Posts tagged nature

Bathing Al Fresco

Ah, nothing like the wilderness to make you reevaluate your relationship to material goods. This past weekend, I arrived on the trail as the clouds and fog lifted from atop the mountains I was entering. A man told me it had been raining for three days… not good news (or so I thought) in the flash-flood prone desert. But it turned out, hiking after the rain was like a hidden secret ritual for many, who avoided the 100+ degree weather by following a storm through the hills. It was beautiful.

Superstitions after Rain

My hiking buddy and I set up camp by a lovely spring-fed stream in the heart of the wilderness. Barely any signs of humans passing through the area in decades, so the water was about as clean and refreshing looking as any can be. I wanted to go for a swim in the natural rock pools and then bathe in the open sun. But when I pulled my shampoo bottle out of my bag, and then looked in the water at the bullfrog tadpoles and other life, I couldn’t bring myself to use any unnatural products in such a pristine place.

Of course, I wouldn’t have thought twice about using that same shampoo at home, though it all ends up in the same water somewhere downstream. Conversely, I wouldn’t have touched water that had a tadpole in it at home, no matter how clearly I could see the bottom. As I said, sometimes it takes a little unfamiliar scenery to make up evaluate our own habits without colored lenses. So I chose to forgo the bath and simply enjoy a swim. Lovely.

When I arrived home, I was determined not to let this happen again, to find myself a potential life-killing polluter in one of the few places not already actively under attack by humankind. So I started researching natural soap, remembering something about “soaproot” from somewhere back in 5th grade when we studied the pioneers crossing the great American plains. Turns out, there are SEVERAL “soaproots”, and had I known what I was doing, there was likely one of them within fifty feet of the proposed bathing locale.

Ever found yourself in a similar bind? Here’s the skinny on natural soap:

Soaproot2

Indian Soaproot, Bouncing Bet, Soapwort

“Wherever Poison Oak grows chances are you will find Soap Root growing. You can harvest Soap Root anytime of the year and it looks the same year round, except for having tall flowering stalks in the spring. The part to use is the bulbous root, so you will need to dig it up. Usually one bulb is all you will need. Peel off the brown, furry outer covering until the white layer underneath is exposed. While using, keep it in a plastic bag to keep from drying out.” – naturalfamilyhome.com

This is the most commonly known of the soap-producing plants. It produces a nice lather for washing both body and clothes, and according to legend, it was also used by the Apaches to catch fish by putting it in the water. It has the most “bang for the buck” of lathering plants.

Yucca

The yucca plant comes in a wide variety of species, but all share the potential for lather. Some people recommend using the root for bathing, but using the root kills the plant. For a small task like bathing, you can simply pull off one leaf from the plant, shred the leaf into strips, and rub them back and forth in your hands with water until a lather forms. (Incidentally, this is also the first step in making yucca twine, another useful thing to know in an emergency!) Use this mix like a pre-soaped washcloth. This plant is so common in the Southwest, you can find it everywhere from ornamental gardens to the untouched National Parks. If I had known, I’d have had a yucca bath that day.

Wood Ashes as Cleaning Agent

Wood Ashes

In an emergency situation, you can wash your skin or pots and pans, etc with ashes from a campfire. It’s important to use clean ashes and not to leave them on your skin too long… ashes are caustic, as they contain lye, an ingredient used in making store-bought soaps.

Buffalo/Missouri Gourd, Mock Orange, Callabacilla

Small triangular leaves and a very spreading habit, this vine has small, orange shaped and sized gourds and a thick taproot that can be up to five feet long. The gourds can also be used as sponges. There is less lather in this plant than others.

Soapberry Trees

These grow in the Southeastern and MidAtlantic states, and are one of three varieties. They have small berries which lather when crushed in water.

Wild Lilac, Myrtle, Buck Brush

Grows in the Western states, covering the land with blue and white flowers in the Spring. The flowers can be used as soap, and are very fragrant, leaving the body perfumed.

Southern Buckeye

A Southeastern plant that is best for washing clothes and fabrics. Like the soapwort, it can stun fish when thrown in water, though this is illegal and should be reserved for survival situations.

