LOCAL VIEW –A Burr’s Blessing–

One gift my parents gave me was a sort of idealism that doesn’t seem like a gift. It can seem like a burr stuck in your hair, as this old world can be hard on idealists. Not only do others disappoint us, but we can disappoint ourselves. For this reason many who started out idealists become cynics; the softhearted become hardhearted; optimists become pessimists; the faithful become faithless.

To me such a response always seemed a weakness, and even a sort of sell-out. What sort of idealist quits just because the going gets tough? One should persevere, and have high hopes:

Of course, being so hopeful and optimistic, even in the face of proof such behavior is unwise, did make me a bit of a sucker and a chump. But my parents again set an example, for even when their idealism went down in flames (in the form of their intensely acrimonious divorce), the same stubborn unwillingness-to-compromise (which perhaps led to the divorce) made them stubbornly unwilling to compromise on their idealism after their divorce. Even in the smoking wreckage of a crashed marriage they stubbornly persisted with their views and insisted they were correct, which I found very embarrassing, as a teenager, but which I also respected as a powerful reality, even though I didn’t understand it. Therefore it is only logical that I would follow in their footsteps, and remain true to the dual-idealism I inherited, despite all evidence idealism was unwise.

For example, most bosses initially felt lucky, when they hired me. I possessed the so-called, “Puritan Work Ethic”, and had high standards for my self, and was an athlete and enjoyed working hard. But bosses discovered I also had high standards regarding the behavior of bosses, which made them feel less lucky and made me look less desirable. Eventually, (and quite often so swiftly my rise and fall was like a yo-yo’s), our employer-employee compromise would become untenable, and divorce (IE: Getting fired or quitting) became unavoidable. As a consequence I worked over a hundred jobs, and have great experience concerning bosses, and have acquired reams of knowledge about all quirks and foibles bosses may have. I also have no pension, for I never found a boss worth a compromise of longer than two years, let alone the soul-selling duration-of-decades required for a pension. As far as I’m concerned, any person collecting a pension is either very lucky or very weak. They are lucky, if they lucked into a worthy boss, and they are weak, if they stayed working all those years for an unworthy boss.

Eventually I discovered self-reliance mattered, and the best boss was my foolish self, and I became “self-employed.”  Of course, once you are “self-employed” you still have bosses, but they are called “customers”. So you have to add another hundred bosses to the total I have worked for. I may not have a pension, but I do know a thing or two about bossy people. In fact I know much more than the fellow collecting a pension, for he compromised and worked for the same boring boss for thirty years, whereas I have worked for two hundred bosses. I deserve some sort of master’s degree. The irony is that the fellow with no experience gets a pension, as I, with all my wisdom, get little respect and no money.

What have I gained? It is a difference traced by the poet William Blake, which led him to call a first book, “Songs Of Innocence“, and a second, “Songs Of Experience.” It is a product of the pain of a burr, like the irritation of a grain of sand in an oyster’s tender places producing a pearl. In effect, it is proof hardship has meaning, and that you are getting something deeply significant out of life’s struggles, other than filthy lucre. It suggests the meaning of life, and of spiritual progress, and of real “gain”, is not measured by money.

One sad thing I’ve seen in those who retire, (in some cases far younger than I), is that despite one [or two or even three] fat pensions, they are often dead within a year or two of retiring. There are of course many exceptions to this rule, but such deaths happen frequently enough to be concerning. It as if such retirees realize they compromised too much, and worked their entire lives for emptiness, and the disillusionment kills them.

I don’t know much about this disillusionment, because I failed to live such a compromised life longer than two years, (and loathed those two years, during which time I joined a union, and discovered I then had two bosses at the same time). However I can speak with authority about how to get fired or quit, and how to never get a pension.

This seemed a totally useless authority to speak with, and a worthless wisdom to own, when I was a not-so-young, penniless man of 37, and still unmarried, and quite lonely. Where others bragged about increases in income, I could only brag about getting by on less and less (so I did so, for a man must brag about something). Even those who liked me tended to laugh at my idealistic attitudes, deeming me a mere mad poet. Therefore they were alarmed when I abruptly announced I was about to marry, and not marry a single woman either, but rather marry a woman with three small children.

To be honest, I saw no evidence even my closest friends thought the marriage was a good idea, or would last as long as a year. To some the idea of a person like myself being even a tenth as responsible as a husband and father has to be was not laughable, because it was too painfully embarrassing to even consider. After all, if I couldn’t even work for a boss, how could I possibly work for a wife?

Fortunately I had met a woman who on some level was as idealistic as I was, and who also didn’t care about money. Not that she didn’t enjoy the good life, when it was possible, but when the good life retreated from the present tense far into the foreseeable future, she was strangely unperturbed. What did she care for more than money? She cared about children and family, and she’d been through hard times that taught her that you can have the delights of children and family without a cent to your name. Consequently money had slipped downwards, in terms of importance, on her inward “list”.

As we talked we discovered we were on the same page, in a way impossible to describe to those who measure with money. We agreed a beer sipped in love was far superior to champagne without love, and agreed about fifty other things, and all that agreeable agreement occurred during the first hour of our first date. This hour astonished me, for usually I found dates painful, and the talk so stilted and ludicrous that I usually wanted to escape the woman more than I wanted to seduce her. But this woman was different. As I recall, we talked non-stop for a solid week, every chance we could, and, rather than wanting to escape, I wanted more.

We eventually agreed that love is so important it deserves a capital “L”, and this “Love” can also be called “God”, and that, compared to God, money doesn’t matter. We also decided to marry, after only a week. But we knew people would think we were crazy for deciding so swiftly, so we didn’t tell anyone else. We waited a whole three more weeks before announcing our decision. Most people still thought we were crazy.

It is one thing to talk the talk, but another to walk the walk. I have a sense my more cynical friends, (and at this point maybe I should demote them to “acquaintances”,) were sitting back amused, awaiting my humbling, as “the shit hit the fan”. And, to be honest, I myself was afraid of the same, for I’d been through humbling and embarrassing infatuations before. But this relationship was different. We deeply disappointed the prophets of doom. Then, as if it wasn’t a big enough challenge to provide for three children, God gifted us with a fourth, and then a fifth.

At this point I should probably answer the question, “If I couldn’t even work for a boss, how could I possibly work for a wife?” The answer was that we were “Pluggers”. We just kept plugging, never sure we’d come up with the next month’s mortgage or even the cash for groceries. Always the work appeared and the money was earned, often at the last possible moment, which was what we expected, and had faith would happen.

In the eyes of some acquaintances our attitude was irresponsible.  It required a faith they lacked. They suffered from a “burr under the saddle” called “insecurity”, and felt that all responsible people should compromise greatly to be “secure”. They stayed with deplorable bosses for “the health insurance”, and for the “pension”, and for other “benefits”, but we were free of such chains and quicksand. Our security was Love with a capital “L”, and while Love may not have given us lemonade when we only needed clean water, we seldom truly suffered, and usually blithely breezed through reefs and shoals, somewhat to the annoyance of those who suffered awful jobs they longed to quit, and who dourly predicted (and perhaps even secretly desired) our certain shipwreck, because we didn’t stick to the jobs they were glued to.

This is not to say we sat back very much at all. Pluggers must plug, and that involves hard work, even when the work does not pay very well. Faith involves far more sweat than sloth does.

I think this is actually a very American attitude, perhaps derived from the experiences of settlers, who horrified the Native Americans by arriving in destitute droves to farm (and destroy) their hunting grounds. America’s “Homestead Act” merely made official a phenomenon that was ongoing.

But such settlers often failed. They were expected to live for five years on their “free” land in order for the government to officially deem their ownership “legal”, and government statistics show roughly half of such settlers could not complete the five years. One sees little material success in characters such as “Pa” in the “Little House On The Prairie” books, as they move from failed homestead to failed homestead.  What impresses me more than success is the amazing lack of security such settlers faced, uprooting themselves from former lives to face American wilderness, and conditions of extreme hardship.

American settlers had great (and often unrealistic) faith in their own ability to produce a lush, bumper crop from, in some cases, semi-arid wastelands. Their attitude was in some ways the opposite of those modern men, many of whom are meekly ensconced in the modern welfare state. Many modern men apparently trust cringing, and distrust daring. But what was this thing I call “a settler’s attitude”?

An “attitude” is often a difficult thing to intellectually describe, and this is especially true because “Pluggers” don’t tend to be intellectual. However that which you cannot say in words can sometimes speak in songs, and the spirit of American settlers echoes in their music, and in their song’s humorous attitude towards misfortune.

