Herbs for meate and medicine in North Carolina

The following is slightly adapted from a talk I gave at Duke Homestead State Historic Site in Durham, North Carolina, in June 2012. I have not included citations as there would be quite a few and they likely aren’t desirable in this context, but if you’re looking for a reference, please contact me.

herb garden
The herb garden at the George Washington Birthplace. Photograph by Virginia Travis licensed Creative Commons.

Few Americans today venture much deeper into herbal medicine than the occasional cup of chamomile tea or bar of oatmeal soap. We don’t even cook with herbs nearly as much as we once did, unless we’re cooking Mediterranean, and hardly anybody has an herb garden. But a hundred fifty years ago or more in North Carolina, you’d have used herbs for food, for medicine, for aromatics, and for dyes. And many herbs had multiple uses. You’d have used thyme to flavor a stew or enhance a salad, but you might also have used it to (as the great herbalist Nicholas Culpeper said) “purge the body of phlegm” or eliminate intestinal parasites. You might have used bloodroot, a local wildflower, to make a red dye for clothing, but it could also be used as a mouthwash. Roses smelled sweet, as Shakespeare famously said, but they could also flavor cakes or cure a headache. From the common pine to the lovely rose, from wild lettuce to English thyme, almost every plant North Carolinians have known has found a use at the table or in the medicine chest — and sometimes both, because food and medicine were often one and the same. Continue reading “Herbs for meate and medicine in North Carolina”

The mad farmer, after the election

Every Wednesday, as part of our homeschool curriculum, I read a poem with my daughter. We talk about what it means and whether we like it (and why). Sometimes we analyze it. Then she responds by drawing or painting.

Last week I had intended to read G. K. Chesterton’s “For a War Memorial” in observance of Veteran’s Day and the Feast of St. Martin. But it was the day after the election, and she was upset and worried. So we read, instead, a couple of Wendell Berry’s “mad farmer” poems: “The Mad Farmer Revolution” and “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”

the mad farmer plows up the parking lot in front of the polling place
In a parking lot / he planted a forest of little pines.

I think we both felt better afterwards.

Practice resurrection, friends.

Raising backyard ducks: Final thoughts (for now)

Much has changed since I first started raising ducks and chronicled my experiences here in 2002. Then, backyard poultry was almost unheard of, a thing of the past I was fighting to revive. At the turn of the century few urban places in the U.S. allowed poultry in residential areas; now, in many mid-sized cities, it’s become common, or at least not surprising, to hear the bwaaawk of a neighbor’s chicken. In 2002 the Internet was still a fairly new medium, and it was hard to find and share personal experiences with the few people who did know something about raising poultry. As resources I had a book written for professionals, a couple of skimpy websites, and a veterinarian whose workshop at a sustainable agriculture conference first got me thinking about ducks. For day-to-day details I was on my own.

For the first few years, I received hundreds of emails from around the world — literally, six continents and, if I recall correctly, more than forty countries — from people asking questions and sharing experiences. Those conversations with fellow “new agrarians” was the reward for building this website. What I wrote here seems to have helped a great many people get started raising ducks on a small scale, and for that I’m grateful.

Over the years, what I built in 2002–03 seems increasingly dated (hard to believe, but those tiny movies were high-res back then), even though the information and advice is still perfectly sound; and there are plenty of other places to get help. Moreover, I no longer keep ducks — that’s a long story; I hope to again someday — and I have no more experiences to share. My “Raising Ducks” collection has become effectively an archive. But I’m going to leave it here and preserve it, in hopes that it may still help someone. If you have questions or thoughts, do feel free to email me and I’ll try to get back to you.

To close it out — for now, at least — I’ll stage a brief interview with myself about the experience of raising ducks. There’s also a movie below the jump. Continue reading “Raising backyard ducks: Final thoughts (for now)”

Boycotts, action, and penance

Last week, walking across campus to the library, I was interrupted (I don’t want to say “accosted”) by a woman in her early twenties wearing a Greenpeace t-shirt.

“Are you on your way to teach, or do you have a minute to help save the environment?”

“No,” I said, smiling, “I’m not on my way to teach.”1

So I let her tell me about Greenpeace, and about an initiative to protect rainforests by convincing KFC’s parent company to quit buying from a company called Asia Pulp and Paper, which is alleged to log protected rainforests illegally. Other fast-food chains have quit buying from them, and Greenpeace is pressuring KFC to stop too.

I have this mental image of Greenpeace activists rowing up to an oil tanker in, I don’t know, a Viking longship or something, and attacking it with pea shooters. Quixotic, misguided, but romantic. There was no romance in this little chat on the sidewalk, no adventure, no grand visions, just procedural details of corporate malfeasance. It felt very… oh, bourgeois. Very proper, very polite, very accepting of social and cultural norms, very work-within-the-system.

On the spot I couldn’t articulate why, precisely, I couldn’t bring myself to care. Or maybe I could have, but it was too complicated a conversation for an early-autumn dusk on a sidewalk under the oak trees. I mean, sure, all things being equal, if we’re going to blow through forests to create mountains of single-use cups and napkins so we can eat mindlessly while we race from here to there in our cars that are irrevocably altering the planet’s climate and then bulldoze rural landscapes so we can bury those cups and napkins in landfills, if we’re going to do all that anyway, then sure, we ought to do it… more… um… sustainably? Well, maybe you see my point already. Continue reading “Boycotts, action, and penance”

  1. Full graying beard, ponytail, corduroy jacket. How could I not be a professor?

Spaces in the world

Recently I was rereading Aldren Watson’s Country Furniture and was reminded of his observation that early American woodworkers were, as they had to be, generalists. In England the profession was ancient and structured and specialized; in the colonies a woodsmith had to be joiner and turner and sawyer and everything else, and as the cities grew and urban shops specialized there were always smaller towns where a generalist might be of service. There simply were not enough skilled workers — enough workers, period — to permit great specialization. What was needed in that environment, Watson wrote, was a “singular adaptability to find practical solutions,” not a learned understanding of existing solutions.

For that matter, a woodworker would be lucky to be able even to specialize in working wood; likely he raised some of his own food and perhaps ran one or two side businesses. Early American villages, Watson wrote, were only tenuously connected to the larger world, and so “Each person in the small community did all the things for which he had an aptitude.” Continue reading “Spaces in the world”

Why I don’t like the metric system

For the benefit of Canadians, Jacobins, progressives, engineers, and stuck-up stickybeaks of all stripes, I herein explain why the metric system is inferior to traditional systems of measurement for those who work with their hands, think with their right brains, and prefer not to resort to a calculator for every little thing.

Metric vs. traditional systems

First, I don’t like the term “metric system.” Either it refers only to the meter and ignores all of the other units of measure (which is silly), or it implies that it’s the only system that is metered (which is also silly). What is commonly called the metric system is part of a much larger system of measurement known as the International System, or SI. (The abbreviation is backward because it comes from the French, and they do everything backwards.)

The SI is all decimal, and its units, which include familiar ones like the watt and the second and less-familiar ones like the joule, are all interrelated in a very nice way that I won’t trouble to explain here. (You can read about it here.) It’s a very nice system, for many purposes — but not for all purposes. (I’m unnecessarily familiar with it from having been, at some time late in the last century, a theoretical physicist in training.) Continue reading “Why I don’t like the metric system”