Following tracks back to the beginning

Squirrel tracks, Sourlands

My son was conceived on a snowy day just like today. How do I know? one might ask. I know. I just do. Without counting days of my cycle, without other ways that any woman might know her body.

My parents know where I was conceived - a campground. They even pointed out the very campsite to me as a child. I can't recall which campground, I'm sure they still remember. It was probably High Point State Park, if I had to guess.

I could picture their tent set up. What else, I didn't know. At least at the time - I was a kid. "Conceived" was a big word, one with gravity, especially within a practicing Roman Catholic family. It is where I came to be.

I was charmed by their tone of voice. Who told the story, my father, my mother? Probably my father. Mind you, the story was not a long one: "This is where you were conceived." A smile. That's it. Regardless, the story held the weight of an ancient script carved in stone.

And so my son's story begins in a little cottage in the Sourlands and continues later that morning as my husband, several friends, and I followed bloody coyote tracks across the snowy landscape. Through swamps and over boulders, my womb began to swell. I remember sweating profusely, adrenalin running, as we hustled through the forest. One friend fell through the ice of Cattail Brook and landed in water up to her waist. She was a hell of a sport.

Back at our house, we warmed by the wood stove and shared a potluck meal. By then, Beren was still just one cell and would be until the following evening when he would become two...

Growing up Roman Catholic, I had a lot of what some might call superstitions. Others might call them visions, dreams, senses, colors, imaginings, faith. I believe that the way things begin is the way they end. While beginnings and endings are loose and should be freely interpreted, I believe that my son began his life on a spirited and inquisitive day.

Thirty-six seconds

Caterpillar (?) egg on the underside of a Solomon's seal leaf.

"How many seconds are enough to warm a hardboiled egg in the microwave?" I asked Jared as he knocked snow off his boots. "Thirty-five seconds. At thirty-six seconds it explodes."

"I wondered what smelled in here," he laughed.

"Yeah," I smiled and returned to swabbing yolk and white from the microwave walls.

Good days, bad days

 Animals and salsa verde. I guess we like salsa verde.

Animals hide. 

On good days, we just roll. Our footfalls in a polyrhythm on the sidewalk. "Would you like to hold my hand?" I ask and a little hand rises up to meet mine, swinging loosely. I squeeze this little hand and say, "I could hold your hand all day." We walk.

"I see the playground. Do you? I see it!" Yes, he sees it. A giggle catches in his throat. I can't see his face, but I can see his rounded cheeks. He is beaming.

On bad days, we creak and grind. Voices harsh. Postures angular. "Come with me. This way. I'm tired of waiting," I rattle out. A stubborn little body becomes iron. I count one, two, three...ten, to myself. Calling for patience and letting the blood settle.

Today is a good day. Putting my free little child into the carseat yet again, for a long drive to the market, I think, "This is so easy. He's so easy." He sits. He folds his arms under the straps. He waits as I yank on the buckles.

"He's so happy, such a happy kid," I often hear. He is. Does he require me to occasionally, and sometimes not so occasionally, apply pro-wrestling moves such as figure four leg locks in order to put on his jacket and shoes? Oh yes. He sometimes requires two parents to apply submission holds.

After the above scene and once outside, my son might hand a rock to me. I'm still reeling, still feeling like an awful parent. My son has already had a dozen sensory experiences, I'm stuck in a rut. "Get over it. I'm over it. Quit brooding," my son might say.

Today, the jacket and shoes slid on easily. We even laughed about the fingerless gloves that are attached to the jacket - they usually ensnare his hands. It is very irritating for a spirited, independent child to have fingers bent this way and that. And then, sometimes it is funny.

Impetigo remedies, for my kith in parts south

Oh Mommmm, why can't I use Benadryl like the other kids? 
A poultice is easy to use. Crush foliage and apply. With familiar and friendly plants, I often chew the plants and apply.

