Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

April 14, 2013

On the belief in spirits in disease

Filed under: magic, science — Tags: , , , , , — paragardener @ 8:18 pm

Recently, I have read much of an ignorant superstition regarding disease: this, the concept of diseases being caused by malevolent spirits. These spirits are invisible creatures, which live in the air and seek to wreak mayhem on any human animal they come into contact with. They will attach themselves to a person, and even spread from person to person, or linger in the victim’s home. It is believed by the ignorant, that the home of the afflicted may be “cleansed” with herbs and smoke such as sage and wormwood, to drive the spirits out; for, these dark-minded individuals believe that the spirits of plants may be called upon to battle the evil spirits of disease. (Thus, the fools deny themselves the true and helpful medicines known to our doctors of today, such as preparations of arsenic and mercury.)

This belief in invisible agents of disease is known to be false by all Men of science, who know disease to be caused by an imbalance of the four humours (phlegm, black bile, yellow bile, and blood.) Thus, the barefoot primitive and the superstitious peasant will rely on the magical qualities of the witch-doctor’s plants, such as ephedra or belladonna, to treat asthma, to their great detriment, instead of looking to a medicine with the empirically-validated phlegm-drying virtues of “warmth” and “dryness,” such as Indian tobacco.

As one cannot argue with the willfully ignorant, I can only pray that our Legislators take decisive action for the licensing of doctors and pharmacists, and to punish swiftly and surely the selling of false and deleterious medicines.

[Disease really is spread by invisible organisms. Sage and wormwood are antiseptic. Arsenic and mercury were really put into medicines. Ephedra dilates bronchioles and belladonna reduces inflammations and spasms. And, tobacco was used to treat asthma under the Four Humours system of medicine, with rather limited success.]

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April 9, 2013

Animist on Atheism

Animism is the belief that the world is full of spirits. Atheism is the rejection of belief in gods. These beliefs are not opposed according to their bare definitions, but I know of no atheists who really get excited about the spirit world.

Atheism in the West is heavily shaped by Christianity, or more precisely, by rejecting Christianity. An ultra-brief history of Christian thought could begin with the Gnostics, part of the cultish religious soup in and around the ancient Holy Land, who saw their world as a miserable material prison to be escaped through ecstatic travels. The medieval Church kept the idea of this world as a material prison, but dropped the possibility of escaping through ecstasy. It urged followers to believe in a spirit world that could not be seen, except by the dead and resurrected or a few chosen prophets. People had to listen to their priest and trust in received wisdom, or actually risk being tortured and burned as a heretic. Early moves towards skepticism included demanding to be allowed to read the Bible for oneself, cutting out a major priestly privilege!

Atheists (and Deists, their close intellectual cousins) said: “Enough of this crap! We won’t believe in the Invisible Man in the Sky who watches us all the time anymore! It’s very manipulative and we call ‘shenanigans’ upon thee!” So, freethinkers shifted their attention to the world of things they could find out for themselves — reason, history, and especially science. Any hint of the spirit world was regarded as the same sort of superstition as Churchly lies. The spiritual practices of “savages” were beneath contempt, of more interest to edgy bohemians than serious scientists or philosophers, and were not seriously looked at in the West for a few hundred more years.

So, in animism, the spirit world is present right here in nature. In mainstream Christianity, the spirit world has been ripped away from the present world and hidden behind a veil, as for the priests to communicate to the helpless peasants. And in atheism, the spirit world has been denied existence entirely.

The atheist denial of natural spirits is based on an error, the belief that the spirit world is basically a lie communicated to the people by priests. For most people over most of human time, the spirit world was much more directly accessible.

On an everyday level, people were trained to rely on their instinct or “see with the heart.” Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, describes it thus: “I spent much of my childhood in a third-world, rural environment where we had to be in tune with Mother Nature for our very survival… To be instinctual means to be clearheaded, open, and aware of the signals we are getting from other people, animals, and our environment all the time. It means understanding our natural selves and the natural world, and acknowledging our interdependence with that world.” (from “Be the Pack Leader.”)

To a little child, the world is a colorful place imbued with meaning. This tree is sinister, that one is welcoming, still another is powerful and proud. I believe that these impressions are devalued by the education process, until the student a) comes to see trees as collections of cells and organs described by a Latin binomial, of interest as a sort of ongoing biochemical reaction or b) loses interest and stays inside watching football. The animist myths of trees as plant teachers and homes for forest spirits express the more important truths. Ignoring the truth about trees causes us to build ugly places — perhaps best embodied by Tolkein’s Mordor. (By the way — plenty of atheists appreciate and protect the trees, and plenty of ugly-minded deforesters call themselves Christian.) I happen to believe that the most powerful human-tree bond is on a level we truly experience as magical — an exchange of ill-defined “energy.” On what evidence should anyone reject that magical level of bonding? To what end?

 

A giant tree surrounded by fences.

Really ancient trees still inspire reverence from people of all beliefs. Mary and Angus Hogg [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A stubbly, muddy field stretches everywhere in sight.

Do the opencast miners need a more advanced science to explain to them where they went wrong? by Texas Radio and The Big Beat [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Opening up our senses to the magical seems like a wise move, if Sauron is not to win.

Since the middle of last century, the West has exploded with information about ecstatic technologies that permit direct experience of the spiritual world, often in full Technicolor. Albert Hoffman discovered LSD-25 in 1938, and it was soon being used in psychiatry to accelerate insight, healing and development in therapeutic clients. This very nearly coincided with Richard Shultes’ first trips to Mexico to identify the shamans’ magical plants and fungi (psilocybe mushrooms, morning glories and solanaceous trumpet flowers.) Shultes sent Hofmann morning glory samples for analysis, and Hofmann discovered LSD analogs in the seeds. They realized that indigenous shamanism had a lot in common with the cutting edge of psychiatric practice. Psychedelic drugs are not for everyone, and they are the subject of a mostly secular but authoritarian backlash, but they are not the only technology of ecstasy. Mind science imported from Buddhist and yogic traditions was popularized throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Music took on longer forms to allow the listeners to “get into it,” and incorporated trippy light shows. You don’t have to listen to your priest interpret Ezekiel’s vision of a wheel for you any longer: people can experience the other world for themselves, the paths are known.

In rejecting a phony or insanely corrupted spiritual tradition, many freethinkers found themselves cast to philosophies like materialism and positivism. Many Christians box up their religion except for Sundays and live in the same soulectomied world. These philosophies are insufficient — they do not feed the instinctual side of human nature. We find ourselves a bunch of neurotics living in ugly places. But there was never any reason to stop developing knowledge of the magical worlds of our childhood. Use your reasoning capacity, but remember where we all started from.

 

April 3, 2013

Horrid Orange

Filed under: food — Tags: , , , , , , — paragardener @ 10:41 am

The other day, I held a beautiful fresh mandarin orange in my hand, purchased from CostCo. Tired of getting orange fibers under my fingernails, I decided to start opening the peel with my teeth. Big mistake! My mouth filled with a cloud of corrosive vapor, burning the back of my throat. I gobbled the orange just to wash my mouth out.

Earlier, I had attempted to shred some orange zest into a gallon of soon-to-be mead, failing on account of the grater not working with the orange. Had I succeeded, I would have destroyed the entire batch (apparently when I bought the oranges I was not paying for the rinds, as it was clearly assumed that no one would ever think to use them.)

