In praise of weeds

When I look at current events I want to curl up into a fetal position and cry myself to sleep. It’s not that I don’t see stories of beautiful and uplifting things–“Earth’s crammed with Heaven”–but the good and the beautiful all seems to be fighting a losing battle against vanity and greed. The forces of what I deem to be Evil–those who would exploit anything and everything and would sell tomorrow for a few more pennies today–are huge and powerful. And even though it feels like bad news gets worse by the minute, people have been lamenting this for millennia. People of conscience are left wondering, “What can I do? What should I do?”

And those of us asking this are really on our own. Who do you talk to? Is this a safe topic of conversation over the holiday dinner table? Or maybe you look to the internet? It connects us to billions of people around the world, and yet inevitably we tend to gravitate to those who agree with what we already believe. If you do try to expose yourself to some alternative values and views, there’s a good chance you’ll be verbally attacked for sharing yours. The level of vitriol, superficiality, and paranoia is depressing. The internet is a veritable paradise if you’re looking for the cast of some obscure ’80s film or another YouTube makeup tutorial (seriously, how hard is it to put on makeup?), but it’s a blasted hellscape if you want a civilized philosophical conversation.

There are no easy answers for thinking people (and indeed, one could argue that would defeat the whole purpose of this incarnation) and perhaps no two people find the same ones. But here are some of the messages that have made their way to me, which seem especially relevant. First this from Runesoup:

“This is going to sound like cold comfort until you experience it. It is going to sound like running away from your problems until you try it. But there is a part of you -your innermost part- that cannot be hurt, damaged or stopped by the unrelenting horrors of the world. It is a diamond; bright and impervious. Just a few minutes in meditation and you begin to discern its presence, its location. Once found it can be grown, it can be lit up like a thousand christmases: so bright you cannot look upon it.

“This core sits at the centre of a universe that -if it isn’t actually a dream- behaves according to the same rules. …there is no getting around the realisation that the world seems particularly flimsy when compared to that experience of your inner core. … This whole thing is a construct. Do not give in to fear, do not give in to disgust.”

This is not mere New Age “only the light exists, think positive and nothing bad will ever happen and you’ll be thin and rich” pablum. That is an attempt to commodify and dumb down the ineffability of your personal relationship to the cosmos. Dear readers, I really urge you to think beyond the straitjacket of reductionist materialism. This isn’t about being religious (unless it is for you), it’s certainly not about being “anti-science,” it’s about prioritizing your lived experience over received wisdom. Yes, even–no, especially–subjective experience. Objectivity is a good goal if you are measuring something, but nothing in human experience is really objective. More importantly, nothing meaningful is ever objective.

Rather than asking, “Is _______ real?” I urge you to think in terms of “What does ________ mean?” Partly that’s because when we’re lying on our deathbeds, I’m willing to bet that the things we think about won’t be objective data measurements. And data certainly won’t give you a sense of purpose. I’m also concerned–given pretty much everything that has happened in history–that focusing on the terms that allow something to be granted the status of “reality” or “truth” too often puts us at the mercy of authority (be that political, academic, scientific, medical, or whatever) and its preferred ideology du jour. You don’t need to imagine vast conspiracies to observe that the people in a position to write metanarratives are never writing them for our benefit. Don’t give up without at least trying to write your own. Always seek the weird and the challenging.

Science is a wonderful way of investigating the universe, but it was never meant to be the only one. Before you ask, “Is ________ real?”, you need to ask what real even means. If you think you know the answer without a doubt, you’ve been drinking somebody’s Kool-Aid. The next question should be whether that Kool-Aid is doing you any good. In my opinion, if you’re not asking this most fundamental question you are wasting the opportunity (and shirking the responsibility) that comes with having a human brain, and if that’s not a sin I really don’t know what is.

weed mural by Mona Caron

weed mural by Mona Caron

Then I stumbled across these murals of weeds by artist Mona Caron. Why weeds? She writes:

“They may be tiny but they break through concrete. They are everywhere and yet unseen. And the more they get stepped on, the stronger they grow back. …
“I look for weeds in the city streets near a wall I’m about to paint. When I find a particularly heroic one growing through the pavement, I paint it big, at a scale inversely proportional to the attention and regard it gets. …
“Breaking through seemingly invincible layers, they reconnect earth to sky, like life to its dreams. It’s happening everywhere at the margins of things, we’re just not paying attention. …
“…in the context of suffocated environments, these undesirables are the first to carve a path for the rest of nature to follow, in due time.”

Be a weed. You can accomplish so much more as a weed than as a garden ornamental. It’s a principle of both permaculture and magic that creation happens in the in-between places. Perhaps it’s the compensation for not being a meta-author of the exploitative sham that passes for “reality” nowadays–that by virtue of our very smallness we continually slip through the holes in their bullshit tapestry. Zhuangzi understood this. So did Tolkien.

If you’re useful, you get used up. Your littleness, your weirdness, your imperfections, your invisibility can be your strength–but only if you can embrace being a weed. There’s no guarantee that you will make it to Mount Doom with the Ring, but the alternative–to sit home and let history write you–is unthinkable.

Gardening techniques for water conservation

I intended to publish this quite a while ago, but wanted to have a picture of my own ollas (discussed below). But, they’re taking longer than expected, and anyway they’re ugly. You can see much prettier ones elsewhere!

As I detailed recently, I am a big proponent of gardening as a way to increase self-sufficiency and reduce dependence on unsustainable, nonlocal food production systems. Continuing in that mode, I wanted to share two gardening techniques invented by the Native peoples of the southwest which can help conserve water.

I’ve been very interested in applying permaculture, but haven’t been able to find much information on desert permaculture. These two techniques are a good place to start for those interested in creating a sustainable desert garden. After all, indigenous peoples managed to do it for thousands of years–so it is possible. It’s just high time we started learning from them instead of trying to reinvent the wheel as if we were living on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard.

Waffle gardening

Raised beds or boxes are practically de rigeur for modern gardeners. They make sense in rainy climates where too much water could rot plants’ roots. But that is not a problem in the southwest. Instead, it makes a lot more sense to use sunken beds here.

