The weather map is blind to what went on in New Hampshire today (May 19). Or, well, they do put two orange dashes on the map, to show something or another was passing through.
Radar is not much better, just showing disorganized showers drifting from the west to the east.
However here on the ground you could feel a relenting of the bone-dry, greatly modified arctic air, and a hint of summer move in. The fronts may be “ghost fronts”, but between the first and second line of showers (faintly seen in the above radar) was the memory of some sort of warm sector. It felt as sweet as forgiveness.
The sprinkles of rain were barely enough to settle the dust, but it felt like a different sort of drought was ending. The air wasn’t just warmer, it was moister. It didn’t chap your eyeballs any more. My stiff, old joints felt looser, and I pottered about the garden at twice the speed I usually potter. That may not be very fast, in the eyes of the young, but by my standards I was really flying.
Things quicken in May, and already asparagus is popping up, and rhubarb is ready to pick. Kids at my Farm-childcare pester me to pick them a stem of rhubarb, which around 75% of the kids find appealing, and which they munch like very sour celery. Around 95% of the kids find the poisonous leaf appealing. Not that they eat it. Rather it serves as a hat.
You would not believe how the kids fight over these hats. They do not cost me a penny. Any parent who ever feels guilty for not not buying the latest Disney Toy for their child should rest assured children will whine and weep just as much over toys that Disney does not make a cent from.
In fact the boy in the yellow raincoat (who wishes to remain anonymous) does not have a rhubarb hat (though he munched that entire stalk of rhubarb in his right hand.) I came up one rhubarb leaf short, when picking. The lad then made such a fuss about how his sister (also anonymous) got a hat and he didn’t that I picked him a burdock leaf, and told him rhubarb was for fairy princesses, but tough gremlins wore burdock. The boy in the middle then began contemplating whether he really wanted a sissy, fairy hat, or whether the situation was unfair, and he should demand justice, and whine that that he wanted a gremlin hat, too.
All the whining and complaining I face is likely very much like the whining and complaining parents face in stores, but on a farm it costs nothing, whereas in a store it costs part of a parent’s paycheck. As far as I am concerned parents should draw the line. At most they should buy one toy a year from a store, and no more. It is a well known fact children often derive more joy from the cardboard box the toy came in, than the toy itself. Children will not be deprived if the parents saves money. They most certainly will not be deprived of chances to whine and complain, for children find ways to fill that need without the parents needing to spend a fortune. Parents will have ample opportunity to deal with that need. Parents should bankrupt Disney by buying no toys, and giving their child rhubarb and burdock leaf-hats instead. Parents will wind up richer, and need to work less, and then they can bankrupt me, by caring for their own kids, which will make them richer still.
Until parents catch on, I’ll continue to have the sheer audacity of charging them for the joy of spending time with their kids, and teaching children joyous nonsense, such as that burdock leaves are gremlin hats.
I actually shouldn’t have any burdock leaves in stock in my toy store, for I have tried to eradicate burdock on my farm, because when autumn comes children have a way of being mischievous with the burrs, by flinging them into another child’s hair. This may even be what spreads the seeds all over the farm. I even caught one malevolent little girl advising another, younger girl that it was “stylish” to put roughly a hundred burrs in her hair. The agony of removing all those burrs was something I hope to never endure again. Therefore, every spring, we dig up burdock and peel the bark off the roots to eat the tasty inner core.
I should mention that people into herbal medicine claim burdock has all sorts of healing benefits. I don’t know about that. I only know the plant is awfully bitter, except the inner part of the root. The outer part of the root is awful. My pigs won’t touch it, and they root up most everything. Also children won’t touch it, except for the inner part of the root. So that is as far as I go.
I have great respect for people who study herbal medicine, but I think the real herbalists own a sort of uncanny gift I recognize, but don’t have. I could study herbs until the cows come home, but it would lack some crucial “knowing”. Lots of New-Age hippies have never really understood this, and do study herbs until the cows come home, but definitely lack the gift. In fact, to be blunt, some even make the subject of herbs dirty. How they can make such a beautiful subject filthy amazes me. I suppose it has something to do with a focus on sex and drugs, rather than on nourishment and healing, but at times they make me ashamed of my own generation, and at other times, when you see me leaning on my hoe and looking at the clouds, such thinking leads me far away from my garden.
