Forest Bathing

On my desk there is a small wooden bowl filled with dried crushed needles of balsam fir. Whether dead or alive, this tree is intensely aromatic, and when I was young and wandering around in the woods I often found it mildly intoxicating. Many years later it evokes the same response.

Sometimes when people stop by I share the scent with them. But mostly I just stir a finger through the dry needles and take in a therapeutic breath or two. I have smelled these volatile oils enough times that my nose-brain can now reproduce them. All I have to do is be quiet, breathe in slowly, and imagine the tree. Like a song in the head, I can conjure up balsam fir in the nose, even in the absence of its needles and bark.

Balsam fir is a conifer, an evergreen. Like cedars and pines and spruces, it is brimming with phytoncides, the essential oils of trees. They do smell good. And they also seem to affect us in significant ways.

Just in the last generation or two, a great shift has taken place. Americans are no longer outdoor people. On average, we now spend 93 percent of our lives indoors, and much of the remaining time is spent in cars. This is new territory for us. In all of our long human history, we have never before lived in such continuous climate-control while focusing the lion's share of our attention on two-dimensional screens. It is the first time we have ever been so personally removed from nature, which is actually where all of our deepest roots still exist even if we rarely acknowledge it.

In response to this pervasive indoor confinement that has so completely crept in upon us, the radical and subversive act of forest bathing was invented. This is a new-age term that sounds a little goofy. When I came across it, I thought of all the swims I've taken in the woods, in the ponds and lakes and swamps and rivers and streams.

But forest bathing is different. It has nothing particular to do with water at all. Basically it means to immerse yourself in nature, to take it all in -- the smells and sounds and textures and sights. The goal is to simply be out in the trees and slow down. It is not about accomplishing anything or hiking or exercising. Things like phones and cameras and step counters aren't allowed.

In Japan, forest bathing is actually considered a legitimate medical treatment and covered by insurance. And in parts of the U.S., it is so newly popular there are long waiting lists of people wanting to get out in the woods on a guided experience with a forest therapist. Hard to believe, but true.

Why all the fuss? Here the known benefits of being out in nature, some of which have been directly linked to breathing in the sweet-smelling oils of trees like balsam fir: improved moods, feeling more alive, better memory, deeper relaxation, less stress and worry, more clear thinking, increased activity of certain blood cells which fight rogue cancers, lower blood pressure, less adrenalin, less cortisol, less hostility, and less negative thinking about self.

Getting outside can do a body lots of good, especially when the sidewalks and parking lots are left behind.

The Spring of Apricots

Although my apricot trees produce hundreds of little earnest white blossoms every year, I have never tasted a single one of their fruits.  It's always the same story -- too cold at night, and too few apricots, but for some inviolate reasons I continue to water and mulch and care for the trees anyway.  In the orchard, hope springs eternal. 

The obscure variety I planted, Adirondack Gold, was discovered growing high in the mountains of New York in a landscape colder than ours.  As such, these trees should be able to handle the most rugged winters Idaho can throw at them.  And they do seem to winter well, soldiering on through stiff winds and deep freezes with no apparent troubles.  

But apricots are precocious, and it is during the spring bloom when things unravel.  As with any fruit tree, as long as the flowers remain tightly ensconced in their protective buds they can tolerate freezing nights.  And then once the fruit has set, forming little bulbous swellings under the senescent flowers, colder temperatures are once again no big deal.  But in between, when the committed flower has fully opened its leaves, things are exquisitely vulnerable to frost.  It is during this showy flowery extravagant time that future fruits are wiped out by cold nights.  Beauty obviously has its vulnerabilities.

Now some people are saying this has been a cold spring.  Others believe we haven't had spring at all because of the rain and clouds, and their feet haven't yet had time to thaw after walking around in flip flops all winter.  But the apricots are saying otherwise.  All these louring storm clouds have insulated the tender flowers well enough that they have now survived for the first time ever.  So by whatever indicators this spring qualifies as a slow one, or a cold one, or a non-existent one, there is another measure that disagrees, and that is the apricots themselves.  To them, this has been their warmest May since they were dug up in a far-off state and transplanted here.  And having been so often frustrated in the past, the trees are now exploding with so much fruit energy they almost seem to be getting ahead of themselves.  This should give me some fresh apricots later in the summer, maybe a few hundred to gorge on, enough at least to make the point that the common and obvious yardstick is not the only one, and perhaps not even the most important one.  

The Nimble Mind of Shank's Mare

"And ay until the day he died, he rode on good shank's mare".  Scottish song, circa 1724.

Riding on shank's mare was once a common expression.  As shank means shin bone, this useful but forgotten phrase simply refers to using your own two legs to get places.  When you ride on shank's mare, you walk.  

The health benefits of walking are well documented, with many studies suggesting that it protects against conditions like diabetes, dementia, anxiety, and heart disease.  For those who crave the clout of lab science, walking's list of proven virtues gets a little more persuasive each year.

