Witches (a Question of Character
& a Fiction Round-up)

What is a witch, anyway?  When I was a kid, I knew that witches wore black, had tall pointy hats, rode on brooms, and didn’t exist.

Later, I learned that there had been witch hunts, and that historically people had been convinced enough of the existence of witches to execute those who were convicted of such a thing.  Incredibly, it seems that many of these accused witches were actually charged with healing, rather than harming.  Later still, I learned that there are people, today, who are persecuted under accusations of witchcraft (or some translation thereof).

Sometime during high school, I read Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies, and the witches that lived in my imagination have ever since been independent women living on the edge of society – but integrally a part of it – who practice “headology and herbology” on a daily basis, and deeper magic with discretion.  No one to be trifled with, these nonetheless are good witches…at least, as good as any of us flawed human beings can be.  When they do practice magic, they tend to stick to the practical and effective kind (eschewing the showier methods of wizards).

Historically, the title of “witch” has been something someone else called you, not a title you claimed for yourself.  That’s changed, of course, and many folks – including some of my favorite bloggers – self-identify as witches, people who are brave enough to practice magic in a world that doesn’t really believe in it.  I love the idea of taking a word once used as an insult and owning it, reforming it, and claiming it as one’s own.  There’s a great book entitled A History of Witchcraft, that covers both historical and modern ideas of witchcraft.  It notes, if memory serves, that modern, self-identified witches have no direct lineage relating to the medieval or colonial accused witch.  Still, I would hazard to say that the word was chosen with good reason:  Many accused witches were folks brave enough to buck the established rules of society, and even today, it takes guts to choose a different path in a culture that is dominated by the big three monotheistic religions and, otherwise, a steadfast lack of belief in the supernatural.

Now, I’m going to let history and current events do their own thing, and just tell you about a few of my favorite fictional witches.

Wee Free Men and the Discworld Series, by Terry Pratchett
In the Discworld, witches are known for being independent, eccentric, observant, and for doing what needs to be done.  Also, they do magic and ride on brooms.  The thing with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is that it’s wickedly funny, frighteningly insightful, and manages to take a foundation of satire and develop it into brilliant characters and well-crafted, moving stories.  These are books that you can take on a miserable transatlantic flight and laugh through the whole thing, halfway through realize you’re being told a story that will live on in your imagination for years, and only half an hour after finishing the book realize that you’ve also been inspired to think about important concepts and maybe even learned a life lesson.

The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry
This story is not necessarily about a witch, as Barry walks the line between realistic fiction and magical realism.  It does take place in Salem, and the book has a rich sense of place, with a consciousness both of the history of the town and its current reclamation of witchcraft (in part fueled by the tourist industry).  The echos of witch hunts are haunting, and the book as a whole is a subtle, complex, beautifully-told story.

Under my Hat, short stories selected by Jonathan Strahan
I’m in the middle of reading this book right now.  With a slew of witch-themed stories from writers like Neil Gaiman and Garth Nix, it was irresistible.  So far, all the stories have been entertaining, with a few real keepers.

 

 

Chocolat, by Joanne Harris
Is Vienne a witch?  I don’t recall if she’s ever referred to as such in the book.  But she is certainly an independent woman who creates healing magic in the little town into which she wanders…  The film of the same name is gorgeous, a feast for your eyes.

 

Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman
Alice Hoffman has written multiple books with witches as characters, but this is the only one that I’ve read so far.  While it’s not my favorite of Hoffman’s novels, it’s still a great read.  I love Hoffman’s ability to make fairy tales hauntingly realistic, and this one doesn’t disappoint.  The movie of the same name is a lot of fun, too.

Which brings me to movies and…unfortunately, other than the two mentioned above, I can’t think of any good movies with witches in them.  I’m not a big horror fan and, anyway, characters like those in Season of the Witch (why, Nicolas Cage, why?) don’t have much to do with witches in my opinion.  This is a great season for witch flicks, so please chime in with recommendations for good witchy films!

Q:  What defines a witch to you?
Q:  What are your favorite stories featuring a witch or witches?


