerbot or ‘field remedy’ ritual, to heal land that was yielding poorly and return it to full productivity. The ritual called for anointing the plow with herbs and oils, for cakes to be placed in the fresh furrows, and for daylong incantations and songs.

Erce, Erce, Erce, Earthen Mother! May the Allwielder grant thee, the great Drihten, acres waxing and covering, increasing and strengthening. A sheaf betokens the reaper’s produce and the broad barley’s produce and the white wheat’s produce and the produce of all earth. Grant to them, great Drihten whose hallows that in heaven are, that his farm be fortified against all fiends, each one, and it be bordered against all baleful things, each one, that through the land is seen. Now I ask the Wielder, that this world shaped, That there be no such cunning woman; no such crafty man, That with a word of power changes what is said.

While thumbing through all those seed catalogs, take a moment to think about the earth that grows our food, and how best to care for it. At Seven Trees Farm, we add to the health of our land by adding back manure, lime, composted livestock bedding, etc. We also use as few chemicals and toxins as possible, not just for our own health, but to keep the natural bug-filled ecosystem thriving.

Another way we show respect for our bountiful Earth is by leaving some areas ‘un-plowed’, so that our own landvaettir have an undisturbed place to inhabit. The wild birds also appreciate the thickets and brambles, as do the myriad frogs which will start their spring peeping soon. plough

For more information about ancestral early spring traditions, check out these links –

On Candlemas Day

Charming the Plow: Disting

Holy Tides – Charming of the Plough and Disting

Plough Songs

Late winter warm weather weirdness

While most of the US is battling extreme cold and snow, Seven Trees Farm has been basking in record warm temperatures. It hasn’t gotten us off the hook for the flu epidemic making the rounds of our area, but being able to step outside for some fresh air that is actually warm and dry is big winter treat.

Lucky and Percy, our resident Quaker parrots, also enjoy treats – of the edible variety. treatconeOur shore pines produce cute little cones that are perfect for stuffing with peanut butter, rolling in bird seed, then hanging for them to ‘forage’ on. The parrots are usually fairly lazy, but they shinny right up their play ladder to get to this nugget of goodness. parrotsnackNaturally, what goes in must come out, so a nice day means cage cleaning time. Having a hot water faucet installed outside makes dirty jobs a lot more comfortable. cagewashYou can see by the dark clouds to the north that the sunny day was just a brief interlude in our normal chilly dankness. Bismarck decided to show up on the jobsite for an inspection. He’s not called Busy B for nothing! cagekittySince there was no chance of freezing temperatures or sudden windstorms, it was time to see what our forlorn hope of a winter garden was up to. rowcoverEvery fall we start discussing how best to grow food year round. As the climate changes, there are some winters with bonus warm spells long enoough to allow hardy greens to survive. It would be a great investment in time, money and labor to build a cold frame/hot bed, but something always seems to come up before we can. My late fall starts ended up getting popped under a quick row cover with a healthy sprinkle of sluggo…then winter set in.

We had a lot more windstorms than we expected, and pulled back the row cover before one of them. It’s much better to let the poor plants fare for themselves than pick shredded polyester out of the trees and sticker bushes. Unfortunately, the wacky weather has been helpful for the varmint population, and it didn’t take long for the ring neck doves (which we mistakenly thought had flown elsewhere for winter) to pillage the ‘bounty’.rowuncoveredWe ended up with some parsley, two spinach and one wee little devil’s tongue lettuce…no cold season salads for us.parsleyspinachlettuce

But the sneak peek of spring was enough to prompt the ritual unearthing of the seed-starting apparatus, and so the 2015 growing season commences.

The afternoon sun also illuminated the enemy…plump and observant doves perched behind the garage, just waiting for our tender seedlings to sprout. I’m thinking pigeon pot pie might be tasty :Dthieves

What’s the matter? Thorramatur!

The holidays are over, spring is just a date on the calendar, and the weather outside (if you’re in our neck of the woods) is frightful. A perfect time to take a break from pre-spring cleaning to explore the mid-winter Viking festival, Thorrablot. The Thorrablot, or Feast of Thor, is held in Iceland, on a Friday, between the 19th and 25th of January every year, and signals the beginning of the snowmoon, or month of Thorri.

There isn’t much agreement as to just when this festival started (any time from the Viking era down to the 19th century) and likewise some confusion as to its namesake (Icelandic king Thorri, ancient jotun (giant) Thorri, or Heathen god Thor). Where modern people agree is on the traditional menu of food known as the thorramatur.

The recent popularity of this festival is said to derive from Icelandic emigrants returning to their home country after working overseas. They had lost connection with their native traditions and thorrablot was a way to reconnect. A common thread of the mostly meat-based menu is preservation. Pickled ram testicles, fermented shark (hakarl, a lot like surstromming – hilarity and history at the link), soured blood sausage and the like are not for the faint of heart (or stomach) but these foods helped the hardy Vikings make it through winter.

“…It’s all a real adventure, although the spectre of rotted shark does seem to dominate proceedings somewhat, with veteran diners visibly gagging as they attempt to keep the dish down. It’s hardly surprising – once you’ve got past the freshly-scrubbed locker-room stench, the burning at the back of the throat and the stinging eyes, you’ve got to swallow something Anthony Bourdain described as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’d ever eaten (this from a man who once downed a shot of cobra bile), and a snack that had Gordon Ramsay retching uncontrollably. And the taste itself? If you can bear to not swallow it right away, to let the shark settle on the tongue, to linger on the palate… well, it’s urine-soaked cheese that springs to mind...

Whenever possible, some form of goat’s meat is included, as homage to the god Thor, who considers goats one of his sacred animals. Thor is also invoked to beat back winter with his mighty hammer Mjolnir. We mortals are encouraged to beat back the taste of singed sheep head and rotten fish with many toasts of Brennin (aka black death). The humans at Seven Trees will be celebrating ancestral food traditions, and beating back winter, with our own thorramater next week. Time to get the freezer ready for the hoped-for bounty of 2012 by turning all those assorted cow & pig parts into preserved treats like blood sausage, liverwurst and kielbasa. And we’ll wash it down with our own version of Icelandic black death, Linie akavit.

(More details about the traditional thorramatur here – http://lovingiceland.com/food)