Sunday 28 February 2010

From the army : flowers

Although most of my posts here are about herbs, I do have another life. The job which pays my wages, thus supporting my family and interests, is mostly training. The subjects I talk about form part of modern society, the part everyone wishes didn’t exist. I teach people to recognise cultures where abuse can thrive, how to complain about health and social care services and, most often, how to cope with bereavement and loss. None of them are fun, but we do spend quite some time laughing when I’m not telling stories to illustrate a point.

Delivering this training started three years ago. At first I limited myself to the East and West Midlands but my responsibilities are national, so I was soon wending my way north, south and east. Last summer, I was working up in Northumberland when I met a counsellor who really enjoyed the short time we spent together. She went home and told her husband his organisation could benefit from my training.

Her husband is responsible for an army welfare service. I’ve never had anything to do with the armed forces. Indeed, the whole concept of war and fighting horrifies me. Just after my eldest son was born, the Falklands War broke out. The eldest son of a neighbour put my husband’s name down as a referee without asking him. The request came in the post on an army headed envelope and I was convinced the Government had introduced conscription without telling anyone. I spent a long day being terrified before the truth emerged.

Although the counsellor told me she was going to talk to her husband, I heard nothing for several months. One autumn morning as I was going to work on the train, I was confronted by the faces of five young men, three of them younger than my own sons, on the front page of the free newspaper. They had all been killed in the same week. It didn’t seem right and I fervently wished I could do something to help.

You could call it coincidence or you could say the universe heard me. The counsellor’s husband rang me that afternoon and we arranged I would travel north to provide a two-hour lunchtime session for unit welfare officers.

Arrangements were taken over by a warrant officer, the counsellor’s husband’s deputy. She was able to come and see me in action in Sheffield when I was delivering a session for local voluntary services.

“It’s really good,” she said. “The content is just what we need, but you mustn’t do anything touchy-feely or they’ll call you a tree-hugger and walk out.”

This left me in somewhat of a dilemma, since most of my training is about feelings and I am a tree-hugger. What could I do?

Of all the training I have delivered over the years, this is probably the session which has scared me the most.

Chris and I travelled north last Monday, hoping to escape recent snowfalls with warmer weather. As we reached Yorkshire, I looked out of the car window to see two hares boxing. Theirs the only presence on a vast, frozen, snow covered field.

I love hares. We usually have a family of three each year on the farm. They will crouch, perfectly still as you approach, only leaping away when you come within stepping distance. This was the first time I had ever seen a couple boxing in real life. The experts say that the pair involved could either be two males fighting for dominance, but was more likely to be a female rejecting the amorous advances of a male.

A fascinating discussion of the symbolism of hares and rabbits can be found in an illustrated online article by Terri Windling. He says, “Whether hovering above us in the arms of a moon goddess or carrying messages from the Netherworld below, whether clever or clownish, hero or rascal, whether portent of good tidings or ill, rabbits and hares have leapt through myths, legends, and folk tales all around the world – forever elusive, refusing to be caught and bound by a single definition.”

The sight of boxing hares brought me great personal joy. Despite my misgivings, both training sessions with army and air force unit welfare officers and community development workers were very well received.

We talked about theories and processes and signposting. The warrant officer provided case studies – compassionate leave for dying parents, marital difficulties and a bomb blast which meant not all the body parts could be returned – and the participants talked about their own experiences and concerns. Many were new in post, many already knew what it was to be the bearer of bad news to families and they all seemed to take something positive away with them.

The snow fell again on Tuesday night in North Yorkshire. As we came to leave the Army Welfare Service building, fog covered the land, leaving little sign of fields and hedges. Training sessions always exhaust me, so I dozed on and off during our four hour journey home.

Reading through the evaluation forms on Thursday afternoon back in my office brought a smile to my face. All the worry and preparation had been worthwhile. When I returned to my desk on Friday, after a brief foray into inner city gloom in search of sandwiches, there was a message on my voicemail from Reception.

“We have something nice for you,” it said.

On a shelf underneath the window was a bouquet of spring flowers. For me. The note read, “Thank you for supporting the Army Welfare Service”.