For example, In “So long,  It’s Been Good To Know You“, Woody Guthrie sings,

The churches was jammed, and the churches was packed,
An’ that dusty old dust storm blowed so black
Preacher could not read a word of his text,
An’ he folded his specs,

an’ he took up collection,
Said:

So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home,
And I got to be driftin’ along.

In the older ballad “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” a verse croons,

Well they soon reached the desert where Betsy gave out 
And down in the sand she lay rollin’ about 
While Ike in great tears looked on in surprise 
Sayin’, “Betsy get up; you’ll get sand in your eyes.”

Singin’, Too-rally-too-rally-too-rally-ray… 

But one song that (to me) best encapsulates the attitude of settlers springs from the unlikely root of a priest of the Church of England, George Herbert (1593-1633). Among other things he collected proverbs from other lands (“outlandish”), and seven years after he died his collection was published, and we derive from it some sayings we still use, such as “His bark is worse than his bite.” One saying we no longer use is, “To him that will, ways are not wanting,” because it morphed into, “Where there’s a will there’s a way,” which first appeared in the English publication “The New Monthly Magazine” in 1823. It was then picked up by the humorist singer-songwriter “Handsome Harry Clifton” (1832-1872) and became a song heard in English music halls in the mid 1860’s, and then crossed the Atlantic and moved with settlers out into the prairies, after the American Civil War.

This life is a difficult riddle
For how many people we see
With faces as long as a fiddle
That ought to be shining with glee.
I am sure in this world there are plenty
Of good things enough for us all
And yet there’s not one out of the twenty
But thinks that his share is too small.

Chorus:
Then what is the use of repining,
For where there’s a will there’s a way,
And tomorrow the sun may be shining
Although it is cloudy today.

Do you ever hear tell of the spider
That tried up the wall hard to climb?
If not, just take that as a guider;
You’ll find it will serve you in time.
Nine times it tried hard to be mounting
And every time it stuck fast
But it tried hard again without counting
And of course it succeeded at last

Chorus

Do you think that by sitting and sighing
You’ll ever obtain all you want?
It’s cowards alone that are crying
And foolishly saying “I can’t”
It’s only by plodding and striving
And laboring up the steep hill
Of life that you’ll ever be thriving
Which you’ll do if you’ve only the will.

Then what is the use of repining,
For where there’s a will there’s a way,
And tomorrow the sun may be shining
Although it is cloudy today.

Laura Ingalls Wilder  (of “Little House On The Prairie” fame), used the above song to happily conclude her most harrowing book, which described a railway-town’s near brush with starvation when blizzards and deep drifts cut the town off from trains, from January until May, during a particularly brutal Dakota winter.

But what is fascinating about the attitude Wilder describes is that it was not the typically American, Horatio Alger (1832-1899), concept of “rags to riches”, epitomized by Alger’s best-seller “Ragged Dick” (1868). Rather it was opposed to such ideals of material success, for “The Long Winter” basically describes an entire town of fugal, moral individuals reduced from riches to rags. Their reward was not a fortune, nor a pension, but merely to survive to see another spring. And what do they do in that springtime? They sing.

This Plugger’s-response resembles the “Whos of Whoville”, in Theodor Seuss Geisel’s (1904-1991) best-seller “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” (1957). After the “Grinch” had stolen every materialistic proof of Christmas, the Who’s still gathered to sing. I can remember sitting in my father’s lap on Christmas morning in 1957 and having that brand-new tale read to me. Over a decade later, as a teenager, I’d argue (only partially in jest) that Geisel (AKA “Dr. Seuss”) was a great American poet, whereas most of my fellow poets, in our snide groups at snide colleges, sucked the split lips of our artificial suffering with a moribund mentality that produced only snivel. Dr. Seuss, despite the genuine suffering of his own life (his chronically-ill wife eventually committed suicide) produced a bright, cheerful children’s poem that influenced America. Why did it have such influence? Because it described what Laura Ingalls Wilder also described in her best-selling children’s book, “The Long Winter”.

And what is that?

It is that there is something worth singing about in simply surviving to see another day. Life is beautiful and precious, in and of itself, irregardless of whether you succeed or fail. In fact the burr of suffering seems strangely beneficial, for it proves that Life persists in spite of adversity, and that Life is indomitable and unquenchable and independent.

Laura Ingalls Wilder left the third verse of Handsome Harry Clifton’s song out, when she quoted it to end “The Long Winter.” The third verse goes:

Some grumble because they’re not married,
And cannot procure a good wife;
Whilst others they wish they had tarried
And long for a bachelor’s life.
To me it is very bewild’ring,
Some grumble, (it must be in fun),
Because they have too many children,
And others because they have none.

Then what is the use of repining,
For where there’s a will there’s a way,
And tomorrow the sun may be shining
Although it is cloudy today.

The fact of the matter is that there is always a reason to complain, if you look for it, but if you take that road you may miss many reasons to smile. On the Path one faces a choice between complaining or entertaining. In a sense it is a situation that reminds me of a Junior High School dance, (which were gruesome experiences, for me).

I would stand on one side of the gym, with lots and lots of beautiful young woman on the other side, and be miserable. Lord! If you could put this old man’s mind back in that boy’s body, I would have skipped across that gym happily and asked girl after girl to dance. Sadly, I instead found reasons to complain. In fact I was so miserable I often wondered why in the world I ever went to such events.

Usually, because I was prone towards being a one-woman-man, I ignored all sorts of opportunity, because there was a particular girl I was fixated on, and she usually was already dancing with some far taller boy who actually grew peach-fuzz on his upper lip, and had grown above five feet tall. I was four-foot-ten, which put me at a disadvantage, [except in “slow dances”, when my face would have been buried between young woman’s breasts.] [Man, Oh Man! If I could put my old man’s mind back in that boy’s body, I don’t think I would have called being-short a “disadvantage!”]

Probably I should leave this subject, before I get myself in trouble. I only bring up dances because in a way it is like looking for a job. Just as I hung back in the Junior High dances, finding reasons to complain despite the lovely girls across the gym, I found reasons, when young, to avoid even attempting to look for work.

Rather than a particular girl across a gym I was infatuated by, who made all other girls worth disdaining, there was a certain job I was infatuated by, that made all other jobs worth disdaining. And what was that job? It was “poet.”

Now the funny thing is that, when you are looking for work, you never see employers looking for a “poet” in the Want Ads. A poet wants to express himself, but that is his work, and not another’s. Others have other work, different from “self-expression.” Therefore, if a poet expects a paycheck, he had better learn to sing while washing dishes.

This was something I learned before I got married. However I would be remiss if I didn’t say I was thirty-seven before I became so wise. Earlier it was agony to push myself out and apply for a job. It was like crossing the gym and asking the most undesirable girl in the universe to dance, and to be honest I sometimes couldn’t do it. I’d rather be homeless and sleep in my car.

How odd it seems that I later found it fun to apply for jobs. I didn’t care if I got the job or not; I just found it fun to fill out the job application in a poetic way, and then watch the face of the fellow considering me as he glanced over the form, interviewing me. Even if I wasn’t the man for the job, the interviewer had fun rejecting me. We’d laugh and tell stories, and I like to think the interviewer never had so much fun rejecting an applicant, before he met me.

I learned this art the one time in my life I was on unemployment, in 1985. I’d only receive $32.00 a week, (or nine hours of pay, at minimum wage, $3.35/hour at that time), and in order to receive this paltry amount I had to provide proof, to the government of New Mexico, that I had looked for work in three places the prior week.

I never actually applied for the job of brain surgeon at the local hospital, but I did apply at other absurdly impossible places, and discovered it can be fun to ask, even if rejection is inevitable.

This was a revelation to me. It was like discovering it is good fun to cross the gym and ask a glorious girl who would never dance with a shrimp like you for a dance, and finding out, even though she will not dance, that you can talk and laugh and learn, all the same. And rarely, (but often enough to lift your spirits), the girl will decide, what the heck, she will dance, just one dance. In like manner, some employers will sometimes hire you, if only for just one day.

“Just one day of work” is not enough to satisfy a person who feels insecure without a pension and other benefits, but it is a bonanza for a drifter living hand-to-mouth. The person who wants “security” and “certainty” misses the bonanzas the insecure understand. As odd as it sounds, the people who are “secure” and “have it made” are missing bonanza after bonanza after bonanza. Blessed are the poor.

Most “Pluggers” don’t intentionally seek to live “on the edge.” They simply were born into childhoods without a silver spoon in sight, and things such as “security” and “certainty” have not been their lot in life. They may hope for the perks of the privileged, the same way many hope they will win the lottery, but such things are like an apple dangled in front of a donkey to keep it plodding forward. Most Pluggers doubt they’ll ever really reach and taste that apple, and therefore the real reason they have the strength to keep plodding on can’t be from the apple they never reach, but rather from the bonanzas they experience, which the “privileged” know little or nothing about. Blessed are the poor.

