What About the Groundhog?

February 2nd is not far off.! So, what about the groundhog?

It turns out that February 2nd is a big day. It’s a cross-quarter day marking the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. This is an ancient pagan celebration time known as the Festival of the Return of the Light. It’s a celebration of rebirth and renewal. In Gaelic Ireland it was known as Imbolc, the festival marking the beginning of spring. But what about the groundhog?

groundhog-reclineIn the northern temperate regions all around the world, folks noticed that the beginning of February is often the coldest time of the year. But even though it’s cold, the days are getting longer, the light is coming back. And with the light will come the warmth, and with the warmth will come the growth, and the world will be born anew. The seeds aren’t quite germinating, but the fire of life–that essential spark–is there. The light will return. But what about the groundhog?

February 2nd is also 40 days after Christmas. We all know the Virgin Mary was a nice Jewish girl. She was a devout follower of the laws of Moses, and according to ancient Jewish tradition, a new mother, after childbirth, spends 40 days in rest and recovery. Then after 40 days she takes her child to the temple and makes an offering, acknowledging that this is a child of God. With this offering, the child is redeemed from God into the care of the mother. So, this is what Mary did 40 days after Jesus was born. Now among many Christians February 2nd is a holy day, known as the Day of the Presentation of the Lord at the Temple. Since Christians see Jesus as the light of the world this implies a direct connection to the old Festival of the Return of the Light. But what about the groundhog?

In the old days people saved the drippings from the candles burned during that long winter darkness because tallow and wax were very precious. On February 2 they would remelt the wax and make the candles anew, celebrating the light coming back to the world. In many churches to this day, this holiday is still known as Candlemas. Hallelujah! The light is returning to our world! But what about the groundhog?

Early February is the time to check your supplies–take inventory. Check your stored food; how are your canned goods holding out? Check your woodpile; do you still have half of your firewood? Check the hay in the barn. February 2nd is considered the halfway point of the cold weather and if you’ve still got half your food and supplies left in the beginning of February, you should have enough to last til spring.

February 2nd, Candlemas day,
Half the grain and half the hay,
Half the winter is passed away,
We’ll eat our supper by the light of day.

Okay, the light is returning! That explains a lot, but what about the groundhog?

I’ve heard it all my life, you’ve probably heard it too: Mr. Groundhog comes out of his den on February 2nd and if it’s a cold, blustery, overcast, sleeting or rainy day, Mr. Groundhog stays out and spring arrives, right?

If it’s a beautiful, sunny day, Mr. Groundhog comes out of the ground, sees his shadow, gets scared, dives back into the ground, and we get six more weeks of winter! I’ve heard that all my life and it never made any sense to me–until I started researching groundhogology.

Groundhog Day is a throwback to ancient bear and badger cults from Europe. These folks didn’t so much worship these critters as much as they watched them.

groundhog-uprightThey watched these hibernating animals go into the ground in the fall and they didn’t come out. It was as if they died. The next spring however, when the world was being born anew they would miraculously rise up out of the earth as if they, too, had been reborn. The ancient ones realized that the life cycle of these hibernating animals is a great metaphor for the human spiritual journey. As we walk through this world our shadow is always with us. We all have a shadow that’s with us for all the days that we walk this earth. When we die and they put us in the ground, and when that hibernating animal goes into the ground in the fall, the shadow disappears. That shadow, the symbol of the soul, is set free and the animal sleeps the sleep of death. It becomes a part of the underworld–one with the earth. Early in spring as the time of rebirth and renewal approaches, the animal emerges from the underworld and if some of that old shadow–the old soul–is still attached, the process isn’t complete so the animal must return and continue sleeping that sleep of death until it is ready to be reborn completely anew.

That’s why we say if Mr. Groundhog sees his shadow we are going to get six more weeks of winter.

We’ll dig down and we’ll dig deep,
We’ll find that whistlepig where he sleeps
Oh Groundhog!


Hi Friends, I hope you enjoyed that taste of groundhogabilia and that you’re getting ready for the big cross-quarter day. We’re celebrating by offering a couple books and a CD at a discount. They each have something about groundhogs and lots of other interesting lore.

Feel free to check out the products page of my website to take advantage of the good deals. http://www.dougelliott.com/products.html

GROUNDHOG-OLOGY SALE (till Feb. 2)

cover-groundhogologyAward winning CD:
GROUNDHOGOLOGY, of Whistlepigs and World Politics

It all starts in Elliott’s mountain-side cabin with a gift from an old groundhog hunter. From there we go on a rollicking and revealing journey into folklore, history, and mythology. You’ll hear how groundhogs have been a source of food, clothing, medicine and music . You’ll learn the mystical aspects of groundhogs — how they are woven into Native American and European mythology. You’ll get clues to the great riddle: How much wood would a woodchuck chuck…? You will learn how groundhogs can teach us about ourselves, our society, and world politics today! This telling is flavored with traditional songs, lively harmonica riffs, belly laughs, and wood-chuckles. 55 minutes (Storytelling World, Honor Award)
CD 1/3 off Normally $15 —NOW only $10

cover-crawdads-bookThe Book:
CRAWDADS, DOODLEBUGS AND CREASY GREENS 
Songs, Stories, and Lore Celebrating the Natural World

