healing


In 1995, still trying to get pregnant, I was diagnosed with cancer of the immune system. It was a moment that changed my life. I can still feel echoes of that shock. I still remember my first oncologist, trying to push chemo on me, and when I asked for information about the substances he was recommending, his nurse rummaged through dusty closets and came up with nothing. I found a way out of despair by learning all I could to save my life. Crucially, I learned that Non-Hodgkin’s B-cell lymphoma comes in three varieties, slow-growing, intermediate, and fast growing. The fast ones are often curable, but rare. The slow ones are best not to treat right away (that first oncologist was a greedy liar), respond well to chemo initially, but eventually they’ll turn intermediate and kill you. Median survival? 7-9 years. Ugh. One thing I hold against conventional medicine is that it’s so damn depressing, the way it presents information to patients.

I spent several years studying both the conventional side — finding more hopeful stats — (thank you Fox Chase Cancer Center for making your library so patient friendly!), and the alternative side. The alternative side is good at giving people hope and pluck. I spent some time experimenting with various concoctions they recommended. And while sifting the dross from the potential gold which included talking to other lymphoma patients who also had the gumption to experiment, I found two alternative treatments that merited an “A” on my scale. One wasn’t of use in lymphoma, which is usually disseminated (metastasized) by definition. That was hyperthermia (which has since made limited inroads into conventional cancer treatment). The other one was Coley’s Toxins. I wrote one of the first well-researched internet articles on the toxins. Coley’s Toxins had been blacklisted by the American Cancer Society for many years as a quack treatment, and are not conventionally available to this day. They are cheap to make, and unpatentable.

My approach, recommended by my next oncologist, was to do “watchful waiting” until the disease progressed. When it did, I availed myself of the various toxic drips they give to cancer patients. By that time, they were accompanied by monoclonal antibodies — bioengineered thingies that run through the immune system, gobble up B-cells, and improve the chemo’s effectiveness. I also did a rare treatment that gave me a year of remission called Bexxar. But then, in ’07, the lymphoma speeded up (underwent cellular transformation) and tried to kill me. I got hit by very harsh chemo. Spent that summer doing treatments, transfusions, and Neulasta injections, weak as a new-born chick, wondering if my hair would ever grow back.

And then came the worst day of my life, when the oncologist (who was just out fishing for warm bodies for his transplant program) told me in about 3 minutes that the chemo did not work much, to go home, and talk to the hospice. A clinical trial? “Too late,” he says! He also had the temerity to push “palliative chemo” on me which he admitted on further questioning would probably destroy my kidneys and what little remained of my bone marrow. I fantasize every Halloween about going out in a sheet to haunt this SOB.

Grieved terribly for couple of weeks, and then got really mad. I started calling cancer centers from coast to coast looking for a clinical trial. Was offered various heavy-hitting chemos that would have killed me. Was turned down by a private trial which would have ruined me financially. Then my caregiver drove me to two cancer centers on the off-chance they might have something. The second one paid off. I was accepted into a Danish clinical trial for a new antibody that has since been approved — but not for my kind of lymphoma. Life is full of ironies. And it so happened that I found the only humane oncologist of my entire career as a cancer patient. He looked me in the eye (tumors visibly sticking out of my belly and groin) and he said, “I will never give up on you.” And he kept his promise. Thank you, doctor Myint!

So… I went through the clinical trial for two months. It helped some. More importantly, it gave me the strength to go to Mexico and begin treatment with the toxins. The trial also bound me to be ct scanned every three months for two years, so my recovery is extremely well documented. Four months after I began the toxin treatment, my ct scan showed “massive shrinkage” of all the masses in my belly! What a day! The doc who removed my kidney stent remarked that such a thing almost never happened in his career as a urologist (the cancer had been pressing on my ureter).

It turns out that my internet article on the toxins had been noticed by a Canadian executive who was researching immune therapies for cancer. So inspired was he that he actually went to the Library of Congress to pore over doctor Coley’s notes from the early 20th century, and then built a lab to replicate his process. He wrote to me to tell me the toxins are about to be manufactured to modern standards, but I lost the letter. When I “was dying” I remembered his name, we talked, and after looking around, I went for treatment at the CHIPSA hospital in Tijuana, where they taught me how to inject myself with this substance via diabetic needles. Maybe the hardest thing I have ever done. It makes you ghastly ill for a day or two, the injection site is very painful for a week, and you have to do it three times a week. Argh! Horrible. My caregiver read me Quinn’s Ishmael when I lay there waiting for the effects to begin, to take my mind off the feverish horror to come. As I understand it, the toxins jolt the immune system into action, into recognizing the cancer cells for the threat they are, and killing them.

