Posts Tagged ‘herbs’

When my mother, God rest her soul, was in her final years in the nursing home, her ninetieth birthday rolled around. She had retreated, at that stage, into a very small world that seemed inappropriate for such a powerful, independent personality. Most afternoons she would be assailed by “Sundowning”, and frequently in tears.

It is now well understood that people with dementia may become more confused, restless or insecure late in the afternoon or early evening. They may become more demanding, restless, upset, suspicious, disoriented and even see, hear or believe things that aren’t real, especially at night. In Mum’s case, she simply became more lonely, despite the efforts of her care staff,

No one is quite sure what causes sundowning, although it seems to result from changes that are occurring in the brain. A person experiencing sundowning may be hungry, uncomfortable, in pain or needing to use the toilet, all of which they can only express through restlessness. As the dementia progresses and they understand less about what is happening around them, they may become more frantic in trying to restore their sense of familiarity or security. Many families and carers say that the person becomes more anxious about ‘going home’ or ‘finding mother’ late in the day which may indicate a need for security and protection. They may be trying to find an environment that is familiar to them, particularly a place that was familiar to them at an earlier time in their life.

On her 90th birthday, Jenie, Caitlin and I visited with a cake, on top of which were candles in the shape of a nine and a zero, a banner that said Happy Birthday, and various other little celebratory items, and the nursing home kindly let us use one of their side rooms for a bit of privacy.

We sang happy birthday, more than once, and she smiled happily, which was really as much as we wanted by way of reaction. Then her mood swung, suddenly.

She kept staring at the cake, and then looking at me, who by now she thought of more often as my father, than me. In fact, I would frequently get reminded to do odd jobs around the family home in Sketty Green in Swansea, where she hadn’t lived for many decades, while she was temporarily in “hospital”. During two confinements, she was hospitalised for long periods. I believe her fading mind now imagined her back in an earlier era, when she was still married to her beloved Stewart, and still master of her own destiny, as a way of coping with the indignity of extreme age.

She shot me glance after glance, a worried look on her face.

“Ninety?” she asked, querulously. Then with more vigour, “Ninety!” And then finally, with some annoyance, “Ninety?”

The mere fact of her great age clearly disagreed, fundamentally, with her view of herself. She steadfastly refused to accept that she could be ninety, so we simply quietly removed the candles, and carried on celebrating her birthday, giving her some of the cake, and having a famously sweet tooth she quickly calmed down and started relaxing again. Wreathed in smiles, and being hugged by her grand-daughter of whom she was so proud, she was soon once again a contented mixture of coquettish child and venerable sage, living once more in the moment.

As I write, I sit looking at the garden that Jenie and I have planted outside our computer room, in our small back yard. It is, to be sure, a work in progress, and what progresses most successfully is Oxalis, tubular rye grass, and Dandelions. Indeed, we have so many Dandelions that I have taken to researching salads using their leaves.

Dandelions are found on all continents of course, and have been gathered for food since prehistory, but the varieties cultivated for consumption are mainly native to Eurasia.

It’s very reliable: the leaves will grow back if the taproot is left intact, which as they are almost impossible to uproot with the bare hands is “usually”. To make leaves more palatable, they are often blanched to remove bitterness, or sauteed in the same way as spinach. Dandelion leaves and buds have been a part of traditional Kashmiri, Slovenian, Sephardic, Chinese, and Korean cuisines. In Crete, the leaves of a variety called ‘Mari’ (Μαρί), ‘Mariaki’ (Μαριάκι), or ‘Koproradiko’ (Κοπροράδικο) are eaten by locals, either raw or boiled, in salads. Dandelion leaves apparently make good tea.

The pretty yellow flowers, along with other ingredients, usually including citrus, are used to make dandelion wine, which I recall is excellent, as dandelion was also traditionally used to make the traditional British soft drink dandelion and burdock. Also, dandelions were once delicacies eaten by the Victorian gentry, mostly in salads and sandwiches.

Dandelion leaves contain abundant vitamins and minerals, and historically dandelion was prized for a variety of medicinal properties, containing a number of pharmacologically active compounds. It has been used in herbal medicine to treat infections, bile and liver problems, and as a diuretic. Indeed, the English folk name “piss-a-bed” (and indeed the equivalent contemporary French pissenlit) which I still remember from my youth  refers to the strong diuretic effect of the plant’s roots. Rather more stomach-turningly, in various northeastern Italian dialects, the plant is known as pisacan (“dog pisses”), because they are found at the side of pavements.