Friday 19 February 2010

Emerging from winter with herbs

Ever since Elizabeth set the subject for the February UK Blog party, I’ve been trying to think how best to address the issues. What does the word “Emerge” actually mean? It originates from Latin, where “e-“ means “out of or from” and “mergere” is the verb to immerse. So emerge can mean
• To rise from or as if from immersion
• To come forth from obscurity
• To become evident
• To come into existence

All this makes me think that during winter, we have been hiding, hidden in the darkness from the cold, possibly even hibernating. Now, as winter ends, we must come forward into the light. We must show ourselves, possibly our new selves, a self which is still developing as the season grows and changes.

In order to survive winter, we have immersed ourselves in warmth, we have slowed down, perhaps become stagnant, sluggish, but as the pulse of the earth begins to grow louder, we have to respond to the quickening beat.

How do we do this?

Activity comes first. We have to start actually doing things. As days lengthen, the light entices us outwards into fresh air and sunlight. Our bodies are depleted with vitamin D, so we crave sunlight. Some people may need supplementation. Those people who suffer with seasonal affective disorder may have been using a special light lamp. A combination of St John’s wort and lemon balm is also helpful, as is goldenrod elixir.

The depletion and slowing down of winter may cause our bodies to need a kick-start to get them moving again. You could start with a gentle detoxification of increased water consumption, a nightly herbal bath and plenty of sleep as set out in Jenny Jones’ article here. Our bodies may need tonics (see articles here and here ) or a longer term adaptogenic approach.

Adaptogens are described as herbs which increase the ability of the body to cope with and respond to stress. They have been shown to act on the adrenals and the endocrine and immune systems. Adaptogens were the subject of significant research by Russian scientists for many decades in the 20th century. They were looking for plants which would increase physical abilities for space travellers and athletes.

Their findings enhanced global knowledge about identified adaptogenic herbs. Most of these plants came from the Chinese and Ayurvedic traditions, with only five being found in European Russia and the US – American ginseng (panax quinquefolius), Eluethero/Siberian ginseng (eleutherococcus sentocosus), licorice (glycyrrhiza glabra or g.uralensis), Rhaponticum (rhaponticum carthamoides) and Rhodiola (rhodiola rosea).

Luckily, some of the Asiatic Adaptogens grow in this climate, so I am looking forward to growing ashwagandha from seed and holy basil this year. If I get really lucky I might try growing some reishi mushroom logs which would be a totally new experience!

In order to become active, you also have to do some spring cleaning. This may mean an emotional process as well as a physical one.

In order to emerge and declutter ourselves from the detritus of winter, we may have to go through a period of letting go with conscious intent. We may need to release emotions e.g. guilt, fears, sorrow, pain or anger where they are not helping us or are holding us back from moving forward. If an emotion is proving helpful, e.g. a righteous anger may be giving you energy to do what needs to be done, then it should not be suppressed, but worked with openly until it can be discharged.

Herbs can be amazing allies when emotions threaten to overwhelm us. Henriette Kress, Kiva Rose and Rebecca Hartman have put together wonderful posts on herbs for sorrow and stress. It doesn’t really matter in what form the herb is used, providing the medium contains sufficient essence of the living herb. You might choose a flower remedy, a fresh herb tincture, an infused oil or salve, a herb tea or a foot bath depending on how the emotion is manifesting itself in you.

If emotion is affecting your digestion, you might want to experiment with Goldenrod. Both Ananda Wilson and Kiva Rose have found this useful for “cases of mild to moderate depression, especially where there is seasonal sensitivity and general feelings of coldness, frustration and a feeling of being paralyzed by cold weather or more specifically, lack of sunlight.”

Kiva Rose goes on to say, “I am also very fond of it in where digestive stagnation is causing feelings of sadness, stuckness and potential despair, and in such situations often team it up with Rose and Ginger. I am especially prone to use Goldenrod for those who consistently feel cold and have gut stagnation where food just wants to sit in the belly like a lump, and where there is concurrent feelings of sadness and the blues that accompanies digestive upset and chilly weather.”

Herbs for guilt were discussed on the Herbwifery Forum during the past few months. Pine flower essence was suggested, or a combination of pine, mimulus and honeysuckle flower essences. Ali suggested that sometimes guilt is there for a reason and felt rosemary’s gift of clarity and insight helped you learn not to make the same mistake twice “without wearing too much of a hair shirt about it”.

