Saturday, October 8, 2011

My Journey with Rusty.

April 8th, 1998. That’s the day I met Rusty. I remember the date because his owners said it was his birthday. He was one year old. They’d brought him in to the vet I worked for to be euthanized. Who euthanizes a dog on his damn birthday?

I held the trembling little dog on the slick tabletop as he was examined. He had Demodectic mange, was covered in red oozing sores, had goopy eyes, and stank. They weren’t interested in any more dips, the only treatment this vet offered, even though it was outdated and other more reliable and less toxic methods were available. They’d had enough. The kids didn’t like him, they didn’t like him. He was “stinky”. All agreed on euthanasia, and the owners didn’t want to be present.

So he was handed over to me to stick in a cage upstairs until the mad morning rush was over and the doc could euthanize him in private. I remember so clearly when the decision was made. I looked down, and made eye contact. Those gummy brown eyes, so full of sadness and suffering, looked back at me and I saw quite clearly the plea for help. I shook my head and stuck the little dog in a cage and went on about my business.

But I couldn’t concentrate. Those eyes, and the message in them, haunted me. I saw in them a strong spirit, willing to fight, along with the knowledge that he had no allies, and no one loved him. He was all alone in an uncaring world. So when lunchtime came I asked for custody of him. I knew there was a great dachshund rescue in North Carolina. Easter weekend approached, and Friday was my last day of work. My last act there was to scoop up the sick little dog, wrap him in a blue blanket, and take him home to a house full of Akitas who would just as soon kill him as look at him.

I introduced Rusty to my stud dog, Gunner, who immediately took him under protection. One problem conquered. I made a few phone calls, but got nowhere with the upcoming holidays.

When I woke the next morning, everything had changed. Rusty was MY dog now. Suddenly, and somewhat unwillingly, I had become responsible for the future of this sad sick little animal. I kept him through the weekend, bathed him, and spent hours online researching cures for this mange.

I decided he needed a good Holistic vet. The one I worked for was far too willing to stick a needle into his vein. I found several listed online, and one name caught my eye. Angel. I believe in signs. A vet named Angel was ninety minutes away, further than the other two, but something inside me said “This dog needs an angel”, and here was one! So I called and made an appointment.

We arrived and met the vet, who hugged the stinky little dog and admired him. She could see the same weakness of body contrasting with the strength of spirit I’d seen, and she agreed he needed a chance. I’d been toying with the concept of a raw diet for my dogs for some time, and this seemed like a good opportunity to test it. I mentioned it to her, cringing inside as I awaited the condemning reply. Instead I heard “Raw diet? Cool!” She not only agreed, she was enthused!

So we chatted for a time as she completed her examination and skin scraping. We agreed on a course of antibiotics to cure the staph infection. We agreed not to subject him to surgery to neuter him, and she gave me a Chinese medicine preparation to add to his food.

I came home, did more research, and went shopping for him. By nightfall I had a plan, a refrigerator full of nutritious groceries and raw meat and bones, and even a tiny food processor for preparing his meals.

Rusty improved immediately. His skin cleared, his teeth, which had considerable plaque, cleaned themselves as he crunched his bones. His eyes brightened, and the sweetest most energetic little dog emerged. He was a hoot, bold, playing tag with a house full of Akitas and a grumpy cat. He held his own, and added a new dimension to our lives. Who knew I’d love a little dog so much?

On a sudden whim I gave him a Reiki Master attunement. Rusty’s crate was under a small table and I was attuning a Reiki Grid to Master level. He was interested, very interested, so I asked, he answered, and it was done.

In time he was pronounced clear of the demodex. We neutered him, then handled the expected flare-up in quick fashion, and he thrived. He’d go to dog shows with me and hang out with Gunner. One of his favorite things to do was to rush to the end of his lead barking his head off at some big dog, then rush back to stand between Gunner’s front feet and dare the other dog to approach. At 28 inches tall and 118 pounds, no one approached Gunner, and Rusty’s ego grew.

After a year or two, Rusty started having seizures, full blown epileptic seizures. Angel diagnosed him with idiopathic epilepsy, and outlined treatment options. For whatever reason, I flatly refused the usual arsenal of drugs for him. I hated the side effects, and didn’t want him on them. Angel gave me syringes filled with valium to give him to stop them. He usually had clusters, so they had to be stopped or he would continue to seize and die.

I learned to chart moon phases. I learned that Rusty seized with the full moon and the new moon, and rarely any other time. I learned to keep one eye on him during these times, and he learned when he was going to seize, and he always came to me. And so we managed them nicely with few scares. I hated the term “idiopathic”, was determined to find the cause of his epilepsy.

A few years later I read an article about dryer sheets. It was one of those sensational articles that blamed every disease and condition known to man on the darned things. You know the type I’m speaking of. I generally ignore them, but something made me think, and neurotoxic side effects were at the top of the lengthy list. I thought, what the hell, it’s easy enough to try!