Impetigo remedies, for my kith in parts south... Field Biologist and Nicoya Peninsula Avian Research Station.


"Try not to scratch," Jared says, imitating my cajoling tone. "Just try not to scratch."

"I know you're itchy," I say. "But just try not to scratch."

Jared rolls his eyes.

His legs shins and ankles are covered in hot, red welts with a small crater in the middle of each. Some insect finds him each spring and destroys his beach-worthy legs. The scars last until the following seasons, just in time for the insects to return.

Calendula soothes and heals irritated skin.


Breaking the itch/scratch cycle is difficult. Winter is bad - indoor air is dry and drying. Skin dries, cracks, and becomes irritated. Scratch, scratch. Spring, summer, and fall are bad, too - many biting insects, poison ivy, heat and sweat causing irritations.

In Naturally Healthy Babies and ChildrenAviva Romm describes impetigo as a result of scratching insect bites with dirty fingernails, causing a staph or strep infection called "impetigo." The infection appears as a cluster or single fluid filled bump that becomes a "pus-filled, runny, or crusty lesion." Impetigo is more typical in southern climates.

While most bites don't become infected, they can be long lasting. At home, we call such bites Itchy b*tchy, which accurately describes the mental/emotional and physical state of a person with insect bites gone wild.

I don't want Beren to tell one of his grandmothers he has an Itchy b*tchy, so I'll have to get on the stick and find a new name. It probably won't be impetigo. We avoid funky medical terms. Impetigo sounds like a shortened dinosaur or megafauna name, as in T. Rex or hippo. Impetigaurus itchiensis.


What I do for particularly itchy bites:
  1. Lubricate the body, which is very easy to do - Drink fluids 
  2. Wash hands
  3. Use homeopathic remedy - Ledum palustre - during any phase of itchiness, including immediately after being bitten
  4. Apply healing poultices and salves of plantain and/or calendula to initial bites or to healing/closed sores and scabs.
  5. Apply drawing poultice or salve of chickweed, especially if the bite seems "stuck." I use chickweed on splinters, bites, in-grown hairs, and pimples. These are cases in which the body needs to move something out. 
  6. Apply antimicrobials washes to open sores - thyme, goldenseal
  7. Try not to scratch!

Motherwort, helps to calm the irritated person

In Rainforest Home Remedies: The Maya Way to Heal Your Body and Replenish Your SoulRosita Arvigo offers additional suggestions:

To prevent infection and relieve itch use topical applications of a salve of marigold flowers, motherwort leaves, and basil leaves.

To relieve itching of bites, not necessarily for open sores apply:
Baking soda and water paste
Slice of raw potato
Lemon juice
Fresh aloe vera
Peppermint toothpaste


Wipe out a sealed jar daily or the condensation will cause the oil to spoil.


Making an infused oil or salve:
Olive oil is a nourishing, healing oil that can be used to extract healing properties from plants such as calendula or plantain. The oil can also be used alone. Infused oils can be thickened with beeswax to increase portability and healing, antimicrobial properties.

A feisty Baltimore oriole female wanted to use my cheesecloth for nest material - notice the hole just below the blue rubber band.

1. Cover herbs with olive oil
2. Apply gentle heat (oil should not boil or simmer):
- In warm seasons/climates, a jar can be placed in the sun and covered with cheesecloth or sealed with a lid. A sealed lid requires daily swabbing of condensation. The oil will be ready in 1 or more weeks.
- Use a crock pot on low. Heat until herbs become dull in color. Can take hours with resinous plants like rosemary or minutes with delicate plants like chickweed.
- Use a double boiler on the stove top. Timing as above.
- Use a pan in the oven on 150 degrees. I have never used this method, but it is described by Rosita Arvigo.
3. Strain herbs out with cheesecloth, sieve, or tea strainer.
4. Your infused oil is ready to use and can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer for months or more.
or make a salve...
5. Return oil to pot, crockpot, or pan. Add small pieces of beeswax. Stir to incorporate.
6. Test thickness by spooning a drop onto a cool surface. Let cool and rub the salve between your fingers. If too loose, add more beeswax.
Keep in mind your applications - you may want a loose, easy to spread salve to save your skin further irritations. Or, you may want a harder salve that with withstand  the heat of being carried in your pocket.
7. Pour into clean containers, again keeping in mind portability and access. Small containers are great for the backpack. Large, wide-mouthed containers are excellent for the nightstand when itches flare up in the wee hours.