Discover how to catch crawdads, puree pawpaws, gobble greenbriers, noodle catfish, tickle trout, cook squirrel brains, twist a critter out of its hole and predict the weather with a persimmon seed. Learn how to sing Oh Groundhog. Hear about Queen Elizabeth when she was courted by a frog, Copper John Higgins when he swallowed a lizard, and Davy Crockett when he tried to grin a squirrel out of a tree. This 64-page book features two dozen songs, more than 90 original illustrations and a plethora of stories and lore.
20% off Normaly $5–NOW only $4

cover-wildwoodsThe Hardback Book:
WILDWOODS WISDOM

Encounters with the Natural World

With the engaging voice of a country storyteller, Elliott draws on his own adventures–hitchhiking across the country, capturing snakes, tracking animals, hunting ginseng and searching out the wisdom of country folk and native peoples. You’ll hang out with Native Americans, Appalachian mountain men and biologists. And you’ll hear stories of Pentecostal snake handlers, hoodoo root doctors, possum breeders, and even a New York stockbroker. Join “Ranger” Doug as he stalks old time apples, disciplines coons, stalks groundhogs, and befriends possums. Beautifully illustrated with over 100 drawings by the author, Wildwoods Wisdom is a journey of awakening, of being at home in a world we may not often see, but to which we are forever joined. 196 pgs
Normally $23–NOW only $20

http://www.dougelliott.com/products.html

Jerusie Digging Time!

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It’s Jerusalem artichoke digging time around here. If your ground is not yet frozen you might want to harvest some too. (Before the voles eat ‘em all!)

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Jerusalem artichoke is a sunflower, not from Jerusalem, and not an artichoke, but other than that it’s well named! The name Jerusalem artichoke, is supposedly a corruption of the Italian, Girasola articiocco; Girasola referring to the sunflower’s reputation of always turning to face the sun. Its scientific name, Helianthus tuberosus, means “tuberous sunflower.” (That really is a good name.) Those crisp, crunchy tubers are one of our favorite wild foods. In fact we let ’em run wild all around our place. (Be careful about where you plant them– they can take over your garden.)

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Originally Jerusies were native to the central portion of North America, but due to extensive cultivation by both Native Americans and settlers, they are now naturalized in most temperate areas of North America, and parts of Europe and Asia.

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During late summer or early autumn, this perennial sunflower can be found in full bloom at the edges of fields and roadsides, usually where there is fairly rich, light soil. The plant usually stands from six to more than ten feet tall on single slender stalks. The flower is about two or three inches across and looks more like a yellow daisy than the large, seed-packed head of the cultivated seed-sunflower. But the problem is that they are hard to recognize because at that time of year there are dozens of tall, yellow, daisy-like flowers blooming (that botanists call DYC’s –“damn yellow composites”). How do we recognize the true “Jerusies” from the rest of the DYC’s?

The Jerusalem artichoke’s leaves and stem are covered with stiff, almost prickly hairs. The botanical word for this is “scurfy.” It’s onomatopoetic; if you rub your fingers across the leaves and listen carefully you will hear, “scurf, scurf.” (Who would have thought you can use your ears to identify a plant!) The coarseness of the leaves and the prickly hairs on the stem are one of the best identification points short of taking a shovel to the roots.

Artichoke0004

The other distinctive characteristic is that the leaves are opposite at the lower part of the stem, (meaning that wherever one leaf comes out of the stalk there is another leaf directly opposite). The leaves are alternate at the upper portion of the stem.

Since the tubers are not mature and ready to harvest until the plants die back, it’s particularly challenging, when you’re facing a tangle of dead, dry, leafless stalks, to know which ones are the coveted Jerusalem artichokes.

Artichoke8332

To identify the Jerusalem artichoke stalks that have died back, examine them to look for the bristly stubble and the leaf scars that go from opposite to alternate. (In the photo below you can see the upper two stalks from the upper parts of the plant show alternate leaf scars, while the two stalks below from the lower portion of the plant show opposite leaf scars.

Artichoke8451

We scrub the tubers soon after we gather them. We usually eat the tubers raw, either grated into a salad, or simply munched with a dip. Sometimes we use them as a major ingredient in kimchi. They have about the same food value as potatoes, but instead of containing starch they contain an allied substance called inulin, which makes this tuber a valuable food for diabetics and others who strive for a low carbohydrate diet. But the drawback is that they promote flatulence in some folks, (who call them “fartachokes”). Cooking is the best remedy for that problem. They can be boiled, baked, or roasted. They have a distinctive, somewhat sooty flavor, slightly reminiscent of a potato with a more watery texture.

Jerusies will keep for months in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. They also keep well when reburied in soil.

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40th ANNIVERSARY ROOTS SALE !

cover-wildrootsCan you believe it? My first book is about to celebrate its 40th year! And, amazingly enough, it’s still in print! It still has lots of info about edible, medicinal, and otherwise useful and interesting wild plants and their underground parts–and best of all–it has portraits of more than 50 of your favorite roots! (The Jerusalem artichoke root drawing at the top of this blog post is from the book.)

The book was originally titled, ROOTS, and it came out in 1976, the same year as Alex Haley’s book by the same title! (Nobody ever offered to make a movie out of my book!) However, in 1995, Healing Arts Press reissued the book and changed the title to WILD ROOTS, A Forager’s Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Roots, Tubers, Corms, and Rhizomes of North America. And it’still available today. It’s on sale I till January 1st. I’ll knock $2 of the retail price and let’em go for $15 until the first of the year. It’s an underground classic! Get ‘em while you can!

http://www.dougelliott.com/products.html


Feel free to check out the products page of my
website to take advantage of the rest of the

GETTIN’ READY FOR WINTER SALE (till Jan. 1)

CD Sale! (8 titles to choose from)
All single CDs: $12.50; Double CDs $15
http://www.dougelliott.com/products.html

DVD Sale!
An Evening with Doug Elliott
DVD

Stories, Songs, and Lore Celebrating the Natural World
Elliott performs a lively concert of tales, tunes, traditional lore, wild stories, and fact stranger than fiction–flavored with regional dialects, harmonica riffs, and belly laughs. One moment he is singing about catfish, the next he’s extolling the virtues of dandelions, or bursting forth with crow calls. He also demonstrates basketry, ponders the “nature” in human nature, tells wild snake tales, and jams and jives with his fiddler son, Todd.
Normally $20 — NOW only $15   http://www.dougelliott.com/products.html