As I look out of the window now, the oak tree which we planted from an acorn is shedding its leaves in the winter sunshine. They fall as if they are gentle tears for the summer just past. Capturing the sun until it browns them from the inside and they sigh and drop.

Winter this year has been very kind, and it has held onto its leaves for as long as it possibly is able, but they are a riot of browns and yellows now, and in increasing numbers they carpet the garden below, providing useful mulch, and smothering, with luck, a few of the weeds. We are frankly not sure what to call this patch of garden. It is, variously, the Paddock. Or the Meadow. There are vague intents to try to create an English cottage garden. But we look away for an instant, and all the delicate hollyhocks and Love-In-A-Mist and Sweet Williams seem to lose out to hardier entrants like Camomile and Verbena and the Italian Parsley that has spread like wildfire, outdoing in its aggression, if such a thing were possible, the Vietnamese Mint. We may have to re-christen it as the herb garden and be done with it.

In front of my eyes, the endless round of birth, death and renewal is happening in real time.

It is my birthday, tomorrow. And having been born, grown, been to Uni, traveled some, raised a family and done a bit of work, I suddenly and without warning find myself staring down the barrel of 60. It has all gone by in a blink. I have no doubt, on my death-bed, I will rail against the dying of the light – convinced beyond reason that there is something I meant to do if I could only remember what it is – I will regret having not done some things, and regret having done others, but I will not, ultimately, regret all that much. In short, I have seen much, enjoyed most of it, known many inspirational and heart-warming people, built a wonderful business with great partners, and been blessed largely with good health – a stout heart and good lungs, strong limbs and clear eyes. I married the kindest person on the planet and then she gave birth to another like her.

I am losing my hair but not my faculties.

It is enough.

Nevertheless, my newfound right to apply for a Seniors Card comes with something of a profound shock. Somebody said to me the other day, “Cheer up, 60 is the new 50, you know!” “Yes,” I replied tersely, “but it’s not the new f****** 25, is it?”

In my head, I think I will always be 25. Being able to get reduced fees on a local tram does not really compensate for being able to smash through a hard 80 minutes of rugby, and then stay up all night drinking pints of Gales 6X and playing 3-card brag, before popping into work still full of ink but essentially functional.

“Sixty?” “Sixty!’ “Sixty?

My leaves are starting to fall, as they must. I will cling onto them for as long as I can, before giving them up with as much good grace as I can muster, which I doubt will be very much. I don’t expect I will make 90, but I know how she felt. I am very like her, in many ways.

And I think I’ll leave the Dandelions where they are. The last thing you need at 60 is to piss more often.

 

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One of the truly interesting things about taking a vacation is the opportunity to observe another culture closely.

Port Vila on Vanuatu itself is a surprisingly compact town, with its few dusty main streets offering up a supply of souvenirs next to bright, busy clothing and fresh food markets, and waterfront restaurants and cafes.

You can do the whole place in half an hour. So on our recent trip we made arrangements to get away from the markets and tourist traps to visit an indigenous village – Ekasup. The village was on land owned by the tribe. All tribes in Vanuatu have their ancestral lands on their original island, and also some land on the main island, Efate, for them to utilise when they visit from their home.

On arriving at Ekasup, there is a short 5 minute walk through the tropical forest. This is itself was a wondrous experience, ducking under low branches and surrounded by lush vegetation. We were delighted to have been told that there are no poisonous snakes or spiders on Efate. It was interesting to ponder that such a walk in Australia would be extremely unwise without sturdy boots and all skin covered.

This was a great opportunity to learn and experience traditional life which has hardly changed in centuries. We learnt how to prepare products from the world around us, like using native herbs for medicine, clever techniques for food preservation and roasting, how to make fishing and hunting traps using local plant materials, not to mention weaving mats, hats, and baskets.

Three moments in particular gave us deep cause for contemplation.

girlsThe first was when the most adorable child imaginable walked into our midst clad in nothing but a grass skirt, and shyly wandered up to the Chief who was telling us about bush medicine. He casually mentioned that this was his six year old daughter and she had been sick when she was first born and her mother had died in childbirth, but she was healed using local knowledge of plants and herbs.

It was a stark reminder not only that There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy, but also that maternal health care is still a major problem in the third world, and that such countries still struggle with life-threatening situations that are largely forgotten in the West.

It also, simultaneously, caused us to pause and wonder how many “bush medicines” will be lost as climate change, habitat change, and increasing urbanisation separate us from the wisdom of centuries.

