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Monday, July 28, 2014

Chelydra serpentina

I put one hand on the log, and crawled down to the lake. I got wet, swam a bit, then chucked some big rocks further up the bank. Then I noticed him, legs straddling that downed cedar, shell big around as a manhole cover soaking in the afternoon sun. Did he crawl out while I was making all that noise with the rocks? Chelydra serpentina, a Common Snapping Turtle, though this size is not common. I now know why the mergansers have been so skittish all summer. I edged closer, but then, nimble as a dancer he spun around and leapt off the log onto the rocks with an enormous thud, and was into the water before I could blink.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Guide to Chaga Harvesting and Preparation

I've already posted on the positive benefits of Chaga for the health. Other sites on the web go into detail about this bounty of the north woods. Chaga, without question, is a superfood, and perhaps one of the most curative natural substances on our planet.

Here I'm sharing what I've learned regarding the harvesting and preparation of the Chaga mushroom. I take no responsibility for misidentification, poor preparation, harvesting accidents etc. Like hunting, or even fishing, there are risks associated with any activity out in the wild. You are on your own. Use the time to observe nature, to learn from nature. Don't steal from her, borrow from her, with a promise to pay her back. And honor that promise. Do not kill the host tree by cutting into it with your saw. And always leave enough Chaga so that the fungus can grow back.


Make absolutely sure that what you are taking is indeed a Chaga 'mushroom'. If not, consult an expert. People have come to me with rotten burls from maple trees asking if that is Chaga. The biggest danger to health of harvesting something other than Chaga is that it has become rotten or moldy. No polypore shelf funghi are poisonous, however, removing a growth from a tree that is not healthy could present a problem. Be sure the tree you are removing the Chaga from is a birch. Make sure it is is healthy and has living leaves and branches. Know your species of trees and funghi! This is vital when taking anything edible from the forest.

Harvesting of Chaga

Harvesting of Chaga mushrooms can be a difficult and dangerous task. Most often the fungus will be high in the air, well above reach of the collector and possibly out of reach of a long-handled pruning saw. Only climb the tree if you are experienced tree professional. If you are using a ladder, take every available precaution to make sure the ladder is secure. Have an assistant to steady the ladder on the ground. Tree climbing and use of tree ladders is dangerous, the use of power tools in trees is even more so. I do not advise harvesting Chaga that cannot be reached from ground-level with a long handled pruning saw. Nor do I recommend harvesting Chaga with any power tools. Be aware that Chaga mushrooms are heavy! They can fall with the force of a large stone so stand well clear.

Cut only the Chaga fungus, i.e. the sclerotium. If done properly the saw will only pass through an orange colored dense substance that resembles cork in consistency. Do not cut into the wood of the tree. This is important as you are not there to butcher an already weakened birch, but rather to ensure that that Chaga-birch symbiosis continues after you have taken some of the fungus.

Post-Harvest Processing

It is most important that the Chaga be allowed to dry thoroughly if it is to be kept for more than a few days. Under no circumstances store your Chaga in a plastic bag or container, as this could allow mold to develop. It is possible to dry an entire Chaga fungus, but drying is most successful after being broken up into small pieces. Do this first with a saw, or a dull hand axe on a block of wood. Pieces will fly all over, so you may want to cover the Chaga with a piece of cloth before delivering blows with an axe or hammer. This process alone has risks. Take every precaution. Chaga is deceptively tough and can rebound a tool when struck.

Try to break the Chaga up into uniform sized pieces. They can be small 1/2" - 1" across, or large, 2-4". When finished, sort your Chaga by size, large chunks, small chunks, bits, and powder.

What's most important, whether drying a whole Chaga, or pieces, is that be allowed to dry thoroughly.

Preparation of Fresh Chaga Tea

Chaga can be prepared and drunk fresh. However as Chaga is very potent, only a small portion of what you harvest may be consumed and made into tea. The rest will have to be dried or else it will spoil. To prepare fresh Chaga, use any hot water method of preparation listed here. Alcohol extraction won't work as efficiently with fresh Chaga.