I got through by faith and stubbornness: I kept repeating to myself that this stuff works, and I’ll just keep on doing it no matter what. And so I did, for 3 years, and it did work. Thank you, Cameron Wookey, Don MacAdam, and Gar Hildebrand– the crew that helped me do this heroic thing. I could not have done it without you. And to the CHIPSA hospital, which in its reopened form is providing treatment and hope to lots of patients, and recently held a big all-paid celebration for us survivors.

William Coley, M.D., with heartfelt gratitude

I have been in full remission for 9 years now. And recently I have begun to think of myself as a person who no longer has lymphoma, though the lit insists low-grade follicular lymphoma is incurable. Early on, someone told me, when you have cancer, you have to throw every book at it. That’s what I did. And I learned so much I knew when to say no to more chemo, and take the road less traveled by. And it’s made all the difference.

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

— Dylan Thomas

I have witnessed only two deaths. They were not good. My mother was whisked off against her wishes to die in a hospital and to be subject to an unnecessary autopsy she had been strongly against. We all gathered ’round to witness her struggle, her laborious gasping for yet another breath. I did not have a sense that giving her extra oxygen through her nostrils eased her passing. (This had been the sole reason my father chose to remove her from our home where she wished to die. Dying people have difficulties breathing. Duh.)

I described the recent death of my father in the previous post. It was a horrible experience for me, and infinitely more horrible for him. I would not wish it on my worst enemy. Trusting the system, or for those with caring children, trusting that they will somehow manage to give you the good death we all deep down hope for… is foolish. The only person I know who had a good death was my grandmother. Still well, she dozed off one afternoon while her daughter, my aunt, was puttering in the kitchen nearby. And then she was gone. A lucky woman. But one can hardly bet on such luck.

Those experiences jolted me into a close examination of my own wishes and eventual options. I wrote a while back about ecologically sane disposal of the body. Since then, my final choice has become clear. I walk away. If a few of my remains are found — and I would be delighted to become food for one of the noble beasts, cougars or vultures if in America, and jackals or bears if in Europe — then I want them wrapped in a simple shroud, placed in a shallow grave lined with compost, with an apple tree planted over me. This of course goes against many laws in many places, but discreet action on private land remains a viable option everywhere. (There is yet another way, much simpler. Swimming out into the ocean. But I’d rather grow into an apple than a jellyfish.:)

Or perhaps by then there will be orchard cemeteries, and if I should have the misfortune to die in bed, that too would be lovely, my body nurturing a fruit tree the living could come and enjoy. And for a funeral? A simple horse-drawn cart, with a brass band playing the songs that sent generations of my ancestors to the next world, that would be the cherry on top.

I struggled mightily with the proper disposal of the dead, but it turns out that’s a simple problem. What about the dying itself? That’s where the real complexities enter in, and that’s where this insane world we live in makes things really difficult for those who would rather skip the usual: institutionalization, prolonged misery with one’s faculties radically diminished and one’s self-determination gone, often dying amidst strangers.

There are several issues that need thinking out, well prior to one’s actual need. Pain medications in an age of moral panics about certain drugs. Reliable lethal doses and access. And then, the most difficult one of them all: how to handle the fear and existential dread that falls upon those whose mortality suddenly ceases to be, um, theoretical. When I was told twelve years ago that I was dying, I was not only grief-stricken, and maddened by the rude and callous way the doctor handled the situation, but I also suffered from the realization that I was completely unprepared for… well, for what I am now calling the good death. I did have the time. I had no resources. I called the Hemlock Society for advice. They told me that the hospice folks leave plenty of morphine behind as they care for you. This is, I suspect, no longer true. Well. As it turned out, I used the time the doctor opined should be taken up to set my affairs in order to save my life instead. But that is another story, and another post.

So I was given a second chance for a rethink. While I believe that suicide is profoundly wrong for reasons too numerous to mention, the idea offers itself that to slightly speed the scythe that is already swooping down… calling it suicide seems a misnomer. It’s more of the last act of exercising the gift of choosing we were given at our birth as human beings. Many dying people refuse to eat — and nobody calls it suicide. (But really, isn’t starving to death, well, a somewhat sub-optimal way to go? Just sayin’….) If it is a kindness to ease the suffering of animals, why must humans endure the worst, at the mercy of often unmerciful happenstance? And being childless, I cannot console myself with idyllic pictures of a loving family gathering to say their goodbyes. It seems to me that when one’s life is done, and all that remains is waiting for the grim end, the kindest thing for all concerned is to make those last months as grimless and meaningful as possible.

