The Teacup Chronicles

Month: September, 2011

Ah, is this not happiness?

Today was beautiful: warm, sunny and absolutely radiant with autumnal hues – the sort of day September is made for. As I walked home in the golden sunlight of late afternoon with leaves crunching underfoot and floating lazily down from the trees overhead, there it was: the unmistakable smell of fallen leaves. The smell of autumn. My heart was filled with a lightness that is hard to put to words. Ah, is this not happiness?

P.S. You may be noticing that the old blog is undergoing a little face-lift.  It was time. I’ll be consolidating, simplifying and updating – hoping to create something which feels more me, more expressive of the way I think, feel and see the world – while also being easier to navigate for all of you.  It will be under construction for the next week, so if it looks a bit odd here and there, that is the reason why. I hope you’ll like it.

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Patera Garden

There is a particular sort of beauty expressed by a garden in the autumn. A beauty of a more stark and startling nature than that seen in other seasons. A beauty born from the contrast of growth with decay – lively bursts of color set against a backdrop of skeletons and spider webs catching the morning dew.

Earlier this week, I was given the great pleasure of leading a class at Patera Garden, a medicinal teaching garden created and lovingly tended by herbalist Larken Bunce. The garden serves as a medium by which students of the first year program at The Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism, as well as the apprenticeship program, Herbs from the Ground Up, get to directly experience the plants they learn about – growing them from seed, lovingly tending them and finally harvesting and making medicine which serves the community through VCIH’s sliding scale clinic. The entire concept is a thing of beauty, and I urge you all to read more about it over at Larken’s Blog where she chronicles the adventures of Patera.

Anyhow, I set off early on Monday morning so I would have enough time before class to walk around the gardens and take some photos to share with you. It was one of those perfect autumn mornings where the air is crisp but the bright sunshine promises warmth. On my drive, I could see the little pockets of fog clinging to the valleys and the steam rising up from the rivers in big smoky clouds to a sky of perfect blue. The trees here and there provided vibrant bursts of color –  crimsons, golds and coppers – and as I drove the light flickered over me in that beautiful way that only happens when driving down a woodland road tunneled by trees on an autumn morning. Crumpled brown leaves seemed to be everywhere suspended in mid-air. It was a morning, in short, that leaves one breathless at it’s astounding beauty.

When I arrived at the gardens, the air was still and cold. Everything was covered in dew drops and certain patches of the garden where the sun was beginning to hit were sparkling like jewels. The first plant to catch my eye was Tulsi, or Holy Basil – an Ayurvedic herb that grows well here as an annual. It has an exotically spicy and sweet aroma that some liken to bubble gum and which begs you to pet it.

Just down the path on the left, the last of the Echinacea flowers were brilliant in the light, as thought they were glowing of their own luminescence.

In the far end of the garden, the sage next caught my eye. Covered in a million tiny droplets of dew, it was absolutely shimmering in the sunshine. I knelt down and inhaled deeply the crisp, sharp scent which cleared the sleepy fog from my mind and certainly did make me feel very “sage.”

Across the way, the violets sat looking into the sun all covered in their own dewdrop jewels. Their delicate green stems and precious little flowers looked so fragile in the autumn landscape – a last display of summer’s ethereal beauty.

Then there was the lady’s mantle all covered in that dew so prized by the alchemists for making medicine (which incidentally is the reason behind the latin name of this plant, Alchemilla vulgaris). It must’ve been hard going for them trying to get enough dew…

And anise-hyssop with her delicious tasting leaves to nibble on…

But it wasn’t the delicate flowers or dew dappled perfumed leaves that captured my heart in the end. It was the skeletons of angelica flowers – standing starkly in the back of the garden, adorned with spider’s webs and droplets of water. There’s was a beauty that made one’s heart ache in a very particular way.

And so, I leave you with the words of English poet John Donne,

No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace

as I have seen in one autumnal face

Mulled Cider

When the leaves begin to turn and the air turns chill, when the fields are full of pumpkins and browning cornstalks, then it is time for cider. It should be the official drink of autumn, if you ask me. When I see it arrive on the shelves at the store, then I know, beyond any conceivable doubt, that summer days are now behind me.

Last night we had our first frost warning, and the air turned brisk with the hint of winter on its breath. The wood-stove was lit for the first time, and to celebrate we put a pan of cider filled with spice on top to bubble away and fill the house with its comforting sweetness and warmth. I must say, the scent of wood smoke, the feel of a warm blazing fire, and the scent of apple marrying with cloves and cinnamon is one of the real pleasures of life. It almost (and I say almost) makes one excited about the cold.

While plain ol’ cider is wonderful, mulled cider is a thing perfectly suited in all ways for a chilly day. To hold the warm mug in your hands, inhale steam laced with notes of apple and orange peel, taste sweetness and feel the spice in your belly – is warming in a deeply comforting way. We make it often on those brisk autumn evenings, sipping it huddled next the stove and listening the crackling of wood and wind howling down the chimney.  It is a yearly tradition, a ritual.

Aside from the usual warming spices, I like to throw in a handful of some rooty goodness as well: a little astragalus and Siberian ginseng, two roots that bolster the immune system and help the body adapt to the stress of seasonal changes. Both taste slightly sweet and mostly bland, so they lend little in flavor, but lots in goodness. Paired with all those blood moving, digestive fire kindling and antioxidant packed spices, mulled cider is not only delicious but a health-tonic as well!

A variety of spices can go into mulled cider, and it’s really up to personal preference (or for me, fishing around the spice cabinet and seeing what calls) what you will put in.  While the ingredients vary from night to night in our house, they most often include the following: a few thin slices of fresh ginger;  the zest of an orange; a few cinnamon sticks; a few cloves and star-anise pods; a bit of mace; a few juniper and allspice berries; a vanilla pod and a handful of astragalus and Siberian ginseng roots.  I’ve also been known to throw in some hawthorn berries, a few cardamom pods or even a bay leaf when the mood takes me.

All the ingredients are put into a pan with a half-gallon of cider, and left to simmer on very low heat (or perched atop the wood-stove) for a good 20-30 minutes with a cover on.  Once it’s mulled to your liking, strain it into mugs and top off with a bit of rum if it’s an extra cold night.

Cheers to the beginning of autumn!