Monday, January 31, 2011

We play telephone

My son's ear imprint on my arm. My son sleeps well when held and wakes when put down.

Sometimes we play telephone. My son from a sound sleep, he calls me. Momma, I'm hungry. From another room he calls me without words, Momma, I'm hungry.


I wake. My mind is clear and the room is silent. I stretch my legs, adjust my hips, and push my shoulders back. My feet touch cold sheets. I move back into my former position. I stretch again and roll onto my back.

We've become more comfortable with our son and now sleep without nightlights. We have more night than light, more sleep than waking each evening. Tonight, the only light is from the large, sickle moon low over the cohosh ridge. The clock says 5:30am.

A month ago (or was it 6 weeks ago?), seeing 3:30am on the clock meant that I had made it through another night. It meant that I could do it again.

I stretch one more time, enjoying the quiet, the time alone. Peace.

I hear my son shift, his breathing changes subtly. Hello, Momma? I'm hungry.

Friday, January 28, 2011


We've had a lot of snow lately. I've enjoyed every minute of getting outside to do the hard work of shoveling. Straining my muscles feels good. Sweating feels good.

Most days we go outside, at least once. Today twice. There's a thin veil between waking and napping for my son. He needs help lifting the veil. His eyelids droop and close, but he cries fitfully. So, we pace, we bounce, pat, shush, we suit up and go outside. We need a new view. Big flakes are falling and they look like stars - snowflakes.

Today his cries echo through the setting sun, blue on the snow already fallen. His cries echo off the pond and the slope with the cohosh. We walk awhile, longer than usual, still he cries. I slide on the lane, a drunken gait, my feet seek the places where the plow revealed the gravel. Still he cries, face red, eyes closed. I'm getting tired. I skip. He quiets a bit. We walk. A bit quieter. We walk. Quiet. I check him. Our neighbor drives by. We talk. My son stirs. "Have to walk." We walk. Quiet.

Snowflakes on my sleeve.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Tongue-Mind

 Goldenseal growing happily at the margins of a spicebush thicket, on diabase geology

The ray petals of dandelion flowers taste sweet, full of sunny sugars. The core of the flower head is bitter - a rich, earthy bitter that lingers gently at the back of the tongue as the sweetness fades.

In the spring, I pluck dandelion flowers at random and pop them in my mouth. The front of my mouth enjoys the sweetness, then bitterness tempers the sugars. The bitterness travels down into my digestive system, where it prepares the juices of digestion, cleaning out the funk and debris of heavy winter meals and tonifying the liver as well.

Dandelions have long taproots that stretch into the subsoil and bring up many minerals. They are able to colonize rather compacted and sometimes poor soils - like those of lawns and eroded gardens - and then scavenge what they need way below the soil surface. In this way, they draw up nutrients and enrich the topsoil.

Dandelions do much the same thing in our bodies - go deep into our organ systems and tone and nutrify - in the process helping to remedy both external and internal problems.

Dandelions are one of the most nutrient-rich foods on the planet. When I seek out the deep bitter earthiness of the dandelion's involucre in spring, it is because I have a craving for it after the long winter. Even now, my tongue-mind pictures the flavors...


Bitter, mucilaginous, nutritive, emetic, sweet, warming, cooling, spicy, diffusive, numbing -- many of the fundamental actions by which herbal medicines are known are properties which are perceivable by our senses. Herbal medicine is an empirical science - knowledge is gained by observation, awareness, sensuality, gnosis - not logic (per se), or reductionist experiments.


I was thinking about goldenseal - the patch of it I discovered growing, quite surprisingly, in a Princeton nature preserve. Goldenseal is a rarity in this state - Mary Hough's 1982 Wild Plants of New Jersey lists no known occurences statewide, and it is currently listed as "endangered" by the Natural Heritage Program.

At this preserve, it grows amidst Spicebush, Black Cohosh, Wild Comfrey, and Pennywort (the latter two also state listed), and other forest herbs.

Also nearby is Sarsaparilla, a Red Mulberry sapling, a Toad Trillium, and Virginia Bluebells. The latter two are near a house and I always assumed they were planted until I found the three state-listed plants and also tested the soil and found it to be 1. rather high in pH and 2. off-the-charts with minerals (your magnesium, phosphorus, etc...) and decided that, at this preserve, anything is possible.

Not too far from there is a spot I've seen which might be a Native American burial area. One day I must find the time to get permission so not to trespass, and look again. I would not be surprised were I to learn that this area was a sacred medicine place to the first nations.