I have been reading Michael Pollan’s latest: How to Change Your Mind. It follows his adventures with certain currently-forbidden substances (all hallucinogens, in his case) that he missed out on as a young man. One of the things the book describes are the scientific experiments, quite well corroborated, that demonstrate how the existential dread of dying can be substantially eased or eliminated by guided psychedelic experiences, enabling the person to make a spiritual turning that reframes the death that is coming. I remember when a dear friend was slowly dying of recurrent ovarian cancer — her last year spent being abused by one failing chemo after another, then the cold announcement from the doctor, and then the endless waiting… waiting… waiting… lying in front of television, resentful of the cruel blow of fate, and of death tarrying so. Bitter, too, against the Catholic faith she felt had let her down. She could have used help. But we were clueless.

Why not, instead, refuse heroic measures that swell the GDP with their false “palliative” promises and opt for experiences that bring one’s last days full circle into the meaning of it all, in the largest possible sense? This intimation of meaning which we can only guess at, but which is, experientially, within reach? For me, roaming the wildish lands and communing with critters (human and non) I have loved all my life would come first. And second, I would wish to have available to me all the substances given to us by God-Cosmos-Gaia exactly for the purpose of easing our pain, experiencing parting pleasures, expressing the love we feel without the usual restraint, seeing the meaning of our life with fresh eyes, and finding strength to face the beckoning transformation with grace.

Which leads me off on an exploration.

  • What are the best ways to deal with the pain that often accompanies one’s last months– and which, in its infinite unwisdom, this culture stigmatizes and prohibits — allowing you to walk into the proverbial hills despite your bad back and your bum ankle or the cancer gnawing at your insides? When my mother was dying, my father — being in the cancer research business — pulled some strings to obtain for her what in those days was the most effective way to deal with severe pain. This Brompton’s Cocktail (then commonly available behind the Iron Curtain) was made up of morphine, cocaine, heroin and alcohol. It is still illegal today. The mix was adjusted to the needs of the patient — he or she could choose to be more or less alert, more or less social. Why do we put up with a medical system that puts politics above patients’ needs?!
  • What is the best way to speed the scythe as you can walk no more, and wait in the hills for the blessed scavengers to transform your death into new life? The internet is vague about the dosage (maybe 300 mg of morphine might be enough; but what about a person whose previous months had included plenty of pain medication?). We need expert guides who can advise. And we need doctors who will allow us to build up a cache for when the day comes, well in advance. I think I will mix mine into creme brulee…
  • And finally, what is the best way to use those divine substances that grant us the mercy and vision that in normal consciousness would likely be unreachable? The peace beyond understanding. The rightness of Being. The rightness of Death. The hope for another adventure awaiting in the beyond. The deep gladness that one’s death serves life. A whole new gestalt in which the universe opens its arms to you and welcomes you home. This, as I understand it, the new generation of psychedelic researchers are focusing on. But they need not stop there! How about drugs given not to quell pain, but to suffuse with pleasure a body that no longer can do it on its own? What about pills or herbs that would bring happy, vivid dreams? What about hypnosis that would help the person relive the most meaningful days of their life?

If I am granted the foresight and the knowledge that the time has come, I will walk away into the wilderness to offer my body to the living. That too will require preparation and scouting out, depending on the season and my strength. I suspect it will take more than just putting on a backpack and heading west into the Rockies, as I had naively imagined. Maybe an old cabin might come in handy. After all, it could be winter. The very last adventure of this earthly life ought to be grand, don’t you think?

And when I am gone, the friends I have left behind will shield their eyes when a vulture or a raven flies overhead, and wonder if I am flying along.

annies home: Turkey Vulture

 

 

 

A few years back, there went by a news story about an event in Holland. Apparently, the Dutch have decided to… is there a good way to say this?… to kill their elderly. The human being in question — a lady with Alzheimer’s — apparently had her wits about her when the doctor tried to administer the lethal injection and fought back with alacrity. Then, the doctor asked the family members to hold her down. Then, he put her down like a sick dog. I was shocked. I remember being glad that this sort of thing does not go on in America.

I took care of my aged father for several years. He was relatively well, though his mind was sometimes better and sometimes worse. Living with him was very trying, because — and this was a lifelong pattern with him — he was a personality disordered man. I will not describe the scenes that sometimes went on between us. I will just mention that I had a dear friend nearby who regularly rescued me and let me stay there while my father raged and carried on. The last year of his life he suffered a fall, but recovered well, and his ct scans showed a healthy 91-year-old.

One evening, my father was unusually talkative. We discussed his future, and whether he would be willing to give assisted living a try. I was surprised and glad, because he rarely talked to me, and because we carried on a good discussion without his use of hearing aids. A hopeful sign, I thought! We went to bed agreeing to speak more on the morrow.

