For last month’s surprise box, I sent out this blood building syrup, and all was going well until it started arriving in warmer places, and, due to the low sugar content, started exploding. Needless to say, I have learned my lesson about sending out low-sugar syrups, and thankfully nobody was injured in the process. Meanwhile, I’ve been taking it every day and loving it (especially given the recent frenzy, driving back and forth to the desert on gathering sprees), and wanted to share the recipe here for everyone else, whether yours exploded or not.
(in which I dole out an anatomy lesson, provide pictures of my recent adventures, and reward you with a recipe for the best cookie in the entire world)
I’ve been thinking about time lately. Of course there’s city time, or world-clock time, or employer time. I think they’re one and the same. The kind of time that means you have to be at X by X time. The kind of time that has you clutching your coffee in one hand, briefcase in the other, and hurtling towards a target somewhere in the distance along a straight and narrow line.
But there are other times. There’s sea time, for example. Sea time operates according to its own clock. In fact there’s a saying to ‘never sail on a schedule’, because if you sail on a schedule then you end up in less than ideal conditions, and less than ideal conditions out on the ocean are a matter of life and death.
There’s self-employment time. Self-employment time can mean a number of things to a number of people. To some it means up at dawn and work till midnight. For others it means wake when you like and work till midnight (there’s a theme here). It used to, for me, be something much closer to city time. But lately, that’s been changing.
There’s earth time, that slow, moist, circular time, that moves in cycles and doesn’t give a whit about what you, me or Greenwich think. Earth time and body time in my mind are one and the same. That is, our bodies aren’t built for city time but for the slow, for the cyclic, for the reverent. Our bodies are built to eat when hungry, sleep when tired, to move around a lot, and contrary to popular belief, to heal themselves.
For the most part, we’re all raised on city time. Children are taught to read their watches at an early age and we learn to step to a rhythm that someone else has decided. That’s fine. As far as employment, meetings, existing in the ‘real world’ (I hate that term), its necessary. But when home alone, when walking along a scarcely trodden path in the mountains, when cooking, when reading, when hanging out with friends and with family, its nice to be able to switch back to earth time, or body time, which, as I’ve mentioned, are one and the same.
I discovered my body time purely by accident. It was the result of doing a psoas workshop from my new biomechanics guru*. The psoas muscle. You know, that giant band of muscle that runs from the back of your body, at the bottom of your ribs, through to the front of your body, at the top of your thighs… I know, I know, you came here for plant matter and food and are getting sucker punched with an anatomy lesson. But there is a point; hear me out.
Our bodies register stress before our minds do. Because as much as we think our minds are the cleverest things in the world, they aren’t cleverer than gut feelings. They aren’t cleverer than hair standing on end for no reason, for refusal to walk a certain way home even though you always go that way, or for just not liking somebody even though they smile and seem nice on the surface. Bodies know things that minds can’t comprehend. And bodies know stress before minds do. For me, and I think for most of us, that stress manifests in one place first: in the psoas. And for most of us, it manifests there so early in life that we don’t notice its there. I think it has something to do with being pointed on that linear time path with our chins jutting fiercely into the future, to where we’re supposed to be instead of where we are. The second our focus gets out ahead of us like that, our ribs jut out ahead of us too, and then we’re done for**.
I’ve been noticing it for the past couple of weeks. Wind up the body like you wind up an alarm clock and it hurtles forward in space and time towards its goal. Relax the body, and time flows in a different way. Easily. Flowily. The flow doesn’t just happen all around me but inside too. The second that relaxation happens, blood, lymph, nervous system and energy all band together and start moving around in the middle of my trunk. Its circular and its movement and it feels as good as lying down on a comfy bed after twelve hours on my feet. Tense up and it goes away. Relax and it returns. Its a feedback mechanism that lets me know the second I’m starting to get stressed out.
In order to keep my psoas relaxed and that flowy sensation moving, I have to do things slower. Dramatically slower. Annoyingly slower. But to be annoyed is to tense up, and so, taking walking as an example, to walk at a pace that keeps me relaxed is to settle my mind down somewhere into the pit of my belly and go at the speed my body enjoys. I have come to refer to this speed as ‘Rebecca pace’. I’m sure you will have your own pace too if you don’t already (do you? If so, how could you not tell me about this? If not, please relax your own psoas and get back to me.). Rebecca pace and earth time work together well, as evidenced by the relaxed smile and lack of wrinkles on my forehead. Yes, its true. Earth time is a beauty treatment.
In honor of doing things slowly, I’ve been making these cookies lately. Yes, they’re labour-intensive. Yes, they’re probably the most unhealthy thing I’ve ever made (if you count the sheer amount of sugar in them). Yes, they use acorn flour which is hard to find unless you have oak trees around you or a Korean market nearby. But I promise you, if you can find acorn flour and plum jam and forget about how much sugar you’re about to ear, you’ll be the happiest squid in the world when you sink your teeth into one.
Plum and acorn custard sandwich cookies
Note: these cookies are a variation on my favourite two British cookies: Jammy Dodgers and Custard Creams. If you’re familiar with either then you’ll see the resemblance. Also, the acorn custard cream filling is even better than the original and you might want to eat it all on a spoon.
