Archive for October, 2006

Mountaintop Removal

It’s hard to know where to begin. The West Virginia mountains are the reason I know plants. I am an herbwife because of the place that raised me. The mountain I grew up on is solid coal-free limestone. Many mountains close by are not so fortunate.

I can’t explain mountaintop removal coal mining here. You have to see it. I have been on a mountaintop removal site. It’s absolutely chilling. Even the video I linked to can’t really convey the feeling.

Some of the local groups organizing against mountaintop removal have put together an education / social networking site called It’s an interesting idea—an opportunity for people to let their friends know what’s going on, and to track their connections to other people concerned about mountaintop removal. Another site with more ideas about concrete actions that people can take is

Please do check out the sites, learn about mountaintop removal, and take some action. As someone pointed out at an herb gathering recently, Appalachia has been a really important reservoir for herbal knowledge in a country where herbwifery all but died out by the mid-twentieth century. Let’s show some respect for our grandmother herbwives and get our asses in gear to protect their mountains.


Grandma was right.

Our great-grandmothers were right about a lot of things, but on this cold rainy day I want to talk about the most basic of grandmotherly remedies—chicken soup.

Broth is fabulous food and amazing medicine. Real broth, that is. Real broth is made from bones. Real broth is simmered for hours or even days. Real broth is so full of gelatin that it congeals as it cools. Minerals. Protein. Incredible flavor. And that’s before you add any vegetables or herbs. (For more about the wonders of broth, check out Sally Fallon’s “Broth is Beautiful.”)

We’ve been slowly getting a cold in my house this week, so we made chicken soup. Well, my boyfriend made chicken soup. And it may have been the best chicken soup I’ve ever had. Here’s how he did it:

Six chicken backs, submerged in a decent size stockpot with a [small] handful of coarse gray sea salt. We put it on the woodstove to simmer (this is Vermont and it’s October), but it doesn’t matter what kind of stove you use—just bring it to a simmer and turn it down. Skim off the scum that rises to the surface. Then leave it. Alone. Wander by every half hour or so to see if it needs more skimming. But other than that, don’t bother it. When the meat starts to fall off the bones, take them out, pick the meat off, set it aside, and return the bones to the pot to simmer. Leave it simmering for as many hours as you can stand it. Keep your eye on the water level and make sure the bones are always submerged, but that’s all the attention it needs. See if you can let it simmer all day long. You’ll thank yourself later.

When you’re getting close to suppertime, strain the broth. Rinse the pot and put the broth back in it. Taste it. Marvel at it. Then think about what you want to add. We usually do barley, some vegetables, and some herbs. You don’t have to be complicated. Our last soup had barley, peppers, onions, and a lot of fresh basil and garlic added at the end. Just that. And like I said it was incredible.

You really can add just about anything in your kitchen: carrots, turnips, parsnips, sweet potatoes, kale, collards, chard, peppers, tomatoes, sauteed onions, sauteed mushrooms, garlic, potatoes, rice, barley, basil, thyme, oregano, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, ginger…. But I don’t suggest using all of them together!

You can choose your vegetables and flavorings based on the medicinal herbs you want to use. This time of year, you might choose warming herbs like ginger and cinnamon and black pepper. Onions and carrots might go well with them. Holy basil and cinnamon also make a nice combination. I like garlic, and I like it strong, so I usually wait to add it until the soup is almost finished cooking. (This also preserves some of the medicinal properties of the garlic.)

So choose your ingredients. Add them to your broth and bring it back to a simmer. Taste for salt. Keep it simmering until all the ingredients are done. (Barley and brown rice take about 45 minutes, but if you use white rice or stick to vegetables it’ll be done sooner.) Taste again, season it and add any last minute ingredients. Eat. Six chicken backs make a lot of soup, but it’ll disappear fast. And it’s really best the next day.

[To make broth from the bones of your roast chicken, just put them in a pot, cover them with water, bring it very slowly to a simmer, turn the heat down and let it brew. A few hours is probably enough for chicken bones, but overnight is always better if you have the patience.]

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Cutting through computer-fog

No doubt the best way to prevent the dazed state that comes from staring at a monitor for hours is to get up every few minutes and remember you have a body. But for those of us who seem to have trouble remembering to do this, I’ve been experimenting with some herbal solutions.

First, the problem: computer monitors are a source of emitted (rather than reflected) light. Other sources of emitted light: television, lightbulbs, fires and stars (including the sun). Emitted light is mesmerizing. Think of sitting around a campfire in the dark. You can stare and stare and stare and forget where you are and what’s going on around you. Staring at emitted light for a long period of time can leave you spaced-out and disembodied.

So cutting through computer-fog means coming back to the physical world. The best “enlivening” remedy I know is prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) tincture. Two or three drops on my tongue wakes up my whole body. (Even a few drops will make your mouth tingle and start you salivating. Don’t worry, just swallow the spit. It’ll stop in a few minutes, and you won’t have to spend the rest of the day in a daze.) Bitter herbs are also a good option—a drop of hops (Humulus lupulus) tincture or a squirt of barberry (Berberis vulgaris) will bring you back to earth with a thump.

Really, though, getting up and stretching every few minutes is the best option. If only I could remember to do it.

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