Read more about soap plants here

Survival outline that includes a few more saponin-containing plants

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COMMITMENT: Community Service

So I just finished doing a few days of community service around Los Angeles. Out here, you can end up doing community service for almost anything. Jaywalk? Community service. Broken headlight? Community service. Forget your seatbelt…? You guessed it. Specifically, I was in Macarthur Park, made nationally famous by Donna Summer in 1979, but integral to the history of LA much longer than that. Back in the early days, it was owned by the governor’s family, and became a garbage heap, then a huge park at the turn of the twentieth century. In the eighties and early nineties, it was famous more as a place to find drugs (and bodies floating in the lake), but these days, it’s settled back into a respectable place, albeit one where the shop keepers don’t speak English as often as they do.

So as I picked up trash off the grounds and skimmed the lake with a long skimmer, clearing more trash and several varieties of dead animals, I started thinking about trash. What else, it’s all I’d been looking at all week! Even as a kid, my family and I used to go a few times a year and volunteer at the local park cleaning trash, mostly stuff that had floated downriver in a flood and somehow ended up on the banks. It’s not that people didn’t use the park. Sometimes it was downright crowded in the picnic areas. But I don’t remember people leaving a lot of litter behind. And I’m not that old yet, so this isn’t a “I remember when…” story!

Now Macarthur Park is a different story. It’s almost all human trash, and people just have a picnic on the lawn and leave everything there when they leave, like the lawn is some plastic dinner tray that can just be picked up taken to the dishwasher at the end of the day. If I’d melted down the plastic bottle caps I swept up those few days, I’d easily have gotten a chunk the size of myself. And as all you greenies know a plastic cap on the ground isn’t going anywhere anytime soon from biodegradation. At several points, the park director said not to worry about little trash, just newspapers and boxes, and plastic cups… big things you can see from across the park.

This illustrated to me the national situation we find ourselves in with our waste systems. We produce SO much trash that we end up only trying to clean up “the big things”, because we think we don’t have time to concentrate on all the little things. Well, I disagree. You see, if you’re going to do a job, do it right. That’s the motto of 90% of successful people, rich or otherwise. After a day of doing what was asked (and watching people throw things right back onto the half-cleaned areas), when skimming the lake I thought, why do this halfway? A lake that looks sort of trashy will quickly invite people to think of it as a place for more trash. A pristine lake is a scene for enjoyment. So I started skimming, and then when I finished, I went and did it again, checking my work. In the end, the whole lake was clear, and I was feeling pretty good watching the ducks feed their ducklings in an area free of plastic bags and soda bottles. And to prove my theory, I saw a man take out his camera and take a few lovely pictures of the now clean park, and several patrons even stopped and thanked me for cleaning up their lake, asking questions about the wildlife and the lake itself.  All that positivity for a few hours work!

Another thing that I see so often in our current societal system is that we work at odds with ourselves. After three days of cleaning the park, the park managers received word that, in response to anticipated large turnouts at the immigration rallies planned for this year’s May Day celebration, all trash cans must be removed from the park, so they couldn’t be used as weapons against the police (never mind that every barrel was chained down). No plastic bags or paper receptacles either, as they could be torched. What about the trash of the ten thousand or so people supposed to show up? The police’s answer… throw it on the ground. Having just been that person picking up trash for three days, I felt the frustration of someone who watches their sandcastle washed away by the tide. True, picking up trash once won’t cure everything, but couldn’t we as a society learn to coordinate everything a little better so that we don’t expend our resources repeatedly attacking the same problems when we know that by not changing the underlying patterns of consumption we won’t stem the problems themselves?

So community service wasn’t so bad after all. I’m glad not to be getting up at 5 am, but I kind of enjoyed being in the park all day. And when I walked away from the last day’s work, I felt good seeing the green expanses trash-free because of me. It looked like I imagined it in the old days. So here goes, I’m going to make another COMMITMENT. I will find a place, somewhere in LA, and adopt it as my own. It will stay trash free and maybe even sprout a few more plants. People may or may not notice, but hopefully the birds will. Will you do the same? If everyone just adopted a tiny little spot, we could create communities and scenes for enjoyment rather than half-cleaned vistas, waiting to accept another gift of trash.

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