Five ways stay ahead of the viruses, when someone in the house has a cold or the flu

Household contagion prevention in flu season

This is winding up to be a particularly bad flu season. This year's influenza strain is especially virulent and the symptoms are intense. To make matters worse, the flu shot wasn't well matched this time around. The net result is record levels of contagion. 

While perusing the news, I noticed a prominent article with tips on how to protect yourself and your family in flu season. Always interested in home medicine, I clicked it open. But the primary advice was "get the flu shot in October," which is useless advice at the end of January and not particularly helpful in any season this year. The secondary advice was to teach your children good "cough etiquette" in order to protect other people's children. 

 Creative Commons image by Tony Alter

Creative Commons image by Tony Alter

Face palm.

This calls for a public service announcement. There are ways to protect yourself and your family from the flu which don't require time travel. 

Whether you're talking about real influenza or a flu-like virus, we all know--to our sorrow--that the best cure is rest, time and a little TLC, hopefully involving copious amounts of tea, hankies and soup brought by someone who isn't sick. Only the most severe cases require medical intervention.

Still the flu rampaging through an entire household--sometimes all at once--can take a nasty toll on jobs, education and family peace. When the flu comes near or even inside your home, it is worth taking precautions to keep as many people from getting sick as possible. 

Here are a list--from the simplest and most essential to the more specific--of the real things you can do.

1. Wash hands incessantly

This is where the people with hand-washing compulsions are simply correct. The single most important thing you can do to prevent catching the flu or a flu-like virus and/or spreading them once you have them is washing your hands at every turn. You've probably seen the on-line videos about germ-mimicking gel, but those pale in comparison to seeing it in practice. It works, and even mild soap helps.

Teach kids to wash their hands before eating ANYTHING. Wash before you even touch food, after touching food, when you come in, before you go out and randomly whenever you notice having touched a door handle.

Invest in some soothing hand cream to take any irritation away. Gentle soap is better than no soap (which may be the result if you go overboard with disinfectant soap). If the sick person is not you, encourage them to wash their hands and get them a box of wet, disinfectant wipes next to their bed. Washing your hands is harder when your exhausted and can barely get to the bathroom at all. 

2, Smudge

I mean it. I'd put this first since it is so much less well known, but hand washing is just too important to slowing contagion. Burning dried sage of any variety really does kill airborne germs.

A new study this year shows that you really can get influenza just by breathing near a sick person, so even perfect hand washing won't save you, especially once the contagion gets inside your household. And multiple medical studies have shown that sage smoke does reduce both the bacteria and virus counts in the air. 

First, bundle up anyone sick in the household and open windows to air out your rooms as much as possible. Then close the windows and light a candle. Hold a bundle of sage in the flame for thirty seconds or so, until the end is smoking vigorously. Walk carefully around the room waving the smoke into every corner. Move systematically (some people prefer to go counterclockwise to reduce anything, such as germs) to get to every part of each room in use. Pay special attention to sickrooms, common areas and bathrooms.

Be careful not to run the smudge bundle into flammable drapes, clothing or objects. It's often hotter than it looks. Periodically hold the smudge bundle in the candle flame again to keep it producing a nice plume of visible smoke. Don't touch the end of it until long after it has stopped smoking. Be especially careful of hot bits of sage falling into bedding or on flammable carpets. Stay over hard floors whenever possible. A bit of smoking sage will not burn a wooden floor but may burn a synthetic carpet or blanket. 

3. Disinfect doorknobs, remotes and sickroom surfaces

Get another box of wet disinfectant wipes for yourself and wipe doorknobs, remote controllers, the bathroom faucet handle nearest the sickroom, as well as other surfaces you think the sick person or persons might touch. It does matter and it is nearly impossible for them to keep their hands clean enough, even if they're an adult. 

If you're vehemently against all non-organic disinfectants, white vinegar on a rag (changed often for a fresh rag) is better than nothing. Add tea tree, oregano, sage and.or lavender essential oil (20 drops per quarter cup of solution) for extra disinfectant power. And even better than that is tincture with St. John's Wart, yarrow, lavender or other disinfectant herbs. See here for a tincture recipe if you didn't make it last summer. Strong alcohol on a rag also helps in a pinch. 

