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Saint Hildegard’s Cookies of Joy

April 8th, 2013

Spring is the perfect season to celebrate Hildegard of Bingen, the medieval Rhineland mystic, hildegardnaturalist, seer, writer, gardener, composer, and physician. The world is leaping to life in every color of green, a celebration of Hildegard’s central concept of viriditas–the “greening finger” of the divine in all of life. I’ve long considered Hildegard a personal patron, and wrote about her in my book about Darwin.

Seattle is greening these days, to be sure. It’s also wet. As it pours rain for the third day in a row, I’m not feeling the least inclined to venture outdoors, not even to tend the herb garden as the saint surely would have. Instead, I’m curling up with a nice cup of tea and a plate of Hildgegard’s Cookies of Joy.


Yes, Cookies of Joy. As a healer, Hildegard was alert to the healing properties in herbs and spices. This blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves not only banishes melancholia, according to Hildegard’s Physica, but also releases our innate intelligence, and keeps us youthful in body and spirit. This recipe is my own adaptation of Hildegard’s 800 year old version. Her abbey at Rupertsberg had many benefactors, and traded regularly with the towns nearby. She would have had access to sugar, as well as eggs and butter from the holdings of the abbey’s small farm, and it is likely that she added such ingredients to her basic recipe, which emphasized fresh-ground spices in a paste of wheat flour. I like to think that Hildegard would gobble up my interpretation of her biscuits. Joyfully. They are just sweet enough, and perfect with coffee or tea. Take as directed: 3 cookies a day.

Cloves-VerticalHere’s the recipe:

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup white/cane sugar (or one full cup of either brown or white)
1 egg, preferably fresh from the hen house
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour (can include part or all whole wheat or spelt)
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon cloves
(add up to 1/2 teaspoon more of each spice, to taste)

Cream sugar and butter until fluffy. Add the egg and mix well. Sift the dry ingredients together and mix until fully blended.

Roll the dough out to a generous 1/4 inch thickness, cut with your favorite small cookie cutter, and arrange on a parchment-lined baking sheet. I use a 1 1/2″ fluted round cutter, and I love the looks of them, but other nature-inspired shapes, such as flowers or butterflies would be lovely. If you are one of those bakers who hates rolling and cutting cookies, you could instead hand roll the cookies into one inch spheres, arrange on a cookie sheet, and press them into 1/4 inch flat circles with the bottom of a glass.

Bake at 375 for 10 minutes, or until the edges are just browning.

Surely you’ll need a soundtrack for baking: There are many recordings of Hildegard’s gorgeous, unusual compositions, but for these cookies the most fitting might be Sequentia’s Canticles of Ecstasy.

→ 9 CommentsCategories: recipes, seasons

Our Lady of Yerba Mate

April 4th, 2013

nsmateA few months ago I was standing at the counter of Chaco Canyon, a favorite local cafe, and I guess I was staring over-long at the tea menu because the barista took matters into her own hands and said, “I think you should try mate.  Put a little honey or agave in it.  You’ll like it.”  Why not?  I’d heard of yerba mate, but hadn’t read anything of its touted benefits.   I was already overloaded with the glorification of acai berries, raspberry keytones, mulberry, and hemp milk in the health news arena.  Who can keep track of everything?  But I love tea, and was game to try something new.  I added the recommended drop of agave, and sat down with my laptop to get some work done.

The tea was fine.  Not delicious, but perfectly drinkable. As I sipped it over the course of an hour, I noticed I was feeling a nice little pick-me-up.  It wasn’t the direct caffeine injection that coffee brings.  I love my morning cup of java, but I just can’t drink coffee throughout the day like I could in my wanton youth.  Afternoon coffee these days makes my jittery, and sometimes even a little nauseous.  The mate seemed to offer the benefits of caffeine, but in a slow-release fashion–an easy, pleasant, stream-like movement from a draggy mood to a feeling of brightness.  I came back every afternoon that week for a cup of mate and tracked my experience:  the tea made me feel more alert, more able to focus on my work, and ever-so-slightly euphoric.  It also seemed to balance my blood sugar:  at 3:00, when I am usually ready for a salty-yummy snack, I didn’t feel like I needed anything at all.

