Archive for the ‘Environments, Places, Regions, Turf’ Category

My Experience at Burning Man 2016 or I went to Burning Man so you don’t have to go

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017
7Song in a Burning Man rickety tower

7Song in a Burning Man rickety tower

Amble to the Preamble

This blog was initially meant to be a reasonably succinct discussion of my thoughts and feelings about Burning Man. Instead it is has become a dissertation-sized exposition on this event.

If you are mainly interested in reading and viewing photos from Burning Man, jump to the sections below that interest you.

Burning Man

Burning Man

Preamble

After many years of hearing tales of Burning Man, this was the year I finally attended. And while I have not held a fervid desire to go, I have always had a background curiosity. And this year the opportunity arose. But before I go into the events leading to my Burning Man debut, I want to make a few caveats before proceeding.

Some Caveats and Explanations, Or, I went to Burning Man so You Don’t Have to Go.

Burning Man

Burning Man

I have heard about Burning Man for many years. And while it never really seemed like my personal type of entertainment, I was intrigued. It is one of those unique US events, and I am one of those people who will to a place to be a part of a discussion.

This blog is about my Burning Man experience. I am a bit reticent writing this as I have mixed feelings about my time there and the event as a whole. I know many people who greatly enjoy it and I don’t mean to be disrespectful. But it will become obvious that it was not exactly to my tastes.

This was my first (and likely only) time at Burning Man and I realize that if it was someplace I frequented I might have felt more community and more included. Also, I tend to compare it with the Rainbow Gathering, and while they are vastly different events, having gone to the Rainbow Gathering for so many years, I cannot ignore my internal comparisons (more about that below). Also, one of my favorite aspects of being anywhere is enjoying the plant and animal life. And at Burning Man, besides human animals and eating vegetables, neither plant nor animal were to be found. And lastly, I reckon it should be noted I am not much of an art aficionado. The accompanying photos probably make this obvious as another person would have photos of the marvelous art cars, illuminated statues and fantastical structures. On a more personal note, I am a bit sound sensitive and Burning Man is a cacophonous fusion of sound. I knew about all of these before I went, so I hope I don’t appear to be complaining. But in noting these I hope it offers a sense of my perspective.

The Space Whale

The Space Whale

A Thought is Hatched

Here is how I happened to finally go. In 2016 I was taking a year off of running my own school and would be traveling. I was teaching along the west coast from August through October and had a spot open. I called the HAALo herb shop in Nevada City, CA to see if I could teach there and they said it was a bad time since many people would be going to Burning Man. And the thought slowly occurred to me ‘maybe I should go’. I knew I would be in the area and I now had some planning time.

I knew that it was difficult to get tickets, so I called up my friend and Rainbow Gathering comrade Tom Curotto (Tom from CALM) to enlist his expertise. He was very helpful untangling the complexities of purchasing a ticket. He said he would try to get me a ticket as a friend since he goes as a firefighter each year. By February it seemed that strategy would not work and so he helped again by having both of us try to purchase tickets when they went on sale for the general public.

Sunset at Burning Man

Sunset at Burning Man

So on that day, Tom in Idaho, and myself in Ithaca called at the proscribed time hoping that one of us would get through. And somehow, I did. I eventually went through a set of automated questions and got me my ticket. Frankly I was elated since I had gone this far, I wanted to go all the way through.

The information from the official website, said they sold all 30,000 tickets in 30 minutes, and so I felt lucky in my transaction. There are about 70,000 (yes, seventy thousand) people at Burning Man in 2016. I am not sure about what happens with the other tickets, though there are many volunteers.

Of course the downside was the price, All told the ticket cost $531.57. Yup, a buttload of dough. Here’s the breakdown of the ticket price; the entry ticket cost $390, a vehicle pass was $80. There was a $12 charge to mail the ticket, a $35.37 Nevada Entertainment Tax and a $14 service charge. So my enthusiasm was a bit tempered by all these seemingly extraneous costs, but I was also glad to finally get this part of the worry out of the way.

And then began the preparation. There are a number of websites with useful details, and I know a few people who also gave me helpful suggestions.

One thing that was commonly suggested to me was to stay at a well-established camp. I originally wanted to go and practice first aid, but I don’t have a degree (nurse, EMT, etc) and was not allowed to work in one of the official first aid stations. So I sought a camp where people treated participants (known as ‘Burners’). The main one was the Heebeegeebees healer camp (HBGBs) and I went through their application process and got accepted. To stay there and use their facilities, mainly getting fed 3 times a day, was $400. So now Burning Man was costing about $1000. As I’ll mention later, staying at the HBGBs was well worth it. I was also interested in working with the Zendo folks who practice psychedelic harm reduction at Burning Man, but they do not use herbs and so I felt it was not the best place for me to use my skills.

Sunset at Burning Man

Sunset at Burning Man

Travel and Travails Begin

And so, on August 27, I left the California School of Herbal Studies in Forestville for Burning Man. I had put the trip time into my GPS to see how long it would take to get there. It said I would arrive late at night which seemed odd to me, as the map showed I should easily arrive by 9 pm. Little did I know….

So after my crossing the beautiful Sierra Nevada Mountains and gassing up in Reno, I was on the long last road. It was still daylight and with 95 miles left my GPS still strangely showed me not arriving till after midnight. I drove cautiously as there were numerous police cars lining the road. And then I discovered that the GPS did not lie, as I eventually arrived to an indeterminable line of cars very slowly snaking their way to what lay ahead.

And so I grumbled and listened to books on CD and grumbled some more and watched the artistically clothed (and often cigarette smoking) folks get out of their cars and mingle while we inched along the road. And soon enough, the famous dust storms began and I could see perhaps one car length ahead of me. I suppose that I just should have relaxed into the strangeness, but I was concerned, as I did not know what lay ahead. After many hours I arrived at the first checkpoint where they checked my ticket and car pass. All this time the dust was kicking up with very low visibility, fraying my nerves a bit. I got to the second checkpoint a while later and to my surprise they searched my van to make sure that I was not smuggling any contraband or un-ticketed people into the event. I guess this makes sense, but it felt damn invasive. Many of the volunteers wore gas masks for the dust leading to a rather steampunk look which added some allure. I will admit that the questioning and search did not ingratiate me to this event. I was asked if I had any plants with me, I said yes, as I am an herbalist for botany’s sakes. Steampunk Car Checker asked to see my plants and I showed them my recently harvested dried Rosemary. They said it was not allowed. I may have argued a little saying what about all the food people are bringing; surely someone has some Rosemary in a bottle? Indeed I was feeling a bit herbalistically defensive. I was given the ultimatum that if I brought it in I could not bring the Rosemary outside my van during the whole event. And thusly I passed the second to last checkpoint. No plants indeed! At this point the Rainbow Gathering was looking like a lovely informal event compared to the restrictiveness of this festival.

