LOCAL VIEW –Dawn’s First Bird–

I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said something along the lines of, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you simply don’t sit down.” I’ve been enjoying the Memorial Day weekend adopting that philosophy. I can’t work with the manly, maniacal ferocity I once could muster, but I sure can potter.

Of course I have to be civil, and attend family barbecues, but even when laughing at a fine story, half my mind is back in the dirt, planning my next pottering.  I’m stiff and sore, but can’t remember ever enjoying my garden the way I’m enjoying it this year.

I’ve adjusted my attitude, (or, to give credit where credit is due, God adjusted my attitude for me), and I simply am not so fired-up and focused on results. Ambiguously, the results are better.

It is difficult to explain. I’ve known for years how desire can spoil things; when young I would meet a nice woman and enjoy engaging conversations, but then desire would creep in, and I soon was not enjoying much of anything.  Noon seemed dark as midnight, which seems a bit foolish now, as one woman I anguished over now has only three teeth left and weighs over three hundred pounds.

God knew best. I have pretty much led a life out of control, buffeted this way and that by circumstances, which tends to make you pray more than you pray when things are in control, and also may be a sign God is in control, for spirituality is more about being freed from desires than it is about getting what you desire. Often it is easier to be free from a desire by not getting it, though not getting-what-we-want does tend to make us sulk.

Back when I was devoted to chain-smoking, I never much liked it when I was especially poor and couldn’t afford cigarettes, but I had to admit my health improved. (Also, it is amazing what you can accomplish, if you crave a cigarette. An old commercial once stated, “I’ll walk a mile for a Camel (brand of cigarette)”, but I’d go farther; I’d spread hot asphalt in a desert under a blazing sun all day for the money to buy some, yet it occurred to me that I was doing all these amazing deeds without a cigarette, which suggested I really didn’t “need” them.)

Just as not-getting what you desire can be a good thing, getting what you desire can cause troubles. I don’t suppose I need to give examples; people can usually think up their own. And we all have met people who “have it made” who are miserable, and who make those around them miserable as well. Although many see God as a great Santa who responds to our Wish List, there are times we wish for the wrong things, and if we put such things up on a pedestal we are creating a “false god” and are probably going to get what we deserve. In some cases we are “given to our sin”, which basically means we stew in our own juices and suffer long and hard, and in other cases we experience a swift and surgical removal of what we desire, which is traumatic but often better, because it is over so swiftly.

I’m sure this idea strikes some as if spirituality is an ultimate spoilsport, lurking about to catch us desiring something, and then snatching it away. (At times my life felt that way, and for a while my motto was, “The right thing is never the rewarding thing.”) However Divinity is described as a “Good Shepherd”, and a shepherd doesn’t want miserable sheep, parched and starved and with moth-eaten wool with with bald patches. Rather God wants his sheep led to greener pastures, or, as Jesus stated, “How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.”

In theory we should desire, but desire what God desires, as that will not wind us up hip-deep in the troubles our own more-ignorant desires often land us in. Of course, I haven’t yet heard a deep voice commanding me, “plant turnips; not rutabaga,” Instead I simply roll with the punches better. When I have a seed-bed nicely tilled and raked-up and ready-to-plant, and then a small stampede of children at my Childcare cross the seedbed and pack it as hard as brick, I no longer bulge eyes and burst blood vessels; I just shrug and say, “Well, I’ll be gummed.” And when, as I transplant seedlings in a neat row, I hear a soft noise behind me and turn to see one of my goats eating seedlings in a neat row, I no longer seek to embed a trowel between its eyes as it cavorts away from my screaming onrush, prancing and kicking its heels. Instead I again simply shrug and say, “Well, I’ll be gummed.”

If nothing else, my blood pressure is lower.

Because the results are no longer so screamingly important, I seem to have better results. I’ve heard that meditation makes one more efficient, but I never was big at sitting cross-legged and chanting, “Aumm”.  But my current attitude seems to have roughly the same effect, in that I work smarter, not harder. I may even write a book about it. If President Trump could write, “The Art Of The Deal“, then maybe I can write “The Art Of The Potter-Around“.

One thing I have noticed is that, because I spend less time grousing, there is far more time to notice little things, and appreciate them. Where I used to fill silence with a lot of noise, switching my radio from station to station, I now enjoy a quiet garden, with only the wind and the occasional twitter of a bird. I’ve even started to enjoy just laying in bed with insomnia:

The last breeze stirred night’s spring leaves, departing.
Then a soft summer silence descended:
Frogs gone silent in the cool; crickets not starting.
Silence was dark, draped velvet, once rended
By the yap of a far fox noting the waning
Moon was rising late, but swiftly mended
By smooth stitchings of peace. Life was gaining
Summer strength in the healing dark. Ended
For a time was all bustle and battle;
But then, so early it sometimes seems
A sort of miracle, before men first rattle
And bang, stirring and starting to chase dreams
With machinery, in their sleep they’ve heard
The glad announcement of dawn’s first bird.

Besides asparagus and rhubarb produced from big roots I planted long ago, this year’s garden has only produced stones and witch-grass, piled at the edge.