1 portion buckwheat shortbread dough
1 portion acorn custard (see below)
About 1/2 cup plum jam (storebought works fine too. You might be tempted to use another flavour but we did do a taste test of every jam in the cupboard and it was decided that my original brilliant vision was best in the end.)
Preheat the oven to 350, and roll out the shortbread dough. Cut it into an even number of cookie shapes, and then, using a small round thing (I used an apple corer; have never been so happy to find an apple corer in my drawer, and also, for the record, I have no idea where it came from) cut holes in the centre of half the cookies. Sprinkle those holey (holy?) cookies with granulated sugar and bake the whole lot at 350 for 18-20 minutes. They should be golden brown and not remotely burned.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool before putting this magical little parcel together.
Take a solid cookie, and upon it place about a teaspoon of the acorn custard. Spread this out, then on top of that, a dollop (maybe 1/2 teaspoon) of plum jam. Put a holy cookie on top and press it down to make a sandwich. Repeat for all of them. Pour self a cup of tea or big glass of milk and try to only eat one. Really…
FOR THE ACORN CUSTARD:
1 stick (1/2 cup) salted butter at room temperature
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 cup acorn flour
8 tbsps corn starch
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Beat the butter in a bowl until slightly fluffy, then add the vanilla and then the dry ingredients one at a time. Keep mixing until its all incorporated. It should be thick but not powdery, tacky but not liquid. Enough that you can take off a lump between your fingers and press it onto a cookie base and not fight to have it stay where you put it (ie. no buttery mess left on your hands). But soft enough that its not like biting into chalk. I know, my descriptions are exact beyond belief. Apologies there…
*there’s a reason her blog is called ‘Katy Says’ and its because I say ‘Katy says…’ about five times a day. Also, did I mention that I become obsessed with things and then get very annoying about them?
**this is called rib thrust. Look for it in yourself– feel under your ribcage and if they’re not flush with your rippled abdomen then there’s a rib thrust. And now look for it in everyone around you and you, too, can be as annoying as I am and say ‘RIB THRUST’ really loudly every time you see it.
From the perch of my bed, I like to watch a family of ravens that hang out atop a cypress tree that’s about a block away. Last week, when a storm came through the city, Jam and I sat and watched as one brave raven continued to sit on his perch, facing into the wind, despite the constant battering. He was a brave bird. When it comes to flu season, I feel a lot like that bird. There’s a constant battering going on: of commercials for flu products (honestly, taking a bunch of pills to suppress your symptoms and get back to work really isn’t the answer!), of commercials for flu shots, of germs flying around, of everyone around me getting sick, and I’m just doing what I can to cling on to my health and sanity.
I read once, in a book by Stephen Harrod Buhner, about herbal ‘antibiotics’ and why they’re so much more effective than chemical ones. Viruses mutate. Its a fact of life. You know what else mutates? Plants. Fact. So just as a virus can psychically pass on all its viral information to other viruses (and by the way, can we please learn to communicate like that more?), plants do the same. So some guy in a lab coat extracts one chemical from one plant that reportedly kills X virus but its only a matter of time before the virus figures out the chemical and mutates so that it is no longer affected by it. Kinda like people, who, under duress for long enough will mutate to accept those circumstances as normal. So there’s this chase-and-catch up thing where people try to manufacture things that kill viruses and then the viruses mutate and then another chemical needs to be made, and its a frantic, circular dance. But then you have plants, some of which have over a hundred chemicals in them. A HUNDRED*! In one little plant! One hundred chemicals are a good adversary for a nasty virus. And even if the virus mutates, plants are clever. There’s a whole conversation going on out there in nature that we’re not privy to, and I trust it to carry on in the same way its been carrying on for millennia.
My point being that there are things out there that are perfectly suited to helping our bodies not get sick, or dramatically reduce the length of a sickness. Elderberry is one of them, and its probably in my top-ten-most-used list. This is my recipe for elderberry elixir– the same one I sell in my shop, and have had hundreds of people report back on the efficacy of. It can be customised for you and your area, for example, if you live in the North East where its often cold and damp, maybe add more ginger and orange peel (both warming). If you live in the southwest like me and are often prone to dried out irritated respiratory passages, add some marshmallow (warning, this will go gooey). If you get more lung stuff add mullein and if you don’t have mullein add thyme. Really, the possibilities are almost endless, but here’s a list of possible modifiers or ingredients for you to play around with:
Elderberry- The life of the party, seriously.
Elderflower- Elderberry’s partner. Some say the flowers are even more effective than the berries. If you’re ordering berries then place an order for the flowers too and use both.
Cinnamon- Warming, nourishing, boosts digestion, great flavour.
Ginger- warming, dries mucus, tastes good.
Cardamom- as with the other spices, its warming, good for the phlegmmy stuff and tastes good.
Echinacea- stimulates immune function
Aralia racemosa (or Californica)- supports lung function in worn out chronic overtired conditions. Beautiful little plant.
Mullein- personal favourite for dried out chronic coughs. I always put this in my elder elixir because there’s always dried out lung stuff here.
Boneset- another one that stimulates immune function. Better fresh, so use it if it grows in your area. Or if you’re like me, go visit friends in Kentucky in the early summer so you can gather it and bring it home on the plane (much to the astonishment of TSA).