Dust storm at Burning Man

Dust storm at Burning Man

There was one further checkpoint where I was given some directions and instructions and eventually wound my way to the HeeBeeGeeBee camp. My GPS was correct after all, it was past midnight; the last few miles had taken about 4 hours. At the camp I found some people who let me know that I was at the correct spot. And I parked my van and appreciatively went to sleep in it for the night. The people who helped me did not seem too friendly toward me, which foreshadowed much of my time there. But more about that to come. For now, I had finally made it into the quirkiness that is Burning Man.

The Burning Man

The Burning Man at the end of the playa promenade.

The Stage is Set-The Playa and ‘Dust’

Videos-Daytime View from a Tower

Video-Sunset view from a Tower

 

In front of the HeeBeeGeeBee camp

In front of the HeeBeeGeeBee camp

Burning man is on a ‘playa’, a large dried lakebed (over 100 miles long) formed in the Pleistocene era. It is completely free of plant life, as they do not grow on these ever shifting alkali flats. This aspect was a bit difficult for me as I can usually distract myself by looking at plants. I don’t think I have ever been to a terrestrial region so devoid of them, and by devoid I mean zero plants (nor algae or fungi).

Burning Man from a tower

Burning Man from a tower

The playa dust is one of the main features of Burning Man. It is likely the one thing everyone who has been there will speak about. It is a constant, whether on a clear windless day or during a raging dust storm where the visibility is scanty and coarse. The small particles of dust get into all possible crevices such as car windows, clothing and yes, even there. I was sort of prepared for it, but like almost any aspect of nature one needs to be immersed in it to appreciate it. It is fine particulate dust that is easily swept up by the wind and distributed everywhere and on everything and can create near white out conditions. And it is true that many months later, dust still seeps out from my vehicle. This dust make one very cautious about using any technology as it will easily get into the device and maim it. I kept my laptop in a large sealed bag in a sealed container in my vehicle and used it with the door closed. I limited outdoor exposure to my camera and phone. This dust is also quite drying. I walked in flip-flops for most the time as the ground is very soft and felt fortunate that my heels didn’t begin cracking until the last few days.

Rickety Tower at Burning Man

Rickety Tower at Burning Man

Burning Man from a tower

Burning Man from a tower

The Playa as Backdrop

One of the interesting things about the playa is the scale of the place. It is on a large flat plane with mountains in the background. The location is best viewed from one of the camp towers. I was fortunate that there was one just across the road from the HBGB camp. It was a rickety affair, but I went up most days, especially around sunrise and sunset, which were often spectacular.

The scale is striking when looking at the big art installations from a distance, as they look quite small. But up close many of these structures are the size of buildings. If you look at the photograph of the Burning Man, you can see how small the people look working right under it.

Burning Man and workers

Burning Man and workers

Bicycles are the main means of transport, and fortunately I had use of one (thank you again Tom). While there were some deep sandy spots where it was difficult to pedal, the surface makes for easy riding and the ground is level. The main considerations are other bicycles and the slowly moving art cars. These vehicles are skillfully done and elaborate in design and function. And were loud as well, each blaring the music or sounds preferred by their creators. They are integral part of the Burning Man playascape.

Sunset at Burning Man

Sunset at Burning Man

Sunrise at Burning Man

Sunrise at Burning Man

Sunrise at Burning Man

Sunrise at Burning Man

Energy, Resources and ‘MOOP’

Sunrise at Burning Man

Sunrise at Burning Man

To produce such a fantastical panorama, a lot energy and resources are needed. This was the one of the parts of Burning Man I liked least. From an environmental perspective, it seems wasteful. They do have a number of measures to try and reduce waste. The term ‘MOOP’ (matter out of place) is used for garbage and there are guidelines on how to reduce this. There is a 7-mile perimeter fence to catch blowing trash and there was very little garbage on the playa, which is surprising and impressive given all the people and projects.

 

The largest energy consumption is from all the vehicles driving to this remote region of Nevada. Another big use of fuel were the conspicuous fire displays. One such attraction was a towering metal figure that would send huge bursts of flame. I assume they use a variety of combustible liquids and gasses. I may be wrong, but they must go through a lot of fuel for such an attraction. Another large consumer of energy is the extravagant light displays (which are often lovely) as well as the large array sound systems.

The most egregious environmental impact is likely to be the very large fires (the ‘burns’). More about these below.

‘The Scene’

The Temple at Burning Man

The Temple at Burning Man

From the towers you can see the individual camps that make up Burning Man. Many of these camps have a theme such as a huge EDM soundstage or a pickle bar. Some are very elaborate such as the Thunder dome where contestant in elastic straps face off with Goth-clad ringmasters and metal music blasting. Other camps are much more subtle where friends come to spend time with each other or provide all the fixin’s to make your own s’mores.

One of the things I admired about Burning Man is what they call the Gift Economy. There is almost nothing for sale at Burning Man except ice and coffee at an official kiosk. So if there is a margarita night somewhere, the drinks will be free. It changes the atmosphere of a place for it to be non-commercial in this way. This event still exudes wealth; the cost of the structures, the time needed to put them together and of course the price of admission. But it could have all those factors and still be a marketplace, so I applaud the people who generously devote and donate their time and money to offer people a treat or a sensation.

On the aesthetic side, it seems that feather boas, lingerie, steampunk, faux fur and a general slinky look are de rigueur at this event. And I admit to a conservative streak and so the clothing styles did not lend much appeal to me.

Also a big part of the ambience is the music, often very loud music. I cannot say it favored me to this event, but perhaps I am just a thin ear-drummed prig.

Buildings and Other Structures

The Temple at Burning Man

The Temple at Burning Man

Burning Man showcases creative, attractive, flamboyant and intricate structures. These include various types of statues and buildings. There is statuary throughout the camps and some very large pieces on the playa. Many are quite spectacular. There were some large buildings including pyramids, lighthouses, a temple, and the burning man itself.

The Temple at Burning Man

The Temple at Burning Man

Of all the structures, the temple was my favorite. The wood smelled like cedar. And it was beautiful and intricate. But more than the structure itself was its purpose, a place where people come to consider those who have died. People posted photos and notes, some very personal as well as to famous folks like David Bowie. The first time I went I was curious about the structure. But I came back later and being among the people crying and thinking about those people who have passed was very moving. It was a sentimental reflective experience.

The inside of the Temple at Burning Man

The inside of the Temple at Burning Man

 

But frankly no matter what I thought about the various structure it was somewhat obviated by knowing that they would soon burn. This seemed like a colossal waste of resources. I guess if there were just one giant fire it might just seem a bit foolish, but each of these large buildings was soon to burned down. And while I can appreciate ceremony and symbolism, I could not get past the waste and air-borne particulate matter.

