Freezer berries, they're nearly as stellar as fresh ones. This week we're embracing the freezer berry in a French-style dessert, the clafoutis. Ours is a grain-free version with a ribbon of elderberry swirl and low-bush blueberries running throughout a crepe-like batter, all baked in a tidy half pint jar.
Nutritionally speaking, freezing the spoils of summer locks in the majority of phytonutrients, studies showing not too much is lost when we preserve our food this way. I used to brush off berries like they were mere luxuries of life on earth, a joy but not a crucial concern. Now I cherish them as the "power up mushrooms" from Super Mario Bros. that they are; essential boosts that supercharge with my innate abilities to put out fires of oxidative stress and inflammation. See below for more on blueberries.
We’ve only got two more weeks left in this cycle before we go on a three week break! The larger size apple acorn chutney and foraged fruit bbq sauce are now reduced in price to $10, a bit of a spring sale to clear the way for newness.
Blueberries carry the "superfood" distinction well, capturing the belly interest of peoples for thousands of years and most recently drumming up scientific attention for their many nutritional accolades.
Their rich flavonoid and polyphenol content can be instrumental in cancer prevention.1 Blueberries are also noted to promote healthy vision, restore blood sugar balance by sensitizing the body to insulin, and protect against cardiovascular disease.1 Anthocyanins, the flavonoid content specifically identified as a powerful antioxidant, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory, is the prized component of blueberry extracts, the nutraceutical version of real live blueberries.2 This flavonoid is also in elderberries!
Advancements in genetic research is demonstrating that food has the power to turn on and off our genes.3 Nutri Epigenetics examines how certain nutrients are instrumental in transient genetic regulation by participating in methylation and acetylation of DNA.3 A recent study on blueberries found they possess the ability to downregulate the methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase gene (MTHFR) and the DNA methyltransferase 1 gene (DNMT1), in instances of hypermethylation associated with cancer.4
Both parallel to and preceding this research fervor around blueberries and the chemical constituents that make them so stellar, are cultures that have known their importance and went through great lengths to gather, preserve and store these treasures.5 Native to and widespread throughout most of the northern portion of the North American continent, over 35 species of blueberries and their close cousin huckleberries are a staple and ceremonial food amongst the myriad indigenous groups residing in those regions for thousands of years.5 Herbalist Matthew Wood in his book, The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants, mentions the work of an Anishinabe herbalist, Keeewaydinoquay, who in her book on blueberry pronounces the fruit as centrally prized amongst her people.6 According to Wood, she shares that, “if a fire or an enemy threatened a village, dried blueberry was the first food to be taken.”6(349) This anecdote reveals the preciousness of these berries and longstanding recognition of their potency, prior to their christening as a superfood.
Embrace the small but mighty blueb (and elderberry)---information your body needs to keep steady and resist the stressors of living.
1. Ma L, Sun Z, Zeng Y, Luo M, Yang J. Molecular Mechanism and Health Role of Functional Ingredients in Blueberry for Chronic Disease in Human Beings. Int J Mol Sci. 2018;19(9). doi:10.3390/ijms19092785
2. Yarahmadi M, Askari G, Kargarfard M, et al. The effect of anthocyanin supplementation on body composition, exercise performance and muscle damage indices in athletes. Int J Prev Med. 2014;5(12):1594-1600.
3. Jackson and Gopinadhan C-J. Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals. In: Paliyath G, Bakovic M, Shetty K, Nair MG, eds. Functional Foods, Nutraceuticals, and Degenerative Disease Prevention. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated; 2011:125-198.
4. Kim M, Na H, Kasai H, Kawai K, Li Y-S, Yang M. Comparison of Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) and Vitamin C via Antioxidative and Epigenetic Effects in Human. J Cancer Prev. 2017;22(3):174-181.
5. Hummer KE. Manna in winter: Indigenous Americans, huckleberries, and blueberries. HortScience. 2013;48(4):413-417.
6. Wood M. The Earthwise Herbal, Volume II: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books; 2009.
"Who cooks for you?!"
That's what the barred owl says.
There's one that's been hanging around honey hill lately, hooting out practical questions and watching for prey. From the third floor, I get to share the same vantage point, an owl's eye view you could say, and witness the patience required for this glorious creature's food acquisition procedures.