After that week, I bought my own bag of yerba mate to brew up at home, and Googled the herb to see what I could learn.  I was impressed to see that many of the tea’s reported benefits were exactly those I experienced, including enhanced mental focus, balanced blood sugar, and the regulation of metabolism.  It’s also believed to aid digestion, support cardiovascular health, increase physical endurance, and reduce post workout recovery time.

yerba mateThe cultural aspects of the tea are lovely.  In Argentina it’s the daily brew, the unifying cup, available to all, loved by all.  This prayer to Our Lady of Good Mate, an image long beloved by the people (and given the Apostolic Blessing by Pope John Paul II in 1993) sums up the herb’s healing grace:  “Teach us to drink mate . . . that mate may be good news, a song of friendship, a way of loving and giving life.”

The drink was thrust onto the national stage recently when Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez visited Pope Francis in Rome.  For years the two lived walking-distance from each other in Buenos Aires, but Fernandez avoided then-Cardinal Bergolio, who opposed much of her progressive social agenda.  Faced with a country that was suddenly jumping with joy and pride over Bergolio’s election to the papacy, Fernandez appears to have adopted a practical “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach, and accepted Francis’s invitation to his papal installation, and then his personal invitation to lunch.  There she presented him with a traditional mate set–an embellished gourd with a curving metal straw–along with a canister of the herb from Francis’s native land.  She and the pope (who traditionally does not eat or drink anything but eucharistic bread and wine in public) were photographed sharing a gourd of yerba mate.

To make a good cup of mate:  Brew as any tea, but add the water just before it boils. Honey, agave, sugar, and milk are all acceptable enhancements.

Experience with yerba mate?  Received any favors from Our Lady of Good Mate? I’d love to hear your stories.

→ 12 CommentsCategories: food, herbs

Welcome Spring

March 31st, 2013

Thank you Marigold, Ophelia, and Ethel for the beautiful eggs. And happy spring to everyone!


I heard the neighborhood flickers drumming in earnest on my early morning walk today. Let the wild rumpus begin!


→ No CommentsCategories: chickens, eggs, seasons, urban nature

Chickens in the Winter Garden

February 22nd, 2013

It’s a wet blustery day here in Seattle–a good day for braised kale and quinoa with tahini sauce, or a nice plate of kale chips fresh from the oven.  Kale is one of a few veggies that can overwinter in Seattle without a cold frame or garden cloth tunnel (we can also grow broccoli and some root vegetables). Carrots and kale are made sweeter by a release of sucrose after our mild frosts.  Fortunately, we have a nice kale crop flourishing in our winter garden this year.


Don’t we?  Winter is also the season I give the chickens free range in the backyard, since there isn’t much in the garden for them to ruin.  Our current group of chickens never seemed to like kale (which is odd, because chickens eat almost anything–my daughter took this as evidence that she herself should not have to eat kale:  if even chickens won’t eat it, surely it is indigestible, and no animal should be eating it, including teenage humans).  But for some reason these bad little hens had a sudden change of heart.  Maybe they found out about the sweet sucrose. I only know that when I went out to gather my feast, all I found was Ophelia the Buff Orpington among the bare dinosaur kale branches.  I guess it’s market veggies for me today.  And time to start dreaming in earnest of the spring garden…

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It’s Darwin’s Birthday: Celebrate Fiercely

February 12th, 2013

DarwinPosseI love Charles Darwin.  I love his sweet, flawed humanity; his affection for his family; his books, his quirky letters, his diaries.  Most of all, I love his innate, constant wonder in the face of the natural world.  Join me in celebrating Darwin’s birthday.  Here are some of my favorite ways to conjure the spirit of the great naturalist:

