Friday, May 29, 2009

The Unkind Cut

One of the Herbalist's favorite axioms is "herbs grow most where they are needed most." And it is an interesting proposition. I mentioned earlier that I've identified a large stand of blue bugle in my back yard and smaller clumps scattered across the rest of our property. I even poked Tool Guy about it, since it has been labeled the "carpenter's herb," being hemostyptic in nature. This was simply whistling in the dark on my part, because in the seven years since he has resumed wood working, he's never. ever. cut himself. Now, me on the other hand...well, I do talk about cooking dangerously, don't I?

Less than a week after identifying bugle and discovering its purpose, I had the quintessential opportunity to field test its efficacy. There I was. In the kitchen. A banded bunch of green onions in my hand. A very sharp knife. Let me say in my defense that at least I had the blade pointing upward and I was cutting away from myself. Alright, alright, but at least I feel slightly less stupid, okay?

As I wrapped up the cut and watched it rapidly soak the bandage without any indication of abating, I dizzily chanted to myself that I didn't want to go to Urgent Care at that particular moment. Somewhere in my scattered wits, the remembrance of bugle floated to the surface and I dashed out of the back door and onto the lawn to snatch up a couple of leaves. I stuffed them in my mouth, munched them into a macerated paste and peeled open the bandage, plastering the pulp in place and resealing the bandage. Two minutes later, the bleeding had stopped completely. It wasn't even hurting. Cross my heart and hope to die. That night, I applied a couple of plantain leaves to the cut for the astringent and antiseptic properties. In the morning, I was able to abandon the bandage altogether.

It was rather interesting that within a few days of this experience, I was settled in the bedroom, doing some studying when Tool Guy called to me with a strained note in his voice. When I answered, he told me that he needed me to drive him to Urgent Care. I darted into the bathroom where he was sluicing out a vicious cut where he'd been momentarily distracted and lost an argument with his miter saw. Fortunately, it wasn't his band saw or he would have lost more than the argument. Once again, I made a mad dash for the bugle patch, followed closely by Hobbits who were eager to assist me in the collection. Once again, it performed as previously, though his cut was much worse than mine. Whew.

I've certainly decided that, since cuts are not a seasonal hazard, bugle needs to have a place in our medicine cabinet. Toward this end, I gathered up runners of it with the leaves still attached rather than snipping off individual leaves. These I dried on racks in my oven, set on 100*. After drying, I store the leaves in a mason jar, vacuum sealed with a packet of desiccate inside.

Both of our war wounds are healing up nicely. Tool Guy is still accommodating himself to the green stores that are filling our medicine cabinet these days. After the bugle application, he insisted on scrubbing out his wound with commercial antiseptics and plaster on antibiotic-impregnated bandages. I'm trying not to be smug about the fact that his cut isn't healing quiiiiiite as cleanly as mine. When I pointed this out to him, he told me to talk to the hand. The uncut one. Heh.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The World In My Own Back Yard Redux

I think that it has finally decided to be Spring. Every year, the cusp between Winter and Spring feels like it drags out interminably. Although old-timers auger a hard, dry summer from the signs they see before them, it doesn't look that way from my back deck. I've had to bring my soggy, struggling starts in more often from the rain than from the frost. This spring has afforded me ample opportunity to confirm that veteran remedy for soil fungus: cinnamon. I think that after watching me grab the cinnamon shaker and billow fragrant brown clouds over my sickening starts that the Hobbits shall be surprised at nothing I do. My starts are thriving, though. So there.

I'm always amazed at what powerful solutions we have at hand to us, should we choose to avail ourselves of them. At least, as long as we have knowledge of them. Which is why I've so avidly wanted to take an herbal class.

Yes, I have plantain oil, which does marvelous things for diaper-rashy bottoms...or for the tweener who somehow must tangle with poison ivy every year. The property's administration practically razed the area around Dog's favorite haunt in an attempt to eradicate it. Dog still found some. The dried mullein leaves found use this winter and I think I have found renewed confidence toward putting the coltsfoot I harvested to use. We even had an ear infection or two that felt the gratitude of mullein oil and a heated rice bag. Comfort herbs, if you will. But I'm coming to the end of my own personal resources.