So, I stopped using dryer sheets, and started using vinegar to soften my clothes. Rusty stopped seizing. He STOPPED seizing! It WAS the dryer sheets! We’d won, again! In time I learned that it was likely the fragrance oils in the dryer sheets that caused the seizures. When he got too close to scented products, he’d seize. So I systematically eliminated all scented products from my home. You have no idea how many products we use day to day have artificial scents in them!

After a while Rusty developed cervical problems. He’d have severe muscle spasms in his neck, probably caused by rough housing these big Akitas. It was so hard on him. These spells could last for weeks. I’d have to put him on strong anti inflammatories and muscle relaxers. I hated the muscle relaxers. In order for them to stop the spasms he needed a pretty high dose, and that made him drunk, wobbly, and grumpy. He’d growl at the other dogs, and they’d retaliate. He’d get grabbed by a pissed off Akita and then I had to treat the new injury and the infection that always resulted. This dog had no immune system. This would not do!

Enter herbs. I’d been using herbs all along with Rusty and my other dogs. I was largely self-taught, and by now had a good enough repertoire that I could figure most things out. Lobellia had been mentioned to me by another herbalist to use on myself when I suffered from kidney stones. It was good for spasms. I’d also met and grown to know Solomon’s Seal.

So I mixed up a formula for Rusty the next time he started having spasms. I started giving it to him on the second day, and by nightfall had him completely off the muscle relaxers. Amazing! Another victory for us.

Our next challenge began when I went to feed Rusty a treat one day and he grabbed at air beside my hand, then nosed until he located my hand and took his treat. What? Angel saw deficits in his vision, and we were sent to a board certified eye specialist, who diagnosed Progressive Retinal Atrophy. I’d heard of it, as my Akitas were subject to develop the disease, and were examined annually. Rusty was going blind!

How would we be able to deal with this? How could a blind dog possibly navigate these steep hills and sudden drops to the creek? I dived in and read everything I could find on it, and got a second dachshund, Bella, as a companion for him and as a guide. Rusty quickly learned to follow the sound of the bell on her collar. All my dogs were belled with different sounding ones so he could recognize each of them. This worked amazingly well, and I eventually lost my fears of him getting lost. He knew his way around familiar territory, and would simply track me or one of the other dogs when on unfamiliar ground.

And then on a spring morning the worst happened. Scooter, my Akita with a reactive temperament, decided Rusty was too close to his bone and grabbed Rusty and shook him. One of my other Akitas, StarBaby, burst through the storm door and saved his life. Rusty had severe punctures and deep bruising on his neck, one shoulder, and one side.

I rushed him to his doc and they took him into surgery. He was already developing a severe infection that would progress to gangrene, and later sepsis. Rusty spent five agonizing days in intensive care, enduring multiple surgeries to try and keep up with the advancing gangrene. Several times they thought he would die, and each time he somehow managed to pull through. His doc, Iain, a partner at the office who already had a great track record with my dogs as a “miracle man” performed miracle after miracle. Rusty lost a great deal of muscle on the right side of his neck, and on his left shoulder. He ended up with a huge wound that was too large to close, extending from his spine to below the elbow on one side, and most of his lower neck on the other.

They allowed me to come in and do Reiki. I did a healing attunement after surgery, and the next day my friend Linda came and we redid Rusty’s Reiki Master attunement. The infection was clearing with the antibiotics, but he was weak, so weak, and his bloodwork looked like he was “dead on paper.” I looked into his eyes and did not see defeat. I saw spirit, just like the first time I met him, so I took him home.

By nightfall he’d eaten a little and had peed, even to lifting his leg, when I took him outside. His recovery was long but unremarkable, and in time we had out little friend back.

A year later Angel heard a heart murmur when she did his annual exam. Heart failure is common in the breed, and I suspected that the bacteria from the gangrene had attacked the heart valves, damaging the mitral valves. Rusty was going into heart failure
Again I researched herbs, and came up with a daily supplement of hawthorn berries, rose petals, motherwort, and others mixed into a paste with almonds. He ate that daily. He did well. Eventually he developed a cough, and the first signs of fluid buildup in his lungs. I used diuretic herbs, and decreased the fish in his diet to eliminate salt, and upped his daily fish oil capsules. This bought us more months, that turned into years.

Finally his heart reached the point where the herbs weren’t enough, and his docs put him on lasix and Enalapryl. He bounced back! His cough got much better and he regained some energy. We watched as Rusty began to decline, ever so slowly and gracefully. His walk was slower, he was almost completely blind now, and he’d lost much of his hearing.

Still, he went with us on our walks daily, up the road or down to the creek he’d toddle, slowly. We’d wait, he’d join us. We continued to enjoy each others’ company.

