LOCAL VIEW –Hollywood Goes Prudish–

One odd coincidence my wife and I share is that our best friends were both born on November 21. Her friend is still alive, but mine passed away a decade ago. I always pause to remember him on November 21.

The day I first noticed him I knew he was a force to be reckoned with. It was in fifth grade, and teachers had decided we should be trained at an earlier age to avoid the old-fashioned idea of a “home room”. I’m not sure what was wrong with having a home, but instead some advantage was to be gained from marching from room to room to study different subjects. Not that the teachers were all that more skilled at different subjects. But likely they enjoyed teaching certain subjects more than others, and they thought such joy might infect the students. Wrong.

The simple fact of the matter was that my homeroom teacher was a beautiful young woman who I think was deeply in love (the next year her last name was different, and by June she was very pregnant.) By her very attitude she made learning be a joy. She could have taught a subject she knew nothing about, perhaps automobile mechanics, from an antiquated Model-T textbook, and the students would have been so enchanted they would have learned more than they would have learned from the most skilled automobile mechanic. I had the feeling her classroom was a cloud of love, and don’t think a single student disliked her; most seemed enchanted.

No other teacher stood a chance, and to be ripped from the presence of this joyous young woman, and placed in a classroom taught by a somewhat embittered old lady, who deeply resented that her favorite subject “history” was to be called “social studies”, was a very uncomfortable experience for me, as was the fact I was among students who I didn’t know, but whom were supposedly “at my level.” The old lady did catch my attention when she backslid and taught “history”, but when she attempted “social studies” it was apparent the subject was Pig Latin to her, and the entire classroom was confused, and my attention wandered.

For some reason these radical changes were not enacted at the start of the school year, but in late March or early April, when students are first hit by spring fever. Traditionally school ended at around this time, for children were needed back at the farm for spring planting, and all the wild energy would be put to good use. Instead, at this time, there was an attempt to “channel” the vital energy of youth in some sort of theoretically “socially constructive” manner. Eventually, decades later, they gave up and decided it was better to drug the dickens out of wild children, somehow thinking that frying their brains was better than tanning their hides, but, back when I went to school, education created a time-warp between corporal punishment and drug’s mind-control, when permissiveness and freedom ruled.

At this time my parents were still married, and I was an “untroubled” child, fairly obedient in my way, and making good progress in school. I hadn’t become the outlaw I later became (though I was no saint). As a good boy, I did stay away from the banned part of the playground in early April, where the mud was deep. However, as my attention wandered during Social Studies class, I saw the shoes of a boy who had broken this rule.

The shoes were so muddy they appeared about twice as large as they actually were. It was a most amazing spectacle. The mud was drying in the overheated classroom, and clods and flakes were shedding from the shoes. There was already enough dirt to plant carrots around the feet, and the shoes had only started shedding.

At this point the feet started moving about, as feet do when they are stared at for an overly long period of time. Instinct told me to glance up at the face the feet were attached to, and I met the glaring, challenging eyes of a boy just daring me to call him a pig. I didn’t. The thought didn’t even cross my mind. Instead I thought the eyes were as interesting as the huge feet. And, as I thought this, the eyes changed. When, rather than judgmental, I looked curious, they shifted from anger to surprise.

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, though it was a stormy one. The fellow was never ordinary, but perhaps being born on the cusp of a water sign and a fire sign makes for billowing clouds of steam and thunderheads, and I’ve always thought thunderheads are beautiful.

He always tended to be more daring, while I was more prudish. At that time the “frontier” young men challenged involved the dangers of sex and drugs, and he paid a heavy price for being daring. I probably would have followed in his footsteps and paid the same price, had my stepfather not tricked me into attending a school about as far away from sex and drugs as it was then possible to find.  (Dunrobin, in northern Scotland.)

One thing we were always able to share was our minds. It is difficult to say exactly how we did this, other than to say our talks involved a lot of symbols, or images, or gestalts. At times a most rudimentary image would communicate more than you might think possible. We’d be talking about some esoteric topic and he’d say, “You mean, sort of like salsa?” and I’d reply, laughing, “Exactly!” An outsider would have no clue what we were talking about, yet we could talk for hours in a strange sort of complete understanding that also involved vehement disagreement.