The Temple at Burning Man

The Temple at Burning Man

The Temple at night at Burning Man

The Temple at night at Burning Man

More about the burns below

Networking

I never really felt a part of any group, nor did I make any strong connections at Burning Man. This is uncommon for me, for while I sometimes keep to myself I am also an ambivert and enjoy conversing and getting to know people. But it was obvious that for many people Burning Man offered a time with friends and the opportunity to lavish attention on some project. Many of the camps housed outrageously elaborate designs clearly the work of many people. In these there was a clear show of community and networking.

The HeeBeeGeeBee Healer Camp

Video-A 360° view of around the HeeBeeGeeBee camp

HeeBeeGeeBee Healer Camp 1

HeeBeeGeeBee Healer Camp 1

HeeBeeGeeBee Healer Camp 2

HeeBeeGeeBee Healer Camp 2

HeeBeeGeeBee Healer Camp 3

HeeBeeGeeBee Healer Camp 3

The HeeBeeGeeBee healer camp (HBGB) is where I stayed and practiced at Burning Man. A lot of my thoughts and feelings about Burning Man revolve around this camp. HBGB was primarily for people who had ongoing health issues though some came for non-emergency first aid. Burning Man has 6 official first aid stations (and a small hospital) and this is not one of those.

HeeBeeGeeBee front entrance

HeeBeeGeeBee front entrance

This camp is organized by a few individuals who generously donate a lot of time and resources. It was a boon to the many people who visited each day.

HeeBeeGeeBee Class Tent

HeeBeeGeeBee Class Tent

HeeBeeGeeBee Kitchen

HeeBeeGeeBee Kitchen

This section will cover the details about the HBGB. The next section is about my experiences as an herbalist there.

While at first I chaffed at paying $400 to stay at the HBGB camp. I was glad I did. It offered a home base, a community of people, food, and a place to practice herbal medicine. People knew about this camp and began arriving from the first day onward. I was glad to be in a situation where I could practice herbal medicine.

HeeBeeGeeBee Shower

HeeBeeGeeBee Shower

HBGB camp shower water whisk. Water is evaporated in the hot dry air by the small fans that move due to air current.

HBGB camp shower water whisk. Water is evaporated in the hot dry air by the small fans that move due to air current.

We were fed three meals a day and had filtered water, snacks, and a place to recharge phones available. There was a hot water bag shower, which was helpful to remove the daily dust accumulation. They have an interesting method of evaporating the water with wind-driven fans. This is to avoid contaminating the playa with the water. And it was very helpful to be able to relax under the large tents to get out of the dust and sun.

HeeBeeGeeBee hang-out area 2

HeeBeeGeeBee hang-out area 2

HBGB occupies a fair size space. The camp was divided up into a few areas. There was a kitchen and eating and meeting area. There was a large teaching tent where classes were held throughout the day. Next to that was a circus-sized tent, which served as the main area for people waiting to be seen or just wanting to come in out of the elements. It was well appointed with pillows and cushions and offered a relaxing atmosphere. Next to this was a separate partitioned area where the healers worked. Only practitioners and people being treated were allowed in, which helped it maintain a calmer atmosphere. There was also a large tent to house people’s smaller individual tents so they were not directly exposed to the environment. I slept in my van, which worked well to reduce noise, dust and wind as well as it gave me some privacy.

They have an interesting system for setting up appointments. In the covered entrance to the main tent there are poster boards. On these boards were sheets describing each practitioner and the services they offered as well as a place to sign up. After signing up they waited in the comfy large tent. There were two 3-hour shifts each day and there were usually at least 5 body workers for each shift. This was fortunate as it was the modality most people wanted. Some of the people who came to see me did so because there we no more room to be seen by a body worker.

HeeBeeGeeBee Entrance

HeeBeeGeeBee Entrance

HeeBeeGeeBee poster boards to sign up for practitioners

HeeBeeGeeBee poster boards to sign up for practitioners

There was a wide range of bodywork and it was interesting to sit in the middle and watch the various methods employed.

There were some parts of the HBGB camp that I found disconcerting. On a sanitation level, a better pre-meal hand wash would be helpful before people began serving themselves (this is the first aid worker in me speaking).

This next part is about the clothing at the HBGB camp. This reflects my conservative nature, as it seems to be the norm at this camp and Burning Man in general.

HeeBeeGeeBee main tent

HeeBeeGeeBee main tent

HeeBeeGeeBee main tent

HeeBeeGeeBee main tent

There was a fair bit of partial nudity by practitioners at the HBGB camp, which I felt could be triggers for people coming in to be treated. I realize that this sounds prudish of me but I am fairly comfortable around nudity (it is a norm at the Rainbow Gathering) but felt that in a place set up for healing, it might make some people uncomfortable.

There was a practitioner meeting concerning patient’s consent by body workers. I appreciated this talk and there was a separate area for sensual massage. The body workers mostly seemed professional in their skills and temperaments. But a number of them were partially clothed and I imagine for a number of people it could be a uncomfortable.

One of the male-bodied practitioners wore a skirt with nothing below it. This would normally go unnoticed and would in fact feel good in the desert. Except that he would often be on top of the table working on patients. This makes the situation rather revealing. Again, I may be the only one who feels this way, but I am not sure everyone wants to be worked on with a practitioner’s reproductive organs in full view and close by.

Another example was during the daily post-dinner meeting. The person who gave a follow up of the day’s activities wore a long open robe with nothing beneath and after dinner one of the staff would undress showing off their panties. Again this seemed the norm and there is a good chance that I was the only person there who found it in poor taste, as many people were a part of the catcalling and jeering hoots.

I feel a bit embarrassed to even mention this and people may judge me a prude. But I appreciate a bit more decorum in an environment where people are getting treated. And while it may be the norm at Burning Man, I feel HBGB would do well to let patients and staff know what to expect this way.

A different discomfiting situation for me was that one of body workers would encourage his clients to shout as a sort of primal therapy. I understand that this type of therapy may be appropriate for some people, but in a room full of other people working quietly it is unnerving and seemed disrespectful. It only happened a few times but it was alarming.

You may paint me Victorian-esque, but these aspects made it uncomfortable for me to work there. Panty showing-off indeed.

HeeBeeGeeBee hang-out area

HeeBeeGeeBee hang-out area

 

Practicing Herbal Medicine at the HBGB Camp

7Song's consultation area

7Song’s consultation area

I was glad to be a part of the HeeBeeGeeBee healer camp (HBGB) and to have a place to freely practice herbal medicine. A quick note about the word ‘healer’. While many at this camp use this term to describe the work they do, I find it a bit pretentious. I tend to think of herbal medicine and most forms of health care in more prosaic terms.

I set myself up to do consultations in the middle of the treatment room. Fortunately the acoustics did not travel far in the tent so during the consultation we could talk at a normal level and hear each other well but not easily be heard by others. During each shift (I usually worked both shifts daily) I would bring in my herbal gear, which consisted of a large suitcase with supplies, my first aid bag with tinctures, a gallon of water, small disposable cups, and empty 1 oz plastic bottles. After discussing the person’s health I would then usually make them a tincture. For this I would pour from the bottles of various individual tinctures into the 1 oz plastic bottle. I would then dilute it with water and affix a label on the bottle with the ingredients and dosage. Sometimes I prepared a medicine in one of the paper cups to be taken right away.

