Amhersts of our minds

Which Amherst do you live in?

town hall photoThe current charter debate reveals that there are many different Amhersts. If the number of signs around town reflects the level of our passions, we are living through a stormy period of competing visions.

Our perceptions of Amherst are shaped by our life experiences, our personalities, our tribal memberships, our information silos. We can live right next door to each other, yet feel we live in different Amhersts.

Is Amherst:

  • a small town threatened by urban development?
  • or a town, no longer small, that has outgrown its historical governmental structure?
  • a university and college host struggling to live comfortably with its student guests?
  • or a town enriched by the presence of colleges and university which provide employment and cultural events?
  • a desirable place of possibility with good schools, green spaces and cultural richness?
  • or a town in decline where communal needs and cultural desires outstrip reasonable tax revenues?
  • a place of ethnic, economic and racial diversity where neighbors get to know each other and look for our human commonalities?
  • or a historically white town where non-white people often feel marginalized and targeted?
  • a place of increasing economic stratification with tensions between homeowners and renters?
  • or a town where people share many hopes for our life together and feel confident we can govern ourselves for the common good?
  • a place where opposing camps are locked in bitter combat and where winning is all that matters?
  • or a place where we listen to each other’s thoughts and feelings, try to understand each other and work together toward solutions to the challenges we face?
  • a place where we question the motives of people on the opposite side of issues and ascribe corrupt purposes to our opponents?
  • or a place where we can engage in civil and respectful discussion and disagreement about issues facing our town?
  • a place of fear?
  • or a place of hope?

Is there an objective reality of “Amherst” around which we can come together for the common good?

Let’s all step back and take a deep breath. Now, what Amherst do you live in? Can we find our way to a common vision? An Amherst that works for all of us?

If you want to learn more about the proposed new town charter from dedicated people who are seeking to improve how our town government  works, I recommend the blog A Better Amherst.



Nature bathing

IMG_20170812_091023829One of my adventures this summer has been going out and taking it all off under the open sky. No, not vacationing at a nudist colony or skinny dipping with friends. I am far too modest for that.

This summer I indulged a desire to create an outdoor shower in my back yard where, surrounded by protective walls of reclaimed wood and exposed to the blue sky of summer, I can revel like a wild creature in the open air, as I shower off the sweat and dirt of gardening.

IMG_20171006_104524570Using this shower, some tight place within me lets go, far more than when I take a shower indoors. Maybe it’s due to the fragrance of the cedar flooring, or the songs of birds or cicadas.

Or perhaps this relaxation response is akin to what happens when you engage in the meditative outdoor practice of forest bathing, called shinrin-yokuj in Japan. First developed in the 1980’s by Japanese government agencies of forests and agriculture, forest bathing involves leisurely walks in natural settings outdoors. Participants slow down, tune their senses to the surroundings, breathe deeply and begin to experience stress reduction, lowered blood pressure, raised immunity and elevated mood.

IMG_20171002_132410813_HDRMy first taste of this joy came when using the outdoor shower constructed by my sister-in-law and her husband on Cape Cod.

IMG_20170909_180349571I then  became a connoisseur of outdoor bathing set-ups, and studied outdoor showers in books, online and wherever I went. I was reminded that my grandfather had an enclosed outdoor shower  at the cottage in Deerfield where we visited when I was a child. Wow, is this an inherited propensity?

After years of planning, I got to work digging, and my builder friends framed the enclosure and hooked up the water.  I cut and sanded wood salvaged from a fence at my parents’ former home in Deerfield, and nailed it up for the surround.

IMG_20171006_104558230Unlike many outdoor showers, this one is not plumbed into the house hot and cold water system. Instead, a hose connects it to the outdoor faucet, and pipes diverge so that some of the water gets heated as it runs through a 100 foot coil of pipe on our black metal shed roof.