But there is another other aspect of walking that remains more obscure, being quite a bit harder to calculate and measure.  This is the thinking that happens while walking.  Somehow, when the shanks move, the brain is induced to open a little wider, reaching some of its highest levels of creativity and connectivity.  Brains seem to be wired to operate best at leg speed, which is a little slower than a car and a lot faster than a chair.    

In writing this article, I talked with some of the great walkers I know.  These are people who took their first baby steps and kept right on going.  At once unencumbered, they somehow never became disenchanted with this great newfound skill that could take them all around the world at a pace they understood.

For them, ambling is habitual and regular and just part of being alive.  As much as possible they continue to go by shank's mare to the fishing hole, the church, the depth of the woods, and even all the way to the mountain top, moving steadily along the roads and crooked trails at their own human speed.  When offered more speed or power, they find reasons to politely decline.  It is almost impossible to seduce them with throttles and fuel tanks, stubborn as they are and already satisfied with their birthright.    

I asked whether walking improves their thinking.  Each was enthusiastic -- yes! -- as they confirmed that walking makes their minds work better in certain transcendent ways they can't seem to do without.  When they walk, they are more creative.  They stumble onto elusive solutions they weren't going to find as long as they were chair-bound and confined indoors.  And the trivial clutter in their noggins leaks out a little each time their legs move.  Most actually confessed these are the real reasons they will never stop walking, at least until the day they die.

For an old horse, shank's mare turned out to be a lot wiser than we thought she was. 

Brain and Smoke

This time of year we usually have a few new sheepskins, salted and stacked and raw, waiting patiently on the cold garage floor and looking still a little bit alive.  Although the skins could easily be thrown away, they gently assert their right to survive and be turned into something both beautiful and useful.  It is the "waste not, want not" principle of yesteryear, and a fine winter project. 

In the first years, we did a good job with the wool and a poor job with the skin, which, when dried, transitioned into stiff rawhide with sharp pokey edges.  The internet experts recommended more and more oiling to make them supple.  But no amount of rubbed oil made a dent in the hard undersides, so the early sheepskins were suitable for flat floor rugs and little else.   

Last summer a visiting shepherd from Wildhair Farm showed us some sheepskins she had tanned.  Somehow her leather undersides were soft and loose nearly as a living skin would be.  She said it was all about brain and smoke.  This sounded like vaguely familiar Native American lore, and it sounded like something I ought to pay attention to.

So this time around, I opened the lamb skulls with a hand saw and scooped out the shimmering brains, each about the size of a large egg.  Carefully I slid them into the kitchen blender and added a little warm water.  About this time Julie walked in, but it was too late to turn back and there was nowhere to hide my work.  I pushed on, ignoring the retching sounds in the background, drowning them out with the comforting noise of the blender.  With a few bursts, the brains were turned into a beautiful puree that looked like pink tomato soup.  I was told after I had cleaned things up I would be expected to use the blender next on myself -- that or buy a new one.  In the morning I made myself a smoothie.  It was delicious. 

From there I massaged the brain into the clean wet skins.  Somehow, one brain was exactly enough to do one hide, reminding me that God too must have had tanning in mind.  I imagine these proportions would apply for all animals.  One brain, one hide.  The animal world comes with its own natural preservative and in just the right amount.

The texture of blended brain is interesting, more tacky than greasy and just a little sticky.  We let the skins sit awhile so the brains could soak in well, and then we worked them, rubbing and stretching and softening the fibers.  One of the traditional ways to do this involves chewing the leather.  But although I suggested Julie gnaw on the hides while I was gone to work, she turned me down, so in the evenings we stretched them by hand.  I noticed the brains also softened my hands from the ravages of hospital soap.  Apparently brains are good for a lot of things.

Once the sheepskins were dry, I built a smoldering fire out back and smoked them for an hour.  And it worked, helping the leather retain its inherent softness.  Maybe now it's time to work on a brain balm for dry hands.   

December Soap Challenge - Straight Lines

The challenge this month was to learn to make straight lines in soap.  I used a come blue candy sticks as inspiration for my color pattern.  Part of what makes straight lines possible is to use a larger percentage of hard oils and a fragrance oil that accelerates trace.  I used 69% hard oils/31% soft oils, but didn't have a fragrance oil that accelerates trace (I had some bad experiences with some FO that accelerate when I was a newbie at soaping and have avoided them ever since). Because of that my soap layers took a very long time to set up; 45 minutes to an hour at least. This was a challenge that was a challenge! But I loved learning how to accomplish straight lines and am excited to use it in my future soap designs.  




               "Candy Stripes"       

           The finished product

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These are the candy sticks I used as inspiration for the design.


This is one of the practice loaves.   


The pink and white loaf before it was cut.  The lines looked so straight on the outside!



May 2017 Soap Challenge

For the soap challenge this month I learned to make a soap recipe that is soft enough to mold like clay.   I decided that I wanted something from nature to try and create.  While searching for pictures I liked I found one of an owl that I really liked, but changed it to a great horned owl.  I painted the eyes on marbles with a flat side on the back. The bar of soap is from a batch of goat milk soap I made a few months ago. This was very time consuming, but I really really like the end result.  Hopefully no one will try and use it! 