Remember to measure your ingredients so you can replicate a favorite recipe. Take notes! Label your jars! 


Watching the birds at the feeder. I wish we had other windows that were accessible.

"Pungo" means penguin
"Di-noh" means dinosaur
"Anhy-mo" means animal
"Di-na" means down there
"Pug" and "Cug" are still undefined

Moon, balloon, bear, car, house...words mastered and put away. No need to repeat them.

"Um um" (nummies) and "dis" (this) are among the few words that are kept current.


Beren whispers words: "Hug, hug, hug."

He uses a vintage Valentine's day scarf to swaddle his new xylophone and places it back into its box.

"Rahp," he whispers.

From the armchair, I observe him. "Wrapping a gift?" I ask.

He nods.


"When will he talk?" his auntie asks. "He understands everything."

"When will you talk to me?" his grandfather asks.


A work tee-shirt and sale rack H&M pants, ones that have actually lasted nearly ten years. Train engineer cap from I. Goldberg in Philly. Mattock and multiflora rose crown not optional.

Last night I went to a party - a reason to get dressed up. Jared wore a nice shirt, suspenders, his beat-up ankle-high Clarks boots, and Columbia pants, worn with a bit of soil ground into the fabric. 

It was a wedding celebration, so I skipped the winter party standbys in my closet - the red satin pants, the red and gold phoenix jacket and settled on black. A black long sleeved cotton pullover from the Eddie Bauer outlet (I know why it was seconds - the hems are itchy, so I often wear it inside out), an itchy vintage wool jacket with rumpled faux fur, and a floor length velour skirt from the Express. The skirt predates my marriage of eight years, so the elastic waist is "losing its pizazz" as my mother would say. 

I finished the outfit with a pair of black tube socks (hand-me-downs) from Jared. "It will be dark. No one will know," I told Jared. "Would you like me to see if I have thin pair of socks?" he asked kindly, hinting maybe.  

I did change to thinner socks. Tube socks would not fit into my clunky Mary Janes that I have worn to every dressy event since I purchased the shoes five years ago.

Later, when I sat in a quiet side room at the party, I would remember my socks, my scabby legs (no one who has earned and bears the title Land Steward has or should have nice legs), and my tired shoes as I crossed my legs. 

My son, overstimulated by the party, cuddled in my lap for "nummies." I discretely pulled up my shirt, as discretely as one can with a stunningly blonde toddler who really wants to nurse. The once animated circle of fashionable, svelte young men and women in the room went silent for a moment, or maybe I just imagined that. I shrunk small and then glanced at the young woman to my left. Pregnant. Maybe she and her husband will recall this moment at some point. Maybe this teeny tiny moment for me will help them feel bigger one day, for the sake of their child.

 German military surplus jacket, dyed purple, I. Goldberg. Stihl work gloves, that store that went out of business in Hopewell on Route 31. Women's Carhart pants, Flemington Department Store. 

 Hat and pants as described in photos above. U.S. Marines tee-shirt 50/50 cotton/poly, hand-me-down from Mom. Shoes ??, Blue Ridge Mountain sports.

What's green in the greenhouse today

 Lonicera sempervirens - Trumpet honeysuckle, our native honeysuckle, is known to bloom throughout the season. Ours has been working on this set of flowers since the autumn.

I retrieved the top hatch for the greenhouse from the wood's edge and clamped it in place. Last night's winds and rain were strong, flooding the ditches around our house, filling intermittent streams, and providing a nice back drop to Jared and my before bed conversations.