Admittedly, the water is not always that hot!  But on a sunny day it gets so hot that you have to be careful to mix in cold water to keep from getting scalded! And frankly, in the hot,i humid air of high summer, I prefer a cold or tepid shower to cool down my body temperature. Refreshing!

With the end of the warm weather, I realize I will not be taking any more showers outdoors until next summer. And I will have to drain the hoses and pipes so they don’t burst when the water freezes.

But I will dream of summer, when once again I can enjoy outdoor showers,  another part of the good life here on Earth, the pleasure planet.

For new readers of this blog, here’s an index of more than 150 past posts, divided into categories such as frugality, gardening, cooking, simplicity, living without and climate change. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.

Safely gathered in

They say this is the season for making merry.  In the Christian year, the four weeks of Advent are a time for waiting and preparing for the Christmas joys ahead.  But so far this year, I haven’t gotten around to celebrating or preparing.

img_20161207_073921054Instead, I am hurrying to finish up the harvest so that, as the Thanksgiving hymn says, “all is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.” We may get our first big snow of the season in a few days, so this week I picked the last of the chard and dug two buckets full of horseradish roots. Now I am processing them.

Nick added some chard and some of our little leeks to an excellent frittata earlier in the week. Then I froze 12 “chard balls,” which will be delicious in lentil and bean soups this winter.  The remainder of the chard leaves got dehydrated to be used in smoothies and soups, and I am planning to slice up the fleshy stems into a batch of kimchi.

img_20161207_073938214But what about those two buckets of horseradish roots, which are direct descendants of ones my great-grandfather grew on a farm in Deerfield? Yes, in contrast to all that merry-happy-jolly stuff, I have been up to my ears in something so strong and pungent that it’s a “sure cure for frivolity.” The thickest roots got buried in a bucket of soil and stored in the root cellar, so we’ll have a supply accessible all winter, and early next spring for Passover. Now I am making two medicines and a condiment.

This condiment, which mixes finely grated horseradish with vinegar and salt, is a familiar companion to meats and other rich foods. It is said to stimulate the gastric secretions, thus helping with digestion.

I found recipes for horseradish syrup and tincture in Richo Cech’s book “Making Plant Medicine.”  Since people in our family get stuffed-up sinuses after colds and as a result of allergies, these remedies may help us to breathe easier. Cech says that horseradish “opens the sinus passages and serves as a potent vascular stimulant, warming the extremities and accelerating the healing process.”

img_20161209_061947226I had to grate the horseradish to make the syrup and the condiment (above). All the instructions I could find advise doing so in a “well-ventilated room” to avoid tear-gas-like conditions.  This late in the season, when outside temperatures are in the 30’s, it didn’t seem like a great idea to open up all the windows in the kitchen. So out I went to the patio, all bundled up, and grated heaps of horseradish on the tarp-covered picnic table.

Then I stuffed the grated root into a quart mason jar and covered it with about a pint and a half of raw local honey.  The directions say to steep for 30 days at room temperature and then strain, pressing through a cheesecloth. Cech says to store in a stoppered bottle out of the light, and take in tablespoon doses as needed for sinusitis, sinus headache, allergies, hoarseness or cough.

img_20161209_062036976The tincture requires ground-up dried root, so I sliced the rest of the roots and am dehydrating.  Later I will grind them to a powder in a coffee grinder and mix, in stages, with water and alcohol, which will extract the active medicinal components.  After straining, the tincture will be ready to use.

So all this harvesting and processing of plants we grow is lots of fun, but in the future it would be better to get all this done earlier, maybe in November, to make straight the way to the Advent experience. No matter what is going on in the world, I always resonate with the longing and hope of this season. Oh yes, and then there are the cookies…..

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of more than 150 past posts, divided into categories such as frugality, simple living, cooking, living without and climate change. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.



Breathe deep, seek peace

The outcome of yesterday’s US presidential election has left some of my dear ones with the same kinds of feelings they had after the 9/11 attacks – shock, fear and grief.