Lucky for you, with a click of a button you can answer that call for yourself. Mice is not on the menu though, sorry to disappoint.
It's an exam week for me so I had to practice all the restraint I could muster not to spend all day yesterday in the kitchen testing out recipes. Instead, I devoted a good chunk drawing metabolic pathways on my white board. That said, the menu is a bit simple this week but the following week we'll be flush with bone broth again, and some other fun foods to keep your bellies entertained and nourished.
Grain-free porridge with chicken is our consolation prize---it's a new one and offers a square, fiber/protein rich start, not just for those who abstain from the grain. I'll be cooking that chicken low and slow on Monday with plenty to whip up some sloppy squirrel, a comfort dish with foraged flair. Dare I mention the hemlock honey? It will be gone as quickly as it came. Act fast to secure a dollop of this honey infused with green shoots of Tsuga canadensis.
Winter is hearth time, and I'm always glad when as a cook, I can bring warmth when it's welcome, not just as hot soup or warm bread but by actually raising the temperature of the room with the oven. I have a bit of envy for those working outside in the sun, especially the extra breezy, glorious days in the summer time, as I sheepishly set 5 huge pots on the stove to simmer or sear 30# of chicken while my whole body shimmers with sweat. Cooks are a bit more beloved in winter when the fire of the kitchen serves a dual purpose.
This winter with all its coldness and grumpiness, seemed a good time as any to start nurturing a sourdough culture and bake some bread, if only to warm up the room. The last month I've been making gluten-free sourdough bread that's all completely edible and sometimes even wonderful. I made a particularly dense loaf a few weeks ago, that I discovered was most excellent thinly sliced, brushed with olive oil, and toasted to cracker form perfection.
These experimental crackers turned out to be a real treat and reminiscent of a snack food from my youth in Minnesota---Gardetto's snack mix. If you're unacquainted, it's one of those variety bags of textures and flavors. My favorite bits were always the pumpernickel chips (I'm not alone, they make a "Special Request" Gardetto's that's just these chips). These buckwheat, acorn sourdough crisps somehow tasted very similar to these rye based chips and I'm OK with that.
Check them out on this week's menu, along with a grain-free loaf all jazzy with vegetables.
“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible." ---Katherine May, Wintering
Don't fight winter! Two people reminded me of that this week, as I noticed my self starting to feel grumbly about the limits of this season. The necessity of all the outside garb (on and off and on and off), the shoveling, the contraction, stiffness, and dryness of bodies and social lives. Thank you to my friend Corey who mentioned this OnBeing interview with Katherine May on How 'Wintering' Replenishes. I like May's framing of this particular year as part of a greater cycle, the whole year a kind of winter---and with that kind of perspective she reminds us how we can better live through it. She also reads some from her book, which is an absolute poetic pleasure.
I also came across a recent writing, Winter Restoration, from my herbal mentor Chris Marano with keen, practical ways to embrace this season, right now, in this greater moment of stress and change. If you're feeling frenzied or bored, this one is for you.
Recently while on the phone with me my sister said, it’s a “whistle while you work kinda day.” She was ready to get off the phone now that her battery had sunk dangerously low, sentencing her to a cord’s length range of motion. Chatting was no longer a “whistle” conducive to work with many of her duties out of reach, so we said our goodbyes.
There are times when the work isn’t favorable for whistling either. For instance, when it’s too much, it’ll take the whistle right out of me. Personally, even if I really love what I am doing, if I’m always ‘yoked’ to a task, eventually I feel a hostage.
Working in kitchens for much of my adult life now, I cherish the days that feel like this scene from Snow White, when there’s a communal hum of motion and cheer. It’s why I love catering big parties, Mondays at Alice’s, and loved cooking at a busy restaurant in the Berkshires pre-COVID; I feel a part of the party, the joy and excitement---it’s a buzz I lust after.
Of course this high has a peak. As was my experience at the restaurant, when the last guests had left, the drudgery of mopping the floor at 11 pm after working for 12+ hours crept in. My body would collapse in the car seat for the first time all day to drive home and questions like “why do I even do this?” arose on cue.