August Soap Challenge - The Dancing Funnel

This months challenge was for a technique called The Dancing Funnel.  It is necessary to have a batter that does not accelerate so that there will be plenty of time to make the design (in which squeeze bottles are used).  I decided to enter the soap that I used two colors instead of the batch I used 4 colors, as I let my circles get smaller and smaller as I got closer to the end with the 4-color batch. My recipe worked well; didn't accelerate or separate.  I used Tea Tree essential oil mixed with Moroccan Mint fragrance oil (both from Brambleberry).  For the blue I used "peacock" mica from Mad Oils and a mix of "tennis ball breaker" from Mad Oils and "Fizzy Lemonade" from Brambleberry for the yellow.  At the very end the soap batter was just thick enough to leave the circle raised a little bit.  I really liked that look, so I didn't plane them down too much. 


Dirt, Germs, and Barnyard Eggs

The cultures are back -- no Salmonella.
After reading about the massive recall of half a billion eggs last August, I decided to do a little testing on my own backyard flock.  Because I like to cook my eggs sunny side up and use them raw in Cherry Garcia ice cream, I wondered a little whether I was risking a case of vomiting, bloody diarrhea, and fever.  After all, the instructions on store eggs make you feel like it's a big deal if you forget to wash your hands after touching an egg.
Although the older kids declared themselves unavailable for this experiment, Cady and Porter volunteered as assistants.  One night after dark we lifted each chicken off its roost and obtained the requisite swab from where the sun doesn't shine.  We then inoculated 21 culture dishes with these dirty Q tips and brought them to the lab where they were incubated.  The agar plates grew a little of this and a little of that, but no disease-causing organisms like Salmonella.
Now our chickens aren't especially clean.  They scratch around in horse manure looking for tasty flies and larvae.  Their kitchen bucket, not being refrigerated, smells pretty ripe by the time it reaches them.  They share their food with wild birds like magpies and blackbirds, as well as the occasional mouse.  What's more, they don't distinguish dining room from outhouse.  To an outsider, they probably don't appear any cleaner than factory chickens.  But they do spend half the day outside and each bird has more than one square foot to move about.
None of them have ever taken antibiotics.  They eat mostly wheat, barley, and oats I buy from the grain elevator, with table scraps for desert.  Outside, they eat small moving things and maybe a little grass.  They also clean up sunflower seeds dropped by the chickadees.
But they don't carry pathogenic organisms.  We don't need to pasteurize their eggs, or wash them in bleach like packaged salads.
The difference between our small flock and the power layers toiling in big egg factories is the conditions.  Sunlight, fresh air, dirt, and space are somehow antiseptic.  As John Ingraham, emeritus professor of microbiology at UC-Davis said, "healthy chickens living in decent surroundings are just going to be a lot more resistant to Salmonella.  Take any creature, ourselves included, you put them in terrible stressful conditions, and they become susceptible to disease."
Unfortunately, the focus of the FDA seems to be on sterilization of food rather than trying to understand and imitate natural systems that are in essence self-cleaning.  As long as we continue crowding farm animals into unnatural living conditions, feeding them antibiotics daily, and irradiating or chlorinating food, we will predictably see recalls of eggs, peanut butter, spinach, and other foods due to E Coli and Salmonella.  And even with the recalls, Americans will still get Salmonella poisoning about a million times a year.

Fall 2010

America's Farm Dog

Two years ago we got a collie dog from a ranch in central Idaho.  Not a Border Collie, and not a long-nosed Lassie collie.  This was an old style farm collie, which carries the official but somewhat misleading name of English Shepherd.  


The English Shepherd is a true American breed, developed by early settlers and farmers out of lines of various herding dogs brought over from the British Isles.  Breeding was done on the farm with emphasis on ability and function, not form.  For generations these dogs were the most common farm dog in America.  


Instead of specializing in one particular job, English Shepherds specialized in being well-rounded dogs who could herd or gather anything from cows to chicks while bonding with livestock and protecting them from predators.  They were also good at hunting rats, squirrels, and other critters that moved in too close to grain bins.  And being ideal companion dogs, they watched over lots of young farm kids who might get into trouble with Jersey bulls and aggressive mother cows.


Because they were bred for performance instead of appearance, they come in a variety of sizes, colors, and body types.  Some look similar to Border Collies.  Others are as big as German Shepherds.  Most have at least two colors.  Some are lanky, others more stocky.  Nonetheless they are easily recognizable.  This spring I found them represented in two paintings at the Chesterfield homesite.  


This diversity has been a blessing for the breed, as noted by Mary Peaslee, former president of the ES Club.  "It seems that allowing for less standardization maintains type better over time.  Dogs that are more standardized tend to get progressively more exaggerated in some direction as time goes by.  Allowing for diversity seems to balance things out, so that the group as a whole stays quite stable."  Consequently English Shepherds have remained true to their original working form.  And diversity notwithstanding, they are very much a distinct breed with its own special character.


