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.
The I-collective put out a collection of indigenous authored readings and resources on the upcoming day where many of us bliss out on turkey and pie. Take a moment to listen to their stories and get the kind of history lesson you most likely didn't get in school. If you're like me, the more silenced and oppressed a voice or historical perspective is, the more I have to listen to it over and over, to remember it---that's how strong the workings of dominant narrative are.
We’ve been discussing prescription diets in one of my classes. The four week module included two powerpoint presentations with an overview of the material. One presentation covered a variety of special diets----Paleolithic, ketogenic, elimination, macrobiotic, anti-candida, vegetarian, etc. The other was solely on the Mediterranean diet, special enough to have it’s own 30+ set of slides.
The Mediterranean diet (MD) centers a diversity of fresh, high-fiber vegetables and herbs, and promotes the consumption of nuts, lean proteins, and whole grains.1 As a prescription diet, it’s one of the most studied, accumulating a body of evidence proving its efficacy in promoting long term health.1,2 It’s hard to argue with a diet receiving so much scientific acclaim and attention, first made famous by Ancel Key’s Seven Countries Study in the 1950’s and later canonized with its own Harvard School of Public Health pyramid in 1993.3
My longtime friend and cooking mentor, Alice, is Italian-American and as her student, I am well acquainted with the wonders of extra virgin olive oil. I have no Italian roots (that I’m aware of), yet cooking with liberal amounts of this oil has been fundamental to my education. Ever since I attended Alice’s olive oil tasting over ten years ago at the Old Creamery Coop while she was co-owner, I began to appreciate the full range of flavors possible from olives. Alice’s food has fruity notes characteristic of the Cretan extra virgin oil she blesses nearly every plant, protein, and grain that passes through her kitchen. It’s seductively delicious and I want to swim in it.
While I do not refute that the health benefits of extra-virgin olive oil, fatty fish, and wild herbs are worthy of praise, I agree with critics of the MD’s popularity that what drives the power of this diet is not inherent to one region of the world.2–4 As the authors Bere and Brug point out, the MD refers more accurately to a traditional eating pattern found globally in communities insulated from industrialization and hardly describes the current eating patterns of most people in Crete today.4 Currently Greece suffers from some of the highest obesity rates in the world and a markedly low adherence to the MD amongst children.5 These trends show that what was special about the diet of those in Crete studied by Keys in the 1950’s says more about intact cultural food ways and land based living, than the regionally specific components.2
Looking at the strengths of MD from the angle of food groups, we can see these valuable foods found in other traditional food cultures around the world.4 Salmon and herring for instance, commonly promoted in the MD are actually from the North Sea and Northern Atlantic, not the Mediterranean.4 People in Nordic nations are able to obtain the omega-3 fatty acids often promoted from Cretan wild greens in the MD from their own wild Nordic berries, containing 15 times the fatty acids of commonly consumed imported fruits.4 That said, wild edible plants are found all over the world and humans have evolved to rely on their polyphenols and other micronutrients for sound health.6 Sub-Saharan Africa for instance, boasts 1,000 species of wild green leafy vegetables.6 While Mediterranean refers to a whole region, the diet itself really only includes southern Italy and Crete, ignoring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, “despite their populations eating diets that match the principles of the model.”3(36)
Fetishizing a diet of one region and attempting to universalize it around the world as the ultimate protector of cardiovascular disease erases the diversity of pre-industrial food cultures that were able to maintain sound health without the importing of foods from far away. Modern peoples are not struggling from “Mediterranean food deficiency.” They are suffering from centuries of colonization and the consequent pumping of cheap, processed food into the market.
I don't believe worldwide consumption of olive oil is the answer to cardiovascular disease, a proposition of questionable environmental consequence. Does anyone else see the irony that this diet originates from the birthplace of the Greco-Roman empire, the starting place for millennia of colonization of indigenous peoples and breaking with land and foodways?7 Does the fact that the MD has received so much acclaim have to do with Eurocentric biases in the scientific community?8 Can the way we do nutrition science uphold white supremacist ideas and mores?9 By claiming it’s a place or people that has all answers, rather than characteristics of a bygone, preindustrial era, excludes the myriad of ways we can thrive with food. Instead, it’s more useful to understand the key components of the MD that have delivered so well in scientific study and focus on regionally based, culturally appropriate diets.
Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig deliver this point well in Nourishing Traditions, delineating the flaws of a one-size fits all approach, particularly when it comes to the role of dietary fat.10 Fallon points out groups like the Masai in Kenya, whose diet is rich in saturated fat and have strong cardiovascular wellness.11 She also names the Inuit, who rely heavily on fish and marine animal foods for subsistence, a far cry from the plant/grain based recommendations of the MD.10 Both the Inuit and Masai have had longstanding, intact cultural food traditions, reaching far enough into modernity to be examined by western science. An interesting article from 2017 discusses the cardio-protective role of these omega-3 rich foods in the traditional Inuit diet and how “nutrition transition” away from this diet is impacting the mental health of the Inuit living in Northern Canada.12 The authors share that it may be not just a lower level of omega-3’s increasing the prevalence of serious psychological distress, but the increasing absence of the socially bonding food gathering traditions.12
Thanksgiving approaches now, a holiday with these conflicts and musings at its core and also for many, one of the few semblances of a "socially bonding food gathering tradition." What if we got curious about pre-colonial nourishment, both on this continent and if we’re not native, from our respective homelands? My hunch is that in asking those questions we’re taking one step back from buy-in to the overculture of sameness and a step toward a glorious kaleidoscope of health and strength deep within our ancestral cores. How did our people connect to land? What wild plants did they gather? What were the potent, scared foods of their culture? What was/is their “olive oil?”
Many of us are amalgams of where we came from, where we are, and where we’re going. Some of us don’t have the privilege of knowing our roots exactly. I’m certainly not suggesting we all “stay in our lane.” As I said, I indulge in olive oil on the regular. Yet I also appreciate the value of bear fat, pasture raised lard, or clarified butter pressed from the cream of grass munching cows. There are many ways to find home and health through food. As social creatures, who we ally with is who we eat with and eat like. Let’s not let nutrition science’s propensity to universalize technical knowledge and dissociate it from the social contexts, dictate what’s good and bad, without examining the wisdom of place and people first.8
Conviviality and pleasure are values central to the food traditions that inspired the MD.3 As Phull notes, evidence shows the more people present at a meal, the longer it lasts and that pleasure seeking cultures have healthier eating behaviors than those who are fixated on health at the expense of pleasure.3 During this strange time when our gatherings may be smaller or nil, let the extra space be an opportunity to ponder how pleasure, belonging, and health intersect for you. Maybe light a candle for those ancestors while you're at it, they may have something to say.
1. Mediterranean Diet Video. https://www.nutritionheart.com/video-mediterranean-diet/. Accessed October 22, 2020.
2. Lăcătușu C-M, Grigorescu E-D, Floria M, Onofriescu A, Mihai B-M. The Mediterranean Diet: From an Environment-Driven Food Culture to an Emerging Medical Prescription. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(6). doi:10.3390/ijerph16060942
3. Phull S, Wills W, Dickinson A. The Mediterranean diet: socio-cultural relevance for contemporary health promotion. Open Public Health J. 2015;8:35-40.
4. Bere E, Brug J. Is the term “Mediterranean diet” a misnomer? Public Health Nutrition. 2010;13(12):2127-2129. doi:10.1017/s1368980010000480
5. K.D. TAMBALIS, D.B. PANAGIOTAKOS, G. PSARRA, and L.S. SIDOSSIS. Current data in Greek children indicate decreasing trends of obesity in the transition from childhood to adolescence; results from the National Action for Children’s Health (EYZHN) program. J Prev Med Hyg. 2018;59(1):E36-E47.
6. Flyman MV, Afolayan AJ. The suitability of wild vegetables for alleviating human dietary deficiencies. S Afr J Bot. 2006;72(4):492-497.