Orange peel- Warming and energy moving.
Lemon peel- Cooling and energy-moving.
Rosehips- Great source of vitamin C
Thyme- A favourite lung grunge herb.
Bee balm or oregano- Antimicrobial, bloody delicious, slightly zingy and spicy.
On ingredients: Elderberries are really abundant in nature, and I really recommend you get out there and find some local bushes. But its the middle of winter and you’re unlikely to find any right now unless you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, so you can order them, and everything else on the list, from Mountain Rose Herbs.
On flu season: There’s some nasty flu bugs going around right now. I know this because I’ve caught at least two of them, and because we herbalists are like a mycelial network, passing information back and forth. Its not just here, in fact I’d say those of us in Southern California have been getting off easy. Make or buy some elderberry elixir. Make some fire cider. Take your Vitamin D daily (for reals).
Some of my favourite flu-season resources:
Herbs for the Immune System from Juliet
Creating a herbal medicine chest for colds and flu from Rosalee De La Foret
Green Man’s Guide to Flu Season by Sean
The Elder Mother’s Pantry from Kiva
*I don’t know if this is an accurate number and I haven’t looked it up. The part of my brain that remembered this number is also the part that says ‘I’ll be five minutes’ when it is in fact an hour…
Elderberry Immune Elixir
Quantities are for a quart jar, and using dried ingredients. If you use fresh, reduce the volume by half please.
1 cup dried elderberries.
1/2 cup dried elderflowers.
1/4 cup dried mullein leaf
1/4 cup dried boneset
1 inch fresh ginger, chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp cardamom
peel of 1/2 lemon
Alcohol of your choice- I love brandy, but you can use vodka, whisky, tequila, everclear or gin too.
Honey. Raw and local if possible, but whatever you have works.
Ok, this is the easy part. Once you have all your ingredients, put them all in the jar, then fill a third of the way with honey. This will take a while as the honey is thick. Don’t worry, just pour it, and come back every 20 minutes to re-pour until its a third of the way up. You can also heat the honey before pouring to make it easier, I just don’t like to do this as it destroys some of the lovely things that are in the honey. After the honey’s in the jar, top it up with your alcohol. Voila. Done. Now, screw the lid on the top, and this is the most important part: LABEL IT: “Elderberry elixir, <date>, and what its for if you’re forgetful.” Give it a good shake, and leave it somewhere prominent that you can shake it once a day or so. After six weeks, its ready. Strain it out and pour it into a pretty bottle. Its shelf-stable for a couple of years.
Dosage: upon first sign of getting sick, start taking about a quarter teaspoon every couple of hours. Take it until all signs of sickness are gone. If you do actually get sick (which is rare but with these bugs going around right now, its happening), keep taking it. As often as you can muster.
The other morning I wandered out onto the stoop and the entire city was enshrouded in a blanket of fog. I ran inside to grab the essentials: slippers, hat, coffee and blanket, and then I sat on the edge of my stoop, on the edge of the world, watching the mysterious shapes appear and re-appear, until the sun had come up a bit more, and the fog had burned off, and everything was returned to normal.
Such mornings remind me of my childhood, in a place that had major seasons. Southern California has seasons too: if you were to take a walk up into the hills, sycamore leaves would be all over the paths, the skeletons of milk thistles and goldenrod would stand out against the brown grass tinged with a slight frost, and the earth is that deep, dark, sodden brown that only happens after a few good rains. There are seasons in the hills. Its just that, being from the UK, I want more. And at this time of year, when friends are sending me pictures of first, second and third snows. When leaves are frosting over and wood fires are being burned, I start to feel a little ungrateful towards the constant sunlight. There are, however, solutions to self-imposed misery over something so silly. Namely, booking a trip north for me and Jam. And while it won’t be to the snow this time, it will at least be to somewhere cold, incredibly beautiful, and very stormy (Big Sur). And I’m excited. I’m also excited about being out in the desert for Christmas. There will be trips up to the snow, and trips to gather some of my favourite plants, and trips to hang out in my favourite canyons, and it will be action-packed and very exciting.
In the mean time, a few things have been happening. The first being that I have been inundated with business for the holiday season (I am slightly overwhelmed with joy and gratefulness about said inundation). The second being that chanterelle season has hit Northern California so my foraging friends and I are getting out into the mountains at every possible moment because its not long before they come up here. A few heavy rains are a good sign, as are dropping temperatures and heavy marine layers. My searches take me further and further afield, setting off into the wilderness at a ninety-degree angle from my usual trails. Herbalist Paul Bergner talked once about how we expand when we leave the trails in our lives, and I can’t help but think of him as I set off, big stick in hand, into the tall grasses and undergrowth. The third is that people are getting sick. This herbal elf has been making house calls, with a basket of elderberry elixir, lung grunge elixir, diaphoretic tea and, my new favourite, Fire Cider. Fire Cider is basically just spicy-stuff-infused apple cider vinegar. But man, let me tell you, if you have a blocked nose, or congested sinuses, of if you feel like you’re starting to come down with something, it’ll clear you up right away, while making you go ‘WOOOOOOOHOOOO!’ after you’ve swallowed.