Cooking can bring me into my body, juggling the aromas, textures, flavors and just as easily compel me to leave it, when my feet start to ache and shoulders slouch at the prospect of just a few more hours. Economic reasons for this truth aside (the food industry is a mess of hardworking underpaid people operating on the slimmest margins), for some of us with choice in the matter, it’s all the potential good fun and magic that can beguile us into believing long days of standing, stirring, lifting, and washing will be worth it. Most of the time it is, but sometimes it costs me, at minimum, my whistle.
Yesterday was imbolc, marking the return of the light, when it starts feeling right to begin planning for spring, newness, and growth. Traditionally people have bonfires and light candles to welcome back the sun. Gardeners place seed orders, make planting calendars, and cooks wade through their remaining pantry stashes with new intention and creative vigor, making space for spring. It’s inspiring a different kind of clearing in myself, evaluating the habits that rob me of my whistle so I can really let winter hold me in its promised simplicity these last couple months.
With this spirit of moderation, I am going to dial back my writing a bit, mostly to make room for a burly class I am taking this semester. I’ll still send out a weekly announcement with the menu, and perhaps share a poem or joke. Monthly I’ll send out something longer form. I’m really in love with writing to you all and touched that you’ve been reading. If you’ve gotten this far, I can only assume. With that, here’s a poem for you to kick off this new cycle of light:
It Was Early
by Mary Oliver
It was early, which has always been my hour to begin looking at the world
and of course, even in the darkness, to begin listening into it,
especially under the pines where the owl lives and sometimes calls out
as I walk by, as he did on this morning. So many gifts!
What do they mean? In the marshes where the pink light was just arriving
the mink with his bristle tail was stalking the soft-eared mice,
and in the pines the cones were heavy, each one ordained to open.
Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.
Little mink, let me watch you.
Little mice, run and run.
Dear pine cone, let me hold you as you open.
From from EVIDENCE and DEVOTIONS
The last place I lived, a few houses up the street, there was a towering white pine right next to my bedroom. At least once a year during my four year residency there, heavy snow or a violent wind snapped off branches major and minor, sprinkling that swath of yard with needles. I frequently made medicine with the windfalls, mostly tea and infused vinegar.
Once the news of COVID spreading in the U.S. bloomed a worry that it could indeed touch the lives of my loved ones and myself, I quickly made up a few batches of white pine cough syrup---really an oxymel: white pine vinegar made viscous and palatable with raw honey. White pine vinegar has pulled me out from some bad stretches of respiratory illness, the medicine that marked a turning point, so my trust for this tree’s medicine is, well, evergreen.
Fortunately, no one I’ve distributed the cough syrup to has found a need for it yet, but I feel so much better knowing white pine has my back (or my really lungs) and is standing by for the people I love.
One of the most common trees in Massachusetts, Pinus strobus has a long history of helping people who make homes or pass through these woods in winter. Pine bark and needles, aside from offering potent medicine for easier breathing, are generously endowed with vitamin C, a scarce nutrient right now in these snow fleeced lands (32 mg in the needles, bark 200 mg).
There are tales that the Iroquois in Stadaconna (what is now also called Quebec city) helped a French sea captain and his desperate crew on the brink of death from scurvy with a tea made from bark and leaves of a conifer tree, “Annedda.” The sailors made a dramatic recovery, evidenced by this effusive account,
When this became known, there was such a press for the medicine that they almost killed each other to have it first; so that in less than eight days a whole tree as large and as tall as any I ever saw was used up, and produced such a result that had all the doctors of Louvain and Montpellier been there, with all the drugs of Alexandria, they could not have done so much in a year as did this tree in eight days; for it benefitted us so much that all who were willing to use it recovered health and strength. source
Though the exact identity of the plant brew is debatable from the colonist’s record, there’s strong reason to believe it could have been a decoction of white pine--though other candidates such as eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) or balsam fir (Abies balsamea (L.) or black spruce (Picea mariana)--with similar medicinal uses and descriptions are on the table. The crew members that lived to tell the story reverently referred to this game changing flora as the “tree of life.” Interestingly, just as the exact tree is a mystery, how this tree heals is an expanding, unsettled file.
Some postulate that the vitamin C content alone cured the sailors. Yet more recent insights reveal that the magic of white pine shan’t be minimized or reduced. Flavonoids like proanthocyanidins (also found in cranberries and blueberries) are present in the needles and bark not only offering their own powerful antioxidant effects (outpacing vitamin E) but bolstering the ability of vitamin C to do its job for longer in the body. An interesting paper, the source material for much of the above, hypothesizes that it’s also the arginine content (an amino acid) in these various conifer species, that might help mitigate the corrosive effects of scurvy, rebuilding collagen tissues.