I woke at 5 am with him banging on my door, yelling, incoherent. I opened — a mistake — and when he lunged against me, trying to keep the door open, he broke my arm. I called the cops who quieted him down. Then I went to ER. When I came home and prepared my father’s breakfast and pills, he began to stalk me, telling me he wanted me out this instant. After giving him the pills, I locked myself in the bedroom. All was quiet for a few hours, then the yelling and banging on my door began. The door shook in its frame.

I called the cops again. They spent about three hours here, trying to calm him down, getting abused in turn. My father even struggled with them physically — I don’t know where he found the energy. I confessed to them I was worried that he was going to try to poison me, and they advised me to keep all my own food in the bedroom, which seemed an insane piece of advice. Is this how I should live? Eventually, they realized that he was past any signposts of sanity, called the medics, slapped the Baker Act on him (“dangerous to self and others”) and took him to the hospital, where my father tried to kick and hit personnel. They gave him some anti-psychotics that made him worse. Eventually, with great difficulty, they found him a bed in a psychiatric institution.

And this is where the system began to play me. I was, of course, a babe in the woods, and as the situation unfolded, I spent my days on the phone, trying to figure out what to do from one day to the next. And I toured many institutions that take in the aged. My father’s insurance would have paid 100% of the costs of him being in the mental hospital. But after zonking him hard with several different anti-psychotics, they claimed he was just fine now (after a week!) and I should make other arrangements. I had him transferred to assisted living — a very nice place as such places go. They did not tell me he had developed bed sores. (My father refused to move while he was there, making them believe that he could not — so I can’t really say it was all their poor care that brought those sores about.)

Was he well? Of course not. He shrieked all the way down from the hospital to the assisted living home. When there, my father — who you remember “could not move at all” in the hospital, started running around the assisted living place, barging into people’s rooms, and that even without his usual walker. He created such an upheaval that I was required to pay for round the clock aides to keep an eye on him. Eventually, we were able to ease off, and the home made arrangements with neighboring “memory care” unit (that’s where the Alzheimer’s people are) to take him during the day. He was also further dosed with anti-psychotics which nobody seemed to be able to adjust so that the crazies would stop but he could function.

Well, in the end, that arrangement fell apart, and he went back to the local hospital. There he lay zonked out of his mind, his sores getting worse, while they were trying to figure out what to do with him. There was some sort of an appeal to the state that took several weeks to resolve. Meanwhile, I was looking for a memory care place for him — and was lucky to find out near me, a small one that was run by a church, and people had individual attention. When the state declined the appeal, the church facility took him in. I was so glad then, full of hope that they would be able to get him off the drugs and back to being alive. It looked that way at first.

Then I ran into insurance problems. If my father had straight Medicare, the facility’s doctors and rehab people could look after him. But he had one of those HMO plans that demand the patient goes to certain doctors only. My BC/BS advisor went on vacation, the replacement was not able to get me either a competent doctor or a rehab person, and my father’s muscles went rapidly into permanent atrophy. When he came there, he was coherent, and was able to get up and have lunch at the common table. Within days, he was shrieking his head off, back on the nasty drugs, alone in his room. I came twice a day to check on him. He could still talk to me. I asked him if he was hungry or thirsty. He said no. Then he said: “I am afraid.” My father… whom I’ve never known to be afraid of anyone. That was the last thing he said.

The next day, as I was coming in, the director called me and told me I should talk to the hospice. This too was a shock. That day my father had refused all food (he actually crushed the spoon they were using to feed him some yogurt) and his message was clear. I was up till midnight making the arrangements, late Friday night.

The hospice got him a special soft bed, and took excellent care of his bed sores. They also got an attendant to be with him 24 hours a day. They made sure he was getting some water to wet his mouth, and eventually began to rub liquid morphine around his gums (though in my opinion, it took them excruciatingly long to get around to it).

My father died 6 days after the hospice took over. In three months, he went from a healthy albeit intermittently demented person to a corpse.

I came out of this ordeal with a case of PTSD, a frozen shoulder, and a lot of questions. I am writing this post to warn others. There were three problems with his care. 1) The anti-psychotics ruined his health. 2) The advice I was given was of the sort designed to “draw down” his assets (such a nice official phrase, eh?). He could have stayed in the psych unit until they stabilized him, at no cost to us. Instead, they lied to me. The assisted living home was motivated to go along with the lie, because they stood to profit by his monthly rent. And in the end, even the church place should have advised me that it looked like my father needed hospice, not moving to yet another institution. More money for them. (They did tell me, but after he had been moved, while assuring me it looked like they were wrong.) And 3), when I begged people to calm my father with opiates (which would have given him constipation but would not have turned him into a zombie) rather than zombifying anti-psychotics, they refused. Only the hospice can administer the opiates, they said. I had nowhere to turn.