You know, I work part-time, so does Jared. We have a business together. We have a toddler together as well. I hardly see him or talk to him. We're so busy.

A few years ago, we started a ritual of looking each other in the eyes before turning the lights out at the day's end. It's hardly enough. I have consciously begun looking him in the eye when we talk, even when I say, "Yes, I'll have peanut butter and jelly for lunch tomorrow. Thank you for packing my lunch."

We say, "Thank you." We say, "I'm sorry." We say, "I love you." 

Even better when we add the other's name to the declaration. I sometimes surprised to hear him say, "Thank you, Rachel" as I pass the jar of jam. I think addressing each other by name is meaningful. He could be thanking anyone - god, the heavens, the butter knife he uses to spread refrigerator-cold peanut butter for not tearing a hole in the slice of old bread. 

Hearing my name, I feel welcomed - it's me and not someone else. 

 Lonicera sempervirens - Trumpet honeysuckle, showy fruit and its signature fused leaves just below the fruit/flower.

 Fragaria virginiana - Wild strawberry

Sedum ternatum- Woodland stonecrop

 Aquilegia canadensis - Wild columbine

Geranium maculatum - Wild geranium

Mitchella repens - Partridgeberry

Cornus canadensis - Bunchberry

What's brewing - a cough, a backache, and relaxation

I consulted Rosemary Gladstar' Herbal Recipes for some cough remedies and added additional herbs to her suggestions. She mentions ginger and cinnamon, as well as others. Her recipes include many more herbs than I typically use, so I enjoy the challenge. I added elder, lemon balm, elecampane to the mix.

"Noo, naahhh, nohhh," coos Beren when I ask if he'd like a cup of tea - elderberry syrup, ginger, mullein, lemon balm, fennel, cinnamon, and elecampane. His spirits are high, he's reached another level of communication and understanding (so have we, his parents). Hand gestures and some words, as noted above.

We just had him in a steamy bath with rosemary infused in it,  and a few drops of lavender essential oil. He has a clear, runny rose and loose cough. Seems to be going around.

 Our 2011 elderberry syrup is so dark and rich, while our 2012 brew is lighter.

Jared has a backache and is using lemon balm and Solomon's seal, along with a heating pad and Tiger Balm.

We found a yogurt shake recipe in Leon, a cookbook from the library, that included rolled oats. It made a sweet, hearty blend. After sitting for about 15 minutes, it became a bit gluey but still tasty. I admire my husband who can get multiple foods items on the table all at once. I usually have eggs already cold on a plate and a yogurt shake separating its ingredients while I'm slicing bread for toast...once I sit to eat, the tea water starts to boil. Up again...

I'm enjoying chamomile tea, just to relax - it's been a busy week and I have been reading Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman. A disturbing page turner. Also been using my remedy blend of milky oat tops, nettles, and Equisetum. In the modern age, who doesn't need a nervous system tonic?
I'm two years old.

Beren's second birthday was held at a playground in Hopewell Borough. He didn't have to share his toys. In fact, this is precisely why we held the party at the playground. 

The swings were contested territory with five children, two of them siblings. However, everyone under five years of age had a turn. 

Beren insisted Jared and I try the swing. "Swing's too small," we said. 

The snacks were shared with another playground user, much to the father's embarrassment and repeated requests to not eat the snacks. In addition, cold germs were shared around. 

 At the xylophone.

 Two young party goers. Beren close-fist punched the baby on the right on a prior playdate. We're all still friends.
Junco egg and nest

"We're outta here at the speed of a fossilized pteradactyl," I told my husband as I breezed through our home office on the way to the bathroom. He laughed and turned back to the computer. He had already "punched in" at our home business.

I planned an outing for Beren and I, so Jared could have a quiet house. Our progress out the door was fitful. Truly.