It is vital that Chaga not be kept in a closed container unless completely dry. I cannot overemphasize this point. For this reason do not store Chaga in airtight containers. No jars with plastic lids, or ball jars. The danger is that mold will start to consume the Chaga, and this almost certainly will not be good for the health. So . . . store the Chaga in a loosely lidded container. A ceramic jar or box is ideal. I make a lot of ceramic boxes for just this purpose. Get in touch if you need one.

Prepare for Hot Water Extraction

Find a 2-4 quart teakettle with a pouring spout as well as a lid, preferably stainless steel, that may be put directly onto the stove. A gas flame adjusted to the lowest height is ideal. If you use an electric range, experiment with the very lowest settings.

Take a handful of the dried Chaga and break it up into smaller pieces, manually. Put them into the kettle of cold water. All parts of the fungus are good for ingestion. The black portions on the outside of the Chaga sclerotium facilitate the evaporation of water from the inside and are particularly rich in natural melanin. This porous exterior structure is the mechanism by which Chaga mimics the lost limbs of the birch, in order to lift nutrients up from the roots. The white veins running through the brown corklike mass are at the interior of the fungus. All is beneficial. There will be occasional pieces of birch bark taken up into the edge of the Chaga, this is fine. Leave them.

The Russian Method - Fast Preparation:

When boiling Chaga for fifteen minutes to 1 hour, the resulting liquid becomes a deep black, like coffee. The Russians set the fungus to boil for several hours straight. With our fast preparation method we retain the sediment, adding a little more dry Chaga each time we decant some to drink. In total it boils for a long time, but each time you want to decant a cup or so to drink you just boil it for 15 minutes to a half hour. 

If you put a lot Chaga into the pot, the resulting liquid will be very black and dense, and may be considered an extract. If you put less the consistency will be like iced coffee, it is termed Chaga tea. The thicker extracts are very flavorful when sweetened and or softened with cream or butter.

Chaga sediments will settle into a thick layer at the bottom of the pot. Remember unlike tea or coffee grounds these are not to be thrown away! When bringing the mixture to a boil you may have to stir occasionally. Leave it there. It keeps giving more good Chaga to drink.

Chaga has a tendency to boil over very easily, so mind the level of the pot, and don't cover tightly. Luckily any overflow won't adhere or stain the top of a stove, but if you have your gas on high initially, watch the pot! Set the gas low, so the mixture boils as slowly as possible. Boiling Chaga for 30 minutes to an hour is fine.

Each time you pour off Chaga to drink, make sure there's enough liquid in the pot to cover the sediment which otherwise might become dry.

Alcohol Extractions

Chaga may be extracted in a high proof alcohol. Vodka may be used, but the highest proof grain alcohol is preferable. The process is very simple. Use Chaga dust (pieces of Chaga may be ground up with a coffee grinder, or recycled dried out Chaga 'sediment' from the water extraction method) are placed in alcohol and put in a cool dark place for several months. You may get several extractions from the same load of Chaga dust.

Uses for Alcohol extracted Chaga

We use Chaga alcohol extractions in our batter for French Toast as it accentuates the flavor of maple syrup. We drink it straight, add it to milkshakes, put it in expressos, cappuccinos, iced coffees, and use it to prepare fruit or maple flavored syrups to pour over ice cream.

Water Extractions

The simplest way to extract Chaga tea is to boil the Chaga bits directly in water. Differences and variations in the process may be introduced, such as:

a) The Russian Method: As previously described this is the simplest method and most recommended for beginners. Place chunks in a pot and boil for a long time. Keep the sediment and top of with fresh Chaga chunks each time. The resulting dark liquid may then be served hot or cold.

b) Brew at a Lower Temperature: I recommend a Mr. Coffee old fashioned type coffeemaker that will brew excellent strong Chaga at an average temperature of around 205 degrees. I just use the hotplate function, and place the Chaga directly in the coffee pot with the water, rather than the filter. I keep this brew going for months, until the sediment almost reaches the top of the pot. I then later remove the sediment, run it through a food processor, and use it over a few times, or make an alcohol extraction. Last of all the sediment goes onto the tops of our houseplants as an excellent anti-infection mulch that gives much nutrition to the plants.