4. Wash dishes in very hot water and disinfectant

This is where a dishwasher with a high temperature setting is handy. But if you don't use those devices of modern excess, extra hot dish water with plenty of soap and either a touch of grapefruit seed extract or generous amounts of tea tree, oregano, sage and/or lavender essential oil in the dishwater works.

You can also wash the sick person's dishes separately and keep them separate. Designate an odd, distinctive sickie mug particularly. If all else fails, get a few paper cups for the sick person and resolve to make up for the waste elsewhere by keeping at least some family members well. 

5. Aromatherapy combined with a non-electronic humidifier

Just as burning sage kills bacteria and viruses, sage essential oil in steam can do the same thing. I put this further down on the list because it is a bit more labor-intensive and people often confuse it with those plug-in humidifiers, which are often more trouble than they're worth in flu season, because if you don't clean them constantly, they end up aiding the spread of viruses.

Humidity is a good thing for both preventing and fighting flu and flu-like viral infections. They spread better in the dry, stuffy heat of closed-in winter habitations. That's another reason why it is good to open windows often, even when it's cold. But that can't really be done enough to keep the air a bit damp. The best thing for that is a pot of water on the back of a wood-stove, making soup or ready for the next cup of tea. But many people don't have stoves going all day, so our air gets drier and drier indoors. 

You can solve this problem by either keeping water on low on a burner or using one of those candle humidifiers where you place a candle below a small bowl with water. Either way, it is helpful to forgo the soup and tea this once and add essential oils instead. Tea tree and oregano may be too intense for this. Sage and lavender are both good for disinfecting a room and are quite pleasant. Any sick people will be grateful for the addition of eucalyptus and thyme oil. Thyme is also a helpful disinfectant. 

Comfort on a winter evening: Homemade herbal candles

Around the 1st or 2nd of February, many northern cultures have a celebration focused on candles. For Catholics, it is Candlemas in which the year's supply of candles used to be brought to the church to be blessed. For modern Neopagans, it is Imbolc, the festival of the Irish fire and hearth goddess Brigid, which derives from her ancient feast day at this time. In Eastern Europe, it is the Thundering, when protections against lightening and fire are renewed also with many candles. The Chinese New Year also takes place around this period with a show of lanterns and candles.  

Imbolc candle.jpg

There is undoubtedly something evocative in the coldest blast of the winter that makes lighting small warm candles immensely comforting. It is also the time when pre-industrial people commonly made their household candles. Candlemaking is warm work and in the summer it can be downright unpleasant, but at this time of year it is both more pleasant and often quicker.

Candlemaking in January in the run up to Imbolc has become a winter tradition at my house and I most especially like to make candles that smell and look beautiful. I have spent several years perfecting this craft and I would like to offer my conclusions here, so that you can avoid some of my more foolish mistakes the easy way.

Here is a quick and easy guide to winter candlemaking using herbs, essential oils and molds. 

You will need: 

  • Wax:  Bees wax is good and will primarily make the traditional yellowish candles. It may come in large rough chunks or in sheets of pre-melted wax. Paraffin candle base is also good. It is usual sold as white granules and can be more easily dyed.
  • Wicks:  You can buy wick from craft stores. Short wicks with tiny metallic discs attached at one end make it easier to hold the wick in place, but you can also cut lengths of wick from a longer string. You can even make your own wick by dipping cotton string in melted wax.
  • Molds: You can technically make candles without a mold by dipping the wick repeatedly in a large vat of hot wax. However, this is tricky and requires a lot of time and arm strength unless you have a lot of specialized equipment. It is a lot easier to use molds and these can also give your candles a desired shape. You can buy candle molds from craft stores, of course. You can also use small boxes lined with wax paper. I have found that cookie cutters smeared with a little cooking oil and placed on wax paper work nicely to make different shapes of candles but they will leak a bit so this method requires patience. The best household candle molds of all are silicon muffin tins. These are completely heat resistant and will not stick to the wax at all. Glass and metal baking ware will often stick and you may be frustrated trying to get your candles out of the mold. Prep them with some grease to aid in that process. 
  • Essential oils: Essential oil is optional and people who are sensitive to aromas should be cautious with their use, but I love to add essential oils to my candles. Pine, rosemary, lavender, rose, nutmeg and mint all make good candle fragrances that can be used for special occasions throughout the year.
  • Dried herbs: You can also add dried herbs to your candles, which can provide a natural scent when the wax around the herbs is heated. They also create beautiful patterns in the sides of the candles. However, it is preferable to keep the herbs on the outer edge of the candles, away from direct contact with the wick, because the herbs can burn unpredictably and present a danger of fire and hot wax spills. 
  • Wax colors: Coloring is optional but can be very fun. I have tried a great many options for coloring candles using homemade supplies, including food coloring, berry juice and spices--all to no avail. I am back to buying wax dyes from craft stores. These work wonderfully but are not entirely necessary to make beautiful candles.
  • A metal pot, preferably one dedicated to candle, soap and salve making. Some of us like to call this our "cauldron," even though that is usually just a glorified name for an older and less-favored household pot.
  • A metal dipper
Candle making imbolc cookie cutters.jpg