Looking back, I think one thing he liked about me was that I could tell him what it was like to do what he had chosen not to do. I could tell him what it was like to be a virgin and still date the-girl-next-door. I could tell him what it was like to be off drugs for months in northern Scotland.

In terms of drugs, I was a prude compared to him. He had a zest for the entire world of hallucinations and unusual perceptions. I did too, but also had the sense we were on dangerously thin ice. But I will say this: If you are foolish enough to take such vile substances, don’t do it with small minds. Don’t do it with people who can say little more than, “Yowza. Am I ever wrecked.” Rather do it with a mind who can describe in great detail the various avenues it is going down. To “trip” with this individual was truly a journey so enjoyable that, were it not for the Grace of God, my brains would have become as fried as his became, because I enjoyed talking and laughing with him more than anything else.

When I went to school in Scotland he went to school in Boston, and, (in those primitive times before the internet), we exchanged two or three letters a week. Mine described a mind off drugs, plunged into the English literature necessary to pass “A” levels, and his blearily traced the wild scene in Boston, involving many women and parties and running a college newspaper even after he stopped attending classes. Then there was a horrible postal strike in England, and we couldn’t communicate.

When we reunited after a year we were able to compare our minds in a way, and on a level, that most people can’t. In a way most people can’t imagine I think he saw I had, by sheer luck, come out ahead.

It seemed unfair. He’d had more guts, was more daring, but wound up damaged, in some mental way difficult to describe. Call it frustration, for that describes it best. My mind was clear and produced answers, while his was muddy and produced frustration. However his honesty expressed where he was at. I liked his amazing poetry, though he produced less and less:

“When you’re in the mud
All you see is mud.”

I think one of the most awful tragedies of my generation was that the better minds were crippled. Hallucinogens were described by one Native American, (who left the Peyote Church), as “a trickster.”  They promise to expand consciousness, but retard it.

I can say this now, at retirement age, because I saw the danger and backed away from that frontier, like a person backing away from a volcano’s crater because he sees the expedition’s leader succumbing to poisonous gasses.  Not that I didn’t inhale and suffer some damage myself. But I survived.

People tell me, “I never quit and I can still do what I could do.” At age sixty-four that seems to me to be a terribly sad statement. It is like Beethoven at the end of his life stating, “I can still write the First Symphony.”  A mind is suppose to grow, and reach a Ninth Symphony.  To stay the same is to stay stuck, and involves a constant frustration, which eventually breeds a subtle antipathy.

I faced that antipathy in my childhood friend, especially when I renounced our adventure into the world of hallucination and turned to God. (And there can be no denying I was a naive pain, when I first sought a different “high”.) Yet we stayed in touch, despite the distance that had grown between us. I suppose, when minds have been as close as ours were, there is always a curiosity about what the other is seeing, and where it is going.

Eventually it became obvious to my friend that drugs indeed were a trickster, but his brains were by then only a shade of what they once were. He then accepted his predicament with class, and even dignity, though to think as a “straight” person was an exercise in frustrating futility. He actually sought to stop thinking, by doing a Yoga that made his mind blank, and it seemed to do him good. Nor did he ever stop believing in the “high” things he’d seen as a mere teenager blitzed on acid, even when he couldn’t see them any more.

He died of cancer of the esophagus, which cut him down in a matter of weeks. One thing I’ll always regret is that we never had a final talk. I hope he didn’t think I’d tell him, “I told you so”, or some such useless thing. Probably not. I think many who die without telling many friends just don’t want to cause others pain. I knew many artists who died of AIDS in the 1980’s who vanished without saying any good-byes.

What would I have liked to talk about, during a final talk with a dying friend? I think it would be the beauty we saw together, even in the process of making the wrong choices. If you focus too much on the wrong choices you only become bitter.