English Shepherds are known for an abiding love and affection toward their people.  They also have a deep commitment to rules and routines, and may maintain order on the farm even in their master's absence.  And although they are independent thinkers they are easily trained.  They stay home.  They seem to watch for patterns and opportunities to help.


For an American breed so well-suited to farm and family life, one might wonder why they went from ubiquitous in the 1950's to so rare today.  The biggest reason had to do with the disappearance of traditional family farms.  Few collies were needed to keep foxes and deer pushed back because henhouses and orchards were no longer part of the countryside.  In this new world of big farms, English Shepherds were out of work.  


With flocks and herds now numbered in the thousands, English Shepherds were replaced by more specialized breeds like Border Collies for moving sheep, Aussies and Heelers for herding cattle, Pyrenees and Akbash for guarding sheep, and Rat Terriers for hunting varmints.  Plus the farm collies were homegrown and not as exotic as modern imported breeds that were marketed more aggressively.  


As Jan Hilborn so insightfully stated, "In the 1950's, tractors finished replacing horses, beautiful hardwood floors were covered by linoleum, wooded kitchen tables gave way to chrome and formica and the all-purpose old-fashioned farm dog became equally unfashionable."


Although farm collies can easily adapt to town life, they are not for everyone.  They are ill-suited for kennels because they need jobs to do and people to give themselves to.  Nor do they do well in homes that don't have time for them.  They are not dogs to ignore.  Without a job they may bark too much, or become aggressive toward strangers, or simply make it their life's work to manage a little yard.  Sometimes they are bossy if they feel rules are being ignored.  Some of them don't like water much.  But as well-rounded dogs they are tough to beat.

Fall 2013

Haying With Horses

One thing leads to another on the farm, and the whole project takes on a life of its own as time goes along.  At our place it eventually became necessary to find a source of motive power for some of the bigger jobs, or we'd be staying at the poultry and gardening level, which wouldn't be bad except for those woolly cows that have worked themselves into our cares and routines.

I've never been a car person and could generally care less about what I drive, which is probably not a surprise given the looks of the old blue Chevy.  And I found I wasn't much of a tractor person either.  While some aspiring farmers dream about shiny yellow and green traction, I only ever wanted leather, hooves, and horse sweat.  In that way I suppose I was born about a century late, preferring a different rhythm and pace altogether.

Through a couple of my patients I got connected with a real rare live working teamster over in Liberty, Daryl Woolstenhulme, who not only sold me a well-broke pair of workhorse mares, but invited me several times to his place to work so I could learn how to avoid crushing a hand or breaking my neck.  Driving a team is pretty dissimilar to riding horses, and somewhat more complicated.  But after a few sessions the willies worked themselves out to where I could get going on my own.

There turned out to be quite a few jobs the team could help with, chiefest of which was putting up hay.  This also happened to be the part I had the most reservations about, having despised the whole process ever since I sneezed and coughed and spit my way through a summer job years ago.  At the time I thought I had a bad cold.  But it was obviously allergies, which continued to rear their ugly head years later whenever I had to handle more than a few small bales at a time.  So as I considered the scope of my ambitions with the draft horses, I sometimes wondered if I was a little insane to think I could even get the hay cut and piled, much less enjoy the whole thing.  At the same time I had an abiding feeling that the allergies might not be such a problem in a horse-based system, and that there might even be some undiscovered rewards.

Haying with horses was totally different than what I'd done before.  The 1947 mower cut each stem only once, leaving a nice five foot sweep of toppled grass without any of the shredded powdery dusty stuff that used to find its way into my eyes, nose, throat, lungs, and down my shirt.  I don't think I sneezed even once, and I certainly never had the itchy eyes I remembered so well.  Some of my rows were a little more serpentine than straight, so we made a few extra passes to catch the standing strips, but the horses raked it all up nicely in the end, and we forked it into a big pile that we tromped down and rounded off to shed the rain.  A month's worth of fine loose hay for 13 animals.

Best of all was the team's willingness.  One word was all they needed to lean into their collars and pull the mower upfield.  And when we called it a day and headed home, the smells of fresh loose hay and sweaty horses remained a pleasant, inoffensive memory.  The work turned out to be so rewarding that I sometimes found it a little hard to sleep the night before.  And after a solid winter (I hope) of sleigh rides and plowing snow, the girls should be in good shape for next summer's fieldwork.

    Fall 2012

    Skins and Surfaces

    Someone once asked me why I had to touch so many things -- seed pods, smooth unvarnished cedar benches in old Buddhist temples, rock walls, wooden baseball bats, leather, dirt.  Unaware of my habit, I mumbled something mundane about textures.  He went on with his hands-off life, and I kept leaving my fingerprints next to my footprints, trying to sort out trees by their bark and apples by their shapes and skins.

    Later it seemed to me that the outsides of things are too often underestimated, maligned, and marginalized.  "Beauty is only skin deep" is a dig on skin as well as beauty, and both could use a few defenders against the critics who discount the one because they can't measure it, and strip off the other because it's only a layer.