Often I am brought back to earth by the voice of a small child at my side, wanting to know “whatcha doing?” Usually it is obvious what I am doing, so I usually answer them, “Making a pizza.” They then grin and exclaim, “You are not! You are hoeing the potatoes!” (or whatever.) In fact my answer, “making a pizza” has become a tradition, but one nice thing about four-year-old’s is that jokes don’t get old with them. You’d think they’d learn, but they still always ask me, “Whatcha doing?”, which has convinced me it is just their way of starting a conversation.
Often a child is sent to me, even when I am off duty, because they are having a bad day and disrupting the activity of the group. I suppose getting sent to me is like being sent to the principle or headmaster, at a school, but they are too young to really deserve any punishment. My wife is of the opinion it is asking too much of a small child to expect them to fit the regimes of organized activity from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM, and many times they simply need a break. To that I would add that sometimes they just need to have a good cry.
In any case, I suddenly find myself with a small sidekick, and this has led me to think about the subject of sidekickery. It seems a very American thing, and different from Europe, where there seems to be more stress on knowing your place, on class, on who is “royal” and who is “common”. I have never been big on that, which may be why some say I lack class.
I don’t really like being a leader, but also don’t like being a follower. I’d rather be a sidekick, and I’ve gotten rather good at it over the years. I think it was a skill I developed back in the days when hitchhiking was a common way to get around. It seemed a matter of courtesy, and an expression of gratitude: To be entertaining and make intelligent conversation and/or be a good listener while sitting beside people, whether the ride was five miles or five hundred. At first I was usually the passenger, but later I was the driver. Then, as I worked a wide variety of jobs, I found the skill useful when I was “the new kid” at a workplace, and also useful because conversation often was the only way to keep the sheer monotony of some of the jobs from driving me crazy (and sometimes it didn’t work, and then I’d be part of crazy conversations.)
One of the most important, and most American, aspects of being a sidekick involves a recognition that the person beside you is an equal. They might be richer or poorer, smarter or more stupid, taller or shorter, but the ordinary senses of inferiority and superiority are held in abeyance, and, with egotism out of the way, higher things can become apparent, as one sees it be self-evident that God created all men equal.
This is not to say we are not different. When my sidekick is a four-year-old girl the differences are obvious and enormous. But if I put the child at ease, they walk beside me chatting away as if we’d been friends for twenty years.
This is not to say I don’t have authority and keep control. (Hitchhikers don’t grab the steering wheel.)
And most importantly this is not to say that I have the same gifts. Gifts are one of the most interesting things about small children, because they all have them, yet are blissfully unaware of the given. When a small child is gifted with perfect pitch and a beautiful voice they take it for granted, and are unaware there is anything special about their singing, unless told. Often they will be perfectly happy singing with the tone deaf (though the next day they may demand the other child be quiet).
Some gifts are obvious. A small Mozart impresses everyone, for music is something we accept as a reality, even if we are not gifted. Other gifts are less obvious, and, if we ourselves don’t have that particular gift, we are quite likely to disbelieve it even exists. If we have a Man-from-Missouri attitude, and demand others “prove it”, we may in fact be asking the impossible. Can a color-blind person demand others prove color exists?
One of the best examples of this involves dowsers. I lack that gift, and was convinced the ability to dowse was sheer humbug. Then, at a small country fair, a dowser was displaying his ability, and I was rolling my eyes in my usual manner and deeming the fellow a skilled con artist, when, while the dowser wasn’t looking, my three-year-old son picked up the man’s dowsing rod, (actually a couple of stiff, L-shaped wires), and wandered over to the place where the dowser said there was water, and the rods responded. I felt my son had succumbed to the powers of suggestion, and made my small boy walk this way and that, and the rod kept responding at the same place. It was spooky.