Later on, I noticed that the dogs took no interest in the peels laying in the trash. These scavengers will eat orange and banana peels, used snot-rags, and disgusting things you’d never anticipate. Whatever chemical was on these oranges, it is rejected by insects, dogs, and humans alike, and by inference, there is likely no animal on the face of the Earth that would not recognize it as a noxious poison.

Even as much as I cultivate contempt for the government regulation of food and drugs, this event undermined the faith I thought I didn’t have. A simple law that stated “thou shall not poison food” would unambiguously protect from the horrid orange, since even the dogs recognize it as poisonous. Instead, we enjoy a structure of thousands of pages of regulation that somehow enshrine the horrid orange as acceptable food. Forgive me if the thought of hundreds of FDA scientists and bureaucrats working on my behalf does not fill me with warm feelings of security.

March 23, 2013

Regulate Breathing

My life’s ambition, my abstract love and enthusiasm for life, is to study psychoactive substances, or mind-altering drugs as you might call them. This is a bit frustrating, like being a born musician in Taliban country.

The Lords of the US gather in Bohemian Grove every year, surrounded by acres of empty forest, to privately party and drink and get down with Sasha Shulgin, inventor of most every designer psychedelic or party drug ever. Then they fly back to Washington, D.C. to publicly give speeches about the evils of drugs and vote for increased penalties and ban new substances (usually Shulgin’s inventions after about an eight-year lag time.) To coordinate the message that “drugs are bad, m’kay,” the Office of National Drug Control Policy writes pieces of television scripts and pays the networks to include them in their programming. Most people accept the message: to be “into drugs” isn’t an innocent thing like being “into music” or “into cars,” it’s tantamount to being a thieving junkie.

Sometimes I hear people say, “oh, drugs are an inferior way of exploring altered states. You can get to the same places with breathing exercises and meditation, whilst maintaining the virgin purity of your blood.” Okay, that’s not exactly what they say, but you get the idea…

I used to mentally respond to them, “yeah, right. I’m sure that is almost true if you withdraw from the world and spend years training in a Himalayan monastery, but in the real world meditation only gets me a few minutes of relaxation. And even if meditation brought me to the Ultimate Enlightenment, I kind of liked seeing the pretty colors, too, and I’m sure that that was a specific effect of the drugs.”

Now, new information has come to light, and I do believe that I may have been missing something about the breathing. A certain Pau reported a pretty heavy trip from doing breathing exercises right before bed:

Some years ago , just a few weeks after I learned about mediation and pranayama breathing exercises, I was practicing pranayama for a few minutes before I went to bed. At the same time I was attempting to quiet my mind (which I believe is easier to do while doing pranayama).

I broke through, with infinite power…I lost all sense of body, and my consciousness expanded in a fraction of a second to fill and become the entire universe … I “felt” there was nothing I could not know or see about the past present and future of everything. There had not been any psychedelics in my system for a year. Yeah, the speck of “I” that was rapidly disappearing during this event got freaked out and decided with great effort to switch the experience off before the “I” was gone for good. But the same thing happened the following night. (both times, before the blastoff, there was a period of maybe half a minute where everything around me, including empty space, seemed like it was made of sparkling blue dots).

This, in the context of a thread about boosting endogenous DMT, the powerful and illegal psychedelic that is a natural component of your body, everyone else, hundreds of plant species, and most higher animals. Is this a case of manufacturing illicit drugs? Pranayama seems to be a widespread practice with many variations, go ahead and look it up and you will find dozens of teachers providing you the training online. It seems foremost like an exercise to make breathing more conscious, although it goes beyond the simple Zen-derived techniques I’ve studied in the past.

Another way to breathe your way into an altered state is to suck a mixture of carbon dioxide and oxygen. During the 1960’s, when scientists could work with psychedelics and not be charged with witchcraft, there was a great interest in psychedelics as part of psychotherapy. There was some risk of giving a dose of LSD to a client and then watching helplessly as they experienced an eight-hour trainwreck of anxiety and confusion, so there was a desire to find a way of inducing a briefer altered state to test the waters. Such a way already existed, and it was called carbogen: typically, a mixture of 70% oxygen and 30% carbon dioxide.

People who were administered carbogen in a clinical setting, as a trial of their ability to weather altered states, typically freaked out. But not always:

“After the second breath came an onrush of color, first a predominant sheet of beautiful rosy-red, following which came successive sheets of brilliant color and design, some geometric, some fanciful and graceful …. Then the colors separated; my soul drawing apart from the physical being, was drawn upward seemingly to leave the earth and to go upward where it reached a greater Spirit with Whom there was a communion, producing a remarkable, new relaxation and deep security.”

Wow! Pretty colors and all!

Society’s controllers have been obsessed with preventing the common folk from having religious experiences since the Christian church merged with the Roman Empire almost 2,000 years ago (a few visionaries were sainted, more were burned at the stake). So, the fact that one can manipulate one’s own lungs and atmospheric gasses to induce such experiences presents a challenge to authority.

Perhaps the situation can be brought back under control. Progressive Insurance offers drivers a device called “Snapshot,” which monitors basics like acceleration and stopping time, and gives drivers a discount for safe practices. All Americans who have two pennies to rub together will soon be looking for discounts for their newly mandatory “Affordable Care” very soon. Why not strap a Snapshot consisting of a pedometer and a polygraph to every American, and offer them discounts for “safe biometrics?”

One strap around the abdomen, and one around the chest, and any hanky-pranayama that might occur will signal your insurance company to jack up your premiums. If you aren’t abusing your ability to breathe, you have no reason to object to such a proposition.

Breathing should be subject to reasonable regulation, just like food, water and medicine. Breathing is too important a matter to leave to individuals with their pesky notion of “rights” and their ignorance. After all, people like you and me were never properly trained or licensed to breathe. Breathing disorders are a leading cause of death.

Not funny? Sorry, but…

I’m suffocating over here!!!

March 18, 2013

Frontier Beer


Root Beer:

Simmer 1 oz. sassafras root bark in 2 q water for 25 min.
Remove from heat
Stir in 1¾ cup brown sugar ‘til dissolved (or more, up to about 2½ cups?)
Stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1 pinch cinnamon
Let cool ½ hour.
Awaken ale yeast (gently mix a packet of yeast into warm water with a little sugar for 15 min.)
Bring sassafras brew to 1 gallon volume w/ cold water
Add awakened ale yeast, mix.
Pour through small, fine sieve and funnel into plastic pop bottles
Cap tightly
Let ferment 16-48 hours, squeezing the bottles to feel the pressure.
When the bottles are almost totally firm to the hand, refrigerate or pasteurize to cut off fermentation.

(adapted from BethTN’s recipe, and Stephen Harrod Buhner’s book “Sacred and Healing Herbal Beers.”)

This is a frontier beer, distinctive of America. You can make it this way to create a soda pop, or you can ferment it fully like beer (for example, ferment for 10 days in a jug under a fermentation lock, then bottle with priming sugar.)

To remind everyone, alcoholic fermentation is what happens when yeast organisms consume the sugar in a watery mixture and convert it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. So, you can ferment for alcohol only and let all of the carbon dioxide escape (to make a non-sparkling wine), or trap some of the carbon dioxide in the bottle for fizziness (champagne or beer), or you can let the yeast just barely get started in a sealed bottle to make carbonated non-alcoholic beverages (the tiny amount of alcohol created compares to the alcohol in “non-alcoholic” juices and pops you would buy at the store, perhaps about 0.5%.) Some people simply mix carbonated water into the recipe, or you could use a whipped cream whipper to crack open a pressurized carbon dioxide cartridge and carbonate the pop mechanically.