Responding to Antibiotic Resistance:
a resource round-up

There have been some pretty scary headlines in the news this week.  Stuff like:
Drug-Resistant Bacteria Are Common Killers
Antibiotic-Resistant Infections Lead to 23,000 Deaths a Year, C.D.C. Finds
‘We Will Soon Be in a Post-Antibiotic Era’
Yes, Agricultural Antibiotics Play a Role in Drug Resistance
While antibiotic resistance has been a concern for some time, I can’t recall it ever receiving this type of press or this degree of validation from the CDC.  And if the issue is old news to some, it’s no less urgent for that.  So, what’s to be done?

According to the New York Times, “The report said that “much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.” It also said that about half of antibiotic use in people is inappropriate.”  Will lawmakers and regulatory agencies regulate this from the top down?  Will large livestock farmers stop using antibiotics excessively?  I don’t know.  But we can influence this from the bottom up, by refusing to buy meat raised on farms that regularly dose their animals with antibiotics.  (Talk to your farmer, your butcher, and/or your grocery store manager to learn more about how your meat was raised.)  We can also talk to our doctors and figure out if we really need to take antibiotics for a given issue.  These are a couple of basic steps we can take, by deciding what goes into our bodies, and what practices we want to support.

Having made those decisions, it’s important to have tools to prevent the need for antibiotics – as well as alternatives/complements to pharmaceutical antibiotics should the need arise.

On this subject, I can’t recommend any book more highly than Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Herbal Antibiotics.  While this book provides great tools for fighting bacterial infections in general, it focuses on resistant strains.  Buhner also gives a comprehensive overview of the issue of antibiotic resistance, and describes in fascinating and alarming detail the ways in which bacteria are able to adapt and how they work in the body.  This book is readable for laypeople, though Buhner’s suggestions are well-documented enough to impress your M.D.  In addition to scads of scientific studies, Buhner draws on his own experience, as well as traditional and current uses among herbal practitioners.  A companion volume, Herbal Antivirals, is due out later this month.  (You can read Buhner’s response to the CDC’s report here, at Inside Storey.

For common ailments, I find Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health to be invaluable.  It contains recipes to help you fight off all sorts of issues, from earaches to UTIs.  My go-to recipe from this book is Fire Cider.  I always have some on hand, and I find it can help me fight off just about anything if I catch it quick enough.

As good as these books are, it’s of course far better not to get sick in the first place.  In addition to basic practices like getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising, taking adaptogens can help build a strong, responsive immune system.  My prime reference here is the aptly titled Adaptogens, by David Winston.  Adaptogens fall under a wider category of herbs referred to as tonics.  Tonics are safe to take regularly, and they build good health in general (though they often address one system especially).  Guido Masé’s Wild Medicine Solution includes a wonderful discussion of tonic herbs, and specifically addresses immunity.  The whole book is a great introduction to using herbs for better overall health.

I grew up believing that bacteria were no longer a threat, having been all but vanquished by pharmaceutical antibiotics.  One of the most valuable things I’ve learned from Buhner’s book on the subject is that bacteria are far more complex and adaptable than I imagined.  I no longer believe that we possess any “silver bullets” in this battle – and I think we’ll lose if we continue believing that we have the capacity to wipe out bacterial infections wholesale.  Instead, I think it’s time to take an honest look at our vulnerabilities and our strengths, at how it’s possible to support the immune system and give it a competitive edge, and at the rich and varied resources we have in the form of whole plant medicines.

Books featured in this post include:

 

 

 

 

Click any of the covers to order from your local indie bookstore.


Romancing Charlotte, by Colin Scott (Book Review)

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I’ve been lucky enough to snag a copy of the new novel Romancing Charlotte, by Colin Scott.  On the most obvious level, this is a charming page-turner of a romance set in modern-day Ireland.  With well-developed characters and touching but realistic familial relationships complimenting the various romantic plotlines, this is a great book to cozy up with on a chill evening.

That being said, there’s a lot more to this story:  Scott’s hero and heroine are no ingénues, and it’s refreshing and all too rare to read a romance about folks in their later years.  With a Downton-Abbeyesque twist, Charlotte is the lady of the local manor, while PJ, recently returned from living in the States, is descended from a humbler family.  This division is a tricky one anywhere, and it’s made even more complex in an Irish setting, what with issues of religion and politics.  Scott also weaves in a strong sense of place, and a subplot involving illegal turf-cutting in peat bogs, an issue that is similarly layered and three-dimensional.  While “Colin Scott” is – according to his own twitter profile – a pseudonym, it’s obvious that this Irish author is writing from inside the culture:  Romancing Charlotte takes place in the nuanced, complex world of modern Ireland, not some “top o’ the mornin'” Hollywood version.

