Hermitage Exercise


Dia daoibh a chairde.  September  is over.  That means there is only one more month of harvest before we get to settle in for winter.   In the very sensible Irish calendar based on the agricultural cycle, we have moved into Deireadh Fómhair or the “end of Fómhar.”  

Harvest is always a busy season around here, but we also added a big construction/reorg project on top of all the other things I am not used to doing.   Add a corrupt webhosting database  and the last couple months  have been a little bit of a blur.  (But doesn’t my new website look nice?)

Not so much though, that I haven’t noticed that people are struggling.  Due to the current public health crisis, we are all kind of cooped up in our own secluded hermitages.  It seems to be getting to people.

This is an exercise I usually ask students to do, but you might also find it diverting if  you are feeling especially cooped up.  I was thinking that now would be a good time for me to start a new exploration, just because things are so different with the ash trees gone.

It’s really simple. Just find a spot you can sit every day and start to observe this spot as it changes through the seasons.  You might journal about it, photograph it, or even sketch it.   Try to notice as many details as you can.

This poem has always seemed to me to be the work of someone who was keenly aware of their ecosystem and I like to read it to as a reminder to appreciate the very simple things in my surroundings that make me happy.  It’s an Irish poem (shocking I know) written sometime in the 10th century and this is Kuno Meyer’s translation:

I have a hut in the wood,
None knows it save my God:
An ash tree on the hither side, a hazel bush beyond,
A huge old tree encompasses it.

Two heath-clad doorposts for support,
And a lintel of honeysuckle:
The forest around its narrowness sheds
Its mast upon fat swine.

The size of my pasture is tiny, not too tiny,
Many are its familiar paths:
From its gable a sweet strain sings
My lady in her cloak of the thrush’s hue.

The stags of Oakridge leap
Into the river of clear banks:
Thence red Roigne can be seen,
Glorious Mucraime and Maenmag.

Hidden, lowly little abode,
Which has possession of … ,
To behold it will not be granted me,
Yet I shall be able to find its …

A hiding mane of a green-barked yew-tree
Which supports the sky:
Beautiful spot! the large green of an oak
Fronting the storm.

A tree of apples – great its bounty!
Like a hostel, vast:
A pretty bush, thick as a fist, of tiny hazelnuts,
Branching, green.

A choice pure spring and princely water
To drink:
There spring watercress, yew-berries,
Ivy-bushes of a man’s thickness.

Around it tame swine lie down,
Goats, pigs,
Wild swine, grazing deer,
A badger’s brood.

A peaceful troop, a heavy host of denizens of the soil,
Atrysting at my house:
To meet them foxes come,
How delightful!

Fairest princes come to my house,
A ready gathering!
Pure water, perennial bushes,
Salmon, trout.

A bush of rowan, black sloes,
Dusky blackthorns,
Plenty of food, acorns, pure berries,
Bare flags.

A clutch of eggs, honey, delicious mast,
God has sent it:
Sweet apples, red whortleberries,
Berries of the heath.

Ale with herbs, a dish of strawberries,
Of good taste and color,
Haws, berries of the yew,
Sloes, nuts.

A cup with mead of hazelnut, bluebells,
Quick-growing rushes,
Dun oaklets, manes of briar,
Goodly sweet tangle.

When pleasant summertime spreads its colored mantle,
Sweet-tasting fragrance!
pignuts, wild marjoram, green leeks,
Verdant pureness!

The music of the bright redbreasted men,
A lovely movement!
The strain of the thrush, familiar cuckoos
Above my house.

Swarms of bees and chafers, the little musicians of the world,
A gentle chorus:
Wild geese and ducks, shortly before summer’s end,
The music of the dark torrent.

An active songster, a lively wren
From the hazel bough,
Beautiful hooded birds, woodpeckers,
A vast multitude!

Fair white birds come, herons, seagulls,
The cuckoo sings in between, —
No mournful music! — dun heath poults
Out of the russet heath.

