Sunday, January 30, 2011

Natural $$$

Just recently, we've been reading about the sell-out of the big natural and organic corporations to Monsanto and genetically modified crops.
I wish it were just a little bit more surprising. I wish that just once big money and truly natural and organic products could honestly swim in the same pool, but it doesn't seem likely. Oh, sure... there are wonderful companies where the people running them do well, but there is a division, and once we start talking "corporation" and "stock options" the numbers fall off quickly. In all seriousness, we should all know better by now.
We've watched this game for a good long while. Not as long as some, but the last 20 years have told a weary tale of hope and deceit. Hopeful, exuberant people learning to use plants for healthier lives, and deceitful business people seeing dollar signs in those glowing faces.
For me, it started in *I think* 1992, when my sister and I trekked to what I believe was the first Natural Products Expo East and found an entire wholesale show that catered to exactly what we were looking to add to our shops. We were beside ourselves with excitement! Row upon row of booths run by family businesses making and selling their wares, and we were able to talk to the people who blended the teas, made the tinctures, or wrote the book. We found incredible, innovative natural and organic products.
Imagine our surprise when the very next year the whole thing changed, and instead of long-haired hippies in jeans and tie-dye, we found chrome and glass, suits, and booth bunnies selling things like glandulars, body-building formulas, and weight-loss capsules. We were devastated. The big boys had followed the scent of money to be made.
I distinctly remember having a drawn-out argument with some "suit" who stopped us in the aisle offering an "herbal cure for herpes". Really. To begin with, you rarely find the people who actually make things standing in the middle of the aisles hawking and blocking the way - just sayin'... But we took a look at the ingredients and noticed there were no herbs in the list (nevermind the whole CURE thing). It contained vitamins and some amino acids. So we asked him to please point out which of the ingredients he considered to be herbal. He couldn't believe we were being so petty because, you know, what's the diff? You see, he assumed that as shop owners we would be just as interested in pulling the wool over someone's eyes to get their cash as he was. He really couldn't understand how he was insulting our whole industry, and besides, he was just hired for the show to work the booth. He didn't actually know about the product or care if it worked.
About that time, the pharmacist from a large drugstore came in to our shop and really gave us a ribbing for all the HILARIOUS products we carried. Can I tell you how highly amused we were to find that within another month or two, we found that they were carrying many of the same products? Or that from then on, we always saw his boss at the Expo? And of course the CVS that opened a block away from our main shop did the same thing.
And then we took a series of classes covering the various forms of alternative medicine. During one of the classes, we were told about a new chain of grocery stores, where you could walk in and buy anything, sure that it was healthy and natural. Every eye in the room got misty at the mere thought of such a foodie Nirvana. However we were told, they wouldn't be opening in our area because surveys showed we were "not a highly-educated area". Even at that moment, I knew it couldn't be about education. You can scarcely swing a cat without hitting an institution of higher learning around here. It was about money. I'm glad Whole Foods never came to our area because that has meant that we have honest, family-run establishments run by knowledgeable people who have managed to stay in business here! Whole Mart destroys small business the same way WalMart does, except they manage to cost a WHOLE lot more. We have CSA's, herb shops, herb farms, and our grocery stores carry local produce. We have an amazing array of farm markets. We were way better off without the expensive chain, and learned how to shop for ourselves.
In the meantime, I like to think that a lot of people have been learning what they need to know for themselves. Every day I get to converse with readers of The Essential Herbal who are in the process of learning to make their own herbal products - or purchase them from our advertisers who are not big money corporations. I'm proud of spending the last 10 years helping to share that information and getting people together to teach and learn.
That's where it's at, folks. It really is up to the individual.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