By the end of the second day I realized that I had to stop giving out as much medicine as I was quickly running out. I was mainly running out of the herbs for anxiety.

HeeBeeGeeBee treatment area

HeeBeeGeeBee treatment area

After the second day I started to record basic patient information and the types of health issues I was seeing. The camp did not require any paperwork, but I like to have this data for other herbalists who may work at Burning Man in the future.

I saw between 8-12 people per day. They were mainly from larger urban areas and were middle class and higher income brackets. The reason I write this is that folks from lower economic strata often have different health care issues from a lack of access from their earliest days. The most common health issue I saw is the same one I see in most places I work, anxiety.

Some of the people who came to see me did so because there we no more room to be seen by a body worker. Many of the people who came to see me did not know what an herbalist did. I would ask if they have ever used herbal medicine or have seen an herbalist and to my surprise, most knew little about herbal medicine. This surprised me because of the environment I was working in and many likely lived more alternatives life styles. I would begin the consultation by telling them what herbalists do and what herbal medicine entails. Since people often came to the HBGB camp for body and energy work, I think practicing herbal medicine seemed a bit out of place. After introductions the conversation often went something like this;

7Song: ‘How can I help you?’

Patient: ‘I’m not sure, what do you do?’

7Song: ‘I am an herbalist, we treat various health problems using plants as medicines’

Patient: ‘I don’t really have any health problems’.

7Song: ‘Do you have any health issues such as digestive problems, asthma or rashes?’

Patient: ‘Well actually I do have (name an ailment)’

7Song: ‘Do you want to talk about it?’

At this point they would often talk about chronic health conditions such as ulcerative colitis or long-term depression. I think the reason it went this way is that people were not sure what an herbalist did, so were not really thinking about their long-term health problems. Also I think at festivals people like to focus on the positive, and to not think as much about their health issues unless it is currently affecting them. I sometimes felt a bit uneasy teasing this out as perhaps it is better for them not to focus on it. But I did not push much as I want people to enjoy their time at Burning Man.

But once they began speaking about their health we would often talk for a while and I would discuss various treatment strategies, herbal and otherwise. I would also discuss ways to continue treatment after they left the event. One way was by letting them know practitioners I knew around where they lived.

In general it was satisfying, though a lot of folks who I saw were more interested in the spiritual aspects of their life and health and this is not where I focus.

The main health issues I encountered were

  • Anxiety, insomnia and other mental health issues
  • Various types of pain
  • Respiratory conditions
  • Digestive problems
  • Fatigue and a lack of energy
  • Allergies and asthma
  • A number of other chronic ailments.

If you are an herbalist who plans on working at Burning Man, I can give you a more specific run-down of what I saw there.

While I was appreciative for all the efforts behind this camp and being able practice freely, it was not a place I felt very comfortable.One reason is that a lot of the health care had a spiritual focus, and this is not the way I view the world. I like to help people and I appreciate serendipity but my view is through the lens of science. This is too large (and perhaps too personal) a topic to cover here, but I often felt distant from the conversations around me.

I often found it difficult to engage with the people around me at this camp. I am sure that much of this is how I present myself but I enjoy conversations and was disappointed by not finding myself engaged more often. My favorite conversations were with the people I was treating. In short, I often felt out of place and was sorry to not feel more at home there.

The Burns

Video-The Man Burning

Audience at the Burning Man burn

Audience at the Burning Man burn

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 3

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 2

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 3

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 3

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 4

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 4

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 5

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 5

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 6

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 6

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 7

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 7

The Burns are one of the bigger entertainments at Burning Man. This is where they burn various structures, a number of them building-sized. These are planned and calculated affairs utilizing various incendiary devices to create and sustain the fires. They also have many safety protocols in place. The burning of the Burning Man was a lavish show with fire dancers, and impressive fireworks. There is something alluring about watching these huge fires. I especially enjoyed the dust devils, which are miniature tornados caused by rapidly changing air temperature. The playa create excellent conditions for these.

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 1

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 1

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 2

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 2

But I find these extraordinarily wasteful, as well as creating a lot of air pollution. There may be significance behind these fires, but they just seem to be a reckless waste of resources, especially with so many of them.

My Escape

Sunset as I was driving out

Sunset as I was driving out

I went to sleep soon after the Burning Man burn. I awoke at the earliest signs of sunrise, hopped into the front seat and having gotten all my things together the day before, I was ready to drive. As usual, a dust storm swept in making the drive slow and unnerving but it added a bit of memorability to this escapade. Soon enough I was in a long line of vehicles snaking their way to parts beyond the playa. But it took less than 2 hours and during this time a beautiful sunrise adorned the scene.

After I made the first turn off going north, I felt the exhilaration of leaving Burning Man. Leaving behind the dust, the noise and my sense of un-belonging. A light drizzle fell as I made my way to my next adventure in southern Oregon.

My Inevitable Comparisons with the Rainbow Gathering

The Burning Man burn

The Burning Man burn

It feels odd or perhaps unnecessary comparing the Rainbow Gathering and Burning Man. But since I do so internally, I thought I might as well put these musings into writing. Most of this will not make much sense unless you have been to a Rainbow Gathering. And to state what will become obvious, I much prefer the Rainbow Gathering (even with its many flaws) and I suspect if a Burner wrote this blog, the favorability would be reversed.

First aid station (CALM) at the 2016 Rainbow Gathering

First aid station (CALM) at the 2016 Rainbow Gathering

The first Rainbow Gathering was in 1972 and has been held every year since. It is free, non-commercial event in a different National Forest in a different part of the country each year. It is an off-the-grid, wilderness gathering where people stay in tents and bring whatever supplies they need.

Before I go on, I want to state clearly that there is much about the Rainbow Gathering that I do not care for. I have working at the first aid station (CALM) for the past 25 years and this is the main reason I go as I have learned a tremendous amount working there. The first aid station is a free clinic with conventional and holistic modalities working together. I have been bringing my Community Herbalism Intensive students to work there since 1994 and I find it an excellent opportunity for them to get hands-on supervised experience.

These are some of the Lovin' Ovens used to bake for the Rainbow Gathering

These are some of the Lovin’ Ovens used to bake for the Rainbow Gathering

Something I did not expect form going to Burning Man is that it has made me more appreciative of the Rainbow Gathering. I hadn’t really thought of the Rainbow Gathering as a self-reliant event, but after going to Burning Man I can see that it is in many ways.