So when Tool Guy and I were discussing twenty-fifth wedding anniversary plans, he was a little taken aback by my wishes. He had a weekend in The City planned. I had a chicken tractor in mind. He was thinking ritzy dinners in hotels with hyphenated names. I was thinking about herbal classes. I guess his willingness toward extravagant romantic gestures, poor guy, is wasted on me, the eternal pragmatist. Still, he's happy to make me happy, so when green things started elbowing their way to the surface, I set off on a Saturday with my notebook, backpack, and a tray of kimbop. The first class of the season.

We sat in the grass under a fitfully sunny sky that tried to ward off the chill from the wind and opened our Newcomb's Guides. The Herbalist had selected a plant that grew proliferately among the grass for us to cut our teeth on identifying. She even passed out magnifying glasses and a jeweler's loupe for us to get up close and personal. I felt a disproportionate and ridiculous sense of accomplishment when I was able to identify the blue bugle. Clearly, I need to get out more.

Word is that bugle is called the "carpenter's herb" for its ability to stem bleeding. I guess there's some wisdom in the doctrine that herbs grow where they are, Tool Guy?

One of my classmates identified the ground ivy or gill-over-the-ground, a plant which carries the reputation as being helpful with lead paint exposures. That's certainly a plant idea to keep on the back burner in these days of heavy metal toxicity, no?

I brought a few runners home with me and looked for a likely spot in my own yard in which to encourage them. After scratching out a place in a location that looked similar to the place where they were thriving in The Herbalist's yard, I started examining the leaves of surrounding hopefuls pushing up and--guess what?--I had transplanted some ground ivy in amongst...ground ivy. While that doesn't speak well for my identification skills, I can at least console myself that I have good instincts for where something may grow. I guess... Heh.

Each class has a lecture--this one was on the digestive system and, thankfully, she glossed through it very quickly in deference to those of us who have an intimate acquaintance with that particular system--as well as a project. One of our projects of the day was taking an infusion of burdock, decocting it and then making a syrup with it. Burdock is a good tonic-all and is a traditional herb for spring cleansing along with others like dandelion.

Burdock Tonic

1 oz. burdock
1 pint water
Stainless steel, glass, or enamel pot

Add water and burdock to the pot and bring to a boil, then simmering on low for 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat. Cover to prevent any essential oils from escaping and allow to steep overnight. Strain product from the liquid and return liquid to pot. Gently simmer until the amount of liquid is reduced by half. This decoction can then be stored in the refrigerator for a week when sweetened with honey. A splash of brandy (haven't yet vetted brandy out for corn-safety) will preserve it longer. For longer term storage, separate it into halves and freeze the unused portion.

I came home that day with a pinker face, thanks to the sun, a fuller notebook, a sense of exhilaration and empowerment. And two lemon balm plants and a valerian root plant. I've got a spot selected in the yard that I'm going to lasagna into an herb garden next year. I'm already looking forward to the next class and plotting what dish I'm bringing to the class pot luck. We're talking about doing a recipe book of our collected contributions at the end of the year. Cool deal. Talking food and herbs. Does it get any better than that?

Oh, and about that recurrent poison ivy? The Herbalist posits that poison ivy proliferates in disturbed areas...kind of a defense mechanism that says "Keep Out." That eradication attempt? Just made things worse. Given Dog's record, that makes it time to hit the yard for more stock-up stuff!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Bug the Builder...Yes, We Can!

It's funny how small things can be pivotal. How many parents have wrestled with their child over math lessons or homework to the tune of the plaintive cry of, "When will I ever need this?" Bug, at the advanced age, has succumbed to this syndrome while doing those quadratic equations the rest of us know as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Sigh. At this rate, I expect I'll hear the same from Princess in another month or two...

When his attitude became increasingly truculent, I decided that we needed some practical application and enlisted the services of Tool Guy. And truly, woodworking experience utilizes all of the functional math embodied in most third grade curricula. He obliged me, as he does in most all things.

Amazingly, this child who had heretofore shown no passion for anything other than videos and computer games (I do not count myself among those parents who see a budding Spielburg or Gates in such juvenile passions) developed an immediate affinity for woodworking. Now this is an avocation I'm thrilled to see him sink his teeth into. I'd much rather he wax on to strangers about the kerf of a blade than what level he acquired in even such as Math Blaster.