This brings me around to the peculiar agony currently afflicting the so-called “beautiful people” of Hollywood and Washington D.C.  Their raging seems downright demented to me, and a sort of spasm of guilt and a paroxysm of shame, manifesting as disgust and bitterness. Apparently being “beautiful” is not so beautiful, after all.

Harvey Weinstein was seemingly the pebble that started an avalanche.  Behavior which once was seen as “sophisticated” is now called what it always was, “sleazy”.

When I went drifting through California more than thirty years ago I found most people felt the ideas now manifesting were prudish. I know this for I expounded such ideas, and was told I was prudish, wasn’t a realist, wasn’t sophisticated, was naive, didn’t know how the world worked, would never get anywhere, was behind the times, wasn’t hip, and was in fact ugly. I wasn’t one of the “beautiful people.”

What changed things? I think the actual pebble that started the actual avalanche was the election of Donald Trump. Popularity means a lot, (and at times everything), to the Hollywood mindset, and such a mindset is horrified to see popularity shrink in any way, shape or form. To have Hillary Clinton lose,  (despite some glaring voter fraud assisting her), was a message no amount of explanation could deny. What was the message? “You are not popular. You are not seen as beautiful. You are not admired, envied, marketable.”

It is the strangest thing to see the facade crumbling. In some ways it looks like one of those “swings of a social pendulum” you read about, where people run like indecisive lemmings from one cliff to another, basically brainless and merely following the mob. However in other ways it seems like common sense rising up in “flyover country” to inform Hollywood and Washington nobody is really buying their bull.

I think our world has paid a terrible price due to the “trickster” of sex, drugs and greed. It is easy to become bitter, thinking of the pain and the people hurt, like my old best friend. However perhaps it is better to remember that, before the trickster tricked, people were speaking of “Love, Truth and Understanding”, and those things were and are and always will be beautiful things.

What will be interesting to watch is whether people behave like witless lemmings, running from extreme to extreme, or whether they have actually learned anything. For there is such a thing that people develop called “discernment”. I would like to believe that the 48 years since the “Summer Of Love” in 1969 has actually taught the USA a thing or two, and we are moving from producing a First Symphony to producing a Ninth.

In any case, Happy Birthday, to my old friend in heaven.

 

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LOCAL VIEW –The Color Of Bleak–

There is something very beautiful about this time of year, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. All the gorgeous autumn leaves have been stripped from the trees, and the pristine beauty of a snow-covered landscape is still in the future. The world has gone gray.

The world has gone gray, and sunlight is dim
At noon, and songbirds have fled like traitors.
The ponds haven’t froze; chance-for-skating is slim;
And doubt smiles with teeth like alligator’s.
Now is the time it seems darkness has won.
Witch trials seem possible; madness is seen
In night’s leaping shadow; diminishing sun;
And the crazed holy day, Halloween.
It’s too far from Christmas to hope for light
Returning to redeem us from the dark.
Shadows grow longer and all that’s in sight
Is a cynical newscaster’s remark
Which offers no hope, and yet I see a spark
That can fuel a bright blaze in a landscape gone stark.

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What the children were looking at was a couple of belated Great Blue Heron’s, pausing on their way south. As we drew nearer they flew to the far side of the far side of the Flood Control Reservoir, and as they did the children exclaimed over the width of the big bird’s wings, at times over six feet.

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Now, at this point, you likely are thinking this is a typical post, with me bragging about how my Childcare is better than most and I am simply marvelous. In actual fact it is a confession which should convince some parents they ought raise their own children and never, never hire a stranger like me.

In the above picture of the children looking out over the water there are six children, (with one nearly hidden behind the child wearing red). This should be an easy number for a veteran Child Care Professional like myself to account for, but a half mile farther along on this hike I lost one, and didn’t even know it.