The Verdict:  Romancing Charlotte is like a good raspberry cordial:  It’s sweet and goes down easy, but nevertheless can be quite nuanced and much more nourishing than you might think.  It’s a perfect choice for anyone interested in the subtleties of modern Irish culture, for anyone who’d like to take a trip abroad between the pages, and really for anyone looking for a good read that will neither traumatize nor patronize.


Book Review: The Wild Medicine Solution, by Guido Masé

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I’m giving a great big virtual cheer that The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic Plants has been published and is on my shelf. I’ve been anticipating this since I first heard last May that Guido Masé – clinical herbalist, cofounder of the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism, part of the team at Urban Moonshine, etc. – was writing a book. It’s even better than I’d hoped.  Why?

  • It presents a system for using herbs in daily life that’s so accessible it goes beyond simplicity into elegance.
  • Guido both speaks hard science and can translate it for laypeople.
  • Storytelling is a skill near and dear to my heart, and Guido uses storytelling to great effect to both illustrate the uses of herbs and to communicate how powerful these plants are – physiologically, spiritually, and culturally.
  • The recipes included are easy and delicious.  I’m particularly enamored of the hot chocolate recipe, which tastes smoothly bitter and rich, everything I’ve always wanted coffee and Guinness and hot chocolate to taste like.
  • The herbs that Guido focuses on are easy to find and generally very pleasant to take: Think chocolate, ginger, and peppermint.
  • The photos are gorgeous.
  • While many books on natural health can leave you feeling like you’re fighting a losing battle (as though to be healthy, you must rid your home of every molecule of plastic, drink only spring water newly burst from the earth, eat tons of fish, never eat any fish because they’re all contaminated, and spend every waking hour doing mindfulness exercises), The Wild Medicine Solution is inspiring.  You come away from this book feeling that your body is strong and resilient, and can deal with the challenges of modern life if only you give it the right tools.

The upshot: If you have to deal with the stress and stressors of modern life, please read this. Accessible to non-science geeks and very appealing to those who like some soul served up with their science, this book is also a good one for skeptics who want scientific proof before they’ll buy into the validity of using herbs.

If you still have doubts, you should wander on over to The Wild Medicine Solution page on Guido’s blog:  You’ll find that this book is also recommended by David Winston, Susun Weed, David Hoffman, Michael Tierra, and others, including Rosemary Gladstar, who said:

“I have a new favorite book in my herbal library. What is most masterful about Guido’s teachings and writing is the way he weaves folklore, tradition, and science flawlessly together, making a sensible cohesive argument for the daily use of these common and important plants. Guido has written a classic.”

Hear, hear.


Book Review: Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs

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from your local bookstore.

I’m far overdue in posting about this book, which has been out since the spring.  This is the newest from Rosemary Gladstar – an inspiring herbalist who I’ve been lucky enough to study with, and one of my absolute favorite herbal authors.  Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs is an ideal book for the beginning herbalist.  It starts out with easy-to-follow instructions on growing and using herbs, and continues with profiles of 33 easy to use and easy to find herbs.  Having read this book – written in Rosemary’s friendly and inviting style – I think even the most tentative students of herbalism will be inspired to dive in and start gardening and harvesting, concocting and decocting. I’d also recommend this for more experienced herbalists – in large part because this book focuses on some of the herbs that are so widely available that it’s easy to forget they’re also medicinal.  This is a gorgeously designed book that’s a pleasure to own and use.


Book Review: The Woman’s Handbook of Healing Herbs

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to buy from your
local indie bookstore.

I’m a big fan of this relatively new title by Maine herbalist Deb Soule. It strikes a wonderful balance in tone and depth: accessible to someone with little or no experience in herbalism, but specialized enough to contain valuable info for even experienced herbalists. It speaks from both the intellect and the heart, and is a nurturing and practical book for any woman interested in natural health to own.