The recipe is simple, and you can also alter it as you see fit: Juliet Blankespoor of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine makes a roselle-hibiscus one that looks divine. If you hate horseradish leave it out, if you love horseradish, add more. If you want it super spicy, add more habaneros. If you’re a vampire, leave out the garlic. Really, this is a basic structure and you’re welcome to do with it what you will. And as for what to do with it… by the spoonful works well if you’re coming down with something. I leave it on the counter and take a swig when I pass by.
1 big bottle apple cider vinegar
8 cloves garlic
20 sprigs thyme
1/2 cup chopped horseradish root
5 chopped habanero (or jalapeno) peppers
2 tb turmeric (dried works fine)
1/4 cup chopped ginger
1 cup honey (I used echinacea-infused honey, but you can use any type of honey you like)
Other things I used which you might or might not have access to:
calamus root (1/4 cup)
white fir needles (1/2 cup) (you can sub pine, spruce or any kind of fir)
yarrow flowers (handful)
Using a 1/2 gallon mason jar or something equivalent, chop up and throw in all the ingredients except the honey (using any additions or leave-outs you want), then cover with vinegar. Shake well, then leave somewhere prominent for a month. Prominent so that you notice it, and shake it when you notice it. After a month, strain out all the solids, then taste it. Is it spicy enough? Garlicy enough? Flavourful enough? If so, stir in the honey and bottle it. If not, tinker with it as you see fit, then add the honey when its ready.
(in which I get a bit bossy)
Gathering with friends is only fun if its an enhancement of gathering alone. Because alone, gathering is a holy experience. You sink into a rhythm, a quiet calm. Snip, pluck, drop, move, repeat. That rhythm becomes a background humm, that turns into a moving meditation. By the time you emerge from it, your bag is full, and problems have resolved themselves in the recesses of your mind, and, most likely, your eyes are a shade brighter than they were before*. I do this so often that I had forgotten how nice it was to have company. Especially company that gets as excited about happening upon a bounty as I do. Like when Emily and I were out looking for currants a couple of weeks ago and just happened upon a big, heavy mama elder tree so laden with berries that the branches hung low to the ground.
By the time we left, my backpack was so full and heavy that the ones on top started crushing the ones on the bottom and the juice started seeping out the bottom of my backpack, down my back, onto my pants. The top of my pants, by the time our walk was over, were stained blue. I think this would go into the category of ‘forager and herbalist problems’. And I’d guess that, if you see someone out in the world and the back of their pants, from waistband to butt, have a slight purplish tinge, then you know what happened, and you can throw them a high five and say ‘what’s up, elderbutt!’.
But back to those berries. There are lots of reasons to go out and find some elderberries this year. The first is, of course, elderberry elixir (or syrup). You MUST make a batch (if you cant, then you should probably buy some, as a medicine cabinet devoid of elderberry preparations is like a fortress devoid of a wall). Your immune system will thank you, as will the rest of your family when they never get sick again. As will your cabinet, for finally feeling complete (cabinets are known to be very insecure).
The second is this chutney. There are plenty of other things you CAN do with a big batch of elderberries, from jams to wines, to pies, to juices, but as far as I’m concerned, this chutney is the business. Its best application is on top of something bread-like, like oat cakes, alongside something tangy, like goat cheese. It makes lovely hors d’ouvres when you have people over, but it’s even nicer for a summer lunch, with a bottle of something crisp and cold (Ginger beer. Definitely ginger beer.) and a nice shady spot outside. Bring some crackers, bring some cheese, and a knife, and a little container of chutney. Take a cracker, then a slice of cheese, then a dollop of chutney, and munch on it while you survey what’s around you and listen to the birds chirp and the bees buzz. And then lie back and relax, and let all those little elderberries go to work strengthening your immune system, improving your circulation, tonifying your blood, and generally making you stronger and more resilient. And reflect, with a full belly and a full heart, on how you are ingesting something from the land around you, and what that means for your soul, as a whole, to be connected to the earth, and a part of the life cycle. And if you feel like it, maybe even do all of this with a friend.
5 cups elderberries
1 cup elderberry juice
1 cup raisins
1 apple, peeled and chopped into small cubes
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 tsp coriander
1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 inch ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp mustard seed
2 tsp salt
2 cups sugar
1 1/3 cup sucanat
In a big pot, put all of the ingredients, then turn on the heat and bring it to a boil. Reduce to simmer immediately, and do so for about 3 hours. Once the liquid has reduced dramatically (you still want SOME, but not a soup), and the whole thing looks like a big mushy mess, sterilize your mason jars. Spoon the hot chutney into your hot jars, leaving a half inch space at the top. Seal with fresh lids, and process for 15 minutes in a hot water bath. They’ll keep for a year. Refrigerate once opened.
*Not to give too much of an impression that wildcrafting is an idyllic experience- it’s not. You get stratched up, scuff knees, ruin favourite skirts, break nails, get sharp things under nails, get whacked in the face by branches, bitten by ants and spiders and bugs and scared by rattlesnakes. You come home with dirt in places you didn’t think it could reach, and twigs in your hair. In other words, it’s really fun.