There is something counter-intuitive about the statement “Blessed are the poor”, for we tend to associate the word “blessing” with wealth, bounty, riches. Wrong.

This is difficult to say, and will sound clumsy as I write it, but it has been my experience that the poor are richer than the rich. Why? Because nothing matters more than contact with the One who blessings come from. In fact blessings themselves have no worth, compared to the One who gives them.

In other words, the Plugger has a heightened sense of what constitutes a “blessing”, due to living so close to the edge. One doesn’t truly appreciate a glass of water until one has been parched by the desert sun. Therefore a person with “security” has a dulled awareness, whereas a Plugger has his awareness heightened. Not that some Pluggers can’t become so discouraged that they become bitter people, but many experience “coincidences” and develop what the “privileged” deem superstition, but which the Plugger feels, often in an unspoken way,  is a communion with the One from whom all blessings flow.

I should probably leave this subject, before I get myself in trouble. I only bring it up to explain the difference between putting your faith in a pension, and putting your faith in something far better, something besides money, something I vaguely called “freedom”, waving my arms inarticulately to the west and pointing at a cloud.

Most Pluggers have a hard time intellectually stating their stance. After all, most are responding to circumstances beyond their control. To people who have a cushion of wealth, and the leisure to construct a stance, a Plugger seems like a person who can’t take a stand or even make a point. A Plugger points like a weather vane, constantly shifting. For a Plugger does not think man controls the climate; he responds to it. He is like the captains of the sailing ships of yore, very respectful-of and responsive-to the wind, whereas the man with money and security and a pension thinks he has a stink-pot cabin-cruiser which can plow straight upwind and ignore all weathers.

Now, if you capitalize the words “wind” and “weathers” in the above paragraph, you can perhaps glimpse how a Plugger might be responding to their Creator, in a manner which might be inarticulate and even unconscious, but which the Creator might notice. And, if you were a Creator whose nature was love, who would you respond to? The Plugger responding to You, or the wealthy with all their attention away on their portfolio, counting the stocks and bonds in their pension like a miser counts cold coins?

This is not to say Pluggers don’t long for comfort, and a life of ease, but they can sing and dance even with such gratification indefinitely postponed.

 

This brings me back to the early days days of my marriage, which I now fondly recall, but which were not so easy to struggle through, at the time. What is good to recall is the amazing faith my wife and I had that we would “get by”, and how that faith was not misplaced, for we did “get by”, (though I should perhaps use the words “squeaked by.”)

Now that I am older and wiser I look back and roll my eyes. I say rude things, like, “What the fuck were we thinking?” Yet we sailed through situations like an elderly woman on a tricycle passing through a terrible ten-car-pile-up on a major downtown intersection without a hair in her bun jarred out of place. In retrospect one cannot look at such history without mentioning unscientific things such as “guardian angels” or “the grace of God” or even, “Manifest Destiny”. However, somewhat amazingly, we each thought we were very practical, and the impractical one was our beloved spouse.

In retrospect our quarrels were delightful, (for our reconciliations created two delightful babies), but, moving on to the specifics, our quarrels were about very interesting stuff, although I don’t imagine the elite really think about such stuff. Unless you have ever faced an empty refrigerator, you cannot deem groceries a topic worth much attention, but I and my young wife had a yearly quarrel, which I will dub the “Harvest Quarrel.”

During the summer we had too much work: I, as a landscaper, and my wife, as the small town “Recreation Director” of the local playground and swimming pool. As winter approached her work vanished, as did mine, (after I made a final bundle raking leaves). We were shifting from having plenty of groceries for our three, then four, then five children, to having none. The stress of this situation resulted in the yearly “Harvest Quarrel.”

The quarrel had two fascinating steps, wherein at first my my wife displayed a flippant disregard for groceries, and then I myself displayed the flippant disregard.

The first step involved the fact that, even after working in the gardens of others all day, I always found time to have a garden of my own. Besides producing a paycheck, I produced actual food.  I would proudly dump dirty produce in my wife’s clean kitchen, and she wasn’t always appreciative. Some of my fresh produce went into delicious dinners, but a shocking (to me) amount seemed to barely pause in the house before heading out to the compost pile.

I had an old-fashioned belief that my wife should be like my mother and grandmother, who had Great-Depression-aversions to seeing even a scrap of food wasted. My grandmother was especially good at making the labor involved look easy, like something she was doing on the side with her little finger, while focused on a more interesting conversation, either with a person working with her, or on the radio. She preserved food while berating the Red Sox for losing again, her work deft yet unconscious, like a taxi driver manipulating through intense city traffic while discussing politics.

During summer’s surplus, when food was cheap, my grandmother canned vegetables in glass jars, or pickled them, or made a sugary jams of fruits. Refrigeration was not necessary. She knew all the old tricks for preserving food, such as corning beef or turning cabbage to sauerkraut, and where to store onions as opposed to where to store potatoes, and had various pantries and cellars delegated for the storage of food. By the time winter rolled around she was ready.  Children were incorporated into this bustle, and I don’t recall grumbling much about it, and at times enjoyed it. My mother might stop at a farmer’s market and score a bargain on a big basket of past-prime shell beans, and this meant I’d sit with my siblings on the back porch shelling them, separating the bad beans from the good, talking about whatever, watching the twittering chimney swifts soar overhead as summer clouds built in the sky.

If there was any grumbling involved, it was about wasting food. Woe unto the child who didn’t finish their dinner. Garbage went to the pig, (or, if you had no pig, to the pig farmer, who made money on the side picking up your garbage), and when the pig was slaughtered  “everything was used but the squeal.”

So much was this constant activity part of my grandmother’s make-up that even when she was old and my grandfather had saved enough to allow her to be a lady of leisure, she could become restless. When the herring were swimming upstream in the spring she seemed a bit offended no men brought her pails of silver fish for her to salt down in big crock-pots.

My wife was not the same. If I plunked a pail of fish down in her kitchen she did not look the slightest bit delighted. The same went for heaps of grubby carrots or dirty potatoes. Only occasionally would she make some jellies or jams, seemingly more for amusement than out of any sense of necessity, and when I brought baskets of red and green tomatoes in before the first fall freeze they sat around on just about every downstairs windowsill, ripening and sometimes rotting, on their way to salads or sauces or the compost pile, but never to canning jars.

This rubbed my fur the wrong way at times. Call it my Yankee heritage if you will, but I just felt winter was a danger we should prepare for, and always was very busy splitting and stacking wood in the fall. My wife could make me a little crazy, for she wouldn’t even rush out to shop before a major winter storm. She preferred to shop right after the storm, and the one time I accompanied her I could see her point; after a storm the store was wonderfully quiet and there were no lines at the register. I could also see her point about tomato sauce; it was much easier to pick up a jar at the market than to can it yourself. All the same, it just didn’t seem right.

I got my revenge by rubbing her fur the wrong way, in my own manner. This occurred when my landscaping was officially ended by the first fall of snow. Even if there were still leaves on lawns, they were buried by white, so I’d put my rakes away and sit by the warm fire, and gaze dreamily out the window, working on a poem about falling snow. After months of hard work it felt good to just compose, but it drove my wife crazy. We had no income, and I was just sitting there, nibbling an eraser. She’d interrupt my composing with some inane question, such as, “What about groceries?” I’d say, “I thought you just bought groceries yesterday.” She’d respond, “But what about next week?” I’d heave a deep sigh, for I knew it was time for our yearly Harvest Quarrel.

It did no good to say “calm down”, for those two words never work, and indeed often have a strangely opposite effect. It also did no good to point out that if she had canned like my grandmother she’s have no worries about groceries because she’d have months of food on the shelves, because if I said that she’d just point out that if I was like my grandfather I’d have a job that lasted through the winter. Neither did it do any good to wax spiritual and preach that we should have faith in God, because she would open her Bible to “Proverbs” and quote, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man“. Lastly, it was equally unhelpful to suggest that if I was left alone to complete my poem about falling snow the result might be a one-hit-wonder that would make us rich, for she would just say I had already written a hundred wonders, and I should be out selling them.

She gave me no peace, and became a complete burr-under-the-saddle. My Dad advised me women look better if you “make them lively”, and I was succeeding in making her lively. (She became especially lively if I used the word “harangue.”) What I actually wanted to do is write about the peace of falling snow, and find a rhyme for the word “silver”, but it was always obvious that only way I was going to get the peace and quiet necessary was if I went out into the snow and drove through it. That was always the conclusion to the Harvest Quarrel.

What then happened always amazed me. I’d very soon come clumping back into the house with snowy boots, shoot my wife a smug look, and say, “I start work at six tomorrow morning. Happy now?” Then I’d go back to the fire, pick up my uncompleted poem about falling snow, and again begin nibbling my eraser, well aware my wife was itching with curiosity.