I enjoy collecting fallen branches, tossing both twigs and needles into a jar and covering with water, leaving the brew to infuse overnight. This no heat method yields a light flavored tea with a hearty dose of the piney goods. You can also do hot water extracts (this may dampen some of the vitamin C content) for a different flavor profile and medicine---gently simmer the material or steep in hot water. I learned to make white pine vinegar from Susun Weed, who pronounces it tastes like balsamic vinegar.
Yesterday I spied a bunny munching on our former Christmas tree. The tiny tree, a white pine, took a nose dive in a snow pile, stand attached as if suspended in joy-making duty, but clearly onto other tricks. The pine was now an edible habitat, the perfect oasis for a bunny in winter.
I grappled with opening the door to grab a snapshot of this xmas "upcycling" moment but feared I’d disturb the peace. I left the bunny blissed on the lemony snap of pine needles, safely disguised. Instead I paparazzied the bunny through the screen door and you’re seeing it now here, first.
Want to be like this bunny and find out how you too can lean on tree medicine in winter? Jade Alicandro Mace has a great article on working with conifer medicine, and another specifically on white pine check it out!
Ham chips are life, the rest is just details. At least, that’s what part of my brain believes, sensitized to the glamour and ecstasy of a fancy, crisp chip dusted with Iberico ham flavor. I’m usually tempted by these crunchy bites on Wednesdays when I pass the only store I know of around here that sells them, Cooper’s Corner. I work in town, make some drop offs, and then usually have to return home to do some writing for school and/or one of my missives to you all. It’s typically a long day and I’m often low-level anxious about everything working smoothly.
As an emotional eater, I spent much of my childhood/early adulthood leaning on food to help me cope with any minor stressor or celebrate any success. Though mostly in recovery from food addiction, sometimes I experience intense cravings for food that I just give in to. Lately, the ham chips have been beckoning but there’s a long list of other contenders that “come hither” me in food shops: blue cheese, popcorn, frosted cookies, sheet cake, Entenmann's donuts, or any attempt at tiramisu.
Having a sensitive body, in my early twenties as soon I began to really binge on these foods, I began to suffer immediately, getting infections that wouldn’t go away, digestive troubles, and dealing with extra anxiety and depression. I’m kind of lucky because I received signals that helped condition me away from behaviors that would ultimately lead to more serious chronic illness. Diabetes runs in my family. I guarantee with this sweet tooth, I’d be on that highway if it weren’t for the intense feedback I’ve already received from my organs. That said, food cravings are just one of the ways this toxic culture can hijack our autonomy. Though my desires for sheet cake have quieted, they are still there, every time I see a piece in real life. I have to actively resist these urges to stay well. I like to think I am gifted with sensitive taste buds. It makes food a powerful experience and yet, the talons can get too deep.
I’m not the only one. I listen to a podcast about secrets. People just call in and offer their skeletons, sometimes anonymously, sometimes on a first name basis. I listened to one recently when a woman called in and shared, “I just ate a whole pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and I am a phD student in nutrition, studying the obesity epidemic.” The cards are stacked against us, even when we have the information.
It’s not just the rampant availability of hyperpalatable foods that makes resistance to junk challenging (and in other cases lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables), but the pressure cooker that is modern living. The abundance of stress in most of our lives actually rewires our brains away from deliberate and intentional action towards reactive and impulsive choices.
Neuroscience tells us we’ve got sections of our brain that operate different aspects of our behavior. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), in the foremost part of the brain, handles the “executive functions” including long-term decision making, prosocial behavior, planning, self-control, time management, and organization. The amygdala, governs the brain’s reward circuitry, emotional memory, fear conditioning, and impulsivity. Though the amygdala does good work, it’s understood as a less “mature” or “primitive” part of our brain that, when left in charge, may underlie addictive and impulsive tendencies.
