Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Witch Doctor

I get, on average, something like ten calls, texts, or messages a week from friends and family looking for medical advice of some kind, whether for themselves, their families, or their animals. One memorable occasion started with a photo of an ingrown fingernail, and a request for advice. It was not memorable for the photo, nor for the asking, but for the last line of text sent to me by my friend. When I had explained that indeed, it did not likely warrant the attention of her actual MD, and how I would go about treating it, she said to me, “Thanks. That’s what I thought, but I wanted a second opinion from my witch doctor.”

I thought to myself, “Woah. That’s totally what I am.” I mean, people ask me some really wild stuff, from how to check their children for intestinal parasites, to a chicken who got her head stuck upside down. I am the go-to girl for the unusual, or even sometimes just the questionable. I almost always have an answer, too, and it is almost always as wild or weird as the original question. I got to thinking about it, and the more I thought about it, the more it bore thinking about.

We here in the United States have access to some of the best medical technology in the history of the world. But you know what most of us don’t have? Access to the full attention of our healthcare providers when we actually need it. They are far too busy to see every one of their patients for an infected nail, or even for that funny cough that doesn’t really bother us much, or being tired all the time, or a hundred other things that can and do add up to really big health issues later. We’re all busy, and our time is precious, and most of us have a terribly long drive and wait in the waiting room to see the doctor. It’s just such a burden when we have kids, work, pets, social obligations, and in some cases livestock and gardens to deal with. Never mind the financial burden of going to the doctor. And you all know what happens when you call in to ask if you really need to come in. They say yes. They have to, of course, because the risk of being sued if they miss something is too high. So what happens is that we wind up with an extremely overburdened medical system, where every waiting room is full, and you lose half a day to see the doctor whether it is a sniffle or a broken bone.

What did we used to do? I mean, there are more doctors than ever, and they used to make house calls instead of limiting the time for each patient to ten minutes or less. Well, we used to have wise people, elders, and herbalists, of course. There used to be an intermediary between people and doctors, someone who could deal with small issues quite handily, and refer larger ones up the food chain to those with more formal training. Now, we have nurses and nurse practitioners for the same thing today, you might say, but the truth is that you pay the same amount, and you wait the same amount of time regardless of who you see in the office. And if you call and ask the question, “Do I need to come in?” you will get the same answer, for the same reasons. Yes, of course, better safe than sorry.

The truth is, we have largely been disenfranchised as to our own health. Most of us can manage only the most basic of first aide, such as washing and the use of self-adhesive bandages and anti-biotic cream. Mothers, once capable of stitching wounds, once the front line against epidemics, have now been relegated to Ace Bandages and ice packs. This is an area where, in my opinion, our consumerism has gone entirely too far. So far, in fact, that almost everyone suffers unnecessarily. For instance, the standard line from the medical establishment is that if something is viral and non-life threatening, you must just take your pills to lessen symptoms, and suffer through it until it is over. In fact, there are a host of well conducted studies that show that some forms of folk medicine actually shorten the duration and intensity of the common cold, and that certain measures can be used to halt all but the worst stomach viruses in their tracks. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky, it’s scientifically proven under rigorously controlled conditions. Why isn’t your doctor telling you this? Well, it’s not out of malice or greed, it is because they simply don’t have the time. Ten minutes per patient is not enough time to teach someone how to make elderberry syrup, or bone broth. They are also so overrun with paperwork and patients that they do not have time for research. And let me tell you, most of the things you can do to regain your health or slow an infection don’t come in a jar, bottle, or box. Pharmaceutical companies have a larger marketing budget than elder trees and peppermint bushes. Most of the time, your doctor simply does not know.

I nursed a relative of mine after surgery, and when she went in for her post-op visit, her doctor said she had never seen healing at that rate before, and that the lack of swelling and bruising was unbelievable. This isn’t a boast about my abilities (which are minor, at best), but rather a cry of frustration that her other patients experienced more suffering than was necessary. We are a population that has given up the responsibility of caring for our own health. We have placed that entire burden on doctors, nurses, and technicians, and then demanded that they be held accountable for the results, absolving ourselves of every responsibility. Then we have further demanded that these professionals be ever more financially efficient at the same time that we demand the latest treatments, machines, and technology. Is it any wonder that lines are long, visits are short, and health outcomes are declining? Ladies and gentlemen, you cannot get blood from a stone.

How are we to change this? It’s a bit of a conundrum, really. This used to be part of our education, before the industrial revolution and the advent of marketing convinced us that we were not capable of taking care of ourselves. So where do we go to learn now? In most cases, our elders don’t know any more than we do.