What amazed me was the ease with which I found work. There had been other times in my life work wasn’t to be had, and I’d roll my eyes to God wondering what He expected me to do.  Other times I rolled my eyes to heaven with a different, happier expression, when I found work with amazing ease, and these were those other times: I’d look down a heartless street steeling my nerve to go to business after business, expecting to experiencing painful rejection after painful rejection, but the very first place would hire me. It happened with surprising frequency, and always felt like the part of a cartoon where someone charges a locked door, lowering their shoulder to smash it down, and just as they reach the door someone opens it.

Not that the jobs were good ones, but I’d lived on the edge so long that heights no longer bothered me. Where some fret about a pension thirty years in the future, I was more concerned about today, and more willing to let tomorrow take care of itself. Also I was less sensitive about rejection, less prone to burst into tears when a job wasn’t available (although that might be an interesting tactic), and less willing to morbidly dwell upon the offence of being refused. I was more curious about other people and midst this curiosity was more able to utterly forget myself and my own problems. Perhaps I was like a sailor who has seen his ship can come through a storm unscathed, and who no longer feels he can only sail in sunny weather.

In fact, when I looked in the mirror, I realized I had changed. When I walked into a business my demeanor was different, switched from overly sensitive and doubtful to cheerful and confident. Nor was it an act. I definitely had in some way matured, and in some ways I now got jobs too swiftly; I now liked job interviews, and, when I had been happily contemplating a couple weeks of interesting discussions with managers over coffee, it could be disappointing to only experience one interview, before getting hired.

It did puff my ego a little to be able to assuage my wife’s worry about groceries so quickly, but it was hard to be too swelled up, as the pay was usually so minuscule that it took some adroit budgeting to make it to spring. We’d have to run up a tab until April, wherever we could. Also, when I sat and thought about it, I really couldn’t take much credit for changing. The “School Of Hard Knocks” had matured me.

But who was the professor? This question seemed more interesting to contemplate than my poem about falling snow, and the page of the notebook in front of me filled with stray doodles, and the scribbled numbers of sketched budgets and altered schedules.

Such a silent guide You are that I never
Knew it was You leading me to follow
Your lead. But black sheep are not so clever
As they believe. When my heart grew hollow
I turned away, and thought I was leading
Myself, but who is really the professor
When slings and arrows leave students bleeding
In life’s School Of Hard Knocks? Yet how tender
You are; how patient, as with the pace of snails
I learned. I called my guide, “my own Free Will”,
But captains are not the ones who fill sails
Like fat bellies. I blundered on until
My free will finally learned how to dance.
Your silent love is what leads this romance.

I should probably stop there, but need to add a coda to finalize the theme about “burrs”.

I think that one thing that makes the attitude of a Plugger so much more upbeat than that of a worrier, (who frets at a threat to a pension far in the future), is a Plugger’s  simple discovery that good things come in bad packages. A Navajo friend once wrote, “Boot camp is a very good thing to have happen only once in your life,” which is an essay in only fifteen words; IE: Certain discipline may be as palatable as cod-liver-oil, but turns out to make you feel better in the end. The pains, bad tastes, foul smells, and itchy burrs are the curriculum of the School Of Hard Knocks, whether or not you believe there is a Professor in charge of how such discipline is dispensed.

Once you have been through such burrs even once, and see that you more than survived, but were actually strangely matured, then burrs in your future seem less repugnant. You are made able to face situations, which once filled you with dread, without fear, or with far less fear. Not that you don’t know enough to come in out of the rain, but if you must stay out you are singing in the rain.

When I walked into a business my demeanor was utterly different when I was forty, completely changed from an overly sensitive and doubtful 18-year-old’s. Some jobs were demeaning, such as folding and collating pages of inane pamphlets containing bosh and humbug, but I could sing in such rain. My fellow workers tended to be “temps” (short for “Temporary Contract Labor”) who worked for less than the regular workers, without benefits, and the regular workers tended to resent temps. But temps were interesting people to talk to, for they tended to be down on their luck, and usually there is a good story behind a downfall. However despite their downfall, and despite being exploited by bosses and disdained by regular workers, temps didn’t retreat in self-pity, nor expect welfare and charity, but rather were the sort who would work a rotten job to claw their way out of their poverty. They were true Pluggers, and I saw a hidden benefit in jobs that had no benefits, for I got to interrogate and interview interesting Pluggers I otherwise would have only a slight chance of ever meeting. The odd thing was some of these people had no idea anyone might find them worth interrogating and interviewing; my interest was something that lit them up; they blossomed under the feeble sunshine of my innocent, simpleton queries. Such a flowering, under the dingy light of forty watt bulbs, made me look over my shoulder, for I knew I’m not so bright, and I wondered why their faces lit up. From whence came the light? It intrigued me, yet, even as this intriguing stuff occurred, all we were doing was folding and collating pamphlets of guff.

This is not to say I didn’t yearn to be out in the falling snow like a boy yearns to escape Algebra class, but so did the other temps; you could see it in the longing light in their eyes as they passed a window. We were all in it together, and there was a sort of camaraderie reminiscent of that seen in soldiers in deplorable circumstances, which led Wilfred Owen to write, “I too have seen God through mud.”

This brings me back to what I stated earlier, which was, (in case you have forgotten), “There is something worth singing about in simply surviving to see another day. Life is beautiful and precious, in and of itself, irregardless of whether you succeed or fail. In fact the burr of suffering seems strangely beneficial, for it proves that Life persists in spite of adversity, and that Life is indomitable and unquenchable and independent.”

The problem with such a realization is that it robs you of some motivation. Once you realize you already have what is most valuable, namely Life, what more do you need? Why even get a job, let alone a pension? Beethoven proved beautiful music doesn’t even require the ability to hear. Nothing is necessary for happiness but Life.

Fortunately Life does contain burrs, which direct us. Your beloved will bring you a concern which, if you have a heart, you will respond to.

Just as my young wife brought up concerns, disturbing my content as I sat by the fire contemplating falling snow, she could disturb my content as I enjoyed folding and collating pamphlets of guff, by urging me to get a better job. Even when minimum wages were raised from $3.35/hour when we met to $4.25/hour when she was first pregnant, it wasn’t enough.  It wasn’t that we were greedy; we were running-up-a-tab at the market, and on our utility bills, even with me working full-time. Running-up-a-tab was a parachute that slowed our decent, enabling us to survive until spring,  (when I’d make $10.00/hour landscaping). But if you made too little in the winter your parachute would be too small, and when you hit spring you’d be up to your neck.

Therefore I, (and indeed most “temps”), required “overtime” to get by. Once you worked over 40 hours your pay would be “time-and-a-half”, (shifting from 4.25/hour to 6.38/hour.) I freely confessed this requirement when I was first hired, during the initial job-interview, not minding much if being so demanding meant I wouldn’t be hired. Yet sometimes it was what got me hired. The boss had some job he urgently needed done in a big hurry, and he desired people who would work overtime, but his regular employees not only might be unwilling to work extra hours, but might have the “benefit” of an earned vacation coming up. In such situations “temps” stepped in to save the day, but, once the day was saved, “temps” would be promptly laid-off. Unemployment may seem a cruel reward for a job-well-done, but I could only fold and collate so long before the work got stale, and I tended to depart such jobs whistling, and looking ahead eagerly to the next chapter.

If I was in the mood to complain then looking for work would have been a burr, and getting laid-off would have been a burr, and my wife’s concern would have been a burr, and I could have been very sour. And I confess there were times I was sour, usually first thing on Monday morning. However I did notice my mood was mysteriously better by Monday’s midday, and a hundred times better at age forty than it had been at age eighteen. Furthermore, being in a better mood about burrs seemed to bring benefits hard to explain. It made sense that an employer might be more likely to hire a cheerful person than a person who radiated shyness and fear, but I seemed to sense a more amazing aspect was involved.

Call it a superstition if you wish, but I felt the “burrs” were actually the prodding of a Good Shepherd’s crook.

It is said God can be hard as steel and soft as butter. The earlier times in my life, when I couldn’t find work no matter how hard I tried, seemed a sort of hard-as-steel time of tough love, as I was educated by the School Of Hard Knocks. For some reason it didn’t make me feel angry at God, but rather utterly dependent, like a small child wearing pajamas with feet. However I also felt that was the normal state of the cruel world. I didn’t expect any soft-as-butter stuff, and was deeply mystified when I went through a time when I was hired wherever I applied.