Then I saw the dowser looking at me with a knowing sort of smile. He asked me if I was the child’s father, and I said I was. He asked me if I had the gift of dowsing and I stated I definitely didn’t. To prove it I took the dowsing rods and walked about and absolutely nothing happened. Then the man asked my son to touch my elbow as I walked, and to my great consternation the two L-shaped rods suddenly swung and crossed as I walked over the certain spot where water was. Double spooky.
I demanded an explanation. The dowser couldn’t explain it. It was just something he had noticed: When a person with the gift of dowsing touches his father, his father temporarily has the gift, even if he doesn’t believe the gift exists.
It was a very humbling experience, because I tend to see myself as being a person with an open mind, and scorn people who believe with blinders. I ask for evidence and proof, whereas some believe with blind faith (whether it be in a religion or in Global Warming), and I had plopped “dowsers” into the “blind faith” category. Now the tables were turned. I was suddenly the dullard Horatio, and a Hamlet was telling me, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” It was obvious my mind wasn’t so open, after all.
Be that as it may, I am what I am, and must base my decisions on what I know. I will never say I know water is located where a dowser says it is located, because I do not know it. That is not my gift.
But I will have a smidgen more respect for people who are different than I am. I will allow them the benefit of the doubt. And this is especially true when they are four years old.
I have been very busy, and four days have passed without this post being finalized. I should have just posted it as it was, but something was unsaid, and stirring about in the back of my brains.
Although I don’t have the gift a true herbalist has, I have been weeding gardens since I was a small boy. In fact my first way of making a bit of extra money as a boy was to weed for neighbors. I suppose you can’t do that for over a half century without knowing which weeds are a nibble, which make a meal, and which cause a rash or are poisonous.
Some things I learned from my father, who “stalked the wild asparagus” before Euell Gibbons wrote the book. My father read “Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America”, and liked to impress people by producing a dinner from their woods or from their beach, if he was visiting their summer house. Euell Gibbons liked to do the same thing, which he called “a wild party”.
Hippies like to take credit for the “back to nature movement”, but actually such fads have occurred often thoughout history, and Euell Gibbon’s book was a best seller in 1962, during a pre-hippy surge of interest. At that same time my father had heard of a young woman who wanted to work on her master’s degree by going to the Amazon and studying the herbs that natives used, to see if their primitive medicine involved any drugs modern medicine might utilize. She was being discouraged, but my father used his influence to encourage her and make the journey possible. (This was one of the many things he did that I never heard about, until after he died.)
My father had more respect for “witch doctors” than some might expect in a surgeon, and I often noticed he had an uncanny ability to work the subject around to local cures and old-wive’s-tales, when talking with patients, or even while chatting with a stranger he bought a newspaper from. He had a skill at putting his patients at ease, when they were very nervous about facing surgery, and if their native language wasn’t English he knew how to say, “Does it hurt here? How about here?” in an amazing number of other languages. I learned a lot about being skilled at sidekickery from him, besides learning about wild foods.
This put me ahead of the curve, when hippies wanted to “go back to nature” in the late 1960’s, and were starting communes, to some degree very much like their homesteading American ancestors. Most communes didn’t last very long, once youth found how much hard work was involved, but there was a general sense the world was going to face a huge disaster of some sort, especially after the first “Earth Day” in 1970, when Paul Ehrlich predicted, “Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make. The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.”
I recall reading a National Geographic back then that had graphs and charts that showed we would run out of oil by 1980. Therefore I suppose it was only common sense that I should study edible wild plants further. I wanted to be able to eat when the supermarkets were empty. Then, as the years past, the worry seemed a bit silly, and Paul Ehrlich looked like a man who profited off fear and foolishness. (This may be why I have always had caution, regarding Global Warming claims.)
