Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Festivals of Light

The older I’ve become, the more I have learned to appreciate each season.  Simple observations of nature reveal the cycles by which humanity was meant to live, and I feel grounded and peaceful when I align myself with each of them.

Following the energetic peak of summer, the energy of the seasons begins to move back downward toward the earth.  While the heat of summer has an expansive effect, with plants in full bloom and people active outdoors, the late summer is a time when energy begins to condense in preparation for the cooler months ahead.

In the Autumn, the downward, gathering nature of the season becomes apparent.  It is a time of harvest festivals, where we gather up and celebrate the year’s bounty.  The leaves on the ground are gathered into piles, and we gather with our families to celebrate Thanksgiving with a nourishing feast.

This condensing trend reaches a peak during the Winter - the coldest and darkest time of year.  Naturally in the winter we become attracted to warmth and light, and seek out emotional and spiritual warmth by coming together with family and friends.  Hearty, slow-cooked meals of soups, stews and root vegetables help us to keep warm and acclimate to the prevailing weather.  Around the time of the winter solstice - the shortest day of the year - the traditions of the season are expressed through various festivals of light.

Of these Autumn and Winter festivals, which include Hanukkah and Diwali, Christmas is the most famous.  It is a time when people gather around the fireplace, sing heart-warming carols, and make cozy their home with holiday decorations.  A lit and decorated Christmas Tree is the most recognizable symbol of the holiday, and Christmas lights adorn our homes.

Many of these traditions date back to pre-Christian times.  In Northern Europe, a yule log was brought into the house and burned to provide warmth and light during the solstice, and the evergreen holly and mistletoe plants were brought inside to celebrate life in a time when many plants were leafless and dormant.

Living in accordance with the seasons helps to keep us in balance with nature, and contributes to health and wellness in our daily lives.  When we observe the holidays, and are in tune with the seasons, we may live more orderly and balanced lives, and experience health and happiness as a result.  We can find greater meaning in our lives this way, and come to understand our place in nature.  So keep your traditions alive - and Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Stolen Corn: Reclaiming Health in Native American and Latino Communities

Obesity.  Diabetes.  Cancer.  These are some of the most prominent diseases afflicting modern Native American, Mexican, and Latino communities in the United States.  Yet indigenous people in the past were much healthier, and did not suffer from the same epidemic of poor health that pervades these communities today.  They subsisted on a macrobiotic diet based around the consumption of the whole grain of the Americas - corn.

The solution to these epidemics of degenerative disease and of the tragic and needless suffering of the Native and Latin American communities lies in returning to our traditional ways of living and eating.  In these modern times, however, our ability to reclaim our heritage and health through the consumption of corn is profoundly threatened by modern agricultural corporations and by the policies of the U.S. government.

Mexican people have a very ancient and intimate relationship with corn.  For over 10,000 years, Mexican farmers selectively bred and domesticated maize from it's ancestor, a wild grass called teosinte.  Teosinte, from the Nahuatl "teocintli," or "sacred corn" is very different from modern corn.  Over the centuries, ancient Mexicans selectively picked the largest of the teosinte kernels and bred from it the first ancient forms of maize.  This domesticated whole grain spread throughout North and South America.  It made civilization possible and was bred with incredible diversity, allowing for it's adaptation to numerous climatic conditions.  As whole grains elsewhere in the world, corn took it's place as the primary and biologically correct staple food of humanity. 

Corn was considered by all who grew it to be a sacred gift.  The Aztec, or Mexica people told of how Quetzalcoatl gave a kernel of corn to people to plant, and they celebrated Centeotl, the maize god, as a source of life.  Mayan legends tell of the Creators succeeding in fashioning the first humans out of corn dough.  The Giant White Corn of the Andes was sacred to the Incas.  For the Hopi, Cherokee, Iroquois and numerous other native peoples, corn was and still remains at the center of their spiritual identity.

Corn was often grown together with beans and squash, in a system known as the Three Sisters.  Indigenous people who followed a traditional diet composed primarily of corn, beans, squash, vegetables, fruit, wild plants, fish and game enjoyed abundant health and longevity, absent of the current epidemics of degenerative disease which so often plague their modern-day descendants in the U.S.

When Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico, they were amazed to discover that the Aztec lifespan exceeded their own by at least 10 years.  The benefits of a traditional diet and lifestyle can still be seen in traditional people such as the Tarahumara, or Raramuri people of Mexico.  The Raramuri are arguably the best endurance runners on Earth, and it is well documented that those following a traditional diet are almost completely free of many common degenerative diseases.  High blood pressure and obesity were unknown to them, and their cancer rates are extremely low.  In fact, it is only since the introduction of modern processed foods such as top ramen, chips and soda, that the Tarahumara have had to invent names for diseases like "high blood pressure.”  

Throughout time, when people would become sick, Native American healers would recommend that the patient " return to the arms of Mother Corn" in order to heal themselves.  Just as Hippocrates prescribed a simple diet of barley porridge to the sick, so would native people consume a simple porridge, or atolli of corn to reverse illness.  The traditional Native American diet based on corn and corn products such as tortillas, tamales, pupusas, atole and cornbread remains the basis for much of the modern cuisine of Mexican and Latin American people.  The foundation to heal ourselves and our communities here in the United States lies in returning to our traditional ways of eating diverse, high-quality, whole-grain, plant-based meals.

Our ability to "return to Mother Corn," the sacred grain of the Americas, has been profoundly jeopardized by a modern threat which has changed the very structure of corn on a physical and spiritual level: genetic modification.

According to

"A genetically engineered food is a plant or meat product that has had its DNA artificially altered in a laboratory by genes from other plants, animals, viruses, or bacteria in order to produce foreign compounds in that food. This type of genetic alteration is not found in nature and is experimental. 

GMO's have not been proven safe, and long-term health studies have not been conducted. A growing body of peer-reviewed studies has linked these foods to allergies, organ toxicity, and other health problems. These studies must be followed up. However, unlike the strict safety evaluations required for the approval of new drugs, the US Food and Drug Administration does not require safety studies for genetically engineered foods.”

As we can see from the information above, what has been for centuries a life-giving source of sustenance is fast becoming a food source with uncertain effects on health.  Currently up to 85% of U.S. corn is genetically modified.

Biotechnology companies claim that genetically modified crops are needed to help feed the world, yet these claims do not stand up to scrutiny.  A 2009 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that "experimental high-yield genetically engineered crops have not succeeded."  In fact, a U.N. study concluded that "we won't solve hunger and stop climate change with industrial farming on large plantations,"  and that "organic and sustainable small scale farming could double food production in the parts of the world where hunger is the biggest issue…" 

Why then would companies like Monsanto, the agricultural biotechnology corporation, want to keep producing genetically modified crops?  The answer is that Monsanto owns patents on their genetically modified seeds, and use aggressive legal tactics to sue small farmers for patent infringement any time pollen or seeds from a farm growing GM crops drift onto their land.  

This article describes Monsanto's attempt to monopolize the world's food supply.  Fields of genetically modified crops would have to be completely isolated to prevent the transfer of pollen and genes to non-GM crops, which is impossible.  There is no such thing as co-existence between organic and genetically-modified crops.  And why isn't the U.S. government doing anything to prevent this 
injustice?   It's called the government's "revolving door" with Monsanto.

While there is still controversy over whether or not GM foods pose a risk to health, the fact remains that because of genetic modification, the genetic heritage of our traditional grain is in jeopardy.  The loss of natural maize entails a loss not only of genetic resources and of cultural heritage, but the loss of a spiritual connection with the land and with the food which sustains us.

“We have learned that agrochemical companies patented our maize.  They are putting in genes from other living beings and many chemicals to completely put an end to our natural maize, so we’ll have to buy nothing but transgenic maize. If these agrochemical companies try to do away with our maize, it will be like putting an end to part of the culture that our Mayan ancestors bequeathed to us. Our indigenous peasant grandparents gave their labor and their hearts; they cried as they asked protection from our Creator for their work to bear fruit.”

But there is hope.