7. Morell-Hart S, Moffat T. How the Mediterranean diet became No. 1 — and why that’s a problem. The Conversation. February 2020. http://theconversation.com/how-the-mediterranean-diet-became-no-1-and-why-thats-a-problem-131771. Accessed October 22, 2020.
8. Hassel CA, Tamang AL, Foushee L, Bull RBH. Decolonizing Nutrition Science. Curr Dev Nutr. 2019;3(Supplement_2):3-11.
9. Hassel CA. Reconsidering nutrition science: critical reflection with a cultural lens. Nutr J. 2014;13:42.
10. Fallon S, Enig MG. Nourishing traditions. The Cookbook that Challenges Policitally Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats Revised. 2001;2:40-45.
11. Mbalilaki JA, Masesa Z, Strømme SB, et al. Daily energy expenditure and cardiovascular risk in Masai, rural and urban Bantu Tanzanians. Br J Sports Med. 2010;44(2):121-126.
12. Skogli H-R, Geoffroy D, Weiler HA, Tell GS, Kirmayer LJ, Egeland GM. Associations between omega-3 fatty acids and 25(OH)D and psychological distress among Inuit in Canada. International Journal of Circumpolar Health. 2017;76(1):1302684. doi:10.1080/22423982.2017.1302684
The Oyster mushrooms in the hash this week have been “activated.” I sunned them gill side up, for a couple hours to facilitate vitamin D metabolism post-harvest. Mushrooms uniquely have ergosterol in their cell walls which operates similarly to cholesterol in animals, converting UV radiation from the sun into vitamin D2 (along with small amounts of D3 and D4). Oyster mushrooms have particular talent at sequestering this vitamin, synthesizing double the amount as shiitakes at the same exposure time, producing up to 140 μg/g. Mushrooms can be dried and stored post vitamin D activation for up to 8 months, retaining their nutrient power. You can also work this trick on any store bought shrooms, which generally receive very little sunshine in the climate controlled dark warehouses where they are grown. Take them home, flip them gill side up and sun them for at least 60 minutes during peak sun hours (11-2 PM), et voila, enhanced shroomies! Slicing to increase the surface area also amplifies the vitamin D generated.
Now is the time to pay attention to your vitamin D intakes! Widely studied and highly recommended, vitamin D plays an active role in immunity and has been strongly linked to COVID-19 protection. We’ve been blessed with the sun’s kiss all summer, and for many 20 minutes in the sun daily with 40% of your skin exposed, will take care of vitamin D needs. This fun fact comes with some caveats though. Sunscreen with a factor of 10 reduces vitamin D synthesis via the skin by 90%! Additionally, after fifty, our body’s ability to manufacture it from the sun decreases, and a shocking 61% of U.S. elders are deficient. Now as we enter the darker months, it’s critical to either get your vitamin D through diet or supplements, especially in the Northeast. Another sneaky source is pasture raised pork fat, a.k.a. lard., key words "pasture raised," since the pigs must be in the sunshine to synthesize their own vitamin D. If you’re not eating liver, oily fish, sunshine lard, activated mushrooms, or fortified foods on the regular I’d recommend a supplement. I take one as extra insurance and ever since I started several years ago, I get sick way less frequently in the fall and winter. Generally speaking, D3 (from animal sources) has been shown to be more potent than D2, though if you’re a staunch vegetarian, D2 may have to suffice.
Vitamin D is crucial for strong bones, long understood as protection from osteoporosis. An easy trick to tell if you’re low is to push on your shin with your thumb. If it’s tender, your bones may be on the softer side, indicating you need more of this nutrient. Bones aren’t it though---vitamin D receptors are also found in most cells throughout the body, affecting a wide range of endocrine, cardiovascular, and immune functions. Three quarters of the U.S. have suboptimal levels, not quite deficiency, but low enough to set the stage for possible long term health consequences. Low vitamin D levels are linked with diabetes, certain kinds of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, depression and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.
As always, the scientific community is not a united front on all of the above. There's controversy about how we measure vitamin D status and the studies correlating low levels to all of the above health issues (except for bone health and immunity) have conflicting evidence. We're only beginning to understand with microscopes what we've known for a long time. The sun is healing; foods and people grown outside seem better off.