Winter stagnation may produce a sense that our boundaries are knocked around or jumbled or tied up with those of other people you have had close contact with. It was Matthew Wood with his tales of yarrow who first drew me to ask help of this herb. I am touched by lots of other people. Sometimes their stories and circumstances affect me greatly, but yarrow always helps me realize I do not have to carry their burdens for them, that my support is sufficient without needing to rescue them from the situation.

You may favour a different herb for strengthening your boundaries. Some people like thistle, but yarrow does it for me.

Spring can be an anxious time for many people. It’s a lot more comfortable staying in the warm than venturing outside when you don’t know what the outcome might be. I’ve been working with a combination of skullcap, St John’s wort and lemon balm recently and they have proved effective in untying the knots in the solar plexus and aiding sleep where you would otherwise be lying awake all night worrying.

No matter what winter throws at us, spring will come. Snowdrops and crocuses are flowering in gardens and daffodil buds are already four to five inches above the ground. Cuckoopint curls through the dark soil and blackcurrant and elder bushes have beautiful pale green and purple leaf buds ready to burst.

However you emerge from winter into spring, it will be easier if you spend some time in planning and preparation. As with everything, it is not just our physical bodies that are involved, but our minds and spirits too. Whatever you plan, herbs will be there to guide and support you if asked.

Saturday 13 February 2010

Winter holiday

Some people seek out the sun whilst on holiday or laze by azure pools. I hunt stone circles. You can read about my winter adventures several years ago at Mercian Muse

Friday 12 February 2010

Nurturing a dream

I don’t know exactly why my mother and father decided to have a summerhouse built at the very bottom of the farm the year after my grandmother died, using a part of the inheritance money. I suspect it was something to do with replacing the summerhouse my grandmother had had in her garden, where she took her afternoon snooze in the summer.

It also replaced the old henhouse my sister and I used as a play house which provided a place to cook when we had friends to stay on the farm over the summer. We had no spare beds, my parents had no experience of people sleeping on the floor or of “sleepovers”, so if more than one friend came to stay at once, we were sent down to the bottom field where any noise we made would not be heard up at the bungalow.

The only spare land was the boggy slope leading down to the spring which provided water to the whole farm. My father dug it out and levelled the base for the summerhouse and had a man with a machine dig out the clay from the centre of the oak glade to form a pond. The idea was this would be a place to raise runaway trout from the local fish farm and provide us with somewhere to swim during the hottest days of summer.

My mother planted daffodils on the bank and during spring we would walk down the fields to view them. In summer we might venture once or twice to listen to music on the wind-up gramophone, revise for school exams or show visitors when we weren’t quite sure how else to entertain them.

Grandchildren played house and shops there, but visits were few and limited to fair weather until I decided to make my simmering, book-driven interest in herbs a living reality. The land seemed to appreciate being worked again on a hand-to-soil level. Most plants thrived although local inhabitants did have a tendency to overwhelm some newcomers.

There was always a quiet insistence that while cultivated herb beds would be tolerated, the land was a field and would always return to its inherent state if left for more than a few weeks without attention.

The land has its own way with humans too. They find their thoughts stilling as they walk down the green path towards the Sanctuary gate. Once inside, even if they don’t understand why they have come, they need to sit and be. Somehow the land understands. A flower, a tree or a fallen piece of wood will provide their answer and a gift of peace.

No-one wants to leave. The walk up the two fields is steep, especially with a heavy back pack. They arrive at their cars with smiling faces and joy within their hearts.

Now the original Sanctuary is to be extended. My father has suggested we cultivate the piece of flat land between the ash tree and the hedge where the hay makers can’t reach with their enormous machines because of the sheltering slope.

The area of productive herb beds will double. I’m thinking of growing oats for oatstraw and milky oat tincture for the first time. I want to grow astralagus and eluethero and maybe some more rhodiola to provide a harvest of adaptogens in years to come. I might go mad and encourage rows of dandelions and burdock (in places they like to grow rather than in the artificial beds).

All things are possible. The land now needs people to tend the soil, to organise the compost and cherish the native plants. Hopefully this year there will be more motherwort, more calendula, a new lease of life for the Echinacea and huge piles of nettle seed gathered and dried over the summer.

It’s heady stuff, all these dreams. Let’s hope the weather co-operates and allows us to make all the dreams into reality. If you would like to be part of this, let me know.

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Herbal support for broken bones

I was sitting on Snow Hill station two weeks ago trying to tell Chris my train was on time when a text came into my mobile phone.