The lowing of heifers in summer,
Brightest of seasons!
Not bitter, toilsome over the fertile plain,
Beautiful, smooth!

The voice of the wind against the branchy wood
Upon the deep-blue sky:
Cascades of the river, the note of the swan,
Delightful music!

The bravest band makes music to me,
Who have not been hired:
In the eyes of Christ the ever-young I am no worse off
Than thou art.

Though thou rejoicest in thy own pleasures,
Greater than any wealth,
I am grateful for what is given me
From my good Christ.

Without an hour of fighting, without the din of strife
In my house,
Grateful to the Prince who giveth every good
To me in my bower.

I would give my glorious kingship
With my share of Colman’s heritage,
To the hour of my death let me forfeit it
So that I may be in thy company, O Marban!

Hermit and King: A Colloquy between King Guaire of Aidne and His Brother Marban; Being an Irish Poem of the Tenth Century, edited and translated by Kuno Meyer. London: David Nutt, 1901.

Why the words “gluten-free” make me cringe.

I am about to go on a rant…

Tonight I was poking around Facebook and saw an amazing homemade raspberry pie made with homegrown berries coming out of the oven. It looked beautiful.  I also saw the baker go from happily showing off her skills, to making a sad face because someone asked her if her pie crust was gluten-free. I  am so very  tired of seeing this.

In the same way that I was tired of allopathic physicians refusing to acknowledge the idea of food sensitivities,  I am also tired of seeing food guilt forced on people because going gluten-free is trendy right now.   Orthorexia nervosa is a type of disordered eating which translates quite literally to  “fixation on rightous eating.”  The number of diagnoses is on the rise and  I can’t help but think that all this diet dogma in society is fueling this trend.

I am also tired of hearing holistic providers instantly fall back on gluten as a catch all for every physical ailment just because they don’t take time to dig for the core problem. I had a consultation a few years back with a practitioner who immediately jumped into the gluten thing – not knowing that I had been thoroughly tested for all such issues previously. I lost respect for her the moment the word “gluten” came out of her mouth.   This isn’t a limited phenomenon.   I’ve also had holistic practitioners  tell me that I would get my weight under control by getting my blood sugar down.   At last check my fasting blood glucose was 84, but of course they wouldn’t know that because they jumped the gun.  I am careful not to fall into the same trap.  I do my research and listen to my client’s story.

Gluten is a catch all term for over 70 different proteins in wheat with similar properties which are further categorized into gliadins and glutenins. If a practitioner tells you there is no way to diagnose wheat issues,  they haven’t done their research.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune enteropathy with ~1% prevalence. That’s right less than 1 percent of the population has Celiac’s disease and all Celiac’s sufferers present with Celiac disease-specific antibodies (anti-TG2, anti-D-gliadin) and a positive biopsy.

Wheat Allergies also exist. Sufferers present with wheat-specific IgE antibodies, specific clinical symptoms and positive skin prick tests.

Non-Celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) also exists. These people will test negative for the anti-TG2 and anti-D-gliadin antibodies but will test positive for anti-gliadin antibody.

If you have any of these serologic or genetic markers, you need to stop eating wheat.  But that still may not be enough.

Studies have shown that the IgG antibody response to gluten does not necessarily indicate an innate sensitivity to gluten. This is huge in terms of the bunk advice being tossed around on the Internet and picked up on by providers. The focus on removing gluten from the diet as a “cure” may be causing practitioners to overlook the fact that dysbiosis is causing the health concerns. In more simple terms, the reaction to gluten may be a symptom of disease, not the cause.

So the frequently offered diagnostic suggestion -an elimination diet – isn’t going to help make the call as to whether you have one of the gluten/wheat sensitivities or whether  it is just a case of your gut flora being off-kilter.

If you don’t have these serologic and genetic markers of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it is entirely possible that your reaction to gluten lies in an imbalanced microbial presence in your gut.