Swarm Tree Book Sale!
Swarm Tree: Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life
Following tracks, messing with bees, chasing butterflies, stalking deer, tickling trout, and picking up pawpaws—and hitchhikers. This lively collection by celebrated storyteller Doug Elliott will delight readers with its blend of natural history and heartfelt, hilarious takes on life. Whether tracking skunks, philosophizing over dung beetles, negotiating with the police, or reading divine script on the back of a trout, Elliott brings a sense of wonder and humor to every story. His broad scientific and cultural knowledge of the Appalachians and beyond is a treasure. Join him on this down to earth spiritual journey as he probes creation, asks the deeper questions, and reveals fascinating details of the great narrative of life that connect us all. Dive deeply into the richness of the natural world; climb high into the tree of life, and return–with amazing tales, humorous insights, and surprising truths that explore and illuminate, and celebrate the confluence of nature, humanity and spirit.
Normally $18 — NOW only $15   http://www.dougelliott.com/products.html

The Scarab and the Sacred Sphere

OF DUNG BEETLES AND THE SOURCE OF LIFE

beetledrawing

What! Moving dog poop? Were my eyes fooling me? Yes it was moving–right there at the edge of the driveway. I was on my way to the mailbox, but never mind that. I sat down right there and watched. It was definitely moving. A piece of this all too familiar canine calling card” was rising up. Yep, levitating dog poop right before my very eyes! And underneath it a handsome shiny black beetle appeared. The beetle had just cut off a chunk of feces. It had fashioned it into a perfectly round, symmetrical sphere about an inch in diameter, and now it was underneath, heaving away. Its head was facing down and its long hind legs reached up and grasped the sphere (reminiscent of the way ice tongs grip a block of ice). The ball of dung was almost twice its size. The beetle heaved with the front legs (like an upside down weight lifter) and the ball began to roll. It rolled a half a turn and stopped, another heave and the ball rolled some more.

Inch by inch, across the miniature hills and dales it rolled its precious cargo, laboriously pushing it up each small incline. On the downward slopes, the beetle merely tried to hang on to keep its precious orb from rolling away.

One of our neighborhood dung beetles hard at work rolling a “sacred chamber of potential.

One of our neighborhood dung beetles hard at work rolling a “sacred chamber of potential.

 

Below is a short video done by Todd Elliott of dung beetles rocking and rolling:

 

A mere ball of poop, has been transformed by this beetle, into a sacred chamber of potential. Not only is it a nutrient bonanza, it is a brood ball. Once an egg is deposited and the ball buried in the earth, it becomes a repository of valuable genetic material–that creature’s unique contribution to diversity on the planet.

Dung beetles lay relatively few eggs. Most insects lay dozens, if not hundreds or even thousands of eggs, but dung beetles invest so much special care providing each of their eggs with food, shelter and protection that fewer eggs are needed to reproduce the species. In some species of dung beetle, the female may lay only one egg the entire season. For an insect to lay so few eggs is extraordinary.

After the dung ball is interred in the earth and incubates for a number of days, the egg hatches into a tiny grub-like larva. Safely underground, the larva feeds on the dung and eventually pupates. A few weeks later a newly formed young adult beetle will emerge from the pupa, dig its way up to the surface of the soil, and lift its hard elytra (the shell-like wing covers that fold over a beetle’s back), unfurl its membranous flight wings, and with a whirring buzz, it flies away. It sallies forth on a pilgrimage, a mission, a quest–a journey into realms where other beasts refuse to tread–the fresh dung heaps left by larger animals.

For dung beetles, waste makes haste. “Before the sun becomes too hot, they are there in their hundreds, large and small, of every sort, shape and size, hastening to carve themselves a slice of the common cake,” wrote the great 19th century entomologist, J. Henri Fabre, as he described the frenzied activity of dung beetles in a French cow pasture more than a hundred years ago where he observed as many as 200 beetles of 10 or 15 species working on a single cow pie.

As you read this, millions of dung beetles are working day and night. They are practically everywhere, from our neighborhood dooryards and lawns, to farms, woodlands, pastures, prairies, and deserts the world over, laboring with strength and determination cleaning up dung, making a better world for us all.

During Operation Desert Storm, in the early 1990’s, my friend Clint was in Saudi Arabia on maneuvers. They were camping on a barren desert plain with no latrines or restroom facilities. The troops were instructed that when they had to “answer nature’s call” to merely go off into the desert and dig a hole. Since there was no cover or privacy, Clint said that if at all possible, he would wait till after dark. Except the problem with the darkness, he said, was the beetles. On a calm night those ever vigilant beetles would scent the not so subtle odor wafting across the desert sand and with determined wings buzzing, dozens of these large beetles would come madly flying in to claim their share of his precious offering. Scarabs are clumsy fliers and it was unnerving, he said, when one of those large insects crash-landed onto your exposed flanks.

After hearing Clint’s “war story” I found myself perusing the pages of a scholarly volume published by Princeton University Press entitled Dung Beetle Ecology. It was here I learned that from the point of view of dung beetles (and the scientists who study them,) the pile Clint was depositing there in the Arabian night is regarded as an “island” of high quality resources known to dungbeetle-ologists as a “patchy, ephemeral microhabitat.” A patchy ephemeral microhabitat! That’s quite an epithet for a pile of poop. The text explained that they are described as patchy, because in nature, “dung pats are scattered in spatial occurrence” (An occasional pile here and there); they are “ephemeral” because a dung pile in nature normally does not last very long. And no matter how large the pile, when compared with the environment at large it is still a small or “micro” habitat.