Momentum is building around the nation demanding that Americans gain the right to know what we are eating.  In the meantime, for those who wish to avoid genetically engineered corn while returning to the healthful diet of our forefathers, here are some other options:

Consume only organic or non-GMO corn and soy.  Nopaltilla and Kernel of Truth tortillas, all Trader Joe’s private label products, and the 365 Everyday Value brand at Whole Foods are all GMO-free.  Gold Mine Natural Food Company sells a variety of organic corn masa online, and Bob’s Red Mill recently announced that it’s masa will be certified non-GMO.  One may also find organic, vegan masa preparada sold at Grassroots Natural Market & Kitchen in South Pasadena, CA.

If you wish to grow your own corn in your yard or in a community garden, be sure to grow from organic or heirloom seeds which were not genetically modified.  Seed Savers Exchange and Native Seeds/SEARCH are great organizations dedicated to saving and sharing a wide variety of heirloom seeds.

It is my sincere hope that as more people embrace the traditional diets of all of our heritages, that we will safely navigate through this environmental and health crisis facing our world, and work together to create a better and more just environment for all.  As we move forward in good health and in good spirits, let us restore balance to the world as we have done so within ourselves.  

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Film Review - Rock Paintings of the Chumash Indians

 I recently came across this interesting video by the Southwest Museum titled “Rock Paintings of the Chumash Indians."  The description of Chumash material culture in the beginning of the film is quite accurate, and it provides some great reenactments of food preparation and daily practices.

The film is rather dated, however, and lacked an accurate portrayal of the Chumash worldview.  The hallucinogen Datura is portrayed out of it’s cultural context when a Chumash man in the film is shown tripping balls on it, and the Spanish Mission era was heavily glossed over.  Nevertheless, seeing the process of acorn preparation and the use of a sweat-lodge acted out on screen by native actors, and knowing that the music was performed with authentic Chumash instruments, makes this movie well worth watching.

My commentary:

  • Note the bark skirt of the Chumash woman beginning at 1:56.  These graceful skirts could be made from elderberry or cottonwood bark, and are beautifully depicted in the film.
  • Often even in paintings, Chumash and other Southern California Indian women are shown wearing coverings over their breasts.  This scene accurately depicts the absence of such clothing during much of the year.  In colder weather, people would wear rabbit-skin or otter-skin blankets and shawls.
  • 2:16 provides a wonderful depiction of traditional acorn processing, along with following scenes showing the uses of pine nuts, chia seeds, and amole beginning at 2:38.

  • Note the strap worn at the waist by the Chumash man at 3:30.  This is completely accurate.  Men usually wore nothing more than such a garment, which could be as simple as a sort of utility belt made from yucca to hang tools upon.  
  • 4:16 The shell bead money manufactured by the Chumash was actually made from olivella shells on Santa Cruz Island.  The shells were broken into round pieces, and drilled through the center.  ‘Achum, or shell bead money, is where the Chumash got their name.

  • The Chumash Tomol, or sewn plank canoe, was indeed painted red, but would probably have been decorated with abalone and looked more ornate than the replica at 4:33.  The canoes were often much larger, as well, reaching lengths of 30 feet and holding up to 12 people

  • 6:28  Most Chumash men would have experienced the hallucinogenic effects of datura very few times in their life.  The first, and most important ritual was the Chumash initiation of boys into manhood.  The sacred dream produced by datura, or momoy as the Chumash called it, would guide a man for the rest of his life and reveal his life’s purpose.  Datura was more commonly used as a medicinal foot bath for the relief of pain, or to protect the soul from evil, as written in Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West.  

  • The use of the sweat-lodge, followed by a plunge into cold water is very accurately depicted here at 7:50.  Note the woven tule mat door of the sweat-lodge.  These tule mats were used throughout Southern California for sitting on, sleeping on, and as doors as shown.  One thing not mentioned is that California Indians traditionally bathed in a cool stream before sunrise!  
  • Woven bottles were indeed lined with asphaltum and made waterproof by the Chumash as shown at 8:30.  Dried gourds would also be used.

What a paradise this used to be!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Giving Thanks to America

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays.  I love the feeling of fall, and how truly American the holiday makes me feel.  All of it's associated foods, such as turkey, potatoes, cranberries, pumpkin and sweet potato, derive from the Americas, and remind us of our ties to this land.