Our guide mentioned herbal cures – prolifically growing all around us, apparently – for ailments such as kidney stones, hepatitis B, accidental poisoning, and other serious illnesses for which invasive operations or expensive medicines are the norm in the West. It is clear that this voluminous knowledge is being blindly ignored or wilfully discarded by the world, and that is a tragedy. He explained how every island has its own bush medicine repertoire, and guards this knowledge fiercely, as it is, to an extent, the equivalent of money. It can be traded with other tribes and communities, making a meaningful difference to their lives. It also follows that if an island or area becomes depopulated, (for example if poverty forces the people into urban areas), and the people scattered, then these traditions will die, and possibly as quickly as within a single generation.

spiderThe second moment was when the Chief showed us how he kept a pet spider, who was encouraged to weave its web between the V of a cleft stick, thus creating a de facto fishing net. As he talked, he allowed the spider to wander all over his upper body, as we might play with a kitten or puppy. To say the spider was fearsome looking would be an understatement – some lily-livered members of our party could hardly watch – but it was clearly quite at home and he resolutely assured us it was both amiable and not poisonous.

We weren’t about to pick him up, mind you.

The Chief’s intimacy with his natural world was fascinating and rather humbling.

The third moment was when he described the typhoon that had hit the country some nine months before, Cyclone Pam, with winds in excess of 300 kilometres an hour demolishing many homes and other structures.

The damage left behind had been obvious everywhere as we drove around. Around 75,000 people were left in need of emergency shelter, and 96 per cent of food crops were destroyed.The island had been denuded of mature trees and virtually all the crops that many islanders relied upon for their living, especially coconuts, and tropical fruits, simply vanished.

Immature replacement trees were springing up everywhere, to be sure, but one could so easily imagine the depressing sight that must have greeted these very poor people as they came out of wherever they were sheltering when the storm had passed, to see their cottage gardens or farms simply obliterated. Luckily aid from nearby countries, especially Australia, arrived very promptly. We were proud to hear that an RAAF Hercules had arrived with emergency supplies even before the local Parliament had met to make a response. “You got here the day after,” he smiled, “we love Australia.” It was a nice moment.

banyan_tree_5The chief’s tribe had sheltered from the howling storm in the hollowed interior of an ancient banyan tree, his ancient bushcraft judging it safer than wandering around outside, or even staying in any of their flimsy homes, which are designed to survive tropical storms but which sometimes get destroyed anyway.

He laughed – he laughed a lot, and shrugged – as he explained “If the banyan tree die, we die.”

It was a fatalistic response from a man who knew, because of his daily closeness to the natural environment, that in a life and death struggle with the planet, when “push comes to shove”, humans will always lose out to the planet. The banyan tree was a refuge of last resort. Some things in the natural world are simply un-survivable, and if the banyan tree was going to go, well, there wouldn’t be all that much left around to survive for, so, under the tree, everyone, and it is what it is.

It was a striking demonstration of how different their “stone age” attitude is to that in the developed world. (For such it is, essentially un-changed since before the arrival of technology, and “stone age” is not intended to be in any way a dismissive moniker as used here.)

In the “civilised” world we like to believe we control everything, everywhere, and nothing is insurmountable. How wrong we are. As we looked around at this environment – which was as different to our day to day experience of life as if we had been miraculously transported to the Moon – we thought about the current debate about climate change. And how, if we tip the planet too far in one direction, we are taking a risk that we have no idea how to survive. And how the damage wrought will damage things we don’t even properly realise exist.

turtleIn another spot, a rather battered but fascinating turtle sanctuary, one woman quietly told us with great dignity how they had retreated inland as the giant typhoon approached, and when they returned, her home had simply vanished. But homes can be rebuilt, even if somewhat higgledy-piggledy in style or with salvaged materials. A roof is a roof even if it’s made of corrugated iron and held on by scattered bricks that used to be in your kitchen wall. What seemed, though, to make her even more sad, was when she said “We used to have many big sharks here, they would come and we would feed them, but since that night, they all gone. All gone.” “Will they come back again?” we asked, curiously “I don’t think so, she said, almost in a whisper. “Think they dead.” If was as if she had lost relatives.

As we sailed away from the islands a few days later, and neared our home port of Sydney, we heard that Vanuatu had again been swideswiped again, this time by Cyclone Ula. Part of an uptick in typhoon activity which has been very in evidence thanks to a warming world in recent years.

We hope the banyan tree made it through.