A faith I can see and touch

My new ESL student walks in and he's gigantic, even taller than my 6'6'' dad. He's a Czech military medical doctor and an expert on Ebola and other nasty stuff. His desire for absolutely perfect English is rivaled by few.

He's usually both tough and cheery, but on his second visit, he admitted that he had a bit of a toothache. It was making it difficult to concentrate, but he said he didn't want painkillers.

So, I cautiously mentioned my work with herbs. We had a surprisingly frank conversation about the doctor-herbalist divide. He said he resents herbal hype by supplement advertisers. I agreed that the hype is problematic and that most "supplements" are of poor quality and ineffective, explaining that fresh, local and minimally processed herbs are much more useful. 

Creative Commons image by Latisha of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Latisha of Flickr.com

"The important thing to me is that we see modern medicine as the primary health care and herbs and other alternatives as secondary," he said. We discussed the placement of the English article in that sentence--which is surprisingly complicated, if you get right down to it.

Then I went so far as to agree that while I use homegrown herbs for 90 percent of my family's health needs, I'm very glad for modern medicine when we really need it, such as the occasional lifesaving antibiotic or surgery.

He laughed and agreed to drink some herbal tea for his toothache. Every lesson since then he has wanted more herbal tea, even though his toothache is gone.

That discussion ended well, but his statement about primary and secondary health care stuck with me. I mulled it over for a few days, and realized that I actually disagree with that premise.

Homegrown herbs are definitely our first line of defense in health issues. Our doctor and pediatrician almost never see us and that is a good thing. It shows that we're doing something right.

During the late winter this year a series of particularly nasty viral infections swept through the local schools. Every family we know succumbed--whole groups of friends usually taking ill at once.

With a feeling of grim resignation, I dosed my children with a syrup made out of sweet glycerin, echinacea flowers and lemon balm leaves from our garden--a non-alcoholic substitute for antiviral tincture. I figured that with some advance preparation, our symptoms might at least be somewhat mitigated. 

I never thought we would escape the epidemic entirely, while everyone else I spoke with was in bed for at least ten days and two of my friends' children had to be hospitalized with opportunistic pneumonia. But the frigid, gray end of winter finally gave way to a wet and chilly spring and now the sun has come in earnest, drying out the sickness and leaving us unscathed. 

When this sort of thing happens, we never know for sure if our herbal concoctions have saved us or if it is more a combination of luck and eating vastly more vegetables than the rest of the town.

This was the first year in four that we didn't fall to the viral epidemic of the winter and also the first year I had been able to make the antiviral glycerate. Cake-decorator's glycerin is a strangely controlled substance by local pharmaceutical regulations.

So I don't exactly have proof that my herbal antiviral concoction was what saved us, but I have enough evidence to enthusiastically try it again. 

In many other situations the results are so obvious that denying them is ridiculous. Even my children know that a paste of plantain leaf will almost instantly relieve the pain of bee and wasp stings, nettle tea will immediately wash away the burning of an allergic reaction to nettles and a cough syrup of honey, plantain, thyme and mullein will quiet relentless hacking. They've seen it happen again and again.

Sometimes the same results can be had with a white, pink or colorless substance from the pharmacy in town. But too often for comfort, those substances are ineffective or cause nasty side effects.  

I take yarrow tincture just as any woman would take pain-killers for particularly bad cramps. It is as easy as popping a pill and results in no follow-up headaches. 

When my daughter caught a very unpleasant skin parasite from dangling her arms in a murky pond last summer, the local pediatrician spent six weeks proscribing medicated creams and harsh disinfectants. I am not used to skin ailments that don't quickly bow to my herbal salves, so I carefully followed the doctor's instructions. 

Finally, in despair because the weeping sores on my first-grader's arms showed no improvement either with herbal salves or the latest in pharmaceuticals, I cut large slabs of goo off of the aloe vera plant that sat mostly forgotten in our living room and mercilessly taped them on every single sore.

Then I covered the child's entire arms with bandages each night. After a week, the infection was gone. And though the aloe vera plant had been reduced to a nub, it has now rebounded to three times its former glory in time for another summer of wild children. 