For his first project, he and Tool Guy settled on a bedside table in my honor, considering that a piano bench overflowing with my audiobooks, earbuds, and other multi-media accoutrement such as accompanies my night-time knitting excursions needs some help. Tool Guy did the ripping, but Bug did the rest. The centerpiece tool to this entire project was a commercial jig--doncha just love all of the lingo? Just wait until I start elaborating on mortises and tenons--which produces a superior assembly, both in strength and ease of execution. Within a surprisingly short period of time, Bug proudly presented me with a night stand that he had designed. Tool Guy assisted in dimensioning, but Bug's rough sketch of what he wanted still graces the wall of Tool Guy's shop. Bug sanded, assembled, stained, and shellacked this table. Amazing.

And when, proud papa that he is, Tool Guy flashed pictures of this table around as if it were Bug's baby pictures, Bug received his first commission to produce some bedroom furniture at some point for one of the mom's in our homeschooling co-op. Tool Guy and Bug were both so buoyant about its success that they decided to write to the jig manufacturer and wax enthusiastic about its merits and applaud them for marketing such a useful and efficient tool that even an eight year old could use to build quality furniture.

The response was surprising. On Thursday evening after trudging in late from a long day of homeschooling co-op, we were greeted at the door by a UPS package. I twitted Tool Guy, Mr. UPS-At-My-Door-Everyday, yet again for yet another internet order from his favorite jig company, but he declared himself innocent. And indeed, he was innocent. This time...don't kid yourself. The package turned out to include a warm letter of thanks for Bug's initial letter and pictures of his project. The letter asked that Bug consider building another project using the tool kit in the package, which was their latest incarnation of Tool Guy's favorite jig, and document the project for them.

The pair were beside themselves with excitement and acceded to my suggestion that we needed a new medicine cabinet for the bathroom and the project began in earnest. Meanwhile, the company PR rep was not idle. Shortly after the cabinet was finished and the last pictures and video clips were sent off to them, we received a phone call from the local paper wanting to schedule an interview with Bug. Heady stuff for an eight year old, no?

In addition to teaching Bug lessons about addition et al, this project has taught him a multitude of other things. Craftsmanship, creativity, a sense of self-confidence, and self-sufficiency. I want my children to learn that they can do whatever they set their minds to and not remain at the mercy of what the market provides. I think it was Bug who, when I was applying make-up one day and commented that I was almost out of a particular cosmetic, responded with, "Guess you'll have to make some more." Heh. But that's really the message that I want them to carry. If they can dream it, they can make it.

They can even make it if someone else dreams it. (Just don't sell it, alright?) One of the banes of Breatharian eating is the expense. Even the commercial preparations that are compliant with the diet are hideously...nay, exorbitantly...dare I say, usuriously expensive. Granny discovered this when she volunteered to underwrite providing the Hobbits with such commercial treats as they could have. She failed to reckon with the rising cost of food and the rising amount of such food that the Hobbits could consume. Quickly she cried, "Uncle!" and agreed to underwrite the ingredient purchases if I would do some cooking dangerously and reverse engineer the treat. It was an immediate hit. It has been requested to be part of our travel package when we do a road trip later this summer.

Grainless Granola Bars

Base "dough"

1/2 cup baking or whole dates
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup amaranth
1 T maple syrup
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup seeds or chopped nuts (pumpkin seed and sunflower seed pictured)

Run ingredients through food processor or blender until blend incorporates into a ball.

Into the base dough, press 1 cup total of pumpkin, sunflower, sesame seed, walnuts, pecans, or any preferred seed/nut or any combination thereof. Princess is inclined to a pumpkin/sunflower seed combination, while Dog and Bug favor walnut. The seeds/nuts can be pressed into the dough with a fork or scraper, but I decided to let my machines to the muscle and used the dough hook on my Kitchen Aid. When the seeds/nuts are fully incorporated into the base dough, pull off approximately 1-2 T of the mixture and press into the bottom of a muffin form. This amount of ingredients yields about 12 granola bars. Alternatively, press the whole mixture into a pan and slice into bars.

Bug told the reporters, "I like it. And I'm good at it." On such things hinge significant things...a sense of math, a sense of accomplishment, and a sense of direction. And quality time with Dad. Doesn't get much better than that.