One autumn, after my wife and I had been through our typical Autumnal Quarrel, it occurred to me, as I stomped out the front door, that it would make life easier if I got a job within walking distance of my house. Both my truck and my wife’s van were old clunkers, and it seemed likely I could save both on gas-money, and on the bother of dealing with break-downs, if I didn’t commute. The problem was that I lived in a small town with few businesses, and the economy was poor. But a friend had told me I might try one place that hired temps for the Christmas Rush. It was a New-Agey place I wouldn’t ordinarily consider, a business that bought herbs and spices in bulk quantities, and broke them down into small packets and jars to sell to retailers.

I figured I’d test my luck; if I was on a streak of getting hired the first place I applied, I might as well try a place roughly a half mile from my front door.  I walked in and filled out an application there. My luck held. I had barely walked back into my house when the phone rang, and the owner asked if I could walk back for an interview. It was a bit of a drag to have to make a U-turn and walk back when I was planning to sit by the fire, but burrs are burrs.

I got the job, of course, but the interview struck me as wonderfully bizarre. The first question I was asked was, “Did you know a mad poet from Harvard named X?”

It just so happened I did know X, and for a time had considered myself a close friend of X’s, over a quarter century in the past when I associated with such crazies, and wasn’t a responsible father of five. I had been a senior in high school and X was a senior at Harvard, and we associated with pot-smoking intellectuals and had amazing conversations about wildly speculative things that one doesn’t usually bring up, at a job interview. To be honest, the question seemed a trick question, and I became very guarded. But honesty compelled me to answer, “Yes, I knew X”.

The second question was, “Do you know what happened to him?”

X was one of those flamboyant people who you may not want to partner with, but who dares things you don’t dare, and goes places you don’t go, and therefore, even though you don’t want to join them, you want to know where their flamboyance led them. I too was very curious, (and secretly fearful X had died in the horrible AIDs epidemic of the 1980’s), but could only answer my future boss with, “I don’t know. I last saw him in 1976, and our last phone-call was in 1984. Later I heard from a friend that he had headed south to join the Sufis of Washington D.C., around 1985, but in the decade since I’ve heard nothing.”

My future boss looked very disappointed, but hired me and told me show up at nine the next morning to learn the ropes of the herbs and spice business. He arose, and I arose, and it seemed the interview was over, but then, as if to explain something, he hesitated, and then added, “X told me you were the greatest poet since Shakespeare.” Throttled by astonishment, I couldn’t think of how to reply. I’m not sure what I said. Likely it was something dismissive. Then I walked home through the snow.

That was a strange walk, in the falling snow. I mean, how many job interviews do you walk into, for some simple job such as packing herbs and spices, without any sort of recommendation, where you get an unasked-for recommendation from someone you lost contact with over a decade in the past, who might even be dead? Not that the recommendation that I was “the greatest poet since Shakespeare” had anything to do with packing herbs and spices. I’d long ago learned poetry had little to do with feeding yourself, let alone feeding a wife and five children.

I’ll confess the strange interview did stir a hope in me that our interview was one of those “chance meetings” you read about in the lives of authors and poets, wherein they are “discovered”, and rise “from rags to riches” overnight, publishing some sort of “one-hit-wonder”.  But this was not the case. We never spoke of X or of poetry again. However there was a strange, unspoken understanding: We had shared-roots in a wild past when mad poets were especially free, and didn’t need to work Real Jobs.

We did have some interesting talks, but I was far more interested in him than he was in me. I learned that when young he had a vision of learning of herbs and spices that could be wonder drugs, perhaps even finding a herb which cured cancer, and that he had labored long and hard, studying botany at Harvard and even travelling to the Amazon, seeking herbal mysteries, but that when push came to shove, and he had a wife and daughter to support, such study didn’t pay the bills. The herbs and spices that paid the bills tended to be mundane things like powdered Cinnamon and Garlic. To make a living he imported bulk quantities of things not locally grown, to sell to people who required smaller amounts.

Someday I’ll hopefully do a better job of describing what a wonderful job I lucked into, because I was too lazy to fix my limping truck and become an ordinary commuter. But for now I’ll give a couple examples of how wonderful the job was.

One of his best sellers was cinnamon. He sold several types, and four-inch-sticks and three-inch-sticks, but most people wanted the powdered stuff. It came in two-hundred pound barrels.  Most households, when they buy powdered cinnamon, want to buy one or two ounces. A restaurant will desire perhaps a pound, and a busy doughnut shop ten, and even a frantic bakery will desire at most twenty-five. No one wants to pay the price of two-hundred pounds, even though the wholesaler basically doubles the price, selling to the retailer. My job as a muscular poet was to man-handle barrels most cooks can ‘t budge, and then break-down the contents to smaller packages.

The second example is bay leaves. All cooks understand the positive effect a leaf or two of bay can have on a soup or stew. However bay does not arrive from Turkey a leaf or two at a time. It arrives in huge, fragrant bales, weighing at least fifty pounds.

My first job, my first day of work, was to manhandle a huge bale of bay-leaves, and then break it down, and amidst the sweet, rustling aroma of this occupation I did not think of the customer, who would receive tiny packets, but rather I was transported to Turkey. Perhaps it was only because I, as a landscaper and farmer, was aware a lot of hard work went into picking and drying and baling and exporting the leaves, but the scent as I worked was evocative of a landscape I had never seen and of people I had never met. Images drifted through my imagination. It was much better than folding and collating pamphlets.

My family approved when I came home smelling of bay, but I was less popular when I had to deal with enormous amounts of garlic powder. For the most part my work involved around twenty everyday herbs, which likely produced around ninety-five percent of the business’s profit. But besides those twenty barrels of herbs there were perhaps a hundred others, holding mysterious herbs I had never heard of. When I filled orders I was swift to learn where to go to find Cinnamon, but sometimes at the bottom of the order there would be an item I had never heard of. Then I would have to search through the barrels in the back of the warehouse for a pound of some such thing as, “Saint John’s Wort”.

My boss’s wife was a bit scornful of such items, because “turnover” was so slow. If you bought a bale of some obscure herb it might be five or even ten years before it was sold, but my boss would not listen to his wife, and would reorder. He seemed to like being an herb-and-spice-place that had the items other places lacked. Also his insistence seemed to be like my own poetry; a thing he did even if it wasn’t profitable; a thing connected to his original reason for focusing on herbs and spices.

I could sense, my first day on the job, that I should be careful when bringing up a question such as, “What is Saint Johns Wort good for”? My boss’s wife would snap, “Absolutely nothing,”  and my boss would look meek, and button his lip. It was obvious she was a burr to him, just as my wife was a burr to me when I wrote poems about falling snow rather than looking for work. And he was a burr to her, by insisting on restocking, just as I was a burr to my wife by insisting on writing poems.

I think it was during the first week that I discovered that, among the obscure items he had in the barrels in the back of his warehouse, he had burrs. Or not the burrs, but the root of the plant that made the burrs, called “Burdock”.

As a landscaper I tended to see Burdock as a rank and obnoxious weed. This was not only because, when my daughters happened to get burrs in their hair, tears resulted, but also because the plant could spring up with amazing vigor, with a tap root which made carrots seem small, and leaves nearly as fat and wide as Rhubarb’s. Here is a Burdock jumping up between my garden’s Rhubarb and Asparagus:

It is hard to be fond of such a rank and persistent weed. My Asparagus and Rhubarb have strong roots which are perennial; there are cases where grandchildren have fed off the plants their grandfather planted fifty years earlier, but burdock is a plant that can invade such a long-standing patch and, with roots equally vigorous, weaken the desired crop. It is hard to see such a burr as desirable.

Yet my new boss was making a small profit selling such roots. This of course piqued my interest, but unfortunately I asked my question when his wife was in earshot, and heard the brusque reply, “Absolutely nothing is good about Burdock.”

I already had concluded that, but was trying to escape my prejudice. My escape occurred soon, due to the fact the warehouse had a tiny “retail shop” in the front of the warehouse. It produced less than 1% of the business’s profit, but I had the feeling my new boss liked talking to people about herbs and spices, and the “retail shop” was more of an excuse to talk than it was a way to make money. However he was out, and I happened to be the only person available, so I had to deal with a customer though I knew next to nothing about herbs and spices.

The customer was a lady from Japan, where burdock root is often used in their cuisine. However she was not looking for fresh and tender roots, suitable for cuisine, but dried roots, for a tea that she claimed had amazing benefits. I became her student, as she praised burdock, but I became her professor, when I told her it didn’t need to be imported from Japan.  After I sold her a pound of the dried root, we stepped outside and I pointed out a few examples of the invasive weed.

Some businessmen might think this a bad policy, for she would have no need to buy dried roots, if she knew she might harvest them from her own yard. All I can say is she did return, from time to time, over the next five years. For that is how long I lasted at this job as a “temp.” It was not a steady job, but one I could count on being steady before Christmas.

