Much more than a spring tonic

It was fairly common in the wild when I was growing up in the Midwest, and its red roots and polymorphic leaves of one, two, and three lobes all on one tree made it distinctive. But the tree is rather rare where I’m now living.

It does, however, play into my Quaking Dover story, as I’ll explain.

Here are ten things of note about sassafras.

  1. Found in the eastern North America and East Asia, the tree can grow to somewhere between 60 to 100 feet in height (the maximum keeps growing in the versions I’m encountering), though I associate it mostly with shrubs in the forest undergrowth. For others, it was seen as an aggressive plant quickly cluttering old fields.
  2. Traditionally, it was famed as spring tonic in the form of tea boiled from its dark red, aromatic roots, although the leaves and bark can also be used. More recent research cautions not taking it for more than a week, and it was pulled from commercial markets after experiments in 1960 found that safrole, a compound prominent in its volatile oils, caused liver cancer in rats and mice.
  3. Commercial oils used today in foods, cosmetics, and soaps are safrole-free and safe for consumption.
  4. Root beer, a popular soft drink, was traditionally made from sassafras roots, often cooked with molasses. Charles Elmer Hires, the first to successfully market the brew, was a teetotaler who wanted to call his extract “root tea” but found it sold better among Pennsylvania miners as “root beer.” And, for the record, it was long used to brew a backwoods beer.
  5. French Acadians relocating to Louisiana discovered its spice qualities from the Native Choctaws. Its dried lemony-scent leaves are ground to create filé powder, a green aromatic dust that thickens Cajun gumbos or is later sprinkled atop the dish.
  6. Its blue berries on red stems, forming early in the fall foliage season, provide a high-energy food for migratory birds on their long southward flight. The birds are attracted to the color.
  7. The tree’s leaves turn a spectacular variety of purple, orange, yellow, and red. That alone earns it consideration in landscape design.
  8. The straight-grained, durable wood was commonly used to make horse-drawn sleighs, though the runners were usually hickory, a harder substance. Sassafras has also been popular in making buckets, cabinets, cradles and other furnature, woodwork, and even utensils such as spoons.
  9. Native Americans valued sassafras in a range of medicinal uses, including a poultice for open wounds. Fascinated by the applications, Europeans soon attributed the exotic plant with supernatural qualities, including the retardation of age, making sassafras a rival to tobacco in importance as an export from America.
  10. How medicinal? It was the reason 23-year-old Captain Martin Pring, in 1603, became the first European to lead an exploration of the Piscataqua River. Sassafras was valued as a cure for the French pox, which you may recognize as the name the English and others called what we refer to as syphilis. (If only it had actually worked.) Failing to find many of the trees in today’s Dover and vicinity, he sailed on to encamp at Truro on Cape Cod, where he indeed harvested sassafras but was interrupted when his rude behavior greatly upset the Natives, making for one of the first sour episodes in English relations with the New World locals.

Getting fit with Eastport’s hot ladies

There I was complaining about not being able to continue swimming laps since Covid curtailed everything, especially followed by my relocation from Dover and its wonderful indoor pool. I certainly wasn’t getting in any regular exercise routine once I moved up here, and one month of yoga down by the waterfront did impress me with just how much this body’s deteriorated from 50 years of neglect. Geeze, how humbling!

I’ve never been one to pursue a solo fitness regime.

But then, when some enlightened souls opened the high school gym for walkers in the early morning, I stepped up, apologies for the pun, but it was something and definitely not at the mall, not that we have anything like that anywhere around. Well, I have posted some photos of Shead High’s gym. Maybe I was getting into shape for some summer hiking?

In the process, I met some interesting folks, all women – guys my age rarely seem to recognize how out of shape they’ve become, apart from maybe weight lifting – and the suggestion kept arising that I should try the twice-a-week fitness sessions at the, uh, senior center. (I really hate that term and definitely prefer to call it the Old Firehouse.)

Most of the time, though, once I started attending, I was the only male in the circle. What a revelation! Yes, I remember ages ago when I would have killed for such odds in my favor, yet these days I’m definitely married. (Got mine!) But still, you wouldn’t believe what I hear. It could be a highly rated TV series, if we could find a focus. Oh, well. As they say, laughter is the best medicine.

The hour-long class is definitely well planned, a blend of stretches, isometrics, cardios, and the like. It can challenge the beginner and adept equally well.

Nonetheless, when the temperature approaches 60 or so, indoors or out, they insist on opening the windows. Claim it’s too hot.

I am, on the other hand, still freezing.


Maine’s Common Ground Fair has a cult following – and we’re going

It’s like a state fair in the hippie, organic, granola-mind reality. There’s no midway with carnival rides, for sure, but for truly inquiring-minds folk, it’s an autumn equinox slash harvest-time celebration.

Yes, let’s declare a true Thanksgiving, minus turkeys.