Dysbiosis may lead to increased gut permeability which is allows passage of gluten, casein and other proteins into the body where the body’s proper immune function is to create antibodies to these foreign invaders. Eliminating gluten from the diet may ease some symptoms, but in the end another protein such as casein in dairy,  or zein in corn,  will take gluten’s place and soon you end up with an individual who can’t eat anything. You all know that person who is allergic to everything.

If this is the case, you are going to need turn to a protocol that restores intestinal flora AND rebuilds the lining of your gastrointestinal tract.  Just as an aside, that does not mean “go out and drink a bunch of sugary probiotic drinks”.     I learned this lesson the hard way, setting back my own health progress using water kefir as a quick fix for probiotics.   There are no quick fixes.

Now I am not saying that you won’t feel better if you cut out gluten. Replacing gluten with some other sort of more easily digested grain may feel  better for you. I do not have any of the above reactions to wheat and still make a conscious choice not to overdo the gluten in my diet. When I do have wheat, I often eat sourdoughs  because the traditional manner of fermenting grains, starts to break down the proteins to a more digestible form.   But I am super cautious about all allergy causing foods because I have an autoimmune disorder.

Most people with autoimmune conditions will benefit from the removal of wheat, casein, zein and other foods known to result in allergies and sensitivities. I generally suggest elimination diets for autoimmune clients but that is not for the purpose of rechallenge, it is just to give the system a break. You have to be careful about this because I often feel worse when I  eliminate grains because my diet swings too low-carb. I feel better when I add a little bit back into my diet.

I have additional concerns about the gluten-free craze.  A lot of these gluten-free mixes are still full of preservatives and additives.    On top of that, they are expensive.  I don’t know how many young family’s I have seen struggling to stay on top of a food budget while trying to make “gluten-free” substitutions.

Secondly, substituting “gluten-free” for wheat doesn’t alleviate the fact that there are too many carbs in the standard American diet.    Replacing your giant morning muffin with a “gluten-free”  alternative still contributes to chronic health issues like insulin resistance and diabetes mellitus.

Replacing one finely ground white powder for another does not necessarily mitigate health concerns surrounding gluten. Todd Caldecott states in his book  Food as Medicine,  “Very few of these alternatives were tradtionally milled into a fine flour and used in baked goods, and many of them have the same types of anti-nutrient factors and immune sensitizers as gluten-containing  cereals such as wheat.” (Caldecott, 2011, p. 53)  Furthermore the companies don’t tell you that oats and barley contain gluten-like substance with very similar properties, avenin and hordein respectively.

Personally I’d rather see a client eating a whole wheat  sourdough pancake than something made from  finely processed white rice flour.  Also I hate the idea of imposing a certain dietary dogma on people.

Here is the deal. As a practitioner, I’ve seen people improve on paleo diets, I’ve seen people improve on whole grain diets. I think how you eat is a personal choice. Most people who start thinking about how they eat show improvement. They start making choices that are going to be more healthful. They start cutting out additives and preservatives from their diet. They start cooking their food. They start having more family meals and they start feeling better about their food.  That’s what I want to see.  I don’t care what they have in the pot.

Works Cited:

Alaedini, A. (2013). Celiac Disease, Gluten Sensitivity and Neuropsychiatric Disease. National Celiac’s Awareness Foundation.

Caldecott, T. (2011). Food as Medicine. Vancouver.

Nga M. Lau, P. H. (2012). Markers of Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity in Children with Autism . Columbia University: Celiac Disease Center, http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0066155.


Personal Seasoning Blends – Eat Your Bitters

0978ad46cc961d206956e9a0326dcd81The book I have my students reading for our book discussion is The Wild Medicine Solution by Guido Masé which  I am very much enjoying, myself.    It is fun to read something for the first time with them, because we are all discovering its wonderfulness together.   Guido rocks the bitters section in this book and it has really supported a lot of what I  think about in terms of bitters mitigating modern diet and environmental conditions.

I think my first exposure to the importance of bitters came from Jim McDonald who is a veritable font of information on the subject.    His Blessed Bitters is an amazing introduction to the subject, so my purpose in this post is not to explain their importance, but rather to share my ways that I incorporate Bitters into my diet.