It happened like this:

Two of the boys involved were laggards, and made the others wait for them to catch up, over and over. Further along on this hike we were moving along an old stone wall in the woods, and I looked backwards and saw the two boys were again lagging, and told them to hurry up. Meanwhile, to keep the other four interested, I was pointing out the difference between the tiny footprints of deer mice and larger footprints of flying squirrels in a dust of slushy snow along the top of the stone wall. When one of the boys caught up I assumed the other was with him, as the two had been inseparable. We continued a bit further along the wall when I heard an adult voice calling from far away, shouting “I’ve got your kid!”

It turned out the second boy had decided to go back. He could care less about the footprints of deer mice. He was heading back to the farm for a snack. He reached the main trail (we were bush-whacking off the main trail) and came face to face with an adult he didn’t know.

I doubt many parents would approve of this situation.

Fortunately the adult was an old friend, who happened to be out hiking the starkness of November, and knew enough to bellow into the trees to find me. But I confess I was blushing when I retrieved the child I had misplaced.

In my ten years of watching other people’s children there have been many occasions when children have run off, but usually I locate them within thirty seconds. There was only one time when two small brothers decided to “go home” during the first few days they were enrolled.  I had stepped into the underbrush and behind a tree to relieve myself, and when I stepped back out they were gone. Bellowing proved futile.  I nearly had a coronary before my wife informed me she could see them  heading back to the farm. (A benefit of cell phones.)

This is no excuse. If I promise to watch children I should watch them. But I confess I am imperfect. It may not be a sin of commission, but it is a sin of omission. In this example, I neglected to be sure the laggard actually caught up with the rest of us, and instead assumed he had, when in fact he was headed the opposite way. A five-year-old met a total stranger. This is not a good situation.

Now, if I wanted to play the blame-game, I could turn the tables, and blame the parents for not caring for their own children, and instead handing them off to a neglectful old fool like myself.

I could blame colleges for burdening young parents with huge debts to pay off, so that they both must work fingers to the bone and have no time for their children.

I could blame the government for caring more for banks that collect interest on college loans, than for the poor, exploited students.

I could go on. In some ways the world we live in is as stark as November.

Instead I think I’ll skip the blame-game, and instead be thankful. I’m thankful the adult the wayward child met was an old friend of mine, who could just bellow, “I’ve got one of your kids,” and make everything right.

Perhaps that is what defines an “old friend.” They are not particularly interested in the blame-game, and are more interested in making things right.

This in turn suggests we should be more interested in making old friends, than in blaming (which is no way to make a friend.)

The truth of the matter is we are all imperfect. Only God Almighty is perfect. Therefore we will all, at some point, screw up. I confess I did screw up, concerning watching over one small boy’s safety.

As Thanksgiving approaches I have decided to make an effort to tell old friends how thankful I am they exist, and to make this old world be more a world of appreciation and thankfulness, than a world of the blame-game.

LOCAL VIEW –Cold Comfort–

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The  Atlantic was so hot today that islands in the distance seemed to float over the shimmer of a mirage, like you see shimmering over a hot highway in July. The difference was the Atlantic really wasn’t hot as a highway; it was cool, but the air was frigid.

A gale was blowing straight from the north, and the surf grew manes like charging horses.

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I dressed in my warmest clothes, with my warmest long underwear, for a beach is beautiful in all weathers, except perhaps for women. Personally I prefer bikinis to burkas.

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Somewhere under that bundling was my wife, and her voice was warm, and that really is the main thing that matters.

It has been too long since the summer of love
When it all seemed obvious and simple.
The Woodstock dream was a beckoning dove
That made young maid’s cheeks beautifully dimple
But now those cheeks are like leather and creased
And the beauty is kept sheltered within.
The maid’s lovely smile has now sadly ceased
For she shows missing teeth with her grin.
Time’s tax has robbed those who do not look deep
And see that time improves wives as it does wine.
The superficial fall fast asleep
As others trim lamps for a Guest divine.
As winter draws near in the gathering storm
Be glad when you walk with a voice that is warm.

It is amazing how quickly the mind shifts gears, if you give it half a chance. I suppose that is why some spend so much to seek ski slopes. Being a bit more stingy, (call it frugal), and less able to withstand the terrible crashes which I, as a bad and reckless skier, once amazed (or horrified) all on the slopes with, I find a beach a better place to be when winds get bitter. But the effect is the same.  Senses are sharpened. And it is far cheaper, with off-season rates.