The Zuni people invented a method of gardening in 2×2-foot or 1×1-foot sunken squares–nowadays called a waffle garden for obvious reasons. The sunken bed helps contain water, preventing waste through runoff. The little walls help protect seedlings from cold and slows evaporation by disturbing wind flow. Each 1×1-foot square can support a corn plant, a bean plant, and a squash. These three are known as the “three sisters” because of their unique interdependence: the cornstalk provides a pole for the beans to climb, the beans accumulate nitrogen in the soil, and the squash leaves provide shade and thus act as green mulch. More importantly from the human perspective, the three vegetables combined provide all the necessary amino acids for the human diet. Sunflowers and lambsquarters are other indigenous crops, in case you’re interested in trying Native methods with Native crops.

Sadly I didn’t learn about this method until after putting in all my plants this year, but I plan to try it next year. Another plot holder in my community garden seems to be giving it a try though.

20150419_174823Your waffle garden beds don’t have to be perfectly regular; the important thing is that they are a few inches deep and that the walls hold water.

More information:


Ollas (from the Spanish for “pot”) are narrow-necked unglazed ceramic vessels which were used for gathering and transporting water and for irrigation by Native southwest peoples. The pot was buried in the garden plot with its mouth above the soil. The vessel was then filled with water, which slowly seeped out to keep the soil moist at the root level. Since the water was contained below ground it prevented evaporation and helped regulate the temperature of the soil, and by keeping the soil surface dry, weeds would not flourish. Interestingly, this brilliant idea seems to have occurred to many farmers around the ancient world, with the earliest instance possibly being north Africa. They are still used in China, India, Iran, Brazil, and Burkina Faso (source).

Ollas made by Cahuilla people.

Ollas made by Cahuilla people.

You can even add fertilizer directly to the olla. It is recommended ollas be refilled when the water level drops to about 50% to prevent the buildup of salts which could impede seepage.

There are a number of online tutorials for DIYing your own ollas, such as this one. You can even decorate your olla lid like this. You can also buy ollas, but they are more spendy than making them yourself by gluing and caulking a couple small terracotta pots together. Two 6-inch pots and two 4-inch trays (the makings of a single olla) cost me $4.20, not counting glue and caulk which will seal more than one olla. So about $4.50 a piece, which is a lot better than the approximately $20 you will pay for a pre-made olla here in the U.S. If you have access to clay and a kiln, you can handbuild ollas (no wheel necessary) like the indigenous peoples of Inland Southern California did.

I have read, though I don’t yet know from experience, that using ollas is twice as effective as drip irrigation and 10 times more than typical surface irrigation. I’m lucky in that I don’t pay for water at my community garden; but saving water is now even more important than saving money. I’m planning on installing four ollas with my native perennial herbs to begin with. Next year I’ll see about branching out to the vegetable section of my garden.

In making my own ollas, I have found the process to be somewhat more complicated than suggested by the various tutorials I consulted. Getting a truly waterproof seal with the caulking is very time-consuming because there are tiny, tiny little gaps. I’ve had to caulk and re-caulk one olla probably four times now, each time discovering new leaky spots. Also, when you DIY an olla using terracotta pots, you won’t be able to see inside to gauge how much water is in there, at least not easily, because the opening is about the size of a quarter and it will be dark inside. So figuring out exactly when the olla needs refilling might take some fiddling. Finally, the water that seeps out of the olla doesn’t travel very far. I gather from the charts in the article linked below that for an olla made with 6-inch diameter pots, the water will extend out about 1.5 inches from the surface of the pot. Your plants’ roots will grow toward (and even eventually surround) your ollas, but they can only go so far, so your ollas need to be fairly close to your plants.

But in spite of these fiddly aspects, I think the potential water savings is well worth a little learning curve. And if your garden is small (i.e., you don’t need a lot of ollas), they are cheap. I was given some extra drip line by fellow gardeners when I started with my plot, but had to buy a bunch more, and now have to buy yet more. I swear there is a mile of drip line crisscrossing my plot. I’m willing to spend on irrigation supplies because they will (fingers crossed) last for years: they’re an investment, and if there’s one thing I’m willing to invest in, it’s food. But I know that for food-gardening to be a realistic proposition for the average American family, it has to be possible without requiring a bundle of capital. Ollas can help make that possible. Another thing I like about them is that whereas drip lines have to be at least partially planned out and laid in advance, it’s relatively easy to add an olla as needed.

More information:

Feed your family. Feed it!

DandelionMasjid DarussalamSanFrancisco1_MonaCaron_0

Dandelion mural by Mona Caron.

I have been getting an ironic laugh out of the latest Scott’s Turf Builder with Plus 2 Weed Control (TM) (EDIT: the product is called Weed and Feed) commercials. The eponymous Scott tells the homeowner how “dandelions are stealing precious nutrients” from his lawn.

This is a perfect expression of how messed up our culture is. We would rather use our paltry bit of land for almost entirely useless* “grass” while dismissing amazingly nutritious, health-enhancing, tasty, medicinal plants as “weeds.” (God forbid we use that space to grow food for our families.) It’s just so…stupid. It makes me laugh and rage at the same time.

It exactly parallels what is happening to humans here in California. We are in the midst of this major drought, and far from all of us pulling together, we “little people” are expected to shoulder the burden by cutting our water use by 25% while petroleum companies, Big Ag, and Nestle can have all the water they want so they can either pollute it utterly, or sell it back to us at obscenely inflated prices under various brand names. And as for the wealthy of Southern California, well, they just use as much water as they damn well please because (1) they are evidently *completely* out of touch about how to actually conserve it and (b) they feel entitled to everything else, why not water too? But hey, they’re willing to cut back “if the state’s water situation doesn’t improve.”

Well, guess what? It’s not going to improve in our lifetimes and probably not in our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

We know grocery store vegetables and fruit taste like cardboard. We can reasonably surmise that they’re not as nutritious as they once were due to the depletion of nutrients in soils.** They’re covered in pesticides (even some of the organic ones) that we’re told are safe, but then they told us DDT was safe too. Few people are affluent enough to buy all organic, and for all the reasons listed above, even organics aren’t that great (certainly not commensurate with their price).