How to make the candles:

  1. Heat the wax. Use a low heat and allow the wax to melt over about 20 or 30 minutes. If the heat is low it will not burn, catch fire or spatter and you can prepare your other materials while you wait.
  2. Prepare your molds. If you're using glass or metal molds smear them with cooking oil to make it easier to get the candle out of the mold. Only use glass if you are using glass molds specifically designed for candles as normal glass will shatter when it comes in contact with the hot wax. Also do not use plastic, except silicon used for baking in ovens. Many plastics, including my plastic measuring cups which stand up to regular cooking temperatures melt at the higher temperatures wax may reach. 
  3. If you're using cookie cutters, place wax paper on your work surface and position the cookie cutters so that you can hold down several of them at one time. 
  4. Insert wicks into the center of the molds. Don't worry if you wicks initially lean over. You will be able to correct this later.
  5. Once your wax is hot, add essential oils and colors to it. Add just a little color at first and then add more as you go. A little goes a long way. Estimate about 20 drops of essential oil in about a cup (220 ml) of hot wax. This doesn't have to be exact and over time you will discover if you prefer more or less than that, but this is a conservative start.
  6. Use a metal dipper (how did you think I know about the melting temperature of plastic measuring cups?) to pour a quarter inch (half a centimeter) of hot wax into each of your molds. If you're using cookie cutters or other molds which are not attached to the bottom part of the mold, hold them down firmly for a minute and blow around the edges. (It helps if you work in a somewhat cold room.)
  7. Then adjust your wicks to stand upright. (No, creative wick angles don't work very well when the candle is actually lit. They burn best straight up and down.)
  8. You may add dried herbs around the edges of your candle at this point for deeply embedded herbs. 
  9. Continue pouring in a little more wax. Press down on cookie-cutter molds and readjust wicks as needed.
  10. Be patient and exercise great caution when pouring the hot wax. Wax can cause severe burns and unlike water the burning liquid will not run right off of your skin and will be hard to remove immediately. The best first aid for burns is always immediate immersion in very cold water. This is essential. Do not be swayed by other claims of home remedies in the first 30 minutes after a burn occurs. Cold water, period, and seek professional medical attention if the burn is significant. 
  11. An advanced technique is to create multi-colored candles by pouring first a layer of one color and then after it cools, adding a layer of another color. This can be done with multiple colors and the only limit is your imagination and patience. The effect is quite beautiful as the candle burns down through multiple colored layers.
  12. Once you have filled your candle molds, hopefully without having to use the cold-water first aid for burns, you give the wicks a final adjustment, prop them in place if necessary and wait until the candles cool, at least several hours.
  13. Remove the candles from the molds and trim the wicks. 
  14. If you wish, you can heat the candles slightly in an electric or wood-heated oven (not a microwave or gas oven) and stick dried herbs to the outside of the candles when they become sticky. Then allow them to cool again. 

A little book for the day of candlelight

If you would like to learn about the old Irish fire festival of Imbolc and its candlelight traditions in the form of a modern story, I have a book for you. Shanna and the Raven is a story for families and children to share an adventure of learning to trust intuition amid the candles of an Imbolc celebration. It is a suspenseful story that will grip children seven and up as well as adults. 