The traditional Thanksgiving narrative we were told in school left out the shameful treatment of the Wampanoag people of New England, along with the centuries of wrongdoings against the native peoples that followed the first Thanksgiving in 1691 and which continue to this day.  That’s not what I think this holiday should celebrate.  An opportunity for giving thanks should always be a good thing.

Autumn is a time of gathering energy when the harvest is gathered, when the fallen leaves are raked and gathered into piles, and when families begin to huddle together out of the cooler weather to share a meal in a spirit of thankfulness.  To celebrate a harvest festival at this time of year is natural and traditional to humanity.  Just as Columbus Day has been reinvented as Indigenous People's Day, I believe that the deep-seated tradition of American Thanksgiving can also be reinvented as a good thing.

Thanksgiving Day should serve to remind us of the greatest lesson that native people have to teach us -- respect and love for this land.  It should be the nourishment that we receive from the land that we reflect upon yearly as we celebrate this day.  While we cannot undo the wrongs of the past, we can still reflect upon our relationship to this land and people to which we owe so much, and contemplate how we may become better stewards of Turtle Island as native peoples have been for thousands of years.

Let us therefore appreciate the many contributions of native cultures from across this continent of North America on Thanksgiving Day, as we give thanks for the land which sustains us, and for the things upon which we truly depend.  Let us transform the Thanksgiving narrative to be one that brings us together in this season of gathering and is inclusive of all.

I propose that Thanksgiving be a day that we celebrate indigenous American food and agriculture!  Happy harvest time, Happy Thanksgiving, and Happy Indigenous Foods Day to you all.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

How I Cured Myself of Hay Fever, Naturally

Im allergic to Chinese Elms - the tree which lines my street.

For as long as I can recall, I’ve suffered from really bad allergies around this time of year.  And when I say bad, I mean the worst symptoms of Hay Fever you've ever seen.  My eyes swell up and are constantly itchy.  My nose runs and is constantly stuffed.  My lungs wheeze as I cough up phlegm, and I am beset by bouts of sneezing which feel as if they’ll never end.

This year, however, was different.  The symptoms which always begin in August and persist well into October were much milder, and only lasted a few weeks.  Through taking a natural health approach which included dietary practice and consumption of Nettle tea, I have finally succeeded in overcoming my allergies for good!

The first, and most important step for me was eliminating the consumption of foods which are known to create mucus.  I followed the dietary recommendations set forth in the Macrobiotic Path to Total Health, which state that :

"Cold milk is a primary cause of hay fever, with fruit juice, sugar, sweets, soft drinks, and chemically grown or treated foods as contributing factors… (These) foods… make the blood, lymph, and internal membranes sticky, so that when pollen is inhaled, it remains and adheres to the surfaces, instead of being discharged smoothly.”

I have already been avoiding dairy food for several years now.  By eliminating bread, beer (which contains histamine) and the other foods listed above, I have been able to breathe much more clearly, and have had much less congestion.

The second measure I took in relieving my allergies was the daily consumption of Nettle tea.  Stinging Nettle tea is a natural anti-histamine, and also reduces inflammation.  I believe that by drinking four cups of nettle tea a day, I significantly reduced the negative response my body usually has in reaction to the pollen in the air.

Of these two approaches, I believe that the dietary adjustments are the most difficult, yet most effective for hay fever sufferers to implement.  I often had to remind myself when craving certain foods of the absolute misery that would ensue if they made my airways congested and sticky with mucus.  Just the thought of a 10 to 20 minute sneezing session was usually enough for me to choose some vegetables over the bread or chips which I desired.

Over my 25 year lifetime of attempting to relieve my allergies, I’ve tried Claritin, steroid nasal sprays, air conditioning, and just about any other approach short of allergy shots.  None of them were effective in the least.  Rather than trying to merely quell the symptoms of a faulty diet with drugs, or by impractically hiding indoors with the A/C on full blast, I can now speak from experience when I recommend the above methods which worked for me.  It may take some discipline, but the reward for living in harmony with nature is great indeed.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Eco-Trash litters the Arroyo

I found this thick plastic bag littering the banks of the Central Arroyo yesterday, and was struck by the words “Eco Friendly” printed boldly upon it.  I often find such “eco-trash” as I like to call it, claiming to be helping the environment, and yet simultaneously polluting it.  Let’s examine the claims on this Smart & Final bag, and determine how environmentally friendly it really is.