c) Two or Three Stage Extractions: This is done by taking a mass of Chaga and first soaking it in warm water for several days, decanting and saving the liquid, then bringing it to a sub-boiling temperature and holding it for a number of hours (I use the Mr. Coffee method described below) decanting that liquid and saving it, then putting in fresh water and boiling it Russian style for anywhere from 15 minutes to 3 hours. The advantage of this three part method is that volatile compounds that are easily destroyed by hot temperatures are taken out by the lukewarm water, compound that are destroyed by boiling taken out by the high temperature water, and the most resilient compounds taken out by the boiling water.

d) Expresso Method: Grind your Chaga pieces first in a coffee grinder or use a grater or hand rasp to make a small amount of dry Chaga dust to prepare a Chaga 'expresso'. Pour in boiling water, or boil in water, and drink.

e) Cold Water Extractions: Dried Chaga may be put into a glass container of cold water and set in bright sunlight to make the first extraction. This is similar to the old British way of preparing iced tea. Remember whichever method you use, Chaga has a lot of strength left so don't throw the Chaga away afterwards like coffee grounds or tea leaves. Keep it! It's a valuable substance and a single boiling at most only removes 30-40% of the benefit. Cold Water extraction at most removes 20% of the nutrients, so this technique is good if the same Chaga is later boiled.

Remember all these methods will favor certain compounds being released from the Chaga over others. All of it is beneficial.

Slow vs. Fast

There are so many ways to prepare Chaga that it is impossible to say one is better than another. Cancer treatment centers in Russia and Scandinavia almost all use the Long Boiling Method of Preparation (stovetop boiling) as the cancer curing compounds are not destroyed by boiling. But as with any superfood, some nutritive value is lost when boiling. For that reason I suggest in time you try combining slow and medium temperature preparation with the boiling method.

No Method is Critical

Remember Chaga is beneficial to the health, whether extracted cold, or hot, or warm or all three. It is not necessary to do anything to Chaga to make it safe for consumption.

Keep your Chaga Pot Going

Keep your Chaga pot on the stove. As long as the lumps of Chaga remain immersed in brewed Chaga it will not spoil.

When the kettle is almost empty, take all the 'Chaga sludge out, put it into a blender and chop it up even finer. Then put back in the stovetop kettle. It will make even more Chaga tea.

The stuff keeps going and going. 
Chaga is built from the sap of the birch tree, so in theory it can reduce entirely back into water and minerals. The miracle is that it does just that.

Always add at least a little more new Chaga to ensure you’re getting the full balance of beneficial compounds.

A Chaga pot may be kept going for months. It will not spoil. If you are concerned about spoilage drink it down or re-simmer it every week or so.

If the Chaga in the pot seems to be fully expired, you may remove the Chaga sediment. Dry and sprinkle on salads.

Ways to Consume

Weak brews are an excellent thirst quencher bottled and chilled and served like iced coffee in the summer.

Strong brews are especially delightful in winter with a touch of maple syrup or honey and a bit of milk or creme, served as one would a rich cappuccino, or as a bedtime nightcap to aid the sleep.

Super strong brews are best served in an expresso cup with a touch of honey or maple syrup.

Alcohol Extractions are excellent addition to any sauces, batters, gravies or wherever cooking has a lot of strongly flavored liquids.

Self-Dosing with Chaga

I drink Chaga regularly, on average 1-3 full glasses a week, more in the winter. I introduced myself to Chaga with a long summer of drinking cold Chaga, like iced tea. I'd prepare it and keep it in the refrigerator.

For those who are using Chaga to treat a skin or sleep condition I recommend at least 1 cup of strong Chaga per day, taken at bedtime. Keep up the treatment for 30 days then lighten or alter the dosage as required.

Chaga will teach you what your body needs if you let it.