We started the morning by making a batch of muffins from one and half blackened, lunchbox wrenched, counter-aged bananas. My inner cheapskate could not allow the fruit to be discarded. Beren was surprised by what fell out of the banana skins and into the bowl before him - a gooey, grey log with some patches of recognizable banana flesh.

I demonstrated mashing with a potato masher. [As I write this, I queried my husband for a synonym for "mash." He rubbed his temple. "Hhhmmm." His eyes searched the ceiling briefly. I thought he might fall asleep. It is 10:37pm. "Ahh, I think "mash" is the only word for "mash." So there you go, "mashing" and "mash" in one sentence, and now in a second sentence also.]

Beren became bored after a few strokes, so I approached the bowl with an egg. He pointed wildly. "Hungry? Want to eat this egg?" Yes, yes, he nodded. "Cook," he said.

I popped a beautiful free range chicken egg into a pan of water, turned back with my egg, and cracked it into the bowl. More wild gestures. "Your egg is cooking, Beren. Now mash the egg."

Later, the egg Beren desperately wanted was squashed and 1/8th eaten. I turned my attention to packing a canvas bag with snacks, a canvas bag with diapers, a backpack with my wallet, water bottle, mittens, and a heavy winter coat, a canvas bag with a pair of too-small fleece toddler pants to return to Baby Gap, and empty canvas bags for shopping.

I then attempted to put Beren's shoes and jacket on. Elbows flew. Feet kicked. Teeth gritted. Complaints from both parties lodged. The shoes and jacket went on and then the toddler nursed to patch up the relationship.

"Momma needs to go pee, and then we're going," I told Beren.

"Correction. We're outta here at the speed of fossilized pteradactyl sh*t," I told Jared on another pass through the office.

Fifteen minutes later we left.

"Ok, fossilized pteradactyl sh*t, have a good time," Jared smiled as he held the door for us.

Getting into Beren the carseat was difficult. The encounter ended with a buckled child and an angry mother who slammed the car door so hard she reopened it to assure that it still worked. "I hope Jared isn't watching," she thought. Once in the car I gave my red-faced son a tiger lady stare. His crying ceased. A half mile down our lane, I turned to look at Beren. He grinned. I laughed.

The rest of the day went more smoothly. Kind of. I burnt Beren's mouth on a sample of chicken at Trader Joe's. I poked his eye with a table-top sized Fraser fir in the parking lot of Lowe's. He skinned his hands chasing a cat at Terhune Orchards.

In between the minor bumps, we enjoyed the chicken once it cooled. The tinsel and lights at the hardware giant pleased us both. After all, I hadn't planned on buying a tree, but we left with two strands of lights and the eye poking tannenbaum. We played with Legos at Barnes & Noble. We snacked on Trader Joe's smoked salmon in the car as the rain drizzled. The diaper intended for Beren's diaperless bottom wiped dry the seat of a mini John Deere at Terhune's. We took a few spins across the dirt. We stomped in puddles in every parking lot.

Back at home, we were all tired and hungry. "Maybe we should all have a snack, and I'll make dinner," Jared says.

I turned Beren's golden yolked egg from breakfast into egg salad. "Is this for Beren?" Jared asked as he put a forkful into his mouth. Beren refused to eat, opting to climb onto the table. Tired and unable to listen to our requests to "sit", I put him on the floor. He protests. He wants "up" and to nurse.

"Momma's eating," I say a couple times. Sanctions are lifted for a tired kid. His face becomes red, and I feel him strain. A piece of baby poop hits my big toe.

At the speed of fossilized pteradactyl sh*t, we three move towards the bathroom to clean up. It was a great day.
This head glows in the dark.

The three of us walked down the lane after dinner. "Hold hands, it's dark," I said. Beren grabbed my left hand and Jared's right. We descended the stairs. Beren pointed to a light flickering in the forest.

"At night everything looks different," I said.

"You can't see houses, but you can see the lights from the windows," Jared added.