This plastic bag claims to be “reusable”, yet it was discarded as litter onto the banks of the Arroyo.  Perhaps the thickness of the plastic means that it may be used more than once, but it also means more plastic pollution to permanently degrade the environment when some of them inevitably become litter.


This plastic bag, like all others, claims to be recyclable - yet plastic recycling is a myth.  Plastic cannot be recycled in the way that materials such as glass can be, it can only be down-cycled.  For instance, a glass bottle may be turned into another glass bottle, yet a plastic bottle can only be down-cycled into a doormat, or another plastic item which cannot be recycled.  Therefore, all plastic eventually ends up in a landfill, or worse - as plastic pollution of land and sea.

“Eco Friendly”

This plastic bag from Smart & Final was polluting the Arroyo, threatening wildlife, and would have photo-degraded it's tiny, sometimes microscopic plastic particles into the soil and waterways of the Arroyo had it not been removed in time.  These particles attract toxic chemicals onto themselves, such as the banned pesticide DDT, infiltrate the entire food chain of the ocean, and are impossible to remove from the environment.

Such “greenwashing” ploys by Smart & Final and other companies are shameful, yet very common.  Additional such examples of green-washed litter in the Arroyo will be displayed on this blog in the future by clicking on my newly created “eco-trash” label - because when it’s plastic and polluting the Arroyo, it doesn’t matter how “green” it claims to be!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Central Arroyo Degraded and Polluted - City of Pasadena Fails to Take Action

It has been several months since I first met with Pasadena's Director of Public Works Siobhan Foster, Parks and Natural Resources Administrator Charles Peretz and Parks Superintendent Ana Bailey to discuss the plastic pollution and degradation of the Central Arroyo Seco.

Following our meeting on November 27 of last year, I toured the Arroyo with Parks Superintendent Bailey and showed her firsthand the plastic zip ties which are constantly left as litter along the roads and trails after Rose Bowl events.  Superintendent Bailey agreed that this pollution was unacceptable.

In addition, last November Pasadena City Manager Michael Beck responded to my Trash-a-Dena blog series by saying that the City would do more to improve the area.

Given the promises of these City officials to address these concerns, you can imagine my disappointment and frustration when this morning, while running through the Central Arroyo, this is what I found:


Good intentions do not build a great city.  Historic Pasadena and the beautiful Arroyo Seco deserve better.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Coyote Brush for Poison Oak Rash

While recently exploring one of the local canyons in the San Rafael Hills, I waded through a rather large patch of Poison Oak.  It's not that I hadn't noticed that it was there… I hike through Poison Oak regularly.  Of course, I'd developed the uncomfortable rash a few times as a kid while exploring the local hills, but through continued exposure I've developed a pretty good immunity to it.

That fact did not spare me, however, from developing an uncomfortable rash along the inner part of my right forearm a few days after my exposure.  I ignored it for a day or two, but it became increasingly bothersome.  I decided that this would be an excellent opportunity to test out the #1 Chumash Medicine remedy for reliving a Poison Oak rash - a leaf decoction of Coyote Brush.

One of my favorite books, Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, identifies Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis) as being the primary plant that the Chumash used to treat Poison Oak rash, and fortunately I just happened to have an abundance of it growing in my native plant garden at my house.  I made a tea from a small section of it, and applied the warm decoction to the rash on my arm.  I felt immediate relief.  Whereas before my arm had been itching constantly without any provocation, now all of a sudden I only felt it itch when I rubbed against the affected area.  The next morning, the rash had dried up significantly.  A few days later the rash had noticeably faded before it disappeared altogether.

I've often described to others this traditional Chumash use for Coyote Brush during native plant hikes I've led for the Arroyo Seco Foundation, and am happy now to be able to teach from experience.  I do not, however, hold a grudge against Poison Oak for giving me an occasional rash.  

