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 Amazon.de 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.

Camping tip: Forage for tea and enjoy a vitamin boost

Nine years ago I packed food and video equipment in to a Greenpeace blockade camp in a military zone in the Czech Republic, dodging patrols and slipping up unmapped trails. The goal of the camp was to protect a couple of tree-sitters and thus to occupy a strategic hilltop marked for a US radar base that would put the first foreign troops in the country since the Soviets were kicked out in 1989 and destroy a fragile ecosystem in the process. 

Creative Commons image Yoppy of Flickr

Creative Commons image Yoppy of Flickr

I'm delighted to report that Greenpeace and local activists won that fight. 

I don't recall our packs containing anything like tea or even coffee when we carried supplies in and maybe this wasn't actually an oversight by the more experienced blockaders. In the end, other than a renewed sense of what can be accomplished by non-violent activists and the unsung little victories of environmental and social justice, I came out of the Brdy Hills with an item I no longer needed to carry in my camping kit - tea. 

I'm a tea drinker--herbal, black, green, you name it--and especially on camping trips, a hot drink in the morning is essential, though I can live with or without caffeine. As a result, I have always carefully stocked and refreshed a tea supply in my camping kit and I suffered greatly a few times when it ran out at an inopportune moment. 

The Greenpeace campers taught me how incredibly easy it is to forage for tasty, drinkable leaves if you're out in the woods anyway. After learning this, it seems almost silly to pack the stuff. 

Creative Commons image by  Woodley Wonder Works 

Creative Commons image by  Woodley Wonder Works 

The basic thing to remember is that if you are used to eating the berries, you can usually brew the leaves. Wild huckleberry, raspberry, blackberry and strawberry leaves make a great base for tea. Raspberry and blackberry taste pretty similar to black tea and you can treat them much the same. But instead of caffeine you'll get an extra dose of iron and other nutrients, which is particularly useful for when you're outdoors and active. 

Beyond these, the year's newest fir needles are an excellent addition to make a more fragrant tea. Mint and wild thyme or wild oregano flowers can usually be found as well.

Fresh forage tea is particularly high in nutrients and flavor, and you'll enjoy the break from dried teas. However, there are a few cautions to observe while you're doing this:

Creative Commons image by Julie of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Julie of Flickr.com

  • Don't eat or brew plants you can't identify or are not sure are edible.
  • Don't eat or brew plants found within a few yards/meters of an established campsite. First of all, the campsite will become stripped. And second, the males of our own species and those of one of our most friendly species (dogs) have a habit of marking the edges of such campsites with their urine. You can't be sure who has been there before you.
  • Don't eat or brew plants found within 20 yards/meters of a minor road or 100 yards/meters of a major road. You don't want toxic heavy metals along with your iron supplement. 
  • Don't pick plants in protected areas, national parks, high mountain meadows or particularly fragile habitats. If planning to camp in these areas, you do need to pack in everything. (And pack everything you brought in out again, of course.)
  • When harvesting wild plant leaves for tea, be careful to take only a few leaves from each plant. Don't pull or you may damage the roots. If possible use scissors. Take only what you need. Harvest for future use, only if there is a great abundance of a particular plant and then be careful that you don't damage the plants or topsoil. 
  • Before harvesting wild plants, sit a moment in the area and get a sense of it. Does it smell right?  Do you have a relaxed feeling or an uneasy feeling? Any sense of disturbance or unease you feel could indicate that you should not pick plants there. Human beings are still quite capable of instinctively sensing the health of plants without knowing logically why. The area could be polluted or too fragile and your body might pick up on that.  
  • Give your thanks to wild plants you harvest from, whether silently or out loud, when you are finished.

Next time you're camping and have access to hot water out in the woods, brew up fresh forage tea and you will have an immediate connection to the local land and the earth itself.

Raspberry leaf - relaxing, nourishing and cleansing

Raspberry leaf is a passable substitute for black tea. It doesn't have the caffeine, of course, but while you have to be careful with the dosage of many medicinal herbs, this is one herb you can drink--and rather enjoy--every day if you want to. 

That doesn't mean it's without medicinal benefits, however. The leaf of the red raspberry bush (both the garden and wild varieties) is used for disorders of the gastrointestinal tract, such as diarrhea, for the flu and other viral infections affecting the respiratory system, for fever, for vitamin and mineral deficiencies, as well as for heart disease and diabetes. 

Creative Commons image by Patrick Cain 

Creative Commons image by Patrick Cain 

Due to its mild and generally nourishing effects, raspberry leaf is consumed in large quantities when medicinal benefits are desired and is usually a secondary herb to support others. It is also considered a good herb for clearing up skin problems caused by a build up of toxic heavy metals and other inorganic compounds in the body. As a detox herb, it is often combined with nettles, but unlike nettle it is beneficial to those with anemia and does not have the side effect of stripping iron from the blood. 

The most important benefit of raspberry leaf is probably it's simple nutritional value. It is high in vitamins and minerals. A cold infusion of the herb is packed with magnesium, potassium, iron and b-vitamins which may explain some of its benefits during pregnancy, including .reducing nausea and leg cramps, as well as improving sleep. 

Many herbalists recommend raspberry leaf as a "women's herb" and there is evidence that it has been used by many cultures to give pregnant and menstruating women a boost . The  nutrients in raspberry leaf give specific benefits to the female reproductive system. Raspberry leaf strengthens the uterus and pelvic muscles which some midwives believe leads to shorter and easier labors. The astringent compounds in raspberry leaf may be responsible for this benefit, causing lax tissues to become firm. This can be helpful in case of uterine prolapse or extensive cramps.