Well, I think we can start with our witch doctors. Nearly every community has one, and you know who we are. The thing is, we never really went away. We only went underground. There has been a very long running effort to make us extinct. This is not a persecution complex, on my part. It has been a necessary process. There was (and still is) a great deal of abuse and snake oil salesmanship, and we all got painted with the same brush. But here’s a hint, a good herbalist or witch doctor will tell you exactly what is in their medicine, and why it works. They will not use buzz-words, they will not use marketing terms, and they will not spout non-sense like “superfood”. In short, they will be more interested in educating you than selling you something. An excellent one will even be able to furnish you with peer reviewed scientific journal articles that back them up. An absolute litmus test? They will not be afraid to send you to an actual MD if you need it. Ever.

Even though I have recently realized that I occupy this role for some folks, I have witch doctors of my own; people I see before I see my doctor, people I check in with, or send a quick text to in order to check an assumption. This is a function of community. I don’t do this for fame, or recognition. In fact, I didn’t even realize that I was doing it until it was pointed out to me. When we are part of a community, we share information freely. The more I thought about this newly-acquired title of mine, the more I realized that this is a function of society that has fallen by the way-side largely because we as a culture have decided that nothing is worth doing without being paid or otherwise compensated. And I am certainly not recompensed. I share information just as freely as I share seeds. You know why? Prosperity helps all of us. Being healthy helps all of us. And being able to turn sunshine, good earth, and our sweat into food and medicine helps all of us. Being more self-sufficient means that we are less dependent on money, and being less dependent on money means that we have more choices. It means that we can make the choice to give freely of ourselves. We can give to our community without looking for something in return. Frankly, that’s the kind of world I want to live in. So, I am.

Lastly, I would like to make it very clear that I have nothing against doctors. They are, in my opinion, absolutely essential, and I use mine whenever I am in need of her. I would not choose to live in a world without antibiotics, sterile surgery, prescription drugs, or vaccines. I do, however, refuse to live in a world where those are my only health care options. Luckily for me, I know a good witch doctor.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Three Ingredient Lotion Bar Recipe

My recent article about hand washing seems to have generated some interest in my lotion bar recipe. The original recipe came from a friend of mine (who deserves a whole bunch of praise for them), but I have changed the recipe just a little bit. These are awesome. There’s just no other way to describe them. They are portable lotion with almost no risk of mess. I say almost because if you leave them in a hot car, you might be sorry. It is a pretty standard lotion bar recipe, but it is the choice of ingredients that make them stand out. Best of all, unlike commercial lotions, there are no carcinogens, alcohols, or drying agents, which means that they don’t cause the dryness you are trying to cure.

Equal parts by weight of:
Beeswax (spring for the organic, lest you be slathering concentrated pesticide on yourself)
Coconut oil
Jojoba oil

The coconut oil is a fabulous moisturizer, and provides gentle antimicrobial and antifungal properties.
Jojoba oil is actually not an oil at all, but a liquid wax. It is also chemically the closest thing in nature to the natural waxy oil (called sebum) that human skin produces. This is really the best thing to use to replace the natural moisture lost by hand washing.
Beeswax seals everything in, and provides a protective coating that cannot be beat. It goes on just a little sticky at first, but very quickly (within a couple of minutes) soaks in and the stickiness disappears.
You can also add 5 drops of your favorite essential oil for every ounce of weight in the recipe, for fragrance. I don’t, because I make up a year’s worth at a time, and I don’t want to smell the same every day.

Melt all the ingredients slowly over low heat on the stovetop. You can use a double boiler to ensure that you do not burn the wax.
Once the wax is completely melted, pour the liquid into small molds, and let cool until completely set. I just make them in the evening, and leave them in the molds, on the counter, overnight. You can also put these into little individual-sized stainless steel tins, and reuse the tins once all the lotion is used up.
Once they are set, remove them from the molds, and put them into a bag, jar, or container, to keep the dust off. Store them in a cool place, and they last pretty indefinitely.
When you use the lotion bar, it is important to remember that a little bit goes a long way. Otherwise, you can wind up with some pretty sticky paws.

Friday, April 25, 2014

What's on the Needles?

New yarn. My yarn-buying dry spell is officially over. I bought five pairs of socks worth of fingering weight yarn, and a cone of fine linen warp for the rug I'm planning to weave. Bliss. This is a bag full of experimentation, however. My husband has been blowing holes in his socks almost as fast as I can get them on his feet, so I brought home a whole bunch of new yarns to try out. Unfortunately, this past weekend I felted a pair of socks while wearing them. It turns out that hand made wool socks and wellies don't mix. So, the first new pair of socks on the needles is mine, ALL MINE.

This is my very favorite basic sock pattern, Classic Socks for the Family, by Melinda Goodfellow. It gives instructions for five sizes of socks (infant through men's), in three weights of yarn (fingering, sport, and worsted), and several ribbing styles. It also provides the basis for an almost infinite variety of your own designs, simply by swapping out ribbing and simple cable patterns, and varying the cuff length.