Anyhow, I was mulling all of this over in the shower yesterday, and was thinking about these rare medicinals, and also the propensity of the overpopulated deer herd in Princeton to wipe out plant populations.

But the deer have left the goldenseal alone. Maybe the bitter alkaloids in it are too strong and deer find it unpalatable. They certainly don't browse Japanese barberry, which contains the same golden-yellow alkaloid berberine that Goldenseal does.

Berberine and other aspects of Goldenseal's character as an herb make it a powerful antibiotic and rather harsh-sounding anti-catarrhal. Maybe, I thought, the deer don't browse Goldenseal unless they need it as a medicine...

It is well-demonstrated that animals will seek plants as medicines. How do they know? Instinct is a marvelous type of mind, one largely lost among humans - a type of memory that is truly long-term, stretching back through not hundreds of years but hundreds of ancestors. However, I suspect that we cannot merely say "instinct" and leave it at that. The instinct-mind and the sense-mind intermeld.

I imagine that if the deer (or, perhaps, other wildlife) consume the Goldenseal as a medicine, it is because they can taste it - and therefore know its actions.


Why, after all, do we have such a developed sense of taste? Why can we distinguish cinnamon from cloves, marjoram from rosemary, peppermint from catnip?

Is it so that we can create wondrous feasts, or appreciate dining in a fine restaurant? Yes, perhaps, but those things are not causal, they are not selection pressures, they are not the catalysts for the development of a keen faculty for a wild being.

We taste so that we know the properties of the foods we eat -- so that we can eat our medicine, and heal with our food. All of our natural foods have medicinal effects. Some of our most "mundane" foods are powerful herbal healers - oats, for example, are superlative nervines.


I pull some dandelion tincture from the medicine chest. Rachel tinctured roots in vodka over the summer. Now, in the depths of winter, I squeeze a few drops into my mouth...

My tongue-mind pictures spring, the deep soil, the yellow blooms so sweet with their bitter aftertaste... and I am restored.

Music, records

Jared on ukulele. Note the records on the bottom shelf before we moved them to the cold side
of the house and replaced the the shelf with a crib.

What do "Identity" by X-Ray Specs, "Rollin' and Tumblin'" by Muddy Waters and "Constipation Blues" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins have in common? Nothing, not even the algorithm that they rode in on.

We have repeatedly flipped through our record collection which is shelved on the cold side of the house. The stereo is also there. We sometimes drag the speakers into the crossroads where the doors to the kitchen, cellar, bedroom, and cold side of the house meet. One speaker cable is too short to make the full trip and at least one connection comes loose in the process.

Our CD player is that of our computer or our car stereo. The CDs are also stored on the cold side of the house in drawers which are difficult to open because of the CDs' weight. We have scoured the CD collection countless times. Before trips we often choose a few CDs for the road. Fifteen minutes down the road, I often realize I have the opposite type of music that I would like to hear.

Often, I just put our computer's music player on now. Just finished "Paratlan" by Lajko Felix (Hungarian folk-kind of-violinist) and now onto "Jumper on the Line" by R.L. Burnside (rockin' and rollin' cyclical electric blues. The live album, not the absolutely irritating album where R.L. Burnside is backed by the John Spencer Blue Explosion...why haven't I deleted that album from the computer yet?). What is next after the audience finishes applauding Burnside? "Hesitation Blues" by Hot Tuna...sounds a bit annoying, so I'll skip it and go onto Doc Watson's "The Tennessee Stud."

I could go on about attention spans, the ruination of the record album, etc. etc. I'll leave that to the cultural critics like Greil Marcus, who put me to as sleep soundly as the baby on my belly.

It's much like the radio station I wished existed. Not my personal radio station with all my music, but one I actually enjoyed. In fact, I'd prefer a surprise song and an entertaining and illuminating deejay. Indeed, much our music collection dates back to when we were NY Public Library card holders.

I can't conjure a single music radio station that I like. Seeking new music, we have sought out internet radio, and returned like travelers made into stone and blinded by the Medusa that is the computer screen. We tune into American Routes on NPR - I can't think of much else.

"How Long?" Skip James asks. Dunno, at least until the next song comes on... "Track 05" by Uzgin Uver.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Stink Bugs

Kennebunk Plains, Maine

A terrible odor came out of the printer this afternoon. A streak of red (blood?!) and yellow goop ran done the center of the first page. I noticed an insect carcass - too big to be any of the blood suckers (bed bugs) that make sensational news.

Stink bug, I realized.