1.  Go outside.  Looking over the top of my computer and out the window this moment, I can see a flicker, three crows, two black-capped chickadees, once chestnut-backed chickadee, and Worthington the squirrel.  I can watch the drip of the light winter Seattle rain, and I pause to wonder over all these things.  But it is when I get off my widening bum and step through the doorframe that I am truly able to “contemplate” Darwin’s “tangled bank,” (which I wrote about in a sidelong manner here) to enjoy up close his “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful that have been, and are being, evolved.”  No matter how urban our homes (or how rainy the day), a short walk will provide opportunities to observe representatives of these “endless forms,” and to embrace Darwin’s truest legacy–a deepened sense of interconnection with all of  life.

2.  Read a few of Darwin’s letters.  I love epistolary collections, and Darwin is one of my all-time favorite letter-writers.  So often we have the big, bearded, Father-of-Modern-Biological-Science image of Darwin in our head–an image staid, daunting, and not much fun.  In his letters we find someone much more delightful–communicating with his friends via pen and ink, Darwin is alternately silly, serious, whimsical, catty, gossipy, caustic, spoiled, lovable.  Bawdy?  Never.  But dip into his letters, and I will make you two promises:  you will learn things about Darwin you never imagined to be true; and you will want to run outside and lie in the grass, soaking up the secrets of nature, as Darwin himself did.  We have 14,000 extant letters from Darwin.  For a manageable and well-chosen sampling, see Frank Burkhardt’s collection Evolution: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin 1860-1870.

3.  Observe pigeons.  Darwin was a famous pigeon collector, and in the myriad forms that sprang from the common urban rock pigeon, he found a perfect example of his basic tenet–diversity in lineage. (While members of the Victorian fanciers disagreed with Darwin–How could their many beautiful breeds all be connected to that dirty little bird?  Surely the breeds were genetically unique!the latest research vindicates Darwin.) Modern urban pigeons get a bad rap (“sky rats,” some call them) but they are gentle, watchable birds with iridescent feathers, and a fascinating behavioral repertoire.  Put your observations to good scientific use by joining Cornell Lab’s Project PigeonWatch.

4.  Read The Origin of Species!  You didn’t think you were going to get out of here without me recommending that, did you?  This is one of my favorite nightstand books. When I am feeling crabby or anxious or isolated, I  read a few paragraphs, and remember my place in life–simultaneously small and meaningful; individually alone, yet intimately connected.

pilgrim on the great bird continent5.  Read my book on Darwin, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent.  It tells the story of Darwin’s own evolution as naturalist, focusing on little-known diaries, and ornithological notebooks.  Of all my books, this lesser known volume is my favorite.

6.  Celebrate Fiercely.  William McDonough, co-author of the iconic and wonderful Cradle to Cradle:  Rethinking the Way We Make Things, speaks often about celebration.  When asked about this by Justine Toms, he looked out over the profligacy of a spring flower field and said, “It’s not about survival of the fittest.  It’s about those who celebrate the most being the evolutionary winners.  Nature is all about fierce celebration.”

Certainly Darwin’s birthday should be observed for the rest of the month, at least.  How will you celebrate?

“Darwin has a posse” image by Colin Purrington.

→ 8 CommentsCategories: books

Friday Links: Amazing Bookstore, Natural Kids, Litany, and a Marley-Mumia Encounter

February 7th, 2013

Livraria Lello:  I posted a couple of photos from this incredible bookstore in Porto, Portugal to my Pinterest account. Wow! That woodwork! That staircase!

Natural Kids: Recent academic research shows that when nature elements are incorporated into playgrounds kids have more fun, are more active and utilize more motor skills. And getting them out of cars, and instead walking or cycling to school, improves their concentration:

The survey looked at nearly 20,000 Danish kids between the ages of 5 and 19. It found that kids who cycled or walked to school, rather than traveling by car or public transportation, performed measurably better on tasks demanding concentration, such as solving puzzles, and that the effects lasted for up to four hours after they got to school.

