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!
Carly lives and eats from a hilltop in Cummington, Massachsuetts and part time in Schenectady, NY.