We looked at the sky, a few stars, a plane, pinkish clouds. The power has been back on for weeks, and again our stars hide behind the milky haze of distant lights - Montgomery Township High School, Route 206...

I watched Beren, distracted by thoughts of what he might be thinking, of when he might go to bed tonight having had such a late nap, of what would I do if he became lost in the dark.

As our eyes adjusted, Beren dropped our hands and searched the leaves at the edge of the lane. He handed me one, a beech leaf, and Jared another.

When we turned towards home, Beren pulled off his white hat, revealing his green hat beneath. I noted that this hat blended very well with the dark forest, and my heart skipped. He pulled off the green hat. His white-blonde head glowed, and he was visible again. And thus, the target of the parental lecture entitled, You Must Wear Your Hat.

He had not signed up for this course, he protested, but the lecture continued. He received a failing grade and was whisked back to the house.


Friends of ours also have a two year old. Their daughter was recently observed running across a wet parking lot in her socks. Shoes? No dice.

"I have another pair of socks for her," her mom said, watching her spouse dash after the toddler.

It's not easy dressing a young child.

Something is different

The seed of something new. Blue cohosh fruits. Hardly a fruit, but a thin, dry skin over a Barbie tennis ball sized nutlet.

You may have noticed that something is different, something is missing. No, it's not the book that I was reading that my husband accidentally returned to the library and has forgotten renew for me. It does have something to do with him though.

Though a blog, this blog, The Shagbark Speaks, was my husband's idea, I have flooded its digital pages with stories featuring sleeplessness, messy kitchens, my chest, my husband, my toddler and other mom-ly things. I still recall clearly the afternoon I walked into our home office and watched Jared typing on the computer. He turned to me and said, "You may not like what I'm doing... I just started a blog." That was October 22, 2008.

Jared is now authoring another blog instead. He is the keeper of Wild Plant Culture, the blog for our family business - a native plant nursery nestled in the heart of the Sourlands. Rather than go on and on with a sales pitch for the nursery, boy, I never thought I would say this, but find us on Facebook.

In the meantime, when you are not outside making snowmen, read his blog. He has a good sense of humor, adventure, and photographic eye. He also uses footnotes.

Dear Nana,

So about Jared's just shy of 90 Nana and her aches and pains... No actually about my aches and pains, and Jared's too:

November 25, 2012

Dear Nana,
This Virus from H*ll is just that. My mom came down with it just two days after seeing her (we had been well for nearly a week). Two days after she caught it, my dad went down. They cancelled Thanksgiving dinner and told my brother and his girlfriend, "Stay home."

After the stomach virus went away, I got mastitis and had (just fading now) a large red crescent on my right breast which was also hard, painful, and swollen. Jared's weekend project of brewing spikenard root syrup had immediate use - it's a remedy for mastitis, so I have been sipping the acrid, unsweetened infusion.

I have also been applying heat and cabbage leaves. I tucked the cabbage in my shirt just before several friends and acquaintances arrived to help at our plant nursery. In time, the wilting foliage began to slip. They would have understood (and never seen coleslaw the same again), but I hustled into the house and composted the leaves before they hit the potting soil.

I had a couple tiny insect bites become red and raw, like burns.

Jared also had a skin reactions - a blistering poison ivy-like rash on his wrist and both forearms. He's been doing oats, nettles, and homeopathic Rhus tox. He's finally feeling better.

I hope you are doing well!


 Spikenard fruit (l) and Poison ivy vine (r)

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I check my 'stats' every once and a while, like every time I log in. It's fascinating and unbelievable. Allegedly, these are the search terms that brought a internet user to this blog.

"georges bataille the big toe" was one search term. Really? I'm sure this person was annoyed to find a mother blogging about her son's sleeping habits and her husband's choice of author.

"pushing stroller on soil" What could this person be seeking?

"bamboo herb layer" A grad student in Asian ecology?