As longtime readers know, we cook our own food around here and I am a very large proponent of eating your herbs.   I incorporate them into my food whenever possible because honestly I am not going to remember to take 20 tinctures a day.    So while it is nice to have a  bottle of warming bitters  to be able to tuck in my bag when I am out traveling,  at home I prefer to figure out ways to cook with them.    I also run pretty cold.  So even though the classic bitter greens are a hugely important part of my diet, I need to find ways to warm them up a bit.   I eat eggs and greens for breakfast almost every morning braised with seasonings.  Similarly, if  I make chamomile tea chances are I am going to add some orange peel and fennel to warm it up.   I attribute that bit of brilliance to  Darcy Blue.

One of my favorite ways to get bitters everyday is to put them in a seasoning mix that I make ahead of time and keep in a cute little crock by my stove.

To begin making this  I grind  equal amounts of what I jokingly call na Tríonóide Naofa of Seeds:  milk thistle, nettle and burdock seed.

To that mixture  I add an equal amount of the  warming bitter fenugreek, mushroom powder and a good amount of rosemary.  You can use any mushroom powder you enjoy but my teac10150173279486860her Sean recommended this 14 Mushroom Powder that is just divine and I’ve heard good things of the owner from many herbalists.

To this combination I add long pepper (because it is less drying than black pepper), sea salt,  and oregano in equal amounts.  My purpose is to try to round the flavors out in a manner similar to the way a churna would be made.    You can easily substitute in other culinary herbs  that balance out your energetics.  Perhaps you need more drying herbs?   While not a traditional churna because it is quite heavy on the bitters, I use this frequently to cook with and to season my food.

My Personal Bitter Seasoning Blend Formula

1 part milk thistle seed
1 part burdock seed
1 part nettle seed
1 part fenugreek
1 part dried mushroom powder
1/2 part rosemary
1/4 part sea salt
1/4 part long pepper or black pepper
1/4 part oregano

If you have this made up and easily accessible, it makes it a lot easier to quickly add bitters to other preparations.     For example, the recipe below is the  bone broth recipe I’ve been throwing together, lately.    I drink it as a beverage, use it for  soups and cooking  rice for a quick pilaf.    For vegetarian dishes,  I have been making my garlic-astragalus broth with the seasoning blend.

Bone Broth might be a bit of a misnomer...
Bone Broth might be a bit of a misnomer…
Bone Broth

2 lbs. marrow bones, chicken bones
1/2 cup chopped chicken livers
¼ cup infused vinegar  (I like burdock root or sage)
2 onions chopped
2 cups chopped herbs from the garden
Garlic to taste. I usually use a whole head
½ cup dried burdock root
¼ cup dried seaweed.
¼ cup dried mushroom
3 Tablespoons of your personal seasoning blend
4-6 astragalus sticks

I make this recipe in a very large crockpot.  You may want to adjust the recipe according to the size of your pot. There are many different ways to make bone broth.  I don’t always make it exactly like this. A lot of people like ginger in their bone broth but we are dealing with some dryness around here so I prefer to use copious amounts of garlic.

Place bones and liver (cut up into small pieces) in stock pot or crockpot and fill 2/3 full with water. Add vinegar and let soak in cold water for about at least an hour. 2 or 3 might be better.

Add the chopped vegetables,  dry herbs and spices.   During the winter you can use things like beets, carrots and sweet potatoes.  During the rest of the year I like to use foraged greens and herbs from the garden.  Right now dandelion greens, chickweed, chives and cleavers are all abundant.

Turn on the heat to low and let it go for a at least a day. If you make big batches like this, you can freeze it. A friend of mine freezes hers in mason jars and I think that is brilliant because you thaw out a quart a day and make sure you drink it or use it, every day. I also hate plastic. Just don’t a hot mason jar in the freezer. Wait until the broth has cooled to room temperature to avoid the risk of the glass shattering.

