When coffee is not enough: fighting winter blues & S. A. D.

WinterBluesIt’s winter, and that means that many people are trying to cope with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or its less intense form, Winter Blues. The condition can make you feel sad or worthless. It can also sap your energy and make you wish it were socially acceptable for humans to hibernate.

For writers and other creative people, these conditions can slow your winter productivity. You may end up spending months not writing, blogging or promoting your books, and feeling hopeless and useless because of it.

Some writers probably try to ‘cure’ their SAD with mass quantities of coffee. This is not a good solution, and not just because excess coffee consumption killed Honore de Balzac. A caffeine high isn’t dealing with the real cause of SAD, it is just (possibly) covering up a symptom.

The problem of the coffee-addicted SAD writer is that coffee can have other side effects that hurt your writing, such as insomnia. And as you get older, your doctor may insist you give up your caffeine habit. What happens to your writing then?

I used to think the only thing that could be done for the SAD person was using ‘full spectrum’ light bulbs. Which are hard to get where I lived. But then I read the book ‘Winter Blues’ by Norman E. Rosenthal, MD. Rosenthal has been involved in research into SAD and the Winter Blues for decades, and he had a lot of research-based advice.

Most importantly, people experiencing depression, even seasonal depression, should seek help for it. He also said that light therapy is a big help, but it doesn’t require ‘full spectrum’ light bulbs.

Instead he suggests the use of a light therapy lamp daily. I bought a Verilux brand HappyLight Liberty 5k lamp, because it was only $39.00. (If it were not for money considerations, I would have bought one of the larger Verilux light therapy lamps.) I sit in front of the lamp every morning and read or blog or something. Rosenthal’s book gives good instructions on how to use light therapy lamps.

Rosenthal also suggests using a dawn simulator to wake up in the morning. I got a Phillips Wake-Up light model HF3520/60. It wakes you with a light that progresses from dim orange to bright white light over 20 minutes. (Time is adjustable.) You can also program it to use a wake-up sound, either nature sounds (birds and ocean surf) or FM radio.

I’m not normally an alarm clock person. When I have an alarm set, I can’t sleep all night long, anticipating. But this ‘wake-up light’ works for me. The first time I used it, I was very overtired from staying up late. I didn’t feel at all like getting up. So I kept my eyes closed and fell back asleep listening to the nature sounds. Those sounds even featured in my dreams. When the wake-up light finally realized I wasn’t going to get up and turn it off, it turned off the light and the sounds— which woke me up. I think it took about an hour to do that, and I was ready to get up by then. So far, I feel better using it.

There is another trick I know to beat depression that works at any time of year. Just go on a low-carb, ketogenic diet. After a short time on the diet, I feel much more energetic and less depressed. There is actual scientific backing for this effect. The problem is, if you start eating carbs again, the effect stops and you may become depressed again.

Poem of the Day

I have no wife, said I.
And so my landlord gave to me
A tiny maiden flower.

haiku by Yamamoto Kakei, (1648-1716.) From the book ‘The Classical Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology’ edited by Faubion Bowers. The book is a Dover Thrift Edition and cost around $3 when I bought it a few years back. Highly recommended.

Pictorial Tour of the Wild, Sometimes Edible Plants in my Yard


Unidentified wild plant. I do believe I've seen pictures of it in books but don't know the name. And so it is NOT EDIBLE until identified.

Unidentified wild plant. I do believe I’ve seen pictures of it in books but don’t know the name. And so it is NOT EDIBLE until identified.

For legal reasons this blog cannot recommend the consumption of any wild plant unless you can reliably identify it, your doctor or Primary Care Provider approves of your eating it, Obama has issued a presidential decree including it in the MyPlate food guidelines, and the zombie apocalypse has occurred and it’s eat wild things or die for you.

For several decades I’ve had a certain curiosity about wild plants, particularly the edible ones. I’ve learned to identify a few reliable species that grow around here. Some of them are edible— like the Queen Anne’s Lace flowers that I cooked in an omelet for supper last night. (Be warned: Queen Anne’s Lace seeds, listed as useful for a flavoring, is believed to be a contraceptive/abortifacient herb and so is NOT SAFE.)