The streets are strangely deserted. You half expect to see a tumbleweed blowing down the ghost-town avenues, but instead must be satisfied with a windblown newspaper. (Rare enough; who reads those things any more?) Not only have tens of thousands of tourists left, but most of the workers who waitress tables and change sheets have fled as well. All that remains is a remnant of humanity, a little like you are in some sort of “Mad Max” movie about Earth after Armageddon. Vast eateries with huge parking lots are completely closed, and only smaller joints remain. And you had best be careful walking into such places. Some are where fellows go when they are unemployed from September to May, and you don’t want to bring a wife there. More upscale, but strangely even more adolescent, are restaurants where men connive how to rip off the public next June, (and I identify such places because all the cars outside have Florida and New Jersey plates, and the men inside wear shiny suits no one on vacation wears, and don’t drink from mugs.)

To eat well, go to a local grocery store. If you insist upon eating out, ask the people at the grocery store. The cashier will tell you she can’t afford to eat out, so my wife asked her where her parents ate out. Or ask the person running the place where you are staying.

To be honest, this research is far more fun than the recreation summer visitors find at night clubs or upon roller coasters or at miniature golf courses. Meeting people is far more fun than mere distractions.

And, if you are fed up with people and really do need a distraction, walk the beach and talk to the gulls. This is actually what drew people to the beach in the first place, though the purpose is defeated when you are elbow to elbow with ten thousand others on towels.  A beach is hardly a beach in the summer. The sands reverts to how a beach should be when the wind chill dips to zero (-17º Celsius).

The gulls are easier to talk to, because they are largely disgruntled. They were overfed during the summer, stealing people’s french fries and hot dogs, and do not approve of the changed circumstances. The sad fact of the matter is that plenty created an overpopulation, and many will not make it to spring. The healthier birds wheel and screech and fight over the sea-clams and dead crabs exposed by the retreating tide, in the acceptably un-spiritual manner of gulls, but many others crouch in the sand, sulking in the gale. The don’t want to fly in the wild wind, and even seem reluctant to waddle out of your way,  for that involves turning their tails to the wind, and the gale then plucks at their feathers, ruffling them like a hand rubbing a cat’s fur the wrong way.  Only with the most uncomplimentary glances your way will they open their wings and be whipped down the beach against the harsh glitter and glare of the wintry sun.

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Even as the lumbering gull is torn downwind, one notices tiny dots skittering to and fro below it, at the water’s edge. I suppose they are some sort of sandpiper. But what seems most incredible to me is that they are even able to survive in the cold.  Plucked they would amount to little more than a couple of tablespoons of hot blood,  and in the windchill two tablespoons should freeze solid in two minutes. Yet they seem utterly untroubled by the cold.  Compared to the gulls they seem downright cheerful. What sort of crazy metabolism burns in them? And what the heck are they pecking at in the sand that fuels such tiny engines?

Whatever it is, I want some.

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When gales dent my eyeballs and wires are singing
And ruffled gulls sulk, before bending downwind,
What sort of fires are sandpipers bringing
To beaches abandoned, where summer once grinned?
They skitter away from the water’s onrush,
Then scamper close to its sizzling retreat,
Untroubled by growling surf’s thump and hush
And running on amazingly unfrozen feet.
My fingers, far fatter, are bitten by frost,
Yet God keeps birds wonderfully warm.
Perhaps they’re a symbol, made for the lost
Who can’t see how they will live through a storm.
We shouldn’t be sure cold can chill to the bone
When Paul wrote great things from the sewers of Rome.

LOCAL VIEW –First Snow–

I recall reading a poem where the poet wistfully stated that someday perhaps we could again contemplate falling snow in the manner of Japanese poets of yore, and not be distracted by all our modern concerns about road conditions and whether we remembered to put on snow tires,  and what we will do if school is cancelled. For there is something to be said for the beauty of falling snow, especially the first flakes, falling when the final leaves are still on the trees.