Shortened in its post-Covid resurrection, this year’s gathering in Unity, Maine, is the premiere event of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), and runs Sept. 23 through 25.

Now that we’re living in Maine, we can identify as members and look forward to attending, even though in New Hampshire we were surrounded by devotees. Yes, it’s that boffo.

As an aside, I can attest to enjoying my best-ever souvlaki ever, from a wood stove, no less, at an earlier fair. Gee, and I hate standing in line. It was worth it.

This is definitely a hippie-vision positive manifestation of the radical mindset of nirvana. And there’s no honky-tonk.

This year’s poster will no doubt be displayed on a wall of our new abode.

See you there?

Has our drinking water quality really improved?

Eastport’s tap water last summer took on a greenish color and a definite off-taste. It got to the point that we started running everything we’d be drinking or using for cooking through an activated charcoal filter.

The explanation was that the supply came from a large but shallow lake a dozen miles away and that every summer the algae bloomed. The private company that provides water to the city then had to heighten its use of chemicals for treatment, resulting in the offensive character.

Water to the Sipayik reservation also came from the same source but was delivered via a different pipeline and was, by reports, much more troubling.

In its attempts to redress the issue, the company announced it would be using an alternative to treat the water, and I have to say we haven’t noticed the off-taste or discoloration this year. We haven’t yet seen a chemical analysis yet, however, or heard about the current situation on the reservation.

Still, public water quality is something most Americans take for granted.

Funny how often we overlook a problem, even when it has, as I hope, been clearing up.


Gee, has it seemed I’ve been a bit AWOL lately?

Have to confess the Red Barn posts have been moving along on schedule, but just not as many or as varied as usual.

Seems I’m not alone that way, here on WordPress or other social media, for that matter.

On this end, I’m knee-deep in trying to get a big project in gear – the part that follows the publication of a new book, which is just around the corner. These next steps are time-consuming and emotionally a roller-coaster. I’m always feeling I’m way behind there, as well as uncertain of the way.

As a complication, about a month ago I suffered a physical fall in the middle of the night and was reminded once more how fragile the body gets in older folks, aka the elderly, and how risky that can be when living alone. I’m still feeling some of the aches after the bruises and what else and won’t be resuming the twice-a-week fitness classes till after Labor Day.

Quite simply, that’s slowed me way down.

And then there was my week at the annual sessions of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quaker) off in Castleton, Vermont, now that we’re gathering face-to-face again. Getting across northern New England, however, is a remarkably drawn-out trip, no matter how stunning some of the scenery can be. I did see parts of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont for the first time.

Weighing on me especially has been the surreal political and social nightmare unfolding here in America. It’s not just Trump, either, but closer to home the threatened return of Paul LePage to the governorship of Maine. Trying to write about that has been paralyzing, and the news developments keep mounting at a dizzying pace.

So here we are and summer’s almost over. It hasn’t exactly felt lazy.

Some common fears

  1. Intimacy. Oh, my, this could lead to another Tendrils. You know, the ways we feel vulnerable.
  2. Poverty. This one even gets twisted up in white superiority and racism, if you look really closely.
  3. Being pulled over while driving. Though it’s unlikely to be a death sentence for me.
  4. Lawsuits. Which can lead to poverty, above.
  5. Being held up or robbed. Well, that can be like a lawsuit plus potential violence.
  6. Rejection. Which also leads back to intimacy, above.
  7. Shame. Well, usually shame is linked to something you’re born with, but it still connects with fear, along with its first-cousin, guilt – arising from something you did bad, really bad.
  8. Hunger. Not that most Americans actually go without food long, but just watch their reactions when they have to fast or go more than two or three hours without a nibble.
  9. Debilitating illness or physical handicap. Blindness, deafness, dementia, for starters. Or falling off a ladder at my age.
  10. Dying as a failure. You know, without achieving something big to advance mankind. Or just plain going to Hell.

Do these all involve pain?

What would you add to the list?

Chickens and the meaning of life, chapter whatever

A couple of incidents regarding my daughter’s chickens have me thinking about human affairs.

Her hens were increasingly picking on one another and squabbling until an incident with a neighbors’ dog posed a terror. In response, they instinctively banded together, including their otherwise useless rooster. For weeks after, their antisocial behavior was transformed, focused on a common enemy.

A year later, the same thing happened when a red tail hawk picked off two of the hens in the yard.

That leads to the question:

Do we humans really need some villain, however small, to make our own lives meaningful?

We see it in politics, for sure. And in sports. As for personal development and ethical living?

I am convinced we need to keep an eye on Satan, in whatever garb, but also need to be careful we don’t start “preaching for sin,” as early Quakers cautioned. The fact is that in fiction it is much easier to create a believable bad guy than a good one.

So even secular novelists must make sure to avoid exclusivity in their vision.

We also need to keep another eye on the Light and its leadings. Otherwise, well, we’d still be chickens at the mercy of foxes and weasels.