For those treating cancer or more serious diseases take at least 2 to 5 large cups of strong Chaga per day, for at least 90 days or until symptoms abate, then take it regularly in lesser quantities thereafter.

The ideal first treatment is 3-5 glasses of Chaga every day for about 3 weeks, and then 2 glasses a day for 60 days. 

Sleep Benefits

The black color of Chaga comes from natural melanin - one of the side effects is that you’ll sleep much better. From what I can determine the exterior of the Chaga sclerotium is a deep black so that it gets warm in the sunlight, and thus evaporates water, drawing sap up from the roots of the tree for its own use.

Chaga seems to regulate sleep much better than oral doses of melanin supplements!!

There are so many beneficial compounds in Chaga that it is impossible to either list or fully understand the mechanism that makes it work. I liken it to a complete spare parts inventory, should one come along and find a broken car along the road. Your body gets to pick and choose what it needs.


Chaga cold tastes a lot like fresh water, but seems to take a taste trigger from whatever is added. So if your water is bitter your Chaga tea may taste bitter. Compensate by adding flavors to suit your taste. Some may find it difficult to drink when warm, sweetening with honey or maple syrup is the best remedy. My preference is to drink 
very strong hot Chaga sweetened with maple syrup, In the summer my preference is cold Chaga take straight like iced coffee.

Chaga avoids classification as a flavor, but when used with maple syrup, assumes that role very robustly. The substance then seems naturally sweet. Maple acts as a flavor trigger to set off a rich complexity of taste.

Slow to Medium to Hot Temperature Preparations:

Here’s the theory of multiple temperature preparation:

Certain beneficial compounds are destroyed at boiling temperatures. In fact each organic molecule has a temperature at which it changes or decomposes in water. Some compounds are destroyed at temperatures over 135 degrees, others at different stages along the route to boiling. Yet others, are quite hardy and can withstand boiling temperatures quite well.

Start by heating up some Chaga but devise a method to keep the temperature low! Then drain off the liquid. Add more water and slowly increase the temperature, pouring off and mixing the resulting liquid with the previous off take. Continue increasing temperature in as many stages as you like until you reach boiling.

The resulting brew is a mix of compounds that are extracted from Chaga at different temperatures. You’re sure to have destroyed as little goodness as possible.

A Detailed Shortcut to Slow Preparation:

Get a Mr. Coffee type coffee maker. These are available usually at thrift stores for a few dollars if you don’t own one already.

The burners on these coffee makers are designed not to boil away finished coffee or brew it above boiling temperature. According to the National Coffee Association, the optimal temperature for brewing a great cup of coffee is 197.6 – 204.8F. Accordingly most coffee makers are designed to keep the liquid hot, without allowing it to rise above 204 degrees.

This makes it ideal for a sub-boiling a Chaga decoction. If clever, we can trick the coffee-maker into providing a number of 'stages' for low-temperature extraction.

Start by putting some metal washers in a ring around the hot plate and place the chaga bits in water in the glass container on top. The metal washers will lower the brewing temperature even further. Do an experiment first with pure water. Test the temperature with a thermometer. Or use some other kind of fireproof insulator so that the pot can be left on for a long time at a temperature close to but not over 135 degrees. This is the first threshold at which some particularly delicate molecular structures are destroyed.

Be sure to watch the setup carefully, and make sure it does not overheat.

My Slow Brew method has three steps:

First I brew at 132 degrees (below 135, critical for many beneficial compounds). I remove the Chaga decoction to a large container, and then refill the brewing pot with fresh water . . . 

Then I brew at 204 degrees (with the Pyrex coffeepot directly on the hotplate, no washers or insulator). I decant to my large container, and then refill with fresh water.

Finally I brew at full strength by boiling for an hour on the stovetop, then combine with the two previous lower-temp brews.

Consume warm, not boiling.

The taste of a slow preparation is even deeper and more complex!

After a few months the alcohol will be rich and dark with Chaga.