The yarn is Schoppel-Wolle's Crazy Zauberball in rainbow, and it well lives up to its name. The fiber content is listed as 75% superwash wool, and 25% nylon. Although I love the color, the yarn is very fine for fingering weight, and does have a tendency to split. I have no idea how well it washes and wears yet, as this is the first time I've used it. I will say, if the wash and wear are good, this may become a regular yarn, even with the slight tendency to split.

For more of my spinning, knitting, and weaving projects, you can find me here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Making Space

I can now say that I have added a new skill to my repertoire; that of cutting down trees. I was already tolerably familiar with the theory, hard to escape when you live in New England, really. But I have now had the chance to put it into practice. We started cutting for the orchard. It was hard going, and not just because I happened to decide that the best place was amidst a stand of oak trees (I really never do anything small). It is not an easy thing to take a life. I honestly hope that I never get to the point where it will be. A few days before we started cutting, I went around and said thank you to the trees that are going to be giving their lives so that we can eat and prosper. Is that sentimental? I don’t think so. Quite a few of those trees are older than I am. All of them are older than my children. It sort of puts it into perspective.

The hope, though, is that the trees I replace them with will far outlive me, and may in fact outlive my grandchildren, if I have any. I dreamed of them, while doing the hard work of cutting down trees and clearing brush. Sitting under apple and almond blossoms in the spring, baskets of yummies in the fall, the pleasure of watching them grow and ripen all summer long. Plumbs, peaches, apples, and pears; made into jams and chutneys, sliced and put up in gleaming jars, dried as slices or fruit leather. Bottle after bottle of homemade wine and melomel. Nuts, hulled and stored, or roasted. Homemade nut butter, which has got to be one of the most delicious things on earth. That’s all a few years down the road, however.

This year, we must work to bring the dream to fruition. Dreams remain only that, until you put in the sweat to make them a reality. And sweat we did, let me tell you. We worked all day. First, we strung a line from marker to marker along the property boundary, to make sure we didn’t cut down any trees that don’t belong to us. It took longer than you might anticipate, as the underbrush is a dense mixture of blackberry bramble and mountain laurel. Then we stopped, and did some math. It’s all well and good to jump in with both feet (and you all know what a fan I am of doing precisely that), but orchard planning requires a bit more in the way of, um… actual planning. We measured, and found that the distance between the driveway and the property line is about eighty feet, give or take the amount of curve in the driveway. Thirty feet of that space (again, give or take) is already lawn. So if we cut back a strip from the edge of the lawn to the property line, eighty feet long, that would give us an eighty foot by eighty foot cleared space for the orchard, with the edge right up against the driveway. If we then gave ourselves a twenty foot border of open space all the way around, to prevent shading of the trees, and keep the fruit from hitting cars in the driveway, that gives us forty feet square; enough for up to twenty-five trees. I have to assume that twenty-five trees will be more than enough. Though, my kids go through applesauce faster than a horde of locusts.

Now, do I really want to cut down nearly 1/10 of an acre of trees and brush all at one go? Frankly, no I do not. Plus, we have to consider the cost. I could afford to put in all twenty-five trees this year, provided that they are all small. In which case, I would spend the next ten to fifteen years waiting for my harvest. Alternately, I can buy a lot fewer trees, but older ones that are ready to fruit immediately - as in this year, or next, depending on how well they transplant. I spend the same ten years building up my orchard, but I get fruit during that ten years. I think I know which way I want to go on this one. So we will be buying six trees this year; two Hall’s Hardy Almonds, one Chicago Hardy Fig, and three apple trees (we are still conducting delicate family negotiations as to which varieties). All of that boils down to the fact that we marked out about half the orchard to cut down. That may seem a lot for only six fruit and nut trees, but some of the trees we have to remove are quite large, and they need to come down in such a way that they won’t wipe out power lines, the house, or our fledgling orchard. Hence taking the time to do the math at the beginning of this adventure.

So with that in mind, we leaped into action. We managed to cut down about thirty small trees, and clear out most of the brush from our forty foot by fifty foot section. I say about, because most of them were the remaining sap-suckers of trees that had already been cut down and left as rotting stumps by a previous property owner. And well, then there are about a dozen large boulders we were working around. Holy hard slogging, Batman. You know, you never realize how out of shape you are until you start doing that kind of work. Three of us worked all day. My aunt and my cousin’s daughter were up visiting, so we roped in the young’un while Auntie kept an eye on children, livestock, and pets. That’s what happens when you come to visit. I’m not shy about putting people to work. I’m also not shy about being grateful, or feeding people, either, so it tends to work out. I’ll tell you, we needed the help. We ended the day with three piles of wood and brush laying in the clearing; one for firewood, one for just branches (I’m going to try my hand at wattle fencing a little later in the year, for the herb garden), and one yet to be trimmed and sorted. The last tree was also left lying where I had dropped it, because I was simply too tired to operate the chainsaw safely. I actually felted a pair of hand knit socks inside my wellies. I had to cut them off my feet. So a nice hot shower, dinner, and bed were all well in order.