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Sadly, I find I can’t sit back and contemplate much.  While the kale in the garden is improved by frost, the celery can’t withstand much freezing, and I have a good crop.

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But how am I to find time for the celery, when my wife isn’t too happy about my great harvest of hot peppers, gathered last week after our first freeze and still scattered about her kitchen?

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And how am I to find time for peppers with a business to run? Every day I write a list, but emergencies emerge, especially when you run a Childcare. Early childhood is actually one long emergency, as children are emerging into a world full of dangers and disasters. So that which is on my list doesn’t get done until it itself becomes an emergency. For example, I should check out the wood stoves when weather is warm, but I never get around to it until we start our first fire and the house fills with smoke. Then I have to frantically replace a stove pipe (40 years old and crumbling with corrosion) and sweep a chimney. Who has time to string up peppers?First Snow 4 FullSizeRender

The good side is that little children at our Childcare get to see a man work. Most Childcares give children the impression men evaporate at sunrise and materialize at sunset. At my place they get to feel the stiff wire bristles of a chimney brush, and see black flakes of creosote, and learn smoke can condense like steam can, and see me huff about with a long ladder over my shoulder, and understand men do work.

The bad part is that at my advanced age I’m not suppose to be huffing and puffing about. I’m suppose to wear a white suit and give orders like a fellow who owns a plantation.

How am I suppose to wear a white suit if I’m cleaning chimneys? Soot would spoil the fabric. As would dirt from the garden, and sap and sawdust from lugging firewood would be just as bad.  About the only good thing about snow is that I could wear a white suit in it and not get it dirty, but white linen is not made for cold climates and shoveling snow.

I actually feel a bit like a rat in a wheel, and have to steal time to write, but when my wife sees me sneaking off to my word processor she sometimes gives me the feeling that a man’s main aim in life is to avoid chores, whereupon I tell her a woman’s main aim in life is to create them.

Then our eyes meet, and we know it is time for a break. With a three day weekend coming up, we need a day at the beach. So let’s check the forecast.

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For those of you who like less precise temperatures, 16º Fahrenheit equals -9º Celsius. Winds will be from the north, gusting to thirty mph.

We will have the beach all to ourselves! Yippie!

Last spring I watched the final flakes falling
With the petals of an apple tree’s blooms
And wondered if I’d see the appalling,
Appealing white again. For our dooms
Are hidden from us. We can never guess
If tomorrow will come. In my mad case
It seems that the answer’s definitely, “yes.”
God’s willing I run a lap of the race
And feel snow in my face. On I will roam
With my beachcomber’s pension,with wild skies
and thudding surf a most beautiful poem
Even if I never ink the words that my eyes
See written by cirrus and hear in surf’s sighs.
The Timeless is peeking through time’s thin disguise. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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

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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?

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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:

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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.”

LOCAL VIEW –Tilted–

One job assigned to me as a teenager, when I first ventured outside of the suburbs into the country and attempted to be a country boy by chewing upon a straw, was “ditching the pasture”. The pasture had initially been ditched 218 years earlier, but the ditch had a tendency to fill in, and therefore one was expected to walk slowly down the ditch with a round-nosed, long-handled shovel, digging the wads of leaves and muck that were impeding the drainage.  I actually didn’t mind the job, as I was always playing in brooks as a boy, and this wan’t much different.

The ditch basically took a shallow intermittent stream,  a brook that only flowed when snow melted and after torrential downpours, and straightened it while lowering it down roughly two feet. This drained the pasture and allowed timothy and clover to grow, rather than the sour marshy grasses cows don’t much like. It increased the value of the land, and in some pastures took a brook that dried out in the summer and put it down deep enough to where it flowed all year long, and therefore took a brook that held no fish and created a habitat for secretive brook trout, especially where sod overhung the banks a little.

Then, around 1970, the concept of “wetlands” as being an especially valuable landscape took hold. Even a reeking fen was seen as an environmental Eden,  and ditching pastures became a criminal activity, in the eyes of some university types. They decide to educate farmers, and the old-time farmers told them to go to hell. Next they decided to go through legislators and lobbyists, and had better luck.