    Our skin is, after all, just as critical to life as any of its more glamorous internal co-organs.  The barrier it provides against water and any number of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites is no small thing.  It synthesizes at least one vitamin and stores others.  It is capable of self repair.  It can stretch or shrink.  It enables sensation and even makes pheromones.  Not too shabby for a surface.

    Neither should the skins of foods be disregarded.  The old saying about the peel being good for you actually happens to be true.  It's generally in the peel where nutrients are truly concentrated, whether it's the common vitamins or other impressive sounding things like anthocyanins, resveratrol, and lycopene.  

    Beyond the basic science are a number of other more elusive characteristics to do with aesthetics, flavors, textures, and appearance.  Take a good loaf of sourdough bread.  It should look and sound and feel right first -- deep brown with a hollow thump when tapped and a crackly crust stout enough to scuff up the roof of your mouth.  And because the best flavor is found in the crust, each bite best include some crust along with the soft center.  If the crust has failed, the whole loaf is a lost cause, and if it can't be choked down it's better off tossed into the henhouse or compost pile.

    Interestingly, touch is probably the most enduring of the senses.  When we visit Grandma Annie, who turns 98 this fall, she holds our hands.  Sight is gone, with taste and smell not what they used to be.  But she still has good hands. 

    For me anyway, touch might be the most cherished sense.  It's enough to keep me fighting for the heel of the loaf, the child's hand, and the oiled leather boots.  Sometimes, it seems, surfaces matter most.  

    Summer 2013


    One of the best childhood gifts I can remember was a set of wooden snowshoes.  For someone like me, who spent so much time wandering around in the woods building fires and snow caves and following animal tracks, it was the perfect gift.  Soon I was off the roads and snowmobile tracks and going anywhere I wanted without slogging up to my waist in snow.  I found I could also get to places that were were barely accessible even in the summer.  Beaver bogs, swamps, and the far side of the river all were now opened up, and the world became quite a bit bigger.

    Snowshoes first appeared in central Asia sometime around 4000 B.C.  But in the Old World they remained rudimentary devices of limited function because skis were evolving into the primary means of winter travel.  It was the American Indians who were the truly great snowshoe innovators -- Cree, Huron, Algonquin, Iroquois, and others.  Each tribe had its own materials and methods, and hundreds of designs and styles developed, adapted to a myriad of conditions.  Many were intricate and beautiful and of outstanding craftsmanship.  Thus the snowshoe became uniquely identified with North America.  And its importance can hardly be overstated, because without snowshoes much of the forested temperate zone would have never been settled by the aboriginal peoples.  Later, the early immigrants traded for snowshoes or persuaded the Natives to teach them how to make their own.

    Unlike snowboarding or skiing, snowshoeing is hardly technical and can generally be started and even mastered by anyone able to walk.  It is affordable and safe, makes nice trails, and moves at a pace manageable for companion dogs.  I believe the unique mechanism of snowshoeing in unpacked snow strengthens the tibialis anterior muscle in a way that protects against runners' shinsplints.  And when snowshoers use ski poles, they keep their rotator cuff muscles in good condition.  It's an exercise of moderate intensity appropriate for a wide age range.  And it truly is the best way to get around off the beaten path all winter long.

    Most of the snowshoes now sold are made of plastic and lightweight metal.  A starter pair costs around $75, and a really nice set about three times as much.  But because there's no lift ticket to buy, and very little (if any) to spend on gas, it's an investment many people can afford.  With reasonable care, most snowshoes are fairly durable.

    Maybe I'm just a stubborn traditionalist, but after trying several types of snowshoes I always come back to my wooden Iversons, made of straight-grained white ash steamed and bent, strung with about 100 feet of rawhide, and secured with supple leather bindings.  Because they are long they provide great loft, which is important in powdery dry western snow.  They don't squeak or rattle.  They are repairable.  And I can't help liking the way they look.  When I'm about 94 and have taken my last long winter walk, I plan to restring them and pass them along to someone with younger legs, hopefully a great grandson or daughter who is a snowshoe freak like me. 

    Winter 2013

    Holy Crap

    One of the underrated benefits of big animals is their big poo.  Between all the grass and water than goes in there's a lot that passes through, highly enriched.  It's great fertilizer, and it's all free.

    If animals are out on pasture most of the year, like they should be, they do a good job of scattering it themselves.  Not too much in any one spot.  And the grass truly is greener around the cow patties, at least when there's water.  All that nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, organic matter, and lots of trace substances is just what the soil microbes need to make nutritious plant food.  In the Far East, any and all manure was valued so highly it was locked up to protect against theft.  Every scrap of it went back on the land, and there are wild accounts of incredibly productive farming.  Like 40 acres producing enough food for 240 people, 24 pigs, and 24 donkeys.   

    But winter manure is a different beast altogether, because with centralized haystacks most of the manure ends up there too, unable to get to where it's needed.  The piles then are only good for keeping bill collectors away and growing tasty fly larvae for the chickens.  