Root beer can also include wintergreen or birch sap, sarsaparilla, molasses, spikenard, or whatever you like. (If I were to make one tweak to this recipe I would add wintergreen, perhaps 1 oz. of the fresh green.)

A beer glass full of dark amber rootbeer with a light head.

Here’s to the wilderness and the wild people!

This creative beverage is part of a tradition of herbal beers for fun or medicine, which was almost stamped out in Europe by prohibition laws, but which flourished among free American settlers. Another famous formula is ginger ale, made of ginger, water, and honey. Besides the fun of herbal pop and beer, beer is pretty useful as medicine. Medical plant essences typically dissolve better in water with at least a touch of alcohol in it, and beer keeps for a long time, so herbal beer is an elegant and low-tech drug delivery system (or “dietary supplement” delivery system if you don’t do drugs.) Some beers carried specific remedies but others supported health in a more general way: dandelion greens were brewed to reinvigorate the body in Spring, spruce branch tips were brewed to ward off scurvy in Winter, and sassafras seems to be one of those rare herbs that just makes people feel better, whether they are healthy or ill. Hops is a sedative, makes you pee and blocks male sexual response, and it is a very weird choice of medicine to be included in every standard beer.

All beer must start from sugar. Apples were an option on the frontier, having enough sugar and flavor in them to make hard cider with no additions, although that’s more of a wine than beer. Perhaps you have heard of making beer from malted barley, but that was no option on the fringe. The pioneers came from Europe’s brewing tradition, where “maltsters” developed sprouting, drying and roasting barley into an intricate art form. Americans were generally intimidated away from the specialty. Malt also requires long soaking in hot water (for an enzyme in the sprouted barley grains to finish its job of converting seed starch into fermentable sugar), a “required” step that intimidates some away from brewing.

Root beer generally starts with brown sugar, and sometimes molasses, as its yeast-feeding sugars. Brown sugar and molasses were fairly cheap commodities across much of frontier America, or a family could make their own from sorghum, a sugary cane that grows in the temperate zone. White sugar is not recommended for brewing beer, but it’s probably fine if you are just brewing pop. Birch or maple sap is acceptable — apparently, wintergreen in modern root beers is sort of a substitute for the flavor of birch sap. Birch sap was convenient to people who were “handy” and lived in the woods, but if you are purchasing ingredients in today’s marketplace, wintergreen is going to be a lot easier to come by. Honey is a good source of sugar, with its own distinctive flavor and medicinal action, too. A certain Roger Beverly described America’s home-cobbled beer scene circa 1700: “The richer sort of Americans generally brew their small beer with malt, which they have from England, though they have as good a barley of their own as any in the world, but for want of convenience of malt-houses the inhabitants take no care to sow it. The poorer sort brew their beer with molasses and bran, with Indian corn malted by drying in a stove, with persimmons dried in cakes and baked, with potatoes, with the green stalks of Indian corn cut small and bruised…”

My pop-style root beer is good, but not as sweet as commercial pop. It is frothy and sweet with candy and clove herbal flavors, but on the other hand, it’s not that sweet, lacks body, and it’s a little bit astringent. It tastes like… it tastes like… it tastes like freedom!

Once, America banned all brewing, and the result was a terrible degradation of our brewing culture. Hucksters sold inferior homebrew malt that resulted in a mud-like product, the OTC “bath salts” of beer. Underground brewers stretched their product to the thinnest and cheapest possible, counting on steady black market profits, thus creating America’s anomalously thin style of commercial beer. Many herbal beers were forgotten or survived only as pop. Due to “clerical error,” homebrewing remained illegal from the beginning of Prohibition all the way up until 1978. Since then — since people were once again allowed to develop their brewing skills independently and cheaply at home — our brewing culture has much recovered, and even Coors and Budweiser are selling richer beers these days.

Still, sassafras is illegal to sell as food or drink in its natural form. In 1960, FDA found that the sassafras oil content in root beer is carcinogenic — almost as carcinogenic as the alcohol content in any beer. Genuine root beer is a sort of gray-market thing, something you can pass around at family gatherings but never sell at the farmer’s market. Your average corporate root beer would be artificially flavored for cheapness anyways, so the regulators have no concern about the liberty lost by restricting sassafras. They can’t hear any money complaining at all.

It’s sad that the root beer at the store is sassafras-free or chemically stripped of its best molecule (safrole), but the silver lining is that this restrictive FDA policy inspires some productive explorations by those skirting the law. Reed’s, a California company, makes “Virgil’s Rootbeer” organically, approximating the flavor of sassafras root beer with a combination of many herbs including sarsaparilla and wintergreen. Another response to FDA is seen in the conscientiously patriotic American exploring herbs, pop and beer at home. One can legally homebrew beer containing wormwood, the infamous absinthe ingredient, or medical marijuana (if you are duly licensed), and fall outside of the jurisdiction of the FDA and its various superstitious anti-witchcraft regulations. You don’t even need to know how to make proper beer, if you are willing to experiment with pioneer-style sugar-and-syrup-based hooch. Hazards of crafting your own pioneer beer may include a hypomanic state characterized by euphoria, brief moments of ego inflation and a sudden undue interest in aspects of science, culture and history one had been ignoring until now…

February 24, 2013

The Great Nutmeg Question

Nutmeg is the seed or kernel of Myristica fragrans tree fruits, grated down into a musky-smelling spice. Lately, it seems as if few people are cooking with nutmeg except to sprinkle it on Christmas cookies or other holiday dishes. It was once greatly popular and expensive in Europe, as people liked it for medicine and flavor, but they had no idea where it came from. The fact that people had to buy the spice from Sindbad-like Arab traders who would not reveal the spice’s faraway source lent it a certain mystique.

It turns out that nutmeg is more than it seems, a potent mind-bending drug, which can induce long journeys away from the everyday perception of reality. The fact that a totally innocuous kitchen spice can do this raises certain questions about people’s relationships with the plant, and the relationship of the essential oils in spices to psychoactive drugs.

Firstly, the human-plant relations side of it: as nutmeg is a powerful plant drug, I would assume that there are indigenous people somewhere in the world who are familiar with its use in ritual. I would assume wrong. By the time Europeans and history discovered the Banda Islands, the secret source of nutmeg, the natives were already exporting the whole lot to meet world demand for nutmeg as a flavoring and make money. Nutmeg does have traditional uses as a sedative, sleep aid and analgesic. Writers occasionally note it as a mood elevator or health tonic. As the kernels traveled the world, people occasionally used them in smoking mixtures, snuff or chew, to nobody’s concern. And then, around the turn of the twentieth century, things took a strange turn.

A rumor went around the United States that nutmeg was an abortifacient. Perhaps this is true at a dosage that drives one to death’s door… in any case, young women would sometimes take down spoonfuls of nutmeg hoping to cause an abortion, and then, to their surprise, become highly inebriated with untrustworthy senses and delusions about the nature of the world. Nutmeg’s effects can last for over twenty-four hours after taking it. Some women thought that they were going mad or did mad things and ended up in newspaper stories. In 1902, a Dr. E.E. Hinman reported on treating nutmeg poisonings to the Northwestern Lancet: “In all cases of nutmeg poisoning there was prostration with partial or complete coma. Most of them had vertigo, delirium, chiefly hallucinations of sight, rapid, feeble pulse, and free urination. In five instances the nutmegs were taken to produce abortion, and in every case without accomplishing the desired result.”