So this is the way we kill the troublesome aged in America. The quiet ones — and I saw many during my sojourn through the institutions — lie in their chairs in front of the TV day in, day out, year in, year out. The hospice, btw, was free and excellent. Apparently, it is important in the United States to pour unlimited money into the dying. Why?

Loose wreath design | Didsbury Flower Lounge | Didsbury ...

Down there we have a plant that grows out in the woods and the fields, looks somethin’ like a turnip green.
Everybody calls it Polk salad. Polk salad.
Used to know a girl that lived down there and
she’d go out in the evenings and pick a mess of it…
Carry it home and cook it for supper, ’cause that’s about all they had to eat. But they did all right.
— Elvis

Had I only received the gift of poke alone during my sojourn at Earthaven, it would have been enough. I have been an herbalist and an alternative medicine user for many many years. And still, I missed out on a plant that has quickly become an integral part of my herbal medicine chest. Pokeweed has been surrounded by Appalachian lore going back to the native Indians, then embraced by the hill and hollow folk. To this day, much fearful misinformation is spread by more official channels, but the ranks of poke friends and admirers is growing. Permit me to introduce you to Phytolacca americana, also known as inkberry, pokeberry, pocan, and many other names.

Poke is nothing if not flamboyant. Massive convoluted roots shoot up tall, thick reddish stems by late spring, singly or in thickets. White pendulous flower clusters follow quickly, and from midsummer to frost, the plants are weighed down by a profusion of dark purple berries. It dies back in late fall.

poke1

poke2

Squish a handful of berries and you’ve just created unparalleled body paint of iridescent purple. When Earthaven celebrated the anniversary of its founding last September, a jolly procession of pokejuice-enhanced humans walked from the Gateway Barn to the Village Green while longtime residents recalled the history of landmarks along the way. Poke obliges by easily washing out with soap and water. (Some fiber artisans are using it as a natural dye; it needs a mordant to set the color.)

poke purple

pokeyarn

Using vinegar for mordant, a rich red dye is produced

Before proceeding further, I want to acquaint you with my off-the-cuff classification of plants and fungi in relation to their safety.

Category A: beneficial, easy to recognize, edible (e.g.: chamomile, chanterelle)

Category B: beneficial, modest caution recommended in recognition and/or use (e.g.: cannabis, champignon mushroom)

Category C: beneficial, with significant toxicities, use knowledgeably with care (e.g.: lobelia, comfrey)

Category D: poisonous, often lethal or leaves permanent damage, not for lay use (e.g.: hemlock — no, not the tree!, white snakeroot, death angel amanita)

The noble poke falls in Category C. Some parts of the plant can make a person briefly, intensely ill. The internet reports a death of a small child from crunching on the seeds. (To put this in perspective: the tomato plant has caused several deaths of people eating the leaves.) The plant has not been carefully researched yet; as a result, the sources report its ready use as salad, wine, and the remedy for a variety of ailments on one end, and warn in dire tones against its use on the other end of the spectrum.

A brief overview:
pokesallet2
Spring shoots are commonly eaten in the South as poke salad or sallet; be sure of your identification as confusion with other plants can be hazardous. Parboil twice and throw the water away before cooking for the table.

poke wine

The berries have been commonly eaten in Appalachia as an arthritis preventive (one berry a day is commonly recommended but some people on the web have reported eating many more, swallowing the berry whole). The taste is sweet but a bit peculiar. Old timers often made pokeberry wine and jelly; in Europe the berries have been used as wine coloring. It is unclear if any toxicities are connected with the berries. I have tasted them without any effects. Some people think the berries are not toxic at all, others think that cooking neutralizes the toxic substances. The seeds are said to be quite toxic, but are filtered out in the processing. (Contrariwise, some adults on the internet have reported crunching some seeds by mistake, without ill effects. It may be a matter of quantity.)

The root is the remedy most commonly used. Various sources list the primary effects as anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, lymphatic cleanser, immune system booster, anti-inflammatory, emetic, cathartic and alterative.

For folks wishing to peruse a few detailed articles, here are some links:
Henriette’s Herbal Homepage
Corinna Wood’s account
A medical case study of yew and poke in lymphoma
A lay compilation of many studies and other information on poke

Both root tincture and salve are available on the internet. So far, I have not seen any commercial berry-based preparations.