Then came the day he choked shortly after eating, aspirated, and got himself into real trouble. He recovered from that incident, but it was evident his abdomen was now filling with fluid. A call to Angel was in order. She tripled his lasix. It helped, but not enough. His quality of life dropped significantly in just a few days. I knew his time was near, but gave him time because I knew it sometimes took days for the lasix to clear the fluid. It didn’t clear.
Sunday afternoon, August 7th,  he made it to the water bucket to drink. He aspirated water, and no longer had the strength to clear his lungs. He died with me sitting beside him, beaming him Reiki one last time, for his highest good…..for his transition.

As his spirit left that worn out little body a small dachshund puppy appeared, jumping up to lick my face in absolute joy. Rusty was free at last, and was letting me know how happy he was, and thanking me for sharing his journey. A journey that lasted 13 years, 3 months, and 29 days.

What a ride.

The next day I was returning from shopping and saw a hawk sitting on a wire above the road. He took off and flew in front of me, escorting me around a curve, his shadow right in front of the car until he swooped up and landed on a limb. I waved as I went by.

Message received.

Rusty made it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Help; My Sick Dog Stopped Eating!

“My sick dog stopped eating, what do I do?” is a question I hear frequently. Sick animals, like humans, often lose appetite and are reluctant to eat. There may be several reasons for this, but I am going to address only one.


One thing many people do when a dog or other pet is ill and needs medication is to start “hiding” it in the pet’s food. This is a huge insult and breeds mistrust, for both the owner and the food. Dogs’ sense of smell is many times stronger than our own, and they identify scents differently.

Take a bowl of stew, and hide a capsule in there. Give it a good sniff. We smell a bowl of stew. The dog smells potatoes, carrots, meat, fat, salt, pepper, etc, AND that capsule, each individually and distinctly. Considering that a dog can locate by scent something very tiny from a great distance, hiding a pill or other medication in the food fools no one. Sure, he’ll gobble up that bowl of food with that heartworm pill in it no problem, when he’s healthy and the appetite overrules the suspicion. But let that same dog be sick, with a questionable appetite, and that same bowl of food will be refused. It’s tainted. Something foreign, something that tastes bad is in there. The sick dog refuses, and gets worse. And worse than that, he or she loses trust in you.

Taking medication should always be a completely separate event from food, and should be identified as such to the dog. There are ways to make medicine taking more pleasant, and using peanut butter, bacon fat, cheese, or something else tasty can help soothe the bad taste. No, sticking a pill in a ball of cheese and offering it is not the same as hiding that pill in the dog's food bowl. Huge difference.

Identifying the act is important. “Time to take your medicine Sparky!” in an excited voice lets him know several things. Medicine is coming. Tone of voice conveys this is a happy event, no big deal, plus a yummy treat always follows and it makes Mom so happy. Rewarding the dog for taking the pill is important; both praise and a favorite treat should be offered.

My Rusty has to take an herbal tincture formula now and then for his cervical spasms. Nothing about alcohol tastes good to a dog, and nothing hides that taste. Yet Rusty comes willingly to me when it’s time, takes his medicine, and happily accepts his praise, hug, and treat that follows. I always dilute his tincture in a bit of water, suck it up into a syringe (no needle), and dose him with his mouth closed, the syringe inserted between cheek and teeth. The liquid is slowly squirted at a rate that doesn’t cause panic. He can take his time and swallow. He is not traumatized. His dinner is served separately and is always eaten with gusto. He trusts his food, and he trusts me.

Pills and capsules are easier. I like to lubricate them with a bit of fat; butter, bacon grease etc. Open mouth, insert pill to back of throat, close mouth. Wait for the swallow. Praise. Hug. Treat. Easy peasy. If he’s spitting it back out, you’re not hitting the sweet spot in the back of the throat, the place of no return. Once there he swallows automatically. Practice until you get it right. Or get a pill gun. Some pills taste really bad, and coating them with peanut butter or cheese helps keep the pill from contacting the tongue or taste buds. No, it’s not hidden, he knows it’s there, but he doesn’t have to tolerate the nasty taste. Again, follow with praise and a special treat.

Hiding medicine in a dog’s food is a convenience for us, doesn’t do a thing for the dog, and breeds fear of food and mistrust in the relationship. Then, when he’s really sick, when eating is so vital to recovery and health, he refuses food because he can’t trust it to be food.

Start now, while he is healthy, and never give him reason to mistrust you or his food, and when the time comes and he must eat, chances are far more likely that he will.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mintaka's Journey

Taka, my nine year old Akita, lies beside my chair. She is beautiful, a lovely silver gray with black mask and white markings, almost identical in appearance to her great grandfather Kuma, my original stud dog and heart mate. She inherited her love of water and her gentle nature from him.

Thirteen months ago she suffered an almost fatal internal bleed. It was something I am familiar with, having watched both her grandmother Dancer and her mother StarBaby succumb to hemangiosarcoma, a blood borne cancer that usually begins in the spleen, and spreads via the blood to other organs.