Hysterical woman falling out of chair.

Prostrated by nutmeg.

Soon, prisoners caught on to the story about nutmeg causing delirium and hallucinations, and they were smuggling it out of the kitchen to experience the terror and insanity for themselves, such is the human drive to experience altered states. Actually, the experience may not run so terribly for everybody (prisoner Malcolm X measured doses out in a matchbox, and described the effects as being like four or five joints). Still, the seed is surprisingly strong stuff. Fortunately, most people don’t like it as a drug — the heavy effects of higher doses come with heavy side effects — so it is little abused, and the US government hasn’t snatched it out of our spice racks yet. Periodically, the news media notices that teenagers or ultra-poor people are getting high on nutmeg, and there is almost a big deal made of it. Occasionally, someone takes enough to do themselves in.

So, that is the anthropology of nutmeg in brief. There is still the question of how nutmeg does its thing. Since we don’t really understand how the human brain correlates with consciousness all that well, we can’t really truly describe the mechanism of action of any psychoactive drug whatsoever. We can, however, take a stab at relating the chemical constituents of the seed to better-understood drugs and their pharmacology.

One of the first strong efforts at dissecting the action of nutmeg took place in the mid-1960’s, to be published in 1967. Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, a prolific American inventor of synthetic psychedelics, and two Chilean colleagues, Thornton Sargent and Claudia Naranjo, submitted an article to Psychopharmacology Bulletin: “The Chemistry and Psychopharmacology of Nutmeg and Several Related Phenylisopropylamines.” The team assumed that nutmeg’s power lay in the volatile or “essential” oil fraction of the spice, not in its fatty butter or pulpy cellulose structure. So, they pressed the kernels to express the butter, and steam distilled the essential oil from the crushed remainders. They fractionally distilled the oil, meaning that it was distilled and redistilled until each individual compound was almost completely separated from every other compound. By analyzing each fraction, the team could determine exactly which compounds were in nutmeg oil and how much of each.

Many of the chemicals in nutmeg oil are common throughout nature or well-understood, and thus were seen as poor candidates for explaining its psychoactivity (for example, pinene and sabinene are present in high concentrations across many plant species. However, the most interesting thing known about their pharmacology was that they are irritants.) Other chemicals are present in such tiny amounts that they are probably not the main contributors to nutmeg’s action (unless they are extremely potent).

Eventually, the researchers focused their attention on three “phenylisopropylamine” compounds: safrole, myristicin, and elemicin. These components of Oil of Nutmeg bear a striking resemblance to a series of synthetic psychedelics Sasha Shulgin was working on, modifications of the mescaline molecule. — — The researchers hypothesized that the human liver adds nitrogen to the three phenylisopropylamines as they pass through, so converting them into their psychedelic amphetamine counterparts — safrole to MDA, myristicin to MMDA, and elemicin to TMA. The liver is known to “transaminate” many kinds of compounds, lending the hypothesis some plausibility.

Nutmeg oil components and their hypothetical products

Phenylisopropylamine Psychedelic Amphetamine

SAFROLE

SAFROLE

MDA

MDA

ELEMICIN

ELEMICIN

TMA

TMA

MYRISTICIN

MYRISTICIN

MMDA

MMDA

If the researchers’ hypothesis is true, the effects of nutmeg should roughly correspond to the effects of MDA, MMDA, and TMA in the same proportions as nutmeg oil contains safrole, myristicin, and elemicin. All three psychedelic amphetamines have been explored somewhat as single compounds. MDA catalyzes an opening of empathy and creates sparkling visual changes. MMDA is a psychedelic generally reported as being relaxing, while exhibiting the wrinkle that impressive visual effects are only achieved with the eyes closed. TMA is definitely psychedelic and nausea-causing, but I cannot find enough reports on it to comment as to the particular character of its activity. In general, psychedelics activate certain serotonin receptors which cause “sensory gating channels” in the brain and mind to open up, increasing awareness and the sense of novelty, as well as sometimes creating special effects such as synesthesia. Psychedelics do not necessarily act as stimulants, even though many are chemically described as “amphetamines.”

Sasha Shulgin devised a way to challenge the transamination theory. He prepared a cocktail of psychedelic amphetamines to imitate the effects of 5 grams of average nutmeg, assuming that the phenylisopropylamines would be metabolized with 100% efficiency. It consisted of 100 mg of white powder, divided into 1 part (by mass?) MDA, 2 parts TMA, and 5 parts MMDA. He reports that the cocktail “produced quite a sparkle and considerable eye-dilation. But then, I have never taken 5 grams of nutmeg, so I cannot make any comparisons.” Nice experimental design, Dr. Shulgin! Couldn’t you have taken 2 or 3 days out of your busy life to get high on nutmeg (as an experimental control)? Writing in the Entheogen Review, Ibo Nagano describes 5 grams of nutmeg as a threshold dose “marked by euphoria, relaxation, mood elevation, hilarity and enhancement of the senses,” which I suppose could mean the same as “quite a sparkle.” Please note that nutmegs vary considerably in their potency and exact composition, and you cannot presume to get certain effects at certain dosages unless you know already know your source pretty well — and in that case, put down the shaker bottle, you addict!

Shulgin’s imitation nutmeg amphetamine cocktail superficially supported the transamination hypothesis. However, on another occasion, human volunteers consumed myristicin in the amount present in almost 40 g nutmeg — a dosage seen in typical emergency room visits — yet the volunteers experienced only subtle effects. As myristicin is by far the most abundant aromatic in Oil of Nutmeg, and it makes such a lame psychedelic, we can rule out the idea of it being converted efficiently by the liver. If 100% of the material was converted, each volunteer would have synthesized about 400 mg of MMDA in their own body, and likely been knocked on their butt. Additionally, while the transamination reactions were made to work in laboratory liver cultures, several investigators have not been able to demonstrate such a reaction in living animals.

There is still a possibility for partial transamination of the phenylisoproylamines in the human body. Perhaps small amounts of nutmeg oil are transformed into psychedelic amphetamines, which act synergistically to create a stronger effect than any one would produce alone. On the other hand, the phenylisoproylamines might be active at some of the same receptors as psychedelics, but at a weaker level. In the end, the 1967 research suggested a lot of things and proved almost nothing.

No one seemed interested in the problem again until 2000, when Bernard C Sangalli and William Chiang submitted a paper to Clinical Toxicology. A young woman swallowed roughly 20 g of nutmeg on a friend’s advice without really knowing what it was. When she woke up the next morning still feeling drunk and high after dreaming of being covered in centipedes, she asked her mother to take her to the hospital — thus, becoming the case study that spurred Sangalli and Chiang to investigate nutmeg. (She recovered after a few days’ rest.)