(dancing on the edges of things)
I remember the day I first fell in love with the elderflower: it was a hot Glaswegian summer day. I was sitting on my favourite grassy knoll, in the shade of a big craggy old hawthorn bush, with a bounty. All of my adventures involved a bounty of some kind, be it wood sorrel (no plant was safe), wild blackberries, or, in this case, chocolate chip cookies and soda. My soda of choice was usually sparkling apple cider, but, on that day, they were out of stock, and right next to that empty spot was sparkling elderflower.
It sounded old; like something my grandparents would have drunk years ago, before the war, on a sweltering hot August afternoon. Reasoning that Marks and Spencer never stock anything that doesn’t taste good, I bought it, placed it carefully in my backpack, then jumped on my bike.
Few things in life are as carefree as summer holidays when you’re young: two infinite-seeming months that stretch into the orange sunset, where the days last until 11pm (in Scotland at least) and the sound of sprinklers unleashed on front lawns ran into the late evening, with the squeals of delight carried on the smell of cut grass permeated the warm air that drifted in through the open windows. Between that yellow-orange glow and smell of hot grass, in the filing cabinet of my memories, on the other side of wild berries swollen, heavy, pregnant with purple juice, is the KCHHHHH sound of opening a bottle of elder fizz on a grassy knoll, with my bike, and an Agatha Christie book.
Elder flowers are fairy flowers. They dance on the edges of fields and woods and on the edges of worlds. Even their smell is somewhat lovely and somewhat pongy, at the edge of what’s normally considered ‘nice’. Glance through the shadows cast by those dancing umbels and, if you’re not really paying attention you can hear laughter and singing. True story. A day spent gathering elderflowers will cast you out of time somewhat. I like to think of this as a good thing. Not only that, but the tree in itself is a veritable pharmacy- the leaves and twigs make great blood moving salves, the flowers and berries are edible, and the berries are pretty much the best thing ever for flu season. So gather a ton of flowers (making sure you leave enough to turn into berries too!), and bring them home in a paper bag. Set aside some especially pretty umbels to dry for a flu-season tea, and then turn the rest into cordial. Because anything you need to do with elderflowers (except fritters) can be done with a cordial. Custards, drizzles, cocktails, meat glazes, and fizzes all stem from this little workhorse. Then make yourself some fizz, kick your feet up, watch the light change, and let yourself be transported back to the edge of a dream, where you found the flowers in the first place.
2 cups elderflowers, removed from stems (roughly, don’t drive yourself crazy, just try and get most of them off) and de-bugged
6 cups sugar
5 cups water
Juice of 3 lemons
Bring the water and sugar to a boil and then remove from heat. Add the elderflowers and leave to cool. Heat up once more, adding the lemon juice, and allow to cool overnight, then strain out the flowers, squeezing to make sure you get all the syrup out. Pour into bottles and refrigerate. It’ll last months in the fridge.
serves 2 gluttons, and 4 normal people
1/4 cup elderflower cordial
juice of 1 lemon
1 large bottle of sparkling water
Put all the ingredients in a decanter or big jar of some sort, add some ice, stir gently, and serve.
I’m submitting this post to the Wild Things roundup over at Hunger and Thirst for wild flower month!
Lately, I’ve been too restless to get anything useful done. In my mind there are these lists of things to do. Newsletters and website updates and blog posts and dealing with traffic tickets (*cough*) and parking tickets (*cough*) and returning phonecalls. I think it’s the coming spring; I want to be outside so much that all this other stuff makes my brain short-circuit. The words all swim together and stop making sense. Cursors blink on white pages and minute hands tick by and become hour hands and I’ll type a sentence and delete it then go to the kitchen for another snack and a cup of tea. On Wednesday, instead of repeating the process, I went to the Farmer’s Market in Santa Monica with Carly. Early. While it was still cold, and while the day was still yawning awake. I’m giving her cooking lessons, so each week she’s armed with a list, and each Thursday night we get together and I unleash my inner dictator while she does exactly as I say*.
As we were picking some very handsome carrots, she mentions that she wants to buy some white sage to ‘cleanse’ her apartment, and asks if I believe in that stuff. And it got me thinking. Because although there are plenty of people who see these things the way I do, my opinions aren’t necessarily the most popular in a city where people talk about ‘energy’ like everybody should understand what it is. But Carly was obviously asking me because of my superior intellect and rational thought process. So I did what any normal human being would do with an opinion that might counter that of others: I’m putting it on the internet. So, a bit more about smoke, smudging, incense, clearing bad energy, and all that stuff…
Smoke is sacred. Look at the way smoke from incense curls through the air, fluid, like water or fire, shapeshifting and changing and bringing that scent with it. It’s hypnotic, it reaches into stagnant corners, it can alter minds and intoxicate senses. But when it comes to ‘clearing bad energy’ as an isolated function, I think this is a belief that has rolled over into our time from the dark ages**.