Both events are remote, though the Rainbow Gathering is in a different National Forest every year.While I wouldn’t call the Rainbow Gathering self-reliant it certainly makes better use of the local products from the environment than Burning Man, which is very reliant on manufactured items. Most structures at the Rainbow Gathering are built from local dead trees and the entertainment is non-electrified, Many people who come to the Rainbow Gathering set up camps to help each other; kitchens, water stations, first aid. It is far from perfect, but it seems much more neighborly than ‘radical self reliance’ (and if you have to call yourself ‘radical’ are you?).

The Rainbow Gathering does leave a big footprint, which moves from the different National Forests it is held each year. This is most apparent where the cars are parked along with footpaths and fire pits. Since Burning Man is held in the ever-shifting playa this is less obvious. It seems important to note that there are nearly 10 times as many people at Burning Man. If 70.000 people showed up in the National Forest, it would be a disaster.

One thing both events share is people having special event names such as Crystal Luna or Sparklepony. They also both have a lot of ‘in-house’ jargon.

Burning Man burn 1

Burning Man burn 1

Burning Man and Rainbow Gatherings both have a lax attitude towards clothing, though the type of favored apparel is quite different.

Rainbow Gatherings likely have a more negative impact to local towns. While they both bring in money, Burners have more money and are less likely to be bedraggled spangers.

To me one of the most important differing aspects is about whom gets to go. Both events impose limits on who comes in different ways. Burning Man carries a much higher price tag, from entry tickets to providing your own everything. The Rainbow Gathering is free and open to anyone, but you have to be willing to rough it, no electrified comforts to be found (nor margarita bars). While at Burning Man one must have a way to shelter and feed oneself in the hot, dry, dusty climate.

Since they are both long-standing, both have groups of people who come together once a year to see each other, party and network.

They are very different events, one being much more of a spectacle than the other. Burning Man is more clearly an art show while the Rainbow Gathering is more of a back-to-nature experience. Energy consumption-wise they are also significantly different with the Rainbow Gathering utilizing a lot less than Burning Man.

One thing that surprised me was how few people at Burning Man had any experience using herbal medicine, which is very different than the Rainbow Gathering. This could just be whom I happened to meet, but it was noticeable. I wondered if it could partially be due to who has better medical access.

And for me personally, I missed being around plants. The Rainbow Gatherings are held in National Forests with abundant plant life for perusing and using for medicine. There seem to be more classes and opportunities for networking at the Rainbow Gathering.

On a last note here, a lot of this has to do with my familiarity of going to yearly to the Rainbow Gathering. Once one knows their way around a place, it often becomes more homey. And I admit to being one of those outdoorsy types.

Considerations and Conclusions

A sunrise burn

A sunrise burn

To state the obvious, Burning Man was not an event that enticed me. The main times I enjoyed myself was while practicing herbal medicine and the occasional nighttime playa bike ride. But if one revels in art, Burning Man may just be the ticket.

One of the reasons I am writing this is that I am not sure many of my friends would enjoy Burning Man, but as they are curious, I am supplying some of the (obviously biased) details.

One thing that particularly irks me is that Burning Man encourages ‘radical self reliance and yet there are many rules. I appreciate the idea of people taking care of themselves, but it seems to encourage a lack of community. On the positive side, Burning Man is not a marketplace and people offer goods and services for free. But rather than a neighborly sharing environment, each camp is self-contained. I realize that this may seem petty on my part but Burning Man seems to be radically reliant.

 Driving Considerations: First, gas up in Reno or another large town before you get to HWY 447. The tiny town near Black Rock City has very long petro lines. Have your tickets ready and be prepared for waiting many hours before getting in. Remember about the car search. Here is the list of contraband items. Note ‘Plants, living or dead’ (Well what about all the people bringing in Cannabis, food or spices, huh? Not that I’m feel defensive at all about this).

 Expenses: Besides the tickets, it does not necessarily have to be very expensive. If you go with a number of people, many expenses such a food, water, fuel or a vehicle pass, can be shared. The $400 I paid to stay with the Heebeegeebees was well worth it, especially for my first time there, as I did not have to think much about equipment and food. I would suggest this to anyone going by themselves for their first time.

Sleeping: With the dust, the wind and the noise it is important to have good sleeping arrangements. I slept in my van, which worked well for all three reasons. If bringing a tent, make sure that it is inside a larger tent to reduce the sound, dust and wind.

Dust and Equipment: The threat of alkaline playa dust is real at Burning Man. Any item that is outside and not protected will get impregnated with it. The dust offers some distinction to this event, but be prepared. Here are a few brief suggestions, there are many more thorough descriptions online.

A bandana or scarf and goggles are helpful to avoid getting dust in one’s face. While I enjoyed walking on the soft ground barefoot or in flip-flops by the 6th day large cracks appeared in my heels. I saw many people who had profound heel cracks and wearing shoes and socks help prevent this.

As far as technology, I would leave all tech gear in a vehicle and be cautious using them outdoors. I kept my laptop and similar devices in large zip-sealed plastic bags in a tub that had a clasping lid. I do not think that this is an over-precaution, the inside of my van became filled with dust each time I opened the doors.

After the event, I suggest taking your vehicle to a car wash that can wash the undercarriage and perhaps do it again later.

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 3

Dust Devil at the Burning Man burn 3

Links

  1. The official Burning Man website contains a lot of very useful information, and it makes for an interesting read.
  2. Thorough and readable description of the region where Burning Man is held
  3. Heebeegeebee healer camp
  4. There is no official Rainbow Gathering website, but this one has a lot of helpful links and information

A Jamaican Dogwood Story

Saturday, February 15th, 2014

Jamaican Dogwood tree (Piscidia piscipula)

A pre-story note; I wrote this as an article after I first gathered Jamaican dogwood in January 2007. I recently wildcrafted this plant again in January 2014, and decided to present this earlier edition as a blog with photos. I have avoided giving the exact whereabouts where I gather the Piscidia as I get nervous about people over-harvesting and/or gathering the wrong plant. So the location has been withheld, sorry.

This is the tale of my first encounter with identifying, gathering and preparing Jamaican dogwood in January 2007.

This is the story of me and Jamaican Dogwood, a plant I have longed to meet. The botanical name is Piscidia piscipula and it is in the Fabaceae family (the Leguminosae or the Pea family).  I have heard a lot about this plant over the years, most famously for its pain-relieving properties and wanted to give it a try. My problem was finding a reliable source for the raw herb (the bark being the part used most commonly). At least twice, I asked friends who were going to Jamaica with connections there, to bring back a sample. And each sample was different despite each of my buddies telling me the ‘bush doctor’ that had gathered the bark was knowledgeable and reliable. So I felt apprehensive about what was on the current market without having anyone I know having gathered this plant themselves. So as is my nature, I began to formulate a plan to someday find and gather this plant myself.

The trunk and bark of a mature Jamaican dogwood tree

First question, does it grow anywhere in the continental U.S?  This point is important for a number of reasons. One is that I am not likely to visit Jamaica any time soon. And just as importantly, if you have ever wildcrafted overseas, you learn how difficult it can be to transport plant material to the US (often for sound environmental reasons). Also, it can be prohibitively expensive to send from another country. And lastly, the plant can rot en route.