Not everybody, not even everybody in suburban America, has access to a garden. Some people are lucky to have a little balcony or even a windowsill. So it is, in my opinion, frankly nuts not to use your land to grow food and/or medicine, if you are lucky enough to have access to some. It is bonkers to spend your time and money seeding, feeding, mowing, and watering a lawn (which you know you don’t even like doing anyway, to the point that you’ll hire others to do it for you) when you could probably put less time over the long term into making delicious food. Lawn has never been anything other than a status symbol. “Look at all this land and water I can afford to waste! Look at how I’ve tamed nature! Look how I employ the less-wealthy to maintain it for me!”

If status and conformity are more important to you than (1) eating delicious things, (2) saving money, (3) taking charge of your health and nutrition, (4) potentially even making money (market gardening or mini-farming), (5) conserving water, (6) living more independently and self-sufficiently, and (7) sticking it to The Man (in the form of mega-corporations and consumerist, materialist ideology), if you’re into that sort of thing–then you’re probably not reading this blog anyway. Look, I am not saying that growing your own food is a stress-free, idyllic lifestyle. Anthropologists have long noted the relatively high levels of stress and worry in farmers relative to hunter-gatherers. There is a learning curve and some trial and error involved. And some initial capital is required, although probably not as much as you’d think.

What I’m really saying here is, would you rather be a dandelion–wild, un-dollarable, full of juicy vitality, tough and tenacious, thriving in any conditions?–or would you rather be a lawn?

*I will grant, it feels nice under bare feet.

**For a plan to re-nutrify your soil, I recommend The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Dense Food by Steve Solomon.

Exploring Echinacea tincture

echinacea - courtesy Wikimedia CommonsThe best way to get to know an herbal medicine is to still yourself and feel its effects in your body. Pay excruciatingly close attention. Herbs work in mysterious and subtle ways, so distractions really will drown out the little sensations that are often a sign of big medicine. I thought I’d describe my most recent experience with this so you can see what it’s like if you’ve never done this before. Your mileage may vary but the general effects of an herb are consistent.

EchinaceaI recently made some Echinacea tincture and in a rare moment of peace and quiet I let it do its thing…

Echinacea is a diffusive lymphatic, so you know right out of the box that it is going to get stagnant fluids of the body moving. I wrote about stagnant waters previously. The taste of a diffusive herb is really a combination of taste and sensation–Echinacea is strongly diffusive and makes your tongue tingly and a little numb. That was the first thing I felt. Then I noticed extra tingling where I had bitten the inside of my cheek a day or two before.

I next began feeling little jabs–not really strong enough to call them painful, but just enough to get my attention–in the sinuses on the right side of my head, where I had some congestion. Meanwhile on the left side I felt a downward draining sensation and some little twinges in my left ear. I felt some moisture in both ears.

Next I started to feel some twinges around my liver. Again, not enough to call it pain, just minor sharpish sensations.

My intuition and what I know of Echinacea as a lymphatic tells me that two things were happening: First, as lymphatics do, Echinacea was stimulating the movement of fluids in the body. This was the cause of the downward draining feeling and the release of moisture in my ears. Clearly there was more dampness in my sinuses than I had realized. It also caused the twinges in my liver, as anything in the bodily water economy that needs purifying will ultimately be sent to the liver for detox.

Secondly, the Echinacea seemed to be especially active in areas where there was some infection–the place where I bit my cheek, my sinuses. At present this is just an early impression and I would like to experiment some more to see if it continues. Even though these were very mild infections if any, I found it striking that Echinacea “knew” right where to go. But it is not unexpected for Echinacea, which is the medicine for acute infections par excellence. According to Matthew Wood’s Book of Herbal Wisdom, Echinacea was called “toothache root” by Native Americans, signifying that they found it particularly useful for dental infections.

I took a half dropper of Echinacea each morning for a few days (only one dose per day). The next symptom I noticed was a very mild case of acne. I had teenage acne but other than the odd pimple now and again, I am not subject to skin eruptions. But I developed nearly invisible pinpoint size acne on my nose and forehead that lasted a couple of days. I think this was a result of internal heat clearing through the skin.

I had one day of not feeling so hot, and on that day I probably quadrupled my dose of Echinacea. To tell the truth I just wanted to see what would happen. I thought if I had actually caught a bug, the Echinacea would help, and if not, I would learn something.

Although I had previously been warned that lymphatic herbs can dredge up stuck emotions as well as stagnant fluids, I had totally forgotten that little piece of information. So I was rather surprised when, over the next few days–after I had stopped taking the tincture–repressed emotions that were so deeply buried that I didn’t even know they existed started bubbling to the surface. For a couple days I wanted to retreat to a dark room with a shotgun and blast anything that came near me. I felt so raw it was like not having any skin. Even now, more than a week later, I occasionally let loose an unexpected verbal volley, but I feel So. Much. Better. This emotional gunk had to come to light so it could be purified and released.

Another thing I noticed is that during this time, whenever I have felt frustrated, I get pain where my gallbladder used to be. In retrospect, this has happened before when I was particularly angry and pissy, but not as strongly, and I find it particularly interesting because according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, frustration and anger are precisely the emotions associated with gallbladder problems.

Now you may be thinking this is some hippy dippy shit and would I please concentrate on herbal medicine from a more scientific point of view. Well, no I will not. I do not claim to understand how herbs work the way they do or why, all I know is what I observe happening to my own body, and that it agrees with the observations of generations of far more knowledgeable and experienced herbalists than I. You either experience these things and accept them, or you don’t and you don’t. You know? If you are minded to do this sort of exploration, try comparing various lymphatics and see what happens.

Return to Post-Cholecystectomy Syndrome (PCS)

My thoughts on dealing with Post-Cholecystectomy Syndrome (PCS)–pain and digestive problems after having your gallbladder removed–have evolved somewhat, so I felt I had to write an update. Several people have commented on the previous posts thanking me for addressing it, which (1) is very flattering–thank you for reading!–and (2) makes me feel the weight of responsibility to not convey wrong information. I promise to share only the best information I can find, but there isn’t a lot of information available, so my understanding of the topic is bound to change somewhat as I learn more.