This little book also includes a recipe for strawberry dumplings, a traditional seasonal dish from Bohemian grandmothers, and a tutorial for making a doll figure of the Irish goddess Brigid. The book is illustrated with kid-friendly pastel paintings by Julie Freel. While this is mostly a modern adventure story, it also has much to teach both about the holiday and connecting to intuition.

Another potent symbol of the intuition, inspiration and prophecy of the season is the crow or raven, which is featured Shanna and the Raven. You can read last week's post on the history and mystery of crows and ravens here

The herb of northern winters: Pine needles

Where I live there is so little sun at the dark of the year that I can't even keep a pot of chives green on a warm window sill, let alone grow any herbs outdoors. Even the Siberian buckwort has given up for the year and its berries turned to mush. The ground has been frozen for weeks and it will be frozen for another two months yet, though there isn't any snow.

 Creative Commons image by Melissa Gutierrez 

Creative Commons image by Melissa Gutierrez 

You might think an herbalist has nothing to do but read dusty herbal tomes at this time of year. And some of that definitely does happen, but there is still one plant that gives its medicine in this season. And it is one you are likely to bring indoors one way or another. You might as well make some immune-boosting tea while you're at it

That is, of course, pine needles. 

However, with pine and other conifers a warning has to be put out right up front. Not every Yule tree is a pine and there are conifers related to pines that are toxic, even lethally poisonous.

Yew, a wonderfully magical but deadly tree, is the primary danger for humans. Consumption of the needles or berries, even in small amounts, can kill. Yew is often used as a decorative hedge and could be confused with spruce or fir. 

When I was a child, I often ate the new growth of fir needles while walking in the woods. We called them "friends" as a slurring of "fir ends." And they were piquant but generally tasty as well as high in vitamin C. Fortunately, we didn't have many yew trees in our climate or this might not have ended well. (Yew does reportedly taste much better than most poisonous plants, which is why animals are sometimes found dead beneath yew trees with needles in their mouths.)

Anyone planning to harvest conifers as an herb or for food should become familiar with the differences between a fir and a yew tree. Here is a video that should help.

Some pine species also contain substances that are harmful to other animals. Ponderosa pine is significantly toxic to livestock and other species can cause sickness in dogs and cats. However, chocolate is also toxic to dogs and unhealthy for cats. So they just need different holiday treats. 

For humans the needles of pine, particularly white pine, are a good source of vitamins and immune-boosting compounds. While the needles are best for eating when young and tender in the spring, they will release a significant amount of vitamin C and other immune boosting compounds even from tough, frozen winter needles. 

Pine needles can be brewed into a pleasant tea that provides vitamins and acts as a decongestant for coughs and colds. For more serious congestion, it is possible to boil the needles down into a soup. And for a little boost, some people add them to spiced cookies. 

While it is possible to dry needles and retain some of their medicinal effectiveness (as long as they are protected from sunlight while they are dried and stored), harvesting them fresh is no trouble at any time of the year in most places.

In the warmer months, pine trees can provide other essential medicines, primarily sap to cover cleaned, open wounds at risk of infection. Once a wound is thoroughly cleaned, coating it in pine sap is one of the best ways to ensure that it heals without infection. The disinfectant and protective properties of pine sap rival what modern medicine has to offer. 

What gardening, hugging and playing music have in common and why they are radical

Sixteen years ago, I was trapped in a war zone for five days with two people--one stranger and one colleague. We survived sniper-lined roads, a paramilitary ambush, hunger, cold and fear. Just as an escape route opened up, our jeep broke down. 

Five days before we had been a reporter, a photographer and a hired interpreter. We had just met the interpreter--Hisen, a Romani refugee from Kosovo. But after five days of surviving on our wits, we had the kind of bond that forms in military combat units. To the accompaniment of automatic gunfire in the night, HIsen fixed the fan belt with a piece of string and we drove the last couple of miles through dangerous territory. The jeep died just as we cleared the worst area, so we were able to find a terrified taxi-driver who gave us a lift to the border. 

 Creative Commons image by  Joe Frazier

Creative Commons image by  Joe Frazier

I still have a corny nylon rose that Hisen gave me. It sits in the place of honor above my desk, though I haven't seen him in person for more than a decade.