Don’t get me wrong. Some wetlands, especially salt marshes, are tremendously important to the larger ecosystem, and are lush and brimming with life. Destroying them dramatically reduces the catch of fish in nearby coastal waters. (On the other hand, creating wetlands by damming rivers also reduces the catch of fish.) But an intermittent stream through a farmer’s pasture is not the same thing.

In any case while ditching the pasture, which I continued to do even after it made me a criminal, I had time to contemplate how an activity which is deemed saintly one generation is deemed devilish the next. I also had time to gaze about at the geology of New England, and study the ecology, and noticed there was no norm, unless flux was the norm. Glaciers had scoured the landscape clean of topsoil, and then a progression of vegetation pursued the retreating ice. Along with the vegetation came beavers, who were constantly deforesting areas and creating wetlands, and then deserting their dams when they ran out of food, which caused ponds to became meadows when the dams broke, and later meadows became groves of poplar and birches, which attracted a new generation of beavers. Also men came north even as the ice retreated, (a friend of mine found a flint spear-head, with the flint originating from Ohio,) and they tended to burn the underbrush in forests to make hunting easier. So I figured the Puritan farmers who first ditched pastures were no more dramatic a change than other changes. Change was the norm; any level achieved was soon tilted.

Locally it wasn’t so much the environmentalists who stopped the ditching of pastures as it was a cultural change that made all the hard work involved in farming seem less worthwhile. People found ways to support themselves working only eight hours a day, and preferred laying indoors watching TV, and the ditches began to fill in, even as the old pastures grew over, first becoming what the locals called “puckerbrush”, and then becoming woods. And then, rather unexpectedly, the trees began to all die, or to tilt and fall over. (Sometimes a grove of dead trees indicated beavers had returned and flooded an area, but beavers don’t dam intermittent brooks.)

What was happening was that the water table was inching upwards as the ditches filled in, and the roots of the trees were either drowned, or the deeper roots that anchor a tree down were killed and the tree was only held up by a mat of very shallow roots. These roots were not enough, and in a strong wind the tree tilted, (sometimes remaining alive.)

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I like investigating the ripped-up roots of such tilted trees, because you learn about the local subsoil, and a thing or two about the post-glacier geology, and sometimes find an artifact or two. Lastly, though you may doubt this, we have a “little people” who live here in New Hampshire, just as leprechauns live in Ireland, and sometimes if you look under roots you can meet them.

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One way to befriend these little people is to find a red shelf-mushroom that lives up on dead trees, but the way to get your hands on these mushrooms is to find a tree that has tilted and fallen all the way down.

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Once these mushrooms are down they continue to grow, but are now sideways, and it makes no sense to continue to grow the way they were growing, with their bottoms facing sideways, so the mushrooms are wise enough to, within a fortnight, make an adjustment.

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Because the mushroom has wisely adjusted, when the time comes for it to release its spores, some are not trapped in sideways-facing, rain-sopped pores, but face down, and can be sheltered and kept dry and properly dispersed.

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If even mushrooms can adjust to a tilt of ninety degrees, it seems to me higher forms of life ought to able to adjust as well. It also seems to me that certain environmentalists, who seem to imagine nature exists in a steady-state, and that all changes are evils brought about by mankind, are themselves unwilling to change and are themselves unable to adjust to any tilting. Does this make them a lower form of life than a mushroom?

Long ago a lubber, (namely me),
Got on a ship, and sailed into a storm
Where I lost my sense of up. Misery
Was mine, as my stomach took a form
That was mostly inside out, but I had
To man the helm or else my problems
would be over. Tempting. I felt so bad
That dying didn’t seem low as the phlegms
My empty stomach heaved, as stinging spray
Salted wincing eyes that searched the skies
For something level, something that would stay
Flat, but all tilted. But the biggest surprise
Was that when I was safely ashore, then
I yearned to go out and be tilted again.