So I was excited to see that Piscidia grew in southern Florida, thereby circumventing all my above concerns. Now I have to say that South Florida was not high on my list of places to visit (and perhaps even avoid, as a New York Jew, it seems we are destined to spend our days in the ‘second homeland’). South Florida, as I have learned has many similarities (at least floristically) with nearby and similar climated places such as Jamaica hence Piscidia is a native down there.

A fortunate circumstance opened an opportunity to me. A friend of mine invited me to teach at the Academy of Five Element Acupuncture near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  And so after teaching there, I inquired amongst knowledgeable botanical persons if anyone knew where it grew in any abundance, and learned where it was most common.

So a plan was struck. I taught my 6 days and then got me a little rental car and cruised on down to begin my search.

Actually, before I left I belatedly began to call state parks in the neighborhood to find a place to camp.  First I should say they all ran about $35 a night, which is a friggin’ hefty sum to pay for setting up a tent, little did I realize it was about to become worse.

A typical Jamaican dogwood tree alongside a road

I spoke to a guy on the telephone about making reservations for staying in one of the state parks. It went something like this;

Me: Do you have any opening in the local state park for tonight?
Him: Hmmm (a few minutes of him searching somewhere), sorry all filled up for that night.
Me: How about tomorrow night?
Him: Let me see, no nothing for tomorrow night either.
Me: How about a campsite at one of the other parks?
Him: I’ll check (a few minutes pass) no nothing for tonight or tomorrow night.

This went on for a while and I finally asked, “When is the next opening for any state park campsite in this region?
Him: Oh, about mid-March.

Well that would have been much handier to know from the outset, as I was calling in mid-January. Granted I had waited way too long to call, but still, talk about being strung along. I imagined a bunch of reservation people giggling in the background as this conversation continued.

Then desperation set in as I was leaving that day to head down to (hopefully) Piscidia-land. So I hopped onto the internet, looked at a couple of somewhat scary-looking campgrounds, and chose the one closest to the park in the hope of a bit of nature.
Well they did have a spot or two, and you know how it is when your feeling desperate about something all the sudden the thing you would have not even considered a choice all the sudden looks tantalizing.  And so it was, even after looking at the map and noticing privacy would not be mine, I was still ecstatic to get a place to sleep that night on arriving.

My $40 a night campsite

And just as I suspected, it was basically a trailer park with many permanent RV’s and some camping spaces. But after a few tries, I found my own tiny little space on some white gravel surrounded by fence and patrons. And for $40 a night, oh well,  I am still indignant, but so it goes.

Now the Piscidia searching begins in earnest. I asked around if there were any trails which had plants labeled and identified. There were two, in a state park where I currently sat and a botanical walk a few miles up the road. I soon drove to the later and was walking, wondering, could any of these plants be my to-be Piscidia first-acquaintance? I looked at most of the obvious placards which showed interesting plants, but none yet the Jamaican dogwood (which is not actually a ‘dogwood’, i.e. a Cornaceae,  it is instead as noted previously a Fabaceae). I noticed that some of non-placarded trees had a small metal tag hung about them, and one, yes you can guess it, one had the Piscidia tag. Oh joy, oh good fortune! I stood there studying it, trying to memorize the features that would help me to sort it out later. The lowest branches were up too high for me to get a good look at the leaves and other conspicuous features.

I should add here that back in my car I had no fewer than 16 books on the plants of the region (or 48 pounds as the plane flies). This may seem excessive, but again I give sway to my tendency to pack heavy and be prepared for any number of alternate scenarios (just ask about my first aid kit). And sometimes one of these numerous books will be the one to provide that crucial detail that allows for positive botanical identification.

Young growth, very useful for identification

Young Piscidia growth. The roundish 'hood' shape (top of photo) is a bud with stipules. On the bottom is a very young leaf, covered in hairs. It will turn green and begin to photosynthesize later. There is a small round axillary bud in the middle.

Young growth, very useful for identification

I should also add here that while the focus of this story is about Piscidia, I am generally interested in keying-out (that is, making a positive botanical identification) any plant whose path I cross. So though I am writing about Piscidia, I was also enjoying other plants and looking forward to identifying and photographing these later. Hence a caravans’ worth of books. The book that was most helpful was The Biology of Trees Native to Tropical Florida by Tomlinson, as it has some beautiful black and white line illustrations (how I adore these), and showed some characteristics that were not included in any of the other books. You see, botany is primarily based on the reproductive characteristics of plants, that is, flowers and their sequel; their fruits (such as seedpods). As this was January, there were none of these to look at.  I felt fortunate just in the fact that Piscidia at least still had leaves on it.  And so with the aforementioned book, while it did describe the flowering and fruiting parts, it also illustrated what turned into one of the best field marks for the season, the youngest growth; the buds and very young leaves. These are quite distinctive.

Compound pinnate leaf of Piscidia (typical of many Fabaceae, plants in the Pea family)

Piscidia leaflets, showing the difference of color, dark green above, white hairy below

Back to the initial tree I saw in the botanical walk. I still had questions of knowing how to recognize other Piscidia since I could not clearly see the lowest leaves which were about 8 feet above my head.  I just stood looking for any obvious clues such as the tree trunk width, color of bark, or distinctive features such as stipule scars. I might add that due to my questioning ways, I also didn’t out rightly assume that this was Piscidia. I have traveled to many botanical gardens and the tags are often not scrutinized and are sometimes wrong. This is not as unusual or as uncommon as it may seem, and so especially on a trail like this without any clear association with a botanical garden I had my reservations. Also that it was just an unadvertised metal tag inconspicuously placed on it, I did not assume that it was an off-the-rack Piscidia. Still, I had done my homework and I could see that they were compound leaves, darker green on the topside, hairier on the bottom and arranged alternately on the stems. And I knew it grew around here from all accounts. So I kept walking looking to see if there were any more conspicuously labeled Piscidia’s. There were none, but it was a nice walk and I stumbled upon an abandoned condominium complex, and growing amidst the broken concrete slabs was a plant that looked suspiciously like a young Piscidia tree. So, I cut a couple of branches to bring back to the campground to further identify. At this point I was hoping that this was Piscidia as it was growing in a highly disturbed habitat which is good news to the wildcrafter. This means that it might be found it in other like-minded disturbed areas, thus not negatively affecting the local flora if gathered. Plants that grow weedy-like are some of my favorite to gather, as I feel I do less damage when gathering. And I knew Piscidia was native, which means it might not have these characteristics making a more difficult wildcrafting proposition, or not to be gathered at all (for more wildcrafting ethics and quandaries, see the Wildcrafting handout on website).