Shortly after coming to Earthaven, I had a lovely conversation with one of the herbalists there. We shared our favorite remedies, as well as medical errors we’ve endured, and information about chronic medical issues that are not curable within the mainstream medical model. For me, that would be lymphoma. When my new acquaintance heard about it, she immediately suggested I look into poke. There has been a remarkable full recovery reported on the internet (the original article I read is no longer available, but an abbreviated version still exists). This story was confirmed by another herbalist at EH who knows the woman personally, and if need be, can get me in touch with her. I looked up the woman’s intriguing tale, did some research, and determined to enter into a relationship with the poke plant and to begin — what fun! — experimenting.

My first experiment with the berries was on my skin. I did not find it useful against dyshidrotic eczema. But as I was suffering at the time from post-herpetic neuralgia (a chronic annoyance years past the outbreak of shingles) I tried rubbing the juice into the tiny burny-itchy bumps. It acted fast, and is the best remedy I have ever found for this condition (and I had tried several). Poke is the most powerful antiviral in my herbal medicine chest.

Then I bought a root tincture and began to use it very cautiously as recommended: one drop in water per day, then two drops, working up to maybe 10-15 drops and cycling down. I noticed that the swollen glands in my neck, probably related to some mild infection, went down. Intriguingly, I noticed that my body temperature seemed to have gone up — I am chronically cold because of hypothyroidism. Later, I found that poke is reputed to boost the function of the thyroid gland. At these doses, I experienced no untoward symptoms. I grew impatient. I had also heard that possibly, fresh poke root is the most potent.

poke4

Subsequently the spirit of poke led me toward a few heroic doses. The root is best harvested at the end of the season, after first hard frost, and when the time came, lacking a juicer, I cut off a 1/4 inch piece of the root, chewed it and swallowed the juice. (It tastes strong, unpleasant, acrid, and kills the taste buds for a few days.) About two hours later, the vomits started, as well as the diarrhea and the chills, and continued for 2-3 hours. It was a fairly miserable experience, but by morning, I felt great, and a slight swelling I had in my groin (yes, that would be the lymphoma) seemed to have alleviated. I gained energy and strength as well.

I doubled the dose a month later. The experience was much the same, except I felt sicker, and the malaise lingered into the next day. I felt I reached the limit of my heroic dose, and would try lower doses in the future. I do not recommend chewing on the root at all. The woman in the story juiced the root with carrots, and that would certainly help with the taste issues. Root tincture is easy to make: slice up a piece of the root in the fall, let sit in 80 proof vodka for several weeks, shaking occasionally, filter through a jelly bag and store in a dark glass bottle.

I also made poke vinegar from the berries in order to preserve their healing properties past their season. (Drying is not a good option.) The red vinegar (made by soaking the berries for three weeks in apple cider vinegar and filtering through a jelly bag) has stood me in good stead whenever I still experience the neuralgia, and I plan to test whether with more sustained use, it will go away for good. It certainly comes far less frequently now.

I am planning to experiment with using the berries for an arthritis remedy, in the form of vinegar prepared with greater care for internal use. And I want to mention that a woman neighbor at EH heard of my experimentation with poke, and tried the root tincture for her venous eczema (itchy, dry, discolored skin around the ankle area that frequently plagues the elder population). She told me with a smile that it largely cleared up.

When I saw my oncologist this spring, I was treated to the news of full remission. I had been very close before, but in the year and a half since my last ct scan, the areas in question shrank even more, and remarkably, so did my liver that had had a lesion in it once, but more recently kept showing up on the scans as “unremarkable.” I had not used any alternative (or mainstream) treatment against the lymphoma during this time, and I am encouraged that poke has played a positive role in my further healing. I have not felt this well in many many years, and I am tremendously grateful to my new plant teacher I met so felicitously at Earthaven.

Hail the good poke, a weed for all seasons!

poke3

We should all get the hell out of the way, with our bodies decently planted in the earth to nourish other forms of life — weeds, flowers, shrubs, trees, which support other forms of life, which support the ongoing human pageant — the lives of our children. That seems good enough to me.
— Edward Abbey

For most of human history, deceased human beings were left exposed, to feed carrion eaters and the soil critters underneath. About 100,000 years ago, first shallow graves appeared — the body enriched the topsoil while being protected from the beasties by a layer of soil and rock. And so it continued, until the Neolithic.

That’s when funerary customs took a bizarre turn. In the settlements transitioning from foraging to agriculture people began to bury the dead under the floor of their houses. Sometimes, they disinterred the cadaver and cut off its skull, to be plastered and painted for display. (Didn’t they mind the stench and gruesomeness?!)