People I know are dealing with this in many ways. I have heard of people  drinking wine, baking cookies, picking up their usual work routine, reading about the election on the internet, giving gifts to people, going outside for walks and trying to stay grounded. How are you coping?  What helps you?

img_20161109_102617523This morning I coped by going outside and working in the yard. Vigorous outdoor work gives me an outlet for my grief and fear. Three ways in which my outdoor labors help me deal with the election outcome include:

  1. Aerobic exercise: raking leaves, shoveling chips and pushing around a heavy wheelbarrow.

2. Aromatherapy: breathing in the powerful scent of the fresh hemlock wood chips that were delivered earlier this week.

3.  Receiving the peace of wild things as I commune with plants and birds, sky and soil. Wendell Berry’s often quoted poem is worth remembering:

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I look to two other responses to help me through this time, and I invite you to join me in:

4. Connecting with loved ones – friends and family  – for hugs, listening, asking how each other are doing.  We need each other to get through this. Smiling at strangers on the street.  Performing acts of kindness and compassion and generosity.

5. Seeking comfort and courage from spiritual traditions and communities.  There’s help out there for just such times as this.  Tonight there will be a Prayer Vigil at my church in Amherst to which all are invited:post-election-prayer-vigil

Sometimes even the simple life brings us reverses and difficulties.  But together, we can find ways to cope and come through to the other side.  May it be so.

A walk in the woods

Some people “bag” peaks.  We may give that a try sometime, but for now we’re “trail bagging” around Amherst.

Being out in nature is supposed to be good for our mental and physical health.  And we both like to walk.  So we have resolved to take weekly hikes on nearby trails.

IMG_20160803_093908421Our guides are  Amherst Conservation Areas and Trails, (1988) and Amherst Literary Trails, (2007). The Amherst Conservation Department in Town Hall sells a map of all of Amherst’s conservation areas and trails.

IMG_20160803_083441126This week we started with some trails near Puffer’s Pond in North Amherst.  The Ray Stannard Baker Trail, though short, provided an initial uphill climb to get our heart rates up.  I spotted foliage of lady slipper and wild lily of the valley on the forest floor and a number of mountain laurel bushes, hinting at great springtime beauty.

IMG_20160803_085445135_HDR(1)Part of the Helen Hunt Jackson Trail skirts the north side of Puffer’s Pond, also labeled “Factory Hollow Pond” on our map.  On our early-morning hike, the glassy surface of the pond was undisturbed by ripples from human activity.  We watched in awe as two great blue herons took flight over the water.

IMG_20160803_090030700We noticed that extensive work has been done on this heavily used trail, including conservation plantings. Unfortunately, some of the new bushes appear to be dying, perhaps due to the severe drought this summer.

IMG_20160803_090354629Last, we climbed an uphill  section of the Robert Frost Trail going from the pond to Pulpit Hill Road. As we walked we got curious about these places and place names. We already knew something about Ray Stannard Baker, the muckraking journalist who moved to Amherst in 1910. He wrote philosophical tales of country life published under the pen name David Grayson.

But why did someone call this eminence we were climbing “Pulpit Hill?”  What kind of mill was powered by the water in Factory Hollow Pond?*  Who was Helen Hunt Jackson and what did she write?IMG_20160803_094323130

Seeing all the questions that arose in our minds on this brief excursion, I was imagining what an educational adventure it would be to hike each of the 14 Amherst Literary Trails and then read something written by each author.

So much to learn!  So many trails to explore!  Who needs Pokemon Go when curiosity can conjure an underlay of past times and ghosts of those who came before, even as we walk through today’s landscape?

This is a good life, indeed.

New readers of this blog can link to more than 150 past posts here or hover on “Index” above. They are divided into categories such as simple living, frugality, gardening, cooking, living without, food preservation and climate change.

*Reader Elisa Campbell says that mills powered by the waters of Factory Hollow pond included cotton, several kinds of paper and later, railroad equipment.  She recommends a number of historic works with further information.