The duo list many components of nutmeg oil with notes about any known actions of those compounds. Some are stimulants, others depressants, others anesthetics, and so on. Where information is lacking, the authors suggest a strategy of comparing nutmeg to other plant materials containing some of the same or similar chemicals. For example, methysticin and kavain are two compounds from kava kava, which contain within them structures strongly resembling myristicin. The kava compounds are known local anesthetics, which work by inhibiting voltage-operated sodium channels (making nerves less conductive). Thus, the anesthetic medicinal/side effect of nutmeg may be tentatively pinned on myristicin and its interaction with the voltage-gated sodium channels. To hypothesize about each nutmeg effect and compound in this way, and then to test each hypothesis, sounds like a fun project to amuse a few research teams for the next several decades. Nutmeg is not amenable to a simplistic, reductionist approach — there are clearly multiple compounds working together to create the nutmeg syndrome, and quite possibly none of these compounds will create impressive effects working alone. I must say that this is less satisfying than Shulgin’s transamination hypothesis, but it does seem to be the truth: this is one tough nut to crack. At least it is providing us with good questions to ask.

One final note. Sangalli and Chiang lament that nutmeg’s “use is perpetuated in easy access resources such as the Internet.” Nutmeg use was perpetuated throughout the twentieth century, mostly in the absence of the Internet. I believe that having a lack of information perpetuates nutmeg use. People with adequate information would probably turn nutmeg down, or at least keep the dose limited to levels that others report enjoying. People who end up in the E.R. were usually working from ignorance or faulty information, so the researchers’ attitude of “let’s keep this information locked up in libraries where no one will look at it” is completely counterproductive. I kind of have to celebrate the honest people who share their awkward nutmeg experiences via Youtube and Erowid and the like. This young woman didn’t regret her experience but I hardly think she’s going to inspire a thousand imitators (I believe that she is a smaller person who took about 20 g, based on her previous “Nutmeg High” video):

February 16, 2013

Plants Talk, but Who Listens?

Plants and fungi communicate with animals, and each other, through chemical signals. An apple skin fills with pigment to announce its ripeness to animals that might eat it and excrete the seeds far from the tree. A flower’s smell carries on the breeze and attracts just the right butterfly to spread its pollen around.

The worldwide web of chemical chatter helps to keep habitats vibrant. For example, if a tree limb is invaded by insects, it will not only pump pesticides through the vasculature of that limb, but also emit a signal chemical to alert other nearby limbs and trees of the threat. If the forest is on the brink of killing off an insect species, it may select a tree to cease pumping pesticides and serve as an insect sanctuary — thus maintaining a balance between trees and their pests, and preventing both killer infestations and the evolution of pesticide-resistant “superbugs.”

Humans are animals. We are affected by plant talk — it’s how we decide what kinds of fruit, vegetables and grains we like. Yet, we are not lately respecting what plants have to say. We tend to think of food plants and medical herbs as something to buy preprocessed at the store, with no roots in the Earth. In consequence, we don’t know how to act on this planet. As a species, we’ve become like someone who is way too drunk for this early stage in the party, talking too loud, not listening, and obliviously stepping on everyone else’s toes.

A variety of tropical plants speak through caffeine, a chemical deadly to insects, desired by humans, goats, and certain other animals. It is entirely appropriate for sub/tropical peoples such as Arabs and Han Chinese to live symbiotically with coffee, tea, or cocoa trees. Yemen is a land of dry, rocky mountains, but some valleys are terraced and planted with lush coffee forests. Yemenis use coffee “cherries” as well as beans, since they live close enough to the tree to utilize the fresh fruit. Yemeni men stop to gather and drink coffee between morning prayers and the start of work, and men and women drink it throughout the day. Coffee inspires prayer and poetry.

Qat farming in Yemen

Actually, these farmers are raising Qat, Yemen’s other stimulant with its own traditions and rituals. A number of old Yemeni poems concern the debate between coffee and qat.

“Oh Coffee, you dispel the worries of the Great, you point the way to those who have wandered from the path of knowledge. Coffee is the drink of the friends of God, and of his servants who seek wisdom.

No one can understand the truth until he drinks of its frothy goodness. Those who condemn coffee as causing man harm are fools in the eyes of God.

Coffee is the common man’s gold, and like gold it brings to every man the feeling of luxury and nobility….Take time in your preparations of coffee and God will be with you and bless you and your table. Where coffee is served there is grace and splendor and friendship and happiness.

All cares vanish as the coffee cup is raised to the lips. Coffee flows through your body as freely as your life’s blood, refreshing all that it touches: look you at the youth and vigor of those who drink it.

Whoever tastes coffee will forever forswear the liquor of the grape. Oh drink of God’s glory, your purity brings to man only well-being and nobility“

–Sheik Ansari Djezeri Hanball Abd-al-Kadir, 1587, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul

There are no significant caffeine plants that grow in the temperate latitudes. Yet, we have a large proportion of caffeine-dependent people (myself included). In order to pull caffeine from its natural place in the order of things, Western powers imposed insane colonial policies on the tropical nations, forcing people out of villages and small farms and onto plantations that raised coffee, cocoa, tea, or sugarcane — the last, largely so that even the humblest of Westerners can add sugar to their coffee or tea or afford the occasional cheap chocolate bar. People in the global South are held in poverty and oppression for our cheap perks. Although we typically use caffeine in a fairly healthful way, caffeine expresses a negative social consequence of making long, dull work days more tolerable and tolerated. I rather suspect that things on Earth would run a little more harmoniously if caffeinated plants were known in the temperate zone as exotic novelties, instead of almost a human right like water and food.

Sugar, the sister of caffeine, sets an example of a substance casually ripped from its physical and chemical plant matrix, a different sort of distortion in the ecological chatter. Sugarcane is native to Southeast Asia, where it was grown to be chewed or juiced from about six thousand years ago. By a few centuries after the time of Christ, Indians were crystallizing sugar from the juice. Greeks were using expensive imported sugar in medicine. By the Middle Ages, humans had plainly lost perspective over sugar, with Arabs irrigating the desert to grow the water-loving cane. People all over ate it until our teeth rotted out and we died of diabetic complications.

Wisely applied, we can use a little chemistry to extract the good stuff from plants and make better medicines or flavorings. Yet, our tendency is to go all-out in purifying something all the way down to a white powder or a volatile liquid, regardless of the results. We believe in the myth of the “active constituent” that supposes only the most predominant, loudest-speaking chemicals in a plant are of any interest. Our economic mindset is scarcity, so we always try to get the most “bang for the buck.” Dosages and nutritional values are distorted, and secondary chemicals that enhance a plant’s flavor or effects are purified away. White flour is little more than starch, cocaine is hundreds of times more problematic than coca tea, clarified beer and wine (fungal products) lack protein and B-vitamins, and so on and so forth.

“Yellow butterflies,
Over the blossoming virgin corn,
With pollen-painted faces
Chase one another in brilliant throng.

Blue butterflies,
Over the blossoming virgin beans,
With pollen-painted faces
Chase one another in brilliant streams.

Over the blossoming corn,
Over the virgin corn,
Wild bees hum;
Over the blossoming beans,
Over the virgin beans,
Wild bees hum.

–Hopi planting song

“High fructose corn syrup is nearly identical in composition to table sugar.” — Corn Refiners Association

The processed food around us has been designed to taste good, store forever, and come cheap. In order to fulfill all three requirements, food technologists have essentially been forced to engineer deceptive food. This food compensates for the lack of fresh, quality ingredients with chemical artifice. A few kinds of fats, salt, sugar (often chemically bastardized) and sometimes MSG provide flavor in place of the cornucopia of interesting herbs and vegetables that would make for healthy food, but require care and freshness. Plants mainly tell the truth, and food technologists mainly lie.