A new book Brain Wash, written by the father and son M.D. pair Austin and David Perlmutter, examines the way chronic stress, and particularly social media, atrophies the PFC and fortifies connections in the amygdala, offering physiological insight into not just why junk food can get a hold on us but, why there’s a growing divisive culture and lack of empathy in the U.S. They present a thesis that disconnection syndrome, the “us v. them” reality we find ourselves in, has a basis in the brain, where actual disjunctions occur at the level of neurons (brain cells).
In a radio interview with Dr. Mark Hyman, the Perlmutters share that animal studies show neurons in the PFC actually contract and weaken when under chronic stress, causing this “adult in the room” to shrink. The amygdala on the other hand, experiences growth, fostering a switch towards self-centered decision making. In essence, they warn that stress reconfigures our brains, leaning towards choices that don’t take our future or others' future into account.
Skimping on sleep also accelerates this switch. David Perlmetttuer reports a study that just one night of lean sleep resulted in a 60% more active amygdala. The chronically sleep deprived eat on average 380 more kcals a day. Even looking at negative images (see: t.v.) spiked amygdala activity by 60%.
When our amygdala is activated, and operating without PFC supervision, we tend to choose immediate satisfaction, choose the “ham chips.” These choices have ties to depression and other brain turmoil---e.g. dementia ---driven by inflammation. Evidence increasingly links systemic body inflammation, achievable from chronic consumption of oxidized fats (ham chips!) or from gut punch doses of sugar (sheet cake!) or just plain old chronic stress, to degenerative brain conditions such as Alzhiemer’s. As one of the Perlmutter’s plainly puts it, “You feel like crap and your decisions are impulsive. You eat crap because you just choose something quickly. You don’t think about your future.”
Our culture likes to focus on vanity as the premiere reason to eat well. Diet culture worships the thin aesthetic and six pack. Yet from the work of the Perlmutters and so many others, eating well is necessary to keep our brains healthy and maintain our humanity. I need to avoid chips (for the most part) so I keep seeing my own future and caring about the future of others---if not to ward off chronic disease. Of course we all choose our poison, and I will never stop eating fried potatoes, it’s in my blood. Yet, I can have respect for what they can do to my brain, at least the highly convenient renditions, and when I catch myself slipping into ham chip despair, I can look for the exit, creating stoke and momentum elsewhere.
As David Perlmutter shares, oxytocin is one of the ways out of this vicious cycle, this feel good hormone connects the PFC and amygdala. Exercise, mediation, a 20 minute walk outside---these free, simple tasks are all reported to help reroute the brain back to its mature, empathetic place. The more worn a path, the easier it is to travel.
We’re almost through the darkest days of the year, Imbolc is nigh, the “quickening” of the year when light begins to noticeably grow again here in the temperate northeast. It will start to get a little easier to rekindle an embodied life, if that’s something you’ve lost touch with during these trying times. I’m already feeling a little more hopeful after yesterday. Hooray!
I don't know about you, but I felt a bit like this Corgi over the break, binging on relaxation as much as possible. It was exactly what I needed, but not enough.
The first week back was a bit of the shock to the system. I require more integration time during pandemics and on the heels of insurrections. Time to grieve and space to witness.
I'm still processing the horror of last Wednesday with the ominous dread of more to come. Personally, I'm trying to keep my health habits stable so my spirit stays strong and clear. Eating, sleeping, fresh air seeking, and connection where it will have me. A daily slather of Saint John's Wort oil made from flowers plucked near the summer solstice helps me channel the courage of fire and the sun's warmth. Sometimes just keeping up is the best you can do. Be good to you.
Here are some words I read this week worth sharing:
The Vast and Beautiful World of Indigenous Europe
I lived through collapse, America is already there.
As Intense Winter Unfolds, Some Lessons from Herbalists
Why it's Incredibly Problematic to Call White Supremacists Insane
The Misuse of Nordic Cultural Symbols In Racism and America
And two poems to leave you with-
Bertolt Brecht wrote in his poem, To be Born Later, “What kind of times are these, when. To talk about trees is almost a crime. Because it implies silence about so many horrors?”
Adrienne Rich wrote this poem in response:
What Kind of Times Are These
BY ADRIENNE RICH
There's a place between two stands of trees
where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread,
but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem,
this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light--
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.
Adrienne Rich, "What Kind of Times are These" from Collected Poems: 1950-2012.