To understand this, we have to know a bit more about what this ‘bad energy’ is, what needs to be cleared in the first place. Back when pathogens were unheard of, sickness was often thought to come from ‘evil spirits’. Great ceremonies were made to get rid of said ‘evil spirits’ and herbs were often burned to aid in the process. Fast forward 2 thousand years and people are burning herbs to ‘clear energy’ in houses and such or to perform appropriations of Native American ceremonies without fully understanding what’s going on. Evil spirits, back then, were airborne pathogens. Burning aromatic plants is fantastic for killing these airborne pathogens. If you’ve got a bunch of people in close quarters, smoke is great to have around- burning frankincense in a church, for example, or hinoki wood in a temple. Palo santo, that treasured Ecuadorian wood, myrrh, white sage, juniper, mugwort. The list is long, and effective. Having these herbs around to burn when someone’s coming down with something is really useful. Having them just to burn in general because they smell good and because smoke is pretty is fine as well. And yes, you can use them in ceremonies to ‘clean’ the energy of a space, but it doesn’t need to be a specific type of herb, or something that someone else has deemed ‘sacred’, and it doesn’t even need to be smoke in the first place, if that is your purpose.
Ever walked into a place and it just felt weird? Ever had something horrible happen in your house and you just want to clear the walls of those memories or the space of lingering horrible-ness? When it comes to getting rid of that kind of thing, few things beat salt. Plain old fashioned salt, a little sprinkled in the corners, will get ‘bad energy’ out of a place quicker than you can say BOO. Open all the windows and chase out the stuff you don’t want with a broom or by clapping your hands but most of all with your intention to get rid of it. Then, close the windows and sprinkle salt in each corner, intentionally (whatever your intention is). Let me be clear- I did say that you can use smoke, but the smoke in itself isn’t what’s going to chase out the stuff you don’t want. YOU are. The smoke isn’t powerful, the person guiding the smoke is powerful. Clearing a space is an active endeavour, not something that happens by default because stuff is burning.
White sage is overused. Even in this area where it actually grows it’s overused. Walk down Hollywood boulevard or the Venice boardwalk and you’ll see stoners selling piles of smudge sticks for people to buy, bring home, clear the energy of their houses, and do their own ceremonies with. White sage itself IS sacred to one tribe in our area (it has a very small growing range) and its so sacred that they burn one leaf at a time, not massive smudge sticks. Sacredness, with plants, is something that happens, not because someone else deems it so, but because of the connection you have to that plant. The fact of the matter is that any plant can be sacred, any ceremony can be meaningful. You can burn rose petals and have an effect on your space just as much as you would with sage leaves.
When it comes to a sick room, however, smoke excels. On its own. As a force in itself. Those compounds that smell so good are often antiviral and antibacterial and in inhaling them, you breathe them directly into your respiratory tract, which then goes directly into your blood stream, and before you know if you have all these little fighter compounds in your blood and in your lungs. When one of us is sick at home, we’ll burn a combination of things- my favourite is white sage and juniper (which grow around here and thus are easier to come by, cheaper, and more sustainable), but frankincense smells pretty darn amazing too. There are tons of other burnable resins available commercially, and other things you can try with what you have around. My recipe for sage and juniper incense is ridiculously simple- it’s not a complex scent or kyphi, but a simple mix of herbs with medicinal properties for the purpose of killing airborne pathogens and keeping folks healthy. But, as I’ve mentioned before, medicinal doesn’t need to mean gross, or single-purposed. You can burn it anytime, for any purpose, it’s all about the intention.
Also, for more information about sacred smoke and making your own incense, please see Kiva’s recent article. I’ve been lucky enough to try her hand-made incense and it’s mind-alteringly intoxicating. That right there, is sacred stuff…
White Sage-juniper incense
1 part juniper berries
2 parts white sage leaves
1 part pine resin (I get mine from the tree in my front yard which is an araucaria not actually a pinus)
In a pestle and mortar, grins up the juniper berries. Add the sage leaves and pine resin, and grind it all until it’s a pretty even consistency.
Light a charcoal disc and wait for it to be hot, then sprinkle your incense over the top. Inhale. Walk around the house letting the smoke get into the corners. If someone is sick, let them inhale the smoke, brush it through sick person’s hair, then leave it for the smoke to fill the space.
*I think I missed my calling. I’m a very good dictator. You can refer to me as The Chairman from now on.
** Speaking of which, did you know there’s a flat earth society?
As I said, these last couple of posts went up the wrong way around. Nonetheless, Happy New Year, lovely readers. Here are some photos from our Christmas week out in the desert.
I’m not really one for New Years resolutions- for the past year or so I’ve been practicing something I’ve come to dub ‘New Day’s resolutions’. As in, why the hell wait until January 1st to start something you’ve always wanted to start, or change something you’ve always wanted to change. Also, there’s the overwhelming-ness of having a list of things to start doing. New Day’s resolutions (NDR from here on, because typing it repeatedly gets annoying) are only allowed to be implemented one at a time, and only when the previous one is such a part of daily life that you don’t need to berate yourself into doing it, can you start a new one. As you can see, I’ve gotten pretty specific with the rules of these things…
As it so happens, I started a NDR that happened to coincide with the end of the year, and it has to do with nourishment. In brief, I am going to sleep more, worry about things less, and eat more fatty nourishing things (those of you who know me are going ‘what the hell? Rebecca needs to sleep MORE and eat MORE fatty things?’). I think it’s just something that we nurturing healing folks forget quite often- to rest, recharge, and make sure you are nourished before putting all your energy into helping others. Selfish? I don’t think so. A burned out, stressed out healer isn’t really worth much…
One of the things I’ve been doing lately to nourish myself better is a hot oil bath. It’s an ayurvedic thing that I first heard about while I was in India. Oil baths are reported to heal or ease a number of ailments, including stress issues, inflammation, joint pain, dry skin, and sleep disturbances. I’ve done it on occasion in the past, and have been doing it regularly for a few weeks now, and so far I’ve noticed a significant difference in my sore joints (a number of injuries), dry skin (it’s Winter), and sleep issues (the more stressed I am, the less deeply I sleep- I think this is common for most of us, no?).