A few days ago, one of his on-line messages reached me.

I have always known his life was hard. I knew about how, before we met, he was chased out of his village at gunpoint and his fiance was killed by an ethnic-cleansing mob. I saw the terrible, squalid refugee camp he lived in for years. And he sent pictures when he was finally able to return home and move into a little house. But in all those years he never asked for help. 

But now he has.

He now has a wife and three kids ages 15, 13 and 9. He has worked hard over the past sixteen years to make a life for them and he succeeded in that they had a home, food, clothing and school supplies. Not much by western standards, but enough. 

Then three weeks ago, robbers broke into Hisen's small house and ransacked it, taking everything of any value, including clothing, cooking utensils and school supplies. It's a poor country and "any value" is a different concept there. The corrupt local police still consider Hisen's family to be part of an unwelcome racial minority. That's what the war all those years ago was about after all. And they won't help.

So finally, he asked me for help. And I would send him a chunk of my savings. I would start a GoFundMe campaign. That's the kind of bond this is. I would walk a hundred miles for this man who stood by me through hell and knee-deep mud. 

But guess what? GoFundMe will not allow you to raise money for someone in Kosovo. Neither will any of the similar fundraising engines. Even PayPal will not send my savings to Hisen. You are not allowed to use PayPal in Kosovo. 

There is a borderline you see. Those who did not stand in the mud and the freezing rain with us think there is big difference between Hisen and me, a difference meriting a big fat line to keep us from helping each other. An international bank transfer would cost most of what I could afford to send or manage to fundraise. 

This is one of the lines THEY draw between us. It is not so different from the line they draw between Texas and Puerto Rico when it comes to disaster relief. It is the same line they want to draw between white and black in city streets in America and the line they want to draw between Muslim and Christian. 

Also this week, I tried to buy the mechanical doll my child is asking Santa Claus for. Amazon's new European hub is less than 20 miles from our house and that doll is no doubt sitting on a shelf at that hub. But the doll cannot be purchased in the Czech Republic. We have no Amazon. Amazon is happy to allow Czechs to work like frantic robots in their giant warehouse, but they don't want us getting our grubby little fingers on the goodies--like talking dolls--meant for the "real people" in the west. 

The standard trick has been to set up an Amazon account in Germany or Britain. I have both and at times in the past that has worked for some items we needed. But now the UK sellers won't even put a package in the mail to the Czech Republic, international visa card or no. And German Amazon demanded $150 in postage and handling just to send the $35 doll a few hundred miles across the border to me.

Wait. Except that the doll isn't physically in Germany. It's at the Amazon warehouse from which all shipments come and that warehouse is only 20 miles from me.

That's it. The borderline again. Not so much a physical line but a line between people--the worthy and the unworthy, those inside and those outside.

There is even a line between the wealthy west and the modestly well-off in Central Europe. There is another line between us and the marginalized and poor elsewhere. All around there are lines meant to divide us.

Here are the kinds of things they want you to recognize as divisions:

  • Borders on a map
  • Skin color
  • Language spoken
  • Citizenship
  • Ability and disability
  • Physical attributes and body shape
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender

Take a good look at that, Can you play the old Sesame Street game and figure out what these things have in common?

That's right. They're all things none of us can do anything about. Largely we were born that way or ended up that way without a choice. I'll tell you another thing that these things have in common. They harm no one. Yup, even sexual orientation. It may offend your religious doctrine, but it doesn't actually harm you or anyone else. It just is. 

But you're already wondering why I use the word "they," if I am so against division. Aren't I just as guilty of "us versus them" thinking? 

True enough. That's precisely what THEY want you to say. Because if they can't get you to hate and divide yourself from your allies based on the above list, then there are some things they definitely DO NOT want you thinking of as dividing lines. 

We are not allowed to draw lines between us and people who:

  • Own far more than they need for a comfortable life
  • Waste resources on things that are not just luxuries but extravagances
  • Support unlimited proliferation of guns and other weapons
  • Display symbols of hate, violence, slavery and oppression
  • Hate and proliferate hate of others based on things on the other list
  • Make decisions affecting other people based on how much profit it will gain them

Play the Sesame Street game again. How is this list different? What do these things have in common, other than the fact that we are NOT allowed to divide people along these lines in modern society?