The military doctor is unimpressed and calls my observations, "anecdotal." I agree that I love scientific studies--like those that have greatly advanced the use of lemon balm as an antiviral in recent years. 

"You just have faith in herbs?" he asks in what appears to be genuine curiosity.

If you want to call it that. My faith doesn't have to be "pure" and unquestioning.  I do have trust. It's a faith I can see and touch. 

A candle in the frost

Most evenings I teach English as a second language in order to stretch the family budget a bit. The lessons are based on the same principle as my blogs and newsletter. A cup of tea and some food for the soul are crucial. 

One class has been going on for seven years at a local community center. It's a small group of women who meet every week for tea and conversation with my interjections on grammar for spice. And this is by no means a group of only  young ambitious women. Our elder is seventy-three and she's the only one who consistently does her homework. 

Candle in greenhouse 1.JPG

A couple of weeks ago a hard frost came through in mid-April and killed just about everyone's tomato and cucumber starts. Only the eldest was spared.

She hunkered over her notebook filled with carefully noted English sentences and fairly cackled with delight, "Too early for seedlings last week. Now I'll put them out and then when the last frost comes with the three frozen men, I put a candle in the greenhouse. That will keep them snug. Just a little candle."

I had fared better than most because I hadn't had time to put out all of my seedlings yet. But by the first week in May I had to plant them. And I thought they would be fine. The weather had obviously turned to late spring with grass shooting up and everything starting to bloom.

But then out of the north it came--a huge storm of rain and sleet. We were on a bike ride with friends at the time and expected only a little spring shower. We stashed our bikes beneath an awning and took shelter in a restaurant for soup and hot chocolate. But then we watched with trepidation as a deluge flooded the road. Sleet fell white amid the pouring rain.

And the air behind the cloud bank was ice cold. For three days it stayed and I learned this is what the old-timers here call "the three frozen men." There are always three days in May when a wall of Arctic air comes down to destroy crops and cripple orchards in Central Europe. It often falls on the days named after the Czech saints Pankrác, Servác and Bonifác--three grim old men with severe faces.

I hurried to cover my tender squash seedlings that evening. But my greatest fear was for the tomatoes and peppers in a small greenhouse. It isn't just frost they won't tolerate but anything close to it. 

Feeling a bit like I was reenacting a folk superstition, I took a candle and a prayer to the greenhouse late in the evening under the light of the full moon--now shining in a clear, frosty sky. My breath froze in silver clouds as I stepped inside. The frost was already creeping in.

The next morning I woke up to a world gone unseasonably white. The blossoming plum trees were coated in ice. The grass was crunchy under foot. Even the soil had frozen half an inch deep. According to local measurements, the frost had lasted at least 6 hours throughout the night. It was much harder than I'd expected.

Some of the covered plants suffered frostbite. Anything vulnerable that wasn't covered was entirely gone. But the peppers and tomatoes were fine with the candle still burning in the dawn--a tiny flame but just enough to keep the frost at bay.

I look forward to going back to the tea-and-chat circle next week to compare notes and tell how it really is the case that we need the wisdom of old-timers.

In hunter-gatherer societies and even in the days when most people lived through farming, elders and their experience had a crucial place for precisely this reason. But today with chemicals and technology so much has changed that it's hard to remember to listen.

Yet these are the days when a frost of another kind is coming down--the chill of authoritarianism and xenophobia. There are signs from all sides that times will be hard. 

For me this is a timely reminder to pay attention to those with long experience. And to simply listen to long-burning candles in the frost.

Lungwort: Breathe easy, free from toxic pollution

Finding lungwort growing wild in my yard is a special treat and as close as Mother Earth gets to praising organic urban homesteading. Lungwort only grows in places that are particularly lacking in toxic pollution.

Creative Commons image by Prof. D. Richards of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Prof. D. Richards of Flickr.com

Often it's found in idyllic forest glades for just this reason. But for the past twelve years, it has grown by some stone steps my husband and I built by hand. The pretty little plants appear to avoid the east side of our house where coal smoke from the town sometimes rolls up just below our front door. 