    Because a manure spreader seemed to be a critical item for the farm, maybe even the single most important piece of equipment, I was surprised when I couldn't find one anywhere in the area.  The closest one available was in Ohio, where an Amish farmer had listed one for sale.  Working with the Amish is interesting.  Because they don't have phones, I would send a letter or call the neighbor with a message.  A few days later I'd hear something back.  But we got the deal done, and when it arrived on the trailer I moved the Toyota out of the garage to make space for it.  Priorities.  Evidently cars are easier to come by than manure spreaders.

    Like most tools the Amish use it is solid, repairable, adjustable, and understandable.  In other words it's pretty much the opposite of what you can buy at Wal Mart.  And it was probably even made in the USA.  I expect it to last my lifetime, if not longer.  And it was used, another bonus.  For some reason I've always felt partial to well built stuff that has been around the block and just needs some grease, TLC, and maybe a few repairs.

    As soon as the barnyard had thawed enough to accept a pitchfork we got going.  The manure spreader holds 25 bushels, which turned out to be just right for two people working comfortably while talking about college, roommates, and boyfriends.  And when the hopper was topped off the horses were anxious to head down the field.  With chains and beaters engaged it scattered a nice wide strip, only occasionally pitching a chunk forward into the back of my head and down my shirt.

    Now that I've got the barnyard figured out I just need to set up the house with that composting toilet, or maybe an outhouse around the side.  The Chinese valued their night soil so highly that it used to be considered polite for dinner guests to go to the bathroom before leaving.  I kid you not.  But I haven't yet been able to talk the family into making that sort of personal contribution to the farm.

    Fall 2012

    Why I Quit Taking Vitamins

    Because vitamins cannot be created from scratch we are obligated to eat them.  For eons of time they came exclusively from foods, but beginning in the 1930's, vitamins have also been available as little round pills.  It is increasingly popular to incorporate these into the daily routine.  Currently more than half of Americans take a vitamin or supplement daily, generating many billions of dollars in annual sales for the industry.


    As a college student, being health conscious and believing the usual propaganda from vitamin companies and fitness magazines, I thought it would be a good idea to start taking a multivitamin.  It seemed like it wouldn't hurt, and there were some vague benefits either hinted at or promised outright.


    Eventually I noticed a change in my habits.  After taking the morning vitamin, a little voice in my head started helping me justify eating junk and sitting around too much.  In other words, because I got my recommended daily allowance early, the pressure to do all the right things throughout the day was off.  This wasn't anything conscious, and it wormed its way in gradually, so it took me a few years to figure it out.  Once I realized what had happened I was disgusted and threw the vitamins in the trash.


    Last summer a Taiwanese group reported a fascinating study that describes what happened to me 20 years ago.  Chiou and colleagues wondered why people in the developed world take more vitamins and supplements than ever before even while public health has not improved (it's actually worse by a number of measures).


    Their study involved giving placebo pills and calling them vitamins.  When people believed they got a vitamin their behavior changed.  They were more likely to "engage in hedonic behavior", they walked and exercised less, and they chose an all-you-can-eat buffet over a healthy meal.  Chiou called this an "illusory invulnerability caused by taking dietary supplements".  Basically people take a vitamin, pat themselves on the back, and think they can get away with more afterwards.  I found I had become one of those people.


    The food industry loves fads involving vitamins and supplements because it's relatively easy for them to manipulate the nutrients and thus manipulate the public. Whether the trend is low fat, no fat, low carb, high fiber, fortified with calcium, high in beta carotene, high in antioxidants, gluten free, vitamin fortified, or high in omega 3's, it doesn't matter.  The processed food companies will either put it in or take it out, whatever they think we want, and they will then market it to us.  

    Winter 2011

    Antibiotics on the Farm

    Recently a bill was re-introduced before the House and Senate that proposes limitations on the use of antibiotics by healthy farm animals.  This legislation, called The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), stipulates that seven types of antibiotics commonly used by humans are no longer to be routinely given to farm animals unless they are actually sick.