Sure enough, her veterinarian, Angel, found the large firm tumor in her belly. Déjà vu. All over again. We sat together on that floor and discussed options; surgery, which never cures, only buys time, and most of the time spreads cancer cells; chemotherapy, which I neither trusted nor could afford; euthanasia, no, she’s too strong spiritually, not ready to go; and herbalism, something that might hold some promise, if not to save her then to prolong quality of life for a time.

So we talked about herbal protocols, with Angel helping me on energetics, being primarily a TCM practitioner and damn fine diagnostician. Bloodroot was mentioned and discarded, we’d both heard too many horror stories, mushrooms, turmeric maybe, and of course my always ally Poke. So I took my Taka home and explained the news to the rest of the pack; Diva, Taka’s sister and constant companion, Bear, my young Pyr/golden mix, and Rusty and Bella, my dachshunds, who are in charge of entertainment. Being animals, and never worrying about what tomorrow might bring, they took the news with indifference, only happy that Taka and I had returned home and that dinnertime was close.

For most of the next three weeks I was sure I’d made a mistake in bringing her home. She was so very weak, and had to be helped outside to potty and to lie in the sun. Most of the time she slept, a shell of the vibrant dog we all knew. But gradually, as her blood was replenished, she gained strength, and once again became the sweet companion and pack mate we all loved. She was able to get to the creek, to swim and wade and stick her muzzle deep into the water to bite it, coming up with that characteristic Akita grin on her face.

I knew then it was time for me to seek help for her, and I planned a journey to that other world so few of us know how to reach. I sat here in my chair and held a poke seed, my ticket, and set the mood; phone off the hook, dogs outside, my drumming CD to help guide me and show me the way back home. Taka had refused to go outside, and she lay at my feet. On impulse I asked her if she’d like to go with me, and her answer was yes. Cool.

And so we began. The drumming started, and in short order my spirit and hers left our bodies and entered the secret passageway to the otherworld. Together we walked down, down that deep dark damp tunnel till we saw the light at the opening and we entered that world that is the same yet different.

The path led straight to a clump of Poke, and I sat, following my usual routine of making myself comfortable near the plant I wanted to speak to and waited. I found myself sitting at the feet of an old woman, fragile with age she seemed, but her energy was strong. Her clothing blended with the ground and with the poke plants surrounding us; her skirt and shawl the colors of poke; mottled greens, deep magenta, dark purple black, threads of white. We knew each other already, and I felt comfortable with her, silently sitting and waiting until it seemed right to speak.

As I waited I looked around, taking in the falling night, the sounds of creek and wind and something else; spirits all around us in many forms, some invisible, some only shadows, none could I make out clearly, which was unusual. There was a bonfire burning nearby, and I could see the dancing flames and more shadowy figures seeming to dance in a circle around it. We sat still in our shadows under the poke and waited.

In time, as time goes down there, she spoke; “I see you have come again for help. How can I help you?” I introduced her to Taka, explaining that she was the daughter of Sonny, the first dog she had helped me with a few years ago. She looked at my dog, and reached out to her. Taka settled herself on the ground beside me with a groan, and allowed Poke woman to touch her, stroking her gently from head to tail.

Poke woman stopped at Taka’s belly, and looked back at me, shaking her head. “She has old dead blood here, we must take it out.” I could see her then, hands scooping deep into my dog’s belly, scoping out a black mass that resembled poke berries in black juice. She would gather a handful, remove it from Taka, and toss it away, repeating this action many times as the dog lay quietly, trusting completely. As she scooped she listened to me as I explained about this cancer taking both Taka’s mother and grandmother. I didn’t want to lose another to this disease, and wanted help to heal her.

To my dismay she simply shook her head, still working as she spoke. “There is nothing you can do.” She said simply, “Nothing you can do will heal her.”

“But that can’t be!” I wailed, suddenly overcome with such deep sadness and grief. “But I can see spirits, those shadows over there….”

“They are not here for you.” She said simply, and waited for me to understand that.

“Then who…” and I realized then, and grew quiet.

Those shadows, those spirits I was seeing, unable to make out, weren’t waiting to speak to me, to help me, they were here for HER, for Taka. I sat and cried, so overcome with grief and love and the sudden knowing that Taka had come down here to seek her own help, to make her own deal, and I was privileged to watch, if not participate.

I could feel Poke woman’s hand on my shoulder, offering comfort as we watched Taka slowly stand and make her way to those shadows. Still grieving I cried tears of helplessness that I couldn’t help, but at the same time I knew there was hope. She told me then; “You cannot help her with herbs, but you can take her home when she is finished here. Take her home. Love her. Feed her. That is your role. Not everyone can be healed, you know that, and it is no fault of yours that in this instance you can do only that little bit. It will be enough.”