We have two human systems at work here that are incompatible with the web of life. Our system of science places a premium on isolating variables, on taking things out of life and into the laboratory to see how the smallest parts work in isolated conditions. We need to orient ourselves more to field observation to learn how things actually work in nature — biologists of many sorts need to be listening to plants, not bombarding their genes with crude inserts.

The second problem, and I would guess the much larger one, is our model of industry. To a subsistence farm family among the Amish or ancient Celts, pigs have a certain role on the farm: eating scraps to produce meat and fertile feces. To industrial people, a pig is a component in a production process, consuming costly inputs to produce a return on investment. It makes sense to farm pigs in tiny cages in warehouses, feed them a diet that causes them to bloat up, and dump their waste anywhere you can get away with, because only money is real. This degrades the environs around pig farms and brings us flavor-and-nutritionally depleted pork, but again, only money is real. A similar ethic affected industry under Communism, wherein Moscow would decree certain production goals, and Soviet managers would aim to meet those goals regardless of who or what they destroyed in the process. But, farmers who live among their plants, who are not economically forced into planting-by-numbers, are sensitive to the needs of the environment around them and degrade it very slowly, if at all.

Field edge boundary hedge - geograph.org.uk - 1001684

Half-wild hedges between fields represent a fine compromise between ecological needs and immediate human needs. The hedges can be a source of wild food, medicine, and pollinators, not to mention protecting soil from erosion and preserving species from extinction. English hedges are full of the plants you will find in old English songs and literature: holly and ivy, wild roses, oaks…  photo by Dr. Duncan Pepper

What would our culture look like if it listened to plants? I could imagine a permacultural utopia and present it here, but that would be relatively boring. The real point is to learn about that from the plants themselves, anyway.

One change we might make is to drop the use of coffee from the Eastern US to take up sassafras instead. Sassafras is a tree used as medicine in both native and settler traditions. It is the root used in genuine root beer, or it may be consumed as a tea. Sassafras was emblematic of the American colonies, being widely seen as one of the great delights discovered in the New World. It was used to feel warm in the winter, get vitamin C, resist colds and flu, and to reinvigorate oneself in the spring. It is thought to be a subtle stimulant or mood lifter and to help maintain a general state of well-being, as well as offering cures for a number of more specific ailments. Sassafras sounds like just the thing to lift the cultural malaise resulting from the coffee-structured work day, making us healthier in the winter and more cheerful, instead of aggravating anxieties. We could be supporting polycultural farmers here at home instead of practically enslaving workers on plantations abroad.

Sassafras seedling.

Naturally, the FDA bans the use of sassafras in regulated food and drink. In a laboratory setting, sassafras oil was administered to rats (biologically similar to beavers, a natural enemy of sassafras trees) at such high doses that the rats experienced chronic kidney irritation, and subsequently developed kidney cancer, which is somehow interpreted as demonstrating that the substance is a dangerous carcinogen in humans at any dose. The DEA even takes note whenever the essential oil is purified from the plant, because of the oil’s chemical similarity to MDMA (ecstasy). These organizations are dedicated not to the logic of nature, but to the logic of reductive laboratory science and profiteering industry. Consider the US government’s alphabet soup of agencies and their strange relationships with tobacco, as well.

One could still plant a sassafras tree in the backyard and harvest from it quietly. You would get to know that tree, its growth habit, even moods that affect its oil production. More than merely exploiting a means of production, you would be bound to the tree as an ally, giving it space and water in exchange for its beneficent presence.

Even the weeds in your lawn have something to say for themselves, if you will but listen.

SASSAFRAS
Fringing cypress forests dim
Where the owl makes weird abode,
Bending down with spicy limb
O’er the old plantation road,
Through the swamp and up the hill,
Where the dappled byways run,
Round the gin-house, by the mill,
Floats its incense to the sun.

Swift to catch the voice of spring,
Soon its tasselled blooms appear;
Modest is their blossoming,
Breathing balm and waving cheer;
Rare the greeting that they send
To the fragrant wildwood blooms,
Bidding every blossom blend
In a chorus of perfumes.

On it leans the blackberry vine,
With white sprays caressingly;
Round its knees the wild peas twine,
Beckoning to the yellow bee;
Through its boughs the red-bird flits
Like a living flake of fire,
And with love-enlightened wits
Weaves his nest and tunes his lyre.

Oh, where skies are summer-kissed,
And the drowsy days are long,
’Neath the sassafras to list
To the field-hand’s mellow song!
Or, more sweet than chimes that hang
In some old cathedral dome,
Catch the distant klingle-klang
Of the cow-bells tinkling home!

–Samuel Minturn Peck

February 8, 2013

Revolutionaries who Keep Revolting

Thomas Jefferson once blazed revolution and a humane, slavery-rejecting philosophy with his pen, only to retire to a 5,000 acre plantation where he liked to walk on the balcony and oversee a cute, dollhouse-like slave society he had built there, largely self-sufficient with its own little mills and shops, and populated largely by his own enslaved offspring.

Ethan Allen was a man I sometimes like to imagine I was named after. During the Revolutionary War, he captured Fort Ticonderoga for the Patriots without bloodshed, by overwhelming the sentry just before dawn, sneaking 83 soldiers into the fort, and surprising the fort’s commander in bed, like he was fucking-A Batman. After the revolutionary war, Allen returned to Vermont and fought for its statehood, even negotiating with the British to lay a back-up plan for establishing Vermont as a province of Canada if New York would not let the territory go. Then, when Vermont was safely established as a state, he retired to a giant property in the woods and wrote Reason, the Only Oracle of Man, advising people that Christianity was laden with all kinds of oppressive bullshit and that God was expressed through Creation. Think about this until you get it: “the eternal and infinite display of divine power forecloses any subsequent exertion of it miraculously.”

I much prefer the sort of revolutionary who keeps agitating to the one who fades away or fossilizes into a power junkie.

Under the rule of George W. Bush, my liberal friends and I were terrified of the rise of TSA, assassinations by drone-based-missile, the suspension of habeas corpus, the dungeons at Guantanamo Bay and black sites, and the torture that happened there… “Dude, Where’s My Country?” asked Michael Moore. We took solace in the Daily Show and Colbert Report, laughing together at the insanity of the fascist US government. I painted signs and stood around in cold, rainy conditions demanding an end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of a leftist peace movement.

Under the rule of Barack Obama, my liberal friends mainly ignored the TSA,  assassinations by drone-based-missile, the suspension of habeas corpus, the dungeons at Guantanamo Bay and black sites, and the torture that happened there, preferring to criticize the President’s conservative detractors. The President coordinated the crackdown on pro-democracy Occupy protesters, and then Michael Moore endorsed the President’s run for reelection. I feel that my own involvement in the peace movement only served a partisan cause, seeing as my outlets for organized protest dried up under Democrat rule, despite expanding abuses against the Constitution and humanity. I resent having been used to partisan purpose by people who came to me as moral authorities advancing urgent, principled demands for peace and democracy. Organizations such as Code Pink and Veterans for Peace will never receive my support in the future, because they took energies activists invested for peace and democracy and turned them into passive support for Obama, a President who repeats, extends and multiplies the abuses of George W. Bush, precisely what we were supposedly working to end. People actually asked me to stop criticizing Obama, believing that Mitt Romney was a worse threat to the Union than the shredding of the Constitution. Where had all of my allies gone?