As elites rose into power, all around the world they began to build elaborate tombs to house their mortal remains. In some places, the brisk business of embalming sold sure tickets to the next world. But whether the bodies were embalmed or not, the soil was denied its due as corpses rotted or mummified in stone chambers. Was this the first time the nutrient cycle was broken? As the lower orders aped their “betters,” the idea caught on. Flip the bird to Mother Nature: you can’t have my body back, you old hag! I am too fancy for the likes of you!

Fast forward to the present. In some parts of the world, scant remaining forests are denuded to burn corpses on a pyre so their ashes can be thrown into the river people drink from. Um. Sky burials sound reasonable until you find out that priests are engaged to dismember and deflesh the naked corpses high on the mountain. Did the vultures demand smaller pieces, or is it another example of priestly entrepreneurial zeal? Alas, western civ hasn’t done any better. Let us review the options on offer to the distraught relatives of our neighbors who have just shuffled off their mortal coil.

1. Burn the body, place the ashes in a metal or marble urn, and stash them away in a mausoleum where they will sit till the sun burns out. (Although, for a small fee a company will spread them out at sea, or the families can find a remote natural spot.) This method was cunningly designed to burn vast amounts of natural gas or propane, in addition to ensuring that we all end up breathing corpse particles along with mercury fillings, dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur and carbon dioxide. Please note that in some crowded places on the planet (Japan, parts of China and western Europe), this is now the only option available. It gives new meaning to the image of Beijing shrouded in smog.

Data from the funeral industry are hard to come by; my back-of-the-envelope calculations tell me that my small house in Colorado could be heated by the propane used in one cremation for about a month.

2. Bury the body 6 feet under, in a large wooden coffin with brass handles encased in a concrete or metal vault, making sure the body decays as slowly as possible within a layer of soil with very few microorganisms, thus causing maximum groundwater pollution. Forests die so that fancy oaken or tropical wood coffins can be ostentatiously displayed. Embalming — a horrid process I mostly skipped over when reading informative Grave Matters, a book promoting greener funerals — makes sure that the groundwater is not only polluted with cadaver goo, but also with some 200 different types of toxic ick. The undertakers as a profession suffer from diseases caused by frequent exposure.

According to National Geographic, American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance.

Way to go, folks! Way to go? No, thank you. Myself, I’d rather go quietly back to the earth that brought me forth, and skip the parts where my ol’ body burns up enough gas to heat a house in the winter, kills forests or pollutes air and watersheds. Neither am I one of those who would rather pretend they can evade the deep truth: “dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

What, then, are my options?

Walking off to a remote place and letting the good beasties have me sounded swell until I realized that when I am dying, I probably won’t have the vim and vigor required for a long hike.

Promession is a Swedish process whereby the body is placed in a tub of liquid nitrogen, freeze-dried, then jostled and turned into powder which can then be buried in topsoil and will compost within the year. Alas, the inventor has promised more than she can deliver, and the whole thing sounds like vaporware.

Resomation (aka bio-cremation) puts the body in a steel tank containing water and lye, applies modest heat (about 350°F compared to 2000°F needed for incineration), and pressure. After several hours, the bone fragments are given to the family and the rest of the brew is unceremoniously flushed down the drain. Ah. New Hampshire and the Catholic Church have developed doubts about that bit. But several states and Saskatchewan do make resomation currently available, and indeed, it seems much greener than the popular choices, as long as your sewer pipes and waste water plant can handle it. Some universities use it to dispose of bodies in their donor programs. On the other hand, it externalizes the disposition of the cadaverous chemicals onto the public infrastructure, and ultimately the waterways.

Natural burial in green cemeteries appeals a great deal because it supports nature reserves that might otherwise fall to the developers’ axe. There are more than 200 such woodland or meadow cemeteries in the UK, and about 20 in the States, with more on the way. Green cemeteries ban embalming, fancy coffins and vaults, and implement shallow graves. And they are loveliness itself, a joy for grieving families and hikers, both.

Pyrolysium might some day dispose of bodies via pyrolysis, and turn our dearly departed into sacks of biochar that can be conveniently used as soil amendment.

Composting large road-kill like deer has been successfully implemented in several places around the country by laying the corpse on a bed of woodchips, then piling a whole lot of chips on top. The decomposition is completed within several months, and the bones ground up for bone meal fertilizer. Why not do that with humans? I would be happy to volunteer. It sounds like the cleanest, sanest, simplest, and cheapest alternative of all.

Unless, of course, you can bury your loved one on your own plot of land. It is not that difficult in most states, and the book Final Rights will help you navigate the legalities.