Lungwort was identified centuries ago as a plant that could be beneficial for those with respiratory ailments. Some scholars today ascribe this to the medieval "doctrine of signatures," which held that plants vaguely resembling a part or attribute of the human body could help in that reflected area. The leaves of lungwort are vaguely lung-shaped and have spots on them that some people think might mirror what a diseased lung would look like. 

Remedies developed based on the "doctrine of signatures" have been widely discredited by empirical trials. Mostly it appears plants simply don't resemble human body parts all that much and any accidental similarity is just a fluke. (Yet another blow to the conceit that the universe revolves around us.)

However, it is worth noting that most theories get started somewhere. And lungwort, being a particularly ancient European herb, could have been among the reasons some healer long ago developed the doctrine. In a world ruled by religion, like Europe in the Middle Ages, it would be tempting to believe that an all-knowing God would put clues to healing in the appearance of plants and lungwort has a handy shape.

Creative Commons image by Normanack of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Normanack of Flickr.com

But the connection is likely reversed from what most believe. Lungwort has been proven in studies, including those by the University of North Carolina, to be helpful in soothing lung irritation caused by pollution or allergens. It is also used to treat asthma, bronchitis, tuberculosis and coughs accompanying viral infections. Medieval healers may have known of these properties and used the plant's resemblance to a lung to come up with the "doctrine of signatures."

Lungwort is sometimes available in capsules of freeze-dried, ground leaves or in tincture, but not enough study has been done on these processes and there is anecdotal evidence from herbalists to suggest that lungwort is not very effective unless used in its unprocessed form as fresh or air-dried leaves and flowers. The mucilage (a slimy substance) in the leaves as well as antioxidant compounds appear to account for its benefits to the respiratory system.

Creative Commons image by  Andrii Zymohliad

Creative Commons image by  Andrii Zymohliad

Lungwort is relatively easy to spot because it is one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring, with violet and pink blossoms as well as lush, slightly hairy dark-green leaves with their distinctive shape and pale spots.

Lungwort leaves are also used in fresh salads. That is the best way to get the full antioxidant effects, which are good for the skin and general health. But they do have a bit of a bitter bite like some other dark greens.

Lungwort is also used to aid the treatment of urinary tract infections, heavy menstrual bleeding, thyroid problems and digestive bloating. Medical research with lungwort is particularly scarce, possibly because of its association with the "doctrine of signatures," so there is less data available about its other benefits than for its use with lung ailments, but experience bears it out.

There's nothing like a pot of beans

A warm, sweetish musky smell fills the house and steam obscures the kitchen window. The soft rolling sound of a bubbling pot keeps time with the washing machine. And gray light falls on the floor from the winter sky outside.

Winter is no longer fun, my kids say. The snow has turned into slush and patches of deceptive ice. And to me that makes this the perfect time for a big pot of beans.

Creative Commons image by James Saunders

Creative Commons image by James Saunders

I never thought of myself as being part of the "slow food" movement, but there are few things that are as slow as a pot of pinto beans. And there are few foods as versatile and handy at the end of a tired winter week.

Beans, particularly dark-colored beans, have protein, fiber and a lot of nutrients that the modern diet tends to be deficient in. They are the staple I'd grab if I had to choose just one. And cooking them is surprisingly easy. 

Rule number one: Don't add salt until they're soft. I thought everyone knew this, but recently I've been told that isn't the case. 

Rule number two: Soak if you can but don't panic if you didn't. It just takes longer to cook them.

How long? There are charts online matching each type of bean to a number of hours, but they're pretty useless. It varies a lot depending on the size and type of bean. I've seen kidney beans that really will cook in two hours as the chart states, if they've been soaked overnight. And I've seen those that take a good six hours to soften. The main thing is to plan a bit ahead and figure that having the bubbling pot of beans on your stove all day is part of the experience.

Keep enough water in the pot, keep the heat medium, stir every hour or so and they shouldn't burn.

Once you've got them soft, there are a great many things you can do with your beans from tortillas, tacos, enchiladas and bean salads to a healthier side dish for almost any meal. 

Yes, do add salt--carefully--to taste once the beans are chew-able. As for herbs and spices, my family's most common combination is pinto beans with cayenne pepper, paprika, basil, cilantro and oregano, but there are many other good options:

Aduki beans generally take less time and go well with coriander, cumin and ginger.