They are all choices a person can make. None of these depend on how you were born. Sure, you might have been born wealthy and privileged. I know people who were born with great privilege, who do not do these things. You don't have to procure your own personal indoor swimming pool in your home or paint your ceiling with gold paint or even get that new iPhone X when your iPhone 7 is in perfectly good shape and does everything you need it to. 

Being wealthy or poor may not be a choice but what you do with it is. 

I'm not saying all wealthy people must give all their wealth to the poor, though some do and thus have a legacy worth remembering. Put your money toward solar panels for your community or a documentary on something you care about or even "selfishly" supporting the artists and musicians you love so you can enjoy their work. But do something meaningful with it, beyond just amassing more wealth for you and your descendants. 

"You can't tell me how to spend my money!" I've heard that one before. 

Nope, I can't tell you how to spend your money. But I can draw this line in the sand. I will divide people on what matters. These are choices. And even more importantly, they are all choices that do harm to others. 

Whenever I hear rhetoric today, I look at these two lists and ask myself which dividing line in the first list the rhetoric is trying to draw or which line in the second list it is trying to erase. That's how you can tell the good guys from the bad guys today.  And yes, I'm one of those people. I believe there are good guys and bad guys. 

It may not be pure good or pure bad. But we put ourselves in those categories by the choices we make.

By en large, it is corporations and their minions which are doing the greatest harm today and choosing to knowingly continue to cause harm. These are the choices against which I draw the line.

Still, if we focus on those making harmful choices--the bad guys if you wish--we fall into their traps. The only way to win is to draw our own lines of protection and focus on mutual support, be kind and open to one another. Remember to be wary of divides manufactured based on things people cannot change about themselves. 

And it is good to focus as much as we can on those things that corporations cannot divide, such as:

Sunlight and other natural forces - corporations don't like solar and wind power because they can't parcel out and monetize sunlight. Even if it didn't have the potential to save us from catastrophic climate change, that would be enough of a reason to focus on sunlight and its many uses.

Gardening - Anywhere, even in the most bleak circumstances, if there is sunlight, dirt and water, you can grow something. It may not be much and it may not grow perfectly. But it will grow. There have been many attempts by corporations to monetize all gardening and agriculture, but the basic laws of life are still in force. 

The joy of learning - I love that moment when I meet a person from a new culture, a culture I don't know too much about. I especially love it if we don't speak one another's language too well. Yes, I do. I rarely find it awkward. It is like opening up a crisp, new book just out of the crate from the printer. It has that new adventure and new knowledge smell. It can be hard to bridge the language barrier, but I've done it many times and it is always a thrill. 

Music - People ask me what my favorite music is and I have always had trouble answering. That is because the music I love most is the music people make for fun without electricity and often with makeshift instruments. The most memorable music (and some of the best moments of my life) were a drum and signing circle under the full moon in a Zimbabwean village and Czech hikers stopped by a campfire, playing folk songs with a guitar, spoons, sticks and the box of quickie rice. I'm not just being charitable. This is my favorite music.

Art with words - Language is one of the most quintessentially human things. I don't particularly care if it is one I understand. There is a beauty in artfully used language that crosses all artificial borders. Delight in the craft of wordsmithing to which we are all heirs. 

Hugs - They've already tried to taint hugging with the brush of sexual harassment but hugs are kind of the antithesis of divisions. Real hugs, not sexualized contact, connect us primally and I very much doubt they can ever be corporately controlled. 

Connecting with animals and plants - There is also a divide between us and other life. In some cultures dogs are favorite pets while in others dogs are intensely feared. The same goes for cats. But all cultures have some close bonds with some animal or plant. And again this connection is something corporations cannot monopolize. 

Rallying in public - People of every culture understand the will to be heard. Public rallies and protests are less prevalent in some societies but everywhere we understand that coming together in public to take a stand and defy artificial divisions is at our human core. Yes, politicians and corporations profit off of some public rallies and there are rallies for division and hate as much as there are rallies against it. But the important thing is that they cannot completely control such gathering. They have tried in many places at many points in history and they have always eventually failed.