It’s obviously PSA season. Go vote, eat your sunned mushrooms, and maybe some fish liver too. Strong bones and strong immune systems will keep us in fighting shape for the election scaries. Boo!
Radiolab put out a neat story on vitamin D and COVID-19 this past summer, called "Invisible Allies," I thought was worth sharing. Also, for perspective from the podcast, All my Relations, on the conundrum of voting as a native person within a political system that continuously erases you, see "Vote (if you can and want to)."
Elephants smashing pumpkins! A little playful catharsis.
This is my latest experiment with Autumn olives. After softening the berries on the stove and squeezing out their juices and pulp for jam, there's still plenty of food available. Here are the seeds and stubborn bits of pulp smeared on a dehydrator screen in the early stages of flour making. I'll dry them, then give them a buzz in a high speed blender for eventual showcasing in cakes and muffins. I've made wild cherry flour this way before and it's miraculous! Fingers crossed...
About a month and a half ago, I was walking with my friend Corey. We came upon a Autumn olive shrub loaded with berries. I knew it was too early but I shoved some in my mouth anyway. My face puckered and I almost started choking from the wave of sudden astringency. We had a laugh about it, then I thought I should write a little story about this, about autumn olives and needing to have patience for them to sweeten with the frost.
Ugh, turns out I already wrote this story?! Some things never change. If you're unfamiliar with these magnificent shrubs, check out a this little piece I wrote about them back in 2015.
The parking lot where I visit Greg in Schenectady harbors a scurry of squirrels in a garbage-proximal brush pile. I greet them every time I park, attempting interspecies conversation, but their generalized anxiety seems to always prevail over my charming, singsong hellos. Most months, I catch them scavenging in the garbage bins, and Greg has them on camera fleeing with a squirrel-sized pizza slice in hand.
All October however, they’ve been singularly focused on the giant walnut tree shading the lot. Seeing a squirrel with a mouthful of black walnut reliably leaves me awash in a warm kindred feeling. I see them routinely risk their lives crossing the street to patronize trees. Once I found a squirrel slain, mid-street, fresh walnut forever by their side; a snapshot of their pantry stuffing tunnel vision. I can certainly relate, and though during collection time, squirrel raids on my stash can be a bother, the lengths they go to eat those nuts gives me a sense of solidarity with them.
Last year, a man named Joe reached out with the good news he had plentiful black walnuts to share. The walnuts I have cured and stashed from last year populating my baked goods are thanks to Joe and his towering backyard companion. I have always been delighted to make time and space for these quirky nuts, their flavor and nutritive value unparalleled. Yet, this year, the year we now know as the time of great fire, violence, division, quarantine, and uprising---do I still have time and space for the laborious, messy, vigilant task of black walnuts? This moment, when each day there’s pressure to stretch into something bigger than ourselves, to miracle-grow new limbs, hearts, brains, and tongues, just to keep up, I want to put my energy where it counts.
Since I was young I’ve been terrified of this moment, the revelatory, now or never, moment in our shared story, in America’s story but also humanity’s. It’s a high stakes, angsty, doom twilight of a time. Now that we’re here, I am proud to report my compulsions to hoard tools and glass jars while aggressively learning every self-sufficiency skill possible have significantly diminished since first fretting about peak oil and climate chaos back in 2008.
Twelve years later, I define “put my energy where it counts” more dynamically. Lately, it’s meant giving myself permission to be more than my productivity, to tend to my relationships with the same vigor and care as one of my beloved pet projects. I’m working to source my security more diffusely, in the people I know, from our shared history and mutual indebtedness, and a confidence in my abilities to adapt to meet the moment and stay present.
What I physically have seems less important. So this year, I almost said no to more black walnuts. This year, the same kind man, Joe, contacted me. I was struck with old feelings, I wanted the nuts despite having no room to dry or store them. There was also the hesitation of adding one more thing where I had just seemed to reach absolute capacity on my fridge and freezer. And I had to think about squirrel traffic in potential drying spots. Squirrels have an amazing sense of smell. This is how they find their own buried treasure but it’s likely how they’ll find mine too. I’ve longed fantasized about building drying screens, somewhat rodent-proof to accomplish this task anywhere but haven’t gotten around to it.