As small, ephemeral, patchy, and downright disgusting as a pile of poop may seem to us, as a source of food and shelter, dung has lots to recommend it. Most mammals, especially herbivores, digest only a small portion of the food they eat and what is left is rich in proteins, minerals, bacteria, yeasts and other nutrients. It is already partially digested and, best of all, dung is easy. Dung never defends itself or fights back like a live prey animal would. It doesn’t have thorns, irritating saps or other chemical defenses like many plants have. Most critters have no interest in it. Feces is simply there for the taking.

And takers there are — insects of many kinds, including beetles of many sizes, shapes, and lifestyles. Not all dung beetles are rollers, (i.e. Those that form a dung ball and roll it away.) There are the tunnelers that bore down into the soil, making nesting chambers directly under the pat and dragging dung down with them and there are the dwellers, those that simply move into the dung where it lies, chow down heartily and lay their eggs there.

Back at my driveway here in North Carolina I learned about another kind of dung beetle. When I watched that beetle bury its ball, I marked the place with a twig, wondering about how the beetle might develop and when it might emerge. After a few days, however, my curiosity got the best of me. I returned to the spot and carefully unearthed the ball, rolled it out on the ground and broke it open. I wanted to see the egg. You can imagine my surprise however, when I found not an egg, but a tiny beetle tunneling through the ball. Was this the new baby beetle? No way. Young beetles do not look like adult beetles; they look like grubs or larvae. Any fully formed beetle, whether it’s the size of a pinhead or a golf ball is a full-grown adult. This was an entirely different species of dung beetle with a different lifestyle. This little rascal was a klepto-parasitic dung beetle who makes its living by moving in and stealing the dung that another beetle has collected.

Thousands of years before Christ, the ancient Egyptians watched dung beetles rolling their loads across the desert sands. They linked what they saw with their observations of the heavens. They believed a celestial dung beetle known as Kepeherer, the sacred scarab, was responsible for rolling the solar orb on its daily journey across the sky. Every evening in the West the great celestial sphere is buried, just like the scarab’s ball of dung, and just like the newborn scarab beetle that rises out of the sands, every morning on the eastern horizon the brilliant ball of the sun rises out of the earth and brings a new dawn to the day and new life to the world.

If something as lowly as the humble dung beetle, as well as something as glorious as the sun can be reborn after they were dead and buried, could it be that humans might also experience rebirth and life after death?

To investigate this eternal question, the ancient Egyptians observed the scarab. They watched the wormlike larva living and growing, neatly encapsulated within its own sphere of existence, squirming about, eating constantly and carving itself a cozy little niche inside its own personal ball of dung. “This is not unlike the human condition,” Egyptian theologians might have surmised. When the larva has eaten almost all of the ball and nothing but a thin wall separates it from the surrounding earthly outside world, it stops eating, and pupates. All external movement stops while the pupa drops into a deep transformative sleep. The early Egyptians contemplated the quiescent pupa lying in its underground chamber bound tightly in its pupal wrap. After a time, the pupal skin splits open and this once inert creature crawls forth, metamorphosing into a glistening adult who pushes up out of the earth.

Bearing jagged protrusions on its head, and serrations on the front legs that look like the rays of the rising sun, the gleaming new being unfurls its sparkling, diaphanous wings and soars triumphantly off into the heavens.

“Could this be a metaphor for us humans?” the Egyptian priests might have wondered. Whatever their conclusions, the fabulously wealthy and powerful Egyptian royalty were taking no chances. They devoted most of their lives and their fortunes as well as those of thousands of their slaves and subjects to building and preparing proper pupal chambers for their own metamorphoses. The royal crypts of the Egyptian rulers were provisioned with everything from golden bejeweled coffins, hieroglyphic prayer books, chariots, maps and hand-painted murals of the underworld. The body of the deceased ruler was preserved by an elaborate embalming process using herbs, spices, oils, resins, and gums. Often the heart was removed from the body and replaced with a stone carving of a scarab beetle. The body was wrapped in strips of linen to form a mummy, and the royal coffin was covered by an ornate sarcophagus.

Some claim that the Great Pyramids were an attempt by the pharaohs to conceal their remains and protect the accompanying treasures from grave robbers. I still can’t help but think about that little klepto-parasitic dung beetle quietly working away there in the soil beside my driveway, plundering the work of others in the same way the grave robbers plundered tombs in Egypt many centuries ago. Only a few Egyptian tombs survived undisturbed into the modern era, and now much of their wealth has been removed and is in the possession of the European museums. Are they institutional klepto-parasites?

Entomologist Yves Cambefort (one of the editors of Dung Beetle Ecology) speculates that the tightly bound Egyptian mummy is actually an attempt by the ancients to replicate the pupa of the sacred dung beetle. He suggests the Great Pyramids, in all their glory, just might represent stylized camel or cattle plops!

Amidst this lively flurry of cross-cultural interpretation, theory and speculation about the artifacts and belief systems of ancient Egyptians, we must not ignore or discount the deep intrinsic wisdom of a culture whose spirituality honors the burying of manure in the ground as a source of rebirth and new life.