As I stated before, it would take another post to tell the tales of this on-again-off-again job. But this post is about the benefits of burrs.

Now it is twenty-four years later, and I am running a Childcare, and part of our haphazard curriculum is a course on “the benefits of Burdock”. Usually I am not officially on duty when this class is taught, but kids find the sight of an old man working in the garden more interesting than what my staff has planned, and they often come drifting over to pester me.  Because my hard-working staff can use a break, I often involve the children in my work, (at times having them cheerfully make mincemeat of child-labor-laws, for example when I have to move a hundred bricks). Other times, for example when I am weeding, I weed less, and create a spontaneous curriculum involving what weeds are very poisonous, such as buttercups, and what weeds are edible, such as chickweed. At some point I always seem to involve them in digging burdock from the garden, and saving the roots.

These roots must be washed:

And then, (after trouble which always occurs when small boys have control of a hose), I show the children how to remove the bitter outer bark of burdock root from the slightly-sweet inner root:

Then they munch. I have a rule, regarding wild foods, which states that they are allowed to spit out anything they don’t like, which is a freedom they seem to enjoy. (Also I become very stern, and put on my most ferocious glower, regarding eating any wild thing without first asking me if it is edible.)

I’ve learned there is no accounting for children’s taste. The most fussy eater may demonstrate a peculiar fondness for some odd plant like Burdock, while the most voracious child may detest the same plant. Also a child who initially spits out a plant may, after watching his small peers munch away and ask me for second helpings, be seen surreptitiously picking up the root he cast away and giving it another chance, or, if he can’t find it, may whine to me for a second helping. Lastly I’ve discovered a sure-fire way to get kids interested is to tell them they won’t like the plant, because “only grown-ups like it.”

I don’t talk much about the medicinal benefits of a plant like Burdock, that I first heard about from the lady from Japan. For one thing, our society seems too focused on pharmaceuticals, and for another thing, the ownership of such knowledge seems a gift to me, and I am not particularly gifted in that regard.

I’ve known people who have an uncanny and often unconscious ability to prepare salads and stews that make people feel better, and cause the recipients to state “you are a natural chef” or “you put love in your cooking”, without thinking the cook is an herbalist or some sort of witch-doctor. But I sense a gift in such people. I think the gift likely has ancient origins, dating from when we were a nomadic people living off the land. Unfortunately the gift, like all gifts, can be misused, (in which case it may be withdrawn), and there are also fraudsters who lack the gift but are gifted in selling snake-oil. During the time I was involved with selling herbs and spices I met some New Age types who managed to make the entire topic of herbs repellent and downright disgusting, because their poorly-hidden desires seemed to be all about orgasms and hallucinations. Just as I like poetry yet avoid poet-societies, I’m interested in herbs but generally avoid herbalists.

Because I lack the true gift, I tend to be more pedantic and scientific, and conduct secret experiments, involving only myself. For example, my son might visit, and notice a glass of greenish sludge by my coffee cup at my computer. Wrinkling his brow, he’ll ask me, “What the heck is that stuff, Dad?” A bit evasively I’ll reply, “boiled Burdock root.” A bit of a smile will cross his face, and he’ll be unable to resist asking, “And?”

There’s no way around it, and I have to confess the secret: While wandering the web and reading about Burdock root I chanced upon a claim it “stimulates the hair follicles of the scalp.” My old follicles could use some stimulation, in my humble opinion, so I decided to conduct an experiment, keeping it secret because I don’t want people to know I am vain. I told my son that so far I had noticed nothing, which is a good thing, because such experiments can backfire and cause immediate baldness. He chuckled and walked away shaking his head slightly.

I sat back and contemplated the blessing of burrs. Even if my thin, gray hair doesn’t start to explosively grow, (making me look like a large dandelion gone to silver seed), it seems the weeds of my life later are revealed to have actually been herbs, and the burrs that made me uncomfortable moved me to my benefit.

Life is far more complicated than our puny minds can grasp, even when we attempt to control it and to guarantee ourselves fat pensions. Repercussions cause repercussion’s repercussions, with events clicking like complicated shots in a game of billiards, with complications clicking onward even years later. When I talked with the mad Harvard poet X at age sixteen, who could foresee it would land me a job at age forty, or that the job would result in me teaching little children about Burdock root, at age sixty-six?

As I thought about it, it seemed those who fixate upon control miss a lot. They miss bonanza after bonanza after bonanza. It seemed better to be a Plugger, leaving control in the hands of the only Mind that sees all repercussions.

As for me, I just do what comes next, and what came next was to start writing something titled, “A Burr’s Blessing.”

Advertisements

LOCAL VIEW –Halloween; Check Your Berries–

In the process of running my childcare I’ve noticed children learn quite early, while wandering the woods, to identify what they are allowed to nibble and what they should not eat, and then like to show off this knowledge to their parents. Parents often tell me that their child slightly horrified them by eating some unknown berry as they hiked in the woods, and, when rebuked, the child then delighted in informing them that the berry was actually safe, because Mr. Shaw had told them so, and that they eat the same berries all the time at my Childcare.

Berries 3 FullSizeRender

I have always been fascinated by the way children absorb such knowledge, partly because some might kill themselves, if not carefully scrutinized. Last summer we were entrusted with a very young child still in diapers who we had to constantly watch, as he mouthed just about everything he came across. He exhausted my staff, who took to kicking mushrooms as they popped up, out of a fear the boy would munch a poisonous one, yet one day I received a panicked phone-call  because, despite their best efforts, the toddler had grabbed and munched a mushroom. Through the wonders of cellphones I immediately saw a picture, and determined the mushroom was not one of the notoriously deadly species, but it was also not one of the sort I know are edible and pick for my own table, so we sent the picture on to a mushroom-expert at a poison- control-center, who informed us it was relatively safe, though the child might experience diarrhea and gas. (He didn’t, which was probably a pity, as the lad learned no lesson, and went right on merrily mouthing twigs, pebbles, grass, and the occasional insect). (However I did note that by the end of the summer he had learned to hold things up towards me briefly, with inquiring eyebrows, to see to what degree I’d freak out.)

I wonder how it is any child survives to age three. The reason we have poison-control-centers is largely due to children, and they are just as likely to poison themselves indoors as outdoors. Our Childcare is inspected by the State, and we get “written up” if so much as a scouring pad is stored down where a child can get at it and pop it into their mouth. It makes me wonder how our species survived back before we had cell phones and poison-control-centers and inspectors from the State. I assume the answer is that children were watched with great care, and not likely allowed to toddle where there were dangerous plants and mushrooms visible, and instead papooses were swaddled in backpacks under such circumstances.  Children likely were constantly instructed, from a very early age, during their daily existence. Also likely tragedies occurred then, just they occur now.

Sometimes a thoughtful child will ask,  “How do you know that berry is poisonous?” Good question. I usually answer with a question, “What do you do when you don’t know?” All the but the littlest child knows the stock answer, “We leave it alone”, because I drill that maxim into their little skulls from the first day they arrive. Some even roll their eyes, as they answer, because they have heard me pronounce this commandment so often, with the severe, grey-eyebrowed authority of Moses.

A child’s curiosity is not so easily assuaged, and a more persistent child will pester for a better answer, and the answer must be, “Someone, a long, long time ago, made a mistake, and did eat that plant, and got very sick or died.” Humanity likely learned a lot the hard way. One general rule of thumb I learned years ago, when tasting a plant I was not entirely certain I had correctly identified, was to always try a very small amount. Then, if it is poisonous, or if you are personally allergic, you may merely get violently ill, and skip the silly business of dying.

I once knew a man who ate a poisonous nut that made him throw up for twelve hours straight, and it was somewhat amazing, he later confessed, how he was unable to eat any sort of nut afterwards, and also was not able to eat things he’d eaten in conjunction with the nut, (for example, winter squash). Often it requires no botany classes, or much of an IQ, to possess the knowledge certain plants should be avoided. It is a revulsion imprinted so deeply in our subconscious that we shudder without knowing why. In fact much we find distasteful as adults may be due to the fact we tasted, back before we can remember. Trial and error forms a part of our wisdom.

Perhaps it is merely an extension of this trial and error testing that makes some people especially able to recognize the effects of all sorts of plants; not merely poisonous ones, but also herbs that have medicinal benefits. But I tend to think, in some cases, something more profound is involved, and some herbalists possess what we should call “a gift.”

This is not to say that others don’t learn about the nutritional benefits of foods through study and astute observation. For example a colonial mother who loved her family might notice rose hip tea made the effects of midwinter scurvy vanish. The mother wouldn’t have to know a thing about vitamin C, or have any sort of gift.  They would merely be attentive to what brightened their home and made their children and husband happy.