“My friend has a broken bone which won’t heal,” I read. “Can you recommend any herbs for her?”

The train was just pulling in and my texting abilities are not great, so I simply replied, “Comfrey and plantain.”

I hate giving single herb answers when asked a question. It falls into the “Take aspirin if you have a headache” mentality of allopathic medicine which does not allow any opportunity to think “What’s happening here?”, “What part of the body needs supporting?” and “Which herbs might be suitable for this situation and why?” So this is a more considered response to the original query.

Fractured bones are serious conditions. If you fracture a long bone and it isn’t dealt with in time, you can die. I first came across this during a Medical Services Committee hearing when a GP failed to diagnose a fractured neck of femur in an elderly lady who fell out of bed. The doctor on the Committee which was there to decide whether or not the GP was in breach of his terms and conditions of service to the NHS was not impressed.

“You do realised this lady could have died?” he said. “You were lucky her husband rang for an ambulance after you left the house.”

It was a sobering thought and one I had cause to remember a few years later when a woman with mental health problems slipped off the fourth floor windowsill of her locked ward onto an inaccessible concrete triangle between three buildings. It took the firemen an hour to reach her and none of the hospital staff would touch her until the ambulance men arrived. She didn’t die from the fall, but from breaking all her long bones. She lost so much fluid her blood pressure fell to a point of no return.

So what actually happens when you break a bone? A really good tutorial of the physical components can be found here. In a nutshell, the blood forms a clot and the bone is stimulated to form new collagen to hold the bone together which is gradually ossified, healing the break.

What really surprised me was the length of time it takes for a break to heal even at the most normal rate. We are talking about 3-4 weeks for the bony callous to form and a further three to four months for the bone to bind together with remodelling inside the bone taking place for several months after that.

This means anyone who breaks a bone needs to be thinking of supporting that part of the body for a good six months afterwards. Nothing is going to mend within a couple of weeks.

So how can a bone fracture be best supported from a herbal perspective? The most useful discussion I found was begun by Persimmon on the Herbwifery Forum back in 2007. She had been involved in an accident which resulted in a badly damaged ankle. She was using her inherent herbal knowledge to inform her own treatment and asked for any further suggestions to her protocol.

I thought the way she set things out was really useful, which is why I am repeating it here.

(i) Bone healing is an inflammatory process, so don’t take any medication which is anti-inflammatory. This means you don’t take ‘ibu-profen’ or ‘nurofen’ for the pain because these are both “non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs” (NSAIDs). Persimmon also recommends not taking any supplements which are targeted at inflammation.

You don’t need to take the same precautions with anti-inflammatory herbs. Calendula is a great anti-inflammatory, but is actually recommended for healing fractures by Henriette Kress.

(ii) You need adequate mineral intake, preferably through food. Persimmon recommends calcium in particular but also magnesium and trace minerals. If someone won’t change their diet, chewable calcium carbonate (CaCO3) can be taken.

So where do we get the minerals? It’s back to nettles and oatstraw, possibly with red clover thrown in for good measure. These can be made into long infusion teas as per Susun Weed’s method (2 ozs dried herb covered with 16 fl.ozs (2US pints) boiling water in a large jar/jug left covered overnight and the resulting strained infusion drunk hot or cold throughout the following day).

If it’s spring/summer/autumn, I’d also do a fresh herb maceration overnight with cold water. (Gather as many herbs as you like, cover with cold water in a clean plastic bowl, leave overnight in a cool place, strain and drink the following morning.)

Minerals are best extracted in cider vinegar, so you could also take 2tsp herb infused vinegar (nettle, motherwort, mugwort) in cold water or with 2 tsp honey in a mug of boiling water several times a day.

You also need to eat lots and lots of green leafy vegetables (cabbage, sprouts, kale and other brassicas) unless you have an underactive thyroid, in which case you need to think carefully about your greens!

Susun Weed has a good mineral rich soup recipe here.

(iii) You also need adequate protein intake for making new collagen. Bone broth is really useful made with marrow bones. Jim Macdonald has a nice recipe and method here, I have one here. (You'll need to scroll down to the very bottom of the article for the recipe.)

Vegetarians and Vegans may be surprised if they suddenly get cravings for steak at this time. I’ve had vegetarian friends tell me about this phenomenon. It usually happens when the body is anaemic and needs an easily digested and absorbed protein source.