ONWARDS by Martin Shaw
And what I am saying is this: this earth belongs partially to the dead, not to us. We are facing circumstances so complex
we simply do not have the chops to fix them ourselves.
When we pay attention to what came before us,
ghosts become ancestors, and we have something to work with.
That’s going to lead to appropriate grief
and much re-figuring,
and that’s just the way it is.
Those ancestors could also be oceans,
lightning, curlew, the far blue mountain.
Many old stories have come to talk us, fresh as rain.
Whenever I write about ancient things
it is because I think they are in the future too.
And Sherman Alexie says:
The elders knew the spiders
Had left behind bundles of stories.
And Earle Thompson says:
We finally went to bed. I dreamt
Of the mountains and now
I understand my childhood.
And Mary Tallmountain says:
The grease would warm us
When hungry winter howled.
And Haunani-Kay Trask says:
Night is a sharkskin drum
Sounding our body black
I remember seeing a clip of hermit crabs exchanging shells with an impressive level of cooperation that's stuck with me. They arrange themselves in a line, smallest to largest, and progressively upgrade to larger, hand-me-down shells one by one. You can view this wonder on youtube.
I'm not going to pretend this is a seamless process. There's a late comer who disrupts this pure scene of cooperation, ousting a crab who'd been patiently waiting their turn, who has to then settle for a shell too small. Yet, overall, the hermit crab shuffle is a sweet model of individuals supporting group growth; each crab shedding what's no longer serving them while sharing it with the next in line.
Alice did that for me a couple years ago when she upgraded to a new ordering system, bequeathing me with her former one. It has served me solidly and helped me pilot Carly's Cupboard in its smallest most vulnerable stages. Alas, recently I began to feel the squeeze of a shell too small, no longer comfortable, hyper-aware of my container's limits. Over the break I safely, with support from other friendly crabs (thank you Lincoln from Sawyer Farm and my ever helpful sweetie Greg), made the transition to a new home for Carly's Cupboard. It feels roomy, and hopefully, will bring more ease to the administrative part of this work for myself, and possibly for others.
I got a couple pokes from former Acorn Kitchen volunteers this week asking for guidance on this or that. It felt like just as I received a new shell, I was being asked to pay forward the tools and that helped me in my evolution.
In this bizarre, confusing, exhausting political climate, amidst a global pandemic, it's more important than ever we keeping sharing, offering kindness and support to one another as we each "level up" to meet new needs and requirements of the moment. Thank you for all you still finding the energy to share your old shells and for those willing to keep growing.
For those who order, scroll below for some housekeeping announcements. Lastly, if you've come this far you may be interested to know that I am transitioning my newsletter platform. I will be migrating this list in the next week or so, so if you'd like to keep receiving these emails, hang tight! If you no longer want to receive emails, you can always unsubscribe at the bottom of this email.
Thanks for reading and for all your support!
This summer, one of my favorite moments was this one: fireflies dancing between leaves of young, riverside mugwort, amidst the background pound of fireworks sounding off in the late June sky.
We walked this path many times, equal amounts loud and tranquil. Looking left, cars whizzing by and the occasional cloud of diesel. Looking right, a sultry river scene, a thru-way for multiple species of birds, hopeful fishermen, and whimsical fireflies. Throughout the year we’ve admired many a whistle pig cautiously meandering through median green, egrets and mergansers fishing cross-river, Canada goose circling overhead, and beaver patrolling the water’s edge. Magic and beauty pulse onwards; parallel to uprisings, elections, and pandemics. Good proof this world is a dream, and we’re miraculous participants, doing our best amidst every majesty and terror crossing our path.
Those twinkling stalks of silver came to mind yesterday when I lit my first fire in the yurt and filled the enclosure thick with transportive smoke from dried mugwort harvested midsummer. It was a reset day, an official welcome to a new season, one of deep nesting, burrowing into comfort, and peace, all the while embracing the infinite cold and deep darkness in these days we find.
Mugwort is connected with lunar and huntress energies, her namesake Artemis says it all, “mistress of the animals’ and “torch-bearer.” Calling her in after the first true snow, feels ripe, and right, completing surrender into winter’s slumberous embrace. She reminds us of the spirit our substance is indebted to, the forever mysteries--death and darkness cycles--- that keep this world spinning round.