I hope your enjoyed the cross-cultural dung-beetle-ology above . It’s an excerpt from my book, Swarm Tree, Of Honeybees, Honeymoons and the Tree of Life. Swarm Tree is on sale along with my recordings (see below). Feel free to check out the products page of my website to take advantage of the

GETTIN’ READY FOR WINTER SALE (till Jan. 1)

http://www.dougelliott.com/products.html

CD Sale! (8 titles to choose from)
All single CDs: $12.50; Double CDs $15

DVD Sale!
An Evening with Doug Elliott DVD
Stories, Songs, and Lore Celebrating the Natural World

Elliott performs a lively concert of tales, tunes, traditional lore, wild stories, and fact stranger than fiction–flavored with regional dialects, harmonica riffs, and belly laughs. One moment he is singing about catfish, the next he’s extolling the virtues of dandelions, or bursting forth with crow calls. He also demonstrates basketry, ponders the “nature” in human nature, tells wild snake tales, and jams and jives with his fiddler son, Todd.
Normally $20 — NOW only $15 http://www.dougelliott.com/products.html

Swarm Tree Book Sale!
Swarm Tree: Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life

Following tracks, messing with bees, chasing butterflies, stalking deer, tickling trout, and picking up pawpaws—and hitchhikers. This lively collection by celebrated storyteller Doug Elliott will delight readers with its blend of natural history and heartfelt, hilarious takes on life. Whether tracking skunks, philosophizing over dung beetles, negotiating with the police, or reading divine script on the back of a trout, Elliott brings a sense of wonder and humor to every story. His broad scientific and cultural knowledge of the Appalachians and beyond is a treasure. Join him on this down to earth spiritual journey as he probes creation, asks the deeper questions, and reveals fascinating details of the great narrative of life that connect us all. Dive deeply into the richness of the natural world; climb high into the tree of life, and return–with amazing tales, humorous insights, and surprising truths that explore and illuminate, and celebrate the confluence of nature, humanity and spirit.
Normally $18 — NOW only $15

http://www.dougelliott.com/products.html

Fairy Potatoes

Howdy folks,

Carla Seidl visited this fall asking about the amazing wild yam we call air potatoes. She collected a lot of interesting info, met some interesting characters, and wrote this fun article about her investigation. It appears in her blog/website, Earth Flavors, profiling local foods. http://earthflavors.net/flavor20.html

FAIRY POTATOES
by Carla Seidl

AirPotato2757On a recent tour with wild foods educator Alan Muskat, our group stumbles upon what looks like tiny potatoes growing on vines. “I call these fairy potatoes,” Muskat says, popping one of the marble-sized tubers into his mouth. “It’s a wild yam, technically…it’s commonly known as cinnamon vine. You can cook them like potatoes,” he says. “If you have kids, you can make fairy french fries.”

The very next day, as I turn a corner in my neighborhood, I literally run into the same plant, vines full of tiny tubers. I roast some in the oven with olive oil and salt, and they are delicious. With their small size and large percentage of skin-covered surface area, I have the feeling, too, that they’re packed with vitamins and minerals.

An Internet search on cinnamon vine, however, clouds my enthusiasm. Descriptions of the air potato, as it’s more often known, include phrases like “invasive” and “possibly poisonous,” giving me pause about the curious bounty upon which I’ve been triumphantly feasting with my toddler.

I write to Muskat for clarification. Dioscorea polystachya, he replies, is the local, edible variety — not to be confused with the D. bulbifera that plagues folks in Florida. (D. polystachya also seems to be called D. oppositifolia and D. batatas, depending on your source.)

DougPickingPotatoesMuskat points me in the direction of local herbalist and storyteller Doug Elliott, who, in his book Wild Roots, writes that the air potato was originally brought here as an ornamental plant from China, and carries another name: Chinese yam. The name cinnamon vine comes from its small white cinnamon-scented flowers that bloom in midsummer.

At his homestead in Union Mills, Elliott tells me that the air potato also has delicious tubers under the ground, but these can be hard to dig up. He and his wife mostly use vine-growing air potatoes, either boiling them like regular potatoes or rolling them around in a hot, well-oiled frying pan.

Elliott, author of such works as the children’s collection Crawdads, Doodlebugs & Creasy Greens, knows songs and stories about all kinds of plants, but none for the air potato — yet. “I don’t know how long this has been in the country,” he says, but “probably not long enough to have too many songs or stories associated with it.”

Elliott does, however, point me in the direction of his friend Clyde Hollifield, whom he describes as a local, “folkloric character.” He says Hollifield has a story about the air potato being the potato of “the little people,” saying that we big people who live above ground plant our big potatoes below ground, while the little people live underground and they plant their little potatoes above ground.

“The little people?” I ask. But Elliott says I should hear the story from Hollifield himself.

Clyde

Clyde Hollifield holding a banjo in a bottle.

The Little People

Hollifield lives some 18 winding miles southeast of Black Mountain and introduces himself as a local person who’s been “grandfathered in.” A former instrument builder, woodcarver, puppeteer, community college instructor, and rehabilitator of birds of prey, Hollifield is full of neat tricks, like making a miniature little people’s rain jacket out of a poplar leaf, and fitting a hand-carved miniature banjo magically into a bottle. Hollifield introduces me to the traditional, fly-operated Appalachian “flypig” folk toy, which he builds out of pecans and other nuts and is trying to revive. http://www.flypig.us/

“The little people’s potato,” he says of the air potato. He, too, has the aerial-tuber-dotted vine growing on his property, some meters up from a replica of Stonehenge. “‘Cause it’s so tiny, you know what I mean? But it’s so small that it would have to be the potato of the second little people down.”

bookpageI tell Hollifield that I am unfamiliar with the idea of the little people. “Are they like fairies?” I ask.

Not exactly, he explains. They are more like people. “They have the same lifestyle, but are mythological, I guess you’d say, or magical….”

Hollifield has always been fascinated by Native American ideas of the little people. “I’m part Cherokee myself, like everybody here,” he says. The other part is Celtic. Specifically, from the MacDuffie clan, which he says comes from Gaelic words for black fairy.

Hollifield points out that in European folklore, there’s a whole menagerie of mythological creatures, like trolls, goblins, elves, and hobbits, who, like the Cherokee little people, are said to have lived underground, under the rivers, in rock piles, or other in-between places.