You can do it with castor oil. This is my favourite, but I don’t recommend this to be honest- the first (and last) time I did it, it took me about 3 weeks to get the oil off the bath, let alone out of my hair. If you’ve got a drainage system that can handle using soap nut powder, then that’s the best way to get it out. But I live in a house that was built in the 20′s, and soap nuts ain’t going down my drain. I’ve tried using Dr. Bronner’s to wash it out, but it didn’t work. I was greasy for days. And don’t get me started on the shower. But sesame oil works really nicely, as does coconut oil. Both of which come out with regular old castille soap. You can also use infused oils- I love the ones from Banyan Botanicals, though they do get a little pricey, and regular oil works really well on its own.
Here’s what you do:
Abhyanga: Oil bath
1 old towel that you don’t mind being greasy and gross forever
about 16oz oil of your choice- I recommend castor (see above warning) or sesame
(optional: candles to light in the bathroom, you know, to make it more relaxing and pretty and stuff)
1. Warm the bottle of oil by submerging it in a pan of very hot (not boiling) water, for about 15 minutes.
2. Lay out a towel, remove all bath mats that you actually like from immediate area.
3. Starting at your head (and making sure that the oil is quite warm but not too hot), pour some of the oil onto the top of your head and hair. Massage it in, over your face and scalp, concentrating on sore, tense areas. Do this for about five minutes.
4. Add more oil, and brush it down over your body. Spend a few minutes massaging it into each area, then add more warm oil, and repeat. Eventually your entire body will be covered with oil (including the soles of your feet and in between your toes).
5. Lie down on your towel, relax for 15 minutes.
6. Shower it all off. I recommend Dr. Bronner’s soap.
7. Make a hot cup of tea, and relax for the rest of the evening. You’ll FEEL super relaxed, so it won’t be hard.
DISCLAIMER: If you have a physical practice of some kind, please take it easy the next day. I blew out my LCL the morning after an oil bath because I was so much more flexible than before!
Also, this process can be addictive.
So. Here’s to a New Year, a new day, and taking better care of ourselves. How about you guys? Any resolutions for the New Year? Any for the new day? Please share!
(the magic of rosemary)
During the winter, I cook with rosemary a lot. Partly because there’s a big bush outside the front door, and partly because I think it’s the perfect remedy for the winter blues. Its presence alone can light up a space and get things moving again, when it feels like the cold has ground it to a stagnant halt. Sometimes I picture it as if it weren’t a plant at all, but a little person, created out of mist. And when I do, I see a little old lady who has more energy than most teenagers. She wears her hair pulled back tightly, has knobbly fingers and sharp black eyes and usually dresses really simply. She keeps a meticulously tidy house, and is ready to smack you with her broom (which she always ALWAYS has) at any time. I think she speaks with an Italian accent and might be someone’s nonna… Except the house that she keeps isn’t her house, it’s your body, and when you take a sip of rosemary tea, she gets to work sweeping out all the crud, getting the circulation going, clearing out all the stagnant stuff. I mean, picture how your eyes open wide when you take a deep whiff of a rosemary bush, and imagine that action going on in your whole body. In getting all that crud out, it does things like strengthen the heart and stimulate digestion. Rudolph Steiner went so far as to say it strengthens the sense of self in a person, which I think translates well to ‘clearing out all the crap’ and also making you stand up straight the way a strict old knobbly-fingered lady would, lest you get spanked with a broom on your way out the door.
In my steamy little kitchen, I’ll brew up some rosemary tea if I’m having trouble concentrating or getting stuff done, especially if its because I feel sluggish. I’ll put it in a pot and let it bubble away when I want to clear the air a bit- when things are a little too dusty and the heating’s been on for days and the windows have been closed and it’s suffocatingly still. Rosemary goes on the stove in a pot of water, while I dust and vacum and throw all the windows and doors open. And then I throw the water away, because I’m convinced that’s where all the stuck-ness goes. When people stop by and have that downtrodden look, a kind of pastiness and dullness to their complexion, and that ‘everything is sliding down towards the floor’ thing going on, accompanied by slow movement and general sluggishness, they get a sprig of rosemary and a squirt of sunlight in their tea. Because the two to me are never far away from each other. Rosemary grows in sunny places, and the warmth of sunlight makes it resinous and sticky. Rosemary, as far as I’m concerned, carries the sun in its pocket.
For slow circulation, try a rosemary footbath. Or if you’re feeling really brave and don’t mind smelling like a lamb roast, make a strong rosemary infusion and add it to your bath, and you’ll feel all tingly and like dancing afterwards.