In any case, I am now an old man who tends to munch the weeds in his garden, and of course the kids at the Farm-childcare are curious, and ask a lot of questions. I am amazed by how often I don’t know the answer. I have to be careful, because I’d be in deep trouble if a child ate a poisonous plant, and on one occasion I did have to hurry to the web after a child ate a partridge berry, which I myself avoided because I had a vauge knowledge they were “medicinal.” (Partridge berries turned out to be a mild tranquilizer, apparently used by rural woman during childbirth.) Now children at my Childcare delight in showing their parents the way to tell a checker berry from a partridge berry.
One plant I discovered I didn’t know the name for was locally called “witch grass”, but didn’t match the “witch grass” that appeared on the screen of my computer. It was one of the first grasses that appeared in the spring, and I noticed not only cows, horses and goats, but dogs, foxes and cats would eat it as soon as it appeared. So did I, as a boy. Apparently it is a “spring tonic”, and makes up for a chronic vitamin deficiency that grows during the winter, when there are no berries, and green vegetables aren’t available. I had no idea that was what I was doing, as a boy; I just liked the flavor, and also the loud, clarinet noise you could make by holding a flat blade between your thumbs and blowing. Later I liked it because I made silver dimes and quarters weeding it from people’s gardens. Locally everyone called it “witch grass”.
I assumed it was called “witch grass” because it was bad like a witch, to have it in your garden. It spreads underground with rhizomes, and if you rotor-till it you basically break up the rhizomes and turn one plant into fifty. I developed a knack for following the rhizomes underground, and was a good kid to have in the neighborhood, if you hated the weed and also hated weeding. However one day I told my father it was called “witch grass” because it was evil, and this seemed to rub the man’s fur the wrong way, because I received quite a long-winded history lesson in return.
I think there may be a certain shame in New England about the Salem Witch Trials, and a certain inherited cautiousness about leaping to conclusions. I know my father was more hostile towards judgmental priests than towards old ladies who knew their herbs. He explained to me that a “witch” was the same thing as a “doctor”, in the old days, but priests didn’t like sick people getting better outside of their church. They especially didn’t like people getting better whom their church hadn’t been able to cure. They got jealous.
Priests felt they held a monopoly on healing, because Jesus was the Great Physician, and priests didn’t understand that the Creator created herbs for a reason. Often an old lady could get in trouble simply by serving a person who showed signs of vitamin C deficiency a rose-hip tea loaded with vitamin C. The priests felt “God should get the glory” but actually wanted the glory themselves, and did inglorious things, such as burning elderly healers at the stake.
Apparently the roots for the word “witch” was a word that meant “holy” in ancient times, and “wih” meant “holy” in old German. In Germany “wih” was pronounced “Vih”, (Gestapo: “ve vill be vatching you”), and therefore a person burned at the stake was a “victim”. Basically the word “witch” wasn’t originally as bad as it became. This is true for other words as well. (The words “divine” and “devil” have the same root). Something strange must have happened back in the mists of time, which we only remember as the legend of Satan falling from heaven with half of the angels. For some unknown reason it became necessary to make a distinction where before there had been unity.
Later on, during the Little Ice Age, when times were bad and crops failed, priests had a bad habit of abusing this distinction, and looking around for someone to blame for the fact prayers went unanswered, needing a scapegoat they could punish. Towards the end of this horrible abuse of Truth the Salem Witch Trials occurred, and became a warning to all, of the dangers of mass hysteria.
The little I heard of this history as a boy impressed me greatly. Not all the lessons were good: For example, “A bunch of screaming girls can overpower the logic of adults.”
Much made no sense. For example, it was said that a person “owned by the devil” could not recite the Lord’s Prayer. On the steps of the gallow Pastor George Burroughs spoke his final sermon, ending with the Lord’s Prayer, and onlookers were in tears, but his accusers only needed to say that the “black man” was telling him what to say, and he was hung.
Another insanity denies the scripture, “If we confess our sins He (Jesus) is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In Salem to confess your sin got you hung, (and in many cases what was confessed was what we would call a “shortcoming”).