As a boy I assumed witch grass got its name because it was a curse in a garden. It sends out long roots, and any broken-off piece of root left behind will shoot up a vigorous new stem of grass. One of the first money-making jobs I ever had as a small boy was to remove witch-grass from a neighbor’s garden, and I recall being appalled how swiftly the work grew tedious, and how long it took an hour to pass so I could collect my 25¢. If anyone had ever suggested I’d ever get pleasure from weeding it I would have called them out of their cotton-pickin’ minds.

Yet I recall only around five-years later, when I was eleven, I started a small garden in the back yard, and our cook-maid-nanny came out to see what I was up to. She was a tough, chain-smoking woman of around forty from a farm up on Prince Edward’s Island, and when she saw me struggling to shake the dirt from a thick turf by hand she abruptly stated, “Here; let me show you how to do that.” I was slightly offended that some mere cook should think she knew more about gardening than my awesome self, but I had to admit it was interesting to watch her. She never touched the turf, instead using a spading fork to toss it about in the air, swiftly reducing it to a dirtless tangle of roots, which she tossed aside. It was obvious she had a lot of practice, in her past. She made quite a vision, wearing an apron and with a cigarette drooping from her lips, but what was most interesting to me was the enjoyment in her eyes. In three or four minutes she’d done the amount of work I’d done in the past hour, at which point she was huffing and puffing. “Guess I’m getting old,” she commented, handing me the fork, “But try it my way. It’s faster.”

What I really learned from her was that one could do such work with enjoyment in their eyes. It was amazing how often I’d remember her, as a gardener dealing with witch-grass over the next fifty years. It turned out there was good money in knowing how to remove witch-grass from a flower bed, as most ladies are not as skilled as that cook was, and the only enjoyment in the eyes of my employers was derived from watching me do the job.

As time passed I learned the weed is called witch-grass because in the past “witch” was the name given to a herbalist. The church often didn’t approve much of people who believed plants could heal, as priests felt God deserved the glory, and there were some bad times when herbalists could be in grave danger (although the danger to herbalists was not as bad as some now describe it, and the real medieval danger-of-execution tended to involve politics, such as being Pro-Catholic or Pro-Protestant.) There were some herbalists who perhaps got too interested in sex and drugs, focusing on herbs that were aphrodisiacs and hallucinogens, and these people may have contributed to the idea of a “wicked witch.” But I honestly believe there were other “white witches” who simply had a God-given gift, when it came to recognizing what plants had what God-given positive effects. (For example, all the benefits of what we call “aspirin” originally came from willow bark.)

And even as a boy I did notice there was something attractive about witch-grass in the spring. Without thinking, we boys would chew it. Also dogs and cats ate it.

Pullets like it as well. When I release the young hens from the fox-proof bunker I’ve constructed for them, first thing in the morning, they charge to the pile of witch-grass I’ve tossed in their pen even before eating their grain.

So, for a pottering fellow like me, I have found a use for the first crop the garden produces. But what to do with the second crop; the piles of stones?

It turns out they are perfect for filling potholes in the Childcare driveway. Of course, I may have to endure a bit of scorn from my oldest son. He thinks it is easier to arrive with an entire dump truck or two of  “hard-pack”, and spread it out with a front-end-loader. But if I did that, what would I do with all my stones? Anyway, pottering involves wheelbarrows and rakes, not dump-trucks and front-end-loaders.

Today’s pottering involved moving a big sheet of black plastic I found wadded up in a corner of the barn from one place in the garden, where I spread it last summer, to another place, where I’m spreading it this year. I have the hunch that the black plastic absorbs so much heat from the summer sun that it cooks the weed-seeds in the soil beneath. There was no sign of life in the soil I exposed, (in the foreground in the picture below.)  (The plastic sheet is moved to the background.)

The problem with weeds is that they have a crafty strategy, regarding their seeds. Not all seeds sprout the first, second or even third year. Therefore they keep coming up, even if you have done a perfect job weeding for one, two or three years. I myself have never been a perfect weeder for even a week, let alone a year. But I never liked the idea of using a herbicide such as “Roundup”, even before the recent worries about it causing lymphoma surfaced. Therefore I have always utilized various sorts of mulching, hot-water-sprays, and lots of elbow grease.  This year I am experimenting with various black “fabrics” that let the rain and air through, but give weeds no light, and also this old sheet of black plastic.

Of course, it may well turn out plastic also has some bad stuff involved, some trace-gas out-vented or some such thing. All sorts of fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides and fungicides have been banned since my family first had a vegetable garden in 1956, (at the time of the Suez Crisis and Hungarian Revolution, when it seemed Atomic War might make food scarce.) The average American is likely loaded with more toxins than you can shake a stick at, and the wonder is we haven’t all grown extra ears and noses. But I figure the cancers started by one toxin are killed off by the cancers started by the next, and through sheer luck we stay in a sort of balance. However it is likely best to grow your own vegetables, and grow them as organically as possible.

After all, Moms have always told us vegetables are good for us, even when they aren’t herbalists. I’ve started looking on line to see what benefits certain plants have, Asparagus surprised me. It turned out it didn’t have one benefit; it had seventeen!

17 Impressive Benefits of Asparagus

 

 

OK. Now time to head off and potter.

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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.”