    These antibiotics include familiar ones such as penicillin/amoxicillin, sulfa drugs, tetracyclines, and macrolides (Z-pack).  
    Most people are not aware that at least 70% of antibiotics used in the United States are fed to healthy food animals without a prescription.  These animals get the antibiotics in their daily feed.  The reasoning is that it helps them grow a little faster when living in stressful, crowded, and unsanitary conditions.
    There are, however, a number of hidden costs.  
    The biggest concern is antibiotic resistance.  The "every meal, every animal" approach is in fact an ideal breeding ground for resistant organisms.  Administering constant, low levels of antibiotics is actually the best way to create superbugs.  It's much more prudent to give a therapeutic dose only until the animal is well again.
    Years ago patients were given penicillin shots many times a year, perhaps almost every time they visited the doctor.  You may recall that era.  But the more an antibiotic is used, the less well it works.  These days, penicillin is only effective for some streptococcal infections, like strep throat.  It is now useless for skin problems, pneumonia, ear infections, sinusitis, urinary infections, etc.
    In an effort to protect and preserve the antibiotics we have, physicians have generally become much more stingy about prescribing them when they're not truly needed.  When we say "it's a virus...antibiotics won't help", that's what we're talking about.  If we respect this concept, antibiotics will work quickly and powerfully when they are needed.  Unfortunately, factory farms have not made a similar effort.
    It's easy to assume that drug companies will just develop new antibiotics to replace the old ones.  However, the last antibiotic approved by the FDA came out in 2003.  That's not a very reassuring thought when one realizes we are burning through the available ones fairly quickly.  And furthermore, there are currently very few antibiotics even in the research pipeline.  
    About 20,000 people now die each year from MRSA (more than HIV/AIDS).  MRSA is a resistant staph bacteria that didn't exist until a few years ago, and is now only susceptible to a couple of antibiotics.  I treat MRSA about once a month in Soda Springs.  In bigger cities and hospitals it's much more common.
    The argument raised by the industrial animal producers, who oppose this bill or any other limitations on antibiotic use for healthy animals, is that the price of meat will go up, by one estimate $5 to $10 more per year per family.  However, Denmark, a big pork producing country (26 million hogs a year), has reduced their farm antibiotic use by half while productivity has gone up, and they say the cost of meat for the consumer did not increase. 
    The factory farms, though, are not accounting for all the costs.  What is the price tag for an antibiotic that loses its effectiveness?  Why do we keep having E coli and Salmonella outbreaks from hamburger, chicken, eggs, spinach, and other foods?  I can tell you from a medical perspective that the solution is not more antibiotics, but proper, judicious use of antibiotics and a good hard look at how animals are raised and processed.  Cows that eat grass rarely even carry pathogenic E coli in their digestive tracts.  On the other hand, their counterparts living on corn in the Nebraska feedlots are literally wallowing in this particular bacteria.  They are colonized with it, they stand all day in it, and (not surprisingly) it ends up in meat.   

    The Ride to Work

    It was with some trepidation that I began the habit of pedaling to work along the infamous Bailey Creek road.  I didn't care about tired legs, a helmet head, or bugs in the eyes; it was the road itself that I worried about.  Mainly the lack of road.  While the town roads are too wide, most routes out of town are significantly narrower.  There's no shoulder, and the edges are ragged like the coast of Maine.  This means space problems when oversized pickups rumble by.  
    In 40 years of being in the (bike) saddle, I've interacted with quite a few lousy drivers.  Once in Provo Canyon on a screaming downhill section I was run off the road by an ill-tempered trucker.  I've been insulted with horns and taunts, and hit with a tomato now and then.
    Thinking how nice it would be to have a bike lane, I dusted off Old Yellow and began to commute.  I even ordered a little rear-view mirror so I could make sure the cars behind gave me space.  If they didn't, I figured I could make a quick turn into the gravel and avoid becoming an ER patient myself.  
    To the credit of the good people of Caribou county, and to my pleasant surprise, I was given virtually universal respect on the road.  No honking, no tomatoes, and no obnoxious drivers.  Period.  It's the first place I've ever seen such stellar road manners, applied so naturally.  Even people who would never ride a bike themselves are pleasant, and the monster trucks slow down and swing wide.  So it's been a reasonable trade -- instead of a bike lane, I got people who get along.
    With a little wind, rain, or snow blustering around, the "why ride?" question might cross a few minds.  It's not bad crosstraining exercise for the lightweight runner legs, but the real reason is the productive thinking time that doesn't seem to come to me inside a car.  And I decided a long time ago that I'd usually rather listen to meadowlarks than radio noise.  It's also a good way to find a few more butterflies for Cady's collection.  
    Now the bike.  Old Yellow and I go back 19 years when I rescued him from a rental shop in Maine.  Like most old and well-designed human-powered tools, he provides reliable work for a reasonable effort, and can be used by almost anyone.  Repairs are easy, unlike a car.  A little grease in the bearings, and a new set of tires now and then, and he gets me around as well as he ever did. 

    Spring 2010  

    Winter Walkers

    About this time of year a few outliers keep appearing.  It's not just their dark jackets against all the cold white that make them stand out so much.  What mostly catches the eye and impresses the heart is their persistence in venturing out into all sorts of mountain weather.


    These hardy souls should be envied not pitied.  Always moving, they layer up and stay warm the old fashioned way using body heat.  Each day finds them trading the tee vee's babbling for real world sights and sounds, clearing their minds and keeping muscles young.  Ice, it turns out, can even be a good way to practice reflexes and balance.  It's the original exercise, the cheapest and most convenient.  It's also the least elite.  There's a reason walking was invented first. 


    Sometimes when the wind is whipping the snow to Wyoming they may hesitate ever so briefly at the door.  Maybe they'll grab an old scarf before heading out.  But they'll find the resolve somehow.  They always do.  And when they come full circle back up the path, through the dooryard, and up the steps, the warm house glow is just a little more inviting once again.  Supper, whatever it is, will taste wicked good.

    Winter 2011

    Wintering Bees

    Among all the insects in the Northern Hemisphere, only honeybees remain warm and active throughout the winter.  Other insects hibernate or leave eggs.  This unique feature of bees is all the more remarkable given that each hive contains tens of thousands of individuals with no central leadership.