To recap, in my first post I discussed the symptoms of PCS and what (little) I know about fat metabolism, since that is where the now-absent gallbladder comes into play in digestion. I briefly went over the role of the gallbladder in Traditional Chinese Medicine and herbs they use for gallbladder problems. This is because I’ve never seen it addressed from a Western herbal perspective. Based on that, I made some suggestions for herbal and nutritional support for the upper GI tract and liver.

In my second post on the topic, I opened up a bit about my own experiences with PCS and attempts to remedy it. In particular I suggested that since gallbladder inflammation, gallstones, and the symptoms of PCS seem to correlate with heat and dampness in the upper digestive tract/liver, one might treat them using astringent and bitter herbs–that is, herbs with cooling energetics.

But today I realized that while it might make sense to treat excess heat and damp with herbs that cool and dry, this is not the best long term solution for PCS or gallbladder problems. I do believe they could give short-term relief, and they might be warranted anyway for related conditions (for example if you also have a leaky gut, astringents would be helpful).

What we are talking about here with excess heat and damp is a situation of congestion, which is to say, stagnation. In other words, I was focusing on the heat and damp as the causes of symptoms, which on one level, they are–but the heat and damp have their own cause, and that is stagnation. For long-term improvement, we have to move up the causal chain to find the root tissue state or energetic state, then we find the herbs that address that ultimate cause. (For a detailed explanation of tissue states and energetics, see this article by Kiva Rose.) (EDIT–here’s a great article on stagnation from the TCM point of view.)

Recently I was talking to Rebecca Altman about dampness and the waters of the body, a topic she has written a lot about lately, for example in this excellent post. She made a comment that really struck me–that here in Southern California, nobody needs drying herbs. Obviously she was painting with broad strokes and there are exceptions to every rule, but basically she’s right–it’s so dry here that excess dampness is not a very common condition. And when it is, there are usually better ways to treat it than to dry it out. Dampness is not so much a matter of too much water but of water that isn’t moving–stuck water. And stuck water is not only an issue in the desert–if you are not a mermaid, your body waters can become stagnant. (Maybe even if you are a mermaid.)

So that was in the back of my mind. Then today I was experimenting with an Echinacea tincture I just made, taking note of where I felt it working its magic. Echinacea is a diffusive lymphatic or lymphagogue, which is a fancy way of saying it moves your lymph around. And all of a sudden the pieces came together: stuck fluids need movement. And heat needs not cooling so much as release–a path through which it can escape your body.

Alders, flowing water.

Alders, flowing water.

From the Traditional Chinese Medicine point of view (and I have to reiterate I am not a practitioner of TCM let alone an expert, but what I relate here is based on my research) gallbladder/digestion/upper GI issues are not just a matter of stuck fluid but of stuck qi (“liver qi stagnation”) and stuck emotions. Both Western and Eastern herbalism are agreed that stagnation is involved and that its proper medicine is movement. It just took me a while to fully absorb the lesson.

It’s fitting that it was a lymphatic–Echinacea–that helped me make the connection, because as it turns out, the lymphatic system plays a role in fat metabolism, as does the gallbladder (or lack thereof). I didn’t know about this aspect of the lymphatic system when I wrote about fat digestion previously. While most of the nutrients from your food are transported through the lining of the GI tract to your blood system, there to be circulated around and the wastes processed in the liver, fats are different. Short-chain fatty acids can be directly absorbed into the blood (and then filtered through the liver), but most of the fats we eat are medium- and long-chain fatty acids. These are transported as chyle–“a milky bodily fluid consisting of lymph and emulsified fats” (per Wikipedia)–via lymph vessels from the small intestine to where they need to go for immediate use or storage, and only then enter the bloodstream. The long fatty acid chains are too big to pass directly from the intestine into the veins. By circulating through the lymphatic system, the fat molecules bypass the liver until they have had a chance to be used. The gallbladder’s role is to help digest fats before they get to those lymph vessels, so you can imagine how, if there is no gallbladder or it’s not functioning optimally, the problems will be passed to the next step down the line–the lymphatic system.

So: poor lymphatic drainage, which can (probably*) result from gallbladder/digestive problems, in turn affects the immune system and can ultimately lead to chronic inflammation. And that brings us around to how we might treat PCS using herbs. We need to make sure to:

  • Improve nutrition by eating lots of vegetables, as we know we should, and by supporting the digestion with carminative herbs and bitters. I cannot recommend bitters highly enough. (I have replaced the bile salts I used to take with bitters and the bitters are more effective. Also, I have come to actually crave that bitter flavor, so don’t let that deter you. Very quickly your body will start loving bitter.) Think ginger, turmeric, black pepper (makes nutrients more bio-available), fennel, cloves, dandelion, burdock, leafy greens (the more bitter the better). You may also need astringents (e.g., rose, agrimony) if you are prone to diarrhea.
  • Move around as much as you can. The lymphatic system doesn’t have its own pump but depends on muscular contractions to move the fluid around. Walk, jump up and down, hang from things, climb trees, get massages, do dry-brushing–you get the idea. But also, relax as much as you can. Tightness impedes the free flow of liquids.
  • I now think that it’s likely PCS sufferers may also need some kind of lymphatic support, and possibly also alteratives. There are many lymphatic movers and each works slightly differently. Echinacea, calendula, alder, ocotillo, red root, chilopsis, cleavers (bonus: cleavers are delicious!), burdock again. Remember that as the lymph gets moving, two things are likely to happen: (1) any toxins in the lymph are going to get carried to the liver for filtering and removal, so if your liver is seriously compromised (e.g., jaundice) please be very, very gentle and take it slow. See a clinical herbalist, in fact. And (2) any excess internal heat is going to find a way out, so you may see skin eruptions in the form of acne, rashes, or excema. In this case, these are a good sign. Let the heat go.
  • Be aware that signs of stuck fluid may not be nearly as extreme as edema, even though that is the most commonly referenced example. Puffiness around the eyes, a feeling of sluggishness that gets better with exercise, sore glands, a wan, tired, or blah-looking expression, a little excess phlegm or sinus congestion–all these are signs of stagnation.

And as usual I want to emphasize that this is not a matter of “detoxification,” but of nourishment and movement. Most of the detox routines out there are at best pointless and at worst dangerous. In some ways what I have suggested here boils down to common-sense “eat right and get plenty of exercise,” but with a few more sparkles.