Despite these concerns, I decided to say yes to these nuts, to keep up my end of the covenant with Joe, who just wanted the nuts off his lawn, and figure it out. I showed up to Joe’s house Sunday, somewhat beleaguered, with many internal questions on what the next right step would be, once I loaded up my car with nuts. They are awfully messy, strong smelling, and flies love laying their eggs in the rotting husks (there were already signs of new life). I needed a plan I didn’t yet have.
After Joe directed me to his collection, he calmly presented breaking news---he had other possibly useful, related equipment to share. See, when Joe went about befriending the black walnut tree in his backyard, he went all in. He purchased a black walnut cracker and constructed drying screens and a contraption for dehulling the nuts. Since his brief escapade with nut harvests, he’s realized he doesn’t actually care for nuts all that much and wanted to pass these tools along. Last year, he gifted me the cracker, which has been quite an upgrade from the sledge hammer I was using before. Then this year, just as I was having my own equipment crisis, he offered up the rest of his.
Awestruck and affirmed for taking a chance on nuts, I accepted his gifts. Like that, my nut problem was solved, well sort of. The thing is, even with the screens Joe bequeathed to me, the volume of nuts will still be more than I can handle alone. Then I thought of the squirrel’s scatter hoarding ways. They don’t have one central cache, they make little piles everywhere. Some of these nut pantries they forget about, which seems a built in benefit for the trees supplying them, the next generation wagered on an over-prepper's forgetfulness or excess.
What if we were to mimic the squirrel way and decentralize our own nuclear stashes? Is this what community investment is? Relinquishing a tight grip over resources, distributing the extra in scattered pockets, we most definitely will lose sight of, hoping they may sprout new nut bearing generations? Between these Goliath trees and their rodent disciples, there’s an adaptive dance of survival, one with abundance at its core, I believe is worth emulating. Joe certainly appears to be under its spell.
So which of my fellow squirrels at heart wants some nuts to process for their pantry? Seriously, please be in touch.
And now, one last ode to summer.
A couple weeks ago while up in the mountains, on the early morning rides to the trailhead, and the exhausted ones back to the base camp, Greg and I became enthralled with a podcast on survival stories. Tales of people sliding down ice faces and getting lodged in crevices on Mt. Rainier, getting buried by rock slides, and mauled by grizzlies.
It’s admittedly a kind of disaster porn, gripping survival stories that are suspenseful, incredible, and trigger the perfect hit of adrenaline and dopamine. Yet there’s also a feeling that listening to tales where people face extraordinary physical challenge or life threatening circumstances, and make it (this is key), is constructive. There’s always a lesson involved, the narrator weaving in expert advice on surviving quicksand, avalanches, and the importance of sharing hike itineraries. Some of these stories have felt like a fire drill, inspiring a playbook of possibilities---what would we do if we were caught in a lightning strike on a mountain, for instance?
While hiking the other day we chit chatted with a hiker on the summit who’d been in several Ironman races. If you don’t know (like I didn’t know two weeks ago) what an Ironman is, it’s where you swim 2.4 miles, go for a 112 mile bike ride, then run a marathon, consecutively, starting at sun up and hopefully ending before sundown. He was in good shape. Physically prepared for the task of hiking mountains you could say. He also casually shared that he dislocated his shoulder while hiking recently on one of the high peaks.
Back on our own, we discussed what that would be like, to dislocate your shoulder while hiking up and down these sometimes, very steep rock scrambles. Greg is an extraordinarily prepared person, always bringing more gear and first aid supplies than most people. Naturally this discussion drove Greg into planning mode, prompting him to say, “Yea, I should probably add some splinting supplies to my first aid kit.” Then I chimed in with, “Yea, because even if we didn’t end up using it, there’s a chance we could help someone else with it.” Preparedness sometimes feels excessive and a chore in a time of plenty, especially when everything is going right, but that time when it’s really needed, it could be lifesaving.