But the guy who grabbed my attention when I was young was an 81-year-old man named Giles Cory, who refused to confess. He refused to plead innocent as well, for he knew that if he “plead” everything he owned would be taken by the government, and the people named in his will would get nothing. When accused of being a witch he refused to plead innocent, and refused to plead guilty.
In such cases, when a person “refused to plead”, they were stripped naked, laid on their back in a pit with boards on top of them, and heavy rocks were put on the boards, until the person either plead innocent or guilty. It didn’t work with Giles Corey. All he would say is “More weight.” (Legend has it that the sheriff actually stood on the rocks and looked down at the poor old man, whose tongue was protruding from his mouth, and, after pushing the tongue back into Giles’s mouth with his toe, asked Giles if he was ready to plead, and Giles only responded, “More weight, and curse all Sheriffs of Salem.” Then he died. This is trivia, but that sheriff, and all following sheriffs of Salem, suffered from, and died of, heart ailments, until the sheriff’s office was moved to another town.)
As a youth I thought Giles Corey was totally cool. Rather than confessing my sins like a good Christian, I wanted to be like Giles. This was especially true when my Math teacher asked me if I’d done my homework.
With this horrible example of humanity in my homeland’s history, you might think people in New England would avoid witch-hunts ever afterwards, and to some degree we have. I can recall as a small child how a man in our neighborhood, who had attended communist meetings as a student, was attacked by anticommunists, and how proud my parents were that the entire neighborhood stood up to defend the man from the “witch hunt”. But the simple fact that the witch hunt could even happen showed humanity is reluctant to learn.
My Dad was sensitive to the problem of slow-learners, because when Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. first suggested invisible germs might be the cause of puerperal fever in 1843, he faced a backlash. Holmes lived until 1894, and was the mentor of my father’s mentor, who lived until 1946, and therefore the backlash against the idea of “germs” was something my father knew a lot about.
One word Oliver Wendell Holmes coined was “anesthesia”, for it was a new idea at that time that it might be good to reduce a patient’s pain. Some doctors opposed dulling the pain of childbirth, and the famous obstetrician Dr. Charles Delucena Meigs warned against the morally “doubtful nature of any process that the physicians set up to contravene the operations of those natural and physiological forces that the Divinity has ordained us to enjoy or to suffer“. In other words, God wants women to suffer and doctors shouldn’t get in His way. It was a case of a young and hopeful idealist coming up against a so-called “conservative Christian.”
Not that my father believed in any hippy pseudoscience regarding herbs. He believed doctors should stick to scientifically provable facts, and had a fierce dislike for any sort of psychology that was based on theory alone, especially when there was no sign of improvement in the patients. However he did have respect for old ladies that noticed when their family was healthy after being served certain foods or teas. He felt such grandmothers had powers of observation that were quite scientific, even if they seemed uncanny to others, and a “gift”.
I suppose he was right. I just feel that at times our ability to be “scientific” happens so fast that it seems to occur unscientifically. For example, students of music can point out the music of Bach obeys fabulous rules of harmony, but Bach wrote the music so swiftly it is impossible that he was referring to any rule-book; he simply knew the rules by heart, in a way we describe as being “a gift”. Likewise, when any musician is improvising, and at their best, they are obeying rules more swiftly than a super-computer, and relaxing as they do it. It is a gift.
In like manner, some people simply have a gift, concerning herbs. Usually it is women, but perhaps that is because women are often the cooks. All I am certain of is that I don’t have that gift. All my knowledge of herbs is more along the lines of trivia, boyishly gathered over the years, and still being gathered. For example, just yesterday I learned the real name for “witch grass.”
It took me a long time. Do you have any idea how many kinds of grass there are? I gave up, but then later decided to google “the worst weeds”. Bingo. Found it. “Elytrigia repens”, also known as “quackgrass”.
It should be obvious that my gift isn’t in recognizing the value of herbs. In fact the above, wandering prose shows you how how long it takes me to get from “what is that weed called?’ to the answer, “Quackgrass.” In truth, my gift lies in Sidekickery. I am the sort of hitchhiker a fellow with many boring miles to cross was glad to pick up, because I could take a simple subject like “a common weed” and turn it into a long tale, and the miles would fly past.