*I don’t know of any research on PCS and the lymphatic system. But according to this article, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)–which is one kind of poor digestion, caused by the immune system attacking the intestine–leads to compromised lymph drainage and in turn edema, lymph leakage, excess fat deposition, an impaired immune system, and chronic inflammation. Any effects resulting from PCS would presumably be much less severe–but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

On the feast of St. Brigid


I have so many thoughts racing around, it will be a challenge to organize them, but I’ll give it a try.

Remember how I mentioned blog synchronicity? I’m having lots of it today. I have started and trashed a number of posts where I try to express some of the “bigger” thoughts I’ve been thinking. Some days I think maybe it’s just not something anyone else wants to hear, but usually it’s just that words fail me. Inevitably I give up, exhausted and frustrated. And then along comes Gordon over at Runesoup and, as he so often does, he writes what sound like my own thoughts but better and smarter. More than any other blog, that one seems to almost always be about what is already on my mind. It inspires me to keep trying to say what needs saying, even as I feel that by the time I get around to saying it, it doesn’t seem very original anymore.

Also, today is the the feast of St. Brigid, and tomorrow is Candlemas (the day when the infant Jesus was first presented in the temple, according to the Western Church calendar, and traditionally celebrated as a blessing of lights), and that is so relevant to what’s going on in my mind. I wrote about the feast of St. Modmnoc last year, and by the way his feast is coming up on 13 February, and you might be wondering what’s with all this saint stuff, anyway? I’m not Catholic, not even Christian. I am also not atheist or pagan, in case you were wondering. I hate to say I’m “spiritual,” because that word has been bandied about so much that it seems pretty meaningless at this point, but I don’t have a better one. I honor these saints’ feast days for a couple of reasons: first, as people (even possibly purely mythical people) they did stuff or stood for stuff that I admire; second, the saints of early Christianity in Britain and Ireland, the so-called “Celtic” Church, are where the magic is at. Incidentally this is another thing that Gordon has expressed more beautifully than I (and also chronologically earlier), so I shall link to his post because you should just read it in its entirety to get the full context. These Celtic saints blur the boundaries between pre-Christian deities, land spirits, faeries, philosophers, and of course, humans wise in the salvational message that you personally actually matter to the universe. This was an all too often overlooked high point in Western culture, not just because some Irish monks preserved some texts while most of the rest of Europe was trying to sort its post-Roman arse from its Imperial elbow. But also because the message was radically uplifting and inspiring for every human that heard it, coming at a time when they needed to hear it.

Anti-Christians will now be quick to point out that there was a lot of oppression going on in the early days of Christianity, as pagan temples were burned and churches plopped down on their smoldering ruins, and people were forced to convert at the point of a sword. But–in a pattern which should be totally recognizable to us today–there were really two separate things going on: there were hermits and small monastic communities doing their thing, and there were kings converting to Christianity because it suited their political aims and then forcing everyone else to go along with the pogrom program. It’s the difference between the message of Jesus and the message of Constantine. Both are “Christian,” but only one is worth living by.

One reason I find it hard to express my thoughts (and I know you may be doubting that given how long I’ve gone on already) is because I increasingly see analogies and metaphors visually and then my verbal brain just is not able to translate these images well. What I see right now is almost 8 billion lights in the world, going out one by one. They’re not extinguished, but being hidden from view by a dark fog of disinformation, misinformation, manipulation, and censorship. So they are not visible to one another anymore.

Some of this fog is perpetrated by our “betters,” but all too often we are complicit. One of the trends I see today that is most distressing for me is the total breakdown of civil discourse. As Gordon points out in his post today, we live in a time when knowledge that was once available only to the richest of the rich can now be accessed–for free–by anyone with a smartphone, and yet rather than the internet being a light unto the world, it’s partitioned off into opinion-ghettos where petty ideologues go for personal validation. Not very long ago I witnessed and was to a small extent involved in a discussion on vaccination. Whoa. Never doing that again. At first it seemed like it might be a civil discussion but that pretense was soon dropped. You have one camp accusing the other of being wild-eyed ignorant conspiracy theorists, and in return being labeled shills for government, Big Pharma, and “mainstream” science-and-academia. It is truly terrifying. Babies being thrown out with bathwater left and right.

I could go on and on with examples of this if I really wanted to depress myself, but suffice it to say that I hope we all know that we don’t grow by surrounding ourselves with yes-people who already agree with us. It’s comforting, and sometimes we need to get away from the plain viciousness that is so abundant nowadays–because in the absence of civil discourse, everything has devolved into simple, but extremely nasty, personal attacks–but it’s not a place to stay.

I read an article yesterday about how public opinion in the US is increasingly diverging from that of scientists. The researchers were unable to find any underlying pattern to this divergence–it differed depending on the topic, and it wasn’t (as scientists and science afficionados often believe) reducible to the public’s failure to grasp the concepts involved. I think one factor is that people are beginning to associate scientific materialism with forces in society that oppress and exploit ordinary folk. Because make no mistake: materialism in the philosophical/metaphysical sense–i.e., the proposition that only physical matter exists and all phenomena are reducible to physical processes–is historically and politically inextricably intertwined with materialism in the colloquial sense–i.e., excessive interest in and valuation of possessions.

Scientists haven’t seen this coming because they (and I used to be one of them) have expected people to spontaneously arrive at the conclusion that science and scientists exist for their benefit even as we/they were ignoring (at best) or belittling (at worst) the issues that matter most to people, many of which are not material and therefore not subject to examination via the scientific method. Here we would do well to remember that “science” as a particular (materialist) outlook and method, as opposed a handy shorthand for the sum of all knowledge, is a relatively new definition. Nuance and subtlety being scarcer than hens’ teeth in a world where we have “reality” cable shows about couples having sex in a box (link is in case you thought that was hyperbole on my part), critical thinking about certain scientific studies and the source of research funding has too often resulted in rejection of science in general. It’s as if people are unaware that they can want more transparency in testing of vaccinations or the details of climate change predictions yet still allow that vaccination is basically a good idea and climate change is really happening; that it does not necessarily follow that because you wisely distrust the modern surveillance state and its banker overlords you must believe extraterrestrial anthro-lizards built the pyramids. Again, babies and bathwater.