Alice and Amy, my housemates (and so much more), are also very good at preparing. They want to be sure that they and their community (and any hungry mouths that show up at their door) will eat well this winter. They’ve been relentlessly canning, drying, and freezing for months now. Blueberries, raspberries, cherry tomatoes, dilly beans, garden sauce… the kind of materials that make for good dinners in February. They do it as much for others as they do it for themselves. All of this work, their well stocked pantry, and generous hearts make them an oasis in any emergency.
This year feels important to be ready with supplies and nimble in how we deploy them. It’s obvious from the canning jar/lid scarcity, that many people have this on their minds. While I’m not hustling to can food everyday, I’m doing my best to squeeze in a little extra for leaner months, making sure my tincture inventory is wisely provisioned, freeze some of my favorite berries, some wild greens, and whip up whatever condiments I might crave in future times. I’ve got gallons of acorns and walnuts stashed, just in case they’re needed. I’m doing my best to get ready for the big mystery that is a pandemic winter. It’s my hope that what I squirrel away may be of help to myself or anyone who crosses my path. And remember Ironman? The hiker who seemed more physically prepared than I will ever be? Shit still happens. It’s no doubt there are times when I owe my survival to those who prepare beyond my capabilities or rescue me when I’m stuck.
Thank you to all the rescuers, stockpilers, and forward thinking wizards who plan and prepare to be of service. May all the berries, love infused sauces, fire ciders, herbal salves, and krauts see us safely through any blizzards, power outages, illnesses, or lonely heart feelings that come our way, till the flowers return and we can mingle again carefree. May we too have the courage to both help and be helped.
Oatstraw was one of my first herbal loves. In 2009 I spent a year getting acquainted with plant spirit medicine under the tutelage of Sage Maurer at the Gaia School of Healing. Every class we would sip strong infusions in a circle, sit quietly, and notice where we felt the herbs move in our bodies, how they spoke to our insides. When I did this with oatstaw, I remember feeling swaddled in a meadow of sunshine. I wrote in my plant journal, “childlike sweetness, I will make you whole, repair you.”
This class, and during the more intensive parts of my herbal education, were probably my peak tea drinking moments to date, and no doubt when I also reaped the most physical benefit from plant relationship, where I could feel it so acutely changing my body. Eleven years later, I’m still mountaineering up the learning curve of self care routines, and don’t drink tea with the same vigor---but I should. Now immersed in a parallel world studying pieces of a whole with a sharper eye, I understand a bit more of why oatstraw rang a bell in my body so true.
Oatstraw infusion is thick, almost creamy, sweet, and oh so soothing. A mild sedative and anti-inflammatory, this herb was pitched to me by Sage (and my first herb teacher Chris Marano) as nervous system food. Drinking oatstraw infusion on the regular pampers any frayed, frazzled, nerve frizzies with a milky bath of calm. Oatstraw will chill out the anxious, brighten the depressed, and revive the burnt out. One of the major ways oatstraw can work her magic is via nutritive prowess. She’s endowed with copious magnesium, up to 400mg/1oz dried herb. And while oatstraw is so much more than her magnesium content, the contributions of the element in nourishing our nervous system cannot be understated.
Magnesium is the universal fairy dust that makes it all work, linking plant to sun, and animal to earth and sea. The eighth most common element from the earth’s crust and fourth most abundant mineral in the body, we need a constant presence of this element on the insides of our cells. Sea water is particularly lush with magnesium, the third ranking element just after fellow electrolytes, sodium and chloride, in abundance. Chlorophyll, the molecules that make plants green, have a ring structure much like the heme group in hemoglobin (the molecule that carries oxygen in our blood). Magnesium sits right in the center of chlorophyll’s ring. Plants require proper amounts of magnesium to facilitate efficient conversion of sunlight into plant energy. No magnesium, no life. Again, the fairy dust.