This is no idle chatter. One of Hollifield’s stories appears in a book on Cherokee little people, and he himself has written and illustrated an impressively detailed fantasy manuscript called The Cedar Creek Fairies that draws from local ecology.

Hollifield says that the Cherokee name for air potatoes is nuni. He’s not sure how long the plant has been here, but he’s sure he’s heard this from several people. Then again, he says, the Cherokee also have a name for elephant.

A lot of Native American people of all tribes will not discuss the little people, says Hollifield, though they firmly believe in them. “It’s a spiritual thing,” he says. “It’s considered dangerous.”

According to Hollifield, there’s a tricky way of getting around this taboo, however, people saying things like “I heard…” or “Someone said…” rather than directly revealing their personal encounters with the little folk.

I ask Hollifield how cinnamon vine is related to the little people.

“I probably made up the connection between the nuni and the little people,” admits Hollifield. “I probably told that on a whim to Doug. That sounds like something I would say.”

Still, he explains, in Cherokee and many other native cultures, little things are more important than big things. For instance, in medicine, folks often say that the little medicine is the strongest: a small root may be stronger medicine than a large root. This general rule applied to many things — among them, certainly, the little people.

“They were allies, in a different realm,” says Hollifield. “It wasn’t necessarily good to see them. It might be dangerous.”

I think back to the tour with Alan Muskat, where I first encountered the air potato. “Fairy potatoes,” he told us, with a half-smile. “A name I made up, but it’s a little bit dangerous, right?”

As with picking wild food in general, my search for information on the air potato seems something of a shadowy treasure hunt. Each person I encounter along the way seems to shun the well-beaten path, purposefully veering outside the mainstream in order to access something richer.

I’m reminded of a comment Doug Elliott made on his and his wife’s homesteading lifestyle: “We do go to the grocery store, but not very often, thank goodness.”

Chinese Roots

Air potatoes on the (cinnamon) vine

Air potatoes on the (cinnamon) vine

After visiting Elliott and Hollifield, I make an appointment to interview Dr. Dongping Han, another person with whom Doug Elliott recommended I speak.

A professor of Chinese history and political science at Warren Wilson College, Dr. Han is a man to whom the air potato is no mystery; he grew up with this plant in China and now grows it in his yard, boiling the air potatoes in season and eating them as a snack.

Dongping Han holding one of the larger subterranean roots of the cinnamon vine

Dongping Han holding one of the larger subterranean roots of the cinnamon vine

“When I was growing up, this was one of one of most important plants my family and my extended family grew,” Han says. In China, it’s renowned for its healing properties as well as for food.

The tiny vine-growing air potatoes are dipped in sugar and cooked and sold on a stick during New Year time, says Han, but it’s the underground tuber of the plant that’s prized among the Chinese as a foodstuff. Cooked with chicken, it is a favored dish for important guests.

“If you read the Chinese medical book, it’s good for anything almost,” Han says about the yam. It has a sweet, neutral nature that is said to be beneficial for the kidney and the spleen and help balance chi within the body.

Since the root can grow up to six feet long, it is sometimes cultivated in a tube or pipe due to the difficulty of harvesting it so deep in the soil.

“If you cook the root,” says Han, “once you take the skin off, it’s very sticky, and slippery. The Chinese believe that anything like that is good for your health.”

Han says the air potato is found all over China, but primarily in the North. He is not aware of any poisonous varieties.

So perhaps, I think, the shadowy treasure hunt ends here.

“What’s the name of the air potato in Chinese?” I ask. “Shan yao,” Dr. Han says, spelling it for me. Shan means mountain; yao means medicine. When I look that up on the Internet, I get another surprise.

Due to its use as a tonic for both “congenital and acquired ailments,” several sources say, the Chinese apparently have another name for this superstar mountain yam: fairy food.

And no, I’m not making this up.


I hope you enjoyed that multicultural YAMmering . Feel free to check out the products page of my website to take advantage of the

GETTIN’ READY FOR WINTER SALE (till Jan. 1)

http://www.dougelliott.com/products.html

CD SALE!
All single CDs – $12.50
Double CDs – $15

An Evening with Doug Elliott  DVD
Stories, Songs, and Lore Celebrating the Natural World
Elliott performs a lively concert of tales, tunes, traditional lore, wild stories, and fact stranger than fiction–flavored with regional dialects, harmonica riffs, and belly laughs. One moment he is singing about catfish, the next he’s extolling the virtues of dandelions, or bursting forth with crow calls. He also demonstrates basketry, ponders the “nature” in human nature, tells wild snake tales, and jams and jives with his fiddler son, Todd.
Normally $20 — NOW only $15

The Mystery Reptile Eggs

RaceEggsWpenny

Reptile Eggs! They were buried in the newly turned ground of Yanna’s sweet potato patch. They were egg-shaped, leathery, at least an inch long, and ten in number. We had seen black rat snake eggs before; they were almost cylindrical and usually deposited in mulch piles or tucked into piles of hay. These eggs were buried in the dirt. I thought they had to be snapping turtle eggs. We reburied them in soil in a tank on the porch and kept them moist.

Almost two months later you can imagine our surprise when a rowdy bunch of big-eyed, feisty little snakes with reddish-brown blotches emerged. These little rascals had attitude! Even though they were not as thick as a pencil, they were not afraid to defend themselves by wildly snapping at any perceived threat. They would even strike at each other. In fact when we were trying to hold several of them to photograph, they would grab hold of one another and had to be pried loose.

snakemontage

 

These were baby black racers, one of the region’s two kinds of black snakes. They won’t develop their black coloration for several years.

For more on black snakes, check out Three Snakes in One—Blacksnake-ology 101 at: https://dougelliottstory.wordpress.com/2012/03/28/three-snakes-in-one-blacksnake-ology-101/

Pick up my DVD with my story of the snake and the egg at a SALE PRICE!