Jamaican dogwood stems in trunk of rental car

Excited by the day’s findings, I drove back to my acorn-sized crappy $40 a night campsite (such a complainer am I), ate a quick din-din, and busted out the botany books to compare. Unfortunately there was not enough there to convince me that I indeed had the right plant. Fortunately I met someone who had an excellent wireless card (this was 2007) and went on-line and perused as many Piscidia photos and descriptions as I could find in the internet universe.  Unfortunately nothing I came upon was good enough to convince me. Fortunately it was time to go to sleep and let go of my brain for the night.

Also, after being frustrated with not finding a photo on the internet to help me discerns Piscidia’s identity, I determined myself that if I was to find this plant, that I would post a butt-load of useful photos (hence this article).

Piscidia bark being peeled off stem

Piscida bark soon after being peeled

Next day, field guides in hand, I went off onto the less inhabited side roads. I found a likely place to pull over and began my explorations of the day.  And sure enough, trees of various sizes similar to the Piscidia I had seen the day before were in evidence. This time I did a more in-depth survey of all the available plant parts. And once again, disappointingly, there were still no flowers or fruits to work with. But I was able to look more carefully at the leaves, barks of various aged trees, and other distinctive characteristics such as buds, new growth and stipule scars. These matched up with the Tomlinson book and I felt I had a match. This was okay for photographs as they can be changed later, but not good enough for gathering. As I was driving around, I stopped at a nature center and asked the person working there some questions to see the breadth of his floristic knowledge. Fortunately he knew many plants, especially trees. As there was what I thought was a Piscidia in the lot there.  I asked and he unequivocally said it was Piscidia and showed me the positive identification characteristics. Excited and losing my last shreds of doubt, I asked his references (same as mine, Tomlinson, good) and if it could be confused with any other plant, which he answered with a firm “no”.

I felt pretty well satisfied from this experience, and now fired-up, I went back to my expensively-rented tiny piece of gravel-strewn earth.

Later that day, small foldable saw and pruners on hand, I headed out to find some inconspicuous roads to gather a bit of Piscidia. Not easily done in this densely inhabited area. But I came upon some lesser used roads and set up shop, meaning I parked my trusty rental, and sussed out where it would be best to do the least damage to the local plant population.

Typical size Jamaican dogwood growing alongside roads

In wildcrafting there are a lot of questions raised about how to gather and do the least harm. So that this paper does not become overly extended by covering a wildcrafting review, I will say that I chose to cut down small trees that were close to the road and mostly had limbs already chopped off for right-of-ways for cars and power lines.
So I cut and gathered a few smallish trees and then further cut their stems to fit into the boot of my rental car. And the whole time I was furtively glancing about for those who may not appreciate my wildcrafting work (for instance, Johnny Law). Eventually I had a few armloads and headed back to my ignominious budget-swallowing (yet cute in its own way) campsite. And then as those who wildcraft know, the longer and more tedious work begins. And so, post-sunset I put on my new iPod and began the long night of listening to mopey indie rock that I so cherish and peeling Piscidia bark. And indeed I did, well beyond the blisters and the general I-want-to-do-something-else crankiness. With kava as my spacing-out late-night buddy, I peeled until most of the local retirees and snowbirds had gone to sleep and then I peeled some more. Wildcrafting tip #501; most barks peel off much easier from freshly cut stems. There is more moisture between the cambium layer (the medicinal part) and the heartwood. Eventually tiredness (and kava) got the best of me and asleep I fell.
I awoke around sunrise and finished the job. This was made more painful by the big aching blister I had accrued the night before which lay between my thumb and forefinger. Eventually I used some vet wrap (a type of sports wrap, which is not a style of sandwich) during the night to cushion off this blistered area.

Young growth and leaflets of a Piscidia piscipula tree

And then the next part of the day’s events began. I got back into my vehicle and went off to gather more Piscidia before it got too hot (it reached into the 80’s by midday). And again I scuttled about, scouting for new areas, and gathering another armload.
Same routine, a bit of dinner and back to peeling bark into the wee hours. And again, rising early to finish the job.
What a relief to finally finish with all the stems (now just heartwood) looking pretty in their de-peeled state. It was now time to find a place to inconspicuously drop these stems off in an environmentally friendly manner.
It felt good to finishing peeling all that I gathered. It is one of the ethical risks wildcrafting entails, biting off more than you can chew. Sometimes it is so easy to gather a whole lot of a plant only to have some hampering factor slow you down for processing it all, and then you are left with ‘wasted’ material. So, it was with relief that this had not happened, though the risk was not over yet. Now that I had all this freshly peeled bark I had yet to dry it and somehow get it back to Ithaca in an un-moldy state to process.

But this decision needed to wait, as I now wanted to get the heck out this most immodestly-priced and privacy lacking campsite and into the Everglades. So away I drove.

I will not go into the details of this second part of the story except to say that how much I enjoy the sweeping beauty of the Everglades, the vast landscape of Sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense) and the wildflowers poking out here and there. And while I was in Everglades (and spending a more reasonable $16 a night for a handsome campsite) it was hard to not kick myself for not having spent more time of my short time down here in Flamingo, Everglades rather than the human-fill area of where I was.

A mature Jamaican dogwood tree

But then there was the Piscidia drying in my tent. The pungent smell now becoming ever more familiar. (I’m not sure I will want to sleep in a small tent with a lot of drying Piscidia for a long time to come.) If you have not visited the Everglades or the nearby Big Cypress, may I suggest it if you are ever in this part of the world. It is an uncommon and lovely ecosystem.

Just a little bit more to this torrid undulating tale. Two days later it was time to head back to civilization, and before I left The Land of Piscidia I thought about how I was to get all this peeled bark back to myself in Ithaca. So I obtained a cardboard box of the right size and materials from a box store going out of business, along with a big roll of packing tape. And as I was to leave soon, I packed the bark in the box and taped it up, brandishing a cloth sack-full that I would carry with me on the plane as a back up. Why a back up? Well, actually I was kind of nervous about what state the mailed bark would arrive back to me. I had dried it some, but it is humid in South Florida, so I was packing some perishable material. But the time had come, and so the first town I passed thru I stopped at the post office and after a 45 minute wait and $29 later, I sent this bad boy box of Piscidia to Ithaca, realizing there was nothing more I can do but wish it well on its journey.
The next day, I was home quiet home. Yes. And the day after that, I was thankful as my package arrived safely to my home. Anxiously I opened the box, nervous for the rank whiff of bacteria or mold. But, instead, a box full of beautiful Piscidia that I very soon put in my large dehydrator, and that’s how the story stands to this day.
Thank you for reading My Piscidian Adventure~7Song

Drying (and sleeping with) Piscida bark in my tent

Bog Blog

Monday, August 30th, 2010

McCarty Bog in the Adirodacks. Roaming this enviornment and feeling the wind blowing acr9ss the open expanse

Bog Blog

They are also the main source of ‘peat’ (that’s turf to you Irish). Peat is made up of decomposing plant matter. It is fuel for many people in places where there is a lack of other sources, such as trees. There is an abundance of peat on this here planet. If you put it into the reductionist terms (and why not?) it contains 8 billion terajoules of energy, which to put simply, is a shit-ton (there is the inevitable comparison to the atomic bomb, but why bother). This stuff is pre-coal by the way. Give it some time.