Dissent from Republicans is patriotic! End this pointless Republican bloodshed and give us a Democrat for commander-in-chief!

At some point, it became easier to locate conservative or rightist allies against rising fascism than leftist or liberal ones. While Michigan’s Democratic Senator Levin was crafting the 2012 NDAA to allow for the Federal government to kidnap Americans and throw them down into oubliettes forever, our Libertarian US Senate candidate, Scotty Boman, was promoting the nonaggression principle and an end to the War on Drugs. Ron Paul was the only major party Presidential candidate of 2012 to oppose creeping totalitarianism, with no Democrats opposing the hit-list wielding President Obama. Editorially friendly to Ron Paul and the 2nd Amendment, the Oathkeepers organized the military to prepare to resist orders to slay or oppress American citizens. While discovering right-wing resistance to fascism was eye-opening, it hardly made me feel like part of a tribe, speaking a common language, united with common purpose.

A few leftists have rejected the placebo of a Democrat President who embraces Wall Street and the military/intelligence shadow government, and continue to fight for peace and liberty. They have distinguished themselves as having rare intelligence and integrity, as most leftists have indicated a willingness to be shipped off to Guantanamo Bay to be raped and tortured if they only can get some health coverage that includes contraception.

Naomi Wolf is an author and journalist perhaps best known for “The Beauty Myth,” an exposé of the unrealistic standard of beauty promoted by cosmetics manufacturers. “The End of America” chronicled the march to a “closed society” or dictatorship under W. Bush. Wolf took a minute to support Obama in 2008, for, like myself, she had not analyzed Obama’s Senate votes with enough suspicion (and Obama did promise to reverse many of Bush’s evil policies). However, she could not ignore that Obama failed to halt any of Bush’s scandalous policies and she continues to report on the slide into fascism to this day.

Here is a snippet of Wolf’s analysis that I think sums up the difficulties of trying to win back US democracy through the ballot and partisan politics: “It’s hard to know how much power any American president has at this point in time. We’re much more like many Latin-American ‘democracies’ in which there is a nominal head of state who cannot really take on the military-industrial complex. But he could certainly have tried harder than he has.” (source)

Chris Hedges is another author/journalist with a background in war reporting, perhaps best known for “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.” Hedges is the lead plaintiff in a suit against the US government, alleging that the 2012 NDAA provision which authorizes the authorities to toss Americans into oubliettes violates the terms of our Constitution. Such authority is used in dictatorships to eliminate pesky journalists, activists, union and church leaders, and it clearly violates both the Constitution and the spirit of the American experiment. Hedges and his co-plaintiffs all continued fighting for democracy after Obama took on Bush’s mantle: the heroes of this story include Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, Noam Chomsky, public intellectual, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a not-particularly-leftist Icelandic MP whose government advised her not to travel to the barbaric United States, Tangerine Bolen, journalist, Kai Wargalla, Occupy organizer, and Alexa O’Brien, an IT maven who helped organize Occupy Wall Street but was accused of being a high-level cyber terrorist in cahoots with Al Qaeda. Many of these people worked on Wikileaks or support Bradley Manning. So far, they have won an injunction forbidding the government to kidnap Americans, which the government protested and is taking to appeal.

Journalist Alexander Cockburn kept up his criticism of the Obama Administration until he died in 2012, much to the shock of his fans, who had not known he was sick. His magazine Counterpunch publishes both fearful, we-must-support-Obama articles and articles after Cockburn’s own heart.

There are a lot of leftists still fighting the good fight, but you have to hunt for them. And so, friends, the left limps on with a sorrily tame and pro-establishment Daily Show, grousing impotently about the multiple-Sandy-Hooks-scale crime of the drone assassination program, but mainly focused on the stupidity of conservative Christians who don’t appreciate what Obama is trying to do. Leftists truly opposed to dictatorship and war have distinguished themselves as a principled minority, especially such people as I just named, who have remained active (not so much like myself). I guess for every Ethan Allen who was cheering Jon Stewart against W. Bush, there were about nineteen Thomas Jeffersons who talked the talk and then stepped back to a more comfortable place once the true enemy (the GOP) was safely in check.

If you see one leftist standing on the corner with a protest sign, you know that that person is 100% committed like a Christian martyr. If you see ten leftists there, you know that you are dealing with a generally dedicated group of people. If you see 100,000 leftists in the square, most of them are just tourists caught up in the group spirit, and you won’t be able to find them tomorrow. The best tribe you could ever be a part of, is no tribe.

January 17, 2013

On the Gruit Path

Filed under: gardening, magic, Vinting — Tags: , , , , , — paragardener @ 3:31 pm

The topic of gruit ale generated more than theoretical interest, so I’ve decided to collate & post some info to empower people to make or find this stuff. The first part of this post is for people making their own; it concerns getting seeds or transplants, growing the herbs, buying the herbs and where to add the herbs in the brewing process. The second part concerns tracking down gruit ale for sale.

Plants and Growing Info:

The best place to buy dried beer herbs appears to be Wild Weeds. You will find the “Holy Trinity” of beer herbs there under the names Sweet Gale, Yarrow, and Labrador Tea.

Myrica gale (sweet gale, bog myrtle) — This is a 2-4′ high shrub that grows along the waterside. It has been a brewing spice in Europe for over 2,000 years. Also native to North America, the Potawatomi Indians used the plant as a smudge to banish evil spirits (a suggestion of antiseptic action). Flavorwise, sweet gale is said to have a spicy aroma and a bitter taste, but also to impart a vanilla-like richness. For the head, sweet gale is narcotic or stupefying, yet it is said to improve the lucidity of dreaming.

Gagelstrauch (1)

Myrica-gale-1

North American sweet gale can be purchased for transplant through Fourth Corner Nurseries, a business dedicated to propagating native plants, or New England Wetland Plants.

Sweet gale prefers boggy to wet soil, something you might achieve almost anywhere by applying water almost continuously. However, it also appreciates acidic conditions (pH 4 to 6.5) — presumably the boggy places where it grows naturally are loaded with humic and fulvic acids from the slow decomposition of plants. Any level of sunlight is fine, but some shade will help protect this plant of the North from the summer heat.

Bog myrtle’s chemistry is best expressed with a combination of hot-water extraction and alcohol extraction; therefore half of it should be boiled with the wort, and half thrown in the fermenter (in a permeable bag.) On the other hand, plenty of people just toss it in the boiling wort and strain it out. All of the aerial parts of the plant are used, however, the best time is when “nut cones” are on the stem. Use 1.5 g of herb per gallon of brew. Or, use 1 oz. per gallon, to make sweet gale ale (with no other spices.)

Achillea millefolium (yarrow) — This plant vaguely resembles Queen Anne’s Lace. The leaves have zillions of feathery leaflets. This one has been with Eurasians since Neanderthal times, a very old friend indeed. Yarrow is used to dramatic effect in the binding of wounds, as well as manifold subtler uses (antiseptic, blood-flow promoter, …?). Tossing yarrow stalks is the oldest way to cast the I Ching, and yarrow heals battle wounds in the Iliad, so yarrow was known far and wide for its potent magic. Mentally, yarrow provides enhanced clarity and quells anxiety — except if taken with ale, when it precipitates instant drunkenness.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) (2863774620)

Yarrow seedlings can be purchased from Fourth Corner, or seeds from Alchemy Works.