None of these things are unpolitical acts. Gardening, playing music, hugging, putting up solar panels, joyfully learning about other cultures--these are all acts of resistance to harm and the breaking down of manipulative divides. They matter.  Please add more to this list in the comments.

Full October Moon: How to live with the rhythm of nature

The leaves are just turning where I live and the nights are suddenly cold. As I learn to live closer to the rhythms of the earth, I notice which plants turn first---the climbing relative of ivy on our southern fence has already turned brilliant scarlet amid the green leaves of plum and nettle, and then the leaves of the cherry trees start to turn. 

Still there are a few blackberries, just enough for a tart taste on the way to the chicken coop every evening. The Siberian buckwart is abundant with bright orange berries loaded with vitamins and essential fatty acids. But much of the garden lies in browning shambles. The last of the tomatoes are barely ripening ahead of the mold and a line of pumpkins sits frost curing on the back porch. 

Harvest moon - CC image by Julie Falk.jpg

In this modern world, these things make me odd. My neighbors have yards but little in the way of gardens. I exist at technological extremes--alternating between dictating notes to an iPad and wielding a short-handled shovel. I tend to leave out a lot of the accouterments of modern life in between. We don't own a TV and our microwave dates from the previous century.  I have noticed that this embrace of the extremes of technology without the middle part has become the mark of a certain tribe in today's world,

We are often people concerned with the future of the earth and the human impact on it. We see technology as a tool to be used carefully and also as a drug that can both save lives and enslave if self-control is not exercised. We grow food from seed and cook from scratch, but at the same time we communicate over vast distances with the most sophisticated technology This is a tribe that admires simple living but cannot abide simple thoughts. 

Here are a couple of seasonal tips for those of similar mind:

  • Now is the time of symbolic harvest, whether you grow food or not. It is the time to take stock and think about gift giving. Use these October days to make or shop for gifts for whichever midwinter holiday you celebrate. This is why our ancestors placed the gift-giving holiday several months after harvest. We have ample time now but no time to waste. And forethought will make the winter celebrations much less stressful. 
  • At the end of October comes the first of the great sugar festivals of modern times. But modern medicine increasingly shows that a diet high in sugar is even more dangerous than a diet high in fat. Cut the sugar in most recipes by half and see if you notice. If necessary add a little back but only a little and then less the next time you make the recipe. You will likely find that you enjoy the treat every bit as much and you will ingest less sugar.
  • Security experts say the best long-term defense against natural and human disaster is not skill with weapons but skill with the soil. Those who can grow their own food without lots of electricity and plastic shall inherit the earth within the next one hundred years. Start the process of learning in your family. You don't need to do it all at once. But now is the time to begin. Dig a garden bed in your yard or acquire and fill potting containers for your balcony or apartment window. You don't need to have a farm now, only get to know the complex skills needed to make food grow from soil. Turn the mass of grass and roots. Add compost, manure, unpolluted wood ashes and other natural fertilizers. In climates where frost is not imminent, plant green mulchto keep weeds down and treat the soil. In colder climates, let the cleansing cold beat back pests and mold in your garden until spring.
  • Substitute grated zucchini for milk, yogurt and other liquids in cake. It not only increases your the ratio of vegetables in your diet and uses up excess late-season zucchinis, but it also tastes better (if you like your cake moist and rich). Grated zucchini freezes well and can be put in just about everything sweet or savory.
  • Add calendula flower petals to salads, breads and pasta dishes. A lovely dash of fall color and health benefits at a time when your body is preparing for the cold. 
  • Save leftover potatoes and add them to bread dough for a softer, fluffier bread or roll recipe. 
  • Fallen leaves, corn husks and other normal (not moldy) dying vegetation, make good mulch for borders and along fences. Put down an armload of drying foliage where you don't want spring weeds to sprout in six months. You'll have a tidier yard with less work. 
  • Carrots don't need to be dug immediately. Whether you have a root cellar or not, they keep better in the ground as long as the soil is not frozen and can be dug up as needed. Extra space in the refrigerator and less chance of spoiled carrots.  

These are just a few seasonal tips. Please share your own simple living ideas and experiences in the comments. Sharing your wealth of experience is one way to celebrate the symbolic abd real harvest.