Now that our son's colic or growth spurt or evening decline has passed (mostly) each evening we sit close to the woodstove while watching HerbTV videos or talking. We spoon dinner from mugs - the easiest way to eat our simple but rich one pot stews while passing our son back and forth. He enjoys being held in challenging positions - slung over the shoulder balancing on his belly or belly down on outstretched arms. Occasionally, he enjoys "big boy time", sitting on one of our knees and facing outward. The key is that he must see everything from his position. If one lets his increasingly heavy body slip to say, a more comfortable position, he will alert you immediately.

Now that he sleeps through most of the night - 11:30 pm to 6:30 am - he nurses for a good portion of the evening. So, I often am sitting on one end of the couch cross legged, surrounded by pillows, receiving blanket tucked under my chin to protect everything below from dinner splatter. I am fairly immobile, which means Jared has to catch and cast all stink bugs into the woodstove.

BBBbbbrrrrssszzrt. bbbbbBBBBRRRRRrrrSSSZZZZZZrrrrt. Stnk bug around the lamp. Tink, tink, tink, tinktinktinktinktitnktitnk. Into the light bulb.

We sigh. I avoid eye contact with Jared, knowing that he knows he has to capture the beast. We watch the stink bug hustle across the ceiling to the other light, and take flight: bbbbbbbrrrrszt. Tink.

With Forest Stewardship rated toilet paper costing nearly as much as sirloin steak, Jared tears a less effective but more affordable piece of the Treasure Hunt (a free newsprint publication that contains classified ads featuring the Leigh Valley's junk for sale). Like a praying mantis with mittens on, he strikes at the stink bug and executes at careful grab - powerful enough to hold the insect, but gentle enough so the stink is not roused.

He opens the woodstove door which shrieks horribly, tosses the insect and paper in, and slams the door shut.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Wackus Dackus

The local wackus dackus is much less officious. Above we have a homemade dam made from cement and cinder in all forms and reinforced with rusty cans, pails, bedsprings, and chains.

After awhile, groups begin to speak a shared language. Shared experiences are typically the root of new language.

Outstanding examples are often given to illustrate this concept. Inuit languages have dozens (more? less?) words for snow. Makes sense - in a culture where snow is a significant part of life, and also, in many cases, alters what one will wear and do that day, more so than a culture with millions of miles of road, snowblowers, municipal taxes to cover plowing, and SUVs.

Most of my collaborative contributions to language are nonsense words. Bah dah beep! and wackus dackus are two examples. They express my experiences and my surroundings which I share only with my spouse. They make sense to no one else. I'll try to define these phrases:

Bah dah beep! Noun. Nonsense. Phrase. In conversation, communicates a misunderstanding or the speaker's lack of clear meaning. What are you talking about? [2006-2007; Phonetic interpretation of a grey catbird's exuberant chatter.]

Wackus dackus Adj. 1. A mess or jumble. The contents of the filing cabinet are wackus dackus. 2. Junk. This homemade dam is full of wackus dackus. [c. 2003]

Wackus dackus, I think, deserves at least a few sentences. In a former life, the author and her now spouse traveled to an unnamed Midwestern city to conduct research on an unlikely topic on behalf of a public institution. That institution arranged several nights of accommodations at a private club for the region's elite businessmen.

Yes, businessmen - women had been allowed admission only in the recent past, and as guests previously had to enter via a door other than the front door. This reminds me of Mississippi John Hurt's Build Me a Pallet on Your Floor lyrics:

Please don't let my good girl catch you here.
She might shoot you.
Might cut and stab you too.
No telling what she might do.

For obvious reasons, the comparison is a bit awkward.

Back to wackus dackus: The unnamed private club's acronym morphed into "wackus dackus." This illuminates one way language is created: the need for secrecy and communication when the enemy is close. And, another force in the creation of language: the need to create distance.

It's gauche to criticize your host openly, especially when they could probably ruin your descendants' chances of attending college or running for public office. It's inviting temporary homelessness to walk through the lobby of the private club with a cassette deck blaring "Danzig's Twist of Cain" or worse yet with no necktie (Jared) and scuffed shoes (me).

I also never utter the private club's name again to aid in forgetting the humiliation of being locked out of our room because the office thought we had overstayed our invitation. Judging by the desk clerk's attitude, he certainly could tell I was actually an employee of an chain bookstore who lived in a one bedroom in one of New York City's outer boroughs, and shopped at Western Beef (Barf) grocery stores regularly. No, I was not a member of the private club, but a faker wearing a thrift store blazer and was saving up for a pair of new shoes. As a lower court official for the private club, he solemnly distributed cigars to the members and justice to any offenders. So, wackus dackus is the way we remember this brief time.