My concern is not that science or materialism retain the hegemony they have enjoyed for the past 200 years or so, but rather that reason and compassion should trump ideology; that we should aspire to and honor wisdom wherever we find it; and that the important part of “thinking for yourself” is the “thinking,” not the “for yourself.”

So, as I see it, letting our light shine through the fog is our mission and our playbook. I do not mean this in an “everyone’s entitled to their opinion” sense. That is a pernicious lie. If you want to exist in the society of other humans, you are only entitled to an opinion you can support with argument in a dialogue that involves other viewpoints. The claim that every opinion matters equally is part of that dark fog that veils the lights of other minds around us–it masquerades as freedom and tolerance while totally dismissing both, and knowledge at the same time.

This brings me back to why I am honoring the feast of St. Brigid today. (And by the way I don’t think it matters at all whether St. Brigid is actually the goddess Brighid, or was a human to whom aspects of the goddess of the same name were later ascribed.) At the church Brigid founded at Kildare, women maintained an eternal flame. It might be that tending your flame means finding some like-minded believers and establishing your own “monastic” community. But Brigid can be a model in other ways. She was a healer, a protectress of women and the poor, and patroness of metalwork, manuscript illumination, and beer brewing. Sometimes tending your flame means making things of beauty and becoming the “place” where it is safe for others to safely explore and then achieve their highest potential. Sometimes it is dangerous–it always requires speaking truth to, and more importantly, about power. Being a light means being visible; being visible can mean being a target. And it is always very difficult, not least because that flame will go out if you ever listen to the many voices that will tell you that you and your way are crazy, weird, or ugly. Remember, you are a light to them also. They will certainly never arrive at wisdom or compassion if they don’t see others living them. Recognize that these voices are sick with a leprosy of the soul, and remember this story about St. Brigid:

“One Easter Sunday, a leper had come to Brigid to ask for a cow. She asked for a time to rest and would help him later; however, he did not wish to wait and instead stated he would go somewhere else for a cow. Brigid then offered to heal him, but the man stubbornly replied that his condition allowed him to acquire more than he would healthy. After convincing the leper that this was not so, she told one of her maidens to have the man washed in a blessed mug of water. After this was done, the man was completely cured and vowed to serve Brigid.” [more]

With all this in mind, I made a Brigid’s cross today out of the only plant that would lend itself to such an application, chives. Hey, we start where we are and we work with what we’ve got, right? It is far from perfect, but its meaning is beautiful.

Brigid's cross

Herbalism research resource

Herbalism research resource…try saying that 10 times fast.

Here in Inland Southern California, we don’t really have four seasons. There are basically two, wet and dry. Or more realistically, warm and hot. “Spring” is really kind of a quaint notion here because there’s pretty much no differentiation from what went before, except that the days are getting longer. But my body still feels it, and I know because I am suddenly craving bitter greens. After months of heavy, sluggish, but admittedly comforting foods, my system wants to get moving again!

Do you feel it too? (Apparently my dog does, as he noshes on any wild grass he can find.)

Herbalist's Guide to Botanical Research screen capI know, it may be a while yet for those of you snowed under back east. In the meantime, what I really wanted to share with you today is this free ebook, The Herbalist’s Guide to Botanical Research. It’s brought to us by Renee Davis of Goldroot Botanical Medicine, an herbalism website with tons of info. One has barely to dip one’s toe into the waters of online herbalism before one discovers that there is, well, a lot of BS out there.  I mean, how many times have you seen the claim that drinking massive quantities of olive oil and lemon juice will detox your liver and gallbladder? I see it everywhere! And it’s complete bollocks. (Seriously people, please do not do that.) I swear at least 90% of blog content is plagiarized from the most dubious of sources. Sometimes the info is basically correct, but is being passed on as gospel by people who don’t really understand why it’s true or how it works. (Of course, there’s a lot of herbal medicine that no one understands how it works! But you know what I mean: if Susun Weed or Jim McDonald tell me that X officinalis is antimicrobial and stimulates bile production, OK; but if I hear it from an anonymous infographic on Pinterest, hmm…maybe not so trustworthy.)

The Herbalist’s Guide to Botanical Research is designed to help you access scientific and academic research reports by helping you formulate better searches and find search engines that return less BS results. Bound to be useful for every herbalist at some point. And it’s free, so check it out!

Inland Southern California’s Native Plants–Salvia and Artemisia

This is Part 3 of a series. See Part 1 here, Part 2 here.

Bee foraging on rosemary near my apartment

Bee foraging on rosemary near my apartment

I have an acquaintance who is the son and brother of beekeepers. He was telling me that honey made from desert and arid regions is more pungently flavored than honey from more humid regions. I had never thought of it before–obviously I have more honey sampling to do and I should get on that ASAP–but I remember trying a honey from the Pacific Northwest and finding it disappointingly bland, while the honeys I have had from Southern California have been the best I’ve ever tasted.

I don’t know whether this is due to the plant species used by the bees, or the environmental conditions in which those plants are growing. That is, would a sage honey from Oregon be less flavorful than a sage honey from Arizona? Or is sage less likely to be utilized by Northwest Coast bees versus Southwest bees? I know that I have sampled many orange blossom honeys, but only those from Southern California have had a clear citrus and orange blossom taste for me. (Any apiarists out there want to set me straight on this? I welcome your input.)

nland Southern California plants. (I believe this image to not be copyrighted--will gladly give credit or remove if asked. Photo is link to original source.)

Inland Southern California plants. (I believe this image to not be copyrighted–will gladly give credit or remove if asked. Photo is link to original source.)

Anyway, this got me thinking about the medicinal actions and potencies of plants in different regions. I am pretty new to this part of the US, and am not very knowledgeable about the full diversity of flora; but it does seem to me that there are a lot of native plants here in the mint (Lamiaceae) family–the fragrant rosemary and “other herbs” described by Juan Bautista de Anza in the 18th century, which we now classify as plants of the Coastal Sage Scrub and Chaparral communities. Mint family plants contain lots of volatile oils which give them their potent aromas and flavors. The family includes the most popular culinary and medicinal herbs, such as basil, rosemary, sage, oregano, lemon balm, marjoram, lavender, peppermint, and spearmint. Although there is considerable variability in the mint family–there are around 7000 known species–the most popular ones tend to share similar properties. For example, many are relaxing nervines with analgesic and antimicrobial properties, useful for stomach upset and insomnia (among other things). Spiritually and magically, they are frequently considered to have cleansing and protective powers. This is not to say mint family members are interchangeable. Lavender is not the same thing as peppermint! But there is a family resemblance.