a wandering mind

The other day my daughter called and told me that she needed to write a paper about something "either thrilling or traumatic from my childhood or adolescence." As her mother, my mind went tearing around to several interesting instances that would have fit. Hers went in a completely different direction, finally settling on a particularly horrific hair choice I made for her as a child that apparently has scarred her for life.
This conversation lit up certain parts of my brain, and it's been firing for days now, hitting on various *odd* things that have happened along the way.
One of those that keeps making me laugh to myself every so often is about 20 years old. It was from our days at the renaissance faire. One of the gypsies had a bed of nails and a pet rat. At some point he decided that it would be a good promotional idea to make a tiny bed of nails and train the rat to use it while he wandered the streets hawking his show. Not necessarily thrilling or traumatic - but clearly in the odd column. It reminds me of how much more time people had before the internet.
Another would have to be the day I realized that hot air balloons have some risks. Bob, my bil was the pilot, and he and I were sailing along when Maryanne radioed up that the ground winds were picking up. We saw a good landing field coming up fast, so Bob let the balloon sink into a tree that would slow us down enough to land there. This is not really unusual, but we hit too low in the very tall tree and instead of just slowing us down, the basket got caught and we found ourselves on our bellies hanging on for dear life to avoid being dumped out on our heads. It was one of those moments where the illusion between every day life and "Oh $*!%" clash, of which, looking back, there have been entirely too many. I'm fairly certain it was my last flight.
My daughter had a lot of interesting adventures growing up. Lots of thrills, and plenty of trauma, and much of both were my fault - especially when she was very small. I can't decide how to feel about her settling on a bad hair style as a worthy topic, but since one of my favorite college papers was an ode to a volunteer tomato plant and another a love letter to my 17 year old car, I suppose it's all in how we look at things. I can't wait to read what she writes!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

not as quiet as it sounds

I keep chastising myself, feeling like nothing is getting accomplished around here.
January is a weird month. The days are so short, and as the sun goes down my internal clock is set to wind down with it. This year brought a cold, frosted winter, and it finds me indoors much more than usual, but a quick look back reminds me that this month has been just as full of things to do as any other... it's just that I'm not quite as willing as April or May will find me.
There's the year end paperwork, and then a couple of birthdays. Molly was home until mid-month, and managed to squeeze in a nasty little intestinal virus. That was fun. We've even had a couple of days where we took off and just didn't work at all. But we did lots of work too.
At the moment, we're finishing up the Mar/Apr issue of The Essential Herbal, and it will probably go to the printer in the morning. The early spring issue always surprises me because of the volume and number of great articles that come in. Here I am slogging along, but thankfully others are not. In fact, although we haven't done it for almost 2 years, we felt that we needed to add pages to this issue, and it's still packed with page margins as small as we can safely make them. Every time we send out a new issue, it is exciting to think about readers receiving them, but this time... well, I can't wait!We've also been busy with Maryanne's soap biz. In fact, we finally broke out the oil melter (from that's been stored in my basement for 3 years. We are VERY slow to change the way we do things. We got the whole set-up, but are implementing the parts one at a time. For a long time, the cutter made enough difference in the process that we were able to keep up, but it became clear that it was time to start using the melter. Weighing up solid oils in the winter (especially after they've been in "cold storage") is really difficult. We used to be able to pre-weigh them in warmer weather, but no more. Sometimes we get stuck in a rut of thinking small, and need to be forced to step up. This soap making equipment allows us to do it in our own way, and each step seriously changes our lives for the better.
As with any big change in a routine, there are small bugs to work out, so we've been doing that. We think we've got it now :-).
It's become boring for me to take and post pictures of COLD, so it's seemed quiet around here - but I guess it isn't after all.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Under the Snow

We haven't had much snow this year. That's good and bad. Good, because the roads are clear and travel is easy. Bad, because the perennials don't have the insulation to protect them from the cold. Even so, I saw a few frosted violets the other day in a sheltered area that never gets a snow build-up. This is how it looked out the back door just a few days ago....It has been cold though. We lost three guinea hens in the past few days. Not really sure what happened to them. Two cuddled up against the wall of the barn and expired together (odd that they didn't seek shelter and died at the same time...), the third seems to have just disappeared - which probably means it is down in the woods.
More snow is in the forecast, so I took a moment to go outside and see what was going on in the garden. It's interesting to see what happens out there.
Today the snow has melted back from some of the plants.
The horehound is very busy growing. Not as vigorous as it would be in the summer, it still continues to grow, unperturbed by the lack of sun and warmth. That is one stubborn little plant!
The rosemary is still kicking. It remains to be seen whether it will make it through the winter. There are three of them out there, and usually at least one survives. It all depends on which way the wind blows, the amount of snow, and how cold it gets for how long.
Sage leaves are also continuing to grow through the winter. We think these plants are dormant, but as it turns out they are not completely asleep.
The chickweed has made a nice carpet close to the ground under the conifers. There is always plenty of that around here as it seems to really love the climate under the boughs.
It felt good to go out and poke around in the ground. We've been staying pretty busy with indoor pursuits in the past few weeks, and are just about to dive into the next issue of The Essential Herbal (Mar/Apr '11). With more white stuff on the way in the next few days, it was now or never. I think I'm starting to wake up from my mini-hibernation.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