Kekule's vision Four years ago, I wrote a piece shortly after the 45th president was elected. It was about dreaming and the answers that appear through uncommon channels. I mention:
August Kekulé who discovered the nature of the Carbon benzene ring, a major contribution to the field of chemistry, while daydreaming. He imagined the symbol of Ouroboros, of a snake eating its own tail, and suddenly after years of study, the structure of carbon was revealed to him.
This kind of knowing is categorically different from the standards I’ve been pressured to embrace as “the way, the truth, and the life”---the randomized control trial (RCT). Greg shared this joke study with me today that pretty much sums it up: some findings are best left observational. The insistence that evidence only looks one way, well we’re going to need to get over that.
Recently in class we discussed “folk remedies.” Some students struggled with the lack of endorsement from science on some majorly trending health practices. My friend who suffers from knee osteoarthritis got a platelet-rich plasma treatment recently.1 It’s experimental and being the inquisitive person she is, she asked every doctor and nurse how does it work? The answer was consistently, we don’t really know.
Long before salicylates were isolated and then synthesized into pills, people made decoctions from willow bark and other plants (salicin: white willow, meadowsweet, black haw; methyl salicylate: birch, wintergreen, meadowsweet).2 These anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, fever reducing herbs were (and still are) “used worldwide in many different cultures for thousands of years.”2 The etymology of salicylic acid recalls its plant based relatives, inspired by the latin for white willow, Salix alba.2 Aspirin also relates to meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria, given by German chemist Heinrich Dreser.3 The a- in the beginning signifies acetylation and -spir, inspired by the plant containing the same compound, Spiraea ulmaria.3
Eating plants we consume salicylates often; one study found vegetarians had a similar amount of salicyluric acid in their urine (a metabolite), as someone taking daily low dose aspirin.2 Lower doses of salicylates from natural sources (or baby aspirin) don’t target the COX1 and COX2 pathways and instead reduce pain and inflammation via other routes.2 Inhibition of the HMGB1and GAPDH pro-inflammatory routes are two such ways plant sourced salicylates may exert their action, possibly with fewer side effects.2
I love when I’m able to find corroboration between scientific studies and folk wisdom. It really brings me a unique kind of joy. Yet this doesn’t always happen. Kitchen medicine has many examples of remedies with few scientific studies to back them up, bone broth and apple cider vinegar being two understudied but widely promoted cure-alls.
I do put a significant amount of trust in long standing traditions and systems of medicine with epistemologies much different than the biomedicine. So when I hear about something humans thought was important enough to pass down to the next generation, and it’s gone through thousands of rounds of oral transmission, I’m impressed enough. I think that must count for something. Of course everything is vetted with some critical thought.
Something I noticed in the reading in my class last week was a profound statement, nonchalantly snuggled amongst introductory remarks in chapter one of Functional Foods, Nutraceuticals, and Disease Prevention.4 After introducing the notion that humans have been seeking out plant medicines since their earliest days, the authors remark, “Our ancestors did not know why those plants produced the observed effects, and the discovery of medicinal properties of specific plants and foods was probably accidental or the result of trial and error.”4(52)
This is frequently offered as an explanation of how humans first got acquainted with medicinal plants, accidentally or through trial and error. Considering the biodiversity of the Amazon and other places of the globe, and the sheer number of actual, possibly fatal experiments you’d have to do, this does not seem logical. I’ve been curious about this question since I first encountered herbal medicine back in 2005. Jeremy Narby’s book, The Cosmic Serpent,5 radically shifted how I looked at this question and opened my mind to possibilities I didn’t even know were on the table.
Narby shares his work in the book as a material anthropologist living with the Ashaninca people of the Peruvian Amazon. He set out on his residency collecting cultural data on rainforest resource uses to help justify protecting their land from ecological destruction.6 While there, his hosts exposed him to another way of seeing, an entirely different way of gathering knowledge.6 When asked what the Ashaninca taught him, Narby shares it’s that plants and animals are intelligent, sentient, and communicating with them is possible.6 He explains that this is how the Ashnainca learn which plants are medicinal, by asking the plants themselves, sometimes in altered states of consciousness using Ayahuasca, a plant brew.6(19:19) Narby with his academic, rationally trained mind, says, “it took me about a decade just to stand in front of that statement and take it at face value and try and scratch my head and think about it, what could it mean.” He eventually came to accept it as factual.