    Because they are small and have a large surface to size ratio, bees are quite vulnerable to cold, so they wait for the warmest winter days for their quick cleansing flights.  This cautious nature helps them survive winter.  Killer bees from Africa, now well established in Texas, venture out recklessly into the cold, a trait that is not conducive to survival in the north. 


    Although summer bees are strong fliers their lifespan is only about 45 days.  Winter bees are fatter, have a different protein profile in their blood, and live about six months.


    Sometimes bees shiver to generate heat and stay warm.  This involves simultaneous contractions of the flight muscles, forcing the upstroke and downstroke to pull against each other.  But calories soon become the limiting factor.  If all bees shivered they'd never survive winter on the 100-200 pounds of honey each hive produces. 


    Instead, bees cluster in a football-sized mass inside the hive.  The temperature of the outer layer of bees remains about 45 degrees; below this, bees can barely walk and some may even drop off and die.  When the outer bees get cold they force themselves into the cluster, in effect plugging the holes.  Sometimes the cluster gets so tight they can only stick their heads in.  This traps heat produced by the metabolism of the core bees.


    In the center of the cluster the bees walk about freely and tend to various hive duties.  During the fall the core temperature of the cluster remains in the low 80's.  Then in late winter when the queen starts laying again the core temperature is raised to about 94 degrees.  Regardless of how cold it is outdoors, the temperature inside the cluster remains constant.


    When the core bees become too warm they crawl out.  This creates holes, enlarges the cluster, and releases heat.


    One of the most intriguing aspects of this system is the utter lack of communication about temperature.  There are no chemical signals, no messages passed back and forth between inner bees and outer bees.  Instead, each bee simply reacts to its own temperature at any moment.  In this way the entire cluster regulates its core temperature very effectively.


    Sometimes we could be instructed from the more instinctual creatures like bees.  Their winter cluster is created by each individual trying to keep warm.  Instead of gorging on stored honey and then shivering alone, each eats enough and then takes a series of positions in the cluster.  Ultimately the group then provides a protective and sustaining effect that is unmatched by anything a solitary bee could do. 


    Like the hive, all of us in communities and neighborhoods are members of one another.  The bees all know it.  Some people know it and some don't.


    The issue of propriety is illustrated as well.  Although not a common word anymore, this refers to the appropriateness of actions.  A solution is not necessarily right just because it is possible.  While individual bees might conceivably try to meet their needs in other ways, that might mean straying beyond the bounds of propriety and lead to failure in the end because while there is enough honey, there is not enough for each bee to be totally warm at all times.  But each can be sufficiently warm.


    It's also a compelling idea that individuals can do things that are good and right, independent of central planning and leadership, as long as standards of propriety are observed.  

    Winter 2012   

      First Timers and the Mud Birth

      Normally I'm not a fan of home births -- too many things can go wrong.  Words like dystocia, hemorrhage, apnea, laceration, and infection come to mind.  Some of these complications even showed up on the farm a few months ago when we had a little bull calf, our first.  But we stuck with each other, and Whitefoot is now learning his way around the parched hillsides, finding the springs, and growing up with his aunts.  Not bad for a calf that wouldn't suck or even swallow the first few days of his life, and a small farmer who didn't know much about four-legged babies.
      Because oreo cows are supposed to be pretty independent, capable, and tenacious mothers, we didn't worry when Rihanna went into labor on the coldest wettest day in weeks.  Midnight came and went under a steady rain.  When she tuckered out I found a rope and pulled her calf onto the mud.
      Things got interesting right away.  No breathing, no muscle tone, just a wide eye staring back into my headlamp.  That's an Apgar of one, maybe two.  Not good for a baby, and I thought it must be lousy for a calf as well.  Because he didn't respond to stimulation I covered his slimy nose and gave him about ten puffs.  Then he began to breathe.  Rihanna leaned forward and started licking off what I had missed, and we faded into the dark to let the mothering begin.
      When I later made rounds, though, neither had yet stood up from the mud and Whitefoot looked like a wreck again, limp and shivering.  Forget the bonding.  He needed a warm bath and some time by the fire.  And the colostrum that Simmons and Lloyd brought over.
      But over the next few days we couldn't get the little guy to eat.  Although advice came freely, most of it amounted to squirting milk around his mouth, or wetting a finger for him to suck on.  That might have worked if he had any mouth action, but he hadn't even swallowed yet, much less sucked on anything.  So I milked and he took it by tube, kicking and screaming and falling on the ground the whole time.  All this hands-on was a lot of fun, but I started wondering if the rough birth had permanently lowered his IQ.  
      In the newborn world it's not uncommon for babies to eat poorly the first couple of days, so I decided the next step was to let him get good and hungry.  The BarHBar boyz agreed.  I quit milking altogether, backed way off, and watched closely, hoping the milk wouldn't dry up.  The headline "Local doctor can't save his first calf" kept running through my head.  Two days of fasting came and went.  Then he found his way to a teat and discovered the suck/swallow thing.  Beautiful.  For a long time I couldn't get enough of watching it.

      Fall 2012