Pan This Book! Tireless Portland cycling promoter/writer/publisher Elly Blue is experimenting with soliciting funny one-star Amazon reviews for her book Everyday Cycling. She says,

My reverse astroturfing campaign made some people laugh (usually shortly after it made them confused) and seems to have resulted in a sales bump. But the jury is still out on whether or not it’ll continue to be a good thing in the long term, or end up a liability.


One Love: In honor of Bob Marley’s birthday this week, here’s a remarkable piece of audio history: Bob Marley interviewed in November 1979 by an award-winning local Philadelphia journalist named Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Litany: How wonderful is this? A 3-year-old recites the poem Litany by Billy Collins.

→ 7 CommentsCategories: bicycles, bikes, Friday links

Happy Superb Owl Sunday

February 3rd, 2013

There are a lot of superb owls on the internet, but this is one of my favorites.

I don’t know where this was filmed, but it’s a Eurasian Eagle-Owl (captive, as indicated by the jesses on her legs). You can see the family resemblance to our ubiquitous North American Great Horned Owl–both birds are in the genus Bubo. Gorgeous!

→ 2 CommentsCategories: birds

Friday Links: Cute Kittens, Mistaken Maples, and Siberian Hermits

January 31st, 2013

Happy Imbolc or St Brighid’s Day, the awakening of the land to the coming spring. The days are getting longer and lighter! My friend Waverly has a great blog post about this part of the wheel of the year.


Credit: Flickr / Merlijn Hoek

The Power of Cute: New research has revealed that looking at cute images of baby animals doesn’t just make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, but can actually improve your work performance and help you concentrate. With her endless love of all things cute and cuddly, Claire’s going to end up a Zen master!

Hobbit Legalese: One lawyer provides an incredibly detailed analysis of Bilbo’s contract with the dwarves.

The Influence of Austen: A recent study has found that Jane Austen, author of “Pride and Prejudice, “ and Sir Walter Scott, the creator of “Ivanhoe,” had the greatest effect on other authors, in terms of writing style and themes.

Canadian Bill Features Norway Maple: Canada’s launched a new twenty dollar bill, featuring a maple leaf. But according to Canadian botany professor Julian Starr, “This could not be confused with a native species of Canada. It basically looks like a Norway maple.”


How Much Do Cats Kill?  Cute or not, new research indicates that they kill a lot, a fact that is written up in very different styles by The Oatmeal, by Nature, by The New York Times.

Best of 2012 Journalism: The Byliner has pulled together their list of the top 102 pieces of journalism from last year. Many great reads on this list.

Natalia-and-Agafia40 Years In The Siberian Forest: Speaking of compelling reads, this new story in Smithsonian is almost unbelievable: a single family, living in the woods of Siberia for 40 years without any contact with other humans. Their pots and metal implements wear out, yet they survive. One is there still.

More Cute:  Oh, you want a little more cute to improve your concentration? Well conveniently, our friend Trileigh Tucker, a fellow nature blogger and great photographer, just went to Antarctica and met these baby fur seals:



→ 12 CommentsCategories: Friday links

Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, and Mozart’s Birthday!

January 26th, 2013

January 27th, 2013 is a big anniversary.  Time to celebrate! I plan to rise early and spend a few quiet hours curled up with a copy of Persusion (I’ve read P&P lately, and winter puts me in the mood for Captain Wentworth) while I listen to Mozart’s violin sonatas.

4208075159_39eded5c6c Austen is a strong alternative voice in this time of all-pervasive technology.  She reveals the true threads that hold society and community together, and the actions that rent them.  She teaches us manners, of course, but also how to duck them when necessary, in favor of something wilder.  We typically turn to the Brontes when we want to be windswept, but Miss Austen  knows her way through the wilderness (and the poultry yard);  it is a misconception that her characters spend their days wandering about the drawing room.  David Ehrenfeld notes that although she rarely comments on nature directly, “Nature in Jane Austen’s works is like nature in the Hebrew Bible:  it is there as a constant presence, it is an essential fact of life, and because of this it is rarely separated out for special comment.”  Time to read Austen again, and with a fresh ear.