The Woman’s Handbook of Healing Herbs covers a range of topics, and contains a true wealth of information for women who have specific health concerns as well as for women who just want to stay healthy.  Herbal formulas (with clear instructions) are set apart from the text, which makes them easy to find and follow.  The book is a trade paperback on good, heavy color, with lovely black and white illustrations by Susan Szwed.  It also contains an extensive list of resources, full citations, a Latin-to-Common-Name glossery, and a general index as well as an index of formulas and recipes.  A wonderful book to start with, these details make it all the more usable.

Author Deb Soule is the founder of Avena Botanicals.  A gardener, she teaches and consults with women and health care providers around the country.  She lives in Rockland, Maine.


Book Review: Kid’s Herb Book: For Children of All Ages

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at your local bookstore.

Okay, I’ll be honest:  I don’t have any kids, I’m a youngest child, and I don’t babysit for love or money, so I’m not your obvious first choice to review a kid’s herb book.  But I will say that, while I purchased this as a gift for a young acquaintance, I want a copy for myself!  The recipes are not only fun but very, very useful.  The songs are a little silly, but are great learning aids for helping young and old remember which herb helps with which conditions.  The stories are absolutely charming.

If you’re buying this for a little one and not yourself:  Very young children will need some help with the text, so you get to share in the fun.  Middle grade children will be all set with the text, but will need some help with many recipes.  All children will need your help in either safely IDing and wildcrafting plants, in growing an herb garden, and/or in buying dried herbs from the store.

I totally recommend this, for young and old.  And just in case you’d like some advice from someone who knows all about children, no worries:  I asked my mom to take a look at the book, and she recommends it too!


Book Review: Dr. Kidd’s Guide to Herbal Cat Care

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buy at your local
indie bookstore.

This slender, down-to-earth volume compiles a working holistic veterinarian’s recommendations on common feline health problems, as well as maintenance of good health.  It’s readable, practical, and accessible, even for someone with little or no experience in herbalism.  Experienced herbalists might not find a ton of new information here, but it’s still nice to see things laid out with an eye to a cat’s needs, especially since not all herbs that work for humans are safe for cats.  Kidd also has some interesting and useful notes on how to get your cat to take herbs in the first place, and which herbs they’re likely to take willingly.  This book has a permanent place on my shelf, and I look forward to helping support my cat’s health with some of the herbs Kidd recommends.


Book Review: Backyard Medicine

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from your Local
Indie Bookstore

Backyard Medicine, by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal, is an absolutely gorgeous combination of information and full-color photographs.  It’s also my go-to book for in-depth info on easy to find (and easy to grow) medicinal herbs.  Backyard Medicine is very readable, and the bulk of the book is made up of a short chapter on each of fifty plants, including photos, description, historical and present-day uses, mythological or folk beliefs about the herb, the authors’ personal experience, and instructions for suggested preparations.  There’s also a brief how-to for basic preparations (decoctions, herbal honeys, etc) in the beginning of the book.  Backyard Medicine focuses specifically on common wildflowers, like dandelion, mullein, and yarrow, which makes it particularly useful.  A portable trade paperback with lovely paper quality, it’s a joy to use and to page through, making plans for the summer.


Book Review: The Angel Makers, by Jessica Gregson

December sure is flying by!  I’ve been having a blast writing stories for Looseleaf, not to mention taking care of the usual holiday preparations.  But I wanted to make a quick stop here and point out a great novel that was just released this month.

The Angel Makers is the story of a small village in Hungary during the early 1900s.  Sari is the daughter of an herbalist, and when he dies she partners up with the village midwife.  When the men of the village go off to war, the women experience unexpected freedoms.  Then the men return, and Sari’s fiance becomes abusive.   Without, she feels, any other recourse, she poisons him.  But when the rumor spreads, the other women of the village want help with their husbands too…
This book is based on a true story.  You can read more about that here.

When I first read the back of this book, I thought it sounded pretty nightmarish, but it’s actually a very human story.  Author Jessica Gregson does a wonderful job of developing memorable characters and a distinct sense of place but her greatest achievement in this book is managing to neither vilify nor justify Sari’s actions.  This book is a wonderful read and ideal for discussion.

PS:  You can click on the cover image to find this book at an indie bookstore near you.