As I have said before, it seems silly to me to import white sage for smudging in Europe (for example) when there are perfectly good plants that grow abundantly there and will do the same job. I think the natural native flora of any region (except maybe the Arctic?) contains sufficient to meet the basic medicinal needs of humans and animals that live on that land. But it does seem likely to me that the plant life in each region will have its own special strengths. Along those lines, I would say that one of the most salient features of the Coastal Sage Scrub and Chaparral communities is their potent cleansing power (both material and spiritual). There are also a number of plants that assist in moisture management, which to me makes perfect sense in this arid land (I hope to address that in another post).

Here I want to look at some uses of the genus Salvia in general. Because there are so many varieties of Salvia in a “sage scrub” community, I won’t differentiate each species here. According to ethnobotanical research, these uses include:

    • treating respiratory problems (colds, coughs, sore throat, chest congestion, flu, pneumonia, nasal congestion, asthma)
    • treating other illnesses (measles, fever, gonorrhea, epilepsy, faintness, diarrhea)
    • treating pain (headache, stomachache, indigestion, earache, gas, bad reactions to poison oak)
    • treating infections, sores, and for post-partum healing
    • cleansing the body (shampoo, deodorant, eyewash)
    • preventing bad luck and dispelling ghosts
    • as a blood tonic and general strengthener
    • as food, beverage, and culinary seasoning

As you can see, people made extensive use of genus Salvia‘s antimicrobial, aromatic, and analgesic properties as well as using it for unspecified “strengthening” and tonic purposes. They also regarded it as purifying and apotropaic (warding off evil). It’s very appropriate that one of the most common genera to be found in Inland Southern California was useful for the most common health problems that people would face–colds and flu, infections, and assorted pains.

Artemisia californica

Artemisia californica (c) Br. Alfred Brousseau, Saint Mary’s College.

So far so normal for members of the mint family. But I find it interesting that the uses of sagebrush (Artemisia douglasiana and A. californica) overlap significantly, although it belongs to the family Asteraceae (the daisies). What Artemisia has in common with Salvia is that both are intensely aromatic. (The Spanish settlers of California called it romerillo, “little rosemary” [source]. Artemisia is also the genus mugwort belongs to.)

  • treating respiratory problems (asthma, colds, coughs)
  • treating pain (rheumatism, arthritis, earache, headache, stomachache, cramps, fractures, back pain, difficult childbirth, toothache)
  • treating other illnesses (diarrhea, dysentery)
  • treating wounds, bruises, skin irritation (diaper rash, itching sores), and for post-partum healing
  • treating urinary problems
  • treating menstrual problems and menopausal symptoms
  • cleansing the body and hair
  • repelling insects
  • for smoking with or instead of tobacco
  • clearing the head during mourning, girls’ puberty rites, dispelling ghosts, preventing one from dreaming of the dead, preventing personal injury, ceremonial fires before hunting (sometimes with white sage), unspecified “ceremonial” purposes

So to recap, I’m certainly not saying that Inland Southern California has a monopoly on aromatic plants with cleansing, disinfecting properties. Salvia and Artemisia species exist in many parts of the world and tend to have similar medicinal potencies, and are used in similar ways. But Southern California shares with the Mediterranean a relatively arid climate and a great profusion of aromatic and resinous plants. So, speaking impressionistically and as a botanical novice, it seems to me that the climatic dryness and pungency of the herbs (and subsequently the pungency of honey made from those herbs) are related. Perhaps it has something to do with concentrating and maintaining resources? I don’t know. Just some thoughts.

Inland Southern California’s Native Plants–further resources

This is Part 2 of my series on native plants of Inland Southern California. For Part 1, go here. Originally I planned to talk about medicinal uses in greater depth in Part 2, but instead I’m going to do that in Part 3.

Last time I mentioned a few native species, but you may be interested in learning about others. This is a sort of annotated bibliography of sites where you can pursue your own research.

USDA Plant Database–You can enter the name of any species, either as the Latin binomial or its common name, in the search box and bring up a range map, images, list of subspecies (if any), and some other basic info. The Related Links tab will take you to even more resources.

California Native Plant Link Exchange (CNPLX)–This database allows you to search by a number of different variables: plant scientific name, plant common name, bioregion, county, plant community, family, and more. I have found this extremely useful because my county covers a variety of different bioregions; I can narrow the search by adding more variables. It will give you a list of all plants matching your criteria, each cross-referenced with other counties and plant communities where it grows, and even nurseries and seed suppliers. The only down side is it doesn’t have pictures.

Las Pilitas--Salvia apiana

Las Pilitas–Salvia apiana

Las Pilitas Native Plant Nursery–There are two physical nurseries, one in Santa Margarita and one in Escondido, and they also ship to customers. But for those doing research, it’s most useful for its images and descriptions of plants.

Calflora is another database where you can search by many variables, including plant type, periodicity (annual/perennial), bioregion, and county, with the added benefit of pictures.

The Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants is dedicated to preserving and propagating native California plants. It operates a nursery in Sun Valley, and also offers classes in botany and native plant gardening.

Now, if you’re reading this you are probably curious about medicinal applications for these plants. So below are some resources on regional ethnobotany that will be of interest.

University of Michigan-Dearborn Native American Ethnobotany allows you to search by plant name. It returns a brief description of how the plant was used medicinally and the bibliographical source for that info. Each different use of a plant has a separate listing.

Medicinal Plants of the Southwest is hosted by New Mexico State University. It’s not an extensive list, but you can find a plant listed by family, or search for one. Click on the link for a plant and you get pictures, a fairly extensive description, and a bibliography.

Medicinal Plants of the Southwest--Abies concolor

Medicinal Plants of the Southwest–Abies concolor

Luiseño Ethnobotany gives many traditional uses of plants, not only medicinal but those used for tools, weapons, ceremonial, etc. It has a linked bibliography and “Ethnobotanical Master List” organized by family, and some plant names are links to images. The Luiseño people are among the native inhabitants of San Diego and Riverside Counties.