(iv) You will need to increase your fibre and water intake, especially if you have been taking a narcotic based pain killer (morphine, codeine & derivatives and dia-morphine). These medications cause serious constipation. If this happens you may not feel like eating. If you do become constipated, you need to not become reliant on senna or other commercial products because they will lessen the ability of the lower bowel to constrict. Lots of fibre, marshmallow, yellow dock, psyllium husks etc are all useful herbal allies.

You might be wondering where comfrey and plantain come into the equation. Comfrey has a long history of helping to heal bones. Matthew Wood has cautioned about not using comfrey too early, especially not before the fracture has been set or this may result in new bone growth and the bone having to be rebroken because it has healed in the wrong position.

You need to be aware of the discussions around comfrey and hepatoxic PSAs before you decide to use it, so you can make an informed decision. One thing to remember is that comfrey’s historical use has mainly been external, not internal, so it needs to be applied either as a poultice (bruise the leaves and apply to the skin, changing every three hours or so), a fomentation (mash the herb with water and apply as a hot poultice, replacing once cold) or an infused oil.

The dilemma is often lack of access to the site of the break once a cast has been put on. Some people have reverted to pushing comfrey leaves inside the cast when they can or waiting until the cast is removed and then applying liberal amounts of comfrey infused oil to the skin.

Plantain can be used in exactly the same way as comfrey, with the added advantage of being taken internally at the same time as externally either as a tea or tincture.

It is interesting that Dr Christopher’s classic Tissue and Bone Formula, has now replaced comfrey with plantain. The original recipe was comprised from oak bark, comfrey leaves, marshmallow root, mullein herb, walnut bark (or leaves), gravel root, wormwood, lobelia and skullcap. The current formula now includes white oak bark, lungwort, slippery elm bark, marshmallow root, mullein leaf, black walnut leaf, gravel root, wormwood herb, plantain leaf, skullcap herb, lobelia herb and aloe vera gel powder.

If you are thinking about making up your own formula, you need to be aware that lobelia is classified as a Class 3 herb in the UK which means it is only supposed to be dispensed by qualified herbalists. It is also a powerful emetic if you take too much, so miniscule drop doses only and preferably talk to someone who uses lobelia regularly before you experiment!

There are other herbs which are useful in the treatment of broken bones. Susun Weed recommends using St John's Wort tincture for infection free healing and preventing nerve damage for broken bones. The dose is 25-30 drops 1-2x day. Henriette Kress says that SJW oil used externally is good for swelling associated with broken bones.

Kiva Rose and Jim MacDonald recommend using a mallow, mullein and comfrey poultice for painful, swollen broken bones. They also recommend using a small dose of horsetail tincture in with other herbs when the break is fresh, or as a single dose (1-5 drops three times a day) if an old break won’t heal. Kiva writes about her experience here.

It has been a fascinating process putting this article together. Now, instead of a gut response of two major herbs, if someone asks me about broken bones again, I can help them understand what the process of bone healing is and which herbs and foods can be helpful to support the broken bone in the best possible way.

Monday 1 February 2010

Imbolc blessings

As Imbolc comes upon us we all feel the pull of lengthening days and we long for Spring. I had to share my mother's picture of the lambs. It takes me back to my childhood when we kept sheep upon the Cotswold hills and watched lambs running races along the walls after their evening feed.

I have posted two Imbolc stories in Merican Muse. I hope they speak to you of the season and bring you hope.

February UK Blogparty: Emerging From Winter With Herbs

The next UK Herbarium Blog Party will be held on the 20th February 2010 and is hosted by Elizabeth over at Apotheblogary. The subject is “Emerging From Winter With Herbs” looking at herbal recipes to help us shake off the winter blues and put the ’spring’ in our step!

Elizabeth says “We often hear about herbal recipes to help you get through the winter - elderberry, rosehip, sage and more - but not so much about herbal pick-me-ups to help us emerge from winter.” Her suggested blog brew to sip when browsing is something she’s drinking currently and gives her a lift. It’s easy to make, if you want to try it yourself, have to hand some Nettle, St John’s Wort and Rosemary, the details for the brew will be on Elizabeth’s blog on the 20th Feb.

Hmmm - maybe it's time for me to think about tonic herbs and adaptogens!