Like many herbs, yarrow prefers mediocre soil with good drainage. For seeds, barely press into moist soil; seeds need light to germinate in 5-10 days at 62-75F/18-25C.

In beer, yarrow is bitter and preservative. Leaves should be boiled in the wort, but delicate aromatics can be taken from the flower heads if they are placed into the cooling wort right after the boil. Use at 1.5 g per gallon in gruit, or 1 oz. per gallon in a single-herb brew, or half that mass of recently dried yarrow.

Rhododendron tomentosum (wild or marsh rosemary) — This low shrub has leaves smooth on top, fuzzy beneath. A second species, Rhododendron groenlandicum, is also acceptable, and this is one of those annoying cases where the scientific name seems to add little clarity to the discussion (you may also read about these plants as Ledum glandulosum, Ledum latifolium, Ledum palustre, or as multiple types of Labrador Tea.) Don’t confuse these with Limonium, a completely different genus known as marsh rosemary, but also as sea lavender or statice: Limoniums are not what you want. In herbalism, Labrador Tea seems to be popular for treating a laundry list of conditions. It is much more widely available than true wild rosemary. Either plant contributes to some sort of narcotic delirium, with higher doses leading to headaches and cramps.

Labrador tea Ledum glandulosum close

Labrador Tea seeds are available at From the Forest.

Wild rosemary likes the same sort of acidic, boggy soil as Bog myrtle (Myrica gale.) However, it is somewhat less tolerant of shade. Seeds are broadcast onto moist soil in Spring when its temperature is 55-65F/13-18C, or in Fall.

Wild rosemary has a fresh, spicy aroma and bitter taste. The brewer should take caution when utilizing any unfamiliar source of wild rosemary, as not all of the plants in this group are of equal potency. As with bog myrtle, half of it should be boiled with the wort, and half thrown in the fermenter (in a permeable bag, weighted with a clean or sterile stone.) Use fresh flowering tops in gruit at 1.5 g per gallon, or 4/5 oz. per gallon in a single-herb brew.

Other plants: Gruit was used over a big piece of Europe for seven centuries or so… the recipe varied quite a bit. Sometimes the mix included juniper berries, ginger, caraway seeds, aniseed, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Some sources go on to name mugwort, wormwood, heather, and licorice. Or lavender, lemon balm, chamomile, and sweet fern. These lists are by no means exhaustive, however, some people seem to use “gruit” to refer to any mix of beer herbs excluding hops, regardless of how authentically medieval it may or may not be. Literally speaking, “gruit” is Old German for “herb” (and you pronounce it along the lines of “fruit.”)

Finding Gruit Ale:

There seem to be no gruit ales distributed on anything like a national basis (in the United States, at any rate). To buy gruit ale, you need to find a local brewery that has achieved competency in the style.

I searched the ‘net for “Michigan gruit -fruit.” This technique seems to work fine for other states, although I don’t know if you’ll find a gruit brewery far from the chilly, boggy places where marsh rosemary and bog myrtle grow.

In Michigan, Kuhnhenn Brewing Co. of Warren carries an occasional heather ale. Mt. Pleasant Brewing Company carries “Sacred Gruit Ale” as a regular beer, with the authentic triumvirate of major herbs. Mt. Pleasant brews are carried by a number of distributors across the state. You can look at this map and call your local distributor to find out which stores have Sacred Gruit. Mt. Pleasant brews are also served up at Mountain Town Station brewpub in Mt. Pleasant.

Still curious? Take a look at Gruit Ale.com… I especially like their pilgrimage to the 50th parallel to harvest wild bog plants!

January 13, 2013

They put mind-control drugs in the drinking water.

Filed under: magic, Vinting — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — paragardener @ 5:55 pm

Imagine that your government mandated your drinking water supply be laced with a pharmaceutical agent — a drug that causes sedation, depression in a certain proportion of patients, loss of sex drive and sometimes male impotence. This would seem to be a vile New World Order scheme for cowing a sheep-like populace, preventing revolts and dwindling the population.

Indeed, the drinking water was drugged to control behavior among the masses. I’m not talking about the fluoride in your city water, though — I’m talking about hops in the beer, and the scene is Europe in the late Middle Ages / early Renaissance.

Medieval Europeans didn’t know how to sanitize water to make it safe, but they did know that beer was safe. They drank it all day long (although some of the beers were too weak to go to market today.) In the Dark Ages, there were many beer recipes in circulation… some called for malt and water only, but that was not most people’s favorite beer. Plain beer has no bitter element to balance the sweetness, and doesn’t keep as long as beer infused with bitter herbs. Other beers were brewed with juniper or wormwood, or with specific herbs to treat specific maladies.

The most popular beer was the one backed up by Church authority. In many places, the local monks held a monopoly on making gruit, a brain-bending combination of herbs such as marsh rosemary, yarrow, and sweet gale (Myrica gale.) The village people would pony up cash for the secret-formula gruit, and proceed to brew their own beer with it. Gruit beer is said to be stimulating and highly inebriating. To Protestants, the gruit system was a big problem, because 1) it supported the authority of the Church and 2) it was too much fun, too indulgent, and had to be sinful.

Their solution appeared in the form of hops. Very late in the Middle Ages, brewers were experimenting with hops as an alternative to gruit. Its main advantage was that it could be grown in one’s own beer garden, avoiding the priestly layer of secrecy and control. Hops is bitter and preservative, and it can be bred into varieties producing a decent range of different aromas. The downside of hops is that it causes sleepiness, weakens the male libido (through estrogen-like chemistry), and is contraindicated for depressives. It’s not an evil plant; the other side of the coin is that it’s good for menopausal symptoms and for people who suffer anxiety without depression.

Apparently, the side effects of hops were of no concern to the Protestants. I don’t think that they consciously set out to sedate people — it’s just that sedating people didn’t rate as a disadvantage. Hops was considered an anti-drug, the tame alternative to everything from heather to henbane. Hops was mandated into Bavarian beer in 1516, with the Reinheitsgebot or German Purity Law — the only ingredients allowed in beer henceforth would be barley, water and hops. The Purity Law would spread to many European nations and locales. To the modern Westerner, the Purity Law is an assurance that there is no cheapass rice or maize in the brew. To someone living almost 500 years ago, it meant something different… it meant that to drink something that was safe and dysentery-free, you had to dull yourself down with hops: that is a mass drugging of the population through the drinking water supply, no doubt.

This could be a sad tale of the subjugation of my ancestors. However, this story points to a wide-open new frontier in brewing… everything from pine branches to saffron has been used in beer. Yet we today rely almost exclusively on hops, even reflexively hopping beers with other spices added. There is no need to do so, especially with bitter herbs!

A homebrewer can easily buy some unhopped malt extract and brew it with the addition of any plant product they choose. The starting place for reclaiming our centuries-dormant brewing traditions has got to be “Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers” by Stephen Harrod Buhner. I will double-check his information for assurance of safety, as I am just too self-conscious to converse with plants as Buhner does, and therefore I need empirical data regarding safe dosage! This also raises the question of what I can brew into a beer, and just hand it to someone as a beer, as against when a beer becomes a “drug.” I suppose I shall have to embark upon a serious, long-term effort to bioassay these strange brews, using the researcher as test subject.

Meanwhile, the struggle between “puritans” and the free-minded goes on. The high priests of public health are considering what level of lithium to put in city water in order to reduce violent behavior. Wild people of the world, take some joy in the fight! It won’t end in our lifetime!

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