I sat and watched as best I could, peering through the trees, trying to make out those shadowy forms only Taka and Poke could see. Finally Poke woman said softly; “I will show you one of her spirit helpers, you know it already.” With that she made a motion with one hand, and the shadows were lit by the flames for an instant, but in that one instant I saw one quite clearly; it was Dancer, Taka’s grandmother, the first to die from this cancer. Dancer turned her head and looked me in the eye then, and gave me her famous smile.

I knew than that my Taka was in good hands, that she too had powerful spirit allies, allies that did not necessarily coincide with my own. It suddenly came to me why I had named her grandmother that all those years ago, when she was such a sunny bright dog. I named her “The Shadow-Dancer”, and here she was, some twenty years after being named, seven years after her own death, dancing in the shadows. I could never have known then why I named her that, but now knew that her future as guide to her granddaughter was already planned.

And so I sat and cried with a plant spirit and marveled at the magic and wonder of a dog going on her own journey, her own quest for help from her ancestors.

We returned from that journey, and Taka got better. She didn’t heal, that wasn’t in the cards for her, but she grew strong again, could run and play again, could chase bears and rabbits and turkeys and swim in the pond and splash in the creek and sleep in a pile with her beloved sister and her packmates, and she could hug me every morning. She lived beyond the three weeks to three months prediction. She lived another year. She celebrated her ninth birthday with her sister in September, and celebrated mine with me earlier this month.

Her time is drawing near now. She is weak, and thin, and the tumor inside her has grown, taking up much of her belly. She can still go for short walks with us, and made it to the creek day before yesterday. Sadly she didn’t go in, and I knew it was because she is so weak. Akitas have this great pride, a warrior’s pride, and they don’t like to be helpless or get themselves into situations they may need help to get out of. So she sat beside me on a rock at that spot in the creek where we spread the ashes of dogs as they leave their bodies empty and we watched her packmates play.

We reflect together she and I; on life, on our journeys that we have made together this lifetime and ones past. She stays close by me now, needing me to be near her. I feel that same need, and I watch her closely. But she feels no sadness, no fear of leaving. I am reminded of a line from a favorite poem by Wendell Berry as we sit together and cherish time in this special place of peace; “I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” I marvel at the miracles we have both been privileged to be a part of, and I do not grieve nor feel guilt or failure.   

With Samhain approaching, the veil between worlds thins, and many times lately I have caught a glimpse of Dancer’s face, smiling at us, and I have felt Taka’s other ancestors as they gather close. Soon they will lead her on the next part of her journey and I will be left here in awe of the magic that is life and death. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Close Encounters with Foxes

I’ve been fortunate to enjoy close encounters with wild things in my life, all of which have left a lasting impression. Two of my favorites involve foxes.

Back in the early days of my marriage I used to go trail riding on my beloved Appaloosa gelding Winterhawk. We were closely bonded, two rebels who connected and enjoyed being alone together on sunny days. I was fortunate that there were many trails in the area, long paths along canals built to drain the swampy land that was Pitt County. Most of the farmers in that rural area didn’t mind our trespasses, for I always closed gates behind us, never rode into plowed or planted fields, and was careful not to litter, leaving only footprints to mark our passing.

On one bright day I saddled up and headed out, crossing the street and making my way through a small pasture of yearling cattle. As I was closing the gate at the exit of the pasture something caught my eye. A red flash of movement streaked across the open field before us, which had lain fallow for a year or more. As I followed the movement it materialized into a red fox. She ran along the edge of the field in plain view, even though she could have ducked into cover at any time. I knew she intended to be seen, and the only reason that came to mind was that I was disturbing her den.

Hawk dropped his head and began to graze on the lush pasture grass by the gate as I studied the field closely. Sure enough I saw a mound in the center of the field, contrasting with the flatness. It was about the size and shape of a pitcher’s mound on a baseball field. The she fox disappeared into the woods and we were left alone. Minutes passed, the only sound was of Hawk’s chewing and the occasional squeak of leather as the saddle shifted. Soon enough my patience was rewarded. A tiny nose appeared in the center of that mound, followed by the head of a small fox cub. He peered around and then disappeared again. But almost immediately he reappeared and was joined by another, then another, until there were four of them, spilling out of the hole that marked the entrance to their den.

I watched, fascinated as they grew bold and began to wrestle and play like puppies, never straying far from the safety of their den. Our ride forgotten, I concentrated on the wonder before me while Hawk took advantage of my inattention to him and gorged on the grass. I watched them for a long time, maybe thirty minutes, before picking up my reins and clucking to Hawk to move on. As soon as he stepped forward, all four cubs dived back into their den and did not reappear. We enjoyed our ride and when we returned later through that same field all was quiet, but I didn’t forget my glimpse into fox life.

From then on I’d often stop on the return trip and sit while Hawk grazed under a tree beside the path. More often than not we’d see the fox family, and enjoy their antics before heading home. One day as we trotted down that path, heading home after a long ride I was dismayed to see a pickup parked under our tree. I recognized it as the farmer’s truck, the man who owned the property. The cubs were playing boldly and I knew he had seen them. I knew also that this would mark their death. Farmers don’t generally like foxes, as they kill chickens, and this man had a chicken house too.