Chaga from different Birches and Regional Differences

Chaga, like fine wine, fruits, fish, deer, anything that grows from the land, varies in color, density and texture from region to region. It's amazing to see the color and textural differences in Chaga sclerotium from region to region. In Maine, the Chaga that grow from White birches are finely textured, a very dark dark black, and a deep orange on the inside. Adirondack Chaga, growing from the very plentiful yellow birches there, become very large, and assume all sorts of bizarre shapes. The texture of the inner sclerotia is more a warm brown than orange. And Connecticut black birch produces Chaga too, and these I've noticed have more pronounced nodules on the outside, and the inside more cork in color. Wherever Birch trees grow the Chaga follows.

Where is Chaga Found?

Modern science has tried to fully understand the Chaga life cycle, and its method for choosing a host tree, but the process remains as mysterious as the spawning of eels. Here are my biases based on rather limited experience:

Chaga seems to prefer south or eastward facing slopes. It seems to prefer a good breeze to facilitate evaporation of water from it's outer sclerotia, and it seems to like trees located in damp or wet soils. It seems to like communities of birches, or areas where birch trees are regularly dispersed. I have not seen it on birches located along roadsides in the Adirondacks, though this may mean that any that grow have already been harvested. My suspicion is that Chaga does not like the fumes from automobiles. Just a theory.

Most of all, if you become a Chaga hunter, you will have to tune your senses to a remarkable degree. Once you become practiced you will realize there is a lot more Chaga in the forest than you ever imagined, but initially it seems as if the fungus is actively camouflaging itself from the hunter. This is why those that hunt Chaga begin to believe that the mushroom is actually intelligent and only reveals itself to the true of heart.

What to Do with Leftover Chaga

At the very end of your Chaga's life cycle you'll have bits that are dry and finely ground from multiple boilings, and interactions with your kitchen blender. Dry these bits up on a cookie sheet to sprinkle on cereal, eggs, or add to granola, I use it as a healthy mulch for our house plants. As a black rich soil topping it helps keep the water from drying out of the pots and prevents many plant diseases.

It also may be subjected to a last alcohol extraction. To do this put a quantity of dry Chaga dust in a jar with high proof vodka, rum or grain alcohol. Use some new Chaga material as well.

Health and Cautionary Tips:

Chaga is a mild blood thinner. If you are having chronic nosebleeds, until you better hydrate your body, avoid drinking lots of Chaga.

Chaga doesn't like alcohol! Please don't ask why alcohol extractions of Chaga don't make one ill but I have noticed that ingesting Chaga before or after a number of drinks or beers may make the tummy feel a bit upset.

Chaga seems to immediately provide feedback regarding other habits in our lives. Be aware that it is a powerful substance that will change many things for the better if you give it a chance.

Some persons have noticed that it competes with caffeine. I haven't experienced this, but don't recommend that you combine Chaga with coffee. The melanins in Chaga aid and regulate natural sleep cycles. Caffeine disrupts them.

Do not use Chaga if it has become moldy. This is the reason dried Chaga must be kept dry in a non-airtight container. Wet Chaga must be kept wet, covered by boiled Chaga tea. Stored this way in a Chaga only kettle it will last for months and months, even in hot weather. But damp lumps of Chaga are susceptible to fungus.

Chaga Enemas

The lower colon requires an occasional cleanse. An enema with Chaga is especially cleansing and healthy. Chaga does this extremely well and has been claimed to help with digestive disorders. Use unsweetened room temperature Chaga tea. Do not use alcohol extracted Chaga.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Living Art

An accipiter may rush through air,
for grouse through thickets impenetrable,
or osprey a morning flounder
a fish cast to breakfast table.
Grasped from ocean bottom sand,
Mollusks opened by sharpened talon,
or alewives from the river taken,
by practiced flight and slight of hand.
Storms of herring mass in water,
before schools of tuna dine,
bulleting mouths apart
adjust herring numbers in dark.
Feather, scale and limb,
fit to the task of living art.
Should I scream or bark,
as I fork apart my morning trout?
or slip it down my gullet wide
then announce with resounding cry,
as a hawk or heron from the sky.

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