And don’t forget biodegradable, tree-sparing coffins and shrouds, ranging from cardboard boxes (lame), through soft winding sheets, all the way to beautiful willow basketry, felt cocoons, and papier-mache pods. About time.

Let’s all play “beat the reaper” and turn our used-up bodies into new life!

This morning, Dave Pollard posted an essay, Bringing Down the Monster which seems just a tad defeatist for my taste. So I rallied my forces and put forth a response.

Two and a half years ago, a doctor gave me the 5-minute funereal speech. Go home, enjoy what you have left, and talk to the hospice. That moment when the stark reality of my predicament hit me in the solar plexus will always remain one of my most ghastly-vivid memories. The harsh chemo I had just undergone for recurrent and suddenly fast growing lymphoma failed. And my bone marrow was badly damaged. Prognosis? Very poor.

First I believed him and grieved. Then I got mad. And found a way to live. As I am thinking here about Dave’s words, and this civilization’s predicament, it occurs to me that my “rising from the ashes” experience may be of use here. Particularly since Dave spoke up with the C word. He says:

    The best analogy for this monster [of “the system”] is probably cancer. Cancer is an unintended consequence of the evolution from unicellular creatures to organisms. The survival advantage of organisms… comes with a price — individual cells in an organism can’t replicate without restriction … or they’d outgrow the boundaries of the organism, so nature evolved processes called cellular apoptosis (death) and senescence (cessation of replication) to keep the total number of cells of each specialized type in the creature’s body in balance. These processes are set off by chemical triggers in the body. Cancer cells don’t respond to the triggers, so they grow out of control… By analogy, our industrial systems… are an unintended consequence of our evolution of large brains, a short-run evolutionary success and, in the longer run, will kill our species…

    Doctors talk bravely about defeating cancer but it’s very unlikely they’ll succeed. Because cancers are evolutionary phenomena, trying to prevent cancers is like trying to prevent evolution. Only members of highly delusional religions believe you can fight (or deny out of existence) the reality of evolution.

    The analogy isn’t too far-fetched, is it? In both cases, the options to ‘reform’ what’s sick and dysfunctional, to ‘persuade’ it to behave better, are limited, and insufficient. We have to use a combination of strategies, and manage our expectations. In both cases, there’s a chance we can bring down the monster, at least for awhile, and a chance we cannot.”

Not too far-fetched at all! But the options to reform the cancer are not insufficient. They are non-existent. Besides, why would you want to try? Re-forming the cancer is not really a useful tack. We do know a bit about how to kill it. Our therapies aim to kill malignant growth to give the body another chance. But in order for the body (the remaining healthy part) to be able to reform itself, its immune system must be jolted into action. After all, the immune system normally goes after rogue cells as a matter of fact. We must enable it to do so again. Doctors may be fooling themselves within their current cancer-fighting paradigm, but the healthy body knows how to defeat cancer cells. It does it preventively all the time.

Perhaps my experience can be of use in fleshing out a few guidelines. What worked for me is this:

  • learning (if I had entered the terrible “hopeless” stage without having done my homework when I was still relatively well, I would not have made it)
  • community (the support of others kept me alive during the worst of times, and helped me find what I needed to survive; putting together another health team after my docs had given up on me was also crucial)
  • finding a novel way to kill the cancer cells (entered a clinical trial)
  • jolting my immune system with an alternative therapy designed to do just that (key!)
  • living differently

I did not “bring down” the cancer. My focus was to do everything I knew how, and more, to kill off a significant part of the invasion without doing irreparable damage to the healthy part of me, to jolt my body into a new vigilance, and to help it heal at another level of functioning.

Cancers are very rarely contagious, but arise spontaneously in organisms weakened in their immune function. Like cancers, civilizations have arisen over and over again after the last one had crashed, in different parts of the world. They arose, I think, because human societies were – here and there — similarly weakened. Dave writes: Because cancers are evolutionary phenomena, trying to prevent cancers is like trying to prevent evolution. Perish the thought! The healthy body can recognize and neutralize the cancer cell before it develops into runaway growth, because it too has evolved right along with the cancer cell’s evolution. The question that pursues me nowadays is this: can we come together as a body politic whose “immune system” will be able to neutralize the malignancy?

Dave wraps up: In both cases, if we limit ourselves to personal actions, try to go it alone, we’re not going to succeed nearly as well as if we work collectively and collaboratively with our communities.

Well put: neither the lone hero, nor the collective alone will make the crucial difference. Many strategies are needed, both personal and collaborative. Without the “me” in the equation, it’s a bunch of muddle-headed hypocrisy. And without the “community” in it, the attempted healing process will be too weak and too slow. But even more importantly, what will jolt the human species’ immune system to action?