As I approached the truck the farmer turned and saw me. To my surprise he made a shushing motion with a finger to his lips, and then pointed to where the cubs were wrestling. I pulled up beside the truck and Hawk dropped his head to graze. The Man was smiling, obviously happy to be witnessing the same glimpse into the wild as I had so often done over the past few weeks. He whispered to me then, saying he loved to watch them, and that he hadn’t plowed or planted this field in three years, because the female fox made her den there yearly. My new friend and I talked quietly about how lucky we were to witness such a thing, and he cautioned me to never say a word to anyone about our secret.

Hawk and I moved on then, not disturbing the fox play as they’d become used to us and we no longer posed a threat. I moved the following fall and never again saw the field, the farmer, or the fox family, but I knew they must still be there, protected by a farmer’s simple appreciation of the wonders of nature.

A few years later I had another encounter, this one even closer. I loved to hunt deer, and I’d go out into the forest behind property we now owned in another part of the county. My husband built several tree stands and I’d go sit in one and wait for my deer to pass. I was lucky to bag a doe each year, and was a good shot, so each one I shot dropped in her tracks. On this particular day I headed out about an hour before dusk. I had a habit of using fox pee on the bottoms of my boots to mask my scent. The stuff had a pretty strong odor to it, and I held my nose while I applied a few drops to each boot, then hiked along my trail to my favorite stand.

This stand was on a fallen tree, a big maple. It had been down a long time, years, but the roots were still in the ground and several large limbs jutted straight up from the horizontal trunk. On one such limb was a natural V, several feet from the trunk, maybe eight feet from the ground. I had a nice board nailed across the V, with a nail to hang my thermos from, and a good view of the trail that ran alongside the tree.

I walked on past the tree to lay tracks, then turned and made my way back to it, climbed up on the trunk and settled into my seat to wait for dusk and my deer. As I waited my thoughts wandered, traveling to many subjects while my body remained as still as the limbs of the tree. About an hour later dusk began to fall, and I heard rustling along the path. The rustling turned into footsteps, and I carefully slipped the safety off my rifle and pointed it toward the place my deer would appear.

What appeared was not a deer, but a gray fox! A dog fox, who, with nose to the ground, was tracking something intently. He was tracking me! I watched as he followed my tracks to the point where I turned around, then straight to my tree. I sat as still as I could and was rewarded when he stopped under my tree and gazed up, looking straight into my eyes. I held my breath and he continued to approach, hopping up onto the trunk and standing on his hind legs he sniffed the bottom of each of my boots. Then he looked up at me quizzically, as if to ask why on earth I had fox pee on my feet! I had to choke back a laugh, he was so comical and clearly confused as to why a human would do such a thing. We stayed that way for a minute or so, watching each other with wonder. Then he turned and hopped down from the tree and continued along the trail. I waited for several minutes, then climbed down myself in the now almost dark and headed slowly home, as excited as I had been the day I shot my first deer, and every bit as proud.

I bought a camera soon after that and always had it with me on future hunts, but I never saw another fox. I still have the photographs my mind took, I still remember the bright eyes looking into mine, and I cherish those memories.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Oh those Allergies!

Spring is here and that means misery to those who suffer from seasonal allergies. With the pollen counts at the highest levels since 1990 many people are finding their allergies especially bad this year. Some people develop sinus infections and even bronchitis from their allergies. There are several ways to avoid the antihistamines and other allergy medications and still alleviate allergy symptoms such as runny or stuffy nose, itchy eyes, and sneezing symptoms.

A Neti pot is a small ceramic or metal pot resembling an Aladdin’s Lamp, with a short narrow spout, designed to hold eight to sixteen ounces of fluid. The Neti pot is filled with warm salt water and used to irrigate the nasal passages and sinus cavities.  First time users can be intimidated, but the method is easily learned and even small children can be taught to use this useful tool. Filled with warm salt water, one inserts the spout into the opening of one nostril and, bending over a sink, water is slowly poured into the nostril where it passes through the nasal cavities and out the other nostril.

This serves several purposes. First the warm water softens and loosens thick or sticky mucus, allowing it to be flushed out. Additionally any pollen or other irritant is flushed out, lessening the body’s histamine reaction to the allergen. Nasal passages are lubricated and irritation lessened. Used twice daily for a period of two weeks can resolve many peoples’ issues. Daily use is recommended long term for anyone with sinus or middle ear problems.

Neti pots are available from many stores, including local Herb stores, and online. The price runs around fifteen dollars. It is important to use a good quality sea salt, and never table salt, as it contains agents to prevent caking that are sinus irritants. Pots come with instructions for use.