However some have the ability to such an uncanny degree I think it should be called a “gift”. I can say this because I recognize I don’t have it.

It hurts our egos to meet someone who is able to do things we can’t, and even has vision we lack. It is like meeting a Mozart, who makes our best efforts to compose music seem like mere jingles. However at least we can compare Mozart’s extraordinary gift to our meager gift. In other cases we have no gift at all; we are tone deaf, and can’t even compare. It is like we are color blind, and meeting someone who sees color. To some degree we can’t even believe their gift exists, because they can’t show it to us.

For example, for the first forty years of my life I didn’t believe dowsing was a real ability. I couldn’t do it myself, so I was more than skeptical. I was scornful, and called it a scam. What changed my mind? I was watching a fellow I deemed a con-artist demonstrate what I called “the so-called ability” at a country fair, and, when he was busy answering questions, I tried out his dowsing rod. As always, I had no success, but just then my three-year-old son came walking over from the cotton candy booth.  I handed him the rod and had him walk over the same spot where the man had said there was water, and the rod responded at the exact same spot.

My son didn’t seem particularly impressed; it was just a magnet to him, but I made my son walk all over the place, feeling a sense of disbelief as I watched the dowsing rod respond. Then I saw the dowser watching me with a quiet sort of smile. He asked me if the boy was my son, and when I nodded he very politely asked me to take the rod and walk about with the boy touching my elbow. For the first time in my life the rod responded, but, as soon as my son stopped touching my elbow, it didn’t work any more. When I asked for an explanation the dowser just shrugged and said, “I have no clue why that happens;  it just does.”

Only then could I broaden my narrow mind to the degree where I could accept that dowsing is a gift I cannot scientifically explain, and do not have. I don’t think there is any way I could practice, and gain that skill, either. It is just something beyond my ken. I don’t like to admit I’m lacking, but I am.

In like manner I suppose there are all sorts of other gifts people have, and I lack. In a way it seems unfair, and even undemocratic, but it is the way we were created. Once we get over our hurt feelings about being excluded, the fact others have abilities which we ourselves lack makes others more wonderful.

There is a lot of New-Age bull involved in the subject of herbs, however I do feel there are some who are not snake-oil salesmen, and who are actually gifted in that respect. If you must have a reason for this phenomenon, then perhaps it was an ability that evolved, and became especially pronounced in certain individuals, to help tribes of people subsist, and not poison themselves, as they lived nomadic lives in the wilderness, back before we had cell phones and could call poison-control-centers.

Herbalists who are especially gifted (and I am not one of them) find themselves inhabiting a peculiar No Man Land outside the precincts of both Science and Religion. They have been derided by both scientists and priests. Scientists don’t like them because they cure people without knowing the formulas involved, and priests don’t like them because they cure people without attending church. In the past herbalists have both been burned as witches and jailed for practicing medicine without a licence.

My father was a surgeon back before doctors became so distracted by people’s greedy focus on money, in the days when the focus was strictly on curing people, and you weren’t suppose to let money skew your judgement. One thing that always fascinated him were the rubes who cured people who the hospital could not.

My father himself was ruled by the strict disciplines of science and engineering; he attended both MIT and Harvard Medical School. However he was able to be broad-minded enough to admit some outside the “club”, without degrees, might be successful where doctors weren’t.

He tended to be anti-church, because the church had not been kind when doctors discovered there was such a thing as “germs”. The mentor of my father’s mentor, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr, got himself in hot water when he said it was important for doctors to wash their hands between the time they amputated a limb purple with gangrene, and the time they delivered a baby. Ten years before Louis Pasteur officially “discovered” germs, Holmes simply noticed fewer mothers died of infections when midwives were called in, than when doctors were called. This irritated doctors, for Holmes was in a sense suggesting doctors were killing mothers rather than helping them,  and it irritated certain Puritan Ministers, who assumed the sufferings of childbirth were promised to woman by scripture, and healing was in the hands of God.  In fact the simple discovery of “germs” caused a schism in the Calvinist churches of New England, resulting in the birth of both the science-preferring Unitarians and the faith-preferring Christian Scientists. (But that is a story for another evening.)

The discipline my father was ruled by demanded scientific answers, but doctors are confronted by a blip in their scientific data that simply doesn’t make sense, called “the placebo effect”. In certain blind studies of incurable diseases some people were given a new wonder drug, and some were given a sugar pill called a “placebo”. In cases where the wonder drug turned out to be a failure, sometimes the “placebo” had better results, which was especially mystifying when the disease was incurable.  It seemed to hint that, because the people knew they were in a study of a “wonder drug”, their faith had triggered some latent curative ability which all humans own.

In other words, faith mattered. For this reason doctors of my father’s day were advised to project confidence even in situations where the outlook was bleak, in order to tap into the Placebo Effect, because, after all, people have faith in their doctors.

Faith was a mystery, and my Dad had his own ideas of what might be involved, and what should be investigated, (but always in a scientific manner). However herbs were less of a mystery, and my father believed herbalists might have chanced upon cures that that pharmaceutical companies were decades away from discovering. For example, country folk took willow-bark-tea for headaches and arthritis for years, even centuries, before it was discovered that the active ingredient was aspirin.

One of my father’s favorite stories involved a doctor, who also happened to be a priest, who served as a missionary in a jungle in Africa. The hot and humid climate led to many infections, and the cure at that time was to drain pus from the wound and to attempt to sterilize the wound, and to wrap it in enough gauze to keep it from being reinfected. But it often proved impossible to completely sterilize the wound, and also the patients lived lives where wounds kept being reinfected,  and the prognosis was not good for people with infections, unless they went to the local witch-doctor. This gentleman, who did not go to church, served up some vile-tasting concoction brewed in a hollow log, uttered incantations, and the infection vanished. This was very frustrating to a missionary who wanted to demonstrate “his way” was superior. Fortunately he was humble enough to confess the witch-doctor had a cure he lacked, and learned to send people to the “rival” who could cure them, even if the man didn’t go to church. (Apparently the missionary even eventually befriended the witch-doctor, and they sat on a porch and discussed religion together.) It was only years later that penicillin was discovered, and the missionary realized the vile-tasting concoction in the hollow log was likely an antibiotic, discovered long before pharmaceutical scientists discovered the “wonder drug”.

For a few years my father was in a position to influence where his hospital’s money would be spent, for “research”, and he did encourage investigations of so-called “witch doctors”. All too often the results were discouraging, for there are a lot of con-artists and snake-oil-salesmen in the world. The investigators often could not see how the “doctor’s” sleight-of-hand was preformed, when a so-called “healer” passed his hand over a cancer and then opened his hand and revealed foul-smelling stuff, but they could take a sample of the stuff and send it to a lab. It was chicken entrails. Nor could the investigators  deny the sleight-of-hand was so convincing that the “placebo effect” seemed to be especially activated. But was it science? No, it was “con-artistry”.  My father actually suffered so many experiences of this sort, seeking genuine herbal cures, that I got the impression that he eventually decided nearly all herbal cures were bunkum.

After a person has passed away you learn things, even when you think you already know all there was to know about that person, and perhaps this is especially true of our parents.

One revelation involved the fact I’d tell my Dad about New Age herbal remedies, and even offer him certain teas, all the while fully expecting him to be scornful and disgusted. He wanted me to avoid being a sucker, and to be more skeptical than I was. What I didn’t know was that he actually listened to me, and would investigate the cure I advised, after I had left. For example, I thought I had noticed a benefit from chewing “snake-root” (cone-flower, or echinacea), when it came to quickly recovering from the common cold, because it “stimulated the immune system”. I told him about snake-root when I noticed he had a bad cold. He scoffed, and deemed it a “quack-remidy”, but later I heard he had asked around, talking with other doctors he knew, and even told people that I actually “was on to something”, because, he learned, back before the discovery of antibiotics, echinacia root had been important in country doctor’s arsenals of curatives. I even found a small bag of snake-root among his belongings, after he died.

At a memorial after my father passed on, one person, while fondly remembering my Dad’s good side, mentioned he remembered Dad enabled a young woman to travel to the Amazon to study what the Indians of the interior used as herbal cures. That was back around 1960, when young women doing such a thing simply was not deemed proper by most, but Jane Goodall was just capturing the public’s imagination with her amazing study of chimpanzees. I have no idea what the trip to the Amazon achieved, but heard the woman, upon her return, expressed great gratitude towards my father for being so liberal, and making her dream come true. To hear this tale forty years later made me see a liberal lurked under the crotchety exterior of my old, conservative Dad.