Queen Anne's Lace, or Wild Carrot. This plant looks vaguely like Poison Hemlock, do not use unless you can identify.

Queen Anne’s Lace, or Wild Carrot. This plant looks vaguely like Poison Hemlock, do not use unless you can identify.

The omelet with the Queen Anne’s Lace turned out quite delicious. I’m certainly planning on gathering more, and perhaps preserving some for winter use.


Stinging nettle, at the early stage of growth, is a good cooked vegetable and can also be dried for tea. Very nutritious.

I once bought some Stinging Nettle seed for an herb garden. The plant has spread all over the place, mostly in semi-shady nooks. The nettle plant is good food for people and livestock, but the fresh plant WILL STING YOU. Though the stings are supposed to be good for arthritis, I’d recommend wearing gloves to gather it. It has many culinary uses, and in addition, when dried is a good livestock hay with lots of protein.

Stinging nettle gone to seed. Leaves not very tasty at this point.

Stinging nettle gone to seed. Leaves not very tasty at this point.

If your stinging nettle has all gone to seed, cut the plants down at the bottom and wait a week or two. Regrowth will be tender and good.

Red clover.

Red clover.

Red clover is a common edible plant for humans and livestock. I have read that too much red clover harms the fertility of breeding animals, so I wouldn’t cook up big messes of cooked clover for humans food on a daily basis. The flowers, if fresh and newly opened, are good raw.

Wild Burdock, in the early, friendly stage.

Wild Burdock, in the early, friendly stage.

At the early stages Wild Burdock root can be eaten. Burdock root is a common table vegetable in Japan. The small leaves of the first year plant are also edible, mostly in spring. I understand they can be bitter, though. For bitter plants, one usually cooks it in several changes of water to make it milder.

Second-year burdock--- the evil, burr-filled plant we all know and hate.

Second-year burdock— the evil, burr-filled plant we all know and hate.

In the second year, or perhaps in the fall of the first year sometimes, burdock develop burrs that stick to everything. Escaped sheep with fine, valuable wool have a natural instinct to seek out the nearest burdock patch so they can come home covered with burrs. At this stage the plant is not eaten, so feel free to cut it down and burn it. You might save some seeds to plant in a favored location for your burdock leaf or root crop next year.

I don't know what this plant is, therefore it's NOT EDIBLE until identified, but it does look familiar.

I don’t know what this plant is, therefore it’s NOT EDIBLE until identified, but it does look familiar.

Here is an unidentified (so far) plant. I think it looks like an illustration in one of my plant books but even if it’s an edible I’m going to have to do some research to make sure I can identify it reliably.

Plantain--- not the same as that banana-type plantain. Edible.

Plantain— not the same as that banana-type plantain. Edible.

I have a bumper crop of plantain around the edges of my newly graveled driveway, but it has the seed heads and will likely be bitter. The solution is to shade the plant with newspaper or lawn clippings for a week or so. This blanches it. The same trick is used for dandelion leaves that have passed their prime.

The interesting thing I’ve learned about wild plants is that many of the wild edibles are more nutritious than garden vegetables. When man adapted plants for agricultural use, some of the nutrition was lost in the effort to make bigger, tastier plants. Many easy-to-find wild plants are a health boost to your diet. But be sure to use a good field guide to learn to identify the plants. You might also watch some of the many YouTube videos on wild plants to see videos of these plants in natural settings. And a copy of an old Euell Gibbons book is great to learn some good recipes for wild plants— though many will have to be adapted to remove ingredients like sugar, honey, maple syrup and grain-based flour if you are really interested in healthy eating.

Repeat of warning: this blog does not endorse the eating of wild plants and I bear no legal responsibility if you do so.

The Secret of Shepherding is Knowing Where to Stand

IM001203If most people have ever taken a thought about sheep today, they think of those misinformed news stories implicating sheep in mad cow disease. Or they think of some animal-rights propaganda about ‘factory farms’. But the thing about American sheep is that they are overwhelmingly raised in very small flocks. And with many of those flocks, they do things the old fashioned way— like old-fashioned shepherding.