I like that bogs have such popular appeal in descriptive terminology. While it often reflects seemingly negative attributes, they still conjure the Primordial Bog.
Getting bogged down is the case when actually walking in bogs. Each step may have feet sinking deeper and deeper, until you finally find a place of some sturdier earth stuff that will support your weight. But it’s usually just a short matter of time before you sink back into the quagmire (another word for bog).

The term ‘bogginess’ shows up in health care, as a sort of constitutional diagnosis. A boggy constitution is one where everything moves slowly, whether it is gastrointestinal enzymes, immune competency or ways of thinking. It seems an apropos description, for this is how bogs work. With little in-flow adding to the water table there is little movement. It is easy to consider this scene in someone who has sluggish conditions. The difference here is that the bog ecology is healthy in itself and doesn’t require any alteration.

There are, of course, plants to see here. What more interesting group of plants are there than the carnivorous ones? It is amazing how a group of phylogenetically unrelated plants could evolve diverse novel strategies to acquire the food they cannot obtain the way most plants do. That is, they have learned to trap various small organisms, such as insects, nematodes and other diminutive life-forms to supplement their meager soil food. All of the below descriptions are just snippets of how these plants do the deed, there are many excellent resources available for further elucidation of these fascinating contrivances,.

Drosera rotundifolia-Round-leaved sundew at Francis Lake in the Adirondacks, NY

While the Venus fly-trap is often the plant most conjured in people’s minds with its teethy leaves, it actually has a very small growing region restricted to the Carolina’s. The most common carnivorous bog plants are the Sundews (Drosera species, Droseraceae). While they are not all that big and showy, they are handsome plants. The flowers are attractive but it is the leaves that lend them their elegance. Their shiny dewdrop nature with bits of enticing fluid on the tips of the hairs which help trap prey. Yes, prey – plants trapping animals. This helps give life on earth a fresh balance. After the insect lands, it becomes entangled in the sticky hairs and is further trapped as it tries to free itself. The leaf then starts to curl up to further ensnare the insect and begin the process of protein digestion until just a skeleton is remaining. Isn’t nature lovely?

I like the look of Drosera, the bright red leaves against the green and red sphagnum. Sometimes large swaths of it color wetland landscape. There are a number of species, usually obvious by the shape of its leaves. All of them designed to grab a meal, so next time you are in a bog take a closer look at these beauties and perhaps you will see one in action.

Two other common carnivorous plants are the Bladderworts and Pitcher Plants. Pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea, Sarraceniaceae) often capture people’s attention right off with their lovely towering pitcher-like leaves. And while the p

Kalmia polifolia-Bog laurel in Panther meadow on Mt. Shasta, CA

etals fall off the flowers early, the rest of the inflorescence (flowering stem) is conspicuous and adds to this plants allure. Like Sundew, the colors of Pitcher Plants are red and green, but the red is more of a brick red, and is beautifully mottled on the leaves.

Chamaedaphne calyculata-Leatherleaf in Dryden bog, not far from Ithaca, NY

While sticky hairs entrap little critters in the sundews, the pitcher plant has a different strategy (but same ends, more food). The leaf is shaped in a way that holds water. And within this water there are proteolytic enzymes that break down those creatures that cannot escape. Adding to this device, there are downward pointing hairs along the leaf making it harder for anything of a certain size to crawl out. And below that it gets mighty slippery. The insect that is drawn to the color and venation of the leaf lands and starts getting moved down the pitcher by the hairs and then starts sliding into the watery cup. From there it drowns and enzymes and bacteria do the rest of the work to help dissolve it into a Sarracenia-sized meal. You can often see remnants if you look in the prominent leaves. I don’t know if I have ever taken any group to a bog without someone inquiring about sticking their finger into the water at the bottom of the modified leaf (the more adventurous inquire about drinking it… bad idea, chaps).

The Bladderworts (Utricularia species; Lentibulariaceae) have a very different sort of entrapping device. They use small bladders attached to their water-submerged parts that open quickly, sucking in both nearby water and the varmint that sets off this trapping mechanism. It then shuts close, thereby diabolically ensnaring the unsuspecting creature. And once again, enzymes and bacteria do their work. The whole trap takes a thousandth of a second or so to do this. Yup, that fast. Later, it will open up and discharge the skeletal remains, alter its internal pressure and prepare for its next meal. There are many of these nodule traps scattered along the underwater parts of the plant (I say parts as they are not very well delineated in Utricularia). The size of the bladder (the ‘utricles’) determines the size of the prey it can capture. Some are large enough to suck small tadpoles in, though the critters tend to be much smaller, something our eyes may barely discern.

While carnivorous plants are one of the more unique plants of bogs, there are others that have evolved to live in this environment. The Ericaceae -the Blueberry family-have many bog-tolerant species. Some of these are quite tasty and have been drawing humans and other animals to snack here for a while, the most notable being cranberries and blueberries (Vaccinium spp). Other members of this family include Bog Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia), Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata), the aromatic Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum) and the especially lovely Bog Laurel (Kalmia polifolia). The Ericaceae are acid soil tolerant plants in general so I guess it is not such a big jump to find them in this acidy ecosystem. But still, it is interesting to see how a family of plants have evolved with their habitat.

The most plentiful plant of bogs is that non-vascular, spore-producing bryophyte: Sphagnum moss (Sphagnum species-Sphagnaceae). Basically a bog is this moss. It acts as a sponge to hold the atmospheric water in place. This moss is also the substrate for many of the other plants. While peat and sphagnum are not synonymous, most peat is mainly decayed sphagnum moss. It is the sphagnum that you sink into, and the moss that keeps the water acid so that humans who have fallen in 2000 years ago are well-preserved. The sphagnum moss (of which there are numerous species) make the luxuriant growth the spreads out in all directions and lets you know you’ve arrived.

Personally, I like all of the types of wetlands. While generally a slog to move through them, there is much to be seen once in their clutches. It is just a matter of being prepared and enjoying the feeling of wet clothing and avoiding the buggiest hours. That said, I still like bogs best. Their vista allows ones head to roam elsewhere and still be present in the quagmire.

I will draw to a close

McLean Bog, near where I live. A favorite haunt

here. It is tempting to write about the other bog inhabitants. The various dragonflies and other insects, the amphibians, the way that the spores are shot out of the spore-producing capsules of the sphagnum moss. The showy orchids. All very intriguing. But what I most recommend is to find the closest bog, and immerse yourself there. Try to get there at different times of the year. The seasonal change here is evident, each one with a ravishing beauty. Be prepared for sinking up to your waist, for the biting insects, for the wonder to be found. Have fun and say hello to a damselfly for me.