I still think Poison Oak is a beautiful plant.  It's also an important source of food and habitat for local wildlife.  Birds eat the berries, and surprisingly so did local Native Americans!  As Chumash healer Cecilia Garcia taught, the Chumash would eat them during the transition of the seasons to keep an immunity to it's rash.  The Gabrielino, or Tongva people also used the sap from Poison Oak to cure warts and ringworms.  Though many people may not come to love this plant as I have, we should all still learn to respect it.  Poison Oak belongs.  And if you frequent the outdoors with any regularity, I'd recommend planting some Coyote Brush in your yard!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Starbucks Misguided "Reusable" Cup Program

I recently read Steve Scauzillo's article in the Pasadena Star News describing the Starbucks coffee chain's new "reusable" cup program intended to reduce waste from landfills and to be a step towards sustainability for the company.  Although the program is well intended, there are serious environmental flaws which instead make this new program a step in the wrong direction for people and the planet.

The program:

According to the article, "Starbucks Corp. is rolling out a $1 reusable plastic cup at it's cafes starting Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013."  The sturdy plastic cup may be returned and re-filled, and Starbucks will even give a 10-cent discount each time.  Scauzillo continues to report that "the cup can withstand about 30 runs through the dishwasher, and according to the barista I spoke with, it can be recycled.  'Take it down the street to hat recycling center,' she said…"  
Mr. Scauzillo wrote that Starbucks "produces about 4 billion cups each year across the globe.  Can you say landfill crisis?  The company hopes the reusable cup will raise the percentage of sales in non-throwaway containers…"  One Starbucks customer interviewed in the article said of the program that "It relieves waste.  And it makes people more aware.  The more trash we are creating the more we are dumping into the landfill."

Unfortunately, the reality is that those hard plastic cups are all destined for either the landfill, or worse, as plastic pollution of our land and sea.  What could be so wrong with this effort to be sustainable?

Plastic recycling is a myth.

All plastic ultimately ends up in a landfill, or worse, as plastic pollution on land and sea.  So-called "recyclable" plastics such as bottles or the cups which Starbucks is beginning to use are in fact "down-cycled."  According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition:

"Collecting plastics at curbside fosters the belief that, like aluminum and glass, these will be converted into new similar objects. This is not the case with plastic. The best we can hope for plastics is that these will be turned into other products such as doormats, textiles, plastic lumber, etc. These products will still end at some point in the landfill – and do not stem the need for more virgin petroleum product.  This is not recycling, but down-cycling."

Plastic Pollutes.

Every piece of plastic which has ever been created still exists, and much of it permanently pollutes land and sea.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains hundreds of millions of tons of plastic pollution.  The plastic photodegrades in the water and on land, becoming microscopic pieces of plastic, yet never completely breaking down.  There are areas of the ocean which contain more plastic than Plankton, which is the base of the food chain.  These plastic particles attract toxic chemicals onto themselves from the water and thus poison the entire web of life and food chain of the ocean, including humans.  It is impossible to clean this microscopic pollution.  The only action which we can take is to quell the manufacture and global reliance on the unnecessary use of plastic in our disposable society.

Plastic containers impact our health.

Harmful chemicals leached by plastic are present in the bloodstream and tissues of almost every one of us, including newborns.

I often find Starbucks cups, plastic lids and straws as litter on the streets and in the gutters.  Thicker, heavier plastic cups left as litter create an even more severe plastic pollution problem.  Thick plastic cups currently distributed by fast food restaurants often become litter-- it is inevitable that the same will occur with these new Starbucks cups.  If Starbucks truly wants to be sustainable and reduce waste to landfills, these are my sugestions:

  • I always opt for ceramic mugs when I'm there.  This is best choice for the environment, and for personal health.  Ceramic mugs do not leach toxins and may be washed and reused indefinitely.  Starbucks should encourage the use of glass and ceramic mugs and cups for all beverages consumed on their premises.

  • Rather than distribute "reusable" plastic cups which may only withstand being washed up to 30 times, I suggest that Starbucks adopt the same program, but with stainless steel thermoses instead.  A stainless steel thermos would keep coffee warm, would not leach harmful chemicals, is truly recyclable, and may be washed and reused indefinitely. 

Simply transitioning over from plastic to stainless steel reusable containers would turn this program from well-intentioned-but-misguided to a truly commendable effort which would place Starbucks at the vanguard of sustainability.  It would be a model for all others to follow.