Celebrations, moderation, and the standard American diet…

Trapolin puts the final touches on our friend's birthday cake.
Trapolin puts the final touches on our friend’s birthday cake.

I feel like I’ve addressed this before, but  I thought this picture was a perfect opportunity to discuss my dietary philosophy.    I have a lot of friends who would be aghast at the amount of sugar and saturated fats in this cake.  Some , don’t even allow their kids to have a birthday cake which I honestly I find to be ridiculous.  The occasional celebratory cake is  not the problem with the standard American diet.  It is our inability to relegate sugar to its proper place in our diet.  The issue lies in daily soda or juice consumption and the additon of high fructose corn syrup to the pounds of processed foods Americans consume, daily.    Also, when people do eat dessert, their serving sizes are far too large.    You would be amazed how many people I can make a cake like this feed.   I also have friends who only eat honey or sugar substitutes.   That doesn’t work for me either.  Honey isn’t really any better for you than organic evaporated cane juice, if you eat too much.      I am also not going to set myself up to be the target of every slimy advertising campaign promoting the newest, greatest sugar substitute.    Excessive sweet is not health producing, regardless of its form.   I wish I could tell you differently, but that just isn’t the way your body works.

Like wise other friends tut tut when I post pictures of breads and grain products.  Personally I don’t  think carbs are going to destroy your health and make you fat.  I think that Americans eat too many of the wrong kind of carbs.   Also,  Americans  don’t soak our grains or ferment them.    There is a reason grandma used to leave the buttermilk pancakes on the counter overnight.     The predigestion of those grains helped rid them of certain elements such as phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors,  that were not health producing.     I truly don’t believe people need to avoid gluten because wheat was bad for us in its traditional form.  But , along with corn, soybeans, and other crop foods, wheat  has been modified in the lab to become something poisonous to our bodies.    Or perhaps, our bodies just can’t handle all the toxins and we are all walking around on overload.  The  impact  genetic modification has had on our food supplies and our health is best left as a topic for another day.

I base a lot of  my dietary beliefs on the fact that I come from a long line of individuals who lived to be damn old eating sugar,  bread and cake at birthday parties.

D0 you know what they didn’t eat? They didn’t eat chemicals.   They didn’t eat high fructose corn syrup, preservatives or petroleum based food additives.    They didn’t eat hydrogenated fats.   There was no plastic in their foods because it was dehydrated, fermented, stored in burlap bags or canned in glass jars.     But my family also skipped a generation and  my parents were kind of hippies.    I think that sort of food preparation has been, for the most part, been erased from cultural memory.   Many foodies out there miss the boat when they tell  young people to eat like their grandma ate.   Because I’ve seen how my husband’s grandma cooks, and I don’t think Franco American Spaghetti out of a can was what Michael Pollan had  in mind when he penned  that recommendation.

There are some things that we try to avoid:

1.  High Fructose Corn Syrup,  Additives,  Preservatives, Food Dyes   Basically if it isn’t a plant derivative, I don’t want to eat it.

2.  Processed, packaged foods that have a shelf life longer than my batteries.

3.  GMO’s ; especially in the form of the grains that I bake with.

4.   Hydrogenated fats

5.  White foods (sugar, rice, flour, etc)    We do use organic, unbleached flour when we bake but I always try to mix it with whole grain flours.

6.  Soy, unless it has been fermented.

Things we try to include in our diet:

1.  Organic food ; especially grains  and legumes in an attempt to avoid GMOs.

2.  Nourishing Beverages; including smoothies,  nourishing infusions,  chai made from nourishing dried roots, and bone broth.

3.  Foods we’ve made from scratch.

4.  Variety —  I can think of many different kinds of grains, legumes, seeds and nuts we have in the house for cooking with right now.    I tend to think we eat far more different kinds of vegetables than your average household does, although I admit I am currently struggling with the kids and their  eating their veggies.

5.  Spices – Since my days of running around renaissance faires, I have know about medieval cookery and its generous use of herbs.