Simply washing the face with cool water when returning from high pollen areas can have a moderate benefit, as this removes pollen before the histamine reaction can begin. Remember to wash hands more frequently and avoid touching the face after handling plant material or gardening. Consider wearing a respirator mask, like doctors use, when cutting grass or doing yard work to prevent pollen from being inhaled.

Raw local honey is excellent for allergies. Honey made within fifty miles of your location is considered local. It contains tiny bits of pollen and when used daily it helps the body become less sensitive to the allergens. Pasteurized honey is useless for this purpose. Use honey to sweeten tea or other drinks or just swallow a teaspoon daily. It takes some months to have an effect, so is best started several months before allergy season. However, starting now can help lessen allergies that are associated with pollens that come out later in the summer and early fall, and continued use through the winter months should help improve allergies next spring.

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), a local herb, is excellent for helping the body overcome allergies. Nettles works on the adrenals, and seems to have the benefit of “resetting” the body’s allergic response. This herb can be taken several ways. It is delicious when lightly sautéed and served as a green. Add fresh or dried leaves to soups and stews when cooking. Freeze dried nettle is available in capsules and should be taken daily for several months for best effect. Dried nettle can also be taken as an infusion. Place a half cup of dried nettle leaf into a jar, cover with boiling water and cap tightly. Allow it to steep on the counter for four to eight hours, strain, and drink at least a cup daily. I like to make mine at bedtime, so it is ready by morning. Nettle seeds are also effective and can be taken in tiny doses. Just a pinch taken daily for several months can have a significant effect on allergy symptoms.

I recommend several local herbs as tinctures as well. A few drops of Plantain (Plantago major or P. lanceolata) tincture in the Neti pot helps increase the moistening effect. Red Clover tincture tonifies mucus tissues and can be added as well. Both herbs are mildly astringent and can be used to help control that drippy nose. Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) tincture, taken in small doses, just three or four drops, can help speed healing of those irritated membranes. Echinacea tincture is helpful in sinus infections, and for a more severe infection Goldenseal may be used.

Many of our common culinary herbs are excellent choices for sinus issues. Adding fresh or dried basil, sage, or oregano to a pot of boiling water releases essential oils to the steam. Cover the pot and set it on a table. Cover your head with a towel and bend over the pot, remove the lid carefully to avoid getting burned, and inhale the steam. Do this for several minutes for best effect. Sinus passages often open right up for relief. This is a good time to follow up with the Neti pot, to flush out mucus.

Consuming garlic is a well known method of addressing allergies, as are fish oil capsules. The high Omega 3 fatty acid content of fish oil is a natural anti-inflammatory. Drinking lots of water helps the body flush the sinuses and keeps mucus thin, as does avoiding air conditioning or low humidity areas
Unlike over the counter and prescription medications, herbs work slowly and gently, addressing the cause rather than simply stopping symptoms. However, consistent use of herbs can result in a significant decrease of symptoms and even in some cases resolve allergies altogether.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Emerging from Winter in the Appalachians

Spring in the southern Appalachians is still some distance away. As I write this I am in my office with my shawl wrapped around my shoulders, my feet propped on a hot pad, and a cup of hot tea by my side. It’s been the story of my life this winter, which has been the coldest and longest anyone around here remembers for many years. It’s difficult to write about spring when the ground is still frozen and snow lingers on the shady dark northern slopes.

In spite of the cold and dark I feel the stirrings of my body and mind to emerge from my comfortable cocoon and get myself ready for Spring. The longings for comfort foods and sleeping late and long naps on the couch are beginning to fade, and my body needs to be outside more. I bundle up and head out with the dogs more frequently now and walk our favorite trails. My eyes automatically seek the first violets, toothwort, and bloodroot even as my brain knows it is much too soon. These plants still sleep under their blanket of snow and last years leaves in the still cold ground.

I see the occasional Mint sprig or baby Motherwort sprouting from the half barrel on my southern deck, peeking out from the snow, and then freezing and dying back once again as they learn the hard way that hibernation is still a necessity. Even herbs seem to get spring fever. The Akitas are blowing their coats, shedding clumps of dense winter fur that I scatter outside so that the birds and squirrels can have warm linings for their nests. The local raccoons become bolder, and try to raid my bird feeders, to the delight of my dogs who enjoy the chase and occasional capture.

I begin to make more energizing teas on the wood stove daily. Instead of the warming and comforting oat straw with ginger root and elderberries, pine needle, or Goldenrod and honey I find myself using more nettles, Holy Basil, and other green and energizing herbs. I start wanting my smoothies made with berries and coconut milk instead of hot eggs and bacon daily.

The difficult part for me as an herbalist is feeling those cravings for spring greens and herbs when there are still none to be had. I don’t want to use dried herbs. I want to forage and pick new tender shoots instead, but the only thing available is Chickweed, and I gorge on her whenever I find a patch under the snow. I have to satisfy that craving with frozen turnip and collard greens, fresh asparagus from who knows where, and citrus fruits that are expensive now due to the freezes even Florida endured. I find myself eating less meat and root vegetables and leaning more towards lighter nourishing soups filled with chopped greens and broths instead. I want salads and Balsamic vinegar. I eat an orange or a grapefruit daily now, after having no desire thru the long winter months for anything more than apples and an occasional banana.