While we are talking snakes, I might mention my one and only DVD, An Evening with Doug Elliott, has almost an hour and a half of my favorite “Stories, Songs, and Lore Celebrating the Natural World” and includes my somewhat famous true story of the snake and the egg. This DVD won a national Storytelling World award and we are celebrating with a half price sale—only $10 till the end of September 2015,  Check out the rest of the selection of books and recordings while you are on my website. http://www.dougelliott.com/products.html

The Day the Bees Fell on My Head

Hi folks, It’s swarm season and there is a lot of activity in the bee yard. I couldn’t help but think about an adventure that happened there several years ago:

swarm tree coverI was fifty feet up a tree. It was in the spring of my fiftieth year, when fifty thousand bees fell on my head. Fifty thousand bees weigh more than you might think — maybe four or five pounds. The mass landed heavily, with a buzzing thud, and pushed my hat down to my ears. Within a few seconds I was virtually covered with bees. They oozed down over my shoulders, arms, and trunk like a mass of living, breathing, buzzing pudding.

I was so glad I had worn my bee veil. I had my long-sleeved beekeeper’s gloves, too –but the gloves dangled uselessly from my back pocket. I wanted to have a good grip on the branches while climbing the tree so I hadn’t worn them. And I did have a good grip! But how those bees tickled as they crawled all over my unprotected wrists, exploring my open sleeves and the white knuckles of my bare hands as I grasped those treetop branches for dear life.

For some reason I got to thinking about a honeybee’s stinger. It is such an amazing organ. A bee’s stinger is much more than a simple hypodermic needle. It has three moving parts that work together. The top of the stinger is a needle-sharp stylus. Underneath the stylus are two barbed lancets. Together these three parts form the three-sided venom canal. At the base of the stinger is the muscular venom gland.

When a bee stings you, she jabs that needle-sharp stylus into you and those two barbed lancets start working back and forth. The barbs catch in your flesh and they pull the stinger deeper and deeper. Meanwhile the venom gland pumps the venom down the canal and that’s when you start to feel “…a pain so characteristic that one knows not wherewith to compare it; a kind of destroying dryness, a flame of the desert rushing over the wounded limb as though these daughters of the sun had distilled a dazzling poison from their father’s angry rays…” (1)

Because the stinger is anchored so securely, when the bee tries to fly away after stinging, she can’t escape until her rear end tears off. Even though she is gone, the stinger remains, and the venom gland pumps away, injecting more and more venom. (So if you do get stung, you should, as quickly as possible, try to scrape, rather than pinch, the stinger to remove it.)

The unfortunate bee flies off, mortally wounded, and she dies. If you are allergic to bee stings, you might die too. Even if you are not allergic to bee stings, getting a few hundred can still be quite serious–especially if you are 50 feet up in a tree when you get these stings. So, I decided right then and there that this was not a good time or place for panic. I took a deep breath.

I couldn’t help but notice–these bees were not stinging me. Bees don’t really “want” to sting. It is such an investment to sting; if they sting, they die. However, in order to protect their hive, their home, their babies and their queen, they will sting and give their lives without hesitation..

This was a classic bee swarm, not a virulent hoard of stinging marauders. These bees were homeless and vulnerable. They had outgrown their living quarters and left their home for the next generation. Before they left their hive, they gorged themselves on honey. Their bellies were full and now they were hanging out, feeling mellow (at least they were before they fell on my head). Without a home or babies to protect, they had little reason to sting.

HOMELESS, you say? Why were these bees homeless? From up in that tree I could see all my neatly painted bee hives lined up down below — more than a dozen. I had assembled and painted them. I hauled in cinder blocks and wheel rims for hive stands to keep them up off the moist ground. I supplied them with comb foundation for them to make their honeycomb and raise their babies. I fed them when they were hungry and gave them medicine when they were sick. Why were these bees hanging out up here in this tree being homeless?

This is the way of honeybees. This swarm was made up of the field bees and the queen from one of those hives down below. They had been working hard since late February when the first maples began to bloom, and they had built up their colony rapidly. There were many thousands of workers. They had filled their hive with comb and brood and a great store of honey. It was getting crowded; so now it was time to hand over the hive to the next generation and start again somewhere else. The queen and all the active field bees were flying off together to start over in a new location.

A typical swarm, leaves the hive and lands nearby, as a large, buzzing gob. From here scout bees fly off to explore the countryside looking for a new hive site. If you are an alert beekeeper, you can often catch the swarm by taking an empty hive, removing the cover and laying it under the swarm. Then lean that branch with the swarm right over the hive and give it a good shake. Most of the bees will fall into the hive. If the conditions are right they all just march in and make this hive their home. You ease the cover on and put the hive where you want it. Now you have a new hive of bees. Catching swarms is a simple (Well, sometimes it’s simple.) way to increase your number of hives and reclaim your runaway bees as well.

That’s what I was doing up in the tree. This swarm was as big as a bushel basket, right near the top of the tree. These were all the working field bees and the queen from my strongest hive. With the work force gone, I probably would not get any honey that year from the bees that remained. I wanted that swarm!   I put up a 25- foot extension ladder that reached the first branches, and from there, I climbed the tree.

I had a pruning saw and a long rope . The bees were massed on a branch about a foot out from the trunk. My plan was to tie a rope onto that branch, carefully saw it off and slowly lower the branch with the swarm 50 feet down to the hive that I had open and ready underneath.

It might have worked–except for that one dead branch right under the swarm. In order to test its strength I held on to other branches and put one foot on it to see if it would hold me. As soon as I had most of my weight on it, the branch snapped. I was holding on securely to those other branches but when that dead branch snapped, the whole tree shook and that’s when the bees fell on my head.