Sometimes though, we cheat and I don’t really make any apologies about it.   I think you are setting yourself up for failure if you are too restrictive about anything.  Failure just leads to feeling guilt and stress.    I don’t need that in my life.

I am pretty sure that there are many ways to eat healthily.  Which diet you choose is not the issue,  what is important is actually taking the time to think about what you eat, how much you are eating and why you eat it.   I don’t think most people do that, and that is what is wrong with the standard American diet.

Simple Romance

7b3cb-z75704385I have often been thankful that my husband and I were poor for our first years together. While other couples went to the movies and stared without speaking at a screen, we spent our time together really getting to know one another.
We discovered our mutual love of cooking and entertaining because we couldn’t afford to eat out. Lack of  a cable television package led to playing cards, board games or talking with good friends.
We became so accustomed to living this way that as we became more able to afford creature comforts, we found that we just didn’t need them. I think that the intimacy living simply brings to a relationship is wonderful.   When you cast off consumerism and don’t have so many things to occupy your time, you will find yourself really connecting with your partner.

I think we’ve slipped in this department, a bit, over the last few years.   We’ve just been too busy to take care of ourselves or each other.  I thought this would be a nice time to remind myself how important it is to connect  on a regular basis and bring some of that back into our relationship.

Celebrating Your Life Together

  • Prepare a special meal and get out the crystal and china.  Add some  soft music and candlelight and it is almost always preferable to going out.   Honestly,  I think every meal should be served to soft music in candle light but that is just due to having read a great deal as to the role presentation and environment have on your digestive system.
  • Read to one another love poetry, a favorite book, erotica whatever does it for you.
  • Decorate your sidewalk with loving, welcoming or suggestive sentiments..
  • How about a scavenger hunt for things that will be used one when you come to the end of the hunt. Each person can contribute two or three things to the list that way both partner’s needs are being met. For example, I might include a book of love poems, hairbrush, massage oil and some candles.
  • Play a game of checkers or chess with a twist. Put little “tags” on the bottom of the game pieces. You and your partner can take them off and “redeem” them later.  They can be as risque as you are comfortable with.   I like this idea better than some of those silly games I’ve seen in stores.
  • Cut red or pink paper into small hearts. On each one, write something that you love about your partner. Hide them in pockets, dresser drawers, etc., where they’ll be discovered one at a time.
  • Take a shower or bath together – wash each others hair. ( I obviously wrote this one when I had a much bigger tub.)
  • Give a long, luxurious full body massage with candle light and soft music.
  • While your partner is in the shower warm their towel, so it is toasty warm when they get out.
  • Go for a long walk and watch the sunset.
  • Write your partner a love note or a poem and put it in their lunch or e-mail it to them during the day.
  • Make breakfast in bed.

Gifts from the Heart

  • Cut out little hearts out of red paper and write on each on a memory of a time/event/special occasion/funny occurrence your mate and you have shared put them all in a glass jar and give as a gift.
  • While it seems like something little ones do for their parents,  you could create a book of vouchers that your partner can use throughout the year.  You could put special things like their favorite dinner or playing their favorite board game.   You might also throw things like “a night out with your friends” in there  or more intimate things.   Again, it is nice to be able personalize the book to your particular relationship.
  • I am saving all the corks from bottles of wine we have shared on special occasions to make a trivet for the kitchen.
  • Record a yourself reading a poem or favorite story and give it to your mate to listen to during their lunch hour or drive home.
  • If you look your local used bookstore (Uptown Bills and the Haunted Bookshop are good bets here in Iowa City) you can usually find a book of poetry for under not very much money.  Couple this with a plate of strawberries and melted chocolate or whipped cream, then curl up and bed and feed them to each other as you take turns reading.

Every Day

  • Say I love you!
  • Touch, hug, hold hands even if it is when you are falling asleep.
  • Spend at least 15 minutes focusing all of your energy on each other.
  • Converse with them them about something they are interested in,  practicing active listening.

(I thought I had this set to auto-publish on the 13th.  That is what I get for thinking. It is sort of re-write of a piece I had published on another blog. )