Spring cleaning begins, not so much in my home as in my body. I mix myself a tonic of tinctures, using those from whole dandelion plants, cleavers, yellow dock, and nettle seed, and take small doses daily. My liver wants to clear out the sludge of winter indulgences from too many carbohydrates, and my sinuses, dried and irritated from months of cold temperatures and low humidity, wood heat and smoke, benefit from frequent use of my Neti pot with a drop or three of plantain and red clover tinctures, to tonify and lubricate mucus membranes.

I feel the energy of those plants working, clearing accumulated toxins gently and slowly, far different from the harsh cleanses and purges recommended by so many. There’s no need to insult my body with such. Spring awakenings should be slow, like the body from a long sleep; a gentle stretching and yawning and foraging rather than a rude awakening.

I long for my gardens to awaken, along with this mountain and all the green and furred and feathered inhabitants, but like those tiny Mints and Motherworts, I have learned to be patient; to give myself time to awaken slowly, to adjust to this new time, and to enjoy the time that is between winter and spring, just as I cherish dusk and dawn.

Soon enough I will be walking more daily, gardening and harvesting the spring herbs. Soon enough I will be too busy doing my spring and summer work helping others with their gardens and teaching my classes. But for now, this in between time is for me, a time to nourish my body and mind and prepare myself for the work to come.

Monday, September 14, 2009

An Interesting Experience with Lobelia

A few weeks ago one of my dachshunds injured his neck. Rusty has a history of cervical spine problems and he’ll do something, play too hard, get swatted by a large Akita paw, or something else that will trigger severe muscle spasms and pain. Historically this pain/spasm ordeal has lasted weeks, and I’ve had to resort to using a prescription muscle relaxer, Methocarbamol, and a strong anti-inflammatory, Deramaxx (COX-II), along with chiropractic adjustments to resolve the discomfort. When Rusty was badly injured by one of my Akitas several years ago and developed gangrene he lost much of the muscle in one shoulder, and on the opposite side of his neck. This makes his musculature unbalanced at best, and when his neck problem flares up it’s even worse.
I immediately put him on the usual drugs and called my vet for an appointment for chiropractic adjustments. Then I started thinking; Rusty hates Dr Iain now. When he had gangrene it was Iain who saved his life, several times. Dr Iain did multiple surgeries and had to go in daily to debride dead tissue. Rusty was in a great deal of pain despite drugs for pain management and as a result Dr Iain became “the bad guy”. I was pretty sure Rusty would not relax for chiropractic adjustments, so that Dr Iain wouldn’t be able to help him. I called and cancelled the appointment.
What to do? Rusty was on the highest dose of Methocarbamol and Deramaxx and it wasn’t enough. My little buddy was still having severe spasms in his neck and shoulder that radiated down one leg. I could see his muscles spasm from across the room. He would awaken in the middle of the night and scream sometimes. I had to do something.
I posted a query on Facebook to my network of herbal friends and got a reply from Karen Vaughn suggesting Lobelia.  I had plenty of the tincture, having made a batch last year. Also, I’d noticed on walks through my yard and along trails that Lobelia was everywhere this year, far more than in years before. My instincts tell me that when an herb starts to grow profusely around me it’s telling me to “look at me, study me, use me!”
I was hesitant. I’d only used this powerful herb in tiny doses before, for migraines a friend suffers. Michael Moore had recommended it to me last summer as an ally for the terrible pain of passing kidney stones, but I didn’t use it as I managed to pass my stones remarkably easy without having to use pain meds or strong herbs at all. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to calculate a dose for a fifteen pound dog without causing him harm or at least some vomiting, which would only make his problem worse.
But I had to do something. My little friend was suffering, and the drugs weren’t helping. We had nowhere else to go. So I dosed him with one drop of tincture in a bit of water and watched. I thought I saw a small improvement. I dosed him again, this time three drops, and sure enough, could see it was working. I made a formula for him using one part Lobelia, two parts Solomon’s Seal (for helping to realign muscles and connective tissues), and four parts Skullcap (nervine) tinctures and gave it to him every three hours. By nightfall I had him completely off the Methocarbamol and the next day I discontinued the Deramaxx.
Rusty’s spasms stopped. He’d come to me and ask for his herbs if I was late. He typically does this, has always been very aware and involved with his treatments, and so is one of my best teachers. I kept him on the formula for a week, gradually decreasing the frequency, always making sure he got it first thing in the morning and at bedtime, with other doses when he asked for it.
Within a week he was completely back to normal. I was amazed, and thankful. Once again Rusty forced me to take a chance and learn something. He now has a new ally, and won’t have to have drugs for his chronic problem.