Some women report that raspberry leaf tea can help with painful or heavy periods. Even if it doesn't lessen a heavy period in all patients, it can help to avoid the anemia that may result from excessive menstruation. 

Women wishing to conceive often use raspberry leaf, as many herbalists believe it "tones the uterus." Others use it to mitigate morning sickness in early pregnancy, though some practitioners fear that it could cause hormonal shifts that might slightly increase the chance of a miscarriage.

Creative Commons image by Tatters of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Tatters of Flickr.com

There is little evidence for a link to miscarriage and other herbalists use raspberry leaf to prevent miscarriage. However, in this arena any suspicion is usually grounds for banning an herb or any other substance during early pregnancy. As a result midwives often recommend drinking raspberry leaf tea only in the last month or two of pregnancy, when it's benefits to the uterus and in easing birth can be obtained without any potential risk of miscarriage. 

While there is some controversy about the timing and dosage of raspberry leaf during pregnancy, midwives and many doctors are in agreement that after the birth raspberry leaf tea has extensive benefits, helping to mitigate bleeding and swelling as well as to restore muscle tone. The high nutrient content gives extra oomph to breast milk. 

Tea or infusion 

Raspberry leaf is often prepared as a tea, hot or iced. The tea, brewed with boiling water, has a taste similar to that of black tea and is considered quite pleasant by most people. Still the boiling water and the relatively low concentration of raspberry leaf in this tea make it weak as a nutritional supplement. 

To get the full nutritional value of raspberry leaf, it is best brewed as a cold infusion. To brew a cold infusion fill a glass container with the loose dried or fresh leaves. Don't pack them in. The proper amount is about as much as will loosely fill the container in a fluffy pile. Then fill the container up with cold water and stir the leaves in well. Let the mixture sit over night or for at least eight hours. Strain and use the infusion as a nutritional supplement. 

Raspberry leaf can also be made into a tincture with 40 percent alcohol. The tincture is most often used to treat heavy and painful menstrual periods.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

The Acyclovir versus lemon balm debate: Cold sores vanquished

Our local doctor and I didn't get off to an easy start. He said he'd seen far too many "enthusiasts" who thought they could do without medicine and "just use herbs." He was besieged by middle-class mothers balking at immunizations.

And then there was the fact that I was about the strangest parent he'd met--legally blind, a foreigner and with two adopted kids of a background he considered at best "suspicious." He told me at one of our first meetings that I was the kind of person who would get reported to child protective services at the slightest provocation. But the only other local pediatrician had already thrown us out on even flimsier grounds, so I stuck it out.

But eight  years on, after many bumps and jolts we now have an exemplary relationship in which, if I need help, I call and he trusts my descriptions of symptoms over the phone, asks me to bring a child in or helps come up with a home solution. We brainstorm herbal medicines together when we can and I trust his recommendations when we have to use potentially harmful antibiotics.

Creative Commons image by Tristan Ferne of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Tristan Ferne of Flickr.com

This past spring there was a major outbreak of chicken pox in the local school. Czech doctors are not as quick to vaccinate against the disease as those in the US are now, claiming that the vaccine is low on effectiveness and high on unintended consequences. So, I set about researching chicken pox symptoms and discovered that one of my favorite herbs--lemon balm--can help to mitigate the symptoms.

When I was sure that my children had been exposed to chicken pox by paying sympathy visits to the sick, I started giving them lemon balm syrup in hopes that they would not have to suffer with too many blisters. And then my kids were the only ones in their classes who didn't get chicken pox.

The next time I talked to the doctor, I thought back on our first meetings and had to smile. He leaned eagerly across the desk, swapping information about medical trials with lemon balm. He was as curious as I was. 

Did we actually fight off chicken pox with lemon balm syrup? Given the research, it seems at least possible. But there are plenty of other possibilities. The children may already be immune one way or another. And sometimes you just get lucky--or unlucky if you actually wanted your children to get chicken pox over with in cool weather.

I told the doc how I have used lemon balm salve to deal with herpes cold sores for years and found that it is just as effective as the antiviral drug Acyclovir.

"I've concluded that it is actually more effective," he said. "And Acyclovir has so many side effects. If you know how to use lemon balm correctly, that's superior."

Lemon balm was long thought to be a very mild herb, used as an anti-anxiety tea. But then a German medical trial in 1999 showed that a cream made with dried lemon balm extract could significantly improve cold-sore symptoms and increase blister-free intervals.

Dried extract may be more easily quantified, stored and sold commercially, but it is far less effective than fresh and otherwise minimally processed plants. I have found that lemon balm salve made with fresh leaves and olive oil doesn't just improve cold-sore symptoms, it can essentially vanquish them, driving the herpes virus into a decade or more retreat. After suffering from many cold sores in my twenties, I haven't had a full blown one in ten years and only even had the mild beginnings of a sore, when I neglected to use lemon balm salve at the first sign of a potential flare up. 

Over the past two decades new research has confirmed and expanded upon the original studies, showing lemon balm to be an exceptionally powerful antiviral medicine. When even my conservative local doctor, who didn't used to like "herbal frippery," sings its praises and denigrates Acyclovir, I'd say the jury is in. 

For a salve recipe that can be used to make lemon balm salve for cold sores and chicken pox blisters click here.

For a more detailed discussion of lemon balm's herpes-fighting capabilities click here.

For more lemon balm recipes (including delicious popsicles) and uses in treating strep throat, anxiety and insomnia click here.