Or if you don’t feel like drinking it in tea or bathing in it, then maybe try just cooking with it.
Rosemary cookies. More specifically, rosemary, lavender and black pepper polenta cookies. These, for the record, are now PRIZE winning cookies as it was voted by the people at a party the other night. And I make them gluten free, though if you’re not gluten intolerant then by all means use regular old white flour. I combined the rosemary with lavender because they’re a perfect pair- complementary in so many ways. And they grow right next door to each other. Both of them clear stagnation really quickly, but while rosemary is heating, lavender is cooling.
Which brings me to one more quick point: If you have labile blood pressure or high blood pressure, rosemary tea is not your friend (as Kiva Rose kindly pointed out to me). You’ll end up with roaring pulse in your ears and a headache and cursing the day you ever set foot in my cyber space. Which I would hate to be responsible for. If you’re not sure, give the leaves a rub and a smell first, and listen to yourself: does it smell and feel good? If not, then maybe try lavender instead: it’s very similar, but won’t make your head feel like it’s being hit with a sledgehammer…
Rosemary, lavender and black pepper polenta cookies
3 sticks room temperature butter
1 cup sugar
1 tb minced rosemary
1 tb minced lavender
1 tb black pepper
2 cups gluten free flour plus 1/2 cup sweet rice flour
1 cup ground cornmeal (polenta)
½ teaspoon salt
In a mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in the herbs, then add the dry ingredients in three batches. As soon as they’re incorporated, turn off the mixer, pull it all together into a ball, wrap it up and refrigerate it for 24 hours if you have time- it’ll pull all the flavours together really nicely. If you don’t have time, you can just roll them out and cut them out into cookie shapes.
Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes. They’ll be softer when you pull them out, and firm up within ten minutes or so. And they’re good in an airtight container for up to a month.
(a little bit of magic goes a long way)
Waking up before dawn makes me happy. Lately, I’ll put some fuzzy socks on because it’s cold, and will pad downstairs quietly, while the cat weaves her way around my feet. I’ll brew a cup of California Mountain Tea (a blend of rose petals, white sage, black sage and wild mint), add some cream and honey, and then wrap myself in a blanket and sit on the front steps thinking about things and watching the light change.
I spent this morning thinking about creativity. My whole life has been, in some ways, a jump from one creative pursuit to another, be it writing or drawing or dancing or cooking or herbalism. And while the side effects of herbalism might be that people get healthier and happier and more connected to the earth and the universe, to say that’s my primary goal would be lying. I do it because I need to create. To weave a bit of magic into the every day. To make things that affect the world around me. And herbs are a beautiful outlet for that: a little bit of this, a dash of that, a sprinkle of something else. Depending on the person you can add things to make a heart light up or to make roots set deep in the earth, or to make lungs open or simply just make someone go to the bathroom. What is it exactly that makes it work? I don’t quite know. There are chemical constituents and there’s the whole plant and its place is in the biosphere, and then there the intention of the person GIVING the herbs, and then there’s that little bit extra. That little bit extra, I like to call it magic.
When I’m in my kitchen, mixing up a tea or a salve, or pouring brandy and honey over some recently gathered plant matter to make an elixir, or stirring a pot of soup, or putting a few leaves in a cup to make tea for a friend who’s having a bad day, I feel like I’m doing the same thing- weaving, creating, and making things happen. Sometimes I’ll whisper things over a cup of tea or a tincture, things like ‘it’s going to be ok’ or ‘this is a liquid hug’. Sometimes I can even see basil as if basil was a cute little creature made of foggy air, and basil jumps into action, rearranging himself into ‘it’s all going to be ok’. And while it might seem silly, it still works: people realise that it’s going to be ok, or smile as though they’ve been given a hug. There is magic in the world, even in a tiny kitchen in the middle of Los Angeles.
One of the things I love about herbs is that a lot of them taste good. This seems pretty elementary, but people often cook with herbs (like basil, rosemary, sage, parsley) and people pass the herbal aisle at the Health Food store, but I think that the vast majority of people don’t realise that when they’re cooking, they’re using plant medicine. One might assume that, because we use them so often, culinary herbs are weak, but that’s not true at all. Some of the herbs I use most often medicinally are boring old culinary herbs, like garlic, basil, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Sometimes I feel like things are a little disjointed around here. One day I’m writing about cookies and another I’m writing about herbal medicine. The two are not really that separate. So if you guys don’t mind, in the coming weeks I’d like to start talking about herbs that we all have access to. Things you can find at the grocery store or in your back garden or in your neighbour’s back garden in the middle of the night while they’re sleeping. Things that you can tincture yourself or hang to dry and make tea with yourself and then maybe next time you add basil to a stew you’ll smile mischievously because you know that you too are putting a little magic in there.
In the mean time, my recipe for you today is something you can pick for yourself. We’ll call it ‘Herb Garden Tea’.
Herb Garden Tea
What herbs do you have lying around in pots or outside or in a bag in your fridge? Basil? Rosemary? Thyme? Sage? Mint? Rose petals? Peach leaves? Pick a few leaves (or a variety of them!) and drop them into the bottom of a mug. Top with hot water, steep for ten minutes, then stir in a little bit of honey. Add cream if you like. There. You made magic too.