In conclusion, life does tend to make us more skeptical. Indeed there are many reasons to be skeptical of “herbalists.” Unfortunately there are also many reasons to be skeptical of pharmaceutical companies, and doctors. One sad thing about the times we live in is that many people care more for money than their fellow man, and this is especially outrageous when it manifests among those with sympathetic eyebrows, who are pretending to be care-givers. A person in great pain should not have to wonder what sort of kick-back his doctor gets for prescribing a certain pill. In fact, if it is true that our Creator wants us to care for those who are downtrodden by illness, I can think of no better way to evoke the wrath of God than to make material profit the aim of medicine.

Be that as it may, greed has utterly corrupted modern medicine, and we have decended far from the simplicity of primitive nomads, whose first and foremost aim was to avoid famine, and to be healthy as they did so. Much that they could do seems uncanny to us.

For example, in the history of New England remain reports written by Puritan captives of Indian tribes, during cold winters when the Indians had to retreat scores of miles by foot, with their villages burned along with all their stored supplies of food. The Puritan captives reported with amazement that though the retreating Indians, including woman and children, had no food, they were able to scrounge enough vegetable sustenance from the snow-covered woods to feed even their captives. I doubt modern people could do as much, even travelling through the same woods in summer. The natives simply knew what to eat, and what not to eat, in their neighborhood.

This brings me back to the beginning of my post, which involved, in case you have forgotten, taking small children into the woods and telling them which berries to eat and which not to eat.

Even though I lack any natural gift, as an herbalist, I do read a lot, and have become aware there is not a plant in the forest that is not said to be a “cure”. This gives me an odd sense everything we eat is a “drug”, and therefore is something that possesses the risk of an “overdose”.  This is a bit of a joke, when dealing with benign berries like strawberries and blueberries. What could be the “overdose”?  Are they not antioxidants and wonderfully good for you? However, if you ate nothing but berries long enough, you’d likely get sick of the sight of them. Your body would tell your brain, “Eat one more berry and I’ll puke.”  (Maybe diarrhea would also be a factor.)

The fact plants have medicinal value becomes less of a joke when one reads up the ways “harmless” berries were used by herbalists of the past. On one case it even has had me tell children they are allowed to eat one “harmless” berry, and not to eat another “harmless” berry.

Berries 1 IMG_5665

The first is called “Checker-berry” locally, and the second is called “Partridge-berry” locally. They have many other local names, and the first is called “Partridge-berry” in other places, which confuses matters. Both are called “Squaw-berry” in certain places, which shows country people saw that Native-American’s were aware of the medicinal qualities each possessed. The first had a mild aspirin-like effect, and the second had some benefit I don’t claim to understand on the uterus of a women, and was widely used by Indian woman, especially as they gave birth, and also had an effect like a mild tranquilizer.

Small children do not want me to tell them what I just told you, in the above paragraph. (Not that I don’t do so, and see their faces go blank as I overload them with scientific trivia.) They prefer things simplified into a simple “yes” or “no” format.

Therefore I decided to tell them it was acceptable to eat “Checkerberries”, (because the chance of overdosing on aspirin was small in such minute doses), but they shouldn’t eat “Partridge-berries”, (because I simply didn’t know what sort of effects such a “harmless” berry might have on hormones, (though I was tempted by the prospect of slightly tranquilized children.))

In actual fact the checker-berries are also called “wintergreen” and have a pleasant minty flavor that children say is “like toothpaste.” The partridge-berries have next to no flavor at all. So it really isn’t a hard choice for children to make, even if they try the forbidden berry.

But the most interesting thing to see is how swiftly the children learn to differentiate between the two berries, which often grow together on the forest floor. Checker-berry has a star on its end, and Partridge-berry has two dots. Children have a certain pride in being able to tell the difference, and I have seen a three-year-old lift two berries up for their parents to see, and explain which berry they are allowed to eat, all the world like little professors.

And there is an insecurity parents have these days about whether their children are little professors, and academically prepared enough for kindergarten. I was advised by one elderly childcare-provider to utilize high-sounding words to describe the most ordinary childhood activity. For example, when children are fighting because one got six berries while the other only got five, explain the use of numbers as “developing math skills.”

Therefore, when we pick checker-berries we are actually studying the “volatility of essential oils”. (It is especially helpful if you can get a three-year-old to get their mouths around the word “volatility”, because then some parents have to look it up.)

“Volatility” becomes a subject because it is hard to make tea of checker-berries, as the flavor all evaporates and wafts away with the steam, and the tea itself winds up tasting like hot water. Yet this liability can be turned into an asset by placing a single checker-berry at the center of a marshmallow, and toasting it over a fire. As the marshmallow warms the evaporating wintergreen flavor permeates the gooey sweetness. Therefore do not think we are getting a sugar-fix; we are studying volatility. We allow nothing but little Einsteins at our childcare.

Berries 4 IMG_5649Berries 5 FullSizeRender

I should mention that checker-berry is also called “tea-berry”. This ought to cause you to wonder, as I just explained how all the wintergreen flavor evaporates when you heat it. When you boil the water the room may smell delicious but the drink is utterly tasteless. How can a tea be made?

The question also arises concerning the making of wintergreen-flavored “birch beer”, which is (in this local) made of the essential oils found in the bark of black birch. It may be the same essential oil for all I know, for it tastes so much the same that little children, after alarming their parents by gnawing at a twig like a beaver, inform their betters in chirping voices, “Try it! It tastes like checker-berry!”

Berries 6 IMG_1341

Now of course the most scientific approach would be to distill the volatile essential oil, which is what some makers of birch beer do.

Berries 7 800px-Birch_beer_still

However the above equipment looks a bit expensive, and European, and unlikely to be used by Native Americans. So we are still left with the question, how the heck did they make tea and non-alchoholic soft-drinks of checker-berries and black birch bark? Had they the help of aliens appearing in UFO’s?

I know the answer, but am going to put you in the position of a priest or scientist, facing a herbalist who can make a tea that tastes of wintergreen when you can’t, which also reduces fever and aches and pains. What is your response to this bumpkin, who has neither gone to college or to church?

Could you possibly admit they are superior, without college and without church?  Or is your first desire to burn them as a witch? Or to jail them for practicing-without-permit?

This being Halloween, let us dare step further into the subject of witchcraft, (knowing that the roots of the word “witch” come from words that mean Godly gifts mentioned in the Bible, including “prophecy”, and including even the High German word “wieh” which meant “divine or holy”, and also knowing that people-in-power tend to bad-mouth anyone they perceive as a possible threat to their power, with the most outrageous example being the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but including other awful examples such as the burning of Joan of Arc, the murder of six million Jews, and on and on and on.) However to play it safe let’s skip the bad-mouthed word “witch” and flee to the word “herbalist”, and let us focus on those who are most extremely gifted.

Let us try to see things as they do, though, because we lack their gift, we are like the color blind trying to see color. (Remember my example of the Dowser; how can we comprehend what we cannot experience.)

As I comprehend it, plants talk to you. Just as an example, let us consider the partridge-berry I mentioned earlier. Look at the diminutive blooms, as they appear in the spring. What are they telling you about the medicinal powers of the plant?

Berries 8 partridgeberry-flowers

Obviously this is two coming together to create one, indicating the plant has powers that effect those who are bearing the consequences of two coming together to create one; IE: Pregnant women.

Now that I explain it, it jumps right out at you, right? No? Me neither. I simply lack the gift. It is like being told a dowsing rod moves over water, when I can see darn well it does not, when I test it myself.

But do I dismiss the gift? Not entirely. When little children pick the berries, and see not the “star” of the checker-berry, but the twin spots left by the twin blooms:

Berries 9 mitchella_lg

They hear me say, “Don’t eat that one”, even though no book calls it poisonous. So why do I forbid it? Well, it is also called “squaw-vine”, and Indian women used it a lot late in pregnancy, and, even though I haven’t a clue of what effect it had, or of its pharmaceutical powers, I figure small children likely can do without it. I don’t know for certain that it effects children’s hormones in the slightest. I am just playing it safe.

To be honest, when I walk the woods what I am most aware of how little I know, and what a wonder the Creator has made, that envelopes me like a loving embrace. Because I am humbled I am slow to scorn. Not that I don’t back away from certain herbalists, especially the dead-heads that are seemingly always seeking  more powerful hallucinogens. But I am definitely against burning witches, which seems an appropriate end to a Halloween post.

I supposed my lost sheep
Might come wandering this way
Looking for their lost shepherd
Who has long been astray.
In the orange o’er black hills
Ink wolves were seen prowling
And the twilight was filled
With the sound of their howling
When my sheep-dog came up,
Shook the hair from one eye,
And spoke with his glance,
“You’re an odd sort of guy.
If I were a man
I’d be bolder and faster
But I’m just a dog.”
“And I’m just a master”,
I replied with my voice,
“And to wander this twilight
Was never my choice.”