herb bowls, another try

I've been wanting to give the herb bowl project another try. White sage has been in the back of my mind for various reasons, only one of which is the resinous quality in the leaves. It grew beautifully in the garden this year. The scent is glorious and grounding, and depending on the purpose of the bowls, might be just about perfect. The original plan was to use simply sage, water, and tragacanth.
Today I decided to add a little peace to the bowls by using some lavender distillate I made that's been hiding in the fridge for a while. That took the place of the water.
A rough recipe (at that point) was about 2/3 cup powdered white sage, 1/4 tsp tragacanth, and 1/4 cup lavender distillate.
The clay didn't want to hold together well at all. It clumped okay, but wouldn't hold a shape.Fine. Maybe a rounded Tbsp of yellow sandalwood to make it more uniform, and another slosh of the distillate. Still not quite there, I added an additional 1/4 tsp of tragacanth. I was avoiding the extra tragacanth, because it absorbs so much liquid that in the end result there are more cracks from the shrinkage. This is still half of the amount I used with the first attempt at herb bowls a couple of months ago.
It still didn't get exactly to the consistency I wanted, and wasn't roll-able. These are the end result. The tiny bowl has a stick through it so that a ribbon handle can be added later.
I'm going to keep at it. Eventually there will be a magazine article here when I've got it perfected, but in the meantime this the play.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Yay - Back to Business as Usual!

My sister and I were talking on the way to the hardware store to pick up some shelving today, about how we are seeing people lamenting the end of the holidays on the various social networking sites. It almost makes me feel guilty. Not quite, but almost. We've been there. In times past, I've worked the shift work, the holidays, and the 13 twelves followed by a single day off for months on end. It's not that I don't appreciate how precious those days off can be. It's just that these days I love my work more. Jerusalem artichoke seedheads still on the stalk.
We are with family every day, so holidays are no different for us in that department. We did take a few days off during the last week or so, but not completely, and not necessarily by choice. There have been 4 days without mail service in the last 9, so that kind of made it necessary.
Over the holidays, we eat too much (although *I* was pretty good this year...), watch too much blather on tv, and just generally feel somewhat restrained waiting for the year to end and get the heck over with already. The kids (hah - 19 and 24) are getting restless, and that's never a good omen because they usually come up with things for *us* to do. Vitex berries that the birds are saving for a colder day.
The bottom line is that we love what we do. We wake up every morning chomping at the bit to see what work awaits, what orders need to be prepared, what might be showing outside, and what new project we can get into. So while it seems that everyone else is dragging their feet wishing that this week would never end, it can't be over soon enough for us.
We thank our lucky stars almost daily that we have chiseled out this life for ourselves. It's really hard to call it work.

Saturday, January 01, 2011


The numbering of our days is usually just an interesting factoid to me.
The first day of this millennium struck me, but I was so much younger then...
Today I woke up thinking that this was truly a fresh new slate. All ones - what could be clearer? Being a writer, there's nothing like page one in the next magazine or book staring at me to remind me of all the possibilities and opportunities that are waiting to unwind. Sometimes, those possibilities and opportunities are golden. Sometimes they are dark journeys, and we have no choice but to step in and begin. Sometimes we don't realize we could choose another path until it is too late. Life is funny that way.
2010 was a most unusual year, and I'm sure someday I will see the humor of it. So often as the weeks ticked by, I found myself murmuring, "it was the best of times... it was the worst of times..." from:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

There were amazing, wonderful things that fell into my lap with no effort on my part, and there were devastating losses that came out of nowhere and caught me in a riptide that slammed me repeatedly against rocky shores.
From 2010, I learned that the illusion we carry about having control over our lives is but a shimmery veil that is blown aside by the slightest breeze. Thanks 2010, I needed that. I guess...
So happily, I step out of that year, close the door, and walk into this brand new 1-1-11, the FIRST day of the rest of my life. I no longer kid myself about having control over anything except my reactions. That isn't cynicism. It's freedom.
We sat last night and brainstormed about new things to try this year, new ways to do things, and dared ourselves to take some risks. No resolutions - just newness, believing in what we've built so far, and helping to make those things grow.
I am excited to get this ball rolling!