Now I had all these bees on my head, crawling all over my body and flying all around me. Their buzzing grew more intense until it was a whining roar. It sounded like I was inside a chainsaw! Soon the swirling mass of came together in the air right in front of me, and took off out of the tree. That sure took a weight off my shoulders!

I watched them sail across the garden, over the shop and the woodshed and over the pond. They headed up over the trees and the last I saw of that swarm, they looked like a floating, ever-diminishing smudge against the clear blue sky until they finally disappeared over the mountain.

That was the last I ever saw of those bees. They left me speechless and blinking, stunned but unstung, still clinging to the branches, high in the crown of this swaying tulip poplar tree. Hundreds of orange, yellow and green blossoms surrounded me. Large, tender, sun-dappled leaves shimmied in the gentle breezes.

From my perch, I could look down over the garden, the bee yard, the house, the sheds and the rest of our little homestead. What a great place this was for an overview, a place to get a different perspective on things. Here I was, 50 feet off the ground; I was a half century old, on a threshold of sorts – a boundary between heaven and earth, somewhat desperately clinging to the branches of this tree of life. This was a good place to contemplate my own mortality. No, it would not be good to fall from here. It was also a fine setting to contemplate the miracle of nature as well as the complexity and absurdity of human endeavor…( like risking my life for a swarm of stinging insects?!)

(1) Maurice Maeterlinck Pg. 25 The Life of the Bee NY. Dodd, Meade & Co. 1913   Maurice Maeterlinck, was a 20th century Belgian poet, playwright, and essayist.

————————————

Hi Friends, Thanks for stopping by. The above story is excerpted from my last book Swarm Tree, Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life

That book is part of the BUZZOLOGY SPECIAL SALE!
(Sale ends June 21 Solstice)  Go to my Products Page here.

Swarm Tree, Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life (book) $15 ($3 off)
Sail On, Honeybee, Adventures in the Bee Yard (CD) $10 ($5 off)

FREEBEE LINKS :

Honeybee Fly Around Song Todd at age 13 singing about honeybees and dancing around (and on) the bee hives.

Poplar Appeal – UNC-TV Celebrating the tulip poplar tree as a source of honey, baskets, and many other things.

Hawk in the Chicken Yard (What’ll We Do…?)

1146-chickenThat poor little free-range hen never knew what hit her! Feathers were scattered all over the ground there at the edge of the woods. Her head was definitely messed up. Half her breast had been eaten.

What to do? Salvage work first: Save the other half of the breast and the legs for the stew pot. Then I put her remains right back where I found them, but inside a wire have-a-heart type live-trap. I was certain that whatever had killed her would come back in the night for a second helping.

The next morning I checked the trap and nothing had come. Later in the day I checked and, to my great surprise, there was a hawk in the trap, fluttering about, panicked, and furious. I put on thick leather welder’s gloves, removed it from the trap, and released it. But not before my son Todd took a few photos.

3058-hawk

 

3113-hawkCooper’s hawks are sometimes called “squirrel hawks” because of their ability to navigate with great speed even through thick forest. They belong to a group of raptors known as accipiters. These hawks are characterized by long tails and short rounded wings. Their flight pattern is often a few flaps and a glide. The accipiter group also includes the smaller sharp-shinned hawk and the larger goshawk.

That was one lucky hawk. Chicken-killing hawks are rarely treated so well in this neighborhood. The good news is that maybe it learned its lesson because we haven’t had any chicken predation since then.

3106-hawk


Hi Friends, Thanks for stopping in.

The 2015 Calendar is up and running!

I’ve got a number of interesting programs coming up, from Minnesota, out to the Ozarks, and all around the Southeast. Hope to see you! www.dougelliott.com/calendar

The days are getting longer and the first amphibians are stirring. The wood frogs have started calling. The salamander rains will be here, and watch out for those horny toads!

And here’s a few items on sale:

LATE WINTER SALE (till March 21) – www.dougelliott.com/products

An Evening with Doug Elliott DVD
Stories, Songs, and Lore Celebrating the Natural World
Elliott performs a lively concert of tales, tunes, traditional lore, wild stories, and fact stranger than fiction–flavored with regional dialects, harmonica riffs, and belly laughs. One moment he is singing about catfish, the next he’s extolling the virtues of dandelions, or bursting forth with crow calls. He also demonstrates basketry, ponders the “nature” in human nature, tells wild snake tales, and jams and jives with his fiddler son, Todd.
Normally $20 — NOW only $10

Looking for America: A 20th Century Hero’s Journey Double CD
We are all heroes and we are all on a mythic journey. Travel with master storyteller, Doug Elliott, on a journey of discovery. These true cross-country hitchhiking and freight hopping tales, delivered in his own outrageous storytelling style, explore not only this amazing nation, culture and era we are a part of, but also the universal Hero’s Journey we all embarked upon at birth. You’ll be transported from congested northern freeways to sunny southern swamps and from the bowels of throbbing factories and big-city railroad yards to vast deserts and the high Rocky Mountains. You’ll meet astounding characters and hear rousing narratives and music ranging from gospel to 60’s rock, country and contemporary songs, including tunes by Leon Russell, Hank Snow, Jimmy Rogers and Country Joe and the Fish. It’s all textured with regional dialects, lively harmonica riffs, guitar, fiddle and soulful yodels. You’ll return from this rollicking journey of discovery with new insights, unusual perspectives and more than a few belly laughs.
Elliott has done some traveling. As a young man, he hopped freight trains and hitchhiked across the continent from Maine to California and from Canada to Guatemala. For most of a decade he was an itinerant herbalist traveling around the country with a van full of herbs, teas and old time remedies, and for a short time he was a migratory beekeeper hauling a trailer full of honeybees between North Carolina and Florida.
Normally $20 – NOW only $10