Black beans are excellent spiced with chilly peppers, garlic, ginger, savory, thyme, oregano, cumin and/or parsley and they are especially delicious in Brazilian black bean soup which includes orange juice. I know it sounds strange but it's really good.

Black-eyed peas are spiced much like black beans but more often include turmeric. Chickpeas (Garbanzo beans) are a staple of many Mediterranean foods including humus and do well with cardamon, cilantro, cumin, fennel, garlic, ginger, mint, paprika and rosemary.

Fava beans and lima beans share a lot in common with chickpeas but they are also spiced with sage and thyme.

Kidney beans and navy beans use the basic cumin, oregano, parsley, sage and thyme. Mung beans look different but have a similar rich taste and often get ginger added. 

Lentils are legumes but usually not called beans and they come in various colors. They deserve separate consideration but perhaps in another post. For now, just remember that you cook them in the same way (no salt until they're soft) but for a lot less time (as little as 15 minutes for red lentils) and they do well with a lot more spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, curry, ginger, mint, parsley, thyme and turmeric. 

This is slow food but actually incredibly easy, filling and nourishing. That is particularly important when you're burnt out and times are tough. The revolution will probably be powered by beans. 

Here's to keeping warm and well-fed wherever you are.

The healing draft - A poem on home herbalist medicine

I have trusted my life to doctors and surgeons and I have trusted my life to dusty herbalist tomes along and my own brain. I've done each in its time and with a lot of forethought. 

I have written these experiences about reclaiming my own health and I've debated in minute detail with proponents of the "medical model" approach. 

My family depends on our herb bed for 90 percent of our medicine and health care. We're lucky to have built up a good perennial supply and the skills to use it. We're also lucky to avoid most chronic illnesses requiring medications with unpredictable interactions.

Still we've seen time and time again that herbs grown and used at home are far superior in action to pills and drugs bought from the pharmacy. We are as careful about the pharmacy as we are about the herbs (and we have a good friend who is a pharmacist to advise us when we do go that route). 

Even with this experience, the drumbeat of advertising and skepticism about herbal medicines is so constant that we have the same discussion every year--just me and my husband as well as with our extended family. We've seen herbs work again and again. And yet there is a resistance to believing that something so simple could be so powerful or that if it is so powerful that it could ever be used safely. 

After a recent skiing trip--during which my husband was too apathetic to put herbal salve on his sore muscles or take echinacea tincture to stave off an encroaching cough, while I breezed through both with the help of these simple medicines--I am tired of the endless argument. I am tired of citing studies and debating with a behemoth industry with my relatives as surrogates. 

This is the season of inspiration and intuition, the days just before Imbolc, and so instead of another detailed treatise, I put it into a poem:

Every day an anecdote,
Sickness, headache, injury or pain
Washed away as if through clear water.
You've got two wore legs-
One rubbed with salve,
The other left to rest and ache.
One is new again in the morning,
one is stiff and swollen.
But it is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

It means nothing, they say.
A child crying in pain,
Blisters raised on the skin.
A six-year-old sister goes to pick the leaves,
to brew the tea, to place the cool cloth
against the flaming skin.
And the child smiles,
the blisters disappear
in ten minutes by the phone clock.
But it is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

How many times must you see it?
I ask my brother, my friend, my doctor, my dear one
How many times makes a study?
How many people sick with a lasting cough,
How many who drink the garden draft,
who get up and tend those who took pills instead?
How many times before you understand
that medicine is not in an ad?
It isn't Big Pharma or Big Natura.
It is in the hands, the care, the knowledge.
It is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind. 

The questions fall heavy and predictable
like the drum beats of a campaign.
What if you make a mistake?
What if it doesn't help? 
What about the things you cannot fix or cure?
What about all the studies with freeze-dried herbs?
Who are you to say?
You have no double blind or placebo.
You have only whispers
gathered over a thousand years.
You have only the bright faces of your family.
You have only this little plot of growing things.
You have only your own health taken back.
It is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

This is my wish to all in this season--health, healing and inspiration. May your home be snug and your well of strength brim full.