The Cosmic Serpent is certainly a compelling investigation of this question, and showed me that there are other avenues to get confirmation and insight from the universe, beyond the RCT. Healing traditions are rife with mystery, including biomedicine; sometimes we must lean into the magic. Some truths are found through intuitive bushwhacking, communing with other beings, and by making altars for the answers we court.
Mugwort can be a magnificent helper in softening and opening to the voices of plants or spirit in general. This is the potent time for connecting----to each other and to cookies of course, but also to spirit.
What if through dreams we could access greater clarity? What if through dreams we could get better acquainted with our place and purpose or receive flashes of divine insight?
A sprig of mugwort under your pillow or adorning your bedroom wall may usher in a vivid technicolor to your REM cycle and greater likelihood of remembering it. I’ll never forget the six year old in our class who said he put mugwort under his pillow and dreamt of blueberries the size of footballs… Now you'v got to try it, right?
Want more of mugwort (a.k.a. cronewort)? Check out these videos from Guido Mase and Susun Weed.
1. Gato-Calvo L, Magalhaes J, Ruiz-Romero C, Blanco FJ, Burguera EF. Platelet-rich plasma in osteoarthritis treatment: review of current evidence. Ther Adv Chronic Dis. 2019;10:2040622319825567.
2. Klessig DF, Tian M, Choi HW. Multiple Targets of Salicylic Acid and Its Derivatives in Plants and Animals. Front Immunol. 2016;7:206.
3. Awtry EH, Loscalzo J. Aspirin. Circulation. 2000;101(10):1206-1218.
4. Paliyath G, Shetty K. Functional Foods, Nutraceuticals, and Disease Prevention: A Window to the Future of Health Promotion. In: Paliyath G, Bakovic M, Shetty K, Nair MG, eds. Functional Foods, Nutraceuticals, and Degenerative Disease Prevention. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated; 2011:50-125.
5. Narby J. The Cosmic Serpent. Penguin; 1999.
6. TreeTV / N2K Need to Know. Jeremy Narby on Nature & Life Intelligence. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWpbNTfgjXY. Published February 21, 2015. Accessed November 28, 2020.
It's finals week for me so I'm drawing on old material. Here's a an excerpt from a story I wrote about acorns from 2016:
Growing up, I celebrated my birthdays with Rainbow Chip frosted cakes from a box. There is more vapid pleasure than lasting gratification in those cakes, and no matter how much Rainbow Chip frosting I eat, I always long for more, chasing the first taste like a hungry ghost. I learned in 2009 that food indulgence could be a multidimensional experience: nutritive, richly delicious, decisively satisfying, and spiritually sea changing—a revelation to my processed-food youth.My dearest friend Felix made an acorn birthday cake to commemorate my 23rd trip around the sun, using acorns he had shelled, leached, and ground, made creamy and smooth with rendered tallow from a bison he personally assisted in butchering. He frosted this gem with hand-picked wild autumn olive berries, mashed and milled with local honey. The flavor was unforgettably earthy and sweet, like fallen leaves, alongside a fudgy richness that filled me solid with promises of forever wholeness. Made strictly of ingredients Felix foraged or found locally (save the salt), each ingredient’s origin story was a prayer he folded carefully into the batter. Yet amongst the more storied pieces, the most decadent element of this cake was, in our modern age, time.
Yes, Felix’s cake was artisanal with a capital A, a word that’s come to have strong associations with the foodie bourgeoisie. If he tried to buy that cake in the store, he couldn’t afford it, yet having time to indulge a hobby in the deepest measure is also a luxury. Being the Little Red Hen is something most people just can’t afford—in the sense of time, money, or interest. How humans have related to their food for millennia as a necessity, knowing and engaging intimately with each morsel that crosses their lips, has gone from common to exotic. Continue reading
At the end, I mention Felix's public fruit and nut tree initiative Help Yourself. Right now he's actively raising some funds for this great program. He and dozens of volunteers are the reason we've got aronia, rosehips, juneberries, grapes, and several other delicious food crops free for picking and sharing growing right in downtown Northampton. Consider pitching in to make the edible landscape dream real.
These foods are our future.
Carly lives and eats from a hilltop in Cummington, Massachsuetts and part time in Schenectady, NY.