I had every intention of getting up early and starting again the next day, never mind that it was a Monday, and Shawn had to work. There was work to do, and I was going to do it myself. I’m a big strong girl, right? Ohhh boy, was I ever wrong. The next morning, I felt like a ninety year old lady who had been through the trash compactor. I whimpered just getting out of bed. Chainsaw? Not going to happen. I could barely lift my water bottle. Couldn’t I just do laundry instead? Um, I couldn’t even touch my toes, so… maybe not. Look up over-do in the dictionary. You’ll find my picture.

So I settled down with my knitting, all the while grumbling about the fine weather, and not being able to work in it. At least I could replace the pair of socks that had been sacrificed. I could always get back to clearing for the orchard tomorrow, right? Well, as it turned out, the next day it rained, and not a little bit, either. I think we got something like an inch and a half of rain. The ducks were happy, but I was muttering under my breath. So, I spent the day wrestling with the household budget, trying to bring everything into order before our fiscal year (which starts June 1st) comes to an end. I wasn’t very successful. It seemed like every small thing that could go wrong, did, and every tiny task took ten times longer than it should have. It was one of those days. I usually have them when I am struggling with the inevitable, instead of surrendering to it. BUT THAT’S OK, because I was going to get outside and start moving my way through those brush piles and stacking the firewood in the morning, by hook or by crook.

Well folks, I got up this morning to an entire yard covered in ice, and a two hour school delay. Seriously??? It is SPRING dangit. Someone up there is having a pretty good chortle at my expense, I must say. So today I’m going to knit, and wrestle with financial information. I will not be so foolish as to try and work on ice-coated trees. I will also try and take this delay in good grace. Because at least there is always tomorrow…

Monday, April 21, 2014

All Purpose Cleaner

This is the second of a series on homemade cleaning products. I’ve had a few requests for these recipes, so I thought I’d share them here. I’m not going to call these recipes non-toxic, as obviously anything that kills bacteria and mold is toxic, though the goal is to use substances that are not toxic to people and pets. In addition, homemade cleaners are far, far less expensive.

This is my all-purpose cleaner, the one I reach for the most. I use it to clean counters, tables, spots of dirt, and mysterious sticky substances on the tile floors. It leaves everything shiny, clean, and smelling wonderful. Best of all? It costs me about $0.09 to make a sixteen ounce bottle. Seriously, NINE CENTS. And the ingredients, once bought, are enough to keep me in cleaning solution for years. You don’t get much more frugal than that.

½ tsp washing soda OR 2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp borax
½ tsp Liquid Soap
2 cups hot water

It is very important to note that washing soda will dissolve wax. If you have a wax finish on your floors, or furniture, please use baking soda instead. With that said, parents, this stuff dissolves crayon marks like you wouldn’t believe. It’s like magic, and more than justifies the extra effort of locating the washing soda. Please read the information on the box, as this stuff should not be left where little ones can get into it. It is quite alkaline, and if swallowed in large amounts, can burn. It is perfectly safe in its diluted form in the cleaner, however.
Borax is used for deodorizing, and when the cleaner is left to soak, it helps lift stubborn dirt.
I use actual soap whenever possible. Why? Well, because there seems to be a lot of question around the safety of detergents, none around soap, and soap cleans just as well for most aplications. My very favorite liquid soap is Dr. Bronner’s, which comes in a wide variety of scents, and uses essential oils. I prefer the unscented kind, but you can use anything you like in this recipe.
The water must be as hot as possible to dissolve the borax.

Friday, April 18, 2014

What's on the Needles?

I thought I'd try my hand at a pair of boot cuffs. It's a great way to use up a bit of stash yarn, and an excellent chance to try out some new stitches without making a sweater-sized commitment. These are made with Harrisville Designs yarn, but to be honest, I'm not sure which one. I'm pretty sure it has just a little angora in it, and maybe some silk? This is the trouble with stash yarn, you see, especially yarn bought before I learned that I have to be organized about my stash. This particular yarn has been hanging around for more than a decade, and I'm absolutely sure that it is no longer available. Which is a crying shame, given that I've just fallen in love with it all over again.

The pattern is my own, and combines a braided cable, grafting (which you can actually see in this picture), a yarn over braid, and some simple ribbing. It took me about seven hours to do the prototype, but I think it'll only take me about four to finish the other one.