The Malki Museum in Banning hosts the Temalpakh Ethnobotanical Garden. Their website has a brief list of medicinal plants used by the Cahuilla people. The garden is described as a “living illustration” of the book Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants by Katherine Siva Saubel with Dr. Lowell J. Bean.

The UC Santa Cruz Arboretum has a pdf on Native American Uses of California Plants. Some of the plants are not found in Southern California, but many are found all over.

UC Santa Cruz Native American Uses of California Plants

UC Santa Cruz Native American Uses of California Plants

Michael Moore has written three books each of which covers some plants that grow in Inland Southern California: Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, and Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West.

For modern medicinal uses of plants (California and otherwise), a good resource is the Herbalpedia, which you can purchase here, but much of which you can access without purchasing via HerbMentor. The Herb of the Year for 2014 is Artemisia, the native California species of which happen to be among my very favorite plants.

Inland Southern California’s native plants–a brief introduction

Riversidean sage scrub in Claremont, CA

Riversidean sage scrub in Claremont, CA. Photo links to original site–I want to credit the photographer but don’t know who that is.

I’ve been trying to research what the native flora of inland southern California was like before intensive white settlement, and it’s been very difficult. Then suddenly today it occurred to me that there might be others interested in knowing more about that and also finding it really hard. Maybe I could make that a teensy bit easier. (Probably not, but it’s worth a try, right?)

Part of why it has been so difficult to find information on this subject is that the landscape has been heavily modified by humans for hundreds of years. It is the worst, ugliest kind of suburban sprawl and pretty much all traces of the original flora have been erased. While I have found a lot of info on the plants of the coast and the mountains, the lowlands have been suburban sprawl for so long no one remembers anything else.

The “Inland Empire” of Southern California occupies the western parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. It basically consists of valley lowlands surrounded by the Santa Ana mountains in the west, dividing the inland from the coastal lowlands (LA basin and Orange County), the San Gabriel Mountains in the north, the Santa Rosa-San Jacinto Mountains in the east, and some more mountains in the south that if they have a name I don’t know it. The Santa Ana River is the major watershed.

When the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza reached this area in the late 1700s, he named it Valle de Paraiso (Paradise Valley), and described it as fragrant with rosemary and other herbs with rich grassland. So that is our first clue to the native flora–rosemary and fragrant herbs.

Much of Southern California consists of sage scrub (which, as you might guess, is dominated by sage–“a characteristic suite of low-statured, aromatic, drought-deciduous shrubs and subshrub species”, if you want to get technical about it [source]), but it turns out there are a bunch of different types of sage scrub. For example, around LA and Santa Barbara you’ll find coastal sage scrub. In the inland lowlands, it’s a subtype called “Riversidean sage scrub” and is mixed with some chapparal, grassland, alkali meadow, and even wetlands in patches.  You might not think it given that so much of America’s produce comes from California, but our soil is actually pretty awful in this region. It’s heavy, clayey silt which is full of nutrients, but so alkaline that most of them aren’t bioavailable to plants. Hardpan is very close to the surface. Being “drought-deciduous” means that during the summer, everything turns brown and looks dead–but it comes back to life and greenness when the rains come.

Sadly, even what little is left of this plant community is being rapidly destroyed (source). Not only has the weather been getting progressively hotter and drier, but the land is being devoured by yet more suburban sprawl.

Fragrant herbs

Specific plants that can be found in the original plant communities here include:

Artemisia Californica-GaviotaCACalifornia sagebrush (Artemisia californica). Honestly this is the best-smelling plant I have ever encountered. To me it’s like rosemary and sage with notes of peach and rose and something else that’s just magical. I can’t get enough of it.

Salvia apianaWhite sage (Salvia apiana). The stuff people smudge their haunted houses with. Except that usually people should not be using white sage because it’s not native to their region (it’s always best to use what grows in your area–it grows there for a reason, after all–not to use something just because it’s sacred to some people who live halfway around the world or across the country).

Salvia melliferaBlack sage (Salvia mellifera). Both “apiana” and “mellifera” mean that bees are attracted to these plants.

Eriogonum fasciculatum flowerCalifornia buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum). This plant has gorgeous flowers that produce a delicious honey.

Acmispon glaberDeerweed (Acmispon glaber). It is loved by hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and deer. One of its common names is California broom. I think I may formerly have had one in a planter–it was sold as “broom,” but clearly wasn’t the European variety. It smelled absolutely wonderful. But sadly, it died. It is definitely worth trying again though.

Atriplex lentiformis silvery saltbushSilvery Saltbush (Atriplex lentifolia). Saltbush is able to capture salt and survive very arid alkaline soils where hardly anything else grows. The leaves taste, as you might guess, like salt.

Encelia farinosaBrittlebush (Encelia farinosa). The Spanish used the sap of this plant as incense in the mission churches.

Populus trichocarpaCottonwood (Populus trichocarpa). Sometimes called Black Cottonwood. I haven’t seen any examples of this growing wild and free yet, but I hope to–it is a beautiful tree.

Platanus racemosaWestern Sycamore (Platanus racemosa). As I mentioned in a previous rant post, this is a native and beautiful variety of sycamore or plane tree.

ceanothus oliganthusCeanothus (Ceanothus sp.). Sometimes known as California lilac for its blue–or white, or pink–flowers. The medicinal herb red root is a variety of Ceanothus.

manzanitaManzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.). Manzanita has always been a favorite of mine, I guess because it’s a favorite of my dad’s. When I was little and lived in Northern California, we would go for hikes in the coast range mountains and he would point out different kinds of plants and animals. Manzanita has smooth, graceful red branches that stand out against its bright green leaves. I think it looks very elegant.

California poppyCalifornia poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Last but not least, the state flower. It’s illegal to wildcraft it, so I’m hoping to start growing some of my own soon.

Please stay tuned…

I hope this brief rundown has been of use for people interested in getting to know native California plants. Obviously I have barely touched the tip of the iceberg of the diverse Riversidean sage scrub community. Next time I’ll talk about some medicinal applications further resources, and in Part 3 about medicinal applications.