Most sheep flocks in the Upper Midwest are kept in fenced pastures, and I do have fenced pastures. With falling-down fences that I should actually be repairing right this minute. But at this time of year my flock has eaten down all the tasty stuff and they are looking for something better. And sometimes escaping the fences to get it.

Though I don’t really blame the sheep for their most recent mass breakout from Azkaban. It’s Paprika the goat’s fault. That particular day she decided what she really wanted to do was:

  1. Go into labor.
  2. Jump the fence and lead the sheep herd into doing likewise.
  3. Break into the barn through the poultry entrance.
  4. Give birth to twins.

The way to get around the pasture problem is to take the sheep beyond the fences and shepherd the old-fashioned way, as Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta were doing when they had those visions in Fatima, Portugal. Or like in the book Heidi, where Goat-Peter took the town’s goats up to graze on the mountain.

Sheep that are grazed this way regularly are used to that and tend to obey their shepherd. Mostly. But my sheep are fenced sheep and figure where there are no fences they can go where they please. So I stand around with my Intimidating Stick and yell YEE-HAW! a lot and still there is a 50% percent chance that rather than chewing down the grass around the barn they will run down my driveway, cross the street and chew on the neighbor’s alfalfa field. Which is unhealthy— too much alfalfa can give ruminants (animals like sheep, goats & cows) a disease called bloat which can be fatal.

I’ve learned that the secret of successful shepherding is to know where to stand. Too close, and you intimidate the shy sheep into moving away. Usually the whole flock goes with them. Too far, on the other hand, and they figure they are on their own and next thing I know I’m running down my road trying to catch up with the damn things and get them turned around and back on my own property.

It helps to have sheep that are familiar with you, and that’s where I go wrong. I should be spending a half-hour to an hour every day with the flock while they are grazing in the fenced pasture, so they are used to my presence. I should also daily herd them from the pasture into the barnyard and lock them in for the night.

But I didn’t do much of that this year and so I have a whole lamb crop that barely knows me. So they stay away and don’t do what I want them to do or go where I want them to go. I DID run the whole flock through my sorting shed to pull out the male lambs, but that didn’t exactly endear me to those lambs who had to have ear tags put in. That’s why, if you ever own sheep, you should put the ear tags in when they are less than a day old. That way they won’t remember the experience and hold grudges.

Shepherding the old-fashioned way is tough. But my sheep need to eat, and my budget insists that they eat grass and weeds rather than get started on the hay which should be reserved for winter. So I shepherd. And I curse. And now I have to go to confession. But next year I’m doing to do lambing season RIGHT and when it comes time to shepherd the flock to new places, they will all be calm and well behaved and I’ll never have to say anything stronger than ‘oh, sugar!’ Of course, that’s what I resolved last year at this time of year.

The Truth about Tea and your Health

greenteaThere was this guy with kidney problems who went to his doctor, and told the doctor he’d been drinking a lot of sugarless iced tea. The doctor warned him it was okay, but only if he was using ‘regular’ tea, not that green tea. Green tea was bad because it had caffeine.

Bad advice. ALL true teas made from the tea plant— black tea (‘regular’), green tea and white tea contain caffeine. Black tea has the MOST caffeine, and white tea the least. Green tea is in the middle. That doctor, like so many, just didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to foods rather than pharmaceuticals.

I drink a form of black tea called ‘pu-erh’ tea, which has been the subject of much research in China. It is shown to help diabetics control blood sugar.

If you are worried about the caffeine in your tea, here’s a little secret: ANY tea can be decaffeinated at home. Just steep the tea for 50 seconds in hot water, discard this steep water (which contains most of the caffeine), and pour more hot water to steep to make your tea. If you reuse your teabags as I do, your second and third cups are naturally home-decaffeinated. (The healthy stuff in tea is said to stay in the tea after multiple steepings, however.)