Papageno statue in Bruges, Belgium

And Mozart!  In the classical music world Beethoven gets all the “wild man” credit, but Mozart spent his short life composing in a frenzy, running all over Vienna through sun and snow on foot, with tiny pointed shoes.  He felt the weather on his face and listened to the songs of birds.  When he wrote Die Zauberflute, the “everyman” appears in the shape of Papageno, a feathered bird-man.

An auspicious day, indeed!  How will you celebrate?


→ 1 CommentCategories: books, inspiration

Radical De-Cluttering

January 23rd, 2013

The new year is a traditional time for cleaning out closets and drawers, clearing out the old, and making way for the new.  I want to make sure that the “new” for me is not new stuff, but a new level of simplicity, new avenues for happiness in daily life.  Some time ago I began a practice I call “radical de-cluttering.” cairnI started by going through all my closets and drawers, and giving away bags of stuff.  Clothes went to the local charity, books to our beloved Pegasus Book Exchange. After this initial cleansing, I began to follow the usual anti-clutter guideline that appears in magazines and on “simplicity” blogs:  whenever you acquire something, you give something similar away.  New shirt?  Out with an old piece of clothing.  New book?  Old book out. I quickly found that this was no challenge at all.

So I set a new rule for myself:  One in, two out.  Whenever I acquire something, I get rid of two things.

In my practice of radical de-cluttering, the things that come in and go out do not have to be the same thing.  I can buy a book, say, and give away a pair of shoes and a flower pot.  This allows me to re-dress imbalance, and to choose what I want to emphasize in my life (including a little joyful frivolity). Maybe I have too many hats, but could use a pair of garden clogs.  Maybe I have too many books, but don’t care! Maybe I want to keep more and more books, and less and less of everything else until eventually I live with nothing but a library and a teacup!

teaI make exceptions:  consumables such as food (obviously), but also other things that are regularly used up and replaced–office supplies, kitchen towels, socks. (This allows me a nice bit of room to cheat, since I am obsessed with office supplies, and I seem to let myself have as many notebooks and bottles of fountain pen ink as I want.)  Otherwise, in my calculus a thing is a thing.  I don’t care how big or how small it is, or how much it cost.  A car counts for one thing, a book of poetry counts for one thing, and I don’t make exceptions for gifts I receive, or fabulous thrift store finds.

One in, two out.  Even though I started by (I thought)  thoroughly doing away with the superfluous, I am amazed that after about a year, the one in/two out rule is still very easy to live by.  I am looking forward to it becoming difficult.  I am hoping, one day, to get to the point that  the material things I keep in my life are so well-chosen that I have to think deeply about any acquisition I make, to wonder, “Wow, if I really want this thing, then what will I give up?”  To have to truly measure need/desire/authenticity.  Maybe someday when I am aged and wise my possessions and my spirit will find themselves in perfect harmony–then maybe I’ll change to the one in/one out plan, or not bother to think about such things at all.

I love (to the point of obsession, really) the work of Lloyd Kahn, and have spent much of this month pouring over his newest volume, Tiny Homes:  Simple Shelter.  With my drastic need for privacy, and a daughter who plays cello, piano, guitar, and ukulele, I don’t envision us moving into a tiny home anytime soon.  The airiness of our old farmhouse feels simple in its own right.  But I do agree with Kahn’s feeling that everyone can find inspiration in the tiny shelter movement:  “You can get ideas here for simplifying your life, wherever you live.”

Want to join me in Radical De-Cluttering?  What other ways are you all simplifying in 2013?

Thank you for the CC-licensed photos: Flickr users Neil Bonnar (rocks) and Laurel Fan (tea).

→ 13 CommentsCategories: garbage, Simplicity, waste reduction