As far as humans go, magnesium is an essential key needed to unlock and support many processes in the body, including 300+ enzymatic reactions and counting (many of which are nervous system related). Magnesium stabilizes our DNA and helps preserve the fidelity of its message in replication. It helps synthesize the body’s most important internally produced antioxidants, glutathione. Most notably magnesium soothes reactivity, regulating nerve firing by blocking calcium from entering cells, and relaxing contractions. This list from Alan Gaby’s Nutritional Medicine, one of my newest, most prized, humongous textbooks, shows clearly the vast reach of magnesium in the body and potential consequences of not enough.
Gaby says that in his clinical practice,
Magnesium deficiency was one of the most frequently encountered nutritional problems. Many patients who were suffering from one or more of the symptoms described above observed improvements that were directly attributable to magnesium supplementation. p.143
This sentiment is easy to find echoed amongst other doctors with a nutrition education. Dr. Mark Hyman and Dr. Aviva Romm both have great articles on magnesium for further reading from a clinical perspective. I recommend these articles especially if you want to try supplements. The bottom line is, most people just simply aren’t eating enough magnesium in their diets.
Hunter and gatherer societies are said to have consumed an average of 600mg of magnesium per day, while the average American according to a USDA estimate, take in only about half that, with women consuming 228mg/day and men 323mg/day. These intakes don’t even meet the 320mg RDA, and 75% of women do not achieve this benchmark through diet. Some argue that the RDA is too low, and really only avoids frank magnesium deficiency.
Furthermore, stress depletes magnesium and low stores of magnesium makes us feel more stressed out. Excess alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and phosphorus (found in meat, cheese, soda pop) can also mess with our magnesium supply. Prescription drugs such as diuretics, proton pump inhibitors, oral contraceptives, allergy and asthma medications may interfere with magnesium absorption and retention. Essentially, most of us are set up for magnesium failure. We’re not eating enough of it and the amounts that we do have are constantly pillaged by common, beloved vices of western civilization.
After having some success treating my teeth grinding with magnesium supplements (magnesium glycinate), I started experimenting. Since then I’ve treated my exertion headaches with magnesium and no longer have spontaneous eye twitches (a sign of low Mg). I also feel more even keeled, less anxious, more whole. These successes have brought me back home, to the kitchen and garden to discover how to multiply this mineral ally in my life with a bit more subtlety than a pill (though supplements definitely have a place here and I still use them as needed).
I compiled a short list of herb/wild food sources here. As you can see a certain amount of diligence and attention is needed to go this route. Keep in mind too, the magnesium content is variable with the soil these plants are grown in/how they are grown, thus these aren’t rock solid numbers.
I’ve started to rekindle a daily oatstraw infusion routine (for the 90th time?!) and encourage you to do the same or seek out this calming mineral in any way that’ll set you up for success. Here’s a tutorial on making nourishing herbal infusions from the master.
Herbal Vinegars can help here too. Excellent at extracting minerals from plants, you can make your own strong bones/calm body vinegar infused with calcium rich/magnesium rich herbs. Here's another article from Susun Weed on this easy preparation. Our strong bones vinegar is sold out currently as I work on securing more apple cider vinegar, but it will be back soon!
Wild & Herbal Sources of Magnesium:
Wild Rice: 52.5mg/cooked cup Oatstraw: 400mg/1oz dried herb*
Seaweed : Kelp 121mg/100g, Wakame 107mg/100g,
Burdock Root: 48.8mg/1 cup boiled and drained
Dandelion Greens: 25.2 mg/1 cup boiled and drained
Purslane: 68 mg/100 g
Amaranth: 160mg/1 cup grain cooked; 73mg/1 cup leaves cooked
Nettles : 51 mg/1 cup blanched leaves
Lamb’s Quarters: 41.4mg/1 cup cooked greens)
Mint: 169mg/1oz dried
*Source: Nutritional Herbology
Pumpkin seeds: 738mg/cup
Hemp seeds: 179mg/30g
Sunflower Seeds: 150mg/1 cup
Buckwheat: 85.7mg/1cup cooked groats
Oats: 276mg/1 cup cooked
Carly lives and eats from a hilltop in Cummington, Massachsuetts and part time in Schenectady, NY.