The other day, however, a four-year-old girl became my sidekick, and she was not the slightest bit interested in my gift. I knew she was going to wind up with me, for one of my best employees responds to a child’e misbehavior with a booming, joyous laugh, and I heard that laugh a lot from afar, as I was off-duty in my garden, gathering a wheelbarrow of small stones to dump into an annoying pothole in the driveway. My mind was focusing on the many uses for stones, and I was thinking of writing a post on the subject, when I heard the wonderful, booming laugh from nearby, and waved in a certain way that means, “Send the kid to me.”
Mind you, this girl had been completely unable to obey any rules all morning. Wrestling is forbidden, but she kept jumping on the boys and happily tussling. The group is suppose to “stay on the path” but she would dart into the underbrush. When children run ahead they are suppose to “wait at the gate”, but she wouldn’t. And so on. She had absolutely no ability to “stay focused,” and surely would be diagnosed as having some sort of “attention deficit”, until she joined me. Then, abruptly, she had a one track mind.
She kept asking me, over and over, “Mr Shaw? Can you eat this?” nor would she allow me to be garrulous, as I answered.
I was a bit wounded, for I did want to be garrulous, and wanted to talk about what I was doing: Picking up stones. I wanted to talk about stonewalls in New England, and the various types, and the block and tackle used for moving huge boulders, and the poem by Robert Frost, but she would have none of it. Therefore, using my skill in sidekickery, I shifted to her subject, but even then I was too long winded. As I gathered stones and tossed them into the barrow, our conversation went like this:
“Mr. Shaw, can you eat this?”
“Sure. That’s mint. But is isn’t a meal. It’s a spice. Nobody eats mint as a vegetable. Cow’s won’t touch it, and goats only nibble a bit. This is the case with many…”
“I don’t like it much. How about this?”
“No, that is goldenrod. It has a pretty flower, and Henry Ford gave Thomas Edison a Model T with tires made from rubber from goldenrod, but…”
“How about this?”
“That is yellow dock. It’s OK. Tastes of lemon and makes your mouth dry, but loaded with potassium, and herbalists say…”
“Ptui! I don’t like it. How about this?”
“That is dandilion. It is called a lion because it is the king of herbs and cures more than you can shake a stick…”
“It tastes like lettuce.”
“Yes, bitter lettuce, and it gets more bitter as the summer passes…”
“What about this?”
“That’s wild mustard. It’s a member of the cabbage family, and…”
“Yes. Try the flowers of that one over there. Its seeds are interesting because they are flat and heart shaped rather than…”
“Mmm! Like sweet brocolli! How about this?”
“I don’t know what that is. And what is the rule when we don’t know?”
“Don’t eat it. But what about this one?”
“That is chickweed. It makes a good salad, but…hey! Don’t take such big mouthfuls!”
“I like it! It’s good!”
“Yes, but it is fibrous. You should chop it up or you’ll wind up with a cud like a cow.”
“I like that. It’s like chewing gum.”
“Well, if you don’t mind….and those weeds sure are doing well this year. Chickweed seems to like a cold spring with just a mist of…”
“And what is this?”
And so it went. The girl took full advantage of my gift of sidekickery, as I marveled over how focused she was, and wondered if she might have a gift, regarding herbs.
I also wondered how teachers can ever think that, just because a child does not want to attend to the subject they want to teach, the child has a “disorder”. The child has a gift, but the teacher is not teaching anything that pertains to the gift. If a disorder is involved, might it not be TAD, “Teacher’s Attention Disorder?”
Other teachers may refuse to admit they suffer from TAD, but I sure do. I never get to teach what I really want to, and instead must be a sidekick. Perhaps that is why scripture says we should “suffer” the little children. But I don’t even do that right, because even when they interrupt my garrulous utterances, their innocent lack-of-wisdom is a lot more interesting than all I know. There is some suffering, but it is outweighed by joy.